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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): First, I thank the Minister for advance notice of his statement. I welcome the widening of the scheme announced today and his further apology to the House—the fourth that he has had to make. I also welcome his promise that he will deal as a matter of urgency with those who have not received the payment that they should have done. I am afraid that that is as far as my welcome can extend. Following such a thorough and lengthy review—nearly four months in the making—the House could reasonably have expected a comprehensive statement resolving all the outstanding issues and bringing matters to an honourable conclusion. That is not what we have.

I have some questions on the statement. For the avoidance of all doubt, can the Minister confirm that the first change to the criteria means that the 13 claimants to whom he referred, who would have met the Japanese asset scheme criteria, but were denied payments because they failed to meet the birth-link criterion, will now be paid the £10,000? Can he confirm when they can expect to receive payment? In answer to a written question that I tabled, the Minister confirmed last week that 162 cases were awaiting decision. I would be grateful if he would update the House on when he expects those cases to be decided.

Given that problems have arisen with the scheme—which, I acknowledge, was welcomed on both sides of the House—because, as the Minister acknowledged, the Ministry of Defence did too much in haste and was not clear about the details, I am concerned about the way in which he made the announcement about the 20-year rule. He has admitted that the details of how the rule should be applied have not yet been resolved and that the number of new claimants cannot be estimated with certainty. There is a danger that he will have raised expectations again, only to see them dashed when the details are resolved. Given the history of this scheme, does he agree that it would have been better to conclude the work on the details prior to today's statement? I welcome the inclusion of ABCIFER and the chairman of the all-party group in the working group to resolve
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those details, and I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm when he expects those details to be finalised and when he will be able to publish them.

The Minister touched briefly on the birth-link criterion. Recognising that legal action is ongoing, if the result of the appeal goes against the Government, will he commit to coming to the House at the earliest opportunity thereafter to make an oral statement setting out the implications for the scheme?

The Minister also mentioned the investigation being conducted by David Watkins, and confirmed that he expects the final report to be available to him by the end of June. In answer to a written question, he confirmed to me that he will make a statement to the House as soon as possible after that. Will he also confirm that he expects that to be an oral statement, enabling Members of the House to raise the questions that they will no doubt have?

Finally, can the Minister say when he expects to be able to report to the House that the whole matter has been resolved, that all outstanding issues have been cleared up, and that he will not have to return to the House to make further statements?

Mr. Touhig: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's welcome of my announcement—and I have no problem in coming here four, five or 400 times to apologise. If we have got something wrong, we should own up and apologise. That has been my policy, and it is the policy of this Government.

The hon. Gentleman raised several points, to which I shall seek to respond. Yes, we have identified 13 claimants who have not been paid. I want that matter resolved as quickly as possible, and if there is any doubt, it should be resolved in favour of the claimants. Yes, a number of claims are yet to be decided—he mentioned the answer that I gave him about the 162 cases. I want to be certain that we get the criteria absolutely right before I reintroduce payments under the scheme, and I hope that the House will bear with me on that.

Yes, the scheme was introduced in haste. Everyone, on all sides, felt that it was time for us to show our appreciation and sense of value, given the horrible suffering undergone by some of the people concerned. It was felt that that should be recognised properly. We tried to do it rather quickly and—as my statement made clear, and as will doubtless be made clear in the report that I will present to the House later this year—we did not get it right, perhaps because of the speed with which we were acting.

I cannot give a view on the details of the 20-year rule at this stage. The delay does not mean that I do not have views, or that work has not been done. I have been hugely impressed by the advice and information given to me by ABCIFER and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon. For that reason, I want to involve them in the working group so that we can get the criterion right. I do not want to come back and say, or hear my successor say, "Sorry, we got it wrong again." I want to take account of the important contribution made by ABCIFER and by my hon. Friend, and to do a bit of work on that criterion. I hope that the first meeting of our working group will take place immediately after the recess, and that a week or so later we will announce the details of the criterion that will apply to the 20-year rule.
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The hon. Gentleman mentioned the birth link. If, at the end of the day, the appeal is lost and the birth-link criterion is declared unlawful, we shall not be able to proceed with it. My original ambition was for an arrangement allowing people to qualify under the Japanese asset scheme, plus the birth link, plus any other grounds for qualification; but if the birth link proves to be unlawful, that will not be possible.

I am always pleased to come back to the House and   make an oral statement, and I shall press for such a statement—but of course that is not entirely in my gift.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I thank the Minister for giving notice of his statement. I welcomed the scheme originally introduced by the Government, which put right wrongs that have lasted half a century or so, and I welcome the good news that 500 people will now share in the result of the Minister's statement. Will he confirm, however, that there are still some 4,000 other people who were interned by the imperial Japanese army on the basis that it believed them to be British and they believed themselves to be British? If that is so, and if contemporary camp lists exist—presumably the imperial Japanese army inquired about people's nationalities and beliefs—does that not constitute sufficient grounds?

Is it not the case that the Ministry of Defence started out with an excellent scheme, but has somehow managed to cause confusion and despair? While it is indeed welcome that 25,000 people have benefited and an additional 500 will benefit, surely something should be done for the nearly 4,000 who believed they were British and whom the imperial Japanese army believed to be British—indeed, it was the very reason why they were interned.

Mr. Touhig: I accept that there are others, although I cannot be precise about the numbers that the hon. Gentleman gave. I will make inquiries and give him the figures that are available to us.

There is clearly an issue. As I have said, people feel that because they were interned as British by the Japanese, they should be paid under the scheme regardless of whether they have any link with this country in the sense of ever having lived here. We do not share that view; we take the view that there should be a close link with the United Kingdom. That is why we originally introduced the birth link and why I now propose to introduce a criterion of residence.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the problems that we have experienced with the scheme. But as an old friend of mine, Dick Murray—a Dubliner and a lovely fellow who, sadly, has now died—would say, "If I were going in that direction, I wouldn't start from here." Clearly there are lessons to be learned.

I have had some wonderful letters from people around the world saying how much they appreciate what we have done. I had one today from a 96-year-old lady who does not qualify, but who received an apology   from me and £500 in recognition of the
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maladministration that the ombudsman said was the fault of the MOD—a judgment to which we responded. The lady says in her letter:

She also invites me to visit her in British Columbia, and gives me her telephone number.

I think that what we have done thus far is well appreciated, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point and I will get back to him about the numbers.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend's statement today and thank him for the very constructive way in which he has engaged with the all-party group and ABCIFER in trying to find a satisfactory solution to this long-running difficult problem. His approach is very welcome compared with the stonewalling that we had from the Ministry of Defence for far too long on this issue. He has come up with a workable solution that will, as far as I can see, deal with all the outstanding claims that we can identify relating to people who live in the UK. ABCIFER and I look forward to working with him to ensure that the outstanding debt of honour to all those who were imprisoned by the Japanese is honoured as quickly as possible, straight after the East recess.

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