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The Government believe that closure can be achieved by the amendment, but I stress that we are not calling
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into question the actions of the officers who were responsible for discipline and who found themselves faced with what I am sure Members agree was a most difficult and unenviable duty. The amendment should not be seen as a judgment of the way in which they were doing their duty.

Dr. Lewis: The problem that I have intellectually with what the Minister proposes is that he is going to let the convictions stand, and pardon people purely because they were executed. That explains why the 2,700 who were not executed are not being pardoned, whereas the 300 who were executed are being pardoned. I am not sure how that will remove the stigma. Surely the stigma results from conviction rather than execution. If I were a member of one of the families concerned who thought that my ancestor had been wrongly convicted because, for example, he had had shell shock, it would not encourage me to know that his conviction stood and he was being pardoned only because of the severity of the sentence, not because of the injustice of the conviction.

Derek Twigg: I understood the point that the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made earlier about that issue, but anyone who talked to the families and those who have been campaigning would see how important the decision is to removing the stigma and dishonour associated with execution.

The Government do not see this as an attempt to rewrite history by quashing convictions or sentences. The pardon does not do that. Our amendment avoids the difficulties that would arise from assessing each individual case under the prerogative. As I have said, its aim is to lift the stigma that has been associated with the executions for far too long, and has affected the soldiers’ families most deeply.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): The matter is of grave concern to a number of my constituents who had a relative who was summarily killed. They greet this day with great relief, and fully support what my hon. Friend is saying.

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend has made an important point. I know how much work she has put into her campaign on behalf of her constituents.

The pardon covers all servicemen executed for offences such as desertion and cowardice committed between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. Regrettably, we have not been able to list individually the names of those receiving the pardon, as our surviving records are not sufficiently comprehensive.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Minister is a very generous gentleman. He opened a war memorial in my constituency a week or so ago. Both my father and my grandfather fought, one in the Great War and the other in the second world war, and they both suffered. I know for certain that if they were alive they would be delighted with what the Government are doing, and would want to pass on their thanks and congratulations to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the fulfilment of whose campaign we are seeing today. The House should honour him as well.

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Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman reflects a common view, not least among many ex-servicemen and veterans. It was a great pleasure to visit his constituency recently to support the opening of the war memorial. I know of the tremendous work that he did to establish the memorial, along with the local community, and it was an excellent day.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The key to this decision has obviously been the shell shock that was beyond the control of those soldiers. Is the Minister aware that of the 346 who were shot at dawn, five were shot for disobedience of a lawful order, including a member of the Royal Anglian Regiment who disobeyed four separate lawful orders on four separate occasions? In fact, he deserted before he even faced a bullet. For disciplinary reasons and, I believe, quite rightly, he was sentenced to death. Why should those people be pardoned as well?

6.45 pm

Derek Twigg: As I have said, there is an issue relating to conviction for wrongdoing and, obviously, disciplinary procedures, but let me return to what we are proposing in relation to the ultimate sentence, execution, and the removal of dishonour from that sentence.

Subject to the will of Parliament, we will place a formal record of the pardon alongside the relevant court martial files held in the National Archives, where they survive. The record will be visible to anyone viewing those files in the future. I believe that it will play an important part in helping to restore the memory of those service men.

In Committee in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Drayson explained why the Government had announced their decision to seek a statutory pardon during the recess. We made our announcement at the earliest possible opportunity following completion of our policy review, so that we could begin the necessary consultation and drafting of an amendment. I am sure the House will agree that once we had reached a decision, and given the age of some of those campaigning for pardons, it was only right for the Government not to delay further on this important matter until another opportunity arose in the legislative timetable. For the same reason, we intend the pardon to take effect as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent.

The subject of pardons is highly emotive. I know from my postbag that the public feel passionately about it. I also know of the considerable interest that Parliament has taken in the matter, demonstrated by the number of Members who are present today. It is right that I should pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), and to all other Members who have campaigned tirelessly for a pardon for first world war soldiers. The family of Private Farr—who have been strongly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty)— and many others have been part of the campaign for pardons, and I salute the role that they have played in the process.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give particular thanks for the work done by John Hipkin? John was one of my constituents
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when I was a councillor on Newcastle city council. He worked tirelessly on this issue, and was tenacious not only in his campaign but in gaining publicity for it. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise the work that John has done.

Derek Twigg: Many people have worked tirelessly, but I particularly recognise the work that John Hipkin did.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden spoke in support of the amendment in Committee in the House of Lords. In a particularly poignant contribution, he said:

This week we remember those service men and women who sacrificed their lives while serving their country in time of war. The first world war claimed many millions of lives, and I believe it is appropriate for us to take this opportunity to recognise some of the other victims of that war, namely those who were executed. I trust that the House will feel able to support the amendment, and bring closure to all the families who have had to live with the stigma of these executions in the period since the first world war.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I join the Minister in paying tribute to the soldier from the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who has tragically lost his life in Iraq. I am sure that the Minister reflected the views of the entire House in sending our condolences to his family.

No one can approach this subject without being moved by the terrible human tragedy involved in the cold execution of soldiers by their brothers-in-arms in the midst of one of the most epic battles in history. No one has done more than the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) in bringing the issue before the House, as he has done persistently and tenaciously for the past 13 years. I suspect that in the fullness of time this will come to be known as the Mackinlay amendment.

As Colonel John Hughes-Wilson wrote in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute:

Having said that, it is our duty as parliamentarians to look as objectively and sensitively as we can at the facts and to assess whether the action proposed by the Government in granting blanket pardons is correct, as that inevitably will have the effect of exonerating those who may well be deserving, but will also include those who, by any judgment, are not so deserving. In particular, I submit that we need to exercise great care in applying today’s standards to the conditions and mores of a century ago.

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The facts are as stated by the Under-Secretary. As the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the current Home Secretary, pointed out to the House on 24 July 1998, between 4 August 1914 and 31 March 1920, approximately 20,000 personnel were convicted of military offences for which the death penalty could have been awarded. That does not include civilian capital offences such as murder. Of those 20,000, something over 3,000 were actually sentenced to death. Approximately 90 per cent. of them escaped execution and 306 were actually executed. Each and every one of those is a personal tragedy for the soldiers, their families and their descendants. However, it is just1.5 per cent. of all those charged with a capital offence.

Given that this measure is the brainchild of the Secretary of State, many hon. Members will be surprised that he has decided not to present the arguments for bringing it before the House, but has left it to his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, a brand new Minister. Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to explain why he has chosen not to—[ Interruption.] The House will note that the Secretary of State does not want to answer.

What has struck me as so curious in this case is the speed with which the Secretary of State, who freely acknowledged that he approached his new position with virtually no experience of Her Majesty’s armed forces, rushed to a judgment so soon after taking over. Given his lack of experience and the fact that he had to brief himself on the workings of the MOD at a time when we are conducting two major concurrent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, how could he find the time to assess an issue that deserves very careful consideration?

The Secretary of State’s predecessor had undertaken just such a review in less hectic times. As he said in his statement to the House in 1998:

He reported that he had reviewed every aspect of the cases, including the medical evidence and the legal basis for the trials—field general courts martial. In respect of the medical records, he said that there was no implicit or explicit reference to any nervous or other psychological disorders. The review had also confirmed that procedures for the courts martial were correct, given the law as it stood at the time. He concluded:

Many are questioning how the Secretary of State came so swiftly to such a contrary position to that of his predecessor, a noted historian who had considered the issue in great detail.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I thought that it was too good to last and that the hon. Gentleman might welcome something that the Government have put forward. Will he say whether he supports what the Government are doing, or will we just have the continued attack on the Secretary of State?

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Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman, with whom I have had the pleasure of serving on the Defence Committee, knows me well enough to know that he will have to wait, for my speech is designed to be taken as a whole.

Many are questioning how the Secretary of State came to such a contrary conclusion to that of his predecessor. Did he consult his predecessor before making his eye-catching announcement? Shall I give way to the Secretary of State? Has he found evidence that was denied to his predecessor? The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) said in a debate earlier this year that he had found no new evidence. I can only assume that the Secretary of State has found none either.

Has the Secretary of State obtained compelling new legal advice from the Attorney-General, or from anyone else? Clearly not, according to the noble Lord Drayson, who explained in another place:

We are entitled to ask what it does do.

Mr. Robathan: I do not want to make a cheap point but, as my hon. Friend knows, I am not convinced that this is an entirely wise move. Previous Labour Governments will have looked at this. Does my hon. Friend think that the total lack of experience of military life in the present Labour Government has led to the measure being proposed now, as opposed to 20, 30 or 50 years ago under other Labour Governments?

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend poses a perfectly legitimate question to which I do not know the answer. The Secretary of State will undoubtedly give his justifications. His junior Minister has done so and, in welcoming him belatedly to his post, may I say that he did so extremely well and with great sensitivity? However, one is entitled to ask: if the measure does not quash the conviction or lift the sentence, what doesit do?

The Under-Secretary said that the aim was to lift the stigma. Many would argue that the stigma has already been removed as the passage of time and changing values have cast in a new light the tragic deaths of those young men, although, self-evidently, not for a number of the families involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, what about the stigma attached to those 2,700 who were convicted and sentenced to death, but who in the end had their sentences commuted?

We have to consider whether there is a downside to this move by the Government. It is important that we in this House consider these matters carefully and look at the full implications of what has been proposed.

Peter Bottomley: I am interested in my hon. Friend’s speech. Is the matter not summed up by the Lords amendment, which refers to

Does my hon. Friend remember previous junior Defence Ministers answering debates in the House who
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were pretty well mauled by the House as a whole, which was arguing for recognition such as is being proposed this evening?

Mr. Howarth: I am acutely aware of the sensitivity of the issue. The right hon. Member for Islwyn said that he hoped we could find a solution. He was not able to do so when he was in the Department. Clearly, there is an issue, but we have to consider whether there are downsides to the proposal. Ministers have repeatedly asserted that they are not aiming to rewrite history, but many fear that this will create a precedent and are in no way reassured by the familiar Whitehall mantra that there are “no plans” to extend the pardon to other campaigns, as Lord Drayson has said.

Is it really beyond belief that others shot for desertion during some other battle will not become the object of a further campaign, or that other nations might not seize upon this precedent to demand apologies for acts of war? How would Ministers like to be the subject of future generations’ judgment on the management of the Iraq war, including their decisions on preparation, deployment and tactics—judged not by today’s standards, but in circumstances and according to values that we cannot yet anticipate?

The decision

These are not my words; they were the words ofLord Ashdown in another place on 12 October. Undoubtedly, it was an extremely fair point.

Mr. George Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I give way to my right hon. namesake.

Mr. George Howarth: Did not my hon. Friend the Minister make it clear that he was decoupling the decisions made at the time from the decision today to provide a blanket pardon to those affected? By so doing, he is in no way impugning the judgment of the officers who made those decisions in the difficult circumstances of the time.

7 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The hon. Gentleman should think carefully about that because, whatever the Minister said, the fact is that the interpretation will be that the Government are impugning the judgments made at the time. There can be no lifting of the sentences or quashing of the convictions. The amendment will simply address a sensitivity, which may be worth achieving.

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