HL Deb 10 March 1964 vol 256 cc327-41

2.52 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, when the Battle of Britain was going on in the Autumn of 1940, Sir Winston Churchill announced that a comprehensive scheme would be introduced to compensate the owners of property which had been damaged by enemy action, and Sir Kingsley Wood before the end of the year brought in the first War Damage Bill. The Chairman of the War Damage Commission which was set up in 1941 was the noble Lord, Lord Silsoe, whose maiden speech this afternoon we look forward to hearing. The noble Lord continued to be Chairman of the War Damage Commission until 1949. I think that the smooth and successful accomplishment of the Commission's work, which included the establishment of sixteen regional offices, and the assessment and classification of 3½ million claims, is a fine tribute to the administrative skill and energy of the noble Lord.

A sum of £1,300 million has been paid out by the War Damage Commission, and to that must be added another £230 million paid by the Board of Trade in respect of business goods and chattels. The figures of £1,300 million and £230 million are a measure of the importance of the War Damage Scheme in our post-war reconstruction. These payments have been of two kinds: payments on a cost-of-works basis for rebuilding and repairs when the rebuilding or repairs have been done, and payments for loss of value in respect of damage when rebuilding or repair is not practicable. Your Lordships may perhaps wonder why any claims should still be outstanding now, so long after the war has come to an end. The delay has sometimes been due to uncertainty as to whether rebuilding will be consistent with town and country planning developments, whose future has not yet been clearly determined. But the proportion of possible remaining claims is very small, and it has long been agreed that the War Damage Commission and the War Damage Scheme ought to be wound up soon.

When the Government's proposals for winding it up were published in the White Paper of 1961, it was estimated that remaining claims still to be made or paid out might be as much as £40 million. But since then, possibly owing to the knowledge that time was running out, very rapid progress has been made, and it is now estimated, at the beginning of 1964, that the residue of claims cannot be more than £20 million. Our proposals in the Bill are simpler than those in the White Paper. We do not require, as the White Paper did, that claims should be registered, but only that they should be presented within specified limits of time.

Clause 1 of the Bill provides that claims either for rebuilding or repair on a cost-of-works basis or, if that is not practicable, claims for loss of value, must be presented within four years after the date of the commencement of this Act, which is October 1, 1964. That means that the last date on which claims can be entered will be September 30, 1968. Clause 7 allows a further period of six years for claims which, although they have been presented within the appropriate time, have not yet been pursued and finally settled. They do not finally lapse until 1974. After that, they will no longer be valid unless the fault for the delay is shown to be the fault of the Inland Revenue and not the fault of the claimant.

Clause 2 transfers the functions of the War Damage Commission to the Inland Revenue, who will take over its staff so that continuity of experience and knowledge may he preserved. As for any future claims which cannot be foreseen at all, such as damage done by unexploded mines or unexploded bombs going off, we propose that those should be dealt with by the War Office on the same basis as they deal with damage arising from tactical exercises.

Clause 4 applies to the Church War Damage Scheme, and it was represented by the Church Commissioners that there might be a few cases in which it would not be possible to decide by the end of 1968 whether a church destroyed in the war should be rebuilt on the same site or somewhere else. But there has now been an exchange of letters between the main Committee of the Church Commissioners and the War Damage Commission in which it has been agreed that when uncertainty may prevent the necessary work from being carried out within the four-year time limit, the Commission would agree that the appropriate amount of the Church payment may be allowed in respect of the cost of a new church elsewhere.

My Lords, this Bill has been through all its stages in another place without opposition and without amendment, and I hope that it may be similarly approved by your Lordships. I beg to move.

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

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I must confess that when this Bill first came to my notice, before I actually read it I was somewhat at a loss to know why there was any need at this stage to have a War Damage Bill at all. I must confess also that it passed through my mind to wonder whether the Government were looking forward to some future unpleasant event and showing extraordinary foresight. But it soon became clear that it was a very reasonable tidying-up operation of what was, and still is, a highly important piece of legislation.

Some people, I know, have felt that the War Damage Commission has been perhaps unduly slow in carrying out its work and that it is a matter of surprise to some that there should still be any claims outstanding even now, very nearly nineteen years after the end of the war. But I was reminded by a friend that we are not by any means alone in dealing with these matters in what, at first sight, appears to be a rather slow fashion. In fact, I believe in Paris in the early part of this century there was a serious flood which caused widespread damage and the Commission which was set up to deal with this was not, in fact, wound up till 1952 or 1953. Undoubtedly the problems with which the War Damage Commission of this country had to deal were infinitely greater than anything that has ever taken place before. So I do not think it would be right for anybody to criticise the Government or the War Damage Commission for slowness in their work.

I think they have been extremely reasonable to people who have very frequently had good reasons for delaying their claims. And, as the noble Earl has suggested, there are even now from time to time claims which arise from acts of the late war, which could not have been noticed until the present time. So I would not only entirely dissociate myself from anybody who grumbles at the slowness of this work, but would associate myself, as we on this side do, with the noble Earl's remarks concerning the noble Lord, Lord Silsoe, and the admirable work he and his colleagues have done in carrying out this very great work indeed. We look forward very much to hearing from the noble Lord in his maiden speech, and to some of his reflections upon this admirable operation which has been carried out.

It is, I think, something that we can all look back on with a certain amount of pride that this country decided during the war itself that damage which arose to individuals and to groups of people through an act of the war should not be borne by them personally but should be shared by the whole country. That was manifestly the right idea and it has been carried out in an admirable fashion. Not only has a great deal of considerable hardship which otherwise would have arisen been avoided, but, as the result of the actual damage from the war and in return for the vast amount of money that has been spent, and ungrudgingly spent—£1,300 million, to which the noble Earl referred, and the £230 million for chattels in addition to the other sums for buildings—we have some very great cities and portions of cities that have arisen; and I think we should look with pride on the bright side of this rather sombre picture. I would single out in particular the magnificent rebuilding in Plymouth and in Coventry which would have been impossible had it not been for the work of the War Damage Commission and for the provisions of the Act we are now seeking to supersede.

It is clearly right, however, that the time should come when an end should be brought to this Commission. It cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely, and it is clear, too, that there will be no hardship to any individual by the provisions of this Bill. They will now be given four years in which to lodge claims and then be given an additional six years in which to carry out the work. It seems that in that way the balance between the community at large, the taxpayer and the individual sufferer from war damage has been very fairly held.

I think a very important provision of this Bill, which the noble Earl mentioned, was that if after that period any future damage should arise through such things as unexploded bombs and mines, the sufferer will not be precluded from receiving compensation even though this takes place after the four years has expired. That has been taken care of in this Bill. In that way we can rest assured that there will be no suffering by individuals themselves. Although the £20 million outstanding appears to to be a rather large sum, if it is taken as a proportion of the £1,500 million which has already been paid out, it is clear that only a very small proportion still remains. So, as far as we are concerned, the noble Earl need have no fear but that we welcome the Bill and shall assist its passage in any way we can.

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, the controlling words of this Bill appear in Clause 2: The War Damage Commission is hereby dissolved". In speaking, therefore, on this Bill I must formally declare an interest, since I was appointed some 23 years ago now to be an original member of the team who formed that Commission. I use the word "formally" because there should be few of your Lordships who would not need to declare an interest in war damage, either as beneficiaries from the Fund or as having played some part in administering this great experiment. No fewer than one in every four of the rateable units of property throughout the United Kingdom received greater or less degrees of damage.

My Lords, I am indeed grateful that I shall receive the usual understanding accorded to one who speaks for the first time in this House. I shall need it, and shall need it more than others who on arrival in your Lordships' House have had previous experience of speaking in another place. I am a complete tyro in making such speeches, though I had been fortunate, as a member of the Parliamentary Bar, to address your Lordships in Committees in this House. I am not sure whether or not some of those speeches would be considered controversial, but in speaking on this Bill about war damage it would be difficult indeed to trespass against the custom that a maiden speech must never be controversial.

There is one other aspect of this matter that I ought to mention. I am well aware of the practice of the House that a Peer who has been a member of a public body appointed by the Government must in no circumstance appear to speak for or against the policy of the Government of the day in relation to that body. There is no danger that I might be accused of transgressing that rule this afternoon. May I make a personal interlude and thank the noble Earl who moved this Second Reading and the noble Lord who spoke for the Opposition for the kind remarks that were made about myself?

I wish to speak for a short time on three aspects of war damage: one, the general scheme of the Act; two, what I hope and suggest will live after these rather frightening words "The War Damage Commission is … dissolved;" and, third, to express a few words of thanks to the thousands of people who have played a part in this scheme. In a sentence, or two sentences, to be exact, the scheme of this Act was that all worthwhile buildings should be repaired out of the Fund at the price or cost existing on the day of the repair. Secondly, non-worthwhile buildings were to receive some compensation, based on value, but the Government of the day was invited to increase that value (a process which became known as "escalation") at a later date if values changed. It turned out that 19 out of 20 properties which were damaged came in the first class and only one out of 20 in the second class. As the noble Lord who spoke from the Opposition stated, this was a tremendously important part of the scheme, but it was a very near-run thing that it did not happen at all.

Before the war, insurance companies had for years refused to underwrite any insurances against war damage. In 1936, that great institution, Lloyd's, said that they would not underwrite any loss. In May, 1937, if I may be allowed to quote the words, the Government of the day stated: No scheme of insurance of property against war risks would be appropriate to the conditions of a future war. The most effective form, the Government said, of protection against air raids lay in the effective prosecution of rearmament. In January, 1939—a great step forward—the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after agreeing that no insurance scheme was possible, said: Compensation for war damage ought not to be treated as merely the concern of those who suffer. It must be regarded as falling on the community as a whole and as a proper subject for public funds. The Government, it was stated, proposed to make such contribution as circumstances made possible when the extent of the damage was known; in other words, a statement that they would contribute a part of the cost, but only after the war.

There was a great deal of pressure against that statement, and a Committee of five important people was set up in July, 1939, who confirmed the Government's view and said that no payments could conceivably be made until after the war. The war started. A Committee of experts was then set up, under Mr. Justice Uthwatt (one of his many Committees), to recommend a method of assessing compensation. They were unanimous that the compensation could be based only on pre-war levels (and they fixed March, 1939, as the relevant date), and could be paid only after the war. The war continued. Bombing started in August, 1940, and it was not until one year after the war had been going that this great decision was made, by a Coalition Government of all Parties, that compensation should be paid on the basis mentioned, and there was a definite promise that for good buildings, at least, payment should be made in full as and when the properties were mended.

The second subject I should like to raise, quite briefly, is which of the various things that had to be done in War Damage Commission days will live after their death. Your Lordships may not remember that in 1941 a statutory body without a Minister at its head did not exist. There are a good many of them now, but in those days there was none that had important relations with either House of Parliament. The relations between a Commission of that sort and Parliament had to be worked out gradually. This was done by Members of both Houses. For example, it was unheard of in 1941 for a Member of this House or the other place ever to write a letter direct to the Chairman of a Commission. At the end of the war, over 90 per cent. of such letters were written: it was thought to be a better "drill," because, if I may be allowed to say so, it was quicker, and because the letter was better. In those days it was unheard of that a member of the Commission, or the Chairman, should be invited to the Committee Rooms of either House to speak and be questioned by Members of Parliament, of both Houses. Such a procedure started gradually. In the first place, meetings took place with a Party in one House, then with both Parties in one House, and finally with both Parties in both Houses. I hope that this drill, which necessarily had to be worked out, will continue long beyond the death of the War Damage Commission.

Had the Bill been as was proposed for the first year of the war, what would have happened? Mention has been made of £1,300 million paid out. The present staff of the War Damage Commission have been kind enough to supply me with figures relating that sum to pre-war figures of cost, and it is almost exactly one half, or about £650 million. On average, therefore, all war damage sufferers would have received about one half of the cost. But averages are highly dangerous in this matter, because when you could mend your property did not depend upon your own will but depended upon building licences, upon planning consents and the like. Some came early, some came late. Those who came early got much nearer to the figure which would have been paid on pre-war levels; for by the end of the war building costs had not gone up tremendously. Some people, however, had to wait a long time.

Your Lordships will forgive me a short story about an old member of the Bar. When he retired he was talking to a lad, and he said, "During the early years of my life I lost a lot of cases I should have won, but during the later years of my life, fortunately, I won a great many cases I should have lost. So justice has been done." My Lords, justice would not have been done had we had pre-war figures. We should not have been able to say, as the Prime Minister did, that, "We all stand in together". Those who came last would have suffered. Of those may I mention (perhaps to declare yet another interest) the four Inns of Court? I believe that, of all people in the country who owe a debt of Gratitude to the War Damage Act, it is the four Inns of Court, perhaps in even greater proportion than the Churches. In fact, £4 million has been paid to the four Inns of Court. What would have happened if, instead of £4 million, £⅓ million or £1¼ million or even £1 million, depending on the levels, had been paid? Coventry Cathedral received £1 million. What would have happened if they received one-third of £1 million? And what of the City halls, churches, and, if I may mention it, Lambeth Palace, which received £200,000? I was proud to be present at a service which the late Archbishop of Canterbury held in Lambeth Palace immediately after its reconse[...]ration, in which he told us from the pulpit that this, he thought, was the first service thanking Almighty God for an Act of Parliament.

Two other things which stem from the War Damage Commission will form an important part of our life: the first is a committee which was formed in the war in order collectively to ask the Commission for money for churches of all denominations and all religions. That is now called the Churches Main Committee. It is not statutory. We all meet together and we discuss various claims from the Government. I venture to suggest that that is a most useful thing which will never die.

Finally, there is a body, which some of your Lordships may know well, called the Lands Tribunal, a court of record of this country which stemmed entirely from the Appeals Tribunal of the War Damage Commission, which, for the first time, arranged for a statutory court consisting partly of lawyers and partly of surveyors.

A third matter I wish to discuss is the question of thanks. I want to mention one person who I believe has not been mentioned before publicly, the draftsman of this Bill. It was a really magnificent effort to produce from a brief, which I have read, on one side of one sheet of notepaper, the whole of this complicated system, and it was found later that few Amendments had to be made by Parliament to put it right. His name is Sir Alan Ellis. He lived long enough to see the success of his work; and I wish, I believe for the first time, to mention a name to whom I personally, at any rate, and I think the public, owe a great deal.

Then, of course, there is the staff of the Commission. First of all, there was the administrative and executive staff, headed of course by a few permanent civil servants who formed and guided policy. Most of the staff and all of the Commission were amateurs. They were collected together in 1941, not an easy time to find a staff; they were either much over age or much under age. They included a lot of boys and girls waiting to be called up and the like, and many people who had passed their working life a long time ago. I remember a curious statistic, that the eldest was 85 and the youngest 14½. It is an unusual feature. They totalled at one time 2,500 people, and they performed most extremely valuable work.

The technical staff also was difficult to find. They came from private practice where they had been used to making valuations professionally, but biased in favour of their clients. Almost at once they were able to become impartial and to give a decision which was in favour of neither one side nor the other. Then there were the valuers of the Inland Revenue, known to all of us, who worked in such a colossal way for this War Damage Scheme. Statistics I think show their worth. They had 200,000 value-payments decisions to make. All of them were appealable to a court; only 300 were in fact appealed against, and only 100 appeals succeeded.

Then, the most extraordinary agents of the War Damage Commission were local authorities. I believe that they played as important a part in this huge scheme as anybody else. Out of that figure of £1,300 million no less than £300 million was expended by local authorities on repayment by the Commission. May I also say a special word of praise to the London local authorities who had to face the V.1 and V.2 bombs. The chairman of the Commission of the time was asked to co-ordinate this work. He was given no staff and he obtained from places which did not suffer war damage ten good people from local government to supervise. We all—the chairman and the staff—are delighted that they were nicknamed "eavesdroppers". Those of you who remember my other name will see the point. Then, architects, surveyors, solicitors, and other professional men—a huge force of labour—all concerned with sending in claims to the War Damage Commission and all really acting broadly in a fair way, all deserve thanks. Also, I am sure your Lordships will allow me to mention those wonderful voluntary workers of the Women's Voluntary Services, the Citizen's Advice Bureaux, poor man's valuers and the people of that kind who all worked this big scheme.

Lastly, a very important part indeed in the success of the scheme was played by the Press, both the general Press and the technical Press. It was absolutely vital that it should be got over to these 3½, million claimants, first, what the scheme was, what the dates were, and what should be done about late claims. Only once did the Commission have to pay a penny piece by way of paid advertisement to get information in. No fewer than 200 Press statements went in in full for the public. All these many thousands of people, some paid, many not, were working in one way or another to help the 3½ million claimants, and helped to form this large war damage team. Speaking, if your Lordships will permit me, as an ex-Chairman, I think thanks should be given both by the Commissioners and by their customers to all these many people.

The war damage task has, it is generally thought, succeeded. Probably the finest part of it was the grand concept that we would win the war, that the full repair cost could be promised with certainty, and could be promised at a time when we were out of Europe; we were winning, but had not won, the Battle of Britain, and we were without Allies outside the Commonwealth. Although the Commission will soon be dissolved, its members and staff are grateful for this great decision made by all Parties in Parliament in 1941; and they are grateful, too, that they were allowed, by using this huge sum of money, to play a part in rebuilding destroyed and damaged buildings and, in so doing, to build a much better Britain.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, it is with a great sense of pleasure that I speak immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Silsoe, and so have an opportunity to congratulate him on the excellence and clarity of his maiden speech. His modesty and the way he has presented the facts have prevented him from revealing how much he himself has played in this great enterprise. But I can assure your Lordships that we owe almost everything to his leadership in one of the greatest enterprises of the war. We are intensely grateful to him. I venture to hope that the noble Lord will frequently be here, speaking in your Lordships' House, in the future.

On behalf of the Church of England and the other Churches represented in the Churches Main Committee, I should like to express our entire satisfaction with the way in which this War Damage Scheme has been operated. Under the War Damage Act, 1943, properties used for ecclesiastical purposes were wholly or partially relieved from the payment of war-damage contributions. The amount of any payment in respect of war damage was left to the discretion of the Commission after suitable consultations, but a pledge was given that the Churches would be treated no worse because they had not paid contribution or had paid only a reduced contribution.

The principles on which what is known as the Church Scheme was to be operated were settled in an exchange of letters between the then Bishop of London (later Archbishop and now Lord Fisher of Lambeth) and the Chairman of the War Damage Commission, whom we so heartily welcome in your Lordships' House as the noble Lord, Lord Silsoe. This exchange of letters took place on the advice of a Committee composed of almost all denominations of the Christian Churches in this country, and was presided over by the Bishop of London. This Committee has become known as the Churches Main Committee. It is a matter of great satisfaction to all concerned that the denominations were thus able to agree among themselves the principles on which the payments should be based; and in the twenty years which have now elapsed since that time the Churches Main Committee has established itself as an important and valuable piece of Government machinery.

I believe I am right in saying that the total number of churches damaged in the United Kingdom was about 12,000, and in the administration of the Church Scheme the Commission paid out, up to 1962, a sum exceeding £40 million. Among the Churches assisted are, of course, many of the most famous in the country. I myself, first in Plymouth and later in Liverpool, have been very conscious of the devastation of war damage. I was vicar of the mother church of Plymouth, St. Andrew's, which was very badly damaged but has been beautifully restored. And when I went up to Liverpool I found the two main churches of the City, St. Mary, Woolton-on-the-Hill, and the parish church of Liverpool, Our Lady and St. Nicholas, both extensively damaged. Both have been beautifully restored. I therefore know first hand of the devastation of war damage, and I am also conscious of the invaluable help which we have received from the Commission.

Her Majesty's Government have now decided, reasonably enough, that steps must be taken to bring the Scheme to an end. The principles of the Bill before us are quite clear. There is to be a four-year time limit from the appointed day, namely, October 1, 1964, during which claims have to be made and the work carried out. The Churches Main Committee has collected particulars of outstanding cases, and the War Damage Commission have reviewed all existing applications. I understand that applications amounting to about £2 million are still outstanding, of which the great majority are in the Church of England and, to a lesser degree, in the Methodist Church. I am advised that, in general, there will be no difficulty whatever in complying with the four-year time limit, though it is important that Church authorities should take steps at once to see that their applications are in order and that the work is in train.

The particular clause with which the Churches are concerned is Clause 4, which deals with the special conditions operated under the exchange of letters in 1943 and known as the Church Scheme. Provided that the repairs to existing churches or the erection of new churches in substitution for war-damaged buildings is carried out within the terms of the Bill, there should be no difficulty whatsoever. But it is possible that there may be some exceptional cases where, owing to factors largely beyond the control of the churches, work cannot be completed within the time limit. The Churches Main Committee have been in correspondence with the War Damage Commission, and it appears that there should be no difficulty in meeting these few difficult cases. It is good to know that, in the best traditions of the Scheme, complete understanding and agreement have been reached between the Commission and the Churches Main Committee. It should be noted in passing, however, that under Clause 7 of the Bill there can normally be no right, after the end of the period of ten years from the appointed day, to receive payments from the Commission in respect of any war damage. It only remains for me to express again, on behalf of the Churches, our appreciation of the generous and understanding way in which this Scheme has been worked and to congratulate all those concerned in its operation.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think there is anything left for me to say, except to convey the congratulations of all your Lordships to the noble Lord, Lord Silsoe, on a maiden speech which I found to be of absorbing interest in every way. I hope that we shall often hear him again. I thought he was historically interesting in describing to us the history of insurance against war damage. It was also of some constitutional interest, because I did not know that the War Damage Commission had had so much influence on the relationship between Members of Parliament and non-Parliamentary Commissions. It was also of some religious interest, for he told us that it had resulted in the first religious service in which thanksgiving had been offered for an Act of Parliament.

And, finally, even in the demise of the War Damage Commission it seems to have conferred yet a further blessing, according to the noble Lord, in enabling this Bill to be brought in—which is the first example the noble Lord has seen of a Bill which is fairly comprehensible. I thought the noble Lord spoke with some little feeling on this point. No doubt this may be due to the fact that he is much more familiar than most of your Lordships with the previous Act, the Act of 1943, which I happen to have with me, and which I see contains, in Section 13, the following gem of English language: In the case of a value payment made in exercise of the power conferred by this section in respect of war damage in respect of which a payment of cost of works would have been payable if the kind of payment to be made in respect thereof had fallen to be determined under section seven of this Act apart from any other provision, the material time shall, subject to the provisions of paragraph 2 of the Seventh Schedule to this Act, be the date of the determination of the Commission to exercise that power. I am glad to think that the language of the Bill which I am now commending to your Lordships for approval is perhaps a little easier to understand and I should like to thank those of your Lordships who have supported it.

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

Forward to