Inside Parliament: MPs dig in over First World War pardon plan: Bill on executed soldiers introduced; party leaders clash over taxation; Minister confirms demise of Wrens

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Indy Politics
A distant echo of Wilfred Owen's 'shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells' hung in the Commons for 10 minutes yesterday as a Labour backbencher pursued his campaign for a pardon for 307 British Empire soldiers executed by firing squad during the First World War.

Andrew MacKinlay, MP for Thurrock and student of 1914-18 battlefields, was granted leave to introduce a Bill to pardon the soldiers, but it will not become law. Roger Evans, MP for Monmouth, opposed the Bill, saying Mr MacKinlay's speech was 'plausible, emotional but fundamentally misconceived'. The past was 'littered with injustices' and should be left to historians, the Tory barrister said.

The 307 men had been found guilty of charges ranging from cowardice, desertion, sleeping at post and throwing away arms to striking a superior officer. Many were volunteers and some had spent years in the trenches enduring constant shell fire, sniping, lack of food and sleep, and wet and cold.

'It is hardly surprising that in many cases their spirit broke,' Mr MacKinlay said. But he said their trials had been a 'sham', with no chance to prepare a defence and no appeal against sentence. Furthermore, the release of records after 75 years showed that many of the men were 'sick and traumatised, suffering from shell-shock'.

'These men have endured grave injustice and it is time the record was put straight.' The House should ensure that they were 'now held in high national esteem', he said in a flight of rhetoric which drew derision from Archie Hamilton, a former defence minister and Coldstream Guards officer.

John Major ruled out pardons for court-martialed Great War soldiers six months ago, saying 'we cannot re-write history'. But Mr MacKinlay said he was seeking to ensure history was written with clarity and that things that were 'uncomfortable to the Establishment' were brought into the open.

'The demand for this remedy is a cry from the grave. It is time we put aside the objections of the Establishment, and said it's time for the soldiers of the Great War who were executed to be deemed among those we will remember on Remembrance Sunday.'

John Major and John Smith used the first Prime Minister's Question Time since July for a re-run of their tax and VAT joust, replete with mutual accusations of 'wriggling' and 'deceit'.

The Labour leader asked if Mr Major had the 'remotest appreciation of the overwhelming hostility throughout this nation to the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel. In addition to its unfairness, isn't there evidence that the Government's tax increases imperil consumer confidence and any hope of recovery? In those circumstances will the Prime Minister now abandon these foolish proposals?'

Mr Major said both he and Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, had made clear that the extra VAT was a vital part of policies to get public borrowing down and that help would be offered to the vulnerable. 'If the tax is as obnoxious as Mr Smith claims, why did the Labour conference vote for a 'general shift in taxation towards energy resource use'. What is that other than VAT?'

Claims about economic recovery met with hollow laughter from the Labour benches. Replying to Peter Mandelson, Labour MP for Hartlepool, Mr Major said: 'The recovery does seem to have taken root. The evidence for that becomes

unmistakable.'

Mr Mandelson observed that 'the task of the Budget is to raise revenue without preventing recovery' and urged the Government to target tax dodgers rather than pensioners and families through VAT. 'At least pounds 5bn worth of revenue is presently being avoided by individuals, companies and wealthy foreigners who are abusing the tax system,' he said. That was twice the amount that would be raised by the extra VAT.

Tory backbench fears that the Budget axe will fall on the armed forces dominated the second day of the defence debate just as it had the first. The only notable diversion was on the demise of the Wrens, with Jeremy Hanley, Minister for the Armed Forces, confirming the total integration of the Women's Royal Naval Service into the RN.

About 800 women are now serving on 27 surface ships. 'Mixed manning' had proved a real success, Mr Hanley said. 'Incidents' did occur on board between men and women, but it would be surprising if the Navy was the only place where they did not. He rejected an assertion by Winston Churchill, Conservative MP for Davyhulme, that defence ministers and senior officers would not have agreed to women serving in the front line 'if they thought there was any serious prospect of an imminent major war'.

Patrick Cormack, Conservative MP for Staffordshire South, gave notice that 'if the unthinkable happened' in the Budget, he would vote against defence cuts. Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Conservative chairman of the defence select committee, said he could not support a pounds 1bn cut and suggested 'additional tax' as well as savings shared among departments to close the pounds 50bn spending deficit.

Sir Nicholas condemned 'malicious disinformation' about the Navy having more admirals than ships. In two years there would be 32 admirals commanding a 'still substantial' fleet. 'This is the same as the number of permanent secretaries, deputy secretaries and under-secretaries in the Treasury. I know where I would like to see the axe fall.'

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