HC Deb 19 February 1920 vol 125 cc1103-10

1. The limitations on the continuance or operation of the enactments mentioned in the first column of the First Schedule in this Act shall be modified in the manner and to the extent specified in the third column of that Schedule.


I beg to move, to leave out the words, "in the manner and to the extent specified in the third column of that Schedule," and to insert instead thereof the words so as to continue to the thirty-first day of August, nineteen hundred and twenty. 4.0 p.m.

When the Bill passed its Second Reading last year the period for which the various Regulations and Acts were continued varied from six to twelve months after the ratification of peace. In Committee on the Bill, when we were dealing with the Schedule containing the Regulations there was a generally expressed opinion among the members of the Committee that some fixed date should be inserted. It was thought that it would lead to considerable confusion if the various Regulations were continued for different periods and that people who were affected by those Regulations would have to be constantly looking up the Act of Parliament to see whether a particular Regulation was one continued for six, nine, or twelve months, as the case might be. In Committee I therefore moved an Amendment which substituted the 31st August this, year for the varying periods which were in the Bill. The Government accepted that Amendment, and it was inserted. I think I am correct in saying that the majority of the Committee considered that that Amendment applied to both Schedules, and that the result of the Amendment was that we had made the period uniform both for the continuation of the Acts and for the continuation of the Regulations. So far as my memory goes, some Members of the Government were of that opinion also. It came out later that we ought to have inserted earlier in the Bill a fixed date for the continuation of the Acts if we desired to make the Bill uniform throughout. That was an oversight which I regret, therefore I take this opportunity of moving an Amendment which will make the Bill uniform throughout. I am not quite sure whether I have put the Amendment down in the right place. I think I have, but I have put it down at the very beginning of the Bill this time, so that we cannot make the mistake we made in Committee. I also think I have put it down more or less in the correct words, but, considering that my legal knowledge is not sufficient to enable me to draft a proper Amendment, so long as the Government will accept the spirit of the Amendment, I do not care how it is worded or whether it is put in in this particular place.

I do not believe the Amendment will make very much difference to certain of the Acts of Parliament. We have been told by the Government—we were certainly told in Committee at the end of last Session—that it was very necessary to get this Bill, because the final ratification of the various Treaties of Peace would take place very soon. As the Bill stands, the Acts are continued for periods varying from six to twelve months, therefore the insertion of the thirty-first August, provided that the ratification of the Peace Treaties conies fairly soon, would not make any important alteration to those Acts which are continued for six months. It will make some slight alteration to those Acts which are to be continued for twelve months. The mere fact of having all these varying periods in one Schedule and a fixed period in the other is calculated to cause considerable trouble to the public and to the people who are affected by the Regulations. There is a great feeling in the House and in the country also that these Regulations ought not to be continued, at any rate where it is possible to avoid doing so. I do not wish to go into the old controversy which occurred in Committee, because I think the Government met us very fairly there, and I am very glad to have the opportunity of saying so. At the same time, it would be very much better, in the interests of everybody concerned, that there should be a uniform period, both for the Acts and for the Regulations.

The ATTORNEY - GENERAL (Sir Gordon Hewart)

I should like to thank the right hon. Baronet for the expressions he used as to the disposition which the representatives of the Government showed, and certainly endeavoured to show, in Committee. It is true to say that we made every concession we felt we reasonably could make. The result of that, and of the spirit which everybody showed, was that the proceedings in Committee were got through with very little friction and fairly great speed. I should be very glad if it were possible for us, in the same spirit, to accept this Amendment, but I fear it is impossible to do so. I am by no means sure that my right hon. Friend has appreciated the distinction between the two different things which in the course of his speech he has spoken of as if they were the same As the House is aware, the First Schedule contains certain Statutes and the Second Schedule contains certain Regulations issued under the Defence of the Realm Act. It may well be, as the right hon. Baronet says, that there is considerable feeling in the country that the Regulations should not be continued for an unnecessary time. I entirely agree. We have therefore adopted, with regard to all the Regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act, which it is proposed to continue, the uniform date of 31st August, so that so far as this particular Amendment is concerned there is no question whatever affecting any Regulation.

This Amendment says that uniformity is highly desirable, that it would avoid confusion and would lead to beneficial results if the Bill were to say in the case of the statutory enactments what it says in the case of the Regulations, that there should be an end of the prolonged period on 31st August. With great respect that is the proposition with which I desire to join issue. There is this great distinction between the Regulations in the Second Schedule and the statutory enactments in the First Schedule. It is quite true that in regard to many of the Regulations in the Second Schedule that they do give certain powers to Government departments which, in the absence of those Regulations, they would not enjoy, but with regard to the Statutes contained in the First Schedule, which alone are the subject of this Amendment, the effect of thorn is not to give any power to the Executive, but to extend and continue a remedy to the subject. Indeed, the proper way of looking at this Amendment is to see what these enactments are. May I ask the House to turn to the First Schedule? First, there is the Special Constables Act, 1914. As things stand, that Act will lapse as soon as the termination of the War is fixed by the Order in Council. What is it that that Act does? It permits the appointing of special constables and it is proposed to extend the provisions of that Act to special constables appointed during a period of one year after the termination of the present War. That is the only case in which it can be said that the enactments we propose to extend confer any power upon the Executive.


The House should consider that these various Acts were passed during a state of war. If it is necessary to renew them, they should be brought in separately to the House, and should not be renewed in this manner.


That is an argument to which I have listened on a great many occasions. I have never been able to appreciate the advantage of bringing in twenty little Bills in preference to one comprehensive Bill, provided that the result is exactly the same. Let mc pass to the second Act—the Courts Emergency Powers Act, 1914, as it is amended by certain subsequent Courts Emergency Powers Acts. The result of my right hon. Friend's Amendment, if it were adopted, would be grotesque so far as those Acts are concerned, because as they now stand they continue for a period of six months from the termination of the War, and if we were to say that they were to come to an end on the 31st August next, so far from prolonging them, we should be curtailing the period of their continuance. What do those Acts do? I am quite sure that hon. Members will be aware of their main purpose. These are Acts for the benefit of the less prosperous persons. Speaking generally, they are Acts for the benefit of the debtor in relation to his creditors. What did the first of these Acts do? It deferred execution, it deferred the levying of distress where the inability to pay was due to circumstances directly or indirectly attributable to the War—a purely remedial measure for the benefit of the less prosperous part of the population. What did the second of these Acts do? It made special provision in the cases of officers and men in the Naval and Military Forces. The third Act gave power to annul or suspend particular contracts—building contracts—where, through lack of either materials or labour, it was impossible to proceed with the contract. Let us look at the common feature of all these Acts. They were designed for the benefit of the less prosperous part of the public to enable them to meet difficulties arising out of and connected with the War. "What has happened? All the County Court judges and all the High Court judges have become perfectly familiar with these discretionary powers. The matters are dealt with rapidly; there is no waste of time; there is no remedy denied to anybody, but a discretion is given to the Court and there is interposed a new Statute providing that before taking certain proceedings the party to the action must first obtain the leave of the Court. If my right hon. Friend will be good enough to look at the last column he will see that these Acts are: To continue for a period of twelve months after the termination of the present War, as if in s. 2 (4) for the words 'six months' there were substituted the words 'twelve months' ". What does that mean? That, as a result of experience, the High Court judges and the County Court judges are satisfied that in this period of transition it is not desirable to put so early an end to these. Acts as was first thought desirable. If that he the inference from experience what becomes of the argument that we should have the same date in the first and second schedules? I submit we must look at the individual merits and purpose of the Act of Parliament concerned. I am not going through all of thorn, but let me mention also the Execution of Trusts (War Facilities) Act, as amended by the Execution of Trusts (War Facilities) (Amendment) Act, 1915. It is a general maxim of the law that a delegate cannot himself delegate his authority. This Act provided that a trustee might delegate his powers under certain circumstances, and the amending Act provided that a tenant for life under the Settled Land Acts might in like manner discharge his duties, and so also in the case of executors and administrators. We propose to extend that power for a little time longer as if these words were inserted in the Act (d) if during the period of 12 months after the termination of the present War he is, by reason of matters arising out of that War, engaged on service abroad as a member of the military, naval, or air forces of the Crown, or engaged on service in any work abroad of the British Red Cross Society or the St. John Ambulance Association, or any other body with similar objects. Just as in the early days of the War it was found desirable to give trustees the benefit of this enabling provision, so now it is thought desirable to continue that provision for some little time longer, because, though the acts of hostility have ceased, these gentlemen may still be absent on war service. I should have thought myself that that was a most proper provision, Then we have the Special Acts (Extension of Time) Act, which refers to cases where a company or an undertaking has got a special Act of Parliament to do certain work, under which the power must be exercised or the work must be completed within a certain time. Difficulties may have arisen in the completion of the work, and all that is proposed is to extend the period of application to the Department concerned for an extension of time from 6 to 12 months. That refers simply to the mere power to make an application, which in proper cases will be granted. So I might pass through the remaining Acts. I say without hesitation the proposal to continue every one of them is a proposal based on experience. It is not a proposal to give to the Government or to a Government Department any power which it would not otherwise have, but simply to continue for a further period remedial and enabling legislation which experience has shown to be of great need during the course of hostilities. I hope after that explanation that the right hon. Gentleman will see fit, as indeed he did upstairs, not to press his Amendment. It is quite true that there was a notion that it would be well to have the same limit of time in one Schedule and the other. In the second Schedule we did insert a date, but it would be a very different thing to do so as to the first Schedule without reference to the particular provisions which are contained in the measures mentioned in that first Schedule.

Captain W. BENN

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has explained that the Amendment would be an inconvenience in regard to certain sections in the Schedule. If I understood the right hon. Baronet's point it is that what we ought to do is as soon, as possible to wind up the special legislation passed for the period of the War. If you do not accept a time limit people will go on exercising those powers for ever.


They have a time limit.

Captain BENN

But we do not know when peace is to be ratified. When we were discussing the Conscription Bill last year it was supposed that peace would be ratified before April, but I do not suppose that anybody thinks that now. The right hon. Baronet suggests, and it seems to me to be reasonable, that there should be some time limit irrespective of the period of ratification. The War is over and peace has arrived and the special powers should be brought to an end.


That kind of argument has no relevancy to enabling a trustee, for example, who is detained on service abroad, even though the War is over, to be able to delegate his authority to somebody else. These are enabling powers in the hands of individuals.

Captain BENN

Take the question of summertime. The contention is that this matter either should lapse as having been a power granted for War time or should be enacted in permanent form if thought proper for the good of the Realm. We had an answer only yesterday that the Government were preparing a Bill to alter the chronology of the day in the new sense. If the right hon. Baronet's Amendment is carried then by the 31st August all these special powers will lapse and only those will remain which have been granted in the meantime. I quite agree with the Attorney-General that in certain cases it would not be proper to apply the one date, but, generally speaking, I submit some time limit should be set on these exceptional powers in order to get back as rapidly as possible to pre-War conditions so that people may know where they stand.


I entirely agree with the Attorney-General as to the view he takes that it is necessary to extend the time for these Acts, and I do not see myself how you could possibly fix a date like the 31st August, which would in some cases, I think, really shorten the period for which the Act was passed. I think the Government must know by experience that would be an impossible course, and the Attorney-General has told us that in the administration of the Acts it has been found necessary to make this extension. There is only one matter as to which I should like to get an assurance, and that is as to whether this Act in any wise makes any new enactment in the sense of adding to the emergency Acts which have been already passed. The right hon. and learned Gentleman stated that the first item, the Special Constables Act, was slightly enlarged, and that there was some change.


Only as to time.


With regard to the second Clause, as I read it, that proposes, in a few words, to make valid all the various orders, many of which have been disputed in the Courts, and some of which have been declared to be bad. I hope that is not the intention of the Government.


I believe it to be strictly accurate, with regard to the First Schedule, to say that there is no addition in substance to any of the actual proposals in the Bill. The addition is merely as to time, and where the enactment is otherwise altered it is altered in the sense of being limited and not extended. When we come to deal with the question of the regulations, the other point will arise, and I will defer any remarks I have to make on that subject until then.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.