A Government department made an embarrassing U-turn yesterday after telling a town council it couldn’t fly its flag at half mast during First World War commemorations.
Officials at Shepton Mallet in Somerset sought permission to lower the Union Flag on August 4 during a cenotaph vigil marking the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict.
But a Whitehall mandarin told them organisations could not choose when to fly flags half-mast in case it ‘confused’ people into thinking someone important had died.
Senior policy advisor Fiona Wood added that flying flags at half-mast was not intended ‘to celebrate anniversaries of tragic events’.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport bureaucrat said authorisation could only be given by the Queen or the Prime Minister with royal approval.
But the ban sparked fury and provoked a U-turn from the Department which admitted they had no control over the council’s actions and no power to ban lowered flags.
The original refusal came after Shepton Mallet town clerk Daryl Ryall asked permission to lower the flag on their town hall as a traditional mark of respect.
Ms Wood replied in an email: “While flags flying in general is deregulated, individuals, groups or organisations cannot chose when to fly a flag at half- mast.
“An instruction for the half-masting of flags can only be given by Her Majesty the Queen (or by or the Prime Minister’s Office with approval from Buckingham Palace) to mark the death of a member of the Royal family or an important statesperson, or to mark a tragedy has just happened rather than to celebrate anniversaries of tragic events.
“As I am sure you will agree, any independent half-masting of flags may confuse other people into thinking that an important figure has just died, for example a member of the Royal Family.
“Flags are not flown at half-mast for the Remembrance Sunday service for example and I hope you can devise another fitting way to pay your local tribute as part of the commemorations of the 1st World War.”
But as the ban threatened to spark a row the Government backed down and admitted they had no jurisdiction on flag flying – and there are no official rules.
A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokeswoman said: “Decisions on whether to fly flags at half-mast are not made by Government.
“Orders on when to fly flags at half-mast are taken by Buckingham Palace and occur in response to the death of a prominent statesperson or member of the Royal Family.
“Any decision to fly flags at half-mast outside of these occasions would be for local authorities themselves.”
The centenary event will see the Air Training Corps cadets stage a vigil, and include a church service and music to remember those who gave their lives.
It has been arranged by Councillor Jeannette Marsh who said the original refusal on flying the flag at half-mast had been “upsetting and disappointing”.
She said: “I must say I really did feel quite upset.
“It felt like they had forgotten the people who had given their lives.
“I was very upset to think that we could not mark those ten million lives lost by lowering the flag and I know very many local people felt the same way – very disappointed.”
Resident Will Dunscombe, 54, who staged a 24-hour vigil at the foot of the cenotaph in 2007 to fight plans to move it, slammed the government’s intrusion.
He said: “It should be nothing to do with the Government – why should the Government dictate what we as people want to do? They decide enough of what we do and this shouldn’t be a political dilemma.
“Let people feel that feeling how they want to feel it and stop being so critical. They shouldn’t interfere and meddle in how people want to commemorate – especially young people.”
Councillor Chris Inchley said the government’s refusal was “very sad indeed”.
He said: “People won’t be confused – everyone around the country will know that that day is to commemorate World War One and the tragic consequence that had for many millions of people and families around the world and in our community.”
Colleague councillor Neil Shearn added: “It is totally bureaucratic. It is laughable.
“I don’t think the government or royalty has anything to do with it at all. And I expect if the Queen knew anything about it she would overturn it immediately.”