HC Deb 16 January 2002 vol 378 cc125-32WH 12.59 pm
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a serious failing of successive Governments to put right an injustice that has existed for 50 years. It concerns the recognition of almost a quarter of a million men who served their country in the Suez canal zone between 1951 and 1954.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have been concerned about this issue, and have written to Ministers about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid—Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) is present and hopes to speak in this debate. She has my permission and that of the Minister to do so briefly.

I am particularly grateful to Lieutenant-Colonel Ashley Tinson, retired, and to Charles Golder for the excellent briefing that they have provided, and for keeping me up to speed on this issue. I also want to pay tribute to the work of other hon. Members, particularly the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) and for Wentworth (John Healey), who have pursued this question in a variety of ways for some considerable time. The Minister will know of the strength of feeling behind this matter. A petition of 20,000 names was presented in 1998, and during the last five years there have been two Adjournment debates and many hundreds of letters from MPs on behalf of constituents.

The emergency in the Suez canal zone began on 8 October 1951 when the then Egyptian Government sought to abrogate its treaty agreement that British troops and airmen could be stationed in the canal zone. British armed forces and installations came under attack soon after that abrogation, and for three years our armed services faced a series of terrorist and paramilitary attacks.

The scale of the deployment to counter the terrorist threat and protect British citizens in the canal zone reveals the seriousness of the events. After the first attacks, the British garrison was increased to 80,000 troops, and possibly as many as 250,000 troops were stationed in the area during the period. In his book "The Regiments Depart", Gregory Blaxland said that the deployment was the swiftest build-up ever achieved by the British Army in peacetime, and included the air despatch of 6,000 men, 170 tons of stores, and 330 vehicles in a matter of ten days. The scale of military operations was significant, and the deprivations suffered by the service personnel and their families were considerable. For example, in January 1952, the Lancashire Fusiliers supported by tanks and armoured cars stormed the police barracks. In that action alone, British casualties included four killed and 10 wounded. During the three years, 54 service personnel were killed in action and more than 300 died from all causes, many of whom would have survived had they served in the UK. This is the eighth highest incidence in the table of British casualties since the second world war.

Still there is no formal recognition. There is no Suez medal. The question appears to turn on whether the Army Council ever formally considered the request made by the Commander-in-Chief, middle east forces, General Sir Brian Robertson, in January 1952 for the general service medal to be awarded to his troops serving in the canal zone. This matter was, therefore, being raised 50 years ago.

In 1999, further papers came to light. The Army historical branch considered the papers and came to what I consider to be the surprising conclusion that they contained nothing to justify an approach to the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. I, too, have examined those papers. They deal almost exclusively with the question of operational gallantry awards, military medals and the like. The only mention of a general service medal is in the January 1952 reply from the Military Secretary, Lieutenant-General Sir Euan Miller, to General Robertson, in which he says that he will "sound out" the Adjutant-General. The later—February 1952—memo from the Military Secretary to the Army Council, which included the Adjutant-General, deals exclusively with operational gallantry awards, and contains no mention of a general service award.

On 20 February 1952, the Military Secretary wrote to General Robertson in response to a letter that he had written on 2 February about an award to Brigadier Exham, who had led the assault on the Egyptian police barracks of which I spoke earlier. Again, the exchange related exclusively to operational gallantry awards, and to the need for those matters to be put to the Army Council before going to the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. The Military Secretary went on to say: I had no sooner done this than the King's death took place, which led to everyone concerned in the A.G.'s department becoming extremely involved in ceremonial. I wonder whether that understandable distraction might have led to this matter being overlooked? In March 1952, the Military Secretary wrote to General Robertson to inform him that the Army Council had decided that the scale and the scope of the operation do not justify the granting of purely operational awards. Again, there was no reference to a general service award.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Does the hon. Gentleman share the concern of my constituent, Mr. R. T. Wilson, who represents the Havering Suez Veterans Association, who was advised by the Ministry of Defence to go and buy a general service medal from a medal dealer for £50?

Mr. Burstow

If that was the case, it was clearly a callous and thoughtless thing to say, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will have taken it up with the appropriate authorities.

Between 18 January and the 7 March 1952—the period during which these matters are supposed to have been considered—the available documentary evidence confirms that only operational gallantry awards were considered. There appears to be no documentary evidence in any of the relevant files held by the Public Record Office to show that the Army Council gave the request for a general service medal any formal consideration. It is this missing link that should give rise to fresh consideration of the original request, and to a submission to the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals.

Looking through past written answers and ministerial correspondence on the Suez emergency deposited in the Library of the House, I notice that a recurring theme is that the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals has a long-standing policy of non-retrospection. However, if no evidence can be found to show that the original request was properly considered—no evidence has been presented—that policy should be set aside to allow the case to be considered on its merits. Indeed, I understand that, last June, the Prime Minister said that the chairman of the committee was carefully considering the matter. Will the Minister tell us whether Sir Richard Wilson has reached any conclusions?

The emergency in the Suez canal zone is unique in that it is the only major post-1945 campaign not to have been recognised by the awarding of a medal. Given the events of the time, and set against the standards of the period, it is hard to fathom why no medal was granted. Looking back over 50 years of history, it is even harder to understand. So, what evidence is required? In March last year, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), then the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, in reply to an intervention from the hon. Member for Wentworth, said: Evidence relating to, for example, the Army Council could persuade me to alter my position. He went on to say: Evidence relating to whether the case was considered properly in terms of procedure might constitute grounds for reconsideration."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 14 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 302WH.] Given the meticulous way in which records are kept, the fact that the Department is unable to turn up conclusive evidence that the matter was ever properly considered should be sufficient grounds for the matter to be reopened. If the evidence that I have put to the Minister today is correct—that, apart from some informal soundings about a general service medal, the matter was never progressed—a great injustice has been done to many troops. I hope that, in those circumstances, the Minister would feel that he could use the powers of his office to ask the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals to give the matter further formal consideration.

Further careful reading of the evidence can lead only to a single clear conclusion. I am not asking the Minister to rewrite history; rather, I am asking him to right a wrong that has remained on the Department's books for far too long, and to find a way to recognise those veterans who served their country in Suez between 1951 and 1954 and who have not been recognised.

1.8 pm

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate, and thank him for allowing me to speak. I pay special tribute to the Suez veterans who, individually and through their organisations, have kept up the fight for recognition of the part that they played in our history, and also to the many MPs who have raised these issues over a long period of time.

As a new Member, one of my first surgery appointments was with Mr. John Friberg, the Dorset representative of the Canal Zoners, who described the situation to me. I must confess that I knew very little about the activities of our troops in Suez between 1951 and 1954. Most of my generation can just remember 1956, but we do not know much about those earlier years. Perhaps that highlights why it is so important to redress this injustice. My fear is that, rather than be remembered, "they will be forgotten", as one service man said on a recent television programme. He went on: All we've got is egg on our faces; we are swept under the carpet". But why?

There is no doubt that conditions were dangerous and unpleasant and that troops were on declared active service. As my hon. Friend said, 54 men were killed in action and it is claimed that there were 613 casualties during the period. A recent letter says: I had a brother killed, Jan 19th 1952, age 18. We have a wreath sent every year, November 11th. It would be wonderful to receive a medal on this anniversary—50 years this coming November—to pass on to our next generation. We believe Arthur was guarding water tanks and a bomb was in a barrel of oranges—Arthur and another boy got blown to bits. The veterans have many stories of armed attacks, sniping and even mutilations. Since 1945, life has been lost in at least 16 conflicts around the world involving this country, but service in only this one appears not be to recognised. The negative replies to requests for recognition over the years represent a vicious circle. Put simply, a case was not established at the time, so one cannot be considered now. Round and round we go. My hon. Friend ably argued that there is no evidence that the case for a general service medal was ever considered, which I hope is sufficient to break that circle and lead to a positive outcome.

I am heartened by last July's letter from the Deputy Prime Minister's office, to which my hon. Friend referred, which states that the possibility of some kind of recognition is currently under consideration by Sir Richard Wilson in his role as Chairman of the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals". In the week preceding Remembrance Sunday, the BBC showed in the south a documentary entitled "Suez—the Forgotten Campaign". I have a video copy to present to the Minister if he did not see it. The programme contains the observation that, last year, the Suez veterans were invited to march to the cenotaph for the first time. There was no Suez medal to wear, of course.

Veterans point out that a medal is wanted not only to recognise those who survived, but primarily for the dignity of those who died. My constituent, Mr. Friberg, wrote to me: I shall continue to campaign until I draw my last breath against the injustice done by my country in not giving us just a small token of gratitude for services rendered. I urge the Minister to facilitate a positive reconsideration of a unique case in the Queen's golden jubilee year.

1.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate and I assure him that I listened carefully to his points and those made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke). I can make no specific comment on the intervention of the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) as I am completely ignorant of the matter, but if she writes to me I promise that we shall look into it.

This subject is one on which I have corresponded with many hon. Members and it was debated here early last year. Circumstances have not changed recently and I am afraid that I must repeat much of what has been said before. It is well known that very little contemporary correspondence about a campaign medal for service in the canal zone in the early 1950s survives. For the sake of brevity, I shall not go into the details of the various correspondence between senior military commanders at the time, but it is clear that there is no definitive record of events and it appears that consideration of an award was at least mooted.

Canal zone veterans and their supporters have been particularly active over the past 12 years or so. During that time, there have been a number of reviews by successive Adjutant-Generals, two Chiefs of the General Staff have interested themselves in the case and in 1998 my predecessor instigated a full review of all available documents, including those held by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Public Record Office. Other documents found in the Ministry of Defence or offered by veterans or their supporters have also been carefully studied.

None of those reviews has given us any reason to think that the matter was insufficiently or improperly dealt with 50 years ago or provided us with the necessary material to make a case for submission to the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. The committee has a long-standing policy that it will not consider instituting awards and medals for service given many years earlier. It will not look back at claims for medals if the operation concerned finished more than five years previously. That is because it feels that if no contemporary claim was made, it cannot second-guess why those in a position to ask for a medal to be awarded decided not to do so.

Claims rejected at the time, either by the Ministry of Defence and its predecessors or by the committee, were based on contemporary evidence. Those who rejected them had access to the full facts and would have had valid reasons for rejection. That policy has been in force since the end of the second world war, but no retrospective institution of medals has occurred since the 19th century.

Mr. Burstow

The Minister's argument does include points made in the debate last year, but is he telling the Chamber that the burden of proof rests with the veterans? Have they to come to him to show documents that the Department cannot find to prove that the matter was not considered? I have presented evidence today showing that only operational gallantry awards were considered. Why not accept that the evidence to support the Government's position is not there and allow the matter to be reconsidered?

Dr. Moonie

The unfortunate fact is that there is no evidence either way. What exists neither confirms nor denies either position. There are two points at issue: the contemporary record and the policy of the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. In the Department's opinion, both in themselves constitute sufficient grounds for not proceeding to review the case.

I return to the question of why no case was put to the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals in the 1950s. The evidence suggests that the Army Council simply did not think the operation to be of sufficient scale or scope, but that is not to denigrate in any way the sacrifice made by those involved. It is merely a reflection of how the campaign was viewed at the time, in the shadow of the second world war.

A number of more sinister reasons have been suggested over the years. One is Foreign Office "interference" in the procedure. I should make it clear that the Foreign Office would have had a legitimate interest had a case gone to the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. After all, service deployments are part of a foreign policy, which covers diplomatic, economic and military aspects.

The Foreign Office was represented on the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is now, but no evidence has been found of any consultation on the subject between the War Office and the Foreign Office and there is no record of the Foreign Office expressing a view. Furthermore, there are two suggestions why the Foreign Office might have intervened, and they conflict with each other. One is that the Foreign Office did not want to upset the Egyptians by admitting that we were, in effect, at war. The other is that awarding a medal would have pleased the Egyptians by conferring the status of military operation on what was in fact terrorist activity.

However, the views of opposing nationals clearly did not prevent the award of medals for contemporary or near-contemporary security operations in places such as Palestine and Malaya and neither argument about the effect on the Egyptians would have carried any weight when the further opportunity to make a case arose in 1956.

As well as embarrassing the Foreign Office, for whatever reason, it has been claimed that a case for a medal would have embarrassed the War Office. If we try to look at the operation from the viewpoint of the Army of 50 years ago, it is difficult to see why the War Office might have felt embarrassed. Troops were deployed in the canal zone to ensure the safe passage of shipping and protect a limited British presence, which existed by treaty with the Egyptians. That they did conscientiously and successfully, without unnecessary use of force, and there is nothing discreditable about it.

Had the War Office been embarrassed, the Military Secretary would not have taken the steps, which we know that he did, to ensure that those stationed in the canal zone received a good share of the awards in the 1952 birthday honours list. A similar allegation is that the War Office was influenced by the strength of public and political opinion against the operations. Opinion was in fact divided and we have no reason to believe that the War Office was swayed either way. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir William Slim, is widely acknowledged to have been the finest "soldier's general" since Wellington and it is very unlikely that he would have been deterred if he thought that a good case existed.

It is also claimed that the members of the Army Council in 1952 were unaware of the conditions in the canal zone. That is not so. The Secretary of State for War had visited the area and spoke about it at a meeting of the Army Council. It is inconceivable that the most senior officers in the Army were ignorant of the situation in what was the biggest British forces base in the eastern Mediterranean and middle east, or that they did not understand the implications. They had all been operational commanders at a high level. It was known then, as we know now, that the canal zone was unpleasant and, at times, dangerous, with an oppressive climate and sparse living conditions. In those days, however, British troops were stationed in many overseas garrisons where conditions were harsh.

Moving on from what are claimed to have been the factors that influenced decisions fifty years ago, I should like to look at some of the arguments that have been put forward recently in support of making a case for a medal now. The first is that troops were on declared active service. That is perfectly true, but it is not an argument for a medal. Declarations of active service are made when, for example, it is necessary to introduce greater disciplinary powers.

The declarations of active service made by the General Officer Commanding British Troops Egypt between 1950 and 1954 state: It is emphasised that this is a purely administrative decision in order that the status of British Troops in Egypt regarding Courts Martial shall remain unchanged". There is no automatic connection between active service and campaign medals. The British garrison in Berlin was on active service from 1945 to 1990 because of its status as an occupying power, but received no medal. Conversely, members of the armed forces who serve in Northern Ireland are eligible for the general service medal but have never been placed on active service.

Much has been made recently of the number of British deaths in the canal zone during the period from 1951 to 1954. One of the veterans' organisations claims that the total is in excess of 600. A more modest figure of 54 was attributed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in remarks supposedly made by him in November 2000 when he announced proposals for a new memorial to service personnel who have been killed since the second world war. I understand that the first figure was provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and relates not to the number killed on duty, but to the number of graves in cemeteries in Egypt maintained by the commission.

The second figure was not included in the announcement but appeared in some newspaper commentaries on it; we are unaware of its origin. The official total of troops killed during the period of unrest from October 1951 to May 1954, provided by the Adjutant General's statistics branch in 1955, was 40, with a further six missing and 75 wounded. We have no reason to doubt these figures.

It is often claimed that service in the canal zone was the only action after the second world war for which a clasp to the general service medal or a separate medal was not awarded, and that medals were awarded both at the time and subsequently for operations that were on a much smaller scale and had a lower casualty rate. The latter point is made particularly in relation to medals for present day deployments. The first point is, in fact, incorrect. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, there were more than a dozen internal security deployments for which no medal was issued—for example in Libya, Burma, Singapore and Hong Kong.

On the matter of the scale of the canal zone operation in relation to others, I have already mentioned that the Army Council did not think that the situation in the canal zone warranted operational awards. We must remember that the second world war had ended only six years previously. Even more recently, during three years of internal security operations in Palestine, about 260 service men had been killed and 700 wounded. The Korean war was still in progress. I do not believe that comparison with present day deployments is relevant. Policy on medals changes over the years, and different views are taken at different times.

Mr. Burstow

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way for a second time. I invite him to look again at the chronology of the correspondence during the period in 1952 about which we are talking. He should reflect upon that and upon this debate, as the correspondence and the debate show that only operational gallantry awards were considered, and not the general service medal. If he finds that to be the case, as I have, will he refer the matter on again?

Dr. Moonie

I shall certainly look at the chronology again, although I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I have looked at it on several occasions and I do not take the same view of it as he does. With regard to the Cabinet Secretary's investigation of the general procedure, his inquiries are still on-going and have yet to reach a conclusion.

To sum up, the War Office did not submit a case for a medal at the time of the canal zone deployment or shortly after, and we have no good reason to believe that that was a result of improper or inadequate handling. There have been successive reviews over the last twelve years but no evidence has come to light that demonstrates that the War Office got it wrong. The circumstances have not changed and our position remains clear.

Documents do turn up, and have done during the intervening 50 years. Should anything further turn up that gives a different slant on proceedings, we will look at it. At present, there is no evidence that such contemporary background material actually exists.