Armed Forces Bill

Armed Forces Bill (Programme) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 7th November 2006.

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Lords amendments considered.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 6:34 pm, 7th November 2006

I inform the House that privilege is involved in Lords amendment No. 55 to the Armed Forces Bill. If the House agrees to the amendment, I will arrange for the necessary entry to be made in the Journal.

New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 51.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendment No. 65.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

Before I start my speech on the amendments, and with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our sincere condolences to the friends and family of the soldier from the 2nd Battalion Duke of Lancaster's Regiment who died in Iraq yesterday.

The issue of pardons for soldiers executed during the first world war is most important, and one in which many in the House have a great interest. I am therefore pleased that there is an opportunity to debate the subject for the first time since we tabled our amendment to the Bill in the other place. I am sure that hon. Members will be conscious of the widespread public feeling and support for pardons for servicemen executed during the terrible circumstances of the first world war. As the House will be aware, the Government have given the issue a great deal of consideration over the years, taking note of the many opinions offered.

During a review in 1997, the then Armed Forces Minister, my right hon. Friend John Reid, considered the possibility of pardons under the royal prerogative. His review concluded that it was unlikely that many, if any, of the individual cases would pass the standard tests for prerogative pardons. The quality of the surviving evidence was an important factor in reaching that conclusion. However, my noble Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement was able to announce on Second Reading in the Lords, on 14 June this year, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had decided to re-examine the issue of pardons for first world war soldiers.

The Government believe that the time is now right to remove the dishonour that still taints the memory of those servicemen who were executed, which, clearly, is still deeply felt by their families today. Now, almost90 years after the end of the first world war, it is time for us to recognise that execution was not a fate that those soldiers deserved—

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

This subject is fraught with difficulty. The Minister has referred to the terrible circumstances of the first world war— circumstances that none of us can understand. All that happened before the parents of most of us were born. Does not the Minister think that, notwithstanding the unhappiness, we should understand that we cannot make judgments on what happened 90 years ago—any more than we can on what happened 100, 200 or 300 years ago—and try to rewrite history?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I am aware of the strong argument that the hon. Gentleman makes, and that others Members and people in the media will make and have made. However, I want to develop my argument in relation to removing the dishonour and stigma, with reference to the historical aspect.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

No mention is made in the amendment of the 2,700 servicemen whose sentences were commuted and who faced a substantial period of hard labour, which was certainly life-shortening. Logically, therefore, the amendment should also deal with those individuals, but it does not. Why should that be?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

First, in response to Mr. Robathan, we are not rewriting history. With regard to the point made by Dr. Murrison, clearly, there is a particular dishonour in relation to those soldiers who suffered execution, which is why we are dealing with that particular group.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall develop my speech a little further.

As I said, the Government believe that the time is now right to remove the dishonour that taints the memory of those servicemen who were executed, which is clearly still felt by their families today. We should never forget the courage, resolve and sacrifice of those who fought for this country in the first world war.Of course, we will remember them during this Remembrance week. The legacy and impact of the first world war on so many families is difficult to overestimate. My grandfather, Thomas Twigg, of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, was awarded the military medal for repeatedly going out under machine gun and mortar fire, acting as a stretcher bearer with another, and rescuing many wounded comrades, himself being wounded in the leg.

The poignancy of the situation deepened when, in 1917, coming back from the front line, he met his brother James. It was the last time that he would see him. James was badly wounded, and died a few weeks later. Every year, on Remembrance Sunday, from where I stand at the Widnes war memorial, I can see the name of my grandfather.

I mention that story to make a point. Neither my father, with whom I have had many discussions about the issue, nor I believes that granting a pardon to those who were executed besmirches in any way the memory of my grandfather or my great uncle.

The Government believe that closure can be achieved by the amendment, but I stress that we are not calling into question the actions of the officers who were responsible for discipline and who found themselves faced with what I am sure Members agree was a most difficult and unenviable duty. The amendment should not be seen as a judgment of the way in which they were doing their duty.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

The problem that I have intellectually with what the Minister proposes is that he is going to let the convictions stand, and pardon people purely because they were executed. That explains why the 2,700 who were not executed are not being pardoned, whereas the 300 who were executed are being pardoned. I am not sure how that will remove the stigma. Surely the stigma results from conviction rather than execution. If I were a member of one of the families concerned who thought that my ancestor had been wrongly convicted because, for example, he had had shell shock, it would not encourage me to know that his conviction stood and he was being pardoned only because of the severity of the sentence, not because of the injustice of the conviction.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I understood the point that Dr. Murrison made earlier about that issue, but anyone who talked to the families and those who have been campaigning would see how important the decision is to removing the stigma and dishonour associated with execution.

The Government do not see this as an attempt to rewrite history by quashing convictions or sentences. The pardon does not do that. Our amendment avoids the difficulties that would arise from assessing each individual case under the prerogative. As I have said, its aim is to lift the stigma that has been associated with the executions for far too long, and has affected the soldiers' families most deeply.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

The matter is of grave concern to a number of my constituents who had a relative who was summarily killed. They greet this day with great relief, and fully support what my hon. Friend is saying.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

My hon. Friend has made an important point. I know how much work she has put into her campaign on behalf of her constituents.

The pardon covers all servicemen executed for offences such as desertion and cowardice committed between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. Regrettably, we have not been able to list individually the names of those receiving the pardon, as our surviving records are not sufficiently comprehensive.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The Minister is a very generous gentleman. He opened a war memorial in my constituency a week or so ago. Both my father and my grandfather fought, one in the Great War and the other in the second world war, and they both suffered. I know for certain that if they were alive they would be delighted with what the Government are doing, and would want to pass on their thanks and congratulations to Andrew Mackinlay, the fulfilment of whose campaign we are seeing today. The House should honour him as well.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

The hon. Gentleman reflects a common view, not least among many ex-servicemen and veterans. It was a great pleasure to visit his constituency recently to support the opening of the war memorial. I know of the tremendous work that he did to establish the memorial, along with the local community, and it was an excellent day.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

The key to this decision has obviously been the shell shock that was beyond the control of those soldiers. Is the Minister aware that of the 346 who were shot at dawn, five were shot for disobedience of a lawful order, including a member of the Royal Anglian Regiment who disobeyed four separate lawful orders on four separate occasions? In fact, he deserted before he even faced a bullet. For disciplinary reasons and, I believe, quite rightly, he was sentenced to death. Why should those people be pardoned as well?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans) 6:45 pm, 7th November 2006

As I have said, there is an issue relating to conviction for wrongdoing and, obviously, disciplinary procedures, but let me return to what we are proposing in relation to the ultimate sentence, execution, and the removal of dishonour from that sentence.

Subject to the will of Parliament, we will place a formal record of the pardon alongside the relevant court martial files held in the National Archives, where they survive. The record will be visible to anyone viewing those files in the future. I believe that it will play an important part in helping to restore the memory of those service men.

In Committee in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Drayson explained why the Government had announced their decision to seek a statutory pardon during the recess. We made our announcement at the earliest possible opportunity following completion of our policy review, so that we could begin the necessary consultation and drafting of an amendment. I am sure the House will agree that once we had reached a decision, and given the age of some of those campaigning for pardons, it was only right for the Government not to delay further on this important matter until another opportunity arose in the legislative timetable. For the same reason, we intend the pardon to take effect as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent.

The subject of pardons is highly emotive. I know from my postbag that the public feel passionately about it. I also know of the considerable interest that Parliament has taken in the matter, demonstrated by the number of Members who are present today. It is right that I should pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, and to all other Members who have campaigned tirelessly for a pardon for first world war soldiers. The family of Private Farr—who have been strongly supported by my hon. Friend Mr. McNulty— and many others have been part of the campaign for pardons, and I salute the role that they have played in the process.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Will my hon. Friend give particular thanks for the work done by John Hipkin? John was one of my constituents when I was a councillor on Newcastle city council. He worked tirelessly on this issue, and was tenacious not only in his campaign but in gaining publicity for it. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise the work that John has done.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

Many people have worked tirelessly, but I particularly recognise the work that John Hipkin did.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden spoke in support of the amendment in Committee in the House of Lords. In a particularly poignant contribution, he said:

"It is not necessary to take special account of the extreme youth of so many of these soldiers, nor the fact that many of them had volunteered to serve, sometimes falsifying their age to do so. There is quite enough already to show that the humane and just, as well as the constitutionally sound, course is not to overturn the convictions, not to overturn the sentences, not to impugn the decisions of the Commander-in-Chief, but to effect posthumous pardons for these unhappy men."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 12 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 424.]

This week we remember those service men and women who sacrificed their lives while serving their country in time of war. The first world war claimed many millions of lives, and I believe it is appropriate for us to take this opportunity to recognise some of the other victims of that war, namely those who were executed. I trust that the House will feel able to support the amendment, and bring closure to all the families who have had to live with the stigma of these executions in the period since the first world war.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I join the Minister in paying tribute to the soldier from the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment who has tragically lost his life in Iraq. I am sure that the Minister reflected the views of the entire House in sending our condolences to his family.

No one can approach this subject without being moved by the terrible human tragedy involved in the cold execution of soldiers by their brothers-in-arms in the midst of one of the most epic battles in history. No one has done more than Andrew Mackinlay in bringing the issue before the House, as he has done persistently and tenaciously for the past 13 years. I suspect that in the fullness of time this will come to be known as the Mackinlay amendment.

As Colonel John Hughes-Wilson wrote in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute:

"There can be no one who is not moved by the chilling reality of soldiers, often young men who had volunteered to serve their King and country, being tied to a stake, blindfolded and shot by a firing squad, sometimes by comrades from their own regiment. It is an image that has entered the national consciousness and which tugs at the heart of any decent person."

Having said that, it is our duty as parliamentarians to look as objectively and sensitively as we can at the facts and to assess whether the action proposed by the Government in granting blanket pardons is correct, as that inevitably will have the effect of exonerating those who may well be deserving, but will also include those who, by any judgment, are not so deserving. In particular, I submit that we need to exercise great care in applying today's standards to the conditions and mores of a century ago.

The facts are as stated by the Under-Secretary. As the Secretary of State's predecessor, the current Home Secretary, pointed out to the House on 24 July 1998, between 4 August 1914 and 31 March 1920, approximately 20,000 personnel were convicted of military offences for which the death penalty could have been awarded. That does not include civilian capital offences such as murder. Of those 20,000, something over 3,000 were actually sentenced to death. Approximately 90 per cent. of them escaped execution and 306 were actually executed. Each and every one of those is a personal tragedy for the soldiers, their families and their descendants. However, it is just1.5 per cent. of all those charged with a capital offence.

Given that this measure is the brainchild of the Secretary of State, many hon. Members will be surprised that he has decided not to present the arguments for bringing it before the House, but has left it to his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, a brand new Minister. Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to explain why he has chosen not to—[ Interruption.] The House will note that the Secretary of State does not want to answer.

What has struck me as so curious in this case is the speed with which the Secretary of State, who freely acknowledged that he approached his new position with virtually no experience of Her Majesty's armed forces, rushed to a judgment so soon after taking over. Given his lack of experience and the fact that he had to brief himself on the workings of the MOD at a time when we are conducting two major concurrent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, how could he find the time to assess an issue that deserves very careful consideration?

The Secretary of State's predecessor had undertaken just such a review in less hectic times. As he said in his statement to the House in 1998:

"The review has been a long and complicated process."

He reported that he had reviewed every aspect of the cases, including the medical evidence and the legal basis for the trials—field general courts martial. In respect of the medical records, he said that there was no implicit or explicit reference to any nervous or other psychological disorders. The review had also confirmed that procedures for the courts martial were correct, given the law as it stood at the time. He concluded:

"However frustrating, the passage of time means that the grounds for a blanket legal pardon on the basis of unsafe conviction just do not exist. We have therefore considered the cases individually."—[ Hansard, 24 July 1998; Vol. 316,c. 1372.]

Many are questioning how the Secretary of State came so swiftly to such a contrary position to that of his predecessor, a noted historian who had considered the issue in great detail.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I thought that it was too good to last and that the hon. Gentleman might welcome something that the Government have put forward. Will he say whether he supports what the Government are doing, or will we just have the continued attack on the Secretary of State?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman, with whom I have had the pleasure of serving on the Defence Committee, knows me well enough to know that he will have to wait, for my speech is designed to be taken as a whole.

Many are questioning how the Secretary of State came to such a contrary conclusion to that of his predecessor. Did he consult his predecessor before making his eye-catching announcement? Shall I give way to the Secretary of State? Has he found evidence that was denied to his predecessor? Mr. Touhig said in a debate earlier this year that he had found no new evidence. I can only assume that the Secretary of State has found none either.

Has the Secretary of State obtained compelling new legal advice from the Attorney-General, or from anyone else? Clearly not, according to the noble Lord Drayson, who explained in another place:

"It is clearly not a traditional prerogative pardon. Unlikea prerogative pardon this measure does not quash convictionsor lift sentences ."—[Official Report, House of Lords,12 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 430.]

We are entitled to ask what it does do.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I do not want to make a cheap point but, as my hon. Friend knows, I am not convinced that this is an entirely wise move. Previous Labour Governments will have looked at this. Does my hon. Friend think that the total lack of experience of military life in the present Labour Government has led to the measure being proposed now, as opposed to 20, 30 or 50 years ago under other Labour Governments?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

My hon. Friend poses a perfectly legitimate question to which I do not know the answer. The Secretary of State will undoubtedly give his justifications. His junior Minister has done so and, in welcoming him belatedly to his post, may I say that he did so extremely well and with great sensitivity? However, one is entitled to ask: if the measure does not quash the conviction or lift the sentence, what doesit do?

The Under-Secretary said that the aim was to lift the stigma. Many would argue that the stigma has already been removed as the passage of time and changing values have cast in a new light the tragic deaths of those young men, although, self-evidently, not for a number of the families involved. As my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis said, what about the stigma attached to those 2,700 who were convicted and sentenced to death, but who in the end had their sentences commuted?

We have to consider whether there is a downside to this move by the Government. It is important that we in this House consider these matters carefully and look at the full implications of what has been proposed.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I am interested in my hon. Friend's speech. Is the matter not summed up by the Lords amendment, which refers to

"recognition as victims of First World War"?

Does my hon. Friend remember previous junior Defence Ministers answering debates in the House who were pretty well mauled by the House as a whole, which was arguing for recognition such as is being proposed this evening?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am acutely aware of the sensitivity of the issue. The right hon. Member for Islwyn said that he hoped we could find a solution. He was not able to do so when he was in the Department. Clearly, there is an issue, but we have to consider whether there are downsides to the proposal. Ministers have repeatedly asserted that they are not aiming to rewrite history, but many fear that this will create a precedent and are in no way reassured by the familiar Whitehall mantra that there are "no plans" to extend the pardon to other campaigns, as Lord Drayson has said.

Is it really beyond belief that others shot for desertion during some other battle will not become the object of a further campaign, or that other nations might not seize upon this precedent to demand apologies for acts of war? How would Ministers like to be the subject of future generations' judgment on the management of the Iraq war, including their decisions on preparation, deployment and tactics—judged not by today's standards, but in circumstances and according to values that we cannot yet anticipate?

The decision

"could create precedents for the future and it cannot but have the effect of impugning the judgment of the people who made those very difficult decisions at the time. It cannot but have the effect of revisiting history, which is very dangerous, and putting the gloss and judgments of today on decisions made in conditions which we cannot in our time and at this distance make proper judgments about." —[ Hansard, House of Lords,12 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 430.]

These are not my words; they were the words ofLord Ashdown in another place on 12 October. Undoubtedly, it was an extremely fair point.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

Did not my hon. Friend the Minister make it clear that he was decoupling the decisions made at the time from the decision today to provide a blanket pardon to those affected? By so doing, he is in no way impugning the judgment of the officers who made those decisions in the difficult circumstances of the time.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence) 7:00 pm, 7th November 2006

The hon. Gentleman should think carefully about that because, whatever the Minister said, the fact is that the interpretation will be that the Government are impugning the judgments made at the time. There can be no lifting of the sentences or quashing of the convictions. The amendment will simply address a sensitivity, which may be worth achieving.

The Government have specifically ruled out the payment of compensation, but as we have read in The Daily Telegraph today, claims have already been submitted. Even if the Secretary of State is successful in resisting those claims in our courts, how long will it be before the European Court of Human Rights is invited to interfere? Can Ministers assure the House that in the event of any reference to the ECHR and a subsequent finding in favour of compensation, the Government will reject that?

In considering the humanitarian aspects of the issue, we also need to be clear that military discipline is vital at all times, but especially in battle. That is why we have joined the Government in resisting attempts to water down today's penalties for desertion, which can put a soldier's comrades at mortal risk, as my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer so eloquently explained on Report.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

Does my hon. Friend find it interesting that during the extensive evidence sessions on the Bill before the Defence Committee, and in the many visits it made, no one made the case strongly for the amendment?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

Indeed. My hon. Friend and I were on the Committee and we met people who were on active operations. They recognise the importance of discipline. We do not have the death penalty for military operations today, and that is right and proper and reflects the mores of our times. With this amendment, we are dealing with a different society with different mores. That is why we joined the Government in resisting attempts in the other place to water down the penalty for desertion.

It is right and proper that we subject the Government's proposals to scrutiny, and that is what we have sought to do. However, as we approach the nation's annual service of remembrance we should, and shall, reflect on the courage and sacrifice of those who have fought and died for these islands, for our wider interests and for the values that we hold dear, and those who continue today to lay their lives on the line for our country. Among those whom we remember will be the victims of harsh judgments made in good faith by good men of their day, often in the heat and smoke of battle. If the amendment brings consolation to the families of those victims, it is a welcome benefit. However, in the interests of justice and for the proper understanding of history, let this be a one-off—a unique—case.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Labour, Islwyn

It is indeed timely that in this week before 11 November we debate the amendment granting a pardon to 306 of our soldiers shot at dawn in the first world war. Each year, on 11 November, we stand as a nation in silence, mourning and remembrance for all those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country during that bloody, awful war and the conflicts that followed. The people of these islands are a free people today thanks to our war dead. That is a debt we can never repay. We honour their memory and recognise them for the heroes that they are. They have earned the eternal gratitude of the British people.

However, for others no glory is attached to their memory. They have been banished to the fringes of history, their lives forgotten except, perhaps, by their grieving families. They were branded as cowards and traitors, blindfolded and shot at dawn by their own side. Between 1914 and 1920, some 350 men from the United Kingdom, what is now Ireland and what is now the Commonwealth, were executed for capital offences. Seven were Welsh, the youngest of whom was 19. Of the 350, 306 were executed for the military offencesof desertion or attempted desertion, cowardice, disobedience, leaving a post, sleeping at a post, casting away arms or striking a superior officer—all offences listed in the amendment.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, when he was Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, sought a way to pardon the 306 who were shot. As has been mentioned, he concluded that there should not be a pardon for some and not others, and he was right. When he became Secretary of State for Defence in 2005, and I was appointed Under-Secretary, it fell to me to examine the matter further, not least because of the case brought by the family of Private Harry Farr and the concerns expressed by Members of both Houses. I looked at four possible options and I concluded that the only feasible option was a legislative pardon. Before I left the MOD, and with the full support of my right hon. Friend the present Home Secretary, I set in train work to prepare for this legislation.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who came into the job in May and immediately set about taking forward that legislative pardon, which is why we have the amendment today. My right hon. Friend has acted with courage and determination and he has taken a step that others may have been reluctant to take. I also join the appreciation on both sides of the House for my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, who has been determined and persistent in ensuring that the matter did not go away but came regularly beforethe House. I also know that my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, received several representations on the issue and I know that he also welcomes the amendment.

This decision is not an easy one for Parliament to take. I have met ex-servicemen who are totally opposed to the idea of a pardon, feeling that those who were shot at dawn had let down their comrades. Others take a contrary view and, with their vivid and often terrible memories of life in the trenches, believe that it is time to pardon the 306.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

The hon. Gentleman listed several offences for which people would be pardoned. He left out the offence of mutiny and sedition, for which two or three of the soldiers on the list were executed. That offence is not linked to cowardice and the Army Act 1881 makes no mention of shell shock or cowardice. That offence is severely damaging to troops in the field, so is he concerned that those found guilty of it will also be pardoned?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Labour, Islwyn

That point is covered in the amendment and if the hon. Gentleman will permit me, I will refer to it in a broader sense later in my speech.

If the amendment is passed, as I hope it is, it should not be seen as a reflection of the failure of those who presided at and conducted the field courts martial that condemned the 306 to a firing squad. Those who presided were doing the duty required of them. They held the King's commission to prosecute a war. They had to maintain discipline and administer military justice as the law of that time prescribed. In my view, they acted properly and honourably in the discharge of that duty.

Some will say that the amendment will rewrite history and judge the actions of 1914 by today's standards. That is a perfectly reasonable argument, although I do not accept it because I do not believe that the amendment condones cowardice, desertion, mutiny or assisting the enemy, as Mr. Wallace suggested a moment ago. Military discipline was and remains the cornerstone of our armed forces' behaviour. However, the amendment is necessary as a recognition of the fact that many—I accept not all—of those shot were suffering from mental illnesses, of which people at the time knew very little.

I have had meetings with the families of some of the men who were shot and I was touched by their quiet determination to see those men pardoned. They were motivated by nothing more than a wish to see their loved ones remembered, without shame, alongside the tens of thousands of others who went to war in September 1914 full of high spirits and pride, but who never came back. I pay tribute to the families' quiet dignity, as many have lived with the terrible stigma associated with having a father, grandfather or great-grandfather going bravely off to war only to be shot by his own side.

The amendment will not ease the pain and heartache that the verdict of the field courts martial caused, but I hope that, in time, it will be seen as having put right a terrible wrong. It is all too easy to forget that the soldiers of the first world war had none of the modern world's benefits of free education and health care. Most of the accused were poorly educated, working-class young men: often, they were inarticulate and illiterate, with no ability to represent themselves in a tense court room where life or death was at stake. If all the young men who stood trial were medically examined according to the standards of care enjoyed by our soldiers today, I am sure that the result would not have been that 306 of them were shot.

No one can turn back the clock. The passage of time means that we are left with only the records of the cases, most of which make no reference to the mental or nervous illnesses from which the soldiers were suffering. This week, we will remember our war dead. I hope that, as a country, we can at long last find it in our hearts to pardon and pay our respects to all the young men who lost their lives on the foreign battle fields of the first world war. Whether they were shot by the enemy or by their own side, all were victims of a terrible and bloody war.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

This is a very delicate matter, and in the debate so far we have heard two different sides of the argument. It has taken us a long time to get where we are today, and I want to join those who have paid tribute to Andrew Mackinlay for the persistence with which he has campaigned on this issue.

The two sides of the argument are clear. Some look at the events leading to the executions and call into question how matters were handled at the time. Indeed, many people call into question the conduct of many aspects of the first world war. In contrast, we have heard that others believe that meddling in these matters is an attempt to rewrite history.

I believe that the Government have wrestled with the balance of the argument and that they have come to the right conclusion. The logic of the convictions was articulated by Dr. Lewis, and one can see how lifting them would bring more comfort and satisfaction, but that really would be an attempt to rewrite history. The same is true of lifting the sentence: although I abhor the capital sentences that were handed down, they were the sentences that applied to such offences at the time. We cannot go back over history and lift the sentences or query the convictions. We cannot remove the pain that followed for those who lost family members in that way—a pain that descendants have continued to endure in the decades since.

What we can do is to acknowledge and recognise history, with the benefit of the greater knowledge and understanding that we now have of post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost a century later, we as a nation cannot rewrite history or undo the pain, but our modern comprehension means that we can understand, forgive and pardon. The Government deserve credit for getting the delicate balance in this matter right. The Secretary of State deserves credit for making a relatively rapid decision in this matter. I do not condemn or criticise him for that, as he has showed a willingness to make other decisions rapidly—notablyin procurement, and I think that he deserves commendation for that as well.

The Government have come to the right conclusion in this difficult matter. However, I echo the hope that it will not form a general precedent and that the circumstances will be recognised as unique.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 7:15 pm, 7th November 2006

I have been in Parliament for 14 years, and this evening's debate will probably turn out not to be the most important of my political career. However, supporting this amendment is certainly my proudest moment in the House of Commons. I hope that the House will forgive me if I explain why, as that will buttress the case for the amendment.

First, though, let me say that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence framed and introduced the amendment in a moving and sensitive way. In addition, I very much welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, whom I congratulate without reservation. As we have heard, the measure will grant pardons to soldiers executed in world war one after being charged with crimes such as cowardice, desertion, sleeping at their posts, throwing away arms and hitting a superior officer.

For me, this is a very important personal occasion, and my arguments have both spiritual and temporal elements. Spiritually, I was reminded as I prepared for the debate of the words of psalm 130:

"Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O lord.

Lord hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication."

I believe that there has been a cry from heaven for this wrong to be remedied, and that is what this House of Commons will do this evening, on behalf of the nation.

On the more practical side, I must tell the House that soon after I was first elected I went to Tynecot cemetery to look for the grave of one of the soldiers executed in world war one. At that stage, very little had been written about what happened, apart from one very good book by his honour Judge Anthony Babington, and the great work entitled "Shot at Dawn" by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes, which details all the executions.

I wanted to place on record my recognition of what my studies of those executions had taught me, and I put down an early-day motion calling for the men to be pardoned. To my astonishment and surprise, hon. Members right across the House displayed enormous and immediate support in wanting to add their names to the motion, and extensive interest was aroused around the country.

I understand that some hon. Members may be hesitant about pardoning those who were executed, so I hope that I can offer them some reassurance. Although some people oppose the pardons, the measure is overwhelmingly popular around the country. That does not necessarily make it correct, but that popularity has been shown in the support that has been evident in all parties and in consecutive Parliaments. It has also been evident in support for the Bill proposing the pardons that I have introduced six or seven times while I have been in the House. I welcome the initiative of the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary; we need this measure now.

I want to reply to Conservative Members. They are entitled to a response to their arguments. The Bill that I introduced six or seven times did not include mutiny.

I welcome the amendment because time is now short. I want to deal with the question of whether the measure at this time is still appropriate. I believe that it is, but it will not be for ever. I regret that a Conservative Member shouted out earlier, "What about Agincourt?" As he did so, I will respond to that point. Agincourt demonstrably is history. The first world war is still a live and relevant issue for us, because each and every one of us have known and loved veterans of world war one. Some are still alive today. The immediate dependants of the executed men are still alive today. The issue cannot be dismissed in the way that people might dismiss the American civil war or Agincourt. Referring to Agincourt was a poor shot, and I regret that people have said it.

The issue is still very relevant. Judging by my postbag and, I suspect, the postbags of other hon. Members, people still see it as relevant. Their letters may refer to their dad, who never spoke about world war one, but towards the end of his life did so and said that he was on a firing squad or saw people suffering from shell shock. That supports the view that pardons should be granted.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman has campaigned vigorously on this issue; he makes a special case for these world war one people. Does he regard this case as a one-off, or does he feel that there are other cases? Has he been approached by others? What would be his reaction to other cases?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I believe that it is a one-off. It is such an outstanding matter and injustice is so grave. We have the opportunity to heal by accepting the amendment. I have shared with the House the fact that this is a proud occasion for me. If I have achieved nothing else in the House of Commons, I shall be proud if the amendment is accepted tonight and receives Royal Assent tomorrow. I see it as a one-off.

In the Bill that I proposed to the House on seven occasions, I included the options of a blanket pardon or a tribunal of Commonwealth judges to look at each case. I mention that tonight because I am confident that a tribunal would have concluded the same for each case. I say this in response to the legitimate point raised by Conservative Members. People say, "You are surely not suggesting that all these were good men." I believe that a tribunal would have concluded that all the trials were flawed, according not to the rules of today but to the rules that applied then. The rules of natural justice have not just been invented. The rules of natural justice required then, as now, that a person should be able to prepare a defence, call witnesses and be properly represented. Every trial was flawed on those counts. Furthermore, no one was given the opportunity of appealing against their sentence. In none of the trials were the rules of natural justice applied.

The point was also made that 2,700 people were sentenced to death but only a few were executed. I believe that that demonstrates how fickle was the decision to execute. There was no rhyme or reason to it. It was like a raffle whether or not someone was executed, which then goes to the heart of the principle of justice. Justice has to be consistent and clearly understood. Those who were executed were simply unfortunate in the draw.

Reference has been made to the Harry Farr case. It has been my privilege to know the widow and daughter of Harry Farr. A gallant lady well into her 90s, Gertie Harris pursued her father's case with the utmost vigour. Certainly the indications are that, had the case come to court, the Ministry of Defence would have lost.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Did I hear the hon. Gentleman say that he knew the widow of Harry Farr? Surely she would be about 110 by now.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I was privileged to know the widow of Harry Farr. In 1993 I spent a whole afternoon with her. As the hon. Gentleman asks, I will tell him. That wonderful old lady, very frail, in her 99th year, had every one of her faculties. She spoke with great pride that for the first time in so long someone was standing up for her Harry. Everyone now recognises that Harry Farr was shell shocked and should never have been executed in October 1916. She and her daughter Gertie suffered penury as a result of that execution. She told me how she bore that great stigma for so long. So I did know her, and I know what I am talking about. I have given some study to this matter.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I will give way. I will knock this one down as well.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

I do not intend to attack the hon. Gentleman or the case that he is trying to pursue. He has mentioned the daughter and widow of Private Farr, so I presume that he will be disappointed by subsection (4)(b) of the clause that amendment No. 51 would insert, which removes

"any right, entitlement or liability" and therefore confines the measure to gesture politics. It has no substance.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

It is certainly not gesture politics to the late Gertie Farr or her daughter. They have made it clear time and time again that they want no remuneration or compensation. All that they want is to have the record put straight. That is the view of all the families involved.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

We have dealt with subsection (4)(b). The widow and daughter of Harry Farr will still be related to a convicted coward. The pardon would not remove that conviction. Is that not a blight on their family?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

That is not my reading of the legislation, and it is not theirs. They welcome the initiative of the Secretary of State. In any event, I remind the House that I would not start from here. We would have addressed the matter 14 years ago when I first introduced my early-day motion and my Bill. We would have looked at the cases in greater detail.

During world war one, attempts were made by people like myself in Parliament to raise these executions. They were slapped down and suppressed. There was no candour or debate. The argument was advanced—it had some legitimacy—that the country was in the middle of a conflict. Come the 1920s, the matter was raised by several hon. Members, one of whom was Ernest Thurtle, the Member for Shoreditch. He was slapped down and told that he was wrong.

The point that cannot be escaped is that for 75 years it suited the British establishment to suppress the documentation relating to these cases. Now that the documents have become available to families, jurors, politicians and journalists and we see how flawed the trials were, people say, "It is too late; it is a matter of history." How very convenient.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable that the amendment was not opposed in the other place and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has given half-hearted support to it tonight, yet numerous Conservative Members are clearly opposed to it? Does he believe that, if they feel so strongly, the Conservatives should have amended the Bill in another place or should vote against it tonight?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Reference has been made to another place. It cannot be said loudly enough that, among the people who spoke so cogently and clearly in support was a person known to me as Sir Patrick Mayhew, a former Conservative Attorney-General, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, soldier and officer. Lord Campbell of Alloway, a veteran of Colditz, also spoke in favour. In my view, public opinion is overwhelmingly with us; in particular, people who have experienced combat and seen and endured stress support the measure.

It is perfectly legitimate for Members to question the wisdom of the provision, but it would be wrong if they continued to do so without calling a Division. I understand why they are probing the matter, but I shall welcome the House's unanimous endorsement of the provision, which looks likely. If there is no Division, the decision will be unanimous and that will be the end of the matter. It would be reprehensible if Members who did not divide the House continued to raise objections after the debate, saying that it was wrong to pardon those people.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:30 pm, 7th November 2006

I respect and admire the hon. Gentleman as a campaigner. He has been absolutely tenacious in this campaign and we all respect that, but if we disagree with some of the detail of the provision we are entitled to probe it, and if the amendment is passed, there will be closure on the issue. During the Boer war, there was the famous case of Breaker Morant, an Australian officer who was shot in extremely controversial circumstances. His family apparently want him to be given a pardon. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am not briefed on Breaker Morant. However, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised that case, because I am familiar with the consequences of his execution. After that controversy, 18 years later, the Australian Government made it a condition that none of their soldiers in units serving in the British Empire forces during world war one would be executed. None was, but nobody suggested that the Australian soldiers fought other than like tigers—despite the fact that they did not have the death penalty hanging over them, they still fought like tigers.

The hon. Gentleman also said, generously, fairly and legitimately, that this debate would be the end of the matter. That is all I ask. Members should by all means probe and argue, but I hope that if they do not divide the House they will acknowledge that they have concurred by their silence and approved the measure.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I do not want to take up time in the debate, but many who see more benefits than disbenefits in the proposal will not make speeches but will be wholeheartedly behind what the hon. Gentleman has been campaigning for and the Government have found a way of achieving.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It has been a cross-party campaign. I regret that no Irish Members are in the Chamber, because the campaign united various sides in Ireland, if only symbolically. Private Crozier from the Shankill and Private Sands from the Falls were both executed in similar circumstances. They were ordinary, poor, inarticulate soldiers, as my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out. They could not articulate their case and were not represented fairly at their trial. A soldier who was unable to advance when ordered to do so, or who ran away—whether they came from Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, London or elsewhere—was likely to face a court martial and execution. Many officers suffered shell shock, too, but they were likely to be returned to the love and care of their family in England and the best medical attention available. There was unconscious discrimination in the treatment of shell shock.

The question of history has been raised. One of the consequences of the campaign is not the rewriting of history, but writing a chapter of history that has been suppressed. We spend millions of pounds each year teaching history to schoolchildren and university students, so we need to write it with clarity and precision, including the parts that we find uncomfortable. We are now writing that history. Until 1992, the matter was suppressed. It had been suppressed in Parliament; Ernest Thurtle had been refused access to the papers, which were restricted for 75 years. There were only the books by Judge Anthony Babington and Julian Putkowski.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I entirely agree that this is a matter not of rewriting history, but of writing history. However, the correct people to write history are historians, not politicians.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I would argue that point: some people who call themselves historians make it up as they go along. Some of us have been scratching away at this matter for some time to try to find the truth. That is what Ernest Thurtle did as a Back-Bench Member and it is what I and others have tried, and will continue, to do. We will make the information available for historians. In any event, Anthony Babington—a distinguished judge—and Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes did their best, despite the fact that the establishment did not want the matter aired.

When the Secretary of State indicated to Mr. Duncan Smith that a service would be held when we believed that the last Great war veteran had passed on, it was suggested that the nation would draw a line. That is relevant to our debate. Such matters are still relevant to our age, not only because some veterans are still alive and some of their immediate dependants are very much alive, but because we have known and loved people who served in world war one.

The measure is not ideal—no measure we pass covers all the circumstances—but it is generous and fair. It reflects the will of the nation and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am grateful to be allowed to address the House on this subject. I declare a number of interests. First, I am both a historian and a politician. About 30 years ago, when I was writing some books on the first world war I was lucky enough to interview several hundred first world war veterans. I followed closely the work of Julian Putkowski; many years ago, he and I sat in the Imperial War Museum scrabbling away together. He continued as a postgraduate researcher for many years and produced a series of books.

Secondly, in 1998 I spoke from the Opposition Front Bench in response to the then Minister of State for the armed forces when we held the first parliamentary debate. After looking at the cases of the first world war soldiers who had been executed, he decided that all he could do was to issue a statement of regret. Finally, in January, I introduced a short debate in Westminster Hall on the subject, to which Mr. Touhig replied.

Almost every Member in the Chamber is wearing a poppy, and the debate about the executed soldiers has much to do with our national consciousness of the first world war—our guilt and our emotions. That war produced one of the highest numbers of casualties suffered by the British Army and the imperial armies. Our European neighbours had of course been only too conscious of such casualties; we had been fortunate enough never to have suffered to such a degree before.

From a British perspective, the first world war has somehow been seen as not such a good war as the second world war, which was demonstrably between good and evil. The public's interpretation of the first world war does not stem only from folk memories of their fathers and grandfathers. In many ways, Andrew Mackinlay is correct; it is history, but near history rather than far. Both my grandfathers served in the first world war. Both were wounded, but they survived.

Certainly, 30 years ago, it was possible to speak to many such veterans. As much as anything else, it all comes down to the fact that the first world war is seen through the prism of the film "Oh! What a Lovely War", and of "Blackadder Goes Forth", which features the caricature figures of General Melchett, Baldrick and others. In its last, most evocative scene, the whole cast, except General Melchett, go out into no man's land, and the scene is then freeze-framed. There is a powerful emotional element to the subject.

It always struck me, when I talked to the highly professional members of the Army historical branch—I give them great credit for the work that they have done over many years—that the problem is that the record is incomplete, as Ministers know. As the hon. Member for Thurrock says, access to the files was limited for most people, so it is inevitable that there were conspiracy theories about that. The record is incomplete not because it has been weeded, but because of the nature of the war and the nature of some of the field courts martial. Some of the files on individual cases are quite thick, running to 20, 30 or40 sheets of paper. On Private Farr, there are some half a dozen sheets.

I have concluded that it would be incredibly difficult to ensure a judicial review, in which judges consider each case in turn, although I know that the hon. Member for Thurrock and others were keen on that idea. Such a system would, ultimately, be unfair. I suspect that the judges would clear some people, but that in other cases they would say, "I'm afraid that under the rules that existed at the time, which carried the death penalty, some people probably should have been executed." However, there would have been a great tranche of cases in the middle, on which they would have said, "I'm sorry, but there's insufficient evidence; if we could call witnesses, we could decide." I reluctantly decided that, however logical the suggestion, that was not the way to go about the matter.

I declare an interest: I have always believed, and still do, that the situation should be left as it is. I can understand why we politicians might want to take a view on past events; after all, the Prime Minister, very soon after taking office, issued a statement of regret about the Irish potato famine. To me, as a historian, that seemed a somewhat simplistic interpretation of what happened, but the Prime Minister had every right to do what he did, although I would have thought it best to leave the matter alone. I have sympathy for the families, and particularly for people who remember what went on, but although we have spent so much time and emotion on the subject—the hon. Member for Thurrock might say, "And so we should"—we tend to forget, marginalise or take for granted the actions of hundreds of thousands of men. Most of those who fought in the first world war were civilians, and not all of them were young—many were in their 30s and 40s; after all, incredibly, the overwhelming majority of soldiers who served in the first world war were volunteers. However, I shall not go down a discursive route and discuss the history of the amazing "pals" battalions, made up of volunteers.

A significant proportion of soldiers were pre-war regulars, but after 1917 large numbers were, of course, conscripts, so not all soldiers were fresh-faced youths. We should remember that most of them, at different periods in their service, were terrified. When I have talked to veterans of the first and second world wars and of Iraq, and to soldiers in Afghanistan, I have found that they were motivated by many things. Because they are British, they are embarrassed to say that they are fighting for Queen and country, but they will frequently talk about their regiment. Usually, however—and there are hon. Members present who have experience of this—they were motivated by small-group loyalty, which basically comes down to a soldier's sense of being part of a team. Soldiers rarely work as individuals; they are a team, and that is how they survive. They survive because they are part of a team in a mortar section, running a heavy machine gun, or in an armoured fighting vehicle. In normal, civilian life, those team members might not get on well together, but as soldiers they work, live and die together, and if one of them decides to leg it, not only do they let the others down, but somebody else has to take over their duties.

When I interviewed veterans of the first world war, I found that many were disgusted and horrified that soldiers had been executed by the authorities, but among others, I found a quiet anger that the well-known company shirker always managed to skive off at a difficult moment, which meant that somebody had to take his place on patrol and put their life at risk. That is a very fine balance, and I can only make the following plea: we have spent a great deal of time—obviously, public opinion is that it is important that we should—bearing in mind what happened to the men who were executed. Some of them did not deserve to be executed, some were traditional regimental bad hats, and some were frequent offenders; all were judged and executed under a law in operation at the time. We should also bear in mind the great mass of men who were frightened and frequently tempted to run away, but who, for many reasons, did not do so.

I remember editing a book 20-odd years ago called "The War the Infantry Knew", which was largely written by a man called Captain J. C. Dunn. He was not a regular soldier; he had served in the yeomanry in the first world war, and won the distinguished conduct medal, then went back to being a doctor. He volunteered in 1915, when he was in his 40s, and served for nearly two years with the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He won the distinguished service order and the military cross and bar. His DSO was the result of a failed Victoria cross application, and he had had both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves as patients. His diaries document his eventual breakdown; he later found that he could no longer trust himself not to duck when a shell came overhead. His main worry and concern was about showing fear in front of others. He recognised that the way to deal with what they call shell shock was to try to rest soldiers as much as possible. He had a hard-nosed view of desertion. He was one of only two regimental medical officers to give evidence to what was called the shell shock committee. The written evidence that he produced, which is in the Royal Welch Fusiliers museum, is the only evidence submitted to that committee that is still extant, as the evidence was weeded at some stage.

I was fascinated by the fact that that man, who was in many ways very sensitive, and who was greatly admired by Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, firmly believed that the execution of men convicted of desertion was necessary, not only "pour encourager les autres", but because those people had let down their friends, and that was the most important element.

The only option other than leaving well alone or judicial review is a blanket pardon. I do not agree with taking that course, but I understand why the Minister has done so. I use my words carefully: it is a political decision—I do not mean a party political decision—such as that made by the New Zealand and Canadian Governments. I have no intention of voting against the Lords amendment, as it represents the will of the other place, but I must say that I do not think that it will bring closure, other than in a parliamentary sense. Debate on the subject will continue. On Remembrance Sunday, at least, we should all remember not only those men who were killed, but those who, like our grandfathers, survived, and did things that most of us would find incredibly difficult to endure.

Photo of Mike Hall Mike Hall Labour, Weaver Vale 7:45 pm, 7th November 2006

May I begin by adding my condolences to those sent by other right hon. and hon. Members to the family of the soldier from the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment who was killed in Iraq today? I wish to put on the record my personal thanks to my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay. Several years ago, I was returning from France when I bumped into him. He had just been on a tour of the battle sites, and he told me about his campaign for men shot at dawn in the first world war. I am delighted that an amendment has been tabled that brings to fruition the work that he and other parliamentarians have undertaken.

My grandfather, Private PW443 Thomas McBride, served with the 18th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment in the first world war. On the night of24 May 1917, together with Sergeants Till, Matthews and Ward, he went into no man's land in front of the Hindenburg line to dig a communication trench to the German front positions. They worked in full moonlight for three and a half hours under heavy machine gun fire from the enemy. Fortunately, no one was injured and those soldiers were awarded the military medal for their gallantry and service. Their commanding officer, Second Lieutenant Cecil Harold Wight, was awarded the military cross for supervising the work, and received a pension of five shillings a week.

Fortunately, no one in the 18th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment was shot at dawn, so my grandfather did not face the prospect of being called to serve on a firing squad to dispatch summary justice. Of the 306 soldiers shot at dawn in the first world war who are the subject of the Lords amendment, 254 were privates, 15 were riflemen, five were drivers, one was a gunner, one was a drummer, one a labourer, two were sappers, one was a trooper, 4 were sergeants, three were lance sergeants, six were corporals, 11 were lance corporals, one was a second lieutenant and one a first lieutenant. All but two of the 306 soldiers shot at dawn were "other ranks" and non-commissioned officers. The most senior officer shot at dawn was Lieutenant Edwin Leopold Arthur Dyett, who was a volunteer reserve with the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Navy Division. He was the son of May Constance andW. H. R. Dyett of Rock Ferry; his father, too, was a Royal Navy reserve.

Lieutenant Dyett was executed on 5 January 1917 at the age of 21, and he was buried in the Le Crotoy communal cemetery. In many cases, as has been said, the soldiers who were shot at dawn were suffering from shell shock. I was interested to hear about the shell shock committee in the speech by Mr. Simpson. In a war diary by a member of the 18th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, the first mention of the condition appears in June 1916, when it is recorded that men were suffering from shell shock—the diary does not elaborate further. Officers who suffered from shell shock were deemed to be not fit for duty, and were returned home, but that was not the case for other ranks. That is an important point.

We are not close to understanding the full effects of shell shock, but soldiers who suffered from it were subjected to summary justice. They were not properly represented and they were not given leave to appeal. The morning after their court martial, they were bound, blindfolded and had a marker placed overtheir heart. They were tied to a stake and shot by12 members of a firing squad, usually from their own battalion. One soldier was given a blank to fire, so that no one could be sure that they had fired the fatal shot.

Remarkably, the families and loved ones of the soldiers who were shot at dawn were told their sons had died as war heroes. Their were buried in Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries across northern France and Belgium where their names are recorded, and they are rightly "Remembered with Honour". It is fitting, therefore, that the House should do the right thing and remove the stain on their character.

The full truth of the executions in the first world war has taken an awfully long time to emerge. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock presented me with a copy of "Shootings at Dawn: The Army Death Penalty at Work" by Ernest Thurtle, who was MP for Shoreditch. The book was published in the 1920s, and the cases it highlights still make for difficult reading. Responding to an intervention, my hon. Friend pointed out that the Australian army did not impose the death penalty for battlefield offences. Anyone who has read Field Marshal Haig's diaries will know that he viewed that as a serious weakness that made it difficult to maintain discipline in the Australian army. However, the lack of a death penalty did not stop the Australians from playing a full part in the eventual allied victory in the first world war.

I wish to turn to the case of Lance Corporal 13857 James Holland of the 10th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, which was part of the 7th Brigade of the 25th Division of the 3rd British Army. Lance Corporal Holland was shot at dawn. On the night of 19 and20 May 1916, the Germans launched a heavy bombardment against the British positions at Berthonval facing Vimy ridge. At 5 am on 21 May, the bombardment intensified. At 3 pm, following a pause, the British front line was once again pummelled by intense enemy shelling, mortar shelling and tear gas. The 10th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment was stationed at the front line at Berthonval. In a four-hour period, 80 German artillery batteries positioned along a 1,800 m front launched 70,000 shells at the British positions around Berthonval in front of Vimy ridge. That was the heaviest enemy shelling of the war sofar. The British trenches were levelled and all communications were severed. The British artillery replied, but to no effect.

At 7.45 pm, the Germans blew a mine under the British position, lifted their artillery barrage and directed it at the British support lines. At the same time, the German infantry launched a ground attack across the smashed British defences, and crossed our front line, where they met little resistance. The German infantry secured their objectives. The 10th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment was tasked with holding the flank of the British position during the German onslaught. On 23 May 1916, the British counter-offensive to re-establish a defence line failed. The Germans anticipated the counter-attack and launched their own artillery barrage of heavy shells against the British lines. The British infantry ground assault scheduled for 8.25 pm was met immediately with German machine gun fire and repulsed before it began.

On 26 May, the British high command decided that the artillery necessary to support a major offensive to regain our former position on Vimy ridge would be better deployed on the Somme so that our forces would be ready for a planned summer offensive against the Germans. The Germans began to dig in and fortify their positions. The British Army lost 2,500 men between 21 and 24 May 1916. The 7th Brigade ofthe 25th Division lost 637 men. At some time during the German artillery bombardment—the heaviest of the war so far—followed by a German infantry attack, Lance Corporal James Holland left his post. He was found guilty of cowardice by a court martial, and he was shot at dawn on 30 May 1916. He was the son of Mary and Samuel Holland, who lived at 16, Flower street, at Northwich in my constituency.

Lance Corporal Holland is buried in the Ecoivres military cemetery in Pas de Calais. When my righthon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the Government's decision to grant the pardon, his announcement was covered by the Northwich Guardian. It interviewed an Army veteran from Weaverham in my constituency. Eighty-eight-year-old Harry Littler of Walnut avenue, who served with the British armed forces for six years in the second world war, said:

"It's worried me all my life. Anyone who has been on a battlefield would know.

Sometimes those chaps didn't know where they were, never mind what they were doing. The sight of some of those poor wretches—some of whom had given their all—their nerves shot to pieces, having to face death by firing squad because of a decision by unknown 'red tabs' and branded cowards, in my opinion was an infamy."

The Government have absolute support for what they intend to achieve in the Lords amendment.

At 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Derek Twigg and I will stand at the war memorial at Runcorn. We will do so in the full knowledge that we can pay tribute to those who have fallen in service of their country, giving their today for our tomorrow, as Parliament will have done the right thing and honoured those who were shot at dawn. I therefore urge the House to support the Lords amendment.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre 8:00 pm, 7th November 2006

As a Lancashire MP, I join in the tribute paid to the soldier of the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Lancaster Regiment who was killed in Basra on Monday. He will have been doing his best for, and with, his comrades, and carrying out the task that the Government sent him there to perform. We shall not forget him on Sunday, and I hope that his family derive some comfort from the personal support that I know that the Secretary of State gives to all the victims of the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflict.

I thank the three Ministers from the Department for staying for the debate. We do not often see the full complement, on either the Opposition or Government Front Benches. The Secretary of State and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces should be congratulated on staying, and I welcome that they have done so.

War is tragic. It is full of fear, and full of people who do not know what the next day will mean for them. War is confusing, and it separates people from those whom they love, and, very often, young men of all classes and all educations find themselves in positions that they would rather not be in. However, few of them feel that there are people to blame for the position that they are in. They do what they do because they feel that it is the right thing to do at the time. Many of them look back and ask, "Should I have been doing that? Should I have been in Northern Ireland? Should I have been carrying out the wishes of the Government of the day?" However, tragedy—feelings of loss and suffering—is part of war, and that tragedy cannot be picked apart because that suits us by our values of today.

The case that has been put forward for the pardons is, in my view, misguided. Much of that case is also full of inaccuracies. For example, the fact is that we did recognise shell shock at that time, but what we did not do was treat it correctly. We often took officers out of the field and sent them far back to Blighty, where they received what we now know to have been the wrong treatment. Although we got our medical treatment wrong at the time, should we judge the people of the day because their knowledge of medicine was not as good as ours is now?

That case is also full of inaccuracies because the names of many of the people for whom pardons are sought have changed—they have fluctuated. It is interesting that the Government cannot produce a definitive list of those who were executed in the war who deserve a pardon. As we know, there is a lack of records. Members of various parties have made it clear that in the cold light of day, perhaps by judicial committee, they could not make decisions on whether a pardon would have been an appropriate way of dealing with some of the problems.

I am mystified that people convicted of "mutiny and sedition" under section 7 of the Army Act 1881 will be pardoned. Mutiny is not cowardice. Mutiny is not desertion. Mutiny is undermining the very core of military discipline, sometimes for subversive reasons. As many of the French corps and British units in the first world war knew, it can cause catastrophic problems for fighting on the front, and, in the end, it can lead to a breakdown of the whole war effort. I am amazed that a pardon for that has been added.

It is important that we recognise that these are real offences that have a real impact on war-fighting. In today's world, if a warehouse security guard falls asleep, someone comes in and nicks all the stock. But if someone falls asleep on sentry, they might well condemn their men to death—not only in their platoon, but perhaps, in their company. There are plenty of historical war stories of such events occurring in every conflict; they have occurred in Northern Ireland, and they have happened since time immemorial. This is not the kind of issue that we can just move aside because that suits us. Some of these offences have real consequences for other people who were doing their job: hundreds of thousands of such people have died in the first world war and many other conflicts.

It is dishonourable for us in this House, in this century, with our values, to decide whether people of that era would have a different view. I was not around in 1918 or 1916. I know that, as a soldier, I would never have the audacity to compare my military experience today with that of those who were in the military nearly 100 years ago. We all face different challenges in different conflicts, and our values will always be different. For us to go back into the first world war and pick and choose what suits us is an insult to all who fought in that campaign, and all who did their best to make sure that Britain was victorious in a war that would have affected our freedoms if we had failed in it.

The class issue has already appeared in today's debate. There is a romantic notion that General Melchett was condemning people to death from behind the lines. Many of the men concerned were tried by their peers from their battalions, who themselves had been through the same conflicts. People did not appear from nowhere dressed in nice pressed shirts to judge these men; they were often tried by their peers. We might not like the trial process that they faced, but sometimes they faced those trials because of the conditions that people were in—because they did not have the luxury of being able to leave the front line, as they had to get on with doing their job, which was playing their part in defending Britain and ensuring victory in the first world war. We should not be persuaded by such romantic visions, or by the comedians whom we often see on television.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with me that, as was said by Mr. Simpson in his eloquent speech, officers who were exposed to shell shock weresent home, whereas privates from working-class communities such as mine were sent before the firing squad?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

The hon. Gentleman misses the point. They were sent home by people in that era, making judgments on their values, not our values. I do not think that that is the right way to go about such matters, but that was the way they went about it, and who am I to stand here and judge them? Such decisions were based on a class system that is, I hope, on its way to being defunct, but that system was historical fact, even if it is not of today. Therefore what the hon. Gentleman says is not the right argument to use as an excuse for pardons.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point, but that stain is still on the character of those families in working-class communities throughout this country; it has not been erased through the passing of the generations. That might not affect the middle-class homes that the hon. Gentleman might want to represent in this House, but for working-class communities, that stain is there, and it has been there for generations.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

That is the most patronising pap that I have heard for a long time.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Can I intervene on what sounds a little like an old-fashioned class-war disagreement? I do not think that we should go down that route. I, as a military historian, accept that, at that time, an officer's chances of being executed were far less. However, I also must say that the soldiers convicted and executed during the first world war of a capital punishment came from wide and varied backgrounds. They were not all inarticulate working class by any means. I think that we should now continue by listening to the main line of the eloquent speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Wallace, rather than get drawn down this negative route.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his advice. I certainly agree that this debate is not about class, and that it is not about today's values. A lot of it is about yesterday's historical values.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home Affairs

Does my hon. Friend agree that Mr. Jones has not quite put his finger on the point, and that he should look with a little more historical accuracy at the sort of men who, certainly by late 1915, were being commissioned and were taking the brunt of the infantry platoon commander's battle? Many of them came from working-class backgrounds, as he might define them.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. We must recognise that the stigma will still be there. The amendment states that the relevant section that gives a pardon to those who were executed does not

"affect any conviction of sentence".

I take that to mean that there will still be people convicted of cowardice, desertion and all the other offences, and that is stigma enough. Regardless of whether or not I was executed, I would not like to have a conviction for cowardice.

This is the problem with the amendment and the gesture politics behind it. If the Government wanted to grant a pardon, they should have tabled an amendment that granted a proper pardon, rather than one that removes the stigma only for those who were executed, and not for those who were convicted. That is the flaw in the amendment—that stigma will still be there for those war widows and others for generations to come.I would welcome some clarification from the Government on this issue. Will such people still have a conviction?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Labour, Islwyn

The pardon is not perfect, and thereare matters—Mr. Simpson discussed them—that cannot be covered. There is no perfect solution to this problem, but if Mr. Wallace felt that this was the wrong amendment, it was open to him and his colleagues to move a better one. We all want closure and a resolution to this issue, in the interests of those who suffered and of the families who still suffer.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

My idea of closure is to learn from history and not tinker with it. We should recognise the tragedy that was the first world war, warts and all. This should not be about tinkering in order to make us feel good in our beds. If we do not learn from history, we will not learn for the future. I hope that this Government recognise that we in this House are at our worst when we are pious and apply our values to yesterday, rather than learning the lessons of yesterday and taking them forward, in order to avoid such tragedies and such loss and hurt to our country.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I rise to support the amendment, which I believe is the correct way to put right a dreadful wrong done to many people in my constituency, and others. I accept and respect the fact that there is an alternative position. It was a pleasure to listen to Mr. Simpson, who explained his position in a well informed, thoughtful and well argued speech, but who recognised that there must be some form of closure. I disagree with his conclusions, but I respect his position.

What I cannot accept, however, is what we have heard tonight from Opposition Front Benchers. They have criticised the Secretary of State for taking this decision—I congratulate him, and I also congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. Touhig on his part in the amendment—but they have not got the guts to vote against the amendment tonight. It was open to the Opposition to table amendments in another place, but they have not taken that opportunity. That would have been a far more respectable position to adopt.

Mr. Robathan—he is not in his place—sought to imply that, because the three Ministers on the Front Bench have not got military experience, they are somehow dabbling in the military process. If the hon. Gentleman were here, I would tell him that he should take a look at his own Front Benchers. There is the honourable exception of Dr. Lewis, who is a naval reservist. I think that Mr. Howarth made the Air Cadets and no further, and unless—

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

Just to put the record straight, the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I was commissioned in the Royal Air Force volunteer reserve as a member of my university air squadron.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

And did not go any further.

The nearest that Mr. Harper got to action in the trenches—unless he has not told the House about his military record—was defending against the critics in his role as operations manager from 2000 to 2002. So the criticism levelled at Ministers for taking this decision, and the argument that they do not understand the military, is completely unworthy of this debate.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I had not intended to rejoin this debate. My aim was not to attack the Ministers on the Front Bench, for whom I happen to have—to varying degrees—grudging regard, but to point out that when Major Attlee was Prime Minister and when that famous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was in power, they took no action. What has changed except the passage of90 years? The hon. Gentleman has been attacking my hon. Friends, but I should point out that we in the shadow Government have a very large number of people with military experience, including myself, my hon. Friend Dr. Murrison, who has been in Iraq, and my hon. Friend Mr. Lancaster.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 8:15 pm, 7th November 2006

I am well aware of that and I have to pay tribute to people such as Mr. Lancaster, who serves on the Defence Select Committee and who has been in Afghanistan over the summer. I am sorry, but I will not accept this nonsense that, because people have not got military experience, they are somehow inferior to those who have served in our armed forces. To say that is not to criticise those Opposition Members—or anyone else in this House—who have served in Her Majesty's armed forces.

I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, who has campaigned tenaciously for this amendment; it is a great tribute to his persistence. I also want to pay tribute to John Hipkin, who was a constituent of mine when I was a city councillor in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and who has fought for many years for the pardon that the House will hopefully agree to tonight. John, a cabin boy, was the youngest prisoner of war during the second world war, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock reminded me, he featured in a documentary last year that showed the pressures he experienced serving his country as a teenager.

The amendment will not solve every single problem, and if we are looking for perfection we will not find it there, but it will enable a line to be drawn under these events.

Lance Corporal Peter Goggins, of South Moor, Stanley—he is the uncle of a constituent of mine, Marina Brewis, who also lives in Stanley—was shot at dawn in 1917. He and his comrades, who were part of the 19th Durham Light Infantry, were guarding their positions on the western front. They were retreated when a senior officer informed them that an ambush was taking place that was advancing from the German lines. That proved to be unfounded, and Corporal Goggins was tried on Christmas Eve 1916 and executed in January 1917.

Private Albert Rochester witnessed the execution. His diaries state:

"A motor ambulance arrives carrying the doomed men. Manacled and blindfolded, they are helped out and tied up to the stakes. Over each man's heart is placed an envelope. At the sign of command, the firing parties, 12 for each, align their rifles on the envelopes. The officer in charge holds his stick aloft and, as it falls, 36 bullets usher the souls of three of Kitchener's men to the great unknown."

The military chaplain present said of the three men executed that morning:

"Braver men I have never met."

This amendment will lift the stain on the Brewis family. When Mrs. Brewis, who is now 71, heard of the amendment, she said that it was "wonderful news", and that although she would be "sceptical" until Parliament passed it, she and the other families who have been campaigning for a pardon for many years would be delighted to see it.

This has not been an easy decision for Ministers and others to reach, but it will lift the stigma and the sense of shame that a lot of such families have experienced. We must also remember the hardship that they went through, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock explained earlier. I accept that there are Opposition Members who do not agree with the amendment, and if they feel very strongly that they cannot support it, they should divide the House and ensure that we put onthe record who supported the amendment and whodid not.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

As far as that last set of remarks is concerned, many of us have listened to this argument very carefully, and many of us may disagree with parts of the proposal, but we have a right to question the Government, to hold them to account and to ask various questions. Just because we do not go along with everything that Mr. Jones has said, that does not mean that we should necessarily push the amendment to a vote. I do not understand the logic of what he has been saying.

I should declare an interest because both my grandfathers fought in the first world war with huge bravery and distinction. My great-uncle also fought in the first world war as a founder member of the Royal Tank Regiment. Umpteen relations of mine fought in the first world war and died. The issue is very emotional.

We have had an interesting debate tonight. I admire Andrew Mackinlay, whom I have respected for many years. We have campaigned together in other areas and he has been a marvellous ally in one particular campaign involving constituents who have faced injustice. I greatly admire his tenacity and determination. Obviously we should salute that this evening, because he has worked tirelessly on this matter. I do not agree with where he is coming from and I do not support the conclusions that he has reached, but I still respect him for that.

My hon. Friend Mr. Simpson, who is my parliamentary neighbour, made a learned and erudite speech. He knows a huge amount about this subject. He made one point that certainly had resonance, because I remember my grandfather making the same point clear to me when we discussed the issue, which we did many times. My grandfather lived until about 1970. He was badly wounded in 1916. He was then badly gassed the following year and never really recovered. I was quite young—about 12 or so—when he died, but I remember speaking to him at length about this issue. He said that he and his friends fought first for their chums, secondly for their regiment, and thirdly for Queen or King. That was the point that my hon. Friend made: there was a feeling among the millions of people who fought in the first world war that those who let the side down put not just their own lives, but the lives of many others, at risk.

Successive Secretaries of State have looked at the issue. It is nothing new. I had the privilege and honour of serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind—he was then the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh Pentlands. We looked at the issue in great detail and decided that it would be wrong to reopen the matter and rewrite history. Successive Labour Secretaries of State have done exactly the same. I well remember John Reid making it clear that he felt that this was not the right way to go. He argued persuasively and with huge intellectual rigour that pardons should not be granted. I do not know what has changed.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth pointed out, this is a complicated process that involves a great deal of effort and input. With great respect to Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, and indeed some Conservative Members, it beggars belief that Ministers can devote time to this matter—important as they may regard it—when they face so many other priorities and issues. Just look at the huge challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is the huge issue of the vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq that do not have the necessary armour and the issue of helicopter lift capacity. There are all those other massive challenges that my hon. Friend referred to.

I know, because I have a large number of friends in the armed forces, including five colleagues from university who happen to be brigadiers or generals, that this decision is very unpopular with the armed forces. I am concerned that the trust and respect of the armed forces for the Ministers of Her Majesty's Government will be damaged by this issue. I only hope that that will be got over quickly. As a number of my hon. Friends have pointed out, the decision is totally illogical. It does not quash convictions and it does not remove sentences.

Photo of Mike Hall Mike Hall Labour, Weaver Vale

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

I want to be brief, because we need to make progress. There is a long list of amendments. I am going to wrap my remarks up quite soon.

What about the 2,700 soldiers who were sentenced to death, but had their sentences commuted? Will they be affected? Will they receive a pardon? We heard about the Farr case, which was moving and tragic. However, every single case is different. If one has a look at the breakdown, as some colleagues have already, one sees that out of the 346 soldiers who were executed, 37 were executed for murder and will not benefit from the pardon. I mentioned earlier in an intervention that there were five who were executed for disobedience to a lawful order. One of them was a private in the Royal Norfolks who disobeyed four separate orders, on four different occasions. He was given umpteen warnings. He was sentenced to death by firing squad for disobedience to those lawful orders before he even got near the front, so he certainly could not have suffered from any form of shell shock. As my hon. Friend Mr. Wallace pointed out, 18 soldiers were sentenced for mutiny and various other offences.

The issue is complicated and every single case is different, which is why I took the view that perhaps we should have set up a tribunal of Commonwealth judges or learned judges to look at every single case totally separately on its merits. In my judgment, what we are are doing is illogical. Whatever colleagues say, if we not rewriting history, we are certainly writing it. What happened in the great war was horrific and tragic, but we are looking at it from a modern-day perspective. We are imposing our modern-day values on events that happened nearly 100 years ago. Of course those men would not have been executed today. In the second world war, there was not a single British soldier executed by firing squad. I gather that one American was executed during the battle of the Bulge. To put that into perspective, 10,000 German soldiers were hung for either desertion or cowardice in the last war and 25,000 Russians were shot by firing squad—probably double that number were shot by the commissars who were attached to each single unit.

Should we really be questioning the motives and the rationale of the Army commanders in world war one? Should we be questioning the decisions taken by the much reviled Field Marshal Haig? How far back should we go? Should we go back to the Boer war and Breaker Morant, or the Zulu war, or the Crimean war? What other categories of offence will be covered by future initiatives of this kind? What about the British traitors who were hanged during the second world war, such as Lord Haw-Haw and John Amery and many others, who may well not have had a fair trial at the time?

We have had an interesting and, in many ways, moving debate, with a lot of excellent contributions. Those of us who have doubts about this matter should not be taunted by the other side for not putting it to a vote, because we have asked a lot of sensible questions. Can the Minister really give us a categorical assurance that this measure will not set a precedent? Is this really a one-off? We are all decent, compassionate human beings. Of course we can regret the past and observe the deeds of our ancestors with astonishment, incomprehension and even sad regret. Obviously we can feel only pity towards those luckless soldiers who were executed nearly a century ago. There is little doubt that many of them showed incredible bravery and astonishing mental toughness when they were finally led out to be shot, blindfolded and alone. We have to applaud their courage in extremis. They were as much victims of that war as the three quarters of a million of their comrades, in addition to the millions of other soldiers, who were killed. However, I do not believe that we should reinvent the past to suit our wishes today. That way lies madness. That is why I have serious regrets about what the Government are doing and I am looking forward to the assurances from the Minister.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker we have had a reflective, important and well thought debate. No one could say that the arguments expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House have not been well aired. Strong views have been expressed by many, and passionate views have been expressed by some. This is a difficult issue.

It is important that I put it on record that the intention of the pardon is to remove the dishonour of execution. It is not intended that it will quash the convictions or sentences. It stands as a recognition that execution was not a fate that servicemen deserved. I cannot make any clearer why we wish to introduce the measure.

I know that such matters have a great emotional impact on people. We are of course discussing the period of the first world war, which, as Mr. Simpson made clear, has a particular impact on the nation's consciousness, given the terrible horrors that took place. I never met my grandfather because he died well before I was born, but I have met and talked to veterans of the first world war, so I have some understanding, albeit perhaps not in the greatest depth, of their suffering, fear and bravery and the horror of the events. Hundreds of thousands of people made many sacrifices and went through absolutely unbelievable experiences in the trenches and during the battles that took place.

On Remembrance Sunday, we will all remember the tremendous courage and sacrifice of those who fought in the first world war, second world war and other conflicts, and the service that they gave. I hope that we can now let the matter rest in peace.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 65 agreed to.