Orders of the Day — Aliens (Treatment on Ships).

– in the House of Commons on 25th February 1941.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Dugdale.]

Photo of Colonel Josiah Wedgwood Colonel Josiah Wedgwood , Newcastle-under-Lyme

About five weeks ago I received from the Governor-General of Australia a letter covering a letter from Bishop Tucker, and including a report drawn up by the Society of Friends and others, who had visited refugee camps in Australia, concerning the passage of the steamship "Dunera" loaded with 2,400 refugees from this country to Australia. By the same mail I received a consider able number of other letters, including cuttings from newspapers. I mention that because I think two things are to be re corded at once: in the first place, that a certain amount of publicity has been given to this report already in Australia, and secondly, that the reaction in Australia was extremely creditable to that country, to the Press and to the public here. They felt very strongly what occurred on the journey to be a slur upon this country—

It being the hour appointed for the Interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put—

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. James Stuart. ]

Photo of Colonel Josiah Wedgwood Colonel Josiah Wedgwood , Newcastle-under-Lyme

It was also felt that the Government in this country ought to do something to put the matter right at the earliest moment. I took the correspondence to the Secretary of State for the Dominions, and he advised me to take it to the Home Office. Thence it went to the War Office and, immediately, the Secretary of State for War decided to appoint a Court of Inquiry into the whole affair, the court to be appointed as soon as the people who were charged with the responsibility for what happened, got to this country. I need not go fully into the case, which is very unpleasant. Sufficient is it to say that the refugees on board the "Dunera" were mostly Jews belonging to Class C, that is to say, friendly Jews. There were 2,400 in a ship which was suitable for carrying only half that number; they were robbed by the soldiers in charge and battened down, being allowed up on deck only on certain occasions. In fact conditions were both unjust and inhuman on board that ship, especially so, as it was reported to me, that in the other ship which went to Australia conditions were unpleasant but quite in accordance with what one would expect from the British Army and British traditions.

This Court of Inquiry has not yet been set up and I want to urge on His Majesty's Government the need for three things. In the first place, I think there must be a certain degree of publicity; at least, the findings of the court must be published. Only that will satisfy public opinion in Australia and in this country. It will do good because it is important that we should show the world that when anything of this sort has been done by people in British service, direct action is taken by this House and by the Government in order to prevent it happening again, to punish the offenders and to compensate the victims. I believe publicity is possible in a democratic country and it is certainly desirable. Do not let this be a hole-and-corner affair, so that anybody can charge us with the desire of trying to conceal what is unpleasant in our conduct. We must show the world that we are not afraid of people knowing what has happened and what steps the Government have actually taken. Therefore, publicity is extremely important. 1 would also urge that there should be on the court not merely officials of the Government but some independent person of judicial mind, whose report will carry weight. Thirdly, and perhaps most important of all, I think there should be evidence given not only from the defendants' point of view, but from the point of view of the victims themselves. I do not think it is enough simply to take sworn statements. Steps should be taken to return to this country at once a certain number of refugees who have suffered so that they can be cross-examined on their sworn statements—although I know this will delay the findings of the Court of Inquiry—and so that they may have the satisfaction of feeling that their side of the case has been stated as well as it could be in the circumstances. Whether, in addition to this, there should be representation of the victims by lawyers, I do not know, but I am certain that mere sworn statements should not be considered sufficient and that, even at the cost of delay, some of these people should be brought back to give evidence. As to the terms of reference, it is very important that the Court of Inquiry should deal not merely with the rights and wrongs of the case and whether punishment of any sort is required, but also make recommendations for the compensation of the people who have been robbed. They cannot be compensated for the inhumanity, but they can be compensated for the injustice, and the watches, wedding rings and money that have been taken from them should, as far as possible, be restored to them. I think this must come within the purview of the Court of Inquiry.

There is one small action that ought to be taken before the Court of Inquiry is held. Some steps ought to be taken to get some money to these refugees who are now penniless in Australia. To have no money even to buy razor blades, cigarettes, newspapers or postage stamps is a terrible position for them. Their money has been taken from them. I think the Government might arrange for them to have some small sum each week pending the decision of the Court of Inquiry. This would certainly make life easier for them, and I believe it would have a very good effect in Australia if something of this sort were done. People in Australia constantly visit these camps now. They are looking after their duty to the refugees in Australia much better than we have done here. They have constantly in their minds their duty to these friendly aliens. If some small cash allowance could be made to these people immediately as an instalment on any claims they may have, it would have a very good effect.

But there is more involved now. Since the case of the "Dunera" going to Australia, there has been the casex2014;not equally shocking, but shocking—of the "Ettrick" going to Canada. I have not seen sworn statements regarding the "Ettrick," but the accounts I have heard really call for an inquiry as well. I do not know what steps the Government are taking to get any evidence about the "Ettrick." The officers are here and the Government know their side of the case. The one statement containing details which I have had about the "Ettrick" was signed and was in the form of a diary. It was very unpleasant reading, but when I thought of sending it to the War Office, I was immediately told that it could not be used. There is a not unnatural nervousness on the part of these people. I ask that when the case of the "Dunera" is being inquired into, something should be said and done about the "Ettrick" at the same time, and that any steps taken in the case of the "Dunera" should also be taken in the case of the "Ettrick."

I do not want the House to imagine for one moment that either the case of the "Dunera" or the "Ettrick" are typical of what goes on on board our ships. You always have a few brutes in every Service. Fortunately, we can deal with them in this country, not as in Germany. The British soldier and officer, particularly in the Pioneer Corps, are behaving almost with affection towards these unfortunate refugees. Commandants in camps here are being extremely British. But we do get these bad cases, and if we stamp on them we stop them elsewhere. I am afraid that there may be even now in ships upon the seas, conveying Italian prisoners, for instance, to South Africa or India, the same sort of thing happening. Steps ought to be taken right away to show the Government's determined disapproval of this sort of thing, and to make it quite clear to any military in charge of prisoners or refugees, wherever they may be, that any inhumanity, robbery or "souvenir-ing," as it is called, is criminal and will be sternly punished. It is because all of us in this House uphold, as best we can, the honour of this country, that these questions have to be brought up. It is because we bring them up here that these cases are rare. I beg the Government to take advantage of the fact that we are still a free democracy where these things can be brought up, and to make quite certain, by expressing publicly their detestation and horror, that such things do not occur again.

Photo of Mr Richard Law Mr Richard Law , Kingston upon Hull South West

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Wedgwood) has spoken on this rather disagreeable matter with great moderation and great feeling. I rather wish that it had not been necessary to have a Debate, even a short one, upon this subject, because I would not like the idea to get about that there was any division between the views of my right hon. Friend and the views of the Government, if these allegations were proved to be true. My right hon. Friend said that he wished the Government would state its detestation of these occurrences. It is impossible to say anything specific while this matter is still sub judice, and it would be unfair to do so. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will find that the Government, if these allegations should be proved, would detest them quite as much as he. My right hon. Friend devoted the earlier part of his remarks to an appeal for the fullest possible publicity to be given to any inquiry there might be on the case of the "Dunera." I wish I could persuade him that that is not necessarily the right attitude to follow in a case of this kind. My right hon. Friend said perfectly truly that this was a democratic country and that in a democracy the fullest possible publicity was required. It is perfectly true that this is a democratic country, but, unfortunately, it is not a democratic world, and if the allegations are proved to be well-founded, I can foresee certain definite disadvantages in washing our dirty linen in public in a world which contains enemies as well as friends.

My right hon. Friend also said he was quite certain the case of the "Dunera" was not typical or characteristic of what has been happening. To publish every detail of any inquiry that could be made, would be construed in enemy countries and in enemy propaganda, as an admission of guilt, not applying to a particular case, but generally to the British character and the British way of waging a war. I think the right hon. Gentleman would agree that that is extremely undesirable. When he first brought up the case, the Secretary of State said that certain preliminary investigations were in hand and when they were completed he would know whether or not there was a prima facie case for inquiry and he promised if a prima facie case were established that inquiry there should be. I want to comment to the very minimum on the case at the present moment, but I can tell the House that these preliminary investigations have been completed; that there is a case for inquiry and, furthermore, it is clear that some, if not all of these internees on that ship, have suffered loss. Those two things have been established by the preliminary inquiry so far as it has gone.

I am going to say a word about the Court of Inquiry. If we establish a Court of Inquiry it will be held in secret and it may be months before it completes its inquiry. In fact, it may prove impossible to complete it until the end of the war. Essential witnesses may have to be gathered from every corner of the globe. They are not only in Australia. Some are in India, some in Africa and some at the moment are sailing the tropical seas. To wait until all these wit- nesses are gathered before the Court of Inquiry might take months or longer. It might be impossible while the war is going on, but I am informed by the Judge Advocate-General that it may be possible— he cannot give me an assurance—to institute court-martial proceedings without the establishment of this Court of Inquiry. If that should prove to be possible, I suggest that it is a more realistic fulfilment of the pledge of the Secretary of State than to hold an inquiry which might carry on for months.

With regard to compensation, if a Court of Inquiry is held it will carry on for a very long time, and if we fulfil our original intention of waiting until the Court has completed its proceedings before considering the question of compensation, that would have the effect of putting these unfortunate people into a very difficult and even impossible position. They might have to wait until the end of the war before any compensation was paid. Accordingly, my right hon. Friend has decided that that would be an impossible course to follow and he is going to see what steps he can take to provide a much more immediate reparation for these people in Australia without waiting for the result of any Court or any disciplinary action that may be taken here. I cannot say at this moment exactly what steps we can take, but I think I can say that we will tee that the compensation is made as expeditiously and as justly as is possible. There will be no waiting for the collection of evidence before this is done. It may prove to be a little costly to the Ex chequer, but we have thought, and I feel quite rightly, that in a case of this kind it is better to clear our good name, even if it is perhaps a little expensive, than to wait and have this business dragging on for monhs with quite unjustifiable reflections upon our good name and character in the meanwhile. I hope I have said enough—

Photo of Viscount  Turnour Viscount Turnour , Horsham and Worthing

I hope the hon. Gentleman will deal with the part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech which was concerned with the future. I would suggest that he should give an assurance that the most strict instructions will be given to officers and men in charge of all prisoner-ships that it is a military offence which will be severely punished for them to "swop"—to use a schoolboy term—any articles with prisoners or to buy any articles from prisoners or sell to them.

Photo of Mr Richard Law Mr Richard Law , Kingston upon Hull South West

If it has not already been made perfectly clear to officers, guards and crews on those ships, I think I can say that it will definitely be made clear, and that everything will be done to see that the instruction is not ignored and that there is no repetition of unpleasant incidents of the kind referred to. I hope the House will feel that by the steps taken to provide immediate compensation for those who have sufferedx2014;when I say "immediate" I do not mean at this moment but in a very short time—and the steps taken to see that where disciplinary action is merited it is meted out, the War Office have dealt with this matter as hon. Members would wish it to be dealt with, and in a way which will clear the good name of this country from any imputations that may have been put upon it. With regard to the "Ettrick," which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend, as that was not to be the subject of this Debate, I cannot say very much about it without more notice, but I can say that the same principles which have actuated us in this case will move us in that one, and that we shall act as quickly as we can.

Photo of Mr Thomas Harvey Mr Thomas Harvey , Combined English Universities

I think the whole House will feel relieved and thankful for the spirit in which the Financial Secretary has dealt with this most delicate, difficult and painful subject. I am very glad also that he was able to give the assurance he did in reply to the Noble Lord. I am sure that all who are troubled about what has happened owe a debt to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Wedgwood) for the way in which he has raised this very difficult matter and the confidence he expressed in the general spirit of justice in the authorities of the British Army, a spirit which I feel certain will be shown in the proceedings which are to take place. As one of those Members who have received a number of letters from internees and friends of internees, I should like to say how widespread will be the thankfulness among those poor people at the statement that reparation is to be made. I am sure that will be deeply appreciated, and that they will appreciate even more than any monetary compensation the spirit in which the matter has been dealt with by the Government this afternoon. On behalf of many who cannot speak here I should like to thank the Financial Secretary and the Government for their attitude.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Mander Sir Geoffrey Mander , Wolverhampton East

In reference to that part of the speech of my hon. Friend in which he spoke of the question of the "Ettrick," I was glad to learn that he is thinking of dealing with it on the same principle. I have had the opportunity of reading a number of statements which have been sent in by refugees who have come back into this country. Something like 300 of these refugees are available here to give evidence, and many of them are prepared to say exactly what happened. I have sent these statements to the War Office, and I know that they are being considered at the present time. I hope that, by court of inquiry or possibly by court-martial, suitable action will be taken.

To one thing which has arisen in this connection I would call attention, and that is that some of the lower grade officials concerned have been saying to internees who have come back: "You had better keep your mouth shut or you may get into trouble; you may get interned again." I hope that the Government will take an early opportunity of saying that there is not the slightest foundation for any statement of that kind, and that if any of the refugees feel that they would like to give evidence or are asked to do so, they are perfectly free to do so in this free country.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to