Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Former British POWs

12 noon

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): The Minister will know of the long-running campaign to compensate former British prisoners of war who were held by the Japanese. The campaign, which will continue until it is successful, aims to get these prisoners of war financial recognition of the immense suffering and outright brutality and torture that they endured under the Japanese. I pay tribute to organisations such as the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors Association, the Far East Prisoners of War Association and the Royal British Legion, which have done much to keep the issue alive. I also pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have raised the subject in this and the previous Parliament and who, like me, are determined to keep it going.

Five years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the ending of the war, I and many other Members of Parliament and the Lords--perhaps you, too, Mr. Deputy Speaker--attended a large gathering at Church house. The former prisoners of war of the Japanese who were there expressed two strongly felt views--that the present Japanese Government should apologise for what happened and that there should be financial compensation. It would be fair to say that, according to their custom and tradition, the Japanese have properly apologised, but that is all. It goes without saying that those of us who have asked the British Government to make a financial contribution would have preferred the Japanese authorities to do so, but that was not the case. All representations to the Japanese Government have been without success and, moreover, the recent court case there failed.

The Japanese argument, which has been reiterated many times outside and inside Parliament, is that the 1951 San Francisco treaty concluded the matter and that there was no need for the British authorities to continue to raise the issue. The treaty awarded a maximum of £76--some people received less--to former British POWs. That sum nearly 50 years ago was obviously worth more than it is today, but at most it was equal to eight to 10 weeks' average pay. It was totally inadequate, and no one could say otherwise.

The situation has moved on somewhat. On 3 May, in reply to a question from the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister informed the House that former POWs had told him about the appalling suffering that they had endured. He said:

6 Jun 2000 : Column 30WH

This debate is intended as a plea for no further delay in coming to a favourable decision, which is the wish of the House. Hon. Members divide on many issues, with disagreements between individuals and between parties, but there is agreement on this issue, if not on others; perhaps even among Ministers. There should be financial compensation to our fellow citizens who suffered so much at the hands of the Japanese during the war.

The numbers involved are inevitably and sadly growing smaller. The longer the delay, the smaller the number of people who will receive financial recognition and compensation. That is why I asked for the debate. The House is to break for the summer recess by the end of July at the latest. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reply favourably today and that the House will not go into recess with the situation outstanding and certainly not with a negative response from the Government.

The point has been made that the Government at the time could have done more long ago to press for further compensation from Japan. In May 1955, the then Minister of State in the Foreign Office, Lord Reading, took the view that the Government should not take advantage of article 26 of the San Francisco treaty. That treaty provided for further claims if Japan concluded agreements with other countries involving sums more advantageous than those originally agreed three years earlier. That was the position concerning Burma. The Government could have taken advantage of the situation at that time. They might not have been successful--who knows?--but at least they would have taken the opportunity. Lord Reading's point, which was not put into the public domain, was that the Government's pursuit of the matter would have been unpopular with the Japanese. What did he mean by that? Did we have a guilt complex? What would have made us more unpopular? Were we so unpopular in 1955? I find the decision somewhat odd but make no party point--the same decision was likely to have been reached even if another Government had been in power. However, the decision was wrong.

The Canadian Government have agreed to pay compensation to its former POWs held by the Japanese. That is welcome. I do not accept that such payments might lead to other claims by ex-POWs, which, I suspect, has been one reason why the Government have been reluctant to come to a favourable decision and to concede on the issue. What other claims would there be from former POWs? I have no reason to believe that those held by the Germans or those held as POWs in Korea are pressing such claims. The Germans treated Russian prisoners of war brutally, starving or beating them to death in some cases. However, they abided by the Geneva convention with regard to British prisoners of war. The Japanese did not abide by that treaty, having not signed it. The Government must come to a favourable decision on those matters.

I want to conclude by referring to two of my constituents and what they suffered during the war. I have mentioned the position of one of them before. The first case concerns Mr. Stephen Long, who was 19 when he was taken prisoner in Singapore. Like many others, Mr. Long was put to work on railway construction, known to POWs as the railway of death. On more than one occasion, he was given what was described as the

6 Jun 2000 : Column 31WH

water treatment. He was squeezed into a box, where, for eight hours, he could not move at all. When he was dragged out, the Japanese soldiers forced a hosepipe into his mouth and then jumped up and down on his stomach for some time. That was the experience of so many people who were held by the Japanese. It is no wonder that Mr. Long has suffered nightmares since and feels such bitterness. It is no wonder that, when Mr. Long attended the gathering in 1995, he was so keen to receive an apology and would like to receive financial compensation. I do not know how long he has to live--I hope that it is a long time--but if compensation is to be paid, there is no reason why he should wait any longer.

Another of my constituents, Mr. John Mitchell, was a POW who worked on the Burma railway. He was made to work 12 to 18 hours a day. The prisoners were often subject to beatings and they were on a near starvation diet. As we talk about such immense suffering, let us also remember all those British POWs, our fellow citizens, and other allied prisoners of war held by the Japanese, who would receive no compensation whatsoever since they died at the time because of the ill-treatment and brutality that they endured.

The time has come for justice. The time has come for the British Government to make a payment in recognition of that suffering, about which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken and to which I have referred, and to concede that this is a special and unique case. Whoever must decide what should be done, whether it is the Ministry of Defence or the Treasury, I beg them--I use that word, which I do not usually use in Parliament--to make a favourable decision before the House breaks up for the summer recess.

12.12 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar ): As hon. Members know, we addressed this subject only recently in the House in the debate secured by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber today. In that debate, he eloquently set out his request on behalf of those held as POWs in the far east during the second world war and surviving widows of deceased former far east POWs.

This further debate, secured by my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), is a demonstration of my hon. Friend's support and concern for those held as POWs in the far east during the second world war, a cause that he has championed in the House on several occasions, both in debates and through various questions. That concern is widely held. Those hon. Members who are involved in all-party groups on this or related matters and hon. Members who have raised the matter on behalf of constituents have similarly championed the cause of those ex-service men, whose case naturally arouses sympathy. I congratulate my hon. Friend on gaining an opportunity to air again so soon the claims of that group for further compensation and I note the hope that he expressed in the House recently for a fresh and positive approach from the Government.

The Royal British Legion is also conducting a vigorous campaign in support of the claims of those men. Senior representatives of the Royal British Legion

6 Jun 2000 : Column 32WH

met my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary a few weeks ago to discuss the matter, and I shall return to that meeting later in my speech. I regret the fact that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was unable to be here today to address the issue, but he was already scheduled to conduct other ministerial business.

The question of compensation and support for those held as prisoners of war in the far east during the second world war is, as my hon. Friend said, dealt with by several Departments. My response today therefore embraces issues that also fall within the responsibility of my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Social Security and the Department of Health.

The subject arises from the historical events of the second world war. With the fall of Hong Kong and subsequently of Singapore and other areas in early 1942, just over 50,000 British service men were captured by the Japanese. During that conflict, prisoners of war were in theory protected by the 1929 Geneva convention. Japan had not ratified the convention but said that in general it would recognise its provisions. However, as the world knows, it did not keep that promise. The prisoners of war of this and other nations were held in camps throughout the far east, where conditions and supplies varied. In almost all camps, even the best, conditions were demanding and often debilitating, particularly where prisoners had to carry out heavy physical work, often in terrible conditions. That, together with undernourishment, made them even more vulnerable to disease, as my hon. Friend graphically described. In addition to those factors, indifference and sometimes deliberately brutal treatment by guards took a toll on prisoners, 25 per cent. of whom did not survive their captivity. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the need to remember them as well as those who survived.

During the war, the British Government were unable to achieve much improvement in the conditions of the prisoners, but in the aftermath of Japan's defeat, in conjunction with our allies, they brought some of those responsible for the ill-treatment of prisoners of war to justice before allied courts. Furthermore, under the terms of the 1951 peace treaty, the former far east prisoners of war, uniquely, as a group, received some compensation from their former captors. In addition, the British made other funds available from Japanese resources, to which there was an entitlement under the peace treaty, to provide further compensation for the prisoners of war and some compensation for certain British civilian internees--another group who suffered grievously under the regime.

We fully accept that many people consider that the amount that became available in that way was too small. My hon. Friend mentioned the £76 maximum, which is roughly equivalent, in cost-of-living terms, to £1,200 today. Nevertheless, that payment established the principle of the responsibility of the captor for the proper treatment of detainees. That was at the time a firmly stated primary goal of the former far east prisoners of war and their organisations. Subsequently, as we know, there have been many calls for the Japanese to make further compensation payments. That is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. However, we have several times raised the

6 Jun 2000 : Column 33WH

matter with the Japanese Government at the highest levels, reminding them of the strength of feeling that the issue arouses in the House and throughout the country.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Does the Foreign Office plan to continue to raise the issue of an apology in discussions with Japan?

Mr. Spellar : The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next sentence. We have examined matters, including the responses of the Japanese Government, most carefully, and the clear legal advice is that the peace treaty many years ago closed the matter of further compensation from the Japanese Government. We have raised this matter with the Japanese Government at a range of levels, and that is the position that the Foreign Office has reached in that regard. Nevertheless, we continue to seek ways of achieving reconciliation between our two nations to overcome the legacy of past conflict and the associated feelings of those who suffered, who understandably may find it hard to be reconciled.

We are aware of the argument advanced in recent times that, in 1955, the British Government consciously let down the far east prisoners of war through their handling of the peace treaty negotiations and over the amount of compensation that was obtained as a result. Although we understand the feelings that lead to this view, which were expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, that argument is not borne out by the evidence, which is based on the views and actions of the Conservative Government in 1955 in deciding not to seek to invoke article 26 of the treaty to claim more compensation on the ground that other countries had signed more favourable agreements.

Examination of the contemporary records that have been publicly available for many years shows that that decision reflected the fact that it was extremely difficult to ascertain what additional benefits, if any, this country would in practice be entitled to and what their worth might be, or whether, had the treaty been reopened, Britain would have received additional funds from Japan to enable individual far east prisoners of war to receive further compensation. It is perhaps a broader issue than the one outlined by my hon. Friend.

Linked to the claim about the 1955 decisions is the view that, as further compensation cannot be obtained from Japan, the Government should make an ex gratia payment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North will be aware, that suggestion represents a major shift from the position of those speaking on behalf of far east prisoners of war in the early 1950s, when the issue was thoroughly aired in public discussion and in the House. At that time, they made it clear that they were making no claim on the British taxpayer. Brigadier Smythe, a leading champion of the cause in the House, said:

6 Jun 2000 : Column 34WH

Although we understand that view, decisions of this nature are a matter for individual Governments and authorities to decide in the light of all the circumstances in their countries. Their decisions reflect the different ways available to them to address their citizens' needs. We acknowledge, and have always acknowledged, the harsh treatment and suffering that characterised detention for those held as prisoners of war in the far east and led to the death of some 25 per cent. of those in captivity or to ill health, which often continued following repatriation at the end of the war and which, in a number of cases, still seriously affects individuals. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North drew attention to two moving cases in his constituency, but many other hon. Members can outline similar cases and describe the long-term physical and psychological impact of such suffering.

As hon. Members know, in this country the emphasis has been consistently placed on addressing the suffering and needs of those whose health has been adversely affected as a result of their military service, including any period of captivity--whether in the far east or elsewhere--primarily through the provision of war pensions by the Department of Social Security. Such pensions are available to the dependants of those who died during their service, or whose subsequent deaths can be linked to their service, and to those service men who have received a war pension since they left the forces because of the impact of their suffering on their long-term health.

Mr. Winnick : In reply to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) on 3 May, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, having met the British Legion to discuss this issue, said:

Mr. Spellar : I am coming to the outcome of the meeting with the Royal British Legion in the next couple of paragraphs of my notes.

I shall complete my previous point by saying that people whose health disabilities from service have appeared or worsened later in life have received war pensions at that point. The special health needs and problems of far east prisoners of war are also recognised in the availability to them of special tropical disease investigations, so that problems peculiar to the far east, which might not otherwise be recognised as relating to their military service, can be picked up.

6 Jun 2000 : Column 35WH

However, we are aware that, as hon. Members and the Royal British Legion have commented to us, the understandable perception of many British far east prisoners of war and their families is that the provisions that form the basis of the present support system through war pensions and health care do not adequately meet their needs. Although we believe that that judgment may be harsh, such feelings are a matter of concern.

My colleague the Under-Secretary of State heard those concerns expressed again at a recent meeting of the Royal British Legion, which he attended with the Prime Minister. During that meeting, the Royal British Legion, in setting out the case for additional compensation to be paid, described clearly the facts of the ill-treatment and suffering, and the subsequent problems that they have caused. Following that meeting in April, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assured the House, in the statement drawn to our attention by my hon. Friend, that, although he could make no commitment at that point, he had promised the Royal British Legion that the points and representations that they had made on behalf of former prisoners of war in the far east would be carefully considered.

That is what we are doing. We are re-examining the policy on far east prisoners of war, including the question of compensation. I mentioned earlier that, given the range of aspects involved, this subject concerns several Departments. We are, therefore, in touch with colleagues across Government to consider these points. We have not set any rigid parameters or ruled out particular solutions, but the consultation and consideration process is not yet complete. When it is, it will be considered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

I fully understand that hon. Members would have preferred me to give them further news or hints on the tenor of our considerations. However, as we have reached no conclusions, hon. Members will understand that it would be difficult for me to say any more at this stage. We look forward to being able to say more in the future. I shall draw to the attention of Ministers engaged in the consultation process my hon. Friend's request that an announcement be made before the recess. I cannot give him a commitment today; his views have been strongly represented, and I shall make sure that his message is relayed to those concerned.

Next Section

IndexHome Page