HC Deb 23 March 1923 vol 161 cc2935-56

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill is merely a Bill to amend the existing Act of 1905, which is described as An Act to give compensation for damage by fire caused by sparks or cinders from railway engines, which was introduced originally under the non-embarrassing title of Compensation for Damage to Crops Bill. The House will pardon and expect a disclaimer from me of any affinity between the name I bear, for which I am not personally responsible, and the obnoxious sparks which are the objective of the existing law. Further, I tender the conventional plea that this, my first-born prodigy in this House is a small one, albeit a twin Measure to that introduced in the last Parliament. By this time it would have reached adolescence, but for the fact that the late House was dissolved by the untimely dissolution of its parents before it had become the law of the land. Last year's Bill, if it could not be said to be non-contentious, was a non-party or, rather, an all-party measure. The speakers who supported it comprised nine Conservatives, including the Minister of Agriculture, three Independent Liberals, four National Liberals and one prominent Labour Member, whilst the speakers opposing the Bill consisted of two Conservatives, two Independent Liberals and the then acting Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, whose opposition appears to have been based on the dread lest landlords should remotely or indirectly derive any benefit from the Measure. There was also an hon. Member described as "N.D.P." which I understand to mean "National Democratic Party." [HON. MEMBERS: "They are dead."] That would not be an inapt description of progressive Conservatives on these benches.

On such a burning question as this, I am going to assume that hon. Members who were not Members of the late Parliament will have studied the Bill and will be familiar with the scope, not only of the existing Act, but of this very modest Amendment. The existing law creates a statutory liability on the part of railway companies for damages, up to a rigid limit of £100, arising from sparks or cinders emitted from their locomotive engines to (1) agricultural land including arable and meadow land and ground used for pastural purposes or for market or nursery gardens and plantations, wood, and or orchards—moorlands and buildings being excluded—and (2) agricultural crops whether growing or severed which are not stacked or led—I take it that the word "led" would exclude from the Act severed crops carried or in wagons, etc. Neither the existing law nor this Bill extends to buildings, although thatch is often ignited, agricultural implements, to which fires sometimes spread, or to cattle or livestock. This amending Bill proposes to increase the limit of compensation from £100 to £200.

In the Debate on this twin Measure last year the passage of the 1905 Act was termed a concession on the part of the railways. If so, it was a concession of principle and not merely of the limit of pecuniary liability. However, that principle became and is the law of the land, and there is no going back from that fact. It may save reiteration in this Debate if I briefly summarise the arguments which were urged in May, 1922, for and against this Measure. In passing, may I observe that I called the most potent arguments from the speech made by a distinguished Member who is now Under-Secretary of State for India (Earl Winterton). In speaking on the 1905 Measure he advanced the plea for double indulgence, it was not only a maiden effort, but that he was addressing the House having only just attained the statutory years of discretion. This House may consider that 21 and 63 do not make a bad blend; I believe they were both sound vintage years.

The first argument in the Debate last year was that the railways caused destruction of the people's food, and that the produce of capital and labour ought to be paid for up to an adequate limit by the destroyers and ought not to be borne by the owner, the State or the community. The loss falls most heavily on owners and cultivators of small holdings and allotments now comprising thousands of ex-service men settled on the land at the expense or with the aid of the State— whilst the railways as their own insurers or otherwise can effect fire policies on a low scale of premiums which the small man cannot afford. Another argument in favour of the Bill was and is that the initial statutory immunity of railways, partially invaded by the Act of 1905, is not enjoyed by the carriers of road-borne commodities or by privately-owned light railways. The price of wheat in 1922 was nearly double that obtaining in 1905. The price after two excessively bad seasons, one from drought and the other from excessive wet, has, it is hoped, reached the abyss, and this argument stands stronger to-day than it did last year. Another argument was that whatever fluctuation there has been in the crop, whether present prices are for or against the raising of the limit from £100 to £200, one thing is quite clear that the purchasing or replacing value of £100 is far less now than it was far less last year than in 1905. In other words, a small owner compensated by £100 for pecuniary damage to his crop would only be getting in reality £50 now according to the reduced purchasing power of money. We say that the enhanced liability of the railway company naturally tends to increased precautions by the railways and will stimulate the use of preventives and the adoption of new inventions for decreasing risks. The estimated average liability, whilst a boon to owners of destroyed crops, is too trivial to affect appreciably railway revenues, passenger and goods rates, or still less railway dividends.

Now, perhaps, I may summarise some of the objections urged against the Bill, which was carried by a very large majority. The first argument was that the statutory immunity for negligence enjoyed by the railway companies formed part of the enormous price which they had paid for the land. What we say is that they had been recouped this decades ago a thousand fold from the value of their live and dead traffic receipts. Then it is said that the cultivators cannot enjoy the benefits derived from the propinquity of their land to the railway without at the same Lime shouldering the risk that arise from the same propinquity. Cultivators do not regard as a boon the all too literal heaping of coals of fire on their heads or on their crops. It was also urged that statistics show that the majority of claims do not even reach the limit which now exists. We say so much the better for the railways and that increasing the limit will not materially increase their burden.

I am keeping to the last the bonne bouche of the arguments on the other side. It is nothing else and nothing less than the speech by the gentleman who now occupies the distinguished office of Solicitor-General in this Government. I am rather glad that I do not see him in his place. If I did I should have hoped that he would have bestowed some "Bristol" milk of human kindness upon this little measure of righteousness. May I suggest that very often the experience of a solicitor enables him to take a wider outlook on the field of practical politics than the gentleman of the long robe, and perhaps that makes the contest between counsel and attorney for supremacy in the leadership of United Liberalism so piquant to both branches of the profession.

I am going to leave more competent speakers to demolish the arguments of the Solicitor-General if they are again advanced. But against them may be pitted the remarks that fell from an ex-Lord Chancellor who was Attorney-General in 1905—Sir Robert Finlay. He brushed aside all the sophistries and the subtleties of the Law Courts and poured a cold cascade of common sense on the lawyers arguments by taking the robust layman's view that special cases required special treatment, and that there were grievances here not susceptible of any remedy within reach of the sufferer. Sir Robert Findlay knew that well. I was surprised to note the lapse of learned luminaries, Members of this House during the debate on rent restriction when they referred to the House of Lords as the highest court in the land. The highest court in the land is the court of Parliament, at this time assembled, for which we so fervently pray in the incomparable Liturgy of the national Church. Those were the arguments advanced, and now I am coming to the end of my labours by merely pointing out that this Bill consists of two Clauses. The first merely advances the limit from £100 to £200, and I have given the arguments for and against that main object of the Bill. I refrain from commenting on the only other effective Clause, Clause 2, because on the one hand it does extend the limit of time within which the claimant must notify the claim, yet that privilege is far outbalanced in favour of the railways by the greater precision of notice both in the form and the substance which the railways are entitled to get before they become liable under the Act. In conclusion, I feel that it would not be a digression to state that the only danger to the swift and easy passage of this Bill is a lurking dread of futility, lest all efforts in the cause of agriculture, the State's master key industry, will be unavailing, if indeed it be the settled will of the nation that "agriculture must live on an economic basis." Agriculture is dying on an economic basis, but let all well wishers of agriculture garner even the small crumbs of sustenance for their distressed industry in the unquenchable hope that no avenue to an enduring national policy for the restoration of agriculture is as yet closed, a policy which will secure to this country in time of peace as well as in time of war a continuous and abundant supply of home-grown food measured only by the utmost capacity of the soil.


I beg to second the Motion.


The hon. Gentleman who moved the Second Heading has told us that agriculture is dying. I am afraid that agriculture is in a bad way, but this Bill is not going to help it, and if it were I do not see why it should be at the expense of railway shareholders who for many years have received very small dividends. [HON. MEMBEES: "Oh!"] The average of dividends paid in 1913 was only 4½ per cent. on the whole of the railway capital.


Did that include watered stocks?


What about agriculture?


I am an agriculturist and I know that from 1914 until 1920 agriculture did very well, while railway shareholders were, by an Act of this House, limited during those years to the dividends which they received before the War. Agriculturists made, very considerable profits during those years. Therefore they did better during the years of the War than did the railway shareholders. The hon. Member says that something ought to be done for agriculture. This little Bill will do very little for agriculture. But, if something ought to be done for agriculture, why do not solicitors and other people pay a little more for their bread and consent to a protective duty being put on imported corn and meat? That would do good to agriculture. I am a protectionist, and I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman also is a protectionist.


I would subsidise agriculture.


My hon. Friend is only a Protectionist when he can get money out of the pockets of other people and does not touch himself. The hon. Gentleman is learned in the law. He has said that the railway companies, even supposing that they did pay a considerable price for their land, have recouped themselves over and over again since that time. I deny that altogether. But, suppose it was so, what on earth has it to do with this case? The railway companies purchased the land with the right of running certain engines over that land, and those engines sometimes emit sparks. That was well known at the time. As a matter of fact there arc in many of the conveyances stipulations that no damages shall be charged against the railway companies because they work the land over which the engines run. That was all considered in the price. Suppose that the hon. Gentleman owned land and built a house close to a factory which he found a nuisance. He sells the house to me. If I go to him and say: "You make a good deal of money out of your factory. I bought the house knowing the factory was a nuisance, but I now ask you for some compensation," what would the hon. Gentleman say? He would not give me a shilling; nor would the law. That is the case of the railway companies. They bought the land and paid large prices for it, in order that they might run their trains over it. If you show that they are not taking proper precautions to prevent the emission of sparks that is a different thing. Let me read what the present Solicitor-General said last year: Parliament has long ago authorised railways to be constructed, and it has authorised them to be constructed for the benefit of the general community. It has given them statutory powers, and it has passed Acts to enable railways to be laid throughout the land. It is probably impossible to construct an engine which will prevent sparks from flying under any circumstances,"—[OFFICIAL RETORT, 7th April, 1922; col. 2630, Vol. 152.]


That is quite wrong.


It is nothing of the sort. If the hon. Gentleman can show how it can be done, he will probably make a considerable sum of money for himself. The present Solicitor-General went on: When the Acts were passed it was known that fires were caused by sparks, and from time to time fires have been caused." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th April, 1922; col. 2630, Vol. 152.] Let us come to the other side of the question, and let us see why it is argued that the Bill of last year should become law. There was last year only one argument. Mr. Townley, then a Member of the House, said: This Bill, which is a very small measure, and one which, I hope, will receive full approval from this House, seeks to alter that very small limit of £100 to £200, and the reason is that, when this Measure was passed in 1905, the value of the produce alongside the railway was, practically speaking, one-half what it is to-day. The average value of wheat, for instance, for the seven years ended in 1904 was 27s. 4d. or thereabouts, but the value of wheat to-day is practically double."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th April, 1922; col. 2622, Vol. 152.] And the Seconder said the same thing— I submit that that Act is unsatisfactory for five reasons. In the first place whereas the value of crops has increased enormously since the year 1905, the amount that the railway companies can pay remains constant, being limited to £100. To show the way in which the value of crops has gone up. I may mention that wheat since 1905 has risen by 112 per cent., barley by 81 per cent., and oats by 98 per cent."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th April, 1922; col. 2624. Vol. 152.] Therefore the sole arguments were that, whereas wheat and barley and oats have risen practically 100 per cent. in value, so the amount of liability for damage should be doubled. What is the position now. In case anyone should doubt my statement, I have brought the Act of 1905 into the House. That Act did not become law until 1908, a fact of which, apparently, all these gentlemen are oblivious. What was the price of wheat in 1908? I am now quoting from "Whitaker's Almanack." In 1908 the price of wheat was 32s.; in 1909, 36s. 11d.; 1910, 31s. 8d.; 1911, 31s. 8d.; 1912, 34s. 9d. For the five years that makes an average of 33s. 4d. I turn next to yesterday's newspaper to find the price of corn in Mark Lane. I find that English wheat is 9s. 6d. to 9s. 9d. for the higher grade. That is for the cwt., and, taking a quarter at 504, which is the highest, 9s. 6d. to 9s. 9d. is equal to 42s. to 43s. Inferior qualities yesterday were 8s. 6d. to 8s. 9d. That is under 40s. Therefore, instead of wheat having doubled, in October and November of this year you could not get more than about 40s. for it. At present the price is about 42s. to 43s., and in 1908 it was 32s., with an average for the 5 years from 1908 to 1912 of 33s. 4d. I give the promoters of the Bill the advantage of a 1s. and say 43s. It means an increase of 10s., or about 30 per cent., not 100 per cent. Two rather interesting letters appeared in yesterday's "Times." I do not know the gentleman, Mr. Good-child, of Castle Hedingham, Essex, who wrote the first, but he is apparently a farmer. He says: In 1912. when wheat was making 37s. 6d. a quarter, barley 35s., oats 23s., grass hay 90s. per ton, and potatoes 80s. a ton … now with wheat at 40s. a quarter, barley 30s., oats 26s.,"— barley, according to the gentleman, is actually lower in value than it was in 1912— hay 80s. and potatoes 22s. per ton. According to this gentleman there is only a slight increase in wheat, while oats and barley are actually lower than they were in 1912. I have here a still better letter from an hon. Member of this House —the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Lieut.-Colonel Coates). This is what he writes: The only feasible way by which agriculture can be financed at the present time is by a Government guarantee to the ' big Five ' banking companies in England. Farmers' produce in East Anglia is absolutely unsaleable."— It was not unsaleable when the Act was passed. The hon. Member proceeds: There are many miles of potato pits and many thousands of tons of cereals which are merely rotting because foreign produce is being imported into this country without question. According to the hon. and gallant Member who is supposed to know something about the subject, farmers' produce is unsaleable and thousands of tons of cereals are rotting because they cannot be sold. Where, then, is the case for the Bill? There is absolutely no case for it at all, or at the most only a very weak and bad case founded on the suggestion that cereals are, roughly speaking, double the price they were when the original Act was passed. As a matter of fact, the price of cereals now shows hardly any increase. All authorities on agriculture have been saying during this year that agriculture is in an extremely bad way, and that unless something is done to keep up prices the cultivation of cereals must be diminished and the land allowed to go back into grass. What is going to happen is that the prices will go back to the level which existed before the War. What then will be the use of the Bill? [An HON MEMBER: "What harm will it do?"] It will do this harm. On the ground that cereals are worth much more than before the War, when, in fact, they are worth nothing of the kind, it may make the railway shareholders pay double what they would have paid before the War. The railway shareholders should, in fact, have paid nothing before the War, because they had bought this land and were only using it for the purpose for which it was bought. Hon. Members cannot get over that argument.

The only other point is as to the extension of the time limit within which a claim has to be made. The period is to be extended from seven days to 14 days. A farmer knows when he has had a fire, and all he has to do is to write a postcard to the nearest station or to the terminus of the railway company to say there has been a fire. Why should he wait for 14 days? That will make it quite impossible for the railway companies to ascertain how the fire arose. In these days agricultural labourers will persist in smoking at their work. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame"] Well, how can they do their work if they are continually smoking. If they are smoking they may drop sparks. They have matches to light their pipes or cigarettes, and the fire may be caused in that way. How is anybody to find it out? A good many farmers object to the men smoking during their work, and if a farmer ordered men not to smoke and a fire arises in consequence of the disregard of that order, what is more likely than that the labourers will say the fire occurred owing to a spark from a passing railway engine? There is no earthly reason for the extension of this period, nor is there any reason for extending time within which a claim can be put in from 14 days to 21 days. I cannot conceive how anybody who has listened to my arguments can possibly support the Bill. I do not know if the hon. Member who moved the Second Reading has listened to me. If he has not listened to me it is rather a good thing for him; otherwise he will feel this evening when he is at dinner or smoking his pipe that it was a very wrong thing to bring forward a Bill which has been so demolished by my arguments. I sincerely trust that the House will not give it a Second Reading.


I believe the principle of this Bill has already been conceded under the 1905 Act, and it is therefore unnecessary to devote long speeches to the principle directly involved. There is, however, another principle concerned, to which I should like to draw attention, and it is that no individual and no body of individuals should have the right to destroy food. That is another principle embodied in the Bill. The object of the Bill is to prevent individual loss, as against the loss which possibly should and could be paid very much better collectively by the shareholders. It is true that the replacement of the value is to-day a question of very much greater importance than it was in 1905. Consequently the necessity for this compensation is very much greater. The right hon. Baronet who spoke last made comparisons between the condition of agriculture and the condition of the railway stockholders. I assure him whatever the condition of the railway stockholders may be, it cannot nearly approach the present condition of agriculture and the right hon. Gentleman's argument on that point falls to the ground, even if it is only a matter of common humanity to those who are in the greatest need— to put it on no higher plane. The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the fact that the land was sold for the purpose of making railways and that high prices were paid for it. That may be so, but those prices did not go to to the agriculturalists who are growing food but to the landlord or the owner of the land. Although a man may sell land at a high price for a particular purpose, I contend he has no right to sell land giving a free licence to any section of the community to destroy food which is, in future, to be grown upon that land.

The right hon. Baronet referred also to the condition of agriculture from 1914 to 1920, and he said how much better the industry was during that period. I am not here to deny it, but I am here to state that agriculture was not the only industry that was doing well during the war yeans, and further, it is an absolute fact that the money which was accruing to the industry in those years has now gone. It very largely never existed, for this reason, that it was invested in such a manner that the depreciations in stock which have taken place since then have now swallowed up entirely the amount of increment which those men had. Farmers in the old days were not men who had had a great deal of floating capital to invest. They had never acquired that confidence which some people have in stock and share dealings to enable them to acquire the information and the confidence necessary perhaps to invest their money, if they had any, in that class of securities. The money which they did make they invested very largely in live stock, which they knew something about, and the result was that stock was raised in price very much higher than it ever ought to have been raised. Farmers, by competing against each other for animals, brought the price of stock to such a high level that it was quite uneconomical, and when the slump came they had to write down the value of those stock. The money, therefore, which they assumed they had during those years has now disappeared, and consequently there is no reserve for agriculturists at the present time.

Reference was made also to the price of wheat, but it is not the price of wheat which is the only item to be considered in this question. It is the cost of growing the wheat which is much more pertinent than the price at which the wheat is being sold, although that is relevant, and at the present time it is acknowledged that the returns which are being received per acre for crops will only be about £9 for wheat, £7 for barley in many instances, and from £10 to £15 for potatoes, to put against the cost of production, which is many many times higher than that. Consequently, there is to-day a very great loss on the growing of all these crops, so that I think I have proved that the price at which they are being sold to-day is not the only relative point which should be considered. A remark was made on the question of smoking by farmers. I think smoking is the only contentment that the farmers have got, and as to the farm labourer, I do not think he can really afford the tobacco to smoke, and it may be that he will come back to the suggestion, that I believe was made from the other benches, that he might possibly have to smoke clover heads, but whatever he smokes, it all ends in smoke. Reference has been made to the question of sparks. We have to-day had an emission from "Sparkes" which I believe has thrown considerable light on this question. It has not created a fire, but I hope it will create such an enthusiasm that this House will give this Measure its Second Reading.


It is very interesting to us on this side to see hon. Members opposite quarrelling amongst themselves. We do not often get that pleasure. While I support the principle of the original Act, I view with some suspicion the extension of the Act as is suggested in the Bill, and it seems to me that much could have been done if the two interests opposite had met, because I want to bring some indictment against them both. I am not an agriculturist, and hon. Members opposite always tell us that we on this side are not agriculturists. I suppose there never has teen any agriculturist on this side of the House, according to them. As an engine driver and a fireman, I have been running through the country between London, Leeds, and Manchester for something like 35 years, and I have seen a good deal of agriculture going on, and fires taking place. I am bound to say that in very many instances, had the farmers exercised ordinary care, those fires would not have taken place. It seems to me that with such crops as wheat, barley, rye, oats, and hay, when those fields run up to the railway line, the farmers might at least remember, as they know year after year the liability to fires, that there are some very elementary precautions that could be taken to prevent the destruction of their crops. There are some farmers who do that, but I suppose the truth of the matter is that farmers are about as full of prejudices as the rest of us. I have noticed, in running through the country, that some farmers have the foresight always to plant root crops near the railway.


You had better stick to your engine driving.


When the applause has subsided, I will get on. I did not mean by that that a field of 50 or 100 acres was planted with root crops all over the field. I was going on to explain that I meant that a line, say, some ten or twelve feet wide, on the other side of the hedge adjoining the railway, is regularly, through Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Nottingham, and other places, sown by some farmers with root crops, and the rest of the field grows corn. I say this of my own certain knowledge, having seen it for year after year, and I get so accustomed to what is going on that in many of the fields I could tell you what crops have been planted for very many years. We get to know the fields as we go by them daily. I suppose laughter from the hon. Gentlemen on the other side went up from the fact that it had not dawned on the agriculturists opposite that there is a way of preventing fires. I notice that some farmers, when they are raking the hay—the windrows, I believe is the name—rake in a certain direction, and after long experience I have noticed that if the windrows come on to the railway from across the field, so that the end of the windrows always comes on to the railway, the farmers in such eases have more destructive fires than when the windrows run alongside the railway. If a windrow which ends near the railway catches alight, it runs across the field, and there is a danger of the other part of the field catching more rapidly, but if it runs alongside the railway, it does not spread across the field, but is confined to that quarter. Other farmers take a very elementary precaution, and that is, when autumn is approaching, to plough some deep furrows alongside the hedge, which very effectively prevents fires from spreading.

Other farmers never do that, and it seems to me that when hon. Members opposite are coming to the country for a Bill to reimburse them for these fires, they at least ought to have some Clause in the Bill which would impose certain elementary precautions upon them. I quite agree with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Lamb) when he spoke about agricultural labourers smoking, as against the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury). Of course a claim could only be made if the labourer dropped his match or cigarette end close to the railway, but if a fire started from the other corner of a 20-acre field, you could hardly prove that a railway spark had caused it, because the spark is usually a cinder, which is rather heavy, and it does not go very far from the railway unless a wind is blowing. The point was made by the right hon. Baronet that when railways were first laid down, everyone knew that sparks were going to be emitted from the engine, but I would point out that when the railways were first laid down, the conditions were very different from those of to-day.

The passenger engine was not loaded by its ability to haul a train, but according to its ability to stop a train, because in those days there were no continuous brakes and no block telegraphs, with the result that the engines were not loaded up to their ability to haul, the haulage capacity was not strained, as it is to-day, and it is just the load on the coupling which causes the spark, because it is the intensity of the blast in the smoke-box of the engine drawing the air rapidly through the fire which carries the sparks with it. Too many of these fires are caused through the breakdown of private enterprise to run railways satisfactorily. When the ordinary locomotive on an ordinary trunk line is first built, it is a very efficient machine, and, as everyone who is interested at all in railways knows, the smoke-box ashes which are deposited in the smoke-box are as fine as pepper when the engine is new, because with the valves and pistons tight, you get the most effective work out of the steam and you do not get the air drawn through the fire with sufficient force to raise large sparks. But the engine deteriorates, and here is where private enterprise comes in.


Are there no fires on the French State Railways?


I have never seen French railways.


I have. They are the curse of the country.


I have never travelled foreign parts. I had a day at Southend once. A locomotive engine, like agricultural machinery, can wear out, and the very tender parts of a locomotive engine are the valves and pistons, and when they begin to wear, you do not get proper, effective work out of the engine as you do when it is new, with the result that the engine driver has to work his engine much heavier, and there is a greater force of air drawn through the fire. The average engine driver—of course there is the other sort—like the average ploughman, is very fond of his steed. No ploughman, for instance, considers it a cardinal sin to steal oats for his horse, and so the average engine driver is proud of his locomotive, and understands all its foibles. He is also concerned with economy in the repair and upkeep of his engine. He prides himself on it, with the result that he reserves the reporting of certain repairs to be done until a convenient season, when locomotive engines have various parts examined periodically. On one occasion on my own engine the valves were blowing through very badly, and I wanted what is known as new liners in the steam-chest, and I did not report it officially-—although I told the foreman verbally—until my bogie was being examined—the bogie is the truck under the front of the locomotive which runs on the four wheels enabling us to go round curves with safety and ease— because they could not do this job without taking the bogie out, and it is a day's work to get at it. Here is where private enterprise comes in. The superintendents of various districts all vie with each other to run their particular districts economically, which is quite right. My superintendent on this occasion did not take my word, and instead of doing this job which would have cost about £5, let it go with the result that I and others lost time compelling us to report the state of the engine, and having the engine stopped specially for the necessary repairs. As a result, the chimney top with a full load was like a squib on the Fifth of November. It seemed to me that coal was being wasted, and that there was a danger of setting fire to crops.

That is what I meant when I said that safeguards must be put in. The modern super-heated locomotive throws the minimum of sparks, but with private enterprise as it is we do get a wasteful locomotive. Therefore, I have a vision that some day, with a view to helping the nation, and farmers in particular, we shall have another Bill in this House dealing with railways when I hope we shall be able to count on their support. I do think that this Bill ought to be withdrawn, and the two contending sides ought to meet together and agree on some measure of compromise, which would compel the farmers who laughed at me just now to take elementary precautions. I do not know anything about farming, but I have seen in the 35 years I have been running through the country some farmers who never have fires, and some who have a lot of fires, and it does seem to me, as agriculturists have come here pleading poverty, that if we double the amount they may claim, some farmers will have a lot of fires as is the case with some City warehouses. I do not know. But I do think this Bill ought to be withdrawn, and the two contending sides meet and arrange their difference between themselves.

12 N.


I should like to support the Bill very warmly, because, although I feel that in the majority of cases the risk is not great for the average farmer, at the same time, when a fire takes place on the holding of a small man with a limited capital, the hardship entailed is a very real one. Arguments have been adduced against the Bill, and the hon. Member who spoke last suggested to agriculturists certain courses of action which they might take to save themselves from the risk of fire to their crops. I think, however, he forgot altogether that a farmer, first of all, should so crop his land as to obtain the best advantage from that land. In the second place, there is the question of the rotation of cropping, and unless a farmer is prepared to adhere to an approved rotation of cropping, he will fail to get the best from his land. I would venture to suggest that just as a great deal of water has flowed under the bridges since 1908, so has a great change taken place in agriculture since the passing of the 1908 Act. Many new owners have purchased land, many new public authorities, such as county councils, have bought large acreages of land, and have settled numbers of smallholders upon it, and I would point out that those new smallholders are not, in most cases, members of powerful organisations like the National Farmers' Union. They belong, in most cases, to no union. They have no one to fight their battles, and, therefore, the hardship of a fire in cases of small holders situated in that position is a real one, and it is necessary that they should receive a measure of protection.

After all, what is the principle of the Act? It is that where damage has been suffered and where no contributory negligence can be shown compensation should be paid. Personally, I am amazed at the fact that those responsible for this Bill have not put the limit higher than £200. I myself cannot see if negligence has taken place why the limit should be as low as £200. I know it may be urged that other remedies are open to the agriculturist, that he can proceed in other courts. I would suggest, however, in all sincerity, that the agriculturist is afraid of the law and that he cannot carry his case to the High Court. He knows the expense that that involves; and in fact the only court that many agriculturists are likely to have cognisance of is the Bankruptcy Court. It has been suggested that it is a great advantage to have a railway passing through the middle of a farm. That may be the case if the station is situated near the farm, but in many cases, so far from the railway being an advantage, it is a serious disadvantage because of the negligence of those working the rail-day, in addition to the risk to which reference has already been made. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) when this Bill was before the House last year stated, I think, that only 5 per cent. of the claims which had been submitted to the Great Northern Railway Company in 1921 were for over £100. I do not think that that argument proved anything. It only indicated that there were claims that were legitimate and proper claims, in my view it only showed that there was hardship, and that there was a case which this House ought to consider, and which this House might be prepared to meet.

In view of the enormous burden which the railway companies put upon agriculture at the present time, when they charge for transporting produce a matter of 40 or 50 miles as much and more than the whole value of the crop which it has taken a man 12 months, and in some cases more, to bring to maturity, and which indeed may represent a turnover of 24 months. In view of the railway companies charges for the transportation of produce a few miles being more than the owner gets for growing it, with all the attendant risks entailed on his money for such a long period. In view, too, of the enormous burdens which the railway companies are placing upon the community they should be prepared to act fairly towards the smallholder and the small grower. I suggest that in many cases railways are not keeping abreast of the times. We know that electrification is in many cases necessary, and we know that electrification is not being carried out very actively at the present time in this country. I do hope that railway companies will adopt a forward policy and that they will provide what is, after all, a real and lasting remedy, and at the same time be of greater service to the public. I would respectfully suggest to the House that this Bill be given a Second Reading.


On the principle that one good turn deserves another, and to give the other side the pleasure which one hon. Member said he was having because those on the other side of the House were divided in opinion on this matter, I desire, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for South Leeds (Mr. Charleton) to support the Bill. I support it on the ground that it is fair and reasonable, and that whatever damage is done by one party to another party's property should be compensated on fair and reasonable grounds. My objection to the Bill is that it prescribes a particular range of value at all. I do not see why a farmer, having had his goods destroyed, should not have the right to come upon the company for the full value of whatever destruction has been committed. Since, however, the Bill only provides for the extension of the existing amount, to that extent I willingly and gladly support it. I do not for a single moment think that the carrying forward of this principle would be other than in the long run good for agriculturists, good for the railway companies, and good also, apparently to judge what has been said, for the railway companies, employees.

We have been given a hint that the railway company does not always consider the damage which its engines are doing because of their inefficient condition, and it is quite probable that the provisions of the Bill by putting a liability of this kind upon the railway companies will compel them to take care of their engines, and probably in the long run the result will be a gain to the companies themselves. It seems to me, knowing a great deal about agriculture from the outside, and watching it as the representative of a partly agricultural constituency that agriculture has to consider a great many things in regard to rotation of crops and so on that the railway engineman does not always understand, or take into account. It is impossible for him to face all these questions other than as an agriculturist subjected to the dangers, difficulties, and disabilities which other users of the adjoining land put upon him. Whether the railway company, as has been suggested by one speaker, in the first purchase of land paid a price sufficient to cover itself against any danger or liability of this kind is a point that seems to me to be a moot point. It should have purchased a much wider swath of land for the purpose of providing against claims. It has neglected its liability, so far as the purchase of land is concerned, by getting the smallest possible margin, and it has put upon those who farm that margin the liability for bearing whatever loss its action entails upon them For these and a good many other reasons which might be advanced and which, it seems to me that the House would comprehend without any necessity for entering into them, I gladly support this Bill, and hope it will receive a Second Reading.


I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for South Leeds (Mr. Charleton), because I think there could not possibly have been made out a stronger case for the Bill. The hon. Member said that the figure in the Bill was much too small. Then he went on to relate what he called elementary precautions which were and ought to be taken by farmers, as he had observed, from what he called, I think, the bed-plate of the engine.


The foot-plate!


The footplate: When the right hon. Member travelled through the agricultural districts he noted the expense which must have been incurred in taking the elementary precautions, and the losses in putting the land down out of cultivation in order to avoid the danger of passing engines. My hon. Friend, I think, must have been a special terror to farmers. I have made it a rule when I have been travelling through the country to observe the precautions taken in cases, and certainly if these precautions have to be taken for compensation under this Bill, the amount that ought to have been put in the Bill, in view of the amount spent on these things, should not be put at £200, which is obviously insufficient, but more like £1,000. The other point is that the hon. Member has made it perfectly clear that if the railway companies and those who drove their engines took the proper precautions and looked properly after the care and maintenance of their engines there would be very few sparks. It is this action, and want of action, on the part of the railway companies which makes the case for the Bill. I am sure the House admires the extraordinary ability with which my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) deals with certain matters that come before the House. He reminds me of the trunk of the elephant which, it is said, has the capacity of dealing with enormous weights or picking up pins. My right hon. Friend delights the House on matters of high national finance, and he speaks with equal energy and persistence about a tiny matter against the railway companies put forward on behalf of the farmers. But there is one argument which my right hon. Friend used which I really could not follow. He said he could not see why the shareholders should be called upon for this particular compensation. It ought to fall upon somebody else.


indicated dissent.


Well on the farmer perhaps, or, at any rate, not on the railway shareholder. It really reminds me of an incident that occurred when a certain commanding officer went out with a shooting party and unfortunately shot a beater. He went to his subaltern and said, "A most unfortunate event has occurred; a beater has been shot; let us send round the hat for him." He did not seem to realise that the person who had fired the shot was the person to pay the compensation. If my right hon. friend applies that story, he will see why we think that the railway shareholder ought to pay. The principle of this Bill has been already thoroughly established, and I think the case put forward on behalf of the farmers is extraordinarily moderate. If there be any fault to be found with the Bill, the figure named is too small. Therefore, I feel sure that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

The MINISTER OF AGRICULTURE (Colonel Sir Robert Sanders)

I want to say, on behalf of the Government, that we are in favour of this Bill and hope the House will give it a Second Reading. Practically, its only opponent has been my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury). He at all events has been consistent, for he opposed the Bill of 1905. Really, his attitude towards my hon. friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Sparkes) this morning can only be compared with that of the master of the workhouse towards Oliver Twist when he asked for more. He pointed out that, whereas the increase in the price of wheat over the pre-war price last year, amounted to 100 per cent., the figure to-day was about 30 per cent. I should like to know if this Bill were limited to 30 per cent. whether he would support it.


You propose a 30 per cent. increase in Committee, and I shall probably agree with you.


I will not undertake to do that, because, after all, although it is true that the increase this year is only 30 per cent., the decrease in the value of money is a great deal more. The fact is that, according to the returns, £176 to-day buys that which cost only £100 before the War. The object of this Bill is to compensate to some extent for the change in the value of money. After all, I do not think the railways need be afraid. This is not a very big thing. My hon. Friend who introduced the Bill may be astonished at his own moderation. It will hurt the railway companies very little indeed, and it will be a great benefit to a man who may incur very substantial damage through fires from railway engines.

Question "That the Bill be now read a Second time "put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.