Lewis Feilder: UK laws haven’t been strong enough to protect memorials. But all of that is about to change.

5 Apr

Lewis Feilder is on the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidates’ list, works as a management consultant and is a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces.

One element of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 that has received much less attention recently than others is the protection it introduces against criminal damage to memorials.

Like most people, I was appalled to watch during last year’s protests as the Cenotaph on Whitehall was attacked, Churchill’s statue was graffitied and PC Keith Palmer’s memorial at the gates of Parliament was urinated upon.

I despaired at the inevitability of the perpetrators of these acts of gross indecency – if ever caught – being brought up before a magistrate and being sent on their way with a nominal fine.

The young man who tried to set light to the Union Jack on the Cenotaph was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay only £340 in court costs. It’s pitiful and undermines public trust in the judicial system, but it’s sadly what we’ve come to expect.

As a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, I wanted to know why and began researching the laws pertaining to desecration of war memorials, whereupon it rapidly became clear there simply were none. In contrast to most other Commonwealth Realms, the UK gives no special protection to war memorials, or other types of public memorial.

When damage is purposefully caused to them, prosecutors have to rely upon existing criminal damage statutes, which only take account of the financial value of the damage caused. Where this is less than £5,000, as is the case in most instances of desecration, courts have very limited powers available to them – a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £2,500. This struck me as wholly insufficient and a failure to take into account the public outrage and emotional distress caused by the level of disrespect shown in these cases.

So, that morning I sat down to write what a new law would look like and circulated this to a few MPs who I thought might be supportive. With the image of a young man trying to set alight to the Union Jack on the Cenotaph still live in people’s minds, support was not in short supply and Jonathan Gullis, the new MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and James Sunderland, the former Army colonel and new MP for Bracknell, took up the cudgels.

Support rapidly snowballed and within 48 hours we had 150 MPs’ signatures on a letter to the Home Secretary. Over the next few weeks, we met with both the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, who both gave their full backing to updating the law and instructed their departments to find the best way to get it on the statute books. It was clear we were pushing against an open door.

It had in fact been tried previously more than a decade ago, when David Burrowes, the then MP for Enfield Southgate, introduced a Private Members’ Bill, which was rapidly scuppered by the calling of the 2010 General Election.

Finally now, the law is being updated and the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 will soon reflect that where damage or desecration of a memorial occurs and amounts to an offence of criminal damage, the court will no longer be constrained in its options where the value involved in monetary terms is assessed to be less than £5,000.

The maximum sentence of imprisonment will now be ten years’ imprisonment, reflecting the severity of the nature of the crime. Of course, it remains the role of magistrates to take into account aggravating and mitigating factors in applying these new powers.

While the passage of time might dim our collective memory of those who have served or died for their country, war memorials serve as a permanent testimony to those who must not be forgotten. This change to the law ensures that their memory can no longer be sullied with impunity.