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11 Dec 2007 : Column 26WH—continued

In the last parliamentary Session, I tabled early-day motion 356, which attracted 176 signatures. It called on the HD Committee to change its advice to Her Majesty
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the Queen on the wearing of the PJM. Also in that Session, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) tabled early-day motion 375, which called on the HD Committee to do much the same thing. That, too, received widespread support from all parties in the House.

It seems utter nonsense not to allow veterans to wear medals officially awarded to them. We must bring to an end that confusing and insulting practice. It is wholly wrong that the veterans cannot accept and wear the PJM. At best, that decision is unjust; at worst, it is a disgrace and a shame on Britain.

Bob Spink: Before the right hon. Gentleman moves off the point about consistency, I would like to make a point in case he is not going to mention it. He will be aware that those who served on the Russian Arctic convoys were allowed to receive and wear their medals, as my father did with great pride. He will also be aware that the Governments of other countries, including Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, have given permission for the medals to be worn at any time, so why should our Government not give the same permission?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point that shows the inconsistency of the approach to accepting medals from foreign nations.

Being allowed to accept but not wear the PJM is a disgrace and a shame on Britain. Britain’s shame was compounded and turned into a farce more worthy of a Whitehall theatre than the highest echelons of government when Commonwealth Governments in Australia and New Zealand advised Her Majesty the Queen that their citizens should be allowed to accept and wear the medal on all occasions. Indeed, the Governor-General of Australia, Michael Jeffery, was presented with his own PJM on 30 January 2006 and is allowed to wear it in public with pride. I am holding a picture of him doing just that. So, the Queen’s representative in Australia is allowed to accept and wear the PJM, but the Queen’s soldiers in Great Britain are not.

Sandra Gidley: Can the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether the Queen sanctioned the wearing of the medal in Australia and New Zealand? Any advice given to the Queen is not available under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, so it is difficult to be clear about the matter. Does he know whether she was given advice with respect to the other countries?

Mr. Touhig: Her Majesty is the Queen of Australia and of New Zealand, and acts on the advice of her Governments there. They appear to have advised her that their citizens should not simply accept but be able to wear the PJM. Clearly, that has happened with Commonwealth countries, and I, like the hon. Lady, cannot understand why that is not happening in this country.

This Government have done much for veterans. They created the first Minister for Veterans, instituted Veterans Day and created the Veterans Agency, but I want them to do more. In presenting the PJM, the
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Malaysian Government are thanking the 35,000 veterans who served on operations in that country. Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country. I know of no other Muslim country that today wants to honour British servicemen and women. What message does it send out to a friendly Muslim nation—an ally and a member of the Commonwealth—when the British establishment is throwing this generous gesture back in its face? I can only hope that the members of the HD Committee do not also serve in the diplomatic service. God help British foreign policy if they do.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): On a point of information, the permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a member of the Committee.

Mr. Touhig: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Let history be the judge is all that I can say.

We in this country have a tradition of showing gratitude to our veterans for their services, and celebrating their achievements, yet veterans of the Malaysia campaign are not allowed to wear the PJM. To add insult to injury, the HD Committee agreed in March 2007 to review its original decision but concluded that it should be upheld. In answer to a parliamentary question, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said:

My God, if I could close my eyes, I could imagine Sir Humphrey saying that in “Yes, Minister”.

I raised the matter with my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. I am grateful for their keen interest in the matter, but I have to say that, so far, I have received the same old tired responses. I was told that it has been a long-standing policy to say that

Again, who says that “Yes, Minister” is not the training manual for the civil service? My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, whom I greatly admire and support, is a radical man. He wrote an excellent biography on the great socialist James Maxton, in which he quoted Maxton talking about poverty:

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend’s Government have little sympathy with those who want Britain to cling to outmoded and antiquated systems that belong in the 19th century, not the 21st.

To paraphrase James Maxton, the system that denies our Malaysia veterans the right to wear the PJM is man-made and therefore open to change. The only conclusion that I can draw from the attitude of the HD Committee is that it seems more important to uphold
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the British honours system than to honour British servicemen and women, some of whom have laid down their lives for our country. Those soldiers faced some terrible conditions. One can only imagine what it was like fighting in the jungles in those times, so how must they feel when they hear about the attitude that we have taken and our refusal to allow them to wear the PJM?

One veteran wrote to tell me that he had been advised by a Ministry of Defence civil servant that he could stuff his PJM back in his Kellogg’s packet, because the medal status meant nothing to him. Shame on any official who speaks to a veteran in that way. Many of those lads are now in their 60s and 70s, and they grow fewer in number each year. The time is right to make a decision and rightly allow them to wear this honour. All they ask is to be able to wear with pride the medal that they earned, alongside other veterans who parade across Britain on Remembrance Sunday.

I have met many of these men and I pay tribute to their campaign. Their quiet dignity is in stark contrast to the actions of civil servants who are hiding behind the actions of some shadowy Committee. I have tried to find out how this Committee operates. I am told that the main Committee meets just twice a year, and its minutes are not made public. The idea of transparency and open government do not apply there.

There are also stories circulating that the Committee often takes decision not by members meeting each other, but by them telephoning or e-mailing each other. It is a good thing that we did not have e-mails in 1957 when some of those conscripted might have not turned up to fight, but sent an e-mail of support. Where would we have been then?

I know that many Malaysia veterans have lobbied parliamentary colleagues, the HD Committee itself and Ministers, and still we are no further forward. The veterans have been left confused and disenchanted by the whole process. They deserve far better, and I believe that we have to deliver that for them. Those veterans have done their bit. We should honour them and recognise that the medal they have been given is not some second-class award, but an award given by an ally and friend in recognition of service provided by British servicemen and women. Their cause is honourable: they simply wish to receive fair and even-handed treatment from the British Government and to be afforded the same right as their comrades in other Commonwealth countries to wear the medal that they have earned.

I also know that if the HD Committee changes its mind, we will be told that that is setting a precedent. I am sure that I am not alone in this Chamber in thinking that, throughout my political life, I have been warned that if I said this or that, or did this or did that, I would be setting a precedent. I am sure that when the first human being stood up and began to walk on two legs rather than crawl around on all fours, there must have been a group of Neanderthals, not unlike the HD Committee, who tut-tutted, wrung their hands and said, “This is setting a precedent.” That is precisely what I am asking my hon. Friend the Minister to do now.

My hon. Friend the Minister is a good man and we know each other well. I am extremely fond of him and I hold him in high regard. He is at his best when he is most eloquent, and his most persuasive when he says
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what he thinks, although from time to time, that has got him into trouble, as I well know. May I invite him to tear up the notes that his officials have given to him and speak from what he feels inside—from what he knows to be right? He will not be alone, because I have received many e-mails from across Britain and from across the world from people who are saying, “We must do something to put this injustice right.”

When there is some outrage of this sort, people look to Parliament for a solution. Something so shameful as the way that the Malaysia veterans have been treated deserves our attention. The British people look to this place, the Parliament of Great Britain, to right an obvious wrong. We are privileged to be the elected representatives of the people. If Parliament turns its back on the legitimate claims of the Malaysia veterans, where can they turn after that? In this day and age, we cannot allow a Committee with no ministerial involvement, that appears to meet in secret, that is not transparent and that appears not to be accountable to Parliament to take such arbitrary decisions that affect so many of our brave men and women.

I say this to my Government—no, I say this to our Government, because whatever our persuasion, they are the Government of the whole United Kingdom: if the members of the HD committee will not change their mind and advise Her Majesty the Queen that the medal can be worn, sweep them aside and ignore them. Like the Governments of Australia and of New Zealand, advise Her Majesty the Queen that the medal should be worn.

This is the Government who had the courage to pardon those who were shot at dawn during the first world war. I appeal to the same Government to demonstrate the same sense of justice by allowing the Malaysia veterans to wear the PJM. Then we could send a message to those who served our country in the past, but also to those who are serving our country now in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas around the world. They would understand that we will always honour, cherish and care for them. We must grasp this chance to deliver justice for the Malaysia veterans.

11.20 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I shall not detain hon. Members long. I start by acknowledging the Government’s record on recognising veterans and celebrating their service and their subsequent contribution to British society in so many ways, including the fact that many veterans turn out in the end to be volunteers—using the skills that they have learned, often in the services, to help others in their community. The present Government have done very well in recognising that achievement by introducing the veterans badge, which many of my constituents wear with great pride whenever they can. Veterans are among the most worthy groups in British society and they well deserve the recognition that the Government have offered them.

The Government have acted honourably and properly in dealing with the issue, so it surprises me that they cannot take a small extra step and allow the PJM to be worn by the Malaysian veterans, who were not volunteers, as I was as a boy, but were conscripted;
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they were forced to fight and serve their country, which many of them did with great professionalism and dignity.

Dr. Howells indicated assent.

Bob Spink: I see the Minister nodding. While I have his assent, I will conclude my remarks.

11.22 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I was just checking a fact with the proposer of this excellent debate, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), relating to the introduction of the veterans badge. The reason why I wished to be certain about that was that a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of receiving my own addition of the veterans badge for some very modest service in the Royal Naval Reserve as an ordinary seaman some years ago. I felt a little thrill of pride, which was no doubt completely unjustified, but it was very nice to feel that a little bit of service to society in the armed forces had been recognised in that way. How much more significant it would be for someone who was involved in risking life and limb in a serious war-fighting campaign to receive recognition in the form of a medal for the risks that they had taken and for their achievements.

I have been involved in one or two similar campaigns in the past, but they were campaigns with a bit of a difference. When the right hon. Gentleman, whom I congratulate on the bravura way in which he presented the case today, was Minister for Veterans, I was heavily involved with the campaign to try to get an Arctic star for the veterans of the Russian convoys. It was remarkable how much resistance there was to that, yet there was a considerable difference between that case and this, because no medal had been given for the Arctic convoys at all, although it was argued unconvincingly that some of the veterans were eligible for the Atlantic star, which made me wonder not only about the intellectual rigour of the case, but about the geographical limitations of the people advancing it.

Eventually, although an Arctic star was awarded, it was in the form of an Arctic star emblem. I do not believe that permission was ever formally given for that to be integrated with the officially awarded second world war medal range, but it was designed to be easily capable of attachment to the ribbons of those second world war medals, and the effect is that everybody happily wears the Arctic star emblem today among the medals and nobody raises a word of objection about it. Therefore, the first thing that I would say to any veteran who has received the PJM medal is, “Put it on your medal range. Wear it proudly and my guess is that nobody will say a word about it.”

Sandra Gidley: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I was invited to a medal ceremony, and the pride of the men in their medals was almost tangible. I suggested to them the very same thing that the hon. Gentleman suggested, but it is not quite the same. They want official recognition and official permission to wear the medal, because ultimately they were soldiers and they are law-abiding—they like to abide by the rules.

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Dr. Lewis: The hon. Lady anticipates a point that I was coming to. Nevertheless, when it comes to practical advice, the first step should be to say: “You have the medal. Wear it and do so with pride.”

The problem that the Ministry of Defence and the HD Committee face is not that they wish to regard the PJM as a second-class medal—I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that any civil servant who referred to it in those terms is not fit to hold his job—but that it is a second medal. That is where I think the difficulty arises, because some of the medal campaigns that we have fought retrospectively, such as Commander Eddie Grenfell’s campaign for an Arctic star or Captain Peter Kimm’s campaign for a canal zone medal for royal naval personnel—I want to touch on that in a moment—are for cases in which no medal was awarded at all.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Lewis: I would like to develop the point a little further, but if the hon. Lady would like to try again later, I will be happy to give way to her.

In the cases to which I was referring, the difficulty related primarily to the amount of time that had elapsed since the campaign took place. That issue is, I think, dead and buried because the canal zone campaign set a precedent for going back into the records and retrospectively awarding a general service medal, which I believe is known nowadays as an overseas service medal, to people who qualified as a result of their service in the canal zone. The reason given for doing that was that it could not be shown that the idea had been put up for a medal or a clasp to a general service medal to be awarded for that service at the time, and rejected, so I went to considerable lengths to try to show the same thing with regard to an Arctic star in the second world war and I could find no record. I went through the HD Committee and through the ceremonial department, as I think it was, that supplied the records that the HD Committee would have considered in relation to the awarding of second world war campaign stars, and I could find no suggestion that a medal for the Arctic had been considered and rejected, either. However, in that case, one had to settle for an emblem, whereas in the case of the canal zone, it was retrospectively decided to award the clasp or, in the case of those who did not have a general service medal already, the medal together with the clasp.

The problem with the Pingat Jasa Malaysia, it is only fair to point out, is that the campaign is not one that has not been recognised. The British Government have quite properly recognised it by awarding a general service medal with a clasp. It raises a question of arbitrariness for a Government who have benefited from the work of British servicemen and women to wish to award a medal retrospectively for service for which a medal has already been awarded. It is possible that somebody who received a general service medal and clasp for service under equally severe conditions—perhaps in another theatre of war where the Government were not as appreciative after our withdrawal as in Malaysia—might feel a tad resentful that their colleagues got two medals and they only got one.

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