This is a grant out of the £5,000,000 which has been set aside out of the indemnity money for the repayment of people who suffered through enemy action during the War. What steps are being taken to deal with the many urgent eases of hardship inflicted, particularly on seamen who were interned in Germany or who lost their effects on account of being torpedoed? Like other hon. Members who represent seafaring populations, I, as the representative of a large port, have repeatedly brought to my notice cases of people who suffered in that way, and who are now being repatriated, but who find it impossible to recover even the modest sum which represents their claim against our late enemy. Has the machinery by which these people are to be reimbursed been made so simple that they can easily take advantage of it? My experience is that these men, some of them unlettered men, quite unfamiliar with the machinery of making applications to Government Departments, have been trying week after week to get their claims attended to, and have got no satisfaction whatever. I do not desire to labour the point, but I wish to know, is there any simple way by which people who suffered during the War, including those who suffered from air raids, hut most especially the seamen, can have their claims made against the late enemy for damage to person and property? Are they to go on waiting from week to week until the dispute over reparations comes to an end? I would urge that people who have suffered in this way have moral priority, and that steps should be taken to see that these claims are satisfied. If desired, I could give particulars of cases brought to my notice. I see the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is present, and he knows a great deal from experience of enemy action. We are now voting £100,000, which, I understand, is the first instalment of the £5,000,000, and I ask him what progress has been made in the settlement of the claims for seamen who have suffered damage either by internment or in their property and person; whether the machinery is simple, and whether these men will have their claims satisfied within a reasonable period?
It may be of advantage if I reply at once to the questions put to me on this Supplementary Estimate. I was able to state, on the Committee stage of this Supplementary Estimate, that the Commission which has been set up in order to deal with all these claims acts in the following manner. The Commission itself will distinguish certain test cases, involving questions of principle, and will itself consider and decide upon these questions of principle by means of specimen and typical cases. When it has done so, the bulk of the cases which come within the category of the test or sample case will be dealt with by the Ministry without any further proceeding or hearing. The cases of the seamen will fall under that general rule as to procedure. This I trust and believe—indeed I am satisfied —will meet the cases and circumstances of seamen who are not in a position to embark upon expensive representation and quasi-litigation. The cases will be decided with the minimum of trouble and, I believe, with no expense to the men themselves. As to the general principle to which the hon. and gallant Member has referred, I was able to give the assurance in Committee, which I now repeat, that the claims of the seamen of the sort to which he has referred are being dealt with by the Commission as claims of special urgency. It appears to me most probable that, in their administration of this sphere, those emergency cases with which they are dealing this year, and which call for this Supplementary Estimate in advance of the general provision for next year, will be concerned, to an extent which I cannot particularise, with claims on behalf of seamen.
I also wish to put a question, and the Financial Secretary may deal with them all together. Are these merchant seamen to receive pensions? I will give an illustration arising out of a boat that was submarined. A man lost about £40 in property on the boat, and while in the water ho contracted a chill, which the doctors say resulted in tuberculosis. The question is as to whether merchant seamen are able to apply for pensions in the same way as ex-service men, or do you only pay compensation for the property that was lost when the boat was submarined? I have two or three such cases in hand at the present time.
I have a few words to say upon this Vote, but before doing so I think I should be in order in asking the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury what arrangement, if any, he has come to with regard to the remainder of the Report stage of the Votes on the Paper?
I am afraid we cannot go over that again. I allowed a discussion which was not strictly in order, for the convenience of the House, but I cannot allow it to be repeated now.
No, Sir, but my point is that I cannot agree to any arrangement which has been made, as there are certain Votes which we must discuss. With regard to the Vote now before the House, may I draw the attention of the Financial Secretary to the footnote, which says:
On 15th August, 1921, a Royal Commission was appointed … to consider cases in which there is a moral claim by British Nationals … for compensation for sufferings or damage arising out of the action of the enemy during the War within Annex I to Part VIII of the Treaty of Versailles; and to make recommendations as to the distribution of a sum of not more than £5,000,000 out of the first receipts on account of reparation allocated to the Exchequer of the United Kingdom on ex gratiâ grants in such cases.
Apparently we are now asked to Vote £100,000, which is a new service, as far as I can see, because that £5,000,000 has not been received, for the footnote goes on to say:
Although the receipts are at present insufficient to cover the prior charge in respect of the British Army of Occupation, it has been decided to ask Parliament to make available the full sum of £5,000,000 for issue by the Treasury on the recommendation of the Commission.
This sum of £100,000 which we are now asked to vote will put what a few years ago would have been considered to be a very large sum upon the already overburdened taxpayer. I believe there are a considerable number of people who ought to receive compensation for damage done to their property, but that compensation, according to the footnote attached to this Vote, ought to be provided by the Germans. The Germans, however, apparently are to be treated much more leniently than is the unfortunate taxpayer in this country. The Government, either because they have already reduced the Army and the Navy to such very small proportions that they cannot force the payment of the debt due to them, or for some other reason, instead of insisting on the payment of this sum under the reparation due by Germany, are coming down upon the taxpayer here and asking him to contribute £100,000 to meet the necessities of his unfortunate fellow-subjects. The question which I should like to ask the Financial Secretary is this—What chance is there of this £100,000 ever being recovered? I think I am right in saying that it is impossible to move a reduction of the Vote, because, you, Sir, have already put the question, "That the House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," but it is possible to vote against the whole sum, and I am not at all sure that we ought not to vote against the whole sum.
I am not proposing to deprive the poor people who have suffered of any sum which is due to them. I am proposing to see that the people who ought to pay that reparation do pay it. I know hon. Members opposite would far sooner that the taxpayer of this country should provide the money than that the Germans should provide it, but I prefer that the Germans should provide the money and not the taxpayer of this country, and that is why I ventured to ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman
what he meant by saying "Oh!" I should be very strongly inclined—and I am sorry the House is so empty at the moment—to vote against the whole sum on the grounds which I have stated, unless I can get a satisfactory assurance from the Financial Secretary that some active steps are going, to be taken to secure that this sum is paid by the proper people who ought to pay it. I am very much afraid that if we, in our natural anxiety to give these people compensation for the damage they have suffered, agree to find the money out of the pockets of the taxpayer, we may whistle for any chance of getting it out of the pockets of the Germans. It is three and a half years after the Armistice, and yet on this paper is written these words:
Although the receipts are at present insufficient to cover the prior charge in respect of the British Army of Occupation.
I should have thought that hon. Members opposite, instead of saying "Oh!" would have supported me in my endeavour to see that the Germans should pay the sum which they are bound to pay, and which they have agreed to pay, under the Treaty of Versailles. We were told at the last Election that the pockets of the Germans wore going to be searched so that the last farthing should be extracted in order to pay for the charges of the War, whereas, now we find that not only has nothing been given for the charges of the War, but not oven a paltry £100,000 to the people whose property they have damaged. Not only are we asked to pay this sum of £100,000, but we actually have allowed the Germans to pay an insufficient sum to cover the prior charge of the British Army of Occupation. It is not for me to suggest anything to hon. Gentlemen opposite, but if, I were in Opposition I would take advantage of this particular footnote, and see that it was circulated in the constituencies.
In reply to the question addressed to me by the hon. and gallant Member for Leith (Captain W. Benn), I would say that the Sumner Commission see their way to dealing in the course of this financial year with urgent claims to the amount of the sum we are asking in the Supplementary Estimate, so that these claims will be settled before the end of March. In reply to the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. T. Griffiths), this actual Vote does not cover in any way sums to be allocated for pensions. That is a quite different sphere of administration, and is administered by the Board of Trade under the outstanding claims for pensions for merchant seamen. I speak from memory, and to the best of my recollection, when I say that the general basis of this pension scheme is that a merchant seaman who was serving in a dangerous area, and suffers now from disability or illness in consequence of his service in those areas, is entitled to present his claim for a pension in that direction. Generally speaking, those schemes for pensions and for war compensation, apart from those with which we are now dealing, have put the merchant seaman substantially in the same position as the naval rating. As regards the question, covering a wider field, addressed to me by the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), I will explain again that the principle of compensation is absolutely adhered to and maintained, that they should be a first charge on reparations recovered from Germany. The reason for the presentation of this Estimate at the present time is that the principle was accepted—and, I am confident the House will agree, justly accepted —that those who suffered injuries of this sort were entitled to compensation. That principle was accepted, I believe, with common consent, and, in the second place, that it should be a first charge against reparations.
It was, as it were, first on the list of moral responsibility in the German nation. Having accepted that principle, having held out to those who had suffered in this respect, that they were entitled to compensation, it would be absolutely wrong to keep them waiting any longer than was necessary. I give the assurance to the right hon. Gentleman that we adhere completely to the view that this is a first charge on the reparations, but I cannot believe that he will express the view, or enforce the view, that, having accepted those principles, as I believe they are commonly accepted, we ought to do anything involving delay in regard to these unfortunate subjects.
As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman fully recognises that this charge must be eventually met by Germany, and that, as far as he can, he is prepared to see that that is done. In these circumstances, I will leave the matter there.