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26 Feb 2008 : Column 193WH—continued

10.18 am

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), although I share the surprise of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) at his reticence about putting pressure on politicians at the Ministry of Defence. I entirely accept that the Minister, who is very honourable, will do what he can to take the message back from here. However, the men and women we are talking about were sent to war by politicians, and nearly 50 per cent. of the House of Commons has now expressed the view that recognition is overdue. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) talked about the mood of the country, and the mood of the country not only says, but demands that proper recognition should be forthcoming.

Like others, I pay tribute to the people in the Gallery. I know that we are not supposed even to admit that we have them with us, but nobody who was present at the launch of the “Honour the Brave” campaign, which the Daily Mirror has done so much to put together, could fail to be impressed by the courage of those who spoke to us. For some, that meeting in a House of Commons Committee Room was the first time that they had spoken in public. The interesting thing was that a sizeable number of Members of Parliament were present; it is a long time since I have been at a meeting where so many hon. Members were present and stayed throughout. It was a very moving experience for everyone concerned.

One need only look at today’s obituaries to see the bizarre way in which we give people recognition. A lady who was a real heroine in the second world war died recently. She was parachuted into France as a Special Operations Executive officer and in the end commanded something like 3,000 resistance fighters and was instrumental in much of the success of the D-day landings. When she returned to the UK she was put forward for the military cross, but the Ministry of Defence said she could not have it, because she was a woman. They could not find a suitable medal for her, so they decided to offer her a civilian MBE, which she rejected. Subsequently, after the war, she was offered a military MBE, which she accepted. Thirty years later, in recognition of the service of that lady, who had been honoured by France and other countries, the Queen awarded her the CBE, and said to her, as reported in the paper today:

We are talking about giving such people the recognition that they deserve, today. Bureaucrats got it wrong for a real heroine who put her life on the line as a 22-year-old girl, being parachuted into France and leading a very effective work force. They got it wrong because they said the system could not cope with a woman. Today young men and women are putting their lives on the line and suffering horrendous injuries. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham not only on his persistence in this matter, but on the recognition that he has given to the injuries—and the mental injuries—suffered by those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with other members of the Select Committee on Defence, he has pushed that issue time and again.

I implore the Minister to make, for goodness’ sake, a political decision, and instruct the Ministry of Defence to get on with it. Do not let this be another Arctic
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convoy saga, which took 50 years, until 55 per cent. of the people who could have received the award were dead. Let the people and their families have what we believe the nation says they deserve: recognition today. Let them have recognition, and let us give it to them with pride. Do not count the cost. We did not count the cost before we sent them.

Let us examine our consciences and say that there is a moral obligation on the state to give those men and women and their families the recognition that they deserve. It will be a good thing for the armed forces generally. No one would begrudge any soldier or the families of the dead and wounded that recognition. I would love the medal to be the Elizabeth star. I share that view with the hon. Member for North Durham. I hope that the Minister will take that point.

10.22 am

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I add my congratulations to those that have been given to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate. It is extremely important and it has been very moving this morning to hear hon. Members talk about families and friends. I pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for the sterling work that it has done on the campaign.

The debate is not about whether people did or did not support conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some people have told me that they did not agree with our military involvement in Iraq. Neither did I. I did not vote to send troops to Iraq, but as soon as the House decided that they should be sent, I supported them wholeheartedly. That is what Members of Parliament do. I supported our sending troops to Afghanistan, so I voted to deploy troops. I have also voted against deploying troops, but once UK forces are deployed Members of Parliament should stand four square behind them. That is what we are doing in this debate. It is not about support for an individual conflict; it is about supporting people from this country who go forward in our name possibly to lay down their lives or be wounded in action. It is important that Parliament should show support for them.

There has been some debate about the purple heart this morning. It is a fantastic award—absolutely stunning—although I think that the highest award in the United States is the congressional medal of honour. In the awards structure for US forces, it is politicians who make decisions. Politicians decided to give the purple heart. The President of the United States decided to award it. Such decisions are something that politicians should be engaged in—not on a party-political basis, but across the board, across all parties and opinion. It is for politicians to declare their support for awards and honours.

The point has been made that before the Victoria cross there was no such award. Interestingly, the metal for the Victoria cross is stored in Shropshire, and I am very proud of that. It is an incredible award with incredible status, but let us not forget that it was a new award when it was first granted.

I intervened on my hon. Friend about the award of the purple heart in relation to UK forces and US forces. It is interesting that when some US forces went into conflict in Iraq they were under British command, so we had a strange situation in which troops from the United States and the UK could be fighting beside each
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other on the same battle front yet they could not receive similar awards for being killed or wounded in action. That is a strange anomaly. I do not think that we should do everything that the Americans do, but in this case they have got it right, and when they do we should say so. They have got it right in relation to the purple heart.

I congratulate the Government on what they have done in recent years about the award of medals. They have put right a number of wrongs. Enormously good work has been done, too, through some of the badges that have been distributed, such as the veterans badge. My dad has just secured his veterans badge; it is fantastic and people can be very proud of it. I think that he would have liked some kind of award for his grandfather, who was gassed at Passchendaele and received little recognition for an incident that scarred him for the rest of his life. My father would like some recognition for his grandfather’s role there, and as a family we do not have that. Badges have also been given for the land army and the timber corps, which is fantastic.

I should like a medal—a medal of honour, which might be called the Elizabeth star or something else—and a badge that people can wear proudly on their lapel as they go about their business, to show that they have made a sacrifice for this country and that we owe them a debt of gratitude. It is important, and most service personnel would, I think, take the view that the awards are not just for them, but are for their families. They can be passed down through families as a way of remembering the service that was given.

The debate is timely. It is time for the award that we are discussing; it is time to put aside our views about the conflicts and approve the award. I know that the Minister has history, in that members of his family were in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. As a Shropshire MP I ask him to ensure that we get the medal.

10.28 am

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and the Daily Mirror on their campaign, and the way in which it has been led. It is hard to cover this matter in two minutes, but I shall try. The Royal British Legion in Chorley has handed me a petition about the covenant, because of a feeling that the medal is part of the military covenant, which we must respect and honour.

It is important not to forget. I was touched as a constituency MP when we lost Royal Marine Dutch Holland, who was tragically blown up by a roadside bomb. When someone from a small community such as Chorley dies fighting a war in a foreign land it brings things home. We must of course always remember that the Royal Gibraltar Regiment has played its part as well; its members have been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and earning the military cross. We have other troops from overseas territories who play a major role.

To me the debate is about the families, those who have been injured and those who have died. It is a matter of the respect we owe to them. The only way we can show that respect and honour is by recognition. The best recognition that the House can offer is a medal, and it should be given through the Minister and the Ministry of Defence, and its hierarchy. What should not
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happen has already been discussed. We should not be seen to be dragging people along to an eventual cave-in, because that becomes an apology. We should not be in that position. We ought to be leading from the front and saying, “Now is the right time—the time is here.” As I said, we must do that for the families. However, we must also recognise the mood of the country. Please do not allow this to happen later. Let us do it now.

I know that the Minister will take back that important and clear message, as he must, and give the necessary recognition to those who have died and been injured in conflict. Some of the latter will have received among the most severe injuries ever seen in military conflict, but have survived owing to the medical care now offered. We ought to go that little bit further and give them the necessary recognition. A good friend of mine, Colonel Harrison, helps to run Selly Oak hospital, which the Minister has visited before. Colonel Harrison knows the importance of such recognition—an importance that nobody can deny. So I ask the Minister please to take back that message. Let us get that message out in order to recognise the families involved.

10.30 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate and other hon. Members who this morning have made such important contributions. I also pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for its “Honour the Brave” campaign. Were it not for that campaign and early-day motion 95 signed by so many hon. Members, we would not be here this morning.

More than 174 personnel have been killed in Iraq and 89 in Afghanistan during the recent conflicts. At the same time, hundreds have been injured. Last year, I was privileged when a friend of mine brought her son to Rochdale. He was an American soldier educated in Rochdale before joining the American army. He showed me his purple heart, which brought home what he had been through and how proud he and his family were. Those here in the Gallery today, and those whom they represent, deserve similar recognition. I hope that the Minister will agree to a review of the current process for awarding medals, that the recognition that our Army personnel deserve can be given and that we can move forward. I believe that that is what the country and hon. Members here want.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) mentioned the award of medals for past conflicts. In recent years, as has been said, the Government have gone a considerable way to recognise the need for such medals, with the award of the veterans badge. It would now be appropriate for the Minister to provide similar recognition of those fighting so bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. The past few years have been unprecedented for our military in the number of conflicts in which they have fought on all levels. Many have said that they have been stretched to breaking point. Recognition is long overdue and I hope that he will agree today to move forward and give them the awards that they deserve.

10.33 am

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I draw the attention of the Chamber to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am a serving officer in the reserve
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forces. There is a consensus, certainly in this gathering, on the need for a medal to recognise the particular sacrifices of those injured or killed in the service of their country. I cannot remember a more impassioned debate in Westminster Hall, which, frankly, is not known for its passion. I am sure that the Minister will leave this debate with much food for thought.

We generally gather to debate past conflicts, so it is refreshing to be considering contemporary events and serving personnel. However, we need to consider the past as well and, perhaps, debate briefly problems with medals for previous conflicts. Much of this debate revolves around the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, which was set up to determine whether medals should be awarded and under what circumstances. On 11 December, when we gathered to debate the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal, some vitriol was heaped on that committee. However, we must understand that it is a creature of politicians and that those appointed to serve on it do so with the best will in the world according to rules that we give them. It is in our power to consider whether those rules are up-to-date or whether they need to be revised, and whether the committee’s membership needs to be reconsidered. If we do that, perhaps we will avoid the problems that we have unfortunately got ourselves into in recent years.

The committee operates according to two principal rules: the first is the double-medalling rule, which is a curious thing, because it appears to rely on precedent that ignores precedent. I am reminded of the Khedive’s star and the Turkish Crimea medal. They are good examples from the distant past of where double-medalling has applied. I was interested in the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on wound stripes. It is all very well for committees and politicians to say, “Well, we have not done this in the past,” but we have very short memories, do we not? I am sure that most of us are grateful to him for reminding us that in the not very distant past we provided the appropriate recognition of sacrifices made by our servicemen.

The Government resisted approval of the PJM medal when we debated it at great length in December. However, some who served between 1960 and 1962 did not receive the general service medal, including some naval personnel, even though they served afloat off Malaya, because the time qualification was more onerous for them. Thus the double-medalling rule is no ground for failing to approve the medal in their case. Some might say that approval of the PJM medal would circumvent the qualifying period set by the HD committee, but a row of medals reads like a CV and the appearance of the PJM medal, instead of the GSM with a Malaya clasp would tell its own story.

The second rule is the five-year one, which is also curious. It is worth reflecting that we are rapidly approaching the fifth anniversary of the opening shots of Operation Telic 1. The five-year rule ensures that we are contemporary in our recollection of events, but most of us will recall vividly those opening shots and the circumstances surrounding them. I wonder whether the five-year rule is far too prescriptive. I hope that if the Minister could agree to reconsider the rules governing the conduct of the HD committee, he will look at a 10-year rule, which I suggest would be very useful.

It is important to consider equivalence in medalling. Winston Churchill appreciated that the award of medals is an inexact science. In March 1944, he said:

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I am slightly surprised that that quote has not been used already here. I am rather pleased that it has not, because it means that I can introduce it. However, without articulating those words, a number of hon. Members have referred to those sentiments. In the context of current operations, it means that a clasp for Helmand and Kandahar would disappoint troops in service elsewhere in Afghanistan, many of whom will feel that they have been equally in the thick of it.

Will the Army top brass, who were reported last month to be engineering a U-turn over the southern Afghanistan clasp, reflect on the six bars available to mark particular operations during the second Afghan war of 1878? Will the Minister update us on the skirmish that appears to have broken out between the Chief of the General Staff and the vice-chief of the defence staff on that issue?

Patrick Mercer: What about the Kabul to Kandahar star issued for operations between July 1880 and February 1881?

Dr. Murrison: I suspect that my hon. Friend’s knowledge of such matters surpasses that of anyone else in the House. I am very grateful to him for adding to my knowledge of the second Afghan war of 1878.

As we struggle to avoid the shadow that Churchill talked about, we might like to give some thought to the disparity in the award of various long service and good conduct medals, which was mentioned briefly earlier. One of the Government’s most vindictive acts was the immediate abolition of the reserve decoration, which several members of my family have been pleased to receive, and the territorial decoration, which several of my hon. Friends hold. Instead, there is the far less aspirational volunteer reserve medal, which has a qualifying period of 10 years, in contrast to the 15 years for long service and good conduct medal for naval ratings. Naval officers and, indeed, officers of all the regular forces, however, are left out. In Ministers’ half-baked attempt to address a particular issue in 1999, they left a great deal of unfinished business, so I hope that in the spirit of “all of one company”, they might like to look again at long service and good conduct medals.

I turn to the main gist of today’s debate, which is the British purple heart. The Prime Minister is no numismatist, as we gathered from his confusion over badges, medals and the difference between the two at the Dispatch Box last Wednesday. However, we learned in November that he is taken by the idea of a British version of the purple heart for those who have been wounded or killed, and it is reasonable to be guided by the wishes, aspirations and feelings of servicemen and those excellent organisations that represent them.

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