HC Deb 13 June 1950 vol 476 cc173-84

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

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Alport (Colchester)

It has been my observation that this House is always most contented not at moments of high controversy but when discussing matters on which all sides can agree. I hope that the subject which I raise tonight is one of these, because I believe every hon. Member wishes to extend the fairest possible treatment to all of those who are numbered among the casualties of the last war.

The group to which I shall call attention particularly are those members of His Majesty's Forces who were made prisoners-of-war by the Japanese between 1941 and 1945. The ghastly cruelty to which they were subjected by their captors is not, I think, properly realised by public opinion at home, which knows little of the story of the building of the Siam-Burma Railway or of the incidents which took place in prisoner-of-war camps throughout Malaya and Siam and in Japan itself.

If I do not go into details, it is not from any squeamishness on my part or from any lack of evidence, because I have plenty of it, but simply from deference to those men and women who suffered from these cruelties and to those parents and relations whom I do not wish to distress. Their case is different, I think, from that of those other prisoners-of-war who were captured by other enemy countries. It is sufficient for me to say that the treatment meted out by the Japanese was immeasurably worse than the vilest concentration camp of Nazi days. The lives of prisoners-of-war were in the sight of the Japanese little more than being expendable, like an empty cartridge case. Their treatment was contrary to the usages of war. It was contrary to the Geneva Convention. It has and must have left permanent scars on the minds and bodies of those who survived.

Nothing, it is true, can fully compensate the men and women concerned. They carry these scars for life. It is, however, in my submission, up to those of us who were luckier than they were to try and treat their very special problem with understanding and generosity. That there is a very special problem is borne out by the fact that the United States and Australia both treat it as such. The former has passed special legislation to compensate at the rate of one dollar a day those whose standard of nutrition in prisoner-of-war camps fell below the prescribed level of the Geneva Convention of 1929, with which the Japanese Government in 1942 undertook to comply. The Australians have introduced, or are in process of considering, similar legislation. They have also provided for a periodical medical re-examination of all such prisoners-of-war in order to keep a check on the delayed effects which become apparent, as the months and years roll on, on the physique and minds of those who have suffered from grave ill-treatment.

Every hon. Member knows well, I am sure, how difficult it is to prove a pensions claim arising from a war disability some time after the injury to health or limb involved has occurred. It is essential, therefore, in my view, that some special system should be introduced to ensure that those who were prisoners-of-war under the Japanese have a reasonably fair chance, however long the interval may be, of proving their claim to a pension without going through all the formidable formalities of producing medical evidence which a normal claimant has to undergo. For this purpose it seems to me essential that there should be a recognised method of recording changes in the health of these men and women from time to time.

I submit that United Kingdom ex-prisoners-of-war should have no less generous treatment from the people of this country than that the American and Australian ex-prisoners-of-war are receiving from the peoples of theirs. I wish to make it clear that I am not asking for the cost of the compensation of ex-prisoners-of-war to be met by the already hard pressed British taxpayers. I suggest that the compensation payable to ex-prisoners-of-war or to their dependants should be met either from reparations to be paid to Britain in accordance with some special clause of the peace treaty which, I understand, will shortly be negotiated or, and I believe this is better still, from money to be raised by a special tariff on Japanese goods imported into the United Kingdom. I will not touch on that, in deference to your Ruling, Sir, save to draw attention to finding means which will enable us not only to compensate ex-prisoners-of-war but at the same time to prevent those, especially those working in Lancashire, from also being thrown out of their jobs as a result of competition from sweated labour in Japanese factories.

I feel that it is possible to find some means of carrying out an act of justice to these men and women, which, however small the amount of money involved may be, will not only give them assistance in meeting the difficulties they have to face in this post-war world, but will also give them mental satisfaction, and, I believe this to be important, of knowing that their countrymen and Government recognise the problems, hardships and horrors they faced as prisoners-of-war when in the service of their country. It would also recognise that they suffered from particular disadvantages, and that as far as is humanly possible efforts are being made to overcome them. The disadvantages from which these men and women suffered are not physical but mental. They believe they are forgotten, forgotten by the people of the country, and we must, as I submit for the Minister's consideration tonight, do everything we can in their interests and from the point of view of the credit of the nation to reassure them on this score.

10.37 p.m.

Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree)

I rise to support my hon. Friend in his plea to the Minister. Many people have forgotten, if indeed they ever knew, the shameful conditions in which the Japanese worked their prisoners-of-war. The diet was grossly inadequate—rice and salt, lacking most of the necessary vitamins. It was a diet on which many were expected to work 14 hours a day building a railway in the jungle. I quote from the diary of a friend of mine who was in charge of the base hospital at Tamarkan He says that those who became ill due to their diet hoped they might find themselves in Tamarkan, where conditions were much better than in many other hospitals and much better than on the railway, although the ration for all hospitals was on a reduced scale. Issues of drugs from the Japanese were negligible. The first I received for a hospital of 3,000 patients was a few dozen iodine crystals, 3 bandages and 5 aspirin tablets. The sick were in an appalling condition, approximately 75 per cent. of the parties were stretcher cases and men frequently arrived dead. They were brought in cattle trucks on the railway, the load being between 30 and 40 per truck. No arrangements for feeding and treatment on the journey were made by the Japanese. On one occasion a party of 60, mostly stretcher cases, were dumped off a train in a paddy field some two miles from the camp in the pouring rain at 0300 hours. They were left without a guard, and a search party had to go out from the camp to locate them. At least 10 of these men died within the next fortnight. It is impossible to describe adequately the condition of these men. As a typical example I can remember one man who was so thin that he could be lifted easily with one arm. His hair was growing down his back and was full of maggots; his clothing consisted of a ragged pair of shorts soaked with dysentery excreta; he was lousy and covered with flies all the time. He was so weak that he was unable to lift his hand to brush away the flies, which were clustered on his eyes and on the sore places on his body. I forced the Japanese staff to come and look at these parties which could be smelt for some hundreds of yards, but with the exception of the camp commander they showed no signs of sympathy and sometimes merely laughed. The Japanese doctor visited the camp approximately once a month, but only on one occasion did he enter the wards, this occasion being when a Thai mission visited the camp with a Japanese major. I managed to manœuvre them into the ulcer ward, but the stink was so frightful and the sights so grim that they left at once, one of the officers retching outside. Is it surprising that so many of them are now suffering from the long-delayed effects of this diet and treatment in their eyes and in their mental health? Is it surprising that psycho-neurosis is so prevalent among so many? If we adopted the Australian system of compulsory medical re-examination it would bring to light many of those who are trying to make good, but whose health has broken down in making that attempt. The British Legion, at its Whitsuntide Conference, felt strongly that if America and Australia treated those who were prisoners-of-war under the Japanese as special cases, we ought to do so, too. There is much to be said for what my hon. Friend has suggested about Japanese goods, many of which compete with the products of Lancashire: an arrangement whereby the Treasury would not suffer and which would give a constant reminder that it does not pay to be barbaric.

Finally, those who were encouraged to take possessions with them have had no compensation for their lost kit, except for the bare necessities. If the Government decides that it is impossible to treat prisoners-of-war from one theatre differently from those from another, here is a reminder that the basic pension is grossly inadequate. The basic pension is 45s. today, compared with 40s. after the First World War; and the majority get only a percentage of that sum, despite all that has happened in the last 20 or 30 years to the value of money. Does not the Under-Secretary think that here is an unanswerable case for an impartial Select Committee to report on the pensions of all disabled ex-Service men and women?

10.43 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I am most grateful to both the hon Members who have raised this topic tonight. They have spoken in most moving terms. Since I have been in this House I have heard nothing more moving than the speeches of the hon. Gentlemen who have just addressed it. I want my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to realise that there is equal feeling on this side of the House that some special consideration is due to those who were prisoners-of-war in the Far East. There is a fellowship of these men in South Wales. I believe that it is linked with that in Lancashire. The feeling is undoubtedly prevalent among these men that they are not having the consideration which is their due. They point to the United States and to Australia, and they cannot understand why it should be possible to offer some financial consideration in those countries and yet it is felt to be impossible for the same to be done here.

I promised that I would not be long over what I had to say, and I will resume my seat after saying that I believe that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary when he addresses the House tonight, ought not to do so without giving an assurance that there is some special approach for the psycho-neurosis which is present in so many. It may be that he is satisfied that the Ministry of Pensions are adequately dealing with all these cases already. But I am not quite happy on this subject. I honestly feel that the men who returned from the Far East after the experiences which have been described by the hon. Members opposite deserve special consideration. Having come from a special sphere of war activity, I trust that they will receive special consideration.

10.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

We have heard from those hon. Members who have taken part in this Debate a most moving description of what, I suggest to the House, is fairly widely known and realised throughout this country. I agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), that we have heard most sincere and moving speeches tonight, and that there are many homes in this country, and many streets, to which men returned from Japanese captivity.

I do not think that the country is so unaware of the tragic story which has been so effectively described tonight as some hon. Members would have us believe, or as they seemed to fear. I do not think that any of us would under-estimate that aspect of the matter. Since reference was made by hon. Members to the action of the United States Government, I take it that one, among others, of the proposals put forward, is a special monetary award to all ex-prisoners of the Japanese theatre of war such as has been made by the Government of the United States. In that connection, I would state that the action taken by Australia has, so far, not gone farther than the appointment of a Select Committee for the purpose of inquiring into the whole matter.

On this point of a special monetary reward, I would ask the House to consider this statement of general principle which, I believe, is sound; that a soldier, whatever his rank, should be paid for his services, and that it is recognised that, in the course of that service, he may run greater or less risk or hardship, and that at the end of his service all possible action should be taken to rehabilitate him in respect of any injury, physical or mental, which he may have suffered and to restore him so that he may take his place in civilian life; and if he has suffered any lasting injury, that appropriate provision by pension, or other proper means, should be made.

All these things have been done. What I think is being suggested is that, even where the injury is not lasting, special payment should be made because for a time special hardship was endured. Let us look at the consequences which would follow from this. Severe and terrible and almost, perhaps, gruesome, as were some of the hardships borne by our men who were prisoners of the Japanese, it would not be impossible to parallel these to the hardships of those who served in other theatres and were taken by other captors. I do not think that funds, whether from the taxpayer or from other sources, could be used to treat ex-prisoners-of-war under the Japanese as a separate class from those elsewhere, especially when one remembers that measures of rehabilitation were taken and that, where there is lasting injury, there is already provision for dealing with the man.

Let me also tell the House of some of the actions which have been taken. At the time of the Japanese surrender these prisoners were scattered over a very wide area of the world. They were collected and repatriated as speedily as the possibilities of shipping and their own health allowed; relief ships, with clothing, food and medical supplies, both by Government action and through the offices of the International Red Cross, were made available. When they came home, those who were not immediately fit to return to civilian life found special rehabilitation camps available for them and there were not only courses of physical exercise and training for those in need of them, but instruction as to the "set up" of life in post-war Britain and everything a man might need after captivity in these particularly agonising circumstances. Six weeks' leave, during which extra rations were granted, were made available for him.

Those who needed, for example, such things as extra priority supplies of milk were enabled to obtain them. A number, of course, required convalescent treatment or hospital treatment over fairly lengthy periods. For them the working of the long-term treatment scheme provided that they remained receiving either convalescent or hospital treatment on full pay until such time as they were either completely recovered and able to return to civilian life or returned to civilian life with a disability pension.

Further, and this was a special feature attaching to those ex-prisoners-of-war under the demobilisation scheme at the end of the war, it might happen that a man coming back from other theatres after release from captivity had a certain period to serve before he was due for release. But in the case of men returning from Japanese captivity, none of them was required to complete his service unless he was a Regular soldier who still had an unexpired portion of his contract, of was a Regular soldier who wished to re-engage, or a man, Regular or otherwise, who wished to defer his release.

It will not be disputed that the most careful, imaginative, and generous treatment was given to meet the immediate needs of these men when they returned from captivity. Indeed, we have to consider the fact, on which considerable stress was naturally laid by the hon. Members who took part in this Debate, that some of the results of this captivity will not disappear even with the most diligent and wise care, such as was provided. But there we have the action of the Ministry of Pensions. I do not think it is necessary for me to repeat again what has so often been described by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions, and his predecessors—not only the very considerable improvements measured in quantity in the way in which the Ministry of Pensions treats claimants but the whole change of atmosphere.

Instead of the position that used to exist many years ago, when the attitude of the Ministry was an attempt, if possible, to prove, if it could conceivably be done, that they had no liability, we have now a Ministry which goes out of its way to invite claims and seeks out whether, under the framework which Parliament has agreed to, it may give help to any claimant for whom a claim can possibly be made. When we remember that, it must be admitted that for those who are suffering from what has been described as permanent scars, whether physical and mental, from their captivity, proper provision has been made for them.

It was suggested that if we had special periodical medical examinations for those who came through Japanese captivity it would be an improvement in our treatment of the matter, but, of course, it is already open for any man who was a prisoner-of-war in the Japanese theatre, as indeed for any ex-Service man who has any reason to suppose he is suffering from a disability connected with his war service, to have himself medically examined and have his claim most care fully and sympathetically reviewed. I wondered, from the tone adopted—

Mr. Alport

May I point out that in the majority of cases the examination was carried out by a doctor quite unfamiliar with the tropical diseases from which these men are suffering? Therefore, there must be special consultants to deal with these cases.

Mr. Stewart

Surely the hon. Gentleman will agree if any claimant feels there are special aspects to his case which require special consideration he can get that from the Ministry of Pensions. In view of the stress given to these cases, I had expected to hear one or two instances quoted which might justify the claims made but which had been turned down. If there are such claims then these claims ought to be publicised. The Minister of Pensions will not hesitate to give them the most careful consideration. I feel, therefore, that the country at the time, and by the continuing care of the Ministry of Pensions, properly discharged, and is discharging, its obligation.

I do not think I need go into the various suggestions for raising extra funds that were made by hon. Gentlemen opposite, partly because I should be out of order if I did. I would point out, however, this, that we really cannot, at this stage, attempt to insert, unilaterally, clauses into the Japanese peace treaty; nor, even if funds were available from such sources, could we say these men were the only claimants, because other prisoners sometimes suffered very bitterly from Japanese hands; and if any claim for these men is to be made against funds coming from Japan they also would have to be considered.

Finally, I want to say that it has been suggested that these men believe that they are being neglected and disregarded by the country at large. It might, therefore, be of interest to the House if I quoted from a letter which I have received from an officer who was in Japanese captivity and, having heard that this matter was to be before the House, comments on it as follows: If the proposal were accepted I should benefit from it, but it does appear to me that if any additional money were available it would be far better spent on ex-Service men whose need can be proved, rather than distributed to all members of a special group who have already received benefits which were not granted to other ex-prisoners-of-war. The letter goes on to restate some of the points to which I have already drawn the attention of the House. In view of one point made by one hon. Gentleman I would quote one other passage, in which the writer says: Our claims for kit and personal articles lost at Singapore were quickly and generously paid.

Mr. Alport rose

Mr. Stewart

I cannot give way. I know very well that the opinions of men who were prisoners-of-war in Japanese hands would differ on a matter like this, but I think I am entitled, in answer to the point about neglect, to point out that not one concrete instance has been brought up in the Debate, except this one, which I have quoted, and which, I think, supports my contention that these men are not forgotten, and that the country has discharged, and still is properly discharging, its obligation towards them.

10.56 p.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

I am not entirely happy about the answer of the Under-Secretary to the excellent case put up by my hon. Friends. He referred to symptoms of diseases which have not yet disappeared, and which will be dealt with by the medical people. There is a far more important matter, and that is the symptoms which will start to appear, not now, but in years to come. As we all know, in dealing with the Ministry of Pensions one of the most difficult things to prove is attributability to war service. I hope the hon. Gentleman will look into this matter again. It is future disease or symptoms of disease which these men may suffer because of their hardships while prisoners-of-war that is so important.

10.57 p.m.

Mr. Fitzroy Maclean (Lancaster)

In the moment or two left to me I would draw attention to one point The Under-Secretary of State implied in his answer to the Debate that it would not be possible to make use of any Japanese funds pending the conclusion of a peace treaty. Surely that also applies to the American Government. If they can do that to help their men, why cannot we—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Two Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.