HL Deb 18 May 1916 vol 21 cc1123-7

LORD LAMINGTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether it has now been arranged for prisoners of war and interned civilians to be employed on work other than for camp purposes; and, if not, what are the reasons for their non-employment.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, when I raised this matter two months ago the noble Lord the Paymaster-General asked me to put a Question down at a later date, as he hoped by then to have some further information. He said the difficulty was the number of Departments concerned in the question of finding employment for prisoners and the fact that the labour unions, such as the Dockers' Union, objected to having prisoners employed on their work. I now ask the noble Lord whether he can give any information as to the result of the Committee on this question over which I understand he presides.


My Lords, the Question of my noble friend is one of considerable importance, and it is unfortunate that it should not attract more attention than will presumably be the case under present circumstances. I had better, for the purpose of convenience, first explain what has been done with regard to military prisoners, and deal with civilians afterwards. With regard to military prisoners, I am able to inform the noble Lord that a step of some importance has been taken. At this moment there are between 2,000 and 3,000 German prisoners being employed in France. They are employed at the Port at Havre, and I think at Rouen—I am not quite sure as to that—but they are employed in relieving the extreme congestion that prevails in French ports; they are employed in unloading the ships, but of course they have nothing to do with munitions of war. With regard to the directions in which it is proposed to employ military prisoners in this country, arrangements are being made with a view to providing men for cutting timber in Scotland. This arrangement has been the subject of discussion between the War Office and other Departments for several months, and I am bound to admit that not a single tree has fallen yet nor is in imminent danger of falling, so far as I am aware. But I have this afternoon received information from the Home Grown Timber Committee to the effect that arrangements have already been made for placing 550 men immediately, and the Committee are only awaiting the consent of the Admiralty, the War Office having already consented. Four hundred more men will be placed as soon as certain preliminary arrangements have been concluded, subject, of course, to the consent of the military and naval authorities. I rather think that negotiations upon this subject have been proceeding since the autumn of last year. Other schemes are in process of construction.

I now turn to the question of the employment of civilians who are interned. As my noble friend is aware, employment is not obligatory on civilians; they can only be put to work in the event of their being ready to do it of their own free will. The interned civilians in this country are far more numerous than the military prisoners. There are altogether here 32,000 interned civilians, 27,000 of whom are Germans. The majority of these civilians are interned in the Isle of Man, where a certain amount of employment has been found for them. They are engaged in quarrying, in road-making, and to a certain but not to a great extent upon the farms. They are not employed to a great extent, because I understand that there is still a certain amount of labour available in the Isle of Man. They are further employed, I believe, in cutting peat, and in occupation of that kind. In addition to that, there is a great deal of work performed inside the camps. I understand that thousands of mail-bags have been turned out by these prisoners, not only in the Isle of Man, but also in the camp at Islington; and a large number of brushes and brooms for Government use have also been produced by interned aliens. I might add that all the clothing which is required for these very numerous interned men is made by the prisoners themselves. They grow their own vegetable produce to a considerable extent, and I understand that 39 acres of land have just been taken for this purpose. In addition, repairs and drainage works are being carried on by interned civilians.

I should be the first to admit, although it is no special concern of mine, that this record is not a perfectly satisfactory one, and it is all the less satisfactory when one compares it with what is going on in Germany. I have obtained figures from German newspapers which show that in Prussia alone there are at this moment between 900,000 and 1,000,000 prisoners employed in some capacity or other. As far as I am personally concerned, I can assure my noble friend that since I have had any connection with this question of prisoners I have never ceased agitating and worrying the Government Departments concerned with regard to this question of employment, and I am afraid I must admit that I am thoroughly unpopular with every Department concerned.


Not mine.


My noble friend is kind enough to say that his Department is an exception. I am bound to pay this tribute to my noble friend, that I have obtained very valuable support from him and his Department, as I shall presently explain. My noble friend may remember that on the previous occasion I pointed out the numerous difficulties which confront the Government in employing prisoners. These are not solely difficulties created by the trade unions and by Labour leaders. Difficulties have also been put in the way of the employment of prisoners by employers, corporations, and bodies of that kind.

I can illustrate the sort of difficulty that prevails by my own personal experience. With the assistance of my noble friend behind me I persuaded the Home Office to try an experiment upon a modest scale in my own county, Cheshire. I persuaded them to allow a system under which a farmer is enabled to engage an interned alien on the same conditions as those in which he formerly employed agricultural labourers—that is to say, he would be merely called upon to provide the man with food and lodging, but would not be responsible for his safety. All that he would have to do would be to make the man report himself from time to time to the Police, and, in the case of the man proving unsatisfactory, he would be returned to the camp whence he came. I confess I thought that I had achieved something practical, and I anticipated that this action would have been received with a certain amount of gratitude in my own county. But far from that being the case, I have been denounced as a semi-dangerous lunatic who is anxious to let loose on the county of Cheshire a gigantic flood of German spies. I should like to plead, in exculpation, that I never contemplated that any German should be so employed. What I suggested was that aliens who were technically hostile aliens but not Germans—such as Hungarians Croats, Poles, Galicians, and Ottoman subjects—might be employed with perfect safety, more especially if the commandant of the camp was prepared to be responsible for their good behaviour. But I found it almost an impossible task to induce people to realise that a Croat, or an Armenian, or a Galician is not the same thing as a German spy. When I said a moment ago that the experiment was going to be tried upon a modest scale, I am bound to say that this condition has been strictly observed, because up to now only two aliens have been applied for, and only one has arrived. On the other hand, I am able to state that this solitary alien has proved a complete success, and I have no doubt this will be the case with the other one. And it is rather to the credit of this House that the two employers who requested the services of these two aliens were both members of this House. I have not the smallest doubt in my own mind that before long everybody will be clamouring for these aliens, and I hope that my own county will have the first pick, although it has not shown any alacrity in availing itself of them up to now. I cannot help thinking, with my noble friend Lord Selborne, that there will be a greater shortage in the agricultural world than exists at the present time, and when that moment arrives every sensible man will be only too thankful to avail himself of such labour as this, and in so availing ourselves of it we may show ourselves to be as practical as the Germans have been.


I thank the noble Lord for his answer, which is very satisfactory. But it is strange that 2,000 or 3,000 men should have been sent to France while we want so much labour over here. Or were the men released already there?


That is an inquiry which ought to be addressed to my noble friend beside me (Lord Sandhurst), because it is purely a War Office question. But there is one fact which I forgot to mention—namely, that these German prisoners in France are under British and not French supervision.