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If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, let me point out that tonight's debate is about the
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Government scheme for civilians who were interned. I am taking this first opportunity to lay out the whole process that has occurred in the past four years. I hope that by the end of my speech, which is very technical and legal in nature, he will accept that our reasons are obvious.
I have mentioned the legal challenge concerning former Gurkha prisoners of war. The House will be aware that following a successful legal challenge, the ex gratia payment scheme has been extended to include those former Gurkha soldiers held prisoners of war by the Japanese who were Nepalese citizens at the time of the negotiation of the peace treaty with Japan in the early 1950s.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon referred to article 26 of the 1951 peace treaty concluded between the allied powers, including the United Kingdom, and Japan. It has been suggested that the Government seek to reopen the peace treaty under article 26 on the issue of compensation, as a means of obtaining payments for those former civilian internees who do not qualify for the ex gratia payment scheme. Many hon. Members have written to me about that matter. It is claimed that the Government's decision not to seek to reopen the treaty in the 1950s deprived former civilian internees of compensation from the Japanese.
As my hon. Friend said, the matter has been considered. In 1998, the Government's position was made clear: we did not believe that there were viable legal grounds on which to seek to reopen the 1951 peace treaty. Officials from the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have looked again at the matter, but we still hold to that view. When negotiating the peace treaty, the Government of the day, as one of the allied powers party to the process, were negotiating as a sovereign state about its claims against Japan under international law. Exceptionally, the peace treaty made specific provision under article 16 to indemnify those members of the armed forces who had been prisoners of war, but no such provision was made for other individual citizens of the belligerent powers. However, payments were made to former civilian internees in the 1950s by the British Government using the Japanese assets that they received under article 14 of the treaty, which, it should be remembered, were for them to use as they decided.
The question of who might have benefited, and how, if the British Government had tried to re-open the peace treaty is purely speculative. Article 26 speaks of greater advantage being received by any state under a subsequent agreement, but does not provide for a comparison to be made between sums paid to individuals. The agreement that Japan subsequently reached with Burma was negotiated along the lines of article 14, but it went further by agreeing that Japan would provide products as well as services to Burma. The agreement made with the Swiss Government covered a different category of damage that was not explicitly covered by the peace treaty, and of course Switzerland, a neutral country, was not one of the allied powers.
The comparison sometimes made between the amount of money paid to individual Swiss citizens and the amount received by civilians paid by the British Government is, I have to say, not valid. Britain's decision to make payments to former civilian internees
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did not arise from an express provision in the peace treaty. It was the British Government's decision, and the amounts available to be paid to individuals were in direct relationship to the value of the Japanese assets held that were available to be liquidated and the number of those eligible for payment under the scheme that was established.Former prisoners of war received a payment under article 16 of the treaty, which was overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a further payment from the sale of the Burma-Siam railway. When the British Government decided to use the money that it received under article 14 to make payments to individuals, it divided it to make additional payments to former prisoners of war and also to former civilian internees. The eligibility criteria for the civilian internees covered British adultsinitially only the head of the family, but subsequently both parents, if both were internedwho were normally resident in this country before internment and who returned here after their release. Children who had been interned were not eligible to receive such payments.
That is why we made the right and proper decision to establish the ex gratia payment scheme. It recognised the unique circumstances of those detained by the Japanese and that the schemes set up in connection with the peace treaty in the 1950s provided a good and effective model for our scheme. In the case of civilian internees, the eligibility criteria of the current scheme were set wider than those of the 1950s scheme so that, unlike then, those interned as children were included and normal residence in this country before internment, and return to this country afterwards, was not required, as it was in the 1950s.
There are many people who are not eligible for payments under the scheme for a number of quite different reasons. My predecessor and I have said many times that their strong feelings and disappointment are appreciated and understood. Any scheme of this nature, however, must have boundaries, and, wherever those boundaries are set, those just outside them will feel that they have not been recognised. The Government have, however, set what we feel to be reasonable and fair boundaries for the scheme and, as I said earlier, nearly 24,000 people have already benefited from it.
I know that the House is always interested in detailed statistics about the number of payments made to specific categories of civilian claimants and the numbers of claims that have been rejected. My hon. Friend has shown specific concern about issues connected with residence in this country since the war and the date by which claims were made, and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby also referred to that. I also
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know that there is concern that we have not always been able to supply the figures that hon. Members have sought. I confirm that where the figures are available, we have provided them, and I refer the House to replies to several parliamentary questions that were answered on 8 April 2003, 26 January 2004 and 1 July 2004. However, in some instances, the information sought is not available without checking many thousands of claim forms.
Many claims come from the surviving widow or widower or the person held by the Japanese. In the statistics held, claims from surviving spouses are listed together for all groups and not broken down according to the category of the person imprisoned. Requests for statistics on former civilian internees cannot always be broken down. In other instances, the information now asked for was not required as part of the process of validating the claim and was not sought from claimants, so it is not held by the Department.
I appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and the arguments that he advanced about why and how some people should and could be included in the scheme. I understand his view that the number of people he seeks to include in the scheme could be relatively small. I am afraid, however, that the introduction of new criteria such as those that he suggested this evening would leave us open to complaints of unfairness from former civilian internees who still fell outside the scheme because they met neither the existing nor the new criteria. It would also leave us open to complaints from other groups who would like new eligibility criteria to be introduced for the scheme so that they, too, could be included. Ultimately, the result would be to call into question the integrity of the whole scheme, and I do not believe that that is the House's intention.
I said earlier that I would of course examine new issues that any Member of the House wishes to raise. I noted the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and I will certainly study the detailed points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon and for Great Grimsby to see whether a further response would be appropriate.
Question put and agreed to.