HL Deb 15 November 1944 vol 133 cc1233-6

5.10 p.m.

EARL POULETT had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether they are aware that enemy officer prisoners of war are being taken by train without reservations being made for them in advance, and that this necessitates fare-paying passengers being turned out of their compartments, not only during the day, but also at night, to their considerable and entirely unnecessary inconvenience; and inquire whether the Minister responsible will take the necessary steps to ensure that proper arrangements are made by the authorities in charge of prisoners of war, whereby these officer prisoners are conveyed with the minimum of interference to travellers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in rising to ask the question which stands in my name I would like to point out that at first sight my question appears to condemn generally the transport of prisoners, but that is not the case, as I propose to show. As your Lordships are well aware, there have been many complaints both in the Press and in another place on this subject, and also among the general public when they have seen trains convey- ing prisoners of war, with the prisoners comfortably seated while the general public are crushed up like sardines in a box. They have also complained bitterly when there have been coaches added to the train that are locked for the benefit of prisoners and they have complained about locked carriages in general trains. Personally I have no objection to the first two things that I have mentioned, but as regards the third, the locked carriages in certain trains, I consider it somewhat unfair to the public when such trains are already crowded enough. It does seem to me that those prisoners might be taken by other means. Your Lordships may or may not be aware that since this war began many through coaches have been put on that never existed before so that there should not be the usual scramble for seats at railway junctions. If those through coaches, which may number only one or two, have two compartments or one compartment reserved for prisoners of war, that means that the other compartments are going to be overcrowded.

I agree that prisoners of war must be kept separate from civilians and the general public. The proper arrangements therefore for the conveyance of prisoners is for carriages or compartments to be locked and reserved well in advance. But there seems to be a practice growing up, when moving two or three prisoners, not to make reservations in advance, with the result that when the train arrives at a station the officer in charge of the men searches the train for accommodation—that is to say, he searches for an empty compartment. Searching for an empty compartment in these days is like looking for a needle in a haystack. When the officer fails to find the necessary compartment he has to select one. That means that the occupants of the compartment which he selects are turned out quite regardless of their age or the state of their health. The officer, I do not doubt, uses discretion; I am not blaming him. But that is how the matter stands at the moment. Travellers are turned out and they must stand in the corridor or be squeezed into another compartment.

This is the present state of affairs, and it need not exist if the authorities responsible for moving prisoners took the trouble to make proper arrangements with the railway companies or, should I say, with the Government-controlled railways. I have heard it said, I do not doubt your Lordships have also heard it said, that it is no good hearing about a thing, that the great thing is to experience and witness it. The other night I not only witnessed it but I experienced it. I was travelling from London to Scotland and left London at approximately ten o'clock. In a certain Midland town—a large town—we arrived at about a quarter past one in the morning. We were dozing and were awakened by an officer who appeared and said: "You have got to get out; I have two prisoners and they have got to have this accommodation." I expostulated. I said I thought it was ridiculous and asked for the stationmaster. At that hour the stationmaster was in bed but the assistant stationmaster came and said: "I am afraid there is nothing else for it." There certainly was not anything else for it. The result was that I and the other occupants had to turn out. The other occupants included my wife and a naval officer. We had either to get into the corridor or to be squeezed into another compartment, if possible. That is what happened.

I am quite aware of the Geneva Convention which broadly is, I believe, that prisoners of war must be treated as we expect our prisoners to be treated, and that officers must be treated in this country as our officers of similar rank would be treated in enemy country. But I would remind your Lordships that after Dunkirk, as you can easily find out if you do not know, our men had to march and then were packed into cattle trucks. I quite agree that we do not want to imitate the Hun and I sincerely trust we shall not do so. But our own people, in our own country, should be considered a little more than they have been considered so far, certainly as regards railway travelling. I quite appreciate the difficulties in moving prisoners but we have had five years of war and the Government controls one of the greatest transport organizations in this country. Surely therefore it is not too much to ask that the British traveller shall not be subjected to such inconveniences as those I have mentioned. I beg to ask my question.

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, the regulations lay down that when prisoners of war are being taken by train accommodation must be reserved in advance. In order that passengers shall not be inconvenienced these arrangements, as far as I am aware, are in general carried out properly and satisfactorily. As to the case to which the noble Earl has drawn my attention, he spoke to me about it before he put the question on the Paper and I promised to make inquiries. I am informed that the reservations were properly made but that some unauthorized person removed the labels from the compartment. I very much regret to hear that the noble Earl, when he was asked to move out of that compartment, did not have vacant seats pointed out to him. If in fact he was compelled, in those circumstances and under most unpleasant conditions, to remain in the corridor, I can only say I am extremely sorry. I have explained how it occurred and I was under the impression that there was alternative accommodation in which he could have been seated. I am sorry if that information is incorrect.


It is not exactly correct because the train was so filled that it was only by the method of squeezing and pushing that it would have been possible to sit down. I may say that my wife found it impossible to do so and remained in the corridor for the remaining five hours.


I am sorry to hear that but the fact remains that the regulations are as I have stated. If the noble Lord or anyone else is able to assist us in finding out who removed the labels, I shall be very glad to pursue the matter further.


May I say one more word?


May I draw the noble Earl's attention to the fact that it is not strictly in order on these questions to speak again.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past five o'clock.