HC Deb 19 December 1968 vol 775 cc1699-708

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McCann.]

10.22 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

I rise on behalf of 34 holders of the Albert Medal all of whom are well into their sixties and some of whom are very elderly indeed. I rise, incidentally, on behalf of some 35 hon. and right hon. Members of this House, some of whom have managed to be present on this occasion. I think that all of us are hon. Friends in this regard.

I will briefly and rapidly go through the history of this matter, as it comes to the present juncture which I believe to be unsatisfactory. The medal was established in 1866. It was known as the civilians' V.C. Initially it was founded for saving life at sea but by later warrants of 1867 and 1877 it was extended to Service men and also for heroic deeds done ashore.

The originating warrant said, in the language of Queen Victoria: We are desirous that the Albert Medal should be highly prized and eagerly sought after and are graciously pleased to make, ordain and establish the full Rules and Ordinances for the government of the same, which shall from henceforth be inviolably observed and kept. Then in 1909, when King Edward VII was inaugurating the Edward Medal, it was stated: Before 1907 conspicuous gallantry in civil life could be recognised by the high but rare distinction of the Albert Medal. The Albert Medal remains the reward for acts of the highest devotion and courage in civil life. His Majesty's purpose in establishing the new medal is to provide recognition for action of exceptional bravery in dangerous callings, which, owing to the rarity of the award of the Albert Medal, might otherwise have been unrecognised. In 1923, the Board of Trade Journal said, on 8th February: As the Victoria Cross is the first of all British decorations for self-forgetting valour in the face of the enemy, so the Albert Medal is the first of all British decorations for self-sacrifice in saving, or attempting to save, life by land or sea. The standard of personal heroism which it recognises is the highest possible, and the measure of the sacrifice of self is the improbability of individual survivance. The Albert Medal, following the precedent of the Victoria Cross, is sometimes awarded posthumously, and is then presented by His Majesty personally to the next-of-kin. A man may die in the winning of it, and always before he can win it must have looked very closely into the face of Death. These words make the intention absolutely clear. It ranked with the Victoria Cross at investitures and at Coronations, even at the latest Coronation in 1953, and this is as intended.

So far, so good, but meanwhile things had happened which has led to a con fusion, if not a spoiling of the high honour that is in this medal. In 1922 King George V instituted the Empire Gallantry Medal, which was for great but rather lesser herosim, as is shown by the fact that it was awarded twice as frequently.

For instance, in 1930 H.M.S. "Devonshire" had a tremendous turret explosion, and Marine Streams and Lieut.-Commander Maxwell-Hyslop, the father of an hon. Member of the House, went into the turret while the cordite was still burning, and were helped there after by Midshipman Cobham and Able Seaman Niven. These four were all decorated. Marine Streams and Lieut.-Commander Maxwell-Hyslop received the Albert Medal and Midshipman Cobham and Able Seaman Niven received the Empire Gallantry Medal.

Since this period a steady decline has set in, and I will instance it as it occurs. In 1940 the George Cross was instituted by King George VI, and the holders of the Empire Gallantry Medal were ordered to exchange their Empire Gallantry Medal for the George Cross. Some demurred because it appeared to place their otherwise junior award senior to the Albert Medal. In 1949 something happened which has never yet been fully disclosed. I am informed that there was a private letter from the Prime Minister to the Home Office and to the Admiralty, dated 27th November 1949. I do not know what was in it, or anything about it, other than that it exists; but I quote from a book called "Orders Medals and Decorations in Britain and Europe" of 1967, written by Mr. Hieronymussen, which is a strangely foreign-sounding name, in which he says in the section on this medal: In November 1949 King George VI gave orders for the cessation of the Albert Medal in gold, and the restriction of the award of the Medal to posthumous cases where the standard of gallantry was not up to that for the posthumous award of the George Cross, but was nevertheless of a very high standard. Here is the first consciously announced slipping of the standard of the Albert Medal below that of the George Cross.

In Major Laurence Gordon's book "British Orders and Awards" of 1959, there is a passage which reads: The most extraordinary thing about this medal is, in my opinion, the low position it holds in the order of seniority of awards for bravery. Indeed, the orders of its precedence show a great reduction in its standing, as far as I and the holders of the medal can see.

The 1963 edition of the book, "Ribbons and Medals" by Taffrail, 1916, shows the order of wearing ribbons and medals. It shows the order of wearing which is not necessarily, he says, the precedence conferred by the statutes. The Victoria Cross is shown first, the George Cross second and the Albert Medal thirty-third, after the Order of St. John.

Another book which is a standard reference work, "Titles and Forms of Address," under the heading "Order of Decorations and Honours," shows first the Victoria Cross, second the George Cross and fortieth the Albert Medal, after the Royal Red Cross (Class II). These seem to me to be very serious presumptive downgradings of this medal, and the matter was brought to a head in 1965 when the George Cross holders got the Victoria Cross annuity, and went to reunions and other functions in common with Victoria Cross holders, but Albert medallists were no longer included.

Many of us have been pressing for a reinstitution of the honour implicit in the Albert Medal, and since 14th November last the Prime Minister has been good enough to agree that the annuity should be bestowed on them. This is admirable, but three out of the three holders who wrote to me there after offered to decline the money be cause the slight remained on them. The Prime Minister said on that occasion that he thought it was not fitting or helpful to discuss the status. I believe that it is most fitting and very helpful to do so, because the present situation is unfair to them, and unwarranted, be cause where is the warrant? There should be a warrant amending the original warrant of 1917 which is still in force. There is no warrant, and this matter has to be put right.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) has, unfortunately, been taken ill, and is not able to take part in this debate. He had a number of points which I should like very much to have been able to address to the House on his behalf, but I shall not have time to do so. I think that all hon. Members know of the active and zealous part which my hon. and gallant Friend has taken in trying to right what I believe to be a wrong.

I repeat that 35 right hon. and hon. Members have approached me on this matter, and I ask the Government to do the big thing. If the Empire Gallantry Medal is equal to the George Cross, the Albert Medal is a greater decoration than either. Will the Government recommend to the Crown the exchange of the Albert Medal for the George Cross also? It would set an end to any of these tricky and awkward situations affecting people who are now much too old to take any action on their own behalf. If that cannot be done, for reasons of which I am not aware, could the Government instruct the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Awards to inquire into these anomalies, because I believe that they have to be put right.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. James A. Dunn (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I take great pleasure in acknowledging the Parliamentary comradeship which exists in the campaign which has been waged on behalf of the holders of the medal. It is true, as the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) said, that within the ranks of those who hold this award there is a depth of feeling about its status, and each time I speak to those who hold this medal it becomes clear that they would like to see the restoration of the status to what they understand it to be.

It would be wrong if I did not immediately acknowledge to my hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate, and to my right hon. Friends and the authorities who may have to decide in the final analysis on the representations made tonight, that the problem is a difficult one. To measure the courage and sacrifice of individuals is a task which I should not like to have imposed on my self, and I say in all sincerity that the intention is not to impose the task on my hon. Friend, or on his right hon. Friends, either.

There is this genuine feeling that this award for gallantry has been down graded, and I use that word advisedly, because that is the word that is constantly used, even though in a letter dated 1st December, 1966, the Home Secretary wrote to the Chairman of the Albert Medal Association: … for the past 17 years we have been using the Albert Medal for a purpose which equates it with the George Medal and that the award was confined to those cases in which the standard of gallantry was not up to that required for the posthumous award of the George Cross. I ask the Government to refer this matter to the Standing Committee and to let the Committee deal with the anomalies which we think have been created. One thing is certain: this is a band of honourable and gallant gentle men who, by the very nature of things, is diminishing in number. The award will probably never be made again to any person who is still alive, and the gallantry can be recognised by another form of honour, as has already been indicated. I urge my hon. Friend to take this matter to the Standing Committee, because the problems which we posed to him are most difficult. I hope that his sympathetic understanding and encouragement in the representations made to the appropriate Committee will be helpful in the finalisation of this problem.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take a minute of the time of the House, with the permission of my hon. Friend, who has kindly agreed to make it possible for me to have this chance to support what was said by the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett). I underline some of the words which he used. He said of the medal that this is a high and rare distinction which has been awarded to men who faced danger with the improbability of survival. There can be no higher sacrifice than this—that gallant men should take action which for all they knew would lead to their certain death. This medal cannot be regarded as a decoration which has a lower status than that of the George Cross.

I hope that my hon. Friend will convey to his right hon. Friend the feeling of the House that we ought not to be hasty in our judgment and that we ought to reconsider the status of the Albert Medal. The hon. Member put forward what I think is a satisfactory solution—that holders of the Albert Medal should be able to exchange it for the George Cross. Then, I think, these gallant old men would feel that their medal was given the status that its original donor intended it to have.

10.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Elystan Morgan)

I very much hope that the House will not think me churlish or unchivalrous when I say that I am rather sorry that the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) has chosen to raise this subject on the Adjournment. The Government do not consider that by so doing he has per formed any service to that very gallant body of men, the holders of the Albert Medal, whose interests he and my hon. Friends so sincerely represent.

Of course, the matter which they have at heart is one of recognition and not of financial reward. The Government have never thought otherwise. That recognition has already been amply given in the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 14th November in a Written Answer to a Parliamentary Question by the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish). That reply was to the effect that annuities previously reserved for holders of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross were to be extended also to surviving holders of the Albert and Edward Medals. I impress the point that that is a very exceptional mark of recognition and one which might well have been allowed to speak for itself. I plead that there is nothing to be gained, either in dignity or in good feeling, by attempting to refine upon it or to press the standards of comparison further than they can reasonably be taken.

The Albert Medal is unquestionably an award of great distinction, given, as has been said, to men who have, in effect, given their lives and, by some freak or fluke of fortune which they had not calculated, had those lives returned to them in some cases, and in others not. It is, as we have heard, one of the earliest gallantry awards to be instituted. It was established more than 100 years ago for gallantry in saving life at sea, only a few years after the Victoria Cross, and it antedates the George Cross by nearly 75 years.

With the passage of time there have been many changes, as one would expect. First, the Albert Medal, which was in two classes—a gold and a bronze award according to the degree of gallantry—was extended to the saving of life on land as well as at sea. Then certain more specialised awards, such as the Edward Medal for gallantry in the mines or industrial employment were separately instituted. Other changes were made on, or following, the introduction during the last war of the George Cross and the George Medal.

As we have heard, since 1949 only the bronze award of the Albert Medal has been retained, and that for posthumous grant, in circumstances in which the George Medal, which cannot be awarded posthumously, would otherwise have been recommended. It is part of the argument of the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham that what happened in 1949 represented a downgrading of the Albert Medal. It was not a decision that was challenged at the time. Nor is it a challenge that I propose to take up tonight. For reasons I shall explain, all comparisons of this kind are fraught with the greatest difficulties; and all the surviving Albert Medallists, on whose behalf hon. Members have spoken, received their awards before 1949.

The intrinsic merit of a gallantry award cannot, of course, be judged by the date on which the Order was first instituted, and judgment of the relative standing of an award becomes the more hazardous with the increase of specialist awards of various kinds. Taking the position as it was before 1949, comparisons between the Albert Medal on the one hand and the Victoria Cross and the George Cross on the other are, in the strictest sense, impossible because the Albert Medal was a two-class award and the others have always been in a single class only.

I suspect that the memorandum from which the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham read on the part of the Board of Trade referred to the Albert Medal in gold, and that there was no statement as to the Albert Medal in bronze in that connection. Thus, the question in regard to the junior class of the Albert Medal, in bronze, must obviously be rather more doubtful.

It is perfectly true, as the hon. Gentle man said, that in 1940 holders of the Empire Gallantry Medal were required to exchange their awards for the George Cross, and that the Albert Medal was always regarded as at least equivalent in merit to the Empire Gallantry Medal, to which it was senior in precedence. This was a consideration which the Government had very much in mind in deciding to extend annuities to surviving holders of the Albert and Edward Medals.

However, it is not in itself conclusive of the question which the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham has raised. The short answer to this whole issue is that there is not a pattern of tidy logicality to the question of precedence as between one award and another. As long ago as 1943 the Advisory Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, while placing the Albert Medal in gold in the very highest class of gallantry awards, along with the Victoria Cross and the George Cross, equated the Albert Medal in bronze with the George Medal and not with those higher awards.

Dr. Bennett

I cannot check it, for I have not the papers with me, but are we to assume that the Albert Medals given simultaneously with the Empire Gallantry Medals were always gold and would be superior to the Empire Gallantry Medal which is now the George Cross?

Mr. Morgan

No; awards in both classes were made. There was not a great deal of doubt up to 1940, but events since then have caused the issue to be clouded. There was no down grading in 1949 but the application of a standard which had been accepted six years earlier. Also, in 1940, the George Cross was placed next to the Victoria Cross and before the Orders of Chivalry in precedence and order of wearing, while the Albert Medal retained its previous position immediately following the Orders of Chivalry.

Obviously there have been inconsistencies in all this, which is not at all surprising in view of the difficulties of comparison which I have explained. They were created at different periods, created in the first instance for gallantry in different circumstances, and they were created by different monarchs. The merits can be argued both ways and every way, but to attempt to do so now can be only damaging, which in this field would be particularly deplorable. Surely hon. Members can accept that the Government have now done justice to these brave men and that it cannot in the least help them, or the holders of other awards, to traverse the whole of this disputable ground again. There comes a stage when this argument can be only demeaning and that stage has now been reached.

I ask hon. Members to believe me when I say that there are doubts which cannot be fully resolved and in refusing to pursue the comparison as suggested the concern of the Government has been to avoid in any way diminishing the value of the recognition given to all holders of the Albert Medal, without distinction of class, in the statement recently made by the Prime Minister. It is precisely because the Government have the best interests of Albert Medallists at heart that they intend to leave that statement on the record unqualified as it is without being drawn on to more uncertain ground which might give rise to qualifications.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.