[Relevant document: Fourth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2016-17, Exposing Walter Mitty: The Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, HC 658.] Second Reading
Dr Julian Lewis: I am grateful to my hon. Friend [Philip Davies] for giving way. I always like the breath of fresh air that he blows on to anything smacking of political correctness. As he has referred to the Defence Committee’s report, may I draw to his attention the testimony of Dr Hugh Milroy, the chief executive of Veterans Aid, one of the longest-lasting charities dealing with veterans affairs, which was set up just after the first world war? He says that incidents of false medal wearing are “a daily occurrence” and that
“we have no sense of the enormity of it”.
Wearing uniforms incorrectly is not a daily occurrence, and that is not what the Bill is about.
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Philip Davies: ... The point I would make is that there are massive variations in what other countries do; it is not one-way traffic, as one might have thought from the speeches we heard earlier. For example, in Australia, the maximum penalty for fraudulently wearing a medal is up to six months in prison or a fine of 5,400 Australian dollars; in Austria, the maximum penalty is a €220 fine; and in Belgium it is a €1,000 fine. In fact, the maximum penalty in most of the countries I can see on the Library’s list is a fine, rather than a prison sentence. I do not think people should get carried away with the idea that if we are not sending people to prison for this offence, we are out of step with the rest of the world. That is not the case.
Dr Lewis: To save my hon. Friend a little bit of breath, I should put on the record the fact that there is an appendix to the Defence Committee’s report that sets out the long list of countries that have criminalised the fraudulent wearing of medals, several of which have sentences ranging from a fine up to six months or a year in prison. Surely the point is that we are debating whether the Bill should be given a Second Reading. If my hon. Friend feels so strongly that a prison term is disproportionate, it is up to him to apply to join the Bill Committee and then argue to amend it, rather than to try to prevent from becoming illegal something that so many other countries – two pages’ worth – have made illegal, whether punishable by a fine, prison, or a sliding scale between the two.
Philip Davies: As I have been setting out, I object not only to the sentence, but to the purpose of the Bill. The sentence is part of the Bill, as my right hon. Friend knows. He said he has two pages of countries that have made this an offence; given the number of countries there are around the world, he must therefore accept that the majority of them have not made it an offence.
Dr Lewis: Just for the sake of it: Australia has made the fraudulent wearing of medals an offence; Austria has made it an offence; Belgium has made it an offence; and Canada has made it an offence. It is not known whether Croatia has made it an offence, but the Czech Republic has made it an offence; Denmark has an unknown fine scale; Estonia has made it an offence; Finland has not made it an offence; and France has made it an offence. Germany and Greece have an unknown fine, but it is still an offence in both countries. Hungary has made it an offence and Ireland has made it an offence. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that neither Latvia nor Lithuania has made it an offence, but Luxembourg has made it an offence, as have the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Russia. In Slovakia it is not an offence, but in Slovenia it is, and in Sweden and the United States it is an offence. I think that covers most of the main bases and should reassure my hon. Friend.
Philip Davies rose –
Mr Speaker: Order. May I gently say to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee with such aplomb and distinction, that his intervention was somewhat longer than the list?
Philip Davies: Thank you, Mr Speaker. What my right hon. Friend said is right, but if he thinks that that is the full list of the countries around the world, he is doing his geographical knowledge a disservice. As he well knows, there are far more countries than that around the world.
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Philip Davies: ... I do not think that this offence should be created in the first place, but if it were, would not the confiscation of the medal be sufficient? I cannot support the criminalisation and imprisonment of Walter Mitty types. We have plenty of eccentrics in this country and some, I dare say, in this House. To criminalise someone for this type of behaviour would be very concerning indeed.
I should say, in passing, that all of us in this House know about the Liberal Democrats claiming credit erroneously for other people’s work. Are we really going to get to the point where we send them to prison for doing so?
Dr Lewis: Yes, yes – you’ve just shot your own case down!
Philip Davies: I note the enthusiasm of my right hon. Friend for the concept of locking up Lib Dems who claim credit for other people’s work. Are we really going to criminalise people and send them to prison for no more than boasting in the pub? ...
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Harriett Baldwin): ... 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 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.
Harriett Baldwin: 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.
[For Julian's speech in this debate click here.]