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Far East Prisoners of War (Memorial)

4.15 pm

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): I am pleased to have secured this debate on the cultural and memorial building for those who were far east prisoners of war in 1941 to 1945.

When I gave my maiden speech in 1997, its subject was a memorial to far east prisoners of war. Although events have moved on since then, it is regrettable that there is still no permanent memorial to which people can go to learn what happened to British prisoners in captivity across south-east Asia during the second world war. It is high time that that sad state of affairs was remedied. Today, I not only commend the charity Children and Families of the Far East Prisoners of War and the National Memorial Arboretum for their sterling efforts to raise funds for such a memorial, but ask the Government to play their part in ensuring the success of that project.

In my maiden speech, I asked the Government to give serious consideration to contributing funds to the building of a memorial museum to the British soldiers who died while imprisoned in the far east. At that time, it was suggested that such a memorial should be constructed on an infamous section of the Thai-Burma railway line that became known as Hellfire pass. In that place, in just 12 weeks, a massive cutting was hacked through the solid rock of a mountainside by prisoners of war and forced Asian labourers, using nothing but the most basic tools. It is known that 700 prisoners of war died while building just 3 miles of railway at that spot.

Although many veterans and relatives of those who died thought that that would be a fitting place for a memorial, others preferred different sites. As the desire grew to ensure that any such memorial should also include a historical record of what happened to the far east prisoners of war and act as an educational resource for present and future generations, it became clear that the best place for it would be in the UK.

Before proceeding, I should perhaps explain my interest in the issue. The subject was initially raised with me by one of my constituents, Mrs. Carol Cooper, whose father was a far east prisoner of war. He was Lance-Corporal William Smith, who left his family to go to war 62 years ago, most poignantly, on this very day, which also happened to be his 26th birthday. He died in captivity in Burma in 1943 at the age of 28, when Mrs. Cooper was only four. During his imprisonment he kept a remarkable diary containing not only a detailed record of his experiences, but addresses and facts about his fellow soldiers, poems about his family and recipes he planned to cook on his return home.

Mrs. Cooper has been kind enough to supply me with a few short extracts from her father's diary for use in this debate. They relate to a few days in August 1943 when her father was in a camp on the border of Thailand and Burma called Sonkerai. I include the excerpts to try to give hon. Members some idea of what the far east prisoners of war had to suffer:

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Lance-Corporal Smith's family were not aware of the existence of the diary until Mrs. Cooper happened to read about the auction of a diary written in a Japanese camp by a member of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. Mrs. Cooper realised that the diary was her father's and she tried to buy it back. Initially, she was unsuccessful, but she succeeded after the BBC took an interest and made a documentary about it. The BBC made a further programme in which it took Mrs. Cooper to Thailand and along the route of the Burma-Thai railway, retracing her father's steps as outlined in his diary. The railway was 250 miles long and built through harsh, disease-ridden country, almost exclusively by human effort. It was completed at the cost of a huge loss of life, with 13,000 prisoners of war and 80,000 forced Asian labourers dying from sickness, disease, starvation and sheer brutality. It has since been said that the railway was built at the cost of a life for every sleeper.

Having recovered the diary and travelled in her father's footsteps, Mrs. Cooper could have left the matter. However, she was struck by the fact that, throughout her journey, she had not seen a single memorial, plaque or stone from the British Government to honour the sacrifice and suffering of thousands of British servicemen. Until her journey, she had, like so many others, a general idea that many British servicemen had been imprisoned and badly treated in the far east. When she realised the full horror of their experience, she vowed to take up the fight to ensure that they were properly honoured and remembered.

In August 1997, Mrs. Cooper placed an advert in our local paper calling for the children and families of far east prisoners of war to join her in asking the Government to pay those men an honour that they truly deserved. In November 1997, the Children and Families of the Far East Prisoners of War organisation was formed, with 25 members in Norfolk. A year later, five charity trustees were appointed and COFEPOW became a registered charity. It now has about 500 members from all over the country and beyond. It is an extremely powerful voice in lobbying for a fitting memorial to the far east prisoners of war, and is active in raising funds towards that cause.

It is important to make it clear that the cultural and memorial building to the far east prisoners of war, which is what this Adjournment debate is about, is not simply an abstract idea, but a project that is well under way. A site has already been agreed at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. It is a millennium project being created on 150 acres of land, alongside the River Thame, and is the nation's living tribute to the people of the 20th century. The site

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includes the millennium chapel of peace and forgiveness, and there can be no more fitting a place for the cultural and memorial building to the far east prisoners of war.

A design has already been drawn up for the project, which will be a simple and dignified building with a far eastern appearance. It will be constructed of oak, as befits its surroundings in the National forest. The design and establishment of the permanent building, the interior lay-out, the historical research and acquisition of the contents, and the ongoing archival support will cost about £350,000. The National Memorial Arboretum has undertaken to provide ongoing permanent management and maintenance.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, the cultural and memorial building will not be simply a commemorative building to perpetuate the memory of all British prisoners of war. It will also be a research and archival centre, intended to educate not only present-day students and families as well as relatives involved in research, but future generations on that aspect of the history of the far east. There can be no better organisation than the Children and Families of the Far East Prisoners of War to display the story of what happened to their fathers, many of whom never returned. It has worked hard over the last five years to establish a place to provide a record of and an insight into the tragedy that took place in south-east Asia during the second world war, and has been busy accumulating a range of material, which will be readily accessible to anyone trying to find out about that chapter of our history.

There is no place in Britain for people to see and learn what happened to British prisoners in captivity across south-east Asia in the last war. At the arboretum there will be audiotapes, videos, artefacts, photographs, drawings, maps, letters and diaries. All those documents form part of our heritage, and the material should be brought together. I am sure that even more will become available when it is known that the building is complete.

Perhaps most important, the cultural and memorial building will epitomise everything about that particular theatre of war, from 1941 to 1945. It will present a factual, historical picture that must be preserved before the demise of all surviving far east prisoners of war and before their story is lost in the annals of history. The memorial has assumed added importance due to Government plans to erect a memorial at the arboretum in memory of all those who have been lost in conflicts since 1948.

Before moving on, I wish briefly to mention a matter that is strongly connected to the one I raise today. For years, a campaign has been waged for an official apology from the Japanese Government and for proper compensation for the far east prisoners of war. Although the matter remains unresolved, I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Government for stepping in and at last paying compensation of £10,000 to surviving far east prisoners of war or their surviving widows.

Some people think that the payment should have been made by the Japanese Government, but one of the biggest disappointments is that, of the 37,000 who returned after the war, more than 30,000 died prior to

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the compensation agreement. It is also the case that many widows died before agreement was reached, so many children who have lost both parents will receive no compensation. I hasten to add that that is not an argument for them to receive compensation, as they have not asked for it, but they and I ask for adequate funding to be released for a tribute in remembrance of far east prisoners of war and in recognition of the valour of those men.

By virtue of the fact that the Government recognised the special case of compensation for far east prisoners of war, they could also do so on the subject of establishing a memorial to them. That is the issue that I wish to take up with the Minister today. I ask the Government to go a step further and to give their backing to the cultural and memorial building to ensure that that thoroughly worthy project is a success.

Since COFEPOW's inception, its members have been in correspondence with the Government to try to get them to fund a memorial to the far east prisoners of war. The response has been a consistent refusal, stated in the following terms:

COFEPOW members have become used to hearing that form of words, repeated as it has been for the past five years. Although I disagree with the policy, I acknowledge that the Government at least have an argument. None the less, if any group of veterans constitutes a special case, I contend that it is the far east prisoners of war, who had to endure almost unimaginable torture, cruelty and sheer brutality.

However, rather than carry on with that particular argument, just though it may be, I wish to ask the Government for something that is modest, deliverable and not inconsistent with any previous policy. I am sure that many Members will have heard of the plans for a memorial garden on one side of Grosvenor square in London to commemorate the British victims of 11 September. The memorial garden was opened this year by Princess Anne on the second anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre. It is intended that the cost of the memorial, estimated at £1 million, will largely be met by those companies that were directly affected by the 11 September attacks, with the rest being met by public subscription. I have been assured by Department for Culture, Media and Sport officials that they are confident that the costs will be met in that way. However, I quote directly from a letter from the former Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), which says that

No one disputes the desirability of a memorial to the victims of 11 September, but the Government's commitment in underwriting the project is something

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that we have not seen before. Indeed, I believe that some upfront costs incurred for the 11 September memorial have yet to be met by either private donation or public subscription.

The campaign to raise the £350,000 that is necessary for the far east prisoners of war cultural and memorial building is already well under way. It began on 15 February 2002, which was the 60th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese army, when the majority of the far east prisoners of war were captured. The aim is to complete the building by 15 August 2005, the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender.

More than £80,000 has already been raised by all manner of fundraising events and methods. I had no hesitation in adding my support to an application for assistance that was made to the Millennium Commission. I can now add that that has been successful with a grant of £131,000 as part of a multi-bid submitted by the National Memorial Arboretum to be committed once planning permission has been obtained.

All that I and the members of COFEPOW ask is that the Government agree to underwrite the cultural and memorial building to far east prisoners of war in exactly the same way as they have underwritten the 11 September memorial garden. The sum involved is about half that of the 11 September memorial and the time available to raise the money far greater. A significant start has already been made in raising the funds and the anniversary is just as poignant for the surviving far east prisoners and their families as 11 September is to survivors and families involved in that tragedy.

I do not ask for special treatment from the Government for the cultural and memorial building, just for consistency in their approach to two different but very deserving causes. I sincerely hope that the Government are able to make a positive announcement, if not today then in the near future. It is my passionate belief that the far east prisoners of war, who endured such terrible suffering while serving their country, deserve nothing less.

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on securing this important debate. He raised the subject in his maiden speech and he has campaigned on it for most of his parliamentary career. The subject is close to his heart, particularly because of the large number of men serving in the East Anglian units that defended Singapore in 1942 who became prisoners of war when the island fell to the Japanese. I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to them, their comrades, those who were similarly captured when Hong Kong surrendered a few months earlier and others who were taken prisoner during fighting elsewhere in the far east. I express my admiration for the bravery with which they endured the terrible conditions of their captivity, which, in many cases, they continued to endure when the war was over, and the bravery with which so many met their death.

I appreciate how distressing it must be for the families of those prisoners of war knowing how much their loved ones suffered during their captivity. There will have been

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particular distress where a husband or father returned from captivity a changed man, or where a child never had a chance to get to know his father. It is natural and right that they should want the suffering of the prisoners to be remembered, in recognition of what they underwent all those years ago and as a reminder that it must not be allowed to happen again.

I stress, however, that the far east prisoners of war have not been forgotten by the Government. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains its cemeteries in the far east and is pledged to do so in perpetuity. The Government contribute more than £20 million a year to the costs of the commission's work worldwide. Every year, the Royal British Legion takes pilgrimages to Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Japan, visiting the scenes of the fighting in 1941 and 1942, the places where 140,000 British and Commonwealth troops were imprisoned or put to forced labour, such as the notorious Changi jail, Hellfire pass and the River Kwai, and the many war cemeteries in the far east.

In the United Kingdom, there are 54 memorials dedicated to those who died in the far east. The Catholic church of Our Lady and St. Thomas of Canterbury at Wymondham in Norfolk was built after the war by a parish priest who had been a prisoner in the far east, as a permanent memorial to those who died not only in captivity but later as a result of their ordeal. It still serves that purpose, and the Ministry of Defence is represented at the commemorative services that are held there each year.

There is a far east prisoners of war chapel in the St. Peter Mancroft church in Norwich. At the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield in Staffordshire, there is, as my hon. Friend has said, a plot in memory of the far east campaigns and the prisoners of war. In January last year, a length of track from the infamous Thai-Burma railway was installed there as a memorial to the prisoners of war who had lost their lives in its construction. The Imperial War museum and the museums of the individual services contain displays and archives that record and present the history of the battles in the far east and the story of those who fought, suffered and died. That is done with the professionalism and accuracy that is to be expected of our national museums.

Of course, that does not mean that additional memorials should not be erected if people want them or if there is a further need. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence has been well aware of the existence of Children and Families of the Far East Prisoners of War since the organisation was formed six years ago. I sympathise with its worthy aims, and over the years the Ministry has offered it advice on matters such as where a memorial might be sited. I also congratulate the campaign on its success to date, and in particular on its success in achieving a lottery grant.

However, I regret that the Ministry cannot offer help with funding for a memorial. My hon. Friend accurately portrayed and quoted the Government's policy on the matter. The reason for the policy is that the Government receive many requests from individuals, ex-service groups and charitable organisations for assistance with the erection or maintenance of memorials each year.

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There are more than 46,000 war memorials throughout the United Kingdom, all of them in need of some form of continuing maintenance.

Proposals for new memorials continue to appear. There has been a noticeable increase over the past few years. Interest in the condition and preservation of war memorials has also increased to new heights. That is to be welcomed, and the Friends of War Memorials does a good job in keeping the issue in the public eye.

The Government certainly welcome the growing interest in war memorials but, as my hon. Friend has acknowledged, we could not fund all of them and it would not be fair to support one group and not another. They are all worthy and every single one of them can make an equally compelling case, particularly for financial support. It would be invidious to pick and choose projects to support. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defence is not funded to provide help to charitable organisations in that way. However, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter in further detail.

I should also mention that the armed forces memorial, which was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in November 2000 and which will commemorate members of the armed forces killed on duty since the end of the second world war, will be funded by subscriptions and donations and not by the Ministry of Defence. That is our well-established policy, and it is most certainly not intended to deter groups that wish to set up memorials, and clearly does not do so. There are other effective ways of raising money, including sponsorship, lottery applications and appeals to individuals.

My Department has seen a number of projects develop from the first seeds of an idea to a most impressive fruition. Once the organisers accepted that Government funding was not available, they redoubled their efforts to look for other sources and raised considerable amounts of money. Recent success stories, just in central London, have included the Fleet Air Arm memorial outside the Ministry of Defence main building, the commonwealth memorial gates on Constitution hill and the Victoria Cross and George Cross memorial in Westminster abbey.

I have explained why we cannot help with the funding of a memorial, but that does not mean that we cannot or will not help at all. The intended site for the far east prisoners of war memorial is the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. I believe that the arboretum will be a most suitable place. The concept is visionary and the site has the potential for development as a place of great beauty that will be a perfect setting for commemoration and remembrance. It is the Government's desire that it should be promoted as a site of national importance for that purpose. It has already become a significant place for the veterans of a great many conflicts. As I mentioned earlier, there is already a far east prisoners of war plot there.

Management of the arboretum has recently been taken over by National Memorial Arboretum Co. Ltd. Recognition and remembrance of the role played by the service personnel of this country is one of the key themes of the Government's veterans initiative, and we see the arboretum under its new management as making a major contribution to that aim. Earlier this month, I

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announced that we would give the company a grant in aid of £250,000 a year for an initial period of three years. The terms of the agreement covering the grant specify that it has to be used to defray the cost of maintaining the arboretum and not for the erection or maintenance of memorials, which must be funded from other sources.

The Government will be helping to safeguard the long-term future of the arboretum and its development. I hope that that will be of great advantage to veterans groups and all the memorials that have been erected or will be erected in the future. In addition, with the arboretum on a firm basis, there will be exciting prospects for education, giving our younger generations an opportunity to learn about what our armed forces

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have done and undergone in the past. Such a carrying forward of knowledge to future generations is one of the most fitting and most effective ways in which we can honour the memory of the far east prisoners of war.

I wish the fundraising campaign for the memorial every success. Once the completed memorial is in place, I would be pleased to arrange for appropriate Government and armed forces representation at any dedication ceremony that the Children and Families of the Far East Prisoners of War want to organise.

Question put and agreed to.

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