Before the urgent question, I was making the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has said that the challenge in drafting the Bill was where to stop. I am sure he knows where he wants to stop, but, as with so many things, once something has started it is very difficult to stop because people always want to extend it. There may well be the slippery slope towards including other medals and certificates. Surely the principle would be the same; it might one day be extended to long-service medals, private medals and all sorts of other things.
On who should be allowed to wear medals, clause 1(3) the Bill states:
“For the purposes of this section (subject to subsection (5)), ‘personally entitled’ means being the person to whom the award in question was made.”
Clause 1(5) states:
“A person does not commit an offence under subsection (1) if the item is worn, or the person represents themselves as being entitled to wear it—
(a) as part of a reconstruction or representation of historical events;
(b) as part of a filmed or theatrical or other live entertainment or production; or
(c) in honour of a family member who meets the requirements of subsection (3).”
The Library briefing on the Bill quotes the Royal British Legion’s advice on the wearing or not wearing of medals:
“Can I wear medals belonging to members of my family?
The official position regarding wearing medals other than your own is that they should not be worn. However, it was generally accepted from soon after the Great War that widows of the fallen wore their late husband’s medals on the right breast on suitable occasions.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham made that point in an intervention. The advice goes on:
“More recently it seems to have become the custom for any family member to wear medals of deceased relations in this way, sometimes trying to give a complete family military history by wearing several groups. Although understandable it is officially incorrect, and when several groups are worn it does little for the dignity of the original owners.”
That is the official advice from the Royal British Legion.
In its written evidence to the Defence Committee inquiry, the Naval Families Federation quoted the views of its members. It asked the question
“If criminalisation of wearing unearned medals was introduced, should there be specific safeguards for family members who wear the medals of deceased relatives?… If yes, which family members should be safeguarded? Please tick all that apply.”
It received these replies: “Husband, wife or civil partner” was the most popular; “Unmarried/civil-partnered”; “Parent”; “Guardian”; “Child”; “Step-Child”; “Grandchild”; “Extended family”; and “Other”. By the look of the chart, “Other”—not including any of the others—had about 14% of the responses.
The Royal Air Force Families Federation said in its written evidence to the Defence Committee:
“Yes, there should most certainly be safeguards for family members. The key question is who ‘qualifies’! The definition we use is ‘anyone who is a blood relation’ but this may not be appropriate in these circumstances and can be difficult to prove on occasions. Interestingly, the MoD is struggling with its own definition of a family member but it may be sensible to align any definition for these circumstances with the MoD definition if and when they decide what it should be. Otherwise, it’s probably a matter for common sense.”
In the Bill, there is an exemption for a “family member”, but we are none the wiser about who is a family member. Does it cover those categories, such as “Guardian” or someone who was “Unmarried”? Does it include someone who is married, but not a blood relation?
I am sure my hon. Friend will realise, like everyone in the House, that the definition of family members will be discussed at length in Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) has already explained.
I have no doubt of that, but this is a Second Reading debate. There is no reason why we should not discuss the definition at length on Second Reading as well as in Committee, which is what I am doing.
The Defence Committee states in its report:
“A number of our witnesses emphasised the importance of ensuring that relatives of deceased or incapacitated medal recipients can continue to wear their relations’ medals at commemoration events without risk of prosecution.”
May we be absolutely precise about this so that there is no lack of clarity? Everyone who is given the Elizabeth Cross, which is awarded to widows and close family members who have lost someone, is entitled to wear it wherever they like on their body.
My hon. Friend, who is an expert in these matters, is absolutely right, but we are talking about all the medals covered by the Bill and the definition of a family member. As far as I can see, we do not have such a definition. People who think they are entitled to wear the medals should be told whether they can wear them or whether they would be breaking the law if they did. As things currently stand, people do not have such certainty. We could have the rather ridiculous situation in which someone who should be able to wear a medal does not because of the chilling effect of not being sure about whether they would be breaking the law. Again, that would surely be a terrible unintended consequence of the Bill.
Crucially, the Defence Committee report goes on:
“The term ‘family member’ must however be defined in terms of the proximity of the relations that it is seeking to include in the defence. It is not a legal term of art with a single definition. Acts of Parliament which use the term commonly carry a definition of ‘family’ within them to be used for the purposes of that Act. Mr Johnson suggested in oral evidence that he was minded that this defence should be quite narrow, so that for example a nephew deceitfully wearing medals could not rely on the defence by claiming that they were his uncle’s awards.”
Do we really want to criminalise a nephew who wears his uncle’s medals? Do we want to send him to prison? Clearly, the promoter of the Bill thinks we should. I contend that we should not.
The Defence Committee report goes on to say:
“The inclusion of a defence to ensure that family members representing deceased or incapacitated relations who are recipients of medals is vital, but ‘family member’ must be properly defined to ensure that there is no room for uncertainty or abuse. We suggest that the Bill include a definition of ‘family member’ in order to provide certainty over who will be covered by this category.”
The exemptions cover the reconstruction of historical events and productions. Does that exempt people in fancy dress? If my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford would make the point that they do not intend to deceive, why are there specific exemptions for reconstructions and productions, as there is clearly no intent to deceive in those cases, but no exemption for people in fancy dress?
In one unfortunate scenario, someone could start off wearing a medal legitimately, but it could turn into an offence by accident. Imagine that an actor goes to the pub for a drink after whatever it is they are acting in and someone mistakenly assumes that they are entitled to wear the medal they forgot to remove when they came off set. Unless the actor corrected them—perhaps the more drinks the actor had consumed, the less likely that would be—they would be committing a criminal offence. Although they had not intended to deceive anyone when they went to work that day, the intent to deceive could come later, almost by accident.
I said that I would come back to sentencing. The Bill says:
“Any person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to a period of imprisonment not exceeding 3 months, or a fine.”
The Defence Committee report states:
“Mr Johnson indicated that he considered that the appropriate maximum penalty was six months imprisonment or a fine of up to £5,000 at level 5 on the standard scale. The rationale behind drafting the penalty in this way was to address three concerns:
First, the potential for a custodial sentence would ensure that there is no need for a separate power of arrest in the Bill. We note here that, since the removal of the concept of an ‘arrestable offence’ by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, the need for a separate power of arrest would be unnecessary in any event;
Second, that a level 5 fine on the standard scale would be at a maximum of £5,000. We note here that this upper limit was removed in 2012. Magistrates now have power to issue a fine of any amount for offences where £5,000 was previously the maximum; and,
Third, that this formulation would ensure that it could be dealt with only in a Magistrates Court. A certain way of doing this would be to have this explicitly stated in the Bill—“This offence is triable only summarily”…
The appropriate level of penalty has clearly been considered in some detail by the Bill sponsor. We are broadly satisfied that the boundaries of penalties proposed—a period of imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine—are appropriate.”
The length of imprisonment has been changed from six months to three months, but it is still too long in my opinion.
I am not sure what sentencing guidelines my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford envisages for the offence. Would the type of medal being worn—or not worn, as the case may be—be a factor? Would the type of incident be a factor: the more people deceived, the more severe the offence? Would it depend on the duration of the deception or the place? Would it be worse at a Remembrance Day parade? All those factors need to be considered when we pass legislation in this House, and none of them appear to have been considered for the purposes of the Bill.
I do not think that this offence should be created in the first place, but if it were, would not the confiscation of the medal be sufficient? I cannot support the criminalisation and imprisonment of Walter Mitty types. We have plenty of eccentrics in this country and some, I dare say, in this House. To criminalise someone for this type of behaviour would be very concerning indeed.
I should say, in passing, that all of us in this House know about the Liberal Democrats claiming credit erroneously for other people’s work. Are we really going to get to the point where we send them to prison for doing so?
Yes, yes—you’ve just shot your own case down!
I note the enthusiasm of my right hon. Friend for the concept of locking up Lib Dems who claim credit for other people’s work. Are we really going to criminalise people and send them to prison for no more than boasting in the pub?
As I said at the start, we owe enormous gratitude to those who have risked their lives on our behalf. I would stand shoulder to shoulder with them and fight their corner in any way I could. However, the problem the Bill seeks to address seems to be very limited and there are things that can be done, without resorting to the drastic action in the Bill of criminalising and imprisoning people, to improve the situation.
The Defence Committee report states:
“We recommend that the Ministry of Defence should set out the practicalities of creating an online, publicly-searchable database to record those who are rightful recipients of gallantry and distinguished conduct awards, along similar lines to the database instituted by the US Department of Defense. This would allow authoritative verification of claims to entitlement and act as a deterrent to military imposters, whose deceptions would be liable to swift and accurate exposure.”
I absolutely agree. Acting as a “deterrent to military imposters” and making their deceptions
“liable to swift and accurate exposure”
is actually what the Bill seeks to do. That is what we should be seeking to do; not criminalising and imprisoning people.
There is no reason why we cannot have such a database. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham mentioned during the inquiry:
“I totally agree with the idea of having an online database. There are such things now, but it is very complicated to get answers on gallantry medals and things. If nothing else, let’s encourage the Government to put up a database, so that people can check these things very quickly. That would be very easy to do, actually, for all gallantry awards, including ‘mentioned in dispatches’.”
The point made by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) during the inquiry was spot on and echoed something I had been thinking:
“Do you think that, considering the disgust people feel at this kind of action, naming and shaming someone is sufficient, rather than taking these people to court?”
I agree with much of the reply given by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, apart from the end:
“That can sometimes be an effective remedy. I think you could say that for a whole range of different criminal offences. We know that certain people suffer more because of the naming and shaming they have had to endure, rather than somebody who has not in other circumstances. Yes, that may be an appropriate way of dealing with instances of this kind. It may still be appropriate for someone to have a quiet word with someone. But that is also the case for a whole range of criminal offences and I do not think that, because that may be an effective remedy, that should prevent this becoming law.”
For that reason and for all the other reasons I have mentioned, we should prevent the Bill from becoming law. It would be a terrible unintended consequence if those who had fought in wars were caught up in this legislation, alongside vulnerable people with mental health issues. I have set out how veterans and people with mental health issues could be prosecuted under this legislation. Anyone who impersonates a serviceman and tries to gain financially can already be prosecuted. That is where I believe we should leave it.
We have fought various battles to protect our much-cherished freedoms. As I said earlier, and as the US Supreme Court has found, those include freedoms involving something distasteful. Criminalising people as this Bill seeks to do helps to undermine that precious freedom. I am afraid that that is why I cannot support the Bill today.
During the break for the urgent question, I took the liberty of asking my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) whether I was right in assuming that his default position on issues of this sort was as follows: “When it’s not necessary to legislate, it’s necessary not to legislate.” He confirmed then, and he is nodding now, that that is indeed his position. It is a position that, in most cases, I tend to subscribe to myself.
My hon. Friend has done an amazing job of making the case for why he should be on the Bill Committee once the Bill has got—as I hope it will—its Second Reading. He is a one-man House of Lords—a revising Chamber in a single cranium—and points the ruthless spotlight of logic at many well-intentioned, as he puts it, initiatives that have not always been thought through as fully as they should have been.
In making his points today, some of which have been very strong, my hon. Friend is nevertheless in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; there is a very considerable baby in the Bill and it deserves to thrive. He has conjured up scenarios of all sorts of people who are suffering from mental illness languishing inappropriately in prison cells. That is very much a worst case scenario, and is not borne out by experience. As we know, until the legislation was changed a score or so years ago, there were no cases—certainly that I am aware of—of any mentally ill people finding themselves in prison cells.
Lots of people in this House would say that many people in prison who have been convicted of criminal offences have mental health problems. I am therefore not entirely sure on what basis my right hon. Friend thinks that scenario would be impossible with this proposed offence.
I will have to look at Hansard to see the actual words I used, but if I did not insert the words “for this type of offence”, I should have, because I am not aware of any cases on the record—and I am sure that, if there had been such cases, my hon. Friend would have unearthed them in his exhaustive researches—of people languishing in jail as a result of fraudulently claiming to have been awarded gallantry medals that they had not genuinely received.
When looking at the prospective penalties for committing an offence such as would be created once again—as it existed in the past—by the passage of the Bill, we have to apply a modicum of common sense. We have to recognise that there would be very few prosecutions at all, because it is highly probable that most people would be deterred, and I am sure that the vast majority of the minority who would not would end up facing nothing more than a fine. The background possibility of a prison sentence of a few weeks would, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) will confirm, be there only as a backstop for the most persistent and egregious cases where all else had failed in stopping someone committing this act of abuse—that is what it is for the families of people who lost their lives serving this country and for living former and current servicemen and women who have been genuinely decorated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley was absolutely right to pick up the United States Supreme Court’s striking down the legislation that he mentioned. That Supreme Court is well known, internationally, for its absolutist stance on freedom of speech—so much so that it is possible to blackguard, libel and defame people in the United States in the name of free speech to a degree that is not possible in this country, thank goodness. Nevertheless, although the United States has taken that very strict interpretation of free speech as being the right to lie and deceive about medals for valour that have not been awarded, the Defence Committee’s report noted that that has not prevented several state legislatures from putting into law offences similar to that in the Bill.
We have to ask ourselves whether there were any obvious disadvantages of the law as it worked in practice when it existed before. My answer to that is no. We also have to ask whether there are likely to be any new ill effects as a result of reintroducing something very similar to the position that obtained in the past. My answer is still likely to be no. If our concern is that mentally ill people might in future be caught by criminal law as a result of their wearing medals to which they are not entitled and so making false claims of valour—if that is the reason for our not having a criminal sanction against such misbehaviour—we should think about what would happen if that reasoning were to be applied more generally to criminal law; I doubt if much criminal law would then remain on the statute book. The fact is that criminal law exists, mentally ill people are out there, and, from time to time, mentally ill people break the law. That is no reason for not having the law there for them to break or observe, as the case may be. That is to do with mitigation of circumstances; if it is found that someone has broken the law, it then becomes relevant to take their state of mind into account.
I do not agree that every factor in a case of the inappropriate wearing of medals not awarded to the people wearing them has to be written into the Bill. For example, the idea that anyone would prosecute a nephew for wearing his uncle’s medals in an appropriate setting is absolutely preposterous, and I do not believe that the Bill’s intention would be misconstrued in such a way that any such case would ever be brought.
I return now to the conclusions and recommendations of the Defence Committee’s report, which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley put forward in a somewhat selective way in his massively entertaining account of the report. I will pick out just a few factors. We did not agree with the justifications provided by the Ministry of Defence for repealing the offences relating to the protection of decorations without replacing them. If the offences in the Army Act 1955 were unsuitable for direct transposition into new legislation, the Armed Forces Act 2006 should have included new, more workable offences that were well scoped and incorporated appropriate exceptions.
We do not believe that the main problem is the matter of financial or other tangible gain. It is the devaluing of the respect that people are entitled to have because of acts of bravery in their service careers. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley rightly picked up on the exchange that took place during our consideration of the Bill about whether it was appropriate to include claims about having been awarded medals that are made without actually wearing the medals. That is why I put a query to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford during the course of the hearing we held with him on his Bill.
At that stage, we did not have the advantage of having the final version of the Bill before us—indeed, it was not available even at the stage when we finalised our report, although it is of course before the House now. But that is what the Committee and Report stages should be all about. The Bill should be amended to deal with any practical points of concern.
Do I take it, then, from what my right hon. Friend says—it would be useful if he could clarify this—that as the Bill stands it applies not just to people who wear medals but those who present themselves as being entitled to do so? If an amendment were tabled to remove that from the Bill, would he support it?
I have not heard the case argued from both sides because we have only had that brief exchange in Committee. However, my hon. Friend deduces correctly from my remarks that I am unhappy about that particular provision, and that I expect the Bill would be improved by its removal. The concern relates to people who strut around wearing decorations they have not been awarded. They do so not primarily for financial gain—as has been repeatedly pointed out, that is already capable of remedy in law—but because they are fraudulently posing as somebody who has done things they have not done; they are wearing awards they have not earned.
My hon. Friend made the distinction between impersonating a veteran who had been awarded a medal and impersonating a police officer. I think he slightly missed the point of the Committee’s conclusion. We were not saying there was any real comparison between the consequences of those two acts of deception; we were talking only about the practical question of whether it can, in a realistic and sensible way, be catered for in law. He read the actual sentence out rather quickly; I shall do so rather more slowly:
“We also disagree that offences involving an intention to deceive which are not related to fraud may raise practical difficulties on questions of proof.”
All we were saying by drawing the comparison with the offence of impersonating a police officer is that the practical difficulties in each case would be the same and that there are ways of coping with the practical difficulties of showing what is being done wrong in each case, even though, of course, the consequences of the two different acts are vastly dissimilar.
We have heard scepticism on how widely the practice is carried out. The report heard evidence from the Naval Families Federation showing that a very considerable number of its members, when surveyed, thought this was a real problem. It conducted a brief survey among its members, receiving 1,111 responses over four days. Some 64% of respondents said they had personally encountered individuals wearing medals or insignia that had been awarded to someone else, with 16% saying they were not sure. When asked to detail the specific circumstances, however—this is what matters, because there are plenty of perfectly legitimate cases of wearing medals not awarded to the person concerned—29% of respondents said that the individual concerned was impersonating a UK armed forces veteran, while another 11% identified the individual as impersonating a serving member of the armed forces. That suggests something that happens on a somewhat larger scale than has been suggested by some of the contributors to the debate.
Another problem, which I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to consider seriously, is that when the law fails to deal with unacceptable behaviour people tend to take matters into their own hands. This happens to such an extent that we now have, as we heard earlier, groups of Walter Mitty hunters challenging people over the decorations they display. That suggests sufficient concern on such a scale that people feel it appropriate, even though it is not necessarily appropriate, to set up groups to go around challenging people on whether they have earned the medals they display.
I have direct experience of this situation. A couple of years ago, I was at a Veterans’ Day event in my constituency with my partner’s father. My partner’s father is Mr Frank Souness, who is slightly unusual in that he has a post-war Distinguished Flying Cross, a decoration that has not been awarded to a very large number of people since the end of the second world war. He was approached by one of these people and asked to justify the fact he had a chest full of medals, headed up by the Distinguished Flying Cross. For the record, if you will indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall read a short report in the Shrewsbury Advertiser from 25 May 1955 entitled, “Courage over the Jungle”:
“Flying Officer Francis Scott Souness who it was announced in the ‘London Gazette’ last week has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his services in the operations in Malaya between June 1 and November 30 of last year. Aged 24 and a native of Galashiels, Flying Officer Souness is at present stationed at R.A.F. Shawbury…The citation reads—‘Since joining No. 110 Squadron in May, 1952 he has completed 148 operational sorties in Malaya and is a navigator who has shown meticulous care and untiring energy while locating dropping zones deep in the jungle. In flights over difficult terrain, often uninhabited, and often in adverse weather, his determination and courage have often exceeded the call of duty. Malayan operations depend largely for success on accurate navigation and map reading and, by his wealth of experience, calm efficiency, courage and high sense of duty Flying Officer Souness has inspired the whole squadron.’”
I know Frank well—he is 86 now and was a little younger then—and he is a doughty individual. It did not faze him that someone challenged him—not aggressively, but pointedly—as to whether he was entitled to wear the Distinguished Flying Cross. I think that that is a bit of a pity, actually. I do not think it should have happened. It suggests that there is a problem out there with the perception of people wearing medals to which they are not entitled. It is their selfishness that can result in genuine heroes being challenged inappropriately. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford was quite right to point out the dangers of trust breaking down in this situation.
I take what I hope is a measured view. I entirely accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is in a position to make improvements to the Bill in Committee. I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford is entirely right to have introduced the Bill. It is capable of improvement. If the House wants to see the Bill improve, it should be given its Second Reading today.
I, too, support the Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said: the Bill can be improved a little as it goes through the House.
It takes some neck to wear medals that one has not earned in front of veterans. Those who do so must have some sort of courage, because it is so easy to out them. One can read what a fellow’s or a girl’s service career has been from the medals on their chest, so it is pretty odd when people think that they can get away with it. As I said earlier, wearing medals that have not been earned is often linked with the practice of wearing the berets and badges of regiments to which one does not belong. Challenging these military imposters publicly is a hellishly good detergent. It sorts them out very quickly. Ridicule by real service veterans is a very good way to deal with such Walter Mitty characters, because they normally turn up where other people are wearing medals. It makes them retreat very fast. It is very easy for someone like me, who has a fairly good idea of what medals are, to spot an imposter. It is not just the medals they wear but their order—gallantry medals, for instance, should be first on the chest, coming behind other kinds—that gives them away.
I am pleased that my very good hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has enlightened me on theatrical productions not counting, because otherwise I would have been very worried about what would have happened if the cast of “Blackadder” had nipped out for a quick drink, particularly Lieutenant the Hon. George Colthurst St Barleigh MC and Captain Kevin Darling MC, and especially General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett VC DSO, who wears an MC in the wrong order; I have spotted that. These fellows, if they went for a drink during filming, had better watch out. I am personally saddened—I am sure that everyone in the House will join me in this—that Captain Blackadder had no gallantry medals, because he thoroughly deserved them. He only wears two campaign medals, but I have been unable to identify them.
I often wear fake medals myself. They are fake in that they have not been given to me but are reproductions that I have had made, the real ones being stuck in some safe somewhere, because if I lost them, I would never get them again. If hon. Members ever see me poncing around, proud as a peacock, wearing medals, I ask that they please do not denounce me, because I am sure as hell that my medals would be wrong.
Order. If the hon. Gentleman used language that was uncomplimentary to any other Member, I would call him to order. He is using language that is uncomplimentary to himself. He may, of course, continue to do so, but the rest of the House objects, because he does not deserve to be so denigrated, by himself or anyone else.
I do not know what to say, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am so touched. It is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I accept what you say. You do not consider me as bad as I think myself.
We do not want companies such as the Worcestershire Medal Service, which produced my fake medals, to be shut down, because they help veterans to wear medals. By the way, miniature medals are not awarded by Her Majesty the Queen; people normally buy those, so they are not quite the same as other medals either.
I will conclude, because I know that we want to get on. I very much appreciate the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, and I endorse the comments of the my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I am not sure that we need to jail people for this, but my goodness we could embarrass the hell out of them and make them do community service. Personally, I think that community service spent spud-bashing at the military corrective training centre in Colchester would be a very good way of dealing with General Walter Mitty.
I agree with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that no one could ever denigrate the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his service and the medals that he has been awarded. An appropriate punishment for anyone contravening this Bill, should it become law, might be the polishing of those medals, or any other medals.
My hon. Friend—I hope he will allow me to call him that—the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) summed up the Bill for me and the Labour party when he said that it was to tackle the stealing of valour from genuine heroes. We in the Labour party support that wholeheartedly. We support the Bill because we firmly believe that anyone impersonating a veteran by wearing medals that they have not earned should face legal sanctions, whether that be spud-bashing, community service, medal polishing or, in extreme cases, serving a prison sentence, as he pointed out.
It is right that we recognise the real offence that wearing unearned medals causes to the community of armed forces personnel, and that we therefore impose the appropriate punishment on these military imposters, in the same way that we punish the offence of impersonating a service member by wearing a forces uniform. The law as it stands does not go far enough. Military imposters can be prosecuted for fraud, as the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) pointed out, but we think that it should be an offence to wear a medal that has not been earned. For all sorts of reasons, as mentioned, that is currently not an offence.
It is right, however, that we allow relatives to honour veterans by wearing medals on the right breast, as the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham pointed out. I hope that the House will allow me to recount a brief story. Back in 1998, not long after I was first elected to the House, the Lord Mayor of Leeds, the late Councillor Linda Middleton, asked me why I was not wearing my late father’s medals at the Remembrance Sunday parade in Leeds city centre. I was not aware that this was even possible, but she said, “If you wear them on your right breast, everybody will know that you are not claiming them as yours but are respecting your late father, who earned them.” So, every single year, including two Sundays ago, I put on my suit and coat and I wear those medals proudly on the right-hand side, including the one that I am proudest he earned, the French Resistance medal—he fought in occupied France.
My good friend makes a valid point, but there is something else: when relatives wear those medals, the person who won them lives again, in their memory and ours. That is terribly important, particularly for those killed in action.
I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for that point. My father died in 1998, far too long ago, unfortunately, at a relatively early age; it seems a relatively early age to me now that I am over 60, because he was not long past 60 when he passed away. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is absolutely right that in wearing the medals, I am honouring my father’s memory and gallantry. Looking around at the Remembrance parade in the centre of my city of Leeds, I see so many relatives of deceased soldiers, including those who died in battle, proudly wearing those medals. I look at them, and I know that they have not earned them, but they are not pretending that they have. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Dartford has made that point so clearly in his Bill. That is one of the reasons why Opposition Members support the Bill wholeheartedly.
The last Labour Government were mentioned, as was the Army Act 1955 and the Air Force Act 1955, which were repealed when the Armed Forces Act 2006 passed into law. That repeal has meant that for the past 10 years, falsely wearing and misrepresenting military medals has not been an offence. The last Labour Government have a strong record of support for our armed forces, as all Members would acknowledge. We paved the way for the armed forces covenant, which the coalition Government passed into law. We were the first Government to recognise that the forces community should receive priority access to health services. Again, those services have been developed since by both the coalition Government and the current Conservative Government.
Let me respond briefly to some of the points raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Dartford made it clear that family members must continue to be able to wear medals that belonged to their relatives, in honour of those relatives. He stressed that there was no intention in the Bill to stop that practice. The hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) said that fraud legislation had never been used to prosecute dishonest medal wearers, and that the Bill would have a deterrent effect on those who sought fraudulently to wear those medals. He pointed to legislation in Australia and the United States, and made the point that this Bill was long overdue in this country.
The hon. Member for Shipley had a lot to say about the Bill, and he was not entirely happy with it. He pointed to the typical tradition of private Members’ Bills having worthy sentiments, but amounting, in his view, to gesture politics. He said that the idea was admirable, but the Bill was not necessary or helpful. That point was echoed to some extent on Radio 4’s “Today” programme this morning, when a military officer said that he felt that this House could do more useful things for veterans. That, however, is to misunderstand the purpose and effect of private Members’ Bills. If we started tackling something genuinely controversial or more heavyweight in this forum and setting, it is doubtful whether it would see the light of day. I thoroughly support and defend the fact that this private Member’s Bill will do what the hon. Member for Dartford intends it to do.
The Defence Committee produced an excellent report, dated 22 November, on this subject, and I commend the Chairman, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), on producing it. Let me briefly quote from it:
“The protections sought in the Bill are necessary to safeguard the integrity of the military honours system, to reflect the justifiably strong public condemnation of the deceitful use of military honours, and to ensure that legitimate recipients of these distinguished awards should not have to endure the intrusion of imposters…Such sanctions are common in other legal systems around the world and the lack of similar protection in the UK is exceptional.”
The Committee stressed the importance of clarity when framing new criminal offences—a point made eloquently and at some length by the hon. Member for Shipley. It recommended that the awards covered by the Bill be listed in a schedule, or an authoritative external list.
Finally, let me quote my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)—I hope that I have pronounced her constituency correctly—who is our shadow Defence Secretary and who responded to the Defence Committee’s report on the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill. What she said sums up the Opposition’s view:
“It is absolutely disgraceful that anyone would seek to impersonate a veteran by wearing medals that they have not earned, and it is right that the law should prosecute these fraudsters who could well be marching side by side with our ex-service personnel at veterans’ parades…Seeing these charlatans who pose as real ex-soldiers causes great offence to the veterans’ community and it is time to put a stop to this abuse once and for all. Labour supports the bill to criminalise this practice and I hope that the Government sees sense and helps bring this into law.”
I hope that we can agree to Second Reading today, and that the Government will enable this excellent Bill to become law very soon.
It is truly a privilege to be able to respond on behalf of the Government to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). I congratulate him on winning a number so high up the ballot for his private Member’s Bill and on his success in bringing forward this measure today.
To some people the impersonation of our military heroes may seem a trifling matter, worthy more of humour than of concern. There is, for instance, the case of a man who claimed to be a member of the entirely fictitious Royal Warwickshire Dog Handlers, and another who went to great lengths to have the commando dagger insignia tattooed on his arm, only to find out that it was pointing in the wrong direction. Men who seemed plausible would, on closer examination—to borrow a phrase—appear to have spent more time in a fancy dress shop than on the front line.
This has been an excellent debate. We have heard not only from my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, but from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), who shared with us the example from his constituency of a UKIP councillor who wore the most implausible range of medals and was eventually forced to stand down. At the same time he was discovered to be a bigamist, which demonstrates that people who are impertinent enough to pretend to be recipients of medals to which they are not entitled may well be capable of crossing the threshold of propriety and doing other completely unacceptable things.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), in an extensive, detailed and well-researched speech lasting about 70 minutes, presented the case against the Bill. He argued passionately on behalf of those who wish to continue to impersonate people who are entitled to wear medals. He was on the side of Walter Mitty, but I have to say that the mood of the House is not with him.
First, as the Minister knows, I was not on the side of Walter Mitty, and it is rather insulting of her to say that I was. Secondly, perhaps she could explain in passing why on 3 May this year the Ministry of Defence agreed with me, whereas now, in November it agrees with my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford. Can she tell us what has changed in the meantime?
My hon. Friend was certainly making a case for opposing the Bill. In a moment, I shall come to our reasons for supporting it.
We heard a very good speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee. We are grateful for the time that his Committee spent taking evidence on the Bill, and for the insights that it has shared in its report. He gave another good example of the perhaps unintended consequences of failing to make this a criminal offence by telling us that his partner’s father had been questioned, during an event specifically for veterans, about his entitlement to wear the medal of which he is so rightly proud.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) argued passionately in favour of allowing people who wear medals in “Blackadder” and other dramatic events to be covered by the exemptions in the Bill.
I hope that the Minister will indulge me, because I wish to make a short comment. Tomorrow I shall have the extreme honour of presenting the order of the Légion d’Honneur to Canon William Clements in Coloma Court home in my constituency. The priest was offshore in a royal naval vessel on D-day, and I am going to his bedside to give it to him. That is a singular honour for me. I hope the Minister will forgive me for that intervention; I think it was appropriate.
I am glad that my hon. Friend made that intervention. He has rightly put a wonderful example on the record. I know that many people throughout the country are very grateful to be receiving the Légion d’Honneur from the French Government at this time.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton)—along with the shadow Defence Secretary, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)— supports the Bill. He gave a very good example of how important it is that the Bill should protect the rights of family members to wear their loved ones’ medals, saying he proudly wears on his right breast on Remembrance Day the medals his father won for his service.
The mood of the House today is that the dishonest behaviour and egregious examples we have heard about are not harmless fun or mindless eccentricity; in actual fact, their implications are far greater and their ramifications far graver than many would appreciate at first glance, and all the more so when they involve the unauthorised wearing of decorations and medals. That is, first, because it is a gross affront to those who have genuinely served their country at considerable risk to themselves and who, as is intended, wear their medals with great pride. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote in “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”:
“nobody knew how much a decoration was worth except the man who received it.”
But this is about more than feelings, important as they are, which brings me to my second point: wearing unauthorised medals is harmful because it undermines the integrity of our formal military honours system, a historical system that has honoured the bravery and dedication of our world-class armed forces since the 19th century. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, by undermining that system bogus medal-wearers erode the vital bond of trust and respect between the public and the armed forces.
It is for those very significant reasons that during the first world war the Defence of the Realm Regulation 41 made it an offence to
“wear a decoration or medal without authority”.
As we have heard in several contributions today, that prohibition was transferred into statute after the war, and later incorporated into the Army Act 1955 and the Air Force Act 1955. I should also mention that it is still an offence under the Uniforms Act 1894 to wear a military uniform without authority, and that offence carries a maximum penalty of a fine not exceeding level 3.
In the early years of this century, when the Armed Forces Act 2006 was drafted, the concern about Walter Mittys was not widespread, and the then Labour Government decided not to carry forward the offences into the new Act. The most egregious acts of deception in this regard, where the individual uses medals to which he is not entitled in order to obtain a financial advantage, are crimes of fraud and, as such, are rightly punishable at a much higher level.
The American Stolen Valor Act 2013 covers only the higher military awards for bravery, as well as certain other military awards such as the Purple Heart and some awards for combat service. But that Act makes it an offence only if the awards are being worn for gain. Nevertheless, the Government recognise the concern about the gap not covered by the Fraud Act 2006, which the Bill seeks to address. It is for that reason, I point out in response to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, that the Government support the Bill. I know that there are questions about the extent of the problem.
The Minister has explained, as she said she would, why the Government are supporting the Bill, but she has not covered why the Government did not support exactly the same measures proposed in the e-petition in May this year.
The Secretary of State has been thoroughly convinced by the excellent case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, by the power of his argument in the Chamber and by the way he has worked so constructively to address our previous concerns in his proposed legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley questioned the extent of the problem in this country. I am grateful to the Defence Committee for producing its extremely thorough report, which acknowledges that the precise level of the problem is difficult to determine. There is clearly a greater awareness of it as an issue, perhaps because of the greater visibility afforded by social media and the appearance of groups dedicated to exposing these Walter Mittys. It is for that reason, and those that I have previously outlined, that the Government are now happy to offer support to the Bill.
The Committee’s report was ably summarised by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, who chairs the Committee, and it raised issues for the Government to consider beyond those immediately addressed by the Bill—in particular, the question of establishing a searchable database of holders of awards. Details of individual bravery or gallantry awards are published in the London Gazette—indeed, that is the origin of the term “gazetted” in relation to medals. However, the creation of a searchable database of holders would raise concerns about personal data and individual security. There is also the matter of who would be responsible for it and who would maintain it. It would be a long-term task for someone. When it comes to the various types and levels of campaign awards, a different issue arises—one of scale. For example, the Operational Service Medal for Afghanistan alone was issued to 150,000 recipients.
I am grateful to the Minister for her support for the Bill. I am always cautious about databases for ex-service personnel. In this particular case, however, provided that the search engine was only able to accept the entry of a name that was already known to the person searching for any awards that that person had received, I do not see that that could create a security problem in the way that including details of ex-servicemen on censuses might do.
My right hon. Friend rightly proposes a potential compromise, but other questions arise, including the scale of the exercise and whether the London Gazette might be able to maintain such a database. I look forward with interest to hearing constructive suggestions on those concerns from those who are following the debate.
My hon. Friend the Minister has hit the nail on the head with her comment that the London Gazette could keep such a database. Every gallantry award goes through the London Gazette, even those awarded to people who have done something for the security services. I am sure that some kind of system could be made available through the London Gazette that would enable the information to be accessed very quickly. At the moment, trying to find gallantry awards using the system at the London Gazette is almost impossible.
I share my hon. Friend’s support for that suggestion. It will be interesting to hear, as the Bill progresses, of any practical solutions to enable us to bring the system into the 21st century and create a database that is easily searchable and readily trusted. I hope that people will come forward with such solutions. The Government will of course make a fuller response to the Committee’s report in due course, but it is fair to say that we would need to consider carefully the practicalities of such a large task.
The Government support the Bill’s Second Reading today. It has some drafting issues that we will seek to help my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford to address in Committee, and I hope that he will take that as a constructive process, as we want to help him to produce a Bill that will achieve his laudable aims. I look forward to discussing the Bill further in Committee. Above all, I look forward to putting into statute our steadfast commitment to maintaining the solemnity of our military honours system for the sake of our brave servicemen and women, past, present and future, who have served and will continue to serve this country with selfless commitment, loyalty and integrity. I therefore once again congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, and I urge the House to support its Second Reading today.
With the leave of the House, I wish briefly to thank the Government for their support of my Bill, Her Majesty’s Opposition for their constructive support, and colleagues for their supporting comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made some sensible suggestions that I am happy to look at.
I said from the beginning that mine was very much an old-fashioned private Member’s Bill. There are many examples of good private Members’ Bills passing through the House with the support of charities, lobbying groups and various other organisations. Many of them have been off-the-shelf-type private Members’ Bills, but my Bill is not like that. I drafted it myself, but my ego does not prevent me from saying that it has flaws that need ironing out, and I am grateful for the contributions that will enable that to happen. Notwithstanding its flaws, I maintain the central principle of the Bill, which is that we owe it to our veterans to give them legislative support, and we owe it to the public to ensure that they can have confidence in the system. I hope that the huge debt we owe to each and every one of the people who have served in our armed forces can in some way be repaid through the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).