HL Deb 05 September 1940 vol 117 cc381-96

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government how many alien civilians have been released from internment since the issue of the White Paper in July, No. 6217, and how many arrests and rearrests have taken place during this period. I have no intention of making a speech, but perhaps my noble friend who is to reply will be be able to give me an answer to this—namely, whether it is the case that there are now twenty-seven persons in the Home Office who really have the power of granting or refusing the liberation of the internees.

5.11 p.m.


My Lords, before my noble friend replies I would very much like to say a word upon this question of aliens, because I admit I am still, very unhappy about it. My noble friend Lord Davies has a question the answer to which will be of great importance, but it is not only the question of the speed at which the internees are being released that is most important. There are a good many other questions which ought to be, and I hope are being, considered. It is not a question only of the policy involved, though I think the policy of the Government is wrong, but it is mainly the question of the administration of that policy, and among other things the speed with which information is given in answer to inquiries about particular cases.

I have had several cases brought to my notice and no doubt many of your Lordships have had others. One kind of typical case I will mention. A woman has a husband who is suddenly arrested—she does not know for what reason—and he is removed to an unknown camp. She thereupon writes and tries to find out what has happened to him, and hears vague rumours that he has been carried off to Canada. She thereupon writes to the Commandant of the camp and asks: "Is it true that my husband has been sent to Canada?" After some little delay she gets a reply to say that they have no record in the camp as to whether he was being sent to Canada or not. She then writes to me, and I sent her letter on to a quarter where I thought it would probably be attended to. The result was that almost immediately she received information that the man had been sent to Canada, and was then living in that country. I think that is an awful way of dealing with these things. The poor woman was in the greatest possible anxiety about it because she did not know what had happened to her husband, and thought that he might have been drowned in the "Arandora" disaster or something of that kind. She was quite unable to get information until somebody outside altogether intervened, and then under that pressure the information was given.

I have had also a number of other cases in which I thought it right to ask for information. The position is getting worse. It is more difficult to get a reply than it was. After all, a Member of Parliament, even if he is only a member of this House, has a positive right to a reply from the Minister if he makes an inquiry on a matter of the Minister's duty. We get no reply at all, no answer of any kind whatever, not even an acknowledgment. I do not want to charge the Minister of Home Security with discourtesy. I am sure that would be a most unfair charge, but I do say that it shows the total inadequacy of the machinery for dealing with these questions. That is what is really the trouble. There is not anything like the machinery that is necessary. In my judgment—I may be entirely wrong—there ought to have been a Minister definitely allotted to this subject when it was seen that it was going to be one of very great complexity and difficulty, and he ought to have had a proper staff to deal with it in a proper way with reasonable celerity and in a businesslike fashion.

So much for the administration. What I desire to say as to the policy—I do not need to repeat what has been said in this House—is that the policy is fundamentally wrong. It is based upon the principle that what matters is whether a person is a German or not, whereas what really matters is whether he is a Nazi or not. That ought to be the real test. Merely to imprison all the Germans would be as unreasonable as to imprison all the English or the French or the people of any other nationality. The question really is what is a person's attitude in the great controversy that is being fought out in this war. That is a matter which was investigated at the very start of the war, when a certain conclusion was arrived at, and persons were allowed not to be interned in consequence of that conclusion. Then many of them were interned without any kind of warning. I cannot believe that the emergency required that that step should be taken, nor do I believe that it was the right step to be taken, whatever the emergency was. I hope very much that now there will be greater liberality, as the Foreign Secretary promised, in the relief which is given in these cases.

I most earnestly beg the Government to reconsider the whole basis of this policy and decide upon a reasonable plan. The moment there is the slightest doubt what the attitude of a man or woman may be, then it is right to intern, but when there is no doubt it is fantastic to intern people who fled from their country because they could not stand the persecution and the danger to life and limb which was involved by remaining there. That is all I desire to say on that point, and I must not be led into saying anything else about what the Foreign Secretary stated, because that does not arise on this question, but I do hope the Government will really give this matter more attention than they have yet given to it.

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, I feel bound to associate myself with what my noble friend has said not so much about questions of policy as questions of administration in regard to the difficult matter of these internees. It is useless now to consider and discuss the earlier policy. I fully understand the reasons which led the military authorities to insist upon even the internment of those whose circumstances had been carefully examined and who had been pronounced to be entirely friendly to this country and inimical to the Nazi system. All I want to do now is to call attention to the fact that still, in spite of all the admissions that have been generously made about the inadequacy of administration, these blots on administration continue in what is to me a most perplexing way.

I have to deal constantly with cases of this kind that come to me from all parts of the country. I find that the officials at the Home Office, including, and most of all, the Home Secretary himself, are always most courteous and most ready to recognise the justice of any case that is put before them, but unfortunate people who have not the same access to these high officials find the delays almost intolerable. Much time passes before an answer is given to the simplest possible question about one of these unhappy people. I am informed that wives still do not know whether their husbands have been taken to Canada or not. One of them was alluded to by the noble Viscount just now. I find that still, in what seems to me an unnecessary way, wives and husbands are kept separate from each other.

I particularly pressed some time ago upon the Home Secretary the desirability in the camps of keeping those who are admittedly anti-Nazi apart from those who are admittedly the friends of that system. It is almost intolerable that people who sacrificed everything because they could not endure the system under which they were living and came over here to get liberty from it should be compelled to associate day by day with those who are admittedly friends of that very system. The Home Secretary said he was taking steps to see that separation was made. I should like to know how far that has been consistently done. I hear no complaints about the camps themselves. In most cases gratitude is expressed by the inmates of the camps for the considerateness and kindliness of the Commandants and of the officers of the camps, but often there is a real difficulty because of inability to provide suitable employment for the kind of men interned. It is quite intolerable for a man who has occupied himself before he was obliged to come to this country in the work of a university, or of a scientific laboratory or a very important business, to be obliged to spend day after day and hour after hour without any chance of reasonable and fruitful employment. I should have thought that a little imagination would have enabled the Government to put that matter right.

Similarly, although I know it is almost impossible to make discriminations as to comforts within these camps, I cannot but think that there are cases of persons of real eminence formerly in their own country, cases of very distinguished people who might be allowed a little more latitude in the way of personal comfort than is perhaps required by the great mass of the interned. I should like to say that, in my judgment, what is wrong at present—I say nothing about the original policy—is not so much the desire of the Government to put matters right as the extraordinary slowness and cumbrousness with which they seem even now to be carrying out their own desire.

5.22 p.m.

LORD DAVIES, who had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government what steps have been taken to implement the assurances given by the Home Office that the cases of friendly aliens now in internment camps will be expeditiously dealt with, and what administrative machinery has now been created to deal promptly with this urgent matter, said: My Lords, I have a question on the Paper with regard to aliens and perhaps when the noble Duke replies to Lord Newton, he will be good enough to reply to my question at the same time. I cannot help feeling that the speech of the noble Viscount, the Foreign Secretary, was not as reassuring as one might wish. He said that he hoped the Government would initiate a more liberal policy in the future, but then he went on to qualify that by saying that even those amongst aliens who were devoted to our cause and who could not be in any sense regarded as our enemies might still have to look forward to a term of internment. I should like to ask the noble Viscount why, if these people are trustworthy, if they are not our enemies, we should wish to prolong their internment. Is there no service that they can render to us in the prosecution of the war and in the defeat of Nazism?

I gather from speeches which have been made in another place that similar assurances were made on August 22 last. As we have already been told, the machinery for carrying out these promises is woefully lacking and is very slow in its operation. I hope the noble Duke will be able to assure us when he replies that this machinery has been already expanded and that there will be far greater expedition in dealing with these cases in the future. So far as I can make out, there are two tests which the Home Office are going to apply. One is a test of trustworthiness, and the other is the test of serviceability, as to what help an alien can give us in the prosecution of the war. I cannot help feeling that a second test is superfluous. If a man or woman is untrustworthy, then no matter how clever that person may be, whatever gifts that person may possess, he or she is not a fit or proper person to assist us in any way in the prosecution of the war. I suggest that this test of serviceability is really superfluous if the test of trust worthiness is properly applied.

The second point I would like to bring to the notice of the noble Duke is this. Some time ago I ventured to put a question about internees who have served with our forces in France. These people, who I understand are called "prestataires," were originally enlisted by the French authorities at our request. They were transferred quite willingly, on their part, to British Pioneer units in France, contracts were actually signed and they were placed under the control of British officers. When some of these fellows managed to escape and landed in this country, they were promptly gaoled. Several of them were sent to Pentonville prison and some to one of the internment camps near Liverpool. Why they were dealt with in this manner when, at any rate, the majority of them had military papers, passes my comprehension. Why were they not sent to military camps where they could be sorted out and their statements and papers investigated? It seems entirely wrong that these men who had signed contracts and were doing military work for our Expeditionary Force should be dealt with in this most extraordinary and stupid way. I am grateful to the Home Office for having investigated the case of eight men who were interned at Huyton. Seven of them, I understand, have been sent back to a Pioneer unit, but I understand also that one of them, a corporal, was degraded the moment he got here. I should like to ask the noble Duke whether this degradation from the position of corporal to private was done because he was supernumerary in this particular unit or whether it was done because his papers had been lost and he could not therefore substantiate the fact that he had acted as corporal in France. I must not weary your Lordships with the large number of other cases which I have had brought to my notice, but I feel that the fact that there are so many of these cases shows how vital it is that they should be dealt with in the most expeditious manner.

There is only one other point I want to put to the noble Duke. A statement has been made in the Press which purports to arise out of the publication of a book, and which I really cannot believe. The only reason for my drawing the attention of the noble Duke to it this afternoon is that I hope that he will be able to give us a categorical denial of it and to tell us that the whole thing is absolute moonshine, for I cannot believe that it is true. The statement is as follows: It was credibly reported that complete lists of the refugees in the internment camps had been handed over to the Swiss Legation which represents the German Government in London. After all, complete lists of prisoners of war were sent to Berlin via the Swiss Legation, so why should not a complete list of the refugees be sent as well? This report, which has not been denied, indicates the mentality of certain officials in positions of responsibility; and while such a mentality exists in the Home Office or the War Office, it is totally impossible to consider seriously any plans for organising

the services of refugees for warfare in Europe against the Nazis. I venture to ask the noble Duke whether there is the slightest truth in a statement of that kind, because I think that otherwise he should at the earliest opportunity, and speaking for the Home Office, repudiate it; for it is most damaging to our cause and most damaging to our reputation as a freedom-loving country, and as a country which would not give away any information about those who have sought refuge over here.

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has just sat down will scarcely expect me to answer the various questions of detail which he has raised, such as that of the degradation of a corporal from the French Army to the rank of private in the English, because they are not questions with which I can be expected to deal without notice of some kind. He described as extraordinary the treatment of the Germans in the service of the French Army who were temporarily detained at Huyton. I really think that he is being somewhat unjust to the authorities in this case. Here were eight Germans who arrived in this country wearing a uniform to which they were not entitled, and who described themselves as belonging to a corps to which in fact they did not belong. It seems to me not wholly unreasonable, at a moment of very great crisis, that these people should be detained pending inquiry. The inquiries were completed in the course of a very few days and, as soon as it was found that these men were in fact Germans in the service of the French Government, they were given the opportunity of enlisting in the corresponding corps attached to the British Army, and were released. One of them, as I told your Lordships on the last occasion when we discussed this matter, declined the opportunity to enlist and is still detained.

The answer to my noble friend who asked this question is that since the White Paper, Cmd. No. 6217, was issued on July 31, up to last Saturday, August 31—that is to say, in one month—some 7,000 applications for release have been examined by the Home Office, and 1,953, or rather over a quarter of these, have been found not to fall within any of the nineteen categories in the White Paper, and had therefore to be refused. Not quite so many were found to be eligible for release, but the release of 1,687 persons has been authorised.


How many have actually been released?




No, the release of 1,687 has been authorised. How many have actually been released?


I will come to that in a moment; it is a question of only a very few days. These persons included 1,501 Germans or Austrians—1,443 men and 58 women—and 186 Italian men, but the number does not include a considerable number of volunteers for the Pioneer Corps, who will be leaving, we hope, before very long, as soon as the military authorities can make arrangements to receive them; nor does it include a very considerable number of persons who were here on their way to America, and who may, when the American authorities can make the necessary arrangements, be able to proceed to America as emigrants.

Thus 3,640 applications have been decided during the period of a month. In addition, well over 3,000 other applications have been examined, but inquiries were found to be necessary in order to confirm the claim that the applicant came within a particular category. The necessary inquiries in these cases are in progress. The answer to the last part of my noble friend's question is that during the same period twenty-four Germans or Austrians—one man and twenty-three women—have been arrested for internment on the recommendation of Regional Advisory Committees. So far as my right honourable friend is aware, no re-arrests have been made during this period.

My noble friend asked me a question about the number of officials in the Home Office who are qualified to make decisions about release. I am informed that it would not be quite right to say that there are twenty-seven such officials. It is not possible to make an absolute division, because there are more who can make decisions where no difficulty arises, and where quite clearly an internee falls into a particular category, and possibly fewer who can make decisions where some difficulty arises. My noble friend will be interested to hear, however, that whereas the total administrative, executive and clerical staff dealing with this question was 202 on July 1, it was 320 on September 1; that is to say, there has been an expansion of over one third, and that expansion is still proceeding. I am also informed that the expansion has not yet had its full effect, in that the people who are being taken into the Department, and who are for the most part Consuls and people of that kind, with experience of foreigners, have not yet in many cases fully learned their work. The Department will be able to proceed with greater rapidity as time goes on.

My noble relative opposite referred to the question of delay. I shall come to that when I deal with the question by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, but there again I feel bound to make a defence of my right honourable friend. The volume of correspondence pouring into the Home Office is perfectly colossal, and it is a fact that many of these aliens—suffering as they do, of course, from every kind of mental stress and anxiety—set to work to pull every conceivable string on which they can lay their hands. I am told that in some cases letters from no fewer than thirty Members of Parliament, Peers, Prelates and other well-intentioned persons have been received on behalf of one single alien. Your Lordships can imagine that that great volume of correspondence must tend to clog rather than to accelerate the working of an already sorely-pressed Department. It is a fact that if those who receive correspondence on behalf of these aliens would find out from the anxious wife, or whoever it may be, whether she has already approached some other Member of Parliament, Peer or someone of that sort, and whether the matter is therefore already being dealt with, the work of the Department would be a good deal facilitated. My right honourable friend is taking steps to provide employment, and an increasing variety of employment is being found.

My noble relative referred to information. It is perhaps not fully known that my right honourable friend is circulating a Paper in the course of the next two or three days, I think, to make it more widely known that an Information Bureau has been set up. That has been made public, but it is perhaps not fully realised. The whereabouts of particular internees can be discovered by appealing to this Bureau, whose address is St. Stephen's House, and inquiries are being received in larger numbers as the fact that this Bureau exists becomes better known.

In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, your Lordships have already been informed of the appointment of a tribunal to advise the Home Secretary on applications under the new Category 19 included in the revised White Paper Cmd. 6223, which deals with Germans and Austrians who claim that by their writings or speeches or by their political or official activities they have consistently over a period of years taken a public and prominent part in opposition to the Nazi system, and are actively friendly towards this country and the Allied cause. Your Lordships have also been informed of the appointment of an Advisory Committee to consider the cases of Italian internees who fall within the categories of eligibility for release and to advise the Home Secretary whether any Italian eligible for release could be regarded as friendly towards this country and so sympathetic towards the Allied cause that he could safely be released without prejudice to the national interest. Both these Committees will include persons with a special knowledge of the life and politics respectively of Germany and Italy, and will be able to have the assistance of other persons with special knowledge who could give advice and information on the loyalties and sympathies of individuals.

With regard to machinery, applications for release are being dealt with by the Administrative Division of the Home Office ordinarily concerned with aliens, the staff of which, as I have just said, has been specially augmented, and my right honourable friend is satisfied that applications which are still coming in are being dealt with as promptly and expeditiously as is consistent with considerations of national security. Special arrangements have been made to ensure that when a camp Medical Officer certifies that release is necessary on urgent medical grounds, the necessary authority for release is issued within twenty-four hours, if necessary by telegram. In this connection I should like your Lordships to remember—and this deals with my noble relative's point—that the delay in effecting releases which is sometimes attributed to the Home Office is not infrequently due to the irregularity of the posts to the Isle of Man. Your Lordships will also appreciate that, even when the camp Commandant has received the documents, a short interval must occur during which the necessary preparations are made for collecting the property of the alien concerned, arranging for his journey, and so forth. All these small details must inevitably take time, and it cannot be expected that when a letter is received from the Home Office saying that the alien's release has been authorised, the alien will in fact arrive home the next morning. All possible steps are, however, being taken to expedite the procedure of releasing aliens as soon as they are found to be eligible for release.

To summarise the position, approximately one-tenth of the Category C aliens who were interned when the decision was taken to intern all aliens have been released. The cases of nearly double that number are under consideration now, because unhappily it is not always possible to accept the mere ipse dixit of the interned person. Inquiries have to be made as to whether in fact he is the individual described, because cases of giving wrong names have occurred. Arrangements have been made by which, as the applications for release under these different categories come in, the machinery can be made to work more smoothly and more expeditiously. There is the possibility of very considerable numbers going to the Pioneer Corps. That opportunity is open to all those of suitable age, and there is also the very considerable possibility of emigration to America. I do not say the position is to-day entirely satisfactory, but my right honourable friend has convinced me that the position is enormously better than it was a month ago, and I think the machinery is being steadily improved.

The most reverend Prelate asked a question about comforts. I have been through that particular question with my honourable friend the Under-Secretary, and I am bound to say that he convinced me that you would get into an almost impossible position if you began to make differences between internees. They are, I do not say luxuriously, but not badly housed, and, as the numbers are diminishing and congestion decreasing, the housing has improved. They are decently fed, many have considerable sums of money available, and the policy decided upon is to give them pocket money week by week from the funds kept by the camp Commandant. These are adequate to provide a reasonable standard of comfort. Stamps, cigarettes and sweets are available in the camp canteen, and the payments are on a uniform basis. I am bound to say I could well understand the case that the most reverend Prelate made, but I believe you would get into great difficulties if you had differentiation, and if the pocket money were not given on a uniform scale.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, I am not sure whether I caught from my noble friend the exact number who have actually been released. That seems to me to be the thing that matters. It does not matter to have got an authorisation for release if the aliens are still detained. Can my noble friend give me the actual figure of those who have been released? May I say two things about the delay? I have here a note of four typical cases which I will hand to my noble friend. I do not want him to make inquiry into these cases particularly, but it will show him the kind of thing that we are complaining of, and I am sure he would agree that we have a very strong case for complaint. If it is true that application ought to be made to this new body, I cannot conceive of any difficulty in the Home Office just sending over the application to the new Information Bureau, and letting the new body deal with it directly.

5.49 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Duke gives a supplementary reply, may I ask a supplementary question? I have been informed, and I have reason to believe it is true, that a number of the passports and other documents, some of which are irreplaceable, that were taken from the aliens on the occasion of their internment have, in a considerable number of cases, been lost. The aliens have been in the Isle of Man. Before reaching the Isle of Man they had to surrender these documents, and now they have received a printed form to say that it is regretted that these documents have been lost. Is that correct, and, if so, are proper inquiries being made, and what action is being taken in respect of the persons who have been responsible?


May I ask the noble Duke to reply to the question I asked about the lists of refugees being sent?


Such inquiries as I have made lead me to believe that there is no truth whatever in the statement. With regard to what my noble relative opposite asked as to the numbers released, there again I cannot give him an exact reply, but I am told the numbers are approximately the same. There may have been a delay of a few days, but the numbers actually released are approximately the same as the releases which have been authorised. There may have been a delay of a day or two, but in most cases no more.


I am very glad to hear it.


Will the noble Duke make inquiries about the papers I mentioned?



5.51 p.m.


My Lords, I am not sure that I was quite able to follow the noble Duke, and therefore I beg to ask what is the position of those who do not fall into any particular category. As I understand from his answer, the new Committee has the function of deciding whether persons fall into one category or another and also further questions as to their antecedents, but it must certainly be true that a great number fall into no category in particular. What is the procedure in regard to them? Clearly, many of them, if their history and record are looked into, would be just as eligible for release as some of those who fall into the categories. In this connection, my noble friend Lord Newton asked three weeks ago that Commissioners should be sent to the various camps who would have power either to release or to pass on a very strong recommendation for release after going into the matter on the spot. May I ask has anything further been done in that respect?

One further question. I have got complaints from people whose sons have been sent to Canada and they cannot communicate with them. Can they be sure, if they write to them, care of the Bureau at St. Stephen's House, that these letters will be delivered, and have the authorities here got proper lists of those who are in Canada with their home addresses here? That would ease matters very much in a great many cases.


My Lords, I have no intention of commenting in detail on the statement made by my noble friend, but I confess that, like the two noble Lords who have spoken, I find considerable difficulty in understanding it. Even at this moment, I have not the least idea of the actual number of persons released, but I gather one thing, and that is that the apprehension which some of us expressed during the last debate with regard to categories has, unfortunately, been justified. I can understand that a lot of people have been unable to describe themselves as belonging to any particular category, and therefore they remain in custody. I go so far as to say that it is a mistake in principle to rely on categories only. A man's release ought to depend on his guilt or innocence.

5.53 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to interrupt my noble friend, but these two questions are becoming a debate, and if my noble friend will allow me, with less experience, to say so, he is not, strictly speaking, in order in addressing your Lordships upon this question. I am not anxious to close down any proper questions which arise out of these two on the Paper, but, obviously, my noble friend who has replied already is placed in a position of considerable difficulty if the questions are enlarged into a debate on the whole subject. I suggest to my noble friend that, as there is no Motion on the Paper, he is not strictly in order, and therefore I hope he will be able to limit his observations.


I shall be only too pleased to limit my observations. I was only doing what other people had been doing, if acting in an illegal manner. I have no desire whatever to prolong this debate, but I must warn my noble friend that we shall be obliged to return to this subject on another occasion.


My Lords, this is an unstarred question, and the extension of the debate has been no greater than your Lordships have allowed on similar questions on many occasions. The question is put: How many aliens have been released from internment? It obviously arises, how man more ought to have been released, why more were not released, and so on. The whole discussion really has been, so far as I understand it, in accordance with the practice of your Lordships' House.