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21 May 2008 : Column 322

Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals

12.33 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

The committee is commonly known as the HD committee. This powerful, secretive but completely unaccountable committee has caused grave offence to veterans and to what is probably one of the few Muslim countries in the world that wants to honour British servicemen. My Bill would require the Foreign Secretary, under whose jurisdiction the committee falls, to publish an annual report on its work and to lay that report before Parliament. Within four weeks of its publication, there would be a debate in the House on a motion expressing approval for the report. Through that vote, the House could give its view on the committee’s actions during that year.

If the House voted against the motion, a clear warning would be sent to the HD committee, and its chairman could be called before the Foreign Affairs Committee to explain his committee’s actions. If the Bill became law, the decisions of the HD committee would become as open and transparent as they are currently unaccountable and arcane.

At present, the situation regarding the honours and decorations awarded to British service personnel and veterans is completely unacceptable. The HD committee is free to make confusing and even whimsical rulings about which medals can be awarded, accepted or worn, without any obligation to give a clear rationale for its decisions. It does not publish its minutes or its correspondence, and it appears that no one outside the committee has anything but the vaguest idea about how its decision-making process works. In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled to the Foreign Secretary on 13 March, I was told that the committee normally transacts business by correspondence, and only met three times during 2005 and 2006.

No one in this House would disagree that honouring our servicemen and women is a matter of the greatest importance, yet the decisions on who is entitled to recognition are taken by a body that does not answer to any elected authority whatsoever, seldom meets, and never has to explain or account for its decisions. Surely, in an era of openness and transparent government, it is unacceptable to have a committee that rules on the important matter of decorations and medals which meets on an ad hoc basis and whose discussions are confidential.

The arcane workings of this committee might never have been brought to light but for the disgraceful treatment that it handed out to 35,000 British veterans of the 1955-1966 Malaysian campaign. The HD committee advised Her Majesty the Queen to allow the veterans to accept the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal, or PJM, from the Malaysian Government, and then advised Her Majesty that our soldiers must not wear it—British veterans who fought in the jungles of Malaysia shamefully treated by mandarins who fight in
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the jungles of Whitehall. That bizarre ruling has created great offence among British veterans and bafflement on the part of the Malaysian Government. Surely any chance of strengthening our relations with Malaysia—a predominantly Muslim country—should be welcomed at this time.

Colleagues in all parts of the House, veterans organisations, and even Ministers of the Crown, have all made representations to the committee to change its advice, but it has remained obstinate in its refusal to do so. An illustration of the widespread support for veterans wearing the PJM occurred last year when I tabled early-day motion 356. It attracted 176 signatures calling on the committee to change the advice given to Her Majesty the Queen on the wearing of the PJM. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) tabled a similar EDM, and that too attracted a large number of signatures. Both EDMs were met with a wall of silence by the HD committee.

The committee has hidden behind antiquated rules such as the “double medalling rule”, which says that when a British award has already been given for the same service, another one cannot be accepted. Then there is the “five-year rule” preventing the acceptance and wearing of non-British awards for events or service that took place more than five years ago. Both those rules are being used to stop veterans wearing the PJM, but their application is confusing and anything but consistent. In a written statement on 31 January 2006, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), the then Trade Minister, who also served as a Foreign Office Minister, said:

In other words, the committee put aside the rules to allow the Malaysian veterans to accept the PJM, then imposed the rules to prevent them from wearing it on public occasions.

But there is more. The committee then went on to lift the ban on our veterans wearing the PJM for one week during the 50th anniversary of Malaysia’s independence, which it celebrated last year. Why did it do that? Because as Queen of Australia and New Zealand, Her Majesty the Queen has given permission for the PJM to be worn by the veterans of those two Commonwealth countries, and as a large number of British ex-servicemen were expected to visit Malaysia during the celebrations, it was feared that the prospect of Commonwealth veterans parading wearing their PJM alongside British veterans who were not allowed to wear their PJM would cause embarrassment in the media in Malaysia and in Britain. What a shameful way to treat our brave soldiers.

In December 2007, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said in response to a debate in Westminster Hall that

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He went on:

My hon. Friend has been very supportive; I know that he gave the news with a heavy heart, and that he is as perplexed as the rest of us by the committee’s decision.

As things stand, a House of Commons elected directly by the people of Britain is powerless to do anything about the committee’s decisions. This House, directly elected by the people of Britain, is unable to scrutinise the decision of a committee of unelected mandarins. I have met and spoken to many veterans of the Malaysian campaign, and their bravery deserves better than the miserable treatment handed out by the HD Committee. It shows more concern for the niceties of precedent and upsetting the status quo than for honouring our veterans. The inability of the House of Commons to debate or scrutinise the HD committee’s decisions is anathema to parliamentary democracy and has no place in the modern world. My Bill would mean that the decisions of the HD committee would at last become subject to rigorous parliamentary scrutiny and debate. It would ensure that the decisions, and the process of how those decisions are made, stand up to examination.

This House is to have the ultimate responsibility of asking servicemen and women to risk their lives for our country in times of war and armed conflict. Surely, then, this House has the right, indeed the duty, to look after their interests and make the HD committee answerable to Parliament for its actions. Some will argue that the issue of medals is sensitive, and should not be brought into the public domain. If they do, I ask them the following question. Every year a report is brought to Parliament on the working of the British intelligence services. If this House can scrutinise the work of Britain’s security services, why can it not scrutinise the work of the HD committee?

There is no excuse for the total unaccountability of the HD committee, and there is no excuse for its behaviour towards our veterans. Its action brings shame on the British nation. It is time to subject its decisions and deliberations to the scrutiny of Parliament and ensure that brave and courageous servicemen, such as the veterans of the Malaysian campaign, can never again be subject to such disgraceful treatment. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Don Touhig, Mr. Adam Ingram, Jim Sheridan, Linda Gilroy, Mr. Michael Mates, Mr. James Gray, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mr. Michael Ancram, Bob Russell, Pete Wishart, Malcolm Bruce and the Rev. Ian Paisley.

Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals

Mr. Don Touhig accordingly presented a Bill to provide for parliamentary scrutiny of the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 112].

21 May 2008 : Column 325

Orders of the Day

Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [ Lords]

[Relevant document: Seventeenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, HC 501.]

Order for Second Reading read.

12.42 pm

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Well-targeted regulation ensures essential rights for consumers and workers. It is a mark of a civilised society. It is necessary to protect our environment, and it is needed to tackle market failures and to establish the simple, clear and consistent rules that businesses and public services need to operate successfully. But too much regulation and poorly targeted interventions can lead to unnecessary costs that could hold back UK businesses, charities and public organisations. That is why the Government have developed an ambitious better regulation agenda that aims to eliminate inappropriate regulatory burdens, wherever they exist. I am pleased to report to the House that that is already bearing fruit.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am glad to hear that the plan is already bearing fruit. Commissioner Verheugen said that over-regulation was costing the European Union some £600 billion a year. How will the Minister reconcile the Bill with the fact the European Communities Act 1972 applies in any event? Will the Bill override the European Communities Act? Will he apply the simple principle of the supremacy of Parliament to ensure that we achieve regulation in the way that the House wishes, and not necessarily follow the European Union?

Mr. McFadden: The hon. Gentleman asks several questions. The Bill will not change the fundamental relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, or the way in which that legal regime operates. He will be glad to know that the United Kingdom has led the way in driving an agenda to cut administrative burdens that are caused by European regulations and laws. As I was about to inform hon. Members, our work in the United Kingdom has already delivered some £800 million of reductions in administrative burdens to business.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I serve on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which considers everything that is drafted. We have a splendid team of professionals and we correct and improve our regulations. However, we are not allowed to do that for European Union regulation. That cannot be right. There must be a mechanism for overruling that, so that we can improve and clarify EU regulations. I am sure that the Minister wants to do that.

Mr. McFadden: I commend the work of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in improving regulations. I can only repeat what I said in response to
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the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). The Government have led the way in ensuring that the process of measuring and targeting administrative burdens for reduction, which we have undertaken for the past couple of years in this country, also happens at European level. We know that we need to do more to ensure that Britain retains and improves on its position as a great country in which to do business and invest. Later this summer, we will consult on a radical new system of regulatory budgets, which will set out the cost of new regulation.

Mr. Cash: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again—I appreciate that we have covered the territory previously, but we are considering a specific measure. Under clause 4, the Secretary of State can provide for orders to be made for approximately 200 enactments, some of which are enormously important to running the country. Many emanate from the European Union. Subsection (4) provides that

from the list. Given the Minister’s answer to my previous question, how can the Secretary of State do that—inconsistently with the European Communities Act—unless the Government include the specific provision, “Notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972” to reassert this Parliament’s supremacy?

Mr. McFadden: As I said, the Bill does not alter the fundamental relationship between UK law and European law. We recently debated the European treaty at length, and the Bill to enact it. During those proceedings, the relationship between European law and its jurisdiction and UK domestic law was also debated at length. The Bill does not alter the relationship, to which we signed up when we joined the European Union.

As I said, we will consult on a new system of regulatory budgets, which will set out the cost of new regulation that can be introduced in a given period. We will also introduce a rolling limit on the annually recurring costs of new regulation. More immediately, the Bill will make important legislative changes to the UK system of regulatory enforcement.

Part of the background is Sir Philip Hampton’s report on administrative burdens, inspection and enforcement in 2005. It highlighted the difficulties that can follow from the inflexibility and inconsistency of the existing regulatory system. That is not acceptable, either for business or, indeed, for Government, and the Bill helps to address the issues raised by the report by ensuring a regulatory framework in which we regulate only when necessary, and in clear proportion to the risk, rationalise inspection and enforcement arrangements, and focus enforcement resources on businesses that deliberately or consistently flout their regulatory responsibilities.

The Bill will help to strengthen regulatory compliance, maintain appropriate protections for the public, and reduce regulatory burdens for compliant organisations. Part 1 will create in statutory form an expert body—the local better regulation office— with a remit to improve the way in which Government, regulators, and local authorities work together to
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enforce regulations. Given the important regulatory role of local authorities, that is an important way of ensuring improvements.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My hon. Friend referred to the local better regulation office as “an expert body”. From where does he expect the experts to be drawn, and how will they be appointed to the office?

Mr. McFadden: In the existing LBRO company, there is expertise in business, for example, and from people with a trading standards background, which is extremely important in this field.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): To underline the importance of local government, does my hon. Friend agree that four out of five regulatory inspections are carried out at local authority level? I recently met Graham Russell, the chief executive of the new LBRO, whom I know because he is a former head of trading standards in Staffordshire. He expressed confidence in the organisation’s ability to cut through complexity and establish light-touch risk-basked regulation in future. He said that the benefits of the measure would be fewer burdens on responsible businesses, with resources concentrated on tackling rogue traders.

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend puts it extremely well: that is precisely part of the intention behind the LBRO, and we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to draw on trading standards expertise, which is important for this agenda.

Mr. Bone: The Minister has been extremely generous in giving way. I know that many Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall keep my intervention brief. Could he not just have made an edict that regulators should concentrate on companies that are rogue traders? He did not need to set an office to do that.

Mr. McFadden: If I go into more detail about the Bill’s provisions and how they will operate, that may help the hon. Gentleman.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. McFadden: I shall, but then I should like to make progress.

Joan Walley: Given what my hon. Friend has just said about the membership of the new LBRO and the importance of drawing on the expertise of trading standards officers, will he give the House an assurance that there will be an opportunity to involve environmental health officers who, along with trading standards officers, play an important role in making sure that public health standards are of the highest calibre?

Mr. McFadden: I can assure my hon. Friend that the LBRO will want to draw on all relevant expertise in its task.

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