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Armed Forces: Wounded Personnel

Volume 703: debated on Thursday 17 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government whether they will issue medals to all British military personnel who have been seriously wounded in the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns.

The noble Lord said: As a former journalist, it pains me to say that the number of occasions on which I am able to pay genuine tribute to the work of the press are sadly limited. However, this afternoon is a rare exception. I make no bones about saying that I have taken an interest in the subject before Members of the Committee this afternoon—well off my usual beat, as some people will realise—wholly and solely because of the Daily Mirror’s splendid campaign on behalf of our troops.

The Daily Mirror’s work has been in the best traditions of popular journalism: passionate, yet scrupulously researched. I remember the remark of the great Harry Evans, under whom I briefly served when he was editor of the Sunday Times, who said, “Your campaign is only working when your readers start to get bored with it”, in reference to a Sunday Times campaign on cones in roads. The Daily Mirror has been willing to run that risk by persevering with this campaign when others have been satisfied to fill their columns with gossip and girls. That persistence has been most admirable. I also pay tribute to Colonel Richard Kemp CBE, who once led our forces in Afghanistan and who has been as gutsy in this campaign for recognition as he was in that one. They have been not only admirable and gutsy, but successful. My third tribute is to the Government: Ministers have listened. When I first tabled my Question, it called for medals for the killed as well as for the wounded. That is no longer necessary, as the Government have now agreed that Britons who lose their lives in the tragic conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan should be recognised with an appropriate medal. It therefore only remains to push the door open a little wider, and extend that recognition, as my Question asks, to the seriously wounded.

Of course, anybody who joins our Armed Forces does so in full knowledge of the potential personal costs they may pay for their patriotism. However, it is my contention that the wars we are considering here are different from those we fought in the past in a way that makes recognition more desirable. The fact is that our nation has been divided over these conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only have the men and women involved had to face enemy fire, but they have suffered the ricochets of friendly fire from those in Britain who believe these wars to have been misjudged. Are they risking their lives in a good cause?

That is not a situation that troops in most conflicts have had to face. Generally, wars fought by Britain have been those where the nation stood behind its Government’s course. At a time when surveys are showing some problems with service morale—not of the individuals involved but their feelings about how the services as a whole are keeping their morale up—we need to do the right thing. Let us show our soldiers, our airmen and our sailors—let us let their families, their sons and daughters, and their sons' sons and daughters’ daughters know—that we as a nation understand and empathise with what they are going through: a life which few of us have had the experience to appreciate. Whatever our views on the cause—and I think there are different views within this Room—we are, as we have always been, united in our admiration for their professionalism and our sympathy for their sacrifices. We need to show that we care.

I am not sure that the opposition to what is proposed comes from Ministers. Reading the words, I fear that others stand behind the Ministers; namely, some of our senior servicemen. Without making too much of it, I find it slightly ironic that top brass—many of whom like nothing better than to parade with a chest bedecked with medals of all kinds—should be resistant to granting any similar recognition to the men and women who serve under them.

One of the arguments to be heard thundering round the corridors of power is that such an award would be unprecedented. When you come to think of it, so was the first ever Victoria Cross—so is every medal when it is first awarded—and so, very relevantly, was the first Purple Cross, awarded more than 200 years ago, which our American cousins and allies across the Atlantic award to their servicepeople in similar circumstances.

Another argument is that it is difficult to draw a distinction between seriously injured people and others, wounded or not. However, that is implicit in the awarding of any medal. One has to decide what deserves a VC, an MC or any other medal. It requires very fine judgments, which are hard to make. At least this medal would have an objective justification—namely, a serious injury—and I do not believe that that is beyond the power of humankind to resolve. I cannot help observing that very few serious injuries are suffered by those sitting behind large desks in the Ministry of Defence.

In another place, an Early Day Motion arguing for these medals became the most popular in this Session of Parliament, with over half the House signing it. Of course, Ministers cannot sign EDMs but a very clear majority of Back-Benchers did so. I regret that this House does not have an EDM system, more’s the pity. According to the Procedure Committee, to which I put this proposal the other week, that is because Members have other ways of drawing ministerial attention to worthy causes. I hope that that purpose will be served by my Question today and that noble Lords—both those who are here to discuss it and those who are absent for one reason or another but support my proposal—will make their point. Of those who have to be absent, my noble friend Lady Symons has asked me to signify her very strong support—she is at an important international conference on defence—and so has my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, who is currently busily engaged on the Pensions Bill.

I wanted to draw this matter to the Minister’s attention and I hope that it will be given serious consideration. I greatly look forward to the debate. I thank all noble Lords who are taking part in it and await the Minister’s answer with keen interest.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for introducing this Question for Short Debate. I remind the Committee of my interest as a serving TA officer.

The British Armed Forces have a tradition of being very parsimonious with the issuing of medals. That is partly because we do not want to look like US servicepeople, among whom sometimes very junior soldiers with very limited experience have a chestful of medals. For our Armed Forces, that is a source of amusement, and I suggest that the Minister exercises great caution when responding to the debate.

The noble Lord skilfully explained his proposal. He made an attractive proposition and prayed in aid the media campaign. However, the first problem is that some casualties are unnecessary. Let us suppose that in an operational theatre there are two mine incidents causing casualties. In the first, a soldier is seriously injured by a mine. His comrades do exactly and precisely what they are trained to do: they do not move, if at all possible, and they wait for the Royal Engineers Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. If they have to move, they do so very slowly, clearing the path in front of them. They may take 30 minutes to move 40 feet, and all the time they will be able to hear the cries of their comrade, injured and needing help, but if they do that, there will be only one casualty.

In the second incident, instead of adhering to their training, they run across the minefield to aid their comrade. It is completely understandable and very courageous, but they set off another mine, thus causing a completely unnecessary casualty. If the Minister follows the suggestion of her noble friend, she will have to explain why the serviceperson who adheres to their training and minimises casualties does not get a medal, while the one who ignores their training, causes additional casualties and exposes others to greater risk does.

The Minister will also have to explain how suicides in operational theatres will be treated—a very sensitive issue, I know. A related issue is psychological and mental injuries. Some may not be apparent for some considerable time after the end of the operation. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the charity Combat Stress.

The third problem is road traffic accidents—still possibly the biggest killer of members of our Armed Forces. When would an RTA death or serious injury attract a medal? What if someone has a road traffic accident while off duty in the UK? I do not think so. How about a road traffic accident that takes place when someone is on exercise in the UK, when the cause of the accident is the victim’s error, or worse? Probably not. These are very difficult judgments of blame and responsibility.

On Exercise Saif Sareea in Oman in 2001, in poor visibility due to the dust and the sand, a young soldier accidentally killed himself by driving his four-tonne truck into the back of another. How is that to be treated? It was probably his own fault but he did not die in vain; he died helping to give our country an operational capability. By undertaking Exercise Saif Sareea, we learnt lessons that made Operation TELIC in Kuwait and Iraq much easier, more successful and led to fewer casualties.

Some time ago I raised with the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, the very poor performance of the Army Medal Office. It is now being operated on a tri-service basis, which is perfectly sensible. My information is that the performance of the Defence Medal Office, as I presume it is now called, is vastly improved. That is very important for morale. The prompt issuing of medals makes servicemen feel that their efforts are appreciated. I am extremely grateful to the Government for making progress on that.

I am sorry to be so negative regarding the noble Lord’s suggestion, but the problems of going down this route are insurmountable.

We are now giving medals for people who have been killed in precisely the same circumstances that the noble Earl has described as requiring judgment. The Government have set up a group to look at those. Is he saying that we should not give medals to those killed in such actions in the same way that he believes we should not give them to the seriously wounded?

I was saying that we should not automatically issue medals to those killed or injured. We could be issuing them to people who, frankly, should not have them, because of the circumstances I have described.

It is very apposite that we are having this debate today, only a couple of hours after the Secretary of State issued his service personnel Command Paper and made an oral Statement in the other place. Part of that Statement says:

“I understand that no amount of money can ever make up for the pain and sacrifice that these brave people have endured. However, we need to recognise the special nature of their sacrifice”.

I very much welcome the Command Paper and the overall improvements in the financial package and similar that are set out today. That phrase from the Secretary of State gives me encouragement and I await with interest the Minister’s reply to the debate. We will keep our fingers crossed.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on inaugurating this debate and on his comprehensive and persuasive speech. I also pay similar tribute to the Daily Mirror for its Honour the Brave campaign, and to Colonel Kemp.

The noble Lord referred to the Early Day Motion in November, which had no fewer than 330 signatures. The EDM says:

“That this House”—

that is the other place—

“recognises the bravery, dedication and sacrifice of members of the armed forces serving in Afghanistan and Iraq; applauds the Daily Mirror's Honour the Brave campaign; and calls on the Government to ensure that all personnel in the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force killed or wounded in enemy action are awarded a medal”.

As has been said, the Government have gone some way towards answering and acknowledging the EDM. Once again the precedent of the American Purple Heart, which was first awarded in 1917, was referred to. In Britain, in the two world wars, wound stripes were sewn on to a soldier’s uniform. Sadly, the practice then fell into disuse. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, has gone on record as acknowledging his pride in wearing the wound stripes himself.

I fully accept that a service man or woman who was injured would appreciate financial compensation more than anything else, which is why we appreciate what was announced today. But all the evidence is that wounded military personnel would appreciate an extra medal—and I use the word “medal” metaphorically, rather than in an exact literal sense. At a time when our service men and women feel unappreciated, when recruiting is difficult and tours of duty are longer and more frequent, and when, as the Secretary of State and defence chiefs have acknowledged, there is considerable stress on our forces and overstretch, I believe, as does my party, that it is more important than ever to do all we can to acknowledge the debt that we owe our service personnel and honour the covenant. I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, believes, that a medal for the seriously wounded would help and would play a part. I accept, as he accepted, that there are some problems with definitions—with someone’s mental as compared with their physical condition and with those who are wounded and killed in the normal course of combat or by friendly fire. These are possible difficulties, but they could be overcome, given the will, and the balance is very much in favour of awarding the medals to which the noble Lord referred.

How would the noble Lord treat a road traffic accident in an operational theatre such as Afghanistan—especially a fatality?

That is a matter of some difficulty. The noble Earl refers to the final section of my speech, in which I acknowledged that there are some difficulties. There is no argument about that. But the arguments that I have put in favour of awarding a medal far outweigh some of those negative and more difficult points that we would have to deal with. I accept that that type of definition is a problem.

I, too, add my thanks to those offered to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for introducing this debate. He made some very interesting points. I am in complete agreement with him about the bravery and dedication of our Armed Forces and their work in dangerous and challenging circumstances.

I also agree with the noble Lord about the Daily Mirror campaign and with what he said about Colonel Kemp, whom I saw speaking eloquently on the “Breakfast” programme this morning. The noble Lord is quite right that it is essential for the Government and Parliament to do all they can to ensure that military personnel are properly rewarded for their work. Medals are an important tool in their being given recognition by this country.

My noble friend Lord Attlee spoke eloquently. I agree with him that the Government should move cautiously on this issue. I have spoken to a number of service men and women from my former regiment—I am honorary colonel of a TA regiment—and almost to a man and a woman they agree with what my noble friend Lord Attlee said. I also congratulate my noble friend on setting such a good example yesterday by coming to work in his uniform.

My party has promised that when we are in government we will review the rules set out by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. We will set up an honours and decorations committee to ensure that they are consistent and appropriate. We can in this way ensure that the awarding of a medal is consistent and appropriate. Although, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, there is a precedent of a medal for the wounded in this country’s military history, new medals should not be awarded on an ad hoc basis.

Meanwhile, we must remember the number of military personnel who have been wounded or killed. No medal will ever make up for the lack of, for instance, body armour that led to the injury in the first place. Death and injury are a tragic but unavoidable part of war; death and injury as a result of inadequate equipment are most certainly not. Two weeks ago, I drew attention at Question Time to the Government’s decision in 2004 to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion, thus necessitating the use of ground vehicles, which are more vulnerable to attack in evacuating the wounded. My concerns are widely shared. A recent Ministry of Defence survey showed that more than 50 per cent of service men and women were dissatisfied with the equipment provided. When reports reach the media that front-line troops have on occasion run out of ammunition, it is clear that the situation needs drastic improvement. The Minister will no doubt claim that the Government have learnt from their mistakes and are now taking the supply of front-line troops more seriously. I hope that that is the case—I think that it is.

I also freely acknowledge another area where the Government have finally listened to my party and say how pleased I am that a new military ward has been opened at Birmingham hospital. I hope that many more will follow. Proper medical facilities for the wounded should not be an optional extra. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, we on these Benches welcome measures set out in today’s service personnel Command Paper increasing the compensation payments for personnel suffering injuries due to their service.

I have wandered a little from the original topic of the debate, but recognition of the work that our Armed Forces are undertaking and appreciation of the dangers to which they are exposed do not rest on fine words and ceremony. Speeches in Parliament must be backed up by proper support in the field.

This has been a relatively brief debate, but it has caused some strong feelings. There has been a division about what is appropriate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on obtaining this debate and putting his case in such a straightforward way. There are divisions of opinion on this, but we can all agree that we as a country are greatly indebted to those who serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world. We should bear their professionalism and dedication in mind at all times. What relatively young men and women are able to do in service of their country is extremely impressive, and it is right that we should give due recognition to the service they give.

I stress what one or two noble Lords have mentioned: medals are just one aspect of the recognition that we need to give to those who serve. I was glad to hear the welcome from noble Lords opposite for the Command Paper The Nation’s Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans¸ which was published today. The fact that we mention families and veterans should be borne in mind at all times. I am sure we will come back to the report and will have an opportunity to debate it because it has some significant elements that should be well known and welcomed, whether they relate to health, housing or the opportunities that we are increasingly going to be able to give to people once they have completed six years in the Armed Forces. All those things will make a difference and will make it clear that we appreciate and want to make a long-term investment in the people who put their lives on the line in the Armed Forces.

As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, the United Kingdom has a well established system for awarding medals. I was pleased that he thinks that the service provided has improved. I am sure that people in the Medal Office will appreciate those comments. Since September 2001, it has issued more than 54,000 Afghanistan medals and more than 115,000 Iraq medals. It has been busy, and I am glad that the noble Earl’s information is that it now deals with these issues more swiftly. That is important, and we should always bear that in mind.

The military chiefs—the people who Ministers listen to on issues such as this—believe that their way of keeping this issue under constant review is the way forward and that decisions should be relevant to the circumstances in which our Armed Forces are operating. Everyone here will know that for every significant campaign or operation, a medal is struck when it is deemed that there has been sufficient risk and rigour for those involved. Service men and women deployed today in Afghanistan and Iraq will receive their appropriate medals once they have completed the qualifying criterion, which is generally 30 days of continuous service in theatre.

This debate has focused on how we recognise those who not only serve but, sadly, are killed or injured in the line of duty. I am sure that everyone has heard of the difficulties and concerns of the families of those who have been killed or wounded. Those who are killed receive their medals quickly. We have a new procedure, which I think will be welcomed, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, by those who mounted the campaign in the Daily Mirror. It has helped to ensure that people focus on this issue. However, I stress that our service chiefs have always kept such issues under review and have been keen to ensure that they take the appropriate action.

The changes that were made a short time ago—after my noble friend secured this debate, which I think is why he widened his approach—have been welcomed. It is right to do what has been done. As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, pointed out, it is extremely difficult to deal with some of the practical issues that arise. He mentioned several difficult situations in which a judgment had to be made about what was appropriate. My noble friend intervened to ask whether these judgments would also apply to those who had been injured. We have not yet been able to finalise all the details regarding the medals for those who were killed on operations because of the complexities involved. There are many others as well, to which the noble Earl referred. We should not regard this as a simple and straightforward issue.

We should always take account of the views of those who are serving. My noble friend said that the opposition to this proposal was from senior servicemen—the top brass bedecked with medals who refuse to allow those who serve under them to get recognition. That was somewhat disparaging; many of the people referred to as the top brass have very distinguished records. We should listen to them and learn from their experience.

It is not just the military chiefs who believe that we should move on this with caution. The overwhelming view among the Armed Forces is that the current medal system is fair and that what service personnel consider most important is that the injured should be properly cared for and supported, and receive the treatment they need. That is one reason why today’s Command Paper is so important—it brings home some of the things that have already been done to improve the situation of those who have been injured in service. It is very important to do that.

Awarding medals is not the only way that we recognise the contribution of our service men and women. There have been lots of developments over recent years. The Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire provides appropriate recognition for those who have been killed in action since the end of World War II. Families who have unfortunately lost someone in action find it of some comfort to see their name engraved on that memorial and think it appropriate that that kind of recognition should be made. We have to consider all these issues extremely carefully.

Mention was made by the noble Lord, Lord Lee, of wound stripes, which were introduced in the First World War and, to a certain extent, were in evidence in the Second World War, although I am told that they were not universally popular as a means of recognising people who had been injured. Therefore, these issues are complex and we must, as much as anything else, bear in mind the feelings of those who serve in our Armed Forces. It is true that it is the top brass who report back, but perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the comments of the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup:

“I know that there has been considerable debate about recognition for those wounded on operations. The Service Chiefs and I have thought hard about this, having sounded opinion amongst our people. The overwhelming view is that the current medal system is fair and sufficient, recognising as it does both risk and rigour. What our people consider most important is that the injured be properly cared for and supported”.

The two elements are there: they have consulted other people—they have not simply made this decision sitting in the MoD—and they think that what happens by way of care and support is the predominant concern. The Command Paper has been widely welcomed. Indeed, the Royal British Legion said today:

“The Covenant is being brought back into balance”,

and it added:

“The Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and the Government all deserve credit for listening to our concerns and recommendations”.

Therefore, I think that we are moving a whole step forward in what we are doing for our servicemen, both while they are in the services and after they leave. This is a very positive and constructive way forward.

I wish to say a final word about the dangers of allowing this decision to be made solely by Ministers. Ministers could very easily be tempted into giving medals or recognition on a whole range of issues because it would always lead to a degree of popularity for them. I think that the present system, in which we take Ministers out of the equation, is probably worth protecting.

[The Sitting was suspended from 3.37 to 4 pm.]