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Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this debate, and on his powerful advocacy of his case. I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a short contribution, of which I have made both the Minister and my hon. Friend aware. There is no need for a longer speech, as the case is both simple and straightforward, as my hon. Friend said.
This matter began with a great and magnanimous gesture by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. In the 1955 peace treaty, the Foreign Office did not pursue the matter of British prisoners, so as not to complicate the negotiations. My right hon. Friend was made aware in 2000 of the fact that the Foreign Office had kept quiet about the problem. He was told that preparations were in hand to bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights, which would be heard in May 2001. He realised the difficulty of the situation and understood the failure of the Foreign Office in the matter, and he agreed that such a case should be prepared.
On 7 November 2000, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a statement in the Army museum that prisoners of the Japanese would be paid compensation. He also said that civilians who were interned because they were British citizens would benefit from that compensation. That was a magnanimous and wise gesture. My right hon. Friend said that the matter involved a debt of honouras, indeed, it does.
"there was nothing to suggest from this initial response to the announcement that the original estimates of the numbers of"
"were wide of the mark."
"'UK nationals' should be defined as those civilian internees who were British at the time of their incarceration; those who became British citizens only subsequently would not be eligible for payment."
That was the position. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a clear announcement and a magnanimous gesture, which was followed by a clear statementby him and by officialsthat the compensation would be paid to people who were interned because they were British at the time. However, matters went downhill from there.
The War Pensions Agency had led the earlier meeting to which I have referred, and it supported the wider definitionthat compensation should be paid to all those who were British at the time. However, the agency was subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Defence, which took a different view of the matter. It was the MOD that introduced the notion of a blood link with the UK. It is important to note that that was not the case at the time. These people had British passports, were British citizens and were interned by the Japanese because they were British citizens. At the time, it was totally accepted that they were British.
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The Ministry of Defence introduced the later concept of a blood link to the United Kingdom. That was an irrelevant thing to do. Migration and movement patterns are complicated, but those people were children of empire, and it was an empire that sprawled across the continents. There were Jews who went from South Africa to India and then further east to work as British citizens, holding British passports. There were civil servants, and the children of civil servants who had gone perhaps a generation or two before to work in the Indian civil service or on the concessions in China. Those children were born in the place where their fathers and mothers acted as officials. Children of empire are a race in themselves in a sense, scattered as they are over the globe. At the time, though, they were entitled to British passports and were recognised as British citizens. They were interned by the Japanese for that reason.
The later decision was irrelevant, and it was hurtful. Peoplemost of them very oldwho have been proud of being British have suddenly been told in the evening of their lives that they are not British. "No," they have been told, "we want nothing to do with you, and there is no compensation for you because you are not British." They have been told that, even though the fact that they were British was why they were interned.
It is a cheapjack decision. I am not sure how many people have been excluded400 or 500, I just do not know. Perhaps the Minister can tell us. We will save perhaps 500 times £10,000 by taking this hurtful decision, which is peanuts.
The decision is also racist: many of the people concerned are of mixed racial origins, particularly women who married British citizens. My hon. Friend gave several examples of people of different races born in the British concessions in China. The decision is arbitrary. It is unreasonable. The Court of Appeal, of course, found it perfectly legal: it would, because the scheme is an ex gratia, and Government Departments can do anything they want with ex-gratia payments. They can decide they should go to Fred and not to Joe, and it is up to them to define whom the payments go to. The court did say, however, that the whole business had not been well handled, and that is putting it fairly mildly. The fact that the scheme is legal does not make it right. It is wrong. It is immoral.
I see the Minister nodding vigorously, but I do not expect him to get up and say, "My God, you are right. Why did we not think of all that at the time? Policy will be changed immediately." Adjournment debates are not famous for that, and I do not think that I have ever produced that effect myself. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend will think seriously about the points that we have made. I hope that he will realise that a wrong has been done to a small number of people who have suffered because they were British and who should
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not now be deprived of the compensation that is their due. I hope that he will accept, too, that we shall not give up. This argument will go on and on; we shall raise it along every available path, and several are still open and in play. We shall continue to fight until the Government give way on this point of honour.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing a debate on such an important subject. A number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have shown a significant interest in it, and that is demonstrated by the number of them in the Chamber tonight. My experience of Adjournment debates is that they are usually attended by you, Madam Deputy Speaker, me and the hon. Member whose debate it is.
I also welcome my hon. Friend's chairmanship of the all-party group on parliamentary far east prisoners of war and civilian internees and all those hon. Members who are members of it. I have said before in the House that I would be happy to meet the group if it had a point to raise that had not previously been considered. However, let me establish the history of the subject as this is the first time that the House has had the opportunity to debate it formally since the initial announcement.
The Government established the far east prisoner of war and civilian internee ex gratia payment scheme in November 2000. My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) announced that in the House on 7 November that year. The scheme was intended as a tangible recognition of the unique circumstances of the captivity of those held prisoner by the Japanese during the second world war, something that is recognised by the whole House. Under the scheme, those former prisoners of war and civilian internees who qualify, and the surviving spouses of those who had died before the scheme was announced, receive an ex gratia payment of £10,000 each. Nearly 24,000 payments have been made, totalling nearly £240 million to date, and claims continue to be received. It is important that I make it clear that there are no financial constraints. We will continue to pay out on all valid claims and we have, as I have said, already exceeded the initial budget that was allocated, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon.
The scheme has been the subject of legal challenge concerning the eligibility of both former Gurkha prisoners of war and civilian internees. I intend to concentrate initially on the issues raised for civilian internees, which was the thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks. The scheme is and has always been intended to be for those who had close links with the United Kingdom at the time of their captivity. For former prisoners of war, that link is demonstrated by their service as part of our armed forces. For former civilian internees, the connection is demonstrated by their having been a British subject who was born in the United Kingdom or who had a parent or grandparent born here. I must emphasise that there has been no change in our view of those who should be eligible for the scheme.It was, however, necessary early on to clarify
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the meaning of the term "British" in the context of civilian claimants, and the criterion agreed was the birth link to the United Kingdom.
I thought that it would be helpful to place on record the legal process that has occurred. The birth link requirement for former civilian internees has been challenged in the courts by the Association of British Civilian Internees, Far East Region. The association was granted permission for a judicial review in 2002 and in October that year the courts found in favour of the Ministry of Defence. The association then appealed against the judgment. The case was heard in March 2003. The Court of Appeal, however, again found in favour of the Ministry of Defence and the appeal was dismissed. The association was refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords and this lengthy process finally ended last summer in a rejection of their petition seeking leave to appeal to the House of Lords.
"to those British subjects who had close links with the UK at the time of their internment"
Their lordships also concluded that it was impossible to say that the close link criterion was irrational, or that it was irrational to introduce the birth link criterion to demonstrate a close link to the UK. Their lordships concluded that different criteria could have been devised to demonstrate the close connection: for example, one way would have been to follow the example of the Australian Government, whose equivalent scheme requires claimants to have been domiciled in Australia immediately prior to internment. In this country in the 1950s, only those British civilians who were "normally resident in the UK" before captivity and who had taken up residence in the UK after their release were eligible to receive compensation payments made in connection with the San Francisco peace treaty.
For the present scheme, the Government chose to apply a more generous criterion than those used for the administration of the 1950s scheme by adopting the birth link criterion. Their lordships dismissed the argument that the chosen criterion was irrational because it ignored the close links that some former internees had developed with the UK since the war. Government policy was to pay only those who had close links with the UK at the time of that internment, and that policy was held to be rational.
The birth link requirement was designed to give scope to the original intention of the scheme. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed in May 2002, in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell),
"It was never the Government's intention to extend the Scheme to civilian internees without a close link to the UK at their time of internment."
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