PRIME MINISTER – ARCTIC STAR MEDAL – 10 November 2004
Dr Julian Lewis: If he will make it his policy to recognise the service of personnel on the Russian convoys by the award of an Arctic Star campaign medal?
The Prime Minister (Mr Tony Blair): Perhaps I can answer this question in a little detail, if I might. First, we owe the heroes of the Arctic convoys an immense debt of gratitude. They risked, and in many cases gave, their lives under some of the harshest conditions imaginable in order to keep this nation free and democratic in the Second World War.
The Government at the time honoured those who took part in wartime convoys to the Soviet Union with the award of the Atlantic Star, and that explicitly included service on the convoys to North Russia. The difficulty that arises is that the eligibility criteria for the range of medals instituted to recognise Second World War service was drawn up by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. The King approved the proposals in the late 1940s, and subsequently ruled that no further medals should be instituted for Second World War service. However, questions have been raised about the relative difficulty of qualifying for the Atlantic Star through service on the convoys. We continue to look at this matter, but it is extremely difficult, at the moment, to see a way through.
[SUPPLEMENTARY:] I thank the Prime Minister for that thoughtful reply, but that is not the answer that these courageous men were hoping to hear the day before Remembrance Day. He is right about the problem with the Atlantic Star, and that story really will not do. A man had to serve for six months to qualify for the Atlantic Star, but most of those on the Russian convoys who received that medal did so despite the fact that they were on the convoys. Hundreds of men who were on those convoys did not get the Atlantic Star, because they were not on them for six months. Finally, may I remind the Prime Minister that hundreds of hon. Members – including the Home Secretary, the Leader of my party and many members of all the other parties in this House – have said that they want this medal to be awarded? He has it in his power to overrule the bureaucrats: will he now do so?
The Prime Minister: First, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am as anxious as anyone else to resolve the issue, and of course I should like to resolve it in the way that he and many other hon. Members have suggested. However, he will know that the six-month qualifying service required at the time has been reviewed independently on many occasions, and the recommendation has always been to retain it. I repeat that we are trying to find a way through this difficulty. [Hon. Members: Just do it.] It is not simply for me to decide. We have to act in a way that satisfies the Armed Forces. That continues to be the subject of discussion.