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I beg to move
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create the offence of desecrating a war memorial;
and for connected purposes.
I find myself in the unique position of standing here presenting this Bill, with the Government in support of the cause and aims behind bringing such legislation before the House. It is the week of Armed Forces Day, and I say to all our servicemen and women: I salute you.
My hon. Friend James Sunderland and I have had constructive discussions with our right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about the potential for this Bill to be put into statute. Such a Bill should not be contentious, and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, my “co-sponsor” of the Bill, are delighted to have support from across the House for our ambitions.
I stress that this Bill should not be perceived as a knee-jerk reaction to recent events, as some in the media have suggested. Back in 2009-10, the former hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, David Burrowes, introduced a similar Bill, with the same intention of protecting our war memorials. My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell and I wish to place on record our thanks to him for his efforts, and for having reached out to us and thrown his full support behind our work. We also wish to thank Lewis Fielder and James Clark, members of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, for their efforts in researching, drafting and aiding my hon. Friend and I in putting this Bill to the House.
Every war memorial in every village, every town and every city across our country is sacred and serves to remind us of the immeasurable gratitude that we must afford to our armed forces, both past and present. The passage of time always presents the danger of dimmed collective recollections. Let us not forget the sacrifice and bravery of those who paid the ultimate price: young men and women who gave up their futures, loves, lives and dreams to ensure that the freedoms they once knew were protected from tyranny—for us, the unborn generations, who now sit idly by as monuments dedicated to their eternal memory are desecrated. I will not sit idly by, and neither will I be silent.
A lack of comprehensive reporting on vandalism of this nature means that it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of incidents each year, although the War Memorials Trust does an excellent job of documenting such incidents. It reports that seven memorials have suffered from criminal activity since April, including the Cenotaph in Whitehall which has been graffitied and climbed on, and recently the Union Flag was nearly set alight. In 2017, a woman was arrested for urinating on a war memorial in Essex for the second time. During her arrest she became abusive towards emergency workers, and was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for the first count of outraging public decency, three months for the second count, and three months for assault and abusive language. How that punishment fits the crime, I do not know.
The Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park has been attacked four times since Her Majesty opened it in 2012. In 2013, it was desecrated with graffiti that referenced the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. The perpetrator was sentenced to just 12 weeks’ imprisonment. Those who vandalise and abuse these monuments do not have the capacity to comprehend the strength, courage and bravery that it must have taken for, in this case, teenage boys to overcome the terror of midnight missions across occupied Europe in a tin can thousands of feet in the sky. More than 50,000 British, American, Canadian and Commonwealth young men lost their lives under Bomber Command to preserve and protect the liberties of democracy. Had the allied forces not been successful in their mission, let us make no mistake: we would be living under the tyranny of totalitarian, fascist insanity.
The price of war is immeasurably high. I saw that first hand when a young man from Stratford-upon-Avon, Private Conrad Lewis, lost his life in Afghanistan back in 2011. The pain felt by friends and the community stays with me to this day. Those of us who value freedom of thought, speech and expression know that we can never repay the debt we owe to these men and women; all we can do is immortalise their memory, and display our gratitude for their sacrifice.
Memorials stand in great, solemn, eternal remembrance of the glorious dead. We cannot bring back those lives, or erase the grief of families and communities, but the least we can do is ensure that memorials are adequately protected, and punish those who would deface, urinate on, spit on, defile, or graffiti them. Such actions, which have included swastikas spray-painted on statues, and Nazi salutes in 2020 before the Cenotaph, are the price we pay for ignorance and inaction.
A blessed bond is formed between our present and our past through memorials. We see ourselves in the names and images of our fallen heroes, and perhaps we pause to reflect whether we would have had their courage and their nerves of steel in the face of evil itself.
My great-great-uncle Allan Gullis, who still lives today, is a D-day veteran. I could not possibly speculate whether I would have had the sheer guts and bulldog spirit that he and his brothers in arms embody so fully, but the least that I can do is stand before the House today and try to secure the protection of their memory. My grandfather, Terrence Gullis, served in the Royal Marines during the Suez canal crisis, and my grandfather on my mother’s side, William Beacham, served in the RAF, undertaking his national service in Egypt. It is an honour to have such brave and committed men in my family. I would have liked to follow in the footsteps of those heroes but, alas, due to deafness in one ear, it was not my destiny.
I am delighted, however, to represent the great town of Kidsgrove, where the Royal British Legion, on its own initiative, has set up a beautiful war memorial garden that is used every November to lay wreaths and remember our fallen. It has been an undoubted pleasure to attend the veterans breakfast club in Smallthorne, run by Martyn Hunt and Paul Horton, which serves all veterans across Stoke-on-Trent as a way of bringing our heroes together to share their stories and lend support to one another. Dotted across this country are extraordinary examples of individuals and community groups banding together to honour the dead. Every year, as I don my poppy, it brings me a great sense of pride and joy to see so many others doing the same.
I am asking the House to do the respectable thing—the right thing—and back this Bill to create an explicit offence, distinguishable from damage to public property. Let us join our friends in Australia, the United States and Canada, and pay the respect that we owe to those who died in the freedom fight against tyranny. Although there is provision in existing legislation to hold criminals to account for damage to property, and offenders have been successfully prosecuted, relatively few are held to account for the severity of the aggravating circumstances that come with criminally damaging something as sacred to the nation as war memorials.
In addition to the designation of a specific offence relating to unlawful damage to a war memorial, the Bill proposes the exemption of damage to war memorials from the £5,000 damages threshold required under the Criminal Damage Act 1971; the removal of a maximum fine in favour of an unlimited fine; and the establishment of a maximum custodial sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. Despite some media reports, we are not calling for all offences to be met with 10 years’ imprisonment; we are enabling our judiciary to use their discretion over whether the offence is worthy of being moved to a Crown court, without the £5,000 threshold barrier blocking its way.
Finally, I take the opportunity to praise my partner in this proposal, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell. He has an outstanding record as a public servant, with 27 years of military service under his belt. In this House, he serves as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, and he remains unrivalled in his passion for veterans, the Commonwealth and remembrance. It is a privilege to know him and work with him as a fellow member of the 2019 intake. My hon. Friend will perhaps be blushing at such unreserved praise, but it is certain that he is cut from the same cloth as those whose memories I stand here advocating to protect and preserve. I thank him wholeheartedly for his service and for his help in laying the Bill before the House.
I want to see the deterrence of criminal damage to the memory of our glorious dead. I hope that the House will support me in that endeavour.
Question put and agreed to.
Mr Jonathan Gullis accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday
While preparing to submit this ten-minute rule Bill, we became aware of a perceived anomaly in parliamentary procedure. Given that such Bills require a minimum of 12 signatures, it seems odd that only one Member is permitted to present one to the House. As a member of the Procedure Committee, might I place on the record my aspiration for a review of parliamentary procedure whereby co-sponsors of ten-minute rule Bills could be allocated a discrete share of parliamentary time?
May I also record my thanks to all who have supported us through this undertaking, and in particular to the Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces?
I thank the hon. Member for that point of order, and for giving me forward notice of it. I have been a Member of Parliament for 28 and a bit years—[Interruption.] I know; I thank Ms Rimmer for that reaction. Some procedures seem to go back centuries, and others 10 weeks. I hope that I can give the hon. Gentleman some hope, at least, that when it is discussed by the Procedure Committee, what he desires can be analysed and, if it is the will of the House, those procedures can be changed.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. As a former long-standing member of the Procedure Committee, may I say, when it comes to changing procedure, “Be careful what you wish for”? In my experience over 37 years, the ten-minute rule procedure has worked extremely well. It allows a Back Bencher to set out his case over 10 minutes, and it might be quite dangerous to muck around with it.