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26 Feb 2008 : Column 198WH—continued

Precedent is important, and my hon. Friend and one or two other hon. Members mentioned that large brass plaques still exist in the possession of proud families, marking the ultimate sacrifice that so many made during the great war. The plaques are not pretty. My family has one, and by the standards of our day, perhaps they are not attractive items. However, the need for them was felt at the time, and I believe that they gave a great deal of comfort and pride to those who were bereaved. In the 21st century, we need to mark the sacrifice of our troops in action. In many cases, they are in a fixed-bayonet
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situation that would not have been unfamiliar to those who fell in the great war. I agree with my hon. Friend that in the 21st century, it would be far preferable to strike a medal than to award wound stripes, and I hope that the Minister will give it serious consideration.

I must mention mental health, because many of those who were vilified and punished during the great war for what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder or combat stress, would not have been eligible for any award at all; the reverse very much applied. It is important to put on record and recognise that many of the scars from which our servicemen and women suffer now are not physical but mental, and they must be recognised in exactly the same way.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) has done a great job in prevailing on the Prime Minister and forming his views on the subject. I should be very interested to hear how the Minister feels about the issue, and how he might take forward the tricky and complicated matter of deciding who gets the medal. I ask only that he cracks on and does it quickly out of a sense of self-interest, because I fear that the exercise will be difficult, throw up perversities and certainly, in Winston Churchill’s words, cast some shadows. I should not particularly want to address the issue in office, because I suspect that it will make a determination on matters such as PJMs and Arctic stars seem a little like a walk in the park. That does not mean that the Minister should not attempt it.

I would be cautious, however, because most servicemen and their families want, above all else, a decent deal. We have heard a great deal from the Royal British Legion and others about the broken military covenant, and servicemen and their families will not, in any way, want any deal to be a substitute for proper welfare for them and their families, particularly when personnel are injured.

Before giving the Minister fair time to respond to the many excellent contributions that have been made today, I should like to say a little about the HD committee because it lies at the heart of today’s discussion. It is vital to underscore the importance of impartiality among members of that committee, and their distance from politicians, because we all know what we are like, and the striking of a medal is relatively cheap and very appealing electorally. It is important that we keep our hands off the issue, and that those who are appointed to the task—officials—make a determination against, of course, the rules that we lay down.

I am concerned about those rules, which were instituted in Foreign and Commonwealth Office orders in 1969, all those years ago, and govern what the committee does. I am not going to lay into members of the committee, who at the end of the day are simply tasked with carrying out the rules as best they can. I do not envy them; it must be an extremely difficult job to do.

Finally, why does the Minister make a rod for his own back by getting involved terribly much in what civilians wear? Today’s debate is largely about those who are serving, but we must think about civilians, because all servicemen will ultimately become civilians. My guess is that liberalisation would mean that veterans emulated the practice of those still serving, which would in general be in accordance with uniform regulations. We think about the PJM, for example, in that respect. In any case,
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however, it would surely be expedient to leave such matters to the discretion of private citizens, and to spare Ministers a considerable amount of grief into the bargain. I hope that when the Minister examines the rules that govern the HD committee, he will bear in mind whether it is appropriate to ordain whether civilians and veterans should be proscribed from wearing particular awards, if they view it as appropriate.

10.46 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate on medals for armed forces personnel, and I pay tribute to his work in raising the issue. He made a sensitive, impassioned and balanced speech.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the men and women in our armed forces, who do such an amazing job, particularly out in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are clearly the best armed forces in the world, and to the families of service personnel, whose support is vital during their relatives’ service in theatre, back in the UK and elsewhere.

The debate has been impassioned, and my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), my hon. Friends the Members for Telford (David Wright) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), and the Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), all made balanced speeches that identified the issues. The underlying issue is the fundamental recognition of the bravery in service of our armed forces personnel, on which we are all absolutely united.

Those personnel who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq today show enormous bravery. Their commitment to professionalism is second to none, and it is important that we properly recognise their contribution. One way of doing so is through medals. I congratulate also the Daily Mirror on raising regularly the issue of the bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces personnel. It is important that the press do so, and it is important for the families, too.

I shall set out what recognition takes place, because many people reading or watching the debate may not understand the system. Hon. Members will recall the words of the Secretary of State for Defence, when he responded to a question about the topic during the armed forces personnel debate on 10 January:

Several hon. Members have said that that should not be the case. The Prime Minister, however, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, said on 14 November 2007:

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On the subject of current medals, for every campaign or operation, a medal is struck when it is determined that there will be significant risk and rigour for the individuals involved. Today, servicemen and women are deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they receive a medal once they have met the qualifying criteria.

Those criteria have some complexities, and have for a number of years. They depend, for example, on where individuals are based. Generally speaking, however, personnel have to complete 30 days of continuous service in theatre to earn either the Iraq campaign medal or the operational service medal Afghanistan. In the case of the Afghanistan medal, a clasp “Afghanistan” is also awarded for operations within the geographic boundary of the country, which reflects the particular risk and rigour of the operations there. To date, more than 100,000 Iraq medals and 42,000 Afghanistan medals have been issued by the MOD medal office. I pay tribute to it for its work in ensuring that medals are sent out on time to the people who have earned them.

Of course, I pay tribute to the families of service personnel who are killed or seriously wounded during combat. They show tremendous bravery and dignity in coping with their loss or in coming to terms with the serious injuries to their loved ones. As hon. Members know, I regularly visit wounded service personnel at the rehabilitation centre and at Selly Oak hospital, but I also meet widows regularly. I talk to families and, in part, understand the pain, suffering and loss that they have to cope with, although no one can fully understand unless they have lost a loved one in such a way.

It is important to talk about the recognition that is given before we mention the medal in question. Those who are sadly killed or injured on operations receive the appropriate theatre medal. It is issued automatically in the event of death or injury that leads to evacuation from theatre, regardless of how long an individual has served on the operation, which could be for as little as one day. In the case of those who are killed, the medal office mounts the new medal with others that the individual had previously earned and gives them all to the next of kin in a special presentation box.

It is important to put on record the other ways in which those who are killed on operational service are recognised. The next of kin of all service personnel who die in service, regardless of the cause, receive letters from the Secretary of State for Defence and the single service chiefs of staff. Her Majesty the Queen sends a letter of condolence to the commanding officer of those killed on operations. The next of kin of personnel who were serving with units with a royal special relationship also receive a letter from the appropriate member of the royal family.

The families of deceased personnel may opt for a military funeral and elect to have a service headstone and grave maintenance in perpetuity. None of that can compensate in any way for the death of a loved one, but those forms of recognition are a mark of the sincere gratitude for their sacrifice that the nation feels.

Some personnel who tragically die during operations are recognised also with gallantry awards, lists of which are published six-monthly, in addition to the new year and birthday honours lists. Such awards have included the conspicuous gallantry cross, the military cross, the George medal and the ultimate British military award,
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the Victoria cross, which was awarded posthumously to Corporal Bryan Budd of 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, last year. By such means, we ensure that individuals’ distinguished actions, courage and bravery are honoured by the nation.

Medals are not the only way in which we can recognise the enormous contribution made by our armed forces, and in particular by those who make the ultimate sacrifice. The magnificent new armed forces memorial at the national memorial arboretum in Staffordshire provides fitting recognition for the British servicemen and women killed on duty since the end of the second world war. However, it is not just a war memorial; it also lists the names of those killed on duty in other circumstances. It is designed also to recognise and acknowledge the courage of families and friends left behind, and includes the names of those killed in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many of the wounded receive gallantry medals in addition to the medal for the operation on which they were serving, irrespective of whether they complete the requisite qualifying period.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham made the point that medical care is not the issue, but it is worth reiterating that our primary aim must be to provide the medical care that our injured service personnel require. The Select Committee on Defence recently paid tribute to that support, stating in a report that clinical care for our servicemen and women seriously injured on operations is second to none, and that Defence Medical Services personnel, working with the NHS, provide world-class care. In addition, we have compensation schemes, particularly the armed forces compensation scheme.

Hon. Members touched on the general issue of medals. As I have discovered in my 18 months or so in my job, medals are a hugely emotive issue. As my hon. Friend said, they can also be divisive. There are a number of ongoing campaigns for new medals to be minted for one reason or another, and it is impossible to satisfy everyone. British campaign medals are awarded not as a record of service, as is the case in some countries, but as a result of particularly difficult circumstances considered over and above the usual conditions of service life. The British military medal system is held in the highest regard around the world, and in many ways it is the special nature of British medals that gives them such great esteem.

Other countries choose to issue more medals, often as a record of an individual’s service rather than to reflect the risks and rigours of a particular campaign. Decisions on new UK medals are not taken lightly, and careful consideration is given to ensure that we do not do anything to undermine the system.

There have been calls for a national defence medal in recognition of service in the armed forces. However, with the exception of long service awards, it has never been Government policy to consider service in the armed forces the sole justification for the institution of a medal. The British armed forces are involved in a wide range of operations, which means that there is a greater opportunity for some individuals to be awarded British, United Nations, European Union and NATO awards. However, joining the armed forces still does not guarantee the award of a medal, and there are no plans to institute one simply for being a serviceman or woman.

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The veterans badge, which was introduced a few years ago, was mentioned briefly. It has been highly esteemed, and more than 500,000 have been sent out—I think that the current figure is about 550,000. We also have the merchant’s seaman’s badge and the Arctic emblem. We have done a number of things to recognise veterans.

I wish to make it clear that our minds are not closed to proposals for new medals or other forms of recognition, but decisions are not to be taken lightly or rushed into. It is right and proper that the military chiefs of staff make initial detailed recommendations on proposed forms of recognition. They can truly judge the risk and rigour of any campaign and make proper judgments on what is appropriate and in line with the long-standing military ethos.

Proposals for any new medals are submitted by the MOD to the cross-Government Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, led by the Cabinet Secretary, for its consideration, before ultimately being submitted to the Queen. It is not within the gift of the MOD to introduce new medals automatically. As I have said, the situation is being considered, and the service chiefs will make their recommendations known at the appropriate time.

Mr. Hoyle: Can the Minister suggest whether the MOD is minded to support or oppose the proposed medal? There must have been discussions, and an inclination must be coming from the MOD. Perhaps he could share it with us.

Derek Twigg: I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that while discussions are taking place it would be inappropriate and premature for me to comment. We will inform Parliament as soon as the decision is made.

Patrick Mercer: Will the Minister give way?

Derek Twigg: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I would like to finish my remarks.

We must understand that there are other means of recognition and commemoration. Hon. Members will
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be aware of the tremendous success of the “Falklands 25” commemorations last year, which were so welcomed by the many service personnel who served in and around the Falklands. We continue to establish whether we can do more to improve the British public’s awareness of the important work done on their behalf by the armed forces, and whether there are ways in which the public can better express their support and gratitude.

Last December, the Government commissioned an independent study on the subject, which is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), supported by a team including an air commodore and a senior MOD civil servant. The national recognition study is running in parallel with a cross-Government service personnel strategy, and both initiatives are expected to report in the early spring.

I wish to make it clear that we do not underestimate the enormous contribution that is made by members of our armed forces and their families, and the need for proper recognition of them. We must take the advice of senior military personnel, who are best placed to make recommendations. As I have said, I know that the chiefs of staff are keeping the matter under review, and the House will be kept informed when any changes are proposed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock asked whether I would agree to meet him and others to discuss a medal for Bomber Command. I am happy to do that—as he knows, I do not refuse hon. Members a meeting on any issue that concerns them. I know that he is greatly respected for his campaigning on service issues.

Mental health was mentioned by a couple of hon. Members. It is important that it be given full focus and attention, which is why the Government have introduced a number of initiatives, including a new pilot scheme with the NHS to treat service people with mental health problems, the new medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’ hospital and the reserves mental health programme. We have considerably increased funding for Combat Stress as part of the process of recognising, treating and caring for those who develop a mental health problem as a result of their service. As the hon. Member for Westbury rightly said, those problems will continue.

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Western Balkans

10.59 am

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): May I start by thanking Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate? I have raised the issue before, and I thought that I should perhaps start by apologising to some of my constituents, because although I try to raise a wide variety of subjects for debate, I have had to return to this one from time to time. However, I do not think there is a need for apology, because things that happen some way away can affect their everyday lives.

I strongly regret the fact that the Government have not seen fit to allow any time to discuss this important area of Europe on the Floor of the House—I know that they are busy with other things—so I am grateful for this opportunity. I am also delighted to see many colleagues here today.

There is a need to debate this issue. One thing we can learn from the Balkan area, and so many other areas, is that we should not ignore history. Unfortunately, the fires that start in the Balkans have often led to larger conflagrations elsewhere in Europe. I hope that we are now away from those eras and can move forward.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Many of the worst troubles that have occurred in that region were precipitated by the over-zealous recognition of Croatia, which was described by the then Foreign Minister of Germany, Herr Genscher, as

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