My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government when they propose to rectify the unpaid deficit owing to British prisoners of war in the last World War; and whether they will ensure that interest at a fair rate is added to compensate for inflation over the last 35 years.
My Lords, under the terms of the Geneva Convention 1929, officer prisoners of war in Germany and Italy were entitled to receive regular payments from their captors. Deductions were made from the pay accounts of officers held prisoner to take account of such payments. Our records show that, at the end of the war, arrangements were made across the three Services for any such payments which had not been received to be refunded. The onus was on individual officers to make claims for such refunds and, so far as we can ascertain, these arrangements were drawn to the attention of returning officer-prisoners. Where adequate records did not exist, payment was, in general, made on the basis of the prisoners' declarations. A detailed investigation into the basis of recent complaints about these arrangements is being carried out by the Ministry of Defence, under the chairmanship of a Minister, and a full statement will be made by the end of the month.
My Lords, while I thank my noble friend for that Answer and realise that some prisoners were paid in full, there were still many who were not. Can my noble friend say what action those unfortunate people, or their next of kin, should take, so that this wrong may be redressed? Is he aware that all prisoners from Australia, Canada and the United States were paid in full?
My Lords, I do not think that I can add to what I said. I think that the noble Earl will have to await the outcome of the thorough investigation which is being made at the present time. May I just point out that making an investigation of this kind is far from easy 35 years after the event when a great many of the relevant records have been destroyed.
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister how it is that these payments have been delayed? Is he aware that, from my experience as a Government trustee of the Far East Prisoners of War and Internee Fund, delay of this type often causes extreme hardship, and that often these men are dead before they can be fully compensated? It is 35 years since the end of the last war. Can my noble friend give some guarantee to noble Lords how long this business is to go on and when it will be expedited?
My Lords, may I first say that we have to be careful to distinguish between the situation which applies in the Far East and the situation which applies in Europe. The Geneva Convention applied only to Germany and Italy, so I think we have to leave out the question of Japanese prisoners of war. The second point is that it would be prejudging the issue to say that payments have been delayed. What I am saying is that a very thorough investigation is being carried out and that we intend to report on that by the end of the month, which is not really a long delay.
My Lords, does my noble friend realise how wrong some people would think it if there were any suggestion that there should be a time bar to any of these claims?
My Lords, of course it is perfectly true that the Statute of Limitations would indeed legally apply, but here again it would be prejudging the issue for me to pass comment on that point.