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Italian Prisoners Of War (Boot Repairs)

Volume 400: debated on Friday 16 June 1944

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. A. S. L. Young.]

Last month I asked the Secretary of State for War if he was aware that Italian prisoners of war have had their boots collected by motor cyclist and repaired within 48 hours and returned by motor cyclist, and if he was satisfied that that was a desirable use of man-power and petrol. The Sceretary of State for War replied that the answer to the first part of my Question was "No," and that if I would give him the particulars of the case I had in mind it would be investigated. To that I replied that I had given considerable notice to the right hon. Gentleman and that he had not even asked me for that information, and that, surely, he ought to know what was going on in his own Department.

There are two points which I want to raise about that Question and the failure of the right hon. Gentleman to give me an answer on that day. Last Easter, I was at a farmhouse, and at that farmhouse there was an Italian prisoner of war, and, during the discussion with the farmer and his wife, and certain other people who were there, about the work of prisoners of war, the following incident was related to me. I was told that this particular prisoner of war, like many hon. Members of this House and many of the civilian population, wanted his boots repaired. That is, naturally, a quite ordinary thing, and he carried out the routine machinery of asking for repairs or exchange. What happened? A motor cyclist in crash helmet called at this farm, collected the boots, took them away and brought them back within 48 hours—a very perfect, rapid, peace-time service. There was considerable indignation at this happening, because it was well-known in that district, as indeed we all know, how difficult it is to get boots and shoes repaired. It was felt that, while many of our civilian workers, working long hours, having to go out in the wet and so forth, have great difficulty in getting their boots and shoes repaired in a reasonable time, here was this prisoner of war able to have his boots taken away and brought back within 48 hours, and there was a feeling that this pampering of a prisoner of war and this apparent misuse of manpower ought to be investigated; and it was for that reason that I put my Question to the right hon. Gentleman.

I took the opportunity of trying to find out in my own constituency and elsewhere whether, in fact, boots and shoes could be repaired for the civilian population quickly and easily, and I went to the trouble of asking the Minister of Labour if he is now in a position to release more labour for the repairs of boots and shoes for civilian workers, and the Minister replied that, in the present man-power stringency, he regretted he was not able to do that. I think it is in the public interest that this matter should be raised. It seems that, although there was this urgency and man-power stringency for civilian workers, nevertheless, prisoners of war could have this attention to their needs. People are getting a little tired of that kind of thing, and I feel that if there is this tender concern for prisoners of war, when so many of our own people have their domestic needs unattended, there ought to be some explanation forthcoming. I am raising this matter because, if it is widespread, it ought to be put right, and, if it is not widespread, it ought to be made public and the reason for this particular incident, or for other incidents which may have come to light, ought to be explained. It should not be allowed to remain where it is, so that the public think that prisoners of war are getting far better service and are far better looked after than they themselves.

May I remind my hon. Friend that the Italians were not so full of the milk of human kindness with regard to our troops?

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his interruption. It is because of this sort of thing that I felt that an opportunity should be given to the War Office to make the position clear and plain. It was for that reason that I put down the Question. I hope that the Financial Secretary to the War Office will be able to clear up the point and also be able to give a satisfactory assurance on this matter.

With regard to the second point to which I want to draw attention, when I put the Question down, I hope that I extended to the Secretary of State for War the courtesy of giving him ample time in which to make inquiries. These things take time, and I did not want to rush him and I purposely put my Question down at a date some time further ahead than is normal. My Question was No. 1 on the Paper, which showed that it had been there a considerable time. In spite of giving the Secretary of State for War all that time, his reply was simply: "No, Sir," and he added that, if I would send him particulars of the cases I had in mind, they would be investigated.

Why did not the right hon. Gentleman at least do me the courtesy of approaching me, if he was not able to find out the circumstances? If a similar Question had been put down to the Admiralty or the Air Ministry I know from experience that, if they had not been able to give a satisfactory answer, they would not have left it in this way. They would have asked for further particulars and they would have gladly been given; but not so the War Office. They cannot be bothered. In correspondence I have had from time to time with the Financial Secretary to the War Office, he has always been most courteous in the care and attention which he has given in the matters which I have raised with him, and as far as he is concerned I have nothing but praise. The Secretary of State for War should have taken the same sort of trouble over these matters as he does. That there is some substance in the complaint that I am making is evident, if one looks down the Order Paper during any week. He will see a Question or two to the First Lord of the Admiralty and perhaps three or four to the Secretary of State for Air, but, to the War Office, strings of them. It is evident that a great many of these Questions are put down because the War Office does not take the trouble and care that the other two Service Departments take in investigating these matters and in contacting hon. Members who are asking for information.

May I point out to my hon. Friend that there are more soldiers than sailors and airmen and that that may be the reason why there are many more Questions?

That may be so, but I am giving my own experience in this matter. While there may be more, it does not necessarily matter whether a subject affects two or three people or whether it affects several hundred people. It may well be the fact that there is not the same need for a disproportionate amount of Questions. I know the Secretary of State for War has an onerous and responsible task, but so have the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary of State for Air, and if they take the trouble and have the courtesy to inquire into Questions, so, I suggest, can the Secretary of State for War. I am putting this point forward for the good of the War Office, as well as for the public. After all, the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary of State for Air seem to know what is going on in their Departments, and I would like to know why the Secretary of State for War does not know what is going on in his Department. When the Secretary of State for War asked me for information, I naturally gave it to him but that could have been given to him beforehand if he had asked for it. The Admiralty and the Air Ministry do these things, and I put it to the Financial Secretary, why cannot the War Office do the same thing, why cannot the Secretary of State have his Department run in this way as efficiently as the First Lord has the Admiralty run, and as the Secretary of State for Air runs the Air Ministry?

I will only occupy two or three minutes. I disagree with my hon. Friend in that I have always found, in any dealings which I, personally, have had, or which any hon. Members I know have had with the Secretary of State for War, that anything we have tried to get through his Department has been most efficiently handled. I do, however, agree entirely with my hon. Friend in everything he had to say about the Italian prisoners of war. I think the Italian treatment of our prisoners of war was never, in any way, what it ought to have been, whereas I have seen many of our camps in the Middle East where the Italians were, and I found what annoyed them most was that they had to take a shower bath once a day. That was the only compulsory thing I ever saw there. They complained about that, but they had to take it just the same. I would challenge my hon. Friend on one small point. It would seem to me that it is not necessarily the duty of a Department to go round asking Members of Parliament for information. It is rather the duty of Members of Parliament to give the information to the Government.

My point was, that if the Department is unable to answer a Question because it has not sufficient information in its possession, surely it is only courteous, when there is plenty of time, to inquire of the hon. Member for further details? That is common courtesy and I cannot see why that could not have been done.

Yes, if the hon. Member gave the Department sufficient time to get the information. After all, it takes some time to get this information. All I would say is that I have made frontal attacks on the Secretary of State for War myself from time to time, not always with very much success, but in this case I really cannot see that there is any blame attaching to his Department. In other words, if my hon. Friend wants information, he must give the Secretary of State for War, or the Department, sufficient time to get it. It is not for them to go round to the hon. and gallant Gentleman asking for the information, but for him to give the information to the Department.

Let me say at once that no special priority is given in respect of Italian prisoners of war, and it is quite incorrect to say that, when the boots of prisoners of war show signs of wear, they are collected by motor cycle, repaired, and returned to them within 48 hours. The position is that in every Italian labour camp there is a shoemaker's shop, where all repairs are done by prisoners, not only for all the prisoners in the camp but also for the British troops guarding them. Leather and nails are obtained on indent through normal ordnance channels. This is necessary under the provision of the Geneva Convention, which requires that the conditions of all prisoners of war held, for example, in the custody of the British Government shall approximate to the conditions of British troops in their depots. All billeted prison- ers are visited fortnightly by an officer who takes them their canteen supplies, and he is also responsible for ascertaining whether they are working properly. The general practice in arranging boot repairs for billeted prisoners is for boots to be collected and taken to the nearest prison camp, to be repaired by the Italian camp boot repairer. Usually, they are returned a fortnight later when the visit of the officer is made. If it be asked why should not prisoners bring their boots to the camp personally, it has to be remembered that most of them, or many of them, are billeted within a radius of 25 miles of their camp.

The incident in question took place on 27th April, when the fortnightly visit to a farm at which some Italian prisoners were billeted was due. The vehicle which would normally have been used by the visiting officer, happened to be in a workshop for overhaul. Accordingly, a soldier was sent in his place on a motorcycle and he delivered supplies and brought some prisoner-of-war boots back for repair. These boots would, normally, have been delivered, as I have indicated, on the following fortnightly visit, but it happened that on the following day, 28th April, a motor-cycle despatch rider was being sent on another duty in the same area. When he presented his work ticket for signature by the adjutant of the camp, that officer, in accordance with the normal practice—which is designed expressly to avoid unnecessary journeys—made inquiries as to whether there were any other duties which could be performed by the rider of the motor-cycle, in the neighbourhood to which he was going. The adjutant was informed that one of the pairs of boots which had been collected on the previous day had already been repaired and that as the motor-cycle would pass within 500 yards of the farm he, rightly or wrongly, decided that the rider might as well deliver that one pair of boots.

That is the explanation of the incident to which my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Sir W. Wakefield) has drawn attention. I would like to point out that no discourtesy was intended to him, either by the War Office or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War. At the same time I can appreciate the point he has made. I feel, however, that he would agree that matters would always be facilitated, if an hon. Member would specify sufficient particulars in his Question to enable the Government Department concerned to make the necessary investigation. If that had been done the difficulty that arose in this case would not have arisen, and we should not have been discussing this point to-day.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly till Tuesday next, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.