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Defence Minister gives Commons apology to veterans for years of 'harassment' at hands of lawyers

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Johnny Mercer in his constituency office

Johnny Mercer in his constituency office

Johnny Mercer in his constituency office

A minister has apologised on behalf of the Ministry of Defence for the "unacceptable" experiences of harassment troops and veterans have faced.

Defence Minister Johnny Mercer said "there are elements that the MoD could and should have done better", and that for this he apologises.

Mr Mercer's comments came as he was forced to deny that a Bill aimed at stopping vexatious claims against armed service personnel could limit veterans' abilities to sue the MoD for wrongdoing.

Tory MP and former military member Stuart Anderson called on the Government to apologise for the "decades of harassment" troops and veterans have faced.

Mr Anderson said: "As a Northern Ireland veteran who served during the Troubles, it would be remiss of me not to mention this.

"I am also very grateful for everything the minister has done so far, getting us to this point, but, now he is the minister, will he apologise on behalf of the MoD for the decades of harassment our troops and our veterans have faced?"

Mr Mercer, a former British Army officer, replied: "Look, there is no doubt that the prominent protagonists in this have been human rights lawyers who have abused that system in order to make money and abuse some of the poorest people in the world in the process.

"But what I would say is that, yes, there are elements that the MoD could and should have done better and for some of our people those experiences have been unacceptable. And for those, yes, I do apologise."

Earlier, in response to a question from fellow Tory Marco Longhi, Mr Mercer said the treatment of veterans' families has also been "totally unacceptable".

He said: "The objective of this Bill (Overseas Operation Bill) is very clear and it is to restore fairness in the system for both veterans, service personnel and victims, for whom this process has not worked for many, many years.

"I'm afraid veterans and their families have not been considered in a lot of these processes.

"Some of their experiences have been totally unacceptable and this Government was elected to change that, to change this nation's relationship with her veterans. I'm very proud that we are doing that now and the whole House should be supportive of what we're trying to do to get this right."

Fellow Conservative James Sunderland asked for reassurance that soldiers will "never again be pursued by ambulance-chasing lawyers".

Mr Mercer replied: "For me, service in the military is very, very clear - you adhere to the law.

"You break the law, you will be prosecuted and charged; you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about."

But raising an urgent question in the Commons, Labour's shadow defence secretary John Healey urged the Government to "get a grip" of its proposals for the Overseas Operation Bill.

Mr Healey said while Labour supports the Government's efforts to stop "the relentless cycle of vexatious legal claims or repeat investigations" against veterans, it has got "important parts of this Bill badly wrong".

"Why is he legislating to deny those who put their lives on the line for our country overseas the same employer liability rights as the UK civilians they defend?" Mr Healey asked.

Mr Mercer replied: "I would ask him to consider for a moment, given the history I have in this place, if I would attempt in any way to restrict the rights of service personnel to sue the Ministry of Defence or to claim for compensation after the event?"

He added: "This issue around limitations, I'm afraid, is misunderstood because it is not from the point when the injury happened or the incident that caused the injury, it's actually from the point of awareness or of diagnosis.

"It does not change that."

The Overseas Operation Bill does not apply to operations within the UK, including events which took place in Northern Ireland during the years of the Troubles.

However, the Government is working on separate legislation that it claims will ensure "equal treatment of Northern Ireland veterans and those who served overseas".

Belfast Telegraph