HL Deb 11 November 1997 vol 583 cc88-90

3.13 p.m.

Lord Sempillasked Her Majesty's Government

Why they will not pay to British officers who were prisoners of war between 1939 and 1945 the money which was deducted from their salaries during their captivity.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, as I told my noble friend Lord Mason on 24th July, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, after detailed consideration of this very difficult question, found that the contemporary evidence relating to pay deductions for officer prisoners of war and protected personnel during the Second World War and to the repayments made to them after the war did not support the claims being made for further refunds and he consequently found no basis to re-open the issue. At that time I placed a copy of the full report of the review in the Library of the House.

Lord Sempill

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is he aware that that most recent review makes no reference to either of two submissions made by Group Captain Ingle on 1 1 th December 1995 and 31st March 1996, submissions whose evidence were key to that review being reopened? Further, does not the Minister consider it improper that following the previous government's decision to review that new evidence, not one meeting between representatives of Justice for Prisoners of War and the newly appointed Ministry has taken place?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am quite sure that my honourable friend took account of all the representations that were made and to which the noble Lord refers. It is only fair to point out that there is not unanimity on these matters, even among former prisoners of war. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has very kindly allowed me to use his name to pray in aid precisely that thought. He wrote to The Times on 9th August, saying: Brigadier Davies-Scourfield's letter … suggesting that many ex-PoWs are embarrassed by attempts to squeeze money out of the Government, reflects the broad and informal consensus of those of us at Colditz, as expressed at a recent annual meeting of our association".

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that according to Goering's evidence at Nuremberg, if Germany had won the war the Geneva Convention would have been denounced and our lot would have been slave labour or extermination? In those circumstances, is not our salvation sufficient recompense for a basketful of Lagermarks?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, while I would not always choose to follow the noble Lord in the precise language he uses, I am grateful to him for the sentiments he has expressed.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, does not the noble Lord feel rather saddened and, indeed, ashamed that he has to come in front of us on this day of all days—Armistice Day—and tell us that he cannot give justice to 8,000 surviving British officer prisoners of war? Is he further aware that the case will probably arrive on the desk of the European Court of Human Rights? Is he further aware that those honourable gentlemen, with their backs to the wall and believing in the justice of their cause, will fight to the end? Can the Minister not cut the Gordian knot?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, all I can say to your Lordships is that this very sad question has been considered at great length by governments of both colours in the past. It is not the case that all prisoners of war did not receive refunds. In fact, quite a lot of them did. As your Lordships will be aware, under practices in place at the time all individual records were destroyed some six years after the war and it is now quite impossible to job back and treat individual cases. If you do not treat individual cases, you are bound to get jealousies and people saying that others have been treated over-generously.

Lord Burnham

My Lords—

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, before my noble friend intervenes, perhaps I may doso because I am rather close0r to this issue than he is. As one of those who enjoyed or endured a rather long spell of German hospitality, perhaps I may take the opportunity to tell the Minister that I believe it is far too late to job backwards. We are really arguing about trifles. This matter should enjoy a very low place in the Government's list of priorities, if any at all.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, in the light of the noble Lord's statement, which I believe to be generally accepted, that it is virtually impossible to distinguish to whom individual payments should be made, although the Germans themselves may be able to do so, is it not possible and desirable for an appreciated sum of money to be handed to charities such as SSAFA or the British Legion for use for deserving ex-prisoners of war or other people?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am happy to bring the noble Lord's suggestion to the attention of my honourable friend.