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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying great tribute to all the emergency services, whose members put themselves in harm's way when the rest of us cannot escape quickly enough? He will be aware of the emergency planning college at Hawkhills in Easingwold in the Vale of York, so will he ensure that the work that it does to prepare for such emergencies is well known? Will he ensure that any future scenarios for which it plans training sessions will encompass the incident and take on board any lessons from the inquiry?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Lady is well aware of the work of the emergency services, given the flooding in her constituency. We both have great admiration for them—whatever part of the country they are in, they always do an excellent job. I can assure her that all the lessons to be learned will be discussed in the various forums available.
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Former Far East Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees (Ex Gratia Scheme)

4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government's ex gratia payment scheme for former far east prisoners of war and civilian internees.

On 1 December, I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Public Administration on the operation of the scheme. It was introduced on 7 November 2000 and the first payments were made in February 2001. The birth-link criterion was clarified internally in March 2001, and clarified publicly on 11 July 2001—each successful claimant would receive £10,000. I explained to the Committee that I had commissioned a review into whether consistent eligibility criteria had been used throughout for civilian internees, and I undertook to make a statement to the House before the recess.

The review now under way requires the Veterans Agency to look at a large number of claim files, and the House will understand that it is not yet complete. As I said to the Committee, there was a desire on all sides to introduce the scheme as quickly as possible because of the age of some of the former POWs and civilian detainees. It is clear that we did too much in haste when introducing the scheme and it is important that we now take sufficient time to get it right. None the less, many individuals who may be affected are elderly and I recognise the importance of resolving the issue as quickly as possible.

The scheme at present offers compensation to British internees born in the UK, or internees who had a parent or grandparent who was born here—the so-called birth-link criterion. The work under way confirms that claims decided before March 2001 were not decided on the basis of the birth-link criterion or on eligibility rules that were fully consistent with it. Of those early claims so far examined for which payments were made, there is clear evidence that the majority were decided by reference to an earlier scheme in the 1950s, which used liquidated Japanese assets to compensate far east prisoners of war and civilian internees. Those eligibility rules for the scheme were based on the question of whether the individual was a British national, was normally resident in the UK before internment, and had resumed residence after the war. Evidence so far examined strongly suggests that the birth-link criterion was introduced in part because it was found that eligibility based on the earlier Japanese asset scheme excluded many claimants with a close link to the United Kingdom.

The introduction of the birth-link criterion in March 2001 allowed large numbers of additional civilian internees to be paid. The overall effect was to widen the number of people who met the qualifying criteria. However, this change of criteria had two other specific effects. First, we have identified some 240 claims that were paid in the first period which, on the evidence available when the claim was decided, could not be identified as meeting the birth-link criterion. Though these claims were not decided on the birth-link criterion, it is probable that a number of them would have satisfied
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it, had we sought further evidence on whether any of the claimants' grandparents were born in the UK. I emphasise that we do not intend to ask for any repayment in these cases.

Secondly, there may be some claimants who would have qualified before the birth-link criterion was introduced because they had benefited under the Japanese asset scheme, but who were rejected because they applied after March 2001 when they were assessed against the birth-link criterion. We do not know the numbers of this latter group, but we think they are small.

We still have some way to go in examining claim files and I cannot at this stage say that there are no other issues concerning the application of eligibility criteria. What I can say is that we are determined to undertake a thorough review to ensure that we expose any difficulties that there may have been with the eligibility rules. It is also too early to say what effect our findings might have on the scheme's eligibility criteria. I can, however, again confirm that there is no question of seeking to recover payments already made to claimants who would not have met the birth-link criterion. I can also assure the House that no claimant will be disadvantaged if he or she would have qualified under the criteria based on the Japanese asset scheme but failed because the claim was considered under the birth-link criterion.

There is a separate question about how the use of inconsistent criteria before and after March 2001 was not exposed earlier, in spite of the fact that there have been a number of court cases, ministerial statements and an inquiry by the parliamentary ombudsman. I have decided that this should be the subject of a separate investigation, and I have asked the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence to identify a retired senior official or comparable person from outside the Departments involved who could appropriately lead the investigation. The work will be put in hand as a matter of priority and I will report its findings to the House when it is complete.

The House will be aware that there have been two claims for judicial review of the scheme which have focused on the eligibility criteria applied to former civilian internees. It is too early to say what effects the review that we have been undertaking may have on these, but I can assure the House that we will disclose to claimants in those cases and to the courts the results of our review when these are known. I will also share this information with the parliamentary ombudsman.

In addition, Members on both sides will want me to tell them that a number of claimants for whom strong support has been expressed in the House and more widely will become eligible for payment. I know that the case of Professor Hayward is a particular concern for a number of hon. Members who raised it with me. I understand their wish to see the position resolved for those individuals, but I have to make it clear that, until our review is complete, I cannot give any assurances about how the criteria might need to be changed or what the effect might be on individual cases. At this stage I can say only that we fully appreciate the difficulties that we have brought on these individuals as a result of uncertainties about the scheme criteria, and that we will be seeking to resolve them as quickly as we possibly can.

I have said a number of times that we recognise that mistakes were made as a result of the speed of the introduction of the scheme. All those involved wished to
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see the payments made as quickly as possible, given the age of many of the former civilian internees and prisoners of war. It is now clear that the scheme's eligibility criteria were not applied consistently through the scheme's life and that we did not identify that that was the case over an extended period. That resulted in inaccurate statements, including by Ministers to Parliament and to the parliamentary ombudsman, for which I apologise unreservedly, Mr. Speaker. I also express my apologies and deep regret to those individual claimants who have been adversely affected.

We will complete our review of the application of eligibility rules as quickly as possible, but with the overriding requirement that we must ensure that we have bottomed out any problems that there may have been with those rules. At that point, we will also consider what changes are required to our current criteria to ensure that no claimant was disadvantaged if they would have qualified under the criteria based on the Japanese asset scheme, but failed in their claim because it was considered under the birth-link criterion. Our objective will be to remedy any shortcomings in the decisions on claims as quickly as possible, and I hope that we will complete that work by early February, at which point I will make a further statement to the House.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I fear that this statement will come as a severe disappointment to members of the Association of British Civilian Internees Far East Region. Today's statement was anticipated by the Minister's testimony to the Public Administration Committee on 1 December, and it was hoped that something substantive would be announced. Instead, we have had a typically gracious apology, which is only the latest in a line of apologies—there was an apology in a written ministerial statement on 13 July, and there was another apology, and the offer of £500 compensation for the mistakes made, in a further written ministerial statement on 11 October.

In reality, the veterans and civilian internees are not looking for more apologies; they are looking for the Government to honour the pledge that they gave on 7 November 2000. Does the Minister recall what Lord Moonie, as he now is, said when he held his post? He said:

Does the Minister recognise that there has been a humiliating confrontation with the courts and a humiliating confrontation with the ombudsman? An adjustment was made to the criteria that narrowed them to exclude some people who had been in the camps, but that also widened them to include some people who had not been in the camps. Does the Minister accept that some people who were never in a Japanese camp, such as those who were evacuated in 1942 or those who sheltered in Red Cross and Church homes, have been paid, which has inflated the number of claims and is delaying the process even further?
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In discussing the need to act with haste, does the Minister accept that the announcement on 7 November 2000 was the culmination of cross-party efforts in support of the campaign for compensation to be paid, which was waged by veterans and civilian detainees for many a long year? What is it about the issue that makes it such a poisoned chalice for Ministers who are compassionate and considerate in all their other actions? Why is it such a struggle to get the compensation for people who were in the camps?

Does the Minister accept that what has happened has been a dishonouring of the people who, in this 60th anniversary year of the ending of the war, most deserve our consideration and respect? Has he ever read, as I did as a youngster, the tales of what happened to those people? Many of us read the accounts in "The Naked Island" by Russell Braddon and "The Knights of the Bushido" by Lord Russell of Liverpool when we were, frankly, far too young to read of such horrors.

Does the Minister accept that this process, this ordeal, this revisiting time and again of issues that should be settled on an ex gratia payment, has gone on far too long, and will he now use his best efforts to bring it to an end once and for all?

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