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Tsunami Memorial

Volume 490: debated on Monday 30 March 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Tami.)

I am especially grateful to have the opportunity this evening to remind the House of one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded in history—the Asian or Boxing day tsunami of 2004. Resulting from an undersea earthquake with its epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, the sudden explosion, with a power estimated by the US Geological Survey to be the equivalent of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs, caused the entire planet to vibrate. The resulting tsunami, despite travelling for hours, impacted on the coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand with devastating force, as well as causing fatalities as far apart as Somalia and South Africa.

For many of us, the horror of what was happening became clear over the following days and weeks, and I suspect that the memories of the sheer devastation will remain with us for the rest of our lives. As ever, the generosity of the British public, led by the Government, was quickly evident and we made a significant contribution to the $7 billion that was donated in humanitarian aid worldwide.

For the 1.7 million who lost their homes and their livelihoods—some 90 per cent. of all those living and working around the coast—the aid has made a considerable difference. Moreover, the setting up of an early warning infrastructure in the Indian ocean, promised by the United Nations, will bring a greater sense of security to some incredibly poor people. What cannot be compensated for, of course, is the estimated 230,000 people in 12 countries, a third of them children, who perished in the tsunami. Among those killed on 26 December 2004 were 9,000 foreign tourists, mostly Europeans, including 151 British citizens. Approximately 850 British citizens were injured in the Tsunami, and some remain severely disabled.

There was considerable criticism of the support given by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to survivors and to relatives whose loved ones were missing. Initial response teams were sent to Sri Lanka, whereas most UK citizens were in Thailand; emergency response lines to the UK were inadequate; British casualties were among the last foreign visitors to be contacted in hospitals; and the National Audit Office report, which examined those claims, recommended sweeping improvements. Unlike for the 7 July bombings, no funds were specifically allocated to support British families, some of whom have lost their main income providers.

However, the focus of the debate tonight is not the handling of the disaster, but the failure after four long years to resolve, build and dedicate a permanent memorial to the British citizens who lost their lives so tragically in 2004. For all those families who lost relatives in the tsunami, such a permanent memorial is tremendously important, but for the families whose loved ones have never been found—there were six—and who have no focal point to pay their respects, a permanent memorial is absolutely essential.

Sarah Bent was just 19 when she and her friend Robert Rowbottom, both students from Yorkshire, set off on what was to be the adventure of a lifetime in 2004. They were staying at Koh Phi Phi in Thailand and were enjoying the fabulous hospitality that Thai resorts have to offer when the tsunami struck. The Christmas day call home to say that they were having a fabulous time was the last communication that their parents had with them. Four years later, Sarah and Robert’s remains have never been found and we can only speculate about the sheer pain that their parents, relatives and friends must still be going through. In all, six bodies of UK citizens have never been recovered. It is to give those families some comfort that I am urging the Minister to act more decisively over the decision to identify a site and to commission and fund a permanent memorial to the tsunami victims.

Let me make it absolutely clear to the House that I do not accuse the Government—and certainly not the Minister—of a lack of interest or an unwillingness to see a permanent memorial in place. However, it is clear that without a greater sense of urgency and leadership, the resolution of the issue will simply drag on. It would be unacceptable if this Parliament came to an end without the matter being resolved.

It is of course difficult to make a comparison with the Government’s speed of reaction in other tragedies, but it is worth noting that in the case of the July 2005 London bombings, £1 million was donated by the Government. In addition to plaques at each of the locations of the five bombings, 52 three-metre tall stainless steel pillars will be erected in Hyde park and unveiled on 7 July this year. A sculpture at Clive steps opposite St. James’s park with the names of all those who died in the Bali atrocity in 2002 was unveiled four years later, at a cost of £300,000, £100,000 of which was donated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A memorial to commemorate those who lost their lives in the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York was opened in Grosvenor gardens two years after the event at a cost of £500,000, paid for by the Government.

The fact that those memorials and others commemorating the lives of the Queen Mother and Princess Diana have been progressed swiftly and efficiently by the Government is, I believe, evidence of good intent by Ministers, so why has there been no resolution on the tsunami memorial? First, there appears to be confusion over the amount of money made available by the Government and other donors and a lack of debate over whether the reported £500,000 offered by the Government is sufficient to meet the aspirations of Tsunami Support UK. Secondly, there is confusion over possible locations, with, it seems, the royal parks being ruled out without proper explanation. Thirdly, the possibility of a permanent memorial plus a major exhibition about the tsunami at the Natural History museum appears to have first won favour, but then been put on the back burner without explanation. Above all, however, there appears to be an almost complete lack of face-to-face discussions among Ministers, members of Tsunami Support UK and the board of the Natural History museum, which has led to suspicion and a lack of understanding about what is and what is not being proposed. This debate is an opportunity for the Minister to spell out clearly where the obstacles to a permanent memorial lie, and what the Government are prepared to do to resolve them and in what time frame.

The relatives of tsunami victims were initially offered a choice of three sites, including Victoria Tower gardens and the Natural History museum, although I suspect that many would have preferred a permanent memorial in a royal park. Can the Minister explain why the royal parks became off limits and why the original choice of sites was made? There appeared to be considerable support for the Natural History museum, where the link with natural disasters could be made, particularly if an exhibition could be mounted explaining how the 2004 Asian tsunami affected the world and why it is important in an era of global warming and rising oceans to protect natural low-lying shore lines. However, it now appears that the board of the Natural History museum is not only ruling out a permanent outdoor memorial for what it says are “insurmountable” reasons, but is now holding the Government to ransom over a small indoor exhibition. Could the Minister confirm the Government’s support for a permanent outdoor memorial on the site of the Natural History museum, and if so, can she explain what the “insurmountable” problems are with placing such a permanent memorial on what is, after all, a public space?

I trust that the Minister would accept that an indoor memorial, particularly one that could not be accessed on 26 December each year, would hardly be acceptable to the relatives or the victims, many of whom might wish to visit the memorial on the anniversary of the tsunami. If she agrees with that, will she make clear the Government’s support for an outdoor permanent memorial, irrespective of whether the Natural History museum agrees to mount an exhibition as part of its existing gallery entitled “The Power Within”? The proposal by the board of the museum to mount an indoor plaque as a permanent memorial is surely unacceptable to the Government.

Let me seek some assurances from the Minister over the proposed exhibition at the Natural History museum. There is little doubt about the value of an indoor exhibition in drawing public attention to the 2004 tsunami and explaining such phenomena. A year ago, the museum appeared to be enthusiastic about such a proposal. Now, the response is at best lukewarm, with support for work on the Darwin centre seeming to take precedence. Will the Minister explain what discussions she has had with the museum about the tsunami exhibition and tell the House whether she is satisfied that the change of heart is justified, considering the pain and suffering already being felt by families who will see this prevarication as deeply unjust?

Finally, may I return to the inevitable issue of cost? As I understand it, the Government have allocated £500,000 to erect and maintain a permanent memorial and to cover any other costs, including a possible exhibition at the Natural History museum. Clearly, when the original sum was agreed, the possibility of an additional exhibition was not envisaged, and it seems deeply unjust to expect all the costs of an exhibition and a permanent memorial to be covered by the initial allocation. What steps has the Minister taken to obtain a more accurate estimate of the costs for the outdoor permanent memorial and for the exhibition, and what plans does she have to increase funding to ensure that the tsunami victims are remembered with appropriate dignity?

I fully accept that this is not an easy matter to resolve, but after four years, resolved it must be. The Minister is ideally placed to bring this matter to a just conclusion. If she does so, she will have the lasting gratitude of the relatives of the 151 UK citizens who perished on Boxing day 2004. In particular, she will have the deep gratitude of the parents of Sarah and Robert, who saw their children go off on an adventure from which they never returned.

I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for raising this issue with such passion, and for keeping alive the memory of those terrible events. I hope that, in the time available, I shall be able to answer his many important questions, which have an audience beyond this Chamber.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Indian ocean tsunami was unprecedented in its scale. The waves killed some 300,000 people, including 151 British citizens. Millions more were left without food, homes and livelihoods, and hundreds of British nationals returned home seriously injured and traumatised to the extent that their lives would never be the same again. As the hon. Gentleman so poignantly said, bereaved families such as the parents of Sarah and Robert were never really able to say goodbye properly to the people they loved.

For a number of years, as Minister for humanitarian assistance, I have had the responsibility of supporting families in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and major disasters. Commemoration—including services of remembrance and, later, memorials—can be absolutely vital in helping people to cope with their terrible grief and sense of loss. That is why I have been working closely with members of the Tsunami Support UK group since 2007 to help them to achieve their aim of establishing a fitting memorial to their relatives and the other British nationals who lost their lives in the tsunami.

Formulating plans for a memorial is necessarily a slow process, and I would ask the hon. Gentleman to understand that. In every case, including 9/11, 7/7, the tsunami and the Bali bombings, the process has mostly been determined by the pace of the families, and their ability to reach agreement about what they want before the memorial is commissioned. As so often, decisions about location and character simply cannot be rushed, as those involved need time to reflect on what the memorial will mean to them individually and then to reach a shared plan for the memorial. At no point has there been a deliberate or inadvertent sense of a loss of urgency about this issue; rather, there has simply been a wish to match the pace of development and the nature of the plan to the wishes—the express wishes—of the affected families.

Because of the exceptional circumstances, there was no obvious place for the memorial in the UK and there were differing views among the families: some wanted the memorial to be in London, others did not; some wanted a quiet place to reflect and remember; others wanted something in a prominent and prestigious location. Our guiding principle must always be to work in close consultation with the families and the survivors. That is what we—my official colleagues in the humanitarian assistance unit and I—have attempted to do in developing the tsunami memorial, too. I met many of the tsunami families in December 2007 and had a number of follow-up meetings with their representatives in 2008, and I also visited the region in preparation for the first year anniversary in 2007.

A number of places were suggested for the memorial, including Battersea park, Victoria Tower gardens and the Natural History museum. These suggestions came from the families themselves; we did not rule out the majority of royal parks—indeed, Victoria Tower gardens is a prestigious park managed by the Royal Parks. Only some suggested locations, such as Kew gardens, were ruled out. We arranged for those who wished to visit the three preferred sites. With Tsunami Support UK, we then consulted all those affected on their preferred location. One hundred and thirty people responded to the consultation letter.

There was overwhelming support for the Natural History museum—a site many see as the best place to educate future generations about the power of nature, and the delicate relationship between humankind and its environment. Since the Natural History museum was chosen as the preferred location, the museum trustees have identified a number of difficulties, which they raised with us. In preparation for this debate, I had a further conversation earlier today with Oliver Stocken, the chairman of the trustees.

The main problems associated with that location include the fact, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the museum does not open on 26 December, which is the anniversary of the tsunami. Some families selected the museum on the condition that they would be able to visit on that day. The museum trustees are willing in principle to look at ways round that, as confirmed by the chairman in my earlier conversation.

As many will know, the museum is hoping to open its new Darwin centre in September, and the area around the centre is being developed. This is the site originally thought to be the right place for the tsunami memorial; but the museum now plans to use this space for multiple purposes, which it feels would be incompatible with the dignified reflective environment appropriate for a memorial. In addition, the limitation on access imposed by the relevant planning consents for the landscaping cause even greater difficulties for access to that area than previously envisaged.

Dr. Michael Dixon, the chief executive, wrote to the Tsunami Support UK chairmen in December 2008, setting out those new obstacles and suggested that it might be better to look for a new site for the memorial. However, the chairmen of Tsunami Support UK were clear that they wanted us to press the Natural History museum to host the memorial. In February I wrote to Oliver Stocken, chairman of the Natural History museum’s trustees, urging them to honour their offer.

The trustees discussed the memorial again at their meeting on 24 February, and the chairman wrote to me following that meeting. He informed me that the trustees felt enormous sympathy for the families of victims of this natural world disaster, and remained keen to host the memorial if that was at all possible. He said that, on reflection, the trustees no longer thought that it would be possible to find an appropriate outdoor site for the memorial within the museum grounds, for reasons that I have already outlined. They suggested an alternative: a permanent indoor exhibition on the tsunami, with an associated memorial to those who lost their lives.

I should make it clear that that suggestion was only made at the beginning of March, and is still very much on the front burner. I am aware, however, that it is not what some of the families had originally wanted. We are therefore holding discussions with Tsunami Support UK in an attempt to establish whether the proposal is acceptable to those families. A number of concerns have been expressed about whether the exhibition would take precedence over the plaque or the memorial element.

The fact that the museum does not open on Boxing day remains an issue. I have spoken to Oliver Stocken, who has assured me that if we went ahead with a memorial in the museum, arrangements could be made for the families to visit the memorial on 26 December. However, that would have to be the subject of further discussion, and also to an indication of the number of families who might want to make such a visit.

My officials in the humanitarian assistance unit are hosting the annual general meeting of Tsunami Support UK on Saturday, 4 April. I confirmed this afternoon that a representative of the museum would attend the meeting. It will give the families an opportunity to discuss the new proposal fully, and to raise any further concerns that they may have. Obviously I cannot make any final commitments until after that meeting, which will provide an opportunity for a proper exchange between the families and their representatives and representatives of the museum. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that once we have clearly established the position of the families, we will press on with our discussions with the Natural History museum to ensure that the issue is brought to a satisfactory resolution as quickly as possible.

I can confirm that the Government have committed £500,000 for the memorial, and that we have undertaken to meet any ongoing maintenance costs that the museum may incur. Let me also stress my personal commitment to doing all that I can to resolve these issues to the satisfaction of the families, and to ensure that a fitting memorial is developed that reflects the aspirations and wishes of all those affected by this terrible tragedy. Because of the hon. Gentleman’s interest, I will of course ensure that he is kept informed so that he, in turn, can keep his constituents and their families involved.

I have always indicated my willingness to meet the families and their representatives, and, as I have made clear, my officials are in close discussion with them about the details of this matter. However, the overriding principle is the desirability of reaching a conclusion that gives the families a sense of solace and reconciliation, and a place for quiet contemplation and remembrance where they can go and, in some way, find the souls of the relatives who were so cruelly taken from them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.