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

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.