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Veterans’ Day

Volume 448: debated on Monday 26 June 2006

I am pleased that the first-ever national Veterans’ day is taking place on 27 June. Not only will a major event be organised at the Imperial War museum in London, but we know of 150 events that are being organised locally across the UK. More than 70 events have received financial support from the Department at a total cost of about £130,000. I am delighted that this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our veterans is being embraced so enthusiastically by organisers, veterans and the general public.

While many congratulations are due on the introduction of Veterans’ day and all that has been achieved, may we turn our attention to how we recognise those involved in more recent conflicts, such as the Falklands, now approaching its 25th anniversary? But a more pressing point—at least for me—is the situation of those interned by the Japanese during hostilities in the second world war. Can my hon. Friend update me on how we are settling that debt of honour?

I shall answer both parts of that supplementary question. I can confirm that there will be a major celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Falklands. I probably speak for both sides of the House when I give the reason why. Today, many of us were in the company of the most remarkably brave people, who have served their country in military and civilian capacities. Some of them served in the Falklands and they deserve a commemoration 25 years on. My view is that the anniversary should be celebrated in the UK and the Falklands. I am not in a position to sketch out the detail yet, but I will report to the House when we have more information.

On my hon. Friend’s second point, I am pleased to say that the criteria for the new 20-year residence criterion for the far east prisoner of war scheme have been agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the chairman of the Association of British Civilian Internees Far East Region. They will be implemented with effect from today. I hope to place the detailed rules in the Library of the House. Those who were British at the time of their internment who think that they meet the criterion of 20 years residence in the UK between 1945 and 7 November 2000, whether they were civilians or members of the armed forces of the British empire, should apply to the Veterans Agency. We expect the first payments to be made very shortly.

The Minister’s answers to both those questions will be warmly welcomed throughout the House and the country, but would it not focus attention on what we owe to the veterans, and also enable young people to be taught just what is involved, if we had the commemoration as a public holiday?

The granting of a public holiday is not in my gift, but the hon. Gentleman’s point about young people, for whom the Falklands war is something that they learn about in history, is well made and I hope that, as part of our commemorations of 25 years, we can involve school and youth groups up and down the country.

The Stockport British Legion was presented with a cup for its outstanding fundraising last year. This year, it will surpass even last year’s effort. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the British Legion, the Normandy Veterans Association and the Combined Services Association in Stockport on the valuable work that they do in helping veterans? His announcement on extending the veterans medal has been warmly welcomed.

The whole House will wish to congratulate Stockport British Legion. My hon. Friend failed to invite me up to visit the British Legion personally, but if she were to do so, perhaps I could do that during the summer recess.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement about the far east prisoners of war. I know that that has taken a good deal of time, and I hope that that will deal with the rest of the outstanding cases. As for the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) about a veterans day, it may not be within the Minister’s power to grant a day’s holiday, but since there has been some criticism this year of the extent to which the Chancellor has tried to involve himself with veterans day and since he appears to be all-powerful in the Government, perhaps the Minister could have a word with him to see whether he could grant such a day.

Turning to next year’s celebrations, veterans day in 2007, which will be coterminous with the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, will be particularly poignant. I urge the Minister to assert the primacy of the Ministry of Defence on that issue and to work closely with Opposition Front-Bench Members to make sure that we have a day that will truly be worthy of our veterans.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that we can do that. The whole House needs ownership of that commemoration. I hope that his input and that of his colleagues will be paramount. As for the Chancellor granting a bank holiday, I am not sure whether that is in his gift either, although, of course, he is all-powerful.