HL Deb 22 March 1916 vol 21 cc442-7

My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government what are the regulations with regard to the employment of prisoners of war and of interned civilians. It has not been easy to get any precise information on this subject, but I understand that there are certain facts in connection with it. One is that, although we have been at war for more than eighteen months, there have been no regulations issued respecting the employment of prisoners, or, if any have been issued, it is only at quite a recent date. I know that there has been a certain amount of employment conducted by the prisoners in making roads about the camps, putting up barbed wire fences, and in other minor matters of that kind, but I do not think very much employment has been allowed to prisoners outside their camps. I am even told that in one camp, where numerous huts are being built for the reception of prisoners, the work is being carried out under the supervision of the Royal Engineers but is put out to contract. The prisoners were not allowed to help in the building of the huts because it would have been against some trade union rule. I was told of another case where an offer was made by the commandant of a prisoners' camp to allow the prisoners to work on the public roads, but the local authority or some other body intervened and said it would not be permissible because it would be offending some labour organisation.

It seems incredible in these days, when there is such a scarcity of labour and when attempts are made on every side to get people to undertake the multifarious forms of employment to be carried out, that there should be any opposition to the utilisation of the labour of these prisoners. Considerable limitation is necessarily imposed by the difficulty of obtaining sufficient escorts to guard the prisoners outside the camps, but it should be easy to bring various forms of employment to the camps where the prisoners might give useful service. I believe it is done in France to a large extent. There a great number of prisoners are usefully employed. The prisoners in this country are well looked after, well fed, and well housed, but they suffer from lack of something to do; and it would not be contrary to the wish of the prisoners if they were allowed facilities to work outside their camps. And as they would be remunerated they might thus put by some small sum of money. This, moreover, would not be in conflict with The Hague Convention, because in Article 6 it is laid clown that— Prisoners may be authorised to work for the public service, for private service, or on their own account. They may not, of course, do any work in connection with operations of war. But I read in the Press that this is what Germany is doing. She is employing her prisoners in connection with war work, but we do not wish to emulate Germany in that respect. Yet facilities ought to be given to prisoners to do useful service.

Before I sit down I should like to ask a Question of which I have given private notice—namely, what is being done in the case of prisoners in Turkey? All through this war, whether in Gallipoli or Mesopotamia, the Turks have, by every account, been most fair and honourable and chivalrous in their methods of conducting the war; and in yesterday's newspapers there was an account of how well the prisoners were treated who were taken off the "Tara." I hope the noble Lord who will answer this Question will be able to give some assurance that our prisoners who are in the hands of the Turks are equally well considered and looked after, and treated in a way something resembling the Turk's honourable methods of conducting war.


My Lords, with regard to my noble friend's supplementary Question, I am unable to give him as much information as I should have liked on account of the insufficient notice which I received. It is perfectly true, as my noble friend stated, that the conduct of the Turks on many occasions has contrasted favourably with that of certain other belligerents, but it would be a mistake to assume, as I am afraid he has assumed, that all prisoners in Turkey are being treated in a humane and satisfactory manner. That, I am afraid, would be an exaggeration. I may add that it is extremely difficult to obtain full information on the subject. If my noble friend cares to return to this question upon another occasion, I shall be glad to supply him with any information that is within my power.

The answer to the Question upon the Paper is that all prisoners of war, whether military or civilian, are obliged to carry out certain duties connected with the order and management of their places of internment without payment, and, as my noble friend is also aware, they are obliged to cook for themselves; and those, prisoners who are employed in various capacities, such as tailors, or shoemakers, or clerks, or in hospital receive certain rates of pay. The employment of combatant prisoners of war by the State, by public bodies, or by private individuals is regulated by Article 6 of the Annexe to The Hague Convention, and each man receives as remuneration the same amount of working pay as would be earned by one of our soldiers in similar circumstances. As my noble friend is aware, labour cannot be imposed upon interned civilians without their assent. With regard to the civilians interned in this country, regulations bearing upon their employment are now under consideration. In the case both of combatant and civilian prisoners such payment is demanded from the employer as will recoup the State for the expense incurred and leave proper remuneration for the prisoners. Prisoners in this country have been employed in the Isle of Man and elsewhere in constructing huts and otherwise extending their camps, and at Dorchester and Stobs work in the vicinity of camps has been found for them.

I am quite prepared to confess that in my opinion the situation generally as regards the employment of prisoners is by no means satisfactory, and I agree with my noble friend that it would be difficult to conceive a more ludicrous spectacle than that which is afforded us at the present moment. Here we are, with an alarming scarcity of labour throughout the country, imploring women to come to our assistance, whilst there are thousands of able-bodied prisoners in this country who are doing very little work at all. I might give an instance which came under my own observation. Some months ago, before I had any official connection with prisoners at all, I happened to be visiting a military camp where drainage work was going on, and I observed, much to my surprise, that the work was being carried out by civilians. Upon inquiry I discovered that these civilians had been imported from a considerable distance, and were being paid at the highest trade union rates of wages. I thereupon asked the prisoners whether there were none amongst them who were capable of discharging that particular work, and they replied that there was nothing they would have liked better and that they would have been enchanted to do the work for a penny an hour. To this day I have received no explanation of that very remarkable phenomenon. In Germany, on the other hand, from information I have obtained from the Red Cross, prisoners of war are employed in no less than twenty-eight different occupations, varying from labour in mines to acting as beaters at shooting parties. Here in this country nobody shows any desire to employ prison labour.

I have been informed that in the past the Government did endeavour to employ these men and made proposals with regard to their employment. I believe they approached the railways, but the reply of the railway people was that they did not want to have anything to do with prisoners. They tried mining. I believe they were told that the miners would have nothing to say to them at all. Then they fell back on the docks, and when the question of employing them in the docks was raised I believe that petitions were received by the Admiralty and by the War Office, and that as a climax the men who represented the Dockers' Union said that the dockers would have nothing to do with them. Then, again, it was suggested frequently that they should be employed upon public works, but in every case there has been opposition proceeding either from the employers or from the trade unions. That disposes of some of my noble friend's criticisms. But I must candidly own that I am not at all satisfied that sufficient efforts have been made to employ these men.

As my noble friend is perhaps aware, an inter-Departmental Committee has recently been appointed for the purpose of dealing with prisoners where two or more Departments are concerned, and I happen to be chairman of that Committee, I am happy to be able to say that although we have only held two meetings we have at all events made a little progress, because it has been definitely arranged, owing partly to persistence on my part, that a certain number of military prisoners should be allocated to the work of felling trees in Scotland for the purpose of supplying pit props, which are very urgently required at the present moment in the coal mining industry. It is hoped that before long the remaining military prisoners will be employed in some useful capacity. But I may say that the whole question of the employment of prisoners is not such a simple one as it appears, more especially when five or six different Departments are concerned. I can, however, assure my noble friend that the Government are fully aware of the necessity of utilising this particular form of labour, and that every effort will be made to utilise it in some form or other. This question is not only a complicated one but it is an important one, and one which cannot really be dealt with in the limits of an answer to a Question of this kind; but if my noble friend returns to the subject on a later occasion I hope I may be able to give him a fuller answer.


The position seems very difficult. Is it the Government who are governing the country, or is it the trade unions?


It is not only a question of the trade unions.


I understood the noble Lord to say that the trade unions objected.


I said other people as well.


Well, is it the Government who are governing the country or these "other people"? We are very short of labour, and ought to employ these prisoners. The Government should put their foot down and say, "We are going to employ them." I am not saying anything against the trade unions. When they began they were in the right. Working men in those days did not get their fair share from the output of labour. But since that time the trade unions have usurped power which is very harmful to the country. We are now at war, and neither the trade unions nor anybody else should be allowed to interfere with what the Government think is right.


My noble friend is an old Government official himself, and I should have thought he would have realised that, as I said just now, this question of employing prisoners of war is not such a simple one as it appears. It is not only a question of the trade unions. As I pointed out, there are five or six Government Departments that have to be considered. If I were appointed Dictator and given powers to deal with these prisoners as I thought fit, I feel certain they would be employed in some capacity or another before very long. This is a thing, however, which cannot be done all at once, and I am doing all I possibly can to expedite matters in the direction which my noble friend desires.