HC Deb 15 February 1993 vol 219 cc101-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

9.2 pm

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I thank the Minister of State for being present. I think that he, like me, will be relieved that the debate is starting an hour earlier than the scheduled time for its commencement; he is probably also relieved to know that neither the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth)—who hopes to speak in the debate—nor I intend to detain the House until its possible rising time of 10.30 pm.

It is worth reflecting that, even if the powers of Back Benchers are limited, we at least have the opportunity to be bloody minded and persistent in pursuing issues when we believe that a grave injustice, or even a miscarriage of justice, has been perpetrated. For close on 50 years, the issue that I raise tonight has eaten away at the men whose cases I shall cite. Although they are in no way bitter, they have never accepted, and will never accept, decisions that have compounded their burning sense of injustice and grievance.

Appropriately, the debate comes as we prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle of the Atlantic, and the deaths of some 39,000 merchant seamen, whose sacrifice in the service of this nation has so often been overlooked. The debate also presents an opportunity for Ministers to conclude, properly and honourably, what I regard as unfinished business.

It was the late Airey Neave, so cruelly assassinated on the day after I was elected to the House in 1979, who on 15 July 1963 raised the treatment of merchant seamen on the Adjournment of the House. He said that the Foreign Office had been dilatory in dealing with these cases. His complaint was that, having raised the issue in 1956, it had taken until July 1963 to get adequate responses out of the Foreign Office. He said: I know he is undertaking delicate and difficult negotiations,"— he was talking about the then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs— 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. Those are sentiments that my constituents whose cases I am raising tonight share, but for them it is not simply a question of money. It is a question of dignity and prestige. During that debate Airey Neave said: 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."—[Official Report, 15 July 1963; Vol. 681, c. 297–99.] During that debate in the 1960s, Airey Neave protested vigorously at that 20-year delay in establishing a compensation fund for victims of Nazi persecution.

It was to take another 12 months before the then Foreign Secretary, R. A. Butler, told the House on 9 June 1964 that a £1 million compensation fund had been established. In answer to the Member of Parliament for Huyton—the hon. Member for Knowsley, North now represents much of what was then the constituency of Lord Wilson—he said: The term 'Nazi persecution' is taken to cover any area in which Nazi persecution took place. In that debate, many hon. Members queried the sum of money made available as inadequate. They said that it was unlikely that it would be sufficient to meet the likely claims. The Foreign Secretary demurred but agreed that

Reopening the matter is for the House".—[Official Report, 9 July 1964; Vol. 696, c. 244–46.] On 15 June 1964 he added that Claims arising out of contravention of the Geneva Convention as such are not included, and remain for consideration only in the context of a final peace settlement." —[Official Report, 15 June 1964; Vol. 696, c. 123.] Any hopes of that happening were dashed, as was explained to me in a letter from the Minister of State on 4 June 1992. He said: The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed at Moscow on 12 September 1990, by the four Wartime Allies and Germany, definitively settled matters arising out the Second World War. There will be no separate peace treaty. I am afraid we see no possibility of a case such as Mr. Roberts' now forming the basis of a successful claim for compensation. Servicemen were, and are, entitled to disability pensions for any illness or disability they suffered as a result of serving with the Forces, and many receive such pensions. It would appear Mr. Roberts' claim for compensation as a victim of Nazi persecution was considered in 1964 and the request turned down, presumably on the grounds that Drancy was not a concentration camp. As that quotation from the Minister of State's letter reveals, one of those who applied for compensation under the scheme which R. A. Butler revealed to the House in 1964 was Mr. Ted Roberts of Aigburth, Liverpool. His compatriots, Mr. Arthur Thomas, also a constituent of mine, of Edge Hill, Liverpool, and Mr. Thomas Roscoe of Allerton, Liverpool, were never even informed of their right to reply, although both Mr. Thomas and Mr. Roscoe have been given small disability entitlements, due to the adverse effects on their health, which doctors confirm are directly attributable to the privations that they suffered during captivity. I know that it is the intention of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North—if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—also to raise the case of Stanley Cruces, one of his constituents, who was in the same position as Mr. Roscoe and Mr. Thomas in not knowing of his right to make an application for compensation.

However, Mr. Ted Roberts did apply for compensation and he was refused because, he was told at the time, Drancy was not regarded as a concentration camp. It would be useful for the House to hear directly from Mr. Roberts with whom I have shared the correspondence that I have received and I am grateful to the Minister of State for the trouble that he has taken in respect of the replies that he has sent to me. He certainly cannot be regarded as dilatory in replying to correspondence that I have raised with him over the past several months.

In a letter to me, Mr. Roberts stated: Mr. Garel-Jones should realise that we—the merchant seamen—had been up to five months at sea as German prisoners, the conditions were appalling—lack of water, food, air and light. We were lousy with sores, exhausted and knowing that our very existence could end suddenly, not having a chance to fight the enemy, but entombed in quarters that could be described as a steel coffin that could be pierced by a shell or torpedo, engulfed in fire or flooded with water at any time. In this torrid atmosphere, we had no books or any kind of recreation, anticipating in a state of utter despair the manner of our final exit. I can understand the fear and the hopelessness of the Jews, Russians, Poles and others in camps such as those in Poland particularly. The difference between us was that we did survive, to land on terra firma. We were dumped without ceremony in Drancy in late December 1940. We had air, we saw the sun, we had water (of doubtful purity), but we had no contact with the Red Cross. We never received, nor were we allowed, to send letters to anyone, including parents. The Geneva Convention was not upheld. We were not prisoners of war, but civilian internees. In this camp we were simply scavengers living somehow from day to day, wondering about the next bite, like dogs with a bone. We hid or carried our life sustenance in our pockets. Mr. Roberts continues: Drancy was an unfinished housing complex, no windows were installed and floors were of concrete. Our quarters were on the upper floors. We had straw mattresses on the concrete, few clothes and one thin blanket. On one of the floors above we came across some old French army coats which relieved the cold somewhat. The toilets were in the middle of the square. Behind the toilet seats excrement was piled high to the roof. We left Drancy for Sandbostel. We travelled in cattle trucks; food was very short and water was not available. Our latrine bucket was filled once (at Aachen) during our three day journey. Five months in Drancy! Five months at sea, which was worst of all, and then Sandbostel to watch the dying, the dead, the arrogance and the cruelty of our keepers —barracks alive with bugs. Typhus broke out in the Russian section where the French kitchens were. We collected our soap in the Russian sector and the British walked through this sector daily to work near the Russians digging peat. We arrived at Milag Nord, 20 km away, in early 1942. This was a recognised camp. In 1965, Mr. Roberts saw his then Member of Parliament, Mr. Richard Bingham, the then Member for Garston, who received a reply from the then Foreign Office Minister, Walter Padley, who repeated that Drancy was not a concentration camp. He said: the question of compensation for internment could be raised only in the context of an eventual Peace Treaty with a united Germany. Reunification in 1990 and the continued failure to address their burning sense of grievance brought Mr. Roberts, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Roscoe to see me last summer. In several exchanges of letters since then, Ministers have doggedly refused to reopen the files or to agree to an independent arbiter to examine the case. Therefore, I tabled a series of questions and sought leave to raise them here tonight.

Initially, Ministers refused to accept that Drancy had ever been a concentration camp, saying that it was just a transit camp. It is worth recalling that Belsen was simply described as an infirmary. In setting out tonight a personal and full account of what Mr. Roberts and others experienced at Drancy, I hope that it will lay to rest once and for all the idea that Drancy was anything other than the worst kind of camp that the SS ran.

I wrote to the German Government and received a very interesting reply. Despite all that the British Government had said in maintaining that Drancy was not at any time a concentration camp, in reply to me on 13 August 1992, Helmut Wegner, the Minister Plenipotentiary at the German embassy in London, wrote to me stating that his Government confirmed that in the "Bundegesetzblatt"— the official gazette—Drancy is listed in the published list of concentration camps. The Israeli Government, at the Yad Yashem memorial in Jerusalem, which I visited at the end of last year—the memorial to holocaust victims—also list Drancy as a concentration camp. In 1952, President de Gaulle unveiled a plaque commemorating the victims of the Drancy concentration camp.

The Foreign Office, in disputing the classification of Drancy, also says that it consulted the Weiner office library which specialises in the subject of the holocaust and that it claimed that the Weiner library did not classify Drancy as a concentration camp. However, I contacted the library and it denied that. It said that it most certainly did classify it as a concentration camp. Her Majesty's Government alone have never accepted the classification Of Drancy as a concentration camp.

By the autumn of last year, the line of argument had begun to change, with Ministers stating that, even if Drancy had been a camp, my constituents had been there several weeks too early. Although that might be the case with Mr. Roberts and with Mr. Thomas, it certainly does not appear to be the case with Mr. Roscoe, who was detained there at a later period. By the winter, in a letter of 22 December last, the Minister of State was adamant that severe hardship did not ipso facto qualify. The only tribunal competent to examine such claims was set up between 1964–66, the one which considered Mr. Roberts' case. It no longer exists; the lists are closed, the money is gone. Cases cannot be re-considered, nor new cases admitted at this late stage. But surely it is a matter not of late stages but of honour. If there has been an injustice, Ministers have a duty to reconsider that matter at whatever stage it may come. Whatever Drancy's status, the guidance notes issued to claimants said that those detained in concentration camps or in any institution where the conditions were comparable with those in a concentration camp would qualify.

All the theological arguments about how many angels there might be on the top of a pin are pretty irrelevant when it comes to whether Drancy was a concentration camp during the period when my constituents were there, even though the accounts that I have given the House tonight and the accounts that I have sent to Ministers certainly seem to dispute the advice that Ministers now give and that their predecessors gave. They were victims of Nazi persecution and they clearly languished in the most terrible conditions imaginable.

Let me conclude by reminding the House of precisely what happened to those men. Two of them were in their teens and one was in his early 20s when they were taken to Drancy. Mr. Roberts and Mr. Thomas were blown out of the sea in July 1940. They were kept for five months, confined below decks on a German raider ship and on a prison ship, the Rio Grande. They were never allowed on deck. They were kept virtually naked. Their bodies were covererd in sores as they suffered acute hardship and privation. They were then taken in cattle trucks to Drancy with Jewish prisoners destined for the gas chambers. They were given little food, water was polluted, work was arduous and beatings of prisoners were regular. They were then moved to Sandbostel in Germany, where the daily ration of one small loaf was shared between six men and where the death rate was exceptionally high—again, equally terrible conditions.

It is worth drawing to the attention of the Minister of State an obituary of Cary Younghusband in The Daily Telegraph on 5 December 1992. The obituary stated that he died aged 68, won a Military Cross near the notorious Nazi concentration camp of Sandbostel in April 1945. Although the camp guards had fled, experienced and fanatical units of the Waffen SS were deployed in strength along the bank of the River Oster, barring the way with infantry and anti-tank guns. Again, that demonstrates that, at every stage of their captivity, those men suffered the most terrible gruelling conditions imaginable.

Only in 1942, when they were taken to Meelag Nord, were they given the full protection of the Geneva convention, although, even here, the prisoners went through the terrifying ordeal of being rounded up and threatened with execution. In those far off days, it is easy to say that the events were all too long ago. That does not remove our responsibility to recognise the suffering and sacrifice of men who served their country with bravery and distinction.

The Minister has the power to appoint a judge to re-examine such cases. I hope that the Minister will use that power shortly before commemorating the contribu-tion which merchant seamen made to the battle of the Atlantic. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has drawn my attention to the fact that the matter was raised in the House on 5 February 1968. The Sachsenhausen case having been referred to the ombudsman after the then Foreign Secretary, George Brown, refused a similar case, the ombudsman found in favour of those claimants.

If the Minister feels unable at least to appoint an independent arbiter to re-examine the injustice which these men believe they have endured and suffered, I intend to refer the matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for investigation.

9.22 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), first, on his good fortune in having this debate tonight, secondly—we do not always agree on everything —on the diligence with which he has pursued this issue for longer than I have and, thirdly, on the way in which he has presented the case to the House and to the Minister.

I came to the issue somewhat later than the hon. Member for Mossley Hill when my constituent, Mr. Cruces, came to see me in the middle of November 1992. Originally, I wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for Defence which wound up on the desk of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones). I quote briefly from the letter, dated 17 November 1992: Mr. Cruces served as a merchant seaman during World War II and was a prisoner of war from 7th July 1940 to May 1945, following the sinking of his vessel, the S.S. Delambre. He was originally imprisoned at a concentration camp at Drancy in France and later at Stalag XB. During this period, Mr. Cruces was forced to carry out 'slave labour', suffered continual privations, hardship, cruelty and illness, including, at one stage, typhoid. At his liberation in 1945, he weighed only six stone in weight and it was only after 12 months of recuperation that his health was sufficiently restored to enable him to return to his occupation. The letter then describes the Granada television programme to which the hon. Member for Mossley Hill referred and the issue of the £1 million fund which was set up in 1964.

When Mr. Cruces came to see me he recalled the events of all those years ago with a great deal of strain and upset. It was clear to me that it was not an ordinary gripe against the Government; it was a deeply held feeling, not that he wanted some money out of it but that his experience and that of his comrades had not been properly recognised.

We should be aware that the issue for those people is not money, although money will possibly be the reflection of how society cares about what happened to them. It is the emotional and physical stress that Mr. Cruces went through. Even to this day he finds it difficult to describe exactly what happened to him and the results of it. We should never underestimate the effect which such events have on people like Mr. Cruces and the debt that we all owe them. I shall refer to that later.

The Minister replied to me in a letter dated 9 December. He said: The Government, however, pressed the German Government to compensate victims of Nazi persecution who had been held in concentration camps. In 1964 the two governments agreed that Germany would pay Britain a £1 million fund, which was disbursed to those who were held in a concentration camp or 'comparable place for the purpose of inflicting deliberate and organised suffering torture and death in furtherance of Nazi ideology'. The qualifying criteria were tightly drawn to ensure maximum benefit would be paid to those who suffered most. Many prisoners who were held in unpleasant or harsh conditions in detention camps, including Drancy, were turned down when cases were considered. My argument is that, on the basis of the information available, that paragraph of the Minister's letter is manifestly an unfair reflection of what went on in that camp during that period. I shall quote two sources, one of which is the result of work carried out by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill.

Mr. Roberts, to whom the hon. Member for Mossley Hill referred, is quoted heavily in an article which appeared last year in the Liverpool Daily Post. It said: There, Mr. Roberts was interned under the regime of the fanatical Nazi guards for more than two years, before being transferred to another camp where—for the first time—he was afforded the protection of the Geneva Convention. At Drancy, prisoners were given little food and had to work long hours to avoid beatings from guards. So clearly that was the experience which Mr. Roberts and my constituent suffered.

Yet as recently as August 1992, the Minister of State, Foreign Office said in a letter to the hon. Member for Mossley Hill: All concur that Drancy was not a recognised concentration camp during the Second World War, but an assembly/transit camp whence prisoners were transferred to work and concentration camps. He went on to cite the sources which supported those findings. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has demonstrated adequately that, whatever definition is used, the conditions which prevailed at Drancy were almost entirely comparable with those at a concentration camp.

A book has been written by Jeremy Josephs about the period entitled, "Swastika over Paris. The Fate of the French Jews". It describes not the fate of prisoners of war, but the conditions at Drancy. Chapter 8 is headed "Drancy: The Anteroom of Death". It opens: For many the internment camp of Drancy was not the anteroom of death but the very room of death itself … The diet was a soup composed of cabbage supplied by the local markets, with virtually no nutritional value. Internees were soon afflicted with lice and skin disease. Inside, vermin roamed freely. At night, screams could be heard reverberating around the walls of the buildings. Dysentery and diarrhoea were common. Many of the more fragile internees began to succumb to the strain. It goes on to quote from a letter.

On page 105 the book says: By July 2, 1943 Brunner was ready to take control of Drancy. On that day the SS man with the perpetual half-smile arrived armed with a small team of four permanent assistants, fellow Austrians belonging to the Sicherheitsdienst, the Security Service. Together they would introduce an unprecedented reign of terror and tyranny, making life at the camp still more intolerable. Brunner had already decided that to carry out Eichmann's brief properly, full and effective personal control of Drancy was essential. The entire French administration was relieved of its functions. Only the gendarmerie were accorded continued trust in being allowed to guard the exterior of the camp and to retain the right to escort deportees to the trains. That was written about the fate of the French Jews who were detained in Drancy. Our constituents found themselves in the same circumstances during that period.

Earlier tonight I came across the section of Hansard of 9 June 1964 that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill quoted.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones)

Could the hon. Member kindly remind me of the dates his constituent was at Drancy?

Mr. Howarth

I shall do so before I conclude.

From my reading of columns 243 and 244 of Hansard on 9 June 1964, it is clear that the House intended on that occasion for there to be some flexibility and that if issues were not resolved by the tribunal which was set up there would be future opportunities to deal with them. Sadly, many years later, the commitments made then still need to be honoured by the House, and more specifically by the Government.

The Minister asked me to remind him of the dates. Mr. Cruces was a prisoner of war from the day his vessel was sunk on 7 July 1940 until May 1945. For much of that time he was in Drancy, although I am not clear about the exact dates. The only payment that he received was £340 from the shipping line, which was subject to income tax.

The noble Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, my predecessor, was one of the contributors to the debate in 1964. It seems to me that obligations arise from that discussion which ought now to be honoured. Until the recent Granada television programme, Mr. Cruces was unaware that he may well have been eligible for some compensation. However that was advertised, the message clearly did not reach Mr. Cruces. Unlike Mr. Roberts, he did not even make an application. I know that the fund is closed, but frankly that raises issues which ought to concern the House.

Mr. Alton

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned an important question. When the House debated the matter, a clear undertaking was given that, even if the funds were inadequate, that would not debar people from applying subsequently. There are recorded cases of people being able to apply even after the funds were closed, and of Ministers being prepared to reply compassionately in those exceptional circumstances.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to the hon. Member for strengthening my argument. I do not want to detain the House. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has said much of what needs to be said and I have added briefly to his remarks on behalf of my constituent.

I did some brief mathematics on the Minister's age before the debate. He, the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and I were either not yet born or very young when the events that we have described occurred, but that should not lessen our commitment. We are able to stand in this House, in a free and democratic society, because people like my constituent, the constituents of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and others made sacrifices as merchant seamen or members of the armed services. We still owe them a debt of honour, which has certainly not been satisfied in the cases that we have described.

I give the Minister notice that if he cannot satisfy us in our belief that justice has not been done, I shall support the hon. Member for Mossley Hill in raising the matter with the Parliamentary Commissioner. The cases should be dealt with honourably and in a way that will make those people feel that their sacrifices have finally been recognised by this country. That is long overdue—in some cases, it may be too late—but compensation is not the important thing for the people who have survived, although it may help them in their old age: what is important is recognition of what they sacrificed for this country, at a time when such sacrifices were absolutely essential.

9.34 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones)

I congratulate the hon. Members for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) on the way in which they have raised this important and delicate matter. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill and I have corresponded and spoken about it, and I shall try to sketch the historical background to the case. The hon. Member referred to the bloody-mindedness and persistence of hon. Members, and that is a quality that all hon. Members should be willing to show on behalf of their constituents when they think that that is right.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North was right to remind the House that we are able to debate such matters in the House thanks to the sacrifices made by the men and women in our armed services, the Merchant Navy and civilians during the second world war.

I should like to outline the historical background to these cases. The story begins with the last war, in which many millions of British and allied soldiers, sailors and airmen fought not only to relax but eventually to break the grip of Hitler's tyranny over western Europe. I am a little older than the two hon. Members who have spoken and at least I have a dim memory of the war. I agree with them that it is important that none of us should forget the bravery and distinction of our merchant fleet and our merchant seamen. A number of them, as serving officers, and indeed other men in the three armed services, were captured.

Hundreds of thousands of British prisoners were held by the Germans during the war. Their experiences varied widely. Most prisoners of war were treated correctly according to the Geneva convention, although their detention was unpleasant and painful, even for those who were treated within the terms of that convention. Some were treated with varying degrees of brutality, in some cases amounting to war crimes. A few suffered truly horrifying abuses in the concentration camps.

In seeking to categorise the suffering of the many hundreds of thousands who were held during the war, I am not seeking to minimise in any way the suffering even of those who came within the lowest category of pain. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North has described to the House how, even after many years, his constituent finds it difficult even to address this issue.I hope that the House will not feel that in making such categories I am seeking to minimise the suffering of the constituents of whom the hon. Members have spoken.

Once our people had returned after the war, we had to decide in the United Kingdom how to respond to their experiences. As a starting point, prisoners were not entitled to any special compensation—though their pay continued—for being locked up or, within limits, put to work. Such treatment was correct under the Geneva convention. Prisoners who suffered disability, however, because of their treatment became eligible for disability pensions. Those who alleged mistreatment had their allegations investigated and if they could be made to stick, the perpetrators were tried as war criminals before the allied war crimes courts, but no compensation was paid.

The Government, however, pressed the German Government to compensate British victims of Nazi persecution, recognising that foreign nationals who had suffered the horrors of detention in places like Dachau, Belsen and Ravensbruck—to mention a few—should receive no less special consideration than Germans themselves. For German citizens, such provision had been embodied in German law from an early stage under allied supervision; and it seemed to us unjustly discriminatory that it should remain exclusively so. That had never been part of the original allied intention. In the end, in 1964, and after many years of negotiation, the two Governments were able to agree that Federal Germany should pay the sum of £1 million in full and final settlement of the claims of United Kingdom citizens in that category. Similar agreements were reached with all German-occupied countries of western Europe at about that time. The British Government had discretion in deciding how the money should be distributed and, within the prescribed limits of the agreement, in setting the governing criteria. The Foreign Office was charged with responsibility for administering the fund and bringing it to public attention.

As the agreement offered the only opportunity to obtain compensation for those who deserved it, the Government of the day did everything that they could to encourage applications. I say that as I believe that the constituents of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and two constituents of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill did not make applications during that period. It is important to set out the efforts that the Government of the day took.

The agreement was given wide publicity. A one-year period for the registration of claims–24 July 1964 to 31 July 1965—was announced by notices in all the national and leading provincial newspapers. Publicity was also given by many specialised journals and interested organisations. Circulars were sent to all Foreign Office, Commonwealth Relations Office and colonial posts overseas requesting them to obtain publicity. In addition, application forms were sent direct to all who had communicated with the Foreign Office. Later, reminders were sent to individuals and in February 1965 further notices were inserted in the press. There were frequent advertisements on radio and television. Posters were displayed at all 2,700 post offices, Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance offices and in all local government offices down to rural councils. Later still, again to try to make sure that everyone who might have a claim was given an opportunity to lodge one, the registration period was extended to February 1966 and there was yet more publicity.

Mr. George Howarth

I hope that the Minister will accept that a central part of our case is that, at that time, Drancy would not have been considered eligible for payment out of that fund. A strong part of our case is that it has since come to light that Drancy was in exactly the same category as places that were, at the time, considered appropriate.

Mr. Garel-Jones

I shall come to the question whether Drancy is or is not—was or was not—a concentration camp—

Mr. Howarth

It will have a bearing on the case.

Mr. Garel-Jones

It might have a bearing on it—I shall come to that later. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that one constituent of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill applied in the due period.

In the end the lists closed and the tribunal formed to distribute the funds got down to work. It set very tightly drawn criteria to ensure that those who suffered most would get the maximum benefit. I remind the House that the total sum negotiated with Federal Germany was £1 million. Because of our wish to ensure that the money was distributed in the fairest possible way, the criteria were tightly drawn so that those who had suffered most would receive the most compensation.

To quote from the criteria applied by the tribunal, in order to qualify a claimant had to have been incarcerated in a concentration camp or comparable place for the purpose of inflicting deliberate and organised suffering, torture and death in furtherance of Nazi ideology". It was found that 1,015 claimants met this criteria and their claims succeeded; 3,046 other claims were turned down on various grounds, including the grounds that their place of imprisonment had not been a concentration camp or a "comparable place" meeting the rest of the terms that I quoted a moment ago. The tribunal decided that the camp at Drancy did not fit this criteria.

So if Drancy was not a concentration camp, what was it? As far as we can judge now, reading the accounts and history published since the war, Drancy was an unpleasant place to be. We have heard graphic accounts of that this evening. People were taken to Drancy after their capture, held for varying periods and shipped off to other camps, mostly German concentration camps. Few returned, but so far as we can tell, Drancy was a transit camp. Conditions were harsh, but there were no gas chambers and inmates were not worked to death as forced labour. Some 70,000 detainees passed through the camp in the three years between August 1941 and 1944. Of these, all but a few thousand were Jews. Most were French, but more than 20,000 were of other nationalities, mainly Polish. Their destination was usually the same—Auschwitz.

Drancy was for most of the time under French administrative authority, but for a period it was not, at least for practical purposes. That was when the notorious Alois Brunner took over as the SS camp commandant from mid-1943 to mid-1944, when the camp was liberated. He dismissed the French guards and ran the camp with the help of a handful of SS officers. Brunner's aim was to expedite the Auschwitz transports. Conditions deteriorate-ed during this period. They may even have been comparable to those in a concentration camp. But that is not at issue here.

I should like to make this quite clear. In delivering the judgment on Drancy, to which I earlier referred, the tribunal had before it not the history of Drancy to consider, but a case—that of Mr. Roberts—of detention there in early 1941. That was over two years before the advent of Brunner, for instance; and the camp was then very different from what it later became. Drancy served as a place of ad hoc internment, from late 1940 to the summer of 1941, of mainly alien nationals, including for a few months British civilian internees, under the protective aegis of the Geneva conventions.

I should like to say a brief word about the definition of a concentration camp. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill made the perfectly fair point that for the German Government, probably for most Jewish organisations and according to the camp's commemorative plaque, Drancy is reckoned to have been a concentration camp from its date of official origin. The leading international authority, however, the international tracing service run by the Red Cross, does not include Drancy as a recognised concentration camp, and that is generally thought to be a good example to follow.

The possible explanation of Germany's different definition of a concentration camp is that detention in a concentration camp has never been a matter of legal significance in Germany. In the United Kingdom, it automatically triggered a valid claim to compensation, which is why the definition has a legal significance in the United Kingdom that it does not have in Germany. It is perfectly understandable that any camp in Federal Germany where harsh treatment had been meted out might, in a looser sense, be referred to as a concentration camp. Although some authorities say that Drancy later became a concentration camp when the notorious SS officer took over, I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill is alone in claiming that it was a concentration camp when it was used for the detention of our merchant seamen in early 1941.

Mr. Alton

I think that the Minister is falling into the trap of semantics. He will accept, as I suggested earlier, that the German Government have a different definition of a concentration camp from that which the Government decided on. That was not the issue that determined whether compensation would be payable. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the 1968 decision, which was reached long after the tribunal had been closed, when the Parliamentary Commissioner was called in to the Session house and, despite the views of Ministers, found in favour of claimants. Mr. George Brown said: However, all the Ministers who have looked at this quite separately have come to one conclusion and the Parliamentary Commissioner has come to another."—Official Report, 5 February 1968; Vol. 758, c.115] The same information that was given to Ministers for tonight's debate was being given to the Ministers who replied in 1968, when the Parliamentary Commissioner found in favour of claimants.

Mr. Garel-Jones

I accept, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman does too, that the definition of a concentration camp is not a materially central issue. Nevertheless, we, unlike Germany, have been careful to define a concentration camp because it has a legal implication here. It is probably fair to say that in Federal Germany it was able to place a looser meaning on the word because it had no legal significance. In the United Kingdom, because it triggered automatic compensation, it was important to define a concentration camp. By that definition, we would not agree that Drancy was a concentration camp.

Mr. Alton

I am grateful for that clarification because it is right that hon. Members should get this point right in their minds before proceeding. In a letter dated 4 June, the Minister told me that Drancy "was not"—and "not" was underlined—"a concentration camp". He accepted tonight that, even by his definition, later on in the life of that camp —when at least we know that Mr. Roscoe, for example, was still detained, and weeks after other prisoners were removed—the definition changed. Is he not now at least accepting that?

Mr. Garel-Jones

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened because I have obviously not been clear enough. We do not accept that Drancy was a concentration camp—full stop. We accept that, with the arrival of SS officer Brunner, conditions at Drancy deteriorated, but, under the legal definition that we apply in the United Kingdom, we do not accept that Drancy was a concentration camp. However, the hon. Gentleman has accepted that that is not the central issue. I would not wish the definition to be misunderstod, either by the House or by the hon. Gentleman's constituents, or for it to be felt that we were being cheeseparing. We have a definition because it automatically triggers compensation. Therefore, it is important that it is not a loose and general description, but one that is closely defined.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the ex gratia payment made by Her Majesty's Government to a number of RAF service men held at Sachsenhausen, following a vigorous campaign by the late Airey Neave. There were special considerations in that case, not least that those service men were held at a concentration camp but happened to have been held, for some reason about which I am not advised, just outside the camp perimeter. In that case, the Government made a judgment, and an ex gratia payment was made.

The hon. Members for Mossley Hill and for Knowsley, North have, in the proper traditions of the House, vented the feeling of—abandonment was what I sensed from what they were saying—their constituents. Let me make it clear that I doubt whether any hon. Member would not wish to place on record the debt that we all owe to a group of people who have sometimes been ignored—the Merchant Navy and merchant seamen—and the sacrifices and sufferings that they made for us during the second world war.

I have tried to explain to the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, and I have repeated it again tonight, that, in spite of our respect for their contributions to the war effort and the sympathy that we feel for the hardships that they endured, there is no reason to believe that they were treated with injustice by the British Government. The scheme under which the money was distributed closed in 1966. It is now nearly 30 years after the decision in question and some 50 years after the events. I am sorry not to be able to give hon. Members a more forthcoming reply. It is not easy to reject such a strongly felt claim by three constituents who represent a group to which, as hon. Members have reminded us, we all owe a great debt. I am afraid I have to say that it is not now possible for new claims to be raised or, where necessary, for old claims to be considered.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Ten o'clock.