HL Deb 13 July 1916 vol 22 cc714-8

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord the Paymaster-General whether he has any further information to give to the House as to the present employment of prisoners of war and interned civilians. I suggest that if there is now some machinery by which prisoners can be employed, it should be more widely advertised, so that people should know where to apply to obtain the services of these prisoners.


My Lords, I am afraid that I have not much to add to the statement which I made in reply to my noble friend some two months ago. As my noble friend is well aware, the prisoners in this country consist of two categories—military and civilian. With regard to the military, there are I suppose at the present moment, including the recent captures which have been made, about 20,000 German soldiers and sailors in our hands. With regard to their employment, the following steps have been taken. There are at the present moment being formed, under the auspices of the Home-Grown Timber Committee, eleven camps. Four of these are actually in operation, three are in process of formation, and four are under consideration. It is calculated that the number of men who will be employed in these eleven camps when they are all in operation will be about 1,500, the numbers employed in each camp varying roughly from 110 to 150. These military prisoners are also being employed in quarries on waterworks, and road-making. Employment of this nature has been sanctioned, I understand, for about 1,600, and work for another 1,500 has been applied for As I explained on the former occasion, in the vicinity of the large established camps a certain amount of local work has been found for prisoners who are detained there. As I also explained, these men are largely employed inside the camps on duties connected with camp administration, and they make, for instance, such articles as mail bags, of which a very large quantity has been turned out. I might add that they are paid for their work according to the scale of working pay laid down in the case of British soldiers.

In addition to the men whom I have mentioned, as the noble Lord probably recollects, a considerable number of German prisoners have been sent by us to France and are working at unloading ships. This experiment was due to the action of the late Secretary of State for War. It has had, I am sorry to say, one unfortunate result, because, although these men who have been-sent to France are not, I understand, employed in any way in contravention of The Hague Convention, and are superintended by British Officers and non-commissioned officers, the German Government, for some reason or other, seized upon this action as an excuse for retaliation; and as I explained to the House the other day, the Germans have consequently sent a large number of our men to occupied Russian territory, and these men are now working, so far as we know, in the ports of Libau and Windau. We have reason to believe that they are being extremely badly treated, and up to now, in spite of reiterated requests, the officials of the American Embassy have not been allowed to pay visits to these places. It will be observed that there still remains a large margin of 10,000 or 12,000 unemployed military prisoners in our hands.

The civilian prisoners, of course, are much more numerous. There are, roughly speaking, something like 32,000 of these men, and the only new development with regard to their employment which I have to record since I made the last statement on the subject is that a new camp is in process of formation, where engineering work of a very technical character is going to be provided for a certain number. It is work which has no connection whatever with the operations of war. It is hoped that this camp will be at work shortly. As regards the employment of interned civilians generally, I made a fairly full statement two months ago. I must admit that the employment of interned civilians is no part of my business, but nevertheless I was so scandalised at the spectacle of these thousands of men being unemployed that I could not help making representations to the various Departments concerned, and I am afraid I have become thoroughly obnoxious to them in consequence. I am bound to say that my efforts, possibly uncalled for, have met in almost every case with ignominious failure. I cannot point to success anywhere. But I think it right to say that this failure of employment is not in reality due to the Departments concerned. I attribute it entirely to the stupidity and ignorance which prevails in this country and which is fostered and pandered to by a certain section of the Press and certain individuals.

My noble friend asks me why there is no greater publicity with regard to opportunities for employment. I think it just as well to be, perfectly frank with my noble friend and to tell him the reason. The reason is this, that if too great attention were drawn to this matter it would in all probability cause considerable labour trouble. This opposition to the employment of these men—the employment, mind you, not of Germans, but of what I may call friendly aliens—is all the more unintelligible for this reason. If it were proposed to employ these men on a system of cheap labour and to undersell labour in the ordinary labour market, there would be something to be said against it; but as it is proposed to employ these men only during the period of the war, and as, in addition, it has never been suggested that they should be paid other than the standard local wages, it is quite unintelligible to me that there should be opposition of any kind whatsoever.

What does astonish me is the extraordinary ignorance which prevails with regard to the whole question of aliens. Many people seem to be quite unable to distinguish between nationalities. Every alien, whether interned or not, is in their language a Hun. Apparently there are a large number of people in this country who, if an earthquake were to occur here to-morrow, or if we were to suffer a serious naval disaster, or if General Haig and his whole staff were taken prisoners, would at once raise the cry, "Put every Hun behind barbed wire, and all will be well." As an instance of the kind of ignorance which prevails with regard to these men, I may quote the case of a chief constable. In describing an alien under his charge he said, "I cannot for the life of me make out what this man is. He cannot even speak Austrian."

It is not the case that individuals are unwilling to employ these men. I receive constant applications from people who say they want to employ them. I admit that I have instigated certain friends of my own to make application for the employment of these so-called friendly aliens, but in almost every case it has proved to be a failure. I induced my noble friend the Leader of this House to avail himself of this source of labour, but as soon as the rumour got about my noble friend, if I am not mistaken, was threatened with a strike of something like 100,000 men. Another noble Lord with whom I am acquainted said he would like above all things to get some of these aliens to work for him." I have a private prison." he said, "in which I could keep them if that were thought advisable." This noble Lord has had no more success than my noble friend behind me. Then I have another friend, not a member of this House but a gentleman who farms 7,000 or 8,000 acres. He knew nothing about aliens, but the moment he beard that there were such persons as friendly aliens in existence he said, "For Heaven's sake let me have some. I could take any number from fifty to a hundred." I have not the smallest hope that my friend's request will be acceded to, because he lives in one of the home counties, and it would be feared that if it were known that he was employing a large number of friendly aliens, who are sure to be designated as Huns, there would be great trouble in labour circles and in other directions. I had an application the other day from an unfortunate man in Ireland. "Everybody has turned against me," he wrote, "nobody is allowed to work for me. Could you not get me some aliens, whether friendly or not, to come and work for me?" I have not answered that gentleman's letter, because owing to the state of Ireland I fear that the Home, Office would be extremely reluctant to take any action in this matter. Therefore I say that almost all my efforts have met with conspicuous failure.

But I still persevere with my efforts. There are a few persons who have been sufficiently bold and enterprising to employ a few of these men, I believe with the happiest result. I cannot help thinking that when a shortage of labour really does arise—it seems impossible to believe that there can be a shortage of labour when you find such a source of supply as this neglected in this way—people will begin to learn a little common sense from the example of other countries, Germany included, and that some employment may be found for these men. Rut in the meanwhile I confess I feel considerably disheartened; and unless more intelligence is displayed before long, I fear that the end of the war will find us in possession of thousands of these men still behind barbed wire, demoralised and perhaps ruined and broken in health, who will constitute a serious difficulty with which we shall have to deal.