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A motor ambulance arrives carrying the doomed men. Manacled and blindfolded, they are helped out and tied up to the stakes. Over each mans heart is placed an envelope. At the sign of command, the firing parties, 12 for each, align their rifles on the envelopes. The officer in charge holds his stick aloft and, as it falls, 36 bullets usher the souls of three of Kitcheners men to the great unknown.
Braver men I have never met.
This amendment will lift the stain on the Brewis family. When Mrs. Brewis, who is now 71, heard of the amendment, she said that it was wonderful news, and that although she would be sceptical until Parliament passed it, she and the other families who have been campaigning for a pardon for many years would be delighted to see it.
This has not been an easy decision for Ministers and others to reach, but it will lift the stigma and the sense of shame that a lot of such families have experienced. We must also remember the hardship that they went through, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock explained earlier. I accept that there are Opposition Members who do not agree with the amendment, and if they feel very strongly that they cannot support it, they should divide the House and ensure that we put onthe record who supported the amendment and whodid not.
Mr. Bellingham: As far as that last set of remarks is concerned, many of us have listened to this argument very carefully, and many of us may disagree with parts of the proposal, but we have a right to question the Government, to hold them to account and to ask various questions. Just because we do not go along with everything that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has said, that does not mean that we should necessarily push the amendment to a vote. I do not understand the logic of what he has been saying.
I should declare an interest because both my grandfathers fought in the first world war with huge bravery and distinction. My great-uncle also fought in the first world war as a founder member of the Royal Tank Regiment. Umpteen relations of mine fought in the first world war and died. The issue is very emotional.
We have had an interesting debate tonight. I admire the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), whom I have respected for many years. We have campaigned together in other areas and he has been a marvellous ally in one particular campaign involving constituents who have faced injustice. I greatly admire his tenacity and determination. Obviously we should salute that this evening, because he has worked tirelessly on this matter. I do not agree with where he is coming from and I do not support the conclusions that he has reached, but I still respect him for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who is my parliamentary neighbour, made a learned and erudite speech. He knows a huge amount about this subject. He made one point that certainly had resonance, because I remember my grandfather making the same point clear to me when we discussed the issue, which we did many times. My grandfather lived until about 1970. He was badly wounded in 1916. He was then badly gassed the following year and never really recovered. I was quite youngabout 12 or sowhen he died, but I remember speaking to him at length about this issue. He said that he and his friends fought first for their chums, secondly for their regiment, and thirdly for Queen or King. That was the point that my hon. Friend made: there was a feeling among the millions of people who fought in the first world war that those who let the side down put not just their own lives, but the lives of many others, at risk.
Successive Secretaries of State have looked at the issue. It is nothing new. I had the privilege and honour of serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)he was then the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh Pentlands. We looked at the issue in great detail and decided that it would be wrong to reopen the matter and rewrite history. Successive Labour Secretaries of State have done exactly the same. I well remember the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) making it clear that he felt that this was not the right way to go. He argued persuasively and with huge intellectual rigour that pardons should not be granted. I do not know what has changed.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) pointed out, this is a complicated process that involves a great deal of effort and input. With great respect to Labour and Liberal Democrat
Members, and indeed some Conservative Members, it beggars belief that Ministers can devote time to this matterimportant as they may regard itwhen they face so many other priorities and issues. Just look at the huge challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is the huge issue of the vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq that do not have the necessary armour and the issue of helicopter lift capacity. There are all those other massive challenges that my hon. Friend referred to.
I know, because I have a large number of friends in the armed forces, including five colleagues from university who happen to be brigadiers or generals, that this decision is very unpopular with the armed forces. I am concerned that the trust and respect of the armed forces for the Ministers of Her Majestys Government will be damaged by this issue. I only hope that that will be got over quickly. As a number of my hon. Friends have pointed out, the decision is totally illogical. It does not quash convictions and it does not remove sentences.
What about the 2,700 soldiers who were sentenced to death, but had their sentences commuted? Will they be affected? Will they receive a pardon? We heard about the Farr case, which was moving and tragic. However, every single case is different. If one has a look at the breakdown, as some colleagues have already, one sees that out of the 346 soldiers who were executed, 37 were executed for murder and will not benefit from the pardon. I mentioned earlier in an intervention that there were five who were executed for disobedience to a lawful order. One of them was a private in the Royal Norfolks who disobeyed four separate orders, on four different occasions. He was given umpteen warnings. He was sentenced to death by firing squad for disobedience to those lawful orders before he even got near the front, so he certainly could not have suffered from any form of shell shock. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) pointed out, 18 soldiers were sentenced for mutiny and various other offences.
The issue is complicated and every single case is different, which is why I took the view that perhaps we should have set up a tribunal of Commonwealth judges or learned judges to look at every single case totally separately on its merits. In my judgment, what we are are doing is illogical. Whatever colleagues say, if we not rewriting history, we are certainly writing it. What happened in the great war was horrific and tragic, but we are looking at it from a modern-day perspective. We are imposing our modern-day values on events that happened nearly 100 years ago. Of course those men would not have been executed today. In the second world war, there was not a single British soldier executed by firing squad. I gather that one American was executed during the battle of the Bulge. To put that into perspective, 10,000 German soldiers were hung for either desertion or cowardice in the last war and 25,000 Russians were shot by firing squadprobably double that number were shot by the commissars who were attached to each single unit.
Should we really be questioning the motives and the rationale of the Army commanders in world war one? Should we be questioning the decisions taken by the much reviled Field Marshal Haig? How far back should we go? Should we go back to the Boer war and Breaker Morant, or the Zulu war, or the Crimean war? What other categories of offence will be covered by future initiatives of this kind? What about the British traitors who were hanged during the second world war, such as Lord Haw-Haw and John Amery and many others, who may well not have had a fair trial at the time?
We have had an interesting and, in many ways, moving debate, with a lot of excellent contributions. Those of us who have doubts about this matter should not be taunted by the other side for not putting it to a vote, because we have asked a lot of sensible questions. Can the Minister really give us a categorical assurance that this measure will not set a precedent? Is this really a one-off? We are all decent, compassionate human beings. Of course we can regret the past and observe the deeds of our ancestors with astonishment, incomprehension and even sad regret. Obviously we can feel only pity towards those luckless soldiers who were executed nearly a century ago. There is little doubt that many of them showed incredible bravery and astonishing mental toughness when they were finally led out to be shot, blindfolded and alone. We have to applaud their courage in extremis. They were as much victims of that war as the three quarters of a million of their comrades, in addition to the millions of other soldiers, who were killed. However, I do not believe that we should reinvent the past to suit our wishes today. That way lies madness. That is why I have serious regrets about what the Government are doing and I am looking forward to the assurances from the Minister.
Derek Twigg: With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker we have had a reflective, important and well thought debate. No one could say that the arguments expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House have not been well aired. Strong views have been expressed by many, and passionate views have been expressed by some. This is a difficult issue.
It is important that I put it on record that the intention of the pardon is to remove the dishonour of execution. It is not intended that it will quash the convictions or sentences. It stands as a recognition that execution was not a fate that servicemen deserved. I cannot make any clearer why we wish to introduce the measure.
I know that such matters have a great emotional impact on people. We are of course discussing the period of the first world war, which, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) made clear, has a particular impact on the nations consciousness, given the terrible horrors that took place. I never met my grandfather because he died well before I was born, but I have met and talked to veterans of the first world war, so I have some understanding, albeit perhaps not in the greatest depth, of their suffering, fear and bravery and the horror of the events. Hundreds of thousands of people made many sacrifices and went
through absolutely unbelievable experiences in the trenches and during the battles that took place.
On Remembrance Sunday, we will all remember the tremendous courage and sacrifice of those who fought in the first world war, second world war and other conflicts, and the service that they gave. I hope that we can now let the matter rest in peace.
Derek Twigg: I will be brief because I am conscious that Opposition Members want to ensure that their comments about later groups of Lords amendments are put on the record. I thus intend no disrespect to the House by the amount of time for which I shall speak to several groups.
The Lords amendments are improvements to the drafting of provisions on the offences of mutiny and desertion. They will make the provisions easier forthe layman to understand. We listened carefully to concerns expressed in another place about the way in which the provisions on the offence of mutiny were originally drafted. We agreed that clause 6 could be redrafted so that it would be simpler to understand, not least by including the word mutiny in the body of the offence.
The Lords amendments make no substantive change to the effect of the original measuremutiny remains both an agreement to resist or overthrow authority, and the act of doing so. Under clause 7, as amended, failure to suppress an act of mutiny will remain an offence, but failure to suppress an agreement will not.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: I quite understand the Ministers remarks. Given the interest in world war one pardons among hon. Members on both sides of the House, it was inevitable that that debate would take up a huge amount of our time. We have further important issues to raise, so I hope that the House will agree with the Ministers suggestion.
Derek Twigg: The Lords amendments are designed to clarify and simplify certain offences. None of them has any substantive effect on the overall scope of the clauses affected. Nothing will become an offence that is not already an offence under the Bill as it stands.The Lords amendments are designed solely to avoid practical difficulties for prosecutors and commanding officers and to simplify the Bill.
Derek Twigg: The Lords amendments are a response to concerns raised in the Select Committee and the other place. They will extend the offence of inaccurate certification to prescribed equipment to ensure that equivalent equipment or land systems may be covered.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: Again, I am grateful to the Minister for his brief comments. We spotted in Committee that there was a lacuna in the Bill. We tried to rectify that in this House, but we were unable to do so. I am thus grateful to their lordships for pressing the matter and to the Government for accepting the amendment.
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