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D-Day Normandy Landings

10.59 am

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this issue. The D-day landings on 6 June 1944 were one of the defining events of the second world war. If the declaration of war on 3 September 1939 was my earliest memory—I think that it was—I remember D-day vividly. I remember because, preceding it, literally thousands of American soldiers were stationed not far from where I lived in Cheshire.

Operation Overlord was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, military assaults of the 20th century. It opened up a second front against the enemy and was an extraordinarily dangerous mission, demanding courage and commitment. The landings were, by and large, a huge success, but getting a foothold behind the beaches turned out to be much more difficult. Indeed, after a month, the allies had not advanced more than a few miles from the channel. The fighting was bitter. I am told that there are no fewer than 38,000 allied graves in Normandy, which surely stands as testament to the bravery and sacrifice of our armed services.

The 60th anniversary commemorations will be the last—let us make no mistake about that. Age has taken its toll on the veterans, and many now have problems of disability or immobility. I am sure that the country, like me, wants the 60th anniversary commemorations in June this year to befit the debt that we owe to those who fought for our freedom 60 years ago.

It is estimated that about 10,000 British veterans survive. Some 8,000 are members of the Normandy Veterans Association, and I imagine that all are members of the Royal British Legion. No fewer than 97 branches of the association remain in Britain, and there are seven overseas. I am proud that one branch is in my constituency of Chipping Barnet, and its chairman, Councillor Terry Burton, tells me that it has 40 members. Two years ago, half of them applied to go to celebrate the 60th anniversary. Some will be going with their spouses or carers at a cost of £330 for the coach and bed and breakfast over five days. I am further informed that, throughout Britain, 3,000 of the 8,000 originally planned to go—those who could afford and desperately wanted to do so.

I applied for this Adjournment debate on 9 February, and a few hours later I was told that the Government had announced the heroes return initiative, backed up by £10 million from the New Opportunities Fund, for the 60th anniversary of events from D-day to the conclusion of the second world war. I would like to think that my initiative triggered that statement, but that would be grossly unfair on the Government; it was just a happy conjunction of events.

More seriously, I received a letter in January last year from the then Minister for veterans, which in effect said that the Government's view was that the 50th anniversary celebrations were to have been the last. However, I am glad to say that the present Minister wrote to MPs on 7 July last year saying that the main details of events to be held in Normandy next June are still being discussed with the French authorities, and confirming that two military bands would be provided,

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that there would be a ministerial and senior armed forces presence and that a one-year free passport would be available for veterans who wanted to attend.

Since the heroes return announcement on 9 February, a large number of the remaining 7,000 veterans who had not been able to declare that they wanted to go, have now expressed an interest. Mr. Sidney Greenberg, who is on the executive of the Normandy Veterans Association, tells me that his organisation has been inundated with requests for information. Obviously, many veterans could not afford to pay for themselves and for their spouses or carers to accompany them on what must be the most emotional remembrance of their lives.

It would be churlish of me not to thank the Government for the heroes return scheme, and I do so most sincerely. However, I hope that the Minister will accept that severe problems remain. In the spirit of genuinely wanting to see the 60th anniversary commemoration succeed, I would like to put a number of concerns to the Minister, whom I know and respect on a personal basis. I will not go into the parochial detail of the concerns, but concentrate on a few particular themes.

First, the Ministry of Defence must immediately, because time is short, get involved with the French Government and authorities to ensure that the veterans get to the memorials, the services or the parades that they wish to attend. There are mobility issues to be taken into account; for example, anyone who is familiar with Normandy will know that the lanes leading to the beaches in question are extremely narrow. There will be logistical problems in addition to the understandable security problems. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the pace of his Department's liaison with the French authorities has increased, and that those matters are being tackled.

Secondly, the Department must, as a matter of urgency, liaise directly with the Normandy Veterans Association and the Royal British Legion. There has been a huge increase in inquiries and there is great uncertainty. I understand that only two officials are dealing with all those matters. I have been informed that the chairman of the Normandy Veterans Association, Mr. Leslie Frost, was sent a letter by an MOD official last autumn saying that there was no point in having a meeting. I find that inexcusable, and I hope that the Minister will reassure us that there will be direct, meaningful and continuing contact with those relevant organisations.

Thirdly, I believe that there is a need for a statement of clarification on the passes or identity cards that are needed for certain of the events, such as the Arromanches ceremonies, which I understand will be attended by the President of France and Her Majesty the Queen. The need for security is understandable, but it is essential to plan now to ensure that no veterans are disappointed.

Fourthly, I should like to say that, thanks to the Government's 9 February initiative, veterans from other branches can now afford to attend, because they will be reimbursed at least part of their expenses. However, they must receive their funding in time to be able to go. It is essential that the arrangements are made as soon as possible. After all, we are talking about a

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week in June that is only 14 weeks away. I might add that coaches and hotels in mid-summer are in high demand.

Finally, the Minister will know that the Normandy Veterans Association has arranged a service in St. Paul's cathedral in October, which must be the centrepiece of the commemoration in our country. I am informed that it will cost £10,500. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that the heroes return funding will cover that expense. Cathedral services will also be held in other places, such as York minster and Portsmouth cathedral. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Syd Rapson) in his place. I know that he will agree that we need to ensure that these commemoration events are successful.

I am delighted also to see my good Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). If my information is correct, his father was killed in Normandy, 60 years ago. I willingly admit in this short debate that I speak with a certain amount of emotion. But I believe that I speak not only for my generation, but for many younger generations when I say that, quite simply, our freedom today, which we perhaps all too readily take for granted, is due to the commitment, loyalty, patriotism and courage of those who fought for our ideals from 1939 to 1945. Let us not quibble about a few pounds here or even £1,000 there to deny the veterans of the Normandy beaches the gratitude and honour that they fully deserve.

11.12 am

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) not only on securing the debate but on the manner in which he presented his arguments, with which I entirely concur. I am delighted that these commemorations will take place. They need to be held in the manner that my hon. Friend described and consistent with the representations from the Normandy Veterans Association.

My father won the Military Cross at Maltot on 14 July. He was a young man of 25 and it is difficult for us now to realise just what that involved. I think that 2,000 men were lost in the preceding few days in one particular action on the hill of Calvary. It is called hill 112. It is difficult to imagine just how horrendous it must have been, although there have been some extremely good documentaries on this subject on television in the last few weeks.

I received a letter today from the Secretary of State for Defence, saying that there will be 80 days of events in Normandy. At his suggestion I have put it on the Whip that if there are any Members of Parliament whose parents were killed in Normandy they should make themselves known. There may even be in the House of Lords some people who fought there. I therefore suggest that Members who have an intimate and direct connection and those who participated should go over there. In that way we could show our respect, in an appropriate manner, for those who died. It would also be helpful to know from the Minister that we will be able to have the details, a point that my hon. Friend so rightly stressed.

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11.14 am

Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) on securing this important Adjournment debate.

I want to add my thanks to the Government and the New Opportunities Fund for announcing the heroes return package, and I hope that the Government and the lottery distributors will do all that they can to ensure that it goes ahead with no problems. As we have already heard, those veterans made the greatest sacrifice that anyone could possibly make to protect this country and to defend the values and democracies in which we believe. As someone from a generation that does not remember that military action, I feel that it is essential that we do more to commemorate their sacrifices. I also want to ensure that the next generations will not forget those sacrifices and what happened, and that they will learn from that history for the future. It has been said that the events are likely to be the last celebrations and commemorations to take place, because of the age of many of those involved.

I also congratulate the BBC on its work in collecting the stories and reminiscences of those involved in the second world war to create a national archive. Will the Government consider establishing a national day of commemoration and public holiday, perhaps in October or November, when we could also remember the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month? Will the Minister consider talking to colleagues in other Departments, such as the Department of Trade and Industry, to see whether that is possible?

11.16 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin) : First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) on securing this important debate on the remembrance and commemoration of the events leading up to the end of the second world war. I also welcome the contributions of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) and my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward).

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the significant progress made since the previous Adjournment debate on the issue on 11 November 2003. Let me begin by stating clearly that it is Government policy fully to endorse the importance of remembrance and commemoration. The D-day landings in June 1944 were particularly significant, as history makes clear. They were the largest international, combined forces amphibious assault that the world has ever seen. It is one thing to read about such momentous events; to have participated in person is another matter entirely. We collectively owe immense gratitude to those who put their lives at risk in such ways, and it is only fitting that the baton of remembrance for such momentous acts of human courage and perseverance should be passed on from that generation to our young citizens, who will be the next generation of the 21st century.

I was pleased to announce to the House on 15 January that both Her Majesty the Queen and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had accepted invitations from President Chirac to attend the main commemorative events to be held at Arromanches on Sunday 6 June. It is expected that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will attend events on Saturday 5 June in Normandy.

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It was suggested that the Government could provide direct financial assistance to Normandy veterans for their transport and accommodation expenses, but we were concerned that it would not be fair to provide assistance to one anniversary or group of veterans rather than another. However, that direct financial assistance is now available through the New Opportunities Fund's recently launched veterans reunited programme to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war. That lottery-funded programme will help to ensure that all generations of United Kingdom residents can commemorate the anniversary together, both at home and abroad.

The three elements of the programme are: "Their Past, Your Future", which focuses on activities for schools and young people; the heroes return initiative, which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned and which will focus on overseas visits for veterans, their spouses or widows and their carers; and "Home Front Recall", which provides funding for events and activities in the UK. "Their Past, Your Future" was announced on 12 January. The second part of the programme was launched on 9 February, and the third part will be formally launched in the spring.

Over the next 18 months, we will commemorate the 60th anniversary of some of the most remarkable events in this country's history: the Anzio landings, the eastern fleet's engagements with Japanese installations, D-day and the Normandy campaign, the landings in southern France, the campaigns in Burma, the battle for Italy, the Rhine crossing, the liberation of the Channel Islands, VE-day and VJ-day.

I am acutely aware that this will be the last chance for many of the men and women who lived through those events to commemorate them in any numbers. Just as importantly, it will be the last chance for new generations to learn at first hand from veterans what it was like to be involved in those events. Their memories and experiences will provide a lasting legacy for the nation.

That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I felt that that unique combination of factors deserved lottery support. We are pleased that the New Opportunities Fund has seized the idea and begun to deliver that new lottery initiative. Getting from inception to launch in less than six months is a good example of cross-Government working with the national lottery. I was grateful for the words of support on that basis from the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet.

"Their Past, Your Future" allows children to develop a deeper understanding of the issues around commemoration, remembrance, peacemaking and reconciliation. It allows our youngsters to learn more about the work of the British and Commonwealth armed forces, both past and present. As part of the project, children will work with different generations collaboratively, developing their critical thinking and learning about the past and present from museums, battlefields and other significant places. Children will also learn to reassess their attitudes towards people of different generations, nationalities and identities, and

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will come to respect the contributions of veterans to past and present society.

It is impossible to over-emphasise the major contributions made by our veterans during the second world war. This generation of young people will have an invaluable opportunity to hear at first hand what our veterans did to preserve the freedom and security that we enjoy today.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Caplin : I am afraid not.

The heroes return scheme will provide £10 million of lottery funding to help second world war veterans resident in the UK to arrange commemorative visits to the overseas areas where they saw active service in that war. The scheme will ensure that new generations can learn from those experiences. The New Opportunities Fund will make grants towards the cost of those visits, which, if feasible, will be linked with a parallel education project or visit. A fixed sum will be available for each veteran and their spouse and/or carer to go towards the cost of the visit. That is £10 million over two years. I heard what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said about Normandy, but the project has been designed to be a long project over those important two years, not specifically for the anniversary of D-day in June.

I hope that many veterans will be able to take advantage of the heroes return scheme. Since the launch of the schemes, the Veterans Agency freephone helpline has answered 12,856 calls, approximately 6,500 of which related to that initiative. That shows that there is considerable interest in that worthy scheme.

In my letter of 7 July, I said that the Ministry of Defence will send two military bands to Normandy and I mentioned earlier the attendance of Her Majesty the Queen and the Prime Minister. The UK will also be represented during that weekend by other members of the royal family, other Ministers, including me, and senior members of the armed forces. We are still finalising the attendance programme and I realise that that can be frustrating for those trying to organise events in France. However, I am sure that the House will accept that the armed forces have been busy across the world and at home in recent months, and deployments are taking time to arrange. Our resources are not infinite and must be utilised carefully and sensibly. I will make further announcements when able to do so.

I shall now deal with the question that the hon. Gentleman raised about security in Normandy. The only event that will require major security will be in Arromanches on Sunday 6 June. The details have

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been published and are available. If veterans ring 0800 169 2277, they will be able to get all the necessary details from the Veterans Agency, although not necessarily through their veterans organisation. A simple system of registration must be completed by mid-March and then photocards will be produced for those attending in Arromanches. We are also instigating a registration system for those attending other events over the weekend, but that does not need to be completed until mid-April. It comprises a simple list system primarily for travel operators taking groups, but also for individuals wishing to travel together. For security reasons we hope to have a complete register of those travelling to Normandy.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the Normandy Veterans Association, and I think that his information is slightly flawed. The national chairman of the association and the military attaché in Paris have met on several occasions, the last of which was 21–23 January this year in Normandy to discuss many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. I assure him that the Ministry of Defence has already approached the Normandy Veterans Association and offered assistance to its service of remembrance and thanksgiving at St. Paul's on 20 October. That event is in the early stages of planning; again, I will provide more information when able to do so. It may be that the hon. Gentleman's question about the funding for that event forms part of the "Home Front Recall" programme that we will announce in the spring. That will be the time for the Normandy Veterans Association to approach the lottery operator for a possible grant.

Sixty years have passed since those final shots were fired. Although this will be the last official commemoration of the second world war, the fortitude shown and the sacrifice made by so many at home and around the world will never be forgotten. This Government take seriously all the 60th anniversary commemorative events, and I welcome the initiative that the hon. Member for Stone is considering. Perhaps he and I can talk more about that in the weeks ahead.

The Government have certainly not forgotten the bravery and sacrifice of all those who took part in the Normandy landings in June 1944 and who will participate in the events in this country and on the continent. Through the veterans reunited programme, the Government will ensure that future generations, rather than forgetting those deeds, will learn why they should take up the baton of remembrance to recognise the invaluable contributions made by all our veterans around the world during the second world war.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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