Service personnel will be protected from “vexatious claims and endless investigations” under legislation to be debated by MPs for the first time, the Defence Secretary has said.
Ben Wallace said the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which will receive its second reading in the Commons on Wednesday, would provide “certainty” for troops.
The Bill seeks to limit false and historical allegations arising from overseas operations by introducing a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an incident.
To override the presumption, the consent of the Attorney General will be required, and the prosecutor must weigh up the “adverse impact of overseas operations on service personnel” and, where there has been no compelling new evidence, the public interest in cases coming to a “timely conclusion”.
But campaigners and some senior military figures have warned that the legislation will create a presumption against prosecution of torture and other serious crimes, except rape and sexual violence.
Steve Crawshaw, director of policy and advocacy at Freedom from Torture, said the Bill is “deeply flawed” and sends a “damaging signal” about the UK.
“The idea that torture can effectively be written off after five years is insulting to the torture survivors we work with,” he said. “It sends a deeply damaging signal about the UK and the world today.
“The Bill claims to be about blocking vexatious prosecutions. But it undermines the global torture ban and the need for accountability. It would be sickening if this Bill is allowed to go through.”
General Sir Nick Parker, former commander of land forces, last week said he was worried that the focus on prosecutions “is placing conditions that are unnecessary and risk us being seen in the international community as setting double standards”.
But ahead of the Bill’s second reading, Mr Wallace said: “This Government made a promise to the nation to protect service personnel and veterans from vexatious claims and endless investigations.
“We have not shied away from the challenge and today are one step closer to fulfilling that commitment.
“We all remember Phil Shiner, and the scores of allegations that have amounted to nothing over the years.
“Our Armed Forces risk their lives to protect us and it is vital we continue to progress this legislation, providing certainty for the troops who find themselves on the front line in the future.”
Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer added: “This legislation is not about providing an amnesty or putting troops above the law, but protecting them from lawyers intent on rewriting history to line their own pockets.
“It will put an end to lawfare and make sure personnel and veterans are not repeatedly and indefinitely called upon to give evidence about events that happened years ago.
“Today we are one step closer to making the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran.”
The Bill comes in response to legal claims made after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not cover incidents in Northern Ireland.