§ Considered in Committee.
§ [Colonel CLIFTON BROWN in the Chair.]334
§ CLAUSE 1. — (Allowances and pensions in respect of certain war injuries and war service injuries.)
§ 2.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Foot
I beg to move, in page 2, line 18, at the end, to insert:Provided that the Minister may, and shall, if so directed by the High Court, state in the form of a special case for the opinion of the High Court any question of law arising out of any such decision.May I ask for your guidance, Colonel Clifton Brown? The Amendment is directed to a very similar point to that of the proposed new Clause— (Duty of the Minister to state a special case) which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith). Would it be possible for me to discuss the issues raised by these two Amendments together?
I am entirely in the hands of the Committee, and if it is the wish of the Committee to discuss the whole thing together, I am quite agreeable.
§ Mr. Foot
I have put forward the Amendment and the new Clause in order to enable the Minister to deal with certain points which were raised in the Debate yesterday. Under Clause 1, it is provided that the Minister may make a scheme providing for compensation for war injuries. As was pointed out in the Debate yesterday, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for West Middlesbrough, the Minister is in the position that he is both the legislator and judiciary. He is the man who makes the scheme, and he also decides whether, under the terms of the scheme, any particular claimant is entitled to receive the benefits which the scheme provides. I believe that those of us who have any very clear recollection of what was done in the last War, all of us who sit in this House, must be aware of the enormous difficulties which can arise upon questions of war compensation. We have all had to consider matters of that kind in our dealings with war compensation cases among our own constituents, and we know what a great sense of hardship can be created if it is felt, rightly or wrongly, that the Ministry of Pensions has not dealt fairly with some particular case. A good deal was said about the work by the Minister of Pensions yesterday which there is no need to repeat to-day.
335 What I am proposing in my first Amendment is that, if any question arises as to whether, under a scheme, a certain claimant is or is not entitled to receive benefit, it shall be possible for the Minister himself, or the man if he goes to the High Court, to have a case stated for the opinion of the High Court. The Minister yesterday pointed out the difficulties of litigation in time of war, and, dealing with another part of the Bill, he said that it would be a very difficult matter to bring medical and other witnesses in great numbers from one part of the country to another. None of those objections applies to this Clause. It is simply a question of having a case stated and of going to court and having your advocates on either side. The Amendment would make it possible when schemes have been framed, for test cases to be taken to the High Court from time to time. No one in his senses would suggest that a Government Department is better qualified than a court of law to decide such cases.
The new Clause is directed to another point which was raised in the Debate yesterday. It was pointed out that the Minister is to judge whether a war service injury has been incurred and to determine whether he is satisfied that the injury has arisen out of and in course of the volunteer's performance of his duty. Reference was made to the words in the Workmen's Compensation Act, which have been considered by the courts for 30 years, and the point was made that it would be better in that case, also, if in the last resort the court could construe these words. I do not think the Minister answered this point yesterday. You might have a Government Department applying somewhat different meanings from a court of law. The hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) pointed out that there might be a position in which the claimant would fall between two stools. The Minister might say that the injury had not arisen out of and in course of volunteer service, and a court of law might hold that the injury had arisen out of and in course of his ordinary employment. Surely, we ought to have the same tribunal deciding the meaning of the phrase in each case.
There is nothing in the proposed Amendments which would in any way hamper the work of the Ministry or would in any way make it more difficult to carry 336 out the Act. It would simply mean that test cases could be taken to the High Court from time to time. I should have thought that that would be of assistance to the Minister of Pensions in determining how to administer the Statute. Even in these times when we have graver problems to consider, it is necessary that as far as we can we should preserve the rights of individual citizens and, above all, make it clear to the country that, as far as we can assure it in this House, justice will be done to those people who volunteer for service and who receive injuries in the course of that service.
§ 2.38 p.m.
§ The Minister of Pensions (Sir Walter Womersley)
I will deal with the Amendment and the new Clause, and argue the case under two heads. On the question of law, I personally give way to the hon. Member, because he knows more about the law than I do; I have to rely on my legal advisers. When it comes to facts, I hope that I shall be able to hold my own with the hon. Member. On the question of law, I appreciate and sympathise with the point of view that the hon. Member has put forward, and the object of the Amendment. As I indicated yesterday, the Government will be ready to reconsider the whole question when the period of emergency passes from us and we come to the time when we can settle down to an orderly discussion of schemes approved and passed by this House dealing with the question of pensions after the war is over. The hon. Member referred to the confusion that occurred during the earlier period of the last war, and said that he had not very vivid recollections of that period. I have vivid recollections of it. Why did that confusion occur? It occurred because the House had not given to one individual Minister the power which I hope they will give to me under this Bill. For two years we were under a system of confusion. Then the House had to pass an Act to deal with the question. When the emergency was over the House had to pass a Bill dealing with the position as it was then.
I am advised that the suggested Amendment would cause confusion in the administration of State compensation. The whole object of the Bill is to provide very promptly for all occurrences of injury and to give the necessary financial assistance to meet the cases that arise.
§ Sir W. Womersley
That is so, and I can prove it to the hon. Member. I am glad to say that my Department has been so careful in its preparations that in cases of injury to the civilian population of this country in any part of the country I could deal with them tomorrow morning, but not if I accepted the Amendment. I want the hon. Member to appreciate the point very clearly. Quickness of decision is essential. Those of us who had experience in the administration of pensions questions in the last War know that lack of quickness in decision was the real complaint. The fact that there was not quickness and certainty of decision, which is so essential in dealing with these cases, was the cause of complaint. Can the hon. Member give me any idea how long it would take to appeal to the High Court on a point of law at this stage of great emergency? If that uncertainty is to exist, what about the position of the claimant? What about the people who are depending upon a decision being arrived at by a superior court?
§ Mr. Foot
I should say that the matter is perfectly clear to everyone in the House except the Minister. If he proposes to grant the claim, there will be no delay. This question of stating a case for the courts would arise only where the Minister has turned down a claim. No one to whom he proposes to grant compensation will be held up in any way if the Amendment is passed.
§ Sir W. Womersley
There must be uncertainty if there is a right of appeal to the High Court. I want to be in a position where the House trusts me to carry on in a generous and proper way, without being tied hand and foot by legal quibbles which do not matter at all until you come to a definite scheme. We are dealing with an emergency, and the only sound and proper way is to place trust in the Minister who is to administer the Act, in the meantime. Hon. Members will have the right to come to the House and to raise a question if any case is not treated properly. There is certainly a better chance of dealing with such matters directly in that way than by 338 going to the High Court. It is far better that we should trust to our Parliamentary system whereby an hon. Member can raise these questions in the House, without there being the necessity to say that the matter is sub judice and must not be mentioned because it is a matter for the courts. Even if I reject a claim, acting on advice, on the ground that the injury has not arisen out of and in the course of such service, the claimant can pursue his claim under the Workmen's Compensation Act, in common law. He can also have assistance provided under health benefit or under special schemes of the Unemployment Assistance Board. There is no suggestion of a person who is in need being left to the mercy of the world.
When we come to the question of fact and not to the legal side of the matter, I claim that the alternative of leaving the claimant to go to the court is, from the administrative point of view, in time of war, wholly impracticable. Recourse to the courts is by way of petition of right—
§ Sir W. Womersley
I am going to rely on my legal friends and I say that actions of this kind throughout a period of war would put a cog in the machinery and that no man would be able to administer it to the satisfaction of the House. The real point at issue is this: I have to decide whether a person has received injury by enemy action or in the course of his duty. That is a medical point, and I submit that I shall have to rely on the advice which I receive from the medical officers of the Ministry. Seeing that that is the main point at issue I am quite prepared—and I have consulted those who are responsible for the drafting of the Bill—to insert in the scheme a provision that where there is serious difference of opinion as to whether a man is injured or not the case may be referred to an independent medical referee appointed by the Royal College of Surgeons or the Royal College of Physicians. The question of fact is whether a man or woman has received serious injury or not, and on that I shall be advised by an independent medical referee if my own medical officers are in doubt as to whether the man has received such injury, I submit that that is dealing fairly and squarely with the applicant. I know how hon. 339 Members try to get Amendments inserted into a Bill—
§ Sir W. Womersley
I do not think it is offensive. I do not wish to say anything offensive because I know I should be a marked man. I want to dealt with the matter fairly and squarely. I said, and I repeat, that hon. Members like to get concessions put into a Bill, I say that distinctly. It has been done and it will be done again. I should like to meet the hon. Member in his Amendment but my legal advisers say that it would make the Bill unworkable in a state of emergency.
§ 2.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Kingsley Griffith
I wish to call attention to the remarks of the Minister in which he said that some Members desire to get Amendments into a Bill. We are all agreed that we desire to facilitate emergency legislation at this time, but an insinuation like that, a deliberate insinuation, that hon. Members have put down Amendments for the purposes of personal advertisement—the Minister's remarks could mean nothing else—
§ Mr. Griffith
The Minister has no right to make such an insinuation. We are endeavouring in this hurried legislation to put a few points as safeguards, and to see that the worst consequences do not follow. What the Minister said could have only one meaning, and I do not believe it is in accordance with the rules of this House to impute motives to hon. Members in what they do. When he spoke about delay the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) interjected, very much to the point, that there would be no delay 340 whatever if the Minister grants a claim, and all that the Amendment does is to give what I hope will be a very rare procedure, it would not often be called upon, the right if any point is raised for a case to be stated. It is obviously, I should have thought, desirable that there should be some legal interpretations of what is actually meant. Any suggestion that the procedure proposed by the Amendment would lead to a general delay in the granting of claims is obviously without any foundation whatever. As soon as the Minister has granted the claim there would be no application for a case, and no suggestion of any legal quibbles. The only question is that if on advice he thought he ought to refuse, there would be an opportunity for the matter to go before some legal tribunal to decide; it would become a test case and would afford some guidance to the Minister for future action.
The Minister said that if the scheme is administered as it ought to be there would be no reason to go to the courts at all. I grant him that, but that applies to any appeal in any conceivable circumstances. If magistrates always gave the right decision there would be no need for appeal to quarter sessions. That argument is quite puerile, and is one which should not have been advanced. It is an argument against there ever being any appeals against any conceivable procedure. When the Minister made his observation about a petition of right, the law officers of the Crown could be observed somewhere in the vicinity of the Front Bench. They are no longer there. I wonder whether the responsibility of supporting that proposition has been too much for them. How can a question of a petition of right conceivably arise when all that the Amendment asks is that a case should be stated to the High Court? The Minister tells us that he has consulted some legal advisers, the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General or the Lord Advocate or some unnamed legal adviser. I should like to know who it was told him that there ought to be a petition of right?
§ Mr. Griffith
So they are, but at the present moment I am dealing with the stating of a case and all that the Minister has committed himself to is the statement that on some legal advice given by some mysterious legal adviser—
§ Mr. Griffith
I acquit the hon. and learned Member—but the Minister has committed himself to the statement that in order to state a case for the opinion of the High Court it is necessary to proceed by petition of right. I should like some legal authority for that proposition. I suggest that possibly the Minister was inadvertently addressing himself to another Amendment.
§ Mr. Griffith
We are dealing with the first and third Amendment on the Order Paper, and if. the Minister does not realise it yet he had better realise it now, because he has committed himself to the proposition that in order to state a case for the opinion of the High Court it is necessary to proceed by petition of right, and that is so revolutionary a proposition that I should be glad to know whether the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General or the Lord Advocate has been consulted in this matter and whether they agree. I am not hereto make unnecessary trouble, but the way in which this Amendment has been answered leaves me with the impression that the matter has not been properly considered. We are only endeavouring to deal with borderline cases. I do not suppose that many would come into it. In the greater number of cases, the Minister would deal with the cases with sympathy, and they would be granted and settled; but we do not desire that a position should arise in which a false interpretation of the law might become embodied in the practice of the Ministry without there being any possibility of giving a legal decision as to whether, from the legal point of view, the Ministry's decisions were correctly based or not. I suggest that the Minister ought to take further advice on the matter before he comes to a final conclusion.
§ 2.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Goldie
I want to express my regret to the two Hon. Members opposite that I did not appreciate what was the 342 position. I thought we were discussing the first and second Amendments but I now understand that we are dealing only with the first and third Amendments on the Paper. I do not, of course, question the legal knowledge of either of the hon. Members, but I confess that I am amazed by the way in which these Amendments are drafted. I assure them that had I, on a day such as this, had the audacity to put down an Amendment, it would have been very differently drawn, with a view to obviating delay. After all, the delay will not come until the case is put down. Had I been putting forward an Amendment, it would have read:"provided that the Minister may and shall, if so directed by the High Court, state a special case for the opinion of the High Court on any question of law arising out of any decision, and such case shall be heard forthwith.What will happen at the present time? If a case is put down month after month and year after year, it might pass without that case being heard. It takes months to get on in the Divisional Court at the present time. I am convinced that a delay would take place in the hearing of these cases even if the Amendments were passed. I always think that special cases are a very dangerous weapon indeed for they depend entirely upon the way in which they are drawn. Personally I should be prepared to leave the matter in the hands of the Minister.
§ Mr. Goldie
Heaven forbid that I should do any such thing. I disapprove entirely of the Amendment. I was only trying to clarify the position.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Oliver:
I think the Minister has misconceived the intention of the Amendment. I could not follow him when he said that if he rejected a claim that was made, the injured person might then go to the courts and claim workmen's compensation. That is not precisely the position. Two separate points are being considered. The first is whether the injury is sustained by a gainfully occupied person. If a claim is made, the Minister himself must determine, and not the court. When the case goes to the court, it has to be decided whether the accident 343 arose out of and in the course of the man's employment. Therefore, the Minister has to determine one phrase and the court has to determine the other. As a result, if the Minister decided that a man had not sustained his injury while following gainful employment, the man would have no redress. What he could do would be to go to the court and ask the court whether he received his injury while following his employment. The unfortunate person might find that the court decided that he did not receive his injury in the course of his employment and, as a result, he would have no redress against the Minister's decision. The Minister, with the most generous intention, might come to the conclusion that the person, when injured, was not pursuing gainful employment. For instance, the man might have been injured when going into the street or when going between railway wagons for his own purpose, and it might be held by the court that he was not then following his gainful occupation. That kind of interpretation could be imposed on these words. For that reason, I think the Amendment is one that ought to be accepted, for otherwise I can conceive great hardships occurring.
§ 3.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Thorneycroft
I will not restate the arguments that have been made, but I am in full sympathy with all the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot). I want to ask the Minister one question. As I understand the position, at the end of the conflict in which we are engaging, our liberties are to be restored to us. An appeal tribunal is then to be set up. I understand that that is a definite undertaking. May I take it that all cases under this Act, whether claims made during the next few years or after the conflict has ended, can be reopened and heard before the appeal tribunal? If I could have that undertaking, I should be perfectly satisfied.
§ 3.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen
I was interested in what the Minister said with regard to the question at issue. He said that it was whether the person had been injured or not, and that in his scheme he proposes to have a medical appeal. I wonder whether the Minister, in making the scheme, would consider making the man's own medical 344 adviser the authority. I cannot understand why there has always been a refusal to accept the man's own medical adviser. I suggest that the Minister in his scheme should be prepared to accept the man's medical adviser as the authority.
§ 3.3 p.m.
§ Sir W. Womersley
The point made by the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) will be considered before I bring the scheme forward. In answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Thorneycroft), there are two types of claims. One is the claim for a temporary injury which may last a fortnight, three weeks, a month or even more. Then, if it becomes something in the nature of a permanent injury, of course it comes under the pensions scheme. I cannot conceive that the House of Commons would allow of a pensions scheme going on, after the time of emergency was over, without there being a right of appeal. I am all in favour of a right of appeal in ordinary circumstances, and certainly, I say that in my opinion there will bound to be a tribunal set up when we come to the definite scheme afterwards. My hon. Friend asked whether, when cases had come forward during the period of war and the Minister had turned them down, the people would have a right of appeal before the tribunal then. I should certainly think they will if the applicant can claim that there is a permanent injury.
I would not like to give an opinion as to whether a man could go to a tribunal in, say, four years' time and say that an injury had kept him from work for a fortnight or three weeks, and that he had been refused compensation. If the same procedure is taken as was taken with pensions in the last war, if a man claimed that he had a permanent injury as a result of warlike actions or a permanent injury coming under the provisions of the Bill and the scheme that will be put forward, he would have a right of appeal to the tribunal. I should like to add that if I did cause any offence to the hon. Member I am very sorry, for I did not intend to do so. I made my remark in all innocence, knowing, from the time when I was a Private Member, the great pride I felt in getting an Amendment through. I was going on to say that, realising that fact, I was sorry that I 345 had to refuse the Amendments of the hon. Members opposite. I regret it if they think that I have given them any offence because such was not my intention. I want them and other hon. Members to bear in mind that in regard to this scheme I have taken the advice of those who have great experience in these matters.
§ Sir W. Womersley
I did not say so. I am speaking generally of the advice which has been taken and I have said that, personally, I have the utmost sympathy with the idea of an appeal tribunal. If it is my fortune to have to administer this scheme I would much prefer to have an appeal tribunal. I, at any rate, would then be relieved of a great deal of responsibility. If I have to administer the scheme, knowing that the final decision in these matters will rest with me, it means that the burden of responsibility on me will be much greater than it would be if I could refuse a particular claim, knowing that the claimant would be able to appeal to a tribunal. But, as I say, I am advised that it would be impossible to do what we want to do and that is to deal at once with every case of injury, if these Amendments were accepted, and I am sorry therefore that I am compelled to resist them.
§ Mr. Foot
I wish to say at once to the Minister that I would not suspect him of being personally offensive in any way. That is understood. While we cannot accept the validity of his arguments we do not, in view of the need for expedition, propose to take the Amendment to a Division and therefore I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."
§ 3.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Cocks
There is an important point which arises on this Clause. It deals with war injuries sustained by "gainfully occupied persons." A bachelor or widower would probably employ a housekeeper and such a housekeeper would be a "gainfully occupied person." A wife, however, would not be "gainfully 346 occupied" in the sense that she would not be paid a salary, although she is in most cases the economic centre of the family. If a wife were injured in an air raid, the husband would probably have to pay somebody else to look after the household. I wish to ask whether, for the purposes of the Bill, married women would be considered "gainfully occupied persons"?
§ Sir W. Womersley
Wives will come under category "C" which I referred to yesterday. I referred to certain classes of persons who were included as categories "A" and "B" and I mentioned that other classes of persons would be included as well. The scheme which I shall put before the House will include wives whose services, owing to serious injury, have to be replaced by those of paid substitutes.
§ Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.
§ Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ CLAUSE 3. — (Relief from liability to pay compensation or damages.)
§ 3.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Foot
I beg to move, in page 3, line 22, to leave out "or at common law"
Under this Clause it is provided that if a man comes under the war injuries scheme set up by the Bill, he shall lose all his rights under the Workmen's Compensation Acts, the Employers' Liability Act and any similar Statutes in Northern Ireland, or at common law. The purpose of the Amendment is to preserve a man's common law rights. When the Minister referred earlier to the question of proceeding by way of petition of right I think he had in mind this Amendment and not the previous Amendment. That, I think clears up the misunderstanding which arose. Even if a man who has certain rights at common law has to proceed by petition of right, that does not seem to be an insuperable difficulty. It is not an impossible or difficult procedure. It means only that you have to use one procedure instead of another. You may have to obtain the fiat of the Law Officers before you can proceed. It will rarely happen that a man who comes under the war 347 injuries scheme would have any common law rights, but there may be cases in which there has been some breach of duty by somebody else, where somebody else has been negligent or has failed to carry out a duty which the common law or specific Statutes placed upon him. Is there any reason why, where there has been negligence resulting in injury, we should relieve negligent persons from the consequences of their own actions?
It is no use talking about the courts being cluttered up with a great number of cases. Only in a few cases can this question arise, but by putting in these words "or at common law" in the Bill and thus depriving people of their rights at common law, we may in those few cases cause great injustice. There is no reason why we should do that in a time of war any more than at any other time. The Minister said yesterday that there might be difficulties in the matter of litigation in time of war, but nobody suggests that the work of the law courts is coming to an end or that it will not be possible to proceed in the law courts during a time of war. The law courts carried on during the last War and we have passed a Statute providing for the courts and where they are to sit and so forth during a time of war.
There is no more reason now than there is in a time of peace for depriving people of the rights which the law gives them. I agree that this Amendment probably should not stand by itself and that it might be undesirable to have a double reference, but that could easily be provided for, as it is provided for under the Workmen's Compensation Acts, whereby a man, if he has a common law right, can get what is due to him under the Acts or under his common law right. That would be a reasonable method of getting round the difficulty here. It would only mean the insertion of an Amendment later saying that the claimant should have to elect as between the one remedy and the other. There does not seem to be in the reasons put forward yesterday by the Minister sufficient justification for depriving the few people who are likely to be concerned of the remedies which the law gives them.
§ 3.14 p.m.
§ Sir W. Womersley
The hon. Member, I take it, refers to the possibility of cases 348 arising of men not being satisfied with the amount which they would receive under the scheme, and the possibility that they might consider that they had a better chance by taking an action at common law against the employer. He suggests that only one or two such cases, at most, are likely to arise, but experience of human nature shows that an injured person is likely to adopt any methods open to him by which he thinks he can get any higher payment. There is no means test in these cases. It is payment of what is considered fair compensation for an injury received, and I submit that all should come under it and receive compensation from the national Exchequer rather than rely upon employers or any other source for compensation. I made that point clear in my Second Reading speech yesterday. That is one of the reasons why this Bill has been introduced, and I am sure the House agreed with the sentiment that it would be better to relieve these cases as a national charge than to put them on to employers. I cannot see what advantage it would be to the person who makes a claim to have the right, suggested by the Amendment, to take an action at common law. If he were being refused compensation, I could understand why he should want to go to common law, but when he is going to get compensation, I cannot see why there should be any objection in his mind to this procedure.
§ Sir W. Womersley
The same argument applies as I have applied to the other point. We want to save any litigation if it is at all possible, because we realise the difficulty there will be in pursuing litigation during a period of war. I know that some hon. Members may not agree with me. I have had only one experience of fighting a law action, and I won it, but I lost considerably by winning it, and during a long and reasonably successful business career I never went into another law action.
§ Sir W. Womersley
I am only giving my own personal experience. I am advised that recovery of damages in time of war may become a matter of considerable difficulty. It may be that hon. 349 Members think it will not, but that is what I am advised, and if there is long delay—I am sure hon. and learned Members opposite will appreciate this, because I know it happens in workmen's compensation cases—unless the workman has a powerful trade union behind him, the long delay that can be made to occur in law cases means very often that the man has no money with which to fight his case when it comes up. I hope hon. Members have read in the Official Report of yesterday the remarks of the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) on this matter, and that the Amendment will be withdrawn. I am sorry that I cannot accept it, for the reason that in the opinion of those best able to judge it would make the matter so difficult that we should not be able to do what we want to do, and that is deal with all these cases with expedition.
§ 3.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Griffith:
However this matter is decided, I am desirous that it should be decided on the right grounds, and I am sorry that the Minister on this and on other occasions has treated the remedy which we propose, by this Amendment, of taking an action at Common Law, as if there was one or the other choice, as if we had to choose here and now whether the new scale would apply in all cases or whether the Common Law would apply in all cases. That is not the position in the least. This scale will apply, and I hope it will be satisfactory, in the vast majority of cases, but this is only the position that exists at present under the Workmen's Compensation Act. The vast majority of injuries are settled under that Act. It is only exceptional cases that go to Common Law, and they go to Common Law for the simple reason that the circumstances show a Common Law liability. There is some additional element of negligence which entitles a workman to proceed against an individual for a degree of damages which he could not obtain under the workmen's compensation scale and which is only available to him because of the circumstances of the particular case. Therefore, however this matter is decided, I hope that it will not lie decided on the grounds given by the Minister, because those grounds, like those, in all respects, given by the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) yesterday—who, I believe, had not heard 350 the speech of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) —are not correct. They do not represent the facts.
It is not a question, therefore, of relying on scales or of relying on the Minister. Everybody will rely on scales when they can, and they will only go to Common Law when Common Law gives them a ground. How that can lead to delay passes my imagination. It is only in cases where the injured person sees a chance, on grounds on which he is advised in the circumstances of the case, of getting a great deal more than the scale allows, cases for which the scale is not really intended to provide at all, that he will take the risk of delay. Therefore, I hope the Minister will reconsider the matter. He would not be having his procedure altered in more than one case out of 400 or 500, and I cannot believe that, even in war time, the resources of our courts will be so severely strained that they could not deal with these cases, just as they deal with the many other cases that come before them. In these days it is difficult for hon. Members to put forward Amendments, even if they are convinced of their justice, and to press them to a Division with that pertinacity which they would deserve in ordinary times. We all realise that, but I still maintain that this Amendment is justified, both in law and in justice.
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Pritt:
What the Minister has said is so disastrous in its implications that a word or two ought to be said in answer. I have always had a genuine respect for Ministers who have to deal with pure questions of law which are millions of miles from their understanding. Let me give an illustration—I do not think it is wrong, though it may prove to be so— which I believe to be accurate. Take the case of a man earning £6 a week. An ordinary citizen runs into him with a motor car and kills him, and his widow may, by going to law, get many thousands of pounds compensation. That position will continue during the war, and it is nonsense for the Minister, just because a solicitor many years ago sent him in an extravagant bill of costs for an action which he won, to suggest that litigation in the course of a war will be so difficult that people ought to be told, "Your chance of recovering £5,000 is so beset 351 with difficulties that we will take it away from you by Act of Parliament for your own benefit." It is an abrogation of one of the most important functions of Government. Everybody who had anything to do with the law courts in the late War knew that they functioned just as well as they did in peace-time.
Take an illustration which comes closer to what the Minister is now trying to do. Suppose that the man who is earning £6 a week is not run over by a motor car, but is destroyed by the grossly negligent action of some person who is trying to clear up the mess after an air raid. The widow of that man will then be entitled to come under the scale if she wishes and get, say, £250; but if she wishes to sue the man whose negligence has done the damage she may get some thousands of pounds. If it is difficult for her to bring an action her counsel will tell her whether her difficulties are so great that she ought to resort to the Government under the scale. The Minister is asking that the widow should have a little money from the Government instead of what she is entitled to have from the purse of the individual who caused the damage, assuming he can pay. If the experience of the last War is repeated, in every reasonable and proper case when an individual is held liable the Government will stand behind him and pay the money. I do not think the question of the petition of right which is a perfectly feasible thing to bring, will arise in any case. Unless I have my law and facts very wrong, at least 99.9 per cent. of the cases which will arise in the narrow field we are considering will be actions for tort. War is no reason for creating injustices, and I would appeal to the Minister to consider making this small alteration.
§ 3.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Goldie
In ordinary circumstances I should have no hesitation in strongly supporting the Amendment, for I have the strongest views about giving to a Minister powers which should be exercised in the courts. Suppose that in the next few months I have to advise a client whether to take advantage of this scheme or to proceed at Common Law, what is the first question I shall ask myself? With considerable experience of the 352 Common Law Bar, it is, "Is the man whom you are suing insured?" I have the greatest doubts whether it will be worth while proceeding at Common Law unless and until one is satisfied that the defendant is insured. I have doubts whether in the ordinary third-party risks there is not a war risk clause in the insurance policy. For that reason, unless and until the law is altered and it is impossible for an insurance company to ride off on a war risk clause, I feel that in 99 cases out of 100 it would be better for the injured person to leave himself in the hands of the Minister.
§ Mr. Foot
The hon. and learned Gentleman's argument applies only where the man who is guilty of negligence is not insured. Some of those responsible would be employés of a Government Department, and am I not right in thinking that it is the modern practice of Government Departments, where negligence is found against one of their servants, to pay the damages?
§ Mr. Goldie
I was taking the instance given by the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt), in which somebody was injured through a man in the street clearing up after an air raid. I fail to see that in that case the injured person would gain anything by proceeding at Common Law against a man who was a man of straw. With a long experience of Government Departments I would only say to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) that he may be prepared to chance it, but I am not.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clauses 4 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Bill reported, without Amendment, read the Third time, and passed.