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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, February 2, 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, Ferry Services, Budget (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Decision Time


Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-03302, in the name of Liam Kerr, on the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the view that people in North East Scotland and across the country who falsely wear medals claiming to have earned them deserve punishment; understands that a survey suggested that almost two thirds of members of the forces' community had personally come across people wearing medals or insignia awarded to someone else; notes the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, which has been introduced in the House of Commons by Gareth Johnston MP as a private member’s bill; understands that this aims to give adequate protection to close family members of service personnel who have died or been injured and to allow them to wear their decorations at special commemorations, effectively on the family member's behalf, and notes the calls for MPs of all parties to vote for the bill.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am very proud to be standing here to lead this members’ business debate today. At the outset, I would like to pay tribute to our greatly missed friend Alex Johnstone, for whom this issue was especially important. As such, it is an even greater honour for me to pursue it.

I also thank those from across the chamber who added their support to the motion, allowing us to debate what is an important and, for many, a very emotive issue.

There are few things that we, as a country, should value more, nor people we should honour more, than those who volunteer to defend us and our way of life. On 10 March 1816 the London Gazette carried the following memorandum from Horseguards:

“The Prince Regent, has been graciously pleased, in the name and on the behalf of His Majesty, to command, that, in commemoration of the brilliant and decisive victory of Waterloo, a medal shall be conferred upon every Officer, Non-Commissioned Officer, and Soldier of the British Army present upon that memorable occasion.”

From that day forward, it has been the proud tradition of this country to present medals to our servicemen and women when they are judged to have been deserving of one.

Be under no doubt that the requirements that qualify British service personnel to be awarded a medal are some of the strictest in the world. It is an honour earned, not gifted.

When someone serves their country, they do so not for honour or for glory, and certainly not for riches. However, when that person has served on active operations, when their unit, ship, submarine or aircraft has spent time in a hostile land or in hostile waters, and when they have shown valour in the face of the enemy, it is right that we honour them—that we make clear the thanks of a grateful nation and award a medal.

That is why such a high value is placed on these medals in this country, not only by the service personnel themselves but by their families. For many who have suffered as their loved one has been injured or made the ultimate sacrifice, or who want to show that they still remember the sacrifices of previous family generations, the medals are a solid, unbreakable reminder of that person, of that duty and of that sacrifice.

It may come as a surprise to many that the wearing of medals or insignia that one has not been awarded or that one is not wearing as a tribute to family, with intent to pass them off as one’s own, is not already a crime. It certainly surprised me. The fact is that, between 1918 and 2006, it was. Winston Churchill, when he was Secretary of State for War, introduced legislation making the unauthorised wearing of military medals a criminal offence. However, since the enactment of the Armed Forces Act 2006, it has not been an offence for an individual to wear medals or decorations not awarded to them in order to deceive others.

It was felt by the Government of the day that the provisions of the Fraud Act 2006, which made it an offence to make financial gain by fraudulent representations or by using an article such as a medal to commit fraud, would be sufficient. However, the belief since then, widely held by the United Kingdom Government, the armed forces and the veterans community is that that was not enough and did not work. Indeed, a survey that was conducted last year by the Naval Families Federation of people in the armed forces community found that 64 per cent of respondents had personally encountered an individual wearing medals or insignia to which they were not entitled.

That is why Gareth Johnson, the MP for Dartford, has introduced the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill to the Houses of Parliament. It will make the false wearing of medals, insignia or any award for valour conveyed by the Defence Council of the United Kingdom, with the intention to deceive, an offence, punishable by up to three months’ imprisonment or a fine.

The bill is of vital importance. As the House of Commons Defence Select Committee’s report said,

“the deceitful wearing of decorations and medals is a specific harm which is insulting to the rightful recipients of these awards, damaging to the integrity of the military honours system and harmful to the bond between the public and the armed forces.”

We, as Scotland’s Parliament, should show our support for the bill. If we do not do so and do not make clear that these medals and awards are important, sacred even, to those who have won them and their families, what value are we putting on them?

Since the end of the Second World War, a period that we often call “peacetime”, 7,145 UK armed forces personnel have died as a result of operations in medal-earning theatres. Those who risk their lives for our safety and security should never doubt that their elected representatives will always wholly and unequivocally support them and support the honour and pride with which they wear their medals.

In May 2011, the Scottish Government gave its support to the armed forces covenant. It is a pledge that, as a nation, we acknowledge and understand that those who serve, or have served, in the armed forces and their families should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy and society that they serve with their lives. For that reason, the Parliament should give its support to the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill. Every November, we remember the hundreds of thousands of men and women who, in the uniform of this country, have made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our country and our way of life. Right now, servicemen and women continue to serve us, with all the risks that that entails.

Let us send a signal from the chamber that we hold their work, their commitment and their devotion to duty in the highest possible regard. Let us send a signal that this place recognises that medals and awards should only ever be worn by those who earn them and their families and that we, too, back Gareth Johnson’s Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill. Let us reaffirm our pledge to forever honour and support our servicemen and women, their families and our veterans.


Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

I thank Liam Kerr for raising awareness of this issue and, in particular, of the terms of the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, in the Scottish Parliament.

The award of medals in recognition of acts of bravery and feats of courage and endurance in the service of our country is an important and sincere recognition of that service. It is right that those who are awarded such medals are entitled to wear them with pride. Those of us who live a civilian life rarely have the opportunity to recognise and acknowledge those members of our society who have fought bravely on our behalf. It is also right that there should be protection to ensure that only those who were awarded medals and family members in their honour have the right to bear those medals.

The tradition of awarding medals for valour dates back many centuries. The Romans were known to have developed a sophisticated system of honours for their legions back in the first century BC. In England, medals were awarded on the orders of Elizabeth I to the naval commanders who defeated the Spanish armada, and Charles I issued the very first gallantry and distinguished conduct medals during the English civil war.

Given the depth of the history, it is unsurprising that, during the first world war, measures were taken to prohibit the unauthorised use of medals. In his role as Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill set out the argument clearly when he remarked:

“We want to make certain that when we see a man wearing two or three wound stripes and a medal, that we see a man whom everybody in the country is proud of.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 2 April 1919; Vol 114, c 1277.]

The United Kingdom was not alone in taking such an approach at that time. Other countries that imposed similar legislation included Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Where the United Kingdom differs from those countries is that their provisions are still in force. In the UK, no specific offence relating to the unauthorised wearing of military decorations has been in place since 2009.

That year saw the introduction of the Armed Forces Act 2006, in which the relevant sections of the Army Act 1955 were dropped, because of what the Ministry of Defence claimed were uncertainties arising from the way in which the 1955 act had been drafted. Part of the concern related to cases in which an offence had been committed without a fraudulent basis. In other words, if someone had been wearing a medal without making any attempt to make financial or property gain, the MOD stated that it would be

“likely in practice to cause difficult questions of proof.”

Since 2009, there have been various reports on the levels of deceitful use of medals. The Royal British Legion has stated that such incidents are rare. The Royal Air Force Families Federation has suggested that the problem is not widespread. On the other hand, a survey of more than 1,000 members of the Naval Families Federation found that 64 per cent of respondents had personally encountered individuals who were wearing medals or insignia that belonged to someone else. That is not to mention the work of the Walter Mitty Hunters Club, a Facebook group that was set up to identify and expose military impostors.

In light of that, in its work on examining the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, Westminster’s Defence Committee came to the conclusion that there is

“a body of strong anecdotal evidence that points to military imposters being a continuing problem.”

The committee also recognised that the way in which the public views war veterans might be negatively affected if the problem is not addressed, and significant distress could be caused to families who have lost honoured loved ones during a conflict.

What should a suitable punishment be for those who deceive or defraud the public for their own material gain? The provisions in the bill allow for a fine or a period of imprisonment not exceeding three months. Members might recall the 2010 case of Roger Day, who, while attending a remembrance day parade, wore no fewer than 17 medals, and an SAS tiepin and beret, none of which he was entitled to. That resulted in a community service punishment. Mr Day might feel that he was lucky not to be sentenced under the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill, although perhaps he could have been more subtle, given that most of his fellow remembrance day attendees were displaying two or three medals each.

Although the bill is clear in its exemptions for those who wear medals as part of historical reconstructions or live entertainment or in honour of the family member who was entitled to the medal, there seems to be an assumption that those who do not fall into that category are automatically acting in a nefarious manner. I hope that sensitivity and understanding will come into play when we judge those who are arrested under the bill’s provisions.

Those reservations aside, I welcome the progression of the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill and look forward to seeing the positive effect that it will have on members of our armed forces and their close families.


Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I commend Liam Kerr for bringing the debate to the chamber today.

Those who serve their country in the armed forces give up a lot. Many will go to dangerous parts of the world and face great personal risk. They give up precious time with their families to go on operations abroad or at sea, sometimes for months on end. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country, which Abraham Lincoln once described as

“the last full measure of devotion”.

We recognise their sacrifices in different ways. Since 2006, armed forces day is held every year in late June to celebrate the work of those who are serving. We have remembrance memorials in every village, town and city in the land, and every year, on the 11th day of the 11th month, we take two minutes to remember our fallen.

We present medals to those who are judged to be deserving of recognition. We present medals for different things. Some of them, such as the Iraq Medal or the Operational Service Medal for service in Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, the Falklands or Northern Ireland, recognise the individual for their participation in a military campaign. Others, such as the Ebola Medal for Service in West Africa, are given for participation in humanitarian missions. Some people receive medals, such as the Meritorious Service Medal, for long service and good conduct. We also give medals for acts of bravery and valour, our country’s highest award being the Victoria Cross, which is given for valour in the face of the enemy.

Those medals are not mere trinkets. They matter. They are representative of the thanks and gratitude that we have in this country for what those people have given to us. Often, the men who receive those awards will not speak of themselves or what they did to deserve them; they will tell us that they are not really a hero, although they will talk of their comrades. They will explain why it is they who deserve the recognition and thanks of the nation, because they were the real heroes.

That is why those who serve in the military find the so-called Walter Mittys so offensive. They are taking credit without having made the sacrifices that their comrades have made. The Walter Mittys have not given anything to deserve the praise and thanks of our country. That is why I fully support the motion that my colleague Liam Kerr lodged for today’s debate and the bill that Gareth Johnson MP is presenting in Westminster.

People who are actively and consciously trying to deceive others into thinking that they have served by wearing medals and honours that they have not earned are harming the reputation of real active service personnel and veterans. I believe that that, in turn, will end up harming the work of veterans charities, which do so much to support our veterans community here in Scotland. I believe that those people should be punished for their deception, and I believe that the punishments as laid out by Gareth Johnson in the Awards for Valour (Protection) Bill are appropriate. I hope that other members will join me in encouraging our colleagues at Westminster to support Mr Johnson’s efforts.


Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate Liam Kerr on securing the debate. He was right to say that addressing this issue was close to the heart of our late former north-east colleague Alex Johnstone. I know that, were he with us, he would be delighted about today’s debate. I take this opportunity to add my tribute to his work in this and many other fields over the time that we served together, representing the north-east.

One of the privileges of being an MSP, an MP or otherwise involved in public life is that we take part on behalf of the wider community in the annual events in remembrance of those who have served in our armed forces over the years, as Mr Corry mentioned.

One of the largest such events in the north-east is at the crematorium in Aberdeen. It is impressive to note that the number of units in the services that have taken part in the event has not diminished over the years, but has actually increased, most recently with the Gurkha regiment now being represented at it. Like my colleagues in other parties, I have always been struck on such occasions by the importance of both the medals for valour and the service medals that are worn by veterans who are now in civilian life, because they are a sign of the service that they have given and a token of the respect in which that service is held.

As Mr Kerr reminded us, those medals are earned, and they should therefore be recognised accordingly. It is important to underpin that recognition by making it clear that the unearned display of such medals is simply not an acceptable thing to do. The purpose of the debate has broad support, and that purpose is clearly right. Honours need to be honoured and, in order for that to happen, they need to be protected.

I add two caveats, neither of which takes away from the central thrust of the motion. The first is the issue of family members who may choose to wear the medals of a relative who is deceased or incapacitated. I recognise that that point is addressed in the bill to which the motion refers. Nonetheless, it is an important point to address.

I have custody of my father’s service medals, from his service in the second world war and, thereafter, in the Territorial Army; many other members will undoubtedly be in a similar position. I recognise that the medals are mine to keep and not mine to wear, but it is important that we acknowledge that, for other people, that might not be self-evident. They might choose to wear medals in a way that is inappropriate, but they might do so with the best of intentions and with no intention to show disrespect. That is an important point to keep in mind.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

It is entirely right and proper that people should be able to recognise the service of family members, and it is customary for them to wear the medals of their family members on the opposite side of the chest from the side on which they are worn by those who have earned them. I do not think that the bill seeks to criminalise that, and it is important that we as a Parliament accept that that is a right the exercising of which we should encourage.

Lewis Macdonald

Yes, indeed. The point is well made; in a sense, it emphasises the point that I was seeking to make. We might know the protocols for these things, but we should not assume that everybody does, so we should be careful not to punish those who inadvertently cross a line.

The former Royal Marines captain James Glancy made the point that those who are guilty of such an offence are often people whose state of mental health is the cause of their choice to take that action. I think that we would all agree—there is an increasing consensus of opinion on this—that prison is often not the right solution for people who are suffering from mental illness. I hope that, as the bill progresses, that will be borne firmly in mind by those who are responsible for setting penalties and, in due course, by those who are responsible for enforcing the law.

With those caveats, I am delighted to welcome the motion.

The last speaker in the open debate is Bill Barr—sorry, Bill Bowman.


Bill Bowman (North East Scotland) (Con)

It is a day for mixing up names. Thank you, Presiding Officer. You will perhaps forgive me if I ever refer to you as “Mr Speaker”.

I congratulate my colleague Liam Kerr on securing the debate and bringing it to the chamber. As has been mentioned, the issue that we are debating is one that was championed by Alex Johnstone, so I am particularly pleased to be able to take part in the debate.

The system of honours for valour that we have in the United Kingdom and those that exist across the world are one of the ways in which we honour the men and women who are put or who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our security and to uphold our values. The selfless acts of bravery and courage that we hear about make each and every one of us proud of them, and I am sure that all members will agree that it is right that they receive the proper recognition for their efforts. It is therefore fundamentally wrong when some people wear such medals to inflate or make up claims about serving in the military or protecting their colleagues. As well as undermining the system, it takes the shine off those who have served—and, in many instances, given their lives—while protecting our country.

The motion refers to Gareth Johnson MP’s private member’s bill, which is currently going through the House of Commons. That bill specifically sets out that a person who, “with intent to deceive”, is caught wearing or representing themselves as being entitled to wear a medal or honour for valour, whether awarded to a member of the military or a civilian, is guilty of an offence. I am open to being corrected on this, but I understand that it is not just military awards that are covered by the bill, but civilian ones such as the George cross. Therefore, I am referring not only to military people, but to non-military people who might have given up their lives for their country. It is that “intent to deceive” that is important.

I welcome the protection in Mr Johnson’s bill for family members who wear such medals in honour of their late relatives. I think that Lewis Macdonald said that he was the custodian of his family’s medals. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find as many in my family. My father has the Burma Star, which is something in which I take pride.

We have all attended events or occasions such as remembrance Sunday and spoken to people—perhaps we know such people—who wear a late family member’s medal with pride. They have every right to do so, and affording them the necessary protections to allow them to continue wearing those medals is important. We all agree that the protocols on how to wear such medals should be made clear.

I look forward to monitoring the progress of Mr Johnson’s bill through the House of Commons. I support the bill, which carries cross-party consensus. The bill makes it a criminal offence for a person to wear a medal that they have not earned, and its purpose, as Mr Johnson has pointed out, is to protect genuine heroes.

As elected politicians, we have a duty to support those who serve our country, whether they do so in the armed forces on the front line, as civilian staff, or in the police, fire and rescue services. They are the bravest and the best. The bill is a further way of protecting their efforts and I pay tribute to Mr Johnson for introducing it to the UK Parliament.


The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

I thank Liam Kerr for securing the debate and for the positive speeches by members from across the political spectrum.

I think that I heard Bill Bowman say that this was his maiden speech.

Not quite—it is my first speech in a members’ business debate.

Keith Brown

In any event, it is entirely appropriate for Bill Bowman to have made that speech, given that he has replaced our late colleague, Alex Johnstone. I had a number of conversations with Alex Johnstone on the issue. It is fair to say that he was quite understanding of some of the UK Government’s concerns, but he thought that it was extremely important that the issue be raised in the Scottish Parliament. He was entirely right about that.

Scotland’s veterans are an asset to our society. We are tremendously grateful to them all for their courage and service to their country. In my own training, we learned about someone called Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter, who was the only Royal Marine in the second world war to gain the Victoria Cross. It was four years later that I first met his nephew—John Swinney. Following its award to Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter for valour, the Victoria Cross was so valued by the Royal Marines that we learned about someone having received that medal in basic training.

To underline the importance of such things, I add that I, along with others in the Parliament, campaigned for many years for the award of medals to the Arctic convoy veterans. After many years of campaigning, we were successful and medals were awarded for what they did during the war on what Churchill called

“the worst journey in the world”.

There was certainly valour involved in that.

Further, a constituent came to me because he had been awarded seven medals, but the seventh one had been posted to his base after he had left it and had gone missing, and he was having a very hard time getting it replaced. Liam Kerr and other members referred to how strict the conditions are and how difficult it is to replace a medal. We managed to achieve the replacement of that medal with the help of Mark Francois, who was the UK minister with responsibility for veterans at the time. Mark Francois was also very helpful in relation to the Arctic convoy veterans campaign. I mention that example because when my constituent got that seventh medal it had a huge effect on him. When he attended remembrance services afterwards he felt that he now had all the medals to which he was entitled.

Competition for some medals is intense and the qualities required of nominees for such recognition are of an extremely high level. As we have heard, the issue was previously championed by Alex Johnstone. I again congratulate Liam Kerr on continuing the debate and I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue in Parliament today.

As members are aware, the subject of the bill is covered by Westminster, and the proposed action to remedy the issues that members have highlighted lies squarely with Westminster. I understand that the UK bill passed the committee stage yesterday, with cross-party support. Two of my colleagues—Kirsten Oswald, who speaks for the Scottish National Party on veterans matters at Westminster, and Brendan O’Hara, our defence spokesperson—spoke in support of the bill. A report will be sent to the House of Commons towards the end of the month. Should the bill receive assent, its provisions will apply across the UK, so I am glad that we have had the opportunity to discuss the matter today, in advance of that happening.

As we heard, there are occasionally stories in the press about people who, for a number of reasons, falsely wear medals or other military insignia. I am thankful that, as we heard from Colin Beattie, many of the organisations that work most closely with veterans have said that the incidence of such behaviour is rare. Some of the people who do it seek to mislead, some, I think, are simply fantasists, and some have underlying issues that require to be addressed, as Lewis Macdonald rightly said.

In evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, the Royal British Legion said that such conduct is rare and not widespread. However, the behaviour damages the integrity of the military honours system, and I share the frustration that is felt by many members of the public, who want to honour those who truly deserve it.

It is important to ensure that people are aware of the convention that Edward Mountain mentioned. I think that it is the Elizabeth Cross that is awarded to the families of those who have died in service, and I am aware of an instance in which the sister of someone who was killed in war asked another person to wear the medal on her brother’s behalf at a ceremony that was 8,000 miles away from where she was. I do not think that we are seeking to catch that kind of incident, in which someone wears a medal that was awarded to another person for an act of valour, but the example points to the complications around the issue, which Lewis Macdonald mentioned.

It is fairly safe to say, as members have done, that honours are not given out on a whim. They are awarded for bravery and meritorious action over and above what is required in the usual service of one’s country, and they are highly prized by those who receive them and their friends, families and comrades.

Ahead of the debate, my officials contacted the Scottish veterans commissioner, Veterans Scotland, Poppyscotland and Legion Scotland, to canvass views on whether there is a common, prevalent or major issue in Scotland. The consensus was that, thankfully, the incidence here is low and those who behave in such a manner are treated not as a threat but more as an annoyance or irritant—and that such people often face other challenges in their lives, as members have said.

However, for those who, as Colin Beattie said, deliberately create a false impression for gain, which is a reprehensible thing to do, the Scottish legal system is robust enough to take the appropriate action. For the few individuals who seek to access support from veterans charities, it is reassuring to learn that such cases are, by and large, quickly weeded out. We must bear in mind that in such cases the individual might still be in need of support, and charities must ensure that the case is sensitively handled and the individual directed to appropriate services.

It is worth remembering that many family members wear medals to honour the memories of people who have served. That is an important custom, but not all family members are aware of the convention that Edward Mountain clarified for us, and when they get it wrong they do so with no intention of securing gain or kudos—they are simply unaware of the convention. The mention and clarification of the convention in today’s debate will help to generate more awareness of the custom.

I am concerned that a change in the law might cause confusion and have the unintended effect of deterring family members from wearing medals, which is why clarification is important. The Ministry of Defence has previously given the risk of creating such confusion as a reason for not legislating on the matter. In my view, it is important that the issue is fully considered during the passage of the bill and that the provisions, once they have been agreed, are properly communicated to the wider public, with reassurance offered to family members who choose to wear medals in honour of their loved ones.

I welcome the support that members have voiced for safeguards to protect the integrity of the military honours system and to ensure that all those who have been awarded such tangible symbols of our thanks and esteem are rightly appreciated.

13:18 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—