HC Deb 03 December 1997 vol 302 cc460-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

10.1 pm

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth)

I am pleased to have secured a debate on a memorial for the far east prisoners of war. I am pleased also that my hon. Friend the Minister is here to respond to the debate.

The debate will serve as my maiden speech and it enables me to say that it is my great honour to represent and serve the people of my home borough of Great Yarmouth. I was born in Great Yarmouth and I went to school there. Before coming to this place, I spent all my working life there. I feel extremely privileged to have been elected its Member of Parliament.

It may seem strange to some that I have chosen the subject of a memorial to the far east prisoners of war for my maiden speech. I could, of course, have addressed many issues relating to my constituency; that being so, I shall briefly explain my choice. The subject was raised with me by one of my constituents whose father was a far east prisoner of war. I am sure that the issue is one which concerns other hon. Members and their constituents.

Since the war, we have seen a new relationship develop between Britain and Japan, but, while we look to the future, we must remember the past and all those who suffered on our behalf. The father of the constituent to whom I have referred was one of the many thousands of allied prisoners of war who were forced to construct the Thai-Burma railway line. She told me of the sadness that she felt over the lack of a fitting memorial to him and to other brave soldiers and civilians who died after being captured.

The most infamous section of the railway was that which was cut through a mountain at Konyu-Hintok, which became known as Hellfire pass. It is there that many veterans and relatives of the dead wish to see a memorial built.

Before I expand on the subject, I am sure that it will be understood that I wish to observe the convention of the House and introduce my constituency to right hon. and hon. Members and to pay tribute to my predecessor, and the former I can do ably. As I have said, Great Yarmouth is my home borough. I am sure that it is well known to other hon. Members as one of Britain's holiday resorts. What may be less well known is that it is also a centre for gas exploration, and second only to Aberdeen for activities within the oil industry.

There is also the port of Great Yarmouth, which we see as a gateway to northern Europe. This is a vision which is shared by the European Union, which sees the significance of the link between Ijmuiden in Holland and Great Yarmouth as an integral part of a trans-European route along the A47 from the midlands.

The port has always been integral to the town's success over its history. At the battle of Sluys in 1340, Yarmouth provided more ships than all the cinque ports put together, which ensured victory for Edward III. The king was so grateful that he halved his coat of arms of three lions and added their heads to the tails of Yarmouth's coat of three herrings.

The abundance of the herring was the source of our once vibrant fishing industry and has long been the symbol of the town. Unfortunately, the fishing industry in the town has all but vanished, along with the herring. However, since 1966 we have been a strategic port for the North sea oil and gas industries, with their support industries providing employment for many people in the town. We also have thriving businesses in a wide range of sectors, from electronics to food production.

Despite these successes, unemployment in my constituency has remained at a higher than average level over the past 18 years. We welcome the Labour Government's commitment to improve our standard of living through better health care, greater investment in education and providing real opportunities in work and training for the long-term and young unemployed.

As a tourist destination, the borough of Great Yarmouth can offer something for everyone. We have the beauty of the Norfolk Broads in the north-west of the constituency, the secluded beaches of California and Scratby, and the family resorts of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston. This year, Great Yarmouth was named in the top five holiday resorts in the country, with 7 million bed-nights. Half the tourist expenditure in Norfolk is in Great Yarmouth.

I remember that when I was a youngster, holidaymakers would knock on our doors asking for a room for the night, because the hotels and boarding houses were all full up. Now, most of the thousands of visitors who come annually to the borough will stay in one of the many holiday centres that are located in the parishes of Caister and Hemsby to the north and Hopton to the south, where they will find all the facilities that one would expect in a modern tourist resort.

One of the centres in Hopton has recently won some prestigious awards. I was pleased to visit it a few weeks ago for the launch of a local Partners against Crime initiative. While I was making my speech to the audience of about 300 people, the modernisation of the holiday industry became obvious to me when I was heckled for the first time in my political career for referring to the centre as a holiday camp. However, I can assure hon. Members that we can offer a very good holiday, wherever they stay in my constituency.

The fact that the borough of Great Yarmouth is steeped in heritage is often overlooked. Yarmouth's unique system of town planning created the famous narrow rows, a few of which are still in existence. We can boast the second longest surviving stretch of mediaeval town wall, after York; the largest parish church in England; the remains of a Roman settlement at Burgh castle and Caister; and many other significant historic features.

Great Yarmouth has a rich and chequered history. Miles Corbet, a former Member of the House and resident of the town, was a personal friend and lawyer to Oliver Cromwell. He was the last signatory to the death warrant of Charles I. After the restoration, royal vengeance was demanded of Yarmouth for its republican stance, and all its charters and privileges were revoked. Later, in 1867, when political sleaze was rampant—unlike now—the constituency of Great Yarmouth was disfranchised after extensive bribery of the electorate was uncovered. It has not been recorded whether the money was paid in brown envelopes.

I assure hon. Members that no such persuasion was necessary for the people of Great Yarmouth to elect me. Great Yarmouth is a constituency of great diversity, with much in its tradition and past to be proud of, and much, I am sure, to look forward to in its future.

I turn now to my predecessor. Mr. Michael Carttiss was probably more of a thorn in the side of his own party than of the Labour party in the 13 years that he represented Great Yarmouth. On at least one occasion, he was suspended from the parliamentary Conservative group for voting against his own Government, most often on the subject of Europe, and he was a member of the gang of nine who were suspended for rebelling against Maastricht. I found that a bizarre stance by a Member whose constituency at that time was fighting—as it is now—to become a gateway to Europe. Nevertheless, Michael Carttiss is a man of great independence, outspoken honesty and strong character, factors which contributed in no small part to my election as his successor.

An advantage of making my maiden speech six months into this Parliament is that I can already see the benefits for my constituents that the Labour Government have brought. We have already had an extra £119,000 for breast cancer treatment for our local health authority; Norfolk education authority has been awarded £1.5 million towards the backlog of building and improvement work needed for the county's schools; and permission has been given for the building of a new power station in my constituency, which will bring £170 million of inward investment and create 300 construction jobs in an area which suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in the eastern region.

The Government have given their blessing to a project to build a new outer harbour in the town, and I hope that the roads review will bring back the scheme to dual our stretch of the A47, known as the Acle Straight. That was accepted as a necessity by no fewer than 24 Conservative Ministers who held the roads portfolio during the 18 years of the previous Government, yet it was taken out of the programme last year in a cost-cutting exercise in order to fuel pre-election tax cuts. I am glad that this Government's roads policy will be based on sound economics, strategic planning and safety, and not sacrificed for such short-term political gains.

Although my focus while a Member of Parliament will be on fighting for my constituents, I have been fortunate to represent Parliament on a visit to Albania to oversee the recent elections there, and to New York, where a delegation from the House was introduced to the workings of the United Nations. I have also developed a sudden interest in finance as a result of being selected to serve on the Standing Committee on the Bank of England Bill. I am sure that my interests will continue to widen as my time here progresses.

I return to the subject of the debate. As I explained in my preamble, the matter of a memorial for the far east prisoners of war was brought to my attention by a constituent, Mrs. Carol Cooper, whose father, Lance Corporal William Smith—known as "Bill"—died while in captivity in Burma in 1943 when she was just four years old. During the two years he was imprisoned, he wrote an extensive diary in a book that he made himself, covered in fabric from his kit bag. In the diary, he not only recorded the daily events of his imprisonment but wrote many poems about his family and his experiences, recipes that he wished to cook when he returned home and the home addresses of his fellow soldiers. Some of the names are marked with a cross. That was to signify which of his comrades had fallen on the journey from their original base at Changi in Si0ngapore as they marched towards Burma.

Lance Corporal Smith's family remained unaware of the existence of this remarkable document until Mrs. Cooper read about the auction of a diary written by a soldier of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in a Japanese camp. When she realised that it was her father's diary, she tried in vain to buy it back from the person who had purchased it. It was only after the BBC became involved and made a documentary about the diary that Mrs. Cooper was able to acquire the diary for herself.

Subsequently, the BBC took Mrs. Cooper to Thailand to retrace her father's steps as recounted in his diary, taking the route of the Burma-Thai railway. The Imperial Japanese army built the railway from 1942 to 1943 from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, with the intention of supplying the large Japanese army that was stationed in Burma. The railway was 250 miles long and was built through some of the most inhospitable and disease-ridden terrain in the world. There was little mechanical construction and its completion was achieved mostly through human effort. The project resulted in a huge loss of life for both prisoners of war and the Asian forced labour used to construct it.

About 13,000 POWs and 80,000 Asian labourers died from disease, sickness, starvation and brutality. One commentator has written that the railway was built at the cost of a life for every sleeper. That could certainly be true of the section of the railway that was hacked out of the jungle-covered mountain area at Konyu-Hintok where it is known that 700 prisoners of war died building just three miles of railway. A huge cutting was gouged through the mountainside in just 12 weeks. This is the infamous Hellfire pass, which got its name after someone looking down at the skeletal figures slaving at night by the light of bamboo fires remarked that it must be like working in the jaws of hell.

I should like to read an extract from the diary of Lance Corporal William Smith so that hon. Members can begin to understand the conditions in which these men tried to survive. The entry is dated Sunday, 22 August 1943. It reads: What a night and what a result. I hardly know how to write. It started last night actually. Reg, poor old chap complained of feeling cold and everything he had was more or less messed and wet because he couldn't control himself. He went into a coma and rambled about eleven. We covered him and made him as comfortable as it was possible. I kept up and kept the fire at the end of the tent going to help warm us and keep the mosquitos etc away. I didn't like the look of him when I went and looked at him about 2.30 so I called the orderlies. We done our very best all night for Reg but I'm sorry to say he passed away about ten past eight this morning. It was approx. ten minutes after the check so he had to lay all day in the tent with us until after the 4 o'clock check. Just a Jap method. I'm just back from carrying him to the cemetery and it's a sort of coincidence but when passing the isolation hospital there was a service on and the hymn 'Abide with me' was just being sung. Reg had a very few personal things having sold his ring, pen, watch etc but I have his photos and a few letters which I asked permission to be allowed to keep so I may return them to his wife personally. Another man also passed away out of our party after I got back about ten minutes ago so that makes eight in all we have lost in a fortnight and now it leaves 46. What struck me when reading Bill Smith's diary was the incredible bravery shown by the prisoners of war. After one year and one month as a prisoner, Bill wrote: What a life this is but one mustn't grumble I suppose. I cannot even begin to imagine the conditions those men lived in or the pain that they suffered. Although he begins the diary by counting the weeks and days he has been imprisoned, by the end Lance Corporal Smith is counting the number of his fellow soldiers and friends who had fallen.

Although we must not forget the allied troops and civilians who were imprisoned all over the area in Java, Sumatra, Singapore and Taiwan, Hellfire pass is favoured by many of the veterans and relatives of those imprisoned as a memorial site due to the particular hardship suffered by those who worked there.

The Australian and Thai Governments have co-operated on building a memorial complex at Hellfire pass, but there has been, as yet, no contribution from any British Government. That is despite the fact that more than double the number of British soldiers died there compared with our allies. Although the Government fund the upkeep of the cemeteries, and they are beautifully kept, there is no memorial to honour the sacrifice that those soldiers made for their country.

After the war, the British Government sold the railway to Thailand for £1.5 million. A memorial to the men who lost their lives building it would cost merely a fraction of that amount. Currently, visitors to the site are faced with a plaque that commemorates a great "feat of Japanese engineering", but does not mention the human cost of the project. The Royal British Legion is working to raise funds for a museum that will tell the true story of the far east prisoners of war from all over the area, and which will serve as a tribute to lost comrades and loved ones. It should be a place of meditation and reflection. It would also stand as a reminder of the terrible inhumanity inflicted on those prisoners of war, and ensure, by remembering their sacrifice, that such atrocities are never allowed to happen again.

The memory of these events will not disappear with the last of the veterans. The sons and daughters of the soldiers lost in the far east, like my constituent Mrs. Cooper, have begun their own organisation to ensure that the sacrifice of those men is never forgotten.

On Wednesday 27 October 1943, the day before his and his wife's birthday, Bill Smith wrote: Up to today there have been 573 deaths in this hospital camp. Well Ida dearest tomorrow is the one day of our lives and I only wish I could send you a little something but I'll make up for it later. It won't be long now. Just over a month later, Lance Corporal Smith died. He was never able to make up for missing his wife's birthday, but we have a chance to make up to the relatives of men such as Bill Smith for the loss of their loved ones.

I ask that the Government give serious consideration to contributing funds for the building of a memorial museum to the British soldiers who died while imprisoned in the far east. A country can ask no more of its citizens than that they lay down their lives in its defence. Surely those men could expect that country to honour their sacrifice in a way that gives comfort to those loved ones they left behind. Such a memorial would demonstrate the gratitude that this country holds for the men who have fought to defend it.

I want to end with, once again, the words of Lance Corporal William Smith, from a poem written in his diary: There'll come a Bright Day When Love and Peace will stay They will not have died in vain nor have suffered that great pain For greater Love hath no man Who died that his Brother might live.

10.18 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on securing this debate and on his choice of subject for his maiden speech. We were pleased to hear his vivid description and interesting historical examples of his home town, which is also his constituency. I suspect that he will be representing its interests for many years to come.

The people in Great Yarmouth, like all of us, are rapidly approaching the millennium with considerable optimism and the cautious expectation that this country will enter the new century during a relatively stable period of world peace.

As my hon. Friend has reminded us, 50 years ago things were vastly different. The United Kingdom had withstood the onslaught of belligerent powers and, with her allies, won through to ultimate victory. But at what cost? Half a century on, it is perhaps too easy to forget the tremendous impact that the second world war had on all aspects of our society, and the suffering that had been endured by so many.

It is right, in these last years of the second millennium, to focus our attention on the veterans of both world wars, but it is equally important for us to remember those who were not so fortunate and who never returned home to their families after the victory. The moving poems and the extracts of the diary read by my hon. Friend brought that home starkly and graphically.

However, some suffered far more than others. One group in particular stands out as having suffered to an extraordinary degree during the second world war. I refer of course to those who were captured in the far east. Many prisoners of war were forced to work in appalling conditions, with inadequate food, medical supplies and shelter. As my hon. Friend has so eloquently reminded us, many died in what is now Thailand, building the Burma-Siam railway: the so-called death railway immortalised in the film "The Bridge on the River Kwai".

I must make it clear at the outset that the nation and the Government have the utmost respect for, and are grateful to, all those who fought and died in the far east during the second world war. Despite the passing of more than half a century, we are all still very much aware of the tremendous hardships endured by the 61,000 British, Australian, Dutch and American prisoners of war, and the Asian labour, who were forced by their captors to build the Burma-Siam railway using the most primitive tools in the most primitive conditions.

However much we may try to understand two generations later, no memorial can ever adequately reflect their suffering, or the debt that we owe those men, particularly the 13,000, including Lance Corporal Smith, who lost their lives so far away. I assure my hon. Friend that every effort is made to ensure that they are all properly commemorated. In recognition of their sacrifice, the Government will continue to honour their obligation to fund the United Kingdom's contribution to the commemorative work carried out by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I thank my hon. Friend for the kind references that he made to the excellent work undertaken by the commission in Thailand and around the world on behalf of our war dead.

As elsewhere throughout the world, the commission does sterling work in the Commonwealth, often in spite of less than perfect conditions, especially climatic conditions. A relevant case in point is their work to maintain more than 15,000 war graves in Thailand, as well as memorials to those who were missing or who died and have no known grave.

The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Burma-Siam railway—except Americans who were repatriated—have been transferred from the camp burial grounds and many solitary sites along the railway line into three war cemeteries. I apologise to the House if my pronunciation is not accurate. The Kanchanaburi and Chungkai war cemeteries are in Thailand; the third cemetery is at Thanbyuzayat in what was formerly Burma but is now known as Myanmar. Chungkai war cemetery is the original burial ground of one of the prisoners-of-war base camps, and many of the burials are of those who died in hospital. Kanchanaburi war cemetery contains the remains of those who died and were buried along the southern half of the railway from Bangkok to Nieke. Those who died along the northern half are buried at Thanbyuzayat in Burma.

The Government also give assistance to the war widows grant in aid scheme, which is administered by the pilgrimage department of the Royal British Legion. It was introduced in 1985 to provide financial assistance to enable any service widow whose husband was buried overseas between 1914 and 1967 to visit his grave. Since 1967, the practice has changed in that the next of kin of those who died while serving overseas have had the option to have the remains repatriated if they so wished. The grant contributes seven eighths of the cost of a pilgrimage organised by the Royal British Legion pilgrimage department, which has done an excellent job. The remaining eighth of the cost is borne by the widow.

Since its inception in 1985, the scheme has enabled more than 3,000 widows to visit their husbands' graves in some 40 different countries. There have been seven pilgrimages to Thailand during that period, which have enabled 84 widows, who would not otherwise have been able to visit their husbands' last resting place, to pay their final respects. The scheme has been extended three times because of the sheer number of widows who wished to avail themselves of the opportunity to visit war graves throughout the world, and it is due to end on 31 March 1999. I am pleased to say that the Government have allocated £;297,000 to fund the scheme during the last two years of its operation.

I must again stress that we have the greatest sympathy for those men and their families, and we acknowledge the need for remembrance and commemoration, but it has been a long-standing policy of successive Governments of different political persuasion that the cost of memorials to the dead, both service and civilian, are traditionally erected following a public appeal for private donations. Public funding is not usually made available.

The only exception, where we understand public money was used, is the memorial plaque to those killed in the Falklands war, which was erected in St Paul's cathedral in the mid-1980s. The then Prime Minister expressed the wish that the memorial be funded by the Government. The memorial to those killed in the Gulf war was funded by public subscription, primarily by British expatriates who were resident in Kuwait, which re-established previous practice.

As we all know, war memorials are a familiar part of the landscape of the majority of towns and villages throughout the British Isles. They also stand on many former battlefields and near war cemeteries overseas. They are a firm and lasting testament to the spirit of the nation, and a tangible tribute to those who fell in battle in two world wars and other conflicts. Their value to successive generations is obvious. We must not forget the sufferings of our forebears. The names engraved on the countless monuments here and overseas should force each new generation to think before acting, lest we repeat the errors of the past.

Responsibility for the maintenance of war memorials in the United Kingdom rests with local authorities. The War Memorials (Local Authorities' Powers) Act 1923, as amended by the Local Government Act 1948 and the Parish Councils Act 1957, governs the care of war memorials. Councils are empowered to spend public funds on war memorials from money that is raised through the council tax.

After both world wars, memorials have often been raised overseas by regiments or formations such as divisions in recognition of their fallen comrades. Those memorials are usually located on former battlefields or near the official war cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Responsibility for funding the maintenance of those memorials rests with individual regiments or formations where they still exist, such as the world war two memorial to the 2nd Division at Kohima in India. For the older first world war memorials, where regiments have been disbanded or the division no longer exists, the British Government have undertaken to fund their maintenance through the commission. That ensures that those commemorated on such monuments of both world wars are not forgotten.

My hon. Friend will understand that the Government and the Ministry of Defence in particular receive many requests from individuals, ex-service men's groups and charitable organisations for assistance to fund war memorials. It would not be possible, nor would it be fair, to be seen to support one group rather than another. The vast majority have understandable and worthy goals and can make an equally compelling case for support. It could be divisive, and open to criticism from unsuccessful claimants, if the Government were to pick and choose projects to support.

Even in connection with the proposed Hellfire pass memorial, it would appear from recent correspondence that there may be slightly differing views among ex-service organisations as to how best to commemorate the far east prisoners of war. Therefore, the erection of a war memorial may not necessarily be everybody's first or preferred choice.

I should like to mention one further point, which was recently mentioned in the press and was also referred to by my hon. Friend. Following the end of the second world war, the assets of the Burma-Siam railway were indeed sold to the then Siamese Government for £1.25 million. However, the bulk of that sum was used to recompense the identifiable owners of rolling stock, locomotives and rails, which had been removed by the Japanese from Burma, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Some £175,000 which remained was added to the reparations of more than £4.5 million which were offered by the Japanese Government, and accepted, in 1951. That fund was subsequently distributed to some 59,000 former prisoners of war and civilian internees through the Department of Health and Social Security and the International Committee of the Red Cross. In addition, some money was distributed to voluntary funds for the general benefit of former Japanese prisoners of war.

We fully appreciate the aims of those seeking support for the memorial at Hellfire pass. I am grateful for this opportunity to wish the organisers every success in their endeavours, and we will be happy to provide representation at any dedication ceremony, should the necessary funding be raised. We will also be more than willing to suggest avenues to explore as part of the fund-raising efforts.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the case so movingly and effectively, putting his constituency on the map, identifying his constituents' interests and showing how closely he has identified with them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.