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Royal British Legion (Norwich)

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2013

I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing this debate. This is an important topic, even though we have not yet been joined by too many other colleagues. I have had the pleasure of working with constituents in Norwich for the Royal British Legion since I was first elected. On Saturday, I will be doing what I have done for many years: joining Roy and Val Hill of the Sprowston Royal British Legion branch in their well-regimented but good-natured poppy appeal at the largest local branch of Tesco. I am sure that other hon. Members will have similar engagements in their constituency.

On Remembrance Sunday, I usually join hundreds of my constituents at Norwich city hall for wreath-laying and the “Last Post”, and then in Norwich cathedral. In the afternoon, I usually take part in a parade down Yarmouth road with the Thorpe St Andrew branch, led by the indefatigable Roy Robson and the town mayor. However, this year I unwisely chose the day before Remembrance Sunday on which to get married. I hope my constituents will forgive my absence this time.

In Norwich, the work of the legion is coming to the fore in an unfortunate way, which is poor timing, as this is the month before November. I want to use this debate to discuss the ways that we can best support this long-lived and courageous organisation. The Royal British Legion is of course the UK’s leading armed forces charity. It provides practical, emotional and financial support to all members of the British armed forces, past and present, and their families. Secondly, it actively campaigns to improve lives, and it safeguards the military covenant between the nation and its armed forces. By the bye, I am pleased that the Government have published that covenant, setting out the relationship between the nation, the state and the armed forces. It recognises that the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and to their families, and it establishes how they can expect to be treated. Community covenants are also being signed across the country, bringing military and civilian communities together.

Armed forces have long been based in Norfolk. RAF Marham, for example, has recently been the focus of an enormous community campaign, orchestrated by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). The Norfolk covenant builds on those relationships and local support and rightly aims to provide a more consistent approach.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The Royal British Legion operates in Ilford North as well as Norwich North. Does she agree that the work it does for the people who have served our country so well, and who should always be remembered, is irreplaceable, and that we should cherish such a great organisation and help it in every way we can?

I certainly do. I am confident that my hon. Friend, like me and many other Members, wants to see the Royal British Legion succeed in Ilford, Norwich and across the country. I will come on to that, as well as how we might mark the centenary of world war one next year. Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us how his region will mark that event.

Let me return to the legion’s purposes. It also organises the poppy appeal. It runs one of the UK’s largest membership organisations, and it is recognised as the nation’s custodian of remembrance. In summary, its mission is to provide welfare, comradeship, representation and remembrance for the armed forces community. We all pay tribute to this impressive and durable organisation. We are talking about a crucial cause, and it is given voice and action by many members and volunteers who have shown the highest courage in their service to this country.

We all want the Royal British Legion to be a strong organisation. As I have mentioned, next year sees the beginning of the world war one centenary commemoration. Another important event is the Normandy Veterans Association’s 70 years commemoration, which is championed in my constituency by some most wonderful veterans who are passionate about seeing it done well. All that is important work that we want the legion to sustain for today’s and tomorrow’s service people and their friends.

It is clear, however, that the legion faces challenges. Its accounts suggest that it runs at a deficit, and it has embarked on a major programme of modernisation and change called the “pathway for growth”. Its aim is to make the legion more visible, more relevant and more accessible to those members of the armed forces community who may require help, advice and support at any stage of their lives. I suspect that this is where the rubber hits the road. The Jubilee hall, which serves the Norwich branch and is a fine community hall, faces closure. The head of clubs and trusts at the headquarters says:

“The primary duty of the trustees in this case is to ensure that the best value is obtained from the assets placed in their trust in order that they can provide the maximum support to the objects of their trust. It was accordingly decided that the better option was to seek to sell the property for the best value which can be obtained from the open market.”

The local branch heard that news in August, and I sombrely noted that in one of their first phone calls afterwards, they contacted me as the local Member of Parliament. After two months, several public meetings, a local newspaper campaign by the Norwich Evening News, a generous underwriting offer from a local businessman, and some initial commercial negotiations, I am raising the story in Parliament, and I also have a petition from 617 local residents, which I shall present next week to the director-general of the Royal British Legion. I will explain to him the love that we in Norwich have for our Jubilee hall. First, it is the most visible base of the legion in the area. It is the size of a sports hall and it is emblazoned with the wording “the Royal British Legion” in brass letters a foot high. It is terrible to lose such an emblem.

Secondly, it is more terrible to lose a supportive and friendly establishment for many legion members who depend on it. It provides a warm drop-in for those who want it. Every table is neatly decorated with tinsel or flowers, depending on the season, and it provides a fuller space when that is wanted as well. Thirdly, it is the kind of community hall that already has 500 bookings for next year. I would be interested to know of any community venue that can rival that. In fact, now I know where all the zumba classes in this country are taking place; they are taking place in the Jubilee hall in Norwich, if not in Ilford.

That wide spectrum of activities taking place in the hall is something of which we can be proud. The acting chairman and his team of volunteers at the Norwich city Royal British Legion branch are doing their utmost to achieve a sustainable business after some instability in recent years.

Last Thursday, a “save Jubilee hall” public meeting passed a unanimous vote to keep the hall open, supporting the setting up of a charitable organisation to take on the building. Members and non-members alike of all generations expressed great anxiety about the danger of closure, and wanted to bring back the building to its former glory. Local man Martin Wyatt has offered to underwrite the finances required for such work, and deserves thanks for his generosity. He and the legion committee are working hard to make the transformation a reality. They have secured free legal advice through a local law firm, so they plan to lodge charitable status as soon as possible.

I am pleased—I am sure that the Minister will join me in my pleasure—that the local Labour councillors see the value in the Localism Act 2011, and we all encourage the local authority to list the hall as an asset of community value; that could give us six months’ grace before any sale. Volunteers are delighted to have received a kind letter from the secretary of Her Majesty the Queen, who is of course the patron of the Royal British Legion.

Naturally, the next step is more commercial negotiations, which are not the business of Parliament. However, the hall was built with local funds, and the committee intends to maintain it for its original purpose, though it will broaden its remit to encompass fully the local community. As Mr Wyatt has said,

“we look forward to a completion of this transfer, whether by lease or sale, as soon as possible, and for a stress-free and happy running of Jubilee Hall for years to come”.

It is my hope that by raising this issue today, I have done a little bit to remind us in this great institution of Parliament about the work and the standing of that other great institution, the Royal British Legion.

Here comes the crunch, however. The legion must not leave its members behind; it must not neglect the people who make it a great institution. Now is the time for the legion to listen to its members and to its friends in the wider community. If its aim is to make the legion more visible, more relevant and more accessible, then it should listen and be visible in the Norwich community, and work constructively with local volunteers. We are all behind the legion and its wonderful volunteers, and we do not want the legion to waste that good will.

I said earlier that I would return to the topic of the year ahead. As you know, Mr Hollobone, 2014 will mark a momentous milestone in British history—100 years since the outbreak of world war one. The centenary offers a special opportunity to commemorate not the war and the bloodshed, but the dedicated men and women who sacrificed so much to protect the United Kingdom. It also presents a very important chance to educate a new generation of young people about the war, to ensure that the lessons of that extraordinary time are not lost.

As the Minister will no doubt remind us, the Prime Minister has laid out the Government’s plans to mark the centenary. He has announced that support will be available for projects and initiatives, large and small, in local communities across the UK, in the form of Heritage Lottery Fund grants. I hope to work with councils, heritage groups and charities such as the Royal British Legion to mark the centenary locally. It is a matter of shame, I am afraid to say, that the Labour administration at Norfolk county council has rejected that idea, telling me that it has a rather full diary at the moment. It would be a matter of sadness, and downright discourteous to veterans and serving members of the armed forces, if the Labour administration at county hall did not have the time, inclination or gumption to do this job properly.

I turn back to the matter at hand. I will leave time today for colleagues to express, perhaps, their interest in the work of the legion, and for the Minister perhaps to tell us a little more not only about the commemoration plans but about the way that he works incredibly hard in his brief to support charities. Perhaps he can suggest further ways in which the Royal British Legion can do its job and be supported strongly from inside this great Parliament.

In conclusion, I support the Royal British Legion in Norwich. I passionately want it to succeed for those whom the charity serves: veterans of past campaigns; those yet to fight; and, of course, those whom we remember as fallen, and of whom we will say again in November,

“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”

We all are friends and supporters of the Royal British Legion. My final message today is to those at the legion’s headquarters, if they are listening. I say to them, “Please remember your local members and friends, and save the Jubilee hall in Norwich.”

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. At the start of my few words, I ask you for a little latitude, as I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), on behalf of all parties in the House of Commons, on her forthcoming marriage, whatever date it may be on. I am sure that she will be fully occupied over the Remembrance Sunday weekend.

The work of the Royal British Legion takes place not only in my area of Redbridge but across our great country. If we forget our past, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. If we do not honour the people who have given their lives, and who are no longer with us because of the passing of time, we risk history repeating itself.

Throughout many conflicts, members of our great Army, Air Force and Navy have given up their lives so that we can enjoy our freedom, and so that we can debate, as a democracy, in this Parliament. I think that members of all parties in this House will agree that the work that the Royal British Legion has done, is doing, and I am sure will continue to do benefits many veterans of many campaigns.

Sadly, it will not surprise you to know, Mr Hollobone, that I have never been in the armed services, but I am a member of the Royal British Legion, because I think that it is important. It is important that when we lay our wreaths, as most colleagues from all parties in this House will, on Remembrance day—in my area, we lay one on the Saturday and one on the Sunday; I will also lay one at a former Air Force base on the Monday—we genuinely remember, respect and honour the people who have given their lives for us. My only point today is that whether we are talking about Norwich North, Ilford North or any other “north” in this great country, we should honour all those people. May God bless the Royal British Legion.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone; I think it is for the first time.

I miss my former ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), so I am absolutely delighted to be in a position to respond to her debate, which brings home very clearly just why she is so respected and loved as a champion of Norwich North and of the things that the people there hold dear. I warmly congratulate her on securing this debate and on drawing the attention of the House to the incredibly important work of the Royal British Legion, as well as to concerns about the closure of the Jubilee hall in Norwich.

Just as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) skilfully intervened to place on record his huge admiration for the work of the Royal British Legion in his constituency, I must also take the opportunity to place on record my recognition of the incredible work done in the “third North”, which is my constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, in particular the work of the legion’s branch at Eastcote, which managed to get a cheque out of me and which looks after me incredibly well during the remembrance services there.

This debate has opened my eyes to some other work that the Royal British Legion is doing that I was not aware of—work that is frankly magnificent. For example, there was the recent opening of its centre for blast injury studies at Imperial college London, which is the first collaboration of its kind in the United Kingdom and where civilian engineers and scientists work alongside military doctors to reduce the effect of roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices. The legion has also teamed up with Help for Heroes to officially open the Phoenix House recovery centre in Yorkshire, where injured and sick service personnel from across north England and Scotland can recover and access key services. The legion is an enormously important institution, and I am sure, Mr Hollobone, that it does wonderful work in Kettering too.

Regarding the specific issue of the Jubilee hall in Norwich, I quite understand the passion underpinning that project; I have similar situations in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North will know that it is not for the Government to intervene in a charity’s decisions, however unpopular they are, but I am absolutely sure that the Royal British Legion will listen very carefully to this debate and will have heard her message about the community’s desire to save Jubilee hall.

My hon. Friend will also know that the Government are very keen to support this kind of community-led response. She mentioned the Localism Act 2011. That Act introduced the community right to bid, which, as she said, allows communities and parish councils to nominate buildings or land for listing by the local authority as an asset of community value. Exploring this option—asking the local authority to list the hall as an asset of community value, in line with the Act—seems eminently sensible.

What my hon. Friend may or may not be aware of is that, at a time when there is not a lot of money around, significant funding is being made available to support communities that want to take over buildings and assets. In June, I was proud to hear the Prime Minister announce a quarter of a billion pounds of funding at an event at the G8, which will be dedicated over the next 10 years by Big Society Capital and the Big Lottery Fund, to help communities own local assets, such as pubs, shops, community centres and sports facilities. More details of that programme will be announced shortly.

My hon. Friend may also be aware that the My Community Rights support programme provides advice and help to eligible community groups to develop business cases and get “investment-ready” to seek support from other sources. Information is readily available on the programme’s website.

I genuinely wish my hon. Friend and her local campaigning group every success and I hope that the Royal British Legion will go the extra mile in helping the community to safeguard what is clearly a very valuable asset.

My hon. Friend also asked me to talk a little about the commemoration plans to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, which all the speakers today have talked passionately about. They will know that the first world war was a period of almost unparalleled importance in our country’s history. I am proud to say that the Government are taking a strong lead in commemorating the centenary in a way that I hope is appropriate. The centenary will not only focus on military history but on the social and cultural changes that the war brought about, telling not just soldiers’ stories but those of men and women on the home front. We should remember that there were almost 900,000 deaths of British service personnel during the first world war, so it is entirely appropriate that remembrance lies at the heart of the commemoration.

We are working hard to encourage public interest and engagement, showing why the first world war still matters in the 21st century and is relevant to people today—including myself—through their family histories. My hon. Friend will know that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is the co-ordinating Department, but several Departments are working together to deliver what I hope will be a strong, diverse and inclusive programme. There is strong support from bodies such as the Imperial War museum, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the BBC and the Heritage Lottery Fund, all of which have a big role to play in securing public engagement and all of which are represented in the programme’s governance structure.

There will be £53 million of funded activity across a range of undertakings, including a major capital project at the Imperial War museum, Heritage Lottery Fund grants for community projects and moneys for other cultural activity. For example, the first world war centenary battlefield tours project is offering students and teachers from every state-funded secondary school in England the opportunity to visit battlefields and other notable sites and to take part in remembrance ceremonies on the western front. That will be an enormously powerful experience for them. The tours start in spring next year and will run until 2019. Schools, including those in Norfolk, have been piloting the scheme, with pupils visiting battlefields at Ypres and the Somme. More than 1,000 schools have already registered for the tours from next spring, which is well ahead of the planned target. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North said so powerfully, the bravery and suffering of the heroic men and women who gave their lives so selflessly in the great war—including my great uncle—must never be forgotten.

To conclude, the Government recognise the massive contribution that is made by our servicemen and women. The words trip easily enough, but it is important to convey what underlies them with sincerity. The armed forces covenant ensures that we are doing all we can for our armed forces in return for asking them to do dangerous jobs in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Government take it extremely seriously.

I am proud that the Chancellor was in a position to announce that the LIBOR fines collected from banks for their shockingly bad behaviour and their distortion of British values are being used to provide permanent funding of £10 million per annum to charities working to support military personnel. That money was taken in fines on the worst of values to support organisations working with the best of British values.

On that note, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North on her championing of her constituents, the campaign to safeguard the hall and this opportunity for us all to place on record our recognition of the enormously valuable work that the Royal British Legion does. It would be wrong of me to conclude my remarks without congratulating my hon. Friend on her forthcoming marriage to Sandy, who is, I believe, a former paratroop officer. I am sure that her constituents will forgive her for her absence from Remembrance day services and for getting married, even if there are many colleagues in this place who never will.

Sitting suspended.