HC Deb 16 July 1946 vol 425 cc1183-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." —[Captain Michael Stewart.]

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

In the very short time available, which I regret very much—I express the hope that somehow or other the Government will find time for a discussion of this very important subject—I wish, once again, to raise the question of the continued detention and treatment of prisoners of war in this country and in British camps on the Continent.

So far as my representations and those of other hon. Members of this House are concerned, they have always been met with the answer that the Geneva Convention no longer runs. But if one takes the trouble to study the Geneva Convention, as no doubt many hon. Members have, one finds that in Article 96 it is specifically laid down that any party to the Convention cannot unilaterally denounce it. Therefore, whatever may be the attitude of His Majesty's Government on the question of whether they do or do not like the Geneva Convention, the fact remains that we are a party to it. It may also be claimed that there is no German Government at the present time to implement the German side of it, but, surely, inherently in the declaration of the Prime Minister that fair treatment would be meted out to the German people as a result of unconditional surrender, it is our responsibility to see that the principles of the Convention are carried out. In fact, when the Foreign Secretary answered me in his claim that the Convention no longer ran, he said that His Majesty's Government proposed to follow out the intentions and implications of the Convention

I claim that that has not peen done. It is clearly laid down in Article 75 of the Convention that, as soon as possible after the cessation of hostilities, prisoners of war shall be returned to their own country, at any rate not later than the signing of the Peace Treaty. At the present moment they are not being returned to their country because the Government claim that they have no Government in Germany with whom to negotiate. But that does not lie in the Geneva Convention. In any event, as we have established an Allied Control Commission in Germany to govern the country, which will remain for many years to come, coupled with the fact that promises have been categorically given in the implied conditions of unconditional surrender, the Government ought to honour their obligations which, in my opinion as an ex-soldier, are being disgracefully dishonoured by His Majesty's Government.

I know that there are different views about this, but, surely, everybody who has studied this problem knows the appalling effect which detention for an indefinite period of time has on the moral and spiritual attitude of any person. I have always said that I should go raving mad if I were locked up for a week. Hon. Members opposite would obviously say that that would be a very good thing. [An HON. MEMBER: "Not necessarily."] That may be. It surely illustrates what I am trying to say, that here we have a large number of people, running into some half million—perhaps more or perhaps less, I do not know the exact figure—who are being detained beyond the intention of any regulation laid down under the Geneva Convention. We are sowing for ourselves seeds which will provide for us a crop which we shall rue having to reap at some future date. We are making bitter enemies of people of whom we ought now to be trying to make friends, and we have a golden opportunity in this country to do our best for them.

I know the whole of this question is an argumentative one, but I want to put this point to the Under-Secretary. I believe that the evil arises from the foundations that were laid at Teheran and Yalta. I was told—and I raised the matter on 11th April, 1945—by responsible officers that at Yalta it was agreed that the Russians should have two million slaves from Germany for 20 years after the cessation of hostilities. That was denied categorically by the then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. I met the same responsible people the other day and I quoted the speech which was delivered to me on 11th April, 1945, and they said, "That is bosh. We are quite confident about what we told you 18 months ago that that is one of the secret provisions of the Yalta Agreement."

With that background, if the demoralisation of Governments is so universal throughout the world that they have no intention whatever to abide by any principles, which I know some hon. Members opposite have not, no wonder the present Government find themselves in their present difficulty.

Brigadier Head (Carshalton)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that officers who were present at the Yalta Conference, and who were in a position to know those secrets, told him of them?

Mr. Stokes

I am not suggesting anything confidential, because, obviously, no officer would tell me anything confidential. [Laughter.] Certainly not, because I invariably say to such people, "It is no use telling me anything that you do not want me to use, because it is certain that I shall use it unless you tell me not to." The hon. and gallant Gen-leman would probably be surprised because he knows these people well, but these persons are absolutely certain, as I am certain from what they have told me, that this is the background against which the present situation has arisen. I am not surprised that we have drifted into this appalling position. I speak for myself alone, but I am ashamed that any Labour Government can tolerate the position in which they have been torpedoed or jettisoned by the irresponsible lack of principle of right hon. Gentlemen opposite in this respect.

The facts, I believe, are as I have stated. The Geneva Convention is quite clear that these men ought to be returned to their country as soon as possible, arid, whatever may be in the Declarations or Agreements or secret understandings at these Conferences, I now ask, as do a large number of hon. Members on this side of the House, that there shall now be a categorical statement from the Government as to their intention, because the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for War in another place last week was sheer buffoonery and incompetence of the worst order, which no reasonable person could possibly accept from a responsible Government. [Inter- ruption.] I do not object to people disagreeing with me. In fact, I should find myself in the most exceptional position if everybody did agree with what I said. I would think there must be something very wrong with my own point of view. I do not mind in the least if the hon. Gentleman does not agree with me. I say to him that I wish he had an opportunity of speaking, but unfortunately the time is such that nobody but the Financial Secretary will have an opportunity of doing so, and if I go on much longer even he will not.

This is one of the gravest problems with which we are confronted, and whatever the Financial Secretary may complain about, I do not propose to let it go out to the world that an understatement has been made, or that an insufficient statement of what the problem is has been put forward in this House. This Government are not alone. That is my complaint about Yalta. The same beastliness and tyranny are going on in Belgium, in Russia and in France. France is probably the worst of all. There are terrible stories that one hears of the treatment of prisoners of war, which would shame any of the decent French soldiers with whom I had the honour to serve in the last war but one. It is shameful to think that Frenchmen, who have the same degree of honour, should be treating these men in this tyrannous manner.

Mr. John Lewis (Bolton)rose ——

Mr. Stokes

I have not time to give way. That is one point. We want a declaration tonight from the Government as to their intention.

The second point I wish to raise is the question of non-fraternisation. I, and those who feel as I do, ask that there should be an immediate following of the statement of the Government's intention, as to how long they detain these people, by a modification of the non-fraternisation rules. Perfectly ridiculous things happen. The other day I heard of the case of a woman who gave a chap a piece of cake, and she was fined £1 for doing so. It is almost as ridiculous as the German soldier in Germany the other day who was sent to prison for a year for not standing up when "God Save the King" was played. I have seen hon. Members sitting below the Gangway opposite who have not stood up when "God Save the King" was played, but they were never sent to prison for it. Surely, it is time these people were not punished in this ridiculous manner because of their political beliefs. I am sure that is the real feeling of hon. Members on this side of the House.

My third point—it is not the last point; I have about 17 more, but one has to be selective in this short time—following the statement of policy, with the alleviating of the non-fraternisation rules, is the question of paying the prisoners of war properly. If my hon. Friend will take the trouble to study the Geneva Convention he will find it is quite clearly laid down what these men should be paid. It is clearly envisaged, that not only shall they have what I call petty cash, but that there shall be a sum above that which should be set aside for their benefit when they are finally released.

Mr. John Lewis


Mr. Stokes

My hon. Friend asks "Why?" For heaven's sake read the Geneva Convention.

Mr. Lewis

They are enemy nationals.

Mr. Stokes

Surely every trade unionist at least on this side of the House will agree with me that if a man has to do a job of work he should be paid the rate for the job. I am what some people call a blackleg member of the party, because I am an employer. However, everyone knows I have always insisted that a man should be paid the rate for the job. Why, when one gets a fellow into the position of prisoner of war, he should be treated as a slave and paid a bob a day, I fail to understand. I altogether fail to understand why any decent trade unionist on this side of the House puts up with that for a single moment. The fact of the matter is that at the present time the Government are making something of the order of £750,000 a week out of slave labour. It is no use whatever our protesting against other Governments doing likewise, when we ourselves are doing it here.

I declare that this ridiculous payment of Is. a day is not good enough. We have to charge them for their keep, as I have been told already in answer to a Parliamentary Question amounting to 23s. a week. That 23S. a week plus 6s. is 29s. The difference between 3os., roughly, and £4 is £2 10s. That is precisely what the Government are making out it. It is no use the Financial Secretary telling me they have to charge for the camp and all the rest of it. That is not the intention of the Geneva Convention. He cannot get out of it that way. The fact of the matter is that these men are not here of their own volition. Their colleagues in Germany, who happened to be made prisoners of war in Germany, have mostly been released, while they are being kept as slaves in this country because they happened to be captured early in the war and incarcerated here. I ask therefore for a revision of the non-fraternising order, a definition of what the Government intend to do in regard to their release, and that, as long as these men are in detention, they shall be treated fairly and squarely in accordance with the principles of this Convention.

10.26 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Ballenger)

My hon. Friend has left me precisely four minutes in which to reply to a very serious onslaught on the Government. I may say that I have a good deal of sympathy with some of what my hon. Friend said, and so have His Majesty's Government. But it does not help his case to be violent about something which needs very careful handling. May I say at the outset that His Majesty's Government are trying to solve what is, legally, a very difficult problem? Although the Government do not base themselves entirely on this point, legally, in accordance with the Geneva Convention, we are entitled to treat these men whom we have taken as prisoners of war as prisoners of war, and the unfortunate part of my case tonight is that I have to answer in a special capacity, namely, as the representative of the War Office, which does not make policy but is merely the guardian of these prisoners of war.

What my hon. Friend said about the Government making a profit out of the prisoners of war is quite inaccurate. It is quite untrue. The Government are not making a profit out of the prisoners of war, otherwise I should say that it would be very immoral indeed. [An HON. MEMBER: "Where is the money going? "] if we go into the pounds, shillings and pence, as we may have to do, though it is impossible tonight, I can assure my hon. Friend, and the House, that we can show that we are not making a profit on them. Indeed, toy hon. Friend has offered no real conclusive evidence that we are making a profit. It is wrong. We are not making a profit. I think it would be very well, without prejudice to what the Leader of the House might say, if the House did have a more suitable opportunity for discussing this matter, not in the vacuum in which it has been presented tonight by my hon. Friend, but in a much more expansive manner. It does not do this country any good for wild statements such as my hon. Friend has made to go out abroad. We have a case, and indeed we are already sending many of these men back overseas.

All I can say tonight, although I have brought notes with me to answer my hon. Friend, is that His Majesty's Government, irrespective of any peace treaty that is to be made—and hon. Members must surely know how difficult it is to make any peace treaty; we have not yet made a peace treaty with Italy, yet the Italians have gone home in large numbers—many of the German prisoners of war are now on the way home, and they are going home every week. Two thousand of them are leaving this month, and our method is that those whom we consider to be anti-Nazis have high priority for going home because we believe that they are the best men to try and rebuild their country in the democratic spirit we want to see in Germany if we are to have any hope of peace in the future. I cannot say any more tonight, because my time is up. I can assure the House that the case we have to put when we are given the opportunity of putting it will be quite different from that presented by my hon. Friend tonight.

It being Half-past Ten o' Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKERadjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.