The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) on securing this debate and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on his speech. I have 14 minutes in which to try to respond to a difficult situation. It would trouble anybody to have to respond to what is undoubtedly an extremely difficult case, and if I sound as though I am rushing, I apologise absolutely, but there are some important points that need to be made.
The first such point is that I speak without fear or favour. I do not speak on behalf of any civil servant; I say what I believe to be right and true. I will begin by reading a small section of the speech prepared by me, because I want these words recorded in Hansard. I will then respond as far as is possible to all the important points that have been made.
We have heard today how Corporal Stewart McLaughlin was killed by mortar fire in the Falkland Islands in June 1982, after he had led a series of charges against the Argentines, notably machine gunners, in the battle of Mount Longdon. Like many others, Corporal McLaughlin was in the prime of his life when he died. He was only 27, and I know that he left a young son only four months old.
We know that a quarter of 3 Para lost their lives fighting on Mount Longdon. It is a remarkable story of courage, valour and achievement that Mount Longdon was taken at that time. We have also heard of Corporal McLaughlin’s exceptional bravery and his leadership in the face of heavy enemy fire.
Having been briefed in detail on his actions in June 1982, I absolutely agree with the assessment of those actions. There can be no doubt whatever that Corporal McLaughlin demonstrated exceptional courage and bravery, in the finest traditions of his regiment—and, of course, the British Army—throughout the Falklands campaign. His family, his compatriots and the nation are right to remember him in that light. He was heroic.
We have also heard mention of a letter written to Corporal McLaughlin’s son by the Prime Minister. I will repeat the lines quoted by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central:
“I have no doubt of the gallantry and incredible selflessness that was demonstrated by your father through his actions on the Falklands Islands. Our country owes a debt of gratitude to him and many like him which can never be repaid.”
I will now describe, in short, the system as I understand it. I am happy to be corrected—notably, if I may say so, by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, who knows this system because he has served himself, no doubt with courage and gallantry. As I understand it, after a battle, once the theatre of war has ceased, there is a gathering of officers who make representations to the commanding officer about those men—as they invariably are, although there have been women, as well, in more recent times—who have acted well above and beyond the call of duty. As a result, citations are prepared; that certainly happened after the battle for Mount Longdon.
The citations are submitted to a committee to decide whether honours should be awarded. That committee then goes into considerable detail, often taking evidence from others who served. It looks at the whole theatre of war and—I will be corrected if I am wrong—tries to make some assessment of what awards should be made and on what grounds. It takes all matters into consideration at that time.
All that is done in the strict confidence. Unfortunately, this case is an example of why that confidentiality exists. It would be quite wrong for a family to be given some sort of false hope: “Your son was remarkable”—I actually take the view that they are all remarkable—“and is being put up for an award.” If that young man then does not receive an award, that family quite rightly feels that some injustice may have been done and that, in some way, some criticism has been made of the otherwise heroic actions of their loved one. That is why this is done in confidence, and I do not have any difficulty with that whatever.
In the event that a citation that has been put forward does not result in an award, there is a period in which the commanding officer can, effectively, say, “What went wrong there? What happened? We put forward this person for an award. He didn’t receive one. Why didn’t that happen? Has some injustice been done? Is there some new evidence that can be brought forward to make sure justice is done?” I am told it is a five-year period, although, normally, these things happen quite swiftly after the awards have been announced.
Unfortunately, in this case, no such representation was made at that time. Sir Hew Pike has talked about that and his grave regret that that was not done at the time. It may be that if it had been done at the time, we would not be having this debate today, and this perceived—and I think it is an injustice—would not be being put forward in this way. But it was not done, and I know that Sir Hew, in meetings with the family, has expressed his regret that it was not done.
What do we know has happened in this case? If Sir Hew says he wrote and submitted a citation, it is not for me to say that he did not. What we do know, however, is that no citation was received and therefore the board, the committees and so forth never considered the case for Corporal McLaughlin to be given an award. We could go back and perhaps talk for ever about why that citation did not go forward. Sir Hew has talked about the constraints of time, and he has said, according to the minutes I have seen, that, perhaps, in the heat of the moment, after all that had happened, the issue simply did not catch somebody’s eye—I think that is the expression he uses—and the citation was, therefore, not submitted. In any event, however, it was not submitted and, therefore, could not be considered. Then, unfortunately, no one came forward—it has to be at the highest level—to say, “What’s happened with the case for McLaughlin? Why hasn’t he got an award?”
So here we are, 30 years later, in this awful position, where there is no doubt about Corporal McLaughlin’s gallantry, heroism and bravery, but the question is, how do we fix something 30 years on? I have thought long and hard about this—forgive me, but I listen to my officials and I respect all that is said—and I genuinely do not see any way round this, because of the passage of time. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central will no doubt disagree with me—I am more than happy to be intervened on—that everyone who serves knows what the rules are. These are the rules, and they can sometimes result in injustice, because it is also the case—
Ms Angela Eagle
Will the Minister give way?
May I just finish this point? I am quite happy to take an intervention, although I am conscious of the time.
The hon. Gentleman and others listening to the debate will know that there are many who conduct themselves well above the call of duty and who do the most astonishingly brave and heroic things, but who, for whatever reason, never even get a citation—those wonderful acts never come into the light, so they never get the recognition that they should. Apparently, I am told, that is an accepted part of the system; it is not a perfect system, but is as good as it can be.
I understand the argument the Minister is making about precedent and the way the system works, but we have now established that the citation was written —Sir Hew Pike, who is here listening to the debate, says it was written—but never actually typed up and transferred over. Therefore, Stewart McLaughlin’s actions were never considered at the time.
Given the exceptional nature of this occurrence, where we have the word of the commanding officer at the time and we have extremely detailed contemporaneous information about what Stewart did on that night, I wonder whether the entire system would collapse and the floodgates would open if the Minister said, “This is exceptional. We need to go back and consider, with all the evidence we have, the citation that was originally written and accept that there was an unexpected administrative error. In this case, therefore, we should go back and reconsider.”
I hear the power of the argument, but I fear that this may not be the only such case. Yes, I do believe that it would not be a good precedent, because of the 30 years. If it were not for the 30-year period, there would be much more merit. It is perhaps unfortunate that we did not have this debate many years ago, because we could perhaps have resolved this. However, it is the 30-year period that agitates concerns.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
Will the Minister give way?
Quickly, but the hon. Gentleman must remember that I have a matter of minutes left, and I want to read out a letter.
I am not sure whether I have to declare an interest, but I am an honorary member of the South Atlantic Medal Association.
If the Minister believes an injustice has been done, will she say she believes an injustice has been done? Clearly, she has the power to do something about that. Let us take an example. The advice was very clear that the Bomber Command medal and the Arctic medal could not be awarded so long after the event. Why can the Minister not take action now to ensure that this wrong is put right and that this injustice is dealt with?
For the very same reasons that no Government of any colour over the last decades has changed the system: we recognise the danger. Actually, awards for gallantry and bravery are different from service medals, if I may say so. However, the issue is the passage of time; it is the 30 years. It is also the fact that there is that five-year gap during which exactly such representations can be made by comrades—by senior officers. In this case, that did not happen. Those who serve and who know about the system say that it is not right and that it would not be fair, given the long passage of time—
Will the Minister give way?
No, I cannot take interventions. I have taken three interventions, and I have had less than 15 minutes to try—
Sorry, two interventions. If I can give way, I will. I do not know whether everybody has read the letter from Lieutenant General Jacko Page, who was the colonel commandant of the Parachute Regiment. If I do not have time to read out his letter to Corporal McLaughlin’s son, I will make sure everybody gets the opportunity to see it, because, in it, he expresses the position better than I am perhaps expressing it. He talks in very clear terms about the unusualness of this case. He says:
“This is an unusual case in that the system for the award of honours is, as much to protect those who do not receive an honour, kept confidential. It follows that there is no formal appeal process, and no ‘right’ to an award for a particular level of gallantry or bravery shown.”
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but wait—sorry. The letter continues:
“Everyone who has knowledge of Stewart’s story recognises his outstanding courage and leadership on Mount Longdon, and how widely admired he was as a soldier. But the very essence of the citation system is that all those relating to a particular campaign should be contemporaneous with the events described, so that fair comparisons of ‘like with like’ can be made by the Committee in the process of selection and allocation of awards. Even a relatively short time after the event, let alone 31 years later, this disciplined methodology becomes, by definition, impossible. Language changes, perceptions change, memories change and the immediacy of the time is entirely lost. Above all, the necessary comparisons between citations cannot effectively be made. Moreover, it is hard to imagine how in practice the allocation process could fairly be opened to retrospective citations without extending the principle to all, not just in the Falklands Campaign but in every theatre. This would be wholly unimaginable; it simply could not be done.”
Does the Minister want to run the risk of talking the debate out? Will she give way?
I am grateful to the Minister. Let me ask her a very simple question: has an injustice been served on Corporal McLaughlin? Yes or no?
I believe that his outstanding bravery has, indeed, been recognised, and it has been marked. The hon. Gentleman should explain that—