Dr Julian Lewis: During the break for the urgent question, I took the liberty of asking my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) whether I was right in assuming that his default position on issues of this sort was as follows: “When it’s not necessary to legislate, it’s necessary not to legislate.” He confirmed then, and he is nodding now, that that is indeed his position. It is a position that, in most cases, I tend to subscribe to myself.
My hon. Friend has done an amazing job of making the case for why he should be on the Bill Committee once the Bill has got – as I hope it will – its Second Reading. He is a one-man House of Lords – a revising Chamber in a single cranium – and points the ruthless spotlight of logic at many well-intentioned, as he puts it, initiatives that have not always been thought through as fully as they should have been.
In making his points today, some of which have been very strong, my hon. Friend is nevertheless in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; there is a very considerable baby in the Bill and it deserves to thrive. He has conjured up scenarios of all sorts of people who are suffering from mental illness languishing inappropriately in prison cells. That is very much a worst case scenario, and is not borne out by experience. As we know, until the legislation was changed a score or so years ago, there were no cases – certainly that I am aware of – of any mentally ill people finding themselves in prison cells.
Philip Davies: Lots of people in this House would say that many people in prison who have been convicted of criminal offences have mental health problems. I am therefore not entirely sure on what basis my right hon. Friend thinks that scenario would be impossible with this proposed offence.
Dr Lewis: I will have to look at Hansard to see the actual words I used, but if I did not insert the words “for this type of offence”, I should have, because I am not aware of any cases on the record – and I am sure that, if there had been such cases, my hon. Friend would have unearthed them in his exhaustive researches – of people languishing in jail as a result of fraudulently claiming to have been awarded gallantry medals that they had not genuinely received.
When looking at the prospective penalties for committing an offence such as would be created once again – as it existed in the past – by the passage of the Bill, we have to apply a modicum of common sense. We have to recognise that there would be very few prosecutions at all, because it is highly probable that most people would be deterred, and I am sure that the vast majority of the minority who would not would end up facing nothing more than a fine. The background possibility of a prison sentence of a few weeks would, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) will confirm, be there only as a backstop for the most persistent and egregious cases where all else had failed in stopping someone committing this act of abuse – that is what it is for the families of people who lost their lives serving this country and for living former and current servicemen and women who have been genuinely decorated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) was absolutely right to pick up the United States Supreme Court’s striking down the legislation that he mentioned. That Supreme Court is well known, internationally, for its absolutist stance on freedom of speech – so much so that it is possible to blackguard, libel and defame people in the United States in the name of free speech to a degree that is not possible in this country, thank goodness. Nevertheless, although the United States has taken that very strict interpretation of free speech as being the right to lie and deceive about medals for valour that have not been awarded, the Defence Committee’s report noted that that has not prevented several state legislatures from putting into law offences similar to that in the Bill.
We have to ask ourselves whether there were any obvious disadvantages of the law as it worked out in practice when it existed before. My answer to that is no. We also have to ask whether there are likely to be any new ill effects as a result of reintroducing something very similar to the position that obtained in the past. My answer is still likely to be no. If our concern is that mentally ill people might in future be caught by criminal law as a result of their wearing medals to which they are not entitled and so making false claims of valour – if that is the reason for our not having a criminal sanction against such misbehaviour – we should think about what would happen if that reasoning were to be applied more generally to criminal law; I doubt if much criminal law would then remain on the statute book. The fact is that criminal law exists, mentally ill people are out there, and, from time to time, mentally ill people break the law. That is no reason for not having the law there for them to break or observe, as the case may be. That is to do with mitigation of circumstances; if it is found that someone has broken the law, it then becomes relevant to take their state of mind into account.
I do not agree that every factor in a case of the inappropriate wearing of medals not awarded to the people wearing them has to be written into the Bill. For example, the idea that anyone would prosecute a nephew for wearing his uncle’s medals in an appropriate setting is absolutely preposterous, and I do not believe that the Bill’s intention would be misconstrued in such a way that any such case would ever be brought.
I return now to the conclusions and recommendations of the Defence Committee’s report, which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley put forward in a somewhat selective way in his massively entertaining account of the report. I will pick out just a few factors. We did not agree with the justifications provided by the Ministry of Defence for repealing the offences relating to the protection of decorations without replacing them. If the offences in the Army Act 1955 were unsuitable for direct transposition into new legislation, the Armed Forces Act 2006 should have included new, more workable offences that were well scoped and incorporated appropriate exceptions.
We do not believe that the main problem is the matter of financial or other tangible gain. It is the devaluing of the respect that people are entitled to have because of acts of bravery in their service careers. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley rightly picked up on the exchange that took place during our consideration of the Bill about whether it was appropriate to include claims about having been awarded medals that are made without actually wearing the medals. That is why I put a query to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford during the course of the hearing we held with him on his Bill.
At that stage, we did not have the advantage of having the final version of the Bill before us – indeed, it was not available even at the stage when we finalised our report, although it is of course before the House now. But that is what the Committee and Report stages should be all about. The Bill should be amended to deal with any practical points of concern.
Philip Davies: Do I take it, then, from what my right hon. Friend says – it would be useful if he could clarify this – that as the Bill stands it applies not just to people who wear medals but those who present themselves as being entitled to do so? If an amendment were tabled to remove that from the Bill, would he support that amendment?
Dr Lewis: I have not heard the case argued from both sides because we have only had that brief exchange in Committee. However, my hon. Friend deduces correctly from my remarks that I am unhappy about that particular provision, and that I expect the Bill would be improved by its removal. The concern relates to people who strut around wearing decorations they have not been awarded. They do so not primarily for financial gain – as has been repeatedly pointed out, that is already capable of remedy in law – but because they are fraudulently posing as somebody who has done things they have not done; they are wearing awards they have not earned.
My hon. Friend made the distinction between impersonating a veteran who had been awarded a medal and impersonating a police officer. I think he slightly missed the point in relation to the Committee’s conclusion. We were not saying there was any real comparison between the consequences of those two acts of deception; we were talking only about the practical question of whether it can, in a realistic and sensible way, be catered for in law. He read the actual sentence out rather quickly; I shall do so rather more slowly:
“We also disagree that offences involving an intention to deceive which are not related to fraud may raise practical difficulties on questions of proof.”
All we were saying by drawing the comparison with the offence of impersonating a police officer is that the practical difficulties in each case would be the same and that there are ways of coping with the practical difficulties of showing what is being done wrong in each case, even though, of course, the consequences of the two different acts are vastly dissimilar.
We have heard scepticism on how widely the practice is carried out. The report heard evidence from the Naval Families Federation showing that a very considerable number of its members, when surveyed, thought this was a real problem. It conducted a brief survey among its members, receiving 1,111 responses over four days. Some 64% of respondents said they had personally encountered individuals wearing medals or insignia that had been awarded to someone else, with 16% saying they were not sure. When asked to detail the specific circumstances, however – this is what matters, because there are plenty of perfectly legitimate cases of wearing medals not awarded to the person concerned – 29% of respondents said that the individual concerned was impersonating a UK armed forces veteran, while another 11% identified the individual as impersonating a serving member of the armed forces. That suggests something that happens on a somewhat larger scale than has been suggested by some of the contributors to the debate.
Another problem, which I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to consider seriously, is that when the law fails to deal with unacceptable behaviour people tend to take matters into their own hands. This happens to such an extent that we now have, as we heard earlier, groups of Walter Mitty hunters challenging people over the decorations they display. That suggests sufficient concern on such a scale that people feel it appropriate, even though it is not necessarily appropriate, to set up groups to go around challenging people on whether they have earned the medals they display.
I have direct experience of this situation. A couple of years ago, I was at a Veterans’ Day event in my constituency with my partner’s father. My partner’s father is Mr Frank Souness, who is slightly unusual in that he has a post-war Distinguished Flying Cross, a decoration that has not been awarded to a very large number of people since the end of the Second World War. He was approached by one of these people and asked to justify the fact he had a chest full of medals, headed up by the Distinguished Flying Cross. For the record, if you will indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall read a short report in the Shrewsbury Advertizer from 25 May 1955 entitled, “Courage over the Jungle”:
“Flying Officer Francis Scott Souness who it was announced in the London Gazette last week has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his services in the operations in Malaya between June 1 and November 30 of last year. Aged 24 and a native of Galashiels, Flying Officer Souness is at present stationed at R.A.F. Shawbury … The citation reads –
‘Since joining No. 110 Squadron in May 1952, he has completed 148 operational sorties in Malaya and is a navigator who has shown meticulous care and untiring energy while locating dropping zones deep in the jungle. In flights over difficult terrain, often uninhabited, and often in adverse weather, his determination and courage have often exceeded the call of duty. Malayan operations depend largely for success on accurate navigation and map reading and, by his wealth of experience, calm efficiency, courage and high sense of duty Flying Officer Souness has inspired the whole squadron.’ ”
I know Frank well – he is 86 now and was a little younger then – and he is a doughty individual. It did not faze him that someone challenged him – not aggressively, but pointedly – as to whether he was entitled to wear the Distinguished Flying Cross. I think that that is a bit of a pity, actually. I do not think it should have happened. It suggests that there is a problem out there with the perception of people wearing medals to which they are not entitled. It is their selfishness that can result in genuine heroes being challenged inappropriately. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford was quite right to point out the dangers of trust breaking down in this situation.
I take what I hope is a measured view. I entirely accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is in a position to make improvements to the Bill in Committee. I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford is entirely right to have introduced the Bill. It is capable of improvement. If the House wants to see the Bill improve, it should be given its Second Reading today.