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Mr. Dalyell: Is not part of the problem, albeit only part of it, that the officials who took the original decisions have either been promoted or have retired? The present officials must look at documents from the past, rather than exercise a judgment. Of course, it has now come to light that the officials of the time appear—we cannot know the detail but it goes back to Lord Jauncey—not to have been entirely frank with the then Secretary of State, Malcolm Rifkind.

Mr. Hancock: I agree entirely. The Father of the House has desperately tried time and again to get
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recognition of that point. The former Secretary of State for Defence has made it clear that he got it wrong and that, had he been aware of the information that is available now, he would have overruled that decision. He has had the courage to say that. It is not often that politicians have the courage to say that they got it wrong.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the officials have either retired or been promoted. The Secretary of State should have the courage to say, "I shall not allow that mistake to continue. As the democratically elected principal head of the MOD, I will overturn that decision." That is what the public expect him to do, irrespective of the points made by bureaucrats or former air marshals about the merits of the case. The Secretary of State must know that there is a compelling case to which he should respond.

This debate has been useful. The Minister got plaudits from hon. Members on both sides of the House. They were well deserved for this weekend's performance probably, but I am not as generous as those who say that he is the best veterans Minister that we have ever had. We have only had two and the first one was a slightly difficult character to do business with. We should leave it at that. Nevertheless, he was a fair person.

I hope that, when he leaves office, the Minister will have the feeling that the House and veterans in the wider community are congratulating him not on the organisation of a commemorative event, important though that is, but on his commitment to veterans as individuals and to their families; on his commitment to natural justice, whether it is the award of a medal or proper compensation for accident or injury; and on his commitment that their families will be properly taken care of and their housing needs met.

It is a national scandal that the MOD still controls empty houses while ex-servicemen struggle to find somewhere to live in the same area. It is not just about Addington Homes; it is about how the MOD handles the housing issue. It needs to be more understanding and generous to its personnel and their families, because it has a duty of care to those inside and outside the service.

If, when the Minister leaves office, veterans queue up to pat him on the back and say, "Thank you; as an individual, you did a great service to the veterans' cause," I will have been wrong this afternoon and hon. Members who praised him will have been right. But I fear that we have a long way to go before the majority of veterans say that.

4.34 pm

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab): There is no doubt that one of the greatest stories of the second world war is that of the role played by the Merchant Navy, which suffered 30,189 deaths, 4,402 wounded and 5,264 missing. I offer no apology for returning to the subject raised time and again in this debate, of the worst test of the Merchant Navy's courage in having to suffer the hazards of the Arctic convoy route. There was the continual strain not only of the blizzards, ice and snow but of the relentless air and underwater menace. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) spelled out what that meant.

These men sailed in snowstorms, often in semi-darkness, as in that part of the world it can be pitch black for 24 hours, in sub-zero temperatures, sometimes
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as low as minus 40, and often with the spray from near misses from enemy bombs hitting the deck as ice. The 1941–45 Arctic campaign involved taking supplies of weapons, food, fuel and other resources to aid the red army in its courageous fight against the Nazis, which saved us. As has been said, without their bravery, D-day would have been impossible. Imagine what would have happened had the Soviet Union succumbed to the Nazi onslaught. I was struck by what the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said about his discussion with Betty Boothroyd, who said that she thought she would not have survived the second world war had the Russians succumbed.

When I look around the Chamber, I ask myself how many chaps, like me, actually lived through the second world war. I do not think that there are more than one or two. I lived for 14 months, in the period between the fall of France and the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, night after night in an air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. Liverpool, like London, was constantly blitzed.

Mr. McWilliam: I must have been the only baby who was evacuated to London. I was taken to London by my parents in 1942, when my father was sent to repair bomb damage to main cables, and I lived not far from Battersea power station, which was a major target.

Mr. Wareing: I have never heard of anyone being evacuated to London—clearly, someone had it in for my hon. Friend.

I lived on the wrong side of the ring road in Liverpool, beyond which one did not get evacuated, so I remained throughout the Blitz. The worst part was in the first eight days of May 1941, when we were bombed for eight consecutive nights.

I can remember more about those eight nights than I can about any eight nights in just the past week or so.

Such was the importance of the contribution of the red army that once the Nazis had turned their onslaught against the Soviet Union, our lives became much easier. Yes, there were some air raid warnings from time to time—the last was as late as December 1944, when it was feared that a V1 might come towards Merseyside. We were fortunate in that regard; it was the poor people of London who suffered from the V1s and V2s. They bore the brunt of that. But from the time when the Nazis turned their forces eastwards, our lives became easier. This might be difficult to appreciate now, but people in Liverpool used continually to say, "Thank God for the red army!" I grew up with the feeling that we owed it a debt. Indeed, I remember going to the cinema and seeing Lord Beaverbrook speak in Trafalgar square. Not many Tory politicians actually speak in Trafalgar square, but he did. I remember him saying that we must never forget the debt that we owed to the red army and to the Russian people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon referred to the siege of Leningrad, and it was that sort of heroism that carried Russia through the war and saved us. Of course, the Russians did not do that on their own. They depended to a considerable extent on the assistance that our people were giving through the Arctic convoys. I am pleased that the Portsmouth edition of The News took up the cudgels on behalf of the "Last Chance for
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Justice" campaign, because Portsmouth is the home of the Royal Navy. However, the people who sailed in the convoys were not only of the Royal Navy, and they did not come only from Portsmouth. I have a list of people from Liverpool who are still alive today and who served in the Royal Navy and the mercantile marine in those convoys, throughout that period.

Mr. McWilliam: I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend on such an important point, but is he aware that the difference between the mercantile marine and the Royal Navy at the time was that when a merchant ship went down, the crew's pay ceased immediately? Their families had nothing to rely on, and if a sailor ended up in a Russian hospital for six or eight months, there was nothing.

Mr. Wareing: I appreciate what my hon. Friend says. Of course, that time in hospital was not taken into account for any medal whatever—it would not even have qualified towards the Atlantic star, which those people were offered.

Throughout that time, the convoys sailed again and again with more than 3.5 million tonnes of war material to Murmansk and Archangel, while the red army, to use Winston Churchill's words, was

Yet despite the valour of our seamen in the Arctic convoy campaign, they are still refused the reward that they originally deserved. Reference has been made to the Russians showing their admiration of our seamen for their sacrifices by awarding them a commemoration medal. I was pleased to meet, with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), some of those veterans outside this place. The Russian medals that they were wearing were very distinctive, because Russian medal ribbons are rather different from those that we produce in Britain. Those veterans were wearing the medals very proudly. I am sure that they would be even prouder to be able to say that they had been honoured by their own country, but our country denies them that honour.

Explanation has already been given as to why the Atlantic star could be awarded only to the crews of some half dozen ships of the 670 that sailed in the Arctic waters. Many of the young people who served in the Merchant Navy in those horrendous conditions—we should remember that in those days, the school leaving age was 14—would have been 15 or 16.

I wonder whether any other Members have experienced the winds that blow in the north cape. I was fortunate enough to spend part of a holiday there during a parliamentary recess, when there was constant daylight. The winds take one's breath away, even in mid-summer. Imagine what those winds are like in the middle of winter, with temperatures of minus 40°.

Apart from the severe winter conditions, the Arctic convoys faced constant harassment from enemy bases in occupied Norway. In addition to its bombs and torpedoes, the Luftwaffe dropped mines ahead of the convoys. There was the constant danger of the big ships, such as the Tirpitz, coming out of Norwegian ports to overwhelm all but the heaviest escorts. For example, on
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2 July 1942, 38 merchant ships were attacked by the Tirpitz, and by aircraft and U-boats, in the area between the north cape and Spitzbergen. Some 829 British and allied Merchant seamen lost their lives on that route. Forty-one convoys went into Murmansk and Archangel with supplies. They were never more than 300 miles away from an enemy coastline studded with bomber bases. Only in that area could that be said of any convoy route.

Some 792 ships sailed outward and 62—7.8 per cent.—were lost. Some 739 ships sailed home and 28—3.8 per cent.—were lost. As I pointed out in an intervention on the hon. Member for New Forest, East, in the Atlantic, on the other hand, fewer than 1 per cent. of ships were lost. I am not belittling the battle of the Atlantic, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me earlier in this regard. Indeed, the battle headquarters was in Liverpool, so I by no means dishonour the memory of those who served in it. But there was a real difference, as I hope my explanation shows.

On the Arctic run, the Royal Navy lost two cruisers, six destroyers, three corvettes, three minesweepers and 1,840 men. Thirty per cent. of one convoy that sailed past the north cape was lost to U-boats and enemy aircraft. Charles Jarman, the then Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, told of an Arctic convoy of 40 ships, only three of which reached Murmansk.

Veterans have fought for their rights for decades, as we know. The "Last Chance for Justice" campaign was launched on 5 January and has been promoted by Portsmouth's The News. My own local press would support that campaign completely.

So far, however, there has been no positive response from the Government. If he had been allowed to get away with it, the Minister would have ignored the problem completely this afternoon. It was only when the matter was raised in this place that any consideration was given to this particular scandal—the lack of support for decent people who were willing to give their all, as some did, for the freedom of this country and the world. The cost of £14 million was mentioned, with others arguing that it could be only £0.5 million. I say, so what? My God, we spend more than that on this building every summer on work that often does not really need to be done. We could find £14 million quite easily.

The Government might ask for a little bit longer and then say that it all happened more than 50 or 60 years ago and the people involved are dying. Perhaps they would like to wait still longer for more people to die so that there would no longer be a campaign. If that is the Government's attitude, I think that it is disgusting.

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