[Relevant document: Fourth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2016-17, Exposing Walter Mitty: The Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, HC 658.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
To undermine our veterans is wrong, to claim to be a military hero when you are not is wrong, and to steal valour is wrong. That is why I am introducing the Bill. I thank the Ministry of Defence and the Government, as well as Her Majesty’s Opposition, for their prompt and full support for the Bill. In addition, I thank the Select Committee on Defence for its professional report, and colleagues for forgoing their constituency commitments today in order to be here to debate the Bill.
The point of the Bill is to protect genuine heroes. People should not be able to claim they are heroes when they are not. There is rightly a heightened respect for veterans and the service they have given this country. That, coupled with the increased accessibility of second-hand medals and insignia, has led, in my estimation, to an increase in the number of people stealing valour from genuine heroes. The so-called Walter Mittys parading themselves at Remembrance Day service parades and elsewhere sporting medals they have not earned not only is insulting but undermines those veterans who have legitimately earned them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the Bill to the House. As someone who served in the military many years ago as an officer, I would like to say how important it is to all servicemen, who regard badges of rank and decorations as sacrosanct. He is doing a great service to all those in the armed forces by bringing forward the Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. Since I introduced the Bill, I have been touched by the number of ex-servicemen and current servicemen who have contacted me to express exactly that sentiment, and who feel that they are being undermined and that the value of medals is being chipped away and eroded by those who are undeserving and yet claim otherwise.
People must have confidence, when they see the magnificent sight of veterans proudly wearing their medals at Remembrance Day parade services and elsewhere, that those medals were legitimately awarded to those who sport them. I will give the House one categorical assurance about the Bill. Nothing in it will cut across the wonderful custom of families, out of respect and honour to the recipients, wearing medals that their loved ones earned.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there must be a clear definition of “family member” to ensure that there is no room for manoeuvre or any loopholes in the system for people to abuse?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. There are two ways of trying to preserve the right—I would call it that—of family members to sport medals. One is to be very definitive and to list everybody who qualifies as a family member, as the Children Act 1989 attempts to do, and the other is to keep it open and allow the courts some discretion.
The difficulty with trying to define exactly who is a family member is that we will always miss people out. Is the boyfriend of a niece a family member? It probably depends on the circumstances. The list goes on. I have deliberately taken the view, therefore, that there should be a wide definition of “family member” in order to allow the courts to decide whether it applies. No doubt, that point will be debated in Committee. It is something I am open-minded about. I do not want to be over-prescriptive. I just want to preserve this great custom and ensure that loved ones and family members can still sport, often on the right breast, the medals earned by others in their family of whom they are rightly proud.
The only position for medals that have not been earned is on the right breast. Anyone wearing a medal on the left breast has earned that medal.
I am well aware of that custom. The Bill is not intended to deal with people who have wardrobe malfunctions when looking in the mirror. What I want it to do is to catch only those who deliberately intend to deceive others.
My hon. Friend is making a clear point. Does he agree that, when our servicemen and women show great courage and bravery, they should be allowed to wear the medals awarded to them? Marines in my constituency have come to me because some of them are not currently allowed to wear their NATO Africa medal, as it does not meet the “risk and rigour” standards, yet those marines have faced attacks from rocket-propelled grenades and assaults from ships. I wonder whether that may be relevant.
My hon. Friend touches on an interesting issue. I have discovered that the medal system is incredibly complex. My Bill would deal only with people who are intending to deceive others—people who are being fraudulent in what they are portraying about themselves. If people have legitimately earned those medals, they will not be caught by the Bill’s provisions.
I support the Bill, but could my hon. Friend provide a comment or an assurance—this may be an issue that will need to be dealt with in Committee if the Bill progresses—about those who have mental health difficulties and problems, who are not being malicious but just out of ill health find themselves often wearing a medal to which they are not entitled? We should deal with people in that category who have no maliciousness in their action in a particularly sensitive and understanding way.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Bill is not intended to criminalise people who have severe mental health problems. The law, and particularly the criminal law, is used to dealing with this situation. I shall come on to the issue in more detail later in my speech, but the Bill is not an attempt to criminalise people who do not have the mental capacity to form the necessary intent to commit the offence. This is a specific intent offence, so someone who is unable to create that intent in their own mind will not be caught by the provisions. There is also an overarching provision that no criminal proceedings would follow unless it were in the public interest for that to happen. That applies in all elements of the criminal law, and it is often used with respect to cases involving people mentioned by my hon. Friend.
My constituent, Surgeon-Captain Rick Jolly, was decorated by both sides in the Falklands war, but had to get the permission of Her Majesty to wear both medals. Does that not show that we should respect the medals that are given for valour? I completely agree with the Bill and I would encourage all Members to support it today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She rightly makes the point that it would be a travesty if people who have demonstrated bravery, as that gentleman clearly did in the Falklands, were to be undermined and devalued by people who are claiming, often maliciously, that they are their equal and that they have also served, been courageous and put their neck on the line when that is clearly not the case. Therefore, I believe that we need a change in the law on the issue, as has often happened around the world.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and persuasive argument. Will he confirm that there used to be an offence for this kind of behaviour—for stolen valour—but that it was inadvertently repealed in the Armed Forces Act 2006?
My hon. Friend is right: the Armed Forces Act repealed the provision, and the repeal came into effect in 2009. Therefore, we currently have no law of this nature, which is often seen throughout the world, to protect veterans.
Let me return to an earlier point and reiterate the point about family members being able to wear medals that have been won by loved ones. I say categorically that I would never introduce a Bill that would cut across that excellent custom. It would be unworthy and contrary to common decency.
You will know, Mr Speaker, that medals are not permitted to be worn in this Chamber. However, if I were to wear a medal, I would wear my great-grandfather’s medal. He served in the East Kent Regiment—the Buffs—and was killed at the Somme. As I say, I would wear that medal if it were permitted in this Chamber. I appreciate that it is not. I think that illustrates that my intention is to preserve the custom that family members are able to sport the medals of loved ones without fear from the Bill. The tradition of doing so should be not only protected but enshrined in the Bill.
However, those who deliberately attempt to deceive people will be caught by the Bill—I make no apology for that. People who commit this act do so for a variety of reasons. Some, sadly, as we have heard, do so because they are affected by serious mental health problems. As I mentioned, the Bill creates an offence of specific intent, so anyone with a serious mental health problem who is unable to form that intent cannot be convicted of this offence. The Crown Prosecution Service would have to satisfy, as I said, a public interest test before any prosecution could even begin against someone who carried out this action. It has been brought to my attention that there are occasions when people with mental health problems do commit this act, but I repeat that there will be those safeguards in the Bill.
Some people can be very manipulative and can use medals for their own advantage, seeking the respect that comes from them to advance their own cause. I am thinking of a councillor in Thanet who wore medals that he had not earned in order to help his election campaign. I am sure that we will hear more about that later from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay). I am thinking of Roger Day, who marched past hundreds of veterans and their families wearing numerous medals that he had not won. Yet no prosecution could be brought against him and many other people because, quite simply, as things stand, behaving like that is not against the law.
Estimating exactly how widespread the problem is can be very difficult. There are no arrests and so no records. The Naval Families Federation recently surveyed over 1,000 of its members and found that around a third of them had experienced these Walter Mitty-type characters. The Walter Mitty Hunters Club—I have no connection or association with the organisation—claims to receive something in the order of 20 to 30 complaints a week. I understand that it is investigating 70 cases that have been brought to its attention.
I am president of my local Royal British Legion group in Greenhithe in Kent, and there have been two instances there of people pretending to be decorated veterans when they had not even served in Her Majesty’s armed forces. This cannot go on. If we leave things unchecked, we will get to a situation where trust in the whole medal system and trust in valour evaporates. I have been contacted on numerous occasions by veterans who have recounted to me their experiences of witnessing impostors at remembrance services. They feel deeply hurt, offended and insulted by the actions of these individuals. The problem is genuine and, anecdotally, it seems to be increasing.
We therefore need the deterrent factor that the Bill would provide, and I think it right for the offence to carry a term of imprisonment as well as a fine. I have suggested a three-month period; that would mirror the legislation referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), which is no longer in force. Of course, any sentence would be up to the courts, but making the offence imprisonable would allow them to impose community-based penalties that would not be available if the offence were subject only to a fine. It is right, proportionate and appropriate for a term of imprisonment to be available to the courts at their discretion, for the worst cases, should that prove necessary. I should make it clear, however, that although the Bill provides for a three-month sentence, it would not be possible to impose a sentence of imprisonment in a youth court: a custodial sentence would not be available there, and I am content with that. It would be quite rare for people aged 17 and under to fall foul of the law, but I also think it right not to provide for their imprisonment, purely because of their age.
Unusually, I am endeavouring to introduce a law that has applied in the past, but does not apply today. Stolen valour has a history in this country. After the first world war, Winston Churchill introduced the offence as Secretary of War. He said at the time:
“We want to make certain that when we see a man wearing…a medal, that we see a man whom everybody in the country is proud of.”—[Official Report, 2 April 1919; Vol. 114, c. 1277.]
He was absolutely right. The same principle applies today, and it applies equally to the women who serve our country. The Armed Forces Act 2006 repealed the offence because it was a bit too messy and uncertain, but unfortunately it was not replaced at the time. That decision has been criticised by the Defence Committee. While it is possible to prosecute for fraud when monetary gain applies, or under the Uniforms Act 1894 if a full regimental uniform is worn, the law does not cover people who steal valour in the way that I have described, and public confidence can therefore be shaken.
I have met many people wearing SAS berets. An astonishing number of people walking around the streets appear to have been in the Special Air Service, but I reckon that one in 20 of them actually has.
That is an important point, made by a distinguished and experienced veteran. I am told that pretending to have been a member of the Special Air Service is the most common example of people stealing valour from others in order to curry favour and win respect for themselves, and it is often done in a way that is deeply insulting. Veterans frequently have a good nose for people who are stealing valour from others, as I have observed in my local Royal British Legion club, where they sometimes notice that something is not right. That ability is often deployed to identify Walter Mitty characters of this kind, and if my Bill is passed, it could be used to prosecute them.
The stealing of valour has been recognised as a problem around the world. For instance, the Americans recently adopted their own Stolen Valor Act to protect recipients of the Purple Heart, because a huge problem had developed as a result of people pretending that they had received it when they had not. In fact, very few countries do not have an equivalent of my Bill, and I am not aware that any that have such legislation have felt it necessary to repeal it. I think we can deduce that the law has worked well in other countries, so why should it not work here? Why can we not have our version of stolen valour legislation, which has worked well in America and elsewhere, and which I think we can be confident would work well in the United Kingdom?
We have a proud military history. Each of the regions that make up the United Kingdom has contributed significantly to our armed forces, and has excelled in wars over the years. It therefore seems wrong to me that we do not afford veterans the protection that they are given in so many other countries. Many people braver than I have put their neck on the line for this country. We owe the freedoms that we enjoy in this Chamber to those who have fallen and those who risked their life for us. Indeed, we are overlooked, at either end of the Chamber, by the shields of colleagues who gave their life for us in one of the world wars. We cannot allow that valour to be stolen. We cannot allow the public to lose trust in our veterans, and we cannot allow their memories to be undermined. I therefore ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for introducing the Bill. We are very aware that today is Black Friday. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is present, and he will doubtless be joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). May I recommend that they do a bit of discounting in their interventions, and perhaps go shopping? We have much business to conduct, not least my own later in the day.
Much has been said about the nature of people who wear false medals, or wear medals falsely. They do it primarily to deceive. While we may have a view on the Walter Mitty Hunters Club, whose activities are perhaps a little aggressive at times, it is in the nature of such people to try to advance themselves in the community and to create a standing that they simply have not earned. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford demonstrated ably how manipulative they are. They seek admission to an exclusive club when they have not earned the right. They often join parades on Remembrance Day, when we as the public pay particular tribute to what people who earned their medals have done in the service of this country.
There is already a certain amount of legislation that can help us. When financial fraud results from the use of this standing that has not been earned, it can carry up to 10 years’ imprisonment. I know of no cases thus far in which that legislation has been applied to people who have used medals for their own advantage, but I am sure that there are a number of cases out there. My hon. Friend mentioned a local councillor—no longer a councillor, in fact—who may be an example.
Other Members have mentioned mental health. I am sure that many people who use medals that they have not earned for their own advantage, in an attempt to gain some standing, have mental health issues to a degree, but there is plenty to cover that in the criminal code. It would be up to the police, then the Crown Prosecution Service, and then, of course, the courts to determine the mental state of such people. That is normal and proper practice in other parts of the criminal code. I therefore do not think that mental health issues would be a problem if the Bill were passed.
The main reason why I am supporting my hon. Friend’s Bill is for its deterrent effect. We have no deterrents, following the Armed Forces Act 2006, which sadly dropped the old Army Act 1955 offence; prior to that, there was the offence in Winston Churchill’s Act after the first world war. Apart from having a deterrent effect, the Bill will create certainty for the public: we will be absolutely sure when we see veterans that we can pay an appropriate tribute to them and honour them, knowing that they are the real deal and have earned what they are displaying. So there are two benefits to my hon. Friend’s Bill.
There was discussion about the appropriate penalty. Three months’ imprisonment has been suggested, although there could be an opportunity for community payback —a certain number of hours worked in the community. That would probably be the more likely outcome through the courts, but that would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
I mentioned Roger Day; he was the last person prosecuted under the 1955 Act, although the Act had expired a few days beforehand. The court gave him community service, as it was at the time, which shows that courts often feel that a community penalty is appropriate, but this has to be an imprisonable offence in order to make those penalties available to the court.
Absolutely; my hon. Friend gives a good account of his knowledge of the law in such cases.
What greater community payback could there be for people convicted under my hon. Friend’s proposed legislation than to do service to war widows, perhaps, or war graves, or the great memorials around our country by repairing and cleansing them? I want to mention the case of Kevan or Konnor Collins in my constituency. He was elected as a UK Independence party councillor last year. He made a remarkable array of claims: that he had served in the Paras, and had been awarded an MBE, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, the Military Cross, and the Distinguished Service Cross. If that had been true, he would have been the most decorated veteran in the entire country. He was outed online.
He would also have had to have served in practically all three services to have got those medals.
My hon. Friend highlights the ridiculousness of the situation. Mr Collins was outed by campaigners, and later resigned as a Thanet councillor. He was further found to be a bigamist. He was a Walter Mitty character of enormous proportions. I would not usually mention such cases and rely on the privilege of this House, but Sky News has covered this, as have The Sun and the Isle of Thanet Gazette, and he has even belatedly offered an apology for his lies and deceit.
How can we solve this? The United States has created, under its 2013 Act, an online database. That might be a sensible route for us to take, but love it or loathe it, the great internet already affords us a great deal of information about people who claim to be what they are not.
There is an international dimension to this. This country would not be doing something unusual through this Bill; we would be aligning ourselves with what happens among the rest of our friends in the EU, and also in Australia and the United States. For the deterrent effect, such an offence, which was taken away in 2006, is long overdue. I very much support the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, and I hope that his Bill makes progress today.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on bringing forward this Bill. I am afraid I cannot be as enthusiastic about it as him or my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay). It seems to me to be in line with the tradition of private Member’s Bills, which usually have two things in common. The first is a worthy sentiment; almost every private Member’s Bill that comes before the House on a Friday has behind it a worthy sentiment and I do not think anyone can doubt the worthiness of this sentiment. The other thing they usually have is an element, great or slight, of gesture politics, and the Bill falls into that category as well.
I want to be clear from the start that the idea behind the Bill is admirable; war veterans deserve our utmost respect, appreciation and support—I hope that goes without saying. I hope it also goes without saying, but I want to be crystal clear about this as well, that seeking to help them, given all they have done and sacrificed for us, should be an absolute priority. But unfortunately the Bill is neither necessary nor helpful, and I am concerned it will disproportionately affect people with mental health issues and even veterans themselves, which would be a very unfortunate unintended consequence of what is a laudable aim.
I will come on to the Defence Committee’s report on the Bill a bit later, but I want to mention the title now as it is highly relevant: “Exposing Walter Mitty: The Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill”. Unfortunately, exposing Walter Mitty is not all the Bill would do; it would criminalise Walter Mitty, and he could face three months in prison.
The situation astounds me. I stand here week after week—as you will have heard, Mr Speaker, far too many times for your own good—arguing that we should send more people to prison: people who have perhaps committed burglaries, robberies and other such crimes who get community sentence after community sentence and never get sent to prison. Everyone always tells me, “We send far too many people to prison. It’s absolutely terrible; we should send fewer to prison.” But here we are trying to send people to prison for some boastful exaggeration, and everybody in the House says, “Absolutely marvellous. Yes, of course, we should send all these people to prison, never mind the robbers, burglars and all the others never sent to prison. Let’s put all these people in prison; let’s make this an imprisonable offence.” I am astounded by this change in Members’ attitudes.
But does that not underscore the seriousness and sensitivity of the issue our hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) is trying to address in the Bill, and explain why so many of us support it? We are dealing here with a special category of people who, in many instances, have given their lives to protect and preserve all we hold decent in this country, and therefore to lump them in with victims of burglary and the like—important though they are—is to compare apples with oranges.
I am surprised that my hon. Friend seems to think this is more serious than people committing a burglary or a robbery. We are going to have to agree to disagree on that point, and I do not think many people would agree with him. But if that is the case, we must then ask why the punishment is only three months in prison. If this is so serious and one of the most terrible crimes anyone could possibly commit, why are we not talking about 10 years in prison, or eight years, perhaps? Why only three months in prison for such a heinous crime? Hon. Members cannot have it both ways: they cannot say it is the most obnoxious crime ever and then say, “Actually, we only want three months in prison as a maximum punishment.” People will have to decide whether this is a serious offence or not.
Does my hon. Friend not agree, however, that the Bill sends a message to our armed forces that we not only respect them, but value the work they do?
My hon. Friend is right, but I would like to have £1 for every time on a Friday I hear somebody say, “We want to pass this Bill to send a message.” Well, actually we can stand here and send a message; we can all say how terrible it is if somebody wears a medal they are not entitled to, and we have then sent a message. We are not sending a message here; we are passing an Act of Parliament. We are talking about putting someone in prison. That is not sending a message; that is doing something far more drastic.
Is my hon. Friend aware that domestic burglary carries a maximum sentence of 14 years and that robbery carries a maximum life sentence? This offence would, if the Bill went through, carry a sentence of three months. I believe that that is proportionate, and I do not agree with him that this behaviour is merely “boastful exaggeration”. It is far more than that: it is insulting and undignified, and it undermines people’s confidence in our veterans system and in the medals our veterans wear. Three months’ imprisonment is an appropriate way of dealing with such a problem.
I appreciate that that is my hon. Friend’s view, but I want to set out why it is not my view.
The current legal position is neatly summed up by the Ministry of Defence’s response to an e-petition in May last year, which stated:
“The Government does not believe that the UK requires an equivalent of the USA’s Stolen Valor Act.
The Stolen Valor Act 2013 makes it a federal crime to fraudulently claim to be a recipient of certain military decorations or medals in order to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit.
Under UK law the making, or attempting to make a financial gain by fraudulently wearing uniforms or medals, or by pretending to be or have been in the Armed Forces is already a criminal offence of fraud under the Fraud Act 2006, as is the pretence of being awarded an official medal. The offence carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment. It is also an offence under that Act (carrying up to five years’ imprisonment) for a person to possess or have under his control any article for use in the course of, or in connection with any fraud.
It is also an offence against The Uniforms Act 1894 for any person not serving in the Armed Forces to wear the uniform of any of the Armed Forces under such circumstances as to be likely to bring contempt upon that uniform.
However, it is not automatically against civil law to wear a veterans badge or decorations or medals which have not been earned and there are no plans to make it an offence. There are many instances where relatives openly wear the medals earned by deceased relatives as a mark of respect, albeit on the right breast and we would not wish to discourage this practice.”
As far as current UK prosecutions are concerned, the details are a bit sketchy, to say the least. The Defence Committee reports in its written evidence that the
“MOJ has provided data in relation to prosecutions under the Uniforms Act 1894. Data on a number of other offences was requested but was either not held or not held in a form that allowed the types of offence requested to be distinguished.”
To illustrate this point, I shall give the House the numbers of people proceeded against in magistrates courts and found guilty under the Uniforms Act 1894. There were none at all in 2011, 2013 or 2015, and one was found guilty in 2012 and one in 2014, so this is hardly a big issue. “Next to none” would probably be the best phrase to use.
I submitted freedom of information requests to West Yorkshire police and the Metropolitan police to see what information I could gather about the use of existing legislation by their forces. The reply from West Yorkshire police stated:
“A search was conducted for all arrests which were made between 1st August 2011 and 31st July 2016 inclusive and contained any of the keywords “medal”, “military” and “uniform” within the arrest circumstances description. As well as a search for arrests between 1st August 2011 and 31st July 2016 that were made for an offence under Sections 2 or 3 of the Uniforms Act 1894…a manual assessment was then carried out to find any records which related to the arrest of any individual wearing war or valour medals they were not entitled to wear. No such records were found.”
The Metropolitan Police Service responded:
“To locate the information relevant to your request, searches were conducted…The searches failed to locate any information relevant to your request, therefore, the information you have requested is not held by the MPS.”
So, if the existing legislation appears to be used infrequently, as we think, we need to consider carefully the extent of the problem that this Bill seeks to address.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I always like the breath of fresh air that he blows on to anything smacking of political correctness. As he has referred to the Defence Committee’s report, may I draw to his attention the testimony of Dr Hugh Milroy, the chief executive of Veterans Aid, one of the longest-lasting charities dealing with veterans affairs, which was set up just after the first world war? He says that incidents of false medal wearing are “a daily occurrence” and that
“we have no sense of the enormity of it”.
Wearing uniforms incorrectly is not a daily occurrence, and that is not what the Bill is about.
I am coming on to the point that my right hon. Friend has just raised. I want to praise the Defence Committee, which did a brilliant job in looking at this matter. I shall give the Committee much praise throughout my speech and there are certain points in his report that I want to draw the House’s attention to, including the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said this to the Committee’s inquiry:
“We have had a couple of instances of people who have, in a rather Walter Mitty style, pretended they have received honours when that is not the case. I don’t think it is untypical of a constituency to have a couple of people who have behaved in that way. My understanding from the media is that there are hundreds of people who have been behaving in the manner which the Bill seeks to address.”
The Royal British Legion stated in its written evidence to the Defence Committee that
“in the Legion’s own experience, instances of so-called ‘Walter Mittys’ appear to be rare. Indeed, having spoken with colleagues in the Legion’s welfare department, whilst the Legion has previously been approached for crisis support by individuals purporting to have served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, but were found to have no valid Service number, only a handful of such instances can be recalled. Nationally, there are no reliable statistics to reveal the true scale of the problem, although the media will from time to time expose individuals who have been caught impersonating a member of the Armed Forces.”
The written evidence to the Select Committee from the Royal Air Force Families Federation stated, when asked whether the deceitful wearing of medals and decorations was widespread and a growing problem:
“We have no evidence either way but instinctively we would say it is not widespread…Whether or not it is a growing problem is hard to judge—any perceived increase may simply be down to wider exposure of incidents via social media. On the other hand, public awareness and the extensive media coverage of recent campaigns…may ‘encourage’ some individuals to claim to have been awarded medals to which they are not entitled.”
So it seems that this is not as big an issue as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford would have us believe.
If I understand my hon. Friend correctly, he is taking us down a particularly dangerous path in saying that something should be made illegal only if there is a trigger quantum that makes such legislation necessary. The House could easily make something illegal for which there was evidence of only one occurrence. That would not make it any the less heinous, simply because there had been only one occurrence.
The problem is that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said that this was a growing problem. I did not notice my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) intervening on him to say that it did not matter whether it was a growing problem or not. People are making the case that we need to pass this Bill because this is a growing problem, but there is no evidence for that. As I say, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset did not make his perfectly valid point to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford when he was making his case for the Bill.
Looking at the position taken by past Governments, it is interesting also to consider the historical context of this matter. It was an offence under the Army Act 1955 for people to wear medals and decorations that they had not been awarded if they were used in such a way as to be “calculated to deceive”. That changed as a result of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which repealed the Army Act 1955 and the Air Force Act 1955, in which the offence had originally been specified. The Defence Committee inquiry asked the Ministry of Defence why section 197 of each of those Acts had been repealed and not replaced. It asked for the rationale behind that decision. The MOD’s response was:
“Section 197(1) created three separate offences. They included two offences of wearing any decoration, badge, wound stripe or emblem authorised for wear by the Sovereign, or anything closely resembling them ‘without authority’. It was not clear who could give the necessary permission. The need for authority in all cases suggested that none of these could be worn even in a theatrical performance, film, re-enactment or fancy dress without permission. Nor was it clear whether it applied only to current badges, stripes and emblems or also precluded…the wearing of historic ones. Requiring specific authority for such events was considered to be excessive, and indeed was no longer insisted on. The third offence was of falsely representing entitlement to wear such badges and emblems. Section 197 would also have required considerable amendment.”
The MOD went on to say:
“These provisions in the 1955 Acts were not included in the Armed Forces Act 2006, not only because of the inconvenience of the need for ‘authority’ to wear them, but also because it was considered that the important element of the offences was to prevent people from making financial or other gain dishonestly by wearing uniform, medals or by representing themselves to in the Armed Forces or entitled to a medal. It was decided that this was more clearly and comprehensively dealt with by the general offence of fraud under the Fraud Act 2006. That offence also carries a more appropriate sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment on trial before the Crown Court. It was also considered that an offence based on an intent to deceive which did not involve fraud (for example, where there was no attempt to make a financial or property gain, or cause someone loss) was likely in practice to cause difficult questions of proof.”
That is perfectly relevant to this debate.
As I understand it from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, the example we have been given in support of the Bill is that of the clearly disreputable person who made preposterous claims to become a councillor. That seems to be covered perfectly by the Fraud Act 2006, because he wanted to take a job, which came with some pay, through dishonest means. As that is already covered under the 2006 Act, the Bill would make absolutely no difference, apart from the fact that such a person could not be treated as severely by the courts if prosecuted under this legislation as they could be under the 2006 Act. Hon. Members who are using that case to make the argument for the Bill are saying that they would want that person to be treated less severely by the courts than they could be under the existing legislation. That seems a rather bizarre way of making the case for the Bill.
Previous speakers making the case for the Bill have said that we must fall in line with other countries. A few months ago, I asked the House of Commons Library to let me know what happened in countries around the world. It came up with some detailed and enlightening research on the subject, some of which is summarised in the excellent research paper that accompanies the Bill. I suspect, Mr Speaker, that you would not want me to read out what happens in every other country with regard to this matter; I suspect that you would want me to make slicker progress than that. Tempted though I am to highlight what happens in other countries, given that that was given as one of the great reasons why we need legislation in this country—
Order. I do hope that the hon. Gentleman will speak as freely as he ordinarily does.
I am grateful for that guidance, Mr Speaker. The point I would make is that there are massive variations in what other countries do; it is not one-way traffic, as one might have thought from the speeches we heard earlier. For example, in Australia, the maximum penalty for fraudulently wearing a medal is up to six months in prison or a fine of 5,400 Australian dollars; in Austria, the maximum penalty is a €220 fine; and in Belgium it is a €1,000 fine. In fact, the maximum penalty in most of the countries I can see on the Library’s list is a fine, rather than a prison sentence. I do not think people should get carried away with the idea that if we are not sending people to prison for this offence, we are out of step with the rest of the world. That is not the case.
To save my hon. Friend a little bit of breath, I should put on the record the fact that there is an appendix to the Defence Committee’s report that sets out the long list of countries that have criminalised the fraudulent wearing of medals, several of which have sentences ranging from a fine up to six months or a year in prison. Surely the point is that we are debating whether the Bill should be given a Second Reading. If my hon. Friend feels so strongly that a prison term is disproportionate, it is up to him to apply to join the Bill Committee and then argue to amend it, rather than to try to prevent from becoming illegal something that so many other countries—two pages’ worth—have made illegal, whether punishable by a fine, prison, or a sliding scale between the two.
As I have been setting out, I object not only to the sentence, but to the purpose of the Bill. The sentence is part of the Bill, as my right hon. Friend knows. He said he has two pages of countries that have made this an offence; given the number of countries there are around the world, he must therefore accept that the majority of them have not made it an offence.
Just for the sake of it: Australia has made the fraudulent wearing of medals an offence; Austria has made it an offence; Belgium has made it an offence; and Canada has made it an offence. It is not known whether Croatia has made it an offence, but the Czech Republic has made it an offence; Denmark has an unknown fine scale; Estonia has made it an offence; Finland has not made it an offence; and France has made it an offence. Germany and Greece have an unknown fine, but it is still an offence in both countries. Hungary has made it an offence and Ireland has made it an offence. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that neither Latvia nor Lithuania has made it an offence, but Luxembourg has as have the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Russia. In Slovakia it is not an offence, but in Slovenia it is, and in Sweden and the United States it is an offence. I think that covers most of the main bases and should reassure my hon. Friend.
Order. May I gently say to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee with such aplomb and distinction, that his intervention was somewhat longer than the list?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. What my right hon. Friend said is right, but if he thinks that that is the full list of the countries around the world, he is doing his geographical knowledge a disservice. As he well knows, there are far more countries than that around the world.
Does not that great big long list that has just been read out indicate that many countries have such offences with prison sentences and fines? That acts as a deterrent, but without the Bill we have nothing.
My hon. Friend says that we have nothing, but I have just pointed out that we already have legislation to cover the one case we have heard as the basis for the Bill: it is called the Fraud Act 2006, which covers people who are trying to make any kind of financial gain from the fraudulent use of medals. If the point is having a deterrent, what are we trying to deter? We have not yet heard any credible cases, apart from one that is already covered by the 2006 Act.
A range of offences is covered among all the countries listed. There is a distinction between wearing medals, wearing medals with an intent to deceive in any way, and wearing medals with a view to making a financial gain. I am not going to encourage my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) to rise again to break down the list he read out, making the distinction between those three different categories of offence. He grouped them all conveniently together, but as he well knows they cannot all be grouped together so neatly, because they include different categories of offence.
As we know, and as I have made clear, there is already protection in this country under fraud legislation. As my right hon. Friend said, some of the countries that do not appear to have any offence relating to the fraudulent wearing of medals include Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia. I shall deal with the penalties in the Bill later, but it is clear that there are different penalties in different countries. Of the countries that do have a criminal offence of the kind in the Bill, some have only financial penalties and in some the offence is imprisonable.
The Royal British Legion notes in its written evidence to the Defence Committee:
“We are aware that the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill is modelled, to some degree, on the Stolen Valour Act, which was first introduced in the United States in 2005, before being repealed and significantly amended in 2013. The provisions of the 2013 Stolen Valour Act are very similar to the provisions on false representation found in the UK’s Fraud Act 2006. Both pieces of legislation state that impersonation of members of the Armed Forces is only a criminal offence if it is used to make a financial gain or cause a financial loss. In short, simply claiming military awards, service, or injuries to gain sympathy or recognition, while certainly disappointing, is not in itself illegal under the US legislation. The original 2005 Stolen Valour Act had sought to punish all those who lie about their military service, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court as it was deemed to violate the First Amendment.”
This Bill seems to extend the scope of arresting someone for wearing a medal beyond those who aim to benefit tangibly via fraud to those who aim to benefit in an intangible way, such as to gain respect. The situation in America is a good example of how that could be unworkable in addition to being a step too far.
The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 came into US law in 2006. Its purpose was
“to amend title 18, United States Code, to enhance protections relating to the reputation and meaning of the Medal of Honor and other military decorations and awards”,
which is similar to the purpose of today’s Bill. The law made it a federal misdemeanour to falsely represent oneself as having received any US military decoration or medal. If convicted, individuals could be imprisoned for up to six months, except for falsely claiming to be a medal of honour awardee, in which case the imprisonment could be for up to a year.
However, in 2012 the law was struck down by the US Supreme Court as a result of United States v. Alvarez. Xavier Alvarez had falsely claimed that he had received a medal of honour and thereby violated the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, resulting in a $5,000 fine, three years on probation and 416 hours of community service—the penalties in the US tend to be sterner than in the UK for most offences. Subsequent appeals eventually reached the US Supreme Court, which ruled that lying about military heroics was constitutionally protected speech unless there was intent to gain some benefit or something of value by fraud. When announcing the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Kennedy wrote:
“The Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace. Though few might find respondent’s statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.”
It seems as though we are trying to go the opposite way from the US. Following that Supreme Court decision, new legislation was drafted in the form of the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which, in an effort to meet the Supreme Court’s objections to the 2005 Act, made it a federal crime for an individual falsely to claim to be a recipient of any of several specified military decorations or medals with the intent of obtaining money, property or another tangible benefit. However, as I have made clear, that is already covered under UK fraud legislation. It therefore makes no sense whatsoever to leave ourselves open to challenge on such an obviously flawed piece of legislation that has already proved to be unworkable in another country.
On the US situation, the Defence Committee’s report states:
“Whereas Alvarez was specifically concerned with the offences relating to false representation, the position in the United States concerning the physical wearing of medals remains uncertain. As well as amending the scope of the offences relating to fraudulent representation, the 2013 Act also removed the word ‘wears’ from the Federal Code. Litigation is currently ongoing to determine whether placing restrictions on wearing medals to which one is not entitled also violates the First Amendment in the same way as the offences of fraudulent representation which were struck down.”
In the over-lengthy intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, he prayed in aid the United States for having the law in place, with penalties of up to a year in prison, but that law is not in place, as he well knows, as the Defence Committee made abundantly clear and as the Alvarez case stated. The law in the United States is exactly the same as the law in the UK’s Fraud Act 2006. My right hon. Friend must have known that when he made his intervention and tried to pray in aid the United States.
Like the US Supreme Court in its judgment, I believe in freedom, warts and all. That sometimes means the freedom to do daft, stupid, even annoying things without the threat of being criminalised. I would hate for such a case to be taken to the European Court of Human Rights not only because I would rather we had nothing to do with such a Court, but because it is avoidable. We managed to stop the use of insulting words and behaviour from becoming a criminal act under public order legislation, and it seems as though criminalising people for pretending that they are servicemen is similar in nature. We heard that the reason for the legislation is that people are offended by what other people do. There are all sorts of things that go on in this country to which people take offence—far too many in my opinion. I get very offended by how easily other people are offended, and I am unsure where being too easily offended will take us when passing laws. Are we going to pass a law to stop any offence ever being taken? That would be a ridiculous state of affairs, but that is the motivation behind this Bill: we want to pass a law because some people are offended. If that is the way that this House is going to go—I fear we already have in too many cases—it will be sad day for the House of Commons.
The Defence Committee further considered the point following the issues of freedom of expression that arose in America, stating:
“The ECHR case of Donaldson v. United Kingdom demonstrated that it is possible for the outward wearing of badges or devices to be considered as ‘expression’ for the purposes of Article 10, although emphasis in this case was placed on the device in question being worn as an expression of the applicant’s political views, which may not be so straightforward where medals are concerned. Even where the rights in Article 10(1) are engaged, Article 10(2) sets out the conditions in which it is legitimate for these rights to be restricted, including for the purposes of preventing disorder or crime (such as fraud) or to protect the reputation or rights of others (which could include the legitimate recipients of awards). The inclusion of an intent to deceive as an element of the offence, and the defences relating to family members would also be likely to assist in the legislation passing the Court’s test of proportionality.”
The competing rights are clear. We already have an offence for the purposes of fraud, but if the intent of the deception is simply to impress a woman in a bar, the threat of three months in prison may suddenly seem rather extreme.
I also asked the Library how effective the legislation was in other countries and how often it was used; the answer was even more illuminating. It is interesting to see how many times the offence was committed in some of the countries with the stiffest penalties. I will not read out the situation in every single country, Mr Speaker, because that would test your patience, but it is pertinent to point out some examples for the purposes of this debate. In the United States, federal prosecution statistics are published each year by the US Department of Justice. The latest figures, which are for 2012, were released last year. Even then, it has not been possible to ascertain specific figures for successful prosecutions under the Stolen Valor Act. The Library could not find any specific data on convictions and the only examples of prosecutions or instances when individuals were arrested but not charged are those reported in the media or on websites dedicated to exposing such individuals. The thrust of my speech is that the media highlighting such behaviour is sufficient. To expose such people for what they are and to open them up to ridicule is the best way of dealing with them, not a whole Crown Prosecution Service prosecution that leads to such people going to prison, which strikes me as rather ridiculous.
In Canada, similar to the US, statistics are compiled on criminal code offences by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and grouped into categories. It is therefore difficult to obtain figures for such offences as it is unclear where the information is held. The only examples of prosecutions in Canada that the Library could find were those that were reported in the media. There was one particularly high-profile case in 2014-15 involving Franck Gervais, but that related to impersonating a soldier at a Remembrance Day ceremony in uniform, not to wearing a medal.
To the best of my knowledge, my hon. Friend has spent all his adult political life asserting the rights of this House and this country to be sovereign and independent. I am slightly confused as to why he is now praying in aid what other countries do and saying we should predicate what we do in this place on it.
I am not entirely sure whether my hon. Friend has been following the debate thus far, but it seems to me that what I am doing for the benefit of him and others is demolishing bit by bit the points made by the people who are proposing this Bill. It is yet another of the arguments we have had for the Bill that we should be doing these things because that is what other countries are doing. That was one of the key planks of the opening remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, but I did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset pull him up on that point and say it was irrelevant. If he had said at that point, “Why on earth are you on about other countries? That is irrelevant,” or if he had made a similar intervention after my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East had made similar points, I would have had a bit of sympathy with them, but it seems that he is now clutching at straws to try to defend a Bill that is becoming increasingly indefensible because it is completely unnecessary. I have been knocking down each point that has been made, and he cannot actually answer my points; all he can say is, “The point we made at the start about why this Bill is so necessary is not really one of our main points.” I cannot second-guess what the real points are, and I can base my points only on the arguments that have been made by the people who propose the Bill. If people want to make other arguments, I am prepared to listen to those, but, thus far, I have not heard any. One of the key planks was that we have to do these things because other countries are doing them—my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East made that point himself.
With regard to Australia, the Library said:
“Australia’s Federal Prosecution Service publishes some slightly more useful figures but even then it is difficult to say with certainty that they were related to stolen valour. In 2012-13”—
the latest year for which figures are available—the service
“dealt with 2 cases under the Defence Act 1903. However, the statistics don’t state what the specific offences were.”
The Library also states:
“much of the information found has been the result of media searches. For example, an article in The Herald Sun in September 2014 suggested that in the state of Victoria alone, over the last ten years…‘five people have been charged by police with impersonating a returned soldier, two people have been charged with impersonating a member of the defence force and seven people have been charged with improper use of defence service decoration.’”
In New Zealand, statistical information of this nature is presented in the same way. The offence of wearing an unauthorised military decoration could feasibly be included in fraud, public order or miscellaneous offences in the country’s database, so it is difficult to pinpoint the extent of the problem.
In Australia and New Zealand there is a group called ANZMI—the Australian and New Zealand Military Imposters group—which is dedicated to exposing military imposters. It has a section on its website that lists individuals it considers to be military imposters. The information it provides is not official, and has not necessarily led to a prosecution, so it should be treated with some caution. It does not appear that there are lots of prosecutions for all offences, never mind for the offence of wearing a medal.
Some people who wear medals to deceive will be evil characters—most likely with the intention of gaining something for themselves. That will be something financial in a lot of cases, or it may be to impress other people. The ones who set out to deceive for non-monetary purposes must have a different reason for doing so—maybe to gain respect, to big themselves up or to attract a member of the opposite, or the same, sex. Who knows?
However, I am concerned that people with mental health issues may be disproportionately affected by this offence, rather than by the fraud offence.
I thank my hon. Friend for the list of countries that have already enacted similar pieces of legislation. He finds very few cases of people being taken to court because of them. Is that not entirely the purpose of the Bill—to have a powerful deterrent effect? Given the small number of cases abroad, that legislation has obviously worked.
The problem with that argument, attractive though it is superficially, is that we have not been able to find a great many cases of these things happening in the UK when there is no legislation in place. It seems that these things are just as rare in countries such as ours, that do not have legislation, as in countries that have legislation. In fact, I suspect that one reason why many countries do not have legislation is that nobody has ever found this to be a problem. That is the whole reason why many things are not legislated for in countries; things tend to be legislated on when there is seen to be a problem, and something needs to be done. The fact that nothing is happening in countries with these laws would indicate that there must be even less happening in those countries without them. I do not follow the logic of my hon. Friend’s position.
I am coming at this very much as a layman, but my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) clearly indicated that there is a problem, and that there are really serious cases of people wearing medals when they should not. Does that not clearly indicate that whatever legislation we have is not working, and that we need something stronger?
I do not share my hon. Friend’s confidence in the evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford. I have not heard evidence that there is a problem; I have heard an assertion that there is a big problem, but an assertion is very different from evidence. As I made clear earlier—I will not repeat myself, Mr Speaker, because you would not want me to—the Royal British Legion gave evidence to the Defence Committee saying that it did not think this was a big problem. Somebody coming to the House and asserting that there is a big problem is not what I would call good enough evidence for us to pass an Act of Parliament.
Let me come back to the point I was making about people with mental health problems. In its written evidence to the Defence Committee, the Royal British Legion said:
“The Legion is not presently clear if the proposed Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill is intended to replicate the 2005 or 2013 Stolen Valour Act. If based on the former [which it now seems it is], careful consideration may need to be given as to how vulnerable people claiming to have served in the Armed Forces are punished under the terms of the Bill.”
During the inquiry, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said:
“from my understanding there are different types of Walter Mitty characters. There are people who have serious mental health problems and need help, frankly.”
He went on to say:
“Therefore, someone with a serious mental health problem who sports medals should not, as is often the case with criminal law in this situation, fall foul of the law to the point where they are incarcerated. The court will presumably go down a hospital order route.”
For me, that is still quite worrying and open to all kinds of risks when the case comes to court. Someone may have a mental health issue, but they might not be suitable for a court hospital order. The fact that they have simply worn medals that were not theirs to wear, even if no gain was made, could mean them facing anything up to a custodial sentence, and that is disproportionate. For people to be criminalised in this way is also a step too far. In some cases, it might be more difficult for someone with mental health issues to show that they did not intend to deceive, if they had no other explanation for wearing the medals.
I have tried to contact a number of mental health charities in recent days to see what their opinion might be on this subject. Unfortunately, none of them was able to give me a firm answer, as they had not been made aware of the Bill. However, I would be very interested to know whether they have any concerns or views on this. One issue with the Bill is that those mental health charities clearly have not been engaged and asked to give their perspective on whether it is proportionate, yet we are in danger of passing a piece of legislation today that may cause problems for people with mental health issues if we do not give it the proper scrutiny, or give those charities the opportunity to have their say. That troubles me greatly.
There is also the issue of Army veterans wearing medals that they did not win—not civilians, but ex-servicemen. Would we call that “stolen extra valour”? Do we really want to prosecute veterans under this legislation? That would surely be an ironic, unintended consequence. However, in the Bill, there is nothing to prevent somebody who served in the armed forces, and did gain some medals, from being prosecuted for wearing the wrong medals. Surely the House does not want that to happen.
The Royal Air Force Families Federation touched on the issue in its submissions to the Defence Committee inquiry. It was asked:
“What is the attitude of current and former serving members of the Armed Forces to military imposters?”
“We think the attitude of our people will really depend on individual circumstances, and will range from mild irritation and perhaps even amusement where an aged WWII Veteran has ‘upped’ his awards in an attempt to garner respect/recognition—through to outrage and anger at individuals who are trying to defraud people and profit from their quite deliberate and calculated action in claiming awards to which they are not entitled—the more so when the individual has not even served.”
That is a marvellous point. What the federation is saying is that those who big up what they have done are viewed by former service people with mild amusement, and as people whom they can have a laugh at. The people whom they get really angry about are those who do it to try to defraud others, and as I have said time and again, that is already covered by the Fraud Act 2006.
Those who support the Bill are using the armed forces to justify supporting something that the Bill does not deal with. They are the ones who are confusing apples with oranges, to repeat the phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset. What former service people get really annoyed about is people who try to defraud others by being imposters. If the Bill is passed, those individuals who cause
“mild irritation and perhaps even amusement”
will certainly face a criminal record, and very possibly a custodial sentence. Should people have a criminal record and go to prison for causing mild irritation, and perhaps even amusement, to those people whom the Bill sets out to defend? Surely that is disproportionate.
I want to touch on the difference between impersonating a police officer and wrongly wearing a medal. The Defence Committee report states:
“We also disagree that offences involving an intention to deceive which are not related to fraud may raise practical difficulties on questions of proof. Such offences do exist: for example, the offence of police impersonation under section 90 of the Police Act 1996. Therefore, we conclude that the legal concept of deception is sufficiently well established for this not to cause major difficulties.”
Some say that the Bill’s proposed offence is not a dramatic departure from that of impersonating a police officer, but I disagree: they are completely different issues. Wearing a medal to gain respect or kudos is one thing, but impersonating a police officer is totally different. Police officers have actual powers, which could be used in a most sinister way. Surely that is in a different league from someone wearing a medal that they are not entitled to wear.
Only this week, a good example was reported of the difference between that and impersonating a police officer. Apparently, a man pretending to be a police officer used a blue flashing light on the front of his BMW car to signal to a woman to pull over as she drove in Glenrothes in Scotland at about 20 minutes past 12 in the morning last Monday. He then told her to get out of the car. She became suspicious and drove off to call the real police, who confirmed that it was not one of their officers. What could have happened had she got out of the car does not bear thinking about. Surely that cannot be classed in the same way as someone wearing a medal to which they are not entitled.
On the detail of the Bill, clause 1(1), which centres on the proposed offence of wearing medals or insignia without entitlement, states:
“Subject to subsection (5), a person who, with intent to deceive, wears, or represents themselves as being entitled to wear an item specified by or under subsection (2) which they are not entitled to wear is guilty of an offence.”
If you do not mind, Mr Speaker, I wish to emphasise that the important part of that subsection is the statement that
“a person who, with intent to deceive, wears, or represents themselves as being entitled to wear an item”
would be “guilty of an offence.” That means that somebody does not actually have to be wearing the medal in order to commit a criminal offence under the Bill, even though the Bill’s supporters have been telling us all along that what they want to stamp out is the behaviour of people wearing medals that they are not entitled to wear. The Bill would not just stamp out the wearing of medals; it also states that those who
“represent themselves as being entitled to wear”
a medal would be guilty of an offence.
The exchange between my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), and for Dartford during the Defence Committee inquiry dealt perfectly with that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View, asked:
“Would the Bill seek to criminalise the false representation of entitlement to a decoration or medal without a person even wearing it? Let me give you an example. Any links to any members of this Committee are purely coincidental”—
I should certainly say that, given that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is sitting directly in front of me—
“but say you’ve got Corporal Bob going down the pub and racking up a not insignificant bar bill and gobbing off about winning a Military Cross in Normandy or whatever. Would this legislation apply in that case?”
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford replied:
“It would. The first subsection of this Bill indicates that someone who wears or represents themselves as being entitled to wear would be covered. So if someone goes along saying, ‘I won a Victoria Cross and look what’s happened to me; it’s dreadful; I need some help and assistance,’ they would fall foul of this law because they are making a false claim.”
The dialogue between my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, who is Chairman of the Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford was very stark. My right hon. Friend asked:
“Is that only if they are trying to gain something, or is it out of just boastfulness that they would still be caught?”
My hon. Friend replied:
“If it was carried out in a way that was intending to deceive people, it would be covered by this Bill.”
My right hon. Friend said:
“Even just to get the prestige or the credit.”
“Yes”, said my hon. Friend.
That means that someone who gets drunk and starts pretending that they have a medal that they have not earned, in any circumstances and in front of any other person, could be guilty of the proposed offence and face a prison sentence. Do we really think that that is proportionate? Are we really going to criminalise those people and potentially send them to prison? Is that really what this House intends to do?
Clause 1(2) states that the medals covered are
“a military medal or insignia meeting the requirements of subsection (4)…the George Cross, George Medal or Queen’s Gallantry Medal…any other medal or insignia awarded for valour and designated by the Secretary of State by regulations…or an article or emblem resembling any item specified by or under paragraphs (a) to (c).”
Subsection (4) states:
“For the purposes of this section, ‘military medal or insignia’ means a medal, insignia, clasp, ribbon or bar or equivalent authorised by the Monarch or Defence Council awarded to a member of the United Kingdom’s armed forces in connection with an act or acts of valour.”
In its written evidence to the Defence Committee, the Royal British Legion wrote:
“Although the precise wording of the Bill is yet to be printed”—
that was the case at the time—
“the Legion understands that it aims ‘to prohibit the wearing or public display, by a person not entitled to do so, of medals or insignia awarded for valour, with the intent to deceive’. As the Bill is further developed, the Legion would welcome assurances that those who wear the medals of deceased relatives, or replica medals of official awards they have been granted, will not be captured by the provisions of the Bill.”
We now know that they are not captured by the provisions. The RBL continued:
“The Committee may also want to consider how the Bill will accommodate the practice of wearing commemorative medals. As Committee members will no doubt be aware, many veterans feel strongly that their service during particular military campaigns or periods of operation should be formally recognised, yet there is often no official medal commemorating their service. Veterans have accordingly been known to commission and purchase commemorative medals that highlight their involvement in a particular campaign or demonstrate their service, although they are not officially recognised. Whilst the Legion does not endorse the wearing of commemorative medals on parade, we would not like to see such individuals punished under the terms of the proposed Bill, provided that their service record supports their involvement in a particular campaign.”
The definition of “medals” appears to be narrowly drawn, but it could easily be changed by future regulations, and it is not restricted to medals; it includes clasps, ribbons and bars and, perhaps even more importantly, anything resembling those items. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said:
“The challenge in drafting the Bill has been: where do you stop?”
I am sure that he knows where he wants to stop, but as with so many things, once something has started, it is very difficult to stop—
Proceedings interrupted (Standing Order No. 11(4)).