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First World War Commemoration

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 9 June 2016

1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the greatest possible engagement by children and young people in the commemoration of the first world war. (905288)

All our first world war programmes, including the school battlefield tours, the great war debate series and the 14-18 NOW culture programme, are designed to engage children and young people. Only last week, young people played a prominent role in our commemorations to mark the Battle of Jutland. I was delighted to be in Orkney and I commend the young people who participated. On 30 June and 1 July, we will commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, when young people will again play a key role at national events taking place at Westminster Abbey, in Manchester and at the Thiepval memorial in France.

My “Forget Never” project, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is already getting young people from across Basildon thinking about the important events of 100 years ago. Will my right hon. Friend therefore join me in encouraging more young people to get involved in commemorating the Somme by calling on all remaining schools in Basildon to sign up to this project so that their students might also benefit from its opportunities?

I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments and am delighted to hear of the fantastic work being done in his constituency. I endorse all efforts to encourage young people to engage with the programme and to discover history. Young people can also get involved in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s “Living Memory” project in their local area and find out about events near them run by schools and not-for-profit organisations that are part of the Imperial War Museum’s centenary partnership.

It is important that young people engage with the commemorations, but it is also important that we in the House do so too. Does the Minister share my concern that, just a few weeks ahead of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, we do not have a planned moment to debate the matter in the House? My concern is shared widely across the House. If he agrees, will he use his good offices to raise the issue with the Leader of the House so that Members might have that moment here to reflect on this important moment in our history?

I totally endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I will have a word with the Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, as the responsible authorities, but I would certainly back such a debate.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when the first world war is commemorated, too much emphasis is not placed on the set-piece battles. On average, every day during the first world war, 450 servicemen lost their lives, which is equivalent to all the losses in Afghanistan. It was not just a few set battles; it was every day for four years.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is funding for communities to explore local first world war history, through the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as through the War Memorials Trust for the repair and conservation of local war memorials. Local communities should be commemorating every aspect of their local communities to highlight what happened and remember those who served and gave their lives.

I thank the Minister for acknowledging the contribution of the young people of Orkney to the Battle of Jutland commemorations last week, at which he was present. Is not the lesson that involving young people makes it meaningful and poignant for those of all ages and that, if we want to engage young people, we should involve them, not lecture them?

I was delighted to be in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency to experience the moving ceremonies for the Jutland centenary commemorations. It is vital that we engage everybody, particularly young people, so that they might learn about what happened.

I welcome the Department’s work to engage young people so that they might understand the suffering and sacrifice. What steps is it taking, however, to make young people understand the wider implications of world war one, such as the Balfour agreement and the redrawing of boundaries in the middle east, and how, in Europe, it sowed the seeds for world war two?

It is important that we get across the whole of this, and what the hon. Gentleman says is very important. At the moment, we are determined to focus on the particular events being commemorated, but more widely we also want to make people, particularly young people, aware of our 20th century history, of people’s experiences and of the tragedy of war.

Will the Minister congratulate everyone who was involved in the first world war, including those from the rest of the world, particularly Ireland—for us in Northern Ireland—but also the Indians, the Africans and all those who were part of it, so that children might learn that it included most areas of the world and that an awful price was paid by many?

Indeed. It is very important, for the empire and the Commonwealth, to recognise the contributions of all parts of the communities in the four nations of our country and particularly people from Commonwealth countries such as the Indians, the Canadians, the Australians and the rest. This lies at the heart of what we are trying to do, as we commemorate all those who participated in the Somme.