HC Deb 02 May 1930 vol 238 cc589-94

This Act shall not apply to any case where the accident happened before the commencement of this Act.—[Mr. Atkinson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


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

The Bill is silent as to the date upon which it is to come into operation, and the result of that will be, unless some change is made, that it will apply to pre-Act accidents. Indeed it might apply to any accident since 1st January, 1924. That is obviously unfair. There is no question that the Bill is making a very big change in the law. The present law is that you have a clear division and distinction between two things—you have inability to work and inability to get work. Inability to work is a matter which comes quite properly within the scope of the Workmen's Compensation Acts. There the responsibility is thrown upon the individual master, who may or may not be insured against the liability. On the other hand, inability to get work is something which is associated with labour conditions and is covered by the Unemplyoment Insurance Acts, and very properly the charge is thrown upon public funds. This Bill is transferring into the realm of Workmen's Compensation part of a liability which up to now has been in the realm of Unemployment Insurance; it is putting upon the master a greater risk and greater liability than any under which he is now labouring; and it is unfair that that should be put upon him in respect of accidents which are past.

Look at what happens. He is either insured against it or he is not. If he is insured against it he takes out a policy which insures against liability under certain Acts, but the policy will not cover this Bill. He may very well find a liability imposed that his policy does not cover; you throw upon him a liability against which he is not able to insure. On the other hand, if his policy does cover the liability, you throw upon the insurance company an increased liability in respect of which it has not been able to make any premium charges. Therefore, to make this Measure retrospective is necessarily to do an injustice, either to the employer or the insurance company, and its application ought to be limited in the manner which I have indicated. Retrospective legislation nearly always does injustice, and the proper way of dealing with these matters, when a change is being made in the law, is to make that change with reference to things which are going to happen in the future. If the House adopts the proposed New Clause the employers will know where they are, and the insurance companies will know where they are, and there will be no injustice. But if we leave the Bill as it is, it means that it will apply to accidents six years old. The 1925 Act came into operation on the 1st May, 1926, and one of its provisions is that it shall not apply in any case where the accident happened before 1st January, 1924. Thus, the present Measure would apply to accidents occurring since that date, which would be grossly unfair.


I beg to second the Motion.

Anybody who has had experience of litigation, apart from being concerned in the profession of the law, will recognise the value of this proposal. One of the main principles of legislation is that it should not be retrospective, because, on the face of it, in the absence of very exceptional circumstances such legislation creates injustices of a very grievous kind. I listened carefully to a part of the Debate on this Bill in Committee, and I am afraid I allowed my feelings to get the better of me when I heard it stated from the Government Front Bench that there was only one interest to be regarded in this connection, and that that was the interest of the worker. [HON. MEMBERS "Hear, hear!"] That, of course, is an entirely unworthy observation to come from the lips of a Minister of the Crown who is attempting to get through legislation which will extend to the whole population of the country. It shows a very undemocratic spirit; it shows the spirit which actuated the promoters of the Bill when they brought it before the House. [Interruption.] I am not in the least ashamed of what I have said, and there is no reason why I should be, because there are other interests involved in this matter besides the interest of the worker. I know that that would not be a popular thing to say on the platforms of hon. Members opposite. I know it might not be popular even on the platforms of my hon. friends on this side of the House. I know that it would need some little courage to state that there are other interests in this country besides the interests of the workers, but nevertheless it would be the right thing to do.

Anybody who introduces legislation should have some regard to all the interests concerned, and not to the interests only of a particular class. There are several interests concerned in this matter. There is, of course, the unpopular interest of the insurance companies which will be affected if this Measure be made retrospective. No premium will have been paid for the liability which will accrue; and then, of course, there is the interest of the employer. I know that hon. Members opposite would be very unwilling to listen to any speech which put forward the interests of the unfortunate employer, but he is nevertheless concerned in this matter, because there are thousands and thousands of employers in this country who are not insured, and they have a continual and retrospective liability arising under this Bill. As a matter of fact, the Amendment is a very modest one and is merely declaratory, to prevent expense and litigation to the workers, the employers, and the insurance companies; and it makes it quite clear that the Bill is not to be retrospective. I do not see how the Government can reasonably resist the Amendment.


If there is going to be no reply to the very able speeches which have been delivered on behalf of the Amendment, it is essential to endeavour to extract from the Government what is their position on this matter. It has been laid down for a considerable time past that no Government ever legislates retrospectively unless there is some very singular, very particular, or very pressing necessity. I am presuming that this necessity—


Deliberate obstruction!


On a point of Order. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Mills) to accuse an hon. Member on this side of deliberate obstruction?


I have heard it done before.


In a Bill of this quality you cannot say that a speech which has lasted about two minutes and which is trying to extract an answer from the Government, which they had an opportunity of giving earlier, is obstructive. The reason why the House has always taken a position against retrospective legislation, unless in exceptional circumstances, is that it has always said that it is the right of the House of Commons to go to an industry and say, "In future you must do so and so to look after the interests and the health of the nation." I absolutely agree with a great deal that is in this Bill, and I accept the fact that the House of Commons has an absolute right to legislate in this way, but I say that it has not the right to pass an Act which may place a burden on any section of the community in regard to something which may have happened in the past four or five years. If you place burdens on industry in that way or on any section of the community, it can only have one effect. If you place it on industry, you are placing on industry an uncertainty, and you are doing something which, as far as the workpeople are concerned, should be most carefully guarded against.

It is making an uncertainty of contract between employer and employed which is very bad indeed. The ideal is gradually permeating this country that it is up to the employer and employed to work together, and I do not want anything done to drag that back in any way. I know that the average Member of this House, who is a genuine trade union leader, would agree with me in that, but by imposing legislation which is of a retrospective nature you are liable to render uncertainty in these contracts between employers and employed, and the effect will be to endanger that feeling in certain respects. I would take it from another point of view. It is only right on these occasions that it should be put clearly to the House also from the employers' point of view. He has made an agreement, say, five years ago. I sympathise, and every human being must sympathise, with a man like that who has made agreements. He has carried on, and things have gone either for or against him during the period, and he suddenly becomes faced with a liability.


Seeing that this Bill is not retrospective, we are prepared to accept the Clause.


If it is agreed that this Amendment is to be accepted, on that clear understanding I am content. If the learned Solicitor-General agrees to accept it, I am perfectly willing to resume my seat, but I must have an understanding on the matter. Is it accepted by the Government or not?


The position, as I understand it, is that the promoters are willing to accept the Clause, and the Government therefore accept the situation.

Clause added to the Bill.