British Prisoners of War

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th January 1997.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]

Photo of Mr Michael Marshall Mr Michael Marshall , Arundel 9:34 am, 15th January 1997

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important subject and I appreciate the support of many hon. Members who have been active in the matter.

My concern about deductions from British prisoners of war in Germany and Italy between 1939 and 1945 arises from the evidence that I have received over many years from my constituent, a former Royal Air Force officer, Group Captain Alec Ingle. His complaint to the Secretary of State for Defence was put in formal terms in December 1995 and is based on the experience of RAF officers who were prisoners of war.

Group Captain Ingle also reflects the views of the Justice for Prisoners of War campaign, known as JPOW, which, having started with 30 members in the early 1980s, has now spread to cover the interests of several thousand British ex-prisoners of war in all three services in all parts of the United Kingdom.

I am drawing most especially on evidence from Group Captain Ingle and from several others in the campaign, including most notably Captain Hugo Bracken RN (retd.), a constituent of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Sir P. Mayhew).

The scale of the officers' complaints can perhaps best be related to the number of prisoners of war in German hands in May 1945: 6,000 Army, 2,500 Royal Air Force and 400 Royal Navy and Royal Marines. I am also aware of the parallel complaints relating to more than 4,000 protected personnel, including officers and men of the Royal Army Medical Corps, chaplains, ambulance drivers, stretcher bearers and others who were protected under the terms of the 1929 Geneva International Red Cross convention.

The activities of Mr. G. W. King have been especially notable in the protected personnel lobby. His correspondence with Lord Freyberg has provided the most useful up-to-date assessment of the current Government actions to handle the complaints. In a letter to Mr. King dated 3 December 1996, the Minister's assistant private secretary said: The review which is now in hand is considering the whole matter again, re-visiting all aspects of the subject, re-examining the conclusions of the 1980s work and examining the points and evidence submitted then and since. You and others have raised many points of considerable detail and these are being considered afresh both in respect of Officer Prisoners of War and of protected personnel. Naturally, I welcome the commitment to a fundamental review that I believe is suggested by the terms of that letter, but it is right to remind the House of some of the difficulties and unfairnesses that have led to the Secretary of State's decision to reopen those matters.

The main research efforts in the early 1980s, referred to in the letter, relate to the report prepared under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie), in his then capacity as Under-Secretary of State for Defence, for the Royal Air Force. My right hon. Friend outlined the Ministry's findings in a statement and a report laid before the House on 31 October 1980—and I am glad to see him here today.

I need not dwell on the report at this stage, because it is currently the subject of a wholesale review, and I recognise that there were genuine difficulties at the time at which it was prepared, in the lack of complete information and in the nature of a report prepared in only six weeks, which obviously imposed limitations. I am also aware of the evidence that has been produced since that time and that has led my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton to make submissions to Ministers.

There are, however, one or two aspects of the Pattie report that usefully summarise the nature of the problem. It was correct in identifying the central complaint as relating to the money withheld in the United Kingdom on account of pay that former British prisoners of war were supposed to have received from the detaining authorities in Germany and Italy when, for long periods, they either received nothing or were paid in effectively worthless currency.

Moreover, many former prisoners of war contended that they had not been given an opportunity to reclaim those moneys on repatriation. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was the fact that the vast majority of them had to pay income tax on money that was never received.

In rejecting the case for further repayments of deductions, the Pattie report concluded: On the basis of the evidence before it, the Study Group had little alternative but to reach the conclusions it did. That is not to say, however, the Government are in any way unsympathetic to the problems of former POWs. The Government feel, therefore, that rather than continue to rake over the remaining evidence from 1945, a more constructive response would be to consider whether additional assistance could be made available. These possibilities are now being studied and will be the subject of a further statement. That was the 1980 statement. That brings me the nub of the argument that I believe it is right to deploy today.

Since that statement and the publication of the report, substantial detailed evidence has been submitted to the Ministry of Defence and to others—to whom I shall refer—which shows the scale of the deductions and the limited nature of refunds. Global figures are available for the amounts deducted and the amounts refunded. The scale of those deductions came as a surprise to me as I began to examine these matters. For those in Germany, the average deduction was about 30 per cent. of net pay, and for those in Italy 65 per cent.

Years of wrangling following the publication of the Pattie report ensued before the MOD accepted that only approaching two-thirds of the deductions had been refunded". I must add that my constituent and others in the JPOW campaign believe that a more realistic estimate would be between 50 per cent. and 60 per cent.

Even accepting the MOD's one third estimate, that puts the shortfall at more than £1 million in 1945 money, which would be more than £20 million today—a sum which, incidentally, does not include interest. The additional assistance referred to in the Pattie report has not been forthcoming, other than to a limited extent in respect of hospital facilities.

It was against that background that I and other Members of both Houses of Parliament took up these issues on behalf of the JPOW campaign. Given the lack of progress in dealings with the Ministry of Defence, I approached the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, who ruled that he was unable to consider these matters because his remit excluded Her Majesty's forces. Similarly, approaches to the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration produced the response that it was unable to pursue this anomaly, despite what was being put about at that time in the report on the civil service and in the Bett report. On the detail of the arguments about deductions and repayments, the Select Committee for Defence felt unable to make this problem a subject for inquiry.

In pursuing some method of appeal, I eventually approached the Prime Minister, who advised me and my constituent that the only way in which an ex-service man could effectively pursue such matters was by formal request for redress of grievance to the Air Force Board of the Defence Council. Accordingly, on 11 December 1995, my constituent wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is the head of the Air Force Board, asking him to authorise the setting up of an inquiry. With that letter, he submitted considerable detail on behalf of the JPOW campaign. The evidence submitted not only highlighted some of the shortcomings of previous studies, but went into great detail. It covered matters such as the relevance of the Geneva convention, arrangements for receiving returning prisoners of war, communal funding—which was gathered voluntarily, although it was, in effect, compulsory—within prisoner of war camps, rates of reimbursement of pay, MOD gifts to relevant charities, rates of exchange used to calculate pay deductions and many other matters. I take it—indeed, I earnestly hope—that these matters will be covered in the full review promised in the letter to the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association last December.

I must, however, voice my concern about the time taken to complete the present inquiry. Following my constituent's formal complaint in December 1995, it was not until spring last year that the general inquiry was authorised. Since then, inquiries by written parliamentary question and informal contact have given little indication of how long the current inquiry will take. Naturally, I fully support the need for a thorough inquiry. I know of the personal interest of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, with his background as an ex-regular Army officer. I know, too, of the personal interest of my noble Friend Lord Howe, who chairs the current inquiry. However, I must repeat my concern about a process that looks likely to take the best part of a year. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister understands the feelings of all the prisoners of war who have pursued these matters since 1945, and in detail since the Pattie report was published more than 16 years ago.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for assurances on a number of points. Will he confirm that sufficient resources have been made available to ensure the early completion of the review? My understanding is that two senior civil servants have been charged with this task under the general direction of Lord Howe, and that they are undertaking the work part time while carrying out other duties as part of their responsibilities for historical research. The Minister's assurances on that point are of the utmost importance.

May I also ask my hon. Friend to tell us whether the working party intends to take up the repeated offers from some of those involved in the JPOW group, who have carried out detailed research on the records at Kew and elsewhere? They have offered to meet officials. Surely their input could help to expedite the completion of this work.

Will my hon. Friend give some hope and reassurance regarding the future arrangements for handling the complaints of ex-service men? He will be aware that this matter runs wider than the problems of former prisoners of war, and he must realise that in the current climate of opinion—in which strong cases are advanced for an independent mechanism to review the affairs of public officials—it is difficult, in cases such as the one that I am raising today, to justify the activities of a Department acting as judge and jury in its own court. I acknowledge the special needs of serving personnel, but these cases of ex-service men require urgent attention.

I shall let the last part of my appeal to the Minister rest with my constituent, Group Captain Ingle. He and others have taken a generous approach, and he speaks for the vast majority of former prisoners of war. They recognise the difficulties—the absence of detailed records in every case, tracing the next of kin, and dealing with cases of ex-prisoners of war who have sadly died. They suggest that the Government should—indeed, could—make a generous contribution to service charities, so that money could be made available to the most deserving ex-prisoners of war and their families.

I urge my hon. Friend, in what little time remains in this extended season of good will, to give his assurance that this matter will be given sympathetic and detailed consideration. I also urge him to confirm that the findings of his Department's review will be made available to the House and to Parliament as a whole in the very near future.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel , Newbury 9:48 am, 15th January 1997

I am delighted to have this opportunity to support the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) in his efforts to ensure that something is done about the injustice that appears to have been perpetrated. I congratulate him on his struggle to bring the matter to the attention of the House and of a wider public, and I hope that his efforts will be successful in the near future. I am happy to say that although this is by no means a party political matter, I am supported by my hon. Friends and certainly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of my party, who takes particular interest in such matters because of his background in defence.

It appears that there has been an injustice. I freely confess that I knew little of the matter until recently when I was approached by a constituent, of whom more later, who is himself affected and who has been involved in the Justice for Prisoners of War campaign for some time. He provided me with a considerable file on what has gone before but, not least because we heard much about it in the previous speech, I shall not repeat it. The points have been well made already. One point that has not yet been brought out is that it is hard to find another country that has treated its ex-prisoners of war, at least in respect of deductions from pay, as poorly as we have. That should be reversed.

It was rightly said that the delays are far too long. The original working party took about six weeks. Perhaps that was too rapid, as some of its conclusions were not fully justified, but it was much quicker than the 15 months that the present inquiry looks like taking. I hope that the Minister will take due note of what the hon. Member for Arundel said about the need to ensure that the matter is brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible in the best interests of justice. Justice should not be delayed; for the people involved, it has been delayed already for some 50 years. It is never too late to right a wrong, but the wrong should be righted as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister say how much the investigation has cost in terms of time and civil service resources? I imagine that the total costs so far must be considerable, given the time involved. Perhaps it would have been more sensible, and even cheaper, for the Government to have pressed ahead earlier with a fair donation to service charities rather than worrying too much about the degree of investigation necessary to prove the case.

The problem of escaping prisoners of war has not been fully brought out and involves an even greater injustice than those so far mentioned. It is the duty of all officers who are captured to try to escape. Many did so very bravely and some, sadly, lost their lives in the attempt. However, some officers who were recaptured, or who never got away but who had made attempts to escape, were fined for so doing. They never received the pay that was deducted in Britain in return for the pay that they were supposed to have received in their POW camps because they were fined equivalent amounts for trying to escape.

My constituent, Captain Freddie Harris, has a particularly interesting story. He had 832 days of deductions from his pay. During that period, he was a POW in Italy for 588 days. At the end of his time in a POW camp, the Italian Government fell, Italy came out of the war and he escaped. Many of those who escaped with him were recaptured by the Germans and put into other POW camps. Not unnaturally, their deductions continued. My constituent escaped and became a partisan and spent the rest of the war fighting on behalf of the allies. He was no longer a POW. Not unexpectedly, the British Government and his family did not know the full facts at the time. Communications were understandably not fully maintained between partisans and our Government. Fighting as a partisan, he was no longer being paid by enemy forces in the way that POWs were. In spite of that, the deductions in this country continued. He suffered a particular injustice, as did anyone who suffered a similar fate. I suspect that few others are involved; his case may even be unique. The injustice was that the deductions went on when he could not have been paid by the enemy because he was not in their hands and was seeking to evade capture during the whole of that time. Captain Harris is not aware of any return of deductions having been made to him since the war.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have many friends in his constituency. I am happy to say that Freddie Hams is one of my oldest friends. I have known him for a great many years. I cannot stay until the end of the debate; I hope that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends will forgive me. I want to place on record the extent to which I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I knew little of the matter until it was brought to my attention by Freddie Harris. I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's concern that a matter involving natural justice for some brave people who endured much on behalf of succeeding generations should be brought to an honourable and equitable conclusion as soon as possible.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel , Newbury

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was about to expand on my remark that this was not a party political matter and he has demonstrated that. It is best illustrated by paying tribute to my predecessor but one, Sir Michael McNair-Wilson, who was for many years Member of Parliament for Newbury. He raised the matter in an Adjournment debate in 1982 and pressed the point on behalf of Freddie Harris and others. I am delighted to pay tribute to his efforts. Sadly, he died a few years ago. I end by quoting what he said in the House of Commons in that debate. I entirely agree with it and it illustrates that this is not a party political matter, as he was, in other times, an election opponent of mine. He said: I believe that there is a debt of honour that a Government one day must pay to those brave men."—[Official Report, 9 February 1992; Vol. 17, c. 949.] That debt should now be paid.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge 9:57 am, 15th January 1997

I, too, am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the House my experience in learning about an issue that many people of my generation could not have begun to imagine would still exist: that 50 years after their service, British service men still have not had their wages and salaries paid. That idea would not occur to one unless one was told the tale in a constituency surgery. It says something about the apolitical nature of the process that hon. Members have come to the House today because of our experiences talking to our constituents.

I was approached by Graham King of the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association. I pay tribute to him for being remorseless in following up the concerns of people in his position. I had no idea that we were dealing with the tip of an iceberg. Numerous issues, specifically those concerning the pay of ex-prisoners of war, could have been brought before the House today.

It is probably helpful if I concentrate on one matter of particular concern to the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association, whose parliamentary representative I am. The position of "normal" officers and non-commissioned officers is relatively straightforward and does not cause a great deal of difficulty in practice. The difficulties arise in the case of protected personnel, whose history and status are strange.

As I understand it, under the Geneva convention, protected personnel were not imprisoned, but detained and, as a result, they were paid the salary of the equivalent rank of somebody working for the detaining power. For example, a corporal in the RAMC would be paid the same as his German equivalent if he was imprisoned in Germany.

The position seems to have changed towards the end of 1940, when the various powers agreed that their obligation under the Geneva convention to repatriate protected personnel would not work in the context of warfare. An agreement was reached that such personnel should no longer be detained, but imprisoned. While they were being detained, deductions were made—because, under the Geneva convention, they were detained personnel. It would seem logical that, when it was agreed that repatriation could not take place and that they would be imprisoned as ordinary prisoners, the British Government should again assume responsibility for paying them—as if they were normal prisoners of war.

In practice, however, the Germans sometimes, but not always, continued to pay protected personnel. Clearly, the British Government of the day never appreciated the distinction; they did not understand that if the status of protected personnel was changed so that they were no longer being temporarily detained before repatriation, but imprisoned for the duration of the war, certain consequences would follow. The consequence that followed was that those personnel should be dealt with under the normal arrangements, but that never happened. I suspect that the position in relation to protected personnel is relatively clear—it is well worth having clarity on the issue. The details of POWs and their pay are labyrinthine, but the position in relation to protected personnel is pretty clear.

Given the personality of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, I know that he will want to be helpful. I am also grateful to Lord Howe for the letters that he has been writing to me. To their credit, Ministers now seem to have a grip on the situation and want to bring about a successful conclusion. I have a little experience of the way in which Whitehall works and I did not always detect that sense of urgency or a commitment to producing a sensible result.

Some years ago, when I was a newly appointed Minister, I turned to my immediate superior for assistance because I could not resolve a certain conundrum. He said, "Let me put it this way: your job in this case is to render as much assistance as possible short of actual help." That principle sometimes serves one well in Government—it certainly did on that occasion—but it does not apply in the case that we are discussing. We must accept that, however the situation arose, however complicated it may be, however many years have passed since the event, it is straightforward: people serving in Her Majesty's armed forces were not paid the money due to them. However it came about, that is the position and it must be resolved.

I have no doubt that if the civil servants who are applying themselves to the task 50 years later wanted to find reasons to justify the status quo, they could easily do so. But those in Whitehall should not approach the issue in that way. However the problem arose and whatever its different complexities, British service men—both commissioned and non-commissioned—were shortchanged. Once that conclusion has been reached, how the problem arose is almost irrelevant to the task of sorting it out. Given the commitment of Ministers to deal with the matter properly, I have no doubt that it can be resolved.

When I first began my correspondence with Lord Howe, the timing of the review's result was open-ended. It was said that it was a difficult and complex matter and it was hard to say when the report would be made. It is a credit to Ministers that that nonsense has now stopped: we have been told that the review will be announced at the end of November. I was slightly nervous when I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) say that the work was being carried out by two part-timers who doubtless had previously had other duties, but perhaps we need not worry too much about that.

The review has been a long time coming and a timetable for it has only recently been announced. We now know that the review must take place by the end of March. We must come up with the right answer—Ministers must commit themselves to saying that British service men were shortchanged and that the problem must be resolved. We do not want to hear red herrings such as the suggestion that the occupying—the detaining—powers should have taken action, but did not, and that all happened a long time ago. Whatever arrangements were established by the German Government of the day—and whether or not they defaulted on their responsibility—it is ultimately the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government of the day to look after service men and ex-service men. I have no doubt that if the problem is approached in that way we can achieve a sensible resolution.

I do not want to spread discord, but it is worth placing on record one other issue. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) said that one way of honouring the obligation would be to make a grant to a service charity. The National Ex-Prisoner of War Association does not believe that that approach is appropriate. I shall not detain the House today, but I see no insuperable difficulties in identifying which living service men—or conceivably their widows—were shortchanged and recompensing them accordingly. Our obligation is to individual serving officers and non-commissioned officers and cannot be discharged by giving a sum to a service charity. That detail can be decided in due course, once the principle has been dealt with.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

My hon. Friend will know—as do those of us with constituencies where organisations such as the Burma Star Association, the SSAFA Forces Help and the legions are represented—that they feel strongly about the subject. I think that the suggestion has been put forward simply because those involved wanted a way out of the problem. They feel—as we all feel—that the problem has existed for far too long and must be resolved. It is that sense of frustration that has led to the suggestion.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge

I understand the sense of frustration highlighted by my hon. Friend. It would be all too easy for the system to say that there was a difficulty, but it all happened a long time ago—we shall fix on a relatively modest sum and distribute it to service charities. The first point of principle that must be understood is that service men were shortchanged. Those service men still exist and have some remarkably clear recollections; many of them own better documents than those on the shelves of Whitehall. While I understand how the frustration highlighted by my hon. Friend has come about, I do not think that we can turn to someone who is still living and who has a clear recollection of the fact that he was shortchanged and say, "It doesn't matter, old fruit—we shall give a sum of money to a service charity." That is not the answer, but it is important that we do not become overly exercised about that in today's debate as we must deal with the point of principle.

We are dealing with people who are very much in the twilight of their years and to whom the obligation of the Government of the day is total. We are dealing with people who, beyond a shadow of doubt, were shortchanged. The fact that that may have occurred owing to an historical accident, defaulting Germans or circumstances that existed before many of us were born does not matter one jot. For the good image of the Government, of the system, of the way in which we all operate, it is essential that the obligation—which the House finally discharges—is not once again pushed under the carpet. The formula of providing all assistance short of actual help cannot be applied here.

Photo of Mr Rod Richards Mr Rod Richards , Clwyd North West 10:08 am, 15th January 1997

I represent the interests of my constituent Captain Frank Kernan, who was a prisoner of war during the last war. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) and congratulate him on the vigour with which he has pursued the case for Justice for Prisoners of War and on the lucid and cogent arguments that he has advanced on their behalf in this morning's debate.

No one here would dispute the fact that this is, for many reasons, an immensely complicated matter. In 1945, Europe was devastated by the war. Fifty years have passed, and it is natural that many of the records that existed then no longer exist, especially those connected with the Army and the Royal Air Force. We understand that.

The matter is also complicated because many of the records were not complete in the first place. They were not complete because many of the prisoners of war who were repatriated in 1945 had forms thrust upon them within a day or so of their return from having spent many years in prison. Many of those people spent four or five years as prisoners of war, and we understand that that was a very long time to be a prisoner, not knowing that the period of imprisonment was going to be four or five years—it could have been six, eight or 10 years. They faced an indefinite period of imprisonment and, having suffered that anxiety for such a long time, the state of mind of those young men on their return to this country must have been quite awesome.

As the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) rightly said, we must also bear in mind the fact that officers have a duty to escape or to attempt to escape and to aid their fellow officers in their attempts to escape. Military personnel who were prisoners of war were very much operational and active throughout that time and their lives were in danger—there can be no doubt about that.

In replying to the debate, I want my hon. Friend the Minister to recognise, as does every hon. Member who has spoken in this debate, that an injustice has been done. As the hon. Member for Newbury said, we owe those people a debt of honour, and my hon. Friend should, first, acknowledge that injustice has been done and, secondly, that compensation is due.

We all understand the difficulties involved in quantifying that compensation and in the repatriation of funds that were either not paid to or unfairly taken away from prisoners of war, but it is an important matter of principle that the Government should accept that an injustice has been done and that a sum of money is owed. How that sum of money is calculated and, indeed, what should be done with it is problematic, but it would be a first step if Her Majesty's Government were to acknowledge that payment in some form was due, either directly to former prisoners of war or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel said, indirectly in the form of a generous payment to charities that support service personnel and their widows. As my hon. Friend said, payments to such charities might not be universally acceptable; nevertheless, it is important that the Government should accept that some payment is owed to those honourable people, who fought for us and who lost their liberty during the war.

People always look for a villain of the piece in Whitehall, so it may offer some comfort and succour to my hon. Friend the Minister if I say that I am not suggesting that the sum of money, when quantified, should be deducted from the current Ministry of Defence budget. The moneys were held by Her Majesty's Treasury, so when the sum has been calculated and my hon. Friend takes up the battle it is for the Treasury to repay what is owed because, in a sense, the money has been held on deposit and the Treasury has benefited from the interest over the past 50 years.

I understand the difficulties facing my hon. Friend and I know that there is a review going on, but it would be a step forward and it would offer some comfort to ex-prisoners of war and their families and friends and to Justice for Prisoners of War if Her Majesty's Government were to acknowledge that an injustice has been done and that a debt of honour is due.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane , Rotherham 10:14 am, 15th January 1997

I, too, want to congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) on obtaining this debate. As you might recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, we had a debate of my calling just before December on reparations for prisoners of war who were held in the far east, so I have some interest in this matter.

My interest extends further than the technical question of moneys owed that should now be paid back, either by our Government to our prisoners of war or, as I believe, by the Japanese Government or the Japanese companies that used our prisoners of war as slave labourers. Unfortunately, the issue can get bogged down in legal niceties, which is I why I am delighted that it is the Minister of State for the Armed Forces who is to reply to the debate. He is certainly no lawyer—neither a barrack-room lawyer, nor a Whips' lawyer nor a parliamentary lawyer—and I am sure that he will give as generous a response as he is allowed to give. Perhaps, as a former officer, he will even break free from the conventions of his civil service brief and, as urged by the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), offer an apology and announce that the Government—if not his, perhaps a future one—will be generous in this respect.

The issue goes further than the points raised in the debate. At the annual Remembrance day celebrations, I am conscious of the fact that British fighting men and women have been in service constantly since 1945, so the issue is relevant not just to those who served in the second world war, although they are the subject of our debate. Since 1945, we have been involved in a seemingly endless list of armed engagements: Korea, the various decolonisation conflicts of the 1950s, the constantly running sore that is Northern Ireland, the Falklands war and the Gulf war, to name but a few.

The Minister will recall that he gave me an hour of his time to discuss the issue of those killed in the friendly fire incident in the Gulf war, which is still a sore for the nine British families who lost their young ones in that tragedy. In addition, the Minister—very decently—came to the House not long ago to tell us that the line on the effect of chemical agents on soldiers in the Gulf war had had to be changed. Campaigns and pressure can work—the Ministry of Defence is not a monolith and we must continue to press such issues on an all-party basis.

Consideration may need to be given to the possibility of our having a Minister who has responsibility for veterans, such as there is in the United States and France—someone who has special regard for the needs of former soldiers, sailors and airmen, including those who were held in prisoner of war camps and those who, although they may not have received the honourable wounds of war, suffer now from illnesses as a result of what they were obliged to do without fully understanding what was at stake.

Those are the deeper issues involved. Next week, with other hon. Members, I shall meet survivors of Japanese prisoner of war camps to press their case further. The issue will not go away—it is a matter of honour. I urge the Minister to lift his eyes from the lawyers' brief in his folder, remember what it was like when he was in his own mess with his fellow officers and think of the honour of our country.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet 10:19 am, 15th January 1997

I had not intended to participate in the debate, because other hon. Members have made the case much more effectively than I could. I have listened with great interest to the arguments, and I should like to reinforce a point that I made in an earlier intervention.

I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) suggesting that a sum of money should be given to the service charities to disburse among the claimants and causes which they feel should be the beneficiaries of the settlement of what is undoubtedly a debt of honour. I also listened with interest to the alternative argument, advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls). I can appreciate that prisoners of war who are still alive would feel a tremendous sense of injustice if they were not allowed to press their claims. As we all know, their numbers must be very small by now.

I wonder, therefore, whether the Minister might like to consider a halfway house solution. The reason behind the service charities suggestion—I know that this is true in my constituency—is that service organisations believe that, if each individual case is to be pursued, whatever the decision arrived at after the review there will still be interminable delay before the families entitled to the money actually get it.

My halfway house proposal is to allow the few who are still alive and wish to press their cases individually to make their claims accordingly; but the overriding and outstanding debt of honour to the many who are now dead should be paid via the service charities. If the Minister will examine this possibility, we may be able to have our cake and eat it.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme 10:20 am, 15th January 1997

I join in the congratulations already offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) on bringing this matter before the House and giving us the opportunity to debate it. I am particularly delighted that the Minister for the Armed Forces is here to respond, because I know of his instinctive sympathy for those who serve their country in circumstances of difficulty and danger—and who do so, as these prisoners of war did, with the highest distinction.

I fear, however, that before the debate my hon. Friend the Minister may have been to the Treasury tailors to be fitted up with a Treasury straitjacket. Still, like the hon. Member for Geneva—or, rather, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane)—I hope that he may yet break free from such Treasury bondage.

I start from the premise that it is never too late to rectify an injustice—and this is clearly a case of a demonstrable injustice. One of the proudest roles and traditions of this honourable House is the redress of grievances. Despite the passage of time, it is therefore entirely right that we should deal with this matter today. I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, will respond positively to the compelling case made by several hon. Members today.

We are talking about tens of thousands of men who were taken prisoner and often held in intolerable conditions for periods between a matter of months and four years. They have, in effect, been cheated by the Government whom they served with such distinction and loyalty. I agree with those who have talked of a debt of honour; it is high time the House of Commons took steps to acquit it.

Photo of John Reid John Reid , Motherwell North 10:23 am, 15th January 1997

I need not detain the House long on this issue. Adjournment debates are generally occasions for Back Benchers, but I should like to make one or two remarks.

Some people say that the House is at its best when it is packed and exhibits the theatricality of the circus, but I often find that it is at its best during Adjournment debates when it is not packed. We certainly learn more and discuss more. I have learnt a great deal today and in recent weeks from the cases that have been raised by Members on both sides of the House. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) on his dogged pursuit of the issue and on his success in obtaining this morning's debate.

A matter of principle is at stake. There is a compact between the British Government and forces of the Crown which underlies every operation, every strategic decision and the whole relationship between the armed forces and civilian society. When we ask men and women who serve in the forces of the Crown to undertake certain risks, an obligation is placed on Governments of any political persuasion to provide them not just with the resources to complete their tasks and to minimise their risks but to take care of them should they suffer as a result of their activities.

In this case, the obligation—60 years after some of these events took place—appears never to have been discharged. I fully understand the Government's difficulty in handling the matter—the Minister will face the usual difficulties of legality and bureaucracy. Moreover, there is the additional problem that, over decades, the evidence on which to base any judgment has become fragmented. What is more, many of the pieces of evidence will have been affected by the fog of war. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) cited a constituent who joined the partisans and who was therefore not in contact with the British Government during the relevant period—a perfect illustration of what I mean. This Minister has the reputation of occasionally swathing through the conventions of bureaucracy and firing from the substantial hip; I hope that he will apply himself on this occasion to following up the issue with gusto.

As for the charities suggestion, I make no comment except to say that this is certainly not a question of "charity", however the decision is ultimately reached. It is a question of justice and of honour. Every Member who has spoken has mentioned a debt of honour. That becomes all the more true when we realise that we live in an age of compensation and litigation. These people made tremendous sacrifices for their country and suffered all sorts of stress, often to the detriment of their health and quality of life. In an age when compensation seems to be claimed by everyone for everything, we are especially indebted to these people. It is not as if they voluntarily undertook these hardships: they were under orders to do what they did. It would therefore be a tragic irony if it were subsequently discovered that they were penalised for discharging their obligations under orders.

This is not a party political issue, as several hon. Members have pointed out. We may have our differences over how to approach veterans' affairs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, we believe there is a case for a veterans unit under a Minister; but there is no reason why this should not be a House of Commons matter. After all, the whole country owes the debt to the people involved. I therefore urge and, knowing him, expect the Minister to give the matter the speediest and most sympathetic consideration, so that, even after half a century, not one more day is lost than need be in resolving what appears to be both a tragic omission over the past six decades and a major debt of honour in the present circumstances.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Armed Services) 10:29 am, 15th January 1997

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) on expertly and clearly articulating this difficult case. I thank him for raising again an issue that is of great concern, which has been well expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I also thank my hon. Friend for his usual courtesy and consideration in keeping us thoroughly informed of the way in which the campaign was developing and for allowing us to come to the debate properly prepared to try to satisfy—although I fear that I shall not be able to do so—some of the points that have been made.

It is good that that concern is felt broadly throughout the House. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), whose concern for veterans is well known and who is playing an important role in the issue of Japan and reparations—on which I do not propose to touch this morning—made some important points.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) spoke extremely well of his constituent, Freddie Harris. As a young officer in the Coldstream Guards, my father was involved in trying to convey arms to the partisans in Italy and in trying to enable as many British prisoners of war who had been released by the Italians as possible to be guided back to our lines before the Germans could get them, so I have an added interest in the matter. I am anxious and interested to know more of Captain Harris's case, which I understand was raised in an Adjournment debate, but I have not had the privilege of reading that. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would make those papers available to me.

The hon. Member for Newbury said that Captain Harris had escaped and fought with the partisans, and the hon. Gentleman raised the interesting question of what quasi-legal situation that put Captain Harris in. I have no doubt that the Army, having a rule for everything, will find that it has a definition for that, but I am anxious to find out more.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), who has been interested in this matter for some time, made a powerful speech. I am grateful for the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), and for the contribution from my hon. Friend and kinsman the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), who spoke, as always, with such distinction and feeling for the cause and interests of people who served their country a few years ago, in the last war or before that. It is good, therefore, that this concern covers the spectrum of opinion not only in the House, but widely outside it. Some well-informed people take a close interest in this and I hope that they will follow our debate carefully.

We are concerned with people who were officer prisoners of war or protected personnel in German and Italian hands during the second world war—individuals who, under the international convention for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armies in the field, signed in Geneva in 1929, were not to be deemed prisoners of war if they fell into enemy hands. The status of "protected person" was granted not only to those engaged exclusively in the treatment of the wounded and sick and to chaplains, but to auxiliary nurses and stretcher bearers who were carrying out their duties when captured.

Thanks in part to the assiduous way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel has pursued the issue, I am aware of the profound sense of grievance felt by some ex-officer prisoners of war and protected personnel about decisions taken during the war and in the immediate aftermath and about Defence Ministers' consideration of their concern in the early 1980s.

Those service men spent, in some cases, most of the war in captivity. Only last week, I met a young private soldier who was in the Gordon Highlanders and who was captured at Dunkirk. He went into a prisoner of war camp two days after he was captured and stayed locked up until 1945. What a terrible price to be paid by a young man in the prime and flower of his youth. There were many like him, although their experiences and hardships inevitably differed. Each has a different story to tell, depending on where they were held, whether they were repatriated during the war—as some of the sick and injured and some protected personnel were—whether they made successful escapes, whether they simply had to face endless hours of tedium, waiting for liberation by allied troops, or whether they faced the great uncertainty attached to capture.

For some of those men, the last months of the war were particularly turbulent. Moved on foot ahead of the advancing allied armies by the Germans, short of food, sometimes badly or brutally treated and even mistakenly attacked by our own aeroplanes, some of them were liberated by Soviet forces and moved far behind enemy lines into Russia before being sent home. Although most could do little directly to affect the war's outcome, they continued to serve with dignity, to behave with courage and to face hardship and uncertainty with courage and fortitude.

Those captured early in the war had been taken while facing great odds. The protected personnel played a vital role in caring for our sick and wounded prisoners of war, and all played their part on the road to eventual victory. Therefore, as all hon. Members have said, we are concerned with not only personnel's military service, but their conduct and behaviour while prisoners of war.

We are debating the money deducted from the pay accounts in Britain of officer prisoners of war and of protected personnel. I have specifically mentioned officer prisoners of war and protected personnel in German and Italian hands because those held by the Japanese were refunded with all the deductions made in respect of payments that they should have received from the Japanese. This is not at issue, although the reasons for those refunds have been questioned.

The pay deductions that concern us today were made on the basis of the terms of two conventions signed in Geneva in 1929: that covering the care of the wounded and sick, to which I referred earlier, and the international convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Those set out the principles for the treatment of prisoners of war and captured non-combatants, which were developed into practical arrangements by various agreements made subsequently between the British Government and their German and Italian counterparts.

The deductions were made to offset payments that the officer prisoners of war and protected personnel were supposed to receive from the detaining power. Officers' payments were made because officers were not permitted to work in captivity and therefore to earn what could be used as "pocket money" to meet certain living expenses in the camps. Protected personnel received money from the detaining power because, under further agreements between the belligerent Governments, they had not been repatriated after capture, but stayed with our sick and wounded to care for them. For that work, they were to receive their pay from the detaining power at the equivalent rate for that power's own medical staff.

That was the theory. During the war, however, it became apparent from information from the camps that, although deductions were being made in Britain on the basis that the arrangements for payment by the detaining power were working, in some cases the reality was rather different. Arrangements with the detaining power were not always working as they should have been.

It was therefore decided to implement a policy of refunding some of the deductions when officer prisoners of war and protected personnel returned to Britain. The aim was to put the individual back in the position of having received, overall, his due pay, adding up what had been received or credited from the detaining power and what had been credited and paid in Britain.

A major element of the case put by those who have so cogently made representations to us—including, in lengthy submissions, Group Captain Ingle and Captain Bracken, RN (retd.), of Justice for Prisoners of War, and Mr. King of the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association—questions the fairness of the deductions having been made in the first place. That is the general tenor of the anxiety expressed by my hon. Friends.

The representatives also question the exchange rates used to calculate the actual amounts deducted and refunded in respect of camp payments. They consider that they did not receive the overall value of their pay, and question the implementation and efficacy of the scheme to refund deductions. These are clearly serious matters.

A further issue, which prompted much of the concern expressed in 1980, relates to the arrangements for repayment between countries. It was originally intended that certain payments made by the detaining power to individuals would be reimbursed to that power by their own country at the end of the war. After the refunds that I have described, an element of the deductions remained, but, in the circumstances that prevailed at the end of the war, the money was not transferred to Germany and Italy, but was retained by the Treasury. It is argued that it should have been repaid to the service men involved at the time, and should be repaid now.

There are further concerns about the handling of communal funds that were operated in some camps, and about money that was subsequently given to service charities in respect of those funds.

This is a tremendously complex cocktail of issues, and the situation is further complicated by the apparent lack of consensus among the different groups and individuals concerned. The Justice for Prisoners of War group has pointed out the difficulties involved in working out individual claims and making individual payments—difficulties that undoubtedly exist. It seeks the payment of a substantial sum to service charities for the benefit of former prisoners of war and their dependants. The National Ex-Prisoner of War Association representative, however, wants to see the settlement of individual claims from former protected personnel.

As I said, my Department did a huge amount of work in the early 1980s to address the points that were raised then. Moreover, recognising the criticism with which the original working group report was received, it continued to study further questions, and to discuss many additional points with representatives for the former prisoners of war. Indeed, as recent submissions to my Department acknowledge, a number of the criticisms of the original report have been accepted.

At the end of the deliberations of the early 1980s, however, the Government took the view that, although it would be possible to continue to refine points of detail, there was no case for reconsidering the original policies and decisions of previous Administrations of both parties and trying to reopen the matter. Those decisions were not reached lightly, or without profound concern for the strong views of those involved.

A number of the former officer prisoners of war and protected personnel have, however, continued to investigate the matter, and in 1995 they sought to reopen it. At the end of that year, Group Captain Ingle made a detailed submission for redress of grievance to the Air Force board. That submission was similar to one that had already been prepared by Captain Bracken, and the two were considered to see whether they raised any new issues, or included any details, that had not previously been considered and which, had they been considered, could have changed Ministers' previous views.

While that work was in hand early last year—during which time a further detailed submission was received from Group Captain Ingle—the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association also raised issues relating to protected personnel, and wished to make its own detailed submissions. Those submissions were eventually received last summer. On the basis of all those approaches, it was decided that the whole subject should be re-examined in detail, and a new review was announced, to be headed by my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence.

That review is in progress. Its aim is to re-examine the principles that underlay decisions made by successive Governments and agreements between the belligerent powers, those decisions and agreements themselves and the implementation of the various policies concerned. We wish to set all those matters in their wider context, and to see whether the policy decisions were properly made, promulgated and implemented, as far as can now be discovered. I hope that the work will be satisfactory.

I appreciate that the two groups concerned have done a great deal of detailed research, and I congratulate them on the tenacious way in which they have gone about their presentation. They have presented what they feel to be an overwhelming and clear-cut case, and I understand the strength of their feelings and their concern about the time that our review is taking. I appreciate the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and the concern that he has expressed. I hope that, by the end of the debate, he will have been reassured.

It is a fact that many of the arguments of the two groups have been advanced and considered before. The decisions that they wish to be overturned were considered and made by previous Administrations of both parties over a number of years, in the context of the time and with contemporary knowledge. Many of them were questioned and discussed during and after the war, and reconsidered in the 1980s. Because of lasting dissatisfaction, we have agreed to review them again, but, in doing so, we must re-examine the whole matter with great care. That is why I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme, and to the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), that although my natural instinct would be to try to resolve the matter now, I cannot do so in the light of the decisions made by previous Administrations of all parties, the immensely detailed work that has been done and the work that remains to be done. We must conduct the re-examination with the greatest possible care, and settle the matter once and for all.

Let me reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel that I believe that proper resources have been made available for the work. On this occasion, we have been anxious to use specialist staff, experienced in historical research and with knowledge of the archives and the procedures of the second world war and the period immediately after it. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate those staff on the work that they have done: they are extremely busy, and are taking an enormous amount of detailed care to ensure that we get this right. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my assurance that the work is proceeding at the best possible speed. We have no interest in not concluding the matter one way or the other as soon as we can.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel said, two excellent officials are leading the work on behalf of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State, but others are contributing in specific areas. It has been found that, for very good reasons, work of this kind should not be fragmented. My hon. Friend will appreciate that down that path lies the possibility of evidence being missed or misinterpreted, and I know that he would want the work to be as thorough and complete as possible.

I understand that Captain Ingle's submission is a detailed and thorough piece of work, which should be dignified by a proper and detailed response. We are grateful for the offers of meetings with the Justice for Prisoners of War group and the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association, which have been acknowledged and which can only help us to reach a conclusion.

My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State has said that he hopes our work will be complete by the end of March. It follows that, as the work is not yet finished and as he has not yet reached his conclusions, it would be improper for me to comment further on the many detailed and complex issues that have been raised, but I will draw all today's contributions to my noble Friend's attention, and I will personally follow these matters extremely closely.

Finally, let me add my voice to those of hon. Members who have paid lasting tribute to all who fought and were captured by the enemy in battle. There is nothing trite about such tributes in the House. The sacrifice and the hardships of those people cannot be overstated, and the awfulness of being locked up must have been truly dreadful not only for the young men involved but for their families. I know from the time that my grandfather spent in captivity during the Boer war of the lasting impression that is made on those who are unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner of war. My grandfather was lucky to be able to escape quickly, but he recorded that the experience of capture was the greatest indignity of my life". I want all those who are concerned with the outcome of our review to know that those feelings are truly understood.

I acknowledge the sense of what has been said by all who have spoken today, and the admirable way in which hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed the feeling that this is a debt of honour that must be resolved, that the work must be finished and that there must be a satisfactory outcome. I cannot forecast the outcome of the work because it is not yet completed, but I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel that our review is being conducted in the greatest possible detail and with an open mind, and that our findings will be made available to the House at the earliest opportunity.