Writing for PoliticsHome, Conservative MP David Burrowes highlights the lack of successful convictions for people who desecrate war memorials and urges MPs to support a Bill that will prevent the trade in selling stolen memorial plaques for scrap metal.
This Sunday, the nation will unite in a moment of respect, awe and appreciation for thosewho gave all they had for our freedom. We remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice not just in two world wars, but in the many other conflicts of the past century. It is a right and fitting moment of grief and pride for our fallen soldiers.
But our remembrance of them is not just shown in the annual reverence of 11th November. It is reflected in how we treat the physical monuments to their courage and heroism. Over 100,000 memorials, all over the United Kingdom, give a daily and poignant reminder of the great debt and glory we owe to these men and women. Yet today many lie damaged or in ruins, often the victims of mindless vandalism or scrap metal thieves. In my own
constituency, the Southgate War Memorial was sprayed with graffiti and a bronze plaque bearing the names of fallen soldiers was stolen. In others crosses and poppy wreaths are damaged or monuments defecated.
Two years ago I investigated the state of our war memorials throughout the UK, and I was shocked and disturbed by what I found. Memorials have swastikas sprayed on them, plaques commemorating the war dead are stolen and sold as scrap metal, wreaths have been burnt, some memorials have been smashed, and there are incidents of people urinating on others. On average one war memorial is desecrated every week. In fact, given the lack of recorded data, that number is probably much higher.
New figures unearthed by a FOI request reveal that if these desecrators are ever found just one in ten are convicted in court. 28 Police forces have recorded 239 crimes against war memorials in the past five years. However, in only 25 of the cases was a suspect brought to court and convicted - and only five people were jailed. Others were given a suspended sentence, a fine or a conditional discharge. 34 suspects were not even taken to court and
just given a fixed penalty, warning or caution. The fact that 9 out of 10 offenders never even see the light of a court hearing needs to be high up in the in-tray for the new Police and Crime Commissioners to sort out.
It is clear that the law, as it stands, does not treat these crimes as seriously as it should. It makes no recognition of the memorials’ significance, and only measures these crimes by the financial costs they accrue. Unless more that £5000 worth of damage is caused, the maximum sentence is just three months in prison. We would never measure the sacrifices made by our brave soldiers in monetary terms, and nor should these acts of desecration be
treated like a minor act of vandalism. The punishment does not fit the crime.
But the long campaign to protect, respect and restore our war memorials is succeeding. In March, the then Justice Minister confirmed that the Sentencing Council were ‘giving serious consideration’ to my call for sentencing guidelines to make specific reference to war memorial desecration as an aggravating factor when determing sentences.
Last month the Prime Minster announced that the Heritage Lottery Fund’s is giving £6million towards helping thousands of young people get involved in activities learning about their local heritage and war memorials, as they help contribute towards conserving them, and sharing what they have learnt on new educational websites like www.learnaboutwarmemorials.org.
The War Memorial Trust has set up In Memoriam 2014 in partnership with SmartWater Foundation to locate, log and protect thousands of war memorials. A crime prevention fluid, free of charge, makes memorials uniquely identifiable and traceable if a theft occurs. An interactive website has also been launched called WAR MEMORIALS ONLINE which will allow information about war memorials to be shared. The aim is to preserve the Country’s war memorials so they are in a fit state for the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014.
But MPs don't have to wait long to show our respect for the great sacrifices made by protecting our war memorials. Today, supported by The Royal British Legion, War Memorials Trust, the Church of England and MPs from all parties, Richard Ottoway is bringing his Scrap Metal Dealers Bill back to the House for the crucial report stage. It will help prevent the disgraceful trade in selling stolen memorial plaques for scrap metal. The Bill seeks to tackle the principal outlet of stolen metals through a robust licensing regime,
greater powers for police and unlimited fines. But 148 amendments have been tabled. Many are well intentioned, but the large number means there is a risk the Bill may run out of time.
MPs must unite to give this important Bill a safe passage. If we don't, the public will have some serious questions when we attend Remembrance Services on Sunday.