Harriett Baldwin responds on Unauthorised Medals Private Member’s Bill
25th November 2016
Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government supporting a Private Member’s Bill to prohibit the wearing of medals awarded for valour by people not entitled to do so, with the intent to deceive.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Harriett Baldwin)
It is truly a privilege to be able to respond on behalf of the Government to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). I congratulate him on winning a number so high up the ballot for his private Member’s Bill and on his success in bringing forward this measure today.
To some people the impersonation of our military heroes may seem a trifling matter, worthy more of humour than of concern. There is, for instance, the case of a man who claimed to be a member of the entirely fictitious Royal Warwickshire Dog Handlers, and another who went to great lengths to have the commando dagger insignia tattooed on his arm, only to find out that it was pointing in the wrong direction. Men who seemed plausible would, on closer examination—to borrow a phrase—appear to have spent more time in a fancy dress shop than on the front line.
This has been an excellent debate. We have heard not only from my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, but from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), who shared with us the example from his constituency of a UKIP councillor who wore the most implausible range of medals and was eventually forced to stand down. At the same time he was discovered to be a bigamist, which demonstrates that people who are impertinent enough to pretend to be recipients of medals to which they are not entitled may well be capable of crossing the threshold of propriety and doing other completely unacceptable things.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), in an extensive, detailed and well-researched speech lasting about 70 minutes, presented the case against the Bill. He argued passionately on behalf of those who wish to continue to impersonate people who are entitled to wear medals. He was on the side of Walter Mitty, but I have to say that the mood of the House is not with him.
First, as the Minister knows, I was not on the side of Walter Mitty, and it is rather insulting of her to say that I was. Secondly, perhaps she could explain in passing why on 3 May this year the Ministry of Defence agreed with me, whereas now, in November this year, it agrees with my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford. Can she tell us what has changed in the meantime?
My hon. Friend was certainly making a case for opposing the Bill. In a moment, I shall come to our reasons for supporting it.
We heard a very good speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee. We are grateful for the time that his Committee spent taking evidence on the Bill, and for the insights that it has shared in its report. He gave another good example of the perhaps unintended consequences of failing to make this a criminal offence by telling us that his partner’s father had been questioned, during an event specifically for veterans, about his entitlement to wear the medal of which he is so rightly proud.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) argued passionately in favour of allowing people who wear medals in “Blackadder” and other dramatic events to be covered by the exemptions in the Bill.
I hope that the Minister will indulge me, because I wish to make a short comment. Tomorrow I shall have the extreme honour of presenting the order of the Légion d’Honneur to Canon William Clements in Coloma Court home in my constituency. The priest was offshore in a royal naval vessel on D-day, and I am going to his bedside to give it to him. That is a singular honour for me. I hope the Minister will forgive me for that intervention; I think it was appropriate.
I am glad that my hon. Friend made that intervention. He has rightly put a wonderful example on the record. I know that many people throughout the country are very grateful to be receiving the Légion d’Honneur from the French Government at this time.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton)—along with the shadow Defence Secretary, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)— supports the Bill. He gave a very good example of how important it is that the Bill should protect the rights of family members to wear their loved ones’ medals, saying he proudly wears on his right breast on Remembrance Day the medals his father won for his service.
The mood of the House today is that the dishonest behaviour and egregious examples we have heard about are not harmless fun or mindless eccentricity; in actual fact, their implications are far greater and their ramifications far graver than many would appreciate at first glance, and all the more so when they involve the unauthorised wearing of decorations and medals. That is, first, because it is a gross affront to those who have genuinely served their country at considerable risk to themselves and who, as is intended, wear their medals with great pride. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote in “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”:
“nobody knew how much a decoration was worth except the man who received it.”
But this is about more than feelings, important as they are, which brings me to my second point: wearing unauthorised medals is harmful because it undermines the integrity of our formal military honours system, a historical system that has honoured the bravery and dedication of our world-class armed forces since the 19th century. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, by undermining that system bogus medal-wearers erode the vital bond of trust and respect between the public and the armed forces.
It is for those very significant reasons that during the first world war the Defence of the Realm Regulation 41 made it an offence to
“wear a decoration or medal without authority”.
As we have heard in several contributions today, that prohibition was transferred into statute after the war, and later incorporated into the Army Act 1955 and the Air Force Act 1955. I should also mention that it is still an offence under the Uniforms Act 1894 to wear a military uniform without authority, and that offence carries a maximum penalty of a fine not exceeding level 3.
In the early years of this century, when the Armed Forces Act 2006 was drafted, the concern about “Walter Mittys” was not widespread, and the then Labour Government decided not to carry forward the offences into the new Act. The most egregious acts of deception in this regard, where the individual uses medals to which he is not entitled in order to obtain a financial advantage, are crimes of fraud and, as such, are rightly punishable at a much higher level.
The American Stolen Valor Act 2013 covers only the higher military awards for bravery, as well as certain other military awards such as the Purple Heart and some awards for combat service. But that Act makes it an offence only if the awards are being worn for gain. Nevertheless, the Government recognise the concern about the gap not covered by the Fraud Act 2006, which the Bill seeks to address. It is for that reason, I point out in response to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, that the Government support the Bill. I know that there are questions about the extent of the problem.
The Minister has explained, as she said she would, why the Government are supporting the Bill, but she has not covered why the Government did not support exactly the same measures proposed in the e-petition in May this year.
The Secretary of State has been thoroughly convinced by the excellent case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, by the power of his argument in the Chamber and the way he has worked so constructively to address our previous concerns in his proposed legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley mentioned the questions about the extent of the problem in this country. I am grateful to the Defence Committee for producing its extremely thorough report, which acknowledges that the precise level of the problem is difficult to determine. There is clearly a greater awareness of it as an issue, perhaps because of the greater visibility afforded by social media and the appearance of groups dedicated to exposing these “Walter Mittys”. It is for that reason, and those that I have previously outlined, that the Government are now happy to offer support to the Bill.
The Committee’s report was ably summarised by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, who chairs the Committee, and it raised issues for the Government to consider beyond those immediately addressed by the Bill—in particular, the question of establishing a searchable database of holders of awards. Details of individual bravery or gallantry awards are published in the London Gazette—indeed, that is the origin of the term “gazetted” in relation to medals. However, the creation of a searchable database of holders would raise concerns about personal data and individual security. There is also the matter of who would be responsible for it and who would maintain it. It would be a long-term task for someone. When it comes to the various types and levels of campaign awards, a different issue arises—one of scale. For example, the Operational Service Medal for Afghanistan alone was issued to 150,000 recipients.
Dr Julian Lewis
I am grateful to the Minister for her support for the Bill. I am always cautious about databases for ex-service personnel. In this particular case, however, provided that the search engine was only able to accept the entry of a name that was already known to the person searching for any awards that that person had received, I do not see that that could create a security problem in the way that including details of ex-servicemen on censuses might do.
My right hon. Friend rightly proposes a potential compromise, but other questions arise, including the scale of the exercise and whether the London Gazette might be able to maintain such a database. I look forward with interest to hearing constructive suggestions on those concerns from those who are following the debate.
My hon. Friend the Minister has hit the nail on the head with her comment that the London Gazette could keep such a database. Every gallantry award goes through the London Gazette, even those awarded to people who have done something for the security services. I am sure that some kind of system could be made available through the London Gazette that would enable the information to be accessed very quickly. At the moment, trying to find gallantry awards using the system at the London Gazette is almost impossible.
I share my hon. Friend’s support for that suggestion. It will be interesting to hear, as the Bill progresses, of any practical solutions to enable us to bring the system into the 21st century and create a database that is easily searchable and readily trusted. I hope that people will come forward with such solutions. The Government will of course make a fuller response to the Committee’s report in due course, but it is fair to say that we would need to consider carefully the practicalities of such a large task.
The Government support the Bill’s Second Reading today. It has some drafting issues that we will seek to help my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford to address in Committee, and I hope that he will take that as a constructive process, as we want to help him to produce a Bill that will achieve his laudable aims. I look forward to discussing the Bill further in Committee. Above all, I look forward to putting into statute our steadfast commitment to maintaining the solemnity of our military honours system for the sake of our brave servicemen and women, past, present and future, who have served and will continue to serve this country with selfless commitment, loyalty and integrity. I therefore once again congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, and I urge the House to support its Second Reading today.