HC Deb 07 December 1948 vol 459 cc311-5

Order for Second Reading read.

5.26 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

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

I always suspect the speaker who commences by saying that he is going to be very brief, because usually that results in a speech of great tedium and inordinate length. Without holding out any undue hopes that I shall not make one of the longest speeches that have been made in this House about this little Bill, I should like to explain its purpose. It would be invidious to draw a comparison between this Bill and others to which this House has thought fit to give a Second Reading. This Bill, so far from increasing the number of judicial officers, reduces them. This is a modest, and I venture to think entirely uncontroversial, little Measure, the object of which is formally to abolish a court which, although once important, has now fallen into desuetude, and to transfer its few remaining functions to other tribunals.

The Railway and Canal Commission was established in 1888, under an Act which turned over its jurisdiction from an earlier body of commissioners. At one time it had very important functions in regard to railway rates and charges and in regard to the rating of railway properties. It decided on these matters after open judicial inquiry. It was a busy tribunal which had among its judges and commissioners many very famous names indeed. It enjoyed a great position in our judicial system, but that was in days long gone by. Of the important jurisdictions which this commission once exercised virtually nothing now remains. The establishment of the Railway Rates Tribunal by the Act of 1921 removed its jurisdiction in regard to railway rates and charges. Its functions in regard to other matters affecting railways have been transferred elsewhere as a result of the Transport Act, 1947, and of the Local Government Act of this year.

The remaining functions were of a curiously miscellaneous character and, with one small exception, really are quite insignificant in importance. The Commission dealt, for instance, with applications to work minerals under the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act, 1923. It determined differences, if differences arose, between the Postmaster-General and the railways in regard to the laying of lines and cables over railways or across canals, and it had power to deal with disputes in regard to the placing of telegraph poles on land, and various other small matters of that kind.

Most of these functions are now to be transferred under Clause 1 to the High Court or, in Scotland, to the Court of Session. Clause 2 provides that the appellate jurisdiction of the magistrates who have hitherto dealt with disputes relating to the placing of telegraph poles on public roads should be transferred to a judge of the High Court and that county court judges should be substituted for the magistrate as having the original jurisdiction in the matter. The other Clauses deal with questions of such infrequent occurrence and small importance that it is really unnecessary to take up the time of the House in discussing them. Indeed, all the functions of the Commission have only necessitated 12 sittings in the course of the present year as against 48 a year 20 years ago, a figure which itself compares with the normal 190 working days of the ordinary High Court judge. So much for the functions of the Commission.

The Commission consisted of a judge of the High Court who was ex officio chairman, who received no special salary in respect of the matter and whose office as a judge of the High Court continued. In Scotland it was a judge of the Court of Session. In addition, there were two commissioners appointed by the Home Secretary. Of the two, one retired I think in the Autumn of last year. Of the other, the remaining one, I should like to say a few words. The Court has possessed among its Commissioners a number of very famous names. Not the least among them is the name of Lord Maenan who, as Sir Francis Kyffin Taylor was known to all members of the Bar, and particularly to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) and myself and other members of the Northern Circuit, as the presiding judge of the Liverpool Court of Passage.

I do not want to speak about him in language which is extravagant or fulsome, but I doubt whether there has ever been a greater judge or one who has been held in higher esteem and greater affection. On the Northern Circuit we looked upon him as a master of the law, a high ornament of the bench and a guide, philosopher and friend to all of us. I hope that the House will not think that this must be taken against the noble Lord, but had it not been for his encouragement and advice in earlier days at the Bar, and indeed quite recently, I doubt very much whether I should be occupying my present position. I am proud to have the opportunity of paying tribute to one who, when he left the judicial bench, apart from this Commission, at the remarkable age of 94, still possessed qualities of mind and heart which must be envied by most other holders of judicial office much younger in years than is Lord Maenan.

The Bill will provide—an Amendment will have to be moved in this House since the matter was not appropriate to be dealt with in the other place from which the Bill has come—for some measure of compensation for the loss of office by one who, despite a lifetime of public service, would not otherwise be entitled to a pension. I commend the Bill to the House as one which will put to a formal end a tribunal which no longer serves the useful and important purpose that it once did. I commend it to the House with regret to the extent that it also involves the removal from judicial office of so great and respected a figure.

5.35 p.m.

Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (Liverpool, West Derby)

As you will expect, Mr. Speaker, there is no opposition to this Bill from myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends. We realise that with the passing of the Transport Act, 1947, the main purposes of the Railway and Canal Commission finally departed. I should like, as the right hon. and learned Attorney-General did, to pay a tribute to the judges of this court who have dealt with highly technical subjects which touch very nearly the lives of the people in many respects. They dealt with the ensurement of good railway services in the difficult days when the railways of this country were being built up. In dealing with these highly technical and complicated matters, they showed an industry and a good sense which deserved well of the country. I should like only to add a footnote to the tribute which the Attorney-General has paid to the last of the commissioners—Lord Maenan. As the Attorney-General said, some of us owe more to him than we can ever express. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will not grudge this short incursion of the Northern Circuit into the time of the House on this subject.

The main procedure adopted in the Bill is to transfer the outstanding points to His Majesty's courts—some to the county court and others of more importance to the High Court and the Court of Session. In days when most of us think there are far too many transfers to special courts this is a course, for which we can feel nothing but welcome. We ask the Attorney-General not to be weary in well-doing but to go through the statutes and, whenever he can find a special court, to apply the reasoning and procedure which he has applied in this case. There is one exception in reference to the official arbitrators in respect of the Defence of the Realm (Acquisition of Land) Act, 1916. There again, I make no objection. I believe that the official arbitrators have proved themselves in their 29 years and that they will deal not only fairly—which one assumes—but carefully and courteously with the various claims which arise. For these reasons we shall not vote against this Bill but will give it an unopposed Second Reading.

5.38 p.m.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe)

As a back bench Member and also as a member of the Northern Circuit, I should like to pay my tribute to Lord Maenan. Lord Maenan is one of the few remaining men who took silk during the reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. He has been known to the two right hon. and learned Gentlemen who have just spoken for the whole of their legal careers, and he has been known to me. We have all stood before him in our early life at the Bar and he holds a place in our affection greater than that of any of the legal luminaries of the past or present. To quote Lord Tennyson: He wears all that weight Of learning lightly like a flower. We are sorry that in passing this Bill we are burying his office of canal commissioner, but we are delighted to know that Lord Maenan has taken his seat in another place and that he made his maiden speech upon this Bill. As a member of the circuit and a Member of this House I pay my tribute to Lord Maenan.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next.—[Mr. Joseph Henderson.]