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Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 21 July 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities if he will make a statement on the future of the proposed holocaust memorial and learning centre in Victoria Tower Gardens.

The Government remain committed to the creation of a new national memorial commemorating the victims of the holocaust. The new holocaust memorial will be the national focal point for honouring the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered in the holocaust, and other victims of Nazi persecution, including the Roma, and gay and disabled people. We must build this new national holocaust memorial and the learning centre, so that future generations can never doubt what happened. That is the only way that we can be certain that it will never happen again.

The commitment to creating a holocaust memorial was first made by the then Prime Minister, with cross-party support, in January 2015. I am pleased that the project has continued to enjoy support across a very broad range of people from all political parties, different faith communities, and all parts of society. The current Prime Minister is also very keen on and supportive of the project.

Following an extensive search for suitable sites, in which around 50 possible locations were considered, Victoria Tower Gardens was chosen as the best possible location for the memorial. Constructing the memorial next to Parliament, at the heart of our democracy, provides a powerful signal of the importance we attach to remembering the holocaust and seeking to learn its lessons. Following a lengthy public inquiry, planning consent for the memorial and learning centre was granted in July 2021. Sadly, though, a challenge was brought by the London Historic Parks and Garden Trust, which led to the High Court quashing the consent in April this year.

The loss of that consent was a disappointment, especially to those holocaust survivors who place such high value on sharing their testimony and who want to be confident that their message will continue to be heard. It was a further disappointment that the Court of Appeal decided yesterday that an appeal against the High Court decision would not be heard.

We will of course study those decisions carefully as we consider our next steps, but in addition to the Prime Minister’s personal support, our commitment to holocaust survivors remains strong. The lessons of the holocaust must be remembered and told with honesty and clarity. As the number of survivors sadly dwindles, we face an urgent task to ensure that their work in sharing those lessons continues.

I am grateful to the Minister for coming to answer the urgent question at short notice. Joshua Rozenberg observed today:

“If the government had chosen in 2015 to build the memorial and learning centre at the Imperial War Museum, it would have been open by now”

alongside the powerful Holocaust Galleries. I mention that because the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s research and education has led my family to learn that over 100 of my grandfather’s cousins died in the death camps and concentration camps.

The Minister knows that Jewish opinion is divided. Will he take this opportunity to read the National Audit Office report of two weeks ago? Will he also read the Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s September 2015 specification, which said that most of the money should be spent on education, rather than on construction? All the money spent over the past seven years has gone on proposals for construction, with nothing for education, which matters most.

Will he also look at the page suggesting possible central London locations, which include the whole of Regent’s Park, most of Hyde Park, and the Imperial War Museum?

Will he say to fellow Ministers that, as well coming to answer questions here, it is time to look again at how to fulfil the aims of the Holocaust Commission and the specifications of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation and actually to talk to those of us who have been trying to say to the Government for quite some time that Victoria Tower Gardens—I played there and have studied, lived and worked nearby for two thirds of my life—is not the place to put a mound and a hole in the ground? The area is insecure and of doubtful value in meeting the purposes, as well as being only one third of the size specified by the foundation only seven years ago.

I thank the Father of the House for asking the question in the first place and for his thoughts. Victoria Tower Gardens was identified as a site uniquely capable of meeting the Government’s aspirations for the national memorial. There cannot be a more powerful symbol of our commitment than to place the memorial in the gardens next to the centre of our democracy in Parliament. The learning centre exhibition serves a different, although complementary, purpose from the Imperial War Museum’s new Holocaust Galleries, which are now largely completed, making it far more difficult to place the memorial there.

On terrorism, it would clearly be absolutely unacceptable to build a memorial in a less prominent location simply because of the risk of terrorism, because that would be to allow terrorists to dictate how we commemorate the holocaust. However, we will clearly work with security experts, Government agencies and the Metropolitan police to ensure that the site has the necessary level of security.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the NAO report and, as I am new in post, I will get into it in some more detail, but I am reassured that the investigation confirms our assessment of the risks and challenges associated with such an important, complex project. It recognised the challenges we face in managing the cost pressures in the context of inflation across the construction sector and the delays arising from opposition to the planning application. He said that money should be spent on education rather than on building, but many of the costs have related to the consultations and legal challenges that we have faced. We want to get on and build the memorial while holocaust survivors are still here to look at it.

This is an issue that has generated a range of very strong views, but there should be a common sadness that such an important memorial is set back yet again. Remembering the holocaust and what it says about humanity’s past, present and future is an intergenerational necessity— 6 million Jewish people, Roma and Gypsy people, Slavic people, LGBT people, disabled people all savagely murdered. Antisemitism remains a scourge today that we all must fight together.

I am proud that Nottinghamshire is home to the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, and I urge right hon. and hon. Members and anyone watching proceedings today to visit it. They would not accept credit readily, but the work of the Smith family is a model of how memorials can be very thoughtfully done by bringing people together. We lost Marina Smith last month and I know that all colleagues will want to pass on their best wishes to the Smiths.

We are now faced with the question of what to do next. The Leader of the Opposition made very clear last week our commitment to a national memorial and his very strong belief that it should be sited next to Parliament. Does the Minister intend to bring forward legislation to make sure that this memorial happens? Will he commit to a cross-party, all-community effort to revitalise the project? I know that he is by instinct a consensus builder, and I suggest that he leans on that now, because this is a project of huge national importance and it is a source of sadness that we cannot make something of such universal significance happen. We now must come together to ensure that it does.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. Yes, indeed, we will continue to work. I think that the fact that the commission is chaired by Ed Balls and Lord Pickles shows the cross-party nature of the approach. We all want to have the best sign—the best memorial—to remember, and to teach and bring in a whole other generation of witnesses, as described by one holocaust survivor. In terms of legislation, it will clearly be for the next Prime Minister to direct that, but we will look at the court case and consider all options available to us.

I am grateful to the Minister for coming here to respond to the urgent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). I am encouraged by the continuing strong measure of cross-party consensus on the importance of delivering the holocaust memorial and learning centre in Victoria Tower Gardens.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the story of the holocaust is, in part, a British story, too, with the taking in of Kindertransport refugees, the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp and the taking in of child camp survivors? It is important that we tell that story from the heart of Government here in Westminster, and delivering the memorial and learning centre would be a powerful way of doing that. Will he consider strongly the suggestion of the need to legislate in order to get through and break the deadlock?

I agree with my right hon. Friend on all those points. It is, indeed, a British, international and global story, and we need to reflect Britain’s place in the global response and make sure that it can never happen again. We will look at what happened in the court case, but also at what measures we now need to take. As I have said, it will be for the next Prime Minister to take those final decisions, but we will certainly be considering it in the weeks to come.

As the Minister indicated earlier, the holocaust is now slipping from memory into history. I am convinced that that at least partly explains the rise in antisemitism and holocaust denial that we have seen across Britain and Europe. Is it not even more important now that the holocaust memorial centre should, as a number of hon. Members and the Minister have indicated, be right by the epicentre of democracy? I find it absolutely extraordinary that the argument is being advanced that we should not have it in Victoria Tower Gardens because it would become a target. On that basis, why do we not close this place down, because this place is a target? Will the Minister give a commitment, as the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) asked, to bring forward legislation in September to enable the construction of the centre?

I agree that we need a response and a sign and memorial right at the heart of our democracy. I cannot personally commit to legislation, but certainly we will look at that. It will be a decision for the next Prime Minister, but we will have a robust response as best we can.

The building of the national holocaust memorial was a manifesto commitment by this Government. It has cross-party support and it also has the support of every living Prime Minister and all the faith leaders of this country. It is a cause of great sadness to me that a small number of individuals, many of whom are local residents, are causing this great national project to be delayed. They will not succeed. All they will succeed in doing is ensuring that fewer survivors of the holocaust live to see the memorial open, and that is a national disgrace. Will the Minister bring forward the simple three-clause Bill that is now required? If he will not, I put him on notice that I will amend the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to do just that, and I am sure that colleagues across this House will support me in ensuring that this project proceeds.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. As I have said, any legislation will be the decision for the next Prime Minister. It remains a manifesto commitment to build the holocaust memorial so that we remember. On the location, 90% of the gardens will remain unchanged and open. Less than 10% will be used by the memorial, which will be open to the public. That is why Government believe that it fitted within the existing legislation. That is also why we will be reviewing the court case to see what it says, and our response will be in place accordingly.

May I say to the Minister that this is not a party political matter—it goes across the parties? We want this centre to be built and we want it to be built sooner rather than later. My father fought in the last war and was one of the Royal Engineers who went to Germany for the clear-up. He never recovered from what he saw there at the end of the war. I have this plea to the Minister. People will be disturbed by this. I was sorry to see that, under the contract that had been let, all the materials will be brought in and the waste taken away by road, but it would be much better for the residents and for the people in London if it were all carried on the river. Will the Minister consider that?

As Minister for London, I will happily look at that last request, because we are significantly underusing our river. I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he talks about the cross-party nature of this project. We do need to get on and build this memorial, for this generation of holocaust survivors and for future generations.

I declare my interest as co-chairman of the all-party group for the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre. It is absolutely crucial that we get the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre alongside Parliament as quickly as possible. I know that, in answering this urgent question, my hon. Friend cannot bind the hands of his successor, but can he not do the sensible thing and, having got the support of the current Prime Minister, consult both candidates, one of whom will be Prime Minister in September? If they both agree that we should bring forward the legislation, will the Minister bring it forward to us on 5 September?

I will be speaking to both candidates about a number of things, including this matter. I was supposed to be getting a briefing on this from my team today, as I am new in post. Clearly, there is a lot to bring to this issue, and we need to make sure that our candidates understand the feeling of the House.

A report from the Community Security Trust was released last week on antisemitism in the pandemic. It outlined a very disturbing case in Manchester, my home town, of Jewish people being targeted for spreading covid. Fortunately, the perpetrator was arrested and jailed for six months, but does that not just demonstrate that this does not go away and that there is always an excuse? That is why it is absolutely crucial that we have the national centre to educate future generations on this issue.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The reason that we are talking about Victoria Tower Gardens is that it is next to Parliament. This is not a London memorial. We are talking about a national memorial, sitting next to the centre of our democracy. He is absolutely right: antisemitism does not start and stop within the M25.

Of course we should have a holocaust memorial and of course we should have a proper holocaust museum. It is not surprising that Westminster City Council turned this application down, or, indeed, that the Government have lost the case in the High Court and then in the Court of Appeal. Based on questions that I and others asked, the Act of Parliament dating from the beginning of the 20th century is very clear that the park was laid down as a park. May I suggest a compromise? Given that the debate is carrying on and on, the obvious solution is to have a holocaust memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to Parliament as everybody wants, and similar to the other memorials such as the Buxton and Pankhurst memorials. It could be a potent symbol, it could blend in with the park and the surroundings and there would be no controversy about it.

The controversy has been about the underground learning centre and all the disruption it would cause. The difficulty with the underground learning centre in that very constrained site is that it would be nothing like the proper memorials and museums in Washington and Berlin. Have the memorial in the gardens and a proper museum at the Imperial War museum.

As I have said, the education centre would be complementary to the Imperial War Museum. We believe that the plans are consistent with the provisions of the London County Council (Improvements) Act 1900, and that is why we are disappointed by the result of the court case. The design is sensitive to the existing gardens and would allow residents and visitors alike to continue to benefit from the green space, but we will clearly reflect on the court decision.

The memorial has to be near Parliament. At a time when antisemitism was commonplace, in the 1930s in British society, Victor Cazalet MP was the first person in the House to warn of the coming holocaust. Jack Macnamara MP visited Dachau and when he came back he said that we had to fight Hitler. Rob Bernays MP was called “a filthy Jew” by Hitler’s friends in Germany. All three of them lost their lives and have shields on the walls of the Chamber. This is intimately about Parliament, democracy and antisemitism, and we have to put those things together.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his usual erudite approach. There is not a lot I can add, but he is right about the need to site the memorial next to the centre of our democracy.

One hundred and seventeen holocaust survivors were interviewed about the memorial, and it is upsetting that, because of the delays, many will not have the opportunity to see the opening. The holocaust is a part of British history, from the Kindertransport and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen to welcoming survivors. It is not always a good story, so the memorial has to be built beside Parliament to remind every future Government of the history. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will do all they can to build the memorial as soon as possible?

The memorial for the holocaust remains a manifesto commitment of the Government and we will clearly look at the court decision and work out where to go next. It will be a decision for the next Prime Minister, but my hon. Friend has fought for this and spoken out about the holocaust on several occasions, and I know that she will continue to do so.

I get the impression that the Minister greatly understands the concerns of everybody in the Chamber, but can he outline what discussions have taken place with members of the Jewish community to underline the fact that this discouraging news will not deter the Government from taking appropriate steps to facilitate a central permanent holocaust memorial centre to show that this great nation—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—is united in ensuring that future generations understand the importance of remembering the holocaust as a horrifically sad and bloody lesson for everyone?

I always commend the hon. Gentleman for his work on religious freedom and tackling religious hatred, including antisemitism. With the court’s decision being so fresh, it is early to have had those conversations with the Jewish community, but this is the first signal of our intention to stick to our manifesto commitment of building a holocaust memorial. As the newly installed Minister for faith, I will have talks with the Jewish community across the summer.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In case anyone thinks that I did not declare that I have studied here in Westminster, worked here and lived here for two thirds of my life, I repeat that. I also say that it is not a minority who have blocked the proposal: it is two judges. We should not refer to a High Court judge and an Appeal Court judge as “a small minority” when they are actually getting the Government to obey the law.