Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Historical Inequalities Report

– in the House of Commons at 11:38 am on 22nd April 2021.

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Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence 11:38 am, 22nd April 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the special committee review into the historical actions of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, when it was the Imperial War Graves Commission and subsequently.

I start by placing on the record my thanks and gratitude to the committee that compiled this comprehensive report, especially its chair, Sir Tim Hitchens, and contributing academics Dr George Hay, Dr John Burke and Professor Michèle Barrett. I am also grateful to Mr Lammy who, alongside the makers of the Channel 4 documentary on this subject, provided the impetus for the establishment of the independent committee.

Today the committee’s findings are published. They make for sober reading. The first world war was a horrendous loss of life. People of all class and race from all nations suffered a great tragedy, which we rightly remember every year on Remembrance Sunday. Just over 100 years ago, what emerged from that atrocity was a belief by the survivors that all those who lost their lives deserved to be commemorated.

When the Imperial War Graves Commission was established, its founding principle was the equality of treatment in death. Whatever an individual’s rank in social or military life and whatever their religion, they would be commemorated identically. Unfortunately, the work of this report shows that it fell short in delivering on that principle. The IWGC relied on others to seek out the bodies of the dead, and where it could not find them, it worked with the offices of state to produce lists of those who did not return and remained unaccounted for.

Given the pressures and confusion spun by such a war, in many ways it is hardly surprising that mistakes were made at both stages. What is surprising and disappointing, however, is the number of mistakes—the number of casualties commemorated unequally, the number commemorated without names, and the number otherwise entirely unaccounted for. That is not excusable. In some circumstances, there was little the IWGC could do. With neither bodies nor names, general memorials were the only way in which some groups might be commemorated at the time.

None the less, there are examples where the organisation also deliberately overlooked the evidence that might have allowed it to find those names. In others, commission officials in the 1920s were happy to work with local administrations on projects across the empire that ran contrary to the principles of equality in death. Elsewhere, it is clear that commission officials pursued agendas and sought evidence or support locally to endorse 67 courses of action that jeopardised those same principles. In the small number of cases where commission officials had greater say in the recovery and marking of graves, overarching imperial ideology connected to racial and religious differences was used to divide the dead and treat them unequally in ways that were impossible in Europe.

The report concludes that post-world war one, in parts of Africa, the middle east and India, the commission often compromised its principles and failed to commemorate the war dead equally. Unlike their European counterparts, the graves of up to 54,000 mostly Indian, east African, west African, Egyptian and Somali casualties were not marked by individual headstones. Some were remembered through inscriptions on memorials. The names of others were only recorded in registers, rather than memorialised in stone. A further 116,000 personnel, mostly east African and Egyptian, were not named or possibly not commemorated at all.

There can be no doubt that prejudice played a part in some of the commission’s decisions. In some cases, the IWGC assumed that the communities of forgotten personnel would not recognise or value individual forms of commemoration. In other cases, it was simply not provided with the names or burial locations.

On behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Government of the time and today, I want to apologise for the failures to live up to the founding principles all those years ago and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation. While we cannot change the past, we can make amends and take action.

As part of that, the commission has accepted all the recommendations of the special committee. In the interests of time I will group these into three themes. First, the commission will geographically and chronologically extend the search in the historical record for inequalities in commemoration and act on what is found. Secondly, the commission will renew its commitment to equality in commemoration through the building of physical or digital commemorative structures. Finally, the commission will use its own online presence and wider education activities to reach out to all the communities of the former British empire touched by the two world wars to make sure that their hidden history is brought to life. Over the coming six months, the commission will be assembling a global and diverse community of external experts who can help make that happen.

There is also more the Government specifically can do. The Ministry of Defence I lead will be determinedly proactive in standing for the values of equality, supporting diversity and investing in all our people. There is always more to be done, and that is why I welcome the Wigston review into inappropriate behaviours and recently took the rare decision to let service personnel give evidence as part of the inquiry into women in the armed forces led by my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton through the Defence Committee.

Furthermore, to honour the contribution to our armed forces by our friends from the Commonwealth and Nepal, the Home Secretary and I will shortly be launching a public consultation on proposals to remove the visa settlement fees for non-UK service personnel who choose to settle in the UK.

The historical failings identified in the report must be acknowledged and acted upon, and they will be. However, recognising the mistakes of the past should not diminish the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s groundbreaking achievements today. The recommendations of the special committee should be welcomed by us all. They are not just an opportunity for the commission to complete its task and right historical wrongs; they point out what an amazing thing it is to serve our country and our allies.

The amazing thing I know from being a soldier is the relationships that are forged on operations. True soldiers are agnostic to class, race and gender, because the bond that holds us together is a bond forged in war. When on operations, we share the risk, share the sorrow and rely on each other to get through the toughest of times. The friendships I made in my service are still strong.

It was those common bonds that lay behind the Imperial War Graves Commission’s principles, and it is truly sad that on the occasions identified by the report those principles were not followed. I feel it is my duty as a former soldier to do right by those who gave their lives in the first world war across the Commonwealth and to take what necessary steps we can to rectify the situation. The publication of this report is the beginning, not the end, and I look forward to working with my colleagues across the House to ensure that the CWGC receives the support and resources it needs to take forward this important piece of work.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 11:46 am, 22nd April 2021

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy of it. I thank the commission for its advance briefing, which a number of hon. Members received before today.

Above all, I thank the Secretary of State for his apology on behalf of both the Government of the time and the commission. This is an important moment for the commission and the country in coming to terms with past injustices and dedicating ourselves to future action.

None of this would have happened without my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy. His documentary “Unremembered” laid bare the early history of the Imperial War Graves Commission and exposed its failure to live up to its founding aim of equality of treatment for all war dead. I pay tribute to Channel 4 and David Olusoga for producing the documentary and to Professor Michèle Barrett, whose research underpinned that work.

Perhaps in another era, we would have been tempted to leave it there, but rightly the commission did not. Indeed, my right hon. Friend would not have let the commission leave it there. The report is a credit to the commission of today, but its content is a great discredit to the commission and the Britain of a century ago. An estimated 45,000 to 54,000 casualties—predominantly Indian, east African, west African, Egyptian and Somali personnel—were commemorated unequally. A further 116,000 casualties, and potentially as many as 350,000, were not commemorated by name or not commemorated at all. In the words of the special committee that produced the report, the commission failed to do what it was set up to do:

“the IWGC was responsible for or complicit in decisions outside of Europe that compromised its principles and treated war dead differently and often unequally…This history needs to be corrected and shared, and the unfinished work of the 1920s needs to be put right where possible.”

This issue has been part of Britain’s blind spot to our colonial past, and we have been too slow as a country to recognise and honour fully the regiments and troops drawn from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Today is a reminder of the great contribution and sacrifice that so many from these countries have made to forging modern, multicultural Britain.

What matters now is what happens next. The follow-up to the report’s recommendations cannot be part of business-as-before for the commission. What role will the Secretary of State play as chair of the commission? Is he satisfied that the commission has sufficient resources to do this additional work and, if not, will he make more available? What role will Britain’s embassy staff, including our defence attachés, play in communicating this public apology, researching new names and telling the wider story of the sacrifice that communities in these countries made during world war one? When can we expect the completion of the investigation into the way the commission commemorated the dead from these countries during the second world war, and what commitment will he make today to report to Parliament on the commission’s progress on those goals?

Additionally, we welcome the Secretary of State’s pre-announcement of the consultation on a scheme to end the injustice of Commonwealth and Nepalese soldiers paying twice for their British citizenship. It is something we and the British Legion have campaigned for, and in particular my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis, who is not on the call list today, has led and championed that cause. Can the Secretary of State say exactly when the consultation will be launched?

In conclusion, no apology can atone for the injustice, the indignity and the suffering set out in this report. The Secretary of State spoke today as a soldier. It was a soldier, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough West, who, speaking about the commission in this Chamber more than 100 years ago, said:

“We served in a common cause, we suffered equal hardships, we took equal risks, and we desired that if we fell we should be buried together under one general system and in one comradeship of death.”—[Official Report, 17 December 1919; Vol. 123, c. 500.]

Today, belatedly, we aim to commemorate in full the sacrifice of many thousands who died for our country in the first world war and who have not yet been fully honoured. We will remember them.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank John Healey for both his tone and his support for the whole House’s efforts. Obviously, it was the almost single-handed drive of Mr Lammy that got this higher up the agenda, even though, as I think he rightly credits himself, some of the academics and the programme makers made a step change in that. I want to repeat my regret that it has taken so long. None of us were here in the 1920s, but many of us have been here for the last 30, 40 or 50 years.

It is a deep point of regret for me that, in my own education, what I was taught of the first world war predominately boiled down to the Somme and poets, with very little about the contribution from the Commonwealth countries and the wider—at the time—British empire. As I go around the world as Defence Secretary, it is remarkable to be reminded of those contributions. In some parts of the world, there are graves and places to commemorate them. I went to my own father’s base, where he fought during the Malayan emergency—now Malaysia—to see the Gurkha cemetery. Men died both to defeat communism and protect Malaysia, but also on behalf of Britain, right up until the early 1970s. I think it is important to remember that we have excluded a lot of that from our children’s education, and we absolutely must rectify that.

To address the points of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, I am absolutely happy to provide regular updates either in written form in the Library or indeed, on occasion, to come to the House to make a statement of update on progress. As the report itself says, some of these recommendations can be quickly delivered, and some will take time. For example, the investigation into the second world war commemoration and everything else is ongoing. I will make sure that the commission knows not only that it has my support, but that we will hold it to account in delivering that. I will seek regular quarterly updates from the commission on the progress it makes, and in turn update the House.

On how we will communicate with and make sure we work with Commonwealth countries, this is not just about an audience here, but about all the people in those countries. Only recently, I was talking to my Kenyan counterpart—I visited Kenya again and, indeed, visited Somalia—and it is important both that the people there understand the sacrifice of their fellow citizens and that we honour them as well.

As we speak, our defence attaché network, ambassadors and other officials around the world are communicating the report to host countries. With some of them we engaged earlier—with countries such as Kenya, for example—and we have already been working on memorials and things we can do together. We have been making sure that they understand the contents of this report, and we will continue to use that network.

As for funding and future steps, I am absolutely open to all suggestions about what more we can do for education and for commemoration. At the moment, the commission says that it is satisfied that it has the budget, but I do not rule out looking at more funding for it if that is required. Its current income is £52 million, with a range of Commonwealth countries contributing to the funding, but I am not ruling that out, and I would be open to sensible suggestions that make the difference.

As I said, I will continue to update the House and make sure that we can hold the commission to account and that the House can hold me to account in my position as chair of that commission. We should take this as the start point, not the end.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

On 15 June 1955, a small force commanded by RAF Regiment officers, including my father, crawled into the Wadi Hatib in Aden protectorate. They were ambushed. The commanding officer was killed. Another British officer was killed, and six Arab soldiers were killed. My father took over command. The six Arab soldiers are unknown, except the Arab officer; he got a posthumous Military Cross, as did the commanding officer and my father. There is no record of the other five Arab soldiers who gave their lives for this country. So I entirely endorse the recommendations and conclusions of the CWGC report. Mindful of the fact that we do not pay any attention to graves from the Boer war or wars before 1900—they are just left to go to rack and ruin—how long will we be able to sustain the brilliant efforts of the commission to maintain graves from the second world war onwards?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He and I share the same thing: some of the sadness and anger that I feel from this report is driven out of being a soldier. He and I know what it is like to be on operations, and it is a great leveller—that is one of the strengths of military service. People you thought were not brave turn out to be brave, and people you thought were brave turn out not to be so. You realise that there are different skills that help you get through things, and it is never linked to your class or your colour; it is linked to all the other qualities that people have. First and foremost, it surprises you. It angers me that brothers in arms in those days—predominantly the brethren—were forgotten, for whatever reason, and that must not happen again.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as it is today, does an amazing job. Any Members who have attended the numerous graveyards or sites around the world will have seen the effort that has gone into them, sometimes in quite hostile countries. I do not think that there is any ambition to draw that down. In fact, in today’s world, we are more and more of the view that commemoration is very important for learning, to avoid problems in the future, so I think it will go on. We will continue to fund it and support it, and I know that Members across the House who sit on its governing body will continue to do a first-class job.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I congratulate the former MP for West Dunbartonshire, John McFall, a son of the Rock of Dumbarton, on his elevation to Speaker of the other place? While he knows that I am opposed to an unelected Chamber, he is a dedicated public servant, and I count him as a very good friend.

I thank Mr Lammy for all the work that they have done and the Secretary of State for his words, which I am sure will start the process of healing for the descendants of those who gave so much for a state that did not seem to value that sacrifice at the time. As the grand-nephew of James Timlin of County Mayo, whose name is found on the war memorial of Tyne Cot, having fallen on 29 December 1918, let me acknowledge the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

That said, there is something of a grim irony in this report coming so close to one on racism, which we heard about just the other week. It makes me wonder about what the Secretary of State just said. I do not believe for a moment that he does not believe that there has been a great wrong committed here. I just wonder whether he can somehow address the distinct cognitive dissonance that all Opposition Members feel when they hear it said.

There is another truth that is revealed in a report such as this one. Although we have become used to the Windrush post-war framing of immigration and diversity on these islands, is it not the case that people of many cultures have fought for, if not enjoyed the benefit of, our freedoms for an awful lot longer than that? We must think of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and animists, and those of no religion, who have not been commemorated because they did not fit the white ideal of what is supposed to fit into uniform. It is important that those of all faiths and none are assured that they are valued not only in our armed forces but in the police, the NHS or wherever they serve. The Secretary of State can be assured of the support of all Members of my party should he wish to do that.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments, including those about the elevation of the former Member for Dumbarton. Those of us who knew him in this House will be pleased for him.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I refer him to the points that I made earlier. What conforms to uniform and what makes a good soldier are all the qualities that I talked about earlier. It is not about colour, religion or the many other things that have been used to discriminate in the past. I hope this report is a catalyst that reminds people that many people gave their lives for this country and, supposedly, for the values that should have been agnostic to who they were and where they came from. If we are going to honour them through this report, we must do so by putting it right and making sure it does not happen again.

In the present, as Defence Secretary, I have to do much more to make sure we recruit more people from backgrounds other than the white background that we talk about—from all parts of our culture and society. That actually adds to the capability of our armed forces; it does not detract. We are sorely missing the right numbers of people to continue to make our armed forces the best in the world.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

I welcome the statement, and I publicly thank the commission for its excellent work over many years. I, too, have visited several sites. What challenges does the Secretary of State see for sites located further afield? My sense is that the sites in western Europe, the UK and the Falklands are easily maintained and will be safe for the future, but are there particular difficulties that may lie ahead for sites located in Africa, across the far east and in more far-flung places?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend raises one of the key challenges in maintaining sites, sometimes in places that have been quite hostile. One of the strengths of how the modern-day Commonwealth War Graves Commission does its job is that it uses local staff and engages locally. Indeed, it is supported by the Department and the defence diplomatic network in working with host Governments. I am, in a sense, more optimistic, because I think this report will help open the door further for commemorating, finding and maintaining some of those sites. If we come along and say to the host countries, “Hands up, this is what we could have done better. This is what we didn’t do right,” we have a far greater chance of collectively being able to commemorate those people and educate their populations and our population about the contribution that was made.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

This is most definitely a watershed moment in the life of this country. I put on record my thanks to Professor Michèle Barrett, David Olusoga and Channel 4 for their work on this documentary. I associate myself with the remarks of my right hon. Friend John Healey, and I thank the Secretary of State for his words.

For all of us in the Chamber—this is still the case in this country—when we think of the first world war, we think of the western front, the poems of Wilfred Owen and the battle of the Somme. We do not think of where the first bullets were fired in the first world war, which were, in fact, in Africa, in the east African campaign. On this sombre, but important, day, I am thinking of the King’s African Rifles and the many, many thousands of men who were dragged from their villages to be in the Carrier Corps on behalf of the then British Empire. There is no higher service than to die for your country in war, and it is the case that every single culture on the planet honours those who die in those circumstances. It is a great travesty and a stain and a shame that this country failed to do that for black and brown people across Africa, India and the middle east, but we have come to this very, very important moment, 100 years on, and I thank the Secretary of State for his leadership and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the work that it has done to get us to this point.

May I just say to the Secretary of State that further resources will be necessary, particularly in those countries, to commemorate in the appropriate way. Necessary resources will also be needed to revisit the archives in those countries to find names where there are names, but to appropriately commemorate where those names do not exist. We use the word “whitewash” for a reason. Let there be no more whitewashing. The unremembered will be remembered and future generations of young people in our own country and the Commonwealth will understand their sacrifice.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

On the right hon. Gentleman’s last point, it is, “will, should and must understand their sacrifice”. That is really important. Exactly as he said, it was the east African campaign that saw the early salvos of the first world war. Was I taught about that at school? No. How many in this House were? Probably almost none at all. I have already worked closely with my Kenyan counterpart and I will continue to do so, and I speak regularly to her about this. The report points towards things such as bursaries, education and, indeed, working with the archives. Both the commission and others will have the support of the Department in being able to do that and to follow through on the report. At the same time, if funding is required, I am absolutely supportive of accessing that funding to help deliver what is required in those countries and, indeed, here. They will have the full weight of our defence diplomatic network to make sure that we can be seen to support, and to actually support, delivering on those issues.

The right hon. Gentleman’s actions on this are to be commended. He has achieved not just a passing thing, but a real thing that starts a process for many, many decades. It will probably affect my grandchildren’s education. Not many people in this House can say that they make a real, long-lasting difference. I will be taking that report with me when I go back to Kenya and to other parts of the Commonwealth and I shall reflect on it and seek, when I visit, a place where my counterpart and I can commemorate together and lay a wreath on behalf of all those people.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

May I thank Mr Lammy for raising this important issue and for campaigning so tirelessly to acknowledge the death of all soldiers who fought in the great war? I thank the Secretary of State for bringing this statement to the House today and for the humility and the acknowledgement of his work as a soldier that has made him realise that death is the great equaliser for us all. I thank him for remembering every soldier across the Commonwealth who gave their life during world war one. Will he join me now in paying tribute to those in our armed forces currently who are bravely serving across the world? Will he acknowledge their sacrifice and thank them for the work they do?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes. One of the best ways to honour the people in the report is to support, as much as we can, the people serving today and our veterans. I would like to place on record my sadness on losing my colleague yesterday, my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer the former Veterans Minister, who did contribute to supporting and making Government policy better for our veterans—supported by the wider Government. He will be a sad loss, but I know he will continue to campaign for them. No doubt we will hear him on the issue from the Back Benches. That is why we have set out a whole chapter on our people in the Command Paper and why we are funding such things as wraparound childcare for serving personnel, which has never been done before, to make sure that we demonstrate that support with action and funding.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

I have the honour of representing this place as a Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner, along with Philip Dunne. I thank the Defence Secretary, as the chair of the commission, for what he has said today, and commend the report of the special committee made up of external experts for their diligent and extensive work. As set out in the Kenyon report over 100 years ago:

“It was…ordained that what was done for one should be done for all, and that all, whatever their military rank or position in civil life, should have equal treatment in their graves.”

I cannot stress enough just how seriously all commissioners take this matter and how committed we all are to ensuring that we right the historical wrongs of the past, ensuring that we correct errors and omissions. The service of all to our country matters. We will remember them and remember them all.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and Professor Michèle Barrett for their important work on this issue. They provided the vital catalyst for the commission setting up the special committee. Alongside the full and unconditional apology for the wrongs of the past, the commission has already agreed a detailed action plan to address all the special committee’s recommendations. I am sure we all want these to be implemented in a timely way, so may I ask the Defence Secretary whether, if needed, there will be additional resources so that we can complete this work as quickly as possible?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her comments. The answer is yes. I ask in return that she, in her role as a commissioner, makes sure that requests match the aspirations and the recommendations in the report. I will be delighted to continue to work with her and the other commissioners on that. I would also like to place on record that the commissioners did an excellent job alongside the independent experts. When we met on this a few weeks ago, the commissioners made very clear to me their determination to carry out the recommendations and to put right the issues identified in the report.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am pleased to be able to follow Dame Diana Johnson, with whom I share membership of the commission. I am proud to be a commissioner and I am grateful to the chairman of the commission for his important statement today. I am also proud of the 1,200 people who work in 150 countries around the world tending the memorials, commemorations and gravestones of the many who served and lost their lives for the protection of this country and our values.

Over 100 years ago, the War Graves Commission was established with the specific remit to commemorate the first world war dead of the then British empire and to do so defined by the principle of equality of treatment in death, whatever their rank, religion or race. This happened in Europe and I am not proud that this did not happen across Africa, the middle east and India. I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North in welcoming the report we commissioned in December 2019, a month following the Channel 4 programme presented by Mr Lammy and featuring the work of Professor Michèle Barrett. The programme acted as a catalyst for this report, based on detailed research through available archives. I can confirm that this issue has been and is being taken extremely seriously within the commission. We are committed to ensuring that we right the historical wrongs of the past. The commission has been working over the last 20 years to ensure that we correct errors or omissions as we find them and that is what we will do on the back of this report.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has confirmed that he will hold the commission to account in delivering the detailed action plan that it has agreed to address the recommendations made by the special committee. However, does he agree that, while we cannot right the wrongs of 100 years ago, the commission can and should recognise that mistakes were made, apologise for them—as he has just done—and commit to doing what we can, where we can, now to renew our commitment to equality in commemoration with all communities of the former British empire touched by both world wars, where this report reveals that that did not take place?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is right to point out the determination of the existing commission—and over the last 20 years—to correct things as it finds them. This is one of those times where it has exposed things going way back. He is also absolutely right that, when you go around the world, you see that that network of people do an amazing job. It is extraordinary where you find in the world, almost like an oasis, well-kept areas of commemoration. You are often surprised that we were even there in the first place and, even now, they are kept and looked after. Some of the volunteers and some of the paid employees do an extremely good job as well.

On the funding, as I said to Dame Diana Johnson, I will absolutely stand by to make sure that we find the available funding to deliver this. In return, I ask my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne to make sure that these things are properly dealt with, looked at and examined and that they are in accordance with the report’s recommendations and further subsequent recommendations.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The revelations set out in this report are unacceptable and it is important that service and sacrifice are properly commemorated for all. Today, a Commonwealth service leaver with a partner and two children will have to pay almost £10,000 to continue to live in the UK, despite those years of service and sacrifice, so will the Government commit to waiving application fees for indefinite leave for all those members of the armed forces on discharge and their families and demonstrate that they really are looking at tackling inequalities?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who prompts me to answer the last question from the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne. We will start the consultation on that at the beginning of May.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

This report’s findings make for very uncomfortable reading, but I pay tribute to the special committee, today’s commission for its response and Mr Lammy and all those he worked with in drawing a vital spotlight to this issue. This will sadly be impossible in too many cases, but does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that, where the commission can identify descendants of those who were named, it should try to work with them on appropriately commemorating those who gave their lives in the service of this country? It cannot undo what happened then, but it might provide some small comfort today.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Absolutely. The report commits to seeking further detail, both through archives and other means, in trying to identify those individuals and therefore to make sure that we try to find a way to commemorate them. The plus side in this day and age is the internet and the ability to communicate. I have already had an email in my inbox this morning from a man in Kenya about his grandfather. I read it with sadness and interest, but it gives people that opportunity to connect. Hopefully, this report will be a catalyst for many of those things and we will be able to follow them up. I will make sure that I pass on the email to the appropriate authorities, but I think it also gives me somebody to visit when I next go back to Kenya.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

May I first declare an interest as a former commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and as a current trustee of the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy for his work on this issue and I commend the Secretary of State for his statement today. I also pay tribute to the present commissioners, who commissioned this report. It was not an easy task for them to do. Reading the report is not easy. The commission quite rightly in Europe commemorates all those, including those from India and across the Commonwealth, who died in the first world war—whether that be at the Indian memorial at Neuve Chapelle, at the Brighton memorial to Sikhs, or at the Southampton memorial, where Lord Kitchener’s name is alongside those in the South African Native Labour Corps who died. However, that does not take away from the fact that racist attitudes were taken to treat others in other parts of the world differently.

The Secretary of State knows that the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation is working with the Ministry of Defence to promote education among young people on broader issues. Could he act as a catalyst to draw other Departments to work not just in this country but internationally, to ensure that this story is told and that future generations—as I think is his aspiration—recognise our debt to these individuals?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The right hon. Member is absolutely right and his point about education is true. One answer to why commemoration has taken so long is that, if people had been educated about what we did, the next question would have been “So how do I commemorate it?” but because it was not taught, no one asked the question or created the pressure to find out. I think that that has started now. I would be delighted to speak to my colleagues in the Department for Education to see what they can do in the curriculum and in teaching that. I think the commission’s report talks about education in those countries as well to ensure people have access to the history, and we can then incorporate it in our future teaching.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

I thank the Defence Secretary for his important and much-needed statement. Does he agree that the contribution made by soldiers from Commonwealth countries to our current armed forces is still extremely valuable today?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Absolutely. It is not only valuable; it makes us who we are. We should continue to do more and more—we recruited more than 1,000 from the Commonwealth this year alone. We should always recognise that our strength is our diversity and our global connections. I think that people from all backgrounds bring real strengths to us. We will continue to do what we can to support them. We have our consultation, and since I have been Defence Secretary, the Home Secretary and I have moved lots of policy issues that were not progressing, such as for interpreters in Afghanistan. That has sent messages about how Britain values people who support it from other parts of the world, and we will continue to do that.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member)

Underpinning all the past commemoration decisions were the entrenched prejudices and rampant racism of imperial attitudes. We know that the empire is over, but those attitudes linger on—if they do not, why does the UK Government’s report on racism, which the UN has described as “reprehensible” and an attempt to “normalize white supremacy”, push back against calls to decolonise the curriculum? A landmark decision has already been taken in my constituency by my local authority, North Lanarkshire Council. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should lead the way in anti-racist education, as the SNP has pledged to do in our manifesto for the upcoming election?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I think that every political party would support teaching equality and not racism in schools. I am happy to explore further the hon. Gentleman’s comments about anticolonialism and decolonising our education curriculum. My grandfather was a Scot who went to India, and an awful lot of my Scottish family served abroad in the empire. That was how many Scots found success or education: by going afield. It is important to educate people about the role that we all played in the empire, whether good or bad, but we should also recognise all those people who were part of it, the sacrifices that were made and the treatment that they received, good and bad.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

The report makes for uncomfortable reading, and lessons have to be learned. I thank Mr Lammy for being a leading light in this important matter. May I add my comments and thoughts to those of Members across the House about the need to ensure that education is put at the forefront and that the history curriculum reflects the massive contribution made by our Commonwealth armed forces? Sadly, war memorials and war graves are desecrated, as I saw recently at Tunstall memorial gardens. I thank Macey and Isabelle, aged 10 and five, who were inspired by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and went down to clean them up. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising Macey and Isabelle and celebrating the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s work maintaining the upkeep of 23,000 cemeteries across the world?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes, I fully support my hon. Friend. An amazing amount of work is done around the world and at home, in some of the smallest graveyards as well as the big ones that we often see on the telly, and they are looked after immaculately. For many people, they are also a place of sanctuary. Connecting young people with those places is a great vehicle to remind them of the sacrifices and horrors of war and why it should always be in our interest to try to avoid it.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

I thank the Secretary of State for his comments and the tenor of them. I am pleased that the commission has fully accepted the special committee’s recommendations. If I am able to visit my great-grandfather’s headstone in one of the first world war cemeteries in France, equally the great-grandchildren from our west African, east African, Somali, Egyptian and Indian diasporas—among others—should have fitting memorials to honour all their ancestors. We must ensure that there are deeds, not just words, to rectify this historical racism and prejudice and secure justice, so will the Secretary of State commit to take steps to protect and ring-fence any additional funding made available to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission specifically to implement the important recommendations?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I would go as far as saying that I can agree to make funding available. I will rely on the commissioners—my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North and all the other members of the commission—to be the guardians of the implementation of the report and its next steps. I do not want people to come to this House and say that money was a barrier to something, but I also want to make sure that we do it in an appropriate way that has a lasting impact, to make sure, as I have said, that the start of the process does not end but goes on and on until we not only have commemorated the past but value people in future.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

I am sure the whole House would wish to honour the heroism and sacrifice of all troops, whether from the UK or the wider Commonwealth, who have fought for this country. The report certainly makes for sombre reading and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend will take forward its recommendations. However, does he agree that it would be entirely wrong to let the brave African and Asian service personnel of the previous century be dragged into the divisive culture wars of the present day?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The only wars that I am interested in are the ones that we can finish or avoid, or that threaten our values. I do not care where the people we will need to protect us come from and I do not care what their orientation is or what colour they are, either.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The failure to formally honour and remember black and Asian service personnel in the same way as white troops is indeed a cause for shame and deep sadness. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has indicated that all the support necessary will be made available to try to do what we can to right this wrong. Will he confirm that that support will be progressed with the utmost urgency and sensitivity, so that all our war dead are finally given the respect that they deserve? I am sure he will understand that any delays will only entrench the sense of hurt and disrespect that this report will inevitably provoke.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes. The House should be under no illusion: the commission is absolutely determined to see this matter through. There are Members of this House on the commission and they are determined to talk and work together, and we will continue to do that. The weight of the Department will be behind them in achieving their goals.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I join Members across the House in paying tribute to the tireless campaigning work of my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy that has brought us to this important watershed moment in our nation’s history. I welcome the Special Committee’s report, which makes for sobering reading in laying bare the historical injustice that meant that tens of thousands of Commonwealth military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for this country in world war one, have been commemorated unequally or not at all. In seeking to right this historic wrong, the Committee’s report recommends an

“ongoing commitment to continue the search for the unnamed war dead and those potentially not commemorated”.

Can the Secretary of State please outline what resources will be made available to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to make that a reality, to ensure that all our gracious war dead are commemorated equally and that future generations are able to remember them?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

At present the commission says it is satisfied that its £52 million budget is enough to start that process. However, we will complement that with the time and dedication of our defence diplomatic network involving more than 100 military defence attachés and the supporting staff in the embassies, whose actual presence in country will be there working alongside them. As I have said, I will be happy to review any requests for funding relating to other parts of the report or subsequent investigations.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

A visit to a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery can be very emotional, as the lines of tombstones confront us, with all the fallen honoured in the same way. The commemorative equality given to matters of rank and class is remarkable, and I must congratulate the commission on that, but when it comes to race, the commission has disastrously failed to live up to those principles. The Secretary of State has united the House in the way he has presented his statement today, but can he expand on how the Ministry of Defence will support the commission by way of funding and guidance on implementing the recommendations in the report, and on how this can be made into a continuous process?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I would like first of all to place on record that this commission and some of the previous commissions have taken some really strong steps to fix what was wrong when it was identified. The area of regret is that we did not do a lot of this much earlier. I would also like to say that we should not forget that, whatever the circumstances were, many of those people gave their lives to defeat fascism and to defeat people who challenged our freedoms, both for themselves and for us. That sacrifice was, in my view, worth it, given the freedoms that we enjoy. It is really important not to forget, in this report, that it was not for nothing. Those people did not give up their lives, whatever the circumstances were, for nothing. Certainly in the second world war and others, the threat to our freedoms was real.

As I have said in earlier answers, I will continue to ensure that the commission is supported by the Department and by me as its chair and as Defence Secretary, as the members of the commission continue to work to ensure that we always commemorate our dead and those who made sacrifices, whether in the first world war, the second world war or in all the other conflicts. We owe it to them. How we do that sometimes changes. A visit to the national arboretum is also a sobering and emotive experience, as we see individual units, regiments and conflicts celebrated, or commemorated, slightly differently. That is very moving, and it will be a good way to look at how we can unite people around our Commonwealth in the future.