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Dame Vera Lynn: National Memorial

Volume 695: debated on Tuesday 11 May 2021

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

I am so very pleased that this Adjournment debate is taking place at the end of a very special day for all of us. It is of specific importance that none other than Her Majesty the Queen was here to start our proceedings, because the lady I am going to talk about was held in very, very high regard by the royal family and particularly Her Majesty the Queen. I am so pleased that it is you, Dame Eleanor, who is presiding over our proceedings this evening, because I happen to know on good authority that you were very fond of this lady because your late father held her in the highest regard. I know that you and your team—Mr Speaker and the other two Deputies—are quietly rather supportive of what I am now going to share with the House.

Dame Vera Lynn holds a special place in the hearts of everyone in the United Kingdom for her wonderful, uplifting singing during the dark years of the second world war. Her voice on the radio brought warmth and hope into the homes of ordinary people whose lives had been thrown into chaos by war. She travelled to many of the theatres of war, particularly in the far east, to support the fighting men she called “her boys”. Viscount Slim, grandson of Field Marshall Sir William Slim, commander of Fourteenth Army in Burma, has told me that his grandfather called the Fourteenth the “forgotten Army”. Dame Vera’s visits to the troops in the far east were so appreciated by the men who fought there. She went on an extended tour of India and Burma, sharing the basic conditions experienced by the soldiers, and they never forgot that. She ate the same food, slept under the same canvas, travelled through hostile and rugged terrain without complaint and with a cheerful disposition that brought sunshine wherever she went.

We have all seen pictures of Vera singing to crowds of young soldiers far from home. It must have been as if a lovely angel had descended to sing to them in the midst of the horrors of war. For a few short hours, she helped them forget the bad food, exhaustion, fear and heat, and connected them with their homes and families, so far away, through her magical voice.

I knew Vera for many years, because she happened to live next door to a friend of mine. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), whose constituent she was, would have liked to contribute to this debate, but as a Government Whip she is not able to do so. Vera’s daughter, Virginia, and her husband Tom, are both good friends, and they have taken on the mammoth task of continuing Vera’s charitable work, ensuring that her legacy continues.

I feel that a lot of people do not actually know what Vera did. Like me, she came from an ordinary background in the east end of London. Indeed, my family home is in Forest Gate, and just round the corner, down the road, is Dame Vera Lynn road. She experienced tough times, and she was always down to earth, kind and generous. These days—this will probably backfire—celebrities can be somewhat aloof and remote, but Vera was never like that, and she never forgot the sacrifices made by the troops in the second world war.

Vera was 103 when she died. My own mother reached the age of 104—they breed them tough in the east end of London. Vera’s career spanned an incredible 96 years, as she began performing publicly at the age of just seven. Her first radio broadcast was with the Joe Loss orchestra in 1935, and she first recorded one of her most popular songs, “We’ll meet again”, in 1939.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It is so pertinent and something we all love. I am pleased to hear about the special affection that his family has for Dame Vera Lynn—it is wonderful to hear it expressed in such a way. Does he agree that in a world where some are ashamed of our past, Dame Vera Lynn is a treasure to be remembered and celebrated, as part of a generation of selfless British patriots, whose love of and devotion and dedication to their country is something to be memorialised and immortalised?

How could anyone disagree with anything the hon. Gentleman says? I will certainly not disagree on this occasion. He described this wonderful woman brilliantly.

During the second world war, Dame Vera would sing to people using London underground stations as air raid shelters. The title of “forces’ sweetheart” came about after the Daily Express, backing the campaign, asked British servicemen to name their favourite musical performer. Of course Vera topped the poll. Her radio programme, “Sincerely Yours”, began in 1941, and included messages to troops serving abroad. However, after the fall of Singapore, the programme was taken off air for 18 months, because it was viewed—I mean, this is crazy!—as too sentimental, and it was thought it would interfere with the war effort.

Vera toured Egypt, India and Burma with the Entertainments National Service Association. In 1985 she rightly received the Burma Star for entertaining British guerrilla units in Japanese occupied Burma. How those young men must have enjoyed having a star like Vera appear among them, and what courage she showed to put herself in such a dangerous position. In her later years, Vera was a frequent performer at commemorative events such as VE day, and we see the royal family on the balcony enjoying every minute when Vera and others appeared. Her final public performance was in Trafalgar Square in 2005, where she made a speech and joined in with a few bars of “We’ll meet again”.

Her career was not finished there. In 2009, at the age of 92, she became the oldest living artist to make it to No.1 in the British album chart—I wonder what the Brits will be making of that at tonight’s awards. In 2017, the year of her 100th birthday, an album of her songs, which I have, with new orchestral settings and duets with many contemporary artists, was released. She was the best-selling female artist of the year—at the age of 100!—and received a lifetime achievement award at the Brit awards, which is taking place this evening. She was the first centenarian performer to have a top 10 album.

It is not just Dame Vera’s wonderful voice that should be commemorated, but the enormous amount that she has done for others less fortunate than herself. Many people will be unaware of all the marvellous work done by her two charities; the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity and the Dame Vera Lynn Charitable Trust.

The Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity was established in 2001 to help children with cerebral palsy and other motor learning impairments and their families. I know that, in her own constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) holds that particular organisation very dear. The charity has its origin in the announcement by Scope that it was no longer able to fund its School for Parents network, including Ingfield Manor, which was close to Dame Vera’s home in Sussex. The school provided early intervention services to support parents in raising pre-school age children with cerebral palsy, enabling the children to learn and develop physically, socially and emotionally.

Vera launched the Bluebird appeal to raise funds to save the school, and the charity continues to provide early intervention services as well as other activities, such as music therapy, swimming, sensory sessions and help for families. In the words of Dame Vera:

“Early intervention is key to helping young children with cerebral palsy and other motor learning conditions gain a solid base from which they can develop their independence and self-esteem in later life.”

So, Madam Deputy Speaker, what am I asking for tonight in this Adjournment debate? The Dame Vera Lynn Charitable Trust was set up in 1989 with her late husband, Harry. The main aim of the trust is to relieve hardship or distress among former members of the armed services and their families—another cause close to her heart. The trust has donated to many military charities, as well as giving money to other causes, such as children’s charities and, more recently, the national health service silent soldiers campaign. So, together with Dame Vera’s family, I am launching a campaign for a permanent memorial to one of the most loved stars that this country has ever produced. One place immediately came to mind for her memorial—the iconic white cliffs of Dover, immortalised in one of Vera’s most famous songs. In 2017, Vera raised more than £1.5 million to enable the National Trust to purchase 700,000 square metres of land immediately behind the cliff top. That amazing feat was accomplished within a week and is a tribute to her enduring popularity and her hold on the British public’s imagination.

The memorial will be a permanent reminder to future generations of what this marvellous lady accomplished and how much she was loved. The project has the backing of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke), who is the vice-chairman of our committee, so, if something happens to me, she is standing ready to take over. Most importantly, it also has the backing of Dover District Council, and what a wonderful council it is. It is what I call a “can-do” council. It is so helpful and so proactive. I just could not be more pleased with its welcoming of this scheme.

After an initial site visit to the cliffs in April to find a suitable accessible home for the sculpture, the committees got to work. The most impressive and relevant site and one that has captured the spirit of Dame Vera is a proposed open-air amphitheatre or bowl overlooking the harbour and the white cliffs, which is such a wonderful idea. This project will provide a venue for concerts, theatrical productions and military events in a stunning natural setting. The memorial to Dame Vera will be at the heart of the plans, and her musical legacy will live on in the enjoyment of visitors and audiences for many years to come. You can see it now, Madam Deputy Speaker: there she will be, presiding over the bowl and looking over the channel. It is just wonderful. People talk about statues and memorials. The team have come up with such a wonderful scheme—I cannot take any credit. I intend to visit the proposed venue this Friday to see for myself how the site could be landscaped to provide the best possible setting.

The people of Dover—I do hope my hon. Friend the Member for Dover will catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker—have taken Dame Vera to their hearts. There will be an enormous sense of pride in the memorial, which will cement the link between Dame Vera and the town. I have no doubt that the amphitheatre and memorial will prove to be a popular destination for visitors from all over the world and a magnificent venue for artistic and musical performances. In fact, I must say to my hon. Friend that, when Southend becomes a city, we can have an event at the end of the pier, and I can see us linking up together—it is just wonderful. I can see musical performances as well as acts of commemoration —my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) will enjoy this—for the armed forces. I am sure Vera would have loved the combination of her two great loves: music and her boys.

The renowned sculptor Paul Day, whose work includes the Battle of Britain memorial on the Embankment and the Queen Mother’s memorial, will create the sculpture, and the initial sketches promise a stunning design that he hopes will tell Vera’s story. He will be involved at every stage of the bold project—I think a documentary will be made—so the memorial and the setting will form a cohesive whole and a fitting commemoration of Vera’s life and work. The memorial will be paid for by donations and public subscription, so I, as a politician, will not be making the public appeal; I am just sort of chairing it all. I have no doubt that the British people will want to see Vera commemorated in a fitting manner that everyone can enjoy.

The campaign will go live on 18 June—the first anniversary of Dame Vera’s death. An application to set up a charitable trust to collect the donations has been sent to the Charity Commission and is being dealt with right now. I very much hope that all the necessary paperwork will be approved in time for the launch on 18 June. The campaign launch video will feature contributions from Katherine Jenkins OBE, Sir Tim Rice, Sir Paul McCartney and Anthony Andrews, each of whom has been touched by Dame Vera’s life in some way. Katherine Jenkins has sung many of Dame Vera’s songs, interpreting them for a new generation. Anthony Andrew’s father was a musician, arranger and conductor at the BBC and played the trumpet on many of Dame Vera’s radio performances. There will also be a few surprise contributions, but hon. Members must tune in on the day to find out who they are.

I think all hon. Members would agree that Dame Vera Lynn is one of the most iconic and best loved personalities of the last century.

As the son of a D-day veteran, I wish to wholeheartedly endorse my hon. Friend’s suggestion of creating a memorial to Dame Vera Lynn. During this country’s darkest hour—darker even than the wicked pandemic that we have had to endure—she helped to maintain our nation’s morale as we fought, alone for a period, in a battle for national survival against Nazi tyranny. She kept up the country’s spirits and those of all those who were fighting in the armed forces, including my own father. He cannot be here, but if he were, he would be thoroughly encouraging my hon. Friend in everything he is doing. This is an incredibly fitting tribute to a remarkable woman and, as my hon. Friend’s parliamentary friend and neighbour, I wish him Godspeed.

I have no doubt at all that my right hon. Friend’s late dear father is looking down from heaven now, full of pride in his son and the tribute that he has just paid to Dame Vera Lynn. I really thank my right hon. Friend for his support.

Vera is one of the most iconic and best loved personalities of the last century. I do not understand celebrities any more, but to me she was a true star in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. She was never one to court the limelight offstage, preferring to maintain her family’s privacy wherever possible. However, she gave so much of herself to the people of this country that I believe it is only fitting that the country should give something back to commemorate such a wonderful lady.

The hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm is infectious. He has, even at this late hour, six supporters on our Benches at present, and I am quite sure that that number will grow exponentially, tomorrow when the world is free.

Dame Vera’s daughter and son-in-law, Virginia and Tom, have asked me to do something: they want me to put on record their gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for everything he has done, and for his enthusiasm and dedication. We know that he is going to bring this to fruition, and I am sure that the whole House will join them in thanking him for everything that he is doing.

Dame Vera Lynn was a truly remarkable woman in so many ways: in her war work and her bravery going to the frontline; as a top entertainer; in her charity and community work; and, in recent years, as a true friend to Dover. It was a pleasure to meet her in person when we campaigned to prevent our port from being sold off. She was there, side by side with us. She also supported national fundraising campaigns for our white cliffs heritage, so where better to commemorate Dame Vera’s wonderful life than on the white cliffs of Dover that she immortalised in that moving song and in her later life?

This will form part of our levelling-up bid, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), and his Department will support the importance that this could bring to Dover. Dover Council fully supports everything that is being done. We see this as an opportunity for live performance, for growth, for tourism and for bringing to life the excitement of everything Dame Vera represented in her life in entertainment, in the arts and in her service to our country.

How fitting, on this day of the Gracious Speech, that we should be talking about Dame Vera Lynn, because I think it was one of the most moving speeches that Her Majesty the Queen has ever made, and she herself quoted the line that we will meet again. It is right that we understand what Dame Vera Lynn has contributed to this country and to all that we have gone through in the past couple of years as well. It was only in September that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) raised this important matter, and I thought at the time that we would meet again. I did not know where and I did not know when, but today has been a sunny day, and here we are. I would like to echo his warm words about the lasting legacy of Dame Vera Lynn. The importance of her words and actions was brought home to us not just by the speech that Her Majesty the Queen gave last year, but by the 75th anniversary of VE Day— we all remember the fitting tribute to Dame Vera during the closing stages of the celebrations, when the nation came together to sing that most famous song. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Her Majesty the Queen and countless members of the public shared their condolences with Dame Vera Lynn’s family following her death last June, at the grand age of 103.

To hear all about Dame Vera Lynn’s endeavours in later life through the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity, the Bluebird appeal and the Dame Vera Lynn Charitable Trust is truly inspiring.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

Whether Dame Vera was aiding former servicemen and women or working with children and schools, it is clear that she was a true public servant who helped people of all ages and backgrounds throughout her life. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), whom my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West mentioned, has written to me personally to say that Dame Vera is much missed in her home village of Ditchling in Sussex, where she was a key figure in the local community. It is clear that Dame Vera touched many people, across this country and this House, through her music and her philanthropy; I can only echo the warm praise of the general public and of my colleagues here today for her lasting legacy.

As I said in the previous Adjournment debate, this country has a long and well-established tradition of commemorating its national and local individuals through statues and memorials. I reiterate the Government’s support for public monuments and statues, which serve as a long-lasting reminder of individuals and their efforts for this country, bridging the gap between the past and the present.

I look forward to the day when the memorial to the great Dame Vera Lynn that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West mentioned gazes down from the white cliffs of Dover. As he mentioned, he has a successful track record of managing to have public statues erected, and we should look forward to future success, whether it follows on from Eric Cole’s or from Raoul Wallenberg’s in adding to the 12,000 outdoor statues and memorials in England alone. We all know that Dame Vera Lynn will be a huge addition to that roster, and that my hon. Friend is the man to do it.

The debate gives me an opportunity to detail the Government’s position more broadly on erecting new memorials and statues. As my hon. Friend said, it is not normal practice for central Government to fund new memorials, but we all know that in this case many organisations, public and private, have been hugely successful in proposing funding—I can think of few more fitting recipients of that funding than the projects he mentions—and delivering memorials, marking a variety of incidents and historical figures that they are best placed to deem appropriate and sensitive to their local area. There is no more appropriate area than the white cliffs, I am sure.

Many successful memorials are created by a wide range of authorities and organisations, allowing each memorial to respond sensitively to the particular circumstances that it seeks to commemorate. I will not dwell on the excellent example of the jolly fisherman in Skegness—another example of funding by public subscription—or on the excellent Gracie Fields statue in Rochdale. Those memorials and statues were conceived, fundraised and erected through local efforts and ownership. Many people will have seen the recent proposals for a new memorial inside St Paul’s cathedral to those who have died as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.

Statues matter. They provide a memorial and a memory for people who wish to remember vital parts of our nation’s history. There are a great many people and organisations interested in establishing memorials. As a general rule, it is for those groups to work with the relevant local planning authority and other organisations to identify a suitable site and obtain the necessary planning permissions. The good news is that, following the passing of the Deregulation Act 2015, consent is not even required from the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to erect statues in London; the process is determined through the planning system only—although I do not think in this case I am going too far by saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is as much of a fan of the great Dame Vera as is my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West. I hope that provides him with some of the reassurance he has sought on the process around new monuments and statues.

I wish my hon. Friend, and all those involved, the deepest best wishes in their efforts to raise funds for this commemoration of Dame Vera. It sounds like an ambitious and transformative proposal for the south coast, truly befitting Dame Vera. I look forward to that moment when her statue looks down from the white cliffs.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for her intervention this evening. I share her commitment to the important role of arts and culture in truly levelling up and reinvigorating towns and cities across the country. I know that she recently met the Minister for Digital and Culture, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), to discuss her plans and had a productive conversation with Arts Council England. We at DCMS look forward to seeing the outcomes of her work across Dover and Deal.

I would take this opportunity to burst into song, such is my enthusiasm for this project, but I think that could possibly send it in the wrong direction, rather than the one we would all like to see. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West for all his work in promoting the cause of this statue. I wish him and all those involved—foremost the family of Dame Vera Lynn—the best of luck in this hugely deserving endeavour, and I look forward to seeing it in real life.

It looks like we will meet again at the white cliffs of Dover. It is very good when we have an Adjournment debate that achieves something on which everyone agrees, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this Adjournment debate to the House on this most appropriate day.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.