HL Deb 18 February 1998 vol 586 cc261-83

5.16 p.m.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

rose to call attention to the need for the restitution of assets to victims of Nazism in Britain and elsewhere; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful for the chance to raise in this House the restitution of assets to victims of Nazism in Britain and elsewhere. At the start I thank those who have helped in what has certainly proved to be one of the most remarkable campaigns.

I thank Malcolm Rifkind, the then Foreign Secretary, for producing the first report on this issue. I thank him for agreeing to tie up—not to distribute—the residue of gold in the hands of the Tripartite Gold Commission. I thank Foreign Secretary Robin Cook for setting up the Nazi Asset Conference. He promised he would do it if Labour was elected and, as soon as it was elected, he carried out his promise. It was a remarkable gathering of 43 nations and authorities who were seeking to produce the truth and justice and some measure of restitution to victims of Nazism, even 50 years after the disaster had occurred.

I thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, with whom I have fought side by side in this battle and who accompanied me to Switzerland and to the Vatican, and laboured so hard for the results we won. I pay my special tribute to Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, to the American Congress and to the American people for their support in this matter, even though it has created difficulties for the United States as it is doing for us here in Britain.

Finally, our first targets were the Swiss Government and banks who at first behaved in a most disgraceful and dishonourable way. Over the course of a year they have changed. Under the leadership of their now President, Flavio Cotti, they have set up the Bergier Commission, the Volker Commission and the Humanitarian Fund. They have promised a Solidarity Foundation and have moved in a way that is honourable and worthy. I hope that they achieve results. I hope that our country will be prepared to do what they have undertaken; that is, to seek the truth, to do justice, and to make restitution.

Their work has been carried out largely under the leadership of the Holocaust Educational Trust, its director Janice Lopatkin, Stephen Ward, Dr. Danny Somerfield and their young and energetic team, with whom I am proud to work; and of historians and archivists from all over the world who have given us their time and effort in a cause which they regard as urgent and just.

The Motion refers to a need for the restitution of assets to victims in Britain and elsewhere and perhaps I may briefly refer to elsewhere before turning to Britain.

Other countries have moved in a way that a year ago no one would have believed possible. Countries have established commissions to ferret out how their nations profited from the assets of Nazi victims. That has happened not just in Switzerland and the USA but in Portugal, Spain, Argentina, France, Uruguay. Brazil, Sweden, Belgium, Croatia and the Czech Republic, and we are even starting to get some movement in the Vatican, following the visit paid by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, Sir Sigmund Sternberg, Janice Lopatkin and myself last weekend. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that senior Vatican officials told us that when we have researched the 12 volumes of documents produced some 30 years ago, we should come back to them with the questions which we need answering. That research has immediately begun. So in that centre of morality, we hope that light will shine soon through the curtains of darkness which have so far shrouded their archives.

What about here? In Britain, after the war, our economy was bankrupt and, not surprisingly, our then government were looking for assets. They appropriated bank accounts and valuables belonging to enemy aliens. The Custodian of Enemy Property worked under the then Board of Trade. He appropriated these enemy assets, properly in the case of Nazis and their supporters but totally improperly in the case of people who were victims of the Nazis. The three main safe havens from 1939 onwards and even during the war—were Switzerland, the United States and the United Kingdom. The Custodian of Enemy Property took, among other assets, the savings, the property and the earnings of people who had been murdered by the Nazis, people who were the victims of the Nazis. Those assets were worth some £30 million in those days and would be worth far more today.

Britain, the United States and Switzerland, as the safe havens, have all to look to see what has been done and what could be done in order to provide restitution to these people. At first, no assets were returned to any of the victims. But, on Christmas Eve 1948, the then Government set up what they were pleased to call an ex gratia scheme for victims seeking the return of their money. As a lawyer, I have always regarded that use of the term ex gratia as disgraceful. Ex gratia means that you do it out of grace; you do it when you do not have to do it; you do it not because you must do it but because you wish to. There is nothing ex gratia in a payment which is a repayment to people of that which was theirs. It is the return, in this case, of stolen goods, of goods which did not belong to this nation but were the property of others. But at least the Government started the process.

Then these claimants had to prove what in most cases was the impossible. They had to show that they were "deprived of their liberty". It did not count as enough to have been incarcerated in a labour camp, to have been deported to a ghetto or to have fought in the woods with resistance movements. If a victim hid to avoid the Nazis, it was voluntary, and that did not count.

They had to have left their home countries. If they were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, they received nothing. Rightly, they must not have acted against the allies. Again rightly, they must not have enjoyed full rights of citizenship under the Nazis. But heirs could claim only if the victims had died during hostilities.

This deadline was later extended to 1947 but we know of people liberated by our army from Belsen who survived, who were ill and then, when they died, their heirs received nothing because the victims had survived for that time. Suicide as a result of Nazi behaviour was not enough. One victim committed suicide when the Gestapo knocked at her door to take her to a concentration camp. Believe it or not, her heirs did not qualify because she had not died in captivity.

The burden of proof was on the victims. Heirs had to show that there were witnesses to the death and they had to produce affidavits or death certificates, which was hardly possible when people had been murdered in Auschwitz or other death camps.

What then happened? The Board of Trade Solicitor said in October 1951: We are not bound either morally or legally to test the propriety of our interpretation of the policy … We decide whether certain property shall or shall not be released". I reject that proposition totally. Anyone who wished to receive assets had to claim before 1956. After that date the money had been used by the British Government to compensate British companies or people who had lost assets in enemy countries as a result of the war.

I thank my noble friend Lord Haskel for his consideration in these matters. I know that he will help if he can. However, the problem is that when I last asked at Question Time what the Government were going to do, he said that none of this money was left. Of course there is no money. It has been given away. But it was not only the money of Nazis that was given to British companies or individuals; it was the money of people who had had their lives wrecked by the Nazis. That is why there is nothing in the kitty. It has been emptied for other purposes.

Thanks to the efforts of campaigners, including Sir John Foster, QC—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will refer to him—and my own father, some refusals were overturned. A £250,000 gesture was paid into a fund to help a small number of victims. Some payments were quietly made, even against the rules, through the 1960s. But many survivors and heirs of survivors—some within but most outside this country—received nothing. If no one in a family survived to make a claim, nothing was paid. Above all, some did not know how to claim, or that they could. When moneys were repaid, it was the same sum that was put in, without any interest, and the Government deducted a 2 per cent. handling charge.

Last year the Holocaust Educational Trust produced a document on ex-enemy Jews and the fate of assets in Britain of holocaust victims and survivors. Some of the survivors were Jewish, some were non-Jewish. but none of those who have sought their money since then—their assets, placed here for safekeeping—has succeeded. I pay tribute to the Government, who said immediately that they would investigate these allegations, and to the British Bankers Association, which swiftly responded with promises of their own investigations.

What has happened since? We were led to believe that the report of the Department of Trade and Industry would appear before the Nazi Asset Conference at the end of last year. It has not appeared. We thought it would appear at the beginning of this year. It has not appeared. We asked when the report would appear. We were told that the department does not know. Why not? Survivors will not survive forever. This is a matter of urgency.

On this matter I regret to say that the Government have not shown urgency. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was kind enough to provide me with a copy, in confidence, of the draft report. It is fair to say there is nothing in it—I am sure the Minister will not mind my saying this—nothing that contradicts anything that was in the report of the Holocaust Educational Trust. But that is as far as we have got. Now we want to know what will happen.

I wrote to my noble friend and received his reply. He said yes to the request that the Government should publish a list. I appreciate that very much. However, if they are to publish it, they must do so in a way that will let people know it is there. In his reply the Minister said that it will be on the internet. That is not enough. Too many people do not know how to consult the internet or where to look on the internet. At the very least we must do as a minimum what the Swiss have done, which is either to publish the names in the newspapers or to let people know through appropriate newspapers that the names are available. If nothing is published in the newspapers, most people will not know where and how to look. I ask the Minister to look at that again.

What depressed me most was the very sad final paragraph of the noble Lord's letter in which he says, Finally, you raise the possibility of a mechanism to deal with claims. It is clear from history that successive British Governments have made great efforts over a number of years to respond appropriately and justly to the confiscation of assets as a result of trading with the enemy … I hope that I have said enough to show that that was not the case at all; that successive governments made efforts to return as little as possible to as few as possible. That is certainly not dealing "appropriately and justly". I am so sad that my noble friend has seen fit to reply in that way. I hope that he will modify that reply today. He goes on to say, In addition, over £2 million was paid to victims of Nazi persecution under the ex gratia scheme". Some of them were repaid some of what had been taken from them. The noble Lord does not say that they will take action on behalf of the rest. Instead, he says, The Government is considering, in the light of the report, whether anything further should be done". I beg the Minister at least to give the House the assurance that action will be taken and that we will not be shamed by taking even less action than the Swiss did. A survivor came to see me yesterday and said to me, "Look, it is a matter of morality. I do not need the money, but it is wrong that it is dealt with in this way". A woman telephoned from New York and said, "I do need the money. I am suffering and I am old and ill. I could lead a decent quality of life on the money. The money is mine. Why are you British keeping it from us?". I had no answer.

We cannot expect the Swiss, the Vatican and others to work towards justice if Britain, which at one time stood alone during the war for justice, morality and decency, refuses to take the action it should. We should agree now that there should be compensation. We should remember that in one of Winston Churchill's famous speeches during the war he said, "We are faithful servants of truth and justice". All that we seek is truth to know what happened. We seek justice in so far as it possible to achieve it now, which is not a great deal. There should be restitution, where possible, to our victims, which should not be "ex gratia", but because it is honourable and right that they get back what we took from them. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.32 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, my noble friend has done the House a commendable service both in calling for this debate and in setting out so clearly the facts and the shame. But this debate is not simply about what is to happen to certain sums of money. Sometimes factual, historical events take on a sacramental quality. They become symbolic of deeper and more universal truths. They enable us, by the way we construe them and react to them, to ritualise our understanding of good and evil.

Events in Germany between 1933 and 1945 had that quality. It was not just that evil people did evil things, it was that they took over an entire country. They organised the whole administration to administer evil. They organised the education system to teach evil. They extended their evil to every part of the world they could reach. What was evil became what was normal. It was as though hell itself had opened up and everything that was twisted and horrifying in humanity took over the minds of ordinary human beings, destroying everything in its path and ultimately destroying itself in the final Armageddon.

Different groups reacted in different ways, but few were left wholly untouched. The victims who survived—I have been privileged to talk to a large number of them over the years—and the families of those who perished did not just feel polluted, but humiliated and dehumanised. They were not just victims; they were symbols of something much deeper. Above all, they needed to be reassured that what they had undergone was not a judgment on them, that they had done nothing to cause it and that they had not deserved it. Many of them needed physical help, as my noble friend said. But more than that, they needed to know that the world cared about them. They needed recognition that they had suffered injustice because on that depended their self-esteem. In this materialistic generation, which judges everything by its market value, that could be done only by financial compensation or, more particularly, by financial restitution of what had been taken from them or from their families. As my noble friend said, the money was sometimes needed, but it was even more important as a symbol. The world failed them.

I understand that there have to be procedures. Perhaps there had to be procedures back in 1948 at the time of which my noble friend was speaking. The then government agreed that some of the assets confiscated in the United Kingdom from Germany and from German nationals should go to recompense the victims of persecution who could establish to bureaucratic standards that they were victims of persecution and that they had assets which had been seized. Hardly believable, as my noble friend pointed out, a 2 per cent. administrative charge was deducted for handling. I appreciate that despite the obstacles some people were compensated; but for too many the world failed them. That failure may be rectified soon, but for some it is too late and with every passing month the number for whom it is not too late is decreasing.

That is one aspect of what we are debating today, but it is not the whole. It was not only the victims who were marked by those events. What happened consisted of the actions of human beings; people like us growing up, marrying, working and shopping just as we did. They were a part of humanity just as we were. It was part of the history of the whole human race and those millions of nightmares were happening to individuals at the very time when we were getting on with ordinary, everyday life. We lived through that and yet life seemed pretty normal. The whole of humanity—at least in the West—had been polluted and humiliated.

I was just too young to take part in the war. Those who did—there are a number of noble Lords in the House today who did—were different. I hope that they will forgive me when I say that in some ways they had less difficulty than we had in coming to terms with what happened. They had done what they could to resist the evil and ultimately to overcome it. They suffered and that itself, if I may say so, helped them because they had shared in the suffering. My generation came to adulthood with the revelations of what had happened and perhaps with the guilt that while it was happening we had given it scarcely a thought. Those who were born later probably felt it less than we did, but the whole world continued to bear the scars. We want to pay the debt. We need to pay it, but those to whom it is chiefly owed are passing.

Our community, nationally and globally, is come to judgment. We need to settle the account and lay the ghosts to rest. I hope that my noble friend, who I know feels much sympathy with what some of us are trying to do, will take that message today to his colleagues in government and to their officials.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux

My Lords, I beg the indulgence of the House for intervening in this debate. I promise to be brief. I rise to express support for the Jewish community, our brothers and sisters, in Britain and in other parts of the world in their quest for justice. The stealing of the assets from families during the period of the last war by the Nazis has an inexcusable and ugly history. It was evil. Certain banks and other institutions have been involved in an exercise of withholding information about those assets although knowing that there was a linkage with the Nazis. In the meantime, many account holders and their heirs have been treated very unsympathetically when submitting claims for a return of their rightful assets. I appeal to Her Majesty's Government to ensure that all account holders or their heirs receive the assets which are legitimately theirs from the banks with no further delay.

5.41 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I intervene in the gap with great diffidence, but I felt that I had to speak. The headmistress of my London secondary school, a very great woman, together with Eleanor Rathbone, a distinguished Somervillian who represented the universities in Parliament, went to Germany before the war and brought back several young German Jewish children of the first victims of Nazi oppression even before the war to live with her and to be educated in the school. In the years of the Spanish Civil War, she also brought back Basque children.

By 1937–38 I was already aware as a schoolgirl of what the Nazis were doing to Jews and to many other targets of their destructive and brutish hatred: academics, clerics, and principled men and women of every walk of life. In 1938, as a London schoolgirl, I stood in the crowd when Mr. Neville Chamberlain announced that he had brought back "Peace with Honour", and I wept with shame.

During the war I served with the Special Operations Executive and met and trained some agents, both men and women, who served in the Resistance and who escaped to England to be trained. Some were members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), as I was. Some wore the uniform of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) when they were in England, but in France and elsewhere they operated as wireless operators, couriers and agents. Many of them died in such terrible camps as Mauthausen and Belsen. Odette Churchill, as she then was, also a FANY, was in one of those.

After the war, the few who survived were in a pitiful state—kept alive only by their own indomitable courage. I can remember visiting one young Frenchman, a brilliant athlete before the war, who was living in a tiny flat in the Invalides, as a grand mutilé, paralysed for life. He had lost his father and two brothers in the Resistance. He faced life with indomitable courage and humour and was preparing to be a lawyer.

I do not know how many of those had family assets which were sequestered, but I do know that we owe it to them and to all those other unnamed victims to do all that can be done to ensure that if assets belonging to them exist and can be identified, they or their heirs should have them. I do not believe that we have the right to do nothing because, "It is all so long ago". People like Primo Levi and the very young victims about whom Martin Gilbert has written, who came to England after the war and who had lost every single member of their family, may have the right to forgive, though they cannot forget. We must neither forgive nor forget. If anything further can be done to secure some justice for them, it should be done.

We must couple that with vigilance. There are ominous stirrings in the unreconstructed undergrowth in what used to be East Germany. Fortunately, Germany as a whole is committed to a liberal, decent way of life, but the economic climate is nearly as volatile as it was in the 1930s.

All those who died had a right to believe, if they had put their assets, as they thought, in a safe place with honourable men, that they had provided for their children and families. If we can ensure that, even so many grievous years later, some of the survivors receive what is their own, we shall have done no more than our duty.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Annan

My Lords, I had not thought to speak in this debate because I am really very ignorant of the subject in the sense that I have never studied it in detail. However, speaking as someone who fought in the last war, I feel humiliated in a sense which I could not have believed possible until I heard the full tale which the noble Lord, Lord Janner of Braunstone, put before us.

How has this arisen? I do not want to speak of the moral case which has been so admirably expounded this afternoon. I want to examine what happened in the ministry. How do such things happen in ministries? They happen because of the Civil Service mentality. When faced with an awkward problem, in which money, the Vote of the departments, is concerned, every sinew is brought into action to give a negative response. Time and again, the file comes up. Time and again, it is said, "Oh, no, here's that bloody old file again. What are we to do about it this time?". That is the spirit which so often defeats the best intentions of Ministers because when a department makes decisions on such matters right down at a low level—because, "We cannot possibly face the PUS with such a demand"—and when that spirit is rife in a department, the civil servants know that their Minister will naturally defend their actions as best he can. The loyalty of Ministers to their civil servants is a great tradition in this country, but, in many cases such as this, it is a disaster.

I beg the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, who is to reply, to understand that some of us here know how such things happen in departments. We are not asking for any member of the department to be castigated, but we are asking the noble Lord to put matters right.

5.47 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Janner of Braunstone, deserves our gratitude for initiating this significant debate. He wears his father's mantle, campaigning long and hard for justice for the victims of Nazi persecution, and for their families. In what I say I can only supplement what the noble Lord has eloquently and powerfully explained already, giving a little more information about this stain on Britain's reputation for fair play. I cannot match the experience or testimony of noble Lords who have spoken, including that of the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. However, I shall try to answer to some extent the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, although I should not like it to be thought from what I have to say that Ministers of the time were not aware of what was happening because it is fairly clear from the official documents that they were.

Almost 50 years ago, Sir John Foster QC, Conservative MP for Northwich, former head of my Chambers and a great advocate for justice and human rights, tried repeatedly and without much success to persuade successive governments to be fair and generous in releasing property in the UK that had belonged to the victims of Nazism. After the war the Western Allied powers agreed to make ex gratia releases to victims of Nazi persecution subject to conditions. In the case of the UK, the British Government imposed unjust conditions that were unfairly construed and caused great injustice and real hardship. Elsewhere, notably in the United States and Denmark, the rules were fair and justly interpreted. The anomalies and hardships caused by British government policy reflected, as Sir John Foster observed, on this country's reputation for fairness.

Throughout the war the victims' property had been held, as the noble Lord, Lord Janner, explained, as enemy property at the Crown's disposal under the Trading with the Enemy Act 1939. With the signing of the peace treaties, the UK was given the right to seize property in the UK belonging to Italian, Romanian and Hungarian nationals as well as German nationals and to apply those assets to the partial satisfaction of reparation or UK creditor claims. Under the post-war British legislation the victims' private property was therefore turned by Parliament into public property. The Government retained a discretionary power to make exemptions from confiscation and grant an ex gratia release of property to the former owners who had survived the Nazi terror. There was nothing in law to prevent the executive from taking a generous, fair and humane approach in relation to those victims who somehow had miraculously survived the Holocaust, but there was an inherent conflict of interest in the government's scheme. The more that was returned to the victims of Nazi persecution the less of the newly-acquired "public property" was available to the Treasury for reparations and to satisfy British creditors with foreign debts.

The international agreement approved by the Inter-Allied Reparations Agency in Paris in November 1947 had specifically provided that the property of enemy victims need not be taken by the state in the same way as that of ordinary enemy. Justice and humanity required this. Many enemy victims had no other means to support themselves and their families except the property that they had been able to salvage and keep in what they thought was a safe place in this country.

As the noble Lord, Lord Janner, pointed out, in early 1948 the UK Administration of Enemy Property Department within the Board of Trade announced that it would consider the ex gratia release of property in the UK of so-called "enemy" nationals who were the victims of racial or other discriminatory laws and of the UK estates of heirs of legatees of enemy nationals who had died as the direct result of such persecution. The Board of Trade imposed five extraordinary conditions. They have been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and I need not repeat them. Sir John Foster, among others, drew repeated attention to the many respects in which the Board of Trade's rules and practices were unsatisfactory and harsh in their effects. For example, the civil servants regarded the five conditions as cumulative and would not grant a release of property unless all five conditions were met. This was in sharp contrast with the United States approach which required only that a claimant should have fulfilled one condition; namely, that as a consequence of any discriminatory law of the nation of which the claimant was then a citizen or subject he did not enjoy full rights of citizenship between 7th December 1941 and the abrogation of the law. A claimant in such a case was entitled as of right to a return of his property and, if the American Office of Alien Property refused an application, the claimant had a right of recourse to the courts. A simple single rule like the US rule would, as Foster commented, have prevented, almost all the absurd quibbles and technicalities which had arisen in applying the Board of Trade Rules". Sir John Foster complained of the absurdly narrow way in which the department interpreted the first condition; namely, that the applicant had to show that he or she had been "deprived of liberty". One example concerned Mrs. K, a German woman of Jewish origin living in Berlin, who had been summoned in September 1939 to appear before the Gestapo. The department refused a release of £300, the sole remains of Mrs. K's once large fortune, to her son on the ground that although she had killed herself in those circumstances she had not been deprived of her liberty.

Sir John Foster also cited cases where Hungarian and Romanian Jews had been forced to go into hiding for many months to escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis but had been refused release of their property on the ground that they had not been deprived of their liberty. Until pressed by Foster and others—also, I believe, by the noble Lord's father—the department even refused to recognise incarceration of Hungarian Jews under the Hungarian labour law as sufficient, since on its face the Hungarian law applied to all Hungarians without discrimination. That was the bizarre approach of the department, of which the noble Lord is now a Minister, even though this was one of the laws under which the vast majority of Hungarian Jews had been collected together for despatch to extermination camps and the gas chambers. Forced segregation into a ghetto, notably in Budapest, was another means employed by the Nazis for assembling Hungarian Jews for despatch to the gas chambers. The department continued to refuse to recognise confinement in a ghetto as a deprivation of liberty for the purpose of returning the property.

Sir John Foster drew attention to other examples of unfairness. One of the department's conditions insisted that the applicant had to leave the enemy country where he was resident, or intended to leave there, within a reasonable time and establish permanent residence outside enemy or ex-enemy territory. Mrs. D, a widow of 57 years of age, owned some jewellery in this country. She had to live underground in Berlin during the war hunted by the Gestapo. As a result of her hardships she fell ill and became paralysed. For over two and a half years after the liberation she was treated in hospital. In 1951 she was still suffering from diseases of the liver and heart. When she tried to sell her jewellery to obtain medical treatment in Switzerland the department rejected her claim because she was still resident, paralysed, in Berlin.

Another Board of Trade condition imposed on claims by the heirs of victims was that the death should have occurred before September 1947. This led to absurd results. Mrs. O, a Romanian Jew, had been incarcerated in various concentration camps. In April 1944 she escaped and returned to Bucharest. As a result of her sufferings she fell ill and eventually died in June 1949. A release to her heirs was refused on the ground that she had died after September 1947.

Sir John Foster gave other examples of manifest absurdity, harshness and unfairness in the treatment of these cases and made concrete proposals to ensure that no real injustice would occur in any particular case. His representations fell on deaf ears. The relevant civil servants circulated internal memoranda containing not a single word of sympathy for the claimants to whom they consistently referred as "victims". In their internal documents they accused Foster of pro-Jewish bias because during the passage of the 1949 Act he, (to quote from the records), with Messrs. Silverman and Janner, were the vocal opposition to certain parts of that Bill". The civil servants relied upon the ex gratia nature of the scheme to disclaim any obligation to act consistently or in accordance with the legitimate expectations created by the scheme.

One of Sir John Foster's lifelong friends, Miriam Rothschild, the eminent scientist and writer—still happily alive and vigorous in her late eighties—also wrote to the government questioning this policy and asking for reconsideration of specific individual cases. The same civil servants who had brushed aside Foster's representations made it clear in their internal minutes that with Treasury support they regarded their priority as preferring the claims of UK creditors to the claims of foreigners. They rejected the claim of Mrs. K, described as "a Jew by race" because she had committed suicide on 18th September 1939 in fear of the consequences had she lived. She did not therefore satisfy the "deprivation of liberty" test.

In response to one of Sir John Foster's submissions, the civil servant with main responsibility during those bleak years, one Sir Henry Gregory, wrote, on 15th November 1949: The acceptance of the proposals implied in the criticisms would mean that we should probably have to release all money or property held by Jews … I understand … that the World Jewish Congress have asked the Treasury that this should be done and that the proceeds should be paid over to them on trust for Jewry … I am inclined to think that the claim is being made because of the economic position of Palestine … the Treasury is not impressed". Fifty years ago, English judicial review had not been developed into a strong set of legal principles to ensure that public powers are exercised lawfully, rationally and fairly. The official documents reveal practices and procedures involving serious and continuing arbitrary abuses of the statutory and prerogative powers delegated by Parliament and the prerogative to the Board of Trade. Even now there could and should be effective redress for the remaining survivors and their families.

I hope that in his reply the Minister, for whom I feel some sympathy at the moment, will confirm the accuracy of what we have said in the debate. I gave him notice of what I would say, troubling him with the notes of my speech. The noble Lord is a member of a government who believe in freedom of information. I hope also that the Minister will be able to assure the House that his department's report on the subject will soon be published; that the report will deal fully and frankly with the relevant policies and practices; and that the report will contain practical proposals to enable the surviving victims of Nazi persecution and their families to be traced, and, at last, to be treated with common humanity and simple justice.

On 15th January 1998, in answer to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Janner, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel said: I am sure the right thing will he done in the end".—[Official Report, 15/1/98; col. 1135.] I do hope so.

6.2 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Janner, for giving the House the opportunity to debate this important subject this afternoon. There must be no excuses in revisiting this subject time and time again. In fact, it is extremely important that people of my generation—I am probably the youngest Member in the House at the moment—and generations to follow, are made aware of the facts that have caused such a debate in your Lordships' House: 6 million murdered; 1.5 million children.

Those who suffered under Nazi Germany, and those whose countries were occupied during the last war, were the victims of one of the darkest—if not the darkest of all—periods in European history. The bestial crimes of the Nazis were matched by their greed, and cunning, in stealing the resources of their victims and salting them away in places which made it almost impossible in some cases for survivors, or their families, to recover.

One's heart goes out to those involved in the many stories that have been told in this House today and in other places. Many of them are people whose lives have been blighted by appalling experiences and who are now old. I believe we would all wish whatever uncertainties can be resolved to be cleared up as soon as possible.

As the noble Lord, Lord Janner, said, under the previous government, the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Rifkind, ordered a detailed inquiry into the historical facts behind the handling of Nazi gold. The findings were published in 1996 and 1997 in two important documents which I believe have been very helpful in establishing the truth behind the fate of this gold in the aftermath of the war.

As other noble Lords have said, restitution was part of the treaty at the end of the War. Germany paid DM 3 billion to the state of Israel and DM 450 billion to various Jewish organisations. Since then further payments have been made by Germany.

Under the 1946 agreement the western allies agreed that gold and other valuables should be allocated in two different ways—monetary gold from confiscated reserves should be returned to those formerly occupied countries through the Tripartite Gold Commission, and non-monetary gold should be used for the resettlement of displaced persons.

The facts surrounding those transactions were covered in depth in the researches commissioned by Mr. Rifkind. But there were, of course, problems both in the handling of funds by former communist countries in particular, while in a number of countries, as the noble Lord, Lord Janner, said, the burden of proof was laid heavily against victims and their families.

In the United Kingdom, under the present Government the Foreign Office followed up the publication of their research by convening an international conference on those matters in London last December. That was a most valuable initiative, and we on these Benches certainly welcome warmly Mr. Cook's action in carrying these investigations forward and seeking common international agreement on positive action for Holocaust victims.

We welcome the action taken in establishing a fund which will serve as a mechanism by which any country can offer money to help the victims of Nazism and their families. We hope that the details of how that fund will actually operate will be speedily agreed.

It is clear from the historical research that the authorities and the banks in this country and in others were not always as open and helpful as with hindsight it is clear they should have been in releasing the details of dormant accounts and in facilitating the efforts of survivors and their families to establish a claim to resources.

I know, as the noble Lord, Lord Janner, has told the House, that further inquiries have been continuing within the Department of Trade and Industry. I hope that the Minister who replies will he able to tell the House that the fullest possible information will be published on the accounts concerned and that all reasonable assistance will be offered to Holocaust victims

This is one of those issues on which I believe the whole House would be united, and we will support the Government in whatever further action they think appropriate to respond to the reasonable requests of victims and their families.

We look forward to hearing, as the noble Lord, Lord Janner, said, from the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, what steps the Government now intend to put in place for the mechanism for processing claims that was discussed at the London conference and elsewhere.

A great deal of attention has been given to the role of the authorities in Switzerland in this matter. I have no doubt that mistakes were made, and that there was excessive caution, as in many other countries. We ourselves are not beyond reproach. The complaints made by holocaust victims and their supporters have aroused real concern in Switzerland, where, in the past year, disbursements have been made from a special fund.

The noble Lord, Lord Janner, mentioned the Bergier Commission, an independent group of researchers; the Volcker Commission; and, of course, the Swiss Bankers' Association, which has published a list of unclaimed pre-1945 accounts. That is an example which it would be expedient for us in the UK to follow. I welcome the undertaking given in the House by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, to publish those accounts, and also those of accounts handed to East European countries. I hope that he will be in a position to tell us today that this will be done speedily.

Nothing ever can—or should—remove the stain of Nazi infamy from our memories. We all owe a special duty to the families of their victims. I welcome the action, however belated, now being taken in so many countries to assist the tracking down of confiscated resources.

It is right, as in this debate, that the stance of individual governments and financial institutions be challenged. Nothing can repair the damage done to those people who suffered in the Holocaust and their families. But, so long as we can be, and are, satisfied that governments and banks today are sparing no efforts to assist them, then we should, I believe, be careful to avoid too much recrimination among nations today.

I that way we should be allowing the poison of Nazism to corrode and distort relations between states—a process which may actually hinder that untiring and unflagging search for restitution and justice that all of us would wish to see completed.

6.10 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, this has been a passionate and emotional debate. It is a passionate and emotional matter. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and to thank him for raising it in the House today.

In explanation, but not in mitigation, in the years following the war it was difficult for governments and individuals to cope with the tragedy that had befallen Europe. The tragedy and horror of the events were so great that nations and individuals had great difficulty in facing up to the reality of what had happened. Therefore, at that time, the emphasis was on rebuilding devastated nations and devastated lives. I sympathise with the outrage of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and other noble Lords. I came to Britain as a refugee and I experienced the situation at first hand. We who came to Britain were the only members of my family who survived.

Against that background, there were bound to be insensitivities. It is only fairly recently that time has enabled us to look back on those dreadful years with a deeper understanding. The Government are concerned, and they recently demonstrated their concern by hosting the Nazi Gold Conference in December, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Janner. I acknowledge my noble friend's important contribution and that of the Holocaust Educational Trust in helping the Government to recognise the importance of this issue.

Even after all these years, it is still a very emotional topic but it is important for us to look back at what was done in the intervening years, in particular at the impact on those who deposited their assets in the United Kingdom before the start of the Second World War. As we have already heard, these assets were dealt with under the trading with the enemy legislation. Perhaps I may crave your Lordships' indulgence and spend a few minutes outlining how the legislation operated, what were its consequences and how those were unravelled in the postwar years. It is only by examination of those details that noble Lords will understand the position of the present Government and what we are trying to do.

On 3rd September 1939 we were at war. We had to prevent the enemy from acquiring assets which could be used to fund or help their war effort. So the Trading with the Enemy Act became law. Companies and individuals were prevented from trading with the enemy and bank balances and other assets were blocked in order to prevent the enemy from drawing upon them. At first, it applied to countries which declared war on the United Kingdom (the belligerent enemies) and then to other countries (the technical enemies) as they were occupied by the belligerent armies.

This was a serious step, but it was a serious situation. However, there was a due process of law. My noble friend Lord Janner was perhaps a little dramatic, but the legislation gave custodians appointed under the Act the power to seize assets from companies which were registered in enemy countries and individuals who were residents of enemy countries. Nationality and religion played no part in defining who was and who was not to be classed as an enemy. The assets seized included bank accounts, stocks and bonds, physical assets and trade debts. Records show that some 220,000 returns covering individuals and commercial organisations were made to the custodians. In all, some £360 million worth of assets were seized.

When the war in Europe came to an end on 8th May 1945, the powers of the custodians remained in force and work began on the process of unwinding the assets held by the custodians. By 1949, most of the technical enemies had concluded some form of bilateral payments agreement with the United Kingdom. The majority of technical enemy property in the form of bank balances and securities was released relatively quickly. By 1951, 90 per cent. of the assets of technical enemies held by the custodians had been released. It was many years before the final 10 per cent. of claims were settled.

Of course, it is possible that some bank balances which were unfrozen were not claimed and have been lying dormant in the banks for more than 50 years. This Government have been in contact with the main clearing banks and we know that they have been searching their records for any dormant accounts for the period in question. The banks have also been in contact with the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and the Holocaust Educational Trust about those dormant accounts. Indeed, they have supplied detailed responses to some of our questions and to those of the trust.

However, in the case of the belligerent enemies, with the exception of Germany, the Government negotiated peace treaties which set out the arrangements for handling the confiscated property. Again, there was a due process of law. Acts were introduced to implement the treaties; the Treaties of Peace (Italy, Roumania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Finland) Act 1947 and the Japanese Treaty of Peace Act 1951. Those treaties, with the exception of those of Finland and Italy which so far as possible restored property to its original owners, provided for confiscated property to be disposed of by the Government to the extent necessary to offset its claims and the claims of its nationals in respect of property confiscated in the enemy country. The former enemy countries undertook to compensate their own nationals whose property had been seized by the custodians.

Arrangements for Germany necessarily differed, primarily because there was no single government representing the whole of German territory. But the Federal Republic of Germany undertook to compensate its nationals for the loss of seized assets under the terms of the Bonn Convention in 1952. An administrator was appointed for each belligerent enemy state. While the duty of the custodians had been to preserve the property, that of the administrators was to liquidate and distribute the assets sold. Some £30 million was realised by the administrators, around 90 per cent. of which was trade debts or other commercial property. The sums raised were primarily used to settle claims from British companies and nationals who had lost assets in the enemy countries but were insufficient to meet their claims, and distributions were made. I have the details of the distributions which were made in the various countries.

However, some of the liquidated assets were diverted to other purposes. For example, £3 million of Japanese money was donated to benevolent organisations to help former Japanese prisoners of war. A further £2 million was paid as compensation to victims of Nazi persecution. I shall return to that matter later.

The winding-up process took many years. The confiscatory powers of the Government were terminated by a series of directives issued in the 1970s and the various administrator posts were wound up, with the exception of the administrator of German enemy property, which still remains in existence.

I turn to the question of compensation for victims of Nazi persecution. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for giving me notice of the points that he wished to raise. I shall respond to them in due course. As he told us, in 1947, in response to requests from Jewish organisations and individuals such as Sir John Foster, requests were made to release the assets of individuals who had been victims of Nazi persecution. The Government instituted a scheme whereby victims could make a claim for property which had been seized by the custodians. It is important to make the point that we are not talking about the deliberate seizure of property from a religious group, such as was carried out by the Nazis. Losses suffered in the United Kingdom were an unintended by-product of necessary action taken to prevent enemy countries from securing assets in this country for their war effort.

Yes, the Government adopted the criteria which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and my noble friend Lord Janner mentioned. But those criteria were agreed by the Inter Allied Reparations Agency concerning the release of property to a German victim of Nazi persecution. The five conditions were as noble Lords explained, and I shall not repeat them. However, I emphasise that those criteria were agreed internationally and were not, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, seemed to suggest, domestic criteria imposed by the Board of Trade.

The then government did, however, agree to extend the scheme to cover the victims of Nazi persecution in the satellite countries—Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania—and expand the criteria so that an heir of a victim could also apply for compensation.

Noble Lords are right: the first condition, the need to have been deprived of liberty, was the most contentious. But I say to my noble friend Lord Janner and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that after considerable discussion it was agreed—I agree not until 1951—that persons who had undergone forced labour service, whether civil or military, or who had been held in custody for a short time but under the threat of death or who had been forced to live in a closed ghetto satisfied the qualifying conditions. In fairness, I must point out that all previous applications for compensation were re-examined in the light of those modified criteria without the need for applicants to reapply. Therefore, there was an attempt to be fair.

While it is true that the scheme continued to have its critics, it is true also that the government's modifications to the original criteria attracted support. For example, Mr. Sydney Silverman MP, who had supported representations from the World Jewish Congress, expressed gratitude to Mr. Arthur Bottomley, Secretary for Overseas Trade, on 5th May 1951 when he said that in his view, most of our points have been adequately met". The noble Lord, Lord Lester, also drew attention to UK actions compared with those of other countries, and in particular he compared them with the United States' more liberal interpretation of the Inter Allied Reparations Agency conditions. At this distance in time it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. However, it is interesting to note that by 1953 the United States had returned only 15 per cent. of assets applied for whereas the United Kingdom had refused only 13 per cent. of applications for compensation. Therefore, other criteria are involved. There is evidence also that in practice the United Kingdom ignored some of the conditions when assessing claims.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, mentioned also specific unsuccessful claims for compensation. I understand that, in a memorandum in October 1951, Sir John Foster drew attention to the case of Mrs. D., a German widow who wished to sell jewellery held in this country to pay for medical treatment in Switzerland. We have done some work on that and, although we do not know whether Mrs. D. ever received payment, officials have found a record which shows that at the time Sir John raised the case the person who had brought the jewellery into the United Kingdom denied that it was Mrs. D's property. Therefore, there was a debate about proof of ownership.

I believe that that illustrates the difficulty, after so many years, of being absolutely clear about the complete story surrounding particular cases. That is why, in the forum of this debate, I shall not go into further details of individual cases.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that explanation. Looking back now, does he agree with me that the way in which those five conditions were interpreted by Board of Trade officials at the time seems like an arbitrary abuse of power? Does he agree that that is wholly out of line with the way in which, these days, claims would be dealt with? Does he agree also that the fact that the United States and Denmark had a different and more liberal policy shows that there was nothing to prevent the British government from acting in a more generous and compassionate way than they did at the time?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord that the United States and Denmark had a more liberal policy. It depends how one defines liberality. As regards the five conditions, it is very difficult to judge by today's standards actions which were taken all those years ago. Values were different; different things were important; and there were different priorities.

As regards the assets that were seized, the original assets, which in some cases had been sold, were not simply released. Instead, as my noble friend Lord Janner told us, ex gratia compensation payments were made which were equivalent to the amount of money which had been seized by the custodian less a 2 per cent. administrative charge.

The words ex gratia in this case are used in a rather bureaucratic and legal way. It is not a term of condescension. It is used because some of the assets have been sold and so an ex gratia payment was made which was equivalent in cash to the value of the asset. That was the only way that those assets could be returned. Compensation was in fact paid to about 1,000 claimants with only some 16 per cent. of those who applied being refused payment.

In addition, in 1957 the Government decided to waive their legal rights to the sum of £250,000 from liquidated assets and donated it to the Nazi Victims Relief Trust to alleviate the poverty of and provide education for victims of Nazi persecution.

Last summer, my noble friend Lord Janner and others raised concerns about the application of the wartime trading with the enemy legislation, and the fact that it had resulted in assets in the United Kingdom of people who became victims of Nazi persecution being confiscated. In response, this Government agreed to set in train a research project in the Foreign Office and the DTI to examine the relevant papers held on the subject. The research, which was led by historians from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, revealed a difficult and complex subject which took time to get right. The research is now completed.

I can understand noble Lords' frustration at the delay in publishing the report. The Government share this frustration, as we believe the report will demonstrate that successive British governments have made great efforts over a number of years to respond appropriately to these issues. However, the report has taken longer to finalise than we had hoped. A great deal of work has gone into reconciling some of the details in the report. I regret that I cannot give a date for publication. However, I can assure noble Lords that the President of the Board of Trade is taking this subject very seriously and that the report will be published as soon as possible.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but can he give the House some indication as to what is the problem? If the historical research has been completed and the draft report has been completed by officials, what on earth is the reason for any further delay in publication, given that this House has been pressing on various occasions for sight of the report? Why do we have to wait for more than another four weeks?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I understand that a draft of the report was given to the Holocaust Educational Trust and some questions were raised regarding some of the figures in the various annexes and those must be researched further.

The Government recognise that some of the information currently held at the Public Record Office will be of partciular interest to Holocaust survivors or their families who may wish to check their family histories. As I announced here on 15th January, we have therefore agreed to publish a list of names and other details of those who had their property seized. As there is no means of identifying which of the property seized by the custodians may have belonged to people who became victims of Nazi persecution, the Government have decided to publish a list of all the names that they can. The list will comprise the names and details of those from belligerent enemy countries whose property was seized, plus limited details of those in other countries, around 25,000 names in total. It is not possible to publish a full list of 220,000 names as the individual case files have not been preserved. Our intention is to publish the list on the Internet. Putting information on the Internet has the advantage of being more long-lasting than publication in the newspapers.

The noble Lord, Lord Janner, told us about the Nazi Gold Conference in December of last year. It was an historical fact-finding forum, not a decision taking one. It achieved its aim of helping to establish a sound body of historical fact relating to gold looted by the Nazis and what subsequently happened to it. I am grateful to the American Jewish Congress for its detailed account of the whole matter of the confiscated gold.

The United Kingdom's involvement in this question stems from our membership (with the United States and France) of the Tripartite Gold Commission. The commission was set up following the 1946 Paris Agreement on Reparations to distribute monetary gold recovered from Germany by the Allies to the former occupied countries whose gold reserves had been looted by the Nazis. Just under 2 per cent. of the pool, worth around £38 million, remains to be distributed to the claimant countries.

The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, asked about that fund. I can tell him that it will provide relief for needy victims of Nazi persecution who have so far received little or no compensation. Its aim is to try to avert the second tragedy of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis having to live out their days in poverty. Payments will be made to non-governmental organisations involved in this type of work. The United Kingdom is giving £1 million to the fund, and contributions so far stand at around £23 million.

The question of compensation for, or the restitution of, Jewish property expropriated during or in the years immediately after the Second World War only achieved international prominence following the collapse of Communism. The original attempts to pass laws in the post-Communist countries which would allow for the return of stolen Jewish communal property were closely followed by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, which published a number of important papers drawing the attention of a wider public to those moves. Those reports have subsequently proved very useful for all those involved in dealing with these difficult issues. I am grateful to the institute for having undertaken that work.

In my capacity as Deputy Chairman of Jewish Policy Research, I attended a conference in Strasbourg in June last year, hosted by the Council of Europe, where this matter was discussed. It became clear that where funds had been available, as compensation for communal property, those funds were used to create communal centres which benefited the whole community, Jewish and non-Jewish, in which they were situated.

I have taken up too much of your Lordships' time—

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, before my noble friend the Minister sits down, I wonder whether he can answer the 64,000 dollar question; namely, when the report is published and when people respond to the list that he mentioned, how long can we expect it to be before claims are actually settled?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I am not sure that I can give my noble and learned friend a response. Obviously the list will be published when the Government are in a position to consider what needs to be done.

Today's debate has demonstrated the breadth and complexity of this sensitive subject. I hope that we have made progress in shedding some light on the key issues. I am sure that the publication shortly of the research into the history of enemy property and the list of names will also help to further understanding of this subject. I can tell noble Lords that further action is in hand. The Government have initiated inquiries to clarify to what extent the provisions of the post-war peace treaties were implemented by the foreign governments involved, and how those governments would respond to any new claims for compensation which might now be made under the terms of those treaties. That is one reason why I am in some difficulty in responding to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer.

However, there are some positive developments in that respect. For example, we have learnt that in Hungary, following a constitutional court decision in 1996, legislation is being drafted to implement Article 29 of the Treaty of Peace with Hungary, which concerns compensation for Hungarian nationals whose property was confiscated by the allies. Further, we have heard within the past week that the Romanian Government have approved a finance ministry memorandum on the need for legislation on this issue. The Ministry of Justice has the task of preparing a draft law.

I should tell noble Lords that the Government are sympathetic to the plight of victims of Nazi persecution and their families. Over a number of years, successive British Governments have tried to respond appropriately to the losses suffered. Sometimes they succeeded, as evidenced by the £2 million which was paid in compensation to victims of persecution under the ex gratia scheme; but sometimes they did not, as the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and of other noble Lords, have shown.

In the light of the research that has been undertaken and the representations that have been made, including points raised by noble Lords today, the Government are considering whether anything further should now be done. This is an honourable and decent Government. This Government will act in a decent and honourable way.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, my noble friend's final words constitute the redeeming sentence in an otherwise, if I may say so with respect, deeply sad and disappointing speech. I have never understood why the Swiss Government until recently spent so much time trying to justify the intolerable behaviour of previous governments, 50 years ago. Similarly, I see no reason why this Government, who I support so fully and who I regard as being honourable and worthy, should seek to justify clearly insensitive and often wicked acts by a British government, 50 years ago.

The House is entitled to know what this honourable and worthy Government, which I am proud to support, are going to do now. We are told that the research has been completed and that is good news; but we have had no undertaking regarding when the report on such research will be published. I can assure my noble friend the Minister that none of us in this House who spoke today will let the weeks go by without reminding the Government that survivors will not survive indefinitely, and that those whom my noble friend referred to as having "devastated lives" need help now and not in two, three or four years' time; nor, indeed, when the Romanian Government may decide one day perhaps, having approved a memorandum, to make some restitution to some Romanian victims.

I was very deeply moved by many of the speeches that were made today. I have in mind especially the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. As a youngster, I was a war crimes investigator in Germany. I always hoped that there would be some way to try to do what my noble friend referred to as helping rebuild devastated lives.

I look back on our debate with appreciation, but I have grave reservations about my noble friend's speech. For example, he referred to distributions in various countries. Yes, indeed, distributions were made to Communist countries behind the Iron Curtain. What happened was they were allowed to set off moneys which were owed to people who were resident in their countries, including victims, against what those countries owed to British companies on the basis that they were going to repay individual victims in their countries. But everyone knew that those people would not get a penny and they never did. Our Government also should have known that such victims who were stupid and dire enough to claim the money would end up in a communist concentration camp for their efforts. At that time there was no question of any of these victims getting anything back. It was an unworthy ruse by a government who sought to dispose of debts, albeit brought about by a war which we fought bravely.

I shall of course write to the noble Lord on matters which he has mentioned. I shall make one or two further points. The difficulties of making restitution provide no reason for doing nothing. We do not have much time. I would have expected the Government to say in this House, "This is what we are going to do. We have completed our research and we shall publish it within two to three weeks. We shall then announce to the House what steps we shall take".

I did not expect the Government to say to the House, "We shall consider whether or not we shall take action". That is no answer for this House in view of what the noble Lord himself has said of devastated lives, and what he called insensitivities and what I call gross, unconscionable injustices. We want to know what the Government will do and when. We shall not rest until we get a reply.

Once again, I thank all those noble Lords who have contributed to this important and moving debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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