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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 26 February 2008

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Medals (Armed Forces Personnel)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

9.30 am

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I would like to start by saying how pleased I am to have secured the debate so that we can discuss, quite rightly, the debt of honour that we all owe to those who are fighting and losing their lives in conflicts to secure the freedoms that we take for granted. I shall put the debate in context. The “Honour the Brave” campaign was started by Colonel Richard Kemp, who was head of UK forces in Afghanistan. I first met Richard four years ago when I visited Afghanistan as a member of the Select Committee on Defence. I pay tribute to his tenacity and that of the families supporting him. I also pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for its campaign for a medal and recognition for those who have been wounded or who have, unfortunately, lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last November, the “Honour the Brave” campaign was officially launched in Parliament in Committee Room 9. I was ably assisted on that occasion by the hon. Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and by many colleagues who came to the launch. The most moving part of that launch was the speeches by Pearl Thrumble and Helen Gray. No one could have failed to be moved by their accounts of the bravery and heroism of their two sons, who were killed in Afghanistan. They explained how proud they were of their sons, the heartache that they had gone through in making the ultimate sacrifice of losing sons in Afghanistan and what recognition would mean to them and their families.

Since then, the campaign has generated quite a lot of support. It has been supported by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), along with former military figures, including Field Marshal Lord Bramall, Major-General John Holmes and Major-General Patrick Cordingley. I am pleased to say that the campaign also has the support of all parties in the House and support in the wider community. It has been supported by Sir John Major, along with former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Healey.

Last November, I tabled early-day motion 95 on the “Honour the Brave” campaign, which I understand is top among the early-day motions. It is beating early-day motion 423 on the mass extinction of amphibians by nearly 40 names and has on it the signatures of 293 right hon. and hon. Members.

I have spoken to many people, not only in the services but constituents who have members of their family serving in the armed forces, and they are amazed that there is no fitting recognition for those wounded or
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killed in action. As a member of the Defence Committee, I have visited Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham and seen the horrific wounds that some of our young servicemen have suffered, including amputations, horrible scarring and internal injuries that may not be visible but cause great distress to the individuals affected. That goes on not just for the comparatively short period of their recovery, but for a lifetime. The nation needs to recognise the debt of honour that we owe to those individuals.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. I, too, was pleased to attend the launch of the campaign in November. He has said that the nation recognises the heroism of troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, which is certainly true. Can he come up with any rationale as to why the decision on this issue is taken not by the Minister—an excellent Minister, a first-rate Minister—but by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence, just 200 yd away, who do not even seem to recognise what is happening? They say that this is a peacekeeping operation, despite the fact that we have lost 174 military personnel in Iraq since March 2003 and 89 in Afghanistan. That is hardly a peacekeeping operation, is it?

Mr. Jones: I shall return to that subject later. Most people I speak to are amazed that there is no such recognition. I do not wish to criticise individuals, but I concur with some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend.

Under the military covenant, British soldiers must always get fair treatment, be valued and respected as individuals, and be sustained and rewarded by terms of service that match the personal sacrifices that they make. The proposed medal would support the terms of the covenant in helping to show that the troops’ personal sacrifice is valued by the nation.

On 21 September 2007, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said:

General Dannatt went on to quote my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces:

Awarding a medal for the wounded and the dead would help to explain to the wider community the sacrifices that those young men and women have made on our behalf.

I have spoken to a number of families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I find listening to their stories very moving. To a man and to a woman, they find it hard to understand why some type of recognition is not being given.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing a very important issue before the House. Last Sunday, I was at the Royal British Legion club on Canvey island, where I met an ex-soldier who is having great difficulty in getting
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medical help—in this case, mental health medical treatment. He would find that just as important as receiving recognition and medals. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will allude to that. I have received a petition from the Royal British Legion on the military covenant, which I will present to the House next week.

Mr. Jones: I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says and I will refer to it later. I do not think for one minute that awarding a medal is in any way a reason for not providing proper medical care to those who have been wounded in the service of their country. In fact, I was pleased, along with the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), to be part of the Defence Committee that produced the recent report on medical services, which raised some of the concerns that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and other hon. Members have mentioned in the House before.

One question relating to the awarding of a medal is who would qualify. I would make things quite simple. Those who had been wounded in a combat zone as a direct result of enemy fire and in honourable circumstances, requiring more than simple battlefield first aid, would be eligible. Those wounded in accidents in a combat zone or in training exercises would not. Those criteria are not new: they were used in the first and second world wars as the criteria for the wound stripe, and they are used today for the wound stripe for the Canadian armed forces. The medal would also be presented to the next of kin of servicemen and women who were killed in action or who died as a direct result of their wounds.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I respect him and his campaign, and support it wholeheartedly. Is he not surprised, however, that the purple heart can be awarded to a person who serves with friendly forces? We have the strange situation in which US forces could be awarded a purple heart if they served under British command, yet the proposals from him and the Daily Mirror are more limited, which is interesting.

Mr. Jones: I shall refer to the purple heart later. Anyone who has met American veterans will know that they are proud to have the purple heart, perhaps more so than some campaign medals. Purple heart veterans can even indicate it on their vehicle licence plate, but I am not sure that we should go to such extremes.

The principle of awarding the medal is more important than the details of how it would be awarded. Some, including the former Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), have said that the medal should be extended to people other than those who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sympathetic to such a proposal.

There has been some concern about what to call the medal. Some have suggested that it should be called the Elizabeth cross or Elizabeth medal. I understand that “cross” tends to be associated with gallantry, so “medal” would perhaps be more appropriate. I have noted that the star shape is not in use in today’s military, so we
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could call the medal the Elizabeth star. Again, those details could be worked out once the principle had been agreed.

Some have put forward reasons why such a medal should not be awarded, and it is important to expose them to a little critical thinking. I have heard that the Ministry of Defence supports a medal for the dead but not for the wounded. That would be a great mistake. There is a lot of support in the service community for recognition for those who are wounded, and to divide them from comrades who lost their lives would be an error—it would leave a lot of armed forces personnel feeling that the measure was half-hearted. I urge the Minister not to go down that path when he speaks to his officials.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate—it is an important topic and it captures the mood of the country. I agree that the award should be made to those who are injured and to those who have died. At what point would someone get recognition if they died of their injuries much later? There would be ambiguity. It therefore makes sense to recognise those who suffer injury and those who have died. That is how the campaign should go forward.

Mr. Jones: I agree with my hon. Friend. Anyone who has met amputees at Headley Court or Selly Oak would find it hard to tell those people that they did not need recognition for the horrific wounds that they have suffered.

Another argument that has been put is that the medal would be divisive. However, all medals are divisive. Certainly, gallantry medals are—people have opinions on whether others should or should not receive them. Clearly, good conduct medals or even service award medals such as the OBE or MBE are divisive because people have opinions on whether others should receive them. I note that the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Timothy Granville-Chapman, has a KCB and a CBE, as does the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt. I am sure that those awards were well deserved, but some people would feel that they should not have been given.

I do not think that divisiveness is a good reason for not awarding medals to such individuals, and I do not think that they would have refused to accept those medals on the ground that they were divisive in relation to those people who did not get similar awards.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): For the record, we ought to point out that Sir Richard Dannatt carries the military cross, which he earned in very gallant circumstances. Whether the other person that the hon. Gentleman mentioned has been so honoured is another matter.

Mr. Jones: I am aware of Sir Richard Dannatt’s military cross and that it was well deserved—credit to him for the sacrifice that he made to earn it. However, I am talking about service rather than gallantry awards. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has an OBE, which was given in similar circumstances; I am sure that that award was controversial.

The award that I am talking about would be far less divisive than other types of medal, because people would have to be either severely wounded or killed in action to be eligible. I am sure that there would be no vying for such status.

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I have been told that the military do not like to award new medals or honours. If The Sunday Times is anything to go by, the MOD is considering a good conduct badge, which the hon. Gentleman and I support. However, an award or symbol for good conduct could be divisive, which shows up the MOD’s argument. The idea that the proposed medal would divide people in the armed forces does not hold a great deal of water.

Another argument, which comes from traditionalists, is that Britain does not award such medals and that there is no tradition or precedent for it in the British armed forces. However, there is such a tradition. Servicemen and women who were wounded in the first and second world wars were awarded wound stripes, which were vertical stripes worn on the sleeve. Field Marshall Lord Bramall told the Daily Mirror that he was proud to wear his second world war wound stripes. Wound stripes are also awarded to Canadian armed forces and there is a campaign to replace them with a medal. Also, service personnel who were invalided out of the armed forces in the first world war were given a silver war badge; in the second world war, such people were given the King’s badge. The latter was issued more widely than the award I am proposing: it was given to those invalided out for any reason, not only those who were injured during enemy action.

The most astounding fact that I came across in my research for the debate is that, in the first world war, the next of kin of every serviceman and woman killed in action received a letter that was personally signed by George V, a scroll and a bronze plaque. I am told that some of those bronze plaques still adorn mantelpieces up and down the country and that they are rightly handed on as family heirlooms.

Even today, the silver cross is awarded by the Queen as Head of State of Canada and of New Zealand to armed forces personnel who are killed in action. That badge can be worn by the next of kin. Some press comment in Australia says that there is a move for a similar awards to be given to the next of kin of Australian servicemen who are killed in action. If it is fitting for the Queen to award such an honour to the next of kin of Canadians and New Zealanders, a similar award to the next of kin of UK armed forces would be appropriate.

Another argument that has been put is that the award would somehow be difficult to administer; that is a famous argument because we always hear it from the MOD. However, in the first world war, we had 965,703 people killed and 2,272,999 wounded in four years, and every single one received some type of award. The casualties that we suffer today pale in comparison to what happened in 1914.

Another factor has already been alluded to—that the criteria for earning the award would be difficult to establish. The purple heart is one of America’s oldest medals; it dates back to 1782. The important thing is to keep the qualifying criteria simple. Copying or at least considering how the purple heart is awarded is important, because it is simple.

The purple heart is awarded for two reasons, and the first has five criteria. First, it is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to those wounded or killed, or who have died as a result of their wounds, and can be awarded in any action against an enemy of the United States; in any action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the armed forces of
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the United States are or have been engaged; while serving with friendly forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party; as a result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed forces; and as the result of an act of any hostile foreign force.

Secondly, the wound for which the award is made must have required treatment by a medical officer. I shall not list the other criteria, because the award was extended in 1963 to those who die in prisoner of war camps and those members of the armed forces who die or are injured as a result of acts of terrorism. However, those simple criteria could be amended.

David Wright: My hon. Friend covers a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), which is that the award is also made for peacekeeping. The criteria are simple; the award applies to service personnel in conflict, including in peacekeeping missions. UK troops would therefore be covered if we adopted similar criteria.

Mr. Jones: They would. The United States extended the award to acts of terrorism for that reason—for example, because of the more than 200 marines killed in Lebanon in the 1980s.

Another objection to the award was referred to by the hon. Member for Castle Point. It is that rather than making an award we should be arguing for proper compensation, medical treatment, and rehabilitation and resettlement. I completely agree. Making an award should not be seen as a cop-out for the military—having made the award, one can somehow forget about how our armed forces are treated while serving or after they have left the services. The award should not be made instead of that, but should add to it. That is an important point.

I refer to two individuals who would have qualified for the award, although I know that many others would qualify. The first is Tony Rawson, who was fighting in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. He was a 19-year-old private and was known to his mates as Nicey because he would do anything for anyone. He died instantly when a rocket smashed into him. His fellow soldiers launched a counter-attack to retrieve his body, then risked their lives again by moving him more than a kilometre to ensure that his body could be returned to the United Kingdom. Tony’s fiancée was expecting their first child; she is the sort of person who needs recognition.

The second individual is Private Lionel O’Connor, a 21-year-old who lay on a street in Basra in an expanding pool of his own blood, having been blown up by a roadside bomb. In absolute fear, knowing that he had lost his leg and knowing that the only light was the burning Land Rover from which he had been thrown, he directed his comrades to deal with two more seriously wounded colleagues, both of whom died later. Lionel survived that horrific experience, but he faces the rest of his life as an amputee.

Those are two examples of brave young soldiers who need and deserve recognition from us. A medal would help not only the wounded but those families that have lost loved ones. It would show that we, as a nation, care for the sacrifices that they have made on our behalf.

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