HL Deb 20 November 1918 vol 32 cc332-6

VISCOUNT DEVONPORT rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether any arrangements, and if so what, are being taken to administer to the immediate necessities of released civilian prisoners.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I apologise for trespassing on the indulgence of the House, but as this is the last opportunity we shall have before the Prorogation I feel compelled to put my Question. When I placed it on the Paper I anticipated, as no doubt the Government did, that the prisoners would be returning in well-ordered sequence under direct British supervision. But that has proved unfortunately not to be the case.

My Question refers to civilian prisoners returning to this country. It is a matter of notoriety to the Government and to others that among those who have been interned for four years in Ruhleben many are in poor circumstances, and that when they arrive here they will scarcely have what is commonly called "a wing to fly with"; and if they are left to take care of themselves, it is inevitable that there will be a great amount of distress. Referring again to Lord Curzon's speech in which he used words like "tender regard," I am perfectly certain that the Government, at all events in this particular, will take the greatest possible care to see that these returning prisoners are looked after. But what I want to know is how they propose to do it. One thing is quite essential—namely, that whatever they do should be arranged here and now, because these prisoners will be arriving in succession, consequently the organisation should be ready to meet them and the relief in order to be effective must be immediate. No time should elapse for investigations to be made which in the ordinary way would be needed before any assistance can be given. I think there will be many cases where men will not have the price of their fare to get home, and where a pound or two, or three, or four, to carry them along for the first week or fortnight should be granted, during which time proper investigation can be made through accepted agencies; and their future as regards sustentation would depend upon such inquiries.

I suggest that there is an organisation which would command respect and confidence that might be used for this purpose. I refer to the Prisoners of War organisation at Thurloe Place. This organisation is well known to the prisoners at the Ruhleben Camp, because it has been administering to them for a long time. In order to enable this body at once to get into action it would be necessary to place at their disposal both money and clothing; and in addition I hope that they will be ready with advice and a helping hand generally. But the most important thing is that the help should be forthcoming without a moment's delay.

I have seen in the papers that it is contemplated, as released prisoners arrive, to intern them in some sort of prisoners' camp. As regards those that are combatant prisoners, members of the Army, I see no objection to that, because they are under discipline, and so on. But I think the Government will find that if they attempt to intern returned civilians there will be the greatest possible resistance to it, and that it will be a most unpopular move. Their great desire will be to get once more to their families, from whom they have been severed for these four dreary years, and I think something different from that should be considered. However, the thing I am interested in knowing is—and that is why I have ventured to make these few observations—whether the Government has any organisation in contemplation, and if so, what organisation it will be.


My Lords, perhaps before Lord Newton replies I may be allowed to interpose a few remarks, which will not take up your Lordships' time very long, in meeting the case which Viscount Devonport has put. First, I think we ought to realise that we should do all that is possible for the civilians on returning to this country, give them the heartiest possible welcome, and put them in touch not only with means of subsistence but with obtaining proper employment afterwards. But there is already in existence, I think—the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—machinery for dealing with these persons when they arrive. That machinery is worked through the Central Charities Committee and the Local Government Board. The repatriated civilians, as soon as they arrive, are sent to their homes if they have homes to go to, or are housed in excellent hotel accommodation in London if they have no homes to go to; and work is found for them, as far as possible, and their difficulties met.

But at this point it seems to me that something more should be done then is being done at the present time. Many of these men who have lost their businesses are of some standing, and require rather special treatment. And, curiously enough, when the noble Viscount put this Question on the Paper, the Central Prisoners of War Committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman, and which is, as your Lordships know, a sub-Committee of the Red Cross, had this very question in mind, as to whether they could not do something in forming a Committee to meet this demand. That Committee is now in process of formation, and the funds at the disposal of the Red Cross which the Central Prisoners of War Committee have in hand can, I think, be utilised for the purpose. There are also sums of money which will be forthcoming from the Ruhleben Exhibition to be held in January, whose funds will be devoted to that purpose, and further sumsfrom the Savoy Fair, a large undertaking which will be carried out some time before Christmas. So that if the noble Lord will father this Committee to the extent of allowing us to work in touch with the existing organisation, so as not in any way to overlap or counteract the work they are doing, I feel sure that a great deal more can be done than has been done, or it is possible to do under the existing Government Committee, which of course has only limited funds at its disposal. I understand, also, that a certain proportion of men of the Mercantile Marine may have the option of saying whether they wish to be treated as civilians or as military. If they are treated as civilians, as some of them, I believe, wish to be, they will come under the same category of treatment as that of the ordinary civilian.

As regards the membership of this Committee, I hope very much that in addition to such members of our Committee who have been in touch with civilian prisoners in the past, certain well qualified men from Ruhleben who know all about the prisoners will form part of that Committee; and I trust, in addition, that we may be allowed to have some representative of the Local Government Board or the Central Charities Committee; and also, if the noble Lord will agree, some one from the civilian side of his Department, in order that we may keep in touch with one another, and, what is most important perhaps of all, acquire the proper information of the history of these particular cases with which we have to deal from the Departments. We should know their conditions and circumstances, so that in carrying out the work of helping, not only financially but with advice as to employment we may be able to deal properly with the matter.

I should like, in conclusion, to associate myself with what has been said with regard to the work which the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has carried out. Personally speaking, I have had, in consequence of my work, a great deal to do with his Department, and I have always had the utmost consideration, pains, and help in anything that I or my colleagues on my Committee have asked him to undertake.


My Lords, all the arrangements with regard to the repatriation and reception of civilians are in the hands of the Local Government Board, and I can assure the noble Viscount that all the necessary preparations have already been made. 'The merchant seamen and the fishermen will be treated as combatants unless they express objection. If they elect to be treated as combatants they will, of course, go to the two large rest camps of which I spoke the other day—namely, at Ripon and at Dover; and they will, after being detained there as short a time as possible, be sent to their homes. The intention is to bring all, or at all events as many as possible, of the civilians to Hull in preference to other ports, and it is hoped that as far as possible they will arrive in separate vessels. When they arrive, the Local Government Board will be responsible for their housing, for their feeding, and for any temporary assistance, financial or otherwise, which may he required; and I do not think the noble Viscount need be alarmed at the idea of their being interned in the sense which he meant to convey. These men will be sent to their homes with the least possible delay, and their expenses will be defrayed by the Government. With regard to the destitute, arrangements, as has already been explained by my noble friend opposite, will be made for their welfare by the Committee of the Red Cross, acting in conjunction with the agents of the Local Government Board; and I can assure my noble friend that any suggestions which come from him or his Department will be received by us with the greatest consideration, and every effort will be made to meet their wishes.