HC Deb 15 July 1963 vol 681 cc297-304

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

4.22 a.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

This case concerns a lady of British birth, Miss G. M. Lindell, who was domiciled in France for some years and who was detained during the war in concentration camps by the Germans. Among the camps in which she was incarcerated was the notorious Ravensbruck, and she suffered cruelly on that account. The case also concerns the very dilatory manner in which the Foreign Office has conducted negotiations in respect of indemnity or compensation for all British nationals detained in concentration camps who have not been covered by the Federal compensation law of 1953 for victims of Nazi persecution.

A number of prisoners-of-war—merchant seamen and others—were moved to concentration camps quite illegally, and it is my view—and, I believe, the view of the Foreign Office—that they should be compensated for what they have suffered. I am criticising my hon. Friend's Department, although not him personally, for the very slow manner in which these negotiations have been conducted.

It is a fact that all the other Allied Powers, especially France and Belgium, have concluded agreements with the Federal German Government which have enabled them to compensate people who were detained in these camps. They included Resistance workers, of whom Miss Lindell was one at the time of her arrest by the Gestapo in 1943.

I realise, as my hon. Friend has told me more than once, that the negotiations which his Department has carried out with the Federal German Government must be of a rather delicate character. I do not wish to say anything to exacerbate feelings or arouse passions in regard to the conduct of the Germans in concentration camps during the war, but I wish to point out that the Foreign Office is worthy of cricitism on account of its conduct in this matter. I first raised the matter with the Foreign Office in the case of Miss Lindell as long ago as 1954, a year after the Federal German Government had passed their compensation law for the victims of Nazi persecution.

That law was not sufficiently complete, as far as some British nationals were concerned, and on 17th November, 1955, after Miss Lindell had made a claim before the German courts in respect of what she had suffered in the concentration camp, Mr. Anthony Nutting, who was then Minister of State, wrote to me, and said that this law, which was passed in 1953, the Federal compensation law, fell short in some respects of the requirements of the Convention, and the Germans are at present engaged upon an amending law to remedy this. That, naturally, led me to suppose that the Foreign Office would get something done about this case, which, indeed, was a worthy one, because, after all, all these British nationals were in some way or another patriots, and all of them suffered, whether they were merchant seamen, prisoners of war, or Resistance workers.

I raised the matter again, having heard very little about it for a year, with Mr. Douglas Dodds-Parker, who was then under-Secretary of State—in my hon. Friend's present office—and he said: We have … proposed to the Federal Government that a Working Group be set up to see how deficiencies in the legislation can be overcome, and we intend to raise the problem of compensation for Allied nationals in any discussions which take place. I again raised it about a month later with my noble Friend the Member for Pentlands (Lord John Hope), who had then taken the place of Mr. Dodds-Parker; at any rate, he was Under-Secretary. He said that if the proposal to set up a working party were accepted he very much hoped to obtain some compensation for Miss Lindell, and for some other similar cases which are not provided for under existing German legislation. What I want an explanation of tonight is what was the Foreign Office doing after that period? In 1960, the French Government reached the agreement under which they were able to pass a decree allotting about £40 million in compensation to people who included Resistance workers and other nationals.

I should just say one or two other things about the case of Miss Lindell herself, because as she is a British subject and has always retained her British passport she can make no claim for indemnity against the decree which the French Government passed in 1961. She has a pension under a reciprocal arrangement with the French Government. As she is domiciled in France she has been in receipt of a pension from the French Government, but that is quite irrelevant, for this is a case where there is a moral obligation and a legal obligation upon the Foreign Office to make a settlement as quickly as possible on behalf of these British nationals.

Since Miss Lindell cannot claim a French indemnity from the Germans I suggest there is a very strong case indeed for criticising the Foreign Office for not having got on this job much more quickly. She suffered in the concentration camps from 1943 to 1945, when she was released with a number of other British subjects. Although some of those people may be in fairly good circumstances, some of them have suffered in health, and time is certainly not on their side. All of them were illegally detained.

My reason for asking my hon. Friend to answer this Adjournment debate tonight is the extraordinary length of time which the Foreign Office has taken to deal with this matter. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to explain what has happened since the last letter I received from the Foreign Office and his former colleague in 1956, and of what has been done up to the present time. I know he is undertaking delicate and difficult negotiations, but I should like to know how he is getting on with them, because I feel that this really is a deserving case, and one in which people really have received very inadequate treatment from the Foreign Office and who deserve indemnity or compensation for the indignities which they suffered. This is not entirely a question of money. It is also a question of loss of prestige and dignity as a result of being placed in these concentration camps.

For all those reasons I very much hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give an account of what has happened in the past and to make amends by saying that in future he will do everything he can to reach a satisfactory settlement with the Federal German Government for these British nationals.

4.31 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Peter Smithers)

The great interest which my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) has taken in this matter is well known to the House, and I do not think that there is anybody who does not sympathise with those who suffered under the Nazi persecution. My hon. Friend has raised a number of matters and has said that he thinks that the Foreign Office has been dilatory. He expressed the hope that it will be possible to arrive at satisfactory agreements with the Federal German Government.

As we are debating the matter in public, I think that the best way for me to answer what my hon. Friend said is to try to describe the position as it has developed and as it is now in outline so that, broadly speaking, it may be understood and hon. Members may see why it has taken some time to develop in this way.

First, let me say that the position is quite without precedent. At the end of the war there were literally thousands of claims against the German Government for matters arising during the war. They arose in the context of reparations, but as there was no peace treaty, for reasons which were no fault either of the German or of the British Government, nothing could be done in the context of reparations. On the other hand, the Federal German Government were in control of only a part of the former German Reich, and in the absence of a peace treaty it would have been quite unreasonable to expect the Federal Government to assume the whole of the responsibility for German reparations.

It was in those circumstances that the Bonn Conventions were negotiated and eventually came into force in 1955. The Conventions conferred full internal and external authority upon the German Federal Government, and they were freely negotiated by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Chapter VI of the Convention deals with matters arising from the war and the occupation, and the question of reparations is deferred. I must point out that under the 1953 Agreement on German external debts, claims arising from the war were likewise deferred until the question of reparations had been settled.

But, under the Bonn Convention, in one matter the Federal German Government undertook to pay compensation. This was with regard to claims, not arising necessarily from the war, but from Nazi brutality. Indeed, not only was this type of claim under the Conventions not tied to the question of the war and of reparations, but such claims might well go back to the inception of the Nazi régime. The Federal German Government undertook to compensate claims presented by those who were persecuted for their political convictions, on account of their race or faith or ideology.

I must, therefore, make it clear that claims under the Conventions or the legislation pursuant to the Conventions were never intended to cover all those who suffered at the hands of the Germans during the war and there would, for example, be no ground under the Conventions or subsequent legislation for compensating Miss Lindell for injury when trying to escape from imprisonment. Such claims as would be covered would be those, for example, in connection with the operation of concentration camps or ghettoes or the Nurembourg laws. It is, therefore, only on this basis that there is any present obligation on the German Government to pay compensation to British subjects who endured hardships in concentration camps.

In pursuance of the undertakings in the Conventions, the Federal German Government introduced the legislation to which my hon. Friend has referred. This was thorough and detailed legislation, but it contained imperfections. In particular, there were residential qualifications which excluded many non-German subjects. The Federal Government at the same time expressed willingness to negotiate with the States concerned in the interests of their nationals.

The Federal Government amended the law in 1956 and representations were made by Her Majesty's Government on that occasion, but we were not successful in remedying the defects in the law. We therefore sought to organise amongst the Powers concerned a collective approach to the question of compensation for persecution. Unfortunately, however, this attempt did not succeed, because it appeared on examination that the prob- lems arising in the case of the different States concerned were different in each case. The Federal Government again, at the end of 1958, offered bilateral negotiations, and some bilateral agreements were, in fact, concluded.

My hon. Friend has referred to the French Agreement, concluded in 1960. I must point out that Her Majesty's Government are, after all, not really very much behind the French Government in this respect. However, the case of British nationals is far more complicated than that of French nationals. France was an occupied country, and a large majority of the French cases, which were extremely numerous, arose on or directly in connection with French territory and are very much more easily ascertainable as to their details, whereas the cases with which we in Britain are particularly concerned are, naturally, much more difficult to ascertain, in that the facts alleged occurred in connection with residence under occupation in other countries, and so forth.

Our approach to the problem raised by my hon. Friend was to try to agree with the Federal German Government on figures regarding the number of British subjects for whom compensation should be provided. We had a considerable number of detailed discussions about the matter but, unfortunately, through, I think, no fault of either side, it proved impossible in the circumstances of the British case to arrive at any method of establishing the numbers in a reliable fashion.

It may be asked why we did not then invite the registration of applications. The answer is that there are many different categories of person who might think themselves entitled. It seemed unwise to raise hopes and put people to expense if we could not be sure that those in a given category were at any rate in a reasonable likelihood of obtaining compensation at the end of the negotiations. In the end, therefore, this approach was an unworkable one. This being so, we are now engaged on a rather different approach.

We are at present engaged in reopening the negotiations on a new basis. We wish, first, to seek to agree in detail the different categories of case which might be covered by an ultimate agreement and also the types of suffering which are to be compensated. Having done this, and ascertained the area over which compensation could probably be obtained, we think it will then be possible—we hope expeditiously—to invite registration of applications for compensation within those categories. The applications for registration should then give us a reliable figure for the size of the problem. We should know approximately how many people would be compensated under an agreement arrived at and for what kind of suffering.

This, therefore, should give a firm basis for the negotiation of a lump sum settlement. It seems to us that this is a practical approach and one which, according to our experience so far, is best fitted to the British case. The German Federal Government are, meanwhile, engaged in amending the law again, and no doubt this will result in some improvements. But it is clear that even if the law is amended in a satisfactory manner, it will still be necessary to pursue these negotiations with vigour and in considerable detail. My hon. Friend has stated that he understands that these are delicate negotiations. They touch on matters which give rise to strong emotions. We have a good understanding with the Federal German Government in all these problems and I believe that we both approach them in a reasonable spirit, desiring to come to just agreements. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand me if I say that I would not wish tonight to set forth in public the details of our negotiating position, particularly in view of the immense complexity of the negotiations. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend will be pleased when I assure him that the negotiations should be under way very soon indeed and that they will be pursued by Her Majesty's Government with vigour and expedition.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Five o'clock a.m.