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Polish anti-defamation law debate

5th June 2018

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on the Polish anti-defamation law.

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Harriett Baldwin)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on securing 90 minutes in Westminster Hall to debate this important issue. Who cannot be touched by the moving way in which he made his case? In fact, we have heard a range of incredibly moving speeches and oratory from colleagues, and I am privileged to have been able to represent the UK Government on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas. He sends his apologies as he is involved in other ministerial duties. I will set out the UK Government’s views on the issue. We have heard different descriptions of the historical background. In the interests of time, I will take it as read that all Members here are aware of the timeline of Poland’s anti-defamation law, and I will set out the Government’s response.

The Government understand how painful any false attribution of Poland’s culpability in Nazi crimes may be, whether explicit or implicit. As we have heard from various hon. Members, some of the most infamous sites associated with the holocaust were located in what is now Polish territory. Many of us have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Holocaust Educational Trust, a programme that we have recently expanded to include UK university campuses. As we have heard many times in this debate, it is a matter of historical fact that, of the more than 3 million Polish Jews living in Poland in 1939, fewer than 400,000 were still alive in 1945. It is also well known that many Polish citizens risked their lives to save them and the nearly 2 million non-Jewish victims of the Nazis. We have heard very moving personal testimony today. I particularly want to put on the record our recognition of the heroism shown by the great-uncle of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). That act of heroism has now been recorded for all time in Hansard.​

We heard other very moving speeches from the hon. Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood). It is clear that the horror and pain of the holocaust are still deeply felt in Poland and around the world more than 70 years on. That is why the desire to reject any misleading attribution of Nazi crimes to the Polish nation or state is entirely understandable.

However, as the UK Government have made clear in our private discussions with our Polish partners, we believe there are risks to criminalising any aspect of free speech, because it is through debate and analysis that we enhance our understanding of any issue. Rather than risk closing down debate, our preferred approach is to preserve the collective memory of the holocaust and to use that knowledge to learn the lessons of history. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made that clear in his discussions with the Polish Foreign Minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, in February and March this year. Our officials in London and diplomats in the British embassy in Warsaw have delivered the same message to Polish Government officials.

The UK’s special envoy for post-holocaust issues, Sir Eric Pickles—soon to be Lord Pickles—has made numerous visits to Poland over the past year to discuss concerns about the revision of history. We understand how the anti-defamation law could be seen as an attempt to redefine the past. Lord Pickles has made it clear in his meetings with Polish Government officials and with representatives of the Jewish community that responsibility for the holocaust rests with the Nazis, and that those responsible, regardless of their nationality, should be held accountable.

It is testament to the historical and enduring relationship between the UK and Poland that we have been able to speak frankly with our Polish colleagues about the anti-defamation law. We will never forget the role played by the Polish armed forces in our own fight against Nazi tyranny in the second world war. We have heard how Polish and British soldiers fought alongside each other throughout the war. Today the enormous contribution of the Polish diaspora community to our economy and society is abundantly clear. It is the driving force behind the deepening relationship between our two countries in business, science and culture, and it is the driving force behind the growth in trade, which reached some £15 billion last year.

We face many more challenges in the future, including some that could threaten the liberty and security of our citizens in the UK and Poland. That is why it is so important that we encourage future generations to study and to remember the horrors of the holocaust. We must use the painful lessons of the past to teach us to avoid repeating the same tragedies in future. That is why we work hard to keep the holocaust firmly on the global agenda. Future generations will not learn those lessons if we stifle debate today. That is why freedom of speech is so important. We will continue to make that argument with our friends and partners in Europe and the wider world. We will continue to encourage them to embrace open debate, not fear it, so that the lessons of history are remembered from generation to generation.​


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