Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is a great privilege to begin this debate on the eve of Remembrance Day. We are here to recognise the debt that our nation owes to all those who have sacrificed their lives in the defence of the realm. In the Royal Gallery there is a Book of Remembrance in honour of Peers and servants of the House, and of their next of kin, who died in action with the British armed services in two world wars. I am proud that the names of my mother’s oldest brother and of my father’s youngest brother are inscribed on its pages. The former lost his life in action as a Grenadier Guards officer just before Dunkirk, and the latter, who was a squadron leader, was hit by anti-aircraft fire when bringing back photographs of enemy military installations, just before the American liberation of southern France.
We honour the supreme sacrifice made by so many servicemen and women on behalf of their country, and we owe it to them that their actions should continue to give inspiration to future generations. No one understood this better, I believe, than President Abraham Lincoln when, after the Battle of Gettysburg on 19 November 1863, he appealed to his war-torn country never to forget the sacrifices made in pursuit of a great cause. He said:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”.
He went on to emphasise the noble objective for which they had died, which was,
“that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that Government of freedom; and that Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the Earth”.
The same sentiments should surely resonate with us. We too have to rededicate ourselves to ensure that those in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth who have made the supreme sacrifice, did not die in vain. We too have to make certain that their unfinished work in sustaining the cause of freedom and promoting justice is continued.
Speaking for those who died in the First World War, a Canadian surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in his poem, “In Flanders Fields”, gave the same message:
“To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep
Though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields”
We have wider responsibilities too. If we put ourselves in the shoes of a young soldier in the front line going in to battle, he would expect us to look after his wife and family if he does not return or is seriously wounded. Therefore, I would like to repeat my support for the Government’s action in enshrining the principles of the military covenant into law and their promise to inform Parliament annually on what is being done to meet the requirements and special circumstances of servicemen and women. I strongly support the plan that the report should cover issues such as housing, health and education.
I believe that we have to keep in mind not only the sacrifice made by those who gave their lives in defence of the realm but the practical needs of those who have been bereaved in two world wars, in the Falklands and much more recently as a result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year is the 40th anniversary of the War Widows Association, and I welcome the Minister's recent assurance that opportunities for wives to visit graves will be continued, and I hope that he will respond constructively to their other concerns. It is a tragic fact that 16,000 members of the armed services have lost their lives serving since the end of the Second World War. They are commemorated at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire; and those who fell in two world wars are commemorated on many thousands of war memorials throughout the United Kingdom.
I say to the Minister how strongly I deplore the appalling actions of those who vandalise such monuments because they wish to sell plaques and statues to unscrupulous scrap metal dealers, to be melted down. This desecration has to be stopped. I hope that the Minister will consult urgently with other departments and the British Transport Police to establish what concerted action should be taken to prevent those shameful crimes.
When we honour the dead, we must not at the same time forget the many who return home wounded. Those who do not return would expect nothing less. Here, I pay tribute to the surgeons in the hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, which I had the opportunity to visit with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I also praise the work of the dedicated doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals at Headley Court, who fit new limbs and boost morale with such impressive results. Many of the wounded are suffering terrible injuries, and we must continue to improve the accessibility of support for them and their families. The charity with which I am involved, the Scottish Veterans’ Garden City Association, is dedicated to providing purpose-built homes for ex-servicemen and women who are disabled. The present total is 612, and more are planned.
Remembrance can take many forms. I have always been moved by the true story of an eight year-old girl in the south of England during the Battle of Britain. She saw an RAF fighter pilot in his parachute being machine-gunned by a Messerschmitt 109 as he drifted towards the earth over Ashford in Kent. She felt that that had been a terrible price he had had to pay for protecting her. Many years later, Jean Liddicoat, as she had become, was a grandmother living in Staplehurst. Her grandson questions her about the Battle of Britain, which he is studying in school. She answers him, and he says to her that in the cemetery next door is the grave of an unknown airman which has been left neglected and forgotten. She goes to see it and, sure enough, on the headstone are the words,
“An airman of the 1939-1945 War … Known unto God”.
Jean tidies up the grave and makes it look beautiful. Then she starts making inquiries. After eight years of investigating, she discovered that on 5 September 1940, during the Battle of Britain, eight RAF pilots were killed, but only six were identified. She therefore knew that the unknown airman must be one of two men. She also discovered that he had in his possession at the moment that the Spitfire plunged into the ground a half-hunter silver pocket watch. Its mechanism had stopped at the moment of impact. What was more, the unknown airman’s sister, Margaret, who was approaching 92 years of age, had come forward and identified the watch as being exactly the same as the one given to her brother.
Jean Liddicoat, to whom I spoke this morning, now knew who the airman was, and she found out as much as she could about him. His name was Freddie Rushmer, and he was a flight commander of a squadron which had more confirmed victories in the Battle of Britain than any other in both the RAF and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. On the day on which he did not return from his mission, there was absolutely no time to go searching for a fallen comrade in the war being waged for Britain's very existence.
Freddie Rushmer had never had a funeral service, so one was arranged at All Saints Church in Staplehurst. RAF officers from No. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron and representing the present Tornado squadrons attended, but did not expect a large congregation nearly 60 years after the Battle of Britain. When they arrived, they found to their astonishment that the church was full to overflowing with local residents—some were standing outside. Whoever the unknown airman was and whatever he did, they wanted to remember the man whom they believed had died to safeguard their freedoms, who had died for them.
As I said, remembrance can take many forms: a little boy proudly marching on Remembrance Sunday, wearing the medals of the father he has lost; a family seeking out one cross among thousands in a distant war cemetery; and the people of what is now Royal Wootton Bassett choosing their spontaneous way of paying their respects as the fallen were brought home through their town.
Those who died in defence of the realm did not all do so on great battlefields. Many men and women showed the same levels of courage and commitment in secret, and often in darkness, far behind enemy lines. In these days of equality between men and women, we remember not only the women who wore uniforms but those who were parachuted into enemy-occupied Europe in the Second World War on difficult and dangerous missions. The Special Operations Executive had 55 women agents, 13 of whom died in action or in concentration camps. There is a memorial to all SOE agents just across the river from our Chamber, with a bronze sculpture of Violette Szabo. Her face and expression depict her enormous bravery and determination. She was captured, tortured and killed in Ravensbrück concentration camp, but she told them nothing. Later, the very young daughter she left behind grew up to write a most moving account of her mother's heroism. Underneath the memorial are the words:
“Their names are carved with pride”.
On the wider role of women and warfare, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, campaigned for the magnificent memorial in Whitehall which was unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen. The noble Baroness said then:
“This monument is dedicated to all the women who served our country and the cause of freedom in uniform and on the home front”.
The words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, spoken on the BBC on 14 July 1940, were prophetic and applied to countless victims as well as to those who had the opportunity to fight. He said:
“There are vast numbers, not only in this Island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war, but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded. This is a War of the Unknown Warriors”.
The debt of gratitude which we owe to all those who sacrificed their lives is inestimable. It places a great responsibility on us to carry on their unfinished work and, as President John F Kennedy, put it, to create and sustain the rule of law, where the powerful work for justice, where minority rights are protected and where peace will be preserved.
Finally, I commend the wise, farsighted and enlightened words of the Royal British Legion, which tells us that the poppy and Remembrance Day have come to represent,
“war, peace, hope and sacrifice but with a stubborn sense of regeneration”.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, both on securing this very timely debate and on the eloquent and moving speech to which we have just had the privilege of listening. It is both heartening and humbling to see how seriously we as a nation continue to take Remembrance Day. When I was younger, there were serious discussions about whether events around 11 November should come to an end as the memory of the Second World War faded from most people's lives, but this weekend millions of people all over the country will be either taking part in or watching services of remembrance. It is right that that should be so, and it is very appropriate that we should have this debate.
I have no financial interest to declare in this debate, but I remind the House that I am the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group. I shall speak about two matters. The first is one to which the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, referred, which is the desecration of war memorials by scrap metal thieves. The second subject, if I have time, concerns preparations to commemorate the centenary in 2014 of the outbreak of World War I. Both those matters have been the subject of Oral Questions which I have asked recently in your Lordships' House.
I start with the subject of metal theft, and endorse everything that the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, said. The situation is now almost out of control. The increase in the world price of scrap metal, particularly copper, has made it a lucrative crime. It is also one that it is easy to get away with, mainly because of the inadequacies of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. The absence of a proper licensing system for dealers, the use of cash to settle transactions and the imposition of absurdly low penalties for breaches of the law have all combined to produce the present epidemic of crime.
I shall resist the temptation today to speak at length about the disruption to train services caused by cable theft on the railways, the damage to churches as a result of the stealing of lead from church roofs or the attack on public services in the electricity and telecommunications industry, but I want to say something about the desecration of war memorials. At Prime Minister’s Question Time last week, Mr Cameron described it as,
“an absolutely sickening and disgusting crime”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/11/11; col. 918.]
In an article in the Daily Telegraph on Monday this week, the Mayor of London wrote about how the plaques on a war memorial in Sidcup commemorating the deaths of 342 in both world wars, including that of Lieutenant George Cairns, who won the Victoria Cross in an act of extraordinary bravery in the Burma campaign in 1944, had been, in Boris Johnson’s words,
“brutally jemmied off and sold for scrap”.
Your Lordships may recall that in the exchanges on my Oral Question on 3 October, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, whom I am delighted to see in his place, spoke about the theft, just a week before, of 14 brass memorial plaques from Carshalton war memorial. There are countless other examples all over the country.
Following my Question, I have received scores of letters and e-mails all asking for the law to be changed. My response to that on 19 October was to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to amend the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House long enough to know that the chances of seeing a Private Member’s Bill through to enactment are pretty remote unless it has already been passed in the other place or the Government take it over. I am therefore, as an insurance, pursuing an alternative route with the help of the Public Bill Office. I hope to be able to announce something soon in the hope that I shall be able to count on the Government’s support for what comes forward. I am looking with some intensity at the government Chief Whip as I say this.
The other matter that I wish to raise today and that is also directly relevant to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, is the question of how we commemorate the centenary in 2014 of the outbreak of World War I. This has been concerning the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group for some considerable time. Following my Question on 22 March to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, I was invited by Professor Hew Strachan to a seminar on preparations for 2014 at All Souls College, Oxford. It was attended by the DCMS and MoD Ministers, Ed Vaizey and Andrew Robathan, plus a large number of representatives from France, Flanders, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and India, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Imperial War Museum.
From listening to those discussions, it was very clear that other Governments are far more advanced with their planning than are ours. The Government of Flanders, in particular, has an amazing programme planned for 2014 and beyond. They are investing €15 million in 44 infrastructure projects, including the renovation of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper, the expansion of the Memorial Museum in Passchendaele, and the construction of a museum garden and the opening of war sites in Zonnebeke. They are also spending a further €5 million on events such as music festivals and exhibitions. Initiatives that they are planning here in Britain include the creation of a peace garden at the Guards Museum in Birdcage Walk, with earth taken from Passchendaele, and an exchange programme for young people.
I cannot speak too highly of the Flanders Government’s commitment to war heritage and to what is now rightly called “peace tourism”. Already they welcome 350,000 visitors a year to Flanders, most of them from Britain and the Commonwealth. Thousands participate each evening in the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ieper. Now, as 2014 approaches, they are looking to do much, much more, and I think we should thank them for that.
At the all-party group meeting to which I referred, it became increasingly evident that we in Britain were in danger of being left behind as other countries pressed ahead with their arrangements. The group asked me to write to the Prime Minister expressing concern at the apparent lack of preparedness here and saying that we need a government policy and a clear political lead, with a decision on which government department is to lead on the issue. I received an encouraging reply from Mr Cameron on 18 August, which said that, while there were no detailed plans yet, discussions were “ongoing across Whitehall”. Mr Cameron said that he understood our concerns that it is not yet clear where departmental responsibility for organising events across the UK will lie.
Happily, on 2 November—just last Wednesday— No. 10 made the very welcome announcement that Dr Andrew Murrison MP has been appointed as the Prime Minister’s special representative and co-ordinator for the commemorations to mark the centenary of World War I. This is good news. I shall be meeting Dr Murrison next Tuesday, and he will be addressing a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group on 6 December. I need hardly say that all Members of your Lordships’ House and of the other place will be very welcome to attend.
I should be grateful if, when the Minister replies to this debate, he could say a little more about what Dr Murrison’s role will be. We really wish him well. We want to work with him and we want to make quite sure that we catch up with what other Governments are doing so that we commemorate this very important centenary in the right way. It will start in 2014 and will undoubtedly run for the four years through to 2018.
My Lords, first, I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas on securing this debate, on his excellent opening contribution and, as we all know, on his very deep commitment to our Armed Forces.
I was privileged and proud last year to attend the festival of remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall as a guest of the Royal British Legion—something that I have always wanted to do. I was similarly privileged and proud in the early 1980s, when I was a junior Defence Minister, to have an official position at the Cenotaph.
As a constituency Member of Parliament for 13 years, I used to regard remembrance weekend as something very special. My constituency in north-east Lancashire—Nelson and Colne, which later became Pendle—was a very patriotic area and one of substantial recruitment. I always used to attend the legion concert, as well as service parades in the morning and afternoon. When one attended some of the smaller community services, it was very sad and distressing to see the names of so many individuals from one family who had lost their lives, particularly in the Great War—the ghastly, pointless First World War. My own great-uncle, who served in the Liverpool Scottish Regiment, was killed on 3 July 1917 aged 23 and is buried in the Brandhoek Military Cemetery in Belgium. What concerned me during those 13 years was the decline, as I saw it, in the numbers attending the individual memorial services. Indeed, I suggested to our local authority that perhaps we should have one major constituency service in the morning, allowing the smaller events to take place in the afternoon.
However, in recent years we have seen a substantial sea-change in the attitude of the public to our Armed Forces following, I think it is fair to say, a realisation that our troops whom we initially sent into Afghanistan were ill equipped and substantially underresourced. The media got behind our forces and, of course, considerable improvements have been made to their kit. Now, the kit is probably the envy of the world in many respects.
As has been referred to, the Government enshrined the military covenant in law during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill. I think it would be fair to say that the combination of a sympathetic and sensible Minister and pressure from a number of noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords improved the Bill during its passage. Of course, reference has been made to the very impressive turnout as coffins pass through Royal Wootton Bassett, and yesterday’s roll call of deaths brings home to us the current losses. In my judgment, it would be interesting to see whether there is any carry-across or manifestation of increased support for our Armed Forces in poppy sales and in attendance at remembrance parades, as well as continuing support for service charities.
There are around 100,000 war memorials in this country, of which perhaps 1,200 or so are listed. The spate of thefts has been referred to today and previously by my noble friend and colleague Lord Tope. Could the Minister tell us whether there are any laws at the present time that govern damage or desecration to our war memorials? If not, should we not consider their introduction?
In today’s paper, there is an indication that the funding for our very impressive National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire is going to be cut by a quarter. I visited it a couple of years ago, and it is hugely impressive. I realise, of course, that economies have to be made in defence spending, but do we really have to reduce the funding for such an impressive national memorial?
Turning to the matter of the young, does the Minister know whether the British Legion visits schools on a regular basis? Are poppies made available in schools? Should this not be rather more encouraged? I have previously suggested that schools should adopt their local war memorials for the dual advantage of both cleanliness and preservation. It would also make our youngsters more aware of the sacrifices that have been made.
Sadly, some who have given their lives have not been properly acknowledged and treated. It is surely a scandal that it has taken until next year, 2012—some 70 years after the ending of the Second World War—to erect a memorial to the 55,573 brave members of Bomber Command who were killed in action.
I also pay tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all the work that it does, which I have seen throughout the world, and to the memorials of many communities overseas. On my visit to Normandy earlier this year to visit the landing beaches, I saw the way so many memorials in small French communities are maintained, with full acknowledgement of the particular regiments that liberated those communities.
Sadly, there is no sign of the world becoming any less violent and there will inevitably be casualties in the future. For our forces, we must provide the best possible medical care, make generous provision for dependants—I know that my noble friend Lord Loomba will refer to war widows in particular in his speech—and always ensure that those who make the supreme sacrifice on our behalf have a decent funeral and an appropriate memorial.
My Lords, my younger son is 10 years old and I remember that when I turned 10, my father, the late Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, went to war, fulfilling any young officer’s dream: to command his battalion—the Second Fifth Ghurkha Rifles Frontier Force—in battle. He took part in the Indian Army’s liberation of Bangladesh. I remember reading in the papers every day a list of casualties and the sacrifices made, and dreading seeing my father’s name. Watching my mother enduring the anxiety was awful. My father’s battalion sadly lost several of its members in action. As we speak today, the Second Fifth Ghurkhas are celebrating their 125th anniversary on their Raising Day, and the whole regimental family is together in India.
When I say regimental family, that is what the army family is; it is the serving troops and their families, but also the ex-servicemen and their families and the widows like my mother and their descendents. At every one of these reunions, we always remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. My father’s battalion won three Victoria Crosses during the Second World War: one was posthumous, awarded to Subedar Netra Bahadur, and the other two were awarded to Havalder Gaje Ghale and Naik Agan Singh Rai. I was privileged to have been brought up from childhood with Agan Singh Rai and Gaje Ghale, and in fact Agan Singh Rai was my father’s subedar major—his regimental sergeant-major—when my father commanded his battalion.
I congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, for this debate and his inspirational speech. We as a nation are tremendous in the way we remember the sacrifices made by our service men and women over the years. As a public, we show this support and remembrance year after year through Remembrance Sunday and a multitude of services that go on in every corner of the country, the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal and the millions of poppies worn. Thank God that FIFA was finally made to see sense after its nonsensical banning of the wearing of poppies, which it saw as a political statement. It never has been and it never will be. This is about remembrance, appreciation and gratitude, and particularly about making sure that future generations never forget and are inspired by the noble sacrifices made.
Yesterday, my six year-old daughter took part in a Remembrance Day service at her school, which included a minute’s silence. She brought home the poppy that she had made and showed it to me with pride. We have the wonderful memorial gates commemorating the service of 5 million volunteers who served in the First and Second World Wars from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. I was proud to be the chairman of the commemoration committee for six years, and these gates exist thanks to the drive and commitment of the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who no doubt will speak about this inspirational living memorial.
The public spirit and support for the Armed Forces are probably at an all-time high in modern times, with Royal Wootton Bassett, the hugely successful newly-founded charity Help for Heroes initiative, the work of the Army Benevolent Fund—the soldiers’ charity—and the amazing warmth and respect shown to the Chelsea Pensioners of the Royal Hospital of Chelsea, where I am proud to be a commissioner.
We never needed to be told about a big society. The British public have been practising this instinctively for years. I was really happy to read the report of the task force of the military covenant a year ago, which made so many excellent suggestions.
This debate is also about the Armed Forces covenant, which states:
“An Enduring Covenant Between The People of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Government—and—All those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces of the Crown And their Families”.
We are told that the Armed Forces community includes regular personnel, reservists, veterans, the immediate families of those categories of individuals, and the immediate families of service personnel and veterans who have died. The level of support has been categorised into four areas.
The first is to give recognition and gratitude, which I think we do. I am grateful to the Government for establishing a Chief of the Defence Staff commendation scheme. The second level is to take positive measures to support disadvantage. This is because our service men and women have such an unsettled way of life, and it worries me that initiatives such as the boarding school scheme for officers’ children are under threat. Could the Minister confirm this? It is disappointing to see that the formal ID card for veterans and service families has been rejected, with “value for money” being the reason why the scheme is not being supported. Could the Minister confirm this? The Armed Forces’ housing—particularly the Army’s—is on the whole below standard. Is there any way the Minister could confirm whether these long-term housing contracts are going to be renewed before 2021? Could the rent that has been set at below-market rates be looked at?
The third level of support is the financial package. Here, there is no question about it: the Armed Forces get paid a pittance compared with what we expect them to do. The Army doctrine publication tells us:
“All British soldiers share the legal right and duty to fight and, if necessary, kill, according to their orders, and an unlimited liability to give their lives in doing so. This is the unique nature of soldiering”.
Do we genuinely, hand on heart, feel that we are correctly compensating them when the salary for a private is only £17,265 at the low end, and the new entrant rate is £13,895?
The fourth level is special treatment. We keep hearing about the Armed Forces covenant meaning that the Armed Forces community should get fair treatment. I think the term “fair” is inappropriate; they need to get special treatment always. This is where we fall short of countries such as the United States in the way they look after their veterans and their special hospitals. In India, all retired soldiers and their families are entitled to free medical care from armed forces hospitals for life. This is special treatment, which is so well-deserved.
The Armed Forces are all about esprit de corps and morale. Where morale is concerned, we have had issues. There has to be mutual trust and respect between the Armed Forces, the Government and the Ministry of Defence. I am sorry to say that this mutual trust, particularly between the MoD and the Armed Forces, is breaking down. I have spoken about huge issues of morale across the services. The Government rushed through the SDSR last year with resulting cuts. On the one hand, our forces are stretched, just having completed Iraq; the Afghanistan operations are now 10 years on; and we have to deal with situations such as Libya at the drop of a hat. Our noble service personnel feel that they are out there in these conditions knowing that their jobs are not secure and seeing their comrades being made redundant. They know that the public are on their side but feel let down in many ways by the MoD and the Government. What is more, we are made to look a laughing stock in our short-sightedness. Almost a year ago, in our debate on the SDSR, I said in my speech:
“nobody predicted 9/11 and nobody predicted the Falklands War; they both happened. Sadly, no one knows what is going to happen next. We have to be prepared for the unexpected”.—[Official Report, 12/11/10; col. 404.]
What happened just a couple of months later? The Arab spring and then Libya. We as a country had decided by then to do away with our aircraft carriers, our Harriers and our Nimrods, and we could have done with all of them in the Libyan operations.
The SDSR was all about means and not ends. We in Britain are a major player on the world stage with our hard power and our soft power, and we will be required to intervene again. Once again, it could be “known unknowns” such as in the Iran situation, or it could be “unknown unknowns”, in the way the Arab spring happened overnight. With the eurozone crisis, Chancellor Merkel has already said that if the euro falls, there will be war in Europe.
We may have stayed out of the euro—and thank God we did—but we are a key integral player on the world stage and we will not be able to stay out of any forthcoming conflict. We have an Army now of fewer than 100,000. This is so short-sighted. We strive for peace, but, unfortunately, as the noble Lord, Lord Lee, said, conflict is inevitable whether we like it or not. The defence of our realm is the Government’s No. 1 priority, and that rests entirely on the amazing sacrifices made by our Armed Forces. Last month, I chaired an event as president of the UK India Business Council on east and north-east India. It was attended by a senior Minister from Nagaland, where of course the famous Kohima epitaph reads:
“When You Go Home
Tell Them Of Us And Say
‘For Your Tomorrow,
We Gave Our Today’”.
We as a nation will never forget. We will always be inspired and we will always be grateful.
My Lords, I would very much like to affirm from these Benches our support for what is expressed in the Motion put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk. I, too, congratulate him on the way in which he introduced the debate. From these Benches, we are particularly conscious of all that is implied about the debt that we owe to the fallen, because the Church of England and the other churches and faith groups of this country are hugely involved in the services and acts of remembrance that will take place over the next few days.
I started in ministry in the Church of England 35 years ago. As an assistant curate in a parish in the north-east of England, I very well remember my first Remembrance Sunday service. It was an important occasion, but not one that was attended by exceptional numbers. In the second year, I remember, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, experienced, someone remarking that probably by the turn of the century we would not be holding such acts of remembrance. Clearly, it was not a person with the gift of prophecy.
Over these past 35 years, I have watched these acts of remembrance grow hugely. There was a significant time when the various important anniversaries of the Second World War—the 50 years after the beginning and end—were marked that you suddenly began to notice the change. However, the involvement of this country in recent conflicts has meant that those who assemble are now from across the age range. Acts of remembrance frequently take place at public war memorials, but they nearly always involve members of the clergy of all denominations leading acts of remembrance. As well as that, there are war memorials in churches throughout the land, and other services of remembrance will take place within those churches.
This keeping alive of an understanding of the debt we owe to people who have given their lives is something that the churches have been very diligent about. In recent times I have noticed that people are attempting to find ways to make sure that this is not just an exercise in history but to help people to understand more the nature of the human cost. I have seen a number of churches within my diocese where people have carefully researched the names on the war memorials from the First World War and the Second World War, have traced the stories of families and the people involved, and compiled booklets with details of them. Often, these are even accompanied by photographs. Of course, this sort of thing can usually be done only in small rural communities where memories are long and families are frequently still in the area and where there are not huge numbers of names on the war memorial, but it is interesting that these activities have come about in recent years.
As other noble Lords have already remarked, we are within three years of the centenary of the start of the First World War. I, too, was appalled by the acts of vandalism to war memorials involving the theft of metal plaques, but it is also the case that some of these memorials are not now in the best of condition, as time has inevitably caused deterioration. Is the Minister aware of any plans to survey the condition of those memorials during the next couple of years, so that they can be in as good a condition as possible for that significant centenary?
Part of acknowledging the debt to those who have given their lives is by continuing our responsibility for those who have survived the wars of recent years and who need support and for those who have given service in our Armed Forces. To that end, I, too, welcome the attention that this House gave to the military covenant in the Armed Forces Bill. It is vital to find ways whereby the military covenant has real meaning within the country and is more widely understood, without turning it into legal contract.
However, there is still some way to go to instil confidence within serving personnel that there really is going to be some form of change. I am privileged from time to time to be invited to visit various military units within my diocese, and there are quite a number. I did one such visit just last month. It included meeting a unit which is about to return to Afghanistan for another tour of duty early next year. It is a large establishment and it gave me the chance to meet people who had varying lengths of service. While I constantly found that the sense of pride in their unit and their professionalism were highly evident, it was noticeable that, when discussing what the military covenant might mean, there was some scepticism. Usually, this came about because personnel who have served in Afghanistan and met our American allies are well aware of very different arrangements within the United States for the care and support of veterans.
That having been said, they certainly welcomed the fact that efforts were being made to make sure that the military covenant was becoming more prominent. However, I guess that the quality of the first report on the covenant will have a great bearing on how the members of our Armed Forces react to it and the effect that it will have on their morale. I hope that it will demonstrate that all these matters are being taken extremely seriously.
It was very noticeable last week, and, indeed, this week, how many members of the current Armed Forces are on the streets selling poppies. I think that that is a demonstration of the current members of our Armed Forces understanding very well the debt that is owed to the past and their presence helped enormously in encouraging people in their support. My experience is that this support for members of our Armed Forces is strong whatever the public feeling might be about the particular campaigns that were or are being waged. This Sunday, I expect to be in Bury St Edmunds for the main act of remembrance followed by a service. Not only will our own Armed Forces be present but those of America, because there are two United States Air Force bases within Suffolk. Part of the value of these acts of remembrance is that the reality of what we are remembering is very much before us with current young members of the services present. It helps to make the cost of conflict not seem remote and consequently an understanding of the extent of our debt becomes that much greater.
I believe that an acknowledgement of our debt is widely supported in our nation. I welcome this debate, showing the support of this House for acknowledgement of that debt.
My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to follow the right reverend Prelate. It is extremely appropriate that he has taken part in this debate, because the church has such a part to play in the services of remembrance that we shall recognise on Sunday and on the other occasions associated with Remembrance Day. I join him in congratulating my noble friend Lord Selkirk on what I thought was an outstanding introduction to this debate. It set absolutely the tone that was needed.
I think that everybody in this House shares those experiences. I became a Member of Parliament in 1970. One stood on Remembrance Day at the war memorial in King Square in Bridgwater. Year after year, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said, one sensed a diminution of interest. A few survivors from the First World War were still there. I remember meeting Mr Harry Patch, who was the last survivor of the lot. Gradually, they faded away. Then the survivors of World War Two started to look pretty old as well. My noble friend Lady Trumpington is one of the survivors in this House of those who gave great service to their nation in the Second World War.
As we stood there, these memories moved on. And then, gradually, events came in. There was a feeling that this was an old ceremony to do with those wars. Korea had not made much impact, but then we had the Falklands and Northern Ireland. Then the message came round: “Shouldn’t some names be added to these memorials?” One particular moment stands out for me. I remember standing in King Square in Bridgwater and then going into St Mary’s church. Then, as I came out of St Mary’s at the end of the service, one of my policemen gave me a message, telling me that my private secretary wanted to speak to me from Northern Ireland, to tell me that there had been a bomb at the Remembrance Day service at Enniskillen, and that a number of people had been killed or seriously injured. The shock of the desecration of that occasion went round the world. It was in fact enormously damaging to the reputation of the IRA and any latent sympathy it may have had, as well as to any Irish freedom movement there may have been in the United States, among other places.
This was coupled, as some may remember, with the extraordinary generosity of spirit of Mr Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed on that occasion. I remember standing in the shower in Admiralty House early the next morning, listening to him on the “Today” programme, before I had to make a Statement in the House. I remember the extraordinary way in which he was able, with that generosity of spirit, to speak as he did after losing his daughter in that tragic event.
I shall also never forget, and many noble Lords may remember, the extraordinary service we had two weeks later. The British Legion at Enniskillen were determined that they would still have their service, and British Legion standard bearers from all round the country were determined that they would attend that service as well. Rank upon rank of standard bearers gathered in the square in Enniskillen. I managed to persuade—she did not need much persuasion because she understood entirely—the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, to come with me to that service. The solidarity, right across parties, and right across the divisions that might otherwise exist in Northern Ireland, had an enormous impact on me.
After that, we moved on to the first Gulf War, and then more recently the Afghanistan campaign and the second Gulf War in Iraq. What one noticed in those early Remembrance Day services and parades was that very few servicemen standing there had any medals. Now you look at them and see the impact of more recent years and their activities. I am going to take part and help to conduct a service on Sunday in our local parish church with a very good friend of mine, a retired brigadier who served in the Parachute Regiment—a man who is very well known to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. His son is serving in the Parachute Regiment, and is coming up for his third tour, I think, of Afghanistan. One realises the commitment and involvement that we now have.
What has really come across so clearly now is that, as it is said, war is the failure of politicians and rulers. Having had some responsibility in that area, I agree with that entirely. Take, for example, the Second World War: I am sure that Hitler did not actually think that England, in the end, would fight for Poland. President Galtieri thought he could grab the Falklands without any conflict and that Britain would think that it was too difficult to do anything about it. Mistakes by politicians, rulers and leaders lead us into those situations. Saddam Hussein was quite convinced, I think, that nobody would really mind about a silly place like Kuwait, which had caused a lot of trouble for some of its neighbours, and that nobody would rally to the cause of freedom, independence and freedom from aggression.
It is against that background that one has noticed how the mood has changed. In the early part of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a lot of people had reservations about the wisdom of those events. That in some part rubbed off on our Armed Forces, which were not held in sufficient respect—it was felt that they were involved in something that we should perhaps not be doing. Then, however, whether because of Help for Heroes, or because of a recognition of the suffering and the casualties—the fatal casualties, but particularly the appalling physical injuries that many were suffering—the British nation rallied. Whatever the views were about the rightness of those particular campaigns, there was absolutely no question about the support of the nation for those who were loyally undertaking their duty in the Armed Forces of the Crown.
It is against that background that I look at this occasion today and look at what our responsibilities are. I support the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. He raised the issue of housing. It is our duty now to remember those who have made the sacrifice. It is also our duty to remember their families and the suffering that they have and to see that the many organisations and charitable organisations, such as the British Legion, SSAFA and others that seek to help in this area, are supported. We also have a duty to those who have come back with quite appalling injuries. The wonders of modern medicine have now made possible their survival, but they are left with major challenges. This may all be lumped together in the military covenant. We have responsibilities to those who survive, to those who are injured and to their families at this time.
We need our Armed Forces. We face major challenges at the present time. If wars are the failures of politicians, the sad truth is that they will make mistakes again. It is against that background that we need to ensure, as a duty to those who have served and have made the ultimately sacrifice, that their survivors and their successors are properly equipped and properly maintained to continue the sacred task of defending our nation’s interests.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, for securing this debate and introducing it in a most moving and inspirational manner. We are debating,
“the debt which our nation owes to all those who have sacrificed their lives in defence of the realm”.
This subject raises two questions. First, does the nation really owe a debt to those who have sacrificed their lives in defence of the realm? Secondly, how should that debt be repaid? I shall take these two questions in turn.
The first question looks simple, and its answer appears self-evident: of course we do. This is the assumption made in almost all the speeches that have been made so far. This is also the assumption which underlies the report of the task force on the military covenant, and the review by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme.
Imagine how somebody might argue against this. In the standard neoliberal fashion, it might be argued that, unless the Armed Force are conscripted—in which case, of course, a different moral logic applies—they are volunteers. They know what they are doing when they join the Armed Forces. They accept a job for which they are paid. It is a contract of employment that is voluntarily entered into, and is no different from any other. If people therefore lose their lives or limbs it is part of their contract, and the nation owes no debt. This is a standard neoliberal argument made in the 18th and 19th centuries, and is also to be found in many current writings by neoliberals.
It might also be argued that sacrifice of lives and limbs is not unique to the Armed Forces. The police, miners and firemen all risk their lives: why should we single out the Armed Forces? When we do, are we treating them in some privileged manner which is founded on emotions or romantic glorification of war rather than on solid rational grounds? I suggest that there are solid rational grounds for privileging the Armed Forces, and these are fourfold.
First, they are the only group who explicitly commit themselves to the sacrifice of their lives. Unlike firemen and miners, or even the police, they are not employed to do other things which incidentally might involve loss of lives; rather, willingness to risk the loss of life is the very raison d’être of the job.
Secondly, the Armed Forces incur loss or temporary surrender of basic democratic and civil freedoms that no other occupation shares. Members of the Armed Forces may not join a trade union, they may not openly dissent from or criticise the Government and they may not question operational decisions made by their superiors. The standard democratic freedom that every other employee enjoys is denied to members of the Armed Forces.
Thirdly, the Armed Forces act on behalf of the nation in a way that no other occupation does. They swear their loyalty to the nation, place their well-being in the nation’s charge and render the most essential service of preserving the integrity of the country.
Finally, the fourth reason why there is good moral logic in privileging the Armed Forces over other occupations is that very high—indeed higher—professional ethics is required of them. Greater mutual loyalty is required of them; greater courage and bravery as well as a greater willingness to risk their lives for the sake of their comrades. They are also expected to show greater commitment to the collective ethos and to subordinate their personal security to the security of the country at large.
My answer to the first question is that yes, of course, there is every reason to argue that the nation owes a debt to the Armed Forces. That raises the next question: what form should the repayment of that debt take? Since the Armed Forces have offered to risk and lay down their lives on behalf of and in the interests of the country, the country obviously incurs several obligations. I want to mention three, only one of which has been heavily emphasised in the debate so far.
First, the nation has an obligation to remember them with gratitude, and honour their memory in appropriate ways. No financial compensation can adequately measure up to the way of remembering and cherishing people and fulfilling the dreams that their sadly truncated lives have not been able to realise. We remember, honour and cherish their memories by constructing memorials, national Remembrance Day and telling stories about their deeds in our text-books. In telling those stories and constructing memorials, we not only redeem the tragic dimension of their death but build bonds of unity among our own people. It is worth remembering that Remembrance Day is only common to five or six out of 185 countries. India has no remembrance day. France does not. Germany—for obvious reasons—does not. Even in the United States, it appears in a very unusual form. It might be worth looking not only at the history of Remembrance Day—is it a response to the Crimean War or the First World War?—but at the changes it has undergone over the years and why it is, in some sense, relatively unique to our country.
The second obligation we have is to look after the dependants of those who have died and to attend to the needs of those who have suffered grave injuries and disabilities. This calls for generous compensation schemes, pensions, rehabilitation, integration into normal life and other forms of support. The task force on the military covenant and the Boyce report make excellent suggestions and I wholeheartedly endorse them.
However, there is a third obligation, which is in danger of being neglected. The nation incurs a profound obligation to ensure that the wars in which the Armed Forces are engaged and in which they may have to sacrifice their lives are fully justified, either in terms of the interests of the country or in the wider interests of humanity at large. Since the Armed Forces are expected to obey the civilian authorities and are politically neutral, the civil authorities that decide for them often have a tendency to take them for granted and to think that the military machine can be deployed for any purposes that their masters choose. Wars are therefore declared sometimes without much forethought, because they distract attention from domestic problems or because they are politically convenient and give the halo of glory to otherwise mediocre politicians. It is precisely because the Armed Forces are expected to be uncritically loyal that the Government must think 10 times before sending them to an almost certain death. Iraq and Afghanistan do not meet this test, as I have argued before your Lordships in the past; nor, I think, did Suez or Vietnam. It becomes morally hypocritical to send young people with promising lives to ill conceived deaths and to compensate them with offers of payments, as if a promising life is worth a lump sum of so much money.
Every death is a tragedy. It should be an occasion for critical national self-reflection on how to improve the way in which we take momentous decisions involving war. The Armed Forces trust the nation to value their lives and to demand sacrifices only when they are fully justified. The nation must prove itself worthy of the trust that the Armed Forces put in it.
My Lords, I, too, thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, on giving us this opportunity to reflect on the eve of our remembrance commemorations. It is gratifying, too, to behold the degree of regard in which our society holds our Armed Forces across the country and which so powerfully helps to sustain our men and women when they are serving overseas. However, that regard—as the noble Lord, Lord King, has already said—cannot be taken for granted. In the 1990s, we saw that our people were less willing to make sacrifices on behalf of our Armed Forces. The funds raised for our people after the war in the Falkland Islands amounted to more than £25 million; the funds raised for the last Iraq war were less than 2 per cent of that. The involvement in Iraq, clearly, was the reason for that unpopularity, but it seemed at that stage that the British affinity between the people of the nation and our Armed Forces was at a low-ish point.
That gave rise to clarion calls from all sorts of people —not least the Chiefs of Staff—raising the profile of the issue. They raised the issues, as we have heard, about equipment, medical treatment, accommodation, medals, education, pay and allowances, and homecoming parades. That was not only to bring pressure to bear on the Government but to bring to the notice of our society as a whole that they needed to help make this new covenant manifest.
Your Lordships will know that our society has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. We have been able to live in peace and go about our daily business without much concern for our own safety or that of our families, even though of course there have been some pretty appalling terrorist incidents. As a society, we have very little understanding of the horrors of war. At the same time, we are increasingly affluent, middle class and liberal, with high expectations of rewards and gains. We exhibit increasing educational standards but a lower level of physical fitness. We seek greater variety and choice and have an interest in leisure risk but not real risk. We have changing organisational structures, increasing public accountability and transparency, and fluctuating economies. We are a litigious society and seek compensation at every turn. We demand flexibility in a high-tech world and often give minority groups more face time than the silent majority. The trouble is that our enemies—the terrorists, the dictators and the ethnic cleansers—are not suffering from mid-life crises and taking court action. They are out there, and if anything, they are consistent.
Those 16,000 names on the national memorial at Alrewas, listing those who have died in service since the end of the Second World War, bear witness of the extent to which we as a nation have used our Armed Forces in that time. It is not just those who make the sacrifice, as we have already heard. All who serve on operations put their lives at risk, whether they die or whether they are injured. Countless numbers have been wounded, while many others have been psychologically damaged, which comes out only later in their lives. Behind every one of those names on the war memorial there are wives, husbands, partners, parents, children and colleagues who loved them and who live with the pain and consequences of their loss every day.
How are we doing as a society, looking after this thing called a covenant? Are we playing our several parts? The charities, in my view, are doing well, although their window of opportunity may close as we pull out of Afghanistan and come off the headlines. The services-related charities have managed to hold up well in terms of donations from the public, and I pay tribute to Help for Heroes for the way in which it helped raise the profile of the services’ needs to their current level.
Our people are doing well, too, from small groups of determined men and women undertaking amazing physical feats to the generosity of individual donations on the one hand, through the warmness of the welcomes received at homecoming parades to the compassion and respect demonstrated at events such as those held at Royal Wootton Bassett on the other. I feel genuinely that the majority of our citizens recognise the price that has been paid, and continues to be paid, by our soldiers to enable them to enjoy the freedoms that they have.
One area in which I do not think we are doing as well is in the Government's implementation of the covenant, although I recognise that much work has gone into it. We must remember that this is a contract under which, in return for the sacrifice made by those in the forces, the Government will ensure they are equipped properly, trained, given the best possible care if they become casualties, and are treated fairly.
Although I believe there are several areas in which we are failing to meet this fundamental requirement for fairness, I will mention only three. Before I identify them, I should remind your Lordships of what our service men and women do for all of us. I spent some time last week talking to one of the brigade commanders, who was, in the distant past, my military assistant. I asked him how he was finding it there. He replied, “I follow the policy of reverse vertigo”. I said, “What is that?”. He said, “I dare not look up. If I look down, it is fine; when I look up, it is not”. Although I talked about a changing society earlier, perhaps the one constant that we would all recognise is the soldier himself. He is a remarkable individual who never ceases to amaze all of us with his achievements. Henry Kissinger once said that the Brits are the only people left on earth who love to fight. Well, we have certainly kept our eye in, and we should be thankful for it.
These are young men and women called upon to put the needs of the nation before their own and who, as we have already heard, forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. We ask them to operate along the roughest edges of humanity while observing the civilised norms of the society from which they are drawn. That is not an easy task. They face an unprecedented degree of public scrutiny and analysis. Of course, they still live in a hard, frightening and dangerous world. The miracles of modern transport do not absolve them from moving great distances on their feet carrying heavy loads. Snazzy new kit does not stop the bullet from killing them or the bomb from maiming them. The state of their digestion is a matter of public interest. The days are still hot and the nights dark and cold. While there may come a time when technology transforms the world, we are not there yet. So it is down to these young men and women, in their fragile human form, to defend our freedoms. We must not forget that they find themselves in these circumstances because of the decisions taken by our political masters.
I will now speak about the three areas in which I believe we are failing them and which it would be perfectly possible to put right and affordable even in the current economic climate, given due priority. First, as I have said before, I do not believe that the third sector should be exploited to fund men and women who are still serving in the forces. That is the irrefutable responsibility of the Government. Charitable money is desperately needed to support those who have left the services. Every pound that the charities commit to those in service denies help to deserving veterans and their families elsewhere.
Secondly, as others have said far more eloquently than I, there is a compelling case for the retention of the chief coroner. We owe this much to all bereaved families, whether in the services or not. For those who have lost a soldier son, father, mother or daughter in some far-off and unimaginable war, the ramifications of not retaining such a post are extreme.
Thirdly, in no way is it morally defensible to make compulsorily redundant those who have so recently fought for their country. We are not talking about a situation of demobilisation after a major war, as the circumstances are entirely different; nor are we talking about large numbers. As it is likely that the majority of the redundancies from the Armed Forces following the SDSR will be voluntary, we are probably talking about a few thousand being made compulsorily redundant. It is difficult to imagine how these people will feel, having volunteered to fight for their country and having been sent to do so, often several times. Having survived life-threatening battles with their enemies, they return home, keen to remain in service, only to find that an ungrateful Government are kicking them out. This is not the way to show that the nation values such people.
I will finish by saying that the Prime Minister has said that the military covenant has been put at the heart of our national life. Because the principles of the covenant are now part of the law of our land, we have not only an opportunity at this time of remembrance to put these matters right but, I believe, a duty to do so.
My Lords, I believe that this House is hugely indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, for securing this debate and for the quite outstanding way in which he introduced it—emotional but also factual.
I declare an interest as vice-president of the War Widows’ Association, which held a service in Westminster Abbey this morning, supported yet again, as it has been year on year, by the Duke of Edinburgh attending and laying a memorial in the abbey. The members of the association are quite elderly, some of them very elderly, but they were joined today by widows who are very young and have young families. That is a result of the operations with which we in Britain have been faced.
Remembrance and debt are met in a number of ways. We meet them this weekend as a nation in the services that we hold. However, there are a number of other ways. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, year on year, is meeting the debt that we owe to those who have sacrificed their lives. Some years ago I was asked to carry out a review for the commission when it was having industrial relations problems. It affected me very strongly when we visited war graves in different parts of Europe—including France and Italy—and saw, row after row after row, the graves of soldiers who were 18, 19 or 20 years-old. A whole nation of young people had sacrificed their lives for us. We cannot forget that and we must continue to meet the debt that we owe to them and their families.
The military covenant, on which I congratulate the Government, is another way of meeting our debt to those who have sacrificed their lives, those whom they left behind and those who will come after them as well. If the Armed Forces are anything, they are a family; a family of young men and women working, serving their nation together and acting as a family looking after each other in the bad times as well as the good times.
Another way that various Governments have sought to meet the debt that we owe is through the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body. The debate that we are having today is, in many ways, very sombre and respectful, but it is also looking backwards. I think we have to look forwards because you cannot wheel out debt and remembrance once a year every November and come back to it the following November. It is as ongoing as the service that our young men and women give to this nation when they sign up, knowing that they may have to pay the ultimate price—indeed, so many of them have paid it and continue to do so. There has only been one year since the end of the Second World War when our service people have not been somewhere in the world on operations in the name of this country. The role that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body carries out is part of the commitment that we give to our young service men and women. It is independent, and it carries out its work, I would suggest, in a very fair way. I was honoured and privileged to be the chairman of the review body.
The problem that we have with the Armed Forces is that decisions that we reach today impact on their lives year on year, not only when they are in the service but when they are out of it and when they retire. I am looking at the overall terms and conditions under which we recognise part of their contribution—it can only be part of it. I was appointed chairman of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body in 1997. I came to it following two or three successive years when their annual pay award had been staged. Noble Lords might think that is rather mercenary in this debate. It is not, because the cutback in the pay that they had under the then Tory Government meant that at the end of their service their pension was going to be affected every single year until they died. That has a major impact on the pensions of Armed Forces personnel. If they are lucky, they leave the service in their 50s and that is the point at which their pension is based. They come out at a time when it is quite often difficult for them to get another job. Even if the economy is buoyant, they are at an age where, in this so-called ageless society, age is a factor. The pension impact is very important.
Last year, I was not only shocked but appalled to learn of two contradictory statements from the Government about the measures that we are taking as a nation, although I accept that we have to take some others. Initially, the Armed Forces were not going to be involved in the public sector pensions review. Subsequently, we were told that they would be. That decision, particularly if there is a move from RPI to CPI for pensions, will have a significant impact on armed services personnel. It does not meet the covenant that we have reached with our personnel.
Not only that, but this year any member of the Armed Forces earning more than £21,000 per annum received no pay award, which means that we have young lads and women in Afghanistan risking their lives being told that they will not get a pay award. It does not impact on them individually but on their families. Most of those personnel will have young families on whom the impact is substantial. Accommodation has been mentioned. It has been, and still is, an ongoing sore not only in this Government but in the previous Labour Government.
Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, that we each have eight minutes in which to speak. Pensions and pay are two important factors, which impact on our service men and women. In the past year, we have seen a breach of what is referred to as “family harmony” in the Army, but not in the other two services, of just over 10 per cent. That cannot be helpful.
In conclusion, I shall quote paragraph 120 of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body 2011 report. It states:
“We are seriously concerned about the cumulative impact of the overall changes in prospect. Inflation is higher than was expected when the pay freeze was announced, allowances have been cut, and the change in pensions indexation reduces the value of the pension more than other public sector groups. Taken together, these changes pose considerable risks to morale and potentially to recruitment and retention”.
In replying, will the Minister give a commitment to urge the Government to lift the pay freeze and to make sure that we honour the commitment we give to our Armed Forces personnel in regard to their pensions?
My Lords, I wear my poppy with pride, as do many in your Lordships’ House. This weekend, the entire country will observe Remembrance Day and there will be silence for those who gave their lives in the two world wars. Therefore, today’s debate on the eve of Remembrance Day is very important. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, on securing this debate.
It is imperative not only to remember those who sacrificed their own lives to allow us to live in a world of democracy but to teach current and forthcoming generations about this tribulation. Generations have grown up in a country and they do not know its past. They remain unaware that the basic human rights that they expect today are as a result of those who have lost their lives fighting for our rights. History must never be forgotten in case it repeats itself. It should be enshrined for all of us, and we should always remember, that the fruits we enjoy today are products of the selflessness of the millions who gave their lives.
Key issues such as human rights, justice, education and poverty are all deeply connected to our democratic values. However, we must always take the time to remember that the democracy on which our judicial system is reliant today came at the cost of people in other countries. Let us not forget that people from India, the West Indies and Africa, and Gurkhas from Nepal, fought with us and for us in both world wars. At that time there was no Commonwealth; there were only colonies. Soldiers came from all corners of the world. From India alone, more than 1 million soldiers lost their lives.
Unfortunately, war and conflict are not only deeply rooted in the world’s history but are ongoing in our present. The Rwanda and Burundi war literally wiped out hundreds of thousands of people. The international armed conflict in Bosnia took the lives of more than 2 million people, thus making it the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. The Democratic Congo Republic, as with events in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, paid a heavy price in efforts to remove dictatorships.
The war in Afghanistan has created more than 2 million widows in a country with a population of only 30 million. After 30 years of civil war, Afghanistan has one of the highest percentages of widows in the world. A very high percentage of these widows are young, illiterate and have children to support. Providing for their children is a daily struggle, and they are forced into begging and prostitution. With the death of their husband diminishing their economic security, they are placed at the lowest level of society and their human rights are eroded.
The children of widows are invariably forced into the workplace at an early age to help support their mothers. These working children are denied their right to an education. Many are forced to beg like their mothers or to work in factories where child labour abuse is common practice. In some cases, girls are forced into marriage at a young age so that they are no longer a burden on their mothers.
War has an ugly face. Ultimately, people pay a heavy price which cannot be measured in terms of consequences such as poverty, hunger, famine and disease. There are no victors in any war.
I declare my interest as a founder chairman trustee of my charity, the Loomba Foundation, which has been working for more than a decade to raise awareness of the plight of widows around the world who have lost their husbands through conflict. There are more than 245 million widows and 500 million children—one section of the world’s population—who suffer in silence due to their loss. More than 100 million widows live in poverty and struggle to survive, and are often soft targets for murder, rape, prostitution, forced marriage, property theft, eviction and social isolation, as well as physical and emotional abuse. Their children do a lot worse. Statistics show that about 1.5 million children of widows worldwide do not live past their fifth birthday.
The Loomba Foundation is proud that last year the United Nations declared 23 June as International Widows Day, which was initially established by the foundation in 2005. I should like to ask the Minister if the British Government would support International Widows Day and pay our debts to war widows.
It is clear that wars are very destructive. We owe it to those who lost their lives fighting for our rights that their memories are not lost, and we should work towards a future that is not riddled with war and conflict but is a united world. Remembrance Day is an event that should have a perpetual place in our history because there is nothing more worthy than giving one’s life to preserve the values that we hold.
My Lords, my noble friend has spoken very eloquently of the plight of widows worldwide. My own focus, I confess, has been much narrower, as president of the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, a post I am very proud and privileged to occupy.
This morning, I went to the opening of the Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey. That brought home the poignancy of loss. All those plots organised by different organisations, with little crosses stuck in—each representing one lost life. I planted two crosses on behalf of two of my organisation’s members, too frail now in their 80s to come and do this themselves. It was a humbling experience.
During my time as president, I have heard innumerable stories of the difficulties that have faced the widows, who are very often extremely young with young children. They suffer all the emotional havoc that comes from losing a husband or a partner and all the difficulties of bringing up children on one’s own, probably with very little money. That was certainly the experience of many of the women in the Second World War to whom I have spoken.
We have to look long term. I agree that we cannot simply have a November remembrance service and then forget it the rest of the time. It is like those who go to church on Sunday then behave abominably for the next six days. We need to get away from that syndrome completely.
I served on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for 10 years. Like others have mentioned, the sight of all those rows of graves is very intimidating, although they are beautifully kept. One of the great joys of serving on the Commission was seeing how it kept the standards going under all kinds of difficulties, such as modern wars, the encroachment of cities into the former countryside, earthquakes, floods—you name it, all kinds of things which would interfere with the good upkeep of this as a remembrance. The Commission does a wonderful job and it was a wonderful post which I greatly enjoyed occupying.
I thoroughly applaud one of the things it did during my time there. It started to put up plaques showing the historical context in which one was viewing the graves. That was important, as it explains to succeeding generations, for whom this is history, what the graves are doing there. To have some context, I think, is extremely important and fits in with all the other ways in which we can teach young people in succeeding generations about what occurred and how important it is to remember. So I applaud all those who try to make it alive and real for youngsters. I hope very much that the various bodies who are involved in charitable work in any way whatever try to take the message into schools, where people will perhaps understand more readily what is involved in war.
There are also those who are not of the armed services as such, but whom I think we ought to remember. I think of the merchant seamen who often risked their lives in the most appalling conditions to help save this country from starvation and to bring us munitions. Think of the nurses who were operating in terrible conditions with awful wounds to see to, and who themselves were under pressure. This very morning I was standing next to a lady representing nurses and midwives. It suddenly came home to me very much that we owe a great debt to all those who are not from the armed services as such, but whose work is absolutely invaluable in dealing with the whole war effort.
We of course have an immense responsibility, as others have indicated already, towards those who survive war but with great difficulty. I think particularly of those whose minds are shattered by war as well as their limbs. I believe that organisations such as Combat Stress do a great deal of work. We are also much more aware of the long-term difficulties that can be experienced. This is something that I hope the Government will take on board because the symptoms very often do not show themselves immediately. Therefore we need to look long term, as we do for physical injuries. Many people now survive who simply would not have done so but for very advanced medical techniques. I suspect this is a worry that we are going to have for 50 years and more. It is very easy to forget about once the main dangers are over so we need to have a long-term commitment, I think that this is extremely important.
For the last part of my contribution, I should like to consider a rather sore point, touched upon by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker—the issue of the chief coroner. My noble friend the Minister will recall that when we were in opposition, we worked together in order to ensure that such a post existed. There is a certain irony, shall we say, in the present position. I want to believe that we can manage without him and that the kind of work that we expected him to do can be done by other people. But I have a very real worry that if his duties are distributed among others, then it will be nobody’s job. We need a person in this role. If we cannot have a chief coroner, which I would still like, then we need at least a person of repute and sufficient seniority to carry weight. I think that is extremely important and I urge that upon my noble friend. He will recall that one of the reasons why I and those involved in the services wanted this measure, was that military inquests are of a different order from normal inquests. They require a degree of sophistication and an understanding of military facts and ethos. That was developed slowly and painfully for the families of those who had died, but then we had a few coroners with that expertise. I did not want to see that lost, and that was the view of many others involved. Therefore it was felt essential to have a chief coroner with direct responsibility for the training of all coroners, particularly those needing expertise in military inquests.
I continue to think that that is the case. I am hoping for a crumb or two of comfort from my noble friend on this issue. I live in hopes. I think I see a shaking of the head in front of me. Oh, it is a nodding. I will wait eagerly to see what my noble friend says at the conclusion of this debate. I also thank my noble friend Lord Selkirk for giving us this wonderful opportunity to pay tribute, on behalf of the nation, for the wonderful service rendered by our Armed Forces.
I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, as well. It is an opportunity for all of us to express our feelings about this occasion. It is a wonderful thing to be able to do that, we very rarely get a chance. My only sadness was that he did not mention the Indians—more than 4 million of them—who served with the British in two world wars. Since we are remembering people, and thinking of those people who were there with the British in two world wars, we might have thought of the Indians because they were crucial.
I should declare an interest. I am an Indian. I wanted to tell noble Lords about something that happened to me when I was a mayor in 1986. During my mayoral year, I was at the wreath-laying ceremony on Remembrance Day and afterwards somebody asked me, “Does Remembrance Sunday mean anything to you?”. I was very shocked by that. It was the first time that a seed was planted that made me think that people have to be informed of what the Indian role was in the two world wars.
Not only that—my father was a student here during the Great War, and Gandhiji said to the Indian students, “By all means help the war effort but don’t kill people”. So my father became a stretcher-bearer and spent the Great War in Mesopotamia. He never talked about it; my brothers, who were older, tried to ask him questions, but he never wanted to talk about it. I think he had such an appalling time that he did not want to recall it, as many prisoners of war did not. But in view of that, it was even more awful to be asked such a question.
Gandhiji also said, in the Second World War—and this has sometimes not been put across correctly—that we must help the British win the war, because then we will get our freedom. He said that if the British did not win the war, we would not know where we would be. So he actually encouraged Indians to volunteer in the Armed Services during the Second World War.
In the first year there were something like 1.5 million Indians. In fact, it was very interesting because India had a standing army of 150,000. When the British expeditionary force went to France it was outnumbered; it was when the Indian standing army started to come across and join the British that things started to change in France. So it is quite strange to know that India had a standing army of 150,000, and they were sent over as soon as possible to fight in France. Also, there were Indians in Palestine in the First World War.
In the Second World War, Indians were much more important. There were 2.6 million to 2.8 million Indians—there are no clear figures—who volunteered. There are very few veterans left now, but I have spoken to them and they said that when officers came to recruit to the villages, they said, “Join the armed services and you will get your freedom”. This was a great draw for them to join. Some people think that the Indians joined the armed services because of poverty. I am sure that was a factor, but I am pleased to say that it was not the only factor. Their contribution in the Second World War was absolutely crucial. North Africa was the first turning point of the war, and there were huge numbers of Indians there. In fact, we have a German friend whose uncle was posted to north Africa; the uncle told this little boy, “Don’t worry about me—I’m only going to fight the inferior races”. It is interesting to have this handed down from his uncle to him to us. This is how it was—we were considered the inferior races, but we did not do so badly after all. It was a great and important turning point.
The Burma campaign speaks for itself, as 1,250,000 were got together by Field Marshal Slim of whom two-thirds were Indians. I really hope that these things will not be forgotten totally, at least in your Lordships' House, because you care about these matters.
Because of all these things that people did not remember or know, as these memories get older and older, I really wanted to see a memorial to the Indians—but also to the Africans and West Indians. It should really pull at the heartstrings, the fact that West Indians—Jamaicans—were at the Somme. They came all the way to die at the Somme; not only that, but it took them six months to get permission to join the British Army and serve. These are things that we should know about, because the whole immigration after the war is rooted in the war. People forget to connect it. Who came here first? It was the people who had served in the Air Force and the Army.
There were two tyre factories in Southall and, as ever, the managers could not get any British workers. So they went back to the villages where their men had come from in the Punjab and recruited there specifically to work in those tyre factories. It is from that the migration to Southall started—and Southall, as noble Lords know, was full of Sikh people.
Sadly, I do not know whether most of your Lordships have seen the memorial. I hope they have. It is on Constitution Hill, not far from here. The names of the winners of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross are in the pavilion next to the memorial. I hope that people go and look at it and do not just pass through it, as they often do. The sad thing for me has been that we have never had a Prime Minister or a senior Cabinet Minister or anybody come to that memorial. The Queen inaugurated it but, even on that occasion, nobody from the then Government of any seniority came. It is quite interesting that when the Australian memorial was inaugurated, the Prime Minister went. One begins to wonder whether it is a question of kith and kin after all. We all remember the Anzacs and all the dominions, but do we remember the former colonies, which gave a great contribution? I am not sure that we remember them in the same way.
I also just mention that the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, is the only person who has helped and supported us. She honoured us with a dinner, at which we raised quite a lot of money, and she has been twice to the memorial at the ceremony. But nobody else of any note has yet been there, and I invite all of you to visit.
My Lords, every year we cherish a number of bank holidays, whether Christmas, Easter, St George's Day or May Day. They all have different meanings for people and, for some, little meaning at all. They are viewed with varying degrees of importance. However, I believe that there is no one day more significant for us in Britain than Remembrance Day, an annual event for which we do not have a public holiday.
The emphasis on recognising the debt we owe to the fallen, like shifting sands, is moving from a focus on the world wars to more recent conflicts. The Wootton Bassett corteges are tangible evidence of the increased poignancy and recognition in the public consciousness of this.
I therefore thank my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas for securing this debate. It is timely to allow us to reflect this year on the mostly positive news to highlight how we recognise the debt owed to the fallen, but also on seeking to look after—better—those who have been left behind and those who continue to serve. It provides an opportunity today to corral and re-emphasise some key points that have arisen from related debates during this year.
By tradition, a Sunday in November provides a formal period of reflective ceremony for families and friends to remember those they knew so intimately who gave their lives for their country. More tangibly, for those directly affected, it is a time also perhaps for a grim but dignified reflection of their changed lives—on family life which might have been, with absent fathers never bringing up children and wives having to cope with overwhelming challenges. More indirectly, we pause and think of those we never knew, from all conflict zones going back several decades, represented by countless names written in bold black letters, hewn in stone on memorials in the UK and around the world.
In June 2011 the War Widows Association marked the 40th anniversary of its foundation, as has already been mentioned. A moving service held in London allowed those present to honour the fallen and their spouses, and reflect on their bereavements, which have happened not just in the heat of war zones but too often from tragic incidents such as friendly fire or accidents in service. It was also an opportunity, collectively, for the war widows, of whom there are over 30,000 in the UK, to quietly reflect on their successes, including the fight over many years for a pension 100 per cent free of tax.
A debate on the subject of the war widows that same day last June highlighted the need for further improvements to their care and welfare. This included the need for a change to data protection laws, still outstanding, to make it easier for the Ministry of Defence to transfer war widows’ personal information directly to the association. Current registered numbers are low, at just over 3,000 people. The debate further highlighted the need to protect fully a widow's pension. There remains a legacy issue affecting potentially over 4,000 people. If the death of a spouse fell between 1973 and 2005, after which the Armed Forces pension scheme came into force, and the widow subsequently remarries or co-habits, her pension is withdrawn.
Above all, 2011 has seen the contrast between the war in Afghanistan and civilian life at home highlighted in sharp relief. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has already mentioned, the Armed Forces covenant, presented this May and enshrined in the Bill, emphasised the need to have a closer bond between the services, communities and local authorities. It served to reaffirm the commitment between the state and the services concerning the defence of the realm, including the sobering point that those serving in the forces must be prepared to fight unquestioningly, and if necessary be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. As written in the Army doctrine document, this is founded on the highest principles of personal and collective commitment, and grounded in those key values of integrity, discipline, selflessness, outstanding training and unquestioning authority.
In return to those serving, to servicemen and their families, the state commits to deliver on a number of important social, welfare and health principles, with quality benchmarks to include equipment for fighting, family support, housing, education for children and recognition, to name just a few. In stark contrast with these principles, the riots that this country suffered from earlier this year demonstrated the moral and social bankruptcy seen in some parts of our society. People, mainly young, beyond the control of their parents or authority, were wantonly stealing goods from shops because they were tempting and available, all gained under a cloak of protest at government policy. To echo the words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, I find it quite extraordinary that soldiers, some of whom may have come from the same cities and not dissimilar backgrounds to the rioters, have continued to serve in highly dangerous conditions against this background at home but remaining as professional, as focused and as brave as ever. It adds further weight to the debt owed not just to the fallen but to the seriously wounded and to those continuing to place themselves in danger. It is also a testament to the highest quality of selection, training and discipline within our UK Armed Forces. There is progress in tackling these legacy challenges at home—which were partly responsible for the riots—and I applaud the Government for taking strong action in working to effect societal change, including the increase of personal responsibility and the reduction of welfare dependency.
Education also has a role in helping us to understand the debt; my noble friend Lady Fookes has already spoken about this. The sacrifices made are more easily understood in society and in communities and passed down through the generations if history is given a greater priority in schools and is better taught, so that it is more interesting and meaningful. Improved teacher training is under way, placing a greater focus on the background to conflicts and on the linkage to related events. This will help pupils to establish a greater perspective to their place in the world and, we hope, will lead to the engendering of a greater purpose to and responsibility in their lives. As my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford has highlighted, schools should be encouraged to take an interest in adopting local war memorials, to teach pupils about the sacrifices within their communities.
It is hoped that a greater awareness of conflict and the reasons behind conflict, with tangible improvements in our moral standards, in encouraging greater self-help and in giving more help for our fellow human beings in society, will help begin to repay the debt which we will be remembering again in depth on Sunday.
My Lords, I also echo the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, for a beautiful speech and particularly for the beautiful words in relation to memory from Abraham Lincoln. That was beautifully chosen. This is only the third time I have spoken in the House; that is because I am extremely nervous, and because of my incredible sense of gratitude at being able to speak in a free institution in a free country. This is a marvel to behold. I was in a Select Committee this week on a Private Member’s Bill on pedlary. It was said that while the concept of the pedlar may go back to the 13th century, it is not really compliant with EU directives. I wondered what it would be like to subject the House to such a directive. It is wonderful that we have kept the particularity of our traditions and can speak freely on these matters.
We have just had 5 November and Guy Fawkes’s night. That is an example of statecraft, of an attack on the realm that was turned into great political memory. A link was established between the monarchy, Parliament and Protestantism that has lasted for hundreds of years. It seems to me that we have not grasped how to preserve our memory in this country—how to give flesh to the covenant. The covenant is not a contract. The noble Lord, Lord King, spoke of something sacred in the obligation that we owe. This is the third time I have spoken and the second time that I have spoken on the concept of remembrance. The last time I spoke was about Remembrance Sunday, suggesting, with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and my noble friend Lord Davies, that we need a day that we can establish a tradition within. The noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, told a beautiful story about tending the graves of the neglected dead; that could be a beautiful tradition to establish on Remembrance Sunday.
It is also the concept of the generations. I am from a Jewish background: I owe my life to your parents and grandparents. It is not just the people who fought; it is the people who lost family and loved ones, and the way that that has to be endured. They should also be remembered when we think of the defence of the realm. We should have one day a year and use our imaginations as the Tudors and Stuarts used theirs, to create some national memory. Could not schoolchildren visit grandparents? Could not some link be established, so that we can remember our obligations to previous generations and, as my noble friend Lady Dean said, look to the future? If we have no way of remembering the sacrifices, we will lose the memory. Just having a moment of reflection by the cheese counter in Sainsbury’s is not as good as we can do. That is why we should return to the idea of a genuine holiday on Remembrance Sunday, so that we can have a day where we can establish traditions like fireworks night—some way of remembering the sacrifices made in this country and the fact that, alone in the world for a while, we preserved democracy and liberty, against extraordinary odds.
I am something of a radical traditionalist, as some noble Lords may know. I say to the right reverend Prelate that it took a few days for the church to remember what St Paul’s Cathedral meant, but I am very glad that it did. It was completely by chance that the protesters in their tents stumbled upon the site of St Paul’s Cross, the oldest site of democracy in our country, upon which the Corporation of London and this House base our democratic inheritance. It is extraordinary that they discovered it, and now they celebrate it.
This country is a marvel, and it is full of miracles. We need to preserve our institutions and have days and commemorations when we can remember all that is best about our country and that in difficult times we cared for each other, looked out for each other and were prepared to make quiet sacrifices.
I support what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, said about the coroner. The matter of the coroner is of concern to grieving families, and just to put it into the accounting system would be too petty.
In remembering people’s sacrifice, we as a House need to be much more imaginative in thinking of a day when we can remember and the sorts of traditions that we want to see. Fireworks night is now a tradition but it was instituted by Members of this House in order to remember the institution of this House. I urge all of us to think of ways in which we could put aside a day and develop traditions whereby we can remember the enormous sacrifices made not merely by the dead but by their loved ones.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, for securing this debate and for his moving opening speech. I echo his words that it is a privilege to speak in a debate of this sort in this House.
My remarks will follow partly in the spirit of my noble friend Lady Flather. I make the point before I start that it is enormously important to acknowledge the varied nature of the sacrifice that has been made in the struggle to maintain freedom in this country, and that full acknowledgment of that is part of ensuring better relations between different groups in our society.
Ireland provides a striking example. I remind noble Lords that in the case of Ireland there was no conscription in either the First World War or Second World War, so all the sacrifice that was made by Irish people of different traditions was entirely voluntary. In the First World War, nearly 135,000 Irishmen volunteered, in addition to the 50,000 who were already serving with the regular Army and in the reserves in August 1914. Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war, no fewer than three Irish divisions—the 10th (Irish), the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster)—were formed from Irishmen, Catholic and Protestant, who responded to the call to arms. An estimated 35,000 Irish-born soldiers were killed before the armistice in November 1918. Over 4,000 of those died in the 16th Irish Division.
We have grown increasingly free in recent years of that version of the relationship between the two countries in which the only important military event was the Easter Rising, in which 450 people died. I am increasingly aware of the other important context of the sacrifice of Irishmen of both traditions in the First World War. I should add that, in the Second World War, 170,000 Irishmen again volunteered freely in the Allied cause. It is important, and no accident, that the increase in what is called the peace process, but more profoundly in the better relations between the two islands, has been characterised in recent years by an awareness, both in Ireland and in Britain, of the importance of those men and women who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars. That process culminated in the important visit made by Her Majesty to Dublin earlier this year.
I shall say a few words about the Irish who died in the First World War. The first Member of Parliament to die was Arthur Bruce O’Neill, the Unionist MP for Mid-Antrim, who died within a few weeks of the war starting, on 6 November 1914. He had four children and his wife was expecting another. That other child was Terence O’Neill, who became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and a Member of this House. I also happily report that another kinswoman of Arthur O’Neill, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, is in her place. This House has intimate connections with the case of the very first Member of Parliament who died in arms in the First World War.
However, this is not a question of unionist sacrifice alone. Several Irish Party MPs joined up in the First World War. One of the most moving moments in that war was the speech made in June 1917 by Captain Willie Redmond, the brother of the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who had cheated on his age to get in and serve but at the age of 55 spoke to Parliament about what was happening at the Front, in one of the most dramatic speeches in uniform ever given in the other place. He was killed at Messines in 1917. A number of other Irish nationalist MPs—most recently, I think, Stephen Gwynn, who is the subject of a biography published this week by Colin Reid—also served in that war.
These remarks about Ireland, on the importance of acknowledging the importance of mutual sacrifice and the positive role that that has played in recent years, do not apply only to Ireland. That is why the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, were so important. An important book by Shiraz Maher has just been published, Ties that Bind. It reminds us of the sacrifice of Muslims in the First and Second World Wars as they fought alongside the other Imperial and Commonwealth forces. About 65,000 Muslims were killed in Flanders and Mesopotamia alone in the First World War. Similar Muslim sacrifices were recorded in Burma, Italy and north Africa in the Second World War.
The noble Baroness has already referred to the beautiful set of Portland stone gates installed in 2002 on Constitution Hill that acknowledge that sacrifice alongside that of other Commonwealth soldiers. I support the noble Baroness’s words. It is a reasonable request on her part that senior members of the Government should consider attending that place and marking in some way the importance of that sacrifice. She has made a tremendously important point and I support it as strongly as I possibly can.
My Lords, at this time of national remembrance, I would like to use my time to talk about a national loss of memory, rather than of memory. It is a matter of great concern to me because it involves the greatest single loss of life by any of our fighting forces in any single engagement since, I think, the Battle of Hastings. This also involved: a massive failure on the part of the supporting authorities for the provision of equipment; a total failure of duty of care to the widows and families of the fallen; and the insult of today not even recognising it as a campaign in the official histories of the services. Yet—if one can stretch the point, and I have already apologised in advance to the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk—it was important to the defence of this realm, including our laws, reputation and principles of humanitarianism. I am talking about the suppression of the slave trade.
After Wilberforce’s moment of triumph in this House in 1806, there followed a 54-year campaign for suppression. The whole burden fell on the forces of the Navy and the rapidly-developing Marines, who had ceased to be sailing soldiers and at that time were beginning to be proper amphibian forces. Suppressing the slave trade required massive intervention on the waterways surrounding the coast of Africa. There was a terrible lack of accurate intelligence about where they should be and what they should do; and they had no shallow-draught boats with which to fight this battle.
Having won the Battle of Trafalgar, there were no enemies left for the Navy, so nobody was spending any money on it. They were certainly not going to build a fleet of shallow-draught boats to fight with. They were told to take what craft they could get from the southern ports of England, sail out and suppress the slave trade. In the course of doing so, they lost 23,000 people through fatality. For every one killed in battle, another three were lost to the diseases that beset the troops, who had no protection against them.
A total of 23,000 died in a fighting force engaged over 54 years. In doing so, they succeeded in suppressing the slave trade, but they got no help from anybody, least of all from many of the vested interests in Britain. They had to fight in dreadful conditions in shallow water and in villages where local tribes and their leaders wanted the slave trade to continue because they made a fortune. The slavers themselves would wait for the flotillas from England to arrive, then come in behind them and try to attack and kill our forces, because they wanted their vested interest in slavery to continue.
Only after six years did the Navy bother to send out a couple of frigates to try to cure that process, but in the first five years a total of 1,580 flotillas were sent out, of which not one returned intact. The total number of deaths in the first five years alone was just over 11,000. It was an appalling slaughter. Worse still, because it has never been categorised as a campaign, the Admiralty and Government would acknowledge no obligation whatever to the widows and families of the fallen, who became a complete burden on society and were left to drift for the rest of their life—as far as they could eke it out. There was no money spent on equipment and nothing on welfare. If that sounds surprising for 204 years ago, we have a few more recent episodes that could remind us of the same today.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has invited me to join forces with him in forming a committee to erect a monument to the heroes of that campaign and I have happily agreed to do so. He is committed to raising a statue to Mary Seacole, and I have a commitment to raising one to the warriors of suppressing the slave trade. We will work together to do so, though my only argument with the noble Lord is that Mary Seacole rates seven pages more than Winston Churchill in the history curriculum. I am not sure that that is entirely fair. In contrast, the suppression of the slave trade does not get a single paragraph and that is a disgrace.
As we stand today, we need a statue and I have a clear view in my mind about what it should look like. It should obviously carry the image of a heroic warrior at the front, but behind him I want the bodies of a dead wife and children. It would serve as a great reminder to the generations today of the sacrifice that has to be honoured as an obligation. In the immortal words of Nelson, they are a “bequest to the nation” which we must never fail. I am concerned that we do fail, and I have been delighted to hear the comments made on their behalf today. However, we are still not doing enough and I hope that a statue in those graphic terms might help to advance this cause.
My Lords, it is a delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord James. He is absolutely right. We have discussed this at some length and I will touch on that in a moment. One thing that I would add, and what is often forgotten about the loss of life, is that in that campaign more than 200,000 slaves were released and often taken back to Africa when possible. So it is a far more important campaign than people realise.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, and thank him for the help he has given me on the Arctic convoys, which I will talk about in a moment. What I really want to mention are memorials. We think of them as remembering individuals, as they do and should. However, they are also—this is where my views have changed, or developed, over the past 20 or 30 years—an educational process. They teach us about our history—not just the history of Britain but of the world. I will return to that in a moment. It has been touched on to some extent by others.
I want to mention the Arctic convoys because I frequently go to the west coast of Scotland. I have always known about the Arctic convoys and the dreadful conditions in which sailors from both the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy served. Not only were there constant air and naval attacks on them, but if the ice built up to a certain extent on merchant ships they simply turned over. If your ship turned over in that sea, you would die very quickly. I said that there ought to be a museum since there was not one and many people thought that there should be. I was proud to attend recently the 70th anniversary of the Arctic convoys at Loch Ewe on the west coast. I was delighted to learn that people were now trying to fund a convoy museum. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, and my noble friend Lord West, who have both indicated that they will in some way assist, if only in publicity or by lending their names to this group.
Jock Dempster, who is one of the veterans and chairman of the Russian Arctic Convoy Club, was presented with a medal by the Russians who were present. Americans and Canadians were present, as were some of our own people. However, there was very little recognition by the British Government of our involvement in the convoys. There is feeling about that. The Russians cannot understand why we do not remember it. The Russians teach their schoolchildren about the importance of the Arctic convoys. Their children know about it. They also know about it in the Russian ports in the Murmansk area. It is a classic example of an area that we have, somehow or other, allowed to slip from our memory.
There is now a charity that has been set up to build a Russian Arctic convoy museum. If anyone is interested in supporting it, they should look at the website. It is certainly something that I want to support and I have lent my name to it as a patron. It is very important that we remember the Arctic convoys. The charity would also like a medal to be struck for the Arctic convoys. I say to the Minister that I understand the problem of having separate medals for separate parts of a campaign. There is, after all, the Atlantic Star. However, I cannot believe that it is beyond our ability to come up with some additional way to recognise specific campaigns within a larger strategic area, such as the Battle of the Atlantic. The circumstances of the Arctic convoys were quite exceptional and brutal. I ask the Minister to look at ways of recognising that particularly heroic time.
The noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, has anticipated me. I was going to say a bit about the need for something on the slave trade. He talked about the loss of life; I have mentioned the number of slaves who were released. It is important because, as I have said before in this House, it is probably the world’s first example of a humanitarian intervention. As I have also said before in this House, when people rather loosely—and, in my view, foolishly—throw around claims about illegal wars, we must remember that several captains in the Royal Navy were brought before the court, as the noble Lord, Lord James, will know. Appeals were heard in this House, and they were charged with interfering with trade on the high seas and fined for it. That is an indication of how attitudes move. You have to say, “Thank heavens they continued”. That is an interesting aside on our history.
The noble Lord, Lord James, also mentioned the last charity that I want to mention. I declare an interest as unpaid chairman of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, which has been part of my educational process. Back in the 1970s, I was asked by some of the Caribbean people in my then constituency of Hammersmith to help to identify the grave, which had been overgrown, in Kensal Green Cemetery where Mary Seacole was buried. I knew about her background as a Crimean War nurse who was also greatly appreciated in Central America. There were no nurses, as such, then. Florence Nightingale put the nursing profession on the map but it is impossible to see Mary Seacole as anything other than a battlefield nurse. She went out on to the battlefield and looked after the wounded. She was a remarkable woman, who ended up being so popular in the United Kingdom when she returned from the Crimea bankrupt—because she had funded herself by running what was called the British Hotel there—that the troops here held concerts for three days to raise money for her. Troops do not do that unless they have a very positive memory of someone. Yet, by the beginning of the 20th century, Mary Seacole had been forgotten to our history. Both the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who I should thank for being a great supporter of Mary Seacole, recognise that British military history is full of international history, too. The British Indian Army has been mentioned on many occasions; there is Africa and so on. However, the people who alerted me to the grave of Mary Seacole in Kensal Green Cemetery were among the Caribbean people who came over to volunteer in 1939 and very often ended up servicing the anti-aircraft guns. We did not stand alone in 1940, we stood with the empire and dominions behind us and the contribution they made was enormous.
If you walk out into the Royal Gallery, look at Daniel Maclise’s picture of Nelson dying on the flagship and you will see a black sailor pointing up at the Frenchman who shot him. Look to the left of it and you will see what we would then have called Lascar seamen and women tending to the wounded and doing other tasks. The Royal Navy tells me that close to 200 sailors at Trafalgar were of African origin and that 20 per cent of those on Nelson’s flagship were non-British.
The values we defend and fight for are about freedom, democracy and the rule of law and the educational role here of all these things is important. If I succeed in raising funds for the Mary Seacole memorial it will be the first memorial to a black woman in Britain. That is also important. What she did for the military was profoundly important but what she did and still does today in the school curriculum is remind people that our history is not a narrow one, built just in this island alone; it is literally an international history and we rely on that to convey the message about freedom, democracy and the rule of law. I would ask Members to bear this in mind when they look at these charities. They are not just monuments of stone; they are monuments of feeling, of history and of thought.
My Lords, I, too, begin by thanking and congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, on obtaining this timely and important debate and on his masterly and moving introduction. In the wording of his debate, he has provided a possible let-out for the Government to extract themselves from an unfortunate position with regard to the Armed Forces covenant, to which I shall return.
Tomorrow uniquely, at 11/11/11/11, like many others I shall be remembering the sacrifice made and the recognition of it not only by citizens in the UK but in other parts of the world. I would like to draw attention to four of those places.
One lovely morning in early January in 1966, with the remainder of B Company The Rifle Brigade, I went to pay my last respects to the five members of my company who had died or been killed in Borneo and would not be coming back to the United Kingdom with us, knowing that they would be looked after by the Singaporean gardeners from that incomparable organisation, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This has, in fact, happened.
Moving further west, I sometimes lecture at the battlefield of Gallipoli; a place of terrible beauty but also a place of extraordinary magnanimity which I can illustrate by two of the memorials. One witnessed by Lord Casey, later Governor-General of Australia, of a Turkish soldier carrying in a wounded Australian to the Australian lines. Secondly, a monolith beside that extraordinary Anzac Cove, a strip of sand on which the Anzac Corp was landed in error, containing the words of Kemal Atatürk, president of Turkey, who himself gained fame there.
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives,
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country,
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets,
To us, where they lie side by side, here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries,
Wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom, and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land,
They have become our sons as well.”
They are wonderfully magnanimous words. And then I move further west to Hermanville in Normandy, where every year there is a ceremony, started by the French in 1946, with the 3rd Division which landed there on D-day. After has boat has gone into the sea and thrown out a wreath, and the French flags are lowered, a party led by the mayor and the general march to the village, where they are joined by the schoolchildren. In the cemetery, after the British flags have been lowered, the schoolchildren put flowers on every one of the 3rd Division graves. They have done that since 1946.
Finally, I move further west to Ocracoke Island on the coast of North Carolina, where I once went for a memorable weekend. My wife and I thought we had found a snow storm on the ground, but it was in fact a cloud of snow geese in migration. There, when having breakfast before going fishing, the man running the restaurant said, “Have you come to see our cemetery?”. I asked, “What cemetery?”. There are four graves of sailors from HMS “Bedfordshire”, which was a trawler sunk in May 1942, that are looked after every year by the United States Coast Guard; and Her Majesty the Queen is sending a new British flag this year to mark the anniversary.
Those examples show that our dead are acknowledged and recognised all over the world. The Armed Forces community this year was given a huge boost by the announcement of the Armed Forces covenant—an enduring covenant between the people of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Government and all those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces of the Crown, and their families. This covenant is based on trust and goodwill. Each of those three partners has obligations. Among those laid on the Government is,
“special treatment for the injured and bereaved, as proper return for their sacrifice”.
The despicable defiance of the covenants by the metal thieves has been referred to by many noble Lords during this debate. However, to me, much more serious is the continued defiance of the covenant by the Government and, in particular, I name the Secretary of State for Justice in his refusal to appoint a chief coroner—as mentioned by my noble and gallant friend Lord Walker, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble Lord, Lord Glasman. There were long-standing complaints about the failure of the coronial system to serve families up until the passing of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which appointed a chief coroner. The campaign was orchestrated by the Royal British Legion and the charity, INQUEST. Since then, despite the fact that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted for the chief coroner, the Secretary of State for Justice has opposed that appointment on grounds of cost. However, the costs he uses are spurious, grossly inflated and have never been compared with the revised proposals made to him. Furthermore, he has produced no supporting documentation or explanatory calculations of cost-benefit analysis. If the costs were as high as he alleges, the Royal British Legion and INQUEST would share his concerns.
I am saying this not just because this is the eve of Remembrance Day, but because I believe that it would be a tragedy if the Armed Forces covenant was discredited before it was introduced. There is great danger of that happening over the issue of the chief coroner. I ask the Minister to say to the Secretary of State for Justice that it is not too late for him to reflect on the devotion of the Singaporean gardeners, the words of Kemal Atatürk, the actions of the schoolchildren in Hermanville and those of the US Coast Guard in Ocracoke. He should draw back before 23 November, recognising the damage that might be done to the trust in the Government’s honouring of the obligation that they owe to those who pay the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of this great realm of ours.
My Lords, it is always a privilege to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and it is a privilege to follow him in this debate, which was so eloquently and movingly introduced by my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas.
When I went to the Printed Paper Office to obtain the list of speakers, I saw that I was the final Member to speak from the Back Benches, and I wondered whether there would be anything left to say. However, as I have listened to every word in this debate, certain themes have come through.
I could not help but reflect, as I listened—particularly to the speeches of my noble friend Lord James and the noble Lord, Lord Soley—on the historic nature of this place. It was in this Chamber that Winston Churchill made almost all of his great wartime speeches, the Chamber of the House of Commons having been destroyed. As he made those speeches, I know that from time to time he looked up at the statues of the Barons of Runnymede, still above us as we speak today. The historical perspective brought to this debate, especially by the speeches of my noble friend Lord James and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, made me realise that although of course we have focused particularly on the sacrifices of the First and Second World Wars, there have throughout the ages been those who have defended the realm and the liberties of Magna Carta, the very foundation of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country today.
One has only to go to the Royal Gallery—the noble Lord, Lord Soley, talked about this—to see not only the wonderful Maclise mural of Trafalgar but, opposite it, the mural of Waterloo. In 2015, we shall commemorate not only the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta but the 200th anniversary of Waterloo and, for good measure, the 600th anniversary of Agincourt. That gives a sense of historical perspective and belonging. Throughout our ages, the liberties built on Magna Carta and developed through a gradually evolving free Parliament have had to be defended on the field of battle and on the oceans many times by brave, brave men and, more latterly, by brave, brave women as well. We should also remember, in the context of anniversaries, that 2015 will see the 750th anniversary of the de Montfort Parliament.
All that, I hope, gives us a sense of belonging to an institution which is the ultimate bulwark of our freedoms. The noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, and others have rightly talked about the sacrifices made in more recent conflicts. I shall be, God willing, at a remembrance service in Lincoln Cathedral on Sunday—the first time that I have not been in my little village church in Staffordshire, which I left recently—remembering the fallen. In Lincolnshire, we remember particularly the heroes of the RAF, and we shall be remembering two from the Royal Air Force who have recently given their lives, not in conflict but in perfecting their skills.
All of us have our individual and personal memories, which bring alive to us the sacrifices that we are seeking to underline in this Chamber today. I think of a trunk that I opened when my dear late mother died in 2000 at the age of 90 and discovering for the first time that she lost six of her cousins in the First World War—all of her male cousins, I believe. I think, too, of the services that we have had in the village of Enville, where I lived for well over 35 years, where, every Remembrance Day, the roll of honour is read. The Royal British Legion assembles from Enville and the neighbouring, rather larger village of Kinver, and it takes more than five minutes to read the names of those who fell, a number of them from specific families.
All that, as has been emphasised today in notable speeches by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, and others, underlines the debt that we collectively owe and the obligation that we collectively have. I am so glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, in his place, because he made a brief but moving speech. He referred to one thing that I specifically want to talk about now. Earlier this year, we had a Second Reading of the Remembrance Sunday Bill promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity. It is a Bill which I introduced in the House of Commons shortly before I left that House in May last year. I was sad that the then Government obstructed its speedy passage on to the statute book, as I made plain in my speech to this place earlier this year. I was sad, too, that I did not get a more encouraging response from my noble friend who was replying from the Dispatch Box. It seems to me that giving Remembrance Sunday a status equivalent to Christmas Day and Easter Day as a day when the tills stop ringing, when people have a chance to pause and remember, and when, as the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, said, they can be with their families, can do only good. It is a very little thing that we are asking for. It is an extremely modest measure but one that would mean a very great deal to war widows, about whom the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and my noble friend Lady Fookes spoke so eloquently earlier, and to all those to whom the right reverend Prelate referred. I realise that it is not my noble friend’s departmental responsibility but I advised him that I would be referring to this. I hope that he will be able to give a little encouragement and make at least two people—the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, and me—very happy today.
Finally, we have recently touched on the encampment at St Paul’s. I do not want to go into all the details now, as there is not time. There is not a Member in this House who does not defend the right to free speech and free protest, but I say this to those encamped at St Paul’s. Remembrance Sunday is but three days away. Remember that you are not there because of your own actions; you have the freedom to be there because of what generations of men and women have done in the service of their country. Therefore, I hope that, if you cannot pack up your tents and go—which is something that I should like to see—you will at least watch reverently and attentively and do nothing to disturb the solemnity of the day.
My Lords, I have listened very carefully to all the very wise words that have been spoken in all the speeches and I agree with much of what has been said. I have been wondering whether, at my great age of 89, I am the only person in this Chamber who was alive and had a job during the time that we have in mind.
I should like to pay a heartfelt tribute and express immense gratitude to the staff of the Royal Star & Garter home who looked after my wounded husband until his death. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. Their work, thank goodness, continues.
Perhaps I may also mention members of the Home Guard. I particularly do so because my father, who won an MC in the First World War, commanded the Marylebone branch, which included the BBC, Harley Street, Oxford Street and the Windmill Theatre.
Noble Lords may well laugh—they have very good reason to do so. My mother used to go away for one night during the year. Now your Lordships have ruined my entire speech.
The Marylebone area was very heavily bombed and many of my father’s comrades were casualties. Indeed, there were casualties among the Home Guard throughout the war. Its members did a wonderful job; they were brave men.
My Lords, thanks have already been expressed a number of times to the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, for securing this debate and for his opening contribution. Nevertheless, I still wish to take this opportunity to add my own. It is only appropriate that we should be having this debate close to Remembrance Sunday, which the nation observes in the middle of this month because it was on 11 November 1918 that the guns finally fell silent on the western front. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and my noble friend Lord Soley have quite rightly reminded us that it was not just British military personnel who have made such sacrifices on our behalf over the years.
Remembrance Day enables us to commemorate in a very visible and dignified manner the sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice, made in our name by our Armed Forces, both in years gone by and currently by those on active service at home and abroad. In your Lordships’ House, we admire their commitment, their patriotism and their courage, just as do the overwhelming majority of the people of this country. That feeling is reflected, as has already been said, by, for example, the people of Royal Wootton Bassett and in another way by the determination of the Football Association to ensure that the England team should be able to wear poppies during their match this weekend. This feeling is not reflected in the sickening actions of a handful of people who think it appropriate to strip the metal plates from war memorials with the names of those who have given their lives. I share the hope expressed by my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester and the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, that action—if necessary new legislation—will be taken very soon to assist in bringing this despicable practice to an end. This practice is particularly abhorrent to the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group, which does such important and invaluable work in remembering those who have fallen by promoting and supporting the protection, conservation and interpretation of war graves, war memorials and battle sites.
We know that other countries are planning to commemorate the centenary in 2014 of the outbreak of the First World War. I hope that the Government will also be commemorating the centenary in an appropriate and fulsome manner which reflects the significance of the Great War in the history of our nation and the enormous sacrifice that was made by so many. In that regard, I welcome the appointment of Dr Andrew Murrison MP as the Prime Minister’s co-ordinator of the centenary commemoration.
We tend even today to think in terms of men when we talk about the courage and commitment of our Armed Forces. We do not always recognise the major role that women play and have played in the service of our country, a point of which we were reminded in a debate in your Lordships’ House last June initiated by my noble friend Lady Crawley. She asked what steps the Government were taking to recognise the contribution made by women put on active service by the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. As my noble friend said in that debate, and as the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, reiterated today, the women concerned served in occupied France, acting as couriers, wireless operators and saboteurs, working with the resistance movements to disrupt the occupation and clear the path for the allied advance. Needless to say, many of these brave women never returned. For that reason alone, they must never be forgotten.
In the past day or so, we have read in the press about an apparent suicide pact between an Army veteran and his wife who, among other things, were, it appears, struggling financially with very little to live on. Something in that case—for whatever reason—would appear to have gone tragically wrong. However, that is not the norm. We should recognise the contribution being made by many local authorities in the developing community covenants. The service charities also do tremendous work and it is only right that we should express our thanks to them for their work not only in supporting our veterans and their families—not least with the difficult adjustment that some find making the transition back into civilian life—but also for the support they provide for the men and women of today’s Armed Forces.
The welfare of our Armed Forces, as well as the adequate equipping and training of our Armed Forces, is of paramount importance. The previous Government published a Service Personnel Command Paper which was the first cross-governmental strategy on the welfare of Armed Forces personnel, putting the welfare of our Armed Forces as a mainstream policy commitment through all government departments. Among other things, it doubled compensation payments for the most serious injuries; it doubled the welfare grant for the families of those on operations; and, since housing is an issue that has been mentioned today, it led to increased investment in service accommodation. We now have, after a campaign by the Royal British Legion and a political row, the military covenant enshrined in law to ensure that no disadvantage arises from service. I do not doubt that it is the Government’s intention to seek to adhere to the principles of the military covenant, but it will be through their actions, not their intentions, that they will be judged.
There are three issues to which I should like to refer and which I hope the Government will address. The first concerns the Office of the Chief Coroner, to which a number of your Lordships, including my noble friend Lord Glasman, have already referred. The office of the chief coroner has been legislated for, yet it is being abolished by the Government. The Government say that they are concerned about the cost, but arguments that it can be implemented at lower cost have been consistently and resolutely ignored. All bereaved families, and not least bereaved service families, deserve an expert independent coronial system at the most difficult time.
In a letter some 10 days ago to the Minister concerned, the Royal British Legion said that it was mystified by some statements that he had made in the other place some three days earlier. The letter went on to say:
“At this poignant time of year when the Nation pauses to remember, it seems incredible that the Ministry of Justice should be in such a determined rush to take away from those brave families the support they desperately need and so deserve—the Chief Coroner which Parliament, with cross-party support, promised them less than two years ago”.
The Royal British Legion regards this issue of the office of the chief coroner as,
“the first big test of the Armed Forces Covenant since it was written into law and a very important opportunity for the Government to demonstrate its commitment to the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant”.
The Royal British Legion is right.
The second issue is military pensions, which have already been referred to by my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde. The permanent change to a lower rate of indexation will significantly reduce the value of pensions for soldiers and war widows. This year-on-year change will disproportionately affect service personnel because they rely on their pensions at earlier ages than almost anyone else. According to the Forces Pension Society, a corporal who has lost both legs will miss out on £500,000 in pension and benefit-related payments. A 34 year-old wife of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan would be almost £750,000 worse off over her lifetime. These are big figures, and this is a change which does not just apply to the current period of deficit reduction but will continue to apply permanently, stretching way beyond the period of deficit reduction.
The third issue relates to cuts in personnel. In October 2010, when the SDSR was published, we were told that 17,000 personnel would have to go across the three services. As of July 2011, however, we were told that 22,000 would have to go. We need to end the uncertainty about the future size of our Armed Forces and we need to know exactly how many redundancies there will be and where. Uncertainty over cuts and the threat of redundancy does not help morale, and service personnel deserve clear answers to enable them to plan for their own and their families’ futures.
Service personnel make many sacrifices, as my noble friend Lord Parekh pointed out. They are often separated from their families for long periods. They often work in extremely dangerous conditions and situations, risking their lives or facing the prospect of suffering life-changing injuries whether physical or mental. Neither are they able to have the same political or contractual rights that apply in other occupations. For those reasons, they should not be treated like other public sector workers but instead deserve special recognition.
Our nation comes together at this time of year in particular to show its respect and solidarity for and with those who serve and have served, and in particular those who have sacrificed their lives. The noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, has also given your Lordships’ House the opportunity to do just that. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that today’s debate, which I know will be further enhanced by the Minister’s speech, has achieved the objective for which he hoped.
My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Selkirk on proposing this debate and on his very moving speech.
Tomorrow, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—and, for the first time, of the 11th year—we shall mark the moment when the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. I wonder whether our forebears, when they first introduced this mark of respect in 1919, believed that it would last this long, or that a second world war and countless other smaller conflicts would be added to the ledger of remembrance. Indeed, it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place—not just to grasp the sheer horror of the conflict which had just ended, but to appreciate their hope that they had at least witnessed the war to end all wars.
The last survivors of the trenches have passed away, and we know to our cost that war continues to tear nations and families apart. Yet I believe that we still feel a connection to those who fought in the Great War, not because we watch episodes of “Downton Abbey”, but because every family in the land was affected by the conflict. It was truly the nation at war.
Remembrance Day is not just about the First World War, nor even about the two world wars. It marks the loss and debt we feel to all those who have died in the service of their country. Sadly, since the last time the guns fired to mark Remembrance Sunday, we have lost 35 brave personnel in Afghanistan. The world has changed enormously since the trenches of the First World War, and so has this country, and so have its Armed Forces.
What have not changed are the spirit and dedication which characterise our soldiers, sailors and airmen in all that they undertake. This past year, in Afghanistan and over Libya, countering piracy in the Indian Ocean or even walking to the North Pole, they have again acted with courage, professionalism and commitment, and I pay tribute to them.
Remembrance unites our country. The ceremonies at the Cenotaph are impressive and moving, bringing together Her Majesty the Queen and members of the Royal Family, the heads of the political parties, military leaders and Commonwealth ambassadors with thousands of the men and women who took part in the conflicts of the recent and more distant past.
That is only a part of what is happening. Up and down the nation, ceremonies will be taking place and wreaths will be laid, to commemorate local sacrifices and local heroes. In Afghanistan, services will be held, to remember not only the many who have given their lives in the past, but friends and colleagues whose memory is still very real. From the youngest recruit to the oldest veteran, their faces will show the mixture of sadness and pride that sums up the spirit of these ceremonies: sadness that they gave their lives, but pride that they did so in the performance of their duty and in the service of their country.
The poppy is the enduring symbol of this act of remembrance. It symbolises hope as well as memory. Every poppy seller, and every poppy buyer, is doing their bit to ensure that we remember the sacrifices our Armed Forces have made to make a better world, and that we do not forget. This is the season when the work of the Royal British Legion is particularly prominent, but that vital work carries on, every day of the year, to support the living.
The legion and its fellow service and ex-service charities are the channel through which the people of this country express their gratitude and respect for the men and women who have fought for them. The volunteers who form the backbone of these charities deserve our special thanks at this time of year.
As my noble friend Lord Selkirk points out, remembrance of sacrifice is not some optional extra, which is a good thing to do, if we have time. It is a debt, an obligation on all of us, whatever our age and whatever our political persuasion. That is why it is so repulsive to read of war memorials being vandalised to sell for scrap metal. A number of noble Lords mentioned this, including my noble friend Lord Selkirk, the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester—to whom I pay tribute for the really important work he does as chairman of the War Heritage Group—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, and my noble friend Lord Lee. In responding to this issue, I can do no more than repeat what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in the other place on 2 November:
“We are working with the Association of Chief Police Officers to put in place an action plan to deal with this, which will involve looking again at the whole regulation of scrap metal dealers. We are determined to do that to put a stop to this appalling crime”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/11/11; col. 918.]
My noble friend Lord Lee made an excellent suggestion that schools might adopt their local war memorials. As part of their service to the community, members of all Ministry of Defence-sponsored cadet forces are being encouraged to take part in the In Memoriam 2014 project. This involves the locating and logging of the thousands of war memorials across the United Kingdom and marking then with smart water, which enables the metal components to be forensically tracked should they be stolen. It is therefore both helping to tackle the problem and raising awareness of the sacrifices that have been made.
It is also objectionable when groups seek to exploit this solemn occasion to further their own agendas. That is why it is so distressing to read of thoughtless actions, which lead to poppy sellers being treated as a nuisance or a health and safety hazard.
I will say a little about what the Government have done to honour the debt. It takes many forms, but starts from the moment that those who have given their lives arrive back in the UK. This year has seen the return of repatriation flights to RAF Brize Norton, after several years of flying in to RAF Lyneham. During those years, we have seen something quite extraordinary, as the people of Wootton Bassett have come together to show respect for the fallen, in a dignified and solemn way. They never looked for any recognition. However, I was delighted that Her Majesty the Queen was pleased to bestow the title of Royal Wootton Bassett on the town, as a permanent reminder of when it stood for all of us.
The example set by the people of Wootton Bassett placed a spotlight on the new arrangements for RAF Brize Norton. Quite rightly, the nation was concerned that we should get this right. I believe that we have done so. The new purpose-built facilities on the base give the deceased and their families the dignity they deserve. Oxfordshire County Council and the Thames Valley Police have sought to ensure that the route which the hearse takes after it leaves Brize Norton is both suitable for the cortege and gives an opportunity for members of the public to pay their own tribute.
Today will see the repatriation of Private Matthew Haseldin, who was tragically killed in Afghanistan last week. I know that he will be given all suitable marks of respect.
Each death leaves behind a grieving family. Another part of our debt to the fallen is that we should support their loved ones to the best of our ability. Last month, when your Lordships were debating the Armed Forces Bill, we recognised the importance of the inquest process as part of that support. The inquest has a crucial role to play in helping families understand what has happened and perhaps in helping them to come to terms with it. The Ministry of Defence will continue to work with coroners and families to make inquests as effective and valuable as possible. As your Lordships know, the Secretary of State is now under an obligation to cover this topic in his annual Armed Forces covenant report.
Several noble Lords have mentioned the position of the chief coroner. This will of course be debated in this House on 23 November. However, I can address the nugget put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. The Government are clear that urgent reform is required to ensure that the coronial system offers a much better service to the bereaved families of service personnel. That is why we are ensuring that coroners conducting military inquests can access proper, specialist military training and that inquests can be transferred to locations close to the homes of bereaved families. We are also introducing a new charter to set out the clear, enforceable standards that everyone should expect at an inquest. We are appointing a Minister, supported by representative bereaved families, to be in charge of driving and monitoring these much needed changes.
The inquest should and does help bereaved families to come to terms with their grief, but the loss that they have suffered is permanent, with the greatest impact perhaps on children. That is why it is so important that we have introduced scholarships for the children of those who die in active service to enable them to go on to further and higher education.
Honouring the debt to the fallen is the sum total of a host of small actions. It is honoured when SSAFA organises support groups for the bereaved. It is honoured when regimental associations make sure that they keep in touch with the families of the deceased. It is honoured when the Ministry of Defence and other agencies of the Government conduct their dealings in a sensitive and respectful fashion.
Last week the Armed Forces Act 2011 received Royal Assent, and the Armed Forces covenant is recognised in law for the first time. It has signalled the Government’s determination to rebuild the covenant. The debt that we owe to the fallen is an important part of that wider moral obligation to recognise what our Armed Forces do for us, and we will not neglect it.
In this debate about remembrance, it is fitting that I should again draw attention to the contributions of the War Widows Association, as many other noble Lords have done. Of course, my noble friend Lady Fookes is president of the association and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, is vice-president. We had an opportunity to debate its work on its 40th anniversary on 8 June. It campaigns tirelessly and effectively for the widows and widowers of all conflicts, who occupy a special place in our thoughts. I am always impressed by how those who have suffered such a tragic loss are able to turn that loss into such a positive force for good, and I pay tribute to them.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, paid tribute to the work of Help for Heroes, and I echo what he said. My noble friend Lady Fookes pointed out the wonderful work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. My noble friend Lady Trumpington paid tribute to the Star and Garter and the Home Guard. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, made a very eloquent speech about the contribution of Indian troops in both world wars. I assure her that we shall always remember the millions of Indian soldiers who supported us. I was very honoured to represent the Prime Minister last night at the remembrance meeting of Indian soldiers killed in both world wars, and to lay a wreath at the annual ceremony at the memorial gates on Constitution Hill that the noble Baroness did so much to make possible. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, spoke movingly of the contribution in both world wars of the Irish, from all backgrounds.
My noble friend Lord Lee asked whether the Royal British Legion visits schools and can sell poppies. I understand that the Royal British Legion is active in a number of ways to engage with children and schools on remembrance issues. For example, it produces a learning pack that schools can download from its website. It also offers specialist tours to battlefields and cemeteries and its members visit schools.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, asked about the appointment of Dr Murrison, which he welcomed. My honourable friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, Dr Murrison, will act as the Prime Minister’s special representative and co-ordinator for events commemorating World War I. We are aware that a number of Governments, including France, Belgium and, most notably, Australia, are quite well advanced in their thinking. As our own plans develop, we will ensure the proper engagement of all interested parties in the UK and overseas. I very much look forward to keeping in touch with the noble Lord on this important issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who of course is a commissioner of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned the FIFA compromise to let England wear poppies on their armbands on Saturday, which we feel is a very sensible way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, also asked about ID cards. We are working to incorporate a veterans card as part of a new contract for the defence discount scheme. Rollout is planned during next year, but I should make it clear that these will not be formal identity cards.
My noble friend Lord Lee mentioned the National Memorial Arboretum. There is no intention to reduce the current MoD grant in aid to the arboretum. Although it is independent of the Government, we provide it with a grant in aid to defray the costs of maintaining it as a place of national importance of commemoration.
My noble friend Lord Cormack, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, in, if I may say, an excellent speech, raised the Bill to extend Christmas Day and Easter Day restrictions to Remembrance Sunday. I can assure my noble friend that we are consulting with other departments on this issue and within the department.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked about the Arctic convoy medal. The Government have agreed that there should be a fresh review of the rules governing the award of military medals. This will be conducted by an independent reviewer with full consultation with interested parties. The scope of the review and who is to lead it are expected to be announced shortly. This will include the issues surrounding Arctic convoy veterans.
The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, raised Armed Forces pensions. Specific proposals from the Armed Forces have not yet been formulated. Consequently, it is too early to inform service personnel of what the changes will mean for individuals. It is clear that a new pension scheme must be acceptable to service personnel, highly competitive in relation to other schemes in recognition of the unique commitment of the Armed Forces, retention positive in pulling personnel through to key career points and aligned with the development of the new employment model.
On the third point made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, personnel preparing for, deployed on or recovering from operations, such as Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, will be exempt from selection for redundancy unless they apply for it.
Concerns have been expressed by noble Lords about the position of widows who lose their pension on remarriage or cohabitation because they fall into the gap between 1973 and 2005. This reflects the fact that pensions paid to widows under the 1975 Armed Forces pension scheme, where the death was not due to service, cease upon remarriage or cohabitation. This is not the case for survivors’ pensions paid under the 2005 scheme, which are paid for life. I fully understand why this difference appears to be unfair. Nevertheless, successive Governments have maintained the principle that improvements to public service pensions should not be applied retrospectively. Addressing one issue would increase the pressure to address the legacy issues in all public sector pension schemes. This would have huge financial implications and is simply unaffordable.
I am running out of time, but I will address all those other questions I have been asked in the form of a letter.
Remembrance is not just about passive contemplation or private grief. It is about public action—action to look after the living who have suffered as a result of sacrifice, action to ensure that our young people understand their history, action to treasure the values which so many have fought and died for. In the moment of calm when the minute’s silence falls across the nation tomorrow, we should all bear that in mind.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for giving reassurances on many of the subjects which have been raised today, particularly that the matter of the desecration of war memorials will be followed up with vigour in due course.
On the issue of protecting a war widow’s pension, I sense that the mood of the House is very sympathetic to the Minister doing everything he can within the framework of what is possible. On the chief coroner question, it might be a great help if the attention of the relevant Secretary of State could be drawn to what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who made an excellent speech, I very much hope that the memorial gates at Hyde Park Corner commemorate appropriately all those from India who played such a role in the last century—India being the world’s largest democracy today.
The suppression of the slave trade, which the noble Lord, Lord James, spoke about, went on for a very long time. When I was a small boy, I was told that my grandfather, who was a midshipman, had to play a very small role in that. I think that story should be better known because the British and the Commonwealth have been involved in humanitarian projects and objectives on many occasions in the past.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley spoke very well about the commemoration of the Arctic convoys, as did the noble Lord, Lord Lee, on the need for a memorial for RAF Bomber Command, which I hope will be opened before very long.
Remembrance is very important for the families of all those who fell in battle. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, touched upon the role of women. The best way I can illustrate the importance of remembrance is by quoting a very few words claimed to have been used by Leo Marks to contact Violette Szabo, to whom I have already paid tribute, in a wartime code. Violette Szabo’s husband Etienne had been killed during the battle for El Alamein. Violette herself later worked behind enemy lines. In the film “Carve her Name with Pride”, the words were used to symbolise the wartime love and loss experienced by a warrior for a married partner who had been killed. It is really remarkable for its shortness and simplicity. It reads as follows:
“The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have,
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours