HC Deb 28 October 1999 vol 336 cc1199-206

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

7 pm

Mr. John Grogan

(Selby): Let the women of Britain come forward was the clarion call of wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and come forward they did, in huge numbers.

A total of 640,000 women served in the armed forces during the second world war, and 55,000 served with guns, providing critical air defence of the United Kingdom in the darkest days of the war. Thousands more served in the Land Army, ensuring that sufficient food was available to keep our forces well fed. Others flew unarmed aircraft, as replacements for our Air Force. Amy Johnson was lost on such a flight. Other women spent hours dedicated to breaking enemy codes. More women worked behind enemy lines, helping to organise resistance groups and placing themselves in great peril. Many other women worked as air raid precautions wardens, munitions workers, ambulance drivers, Women's Royal Voluntary Service volunteers and nurses.

That was a huge social change. The exigencies of war meant that women were serving their country in roles that had traditionally been the preserve of men. Perhaps, all in all, more women than men were involved in the war effort. Two of those women were Edna Storr from Selby and Mildred Veal from Clifton in York. Almost 50 years after the war, they and many of their colleagues met at a wartime reunion, and swapped stories of memorials that they had seen on holiday—in Canada, Australia and New Zealand—all honouring those countries' women who contributed to the war effort in the second world war. The latest such memorial is the one at the gates to the Arlington national cemetery in the United States, which was unveiled in 1997. As a result of those reunions, the charity called simply Memorial to the Women of World War II was born.

Mildred Veal was denied entry to the Women's Royal Air Force because of her eyesight, but joined the Army on 19 February 1941, a date that she remembers clearly to this day. She was assigned her first gunsight in early 1942 and was soon gunner-in-charge of a radar station in Plymouth before and after D-Day. Later, she went to London to help in the fight against the destructive power of the Vls and V2s.

Edna Storr volunteered at the age of 17½ and was soon an anti-aircraft gunner. She was a height-finder, initially using equipment that dated back to the first world war. She also recalls doing guard duty from dawn to dusk, armed not with a rifle but with flashlights and determination. Edna recalls that because of her youth, her parents were worried that she was out on the streets after midnight. She commented to me: When the alarm bell rang, you forgot that you were afraid of the dark above all. You just went to your instrument and did your job. Half a century later, Edna was asked by my local newspaper, the Evening Press, why there was a need for a specific memorial to the women of the second world war. She said: It is to say thank you to any lady who helped to win the Second World War. This is for the mothers at home, those in the services, nurses, doctors, civil defence workers, the women who went out at night looking for fire bombs, the WRVS, the Salvation Army, the women who worked at York station, the women who took in evacuees and the teachers who went with them—everyone. In a few days it will be Remembrance Sunday. Hon. Members will scatter the length and breadth of the land, attending services at war memorials—some grand and magnificent; some simple, understated and dignified.

I was once organiser of a football team trip to a tournament in Holland. We got the ferry and very early one Saturday morning drove through Belgium in a minibus, bad-tempered through lack of sleep and, it must be said, through my rather haphazard arrangements. At a small town called Rijel, we got out and walked around searching for a coffee as the Saturday market stalls were erected. I wandered off on my own, and suddenly it dawned on me that the French name for this town was Ypres, and that the monument in front of me was the Menin gate, listing thousands of the dead from the first world war. I went back to get the rest of the team from the market square caf?to show them my find, all the more poignant for being so unexpected.

That simple experience helps me to understand why this group of women so desperately want a memorial. They want to take their grandchildren to—or perhaps want their grandchildren in later life to just happen upon—a memorial which acknowledges their special efforts and sacrifices in fighting against fascism and for freedom.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent choice of Adjournment debate. It is right to draw the attention of the House to the magnificent contribution which the women of Britain made to our victory in the second world war. Does he agree that such a memorial might not simply commemorate the achievements of the past, but inspire young women of today to take up careers in the armed services, where more than 70 per cent. of jobs are now available to women?

Mr. Grogan

My hon. Friend is right. I think that 70 per cent. of jobs in the Army are now open to women, 75 per cent. in the Royal Navy and 96 per cent. in the Royal Air Force. If we are to inspire a new generation of young women to take up the opportunity to serve their country, we must surely recognise the contribution of their grandmothers all those years ago.

Almost £60,000 has been raised towards the cost of the memorial: The obvious site is the empty plinth in Trafalgar square, unoccupied since it was laid in the 1840s. Future generations of schoolchildren and families on a happy day out in London in the heart of our capital would pause for perhaps just a moment and ponder the meaning of the memorial. The square is synonymous with the great celebration which took place at the end of the war. It has an international profile and is a symbol of Britain. It is surely the most fitting place to honour a generation of British women who broke new ground in the defence of freedom.

In September this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport launched a national debate on the future of the plinth and asked Sir John Mortimer to chair an advisory group to make recommendations to that end. More than 200 MPs have signed an early-day motion backing a memorial to the women of the second world war. Madam Speaker, to whom I am grateful for selecting this debate this evening, is an active patron of the campaign. I should also refer to the considerable role of retired Major David Robertson, who has helped to co-ordinate the campaign from Imphal barracks in Fulford, York, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), who has joined the debate, who first raised the issue in the House and tabled the early-day motion. I should also mention The Northern Echo for its three-year campaign to win recognition for the Aycliffe angels, the munitions workers from county Durham, who did their bit during the war only to feel ignored for years afterwards.

It is significant that the Government have now set aside 3 March 2000 for a ceremony to honour the men and women who risked their lives on the home front. The two campaigns, to honour those who risked their lives on the home front and to honour the role of women generally, are very much related. There is plenty of competition for the empty plinth. At an Evening Standard lunch to discuss the subject, suggestions ranged from Charles Dickens to Noel Gallagher to David Beckham to Red Rum. More serious candidates include Her Majesty the Queen and Sylvia Pankhurst. But I rather think that both of those would instantly recognise the importance of a memorial to the women of the second world war. As a young woman, the Queen was active in the war effort, and her mother was instrumental in ensuring that the royal family remained in London throughout the war.

Although it was often not that easy or that comfortable for them to do so, the women of Britain came forward and responded to the then Prime Minister's call. As a nation, all we need to do now is say a simple, "Thank you". If we do that soon enough, we can, in many cases, say it to them in person.

7.10 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Alan Howarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing the debate and the quality of his speech. I recognise the wide range of support that his proposal has already gained, including, as he noted, that of an impressively large number of Members of the House who put their names to an early-day motion tabled in October 1997 by the Under—Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), who I am pleased to see on the Front Bench.

I understand that the campaign was started by the Auxiliary Territorial Service section of the Royal Artillery Association, which is based in York and holds its annual reunions there. The section had decided, earlier in 1997, to raise funds for a memorial that would commemorate all second world war service women and acknowledge the contribution of women in civilian occupations such as the fire service and the Land Army. Madam Speaker is now the patron of the charity that was established to raise funds for the proposed memorial and the Princess Royal is a vice-patron. My hon. Friend the Under—Secretary of State for Social Security is also a vice-patron.

We all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these women. The contribution of Britain's women to its survival and eventual victory in the second world war was immeasurable. I know that from my own mother's story. A Wren who served in the blitz in Plymouth and Liverpool, she was proud of the service that she had given to her country and I am proud that she was one of millions of women whose efforts alongside our armed forces in Europe and in the far east ensured victory in 1945.

Millions of women worked in arms and aircraft factories or laboured on farms as land girls. To use the language of those days, women manned air defence batteries, which proved so vital to London's defence in the V1 and V2 terror raids of 1944–45, and most of the harbour craft in Britain's naval ports, so releasing thousands of naval personnel for duty elsewhere. As nurses, they cared for wounded civilians and military personnel, and later the physically and psychologically traumatised survivors of Hitler's concentration camps.

Victory may not have come were it not for those women at Bletchley Park who worked to break the Enigma code and of course it was left to women to raise the children of the war—my generation—who were thankfully able to grow up into a time of peace. The women brought us here and continued to support us during the austerity of the post-war period.

Many other images of the second world war are of women. Dame Vera Lynn's efforts entertained and heartened the wartime generation and during the darkest days sustained the hope that peace would come. The Queen Mother, as Queen, famously visited bomb sites and gave her uniquely wonderful support to ordinary people in those terrible circumstances. Without the contribution of Britain's women during the second world war, Britain would have starved. Our armies would have been defeated for lack of adequate supplies of arms, munitions and fighting personnel and the country would have slipped into what Churchill termed the abyss of a new dark age.

Today's citizens of Britain owe a great debt of gratitude to the women of two generations ago for the peace and liberty that we so often take for granted. Women changed the course of the war and we should remember that the war also changed their lives, which were never the same again. Their efforts in the war strengthened and affirmed their central role in society and paved the way for greater freedoms in the years to come. Today's women owe a vast debt to that generation.

Let me now speak about the vacant plinth itself, since it is arousing so much interest and is the focus of the debate. The plinth in the north-west corner of Trafalgar square has been empty since the square was laid out by Barry between 1840 and 1845. Records indicate that the two plinths in the north-east and north-west corners were originally designed by Barry to carry bronze statues, but the estimated cost of these exceeded the budget available. The statue of George IV which occupies the other plinth was originally designed to stand at Marble Arch, and then to stand in front of Buckingham palace. It was placed in its current position when plans for Marble Arch and the palace were changed.

My Department has a dual role in regard to the vacant plinth. We are currently responsible for the physical care, control and management of Trafalgar square, which is Crown land. Under the Public Statues Act 1854, the Secretary of State must give formal approval for the erection of any statue in the Metropolitan police district of London. His approval is given on the basis of the granting of planning permission and, if necessary, listed-building consent by the local planning authority—in this instance, Westminster city council—and consultation with English Heritage.

The promoters of any proposal for the vacant plinth—such as the memorial suggested by my hon. Friend—therefore need to establish that planning permission and listed-building consent are forthcoming, and that the scheme is supported by English Heritage. They must also be able to confirm that they could fund the erection of the statue and provide for its maintenance in perpetuity.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Is the Minister inviting the organisers to go through the procedure now? If they did so, would he regard that as almost a pre-emptive strike?

Let me also point out that it is possible for similar memorials to be placed in locations around the country. Only last month, ladies in their twilight years unveiled such a memorial in my constituency.

Mr. Howarth

I am speaking of the specific circumstances of Trafalgar square. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will unfold a little more about the procedures that we anticipate as we move towards being able to make a decision on the future of the vacant plinth.

That is the Department's formal position on the possible use of the plinth. Whether or not it would be an appropriate site for the proposed memorial to the women of the second world war I cannot say, although that does not of course detract from my personal support for the campaign to erect a memorial in an appropriate place.

As the House will know, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce is currently showing a series of contemporary works on the vacant plinth over a period of two years. The "fourth plinth project", which I find enormously exciting, is very much the brainchild of the RSA's deputy chairman, Prue Leith. The project was originally intended to find a permanent solution for the problem of the vacant plinth that would have widespread public support, but, that having proved elusive, the purpose became to stimulate public interest in contemporary British art, and to stimulate debate about the long-term future of the plinth.

Twelve eminent British artists were asked to suggest ideas for the plinth, and the three works being displayed were chosen from those. Planning permission and listed-building consent were granted by Westminster city council in March this year, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave formal consent for the temporary erection of the three sculptures in April. The first sculpture to be displayed—a life-sized white marble figure of Christ by Mark Wallinger entitled "Ecce Homo"—was unveiled on 21 July. I feel a deep admiration for what has been achieved in that work. It is extremely moving and beautifully made, and stands as a striking representation of purity and vulnerability among its brasher neighbours in and around Trafalgar square. It has already become a much-discussed and greatly admired work of art.

"Ecce Homo" will be followed, in March 2000, by a challenging piece by Bill Woodrow called "Regardless of History". There is some irony in the choice of title, in the context of this debate. The final sculpture in the trilogy will be an untitled work by Rachel Whiteread, which will be installed on the plinth in the autumn of next year. Each piece will remain on the plinth for approximately eight months; then, in mid-2001, the plinth will become vacant again, unless another proposal has been agreed in the meantime to follow the "fourth plinth project".

Considerable numbers of people—their imagination having been caught by the wonderful scheme proposed by Prue Leith and the RSA—may feel that a continuing rotation of temporary works on the plinth would be preferable to a single, permanent solution. The outcome of the RSA's project, which I shall await with interest, should show whether that approach has gained public support.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby has reminded the House, on 9 April 1999, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that, at his request, Sir John Mortimer had agreed to chair a small advisory group to be set up to consider the long-term future of the vacant plinth. Sir John's group is seeking proposals and submissions from the public and interested organisations on a fitting permanent solution to the question of how the vacant plinth should be used.

The group is taking evidence and soliciting opinions from many people who are eminent in the fields of both traditional and contemporary public art. In early summer 2000, the group will make its recommendations to the Secretary of State. The views of the public will be widely sought and considered before any final decisions are taken.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State believes that that is the best way to try to find a long-term solution for the future of the vacant plinth. Such a solution might, of course, be to continue rotating different sculptures on the plinth, but on a more formal basis. The solution might be the proposal made today by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby, or it might be one of many other proposals that have been made in the consultation process. The House will understand that we cannot prejudge.

The inaugural meeting of Sir John's group was held on 29 June, and my right hon. Friend met the members of the group who were able to attend. The group is now meeting regularly, on a monthly basis.

The full membership of the advisory group consists of Sir John Mortimer, chairman; Professor Peter Clarke, professor of modern history at Cambridge university; Richard Cork, chief art critic at The Times; Bob Crowley, award-winning stage designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the national theatre; Councillor Bob Harris, chair of the arts and leisure committee of the Association of Local Government and deputy leader of Greenwich borough council; Neil MacGregor, director of the national gallery; Elsie Owusu, London-based architect and principal of Elsie Owusu Associates; and Baroness Rendell, the crime novelist Ruth Rendell. It is a very distinguished group, and the House can be confident that they will give fair and wise consideration to the matter that we have put before them.

I know that details of the campaign for a memorial to the women of the second world war have been sent to Sir John Mortimer, and that Madam Speaker, as patron of the campaign, has written to him commending the use of the vacant plinth in Trafalgar square for that purpose. Sir John has replied to Madam Speaker, inviting a representative on behalf of the women of the second world war to give evidence to his group. The Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley) has also written to Sir John, to reinforce the case.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Selby that Sir John's advisory group will give the proposal the full and serious consideration that it merits, taking into account the range and weight of support that it has already achieved.

Many other suggestions have been received from the public and numerous organisations about what should go on the plinth, and Sir John's advisory group will need to take all those into account. The group is looking for the best solution for the plinth in that hugely important civic location, and may feel that it should not be a war memorial. There are other sites in central London where such a memorial might be placed: the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square may not necessarily the best place for it. I assure my hon. Friend, however, that the proposal will be given fair consideration.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The debate has two parts: the first deals with whether there should be a memorial; and the second deals with where such a memorial should go. If by chance Trafalgar square is not the best place for the memorial, will the Government consider establishing a team led by Ministers to determine a better alternative?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman has made a very constructive and helpful suggestion, which I shall certainly ask my hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider.

I shall conclude by reminding the House of the commitment that was made in the White Paper on London Government, "A Mayor and Assembly for London", published in May 1998, to transfer management responsibility for Trafalgar square to the new Greater London Authority. The square will remain Crown land, but day-to-day responsibility for its care, management and use will, subject to the passage of the legislation now before Parliament, pass to the new mayor of London. Clauses to effect that transfer of responsibility have been included in the Greater London Authority Bill.

Subject to the agreement of Parliament, the mayor should take over responsibility for Trafalgar square in July 2000, or soon after. I therefore anticipate that it will ultimately be for the mayor to decide what, if anything, goes on the vacant plinth once the RSA's project has reached its conclusion and Sir John's advisory group have made their recommendations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will, however, have a continuing involvement in decisions on what will occupy the vacant plinth by virtue of his responsibility to give final approval under the Public Statues Act 1854, which will not be extinguished by the Greater London Authority Bill.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby for putting forward an important case with such dignity, humour and eloquence.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Seven o'clock.