HL Deb 17 April 1947 vol 146 cc1083-95

5.44 p.m.

Lord GIFFORD rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are now demanding from British civilians who were interned in France from 1940 onwards the repayment in sterling of amounts advanced to them in francs by British authorities during their period of internment. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the question standing in my name refers to a comparatively small body of people, but they are people who, in my opinion, have had a very raw deal from His Majesty's Government. These persons mostly live abroad, and, in consequence, they have no Member of Parliament to represent them and to ventilate what I sincerely believe to be the very harsh treatment which they have received. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that that treatment would never have been tolerated at all, had the majority of those people been residing in this country, as their case would have been put forward before this time.

What has happened in this connexion is, I suggest, summed up by the old proverb: "Out of sight out of mind." It is a most curious thing that when dealing in millions of pounds His Majesty's Government hand them out with the ut- most prodigality, as those who have listened to recent debates in this House are well aware. We have heard of fantastic prices being paid, under the system of Government bulk buying, for such commodities as linseed oil—commodities which we on this side of the House consider could have been bought much more cheaply through the proper trade channels by people with years of experience behind them. His Majesty's Treasury, having lightly handed out the millions, appear to have had sudden spasms of economy not with regard to millions—oh, dear, no!—but with respect to saving a few paltry thousands by dunning an unfortunate body of people without the voice or power to defend themselves. I am not for a moment suggesting that when the matter is put to them His Majesty's Government will not take a view equally as sympathetic as that which I take.

Noble Lords who have heard me speak in this House before will, I think, give me credit for trying to keep my remarks as brief and to the point as possible, but I am afraid that I must take up a little of your Lordships' time in making clear exactly who it is that I am trying to help to-day. At the time of the fall of France, in 1940, there were some hundreds of British civilians in that country, and I think it will be convenient if I try to classify those people into roughly three groups. Let me first deal with what I shall call Group 1. These are people who had settled, more or less permanently, in France. Many of them are ex-Service men of World War No. 1. Some of them are men who married French girls whom they met during that war and subsequently settled down in that country. Group 2 comprises those who were employed in France in various capacities, and who had lived there for varying periods, from a number of years down to a few months, but who cannot be styled "permanent residents." I refer particularly to such people as men working on a few years' contract with a French firm or company, or people employed in a French branch of an English Bank, or something of that kind. Group 3 is made up of British subjects who happened, more or less by accident, to be in the country at the time of the fall of France, and whose income, broadly speaking, came from the United Kingdom.

I think it is certainly true to say that it is the people in Group 1 who deserve most sympathy, and I shall deal with that class of people in a little more detail presently.

When the fall of France appeared to be imminent, the majority of British subjects there, quite naturally, were extremely worried about the situation and most of them did the natural and right thing—they went to the nearest British Consul for advice as to what they ought to do. In nearly every case the advice they were given was to stand fast and carry on. I think it is right to say that this advice was quite justifiable at the time, since it was desired to avoid any undue alarm. Nevertheless, the advice given did prevent a very large number of these men and women from making their way in good time to the ports, and thereby escaping to England, where they were very desirous of undertaking (and doubtless would have undertaken) useful work in the prosecution of the war. For this reason, I say most definitely that the British Government are under a very considerable obligation to them. This, I think, was recognized at the time, in that allowances amounting to about 2,000 francs a month were made to the families who were free, where the husband was interned. I believe that about 300 francs a month were allowed to those actually in the internment camps. I am not certain about these figures, but they are approximately correct. It is also true that when these allowances were made—not always when they were first made, but at some time during the period of issue—the recipients were called on to give a signed undertaking that they would repay them after the war. It is, therefore, only fair to say that the British Government are within their legal rights in asking for repayment in full, but I hope to convince noble Lords that morally there is no case whatever for this. After all, when your family is starving, or threatened with starvation, one would sign almost anything.

You may ask why this matter is of particular concern to me. The simple answer is that I paid a visit to Paris a few months ago, when I was amazed to find there were very strong feelings about the matter. The Paris Daily Mailwas full of letters of complaint from ex-internees on the very uncompromising attitude taken up by the various Consuls and officials, who were presumably under instruction from the British Government. Having spent a week in Paris, I have particular sympathy with the men or women whose income is in francs, because it is no secret to say that the cost of living there is appalling. I took the trouble to go to some of the smallest restaurants, but wherever one went the cost of food was terrific. Had I not had a very economical wife, who was full of restraint, I might have been forced to go to one of Max Intrator's friends. What has made our men particularly bitter is that the French Government have been far more generous and have, I understand, cancelled all similar debts. I should say that the weight of that debt to the French must have been many times greater than that which the British Government have been called upon to shoulder.

In view of the buoyant speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in another place the other clay, it seems to me that perhaps a small amount of the surplus might have been used in these cases. To put it crudely—but it is no less than the truth—the British Government's attitude has been to dun the lot, and to get everything they can out of them. They have followed this up with a rather grudging proviso. They are prepared to consider on their merits individual cases of hardship. I suggest that this is a very unsatisfactory and unfair way of dealing with the matter. It means that the individual who creates a fuss and makes a nuisance of himself gets concessions, where the more humble and retiring individual, who is probably equally, if not more, deserving, pays up in full. I have seen a number of letters where appeals have been made, and the replies, to my mind, have been entirely unsatisfactory. If a man was paying 100 francs per month, for instance, the reply has been in effect: "We will let you off paying any more until January next year." There is no question of forgiving them anything, but merely of saying: "You need not pay any more for a few months." That was said to an old gentleman of seventy, but what chance has a man of this age of ever paying much back? Before I close, I intend to put forward some concrete suggestions for dealing with the different types of cases falling broadly within the three groups I enumerated just now. I have given His Majesty's Government an outline of these proposals so I hope they may be in a position to give me some concrete answer in the matter.

I would like to turn for a few moments to another very important factor; and that is the rate of exchange between the franc and sterling. When the allowances were made during the war the franc stood at approximately 200 to the £, so that if we take the case of a man for whom the British Government set aside the sterling amount of £10 a month for the maintenance of his family, the wife and family received only 2,000 francs a month. As your Lordships know, the franc now stands at 480 to the £. In consequence, the ex-internee now living in France has to find 4,800 francs in order to buy sufficient sterling to liquidate one month's war-time maintenance allowance. For the man living and working in France, whose salary is paid in francs, who budgets in francs, who thinks in francs, and who has thought in francs for a number of years, this is a monstrous demand, and any refund called for should be entirely on a franc basis; that is to say, he should not be asked to give back more francs than he or his family received.

I now propose, in support of my remarks, to give one or two extracts from letters and reports which will show that I am not exaggerating and that real hardship is being inflicted. The first letter is from an ex-Service man of World War 1: I was brought up in France, and volunteered in the last war when a very young man. Seriously wounded at Mont Kemmal in 1918, I lost my left eye. Demobilized in 1919, I was granted a pension of 50 per cent. I returned to France, married a French girl, and definitely settled in France. Seeing in May, 1940, the lightning advance of the German Army, like many other British people, I became anxious and went to the Consulate asking for advice as to the wisdom of my remaining in Paris. I was advised to stay. On June to I returned to the Consulate, insisting that the situation was very dark; would it not be advisable to try and get away to England? I was once more answered that there seemed to be no real risk for the British: I remained in Paris …

He says that soon afterwards he was captured, when the Germans entered the French capital. Then he goes on: I have received from the Consulate Relief Department a letter stating that they had written to the Foreign Office department concerned in order to fix up how my pension, which had not been paid since May, 1940, …

that is, a pension for the loss of an eye: … can be used to repay my debt. I am now overwhelmed with a sense of injustice. I had been planning to refund something every month from the day I should receive my pension again.

But apparently this is to be withheld altogether. It is a most astonishing state of affairs that the pension for the loss of an eye should be withheld for the repayment of these debts.

There is another letter from a man who was a jockey riding in Germany, and who was interned in Ruhleben Camp in Germany. He states: On coming back here to France I continued to draw my pension for several months. Then I was told that I must go before a Board that consisted only of a French civilian doctor….

Then he says that shortly afterwards he was informed that his pension had been stopped, and he remarks: so you see, Sir, … I have lost all that back money…

There is yet another report: The British Government, after a campaign which began about twenty months ago, continues to dun hundreds of ex-internees on the Continent for repayment of allowances made to dependants while the men were behind barbed wire. When France fell—to say nothing of other European countries—hundreds of Britons who wanted to get away were left stranded …

Then the writer goes on (it is another similar story) to say that advice was received from the Consul to stay, and he asks: Are the Government now justified in claiming 480 francs for every 200 francs advanced?

There is a passage in this report from an ex-internee: The sum of 100,000 francs was advanced to my family. I will never recognize a claim for 240,000 francs.

The question is asked: Are the Government aware that France gave maintenance allowances to internees' dependants and that they are now making no claim? I will detain your Lordships with only one more report: In one case … the man had a pension, which was awarded to him for the loss of his two sons killed in the 1914–18 war, stopped, and the money put towards the repayment of his debt.

This man is now 72 The correspondent comments that owing to the efforts of the British Legion he is pleased to say this is no longer happening, but adds: it does show the cruel and callous way in which the authorities have acted.

The man whose case I mention is receiving a wage of 4,900 francs—barely £10—a month and even out of that he is managing to pay ion francs a month.

I have quoted mostly the cases of ex-Servicemen, because they seem to be the hardest. But here is another case of a young Scottish girl, who writes that she is in very straitened circumstances with an elderly mother and an invalid sister. Her only capital is £150 of War Loan. When she was interned she was appointed Block Chief to 350 women who were also interned, and in every way she seems to be a very fine type. She has to go almost without the necessities of life in order to try to pay back the debt. The report I have states: There is a good deal of bitterness amongst the British Colony who are affected by this question. After all, the amount is not a big one, and the authorities, through no fault of their own possibly, failed firstly to give the necessary protection to their own citizens, and, secondly, when this was no longer possible, to arrange for their evacuation. In the circumstances, it is very normal these British people should feel that this burden should not be placed on their shoulders. I hope that I have made the position clear. The total sums involved are not large. Of course, I have not the necessary information to give any accurate estimate, but I should say that, at the very outside, the sum would not be more than £200,000. I do not, for one moment, suggest that the debt should be completely remitted in every case.

I would like now to suggest a scheme which I think is fair to all concerned. Your Lordships will remember that earlier in my speech I divided those people roughly into three groups, and I would like to make suggestions on that basis. Taking first of all Group I—that is the group which I think is hardest hit—the permanent residents in France, my suggestion is that, unless those people had any sterling income, other than a pension, which continued during their internment—that is to say, if their income in sterling ceased during their internment—the maximum which they ought to be asked to return is the amount in francs which they actually received in allowances. I further consider that those people earning less than a certain wage—which would have to be worked out—should have their debt remitted altogether; and that there should be graduated payments according to the rate of salary or income. Unquestionably, the majority of people in this class can afford little more than a token figure. Some people who were quite well off before the war have now lost everything as a result of being interned. Many had their homes destroyed, and lost nearly everything; in many cases their business has gone, and nearly all their assets.

Group 2 would be rather more difficult to assess, but, again, I do not think that they should be called upon to repay more than their total debt in francs, unless they had a private sterling income during the war. I mean if, for instance, they were sent over by a British firm, and the British firm paid their wages throughout the war, obviously it is fair that they should pay their dobt. But except for those cases I think the people in this group should be treated almost as generously as those in Group 1. So far as Group 3 is concerned, people whose private sterling income or wages continued during the war should be called upon to repay, unless there are special circumstances in which hardship would be caused. But I think the pensions, particularly disability pensions, of the people in all three groups should not be touched; they should be inviolate—except, possibly, during the time when they were actually interned. To stop their pensions now to repay these debts is absolutely indefensible.

I consider that some scheme such as the one I have outlined would not be very difficult to work out. It would be quite easy for a questionnaire to be prepared and distributed to ex-internees through Consular offices and other channels. This questionnaire should be accompanied by an explanatory note, setting out the conditions of repayment in various circumstances, and there should be a kindly-worded covering letter recognizing the great difficulties and the hardships that these men suffered during the war, and showing definitely that the Government were very sympathetic towards them, and were going to do their level best to let them down as lightly as possible. I want these people, for the good name of England, to get the impression that the British Government ate really trying to help them and will deal sympathetically with each case. At present there is no doubt that the large majority of them view the British Government in the guise of Shylock demanding the last pound of flesh.

5.11 p.m.


My Lords, I think the whole House has been very much impressed by the disinterested zeal and constructive ingenuity that the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, has devoted to the interests of these people, many of whom are certainly placed in an unfortunate position. I have come rather late in the day into this controversy, and I am not quite sure whether all the points which he has made to-day have been placed before my right honourable friends. Therefore, although it is my duty to give him to-day what he may regard as a negative answer, I shall certainly see that everything that he has said is very carefully studied by those responsible for forming the policy on this matter. If the noble Lord is not satisfied by the decision after that study has been concluded, no doubt he will see fit to raise the matter again.

There is one possible misunderstanding. If it is not in the mind of the noble Lord, it is, at any rate, a misunderstanding which would occur to those who read his question. On a strict interpretation of the noble Lord's question, the answer is in the negative, because he asks whether His Majesty's Government are now demanding from certain people the repayment in sterling of amounts advanced to them in France by British authorities during their period of internment. His Majesty's Government are not now demanding from British civilians who were interned in France from 1940 onwards the repayment in sterling of amounts advanced to them in francs by British authorities during their period of internment. This follows on a recent decision by His Majesty's Government, of which I am glad to inform the House.

I do not wish, however, to convey the impression that that is a sufficient reply to the noble Lord's contentions, because there is a distinction between these advances and what has been called "pocket money" to persons actually interned, and other advances which were made in the shape of relief to persons not in internment, including the dependants of interned persons. It is really this latter category that is in issue to-day. Here relatively larger sums were involved, and in order to safeguard the interests of the British taxpayer recovery is made so far as possible of the actual cost to public funds. It is not, however, our practice to press for repayment where it is shown that this would cause hardship. The noble Lord has raised the question of whether or not we are interpreting that phrase fairly. I would like to have an opportunity of looking into the particular cases he has raised and others which he may care to put forward, and again I will bring those to the notice of my right honourable friends. That is, at any rate, the principle: that where hardship is involved so far as possible we do not press for repayment.

So much for the question as to whether there is to be repayment. There then arises the still more intricate question of the rate at which repayment is to be made. As regards the suggestion that repayment should be accepted in francs, repayment can be made in francs if the recipient of relief so desires, but His Majesty's Government expect in that case to receive a sum sufficient to cover the original outlay from public funds; otherwise the loss would fall on the hard-pressed British taxpayer. The advances were, in fact, made to British subjects against their signed undertaking to repay in sterling. The noble Lord concedes that legally the Government case is watertight.




The question is, whether the Government are being sufficiently generous.


If I may intervene, there is, of course, such a thing as a contract under duress. Supposing you get a wretched man in internment, his dependants penniless in an enemy occupied land, and say to him: "Unless you sign this you will not get any allowance"; that may be a legally binding document, but there are such things as contracts made under duress.


I think that also is a point that should be looked into. I have no doubt that it has been looked into in a general way, but I agree that in each particular case it is a most relevant factor. The francs paid to the recipients of relief had to be obtained by His Majesty's Government in exchange for sterling at the rates current at the time when the relief was in course of issue—namely, 175 to 200 to the £. The cost to public funds remains outstanding at those rates. The rate being now 480 francs to the £, repayment simply of the actual sum issued in francs would produce less than half the original outlay in sterling, and it is not considered equitable that the taxpayer should meet the resulting loss in cases where repayment can be made without hardship. As I say, the noble Lord has put his case very forcefully, and I will take special care to make sure that the matter is looked at again.

6.18 p.m.


I intervene for a moment to say that I think the noble Lord was putting forward the special pleading of a Government Department. It is not a very satisfactory state of affairs if we leave the matter where it is. We take comfort, however, from the promise of the noble Lord to look into the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gifford. As my noble friend Viscount Swinton has said, there is such a thing as a contract signed under duress; and one ought to remember that there was really no alternative in 19.10, or whenever it was, for these men and women, other than to give the undertaking asked for, if they were to obtain the money which was an absolute necessity at the time. The noble Lord's justification, of special care for the British taxpayer—which we only wish we saw in all directions in Government administration—was not really very convincing in regard to demanding repayment at 480 francs to the £ in respect of a loan made when only 200 francs were given to the £. Would the noble Lord consider this as a broad principle? In all cases where repayment is demanded, if a person or his dependants in respect of whom the allowances were given was not in receipt of a sterling income during the time when such allowances were being paid, then repayment should be demanded only of the total number or francs which the recipient obtained; that is to say, supposing he had obtained 2,000 francs which had been given' at 200 to the £ then the Treasury would have to face a certain loss: nevertheless if the recipient had not been in receipt of a sterling income it would not be an unfair loss as compared with many of our war losses in other directions. I admit that if the recipient had been in receipt of a sterling income it is only fair and reasonable that the different exchange rate should be taken into account.

Then, as regards the other suggestion of my noble friend Lord Gifford, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, will give consideration to classifying these cases into those from whom repayment should justly be asked and properly made, and those from whom repayment cannot really be expected unless they probably deny themselves the necessities of life. They may now be living on meagre incomes, with their own property in France depreciated, and probably they have no other resources; or, alternatively, they may have some job and have to turn the daily tread mill, not for themselves and their families but in order that the Treasury shall get back approximately twice the number of francs they received. That last class of person really deserves better treatment than is shown in the departmental reply which I know the noble Lord had to give to-day, and I hope he will allow humanity to creep into the administration of this particular problem.

We would have liked to know how many of these cases there are and what is the total sum involved. I think that is information which the House is entitled to have. When my noble friend Lord Gifford, as I hope will be the case, returns to this charge and gives the Minister another opportunity (which I know he will welcome) of explaining more fully the governmental attitude to this particular question, let us hope the Minister will tell us, first, how many cases there are; secondly, what is the total amount involved; thirdly, what are the broad classifications of these cases (making it quite clear that someone must not, as it were, be reduced to a state comparable to applying for Poor Law relief before he is given any relief from this debt); and, finally, that where no sterling income has been accumulated during the war the Treasury are not going to make the recipient pay twice as many francs as he originally received. I hope the Minister and those at the Treasury and other 'Ministers also will take note of the very strong feeling which I believe exists in this House and which can be animated in a wider sphere outside the House, unless the Government act humanely in this matter.


My Lords, there is one point which my noble friend! made and which was not mentioned by the noble Lord in his reply: that is the question of the stoppage of disability pensions for ex-Service men because the Treasury has a debt against them. I hope he will go into that matter, because I am sure his feelings are entirely in accordance with mine on that particular point.


My Lords, while the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, is inquiring into the whole matter, may I suggest that he should also inquire whether these francs really did cost r per zoo? I think they did, but, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, knows very well, there were a number of very peculiar rates for currencies prevailing on the Continent during the war. Though I think it is possible that the amounts were paid out through agencies such as the Red Cross, which presumably charged His Majesty's Government some proper rate and which possibly made a substantial profit themselves, it may well be that an agency of His Majesty's Government secured the francs.


I take it that I have the permission of the House to say two more sentences. I will gladly look into the further points that have been made since I spoke. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, that I shall not be influenced—and I doubt if my noble friends will be—one way or the other by this animation outside the House. We shall, however, pay great attention to the formidable arguments that have been laid before the House this afternoon.