HL Deb 11 March 1941 vol 118 cc629-36

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I am well aware that your Lordships' House desires, without avoidable delay, to pass to consideration of the War Damage Bill in Committee, and accordingly I shall compress the observations which I propose to make in moving the Second Reading of this Bill as severely as is consistent with my public duty. The purpose of the Bill is to enable the Secretary for Scotland, during the present war, to carry out arterial drainage operations in various parts of Scotland where agricultural land is unproductive, or nearly so, by reason of its liability to floods. I should perhaps explain at "the outset that in Scotland, differing from England, we have no drainage or catchment boards, and accordingly no body of that sort is charged with the duty of maintaining arterial drainage systems or of protecting land against flooding. One reason for the difference between the two countries is that the problem in them is essentially different in character and also in dimensions. Scottish rivers are, as a rule, not long, and, in point of fact, most of them have a good natural fall. Accordingly any flooding which may take place is generally of a local character.

Be that as it may, Parliament in 1930 recognised the impossibility of legislating for England and Scotland on parallel lines in this matter, because in that year was passed the Land Drainage (Scotland) Act, 1930. Under that Act the Scottish Department of Agriculture was empowered for five years—subsequently extended to seven years—to carry out arterial drainage operations where they were required in Scotland. The powers conferred by that Act are now spent, and something must be done to repair the existing situation. I should perhaps add that the financial stringency of the times, coupled with the extraordinarily complicated and cumbrous provisions of the machinery embedded in the Act of 1930, resulted in its usefulness and effectiveness being very much impaired. This Bill, as I propose to show, recommends a much simpler and swifter method of procedure.

The main operative part of the Bill your Lordships will find in Clause I. It provides that, if the Secretary of State is satisfied by a report from an agricultural executive committee, that drainage operations are necessary to reclaim agricultural land or to make it fully productive or to protect it from the danger of flooding, then he may make a draft scheme setting out the proposed works, the estimated cost of them, the amount of the estimated cost to be recovered from owners on the score of betterment, the estimated cost of maintenance, and its apportionment among the respective owners concerned. The scheme which the Secretary of State for Scotland is empowered to devise is conditioned by two further provisions in the measure. The first is that the cost of the work contemplated shall be reasonable, having regard to the benefit to agriculture which shall accrue; and secondly, that the cost shall not exceed £10 for each acre which is benefited from the operation.

Moreover, the scheme which the Secretary for Scotland devises and sets forth must be advertised; it must be open to inspection; and there must be an opportunity to all those who are affected by it, including owners and tenants, of lodging objections and claims. These objections and claims having been lodged, the Secretary of State for Scotland must consider them. If it is decided by agreement to satisfy these claims, good and well, but if, on the other hand, the matter cannot be settled by agreement, and some objections and claims are left outstanding, then the matter goes to the Scottish Land Court, which is a tribunal possessing authority and I think I may say confidence, on the other side of the Border.

Where this Bill parts company from the Bill of 1930 is in this—and I do not desire to conceal from your Lordships the importance of the contrast—under the Act of 1930, before the Board of Agriculture could carry through the scheme which the Act contemplated, all disputed claims for compensation, questions of betterment, and so forth had to be satisfied and met. Under this Bill, while the unsettled claims and objections go for settlement to the Land Court, the Bill provides that the Secretary of State for Scotland, without waiting for the adjustment of these claims—very often a tedious proceeding, as the 1930 Act has abundantly proved—and without waiting for the settlement of all the complicated questions of compensation and betterment which may arise, may at once proceed with a scheme which he has devised, and which in his considered judgment the country requires.

Despite what has been said in your Lordships' House this afternoon about war-time measures, I think that this particular provision may be justified on the ground that this is a war-time measure—an urgent war-time measure—and the reason why I say so is that, as your Lordships will agree, it is essential that we should get as much land as possible, and as quickly as possible, restored to full productivity. That need is all the greater for this reason; that a great deal of good land in Scotland has been taken, and very properly taken, for necessary defence purposes. Therefore it becomes all the more urgent to secure that land which is unproductive to-day, or nearly unproductive, should be restored to productivity, and so serve the needs of the country at a critical time such as this. I may say that there are already in contemplation schemes for the treatment of 12,000 acres of flooded land in Scotland, and that it is calculated that those acres when restored under the provisions of this Bill to productivity will yield some 51,000 tons of food, which I think at the present time may be regarded as a great boon.

With regard to its financial provisions the Bill is quite a simple one. All the money which is collected for the payment of betterment secured at the public expense will fall to be borne by the owner, who can discharge his liability either by payment of a lump sum or by payment of an annual sum over a period of not more than thirty years. All the expenses over and above betterment charges will be charged to the State. I may say that it is in contemplation that, while £100,000 may be required to carry out the operations which are contemplated by the Bill, probably £50,000 or thereabouts will be yielded by betterment, the remaining £50,000 being paid out of public funds.

The remaining clauses of the Bill are more or less formal, and I should not be justified at such a time in detaining your Lordships by considering them in detail. They deal with machinery for entering on the land, for the service of notices, for payment of moneys provided by Parliament, and for the protection of Crown rights and the Board of Trade rights in works below high water mark. These are formal provisions which contain no contentious matter at all. I would only add that the Bill commands the approval, as I understand, of all sections of the agricultural industry in Scotland. It encountered no hostility whatever in its progress through another place, and in those circumstances I have no hesitation in inviting your Lordship to give the Bill a Second Reading this afternoon. I beg to move

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


My Lords, I may perhaps be allowed to intervene for a moment. As one who was responsible for the English Land Drainage Act I congratulate the noble Lord upon this Bill. As I was listening to the noble Viscount below the gangway, having had the very profitable and interesting experience of bearing him so very many times in years past in another place, I wondered if he had given any thought to this Bill, because this Bill does establish the authoritarian system during the war for a war measure, and it seems to me an entirely wholesome and sensible thing to do. It helps to make good the defects of the Act now deceased, to which the noble Lord referred, which Act was encumbered with so many provisions to safeguard us against the exercise of authoritarian powers that it became a dead letter and was completely useless. This Bill, I am glad to say, proceeds on other lines and is in marked contrast, I think, to some of the sentiments expressed by the noble Viscount and comforts me a good deal on that account. Anyhow, I am very glad to support the Second Reading.


My Lords, I am sure we all are pleased to welcome a measure designed to promote the fertility of the soil and to recover flooded areas for the use of cultivation. I would like to be allowed for a few moments before a Second Reading is given to this Bill to ask the Government to give attention to certain points. Do they consider that they will have the necessary labour available to carry out these schemes at the present time, and do they intend to give priority to their schemes over normal agricultural work and other forms of drainage? I hope they will be able to avoid competing for the labour required by large areas of land and an immense number of enclosed fields which very badly require drainage, and which, if drained or re-drained, may well provide cultivation for 1942. There is a very great shortage of men available for field drainage now, and I would ask if it is not better first to use what labour is available for this necessary work rather then divert it to arterial schemes of drainage. We all have had experience of large Government and public contracts in which it is customary for the contractors to be guaranteed against loss, and this enables them to secure men by offering wages far above the normal agricultural wages in the district, If this happens again, will it not become even more impossible for farmers to collect men for draining their fields and for important seasonal farm work?

The first scheme announced by the Scottish Office applied to the river Nith in Dumfriesshire. It is suggested that this scheme may take fifty to a hundred men, and even when the work is accomplished there will still be for a considerable time farm drainage and tile drainage before these fields are ready for cultivation. Is it not better that the same labour should be applied to the work which requires to be overtaken now before embarking on these other schemes? May I also remind the Government of a comparatively small scheme under the previous Act for a neighbouring river in the same county, the river Annan, the cost of which was far more than was estimated. There was considerable divergence of opinion among agriculturists as to the value of the improvement effected, but there was general agreement that the cost was high in proportion to the moderate results obtained.

I would like to ask the Government to take the opportunity of this Bill to redress certain grievances felt by county ratepayers alongside these rivers and one or two rivers which have been previously drained. They complain of the high assessments made upon them and they are not allowed to know what has been the expenditure of the Government. The local authorities collect the rates but do not know, and therefore cannot divulge, the amount spent by the Government, whereas the county councils themselves have to publish a full account of their expenditure. Ratepayers naturally advocate that that should also apply to the Government. Is there any reason why this should not be done? The request seems reasonable and there cannot be any argument for secrecy. More publicity would encourage economy and efficiency in the execution of the work. I should like to ask that this matter be considered during the passage of this Bill.


My Lords, perhaps you will allow me to say a word in reply to my noble friend the Duke of Buccleuch. He was good enough to tell me beforehand the first of his points, and I am able to give him an answer on that. With regard to his second point, about particular schemes, I am afraid I have no information at the moment, but I can undertake to look into the matter and I will certainly do so before the Committee stage. With regard to the other point which the noble Duke raised—namely, the possibility, as I understood, of abstracting men from the very vital task of field drainage and drafting them into the kind of operations which this Bill contemplates, I rather think that my noble friend's fears are unfounded. I would remind him that mechanisation plays a very large part in all this work, and that as compared with years ago—years which many of your Lordships will remember—less man-power is required because of the use of mechanical apparatus. Apart from that consideration I think that the class of work that is contemplated under this Bill is not work which would attract men from the particular industries to which my noble friend referred. Much of this work will be unskilled navvy work.

What is in contemplation, I understand, is that quite a number of unemployed miners from the West of Scotland, who will be well adapted to carry out such work, will be drafted to various parts of Scotland for that purpose. I cannot myself imagine skilled tile drainers being attracted from the work they are doing to work as navvies in the particular territories to which the noble Duke refers. At any rate I can give my noble friend this assurance, that I am quite alive to the danger to which he refers of diverting men at a time like this from a more useful industry to one that is less useful. At the same time, I would re-emphasize what I ventured to say to your Lordships' House to-day, that I cannot conceive a more vital national purpose to serve at this moment than to reclaim wholly unproductive agricultural land and bring it into produc- tivity and thereby produce food which the nation urgently requires at a time such as this. Accordingly, all I can say on that subject is that his observations on that point will be borne in mind, and that on the other topic he dealt with I shall be glad to give him information if it is available at a later stage.

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