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Suez Canal (Service Medal)

1.29 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise, in a short debate, the Government's failure to recommend or the Queen to award campaign medals to those who served in the Suez canal zone between 1951and 1954. I had hoped that there would be more time for the debate because many other hon. Members are concerned about the issue. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) is present; no doubt he will hope to speak, and he has my permission and that of the Minister to do so briefly. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) has also raised questions about the matter.

I place on the record my appreciation of my constituent Mr. Davenport, who has been keeping me up to speed on the issue, and of the late Pip Newton, who led the delegation to press the case with my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, 18 months or so ago, when my hon. Friend was a junior Minister. Mr. Newton worked extremely hard to press the campaign. I also wish to record my appreciation for Mr. Blackburn, Mr. Golder and Mr. Radford for all their work in documenting the case.

This issue matters to many people. They deserve recognition and, even at this late stage, justice can be done. The case for a campaign or service medal is simple. As people get older, children and grandchildren ask, "Dad,"--or "Grandad,"--"what did you do in the Army?" The person starts to talk about his experiences and is then asked, "Well, show us your medal: prove it!" Although that is said jokingly, it clearly rankles with many people who put in a long period of service in the armed forces and who then served in the difficult theatre of the Suez canal zone that that has not been recognised.

The question of medals also arises when old comrades meet, particularly on occasions such as Armistice day parades. When one is talking to someone at such events, the temptation is just to look at their medals or ribbons to see where they served. People who served in the Suez canal zone have nothing to show that they did so. About 18 months ago, I tabled a series of early-day motions listing the people involved in the campaign. I was amazed at the number of people who wrote to complain that their names could not be added because, despite having included three, we had exceeded the word limit for early-day motions.

Many people believe that they should have received recognition for their service in the Suez canal zone. Is such recognition deserved? The best evidence for that can be found in the autobiography of Selwyn Lloyd, who said firmly that one of the reasons for our withdrawal from the region in 1954 was that the conditions in the canal zone were so bad that it was having an effect on service recruitment and retention. I have with me a document prepared at the time to brief Members of Parliament. It states about life in the canal zone:

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It later states:

I could continue quoting from that document, which gives a great deal of evidence that serving in the canal zone was at least as difficult as serving in many other parts of the world. At any time, about 80,000 personnel were working there. The figures are disputed, but evidence suggests that more than 300 people lost their lives either from snipers and other violent activity towards them, or from accidents. Many more were injured.

I have acquired various press cuttings on the subject. A headline on 22 November 1951 reads, "Soldiers murdered by Suez mob". Others from the same period include "Suez flare-up: 12 die" and "British Army convoy ambushed". "New Suez road completed by Army" is another, which is followed by

I could go on.

Since 1945, at least 16 conflicts around the world have led to loss of life. Only those who served in the Suez canal zone, however, have failed to be recognised by the award of a service medal. In terms of the number of people who lost their lives, the Suez canal zone veterans are seventh on that list of 16. The lack of recognition is ridiculous. Service there was extremely difficult. People had to put up with appalling conditions, yet they have never been awarded gallantry medals. They should have gained recognition for their services.

We could spend a long time examining why recognition was not given. Some suggest that it was the politics of the time--that it would have given offence to the Egyptians and made negotiations difficult. Others suggest that it was simply a muddle--that a recommendation was made to the medals committee in 1952, but it was too early to realise how much suffering people had gone through. Whether politics or muddle, the question remains whether it is too late.

I understand the argument that it would have been more appropriate to grant recognition at the time, but if something goes wrong, it is never too late to put it right. Another argument made by Ministers is, "If we concede on this, we shall face claims for more medals in connection with other circumstances." I view that as the worst of all arguments, because cases should be decided on their merits.

It is time for the Government to review the issue afresh. If they do not want to make a recommendation, they should allow the medals committee to examine the issue again. I am certain that the committee would become convinced that it matters to many people. A campaign medal is more justified in this case than for at least 10 or 12 others where campaign medals have been issued.

The question remains whether the medals committee should reconsider so long after the events took place. Since it was established in its present form, there has been no review of the way in which the committee works. The committee must have the opportunity to examine the merits of the case again. It needs to assess

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whether there is a strong case for acting and what procedure is appropriate for taking action. I am convinced that if the committee were allowed to reconsider, it would decide that it is high time that the campaign medal was awarded.

I shall listen with interest to the Minister. My plea is for him to give the matter more thought and to find a way of letting the medals committee decide whether there is a valid reason--as I am sure that there is--for awarding a medal in this case.

1.39 pm

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on securing the debate, and thank him for encouraging me to make a short contribution.

We have worked together on the campaign for some time, and my hon. Friend has worked extremely hard on behalf of the veterans. I welcome the Minister, who is part of a Government team that was ready to take a fresh look at military matters when there appears to be a long-standing grievance or injustice.

In this case, there is a grievance and an injustice. The case for recognition for the service and the lives given by our troops in the Suez canal zone between 1951 and 1954 has never been considered by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. I have done much research on the subject, especially in the past couple of years, in the Public Record Office and in the Ministry of Defence library. I looked through the Committee's minutes in detail and it became clear to me that the HD committee has a good and consistent record as a committee; it is not, and never has been, a rubber-stamp body. It scrutinises the submissions made to it and rejects or accepts the cases made for medals, such as the general service medal.

The Committee uses no hard and fast criteria; nevertheless, it is clear that in every case it has taken account of similar factors, both before and after the Suez period, all of which are relevant in the claim for the Suez veterans to be entitled to receive the general service medal. However, despite the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Forces wanting the GSM to be awarded to his troops serving in the Suez canal zone, the recommendation never reached the HD committee. The Army Council never even discussed the case formally.

Although I do not underestimate the strength of attachment that the establishment has to the practice of non-retrospection, I make the following plea to the Minister. This year is the 50th anniversary of the deployment of our troops in the Suez canal zone. I urge my hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues to make this year the one in which we allow the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals finally to give the case a full and fair hearing.

1.42 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar ): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on securing the debate on a subject that is dear to his heart, and to which he has given considerable time and attention. It is appropriate that he raises the matter in Westminster Hall rather than

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over a cup of tea at breakfast time in the Members' Tea Room. Since becoming a Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) has also taken a strong interest in the matter and continues to do so.

Service in the Suez canal zone in the early 1950s was an unpleasant and, at times, dangerous experience. The climate was oppressive. Troops were on declared active service. Their accommodation was mostly in tents and the conditions were Spartan. There were killings and woundings, although not as many as some, including my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, suggest. There are reports that 60 service men were killed and 600 wounded during the three-year period; the reality, although still regrettable, is that 40 deaths and 75 woundings were attributable to terrorist action in that time.

In January 1952, the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Land Forces, General Sir Brian Robertson, wrote to the Military Secretary about the award of operational guaranteed decorations for service in the canal zone. Only an extract from his letter survives, but it seems that he also raised the matter of a campaign medal. In his reply, the Military Secretary said that he would "sound out" the Adjutant-General about that possibility. That would have been only one step in the procedure; the institution of a new medal or clasp was not, and is not, within the power of any single Department. Recommendations require the agreement of the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Medals and Decorations, usually referred to as the HD committee, which in turn submits the request to the Sovereign for approval. No record has been found of the sounding out of the Adjutant-General, but we know that the Army Council decided that operational awards would be inappropriate, and that the War Office did not submit a case for a campaign medal to the HD committee.

General Robertson seems to have accepted that. There is no record that he appealed or asked for reconsideration. An opportunity to reopen the question arose a few years later when a clasp to the general service medal was instituted for the 1956 Suez operation, but no one took advantage of it.

As my hon. Friend said, there has been much speculation about why no case was put to the HD committee. It is often claimed that the Foreign Office blocked the case, and there are two conflicting interpretations as to why that might have happened. One is that the Foreign Office did not want to upset the Egyptians by admitting that we were, in effect, at war. The other is that the award of a medal would have pleased the Egyptians by conferring the status of a military operation on what was, in fact, terrorist activity.

Service deployments are part of a foreign policy that has diplomatic, economic and military aspects. If a case had ever gone to the HD committee, the Foreign Office would, quite properly, have had a say in the discussion. There is no indication in War Office or Foreign Office records that the two Departments had any consultation on the subject, or that the Foreign Office expressed a view, formally or informally.

The possible effect on opposing nationals did not prevent the award of medals for contemporary or near-contemporary security operations in places such as

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Palestine and Malaya. Neither argument about the effect on the Egyptians would have carried any weight when the further opportunity to make a case arose in 1956.

It has also been claimed that a case was not put forward because the canal zone was a cause of embarrassment to the War Office. Those who claim that appear to be looking at the situation from their own viewpoint, not that of the Army 50 years ago. Troops were deployed in the canal zone to ensure the safe passage of shipping and to protect a limited British presence that existed by treaty with the Egyptians, even though the Egyptian Parliament had abrogated it. There is nothing embarrassing about that. If the War Office had been embarrassed, the Military Secretary would not have taken steps to ensure that so many of those stationed in the canal zone received awards in the 1952 birthday honours list.

Another allegation is that the War Office was influenced by the strength of public and political opinion against the operations. However, public opinion was divided, and there is no reason to believe that the War Office was swayed either way. The then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir William Slim, widely acknowledged to have been the finest "soldier's general" since Wellington, is unlikely to have been deterred if he had thought that there was a good case.

It is frequently alleged that the members of the Army Council in 1952 were unaware of the conditions in the canal zone, including the casualty rate to which I referred. The suggestion that the Army's most senior officers were ignorant of the situation in the biggest British forces base in the eastern Mediterranean and middle east is, to say the least, surprising. They were fully aware of the situation, and in September 1952, the Secretary of State spoke at a meeting of the Army Council about a visit that he had made to the area.

Half a century after the events, and without comprehensive documentation, any explanation of why no case was made can only be speculative. However, the most likely reason is that the Army Council did not consider that the scale and scope of the operations in the canal zone were in the same category as those of other contemporary or recent deployments. The second world war was a recent memory, and the Korean war was still in progress.

A few years previously, internal security operations in Palestine, over a roughly similar three-year period, had resulted in more than six times as many deaths and almost 10 times as many woundings as those that would eventually result from terrorism in the canal zone. A comparison with Palestine was made when the question of operational awards for the canal zone was considered. The British forces in Palestine were heavily involved in a large number of military operations of various types, against an enemy that was fully armed with modern weapons and organised on a proper military basis. In the canal zone, apart from one military operation that lasted one day, when British troops assaulted the Egyptian police barracks at Ishmaelia, the role of the forces was to provide static guarding, convoy protection and personal security against a quite different type of opponent.

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Some veterans argue that their service compares favourably with present-day deployments for which medals have been awarded. That was part of the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish made in drawing attention to operations that had taken place in the period since the war. We need to be clear that the case must be considered against the standards of the time. Policy on medals changes over the years, and it is for each generation to consider whom it should honour. One view was taken during the first world war, another during the second world war and yet another is taken now. We cannot rewrite history.

Whatever the reason for the initial decision, the fact remains that no case was put to the HD committee either at the time of the deployment or later. There does not seem to have been sufficient agitation for the matter to be reopened until some 20 years after the events, when the late Pip Newton, to whom my hon. Friend referred, instituted a lobbying campaign.

The HD committee has a long-standing policy that it will not consider the institution of awards and medals for service given many years earlier. It will not look back at claims for medals if the operation concerned finished more than five years previously.

Mr. Bennett : Could my hon. Friend tell me when the committee arrived at that decision? Is it not now time for the committee at least to review it?

Mr. Spellar : That decision was taken shortly after the end of the second world war. It might be appropriate to put that point to the committee again, but it believes that there are sound grounds in respect of trying to judge historical decisions against the different criteria of the day. The reasons given by the committee are that, when no contemporary claim was made, it cannot second-guess why those who were in a position to ask for a medal decided not to do so. It also says that claims that were rejected at the time, either by the Ministry of Defence and its predecessors or by the HD committee, were based on contemporary evidence and that those who rejected the claims would have had access to the full facts at the time and would have had valid reasons for rejection.

As I said, that policy has been in force since the end of the second world war, but there had in practice been no retrospective institution of medals since the 19th century. The HD committee has made it clear on a number of occasions that it does not intend to reconsider the policy and nor will it admit that decisions taken in the 19th century should be precedents for the present day.

That is not to say that the Ministry of Defence has a closed mind on the question. In 1990, the then Adjutant-General set in train a review, which examined all the open and closed MOD records that could be found and consulted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Public Record Office. The then Chief of the General Staff also took an interest in the case. The Adjutant-General concluded that no evidence had been found to

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indicate that the Army Council decision taken at the time was unsound or should be re-examined. Colonel Newton was given the opportunity to study the documents that led to that conclusion.

The following year, the next Adjutant-General sought guidance from the Cabinet Secretary, the chairman of the HD committee. The advice given was that the Ministry of Defence was

Four years later, Colonel Newton raised the matter with a new Adjutant-General who studied the available material and concluded that the earlier decisions should not be re-examined. The following year, the then Chief of the General Staff examined the relevant papers and also endorsed the conclusion that the matter was settled long ago.

Three years ago, as Under-Secretary of State for Defence, I met a delegation headed by my hon. Friend that consisted of eight canal zone veterans, including Colonel Newton. They stated their case and handed me a number of documents. I asked my Department's Army historical branch to carry out a further review of all available documents to see whether any new facts had come to light and whether there were any grounds for reopening the case. The review was very thorough and my conclusion was that there was no new evidence to persuade me that I should make a case to the HD committee asking it to break its long-established policy and overturn the decisions taken at the time.

We remain willing to look at fresh evidence. For a long time it was believed that the correspondence dating from 1952 had been destroyed or lost. Some of it came to light in July 1999 with the discovery of a folder of papers that should have been passed to the Public Record Office 15 years earlier. We were open about that, and copies of the documents were sent to all hon. Members who had received ministerial letters mentioning the 1952 correspondence and to some of the more frequent correspondents among the veterans. I arranged for the papers to be examined by the Army historical branch; again, its conclusion was that they contained nothing to justify an approach to the HD committee.

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A year ago, my hon. Friend and a colleague presented my successor as Under-Secretary with papers relating to contemporary political and public opinion about the canal zone; again the papers were examined and yet again the same conclusion was reached.

In summary, there are three basic facts. First, the War Office did not submit a case for a medal at the time of the canal zone deployment or shortly after. Secondly, the HD committee has a long-standing and firm policy of non-retrospection. Thirdly, despite successive reviews, no evidence has come to light that demonstrates that the War Office got it wrong and that the HD committee could be persuaded to breach its policy.

Mr. Healey : Can my hon. Friend explain what new evidence would persuade him to alter his position?

Mr. Spellar : Evidence relating to, for example, the Army Council could persuade me to alter my position. I mentioned earlier that General Robertson did not appeal or argue against the decision. However, we believe from the surrounding evidence that he probably made an initial inquiry. Evidence relating to whether the case was considered properly in terms of procedure might constitute grounds for reconsideration.

Mr. Bennett : There is increasing evidence about how delicate the situation was among Conservative MPs at the time. One faction was keen to get out of the zone as quickly as possible; the other faction was keen to stand and fight. That sensitivity suggests that there may have been a little political persuasion not to award a medal because it would have caused political difficulties for a party that had a small majority at the time.

Mr. Spellar : The fact that engagements were controversial has not prevented medals being awarded. I mentioned the Korean war, which was controversial in British domestic terms. I say to both my hon. Friends, and to the other hon. Members who have taken a considerable interest in the matter, that we are ready to examine further evidence and we understand the strength of feeling about the case. We acknowledge the service that was given by the veterans in the Suez canal zone in that period.

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