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D-Day Landings

11.2 am

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): It is a real pleasure and a great honour to be able to raise this subject on this day at this hour, and I thank those who are responsible for arranging such matters for their foresight and consideration. I welcome the Minister and hope that we can have several useful exchanges in the course of this relatively short debate in order to clarify the Government's policy on and their plans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-day landings on 6 June next year.

I raise the issue not only on behalf of the Liberal Democrats or myself, but on behalf of many Normandy veterans, the Normandy Veterans Association, the British Legion and, of course, as many as 200 Members of Parliament who associated themselves with early-day motion 618 on the subject and many members of the public across the country who feel strongly about the matter. I am grateful to my local paper, the Yeovil Express, which arranged a petition to highlight the importance of the issue to veterans.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I congratulate my hon. Friend on an appropriate and timely debate. Does he agree that the significance of the 60th anniversary is particularly felt by those who, now in their 80s and 90s, were participants in the D-day landings, many of whom may not be in the position to make a journey to Normandy in 10, 15 or 20 years' time?

Mr. Laws : I am grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend, who anticipates a point that I intended to make later about the importance to many veterans of the 60th anniversary celebrations, particularly as that will probably be the last major anniversary that many of them will be able to attend. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

There is no doubt that the D-day landings on 6 June 1944 represented one of the most significant military engagements in British history. In "The Second World War", Churchill described the landings as

In the same journal, he revealed that Stalin had telegraphed him on 11 June of that year to say that

That was a tribute indeed coming from a veteran of the terrible conflicts on the eastern front.

On 6 June 1944, an immense armada of some 4,000 ships and many thousands of smaller craft set off from these shores, supported by the allied air forces and by airborne divisions.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the veterans in my constituency who are trying to preserve one of two slipways in Torquay harbour from which more than 15,000 US servicemen took their places on vessels going over on D-day? That ought to be a centre for the anniversary celebrations in south-west England.

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Mr. Laws : My hon. Friend makes an important point. Later, I hope to touch on the Government's announcement that the New Opportunities Fund may be used to help to commemorate the D-day landings. My hon. Friend may wish to apply to that fund to see whether he can associate it with his constituency.

There is no doubt that the Normandy landings were a crucial event in the second world war. In a sense, they marked the beginning of the end of Hitler's regime and the single moment in the war on the western front when victory seemed at last attainable and even imminent. Surely, therefore, nobody in the United Kingdom, or among our allies, can doubt the importance of the D-day landings or of marking their 60th anniversary, which is coming up next year, particularly given that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out, this will undoubtedly be the last opportunity for many of the veterans to attend a major commemoration of the event.

In the light of that, it is disappointing that the Government did not come forward earlier with more decisive plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary. Instead it seems that, up until now, it has been left to the Normandy veterans, the British Legion and Members of Parliament to press the Government on the issue and urge them to mark the anniversary next year in a more suitable way. We have just seven months left in which to get the details right before next year's commemoration, and I hope that we can engage with the Minister on that today.

I seek four assurances from the Minister. I should be grateful if he would reassure us that the Government understand the importance of the anniversary and will give as much prominence to the 60th anniversary celebrations as they did to the 40th and 50th anniversary commemorations. In an exchange in another place, the Minister for Defence Procurement told the House:

Is that really the Government's message to the veterans who risked their lives on the Normandy beaches? In that statement, it sounds as if the Government were essentially saying that the Normandy veterans have had their commemoration and that, as there was a limited pot of money to go round and to be spent on such things, their initial intention was that there should be no large-scale commemoration next year. I hope that they have changed their mind and that the Minister present today, who has been praised by some of the Normandy veterans since he was appointed, will be able to clarify matters and report that there has been a change of heart at the Ministry of Defence.

The second issue concerns representation. In 1984 and 1994 both Her Majesty the Queen and the then Prime Ministers attended the D-day commemorations. According to the Minister's letter to Members of Parliament on 7 July 2003, the UK Government will be represented at ministerial and senior armed forces level. With respect, does he understand that the veterans seek Head of State representation? Does he understand that the veterans view with scepticism the point in his letter that attendance by the royal family was a matter for the

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royal household? The veterans understand that on such occasions it is usual for Ministers to give advice to the royal household, which no doubt it listens to very carefully.

If the Minister advises that it will be a low-key celebration, which will not be on the scale of the 40th and 50th anniversaries, surely it is no surprise that we have had no announcement from the palace about whether Her Majesty the Queen or another member of the royal family will attend. Does he agree that if the President of France or the President of the United States were to attend the commemorations, which is quite possible, it would be inappropriate for us not to be represented in the same way? I appreciate that this is a sensitive matter, but I should be grateful if the Minister would shed more light on the advice that has been given to the palace.

We appreciate some of the practical measures that the Government have introduced in the past few months to help the veterans who wish to attend the commemorations in Normandy. We particularly appreciate the free one-year passports and the concessionary fares from ferry operators, which have been negotiated with the help of the Government. Nevertheless, it is possible that many veterans will not be able to afford to attend the commemorations in France, and I should be grateful if the Minister would say whether the Government are considering any further financial assistance to veterans who would otherwise have difficulties travelling to France.

Will the Minister shed more light on the announcement made at the Labour party conference by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that there is a real possibility of money from the New Opportunities Fund being used for commemorative services? Will he clarify whether that could be used for assistance with travel costs, or whether it will be aimed only at commemorative events in this country and in France? In particular, will it be used to help the younger generation to understand the importance of D-day commemorations?

There has been some concern from the Normandy veterans and the British Legion about the practical preparations being made in France next year. I appreciate that that is a matter for the French authorities, and that if the British authorities offered to run the event themselves it would not be entirely welcome, but what practical steps are the Minister and his Department taking to ensure that events run smoothly? I was reassured to hear from the Normandy Veterans Association that a meeting took place last week involving the British project officer, and that good progress was made.

In the course of a short half-hour debate, we will not be able to address all the points that have been made, so will the Minister consider meeting a cross-party delegation and representatives of the British Legion and the Normandy Veterans Association to ensure that any matters that are not adequately dealt with in the debate are followed up? That will ensure that we do not leave any stone unturned and that the commemorative celebrations are of a level and with the organisation that they deserve.

Representatives of one of the veterans' associations told me that since the Minister's appointment earlier this year, the Government's attitude to these matters

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seems to have changed for the better. I hope that that is the case and that he will be able to offer us more encouragement on the points that I have raised. I take his positive facial movements as an indication that he is keen to make that announcement.

Now is the Minister's opportunity to translate what has been a change of tone into real action. Almost 60 years ago in this House, Winston Churchill announced the D-day landings and talked of the "liberating assault" that had fallen on the coast of France. I hope that the Minister can demonstrate today our nation's enduring gratitude to the men at the hard edge of that liberating assault, not only in words and fine phrases, but in real action.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin) : I am amazed that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) wanted to have this debate at this time—it is the worst type of political gesturing from the Liberal Democrats. I have no doubt that his predecessor would not have countenanced such a gesture. It is important that we have the debate, but it was not necessary to use the 11th hour of the 11th month. The debate could have occurred at any time on any day. Of course, as the Minister who represents veterans' interests, I am always happy to debate such important policy areas, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman should consider whether veterans groups might have preferred me to have been at the Cenotaph at 11 am today or in Hyde park, where I am pleased to say that Her Majesty, accompanied by the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Australia, unveiled a memorial to the 101,000 young Australians who gave their lives for the Commonwealth and this country in the two world wars.

Mr. Heath : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that the timing of debates is chosen by the Speaker and not by the applicant for the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : That is factually correct.

Mr. Caplin : Last night, Prime Minister Howard gave an excellent lecture at the Australian high commission on the importance of the veteran community to Australia and the United Kingdom.

Mr. Laws : Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Caplin : No, I shall not give way.

I am not sure what more the hon. Gentleman expects to gain from the debate when I have provided the House with regular progress reports in my answers to hon. Members' questions and letters. I am aware that the veteran community, fired by widespread and unsubstantiated rumour and misinformation—which the hon. Gentleman has repeated to some extent this morning—still feels that the Government, and the Ministry of Defence in particular, are not doing enough to assist in what many veterans feel will be their last opportunity to take part in D-day commemorations.

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I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has read the letter sent to all Members of both Houses on 7 July. I know that he quoted from it, but did he read it? I explained what my Department would do to support the events in France. However, I made it clear that some aspects of planning were still at an early stage. There have been some developments, to which the hon. Gentleman referred and which I will come to later, but in many areas planning is still at an early stage. I cannot and will not make promises that I cannot be certain the Government can keep, but matters are progressing and I will continue to keep the House informed when there is something to say.

Mr. Laws : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but not for the tone of his speech, which seems remarkably cheap. Will he acknowledge that not only many Members of this House but the British Legion and the Normandy veterans welcome the debate? It is their concerns that I am raising. They are not entirely satisfied by the Minister's letter, which I have certainly read.

Mr. Caplin : Let me make it clear that the Government endorse the importance of remembrance and commemoration, and I am well aware of the veterans organisations' views on those matters. I spoke to them about those matters at a recent meeting of the Veterans Forum.

The D-day landings in June 1944 were a significant time in our history. They were the largest international combined forces amphibious assault that the world has ever seen. The huge number of people involved, the planning, the logistics, the co-ordination, were unimaginable. The task of concealing that immense operation from the German occupying forces in France, just a few miles away, was a phenomenal project. Most importantly, the bravery, courage, nerve, resilience and audacity of the heroes who had to implement the plans that were drawn up in secret over so many months was remarkable. It is one thing to read about such momentous events or to sit passively and watch wartime film footage, post-war documentaries and Hollywood re-enactments but, regardless of how realistically they are staged, to have participated in them is another matter entirely.

To have actually taken part in an assault on land, sea and air against a well-armed, professional, battle-hardened and competent enemy is something that the majority of us will never have experienced—and, hopefully, will never have to. Such courage in the face of the enemy must never be forgotten, regardless of whether it was shown in the mud of the Somme in 1916, on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 or in the sands of Iraq in 2003. We owe those who put their lives at risk in these ways this country's eternal gratitude.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): This matter was first raised at business questions on 30 October, not out of any party-political interest, but by the Labour hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), and by me for the Conservatives. We all feel that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) has done veterans a service by raising it.

I was slightly late for this debate because a gentleman outside was overcome with emotion at 11 o'clock. He was wearing a chestful of medals, including the France

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and Germany star. We should not underestimate what these commemorations mean to the people whom the Minister has so eloquently been describing.

Mr. Caplin : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have seen his contribution to business questions and I will shortly write to him and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) about the matter. As we are talking about medals, 900 Suez medals were dispatched by Remembrance Sunday, following my comments in the House on 8 September, and we hope very shortly to complete those for which we have already had applications.

The Department has already provided assistance for a number of 60th anniversaries of the second world war. Between now and 2005 there are a succession of anniversaries of significant actions, and the Ministry of Defence cannot organise commemorations for all of them. It was therefore agreed with the services and veterans organisations that we would fund a commemoration of one representative battle for each of the services, with a tri-service commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war. The actions chosen by the services were the battle of the Atlantic for the Royal Navy, the battle of El Alamein for the Army and the battle of Britain for the Royal Air Force. Those anniversaries were commemorated in 2003, 2002 and 2000, respectively.

It was also agreed that other major anniversaries would be marked where possible by the presence of Ministers or senior officers at events organised by the veterans. This level of assistance and support does not mean that the 60th anniversary will be treated with any less respect than is due to these brave men and women.

Mr. Laws : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Caplin : I am sorry, but I will not.

Some questions that I am asked are easy to answer, though the message does not seem to be getting through, judging by some of the hon. Gentleman's comments. The participation of members of the royal family and members of the British Government is a matter that is often raised. Veterans have referred to stories that President Bush and other Heads of State will attend, but the attendance of Heads of State and Heads of Government is pure speculation at present.

I checked on this yesterday, and the French authorities have not yet issued any invitations to any of the events of 5 to 7 June 2004. However, I can tell the House that the royal family and the Government will be properly represented at all the major events that will take place on that weekend next June. That is acknowledged in today's Daily Express, which states:

No country has taken any sort of final decision yet, and I reject the accusation that the UK—either the royal family or the Government—are dragging their feet on this issue. Nothing could be further from reality.

It has also been suggested that the Government could provide financial assistance to veterans for their transport and accommodation expenses. It would not be possible—neither would it be fair—to be seen to provide

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assistance for one anniversary or group of veterans and not another. However, to ease the financial burden for veterans travelling to Normandy, I announced in a written ministerial statement to the House on 17 September that the Ministry of Defence had obtained a 50 per cent. discount on P&O Ferries fares for veterans groups travelling to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-day landings.

Further details are provided in a handout that I will place in the Library today. I wish to place on record how delighted we are that P&O made such a concession available. The leaflet also contains the required information on the concessionary passports scheme, which was announced by the Home Office on 4 June. That initiative offers a free one-year passport to veterans who wish to attend commemorative events in 2004 and 2005.

My Department has approached the Normandy Veterans Association and offered assistance, if it is required, at their service of remembrance and thanksgiving, which will be held at St. Paul's cathedral on 20 October 2004. The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the New Opportunities Fund, a lottery distributor that awards grants to education, health and environmental projects in the United Kingdom. It focuses particularly on those in society who are most disadvantaged. It recently announced its intention of helping war veteran groups to mark the 60th anniversary of the final period of the second world war.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I are investigating the way in which her Department, the Ministry of Defence and the New Opportunities Fund can work together to bring such support to bear. We are mindful of the need to involve today's younger generation in our history, remembrance and commemorative affairs. Officials from my veteran affairs secretariat have been arranging a cross-Government education project jointly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education and Skills, working alongside the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Royal British Legion, the Imperial War museum and single service museums. The first stage of the initiative will be to encourage secondary schools to participate in a national schools competition, as part of their research for their citizenship project work. They will gather testimony from eye witness veterans who took part in the D-day landings. I expect to make further announcements about the project during the rest of this year.

With regard to the traffic problems in Normandy in 1994 when British troops were used to assist with traffic control, it is fair to say that, at the time, the French were taken by surprise at the events. From my discussions in Paris, I understand that the French Government's organising committee is taking on board such issues in its current proceedings. I have said before that we shall be sending two military bands to Normandy. I mentioned earlier that, while invitations from the French Government have yet to be received and accepted, it is likely that the United Kingdom will be represented by members of the royal family, by Ministers including myself and by senior members of the armed forces. It is also likely that there will be other representatives from the three services, but I regret that it is still too early to say who they will be. In recent

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months, our armed forces have of course been busy throughout the world. Deployments take time to arrange and our resources are not infinite. They must be utilised carefully and sensibly. The Ministry of Defence has many important commitments for many months ahead and we must be careful to achieve the right balance. I will make further announcements to the House when I can do so.

The Government take all the 60th anniversary commemorative events very seriously. However, there is still much work to do in connection with D-day and I am committed to ensuring that it will be done. Let us deal with reality, not speculation. That is what those brave men deserve.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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