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Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that the people who were interned in such difficult circumstances were distressed when the rules were changed and that the £500 that was offered as a solution to that distress was itself a cause of further distress? When he considers the possibility of a review, will he seek not to over-involve himself in the minutiae of the differences between one scheme and another? I hope that he will try to arrive at a generous and equitable scheme that will provide people such as my constituent, Peter Hall, with a sense that the debt of honour that they feel has been owed to them for a long time is at last going to be satisfied.

Mr. Touhig: We received a critical report from the ombudsman into the way in which we had operated the scheme. The ombudsman said that the Government should offer an apology to the people who believed that they would be compensated under the scheme but were not, and that we should make that a tangible apology. I have issued written and verbal apologies, and we are introducing a scheme whereby those who did not qualify for compensation will receive the sum of £500. We believe that that was an appropriate amount in the circumstances that prevailed. I want that payment to continue, because, as I said in my statement, it might bring closure for some people, although I have no doubt that it will not do so for others. These people are getting older and it is important that they see some recognition at the earliest opportunity, so I intend to continue with the apologies and with the payments of £500, because I think that that is appropriate. When we have completed
 
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the review into how we got into the situation whereby we used different criteria throughout the scheme, we can decide whether there are grounds to change it. At that stage, I will review the whole matter of further compensation.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Minister aware that many thousands of Royal Norfolks were captured in Singapore when the garrison there capitulated? Many were imprisoned in the most appalling circumstances, and many worked and died on the River Kwai railway crossing. There is a large Far East Prisoners of War—FEPOW—group in Norfolk, and its members feel very strongly about these issues. Obviously, the scheme was a start, but does the Minister agree that, until the Japanese Government start to contribute to the financial arrangements, there will never be enough money available? Why should not the Japanese Government honour their moral obligations? What discussions have Ministers had with them?

Mr. Touhig: The House and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that such prisoners of war have generally been covered by the compensation of this scheme, and their cases are not, in the main, in dispute. There is an issue in relation to civilian internees, however, which we have yet to resolve. On the decision of the Japanese not to contribute, the issue has been exhausted over a number of years by all Governments who have sought to obtain compensation from the Japanese. In the 1950s, the asset scheme was introduced, under which, as a result of the defeat of Japan, we acquired a number of its assets, which we disposed of to fund a small scheme of compensation. In truth, I do not believe that the Japanese will be persuaded to do anything more at this time. As things stand, we believe that it is our responsibility as a Government to deal with this matter and that is why we introduced the scheme in the first place.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I sympathise with my hon. Friend and thank him for his statement. I do not doubt his good faith in this matter, but he has inherited a situation not of his making that is a mess and that is unacceptable to many hon. Members and particularly to members of the Public Administration Committee, to which I belong, and which questioned him a short time ago. There is a defined group of people who feel outraged that they were to be described as somehow second-class British citizens and were not to be treated the same as those who suffered exactly as they did who were British citizens at the time. When I saw his statement listed today, my hopes rose that we would get a final resolution of the problem. Obviously, that has not happened. I urge him to come forward with the positive answer that we want, as urged strongly at the Public Administration Committee meeting only a few days ago.

Over Christmas, my constituent, Dr. Mark Erooga, will be waiting for the Minister's statement. He was a doctor in a military hospital in Hong Kong before the war, treating British servicemen and was interned. He was then let out and came to Britain, where he spent the whole of his working life in the national health service. He is now retired and lives in my constituency, and he resents not so much the £10,000 but that, in some way,
 
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his citizenship is being said to be not quite as sound as others'. That is the point that my hon. Friend should address. I hope that he will come forward with the positive answer that we want in the new year.

Mr. Touhig: I hope that my hon. Friend and Members on both sides of the House will accept that there has been no suggestion by the Government that anyone who does not qualify under the scheme is somehow not truly British or a second-class British citizen. We have never said that and have never sought to imply that. I fully understand, as I talked to Professor Hayward after I appeared before the PAC, that that is the feeling that he has got from the way in which this issue has unfolded.

I will take on board my hon. Friend's remarks and I am still trying to urge the House not to think that I can come out with a scheme that everybody will be happy with or cheer at the end of the day. In truth, we might decide that there are no grounds to change the scheme—I have to be honest about that—but I must consider the issue when the report is completed on how we got into the difficulty of having two sets of criteria when we thought that we only had one. When the impact of that report on the operation of the scheme is resolved, I can judge whether any changes are needed in the scheme. I will then return to the House to make a further statement.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Minister tell the House what the administrative costs of the scheme have been since its implementation and how much these extra complications are likely to add to its overall budget?

Mr. Touhig: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman precise figures. Such schemes, of course, never come without a cost. I note his question and will write to him.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The scheme was inspired by a sense of justice and magnanimity to put right this ancient wrong. It has been carried out by the Ministry of Defence with mulish obstinacy and pettifogging bureaucracy. Why on earth did it not fully accept the ombudsman's report? It is only the third time in 30 years that the ombudsman has published such a report under section 10(3) of the rules. Instead of accepting it in full, the MOD tried to restrict the powers of the ombudsman and challenge those.

Why has the Minister not mentioned the statement made by Mr. Burnham, the acting chief executive of the War Pensions Agency, who said:
 
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That timely warning was made not in 2005 but on 10 April 2001.

Mr. Touhig: When I have the answer to that last question, I will share it with my hon. Friend, but I do not have it now. He may think that the MOD has been mulish, but, on the contrary, it is because of a desire to get the compensation scheme up and running as quickly as possible that we introduced it without clearly defining the criteria according to which people would be eligible. There was a wish to compensate people in the speediest possible way.

We did not accept the ombudsman's report at the time because—as my hon. Friend knows, because I gave evidence to his Committee—we did not believe that the ombudsman's assertions in the report were correct. Since then, my doubts about the operation of the scheme have been confirmed. That is why I am instituting an investigation and asking the permanent secretary to recommend an appropriate person to conduct it. I talked to the ombudsman after the hearing of the Committee of which my hon. Friend is a member, and I talked to her this morning, so she is fully apprised of what I am doing, and I hope that she will be fully supportive. She, I and everyone else want to get to the bottom of the matter and ensure that the scheme is resolved, and that is what I am determined to do.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Of the outstanding claims, about 700 are for civilians who were in the camps. I do not think that the Minister dealt adequately with the question from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who asked whether those specific claims would be a priority for the MOD.


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