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8 May 2007 : Column 45WH—continued

Several hon. Members have asked about the UK’s role. We remain determined to address these issues through a combination of political dialogue and practical support. Our high commission in New Delhi has raised our concerns about discrimination against Dalits and other minority groups with the Indian Government and will continue to do so. High
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commission staff have called on the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Minorities, the National Commission for Women, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and various state level authorities.

I was also asked about the role of the Department for International Development. It has worked with the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to develop targets for Dalit and Adivasi women and children in its child health programme and supports similar initiatives in education. The UK Government also fund a number of programmes to tackle the issue of bonded labour. We are helping civil society organisations in the 100 poorest districts to address discrimination against Dalits and to educate marginalised groups on their entitlements. We also support the Andhra Pradesh rural livelihoods project, which offers credit to poor families in drought-prone areas and sets up village-level sub-committees to address issues of bonded labour, child labour and child marriages.

The issue of UK companies investing in India has been raised. We want them to work to combat caste-based discrimination, and it is important that they take their responsibilities seriously. The UK Government are dedicated to promoting the corporate social responsibility agenda in India and in all other markets around the world. We have actively encouraged UK companies to adopt an approach that recognises the wider contribution that businesses can make to communities.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister tell us whether UK Trade and Investment, which is part-sponsored by the Foreign Office, takes any specific measures to inform companies that are trading with India about the Dalit problem?

Mr. Hoon: I cannot answer that question specifically, but, obviously, UKTI certainly emphasises corporate social responsibility, which includes the whole question of discrimination and the way in which our major companies have a responsibility to those whom they employ in other parts of the world.

Technically, the employment of Dalits or other minority groups by UK companies is governed by local laws and regulations. We have rightly heard that the law in India is clear about employment discrimination on the basis of caste. The UK will continue to encourage the Government of India to enforce rigorously those laws and seek to ensure that minority groups have an equal opportunity to share in the growth of the Indian economy.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, like all of the hon. Members who have spoken, was right to draw attention to this issue in the House. The UK recognises that there are still areas of concern regarding the treatment of Dalits and other minorities in India. While we welcome the Government of India’s commitment to addressing human rights issues, we will continue to raise concerns with the relevant authorities and look for further opportunities to work with non-governmental organisations to tackle them.

12.22 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Suez Canal Zone (Medals)


Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): I speak on behalf of Bill McKnight and other Royal Navy personnel who served in the Suez campaign from October 1951 to October 1954.

First, I apologise to the Minister that, having said that I would give him my notes prior to the debate, I could not do so because of the bank holiday. However, the issue has been much discussed and I am sure that there will be no surprises in my speech.

In 2002, the Government asked the Committee on the Grant of Honours Decorations and Medals to review whether the Suez campaign was worthy of the award of the general services medal. A sub-committee was set up under General Guthrie to investigate that. It did so, and after consideration agreed that an award should be made. The Sub-Committee issued a paper setting out the detailed criteria for the award of the medal and the covering letter in 2003 referred to the

One cannot get much higher than the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State for Defence.

The paper is very detailed, which is important, and went into a number of areas. Paragraph 7 detailed the length of service, paragraph 8 the geographical area, paragraph 9 the eligible personnel, paragraph 10 the qualifying period, paragraph 11 the type of award that should be given—the general services medal—and paragraph 12, on aggregation, says, “Service can be aggregated.” Paragraph 15 summarises that by saying in sub-paragraph a that the award should be for personnel

Sub-paragraph d says:

Those issues are important, and I remind the Chamber that they were cleared by the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State.

In December 2002, the sub-committee reported to the HD committee, concluding that the case had been made and that the qualifying service should be 30 days. It did not mention that the service should be continuous or aggregated. Its conclusion was merely that

That is important.

In October 2003, Command Paper 5999 was approved by the Queen and presented to Parliament. Paragraph 4 covers the length of service and makes a major change. It states:

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That is a dramatic change from the original papers and has been questioned ever since by Royal Navy personnel, so it is important to look at the nature of the operations.

The Mediterranean is a short sea; it is not an ocean. Mediterranean fleet ships were able to leave the canal zone and return to Malta for refuelling and replenishing. The commander-in-chief at the time was Lord Mountbatten, who was very active and wanted his ships to have plenty of sea time. He did not want his ships tied up in port longer than necessary. The national archives file WO216/900 states that Lieutenant-General Sir George Erskine, commanding officer of British troops in Egypt, said:

That was due to the Egyptians withdrawing all their labour. A further quote is:

Clearly, the Navy was an important part of the whole operation. Royal Navy personnel, as is normal, undertook shore, transport and escort duties in areas subject to conflict and ambush.

My constituent, Bill McKnight served on HMS Glasgow and his service was not atypical with seven stays in port not on patrol, totalling 72 days, the longest three being of 18, 20 and 27 days, in total 240 per cent. of the aggregate criteria, but none reached the 30-days criteria.

There are two critical questions. Is there a precedent for the 30-days or for aggregation? In other words, is the request usual or unusual? Clearly, it is usual. The point has been made in a number of areas. In Palestine, the Aden peninsular, the gulf of Suez, South Arabia, Northern Ireland and Lebanon the period was 28 or 30 days, not necessarily continuous. Thirty continuous days is not a requirement for a clasp to be awarded.

The second question is: why was “aggregate”, as approved by the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State for Defence, changed to “continuous”? It has been much more difficult to find the answer to that. A Cabinet Office letter of 20 July 2005 says that

That is the criteria in Command Paper 5999. The letter continues:

That was covered by the criteria on the geographic area, and the answer was rather feeble.

The MOD letter, reference D/US of S/TW 3015/06/L/sb, from Tom Watson to the Solicitor-General, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) on 27 June 2006 gave a further excuse when it stated that it was

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than people in the Army who bore the brunt of the service. That is a canard. At no time has anyone suggested that the service qualification for Royal Navy personnel should be any different from that for any other service. All that we are asking for is that the whole period should be counted as aggregated service rather than continuous service.

A letter to Mr. L. Golder, MBE of Bolton on 30 May 2006, reference D/DS Sec/1102/10, answers the question about who and attempts to say why. It says that

No it did not. It was clear that the declaration was “aggregated” and that that criterion was approved by the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State. An earlier Cabinet Office letter on 16 June 2006 to Bill McKnight said:

That is quite different from the documentation.

A further letter from the Cabinet Office to the Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Kennedy on 30 June 2006 said that the report by the sub-committee

It continued:

There is clearly a problem with the differences between the two.

There are two broad reasons for opposing the change from continuous to aggregate service. First, there are the differing criteria. I do not think that anybody wants them, so we do not need to discuss them any further. As I said, it is an absolute canard, and frankly, I hope that the Minister will not bother dealing with the issue. There is also the issue of the reflection of the advice from the sub-committee’s discussions. And secondly, the sub-committee’s criteria were not detailed.

The only evidence that we have is a written submission from the sub-committee, which clearly says that service should be aggregated. It cannot be clearer: four words make it clear that service should be aggregated and not continuous. If the criterion was to be continuous service, why did no one say so? It is not a subtle change or a minor issue; it diametrically opposes Command Paper 5999. It is as different as black and white, as up and down—as aggregated and continuous. The only evidence that has been presented to me is hearsay versus clear documentation, and in a court of law documentary evidence would take precedence over hearsay.

The evidence in the document that the sub-committee produced and sent to the committee is also more detailed than in Command Paper 5999. As I have
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said, the Command Paper was approved by the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State for Defence, and changes were made—apparently without their knowledge. Perhaps we are being asked to believe that the Secretary of State signed it on the understanding that continuous meant aggregate and that aggregate meant continuous. I cannot believe that. It is stretching credulity too far to believe that the Secretary of State and the Chiefs of Staff did not understand that the documentation meant aggregated and not continuous service.

Why was the Secretary of State not informed of the re-documentation and the changes that were made? Were the Chiefs of Staff informed? I do not know; I have not found any evidence to say that they were or were not informed. If they had been notified, would they have approved it? I doubt that they would, because of the nature of the Mediterranean fleet and of the operations in the Mediterranean sea. The change would have meant that, in effect, every single Royal Navy sailor serving in the Mediterranean sea was denied the opportunity to add a clasp to the general service medal for Suez canal service.

I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to say that he can make a change today; I know that that is not how things work. However, I ask him to consider the case very closely. He should not deny the case today; he should have a clear look at it, and consider all the papers. I am sure that he has more available to him than I do. He should also try to obtain the answers to my questions. If he is not satisfied that the case has been made, and if he is satisfied that the Royal Navy and all other service personnel who served in that theatre for 30 days’ aggregate service should be awarded the clasp, he should ask the HD committee to review the case. Only then will the sailors feel that their service for our country has been properly recognised, and that the dangers that they were placed in have been understood. They will then be able to take their place with pride alongside their brothers in arms in the Royal Marines, the Royal Air Force, and the Army, who served our country in a difficult and dangerous time.

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate and providing me with an opportunity to speak about this emotive issue. My hon. Friend is a strong supporter of veterans and he takes great interest in veterans’ issues. He has done so for a number of years. I hope to address the issues that he has covered today, but I may not be able to do so in the time that I have available, so I shall write to him about the issues that I do not cover during my response.

It may be helpful if I explain the current position. In July 2002, following protracted representations from veterans who had served in the canal zone in the 1950s, who said that their service had not been recognised by the issue of a medal, the Government set up a sub-committee of the pan-departmental committee on the grant of honours, decorations and medals, known as the HD committee.

Since the end of the second world war, the HD committee has maintained the policy that it will not
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consider the belated institution of awards and medals for service given many years earlier, because it cannot put itself in the place of the committee that made the original decision, which would have been able to take account of the views of the Government and other interested parties at the time of the decision. In response to requests for the institution of belated awards, the committee has made it clear on a number of occasions that it will not change that policy. If an exception were to be made for one case, it would be almost impossible to refuse to reconsider every other claim for the retrospective institution of an award or medal.

The case for the Suez canal zone, however, was considered unique. Although there was some contemporary evidence to indicate that a request for a campaign medal had been submitted, there was no conclusive evidence to prove that the matter had been considered at the time. As a result, and in view of the exceptional circumstances, the HD committee established a special, independent sub-committee to look specifically at the case for a medal for service in the canal zone in the early 1950s.

The sub-committee was chaired by General Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, a former Chief of the General Staff and former Chief of the Defence Staff. Lord Guthrie’s sub-committee also included Field Marshal Sir John Chappie, also a former Chief of the General Staff, Air Vice Marshal Keith Filby, and Sir Max Hastings, the noted military historian.

The sub-committee, in reporting its conclusions, recommended that those veterans who had served in the Suez canal zone between 1951 and 1954 for a period of at least 30 days should be eligible for the award of a canal zone clasp to the general service medal. With regard to Royal Navy personnel, the sub-committee indicated that the 30 days should have been spent ashore, not at sea.

The sub-committee’s report did not contain, nor was it intended to contain, a detailed account of the eligibility criteria. The main focus of the report was on the justification for the institution of a new medal. The report merely indicated that the sub-committee recommended that service of at least 30 days would be required. It did not indicate whether eligible service must be continuous or aggregated. The report, however, drew a parallel between the circumstances surrounding the award of a medal for service in Palestine, which required 28 days’ continuous service, and the Suez medal question.

Subsequently, the full HD committee discussed the question of eligibility for the Suez award. On the advice of the sub-committee, as confirmed by Lord Guthrie and agreed by the Ministry of Defence, the full HD committee took the decision to set the qualifying criteria at 30 days’ continuous service. The recommendations were duly submitted to Her Majesty the Queen, and in October 2003, the Government were pleased to announce that Her Majesty had graciously agreed to the institution of the canal zone clasp to the 1915 naval general service medal and the equivalent Army and RAF medal, the 1918 general service medal, to recognise service in the canal zone in Egypt between October 1951 and October 1954.

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