HL Deb 07 March 1987 vol 487 cc127-30

3.8 p.m.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what would comprise "a sufficiently influential body of public opinion to support the proposal [to erect a monument to Lord Dowding] and to raise enough money to pay for the erection of the statue and its future maintenance, " these being words used by the Minister on 18th March. (H.L. Deb., col. 1418)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, there appears already to be sufficient public support in principle for the erection of a statue to the late Lord Dowding. However, before giving his consent under the Public Statues (Metropolis) Act 1854 my right honourable friend will want to be satisfied that all the costs of erection and maintenance can be met from the funds subscribed.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye

My Lords, I very rarely worry your Lordships these days but I must tell the House why I have done so today. I find that I am the only member of the Air Council of 1938 and 1940 and I worked alongside Lord Dowding daily for a long time. Therefore, I could not let this Question go by without asking leave to pay tribute to him.

It is not for me to say anything except to ask a question. My question to the Minister is this. He is no doubt well versed in his history. Does he know that two actions by Lord Dowding in 1940 removed from this country the dark, grey cloud of possible defeat which then existed? The first action of Lord Dowding was to demand to see the Air Council and to get an assurance from it that no further aircraft would go to France. He obtained that and we withdrew our force from the wreck of France. The second was that he deployed a force inferior in numbers against the Germans and won the Battle of Britain. Those are the reasons why I think that it is worth recording his great achievements.

I should like to ask the Minister this. Is he willing to pursue the matter of getting the negotiations completed for the statue for Lord Dowding? I am grateful for the reply today which said that there is sufficient public support to do it. On the other hand, there is still outstanding the matter of finance. The finance required is not great. Some £50, 000 will probably cover the whole matter and leave money for maintenance in the future. However, one cannot expect to demand money from the public if, on the other hand, there is no permission given by the Government. Directly the permission is given by the Government then the money can be collected. It is a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg. I hope that they will get together now with the Battle of Britain council and come to an amicable arrangement for both sides which will allow the appeal to go out forthwith.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that series of questions. I shall answer the last and most important one. I can inform him and the House that I am in correspondence with Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris in his capacity as chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. In a letter to me dated 31st March this year he said: The matter of Government sponsorship … does not arise in this case". My advice to the Battle of Britain Fighter Association would be to submit an application for consent as soon as possible with supporting documentation and as much information as possible about the support and funds obtained so far. When that application is received, I assure the noble Lord and the House—bearing in mind not only the feeling exhibited all round your Lordships' House, but also my own feelings on this matter—that it will be sympathetically entertained.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have in my possession a letter from the Prime Minister on this subject which indicates in principle support, but states that the Government are bound by a decision taken in 1956 not to have any more monuments placed in situ by successive governments? Is he also aware that the letter says that planning permission has been given and a site provided by Westminster City Council? It is hoping now that funds will be made available. Does the Minister not agree that I speak for the vast majority of your Lordships when I say that though that is distinctly desirable, it is still the view of the majority of us that what Lord Dowding did was so tremendous in the history of this country that a monument ought to have been provided before now by the nation that he served so well and not by public subscription?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord's last point; but I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, has misinterpreted my right honourable friend's letter which I have in front of me. I should like to quote from that: It has been the policy of successive Governments since 1956 not to sponsor further memorials to leaders of the Second World War". That does not mean not to have memorials of this sort. Westminster City Council has granted planning permission on a pedestrianised site in the Strand between St. Clement Danes and Australia House so one hurdle has already been overcome.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one problem that has been put forward is the cost of maintenance of the statue once it is erected? Can he confirm that the trifling sum involved will be covered if necessary by the Government in acknowledgement of the enormous services, of which we have already heard, given by the late Air Marshal?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords. It would be a very sweeping thing for me to suggest that the Government could cover what my noble friend calls the trifling sum involved. It is suggested to me at this moment without knowing details of the statue in question that the capitalised sum for maintenance could be between £15, 000 and £25, 000. In other words, what we are expecting is a capitalised annual maintenance for some 15 years. It would be difficult for the Government to commit themselves to that at this time.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, how mean can we get?

Lord Skelmersdale

As has already been made clear—not by me in answer to supplementary questions, but by my noble friend Lord Balfour who asked this Question—it has been the policy of successive governments, all governments, since 1956, not to make payments of this nature.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that perhaps I too can join the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, in this business of being one of the Few? I am probably the only Member of your Lordships' House who commanded a flight in a fighter squadron in 1940. I can only say that this news we have had today that Her Majesty's Government will, provided certain requirements are forthcoming (which I am quite sure can be made to be forthcoming), have a favourable attitude towards the idea that there should be a statue, is something that those of us who are left who were involved with the late Air Marshal would very much like to see.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am certainly grateful to my noble friend for putting into a very few words what I have been attempting to explain to your Lordships in rather too many.

Lord Morris

My Lords, does my noble friend, in using the phrase "to sponsor", wish to encourage a financial contribution towards the erection of a statue?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, sponsorship means exactly that; namely, the provision of a capital sum.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I received a number of very touching letters after the last occasion this matter was discussed in the House which included cheques from pensioners who remembered with great gratitude what Lord Dowding had done for them 40 years ago? In view of the feeling expressed and the Minister's own very co-operative attitude, will he not approach his right honourable friend in order to make an exception at least to maintain the statue if the erection is paid for by public subscription?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as I said on 18th March, the first thing that has to happen is that we have to have a proper application which I advised the association today to submit to my right honourable friend as soon as possible. I think that would be, if I quote my words correctly, sympathetically entertained. What the noble Lord has just said in his supplementary question is proof of my opening remarks this afternoon. There appears already to be sufficient public support.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, I think the whole House will welcome the change of attitude on the part of the Minister to this proposition. Now we have a sponsor and now we have planning permission will the Government make sure that their contribution is as generous as possible, especially in view of the neglect of the contribution made by Lord Dowding?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I do not think I can usefully add anything to the words I have already uttered on this subject: "sympathetic" means sympathetic.

Lord Parry

My Lords, I believe the Minister told the House on one occasion that he was born in 1945. Will he join with me in saying that the pleasures of the Question this afternoon have been the tribute paid to Lord Dowding and being able to hear the voices of the last of the Few in this House? Can I, as president of the British cleaning industry, suggest that, since he was unprepared to make, as he said, a sweeping contribution to the cleansing of the statue if it is erected, the British cleaning industry itself might be prepared to sponsor the cleansing and maintenance of it?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, sponsorship comes from surprising places, as occasionally does advertising in your Lordships' House. I am sure that suggestion will be welcomed by the sponsors.

Lord Parry

My Lords, may I just point out to the House—because it is a point of interest and I must do so—that my presidency is an unpaid position and I have no financial interest whatsoever?