§ 4.35 P.m.
§ Colonel Gluckstein (Nottingham, East)
In July of this year a Motion signed by over 150 Members of all parties, including myself, was put upon the Order Paper reading as follows:That this House, being conscious of the disquiet felt by relatives of prisoners of war and believing that the present system of divided ministerial responsibility is unsatisfactory, urges that a senior minister should be designated to co-ordinate and be responsible for all action in connection with prisoners of war and to answer questions.I am grateful for this opportunity of raising a matter in which many of us are particularly interested. I realise, of course, that in the present state of Government business, a whole day could not be made available for the discussion of such a Motion and I must deal with it in substance in the time available to me.
I want, at the outset, to emphasise that this is not intended as an attack on any individual or Department because, of course, in accordance with their own lights, I think that all Government Departments and individuals concerned are doing what they can, and what they think best, for the prisoners of war. But the numbers involved—of course, there are scores, or even hundreds, of thousands of prisoners of war and, if one includes in the total their relatives and families, it is a very much larger total—coupled with the number of Government Departments concerned in the care and welfare of prisoners of war, make it obvious that there is plenty of room for over-lapping, 2353 confusion, and even conflict. It is vitally necessary, in my submission, to achieve a closer co-ordination without delay, since we all hope that the end of the German war will come during the next few months, and we know that when that time comes there will be a very substantial repatriation of British officers and men, many thousands of them.
The present system under which these matters are dealt with provides for an Inter-Departmental Committee over which the Secretary of State for War presides. I would refer to the official handbook for the information of relatives and friends of prisoners of war, the first paragraph of which states:The War Office has been entrusted with the duty of watching over the general interests and rights of prisoners of war of all three Services, together with the responsibility for policy and administration.It goes on to recite that other Governments have responsibility in this matter and sets out that the Foreign Office, for example, acts as a channel of communication between His Majesty's Government and the Protecting Power, and it might have added, deals with the question of civilian internees. The General Post Office is concerned with letters and parcels sent by postal service; the Admiralty and Air Ministry have a responsibility for watching over the special interests of individual prisoners of war belonging to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, and the Ministry of War Transport for those of merchant seamen. To that list, I would remind the House, we should add the Board of Trade, which deals with matters of clothing coupons and labels for prisoner of war parcels; the Ministry of Labour, which is interested in the question of rehabilitation and re-employment; the Ministry of Pensions, responsible for disabled ex-prisoners of war and, of course, other Departments like the Dominion and Colonial Offices whose nationals are also involved, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Education—it would almost sound like a recital of all the Government Departments, with one or two exceptions.
The representatives from those Government Departments on the Inter-Departmental Committee are naturally not Ministers, and therefore they are only 2354 able to report to their Departments what proposals have been made at the Committee and, after that, they obtain instructions from their Ministers and return to the Committee to report the views of their Ministers and finally, I suppose, a binding decision of the Committee can be reached. Of course such a procedure inevitably causes considerable delay, and you may arrive at a situation in which there is an insoluble deadlock on some question of policy. Now that is the reason why so many of my hon. Friends and I regard the present system as unsatisfactory. As I said, the Secretary of State for War presides over this Imperial Prisoners of War Committee but the first question I would ask the House, and my right hon. Friend who is to reply, is: Is the War Office really the Ministry which should be entrusted with the determination of policy and administration in prisoner of war questions?
I am not, and I hope no one will think that I am, making any personal attack on the Secretary of State for War when I say that. As I see it, the War Office are primarily, and rightly, concerned with the training, equipment, administration, and strategical employment of the British Army at a maximum of efficiency. It is, of course, to the War Office an unfortunate accident that men may become casualties or prisoners of war, and naturally their desire is to prevent such accidents if possible and, if not, to restore to health, and to the Army as soon as may be, any soldier who has been wounded or become a prisoner of war. Naturally, of course, during the interval the War Office would be careful of the wellbeing of the soldier who was not available for duty, but can one say that the duty of the Secretary of State is other than to the Army, and that his task as a co-ordinator in these prisoner of war matters is really only an incident and, I imagine, to him a rather vexatious additional task in an already rather overburdened life?
One recognises that there are disciplinary and administrative questions which may arise in prisoner of war camps in Germany and which, of course, affect the War Office but even those, I would remind the House, must be referred by the War Office to the Foreign Office so that they may be transmitted to the Protecting Power by the latter Department. 2355 Is it really for the Secretary of State for War to busy himself about sailors, airmen, Dominion or Colonial troops? The point I want to make is that if there is any disagreement over prisoner of war matters between any of the Services or other Departments—and with some little knowledge of these Departments one knows that such a thing could happen—can the Secretary of State for War give a binding and authoritative ruling on such a dispute? I am afraid we all know how jealously Government Departments seek to preserve their own power and independence, and how unwelcome to them would be any attempt by a Minister of equal status to decide disputes which may have arisen between them. If that is true, and I think the House will probably agree that it is, it does seem that an invidious land almost impossible task has been placed on the shoulders of the Secretary of State for War by the Government.
There is, however, if I may suggest it to my right hon. Friend, an excellent precedent for the resolving of this particular problem in the manner set out in the Motion which I read in the early part of my speech. In the last war, experience of the delays and disagreements which occurred in prisoner of war matters ultimately produced this solution. In those days, I may remind the House, there was also an inter-departmental committee, but then it was dealt with under the Foreign Office and was presided over by Lord Newton as Under-Secretary of State. If, however, two Government Departments in those days who were represented on that inter-departmental committee disagreed, Lord Curzon, as an umpire appointed by the Cabinet, was authorised to over-ride the dissentient Department and force it to come into line with the general view.
The solution, I am informed, has worked extremely well and it is that precedent which I and my hon. Friends invite the Government to follow. The matter is important, because of the many pressing and immediate problems which must be solved in the near future. For instance, what is the policy Of the Government on the question of the provision of prisoners' parcels during the coming months? How far are the reserves built up at Geneva or Lisbon available to reinforce the dwindling stocks in the camps? I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War uttered certain warning words on 2356 this question, but how far will those words be followed by action? Without using dramatic language, I can say that it is literally a matter of life and death for the prisoners of war in these camps. How does the matter of the exchange of prisoners who have been in enemy hands for so long now stand? Can anything be done to arrange for their transfer, say, to Switzerland, if they cannot be repatriated to this country? I gather that there may have been some hitch over the repatriation scheme, but cannot an immediate transfer to Switzerland be effected? When do the Government intend to announce their policy of retention in the Army, particularly for service overseas, of prisoners who have been in captivity for many years and who, on repatriation, will still belong to the Armed Forces?
On Wednesday, in the Debate on demobilisation, the Minister of Labour was invited by the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. J. J. Lawson) to say what the position of prisoners of war would be under the scheme, and he replied that the period of captivity is counted as service and that prisoners of war would have special priority. But is that really so? I have asked on a number of occasions that these men, who, I must remind the House, will be completely untrained in modern methods of warfare, and quite useless for immediate service against the Japanese, should, if they have been in captivity for three years, be permitted to exercise the option of either remaining in the Armed Forces or of being discharged and that, in any event, they should not be sent overseas unless as volunteers. I can assure the Minister that I get many very anxious letters on this very important matter. I do not believe that the privilege I have suggested would be resented by the rest of the Army, or would be disadvantageous to the Services as a whole. Have the Ministry of Labour a scheme worked out for the re-absorption of ex-prisoners of war into employment? Is it realised that many of these men will require rather more specialised treatment than the ordinary soldier will receive on being discharged from the Forces? Are the Government prepared to grant more generous allowances in respect of clothing and rationed goods to repatriated prisoners?
Finally, could some modification be made of the present scheme under which 2357 information is conveyed only to the official next-of-kin? At present, if a relative, say, a mother, makes an inquiry about a married prisoner whose wife is registered as his next-of-kin she is referred by the War Office to the Red Cross who, I am informed, refuse to give any information to that mother on the ground that it is confidential, and must only be given to the next-of-kin. Many cases have arisen where personal articles for prisoners could not be sent by a relative who was not the next-of-kin because information as to the whereabouts of the prisoner was not divulged, although his next-of-kin, because she was, perhaps, unfaithful, indifferent, or evacuated to Canada was quite unable to help.
These are a few questions which relatives of prisoners of war are anxiously asking, and on which one awaits the Government's answer. There is great sympathy for prisoners of war among our people and I am sure that generous and understanding treatment of these men, on their return, will be expected not only by their relatives but by the general public. One can only point to the tremendous response which the Red Cross appeal has received, and which lays so much stress on the valuable work it is doing in providing parcels for prisoners of war. It is not a question of over-sentimentalising about prisoners of war—an unfortunate phrase, which I regret the Chairman of the British Red Cross saw fit to use in a speech in Birmingham recently. It is a question of doing justice to the men who have served us as best they could, and whose captivity has sometimes been attributed by them to lack of equipment and support rather than any personal failure on their part.
Let it be remembered that the relatives of these men share with the rest of the population the ordinary burdens of wartime life in this country and that, in addition, they have the anxiety and distress inseparable from the absence, in captivity, of those whom they love and about whose welfare they naturally feel deep concern and from whom they can only hear at rare intervals. I hope I have said enough to show that under the present system, and with so many Government Departments involved, there is bound to be divided Ministerial responsibility and that this, in turn, must lead to a divergence of policy, delay, decision, conflict and confusion in statements made 2358 about prisoners of war. The only way we can cure such divergence is to appoint a senior Minister, not in charge of a Prisoners-of-War Ministry, but solely to co-ordinate prisoners of war problems, and act as umpire and director. The Minister should have responsibility for ansfering questions in this House, unlike the present system, under which different Ministers are charged with that duty, and I fear sometimes give conflicting and inconsistent replies to the same sort of question. Many of us believe that by adopting this modification of the present system a more smoothly-working machine will be created which, in the testing time of large scale repatriation to which we are looking forward, will ensure the results we all desire to achieve.
§ 4.54 P.m.
§ Major Sir Jocelyn Lucas (Portsmouth, South)
As one who was for four years in German prisons and hospitals and an internee in a neutral country, and one who is connected with societies for the rehabilitation of returning prisoners and internees, I would like to reinforce the plea which has been so ably put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Nottingham (Colonel Gluckstein), for a single Minister, and not a Ministry, for prisoners-of-war affairs. I do not propose to go over all the points my hon. and gallant Friend made, but I would like to stress one, and that is the exchange of prisoners who have been in captivity since 1940 to neutral countries. I myself was captured in 1914 and was exchanged in March, 1918, to Holland, and I cannot tell you what it meant to all the prisoners who were exchanged in that way. For the past year or more prisoners have been living on the hope that this would happen again, and I hope the Government or the Foreign Office, which is dealing with the matter, will get on with the job and do something without first waiting for the end of the war.
There is one point which has not been strongly stressed, and that is the question of internees. Unfortunately, great societies like the British Legion and the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families' Association, and various military societies, are not able to deal with them. We have had cases of civil servants in the Far East who stayed at their posts at the request of the Government and who were captured. They will get their pay, but of others who stayed at their posts and were 2359 captured, some are getting their pay and some are not—it is possible in some cases that the firm cannot pay the money—and I should like to know who is the responsible Minister to whom we can go. There are many legal problems involved. I think all of us have had these cases brought to our notice To those who help to look after the present interests of internees on their return it would be of the greatest possible help if a single senior Minister, who would be top dog and could give decisions, were appointed.
§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr Burghs)
My hon. and gallant Friend has covered the ground so fully that I have had to scrap most of the remarks that I intended to make. I should like to congratulate him on the restraint that he showed in dealing with a subject which has aroused, I will not say passion but a great deal of emotion. Very significant emphasis has been given to the matter by the horrifying announcement made by the Secretary of State this morning in regard to our prisoners in Japanese hands. I do not think it is fully realised how many families are affected in this matter, not alone the friends and relations of those who are known to be prisoners, but those who have dear friends who are posted as missing, and who get some comfort from[...]thinking that at any rate they may be prisoners. So the question is really a national one and therefore should be given specialised treatment. That, of course, reinforces the suggestion that these cases should be in the hands of one responsible Minister. I do not like committees very much. They are apt to be a method of evading direct personal responsibility. We want one Minister to whom we can put all our questions, on whom we can place real responsibility and to whom we can go for guidance and information.
Where does the Red Cross come in in this Committee? I had a case of a young relative who was repatriated in a serious condition and I wrote to my right hon. Friend at the War Office to ask if a kindly act could be done. It was done promptly and effectively, but it was done through the good offices of the Red Cross. I was delighted that it was done, but it rather perturbed me to know exactly where the responsibility lay. When the 2360 Secretary of State for War is approached, does he pass on his responsibility to the Red Cross? Has he any authority over the Red Cross or is it done by the good offices of the Red Cross, as he put it? The next step is to appeal to the protecting Power. What Minister approaches the Protecting Power, or is it this vague Committee? I will not go into the actual functions of the Protecting Power or its authority, although it seems, in respect of Japan, that it cannot have very much, judging by what we were told this morning. There is a final point, and that is the dual responsibility for dealing with repatriated prisoners, their care and treatment.
§ It being Five 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."—[Commander Brabner.]
§ Sir T. Moore
The Ministry of Labour deals with one part, and the Ministry of Pensions deals with another. After the war, many thousands of our young men will be returned to us probably mental and physical wrecks. We want to know that a responsible Minister, provided with an adequate and suitable machine, is charged with the duty of enabling these young men to be brought back and helped to a sufficient state of health and strength to face the arduous and severe battle of existence. My hon. and gallant Friend has made a good case, which has been supported from personal experience by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Portsmouth (Sir J. Lucas), and I hope the Government will give it favourable consideration.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Tinker (Leigh)
I would like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Nottingham (Colonel Gluckstein) to know that the Labour Party supports his idea. We all feel for the prisoners of war, but we never really know what Minister we have to deal with. Several times I have tried to find out about prisoners of war, but have been able to get no information and have been directed to the Red Cross. That hardly seems the proper way to do it, and there ought to be some responsible Minister to whom we can appeal. The prisoners of war have a special claim on this country. In the 2361 last war the one thing I dreaded was that I might become a prisoner, for I could have put up with almost anything but falling into the hands of the enemy. When men do fall into the hands of the enemy, they look forward to all possible help from this country. If the appeal made by my hon. and gallant Friend leads to a way out of the difficulty, and if the right hon. Gentleman on behalf of the Government can give any hope that something will be done to co-ordinate activities on behalf of the prisoners, it will send a message of hope to these men, who are rather wondering whether they are not being forgotten. It would be unwise for an occasion like this to pass without a voice in support of my hon. and gallant Friend coming from the Labour benches, and I add my plea to the Government to give this work to one Minister, who will be in charge of the prisoners of war and responsible to Parliament. We shall then know to whom we can appeal.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Hutchinson (Ilford)
The House will be grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for having raised this topic. He has said that the present arrangements have produced overlapping, confusion and conflict. It is unfortunately the fact that that impression of overlapping between a number of different Government Departments, and to some extent betwen the Government and the Red Cross organisation has been conveyed to the public mind by the present system. My hon. and gallant Friend was right in acknowledging the care with which the different Ministers who are charged with responsibility for this matter have undertaken their duties, and it would be unfortunate if anything that was said in this Debate should aggravate the uneasiness which undoubtedly exists in the mind of the public that in some way the prisoner of war is falling between two stools, and that his needs are being neglected because responsibility for his welfare is divided between a number of different agencies. I do not believe that to be the case. Certainly my own experience, with all the Ministers whom I have approached, has been that my inquiries have been received with care, promptness, and sympathy. But we have to satisfy the relatives and the public that there is some individual Min- 2362 ister who has a special responsibility for the welfare of our prisoners of war. Under the existing arrangements, I am not satisfied that that is the case.
My hon. and gallant Friend referred to the Inter-Departmental Committee which has been set up, to co-ordinate the activities of the different Departments which are responsible. I am not myself a great admirer of Inter-Departmental Committees. Unless there is a chairman—who ought to be a Minister—who possesses not only the power to co-ordinate but the power to give decisions, the work of an Inter-Departmental Committee very often ends in nothing but compromise. What is required is a Minister who has power not only to coordinate but to give the necessary decisions. It is, as my hon. and gallant Friend reminded the House, interesting to look back and see what was done during the last war. Then, as he reminded us, a very similar situation arose. There was an Inter-Departmental Committee. If my recollection is right, Lord Newton assumed the special post of Comptroller of Prisoners of War in 1917. An important feature, I think, of that arrangement was that either Lord Newton or Lord Curzon had power to give a decision, and had power to initiate action for the welfare of prisoners of war. It is because, under the arrangements that have been [...] de in this war, no Minister seems to have power to give decisions, or, what is perhaps even more important, to initiate action for the welfare of prisoners of war that the present arrangements are arousing this feeling of uneasiness in the mind of the public.
I do not desire to press the point too far. I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend appreciates it. But this appears to be one of those occasions on which the machinery of Government is not working very well. We are encountering these occasions very frequently at this stage of the war. Nobody would suggest that the responsibility for certain aspects of this question could be removed from the War Office, for example, or any one of the other Service Departments to which it is at present entrusted. No one would suggest that responsibility for other aspects of the matter should be taken away from the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Pensions, or the Ministry of War Transport, with whom general responsibility for 2363 that particular topic rests. What is required is some machinery for co-ordinating the activities of these Departments, and for enabling a prompt decision to be made when the Departments are not themselves able to reach a conclusion. If this Debate results in my right hon. Friend being able to give the House some assurance that the present arrangements will be modified in such a way that that power of decision and that power to take the initiative in action for the welfare of prisoners of war, will be accorded to some Minister, then I think that my hon. and gallant Friend and the House will not have been wasting their time this afternoon.
May I refer to one aspect of this matter, which I think illustrates very well the need for some co-ordinating machinery on the lines I have been endeavouring to suggest? Take the case of these three year prisoners. I am bound to say it is very difficult to know which particular Department or Minister is responsible for initiating the necessary action to ensure that at the first opportunity these prisoners can be repatriated, either to this country or to a neutral country. I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has been most active in the matter; but he has many other duties to perform. This is an outstanding example of a case in which it would have been of very great advantage to the House, and I think would have attracted the confidence of the public outside this House, if there had been a single Minister to put this matter forward at every opportunity, and see that no opportunity was neglected to ensure that at the first possible occasion some relief should be brought to these men, who have been so long in captivity. I wish to make it plain that I am not suggesting that that has not been done; but it is right to say that the public outside this House are not yet satisfied that that is the case. Therefore I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to see his way to accept what has been suggested.
§ 5.13 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Attlee)
I should like to assure the House and the country, that His Majesty's Government have the most profound sympathy with the prisoners of war, and the relatives and friends of the prisoners of war, wherever they are. We understand 2364 perfectly well the amount of suffering and anxiety that arise from this, which is one of the great human problems of the war, and nothing should be said by anyone to increase their anxieties and fears, and one should be very careful that one has really diagnosed the trouble aright. Unfortunately, we have seen in our lifetime a great deterioration in world civilisation, and things that would not have been thought of 30 or 40 years ago are now done. The House heard to-day of the difficulties we have in dealing with Japan, and, in dealings with Germany, one must bear that in mind first of all.
The second thing to bear in mind in all these matters is that you have to work through certain channels—through the International Red Cross, which does a magnificent work. It must be remembered that when we are at war, there is not a close interchange with the enemy all the time. One has to think of that. Therefore in looking at these difficulties, and there are bound to be difficulties from time to time, one needs to be very careful that one is not suggesting the impossible in one's anxiety about prisoners of war. One needs to be very careful, too, that one is not suggesting that it is a matter of machinery that is wrong, when it may be merely the situation. I do not share the views of my hon. Friend that there is very grave disquiet, or a justified disquiet, at the way these things are handled by the Government. The indication that I and my colleagues have is that the majority of the families of these men have confidence in the way these matters are being handled by the Government, by the Protecting Power, and the International Red Cross.
I must say I was rather struck by the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for East Nottingham (Colonel Gluckstein) for the reason that he went entirely on hypothetical points. He said: "There are a number of Departments concerned and, therefore, there might be confusion, conflict and overlapping. They might come to an insoluble deadlock." He put a number of questions, and not one of those questions related to the overlapping of Departments. In fact, his whole speech, I noted very carefully, was based entirely upon hypothesis, and no single instance was adduced of where there had been conflict between Departments. He went on to make what I thought was a 2365 very strong case indeed. He said: "There are a number of Departments which, in their different ways, must deal with prisoners of war—Agriculture, Labour and all the rest." Where you have Ministries with those diversities of technique, it is a mistake to suppose that you can roll those together, and put them under one responsible Minister. It is a common illusion. I have noticed rather often lately in the House, I am afraid, this idea that you can take some particular part of a subject, or something relating to one lot of people, pluck it out from the ordinary course of Government, and assign it to a particular Minister. I think it is a complete and utter delusion. It is not the genius of this nation at all.
I should like to correct a possible misunderstanding. I thought I made two actual points, which were not hypothetical, of departmental conflict. One concerned the Minister of Labour who said on Wednesday that people should be given special treatment when they returned, but the statement is not borne out by the document in question. The other was conflict between the Red Cross and the Secretary of State for War.
§ Mr. Attlee
That is not conflict between Departments. The latter is a question between the Red Cross and the Minister, and I shall be glad to look into it. It is not a case of conflict between Departments. The fact is that, in an extended Government such as you have in a modern State to-day, you must have joint working between Ministries in charge of different subjects. It is all very well to sneer at the committee system, but committees work perfectly well, provided there is proper chairmanship and a power of decision. I have had no instance adduced to show that this Committee does not work well. I have no evidence to show that if you put on the top of all these things, some other Minister, unacquainted with all the matters in question, you would get a better result. There is, in the Government now, full provision for dealing with conflict between Ministers. They can come to me as Lord President of the Council and to the Committee over which I preside. If there were this alleged conflict between Departments I am sure that I should have heard of it. There really has not been this conflict.
2366 The second thing I suggest is that hon. Members have not quite realised what the problem is to-day. It is not quite the same as it was at the end of the last war. I have read Lord Newton's very interesting memoirs. I do not think it was a particularly successful idea, and it came on right at the end of the war. The real problem now is not with Departments. I admit that in the last war, very often the Service Departments did not agree. To-day, the real problem has become less an inter-Departmental one; it is an inter-Imperial one. It is a question of taking into account the special circumstances and interests of each and every member of the Commonwealth—United Kingdom, the Dominions, India and the Colonies—and that cannot be done just by one Minister. It is actually done by an inter-Empire body. That body exists and has existed for the last three years. That is the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee, whose function is to co-ordinate the action of all the Empire Governments in regard to matters relating to prisoners of war, both in our hands and those of the enemy. The Secretary of State for, War is the chairman, and there are representatives of the United Kingdom Government and of the Dominions, and routine matters are dealt with by sub-Committees, which also include representatives of the Home Government as they are required.
In regard to the question of dealing with exchanges or anything of that sort, you will not get any further by appointing a special Minister. That is, obviously, the job of the Foreign Office. Believe me, it is not true to say that the Foreign Office are not concerned in this matter and do not take the initiative. It is a matter which is very difficult to deal with, as I pointed out, but we are constantly working on this, and we are, naturally, working with the Dominions and with our Allies. This is not an easy matter, but it is an entire mistake to think that it is relegated, because someone else has got other important matters to attend to. The Foreign Office is the office that deals with our external relations, and they, naturally, have numbers of such questions to deal with, but it is utterly wrong to suppose that they are not intensely interested in this question of our prisoners overseas.
Take the suggestion about the General Post Office. It is no good setting up a special General Post Office to deal with prisoners of war. The Post Office is a 2367 great organisation that must be the instrument of the Government for dealing with the mails of prisoners. For re-settlement, in agriculture or anything else, you do not want a special Re-settlement Committee to deal with prisoners of war. You have the business of re-settlement and the technique of re-settlement, with adaptations to particular cases, such as soldiers who have been prisoners of war, or anything else. Therefore, I suggest that there is a dangerous failure to understand the proper function of government in this attitude, which comes up quite often, in, favour of one super-Minister. In our system of government, the functions depend upon Ministers in charge of different Departments working together as colleagues, under a Cabinet in which, ultimately, all decisions are made and whose job is to co-ordinate their activities and take decisions on main policy. I have not heard in this Debate any instance — I have heard suggestions, but I have not heard an actual instance—where, in dealing with prisoners of war, the trouble has been due to Departmental conduct. If any of my hon. Friends will bring me any instance where harm was done through troubles between Departments, I should be glad to take it up and deal with it at once, but as I say never in this Debate has any such instance been adduced.
I think it is natural that this Committee should be presided over by the Secretary of State for War. Unhappily, he has the larger number of prisoners to be concerned about, and the Secretary of State for War replies to questions dealing with the actual conditions of prisoners, their health, pay or allowances, unlike the Foreign Secretary, who deals with questions having a bearing on negotiations undertaken on our prisoners' behalf with enemy Governments, either through the protecting Power or the International Red Cross Committee. There is constant discussion of these matters inter-departmentally. Departments are not kept apart from each other, and any major matter that requires decision or consideration is brought up to the Cabinet. We have, as a matter of fact, in this war devised a system which I think avoids the pitfalls of too loose an organisation or of over-centralisation. I have yet to hear that it is not working well. I have every sympathy with the anxiety of hon. Mem- 2368 bers, but I would wish to warn them again against the conception that the Government is a thing in which there must always be, or often be, a Minister who is responsible for dealing, in respect of a very large number of functions, with one particular lot of people. I do not think that it is sound from the administrative point of view.
§ Mr. Attlee
Not in the least; that is where my hon. and gallant Friend is wrong. On the contrary, that is an all-in insurance. We are pooling together, under one Minister, a variety of insurances, previously separated, into one system dealing with everybody. If we took the suggestions put forward here, we would have one special insurance system for one special section of people—the soldiers, sailors and airmen—and I suggest that that is wrong. It is really not sound administration to suggest that the right way is to get an ad hoc Minister. The rule is that departmental Ministers, and all Ministers, should work together co-operatively in a team and that is a British system we shall do well to follow.
§ Mr. Tinker
We are not asking for a separate Minister but for a Minister to have responsibility to the House of Commons in dealing with prisoners of war.
§ Mr. Attlee
I suggest that is not right either. I do not think that it is good to have one Minister getting up to reply to all Post Office questions relating to prisoners of war instead of the Post Office, or on agricultural settlement instead of the Minister of Agriculture. It would be putting such a Minister into an impossible position because all his replies would be second-hand in regard to the Minister who was administering the duty. The Minister responsible for administration should answer to the House for that administration. It is a mistake to think you could get a kind of super-Minister over all others, who should be answerable for them in this House.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Miss Ward (Wallsend)
May I put this one point to my right hon. Friend? He has laid great emphasis on the fact that the Government are perfectly satisfied with the present position. My hon. and 2369 gallant Friend and my hon. Friends and myself know that they have been satisfied ever since the beginning of the war. The fact that a very large number of names appeared as backing this Motion on the Order Paper is an indication that the House felt progressively more strongly that the Government's attitude was not in fact representative of the views of the people and that the anxiety in the country has grown.
I do not want to enter into any personal matters, but speaking for myself I do not feel that the War Office is the correct Department to have an over-ruling authority through the Secretary of State of either the Imperial Committee or the Inter-Departmental Committee. I do not think that the psychological make-up of the War Office really is fitting to enable it to deal with all the problems affecting prisoners of war which arise. With regard 2370 to the point raised by my right hon. Friend in his reply, for myself, if there has been another Minister, and not a Service Minister, responsible for the co-ordination, I would have felt happier.
When I was on my journeys abroad I received from senior officers in the Forces great criticism of the War Office's handling of prisoner-of-war matters. Though one must accept to-day the reply of my right hon. Friend, I am not over impressed by his complacency in this particular matter, and sometimes it would be a good thing if the Government could be guided by people in the House in these matters.
§ It being Half-past Five O'clock, MR. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, Pursuant to the Standing Order, till Tuesday, 28th November, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.