HC Deb 10 April 1968 vol 762 cc1513-34

9.18 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I beg to move, That the Foreign Compensation Commission (Egyptian Claims) (Amendment) Rules Approval Instrument 1968 (S.I. 1968, No. 163), dated 8th February 1968, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th February, be withdrawn. My hon. Friends and I have put down this Prayer for three principal reasons. First, because we wish to discover from the Solicitor-General why the Commission wants and needs these new rules or new powers. On their face they seem to be extremely far reaching. Therefore, it is right that the House should understand fully why they are necessary.

Secondly, we seek assurances from the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the new rules which this Statutory Instrument would introduce, Rule 21A and also paragraphs (5) and (6) which are to be added to Rule 38, will not result in depriving British subjects of the opportunity of claiming compensation for the seizure of their own or their predecessor's property by the Egyptian Government during the period 1956 to 1969.

As is obvious, this is a highly technical Measure and the debate is bound to be somewhat narrow. However, there is a third reason why we have caused the right hon. and learned Gentleman to come to the House tonight. I understand that this is the first occasion on which any Instrument under the Foreign Compensation Rules has been prayed against in the House. It is right that the Government should know that we on this side are vigilant in studying these many Instruments and in ensuring that the House is made aware of the reasons for them.

I will mention a little of the history of the Egyptian claims, which is indeed rather sad. It gives some idea of the number of people involved if I say that within a year of the appropriations and sequestrations in Egypt more than 8,000 British citizens are known to have been evacuated. Of those 1,160 had to be assisted with house purchase under the compensation terms, about 1,700 had to be assisted with furnishing their homes, and 1,803 were assisted with passages to Australia. That illustrates that this small and narrow Order deals with a lot of intensely human cases. The losses were suffered, though the compensation provided is of some assistance, were great indeed, and I think that it will be for the convenience of the House to state the manner in which the Commission dealt with these losses.

Broadly, there were two categories, those assets which were Egyptianised, namely, nationalised or confiscated, and which there was no opportunity for the British nationals concerned to get back. Secondly, those assets which were sequestrated, namely, seized for what was presumed to be a temporary period, and which were returned, though often in an extremely damaged condition. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, large sums were involved. Under the Part III claims, which are mentioned in the Order, the total valuation of the claims made by applicants was about £65 million, and under Article 6, claims, of which there were a total of 5,300, altogether added up to a further £34 million.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate the claims themselves or their size. We are amending the procedure for making claims.

Mr. Griffiths

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was attempting to indicate the background to the Instrument so that it would be more comprehensible when I came to the point which you have just made. Perhaps I should just say that the compensation arrangements, of which this Order is the most recent, started with the March, 1959, Anglo-Egyptian Agreement. It was followed by the Exchange of Notes in 1962, since when there has been a further Exchange of Notes, in 1967.

I understand from the Commission that it already has disposed of about 4,000 claims. The purpose of the Order is to enable the Commission to put a term to the outstanding claims that remain, in effect it imposes a deadline. The new Rule, No. 21A says that a man's decease shall abate any claim that he or his beneficiaries might have, and the only way in which this extinction of his claim can be avoided is for the claimant specifically to assign his claim through his estate. Thereafter, according to the Instrument, unless the beneficiary produces this assignment in evidence to the Commission, and signs the original application in place of the deceased, that claim may be lost for ever.

Within limits, we can accept that. It is not unknown in the English common law for claims to be extinguished with the death of the original party. But I believe that we ought to be very careful about agreeing to the extinction of claims made by British citizens for losses suffered through no fault of their own. Perhaps I might put this in human terms. Let us suppose that I had stolen a piece of property belonging to one of the hon. and learned Gentleman's elderly relatives. Let us suppose, too, that that elderly relative had the misfortune to die before he was able to get back that property from me. I am sure that the Solicitor-General would take a very poor view of it if he were told that his claim to recover his family property from me had been extinguished by the death of his relative.

I doubt whether it would satisfy him if the only way in which he could re-institute the claim was if his relative had specifically granted it to him, and if he then were to fill in a lot of forms from the Commission. But this is what the Rules will require British claimants for Egyptian compensation to do.

At the very least, this should not happen unless the Commission has exhausted every possibility of advising those concerned of the possible loss of claim and of what they must do still to maintain it. It should surely be the duty of the Commission, and not of the potential beneficiary, to take such steps as are necessary to warn all concerned that a claim might be lost through death.

I turn to the further provision for reviving claims once the deadline has passed. In case anyone with a claim should read this debate, I draw their attention to the operative dates. Assuming that the Rules are accepted by the House, any survivor of an applicant for compensation who wishes to continue that claim must do so right away. In three months, that is, after 4th June this year, it may be too late. Further, if a family suffers the death of someone who lost his property in Egypt, that family should promptly put in the claim to continue his suit. They will have only six months' grace: if they have not filed their claim by then, they will forfeit it altogether.

I have some questions about the three months' and six months' deadlines contained in the second paragraph of Rule 21A. It says that an application can be revived only with the leave of not fewer than two Commissioners … who may grant or refuse leave at their absolute discretion. I realise that there are precedents and that there may be good reasons for this, but language giving two Commissioners the right to grant or refuse leave "at their absolute discretion" is not the happiest of phrases in a British democracy. If the Commissioners have the right to give leave to an applicant, surely that power in itself should be sufficient. I should like an explanation of why this absolute discretion was specifically necessary. I do not believe that anyone should have absolute discretion unless the reason is explained to the House.

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman please tell us why it is necessary for the Commissioners and the Commissioners alone to have the power either to accept or reject a late claim? Second, what kind of circumstances must they take into consideration in deciding whether or not to entertain such a claim? The House should know, if they are given absolute discretion, what sort of considerations they have in mind in exercising it. There should be some criteria so that we know what they will take into account and what they will ignore in terminating what might be someone's only remaining claim.

I hope that the Solicitor-General will also tell us, what the Rules do not tell us, namely, how these considerations should apply. The Commissioners, I believe, need guidance here.

I turn now to the powers in the latter part of paragraph (5), by which the Commission can review and I think finally terminate or settle a claim. Indeed, the Rules are intended to enable the Commissioners to bring claims to a term. Apparently this will be done—I gather that this will be the position under the new paragraph (5)—in some circumstances without the Commission needing to serve notice of its intention to do so. I cannot understand why the Commissioners should be relieved of the requirement to indicate their intention to settle a claim.

I cannot see why they should not publish this information or take such steps open to them to advise the persons concerned. Surely they should announce a intention to extinguish a British claim—that is what it may amount to in some cases—at least by inserting an advertisement in the newspapers. They should not be able to extinguish it behind closed doors and without having given any indication of what they propose to do or what they have done.

When the House provides new powers and accepts new rules which will concern many ordinary citizens—many people who have lost everything and have probably obtained a very small proportion in return by way of compensation—we should not leave them having to look up all the detailed proceedings of Parliament and themselves accepting responsibility of becoming aware of the new rules and regulations.

These are, in the main, elderly people, often unwell. Frequently the relatives of the deceased may have gone abroad. As I mentioned earlier, some may have gone to Australia. Probate may in some cases last for a very long time indeed. So in view of the three and six months' deadlines, the Commission itself should accept the responsibility of advising all concerned. The Instrument should not simply leave it to the individual whose circumstances could be difficult, to have to come forward in all cases. I therefore ask the Solicitor-General to indicate to the Commission that there is great concern about this matter and that the House expects it to take the onus of responsibility.

9.33 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

The Instrument is unfortunate, largely for the reasons so ably given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths). Hon. Members may recall that I have a personal interest in this matter, having raised two Adjournment debates and asked many Questions in the last 10 years on the subject of Egyptian compensation, largely because a number of my friends and some relatives are directly concerned. I will do my best to stay in order, despite the narrow terms of the Instrument, although some of the rules must be interpreted in relation to what has gone before.

New Rule 21A entitled "Death of Applicant" states: On the death of an Applicant his application is abated as regards any claim not determined before his death unless the claim survives to a joint Applicant. It goes on in paragraph (2) to point out that … an abated applicant may be revived by the personal representative of the deceased Applicant … and refers to the signing of the application form. I do not think that anybody need object to that because it is the procedure now being followed. Later, paragraph (2) refers to: … the expiration of 6 months from the date of the deceased Applicant or 3 months from the date of the coming into operation of this Rule … It goes on to say that after that period of time an application can … be revived only with the leave of not less than two Commissioners… and they are given absolute discretion.

It is in this connection that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds raised two important issues. The first was the question of the six-months' deadline. One must here consider the historical background to the Instrument to prove that the six-months' period is far too short. The whole question of compensation arose out of the Suez incident way back in 1956, but I remind the Solicitor-General that in the following year the House was told that the rights of British subjects to compensation were positively safeguarded because there was £108 million of blocked Egyptian sterling in this country which would not be released until the rights of British citizens to compensation were agreed between the two Governments. In 1959 came the first agreement, and it released all that blocked sterling less that paid into the compensation fund.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must limit his remarks to the very narrow Instrument that we are discussing. He cannot discuss compensation in general.

Mr. Wall

I am trying to show this background relates to a period of six months referred to in the Instrument. If we look briefly at the history of the whole question of compensation to which the Instrument relates, that will, I hope, prove to the House that six months is far too short a period. I am trying to prove that since 1956, in a period of 12 years, we still have not elucidated these claims, yet some are now to be extinguished in six months. I shall attempt to do this as briefly as possible and I am sure that you will call me to order if I go outside the scope of the debate. I shall not go into details.

The first agreement was reached in 1959, and before the agreement could be implemented, in 1961, much of the property some of which we are concerned with in this instrument, was resequestrated by the Egyptian Government.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not without sympathy with the general line which the hon. Member wishes to pursue but he cannot pursue the general issue on this Instrument, which deals with the narrow point, as he knows as well as the Chair does what happens if the applicant is deceased.

Mr. Wall

May I then say, Mr. Speaker. that it has taken 12 years for some of these claims to come forward and some are still not dealt with; yet we are asked to extinguish certain claims within six months. The period stated in Rule 21A (2) is far too short. We are dealing in some cases with substantial sums and there is no safeguard to the decision of the Commissioners. The Statutory Instrument lays down quite clearly that it is at the sole discretion of the Commissioners whether to grant or refuse leave. There should surely be some appeal. The Commissioners are given very great power. Many of these applicants reside in different parts of the world. I have letters from Switzerland, America, South America and Australia. It may be that they do not know that the persons concerned have died. The facts may not have been published in newspapers and it may be virtually impossible to let those concerned know the facts.

Six months is a very short period; I should have thought a year should be the very minimum. I appreciate that we cannot amend a Statutory Instrument such as this, but I hope that the Solicitor-General will assure us that the Commissioners will interpret this regulation very widely indeed and very generously. I know of a number of cases which have been delayed for many months. That is not the applicants' fault but became inevitable because of the actions and reactions of the Egyptian Government in resequestrating property.

Under Rule 38 in paragraphs (2), (5) and (6), in contrast to the rule we have been discussing, no time limit is laid down. The period is virtually as the Commissioners see fit. It says that the Commissioner may review without serving any notice of intention to review, or may, if they think fit, by order … The Commissioners can act immediately. That seems to be in strange contrast to the previous Rule. I think this is dangerous. I like it as little as I like the first Rule we have discussed. Here I want to ask if we are discussing something which is purely theoretical, or has it some substance? Is there still sufficient money in the fund to pay the claims we are debating? I understand that, according to the Foreign Compensation Commissioners, the fund at the moment amounts to £34,500,000 of which £28,500,000 has been paid in claims. I understand that only some £6 million is left.

According to the Foreign Compensation Committee, 2,000 claims are still outstanding. We may be engaged in a very theoretical argument, but I would lake assurance from the Solicitor-General when he winds up that compensation called for under the Rules we have been discussing will be met, and that the £6 million is sufficient to cover the 2,000 outstanding claims, on which I have some doubts. He will recall that most of the claims which we are discussing are for compensation for damage to property which was sequestrated by the Egyptian Government. What about damage to property which was re-sequestrated by the Egyptian Government under Proclamation 138 in 1961?

Mr. Speaker

We are concerned with claims where the applicant has died. The hon. Member is, I think, aware of this.

Mr. Wall

To come back to the details of Rule 38, I suggest that the person whom the Commission may appoint to represent the estate of the deceased under the Rule should be authorised also to receive any increase in a previous award which may be payable as a result of such a review. A case in point is where the administrator of the estate has died, having distributed all the assets, and where, on review, an increase has been made in the original award. The Commission would not pay this unless a grant were obtained, and the cost of obtaining a grant would be more than the increased award. May I suggest that, where small sums are involved, the Commission should have discretion to pay out to the recipient under the Rule. This is perhaps a broad interpretation of the Clause which I hope would be justified.

May I sum up by saying that compensation has been under discussion for 12 years. Many people still have not had their claims met. Some property has only just been released. The Instrument we are discussing in some ways makes it more difficult for the applicant. In certain circumstances he needs fuller information, and he has a very short period in which to file the necessary documents. Therefore, although the Instrument will make the life of the Foreign Compensation Commission easier, it could make life more difficult for some applicants.

I hope that we can have a clear assurance that the terms of the Order will be interpreted as widely and as leniently as possible by the Commission, bearing in mind our objection to the six months period and the great power given to the Commission to accept or to refuse without the right of appeal.

9.43 p.m.

Sir Charles Mott-Radelyffe (Windsor)

Those hon. Members who have been in the House for some time, as have my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) and myself, will recollect the debates which have taken place during the last ten years about this very complex issue. Although the Prayer is rightly on very narrow grounds, to keep within the rule of order, I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman when he replies for the Government will not assume, because the debate is technically on narrow grounds, that it does not affect a great many people, or that there is not a very big human element in what we are discussing and in the details of the Order against which we are Praying, because this is not so.

There is all the technical difficulties, of which this is the end product, of British subjects in Egypt who had their property or assets either Egyptianised, sequestrated or re-sequestrated. This has caused a difficult tangle, and long hours have been spent trying to sort it out. Many applicants got nothing, though some got something, and I would pay tribute to the Commission for the way in which it has tried to deal with this very complicated matter. It has been approached in an extremely humane fashion—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hate to appear ungenerous in preventing the tribute which the hon. Gentleman wishes to pay, but it is out of order on this Prayer.

Sir C. Mott-Radelyffe

I bow to your Ruling, of course, Mr. Speaker. But, with the greatest respect, I was about to say that I thought that the Commission had dealt with hardship cases in a very humane way, but that I am not sure that the Order enables it to go on dealing with them in the same manner. I was coming on to the case where the claimant dies and, with great respect, I would have thought that that was in order.

As regards a claim which is extinguished on the death of the applicant, under Rule 21A there is a period of six months in one case and three months in the other. I must ask the hon. and 'earned Gentleman, who has considerable experience and for whom we have a high regard, whether he thinks that a period of three or six months is fair. After all, the Inland Revenue, with all its resources, is roughly two and a half years behind in computing Capital Gains Tax and will be about four years behind in trying to sort out the nonsense of Selective Employment Tax, which are simple matters compared with these cases, because the rules are well known.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) said, many claimants live abroad. Others may have changed their addresses many times in the last 10 years. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman quite certain that the Commission has an up-to-date list of addresses?

Can the hon. and learned Gentleman say how many claimants are still left who might be involved in this Order? Then, what steps is he proposing to take to notify claimants about the very short time available in the light of this Order, that their claims could still be valid in the unhappy event of their death? Hon. Members have a great many facilities behind them. The hon. and learned Gentleman has a panoply of law officers behind him. However, it is not easy even for us to sort out such a complicated Order as this. How, in three or six months, can the beneficiaries of an old man who may have moved abroad, who may be living in the Channel Islands, or who may have gone for a holiday with relatives say even in India, catch up on all this paraphernalia?

My hon. and learned Friend must be fair and tell us why there is some magic in the three-month and six-month periods. Whatever view we may have of the origin of the Egyptian claims, those who suffered through no fault of their own should be entitled to fair treatment and clear information on a technical subject which may well affect their beneficiaries.

9.50 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

I intervene briefly to make two points. As has been emphasised, and as you have pointed out, Mr. Speaker, this is a very narrow Instrument. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe) has, I believe, so rightly said, while it is a very narrow Instrument, it is one which covers a wide spectrum of human feelings and considerable suffering. Having studied the Instrument and having heard the excellent speech in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) introduced the Prayer, I would like to emphasise that it really should be encumbent on the Commissioners to make known to the people who may be affected, that a claim will lapse unless they follow the procedures which are being laid down by this new Rule. Particularly bearing in mind its restrictive aspects, namely, that after only six months from the date of the death of an applicant, or three months from the coming into operation of the Rule, an application may be revived only with the leave of the two Commissioners who may grant or refuse leave "at their absolute discretion".

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds has pointed out, this absolute discretion which is vested in the two Commissioners is not one which, from a Parliamentary point of view, is entirely satisfactory or attractive. I hope that in his reply the Solicitor-General will deal with this point specifically. Of course, at the end of the day a great deal depends on what good will exists, and I would only say, having recently returned from Egypt, that one of the few encouraging aspects in the Middle East is the greatly improved feeling between that country and Britain. I hope that against this new climate of opinion the rights of British nationals will be protected and upheld. We are waiting to hear from the Solicitor-General how these rights are to be protected or improved in regard to the points that have been specifically raised tonight.

9.53 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Arthur Irvine)

This is an important matter and is true that we are dealing here with a subject in which very human factors arise and where any proper approach to the problem involves the most careful consideration of that aspect. I am grateful both to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) for the manner in which he has raised this, and to the other hon. Gentlemen opposite who have dealt with it in such an understanding and helpful way.

The background of this matter is that the Instrument which it is prayed to annul approves Rules made by the Foreign Compensation Commission which have the effect, first of all, of abating claims on the death of an applicant unless there is a surviving joint applicant, and then of enabling abated claims to be revived by the deceased person's representative within six months of the date of death or three months of the Rule coming into operation, whichever is the later; and thereafter, after the six months' period has expired, by leave o two or more Commissioners; and to enable the Commission to review provisional determinations of claims of deceased applicants where no personal representatives have come forward. A similar Instrument was made on the same date, Statutory Instrument 1968 No. 164, in respect of other than Egyptian claims. No Prayer has been laid against that Instrument. I mention that only to show the possibly anomalous situation which would arise if this Instrument were annulled.

The Foreign Compensation Commission was set up by the Foreign Compensation Act of 1950 to register and determine claims in respect of losses to British property, rights and interests resulting from measures taken by foreign Governments, and to distribute compensation funds made available by those Governments under agreements with Her Majesty's Government.

A considerable amount of work still remains over Egyptian claims. Under the 1950 Act, the Lord Chancellor appoints the Commissioners, who consist of a chairman, a vice-chairman and five members, all legally qualified. I mention that because the qualification and status of these Commissioners is of considerable importance when one considers how this affair is being administered and what powers the Rules grant.

Orders in Council give the Commission jurisdiction to register and determine claims and to distribute the funds. It makes its own rules for procedure, subject to the approval of the Lord Chancellor—

Mr. Wall

The hon. and learned Gentleman has twice mentioned funds. Can he satisfy us that there are sufficient funds to meet these claims?

The Solicitor-General

I think that there will be, if there is not now, a sufficiency under the existing law.

Until these Rules were laid, there was no provision regulating the procedure when an applicant for compensation died before his claim was adjudicated. It may be thought that that was a defect in the system. I would have thought that, while taking into account the importance of every considerateness for the treatment of these claims, some kind of winding up procedure, some fair and just method, was desirable. The practice has been for the Commission to mark the case papers "abated by death" and to treat the claim as revived only on the production of a grant of probate or letters of administration or confirmation in the United Kingdom and by the executor or administrator counter-signing the application form originally signed by the deceased.

The Commissioners observed no time limit for the revival of claims and the effect was that a last-minute application to revive an abated claim might delay final distribution of the funds for a considerable time. The need for provisions to come into effect on the death of persons interested in proceedings is recognised in our domestic law in the procedures of both the Supreme Court and the county court. This Instrument attempts to put into effect an analagous provision with like purposes. In principle, it is desirable that this should be done, but it must be remembered that the proceedings before the Commission differ markedly from those in the ordinary courts, particularly in a relevant respect—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the Proceedings on the Motion relating to Foreign Compensation and on the Order of the Day relating to the Clean Air Bill may be entered upon and proceeded with at this day's Sitting at any hour, though opposed.—[Mr. Ioan L. Evans.]

Question again proposed.

The Solicitor-General

I was putting to the House that the difference between the matters with which the Commission has to deal and the matters with which the courts have to deal where a claimant is deceased has a bearing on the kind of requirement suggested by hon. Members opposite, that is, the question of notifying parties of their rights. It is an important aspect of the matter. Whereas in civil proceedings in our courts information about the death of a party normally comes from other parties to the suit, in the cases with which the Commission is concerned that cannot happen, because there are no other parties. This is a real and practical point of distinction.

In many cases applicants live and are domiciled abroad, and news of the death is less likely to reach the Commission than would be the case if it were an ordinary court. That is the reason for the need for the substantive provisions in Amending Rule 2(1). I emphasise that because I believe that there is a real difficulty facing the Commission in these cases of ascertaining what the event is, who are the persons affected, and to whom, if any process of notification were desirable in theory, notification should be directed.

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

I have been trying to follow the argument of the hon. and learned Gentleman. If there is the difficulty, which I accept, of information about the death of a claimant living abroad reaching the Commission, surely it is an argument above all others for having a period much longer than six or three months? The Solicitor-General is advancing the very argument we have been advancing against Rule 21A in the Instrument.

The Solicitor-General

I shall deal later with the question of the six months.

The need for the new Rule 38(6) in Amending Rule 2(2) is also due to these circumstances. The procedure of the Commission provides first for a preliminary determination and then for a review. An applicant may die after the preliminary determination and before the review. It is the Commission's practice to give notice of intention to review and of any proposal to disallow or reduce the amount of the claim allowed at the preliminary determination. It is desirable to guard against any suggestion that a notice sent to the last known address of an applicant who is dead—unknown to the Commission—is not good service.

It may be urged that because of the time it has taken to determine the Egyptian claims deaths are likely to have occurred, and that it is unfair in these circumstances to put additional difficulties in the way of those representing the estates of deceased applicants. That factor should be borne in mind.

The Instrument relating to the Egyptian claims was made in April 1959. Considerable difficulty has been encountered in adjudicating some claims because of the unco-operative attitude of the Egyptian authorities, the necessity of withdrawing the Commission's representative in Egypt owing to the political situation, and similar matters. Seventy-four Egyptian claims have been marked "abated" and not revived. This is a very large number compared with the claims affected by losses sustained in Hungary and Roumania.

Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect, the learned Solicitor-General cannot go any further than the Instrument. What is fair for one side is fair for the other.

The Solicitor-General

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the difficulties raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe) were being borne in mind. But it is not enough to do that. What does the Commission do? What we are asking is not just that it will accept all the difficulties. We are pressing it to tell those still alive to make proper provision in their wills so that their successors shall be able to continue their claims. Surely that is not too much to ask.

The Solicitor-General

Under the heading of what the Commission can do, I would say that what is provided here is that, on the death of an applicant, the application, unless there is a revived joint application, abates. The abated application may be revived by the personal representative who proves such representation. After six months from the death of the applicant, an application may be revived only with the leave of two or more Commissioners.

I come now to the point raised by the hon. Member for Windsor—the sufficiency or otherwise of the six months' period. It is not as if we are arguing about a period on the expiry of which a claim is extinguished. This is the heart of the matter. If there was any possibility of the extinction of a claim at the expiry of a period as short as six months, I would feel a great deal of sympathy with the critics. But that is not the provision of this Instrument. What happens is that at that point, when the six months have expired, there is, by this Instrument, required to be the leave of the Commissioners before it can be revived. That is a very different thing from a once-for-all extinction of a right. I ask the House to bear that in mind.

That would be the substance of my defence of the six-months' provision, and put it to the House as a substantial point. The Commissioners, who are to determine at the end of a six-months' lapse whether a claim is going to be revived are, as I have indicated, qualified men, lawyers, appointees of the Lord Chancellor, and they can be relied upon because of their background and status to deal fairly with these matters. It would not be right for me to seek to draw up a category of criteria which would be regarded as appropriate to apply, but, of course, the Commission is well able to weigh the factors which may explain delay beyond a period of six months in bringing to its notice the death of an applicant and the appointment of personal representatives. They will have to have regard to these factors as practical men, a id I suggest that the right way of dealing with the problem is to place reliance upon the Commission in the fashion which this proposal does.

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

We are not getting down to the core of this. I am not a lawyer but the Solicitor-General is. Could he indicate for my benefit, and I suspect for the benefit of a lot of hon. and not learned Members on both sides of the House, what sort of circumstances could there be which would render a claim perfectly valid during the lifetime of a claimant, invalid in the judgment of the two Commissioners, who appear to have an absolutely undisputed discretion, after six months or nine months or a year, when the claim was put in by the beneficiary?

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman, whose fairness in controversy I have come to recognise over the years, will recognise the difficulties that one is in if one is invited to deal with hypothetical cases. It is a real difficulty. What I am suggesting is that when a period of time of as much as six months elapses, then it is entirely appropriate for a body like the Commission to have special regard to anything in the character of an endeavour to revive a claim. It will not be unsympathetic or hostile, it will merely take account—and that was why I mentioned that they are qualified and experienced men and appointed by the Lord Chancellor—of that fact as a relevant circumstance, that this amount of time at least has passed and in the circumstances it is as well, because the Instrument does not put it higher, that they should have the opportunity of checking and investigating and approving.

I cannot pursue that point much further, save to suggest to the House that on the whole this is not unreasonable. I place my reliance in defending this provision in the Statutory Instrument upon the point I made earlier, namely, that we are not at the end of six months having anything to do with the extinction of the claim—we are only taking that period as a period at the expiry of which a proper safeguard should apply.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

With the greatest respect, the claim is extinguished on death. At the end of six months it can only be revived with the discretion of the Commissioners. There is no question of it being extinguished, it abates with the death of the applicant. The hon. and learned Gentleman has not dealt with that point.

The Solicitor-General

I do not know if we want to split hairs on the difference between "extinction" and "abatement". If there has been an abatement the thought behind the Instrument is that if as many as six months have expired, then it is not unreasonable that there should be a reference to the Commission before revival. That is all. This would be considered sympathetically, fairly and reasonably by the Commission.

The point that remains for me to deal with, among the serious points brought forward by the other side of the House, is as to whether or not the Commission can do anything further than is proposed to notify persons concerned, because that is what it comes to—persons who may be personal representatives—of their rights. All that I can say in that connection is that in the world of practical affairs it will be an extraordinarily difficult thing for the Commission to do.

There again the same perfectly valid consideration applies. If, after the expiry of the period, there was a final extinguishment of a right to compensation, then indeed it might be appropriate to resort, even in the most difficult circumstances, to some fairly elaborate process—because it would have to be elaborate—of notification. But that is not the situation here, and the practical difficulty that would confront the Commission in learning of the death of an applicant living in any part of the world and, not only that, but in ascertaining additionally what was the development of his affairs on his decease, is a very real obstacle in the way of any procedure by way of notification by the Commission. As I say, it might be necessary to resort to some elaborate procedure to overcome that difficulty if, during the period, there was a final extinguishment of a claim; but when that factor is not present it is quite appropriate, I suggest, that the order take the form it does.

Mr. Wall

In view of all these difficulties both as regards notification and time, and in order that justice may be seen to be done, as I have no doubt it will be done, would the hon. and learned Gentleman consider a final appeal to the Minister in the event of a disputed case.

The Solicitor-General

I do not think I can answer that question affirmatively. I am satisfied with the fairness of this provision as it stands and I think there must and probably should be reliance upon the Commission in this matter.

The considerations that I have put forward as applying to the first part of this Statutory Instrument apply in like measure to the rest of it because the In strument goes on to provide that if an applicant dies and no grant of representation has been produced, the Commission may review the provisional determination of a claim without serving notice, or may by order appoint some person to represent the estate. This again is designed to ensure that no case goes by default. This is a provision which has the express object and effect of doing justice to applicants, to people who have suffered loss.

Here again, I suggest that the proper course is to place dependence on the discretion and fairness of the Commission. That element is fundamental to this whole procedure: I do not conceal that for a moment. In this procedure there is the greatest dependence upon the Commission, and I feel that the House need have no anxiety on that score. Hon. Members can be confident that the Commission will treat these matters with care and consideration, and the more so because of the opinions that have been ventilated in the House tonight on this important issue.

I trust that, bearing all these facts in mind, the House will determine not to annul this Instrument.

Mr. Douglas Dodds-Parker (Cheltenham)


Mr. Eldon Griffiths


Mr. Speaker

It is usual for hon. Members to intervene before the Minister has replied.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

I have followed the debate with great care, particularly the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths). I do not think that the Solicitor-General has given anything like an adequate reply to the points raised in all sincerity from this side of the House.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Having raised this matter in, I hope, a non-contumacious and serious fashion, we expected from the Solicitor-General a more serious reply to our points. He did his best, and, as we all know, his best can be very good, but he did not deal with one or two points, which the House will regret.

There is, first, a very practical point. If there is difficulty in tracing those who might be able to continue a claim after the decease of their relatives, what is so difficult about the Commission now advising all those still alive whose claims it has entertained that, should they die before their claims are settled, they should ensure that their will contains a grant of their claim to their possible inheritors and advising them of the procedures to be followed within the three or six months period so that difficulty does not arise? I cannot see why the Commission should not send out a simple letter, following the passage of this Instrument, advising all concerned what has happened. The Solicitor-General did not deal with that point, which concerns a matter of elementary justice.

We on this side of the House have the greatest admiration for the Commission, and anyone who has considered, as I have had the pleasure of doing in the last few days, the humanity and care which it devotes to individual cases will have no doubt about its ability and solicitude. But the fact remains that to vest in any body of fallible men "absolute discretion" is quite unlike anything else we do in this country. I am not a lawyer, but I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman whether he can tell the House to which other body of civil servants we give absolute discretion.

It is not satisfactory for the Solicitor-General to say, "The Lord Chancellor appointed them and they are lawyers"—for that, in effect, is what he said. I can think of many people who are lawyers and who are appointed by Ministers of the Crown for whom I have very little regard. It simply is not sufficient for the hon. and learned Gentleman to use that as the basis for the belief that in all cases these determinations will be made correctly. He should tell us why absolute discretion is required for this body of men when we give it to no other.

The third point with which the Solicitor-General did not deal is that there is no requirement on the Commissioners, when, under paragraph 5, they finally terminate a claim, to serve any notice of intention. For a claim to be extinguished or determined in private by a body of men with absolute discretion without any requirement that they shall notify what they are doing and give notice of their intention to review is quite wrong. This means that actions are being taken behind closed doors without any need to indicate why they reach certain decisions within their absolute discretion or to give notice of intention and with powers to appoint some person unknown to the public, but known only to themselves, to represent the persons concerned. These are quite extraordinary powers.

While we recognise that the Commission is most careful and humane in all it does, the Solicitor-General has not told us why these extraordinary powers are given. Would he assure us that the Commission will advise all those whose claims are pending that, in the event of their decrease, this Statutory Instrument will require procedures to be adopted different from those in existence prior to its passage?

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Robert Cooke.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I detect a certain note of reluctance in your voice, Mr. Speaker, in calling me. However, I have no intention of making a speech at this stage. I merely comment that this is exempted business and there is nothing in our procedure to prevent the Government giving a more adequate reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) who asked reasonable questions from the Despatch Box. We are prepared to wait until the Government give us reasonable replies. I add my protest to those of my hon. Friends.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."]

Question put and negatived.

  1. AGRICULTURE 16 words
  2. c1534
  3. ESTIMATES 11 words
  4. c1534
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