James Sunderland joins colleague Jonathan Gullis MP in a debate in Westminster Hall to promote their Private Member’s Bill to better protect our war memorials with the introduction of a specific offence of desecrating a war memorial.
It is great privilege and honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). His energy, passion and determination to see this Bill introduced is unrivalled, and it is a great privilege to serve alongside him.
At their core, war memorials serve to remind us of the sacrifices made by so many to keep this country safe. Men and women who go overseas perhaps have no idea of when or how they might return. They leave behind their families and loved ones to fight an unknown enemy. Those people do not do it for the money, the gratitude or the glory—far from it. They do it because they believe they are doing something for the greater good. It is called service. They put their lives on the line, day in, day out, as a means to a better future for the rest of us.
Memorials in the UK abound. We have the Cenotaph, the Armed Forces Memorial at Staffordshire, the Unknown Warrior in Westminster, the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge in the highlands, and more than 100,000 memorials throughout the UK, all preserved and cared for by the War Memorials Trust. Overseas memorials are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The UK rightly takes remembrance very seriously. We have asked so much of our armed forces, and the very least they deserve is that their memory is honoured. Those people had other options in their lives; they made a real decision to walk into their careers office, to sign up to volunteer, to embrace the national imperative and to leave behind the comforts that we enjoy every day to go to places that most of us would never dream of going to.
To reiterate, this is a free country. If people do not wish to personally pay their respects to those who did not make it home, no one is forcing them to. In fact, these men and women died so that we can be free to think and say exactly what we please. However, what is non-discretionary is the vandalising of objects erected in their memory. That is why they must be preserved and better protected in law.
This Conservative Government is determined to be a resolute defender of our culture and heritage. We believe in acknowledging heroism and protecting its memory, so it is right that we will. As for the legislation itself, as my good friend from Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke mentioned, not all actions will merit a 10-year sentence. What it does, however, is give more freedom to prosecutors so they are not shackled by limits. Removing the £5,000 barrier for damage is crucial. Previously, damage was required to be greater to warrant prosecution, but that is nonsense. Giving judges increased powers, whether in a magistrates court or a Crown court, is fundamental, allowing them to use their judgement.
I served for 26 years as a regular Army officer and deployed on multiple operational tours, so I do know a bit about the need to commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Every single war memorial, irrespective of nation, faith or location, serves as a visual reminder of the horrors of war and the appalling conditions that people face when fighting for their country. Aside from the fear, anxiety and terror experienced by so many in the service of others, each memorial carries the legacy of those who fell on the battlefield and did not come home.
These names are not just an inscription on stone, but actual human beings who lived, loved and were loved. These heroes had friends and families and were in the prime of their life when they were taken. Each memorial bears testimony to lives cut short, the anguish suffered by families, the potential that was never fulfilled, the children that were never born, and the guilt suffered by those who did come home. That is why we must ensure that memorials are sufficiently protected in law and that those who seek to damage them through wilful ignorance or stupidity are brought to justice.
One of the most profound and proudest moments of my life was when I attended the D-day 75 commemorations in Portsmouth in June 2019. It was a magnificent event. Veterans were there in their hundreds, although sadly declining in number. They were resplendent in their uniforms—shiny brass and medals, and polished boots. The twinkle in their eyes conveyed some pretty powerful testimonies of life gone by. It was great to be among them, but two things struck me. First, every single veteran I spoke to underplayed the magnitude of their achievements. They were, to quote them, just doing their job: “I did what I was asked to do and nothing more.” That humility, for me, was very profound. Secondly, what became apparent to me—it was a really powerful moment—was the guilt that these great people have carried all their lives for the fact that they came home and others did not. That is why we must protect the memorials in law.