HL Deb 25 July 1918 vol 30 cc1178-83

EARL FORTESCUE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether arrangements will be made by the Losses Commission to hear locally cases affecting agricultural properties; and whether persons skilled in agriculture will be nominated to sit as assessors in cases concerned with damage sustained by agricultural properties.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I do not know that there are a great many cases already pending which would be covered by the Question that I have put down. But the numbers may very easily become considerable, because many people who have been required to plough up permanent grass have provisionally registered claims so as to be able to safeguard themselves in case they should ultimately be heavy losers thereby, and if they all have to come up to London from every part of the country considerable hardship will be inflicted. I know of a case in the West of England. (I think it was a case where some land had been taken for military purposes) in which the claimant was given £100 by the Commission as sufficient proof that his claim was not a frivolous or unreasonable one, but the expense involved in bringing himself and his witnesses and his professional assistants somthing like 250 miles up to London and back again, including a couple of days' detention in London, reduced the sum which he actually received to some- thing quite uncommensurate with the loss which he had sustained. Cases of that sort could be multiplied in every county in England if all persons with agricultural claims are required to come up to London to establish them.

The question of agricultural assessors, I think, is one the advantage—the necessity almost—of which is tolerably obvious, for all sorts of questions will be raised which will require to be spoken to by experts whose opinions ought to be judged by other experts; and it is made all the more desirable, I think, by a recent decision of the Commission, in which they gave judgment on a claim for compensation for loss due to failure caused by wireworm on grass land, ploughed up by order of a war agricultural executive committee. I need not trouble your Lordships with the details of that claim. It is quite sufficient if I point out that the Commission gave the applicant a certain sum, finding that he had used his best skill and exertion on the land and that the failure of the crop was due to outside causes. I do not for a moment question the wisdom of that decision, but obviously matters of that sort are matters in which expert agricultural opinion is involved, and the value of the opinions expressed by expert witnesses can only well be judged by people who are experts themselves.


My Lords, my noble friend, in addressing this Question to His Majesty's Government, is perhaps under a slight misapprehension as to the powers possessed by the Government with regard to dictating or suggesting to the Royal Commission in question where or when they shall hold their meetings. My noble friend Lord Terrington who, I think, is present in his place this afternoon, and who is the Chairman of this Commission, holds, I believe, a very strong view that the Commission over which he presides has a perfect right to select its own places for sitting, its own time, and so forth.

I have been enabled to give certain materials to my noble friend in answer to his Question, and I am perfectly willing to give him what material. I have with regard to the action of the Commission, but he must clearly understand that the Commission, as I have said, hold very strongly that they are not responsible to the Government for the place or places where they will sit. They hold that there is no necessity for them to sit in various parts of the country for the purpose of hearing locally case affecting agricultural properties. They consider that any such action would involve considerably more expense than the present system since the expenses of the Commission and of the staff of the Department concerned, who would necessarily have to attend such a hearing in order to present the case of the Crown, would be considerably greater than the travelling expenses of the necessary witnesses allowed by the Commission in cases where the applicants have to come from the country. It would also involve a considerable waste of time on the part of the Commission, who are now enabled, owing to having their sittings in London, to sit continuously, and not to waste time in travelling.

The only departure which has been made was in the case of Scotland, when the Commission held a sitting in Edinburgh, where the number of cases and the distance involved appeared to justify such action. It has never been suggested that the present system by which the Commission get full reports from the Department concerned upon the allegations in the application, together with any maps or plans that are necessary, and then proceed to hear the evidence of witnesses on both sides who are intimately acquainted with the land, results in any injustice being done. In any cases of real doubt, however, the Commission have always reserved the right either of inspecting the locality in person or sending down one of the two expert agents appointed by them to make the necessary inquiries. Two members of the Commission—Sir Matthew Wallace and the Rt. Hon. Laurence Hardy, M.P.—are thoroughly acquainted with every aspect of agricultural practice; and in addition the appointment by the Commission of the two agents—Mr. Edwin Savill, F.S.I., of Messrs. Alfred Savill & Sons, and Mr. J. M. Clark, F.S.I., of Haltwhistle—has enabled the Commission to have their services either as assessors at the hearing, or as agents for the purpose of inspection in all cases where their assistance would appear to be required.


My Lords perhaps I may supplement the answer which has been given by Lord Hylton, as I am Chairman of this Royal Commission, by saying that I think the noble Earl who put this Question has been moved to do so under some misconception. I wrote to the noble Earl some time ago when he put this Question on the Paper and asked him if he had any grounds, by reason of any case which had taken place, for putting it down and which has caused any grievance, adding that if he would kindly supply me with the particulars I should be pleased to give him all the information I could about it.

I understood from the noble Earl that his Question was directed rather to the future than to any case that had happened in the past; therefore I have not heard from him the particulars of the case to which he referred, and without having these particulars I cannot identify it; otherwise I should be able to explain fully, I think, why a claimant who obtained only £100 was mulcted in the expenses of the people be employed; and it might probably be found that the claim turned out on investigation to be not one of anything like the extent which he had made it out to be.

I should like to make one or two observations in order to satisfy the noble Earl as to the principle on which the Commission acts. The noble Earl has looked at it from the point of view of agricultural cases, but agricultural cases affect only about one-sixth of the cases which come before the Commission. The Commission are therefore bound to take a very much wider and broader view of their procedure than merely dealing with cases which apply to agriculture. When the Commission was first setup, my right hon. friend Lord Justice Duke, who was then Chairman of the Commission, carefully considered with the members of the Commission the procedure, including this question of sitting locally. I think it would be greatly to the disadvantage of agriculturists if that principle were adopted, for the reason that great delay would take place in hearing the cases, as it would be impossible for the Commission to perambulate the country and to hear cases without causing great delay.

The cases are now heard in the order in which they are set down. This would no longer be possible if cases had to be heard locally—for instance, in the county of Devon, in which the noble Earl is interested—because of the Commission having to go all round the country. There is no class of the community which has been more considered than the agricultural class, and if we have had any complaints in this direction they are negligible compared with the vast number that have been dealt with. Every class of the community has presented claims, and I believe that these claims have been dealt with to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Let me take the county of Devon as an illustration. If we had to sit down there for hearing cases we should have to look not merely to the agricultural cases but the commercial and other cases in that county, and we should have to take down the representatives of every Government Department concerned in those various cases; in one case it might be the War Office, in the next case the Ministry of Munitions, in the next the Food Controller's Department, in the next the Shipping Controller's Department, and so forth. The Treasury are satisfied that such a procedure would not be economical, and the Commission are equally of opinion that it would not be expeditious.

I assured the noble Earl that the most careful consideration has been given to the procedure of the Commission. There is the great advantage to claimants of knowing the day and the hour when their cases will be heard, and they are not kept hanging about, as in the Courts Of Justice, waiting for their cases to come on. This is done for the convenience of the claimants and of the Government Departments concerned. The Commission sits practically every day, and endeavours to get through an enormous mass of work. I am sure that every consideration is given to the agriculturists; and I have a letter from Mr. Prothero saying that he has had no complaints, and that, so far as he is concerned, he believes the agricultural community are satisfied with what has been done.

The noble Earl also mentioned the question of the hearing of the cases by experts. About a year ago Mr. Prothero made a suggestion to me that it would give satisfaction to the agricultural community if another agricultural member, well versed in agriculture, were added to the Commission. I said that we should be only too pleased to have him, and Mr. Prothero said that if we would name the member he would ask the Prime Minister to recommend him to the Crown. The name of the member selected is Mr. Laurence Hardy, and nobody will question his ability or his practical experience in agriculture. Since Mr. Hardy came on the Commission we have practically handed over to him and to Sir Matthew Wallace, the well-known Scottish agriculturist, the consideration of agricultural cases. I further advised the addition of, and added to the staff of the Commission, the two well-known agricultural experts mentioned by the noble Lord who answered the Question, and they are called in to advise the Commission on any particular cases if their services are needed.

In conclusion, I would also inform the noble Earl that if there is any case which requires examination on the spot the Commission spare no pains to go down and take a view of the district and the farm or the works that have been executed upon the land, and we have spent a good many days of our vacation at week-ends for this purpose. Every possible care is taken to arrive at just conclusions, and I think the noble Earl may be quite satisfied with the consideration given to all cases by the Commission.


By your Lordships' leave, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the full explanation he has given of the method in which the Commission over which he presides does its work. What he has told me goes far to remove the apprehensions which caused me to put down my Question.