Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.[Mr. Watson.]
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley, in the removed Westminster Hall. The subject that I have been lucky enough to have had selected for debatethat of pardons for British soldiers executed in the first world warcontinues to generate great public interest and controversy. It was not only a controversial subject at the time, more than 90 years ago; there has been a continuing campaign that seeks pardons either for individuals or for all the men who were executed while serving in the British Army or the Commonwealth armies during the first world war. It is regarded as a question not only of natural justice, but of humanitarian concern.
Having been interested in the subject for more than 30 years, I have concluded that the debate about pardons for British soldiers executed in the first world war is not a narrow debate about just those men, British military justice and the way in which the British Army performs. There is also a continuing debate about Britain's coming to terms with the first world war. Whatever the evidence at the time and the continuing work of historians, those of us who have been involved in the issue as historians realise that any attempt to influence wider public opinion on the first world war or pardons for British soldiers executed in that war comes up against powerful and popular cultural images, which have helped to define at least public perception. I am thinking of the impact some 30 years ago of the play and then the film "Oh! What a Lovely War" and some 15 years ago of the series "Blackadder Goes Forth". Whatever historians have attempted to say about British generals in the first world war, and there is a case to be made, the image of Stephen Fry playing General Melchetta bovine man of intense stupidity callously sending tens of thousands of young men to their deathsis incredibly difficult to overcome.
Let me declare an interestfirst, as a military historian. Many years ago, when I had as my father-in-law would say a real job and before I became a Member of Parliament, I researched and wrote a number of books connected with the first world war. In the early 1970s, I was lucky enough to interview several hundred veterans of that war who of course even then were in their 70s and 80s. One question, among many others, that I invariably asked them concerned their attitude towards the men who were executed in the first world war for desertion, cowardice and so on. The survivors of that war had an ambivalent attitude towards those executions. That is borne out by the archives at the Imperial war museum, whether oral or written. It was possible to find large numbers of men who, at the time
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and in their old age, regarded the executions as wrong, vindictive and not achieving their objective of deterring people from running away, but equally I found large numbers of veterans who were bitter. They might not necessarily condone the fact that ultimately the men were executed, but they were bitter that some men decided to abscond and, as they saw it, did not do their duty and let their muckers down. That is an equally balanced view.
Following that research, I was involved in getting a minor classic on the first world war republished in 1986. I am referring to a book that was originally published anonymously in 1938, "The War the Infantry Knew", an account of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the first world war based entirely on letters and diaries of officers and those of other ranks. The core part of the book was the diaries of the battalion medical officer, the formidable Captain James Churchill Dunn, Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross and Bar, Distinguished Conduct Medalthat related to his time as a trooper in the yeomanry in the South African war.
I had always imagined that Dr. Dunn was, frankly, a rather tough old bastard. A particular image was given by the contemporary accounts from those who served with him. I am thinking of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Private Frank Richards, who was one of the few pre-war regular working-class soldiers to leave a real memoirit was tarted up by Robert Graves, but "Old Soldiers Never Die" gives a real view from the ranks. I was to discover that Dr. Dunn was probably a more sensitive and perceptive man than I had ever imagined. Interestingly, through his diaries, he gives a number of accounts of his views on morale and discipline and of how his own courage leached away in the course of continuous soldiering and participating in major battles. He served as a regimental medical officer continuously for nearly two years. Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, brave men as they were, flitted in and out of combat, unlike the bulk of the British Army.
Dr. Dunn was one of only two regimental medical officers to give evidence in 1922 to what we now call the shell shock committee. There are virtually no first-hand evidence accounts of the questionnaire surviving. Dr. Dunn's, however, does survive, because it was in his papers. Despite being a sensitive man, he was absolutely convinced of the deterrent value of executing those who wilfully deserted and absconded; he believed in the deterrent effect. I am not suggesting that just because that was the view of one regimental medical officera man of considerable experience who was sensitive enough to recognise what battle stress was; he used to withdraw soldiers from the front line to rest thema case should be based on it against the campaign that seeks pardons for British soldiers executed in the first world war. I am trying to illustrate my background interest in the subject.
When I became a junior Front-Bench defence spokesman in June 1998, my first Front-Bench speaking role, within a few days, was to respond to a statement by the then Minister for the Armed Forces, who is now the Secretary of State for Defence, on the review of pardons for soldiers executed in the first world war. It is interesting that, in the 1970s, a large number of Labour Members then in opposition felt very strongly that the then Conservative Government and previous Labour
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Governments had been far too secretive about the records relating to the men executed and that the likelihood was that there had been a cover-up.
The Minister of State in 1998 carried out a very comprehensive review. As he said in his statement, he personally examined about one third of the files. He interviewed many people, including historians and relatives, and he concluded in 1998 that there was not a legal case to pardon those who had been found guilty and executed. However, the Government were moved to say that they regretted what had happened. It is interesting that someone whom I suspect before he looked into the matter was predisposed to consider that there was a strong case the other way concluded at the time, after an exhaustive survey, that there was not necessarily such a case.
I am speaking here today because we are now eight years on. I am not saying that just because the Government had a review and said then that there was not a case that there will never be a case. I am not persuadedit was my considered view then and still is todaythat there is a case for retrospective pardon. My view is still based on a reluctance to rewrite history without real evidence. I am not in any way suggesting that those who are advocating pardons for those executed during the first world war are arguing this, but there is a case that such pardons could apply to other periods in history involving the British armed forces. There is strong feeling about the issue in the first world war because it is close and real, and there are still surviving members of families of those who were executed, but there is certainly a case to be argued that we could consider those British soldiers who were executed during active service in, for example, the Peninsular war, to see whether at the time similar criteria could be applied and that they did not know that they were suffering from post-traumatic stressalthough they would not have understood at the time what that meant.
I want to draw out the Minister on the point that the evidence at the time was more complicated than some popular historians have made out and that each individual case is different, which creates a major problem. That does not mean that all of us who are involved in this debate are not moved by what must be the trauma of the families who have discovered that a grandfather, a father or an uncle was found guilty of a capital offence and executed. It has moved many members of the public, and I can understand why; it is a natural feeling.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I have followed with huge interest what he has had to say so far. Are there not many different individual reasons why soldiers were executed? I understand that some war memorials have named those who were executed, but in other communities a decision has been taken not to do so. The sensitivity that he brings to the debate is hugely important.
Mr. Simpson : I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. On the whole, all hon. Members who have been involved in this debate have been sensitive, because
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that is the feeling among the public. His point about communities' reactionsI may come back to thisis understandable. My sense is that in the aftermath of the second world war certainly those families who had knowledge that their husband, father or grandfather had been executed frequently wanted to keep quiet about it. It was the military equivalent in that period of an unwanted pregnancy. It was something that people felt ashamed of and did not want to talk about.
Over the past 15 years, there has been a sustained campaign in this country and in Commonwealth countries for formal pardons for those executed, and since the Government's review of 1998 that campaign has continued. Any belief that the Ministry of Defence had that the review would somehow stop the debate was, as I said at the time, highly unlikely. The purpose of my debate is to enable us to question the Minister about Government policy and whether it has changed, or is likely to change, as a consequence of either new evidence or information, legal proceedings, or sustained lobbying.
The interest of parliamentarians in the issue and the emotions that it arouses could be seen last week when there was a question in the other place and, it would be fair to say, their lordships gave the Minister for Defence Procurement a hard time at the Dispatch Box. It applies not only to this House but to the other place. As much as anything else, that question prompted me to apply for this debate.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I echo what the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) said about the measured way in which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is presenting the debate; the broad sweep of the historian is present, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on the way in which he is conducting it. Before he moves on to recent events, may I raise the question of the case for an overall pardon, for which there has been strong lobbying? Both hon. Gentlemen have made the point that there may be distinctions to be drawn between individuals. Would there be any real reason why the statutory body, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, as an expert body that regularly refers cases back to the Court of Appeal and, equally, refuses many, should not be asked to look at all the files and to come to a view? Would that be better than the Secretary of State doing so?
Mr. Simpson : I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that intervention. I know that she put that very matter as a written question to the Minister's predecessor a couple of years ago, and got an answer that was not in the affirmative. That question should not so much be put to me, as it is an option. My personal viewI should be interested to hear the Minister'sis that, so far as I know, not only is each case different, but the material relating to each case is different. Some files are very comprehensive, but others consist only of one sheet of paper. I am putting my conclusion before I have developed my arguments, but I have concludedthis may not be the final conclusion of the High Courtthat we decide to pardon either everybody or nobody. There are, I suspect, major problems, and I refer the hon. and learned Lady's questionwhile in no way avoiding itto the Minister.
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Since 1998, we have seen a number of developments, which I should like briefly to take hon. Members through. In November 2000, an important psychological threshold was crossed when relatives of those executed were allowed to participate in the Remembrance day ceremonies at the cenotaph. As my hon. Friend pointed out, many but not all local communitieseven in this regard they have been dividedhave decided to add to war memorials the names of those who were executed in the first world war. I think that I am right in saying that there are one or two examples of the names of those who were executed already appearing on war memorials in the 1920s and 1930s. I have not had time to check this, but the name of the only Norfolk man to be executedPrivate John Abigail of the 8th Norfolk Regiment, who was a volunteer who deserted more than once and who was executed in 1917appears on the wooden panels of St. Augustine's church in Norwich. Having seen a photograph, I think that that predates the contemporary debate. However, that was an important watershed.
In October 2004, the Irish Government formally submitted to the United Kingdom Government a report seeking a pardon for 26 Irish soldiers who were executed. They were from both the north and the south, Catholic and Protestantthose who served in the demonstrably Protestant 36th Ulster Division and the overwhelming Catholic 16th Irish Division. I shall come back to that, but I understand that the report is lying on the table and that the Ministry of Defence has not yet formulated a considered reply. Obviously, there are contemporary political sensitivities relating to that.
In May 2005, a case was brought before the High Court by the family of Private Harry Farr, seeking a full posthumous pardon. It was brought in the name of his daughter, who is now aged 92, who must be one of the relatively few surviving immediate relatives. That case has been adjourned while the Ministry of Defence considers further submissions by the family. I recognise that I should not get into the weeds of that case because it is, at present, sub judice.
In November 2005, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)alas, he is not in his usual place; like Charles II, he is on his travels abroad, with the Foreign Affairs Committee, but his heart is here in this room even as we speakintroduced a new version of his private Member's Bill, which in effect has been introduced and reintroduced since 1993, seeking a pardon for soldiers of the great war. In 2000, the New Zealand Government passed an Act to pardon soldiers of the great war, which related to five New Zealand soldiers who were executed. That was a no-holds-barred, absolute retrospective pardon. In July 2005, the New Zealand Prime Minister presented the relatives of those soldiers with any outstanding medals, decorations and certificates. The New Zealand Government have gone the whole hog. Interestingly, to compare and contrast, in December 2001, the Canadian Government debated the issue and offered a formal apology to 23 Canadians who had been executed, but stopped short of granting statutory pardons.
In three countriesthe United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canadawe have three variations: there has been no apology and no pardon directly from the United Kingdom Government, but there has been a
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motion of regret, which is as near as possible to an apology; in New Zealand, there has been a complete apology and a restitution of all civil rights, if I may put it that way; and the Canadian Government have made an apology, but have not granted a statutory pardon.
Interestingly, there are dogs that have not barked in this case. As far as I understand, no request has yet been received from the South African Government for those who would now be constituted citizens of South Africa who were executed during the first world war. I will not touch on the subject of other Commonwealth citizens who were also executed under military law during the first world war. There are half a dozen in relation to Nigeria and the West Indies, and, of course, several hundred who were in the old Indian army. Several dozen were executed as a consequence of a mutiny in Singapore in 1915. It will muddy the waters if we get on to that area.
A vast amount of popular and academic literature and many TV documentaries have been produced since 1998. In my considered opinion, the two best books, which do not quite present the arguments for and against, but which complement each other, are Catherine Corns's and John Hughes-Wilson's "Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War", which was published in 2001, and Dr. Gerard Oram's "Military Executions During World War I", which was published in 2003 and which has the advantage of comparing and contrasting what happened in the French and the German armies, as well.
Having sketched out the background, let me come to the core of what I wish to address. I want to ask the Minister some specific questions to see what, if anything, has changed since 1998. First, has his Department discovered any new official documents relating to the courts martial and executions of these men? Secondly, have any of the files relating to the 3,000-plus men sentenced to death but reprieved been discovered? I understand that all those files were destroyed at some point in the inter-war period. This is an important issue; the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) will be aware of it. There would be a control mechanism if we had available the 3,000 files relating to those people found guilty but reprieved. We do not know why they were reprieved. We have only one side of the argument. Thirdly, have any other official documents or has any other contemporary evidence been produced by other Departments or by individual citizens since 1998 that is directly relevant to the central question? Finally, has the Government's legal opinion changed since 1998?
Obviously, a serious challenge to the Government's opinion as stated in 1998 is the High Court case involving Private Harry Farr. I know that this may be difficult for the Minister to answer and he may very well say that it is a hypothetical question, but can he confirm that if a final ruling finds in favour of the familythat there will be some form of pardon, even if it is a conditional pardonthat would effectively set a precedent for all the other cases, or, as the hon. and learned Lady suggested, would the Ministry of Defence have to consider some form of tribunal that would assess each individual case as the case of Private Harry Farr has been assessed?
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I understand the political sensitivities of this matter, but the MOD has now had just over a year to study the report of the Irish Government covering the cases of the 26 Irish soldiers. A copy of the report was leaked to the Sunday Mirror and there are various extracts from it on the internet. I have to saythis is a personal view and I admit that I have not read the full reportthat it struck me less as a legal, historical document than as an emotional polemic aimed at the British Government. Does the Minister intend publicising the report as soon as possible? It has already been partly leaked to the press and it might be helpful if we saw the full report.
Given that a year has now gone by, when is it likely that an answer will be given to the Irish Government about the report? Will the British Government's reply be placed in the public domain? If the British Government were to accede to the request of the Irish Governmentif they recognise that the Irish Government have presented a case and the 26 Irish soldiers effectively get some form of pardonwould the British Government's opinion be that that would set a precedent across the board for other national groupings? After all, what about the Scots and the Welsh? Given the Minister's background, it may interest him to know that, of those found guilty and condemned to death during the first world war, 10 per cent. were from England, 10 per cent. were from Ireland, 12 per cent. were from Scotland and 14 per cent. were from Wales. An incredible 22 per cent. were from New Zealand. What do those statistics mean? I suspect, in isolation, not a lot, but one can see the potency behind different groups arguing for their specific cases.
There is a final point connected with Ireland. I recognise that this does not fall directly into the category of those executed in the first world war. Does the Minister know whether any formal request has ever been made by the Irish Government for formal pardons to be given to those 15 Irishmen convicted by British Army tribunals in 1916 and executed following the Easter rising? They were convicted and executed for a rebellion that, as far as I understand from reading the best, most recent accountProfessor Charles Townshend's "Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion"was fully covered under military law at the time. I realise the sensitivity of the matter, but I think that we are now into this area.
The purpose of my debate, apart from the opportunity to put a series of questions to the Minister, is to allow colleagues who may have different views to contradict what I have said, perhaps to press strongly for a pardon or a partial pardon and to ask similar questions. I am still unpersuaded by the case for a pardon, but I have an open mind. If I could be persuaded, perhaps I would be. There is now an opportunity for the Minister to explain his Department's current position and whether it has changed since 1998, and to ensure that my questions and those of other hon. Members receive due attention.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I repeat the congratulations that I have already offered to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on having
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obtained the debate at what he rightly says is an important time, on the manner in which he has expressed his interest in it, and on the measured way in which he set out the position as he sees it. The broad sweep of the historian was very much in evidence, and I hope that the narrow focus of the law will not muck it all up.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on only one or two small things. One is his reaction on having the privilege of interviewing first world war soldiers to some of them saying, in effect, "I put up with it; I served well. They ran away, why shouldn't they have suffered punishment?", even if they did not necessarily say that the others should have been executed. One does not necessarily want the state to have that reaction. It is a similar argument to that of those who say that they accept that 60 per cent. of criminals are from poor backgrounds, and that they have had problems with their parents, but that a lot of people have had that and they do not go to the wrong. That is a natural human reaction, but the state has to consider the justice of the case of each individual who was killed. This is an issue of justice. That is why I, as somebody who no doubt perpetrated many injustices in my former career as a lawyer, have an interest in it.
I cannot go any further without speaking of my comrade-in-arms on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has a proud history of fighting on the subject. When I looked backI had only a brief opportunity to do soto prepare for the debate, I found that it is over a decade since he started to argue this case. He argues it with ferocity and diligence, and with a great deal of strength. He is very sorry not to be here for the debate. He is, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, obliged to be on parliamentary duties elsewhere. My hon. Friend and I had a short conversation about the matter and if I had a message to pass on from him it would be that he has not changed his mind. That is pretty manifest in that as recently last December, on Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill, he again put forward the case for an outright pardon.
Those who were executed were, by and large, executed for offences such as cowardice, desertion and sleeping at their posts. These days, such allegations would always be looked at through the prism of a better understanding of psychiatry and psychology and the impact on people of trauma than could possibly have existed then.
My attention was brought to the issue in 2001, shortly after I was elected to represent Redcar, by a Middlesbrough family who include an elderly lady who is, I think, the great-niece of a man who was shot at dawn for just such an offence. I had the privilege of meeting John Hipkin, who has for a very long time run a campaign called "Shot at Dawn". He is now well into his 70s, but is nevertheless present on every occasion on which he thinks he can have an influence and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, he is very loyal to his cause.
I met the woman and came down to London to walk with "Shot at Dawn" in the Armistice day parade on 11 November 2002. I talked to her about why she was still troubled by what seemed like an old injury to a family, most of whom were now dead. She said that, when young, her relativehon. Members will have to excuse
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me for not remembering whether it was her aunt, her great-aunt or her motherhad been completely shunned by her contemporaries because her father, or uncle, had been executed as a traitor. The family were in disgrace; they were not to rear their heads and were not entitled to have an opinion or any share in the community on account of that event. It was clear that the relative had passed on to her descendent the recollection of that experience. I cannot possibly bring it to life, but most people with a grain of imagination will be able to work out what it must have been like for her.
The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk spoke of "Oh! What a Lovely War". One of my earliest visits to London was as a teenager to see the filmI am not so old that I go back to the time of Joan Littlewood's production. It was a notable film and made the point that the first world war was, in a sense, a war of vaudeville patriotism. Patriotism was at a great emotional height then. People encouraged their young men to sign up as an act of gallantry. We have all seen the poster that says "Your Country Needs You." It would have been a great source of pride to people to be able to say, "My son is a soldier" or "My boyfriend is joining up." In that context, one can understand how it must have impacted on families to hear that those people had been shot at dawn, apparently for treacherous offences.
I accept that it is pretty unlikely that all 306 soldiers were simply suffering from trauma. There might well have been wrongdoing and a mixed bag of circumstances, but the fear that there has been injustice persists. Many, many people who heard of the eventsI looked at some cuttings overnighttalked about those who had been shot and knew that they were not cowards and that they must have been traumatised.
There is an account of a villageFulstow, near Louth in Lincolnshire, which is not on my patchthat has finally decided to mark Armistice day. Because Private Charles Kirman was shot at dawn for cowardice and the whole village would not put his name on the war memorial, they would not allow any reference to be made to the first world war in the village hallwhich was built in memory of second world war veteransand would not hold any kind of Armistice day event until it was agreed that his name should go on to the war memorial. Indeed, descendents of his mates who had been killed in action would not support the honouring of the names of their fathers or uncles until Private Kirman's name was honoured too. There are clearly some powerful cases that require a strong examinationand a stronger examination than that which has already been carried out.
I do not speak for "Shot at Dawn". I readily appreciatethe hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk has also made the pointthat there are likely to be good and bad cases among this group of men. However, granted the lack of understanding of psychiatric matters; granted the haste in which the cases were held; granted that there was no appeal against verdicts that were brought about in the field at courts martial; and granted that it is asserted repeatedly by the campaign that even the right to appeal to the King for clemency was not an effective right, it is almost inevitable that injustices occurred. It is a painful sense of injustice to relatives and it is not right that we should tolerate them. I do not want to use emotive language, but they are something of a stain on our justice system.
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Let me turn to what I know a bit about: the way in which the law generally deals with old cases that it considers to have been unjustly tried. Some years ago, I was involved in the Ashley King case in the Court of Appeal and that set down the parameters. The rule is that even if the law was correctly applied as it stood on the day on which the trial occurred, if the way in which we have moved on, reinterpreted justice and improved on things throws the light of injustice on how the law worked in the old days, we should view those old facts through the better prism of justice that has subsequently evolved. If we were to do that, which is merely the ordinary civil law way of going on, some of the surviving people would be relieved of their pain by understanding what happened. If they were to find that their forebears had behaved in the way alleged, in a way they would not be any worse off, as they have already suffered pain. On the other hand, there will be people who have wrongly suffered that pain and who deserve to have matters put right before their lives end.
I admire, respect and have a huge amount of time for the Secretary of State for Defence, who diligently carried out a review of these cases as well as he possibly could as recently as 1997, which ran into 1998. Of course, that has not stopped the campaign, put an end to the pain or stopped the air of secrecy that surrounds this whole area, and it never will as long as it is done by a member of the Government, however well disposed and well intentioned it is. It is a judicial rather than an Executive function to consider how cases were tried and whether they should be overturned. That is the huge flaw in the way in which the matter has been tackled so far. I wonder whether the right way forward is to see whether the Criminal Cases Review Commission is an appropriate body to deal with these matters.
The CCRC was set up in 1995 to take over from a Home Office department that had been, frankly, discredited because it was intended to look at miscarriages of justice that were alleged still to exist after final appeals had been exhausted, but it was perceived as being part of the Home Office and terribly close to the police and so not at all impartial. It did not refer many cases, and when it did it was many years later. The CCRC is a completely independent, non-departmental public body set up to review such cases. It reviews them on an application basis. When someone says that they are not guilty even though the Court of Appeal says that they are, and even if they have been to the House of Lords and had no satisfaction, the CCRC can take on and consider such cases or reject them; whichever it thinks fit. If it takes on a case and sends it back to the Court of Appeal, the case must be heard by a court to determine whether there was an injustice and whether the verdict should be overturned. It sounds cumbersome, but it produces reasonable justice in the end. I wonder if that is not the right tribunal to consider these cases at first instance.
I value highly what the Secretary of State said about there being scant evidence about what happened in some cases. That point was reflected in what the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said. However, there will have been rules about the way in which the courts martial should have been run. There are certain questions to ask in an appellant system. Do the facts justify the outcome? Would there be a psychiatric defence now and can we sense whether that is right? Were the procedures
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followed properly? Even if they were, were they just enough when we look at them through the prism of justice as it is now? Even in a case in which there is only a little bit of documentation, experts might discern something from it. If the CCRC were to consider all such cases, there might come a tipping point at which it became fairly clear that procedures were not being followed in the way in which campaigners have always alleged that they never were. We might then be in a position to look for a holistic pardon for the entire group.
My guess is that there is a reservation about whether the CCRC has the power to consider the decisions of old courts martial. If it does not, that is not necessarily an insurmountable problem. Perhaps it could consider these cases if someone from this House, or possibly a cross-party group, makes an application for it to do so. If there is a need for a minor change in the law so that it can review such cases, there is an omnibus, Christmas-tree Home Office Bill coming soon that could easily accommodate a short clause, which need not necessarily be controversial, to permit that change.
The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk talked about the issue being raised in the other place recently. It was raised by my noble Friend Lord Dubs, who talked about New Zealand having passed an Act to permit such convictions to be overturned. Lord Drayson, speaking on behalf of my Government, I suppose, replied,
"the House will recognise that we have looked thoroughly for a legal solution to this matter, and we have not found such a legal solution to provide a pardon."[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 January 2006; Vol. 677, c. 6.]
It sounds as though the political will is present in the Government to take the issue on a bit more. If there is no legal solution of the type that I have outlined, it is not a matter of major difficulty to bring one about by a short and simple change in the law. I urge the Government to reconsider this matter and to acknowledge the hard work put in by the Secretary of State and that this is a judicial issue, which should be tackled roughly in the way in which I suggest.
Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I remind hon. Members that we will begin the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I appreciate that warning, Mr. Bayley.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on his consistency on this issuebeing present when it is debated and discussedand on the excellent way in which he presented his point of view, although it is not one that I share. There is an issue that goes beyond what he explained about the traditions of natural justice in this country and what the overwhelming majority of people feel is a realistic approach in today's society. By any means, most of us agree that what happened was an appalling outcome in the circumstances. No stone should be left unturned; if a change in the law is required to give those men pardons, then that is what should happen.
I agree with virtually everything that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said, except her comments about putting this matter to the Criminal
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Cases Review Commission. The problem is that there would not be consistency of evidence, so some cases would get a thorough going over, some of which might end up with a pardon being granted, but, sadly, that opportunity would not be present in many cases. We know the likely problems from previous examinations and from what the Secretary of State told us in 1998, when he had fastidiously gone through the documentation and considered the cases. I remember conversations we had in his office in which he said what an emotional rollercoaster he was on when he read the cases; he had a picture of his relatives who had served in the first world war on the bookcase in his office. He said, "I read these papers and looked at these pictures and could not fail to be emotionally involved in the situation." He also said that there was such scant information available in some instances that it was impossible to go one way or the other, which would be unfair to the cause and to the majority of the people involved.
Vera Baird : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; it is good to discuss points as they are raised. I am sure that what he says is the situation, but would any damage follow from the CCRC using its expertise to consider as exhaustively as possible all the cases that it could, and the Government having to make their mind up about whether to grant pardons in the remaining cases? That would be a quick way of getting through the issue and of offering some succour to people before they die.
Mr. Hancock : I would agree entirely with that if the end result was that the Government were willing to consider the cases that could not be given the sort of scrutiny that the CCRC would undoubtedly give them, and that the benefit of the doubt would then be given in those cases by the Government bringing forward a one-clause Bill to grant the pardons.
Twenty-odd years ago, when I was first elected to the House, I met some of the families of the people concerned, whom I met again in 1998. I also recollect members of my family telling me about their experiences in the first world war. One of the family members whom I spoke to some 20 years ago told me about the case of his father. He came from a small market town from which they all went off to war together. He was a 22-year-old with two children and with him went three of his brothers, one of whom had lied about his age and joined the Army at the age of 15, and who was killed within two weeks of being in France. Those were tragic circumstances.
It was a close-knit community and the overwhelming majority of the male population under 30 joined the Army. Those who came back did so with stories of what had happened and about the execution of the person with whom they had grown up, gone to school and gone to war. It was much like the situation in the village in Lincolnshire, but people talked. The family did not tell people what had happened, but all the other men who returned told their families.
The chap who I talked to told me what it was like to go to school with the other boys. I can remember it from after the second world war: I went to school and a boy in my class whose father had won the Victoria cross came into school with the VC in his pocket. The man
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told me that boys would come to school with the medals that their fathers had received for serving in the first world war and that they all gave him a bad time, talking about his family and him. He explained in graphic detail what it was like for the family and how the stigma stayed with them. His mother had great difficulty facing the local community, but because the family had no means to move away they had to live with it. They lived with it for the rest of their lives.
We have an opportunity. I shall quote what the then Minister for the Armed Forces, the present Secretary of State, said about Armistice day in 1998. By ironic coincidence, he was speaking at 11 minutes past 11, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) pointed out to the House at the time. The right hon. Gentleman said:
"For some of our soldiers and their families, however, there has been neither glory nor remembrance. Just over 300 of them died at the hands not of the enemy, but of firing squads from their own side. They were shot at dawn, stigmatised and condemneda few as cowards, most as deserters. The nature of those deaths and the circumstances surrounding them have long been a matter of contention. Therefore, last May, I said that we would look again at their cases. The review has been a long and complicated process".[Official Report, 24 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 1372.]
He went on to say that because there was no compelling legal ability to deal with the problem, the situation would be much as it stands: the Government would regret that it happened, but there would be no chance of relieving the pain. That is why the hon. and learned Member for Redcar was so right to talk not about justice but about the pain that families and others have suffered through the injustice. We cannot put that right but we can by some measure adopt what the New Zealanders did. We should not try to judge each case on its merits, but say that in today's circumstances it would be inconceivable for such situations to have arisen and to have been dealt with in such a way.
I remember my grandfather saying that only enlisted men were shot, never officers. He said that it was a class thing. Officers who did not go to fight were merely sent home. Few of them ever stood any sort of trial and excuses were always found. I do not want to suggest that it was a class thing, but it is something that our generationmine and yours, Mr. Bayleycan do something about.
None of us could possibly imagine what those young men went throughand many were very young. Some of those who were executed had been in and out of the front line for more than three years. Many had served with distinction; some had been put up for awards at some time during their career. Some, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, had been involved in incidents that probably would have meant some punishment from the unit commander or under the regulations of the British Army. However, it is inconceivable that any of us could say hand on heart that we would not have reacted in a similar vein in such circumstances.
Some 20,000 people were convicted of some form of cowardice or desertion, but 300 paid the ultimate price. The circumstances that led to their being executed included the character of the commanding officer or brigade commander who ultimately made the decision, or the way in which the war was going at the time. As the hon. Gentleman said, examples had to be made. All
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circumstances were different at different times during the war, and those people were certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Circumstances compounded to make their situation even worse.
If the House is worth anything to our society in trying to deliver relief for the pain that the families have gone through, we surely have to respond in what most reasonable people in this country believe to be the right way. In my opinion, that can only be through a full pardon as a result of a change in our legal system. We cannot reconsider the cases. The Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State, to their credit, went everywhere they could to find a way out for us all, but could not do so within the current framework. The matter will be resolved only in the manner suggested by the hon. and learned Lady, with the Government reacting, or by the Minister being courageous enough to give the benefit of the doubt to all 306 and to table legislation that would grant them a pardon. I urge him to do that sooner rather than later.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I shall be relatively brief, because we need to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) not only on securing the debate but on the measured and thoughtful way in which he spoke. I do not think that there is another Member in the House who has his breadth and depth of knowledge of historical matters. I also congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) on their speeches.
We need to recognise that we are on the edge of history; we are on the last page of the last chapter of the first world war. There are 10 or a dozen amazing survivors from that great conflict; I believe that there are no survivors from Germany. In a relatively short time the final combatant will pass on, and it would be fitting if we could close that chapter and the book of those who fought by granting a pardon, at least as far as can be conceived, and following the good examples of the approaches taken by the Irish Republic, Canada and New Zealand.
The debate is of course deficient without the presence and contribution of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who, as we have heard, has campaigned for 10 years or more to bring about justice. The early-day motion that he tabled in the first year or two that I was a Member of Parliamentin 1997 or 1998attracted more signatures than any other early-day motion before or since. I was in the House on 24 July 1998 when the then Minister for the Armed Forces gave his statement and we debated it. It was the most moving debate that I have experienced in my eight or nine years in the House. It was clearly thought through by the then Minister but the conclusion was not the one for which we are still searching. I should point out that the debate will go on until people feel that justice has been done.
Clearly, the 306 people who were shot at dawn included many who it was quickly realised should not have been executed. Lessons were learned, because by the second world war there were no executionscertainly not on the scale and for the purposes for which
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an example had to be set, as if such an exercise were a sort of decimation, when one in 10 along the line was stabbed to death as in ancient history.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk for drawing attention to "Oh! What a Lovely War" and "Blackadder Goes Forth". That satire really made an impact on people of my generation, because we could see not only the futility of war, but the stupidity of those who were responsible for such actions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South said, not all officers led from the front. Of course, there were many brave officers, but there were those who did not get stuck in as the men at the front did.
I first became aware of the scale of the first world war when, as a scout in 1961, I did my hiker's badge. As a project, I recorded information on village war memorials. I realised quickly that the list of names in respect of the first world war was considerably longer than that for the second world war. Clearly, various lessons had been learned, not least the stupidity of sending men into a barrage of machine gun bullets. Cowardice, courts martial and so on were more measured and understood in the second world war. Medical knowledge was improving all the time and it is now even better than it was in the second world war.
There have been calls for a state funeral for the last person from the great war to pass on. I urge caution because through my Royal British Legion connections I am told that it does not necessarily know all the names of those who took part in the war. In the past six to nine months, one or two names have emerged of which it was not aware. Would the family want a state funeral? If they did agree to it, it is possible that someone else may emerge who had not wished it to be known that he was a survivor and a brave soldier from the first world war.
Will the Minister take serious note of what has been said and realise that, although we have moved on from 1998, the campaign for the pardon has not weakened? As we come to the final page of the final chapter, I urge the Government to find a way in which to give posthumous pardon to those 306 people.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Twice as many British servicemen were killed in the first world war than in the second world war. What made what happened seem even worse was that the majority of those casualties were inflicted in a condensed geographical area. Whatever one's point of view about the issue in hand today, everyone would agree that no trauma affected the attitude of the British people towards war as much as the experience of world war one. Indeed, many would say that the lessons that were drawn from world war one had a pernicious effect in the 1920s and 1930s in making the country more disinclined than it should have been to take the measures that might have stopped the onset of world war two.
There is no doubt that this morning's debate has touched on great issues of war and courage, and war and injustice. The victor of Burma, Viscount Slim, observed that the same fighting man who could win the Victoria cross under some circumstances could desert his post under others; it all depended on whether his
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commanding officers knew how to handle the resting of their subordinates. Indeed, the experience of the bravest resistance agents who fell into the hands of the Gestapo in the second world war showed that there are issues of physical endurance that all but the very strongest minds cannot overcome if tried to the limit. Therefore, if people were insufficiently rested and if their psychological traumas failed to be recognised, even the bravest of individuals could have undertaken acts that would at the time of the first world war have been regarded as gross cowardice.
How do we deal with those events of the early 20th century in these years of the early 21st century and for whom are we proposing to undertake any steps that might be considered? Who is all this for? I was asking myself that when preparing for the debate and what I have heard this morning has helped me answer the question. Is it for the people themselves who were the victims? Is it for their families and others who knew them, or is it for the historical record? As the debate has continued, I have become more convinced that it is for the families and others who knew the people concerned. If we do not take that line, we shall get into the difficulties that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) so admirably outlined in his excellent contribution. I hesitate to follow his speech with my historical observations, because there are people at the highest reaches of the British armed forces who know what they know about British military history as a result of studying under my hon. Friend when he held his senior historical teaching position at Sandhurst.
The matter of past historical experience brings several examples to mind. Let us consider three of them. I refer first to the case of George Archer-Shee. He was a young lieutenant who was killed early in the first world war, leading his men on a raid. He should not have been there, because half a dozen years before the first world war he had been a naval cadet at Osborne and was wrongly accused of stealing a five shilling postal order from another cadet. That incident became the basis of the famous Terence Rattigan play "The Winslow Boy". George Archer-Shee won justice at that time, partly because his brother was a Member of Parliament and could enlist the services of Sir Edward Carson, one of the greatest barristers of the day, to fight the case, and partly because his father was determined to risk the entire family fortune or whatever it would take to clear the honour of his son's reputation.
However, even though justice was won for George, he lost. His naval career was ruined and, instead of being in the Royal Navy where he would almost certainly have survived the first world war, he immediately returned from abroad when the war was declared, volunteered, went to the western front and was killed early in his career fighting for the country that arguably had not treated him well as a cadet.
The next case concerns the Arctic convoy veterans of world war two with whom some of us have been involved, particularly the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), in fighting for recognition for a service medal for them, which was not awarded to mark their specific service in world war two. The third case is that of the Chinook pilots who were killed in a crash on the Mull of Kintyre, over which the argument carries on. There is much agreement that an injustice may have been done to those dead pilots.
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How do we differentiate between those cases? That brings us back to the question of whether any family members or others close to the people concerned are still alive and feeling the pain of those perceived injustices. If we go further than thatthis is where I part company with my Liberal Democrat colleagues, who are urging a collective solutionand say that we must give a collective pardon to everybody irrespective of the facts of the individual cases, I fear that we will open up a Pandora's box. That was hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk when he referred to the events of the Peninsula war and the Easter rising. It is a convenient political cop-out to be able to say that because we would not do something in this day and age, we as parliamentarians and politicians will pass judgment on what was done in a different day and age when different standards pertained.
If individual cases are to be considered, that should be doneif it is to be done at allon the basis of whether there is any legal mechanism to enable people who have a direct interest in such cases to bring an action. Even then, this is a matter for lawyers and the courts; it is not a matter for politicians and Parliament. In that respect I go some way towards the position of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), who made a thoughtful contribution. We also face a problem of boundaries. If we make the wrong decision, we will open up an endless process of historical review, which will not do good service to the cause of political debate in this country.
Let me return to the question of who this is for. If it is for the people who were killed, it can only be so in some spiritual sense that would depend on one's religious viewpoint. If one believes that those people still have some sort of entity or existence, they do so in a dimension where our consideration of their cases makes little difference. If it is for the families, then the only basis on which anything could justifiably be proceeded with would be where there are still a small number of survivors who are directly affected by what happened in the individual case. However, if it is for the historical record, we have to be very careful indeed; we as politicians would be entering into a rewriting of that record, when the historical record ought to be written by historians.
Even in our day and age, there is still not entire agreement on the record of the first world war. A recently published book by a leading historian entitled "Forgotten Victory: The First World WarMyths and Realities" seeks to rehabilitate many of the leading figures of that war who have been so effectively satirised in the years in between. I think that it overstates its case, but those are matters that it is appropriate for historians to debate and settle.
In respect of our debate today, the line can be correctly drawn only at the point at which the people who were directly affected cease to be living in this world and wishing to bring an action. The strongest case that has been made in this debate for any sort of consideration has been the pain, the stigma and the shame that was inflicted on the families of those concerned. I maintain that, once those family members are no longer living, the correct approach is for justice to be done by historians, and that politicians meddle in this sensitive area at their peril.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this debate on the soldiers who were executed in the first world war. I wish to state at the outset that the Government did not believe that the review that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence carried out in 1998 would end this issue, and this debate has demonstrated that.
The issue has been raised many times in this House and outside. It provokes powerful emotions, and there are strong and principled views on both sides of the debate. It is not solely a moral question, or a point of law, or an exercise in historical investigation. Rather, it is a complex debate with strong moral, legal and historical factors, every one of which is relevant, and every one of which is powerfully argued. I am glad to have had the opportunity to listen to the points raised, and to have this chance to explain the Government's position.
The previous Government considered these cases and decided that they were not able to take any action. The Labour party when in opposition promised a full and open investigation. We honoured that pledge when we came to office in 1997. The then Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State, immediately set up a review into the whole subject of the executions and the possibility of recommending pardons. The summary of that review is in the Library.
The best view is of course that looking backthe view of "what if?" and "if only"but we must not forget the circumstances in which the cases were brought. We must be very careful not to blame the members of the courts martial. The officers who conducted the trials were honourably and conscientiously doing their very best to discharge their responsibilities and their duties and to see that justice was done.
The review made a detailed consideration of shell shockof both the way in which it was understood and treated at the time, and the way in which courts martial dealt with it as a possible defence or mitigation. All the issues were set in their historical context and all the case files held in the country were reviewed. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reviewed more than 100 cases himself. The review sought advice from historians, lawyers and medical experts, and of course veterans and the people seeking the pardons played a vital part in the discussions that my right hon. Friend held.
It is important to make it clear how and why pardons are granted. A free pardon excuses a person from all penalties imposed at trial in recognition that that person was technically and morally innocent of the charges against them. A conditional pardon reduces the penalty to a lesser one. In order to make a recommendation to the sovereign for a pardon under the royal prerogative, the Secretary of State would need to be satisfied for a free pardon that each individual was technically and morally innocent of the offence, and for a conditional pardon there would have to be compelling grounds that a lesser sentence than the one imposed was more appropriate.
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The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk is a distinguished historian, and I am sure that he would agree that anyone who has studied the records and eye-witness accounts, heard or read the poetry, looked at the photographs or talked to those who survived the trenches, will realise that some places came as close to hell on earth as anyone could possibly imagine, and that it was an awful experience for those involved.
That conclusion is borne out by the tremendous weight of evidencethere really is no doubt about it. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about the evidence that survives from the courts martial that condemned the soldiers to death. There is no doubt that the records are very thin. I have the documents for the Harry Farr case; there are six and a half pages, and they are handwritten. Therefore, there is very little information about what was actually said at his court martial. Those records that have survived areand were intended to be at the timea summary rather than a full account of the proceedings and leave many questions unanswered.
At the time of the review, my right hon. Friend wished, as do many others, to treat together all those who were executed. However, in order to consider pardoning a group of people, there needs to be sufficient evidence to meet the test in each individual case. As that level of evidence is lacking in mostperhaps allof the cases, consideration of a blanket pardon was believed during my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's review not to be possible. The approach that I described, in which each case is treated individually, was considered to be proper in the context of possible statutory pardons as well as pardons under the royal prerogative.
Since my right hon. Friend's review, the New Zealand Government have passed an Act of Parliament establishing a form of statutory pardon for each of the five members of the New Zealand expeditionary force executed during the first world war. The stated aim of the Act was to remove, as far as practicable, the dishonour that the execution of the five soldiers brought on them and their families. The Act is relevant to our considerations. A number of Members in this House and the other place are pressing the Government to consider a similar Act of Parliament to pardon all those executed to whom we have referred in this debate. That would represent a major step, but it could not be undertaken without careful consideration of its far-reaching implications.
I am aware of the private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), which will be considered on Second Reading on 3 March. The Bill requires pardons to be granted to all those executed, possibly after consideration of each case by an international body of judges that would have to be appointed. However, when my hon. Friend presents his Bill, an important point to consider will be the fact that it does not state exactly what test would be applied in order to make a decision, and that is key to reaching any conclusions on the subject.
At the end of the detailed review of all the issues in 1998, my right hon. Friend concluded that it would not be just or compassionate to put the cases of those who
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were executed to the pardon test just to see mostquite possibly allof them fail. He particularly did not wish to take a course of action that, although it might lead to pardons for a few of the men, would leave most without a pardon and thus still condemned.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): I am sorry that I could not be here at the beginning of the debate. I have listened to the Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and I must say that the tenor of the remarks disturbs me.
My granddad, Tom King, was born in 1899. He was a captain's runner in the first world war, hopping between trenches, and it is amazing that he survived to return; indeed, he joined the Labour party when he did. I know, from the stories that he told me of the horrors that he faced in the trenches, that for him the most disorientating time of all was going on leave, because the Germans knew when he and his fellow soldiers were going and used to shell the trains, so they never knew where they stood. I heard from him how badly affected most, if not all, those young people were. It has been a surprise to me that, since 1997, my Labour Government, and my granddad's Labour party, have not been persuaded to take steps to make pardons possible for some of those soldiers suffering from shell shock.
Mr. Touhig : My very first experience as a councillor, before I came to this House, was of laying a wreath at the cenotaph. I stood next to the secretary of my local Labour party branch. He was one of four brothers who went to the first world war, and the names of three brothers are on the cenotaph. I fully understand the horrors and the consequences, but no one could say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when Minister for the Armed Forces, did not carry out the most exhaustive, determined examination of the issues with a desire to do something about the matter. As colleagues have explained, and as I seek to explain, there are difficulties about simply agreeing to a pardon in the way that my hon. Friend strongly advocates.
At the time of the review, my right hon. Friend felt stronglyparticularly with respect to the families of the executed and those who still remembered themthat it was simply not right to take no further action, and so he made a statement to the House on 24 July 1998. He said that the House acknowledged and expressed deep regret for the loss of life and remembered all those who endured such terrible conditions, those who died at the hands of the enemy, those who were executed and those who did their awful duty of being part of the firing squads. He said that all those executed should be recognised as victims of a terrible war. The Government then asked that the names of the executed men be added to war memorials and books of remembrance throughout the country. That is public recognition and a sign of the lifting of the stigma of execution from the men and their families, and I am pleased that many communities around the country did precisely what was asked.
The men who were executed are commemorated in the national memorial arboretum, where a very fitting memorial was dedicated in June 2001. They are remembered among their fallen comrades, and the sacrifice of all their lives is honoured and acknowledged.
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Although the Government felt that it was not right to put all cases to the pardon test only for most of them to fail, it was always open to individuals, particularly the families of the executed, to petition the sovereign and seek a pardon for a particular serviceman. If such a petition is received it is, of course, considered on its merits. The Secretary of State has to determine whether he can recommend that the sovereign grant a pardon, whether free or conditional, on the basis of the evidence available. That is what happened in the case of Private Harry Farr, who was executed in 1916. The rejection of the petition submitted by his daughter is now the subject of a judicial review. The courts have accepted that there are no arguable grounds to challenge the rejection of a free pardon, but the hearing was adjourned in October following the submission of new legal arguments about the possibility of a conditional pardon. Those points are still being considered.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked me to take an overview of our considerations and to report to him directly when considerations are complete. I am sure that hon. Members will accept that it is difficult for me to say much more about the Farr case because of that. However, I emphasise that, as we said in court, there has been no pleasure for the Secretary of State in reaching any of his decisions in relation to the rejection of the petition on Private Farr. As I said, we have not yet reached a further conclusion on the new grounds submitted to us, but the Secretary of State and the Governmentall of ushave the greatest sympathy for Private Farr's daughter and her family, who conducted the campaign on his behalf.
Another matter in which hon. Members will have an interest is the response to the report submitted to the Government by the Irish Foreign Minister in October 2004. It seeks pardon for 26 Irish soldiers executed during the first world war. We are considering our response to the Irish Government on that; we will, of course, make it public. Throughout this debate, and over many years, the Government have approached the cases that we are discussing with a sympathetic heart and an open minda point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk when he responded to the statement made in July 1998.
Mr. Hancock : Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Touhig : If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am tight for time and there are a couple of points that I would like to make.
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We regard the soldiers who were executed as victims, along with millions of others, of a cataclysmic and ghastly war.
The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk asked me a number of questions, and I shall briefly respond to them. He asked whether any documents had come to light. No new documents have come to light in support of the case from any source whatever. No files have been found of those sentenced to death but reprieved; they would have been routinely destroyed, and we know that some were destroyed during the bombing in the last world war. The Government's legal view on the matter has not changed, but of course we must await the judgment in the Farr case before we can determine a reaction to it. As I said, we are considering the request from the Irish Government, and we will respond to it in due course.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) made a moving comment about the stigma attached to families. We fully understand that, and it motivates us to try to be reasonable and do something. I do not agree with her that the Criminal Cases Review Commission is the way to deal with the matter; I do not think that that approach would solve the problem for us.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) made it quite clear that he believes, as do a number of colleagues, that a pardon is appropriate; I think that he made those remarks in 1998, too. He was supported in what he said by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who spoke for the Opposition, posed a number of important questions that are still to be answered if we are to resolve the matter satisfactorily.
I said at the beginning of my reply that we want to resolve the matter. Many hon. Members have raised points that I want to consider. Like all hon. Members, I can only imagine the horrors that people went through in the trenches in the first world war; like all hon. Members, I recognise the painful consequences for the families concerned; and like all hon. Members, I have a desire to ease the pain and suffering that the families are experiencing. However, that has to be done legally if we are to do it properly, and if it is to mean anything at all.
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