HL Deb 05 November 1918 vol 31 cc1044-8

LORD WILLOUGHBY DE BROKE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is the case that no German combatant prisoners of war are employed in British coal mines.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on the day that I put this Question on the Paper my noble friend Lord Lamington put down a Question of the same nature, but I allowed mine to stand because there is hardly anything which excites more public comment than what to the public, rightly or wrongly, seems to be the difference between the respective treatment of German and British prisoners of war. Questions of this kind have had the sympathy of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, because I notice when he was questioned about it one day last week he said he wondered more Questions of the kind had not been put. But, in spite of that, he gave an answer which was not satisfying in any way. He also gave the House to understand that he was the mouthpiece of, and was instructed by, the Government. Well, my Lords, it appears that the Government did not equip him with the kind of answer which will satisfy public opinion on this very important point.

I have no doubt that there may be some excellent and perfectly straightforward answer to this Question. The answer may be that prisoners of war are employed, either at home or abroad, on work which in the view of the Government, and indeed demonstratively, may be more important than being employed in the mines. Or it may be that there are other reasons why they should not be employed in the mines. But what is exercising the public mind at the moment is that British prisoners of war in Germany are receiving very harsh treatment, amounting to loss of life, in the mines over there. At the same time we are told to economise coal in this country. We also hear that German prisoners of war over here are not employed in getting coal from the mines. It is inconceivable that there is not some straightforward explanation of this, and I most respectfully hope that the Government will give some answer to this which will satisfy public opinion. If they will do so now, I will withdraw the Question which stands in my name. But if not, I think it will be your duty to return to this point at a later stage, provided there is a convenient date for doing so before the General Election.


My Lords, I do not think I can add very much to what was said by my noble friend Lord Newton last week in answer to a Question of a rather similar nature. He pointed out that of the German prisoners in this country practically every available man is in employment of some kind or another. I may say that, roughly, we have 25,000 employed on agriculture. Those men are in camps varying in strength between thirty and 250 men. In addition to those 25,000, we have about 4,500 in migratory gangs—that is to say, men five or ten strong, travelling about the country to the farms where they are required. And, further, there are about 1,200 men actually living with farmers. Prisoners are also employed at forestry, and, as my noble friend knows, forestry is essential to coal mines, because one of the great difficulties experienced in coal mines now is the lack of a definite provision of pit-props. There also cement production, lime production, work in the shipyards, building operations and hay pressing.

Speaking from memory, I think that we have somewhere about 97,000 prisoners in this country, and we are employing about 58.000. The difference between the two figures is made up entirely of men whom it is impossible to employ. I think that there are 5,500 officers, 11,000 non-commissioned officers, and about 11.000 men in hospital, and 3,000 men only fit for light work who are employed on such duties as it possible to employ them on, like camp fatigues, preparing prisoners' clothing, etc. Thus we account for every single man of the 39,000 who are not in permanent work in this country. Therefore, unless you are going to take the prisoners away from work which they are now engaged upon, there are no men available to put into the coalmines.

As my noble friend Lord Newton pointed out last week, the trade unions have objected—and I think objected with some reason—to the employment of German prisoners in mines, because it is always possible, in a coal mine, if any man opens his lamp, to set fire to the mine. There would then be caused great loss of life and destruction of the mine. Therefore unless it would be possible to use all German prisoners in one mine by themselves, I think that the miners have great justification in objecting to prisoners being employed in the same mine as themselves.

As regards the employment of British prisoners in Germany, there they are very largely employed, I believe, in salt mines, where of course they have no possibility of being able to destroy German properly and Germany lives. Every one feels only too strongly that if we had an opportunity of getting level with the Germans by employing German prisoners here in mines under conditions very much the same as those under which they employ our men we should do so, but there are these two difficulties. At present all the German prisoners in this country who are available for employment are actually at work of importance, and the coal miners—though I understand that the Coal Controller hopes to get over the difficulty with the trade unionists—object to their employment in mines. If this difficulty be got over, and the work on which the prisoners are now employed is considered of less importance, I have no doubt that they will be employed is the coal mines.


My Lords, I think that the answer which has just been given is a very disingenuous one. Take the question of the danger of the employment of German prisoners in British coal mines at the same time as our own miners. The pits in the country only work shifts of eight hours, and therefore there are sixteen hours left, and during a certain portion of those sixteen hours the mines would be free for German prisoners to go into. Moreover, many mines are quite free from gas, and there would be no question of taking in lamps, for those mines are absolutely safe. As regards all the German prisoners being employed, I suggest, as we are told by the authorities that we are faced with a great coal famine and that the industries will not be able to work full time owing to a shortage of coal, that it would perhaps be better to divert some of these prisoners from, say, agricultural work to mining. I am rather doubtful whether the noble Earl's classification is complete. I know one case in which a large body of German prisoners are engaged entirely in helping to make a waterworks. It is not a matter of national importance whether the water-works are finished six months sooner or six months later. I think, therefore are German prisoners now engaged on certain work who could be better employed in the coal mines. Of course, you cannot forcibly employ a non-commissioned officer, but I imagine that it would be legitimate to employ non-commissioned officers if they wish to work, and I do not see why you should not get a good many of the 11,000 non-commissioned officers to express a willingness to work rather than live in a state of idleness.

House adjourned at five minutes before seven o'clock.