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Emergency Services Cenotaph: Westminster

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 9 September 2021

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

It is a true honour and privilege to follow such an important debate. We have been united across the House this afternoon. I hope that this Adjournment debate, which might continue for considerably longer than some may expect for an Adjournment debate, will give me the opportunity to show that this House, both Houses and those outside the House can come together on a subject that I know is close to your heart, Madam Deputy Speaker, and which is certainly very close to mine.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you were Minister of State at the Department of Health. Before I came to this House, I had the honour and privilege of being a firefighter. I have also been the Policing Minister and the Minister responsible for the coastguard, and, as you will remember, lots of other things; for the purpose of this debate, those sorts of things are very important.

This debate is about establishing a cenotaph for the emergency workers we have lost. Some 7,500 emergency workers have lost their lives over the years, and the sad fact is that we will lose more. Another sad fact is that there is no national memorial for those who have given so much to us over the years. It was so moving to hear hon. Members talking about the sad loss of Jo and what happened to her. The emergency workers I am talking about were the emergency workers who went to Jo: the police and the paramedics. Sadly, they did not manage to save her life, but I am sure we all agree that they would have done everything that they possibly could have to save Jo, as they would for anybody else. We are talking about those who go towards a situation when very often, quite rightly, the rest of us are going in the opposite direction. Some of them do not come back. That is a commitment to humanity that I am calling on the Government to acknowledge.

As I have said before, the emergency services today are as dedicated to us now as they have ever been. I will touch on the different aspects of that. It is not just those who work for us. Believe it or not, there are 2,500 first responders out there today—mostly volunteers. There were those who volunteered, for instance, during the pandemic, to help in ways that we have probably never tried since the second world war.

We need a cenotaph here in central London. We formed a committee, which I had the honour of being asked to co-chair with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). As a former Minister and a former firefighter, I could not think of anything that I would like to do more. I was quite determined that we should try to do this together, as a Parliament and as a country. I know that there are various memorials around the country. Certain colleagues have told me that, quite rightly, their local communities have come together and that they have memorials for emergency workers in their constituencies, but I cannot believe that in 2021 we do not have something here in London.

That is not to take away in any way, shape or form from the military memorials in London, including the Cenotaph itself, which we celebrate every year on Remembrance Day, when we remember those who have given so much and those who continue to serve today on our behalf around the world. We are not trying to take away from that. We are just trying to put in place a memorial that is going to be here forever, for those who have served and we have lost, for those who have volunteered and we have lost, and for those going forward, sadly, long after we are gone.

I have looked very carefully at how this could be done and the committee has looked at where the memorial should be. The committee believes—and there seems to be hugely popular agreement on this, even from the Mayor of London and many others—that it should be in Whitehall.

That was a unanimous decision. As I shall say in a moment, most of the great and good of this country have said the same, including the Duke of Cambridge—the future king of this country has supported what we are trying to do.

The cenotaph will cost a lot of money, but cenotaphs do. I do not think we are fixated on where exactly in Whitehall it should be. We have made a facsimile of where we would like it to be and created photographs, and we would like it to be quite close to Parliament Square, but, actually, I do not think we really mind. I think the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and I would agree that we do not mind where it is; we just want it in Whitehall—the place where the country comes together to say thank you.

It is an honour to co-chair with the right hon. Gentleman the committee that is campaigning for this memorial. Does he recognise that the 18 months we have had have really taught us that we should never take for granted those on whom we depend in so many different ways, and our emergency services are at the heart of that because we all depend on them every single day? That is why it would be right to have a tribute to them and the work that they do at the very heart of where decisions are made. Parliament, the Government and the country should come together to support that.

The right hon. Lady has hit the nail completely on the head. What better opportunity do we have? By the way, this campaign started long before covid—I shall come on to say a bit about how a lovely man called Tom got it going and how we got to this stage—but covid has brought the country together in a way that we have not seen since the second world war. Even though there is an expense and red tape—can we cut through some of the red tape?—and people will baulk at the fact that it will probably cost just over £3 million to do, who cares? In the scheme of things, £3 million is such a small amount of money when it could give so much to the country.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bring this debate forward, and he and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for their perseverance in this task. I believe in and support this campaign because the right hon. Gentleman is right in what he is saying. This cenotaph will be for all the nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales together—to thank all the people for all they have done. I want the right hon. Gentleman to know that I fully support what he is about and endorse his comments and campaign.

The hon. Gentleman is a great Unionist. I believe in the Union of this country, and the centre of the Union is where we are today: Westminster and Whitehall. To me, that is so important.

We have already raised £180,000, which has come from public donations. This is unusual for me, Madam Deputy Speaker, because as you know I never read in the House: I am dyslexic, something I am very proud of, and there is nothing I can do about it, so I do not usually read. But there are certain things that I want to read today so that I do not get certain people’s titles wrong, which I invariably do, and do not miss anybody out. We have already raised £180,000 and we need just over £3 million, but we also need two things, which I will come back to at the end: a decision on where the cenotaph is going to be and a commitment from the Government to help us to fund it.

The 999 cenotaph will be the first national monument to the NHS and other emergency workers who have served and will serve in future—it will be not just to those who have fallen. This is crucial: it is not just for those who have lost their lives, been seriously injured or been attacked in the line of duty. It will be a thank you—somewhere loved ones can go and just think about what their loved one has committed to the country. Some will have lost loved ones and some will have been injured in the line of duty. For our country not to have a central memorial to them shames us a little bit.

The 999 cenotaph is supported by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge; the Prime Minister; the First Ministers of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; and all the emergency services, including the fire service, the police, the coastguard and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Also, although I do not have them on my list, we have to be conscious that there are other volunteer emergency workers who are not part of the RNLI—when I became the Shipping Minister, I learned very quickly not to forget them, because safety inshore is very much done by them. The sculptor is the renowned Philip Jackson who created the Bomber Command memorial in Green Park and, closer to us, the Gandhi statue in Parliament Square. We could not have a greater person working on it. As I said, our preferred site is in Whitehall.

I have no idea what the Minister is going to say; we have not conferred. With my co-chair, I wrote a joint letter to the Prime Minister, so there is no doubt about what we are asking for. Hopefully, we might have a bit of good news. If we can get some movement on this, the monument should be finished by December 2022, in the year of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. If we can do that, what a fantastic message that would send.

There will be six figures on the plinth, plus one other, which I will come back to in a second. It will be in Portland stone and it will be 21 feet high from the ground to the top of the memorial. It will send an enormous message about how much this country cares. The six figures will be: a police officer, a firefighter, a maritime volunteer, a nurse, a paramedic, and a member of the search and rescue volunteer team—plus a service dog. We must not forget that it is not just human beings who go out there. Very often, they go out there with service dogs, whether police dogs or mountain rescue dogs. The figure of a dog will be a spaniel. There was a bit of discussion about what type of dog it would be. We are great dog lovers in this country. I think the spaniel works best. Those of us who are in this Chamber on a regular basis before the House opens for business know that the spaniels are here protecting us. I cannot think of a better breed of dog to be there.

How did we get to this stage? Tom Scholes-Fogg, the gentleman I referred to earlier, has been a trustee since 2016. In 2001, his grandfather John was a police sergeant in Greater Manchester. He was months away from retirement when one of his officers, PC Alison Armitage, was tragically killed on duty. I think that sparked something in him. In my constituency, PC Frank Mason was shot by bank robbers outside a Barclays bank years ago. Every single year, we come back and pay tribute to him. That is a small memorial in a constituency, in the middle of a town centre. I want one out here for the likes of Frank as well. Tom discovered, which surprised him, that there was no national memorial. When I first looked at this issue, I thought, “Of course we have one.” But actually, we do not. From one tragedy that happened to Alison, through Tom’s grandfather John and through Tom’s commitment, with his trustees—we have done all the directors and all the red tape; the Charity Commission is very happy—we have got to this stage.

We have some interesting quotes:

“As a society, we owe our wellbeing, and indeed our lives, to the men and women in our emergency services who work tirelessly to protect us in some of the most difficult circumstances. It is only fitting that we should recognise the vital role that they play and pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their communities.”

That was said by His Royal Highness Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge. I have another quote:

“It takes a very special kind of person to put your life on the line for a complete stranger.”

That is from a long quote from the Prime Minister. He is fully committed to this:

“I know the dedicated men and women of the Emergency services did not get into this line of work for the accolades or applause.”

They do so because they want to do it. He said:

“You are the heroes of British life”.

He fully supports what we are calling for. I could go on. There was support from the First Minister of Northern Ireland at the time. The leader of the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland, one of our parliamentarians, supports this. Nicola Sturgeon supports it. I could go on.

Basically, I am saying to the Minister that we have a commitment from all the powers in this country. It cannot be much greater than the future King of this country, the Prime Minister of this country and the leaders of all parts of this country. We also have, I can assure her, fantastic support from both sides of the House.

In the great scheme of things, this is a small amount of money. The least worst thing we would like is to be exempt from VAT for this project. The next best thing might be that the Treasury would match-fund us. Actually, what I would like, to show the commitment to our emergency workers and our service animals, is for the Government to say, “We’re going to help you find a spot, with Westminster City Council, in Whitehall, and by the way we’re going to pay for it.” I cannot think of a better way to spend the British pound than to do that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this really important Adjournment debate and on highlighting an incredibly important cause. Today, almost 2 million people—3% of the population—work and volunteer in the emergency services and the NHS, including 250,000 first responders. As the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, we have really seen, through the pandemic, just how acutely we rely on them as our NHS and 999 heroes have continued working and volunteering to save lives.

I have to start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. When I was a very new Member of Parliament he came down to visit me in my constituency, when he was a very important person—probably a Transport Minister.

Yes, Shipping Minister. He has always been a huge supporter of those of us who have constituencies on the coast and who rely on the emergency services, many of which are manned and staffed by some incredibly heroic volunteers. In my constituency, the gaffers man the rescue services that go up into the Solent, on a really frequent basis, to save lives. They are absolute heroes, every single one of them. My right hon. Friend worked really hard with me in my constituency, and with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is based there, to promote its important work. He has a great track record of promoting our emergency services.

Those working in our NHS and our 999 services day in and day out are absolutely our unsung heroes. They are always there to help us in the moments of greatest need when we are at our weakest. We honour them and we must never, ever forget the sacrifices that they make for us. I therefore echo everything that has been said by my right hon. Friend and others in praising the heroic actions of all emergency service personnel. The campaign for an appropriate monument to honour those who served and continue to serve in the emergency services began back in 2017, but if ever there was a time to reflect on what they have achieved and the dedication and the service of our 999 heroes, it is now, in the wake of the covid crisis.

I thank the Minister for giving way; we have plenty of time to debate this evening, which is really nice. I am sure she is aware that this is 999 Day. Armed Forces Day is fantastic, but we need to get the message out around the country that this is 999 Day, which is when we should be out there in our constituencies and around the country praising our emergency workers.

Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that. It is a day when we should all be celebrating and thanking those who do this sterling, important and life-saving work.

I very much support my right hon. Friend’s calls for an appropriate 999 memorial. His letter to the Prime Minister was written only very recently, on 30 August. I have only just had the chance to look at it and start considering the proposals and suggestions that it makes, but I would be very happy to meet him and his committee to discuss some of the asks in it in more detail to see what we can do to work with them on this. It is important to celebrate positive parts of our cultural and civic life. New memorials such as this help us to understand events. They help us to acknowledge achievements and mark sacrifices. They commemorate what is important about our present and our past. Future generations can learn from them.

The Government are committed to supporting the emergency services and are steadfast in honouring the sacrifices that have been made. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary recently attended the dedication of the UK police memorial at the National Arboretum. This memorial and others serve as a valuable symbol, acting as a reminder to the public of the sacrifices that have been made and providing a space for people to mourn and remember lost loved ones.

I know that this particular monument that my right hon. Friend is calling for is not only about those who have lost their lives in their service, but those who continue to serve, and that is why this is unique and important. It is important to say that it is not just at national level that we erect statues to remember the contributions of others—they take pride of place in local communities up and down the country and we commemorate our own local heroes. Many of these figures are a real source of local pride. Being commemorated in a public space, often funded by public subscription, is a positive way to acknowledge the contributions made by individuals to their communities and the nation.

At this point, it is only fair that I explain that it is not normal practice for central Government to fund new memorials.

I thank the Minister for the offer of a meeting. It is always a pleasure; we shared a Department when we were Ministers together. I hope we get a reply from the Prime Minister, who got the letter simultaneously to when the Minister had it. I will not hold the Minister to this, but conversations perhaps need to take place with the Treasury before our meeting, because I cannot think of a better use of LIBOR money or unclaimed assets in bank accounts than this. There are millions of pounds sitting in the LIBOR funds now—we know that—and they have been used extensively in other ways. It would be a great way of not putting the burden so much on the taxpayer, not that I think the taxpayer would be too worried about that at the end of the day, because it is a tiny amount of money. The LIBOR funds are probably the way forward, and perhaps the Treasury could have a conversation with her first.

I think that is certainly a conversation that needs to be had with the Treasury. It is true that many organisations, both public and private, are rightly able to propose, fund, develop and deliver memorials marking a variety of incidents and historical moments. They are unfortunately not normally funded by the Government, but my right hon. Friend makes some interesting suggestions as to how that might be addressed and we can certainly talk about it further.

Those organisations and individuals are usually best placed to determine who to commemorate and how best to build commemorations that are appropriate and sensitive, and there are a great many people and organisations that are interested in establishing memorials. As a general rule, it is for those groups to work with the relevant local planning authorities and other organisations to identify suitable sites, obtain the necessary planning permission and raise the funding. In fact, since the passing of the Deregulation Act 2015, consent from the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is no longer required to erect memorials and statues in London. It is not now determined through the planning system only. Therefore, in relation to the proposed site on Whitehall, that would be a matter for Westminster City Council. But, again, we can discuss that when we chat.

There is a long tradition of funding new memorials through public subscription, which the Government support. Experience has shown that other funders, including in the private sector, are often happy and willing to contribute and donate to fund new memorials. In fact, I think much of the British public take huge pride in feeling that they have played a part in delivering something so important and significant for our national life.

There are examples of Government supporting memorials to mark specific events. Memorials have been created to the victims of 9/11 and of the 7/7 bombings in London as well as those of the Bali bombings in 2002. The Government also supported the suffragist memorial on Parliament Square and the one created by an independent Iraq and Afghanistan memorial project charity to honour those who served in the Iraq and Afghan wars. In some circumstances, the Government do support new memorials, although it is not for the Government to determine which memorials go ahead, and with limited public funds it is not possible for central Government to fund them. That said, the Government offer some indirect financial support through the memorial grant scheme, which allows charities and faith groups to claim as a grant the equivalent of the VAT paid on the eligible cost of erecting, maintaining or repairing public memorials. The scheme is administered by my Department, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, for the whole of the UK.

In a nutshell, we entirely recognise the extraordinary efforts of our emergency services in serving the public not just during the pandemic but at all times. Faced with unbelievable challenges, these incredible people look after people up and down our country and often save lives in the most difficult circumstances. We definitely support all the ongoing efforts and conversations to find an appropriate way to mark their incredible dedication and sacrifice.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.