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Protection of War Memorials

Volume 539: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2012

The Petition of Ian Coleman and ex-service personnel in Blackpool,

Declares that the nation’s war memorials and their surroundings should be treated as special places and respected in a manner which befits those whose lives they commemorate.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to ensure the protection of war memorials via a more rigid enforcement of existing laws or by bringing forward new legislation to ensure that war memorials are adequately protected.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Mr Gordon Marsden, Official Report, 15 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 1029 .]


Observations from the Secretary of State for Justice:

The Government take a very serious view of damage to and desecration of war memorials, and believe that they should be preserved for the benefit of future generations. The actions of those who steal or damage war memorials stand in stark contrast to the courage of men and women who serve in our armed forces.

We would like to reassure Mr Coleman and all those who signed the petition that tough penalties already exist for those who desecrate war memorials in this way. Theft is a criminal offence under section 1 of the Theft Act 1968, and carries a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. Criminal damage is an offence under section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, and has a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment. The offence of outraging public decency is another relevant offence: as a common law offence, this carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Offenders convicted of any of these offences may also be fined as an alternative or in addition to a term of imprisonment, and may be subject to an ancillary order, such as an order to pay compensation.

Within these maximum penalties, judges and magistrates will seek to establish the harm the offence caused and the culpability of the offender. Courts will also weigh up individual aggravating and mitigating factors in order to determine the seriousness of the offence, which in turn will influence their decision as to the appropriate sentence.

Judges and magistrates have wide discretion when considering these aggravating and mitigating factors. They can and do have regard to the special status of war memorials when sentencing an offender for criminal damage.

The Government have asked the Sentencing Council to consider revising sentencing guidelines, to make the fact that an offence was targeted against a war memorial a formal aggravating factor. This would underline to the courts—and the public—that sentences for theft of or damage to war memorials should properly reflect the seriousness of this public desecration.

We have considered representations on this matter and are of the view that there is sufficient scope within existing penalties to apply tough sentences to perpetrators of such crimes, but it is for the courts to decide what penalty is appropriate given the circumstances.

In recent years, war memorials have increasingly become targets for theft for their scrap value because of the rising cost of metals. In addition, there is a black market for public art made from any material. Some war memorials with figurative sculpture designed by leading artists are collectable items with some being stolen to order.

These recent developments should be addressed by the Home Secretary’s intention, announced on 26 January, to lay a Government amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to create a new criminal offence to prohibit cash payments to purchase scrap metal; and significantly increase the fines for all offences under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. This follows the Government’s commitment in the National Infrastructure Plan published in November 2011 to provide £5 million to establish a dedicated metal theft taskforce to enhance law enforcement activity in this area.

The War Memorials Trust has published guidance with English Heritage and Historic Scotland on how to prevent theft from war memorials and what to do if a theft has occurred.