HL Deb 24 October 1939 vol 114 cc1477-89

3.33 p.m.

LORD NEWTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government which Department is responsible for the establishment and administration of alien civilian internment camps, and whether any definite system of dealing with both military and civilian prisoners of war has been considered or adopted. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the first part of the Question which is on the Paper in my name does not represent any personal inquisitiveness on my part, because I know the answer perfectly well. I am putting the Question in the interests of the public, because there is great confusion in the public mind with regard to the procedure in connection with these internment camps. I may add that confusion exists also in official circles. The other day I went to the War Office to make inquiries respecting a perfectly innocent alien, a strong anti-Hitler man, a man only too anxious to be of service to this country, who has been interned without any particular reason as far as I can ascertain. When I arrived at the War Office they said to me: "Oh, but you have come to the wrong place. This is a Home Office matter. It has nothing to do with us." Of course I knew better than that, and I said: "I am not going to leave this establishment until I have convinced you that I am right." When inquiries were made, of course it turned out that I was perfectly right. If confusion exists in such quarters, it naturally exists to a much greater extent amongst the general public.

The position is that there is a dual responsibility, which consists in the fact that the Home Office is responsible originally for having the civilians interned, but once they are interned and in the camp they are under the control of the War Office. I think it is very desirable that some explicit statement should be made by the Government in order to inform the public what they ought to do in the circumstances if they desire to make any inquiries. As I am on the subject, may I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House, who I suppose is going to answer the question, whether these two Departments, the Home Office and the War Office, are represented in this House. I am aware that the Under-Secretary of State for War is a member of this House, but I rather think he has gone abroad.


He has come back.


I am glad he has returned safely. With regard to the Home Office I am in considerable doubt, because I wrote to the noble Lord who is by way of representing the Home Office a few weeks ago and I have not received an answer. I do not even know whether he is alive. At any rate I have not succeeded in getting anything out of him. Perhaps my noble friend, when he answers my Question, will explain what is the actual position.

The second part of my Question is considerably more important, and I ask it because I want to ascertain from the Government whether they are making any preparations to deal with the question of war prisoners generally. At the present moment, I believe, nine of our men are in the custody of the Germans, and I suppose we have a few score of German prisoners here—crews of U-boats and, possibly, a few airmen. Any day almost, or within a short period, we may have large numbers of prisoners to deal with, and a large number of our own men may be prisoners in Germany. I want to know what steps are going to be taken to meet this contingency. The question of dealing with military prisoners is an extremely complicated one. It is very much complicated by the fact that no fewer than five or six Departments are concerned in the matter. There are the War Office, of course, the Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, and on certain occasions the Colonial Office, and perhaps the India Office. It is obvious that when it is only a question of a very few prisoners, each of those Departments is capable of looking after its own men, but when you come to deal with large numbers it seems that there is only one thing to be done and that is to appoint a Department ad hoc, a Department of Prisoners of War. During the last war I occupied a position that was known as that of Controller of the Prisoners of War Department, and I may say at once that I controlled very little. I exercised very little control, because I had not sufficient power. All these Departments were on an equality, and I was only, putting it at its highest, primus inter pares. I had no power to overrule any single Department, because I occupied a very low rank in the official hierarchy—that of an Assistant Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office. The result was that, being unable to overrule any single Department which might create difficulties, it was very difficult to get anything substantial done.

I have never found any suggestion that I have ever made to the Government accepted favourably, and, having long ago reached the age at which everybody is supposed to have lost what little intellect he ever possessed, I am afraid I am not likely to make much impression upon the Government now. Nevertheless I will try, and I venture to make the suggestion that they should institute a Prisoners of War Department, and that that Department should be presided over by a person of importance, a Cabinet Minister if possible. The Cabinet is so large that it might be possible to detach one member to take charge of this Department. If a member of the Cabinet is not available, it ought to be easy enough to find some person of experience and standing who is capable of filling the position and assuming the responsibilities attached to it. In my view the only practical course is to put at the Department a man who should be responsible for everything concerned with prisoners, not only for prisoners' camps here and with their treatment and so forth, but equally for dealing with the treatment of British prisoners abroad, and if possible negotiating with the enemy with that object.

It would cost, as far as I can see, very little to establish such a Department, which would be composed of members of each of the Ministries to which I have referred. That would only mean withdrawing one clerk from each of them. The only additional expense would be the provision of an office and a salary for the man who was chosen to preside over the Department. I do not see why he should receive an extravagant salary. There are far too many people at this moment drawing a great deal more money than they ought in the shape of salaries and not rendering adequate service. He would also have to be a man in Parliament, unfortunately, but I am sure there are men to be found in Parliament who would gladly undertake this duty at a purely nominal rate. I do not wish to brag about my achievements, but when I occupied this position I refused to draw any salary at all, and that arrangement answered very well, because eventually I became involved in a libel action and received far more in damages than I should have if I had drawn a salary! That might occur again to the man who was appointed to the position which I suggest. I submit that this is the only practical way of dealing with the matter.

I would further urge upon the Government that there is not much time to be lost. Although there are only nine British prisoners abroad, at any moment we may hear that a greater number have been taken prisoner, and if arrangements have not been made, the Government will find themselves in great difficulty. No subject excites people more than the fact that their friends or relatives are prisoners, and if anything goes wrong, if the preparations are not made in good time, then there will be a great deal of trouble. It is not necessary to make any announcement on the subject, but the Government should choose a man to fill the position, choose the representatives of the different Departments, and form a framework ready for dealing with the difficulties that may rise. If you go so far as to adopt the principle of a special Department for this purpose, and if you choose the members beforehand, then the difficulties will not arise. But if something of the kind is not done and if the matter is allowed to slide, then I am afraid that the Government will find themselves in considerable difficulty and be subjected to violent abuse by people, who are actually extremely unreasonable on this particular subject.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry if noble Lords thought that I was abroad, but I have not yet got into that position. The question the noble Lord asked naturally falls into the two different parts that he indicated himself—the part that deals with the internment camps, and the part that deals with the prisoners of war. In regard to the first category, the alien civilian internment camps, the War Office is the Department responsible for the establishment of these camps, for the custody of male persons sent to them, and for the administration of the camps themselves. Such women as it has been considered necessary to intern remain in the care of the Home Office. The Home Office is responsible for ordering the internment of an enemy alien in this country under the Prerogative. After an enemy alien has been arrested by the police or other person authorised by the Home Secretary, he is handed over to the care of the War Office in accordance with a pre-arranged plan. Furthermore, the Home Office have set up tribunals which are now engaged upon the task of examining enemy aliens to decide whether they should be exempted from internment and from the special restrictions applicable to enemy aliens. Aliens who have been interned may appeal to the Home Secretary to be released, and the Home Secretary may, if he sees fit, refer the case to the Appeals Advisory Committee which has been set up.

Civilian enemy aliens interned under the Prerogative are not covered by the terms of the International Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war of July 27, 1929, which has been ratified by His Majesty's Government. Nevertheless, the treatment of civilian internees in the United Kingdom will not be less favourable than that accorded to prisoners of war. Questions are likely to arise from time to time in regard to the treatment of civilian enemy aliens who are interned, and, in order to secure proper co-ordination between the Departments concerned, an Internment Camps Committee has been set up by the Home Office, under the chairmanship of the Chairman of the Prison Commission, on which the Home Office, War Office and Foreign Office are represented. A number of voluntary bodies have been invited to co-operate with the authorities in providing welfare services in the camps, and it is hoped they will be able to give valuable assistance in arranging for the physical and mental recreation, occupational employment and spiritual needs of the internees. I think that reply fairly well covers the points raised by my noble friend. To put it in a nutshell: if the noble Lord wishes to get anybody into or out of an internment camp, he must go to the Home Office. If he wishes to raise any complaint about the treatment of a male person, the quality or quantity of the food, or any other matter touching him in an internment camp, then he must ask the War Office. I hope that is quite clear.

In regard to prisoners of war, the War Office is wholly responsible for the establishment and administration of camps for the detention of such prisoners, whether captured in naval, land or air warfare. The system of dealing with prisoners of war is governed first by the International Convention of 1929—that is, the Geneva Convention—relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, which with its annex prescribed the treatment of prisoners from the moment of capture to their eventual exchange or repatriation. Regulations were issued by the Army Council on September 6 last applying the principles laid down in the Convention in the form of regulations for the guidance of Commandants of prisoners' camps. Passing through the printing press at this moment are "Orders for Prisoners of War Camps in the United Kingdom," which are a set of orders in greater detail expanding in some respects the regulations of September 6 and applying them to conditions in the United Kingdom.

The Prisoners of War Information Bureau was established shortly after the outbreak of war in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Convention and is already functioning. That body, I think the noble Lord will recollect, was established in this country in the last war. I think I am right in saying that it was under the control of Sir John Rees, and when the prisoners of war in this country eventually reached a very large figure indeed—I think it was over 300,000—that body at its peak was composed of some 500 people. That body has been re-established, though of course at the moment it is only very small. There is a Controller and, I think, a staff of three or four; but of course it is there already established and can be quickly enlarged when the situation demands.

Although a state of war has not yet existed for two months, the question of the various measures to be taken to alleviate the monotony of imprisonment both for prisoners of war and for interned aliens has already been the subject of conference. This work falls into four main divisions:—(1) organisation of religious ministrations by the churches concerned; (2) provision of such intellectual recreation as may be possible in the circumstances, such as the formation of a circulating library, delivery of lectures, etc.; (3) provision of funds, tools, and appliances to enable those who have special skill in certain directions to continue to exercise it; and (4) organisa- tion of a parcels delivery service to ensure the safe delivery of parcels of food, tobacco, etc., which are forwarded by families and friends of prisoners. The present position being that we hold no more than 110 German sailors and airmen as prisoners, and that a mere handful of British airmen are prisoners in German hands, no question of exchange has yet been raised.

The noble Lord mentioned the question of what is to happen if a large number of our own men are taken prisoners and interned in Germany. The same organisation will be functioning in all the countries at war. It is all laid down under that Convention that was agreed to by a very large number of nations. The first part of it was the International Convention for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armies of the field, and the second part dealt with prisoners of war. The same organisation will be set up in Germany as has already been set up here, and the organisation here will correspond with the German organisation through the intermediary of Switzerland.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask a further question arising out of what has fallen from the Under-Secretary of State for War? The ordinary public do not know about this international organisation for alleviating the lot of prisoners and, as the noble Lord, Lord Newton, says, when a woman learns that her son is taken prisoner she is immediately worried about his treatment. Would it be possible to let it be widely known in some way what exactly the arrangements are, because in future we may have a number of men taken prisoner and it would relieve their relatives to know that there was somebody in Germany watching over their interests. I am rather hazy about it myself, but I see that in the last war the American diplomatic service in Germany, and also I think, the Spanish Ambassador in Germany, were very active both on behalf of civilian internees in Ruhleben in Germany—


That was the exchange of prisoners.


Well, there were certainly neutral diplomats who performed a great service to humanity at that time, and I think it would be very helpful for the public to know that the Americans, who are looking after our interests in Germany, were also looking after this matter. I do not think the ordinary person knows much about the 1929 Convention.

The other matter I wanted to raise was with regard to the position of refugees who have been interned—people who, theoretically, are enemy aliens. This is, of course, a very difficult question, and I am not, on behalf of my friends, complaining that we are being at all too careful. The man who is over here to do a mischief on behalf of Germany will probably go about blackguarding Hitler and his confederates for all he is worth, and he will pose as a refugee from persecution. He would not be so stupid as to go about giving the Nazi salute and praising the present régime in Germany, and therefore, because a man claims to be a refugee from persecution in Germany, that alone is obviously not sufficient reason why he should not be interned. So far as I know, these tribunals have worked quite well. At the same time, I am bound to say, from what has come to my own notice, that quite a number of people who are undoubtedly hostile to the present régime in Germany and sympathetic to our cause, have been interned. There may be other reasons of which one is not aware. Perhaps the Home Office has erred in the direction of being too careful. We cannot be too careful in a matter of this kind, but I presume that, after a little time, the cases will be reviewed. We obviously had to round up a great many people just on the eve of war and put them in safe keeping. That is always done. But I suppose the cases are going to be reviewed, and when extra evidence is brought that these people are perfectly friendly towards this country, their cases will be reconsidered.

I raise this question because I dare say all of your Lordships know of cases of people over here who have been interned, and it often seems to have been rather a case of escaping from persecution in Germany and then being put into an internment camp in this country. I am sure we would not wish to inflict that hardship on unfortunate people who have fled from an atrocious régime like that in Germany. The noble Viscount, Lord Cobham, said that the treatment of these internees was not less favourable than that of prisoners of war. Of course, there is no doubt about prisoners of war and what their feelings are, but many internees are only suspects, and I should have thought they ought to be better treated than prisoners of war and no unnecessary restrictions and hardships put upon them. But with regard to regular prisoners of war, of course they are treated very well indeed. That is the British practice, and we should let it be known how they are treated so as to encourage their comrades to be not too anxious to continue the struggle.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Viscount can give any information as to whether any steps have been taken with regard to prisoners of war. They should be treated well, as the noble Lord has just said, but it is not right that we should do anything in a hurry. With regard to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, about the internment of traitorous refugees, I have during the past week had a little experience. I have found, both in Northumberland and in Sussex, that the tribunals who have investigated cases of which I have some knowledge have been extremely humane, extremely sympathetic and extremely careful. They could not have acted with greater humanity and greater care. They have asked for letters from people who know the refugees and can give warrants that they are trustworthy. If that course is pursued, and stuck to, when a refugee asks that he or she shall not be interned a letter will be demanded from someone known to them and to the tribunal, to the effect that these people are trustworthy persons. If that could be done I think we should be quite safe from the risk of having traitorous people imposed on us, and at the same time we would show sympathy with those who have been suffering persecution.


Would the noble Viscount also say whether the custom adopted in the last war of dropping notes from the air, saying so-and-so came down on our side of the line and is killed or wounded, is being continued? It was a recognised custom last time, and I wonder if it is being done now. I have been asked about the matter.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords I thank the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for the suggestion he has made that some of the matters dealt with in that Convention, both for the care of the sick and wounded and for the care of prisoners, might be far more widely published than has been done hitherto. Of course, it is in the form of the ordinary booklet, but I will see if his suggestion cannot be followed out. The second matter was on my statement that the aliens would not be treated worse than prisoners of war. What happened in the last war was that a very large number of the aliens had to be taken into these internment camps for their own protection. There were waves of what I may call spy fever, especially one after the sinking of the "Lusitania," which made it imperative that a very large number of enemy aliens then resident in this country should be taken into internment camps for their own protection. We hope that will not happen this time. In fact, it is not likely to happen as there are far fewer enemy aliens, especially those of military age, in this country now than there were at the commencement of the last war.


In spite of the refugees?


In spite of the refugees. The figure I have been given as likely to be interned of these enemy aliens, judging by the work of the tribunals for the first three weeks, is somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500, against a figure of over 29,000 during the last war.


Including the ones who were arrested at the very beginning on suspicion?


Including the ones arrested on suspicion at the outset of the war. The other question raised by the noble Lord is really one for the Home Office. I tried in my first reply to my noble friend Lord Newton to indicate why the two Departments are separate. We in the War Office have really nothing to do with the choosing of the people who shall be interned. We only administer them and guard them after they have been handed over to us by the Home Office. I have observed in the Press that the tribunals are by no means carrying out their work in a similar fashion all over the country. I do not know if it could be expected that they should, but in some of the towns I notice the majority of the cases are put in Category A, in others in Category B, in others in Category C. It is really for the Home Office to issue instructions to the tribunals to ensure that that work shall be carried out more uniformly than is being done at present. I regret I have not got the information to answer my noble friend Lord Trenchard, but I shall make it my business to find out.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, it is only by the indulgence of the House that I can say anything, but I should like to express my obligation to the noble Viscount for his statement. At the same time I am by no means satisfied with it. I find it extremely difficult to follow the functions of the different committees which he enumerated, and my firm impression is that, if that particular plan is going to be adopted, when any difficulty arises it will be bandied about from one committee to another and nothing will be done. It seems to me that the obvious thing in the circumstances is to co-ordinate the various Departments and make a new Department which would deal with the matter as a whole. I have suggested that a man should be put at the head of it who would be given power to over-rule any particular Department, with of course the reservation that his decision would be subject to appeal to the Cabinet. I believe that is the only way in which you will arrive at a satisfactory solution, and I would urge my noble friend the Leader of the House to bring this proposal before the Cabinet at the earliest opportunity.






Report from the India and Burma Orders Committee, That they have examined the Draft Orders as required by the Standing Orders of the House; that in their opinion the Orders do not raise important questions of policy and principle; that the Orders are founded on precedent; that in the opinion of the Committee the Orders can be passed by the House without special attention, and that no further inquiry is necessary before the House proceeds to a decision on the Resolution to approve the said Orders:

Read, and ordered to lie on the Table.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Motion that stands in my name.

Moved, That the Draft Orders, as presented to Parliament and reported from the India and Burma Orders Committee, he appoved.—(The Marquess of Zetland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.