HC Deb 07 December 1956 vol 561 cc1615-23

Order for Second Reading read.

11.5 a.m.

Mr. G. B. H. Currie (Down, North)

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

This is solely an enabling Bill. It proposes to enable the Parliament of Northern Ireland to legislate, within certain well-defined limits, so as to make provision in Northern Ireland with regard to the basis upon which compensation is payable in respect of the acquisition of war-damaged property. The property is referred to in the Bill as land, because the definition of land embraces those hereditaments which are built upon the land. It is directed to compulsory acquisition by authorities in Northern Ireland other than the United Kingdom Government. Its purpose is to bring that compensation in Northern Ireland into line with the compensation which is payable in other parts of the United Kingdom in similar circumstances.

Those of us who come from Northern Ireland are indeed proud of the part which Northern Ireland played during the dark years of the war. When war came in September, 1939, Northern Ireland at once placed herself beside the United Kingdom in her determination to play her part in bringing the war to a successful conclusion. The people of Northern Ireland realised the consequences of entering the war. They realised that inevitably it would bring hardship to our country, but they were determined to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the rest of the United Kingdom.

There was never any question of Northern Ireland remaining neutral as did our close neighbour to the south, Eire. In the struggle against totalitarianism and against the Nazi menace our people were determined to play their full share. They entered the struggle and, like the people throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, they suffered the disadvantage of air raids and the other troubles which followed during the war.

Belfast suffered extremely heavy damage during two all-night raids. It also suffered from minor raids, but the major part of the damage was occasioned during two all-night blitzes on the city. In addition, there was damage inflicted in County Down, in my constituency. Only a few weeks ago I visited a farm in County Down where the farmstead was completely demolished. Indeed, that farmstead is still undergoing the work of repair. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Knox Cunningham) there was also considerable war damage.

The commercial areas of Belfast suffered grievously in these raids. Large areas of business premises were razed to the ground. What we had regarded as buildings of special interest, land marks which had been known for generations, disappeared.

It is because of those raids and because of that damage, that the Bill has become necessary; but I suppose that it would be proper to say that we gained something from those years of war. We gained freedom from the advance of the Nazi menace and totalitarianism and we also gained some battle honours. We had the advantage of being able to supply to the United Kingdom bases from which naval sorties could emanate to protect our convoys bringing essential foodstuffs and supplies to the United Kingdom. We provided bases from which our ships could go out into the big Atlantic and from which there could be cover for that area of sea, which could not otherwise be adequately covered. In our Parliament Buildings at Stormont we provided an operations room. The Senate Chamber was dedicated to that purpose, and Fighter Command controlled its operations from the very heart of our bombed Belfast.

These were compensations. I am asking now that our citizens who suffered war damage should be no worse off financially when their properties come to be acquired than are the citizens in any other part of the United Kingdom. Perhaps it would be appropriate if I were now to leave that build-up of the situation in order to deal with the terms of the Bill. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for not ruling me out of order in these preliminary remarks.

The War Damage Act, 1943, the main Act legislating for compensation, provided for two main classes of compensation, the cost-of-works payment and the value payment. The cost-of-works payment covers the making good of all damage, while the value payment covers only the depreciation caused by the damage in the value of the hereditament. If the war damage is made good by reinstatement of the hereditament in the form in which it existed immediately before the occurrence of the damage, the amount of compensation is that equal to the proper cost of the works executed for making good the damage.

The Act unfortunately went further, in that it provided a special arrangement for compensation where the land is acquired compulsorily by virtue of any enactment … or … by agreement by a person authorised by virtue of any such enactment to acquire it compulsorily. In such cases the Act lays down that the payment of war damage must be a value payment. In other words, it must be the smaller payment.

It was later realised that hardship would result to the owners of land compulsorily acquired by a public authority, as they would be deprived of some of the benefit of their land, so, by the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, the matter was put right. That Act applied only to England and Wales. In the same year Scottish Members of Parliament saw to it that the matter was put right for Scotland as well by a separate Act. The matter was thus put right for the whole United Kingdom except Northern Ireland. It is to try to bring Northern Ireland into line that the Bill is before the House. I do not want to elaborate the matter. The statutes are there for all to see. We are hopeful that in the very near future all our war damage will be dealt with in the same way.

Hon. Members may ask why the Parliament at Westminster should be concerned in a domestic matter affecting Northern Ireland. Why does not the Parliament of Northern Ireland deal with the matter itself? The answer is simple. The powers of the Parliament of Northern Ireland are defined in The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, by Section 4 (2) of which restrictions are set up upon the powers of the Parliament of Northern Ireland to make laws in regard to succession to the Crown, the armed Forces, foreign treaties and many other things. The material point which excludes the Government of Northern Ireland from introducing legislation on war damage is the provision that they shall not have power to legislate on the making of peace or war, or matters arising from a state of war. It is no part of my duty to criticise the limitations upon the powers of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, and I do not want it to be thought that I am criticising them in any way. I am stating the position purely as a matter of fact. In consequence of the limitations, the Bill which I am presenting is an enabling Bill drawn within very tight limits confining the enabler to the terms of the 1947 Act.

I am very glad to see on the Government Front Bench my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes). This matter has been raised from time to time in this House by way of Question. It had been sought to legislate in this House to put the position in Northern Ireland into line with that in England, Scotland and Wales. Indeed, in reply to a Question, the Government, through the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that legislation would be introduced in order to do it; but the matter is pressing. The Government may not be able to find time in the foreseeable future for such a Measure to be passed through the House.

The cases outstanding in Northern Ireland are not many. The one thing which can be said about war damage is that we know where it is and how many cases there are. There will be no financial liability upon the Exchequer for the proposed compensation. There will be no interference with any Government Department of the United Kingdom. The scope of the Bill is extremely limited in the enabling powers which are given. The restriction is that the Parliament of Northern Ireland should be able to legislate in this matter for purposes similar to those of Section 53 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947.

I hope hon. Members will agree that this is an extremely modest request. What I am asking hon. Members to consent to is a very simple proposition. It is that we here at Westminster, having made certain provisions in Section 53 of the 1947 Act, ought now to make it possible for the Parliament of Northern Ireland to make similar provisions for war damaged property compulsorily acquired in Northern Ireland

I would emphasise that what we are asking is that a similar step be taken, not necessarily an identical step, because it may be that some small variation in wording might appear desirable to the Parliament of Northern Ireland. I think this House would not wish to limit that Parliament to following word by word the legislation introduced in this House. I do not propose in the Bill that the Parliament of Northern Ireland should be tied in that way. This is merely an enabling Bill to enable the Parliament of Northern Ireland, if it takes the decision, to introduce legislation similar to that existing here.

I do not want to take up the time of the House further than is necessary on this matter. I am glad to see the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) in his place. I ask hon. Members opposite who, I know, take an interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland to give this Measure their support and to help us to remedy what has been an injustice for owners of war damaged property in Northern Ireland.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)

I beg to second the Motion.

This is a modest Bill, and I am sure that the whole House will agree that it has been brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Currie) with a becoming modesty and also with a characteristically comprehensive lucidity.

As my hon. Friend said, it embodies a modest request. It is designed to afford a measure of elementary justice to property owners whose property has suffered war damage in Northern Ireland by enabling the Northern Ireland Parliament to legislate in respect of such war damaged property when it has been requisitioned by a Government Department or a local authority so as to bring the law on this matter into line with the law in Great Britain.

The fact that there is a difference in the law is, I am sure, unintentional; I am sure it is due to an oversight. Whereas the War Damage Act, 1943, extended to the whole of the United Kingdom, the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947—which, as we have heard, provides that payments where property is requisitioned should be cost of works payments and not converted value payments—did not extend to Northern Ireland. I am sure it was not intended at the time that Act was passed to discriminate in any way against property owners in Northern Ireland. It was something which quite simply and accidentally was overlooked. I feel sure the whole House will welcome the opportunity provided by my hon. Friend to put the matter right.

My hon. Friend has referred to the contribution made by Northern Ireland to the war effort. More than 5,500 Northern Ireland citizens were killed or died as a result of enemy action in the war, including approximately 900 civilians who were killed as a result of air raids. There were relatively few raids, but those which took place were of great severity and intensity. Particularly I would mention that which took place on the night of 15th–16th April—Easter Tuesday—1941.

According to the official history, "Northern Ireland in the Second World War," which has just been published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office and is a very interesting and comprehensive work written by Professor J. W. Blake, on the Easter Tuesday raid severe damage was occasioned. In Belfast alone 30 business houses were destroyed, 11 churches, seven motor works, seven stores, two hospitals and nurses' homes, two banks, two schools, two cinemas, two tramway depots, the Central Public Library and 11 other large buildings. In addition, whole blocks of residential houses were completely obliterated. It is impossible to say the exact number of houses which were destroyed on that night, but the fact that immediately after the raid 70,000 people had to be catered for in emergency feeding centres shows that the loss of residential property must have been very high. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the brunt fell on Belfast. During the four principal raids 56,600 houses were damaged or destroyed and more than 3,000 could not be put back into any state of repair.

Before the raid I have mentioned, on the Easter Tuesday, no other city in the United Kingdom except London had suffered to the same extent and after that no other city did so except London and, possibly, Liverpool. As a result of those raids the War Damage Commission has already made very considerable payments in respect of claims lodged with the Commission by property owners.

I should like to take the opportunity of paying a tribute to the work of the War Damage Commission, the Chairman, Sir Robert Fraser and his staff, particularly the staff in the regional office in Northern Ireland, for the patient, painstaking and thorough way in which they have examined and dealt with the claims that have been lodged. The fact that fewer than one in one thousand claims have been disallowed shows the extent to which the Commission has met the claims of Northern Ireland property owners under the war damage scheme.

I should like to give a few particulars of the claims and payments made. These I have checked with the War Damage Commission. Under the cost of works heading, 58,260 claims were received and under the value payments heading, 1,207 which covered 3,209 hereditaments. A total of 58,206 claims under the cost of works heading have been disposed of, and 1,156 under the value payments heading. Under the cost of works heading, payments to individuals have totalled £10,338,504, cost-of-works payments to local authorities amount to £2,127,028, and value payments to individuals £1,825,004, making a total of £14,290,536.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North has said, there are not many cases of property requisitioned by authorities where the owner is likely to suffer were it not for the introduction of this Bill, but there are a few cases, and they are hard cases. They constitute a good example of the familiar proposition that hard cases make bad law. I mention only one case in my own constituency where the property was about to be acquired by the Belfast Corporation. The Corporation, under the existing law, proposed to pay the property owner a value payment. If his claim had been made in Great Britain, he would have been paid about £15,000 more under the cost of works heading than under the converted value heading. I am glad to see that as a result of the declared intention of my hon. and learned Friend to introduce the Bill, the Belfast Corporation has suspended the operation of the vesting order pending the outcome of the Bill.

I do not wish to say any more except to remind the House when, as I hope, it gives the Bill an unopposed Second Reading, of the words used towards the end of the war by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) when he wrote thanking one of our wartime Prime Ministers in Northern Ireland, the late J. M. Andrews, for his services. My right hon. Friend said, But for the loyalty of Northern Ireland, we should have been confronted with slavery and death, and the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched. The bonds of affection between Great Britain and the people of Northern Ireland have been tempered by fire and are now, I believe, unbreakable.

11.35 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I rise to say briefly that we welcome the Bill and to say how grateful we are to my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Currie) for putting his good fortune in the Ballot to such good use. I do not think that his admirable exposition requires any embroidery from me on the purpose of the Bill and what it will achieve for Northern Ireland.

It may well be that there are hon. Members, and perhaps particularly hon. and learned Members, who will think it an act of questionable friendship to involve any other country in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. I speak as a layman who has tried to master its complications. However, that is a superficial view. There is an injustice here which we ought to enable Northern Ireland to remedy if she wishes. This is a small, but not insignificant postscript to the story of Northern Ireland's war effort, and I am glad, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, to give the Bill a fair wind.

11.37 a.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

I am sure that on both sides of the House we appreciate the magnitude of Northern Ireland's war effort and the seriousness of the damage which Belfast and, to a lesser extent, other places suffered at that time. The Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, passed under a Labour Government, gave a particular measure of justice, to which the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Currie) referred, in this form of compensation. By what I am sure was an inadvertence, it applied only to Great Britain and not, having regard to the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act, to Northern Ireland. It is only right that Northern Ireland should have similar legislation in a matter of this sort, and that those whose property was damaged there should have similar benefit. There can be no doubt about that, and I am sure that no one on this side of the House would wish to oppose it.

This I suppose, is fathering day, when some of the Government's little Bills for which they have no time get fathered on various hon. Members. If he will allow me, I congratulate the hon. Member for Down, North on having used his opportunity so well and—I hope he will not think me condescending, for I do not mean to be so—so eloquently and so clearly. The same applies, with all due humility, to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde).

I add only a very small postscript. "Similar" means similar, and I feel that the Parliament of Northern Ireland, when it comes to approach this matter, will have regard to the fact that this is simply rectifying an omission and is not, of course, an occasion for giving more or less to exactly similar cases in Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).