§ Major COHEN
asked the Secretary of State for War whether his attention has been directed to recent criticisms of the War Office in respect of its attitude towards claims arising out of the destruction by fire of Offley House, Hitchin, while the said house was being used by the military authorities as a place of internment for prisoners of war; whether the War Office has disclaimed all liability for the damage done by the fire and refused to compensate the tenant who was dispossessed by the military authorities; and whether he proposes to take further action in the matter?
§ Mr. G. BALFOUR
asked the Secretary of State for War whether his attention has been called to the strictures of the Lords of Appeal on the action of the War Office in failing to compensate the owner of Offley House, Hitchin, which, whilst in the occupation of the War Office, was destroyed by fire, thereby giving rise to most expensive litigation which the landlord and tenant were compelled to undertake, involving some thousands of pounds; and whether the War Office are prepared to assume responsibility for these costs?1855W
§ Mr. GWYNNE
asked the Secretary of State for War whether, when Offley Holes, Hitchin, was destroyed by fire, whilst in the occupation of the War Office, there was no commissioned officer in charge and no fenders in the house as a protection against fire; and whether these omissions are contrary to Regulations?
§ Sir L. WORTHINGTON-EVANS
My attention has been called to the criticisms to which my hon. Friends refer. These criticisms appear to be based upon a misapprehension of the facts which immediately concern the War Office. I am informed that the parties to whom the lease granted by the freeholder had been assigned, and who were in possession, wore given clearly to understand that the War Department would not accept liability for damage done by fire and that a policy of insurance against such risk must be taken out or continued if they desired to protect themselves against the possibility of loss. This information was given in accordance with the common practice of the War Department, initiated by an Army Council Instruction dated the 19th August, 1916. It rested therefore with the assignees of the lease to see that they were properly covered against fire. In point of fact, the War Department Valuer took steps to have the fire policy which was already in existence endorsed by the insurance company with a statement to the effect that the policy was not invalidated by the military occupation. Further, when the house was taken over by the military authorities the assignees of the lease were invited to submit a claim to the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission. A claim for rent was submitted, which the Department was not prepared to admit in full, but before the case was sent to the Losses Commission the claimants were asked whether they desired to amend their claim by reason of the fire. They decided, however, to proceed by Petition of Right for both rent and reinstatement. This Petition is still pending, the Petitioners having asked the Department to allow the matter to stand over until the result of the appeal in Curlingv. Matthey was known. In view, however, of the provisions of the Indemnity Act, 1920, the claim will now be a matter for the War Compensation Court to deal with. That Court will be in a position to adjudicate on the various matters both of law and fact raised in my hon. Friends' questions, and the matter being thus 1856W sub judice, it would not be right for me to deal with such matters further by way of questions and answers in this House.