HC Deb 08 March 1929 vol 226 cc762-82

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [5th March], That this House doth agree with the Committee in the Resolution: 'That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £385,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1029, for sundry Dominion Service?, including a Grant-in-Aid, for advances in certain cases on account of liabilities assumed by the Government of the Irish Free State in connection with Compensation for Damage to Property or with Land Purchase, or for certain ex gratia Grants, and for Expenditure in connection with Ex-Service Men in the Irish Free State.'

Question again proposed.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

First of all, I am very much obliged to the hon. and gallant Gentleman who is acting for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury in taking this Order at a reasonable hour of the day, instead of late at night. It is the last item of Government business to-day, so that there was no need for indecent haste on the previous occasion. There are one or two matters which I want to put to the Colonial Secretary and to ask him to explain. This is a sum of £385,000 for the grants for the Southern Irish loyalists. I want to know who really are the people who will benefit by this sum. I will give an actual case, of which I know, which was pursued over a number of years and finally turned down. It is the case of an Irish gentleman, who was a small landowner and a gentleman farmer in the South-West of Ireland. I will not mention the name, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has refused to give us any particulars at all of the claims. Therefore, I will tell the right hon. Gentleman in private who this unfortunate person is. I do not propose to give his name for many reasons, one of which I have indicated. This gentleman would, I suppose, be called a loyalist. His father was a strong Unionist, and he is one himself. At the beginning of the War he enlisted as a private soldier and went right through the East African campaign. He, is a Protestant, and I know him through his cousin, who is a comrade of mine in the Navy.

At the end of the Irish trouble, just before the Special Constabulary, known as the Black and Tans, were recalled from Ireland, they burned his property, for what reason I do not know. They burned a great many people's property. They burned the main street of Cork, containing large shops owned by supporters of the present Government or its party. That was, I believe, said to have been due to a regrettable mistake. I do not know who compensated the shopkeepers in Cork. There were many other burnings by these partisans, but in this particular case which I have mentioned I gather the reason was that he had let it be known that he was a supporter of Lord Midleton, who at that time wanted an agreement on broad lines of a Dominion policy for Ireland. He was reproached as being a Conservative and an Irish Protestant landlord, and he, perhaps foolishly, said that he thought that perhaps Lord Midleton knew as much about the real needs of Ireland as the hon. Baronet the Member for East Walthamstow (Sir H. Greenwood) who was then Irish Secretary. His property was burned accordingly, and he has never been able to get compensation. Will he come under this Agreement and under the category of loyalists and be able to look to the committee to pay his claim for compensation in full? I think he deserves it by his loyal service to the Crown. He took no active part in the Irish troubles, but tried to pull his property together when he came back from the exhausting campaign in East Africa. Can he look to the Government to make good the misdeeds of their servants in Ireland and, if not, to whom is he to look? If he is to look to the Irish Free State, is anything to be done through the right hon. Gentleman's good offices to see that he gets something, because so far he has been able to get nothing whatsoever. If he were one of the people who had been able to get near the right hon. and gallant Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton) he would have been greeted as one of the great heroes who came back from the War to find their property injured. I want the right hon. Gentleman to tell me what should be done, and I shall be very glad if he will try to get this case settled.

1.0 p.m.

There are a number of property owners in Ireland who come under the category of loyalists—people for whom the hon. Member for South Kensington (Sir W. Davison) specially speaks, and also the right hon. and gallant Member for Burton and other Die-hards in this House. A certain number of these people had their houses burned down, and were promised that if they rebuilt them in Ireland they would receive payment from the Irish Free State Government. I happen to know West Connemara well, for I go there whenever I can spare the time, because it is very peaceful, and I like the people, and partly because there is very good angling. I know the history of what happened there, and it was this. After our troops were withdrawn, there was a Republican army in the West and a Free State army moving against them. In order to deprive the Free State forces of any billets or big buildings which could be used as barracks, the Republicans burned down nearly all the large houses in the district. They burned down the big railway hotel and a number of other houses. In one ease, an Englishman who had bought property there—a fisherman—and had a very fine house, had his property burned down, not for any political reason, but for military reasons. He paid the cost of rebuilding, and has now built a beautiful place, and he was to be paid the cost of it by the Free State Government. The railway company whose hotel was burned down was told that if they rebuilt it they would be paid the cost by the Irish Free State Government. Does not this apply to the other people also? I went down to the Shannon the other day partly to see the great electrical barrage and partly to try, unsuccessfully, to fish for salmon, and one of the great houses I used to know in the old days when stationed in Ireland long before the War—belonging to a noble lord whose name I will not mention—stood there a hollow shell, and I made inquiries about it. This place was burned in the troubles also. I asked whether he was going to rebuild it, and I was told that he could rebuild it and get paid by the Irish Free State Government, but that the Irish Free State Government would not pay unless it was rebuilt, and the money was spent in Ireland. Are all these people going to be paid by this House if they do not rebuild their properties in Ireland, or are they going to say: "It is not safe, and we do not want to live there, but we are loyalists and the British taxpayers will pay"? That is the question to which I want an answer. If that be the case, I think it is unfair to British taxpayers. The country is perfectly safe for anyone who is prepared to behave himself, and nobody need fear any kind of reprisals or persecution of any kind—of that I am convinced. I have travelled all over the country during the last few years, and I really think that these claims should be scrutinised a little further. These are the two cases to which I should be very glad to have a reply.


I want to intervene in this Debate, as in the last, rather from the legal than from the administrative point of view. I was one of those who heard the Debate at the time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the right hon. Gentleman gave such weighty reasons why this grant should not be admitted. One of the reasons which was then used was that the committee which was sitting in consideration of these grants was one which was having all the evidence placed before it ex parte. It was pointed out that the Treasury had never been heard, that all applications were ex parte, that therefore the body was not, strictly speaking, a judicial body at all but acting in an administrative capacity, and that there was no reason to suppose that, if the Government case had been heard, either the awards or the amounts were something which the Government ought properly to give. Since that time I have never heard a word from the Government to suggest that that argument has not as much weight to-day as it had before the revolt of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway opposite. What are we to understand? Are we to understand, on the one side, that when they were opposing this payment the Government insincerely put up the argument that this was a mere ex parte application, speaking with their tongue in their cheek, in order to find some one reason why the payment should not be made, or are we to understand that when they used that argument, which had great weight in it, that only one side had been heard, they really meant what they said?

The Government have surrendered. I am not going into that matter but the fact remains that the Government have capitulated, and the amount which is to be paid is, I understand, the total amount awarded. What has happened to the argument that the Government were never heard before the Wood Renton Committee? Is it now said that, after all, the Committee was a judicial committee? Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the right hon. Gentleman withdraw all the arguments which were used when they endeavoured to make the House think that this committee was not one to be treated as having judicial authority? If the right hon. Gentleman still maintains that it is not a judicial committee, does he say the money is not money which has been judicially determined or does he now say that the argument that the absence of representation on the part of the Government had invalidated the finality of the Wood Renton claims has all gone merely because his supporters in the House threatened him with defeat?

As a matter of general principle we ought to know whether the Government really meant what they said when they told us that this was not a judicial committee or whether they were trying to bluff us—if I may use the phrase. We are entitled to know whether the Government say to-day that this sum of money is a sum which has properly and adequately been ascertained by proper evidence, after hearing every side of the question, or whether it is still, as they then said, a sum which has merely been given on the application of claimants without the Government's side of the case having been heard. I believe this point has not been raised since that debate. It is quite true that general discussion has taken place as to whether the Government should or should not have surrendered, but one of the principal arguments on which the Government then relied, was the contention that the Wood Renton Committee had never functioned judicially at all. Do we now understand, now that the amount is to be paid, that the Wood Renton Committee did function as a court, because if it is said that it did function as a court we have some interesting precedents for the future? When, hereafter, a committee is set up to ascertain claims and the case of the Government is not put before the committee, the whole matter being ascertained after hearing one side only, are we to assume that the Government are to treat those ex parte applications as claims which the House ought to honour? Where are we in the matter of these tribunals? That is why I have intervened—to know on what principle the Government will proceed in the future.

There are two courses open. One is to hear the claims and to say, "You are claimants, we accept your view, we will pay what you ask." The other method, what I call the more judicial way of proceeding, would be to hear the claim, then to hear what has to be said against the claim, to weigh the evidence on both sides, and make an ascertainment. By asking the House to consent to this Vote the Government have definitely said, on this occasion at any rate, that an ex-parte application, a claim itself, is to be its own evidence of its own validity. If that is to be taken as a general principle on which Governments are to meet claims in the future, that whenever a claimant comes before a Government department and says "You owe me so much," they are to agree to pay in full, on the sole ground that the majority of their supporters want them to pay, I do not see how any Government is ever going to resist claims in the future.

It is a very serious position in which we find ourselves. We are not on the question of whether these claims should be entertained or not, or whether 60 per cent. of a certain sum should or should not be admitted, but on the much more serious question, which ought to appeal to economists, of whether persons can make claims against the Government and the Government not be heard in answer to those claims. I have heard no explanation, no defence, no qualification of the arguments which were addressed by the right hon. Gentleman, I think—certainly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—against these claims on a previous occasion. I remember that the Chancellor of the Exchequer cited as a precedent the claims for damage from enemy aircraft, and there his point was, similarly, that the body which decided them was not a Court; that there was a scaling down of the awards because there had not been a judicial determination as between one side and the other; that they were merely ex parte claims and, therefore, the Government reserved the right to scale down the awards. That seemed to him, in principle, a very fair way of dealing with the matter—either you take the evidence of the claim, do not hear any opposing evidence from the Government, and reserve to yourselves the right to give such ex gratia payment as you think fit; or, on the other hand, you commit yourself to pay the whole of the claim, but only after both sides have been heard.

In the interests of the taxpayer we must have something to say about a system which seems to me to fall between two stools. In this case the claimant alone is heard, but at the same time he is to get everything that he claims. I may be misinformed, but I am basing that statement on the careful attention I paid to the speech made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on this very point; and I hope the House will not pass this Vote to-day without our being told quite definitely that these cases of admitting claims without proper examination will be limited to cases where Governments are threatened by defeat and will not go beyond that point. If the right hon. Gentleman will say that the general principle ought to be that both sides should be heard and the amount ascertained, and the amount which the taxpayer has to pay be awarded by a committee only in cases where both sides have been heard, and that the only exceptions, the only cases where claimants may have what they claim without the Government being heard, shall be cases where Governments are threatened with defeat, we shall have limited the vice of this extravagance. But what I fear is that this principle may be extended to cases where Governments are not threatened with defeat, and that in future it will be cited to show that all claimants who come before all authorities are entitled to everything they claim without the Government being heard at all.

This is not the only time we have entered a protest against this wild extravagance and incompetence of the Government in administering these matters. As I have often had occasion to say, those gentlemen who meet in constitutional clubs spend most of their time, it seems to me, in an effort to destroy the Constitution; at any rate, every time they come here they bring every kind of pressure to bear and make me, as an old-fashioned lawyer, alarmed at the irresponsibility with which they upset all our old traditions in dealing with legal principles. I have never known a worse case than this. The right hon. Gentleman himself has said that the Government had never been heard before the Wood Renton Committee. [Interruption.] That was said by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the last occasion. He said the reason why the Government were not paying the whole amount was because these were mere ex parte applications by one side and had never been heard properly as by a judicial committee, before whom both sides would put their case. That was said over and over again, but all the same a surrender was made to those who are vulgarly called the "diehards," to the Gentlemen below the Gangway.

Is it true now that the only reason for the change is to be found in the attitude taken up by some of the right hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway, or is it that the Government have varied their juridical views as to the obligations of Governments when people make such claims? The money in this Estimate is the amount awarded without proper investigation and without hearing the Government's side of the question, and we should be wanting in our duty if we allowed this Estimate to go through, and led the country to assume that in the future anything that may be claimed will he paid whenever a certain number of discontented Members of Parliament threatens the Government with opposition. If we allowed that to go through without objection, we should be wanting in our duty to this House and to the taxpayers.


There has been some misapprehension upon this question and I am sure a great many hon. Members were not expecting this vote to be taken to-day. I would like to ask why this question has been jumped upon us in this way. Clearly there has been some misunderstanding. The proposal we are considering raises a first-class issue, and it is infinitely more important than the ease which arose at the end of 1924, when the Conservative party made a point of attacking the Labour Government upon a similar question. The charge was made at that time that by pressure from certain quarters not named the Labour Government had been persuaded—or at least one member of the Government had been persuaded—to alter its mind. That charge was never proved, but the feeling which existed amongst members of the Conservative party was sufficient to justify them in attempting to bring down the Government of the day, and in that attempt they were successful.

What is the position now? The Colonial Secretary is responsible for the statement that the Government could not, in view of the way that the Wood Renton Committee had been constituted, accede to the pressure that was being placed on the Government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer reinforced that opinion by saying: You cannot expect the Minister responsible for the time being for the public finances to allow anybody the privilege of writing unlimited cheques upon the public account otherwise than by a judicial procedure with both parties represented." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February, 1929; col. 1004, Vol. 225.] The Government have allowed those who were able to use political pressure to interfere with judgments and to impose upon the Minister responsible for the public finances the very large sum which we are now being asked to vote. This is simply the thin end of the wedge, because there are other interests concerned. Hon. Members opposite know that whatever Committee is set up to guide the Government in regard to their decision, if they only make their political pressure hard enough the Government can be made to yield to their importunities. It is because we realise that on the evidence of the Colonial Secretary himself the Government have departed from a well-established procedure that we are making our objections. This new departure in regard to the decision of the Wood Renton Committee is not the only instance in which the Government have departed from their promises. There have been several unjustifiable jumps made in regard to this question. Perhaps it would be better not to call them jumps, because they are really cases of the Government being hurled forward by their supporters.

The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Ken-worthy) has referred to a number of claims in Ireland which would have been included amongst the claims which have been allowed if justice had been done. I shall be interested to know what reply the Colonial Secretary will make to the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull on this point. I have heard of other claims, but I have not had time this morning to collect my papers or I should have been able to bring them forward. A number of politicians sitting on the benches opposite have personal friends with an axe to grind and money to collect from the Government, and although the Government said that it was their duty to resist those claims hon. Members opposite have been successful in getting those claims recognised in spite of the view expressed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think this case is a public degradation of the ordinary procedure of Government, and if we allow a repetition of this kind of thing this great nation will sink to the level of those communities in America and elsewhere where politicians fill their pockets at the public expense and pander to the worst instincts of the community.


Although on these benches we agree with this Vote, it is quite true, as was said by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. J. Hudson), that we believe there are other people with claims worthy of consideration who have suffered just as much as the people whose claims have been recognised. During the critical period with which this Vote deals I saw something of the devastation which occurred. As the responsible representatives of the Labour party we are all aware that there were injuries inflicted at that time upon a great many private citizens for which in some measure the Government were directly responsible, and we thought those people were worthy of some consideration which they have not received up to the present time. I am pleased that we recognise our responsibilities in that direction. The serious matter underlying this Vote is the method by which it has been advanced and the shilly-shallying of the Government in regard to his question. I would also say that one of the outstanding things has been the attempt of the Government to retreat under cover of darkness, so to speak. One characteristic of the House of Commons, in my experience, is that the big Debate that is expected never comes off, but that suddenly from somewhere there springs up one of the most important Debates of a Session, or, perhaps, of a Parliament; and so it has happened on this occasion. A few people have got together unknown to the Government and have sprung a surprise, formed themselves into a very definite square, and made an inroad upon the Government. Then what happened? The Chancellor of the Exchequer made a very definite statement, in the best style of his latest books. He said: Somewhere in this rather fluid organisation of our modern Government, there must reside a principle in the light of which we can say 'No' when a certain point has been reached; and it is very dangerous indeed, I think, for the House, carried away by absolutely right feelings, by strong sentiments of generosity … carried away by a sincere belief that they are expressing what is just, to brush aside or wear down the constituted guardians of the public purse, to overturn the definite, long-considered judgment of the Cabinet of the day, and to endeavour to extract from the public Treasury sums of money which the executive Government do not think, in broad light and equity, ought to be handed over.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February, 1929; cols. 1002–3, Vol. 225.] In accordance with that sentiment, the right hon. Gentleman said "No" very definitely, supporting the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs. Then, of course, it turned out that the Government was in very great danger, the Prime Minister moved to report Progress, and every one of us wondered what was going to happen. One would have thought, in view of such a crisis, that the Prime Minister would have taken a reasonable opportunity of communicating with the Opposition and telling them that he was going to make a fair and clear statement to the House on this question. No such arrangement was, however, made, and the Prime Minister, on a Friday, under such conditions as we have to-day, came and made a statement to the House. He said: I should like to make it clear at the outset that the Cabinet are collectively responsible for the various decisions taken in this matter during the present Parliament, and that the statements made from time to time on their behalf by various Ministers have at every stage carried with them our united assent and approval."—[OFFICIAL RETORT, 22nd February, 1929; col. 1452, Vol. 225.] I suppose that the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer carried the united assent and approval of the Cabinet, but then the Prime Minister came to the House and made a statement which in effect said, "We were all wrong; we made a mistake, or a series of mistakes; we are going to do just what our followers want us to do." I congratulate those hon. Gentlemen who have defeated the Government in their objects, who have overturned the Government decisions—repeated decisions, according to the Prime Minister—on their victory. I congratulate them on their loyalty to their colleagues, and on their lively conscience on this matter. But I do wish that they had a lively conscience on other matters with respect to the affairs of this country. It appears to me that their consciences are not very lively when we are considering the real inwardness of the state of great masses of people in this country, but this, at any rate, can be said about them, that they will appreciate the feelings of many of us when we have seen pledge after pledge violated with respect to our people, whom such violation of pledges has finally driven down to a state of degradation and want such as we have not known in our time.

Fundamentally, the matter is a serious one. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and other Ministers, are going to the country and speaking about the insecurity of a Labour Government. They are saying that it is subject to pressure from outside. The Chancellor of the Exchequer once gave expression to the famous statement that Labour was unfit to govern. I wonder what the average citizen thinks about the ability of the present Government to govern, in the light of this decision? As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield has said, those of us who have a great regard for the affairs of this House and for its constitution, and who have some sense of responsibility to the mass of the people who have to pay these contributions, feel that underneath this a very serious principle is involved. As the hon. and learned Member for South-East Leeds (Sir H. Slesser) has said, if any particular set of people can band together in their clubs, or meet in some part of this House, and rush the Government for something which they want and which they think is right, but which the Government have repeatedly said is not right—if they can overturn those decisions and rush the Government to the thing that they want, it is a very bad outlook for democratic government and for the future of the Parliamentary institutions of this country.

It is not merely a matter of making party capital, but it is, in our view, a duty to the people of this country to underline what has been done. It has been said that we were open to pressure from outside when the Labour Government was in office in 1924, but I challenge the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, I challenge the Prime Minister, or any other Minister on the Front Bench, to discover, during the Labour Government's term of office in 1924, any incident equal to this. I challenge them to compare the conditions and the whole record of the Labour Government in 1924. I say that the Labour Government were never subject to such shameful pressure as has been exercised on this occasion; we were never brought to such a state of humiliation, and we never violated the fundamental principles upon which Parliamentary institutions are based.


I do not think that the hon. Member, who has challenged me on broad grounds to show anything so infamous as the conduct of the present Government, really expects me to take up that challenge in detail, but I should like to answer, first of all, the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), as to who are the kind of people who are being dealt with under this grant. They are, of course, as I pointed out to the House at another stage of this matter, those who suffered special hardship for their loyalty after the truce, after the British troops and police authorities were removed, and who have been unable to get any redress, or got such redress from the Free State authorities as in our opinion would not be adequate to the extent of their sufferings. They are people in every walk of life. Some of them are landowners, some are business men whose whole business was destroyed, and a very much larger proportion are professional men—doctors, lawyers, valuers, agents, and so on—for whom life was made entirely impossible, whose whole professional career was ruined, and probably whose property, such little as they had, was destroyed. There are also farmers and men in a very small way, such as ex-policemen, working men and others. Of the whole 1,600 cases in connection with which recommendations were made, something like 1,350 were cases where the total recommendation in respect of all that they suffered was under £1,000.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman quoted one or two instances. He asked as regards those to whom the Free State had given compensation in terms of the Bill. The great majority of those cases belong to the pre-truce period and are entirely outside this ex gratia grant. In other cases, there is, of course, no question of any further grants being made by the committee. He also quoted the case of the gentleman whose place was destroyed by troops in Cork. That obviously was a pre-truce case, because there were no troops in Cork during the period with which these grants deal. If, however, the sufferer whose case was brought forward was unable in any way to get redress before the Judicial Tribunal so established, it is a matter about which I can give him no information, except that conceivably the particular form of hardship he suffered did not come strictly within the category for which the Judicial Tribunal was set up. I add that, because it is very relevant to the whole case made by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for South-East Leeds (Sir H. Slesser).

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

Will the right hon. Gentleman look into this case and tell me whether anything can be done?


I will, certainly, but I am afraid it was a pre-truce case, because the only remedy was the court that was set up and, if that court was unable to provide a remedy, or if he failed to apply to the court, it would be beyond my power to help him.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

The ease is this. Each side undertook to indemnify its own friends. This was the case, however, of a man who was a supporter of this country, an ex-soldier, and his property was burnt by Black and Tans. The Free State position was that he was our supporter. We say his property was burnt by Black and Tans, and, therefore, that he must have been doing something wrong.


I do not think that difficulty would affect the case for compensation. The same tribunal heard all the eases, the awards were made, and then the amounts of the awards were allotted as between one Governments and another. If it came before the Court, he would have got his award, and the question as to whose victim he was would no doubt be duly assessed. Certainly, if the damage was done by British troops, or Black and Tans, it would be as against them.

I think the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for South-East Leeds has somewhat overlooked the whole genesis of the Wood Renton Committee. We have always recognised that we were under a special obligation to do something for these people, and we set up a Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Dunedin to advise us as to the general character of our obligations and as to the method with which to deal with them. The Dunedin Committee pointed out that there were two distinct ways of dealing with the problem. One was the strictly legal method. We could have said that we regarded these people as still being entitled to such legal compensation as they were entitled to before the truce, and while British authority was in force in South Ireland. Then a legal tribunal could have been set up, and, by the ordinary process of law, these people could have established, or failed to establish, such legal claim as they had. Lord Dunedin's view was that, while this might afford very substantial compensation indeed to many of the more well-to-do claimants, it would entirely leave out of account a large number of cases of grievous hardship of a kind for which there was no legal remedy before the truce and for which there is no legal remedy to-day, and the Committee recommended that, instead of setting up a legal tribunal, we should take the guidance of an advisory committee which would look at the whole question of hardship in its broad historic standpoint, from the point of view of equity, and make recommendations to us as to what they would consider fair and reasonable compensation to mitigate the hardships suffered.


Did the Dunedin Committee recommend that the advisory committee should only hear one side and that the Government side should not be heard?


No such recommendation was made. The view of the Government has always been that if they had set up a judicial tribunal, competent to give legal decisions, of course they would have been bound to pay in proportion whatever the decisions of the tribunal were. Setting up, as they did, a body of a different character, an advisory committee, they have always reserved to themselves the right, if they decided on general grounds of national policy to do so, to scale down the recommendations of the committee, but that fact, and the fact that the committee was an informal one, do not mean in the least that the interests of the Government were never considered, or pleaded, or vindicated before the body. The Treasury preferred to entrust this case to the scrutiny of the secretary of the committee and the continuous scrutiny of the Commission itself rather than to formal legal methods of procedure, which might very well involve much greater moral liability to pay the whole of the damage than was involved in the procedure the committee actually adopted, and which the Government considered most suitable in view of the whole character of this case.


The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that this was not a legal tribunal where both parties to the controversy were represented. I understand the right hon. Gentleman now to say that the Government were represented by an able secretary.


The case of the Chancellor was that this was not a judicial tribunal proceeding on formal legal lines which involved us in a legal liability to pay whatever the awards were. This was a tribunal admittedly outside any ordinary formal relations of the law.


Let us be clear. I quite agree that the Chancellor said that, but I am not on that point. I am on the point of the representation of the Government before this informal tribunal, which is another point altogether from the question whether it was a legal tribunal. The Chancellor said, in a Debate in this House, that the reason the Government had the right not to acknowledge the award was because both parties were not represented. I understand the right hon. Gentleman now to say that the Government were represented by a secretary. If so, what becomes of the Chancellor's argument that the Government were not bound because they were not represented?


I am afraid the hon. and learned Gentleman has entirely misunderstood the argument both of myself and of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Our point was that, because this was an advisory body, and not a judicial body, we were not bound to implement its recommendations. The fact that we were not represented by counsel does not imply that the point of view of the Government was not very effectively represented. It was represented both by the action of the Secretary, who exercised a special scrutiny, and by the Committee themselves, the Advisory Committee of the Government. Their very first duty was to scrutinise these cases, not to accept the statement by the claimant of damage, and, unless that statement be disapproved, to award large sums. Very far from it; the claims put forward, even when the actual damage might have been a very considerable amount, were reduced by the committee to what they thought to be the measure of hardship which justifiably and reasonably entitled to compensation. We have not in the least in this matter changed our juridical point. I would remind the hon. and learned Member that a year ago we hoped that it would be possible to pay the recommendations of the committee in full. We have never taken the view, and we have made it clear again and again in this House, that this body was an irregular body, or that they were likely to scale them down. We have indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and myself, this year and last year paid our tribute to the care and vigilance in the public interest which the committee exercised.


I am not suggesting anything to the contrary.


All we have claimed is that this is not a legal tribunal, but an advisory committee, but we did reserve to ourselves the right to fix the total amount. We did, in the first place, decide to fix a sum which we soon discovered, in view of the number of cases, was inadequate. We raised it, and we have raised it again. We have, in doing so, in no way altered our point of view in regard either to the character of the tribunal or to the efficacy of its methods. We have bowed to the very general feeling in the House. Our decision was taken, not on the merits of the case as far as the people were concerned or on the efficacy of the work of the Wood Renton Committee but, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself explained, in relation to all the many needs which the Government have to con- sider, and that was the only reason why that decision was taken. But in view of the very strong feeling in every quarter of the House that we in this particular matter ought not to be guided by general considerations of financial economy, and that we ought to close this whole chapter on a note of reasonable generosity to people who have suffered, as undoubtedly these people have very gravely suffered, we bowed to the decision of the House.


Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the Government have published the reports of the evidence given before the Wood Renton. Committee in any form whatever? Has the case for and against been published?


Obviously, no. It would be quite impossible in cases of this sort. Knowing the history of these cases and the conditions under which some of these people still live, it is obviously quite impossible.


The right hon. Gentleman has made a statement in reference to the representation before the tribunal. I must say that I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South-East Leeds (Sir H. Slesser) that his statement contradicts that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think it would be permissible to ask why, in view of the gravity of this matter, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are not present?


I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can answer that question.


I would like, very briefly, to address myself to the legal and constitutional question which has been raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South-East Leeds (Sir H. Slesser). On the broad question of the Government's conduct in this matter, perhaps, enough has been said, and more, no doubt, will be said later on outside this House. On this particular and narrow issue, the point, as I understand it, raised by my hon. and learned Friend was: Are we now to have a precedent established that a purely advisory committee may fill in a blank cheque written by the Government? That is what the issue comes to. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies admits that in their inception this committee were clearly advisory, that they had no legal character, that the Government were not legally represented. The Government's intention was to receive the advice of this committee, and then, having regard not only to the condition of the victims for whom compensation was asked, but also having regard to the condition of national finances, they were to make up their minds what compensation was to be paid. That was the original position of the Government.

What is the situation which has now arisen? The Government were driven from that position by the action of their supporters, and they are now compelled to pay full compensation to the extent of any award which the Wood Renton Committee may make. In fact, the Wood Renton Committee have been turned into a tribunal whose decisions have a legal and binding authority upon the Government. The right hon. Gentleman now, as an afterthought—we heard nothing about it in the first Debate—claims that the secretary of this committee was acting for the Government. No doubt he is a very estimable gentleman. He was given a kind of roving commission of inquiry, but he had no legal status of any kind as a Government representative, and I understand that he is not the representative who is commonly employed by the Treasury. It is quite useless for the right hon. Gentleman to say that, if the Wood Renton Committee are to be regarded as a legal tribunal whose awards are binding on the Government, the Treasury were satisfied that they had adequate representation on that Committee. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first Debate made specific and bitter complaint that the Treasury were not there represented. The words I have to read are even stronger, I think, than those which came to the notice of my hon. and learned Friend. These are the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer: There was no case where the Treasury counsel could advance arguments against the claims made by the parties, and canvass and criticise their credentials, such as is done when any Income Tax case is fought in any Court with the greatest vigour."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February, 1929; col. 1004, Vol. 225.] Those are the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He complained that the Treasury were not represented, and he put very strongly the case that, if these awards were to be binding upon the Government, then the Treasury-should have been represented before a properly constituted tribunal. In face of those words, in face of the facts which have now emerged, it is quite idle for the right hon. Gentleman to claim that the Government were represented and that the Treasury had not full opportunity to combat these claims and to secure their writing down. The facts are perfectly clear. This committee began as an advisory committee; it has ended as a legal tribunal whose awards have binding authority upon the Government. The difference that has arisen is not due to the volition of the Government. It is not due to any change in their conception of their obligations to these people. It is simply due to a revolt of their supporters which has entirely changed the character of this committee and has compelled the Government to write a blank cheque for any award which this committee may care to make.

I shall not enter at this stage into the general question that we discussed last week. It is sufficient to point out on this occasion that the legal and constitutional question raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East, has been thoroughly justified, that no adequate answer of any kind has been forthcoming from the Government and that we have constituted a precedent, which I hope will never be followed, that a purely advisory committee can give awards which the Government of the day is bound to honour in toto. Upon this extraordinary situation we need not make any further comment now. We know its origins, and we shall discuss them further before a greater tribunal. On this occasion, we can merely point out that in their unparalleled course of conduct the Government have established precedents which we trust this House will never follow.

Question put, and agreed to.

  1. ADJODENMENT. 22 words
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