HC Deb 18 July 1956 vol 556 cc1328-35

Lords Amendments agreed to: In page 2, line 3, leave out "a" and insert "an".

In line 14, leave out "a" and insert "an".—[Mr. P. O'Neill.]

Lords Amendment

In page 2, line 16, after "vehicle" insert "or any property left therein".

Mr. P. O'Neill

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This Amendment is a very useful one. As the law stands a hotel proprietor has a strict liability for all motor vehicles. Under the Bill this is limited, and when it comes into force hotel proprietors will no longer be under that strict liability. The Amendment merely makes it clear that any property left in a motor car is in the same position as the motor car itself. Guests will have to protect themselves in future by ensuring that their luggage is taken into the hotel.

Further Lords Amendment agreed to: In page 2, line 18, leave out "a" and insert "an".—[Mr. P. O'Neill.]

Lords Amendment

In page 2, line 21, leave out second "one" and insert "two".

Mr. P. O'Neill

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This is the only major Amendment of any consequence. As the law stands the liability of an innkeeper is limited to £30. Under the Bill as passed in this House, liability was limited to £50 in respect of any one article, and £100 in the aggregate. The other place altered the latter figure to £200. I am not particularly enthusiastic about the Amendment that I have moved. It was against the recommendation of the Law Reform Committee which went into the matter very carefully, and the object of which was to preserve the balance between the hotel keeper and the public. I feel that the Amendment very slightly disturbs that balance.

It is really a matter of opinion. It is quite true that in these days the value of the contents of a suitcase is very considerable, if one cares to add it up. At the same time, £200 seems to me to be rather a large sum. On the other hand, it is much easier for hotel proprietors than for individuals to insure against their liabilities. Again, it is the universal practice for hotel proprietors to undertake such insurance. The net result would no doubt be a very small increase in premiums for the hotel proprietor. I feel that this is a matter which should be left to the common sense of hon. Members, and if any strong views should be expressed that the liability limit should revert to the figure of £100 I should not be prepared to oppose those views.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

I do so for three main reasons. My first reason is that I do not think we ought casually to interfere with the law as it affects individuals. When Governments set out to alter the law—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Member need not move, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment." He may speak and vote against the Motion, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

Mr. Paget

As I was saying, Mr. Speaker, I do not think that we ought casually to interfere with the law as it affects individuals. When Governments are doing this sort of thing there are consultations with the interests concerned. Those consultations take place over a period of time. The Government then come to their conclusions and make their proposals to the House. A private individual does not have that opportunity for consultation. Therefore, I think that we should always look very jealously at private Members' proposals to alter the law as it affects individuals and citizens, unless those proposals are bottomed upon an independent inquiry.

That independent inquiry may be the report of a Royal Commission or it may be the Report, as is the basis of this Bill, of the Law Reform Committee, a committee of very distinguished judges and others who have the power to hear evidence and who have heard evidence. They heard the evidence, they balanced the claims of the various people interested and they suggested the sum of £100 as the limit of absolute liability of an innkeeper, that is to say, the amount for which an innkeeper should be liable for the loss of his guest's goods, if the innkeeper himself were in no way to blame for that loss.

If the innkeeper is to blame, then there is no limit to his liability. If the visitor at the inn gives the goods to the hotel-keeper and says, "Look after these," again there is no limit to his liability, but if the visitor to the hotel does not give the goods to the hotel keeper to look after, but just takes them with him and puts them in the cloakroom or in his room or leaves them in the dining room, or wherever it may be, and the goods disappear, then the hotel keeper's liability for something for which he is in no way to blame should be limited to £100.

That is what the independent inquiry said, and another place proceeded to increase that liability to £200, after a very casual discussion and after hearing no evidence at all, by a majority of three. I say that that is a casual interference with the law and one to which we should not agree. Apart from that, I believe that another place was moved by reasons which involved a complete misunderstanding of what the Law Reform Committee had, in fact, decided, because in evidence before the Law Reform Committee it had been said on behalf of the hotel proprietors, "This obsolete law which applies to us and does not apply to anybody else merely arose from the fact that hundreds of years ago hotel proprietors and innkeepers tended to be in league with highwaymen. Now no one really suggests that we are in league with highwaymen, and we ought to be put in the position of anybody else who accepts the goods of another, and we should only be responsible if we are to blame." I am quoting the evidence of the hotel proprietors as given to the Law Reform Committee. That is, in effect, what they said.

The Law Reform Committee said "No. We think that you ought to be responsible for casual pilfering". Casual pilfering does not mean stealing suitcases. Stealing suitcases is a major robbery. It was not the view of the Law Reform Committee that when that sort of thing takes place there should be absolute liability by the innkeeper if he were in no way to blame; all that he should be responsible for—it is to make him careful—is that casual pilfering does not take place in his hotel.

I believe that that was a right decision, and on the basis of that decision the argument in the House of Lords about the value of the contents of a suitcase is entirely irrelevant. It was not for that type of robbery that the principle of absolute liability was retained.

My second point is that this Amendment is wrong on the merits. If we establish a fairly high level of absolute liability, we shall have a number of gentlemen going into the business of working the hotels. They will register at hotels under different names. They will put in a claim for £200 at one hotel and get away with it, because it is almost impossible for the innkeeper to disprove it, and they will then move on to another hotel. I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. P. O'Neill) that it will not make very much difference to the all-over premium paid by the hotel proprietor, but it will make a tremendous difference in the nuisance value of the number of claims submitted. We are inviting fraud by putting a high absolute liability on losses which it is difficult to check and to which blamelessness is no answer.

Thirdly—this is why I am interested in the matter—I happen to be the rapporteur of a sub-committee of the Com- mittee for Legal Affairs of the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe. The sub-committee is engaged in persuading the Governments of Europe to accept a common law of liability for innkeepers so that travellers throughout Europe shall be in the same position wherever they may be. As the rapporteur, I had proposed to the sub-committee that the common law which the others should accept should be that which we were adopting here, and there seemed to be a general attitude that that proposal would be accepted. Then, without consulting anybody, without hearing any evidence at all, another place alters the whole basis of the proposal which we had made through the Council of Europe to the other Governments.

In making the recommendations upon which the Bill was founded, the Law Reform Committee had consulted the other Governments and made its recommendations in line with the general basis of the law in Continental countries. It is not precisely the same. All except Holland have a limitation on absolute liability, and in each case it amounts to about £100. This Lords Amendment puts us out of line with everyone else, and makes our proposal that Europe should accept our lead in this matter, in which the Council of Europe has been directed to try to agree on a similar basis, out of tune with everyone else. For those reasons I hope we shall not agree with the Lords Amendment.

9.30 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

I represent many hotel keepers, and they are most grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. P. O'Neill) for having taken such an interest in this matter, more especially as the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland. For the reasons given by him and by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) I think that we should stick to the figure of £100, which I believe to be a reasonable one. I hope that we shall reject the Lords Amendment.

Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

I have no hesitation in associating myself with the argument advanced by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). I have no fear that in my so doing even the most political of the political correspondents will sense a revolt inside the Conservative Party. This is, indeed, a completely non-party matter, and when, in the House of Lords, this proposal was advanced, and eventually passed, it was passed against the advice of the Lord Chancellor. I should, therefore, be surprised if any of my hon. Friends felt obliged, for merely party reasons, to support this Lords Amendment.

The Lords inserted, at the second shot, this figure of £200, for one reason only. They argued that the value of the ordinary person's weekend luggage has risen from £100 to £200, and that the innkeeper's liability should reflect that change. I honestly do not know what noble Lords put inside their weekend suitcases. Mine usually contains a pair of pyjamas, a tooth brush, a razor and that morning's copy of HANSARD. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] To suppose that the ordinary person's suitcase contains articles which are cumulatively of greater value than that is to assume a great deal.

Even if we assume that the total value of the contents of an average person's suitcase is £200, why should the hotelier be liable for all that? Why should he have to take all the precautions and all the risk? Why should not some of the risk and some of the precautions be shared by his customers, his guests? I think that the House should remember that under our law the hotel keeper is obliged to accept as a guest anybody who presents himself; and he cannot distinguish between those he likes the look of and those that he does not. There is no other institution which caters for the public—restaurants, trains, ships, theatres, garages—where those who own or manage them incur a similar liability when they have not been negligent.

The hotel keeper, under this Bill and under existing law, is liable to the extent of £100, as we would have it, or £200 as another place would have it, even if no negligence at all can be proved against him. I believe that the figure should be kept at £100, and that to raise it to £200 would be most unfair on hotel keepers who, incidentally, form a major industry in my own constituency, which is why I am on my feet. I think that it would be unfair for two reasons. It would inevitably mean that hotel keepers would have to pay a larger premium to cover the larger risk; and the guests would take less care in looking after their own valuables or general luggage.

A mink coat cannot be put in a safe. It is left about one's room, and the innkeeper would therefore be liable to pay the owner up to £200 of its value, even if it was another guest in the hotel who made off with the mink coat. I think that that is an unreasonable demand to make upon hotel keepers, in addition to all the other burdens we put upon them. Even at the risk of jeopardising the Bill—and I think it is unlikely that it will be jeopardised—I would ask the House to reject the Lords Amendment.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster)

The Government, viewing this as a matter of opinion and degree, desire to remain entirely neutral in the matter. All I want to do is to quarrel with the hon. and learned rapporteur, the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), in describing this matter as having been dealt with on a basis of very casual discussion in another place. It is perfectly true that they introduced this Amendment into the Bill by a majority of three, but it is also true that they introduced it into the Bill, after it had been defeated in Committee, by a majority of three, in the other place. So they pushed it in one direction first, and then in this direction thereafter. In those circumstances, it is, in my opinion, a little hard to describe the process as a matter of casual discussion.

Mr. Paget

On both occasions the Division numbers were in the teens.

The Solicitor-General

They may have been in the teens, but if the hon. and learned Gentleman really thinks that the opinions of those outside another place and this House are not consulted, he is living in a curious fairyland.

To complete the argument before the House decides what it will do, may I add one word on the case in favour of retaining the Bill as it left this House. The hotel proprietor will now be liable under this Bill not only for the loss of the property of the guest but also for damage to it; and may I add to the other side of the case, because it has not been stated—and in my panoply of neutrality I now state it in the service of the House— that the hotel proprietor will, under this Bill, be relieved of strict liability in respect of non-residents, cars and contents of cars, and it seems right to bear in mind that it is in favour of the views of another place that this proposed figure is, after all, a maximum figure. The guest, honest or dishonest, will be required to prove the actual loss that he has suffered, and that does not mean the replacement value of the dinner jacket but its actual value.

Those are perhaps considerations which the House would think it right to bear in mind. I express no view. I hope that the right balance as between the hotel proprietor and his guests will prevail.

Question put and negatived.

Lords Amendment

In page 2, line 41, leave out "this section" and insert: the notice set out in the Schedule to this Act".

Mr. P. O'Neill

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This Amendment is consequential on the introduction of a Schedule setting out the notice which proprietors must display at or near the reception office, if they wish to take advantage of the Bill's restrictions on their liabilities.

The Solicitor-General

I am obliged to point out that as a result of what we appear to be going to invite their Lordships to do, the Schedule as it now stands would be wrong. I have not had time to consider what is the right way to assist my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Mr. P. O'Neill) and the House. I do not know whether it would be possible, by manuscript Amendment, to get it right?

Mr. Speaker

I do not see that it arises on this Amendment. I think I should accept a manuscript Amendment from the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. P. O'Neill) to amend consequentially the Schedule when we come to it.