HL Deb 20 July 1999 vol 604 cc803-6

2.47 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

What recent representations they have received for the award of ex gratia payments to former British prisoners of war of the Japanese during the Second World War, and what response they have made.

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

My Lords, a number of representations have been received from former British prisoners of war of the Japanese and from bodies such as the Royal British Legion. Although we understand their views on this matter, we do not believe that ex gratia payments are the appropriate way to address the needs of former prisoners of war.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister may know, I have an interest to declare as Honorary Parliamentary Adviser for many years to the Royal British Legion. Is my noble friend aware that, while fully appreciating that money can never compensate for inhuman cruelties, the Canadian Government recently made substantial ex gratia payments to their prisoners Of the Japanese "to repay a debt of honour"? Cannot we do as much by repaying the same debt of honour to our prisoners of the Japanese? Moreover, is not the continuing failure to conclude this matter the principal impediment now to improving trade and diplomatic relations with Japan?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to my noble friend's diligent commitment to the interests of the Royal British Legion and ex-servicemen generally; indeed, he has been extraordinarily diligent in that respect over the years. However. I cannot agree with my noble friend's last supplementary question because I do not think that we have any very serious difficulties in our trade and investment relations with the Japanese.

My noble friend prayed in aid the case of the Canadian Government who, as he rightly said, very recently agreed some ex gratia payments for their own former prisoners of war from Japanese camps. However, in point of fact, the scale of the problem faced by the Canadian Government was very much smaller than that faced by the British Government. The former Japanese prisoners of war in Canada comprise only about one in 10 of the proportion of the population with which the British Government would be faced. Unfortunately—I stress the word "unfortunately"—these matters were originally settled in the Japanese peace treaty of 1951 and the government in power in this country in 1955 accepted in an exchange of notes that the Japanese had no further duties in this respect.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, have Australia and New Zealand given ex gratia payments to their ex-prisoners of war?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I have inquired into that and I understand that they have not.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this issue is causing grave concern to our Royal British Legion? Would he be prepared to receive a deputation to discuss this matter when he has a moment at his disposal?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I try to operate an open-door policy in my office. I should be happy to meet representatives of the Royal British Legion. Unfortunately, the matters they wish to discuss do not fall on "my end of ship" in the Ministry of Defence. I know that my colleague, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, has been deeply engaged in these matters and is shortly to make an announcement on this subject.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, I have an interest to declare in that I participated in the Burma campaigns and in the subsequent invasion of Malaya. One of the first things we did was to go to the prisoner of war camps in order to see what we could do to help the unfortunate men and women who had suffered such privations. As the Minister said, it is perfectly true that our relations with Japan are good. I hope that I helped to some extent by presenting the sabre which I took at the surrender in Kuala Lumpur to the Yasukuni shrine to the Japanese war dead in Tokyo. However, that is no reason why we should not compensate these brave men who suffered such privations in the prison camps. Can the Minister say what it would cost?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, there are various estimates of cost available, but on the basis of the same degree of ex gratia payment that the Canadian Government recently announced that they were giving—they are the only government of whom I know who are acting in this way with regard to former prisoners of war of the Japanese—the cost to Her Majesty's Government would be in the range of £100 million to £150 million.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I rise to speak as I have a brother-in-law who was a prisoner of war in Japan. Is my noble friend aware that the compensation he has received is £75 paid in three instalments over three years? I hope that my noble friend considers that totally inadequate to compensate for the kind of treatment these people have received. I was rather disappointed with some of my noble friend's answers. He seemed to be saying that because we have more such ex-prisoners of war than the Canadians, the Government cannot pay them something, or at least obtain something from the Japanese. Surely if my noble friend agrees with me that the treatment these people received was outrageous—as we know—he should be making some representations to obtain rather better compensation than they have received so far.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend that the suffering of some prisoners of war of the Japanese—not all of them—particularly those in camps in south-east Asia, was absolutely ghastly. It tears at anyone's heartstrings to read about that even to this day. I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Morris that no financial compensation is ever adequate to compensate anyone for such treatment. I agree also with my noble friend Lord Barnett that the compensation that was agreed back in the 1950s was absolutely pathetic. However, that is what happened. The view was taken at that time by the government of the day and by the subsequent government of 1955 that it was important then not to harass the Japanese in these matters—we have to remember that the Japanese economy then was nothing like as strong as it is now—because we wanted very much to keep the Japanese on our side and in the democratic camp. There is, of course, nothing whatever to stop the Royal British Legion making representations to the Japanese Government, but it sought to pursue the matter through the Japanese courts recently and I am afraid that it got nowhere.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am president of the Burma Star Association. That is a great privilege and honour. Is the noble Lord aware that the advice that I have given prisoners of war, both civilian and military, is that it is not the Japanese Government they should pursue but the many British governments who in my view are culpable of not looking after their prisoners of war who were involved in the battles of Asia? Other governments negotiated so much better deals for their prisoners of war than our very parsimonious British governments of the past of all parties. Is the noble Lord aware that among the veterans there is a strong feeling—I put this to the Government seriously—that in young, new Britain veterans do not count? What are this Government doing about that? I do not see many Ministers, and certainly few if any from another place, taking part in veterans' affairs, looking after them and giving them some dignity in their old age. We are here because of what these veterans did.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I entirely subscribe to the final remarks of the noble Viscount; namely, that we are here because of what these veterans did. Of course we all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be able to stand at this Dispatch Box and say, "Of course they can have an ex gratia payment"; but unfortunately that is not the policy of this Government, nor of any previous government. However, I really must take issue with the noble Viscount when he says that Ministers have not taken part in veterans' affairs. Leaving aside any personal reference implied in that, all my ministerial colleagues take a great interest in veterans' affairs. I am sure that was true also of the previous government. This Government have for the first time set up a veterans' unit in the Ministry of Defence. That contradicts point blank what the noble Viscount claims.