Robert Key MP

22 Mar 2010 06:17:34

Robert Key tells the Commons about the moment he cheated death as a 10-year-old schoolboy

Picture 24 Last week saw the Second Reading of the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Bill, which will ban the use, development, production and acquisition of cluster bombs.

The debate included a remarkable speech from Robert Key, the Conservative MP for Salisbury who is about to step down from Parliament. He explained that his passionate support for the Bill dates back to an incident from his childhood. As he explained:

"On Friday 13 May 1955, when I was 10 years old, I was on Swanage beach in Dorset with some 20 other children of about the same age. We were doing what children on a beach on a Friday afternoon in May do-building sandcastles, digging holes in the sand, making dams and so on. I was building my castle with a chap called Richard Dunstan: five of my friends were digging holes, and then one of them found a tin. He thought that it was Spam, or something really exotic-yes, Spam was exotic in 1955. He was wrestling to move it, because it was lodged between two rocks. He got out a shoehorn but could not break the tin open. The boys stood back, and were seen throwing things at it.

"My friend and I got bored. We turned round. We had our backs to our friends, and were about the same distance from them as I am from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when there was a huge explosion. We were blown into the sea, and lived. Five of my friends died. Five British children were blown up by a British mine on a British beach, within my living memory, and the living memory of many other people. It was an extraordinary thing. It happened in the middle of the 1955 general election. The front page of the following day's edition of The Daily Telegraph carried a story with the headline, "4 Boys Die, One Missing in Explosion". Below that, smaller headlines stated, "Big Crater Torn in Beach" and "Wartime Mine Theory".

"There was not much theory involved for the five who were killed, or for the two of us who were the luckiest people alive. I still think that I am the luckiest person alive in this House."

He went on to explain how, as a minister decades later, he had obtained the police and coroner's records from the time, which recorded that there were dozens of mines unaccounted for on Swanage beach after a clearance certificate had been issued.

He concluded, in what could yet turn out to be his final speech in the Commons:

"This is a horrendous story, and I repeat it to the House to point out that on the issue of mine clearance, whether it is cluster bombs, cluster munitions or mines of any kind, the impact is the same on a child of 10 at play, whether in Beirut or in Swanage. Personally, I would like to see the mystery of the missing mines of Swanage bay cleared up."

"I support the Bill-of course I do, after what I have been through in my life. I still think I am the luckiest Member to be alive. It motivated me in my politics, and it motivated me to be interested in defence once I came to the House. I have done that for 27 years. I hope the lessons of Swanage beach will not be forgotten. I hope the Bill will be but one step on the road to realising that although war may have to be fought, we should always strive to do it honourably, morally, with integrity, and always and everywhere with the minimum impact on a civilian population that has not put itself in harm's way. That is my wish, and that is why I support the Bill."

Click here to read his speech in full in Hansard or click here to watch it via BBC Democracy Live (1 hour, 29 minutes and 40 seconds in).

Jonathan Isaby