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Because of the exceptional circumstances, there was no obvious place for the memorial in the UK and there were differing views among the families: some wanted the memorial to be in London, others did not; some wanted a quiet place to reflect and remember; others wanted something in a prominent and prestigious location. Our guiding principle must always be to work in close consultation with the families and the survivors. That is what wemy official colleagues in the humanitarian assistance unit and Ihave attempted to do in developing the tsunami memorial, too. I met many of the tsunami families in December 2007 and had a number of follow-up
meetings with their representatives in 2008, and I also visited the region in preparation for the first year anniversary in 2007.
A number of places were suggested for the memorial, including Battersea park, Victoria Tower gardens and the Natural History museum. These suggestions came from the families themselves; we did not rule out the majority of royal parksindeed, Victoria Tower gardens is a prestigious park managed by the Royal Parks. Only some suggested locations, such as Kew gardens, were ruled out. We arranged for those who wished to visit the three preferred sites. With Tsunami Support UK, we then consulted all those affected on their preferred location. One hundred and thirty people responded to the consultation letter.
There was overwhelming support for the Natural History museuma site many see as the best place to educate future generations about the power of nature, and the delicate relationship between humankind and its environment. Since the Natural History museum was chosen as the preferred location, the museum trustees have identified a number of difficulties, which they raised with us. In preparation for this debate, I had a further conversation earlier today with Oliver Stocken, the chairman of the trustees.
The main problems associated with that location include the fact, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the museum does not open on 26 December, which is the anniversary of the tsunami. Some families selected the museum on the condition that they would be able to visit on that day. The museum trustees are willing in principle to look at ways round that, as confirmed by the chairman in my earlier conversation.
As many will know, the museum is hoping to open its new Darwin centre in September, and the area around the centre is being developed. This is the site originally thought to be the right place for the tsunami memorial; but the museum now plans to use this space for multiple purposes, which it feels would be incompatible with the dignified reflective environment appropriate for a memorial. In addition, the limitation on access imposed by the relevant planning consents for the landscaping cause even greater difficulties for access to that area than previously envisaged.
Dr. Michael Dixon, the chief executive, wrote to the Tsunami Support UK chairmen in December 2008, setting out those new obstacles and suggested that it might be better to look for a new site for the memorial. However, the chairmen of Tsunami Support UK were clear that they wanted us to press the Natural History museum to host the memorial. In February I wrote to Oliver Stocken, chairman of the Natural History museums trustees, urging them to honour their offer.
The trustees discussed the memorial again at their meeting on 24 February, and the chairman wrote to me following that meeting. He informed me that the trustees felt enormous sympathy for the families of victims of this natural world disaster, and remained keen to host the memorial if that was at all possible. He said that, on reflection, the trustees no longer thought that it would be possible to find an appropriate outdoor site for the memorial within the museum grounds, for reasons that I have already outlined. They suggested an alternative: a permanent indoor exhibition on the tsunami, with an associated memorial to those who lost their lives.
I should make it clear that that suggestion was only made at the beginning of March, and is still very much on the front burner. I am aware, however, that it is not what some of the families had originally wanted. We are therefore holding discussions with Tsunami Support UK in an attempt to establish whether the proposal is acceptable to those families. A number of concerns have been expressed about whether the exhibition would take precedence over the plaque or the memorial element.
The fact that the museum does not open on Boxing day remains an issue. I have spoken to Oliver Stocken, who has assured me that if we went ahead with a memorial in the museum, arrangements could be made for the families to visit the memorial on 26 December. However, that would have to be the subject of further discussion, and also to an indication of the number of families who might want to make such a visit.
My officials in the humanitarian assistance unit are hosting the annual general meeting of Tsunami Support UK on Saturday, 4 April. I confirmed this afternoon that a representative of the museum would attend the meeting. It will give the families an opportunity to discuss the new proposal fully, and to raise any further concerns that they may have. Obviously I cannot make any final commitments until after that meeting, which will provide an opportunity for a proper exchange between the families and their representatives and representatives of the museum. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that once we have clearly established the
position of the families, we will press on with our discussions with the Natural History museum to ensure that the issue is brought to a satisfactory resolution as quickly as possible.
I can confirm that the Government have committed £500,000 for the memorial, and that we have undertaken to meet any ongoing maintenance costs that the museum may incur. Let me also stress my personal commitment to doing all that I can to resolve these issues to the satisfaction of the families, and to ensure that a fitting memorial is developed that reflects the aspirations and wishes of all those affected by this terrible tragedy. Because of the hon. Gentlemans interest, I will of course ensure that he is kept informed so that he, in turn, can keep his constituents and their families involved.
I have always indicated my willingness to meet the families and their representatives, and, as I have made clear, my officials are in close discussion with them about the details of this matter. However, the overriding principle is the desirability of reaching a conclusion that gives the families a sense of solace and reconciliation, and a place for quiet contemplation and remembrance where they can go and, in some way, find the souls of the relatives who were so cruelly taken from them.