HL Deb 21 November 1918 vol 32 cc342-6

My Lords, before public business commences I should like to ask your Lordships' permission to say a word upon a matter arising out of something that was said yesterday evening after I had left the House. A debate took place, one of the many we have listened to in this House, about prisoners of war, to which my noble friend Lord Newton replied. And since coming into the House five minutes ago my attention has been called to the fact that statements were made in the course of that debate by two noble Lords—Lord Devonport and Lord Beresford—which were so foreign from the facts, and passed an imputation upon His Majesty's Government so destitute of foundation, that I cannot allow these passages for one moment to remain upon the pages of your Lordships' record unchallenged or unanswered.

Lord Devonport, in the course of his speech—I am sorry he is not here, and of course I have had no time to give him notice spoke as follows— There is one outstanding feature of all these debates to which I think I am entitled to direct attention—namely, that on no single occasion has a Minister on that Bench— By which, of course, he meant this Bench— of Cabinet standing taken part in our discussions. We have always been left to the tender mercies, if I may say so—I do not say it offensively—of Lord Newton. And a little later in the same discussion Lord Beresford repeated the charge, and said— I agree with Lord Devonport that not one word of sympathy or consideration has ever been uttered by a Cabinet Minister from the Front Bench opposite or from the Front Bench in the other House. That is what has irritated the people. Now, that is a monstrous charge, and it is a charge without a shadow of foundation. It is a charge which no noble Lord has the right to get up and make in this House unless he has verified the facts.

What are the facts? Under the Constitution under which we are at present existing there is, as we know, only a limited number of Ministers who, I suppose, are Cabinet Ministers in the strictest and most technical sense of the term. For the moment I am the only one in your Lordships' House, and at an earlier date there were only two—Lord Milner and myself. A number of other Ministers sit here who are Cabinet Ministers in the ordinary sense of the term, although they do not happen to be members of the War Cabinet. As regards ourselves, I very seldom remember—and I am sure nobody else remembers—the various speeches I have had to make, but I have distinctly in my recollection occasions—certainly one, and I think I may say two—on which I have taken part in these discussions with regard to prisoners of war, and expressed the sentiments which every member of the Government as well as of your Lordships' House feels. When these debates on prisoners of war occur, under the method on which we do our business here nobody knows in advance, when a Question is put upon the Paper, whether it will be merely a question put in five minutes and calling for a five-minutes reply, or whether it is going to develop into a debate which may last one hour or two hours. And on several occasions Questions have been put to my noble friend and, without the slightest knowledge on the part of Ministers or any intimation to us on the part of speakers, the Question has developed into a debate of first-class magnitude; and I, for instance, who have many Government pre-occupations elsewhere, may not have been present, having no idea of what was going to be said.

Further, my Lords, we have trusted my noble friend Lord Newton, who, if I may say so in his presence, has been most unfairly attacked, and who, to my certain knowledge, has conducted the business of his Department with efficiency, and, with regard to the prisoners, subject to every consideration of humanity. When the question has been raised here we have with perfect confidence left my noble friend to reply. And if another Minister was to be called upon to answer, it was naturally the business of the Secretary of State for War. On more than one occasion have I sat here while my noble friend Lord Derby—certainly not a man lacking in the slightest degree in sympathy—has spoken on this subject in the earlier days of the war. There was then a division of opinion, I think I may say a sharp division of opinion, between the War Office who regard the matter from the point of view of the military situation, and the point of view of the public, who look upon it more from the standpoint of sentiment and of humanity.

So far from the War Cabinet having turned a deaf ear to the case of these unhappy prisoners, I have sat in that Cabinet and heard, eight, ten or twelve times, long discussions on this matter; I have listened to a careful judicial balancing of the various issues concerned; and your Lordships must believe that, whether we are treated as Ministers or whether we are regarded as men, there has not been any failure on any of these occasions in the Cabinet to give due consideration to those sentiments of humanity, good feeling, and sympathy which find so natural and frequent an expression in your Lordships' House. When the War Office case has had to be stated, it has been given here by the Secretary of State; it was not my business to do it. But I deprecate most emphatically the idea that there has been any lack of sympathy in the Cabinet, or any lack of the expression of it in this House, or elsewhere. I feel sure I have only to call the attention of my noble friends Lord Devonport and Lord Beresford to the sentences I have quoted, which no doubt they used inadvertently yesterday, to receive from them an expression of regret for the baselessness of the charge which they then made.


My Lords, I had not the advantage of hearing all the observations of the noble Earl who has just sat down, but I confess that on this side of the House a good many of us sympathise with the tone of indignation in which he spoke of certain observations that had been made, especially with regard to the action of my noble friend Lord Newton. It is only right, I think, to say—and I say it on behalf particularly of my noble friends behind me—that all those who have had occasion to have any dealings at the Foreign Office on this matter with the noble Lord have fully recognised the seriousness and the sympathy with which he has regarded all these questions of prisoners of war. My noble friend Lord Newton, as we, when we used to sit on that side of the House, had frequent occasion to observe, is gifted with somewhat unusual powers of sarecasm; and dull people, who are perhaps in a majority, do not always appreciate the ironical tone in which my noble friend, as often as not, addresses the House. But I do desire to affirm, from my own knowledge and observation, what was said by a speaker in some former debate when I was not present, that after having myself assisted at a number of these debates, I regard it as altogether unfair to assert that Lord Newton has ever used any tone of irony or flippancy where the interests of the prisoners were concerned.


Hear, hear.


One has seen charges of that kind brought against the noble Lord in the Press, and I regard them as monstrously unfair. I have only desired to make these few observations with regard to the noble Lord, but I have no doubt whatever that what the noble Earl has just stated about the attitude of the War Cabinet in this matter is also entirely justified. There have been times when the problem of how best to serve the interests of our prisoners of war in the different theatres has been one of extreme complexity and difficulty; and certainly, speaking from this side of the House, I have no reason to suppose that the Cabinet has not on every occasion adopted the course which sensible and sympathetic men would desire to adopt.


My Lords, as the Leader of the House is present, and was not present during the debate last evening, I desire to say that the point which some of us raised yesterday was to press the Government to institute some form of inquiry which would in our view clear Lord Newton of the charges which have been made against him outside, and which we think grossly unfair. We thought that a Parliamentary Inquiry, to include not only an investigation into what has taken place in this country, and by the Government, on behalf of the prisoners, but also into the treatment of prisoners by the Germans, and by the Turksespecially, was desirable, because the frightful death-rate which has occurred among the prisoners will be believed to be due to the inhuman treatment to which they have been subjected. For those reasons we required all the facts to be ascertained and made public, so that the public should not be misinformed, as I think they have been very largely.


My Lords, I have pressed this question several times, and therefore I would only ask, while sympathising deeply with the noble Earl's indignation that the Government should be accused in any way of want of sympathy with the prisoners, whether he will endeavour to use his great personal influence in order to ensure that those who have been guilty of these crimes against our prisoners shall be made personally responsible.


My Lords, I am afraid that the whole of this discussion is a little irregular. It was opened by myself only with a personal explanation, but it shows some signs of developing into something a little larger and I must not encourage that symptom. But in reply to what my noble friend Lord Midleton has just said, I would state that the question of dealing with he Germans who have been responsible for these crimes and atrocities is engaging the close attention of His Majesty's Government, who are being advised by the Law Officers upon the matter, and I can assure my noble friend, though I cannot give him further information at the moment, that the Government have no intention of desisting from pursuit of the matter.