HC Deb 22 July 1941 vol 373 cc823-6

Order for Second Reading read.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir Kingsley Wood)

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

This Bill is needed because, as the House will be aware, Part I of the War Damage Act, 1941, provides for payments in respect of damage to land, only if that damage occurs during the period which ends on 31st August this year. It was, of course, never the intention of the Government or of Parliament that no provision should be made in respect of damage occurring after that date. As I made clear when I introduced the original Bill, the risk period was designed in order to provide a basis for the payment of contributions and give Parliament an opportunity to review the matter and to determine what contributions might be required in respect of future damage when that period had expired.

The reasons which caused the Government to introduce the War Damages Scheme remain as cogent as ever, namely, to make full security provision against war damage to property and goods and to help to restore assets of vital importance to our national economy in which practically every section of the community has a considerable stake. While, however, for all these reasons it is essential that protection should continue to be given, the time is not yet ripe for that review by Parliament to which I have referred, and at some future date, probably in the Autumn, it will be necessary for Parliament to consider more comprehensive legislation relating to war damage. In the first place, the Act itself is long and complicated, and experience of its working may disclose points at which it needs amendment. I also have under consideration, as I explained to the House at the end of May, the legislation which will be needed to provide a scheme relating to war damage to public utility undertakings, but we are not yet in a position— discussions are in fact now going on with the interests concerned— to submit that more comprehensive legislation.

This Bill, therefore, makes provision for what is immediately essential, namely, to give protection in respect of damage occurring after 31st August next. The existing position is in no way changed, nor, of course, are the decisions to be taken by Parliament at a later stage with regard to contributions in any way prejudiced. All that the Bill does is to provide that payments under Part I of the War Damage Act may continue to be made, subject to the same terms and conditions as at present apply, in respect of damage to land which may occur during the period beginning at 1st September next and ending on 31st August, 1942. That is what is described as the second risk period. I have chosen that period because I think it is an appropriate one to take. It would be inconvenient to have too short a period, and, on the other hand, I have no doubt Parliament would not wish to commit itself too far ahead on so important a matter. I should, at the same time, explain that no similar provisions for extension of time are required in respect of the schemes for the insurance of goods against war damage covered by Part II of the Act and administered by the Board of Trade. My hon. Friends who followed the proceedings on the Act will remember that these schemes are not limited by the Act in point of time.

I had better say a few words about contributions. The position with regard to contributions, as laid down in Part I of the Act, is left unchanged. Contributions will remain payable as at present, and payable in respect of the risk period which is about to expire. The contributions to be payable in respect of the further risk period provided for in the Bill are left to Parliament to determine at a later stage. We shall be in a better position then, for obvious reasons, to see what the situation is in regard to contributions.

The provisions of the Bill are set out in a single and, I think, a simple Clause. The first Sub-section provides for the continuance of payments in respect of damage occurring during a further year, and the second reserves the question of contributions to be paid in respect of that year for future determination. The Schedule applies the same principles in detail to the relevant Sections of the War Damage Act. I hope the House will give a friendly and speedy passage to this short but important Bill. It will, I know, be the unanimous determination of the House to carry on with the war damage scheme, and I would say, in conclusion, that this Measure, providing for further payments in respect of that scheme, offers further evidence, if such were needed, of our confidence in our capacity to withstand any assaults that the enemy may make upon us.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in all the words that are necessary, has explained the provisions of this Bill. I say, straight away, that if we were living in ordinary times, I would consider—and the light hon. Gentleman would probably agree with me—that this was a most unsatisfactory proposal. I was born in, I will not say the expansive, but the secure Victorian era. A Bill of this kind, with its complete uncertainty, would have filled the Victorians with horror and dismay. First, we embarked upon an insurance Bill which was not really an insurance Bill at all, but a form of tax on owners of property in order to cover an absolutely unknown risk, and the State agreed to undertake at least half the risk and after that, to see what could be done. The present proposal is still more vague, because it extends the period for which benefit is paid, while not even going so far as to declare whether there is to be any further premium, or, if so, what the amount is to be. Therefore, judged by the ordinary standards of peace-time, I can hardly imagine a worse proposal than that to which the right hon. Gentleman invites us to give a Second Reading to-day. But we all know that we are living in very exceptional times. We cannot complain because the Government cannot form any estimate of the damage. We do not know in the least what the future nature of the war will be; we do not know how far damage will be inflicted, from the skies or otherwise, upon this country. We are living in a world which our fathers of the Victorian age could never have dreamed of as being possible. We have to face facts. When the Government told us in the spring that the insurance would run out on 31st August and that after that another Bill would be required, I confess I was very much surprised that they imagined that they would by that time have experience enough to enable them to bring in a Bill covering the whole ground. They are bringing in an interim Bill, leaving everything uncertain except that damage will be covered for a further period. I think they are right in taking that course. While it is true that the whole thing is really left in the air, I think that the House will be well advised to give this interim Bill a Second Reading to-day.

Sir Frank Sanderson (Ealing)

I rise to support the Bill. I agree entirely with the remarks of my right hon. Friend. I am extremely pleased that my right hon. Friend has decided to leave the Bill in such an open form. Had he made any attempt to fix a premium or to fix a maximum or minimum to the amount of damage which should be contemplated, I think it would have been a mistake.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

As I took a fairly prominent part in the previous Debate, I should like to say a word on this Bill. I hope, Sir, that you will not rule me out of Order if I say that those of us who have had experience of the previous Act are very grateful for the way that the Government have met difficulties arising under that Act, some of which could not have been foreseen. I want to support my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) in saying that, while it is abundantly necessary to have this Bill at the present time, it is desirable that a second Bill should be brought Forward as soon as circumstances permit. I am connected with a number of "institutions which have a large property interest, and, as the Chancellor will be the first to appreciate, the Bill leaves the situation, from a business point of view, in a very unsatisfactory state.

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 the next Sitting Day— [Major Sir James Edmondson.]