Monday 7th June 2021

(3 years ago)

Commons Chamber
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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alan Mak.)
Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab)
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Today marks a year to the day since the name Edward Colston first crossed my consciousness, and no doubt that of many millions of others, when his statue in Bristol was ripped down from its plinth and rolled into the waters where I imagine his slave ships once docked, in the wake of the brutal racist murder of George Floyd in the US. Events in Minneapolis reverberated everywhere and copycat topplings ensued. In east London, a statue of slaver Robert Milligan was pre-emptively removed by Tower Hamlets Council before any damage was done, and in Brussels King Leopold, who oversaw genocide in the Congo, was dethroned. Confederate generals fell in Birmingham—Birmingham, Alabama—in Portsmouth, Virginia, and in New South Wales, Australia; place names that give a twist to UK geography. The felling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 proved memorable because statues confer respectability and are highly symbolic. Nearly 40,000 individuals have signed three separate petitions on the website, so we can see that people attach a lot of significance to statues.

As for Colston, a man who made his wealth from trading in human beings and the enslavement of Africans, putting them in chains, he was once venerated as a benefactor to Bristol, with a school and even a type of cake named after him. Where is he now? No longer imposing in the city centre, his watchful eye over everyone, but horizontal in a museum, in a graffitied, defaced state. Apparently, when the council fished him out of the river, the damage done to his pedestal was so great that it could not take the weight of his standing on it. If we think about it, in some senses it is far better now that he is an educational tool, an exhibit furthering teaching, than a statue everyone walked past obliviously.

The incident of last year and its postscript is history. Colston’s latest chapter parallels how the statue of Viscount Falkland just outside this Chamber, off Central Lobby, has been missing a foot spur since 1909, because a suffragette chained herself to his feet, and in the melee before security and the police escorted her off the premises —crying “Votes for women!” all the way—the spur snapped off. That missing spur has, unintentionally, become a symbol of feminism, giving people like you, Madam Deputy Speaker, me and the Minister hope that we might one day make it into this place. It is always part of the Rupa tour—the unofficial tour I give when taking constituents around. I also show them the DIY plaque that Tony Benn screwed into place down in the dungeon, with the help, I believe, of our former leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). The plaque commemorates Emily Wilding Davison, another suffragette. It is fitting that, like that snapped-off spur, the spray-painted version of Colston was not restored to its former glory. These one-time acts of vandalism have become matters of historical record.

There is also that larger-than-life Churchill passed by all us MPs when we come into the Chamber. It was going a bit green, because too many Conservative MPs were rubbing it for good luck. It now has a “Do not touch” notice affixed to it. Hon. Members will remember that a year ago the statue of Churchill outside in Parliament Square was first boxed up and then heavily guarded—people said he was the most guarded man in England—for fear of his being attacked by Black Lives Matter protesters. Yet it was only a week ago that that statue had “Chelsea” daubed over it. Chelsea had won some championship or another, and Chelsea fans, who I think are normally associated with the political right—remember John Major and the headhunters—took advantage of the fact that security’s eye was off the ball. That shows how we can sometimes imbue these acts with too much significance.

Granted, there could be a bit of evening up the score for womankind going on. It is shocking that it was only in 2018—quite recently, considering the first arch in Westminster Hall dates back to 1080, I believe—that we got the first woman commemorated in the environs of Parliament in the form of the statue of Millicent Fawcett. We could do better to even up the score, given that until then there had just been an unofficial plaque, not on public view, and a snapped spur to represent womankind in this Parliament.

The same is true of black and minority ethnic figures. I know that there was an almighty fight by a predecessor of mine, Lord Soley, to get a statue of Mary Seacole over the way at St Thomas’s. All these figures are quite complex. My late Dad hated the statue of Lord Clive on Whitehall because of Clive’s corruption and imperial butchery. At the same time, my dad was not a fan of Gandhi, who is one of the few colonial subjects who has a statue out there. I cannot quite remember why, or if I have misremembered, but my dad is not around to ask.

Another joke of my dad’s was, “The British Museum? That’s a funny word when all the stuff in there is nicked!” So yes, the British Museum.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I think that was an extra prompt, Madam Deputy Speaker, but anyway, the hon. Lady and I spoke beforehand.

I recently attended a meeting regarding the statue of Hans Sloane, the famous inventor of hot chocolate who was also responsible for advances in medicine. He was a son of Killyleagh in my constituency of Strangford. I find it incredible that his bust in the British Museum can be moved, especially considering the collection of 71,000 items that he bequeathed to the British nation, thus providing the foundation of the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum in London. The fact that his wife was connected to a Caribbean plantation was enough entirely to discredit anything else.

Does the hon. Lady agree that we must not seek to remove or dispose of our history, but rather should allow it to have its place and seek to address where we as a nation are going as a matter of great importance? I congratulate her again on introducing the debate and on the way she has introduced it.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Huq
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. What an honour it is to be intervened on by him in an Adjournment debate. I think this is a first for me; we may have done this in Westminster Hall, but not here in the Chamber.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Huq
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No, it is the latest of many for the hon. Gentleman. This shows that I do not come up in the draw very often. He makes a good point, and I would say that we should not remove such statues, but contextualise them. Busts and statues are maybe not what people would use to memorialise today. They do seem a bit so last century, or even the century before. I know that Mrs Thatcher, God rest her soul, did not like the statue out there, so they are not for everyone, but we should keep them because they are part of history and they need to be put in proper context.

Statues are perhaps less common now because, with the passage of time, we see what reputational damage can occur to individuals. Take Winnie Mandela or Cyril Smith or Prince Andrew or Jimmy Savile—we might have made statues of any of those individuals only for them to turn out to be not what they seemed.

I understand that the Bristolians resorted to direct action because all the official channels failed, even though they had been trying for years. The Minister will recognise that all local authorities have much more complex and overflowing “in-trays from hell” in their inboxes nowadays, so statue reappraisal is probably not top of the list of things for councils to do. For example, pandemic management is an unforeseeable that has occurred in the past 15 months, although many councils are now reassessing. The London Borough of Ealing is doing that. I say fine, so long as it is not a distraction from real reform. To be fair, demolishing racism is going to be a lot harder than deracinating statues.

It is kind of simplistic to divide the world into heroes and villains because all complex characters, such as Churchill, had good and bad sides. History needs to be taught warts and all. We should not be blinded by hagiography, so we should teach, “We will fight them on the beaches,” and “their finest hour”, but also the Bengal famine and Tonypandy, rather than abridge or airbrush out one side.

I tend to feel that, recently, an atmosphere of hysteria prevails instead. An MP from the other side of the House held a similar debate to this in March, and it started with the alarmist claim, “Britain is under attack.” That was all because the London Mayor launched a statues commission to reassess past and present, as well as future, effigies. It does sometimes feel—I hope the Minister will allay my fears and put my mind at rest—that a confected culture war is being waged. Other elements include BBC bashing, obsessing about the Union Jack and how big it is in a Zoom call, laying into Meghan Markle and laying into taking the knee. Sometimes some of these straw men or bogeymen or targets are imaginary, including the banning of “Rule Britannia” at the last night of the Proms, which apparently was never a consideration by the corporation.

The edict that the Union flag should fly from all official buildings feels a little bit un-British to me, because it is the kind of thing that we witness in less self-assured recent states, rather than in a mature democracy such as our own. There was an old claim that this country has lost an empire and was searching for a role, and I feel that if we are having to whip out the Union Jack at every moment, maybe that claim is coming true. There have been news stories of Tory MPs insisting that citizens must love the flag and the Queen or move to another country, and even besmirching the internationally revered “Auntie Beeb” because there are not enough flags in its annual report. This seems to be going down the road of totalitarian edicts. After all, Churchill did defeat European fascism.

The prominence that statues have assumed in this war on the woke is seen in the way that they got additional protections in January this year in the rushed legislation to necessitate planning consent for anyone who wants to mess with them. The parallel was drawn that the minimum sentence for rape in the UK is five years—it is double that in India—but someone can get 10 years for pulling down a statue. That implies that dead white men, mostly, in bronze and stone are valued more than living, breathing women. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill includes the word “women” zero times in its 295 pages, yet it contains more mentions of statues, memorials and monuments than you can shake a stick at. Shall we say that the optics of that are bad? It is no wonder that one female wag, following the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, tweeted that she would just dress as a statue, because that way someone might take her safety seriously.

It is not just the lives immortalised by statues that are contested in this struggle. The crusaders who feel under threat, and who play to some imagined gallery of statue lovers who wrap themselves up in the Union Jack, are also promising a purge on progressives on boards. We know that the BBC has an ex-Tory candidate at the helm, but it seems a bit sinister that he is saying that he wants to silence contributors from having opinions on social media. We also know that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport held a seminar in February for 25 organisations to set out the Government-approved version of Britain’s past. It was trailed in The Daily Telegraph, quoting the Secretary of State’s words that they must

“defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

Again, this sounds alarmist. Who does he mean? Chelsea fans? The meeting had a slight air of secrecy around it. The attendees, the agenda and the discussions were not published, and I know that certain people, including members of the Council for British Archaeology, the rank and file archaeologists, did not get an invite, so if it is repeated, it would be good to broaden the audience list.

It is a slightly unedifying spectacle when 50 MPs known as the Common Sense Group go on the offensive, maybe as Government outriders, attacking the National Trust and Leicester University’s Professor Corinne Fowler for their joint research uncovering the fact that nearly 100 National Trust properties had slave wealth behind them. That feels like an attack on academic freedom. It feels like the opposite of common sense.

Crucially, wider heritage assets also need protection, not from lynch mobs but from the developer’s bulldozer. Public buildings and land are increasingly being flogged off to the highest bidder by cash-strapped councils, meaning that we have vanishing community centres, libraries and playgrounds. Council houses that were sold off under the right to buy are now in the hands of private landlords who pocket housing benefit bills footed by local authorities, and the cycle of slum landlords that council houses were meant to end continues. It seems sad that what was founded for the public good is being turned into private profit.

When my office diaried in the Acton town hall opening for me, I had to explain to them that it is not a civic structure. We have this grand 1910-founded building where the Clash played, and it is being reborn as apartments behind the original facade. There were some add-on ones that did not quite work and some dodgy conversions, and I now get emails all the time about quite basic things like the waterworks not functioning. These are too big to be snagging. I marvelled at the refurb because it looked shiny, but at the same time I felt a twinge of sadness, really. So, if you are watching, OneHousing, sort it out!

Next on the hit list of lost municipal heritage in Ealing is a car park and an ’80s council office building set to be flattened and replaced by 477 mostly private sale flats in seven towers, the highest of which will be a most un-Ealing 26 storeys. We have an 1800s Gothic town hall, which is often used in shoots that pretend it is the House of Commons because it has got the same archy bits—the architecture is quite similar. Anyway, that will be overshadowed by this hideous thing.

There was a Times article at the weekend called “Our cities gained riches but lost their soul” on similar developments. It observed that there is always a statutory, separate affordable bit to such schemes, but it is “always begrudged” and

“bartered down by greedy developers”.

In this case, they are stretching the definition of “affordable”, because someone would have to be on £58,000 to get the three-bedroom, family-sized version, but those on £60,000 are ineligible. I hope that the Minister’s colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will exercise their call-in powers before our skyline is ruined forever.

There are many examples of where local authorities have been forced to do this. That same Gothic town hall will be leased to a hotel chain, because it will foot the repair bill. I feel that is, to quote Macmillan,

“selling off the family silver”

to the highest bidder. The end product is often marketed to overseas buyers, while Ealing has a five-figure council waiting list of local families.

Notwithstanding post-Grenfell fears of tall buildings, perhaps surprisingly, of more than 500 high-rise buildings in London that were granted planning permission or that began construction last year, a whopping 215—nearly half—are in outer boroughs. The current planning system, which incentivises high densification development in proximity to rail hubs, needs rethinking in the light of people choosing accommodation over location, with white-collar homeworking the new norm—at least for part of the week—as a lasting post-covid effect. In the meantime—I keep quoting Tory Prime Ministers—John Major talked approvingly about “invincible green suburbs” alongside warm beer and dog walkers as epitomising Englishness, and I feel that is in danger of being lost, particularly in somewhere like Ealing, which has been long known as queen of the suburbs.

Moreover, the Government have decided that London is not on the Tory target list, so levelling up does not apply. It is exempt from the towns fund, overlooking the fact that the capital is where inequalities are starkest, deprivation is deepest and poverty is at its worst in the UK. Between London’s constituent bits, there is enormous diversity within.

A decade of decline in local infrastructure has left scarring effects such as youth stabbings, with closed youth clubs. Sadly, at times, it feels like the Government are hellbent on an anti-woke crusade of knee-jerk, populist bandwagoneering. It looks like pandering, with the square root being what they think will deflect from any mistakes and win them votes. We have seen it again today with the aid cuts. I know there is a Standing Order No. 24 debate tomorrow—there is no vote—yet the 0.7% commitment, which, after all, Conservatives created and not only pledged in their manifesto but said was safe as recently as September with the Department for International Development and Foreign and Commonwealth Office merger, is gone.

The Culture Secretary vowed in his most recent interviews to have more statues erected to unspecified British heroes, blocking what he sees as a kind of Britain-hating, statue-toppling metropolitan bubble that controls cultural institutions. He wants to replace it with red wall voters in the latest “war on the woke”—or front, battle, cultural cleansing or whatever we call it. Again, it looks like Government interference in a traditionally independent sector motivated by electoral calculation. I think people are saying the same about today’s cricket controversy.

I have some asks for the Minister—it is a kind of top 10 —and she will be relieved to know that I will end after giving them. First, the expression “not set in stone” should apply in that we should not be afraid to revisit, reinterpret and re-evaluate what has been handed down by previous generations. Reputations have not proved foolproof, so it pays to future-proof. I feel that the London Mayor’s commission is a positive thing, because future monuments will be in sympathy with architectural surroundings and will not always be just creepy human forms. I understand that the holocaust memorial will be a geometric design. Sometimes the enormity of a situation outweighs one individual. On the other side of the river we have the covid memorial wall, and I know my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) are campaigning to make that permanent, which is a good plan—I make a plea to the Minister there.

The second point is that putting things in context, for example in museums with explanatory notes, is preferable to unthinking idolatry and the glorification of individuals. Thirdly, the public sector equality duty should be given due regard in planning decisions.

Fourthly, goodies versus baddies, London versus the red wall, and saints versus sinners is divisive and makes everything too binary. Richard III still has numerous statues everywhere, despite being a complete rotter with the princes in the tower. When his remains were found under a car park in Leicester, he received a lavish reburial, with the great and the good turning out, including Benedict Cumberbatch and people like that. That renewed Richard III’s memorialisation, and I would never protest against any of that. Heritage and history are crucially contested; there is not one version of the past. We need more emphasis on critical thinking in humanities and history, which of late seem to have been a bit disfavoured in the curriculum, in favour of numeracy and literacy.

Fifthly—I am halfway through—we need more flexibility, including a recognition that we do not have always to think of removal versus retention. There is also the option of relocation. Prague and Oslo have statue parks, so that people who like to look at such things can look at a whole load of them at once. Closer to home we have the fourth plinth, and such things are more adaptable than either “pull them down” or “stick them up”. Relocation and flexibility are other options.

My sixth point is to have fewer short-term reactive policies that are driven by the jingoistic stirring up of popular sentiment, and more cool-headed, longitudinal assessment. We need a recognition that London boroughs also need investment, and are not just places that are electorally useful for the current Government.

Point number seven is to reverse the wilful neglect of local government by Whitehall. Councils should not be forced into desperate measures. As I said, ministerial intervention on the planning issue that I flagged up would save Ealing’s municipal heart and legacy from being overrun by development. Forcing local authorities to be self-financing is unrealistic, given the range of services now at their door. The biggest of those is the social care bill, which is still missing the Prime Minister’s plan. We were promised that plan a long time ago, so if the Minister has any clues we would be grateful.

My penultimate point is that central Government leadership is needed on tall buildings to prohibit the over-densification of suburban locations, just as the green belt limited the overspill of cities into the countryside. Ealing, Brent, Croydon and Barnet have been the worst offenders of that “the sky’s the limit” attitude to tower building in recent years. Local communities should be genuinely involved in decision making. The Colston scenes were exciting to witness, and the episode was a catalyst, but better frameworks for public inquiry should exist to achieve that end result, including listing or delisting buildings.

Finally, we should never look at statues as being a substitute for tackling the real issues of inequality. That really would be levelling up, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Caroline Dinenage Portrait The Minister for Digital and Culture (Caroline Dinenage)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on securing the Adjournment debate. Gosh, that was wide-ranging! I think I would need an entire Front Bench of Ministers to respond fully to all the important points she made. If she will forgive me, I will use the short time left to me to concentrate on the bits that fall into my portfolio, which would be those that come under the topic of this debate, and to set out the Government’s position on statues in cities and the wider context she talked about.

The hon. Lady started by saying that the debate on how best to acknowledge and commemorate our past and history is complicated. It can provoke really strong emotions and, although we might sometimes disagree with each other’s positions, we always have to remember that everybody’s individual views are strongly and sincerely held and need to be seriously considered. That is because our history shapes who we are and what we value, and we are the poorer if we seek to deny that.

We believe that the right approach to statues and to other aspects of our history that are in the public realm—that are displayed publicly—however contentious, is, as the hon. Lady says, to retain and explain their presence, and present to the public their full story. Sometimes that is unpalatable, but it is important that we learn from it, as she pointed out; we cannot airbrush our past. We need to face up to it, however uncomfortable, and explain the history of those who are commemorated or marked within the contexts of the dominant norms of their time, and how those differ from the world we live in today and what we regard as acceptable. There are so many diverse opinions on the matter of statues. As she mentioned, for every statue on display that is deemed contested, there are at least two often conflicting opinions on what should be done, and there is often no consensus. The one thing I would like to try to reach today in this short debate is some kind of balance on this issue.

Let us start by putting the debate in context. There are approximately 12,000 outdoor statues and memorials in England. I agree with the hon. Lady that far too few of those are of women or of people who were significant in the LGBT struggles of our past, or of people with a range of other important aspects. However, all the statues that exist are of interest, significance and often pride to the communities in which they are erected. A significant number of them are listed in their own right or as part of the buildings in which they reside, which means that they are protected. The regulatory framework means that their removal or amendment can be complex, protracted and expensive, particularly given that in some cases planning permission has to be granted to get rid of them. Just one of those 12,000 statues has recently been removed illegally—the Colston statue in Bristol, which she mentioned.

The hon. Lady talked about how in April the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government introduced a new planning power, giving him the authority to call in for the ultimate decision a local authority intention to remove an unlisted plaque or commemoration. A lot has been said about the penalties, but to put this matter in context, let me say that this power has yet to be used. That is an important comment to make.

It is also important to remember that we do not just erect statues to mark the contributions of others at the national level; in local communities up and down the country there are commemorations to our own heroes, with many of those figures being a real source of local pride. George Stephenson, engineer and father of the railways, is commemorated in Newcastle. An important recent addition in Oldham is a statue of a local suffragette and former mill worker who was an associate of Christabel Pankhurst and who was jailed for three days for challenging MPs who opposed the campaign for votes for women. As the hon. Lady said, we would all be far better off if there was more recognition of women such as that who played such a pivotal and important role in history, and without whom she and I would probably not be here doing our jobs today.

A commemoration in a public space, often funded by public subscription, is a really positive way to acknowledge the contributions that these individuals have made to their own communities. As we look at them, we have got to learn important things about the history of the area in which they lived and the wider context of the world in which they existed and the values of the communities that commemorated them.

However, as the hon. Lady said, the full stories of some individuals who are commemorated and their place in history are terribly complex. Some of them have been commissioned by past generations with very different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong from those we hold today. Although we may now disagree with those figures and their actions, they do play an important role in teaching us about our past. We are all products of our time, with our attitudes, beliefs and values often reflecting the age in which we live. Looking back, some of the norms of earlier centuries look bizarre—in fact, sometimes they look abhorrent—when measured against what we regard as acceptable today.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alan Mak.)
Caroline Dinenage Portrait Caroline Dinenage
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That brings us to the current debate about whether we should be removing statues, very often of men who were esteemed and well regarded in the past but, by today’s standards and values, built their wealth and fame on things that we now find morally repugnant, such as the transatlantic slave trade.

Last month, I visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. I found it disturbing and upsetting. Probably to my shame, it taught me some uncomfortable facts about our history that I did not know. But as a confident and progressive country, we should face those difficult facts squarely, not wipe them from the history books. Historic England, the Government’s adviser on the historic environment, agrees. It argues that if we remove difficult and contentious parts of our heritage, we risk harming our own understanding of our collective past.

How can we avoid repeating the errors of the past if we do not learn from them? Rather than erasing these objects, we have to seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging, uncomfortable and distressing that might be. The aim should be to use them to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past so that the Britain of the future can be better, stronger and better advised.

Much has been said and written about contested heritage in the past 18 months or so. The aim is to take politics out of the debate and allow organisations to get doing what they do best: curating our national heritage for future generations. To that end, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has established a heritage advisory board, which will oversee the development of guidelines that help decision makers in public and other organisations decide how to address the aspects of our heritage that have become controversial. The starting point is always that objects should be assumed to be retained in situ and contextualised in order that the full and comprehensive legacy of the deeds and actions of that person can be discussed, even if some of them are horribly unacceptable by today’s standards.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Huq
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I totally agree with what the Minister is saying; I think we are at one on all this. We are talking about public space, place, purse, taste and all those things, so it is right to have these safeguards, but I wonder what she thinks of the 10-year tariff for defacing statues. A lot of women think that just looks really weird, and even the equality assessment says it will not result in one single more prison place. It just seems that that kind of thing is playing to the gallery. I wonder whether she has a view on that.

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Caroline Dinenage
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I am glad that the hon. Lady mentioned that. I am not aware that any of those kinds of sanctions have been handed out. That is a maximum sentence, and I am not sure that anything even approaching that has ever been dished out. When we measure it against the minimum sentence for rape, of course it seems obscene. Of course, the maximum sentence for rape is life imprisonment, so then it looks a little more understandable, but there is never any excuse for raping a woman, and of course human life and respect for each other should always take precedence over respect for statues and other man-made objects.

We have to be really careful about going down that track and making political issues out of something that is difficult. Really, what we are talking about here is memorials, and memorials do not just have historical significance. They are not just pieces of stone or marble; they are sometimes also very deeply symbolic, culturally or emotionally, sometimes to those who have died, and hold a huge importance to those who visit them. Thinking back to events around Parliament Square in 2020 and the pictures and reports of the violence and the vandalism at some of the protests that took place then, the public are very rightly concerned about the respect for memorials in those types of contexts, so we do have to take that into consideration.

In the past year, some in the culture and heritage sector have been subject to some really disturbing social media abuse because of the work of their organisations. There can be absolutely no justification for defacing statues and for damaging memorials and symbols of British history, but most importantly, while we do not always agree on the approach some heritage organisations take in dealing with controversial aspects, I absolutely condemn those who hide behind the anonymity of social media to make threats to the hard-working curators and heritage professionals who are simply doing their job. With my other hat on as Digital Minister, I am determined to tackle that via the online safety Bill, because nobody should ever be abused or attacked online simply because of the job that they do.

I hope that I have managed to convey to the hon. Lady how committed I am to the hope that through dialogue and improved contextualisation of the stories of those commemorated, we can arrive at a consensus as to how best to address contested heritage. Rather than tearing things down, we should work at building that consensus and at building a better and fuller understanding of our complex history.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.