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The Government have specifically ruled out the payment of compensation, but as we have read in The Daily Telegraph today, claims have already been submitted. Even if the Secretary of State is successful in resisting those claims in our courts, how long will it
be before the European Court of Human Rights is invited to interfere? Can Ministers assure the House that in the event of any reference to the ECHR and a subsequent finding in favour of compensation, the Government will reject that?
In considering the humanitarian aspects of the issue, we also need to be clear that military discipline is vital at all times, but especially in battle. That is why we have joined the Government in resisting attempts to water down todays penalties for desertion, which can put a soldiers comrades at mortal risk, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) so eloquently explained on Report.
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Does my hon. Friend find it interesting that during the extensive evidence sessions on the Bill before the Defence Committee, and in the many visits it made, no one made the case strongly for the amendment?
Mr. Howarth: Indeed. My hon. Friend and I were on the Committee and we met people who were on active operations. They recognise the importance of discipline. We do not have the death penalty for military operations today, and that is right and proper and reflects the mores of our times. With this amendment, we are dealing with a different society with different mores. That is why we joined the Government in resisting attempts in the other place to water down the penalty for desertion.
It is right and proper that we subject the Governments proposals to scrutiny, and that is what we have sought to do. However, as we approach the nations annual service of remembrance we should, and shall, reflect on the courage and sacrifice of those who have fought and died for these islands, for our wider interests and for the values that we hold dear, and those who continue today to lay their lives on the line for our country. Among those whom we remember will be the victims of harsh judgments made in good faith by good men of their day, often in the heat and smoke of battle. If the amendment brings consolation to the families of those victims, it is a welcome benefit. However, in the interests of justice and for the proper understanding of history, let this be a one-offa uniquecase.
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): It is indeed timely that in this week before 11 November we debate the amendment granting a pardon to 306 of our soldiers shot at dawn in the first world war. Each year, on 11 November, we stand as a nation in silence, mourning and remembrance for all those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country during that bloody, awful war and the conflicts that followed. The people of these islands are a free people today thanks to our war dead. That is a debt we can never repay. We honour their memory and recognise them for the heroes that they are. They have earned the eternal gratitude of the British people.
However, for others no glory is attached to their memory. They have been banished to the fringes of history, their lives forgotten except, perhaps, by their grieving families. They were branded as cowards and traitors, blindfolded and shot at dawn by their own side. Between 1914 and 1920, some 350 men from the United Kingdom, what is now Ireland and what is now
the Commonwealth, were executed for capital offences. Seven were Welsh, the youngest of whom was 19. Of the 350, 306 were executed for the military offencesof desertion or attempted desertion, cowardice, disobedience, leaving a post, sleeping at a post, casting away arms or striking a superior officerall offences listed in the amendment.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, when he was Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, sought a way to pardon the 306 who were shot. As has been mentioned, he concluded that there should not be a pardon for some and not others, and he was right. When he became Secretary of State for Defence in 2005, and I was appointed Under-Secretary, it fell to me to examine the matter further, not least because of the case brought by the family of Private Harry Farr and the concerns expressed by Members of both Houses. I looked at four possible options and I concluded that the only feasible option was a legislative pardon. Before I left the MOD, and with the full support of my right hon. Friend the present Home Secretary, I set in train work to prepare for this legislation.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who came into the job in May and immediately set about taking forward that legislative pardon, which is why we have the amendment today. My right hon. Friend has acted with courage and determination and he has taken a step that others may have been reluctant to take. I also join the appreciation on both sides of the House for my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has been determined and persistent in ensuring that the matter did not go away but came regularly beforethe House. I also know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, received several representations on the issue and I know that he also welcomes the amendment.
This decision is not an easy one for Parliament to take. I have met ex-servicemen who are totally opposed to the idea of a pardon, feeling that those who were shot at dawn had let down their comrades. Others take a contrary view and, with their vivid and often terrible memories of life in the trenches, believe that it is time to pardon the 306.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The hon. Gentleman listed several offences for which people would be pardoned. He left out the offence of mutiny and sedition, for which two or three of the soldiers on the list were executed. That offence is not linked to cowardice and the Army Act 1881 makes no mention of shell shock or cowardice. That offence is severely damaging to troops in the field, so is he concerned that those found guilty of it will also be pardoned?
If the amendment is passed, as I hope it is, it should not be seen as a reflection of the failure of those who presided at and conducted the field courts martial that
condemned the 306 to a firing squad. Those who presided were doing the duty required of them. They held the Kings commission to prosecute a war. They had to maintain discipline and administer military justice as the law of that time prescribed. In my view, they acted properly and honourably in the discharge of that duty.
Some will say that the amendment will rewrite history and judge the actions of 1914 by todays standards. That is a perfectly reasonable argument, although I do not accept it because I do not believe that the amendment condones cowardice, desertion, mutiny or assisting the enemy, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) suggested a moment ago. Military discipline was and remains the cornerstone of our armed forces behaviour. However, the amendment is necessary as a recognition of the fact that manyI accept not allof those shot were suffering from mental illnesses, of which people at the time knew very little.
I have had meetings with the families of some of the men who were shot and I was touched by their quiet determination to see those men pardoned. They were motivated by nothing more than a wish to see their loved ones remembered, without shame, alongside the tens of thousands of others who went to war in September 1914 full of high spirits and pride, but who never came back. I pay tribute to the families quiet dignity, as many have lived with the terrible stigma associated with having a father, grandfather or great-grandfather going bravely off to war only to be shot by his own side.
The amendment will not ease the pain and heartache that the verdict of the field courts martial caused, but I hope that, in time, it will be seen as having put right a terrible wrong. It is all too easy to forget that the soldiers of the first world war had none of the modern worlds benefits of free education and health care. Most of the accused were poorly educated, working-class young men: often, they were inarticulate and illiterate, with no ability to represent themselves in a tense court room where life or death was at stake. If all the young men who stood trial were medically examined according to the standards of care enjoyed by our soldiers today, I am sure that the result would not have been that 306 of them were shot.
No one can turn back the clock. The passage of time means that we are left with only the records of the cases, most of which make no reference to the mental or nervous illnesses from which the soldiers were suffering. This week, we will remember our war dead. I hope that, as a country, we can at long last find it in our hearts to pardon and pay our respects to all the young men who lost their lives on the foreign battle fields of the first world war. Whether they were shot by the enemy or by their own side, all were victims of a terrible and bloody war.
Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): This is a very delicate matter, and in the debate so far we have heard two different sides of the argument. It has taken us a long time to get where we are today, and I want to join those who have paid tribute to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) for the persistence with which he has campaigned on this issue.
The two sides of the argument are clear. Some look at the events leading to the executions and call into question how matters were handled at the time. Indeed, many people call into question the conduct of many aspects of the first world war. In contrast, we have heard that others believe that meddling in these matters is an attempt to rewrite history.
I believe that the Government have wrestled with the balance of the argument and that they have come to the right conclusion. The logic of the convictions was articulated by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and one can see how lifting them would bring more comfort and satisfaction, but that really would be an attempt to rewrite history. The same is true of lifting the sentence: although I abhor the capital sentences that were handed down, they were the sentences that applied to such offences at the time. We cannot go back over history and lift the sentences or query the convictions. We cannot remove the pain that followed for those who lost family members in that waya pain that descendants have continued to endure in the decades since.
What we can do is to acknowledge and recognise history, with the benefit of the greater knowledge and understanding that we now have of post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost a century later, we as a nation cannot rewrite history or undo the pain, but our modern comprehension means that we can understand, forgive and pardon. The Government deserve credit for getting the delicate balance in this matter right. The Secretary of State deserves credit for making a relatively rapid decision in this matter. I do not condemn or criticise him for that, as he has showed a willingness to make other decisions rapidlynotablyin procurement, and I think that he deserves commendation for that as well.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I have been in Parliament for 14 years, and this evenings debate will probably turn out not to be the most important of my political career. However, supporting this amendment is certainly my proudest moment in the House of Commons. I hope that the House will forgive me if I explain why, as that will buttress the case for the amendment.
First, though, let me say that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence framed and introduced the amendment in a moving and sensitive way. In addition, I very much welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, whom I congratulate without reservation. As we have heard, the measure will grant pardons to soldiers executed in world war one after being charged with crimes such as cowardice, desertion, sleeping at their posts, throwing away arms and hitting a superior officer.
Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O lord.
Lord hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
On the more practical side, I must tell the House that soon after I was first elected I went to Tynecot cemetery to look for the grave of one of the soldiers executed in world war one. At that stage, very little had been written about what happened, apart from one very good book by his honour Judge Anthony Babington, and the great work entitled Shot at Dawn by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes, which details all the executions.
I wanted to place on record my recognition of what my studies of those executions had taught me, and I put down an early-day motion calling for the men to be pardoned. To my astonishment and surprise, hon. Members right across the House displayed enormous and immediate support in wanting to add their names to the motion, and extensive interest was aroused around the country.
I understand that some hon. Members may be hesitant about pardoning those who were executed, so I hope that I can offer them some reassurance. Although some people oppose the pardons, the measure is overwhelmingly popular around the country. That does not necessarily make it correct, but that popularity has been shown in the support that has been evident in all parties and in consecutive Parliaments. It has also been evident in support for the Bill proposing the pardons that I have introduced six or seven times while I have been in the House. I welcome the initiative of the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary; we need this measure now.
I welcome the amendment because time is now short. I want to deal with the question of whether the measure at this time is still appropriate. I believe that it is, but it will not be for ever. I regret that a Conservative Member shouted out earlier, What about Agincourt? As he did so, I will respond to that point. Agincourt demonstrably is history. The first world war is still a live and relevant issue for us, because each and every one of us have known and loved veterans of world war one. Some are still alive today. The immediate dependants of the executed men are still alive today. The issue cannot be dismissed in the way that people might dismiss the American civil war or Agincourt. Referring to Agincourt was a poor shot, and I regret that people have said it.
The issue is still very relevant. Judging by my postbag and, I suspect, the postbags of other hon. Members, people still see it as relevant. Their letters may refer to their dad, who never spoke about world war one, but towards the end of his life did so and said that he was on a firing squad or saw people suffering from shell shock. That supports the view that pardons should be granted.
Mr. Gerald Howarth:
The hon. Gentleman has campaigned vigorously on this issue; he makes a special case for these world war one people. Does he regard
this case as a one-off, or does he feel that there are other cases? Has he been approached by others? What would be his reaction to other cases?
Andrew Mackinlay: I believe that it is a one-off. It is such an outstanding matter and injustice is so grave. We have the opportunity to heal by accepting the amendment. I have shared with the House the fact that this is a proud occasion for me. If I have achieved nothing else in the House of Commons, I shall be proud if the amendment is accepted tonight and receives Royal Assent tomorrow. I see it as a one-off.
In the Bill that I proposed to the House on seven occasions, I included the options of a blanket pardon or a tribunal of Commonwealth judges to look at each case. I mention that tonight because I am confident that a tribunal would have concluded the same for each case. I say this in response to the legitimate point raised by Conservative Members. People say, You are surely not suggesting that all these were good men. I believe that a tribunal would have concluded that all the trials were flawed, according not to the rules of today but to the rules that applied then. The rules of natural justice have not just been invented. The rules of natural justice required then, as now, that a person should be able to prepare a defence, call witnesses and be properly represented. Every trial was flawed on those counts. Furthermore, no one was given the opportunity of appealing against their sentence. In none of the trials were the rules of natural justice applied.
The point was also made that 2,700 people were sentenced to death but only a few were executed. I believe that that demonstrates how fickle was the decision to execute. There was no rhyme or reason to it. It was like a raffle whether or not someone was executed, which then goes to the heart of the principle of justice. Justice has to be consistent and clearly understood. Those who were executed were simply unfortunate in the draw.
Reference has been made to the Harry Farr case. It has been my privilege to know the widow and daughter of Harry Farr. A gallant lady well into her 90s, Gertie Harris pursued her fathers case with the utmost vigour. Certainly the indications are that, had the case come to court, the Ministry of Defence would have lost.
I was privileged to know the widow of Harry Farr. In 1993 I spent a whole afternoon with her. As the hon. Gentleman asks, I will tell him. That wonderful old lady, very frail, in her 99th year, had every one of her faculties. She spoke with great pride that for the first time in so long someone was standing up for her Harry. Everyone now recognises that Harry Farr was shell shocked and should never have been executed in October 1916. She and her daughter Gertie suffered penury as a result of that execution. She told me how she bore that great
stigma for so long. So I did know her, and I know what I am talking about. I have given some study to this matter.
Dr. Murrison: I do not intend to attack the hon. Gentleman or the case that he is trying to pursue. He has mentioned the daughter and widow of Private Farr, so I presume that he will be disappointed by subsection (4)(b) of the clause that amendment No. 51 would insert, which removes
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