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31 Oct 2000 : Column 184WH

Far East Prisoners of War

11.59 am

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): It is good to see the Minister in his place. I understand that it has not been too easy to get here from Kirkcaldy in the last day or so.

Prisoners of war are an important issue. This is the third time this year that they have been the subject of an Adjournment debate. That reflects the nature of the issue and the wide support that there is and has been across the House for paying a gratuity to this small band of surviving British heroes, whose heroism and service have not been sufficiently recognised until now. We are not, sadly, talking about very many. We are talking about 7,500 men and perhaps 3,000 widows. Since the case came to Downing street for the Prime Minister's personal attention in a meeting with the Royal British Legion last April, some 250 more of them have died. There is a sense of urgency here, of time running out and, as the Prime Minister himself put it, there is a debt of honour to be paid. I trust that the Minister will reply in a positive vein.

I want to give thanks at this point to some remarkable people. One of them is Arthur Titherington, the chairman of the Japanese Labour Camps Survivors Association, who has single-handedly kept the flame alive on this issue. Another is his deputy chairman Mr. Sid Tavender. I am honoured to have been asked to be the president of that association. I am out of my company in such a band of heroes, but I had to accept. Thanks must also go to the Royal British Legion, which has led the campaign, and to many Members of Parliament, especially the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) who secured an Adjournment debate in June and the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who leads the all-party group on the issue.

This is not a party political issue and it never has been. It is an issue of national honour and natural justice. The facts are fairly plain. Battalions were raised in 1941at the worst time in the second world war. Many of them were formed into the Eighteenth East Anglian Division and they were preparing for service in Iraq. They were diverted to Singapore and they arrived there just in time for the surrender. They were in fact sacrificed. We sent the men, but we did not send the tanks or the artillery. We did not have the land defences and, most of all, we did not have the air cover that would have enabled them to fight.

Included in the 50,000 men who surrendered at Singapore are the Fourth and Fifth Battalions of my own regiment, the Suffolk Regiment, the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Battalions of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and the First and Second Battalions of the Cambridgeshire Regiment. It is something of an East Anglian role of honour. The young men from the farms, fields and factories of East Anglia were sacrificed. There is not a village that does not bear the scar in some way. Of course, that is extended across the country because others were attached to the battalions from many places. I receive letters every day from the few survivors and their widows asking what has happened and whether their service will be recognised. I trust that this time finally it will be.

Let us consider the costs and casualties. The rate of casualties was higher among those 50,000 service men than among British service men in any other theatre of

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war from 1940 to 1945--much higher, for instance, than in the Normandy landings. I think that it was Laurens van der Post who said that those soldiers showed and needed more courage than any other British soldiers in the whole of the second world war. We do not learn much about our defeats. I served for two years in the Suffolk Regiment without ever being told what happened to those soldiers. For three and a half years they suffered in conditions that are unimaginable to us. It is astonishing that they endured at all.

A quarter of those 50,000 died. Some were executed on beaches. Some were executed in prison camps. Some were machine-gunned at sea when their ships went down. The majority died from starvation, neglect and disease. Those who came home in 1945 were broken in body and, in some sense, in mind. The old men who write to me--the youngest is 78--tell me how their prison camp experiences come back to them in nightmares. Many are unable to leave home. Many are widowers, and in their loneliness the experiences come flooding back. It is touching to read those letters--

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): The hon. Gentleman has referred to prisoners of war. Will he mention the civilian internees who were held and suffered a great deal of hardship, and urge the Government to look favourably on them when considering any compensation?

Mr. Bell : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising a good point. I believe that the civilian internees were excluded from the Royal British Legion's campaign simply because it was necessary to get something quickly to some of the most deserving cases. However, many families, including young children, were held captive at the same time.

The mental scars are with those prisoners of war to this day. I received a letter from the chief psychiatrist of Combat Stress, a mental welfare society for ex-service men with which I am associated. He screened many of the prisoners years later, in the early 1980s, and wrote to me that what struck him most about them was their quiet dignity and their refusal to ask for anything for themselves. That was the kind of people that they were. They came home in 1945 and were told to get on with their lives; they got a medal. In 1952, they received a compensatory payment of £76 from sequestered Japanese assets, which was trivial, even by the monetary values of those times, and insulting.

We do not deal well with our retreats and defeats, but I believe that out of the debacle of Singapore one group of people--those soldiers--emerged with enormous credit. When they write to me, they do not ask for anything except clarification of what is happening in this year-long campaign that seems to be so close to success--but their wives and widows do ask for something. A couple of letters that I have received in the past two days strike me as extremely eloquent. One of them is from a Mrs. Aldridge of Atherstone. She writes:

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Mrs. Sowerby from Christchurch in Dorset writes:

I get letters like that every day and find them very moving. I hope that when the compensation is announced--and I trust that it will be, because the Prime Minister was positive in his hints on the subject last week--it will be ring-fenced so as not to affect entitlements in other areas and so that the Government do not take with one hand and give back with the other.

It can be argued that the Japanese Government should have provided the necessary restitution, and of course they should have done. There is an extraordinary contrast between the behaviour of the Japanese Government and people and that of the German Government and people. The Germans confronted the realities of their past, whereas the Japanese tended to draw a veil over it, partly because those war crimes were committed in the name of their emperor. I have received an eloquent, bitter and moving letter from Jack Caplan, who burned the Japanese flag when the emperor visited a few years ago. I do not think that it is for us to insist on reconciliation and that those prisoners should forgive and forget; they can never forget and whether they forgive is entirely up to them.

It would have been possible to reopen the discussions that led to the treaty of San Francisco in 1951; that could have been done in 1955, and the Japanese Government could have been required to pay restitution then. So as not to disturb our relations with the Japanese Government at the time, which was building an economy and a democracy, that was not done. Looking back, I think that that was probably a mistake but, as I said at the outset, the issue is not a party political one. However, it is possible for this Government, in the millennium year, to take a decision that would bring huge credit on themselves and for which they would be thanked by those old soldiers and their friends and relatives across the country--

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. I certainly agree that the compensation should have been paid by the Japanese Government, and it is a discredit to the Japanese authorities that that has not been done. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if, as we fervently hope, compensation is paid by the British Government in the near future--as was suggested by the reply given to me by the Prime Minister last Wednesday--it would be appropriate for that to be done by Remembrance Sunday? Paying the money to that brave and dwindling number by Remembrance Sunday would be a good way of showing that when we remember all those who fought in the last war, we mean it. I hope that the Government will do that.

Mr. Bell : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constant interventions in this matter; as I said, it is not a party matter. He is entirely right. We are approaching the season of remembrance and it is right that we

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remember the living as well as the dead. I am hopeful that the decision will be taken and will be announced by the pre-Budget statement on 8 November; that date, before Remembrance Sunday, would seem an appropriate time for it.

I sometimes desert my parliamentary duties to speak to military audiences. I also speak to students--the kids--who are aware that the peace and freedom in which they live was earned by the sacrifices of another generation--that of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They are receptive to that message. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to make clear our debt of honour and our determination to pay it. We should support the Government in the decision that we believe they are about to take.

I hope and trust that this is the last time that a debate of this kind will be necessary. I trust that the gratuity will be announced before remembrance Sunday, to ease the loneliness and difficulties of old age--all those men are in the evening of their lives--and show that their heroism is recognised. It is a matter of recognition. The sacrifice has never been recognised, and it is as if the nation has drawn a curtain over it or been gripped by a sense of collective amnesia. Now is the time to expect and hope that that debt of honour will be paid to a band of British heroes whom we all salute and to whom we owe so much.

12.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) on securing this debate on what is clearly an important issue. All hon. Members have a considerable interest in the subject, and the debate is a demonstration of the hon. Gentleman's support and concern for those held as prisoners of war in the far east during the second world war.

The hon. Gentleman has pursued the cause in the House on several occasions, through debates and questions. Other hon. Members have similarly championed the cause of those ex-service men, on their individual account and on behalf of constituents, as have Members involved in all-party groups on this and related matters. I should also mention the efforts of the Royal British Legion, which has worked hard to support the claims of former prisoners of war in the far east.

I must apologise; this is the third time in the Session that we have debated the issue, but the Government have still not come to a decision for me to announce. There will therefore be a considerable element of deja vu in what I have to say. Hon. Members will recall that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I met senior representatives of the Royal British Legion earlier in the year to hear at first hand their views on the matter, which we undertook to consider carefully.

I should remind hon. Members that the issue of further compensation for those held as prisoners of war in the far east during the second world war involves several Departments. Those Departments have been considering the question of an ex gratia payment, which the hon. Member for Tatton, other hon. Members and the Royal British Legion are seeking.

I should recap on the facts, although we heard them in similar debates earlier in the year. The Japanese captured a little more than 50,000 British service men.

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Most of them were taken prisoner in the initial phases of the second world war in the far east in late 1941 and early 1942, when Japan attacked and captured first Hong Kong, then Malaya and Singapore as well as the Dutch East Indies and Burma. Our fellow Commonwealth forces also suffered the loss of men taken prisoner. The Australians lost more than 18,000 in Malaya and Singapore, and the Canadians more than 1,600 in Hong Kong.

Under international conventions, the treatment of prisoners of war was governed at the time by the 1929 Geneva convention. Although Japan had signed the treaty, it had not ratified it. Japan stated that it would in general recognise the provisions of the convention, but we all know the regrettable historical fact that it did not. Those held as prisoners of war were detained in camps throughout the far east. Conditions and the level of supplies in the camps were at best harsh and poor, although the British Government made considerable efforts in conjunction with the protecting power and the Red Cross to provide relief supplies.

As a safeguard to the prisoners of war, the Japanese should have permitted inspection visits by the protecting power and the Red Cross, but they were refused in many areas. Even where visits were permitted, with considerable obstructions, little could be achieved. That measure produced improvements in the conditions and treatment of prisoners of war in Europe but achieved little for those held in the far east.

As we know, prisoners of war were obliged to work for their captors under the Geneva convention. Unfortunately for the prisoners of war in the far east, especially those involved in the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway, the work was improperly arduous. That, coupled with poor and unsuitable rations, the generally poor conditions, and the climate to which few of the men were accustomed, made them much more susceptible to disease. The indifference of the captors to the men's plight and the often brutal ill treatment combined to take their toll on the prisoners' health, so much so that 25 per cent. of them did not survive captivity. That figure must be compared with that from the German and Italian camps of 5 per cent., and the figure of 8 per cent. for those held as prisoners of war in the later Korean war.

Although the Government were unable to achieve any real improvement of conditions in camps in the far east during the war, steps were taken to demonstrate that the ill treatment of service men was unacceptable, by means of the war crimes trials at the end of the war. Through the Tokyo trials and others in Singapore and elsewhere, some of those held responsible for the ill treatment of our detained service men were brought to justice for their crimes.

It must also be remembered that, uniquely among British prisoners of war, those held in the far east received some compensation for their ill treatment as a result of the 1951 peace treaty with Japan. In addition, further funds, released by Japan to the Government under that treaty, were distributed to POWs and British civilian internees. We accept that many consider that the amount made available by those means, which is the equivalent of about £1,200 in today's money, was too small. None the less, some compensation was paid by the country that had inflicted that suffering on its prisoners. Furthermore, the payment established the

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principle that the captor is responsible for the proper treatment of detainees--which, it must be remembered, was then the firmly stated primary goal of the representatives of former far eastern prisoners of war.

Hon. Members will recall that the possibility of reopening the peace treaty to seek higher compensation from Japan has been raised many times, but we have accepted legal advice that the treaty has closed the matter of gaining further compensation from Japan. We are aware of the argument advanced recently that the Government consciously let down far eastern prisoners of war in 1955 by not reopening the treaty and gaining more money for them. However, we have explained many times that contemporary records show that it is extremely difficult to ascertain what, if any, additional benefits this country would have been entitled to and what their worth would have been. In addition, there is no basis for reopening the treaty to gain further compensation, as Japan has signed no agreement subsequently conferring on the prisoners of war of other countries greater benefits than those already awarded under the treaty. Thus, we cannot accept the view that the actions of the then Government form the basis for taking action now.

Hon. Members will be aware that the current campaign, which is being co-ordinated by the Royal British Legion and is eloquently supported by many hon. Members, suggests that, as it is generally accepted that the avenue of further compensation is closed, further compensation should be paid not by Japan but by the Government with an ex gratia payment. It has been explained to the House on several occasions that that claim would require a major shift from the policy of successive Administrations.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): My hon. Friend has already acknowledged that the compensation given to those men was woefully inadequate. I pass on a message from Major Philip Malens, the chairman of the Royal British Legion in Birmingham, who says that the matter is urgent because three of those men are dying every day.

Dr. Moonie : I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution; that fact is recognised.

The hardships and needs of all those who become ill or disabled as a result of their military service, including any periods of captivity, are addressed primarily by the provision of war pensions by the Department of Social Security. From the presentations made by some hon. Members and from the case made by the Royal British Legion, it is clear that they believe that the payment of some £10,000 by the Canadian Government to their former far eastern prisoners of war or their surviving widows, and the similar award made this summer by the Isle of Man Tynwald to their very small number of former far eastern prisoners of war, is a vindication of the claim being made for British far eastern prisoners of war. However, we have said before that although we have noted those decisions, it is a matter for each of those Governments to decide. Different countries have different ways of responding to the needs of their populations--including those of ex-service men.

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Although I believe that detailed objective decisions about the degree of suffering that occurred many years ago are impossible, I assure hon. Members that the case put forward in the support of the claim for an ex gratia payment has been subjected to the most careful and sympathetic consideration during the past few months. The hon. Member for Tatton will, of course, be aware of the reply given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who I am pleased to see is present. The Prime Minister said that he had a great deal of sympathy for the campaign mounted by the Royal British Legion for additional compensation for prisoners of war held in the far east, but he asked for patience to be exercised for a little longer for the final decision to be announced.

Mr. Bell : I am aware that the Minister is coming to a conclusion, but will he give us notice of when we may receive an answer?

Dr. Moonie : The Prime Minister said that we would have to wait a little longer for the decision to be announced. Work is currently in hand that will lead to an announcement being made soon, especially given that a statement on the Government's intentions regarding spending is due in the next week and a half. I hope that hon. Members will accept that I cannot add to what the Prime Minister has said on the matter. They will have to wait a few more days for a conclusion to be reached.

Mr. Winnick : I appreciate that the Minister is giving what could be described as a holding answer in view of what the Prime Minister said last week in the Chamber. I plead with him--as I have done on previous occasions--that, if there is to be a settlement, as we all strongly and fervently hope, it will be made at least before Remembrance Sunday. That day is an important time in the history of our country, when we remember the dead and those who survived wars. I beg my hon. Friend to use whatever influence he has as a Minister to see to it that the payment is made, or at least announced, before 12 November.

Dr. Moonie : I am well aware of the symbolic significance of that date and, although I cannot give my hon. Friend a cast-iron guarantee today, I certainly expect some sign of the Government's thinking on the matter to be available before then.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I know that the Minister was unable to be present at Defence questions yesterday when I raised the possibility of compensation being means-related or in the form of an ex gratia payment. I referred also to payments being made to the widows of those who have died while awaiting compensation. Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the Prime Minister is taking such factors into account?

Dr. Moonie : Such factors are being taken into account. An ex gratia payment is made generally on a per capita basis. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, however, there are complications with rules regarding such capital, and we shall bear them carefully in mind when considering what action to take. I cannot say

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anything more of any use on the subject. I am sure that hon. Members present will be waiting to see what happens in a few days' time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): I hope that I may be excused for saying from the Chair how much I have been moved by much of what has been said in the debate, and by the fact that it has been said across all political parties. I congratulate the Minister on the sensitive way in which he has dealt with the matter.

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