HL Deb 24 March 1998 vol 587 cc1086-90

2.40 p.m.

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they have made with regard to the restitution of assets to victims of Nazism in Britain.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, on 3rd April the Government will publish a joint report from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the history of the enemy property. The Government will announce their response at the same time.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer, especially for telling us that this important report will be published at last. Does he accept that the purpose of this operation is to seek, even at this late date, some measure of restitution and justice for victims of Nazism—Jewish and non-Jewish—including the heirs of people murdered by the Nazis, all of whom placed their assets in this country for safekeeping and many of whom have received nothing? Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will set in motion a swift and honourable response to the report in order to provide compensation and restitution, recognising not least that if they do not do so Britain's good name will be put in dire disrepute?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, when we debated the matter on 18th February 1 said that this is an honourable and decent Government which will act in an honourable and decent way. Nothing has happened since then to make me change my view. The Government's response to the research is a matter for the President of the Board of Trade and will be announced when the report is published on 3rd April.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, does the Minister recall that in that debate on 18th February, in responding to my suggestion that the United States were being more liberal in dealing with the assets of the victims of Nazism, he drew a comparison saying 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? Will the Minister confirm the accuracy of that statement?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for that question because it gives me the opportunity to correct a point of detail in the response that I gave. The noble Lord is quite right. In that debate I said that by 1953, the United States Administration had released money to only 15 per cent. of applicants. In fact, documents indicate that by 1953 assets returned to "persecutees"—their word, I assume, for victims of Nazism—amounted to some 15 per cent. of the total vested assets released. However, the documentation makes clear that that figure is at best a guess and should be treated with some caution.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, does the Minister agree that no one, least of all Her Majesty's Government, should profit from any kind of criminal activity? In view of that and the fact that the Minister has full confidence in the honour of his Government, which I should not dream of questioning, can he not say at the very least that that money will not be transferred to the Treasury, because the owners deposited it for safekeeping in very tragic circumstances? At least the heirs, or people who could reasonably have been expected by the owners to have inherited those assets, should in fact do so. Is it not a fact that events of tragic proportions deserve compassionate responses which do not necessarily follow the rule book?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that the matter deserves very sympathetic treatment. However, the problem is that there are no assets remaining. All the assets have been distributed. That is the crux of the problem. If there were assets remaining to be distributed, the Government would be trying to find the owners. But in fact all the assets have been distributed.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister could enlighten my darkness. I should like to know how he manages to reconcile the action of the Government in encouraging the Nazi Gold Conference and creating a research paper but saying in the last debate that, when that research paper is published, they will be deciding not what to do but whether to do anything. In the light of what is owed to the people who thought they had safe haven here, does he find that credible, or is that after all either a research or a media exercise? I find it very difficult to understand.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, it is certainly a research exercise. I can only repeat what I have said already. I have every confidence that the Government will treat this matter in a decent and honourable way. My right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade will make her announcement on 3rd April.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, I recognise how hard my noble friend Lord Haskel has worked to secure a just outcome to all this. Will he confirm that the assets are in fact in the Consolidated Fund, or at least the equivalent of those assets? Perhaps I may tempt him to a further indiscretion. Has the Minister seen a copy of the report and could he offer us something of the flavour of its contents, or does it have to remain a closely guarded secret for the next 10 days?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I can confirm that a small amount of assets were returned to the Consolidated Fund. The Government have made a commitment to deal sympathetically with any claims to those assets.

As regards the report, I have seen a draft copy of it. The content of the report is rather mixed. It gives a detailed account of how the Custodian of Enemy Property took control of assets and how they were released after the war. But it recounts some extraordinary insensitivities immediately after the war, which are most regrettable. However, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, attempts were made to put right those insensitivities. That culminated in a letter, which is in the report, dated 15th May 1951 from Mr. Sidney Silverman, Member of Parliament, to Arthur Bottomley, who was then the Secretary of State for Overseas Trade. In that letter, Mr. Sidney Silverman stated that some of those insensitivities had been dealt with.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, when this matter arose before, I asked where the assets were. If they are in the Consolidated Fund, does the noble Lord agree that that is irrelevant to the question of fair restitution, because it is no answer? Is he satisfied that the machinery for investigating a legitimate claim is sufficient and fair and is being operated in a reasonable way? How is it being done?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, on 22nd April 1988, a statement was made in another place by Mr. Butcher, who was then at the Board of Trade, in reply to a Written Question from Mr. Richard Page on that point. The Government gave an undertaking that the small amount of money which was paid to the Consolidated Fund would be paid to any claimants. The Government have broadcast to the best of their ability the details of the transfer. In order to assist in that matter, they are publishing, on the internet, it is hoped by the end of next month, a list of some 20,000 names of people and companies whose records remain at the Department of Trade and Industry as having assets received by the Custodian of Enemy Property. It is hoped that that may jog memories and people may be able to make a claim.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, in view of the Minister's answer to my noble friend, can he say whether legal remedies will be available for those unfortunate people who have suffered unfair treatment?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I imagine that there are legal remedies if a proper claim can be established. However, there are great difficulties involved in establishing a legal claim for something that happened many years ago and where records are very sparse and thin.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the Minister remember the injunction which the noble Lord, Lord Janner, gave him; namely, that this is a matter of honour? From the Minister's replies, I fear that a comprehensive document, replete with historical instances, will appear in April and that very little will be done as a result.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I ask the noble Lord to have confidence that the Government will do the right thing.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House how much money was put into the Consolidated Fund? Further, can he say how much was paid out, or used by way of set-off with eastern European countries, when the Government well knew that people in those countries would not make their claims against their governments because they would be sent to the Gulag and that, if they did make such a claim, they would get nothing? My noble friend the Minister has been good enough to say that there will be an honourable and decent response to the report. However, can he anticipate any such honourable and decent response which does not mean the return of assets to those who own them?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, in our debate on 18th February I gave details of the amounts of money involved. It is quite a complicated matter and I am not sure that I should give a response now because it would take quite some time. However, I undertake to write to the noble Lord on the matter. I should add that if any noble Lords wish to know the details, they have only to read the Hansard report for 18th February, which contains detailed information.