Ten-year sentences for desecrating war memorials would risk turning protesters into ‘martyrs’, the Defence Secretary warned today.
Ben Wallace played down the need for tougher jail terms against ‘idiots’, suggesting a better response could be to make them spend time with soldiers or veterans to ‘learn what sacrifice is really about’.
In an interview with the House magazine, Mr Wallace also admitted the Ministry of Defence’s record on attracting and retaining BAME recruits was ‘woeful’.
Ministers have been discussing with Tory MPs how punishments could be ramped up amid outrage at ugly scenes with Black Lives Matter and Far Right protesters at the Cenotaph, Winston Churchill’s statue and the memorial to PC Keith Palmer at Westminster.
Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square was vandalised during Black Lives Matter protests this month
Ben Wallace (pictured) played down the need for tougher jail terms against ‘idiots’, suggesting a better response could be to make them spend time with soldiers or veterans to ‘learn what sacrifice is really about’
Backbenchers Jonathan Gullis and James Sunderland have put forward a Desecration of War Memorials Bill, which would make it illegal to damage any tribute to those who died in the war. It is set to come before the Commons on June 23, although it will need government support to progress.
Labour has indicated it supports the principle of a specific offence of vandalising war memorials.
Asked about the idea of 10-year sentences, Mr Wallace said: ‘You should be punished for it. But also, you shouldn’t be martyred because you’re just an idiot.
‘And I wouldn’t give those people the credit that they’re a martyr, I think they’re just idiots.
‘And what really we should do, is instead of sending them to jail they should come and meet some of the men and women of the armed forces and their veterans and learn what sacrifice is really about. That might teach them a lesson or two.’
He added: ‘I feel pretty angry that people think the problems of the world are because of statues, and actually, our history is warts and all – you have to be warts and all or you don’t learn the lessons of history.
‘You don’t get your message across by desecrating anything. In fact, you look like an idiot.’
But Mr Wallace added: ‘For what it’s worth, as a former soldier, what makes us great as a country is not just statues, and it’s not just medals – it’s our values. And it’s valuing the living as much as the dead, if not more.’
Mr Wallace also delivered a withering verdict on the MoD’s record on promoting a diverse workforce.
Figures published by the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces show that while BAME people make up just 7 per cent of armed forces personnel, they account for 13 per cent of complaints about discrimination.
Meanwhile, BAME representation in the civilian ranks is far below the wider civil service average of 12.7 per cent.
‘This department has simply not done well enough on two areas, predominantly on BAME issues: we have not recruited enough people, and we have not made this a welcoming place for enough people. Our figures are woeful,’ Mr Wallace said.
‘From a purely selfish point of view, by not having more BAME personnel, not having more women, we are losing the opportunity to have some great talent.
‘So it’s really, really important that this is stopped, crushed, got rid of, and we have to double our efforts.’
Earlier this week it emerged that another senior minister had suggested people caught vandalising public memorials should be sent to ‘battle camp’ to learn about the Armed Forces.
Penny Mordaunt said the scenes at the Cenotaph and other sites during Black Lives Matter and Far Right demonstrations had been ‘disturbing’
Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt – a former defence secretary – said the scenes at the Cenotaph and other sites had been ‘disturbing’.
In a letter to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland seen by her local Portsmouth News paper, Ms Mordaunt said: ‘In desecrating such memorials some protesters sent a message to veterans and all those in uniform today: your life doesn’t matter to me.
‘Whatever the motivations for such acts, they should be condemned in the strongest terms and are totally against the values of the people of our country, of every creed and colour.
‘I would like to suggest that for some found guilty of vandalising such memorials they might benefit from some time spent with our service personnel – perhaps at a battle camp.
‘That might give them a new appreciation of just what these people go through for their sakes. They are their armed forces. They should be respected and treasured.’