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Armed Forces Bill

Volume 533: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2011

Consideration of Lords amendments

Clause 2

Armed forces covenant report

This group of amendments deals with the armed forces covenant report. Amendment 1 reflects the concerns in the other place about what some considered to be an unfortunate juxtaposition that would result from inserting the armed forces covenant report clause in the Armed Forces Act 2006 directly after section 359, which deals with pardons for soldiers executed during the first world war. This Lords amendment, which the Government accept, will have the effect of moving the clause to a different position in new part 16A to the Armed Forces Act 2006, and the new part will be entitled “Armed Forces Covenant Report”. So, for the future, the covenant report will have its own part within the legislation. I commend this change to the House.

Lords amendment 2 deals with inquests. It responds to the views expressed in this House and in the other place about the desirability of including the operation of inquests in the list of topics to be covered in the armed forces covenant report. It addresses an issue that is close to the heart of many right hon. and hon. Members. Our intention has always been that, when the Defence Secretary prepares the annual report, he should have regard to the whole range of subjects within the scope of the armed forces covenant, including the operation of the inquest system for bereaved service families.

We have listened very carefully to the concerns expressed in both Houses and we have decided to accept the amendment. In so doing, I wish to put on record our understanding of what the amendment envisages. The effects of service that the Defence Secretary could cover as a result of this amendment could encompass a wide range of inquests for both veterans and serving personnel. In accordance with his understanding of what the amendment envisages, the Defence Secretary will exercise the same discretion on this topic as on the other mandated topics—namely, he will consider which groups of service people and which aspects of the operation of inquests it is appropriate to cover in his report.

Quarterly ministerial statements on military inquests are already provided to Parliament; indeed, they have been since 2006. They are accompanied by detailed tables outlining progress in conducting an inquest for each fatality resulting from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the wide range of potential issues, our expectation is that in current circumstances the annual report will focus on similar matters to those covered in the quarterly statements. Our understanding of what the amendment envisages is that it is intended to be broad, but that there are matters that should not be covered in the annual report.

Members are well aware that inquests and coroners are independent of Government. In so far as the Government provide a legislative framework for inquests, this is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, so I wish to make it clear that the Defence Secretary will not report on matters concerning the general operation of the inquest system, but only on those that affect service people.

It is clearly essential that investigations into the deaths of service personnel are treated equally in the annual report, regardless of where they are held in the UK. So, where appropriate, the Defence Secretary will under his general powers under this clause report on matters relating to the operation in Scotland of fatal accident inquiries into the deaths of service people. Inquests are a crucial part of how we support those who died in the service of their country. This amendment emphasises the debt we owe to the members of our armed forces who have given their lives and to their families. I urge the House to agree to it.

I deal now with the three Government amendments 3 to 5. These relate to the involvement of other Government Departments and the devolved Administrations in the preparation of the annual report. The fact that there are three separate amendments simply reflects the advice that the proposed new section of the Act was becoming too long and should be split up. It has no other significance.

During the Bill’s passage much attention has been paid to the relationship between the Secretary of State for Defence, who will be responsible for laying the annual report before Parliament, and the Ministers and Departments responsible for delivering many of the services discussed in that report. The annual report will of course be on behalf of the United Kingdom Government as a whole. However, the Government have responded to concerns expressed in both Houses, and the amendments introduce a framework enabling Parliament to be absolutely clear about who is contributing what to the report.

The Defence Secretary will in future be under an obligation to obtain the views of the relevant Departments on the matters covered in the report, and to seek those of the relevant devolved Administrations. That difference in emphasis reflects the different constitutional position. We are working with the devolved Administrations on the covenant, not imposing new duties on them. The Defence Secretary will be required to set out those views in full, or to obtain the Department’s agreement to any summary of their views. If the devolved Administrations have not contributed to part of the report, the report will make that clear.

I also draw the House’s attention to a number of undertakings given in another place on 4 October by my noble Friend Lord Astor of Hever on how the annual report will be prepared. In particular, the Government have made a commitment to consult the covenant reference group at an early stage on the issues that will be addressed in the report. The amendments, together with those commitments, underline our determination that the preparation of the annual report should be an inclusive and transparent process, so that Parliament can rely on its highlighting the key issue of the day. I commend them to the House.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 5 agreed to.

After Clause 23

Commonwealth Medals

1 beg to move, that this House disagrees with Lords amendment 6.

The amendment inserts a new clause in the Bill which would permit members of the armed forces and Crown servants who are, or who have been, awarded Commonwealth medals to wear them without restriction. The debates in another place on the subject of medals leave no doubt about the emotions surrounding this important issue. The amendment raises questions about the process and rules for deciding on the acceptance and wearing of awards given by foreign and Commonwealth nations, about the position within that process of Her Majesty the Queen, and about recognising and supporting the Commonwealth.

The Government’s position on the fundamentals of how the system should work remains the same as that of the last Government, who, I remind the House, were in office when the issue of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal was considered. It has been held by every previous Government since King George VI established the current system. The Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals—the HD committee—was set up to advise the sovereign on all issues relating to honours, decorations and medals. It consists of senior Crown servants from the Departments most involved. Where relevant, the views of service Chiefs of Staff are fed in and reflected in the advice given to the sovereign.

The thinking behind this approach is straightforward. When British citizens, whether civilian or military, carry out their duty to the sovereign and to their country, it is for the sovereign to decide on the award of honours for that service. That allows us to be consistent in our response to all foreign or Commonwealth states. It prevents a situation in which, if other states were free to honour UK citizens as they chose, there might be suggestions of patronage or influence. It also means that the advice given to the sovereign about the grant of honours is consistent across Government and, as far as possible, dispassionate. Decisions on whether to reward service should not be made in the glare of public or political debate. I do not pretend that absolute consistency has been, or always can be, maintained. Sometimes exceptions have been, and no doubt will be, made. This amendment would lay down for the future a new rule about medals: that those awarded a Commonwealth medal shall be entitled in all circumstances to wear it. However, it would also apply that rule to Commonwealth medals awarded in the past, including the PJM medal.

I do not wish to dwell today on the issues surrounding the PJM or any other specific medal. The Government will remain engaged with the Lords, who have argued strongly that the present arrangements for the PJM are not right. I recommend that the House should disagree with amendment 6 as this is not an appropriate matter for legislation.

The amendment overturns past decisions made on Commonwealth medals. In doing so, it establishes the precedent that Parliament may overturn—after any length of time—any decision of the sovereign as the fount of honour. It takes away from the sovereign—and, indeed, from the United Kingdom—any control over the acceptance of Commonwealth medals in the future. It is drafted in terms which apply whenever a Commonwealth country chooses to honour members of the armed forces, veterans or other Crown servants, even if that was against the wishes of our armed forces or, indeed, the sovereign. More generally, it establishes a further precedent that Parliament can lay down and change the rules which are to be applied to decisions on the acceptance of honours. It does away with the safeguards I have mentioned, such as the need for a basically consistent approach to awards by all friendly and allied states. It takes us to a system where decisions on the award of past, present and future honours are made in the party political environment of parliamentary consideration, rather than through the largely non-political approach set up by King George VI. I believe this is wrong in principle.

In addition, the amendment would create a different principle for the wearing of medals awarded by Commonwealth nations from that which applies to those awarded by other allies. The operations in which our armed forces are involved are increasingly international, with British units working alongside United Nations, NATO or European Union partners. We could not readily explain to non-Commonwealth allies, and especially to the individuals they wish to reward, why we treat their awards on a fundamentally different basis from those offered by a Commonwealth nation. Making a distinction of this kind is not the way to reflect our respect for the Commonwealth.

No system is perfect. As my noble Friend Lord Astor has stated in another place, officials have been instructed to look at the process by which advice about the institution of medals and the acceptance of foreign awards for military service is put together, considered and submitted to Her Majesty, and at how decisions are promulgated. They will then consider whether any advice should be given to Her Majesty about the need to review the process and make changes. We aim to conclude this work before the end of the year.

Lord Astor also said that, in the light of the continued strength of feeling about the PJM, we would put in hand representations to the HD committee to reconsider the position. That is the right way to handle such matters. The wrong way is for Parliament to overturn Her Majesty’s decisions and to establish a precedent for Parliament to lay down new rules. In particular, we should not make a rule which removes all further involvement of Her Majesty and the United Kingdom from decisions on Commonwealth awards.

These awards should be made in a measured, dispassionate and independent manner away from the glare of public debate. I urge the House to disagree with the amendment.

I will not detain the House for long. The Minister said party politics should not be involved in the granting of awards and honours, particularly those from Commonwealth countries. I entirely agree, and I think he will agree that this amendment is intended not necessarily to change the law on these issues, but rather to bring attention to the situation with regard to the PJM medal. Our constituents have great difficulty understanding why these veterans, who are probably in their 60s and 70s and who have been awarded this medal by Malaysia, can receive it but cannot wear it. The approach is strange and very inconsistent. The Minister has said that there has not been complete consistency in the past on how these medals and awards are dealt with. I do not think for a second that a precedent would be broken here, because precedents have already been broken on who can and cannot wear particular medals.

It is also incongruous that the Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders who fought in Malaya in the 1960s and 1970s can wear the medals but our British veterans cannot. They fought the same battles and the same war, and they deserve the same recognition. One assumes that the Queen’s Governments in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere advised Her Majesty that it would be possible for this particular medal to be worn. Indeed, I am informed that the last Governor-General of Australia was a recipient of the PJM medal and was allowed by his own Government, on the advice he must have given to the Queen, to wear that medal. It is incongruous, is it not, that the former Governor-General of Australia can wear the medal but somebody in my constituency who fought in Malaya in the ’60s cannot?

I am grateful that the Minister indicated that the Government would look again at the issue of the PJM medal.

The right hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent case for reviewing the entire system, and we are currently carrying out a medals review. I assure him that it is a genuine review, not a—[Interruption.] Not one as conducted by the Government of whom the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) was a member.

The Minister has already indicated that both Governments did not really resolve this issue. The previous Government examined it carefully. Lord Touhig, the then Member for Islwyn, raised it on a number of occasions, both by way of an Adjournment debate and elsewhere, but he got nowhere with the Government of whom I had been a member. Nevertheless, it is important that the Minister understands the huge strength of feeling on this issue up and down the country. This is not about taking away the powers of the sovereign and it is not about the prerogative; it is about dealing with the simple issue that veterans who fought in Malaya in the 1960s should be allowed to wear the medal which they have been allowed to accept.

I rise briefly to echo many of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy). A significant number of my constituents cannot understand why they are not being allowed to wear the PJM medal. They are puzzled as they believe it to be a genuine medal, and it was gazetted as such in the London Gazette in the 1960s. I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman, but I am persuaded by the Minister’s statement that he intends to examine the procedure by which these things are decided. I agree with him that the Lords amendment may not be the right way to address this problem. I am therefore persuaded to support the Government in voting against the Lords amendment, on the understanding that he will indeed carry out a genuine reconsideration of the process. By that means, he may well help my constituents who are puzzled by the law that says they cannot currently wear the PJM medal.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this amendment, and I am very disappointed that the Government are objecting to it. Lord Craig of Radley made a strong case for his amendment in the other place, supported by Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Touhig, arguing that our veterans and service personnel should be permitted to wear Commonwealth medals that have been awarded to them. It is very humbling to talk to service personnel and veterans about the experiences that have led to the awarding of a medal, and they should have the right to wear proudly the medals that they have earned.

I support the need for the awarding of medals to be fully considered by the cross-departmental Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, but we cannot continue to have anomalies such as veterans being awarded a medal but not being given the right to wear it. This amendment therefore seeks to address the specific issue in relation to the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal.

I know that—[Interruption.] Actually, I think it is quite gentlemanly. The hon. Lady cannot be held responsible for the actions of the previous Government because although she may have supported them, she was not in the House, but sitting next to her is someone who was doing my job not 18 months ago—the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). This was not a matter of any concern to him then.

That is not an argument for not acting this evening. If the Minister will allow me to make a little progress, he will understand why we are supporting the amendment this evening. I have no desire to upset royal prerogative, and I respect traditions and conventions, but I did not come into Parliament to accept the status quo meekly—I stood for Parliament to challenge conventions that institutionalise unfairnesses such as this. As we have heard this evening, many Members in the House have recognised and acknowledged that unfairness in their support for holders of the PJM.

Colleagues on both sides of the House, some of whom have now moved to the other place, have campaigned on this issue for many years. I think that in the beginning they would have accepted the response that this was a matter for the HD committee, but now, after years of politely asking the committee to reconsider this matter, Parliament must stand up and take a lead. There cannot be many Members here who have not been contacted by a holder of the PJM who would dearly love to wear their medal. My constituent Moira Murray from Dumbarton, who served in the RAF and travelled to Malaysia to collect her medal, visited me during the summer to say how proud she would be to wear it. Moira is joined by thousands of other brave British veterans who served in Malaysia in the 1950s and ’60s who have been awarded the PJM by the grateful Malaysian nation, which was keen to recognise their contribution, but the HD committee decided that they should be allowed to accept it but not to wear it.

I will give way, but I hope this is going to be a different point to the one that has already been made.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way but she really cannot get away with her synthetic outrage. During 13 years of her party’s Administration nothing ever happened on this. Will she at least give credit to this Administration for setting up a fundamental review of honours and decorations through the appropriate committee?

I am not making party political points and this is not synthetic outrage—indeed, it is not outrage. I am putting forward quite a rational case for supporting the amendment that the Lords have put forward.

What kind of message does this send to our brave service people—“Go abroad for your active service, risk your life for others, sacrifice so much for your country and for the grateful people of another and be awarded a medal but not the right to wear it”? PJM holders might be able to accept this arrangement but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) has already indicated, the medal has been awarded to veterans from other Commonwealth countries who took part in the conflict, and they do have the right to wear it, unlike their British colleagues who served alongside them. Australian and New Zealand veterans are allowed to wear their medals, but British veterans are not. Given that they are all subject to the same sovereign, the Minister must be able to understand why this is perceived as unfair and anomalous.

I have written to the Minister on this matter previously and he referred, as he has this evening, to previous consideration and decisions by the HD committee. He also explained why medal holders in other countries can wear the PJM:

“Each Government applies its own rules and judgement to its own citizens and no country is obligated to follow another. This applies to medals as it applies to other aspects of public policy.”

In that case, I urge him not to hide behind royal prerogative but to take his own advice and take a Government decision. It would be helpful if he could clarify whether the discussions on medals are the ultimate responsibility of the Government, as he indicated in that letter, meaning that the Government could indeed press ahead with change, or whether it is an issue of royal prerogative, in which case it simply does not make sense to have different rules for the same medal for different countries of the Commonwealth as they are all subject to the same sovereign.

When I was awarded the Order of Merit, officer class, by the President of the Republic of Poland, I received, without any solicitation, a letter from Buckingham palace signed by Her Majesty’s representative saying that I could wear the Order of Merit, officer class, of the Republic of Poland anywhere in the United Kingdom. Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems a little unfair that former members of the Royal Green Jackets regiment in my constituency cannot wear the medals that they earned in conflict whereas I, without asking, have been given permission to wear the OM, officer class, of the Republic of Poland?

Order. The distinguished career history of the hon. Gentleman will be of continuing interest and indeed fascination, but I know that in responding, the hon. Lady will wish to remain in order.

Indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) has highlighted why so many veterans feel that the decision is unfair.

The wearing of the PJM has been raised in the House in the past, both in Adjournment debates and in several early-day motions calling for reform of the HD committee system or requesting that the Government make representations to the committee to bring about change and ensure that veterans have the right to wear their medal. Signatories of the early-day motion included the familiar names of the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the present Under-Secretary of State for Defence, and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), now the Minister for the Armed Forces, who are not on the Treasury Bench at present, but frequently are when the House debates defence issues.

The hon. Member for North Devon also signed a motion specifically calling for an exemption and noting the differences with other Commonwealth nations. Given the Ministers’ previous support for PJM holders, I hope it is not too much to ask them, along with the other 51 Government Members who have signed early-day motions supporting PJM holders, to support the Lords amendment today. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is chuntering from a sedentary position, but I advise him to listen to the argument being made today.

Concerns have been expressed about the precedent that the amendment could set, but we must remember that it seeks to address a very specific set of circumstances—that veterans be allowed to wear a Commonwealth medal that they have earned, been awarded and been permitted to accept.

Members may be aware, however, that the Government have faced similar situations in the past. The Russian convoy 40th anniversary medal was awarded to British veterans in 1985, after negotiations between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Russia. Like the PJM, although veterans were able to receive it, they were not allowed to wear it until 1994 when, after further negotiations and lobbying, veterans were given permission to proudly display their commendations. Ministers talk about precedent, but it seems that a precedent already exists that would permit the wearing of the PJM.

I do not suggest that we start using legislation routinely as a vehicle for decisions on medals, but in this instance it is clear that Members feel that the process is not working. My office receives frequent inquiries from people who are not constituents of mine but are entirely frustrated by the medals system and the lack of information about the review, in which the Minister places so much faith.

I am not giving way at the moment. I know that the Minister had to re-open the consultation on the medals review as the proper consultees were not initially involved.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I am amazed that she shows no tint of political embarrassment about the blatant political opportunism of promising now to do something that her Government refused to do for 13 years. Will she not be satisfied with the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister announced that there will be a review of the PJM, which is an important point? The Lords amendment is not about the PJM; it is about all Commonwealth medals. Surely she can understand that those of us who feel strongly about the PJM on behalf of constituents should be satisfied with the fact that the Government are prepared to review it—something that her party was never prepared to do.

The hon. Gentleman is making a somewhat better case than the Minister made. As he supports the principle of the amendment, I hope he might reconsider and join us in the Lobby this evening.

In conclusion, I welcome the strengthening of the armed forces covenant in the Bill. It offers veterans, as well as service personnel and families, the protections that they deserve. Supporting the amendment would be an indication of the approach that the Government intend to take in moving forward in the spirit of the new legislation on the armed forces covenant.

Before addressing Lords amendment 6, I wish to join colleagues in paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces, wherever they serve, and expressing gratitude for their hard work, bravery and courage.

I agree with the Minister. The Liberal Democrats will be disagreeing with our friends in another place on this matter. We need a full and thorough review of all the issues associated with the awarding of Commonwealth medals. It is pernicious for the Opposition to pick one medal and try to make political capital out of it, rather than looking at the matter overall. However, I say to the Minister that this will be the second review that the coalition Government have had on the awarding of medals. It is important that this time we learn from the failure of the previous review to secure cross-party support and get it right for the long term. The terms of reference and the timeline for the last review were not made public and it failed to consult interested stakeholder groups, including the veterans to whom the medals are awarded. I ask him to give an assurance that those three concerns will be resolved in the new review.

We have since consulted specifically on each issue and await the approval, or otherwise, of the medals review, but I am afraid that it has not yet been approved.

I must remind the hon. Gentleman that his party backed this campaign when in opposition. It also campaigned very strongly for the national defence medal, including some very nasty leaflets from a Liberal Democrat candidate directed against the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The Liberal Democrats support the national defence medal and a thorough review that will deliver consistency for the awarding of all medals for members of our armed forces. It is absolutely right that for people joining our armed forces it is as much a calling for them as it is a job. It is right that we give them the recognition they deserve for their bravery in standing up for our freedoms. It is absolute hypocrisy for a former Minister sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, who was chuntering under his breath and saying that the reason they changed their view—

Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that no allegation of hypocrisy against an individual hon. or right hon. Member should be made. I feel sure that he is not imputing such motives, but if he is perhaps he would withdraw his remark.

If that is what the record shows, Mr. Speaker, I of course withdraw the remark.

There is a level of disingenuity, shall we say, in a party that had 13 years to act on this issue but failed to do so now seeking to make political capital from it. It is important that we get this right for all the men and women who serve in our armed forces and that we do so in a considered way. That is why we disagree with the Lords tonight.

Order. I do not know whether the Minister is seeking to respond to the debate. No? He is not obliged to, as the Government have set out their position.

Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 6.

Lords amendment 6 disagreed to.

Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 6;

That Mr Andrew Robathan, Mr Mark Francois, Gemma Doyle, Mr David Hamilton and Stephen Gilbert be Members of the Committee;

That Mr Andrew Robathan be the Chair of the Committee;

That three be the quorum of the Committee.

That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(James Duddridge.)

Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The media are reporting that the House business for next week has been changed, and that the Backbench Business Committee debate on a European Union referendum Bill is now to be not on Thursday but on Monday. First there is the issue of the media being told first, rather than the House, but secondly, that is Back-Bench business time. Although the Government can allocate that time, they cannot dictate to the Backbench Business Committee what business is done on what particular day. This seems to be a breach of the orders of the House, and I wonder whether you have had any indication that a statement will be made to explain the situation.

Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Have you been informed by Her Majesty’s Government that, if the business for Monday is to be changed, the designation of the European Union business will change from Back-Bench business to business of Her Majesty’s Government?

You will well remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that last week Her Majesty’s Government went to great lengths to protect the Hillsborough debate, which was scheduled as a result of an e-petition. The debate on an EU referendum is also in response to a public petition, but the Government’s response seems to be at odds with their previous behaviour.

I find that there is always speculation about Government business, but as the House knows, there is to be a business statement as usual tomorrow, at which the Government will set out the business for next week. That is solely a matter for the Government and not one for the Chair.