HC Deb 12 March 1930 vol 236 cc1451-5

I beg to move to leave out the Clause.

If this Clause is passed, it means that all the land owned by the Crown and by Government Departments' will be outside the purview of the Measure. As I have already said, there are no fewer than 720,000 acres so held—the largest landed estate in Scotland. Under Clause 2, the Government will make contributions towards large schemes of drainage throughout Scotland. Therefore, of course, we do not want the Crown specifically forced under this Clause to make such contributions unless it is the Government policy to do it, but, in addition to that, there is the question of the maintenance of these works once they are made, and we say that the Crown and the Government Departments should be under the same obligations as other owners and occupiers of land in Scotland to maintain works once they are made. It is not fair that owners and occupiers all over Scotland should have to maintain these drainage works, but that the Crown and Government Departments should be exempt from that obligation.

Under Clause 1 of the Bill any owner or occupier whose land is being flooded with water coming from the land of another owner or occupier, because that other owner or occupier refuses to scour out some canal or clean some drain, is able to go to the sheriff and to get a decree from him compelling that other owner or occupier to carry out that work and prevent his lands from being flooded. But if this Clause 5 remains in the Bill, any owner or occupier of land who is suffering from the failure of any Government Department or of the Commissioners of Crown Lands to scour their canals or clean their drains, will have no redress. It is my submission that this House should see that those people should have redress, that if they are being damaged by flood water coming from property belonging to a Government Department they should have just the same right of going to the sheriff and getting a decree making that Department join with them in putting that flooding right as they would Have if that land were owned by a private individual.

In refusing to accept one of my other Amendments, the Under-Secretary made use of an argument which he may make use of against this Amendment, and I would venture, therefore, to forestall it. He will say, "It is true there is no appeal to the sheriff, but they will appeal to this House." Every Member of this House knows that, although we try our best to see that injustices of this kind are stopped, and that Members of whatever party will stand up for the rights of their constituents against the heads of Government Departments, even on their own side of the House, they know equally well that it is very difficult indeed to get redress, particularly in small cases, where it may be the flooding of the land of a small occupying owner of 40 or 50 acres of land. Is any Member going to be able to get the opportunity of having that discussed and a Division taken on it in this House?

If we go to the Secretary of State for Scotland, we shall be most courteously received, and he will look into our complaint and discuss it with his officials. From the head official in Whitehall, it goes to a second official in Edinburgh, and from him to an area commissioner for several counties of Scotland, and from him it goes to the sub-commissioner for the particular county affected. Then a report is sent, and when it comes back through all those various channels to the Scottish Office, and the Secretary of State finds that these officials have reported to him that there is really no case, do hon. Members really suppose that these occupiers or owners of land have any effective appeal whatsoever? The only effective appeal they can have is if they are given this right of going to the sheriff, and if the sheriff considers that that Government Department, be it the Department of Agriculture, or the Commissioners of Crown Lands, or the Forestry Commissioners, should be made to join with the other owner or occupier in putting that drainage right, that sheriff's decree should run against that Department. It is only if we insist on that being done that we shall have effectively stood up for the rights of our constituents.


I beg to second the Amendment.

The history of the preservation of Crown rights and the immunities of the Crown is a very long and interesting one, and I do not propose to go into it now, but I submit that it is a matter to which this House might very well devote some attention. On one of the occasions when a private Member is fortunate in the ballot, it would be an excellent matter to put down for discussion, because in the course of time, conditions have changed—very rapidly of late years—so that what might have been necessary some hundreds of years ago, to-day becomes somewhat ridiculous. On the present occasion we are dealing with the Crown as a common landlord, and because the particular lands in question may belong to the Department of Agriculture, the Department is to be treated as though it was a King of 300 years ago, and no one can do anything except bow down to the Department, whose consent has to be obtained before anything can be done. The effect of this Clause in Scotland has been so admirably put by my hon. and gallant Friend, that I do not propose to say anything more in seconding this Amendment.


With some of the observations that have fallen from the hon. Members opposite, we have no disagreement whatever. The question of the immunity of Crown land generally is a subject that might profitably be discussed in this House, but I would point out to both the hon. Members that this is hardly a case upon which to raise it, inasmuch as we have already provided in the Bill that no human being shall be charged more than the benefit which he or she receives. Whether a man be a tenant of Crown lands or not is immaterial; no one will be charged more than the benefit which he or she receives as a result of the operations of the Act.


The hon. Member is only referring to schemes dealt with under Clause 2; he is not referring to Clause 1.


I am dealing with the case where the Department is an owner and where the Department's lands are affected by a flooding scheme. Where a scheme is drawn up, no tenants on the Department's land can be adversely affected to the extent of one halfpenny by anything in this Bill. It is indeed expressly provided—and I think hon. Members on all sides of the Committee upstairs insisted upon making it clear in the Bill—that no one was to be called upon to pay more than the benefits which he or she received. There is no point whatever in seeking to make out a case against the Crown because of any possible harsh or unfair treatment which it may mete out, either to a tenant upon Crown estates or to anyone else.


What about Clause 1?


Let me put it to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that Clause 1 operates where a proprietor does not in fact keep his property in proper condition. The State may conceivably not keep its property in proper condition. I put it no higher than that, but that does not arise on this question. The question the House is now discussing is whether or not the Crown can be sued and pressed for payment. If the Department of Agriculture or any other Crown Department is not looking after its property, there are other remedies open to compel the Department to see to it that its property is put into proper repair. That is the remedy, and this is not the time or place to raise the question of the immunity of the Crown from prosecution or from attachment in the courts. That raises many serious issues which ought not to be raised here. I want again to draw the attention of the House to the fact that under the provisions of the Bill no one can be charged more than the benefits he has received, and in these circumstances I hope the hon. Member will not press the Amendment.


I rise to support the Amendment. It may be true that we touch here upon the very much larger question of the liability of the Crown in regard to private citizens, but that is no reason why when the Crown comes into a question of this sort we should continue on what is admittedly the wrong road. The old road will some day require to be altered, but when we have a certain part of it here before us we ought to take steps to see that the Crown is made liable. I would point out that under Clause 1 the culprit may be a Government Department. The latter part of Clause 5 says: and nothing in this Act shall authorise the use of or interference with any land … belonging to His Majesty. It might quite well be that the agents or officers of the Department would have no permission to enter land from which damage was being done. The Crown ought to be made liable as private citizens are not only for the costs of carrying out the scheme, but also for the cost of maintenance. It may be said in reply that the Government Department concerned would make a voluntary contribution. This matter ought not to be left on that footing, and I say the Crown should be put in exactly the same position as any other private citizen in this matter.

Amendment negatived.