HL Deb 28 April 1983 vol 441 cc1041-4

3.7 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reconsider the possibility of assistance to the next of kin, other than those bereaved in the Falklands campaign, to visit the graves of servicemen buried overseas, including those who died before 1967.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, we have no plans to reconsider offering visits at public expense to servicemen's graves overseas to the next of kin of such servicemen buried before the current arrangements were introduced in 1967.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, whether the Government are totally insensitive to the feelings of many families who lost their next of kin in other wars? Although they may have accepted with sadness the 1967 arrangements, which were not retrospective, a new situation has now arisen with the Falklands arrangements—arrangements which were quite rightly made, in my view. Will the Government not look at this matter again with some sensitivity and sympathy for the sake of people who feel equally bereaved, wherever their loved ones were killed and whatever may have been the date when this happened?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I believe that all of us share the sympathy which the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, has expressed for those who died in all the wars—and, of course, the sacrifice of those who died in the last war was just as great as that of those who died in the Falklands. I know that this sacrifice remains keenly felt by many; and, of course, the Government would like to be able to offer a visit at public expense to all the close relatives of servicemen buried overseas. The simple fact is that this is a matter of scale and of practicalities. So far as the scale is concerned, there are just too many people involved to make it a feasible proposition.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, are there not other priorities which those who speak for war widows would put before that suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger—such as eliminating the disparity in treatment of war widows between those who lost their husbands before and those who lost them after 1973?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, if my noble friend is turning the Question into one about war pensions, which I believe may be the tone of what he has said, then that is another matter.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, said that this was a question of scale and cost. Will the noble Lord be good enough to tell the House what is the scale and cost? What are the numbers involved, bearing in mind that only a percentage of the total number of widows would be able to go and that the number of widows of the first world war must be very small indeed by now? Will the noble Lord be good enough to convey the feeling of the whole House to his right honourable friend, that the Government should introduce a phased scheme, based possibly on age, to enable those widows who wish to do so to visit the graves of their late husbands?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, as an illustration, there are about 172,000 identified graves of British servicemen buried overseas from the second world war alone. I believe it to be a reasonable assumption that the vast majority would have at least one surviving close relative—that is, one defined as a widow, parent, brother, sister or child—who might wish to take up the offer of a visit. Also, there are currently more than 65,000 war widows' pensions in payment. It is estimated that more than 60,000 of these relate to servicemen who died before the current arrangements for visits were introduced in 1967.

So far as the phasing of visits is concerned, I am afraid this would not significantly ease the difficulties involved. Unless everybody concerned was offered a visit within a reasonable time-scale, there would inevitably be charges of injustice. I can see no way of overcoming the problem of the sheer scale of the task. Stretching the visits over a period of a few years would not do so.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that three precedents have been set in respect of the Falkland Islands? One is the awarding of medals posthumously, other than the Victoria Cross and the George Cross; the second is the bringing back of the bodies of the fallen; and the third is the visits of the nearest and dearest to the graves of their soldier or sailor relations. Bearing in mind these precedents, how much would the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, cost? The figure one has seen put about is something between £10 million and £30 million. Is my noble friend not aware that that is an average-to-small cost over-run on any weapons procurement programme?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, we do not have an estimate of the cost, but I can say that it would be a very large sum. But I have no doubt that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will take note of what has been said by my noble friend Lord Onslow.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that those Members of your Lordships' House who at some time or other were responsible for the care and maintenance of war graves, either at the War Office or the Ministry of Defence, are aware that these war graves are spread all over the world, and that some would be quite inaccessible? On the other hand, the war graves in the European area are frequently visited by relatives of those who passed away, and any more who wished to go there would be welcome.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, for his intervention. I am aware of the number of visits made to the European cemeteries. They are, of course, beautifully looked after, most wonderfully looked after, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I think the noble Lord has made my point about the practicality of visits in the case of, for example, Burma, as well as, if not better than, I did.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, is the noble Lord saying that a woman whose husband was killed in Burma has a less right to visit her husband's grave than a woman whose husband is buried in France?

Lord Glenarthur

No, my Lords, I am certainly not saying that. What I am saying is that the practicalities of a visit to Burma are far more complicated than the practicalities of a visit to, for example, Ostend.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the Government, without commitment, would consider discussing this matter with probably the best informed voluntary organisation apropos these matters—the Royal British Legion? If they were to discuss this matter with the Royal British Legion I am sure they would get full co-operation and sensible guidance in this situation.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has in the past—and I am certain he will be in the future—been in touch with all the bodies interested in this matter.

Lord Walston

My Lords, if I understand the noble Lord to say that the Government have made no calculation of the cost and can give no figures as to what the cost would be, how is it possible to say that the cost will be too much and cannot be afforded?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I gave some indication of the figures involved so far as numbers are concerned. We are unable to say, without disproportionate effort, how many of the approximately 65,000 war widows' pensions relate to the second world war. The figure of 55,000 which has been quoted could be right. Of the United Kingdom servicemen who lost their lives during the second world war, about 36 per cent.—that is, a figure of 139,112—were missing and have been commemorated only on memorials. On the basis of this ratio one might be talking of over 41,000 widows, and we could not ignore the other close relatives who could claim equal justification for a visit. So the question of costing it is extremely difficult. As the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, said, some of the graves are comparatively close to hand and others are a lot farther away. So it is not a question of simple mathematics.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, would the noble Lord consider that there are other relatives as well as widows? I myself have two half-brothers buried overseas, either of whom might have been in my place today had they survived, who were killed in the first world war.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, when the original arrangements were made—that is to say, the 1967 arrangements—the then Under-Secretary of State of Defence for the Army said that the new arrangements would not be retrospective and that in cases of impracticability—and in some cases it would be impossible—it would not necessarily be possible to arrange visits.