HL Deb 20 March 1918 vol 29 cc546-53

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord will pardon me for recurring to a subject which we mentioned last night as to the possibility of making this Bill retrospective. I quite understand that in the short interval he can hardly have Arrived at any sort of even provisional conclusion on that matter, but I had hoped that perhaps the noble and learned Lord, in moving the Third Reading, would indicate whether there was any chance of anything being done in that direction. I have in my hand a paper of to-day's issue, which gives an illustration of the kind of thing that is happening—though it is not precisely the sort of evil which was called attention to yesterday—in which two men at Hitchin are at this moment under a magistrate's order of ejectment from their houses, which have been bought over their heads, in this case not from quite the worst motives of establishing "funk-holes" which we heard of yesterday, but in a sense for the legitimate requirements of the Electric Supply Corporation. It may be suggested that if a wealthy corporation of that kind wants accommodation for its own people the proper course would be for it to build.

But what I want to call your Lordships' attention to for a moment is what is mentioned in the paper as the sort of thing which. I think, rather tends to influence and inflame public opinion on this matter. Some sarcastic attention is called to the fact that these two men who are being evicted were among the very earliest men to volunteer for lighting at the Front. They have fought and have been wounded, and they have been honourably discharged from the Army in consequence of their services. Among the various recruiting inducements which incited them to enrol, your Lordships may possibly recollect, was a poster showing a cottage home in England with the words underneath "Is this worth lighting for?" I think your Lordships will appreciate the rather grave irony of these words to these men, when they come back discharged from the Front and find that, although the home may have been worth fighting for, they are no longer to have it; that it has been bought over their heads, and that they are to be turned out.

I quote this only for the sake of emphasising what I was trying to say yesterday—namely, that I think this sort of thing is likely to cause a certain amount of unrest and ill-feeling. Indeed, it is so important that I think it would really be worth while, if the noble and learned Lord agrees with me, that the members of the War Cabinet themselves should consider whether legislation of this sort should he made retrospective. At the same time, I see the great danger of it. If there is a feeling of injustice and unrest created by this sort of thing, every one of your Lordships would agree that the Government should do what they can to put an end to it, but, of course, as I said before, I entirely recognise the difficulties of it, and I had rather hoped that the noble and learned Lord might be in a position to say something to-day on the matter.

There is another point which is one reason why I have thought it desirable to say a word to-night. Although the transactions to which this Bill refers have necessarily to have taken place before the date named—March 12, I think—in the Bill, evictions in connection with these transactions are now proceeding. The magistrates are now being asked for eviction orders as a result of these transactions, and if there were to be any sort of retrospective legislation I think it would be as well that a statement should be made at the earliest possible moment, so as to preserve as far as possible the status quo where, although the sale has taken place, the people have not as yet actually been evicted. The noble and learned Lord will appreciate that if anything is to be done the sooner the statement is made the better, because it will help to settle the situation.

LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH had on the Paper an Amendment to substitute "the fifteenth day of March" for "the twelfth day of March," as the date from which the Bill should take effect. The noble Lord said: I suppose I ought to have moved my Amendment first, because the speech of the noble Earl rather turns on the question that the Bill be passed. The proposal to make it retrospective will, I think, require grave consideration. If you do make it retrospective you must take care that innocent people do not suffer. There are hardships on both sides, and I think full consideration must be given to individual circumstances in each case. I have given notice of my Amendment for this reason, that if this is not done the Bill is already retrospective. I gave the House particulars yesterday of a perfectly innocent transaction which took place on the 13th instant in Glasgow, and I pointed out that if this Bill passed with the date as the 12th a man who had perfectly honestly bought a house on the 13th would find himself in the position that he was not allowed to get possession of the house, although he would be turned out of the one which he had already given up. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, I venture to say, did not thoroughly appreciate my point. What he said was— This Bill was introduced upon the 12th, and this is the reason why that date is inserted. The introduction of the Bill is, of course, notice to every one, and there is nothing retrospective in saying that from the time the Bill is introduced it will have effect, for its introduction is notice of that fact. I pointed out that it was unfair to date the Bill from the time when it could not be generally known that it had been introduced in this House, and the Lord Chancellor replied— I will just say one word, if I may, in explanation. On the 13th the fact that the Bill had been introduced would be known through the ordinary channels of communication. I have verified the facts. I find that the Bill was presented, and read a first time, on Tuesday, the 12th. Of course, no speech was made—one never is made on the First Reading of a Bill—and no notice whatever of the contents of this Bill was given, or could be given. I am not blaming any one for that; it is the ordinary procedure. The Bill was not circulated until the morning of the 14th; therefore, it could not be known in Glasgow until the 15th at the earliest. It was read a Second time on the 14th, and the report of that debate appeared in the Glasgow papers, when it became known that the Bill was dated from the 12th. Therefore this unfortunate man in question, who made a perfectly honest transaction on the 13th, was deprived of his rights both ways.

I would have put down an Amendment if I could. A letter was written to me on the 15th, addressed to the House of Lords; it did not arrive until the 16th, and was delivered to me on the 18th, when it was too late to give notice of an Amendment for yesterday's debate. Whatever may be the general question of making the Bill retrospective as a whole, it is an absolute injustice to make it date from the 12th when those who have made perfectly innocent transactions on the 13th could not know of it. I had given notice to move the insertion of the "15th" in the Bill, but look at the position in which one is placed? I know quite well that I can provide myself with a Teller, but if we go to a Division it would have the effect—there being not thirty Peers now in the House—of delaying the Bill until another day.

I must say that great want of consideration has been shown in not giving a much longer notice of the intention to legislate at all. I gather that this has been under consideration for six months, and that there is a certain amount of feeling in different parts of the country on account of what is happening by people arbitrarily giving notice to evict tenants. That is obvious from what the noble Earl said just now, and from what the noble Earl Lord Camperdown, said yesterday. I hope, if the Bill is to be made restrospective hereafter, that consideration will be given to the interests of both sides, and that some tribunal will be set up to see that fair play is bestowed on all alike. I know too well the procedure of your Lordships' House to think that it is possible, reasonably, to divide on this occasion. Therefore I do not suppose I shall go to a Division; but even if I do not go to a Division I shall ask that the Amendment be negatived, so that it shall not be said that I am an assenting party to what I consider a serious injustice.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words with regard to the two speeches which your Lordships have just heard. My noble friend who has just spoken said that the matter had been under consideration for some six months. It was brought to my notice by a letter coming from Buckinghamshire, only a few days before the introduction of the Bill. I at once took steps to have consultation with the Departments concerned—they are somewhat numerous—and the result was that it was felt there must be legislation, and I introduced the Bill with, I think, a minimum of delay from the time when the matter was brought to my attention.

Two points have been mentioned from totally different aspects. On the one side it is said, and said with great force, by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that the Bill should be made retrospective, and he put a particular case which, of course, must excite the sympathy of every one. All I can say with regard to that is that it might be very useful if the noble Earl would supply particulars of the case to the Home Secretary, who, I understand, will be in charge of the Bill when it goes, as I hope it will at once, to another place. The final shape to be given to the Bill as regards the date on which it is to operate must be a matter of consideration. I confess that naturally one sympathises very strongly with what the noble Earl said. At the same time, we must not he blind to the difficulties which always attend retrospective legislation, and it is absolutely necessary, before a step of that kind is taken, that it should be seen that there are adequate materials for justifying an exceptional step of that sort. The matter is receiving, and will receive, the most careful consideration.

I felt that it was perfectly impossible that I should be in a position to ask your Lordships' House to pass retrospective legislation without more materials than were available. The information with regard to the subject is coming in from day to day, and when the measure comes on in the House of Commons after the Easter Recess the Government will be in a position to decide what its final shape should be. I think it is very useful that the noble Earl should have called attention to the point, because it is highly desirable it should be realised that this point is under consideration.

My noble friend who spoke last called attention to the matter from another point of view. May I correct one thing he said? He said we were making the Bill to take effect from March 12. It takes effect after the 12th; and on the morning of the 13th, I suppose, most newspapers would have an intimation that a Bill dealing with this subject had been introduced. It certainly would be very widely known. The particulars of the Bill, it is true, would not be known until two days after, but the fact that a Bill dealing with this subject had been introduced would be widely known on the morning of the 13th; and the object of making the Bill apply to any transaction taking place after the 12th was simply to prevent any parties desirous of carrying through transactions of the kind against which the Bill is aimed from hurrying them up so as to get them through before the Bill could actually pass into law. I think that what I said yesterday in answer to my noble friend on this subject was quite accurate and correctly appreciated what my noble friend had said. With regard to the point itself, it is very useful as illustrating the necessity for caution in making anything retrospective even to the mildest extent. A strong case is made, it is said, for retrospective legislation, and then your Lordships are given the particulars of one case, but we really know nothing about it except that it is said to be one where negotiations were pending which had ripened into a bargain on the 13th instant.


I gave the noble Lord the particulars.


My noble friend handed me a letter containing the particulars, and from that I am speaking, but I think my noble friend will agree that one hardly had the materials in that letter for forming a judgment upon the whole transaction. Even if that be—and it may be—a case of a most meritorious kind, one does not know whether for one case of that kind which would mean some little hardship there may not be a hundred other cases where it would be very hard that the Bill should not operate from the date of its introduction. If transactions of this kind were hurried through in consequence of the introduction of the Bill it certainly would be said—and said with very great reason—"You ought to have taken steps to prevent the object of the Bill being defeated by these transactions being completed at once as soon as it was generally known that legislation dealing with this subject was intended." I do not, however, wish to say more on the subject to which my noble friend referred in anticipation of the Amendment which stands in his name on the Paper, to be taken after the Third Reading has been carried. All I can say is that what he has said will be given the fullest consideration before the decision of His Majesty's Government becomes final.


My Lords, before your Lordships pass the Third Reading of this Bill, may I say one word on behalf of the Board of Agriculture. I understand that the noble and learned Lord does not wish to receive any Amendments in this House, and that it is proposed that an Amendment shall be moved in another place on behalf of the Department which I represent. As your Lordships are aware, it is imperative at this time that no obstacle should be allowed to be put in the way of the increase in food production. The Bill as it at present stands might seriously interfere with the arrangements now being made for changes of occupation in relation to the cottages which are required for new stockmen, herdsmen, and other agricultural workers in the cases where tenancies are being transferred, and in cases of this kind which will occur in future. In its present form the Bill would rule out these changes in the case of cottages which are essential for the proper cultivation of the land, for in the few cases of such cottages required for the men I have indicated orders of ejectment would not be able to be issued. I think, therefore, that the Bill will require some Amendment in this respect. Time has not permitted of an Amendment being moved in your Lordships' House, but I hope that when the Bill returns the difficulty which I have mentioned may have been removed.


My Lords, I may say that my attention has been called to the point to which the noble Duke has just referred, and it is proposed that the subject shall be considered and dealt with in the House of Commons.

On Question, Bill read 3a.

Moved, That the Bill do pass.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, in the circumstances which I have explained I shall not move my Amendment, but I do think that it is hardly fair to this House to introduce a Bill on such short notice which is obviously going to be largely amended at the instance of the Government in another place, and to which a representative of the Government in this House takes serious objection. It seems to me that it does put this House in a false position, and that we shall be told afterwards in the House of Commons that we hurriedly passed a Bill which does not meet the necessities of the case. That all goes down to the discredit of this House.


My Lords, I will only say, with regard to that matter, that the case was one of extreme urgency, and it was considered necessary that as little time as possible should be lost. It is not certain that there will be these Amendments in another place. All I said was that the matter is to be most carefully considered from all points of view.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.