Prisoners of War (Germany)

Part of Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:55 pm on 5 April 2001.

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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.]