HC Deb 25 February 1941 vol 369 cc441-7
Sir J. Lamb

I beg to move, in page 54, line 18, to leave out "direct."

The object of this is to see that damage which is done subsequent to the actual bomb-dropping shall be taken into consideration. This would include damage by weather, and so on. I mentioned this point at an earlier stage, and I was told by my right hon. Friend that he would look into it. If he says that such damage will be included, I shall be satisfied; but if not, I shall proceed with the Amendment.

The Attorney-General

I think it better to leave in the word "direct." I can assure my hon. Friend that it will allow, what is our intention, that compensation for damage which is not directly due to the bombing itself, but which unavoidably follows, will, in fact, be included. If one took out the word "direct," and particularly if one also inserted the proviso in my hon. Friend's Amendment which contemplates payment being made for indirect damage, I think we should get into an area which it is not our intention to enter. For example, assume that a bomb hit a train on which the normal night watchman of a building some distance away was injured. It might be by ill-fortune that, through his not getting to his destination, there might be a severe fire, which, if he had been there, might have been arrested in the early stages, with little or no damage. Obviously, we cannot go into indirect consequences of this kind, but I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that "direct" does enable to be included the class of damage which I think he has in mind, namely, damage due to weather, or to water in putting out a fire, or to another cause which operates to cause damage and more or less follows as an inevitable consequence of the damage done by the bomb. Therefore, we had much better stick to the wording, because I think it may tend to clarify and strengthen the Bill, and the presence of the word "direct" indicates to those who read the Bill the class of damage it is intended to cover.

Mr. Silkin

I think that the learned Attorney-General devastated the Amendment, but I doubt whether he has made a case for the word "direct" itself. The Commission will only have the words of the Act to go upon, and in any interpretation that the Chancellor of the Ex chequer may put upon this Clause which is in conflict with the plain meaning of the Clause, the Commission will consider the meaning of "direct," and if, say, a direct damage means direct damage and not the thing which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said —

The Attorney-General

I am assuming that they will give it the ordinary meaning it has in law in this class of conflict.

Mr. Silkin

With very great respect and all humility, I have some doubts in my own mind whether the effect of weather, which might last a long time, on premises necessarily and inevitably can be interpreted as the direct result of action by the enemy. At least there is a strong element of doubt about it, and I do not think it is the desire of anybody to leave this in any doubt. I do not think that my hon. Friend himself would say that this is exactly the right form of words with which to deal with it, but I hope that something will be done to make the intention clear beyond all doubt whatever. I do not think that it can be said that it is beyond doubt by accepting the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement that it is desired to include such indirect damage as he has described. I hope that it will be possible to look at it again so as to make quite sure.

Mr. Spens (Ashford)

I would like to reinforce the remarks of my hon. Friend. I think everybody realises that the great difficulty is that when you get a direct result of a bomb and the inability of the local authority or anybody else to make immediate repairs, and inevitably three, four, five or six days go by, if they happen to be days of great storm and bad weather, the direct results of the bomb would be very much greater than they would have been if there had been fine, still weather. The anxiety of all of us is that, as long as this word "direct" remains in the definition Clause, we feel that not only the Commission, but if the new Clause to be moved later is passed by the Committee, the interpretation of the Act will go to the courts, and the same difficulty will arise there. Without any disrespect to my right hon. and learned Friend, we know that the expression of his intention carries no weight, unfortunately, with courts of law. In these circumstance I hope he will reconsider this matter and make quite sure, by some proviso or something of that sort, that any additional damage which occurs as a result of bombing—consequential damage, that is—must be included in compensation for these claims.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

I think the Committee accepts the intention of the Attorney-General and welcomes it, but I am wondering, when it comes to the assessment of the claim by the Commission, how they will decide whether it did include the damage referred to by the Attorney-General. First of all, they have before them the form B.O.W.I or whatever it will be called under the new Regulation. In that form will be specified the damage. What is the position at the present time? A house is bombed, and the roof is exposed to the elements. The owner or agent asks the local authority to put it right, but for some reason, either lack of labour or material, there is a delay. Then the rain gets in, and a few days later the agent or owner is notified. The rain has penetrated to the ceiling, but does not show itself for a month's time. Then, down comes the ceiling. That is not included in the form if the surveyor has done his job almost immediately. When the Commission have the form in front of them they have to make up their minds whether the damage to the ceiling did occur as the direct action of the bomb. They may say that this was not damage occurring immediately after the bomb dropped, so that the claim may be whittled down. Those with practical experience of these matters know of hundreds of cases, where not only ceilings, but the structure itself has gradually decayed, and one could not say whether it was due to direct enemy action or not. I am not versed in the law as is the Attorney-General, but it is evident to me that there is some conflict of opinion as to whether leaving in the word "direct" does cover what the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself and we want it to cover.

Sir I. Albery

I also am concerned about this word "direct," because I had an Amendment dealing with it on the first Committee stage. I want to ask my right hon. and learned Friend this. I have read it, and it says: damage occurring as a result of action taken by the enemy. That is plain English. The only thing that does occur to me is whether the result would be satisfactory if the words in brackets— (whether accidental or not) "—were left out.

The Attorney-General

I have devoted some time to considering this obviously important matter. When my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) talked about a house that was damaged in bad weather and said that in such a case the direct results of the damage by bomb were greater than in a case where the weather was fine, he chose the word "direct" to cover that very class of damage which I said would fall within the provision. The difficulty is that if one starts to make a catalogue of all the things, such as the weather, water to put out a fire, and so on, one excludes those other things that are not in the catalogue. It is vitally important that we should use words that will exclude the indirect results of war damage. When I say that, I mean indirect in the wider sense. That is the difficulty about simply leaving out the word "direct." Of course, there may be borderline cases which some hon. Members may think ought to be included, and other hon. Members may think too remote to be included, but from such researches as I have been able to make, the word direct "seems to be as good a word as one could use. If there were any legal decision which went contrary to the intention of Parliament, the matter could always be dealt with. I want the Committee to realise that this is not an easy problem. I will look into the matter again, and if I can think of some proviso or form of words that will meet the apprehensions of hon. Members, without opening the door to the indirect damage which everybody wants to exclude, we can arrange for those words to be inserted in another place.

Mr. Benson (Chesterfield)

I want to ask what will be the position of the Commission vis-a-vis the Treasury. As the hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) said, the courts are bound by the strict phraseology of an Act, and do not take any notice of the guileful promises of Ministers when they wish to get a Bill through. Is the Commission to be as it were, a court of law? Will its policy be decided in consultation with the Treasury, or will it have the right to administer these provisions without any prompting or advice from the Treasury? If the Treasury is to be ultimately responsible for the policy which the Commission adopts, we shall be able to get at the Commission through the House, but if the Commission is completely cut off from the Treasury, it will fall within the category of a court of law.

Sir K. Wood

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson) will remember that an Amendment was agreed to which provided that the directions should be of a general character, that they should be in the form of regulations, and that those regulations should come before Parliament, thus being made public. I want to make this observation to the Committee. This matter ought to be dealt with satisfactorily within the Bill. It would not be right for the Treasury to try to interpret the Bill, in its directions to the Commission, in a manner that was obviously out of line with what Parliament had enacted. I think we must examine the matter again in the light of the discussion and see whether we can deal with it in another place. It is an important matter and I would much prefer that it should be dealt with in the Bill.

Mr. Wedgwood (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not think that the whole of the Committee is anxious to leave out this word "direct." I think it would almost ruin the Bill if that were done. In the first place, it would open the door to an immense amount of litigation, and, in the second place, it would add an enormous burden on the taxpayers of the country. Undoubtedly, if the word "direct" were left out, the extent of indirect damage as a result of bombing would amount to far more than the damage anticipated under this Bill. We remember the case of the Alabama claim. The original claim was for £7,000,000, but when indirect damage was taken into account it reached something like £70,000,000. If the right hon. Gentleman leaves out the word "direct," the whole purpose of this Bill will be stultified, and the cost would be so much to the taxpayer that people would not be very pleased with the Mover of this Amendment.

Sir Robert Tasker (Holborn)

This proposal is far more important than the right hon. gentleman the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Wedgwood) seems to realise. As a matter of fact, in a hundred, and probably a thousand, cases it is impossible to formulate a claim in 30 days, and one has to apply for an extension. I defy any Member who has seen extensive damage to ascertain precisely what that damage is. It is impossible to find out until the debris has been cleared away. What is the position now? One goes to a local authority and tells them that there is a hole in a wall, or in the roof, and asks them to protect the premises from wind and weather. The local authorities do their best, but they cannot do the impossible, with the result that one has to wait for weeks, perhaps months, before anything is done. The owner who attempts to repair the damage himself meets with control. If he protects his property then he is liable to prosecution if the cost exceeds £500. Surely it is possible, if an incendiary bomb falls on property and there is a conflagration, that wider damage may be caused by water in putting out the fire than the immediate effects of the bomb itself. This matter really requires reconsideration. None of us wishes to see the taxpayer robbed, but we want common justice done. Anyone who has taken part in arbitration knows perfectly well that it does not matter what the Attorney-General or anyone else says_. in the House of Commons; it is what is in the Act. I foresee that when the Commissioners are faced with this problem, they will say "Never mind what the intentions were; it is what is in the Act." I urge upon the Government, between now an the Report stage, to find some kind of definition to cover damage which results as an after-effect of a high explosive bomb. Amiable explanations here will not protect the building or victim; good intentions will not compensate the owner for his inability to obtain consent for employment of material or labour to perform the necessary work to protect his building; ardent desire on our part to ensure justice does not compensate for injustice. It is a case of justice to the individual. I ask the Chancellor very seriously to consider the effect of the Clause as it now stands because it is a very important matter.

Sir J. Lamb

In view of criticism from most influential constituents of mine, I think I ought to be given permission to say why the word '' direct '' appears here for the second time. I received an undertaking in Committee from the Front Bench that the matter would receive full consideration again. No Amendment appeared on the Paper, consequently I put it down again, in order to give them an opportunity to tell the Committee what consideration they had given it. I was not satisfied with what the Attorney-General said, but I thank the Chancellor of the Exchequer for his later speech in which he said he desired that the solution of this very important problem should be in the Bill. In view of the undertaking that he has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.