Prisoners of War (Germany)

Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 5 April 2001.

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

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 6:55, 5 April 2001

It is a privilege to introduce this Adjournment debate on a subject that is very different from the one that we have just discussed.

I should start by apologising to the Minister: I have written to him and I know that the normal courtesy would be to wait to receive his reply before proceeding to an Adjournment debate, but we are close to the end of a parliamentary Session and I wanted the issues to be aired in time, especially as time is not on the side of the people on whom the debate focuses.

I raise the subject primarily on behalf of a constituent, Mr. Harding, but the arguments that he would make are extremely similar to the more general arguments advanced by the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association. I have discussed his experiences with Mr. Harding, who is now 83 years old. He served in the early stages of the war and fought in the battle of Calais defending the retreat from Dunkirk in the last-ditch defence of the British troops being evacuated from the beaches. He was captured by the Germans and, after a long and difficult journey, arrived at Stalag 8B, a work camp in Silesia. That part of eastern Europe contained many work camps connected with mines and sugar beet factories; Mr. Harding was employed by Siemens on construction work. In those camps, prisoners of war were expected to work. They worked in what Mr. Harding and people who shared his experiences regard as slave labour conditions.

Mr. Harding is an extremely tough man, with a remarkable spirit for one of his age and experience, but apart from having his health permanently broken, one of the legacies of that experience is an inability to talk about what happened, even 53 years later. However, he discovered that he could set down his experiences on paper, which led to his writing a book called "A Cockney Soldier", in which he describes some of those experiences. His tone is matter of fact and not piteous, and his book is all the more powerful for that. He describes years of malnutrition; working in the extreme cold—sometimes minus 25 deg—without heating or protection; and extremely dangerous conditions of work in which colleagues were mutilated or killed because of the absence of even minimal safeguards.

Mr. Harding also describes what can only be called cruel punishments. In his camp, fainting was regarded as a form of malingering and those who fainted because of malnutrition were punished. One of his friends who could not rise from his bed because of the weakness caused by fever was punished by being locked in a room for three days; he was dead when the door was finally unlocked. I do not want to go into the details, but it is important to establish the facts, because the crux of the argument about the treatment of those former prisoners of war is whether they were looked after within the terms of the Geneva convention.

I appreciate that the concept of compensation has changed to a remarkable extent since the second world war. Compensation is now paid for problems that sometimes appear frivolous. I would not describe stress at work as frivolous, but large compensation payments have been made to people who have suffered experiences that are not remotely comparable to those that were suffered by Mr. Harding and his fellow prisoners of war. I was too young to be called up by the Army, let alone to have served during the war, so I cannot understand the depth of those men's experiences, but they were clearly far more serious than many of the things that we now regard as being worthy of compensation.

How has compensation for POWs been dealt with? There was a welcome breakthrough a few months ago, when the Government accepted the principle of compensation for Japanese POWs.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

There was a welcome development when the Government decided to award compensation to Japanese POWs. Two constituents of mine have already received their cheques and are very appreciative; they feel that the campaign was extremely successful, and they welcomed the role that the Government played in it. However, a price Was paid. I am not sure why it was felt tactically necessary by those campaigning for Japanese POWs, but they were always at great pains to stress that they were not trying to create a precedent for POWs in Europe. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) spoke on that subject in an Adjournment debate on 6 June. He said: I do not accept that such payments"— for Japanese POWS— might lead to other claims by ex-POWs, which, I suspect, has been one reason why the Government have been reluctant to come to a favourable decision and to concede on the issue. What other claims would there be from former POWs? I have no reason to believe those held by the Germans … are pressing such claims."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 6 June 2000; Vol. 351, c. 30WH.] That is simply not true; prisoners of war held by the Germans have been pressing their claims for some time. A price was therefore paid for achieving victory on behalf of the Japanese POWs.

A parallel development is the establishment of a compensation scheme for forced labourers by the German authorities. In Germany, the principle has been established that German companies that benefited from forced labour should contribute to a compensation fund. That is a rather important philosophical principle, as those companies accepted that the profits earned from forced labour contributed substantially to their ability to invest after the war and their subsequent strengths. They have therefore accepted that they had a clear moral obligation. Compensation is now being paid under that scheme to 1 million former forced labourers, who have each received between £2,000 and £5,000. An international agency for migration is helping all those who were subject to forced labour or slave labour to receive the compensation to which they are entitled under the scheme.

Until recently, POWs were exempt and were not entitled to claim under the scheme, but that has recently been relaxed and POWs are being allowed to claim, provided that they can claim that they were subject to concentration camp conditions, which is a rather narrow criterion that, so far, has excluded most of the British POWs. In some ways, the position is anomalous and unfortunate, as British POWs working in German forced labour camps now appear to be the only remaining group that has had no recognition at all. Other POWs have been compensated. The Americans have a scheme whereby their POWs are paid the equivalent of $1 or $2.50 a day, depending on the type of work that they did during forced labour in the second world war. The Germans have a scheme for former members of the Wehrmacht.

British POWs, however, have been left at the tender mercy of the benefits system and the disablement compensation system, which have often been extremely severe. They have therefore been left in a singular, exposed position, and considerable ill feeling has resulted. Why have British POWs in Germany been left out? That is the core of the issue. The argument has been advanced—by the Government, previous Governments and the British Legion, which has been ambivalent on the issue—that, unlike the Japanese POWs, those in Germany were subject to the Geneva convention. Of course, POWs themselves regard that as incorrect. Mr. Allan, who leads the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association, confronted that argument and said: This is not true and well the MOD and other veteran organisations know this. It is a matter of considerable debate.

Why were British POWs considered to be subject to the Geneva convention? First, it was believed that prisoners in German camps were not subject to the same degree of brutality as those in Japanese camps. The death rate was certainly lower and it is probably true, on average, that the degree of brutality was less. When we assess the extent to which the spirit of the convention was observed, it comes down to degrees of brutality. Some of the men, including those whom I am representing, experienced extremely brutal conditions, as bad as any in the second world war.

Secondly, the British Government have taken the view that German prisoners who were kept in the UK as prisoners of war were also required to work, and were therefore subject to forced labour. It may be unhelpful to question the position of British POWs in Germany, as we operated a comparable system in the UK. That comes down to an assessment of whether German POWs in the UK were treated with anything like the same degree of severity as British POWs in Germany. Clearly, that is a value judgment and the evidence comes from people who were alive at the time. Without being in any way anti-German or unfair to the Germans, it could plausibly be argued that, qualitatively, there was a big difference in the way in which POWs were treated.

Thirdly, it was argued that British POWs in Germany were paid. They were paid what was called Lagergeld—vouchers that could be exchanged for goods. When one reads the accounts of prisoners at that time, it becomes clear that that was often a mockery. Mr. Harding describes how, in his camp, he would present Lagergeld at the counters of the so-called shop, and he would be offered women's hair nets or razor blades without razors. It was used as a wind-up—an insult. It was not exchange in any meaningful sense.

Many of the men had Lagergeld that was worthless and could not be exchanged. They were not paid in any meaningful sense. They suffered the double indignity and the double financial disadvantage that their pay was docked in the UK, because it was assumed that the German authorities were paying them. The National Ex-Prisoner of War Association has asserted that the British Government were paid about £1 million at the end of the second world war by the Germans in lieu of the discrepancy between the payments. That payment was never made to the prisoners of war; it was simply absorbed in the Treasury. The association calculates that at present prices, that represents a loss of £120 million. The matter could usefully be investigated.

Many of the prisoners of war who were subject to that experience felt that they were shafted by the Geneva convention. The convention has been used as a pretext for not offering them the recognition and compensation that they deserve. Many of them blame successive British Governments for the failure to take their case sufficiently seriously.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister whether anything can be done at this stage. I realise that very few of the men are left alive, and probably not many of them are in a fit state to enjoy any compensation, should they receive it. We are speaking of very small numbers of people and very small sums of money. It is no longer a Treasury issue, but an issue of recognition, dignity and compensating people for real inhumanity. That is the spirit of it. I suspect that there is probably no more than one former POW in any constituency, so it is not a big political issue, but it is important for it to be recognised.

I suggest two ways in which the Minister may be able to help us forward. The first would be for him to examine with the Germans, not in an acrimonious or accusatory manner, the way in which their POW compensation scheme is operating, and for him to make the case to them that many of the British POWs could be helped to apply under that scheme. Through the good offices of the Foreign Office and the Minister, it may be possible to make progress in that direction.

The Under-Secretary could also pursue the matter without involving the Germans simply by treating the problem as a purely British one. On that basis, he could consider the issue of pay that was docked during the second world war but was never paid to the men. I do not know whether it was absorbed by the Treasury or what happened in the fiscal arrangements of 1945, but an injustice was clearly done. Purely at a UK level, some recompense and recognition could be given to the men in view of what occurred, so I ask him to consider as sympathetically as he can this dwindling but symbolically very important group of men.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 7:10, 5 April 2001

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), for their courtesy in allowing me to say a few words.

When I heard the introductory remarks of the hon. Member for Twickenham, I rushed to the Chamber. As he said, the subject of the debate relates to his constituent, but I suppose that it relates also to a few hundred other British ex-service men, one of whom I represent. John Stevens was in the Royal Navy and went down with HMS Gloucester off Crete, during the battle of Crete. I followed with him many a time the traumatic march that he made across Europe in appalling circumstances. He eventually ended up in the Farben chemical works, which was situated on the Auschwitz campus. He endured precisely the same problems as the hon. Gentleman described in relation to his constituent.

It has troubled me to know that, before I was a Member of Parliament. John Stevens exhaustively raised the matter with my predecessors, although I do not criticise their stewardship of it. I think that the problem was also raised with Malcolm Rifkind, among others, and that no satisfaction was gained.

I speak only to buttress what the hon. Gentleman has said. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will assure us that he will revisit the issue. No doubt, he has his brief, but I hope that he will be prepared to indicate to the men that he is prepared to consider them again, perhaps individually. The conditions of my constituent's imprisonment and those of the hon. Gentleman's constituent demonstrably did not fit in with the Geneva convention. It simply did not happen. He is now a very sick man. I hope that, in view of what has been said, my hon. Friend will be prepared to consider the broad picture, as well as the position of my constituent and that of the hon. Member for Twickenham.

Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans) 7:12, 5 April 2001

I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this debate on behalf of his constituent. I was, of course, happy to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).

The question of compensation for those held as prisoners of war is a matter in which a number of Departments are concerned. My reply will cover issues that also fall within the areas of responsibility of my colleagues, particularly at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and at the Department of Social Security.

Attention in the House has recently focused almost exclusively on the circumstances surrounding the experiences of our service men who were detained in Japanese hands during the second world war—a matter that we addressed in detail last November. That discussion is recorded at columns 157 to 190 of the Official Report for 7 November 2000, when I announced the Government's decision to make an ex gratia payment in recognition of the collective experience of these men while they were detained.

In the European and middle eastern theatres, the reverses of the early years of the war—in particular, the campaign in France and Flanders in 1940 and the later defeats in Greece, Crete and the western desert—resulted in a considerable number of our service men becoming prisoners of war of the Germans and their Italian partners. When Italy surrendered to the allies in the autumn of 1943, although some of our service men were able to escape from captivity and rejoin our forces as they advanced, many more were quickly detained by the German troops in Italy and then moved to camps in Germany and elsewhere in areas under German control.

Although the tide of war had swung decisively in the allies' favour, there were still instances, most notably after Arnhem, when a considerable number of British service men became prisoners of war, so that by the end of the war, a total of 142,319 British service men had been reported as detained at some stage by the Germans or their Italian partners.

As I said in my statement to the House last November: The Government recognise that many UK citizens, both those serving in the armed forces and civilians, have had to endure great hardship at different times and in different circumstances".—[Official Report, 7 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 160.] I would like to repeat that comment now and apply it specifically to our service men detained in German hands. It is clear from personal accounts and the official records that conditions for those detained by the Germans were often less than ideal. That is especially true of those who were still prisoners of war in the last winter and spring of the war, when the breakdown in the German administrative system, the Germans' enforced movement of prisoners of war away from the advancing allied forces to prevent their liberation, the rigours of the weather and the dangers of the ever-nearing battlefield, made that a particularly hard experience.

However, unlike civilian labourers who were conscripted or otherwise brought into the German labour scheme, the treatment of British service men detained as prisoners of war was protected: it was governed by the 1929 Geneva convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, to which Germany was a signatory.

I want to expand on the terms of the Geneva convention because important aspects are sometimes overlooked when that subject, especially the aspect of work for the captor, is considered. Under the 1929 Geneva convention, which was in force during the second world war, prisoners of war of other ranks were obliged to undertake work for their captors; the latter were usually called the "detaining power." The convention required that the work should not be directly related to warlike or military activity. However, many other types of work, including mining and work in quarries, were permissible. Almost all the belligerent powers, including Britain and the USA, made use of that facility, and put enemy personnel held as prisoners of war to work on a range of tasks.

I know that many prisoners of war were, and remain unhappy about some of the tasks they had to carry out and their general conditions. However, the report on prisoner of war matters, which the Foreign Office produced in 1950, concluded that, there were few, if any, really clear breaches of the Geneva convention relating to the employment of British prisoners of war in unhealthy and dangerous work.

Although there were clearly instances of conditions in individual camps or working detachments that were less than ideal, through lack of facilities or because of the attitude of the guards or civilian overseers, those working detachments and camps were subject to inspection by both the neutral protecting power, Switzerland, and the International Red Cross. Those inspections meant that improper treatment or lack of proper facilities did not escape notice, censure and demands for remedial action wherever possible.

The contemporary reports of those inspecting teams demonstrate that they were able to talk at first hand with the POWs' "man of confidence", medical officers or personnel to verify their perspective on the state of affairs against that put forward by the detaining power. Further, on re-inspecting various locations, improvements could often be seen in areas highlighted in earlier reports.

Some former prisoners of war also raise the issue of the inadequacy of then rations. It is accepted that the rations provided by the Germans were based on the lower level of those of a German civilian rather than that of their soldiers and, as the war turned against Germany, the quality of foodstuffs became even poorer.

However, steps were taken to ensure that, while detained, British service men received Red Cross parcels of food and other "comforts" from the UK, which were valuable additions to the sometimes limited rations provided by the enemy. The Government played their part in supporting the Red Cross in that activity, while ensuring that they did nothing to encourage the Germans to evade their responsibilities under the convention to feed the prisoners of war by relying on the provision of such foodstuffs by Britain and its allies.

Of course, while detained, British service men continued to receive their service pay from the British Government, usually credited to their home pay account. When they carried out work for the detaining power outside their military skills, as required by the Geneva convention, they were entitled to a certain amount of "working pay" from the Germans. In general, it is clear from contemporary records that that requirement was met by the Germans, the pay usually being credited to the prisoner of war working camp account or issued as camp money, the so-called Lagergeld. Any remaining credit balance in this German account was redeemable from the British authorities on the POWs' repatriation at the end of the war.

It would be wrong for me to suggest that the scheme of inspections by the protecting power and the Red Cross, coupled with protests from Britain, were able to remedy all the shortcomings of the Germans' treatment of our service men at their hands. However, it is clear from the contemporary reports by the protecting power and the Red Cross who visited POW camps, including POW working detachments, that the conditions in such camps in the European theatre and the general treatment of British and Commonwealth POWs in such circumstances were in no way comparable to those of civilian personnel who were forced by the Germans to undertake labour tasks, and clearly in no way comparable to that of slave labourers in the German concentration camps and their outlying work camps.

That view is supported not only by the contemporary reports from the inspection teams and from debriefings of our ex-prisoners of war, but by the hearings of one of the allied war crimes courts which considered the matter of the treatment of labourers at the IG Farben factory near Auschwitz. A POW working detachment, held in a routine POW working camp, also worked in the factory area. This brought the prisoners of war into contact with slave workers from the Nazi concentration camp nearby at Auschwitz. However, the court having heard the evidence, including testimony from ex-prisoners of war, found that the British POWs were generally treated better than other workers in all respects. [Interruption] I accept that that does not mean that they were treated well. However, they were treated differently and in a different order from civilians or detainees in a concentration camp.

During the Nazi regime and the second world war, approximately 8 million people in German-controlled territory were subjected to forced labour under, for the most part, inhumane conditions. The German Government and German companies who used such labour have therefore created a new fund to compensate such individuals. Claims by former slave and forced labourers now living in the United Kingdom are being administered by the International Organisation for Migration.

The British service men detained by the Germans do not fall within the category of slave labourers, and the German authorities have made it clear that former prisoners of war do not qualify under the German forced labour compensation fund. While we accept that as a general point for the reasons that I have explained, we would not consider that claims could not be presented by British service personnel, but it would be remiss of me to encourage the belief that they might succeed. I would add that a small number of British service men detained in Nazi concentration camps received compensation under a special fund paid for by the Germans in the 1960s to victims of Nazi ideology.

The Geneva convention itself did not specify any penalties on the detaining power for ill-treatment of prisoners of war or the imposition of bad conditions. We in the United Kingdom sought to address and deter ill-treatment and actions that clearly and wilfully breached the conventions and that broke the laws of war by bringing the individuals thought to be responsible to justice before war crimes courts.

Further, as hon. Members will recall, it has been the long-standing policy of successive British Administrations not to compensate service men for the fact of detention as a prisoner of war, but rather to seek to help them through war disability pensions and appropriate health care where their health has suffered as a result of military service, which includes any period spent as a POW.

I must remind hon. Members, as I told the House in November, that we believe that it is generally accepted that while endorsing this policy, the collective experience of those of our service men who were detained by the Japanese during the second world war was unique. That is reflected in the fact that about 25 per cent. of those prisoners of war in Japanese hands died while in captivity. I am happy to say, while not in any war minimising the anguish and problems of captivity, that the equivalent death rate for those detained in European camps in the second world war was about 5 per cent.

It is because of the uniqueness of these circumstances that we instituted the ex gratia payment for British groups formerly detained by the Japanese which I announced last year. I regret to say that we have, however, no plans to make any such payment to former prisoners of war from other theatres from the second world war or from other wars.

I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful to the hon. Member for Twickenham. He has raised his constituent's point with great passion and sincerity. If I was presented with any new evidence, I would be very happy to consider it. Indeed, because of the interest in such historical matters, I frequently study such issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock quite rightly points out that there is great interest in such matters, and—who knows?—someone might turn something up. However, the record stands that this was very carefully looked into during the contemporary period immediately after the war, and I see no reason to change that position at present.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Seven o'clock.