HC Deb 08 March 1949 vol 462 cc1149-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

12.6 a.m.

Brigadier Medlicott (Norfolk, Eastern)

It is with some diffidence that I rise at this late hour, but the subject matter is one which I feel ought to be ventilated without further delay. I wish to raise the subject of the delay in promulgating the law for the restitution of property in the British zone of Germany. This matter came to my notice as a result of inquiries which I had to make in a professional capacity on behalf of a former German subject, who had been dispossessed of his property before the war by the Nazi Government. I was astonished to find that at this late stage this man was still kept out of the property which was taken away from him without com- pensation by the Nazi régime. Consequent upon that discovery I made a further study of this problem, and I have been profoundly disturbed by what I found. In the years between the wars we were accused of lacking many qualities, but we were not lacking in conscience. In those years our consciences were outraged by the brazen robbery and confiscation which went on in Germany. and which was mainly directed against the Jewish community. I want to make it clear that this question of restitution does not relate only to the Jews. There were non-Jewish anti-Nazis, whose property was stolen, and they, as much as the members of the Jewish race, are interested in this matter. In so far as approximately 95 per cent. of the confiscated property was taken from members of the Jewish fraternity, however, the problem is one which affects them overwhelmingly.

The German treatment of the Jews was one of the factors which helped to unite Europe, and ultimately the world, against Germany. It was felt by those of us who belonged to the communities in which a liberal form of democracy was practised that it could not live side by side with the kind of tyranny which was being practised against the Jewish community in Germany.

I should have thought, therefore, that when the war was won, the most strenuous effort would have been made to restore property with all possible speed, as far as the changed conditions through the great loss of life and the upheaval of the war would allow. What has, in fact, happened? Restitution laws have been passed by practically every ex-enemy country. The restitution problem has been dealt with in almost every part of Europe, but Great Britain shares with Russia the unhappy distinction of being one of the only two countries where this matter has not yet been dealt with. Even the Russians have passed or allowed a restitution law in respect of Thuringia. The immediate point of comparison is, however, in relation to the three Allied Occupation zones of Western Germany. In the American and French zones restitution laws were passed as long ago as November, 1947, nearly 1½ years ago. These restitution laws, furthermore, are working satisfactorily. A large number of properties have been restored, some of them by agreement and in other cases upon the decision of the Restitution Court or Restitution Chambers.

The American and French authorities have in fact gone a step further, and have tackled the much more difficult question of compensation where it is no longer possible to effect restitution of the specific property which was taken away. Draft laws dealing with this second stage of restitution have been prepared, and probably will shortly be put into force. Yet, after nearly four years, we have still not passed the first kind of restitution measure. We are also approaching the time when some unification of the Western zones will be achieved. I would have thought that this was an added reason why we should have kept in step with our Allies, so that there would be uniformity in the treatment of this problem throughout the whole area involved.

I want to trace shortly the history of this matter, and the facts which are relevant are quite brief. In January, 1948, three months after the American and French authorities had passed their restitution laws, a conference took place, in this country, between the Foreign Office and the organisations which are recognised as representing the interests of most of the claimants. Action was promised in that January conference, but it was not until June, 1948, that the first draft restitution law was shown to these organisations. These organisations raised certain obections on the ground that the draft was less favourable in material respects than the corresponding laws already promulgated in the American and French zones. The Foreign Office, I understand, said that a fresh draft would be submitted in a few weeks. It is understood—and we can only make assumptions on this point—that a fresh draft did in fact arrive from the British authorities in Germany, but not until November.

In those two stages we have examples of very considerable delay, a January conference resulting in a draft in June, and then no further draft until the following November; and even now, in March, 1949, that draft has still not been re-shown to the interested parties.

In the meantime, there could have been many settlements out of court and I want to say, in passing, that it is not only the dispossessed persons who are complaining; it is highly unsatisfactory that there should be so much uncertainty about the law relating to rights of ownership. Not only those who have been dispossessed, but those who are temporarily holding some kind of ownership are thus anxious that this long-continued delay shall be brought to an end. Meanwhile, even amicable arrangements between the parties are ruled out because they would not be permitted by the British authorities.

Not only private individuals are affected by this delay. Jewish charities and other Jewish organisations are also denied the return of their properties and it seems particularly regrettable that even Jewish cemeteries are not permitted to be returned into the jurisdiction and ownership of the community to which they rightfully belong. Time is passing. Hitler's Germany lasted only 12 years and yet those who were his principal victims have already had to wait nearly one-third as long as that time—and they are still waiting—for the restoration of the rights to which they are entitled.

One other complication threatens. We are told that the issue of the German Occupation Statute is near and it is feared that this draft Statute may contain no provision reserving to the Allied Powers some jurisdiction over this question of the restitution of property. I do submit that it will be a very serious matter if the present unsatisfactory position is allowed to crystallise and if no proper provision is made before the Occupation Statute is passed for the restoration of property to those from whom it has been taken.

Something more than property is at issue here. The time has arrived when our name for fair dealing is possibly going to be questioned. I suggest that we should have been the first in all Europe to see that this matter was dealt with. I think we are entitled to ask why we are the last. I would be interested if the Minister of State could give us any indication as to where the delay lies. Is there some obstruction in the British administration in Germany or, has this matter perhaps got into the hands of the lawyers, who have been allowed to become masters of the Ministry instead of its servants?

I would point out that this was the situation in which millions of members of the Jewish race were placed—some 6,000,000 of them in all—who had been already stripped of all their worldly possessions, lost their lives as well in the German concentration camps and gas chambers, and of whom only a remnant are left. It is believed that there are in fact only some 10,000 possible claimants left in the British zone and perhaps 100,000 claimants who are living outside the British zone. It is a very tragic residue who are asking for what is their due. In conclusion may I recall that when the Nazis were doing their grim work they openly boasted that the dead would never return to claim their rights. There are nevertheless some who have happily survived and who do claim their rights. We are entitled to ask: "How much longer have they still to wait?"

12.20 a.m.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

The hon. and gallant Member for Eastern Norfolk (Brigadier Medlicott) has put his case so moderately, modestly, and yet so completely, and we are all so anxious to hear the Minister's reply, that I do not want to take more than a few moments, but I want to say two things to the right hon. Gentleman. The first is that no one doubts his own knowledge, understanding, and sympathy in this matter, but it is because we recognise that fact that it is so difficult to understand, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman has pointed out, why this country, whom all the world would have expected to be the first in this matter should be the last. It is not for want of sympathy in the Foreign Office, of that I am certain. Then what is it that is holding us up so far behind not merely the ex-enemy nations, upon whom, after all, we forced the policy of restitution in the treaties we have compelled them to sign, but the United States, who had precisely and exactly the same problem to deal with, under exactly the same conditions in that other part of Western Germany with which we are seeking to accommodate and co-ordinate our policy?

It is true—it has been suggested in some places—that one of the reasons is that the military administration in the British zone is unwilling to accept the same kind of Statute as Amercia, something less generous, less complete, something which would leave in German hands all the property for whom no heir can be found? I see the difficulty about a successor corporation in regard to the heirs of those who have disappeared. I do not want to ask too many questions because there will not be time for an answer, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure the House that the delay will not be long, and that our Statute will be as generous as anyone else's.

Mr. Janner (Leicester, West)


Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Mr. McNeil.

12.23 a.m.

The Minister of State (Mr. McNeil)

I am indebted and touched, as I frequently am, by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) in his references to myself, and I thank the hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk (Brigadier Medlicott) for his moderation, and I also apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for West Leicester for not being able to give way.

Mr. Janner

I only wanted to ask two questions.

Mr. McNeil

The intentions of the Government are not in doubt, of that I am sure. We, acknowledge our obligations to these unfortunate people and their successors, and we are desparately anxious to discharge our duty on this subject efficiently and justly. It is argued that we are behind the other two Powers. Here I want to say, in parenthesis, although there is a limited Statute, the Soviet zone has no general discharge on this subject either.

Our address to the subject was necessarily complex. We had to deal not only with the people who have been deprived of property, which the hon. and gallant Gentleman understands, but we also had to take into account the people who were forced to negotiate property under duress, and it is equally true that, although the great bulk of this property was the property of Jews—the worst treated of these people—there was some 5 or 7 per cent. of the property which formerly belonged to people whom we, on this side of the House, would have called comrades, and for that reason it was taken from them. Moreover, there were the obligations introduced by such features as dilapidations, even appreciations, and profits.

When we first addressed ourselves to the subject some of the property had, in our opinion, been illegally disposed of as long as 14 years before, so any legislation had necessarily to be very complex. We first hoped there would be quadripartite action, and with the other three Powers we took up conversations on this subject. We had, however, taken one independent action, and that was, as I have tried to explain to the House before, that we did put through a general order making arrangements for claims to be filed and registered, in the hope that we could go into action immediately an ordinance had been promulgated and a court or body constituted for this purpose. But we did base ourselves first on the hope of quadripartite agreement. Those talks broke down in November, 1947.

The Americans and the French had already prepared separate, and rather varying laws to deal with such a contingency. I think I ought to apologise to the House for having to admit that we had not prepared against such a contingency ourselves by doing the spade work on a law relating only to our zone. How- ever, that was one of the big setbacks we had to meet. The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to the course of negotiations, and the delay. My dates accord fairly accurately with his. There is one feature to which I wish to draw attention. We had most properly, in my opinion, entered into undertakings that we would take no action without consulting the appropriate organisations in this country. In addition, we naturally had to meet the representatives of His Majesty's Government in Berlin, so we had, as it were, almost three-cornered discussions going on.

The easiest course would have been to conform pretty closely to the American model. I am satisfied that the overriding reason why we did not thus conform was that we feared that, if we produced an instrument that was too inflexible or looked harsh, we might thereby encourage or create a recrudescence of anti-Semitic feeling. I have apologised for the delay, but I am satisfied, from my examination of these circumstances, that that was a very real factor. When we had made our first attempt, neglecting the American model, we were eventually, not forced, but eager to admit that the American model worked very well. There was a great deal of amicable settlement, surprisingly little litigation, and most certainly, as far as we could see, no reaction which might have been interpreted as anti-Semitic feeling.

We, therefore, have directed our representatives in Germany to produce a model following fairly closely the American example. At one stage we had hoped it might be possible to produce an instrument applying to both zones, because we had discovered, as the Americans have discovered, that sometimes we had a person with half his property in the American and half in the British zone. The Americans found it was impossible for administrative reasons to make the modifications which should have been made in their instrument if it were to apply to the slightly different local conditions in our zone. Since that was impossible, we directed ourselves to producing a third text, closely following the American model. That, I am glad to say, we received four days ago. I and my advisers have only had a preliminary look at this but I should say to the House that I think it is a satisfactory instrument if we are to base ourselves on the American experience. I want to assure the House that so far as I can see there will be little delay in formalising this instrument.

I want to make two points. We are, of course, determined to consult again the organisations in this country. We are indebted to them for the advice they have given, for their wealth of experience; and I am indebted to them for their courtesy on this subject. We are also under the obligation to submit the draft ordinance to the Land Government in our zone. It is desirable that we should have the consent as well as the experience of these people blended upon it. I should hope that these two series of conversations will be developed quickly and that within a relatively short time, I hope a matter of weeks, I may be able to inform the House that the instrument is there. I feel I ought to apologise for the delay. We have trodden a tortuous path. But even though I apologise for the delay I want to say that there should be no doubt of our intention and sympathy in this matter. We want this instrument to be flexible, just and appropriate to use today and one we ought quickly to discharge.

Mr. Janner

Will the Minister say whether he is proposing to presume that there was duress, before coming to a conclusion in respect of any property and put the onus of proof upon the present owner in respect of property confiscated, whether confiscated by word or by assent or transfer by deed? Has he considered the point with regard to heirless property being considered as a matter for compensating a community, and whether it is proposed to restore to communities which exist at the present time in Germany, those properties which have been communal property and which they are entitled to have back?

Mr. McNeil

Yes, the ordinance covers such properties. I should have told my hon. Friend that there is provision for intestate property. There we would have to provide a trustee or make trusteeship arrangements. Where confiscation has taken place, the matter is straightforward. On the question of duress I would not attempt to answer offhand that this is assumed. If it is what the Americans have done, we would approximately be the same on that point. Of course, we are making it obligatory for anyone who has knowledge of property to bring that information. Registration takes place as well as claim by deed.

Mr. Janner

With corporations?

Mr. McNeil

Corporations, yes; I am fairly certain I am right, but perhaps I might look at that matter and send an answer to my hon. Friend.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes to One o'Clock.