HC Deb 21 February 1924 vol 169 cc2160-4

It is not my wish to take up hon. Members' time, especially after the very serious statement we have just heard, but I feel it my duty to call attention to a matter that is pressing and urgent, not only to me, not only to a large number of hon. Members, particularly those who sit for seaport constituencies, but also to tens of thousands of men and women who have suffered damage from enemy action during the War and are still waiting to hear whether they are to get the compensation that has been promised them. I refer to the conduct of the Reparation Claims Commission and to their way of dealing with claims, including the belated claims. The Commission has been sitting for nearly five years, and no doubt it has done its work efficiently. It has been conducted by gentlemen who are adepts at the use of the typewriter and the sending of replies. Where I came into contact with it, is in connection with the men and women who are making claims. They are not able to cope with it. In many cases they are seamen who know nothing about office work. When they send in their claims all that happens is that they get a reply stating that the doctor s certificate is not correct, or that a name is not spelt properly, or that they did not send in the claims at the correct time. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade will, no doubt, say that this matter is not one for which the present Government can take the whole responsibility, that it was going on under the previous Government, and I have no doubt that the previous Government would have said, quite correctly, that it was going on under their predecessors.

The question is, is this Government going to seek a solution and do so quickly? I can also imagine the President of the Board of Trade saying that the whole matter has been put into the hands of a Royal Commission, and that until the report of that Commission had been received, no definite answer could be given. I ask the House to support me in this matter which is of the utmost urgency, because we must be able to tell the men and women concerned whether they are going to get their claims or not. I ask the President of the Board of Trade for a reply, "Yes" or "No," to three simple questions: (1) When the Royal Commission's Report comes in, will the Government give the House time to discuss it; (2) if the money in hand proves to be inadequate to deal with the large number of claims—I gather there are 30,000 pending—will the Government vote more money, or, at any rate, will the President of the Board of Trade press the Chancellor of the Exchequer for facilities for voting more money; (3) if it is found impossible to find the money, will the Government inform all concerned, straightly and directly, that no more demands can be met? That would be only fair, because these unfortunate men and women are being kept waiting, and some have died in the meantime. I consider we owe a debt of honour to these men who served their country, and if I am unable to obtain satisfaction, I must resort to desperate measures, such as a private Member can adopt. I shall buy a top-hat of the style affected by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Pringle). I do not wish to make any personal reference in the hon. Member's absence, and I only allude to his headgear as an outward and visible sign of spiritual grace. I ask a direct answer, otherwise we must go on hammering at the question until we get one.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Webb)

There is not much time for me to give the Noble Lord the answers for which he asks. The questions he has put are not such as can be answered merely by Yes or No. Whoever is guilty in this matter, it can hardly be the present Government. As the Noble Lord has said the Government of the time chose, no doubt in their wisdom, to hand this matter over to an independent Royal Commission. I think the Noble Lord hardly did justice to Lord Sumner and his colleagues on the Commission. Seventy thousand claims have been dealt with, and they have produced one Report stating the amounts due to some 26,000 claimants, and those amounts have all been paid with the exception of a few cases where the claimants cannot be found. The second Report which will be the final Report is, I am told, now in the printers' hands. I cannot, state exactly when it will be available because I do not know the ways of printers in dealing with these things. At any rate I think it will be available very promptly. The trouble has been that the Royal Commission thought fit to wait until they had dealt with the whole of the claims, before paying out any of them. It was felt that until the total had been ascertained it was impossible to say how the sum of £5,000,000 could be divided. I can only say that 26,000 people have been paid. As soon as the Report is received I am assured that there will be no appreciable delay in paying out immediately to all the other claimants whose claims have been admitted as having been received in time. There does remain the question of something like 20,000 belated claims made after date which Lord Sumner's Commission has not felt itself able to deal with; and when that Report has been received, and when it is seen how much, if any, money is left of the £5,000,000 voted by the House, then it will be a matter for the Government to consider and to suggest to the House whether anything can be done for these 20,000 belated claims, and, if so, what and in what manner.

I am sure that the House will excuse me to-night, at this hour, from going further into that, for the very good reason that I am not authorised to decide that question. I can only assure the Noble Lord that, so far as the Department is concerned, there has not been any delay at all in the past, and there shall not be any delay in dealing with the second. Report as soon as it is out. I must not be understood to admit any reflection on the conduct of Lord Sumner's Commission, which I believe has worked with extraordinary diligence and persistency, and we are doubly indebted to Lord Sumner and his colleagues for the amount of work they have put in. But when you have to deal with 70,000 claims, relating in some cases to property said to have been lost or damaged in all parts of the world, in Mesopotamia, Syria, France, in Belgium, and so on, it is impossible to deal with them very expeditiously. The Board of Trade would have dealt with them very much quicker, but I do not say they would have dealt with them with so much real satisfaction to the claimants. I hope the Noble Lord will be satisfied with that.

Captain. BENN

It is currently reported that the £5,000,000 which has been set aside to meet these claims will prove inadequate. If the Commission does approve of claims in excess of that amount, will the Government be prepared to meet them by an additional grant?


I can only say that when we have the facts the Government will have to consider the position. Until we know what the facts and figures are, I can only say that no decision has been come to and no consideration has yet been given to it.


With regard to a large number of these claims, particularly what are called the belated claims that have been sent in, when the individuals are writing to the Board of Trade asking for information, they receive merely a printed form stating that their letter has been received. I have quite a number of cases where I have whole stacks of these replies that have been sent to individuals. Cannot the Board of Trade, when they receive requests from these individuals asking how their cases are going on, send a brief statement pointing out the difficulties that have arisen? That might satisfy the individuals, and they would not be pestering the Members for their constituencies in the manner that they have been, because they really believe they have been fobbed off with a large number of printed forms.


There is a very important point arising out of the Report of this Royal Commission. It is admitted by everyone who has any knowledge of the facts that the £5,000,000 will not be adequate to meet all the claims. So far as the first Report went—and it is possible that the second Report will take the same lines—it was devoted to dealing with the most urgent of the smaller claims for personal loss and accidents. There is a whole range of claims which the Commission was not able to deal with at all with the small sum at its command. I believe the £5,000,000 is really an advance by the British Government against the sum which is payable by Germany under the Treaty of Versailles, and any Government which is taking up this case with vigour in order to obtain full satisfaction will have to turn to the German Reparation Fund for satisfaction of all the claims. There are a number of claims admittedly unassessed. Could the fight hon. Gentleman represent to the Commission that they might be assessed, with a view to settling when the funds become available?

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.