Matt Warman – 2021 Speech on Dame Vera Lynn National Memorial

The speech made by Matt Warman, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 11 May 2021.

How fitting, on this day of the Gracious Speech, that we should be talking about Dame Vera Lynn, because I think it was one of the most moving speeches that Her Majesty the Queen has ever made, and she herself quoted the line that we will meet again. It is right that we understand what Dame Vera Lynn has contributed to this country and to all that we have gone through in the past couple of years as well. It was only in September that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) raised this important matter, and I thought at the time that we would meet again. I did not know where and I did not know when, but today has been a sunny day, and here we are. I would like to echo his warm words about the lasting legacy of Dame Vera Lynn. The importance of her words and actions was brought home to us not just by the speech that Her Majesty the Queen gave last year, but by the 75th anniversary of VE Day— we all remember the fitting tribute to Dame Vera during the closing stages of the celebrations, when the nation came together to sing that most famous song. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Her Majesty the Queen and countless members of the public shared their condolences with Dame Vera Lynn’s family following her death last June, at the grand age of 103.

To hear all about Dame Vera Lynn’s endeavours in later life through the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity, the Bluebird appeal and the Dame Vera Lynn Charitable Trust is truly inspiring.

Whether Dame Vera was aiding former servicemen and women or working with children and schools, it is clear that she was a true public servant who helped people of all ages and backgrounds throughout her life. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), whom my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West mentioned, has written to me personally to say that Dame Vera is much missed in her home village of Ditchling in Sussex, where she was a key figure in the local community. It is clear that Dame Vera touched many people, across this country and this House, through her music and her philanthropy; I can only echo the warm praise of the general public and of my colleagues here today for her lasting legacy.

As I said in the previous Adjournment debate, this country has a long and well-established tradition of commemorating its national and local individuals through statues and memorials. I reiterate the Government’s support for public monuments and statues, which serve as a long-lasting reminder of individuals and their efforts for this country, bridging the gap between the past and the present.

I look forward to the day when the memorial to the great Dame Vera Lynn that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West mentioned gazes down from the white cliffs of Dover. As he mentioned, he has a successful track record of managing to have public statues erected, and we should look forward to future success, whether it follows on from Eric Cole’s or from Raoul Wallenberg’s in adding to the 12,000 outdoor statues and memorials in England alone. We all know that Dame Vera Lynn will be a huge addition to that roster, and that my hon. Friend is the man to do it.

The debate gives me an opportunity to detail the Government’s position more broadly on erecting new memorials and statues. As my hon. Friend said, it is not normal practice for central Government to fund new memorials, but we all know that in this case many organisations, public and private, have been hugely successful in proposing funding—I can think of few more fitting recipients of that funding than the projects he mentions—and delivering memorials, marking a variety of incidents and historical figures that they are best placed to deem appropriate and sensitive to their local area. There is no more appropriate area than the white cliffs, I am sure.

Many successful memorials are created by a wide range of authorities and organisations, allowing each memorial to respond sensitively to the particular circumstances that it seeks to commemorate. I will not dwell on the excellent example of the jolly fisherman in Skegness—another example of funding by public subscription—or on the excellent Gracie Fields statue in Rochdale. Those memorials and statues were conceived, fundraised and erected through local efforts and ownership. Many people will have seen the recent proposals for a new memorial inside St Paul’s cathedral to those who have died as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.

Statues matter. They provide a memorial and a memory for people who wish to remember vital parts of our nation’s history. There are a great many people and organisations interested in establishing memorials. As a general rule, it is for those groups to work with the relevant local planning authority and other organisations to identify a suitable site and obtain the necessary planning permissions. The good news is that, following the passing of the Deregulation Act 2015, consent is not even required from the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to erect statues in London; the process is determined through the planning system only—although I do not think in this case I am going too far by saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is as much of a fan of the great Dame Vera as is my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West. I hope that provides him with some of the reassurance he has sought on the process around new monuments and statues.

I wish my hon. Friend, and all those involved, the deepest best wishes in their efforts to raise funds for this commemoration of Dame Vera. It sounds like an ambitious and transformative proposal for the south coast, truly befitting Dame Vera. I look forward to that moment when her statue looks down from the white cliffs.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for her intervention this evening. I share her commitment to the important role of arts and culture in truly levelling up and reinvigorating towns and cities across the country. I know that she recently met the Minister for Digital and Culture, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), to discuss her plans and had a productive conversation with Arts Council England. We at DCMS look forward to seeing the outcomes of her work across Dover and Deal.

I would take this opportunity to burst into song, such is my enthusiasm for this project, but I think that could possibly send it in the wrong direction, rather than the one we would all like to see. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West for all his work in promoting the cause of this statue. I wish him and all those involved—foremost the family of Dame Vera Lynn—the best of luck in this hugely deserving endeavour, and I look forward to seeing it in real life.