HL Deb 15 February 1940 vol 115 cc539-43

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Earl Fortescue, who is away on military service, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill proposes to make provisions similar to those included in the Special Acts (Extension of Time) Act of 1915, and I trust that it will be accepted as unanimously by this House as was its predecessor. We all know well that if a local authority or a statutory undertaker wants to construct new works, it has normally to obtain authority by means of Private Bill legislation, and Parliament, in granting such powers as it sees fit, fixes a time limit. I have before me the terms of the London Passenger Transport Act of 1939, which empowered the board to construct certain new works, such as a new subway at Leicester Square tube station. Section 21 of that Act provides that: If any of the new works are not completed within the period expiring on the 31st day of October, 1944, then, on the expiration of that period, the powers by this Act granted to the Board, for making and completing the work which is not so completed, or otherwise in relation thereto, shall cease, except as to so much thereof as is then completed. Similar limitations of time are to be found in the Private Acts of county councils, municipal corporations, railways, inland navigation, gas, water and electric light undertakings.

In peace-time an undertaker may find his programme is impeded or delayed, with the risk that the works may not be finished by the prescribed date. I think it is agreed that it is right and proper that, in such a case, he should have to come back with a further Private Bill and satisfy Parliament as to the reasons for the delay before he can get any extension of time; but, as I am sure your Lordships will realise, under war conditions circumstances are obviously very different. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has good reasons for restricting borrowing, and there are also inevitable restrictions upon steel, timber and other materials, and competing demands for man power. In such circumstances, the House, I think, will readily agree that it would be unreasonable to impose upon the undertakers all the burden and expense of carrying through fresh Private Bill legislation in order to get their time limits extended. This Bill enables a Minister of the Crown, under Clause 1, to consider the undertaker's prayer for extension of time. If he is satisfied that the delay is "by reason of any circumstances directly or indirectly attributable to war," then, after due notice to parties concerned and, if need be, after a local inquiry, he may, if he sees fit, publish in the Gazette an order extending the time limit.

It will not be necessary for me to weary the House with a comparison in detail of the present Bill with that of 25 years ago, but it will be proper to draw attention to two differences which are rather more than matters of drafting. The first is that the 1915 Act gave power to extend time limits for one year only, although without prejudice to further extensions. His Majesty's Government have already publicly announced that their plans for the present war are based on the possibility of its lasting three years, and the present Bill therefore enables the Minister to give a three years', and not merely a one year's, extension. The other point of difference is that in Clause 1 (3) (b) we have to deal with a question which did not arise in 1915. Mention may be made in particular of the Electric Lighting Act of 1888, which gave local authorities an option to purchase certain electricity undertakings at the end of forty-two years: if the right be not then exercised, it revives at intervals of ten years. War conditions will in general make it impossible for local authorities to avail themselves of the options which become exercisable during the war period, and the Bill provides that, on the application of any interested party, the date at which the option becomes exercisable may be postponed, with corresponding postponement of the subsequent options. This is to be found in Clauses 1 (3) (b) and 2 (7). Very difficult questions might be involved in proposals to exercise these purchase rights, and it might be unfair to more than one party that they should have to be handled in the middle of war, with the knowledge that the power, if not then exercised, would have to go into cold storage for another ten years.

Before I finish, I should like to say something as regards the application to Scotland of this Bill. The promotion of Scottish private legislation is governed by the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act, 1936, in terms of which promoters are required to proceed by presenting a petition to the Secretary of State praying him to issue a Provisional Order. The first paragraph of the Scottish application clause of the present Bill (Clause 4) accordingly provides that, where the time limit which it is desired to extend is laid down in a Provisional Order or Bill under the 1936 Act, the "appropriate Minister" shall be the Secretary of State. This is appropriate, as in ordinary circumstances the modification of such provisions could be secured only in consequence of a further application to the Secretary of State for a Provisional Order. Clause 4(b) makes the necessary Scottish adaptation in subsections (2) to (5) of Section 290 of the Local Government Acts, 1933, which are applied by Clause 2 (3) for local inquiries held under the Bill. I hope very much that this Bill will win the same general acceptance as its predecessor. It is designed entirely to assist in the furtherance of what must be the preoccupation of every local authority and statutory undertaker, as it is that of your Lordships and of all the people in this country, and that is the successful prosecution of the war. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Templemore.)

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, I have not the least objection to this Bill. Although in time of peace your Lordships are very jealous in maintaining the limits of time granted to local authorities in Private Bills for the construction of works, as my noble friend has explained to your Lordships, the exigencies of war render such time-tables probably quite impossible. Your Lordships have been told by my noble friend that a precedent exists for this measure and that during the last war an annual extension was given to local authorities for the construction of works. That extension lasted only for one year, but now the limit is to be three years, and, if I may venture to say so, I think that that is a wise provision. Your Lordships will notice that this Bill provides only for the exigencies of war; it is purely a war measure and is in no way an indication that your Lordships wish to alter the procedure and the limits which this House and Parliament have imposed upon local authorities in Private Bills with regard to the construction of works.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, we have no special view upon the Bill which has been introduced by the noble Lord, except that we do wish as far as possible that Parliament shall maintain its control over these things as they pass. Parliament has been extraordinarily generous in its acceptation of the views of the Executive under the circumstances in which we are living. It would not now wish to impede the working of the machinery which is necessary for carrying on and seeing us through the crisis in which we find ourselves.

There is one point of difficulty in our minds, however, and that is in regard to the three years' limitation. It may be a good thing to extend the period of exemption in this case, but supposing, as we all may hope, that the war docs not last for three years, that it may be ended in three months, then we should not like the provisions of this Bill to allow a lapse in this matter for that period. What is in our minds is that immediately the war is over, and that men are discharged from military or naval service and workmen are suspended or dismissed from the munition works, and so on, there will be an enormous influx into the unemployment market, and what will be required then will be not that employment by public authorities and so on should be postponed for any period, but rather that their demands should be advanced so that immediate absorption of as many as possible of the unemployed should take place. We are a little uneasy, as we understand the Bill at the moment, as to how this three-year provision is going to work, and between now and the Com- mittee stage I think we shall want rather to be assured on that point.

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