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21 May 2002 : Column 46WH

Suez Veterans

12.30 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): One of the most moving experiences of my life took place several years ago when I stood on a beach in Normandy with my father. It was the beach where he had fought his way ashore when he took part in the D-day landings. As I stood there, I could see it all and imagine what he and thousands of others went through. It is what I now think of when I remember my Dad. That experience changed my thinking about war, and I realised fully what it meant to serve one's country—to risk or give one's life as a member of Her Majesty's armed forces.

Men such as my father did not get much by way of reward, and most returned to modest livelihoods. They were, however, awarded a medal or two, which is important. For most of his life, my father never talked about the war or his part in it. Like many others, I suspect, when he retired and looked back at his life, his contribution to that war was his most important achievement. That is why medals mean so much to veterans. Medals recognise their courage, the service that they gave and the sacrifice that they made, which is why they wear them with pride, as my father did.

A group of veterans who did all the things that constitute serving their country, however, have no medal to wear—veterans of the Suez canal campaign from 1951 to 1954. It is a disgrace that those men have been so treated. Although Suez was not D-day, any objective assessment would conclude that a medal should be awarded, and that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people in this country would want one to be given.

The Suez canal zone operation began in October 1951 and, soon afterwards, the garrison was increased from 20,000 to approximately 80,000 troops and stayed at that size. It was no small operation. October and November saw the swiftest build up of the British Army outside a major war. Cabinet minutes of November 1951 declared that it was "active service". As they landed in Egypt, many troops reported that they had been advised to make wills.

The operation involved the use of artillery, including a set-piece battle at the police barracks in Ismailia on 21 January 1952 that involved a tank. Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, is recorded in Hansard in January 1952 as referring to the conflict as "war".

Grimly and sadly, we often measure the scale and significance of a conflict by its death toll. An official memo from the British middle east office to the Foreign Office, dated 10 June 1954, provided information for a parliamentary question. It confirms the number of service men killed from 16 October 1951 to 1 June 1954 as 47, with seven missing presumed dead—a total of 54 fatalities. Many more service men have been recorded as having died, and were buried in Egyptian graveyards between 1951 and 54, giving a total of more than 300. I am told that that is the basis on which the Ministry of Defence has counted the death toll relating to similar operations since the second world war.

The conditions that the men suffered were clearly harsh. It is a matter of record that General Sir Brian Robertson, Commander in Chief of the Middle East

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forces, applied for a general service medal to be awarded on 18 January 1952. It is not hard to see why. As he said in his letter,

Indeed, individual awards for service in Suez were given out of the military ration in the Queen's birthday honours, and others were published separately for gallantry, including a George medal. Yet no campaign medal or general service medal clasp has ever been issued. That is staggering and upsetting, especially when comparisons are made with other campaigns in which our armed forces have been involved since world war two.

I asked the Library to look into the matter. The research paper that I was given states that

The comparative facts are neatly summed up in a report issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in November 2000, when he announced that a monument would be built to all our service men who have fallen in conflict since 1945. Each of the 16 conflicts listed, except that in Sierra Leone, which still continues, attracted a campaign medal, except Egypt 1951-54—the Suez veterans.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on not only having secured the debate, but on the campaign that he is waging on the issue, with which I entirely agree. As he knows, my brother served in Suez during the period, so I have a personal as well as a constituency interest. Does he believe that the peculiarity that has given rise to the anomaly is subsequent events in Suez, in 1956, which were embarrassing for the then Government, who did not want to know?

Mr. Blizzard : The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I know that all the veterans involved in the campaign will appreciate his support.

Grimly, when we consider the league table of deaths in those 16 conflicts, Egypt comes in eighth highest.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): One of my colleagues at Stonyhurst was killed at Suez, and my father was killed in the last war. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate with another Member whose father was involved in those wars.

In debating awarding medals, the real question is, did those involved not do just as much as anyone in any other war? It is not their fault if the politicians got something wrong. It is therefore essential that my constituent, Mr. Collier, of Cheadle, should, like the other distinguished gentlemen, receive a medal in recognition of service. It was not their fault that things went wrong.

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Mr. Blizzard : I entirely agree. Our case is overwhelming. In light of those grim fatalities, it is incredible that Suez has missed out on recognition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) is present. One of the arguments advanced by the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), in a debate on 14 March 2001 was that

Let us consider other so-called anti-terrorist operations that took place in the 1950s. In Palestine, 233 people died; in Malaya, 340; in Cyprus, 79; and in Kenya, 12. Medals were issued for all those campaigns. Medals were later awarded to those who served in not only Lebanon but Rhodesia and 17 United Nations operations in which no one died.

Given the evidence, any fair-minded person would conclude that Suez vets deserve a medal. It is a double injustice that none was ever awarded and that 50 years later the mistake has not been rectified.

Why has that happened? Justice seems to have become locked up in procedure. What went wrong in the early 1950s was either cock-up or conspiracy. I believe that the former was more likely, which gives us more cause to put things right. It has never been entirely clear what exactly happened after General Robertson requested on 18 January 1952 that a medal be granted.

At various times down the years, the Ministry of Defence has made several assertions. First, it said that the Army council considered the matter in 1952 and rejected the claim, but I have seen no evidence of that. That assertion was made on the basis of unsigned and undated handwritten short notes. Proper documents that appeared finally in 1999 show that those notes refer to applications for individual awards also requested by General Robertson.

It has also been asserted that the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals—the HD committee—considered the matter in 1956. The evidence is that it did not examine the case. That is because the proposal to institute such a medal came from a member of the public. The HD committee was unable to act on it because it can only consider formal submissions from Government Departments, not members of the public.

It is clear from all the evidence that the matter was not properly dealt with at the time and that full consideration has never been given to the case for a medal. Why has the matter not been sorted out since then and why cannot we correct it today? We are told that authorities cannot second guess a decision that should have been made in the early 1950s. I contend, however, that the MOD has repeatedly attempted to second guess what happened procedurally in 1952 and 1956 on the basis of unclear evidence. For example, it was claimed in 1956 when a member of the public suggested an award—a suggestion that the committee could not act on—that the committee

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Those are words of a letter from a MOD official. If that is not a classic case of second guessing, I do not know what is. It is trying to maintain years later what was in the minds of the committee. It is really saying that the committee was always right and that it could never get anything wrong.

We are told that the committee now has a policy of no retrospection and that that is an iron rule. Who made that policy? No one seems to know. Did the committee make the policy? In a matter of such import, should such a committee be making its own policy in a modern democracy? Who sets the policies for the HD committee? To whom is the committee accountable? The House of Commons Library said:

Does the HD committee stand above the law? Even criminal justice cases can be reopened as we have recently seen. Both Australia and Canada have created retrospective awards for prescribed operations between 1945 and 1975. I have said that the matter seems to be locked in procedure; in fact, it seems to be locked in arcane procedure. The Library said that

It has been claimed that there is a five-year rule beyond which retrospection cannot occur. It was said that King George VI decided that rule, although it has now been conceded that there is no proof that he did. Indeed, an HD committee official admitted in a letter last year that

Interestingly, I have been told that there are two instances when retrospective awards have been approved by the committee, although not actually made by it. They involve a Russian award that was made to British service men in 1985 and an award from Malta in 1995. The HD committee allows those medals to be worn.

Since the campaign for a medal started, the MOD has carried out reviews. It continues to say that it will look at new evidence. I ask the Under-Secretary to publish full details of all hitherto reviews so that we know what evidence has been looked at and what has not. Such matters need to be looked at again. In 1991, Sir David Ramsbotham, a member of one of the previous review teams, put in writing that the issue should be re-examined and that natural justice must be allowed to prevail. It has now been referred to Sir Richard Wilson, the head of the civil service, who is chairman of the HD committee. I am glad that he wrote at the beginning of this year that

I hope that he has asked to find a way forward and I hope that it will be confirmed this morning that the MOD supports that aim.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Will my hon. Friend accept that it is important for Sir Richard to make a decision before he retires, rather than leaving the matter as a hot potato for his successor?

Mr. Blizzard : That is absolutely right. Will my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) clarify

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exactly what Sir Richard has been asked to do? All that my inquiries revealed was that he was to consider all representations from the campaign by Suez veterans and from veterans involved in other campaigns where the non-award of a medal was an issue, and that he would report in due course to the Prime Minister and the Queen but that no report would be published. I am told that he will see a group of Suez veterans in the next month. Such a report should be published, and so should the minutes of the HD committee, as it should be accountable.

For too long, Suez veterans have been denied by procedure. People should not hide behind procedure, and we should not let it stand in the way of applying fairness and the basic human need to right a wrong. We do not ask that history be rewritten, but that it be properly acknowledged. I sense that the authorities are worried about opening the floodgates of retrospective awards with the case, but that is the worst of arguments, because cases should be decided on their own merits. The case has never considered properly, and the Government have a duty to ensure that proper action is taken and that mistakes are corrected. If no procedure exists to put matters right, such procedure should be established.

I acknowledge Mr. David Podd, a constituent of mine who brought the matter to my attention, as well as Mr. Charles Golder and Lt. Col. Ashley Tinson for the information and material that they have provided. They are serving the Suez veterans' campaign well.

The campaign will not go away. This is the third Adjournment debate on the subject in 15 months. There have been early-day motions, and a petition with 20,000 signatures was handed to a Defence Minister. The campaign would go away only if all the veterans died before justice was done, which would be a disgrace. The veterans march to the Cenotaph, but they have no medal to wear. Why do we deny them that? What do we have to lose?

This year, we celebrate the Queen's golden jubilee. The occasion is a rare opportunity that should be taken to rectify the injustice, and it would be a fitting tribute to all those who served their country in the Suez from 1951 to 1954.

12.47 pm

Dan Norris (Wansdyke): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on securing the debate. He will be aware that this is the second debate on the subject this year, the previous one having taken place on 16 January. I think that I am right to say that it is the fourth Adjournment debate on the subject since 2000, so it has been well debated.

In the January debate, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence said that he could add little to what had been said in previous debates. I must offer the same apology, as I am in the same position. He is not here today, as he is on Government business in north America, but he will be keen to read Hansard and discuss the debate with me on his return.

The disturbance in the Suez canal zone in the early 1950s lasted more than two and a half years, with about 64,000 troops stationed there at the peak of the troubles. The men were on declared active service and 40 were

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killed as a result of terrorist action. Why, then, was no campaign medal awarded at the time, and why have successive Governments resisted demands for one?

Recommendations on the institution of medals are made to the Queen by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, known for brevity as the HD committee. The committee is inter-departmental and is chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. Since the end of the second world war, the HD committee has maintained a policy that it will not consider the institution of awards and medals for service given many years earlier. Specifically, it will not consider operations that ended more than five years previously.

There are reasons for the policy. The committee is not qualified so long after the event to say that those who were in a position to submit a case but did not do so were wrong, if no contemporary claim were made. If a claim were made but rejected at the time, either by a Department or by the committee itself, those who rejected it would have had access to the full facts and their judgment would have been based on contemporary understanding of the situation. That is the policy governing this issue. Nevertheless, veterans continue to ask whether a case was made at the time and if not, why not?

Mr. Cash : Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate what complete rubbish he has just enunciated? One does not need a comprehension of what he has described as a policy in order to know that people who went on active service, or were involved in a "disturbance", as he called it, have put their lives on the line for their country. It seems inconceivable that this policy can be pursued.

Dan Norris : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I do not accept the tone in which he made it, but perhaps points that I make later will deal with the issues that he is concerned about.

Veterans continue to ask whether a case was made at the time, and if not, why not? If a case were made, was it properly considered? Why was it rejected? It is no secret that little documentary evidence on these matters has survived from the 1950s. We know that the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Land Forces wrote to the Military Secretary in January 1952, some three months after the troubles started, asking about the award of operational gallantry decorations. Unfortunately, the letter has not survived and we do not know whether he also mentioned a campaign medal.

We do know that when the Military Secretary replied, he said he would sound out the Adjutant-General about the possibility, so it is a reasonable supposition that the Commander-in-Chief had raised the question. It has been claimed that the Military Secretary did not in fact mention a campaign medal to the Adjutant-General, and that the matter was not discussed by the Army council. In the absence of documentary evidence, the case cannot be proved either way. There is no mention of a campaign medal in the minutes of the Army council, but consideration would not necessarily have been in a formal meeting, where minutes would have been taken.

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There is no doubt that the Army council was well aware of conditions and circumstances in the canal zone; it was, after all, the largest British forces base in the eastern Mediterranean and middle east. The Secretary of State for War had visited the area and spoke about it at a meeting of the council. We know that the council considered operational gallantry awards and decided that the scale and scope of the operations did not justify them. That conclusion may well have weighed against the question of a campaign medal being taken further.

Having been told that the Adjutant-General would be sounded out about a campaign medal, the Commander-in-Chief would obviously want to know the outcome. Again, documentation is unfortunately lacking, but no evidence has been found and it has never been suggested that the Commander-in-Chief ever raised the matter again. The obvious conclusion is that he accepted that it had been dealt with properly and conclusively. A few years later, consideration of a clasp to the general service medal for the 1956 Suez operation provided an opportunity to re-open the question within the period governed by the HD committee's five-year retrospection rule, but nobody took up that option.

I have suggested what seems the most likely reason for no case being taken forward; that the scale of operations was not considered to be great enough. It should be remembered that, at the time, the second world war was a recent memory. During the period since that war, internal security operations in Palestine had resulted in about 260 servicemen being killed over a three-year period, compared with 40 in the canal zone. I should mention that much higher death figures are quoted for the canal zone, but the figures that I have given are for deaths from terrorist action only. They do not cover death from other causes, or death of non-military personnel.

The Korean war was still going on, with far more intensive military operations and a much heavier loss of life. It is true that service in the canal zone was unpleasant and at times dangerous, but that was very often the lot of British troops stationed overseas during that period. I should admit to an interest in that my uncle, Brian Norris, was stationed in the canal zone in 1954, so I have had personal discussions about the conditions that prevailed then.

Mr. Blizzard : Will my hon. Friend say where the figure for deaths, which was quoted in a previous debate by the Under-Secretary, comes from? I have seen the memo from the middle eastern office, which referred to 54 deaths. If that is a mistake, the Ministry should publish the evidence that shows that the figure is 40, because an official document states that it is 54.

Dan Norris : I understand why my hon. Friend would raise that point if there appeared to be a discrepancy. As I understand it, the figures are worked out carefully from all the documentation that has been made available in previous reviews of the matter, and they are robust, so we should be able to rely on the figure of 40. However, I shall look into the matter and ensure that my hon. Friend receives a written response regarding the figure of 54.

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It is also true that active service had been declared, but that in itself is no argument for a medal. Declarations of active service are made when, for example, it is necessary to increase disciplinary powers. The declaration of the General Officer Commanding in Egypt emphasised that it was

In other words, it was the legal status that was important.

Other reasons have been suggested. A wish to avoid embarrassment is often mentioned. It is claimed that the War Office would have been embarrassed by the institution of a medal, which would have drawn attention to what was happening in the canal zone. However, that was public knowledge at the time. Opinions varied about the British role there, but whatever view might have been taken, there was nothing dishonourable about what the troops were doing. They were there to ensure the safe passage of shipping and to protect a limited British presence, which existed in accordance with the treaty with the Egyptians. In the best tradition of the British services, the troops carried out their duties successfully and with minimal force.

Mr. Cash : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dan Norris : I shall not because time is of the essence.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has some ground to cover yet in this important debate.

Dan Norris : It has been alleged many times over the years that the Foreign Office anticipated the likelihood of embarrassment, and therefore interfered to block a medal-awarding process before a case could be put before the HD committee. There are two suggestions about what the potential embarrassment might have been. One is that the award of a medal could have constituted an admission that we were, in effect, at war, and would thus have jeopardised delicate negotiations with the Egyptians.

The other is that the award of a medal would have pleased the Egyptians by elevating the status of their actions from terrorism to a military operation. Both cannot be true. In fact, there is no reason to believe that either consideration carried any weight. Such issues clearly did not prevent the award of medals for other security operations at about that time, such as in Palestine and Malaya. No evidence whatsoever has been found to suggest that there was any consultation between the War Office and the Foreign Office, or that the Foreign Office intervened formally or informally.

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Leaving aside the factors that may or may not have affected the decisions of fifty years ago, many canal zone veterans argue that a medal is justified by comparison with subsequent military deployments, including those of the present day. The claim is often made that the canal zone was the only action after the second world war for which a medal or clasp was not awarded. That is not correct. During the period from the end of the war to the mid-1950s, there were more than a dozen internal security deployments for which no medal or clasp was issued, such as Libya in 1945, Burma from 1945 to 1948, Singapore in 1950 and Hong Kong in 1956. Comparison with the present day is not relevant. Policy on medals changes with the times. For example, three medals were awarded for the first world war, but 10 were awarded for the second world war.

Notwithstanding the non-retrospection rule, and despite continual accusations to the contrary, the Ministry of Defence has kept an open mind on this subject. The claim for a medal was effectively launched in 1974, and its supporters have been especially active since about 1990. During the latter period, there have been several reviews by successive Adjutants-General, and two Chiefs of the General Staff have also looked into the matter. In 1998, the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence set up a full review of all available documents, including those held by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Public Record Office. The following year, some papers dating from 1952 came to light.

Canal zone veterans have been assiduous in searching old records, and anything brought to the Department's notice receives appropriate study. Nothing, however, has given us any reason to think that the matter was dealt with insufficiently or improperly in the early 1950s. We remain willing to consider anything new that offers a different slant, and an undertaking to that effect was given as recently as the Adjournment debate on this subject in January 2002.

At the outset, I said that there was not much new to say. However, I can add something. In reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), the Prime Minister said that he would make sure that the HD committee carefully considered any further representations, including the one made to him at that time. I can confirm that the HD committee is indeed reviewing the question. I would not wish to anticipate what the outcome of that review might be, but I hope that, in due course, it will satisfy all concerned that the subject has received full, fair and conclusive consideration.

In closing, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney for putting his case so clearly and congratulate him on securing the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am sure that the authorities will have heard the comments made by hon. Members during the debate.

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