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Protect medals and punish imposters, says Defence Committee

Defence Committee Press Notice – 22 November 2016

The Defence Committee publishes its report on the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, a Private Members' Bill sponsored by Gareth Johnson MP, due to have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on Friday 25 November 2016.
Committee supports principles behind the Bill

The report, Exposing Walter Mitty: The Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, underlines the Committee's support for the principles behind the Bill and its agreement that offences should be created to criminalise the deceitful wearing of decorations and medals by 'military imposters'.

The report examines the legal protections which had previously existed and the reasoning behind their subsequent repeal. These protections had been enacted shortly after the First World War and remained in force until they were repealed by the Armed Forces Act 2006 and not replaced. The Ministry of Defence's rationale behind this decision was that there was a lack of clarity in the prohibitions as they had existed, and that it is possible for military imposters to be prosecuted under other offences.

The Committee does not agree that this provides sufficient justification, considering the 2006 Act would have been an opportunity to revise these offences rather than dispose of them entirely, and that circumstances may arise where other more general offences may not be engaged.

Accordingly, the Committee concludes that the deceitful wearing of decorations and medals is a specific harm which is insulting to the rightful recipients of these awards, damaging to the integrity of the military honours system and harmful to the bond between the public and the Armed Forces. This specific harm was considered to require a specific criminal sanction.

UK's lack of award protection "exceptional"

The Committee found that the incidence of acts involving military imposters is difficult to determine from official statistics, as convictions have not been recorded in a manner that allows individual offences to be identified outside of broader categories. The experience of encountering military imposters among the Service charities which submitted evidence also seems to vary. Nonetheless, a strong body of anecdotal evidence exists that points to military imposters being a continuing problem.

International comparisons show that a number of other nations have criminalised the deceitful use of decorations and medals, to the extent that the lack of such protection in the United Kingdom can be considered exceptional. The recent experience of in the United States is considered to be instructive in highlighting considerations which should be borne in mind when legislating in this area.

The Report concludes with a number of observations to inform the debate at the Bill's Second Reading and in its later legislative stages. These include observations on the scope of the Bill, defences, the appropriate penalties and any considerations which might apply relating to devolved institutions or the European Convention on Human Rights.

Conclusions and recommendation

Among the Report's conclusions and recommendations are:

The repeal and lack of replacement of offences criminalising military imposters

"We do not agree with the justifications provided by the Ministry of Defence for repealing offences relating to the protection of decorations without replacing them. If the offences in the Army Act 1955 were unsuitable to be directly transposed, the Armed Forces 2006 Act should have included new, more workable offences which were well scoped and which incorporated appropriate exceptions."

The incidence of deceitful use of decorations and medals

"The precise level of incidence of the behaviour the Bill aims to prevent is difficult to determine because statistics on previous infringements have not been recorded in a form allowing accurate identification of the relevant offences. The assessment of Service charities in encountering military imposters also seems to vary. There remains however, a body of strong anecdotal evidence that points to military imposters being a continuing problem."

The harm caused by military imposters

"The enactment of criminal prohibitions should always merit the most serious consideration. We conclude that there is a tangible and identifiable harm created by military imposters against members of society who should rightly be held in its highest esteem. Therefore, we believe that specific prohibitions to mitigate this harm are justified."

International comparisons

"Criminalisation of the unauthorised and deceitful wearing of decorations and medals is commonplace in many other jurisdictions, to such an extent that a lack of similar protection in the United Kingdom can be viewed as exceptional. Other countries have not sought to repeal these longstanding protections and we believe that the anomalous position of the United Kingdom should now be corrected."

The need for relatives of decorated veterans to be exempted from any offences

"The inclusion of a defence to ensure that family members representing deceased or incapacitated relations who are recipients of medals is vital, but 'family member' must be properly defined to ensure that there is no room for uncertainty or abuse. We suggest that the Bill include a definition of 'family member' in order to provide certainty over who will be covered by this category."

Chair's comments

Dr Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Defence Committee, stated:

"Military imposters commit a specific harm that requires a specific criminal sanction. Other countries have sought to maintain these sanctions, for reasons of deterrence and punishment, whilst the United Kingdom has foolishly disposed of them. We support the aim of the Bill to remove this anomaly, and have called our Report 'Exposing Walter Mitty', because those who seek public admiration by pretending to have risked their lives are contemptible fantasists who need to be deterred."

[To read the full report, click here.]

* * *

In the years following the First World War, the United Kingdom, amongst other combatant nations, placed protections into law attaching criminal sanctions to the unauthorised and deceitful use of decorations and medals awarded to those returning from that terrible conflict. The provisions remained in force until they were repealed by the Armed Forces Act 2006 and not replaced.

A Private Members Bill has been introduced into the House of Commons to restore these protections to the statute book and is shortly due to receive its Second Reading. We have received evidence that points to a continuing problem with military imposters and it is our view that this specific harm should be countered with specific criminal sanctions. Such sanctions are common in other legal systems around the world and the lack of similar protection in the UK is exceptional.

We make a number of general observations on the nature and content of a Bill seeking to rectify the situation. Any new offences must be clearly defined to ensure that the correct categories of award are brought into scope, and that family members commemorating deceased or incapacitated relatives are not caught by the legislation.

The Committee supports the Private Members Bill and the principles that lie behind it. We look to the Government to endorse it and facilitate the Bill’s progress through Parliament.