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26 Feb 2008 : Column 186WH—continued

David Taylor: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again so close to the end of his significant contribution. It is important and right to recognise
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such sacrifices by awarding medals to individuals or their families, but would it not be a boost also to the morale of the military forces in general—forces that have been under such stress in recent times in relation to the military covenant and other factors? Indeed, about 12,500 non-commissioned officers and experienced officers have left the services since Britain invaded Iraq five years ago. Would not the morale of the forces be boosted by the decision to award such a medal?

Mr. Jones: That would be a clear indication of one simple thing—that we care about those individuals and that we do not take for granted what they do on our behalf.

I know that the Minister is an honourable gentleman, and I do not need to be reminded that it is not Ministers or politicians who make such awards. Indeed, I have heard that from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence. It will be argued that the service chiefs and the military decide such things; I understand why and I respect those reasons.

I am using the debate to say to the service chiefs that we politicians are not lecturing them for political reasons to award such a medal. We believe that such young men and women need recognition. If the service chiefs do not listen to my voice or the voices of other politicians, I urge them to listen to Pearl Thrumble and Helen Gray. No one who listens to their moving tributes to their sons or hears about the sacrifice that they made can be in any doubt that such people deserve recognition. The medal or some other recognition should be awarded to those brave people.

9.57 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate. I am grateful to Colonel Richard Kemp CBE, who is no stranger to war, for pushing this campaign heavily in the Daily Mirror, making it a national issue. I am grateful to the Minister, as I know that he will give us a fair hearing.

I am particularly grateful to the families who are here today. I can only imagine that this sort of debate is not a comfortable experience for them. Their very presence speaks of their courage as well as the courage of their sons, whom they have lost.

Last summer, I buried a friend of mine in Chester. We had served together; he was a colour sergeant when I was commanding the battalion. He was commissioned, and he died as a captain in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters regiment with his face to the enemy, doing his best to kill those who eventually killed him. Captain Sean Dolan was taken with full military honours to his grave just outside Chester, being carried by pallbearers from the regiment, with shots being fired over the coffin. His incredibly brave wife and son were standing by the side of the grave. As the box was lowered into the ground, his sword belt and medals were passed back to his wife, along with the national flag.

The medals, of course, are the point. Not only had he been awarded the standard Northern Ireland medals, his Balkans medals, his long service and good conduct medal and his meritorious service medal but he also had the Afghan campaign medal; he had won it on a previous
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tour, when the regiment had been in a much quieter part of Afghanistan with hardly a shot fired. Sean went on his second tour and was killed by a direct hit from a Taliban mortar while serving with American special forces. Nothing at all lies in his wife’s hands to say that her husband was killed in action. Yes, she has a campaign medal, but that is a campaign medal from a previous campaign, albeit in Afghanistan. That situation is wrong.

I would like to pick up on a couple of points made by the hon. Gentleman that I think are very telling. The first point is that a lot of opposition will come to this campaign from the heel-dragging community. They will say, “Why on earth should we do this? This is so American, so ‘Purple Hearty’. We have never done anything like this before. Why should we emulate the Yanks?”

All of the Members of Parliament here, Miss Begg, yourself included, will see and hear, if they keep their eyes and ears open, exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier on, when he referred to the bronze plaques that honoured the dead from the first world war. In my constituency, I appreciate that the sacrifice that was made principally by the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment and the Sherwood Foresters was extraordinary. None the less, if I go round the cottages, farms and working men’s houses in my constituency, those bronze plaques are still there. They cost one shilling and nine pence for King George V, at his personal behest, to issue to the families of the dead. Each plaque is inscribed with the name of the dead soldier. Now, nearly 100 years later, those plaques keep the names of the dead alive. They are shown with huge pride, often alongside the campaign medals that the boys—they were all boys, let’s face it—earned in the first world war. Therefore, anybody who says that there is no precedent for this medal that we are discussing today is simply wrong.

The Army has a great habit of reinventing its own history. Let it look carefully and see what has happened in the past. It has been mentioned already, but I was appalled to see articles in the newspapers about the good conduct badges. Good conduct badges have been worn since 1803. I took great pleasure in awarding them to the soldiers in my battalion who qualified for them and those soldiers were extremely proud of them. How can we suddenly think that these things are being reinvented? They are not. There is a precedent for a plaque for the dead and we have heard, most movingly, about the silver cross, which is awarded in other Commonwealth countries and which I believe sets very useful guidelines.

The second issue is that of the wounded. I appreciate that giving medals to the wounded is less easy to administer than a plaque for the dead. However, I would just like to tell a little anecdote. My grandfather wore four stripes that he had won, principally at Passchendaele. My father wore two stripes, one for Anzio and one for El Alamein. According to my grandfather, my father was a card-carrying coward, because he had only two wound stripes. In fact, it was a source of great pride and even amusement between these two men, who are sadly now both dead. My father actually received 27 wounds when he got his first wound stripe; he was struck by one piece of shrapnel and 26 bits of grit that punctured him. What did he get? He did not get 27 wound stripes—of course not. He got one for that particular incident.

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There are all sorts of precedents for the administration and the wearing of some type of symbol for being wounded, be it a medal or a stripe. I would prefer a medal, but most importantly there is precedent for such an award. The British Army, Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines have done this before; this is nothing new.

Obviously, this brings into question the business of what sort of wounds should be recognised. Combat stress is a very difficult issue. It has already been mentioned, and I can see that there will be those who are suffering from combat stress to whom the award of a stripe, medal or badge of one sort or another may be painful. There are ways round that. Perhaps those individuals should be asked, “Do you wish to apply? Do you wish to wear this thing? Will this drag up memories that you do not want to be dragged up?” We can be sensitive about this issue; of course we can.

Reverting to the issue of honouring the dead for a moment, we cannot simply give a plaque, a medal or whatever it is to the families without also giving them some day-to-day symbol. That symbol could be worn or carried in the same way that many people wear a little lapel badge showing that they have been awarded an MBE, OBE, CBE or whatever. I believe that there should be some enduring symbol for the next of kin to wear on a day-to-day basis and not simply at Remembrance day or whenever.

The Yorkshire Regiment is in action at the moment in Helmand in Afghanistan. I have talked to one or two of its soldiers who have come back wounded and when I proposed the idea of this award to them it was very clear to me that they would be extremely keen to have some sort of symbol. They seem to like the idea of a medal rather than anything else, but I accept that there are a number of different solutions to this problem.

What those soldiers say, in stark contrast to what they said during my time in the Army, is that it seems that military fashion has changed. Twenty years ago, people were not keen to wear badges or medals, but that was a different Army. Operational tempo was completely different. We are now fighting on two fronts and they are hot wars. I believe that the vast majority of the soldiery, the sailors, airmen and marines would be very much in favour of this award.

As for the administration of such an award, we cannot be distracted by the footling cost of something such as this; objecting on the ground of cost is simply nonsense. Anybody who says that this award for the dead and wounded would distract from good medical care and proper pastoral care also needs to wake up and smell the coffee, frankly. The administration of this award is a matter of tens of thousands of pounds, tops. We managed to administer awards to millions of dead in the first world war; dead and wounded in the second world war, and even the families of civilians who were killed by enemy aircraft in the second world war. All those dead received recognition and they received it properly.

I can tell those who have not seen the plaques or scrolls that have been awarded by various monarchs, that they really are very moving and the cost of producing them is negligible.

We have already heard about the precedent that was set by the purple heart. Again, people will criticise it because it is American. I do not; I approve of the fact that America, which is a great nation decided in the
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18th century that this type of decoration was necessary. It managed to administer an army, navy and air force of millions on a day-to-day basis, and it got that administration right. Furthermore, the families of the dead are treated, quite rightly, as heroes and heroines in their own right, let alone those young men and women who come back horribly scarred and wounded from the fronts that the American forces have been involved in. I think that we have a lesson to learn from America.

Similarly, there is the military covenant. The Minister knows how much we have heard about that. I think that this type of award is part of the deal. We civilians sitting here in comfort should be ready and open-minded to listen to our servicemen and women. There is a groundswell of opinion in favour of this award.

There may be some senior officers inside the Ministry of Defence with unencumbered chests who do not quite understand what it means to be shot at, and to lose and bury comrades. I can see that this award is a nuisance for them; I can see that it is yet another burden on the military budget. Surely, however, those officers can cease to be so narrow-minded and can understand that the kids who are dying in fighting need to have some sort of symbol.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I echo my hon. Friend’s congratulations to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate and pursuing this campaign along with my constituent, to whom he referred earlier and who is running the campaign with the Daily Mirror.

I underline the point that my hon. Friend is making about the fact that this type of award is part of the deal. I think that this type of award should be seen as part of the military covenant. Our failure to honour our dead and injured servicemen and women and their families in this way is actually a failure on our civilian side of the bargain. We, as politicians, have a responsibility to do all that we can to meet that part of the bargain and this type of award is a relatively cost-free way of doing that.

Patrick Mercer: As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes the points so much more articulately than I can.

Lastly, people argue that this award is unprecedented and that we are stepping into new territory. Well, I have already made the point about honouring the dead and the point about wound stripes. However, I would just say that decorations do spring up out of nowhere, and quite rightly so. I am sure that nobody here has failed to hear of a woman called Victoria. She established something called the Victoria cross, which is internationally renowned, and so it should be. What, however, about the conspicuous gallantry cross and other decorations that have come into play over the past 10 or 20 years? My platoon sergeant was the first man to earn the Queen’s gallantry medal when it was established. Such honourable, highly thought of and valued decorations may not have been around for long, but so what? We must surely take a step forward and release our minds from the foolish nonsense and narrow-mindedness of the past. We must understand that the dead, the wounded and their families should receive the honours that they deserve.

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Sitting at the back of the Chamber—I will embarrass him horribly—is Private Matt Woollard of the first battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment. The last time I saw him, he was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from horrendous injuries that he received in Helmand province. He is an amputee with several wounds, and I cannot look him in the face and say, “You don’t deserve some form of recognition for what you’ve done for the country.” He does deserve recognition, and so do all his comrades, alive or dead.

Several hon. Members rose

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members not to refer to anyone outside this immediate part of the Chamber. I should also say that I wish to move to the Opposition Front-Bench speech at half-past 10. Four hon. Members are standing, so if speakers confine their remarks to five minutes, everyone will get in.

10.11 am

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Miss Begg, and to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), whom I congratulate on initiating the debate. If I have one complaint, it is that he was, characteristically, too much of a nice guy. It is inappropriate to excuse Ministers, given that the two most recent conflicts—in Iraq and Afghanistan—have been fought on the instructions, and with the mandate, of this place. The Minister cannot, therefore, hide behind people at the Ministry of Defence, even if he were minded to do so. Action should be taken through, and under pressure from, this democratic institution, which sent our brave servicemen and women to those two theatres.

I have been moved by the debate, because I have been reflecting on my uncle, Private Frank Beanes, of the Lincolnshire Regiment, who obtained a gallantry medal in January 1921, following an ambush in County Tipperary. As a consequence of that ambush, he languished in a psychiatric institution for the rest of his life—the next 40 years. The one thing that my grandparents greatly treasured was his gallantry medal, of which I am the proud inheritor and custodian. My uncle’s two colleagues, Sergeant Brackenbury and Private Staves, were killed but their families got nothing, and I feel for them, even though it was a long time ago. I realise how important some medal or tangible recognition is for families and loved ones and for the individuals who are bravely operating in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theatres, some of whom have lost their lives. It is time that we addressed the issue, and Parliament needs to keep up the pressure on the Minister.

I want to use this occasion to refer to our establishment’s failure to address the issue of Bomber Command. I know that the issue is surrounded by controversy and that the Government’s recent replies indicate that they will not change their minds, but that simply is not good enough, because a wrong has been committed that still cries out to be remedied. I recently read the pamphlet by the distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who presses the point.

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The controversy relates to the operation of Bomber Command, although it would be highly inappropriate to discuss it in detail now because time does not allow me to do so. However, some 55,500 aircrew in Bomber Command, whose average age was 22, lost their lives, but they received no recognition; indeed, political decisions have excluded those brave men from obtaining a medal. I urge the Minister to reflect on that because I would like the issue to be addressed with some dispatch. A number of Bomber Command veterans are still alive, and they, as well as spouses and loved ones, would like some recognition.

One thing that Sir Martin Gilbert’s recent pamphlet revealed was that the controversial bombing of Dresden was authorised by Clem Atlee. I volunteer that information because he was my party’s leader and I greatly respect him. It was a difficult decision, but it had nothing to do with the courage and dedication of the aircrews.

Patrick Mercer: Surely, the aircrew Europe star already exists.

Andrew Mackinlay: The fact is that many other operations have distinctive medals, but there is no recognition of the fact that Bomber Command was unique. Winston Churchill said that the Spitfires were our salvation, but that the bombers were our means to victory. There is a self-evident case for awarding a medal with some dispatch.

Let me offer one solution, even though it might be inadequate. By coincidence, I am wearing the tie of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation this morning. In a sense—I would put this in italics—the creation of that foundation was a political act; the role of the RUC was controversial, but everyone recognised that those brave men and women had shown great dedication and made a great sacrifice in recent years and that some had lost their lives. The solution was to create the foundation and to award the George cross to the RUC collectively. At the very least, the Government could consider doing that in respect of Bomber Command.

I do not want to labour that point, however, because this morning’s central theme is the need to press the Government on the issue of those of our servicemen and women who have served and made a sacrifice in Iraq, Afghanistan and other contemporary theatres. The “Honour the Brave” campaign is overwhelmingly supported by Members of Parliament. However, I hope that, in summing up, the Minister will at least be prepared to listen and to look again at the issue of Bomber Command. Will he agree to have a meeting with me, Sir Martin Gilbert and one or two others from the Bomber Command Association so that we could at least present our case to him in his office? If he is agreeable to that, our attendance this morning will have been worth while as far as that issue goes.

I am proud to associate myself with the representations made by my hon. Friend about our contemporary servicemen and women and their families and loved ones, because we, as a Parliament, want the bravery and service of those we are discussing to be recognised. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) referred to the problems of those who might be suffering battle stress. My uncle suffered battle stress and psychiatric illness, and it was of great importance to his family that they had a medal in recognition of his sacrifice and that they could cherish it over the decades.
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