§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Lord John Hope (Midlothian and Peebles, Northern)
The primary aspect of this case of compensation for railings removed during the war, began on 19th July when I asked the Minister of Works a Question relating to the removal of railings from the garden of Mr. W. R. Forrest, of 2, Corstorphine Hill Avenue, Edinburgh. Mr. Forrest is a constituent of mine. The facts of the matter are that when Mr. Forrest came back from the war he found that 130 feet of iron railings had been removed from around his garden. The fact that it was a garden is important to the case which I want to put to the Minister, if he would be good enough to listen—if, indeed, he is there. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I do not know if he is.
§ Lord John Hope
Nobody was listening and I did not know who would be replying. The compensation offered to Mr. Forrest was 2s. 6d. He had to spend £26 on wire netting to replace the damage done, and I asked the Minister of Works whether he was able to increase this offer of 2s. 6d. in view of the cost to which Mr. Forrest had been put. The Minister replied that he was unable to do so, as he said, quite accurately, that compensation had been paid in accordance with paragraph 4 of Defence Regulation 50B.
The case I have to make to the Minister is really very short and, I hope and believe, very clear. I want to refer the Minister to an answer given by the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks), when he was the appropriate Minister, On 17th December, 1943, he was asked by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling), whether he would circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT,the examples issued in January, 1942, for the guidance of local authorities in deciding what railings, etc., should not be scheduled for removal for scrap; and what action his Department has taken in those cases where railings have been removed and are subsequently shown to have been within any of these categories?1305 I am quoting from the OFFICIAL REPORT. Then follows the reply:MR. HICKS: I append the examples for which the hon. Member asks.The list which follows, which I shall not read at length, includes the following relevant item:Railings and gates necessary to protect growing crops* actually bordering on a highway in Urban Areas.The asterisk against this paragraph is explained by the following footnote:*These words were intended to include vegetable crops."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th December, 1943; Vol. 395, c. 1824/5.]My case is that, in view of this list of exceptions to the Schedule, these railings should riot, in fact, have been removed at the time, because Mr. Forrest, quite obviously, is unable to grow vegetables in his garden with any likelihood of their remaining there when grown, unless they are fenced round. In order to do that, he of course, as he had to do, bought this wire netting in substitution for the railings which he had lost and put it round his garden. The garden is adjacent to a public highway and in the normal way he would, of course, be able to grow vegetables in it.
That is the case on which I rest my appeal to the Minister. I do not want to waste his time or that of the House in harking back to the intentions or justice of the original order. Therefore, having made my case, I hope, clearly and shortly, I await with absolute confidence an entirely satisfactory reply from the Minister.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ The Minister of Works (Mr. Key)
I think it perhaps wise, having on this Adjournment the opportunity of giving an explanation, to refer not merely to the specific case just mentioned but, since a considerable number of inquiries have been made about this matter, to explain for the benefit of hon. Members and the public generally the position regarding compensation for railings which were removed.
The arrangement for compensation for this ferrous scrap was started in 1940 by the then Minister of Supply, and my Department was given the task of requisitioning iron railings and gates. Voluntary schemes to obtain this scrap were not successful and it was necessary 1306 to requisition the railings and gates which were required. In order to do so, use was made of Defence Regulation 50, which dealt with the powers to do work on land, to authorise the actual severing of the fittings from their setting. Defence Regulation 53 was then introduced—it dealt with the requisitioning of property other than land—in order to give power to take the severed fittings as chattels.
It was first thought that claims for compensation, if such were made for the chattels so removed could be settled under the appropriate Section of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, Section 6 of which laid it down that the compensation payable upon requisition was the price that might reasonably have been expected to be obtained for the goods at the time of their requisition, which in this case was after their severance, and not before. In other words, compensation was to be paid for the railings, not as railings in situ, but as scrap metal, because they had already been removed.
§ Mr. Key
I am only responsible for operating the law. Loss of value of the land affected, due to loss of pleasure or amenity, was no basis of compensation; such grounds were ruled out by Section 3 of the Act, but compensation was paid for the expense involved in making good the damage caused to low walls, brick pillars and the like by the actual act a severance.
Shortly afterwards, before compensation arrangements had got really into their stride, it was thought wise to make the appropriate legislation somewhat plainer whilst still adhering to the basis of compensation originally contemplated. This was done by a new regulation—Regulation 50B—which dealt specifically with special provisions as to the severance of fixtures. This regulation, which was made by Order in Council on 30th April, 1942, merely stated, in clear terms, the points which I have already made. In addition, however, paragraph 8 made it quite plain that no compensation could 1307 be paid for any expenditure involved in the provision of a substitute for the fixtures. It might, perhaps, be helpful if I refer to the actual words of paragraph 8, which says,… there shall be paid … compensation … in respect of any expenditure reasonably incurred by him in making good (otherwise than by the provision of a substitue for the fixtures) any damage caused to the land in connection with the severance …Those were the conditions under which we worked.
I think it well to refer now to the actual working out of the sums offered as compensation in compliance with these regulations. The railings, if they lost their identity on severance, attracted compensation at the then scrap rate of 25s. a ton. Readily detachable fittings, such as gates, attracted compensation equal to their secondhand value at the time of requisition. In the case of gates to an ordinary house frontage the amount would be anything from £1 to £10 according to size, or whether they were made of cast iron or wrought iron. Such was the way in which we operated. Disputed claims were referred to and decided by the General Claims Tribunal, which was set up in accordance with Section 8 of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, and that Tribunal has consistently decided in favour of the basis of compensation which I have explained. They did so again as recently as a week or two ago.
Another point I wish to make plain is that Section 11 of the Compensation (Defence) Act lays down that there can be no legal claim for compensation if notice of it had not been given to the appropriate authority within six months of the actual requisition. There is, however, power to extend that period for a reasonable time if ignorance of the fact of requisition can be proved. The Department ceased to take railings in September, 1944, and the reasonable period of extension can be considered to have started in March, 1945.
When, therefore, in April of this year, I decided that the extension should definitely and finally end on 1st June, 1948—an extension of more than three years—I suggest that it cannot be held that my decision was unreasonable. In the six weeks which elapsed between 14th April and 1st June, between my announcement and the end of the period for 1308 claims, claims in respect of no fewer than 500,000 properties were received. I think the figures are a complete answer to the suggestion that there was lack of publicity in regard to the final date. It is quite definite that there can be no further extension of that period. A final date there must be, and 1st June is that date. I wish to make it plain that it will take anything up to three years to deal with claims we have in hand and to pay the compensation involved. I therefore ask all claimants to be patient. They have delayed making their claims for three years, and it will probably take us three years to settle them.
In letters to the Ministry there is often a question in regard to revision of the compensation provisions of Defence Regulation 50s. My predecessor made it perfectly clear in an oral answer in this House on 13th November, 1945, that no revision could possibly be undertaken. The problem of dealing with the half million claims we have in hand is difficult enough, but it would be absolutely unthinkable to reopen all settled claims which would be the natural and unavoidable outcome of any revision of the basis of compensation. In addition, if it were done for claims already received, we should also have to give an opportunity to those who, though they did not apply for the scrap value of their requisitioned railings, might, under the new conditions, wish to claim compensation if the basis were replacement instead of scrap value. Again, in the interests of sane administration, I must be definite and say that no revision can be made of the basis of compensation.
Another matter is germane to the question raised by the noble Lord. Under Section 52 of the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act, 1945, I have power to assist in the re-enclosure of land where it is clear, in the public interest, that this should be done. I have used this power and will continue to use it, but I cannot accept as being in the public interest the replacement of fencing to private houses.
§ Lord John Hope
I am not asking the right hon. Gentleman strictly to do that. I am asking him to bear in mind that according to the exceptions to the Schedule, as listed in 1942, this should have been an exception and ought never to have ben requisitioned. Because of 1309 its vegetable-growing capacity, it is not an ordinary ornamental garden, or private property.
§ Mr. Key
It is private property; it is a garden to a private house. The fact that it happens to have a length of 130 feet instead of 40 feet makes no difference. I am given this power and have to decide as to whether particular cases can be deemed to be in the public interest. We have investigated every individual case and considered it on its merits. We have made no hard and fast rules, but we make grants where we think it is in the public interest, and where the grant is made it is for the simplest type of fencing which will suit the purpose, but it must be clear that it is in the public interest to do so. That is the deciding factor; private interest is not considered, but is definitely ruled out under the regulations.
§ Lord John Hope
I am sorry to interrupt again, but this is most important. Surely it is in the public interest for the Government to allow protection for land on a public highway when it is capable of having vegetables grown upon it in the interests of food production. That has always happened up to now, why is it not so in this case?
§ Mr. Key
This case has been investigated and it has been held that it does not come within the general class of cases in which we have allowed compensation either in direct form by the actual supply of material, or indirectly by the payment of grants. In each case I am bound to take the line of deciding whether or not it is in the public interest to pay compensation. That is the deciding factor. The mere fact that a piece of land can be used for the purpose of growing vegetables would bring into operation an additional compensation for a great majority of the claims which have been made. It is quite definitely laid down in the regulations that compensation is not warranted in this case, and I could not possibly agree that compensation should be paid.
§ Mr. W. J. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman has made reference to many Acts of Parliament and to a great many regulations, and so forth. We are simple folk, and we want to know what damage 1310 was done to the man's property, what is the estimated value of it and what does the Minister offer to pay? If there is a gap between the two, all the Acts of Parliament in the world will not make the Minister right.
§ Mr. Key
I have tried to make fairly plain that what was done under the regulations was, first of all, to take the power to remove railings and to make good any damage that was thereby done to low walls, pillars and objects, of that sort. Power was also taken under the regulations to regard the railings, when they were removed, as chattels, and to pay for them compensation on their value as chattels at the time of their removal, not at the time when they were in situ as railings.
§ Mr. Key
It is the way in which the job was done at the time the railings were taken. Those were the regulations under which the scheme was operated. Compensation has been paid at that rate to people who legitimately claimed their compensation during the six months period. It was definitely laid down that there was to be no compensation whatever for the cost of replacing in any way the fixtures that had been removed.
§ Lord John Hope
Would the Minister be good enough to tell me to what section of what order or Act he refers which prevents him from considering my constituent's area of land, on which he is now prevented from growing vegetables, in the same way as any piece of ground on which vegetables might be grown, which was listed as an exception by the Government in 1942?
§ Lord John Hope
Surely what the Minister has said has nothing to do with the case? Surely this list of exceptions shows, if it shows anything, that the railings should never have been removed from this particular ground? I rested my case on that charge and that assumption. Will the Minister say what he proposes to do about looking into my charge that these railings were unfairly taken away, and that this case should have been an exception? If it is proved to be such, what will the Government do?
§ Mr. Key
But it is my point. We have already said that we will pay the sum authorised, and that the compensation has been assessed on the basis of the regulations. What I am being asked is to do something more, that is, not to assess this case on the basis of the regulations, but to make an extra payment of compensation for the cost of the replacement of the railings. As I have said, I am not prepared to do that.
§ Mr. W. J. Brown
I understand the Minister to say that once a decision was taken that these particular railings had to be treated as chattels, there was no option open to him but to pay for the railings at their scrap value, or, in the case of a gate, at its second-hand value?
§ Mr. Brown
I ask the Minister under what provision of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, or any Act of Parliament passed by this House since then, he was obliged to treat these railings as chattels? If he was, then the latter part of his argument was relevant, but if he cannot produce an Act of Parliament or an order, all that he said was irrelevant because it was within his choice whether he treated the railings as chattels or not.
§ Mr. Key
Regulation 50B (4) says:'… compensation … shall be a sum equal to the price which might reasonably have been expected to be obtained upon a sale of the fixtures effected immediately before the severance to a purchaser intending to sever them, no account being taken of any appreciation due to the emergency in the value of the chattels resulting from the severance.