HC Deb 19 April 1995 vol 258 cc312-20

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

10.21 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I am delighted that my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces is present. I am sure that, like most if not all hon. Members—including me—he has for some time been receiving invitations to attend events in May, and the rest of the summer, to commemorate the end of the second world war both in Europe and over Japan. Last year, many of us attended commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

When victory finally came 50 years ago this year, all involved knew that they had been part of—to use General Eisenhower's words—a "great and noble undertaking". Countless thousands of men and women were rewarded for their part in that noble undertaking with campaign stars and medals that were richly deserved; but in the immediate aftermath of the war, many looked not back at what had been but ahead to what might be.

They naturally wanted to turn their backs on six years of war, and return as swiftly as possible to civvy street, to try to pick up the pieces of their former lives, and perhaps shut out the terrible experiences that many had been through. No blame should attach to those who did not apply for medals at that time: I believe that they were, and are, just as entitled as those who claimed them.

Many sailors, soldiers and airmen did not claim the medals they had won for their part in the campaign that led to victory in the years immediately after the war. As the years rolled on, however, they began to put matters into perspective; the achievements of the war years came home to them, and pride in what they had done gradually began to surge in their veins again. Younger family members began to take an interest in what their fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts had done to help bring about victory. More years passed, and grandchildren began to ask the same questions.

One such is my constituent Mr. Tony King. He first came to me with his claim for a war pension. He served in the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards from 1942 to 1946, as a tank driver and latterly as a crew commander. Regimental history tells us of an action on the evening of 2 September 1944, when there was strong enemy resistance around St Pol. The regiment was ordered to carry out a night march around the right flank, and to cut the roads leading east from the town.

During the morning of the following day, regimental headquarters was shelled—and that is when the incident to which I shall refer occurred. A high-explosive shell exploded near to my constituent, killing an officer standing beside him and wounding 14 others, including Mr. King. After prolonged hospital treatment, he returned to his regiment on the River Maas and, finally, was discharged in December 1945.

In part, the problem with his war pension resulted because of asbestos contamination in the storerooms in which the records were kept. Incidentally, a seven-days-a-week operation was carried out at the time to clear up the storerooms, so Mr. King's records were and are readily available. His claim for a war pension was finally accepted in April 1994, in good time for the 50th anniversary of the actual incident I have described. It was granted on the basis of hearing loss, anxiety and depression, and shrapnel wounds to his head, upper back and left leg.

Only last year, Mr. King took an emotional trip back to northern France to retrace his wartime exploits. His four grandsons had already begun to take a keen interest in his war record, so, like many others, Mr. King made a belated request for his medals so that he could wear them with pride during this year's commemorations.

He was able to furnish the Ministry of Defence with copies of forms relating to his release from active service, together with his pension reference number, so it was reasonable for him to assume that his right to the medals would be established quite simply and the medals duly issued. Failing that, Mr. King simply wanted confirmation of his right to the medals, so that he could wear miniature replicas at the ceremonies—not, most people would believe, a difficult request. That happened in January.

Mr. King's letter to the MOD was swiftly acknowledged, but it was a great disappointment. He was told that, along with hundreds of other veterans applying for medals, he would have to wait 12 months before they could be processed. The letter said:

In recent years there has been a considerable upsurge in belated claims … to as many as 1,800 a month … Every effort is being made by the small team involved in the issuing of Second World War medals to speed up the processing of claims. I took up the matter with Ministers at the MOD in early' February, and received a reply from Lord Henley. He said that many people had chosen not to apply 50 years ago, and that the increase in applications had inevitably added to the backlog in processing such claims. He also referred to the asbestos contamination problem, which I have already mentioned.

He said that, currently, the delay in issuing Army medals is about 12 months, although, if the claimant was seriously ill, priority would be given. He said that some additional staff had been recruited. The letter continued: The increase in applications for campaign stars and medals places a heavy burden, not only on the staff working on these claims at the Army Medal Office, but also on those who are responsible for locating individual personnel Service records". Finally, my hon. Friend the Minister answered a parliamentary question on the same subject on 15 March.

Of course it is absolutely right that checks should be made. We cannot have people walking around at these ceremonies wearing medals to which they are not entitled. However, I have two major criticisms of the approach adopted by the MOD in its correspondence with both my constituent and myself. First, it seems to have been taken by surprise by the rise in demand for old campaign medals as we approached the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. But even if that is reasonable, there was a similar blip last year, coming up to the 50th anniversary of the D-day landings.

My second major criticism is that I do not accept that more could not have been done to deal with the problem. It seems to me that there was a total failure to see that this year's commemoration ceremonies would be the first and, in some cases, sadly the last opportunity for some of the world war two veterans to take part and wear their medals with pride.

What is the point of priority treatment for the seriously ill, who of course are every bit as deserving of the medals as anyone else, when it is the fit and well who wish to parade in this special year? It is true that some additional staff have been recruited, but clearly it was not enough. I was told that new staff would have to be trained to process medal claims and that that would take time, but how complex can the training be?

It is not easy for veterans who claim their medals, such as my constituent, Mr. King, to understand why it takes so long to process these legitimate claims. Most of them can produce detailed evidence to show that their claims are genuine. After all, the records proved only a little while earlier that Mr. King was entitled to his war pension. I understand that the medals were cast in sufficient numbers to satisfy the demand. It should not be beyond the wit of man, let alone the MOD, to devise a temporary system to satisfy the claims of the brave men and women for whom this year is such an important milestone.

We are fortunate in Britain to have a large, dedicated number of men and women working in the civil service, but, with respect, this problem shows the British civil service at its worst.

It has been suggested that some of the veterans could borrow medals from other people. Despite the kindness of such an offer, perhaps from a widow, it is not the same as having one's own medals. Exactly the same argument applies to the suggestion that I have heard, that second-hand medals can be bought across the counter. The stars and medals have little intrinsic value, but they are the outward and visible sign of the courage of those who wear them and the gratitude of those of us who come after.

In conclusion, could I tell my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister what I am realistically asking for in the debate tonight. I have been pressing the issue for some time in correspondence and in a parliamentary question. I began to apply some time ago for an Adjournment debate. I have already said that Mr. King first wrote to the MOD back in January.

It is obvious as we debate the issue this evening that there are not many working days left until VE day. I look for an assurance this evening from the Minister that far greater energy and priority will be put into the project. It is clear that we should try to do as much as we can by VE day, but let us at least set ourselves the target of clearing the rest of the backlog by VJ day in August. It is time to end this medal muddle. The problem will not be. repeated.

Many of us go to remembrance day parades and so on every year. We often sing on such occasions the famous hymn with the words: Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away". I sometimes wonder whether there is an attitude in some parts of the civil service that this is a problem that will go away, because many of the veterans are becoming elderly and infirm.

In some cases, it will, sadly, be our very last chance to show our gratitude to these men and women. I do not mind if a few civil servants lose some sleep, or even earn some overtime, in the process. It is little enough compared to the many hardships endured by veterans such as my constituent Mr. King. Lastly, I ask that, on this issue, the MOD show some of the "can do" spirit that Mr. King and so many other young men and women showed 50 years ago.

10.34 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) securing this very important debate, which focuses attention on our second world war veterans, on the extremely powerful and persuasive way in which he put his case, and on the way in which he has represented the case of his constituent Mr. King in respect of this claim for some considerable time.

As you will know, with your constituency interest, Madam Deputy Speaker, this year is especially important as we remember the almost unbelievable efforts and huge sacrifices made by those who fought and died to maintain the freedom of this country and our independence 50 years ago this year. As the House knows only too well, the Government and the nation fully recognise the immeasurable debt that is owed to all ex-service men and women who took part in the conflict.

I hope that they will feel that that debt will be well demonstrated by the breadth and scope of the events that are being planned throughout the country to commemorate in a fitting and dignified manner victory in Europe next month, and victory over Japan in August.

The plea that my hon. Friend has made so powerfully this evening, and all that he has done on behalf of his constituent Mr. King, will readily find much sympathy within the House and wherever this debate is reported, but I regret that the solution that my hon. Friend seeks is not' as simple as he or I might wish, as I know he will realise.

Since the battle of Waterloo in 1815, campaign service in the armed forces has been recognised by the institution and award of medals and ribbons, which have been issued to all eligible service men and women without charge.

Following the cessation of hostilities in 1945, a number of medals were proposed for service in world war two, and were approved by the sovereign for issue to those who took part. The first medals were available for issue in 1948, and all those still serving in the armed forces were issued with their medals automatically.

By 1948, however, many of those who had served in the war had been demobilised. Many had changed their place of residence after leaving the armed forces, or had emigrated, and consequently were impossible to locate, despite, in many cases, the most strenuous efforts. As a result, it was not possible to issue all awards automatically to those entitled to receive them.

Responsibility for the issue of second world war medals was transferred in 1950 to the single service Ministries. That included the Army Medal Office, to whom the lion's share of the task of issuing war medals fell, and with which my hon. Friend has been having correspondence and dealings, via my noble Friend the Lord Henley.

Unlike the first world war, when medals were automatically issued to enlisted service men, following world war two, all ranks had to apply. To ensure that as many individuals as possible were aware of that, a very extensive advertising campaign was undertaken by the Government of the day.

For many reasons, there was a steady trickle of claims. However, for a larger variety of reasons, many people chose not to apply for their medals. In more recent years, many ex-service men and women have been inspired to claim their medals as a result of the large number of second world war anniversaries and commemorative events, which will come to a climax this year, the anniversary of VE and VJ days. That is precisely the position in which Mr. King, my hon. Friend's constituent, now finds himself.

My hon. Friend has asked why we cannot do more to speed up the issue of the medals, and I should explain a little of the background and the steps that we are taking to do what we can to speed it up, as my hon. Friend rightly wants.

First, the charter of the Army Medal Office—and, indeed, the Navy and Royal Air Force Medal Offices—is to undertake the award and issue of all medals, that the first priority is rightly the issuing of medals to those who are still serving, as their medals are an essential part of their uniform and are recognition of their current service. Despite that, considerable efforts are made to deal with both categories equally.

It is not always appreciated that the assessment of medal entitlement for past service, which may have been some years ago, is a skilled and precise task, and cannot be done as speedily as we and my hon. Friend would naturally wish. To ensure that claimants receive their full, just and honourable entitlement and, equally important, to ensure that medals are issued only to those who meet the strictest criteria, an individual's personal file must first be recovered from very extensive historical archives.

That information is then compared with both the orders of battle, detailing the various ships, squadrons and units involved in particular regiments, operations and campaigns, and the regulations and qualifying conditions for the various campaign stars and medals, to determine that a medal claimant receives those stars and medals to which he is entitled. Considering the age of many service records, it is something of a feat in itself for the staff of the medal offices to retrieve all the appropriate information.

My hon. Friend will realise that all files dating back to the second world war are manual records, and although there might be some superficial attraction—clearly, in the case of this debate and this year, there would be a superficial attraction—in transferring them to a modern, computerised database, there are some 25.5 million records, only a small proportion of which are ever considered generally for pension or medal purposes, as Mr. King's have already been looked at for pension purposes, thanks to my hon. Friend's intervention. Moreover, such an exercise would be prohibitively expensive.

None the less, substantial computer support has been purchased for the medal offices and is being introduced to deal with routine correspondence, but the majority of that work, and the most complicated and time-consuming part, must still be carried out manually on a case-by-case basis after the most thorough and detailed research.

To give the House some idea of the scale of the work, on just the applications for medals from Army veterans of world war two, the Army Medal Office processed more than 24,000 cases last year. That is all the more remarkable, as staff could not access the Army records centre files from May 1993 until February 1994, due to the fact that archives had to be closed for health and safety reasons, so that asbestos dust contamination could properly be removed by specialist contractors for the safety of those working there.

Although the inevitable backlog of applications that resulted from that closure was cleared very quickly by the exceptionally hard work and expertise of both staff at the archives and the Army Medal Office, to whom I pay a warm tribute tonight, first-time applications, of course, continued to arrive.

Not surprisingly, the general interest shown by the media in last year's wonderful commemorative events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings resulted in a fantastic increase in applications for campaign stars and medals. I want my hon. Friend to be wholly reassured that the most proper and regular contingency plans were prepared in anticipation of such a surge in interest. The need to clear the backlog caused by the closure of the Army's archive has, however, inevitably added to the delay in processing such claims.

Unfortunately, even by working what my hon. Friend rightly said they should work—substantial overtime—the Army medal office cannot keep up with the number of claims that it has received, which are running at around 2,000 per month.

My hon. Friend suggested that extra staff should have been established to deal with that. While appearing attractive, the reality would be that, to divert experienced people away from their detailed, primary and urgent task to train new staff would have been self-defeating, and would also be at a time when my, Department rightly aims to reduce expenditure on support organisations. In general, that policy commands my hon. Friend's support.

I wish my hon. Friend and his constituent Mr. King to be reassured that medal applications are being processed as quickly as humanly possible. We should not lose sight of the fact that Army Medal Office staff, for example, have managed to process nearly 8,500 applications in the first three months of the year—many of which involve two or more medals—which is well above what they would normally, under any reasonable circumstances, be expected to achieve.

With first-time applications still arriving on a daily basis, barely weeks before the planned commemoration events, I am afraid that it is entirely inevitable that some veterans will be disappointed. By working at the rate that they are, however, medal offices are continually eroding the backlog, and all staff at the three service medal offices are working regular and substantial overtime in an effort to ensure that as many veterans of world war two receive those medals before the VE and VJ day celebrations, when they will clearly wish to wear their decorations with pride.

Despite all those efforts, we of course accept that all claimants for world war two medals, who are of advanced years and mainly retired from full-time employment, feel that their time is running out, as my hon. Friend, in a most moving conclusion to his speech, rightly said. The vast majority accept, however, that, as they and a great many of their former colleagues have waited 47 years to apply for their medals, there will be an inevitable delay before they receive the medals that are due to them. Many veterans have written letters of the warmest gratitude, often expressing profound surprise that medals for service performed so many years ago are still available.

My hon. Friend rightly and understandably suggested that we should perhaps give priority to veterans who will be able to attend this summer's commemoration. We consider it of primary importance. We are at pains at all times to maintain that all claims are dealt with equitably and fairly. We think that it is only right that they are dealt with in turn and order of claim, the only exception being where a claimant can show proof that he or she is facing a life-threatening illness or condition. Such cases, however, are rare.

With the degree of interest in the forthcoming events to mark the 50th anniversary of the second world war, and the focus on the events and achievements of half a century ago, it is not surprising that many thousands of veterans of that conflict have decided to apply for their medals, prompted by memories and stirred by images of those sacrifices and of the service that they gave many years ago.

Although millions of people have applied for and received their awards since their institution in 1948, many individuals, for understandable reasons of their own, have chosen not to claim them until now. The tremendous influx of applications, numbering, as I said, more than 2,000 a month, has created a temporary backlog of cases that no amount of manpower or equipment could possibly resolve. Although the staff of the medal offices are working flat out to ensure that as many veterans and their families as possible receive their medals, I am afraid that, as I said earlier, some disappointment will be quite inevitable.

On the detail of the case which was raised so formidably by my hon. Friend, I understand that Mr. King joined the Royal Armoured Corps in March 1942, following three years in the civil defence service in Bristol as a cycle messenger. He served with the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards—the Skins—and no finer regiment exists in north-west Europe. He was discharged after being wounded on 28 December 1945. He and I have one thing in common: we were both trained as boy soldiers at Bovington.

Although Mr. King could have applied for his medals at any time in the past 50 years, it is perhaps unfortunate, although perfectly understandable, that he did not apply until 26 January this year. I am pleased that, even under the exceptional pressure, he nevertheless received a reply within four days from the Ministry of Defence. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out.

I am afraid that that is, regrettably, a typical case and, although Mr. King will receive those medals to which he is properly and honourably entitled after his gallant war service, it will simply not be possible for us to process his application any faster than the many other applications that are being dealt with currently.

Before closing, I remind my hon. Friend, if he needs reminding, that the giving and receiving of medals has always been an emotive subject. Winston Churchill, when Prime Minister, summed it up at this Dispatch Box in a speech on 22 March 1944, when he said to the House: The object of giving medals, stars and ribbons is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them … a distinction is something which everybody does not possess. If all have it it is of less value … A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow … All that is possible is to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and to hurt the feelings of the fewest"—[Official Report, 22 March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 872.] That remains our aim today.

Whether with medals or without, we hope that the events of this summer will provide a vivid reminder of the huge debt that we owe to that generation, who sacrificed so much so that subsequent generations should so casually and so lightly enjoy freedom.

That debt can never be fully repaid, but we shall always strive to do our best, and that includes continuing to do all we reasonably can to ensure that as many of those veterans as possible can proudly display their medals this summer. I congratulate my hon. Friend again on the formidable, powerful and sensible way in which he presented a most persuasive and eloquent case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.