HL Deb 11 June 1992 vol 537 cc1355-8

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of their refusal to arrange a ceremony in this country to commemorate the Battle of El Alamein, they will provide financial support and transport facilities for the widows of those who were killed in that battle and for former members of the forces who took part to enable them to attend the anniversary ceremony in Egypt.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence has a scheme which provides financial assistance to war widows to enable them to pay one visit to the graves of their husbands buried overseas. The scheme is administered on our behalf by the Royal British Legion and the department meets ⅞ths of the cost. Widows whose husbands are buried at El Alamein would be eligible for such assistance. However, there is no provision in the defence budget for helping ex-servicemen or war widows to attend commemoration ceremonies.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that the Government, no doubt because of the generation gap, do not appear to understand that those who were involved, or whose late husbands were involved, in this great victory would wish to celebrate properly the 50th anniversary of it? If the Government persist in their obstinate refusal to organise a proper service in this country, they really are under a moral obligation to assist financially those who are prepared to journey to Egypt to attend the ceremony there.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the cost of supporting veterans attending the 50th anniversary of every World War II battle would be very great. As the noble Lord is fully aware, there are many calls on the Government's available finance.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, we are talking about the widows of men who have died for this country. How mean can the Ministry of Defence get? Is the Minister aware that what he is saying is an affront to all of us?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, there are some half million of our former soldiers, air force men and navy personnel buried in some 139 countries. There is no provision in Ministry of Defence budgets to meet this open-ended liability we are discussing.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, do not the Government realise that El Alamein was an exceptional battle? I hope my noble friend will ask those who have made this rather odd decision whether there are so many 50th anniversaries of such an order occurring in the near future that our resources of thankfulness are likely to become exhausted.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I shall certainly convey my noble friend's thoughts to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, in view of the fact that El Alamein was probably the greatest Allied victory, and certainly the greatest contribution made to the defeat of Nazi Germany, would it not be possible for the Government to consider—I am sure they would have the full support of all the ex-servicemen's and ex-servicewomen's associations—holding a commemorative service in the Royal Albert Hall? If the request of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, cannot be met, can one such distinctive service be supported by the Government?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, on two former occasions I have stated the Government's policy. The Government do not think it correct that they should choose between El Alamein and battles that followed in order to hold commemorative services. If we held a service for one, the Government would have to hold further services for every battle that followed.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, as one who was in the Eighth Army but not at El Alamein because of something that happened to me just beforehand, I hope I may express the horror with which I have listened to the remarks of my noble friend the Minister this afternoon. He has failed to realise that this battle was the turning point in the war. He has failed to understand that we wish to commemorate the battle of El Alamein not only because it was the turning point but because it was the first such event. My noble friend has said the Government will not commemorate El Alamein because of the fear of having to commemorate battles that followed. That is a terrible indictment of government policy. I beseech my noble friend to talk to his colleagues again about this matter and for them to confront the widows and those who fought alongside the great heroes of that battle with the remark that we cannot afford to provide a ceremony for the widows to attend. That is a shameful state of affairs.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I shall certainly convey the strength of feeling expressed by my noble friend and by the whole House to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that we are talking not just about the strength of feeling of noble Lords opposite but also the strength of feeling of Members on this side of the House? In other words this strength of feeling comes from all quarters of the House. Simply to say that the Ministry of Defence budget cannot accommodate what I believe would be the fairly limited expense suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is quite shameful.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I would point out to the noble Lord that I did mention the whole House when I talked about the strength of feeling on this matter. When I said the whole House I meant the whole House or all the Benches of this House.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, what financial assistance has been given by the Germans, who for some strange reason are leading the ceremony celebrating this great British victory, to widows of German servicemen who were killed in this battle?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I shall certainly try to find that information out. I do not have a reply to that question but I shall certainly try to find out what support is being given by the Germans and I shall let my noble friend know what I find out.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is not the Minister aware that one of the sad facts of life today is that the younger generation has no conception of what took place in wartime battles or of what was sacrificed to enable them to enjoy the freedom they experience today? Should we not put that situation right? The thousands of lads and women who are buried in Egypt paid the ultimate price for their service. Would it not be worth acceding to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to make it abundantly clear to the present day generation that the servicemen and women involved in that battle made a supreme sacrifice to enable those who are alive today to live in freedom?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I am sure that the points raised by the noble Lord will be taken into consideration when I return the matter to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, my noble friend will accept that I intervene in this matter with some diffidence, but my concern will be obvious to all noble Lords in view of my name. Is my noble friend aware that facilities in the Western Desert are limited for coping with the arrival of large numbers of people and that is why the idea of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that there should be a service of thanksgiving in this country which could be attended by a large number of people is so relevant, important and significant?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, we are aware of the limited resources which the resorts around the area of Alamein are able to provide.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, in relation to the earlier question about the Germans, is the Minister aware that the Germans celebrated another occasion recently yet criticised us? If they can do that we can certainly do it because we have something to celebrate.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the last comment made by the noble Baroness is not one that I would wish to express in view of the ethos of reconciliation which is the current policy of this Government.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, how far does that reconciliation go? Is the noble Lord aware that though one is in favour of reconciliation one can take it to ridiculous lengths? Are the Government considering changing the name of Trafalgar Square and Waterloo Station?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I am not aware that the Government have any such intention.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in reporting to his right honourable friend will my noble friend convey the view that the opinions expressed in all quarters of your Lordships' House and the widely expressed views of the service bodies will not be resisted by a sensible government?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I shall return to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence with your Lordships' strong views.

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