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War Memorials: Desecration

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2021

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of desecration of war memorials.

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

“Every war memorial in every village, every town and every city across our country is sacred and serves to remind us of the immeasurable gratitude that we must afford to our armed forces, both past and present.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 1215.]

Those are the words I spoke in the House of Commons on 23 June 2020, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) by my side, as we submitted our private Member’s Bill for a specific law to punish the desecration of war memorials.

A lack of comprehensive reporting of vandalism of this nature means that it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of incidents each year, although the War Memorials Trust does an excellent job of documenting them. My hon. Friend and I came together after images were beamed across the nation of a hooligan standing on the Cenotaph and twice attempting to set alight the Union flag on 7 June 2020.

Mr Sang has since pleaded guilty to attempted arson. For that, he received a two-year conditional discharge and a fine of £340. I am sorry to say it, but the punishment simply does not fit the crime. It is a slap in the face of our brave and gallant men and women from not just the UK but across the Commonwealth, who gave their lives in the face of tyranny. The Cenotaph is a symbol of the nation’s gratitude for the sacrifice of their tomorrows for our todays.

When I saw the hon. Gentleman’s name down for this debate, I was keen to come along to participate and support him, and I sought his permission to do so. Does he not agree that the desecration of the Churchill memorial in Parliament Square was disgraceful? Our sincere thanks must be given to the couple who took the time to try to clean it with water and soap as a mark of respect. Does he also agree that the message must be strong not only in this place now, but in the legislation put forward, that if people vandalise, whatever their reason, they will be prosecuted? They should be prosecuted heavily and made to do community service, as well as paying any fine.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman was a co-signatory—a sponsor—of the private Member’s Bill. I completely agree that what we saw happen with the Churchill statue was wrong beyond all measure. If only I could play the video of the Churchill statue filmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) as he was standing outside. Clearly, were it not for Winston Churchill, swastikas would be flying above this very building and we would be living in a very different country. We owe Churchill a huge debt of gratitude for bringing together a nation, the Commonwealth and our allies to fight the tyranny and racism of, sadly, those who ran Nazi Germany.

The image of the Cenotaph is beamed into our homes and around the world on Remembrance Sunday, with Her Majesty the Queen, her family, our political leaders, Commonwealth representatives, heads of faith communities, and past and present armed forces personnel standing in silence to pay respect to the glorious dead. Rightly, therefore, many across our nation were sickened and angered by the actions of Mr Sang and the unduly lenient sentence that followed. That has only emboldened my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell and me to seek justice for our glorious dead.

We were shocked to learn that the law was severely lacking in this area. Although there is provision in existing legislation to hold criminals to account for damage to property, and offenders have been successfully prosecuted, relatively few are held to account for the severity of the aggravating circumstances that come with criminally damaging something as sacred to the nation as war memorials.

For damage to war memorials, my hon. Friend’s and my Bill proposes exemption from the £5,000 damages threshold under the Criminal Damage Act 1971; removal of a maximum fine in favour of an unlimited fine; and establishment of a maximum custodial sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. It is important to stress that we are not calling for every offence to be met with 10 years’ imprisonment; we are enabling our judiciary to use their discretion to decide whether the offence is worthy of being moved to a Crown court, without the £5,000 threshold barrier blocking its way. Let us join our friends in Australia, the United States and Canada by paying the respect that we owe to those who died in the freedom fight against tyranny.

My hon. Friend and I are very grateful to the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor, who have worked closely with us. We were delighted to see the intent in Government to create a specific law in this area in the sentencing reform Green Paper. We are therefore seeking from the Minister a cast-iron guarantee that this proposal will progress unamended into the Green Paper and any legislation, and that it will be made law as soon as possible. If we are given that assurance and see it in black and white, we will withdraw our private Member’s Bill on Second Reading to enable the Government to pick up the baton, and to give them the space to pass this legislation in haste.

The price of war is immeasurably high. I saw that at first hand when a young man from Stratford-upon-Avon, Private Conrad Lewis, lost his life in Afghanistan in 2011. The pain felt by his friends and the community stays with me to this today. Those of us who value freedom of thought, speech and expression know that we can never repay the debt that we owe to these men and women. All we can do is immortalise their memory and display our gratitude for their sacrifice.

In the constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which I am honoured to serve, I witness every year the importance the community places on remembering our past and present armed forces personnel. In Kidsgrove, the Royal British Legion, on its own initiative, has set up a beautiful war memorial garden that is used all year round. Every November, thousands of members of the community line the streets and come together to lay wreaths and remember our fallen. In Smallthorne, the superb veterans breakfast club at The Green Star pub, run by Martyn Hunt and Paul Horton, serves all veterans across Stoke-on-Trent as a way of bringing our heroes together to share their stories and lend support to one another.

In Norton Green, the local community came together when the local church, with the names of their fallen, was sold to a local developer. The residents’ association took it upon itself to create a memorial on the village green. Working with Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, it now has a symbol of great importance at the heart of its community. Councillor Chandra Kanneganti and I hope to do that with the residents’ association of Goldenhill and Sandyford.

At Chatterley Whitfield colliery, the Chatterley Whitfield Friends, made up of former miners on the site, have created a beautiful memorial to remember those who lost their lives not only abroad but at home while bringing much-needed coal to support the war effort. In Ball Green, local councillors Dave Evans, James Smith and Carl Edwards are looking at helping to contribute funds to restore the memorial in that former mining village. Last but not least, in Butt Lane we have the Reginald Mitchell peace garden. Thanks to Councillor Kyle Robinson, the memory of Butt Lane lad Reginald Mitchell, who invented the Spitfire, which won us the battle of Britain, will never be forgotten.

I am proud to have family who served their country to protect our liberty. My great-great-uncle, Alan Gullis, who lives today, is a D-day veteran, and my grandfather, Terrence Gullis, served in the Royal Marines during the Suez crisis. I remember growing up and sitting on my grandad’s knee, listening to his tales about life in our armed forces, hoping one day to serve, but sadly unable to do so due to being deaf in my right ear. I also remember the exciting trips to the D-Day Story museum in Portsmouth with my dad, Malcolm, and touring the D-day beaches across France one summer.

Damage and desecration of war memorials is not about the financial cost to repair them. It is about the harm done to a community and nation, which no monetary value can ever be put on. Memorials stand in great, solemn, eternal remembrance of the glorious dead. We cannot bring back those lives or erase the grief of families and communities. The very least we can do is ensure that memorials are adequately protected and punish those who would do them harm.

It is great privilege and honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). His energy, passion and determination to see this Bill introduced is unrivalled, and it is a great privilege to serve alongside him.

At their core, war memorials serve to remind us of the sacrifices made by so many to keep this country safe. Men and women who go overseas perhaps have no idea of when or how they might return. They leave behind their families and loved ones to fight an unknown enemy. Those people do not do it for the money, the gratitude or the glory—far from it. They do it because they believe they are doing something for the greater good. It is called service. They put their lives on the line, day in, day out, as a means to a better future for the rest of us.

Memorials in the UK abound. We have the Cenotaph, the Armed Forces Memorial at Staffordshire, the Unknown Warrior in Westminster, the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge in the highlands, and more than 100,000 memorials throughout the UK, all preserved and cared for by the War Memorials Trust. Overseas memorials are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The UK rightly takes remembrance very seriously. We have asked so much of our armed forces, and the very least they deserve is that their memory is honoured. Those people had other options in their lives; they made a real decision to walk into their careers office, to sign up to volunteer, to embrace the national imperative and to leave behind the comforts that we enjoy every day to go to places that most of us would never dream of going to.

To reiterate, this is a free country. If people do not wish to personally pay their respects to those who did not make it home, no one is forcing them to. In fact, these men and women died so that we can be free to think and say exactly what we please. However, what is non-discretionary is the vandalising of objects erected in their memory. That is why they must be preserved and better protected in law.

This Conservative Government is determined to be a resolute defender of our culture and heritage. We believe in acknowledging heroism and protecting its memory, so it is right that we will. As for the legislation itself, as my good friend from Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke mentioned, not all actions will merit a 10-year sentence. What it does, however, is give more freedom to prosecutors so they are not shackled by limits. Removing the £5,000 barrier for damage is crucial. Previously, damage was required to be greater to warrant prosecution, but that is nonsense. Giving judges increased powers, whether in a magistrates court or a Crown court, is fundamental, allowing them to use their judgement.

I served for 26 years as a regular Army officer and deployed on multiple operational tours, so I do know a bit about the need to commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Every single war memorial, irrespective of nation, faith or location, serves as a visual reminder of the horrors of war and the appalling conditions that people face when fighting for their country. Aside from the fear, anxiety and terror experienced by so many in the service of others, each memorial carries the legacy of those who fell on the battlefield and did not come home.

These names are not just an inscription on stone, but actual human beings who lived, loved and were loved. These heroes had friends and families and were in the prime of their life when they were taken. Each memorial bears testimony to lives cut short, the anguish suffered by families, the potential that was never fulfilled, the children that were never born, and the guilt suffered by those who did come home. That is why we must ensure that memorials are sufficiently protected in law and that those who seek to damage them through wilful ignorance or stupidity are brought to justice.

One of the most profound and proudest moments of my life was when I attended the D-day 75 commemorations in Portsmouth in June 2019. It was a magnificent event. Veterans were there in their hundreds, although sadly declining in number. They were resplendent in their uniforms—shiny brass and medals, and polished boots. The twinkle in their eyes conveyed some pretty powerful testimonies of life gone by. It was great to be among them, but two things struck me. First, every single veteran I spoke to underplayed the magnitude of their achievements. They were, to quote them, just doing their job: “I did what I was asked to do and nothing more.” That humility, for me, was very profound. Secondly, what became apparent to me—it was a really powerful moment—was the guilt that these great people have carried all their lives for the fact that they came home and others did not. That is why we must protect the memorials in law.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I begin where my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) began, with a sincere thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing a debate on this really important subject and for his strong campaigning on it. He made an excellent speech, if I may say so. This is the second time I have had the pleasure of listening to him. I was in the main Chamber for his private Member’s Bill in June, and then, as now, he spoke with force and authenticity on behalf of his constituents.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, who gave an excellent speech as well. In particular, he gave a powerful reminder of the abiding commitment to service that underpins the ethos of our armed forces—it underpins it now, and it underpinned it in the past, not least during the D-day landings, which he referred to.

Let me turn first to the context. As hon. Members are aware, during a variety of demonstrations last summer, protestors targeted statues, including war memorials and other commemorations of cultural significance. The Government were appalled to see the violence and vandalism at those protests because, however noble a cause a person believes they are supporting, there can be no justification for defacing statues or unlawfully damaging symbols of British history, still less desecrating memorials to those who died serving our country.

Quite apart from the hurt and pain caused, those are lawless and mob tactics. Such behaviour subverts our democracy because it corrodes the basic norms of due process that make this a free society under the law and, indeed, the kind of country that many hundreds of thousands of Britons have fought to defend.

I listened to the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and was inspired and moved by their comments. Wherever attacks on war memorials may be—in Northern Ireland, for instance, where I know the hon. Member for Bracknell served—those attacks will be raw for those back home, because the names of people they have loved will be on those memorials, and the names of family members or friends will be on them. The effect is not just what is done to the war memorial; there is also an effect on the family.

I absolutely agree. One of the great pleasures in this place is to have the opportunity to hear from hon. Members who have either served on the frontline themselves or have personal experience of what loss means for relatives. Our debates are enhanced by those contributions.

As I was saying, this kind of behaviour corrodes our democracy, far beyond the mere monetary value of the damage caused. Memorials matter. I will make a brief personal point. As I cycle home from Parliament, I pass by the Rifle Brigade war memorial, which is parked on a busy junction in Victoria. Every time I pass, I am struck by how modest is that physical tribute to those who gave so much. Although dignified, it is unobtrusive, austere even. One could easily miss it. Yet, it honours a full 11,575 men who died in the first world war and more than 1,000 who died in the second world war—more than have died in the British armed forces in all the conflicts since 1945. The least the living can do is defend and honour such memorials. We have a duty to do so, not least for the sake of the dead, who can no longer speak up for themselves.

In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell referred to those who served who had loved and were loved. That is an echo of the poem by John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”. That came to mind because he summoned the voices of the fallen in that poem. He expressed what the dead might say, if only they could speak. The last three lines are:

“If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

We must not break faith with those who died.

Memorials are not just limited to our war dead. The public is also rightly concerned about upholding respect for other memorials, including statues, gravestones and other matters. Such memorials can have historical significance as part of our national heritage, or other symbolic, cultural or emotional importance. When damage or desecration occurs, the law must be equipped to recognise the range and level of anguish that is caused.

As I have indicated, that anguish goes beyond mere pain to individuals or damage to property. In so many cases it can represent an attack on society. I regret to say that too many people feel able to lash out, to take the law into their own hands and to do so with relative impunity. That is why it has become clear to the Government, not least because of the excellent campaigning of my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Bracknell, that the law as it stands is inadequate, and we intend to act.

As I mentioned, on 23 June, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North introduced a private Member’s Bill, supported in this House by others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The Desecration of War Memorials Bill seeks to create a specific offence of damage or desecration of a war memorial.

The Lord Chancellor has indicated, as indeed has the Prime Minister, that we wish to take action in this field. The Prime Minister himself made it explicit at Prime Minister’s questions on 17 June, when he said that the Government are

“looking at new ways in which we may legislate against vandalism of war memorials”.—[Official Report, 17 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 796.]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North indicated, the Home Secretary has made similar statements. The Lord Chancellor wrote an article in The Sunday Telegraph on 21 June, committing to ensuring that

“laws around criminal damage are fit for purpose and that the punishment for vandalising memorials fits the crime.”

He went on to state that the Government would need to legislate, and that

“now is an opportune moment to think about memorials more broadly and make sure that all acts of vandalism that cause widespread disgust can be appropriately punished by the courts.”

There are various approaches that the Government could adopt to tackle this issue. We have been considering all options to stop those who seek to attack emblems of our national sacrifice and pride, including the proposed Desecration of War Memorials Bill. We want to make sure that any vandalism or attack on property can be met with the full force of the law, so that the courts are equipped with the tools they need to do justice on the facts of the case before them, which was an excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. No one is suggesting that all cases and all examples need to be dealt with by a maximum sentence; that would be absurd. The courts will do justice, but they need to have the powers so that they can do that justice on the facts as they find them to be.

As such, although the Government fully support the intention behind my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill and firmly agree with the action that needs to be taken, we want to go further and protect a wider range of property. As announced in the sentencing White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, which we published on 16 September 2020, we will be reviewing the law, not merely the guidance, on criminal damage to ensure that where memorials are damaged or desecrated, the courts are able to sentence appropriately at every level for this particular type of offending. As we indicated in that White Paper, we will be legislating on this matter this year—in the early part of this year, I think it is possible to say—setting out the approach that we will be taking to deal with this issue. When the private Member’s Bill on the desecration of war memorials returns to Parliament on Second Reading next month, the Government will confirm their position on the Bill in accordance with the required parliamentary process, and I am confident it will address the points my hon. Friends have so ably made.

To conclude, the Government intend to deal decisively with this issue, and I thank my hon. Friends for their shared commitment to tackling this crime. I will close by saying that those who take the law into their own hands—who vandalise our heritage, lash out at symbols they disagree with, or demean and dishonour our war dead—should be on notice. We will give the courts the power to do justice on behalf of all: the dead, the living, and those who have yet to be born.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.