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Emergency Services Personnel: Awards for Next of Kin

Volume 693: debated on Monday 26 April 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to have this Adjournment debate, although it seems to be a rather two-edged weapon tonight. I thought I was in a good mood, until I saw the time that we would have to do it, but I am not alone—I am with lots of friends—and I am particularly pleased that the Minister responding, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), is a very good friend of mine and new in the Ministry, so he is having a bit of, shall we say, battlefield inoculation.

At about 4.30 am on 7 December 1982, I helped to pull a young woman called Tina Collins out of the wreckage of a pub called the Droppin’ Well in Northern Ireland. She had recently been married to 20-year-old Clinton Collins, my company clerk, who I had promoted to lance corporal the day before. I was then a major in the Cheshire Regiment serving at Ballykelly in Ulster. To celebrate Clinton’s promotion, he had taken Tina to the Droppin’ Well for the evening, until, at about 10 past 11, a huge bomb blew the place apart. Tina and Clinton were together and she later told me that he had shielded her with his body when the explosion occurred. Maybe he did; I hope so.

Clinton was killed—I think, almost immediately—and Tina survived, although in great shock. I was the incident commander and it took us about five and a half hours to recover Tina from where she was lying, under concrete beside the still body of her husband. In all, 17 people were killed that evening and 11 of them were soldiers, six of them from my own company. What happened that night has marked me for life and I will never forget the horror of it.

Then, on 1 July 2009, the Defence Secretary announced in this place that recognised next of kin of service personnel killed on operations would qualify for a commemorative emblem called the Elizabeth Cross. Tina Collins, of course, received it, and it was my real honour to have her visit me in Parliament after I became an MP in 2010. Regimental headquarters of all regiments, particularly thinking of the Cheshire Regiment, have contacted most of the next of kin of their soldiers killed since 1948—the date from which the emblem has been awarded—and appropriate awards have been made. That emblem is made of a silver cross rather like the size of a Military Cross, which my father was awarded. When I sit in my office and look at my father’s decorations on the wall, I always think of the Elizabeth Cross as well. The emblem comes in a large form about two inches square and a miniature form. It is accompanied by a scroll signed by Her Majesty the Queen bearing the name of the person who lost their life in the service of their country.

All I can say, and the Minister will agree with me here, is that anyone I have met who has been given this badge wears it with huge pride, and I—and we all—hope it is of some, albeit limited, succour to them. But it does not make sense to me that those who protect us in non-military uniforms, such as the police, fire and ambulance services, should not have a similar arrangement for their own next of kin if they are killed in the line of duty. I think so, and so do many other colleagues in this place. To that end, I have worked alongside my right hon. Friend, and good friend, the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) to try to get support for this, and I thank him. After all, in my view, there are far too many people killed in what we might call the blue light services who leave people behind.

Even late last week, Jack Daw, a paramedic, was killed in the village of Moreton on Lugg when answering a 999 call. An object smashed through the windscreen, killed him in the passenger seat and hurt the driver. The matter is still being investigated, but the media report that it may not have been a deliberate act and was an accident. Our own Police Constable Keith Palmer, George Medal, was killed in New Palace Yard on 22 March 2017. He had a wife and children, and I think Mrs Palmer could qualify for an award.

I gather that, between 1986 and 2013, 26 firefighters were killed attending fires in the United Kingdom. Most of them, of course, had close loved ones, so how about an award similar to the Elizabeth Cross for the blue light services? By blue light services, I mean the police, fire and ambulance services in the first instance, but the award might be expanded to include the coastguard and other organisations that rescue people, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, as well as mountain and mine rescue teams. The award could be given to recognised next of kin with similar criteria to that necessary for the award of the Elizabeth Cross—in other words, their loved ones were killed in the line of duty. I suggest that, if this idea is taken up, the award should be of the same quality as the armed forces’ Elizabeth Cross, which is somewhat splendid and much prized by those who wear it. It seems that the cross—please, not a medal; a cross is so much more distinctive—would look good in silver, designed along equivalent lines to those given to the next of kin of armed forces personnel. In short, it must stand out as special, and so it should.

I have not found one Member of Parliament who has reservations about this proposal. Surely, the next of kin of blue light service personnel who die in the service of their country are just as deserving as armed forces personnel who die for the same reason. Personally, I believe that, at this time, the award might be called the Prince Philip Cross, with the permission of Her Majesty, of course. Based on what I gather about the institution of the Elizabeth Cross in 2009, it may not need legislation, but would it not be appropriate to include it in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May?

Order. I am sorry, Mr Francois, but to speak you needed to have the permission of both the Minister and Colonel Bob—

Exceptionally, then, because it is 20 past 1 in the morning and he is still here, I call Mark Francois to make a short contribution.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I shall more than take the hint. I am grateful to be called to speak in this important debate, albeit at almost 1.30 am. I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for asking me to make a brief contribution in support of his excellent idea for a Prince Philip Cross.

I have only three brief points to make. First, as a former Minister for Veterans in the Ministry of Defence, I welcome the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), to his new appointment, in which, knowing him as I do, I am sure he will excel.

Secondly, when I was the Minister for Veterans some years ago, I worked on the evolution of the military covenant into what is now known as the armed forces covenant. Similarly, the Government are now talking about introducing a policing covenant for the wider policing family. That is a very good idea, but I have one suggestion: if we really want it to catch on in a popular sense, we should call it the coppers’ covenant. That seems to me to be the obvious name. If we want to give such a covenant a concrete form, what better way than to bring in the Prince Philip Cross, as explained excellently by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham, to honour the next of kin of those in the police service, the fire and rescue service or the ambulance service who give their lives in the line of duty?

Thirdly, as a former Minister for Veterans, I have seen for myself the great comfort that can be brought to next of kin who receive the Elizabeth Cross if their armed forces partner has given their life in the service of their country. Given that Prince Philip’s whole life was about public service, I think that, providing that the palace and, ultimately, Her Majesty the Queen approve of the concept, it would be extremely fitting to name such a cross after his Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh.

There are always many details to work out in respect of such awards, and my right hon. and gallant Friend is more than capable of doing that with the assistance of the Government. Tonight, we need to know whether the Government are prepared to give the idea a fair wind in order to honour those who have made the ultimate sacrifice not on the battlefield but in other ways, for the service of their countrymen. I hope that that is a fitting tribute and that the Government might yet agree.

First, I put on record my thanks to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for the tremendous compassion that he has shown and the interest he maintains, as well as for his remarkable public service in the military. He has raised an important topic tonight. It is indeed true that the emergency services are rightly held in high esteem by all Members of this House and our whole country. We are grateful for their service. I also note with great interest the parallel he drew with the awarding of the Elizabeth Cross to the families of armed forces personnel killed in action and agree with his eloquent description of the remarkable pride with which the cross is worn. I am grateful for the moving way in which he recounted the tragic loss of Clinton Collins and the remarkable strength and courage of his wife, Tina. Tonight, we honour their sacrifice, their loss and their service.

Over the last year, during the covid-19 pandemic, the dedication of all our public services has been at the forefront of our minds. Sadly, the dedication of our public servants sometimes results in the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. As my right hon. and gallant Friend mentioned, the risks to ambulance staff were tragically demonstrated only this weekend when, on Saturday, we saw the death on duty of west midlands ambulance technician Jeremy Daw. I would like to put on record my sincere condolences and the condolences of Her Majesty’s Government to his family at this extremely difficult time.

The Government acknowledge that public service in this country has a long and deep history. The diligence shown by our public services has taken many forms. It is usually quietly given, sometimes in the most extreme and difficult of circumstances, but it is always appreciated by the nation. Each death is a personal tragedy for a family, for a community and for the victim’s colleagues, but each death is also a national tragedy, mourned by all who appreciate and admire the commitment made by those on the frontline to protect and support our community.

Public service takes perhaps its most urgent reform in the emergency services, and the Government are committed to supporting them. Fortunately, very few of our blue light personnel are called upon to make life-threatening sacrifices. However, that does not make fatal incidents any easier to bear. Our priority must be to prevent harm in the first place. It goes almost without saying that our emergency services do an incredibly demanding job. They face some of the most challenging situations daily, putting themselves at risk to safeguard us all, and it is vital that they have the support and protection that they need.

We can see acute risk to the emergency services in considering the statistics for the police service. I was grateful for the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), with the fitting comments he made in regard to the magnificent service of our police force. Home Office figures from 2018-19 show that there were nearly 31,000 recorded assaults on police officers. Indeed, that may well underestimate the true scale of risk. Last year, when the National Police Chiefs’ Council published its findings from its review into police officer and staff safety, it reported that 92 police officers lost their lives on duty between 2008 and 2019. It was fitting that my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham mentioned Keith Palmer, George Medal—our Keith Palmer—who lost his life so infamously here on the parliamentary estate. Work has been under way to implement the recommendations of the review, which include measures such as overhauling personal safety training and expediting trials of new technology or equipment that could enhance safety. The aim is to ensure that officers are as well equipped as possible when faced with life-threatening situations.

I have often been struck by the bravery of our emergency services in accepting and managing the intrinsic risks of frontline service. I have been privileged to meet many of our courageous police officers. Representatives of the police, the fire and rescue service and the ambulance service are, of course, regularly celebrated through Her Majesty’s honours list and through the award of Queen’s medals. But the Government agree with my right hon. Friend that we must ensure full recognition where that is due, perhaps especially when the worst has happened. That is why the Home Secretary committed to reviewing the current recognition and commemoration of the police to see if we can do anything more to acknowledge our police service personnel and their families.

My right hon. Friend has proposed that it would be appropriate to consider recognition of emergency service personnel killed on duty in a manner similar to the Elizabeth Cross being given to the next of kin of military personnel killed on operations. As Members may know, the Elizabeth Cross was introduced, as he mentioned, in 2009 to, in Her Majesty the Queen’s words, accord the highest respect to those who make the ultimate sacrifice. I can offer my personal testimony that it is an important symbol of tribute to those who have given their lives in the service of their country. It serves to mark the nation’s acknowledgement of their family’s loss. I can assure my right hon. Friend that I am supportive of the intention behind his suggestion that similar respect is due to those in our domestic uniformed services.

As Members may know, however, the honours system operates independently of the Government and under the royal prerogative. It is right that recommendations for new forms of recognition should be considered very carefully and consistently with a clear evidence basis. This takes time. It also requires close discussion with those whom we seek to acknowledge so that we can demonstrate our appreciation in appropriate ways.

Although I am unable to make any commitment with regard to my right hon. and gallant Friend’s specific proposal, I want to offer my personal assurances that the Government will explore and carefully consider all options for recognition and commemoration. I remain confident that the process of review will produce meaningful ways in which we can continue to pay tribute to our magnificent emergency services.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.