The statement made by Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 13 April 2021.
The Overseas Operations Bill was introduced to provide greater legal protections to armed forces personnel and veterans serving on military operations overseas. The Bill will provide a better legal framework for dealing with allegations arising from any future overseas operations, recognising the unique burden and pressures placed on our personnel.
As part of the debate on this Bill, there has rightly been a focus on the support which MOD provides to those personnel who may find themselves subject to investigations and prosecutions. We are grateful to right hon. and hon Members of both Houses for the interest they have taken in this issue and their commitment to ensuring service personnel and veterans who are impacted by historical allegations are properly supported.
As a matter of MOD policy, service personnel are entitled to legal guidance at public expense where they face criminal allegations that relate to actions taken during their service, and where they were performing their duties. This principle is at the heart of the MOD’s approach to supporting our people and is enshrined in the relevant defence instruction notices. It is a responsibility that MOD takes extremely seriously, and we keep our policies under review to ensure that they are appropriate and tailored.
Since the early days of Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces have learned lessons on better resourcing and professionalising support to those involved in inquiries or investigations arising from operations, and the mechanisms for providing this support have been transformed in recent years. The way in which this is delivered and by whom will depend on the specific circumstances of the case, the point which has been reached in the proceedings and, most importantly, the needs of the individual concerned.
Any individual who is investigated by the service police is entitled to legal representation as well as the support of an assisting officer who can offer advice on the process and procedure and signpost welfare resources. The individual’s commanding officer and chain of command have overall responsibility for the person’s welfare and for ensuring access to the requisite support.
Individuals who are interviewed as suspects under caution will be entitled to free and independent legal advice for this stage of the investigation. Subsequently, legal funding for service personnel and veterans facing criminal allegations can either be provided through the Armed Forces Legal Aid Scheme (AFLAS) or through the chain of command.
Where the chain of command accepts funding responsibility this is means-test exempt and therefore no personal contribution will be required. The Armed Forces Criminal Legal Aid Authority (AFCLAA) will act as a conduit for the provision of publicly funded legal representation on behalf of the chain of command, including all aspects of financial and case management. However, if available evidence suggests the individual was doing something clearly outside the scope of their duty, then it would not be appropriate for that person to receive this chain of command funding.
All other serving personnel and veterans facing criminal proceedings prosecuted through the service justice system, and who are not covered by the chain of command funding, may apply for legal aid through AFCLAA and may be required to make a personal contribution, determined by means testing, if funded through the Armed Forces Legal Aid Scheme. This is in line with the civilian legal aid scheme.
There is an important exemption from the means-testing requirement, which has been waived in criminal cases arising from Iraq or Afghanistan operations heard in the Service Court. Separately, legal advice and support is also available whenever people are required to give evidence at inquests and inquiries and in litigation and this is coordinated by MOD.
We also recognise that for service personnel and veterans who are involved in these processes, legal guidance by itself is not enough. This is why we have developed a comprehensive package of welfare support to ensure we deliver on our commitment to offer ongoing support to veterans.
As part of delivering on this commitment, the Army Operational Legacy Branch (AOLB) was established in 2020 in order to co-ordinate the Army’s support to those involved in legacy cases. Fundamental to this is ensuring that welfare and legal support is provided to all service personnel and veterans involved in operational legacy processes. The AOLB provides a central point of contact and optimises the welfare network already in place through the Arms and Service Directorates and the network of regimental headquarters and regimental associations. Veterans UK are also closely engaged in providing support to veterans and, where required, the Veterans Welfare Service will allocate a welfare manager to support individual veterans. Although the AOLB has been established to provide an Army focus to legacy issues, the support it provides is extended to the other services.
This is provided in addition to the range of welfare and mental health support that is routinely offered to all our people. The potential impact of operations on a service person’s mental health is well recognised and there are policy and procedures in place to help manage and mitigate these impacts as far as possible. The MOD recognises that any operational deployment can result in the development of a medical or psychiatric condition and that service personnel may require help before, during and after deployment. All armed forces personnel are supported by dedicated and comprehensive mental health resources. Defence mental health services are configured to provide community-based mental health care in line with national best practice.
In terms of support for those who have left the forces, veterans are able to access all NHS provided mental health services wherever they live in the country. As health is devolved and services have been developed according to local populations needs, service specification varies. This can mean bespoke veteran pathways or ensuring an awareness of veterans’ needs. All veterans will be seen on clinical need. What is important is that best practice is shared between the home nations and there are several forums in place to provide this.
The Office for Veterans’ Affairs works closely with the MOD and Departments across Government, the devolved Administrations, charities and academia to ensure the needs of veterans are met.