§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."
§ Sir H. Williams
As the Government are so reluctant to discuss Clause 6 any further we must now discuss Clause 7. Any attempt to "bulldose" the Committee——
§ Sir H. Williams
—is a great mistake. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Any hon. Member who, instead of making curious noises, will take the trouble to read Clause 7, will observe that it provides for further provisions when damage continues over a period; that is to say, this Clause has to be related to Clause 6. But, again, we come to the question of permanent repairs, in respect of which I did not receive a satisfactory answer just now from the Parliamentary Secretary. I therefore hope that he will now give me the answer, despite the fact that one of the Government Whips prevented 1927 him doing so last time by moving the Closure quite unnecessarily on a very important Clause.
§ Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite
I desire to support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams). Just before you occupied the Chair, Sir Charles, the Committee witnessed a very astonishing incident, with the Parliamentary Secretary rising in an attempt to give a reply and finding himself closured by a representative of the usual channels sitting on his left.
§ Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite
I would not call him upstart. Personally, I would call him dumb and incompetent.
During the discussion on Clause 6 the Parliamentary Secretary said, when questioned on the meaning of the words "permanent repairs," which had been put into the Bill by his draftsman and studied, presumably, by his right hon. Friend and himself before coming here to conduct the Committee stage, that he had not a clue as to what those words mean. This is the Minister, who, a few minutes ago, posed as the guide of the judiciary. He told us how he was going to guide county court judges on the way they should perform their functions. There has been nothing like it since the descent of Moses from Mount Sinai, with the exception of the fact that Moses had studied the Ten Commandments and took them through a committee stage with great ability. The Parliamentary Secretary now has the opportunity—or perhaps his right hon. Friend will tell us, because we always like to listen to him——
§ Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite
—what these mysterious words "permanent repairs" really mean when interpreted in the courts. It has been made clear from both sides of the Committee that there is no permanence in these matters. In any case, it is extremely difficult to define. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), whose experience goes back over a long period of years and who is listened 1928 to with attention on these matters, was most emphatic about it I doubt if he places much reliance on the Parliamentary Secretary's guidance to the courts or to anyone else. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee are nonplussed as to what the Bill means, but none more nonplussed than the Parliamentary Secretary. It seems to me that we ought not to part with this important Clause unless we have some interpretation of these words.
Those of us who have been in the House any length of time all know that when Bills are going through it is frequently said that the words may be a little obscure but the declarations of the Minister as the Bill proceeds are read by the learned judges who have to interpret them, and that the Debate is often a guide on points which may seem a little obscure. Well, here we are confronted with an entirely new situation. Here are words which are obscure, and which the Parliamentary Secretary says are obscure to no one more than to himself; he cannot give us an inkling as to what they mean. I must say, that is making a farce of a Committee stage of a Bill even under an incompetent Government like this.
§ Mr. Robens
During the Committee stage of the Bill we have had good humour, and we have not had to listen to unnecessarily offensive speeches such as that to which we have just listened.
§ Mr. Robens
Well, it is a matter of opinion as to what is offensive and what is not. It is my opinion that that speech was unnecessarily offensive.
§ Mr. Robens
I have been asked, "What is a permanent repair?" A few moments ago the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken) stood at that Box and said that it could not be defined. In fact, when he interrupted me I was in the middle of explaining that a permanent repair depended entirely upon the circumstances of the case at that time. Therefore, when the county court comes to decide what is a permanent repair they will look at the evidence presented to them on the particular structure. A permanent repair is 1929 obviously a final repair—the job completed—and the only point about this part of the Bill is that we are saying to the Coal Board, "You may go on making repairs, but you may at your discretion not make a permanent repair until you are satisfied that no further damage will take place."
When I am asked, "What is a permanent repair?" I say it depends entirely upon the circumstances of the case. Having examined that case, any sensible and intelligent person knows what a permanent repair is, but it will depend entirely, it seems to me, upon the circumstances of each case, and I have a very much higher opinion of the intelligence of county court judges than to suggest that they themselves would not be able, if appealed to under this Clause, to determine what was a permanent repair.
§ Mr. Bracken
It is all very well for us to hear this tribute to county court judges by their newly and self-appointed guide, but I feel that most hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have been treated exceedingly discourteously by the Parliamentary Secretary.
§ Mr. Bracken
Well, it depends upon the standard of values upon which one judges courtesy. The hon. Gentleman is generally courteous, and I must say that I forgive him for losing his temper, because he has been treated in the most monstrous way. He was interrupted while still on his feet and "gagged" by an obscure Whip. Such things have never happened in the House of Commons, except under a Government like this. I was interested in the intellectual meanderings of the Parliamentary Secretary when trying to explain the meaning of "permanent repairs." I do not know, but I should have thought that the Minister might even cast his eye around these buildings, which, in the last century, have been three times repaired, once at an immense expenditure of public money.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
On a point of order. Is it in order, on a 1930 Bill dealing with coal subsidence, to discuss the construction of this building and the possibilities of repair?
§ The Deputy-Chairman
The right hon. Gentleman was seeking to explain what he thought permanent repairs were, and he was giving an example.
§ Mr. Bracken
I forgive the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) for his conviviality. I know where he spent last night and where he is going tonight. I forgive him in every way. The importation to this country of so much French wine has been a temptation to which he has apparently fallen.
§ Mr. Bracken
I will not withdraw. It is the highest possible tribute to the hon. Gentleman. The Lord Advocate who may think that toddy is civilisation must remember that there is something to be said for the wines of France. This, however, is rather irrelevant.
We have finished with the Parliamentary Secretary, who has done his best. We sometimes say rather harsh things about him, but he has done his best, in his own limited way, to explain the meaning of permanent repairs. He has not succeeded. This is a time when we must hear from the Minister, and if there are legal issues at stake, no more welcome interrupter would be the Lord Advocate, whose uncle served with me in this House. He has few opportunities of speaking, perhaps because of the Whips' interference, but, whatever the reason, we want an answer about these permanent repairs.
The Minister who "spell-bound" the United Nations, partly by the length of his oratory and partly by its quality, ought to tell us what is meant by permanent repairs. The Minister knows that there is no such thing as permanent repairs when subsidence exists over a large area. Surely he knows that. In order not to extend the duration of the Debate and try the patience of the Committee, I will gladly give way to the Minister now. I think that we should hear from the Minister, because he is not treating the Committee very respectfully by sitting there mute and innocuous.
§ Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)
I hope that the Committee will 1931 excuse me if I have not followed this matter very clearly, because the discussion seemed to be very diffuse. The Parliamentary Secretary when he was speaking on Clause 7 seemed to be referring to Clause 6. Permanent repairs and county court judges do not appear in Clause 7. What exactly is meant byFurther provisions when damage continues over a period "?First of all, if one has a house in a mining area, and it has the misfortune to become affected by subsidence damage, the repairs are regarded as the original repairs. Thereafter, one can have temporary repairs, and apparently this can go on throughout the possession of the property. So long as the evils of recrudescence of subsidence exist, there seems to be no finality in the matter of repairs, and the owner is dependent on the State for permanent repairs to the house. This requires further explanation. The house has original repairs, then temporary repairs, and then permanent repairs. Is one entitled to have these permanent repairs maintained under the provisions of the Bill? Is there any finality in the business?
Is this not turning the possession of a house of this character, which seems, at first sight, to be a grave disadvantage, into an advantage which is not obtainable in respect of any other houses in any other part of the country? It would seem to me that when these houses are being repaired, they will not be repaired in accordance with the old standards. Surely the houses repaired by the Coal Board will be repaired more adequately than was the case previously. If there are any refinements of construction these can be given to the person who has suffered this disadvantage. It seems to me that His Majesty's Government, although it may be unwittingly and with the best of intentions, are dealing with an evil but are also creating, at the same time, a remarkably priviliged class, and that the possession of property of this kind, which, before the Bill was introduced, was a very serious liability and a grave misfortune to the owners, may, under the terms of Clause 7, be now a possession of a very valuable character.
The ordinary owner of a house is hard put to it to have the necessary repairs and 1932 maintenance carried out at present costs. The one-time unfortunate but now fortunate miner who owns his own house is going to be placed once again in a privileged class. The Clause confers upon persons who have houses damaged by subsidence the right of immediate repair, then of permanent repair and, ultimately, of repair ad infinitum. That is my interpretation of the Clause, and I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if I am wrong, and if there is a finality in this matter. Is there a time when the State says "You have had enough. We have spent £5,000 on your property, and now you can repair it yourself"? Is that contingency envisaged?
Mr. McKie (Galloway)
I do not intend to occupy the time of the Committee for more than a few minutes. I think, however, that both sides of the Committee are entitled to a little more elucidation than we have yet had from someone on the Front Bench opposite. I have no desire to be offensive, although that was the word which the Parliamentary Secretary quite wrongly applied to the speech of my hon. Friend.
I have no desire to be offensive in what I am about to say, and I hope that I shall keep strictly within the rules of procedure and the rules of ordinary Parliamentary Debate.
I think that in view of the considerable apprehension that has been displayed, not only on this side of the Committee, that the Minister himself, or someone on behalf of the Government, should give us a further definition of what "permanent repairs" means. In passing, I would like to pay a compliment to the Parliamentary Secretary by saying that I thank him, and all my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee thank him, for what he has been able to do in a somewhat limited way to clear up the position by giving what he thinks is a definition of permanent repairs. That definition, however, does not satisfy me. I think that the time has arrived—and we have now been debating in this Committee for something like four hours—when we should have a Law Officer of the Crown here to give the Committee a definition of what are permanent repairs. Why should it be left to the lay Members of the Committee to say what 1933 interpretation the courts should place on these very important words?
I am sorry that the Lord Advocate, who has been very consistent in his attendance up to now, saw fit, a few minutes ago, to leave the Chamber. No doubt we all have to go out at times to get sustenance, but we are sorry that the Lord Advocate has gone when there is no other Law Officer of the Government present on the Treasury Bench. I am amazed that throughout the proceedings of the Committee, as was the case last week, no Law Officer of the Crown, except the Lord Advocate, has been present, and in saying that I am not trying to be offensive to him or to anyone else.
§ The question of the definition of permanent repairs raises a very big issue throughout the whole country. I and other hon. Friends are particularly concerned with what it may mean to Scotland, because there can be no question that there is a great deal of subsidence in Scotland. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, whom I am glad to see here, knows that very well. I feel that if we had in this Committee the presence of the former Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn), in whose area there is great deal of subsidence, he would not have been prepared to allow this point to go by very lightly.
§ I do not share in their entirety the views which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling) has just expressed about some people obtaining too much. I agree that we in this Committee have to be very much on our guard about what the taxpayers may be called upon to pay, but what we are considering at the present moment is predominantly—and I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with me—what we are to do for people whose property has been damaged, and which may in the future continue to be damaged. This Clause supplements what Clause 6 set out to do originally by making further provision where subsidence continues and is likely to go on for some time. That is how, owing to the drafting of these two Clauses, this unfortunate business has arisen.
§ I am delighted to see that the Lord Advocate has now returned. The Parliamentary 1934 Secretary must take a large share of the blame for the way in which the Closure was moved on Clause 6, and for having been largely responsible for this Debate being initiated. I am not at all sorry that it has been initiated, because the longer the Debate has continued the more clearly it has been brought out what a big thing we should be doing if "permanent repairs" was thoroughly defined. If the Minister himself is not prepared to give us that definition, then let the Lord Advocate, who can speak not only on Scottish law but, in this case, on the English law, give us his interpretation.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.