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Mr. Touhig: I would have liked nothing better than to come here today and say that the whole matter is resolved and that we have found a solution that everybody will cheer to the rafters, but that is not the position. We have to get it right. We have not succeeded in getting it right in the past. That was not because of any bad intention. When the scheme was announced, Members on both sides of the House welcomed it as a positive and proper recognition of the suffering that these people had gone through.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the stories that he read. I did not read them, but I have friends who went through that time and have told me, difficult as it was for them, about the horrors that they endured.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, would be doing anything different in my position. We have to ensure that we get it right this time. In the past, too many people were led to believe that they qualify under the scheme although they do not. The scheme was intended for those British civilian internees who had a close link to the United Kingdom at the time and for whom the UK might therefore be regarded as being responsible. At the time of world war two, all those born in the British empire were British nationals. Most far east prisoners of war and civilian internees who did not have a close link to the UK are now citizens of countries that have been given their independence. It is right that those countries, which have also benefited from the defeat of Japan, should have responsibility for the enduring problems that people have had to suffer as a result of being interned in the war.
I have issued an apology and we have offered a £500 payment to those people who thought that they qualified under the scheme but do not. To give the hon. Gentleman and the House the facts, three quarters of the letters that I have signedI am signing personal lettersare to people who do not live and have never lived in the United Kingdom. I fully understand that that in no way diminishes the suffering that they went
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through at the time. Nevertheless, it is my clear understanding that, when we agreed the scheme, it was intended to benefit those who had the closest possible links with the United Kingdom.
I cannot say at this stage whether there will be a need to review the scheme, but we will do so if necessary. I cannot say, in answer to the questions that I am sure will come both sides of the House, whether we can widen the criteria. We have to get it right first. If there is a need for change, we will make it. We are not shutting our eyes to that. We recognise that we have a duty and a responsibility to our people and we will certainly respond in the best possible way.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I thank the Minister for advance notice of his statement and for his gracious apology. I commend the Government for introducing the scheme five years ago, but does he accept that the wait that many people have had since then is longer than the period for which they were prisoners of war in the captivity of the imperial Japanese army?
Is the Minister aware of any occasion on which the imperial Japanese army inquired into the status of those whom they were incarcerating? Can he confirm that the imperial Japanese army regarded those who served under the British flag or who looked to the British flag for protection as being British? Where has it all gone wrong in the past five years? Does he agree that the simple test is that, if the Japanese believed that those people were British, and if they felt that they were British at the time and feel that they are British now, why cannot they have the compensation?
Mr. Touhig: I appreciate that it has taken a long time to bring the scheme to fruition, but that does not detract from the fact that 25,000 claimants out of 29,000 applicants have already been paid, and have received £10,000 each. That is right and proper. There has been progress.
I understand the problem of delay. Colleagues may know that I have been involved in another matter that was delayedminers' compensation. The problem went on for much longer than that with the scheme that we are considering. We all know about the pain and suffering of those who had to endure difficult working conditions and difficult conditions through being prisoners of war. In all the cases with which I have dealt, whether miners' compensation cases or applications for the scheme that we are discussing, the people involved do not talk about the money but about recognition of the suffering that they endured at a difficult time. We are trying to tackle that.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point about those who were interned by the Japanese because they were considered British or served the British interest. That is generally accepted. However, I hope that he acknowledges that I cannot act on my own. I need the support and help of hon. Members of all parties if we are to get the matter right. I do not want another Minister to come back here in a year or so and say, "Sorry we got it wrong again", or that there is some problem with the scheme because we did it too quickly. All parties desired the introduction of the payment. We did that with the best intentions and as speedily as we could. It is already clear from the review that the criteria were not properly
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defined and refined and that people were led to believe that they would be compensated. Many thousands of members of the Indian army applied under the scheme because they believed at that time that they were British citizens and they served the British empire.
There is a host of questions to ask if the scheme is to be extended. I acknowledge that hopes will be raised and I do not want to raise them unduly. Let us complete the review. If there is a need to change the criteria, we will examine that.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The only disappointment in my hon. Friend's statement is that Ministers often do not apologise, yet he has come to the House and apologised when he should not have done so. He should stick his chest out and be proud that the Government introduced the scheme. Even if it is not absolutely correct, it came 60 years late and was not introduced by previous Labour or Tory Governments. He should not apologise but be proud of the scheme of which he has stewardship. I am proud, as a Labour Member, of voting for it.
I want to ask about those people who live in what is now the Irish Republic. Many would have been born before 1922, while others might not have been but served in the British Armynot the Canadian, Australian or Indian but the United Kingdom armed forcesand every single one was a volunteer. My hon. Friend's predecessor overlooked that but rectified the matter for the heroes return scheme. Will my hon. Friend give an undertaking to discuss with the United Kingdom ambassador in Dublin how we can reach those in the Irish Republic who are eligible?
Mr. Touhig: I cannot say that I will discuss the matter with the ambassador, although I see him from time to time. However, let us complete the review into how we did not apply consistent criteria throughout. When that is done, I hope that we will be in a position to ascertain whether there is ground to change the scheme. At that time, I shall ensure that Hansard is at hand and that the question that my hon. Friend raisedI am sure that I will get questions and letters from him in the meantimeis part of our consideration.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The House bears a burden of shame for the fact that successive Governments for so long short-changed people who should have been compensated. That is not a party political statement because it was true under successive Governments. I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House, offering an apology and offering to try to resolve the problems once and for all.
The Minister said that the number was diminishing. Any settlement will be too late for my constituent, Maurice Ezekiel, who died in Israel earlier this year. He has many friends who also live in Israel who feel strongly that they were British enough to hold a British passport, British enough to serve their country overseas and British enough to be detained, interned and tortured by the Japanese and are bitter that theyand now Maurice Ezekiel's widowwere not British enough to be compensated. I know that the Minister wants to resolve the problem honourably and amicably and I
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hope that he will take to those who are considering the matter that message from somebody for whom compensation is too late.
Mr. Touhig: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not alone in knowing examples of people who are no longer here to receive the recognition that they believed they deserved, and that the country believes that they deserved, whichever way the scheme is finally resolved. I will certainly take on board his point. This is a difficult and emotive issue. It is a cross-party matter, although I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the Government's decision to take this action, and I am proud that we have done so.
We made it clear from the beginning that, as a country, we believe that there is a responsibility on us all to respond to the suffering that people went through at that difficult time. We have sought to introduce criteria that we believe underpin the closeness of their links to the United Kingdom. That is under challenge as a result of court cases, but we hope that the matter will be resolved early in the new year. If there are grounds to review the scheme, we will review the scheme. We are not closing our eyes or shutting the door to the idea of reviewing it, but I do not want to raise any false hopes that I will not come back and tell the House that there are no grounds for a review. If there are no such grounds, I shall come to the House and tell hon. Members that, but I ask for time and patience to get this right.
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