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National Defence Medal

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 12 April 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the National Defence Medal.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. This is a short debate covering a vast subject, and I hope to chart a way forward to a more substantial debate in the near future. I know that a number of hon. Members will want to contribute, and I am keen to allow that, because the topic is worthy of considerable discussion. However, if time runs short, I hope that Members will excuse me if I fail to take as many interventions as they or I would like.

When I began exploring the subject and took on the task of leading this debate, I was concerned about having time to do the research necessary to do justice to the subject, but as it turned out, I need not have worried. Many people have been generous in sharing their knowledge, for which I thank them sincerely, and copying me in on their correspondence with the Government. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to get in touch with me, both before and since I secured this debate. However, any errors in my speech are mine alone.

In the time allotted, I cannot hope to cover all the anomalies thrown up by the current policy, but there is one that I cannot let pass. Today is the 51st anniversary of the death of Warrant Officer John F. Lonergan of 131 Parachute Engineer Regiment and Sergeant Cyril Atfield of the Royal Army Pay Corps, both of whom were killed at Al Milah, 60 miles from Aden, South Arabia, in what is now the Republic of Yemen.

The deployment of 131 Para Regiment to South Arabia was the first time a Territorial Army regiment had been sent into conflict since 1945. In the engagement that led to the deaths of those men, five others were wounded and one officer was awarded an MBE for gallantry. It is surely undeniable that all the men were in a dangerous situation as a result of their service, but because of tight medal rules, none of the others involved in the engagement would receive a medal to acknowledge their service, unless they happened to be around long enough to receive one for long service.

I am not sure that that is accurate. They would qualify for the General Service Medal, Arabian Peninsula, even though they were killed within the 28 days, if their commanding officer put them forward for one.

I thank the hon. Gentleman sincerely for that contribution. I will speak about that particular medal, so his intervention is useful.

Much is said about the British medal policy being based on risk and rigour, but as Al Milah demonstrated, anyone who steps forward as a member of the armed forces may find themselves sent into a foreign land, sometimes to be woken at night by the sound of incoming fire. To me, that is self-evidently a dangerous proposition, and it certainly strikes me as enough risk to demand that we recognise it. However, this debate is not about an action or actions that took place a long time ago. It must be about what is right here and now, and that is what I hope that we can address.

One piece of correspondence shared with me relates to the action in Al Milah. It is yet another Ministry of Defence rejection of recognition for the service of Warrant Officer Lonergan, Sergeant Atfield and other members of the armed forces who placed themselves in harm’s way in Yemen at that time. The request was not for bravery medals; it was simply that they be awarded the General Service Medal with clasp South Arabia, which was awarded to other members of the armed forces in Yemen at that time. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) has been pursuing the case.

The letter from the MOD quotes Winston Churchill in 1944, in a debate about the medals to be issued at the end of the second world war. I have curtailed it for brevity, but I hope that Hansard will display the citation for Members’ benefit. He said that

“a distinction is something which everybody does not possess. If all have it, it is of less value…A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow. The task of drawing up regulations for such awards is one which does not admit of a perfect solution…All that is possible is to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and to hurt the feelings of the fewest.”—[Official Report, 22 March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 872.]

I argue that those points are as valid now as they were then.

I have a constituent called Glen who has been campaigning on this issue for many years. He was drafted through national service to serve as a non-commissioned officer in the Suez emergency in the 1950s, yet he feels that he has never received adequate recognition for the years that he dedicated to service and the sacrifice that he made. Surely we should do all that we can to honour those drafted to protect our country.

The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. There are many people in a similar position. They feel that they are being missed out, and that people do not understand or recognise what they have done.

The difference between my position and that of the MOD is that I believe we must take account of changes in context. As John Maynard Keynes said:

“If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall for consideration. She will be aware that there are many ex-service personnel who did not receive an operational medal during their service with the armed forces. Some of them were not on the front line: submariners on nuclear deterrent duty, for instance, or those in the Royal Observer Corps. May I make a plug for those in the Ulster Defence Regiment who served in Northern Ireland? Some of them also do not meet the criteria. There are a number of people I feel should be considered. Does she feel that the Minister should refer to them in his review?

I agree. I have been contacted by people who have served in many and various ways but are not entitled to a medal. It is an issue of concern, and I hope that we will hear more about it from the Minister. It does not matter how many independent reviews, staffed largely by people embedded in the status quo, take place; the changing facts provide the challenge facing the Government. The facts have changed. It is time that British medal policy changed to reflect them, and that it followed the example set by Commonwealth and other countries.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She is absolutely right to say that many people are concerned about having their contribution recognised, particularly people who served in Northern Ireland and feel that they were not recognised for their contribution in the same way as people who served in more recent battles. I wrote to the Prime Minister on behalf of Robert Scollick, my constituent, and the Cabinet Office response said:

“I have to tell you there are no plans for further work on this issue, nor can I offer you a time scale when it might be sensible to return to this issue.”

I wish the hon. Lady luck in bringing to the Government the idea that the time to discuss it is now.

I agree that it is time to re-examine the issue. Things have changed. We must remember that our armed services are now made up entirely of those who have joined up voluntarily. They do so entirely of their own volition, and they clearly understand the potential peril that they face.

One of the other ways in which the context, and therefore the facts on which to base a decision, have changed involves the adoption of the armed forces covenant in 2010. On page 4, we find the commitment that performing any form of service in the armed forces deserves recognition and gratitude. Indeed it does, but unfortunately, for too many of those serving in our armed forces at present, we do not always deliver them. The armed forces covenant is mentioned often in this place, but such lofty words do not always translate into real and proper consideration of how we ought to support our service personnel and veterans.

Consider the recent poor outcomes of the armed forces continuous attitude survey, or the lengthy struggle to extract fair compensation for service personnel suffering from mesothelioma. The UK Government do not always do enough or act at an appropriate speed. A tangible recognition of service undertaken by means of a national defence medal would be only one way to continue to improve how we deal with our service personnel. We should surely be considering all our obligations.

Significantly, the most recent medals review, led by Sir John Holmes, recognised that the case for a National Defence Medal was worthy of consideration. I agree with him that such a decision would be significant and that it requires a broad political consensus; I am pleased to see a range of Members here. At the time of the review, the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals advised specifically that the issue might usefully be reconsidered in the future, going so far as to consider how criteria might be applied for such an award. I do not propose to do so here, but I agree that the matter would have to be examined properly so that a clear award framework could be set out.

I am interested in the principle of a medal being awarded and that is what we should consider today. In the meantime, Ministers have agreed that the eligibility requirements for the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, which is currently awarded only to other ranks and not to officers, should be harmonised in the future, and I hope that today’s discussion will be a way to further that debate.

Having examined the argument against a UK national defence medal, I found it to be thin and inconsistent. Medals are already awarded for service, or sometimes just for being somewhere at the right time. While some people with just 10 years of service may have two Jubilee Medals, I have been contacted by a former member of the RAF who served for 20 years but received no medal at all. It is impossible to argue that that is a coherent position. Many people leave the service with no medal while some people who joined in 2000 and left in 2012 have received two medals without seeing any operational postings. How does that policy address Churchill’s plea that recognition should

“give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and…hurt the feelings of the fewest”?—[Official Report, 22 March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 872.]

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), I am aware of the General Service Medal; in fact, I received one with a clasp for air operations in Iraq. However, I have a constituent who, as the hon. Lady just said, served in the Royal Air Force for 26 years in RAF Germany, during the cold war, which we could argue was a series of operations, without receiving a medal. So the hon. Lady has lots of support as she considers how we can recognise that type of commitment to our nation and our security with a national defence medal.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that interjection; that story about his constituent is illustrative of the stories of members and former members of the armed services who have contacted me. There are people in so many different situations who fall down gaps that we perhaps did not realise were there.

How can this situation possibly be justified? If, as Churchill said, we want

“to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved”

medals, is it any wonder that some people might consider that they are not being recognised equally? And is it any wonder if some former members of our armed forces consequently shun Remembrance Day events and other commemorative events? That concern has been raised with me and it is a great shame that some of those who have served, sometimes in very difficult situations, are not entitled to a medal, which causes them to be anxious about remembrance ceremonies. That is very unfortunate and entirely avoidable.

In the same 1944 debate that Churchill spoke in and that I have quoted, Leslie Hore-Belisha MP commented on exactly that kind of discrepancy in recognition. He said:

“The fact that such anomalies exist is no excuse for deliberately adding to them. It is the function of good legislation and administration to remove them and, if not to remove them, at any rate to diminish them.” —[Official Report, 22 March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 908]

That is what we should consider. The British Veterans National Defence Medal Campaign advances the simple and logical proposition that one way of diminishing such anomalies is to ensure that all members of the armed forces get the recognition they deserve for stepping into that role.

Other Governments have recognised this issue and acted to recognise the contribution made by their service personnel. The UK Government should now do the same, and acknowledge in this tangible way the work and the willingness to face peril that is common to everyone who signs up as a member of our armed forces.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I am sure she will agree that when people sign up for the military, they sign up to put life and limb on the line for this nation, and for them not to have a medal that recognises that contribution is part of the insult, given that—depending on which operation they were involved in and what medals were awarded—they have made that core decision to put their life and limb on the line for the nation, which would be recognised by this medal we are discussing.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That intervention absolutely gets to the crux of this issue. The Australian Government have recognised that point with their new defence medal, which was instituted in 2006, and they describe the purpose of that medal as being to recognise

“the outstanding contribution to our proud military history made by Australian men and women in uniform.”

That is all of them. Similarly, when New Zealand instituted its defence medal in 2011, the country’s Defence Minister, Wayne Mapp, described the basis for issuing the medal as follows:

“Many thousands of New Zealanders have met the demanding requirements of military service. They have served their country and community loyally and well...Up to now, there has been no recognition of this service, on which the Government places high value. This medal remedies that.”

That is exactly the type of recognition that I am looking for.

Here, however, the Ministry of Defence seems to place great store on the argument that a national defence medal would devalue other awards, which is an absurd proposition. When I asked a question about this topic at business questions recently, the Leader of the House of the Commons said he did not think that medals should be handed out in this way, and that the value of medals for particular examples of valour and service would perhaps be devalued by the issuing of a national defence medal. I could not disagree more. People who join our armed forces do so knowing that they are putting themselves into peril, and it is high time that we recognised that.

I believe that those who have been awarded medals for bravery do not feel that their awards are devalued because other colleagues receive the same campaign medal as they do, and nor would they feel that their awards were devalued by the receipt of a national defence medal. Those who were awarded a General Service Medal do not feel that it was devalued because others were awarded it, too. Arguments such as that made by the Leader of the House of Commons are simply camouflage for an unwillingness to listen.

Having already quoted Churchill, I will close my remarks today by doing so again, and this time I hope that the Government will pay particular attention to his advice. Writing on the conduct of negotiations between states, he advised:

“In war and policy one should always try to put oneself in the position of what Bismarck called ‘the Other Man’. The more fully and sympathetically a Minister can do this, the better are his chances of being right.”

I commend those sentiments to the Minister and I look forward to hearing how the Government intend to take forward the recognition by Sir John Holmes that the case for a national defence medal deserves proper consideration.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Stringer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this debate. I am aware of the early-day motion on this issue that she has previously tabled, and I know, both from that and her comments today, how strongly she feels about it.

Her Majesty’s armed forces are the best in the world. Our service personnel have served Britain with honour, and are serving with honour at this very moment in many parts of the world. Their history is an inspiring story of courage, heroism and sacrifice, and it is because of our brave armed forces that we are protected. It is because of their inspirational work that our country stands safe, or at least as safe as any other country in the world. I take this opportunity to thank all those, both past and present—and, indeed, their families—who have served in our armed forces. This Government truly value their service. It was this Government who finally enshrined the principles of the armed forces covenant in law, to ensure that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly. The Government continue to work with businesses, local authorities, charities and community organisations to support our forces through services, policy and projects.

I am proud, for example, that we have committed to spend 2% of our national income on our military every year until 2020. We have also given over £450 million from LIBOR funds to military-related charities and schemes, and we are taking seriously the mental health of our veterans, launching a survey to try to understand their needs. We are providing mentoring, training and advice to our ex-servicemen and women through the veterans employment transition support programme, and we have invested £15 million to improve prosthetic services. We have given £20 million to eight projects to improve accommodation for veterans.

Let me now address the main point of today’s debate. Military honours and medals are one way, but only one way, that we can recognise the exceptional service of those brave men and women who go beyond even the high expectations of their comrades, commanders and country. It is vital for all who receive one that we do not devalue its importance.

Last year the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), then a Defence Minister, said that British military tradition dictates that

“medals are not awarded as a record of service but in recognition of specific campaigns or operations, acts of gallantry or outstanding service.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 587.]

I recognise that, but we already have a long service and good conduct medal, so would it not be in the best of British tradition to incorporate a national defence medal, in recognition of the service that good men and women of this country give to protect all of us?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. It is true that we have a long service and good conduct medal, which was introduced as far back as 1830. It rewards other ranks who have completed 15 years of regular service, but not officers—I think it started at 21 years, and over time has come down to recognise those levels of service.

I will directly address the hon. Lady’s concerns later in my comments, but first I want to go back to something I have already referred to. Medals are one way, but not the only way, of addressing the concerns that some veterans have. Another method is memorials. Memorials are lasting public reminders and are places of pilgrimage for veterans and their families, the latest example of which is the memorial to Bomber Command, which was opened on 28 June 2012 by the Queen. There was a huge campaign for a memorial of that type. We also have the world war two memorial, the National Memorial Arboretum near Tamworth, which contains a number of other memorials, so we should not treat this issue in isolation. There are other ways of recognising the massive contribution that the military and their families have made to this country over many centuries.

Let me also say, however, that there is no simple way of doing that. It is impossible to satisfy all who have served their country. It is no easy task to set the limits or where the line falls for who receives a medal and who does not. There will also be disappointment on the borders of such decisions. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said that Churchill addressed the matter directly on the Floor of the House back in 1944, and she was good enough to put on the record part of what he said. I would like, however, to add the first part of what he said:

“The object of giving medals, stars and ribbons is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them. At the same time a distinction is something which everybody does not possess. If all have it it is of less value. There must, therefore, be heartburnings and disappointments on the border line.”—[Official Report, 22 March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 872.]

Those words ring as true today as they did then, and in many ways the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire has today encapsulated the anguish involved in trying to make decisions that are fair to everyone. There will never be a perfect solution regarding the distinction between those who deserve medallic recognition and those who do not.

The Minister talks about those who deserve, yet the litany of those whom many would argue are deserving—from nuclear testing and Northern Ireland to suffering through front-line service in the cold war—should not be dictated by a debate on the Floor of the House of Commons in 1944, but by the lived experience of personnel who have served their country and the Crown with distinction, based on how we perceive our community today, not in 1944.

Of course what has happened since 1944 should not necessarily be dictated by 1944, but in that quotation Churchill summarised the issues and the anguish involved. I was merely trying to reflect that in my comments, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire did in hers.

Does the Minister agree that the slight difference between today and 1944 is that in 1944 adult men and women of a particular age were conscripted, under threat of imprisonment, at a time of war? What sets the veterans of today apart is that they volunteered to serve our country.

Of course there is a clear difference between what happened in the second world war and what happens today, but Churchill’s comments summarised the issues that needed to be carefully weighed up when making the decision. There is a strong lobby in the military for not making the changes, as well as the one we are getting from veterans about the national defence medal. The Government’s job is to try to make decisions about where the line falls in a fair and honourable way, and that is not easy. We will upset one group of people whichever decision we come to.

Although the Ministry of Defence instituted the armed forces veterans lapel badge in 2014 as a way of identifying all those who had done military service, it has never been the tradition here in Britain to consider service in the armed forces as the sole justification for a medal. It was right, therefore, that in 2012 the Prime Minister gave medallic recognition its appropriate attention, by commissioning Sir John Holmes, a retired senior diplomat, to review the awarding of military medals. I can assure hon. Members that great thought has already been given to all the points raised this morning. Sir John’s review team received more than 200 submissions and spoke to more than 50 people, including representatives of various veterans’ groups. Sir John independently reviewed a number of cases as possible candidates for changed medallic recognition, one of which involved Arctic convoy personnel and led to the Arctic convoy medal being given.

The national defence medal was worthy, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire pointed out, of full consideration in the 2012 review. Its supporters seek recognition for all those who have served, irrespective of where they were called upon to do so. The review estimated the cost of the medal at £475 million, and although it went far beyond the narrow consideration of cost, there would be implications for other activities and choices if the Ministry of Defence had to take that burden.

The Minister talks about the veterans badge. I am sure it must be clear—it has been mentioned in this very hall before—that the badge is not officially sanctioned and is therefore not a medal.

No, but as I made clear earlier, there are different ways of recognising the sacrifice that people have made for their country. Although the badge is not a medal, it is a recognition of service.

British campaign medals are not awarded as a record of service as in some other countries, but as a result of particularly difficult circumstances of service life—risk and rigour, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said. Although some Commonwealth countries have their own equivalent of the national defence medal, namely Australia and New Zealand, the review felt that that did not present a strong enough case for us to do so. Sir John’s proposals were considered by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, and the Committee could not see a strong reason for introducing such a medal at this time. Sir John published his final report in the summer of 2014.

The Government have taken unprecedented action to support our military, investing in areas from housing to social and medical care, and we will continue to do that. Unlike what happened under previous Governments, in recent years we have seen major investment in mental health, veterans’ accommodation and veterans’ hearing. We have seen multimillion pound investments in supporting our veterans, something done under no previous Government. We value all our military as brave heroes who keep, and have kept, our country safe, but following the most complete and far-reaching review of military medals for a generation, Sir John Holmes recommended not to introduce a national defence medal. That was no easy task, and I repeat what Churchill said: that there will be

“heartburnings and disappointments on the border line.”

Sir John’s review was published less than two years ago and, given that the circumstances remain exactly the same, we do not feel there is significant value in revisiting the matter. That position is not in any way intended to disparage those who have served their country. As I said at the outset, the Government have the highest regard for all those, past and present, who have served in the armed forces, and we will continue to do all that we can to support them.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.