Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law to make provision about damage to war memorials; and for connected purposes.
Every Remembrance Sunday, war memorials up and down the country become the focal point for our national ceremony of remembrance. From the plainest monuments to the grand Cenotaph in Whitehall, people gather to remember the glorious dead. For the rest of the year, war memorials fade from the public consciousness into the background of our lives. But they are still there, exuding a quiet dignity tinged with sadness for those who have died for our country. They are more than rock and stone. In fact, the estimated 100,000 war memorials take the form of plaques, inscriptions on church pews, statues, arches and even bus shelters. But whatever the form, they symbolise the values of service and sacrifice for our liberty that our country holds dear.
Conflicts such as that in Afghanistan have sadly made remembrance a continuous part of our national life. Today, the Prime Minister again read out the names of those soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in our name. Those names, like those that have gone before them, will not be forgotten. That is what we say, and we act—in one way—by inscribing those names on memorials.
I wish to introduce this Bill to ensure that we reflect the importance of war memorials. If enacted, the Bill would properly punish those who show such disregard by desecrating a war memorial. With the death of Harry Patch, the last human thread connecting us to the great war generation may have been cut, but that makes it all the more incumbent on us to retain and protect the physical thread that connects us to Harry Patch’s generation in the form of memorials.
My interest in this issue was sadly first prompted by an appalling act of theft and criminal damage to the Southgate memorial in Broomfield park in my constituency last August. Two six-foot-by-four-foot bronze plaques and nine smaller plates bearing the names of soldiers who died in the two world wars, alongside civilians from Southgate who were killed in the blitz, were ripped out. We were outraged by this despicable act. In 1949, when opening the Southgate memorial, Alderman Wauthier said:
“The Garden of Remembrance is a hallowed place and should not be interfered with”.
Sixty years later, it was disgracefully interfered with, and the purpose of this Bill is to ensure that culprits get the punishment they deserve.
The national media asked how this could happen. One radio programme was even dedicated to the question of whether Enfield was the meanest borough in London. I set about finding out whether this desecration is unique to my constituency. I take no pleasure in reporting to the House that in fact there have been an alarming number of incidents—57 reports in regional and national press in the last year of desecration of war memorials involving vandalism, theft and even public urination and defecation. This averages out to at least one war memorial being desecrated every week. In fact, the lack of any specific reporting of such offences means that the number of desecrations is probably much higher.
What particularly troubled me about the desecration in my constituency was that the bronze plaques were practically irreplaceable. We did not have any records of the names that were inscribed, and so when these plaques were stolen there was a good chance that the names, and the memory, of those soldiers could have been lost forever. It sickens me—and, no doubt, the House—to think of those plates being melted down for scrap and those names being consigned to oblivion. Thankfully, a local man who had taken extensive photographs of the memorial a few years ago came forward. Together with the good work of the UK National Inventory of War Memorials, we are now able to replace the plaques. Other communities are not so lucky, with many memorials not properly registered and recorded.
The War Memorials Trust together with the national inventory, based at the Imperial War museum, are doing a sterling job to encourage registration of memorials, but only 55,000 have so far been registered. I urge hon. Members to find out how many war memorials there are in their constituency by contacting the national inventory, and—as they pound the streets and visit community buildings in the coming weeks—to keep an eye out not only for floating voters, but for unregistered war memorials.
The War Memorials Trust, which relies on voluntary support, deserves our membership and support for its commendable and tireless work to protect war memorials. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) has previously raised this important issue, and we need to be vigilant and take action to reverse the neglect that is the greatest threat to memorials.
War memorials do not have any dedicated legal protection. When damage is caused through criminal acts or neglect, the common question is who is responsible for repair and restoration. In my constituency, thankfully, Enfield council quickly responded by temporarily replacing the plaques, and they will soon be fully restored. However, the law needs to reflect the impact of desecration. There is, of course, the physical damage and the financial cost to the community of cleaning away the graffiti, repairing damage or replacing any stolen items such as bronze plaques. Many memorials were erected in the aftermath of the first world war and have since become a part of our heritage and our community. They are our connection to the past. The desecrators not only cause damage and steal property, but break the crucial link with past generations who have provided the remembrance. Such a break can sometimes be irreparable. More fundamentally, war memorials represent the values of our country. An attack on a war memorial represents an attack on our deeply held values, our freedoms and our democracy.
Who are those people carrying out these acts of desecration? Some incidents, like the widely reported case of a Leeds student urinating on a war memorial, are the result of reckless binge drinking. Then there are the mindless acts of destruction where memorials are smashed to bits and nothing taken. Finally, and most serious of all, are the deliberate attacks aimed at desecrating the symbolic value of war memorials. I have come across several incidents of Nazi swastikas being sprayed on to war memorials. One of these included a memorial built to remember the victims of the holocaust. I find this particularly abhorrent, given that many of those memorials commemorate men who died fighting to keep this country free of fascism. Whether the actions are as a result of disrespect or deliberate malice, we must have tough sanctions.
So what is the state of the law at the moment? Currently there is no specific provision for desecration of a war memorial. The problem with the law, as it stands, is that it primarily accounts for seriousness on the basis of financial value of the damage. Unless the damage caused costs more than £5,000 to repair and replace, the maximum sentence that the magistrates court can hand down is three months in prison. This simply does not accurately reflect the seriousness of the crime.
The Bill would amend the Criminal Damage Act 1971 to recognise damage to war memorials. Crown Court judges would have the power to deal with these cases, with up to 10 years’ imprisonment at their disposal. Presently, there are no complete figures for attacks on war memorials. By recognising war memorials in statute, we would help the reporting of such incidents. Another benefit of this Bill would be the creation of a proper legal definition for war memorials. This has been the aim of the War Memorials Trust for some time. By clarifying this definition, we would be able to tackle not just desecration but the problem of neglect.
I appreciate that my Bill has no chance of becoming law in this Parliament, but I hope that a future Parliament will consider the whole issue of protection of war memorials. In the meantime, I hope that sentencing guidelines can be revised. Also I am sure that a war memorials all-party parliamentary group will be shortly formed, with a challenge for 2014 on the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war to have all memorials properly registered.
In 1949, the Southgate mayor said:
“Time may dim our recollections of the heroic days of the war but will never obscure the gratitude we shall hold for those who fell. This memorial is living testimony to those of whom we in Southgate are proud. We shall not forget.”
This Bill says that we as a House and country shall not forget.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. David Burrowes, Shona McIsaac, Robert Key, Jim Sheridan, Dr. Andrew Murrison, Mr. Colin Breed, Mr. Charles Walker, Mike Penning, Angela Watkinson, Mr. Graham Stuart, John Mann and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.
Mr. David Burrowes accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 April, and to be printed (Bill 60).