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Holocaust Memorial

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 22 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reconsider the decision to site the Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens.

My Lords, I will take a minute to send my thoughts to the family of Sir Ben Helfgott. Sir Ben was a Holocaust survivor and an Olympic weightlifting champion. He was also a tireless campaigner for Holocaust education and a huge supporter of the Holocaust memorial and learning centre. I send my thoughts to his family; may he rest in peace.

The Government remain determined to build a Holocaust memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens so that the memory and lessons of the Holocaust remain prominent in British life. The Holocaust Memorial Bill currently before Parliament is intended to remove a statutory obstacle and enable progress towards construction. Victoria Tower Gardens is a site that is uniquely capable of meeting the Government’s aspirations for a national Holocaust memorial.

My Lords, it is very sad that a memorial to such an appalling crime against humanity should controversially be rammed through against the views of the Royal Parks, Westminster City Council, local residents and so many others. Apart from all the original and obvious objections to the Victoria Tower Gardens site, there are two new factors. First, we now face a major restoration project to the Victoria Tower itself. The scaffolding alone is going to take a year to erect. Imagine the scale of a chaotic construction site with that project, the proposed memorial and, of course, R&R to come.

Secondly, the unfortunate closure of the Jewish Museum London in Camden provides a great opportunity for a new combined museum and Holocaust memorial—a concept supported by Simon Schama, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rabbi Jonathan Romain and many others—on a much more appropriate site. So I implore the Government—

Would the noble Lord please proceed to a question? I know that Peers feel strongly about this issue, but it is Question Time.

My Lords, the memorial is a manifesto commitment which has cross-party support and has been endorsed by all living Prime Ministers. The Chief Rabbi, who sits on the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation comittee, is fully behind the Government’s proposals, as are leading representatives of the Jewish community, other faith and community leaders, survivors, refugees and the wider public. Their voices were heard at the planning inquiry, emphasising the importance of the memorial and learning centre as a way of providing Holocaust victims and the remaining survivors the prominence in this city that they deserve.

My Lords, I declare an interest as honorary president of the National Jewish Assembly. I support the noble Lord, Lord Lee, in drawing attention to the almost total lack of consultation on the memorial. All efforts to open dialogue and to have discussions and round tables have been met with silence, and sometimes abuse. Victoria Tower Gardens is a green enclave, and the dangers of digging down two storeys with piledrivers, which could cause unimaginable damage, have not been taken on board when there are decent alternative sites with as much dignity and more space. I speak for a number of Holocaust survivors in this.

I know how strongly the noble Baroness feels about this issue, and I respect everything she has to say. We have had meetings and we are willing to have more; she only has to get in touch with me. However, the planning inquiry in October 2020 enabled all interested parties to express their views on the proposed Holocaust memorial and learning centre, and a full list of witnesses is available in the planning inspector’s report on GOV.UK. Officials regularly meet organisations representing survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution and those representing the survivors of subsequent genocides to discuss the latest developments, and we will continue to do so.

My Lords, I draw attention to my register of interests, particularly those relating to Holocaust remembrance. I join my noble friend in her tribute to Sir Ben Helfgott. He was, beside other things, a leading light in Holocaust remembrance and a strong advocate of the site in Victoria Tower Gardens. In fact, the last conversation I had with Ben was about his concerns that the Government and Opposition might not fulfil their promise. Does my noble friend agree with me that the announcement made by the Leader of the House in another place that there will be a Second Reading next Wednesday is very welcome? The time for talking is over; it is time for action.

I agree with my noble friend. I look forward to the Second Reading and the Bill beginning to go through Parliament and, subsequently, to the building of this important monument.

These Benches share the sentiments and the tribute made by the Minister to Sir Ben. If it is built in Victoria Tower Gardens, the memorial will clearly bring many new visitors to Westminster and to Parliament, which I think is a good thing. However, local residents will want to have a park that they can still be proud of and use for their own recreation. How will the Government ensure that the park is still available for local people to enjoy?

The design is sensitive to the heritage and the existing uses of Victoria Tower Gardens; I think it has been misunderstood. The design uses approximately 7.5% of the area of Victoria Tower Gardens, and this project will allow enhancements to be made to the remaining 92.5% of the park. In my opinion, that will help visitors to enjoy the park better, even if they are not attending the memorial.

My Lords, I very much share the views of my noble friend Lord Lee and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on this out-of-scale proposal, especially in relation to the Buxton anti-slavery memorial. Throughout the process, the Government have refused to publish their assessment of any alternative sites, including some which appear to be eminently suitable, such as the Imperial War Museum—why? Will they do so during the consideration of the Bill?

My Lords, all that work was done many years ago, in the early days of this project. We believe that the development will not in any way compromise the Buxton memorial. The design of the Holocaust memorial means that the Buxton memorial will be kept in its current position, with its views preserved. In addition, new landscaping and seating will actually improve the setting of that memorial and the viewing experience from it. The Holocaust memorial will be no higher than the top of the Buxton memorial, and the memorial’s bronze fins will step down progressively to the east in visual deference to the Buxton memorial.

My Lords, there is no more appropriate location for a memorial that shows what can go wrong when politics is infected by extremism, racism and hatred than here in Westminster, at the centre of our politics. That is the whole point. We have heard all sorts of red herrings about this memorial. It will take up less than 10% of the area of the park, and it is at the opposite end of the park to the Palace of Westminster so will have no impact on the work that is to be done here. I take this opportunity to urge the Minister to do everything she possibly can to speed up progress so that Holocaust survivors like Sir Ben, who tragically will not get to see it completed, can be guests of honour at the opening.

I thank the noble Lord for his support of this important project. As he said, Victoria Tower Gardens is the most fitting site in terms of the historical, emotional and political significance and its ability to offer the greatest potential impact and visibility for the project. The view of Parliament from the memorial will serve as a permanent reminder that political decisions have far-reaching consequences.