HC Deb 09 October 1939 vol 352 cc98-104

Order for Second Reading read.

6.36 p.m.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland (Mr. J. S. Reid)

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

When the present war became imminent, one of the first Acts of Parliament passed was the Courts (Emergency Powers) Act which received the Royal Assent on 1st September. It covered a variety of questions and gave the courts of both England and Scotland large discretion on a number of those questions. It was drawn with the technicalities of English law procedure chiefly in mind. It did, however, contain a Clause adapting it to Scotland and it is, at this moment, the law in Scotland but various difficulties have arisen. As the House is aware, while a considerable part of the law of Scotland is closely similar to, if not exactly the same as, the law of England, there are at least two respects in which there is a fundamental difference between the two. These are the land laws and the methods of procedure by which rights are enforced and it is in connection with those two chapters and particularly the latter, that difficulties have arisen. It has been found that the mere translation of English terms into their nearest Scottish equivalents is not going to work well. Not only does it produce inconvenience to the courts and the legal profession but there is considerable doubt on the exact meaning of the existing provisions in Scotland.

This Bill has been drafted to supersede the Courts (Emergency Powers) Act and also a small Act, the Possession of Mortgaged Land (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1939, as far as Scotland is concerned. The principles of the Bill are precisely the same as those which are to be found in the two Acts to which I have referred, and in certain respects the wording of the existing Acts has been copied exactly. In a number of other respects it has been necessary to approach the same goal by different routes, and Clauses have been redrafted in order to fit in with our Scottish procedure. I do not think that in those circumstances the House would desire me to go through this Bill Clause by Clause, and I will merely give the assurance that in so far as our differences in law and procedure permit, the new Bill will do exactly the same as the existing Act, but it will be done in a better and a more straightforward way. I am not to be held as saying that there will be no differences, because the differences between our systems make that a rash thing to say, but in so far as we have been able to achieve it—and I think we have—our object is that the differences should be extremely slight. I therefore, in moving this Bill, merely say that its passage will facilitate the work of the courts in a most difficult chapter of their administration and will also greatly facilitate the work of the legal profession in Scotland.

6.42 p.m.

Mr. Mathers

I rise to say, very briefly, that I confirm what has been said by the Solicitor-General for Scotland, that this Bill will do precisely what the United Kingdom Bill, which was passed earlier in this emergency, was intended to do. We have often declaimed against legislation by reference, but we have struggled away with it, although under very great difficulties. Now we find that legislation by interpretation and translation is something that we cannot possibly work to at all, hence the reason for this Bill being interpreted into Scottish terms, although not perhaps into the Scottish language, that can be understood and properly applied by the legal profession in Scotland. It is not my intention to deal with the legal aspect of the Bill at all—I do not find myself competent to do that— but I have the assurance of those who are more competent than myself to say so that the objects aimed at are properly carried out by this Bill. I will leave the legal aspect to be dealt with by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Greenock (Mr. R. Gibson), who, apart from the fact of the office held by the Solicitor-General for Scotland, is, I think, the senior legal luminary in the Chamber at the moment, so that I think I can safely leave the legal considerations to him. The Solicitor-General for Scotland did say, what I thought was a rather significant thing, that the purposes which are intended to be served by the Bill are carried out here in a more straightforward way. What he was saying was in effect that they were being carried out in a more Scottish way; I think the two words are interchangeable.

I want to raise a point on this Bill in respect to a matter that is not covered by the terms of the Bill itself. This Bill, as we know, is to absolve individuals from non-payment of moneys and for failure to carry out certain obligations they have incurred. There are many obligations incurred by quite humble people that are not mentioned in this Bill. I refer in particular to the obligation on the part of individuals to pay insurance premiums. I have had a number of instances of this kind, and one notably only this week-end, brought to my attention, where premiums have been paid to an insurance company over a long number of years, and now, just on the eve of the fruition of those payments, just at the time when the benefit is almost coming about as the reward of those long years of payment, the people who have been paying those premiums find themselves unable, because of war conditions, to pay the last few premiums that are required. I wonder whether the Solicitor-General for Scotland or anyone else on the Government Front Bench can give us any indication whether this particular aspect of obligations that cannot be met because of war conditions has been looked at by the Government, and whether there is any intention to bring forward legislation to meet the undoubtedly serious position created for a large number of people by their inability to meet their obligations in this regard. It seems to me an appropriate thing for a Bill of this kind to cover and while I can hardly ask that this Bill be amended to the extent of including provisions of the kind that I have indicated, because this Bill is precisely to bring the Scottish position more correctly, more properly, and more suitably into line with the United Kingdom position that we decided upon early last month, I hope we can get some indication of the intention of the Government to meet the undoubtedly serious position to which I have drawn attention.

I am sure that in the minds of all of us there will be a keen desire that one part of this Bill will soon become operative. I refer to Sub-section (2) of Clause 4, which deals with the termination of the provisions that we are making in this Bill and which will mean that the end of the war has come and peace has been restored to this country. It is then to be declared that the emergency has passed for which we are providing in this Bill, and I am sure that it is the heartfelt hope of everyone in this House that that time may come very speedily. I think that that time might come even more speedily if attention was given to the need, as I consider it, of making it clear what actually we are carrying on these hostilities for and what this country stands for in respect of war aims or peace terms, words which are practically interchangeable to my mind. I hope it will be realised, as it did not appear to be realised by the Prime Minister this afternoon in response to questions put to him, that there is a great need for making a statement of that kind at the earliest possible moment. I believe that that might help to make it possible for Sub-section (2) of Clause 4 of this Bill to become operative earlier than it might otherwise do, and, as I say, I believe it is the firm wish of all Members of this House that this Bill may not require to remain very long upon the Statute Book.

6.48 p.m.

Mr. Foot

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers) on one of the most remarkable Parliamentary performances that I have ever heard. To be able on this Bill to make a speech on British war aims and yet to remain in order, was something that I should have thought would be outside the capacities of any of us, so that I do congratulate the hon. Member on having achieved it. I rise only to relieve the mind of the Government by saying that we too shall offer no opposition to this Bill, and to make one comment on the occasion for it. I hope that this will be a lesson to the Government, and that, as a result of their experience of the composite Bill and of the need for introducing this Bill, they will try to break this pernicious habit of bringing in a Bill that is couched in terms applying to England and of including a kind of translation Clause at the end to apply it to Scotland.

6.50 p.m.

Mr. R. Gibson

It is interesting to hear from the lips of the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) testimony to the distinct difference that there is between the laws of Scotland and England. In that regard this Bill is an innovation. In the last war there were two Courts (Emergency Powers) Acts—the 1914 Act apply- ing to the United Kingdom, and the 1916 Act applying to England and Ireland and only in part to Scotland. This Bill may be summed up as a Bill which has in view the legal enforcement of ascertained legal remedies, and it has to be borne in mind that the ordinary work of the courts goes on. The work of resolving legal difficulties and providing a remedy for legal wrongs continues. In that connection it is appropriate that one should call attention to the statement of the Lord Chancellor at the end of last month, when he informed the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales that their work was of national importance. That applies equally to Scotland. In these days, when decisions of the courts are of perhaps greater importance than usual, it is all the more desirable that law reporting should continue and that reports should be received by those who are interested in them. I congratulate the Lord Advocate on carrying into effect the promise which he gave as long ago as December, 1937, when I raised the question of supplying law reports to the inferior courts in Scotland. From time to time and as opportunity has presented itself I understand that these reports are being provided. During war-time in particular it is desirable that the decisions of the Supreme Court in Scotland should be made readily available to all inferior courts.

There are two topics on which I would like to touch. One is the question of insurance, which was dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers). I do not find in this Bill any specific reference to insurance, and there was no reference to it in the earlier Act. In the 1914 Act, however, there was a specific reference to insurance, and I would like to refer the Solicitor-General to Section I, Sub-section (1, b)of that Act, where it is laid down that: From and after the passing of this Act no person shall …enforce the lapse of any policy of insurance to which this Sub-section applies. Later, this provision is made: This Sub-section applies to life or endowment policies for an amount not exceeding £25, or payments equivalent thereto, the premiums in respect of which are payable at not longer than monthly intervals, and have been paid for at least the two years preceding the fourth day of August nineteen hundred and fourteen. A provision along those lines would meet the difficulty to which my hon. Friend has given expression. I cannot think why such a provision should have been omitted from the present Bill or from the Act passed early in September.

The other question which I desire to mention is that of hire purchase. I was asked frequently in Scotland last week what is the position of persons who have entered into hire-purchase agreements, in view of the war emergency. While that is not dealt with specifically in this Bill it seems that the point is covered in Clause 1, Sub-section (2, g,)which deals with the taking or resuming possession of any property by reason of any default by any person in the payment of money or the performance of any obligation. Sub-section (5) of Section I makes provision for Orders in Council to deal with the exercise of any right or power of any person or class of persons having any goods in their custody to sell the goods by reason of any default in payment of a debt. My reason for referring to this matter is that hire purchase has extended very widely since the last war and the number of people who have entered into hire-purchase agreements is very large. As the result of the emergency consequent on the outbreak of hostilities, many people are experiencing difficulty in meeting their obligations under these agreements. It would be wise for the learned Solicitor-General in his reply to make it clear that provision is being made by the Government for people who entered into these agreements. I agree that this Bill will perform a useful work in connection with the courts and in meeting the difficulties that necessarily arise upon the outbreak of war.

Mr. Rhys Davies

I understood the Solicitor-General for Scotland to say that this Bill was an interpretation into Scottish language of the English law. Will he make representations to his colleagues in the Government to see that the Bill is translated into Welsh?

6.58 p.m.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

The framework of the law of Scotland requires a different phraseology from that of England. It is not a question of translating it into another language. With regard to the question of insurance raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers) and the hon. and learned Member for Greenock (Mr. R. Gibson), obviously that is a point which is equally applicable to England and Scotland, and it would not be appropriate to insert it in the Scottish Bill when there was no opportunity of making it apply to England too. I should like to assure the hon. Members that note will be taken of the points they have made with a view to their being presented to the appropriate central authority for both countries. With regard to hire purchase, the hon. and learned Member has correctly pointed out the three parts of this Bill which may be relevant in considering hire purchase agreements. I think that their phraseology is plain, and so far as anybody under such an agreement attempts to recover payment of a sum of money or to invoke the courts in order to resume possession of any property, the Bill is available for the protection of the other contracting parties.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.— [Lieut.-Colonel Kerr.]