HC Deb 09 November 1934 vol 293 cc1486-94

2.30 p.m.

The SECRETARY OF STATE for SCOTLAND (Sir Godfrey Collins)

I beg to move: That the Sheriffdom of Perth and Angus Order, 1934, dated the sixth day of March, nineteen hundred and thirty-four, made by the Secretary of State for Scotland under the Administration of Justice (Scotland) Act, 1933, a copy of which was presented to this House on the eighth day of March, nineteen hundred and thirty-four, be approved. As vacancies occur in the office of sheriff in Scotland it is now the statutory duty of the Secretary of State to consider whether the formation of new sheriffdoms is desirable. I may state for the information of my English confreres in the House that the sheriff in Scotland is normally a practising advocate not resident in his sheriffdom, and the greater part of his duties is discharged by resident sheriffs substitute. The Royal Commission on the Court of Session and the Office of Sheriff Principal, presided over by Lord Clyde, which reported in 1927, laid down three principles to be observed in considering the re-arrangement of sheriffdoms. The first was that there should be no loss of efficiency or inconvenience to the public. The second was that there should be no such enlargement of districts as might make it difficult to obtain the appointment of counsel of the highest standing at the Bar and the third was that due regard should be had to geographical situation and the desirability of equalising the work of the new sheriffdoms as far as possible.

These three principles were taken into account before this Order was tabled and these three guiding principles have been before us in reviewing the three cases of vacancies which have occurred since the passing of the 1933 Act. Two of these vacancies have been filled in the ordinary way but applying those principles to the problem, I decided, after careful consideration, that it would be proper to effect the small economy of some £650 a year to he obtained by the amalgamation of Perth and Angus. The objections to this amalgamation have been carefully considered but I am satisfied that economy is here consistent with efficiency 'and public convenience. I know that some of my hon. Friends are anxious to speak on the subject. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate is naturally more conversant with the subject than I am and I am sure that he will deal fully with any questions that are put here.

2.34 p.m.

Captain SHAW

I rise to oppose the Motion or rather to enter a protest against it. I think it particularly inopportune that it should have been taken on a Friday afternoon when so many Scottish Members find it impossible to be here owing to engagements in Scotland. I know, for instance, that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Montrose (Lieut.-Colonel Kerr) would have been here to join with me in my protest against this Motion had it not been necessary for him to attend elsewhere. The Secretary of State has referred to the economy which is to be effected by this amalgamation. We heard a great deal about economy two or three years ago but I think this is the first occasion for some time on which we have heard it mentioned from the Front Bench. The total amount involved, £650 a year, is not worth considering and, as regards efficiency, I do not think that this amalgamation will add to the efficiency or expedite the discharge of business in these two counties. I think the very opposite is likely to be the effect, and it is extraordinary that we should be cutting down the sheriffs in Scotland at this time.

I think the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord Advocate must admit that, should we have civil disturbances, it would be a very great advantage to have two sheriffs, one in each county. I know the people in these counties are among the most reasonable, levelheaded, and law-abiding people in the country, but the right hon. Gentlemen must know that at the present time in the counties of Perth and Forfar there is a formidable amount of unrest and anxiety owing to the working of the milk marketing scheme. Hundreds of summonses have been issued, and many people who are being asked to pay their dues actually cannot pay, and you can see that if these farmers and smallholders are sold up in order to meet this levy, you will have in all probability a situation not dissimilar to the tithe war which we have had in other parts of the country. This is a very serious outlook, and I do not know that the Government realise the enormous amount of feeling that there is in the two counties on this matter. It is conceivable that we may have a great deal of trouble there, and in these circumstances I think the present is a most inopportune moment to amalgamate these sheriffdoms. If, on the other hand, they could give an assurance that they will meet this trouble, which is growing and coming to a head, it would to a certain extent remove my objections, but at present I wish to record my protest against the proposal.

2.37 p.m.


I regard this Order with the gravest misgiving. As regards any possible advantage resulting from it, the only one that can be suggested is a saving of a sum which at present will amount to £650 and which might get smaller. All that can be said in regard to the performance of the work is that it is hoped that no loss of efficiency will result. That can only be a hope, and there is no suggestion that there can be any increased efficiency. I do not propose to add anything on the local circumstances to what has been put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Forfar (Captain Shaw). I should like for a moment to dwell on rather wider considerations. There has been recently, not only in Scotland but in England, a most deplorable tendency towards overloading part-time officers. There has been another tendency, which it would not be relevant to consider, of turning part-time officers into whole-time officers, which I also deplore, and I am glad to see that the Scottish Office have adopted the recommendation of the Commission presided over by the Lord President that there should be no drastic reduction in the number of sheriffs. Therefore the Scottish Office do avoid that criticism, but they do not avoid the second criticism, and not only in the case of paid officers, but in the case of those who do public work voluntarily, there has been a most deplorable tendency to overload them.

I regard that tendency as being very largely responsible for the somewhat unsatisfactory working of our local government machinery in many areas. You overload the office of town or county councillor by putting on the shoulders of the holders of those offices duties which they did not previously perform, and then you are surprised that things do not work quite as well as they did before. You are surprised that first-rate men are rather unwilling to give their services in those connections, and you have things happening which had much better not happen. Fortunately, that deterioration has not gone far, in most areas at least, but I must say that I think the time has come to put a stop to the amalgamation of part-time offices, and I trust that this will be the very last occasion on which any such amalgamation is put forward by this or any other Government.

The essence of a sheriffdom is that you shall get a first-class man who does this as a purely part-time job, and the history of the sheriffdom of Perth shows how successfully that principle has operated in the past. I am told that of the 17 occupants of that sheriffdom during the last century, no fewer than 14 have reached the Bench and two have become Lords of Appeal in another place, and I very gravely doubt, once you increase the duties of the sheriff principal, although you may also slightly increase the salary, to the extent to which this Order seeks to do, whether in the next century you will have such a distinguished succession of holders of that office. It must be remembered that it is essential that a sheriff shall be able to fix diets for some considerable time in the day, and it is a very grave interference with the practice of a busy man if he has to fix a large number of such diets. It is not the actual volume of work that matters. No doubt, in the present depressed conditions of litigation, as of other walks of life, the volume of work in these two sheriffdoms is small. We do not know that it will continue to be small, but that is by no means the whole of the sheriff's duties. Indeed, from some points of view, it is not the most important side of his duties.

My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to the duties of the sheriffs in case of civil disturbance, but there are many other much more peaceful duties, unpaid duties, which the sheriffs have been used to perform. Sheriffs are very frequently called upon to identify themselves with the liability, as trustees, of various bodies, and they have to do that if they are to carry out satisfactorily their duties of advising the Scottish Office on many points that come up. Can it be supposed that in two such large, important, and in many ways diverse counties as Angus and Perth you will get the same identification of the sheriff with his sheriffdom as you got in the past? I gravely doubt it. If you double a man's work and give him a very small increase in salary, there is not the same likelihood that he will do a great deal of outside unpaid work over and above what he has to do. Not only that, but sheriffs take a leading part on boards such as the Northern Lights Board, and they sit on other boards, such as the Board of Control—all that work over awl above what appears to the public eye. I think the result of this Order, certainly the result if this principle is pressed in future, will be disastrous to the present system in Scotland. I was glad to see that when the Lord Advocate was giving evidence in another place he said: It appears to be extremely difficult to find any other two sheriffdoms in which this Section of the Act of 1933 can be more easily and more efficiently applied than the sheriffdoms of Perth and Angus. I trust that he will see fit to find in future that it is impossible, because I do not know of any other two sheriffdoms which could be amalgamated without even graver effects than those which I fear may happen in the present instance, and I hope we shall get an assurance from the Government that they will not lightly pursue this policy any further. I gravely fear that we may live to regret what I can only call this cheeseparing interference with a system which has stood the test of time and the test of repeated inquiries.

2.45 p.m.

The LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. Normand)

It is to be remembered that this Order is tabled in pursuance of the Secretary of State's duty under a recent Act of Parliament, namely, the Administration of Justice Act of last year. I wish to point out as clearly as I can that my right hon. Friend has not applied the Section which permits amalgamation without discrimination. Two vacancies occurred before the vacancy in the sheriffdom of Perth. There were vacancies in the sheriffdoms of Inverness and Dumbartonshire. Both of these were filled without any amalgamation. Then occurred the vacancy which we are considering to-day. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk (Mr. J. Reid) pointed out, I said in evidence which I gave in another place, that I could not find in Scotland any two sheriffdoms where the principle of amalgamation might be more readily applied than those of Perth and Angus.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Forfar (Captain Shaw) was concerned about the preservation of law and order. It is one of the duties of the sheriffs in Scotland to render assistance in the preservation of law and order. They read the Riot Act if necessary, and call out forces in order to suppress serious trouble, but the kind of occasion upon which the sheriff has to act has little relation to the kind of discontent which is said to be manifesting itself in these two counties because of the Milk Marketing Board. Where the sheriff has really to act is in the case of something in the nature of a public riot, and I am certain that my hon. and gallant Friend does not anticipate in the near future anything of that kind in any part of his constituency or the neighbouring county of Perth. Nor do I apprehend that there is the least probability of any such disorder in that part of Scotland as would require the presence of two sheriffs and could not adequately be dealt with by one sheriff. One hopes that there will be no disorder for any sheriff to deal with in those two counties at all.

Then my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk was concerned that there should not be placed on the sheriff or any part-time officer duties which would be inconsistent with getting the highest type of man to fill the office. With that observation, I entirely agree. How does it apply to the present amalgamation? When this amalgamation has taken place, the combined sheriffdom will still be less as regards population and practically the same as regards judicial and other business as the combined sheriffdom of Aberdeen, Kincardine and Banff. Nevertheless, I do bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said. The sheriffdoms of Aberdeen and of Perth and Angus will be the two largest part-time sheriffdoms in Scotland. For my part, I should not like any attempt to be made.to recast the sheriffdoms in Scotland so that all of them were equal in size and importance to the existing sheriffdom of Aberdeen or that of Perth and Angus.

It is very necessary to bear in mind the circumstances in each particular case which arises. There are many areas in Scotland where the difficulties of preservation of law and order in times of stress will be greater than in such sheriffdoms as Aberdeen or Perth and Angus, although the area is smaller. There are many sheriffdoms where the total amount of judicial business may be considerably less than that which we anticipate will take place in these combined sheriffdoms or the judicial business which, over an average of years, takes place in the sheriffdom of Aberdeen. Nevertheless, it may not be desirable or proper to amalgamate sheriffdoms merely because, when amalgamation takes place, the sum of prospective appeals will not be greater than the sum of prospective appeals in Aberdeen or in Perth and Angus. Every case must be considered on its merits.

One must bear in mind that the sheriff principals in Scotland are part-time officers, but it is of great national importance that these offices should be acceptable by members of the highest standing at the Bar and of the highest legal learning; it is also of great importance that they should remain, as they have in the past, the stepping stones to a place on the Bench of the Court of Session. If these three principles are borne in mind, I have little fear that the powers and duties conferred upon. the Secretary of State by the Administration of Justice Act will lead to any adverse results in future.

I think I may say with confidence that every possible aspect of the present proposal has been most carefully considered by my right hon. Friend and his advisers, and the Government put it forward to the House of Commons with the full assurance that there will be no loss of efficiency, no inconvenience to the public, and on danger either to public order or to the due administration of justice in the sheriffdom. Nor do we think that there is any doubt that we shall be able to procure for this sheriffdom in future, as we have secured for the two sheriffdoms of Perth and Angus in the past, men of the very highest standing at the Bar, who will be capable of discharging the duties of sheriff principal to the complete satisfaction of the inhabitants of the sheriffdom and of the people of Scotland as a whole. I therefore think that while much that has been said contains proper points for consideration in these matters, yet none of the criticisms touch the present proposal.

2.53 p.m.


In spite of the very moderate expression of reasons that have been put forward by the Lord Advocate, I feel bound to join in a protest against the amalgamation of the sheriffdoms of Perth and Angus. The sheriff is not only acting in a judicial capacity, but he also has administrative and, indeed, executive functions, and it seems to me that it is so even in this case. There is a wide opinion in legal and other circles in Scotland, apart from Government circles, that the amalgamation will put rather too much on one man even in this case. The whole principle seems to me to be derogatory to the status and dignity of the sheriffdoms of Scotland, an ancient institution which we prize. The sheriff is something like s. county court judge in his purely judicial capacity, but he also has administrative and executive functions to perform as well. I understand that the sheriff substitutes are not directly involved, but at the same time I remember on various occasions in this House when it was proposed to set up special tribunals to consider points arising out of new legislation, that I have suggested that we ought to have it put before the sheriffs substitute, we have been told that the sheriffs substitute already had as much as he could do. Incidentally I may say that he is also shockingly badly paid.

The sheriffs substitute is a man who has in his judicial capacity the confidence of the people. I have never heard any of the people, working men or otherwise, question his impartiality, his knowledge of human nature, and his legal learning and common sense, and I should have thought, and have from time to time urged, that we ought rather to have more and better paid sheriff-substitutes and not have to set up special tribunals to deal with all sorts of odds and ends which we get in the administrative legislation in these days. If that is the opinion generally held regarding the sheriffs substitute surely it ought to come into the consideration given to the whole question of the sheriffdom, and there ought to be no cheese-paring. At a time when we are going to create new judges in England because the present judges cannot overtake the business, we are undertaking here a step which is undoubtedly a derogation from the dignity and efficiency of the office of sheriff principal, and it will cast a reflection on the position of sheriffs substitute, and will do a great disservice.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved— That the Sheriffdom of Perth and Angus Order, 1934, dated the sixth day of March, nineteen hundred and thirty-four, made by the Secretary of State for Scotland under the Administration of Justice (Scotland) Act, 1933, a copy of which was presented to this House on the eighth day of March, nineteen hundred and thirty-four, be approved.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 2.

Adjourned at Two Minutes before Three o'Clock.