HC Deb 24 March 1947 vol 435 cc1018-43

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

I seek once more to raise the subject of the continued detention of prisoners of war, and their conditions while they remain in this country. I have been endeavouring to discover from the learned Attorney-General what is the real legal position. The first aspect of this question to which I call the attention of the House, is whether we are legally entitled to retain these people in this country after the cessation of hostilities. The regulations which control our actions in relation to prisoners of war are in Article 75 of the Geneva Convention, which states: When belligerents conclude an Armistice convention, they shall normally cause to be included therein provisions concerning the repatriation of prisoners of war. If it has not been possible to insert in that Convention such stipulations, the belligerents shall, nevertheless, enter into communication with each other on the question as soon as possible. In any case, the repatriation of prisoners shall be effected as soon as possible after the conclusion of peace. The question at once arises, what is the legal Government of Germany? I have put Questions down to the Attorney-General, but these are immediately transferred; first to the Secretary of State for War, then to the Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster, and today, my Question was put to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. All this seems to involve increasingly indefinite and confusing replies. The Question today which I addressed originally to the learned Attorney-General, but which was put to the Foreign Secretary, was whether the Nuremberg trial was based on the recognition of the Control Commission for Germany as the legal Government of that country; and whether that Commission was to be recognised as the legal Government under Section 75 of the Geneva Convention. It must be the Government of Germany for the purposes of repatriation of prisoners of war. The situation is that, if, as I contend, the Control Commission is the legal Government of Germany, and we refuse to enter into negotiations with it, we are nowhere. I would ask, where are we? Are we at war with ourselves? I suggest that it will mean that His Majesty's Address from the Throne next autumn may well read: My relations with Foreign Powers continue friendly except with the Control Commission for Germany. I wish I could get some definite answer on this point from the Attorney-General, as I see that he is in his place tonight.

Whatever the legal position may be, I should like to refer to an answer given me by the Foreign Secretary on 13th March last year. I asked the right hon. Gentleman to give an assurance that German prisoners now in British hands were being treated in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention, and which protective Power operated in accordance with those provisions. The Foreign Secretary replied: Since the German surrender it has not been possible to carry out the Geneva Convention in all respects owing to situations having arisen which were never contemplated when they were drawn up, but His Majesty's Government continue to observe the spirit of the Conventions. There has been no Protecting Power since 14th May, 1945, when the Swiss Government themselves withdrew from representing German interests."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th March, 1946, Vol. 420, C. 221.] If his answer meant anything, I think that it meant precisely this—that the Geneva Convention never provided for unconditional surrender, but that we would honour the intention and spirit of the Convention. I think, furthermore, that nobody would claim that it is the intention of the Geneva Convention that these prisoners of war should be kept in detention until such time as peace is signed. If the Control Commission of Germany is the legal Government of that country—and if it is not, then the whole of the Nuremberg convictions are out of order—then His Majesty's Government have been negligent in not entering into negotiations with the Control Commission, for pushing these people back as soon as possible. The fact that the Control Commission want them back is, of course, a valid reason for their return.

The second question is this: Are we morally right in keeping them? What do we find in Germany? The most appalling devastation, misery and starvation, and hundreds of thousands of people being kept without their bread-winner. The Allied Nations are quite wrong in detaining millions of prisoners of war. On top of the ordinary indigenous population of Germany, there are these 13 million people who have been expelled from the East, who are absolutely derelict with no possessions whatever, and are squatting about Western Germany. There is another important issue, which concerns younger people. Germany is now full of young women with no young men. Berlin is an example. Young marriageable women are six to one in relation to marriageable men there, and in the British zone it is estimated that the figure is not less than four to one. On the question of whether it is morally right to keep them here, whatever may have been the agreement at Yalta, does any single living person really believe that if labour from a defeated nation were to form part of reparations, that labour should fall solely upon captured soldiers? If there is to be slave labour—that is what it is—enforced as reparations, clearly it should be levied on the nation as a whole, and not merely on the people who accidentally found themselves prisoners of war when hostilities ceased. I cannot pass without saying a word about Yalta, because the cat is now completely out of the bag. I have always condemned it on pretty good authority, although I am not going to quote the name of the authority now. I have always suspected that Russia was to have two million labour slaves for 20 years after the war ended, and it looks now as if something like that was true. M. Molotov spilled the beans the other day in Moscow. There was a single line reference that labour should form part of reparations. It looks as if something pretty fishy was done by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) at that time. I raised that issue on 11th April, 1945, when I put a Question to the then Foreign Secretary. I asked whether It has already been agreed that Russia is to have 2,000,000 German male slaves for 20 years? The answer was: The Russian Government did not ask for 2,000,000 or any other figure of male slaves for any time at all. All that was asked and settled at Yalta was that reparations in the terms I have put should be discussed at Moscow, and there is no commitment about labour whatever."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April; Vol. 409, c. 1801–2.] That seems to me to be a very odd statement in view of what has come out. An even more extraordinary situation arose on that very day on the Adjournment. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) annoyed me by suggesting that slave labour was not such a bad thing. In my anger, I said that I would raise the matter on the Adjournment and I was fortunate enough in being able to raise it that evening. The then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who now sits in another place—I am not sure what his title is; there have been so many lately—said, in reply to my claim that, under Yalta, there was to be labour for reparations, and that it would be more than likely that there would be slave labour: Nothing is more reprehensible than for anyone to assume in advance that any of the Allies who would make use of any such German labour would do so in the manner suggested in this Debate."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1945; Vol. 409, c. 1948.] That is precisely what we are doing ourselves at the present time. I say that we are legally and morally wrong in keeping these men here, that we are apparently not bound by Yalta, whatever it was—and few of us know anything about it. In any event, what a shocking example this is. We are supposed to stand up for the rights of man, the liberties of man. Here, we are virtually using some 250,000 fellows as slaves. The French have about 700,000, the Belgians about 15,000, and the Russians something over 3,000,000. I know that one of the arguments that my right hon. Friend will advance against me will be that we are short of labour, that we cannot afford to do without them for that reason. If that is so, why not say so? Let us have a showdown, and let us treat these fellows properly. The situation in which we find ourselves today is certainly historically peculiar. In my judgment, and that of some of my hon. Friends, it is a continuing one. We believe that if there is full opportunity for full employment there will always be a shortage of labour. If the Minister of Agriculture is short of farm labourers the only thing to do is to make farm work more attractive. There is another point. We are wasting an inordinate amount of manpower in guarding these people. I would like to hear from the Secretary of State for War how many people are at present engaged in guarding prison camps, and in administration. There are probably more people engaged in administration than in guard duties. It is an abomination, too, that we should employ these people on a full day's labour—six days a week—at 6d. per day. I know that they get their keep, which amounts to about 23s. per week, but I know that I have to pay £4 10s. to £6 per week for them, and that the Chancellor swallows the difference. My main appeal is that the prisoners of war should be sent back now. The terms of the Motion standing on the Order Paper in my name, and in the names of about 60 other right hon. and hon. Gentleman—[That in the opinion of this House, the rate of repatriation of prisoners of war from this country and the Middle East should now be accelerated so that all of them may be returned to their homes by Christmas, 1947]—should be fulfilled, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman can give us that assurance when he replies.

There is another aspect of the problem, and it is this. It is my submission that so long as those men stay here—there may be some impossible cases; there are impossible cases everywhere—we should do everything we can to make them good ambassadors for this country when they go home. That is honest-to-goodness commonsense. I know my right hon. Friend has done a lot in the way of improving conditions. The recent orders changing their dress, the Christmas decision to let them visit homes and stray from their camps, and so on have been a tremendous move forward, but my right hon. Friend will not be in the least surprised when I tell him he has not gone far enough. I now propose to suggest to him some of the things he should do. First, he should pay the men the rate for the job, less allowance for their keep. They ought not to be treated simply as slave labour, as they are at present. I would remind the House what the Chancellor is making from this source. In 1946 he took £36 million in money received from employers for services of prisoners of war, against which £6 million was paid out in wages. In his Estimates this year the Secretary of States states he will make £21 million and will pay out £3,250,000, so that £17,750,000 will go into the kitty. It is a shameful situation, and these men ought to be paid a great deal more than they are receiving. Many of these men are good craftsmen and something ought to be done to enable them to dispose of the things they produce. There is no reason why those things should not be sold, bearing in mind the shortages in this country. They make beautiful toys which could be sold, and the money could go to them individually—or a portion of it could go to them and the rest go for the benefit of the camp.

I expect I am not the only person in this House who receives correspondence from prisoners of war, but I do receive a good quantity of letters. The Secretary of State declared in this House about Christmas time that correspondence between civilians in this country, including Members of Parliament, and prisoners of war was to be allowed. The other day, in reply to a Question, the right hon. Gentleman said he had no reason to suppose that prisoners of war did not know they were allowed to do so. I have every reason to suppose they do not know it, because they still write, "Do not mention my name. I am not allowed to write to you. That is why this letter has been delayed and has to go by a circuitous route to reach you." Why should not they be told they are at liberty to write, and why does not the right hon. Gentleman see that the camp commandants carry out their duty? Next, I want to see the five mile limit increased. It is ridiculous, seeing that in many camps, especially in East Anglia, they work 20 miles away from their camps. Why they should not be allowed to go and see their employers when they are on parole instead of pottering about, I fail to understand. It seems to me to be a bit of bureaucratic stupidity which ought to be swept out of the way.

Then, the whole method of repatriation at the present time is wrongly adjusted. On the whole, it is done according to the length of detention; in other words, first captured, first home. That is all very well up to a point, but, surely, the family circumstances at home ought to be considered. It is highly probable, and, as far as my experience goes, it is a fact, that many of the older men were captured last because they were swept into the field last. So we have a number of young un- married men who have been in captivity for six years being sent home, while married men with four or five children, with no one to support them in Germany, are held back because they are in a group which does not come up for repatriation until the end of next year. Surely family circumstances ought to be kept very much to the fore and repatriation ought not to be dependent upon people applying on compassionate grounds. We have now arrived at a stage when there should be only two categories—security cases which concern people who cannot go home at all for some months or years, and the rest. We should do away with this ridiculous system of grading the men "white," "grey" and "black," about which the prisoners complain and which is unsatisfactory.

I come now to a more serious point on this matter—the type of person who is doing the screening. I had an experience the other day in connection with that matter. I went down to one of the biggest camps in East Anglia, and one young man who was going on to be a priest, complained of the questions which had been put to him when he was screened. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider whether these are questions which he thinks are proper, and whether he thinks that the man responsible for putting these questions should be responsible any further for screening. My acquaintance was asked two particular questions. One was, "I understand you are going to be a Roman Catholic priest?" and he replied "Yes." The next was, "Have you had any sex relations with women before?" and to that he answered "No." Then the man asked him how did he think he was going to enjoy his future life without women. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is a right method of screening? On another occasion the filthy question was put to a prisoner, "How often do you masturbate yourself every day?" As far as I know, both the people responsible for these questions are still employed. I know the first one is, because I got a letter only yesterday from the Control Commission which has taken two months to investigate the case. The man who was questioned has now gone back to Germany and the man who did the questioning says he cannot recall the circumstances.

Some of the camp commandants want tuning up a bit, too. At this particular camp I talked to many prisoners in the presence of the adjutant and interpreter. All the chaps seemed decent creatures, at any rate as far as I could understand them, though not many of them could speak English. One of them wrote to me: Only two days after your visit, on 30th December, those prisoners of war who had complained to you, were brought before the camp commandant. In the presence of the interpreter and the German camp leader, he rebuked us heavily for having complained to you and for putting the matter before you. He referred to you as 'that civilian,' 'that Stokes,' and that we were quite in error in communicating with you. He used the language that we might as well complain to any street sweeper who comes along. I do not mind in the least what the camp commandant thinks of me, but I suggest that that is not very appropriate language in which to describe the ordinary preceedings of a Member of Parliament who went to see some of these poor fellows in distress. We want to teach these fellows what we call our free and easy democratic way of life, but I do not think they will get a very faithful idea of our system, if camp commandants can say that sort of thing to them. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take steps in that matter. I think, too, in these screening operations the views of camp commandants ought to be taken more into account.

I come now to the question of education. Is it in the right hands? The man in charge is called Stephen Wendt, and I suggest that his background is not such as to make him very well disposed towards prisoners of war. He has been persecuted by the Germans and chased out of his own country. To put him on the job of re-educating German prisoners of war is just about as stupid as to suggest that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford would be a good teacher for me. It just would not go down at all.

Now I want to make a plea for three particular classes of people. First, those detained in the Middle East. I had a suspicion when my right hon. Friend said that their repatriation was inevitably to be slow that there was something fishy about it, and it has now come out in the Press, or at any rate in the Sunday Press, that the real reason is that they cannot afford to do without their labour. They are so indispensable that the authorities there say they must wait because they cannot get along with them. That is shameful, and surely my right hon. Friend should realise that these people have been detained in a climate which is not entirely suitable for white men. I know the North coast of Africa probably as well as any hon. Member of this House, and I can assure my right hon. Friend that in the parts where these people are detained the situation from May to October is anything but pleasant for the average Western European. I do ask that special consideration should be given to that and some way found of repatriating them as quickly now—not waiting until July or August—as the rate of repatriation from these islands.

The second class are German prisoners of war who came from the Channel Islands. They were virtually captured in July, 1944, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford gave that date on the wireless at the time. He said that those Germans who were on the islands were already to be regarded as prisoners. My right hon. Friend can check that up. But they are finding now that they are being put down in categories dated as from the time when they were transhipped into this country. That, surely, is wrong, and they ought to be put in the category where they think they rightfully belong category 19.

I come now to an unsavoury case. I always find that if I bump into M.I.5 I find something dirty. Of course, the real truth of the matter is that practically no man is capable of having authority over any other, unless he is under the closest supervision. I refer to a camp at Bad Nenndorf, in Germany, which must be under my right hon. Friend's control in some way. I turned up there the other day and I thought there was something funny going on. It had been rumoured that it was third degree, but I am satisfied that there was no third degree of the body, though indeed there was of the mind. I do not complain of that. I understand that in cross-examining some of these fellows it may be necessary to indulge in forms of verbal persecution which we do not like, but there is no physical torture, starvation or ill-treatment of that kind.

Of course, the day I arrived was the very worst that had happened and would never happen again. The temperature was 12 degrees below zero. I was shown round the men's cells. There were 65 of them, mostly in solitary confinement. The temperature inside the cells was 10 degrees below. When I complained the com- mandant said, "There is no coal so I have given them seven blankets instead." That was perfectly true; they had seven blankets each, but it is outrageous that human beings, whatever their faults, should be so treated. It is true that some of them were murderers, but even if a man is a murderer you have no right to treat him as other than a human being while he is kept in detention.

The women were worse. There were only four of them and they were all said to be very hard cases. I asked to see them and I saw three. After I had seen the third I was so fed up I did not see the fourth. The first was a child of 18. That child had been held incommunicado for the best part of three and a half months without being allowed to communicate with her parents or with anybody outside. She saw her fellow prisoners once a day for an hour, and that is all.

I was so ashamed of it that when the door of the cell was shut, I turned to the commandant and said, "Goodness gracious, the British Empire will not fall if you allow a child like this out to mix among her fellow human beings." The commandant said, "Wait until you see her case," and I did so. The second child of nineteen had not been in quite so long, but her case was similar. The third was a girl of twenty-five who was married to a German who was in another part of the prison.

Let me tell the House, as an example, what the child had done. She was picked up at Koenigsberg by a Russian officer and raped. She lived with him for some weeks, and then she was told that if she took a message over to a certain Herr Schmidt in Schleswig-Holstein, she would on her return be repatriated to her parents. She was picked up by the security police somewhere in Sleswig-Holstein, and sent to a place of civilian detention for inquiry. That is the dreadful woman on whom the whole fate of the British Empire hangs, and in order to make sure that nothing dreadful happens, this wretched child is kept in solitary confinement for three and half months. It is not really the fault of the camp commandant. I do not blame him as much as I blame the Military Control. My right hon. Friend should see to it that he has generals in charge of Intelligence in Germany who are up to their job. I would lay him money, if that were not an improper thing to do in the House. that the general in charge who is responsible for that camp has not been near the camp since August of last year. If so, it is a disgrace, and he ought to be sacked.

I come now to the conclusion of what I want to say, and it is to renew my appeal, which I am sure represents the views of every sane Member of the House, and represents public opinion in this country, that by and large these prisoners of war ought to be sent back. We have had them here far too long. If the spirit of the Geneva Convention were fulfilled, and if my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary's intention were carried out, none of them would be here now. It is not good enough for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War to say that he will finish sending them back by Christmas, 1948. We want them out of this country by Christmas, 1947, and I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall go on pressing him until we get a categorical assurance that that shall happen.

12.43 a.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Bellenger)

I am not going to enter into the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) regarding the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill). During the war, he and I were often engaged together in combat against the right hon. Gentleman, and with very sufficient reason, I thought. Today the hon. Member has posed two points. One is the legal position of the prisoners and the other is the moral position of the prisoners. I do not know whether I am really competent to answer him fully on the legal position. He has mentioned the Geneva Convention, and particularly he has referred to Article 75 of it. I only know that I am in the position, as Secretary of State for War, of guardian of these prisoners, and as my hon. Friend has generously said, I endeavour to do my duty in that respect in, I hope, a reasonable manner; but Article 75 of the Convention requires only that prisoners should be repatriated as soon as possible after the conclusion of peace. I have said that I am not a legal expert on the Geneva Convention, but at least I do know that no peace has been entered into between this country and Germany, with the result that I have a large number of prisoners of war whom I have to look after.

Mr. Stokes

Will my right hon. Friend read to the House the first half of Article 75, or shall I?— When belligerents conclude an armistice convention, they shall normally cause to be included therein provision concerning the repatriation of prisoners of war. It is only after this that it says that in no case shall it be later than the conclusion of peace.

Mr. Bellenger

I have no doubt that is the Article, or part of the Article, but I do not think it alters the point I am putting, namely, that no peace has been concluded, and no terms, as far as I know, other than unconditional surrender have been included in the armistice. The position now is that, strictly speaking, these men are still prisoners, and I presume they could be held until some peace treaty was arranged with the German Government, whoever and whatever they might be. But the House ought to observe this: that whether that be so or not, we are repatriating these prisoners. The argument of my hon. Friend, as I understand it, is that we are not repatriating them as quickly as we ought to be doing. I am not able to give any undertaking on behalf of His Majesty's Government that we will repatriate them more quickly. All I can say is that we are repatriating them fairly quickly at the rate of 15,000 a month. How long that will take I do not know. My hon. Friend says it will take until the end of 1948, but I hope that it will finish before then, so far as the prisoners in the screened categories are concerned; I am not talking about the Nazi prisoners. My hon. Friend, in pressing his argument, says there are a large number of prisoners in Russia, in Belgium, and in France, and I am very glad he did so because, by implication, he is suggesting that these prisoners are not being repatriated as fast from other countries as from this.

Mr. Driberg

Is it not the case that the French Government have now agreed to the American proposals to repatriate all their prisoners on 1st October, except those who want to stay as free workers?

Mr. Bellenger

No, Sir. I have considerable doubts. I have heard of that assertion, but I have yet to have it confirmed. I have seen it in the Press, but I have reason to doubt it. That is all I can say in relation to that. My hon. Friend used that as an argument against me, but I have reason to doubt it.

Mr. Driberg

Surely this is a very important point. If there is any likelihood of its being true, surely my right hon. Friend has taken steps to verify or disprove it?

Mr. Bellenger

My hon. Friend is very ingenious in his argument. He takes a statement that has appeared in the public Press and says I ought to prove or disprove it. When I see it in operation, I shall believe it, but until it becomes operative, I shall have reason to doubt it. I know this: that the prisoners are going back regularly every month from these shores. I sympathise with my hon. Friend very much in his humanitarian motives. He has no other motive than to see something achieved we all want to see achieved—to get these men who have been incarcerated so long, through the exigencies of war, back to their own country. I agree with this entirely, but I am bound to point out that for many years our prisoners of war were in Germany, though it is true that in their case the war was still on. But it was not because we wanted to collect these men that they are prisoners of war. I do not know whether there is any substance in my hon. Friend's argument that these men should go back immediately, but we are doing our best to get them back, though we cannot entirely ignore other factors. It was not the British intention to start the war, and at the present time the British nation is supporting Germany to a very large degree. If one were to make a balance sheet with a debit and credit side, one would find that the prisoners of war in this country are doing something towards balancing the large amount we are spending in Germany. I do not want to press that point too far, because I want to get these prisoners back as soon as possible.

Let me come to one or two points that my hon. Friend advanced with regard to the treatment of prisoners of war in this country. He mentioned the "racket"—I think he called it—that he said my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was engaged in. He mentioned certain figures including one of £36 million. That was the estimate of the receipts which the Exchequer should have received but I am afraid it has fallen far short of that. The second figure which he mentioned was £21 million. That is £15 million short of the £36 million that we estimated we should receive for prisoner of war services. I am told—and I can go no further than that—that on balance, the Revenue does not make anything out of these prisoners of war when one takes into account the cost of their keep and various other factors which are involved in maintaining them in this country.

Mr. Stokes

You are losing by not sending them back.

Mr. Bellenger

That is another argument. I was trying to answer the point that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was engaged in what the hon. Member termed a "racket". With regard to letters from prisoners of war to Members of Parliament, I doubt very much whether Members of Parliament, other than my hon. Friend, receive a large number of letters from prisoners of war. I have no objection to prisoners of war writing to Members of Parliament if they wish to do so. In the main, very few prisoners of war write to Members of Parliament, and my hon. Friend knows he has had every facility for prisoners of war to write to him, if they feel disposed to do so. Indeed, my hon. Friend knows that on occasions when he has written to me as a result of some prisoner of war writing to him, I have endeavoured to investigate the complaint just as if it came from one of his constituents.

Mr. Stokes

May I explain that the right hon. Gentleman has not got my point right? I am not complaining that no prisoners of war write to me, but I am complaining that the Minister's suggestion that prisoners of war write only to me, is wrong. Time and time again I get letters from prisoners of war saying that they should not write because they might get into trouble. I am only asking the right hon. Gentleman to instruct camp commandants to see that the position is clearly put to prisoners of war themselves.

Mr. Bellenger

My hon. Friend lives in circumstances in which these prisoners of war have never lived. They have never lived in democratic circumstances in which German individuals are free to write to their Members of Parliament. We have posted these notices in the camps. We have said that they must not write to Government officials, and the unfortunate thing is, that Members of the Reichstag in Germany were not considered as Members of Parliament are considered in this country. The majority of German prisoners of war had looked upon their Members of Parliament in Germany as functionaries or officials and it is difficult to persuade them that Members of Parliament in this country are free men and that there is uninterrupted communication from any individual in this country. I beg my hon. Friend to believe me when I say that he is making a mountain out of a molehill. He talks about camp commandants restricting prisoners of war from writing to Members of Parliament. I do not mind in the least if all the prisoners of war in this country write to Members of Parliament, and I hope they write to my hon. Friend. Perhaps he knows what it means—unrestricted opportunity of writing to Members of Parliament.

When it comes to the question of the eligibility of prisoners of war for repatriation, I think the hon. Member is exaggerating his case somewhat. We are bound to take some method, some rough and ready method, if you like. We took it in the case of British soldiers who also wanted to be repatriated to their homes. In that case, it was their length of service with the Colours and their age. In the case of prisoners of war, it was generally speaking, the length of their captivity. I think I can say that, on the whole, that was a very good rough and ready method. We do not ignore the compassionate cases, but, I am bound to tell the House that it is difficult for us to deal with the compassionate cases. First, the compassionate applications are supposed to start at the other end, in Germany. In the British zone, we are able to control these, but we cannot in the other zones. We are not relying on the application coming from the other end, and in many cases, we have sent prisoners home to other than the British zone, merely because we have heard the prisoner's case, and have decided on that. We always have tried to administer these compassionate cases as fairly as we can.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

May I ask, with regard to the compassionate cases, whether the right hon. Gentleman can say if the same conditions apply to Rumanian—born prisoners from Germany? Are they treated in the same way?

Mr. Bellenger

If the hon. and gallant Member means the German prisoner whose domicile is in Rumania, and who is repatriable to Rumania, I cannot give the answer. I am dealing in broad outline with the vast majority of cases, but if the hon. and gallant Member knows of any particular case, and will tell me of it, I will investigate it, and try to give him an answer.

Major Legge-Bourke

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the Rumanian-born prisoners are dissatisfied? They feel that they are not getting the same treatment, and are not being allowed to communicate with their relatives so freely.

Mr. Bellenger

I must say that I did not know there were so many of these Rumanian-born prisoners in our hands, but, as I say, if the hon. and gallant Gentleman will bring any particular case which he may have to my notice, I promise that I will investigate it.

I have been asked about the Middle East—about the climate, and other conditions. In this connection, I can say that I have sent out a staff officer specially to investigate the conditions out there, and to advise me on what he found. This was no routine inspection. It was made at my orders, and I can say that the report which was submitted comforted me. I am convinced, in my own mind, that the conditions in the Middle East are as good as and in some cases, even better than in this country, and that is saying a lot. I have documentary evidence. I also hear from the commandants of these camps, and, from German-speaking people who visit the prisoners, and I ask the House to believe me when I say that the reports, on the whole, are very good.

Regarding the point made about the Channel Islanders, I would say that that is a matter which I will examine. I have not the answer which my hon. Friend wants, as I did not know he was going to raise that point tonight. He also spoke of M.I.5, and I must say that I had the same misconception. I thought that it was something for which the Secretary of State for War had responsibility, but he has not. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not pursue that point tonight, because he must go elsewhere than to the Secretary of State for War. He wound up his speech with mention of certain individual cases. During the war, I had thousands of individual cases brought to my attention. I was just as much a propagandist as my hon. Friend, although my clients were British soldiers and not German prisoners of war. I learned, as a result of the thousands of letters which came to me during the five years of my activities, that one should not always take each letter on its face value, and that occasionally it is just as well to inquire into the individual case, because there are two sides to every case.

I do not doubt for one moment that my hon. Friend honestly believe the letters which are sent to him, one of which he has shown me today, which on the face of it read as being genuine. It is one of the features of British justice that we should hear both sides of the case before we come to a conclusion, and if I may say so, my hon. Friend often jumps to a conclusion before hearing both sides of the case. I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend, and I have great sympathy with every man in captivity. Once, in 1940, I was near to being captured myself at Dunkirk. There was a time when I thought I should be "in the bag" like thousands of others, and, therefore, I sympathise with all individuals who are in captivity, whether they be in this country or in vast numbers in Russia. I am not responsible for those other countries; I am responsible only for this country. I assure my hon. Friend—and I think he knows it in his heart—that I and the Government will do all we possibly can to get these men home as quickly as we can. We cannot comply with his request to send them home straight away, any more than we can comply with the request of some Members the other day to demobilise 500,000 men straight away from the Army. So often these impossible tasks are put to the Government, but the Government are only human, like my hon. Friend, and we have to take into account all the factors, and not one particular side. I will give my hon. Friend this assurance that any individual cases—some of which he has brought to the notice of the House today—he brings to my notice I will have investigated, as I have done in the past on more than one occasion. As regards the general principle, we shall see that these prisoners of war are treated as well as circumstances permit, and, secondly, we shall get these prisoners of war home as soon as we possibly can. The figures we have published from time to time give evidence that we are achieving these objects.

1.4 a.m.

Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, West)

I am very sorry, after the disclosure made by my hon. Friend, especially with reference to M.I.5, that we have had so inadequate a reply from my right hon. Friend, who simply fobs us off with a statement that he is not responsible, but that someone else is responsible, although he does not tell who. I really must press the Government Front Bench on this matter. If we cannot get an answer on the disgraceful disclosure today, we should be told at least to what quarter we should turn to get the matter dealt with. My second point is this. We have been told that the War Office and the right hon. Gentleman are anxious to get these men back at the earliest possible moment. Surely, if that is the desire, the right hon. Gentleman can give us an undertaking that it will be before Christmas? If we take those industry, we have demobilised between 6 and 7 million people and got them back into industry since the war. If we can do that, surely we can get these prisoners of war back by the means we have at our disposal in the period that has been suggested. It is because we feel that there is every reason to think that these men are being kept here because of the service they can do for us in our economic difficulties that we feel, great as may be the desire to keep them here to help us out of our own troubles, that it is utterly wrong and utterly immoral to do so. After all that we have said about the policy that the Germans themselves pursued in this matter in the way of the enslavement of millions of people in order to serve their national end, and for no other reason than that the Germans had the power to enslave them, it is wrong that, because we have harvest difficulties, because we have difficulties imposed upon us as a result of flood—[An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear."]—we should keep these men here to suit our economic purposes, and when I say that. I hear one of my hon. Friends cheering me, and confirming that that is the probability in regard to this. I make my protest on moral grounds.

It is wrong that we should be trying to do now with German prisoners of war what Hitler tried to do with the slaves of Europe when he had the opportunity during wartime. It is because of our protests against the whole business, which we made effective in wartime, that we continue those protests now. Although I have much more to say, because of the lateness of the hour I will simply add my protest to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) on this matter, and again, I ask the Government to reconsider the necessity of getting every one of these people back into Germany by Christmas of this year.

1.7 a.m.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

I apologise for detaining the House for a few minutes longer, but this is a subject on which I have balloted for the Adjournment more than two dozen times in the last few weeks, and, therefore, I feel that I must say a few words, especially as there are one or two points that have not yet been touched upon. We all recognise my right hon. Friend's goodwill in this matter, and I would like genuinely to thank him for the concessions that he has made, and the liberal spirit that he has shown, throughout the last year, towards the demands that have been made. Nevertheless, in general I want to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) said, with one or two qualifications.

I think that what my hon. Friend said about the screeners, for whom my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War is much less responsible, I believe, than the Chancellor of the Duchy, was a little too sweeping. He rather implied that almost all of them were as bad as the particular example he picked out. I believe that most of the screeners are very conscientious men who are trying to do a very difficult job indeed in much too little time—the difficulty being that there is, quite properly, pressure from this House, and pressure, consequently, from the War Office, to hurry up with this grading in categories, which is part of the process of repatriation. Therefore, the screeners, who are too few in number, necessarily tend to scamp the job and do it too quickly. It is naturally also difficult to find enough men with the proper qualifications, men who know German perfectly, men who know something of the background of modern German history and politics, men who know something of the psychology of prisoners, which is rather different from normal people's psychology. All these difficulties have to be contended with. I would like, therefore, to say this word in defence of most of the screeners, although I have had complaints from prisoners about the character of some of the questions asked.

Despite what my hon. Friend seemed to suggest, it is not only length of detention but also categorisation which is taken into account in fixing the order of repatriation. That is quite an important matter, because, although the grading in A, B, C, and C plus is a somewhat rough-and-ready process, nonetheless it does itself represent an advance—again induced to a large extent by pressure from this House and elsewhere—on the situation which obtained before, when we heard of a good many scandals in camps where Nazis had got into control and were terrorising the other prisoners. Each advance brings its own anomalies with it, but we must recognise that both the War Office and the Control Office have tried sincerely to meet these difficulties and cope with them.

The reason why I would like to see repatriation speeded up immensely is not only on the general moral ground which my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich put, but also because the slow repatriation, more than anything else, obstructs the process known, rather unhappily, I think as re-education. There is a very interesting and hopeful experiment going on in this country, and in Germany, in the re-education of the Nazi and ex-Nazi youth. At Wilton Park, Radwinter Camp and the Brondesbury Hostel, and elsewhere to some extent, extremely good work is being done; but the almost insuperable difficulty which the idealists who are devoting themselves to that work keep on coming up against is two-fold: first, the letters that the prisoners got from home describing conditions in Germany; and, secondly, the slow rate of repatriation. It is useless preaching to them about democracy while we keep them here. To be fair to the people who are running these camps, they do not try too much positive preaching of democracy. It would not work if they did. They merely try to loosen up the minds of the young men in their charge, to get them thinking and arguing for themselves, and out of the terribly brutalised mental state in which they were brought up, in the Hitler Youth and so on. That is a very important work, but it is obstructed and frustrated all the time by this special factor of slow repatriation, and that is one reason why I particularly would like to see it speeded up.

We can use this partly true, but rather specious argument to them that, of course, by helping in agricultural food production here they are indirectly helping their own people in Germany. This is, as I say, a slightly specious argument, and, whether or not it is true, it is no good telling it to them: it is not a very easy argument to put across to prisoners. Anybody who has ever been in prison or confined in a prison camp knows that that kind of argument cannot be used with prisoners. They are not altogether receptive of pure logic.

Moreover, there is still quite a large proportion of the prisoners here who were in America and were brought here more than a year ago on the specific undertaking from the Americans that they were being sent straight home to Germany. They were brought here instead, and have had to work. It may be that the American officers who got them on to the boats on that pretext had no authority to give that undertaking. It may be they only said that in order to get them to go quietly, but nonetheless it is an undertaking that was given, and while that is in their minds we cannot possibly preach to them that democracy is a particularly fair or desirable system of government. Surely my right hon. Friend can understand their state of mind when they feel that they have been tricked in that way by people professing to be good democrats? It is not only those who came from America that we should be concerned about in this particular respect: I myself have seen and examined the documents that some of the others had with them in their own possession in prison camps in this country today. These documents show that they were captured in Germany, in France, or in Belgium, and were actually discharged—given their discharge pay and discharge certificate—and then on their way out, in the same hut of the same camp, often the notorious Muensterlager, rearrested at an- other table. If that is not enough to make any prisoner cynical and distrustful of the democrats, as we call ourselves, I do not know what is.

I am sorry to go on so long, but there are two other points which I want to make. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War in his reply dismissed as a mere Press story the report that the French Government had agreed to the American suggestion that all prisoners of war in their hands should be repatriated by 1st October, except those who agree to stay on voluntarily as free workers. With all respect to my right hon. Friend, I suggest that if these negotiations have taken place between two Allied Governments, it is a matter in which he has a contingent interest and he surely ought to know about it and ought to have had inquiries made. It was brought to his notice at Question Time some weeks ago and he then also said that it was merely a Press story. Ii had appeared in the "Times" newspaper and seemed an authentic report on the face of it. If some Allied Governments have come to these arrangements it has some bearing on our treatment of prisoners of war, because if the French and the American Governments are sending back their prisoners by 1st October. and if we are keeping ours for a year or 18 months after that, it is not going to be good for the prestige of our country in Germany. I think my right hon. Friend ought to look into this and see whether the report of these arrangements is correct and whether we can do anything to speed up correspondingly.

My last point is this. I think we should at once double the rate of repatriation, as the hon. Member for Ipswich has previously suggested. We should step it up to 30,000 a month from the present 15,000. I do not suggest that we should necessarily increase the rate of compassionate release, because if we are going to consider release in a really compassionate way every prisoner should be sent home straight away tomorrow, because pretty well every family in Germany is suffering considerable distress at the moment. I suggest that we should double the rate of repatriation straight away and make it 30,000 a month, and, as the Motion on the Order Paper in the name of the hon. Member for Ipswich says, we should see that they are all home by Christmas.

1.19 a.m.

Mr. Stubbs (Cambridgeshire)

I would not have intervened in this Debate at all if I had not listened to the speeches of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) and the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) and I certainly do not share their pacifist view with regard—

Mr. Driberg

I am not a pacifist.

Mr. Stubbs

I am not so sure, but the things I have heard from the hon. Members lead me in that direction. Dealing with the repatriation of German prisoners in this country, I think we have treated German prisoners in this country better than the Germans treated the Russian prisoners. I have listened to the points made about slow repatriation, but we have done exceedingly well in the repatriation of the German prisoners as is shown by the figure, published monthly. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Ipswich should complain about the work. Is there anything really morally wrong in asking the prisoners who destroyed the factories and buildings of another country to put some part of that right?

Mr. Stokes

If that were carried to its logical conclusion we should have to send our men to rebuild Germany.

Mr. Stubbs

Not a bit of it. My view—which I am asking my hon. Friend if lie shares—is that there is nothing morally wrong in calling upon the people who are, after all, responsible and who were reared by Hitler to believe in almighty, dominant power, and to worship power. They have done this colossal injury to the nations, including our own.

Mr. Stokes

Since my hon. Friend gas asked me the question I answer, quite simply, that I agree that those who destroy should be required to make good, but I consider it absolutely morally wrong to capture a soldier and then continue to use him as a slave for years afterwards.

Mr. Stubbs

The hon. Gentleman has accepted my first point that there is nothing morally wrong in asking those who destroy property to help to put the damage right. I do not, however, accept his view that this is really slave labour. I would ask him to consider that the farmer has to pay the full rate for prisoner-of-war labour—

Mr. Stokes

Not to the prisoner.

Mr. Stubbs

Then there is the cost of the maintenance of the prisoner in the camp.

Mr. Stokes

I think the Secretary of State for War gave the figure as 33s. a week.

Mr. Stubbs

That does not include the cost of transporting the men from the camp to the farm and so on. I know that my right hon. Friend replies, that there is no profit made out of the prisoner, whether he is employed by the farmer or anyone else.

Mr. Stokes

It we are making a loss that is one more reason for sending them back.

Mr. Stubbs

If we sent all of them back the hon. Member for Ipswich would be one of the first to cry out about the manpower shortage. Where should we get the labour? We are dealing with a great economic problem in the country and everyone is screaming out for manpower. If we send them back, I ask the hon. Members for Ipswich how we are to carry on our agriculture. Where are the men to come from?

Mr. Driberg

Demobilise them from the British Forces.

Mr. Stubbs

I am not so sure that I do not share that view. I think there are too many men in the Army, but we are not arguing that at the moment. We are arguing the question of prisoners of war. Let us look at the matter from a democratic point of view. I speak for the men on the land just as much as does the hon. Member for Ipswich. The prisoners of war are gaining a greater lesson in democracy here than they would do if they were returned to their homes. May I put a further point with regard to the economic and human side? If they were sent home, to what would they return? To poverty, misery and degradation. They are far more humanly treated as prisoners of war than ever they would be if they went home.

1.26 a.m.

Mr. Dumpleton (St. Albans)

I am very conscious of the lateness of the hour, but this is a question in which the honour of the country is at stake, and I feel that, in a few words, I must support my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) in his protests in regard to this matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, at the beginning of his statement, drew attention to the fact that the hon. Member for Ipswich had made out his case on two grounds, the legal and the moral, and he said that he was not qualified to answer on the legal grounds I, therefore, listened very intently to the Secretary of State for War to hear what he would say to justify the continued keeping of these prisoners of war in this country on moral grounds, and I submit that he made no case whatever, and that there is no moral justification for keeping these men here for this period of time after the war. No moral case has been made out by the Secretary of State for War.

I submit that this is a matter which is an affront to the conscience of a very large number of people in this country, and much of the good will that a very great many people had towards the Government has been alienated by this continued policy of maintaining these people here. I have had a letter—similar no doubt to many letters that other hon. Members have received—dealing with five men who are in group 28 and who have no prospect of repatriation for the next two years. Furthermore, I think that, to put it on a lower ground—although I. submit that what is morally wrong cannot in the long run be either politically or economically expedient, but to put it at its lowest level—we should get much better service and work from these men while they are here if some definite prospect could be given to them that they were going to get back to their homes and people at some early date, say, before Christmas.

I would add my appeal to that of the hon. Member for Ipswich that some more generous treatment should be given to these men while they are here pending the time of their going back—something like the adoption of the "Italian cooperator" status, by which they could go outside the five miles' limit, by which they would be paid some English money to spend, and be allowed to use public transport. I would close my remarks on one point which has not been mentioned this evening, and that is the question of those who do wish to stay in this country. I feel that a census should be taken to find out the number of those who would be prepared to stay as civilians in this country under civilian conditions at proper rates of pay. I understand an unofficial inquiry was made by a welfare worker in a camp in Surrey and the number was found to be 11 per cent. I suggest that should be done over the whole country.

Mr. Stokes

May I ask the Attorney-General if he will answer my question about the Control Commission for Germany? May I have an answer?

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for this day.