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11 Dec 2007 : Column 39WHcontinued
I am also delighted that a large number of British veterans attended the celebrations, and that an exception was made to our rules, as laid down by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, to allow those veterans to accept His Majesty the King of Malaysias generous gesture in awarding the PJM. Those people who were able to travel to Malaysia for the 50th anniversary celebrations were, as my briefing puts it, exceptionally permitted to wear the medal in Kuala Lumpur. However, I fear that there are no plansI am told this by the HD committeeto allow unrestricted wear of that medal, which, it argues would be contrary to some important rules governing the acceptance and wearing of honours and decorations, which have been long-standing practice in
this country. That is what I want to consider in the time left to me, because I have got to try to explain why it is so.
I am informed that allowing the PJM medal to be accepted required the HD committee to agree a special exception to two principles governing the acceptance and wear of foreign awards. The first, which we have heard about, is double medalling, whereby a British award has been given for the same service. The second is the five-year rule, which does not allow medals to be accepted for events that took place more than five years ago.
The following point struck me when the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) spoke. I do not know the exact date when British soldiers went to Afghanistan, but it must be getting on for sixcertainly fiveyears ago. It was probably February 2002. That is almost as long as the second world war, and although some acts of valour will have been rewarded already, it might be a long time before some of the ongoing events there receive full recognition. The question of the time span is important, and we must consider it in the future. Indeed, we must consider much else besides.
Both rulesit is arguedare long standing and fundamental to the integrity of the British honours system. The five-year rule, and an earlier two-year rule, date back to 1855, and the double medalling rule is also long standing. I was very grateful to the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) for his compelling description of why some rules are in place. He gave us a fair and balanced description.
The British honours systemI am toldhas a long history of recognising meritorious service and of preserving the integrity of Crown servants. It guards against something that the HD committee calls medal proliferationa very interesting term. The committee should go to some of the countries that I go to occasionally if it wants to see medal proliferation. I understand that the tradition has been upheld by numerous reviews. As my right hon. Friend told us, our practice differs from that of some other countries. The British honours system is truly meritorious. Honours and decorations are highly valued, and the system is administered scrupulously, as the hon. Member for Westbury told us. However, I have also been led to understand that it allows flexibility for special circumstances. My right hon. Friend gave us some examples, such as allowing veterans of the Malaysian campaign to accept but not to wear the PJM medal.
In my view, that situation adds an anomalous variable to an equation that is already extremely difficult to understand. The HD committees argument is that the vast majority of the veterans who have received the PJM medal have also been awarded the British general service medal for the risk and rigour of their service in Malaysia. I do not know whether this will provide an answer to the hon. Member for New Forest, East, but there was only a short period, from 1960 to 1962, when the risk and rigour in Malaysia was not deemedby those who do the deemingsufficient to award a medal to British troops stationed there. For the rest of the period covered by the PJM medal, between 1957 and 1966, those who were thought to merit recognition by the award of a medal, and who
fulfilled the appropriate time criteria, were awarded the general service medal with the appropriate clasp, the Malaya bar.
The qualifying periods were different for service afloat and service on land. Some naval personnel did not receive a naval general service medal for their time served off the coast of Malaysia, and they do not consider receiving the PJM medal to be double medalling, because they do not have a British medal for their service. I am told that the qualifying periods were carefully considered at the time, and there were obviously good reasons for making the naval qualifying period longer. However, the HD committee argues that the absence of a general service medal should not, in itself, mean automatic qualification for a foreign award.
The HD committee advises Her Majesty the Queen on all honours matters.
Dr. Julian Lewis: What the Minister has just said is hard to understand. It is not for the committee to decide whether British service personnel who did not qualify for the British award should be eligible for a foreign award. The Government of Malaysia have decided that all those service personnel are eligible to receive the award. Surely the point is that those who for any reason did not receive the British general service medal and Malaya clasp should therefore be eligible to wear the PJM medal because it is not a case of double medalling. Will the Minister focus on that when he takes away the argument, which he is evidently quite unhappy to have been given by his officials?
Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman has put the matter clearly, and that is why I described it as an anomalous variable in an already difficult equation. It is difficult to understand why that exception should be made. I shall argue that it should not.
As I said, the HD committee was established formally in the 1930s to provide what is described as
independent and non-political advice to the sovereign.
However, for the past century, the sovereign has called on his or her private secretary, in consultation with senior civil servants, to give advice on the honours system. Although the Committee is non-ministerial, it takes the views of Ministers into accountor so it says. It seems that it does not always take a great deal of account of the views of Ministers, as my right hon. Friend pointed out.
Mr. Touhig: Will my hon. Friend provide us with evidence that the committee has ever taken the views of Ministers into account? I was never aware of that, and the correspondence that I have seen with colleagues who are no longer Ministers but support the veterans campaign does not show it. The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) thought that I was vitriolic about the HD committee, and I was not sure whether the Tory party was on the side of the veterans or the HD committee until the end of his contribution. Can my hon. Friend provide us with evidence that the committee has taken notice of Ministers? We are living in a day when things are much more transparent. Can we, as Parliament, tolerate a body that makes decisions in secret without any reference to elected representatives? Surely we cannot.
Dr. Howells: No, I cannot give my right hon. Friend any evidence that the committee has ever listened to a Minister. In the case of the PJM, the Minister with responsibility for veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), and a former Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), wrote a joint letter to the HD committee before its deliberations earlier this year, in support of wearing the medal. The committees members, however, were not sufficiently exercised by that correspondence to change their minds. I am told, nevertheless, that arguments for exceptions to our rules on the acceptance and wearing of decorations and medals are considered carefullythat is what the committee saysto preserve the integrity of the honours system.
In reaching its decision on the PJM, I am told that the committee considered the importance of British involvement in the Malaysian campaign in the histories of both Malaysia and the United Kingdom in the years between 1957 and 1966, the generous gesture of the King of Malaysia and the principles on which the UK honours system is based. I hope that the committees members heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn said: that the generosity of the people of Malaysia, His Majesty the King of Malaysia and the Government of Malaysia carries with it a great deal of political significance.
We heard that other exceptions have been made which were probably based on considerations with such political significance. For example, I know about the sterling work that the hon. Member for New Forest, East did on the Murmansk medal and the Arctic convoys. The agreement to award the medal was seen as a gesture of our increasing friendship and relationship with the newly emerging Russian democracy. That is an important point to make, and my right hon. Friend reminded us that not many countries that could be described as overwhelmingly Islamic have decided to honour us in such a way and honour veterans who helped to carve out those countries in the first place. That is an important and significant political fact.
Bob Spink: I am sorry to intervene on the Minister when he is making such an important point. He mentioned the significance of the Malaysia conflict, and I thought at first that he meant its significance as a war, rather than the political significance that he has moved on to. On its significance as a war, I remind him that 545,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped in 4,500 air strikes, 34,000 people were interned, defoliant was sprayed on hundreds of acres of land and 5,000 people were killed. It seems to me a more substantial and consequential conflict than many for which medals have happily been awarded.
Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman reminds us of some important facts, and I am remiss in not having commented on the central point that he made: that in many ways it was the last serious conflict to be fought by conscripts as well as professional soldiers. It was a substantial and difficult war. I grew up in a family that knew well the details of the Burma campaign in the second world war, much of which was fought over similar territory. People suffered greatly in the Malaysian campaign, most of all the indigenous
people. It also had extremely significant ramifications for the wider world. It could be argued that it was a hot war fought by the major cold war combatants by proxy, and we ought to remember that.
As I said, some exceptions have been made for veterans to be awarded foreign medals as well as a British medal. For the HD committee to argue that those exceptions do not set precedents is difficult for a humble Minister such as me to understand. After all, if it is right to allow one small group of veterans to wear two medals for one period of service, in contravention of what is now called standard practice, there is a good case for arguing that exceptions should also be made for many other veterans, including the rest of those who fought in the Malaya campaign. It is not fair that many veterans find themselves not permitted to enjoy such an exception.
I am told that the HD committee has considered the case of the PJM three times, the third time to agree to wearing the medal in Malaysia during the 50th anniversary celebrations. Having considered it in such detail, carefully weighing up the arguments for and against, I am toldhaving read, I assume, the correspondence from the Veterans Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfieldthat the committee does not plan to reconsider the matter and that Ministers do not plan to overrule the committees advice to the Queen. I would be the last person in the world to want to overrule any committee, but I shall say something in a moment that might worry it a little.
Dr. Murrison: I cannot wait. Of course the committee will not reconsider the matter, because it is obliged to work to the rules that are set down in the 1969 regulations. It is the business of Ministers to amend those regulations, so I am afraid that the Minister cannot get off the hook.
This Minister has never tried to get off any hook. This is the last time that I shall ever give way
to the hon. Gentleman when I am on the last page of my speech, because he has just stolen my linesan awful thing to do.
I have been told that the committee does not plan to reconsider the matter. As we have just heard, that plan is subject to the Houses deliberations on the subject, because there is political input to the committee via the high-ranking and distinguished public servants appointed to it. I shall read out the list: the private secretary to the sovereign, the defence services secretary, the permanent under-secretary to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the secretary to the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, the appointments secretary to the Prime Minister, the permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defence, the permanent secretary to the Home Office and the ceremonial officer of the Cabinet Office. The HD committees plans will ultimately be determined by decisions of Parliament.
In March 1944, Winston Churchill observed:
The object of giving medals, stars and ribbons is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them. At the same time a distinction is something which everyone does not possess. If all have it, it is of less value. There must, therefore, be heartburnings and disappointments on the borderline. A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow. The task of drawing up regulations for such awards is one which does not admit of a perfect solution. It is not possible to satisfy everybody without the risk of satisfying nobody. All that is possible is to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and to hurt the feelings of the fewest.
Those are wise words, but they were designed not just to make the central point that we must take great care in awarding medals and honours, which we do, but to ensure that there must be flexibility and sensitivity as events unfold and circumstances and perceptions change. That is why I shall try to communicate to my colleagues in the Government and to the HD committee that flexibility is needed in this case. I hope that they will take the testimonies that we have heard this morning and my words seriously.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I am grateful for this brief opportunity in a packed Westminster Hall to raise the issue of vulnerable adults in residential nursing and care homes in England. I pay tribute to the exceptional level of care that the majority of elderly, vulnerable adults receive from the dedicated private, voluntary and public sectors. It is important to put that on the record.
More than 280,000 adults receive care in a variety of settings, and I know from my constituency, where I rarely receive a complaint, that the level of care is generally outstanding, despite the ever-decreasing fees to support top quality care. However, the reality is that abuse takes place, and we know from last weeks ICM poll in The Guardian that 66 per cent. of adults are frightened by the prospect of going into care homes.
We were reminded only yesterday of the need for vigilance, high-quality inspection, investigation of complaints and prompt action when the owners of Parkfields care home near Glastonbury were arrested on suspicion of murdering five elderly adults. I hope that the Minister will give a further assurance today that the protection of all vulnerable adults is high on his priority list. He has recognised the challenge facing the Government, and on 20 February he addressed Age Concerns Age Agenda conference and said:
I think we need to create a society over time where people are as outraged by the abuse of older people as they are rightly about the abuse of children.
we are a long way from getting there. I'm afraid in the months and years ahead, we'll have to face up to some pretty uncomfortable realities about the abuse of older people in our society.
This week gave us a taste of that.
What, in effect, the Minister was saying was that of the 500,000 older people who are believed by Help the Aged to suffer abuse today, some will die because of our inability to act quickly enough to protect them. Some, particularly those with dementias, and those who are immobile or unable to communicate, will not even be able to voice their concerns before they die. That is unacceptable. The Minister was right when he said that we would not accept that for our children, and we should not accept it for our elderly people.
I hope that today the Minister will set out clearly the steps that he intends to take to build on the excellent initiatives already announced, and set a binding timetable for action to give vulnerable elderly adults the same protection as our children. That is what I am asking for. He could start by agreeing to two relatively straightforward measures. First, he could take steps to recommence the collection of data on elder abuse and to publish them, along with outcomes. It is not right that the Department does not collect those statistics. The £360,000 grant to Action on Elder Abuse is an important step forward, but it should not allow the Department not to collect those vital statistics.
Secondly, the Minister could take immediate steps to extend to care home residents full rights under the Human Rights Act 1998as recommended in the recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report on
the human rights of older people in health careby including an amendment to that effect in the Health and Social Care Bill, which is before Parliament.
Given the Ministers statement to the Age Concern conference, surely he cannot be content that the residents of 90 per cent. of care homes and 60 per cent. of domiciliary care agencies run by private or voluntary organisations are excluded from human rights protection. He knows that I have a long-standing interest in this area, largely as a result of the unacceptable handling by various inspection and regulatory bodies of the complaints of abuse that occurred at Gargrave Park nursing home in North Yorkshire between April and October 2002. The elderly residents at Gargrave Park who were subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse cannot expect justice today because they are no longer with us, but their legacy could be an inspection and complaints regime that gives the elderly in care at least the same level of protection that we demand for children in care.
My constituents Ruth Poole and Julie Dale, who were both registered nursing inspectors, exposed the dangerous and life-threatening practices at Gargrave Park, but when they produced evidence about the levels of abusesupported by other professionals, including a consultant psychiatrist, GPs and social workerssadly, the authorities sought to discredit the inspectors and not the abusers. Hiding behind a web of obfuscation and petty bureaucracy, those organisations charged with protecting the vulnerablethe Nursing and Midwifery Council, the National Care Standards Commission and the Commission for Care Standardsall failed in their duty of care to residents and to the inspectors. They were often more interested in procedural point scoring than in protecting the vulnerable.
The appalling incidents highlighted in February by the Panorama programme Please Look After Mum again demonstrated familiar failings by the inspection regime to find out what was happening, despite clear evidence from a whistleblower. Last weeks Panorama programme Please Look After Dad exposed a worrying trend in the use of anti-psychotic drugs to sedate residents with Alzheimers, despite evidence from Professor Ballard of Kings College and others that such drugs often have little positive effect and could shorten the lives of people with dementia. All those casesand, indeed, many more highlighted by the Select Committeepoint to the need to improve the quality of professional inspection of care homes. I want to challenge the Minister on that.
I recognise that the Minister is about to embark on another round of changes to the inspection system to merge the Healthcare Commission, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and the Mental Health Act Commission into the care quality commission. On the face of it, getting rid of three organisations and merging them into one is a sensible way of moving forward because such organisations often inspect the same institutions and individuals, but what assurances can the Minister give that this is not just another step along the route of de-professionalising the whole inspection regime? Is it not simply recognition that we have far too few inspectors of sufficient status and quality to safeguard the vulnerable in societys care?
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