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29 Apr 2009 : Column 295WH—continued

The only reason why I know about that story is that a programme featuring Esther Rantzen confronted the young woman, now a bit more mature, with her rescuers. I remember Esther Rantzen asking the rescuers, “But why did you do it? You were in enough trouble already. You were prisoners of war.” They said, “We did it because we were British, and this was why we were fighting that war.” I do not know about you, Mr. Benton, but whenever I think about such stories, my backbone straightens, my spirits lift and I feel that perhaps it is not such an evil world after all. There is a saying that someone who saves a single life saves the world entire.
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That is what those British heroes did, and that is why I am so happy that broad hints are being dropped in this debate that something will now be done for them.

3.9 pm

Des Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Those of us who have listened to the last eight minutes of the debate will be glad that he chose to speak and did not decide that it would be inappropriate for him to do so, because it has been a privilege to listen to him. He was characteristically generous in commending all those who are not of his faith and ethnic background for speaking in such a debate and in saying that it is all the more important that we should speak because our families were not affected. I am not here because my family was affected, although my father did serve throughout the war in many of its theatres, and he later died far too young as a consequence. I am here because I have been affected by the events that we are discussing.

That brings me to my second point. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) for giving us the opportunity to do what we perhaps do not do often enough in these buildings, namely reaching across party lines to celebrate issues that are infused with fundamental goodness, rather than celebrating the divisions between us, which—I say this with respect to all my colleagues—we sometimes exaggerate to make points. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to do that.

I am also grateful to the Holocaust Educational Trust and its leadership, to whom my hon. Friend has referred. In my first term as a Member of Parliament, they took me on a trip with some schoolchildren to see Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was obviously an important moment in the lives of those young people. I was three times the age of some of them, but I had never experienced such a moment, too. I will never forget walking back along the spur of the railway line towards the camp gates in the gloaming of the evening, as we say in Scotland. The atmosphere and the visibility were such that one could see the stone chimneys of the buildings, but nothing else, and one’s sense was that the wooden parts of the buildings, which are long gone, were still there. I distinctly remember thinking just for a moment, as I walked back across the railway line and paced between the sleepers, that that must have been what it was really like when the camp was in full flow and doing all the horrible things that it did.

I also remember being intensely angry. I could not quite work out where my anger was directed, but I realised that it was the railway line, which was so perfect—I realise that it had been preserved. It was a perfect piece of engineering and it seemed to be a manifestation of how a perfectly innocent thing—the construction of a railway line—could have been contorted in an evil way by people who did not do the things that those we are celebrating in this debate did. I cannot remember being so angry with an inanimate object in my life, but I was angry with that railway line. It was an extraordinary moment.

I have never really forgotten that experience, and I welcome every opportunity not only to express those emotions, which one cannot always do in debates, but
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to make a small contribution on this issue and to do what the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) and my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway and for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) suggested—they set exactly the right tone for the debate—when they said that we should remember the people we are talking about in any way that we can.

We should remember those people for two simple reasons. First, we should celebrate people’s goodness as much as we can, particularly when it is laced with the manifest courage that the people we are talking about showed in the face of the daunting and potential attacks on them. We should also take every opportunity to give expression to the phrase, “This must never happen again.” We should remind ourselves that the dangers that we are talking about can, from very innocuous beginnings, become manifest in the human spirit and in humanity’s behaviour. That serves as a lesson to us all that human beings are capable of some awful things.

Unfortunately, however often we tell ourselves that such things must never happen again, there has never been a moment in my life when events like those that we are discussing, although not on the same scale, have not been happening somewhere in the world. That is a reminder that we should be vigilant in our own society and remember the consequences of our not addressing such behaviour in other societies. I thank those who have spoken for putting that very clearly.

I am not in a position to celebrate a constituent or someone who was born in my constituency and I have no family connections to such a person in my constituency. However, I was introduced to an extraordinary group of people when I was the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality—a job that the Minister has also done. On 8 May 2005, the Highbridge war memorial trust and the Foley fair committee invited me to unveil the statue that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge has mentioned. The invitation came to me because Frank Foley was a passport control officer, and it was appropriate to invite the Minister responsible for immigration.

I was delighted to be invited, and I will never forget that extraordinary afternoon. There was a small group of people, some of whom were survivors and some of whom had no particular experience of the events that we are discussing. However, as a result of the telling and retelling of people’s stories and the celebration of what Frank Foley did as a decent man, a spirit was generated among those people that might, if one could bottle it, ensure that, at some point in the future, we no longer need constantly to remind ourselves to be on our guard. It was an enormous privilege to be in the company of those people that afternoon, and I will never forget it.

I had intended to speak about Frank Foley in more detail, but it is entirely appropriate that somebody who can claim a constituency connection to him should have told us his story. We have heard what that extraordinary man did, although he was actually a bit of a shady character, which is just as well, because that was probably how he managed to do what he did while moving around the internment camps and elsewhere. He was a typical British shady character in that he looked like what he was—a civil servant. However, he was a shady character, and thank God for that.

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Given the job that he did in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Frank Foley did not enjoy the same diplomatic immunity or support as Mr. Wallenberg. He did everything at his own personal risk. He was in Germany for some years, but I cannot imagine how he managed to process the number of people that he did or to get them out of the country without it being obvious to others, including those who were watching him. He must have courted considerable personal danger.

Then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge has said, he retired in typical British style into relative obscurity, living out the rest of his life in a small bungalow somewhere, probably never talking about what he did, never suggesting to anybody that they should remember who he was and never saying, “Guess what I did.” He just got on with things, as if that was what was expected of him. In a way, that is the true definition of heroism.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway and those who have persuaded the Government to follow the route of the veterans badge. We have rightly recognised those who made a contribution, such as the Bevin boys, the timber Jills and the land girls. I am not suggesting what should be done in this case, but we have been given an opportunity to say again that we value in a special way the extraordinary group of people who are the subject of the debate, because of what they say about the goodness that is in all of us. We thank them for what they did, not only for the sake of the people whom they rescued but for giving us an example, so that our generation may make at least some contribution to making the world a better place.

3.20 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to make the first of the three concluding speeches to this important debate. Normally when I speak from this position in the Chamber, I am contributing to a discussion on the Budget or the economy. Those are necessarily partisan debates, and rightly so, because it is important that Parliament scrutinises those essential contemporary matters. However—this point has been made by other hon. Members—it is also extremely valuable to have opportunities to come together and celebrate achievements of our fellow countrymen and women through the years, and to talk about what binds us together and our common interests. This debate has been distinguished in that regard.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) for securing the debate and for his excellent opening speech—to be honest, all the speeches have been of an extremely high standard. It has been informative and moving to hear many of the contributions—especially, as I suspect others agree, that of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). However, it was also a great privilege to follow the former Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), and hear his perspective.

All war is terrible and leads to lasting consequences, and all war gives people opportunities to do exceptional and heroic deeds. However, the holocaust is a unique—in the proper sense of that word—act in the history of mankind. As the right hon. Gentleman has reminded
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us, atrocities are committed across the world every day, but the scale of the holocaust, and the degree to which it was regimented and organised, make it unique. Most people probably accept that the second world war was the biggest distinguishing event in the history of our country—a moment when we reached a fork in the road and the future of our nation depended on the outcome. We are talking about a unique and central feature of what I argue was the most important act in the history of our country and continent, the second world war. There could not be a matter more worthy of our consideration, or people more worthy of our admiration, than those who are the subject of the debate.

I pay tribute, as others have done, to the Holocaust Educational Trust for its tireless work in raising such matters and for making sure that Members of Parliament give them the consideration they surely deserve, as well as for, as its name suggests, educating Members of Parliament and the public in general about the holocaust, the scale of the tragedy and its lasting consequences. I, too, was given an opportunity by the group to visit Auschwitz, as the Prime Minister, I am pleased to say, did yesterday, and like other hon. Members I went with a group of teenagers from my constituency. It was something that I had always wanted to do, and it was an extremely moving and memorable day—I found it so, and the young people I went with had the same thoughts.

I hope that hon. Members will briefly indulge me as I recall a few features of that day. One thing that struck me as particularly strange—even eerie—was that it was a lovely summer day when we visited Auschwitz. The photographs that one sees of it always show bleak midwinter in Poland. To visit a place where the air is heavy with history and to feel that sense of foreboding, but with the leaves rustling in the wind, the sun shining and the birds singing in the trees, is almost more discomfiting, I imagine, than going there in weather conditions that make it more obviously bleak. The contrast between the sense of freedom and gaiety of such weather and the deeds that took place in the camp made the experience all the more poignant and troubling.

I particularly remember two features. One is the railway track. It is a famous image and we are all familiar with it, but to see it with one’s own eyes is memorable. Different people may have different memories, but the other one that particularly stands out in my mind is the huge bank of shoes behind a glass screen. There is something extremely human about shoes—I do not know why that is more the case than with other items of clothing. The fact that each shoe or pair of shoes represented an individual with their own story, life, circumstances and family somehow brought things to life for me more than statistics would, even though the statistics are obviously revealing and deeply upsetting.

For all those reasons I am enthusiastic—I know that hon. Members in all parties share that enthusiasm—for some recognition of the bravery that was so evident from our fellow countrymen and women in those uniquely awful circumstances. Everyone has a proprietorial interest in Major Frank Foley, so perhaps as he was born in Somerset, and as I represent a Somerset constituency, I should touch on his achievements. It is worth noting that the only remaining survivor of first world war trench warfare was also born in Somerset, and lives
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there. Perhaps we are unfairly rewarded with people who, to make a serious point, did not necessarily hold a status or rank that suggested that they would be at the front of the queue for honours, but who have come to symbolise particularly distinguished service to their country. Their ordinariness is, in a way, what makes them particularly notable people. That is probably true of Mr. Harry Patch, who lives in Somerset and who at 110 years old is one of a handful still surviving who served in the first world war—I understand that he is the only one of them who fought in the trenches. That is true of Major Foley as well; his story has already been recounted by other hon. Members.

I understand that the Government are minded to bring about some recognition, and I admire them for their activism and imagination. The financial cost to us of recognising the contributions of the individuals in question is extremely modest, yet to do so is valuable, partly because it is greatly appreciated by the relatives and surviving associates of the individuals, although they are fairly few. More importantly, perhaps, is the symbolic value. There is, as hon. Members have said, no danger in such recognition; even 64 years since the end of the second world war, there is no downside to reminding us—adults and perhaps even more importantly children who, as they grow up, are further and further removed from the conflict—about two things.

The first reminder is of the capacity of mankind to be evil and the requirement on us all to be vigilant and to try to guard against that evil manifesting itself in appalling ways. That point has also been made with regard to contemporary politics, but it is obviously most relevant with regard to that historical event.

The second, symbolic reminder is the ability, as the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) put it, of ordinary people to do extraordinary things, possibly beyond what they regarded themselves as being capable of doing until they were confronted by that challenge, such that they rose to heights that they may not necessarily have ever expected to rise to. So the holocaust is a reminder to us of mankind’s ability for greatness, as well as mankind’s ability for evil, as I have previously said. Furthermore, these stories are an inspiring example, because they tell everybody that there is capacity within us all to be exceptional, to make history and to do good. It is valuable that we remind ourselves of our ability not only to live on a day-to-day basis and to progress through life, but to leave a mark that can inspire others, because of the sacrifice and risks that we took for a higher purpose than simply our own personal well-being.

For those reasons, a memorial, individual recognition or a combination of the two would be extremely welcome. So, I am delighted—I speak, as every other hon. Member contributing to this debate will speak, in an entirely non-partisan and non-party political way—that we have a senior Cabinet Minister here and that the Government themselves have seen the merit and wisdom in making progress. I greatly look forward to hearing further details from the Minister and also to hearing the contribution from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), to what has been an extremely high-quality, rewarding and enlightening debate, both to participate in and to listen to.

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3.32 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I start by not only congratulating the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) but thanking him. That is because before this debate I did not know anything about the British heroes of the holocaust and I am embarrassed by that fact. If the Hebrew saying that was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is right and he who saves one life, saves the world entire, where does that place Frank Foley, who is reported to have saved 10,000 lives?

These are extraordinary stories about really extraordinary people; these people are, if you like, giants of our time. I rather share the sentiment that was expressed by my hon. Friend: as I sit back after reading these stories, I feel very proud to be British. Therefore, I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman, quite genuinely, for his contribution.

I also congratulate the Holocaust Educational Trust. It does amazing work in my constituency each year, working with the two synagogues in Northwood and with local schools to bring together local children, often as many as 2,500 on a single day, to do something very important. That is not just about throwing a steady light on one of the darkest chapters in our history, although it has never been more important to keep doing that as the survivors of those events get older and die out. In addition, what always impresses me about that day is the ability of the Holocaust Educational Trust to connect that history with the world around those young people today. I find that enormously impressive. The trust also communicates a sense of opportunity for everyone—each individual—to make a difference. I do not think that there has ever been a more important time to inspire people with that thought, as we worry about civic engagement and the degree to which people are prepared to get involved these days. So I genuinely support the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in that field.

That inspiring message—the opportunity to make a difference—underpins the importance of the stories that we have heard today, which are genuinely inspirational. Each contributor to the debate today has spoken powerfully about things that have touched them individually. Again, I rather share the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. The story that I liked most was about the group of 10 prisoners of war, Tommy Noble and his mates, who spent 10 weeks supporting that young girl. That is because acts of individual heroism are enormously impressive, but when there is a group of people prepared to take the same unflinching and enormous risk for that length of time, that is enormously impressive, too.

I am probably not the only Member who, while reading these stories, was asking himself or herself, “How would I have reacted in this situation?” The answer is that we do not know, because very few of us have been tested to that limit.

Therefore, this has been a journey that leads me to feel strongly that it has been wrong to leave recognition of British heroes of the holocaust until now to the Israeli authorities, including the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Authority, and that it is right now to recognise them through a national memorial of some form. I am delighted to place on record my party’s support for the principle of a memorial.

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Obviously, the nature of such a memorial needs to be thought through carefully. I think that most Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), the former Secretary of State for Defence, will know that there are sensitivities in relation to using the existing traditional honours system to honour the dead, or to using the existing system of military awards to recognise acts of courage that took place so long ago.

Therefore, a memorial is something that needs to be thought through carefully, I hope on a cross-party basis. However, if the Government are thinking of some form of individual award that sits outside the traditional award system, that is clearly an attractive idea as far as we are concerned and it would be of enormous value to the families of the individuals involved.

I want to close by expressing a personal view. It is not the view of my party; in fact, I do not know whether it is the view of my party, but I am inspired to place it on record as a personal view. I would be disappointed if such an initiative, such an individual award, were introduced and that was the end of it, however valuable that initiative was to the families concerned. That is because I would hope that we could be inspired to do more.

I am attracted to the idea of considering what the Government can do to facilitate a more physical memorial for all heroes, something that is tangible, that people can walk or drive past and that will trigger something in them, reminding them of what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) put very well, which is the power of ordinary people to rise up and do remarkable things whatever the scale of the threat facing them.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. He knows that my party supports the principle of a memorial and we would very much like to be involved in working out the detail. I just urge him not to be short of ambition.

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