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Mr. Hancock: The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. There are currently just about 2,000 survivors left out of the tens of thousandsI believe that there were about 30,000 crew memberswho served on those ships. We are running short of time to secure justice for those people, but the story will not end when the last one is dead, because their families will continue the fight, as will hon. Members in the House.
May I say that they would be quite right to do so? I would remind the Government, in case they think that time will somehow see the problem disappear,
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of what happened in 1853. Queen Victoria awarded a Royal Navy campaign medal, 38 years after Napoleon's final defeat at the battle of Waterloo. We should bear in mind the fact that life expectancy today is far greater than it was in 1853. My hope is that many of the 2,000 people to whom the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South referred will remain alive for many more years to come. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I hope that, before they depart from this planet, they will enjoy recognition by their country.
I suspect that it is not all simply the Minister's fault. I suspect that civil servants in the Humphrey style are saying that this is not the sort of thing that we usually do. [Interruption.] Sir Humphreyyes, we must give him his rightful honour, and he probably had his medal as well. There is a typical Sir Humphrey style and I can imagine civil servants telling the Minister that it is not the sort of thing that the Department does, that it all happened a long time ago, that precedent has to be considered, and so on and so forth.
I certainly hope that the Minister is in command of his Department. It is always useful for anyone who is to be a Minister and serve in a Government to read chapter 14 of Anthony Sampson's "Anatomy of Britain". He says that there are two types of Minister: the Minister who controls his Department, and the Minister who is controlled by his Department. I would like to think that the Minister in charge at the moment is one of the former rather than the latter Ministers. [Interruption.]
Dr. Lewis: Briefly, Portsmouth's The News was particularly upset about the fact that the Prime Minister promised that he would personally look into the matter and review it, but the review was carried out in the Ministry of Defence by the same two civil servants who were advising Ministers to say no all along. This time round, Ministers, if not the Prime Minister, should look into the matter personally.
Mr. Wareing: I completely agree. A petition of 44,000 signatures was submitted to 10 Downing street about two weeks ago. The Prime Minister has indicated that he is willing to look at it, and I hope that he does so. His position is very difficult, but the matter is worth looking at.
Mr. Hancock: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to misinform the House, as the Prime Minister said no to that further review. He did not say yes, but that he would stick by the decision that had been taken. That is the great sadness.
I was under the impression that the Prime Minister was giving the matter some
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consideration. However, so many representations have been made from hon. Members of all parties in this debate that it is clear that the issue arouses strong feelings. When he replies to the debate, I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health will say that he will take the matter on board. I know that he may not be able to promise anything today, but we are asking that the people involved receive the consideration that they deserve. The Arctic convoys helped the Russians to help us. If there had been a collapse in the east, D-day would never have happened.
My hon. Friend the Minister, who opened the debate, referred to the document prepared by his Department for hon. Members. I was pleased by that reference, as it is a very useful piece of work. I am glad that further such documents will be produced, on other issues. I note that the Minister begins his foreword to the document by quoting the words of Winston Churchill, who said:
"A nation that forgets its past has no future."
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing). I welcome this debate very much, and it may help the hon. Gentleman, and the House, to know that I am a Tory who has spoken on a number of occasions in Trafalgar square. However, I remain an ambitious politician, and do not want my side to know on which occasions I did so.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby said that there were two sorts of Ministerthose in control of their Departments, and those notbut I was a Minister for six and a half years and I had no Department at all. That must have reflected a certain lack of confidence in my skills, whatever they might have been. Finallyand I say this with some trepidationI am a Member of Parliament who was born well before world war two broke out.
I counted it a great honour to be invited to be an official guest at last Sunday's commemorative events in Normandy. I have made some calculations about who attended. Four Ministers were there, including the Prime Minister andquite properlythe Minister with responsibility for veterans' affairs, the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin). My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition was there, as were the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and that party's defence spokesman, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). Also present were the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defenceand me.
I did not know whether the Government made a mistake in inviting me, although mistakes are well known in ministerial circles. Perhaps they thought I was a Normandy veteran, but I hope that the reason for my invitation was that I instituted a debate on dealing with the commemorative aspects of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the D-day landings. I am very grateful for having the opportunity to go there.
"It has also been suggested that the Government could provide financial assistance to veterans for their transport and accommodation expenses. It would not be possibleneither would it be fairto be seen to provide assistance for one anniversary or group of veterans and not another."[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 11 November 2003; Vol. 413, c. 2930WH.]
"direct financial assistance is now available through the New Opportunities Fund"[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 February 2004; Vol. 418, c. 94WH.]
I applaud the Minister for that change of heart. He gives a good name to doing a U-turn. He changed his mind not out of any defensiveness or weakness, but to show magnanimity, and I applaud him for that.
The Heroes Return Fund was launched on 9 February to provide travel cost assistance to people going to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-day and visiting other countries where veterans served in the second world war. I also welcome the introduction of the free passports for those aged 75 and over. I also welcome the Veterans Reunited programme, through which children have the chance to join veterans in commemorating events. I applaud the Government for those initiatives and I hope that both sides of the House will join me in doing so.
I was deeply moved when I attended three particular events last Sunday. It was a long day for me, although I have no doubt that for the people involved 60 years before it was the longest day of their lives. The service in Bayeux cemetery was attended by Her Majesty the Queen and President Chirac of France. As I went through the entrance, I passed some gravestones. The first gave a name and continued:
"Died 6 June 1944, aged 20".
Then we moved on, as the Minister will know, to the international gathering on the hilltop at Arromanches, attended by 17 heads of state, including Her Majesty the Queen, President Chirac, President Bush and President Putin. I was delighted to see that Herr Schröder, the Chancellor of Germany, was also present. The third event was the UK-onlyif I may put it that wayevent in Arromanches town square, facing the beach, at which Her Majesty the Queen reviewed the 800 or so veterans as they marched past. That was a hugely moving occasion.
I also had the opportunity during the day to meet some Barnet members of the Normandy Veterans Association, including the chairman of the north London branch, Mr. Terry Burton. I am proud to have such people as my constituents, as we all are. We have deep gratitude for the sacrifices made by so many people. As Her Majesty the Queen said, there are 22,000 Commonwealth graves in Normandy alone.
"One of the most pleasing aspects of the celebrations was the perception of the younger generations. I believe that the 60th anniversary celebrations have awakened their interest, and that
Though this will probably be the last major celebration in Normandy, we must continue, through the services that will be held in our own country, to remember those who fought for our country. The sacrifices made by the thousands of men and women who fought in Normandy mean Britain and Europe continue to enjoy freedom from tyranny."
I welcome the appointment of a Minister for veterans' affairs and the initiatives taken so far. They are only a start but the Government have made a good move. I welcome, too, the Public Accounts Committee's call for speedier pension pay-outs for war veterans, and the idea of lapel badges. They will be a source of pride for the many veterans who want to wear them and will, in time, give greater public recognition; if only inquisitively, some younger people may ask, "What is that badge?"
I want to comment briefly on some topical issues. The first is the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill. I do not want to revisit all the arguments, but I ask the Government to consider three points. The first is the deadline for pension applications regarding disabilities attributable to service in the armed forces. I am critical of the proposal to reduce the period from seven years after leaving the service to five years from the incident. Will the Government think again about that?
"on the balance of probabilities".
Will the Government consider seriously the point made by the Royal British Legion that such a change could cut the number of applications by up to 50 per cent? I realise that the Government do not accept that figure, but I ask them to look into the likely effects of a change.
Finally, in relation to the Bill, there is no question but that some widows face great hardship, which could be remedied without spending too much moneynot that that should be the benchmark for whether they should be helped. I remind the Minister that in the last year alone the number of those widows fell from 48,000 to 46,000.
Like many other Members, I want to touch on Gulf war syndrome. As has been mentioned, one possible cause is the cocktail of vaccinations that was given to members of the armed services before they left for the first Gulf war. They seem to have been vaccinated against everything from anthrax to yellow fever, sometimes only 24 hours before their departure. In some cases, the vaccinations led to a number of conditions, including osteoporosis and depression. Either it is wrong to give multiple injections over a short period or such a cocktail of vaccinations compounds the remote chance of adverse side effects.
Of course, I realise that there are other possible causes of Gulf war syndrome: depleted uranium poisoning, the pesticides used to control flies, and pollution from oil fires. However, although I have no medical qualifications, my gut feeling is that the cocktail of vaccinations was probably the main contender, simply due to the fact that some men who received the
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vaccinations were affected even though they did not go to the Gulf. Will the Government continue to inquire into the matter?
It would be a fool who did not add his voice to the request that the Government look again at the award of the Arctic convoy medal. I have sympathy for Ministers; if they make an exception and bring in a medal, the floodgates will open. However, the evidence is so overwhelming in this case that I certainly give my support to the issue of an Arctic convoy medal.
Perhaps more importantly, because I want to be constructive, I believe that we need a new policy on the award of medals in future. Ideally, that policy should be understandable, unambiguous, rational and acceptable. If it is possible to achieve that, I would give the Government my full support in reviewing the issue. In this day and age, when awards are made or medals are struck, we should consider the role of civilians, as well as the armed services, in armed conflict.
I was interested to hear the Minister's wide-ranging definition of "veterans", which embraced about 13 million people. It is more comfortable to belong to a bigger minority than a smaller one. The way in which we treat our veteransthe soldiers, sailors and airmen of yesteryearis not unrelated to the recruitment and retention of our armed forces personnel today. They are entitled to have confidence that when they have given service to our country, they will not be forgotten; and if they give their lives in the service of our country, we have a special obligation to their widows and loved ones.
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