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Youth Participation: First World War Commemorations

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I thank the Minister for his time.

It probably does not take me to alert the House and the nation to the fact that we are rapidly approaching the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of world war one, which will unfurl four years of solemn remembrances of different events. None of us would disagree that it is important that we remember and commemorate, but equally important is how we commemorate and what we do as part of the commemoration. That matters as part of our sense of national identity.

For our close allies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, sites such as Vimy ridge and Gallipoli are not just sites of memory or commemoration, but part of a national story, not of constitutional development so much as the birth of real nationhood—of real people losing their lives on the battlefield. That is why nations truly came into being; it is not just that they received a constitutional charter.

I pay tribute to what the Government have already announced as part of the commemorations of world war one, to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has chaired a group, and to the Minister’s work. I pay particular tribute to the notion of spending of £5.3 million on sending children to visit the battlefields, not least because my own constituency is a hotbed of school travel—bizarrely, it is our one growth industry. I know that it is a particular pleasure to the WST school travel trust and the school travel forum.

I went on such a journey for the first time last autumn. I studied history at university and I have studied the period, so I have always wanted to go and see what I had been studying. I had never been; I have driven past quickly on the motorway, if ever at all.

What the visit brought home to me was that the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission is the one of the greatest publicly funded pieces of civil art ever undertaken in the history of humanity. We do not fully appreciate that in this country. The work of Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield is testament to the ability of architecture to inspire emotion and encapsulate complex feelings. Even to this day, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is one of the best run and best presented of our public bodies.

It is hard not to feel a sense of hopelessness when standing at a memorial such as the one at Thiepval—those grand Indo-Saracenic arches. All the schoolchildren were running around and making noise. Then the rain started to fall and they all scattered to the shelter of the visitors centre. I was left in the silence of a Somme morning—misty and cloudy—and I had a real sense of the tragedy of the loss of 20,000 people in one day. It is hard to imagine just how many people that is, but that is what occurred. At a time when we are once again debating what should be in our history curriculum, 1 July 1916 rarely seems to feature as a focal point for our national story, yet I believe it should be at the heart of what we think about when we study history.

I was fascinated and inspired by Thiepval, but I also visited some of the Canadian sites at Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy ridge, to which I referred earlier. The reason why I secured today’s debate is to promote a Canadian idea that we could learn from. Visitors to those two Canadian sites are greeted by a young Canadian student, who is there for four months, and explains what is available to people of all ages, what they could do on their visit, why the location is there and what it means to Canadians.

There is an interesting contrast with Thiepval. We have put great effort into an excellent visitors centre there, which I cannot praise highly enough, but on arrival, people are not greeted by a young person or someone who can explain to them why the place matters. For visiting schoolchildren, being welcomed by someone of their own age group would connect them more to what they are about to see; it is not just a theme park, but something that someone of their own age thinks is sufficiently important that they are spending a long time there welcoming people.

The scheme might also benefit more elderly visitors, who often visit battlefield sites. Perhaps it is unfair to cite reported speech, but we often hear criticisms such as, “Oh, the children run around. They don’t show respect. They don’t understand what they are coming to see.” I do not think that that is true, but such a scheme would encourage older generations to think that what they had done in world war two and indeed in world war one was not in vain, because younger generations were still explaining it to their children and their children’s children.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on an important educational and historical issue. The first world war is important in Northern Ireland. The 36th (Ulster) Division suffered and gave greatly at the battle of the Somme. In Northern Ireland, we have tried to bring both communities together on the back of the story about the battle of the Somme. There were Ulster divisions, but there were also Irish divisions that died and fought together in the first world war. It is a good historical issue.

The Bowtown community group in Newtownards try to educate young people on the estate about the importance of the first world war and to bring together other communities, so that nationalists and Unionists can look at what happened in the first world war together.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s observation is replicated in all our constituencies, up and down the country. Everywhere we look, we can find examples where we utilise world war one as a means of communicating across generations.

It would be naive of me to pretend that the Canadian model is cost-free. As we approach the Budget, cost considerations become all the more important. The cost of the Canadian scheme is roughly £400,000 per annum, of which about three fifths are salaries for the guides. University students are subsidised for four-month stays at the two sites. The Canadian Government own accommodation in Arras where students can lodge, and air fares are refunded on the successful completion of the course. The Veterans Minister, Steven Blaney, wrote to me:

“Without a doubt, the student guides’ enthusiasm serves as an inspiration to the many school and other tour groups that visit Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel each year, as well as to their peers when they return to Canada.”

That is an angle that I have not yet touched on. Once someone has served the four-month internship, they can return home and spread the message of what they have done. That is doubly welcome.

We have an eminently sensible opportunity to build on what the Government are already doing with the National Citizen Service—a chance to recruit young people who are between A-level and university or other employment to spend a set period of time at one of the major memorials to the missing, to welcome visitors, explain the facilities and the opportunities available and to try to connect each visitor with their own experience of what they are about to see. What connects them to the location?

One of the key things that young people notice when they go to such cemeteries is the age of the people slumbering beneath the earth. That has a dramatic impact on them, especially when they consider that often they are older than the poor fellow beneath the ground.

It is fair to say that before people visit one of the sites, they never quite know what their response will be. Many young people are often surprised by what they discover there and even by what they discover in themselves. They are emotional visits, and they should be.

It is essential that we do all we can to maintain the golden thread of remembrance. We have now reached the point when the last living veteran of world war one is no longer with us. He passed away last year.

Indeed. In not so many years’ time, that will also be true of the second world war. We do not want to reach the stage when we have forgotten our past. I want places such as Thiepval to have as important a part in our national story as Gallipoli and Vimy do in other countries’ national stories.

I am hugely impressed by my hon. Friend’s speech and the points he is making. Does he agree that as well as encouraging people to see those sites overseas, we should celebrate the heritage connected with the first world war in our towns and cities? For instance, Gheluvelt park in Worcester commemorates the battle in which the Worcestershire Regiment stopped the German advance and achieved great success. We should ensure that we engage young people in understanding the relevance today of the monuments that exist in towns and cities throughout the country.

I entirely take the point made by my hon. Friend, who has pre-empted my final comments. Every time I return to my constituency, I get off at Preston station, and I tend to get out of the carriage in front of the waiting room, above which is a plaque to the Pals, because that is where the feeding station was during world war one. Every time I get off the train, I am confronted by that memorial.

The biggest issue in the first few weeks after I was elected was the desecration of the cenotaph in Blackpool. That got me interested in the protection of war memorials, and in ensuring that they have better statutory protection. A common theme in all our constituencies is that how we commemorate and how we remember matters.

I hope that the Minister will take away my ideas. I believe that he already has a hard copy of my letter from Canada, which I hope he will consider. It may be too soon to do it in time for 2014, but I hope that in years to come we can make progress towards better involving our young people in meeting and greeting at those important sites.

I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for the chance to participate under your chairmanship, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing this important debate. It gives me an opportunity not only to debate his ideas but to set out some of the Government’s plans for the commemoration of the anniversary of world war one—the great war.

I commend the contributions made during this short debate by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Worcester (Mr Walker). For the record, I also note the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). He was appointed as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to oversee the commemoration of world war one, a role that he continues to hold despite being elevated to being a Defence Minister. I shall set out that role in detail later.

It goes without saying that the first world war was a period of almost unparalleled importance in our country’s history, and the Government are therefore committed to commemorating its centenary appropriately. The scale of the figures that we have to contend with is overwhelming. I do not think that I can match the poetry of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. Certainly, 16.5 million deaths, both military and civilian, are directly attributable to the conflict, including those of 1.25 million people from the British empire, colonies and dominions alone.

It is appropriate that remembrance—both of those who died and, of course, those who returned with physical and mental scars—should lie at the heart of our plans. However, to pick up on my hon. Friend’s theme, it is also important to secure an enduring legacy from the centenary commemorations, so youth and education must be absolutely at the heart of everything that we do.

My hon. Friend was kind enough to congratulate the Prime Minister on his work to ensure that we have the resources to create an appropriate commemoration. As he will know, last October, the Prime Minister announced a £53 million programme of funded activity, including not only national commemorations to mark the key events of the war but measures specifically designed to engage young people.

In particular, the Government are providing £5.3 million to offer every maintained secondary school in England the opportunity to send a teacher and two pupils to a first world war battlefield. A key objective of the project is to improve teachers’ understanding of the war and to deliver more effective lessons and future battlefield tours. Pupils will develop a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of world war one and its impact on people’s lives.

I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester about the local impact of the great war on individual areas. It is vital that our students can learn the stories of people from their local area who were involved in the war and establish related projects and events in their schools and communities.

It is important to say that the £5.3 million will effectively establish a bridgehead. We want to engage teachers in an understanding of the battlefields, and to have two pupils who might become ambassadors in their secondary school community. We certainly hope that schools will use that as a jumping-off point for sending more of their pupils on battlefield tours, which are important. I hope that the message goes out that Government assistance is available, but we certainly do not expect schools necessarily to limit their engagement with battlefield tours only to the teacher and two pupils who will benefit from the direct assistance.

The second important element of the £53 million is the £35 million project to refurbish the Imperial War museum’s first world war galleries. They will obviously provide a huge and highly visible centrepiece to the Government’s programme of commemoration, benefiting adults and students alike. The new galleries are set to open next year; getting them ready has involved closing the museum for some six months.

The Imperial War museum will lie at the heart of a range of activities across the UK. It has put together a centenary partnership that involves 900 members across 25 countries and will bring together a programme of cultural events and activities. It will use technology and digital platforms to enable millions of people across the world to benefit from the museum’s information and vast expertise, and to discover more about life in the first world war.

I thank the Minister and you, Sir Alan, for letting me intervene again. Is it possible for the Imperial War museum to put together a pack for schools—the Minister mentioned maintained schools—so that they could pre-brief or post-brief their classes about such visits?

I understand that digital tools will certainly be available to all secondary schools. They will be able to visit a website to understand what the opportunities are for battlefield tours. When invitations for the battlefield tours programme go out to schools, they will obviously be accompanied by appropriate material showing schools how to take advantage of it. It is important to have a digital portal to support schools in engaging not only with battlefield tours, but with a whole range of potential activities commemorating the first world war.

I thank the Minister for his positive response. As a Northern Ireland representative, I am keen to see everyone in the United Kingdom involved in the scheme. The Minister mentioned partnerships. Through the scheme, will it be possible to have a partnership arrangement between a school in Northern Ireland and one in the Republic of Ireland, so that we can take advantage of building on relationships that clearly exist through service in the Ulster and Irish Divisions?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. It gives me the chance to mention the fact that the Government recognise the enormous contribution to the allied cause of more than 200,000 service people from all parts of Ireland during the first world war. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Administrations in Belfast and Dublin are working together to commemorate a decade of anniversaries, which will run from 2012 to 2022, to cover not only the first world war but events subsequent to that including the partition of Ireland. It goes without saying that there are political sensitivities involved, so I hope that all Members will welcome the positive approach.

While we are on the subject of Northern Ireland, I should also say that the Northern Ireland Executive has welcomed the National Heritage Memorial Fund’s award of almost £1 million to restore HMS Caroline, which is the last surviving warship of the battle of Jutland and was decommissioned at the headquarters of the Ulster division of the Royal Naval Reserve on 31 March 2012. It has been berthed in Belfast since 1924.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and the important point about the tone of the debate is that although our plans for the commemoration of the first world war are well advanced, it goes without saying that we welcome contributions and proposals from all Members who are well versed in the ways and wishes of their community. For the record, I note his proposal of potentially twinning schools across the border in Northern Ireland and Ireland to take advantage of the opportunity to commemorate world war one.

I should of course say, in relation to the partnership put together by the Imperial War museum, that universities, colleges and schools are members of the partnership. The Imperial War museum already has excellent education resources aimed at supporting the national curriculum. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is also a key programme partner, and provides a range of impressive educational resources to support the learning of young people. There is also the Heritage Lottery Fund’s £6 million grants programme, which will encourage young people to learn more about their local first world war heritage. That goes to one of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, which is that the Heritage Lottery Fund will encourage applications that show that young people will benefit from a grant in order to learn about the history of their local community and its involvement in the great war.

The HLF has also been supporting for some time an open grants programme for first world war themed projects, and more than £10 million has been allocated to it. It goes without saying that many of those programmes involve children or young people. The Government, therefore, are leading the nation in appropriate commemoration. They are supporting the participation of local communities and interests, with a particular focus on young people.

It is entirely appropriate that the theme of youth is central to our plans given that people as young as 18 could enlist in Britain’s military for service in the great war. There is plenty of evidence that people even younger than that served, including Jack “Boy” Cornwell, whose actions at Jutland at the tender age of 16 and a half years were recognised with a posthumous Victoria Cross. Again, it is important to stress that the first world war involved many more than those just fighting at the front. There was of course the home front—the young women and children who contributed to the war effort in factories and on the land.

Civilians were also in the firing line, whether from bombardments from the sea or from air raids. One of the less known but most poignant stories of the first world war concerns the bombing of North street school in London’s east end, resulting in the deaths of 18 children, nearly all of whom were under the age of seven.

Our key objective in the commemorations will be to provide younger people with a better understanding of the enormity of what happened between 1914 and 1918 to secure a legacy of remembrance for generations to come. We must not forget that this was a conflict that involved more than 30 countries across the world, and we are in contact at ministerial or official level with 22 Governments from countries that were on either side of the war, acknowledging that the loss and suffering recognised no national boundaries. I hope that there might be opportunities for closer international understanding, particularly among younger people.

The Government are working hard to deliver and support a commemoration that is wide in its focus, inclusive in its nature and appropriate for an event of almost unparalleled importance. We will shortly be announcing our plans for the opening day of the centenary on 4 August 2014, and it will reflect our themes of remembrance and youth and education. There will be a number of announcements thereafter as our plans unfold. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire sit on a Committee that meets regularly to take forward the proposals. A range of stakeholders take part, including organisations involved in commemorating the first world war and some of our most distinguished historians. We are committed to ensuring that we keep the House fully informed as our plans develop.

It is telling that the Imperial War museum’s conception was during, not after, the first world war. At the museum’s opening in 1920, Sir Alfred Mond described it as

“not a monument of military glory, but a record of toil and sacrifice.”

I can think of no better words to guide our work today in both staging a fitting commemoration and creating a legacy for the future.

In conclusion, I welcome the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. In looking at the Canadian scheme, he recognised that there was an opportunity to involve young people in commemorating the first world war. Whether we take the Canadian scheme lock, stock and barrel or just take the sentiments that he expressed in his support for the Canadian scheme remains to be seen. Although our plans are well advanced and we have certain fixed proposals that we are ready to take forward to ensure an appropriate commemoration and support the education and involvement of young people, the door is always open. We are committed not only to informing the House but to hearing from hon. Members about their thoughts and proposals for commemorating the great war and to seeing whether we have an opportunity to take them forward.

Thank you, Minister. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on his contribution, particularly his reference to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We are all very grateful in that respect.