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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that explanation. Looking back now, does he agree with me that the way in which those five conditions were interpreted by Board of Trade officials at the time seems like an arbitrary abuse of power? Does he agree that that is wholly out of line with the way in which, these days, claims would be dealt with? Does he agree also that the fact that the United States and Denmark had a different and more
Lord Haskel: My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord that the United States and Denmark had a more liberal policy. It depends how one defines liberality. As regards the five conditions, it is very difficult to judge by today's standards actions which were taken all those years ago. Values were different; different things were important; and there were different priorities.
As regards the assets that were seized, the original assets, which in some cases had been sold, were not simply released. Instead, as my noble friend Lord Janner told us, ex gratia compensation payments were made which were equivalent to the amount of money which had been seized by the custodian less a 2 per cent. administrative charge.
The words ex gratia in this case are used in a rather bureaucratic and legal way. It is not a term of condescension. It is used because some of the assets have been sold and so an ex gratia payment was made which was equivalent in cash to the value of the asset. That was the only way that those assets could be returned. Compensation was in fact paid to about 1,000 claimants with only some 16 per cent. of those who applied being refused payment.
In addition, in 1957 the Government decided to waive their legal rights to the sum of £250,000 from liquidated assets and donated it to the Nazi Victims Relief Trust to alleviate the poverty of and provide education for victims of Nazi persecution.
Last summer, my noble friend Lord Janner and others raised concerns about the application of the wartime trading with the enemy legislation, and the fact that it had resulted in assets in the United Kingdom of people who became victims of Nazi persecution being confiscated. In response, this Government agreed to set in train a research project in the Foreign Office and the DTI to examine the relevant papers held on the subject. The research, which was led by historians from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, revealed a difficult and complex subject which took time to get right. The research is now completed.
I can understand noble Lords' frustration at the delay in publishing the report. The Government share this frustration, as we believe the report will demonstrate that successive British governments have made great efforts over a number of years to respond appropriately to these issues. However, the report has taken longer to finalise than we had hoped. A great deal of work has gone into reconciling some of the details in the report. I regret that I cannot give a date for publication. However, I can assure noble Lords that the President of the Board of Trade is taking this subject very seriously and that the report will be published as soon as possible.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, I understand that a draft of the report was given to the Holocaust Educational Trust and some questions were raised regarding some of the figures in the various annexes and those must be researched further.
The Government recognise that some of the information currently held at the Public Record Office will be of partciular interest to Holocaust survivors or their families who may wish to check their family histories. As I announced here on 15th January, we have therefore agreed to publish a list of names and other details of those who had their property seized. As there is no means of identifying which of the property seized by the custodians may have belonged to people who became victims of Nazi persecution, the Government have decided to publish a list of all the names that they can. The list will comprise the names and details of those from belligerent enemy countries whose property was seized, plus limited details of those in other countries, around 25,000 names in total. It is not possible to publish a full list of 220,000 names as the individual case files have not been preserved. Our intention is to publish the list on the Internet. Putting information on the Internet has the advantage of being more long-lasting than publication in the newspapers.
The noble Lord, Lord Janner, told us about the Nazi Gold Conference in December of last year. It was an historical fact-finding forum, not a decision taking one. It achieved its aim of helping to establish a sound body of historical fact relating to gold looted by the Nazis and what subsequently happened to it. I am grateful to the American Jewish Congress for its detailed account of the whole matter of the confiscated gold.
The United Kingdom's involvement in this question stems from our membership (with the United States and France) of the Tripartite Gold Commission. The commission was set up following the 1946 Paris Agreement on Reparations to distribute monetary gold recovered from Germany by the Allies to the former occupied countries whose gold reserves had been looted by the Nazis. Just under 2 per cent. of the pool, worth around £38 million, remains to be distributed to the claimant countries.
The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, asked about that fund. I can tell him that it will provide relief for needy victims of Nazi persecution who have so far received little or no compensation. Its aim is to try to avert the second tragedy of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis having to live out their days in poverty. Payments will be made to non-governmental organisations involved in this type of work. The United Kingdom is giving £1 million to the fund, and contributions so far stand at around £23 million.
In my capacity as Deputy Chairman of Jewish Policy Research, I attended a conference in Strasbourg in June last year, hosted by the Council of Europe, where this matter was discussed. It became clear that where funds had been available, as compensation for communal property, those funds were used to create communal centres which benefited the whole community, Jewish and non-Jewish, in which they were situated.
Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, before my noble friend the Minister sits down, I wonder whether he can answer the 64,000 dollar question; namely, when the report is published and when people respond to the list that he mentioned, how long can we expect it to be before claims are actually settled?
Lord Haskel: My Lords, I am not sure that I can give my noble and learned friend a response. Obviously the list will be published when the Government are in a position to consider what needs to be done.
Today's debate has demonstrated the breadth and complexity of this sensitive subject. I hope that we have made progress in shedding some light on the key issues. I am sure that the publication shortly of the research into the history of enemy property and the list of names will also help to further understanding of this subject. I can tell noble Lords that further action is in hand. The Government have initiated inquiries to clarify to what extent the provisions of the post-war peace treaties were implemented by the foreign governments involved, and how those governments would respond to any new claims for compensation which might now be made under the terms of those treaties. That is one reason why I am in some difficulty in responding to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer.
However, there are some positive developments in that respect. For example, we have learnt that in Hungary, following a constitutional court decision in 1996, legislation is being drafted to implement Article 29 of the Treaty of Peace with Hungary, which concerns compensation for Hungarian nationals whose property was confiscated by the allies. Further, we have heard within the past week that the Romanian Government have approved a finance ministry memorandum on the need for legislation on this issue. The Ministry of Justice has the task of preparing a draft law.
I should tell noble Lords that the Government are sympathetic to the plight of victims of Nazi persecution and their families. Over a number of years, successive British Governments have tried to respond appropriately
In the light of the research that has been undertaken and the representations that have been made, including points raised by noble Lords today, the Government are considering whether anything further should now be done. This is an honourable and decent Government. This Government will act in a decent and honourable way.
Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, my noble friend's final words constitute the redeeming sentence in an otherwise, if I may say so with respect, deeply sad and disappointing speech. I have never understood why the Swiss Government until recently spent so much time trying to justify the intolerable behaviour of previous governments, 50 years ago. Similarly, I see no reason why this Government, who I support so fully and who I regard as being honourable and worthy, should seek to justify clearly insensitive and often wicked acts by a British government, 50 years ago.
The House is entitled to know what this honourable and worthy Government, which I am proud to support, are going to do now. We are told that the research has been completed and that is good news; but we have had no undertaking regarding when the report on such research will be published. I can assure my noble friend the Minister that none of us in this House who spoke today will let the weeks go by without reminding the Government that survivors will not survive indefinitely, and that those whom my noble friend referred to as having "devastated lives" need help now and not in two, three or four years' time; nor, indeed, when the Romanian Government may decide one day perhaps, having approved a memorandum, to make some restitution to some Romanian victims.
I was very deeply moved by many of the speeches that were made today. I have in mind especially the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. As a youngster, I was a war crimes investigator in Germany. I always hoped that there would be some way to try to do what my noble friend referred to as helping rebuild devastated lives.
I look back on our debate with appreciation, but I have grave reservations about my noble friend's speech. For example, he referred to distributions in various countries. Yes, indeed, distributions were made to Communist countries behind the Iron Curtain. What happened was they were allowed to set off moneys which were owed to people who were resident in their countries, including victims, against what those countries owed to British companies on the basis that they were going to repay individual victims in their countries. But everyone knew that those people would not get a penny and they never did. Our Government also should have known that such victims who were stupid and dire enough to claim the money would end
I shall of course write to the noble Lord on matters which he has mentioned. I shall make one or two further points. The difficulties of making restitution provide no reason for doing nothing. We do not have much time. I would have expected the Government to say in this House, "This is what we are going to do. We have completed our research and we shall publish it within two to three weeks. We shall then announce to the House what steps we shall take".
I did not expect the Government to say to the House, "We shall consider whether or not we shall take action". That is no answer for this House in view of what the noble Lord himself has said of devastated lives, and what he called insensitivities and what I call gross, unconscionable injustices. We want to know what the Government will do and when. We shall not rest until we get a reply.