HC Deb 24 October 1939 vol 352 cc1323-37

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain Margesson.]

8.18 p.m.

Brigadier-General Sir Ernest Makins

I regret having to take up the time of the House and of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office this evening by a question that may not appear very important compared with that of the successful prosecution of the war; but a serious situation has arisen with regard to the conditions under which valuable horses have been requisitioned, and this seriously affects the rights and property of their owners. Everyone in this country is having to endure crippling taxation, and all taxpayers have submitted with a good grace, realising that we have to win the war at all costs. But there is no reason why one section of the community should have to endure what amounts to a capital levy in addition to these taxes. I refer to the dealers in and owners of high- class horses, which have been impressed in a high-handed way for about a quarter of their value. I should like to know whether a similar levy has been imposed on any other section of the community by the requisitioning of other commodities. On the information I have been able to obtain, I do not believe that such is the case. Recently I have asked several questions in the House about the requisitioning of these horses. Three weeks ago I asked: whether there is any fixed maximum limit for the purchase of Army remounts; whether he can state the reason; and whether a similar limitation exists in respect of any other property or commodities which the War Office is commandeering at the present moment for various purposes? I thought I had received quite a satisfactory answer. It was to the following effect: The instructions to impressment officers prescribed a maximum price for horses, based on the prices at which the type required for Army service is normally obtainable. Owners who are not satisfied that the price tendered represents fair market value have the right to appeal to a county court judge. The instructions that have been issued regarding requisitioning generally are designed to secure that unduly expensive property shall, so far as possible, be avoided."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd October, 1939; col. 1800, Vol. 351.] The instructions issued, I considered, were quite good, and if they had been carried out there would have been no trouble and nobody would have complained, but in some cases there was very little attempt to carry out the instructions. I would like again to emphasise these instructions. First, it is stated that the prices are to be based on the prices at which the type required for Army service is normally obtainable. That means the normal horse they usually had for the Army, and the normal price. Secondly, it is designed to secure that unduly expensive property should, so far as possible, be avoided.

These instructions have been absolutely violated by some of the impressment officers, that is to say, if they ever got them. One of these officers goes to one establishment where he must have known that the type normally required were unobtainable, as this establishment has been known for well over half a century for keeping the very highest class of horses and to which nobody would go who would not be ready to pay a very large sum for them. Naturally, the Army buyer should have known that they would be, in the words of the Financial Secretary, unduly expensive. Therefore, I should like to know why this officer ever went there at all. I will quote one or two extracts from a letter which I received from this gentleman. He tells how the impressment officer and his assistant and a veterinary surgeon came to his establishment; My son showed what the horses cost in the books and also their prices. I arranged to have the prices shown as I did in the last war, as then they commandeered 23, and I then applied to the Government for the difference in cost. We did not have to appeal, and I had a letter from the Government and received a cheque for practically the whole of the difference. It is a very different thing during this war when they would have to go to the county court instead of getting the balance from the Government. The impressment officer made a note that the horses were worth what we had bought them for, but he could not give more than £60 apiece for them. Part of my question the other day related to the pressure that had been brought to bear on this gentleman, and the Minister for War said he was not aware that any pressure had been brought to bear upon him. Some ten days ago an official of the War Office rang up my son from the War Office to say that we must not appeal, and that we would have no chance of getting anything. On this he was very insistent, saying that we were the only people applying. Therefore my son was very firm, and, after a considerable argument, said he must go on. The impressment officer rang up the other day to say he was told to ask us not to proceed with the case. We had to appear on Thursday, but we had a letter from the authorities asking us to agree to the adjournment of the case for a month as there were so many claims it was difficult to get them through. That was after he had been told he was the only one who had applied. This- is interesting with regard to what happened in the last war: In the last war I had to go with a Mr. Lawson to buy or commandeer horses in Yorkshire. We worked hard and bought all that was necessary without having to pay more than the required price, and it was not necessary to commandeer a single one. Commandeering horses at £60 apiece has taken our stock in trade at less than half cost price. In consequence our capital will be gone when we want to start again. The cost price of the 13 horses plus expenses amounts to £1,765. The fourteenth horse which we put down at a modest valuation of £120, was brother to one for which £1,000 was refused last year. This makes a total of £1.885 against which we receive £60 apiece, making £804. The difference we are claiming from the Government is, therefore, £1,045. This man, of course, is a dealer. This is his capital and his trade and the authorities have no business to take these horses from him at £60 apiece, especially when the orders from the War Office were to the effect that they were not to buy unduly expensive property.

I have had rather a fan mail about this since I took it up. I have had several letters, and no doubt a great many people will have noticed the letters which have appeared in the "Times" and in other papers. I will not weary the House with more than two or three cases. This is from a gentleman who has been the master of four packs of hounds. He is in rather a different situation from that of the dealer in horses. One day he was out and a remount officer called. He says: He saw my wife and told her, that two horses would be required from me. I selected the two horses that I could well spare—a chestnut colt for which I had given £100, and a mare that I bought from Ireland for £100, both very high class horses, and one in the Book. The first horse they selected was one for which he had given £275 at the end of last season, practically clean bred and one which had won a great deal in the show ring. The next one was a bay gelding in the book, a thoroughbred for which he gave £275 as a five-year old. This horse he considered quite good enough for the National Hunt. The next one was a horse which he had bought only last season for £300. The attitude of both purchasing officer and veterinary surgeon was extremely unpleasant during the whole proceedings. He said: The veterinary surgeon appeared to take charge and the purchasing officer to fall in with all his suggestions and not the slightest attention was paid to anything I said. My wife and my stud groom are witnesses of this. Two of the horses were entirely unsuited by temperament for mounting in the yeomanry unit. The total I paid for the horses was £1,100 and I got a cheque for £300. It may be said that he is better off than a great many others, and although he is very sore about it I gather from him that he is not going to take any action in the county court.

The next case is that of a dealer in Gloucestershire from whom 22 horses at £60 apiece were taken. They were all high-class horses mostly bought in Ireland as four- or five-year olds and hon. Members will probably realise the time it takes and the cost before such horses are ready to hunt. He is rather a different type of dealer and buys young clean-bred horses mostly from Ireland, which take a year or two to train and break. These young, unbroken horses cost him on an average £102 each. Some of them he has to keep for a year, others for two years, and therefore they stand in his books for cost of keep, insurance, wages, etc., at a great deal more than £102. This is a case of another dealer who has been absolutely ruined by having his horses taken away from him at a cost of £60 each.

The important thing is to know why these officers have not obeyed the instructions that were given to them direct from the War Office. Instead of rectifying their error and returning the horses to the owners, the authorities seem to shrug their shoulders and take cover behind the Army Act, Section 113, which provides that the horse owners can appeal to the county court, which should have been unnecessary, as it was in the last war. Most of these owners never thought that they had any right of appeal, and they were not informed that they had by the officers, who may have been just as ignorant as themselves about it. I know of a great many civilians who are not conversant with the Army Act and a good many soldiers too who are not. The Minister has called to his aid the Army Act, but he drives a coach and four through the allowance regulations, which are laid down by Royal Warrant.

I asked a question on Tuesday, 10th October, of the Secretary of State for War, with regard to the taking over of privately-owned chargers of officers of the Household Cavalry. According to Remount Regulations cavalry officers were promised that their horses would be taken over by the Remount Department in the event of mobilisation, as provided for in the Allowance Regulations. The answer I received from my right hon. Friend was to the effect that in those regiments the maximum price for the most expensive charger privately-owned was £120. That is quite right. It is laid down in the allowance regulations. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say: It was recently decided not to pay more than £60 for any horse now being acquired, but no compulsion was put on any officer to sell his horse."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th October, 1939; col. 145, Vol. 352.] This really sounds like breaking faith with these officers on the very occasion on which the allowance regulations were designed to operate. What I am mystified about is that these allowance regulations were issued under Royal Warrant, and it would take a supplementary Royal Warrant to alter them. So far as I know no supplementary Royal Warrant has been issued, and it looks as if the Minister has taken upon himself to alter a Royal Warrant. These officers of the Household Cavalry consider that they have been badly let down. They appear to have one advantage over the civilian inasmuch as they are not obliged to sell their horses, whereas the civilian is compelled to do so, and they can turn their horses out to grass and keep them cheaply until the war is over.

In regard to the question of values they are very hard to assess. A value is generally assessed on the value which similar types of animals have fetched at auction in the open market. There are, however, no auctions for the higher class of horses, but in regard to the lower-grade horses, the prices have been rising considerably owing to the motor car and petrol restriction. The question of value is dependent somewhat on whether the adjudicator of values is an optimist or a pessimist in regard to the war. If he is an optimist and he thinks the war will not last more than a year, then the horse is worth a great deal more than if he is a pessimist and he thinks the war will go on for three years. An important point is what these horses will fetch after the war when there will be a great dearth of horses and a great many purchasers. To quote an example of post-war prices in another commodity, a friend of mine told me about a car which he possessed during the last war. He could not sell it for love or money; so he laid it up. At the end of the war, when cars were very scarce and delivery could not be got for months, he sold the car for double what he had given for it originally. Some of my friends say that after the war nobody will have any money with which to buy horses. I would not say that. There will be many people who will make money out of the war, in spite of any Government regulations. There never has been a war in which there have not been racketeers, and I cannot believe that there will not be some people who will make money out of this war.

In addition to the national market for our horses, there is another great and important market, and that is the international one. This country has always been and still is the Mecca for horses. Americans and others who have done well out of the war and have made their pile will come into the market here. As before, they will come to hunt here when peace is declared and will give high prices for their horses. People from the Continent will also come here to buy expensive horses. I have no doubt that when the war is over the horse will command a higher price than it did before the present war.

I should like to congratulate the Secretary of State for War on the way he has reorganised and perfected the British Army and also for his broadcast last Saturday, but in regard to the matter which I am raising to-night I should say that it is a scandal, and ought never to have been allowed to occur. It is an injustice and a hardship, and must be rectified and stopped. There has been some error somewhere, and somebody must be to blame for it. There has been too much of this business of people going about commandeering things, without any feelings in regard to the owner of the property, whether it be buildings or horses. Preserve us from the bureaucrat dictators and their minions. No one wants to be vindictive, but it seems to me that somebody should be put on the mat about this matter. On the posters we read: Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might. I sometimes think that our freedom is in peril, not only from our enemies from without but from our bureaucrats from within. There are too many jacks-in-office. You find them in all Departments, not only amongst those who impress horses but those who impress hotels, schools, land and every other sort of commodity. They can be best described in the words of Shakespeare: But man, proud man! Drest in a little brief authority; Most ignorant of what he's most assured; His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make the angels weep. I ask the Financial Secretary in all seriousness to see that the impressment of these high-class horses, from men whose living it is to breed and train them and who will be ruined if this goes on, is stopped, and that he will represent to the Secretary of State for War the fact that something must be done to alter the present procedure and see that the orders are carried out.

8.41 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Sir Victor Warrender)

I do not think that my hon. and gallant Friend should have painted in such glowing colours the picture of the state of affairs in the country districts where horses for the Army have been bought. Obviously we cannot set up an organisation to provide for the Government several thousands of horses without there being considerable hardship in many cases, and without the owners, or some of the owners, of the horses feeling that they have a grievance. When the hon. and gallant Member gave notice that he was going to raise this question I took steps to call for a report from the various districts where these horses have been bought to find out what was the extent of the discontent which the hon. and gallant Member alleges to exist. He will, of course, make the obvious retort that the sources from which I get my information are biased and that they represent the other interested party. At any rate, it is significant that these reports are all very much on the same lines, and that most of the district remount officers, who have given me such information as they have been able to obtain, are surprisingly unanimous in saying that although the purchase of horses for the Army has in many cases required the owners to part with horses of value and of which they are very fond, yet in the great majority of cases the owners have responded to the situation and realised that the needs of the country are paramount, and, although not willingly, have philosophically accepted the situation.

The hon. and gallant Member described the process of buying these horses as a capital levy. I have as yet had no experience of a capital levy, nor has he, and I have yet to learn that when a capital levy is imposed the individual whose capital is affected has a right of appeal to a court of justice. I think the hon. and gallant Member's complaint was chiefly that the purchase and impressment of horses had been carried out in many cases contrary to the instructions issued by the War Office. I can find no evidence to that effect. Instructions were issued that the personal interests of the owners were to be considered as far as possible. Officers were not to take a horse from the one-horse owner whose livelihood depended upon it. They were instructed to avoid purchasing mares fit for breeding, and generally they were instructed to avoid as far as possible taking high-class blood horses. What the hon. and gallant Member seems to have forgotten is that the horses had to be purchased within a short space of time and that of necessity resort had to be had to methods which would not have been necessary had we had more time in which to buy horses. Within a given area a certain number of horses had to be produced, and I think it was inevitable that where a man was having a difficulty in producing his quota of horses he naturally had to purchase horses of a better class and type than perhaps he would have done had he had more time at his disposal. The hon. and gallant Member cited a case which he did not mention by name, but which I easily recognise, and he will forgive me if I do not deal in detail with the case because it is sub judice.

Sir E. Makins

Only on the question of value.

Sir V. Warrender

The whole case is sub judice. May I say this in general, that it really cannot be upheld to-day that horses bought before the war can be said to have the same value now that war has broken out, nor can it be said that the horse dealer is the only man in business who is seeing his stock seriously depreciating in value as a result of the war. We do not seek to impose any harshness or injustice upon these people. They have, after all, a right of appeal to the county court judge, and if they can establish their case they can get monetary compensation. The hon. and gallant Member suggested that owners have not been told that they had a right of appeal to the court. It may have happened in some cases that the impressment officers omitted to tell the owners that they had this right of appeal, but the hon. and gallant Member may take it from me, and I can give him the assurance, that in the vast majority of these transactions prices were agreed upon with the owners and that impressment was resorted to in a very small number of cases. Therefore, it is to be assumed that owners who agreed to the price at which their horses were taken did so of their own free will and were not interested in going to a court of appeal. The hon. and gallant Member raised a question as to the prices paid for privately-owned chargers of officers in the Army, and asked why the limit of £60 was placed upon these horses when, according to the Army Act, the officers were entitled to £120.

Sir E. Makins

Under the Allowance Regulations.

Sir V. Warrender

I do not think it was unfair to these officers to put them in the same position as the general public; in fact, I think it would have been difficult to defend paying an officer £120 as a maximum for his charger when we were taking horses from private individuals at a maximum of £60. It must not be forgotten that where chargers were bought from officers boards were set up to adjudicate on an agreed price with the officers, and that the board consisted in some cases of officers of the same unit as the horses concerned. My information is that in practically every case a price was agreed upon which the officer holding the horse was willing to accept, and that no difficulty has been experienced. In fact, I am at a loss to understand the grievance to which the hon. and gallant Member was referring, because not only were the prices agreed upon, as they have to be under the regulations, but they have been confirmed since as being just and correct. It must not be forgotten that there was no compulsion on any of the officers to sell their chargers.

Sir Joseph Lamb

My hon. Friend says that there is no compulsion on the officers to sell these horses. Why was not the same treatment given to the dealers? They were compelled to sell.

Sir V. Warrender

I think the officer who is in service at the time is entitled to some treatment of that kind. To begin with, he has no right of appeal to the county court, and that being so, it is only justice to give him the option of retaining his horse if he is unwilling to sell.

Sir J. Lamb

Surely, my hon. Friend does not contend that if a man is under no compulsion to sell his horse, he need go to the county court? He can retain the horse if he wishes. In the case of the dealer, it is the man's capital that is wanted. In the case of the officer, it is simply something for which the officer gets the advantage.

Sir V. Warrender

I have said that where there is compulsion, the individual is given the right to appeal to the county court. Where there is no compulsion—

Sir J. Lamb

He does not want it.

Sir V. Warrender

As my hon. Friend says, he does not want it, but I do not think one can ask that an officer owning a charger should have it both ways. It is obvious that under no system could one purchase a large number of horses without causing a certain amount of heart burning, and although my hon. and gallant Friend said that he quoted only a few cases, I do not think he can say that he has had a large number of cases submitted to him. I do not think it can be said that the officers, who had a difficult task to perform in a very short period of time, have carried out that task without consideration for individuals. I do not think that the owners of high-class horses in present conditions can lay claim to the same price for those horses as they might have expected to get had there been no war. I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that if and when further horses have to be purchased, we shall endeavour to follow the same principles as we have in the past, to take what we need, but with the minimum of inconvenience to the private individual. Naturally, if there is any case of particular hardship, my right hon. Friend or I will be only too willing to receive any representations which my hon. and gallant Friend or any other hon. Member may make, but I cannot accept the suggestion which was contained in the quotation with which my hon. and gallant Friend concluded his speech that there has been any drastic, fantastic, bureaucratic bullying of individuals. Naturally, there have been hard cases, but unfortunately, the owners of horseflesh are not the only people who have suffered as a result of the outbreak of war.

Sir E. Makins

Would my hon. Friend say that the country is properly quartered for horses? The officers have first of all combed out the Shires, where all the valuable horses are, and they have not been near a great many other places. I know of one county, having a great many horses, where the officers have never been. One hon. Member has told me that his hunt in the North wanted to sell all the hunt horses—very good, sound horses, for which they had given about £100 apiece—and that the officers have never been near them. There is one point I would like to ask with regard to the allowance Regulations. Are they not altered by Royal Warrant?

Sir V. Warrender

My hon. and gallant Friend is now asking me to inflict an injustice of which he has been complaining on a wider area of the country. I know the point he has in mind, and if and when we require more horses, we shall cover more ground; but he will readily realise that in the time limits within which the horses had to be bought, it was impossible to cast the net over as wide an area as we might have wished. Naturally the tendency was to go where it was known that the horses were quickly obtainable. With regard to the other point which my hon. and gallant Friend has raised, perhaps he will allow me to give him that information later on. I have not got it here at the moment.

8.55 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

I drew the attention of the Minister recently to a case which I think was worthy of more attention than it has received. The case is one in which impressment took place and nine horses were appropriated at once. It may be that those horses were of the best type for the purpose for which they were required. It may have been thought that since there were nine horses available at this place it was better to take the nine than to travel to eight other places to get one horse in each place. But I understand that the horses taken from this place, the name of which is well known in the Department by now, were, on the basis of pre-war prices—and I do not deny that there may have been depreciation since the war started—worth anywhere up to £200 each. The price offered was £60 each and the owner was left to apply to the county court for anything over and above that £60 to which he might feel himself entitled. Apparently £120 is the maximum sum which one may get even in the county court and by following the normal procedure.

The hon. Gentleman said that he would be very sorry if extremely well-bred horses were taken for this purpose when other horses were available. One of the nine horses referred to in the question which I put to the Secretary of State for War was the progeny of a Derby winner, a St. Leger winner, and a Two Thousand Guineas winner. The owner's estimate of the original price paid, plus the cost of training and feeding, was round about £250. I doubt very much whether the value of that horse has depreciated 25 per cent. but that would still leave the horse worth about £200, and the actual sum paid for it was £60. It may be that the county court judge in his wisdom will feel that in this case the maximum price under the arrangement of the Department should be paid, but a second question arises—whether or not these nine horses were of the type required by the War Department. I understand that the type of horse referred to in this case is one which is bred for special purposes. There is an annual sale, advertisements of which are broadcast in Ireland and throughout Great Britain, and good prices are fetched by these horses because of their peculiar breed. I am led to believe that a very well-bred horse is not the sort which the War Office requires. Yet the men who were sent out to impress these horses, without asking any questions of the manager of the stud or seeking to acquire any knowledge about the breed or type of the horses, just appropriated them and that was the end of it. I can readily understand that when they are in a hurry, when they must have the horses and have them quickly, it is natural that they should go where they know a large number of horses are available and appropriate them at once, and the future must take care of the price, but I suggest that it is fairly uneconomic, from the War Office point of view, first of all to take horses that are unfit or unsuited for the work they are called upon to do, and, secondly, that it is unfair to the owner who has bred a peculiar kind of horse for a totally different purpose from that to which the War Office wish to put them.

The case that I quoted is, I think, a classic example of the haphazard methods employed by these persons who were en- gaged by the War Office to secure for them the appropriate number of the right type of horse. I do not know these individuals, and I do not know whether they had the appropriate training or whether they were quite capable of deciding which was or which was not the right type of horse, but I am certain that, if the county court judge is warned of the compensation for emergency action whereby, if the State takes over any commodities, any appreciated value since the war broke out is not to be taken into consideration when compensation is paid, and if the opposite happens in these cases, the War Office will be called upon to pay sums far in excess of their maximum price of £120. I wish to lodge no complaint about what has happened, but to utter perhaps a warning of what ought to happen in the future. First of all, if the men who are appointed to buy these horses for the War Office are men with knowledge of the value of horses and of the utility of the particular kind of horses required, the questions which have already arisen, those referred to prior to my entry into the House, and the particular case that I have in mind would not have happened and will not happen in the future. There is a large number of horse trainers in the country who are out of work, and I should imagine they are the right type of people to be employed by the War Office for this purpose. Not only would it avoid difficulties in future, but it would ensure that the War Office would get the right type of horse at the right price and that there would be fewer complaints than there have been so far.

Mr. A. Edwards

Before the Minister replies, may I—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Clifton Brown)

I understand that the hon. Member wants to speak on the question of Supply, but he cannot speak now and then as well.

Mr. Edwards

I wanted merely to ask a question.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Even questions cannot be answered now, as the Minister has already spoken.