This week I have withdrawn my amendments from the committee stage of the overseas operations bill, the government-proposed legislation that puts time limits on the criminal responsibility of British service persons. At the start of this month, I laid down four amendments that would have removed any time limit for war crimes, crimes against humanity (which includes torture) and genocide, as a vital step towards stopping the worst parts of this bill. I did this because I understood the need to give our service personnel security – which this bill fails to do – and I was worried that this loophole could end up seeing service personnel indicted at The Hague, which can only act if there is no process in the home country.
I have withdrawn my amendments not because these are not important issues, but because our frontbench team led by John Healey and in the committee led by Stephen Morgan have laid amendments that would produce the same effects. I therefore want to throw my weight behind them. There are some, including in right-wing papers, who have tried to make out that there is some schism between the frontbench, myself and other members on the left of the party. They could not be further from the truth.
I have had differences of strategy with all leaders since I joined Labour in 2005, but I have never doubted the commitment of this leadership to doing the right thing. Despite diverging at the second reading, the Labour frontbench and I remain united in opposing this bill, which will restrict former service personnel suing the Ministry of Defence after six years and will prevent the most serious crimes being prosecuted five years.
The bill was meant to stop the merry-go-round of investigations against former soldiers but has become a protection for the Ministry of Defence and not service personnel. John Healey has written well about this in a piece for The Mirror. We must not allow people of bad faith to make out that there is a lack of unity when we agree with each other. Therefore, in withdrawing my amendments, I am fully backing those of Stephen Morgan, the frontbench shadow minister leading on this area.
When this bill leaves committee, we have been giving reassurances that Labour will strongly back amendments to protect our service personnel, and ensure that International Criminal Court crimes like torture are never brushed under the carpet, and vote against any unamended bill. These amendments will not actually solve the problem of vexatious investigation, but they will make the overseas operations bill bearable.
If these areas – civil actions against the Ministry of Defence and international crimes – and the presumptions against prosecution are not removed, Labour will vote against the whole bill and this is the right track. Keir Starmer was right to announce our opposition last week, and I applaud him and the Shadow Defence Secretary for their leadership on making this clear.
There are times to stand up and speak out individually, and there are times to get behind our leadership to ensure that we are of one voice and speaking without deviation. When it comes to the protections that our current and former armed forces deserve, we must speak loudly with one voice on the side of the British Legion, Amnesty and the many constituents who have written to me. In the middle of a crisis, we need to be clear to the British people that it is Tory infighting harming the UK, and that it is Labour that wants to support and defend our country.