HL Deb 07 November 2000 vol 618 cc1391-9

4.44 p.m.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:

"In April this year, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister held a meeting with representatives of the Royal British Legion to discuss the British groups who had been held prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War. He subsequently initiated a reconsideration of the long-standing policy of Her Majesty's Government towards these Far East prisoners. Owing to the complexity of the issues involved, that review took time to carry out but it has now been completed.

"I am very pleased to be able to inform the House that as a result of the review the Government have decided to make a single ex gratia payment of £10,000 to the surviving members of the British groups who were held prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War, in recognition of the unique circumstances of their captivity. Where a person who would have been entitled to this payment has died, their surviving spouse will be entitled to receive it instead.

"As honourable Members will recall, on a number of occasions in recent months this House has debated the situation of those who were held prisoner in the Far East during the Second World War. The reason we have done so is that what happened to those prisoners was often so appalling that for many it has remained with them for the rest of their lives. Many Members will be aware of the stories told by now frail constituents about that terrible time; members of the public will be familiar with the books and films about it. However, if we look back at the histories, we come across a simple, stark fact that makes clear to everybody the enormity of what happened. Of the 50,016 British service personnel who were reported captured by the Japanese, 12,433 died or were killed in captivity. In other words, conditions were so bad that one in four did not survive.

"We are all very thankful that such a situation did not occur anywhere else during the Second World War and has not recurred since. The unique nature of the Japanese captivity in the Far East was recognised in the 1950s, when those who had been held became eligible for modest payments from assets, made under the provisions of the 1951 San Francisco Treaty of Peace with Japan. As noble Lords are aware, the maximum payment available at that time was £76.10s.

"In the intervening years, the former Far East prisoners pursued the issue of additional compensation with Japan. More recently, they have also campaigned for the British Government to make a payment. However, as Members of both sides of the House will be well aware, it has been the policy of successive governments over many years not to make payments in such circumstances.

"We are now making an exception for the British groups that were held prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War in recognition of the unique circumstances of their collective captivity. Those who will be entitled to receive the payment are former members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces who were made prisoners of war, former members of the Merchant Navy who were captured and imprisoned and British civilians who were interned. Certain other former military personnel in the colonial forces, Indian army and Burmese armed forces who received compensation in the 1950s under United Kingdom auspices will also be eligible. As I said earlier, where a person who would have been entitled to this payment has died, their surviving spouse will be entitled to receive it instead.

"We estimate that up to 16,700 people may be eligible for these ex gratia payments, which will accordingly cost up to £167 million to make. I shall not now go into detail about the new payment scheme, except to say that this single ex gratia payment will not be taxable, nor will it be taken into account for benefits purposes. We intend to make these payments as quickly as possible, although it will take a little time for the appropriate regulations to be made. However, we expect everything to be in place by February.

"Further details of the scheme are being published today in a leaflet by the War Pensions Agency, which will be administering it. A copy will be placed in the Library of the House. The leaflet and a claim form will also be available on the agency's website.

"The Government recognise that many UK citizens, both those serving in the Armed Forces and civilians, have had to endure great hardship at different times and in different circumstances. But the experience of those who went into captivity in the Far East during the Second World War was unique. We have said before that we believe the country owes a debt of honour to them. I hope that I am speaking for everyone here when I say that today something concrete has been done to recognise that debt."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.49 p.m.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I hope that he will not take it the wrong way when I say that we hope for the speedy return of his noble friend the Minister of State.

We welcome unconditionally the generous and good offer that the Government are making to former Far East prisoners of war and their dependants. Many congratulations should be offered to the Royal British Legion, the Far East prisoner of war associations and the other bodies which have fought so hard and so long for the settlement that has been announced today.

It is understandable that it has taken so long to make this settlement because up until 1998 we had been hoping that the Japanese Government would pay compensation to the former prisoners of war. It is only since that time, after the final decision in their high court that they would not make such a payment, that it became clear that other governments would have to do so. The pattern has been set by the Canadians and Her Majesty's Government have rightly followed.

I particularly welcome three aspects of the payment: that it will be paid to all who were imprisoned or interned in the Far East, including civilians, men and women, members of the Merchant Navy and others; that it will he paid to widows, for they, too, suffered from the difficulties, dangers and horrors that their men endured in prison; and that the payment will not be taxable or set against benefits.

These have been the forgotten warriors. It is appropriate that in this week the forgotten army should be remembered.

4.52 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. While nothing can ever compensate the men and women who suffered at Japanese hands during the Second World War, it is excellent that the Government have recognised their plight and have made a generous offer, which, as I understand it, extends to both widows and civilian internees. Perhaps the Minister can say whether the same conditions will apply to them as to members of the Armed Forces.

I should like to point out the substantial difference between the way in which the German Government have treated those who were enslaved as workers during the war and those who worked as slaves in the Far East and who, to this day, have still not been compensated by the Japanese Government.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister two questions. First, what is the position of those who are now citizens of Hong Kong who were previously subjects of the United Kingdom, who suffered equally from internment and who, in some cases, were members of the Armed Forces? For reasons quite outside their control, some of them are now Hong Kong citizens— and therefore citizens of the Republic of China— rather than British citizens, but their position, their plight and the suffering that they underwent was not very different from that of the citizens to whom the Minister has referred.

Finally, can the Minister say a little more about the section in the Statement that deals with those who served with us from Commonwealth countries, particularly those from India, Burma and the colonial forces? Perhaps he can say how far the settlement will extend to them. He mentioned them, but be did not say in precise terms who would qualify and who would not.

May I again say how grateful we are that the Government have recognised the desperate position of those who served and then suffered so much at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War?

4.54 p.m.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, for his kind remarks about my noble friend Lady Symons. I shall certainly pass them on to her. We hope that she will return very quickly.

The remarks of the noble Lord were well meant and genuinely appreciative of the move that has now been made. I am sure that he will wish to join with the Government in celebrating the fact that we have now been able to do what needed to be done—perhaps many years ago—for these people.

The noble Baroness added her welcome to the Government's decision. She asked about civilian internees. As I understand it, that group involves a number of people. They will, of course, be recognised. Should any of those she mentioned fall outside the scheme, I shall write to the noble Baroness with details. Similarly, I expect those colonials—from wherever they came—who were part of this group, and who were prisoners of war during that period on our behalf, to be recognised.

So far as concerns those who were imprisoned or interned for other reasons—for instance, as the noble Baroness mentioned, those from states such as Hong Kong— details are not yet fully available on this issue. I shall ensure that the noble Baroness is informed of the position of such people.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, in reply to the noble Baroness he referred to other persons who would receive the compensation. Does not the Statement describe who they are when it refers to: Certain other former military personnel in the colonial forces, Indian army, and Burmese armed forces who received compensation in the 1950s under UK auspices"? It would seem to be quite clear from that.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I tried to indicate that the people mentioned were indeed covered. I was a little concerned that the noble Baroness may have touched on a group outside those. It was for that reason that I was cautious in my answer. I shall ensure that the noble Baroness is given the correct reply.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the excellent news for those who will benefit from this sum of money. It is very late in coming for 80 year-olds, but it is, nevertheless, very welcome.

In relation to spouses, is there any restriction on the period of marriage? If the spouse has remarried, will that affect the payment of this sum of money?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, while I did not comprehensively cover the issue of spouses in my delivery of the Statement, I should like to assure the noble Lord that, to my knowledge, nothing will debar spouses from receiving the payment. The Government have tried as hard as they possibly can to ensure that a surviving spouse will receive her husband's entitlement. One or two complications may arise in this area, but the Government intend to ensure that, whatever the circumstances, a surviving spouse will receive her husband's entitlement.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, as the only diocesan bishop whose father was killed in action during the Second World War—although against the Germans—I warmly welcome the Government's Statement. One of my former clergy was in action against the Japanese; he was captured and suffered grievously at their hands. Throughout the remaining years of his ministry after he returned to this country, the effect on that and his family life was terrible to see. I believe that what hurt him most was his feeling that all that he and so many others had gone through was not really appreciated by those of us back home. I welcome what the Government have said and I understand why the payment has been so long in coming. This afternoon I feel for the dead priest and the fact that this has come, sadly, too late for him and for many others.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his comments and for his compliments to the Government on their action. I sympathise with his friend and with the many other prisoners of war who suffered during that period. I point out to noble Lords that as regards prisoners of war in the Far East, the reason we have taken this decision is because of the unique circumstances in which they found themselves during their captivity.

Lord Grenfell

My Lords, I rise with some emotion to declare an interest. My brother-in-law was captured at Singapore. He had a very unpleasant time in Changi gaol. He then worked on the Burma railway. Happily, he is still with us at the age of 83. I know that during the 55 years since his release he has been very much looking forward to the day when the plight of the prisoners would be recognised. I know that while he bore in stoic silence his astonishment at the treatment meted out after their release—a payment of £76.10s—he was very active in seeking redress for colleagues worse afflicted than he was.

I am sure that he will be enormously relieved to know that the surviving spouses of his PoW colleagues who died in the intervening years will be the beneficiaries. Would it not be appropriate that with their payment they receive a letter from the Government thanking them for their great patience in waiting for this compensation?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments, particularly in relation to countries such as Singapore where many people suffered during that period in a similar fashion. I take note of my noble friend's comment as regards a letter. I shall raise the issue outside the Chamber.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a high proportion of the Armed Forces who became prisoners of war were members of the East Anglian Division? Many were constituents of mine when I was elected in 1945. They suffered terribly. Many wondered whether they would survive their time in captivity and, thank goodness, a few of them did return including, as noble Lords may remember, Lord de Ramseay who became Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire.

As the patron of the Huntingdonshire Royal British Legion I add my thanks for the Government's decision.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments. I am sure that many Members and ex-Members of Parliament must have had similar circumstances brought to their attention. I certainly appreciate how the noble Lord feels at this time.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I give heartfelt thanks to the Government for this very welcome news today about prisoners of war in the Far East, however late. I congratulate the Minister on his Statement. Can he tell us whether widows of Japanese prisoners of war who died in Japanese camps will also benefit as well as the widows of those who have since died?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I hope I shall not mislead here. If there are living widows of prisoners of war who died in the camps, my assessment is that they will come within these particular circumstances. I shall clear that matter and ensure that the Baroness is written to.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, a former partner of mine, Colonel Cecil Wells, of the Suffolk Regiment, was in Japanese prisoner of war camps throughout the war. He died just 15 days ago. Do I understand from the Minister's Statement that his estate will not receive anything or is the proposed date for the award prior to today? If, as I suspect, the answer is that the Statement shows that the award is from today and his wife died some while ago, is there no intention on the Government's part for any part of the sum to inure for the benefit of his children?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I believe that it is clear from the scheme that the ex-gratia payment starts from today. Under these circumstances it is always very difficult to create the date when such a payment is applied. If his widow had survived him she would have been entitled to the payment. In the circumstances it is my view that there is no entitlement to the payment. If anyone were to die from this point on, the estate would receive the £10,000.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I am sure that we shall all wish to recognise the hard work of the Burma Star Association and particularly the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, in this area. As an RAF pilot I flew a number of our prisoners of war back from Singapore to Ceylon at the cessation of hostilities. I can confirm their dreadful physical condition. Subsequently, as a constituency MP, a number of ex-prisoners of war and their wives came to see me and put forward their case very strongly indeed. The Government have done extremely well over the settlement. Many people will feel that at long last they have been appreciated.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, when I hear people like the noble Lord, Lord Monro, speak of their activities I feel quite humble. I really appreciate the comments that he made as regards the Government's effort.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, as one who fought in the Burma campaigns with Indian troops, I pay tribute to Her Majesty's Government for this generous settlement. Perhaps I may say how sorry I am that the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, who is president of the Burma Star Association, is unable to be with us today. The Burma Star Association, the British Legion and the Far East Prisoners of War Association have been fighting for a long time for this recognition.

The Minister said that Indian troops who were prisoners of war will be included in this settlement. How will the Government go about discovering exactly who they are and how many exist in the subcontinent today? This is a very generous settlement for them; such a sum of money will be of colossal advantage. How will the Government go about discovering exactly who they are?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments in relation to the ex gratia payment, and for his mention of the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. On the question of benefit for Indian troops and colonials who became prisoners of war, I understand that there is a record of most of those who were involved. I believe that the organisations concerned also have a record. There will be an effort on behalf of the Government to ensure that all groups are contacted so that those who are entitled to payments receive them. That includes the group that the noble Lord mentioned. I believe that there are presently about 100 people on the record.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, in August 1945, as my family prepared to light bonfires for the VJ celebrations, my grandfather received a telegram saying that his son, my uncle, would not be returning from his Far Eastern captivity. My uncle's wife died quite a long time ago. So that is one family who will not receive any financial benefit. But there will be thousands of families in that position who will very much welcome the recognition and appreciation demonstrated today.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making that point.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, many Members of this House who served as Members in another place will have memories of trying over the years to deal with the plight of constituents who were in need of assistance. Those of us who regularly attend memorial services in November will be able to hold our heads up a little higher in future. I am sure that I speak on behalf of many. I ask the Minister to take back to his colleagues our gratitude for taking action now, and so generously.

A voice that we should have heard, had he been present, would have been that of my noble friend Lord Molloy, who was deeply involved in the work of the British Legion. He had a distinguished war record, but never lost an opportunity to stand up and defend the interests not only of prisoners but of ex-servicemen. Perhaps the Minister will allow me to place on record the gratitude of my noble friend in his absence.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I am delighted to take them back to my colleagues. I should also like to associate myself with his mention of the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, and the efforts of the British Legion.

Lord Sandberg

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Williams raised a question about civilians in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya. There were two categories. My predecessor, a chief of the Hong Kong Bank, was tortured to death. But there were also people who were called up and who fought for King and country in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya. Is there a differential between those who died or were taken prisoner fighting, and those who were taken prisoner merely because they were British and living in what were then colonies?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I am looking desperately across at the Box in relation to this issue. I do not believe that there is a difference; however, I shall write to the noble Lord on the matter.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, will my noble friend give the House two assurances? First, will Her Majesty's Government do everything in their power to make sure that this extremely welcome decision receives as much publicity as possible inside Japan? Secondly, will my noble friend assure us that it is no part of the settlement that those attempting to bring pressure to bear on the government of Japan to recognise their responsibilities in these matters should desist their activities?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I know of no pressure that is likely to be put on the groups he has mentioned. I hope that that will not be the case.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming the Statement. However, I should like to discharge a debt. Noble Lords have referred to the privations that prisoners of war underwent. When I was a 14 year-old schoolboy, in 1956, I was taught by a man of extreme gifts—one of those teachers who have a profound influence on one's life. One afternoon, as a result of an episode in a classroom, he burst into tears. He had spent three years on the Burma railway and the episode had brought back to him some of the extraordinary privations he had undergone. He died a bachelor some years ago. I feel that I owe it to him to say that we have all allowed far too much time to elapse—it is 58 years since my schoolmaster was captured in Singapore—before righting this grievous wrong.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comment. The Government have now taken steps to make this ex gratia payment. Indeed, many of us feel, as he does, that the action has possibly come a little too late. Nevertheless, it has been taken now, and I am sure that the noble Lord will welcome it in the same fashion as other noble Lords have done.