§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." —[Captain Michael Stewart.]
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Miss Jennie Lee (Cannock)
I rise to ask for certain information affecting anti-Fascist prisoners of war, and I do so fully appreciating that the Cabinet statement last month has eased the situation very considerably. The House is very satisfied that there should be a general speeding up of repatriation and particularly satisfied that in that general speeding up priority will be given to those prisoners of war who have an anti-Fascist proved reputation. I am happy to be the first to have the privilege of questioning my hon. Friend who is on the Bench for the first time this evening in his capacity of Financial Secretary to the War Office. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad the House shares my feeling. I am particularly pleased because he himself claims a very big share of the credit for such improvements as have been made recently in the treatment and priorities given to anti-Fascist prisoners.
But for all that there are still a number of very sore points that, for the honour of this country and for our reputation as an anti-Facist House of Parliament, simply must be still further cleared up. To begin with, I have letters in my possession from young prisoners of war who say that in a two-minute interview they have their category defined—Class A, Class B or Class C. In most instances I am quite satisfied that the classification is correct, but since priorities of repatriation are now accompanying this classification I ask my hon. Friend if he will see that the prisoners know in which group they are. They ought not to be left to an atmosphere of rumour in the camps in which they get their information sometimes indirectly and sometimes not at all. It seems a reasonable proposition that the prisoners should know precisely whether they are being classified as A, B or C.
Further, as some of these segregation teams are unequal in quality, as the War Office like every other Department is sometimes short of labour and short of qualified labour, it seems to me reasonable that provision should now be made for persons classified as B or C to appeal. 148 I suggest that if testimonials are sent in on behalf of prisoners now classified B or C from anti-Fascist organisations in their country of origin that should mean speedy reassessment of their claims. I also suggest that there are many hon. Members who have long associations and ties both with organisations and with the case histories of prisoners, and it would be a good job of cooperation if more immediate regard could be paid to some of our correspondence, not that we ask that everything we say should be taken unchecked. What we really want is that when we have reason to believe that a man has a sound anti-Fascist record, his case should be checked with the minimum of delay.
Amongst the prisoners of war there is one group in particularly difficult circumstances, the Sudeten German anti-Fascists. I am informed by some of their representatives, old friends in the underground movement I knew before the war, that there are at least 300 known anti-Fascists among the Sudeten German prisoners of war. I cannot possibly ask that representatives from their home country should be called in to give testimony because of the situation well known to hon. Members, but I do ask that the Department should take note of those of us who are in a position to give information or to suggest individuals and organisations that can check up on those men in order that every non-Fascist should be given his priority. May I also ask that the compassionate clause should operate where those men find that their wives and children have been sent somewhere in Germany? They are still in British prisoner of war camps, they have the unhappiness of this broken family situation, and both on the anti-Fascist and on compassionate grounds, no unnecessary delay should occur before those men are returned to their home conditions.
There is another thing which is puzzling me in regard to prisoners of war in this country, and about which I would be glad to know more. How many new prisoners of war have been brought into this country, and who are they? From my correspondence I know that some of them are what might be called voluntary prisoners of war, that is, men who were quite willing to come back to this country and to accept the conditions. I have also reason to believe that some of them 149 are S.S. men. I have not the slightest objection to S.S. men coming into this country and taking the place of proved anti-Fascists who have been given priority of release, but I suggest that even in the case of those men they should know definitely how they stand, because it is not a good thing to have an atmosphere of unrest and rumour and cynicism in any camp. I can assure my hon. Friend who will reply that there is a good deal of doubt, and that it would be quite a simple matter to clear it up.
Another point at home here is that we have young Germans of the same age group among the prisoners classified B and C, who back in Germany, as this House knows, are now privileged by general amnesty for, even where they are members of the Fascist Party, it is understood that they were too young to be doing other than merely conforming to the status quo. If an amnesty is being given to those young Germans in Germany, then it would be a very good democratic and educational thing if they could be given certain privileges in this country whilst awaiting repatriation. By privilege I mean something of the same category as was given to the Italian cooperators, so that they can meet British people to a certain extent and see some of the British institutions. I am very well aware that most of the commandants running prisoner of war camps are doing their jobs very well and with great humanity, but there are instances where a commandant behaves in a way that I regard as unreasonable. For instance, one of the London trades council organisations thought it would be a good idea if some of the German anti-Fascist prisoners of war and some of those young fellows saw the British institutions, but there was objection by the camp commandant. Do not let us leave those prisoners of war at the mercy of caprice, even though most men in charge would behave very well. Surely, we can explain to those people what is happening in this country?
Now I come to what is to me a much sorer matter. I hope that before this House adjourns tonight something will be said to clear up a possible source of misunderstanding arising from an answer given by the Secretary of State for War this afternoon in reply to a Question as to how many of the German prisoners of war still retained in North Africa belonged to the German 999 Division and should be 150 returned. I speak subject to correction but, checking as best I can, the words of the Minister in reply were that separate statistics relating to the 999 battalion were not available and could not be obtained without a considerable amount of labour. I want this House to reflect for a minute on the possible source of cynicism, heartbreak, and misunderstanding behind that phrase. I want it cleared up. Some of these men for 10, 11 and 12 years have had no social community life and have been prisoners in Hitler's camp. Hitler did our original job for us, by screening them, and putting them through tests. He put them into gaol and concentration camps, but that was not because they were good Nazis. On all the priorities those men have a very special claim on this House. We cannot have the idea going into the camps where men have been victims for a decade that it would be too much trouble to find out about them, and that we cannot obtain information about the 999 Battalion. It is information many hon. Members in this House could give, almost the exact numbers of those men. There is something queer happening in that Department if they cannot find out.
I am concerned that the whole of the prisoners in the Middle East should be brought into repatriation schemes, but I am particularly stressing the position of the anti-Fascist prisoners of war. I hope we will make it quite clear tonight that the highest priority is going to those men, and that no trouble will be spared to locate them. In fact they are locating themselves. Incidentally, when I raised this issue once before, someone presumed to censor a letter sent to me by one of those men before it reached me. I got the un-censored version as well as the censored version. I do not want to have censored letters reaching me and have to resort to methods of communication which some of us in this House who were anti-Fascists when other Members supported Fascism had to resort to, in order to know what a prisoner of war in a British camp wants to say to me. I hope that will not happen again, but that we will say to these men that we understand all they have been through. I particularly hope that if reports come saying that they have had to be separated as some are Communists and some anti-British, we will remember that some of these men have their own description of some British personnel. I know there are some unjust adjectives used on 151 both sides, but let us not forget that some of these men have been sorely tried and that if we want them to be anti-British the best way to do it is to say that there is any trouble in locating them and giving them top priority and adequate facilities to get home.
That is the main thing I want to stress. There are a number of minor matters, and I am sorely tempted to go into case history, but it would be better to leave that to other hon. Members who wish to go into the cases. Will my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, who was such a valiant anti-Fascist and defender of these men when sitting on the back benches join in saying something which will go out to those camps and let the men know that when the British House of Commons says priorities are going to be given to anti-Fascists it means anti-Fascists in the Middle East as well as in other camps, all anti-Fascists? I know there were criminals among the men in the penal battalion, but I am talking of the political members of the penal battalion. Let them know that we in this House of Commons are an anti-Fascist assembly and are concerned to give them top priority, and have a greater respect for them than for the criminals we tried at Nuremberg.
§ 945 p.m.
§ Mr. Edelman (Coventry, West)
The whole House must be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) for having raised this vitally important matter this evening. Everyone on this side of the House certainly will be equally grateful that the new Financial Secretary is to reply this evening, because we all know how he, as an individual, as a back bencher, has fought for justice for anti-Fascist prisoners of war. This evening I wish to confine myself merely to the question of those members of the 999 Battalion who are still detained in captivity. I venture to do so because I raised this matter in this House some months ago. Then I was told that it was impossible to find out who these prisoners were and to separate them from the mass of prisoners, because of the administrative difficulties of sorting them out.
These prisoners have sorted themselves out, and I have had a letter from one of them. I am grateful to the military authorities for having authorised the transmission of that letter, from which I would 152 like to read. It is from Irvin Schultz, Camp 2228, c/o B.A.O.R., Hanover. He writes:Why are not the anti-Nazis in British camps freed? I am here with 40 former political prisoners who spent 115 years as political prisoners in all under the Third Reich. They have already spent eight or nine years behind barbed wires. Is not it a moral duty to free these men who have gone through the hell of the Gestapo?Then he goes on to say:The uncertainty as to when they will be released after spending a further three years as prisoners of war is crushing. Is Nazism, beaten on the field of battle, to achieve its goal after all of destroying so many fighters for freedom?He adds:Humanity demands their immediate release.These men are still in prison camps, both in the Middle East and in Germany. These are the men who were the first re-sisters to Hitler. These are the men, the few in Germany who fought Fascism as Germans, and these are the men on whom our British administration in Germany should be relying today in order to build up a democratic Germany. It seems to me that if we do not take the trouble to sort them out from prison camps and use them, these old Social Democrats who really are the hope of a future democratic Germany, we will have been failing in our duty.
It is not enough for the War Office to answer, when we ask for their release, that it is too much trouble or too difficult to find them, because surely it has always been a proud claim and a tradition of this House to consider that an injustice to one is as important as an injustice to a thousand or ten thousand. I believe, too, that the fact that we consider an injustice to a few to be as important as an injustice to many is what distinguishes our country from a totalitarian country. As this matter seems merely to be one of taking the necessary administrative steps in order to go through the lists to identify these men, it seems to me that there is no excuse whatever for failing to do so. I think it is generally agreed that these men have a right to their liberty. Many of their names are known, most of their units are known. It merely means the necessary effort to sort them out. I hope that the Financial Secretary will say that that work, however great, will be done, because I believe that our good name in the world 153 and good reputation among the anti-Nazis in Germany depends on the way in which we solve this problem.
§ 9.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)
I shall stand for only a very few moments between hon. Members and the debut of the Financial Secretary to the War Office at the Despatch Box. I feel sure his appointment has been welcomed in all parts of the House. I rise now mainly because I did not feel entirely satisfied with the answers given at Question time today to the Questions put down by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) and myself in regard to the repatriation of German prisoners of war from the Middle East. During the Recess I visited a special German prisoners of war establishment in this country where there were certain German prisoners of war brought back from the Middle East. I found, in talking to them, a pronounced anxiety in regard to the position of German prisoners of war in prison camps in the Middle East in respect of repatriation arrangements. There was no doubt at all that in their minds these people had been overlooked. So marked was this feeling that some of the young prisoners of war, who had come over for this particular course from the camps of the Middle East, preferred to return there rather than take advantage of the rights that would accrue to them from being in this country, because they felt that it was a duty they owed to their comrades they had left behind in the Middle East. Taking account of that very strong feeling, it did not seem to me that the answers of the Secretary of State were entirely satisfactory this afternoon. I urge the Financial Secretary to see that further attention is given to this matter of prisoners of war in the Middle East and to see if they cannot be fitted more fairly into the repatriation arrangements existing for German prisoners of war in this country. I am sure that this House would not like it to be thought that a mere accident of geography should discriminate against people in a matter such as this.
With regard to the particular case of the 999 Division which has been raised, I would say only this. The fact that the Nazi Government saw fit to mix in this unit political offenders, as they then were, with ordinary criminals, no doubt makes more difficult the administrative task of 154 the War Office. I entirely appreciate that, as I am sure does the hon. Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) who initiated this discussion. The fact that this is so to my mind places a still greater responsibility upon the War Office that in spite of that additional difficulty they should get matters sorted out as soon as may be. I welcome particularly the reference of the hon. Member for Cannock to the young German prisoners of war and to their categorisation. I think it is beyond question true that there are a large number of very young German prisoners of war who are categorised as Nazi because of an association with the Hitler Jugend, or some such organisation, but who are not in any political sense of the word Nazis. I believe it is to these younger elements more particularly that we shall have to look as one of the mainsprings of a satisfactory working democracy in Germany. I wish to reinforce the hon. Lady's plea for sympathetic consideration of the cases of these young German prisoners of war. I think that the Financial Secretary will make his debut all the more welcome to the House if he is able to give some measure of reassurance to the anxiety that is widely felt on these matters, and give some indication of action which his Department can take in the case of prisoners in the Middle East.
§ 9.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Paget (Northampton)
I regret that I am rising to raise a discordant voice on this question. I believe we are altogether wrong in giving political priority for the release of these prisoners, and I myself hope that this system of grading prisoners according to their political opinions will be abolished. I do not say that primarily because it is so very difficult to grade them correctly, but because, in fact, the men who make the highest grade are probably those with the most pliant and most subservient views rather than those with more genuine feelings. Apart from that consideration, there is a very grave objection in principle, or rather two very grave objections. A good many of us feel rather uncomfortable about the retention of these men in captivity and servitude at all, but the one thing which we as democrats cannot stand for is the incarceration of people because of their political opinions. If we give priorities of release to those whose political opinions we approve, the necessary consequence is that 155 we are keeping other people in prison longer because we do not approve of their political opinions, and I believe that that, as far as we are concerned, is an intolerable thing to do.
I would further say that one has to look at it from the other aspect of what is going to happen in the Germany of the future. How are the other prisoners, who will, I suppose, eventually return to Germany, going to feel about those who were given favouritism by the conquerors because they were pliant to the conquerors' political ideas? I believe that, by picking out people as political favourites, to whom we are going to give the favour of liberty, we are, in effect, damning them and damning their influence in their own country. Imagine the resentment which we should feel if numbers of our comrades who had served with us, who were in prison with us, were picked out because the Nazis liked their political opinions and who were given favours and sent back home before us. When we came back and caught up with these fellows, when we had eventually recovered our liberty, how should we treat them? What would be their influence in our community?
I believe very strongly that all should be treated alike, but that there should be compassionate release for those whose families have been expelled from their homes. We should consider the terrible cases of the families who have been expelled from their ancestral homes in the Sudetenland. Those are the people to whom we should give the first priority for release. As to the others, they should be treated without any political priority whatever.
§ It being Ten 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."— [Captain Michael Stewart.]
§ Mr. Paget
One exception might, perhaps, be made in regard to the 999 Division. It might be said that these men were never really soldiers at all, that they ought never to have been prisoners and that, with regard to that particular division, the men are not being specially picked out for favourable treatment because of their political opinions. That could be done, but, with regard to the 156 ordinary political grades, I would urge that our policy ought to be reconsidered.
§ 10.1 p.m.
§ Mrs. Ayrton Gould (Hendon, North)
I will detain the House for only a few minutes before the new Parliamentary Secretary, whom we are all glad to see here, replies. I simply cannot understand some of the things which the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has said. Some of the anti-Fascist Germans about whom the hon. Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) was speaking and whom some of us have known very well for a long time have been through long years of torture in concentration camps. It is not because of their opinions that we suggest different treatment; it is because those prisoners have been virtually on our side all the time. Many of them have always been Social Democrats and have stood for the things for which we fought this war. Surely, the first people who should be released are those who have stood for the things which we all believe in.
I do not propose to go into detail about that because this argument seems to me too complicated to answer. What I really wanted to ask for was consideration for a type of prisoner who has not been mentioned. I have come across a few German prisoners of war who are quite alone and are not living in camps. For instance, I met one this summer who was working in Somerset when I was on holiday. He was a young German whose father was a farmer and who had been brought up in that way. He was taken prisoner and has done very good agricultural work in a little village in Somerset. As far as I can find out, he is not within 50 miles of another German and is completely isolated and alone. The farmer speaks well of him and I found him to be completely anti-Nazi. During the war his father was in a concentration camp. It seems to me that young prisoners like that, who have been doing good work in isolated circumstances and who are necessarily very lonely because they have not been allowed to mix with British people who would be friendly with them, should be among the first priority and should not be kept where they are merely because they are doing a good job in their extreme loneliness. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give consideration to such prisoners. There must be comparatively few prisoners of war 157 in this country who are all alone and away from any friends.
§ 10.5 p.m.
§ The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. John Freeman)
The House will, I am sure, understand the certain degree of diffidence with which I stand at this Despatch Box for the first time. A baptism of fire is always something of an occasion, and I will only say that if one has to have a baptism of fire I cannot imagine a more charming agency through which to receive it than the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee). Her fire has all the best qualities of fires; it is both purifying and stimulating.
Some interesting questions have been asked and some interesting views expressed this evening, and in trying to reply to this Debate I think it would be as well if I first recapitulated the background against which this argument has taken place; that is to say, the announcement made by His Majesty's Government a few weeks ago about the repatriation scheme for prisoners of war. There were two phases concerning our dealing with prisoners of war. For the first period we kept them; we did not try to repatriate them. We have now got to the second stage where it is accepted that prisoners of war should be repatriated according to the most orderly scheme and in the most orderly manner which we can devise. The scheme which started at the end of last month is roughly this: Every month 15,000 prisoners of war will go from this country back to their native land. They will be selected according to four categories: in the first place, the prisoners who are known in the official jargon as the "white" prisoners; that is to say, the proved anti-Nazis; secondly, prisoners who are selected on economic grounds because they are urgently needed according to types for the rehabilitation of Germany; thirdly, compassionate cases where investigation by the authorities in Germany shows an urgent compassionate ground on much the same lines as we work it out in our own Army. Those prisoners will, up to a certain quota, be repatriated with a high priority. Fourthly, prisoners will take their turn in a sort of release scheme which is comparable with our own demobilisation scheme according to the length of time they have been prisoners. That scheme started at the end of last month. It is too early yet to be able to report to the 158 House whether it is working satisfactorily or not, but the intention is that 15,000 men every month shall go under the scheme.
With that background, I would like to turn to the questions which have been put to me. In the first place the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock asked about the methods of screening and classification of prisoners, and whether or not prisoners are adequately informed of the category in which they are placed. I am perfectly certain—and she will understand this—that none of these things is done perfectly. The military authorities and the Control Office are working under great difficulties, and we are doing the best we can to classify these people as intelligently and as reliably as we can. It is, after all, in the interests of the control authorities just as much as of the prisoners that these people should be repatriated in an orderly fashion and in accordance with the correct priorities. As regards informing them of the position, once again, there have been cases where adequate information has not been given. I am satisfied that, as far as possible, steps have now been taken to see that prisoners are fully informed of all these regulations and how they stand. If the hon. Lady finds that this is not working, as I hope and believe it is, and will let us know, we will do the best we can to put it right.
She next raised the question of the anti-Nazi Sudeten Germans to the number of 300 who are alleged to be in this country. My answer on that point is a perfectly simple one, namely, that we have no official knowledge of them; we cannot at the moment trace these people. No one has a greater knowledge of the Socialist movement in Europe than the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock, and I say to her completely sincerely, that if she will give us the information which she apparently has I will undertake that all these cases will be looked at individually, and if when they are screened they do prove to be the reliable anti-Nazis which she believes they will be treated in the highest priority of "white" Germans.
The hon. Lady asked for information as to whether or not new prisoners of war were going to be brought to this country. On that I can give a piece of information which is, I think, of value to the House. 159 It has been alleged that there is a constant stream of new prisoners being brought here from overseas. That is not so. No more prisoners of war will be coming to this country from overseas, with the exception of one fairly large contingent which has actually started moving from Canada and will arrive here in the near future. Apart from that, of course, there may be occasions when prisoners being moved from distant places in the world will pass through this country in transit. However, as a matter of policy the bringing of prisoners of war to this country from other countries is now over.
§ Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)
May I ask my hon. Friend a question on that? Have these prisoners been informed that they are coming here or that they are going home? All the prisoners from America were told they were going home, but they were brought here.
§ Mr. Freeman
I appreciate that question of my hon. Friend. To the best of my belief they have been correctly informed that they are coming here. I have actually asked that question myself. The hon. Lady the Member for Cannock, as did the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith), raised the question about the very young prisoners of war, and whether any special treatment can be devised for them. The suggestion which she made, that they should be given a privileged position comparable with that of Italian cooperators, involves a wide matter of policy. I am sure she will realise that I could not make a statement on that at this moment. However, I would draw her attention to the fact that we are increasing the opportunities for rehabilitating and re-educating the younger prisoners of war on similar lines to the scheme which is already well known at Wilton Park. Further developments of that method are being created, though I do not think any of them are yet on the same scale as at Wilton Park. We are alive to the difficulties of re-educating the younger Germans to a sense of social duty and democratic politics.
The hon. Lady then made her important point, in which she was joined by my hon. Friend the Member for West Coventry (Mr. Edelman) and the hon. Member for Hertford, about the 999 German division. I think there have been some 160 misconceptions about the whole position here, particularly about the reply which my right hon. Friend gave the House at Question time this afternoon. The 999 Division was a division consisting of men who were considered by the Nazi Government to be criminals. Some of them were criminals convicted of ordinary criminal offences. A very large number were political criminals who came from the concentration camps. It has been objected that my right hon. Friend said this afternoon that it was not possible, or that the trouble was disproportionate, to find out how many of these men were held.
The position is simply this. These men have now become mixed in camps with other prisoners. It is perfectly true that they have a special claim, as the hon. Lady said, but it is not necessarily true that they have any more a special claim than other politically reliable, proved anti-Nazis. The War Office records in fact show, in so far as screening has so far been carried out, where the anti-Nazis are; and wherever they are, whether members of the 999 Division or not, they will receive priority in repatriation. War Office records do not at the moment show exactly which of the proved anti-Nazis were, in fact, members of the 999 Division, and it is held that it would be administratively difficult to work that out at this stage. I recognise that there has been some feeling in the House on that point, and I am quite prepared, in concession to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), to look at that again to see whether or not it can be done. But I do put this to the House, that what really matters is whether or not those people are proved anti-Nazis, and not whether or not they were members of a particular Division. If they are anti-Nazis they will have the priority. Does it really matter very much whether they belong to one Division or another? Because that is all it boils down to. The hon. Lady finally referred to the censorship of her letter. I do not think this is the proper place in which to deal with a perfectly specific complaint of that nature. If she has any such complaint to make, if she will let me have the details, I will do what I can to deal with it.
The hon. Member for Hertford, in addition to speaking of the 999 Division, raised the question of the general status of prisoners of war in the Middle East, and 161 he said he thought it undesirable that an accident of geography—I think those were his words—should lead to any different treatment for them. Now there is, of course, no question of an accident of geography. There are many factors and very many difficulties which have to be taken into account in repatriating those prisoners of war, and in handling what are, after all, very considerable movements of troops and men in doing so, and there have been particular difficulties in regard to the Middle East. I regret to have to tell him, that it does not at the moment look likely that there may be, in the immediate future, any general repatriation from the Middle East. But what I wish him to get quite clear, and what, I think, will ease his mind, at any rate, on one point is this: that among the Middle East prisoners there are a certain number of Austrians and a certain number of proved anti-Nazis classified as "Whites"; that these people will be repatriated with only the minimum delay; that their repatriation is starting very soon, and that we shall get them back to their countries as quickly as that can be done.
The hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) took, in his usual original manner, exactly the opposite line from everybody else—I think I may say, from the great majority of the people present. I must say, quite frankly, and speaking on behalf of the Department which I am representing tonight, that we cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's view. He advanced his argument, as he so often does, with great ingenuity, and, I thought, with very great logic, until he weakened his case—in my submission, in fact, he destroyed it completely—where he came to the point at which he had to admit that in the case of the 999 Division we might make an exception. His logic was accepted by the whole House, until, I think, the very moment when he made that admission; because, if his argument is true, there is not the slightest reason for making any exception for the 999 Division or for anyone else. If we are to fulfil our responsibilities in this very important, human matter we must look at it against this background. It is really stretching a point—and I am sure the House as a whole will agree with us—to say that to repatriate those people, who, of necessity, have to be repatriated in driblets, by allowing the true anti-Nazis to go first 162 is to imprison people for their political views. That, really, in my view, is an affront to the science of logic, which I have always regarded as an admirable science.
§ Mr. Paget
Will the hon. Gentleman permit me? He has attacked me. What I said, if I might remind him, was that they were really labourers and not soldiers at all, and therefore it might be possible to take the position that they ought never really to have been prisoners of war at all but should have been treated as camp followers and liberated on another basis. That would not cut into the general framework of picking particular people out because you favour their political opinions and giving them priority.
§ Mr. Freeman
The hon. Member for Northampton eases his conscience considerably if he can persuade himself of the validity of the argument he has just used, but when it is looked at fairly and squarely by the House it will be realised that in fact he took up a position which was logically tenable but humanly impossible. Finally, finding himself pricked by his conscience when his logical mind saw where he was being led, he did a complete volte face in order to salve his conscience. Be that as it may, we have to reject that approach to it. We believe that to give priority of repatriation first to proved anti-Nazis is the right way of doing it.
I have covered I hope the important points which have been raised, and perhaps I should just say this in conclusion. In my short experience in this House it has always seemed that the House is at its best when discussing a matter which involves human issues and our consciences in the way that this subject does, and perhaps the Ministers who are seeking to reply to Debates of this kind are at their greatest disadvantage in having sometimes to pour a douche of cold water on the warm-hearted sentiments of Members. The position of the Government is perfectly clear. We cannot— and the House and the country would not 163 wish us to—treat the German prisoners of war with such consideration, or with such softness, as to deprive the people of this country of what they need, or hamper the reconstruction of this country. But we do believe that they should be treated with humanity, and with the dignity and decency which they deserve as human beings, and which we Socialists on this side of the House at any rate have always striven for and held in the greatest respect. With all the difficulties involved, we shall try to do that. I hope that when hon. Members have had a chance of seeing how this new scheme is working 164 they will be able to feel, in about a month's time, that the situation is very much more satisfactory than it has been in the past.
§ Mr. William Wells (Walsall)
Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask him whether I correctly understood him to say that priority of release was being given to Austrians?
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-four Minutes past Ten o'Clock.