PAST POSTS ON GOVERNMENT'S ATTEMPTS TO PLAY DOWN ATTENTION TO THE FALLEN IN AFGHANISTAN ARE EXPOSED AS HUMBUG. MOVE TO REPATRIATIONS AT BRIZE NORTON WAS DESIGNED TO REDUCE PERCEPTION OF THE TRUE TRAGIC COSTS OF WAR.
July 04, 2011
Hide the fallen
I’ve never tried this before.
As I was driving up to parliament today, I heard a very unsatisfactory interview on the Jeremy Vine show. There was a defender of the Government’s attempt to dumb down the moving tributes to the fallen as their bodies are conveyed through the streets of Wootton Bassett. He was very unconvincing. The local person who wanted the cortege to pass through the local town of Carterton was speaking from a dodgy mobile that failed. I rang the show and asked to contribute. Miraculously they put me straight on the air to make similar points to those I reported on this blog last Friday.
Later in the House the same topic had an airing (below). Tomorrow the EDM below will appear on the Commons Order Paper.
19. Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): What recent representations he has received on arrangements for members of the public to pay final respects to fallen servicemen. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): Over the last two weeks we have received a number of e-mails and letters following a campaign on Facebook about arrangements for members of the public to pay their final respects to fallen servicemen and women.
Mark Pawsey: I recently spoke to a lady in my constituency who is a member of the War Widows Association. She expressed concern about the forthcoming change which would mean repatriation flights arriving at RAF Brize Norton. Like many other people, she believed that it was important for the British public to continue to be able to pay their respects to fallen military personnel. Will the Minister assure us that that will still be possible under the new arrangements?
Mr Robathan: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend and the House that this is the case.
Because of the number of e-mails that we had received, I went to Brize Norton on Friday to reassure myself about the plans that are being made. The RAF is spending £3.2 million on a new repatriation centre specifically for the families of the bereaved, who must be the focus of our attention. It is an excellent centre, which will give them a very good view of what is happening when the aircraft land. There are private chapels of rest where they can go and be with their loved one’s remains. The cortege will then head down a very dignified avenue of limes to the nearest gate, which is being refurbished and will be called the Britannia Gate. It is dignified, respectful and solemn.
Once the cortege has left Brize Norton, it will be the responsibility of the police and Oxfordshire county council. The county council is building a memorial garden with a great deal of car parking so that people who wish to show their respect—the general public and the Royal British Legion, which approved the arrangements—will be able to do so in a dignified and proper place.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): The Minister misses the point. As recently as 12 o’clock today a representative of the people of Brize Norton expressed his disappointment and anger, because they wish the very moving scenes that took place at Wootton Bassett to be replicated at Brize Norton. That cannot happen because the cortege route is being taken through rural roads and not through the urban area. Should not the people of Brize Norton and the surrounding areas have the right to express the grief of the nation, in order that we are all reminded of the true cost of war.
Mr Robathan: First, as I have said, the families of the bereaved must be the most important consideration. Oxfordshire county council has carried out a great deal of consultation. The hon. Gentleman mentions Brize Norton and, as it happens, the route will go straight through the village of Brize Norton. It will not go through the nearby village of Carterton, whose streets are both very narrow for a modern village and have speed bumps, which are not suitable for corteges. This has been decided by Oxfordshire county council in consultation with local people, and there is no suggestion of its having been done covertly. If I may say so, I think the hon. Gentleman should go to Brize Norton—as I did—and see the alternatives, as he would find that we wish to allow the British public the right to show their respect for these heroes, but we are not necessarily going to be driven by one person on the radio.
Tributes to the fallen
That this House records its pride in the valour and professionalism of our military forces; calls on the Government to agree with the request of the people of the Brize Norton area to allow them to honour the fallen in a similar manner to the tributes made by the people of Wootton Bassett; regrets that Hon Members are no longer permitted to read the names of the fallen in the House and that on two occasions the reading of the names by the Prime Minister was moved from Wednesdays to other days; and believes it is the wish of the bereaved and the rest of nation to recognise fully and publicly the sacrifices of our armed services in order that the true cost of war is never forgotten and that Hon Members are reminded of the full consequences of our decisions.
April 09, 2013
Two deaths - one ignored
Total number of deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan = 441
One you will know about. The other probably not.
Lance Corporal Jamie Webb, 24 from Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, of 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment died on Monday 25 March 2013. His body was ‘repatriated on April 4th, last Thursday. I saw no press or other media reports of this.
From 1 September 2011, repatriations ceased passing through Royal Wootton Bassett as they moved from RAF Lyneham to RAF Brize Norton. On March 15th, I visited the new facility at Brize Norton.
The Government wish to hide the true cost of the war in Afghanistan by drawing attention away from the loss of lives.
The Government was embarrassed by the raw grief visible on the streets of Wootton Bassett. The spontaneous displays of respect and mourning spoilt their fable of the 'success' of the continuing blunder of an unwinnable war.
Three times they tried to make the bereavments less visible. Instead of making speeches on the conflict in the Commons, I read out the names of the fallen. That made a deeper impression than rhetoric. Commons rules were changed to end the practice and it is no longer permitted.
David Cameron changed the announcement of the recent war dead from the crowded Commons of PMQs on Wednesday and announced one group of deaths on a Tuesday and another on a Monday when the House was relatively empty. I protested with points of order and EDMs. There were denials that this showed a lack of respect and the announcements on Wednesday were restored.
There was a change of airport for receiving the fallen. Advantage was taken of this to route the corteges away from the village centre of Wootton Bassett to quiet country roads that skirt the village of Carterton. The respect shown by passers-by in Wootton Bassett is no longer possible. The TV pictures are less dramatic and the repatriations are ignored by the media. 'Out of sight: out of mind' fits the Government agenda of burying bad news.
My worst fears on the route were reinforced by last week’s low profile repatriation.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister seek to change the rules of this House so that the names of the fallen can be honoured by being read out in this Chamber—the same Chamber that sent
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them to their deaths? What lasting achievements have there been in Afghanistan that justify £37 billion of taxpayers’ money and 444 deaths?
The Prime Minister: We do read out the names of those who have fallen, and we rightly pay tribute to them because they have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our country and our security. The hon. Gentleman asked what this has achieved, and the point I make is that before 2001 Afghanistan was a haven for terrorists who were plotting actively to do harm to people in this country and elsewhere, but since 2001—he can ask the security services about this himself if he wants—there have not been major, serious plots hatched in Afghanistan and carried out against us. That is a big and important achievement, but we also have to look at the capacity Afghanistan has today to continue to deliver that. When I first visited Afghanistan in 2006, there were no Afghan security forces in Helmand province; they did not exist. They have been built from scratch. I do not think we honour those who have paid this price by talking down, in any way, the extraordinary achievements that we have seen there. That is not to say that things are perfect—of course they are not—and it is not to say that there is not more that needs to be done, but on the ledger of Britain’s engagement in Afghanistan, we should correctly identify the good points as well as the difficulties that still remain.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): It is a daunting prospect to follow two speeches that do great credit to this Chamber. I look forward to the next election when the voters in many lucky constituencies will have the chance of putting right the major defect in this House. We are elected here to represent how the country looks: at the moment there are more women here, but not enough of them; there are more ethnic minorities here, but not enough of them—and there is a terrible shortage of octogenarians. The people of Bolsover and Newport West will have a chance to correct that in future.
My point will be brief, but it is one of great importance. It is not just the pantomime of Prime Minister’s questions
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that will be absent tomorrow; also absent will be the valuable recent tradition of announcing the names of the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am afraid that the Government have form on that. On two occasions, the announcement was changed from Prime Minister’s Question Time—the moment of the week of maximum attendance by Members and maximum attention by the press and public—once to a Monday and once to a Tuesday. It was only because of an outcry by Back Benchers that it was restored to its proper place.
There are other indications that the Government wish not to publish the names of the fallen, by which I mean the practice of reading out the names—it has been done—of the 179 fallen in Iraq and of the fallen in Afghanistan. It is now part of our orders in the House that that is not permitted. Why? Lance Corporal Jamie Webb died on 26 March, and was repatriated to this country on 4 April. Did anyone see any publicity about that? Did anyone realise that the event had taken place?
I went down to Brize Norton to inspect the facilities for the repatriation of our fallen soldiers. I was grateful to
the Prime Minister for writing to me after last Wednesday’s debate in the House, because Brize Norton is in his constituency. Those facilities were very sensitively conceived, and one can think of hardly any improvement that could be made. There is provision for counselling, and rooms have been allocated for the coffins to be laid out with the appropriate religious regalia. Also—this is very touching—because many of the fallen were the fathers, or perhaps in some cases the mothers, of young children, a room has been fitted out with Peppa Pig toys for the children who turn up.
However, I believe that, sadly, an attempt has been made to hide the event at Brize Norton. A special entrance has been constructed so that the main entrance, and the attention that it might receive, can be avoided. When the procession went through the attractive town of Wootton Bassett, it was a touching sight. Passers-by would stop and bow their heads in respect and reverence. Now, however, rather than going through the main town, the
procession skirts the local village and goes on to the main road, where no one can show respect.
I think it a great shame that there was no prime ministerial announcement of the death of Lance Corporal Webb. That meant that the country could not pay tribute to the 441st of our soldiers to die in Afghanistan. We hear today that we went into Helmand province in 2006 in order to reduce the growth of drug activity there. At that time only two soldiers had died in combat. Now 441 have died, and the growth of drug activity is at record level. I think it absolutely right for us to meet and to bring that part of Prime Minister’s Question Time back into being.
I congratulate my hon. Friends on their speeches. I agree with much of what they said. It would have been possible for the funeral to take place on a different day, and for Prime Minister’s Question Time to take place here. It is a great shame that although there was a minor announcement of that recent death, we have not paid that soldier the full respect that he so richly deserves.
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Paul Flynn: You will recall, Mr Speaker, that I have in the past read out the names of the 179 men and women who died in the Iraq war and the names of more than 200 of those who have died in the Afghan war. By a deliberate decision, this is now banned in the House, and the only protest that I can make against that attempt to disregard and show a lack of respect for the fallen is to continue reading out this list, until we reach an obvious conclusion—
Mr Speaker: Order. Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to take his seat? I note what he has said, but I say to him and the House that I intend no discourtesy to anybody. In all fairness, we cannot make policy on the hoof. I understand his impatience for what he regards as a satisfactory resolution of this matter, and I hope that such a resolution, in whatever form, can be achieved. Meanwhile, however, we have to operate in accordance with some norms and practices, one of which is acceptance of the decisions of the Chair. I was happy to let him proceed for a short period and to read out some names, and he has done that, but it would not be right today to have a long list read out, without regard to what decision the House might reach. I shall reflect and consult on the matter, and I undertake to him, in full view of the House, to return to him and the House very soon. I hope that that is fair for today.
Paul Flynn: I accept that ruling.
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Paul Flynn: I am grateful, and I welcome our new friendship.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is now forbidden in the House to read out the names of the fallen in Iraq or Afghanistan? The only way that the House can confront the results of its own decisions—by reading those names—is through early-day motions. He might have seen 24 early-day motions that record the names of those who have fallen in Afghanistan. What would he do to change the system so that he does not block the only way in which the House can record its respect and gratitude to those who have fallen in battle?
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Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): May we have a debate on the way in which we pay our respects to the fallen, particularly in Afghanistan? The practice of Back Benchers reading out the names of the fallen in the House is now forbidden, and on two occasions the announcement by the Prime Minister of their names has been moved, to aMonday and a Tuesday.
There is now great concern that the moving tributes paid by the people of Wootton Bassett cannot be paid under the new arrangements at Brize Norton, because the hearses are taken on a route that does not allow the public to line up and pay their tributes in order that we as a Parliament can be reminded of the consequences of our decisions and the country can be reminded of the true cost of war.
Sir George Young: It is important that this House has an opportunity to pay the sort of tributes that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, although some of the issues that he raised at the beginning of his question fall more appropriately to you, Mr Speaker. I will raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has a constituency interest, and see whether there is any way that what used to happen in Wootton Bassett can take place under the new arrangements for repatriating those who have fallen.
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Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank the Prime Minister for restoring to its proper place the reading of the names of the fallen in Afghanistan? As you know, that has not happened in the past three weeks, and there was considerable unhappiness because the names were read out at other times. Can we look forward in future to the names of those who, sadly, will fall in the next few weeks being read out at a time of the maximum attendance of MPs and the maximum attention on the House from outside?
Mr Speaker: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that I think that there is great merit in that proposition, which is in no sense a partisan or political one. If there is to be any change on this matter from what has happened this week or that, it is something that should usefully be discussed with the people who make these announcements. Rather than pronouncing upon that here, it would be better for me to talk to other people who are directly involved in these matters, and the upshot of any such discussion will become known to the hon. Gentleman sooner rather than later.
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Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The practice of reading out the names of the fallen is a welcome new tradition in the House, and is greatly appreciated by their loved ones. We know the special intense silence that greets such readings. Last Monday and today, the names of the fallen were read out as part of statements-on the G20 last Monday, and on extraordinary rendition today. I know that there is no Member in the House who would want to seem to downgrade the gratitude, appreciation and respect that we feel for those who have given their lives, but if we move the reading to another time, it could be interpreted as an attempt to bury bad news. Will you consider that, Mr Speaker, and make representations to ensure that the names of the fallen
are read at the time of maximum attendance in the House, and at the time when the House receives maximum attention from outside?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I do not think that anyone would want to downgrade the significance of what has taken place, or the importance of informing the House of the details of those who have perished. The Prime Minister, on a number of different occasions and at different times of the week, has given the House such details, and I know that he has done so in all solemnity. I do not think it would be right for me to add anything further at this stage, but I am happy to reflect on the hon. Gentleman's point, and I know that others will do so as well.
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Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): A special intense silence falls on this place when the names of the fallen are read out. We experienced it yesterday when the names of those who have died since we last met were read out by both Front-Bench spokespeople. It is right that we read those names out, that we record our gratitude for the heroism of those who have fallen and that we remind ourselves that we in this place were responsible for the decision to send them to war. Every one of those names belongs to a person whose life has ended and we remind ourselves that they all had loved ones who suffered a wound that will never heal.
It might surprise hon. Members to learn that I have before me the names of all those who have fallen, but I do not intend to read them out, first, because to do so would take longer than the 10 minutes available to me and, secondly, because I am forbidden to do so. I have not mentioned in the House before that after I last read out a list of the 250 names of the fallen the extraordinary decision was taken that this is not to be allowed on any future occasion. I am not sure why, because it is right that there should be an occasion, at least once a year-the list should perhaps not be read by a Back Bencher, but by the Leader of the House-on which we should recall not just the names of the individuals who have died in the previous week or so, but the names of all those who have died. That would leave us with a profound impression of the result of our decisions.
The attitude in this House towards Afghanistan is one of mutually assured delusion, and we heard a bit of that today. We know that only the future is certain and the past is always changing; every politician is trying to rewrite and reshape the past. It does not often seem that we have to reshape the past of last week, but we received optimistic and positive reports of last week's visit by the three Ministers to Afghanistan. It seems strange that omitted from the reports was the major event of that trip, which was their inability to visit their main destination because of Taliban activity.