HL Deb 30 November 1920 vol 42 cc758-64

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I owe to your Lordships an apology for asking you to take the Second Reading of this Bill at such short notice and without warning, but this is an emergency measure the early passing of which the Government regard as a matter of the most urgent necessity. It has been introduced with one object, and one object only—that of accelerating the procedure for the acquisition of land for the purpose of the construction of roads for the relief of unemployment. Except in that one respect the Bill does not confer any new powers upon any body. It does not authorise any new expenditure or establish new relief works. It does not deal with unemployment generally and it is in no sense an attempt to solve the problem of unemployment. That problem is being dealt with to-clay in many ways in different parts of the country. All that this Bill does is to remove what has been proved in practice to be the main obstacle to the immediate progress of relief works which have already been prepared.

The first clause in the Bill applies the machinery of the Housing Acts for the acquisition of land to works of public utility as defined in Clause 4. Clause 2 introduces new and even more expeditious machinery for acquiring land needed for the purpose of the construction of arterial roads. Clause 3 enables local authorities to contribute to works of public utility outside their area or to combine with neighbouring authorities for the execution of such works. The Bill is urgent because local authorities are waiting for these powers to put their relief schemes into operation, and when it is a case of saving thousands of men from actual starvation delay, even of hours, is a serious matter.

The general problem of unemployment is no new one. Even when trade and industry are flourishing there must always be some residuum of less efficient labour for which it is difficult to find employment, and in times of trade depression that residuum is apt to be increased. That problem is ever pressing, but it is not the problem with which the Government is dealing. The duty which has evolved upon this Government is the quite exceptional and peculiar one of reinstating in industry a large body of men who were taken from employment for the purposes of the Army during the war. These men are not old and inefficient. They are young men, able bodied, but some of them have been disabled by their war service and are therefore unable to return to their normal employment. Others were taken at the moment when their industrial training was in progress and have been returned, after three or four years service in the Army, seriously handicapped by the loss of those particularly precious years, and it is our obligation to these which we are trying at this moment to I need not labour the point because I do not suppose there is a single member of this House who would dispute that it is the duty of the Government and of Parliament to do whatever is possible to put every ex-service man into employment as soon as possible. Already four or five million men have been found employment since demobilisation but there are still about 200,000 for whom work has to be found. In greater London alone there are at this moment 100,000 men out of work, of whom 70,000 are ex-soldiers.

A special Committee of the Cabinet was appointed to consider the question and an Interim Report from that Committee, made in October, recommended as an immediate step the acceleration of the programme for constructing arterial roads which had been prepared by the Ministry of Transport, and the introduction of a Bill to facilitate the acquisition of land for that purpose. This Bill is the result of that Committee. The policy of constructing arterial roads in the London area has been under consideration ever since 1912. In normal circumstances it is not a work which would be undertaken at the present time, owing to the cost of labour and material, but it is a work peculiarly suited for the relief of unemployment, because it is a work which is urgently desired and one which can be commenced forthwith. The only obstacle which stands in the way is the difficulty of acquiring land with sufficient speed. Under the existing law there are no means whereby land can be acquired without a delay of many months and, I think, even a whole year.

The Government therefore introduced this Bill for the purposes of applying the provisions of the Housing Acts for the acquisition of land to these schemes of public utility work. That was the form in which the Bill was introduced in the House of Commons. In that form it excited a strong protest from the London County Council on the ground that even those powers were not sufficient to enable land to be acquired speedily, and in response to the protest of the London County Council Clause 2 of this Bill was introduced in Committee in the House of Commons Under that Clause it will be possible, with a certificate from the Ministry of Labour, for a local authority to enter upon land required for the construction of roads on giving seven days' notice both to the occupier and the owner. I would call your Lordships' attention to the fact that only vacant land can be acquired in this way and that I his clause will not apply to land upon which there are any permanent buildings. Like Clause 1 it provides only an acceleration of time. It gives no power of acquiring land to any authority which does not at present possess it, and it alters in no way the right of the owner to compensation for his land under the existing law. Those are the provisions of the Bill, and I can only conclude by appealing to your Lordships to pass it without delay. Outside this House, the London County Council and other local authorities are waiting for the powers which this Bill will give them. Behind them, again, are the men whom we so often honoured in our speeches, men for whom we feel the utmost sympathy in our hearts, but who are waiting with ever-increasing impatience for the practical fulfilment of the promises which have been so often made to them. It is in their name, my Lords, that I appeal to you to pass this Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a (The Earl of Lytton.)


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Earl one question. I have looked into this Bill very carefully, considering the short time that I have had it at my disposal. I think it does meet the case, and that the powers in the Bill as regards either the acquisition of land or the entry upon land ought to be placed in the exceptional form in which they are in this Bill, having regard to the unemployment question. I desire to ask about Clause 2. The noble Earl stated that the power to enter on and acquire land under the special conditions of Clause 2 were only in respect of land required for the construction and improvement of roads. Is it so limited?




Then, limited in that way, I think it is quite right that this special power of entry might be given. If it were enlarged there might be considerable objection to it.


The noble and learned Lord is quite right. Clause 2 applies only to land required for the construction of arterial roads.


My Lords, when an appeal is made to your Lordships on behalf of men who have served in the war ill criticism is, of course, disarmed in advance. We owe them a debt which we can never too scrupulously pay, and the Government has only to tell us that this is the object of the Bill to make us accept something which we do not like.

My object in rising is to protest rather against the want of foresight on the part of the Government when they were dealing with the question of land acquisition last year. It is extraordinarily objectionable that one year we should have a Bill dealing with the question of land that we are told is going to settle all the questions connected with the acquisition of land permanently—and is accepted on that basis by your Lordships—and then, in less than twelve months, have the Government come down and say the Bill does not meet what was certainly a foreseen emergency, and that they must have an alteration in the Bill in connection with that emergency. I say this not with the view of opposing a Second Reading, but to protest against that method of legislation.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl who has just spoken. It was foreseen that there would be unemployment during this winter, and yet it is only at this late stage that we get this Bill for making it possible for these arterial roads to be made. It must take a long time before the land can be acquired in the proper manner, and in the meanwhile this is nearly the beginning of December and unemployment is rife throughout the land.


My Lords, I should like to express my agreement with my two noble friends who have just spoken. The first that I knew of this Bill was about three days ago, when I was told privately by a member of the Edinburgh Corporation that they were waiting for this Bill in order to acquire the land that they wanted to make a road. I hope that your Lordships will understand what this Bill means. It is going perhaps a good deal further than has been indicated to us. I quite agree with my noble friend Lord Selborne that anything for the benefit of the unemployed will meet with the approval of your Lordships. At the same time I would point out that the cry of the unemployed is sometimes raised in order to get a Bill passed.

In this matter of unemployment the Government, if they have really thought about employment in the past, have not acted up to their pledges. I notice in this Bill mention, among other things, of afforestation. Does it give extra powers to the Forestry Commissioners? I learnt from one of them that they were looking forward to some Bill which would give them powers to acquire land somewhat easier and at much less cost than they can do now. There are all sorts of other things in the Bill—improvements of roads, means of transit, waterways, and so forth. It seems a very big Bill indeed. It appears to be rushed through for one purpose, and probably in the future it will be used for many other purposes to which your Lordships would not give your assent if you had time properly to consider the matter.

The Bill is apparently produced by the Ministry of Transport, which is probably the most extravagant and wasteful of all our new Departments. I do not wish to oppose a Second Reading, but I think the House is entitled, before the Bill goes further, to some additional information as to what it really does and as to what uses it will be put in the future, apart from its ostensible object of providing employment during the winter months.


My Lords, I am not surprised at the protest as to the degree of haste with which this Bill is being pushed forward. I admitted at once that there was necessity for apology to the House on that ground. I would like, however, to reassure your Lordships on the point raised by the noble Duke. This Bill does not give power to anybody to do anything that they have not the power to do to-day. No power is given under Clause 4 to any authority to acquire land for any of these purposes. All that the Bill does is to say that any authority which to-day has power to acquire land for any of these purposes may acquire that land under the procedure of this Bill; in other words, may acquire it under the Housing Acts if it is work of public utility, or may acquire it under the procedure of Clause 2 if it is for the purpose of making roads. I might also remind your Lordships that the powers of special procedure for acquiring land under the Housing Act, 1919, is a power limited for two years, and it will expire on July 31 of next year. The whole procedure, therefore, is one very much limited in time.


Does that limit apply to the whole of the Bill?


This Bill applies to land taken for works of public utility. The procedure of acquiring land under the Housing Acts, and the provision under the Housing Act of 1919 by which land may be acquired without giving notice—the procedure to which I have referred as the twenty-eight days' procedure—is limited in that Act to two years, and therefore its application in this Bill is subject to the same limitation.


My Lords, I suggest to the noble Earl that it would be in accordance with what he has said, and would probably affect to some extent the judgment of the noble Duke behind me, if there was a limit to the period during which this Bill is in operation. We all desire to do what we can to forward any Bill for the assistance of the unemployed, but I would point out that this is for a temporary emergency, and that to ask for a Bill which will be in force at all times at the discretion of the Ministry of Transport is a very great demand to make in this hurry in your Lordships' House.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.