HC Deb 24 May 1939 vol 347 cc2358-73

5.47 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Captain Euan Wallace)

I beg to move, in page 38, line 33, after "authority," to insert "having any civil defence functions."

This Amendment and the five following Amendments are interesting in themselves, but I do not think they need detain the Committee very long. The first two simply deal with the point—

Mr. R. C. Morrison

On a point of Order. In our proceedings yesterday, it was customary on each Clause for the Minister to indicate which Amendments were to be accepted by the Government, and in view of the considerable success of that procedure yesterday, may I ask whether it would not be convenient to the Committee to repeat it to-day?

Captain Wallace

These are Government Amendments. The first two Amendments simply make the point that the power to take possession can apply only to those local authorities which have civil defence functions. The other four Amendments deal with two points. One is that the actual duty imposed in the provision will rest upon the chairman of the Traffic Commissioners, who is also the licensing authority for goods vehicles, and not upon the Traffic Commissioners as a body. The other point is that the Amendments meet a matter that was raised in an Amendment by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for West Birkenhead (Colonel Sandeman Allen) and make it quite clear that the operative condition is not where the vehicle happens to be at any particular moment, but where it is actually kept. I think every hon. Member will agree that it is much better that the vehicle should be available for requisition in the area where it is kept rather than in another area where it may fortuitiously happen to be when requisitioning comes into operation.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made:

In page 38, line 35, leave out "their civil defence," and insert "those."

In line 38, after the first "the," insert "chairman of the."

In line 39, after "is," insert "normally kept or if the vehicle is normally kept in the metropolitan traffic area, the traffic commissioner for that area."

In line 40, after the first "the," insert "chairman of the."

In line 40, after "commissioners," insert "or the traffic commissioner as the case may be."—[Captain Wallace.]

5.50 p.m.

Mr. Ross Taylor

I beg to move, in page 39, line 2, at the end, to insert: Provided also that the traffic commissioners shall not consent to the taking of possession of any vehicle belonging to public utility undertakers who carry on a water, gas, or electricity undertaking and used or required for use for the purpose of their undertaking. The importance which the Government Attachés to the maintenance, in the event of hostile attack, of the services provided by water, gas and electricity undertakers is clearly shown by the fact that the Bill provides for grants up to one-half of the cost of taking the necessary measures to secure the functioning of these undertakings during hostile attack. Obviously, it is of equal importance that if, in the event of attack, those services are interrupted, they should be restored at the earliest possible moment. For that purpose, it is necessary that those undertakers should have at their immediate command all the vehicles necessary to take officials, workmen, plant and material to the place or places where damage has been caused. The object of the Amendment is to secure that the vehicles necessary for that purpose shall not be commandeered. I realise that the Amendment in the terms in which it appears on the Paper may not be acceptable to the Government, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able at any rate to give an assurance that in instructions to the Traffic Commissioners, via the Ministry of Transport, provision will be made to ensure that the vehicles necessary for the purposes I have indicated are reserved to the undertakings, and are not requisitioned.

5.52 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Sir John Anderson)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodbridge (Mr. Ross Taylor) will not press his Amendment, because I am in a position to give him an assurance, on my own behalf and on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, that the instructions to the Traffic Commissioners will make it quite clear that they are not to requisition vehicles that are necessary for the purposes of public utility undertakings.

Mr. H. G. Williams

Will that apply to passenger vehicles as well as goods vehicles?

Sir J. Anderson

It will apply to all of them if they satisfy that condition. The provision will also apply to local authorities.

5.53 p.m.

Mr. Herbert Morrison

I understand that the assurance which the Minister has given is that the Traffic Commissioners will be instructed to give special consideration to public utility undertakings and not to make such arrangements as will render the vehicles of those undertakings liable to be commandeered, unless they are satisfied that those vehicles are not essential for the maintenance of necessary public services. I think it would be unfortunate if a rigid decision were taken that this class of vehicles could not be considered. I quite agree that special consideration must be given to the essential interests of public utility undertakings. I do not think that anyone on this side would dispute that.

Sir J. Anderson

There will be administrative directions on the basis of what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) has just said.

Sir Robert Tasker

May I ask my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal what is meant by the term "public utility undertakers"? There are cases in certain Bills where private companies are designated as public utility undertakers.

Sir J. Anderson

There is a definition of "public utility undertakers" in the Bill.

Mr. Ede

It is in page 56 of the Bill.

Mr. Ross Taylor

In view of the assurance that has been given by my right hon. Friend, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.55 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

I beg to move, in page 39, line 18, to leave out Subsection (3), and to insert: (3) In any case in which a local authority take possession of any premises or vehicle, or the Commissioners of Works take possession of any premises under this Section, there shall be paid by that local authority, or, if possession is taken by the Commissioners of Works, out of moneys provided by Parliament, such compensation to such persons as Parliament may hereafter determine. This is really a drafting Amendment. The drafting of the original Sub-section was defective, and this Amendment puts it right.

5.56 p.m.

Mr. Ammon

This is the most astonishing drafting Amendment I have ever seen, and it is one that may disturb the harmony which his hitherto obtained in the passage of the Bill. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will think again before insisting on this Amendment being made. Under the Amendment, the right hon. Gentleman proposes to transfer to the local authorities a cost which hitherto has been borne by the State; in short, he proposes that war-time expenditure should be made on the present grant basis. I am afraid that hon. Members on this side cannot agree to that in any circumstances. Although it is true that the Clause might be operated before the war broke out, the use and payment would certainly not take place until after hostilities had started. In argument and discussions on the Floor of the House, and in private negotiations, we have endeavoured to arrive at an understanding with regard to an allocation of the cost. That allocation has been agreed upon, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman will admit that so far we on this side have played the game in that respect, but when an Amendment of this nature is moved by the Government, we begin to become a little doubtful about the other side.

Another point that must be borne in mind is that, although it is possible for the right hon. Gentleman to bring in an Amendment that might considerably add to the costs of the local authorities, it is impossible for us to bring in any Amendment that would relieve the local authorities of the additional cost. The position now is that, financial arrangements having been agreed to which would rightly have caused this expenditure to be borne by the State as a purely war-time measure, it is now sought to transfer the cost to the local authorities. That is asking a litle too much of the Committee. I speak with full authority when I say that this has roused the opposition of every local authority, whether it be a county council, a rural council or a borough council. They feel that they are being treated very unfairly with regard to this, and I feel it very deeply that the Minister should have sprung this Amendment on us and broken away from the agreement already arrived at. The Amendment would transfer the cost to the local authorities, which are already overburdened and are finding it difficult to meet the costs imposed upon them by the Civil Defence Bill. Under the Amendment, they are actually to be asked to pay for the war. It is all very well to say that they should bear the cost of civil defence, but now they are asked to pay for the war. If the right hon. Gentleman insists on proceeding with the Amendment, we shall have to resist it.

5.59 p.m.

Mr. H. G. Williams

There is on the Order Paper, Colonel Clifton Brown, an Amendment in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir G. Broadbridge), myself and other hon. Members, which I think ought really to be taken as an Amendment to the Amendment that is now being discussed. I do not know whether it is your intention to call it as an Amendment to the Amendment, which would involve leaving out the words: as Parliament may hereafter determine, and inserting the words: who have an estate or interest in the premises or vehicles of which, as specified in this Section, possession is taken. Perhaps I may be allowed to put the point now.

Mr. Ede

On a point of Order. I would point out that there is on the Order Paper an Amendment, in my name, which comes before that of the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams) and I should not like to be deprived of my chance by the energy of the hon. Member.

Mr. Williams

I am not seeking to move my Amendment but only to refer to the point which it raises, in connection with the Amendment now before the Committee. If hon. Members look at the Amendment in the name of the Lord Privy Seal, and also at the wording of Sub-section (3) they will see the point. People whose premises or vehicles are seized, are entitled to compensation: such compensation to such persons as Parliament may hereafter determine, in the words of the Amendment. That seems a little strange. Let us be pessimistic and assume that the war will start to-morrow. On Friday, my vehicle is seized. I am entitled to compensation for it but only when Parliament has passed another Act. But the Chief Whip may say that on account of the pressure of hostilities such an Act cannot be passed this Session, and so, I do not get paid until the Greek Kalends—which may be an even more remote contingency if we have another war. Before this Bill becomes law, this question of compensation ought to be more precisely determined. As the Bill stands, there is no provision in it for compensation. Another Act of Parliament will be required before compensation can be paid. I hope the Lord Privy Seal will clear up this matter.

6.3 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

I said that this Amendment was a drafting Amendment and I was perfectly right. It carries no implication whatever. It is merely a pointer. It says, in effect, that if just before an outbreak of hostilities, property has to be requisitioned, as it may well have to be in order that the country may be put into a state of preparedness, questions of compensation which arise in that connection shall be dealt with as Parliament may determine. The reason is that we cannot provide in this Bill for the financing of a war, and it is not reasonable to proceed on the assumption that arrangements for compensation will differ according to whether the property is taken just before the emergency or just after it. This provides for the taking of property in certain contingencies just before the emergency, and the effect is that whatever compensation arrangements may apply in the case of property taken after the war emergency may be applied also to property taken just before the war emergency. It is essential, as a matter of drafting, I am assured on the highest legal authority, that the wording should be altered to this form which I now propose, because, as matters stand at present, when a local authority requisitions a vehicle or property, that authority becomes primarily responsible for the payment of compensation. That is not to say that any particular arrangement shall exist as regards the allocation of the burden of compensation and other war burdens, as between one public purse and another. It is therefore, as I said, purely drafting.

Mr. H. Morrison

Will the right hon. Gentleman reply to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) about transferring the financial burden from the State to the local authorities?

Sir J. Anderson

The position in regard to that matter is that until Parliament otherwise determines, we have to go on under the existing law. This leaves the matter open to be determined by Parliament. The wording in the Bill as it now stands—the wording of this Subsection in italics—was, by pure inadvertence, so drawn as to deal only with cases in which property is requisitioned on behalf of the Crown. It had to be extended to meet cases in which property is requisitioned on behalf of local authorities. If action were taken in anticipation of a war emergency and the war emergency never came, then Parliament would have to deal with the question of compensation. Presumably in that case Parliament would say that the same arrangement should apply as applied under the existing law. The local authority would be technically responsible for the vehicles that had been requisitioned and the payments claimed by way of compensation by the owners in that respect would attract grant under the 1937 Act. But hon. Members need not, I suggest, have any apprehensions in the matter because, as I have said, this Clause is merely a pointer. It is put in to make clear that the question of compensation has not been overlooked but that compensation is to be dealt with in the discretion of Parliament, according to whether a war emergency supervenes or not.

Mr. Ammon

But the local authorities under this proposal will be responsible?

Sir J. Anderson

Technically they must be if they requisition, but Parliament may alter it.

6.7 p.m.

Mr. H. Morrison

The Minister says that this is a drafting Amendment and it certainly is in the sense that its purpose is to make a draft on the ratepayers of the country. As it will have the effect of increasing rates, it is no doubt bound to nave the support of the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams). In that sense it is a drafting Amendment but in no other, because it makes a substantial change in this provision. I do not wish to dispute the accuracy of the Minister's statement to the effect that this is the result of a blunder, but I do not like the local authorities being made the victims of such a change in the proposal as it was submitted by the Government. It is nothing new that a blunder should be made in a Government Bill. We have had a series of them in the Military Training Bill and I think it is time that the Government drafted their Bills properly and avoided these mistakes. The reason why we are so "sticky" about this matter, is that this will really be wartime expenditure. This Clause will not operate until, in the opening words: it appears to him (the Minister) that in view of the imminence of an emergency involving the possibility of hostile attack it is expedient so to do. That means until the country is in danger of immediate war. Therefore, this is essentially a war-time Measure. Up to now, either we have acted on the basis that the cost of running a war should be a national responsibility, or we have been dealing only with precautions, clearly detached from the actual occurrence or imminence of war. It will be serious if local authorities are consenting parties to a decision whereby war expenditure, which is bound to be very large in this field of civil defence, should be, in part, a charge on the local rates. It is surely reasonable that the cost of running a war should be a national charge. It cannot be asserted that running a war is a local municipal service—not at any rate until we have wars between the municipalities themselves. The running of a war is essentially a national, and it may be, an international job.

This proposal, for the first time, lays down in terms, that the cost of an essential war-time service is to be, in the first instance, a charge on the local rates with the ordinary and appropriate grants under the Air-Raid Precautions Act of 1937. The compensation to be paid to the owners of the vehicles is not to be in the discretion of the local authorities. That is to be settled by Parliament. I think administratively and legally it is right that Parliament should settle the compensation to be paid to owners of vehicles, but if Parliament is to settle the financial terms on which this is to be done, that increases the strength of the case for the view that Parliament should find the money with which this compensation is to be paid. I think that the draftsman or one of the officers of His Majesty's Government, seeing the logic and common sense of the argument which I am now putting, deliberately drafted that financial provision that the moneys should be provided by Parliament for the reasons which I have indicated. I think that was a very sensible thing to do. But apparently some bright person in the Treasury has dropped upon it and the Minister has been persuaded, or browbeaten, into bringing forward this so-called drafting Amendment, which is really a substantial change of principle in that it transfers part of the cost of running a war from the Exchequer to the local ratepayers. I am sorry to find the Minister in the first place so easy-going about this material and serious change, and then, when my hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) points out to him the error of his ways and the injustice of his proposal, so tenacious in sticking to this monstrous proposal. If it is persisted in, I must ask my hon. Friends to divide against it.

6.11 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman never supposed that this Bill had been so drawn as to embody a considered decision on the manner in which expenditure on Civil Defence in any future war was to be financed. Yet that is the implication of what he has just said. This Bill is drafted on the basis of peace-time finance. This Clause was put in as a matter of precaution because it was brought to the notice of the Government that it might be necessary in the public interest that certain actions to be covered by this Clause should be taken in anticipation of the early outbreak of war. It is a matter in which the local authorities are very closely concerned because, among the vehicles which may have to be requisitioned, are those required for fire brigade purposes which it was thought should be taken over at an early stage in order that the necessary adaptations in their structure could be made in good time. This Clause, if amended according to my proposal, would be in harmony with the Financial Resolution. The Clause as it appears in the Bill, unfortunately, is not in harmony with the Financial Resolution, and if we do not make this adjustment we shall find ourselves in a grave difficulty when we come to the Report stage. I understand that from the point of view of the right hon. Gentleman it is important that nothing should be said or done which carries a final implication in regard to the financing of war expenditure. This Clause merely preserves the status quo pending a decision by Parliament. If nothing of this sort had been done, if there had been no powers corresponding to this in Clause 48 for the purposes which Clause 48 is designed to serve, the finance of the Air-Raid Precautions Act of 1937 would have been applicable automatically. This merely keeps the financial status quo, unless and until Parliament otherwise determines.

6.14 p.m.

Miss Wilkinson

It is rather a pity that a great civil servant, accustomed during many years of public service to weigh his words with the greatest accuracy, should have been so far infected by the curious attitude which prevails on the Treasury Bench to-day, of always trying to make words mean something different from their real meaning. The right hon. Gentleman to-day has suggested (a) that this is a mere drafting Amendment, and (b) that this is peace-time finance. My right hon. Friend has shown that whatever this Amendment is, it is not merely a drafting Amendment but involves an important principle. Nor can this finance be considered, from any point of view, as peacetime finance. This is a question of what is to be done immediately a war situation arises. It is all very well for the wealthy London boroughs or the wealthy London County Council, whose penny rate brings in something like a quarter of a million pounds, to start in a large way to organise at a moment of national emergency, but I must call the Minister's attention to areas such as Jarrow, where a penny rate brings in from £350 to £400 and where the borough treasurer and the town clerk live in a nightmare of exceeding their very limited budget.

It means that at a time of crisis, when certain things ought to be done, and done rapidly, the wealthy boroughs can do them, because they can say, "We can bear them out of the rates if we have to for the time being, and settle it up with the Government afterwards," but where you are dealing with boroughs like Jarrow, with a rate of 22s. in the £ and a penny rate bringing in from £350 to £400, they dare not spend the money even to do the most essential things that may require to be done in a war emergency. It may very well be that London, with its tremendous anti-aircraft defences, could be left in this matter, but in these areas it may be necessary in the first few hours to requisition vehicles for actual fire-fighting purposes. Are you going to say to the local authorities in these areas that they must consider whether they can afford to take the measures necessary in their areas to preserve life and limb? The Minister talks about this being peacetime finance, but that is an absolutely absurd suggestion, and it is unfair for the Minister to try and explain that this is a mere drafting Amendment when it may be actually a question of organising to save human life. I therefore urge the right hon. Gentleman to leave the Clause as it stands.

6.18 p.m.

Mr. H. G. Williams

I do not think I got from the Minister an answer to my rather simple point. Under this Clause, as it is proposed to be amended, a local authority can take possession of anybody's vehicle, and I think they ought to have that power, but if they take possession of a car, the people from whom the vehicle is taken ought to be paid, and they are not to be paid until we have passed a further Act of Parliament. Under the Clause as it stands there is nothing to prevent the urban district council of Oxford, for example, walking into Morris Motors, Limited, and helping themselves to every completed vehicle there, and then telling Morris Motors, Limited, "We will pay you for these when Parliament has hereafter determined," and until that moment they will get no compensation. It is no good saying that it is war-time finance. Nobody proposes to buy shells on terms that Parliament may hereafter determine. You buy them and you pay for them on delivery. In the same way, if you take someone's vehicle or premises for a limited period, you ought to pay reasonable depreciation for that period, and you ought to do so at the time. I can visualise the premises of a motor car dealer, in which there may be half-a-dozen vehicles, for which he will have paid cash, and the whole of them being appropriated; and in return he gets nothing until another Act of Parliament has been passed. I do not think that is fair to those people whose premises or vehicles are requisitioned. I am, of course, in favour of requisitioning, which must ultimately be a public charge, but clearly the person whose vehicle is taken ought to be entitled to compensation at a reasonably early date, by which I mean as soon as the necessary book-keeping has been done, and not have to wait until another Act of Parliament is passed.

6.20 p.m.

Sir J. Anderson

I am sorry that I did not give a complete answer to my hon. Friend when I spoke before. I suggest that his apprehension is not very well founded, because, on the assumption which underlies this Clause, of an emergency developing rapidly into war, the action taken by the Government and by public authorities by way of the requisitioning of vehicles or premises would go far beyond action which might be taken under this Clause, and Parliament would have to address itself at once to the principles upon which war-time compensation was to be assessed. The view of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is that you cannot deal with the very difficult problems of wartime compensation piecemeal.

Mr. H. G. Williams

But this may happen, and the war may not come afterwards. If it had happend last September, they would not have got their money until another Act of Parliament had been passed.

Sir J. Anderson

Then the intention of the Clause is that if, happily, that should be the outcome, Parliament should be at once invited to authorise the application of the normal principles of peace-time compensation in the case in question.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. Westwood

This is one of the most amazing suggestions which has been put before the Committee. In the past, when questions of finance have been affecting local authorities, there has always been more or less negotiation for the purpose of discussing these financial problems that would fall upon local shoulders. Our complaint from this side of the Committee when the Air-Raid Precautions Bill was introduced was that the financial discussions were far too limited and that as a result of those discussions the local authorities were, even under those proposals, getting a raw deal. This is a still more raw deal than the one that was imposed on the local authorities under the 1937 Act. I presume there was some negotiation with them even before this Bill was introduced, because undoubtedly it imposes greater duties upon them, but here was the financial Clause, which dealt definitely with the authority that was to pay in case of requisitioning, and now we are told that it is a mere drafting arrangement, and an entirely new burden is to be placed on the shoulders of the local authorities without any discussion with them on the point.

Quite frankly, with all these increasing financial burdens that are being imposed on the local authorities, even before war comes, you will have a complete breakdown of local government, and I must enter my protest against the statement made by the Lord Privy Seal that this is a mere drafting Amendment. The draft, as has already been pointed out by my right hon. Friend, will definitely amount to a "draught" that may blow the local authorities out of existence, with no possibility, without a new Act of Parliament being placed on the Statute Book, of compensation being given to them. That is not good business, either for the private individual whose car or whose premises may be commandeered or for the local authorities that may be called upon to pay for these requisitions. Undoubtedly we shall go into the Division Lobby to lodge our protest against a new Clause, because that it what this amounts to, being imported into this Bill, despite the Second Reading, which did not provide for these additional burdens being placed on local shoulders.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause," put, and negatived.

Question put, "That the proposed words be there inserted."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 195; Noes, 125.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.