Commonwealth War Graves Commission — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:48 pm on 22 June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 7:48, 22 June 2015

My Lords, I am pleased to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on securing this debate. I say at the outset that I agree with every word that he said about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The number of speakers in this debate indicates in what high regard the commission is held by Members of your Lordships’ House, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to say my own thank you to it.

I have two relevant interests to declare: the first as co-chair of the War Heritage All-Party Parliamentary Group and the second as a member of the Government’s World War 1 centenary advisory group. It is in respect of both those bodies that I want to speak this evening, because they are related to the Great War centenary. In 2013 the all-party group that I chaired started discussing with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission the possibility of mapping war graves in the United Kingdom—which the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, referred to—to see whether there was a possibility of linking those to parliamentary constituencies.

The mapping was carried out by volunteers from the In From The Cold Project, and at the beginning of November 2013, all MPs and Peers received an email from Jeffrey Donaldson MP and me, as co-chairs of the group, giving access to a drop-box site from which they could source war graves by constituency or administrative area. Of the 650 constituencies in the UK, around 640 contain commission sites, usually located within cemeteries and churchyards. The remaining constituencies contain war memorials, and these were listed for the relevant MPs with the information taken from the Imperial War Museum database.

The data sheets provided the MPs with a means of accessing the war graves situated in their own constituencies, and provided a unique opportunity to assist constituents and to work with local schools and interest groups. We suggested a number of ways in which the MPs could engage with schools in their communities, such as schools selecting names on war memorials and linking them to casualties on the commission’s website in order to follow their stories. Schools could “adopt” a headstone, and trace the casualty on the commission’s website and through the Public Record Office. They could hold Remembrance

Day services at commission sites, rather than just local war memorials. Sites with a cross of sacrifice or a stone of remembrance particularly lend themselves to that. Communities were encouraged to “adopt” sites that require maintenance. There are quite a number of those in overgrown churchyards.

An invitation was issued to Members to visit commission sites. That resulted in around 150 visiting the war graves in their constituencies, all of them accompanied by commission staff. We are about to start discussions with the commission about repeating the programme of visits, particularly for new MPs and also for Members of your Lordships’ House who have not already been.

My three minutes are up. I commend the noble Lord for having this debate, and the work of the commission.