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House of Commons

Monday 26 November 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Far East (British Internees)

1. Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): For what reason British civilians interned in the far east during the second world war and accepted as British at the time of internment have not been granted compensation. [15074]

10. Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): For what reasons he changed the criteria for eligibility for compensation for civilians interned by the Japanese in the second world war from being British and holding British passports at the time; and how many applicants have been excluded on the basis of the subsequent changes. [15083]

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The ex-gratia payment scheme for former far east prisoners, which I announced in the House on 7 November last year, covered various British groups, including civilians who were interned by the Japanese. The eligibility criterion for civilian claimants under the scheme is that they were British subjects whom the Japanese interned, and who were born in the United Kingdom or had a parent or grandparent born in this country. That criterion was clarified earlier this year, but there has been no change in the intended scope of the scheme. Holding a British passport, either then or now, was never a criterion for eligibility under the scheme.

As of 11 o'clock this morning, a total of 22,738 claims had been paid. Of the civilian claims that have been rejected on the grounds of nationality, 324 have been rejected from UK addresses, and 778 from overseas addresses.

Mr. Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. May I draw his attention to the case of my constituent, Dr. Mark Erooga? Dr. Erooga was naturalised in 1940, swore allegiance to the sovereign, served in the Hong Kong defence reserve and was interned in 1941 when working at Kowloon hospital. After the war he worked

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in the national health service from its inception until his retirement. Does my hon. Friend agree that Dr. Erooga deserves to be compensated like other internees?

Dr. Moonie: Clearly, I cannot agree with my hon. Friend. However, if he sends me details of his constituent's case, I shall be happy to look at them and to write back to him on the subject.

Mr. Mitchell: Although it is good that the British Government have accepted what was the moral responsibility of the Japanese Government, in paying compensation to those people, does my hon. Friend accept that, at the time, it was said that the compensation would be paid to

The war pensions policy unit confirmed that that meant people who were British citizens at the time. The reason for their internment was that they were British citizens, so it is wrong subsequently to introduce concepts such as patriality or a blood link, which did not apply at the time—because those people were British citizens then—and on that basis to fail to pay the 700 to 800 people—it is only 700 to 800—who were entitled. Many of them are deeply shocked and upset to be told now that, having been interned by the Japanese for being British, they are no longer regarded as British. Is not that a debt of honour that should be paid?

Dr. Moonie: Given the number of people who have been paid, I consider that the debt of honour has indeed been discharged. May I point out to my hon. Friend that it would have been easy for us just to have accepted the criteria that were used in the 1950s to determine who was to be awarded compensation as a result of moneys paid by the Japanese? Had that been the case, many fewer civilians would have been included than have been under this scheme. To allow an association going back to grandparents, which even in the case of the youngest claimant takes their claim back to the 19th century, is a fair recognition by the Government of whether people are entitled to be compensated under the scheme.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): The Minister will know of at least two of my constituents who have been refused claims for ex gratia payments: Mrs. Drina Leeson, who was interned as a child in Singapore where her father died, but who lost her documents while fleeing from the Japanese; and Mrs. Doris Pyett, separated from her parents, interned at the age of seven in Singapore and whose stepmother received compensation, even though she did not marry Mrs. Pyett's father until 1947, yet Mrs. Pyett did not receive compensation. Why are they and hundreds of others British enough to have been imprisoned by the Japanese as enemies of the emperor, but not enough to be acknowledged by the British Government? Is not the

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most hurtful consequence that people who have lived all their lives as British are suddenly, in their twilight years, told that they are not British?

Dr. Moonie: They are not, of course, being told that they are not British: they are being told that they are not eligible for this payment, which is a quite different matter.

I will restate what I said earlier. The Government have been exceptionally generous over the inclusion criteria for the scheme. We have no intention of amending them.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Could I ask the hon. Gentleman, who is a reasonable sort of chap, if he will pause for a minute and realise that, by taking that obdurate line, he is tarnishing a record for magnanimity that he established when he announced the scheme? Will he take out his history book and read what Lord Palmerston said at the time of the Don Pacifico incident, and make his abiding watchword, "Civis Britannicus sum"?

Dr. Moonie: I would be more inclined to accept that lesson—indeed, I have already seen the quote in question—from an Opposition Member if those on the Opposition Benches had not been quite so obdurate themselves over many years in refusing to make any kind of payment whatever. It is a bit thick for Opposition Members, who supported previous Governments, to complain now about a scheme which is, quite frankly, exceptionally generous. I am sorry that the scheme cannot cover all those who consider themselves eligible for it, but we had to draw the line somewhere, and I stand by that decision.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): May I remind my hon. Friend of the case, about which I have written to him, of Mr. Isaac Abraham, who was a British subject interned by the Japanese at the age of nine? He came to the United Kingdom in 1949 and worked for 30 years as a teacher in Britain. He was arrested by the Japanese, as were the rest of his family and other constituents of mine, because the British consul gave their details to the Japanese so that they knew whom to round up. He feels extremely cheated by this retrospective rewriting of nationality laws. In fact, if his family had collaborated with the Japanese, they would have been guilty of treason; they feel very hard done by. Bearing in mind the number of representations from both sides of the House today, I ask my hon. Friend to take another look at this very serious issue, especially as, so far, about one in three of the potential claimants have been excluded.

Dr. Moonie: As I have already said, if a parent or any grandparent had been born in this country, they would be eligible. We have rightly widened the criteria from those that were used in the 1950s, and it would not be proper to go any further than that.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Why does this Minister always end up having to defend the

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indefensible? Is not it a fact that if those people were British enough to suffer by being interned, they are British enough to be compensated for being interned?

Dr. Moonie: No, I regret that that is not the case. I have allowed a sufficient line of consanguinity to take as many people as possible into the net. Many people may have been classified as British who will not qualify for the payments. As I have said, a line had to be drawn somewhere, and it was drawn in the correct place.

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): Even if the Minister is resolute in not taking criticism from Opposition Members, I hope that he will be more sympathetic to the pleas from Labour Members. Will he confirm that, in his statement of 7 November last year, he offered no qualification in the definition of "British" that he described then? In answer to a parliamentary question that I asked, he confirmed that

Indeed, no further clarification was offered in the advice leaflets that the War Pensions Agency issued at that time. Does he not agree with me and many hon. Members on both sides of the House that, to fulfil both the letter and the spirit of the very welcome statement that he made last November, he should include that small but important group of people who were much wronged by the Japanese and who look to this Government at least to acknowledge their suffering in the second world war?

Dr. Moonie: Well, I am afraid that I shall be just as obdurate to my hon. Friends as I have been to Opposition Members. I consider that the scheme's boundaries have been set fairly, and I do not intend to change them.

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