HL Deb 30 June 1942 vol 123 cc538-47

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, on the motion for the Second Reading of this Bill your Lordships may desire a little fuller explanation than has been necessary in the case of the Bill we have already dealt with to-day, although I do not think at this stage any prolonged explanation is likely to be required. Your Lordships will remember that Parliament passed the original War Damage Bill in March of last year. It was a very important and complicated measure and it has worked on the whole extraordinarily well. Under that Act provision was made for compensation for war damage if war damage occurred down to August 31, 1941. Later last year Parliament passed a second Act, called the War Damage (Extension of Risk Period) Act, 1941, which extended the relevant period, the period for which cover was given, by twelve months, that is to say, until August 31, 1942. Your Lordships will see therefore that the period will run out very shortly.

The object of this Bill is to make further provision, and the main feature of the Bill, in fact the only feature to which I may properly I think ask special attention now, is this. Clause I of the Bill discontinues the method of dealing with damage to land and buildings by way of successive risk periods. The original risk period was from the beginning of the war till the end of August, 1941, then there was an extension for another twelve months, which was the second risk period, and we might have gone on in that way. It was, however, thought much better not to go on in that way now that we have had actual experience of the working of this beneficent measure. Therefore we provide in Clause 1 of this Bill for a single risk period, dating from the outbreak of the war but of indefinite length, which will continue until terminated by an order made by the Treasury and approved by the House of Commons. The other side of the matter of course is the side of contributions. Compensation is on one side, contributions on the other. There again your Lordships will remember that the original proposal was that there should be five annual instalments of 2s. in the pound on the Schedule A value, one to be paid each year, and therefore the total amount being collected in the course of five years. It is not proposed at present to increase the current contributions at all either in number or in amount. So we have the interesting and remarkable situation that the Government think they can now offer to all concerned protection from the beginning of the war against war damage indefinitely until the risk has run off. At present, at any rate, they are not asking for any further contribution other than that which was provided for in the first instance.

I dare say that your Lordships recollect that by Section 22 of the original Act it was provided that the fund was created in the first instance by this contribution of 2s. in the pound on Schedule A value, and that once that contribution and the subsequent contributions for the four following years were made there should be no further call upon them, but that the Government would undertake to provide out of their own resources any additional sums that were needed until the amount that was produced and used was twice what the contributors themselves provided. There was also a provision that if we found, in the light of experience, that we had charged too large a contribution, and that we could finance the insurance scheme by less, there should be means by which that could be done, either by reducing the number of instalments, or in some other way. As I have pointed out, at this stage at any rate, we are not seeking to interfere with the provisions as to contributions at all, and the citizen whose house is protected against war damage is therefore protected over an indefinite period though he pays no more premium—which is very satisfactory.

These provisions will give great benefit to property owners in the first place and it is a very remarkable thing. They will also give an assurance that the Government intend that the war damage scheme shall continue in operation. It is an experiment, a most novel experiment, and, I think, a very ingenious and bold experiment. It has succeeded, and property owners may be assured therefore that the scheme is one which is going to cover them, I hope for the period of the war. Another result will be that contributors will be able to look ahead and know with a greater degree of certainty what is likely to be required of them from year to year. In some quarters the suggestion has been made that contributions should be reduced, but though the scheme is working well the present state of its finances would not really justify such a step at this time. It has not been possible to form a really accurate estimate of what the total payment in respect of damage up to date would amount to, nor would it be possible, for reasons of security, to disclose such a figure even if it were known. It can, however, be said that such information as is available does not suggest that either the amount or the number of instalments of contribution need at present be increased. That I think is a very satisfactory state of affairs.

As some indication of how estimates originally made have been found, in the light of experience, to correspond with what was hoped, I think I may give these figures to the House. The original estimate of what a full collection of all five instalments of contribution would produce was £200,000,000. Now £200,000,000 divided by five—because there are five instalments—indicates that the assessment of the first instalment would be about £40,000,000. In point of fact it is a little more than £40,000,000, and of this sum something like £56,000,000 has already been collected from property owners all over the country. I think, therefore, that we may safely claim that this turns out to be a very well-devised scheme, and I am confident that your Lordships will be glad that it gives this increased measure of security and confidence to property owners all over the country whatever may be the nature of the war damage which has still to be faced.

The other provisions of the Bill are almost entirely in the Schedule. There is a series of amendments, some drafting and some embodying improvements which experience has shown to be needed. I do not think that they call for much explanation. At any rate I do not propose to describe them to your Lordships now; but if it is desired to examine any of them more closely hereafter, I suggest that that can properly be done in Committee. I therefore commend this Bill to the House, merely observing that it is only carrying forward a great piece of policy which this country—and, so far as I know, only this country—has been able to devise and enact to protect those whose property might be injured by war damage. I think that your Lordships will feel that the facts which I have been able to set before the House show that the scheme is one which is well entitled to the support of your Lordships. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

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


My Lords, I think it is customary, in connexion with a Bill of this character, to draw attention at this stage to any Amendments which are likely to be put down at a later stage. No one, I am sure, will disagree with the assurance which has been given by the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack, that this is a measure of a constructive character, which was strictly in accordance with the public conscience at the time when it was instituted. The noble and learned Viscount said that this was a novel and ingenious Bill, and an attempt to deal with the problem which, we have his assurance, no other nation so situated, has successfully made. There was no doubt as to the need of it, and it is to be hoped that its administration has been as successful as its aim was just.

Before referring particularly to the points which it is my wish to bring to the notice of the House as being matters in respect of which, if I correctly interpret the desires and intentions at this moment of several members of the House, there are likely to be Amendments, I would say a few words concerning the general position. The noble and learned Viscount reminded us that the contributions, on the basis of £200,000,000, were divided into five payments of a little over £40,000,000 each year. He stated that in fact £36,000,000 had been collected—a very commendable achievement. If my memory serves me, he gave us no indication of how much had been paid out. In the successive stages of this Bill in another place, emphasis was laid upon the desirability of accounts being drawn up, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave the assurance that before November 30 of this year a statement would be laid on the Table which would make it possible for deductions to be drawn as to what had been paid out. I hope that at the same time some assurance will be given about the position of the fund. Statements have been made in another place as to the large balances in hand on account of Unemployment Insurance and, I think, also Health Insurance, and doubtless the money will be wanted later. I hope that the noble and learned Viscount will take into account the feeling of this House as to the desirability, and indeed the propriety, of some indication being given of the expenditure under the head with which we are now dealing, and of the speed with which payments are made, because in many parts of the country there is a definite belief that hardship is being caused by delay. Perhaps the noble and learned Viscount will be able to tell us why such delays are unavoidable, and why they go beyond what might be expected in administering a difficult Act of this kind.

With the indulgence of your Lordships, I should like to say a word about the history of this matter. Before the Government introduced their first proposals, strong representations were made about the necessity for some action of this character, and I think that that view was voiced in your Lordships' House. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer gave, as a reason for nothing being done, that there was no actuarial information on which an assessment of the average could be made. That was, of course inevitable in a case of this kind, and there were many people in the country and in Parliament who urged that this was not a ground for delay in doing something which the noble and learned Viscount has just said is strictly in accordance with the public conscience. Here we have a case of Government action on a large scale in the insurance field. It may be that the drift towards collectivism in all fields of activity is one which cannot be slowed down, and it may not even be desirable that it should be slowed down; but I feel, and I believe that many of your Lordships will feel, that this work could have been carried out by what I may term the civilian machinery of the country without ail the expense of ad hoc administration which the present scheme involves, provided that there had been some method of Government reinsurance, in view of the fact that it was not possible to assess the risk.

I think that the first instance of the insurance industry making a rod for its own back was provided when it refused to undertake the insurance of the "Queen Mary" and turned to the Government to bear a proportion of the risk, thereby admitting that civilian methods on a really big scale were not sufficient, and that it was necessary to bring in the Government to do something which civilian activity ought to have been able to do. Another precedent for Government intervention in this field is to be found in the matter of credit insurance. I was fortunate enough to be in another place when this matter was discussed, and I was a member of the Committee set up to deal with it. We had there, as I say, another example of the Government coming in to do something which presumably could have been done by civilian agency had the Government undertaken the reinsurance of the political hazard. It may be that this rapid drift towards collectivism in all forms of national activity is irresistible, and it may be even desirable, but it seems to me that attention should be drawn to those activities which could with propriety be undertaken by a civilian agency.

I should like to draw particular attention to three matters which have already been the subject of considerable discussion in another place. In the passage of the original Bill in this House, steps were taken to put forward Amendments on points where amendment had been resisted in another place, and we succeeded in getting something done as a result of the representations made here. I have no hesitation in saying that this whole matter must be of great interest to a number of your Lordships, and I believe that it is possible to mobilize the talent for and the experience of insurance and property management in the country on a large scale. This Bill continues the injustices which were urged as existing in certain provisions of the former measure. There is, for example, the position of the ground landlord. It may be thought to be out of step with the spirit of the moment to make an appeal on behalf of ground landlords, but this is a question of principle, and, as I have not the good fortune to be a ground landlord myself, I have no personal interest in it.

Where a building held on lease from a ground landlord is damaged by enemy action, and the holder of the lease has a right to payment on a cost-of-works basis, he is not able to collect the ground landlord's contribution until he has received from the fund a receipt for the payment of his own contribution. It is not likely that any one put in that situation, with the burden of a large payment of cost-of-works expenditure, which he has not recovered from the fund, would be able to collect that contribution. Another point is the position of the mortgagee, and the question whether he should or should not make a contribution towards the premium. I do not propose to take any of your Lordships' time at this stage in reference to that, but it will doubtless be the subject of an Amendment at a later stage.

Let me just say there is no lack of understanding of the complexity of the task of administration under this Bill. There is no doubt as to the need of the measure, but it will not be forgotten that the crowding out by Government action of any activity formerly carried on by civilian agency is one more step in a direction which, while it may be unavoidable, and even in step with the temper of the moment, is perhaps, in the view of the majority of the members of this House, an attack on the principle of individualism which they believe in. I would not like it to be thought that in foreshadowing Amendments, which suggest disagreement with certain features of the Bill, there is any failure to recognize that the Bill has filled an unquestionable want, and merits all the eulogy which the noble and learned Viscount gave to it. For that reason the Bill has my general approval.


My Lords, I would like to ask the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack a question on a matter which he did not touch upon, and I quite understand that he could not be expected to go through all the provisions of the Bill. It relates to chattels, and although there is a provision for payments to be made for chattels after the money has been expended in their repair, I understand that considerable difficulty has been experienced in obtaining any contribution from the Government when the chattels have suffered damage by enemy action. These chattels, belonging to various institutions, such as hospitals, were repaired and the cost of repair was actually paid by the owners, but no contribution has been made by the Government; in fact, when I have approached certain authorities I have been given poor comfort. When large levies have been made on the people of this country for this purpose, it seems to me somewhat unfair that, though we have actually paid out money for the repair of damaged chattels, we should be unable to obtain any contribution towards those expenses. It is possible the noble and learned Viscount is not in a position to answer the question now, and naturally I do not press him.


My Lords, in regard to the question just put to me, I will accept the suggestion of the noble Ear, and will look into the matter and give a further explanation at a later stage. If then; is a case where he thinks the matter has not been properly dealt with, I have no doubt he will be good enough to supply me with details. The noble Lord who spoke first is thoroughly in favour of the Bill, but suggested that he had some Amendments to put forward when we come to the Committee stage. I will wait until the Committee stage to deal with these. He did, however, ask one question which it is convenient to deal with now. He asked how rapidly the work of the War Damage Commission was proceeding.


How rapidly are payments being made.


Yes, payments being made; and I do agree with him, of course, that the satisfaction the public will feel with this Bill largely depends upon payments being made as promptly as possible. I would just remind your Lordships that there are two kinds of compensation. There are money payments, which are made out of the fund when the property which has been damaged ought to be reconstructed. In that case, the Bill does not provide for postponement, but contemplates that there shall as far as possible be prompt payment. The repair is done during the war by the owner, and he looks to the Government to give him the money by which the payment can be made. The other form of compensation is a value claim which, as my noble friend realizes, is by the nature of things, a claim which is to be paid at the end of the war. His question concerns the first, and not the second form of compensation.

Of course, the War Damage Commission started late. It did not come into existence until the end of March, 1941, but it had cast upon it the duty of dealing with valid claims from the beginning of the war, so there was something to catch up. I think the first duty of the Commission was to make really great efforts all over the country to catch up claims which had already been put forward, to get them into order, and see that they were proper claims. But that work of catching up, was, I understand, pretty well finished by November, 1941, and very great efforts have been made to my knowledge by the War Damage Commission to deal with those claims for money payments as promptly as they could. These figures are interesting: since 1st January, 1942, some 280,400 claims, covering 475,000 separate properties, have been paid. I agree with my noble friend that it is no satisfaction to be told that your claim is good if you do not get the money. The weekly output of paid claims has risen since the first week of January by 50 per cent. So the Commission is improving the rate of dealing with them.

At the present time, so I am informed, four out of every five claims on which a payment is due—meaning, I suppose, is recognized to be due—have been paid. For the rest, an advance payment on account of the greater part of the claim has been paid in the great majority of cases where the claim is for a substantial amount—that is to say, if there still remains some negotiation or dispute as to what the total figure should be, the Commission does not wait until that figure is exactly agreed, but makes a substantial payment on account. I may say that I asked for these figures specially in connexion with this debate, because I thought somebody might very likely ask the question that the noble Lord has asked. My own feeling about the figures is that they are not so bad. They show the really great effort that has been made by this body, with its very distinguished Chairman, to try and catch up with this question and deal with it. I am sure it will continue to do so.


My Lords, arising out of that very satisfactory statement by the noble and learned Viscount, can he give us any indication as to the total expenditure and what remains in the fund?


I shall inquire into that, but in view of the fact that there are two kinds of compensation, one of which is necessarily postponed, I should expect, of course, that the amount distributed is not as much as the amount that has been collected.

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