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Mr. Hancock: The hon. Gentleman is slightly mistaken about the cost. I believe that that applies to the Ministry of Defence, tooits estimate was £14 million, which is staggering and unbelievable. The hon. Gentleman is right to pursue the lack of joined-up government. The figures should be questioned.
Mr. McWilliam: The sum of £14 million was mentioned to the veterans but the medal manufacturers reckoned that the cost would be approximately £670,000. If the hon. Gentleman wants to add a few thousand pounds for administration, that is fine.
I want to underline my point about the politics of the matter, which the hon. Member for New Forest, East also mentioned. I received a letter from the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) in August 2002. It states:
"An approach was made by the Russian authorities in the early 1980s when their 40th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War Medal (also known more commonly as the Russian Convoy Medal) was offered to British ex-Servicemen by the Russian authorities. Originally instituted in 1985 and offered to British veterans shortly afterwards, permission was not granted for it to be accepted and worn at that time. Some years later, further official approaches by the Russians to the British Government through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were reconsidered. In 1994, the Queen"
"granted permission for this medal to be accepted and worn by eligible British citizens. This was considered acceptable in the light of changed circumstances in Russia since the medal was first issued".
We therefore have it from the Ministry of Defence that there was a significant change in circumstances. There has been enough pussyfooting. Let us honour those brave men, recognise their sacrifice and huge contribution to victory in the second world war, and give them their campaign star.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Let me take hon. Members back to the beginning of this afternoon's debate and the Minister's rightly long introduction about the celebrations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-day. As someone who was heavily involved in the 50th anniversary celebrations in this country and in France, I felt that, once again, both sides of the channel had done justice to the veterans. I was therefore sad that the Minister chose not to acknowledge the huge commitmentfinancially and in hospitalitythat the people of the city of Caen, the region of Normandy and the French Government offered to the veterans, their families and others who crossed the channel. It was a mistake that the Minister chose not to thank them for the enormous amount of work that went in to making the celebration and the commemoration such a meaningful event.
I know from personal experience of working with the governments of the city of Caen and of Lower Normandy for the 50th anniversary and, to some extent, on the celebrations on this side of the channel for the 60th anniversary, about the amazing amount of work that goes into ensuring that things move smoothly and swiftly. Wherever possible, every effort was made to accommodate the needs of the veterans. It is to the veterans' credit that they rightly acknowledge the hospitality and the warmth of the welcome that they receive every time that they go to Normandy. The people of France, especially in Normandy, have never forgotten the debt that they owe. They witness it every day along the streets and the byways in the countryside of Normandy when they pass the allied graves, which are sadly so numerous.
Mr. Caplin: In my day in France on Friday, I took the opportunity to thank the various mayors and the prefecture of the Lower Normandy region for their help and support. Indeed, in the meeting with the French Minister for veterans, I made clear on behalf of Her Majesty's Government our thanks for the help that we had received from the French Government during the preparations for that weekend.
I thank the Minister for his comments. It is right and proper that that was done, and I was sure that it would have been done, if not by him then by the
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Prime Minister. I am delighted that the Minister has now put the record straight in the House. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the people of my own city, who did a great deal, over three days, to offer hospitality, good will and all possible assistance to the veterans. Close on 50,000 people took part in the various activities last weekend in and around the city of Portsmouth, and we are mighty proud of our continuing association with the Normandy veterans and of the rightful recognition that people on both sides of the channel give them.
It is not often that we are privileged enough to have four real heroes in our presence, but we have that privilege today. Four members of the Arctic convoy campaign groupEddie Grenfell, Dave Nash, John Hobbs and Frank Sanders, all from the Portsmouth areahave come to the House today to listen to this debate. They travelled here in the optimistic hope that there would be a change of heart on the part of the Government. They have been campaigning for many years, and their ages add up to well over 300 years. Their service to the nation in the Royal Navy in various forms ranges from six to more than 30 years' commitment. All of them gave valiant service, such as that described by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), in the Arctic convoy campaigns, and several of them made more than one trip.
Many of the Royal Navy veterans whom the Minister met on the beaches at Arromanches last weekend were sailors who wore the Atlantic Star with pride. However, they were unable to wear with pride the medal that they should have received for the part that they played in the Arctic convoys. Instead, many of them wore with amazing pride the medal presented to them by the Russian Government. How right the hon. Member for Blaydon was to expose the shabby and shameless way in which those people have been treated. At first, the Government even resisted giving the men permission to wear the medal that the Russian people wanted them to have, but then allowed them to wear it when circumstances changed. That is the case here, is it not? Circumstances have changed. Perhaps only one or two Members here today will be able to remember a time when Russia was not perceived as the No. 1 enemy of this nation, but things have moved on. That is the only possible reason why those men were denied the justice and recognition that they deserved in 1946. There is no excuse for allowing this situation to continue.
I said in an intervention earlier that this matter was not an example of joined-up government. The hon. Member for Blaydon pointed out that one Department, the Foreign Office, advocated the award of that medal. I must also mention two senior members of the Government: the Home Secretary and the Chairman of the Labour partyalso a Cabinet Minister. I should like to quote the Chairman of the Labour party, who visited my constituency recently in an effort to boost Labour's chances in the European elections. He said that he understood the merits of this case, and that Arctic veterans were fully deserving of this recognition. He stated:
"Following my visit to Portsmouth, I will take this matter up with the defence secretary."
How can the present situation be right, when Members on both sides of the House, including the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of my party and two members of
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Her Majesty's Cabinet, support the justice of this case? A number of Labour Members have pointed to the justice of those men's case and said that the medal should be awarded.
Bob Russell: Does my hon. Friend recall that there was a similar obstruction to the Suez canal zone medal? Could quite simply the four worthy heroes not resolve this matter by seeking an audience with the Prime Minister? Quite clearly, he is the one who gave the go-ahead for the Suez medal.
Mr. Hancock: How I wish that it were so easy to arrange. I went with the Arctic veterans, along with two other Members of the House, to Downing street. What did we get? We got as far as the front door, which was enough to hand over a petition signed by 44,000 people and supported by my local newspaper, The News, which has led this campaign for justice.
How nice it would have been if a Minister had agreed to meet those veterans. It would have been nice if the Minister had met them in this country in his office. He met some of them when he shook hands on the beaches in France, but they were not offered hospitality when they asked for a meeting with a Minister two years ago and again last year.
I plead with the Minister not to sit back and rely on the answers given in previous debates. This is a simple request from people who put their lives on the line and who deserve the justice that the House knows they deserve. The only people saying no to themI am sure he is not saying noare bureaucrats who have forgotten the plot when it comes to honouring the heroes of this country. It is not too late to say, "We made a mistake and let's do it. Things have changed."
While we are discussing medals, I want to ask the Minister to give a firm assurance that every effort will be made to speed up the process of issuing the Suez medal. He was quick to say that the Prime Minister overturned the original decision, but it took a long time for him to have that change of heart. Time and again, Members of the House pleaded with Departments of State to do something to recognise the Suez campaign and the efforts of the men and women who took part in it. Like them, I am disappointed.
I was told as recently as yesterday that one of the reasons for the delay is the insufficiency of people who can properly engrave the medals. That is the excuse, but surely those people who have waited 50 years for this recognition should not have to wait another two years for the medal that is due to them. I hope we can make progress.
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