HC Deb 23 February 1922 vol 150 cc2227-37

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £100,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1922, for Grants in respect of Compensation for suffering and damage by Enemy Action.


I ask the Committee to Vote this sum of £100,000 to be paid as compensation for damage by enemy action. The Committee will observe there is an explanation at the foot of the Estimate, which is perhaps rather fuller that usual, and puts the Committee to a greater extent than ordinarily in possession of the nature of the Vote. I may however say one or two words in explanation of it, and I welcome the opportunity because this is a matter which it is desirable to bring to the attention of those who have suffered misfortune through no fault of their own. There is some lack of information, I find, about this matter amongst those who are entitled to take advantage of this help, and therefore an opportunity for further knowledge upon the subject is perhaps not unuseful. It will be within the memory of the Committee that the Lord Privy Seal announced to the House on 4th May of last year that the Government proposed to set aside the sum of £5,000,000 out of the first reparations received by the United Kingdom as a fund from which payments could be made to individuals in respect of damage and suffering from enemy action. It will also be within the memory of the Committee that the grants were to be made, as it was then announced, on the recommendation of a special commission. Following that announcement as to the policy of the Government, a special Commission was set up in August last consisting of Lord Sumner, whose judicial services are well known, the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. E. Horne) and the President of the Surveyors' Institution whose services the Government were fortunate to secure in this capacity. That Commission was set up in order to deal with the claims that might be submitted in advance of the time at which there would be money for the payment of the claims. As the Committee will have observed, the claims are to be paid out of the first £5,000,000 of reparations free for that purpose after meeting the cost of the Army on the Rhine. At the time when the Commission was set up, no such funds were available, but it was thought right to get the work in hand, because there was a great deal of work to do.

Let me say a word or two about the general manner in which this Commission is conducting its proceedings. It is, I think, a very businesslike scheme, and the only way in which they can conduct it. Doubtful questions are decided by the Commission on leading cases which are submitted to the Commission, and the claims are assessed by the Reparation Claims Department in accordance with the decisions given on the leading cases by the Commission. When all the claims have been decided in this manner, and the whole sphere of compensation has been decided, the Commission will make recommendations as to the awards to be paid within the limit of £5,000,000 available. That was the state of affairs until the introduction of this Supplementary Estimate, and I may add that it has now been decided to make these payments without waiting for receipts from Germany, more especially in view of the fact that the Government itself is now pursuing a policy of what I may call a limited or partial moratorium. Apart from controversial matters which the Committee may find ready to its hand, I think that, as regards the actual case of those unfortunate people who suffered injury during the War of the kind for which they will be able to claim compensation under this scheme, there can be no doubt that, having once made this arrangement, we ought now to he prepared to meet and pay compensation without further delay, and that is what will be, done. The claims for compensation will now be thus adjudged, met and paid, and the claim will still stand as a claim against the first £5,000,000 of Reparation money receivable, after meeting the cost of the Army of Occupation. The Committee may ask, Why have a Supplementary Estimate? It is for this reason, and I am sure the Committee will agree that it is right. The Commission has been dealing first with cases of exceptional hardship and urgency—cases which it would be in accordance with all the feelings of humanity to settle at the earliest possible time. The Commission have, by hard work and constant application, been able so to advance their work as to see their way to dealing with some of these exceptional hard cases in the course of this financial year, to the extent of the £100,000 for which we are now asking, and I believe there will be no disagreement that, since the claims are ready, payment should be made at the earliest possible moment.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

I believe that this is a new service. At any rate, I cannot find it in the main Estimates. Before making a comment which the hon. Gentleman will have anticipated, and which, I hope, will be repeated by others in more eloquent language than mine, I wish to ask the Government if they are going to implement one of the most solemn pledges given by the Prime Minister, namely, that given by him to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. J. H. Wilson) and a deputation representing the British merchant service, that the very first payments from Germany should go to the widows and orphans who suffered by the German submarine action, and to those men who survived and who suffered in mind and body from the hardships to which they were exposed. The Prime Minister promised that most faithfully. There was a great deal of feeling in the country behind the merchant seamen, and they came up with all their heavy guns. The Prime Minister got rid of them by making this solemn promise, and, in answer to questions by myself and other hon. Members, repeated again and again in the House of Commons, he admitted the promise, but always said that, it would be carried out to-morrow or the day after. Now £100,000 is being voted, and credits are to be asked for amounting altogether to £5,000,000, if required; and I wish to ask seriously whether this promise is at last going to be implemented. I and other Members for shipping ports and for other parts of the country—because these men came from all parts of the country—have repeatedly written to and interviewed the President of the Board of Trade, bringing to his notice these very hard cases of merchant seamen who, through exposure in open boats and similar hardships, have suffered, or of their widows and orphans who are in dire penury. The hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. A. Hopkinson) has referred to pensioners as parasites, but I hope that even he would not look upon these unfortunate people as being in that category. They have been put off with fair words and promises, which have not been kept up to date, and I wish to ask now whether their claims are to be given priority, as was solemnly undertaken by the Prime Minister. This is a very interesting Vote, and I am sorry that it has come on at this hour, when nearly everyone is away. It is the first real attempt to make good the damage due to the War. The damage done in the War, under the terms on which the German armies were granted an Armistice, was to be made good by the enemy, and that was the only reparation that we were legally and morally entitled to claim. All the high-[...]alutin nonsense about the Germans paying the cost of the War, about their paying the War Debt, and reducing taxation—which I know the hon. Gentleman representing the Treasury feels as keenly as anyone else—was not only economically impossible, but immoral.


On a point of Order. Are we in order in discussing the terms of the Peace Treaty on this Vote?

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

On that point of Order. I submit that this is a new service, and this is the first chance we have of discussing the matter, in terms of £ s. d., of the people who are affected.

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Sir E. Cornwall)

I think it is in order for hon. Members to point out, if they desire to do so, that money for this purpose was anticipated to be paid by Germany under the Versailles Treaty, but we are only entitled now to discuss it in so far as it concerns this amount, and we cannot cover the whole ground. In so far as it concerns the £100,000, that will be quite in order, but I must ask hon. Members not to go beyond that.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I was going on to point out that if we had not held out these extravagant hopes and tried to get impossible sums out of Germany we should have got substantial sums before this which these unfortunate people would have received, and it would have been unnecessary to ask the Committee for this sum of money. I do not want to go beyond that. It is not necessary. If we had stuck to the sensible soldiers' terms of the Armistice, if we had not dishonoured ourselves for the sake of catching votes, this Vote would have been unnecessary, and the over-burdened British taxpayer would not have this fresh straw piled on his poor camel-like back.

The next point I wish to make is this. In the apologia, on page 48, the sums of money being paid by Germany are in-sufficient to pay for the Army of Occupation. This is the year 1922. That is why we are having to put our hands in our pockets to find this money for these very necessitous cases described by the Secretary to the Treasury. That is what some of us have pointed out for some years. We are getting into the fourth year of this insanity. The question of an Army of Occupation for 15 years was not known at the time of the election. [Interruption.] What nonsensical remarks the hon. Member makes about me not encouraging the Germans to pay. I want them to pay for illegitimate damage. I have always made that clear, but the wrong way to get it is to ruin them and drive them to despair and make it impossible for them to pay impossible sums of money; and one of the ways that is making it impossible to get the money, out of Germany—and no one feels the need of the money for these unfortunate merchant seamen more than I do—the ridiculous way in which we are going about it is this. We are not only having this very costly Army of Occupation, but we have all sorts of Commissions—Reparation Commissions and Disarmament Commissions on the most lavish scale, motor cars, typists, secretaries, valets, and servants—and they occupy the Kaiserhof Hotel, one of the largest in Berlin. All this is supposed to be paid by the German Government, with the mark round about 900 to the £1. The consequence is that the Secretary to the Disarmament Commission gets more money than half the German Cabinet put together. If it were not for these bloated Commissions we should be getting hard cash from Germany and should not have to be finding this £100,000. The third point is the Army of Occupation altogether. The whole thing is ridiculous. It is extremely bad for the troops.


The hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot go into the question of the Army of Occupation on this Supplementary Estimate.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

This question of the Army of Occupation absorbing money is mentioned in the Government apologia.


I have read the note on page 48. It does not justify a discussion on the Army of Occupation. It says: Although the receipts are at present insufficient to cover the prior charge in respect of the British Army of Occupation it has been decided to ask Parliament to make available the full sum of £5,000,000. That does not justify a general discussion on the Army of Occupation. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is endeavouring to discuss the £5,000,000 on this Supplementary Vote for £100,000.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I do not wish to dispute your ruling.


You had better not.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I do not think we need assistance from that quarter. At any rate I hope this Vote will bring home to the people how much they have so far got out of Germany. Here we are at our wits end for money, with an empty Treasury and every possibility of a deficit, and here we are in the fourth year after the Armistice having to put our hands in our pockets to the tune of £100,000 for the most urgent and necessitous cases of suffering as the result of enemy action. I represent a constituency which suffered very severely in the War. Owing to our position on the East Coast and the nice guiding mark the Humber made we were bombed more than any other community in these islands. Thanet may have been involved more often but we were bombed by Zeppelins from a height of a few hundred feet. They were quite immune, and we suffered very severely. In addition to that we had a tremendous number of men in the merchant service and the fishing fleets and they suffered, and if there is any community that needs this money it is the constituency I represent. I am certainly not going to vote against this £100,000. We have been waiting for compensation. There have been advances made, of course, and there are more due, from other funds, but I hope the people in my constituency and in other counties will see in this Vote of £100,000, which is only a fiftieth of what we have voted altogether, a sign of the utter failure of the Government's policy of getting money out of the enemy. We have done every possible thing we could not to get money out of the enemy. I should not be in order in going into details more than I have done, but although I am not going to vote against this money—it is very difficult for any of us to do it—I am going to take the earliest possible opportunity of voting against the Government's foreign policy and one of my reasons will be this appalling state of affairs that this Vote discloses.


I think there were, in the earlier part of the speech we have just heard, one sentence or two which remotely came in contact with the Vote, and it was when the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggested that this £100,000 was not going to be devoted to the relief of those who lost their all in the Merchant Service by submarine action. I should like the Secretary to the Treasury to let us know at once definitely whether that is the case or not, or whether those cases are not regarded as being amongst the very most urgent which are going to be dealt with first.


I shall be most glad of the opportunity to answer that question at once. It was put both by the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) and by the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), who reminded me of the special urgency of the claims of the merchant seamen, which neither he nor I are likely to forget. The Royal Commission are giving early consideration to the claims of the merchant seamen.


Of course, the reply the hon. and gallant Gentleman has given is the reply which every Member of the Committee would have anticipated. It is perfectly obvious that of all these cases the most urgent is that of the merchant seamen. If the Committee will call to their minds what the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut. Commander Kenworthy) said beside that, they will agree with me that there is nothing whatsoever in the Vote to criticise.


I should like to ask a few questions in regard to the administration of this Fund. There are thousands of people throughout the country who have been anxiously awaiting compensation from the Government because of the loss of effects through enemy action. On a recent visit to the North I was made painfully aware of that fact, and my attention was drawn by constituents and others to the fact that the Government were about to invite Parliament to vote £5,000,000 for this purpose. Will the Financial Secretary inform the Committee whether claims for losses incurred in 1915 will receive priority over losses incurred in 1916–17–18? Can we have some information as to the principles that are guiding the very able Commission which has been appointed to allocate the £5,000,000 to the many necessitous cases? I hope the Financial Secretary will be able to give the Committee information on that point. No hon. Member on this side desires to raise the slightest objection to this Vote, but I would point out that a week or two ago in this House, while the Prime Minister was present, I reminded him that he had promised to search the pockets of the German people, and that little money had been forthcoming from that quarter, but that he had searched more successfully than any Government in any country the pockets of the British taxpayer. The presentation of this Estimate is a complete and full justification for the statement I made on that occasion, which seemed to cause the Prime Minister some annoyance, for it is quite clearly shown that reparations have not been received from the Government and that the British taxpayer is being taxed, and properly taxed, to find money for the losses incurred by our fellow-citizens through enemy action during the War.


This action of the Government in allocating £100,000 to the relief of those who suffered from enemy action is very belated. Of all the atrocities which the Germans committed none seemed to stir the world more than the sinking of the "Lusitania." The sinking of the "Lusitania" took place nearly seven years ago, yet the widows who lost their husbands in that atrocity have not received any compensation. It may be a consolation to a widow to know that eventually when the Germans pay their reparation she will receive compensation, but it does not enable her to live during the seven or eight intervening years while the Government are thinking about it. The other nations whose nationals suffered in that disaster have already received compensation. I believe the American, Belgian and Italian claims have been paid, although I speak subject to correction. Our Government seems to have done nothing. They have been deaf to the complaints that have reached them. I know of one case of a widow, whose claim has reached my hon. Friend, who lost her husband in that disaster, and whose means of livelihood were practically cut off, and she has been for seven years existing on the kindness of her friends, while the British Government has taken no notice whatever of her claim. I urge the Government to provide at once a sufficient sum of money which will enable them, at least, to settle the claims of those people who have no other means of livelihood, and who are in distress because of the losses which they suffered. It is surely justifiable to say that the well-to-do people who lost their effects in the "Lusitania, but who still have large sums of money left on which to live, should wait for the liquidation of their claims until the claims of those who are in need have been met. I beg the Government to devote the first of this money to compensate not only the "Lusitania," widows but other widows in the country who are in dire distress.


The persons for whom this money and the money provided in the subsequent Votes is intended have been waiting for practically three years. I congratulate the Government on introducing the Vote now, although it is very late. I am extremely sorry that they have not got the money from Germany. Having failed to get the money from Germany, they are providing the money themselves, which is only right, considering the cause; but it is a terrible admission that after almost three years of wait- ing they have not even got enough from the Germans to cover the cost of the Army of Occupation, and have nothing left with which to meet the legitimate claims of the victims of German action in the War, with the result that they have to provide the money out of their own funds. I hope there will be no delay in allocating the money to the most necessitous cases. Of those cases and those places which were most hurt during the War I may claim that the constituency which I have the honour to represent was the most bombed area in the country. It is a small jutting-out piece of land, and during the War it was termed really a war area. The fortifications for London in regard to air raids were established at Canterbury, which is just behind the piece of land known as the Isle of Thanet. That piece of land was left absolutely undefended against air raids, and it suffered extremely heavily, numberless bombs being dropped by enemy aircraft on the way to and from London. My constituents did not complain, although they were left without any sort of defence. I hope the Financial Secretary will recognise this fact, and that in allocating the money he will remember—


I want to make it perfectly clear that neither the Treasury nor I nor any other Minister have anything to do with the allocating of this money. It is being allocated by a Judicial Commission.


Though that is the case, we are in order in submitting our case to the Government. In appointing this tribunal the Government have surrendered their responsibility which they should have taken on their own shoulder. Whenever I ask about the money which we should receive from Germany I am always referred to this Reparations Commission, as if the Government had no responsibility at all. If the responsibility is given to some other body over which this House has no control, we are powerless to do anything in this matter. There is another point. This deals with the necessitous cases. Though we have not yet got the money from Germany, when that happens—which could happen now if the Government would take the thing in hand, because it is easy for the Government to make Germany pay, if not in money, in goods—I would ask the Government to consider the claim of the area which I represent. I regard it as a War area, and it was so regarded in official documents. It became a no-man's land. People fled from the area, and it was reduced to very great poverty, and numbers of people, who are no longer my constituents, lost everything. Some of these people became bankrupt, as they had to mortgage their property owing to the failure of trade of any sort in the island. I know that in other parts of the country people had to leave their business and go to the front, but they left, perhaps, their families in charge and they did expect that their businesses would have a chance of existing. But in the case of which I am speaking all business ceased to exist and people had to mortgage their property to the last penny it could raise, and when the money is received from Germany a portion should be put aside for those persons in this part of the country who lost all they had owing to the Government not taking proper precautions to defend that small but important piece of the country. The Financial Secretary may say that he is not responsible, but all I can do is to put the case before him. He is the representative of the Government. I have no power to put the case before the Reparations Commission, and I am sure that any power, which the hon. Gentleman has will he exercised with the Government to do what I ask.


Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would give some reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Sir G. Collins).


The question was as regards a preference being given in the matter of time, and that some direction should be issued on this point. No directions of any sort can issue from the Treasury or any Minister to this impartial Tribunal. We should not be in a position to say exactly what influences there might be in judging cases of hardship or prejudice. I think that we should be ill-advised to lay down too definite rules in the matter but, in considering preference as to hardship, I have no doubt that due weight will be given to all the considerations which have been submitted by the Members whom I have mentioned.

Question put, and agreed to.

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