HC Deb 31 October 1916 vol 86 cc1546-7

(by Private Notice): I beg to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what is the position of the Foreign Office with regard to the new arrangements for dealing with questions affecting prisoners of war, and whether the new arrangements indicate any change of policy on the subject?


It has now been arranged that all questions affecting our prisoners in enemy countries should be under my Noble Friend Lord Newton, who will be represented in this House by my hon. Friend the Treasurer of the Household. That will not affect the enemy prisoners interned here. Lord Newton will be assisted by an Interdepartmental Committee, and in all matters connected with the War Office or Admiralty my Noble Friend would first consult those offices; and in case of any difference of opinion involving questions of policy the matter would be brought in the last resort before the War Committee. The Foreign Office will no longer be in any way responsible for the policy pursued with regard to prisoners of war, though the communications to Foreign Embassies will necessarily be transmitted through that Office.

With regard to policy, I do not know that any change is contemplated, but perhaps the House will allow me, as I am, so to speak, taking leave of this question, to say a word about it. In the first place, I should wish to emphasise in the strongest language at my command, the deep debt of gratitude which, in my judgment, this country owes to Mr. Gerard and his assistants in Berlin. Wherever we have found thoroughly bad conditions prevailing, we have found also that for some reason or another the American Embassy has been unable to obtain facilities to inspect, and whenever such inspections have taken place, conditions have forthwith begun to improve.

Whatever may have been true at the beginning of the War, I believe it is not now true that British prisoners are worse treated than those of other nationalities, and this relative decency of treatment is due almost entirely to the exertion of the American Embassy. But I should not like to conceal from the House that the conditions are, in my judgment, in some camps in Germany and in other countries, very far from satisfactory as yet. Indeed, I doubt whether the internment of a prisoner of war can ever be made better than just tolerable. For real relief from hardship and dangers there is only one expedient really practicable and useful, and that is exchange or internment in a neutral country. Whether exchanges ought to be carried out is a question which, in the opinion of the War Committee, must be decided chiefly upon military and naval considerations, and it follows that in this matter the War Office and the Admiralty must, subject to any fresh direction by the War Committee, direct the policy of tin country, and consequently must be responsible for that policy.