Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
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 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.
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?
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:
“The covenant says that we do what we do in the Nation’s name, that’s the way a democracy works—and so soldiers do not ask why; but they do ask for respect and honour for doing what they have been sent to do—which they do with courage and professionalism.”
General Dannatt went on to quote my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces:
“There is not an appreciation or even an understanding among wide sections of the community of exactly what we ask our Armed Forces to do, and we’re asking an awful lot of them.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), although I share the surprise of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) at his reticence about putting pressure on politicians at the Ministry of Defence. I entirely accept that the Minister, who is very honourable, will do what he can to take the message back from here. However, the men and women we are talking about were sent to war by politicians, and nearly 50 per cent. of the House of Commons has now expressed the view that recognition is overdue. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) talked about the mood of the country, and the mood of the country not only says, but demands that proper recognition should be forthcoming.
Like others, I pay tribute to the people in the Gallery. I know that we are not supposed even to admit that we have them with us, but nobody who was present at the launch of the “Honour the Brave” campaign, which the Daily Mirror has done so much to put together, could fail to be impressed by the courage of those who spoke to us. For some, that meeting in a House of Commons Committee Room was the first time that they had spoken in public. The interesting thing was that a sizeable number of Members of Parliament were present; it is a long time since I have been at a meeting where so many hon. Members were present and stayed throughout. It was a very moving experience for everyone concerned.
One need only look at today’s obituaries to see the bizarre way in which we give people recognition. A lady who was a real heroine in the second world war died recently. She was parachuted into France as a Special Operations Executive officer and in the end commanded something like 3,000 resistance fighters and was instrumental in much of the success of the D-day landings. When she returned to the UK she was put forward for the military cross, but the Ministry of Defence said she could not have it, because she was a woman. They could not find a suitable medal for her, so they decided to offer her a civilian MBE, which she rejected. Subsequently, after the war, she was offered a military MBE, which she accepted. Thirty years later, in recognition of the service of that lady, who had been honoured by France and other countries, the Queen awarded her the CBE, and said to her, as reported in the paper today:
“We should have done this a long time ago.”
We are talking about giving such people the recognition that they deserve, today. Bureaucrats got it wrong for a real heroine who put her life on the line as a 22-year-old girl, being parachuted into France and leading a very effective work force. They got it wrong because they said the system could not cope with a woman. Today young men and women are putting their lives on the line and suffering horrendous injuries. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham not only on his persistence in this matter, but on the recognition that he has given to the injuries—and the mental injuries—suffered by those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with other members of the Select Committee on Defence, he has pushed that issue time and again.
I implore the Minister to make, for goodness’ sake, a political decision, and instruct the Ministry of Defence to get on with it. Do not let this be another Arctic convoy saga, which took 50 years, until 55 per cent. of the people who could have received the award were dead. Let the people and their families have what we believe the nation says they deserve: recognition today. Let them have recognition, and let us give it to them with pride. Do not count the cost. We did not count the cost before we sent them.
Let us examine our consciences and say that there is a moral obligation on the state to give those men and women and their families the recognition that they deserve. It will be a good thing for the armed forces generally. No one would begrudge any soldier or the families of the dead and wounded that recognition. I would love the medal to be the Elizabeth star. I share that view with the hon. Member for North Durham. I hope that the Minister will take that point.
I add my congratulations to those that have been given to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate. It is extremely important and it has been very moving this morning to hear hon. Members talk about families and friends. I pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for the sterling work that it has done on the campaign.
The debate is not about whether people did or did not support conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some people have told me that they did not agree with our military involvement in Iraq. Neither did I. I did not vote to send troops to Iraq, but as soon as the House decided that they should be sent, I supported them wholeheartedly. That is what Members of Parliament do. I supported our sending troops to Afghanistan, so I voted to deploy troops. I have also voted against deploying troops, but once UK forces are deployed Members of Parliament should stand four square behind them. That is what we are doing in this debate. It is not about support for an individual conflict; it is about supporting people from this country who go forward in our name possibly to lay down their lives or be wounded in action. It is important that Parliament should show support for them.
There has been some debate about the purple heart this morning. It is a fantastic award—absolutely stunning—although I think that the highest award in the United States is the congressional medal of honour. In the awards structure for US forces, it is politicians who make decisions. Politicians decided to give the purple heart. The President of the United States decided to award it. Such decisions are something that politicians should be engaged in—not on a party-political basis, but across the board, across all parties and opinion. It is for politicians to declare their support for awards and honours.
The point has been made that before the Victoria cross there was no such award. Interestingly, the metal for the Victoria cross is stored in Shropshire, and I am very proud of that. It is an incredible award with incredible status, but let us not forget that it was a new award when it was first granted.
I intervened on my hon. Friend about the award of the purple heart in relation to UK forces and US forces. It is interesting that when some US forces went into conflict in Iraq they were under British command, so we had a strange situation in which troops from the United States and the UK could be fighting beside each other on the same battle front yet they could not receive similar awards for being killed or wounded in action. That is a strange anomaly. I do not think that we should do everything that the Americans do, but in this case they have got it right, and when they do we should say so. They have got it right in relation to the purple heart.
I congratulate the Government on what they have done in recent years about the award of medals. They have put right a number of wrongs. Enormously good work has been done, too, through some of the badges that have been distributed, such as the veterans badge. My dad has just secured his veterans badge; it is fantastic and people can be very proud of it. I think that he would have liked some kind of award for his grandfather, who was gassed at Passchendaele and received little recognition for an incident that scarred him for the rest of his life. My father would like some recognition for his grandfather’s role there, and as a family we do not have that. Badges have also been given for the land army and the timber corps, which is fantastic.
I should like a medal—a medal of honour, which might be called the Elizabeth star or something else—and a badge that people can wear proudly on their lapel as they go about their business, to show that they have made a sacrifice for this country and that we owe them a debt of gratitude. It is important, and most service personnel would, I think, take the view that the awards are not just for them, but are for their families. They can be passed down through families as a way of remembering the service that was given.
The debate is timely. It is time for the award that we are discussing; it is time to put aside our views about the conflicts and approve the award. I know that the Minister has history, in that members of his family were in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. As a Shropshire MP I ask him to ensure that we get the medal.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and the Daily Mirror on their campaign, and the way in which it has been led. It is hard to cover this matter in two minutes, but I shall try. The Royal British Legion in Chorley has handed me a petition about the covenant, because of a feeling that the medal is part of the military covenant, which we must respect and honour.
It is important not to forget. I was touched as a constituency MP when we lost Royal Marine Dutch Holland, who was tragically blown up by a roadside bomb. When someone from a small community such as Chorley dies fighting a war in a foreign land it brings things home. We must of course always remember that the Royal Gibraltar Regiment has played its part as well; its members have been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and earning the military cross. We have other troops from overseas territories who play a major role.
To me the debate is about the families, those who have been injured and those who have died. It is a matter of the respect we owe to them. The only way we can show that respect and honour is by recognition. The best recognition that the House can offer is a medal, and it should be given through the Minister and the Ministry of Defence, and its hierarchy. What should not happen has already been discussed. We should not be seen to be dragging people along to an eventual cave-in, because that becomes an apology. We should not be in that position. We ought to be leading from the front and saying, “Now is the right time—the time is here.” As I said, we must do that for the families. However, we must also recognise the mood of the country. Please do not allow this to happen later. Let us do it now.
I know that the Minister will take back that important and clear message, as he must, and give the necessary recognition to those who have died and been injured in conflict. Some of the latter will have received among the most severe injuries ever seen in military conflict, but have survived owing to the medical care now offered. We ought to go that little bit further and give them the necessary recognition. A good friend of mine, Colonel Harrison, helps to run Selly Oak hospital, which the Minister has visited before. Colonel Harrison knows the importance of such recognition—an importance that nobody can deny. So I ask the Minister please to take back that message. Let us get that message out in order to recognise the families involved.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate and other hon. Members who this morning have made such important contributions. I also pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for its “Honour the Brave” campaign. Were it not for that campaign and early-day motion 95 signed by so many hon. Members, we would not be here this morning.
More than 174 personnel have been killed in Iraq and 89 in Afghanistan during the recent conflicts. At the same time, hundreds have been injured. Last year, I was privileged when a friend of mine brought her son to Rochdale. He was an American soldier educated in Rochdale before joining the American army. He showed me his purple heart, which brought home what he had been through and how proud he and his family were. Those here in the Gallery today, and those whom they represent, deserve similar recognition. I hope that the Minister will agree to a review of the current process for awarding medals, that the recognition that our Army personnel deserve can be given and that we can move forward. I believe that that is what the country and hon. Members here want.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) mentioned the award of medals for past conflicts. In recent years, as has been said, the Government have gone a considerable way to recognise the need for such medals, with the award of the veterans badge. It would now be appropriate for the Minister to provide similar recognition of those fighting so bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. The past few years have been unprecedented for our military in the number of conflicts in which they have fought on all levels. Many have said that they have been stretched to breaking point. Recognition is long overdue and I hope that he will agree today to move forward and give them the awards that they deserve.
I draw the attention of the Chamber to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am a serving officer in the reserve forces. There is a consensus, certainly in this gathering, on the need for a medal to recognise the particular sacrifices of those injured or killed in the service of their country. I cannot remember a more impassioned debate in Westminster Hall, which, frankly, is not known for its passion. I am sure that the Minister will leave this debate with much food for thought.
We generally gather to debate past conflicts, so it is refreshing to be considering contemporary events and serving personnel. However, we need to consider the past as well and, perhaps, debate briefly problems with medals for previous conflicts. Much of this debate revolves around the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, which was set up to determine whether medals should be awarded and under what circumstances. On 11 December, when we gathered to debate the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal, some vitriol was heaped on that committee. However, we must understand that it is a creature of politicians and that those appointed to serve on it do so with the best will in the world according to rules that we give them. It is in our power to consider whether those rules are up-to-date or whether they need to be revised, and whether the committee’s membership needs to be reconsidered. If we do that, perhaps we will avoid the problems that we have unfortunately got ourselves into in recent years.
The committee operates according to two principal rules: the first is the double-medalling rule, which is a curious thing, because it appears to rely on precedent that ignores precedent. I am reminded of the Khedive’s star and the Turkish Crimea medal. They are good examples from the distant past of where double-medalling has applied. I was interested in the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on wound stripes. It is all very well for committees and politicians to say, “Well, we have not done this in the past,” but we have very short memories, do we not? I am sure that most of us are grateful to him for reminding us that in the not very distant past we provided the appropriate recognition of sacrifices made by our servicemen.
The Government resisted approval of the PJM medal when we debated it at great length in December. However, some who served between 1960 and 1962 did not receive the general service medal, including some naval personnel, even though they served afloat off Malaya, because the time qualification was more onerous for them. Thus the double-medalling rule is no ground for failing to approve the medal in their case. Some might say that approval of the PJM medal would circumvent the qualifying period set by the HD committee, but a row of medals reads like a CV and the appearance of the PJM medal, instead of the GSM with a Malaya clasp would tell its own story.
The second rule is the five-year one, which is also curious. It is worth reflecting that we are rapidly approaching the fifth anniversary of the opening shots of Operation Telic 1. The five-year rule ensures that we are contemporary in our recollection of events, but most of us will recall vividly those opening shots and the circumstances surrounding them. I wonder whether the five-year rule is far too prescriptive. I hope that if the Minister could agree to reconsider the rules governing the conduct of the HD committee, he will look at a 10-year rule, which I suggest would be very useful.
It is important to consider equivalence in medalling. Winston Churchill appreciated that the award of medals is an inexact science. In March 1944, he said:
“A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow”.
I am slightly surprised that that quote has not been used already here. I am rather pleased that it has not, because it means that I can introduce it. However, without articulating those words, a number of hon. Members have referred to those sentiments. In the context of current operations, it means that a clasp for Helmand and Kandahar would disappoint troops in service elsewhere in Afghanistan, many of whom will feel that they have been equally in the thick of it.
Will the Army top brass, who were reported last month to be engineering a U-turn over the southern Afghanistan clasp, reflect on the six bars available to mark particular operations during the second Afghan war of 1878? Will the Minister update us on the skirmish that appears to have broken out between the Chief of the General Staff and the vice-chief of the defence staff on that issue?
I suspect that my hon. Friend’s knowledge of such matters surpasses that of anyone else in the House. I am very grateful to him for adding to my knowledge of the second Afghan war of 1878.
As we struggle to avoid the shadow that Churchill talked about, we might like to give some thought to the disparity in the award of various long service and good conduct medals, which was mentioned briefly earlier. One of the Government’s most vindictive acts was the immediate abolition of the reserve decoration, which several members of my family have been pleased to receive, and the territorial decoration, which several of my hon. Friends hold. Instead, there is the far less aspirational volunteer reserve medal, which has a qualifying period of 10 years, in contrast to the 15 years for long service and good conduct medal for naval ratings. Naval officers and, indeed, officers of all the regular forces, however, are left out. In Ministers’ half-baked attempt to address a particular issue in 1999, they left a great deal of unfinished business, so I hope that in the spirit of “all of one company”, they might like to look again at long service and good conduct medals.
I turn to the main gist of today’s debate, which is the British purple heart. The Prime Minister is no numismatist, as we gathered from his confusion over badges, medals and the difference between the two at the Dispatch Box last Wednesday. However, we learned in November that he is taken by the idea of a British version of the purple heart for those who have been wounded or killed, and it is reasonable to be guided by the wishes, aspirations and feelings of servicemen and those excellent organisations that represent them.
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 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, 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.
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:
“As a Minister of the Crown, I am very wary of expressing opinions about individual medals and honours for the very reason that this country has a system that relies on a process that is independent of politicians”.—[Official Report, 10 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 581.]
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:
“On the question of whether a new medal is struck for those who have been killed or injured, it is first a matter for the military authorities to make a recommendation.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 659.]
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, 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.
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.
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 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.