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Clause 4—(Postponement Of Laying Before Parliament Of Statements Of Payments And Receipts, Etc)

Volume 380: debated on Wednesday 3 June 1942

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I beg to move, in page 3, line 21, after "copies", to insert:

"in so far as they relate to payments and receipts under Part II of the principal Act".
There has been a fair amount of support for this Amendment, which stands in my name and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger), and since the Government have not expressed a final opinion on their attitude in regard to it, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give his favourable consideration to the proposal which we make and which I shall briefly explain to the Committee. If Clause 4 were to pass as it stands, the Treasury would have power to withhold, on security grounds, publication of the figures showing payments and receipts under the three schemes set out in Parts I and II of the principal Act. The Amendment will not challenge the desirability of withholding publication of the figures under the business and private chattels schemes, but would seek to leave intact the obligation of the Treasury to publish the figures under the real property scheme in Part I, which, of course, deals only with two classes of hereditaments, namely, buildings and land other than buildings. May I in passing explain why we have not proposed that the obligation to publish figures in respect of the other two schemes should remain? In regard to the private chattels scheme, we think we can trust the Treasury not to give a certificate that it would be contrary to the interests of national defence to publish these figures. It would indicate a very odd view of national security to give a certificate that it would be useful to the enemy to know how much furniture and so on had been destroyed 12 months ago in air raids on our cities. With regard to the business scheme, we make no proposal for insisting on publicity for the figures, because we think in that case there might be something to be said for concealing from the enemy the amount of damage he has done to goods covered by that scheme.

In the case of real property, however, different considerations apply. I think the arguments for secrecy are far less cogent in that case, and the arguments for publication—unless the right hon. Gentleman has something to say upon it which he has not yet said—are almost conclusive. I propose to recapitulate them briefly to the Committee. First, the figures need not be published until the November following the end of the financial year in which the damage occurred. That provides a minimum interim period of six or seven months before the figures would be published, but that is not the period which will probably elapse before publication. The period which will possibly elapse between the time of the damage and the time of publication will be greater. First, the damage has to be done; then the claim has to be made; then the claim has to be considered and, finally, the payment has to be made. So, in practice these figures will not be published before the passing of from ten to twelve or even fourteen months in certain cases—according to my information on the time occupied in getting these claims through—after the occurrence of the damage.

Even when these figures are published, they will not distinguish between damage done to military and to non-military objectives. We know that the properties affected by the scheme number about 13,000,000, and according to the Treasury estimate they are worth between £6,000,000,000 and £8,000,000,000. This estimate covers the value of buildings alone. Let the Committee reflect on what a small proportion of that total value is likely to be damaged by enemy action at all, according to the information which we already possess, given to us by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. How can it be useful to the enemy to know that twelve months ago such a small proportion of the total value of the property has been damaged or destroyed when, in the interim, practically the whole of that damage in the case of military properties, will certainly have been repaired? Therefore I submit with some confidence that, on reflection, the Treasury should not persist in maintaining their right to keep that information secret.

I should like now to say something about the publication of these figures, and I propose to ask for a little more even than I have asked for in the terms of the Amendment. If the right hon. Gentleman after discussion should see his way to accept this Amendment, I would ask him to undertake also to publish the difference between the damage done to agricultural property and that done to non-agricultural property. There is a considerable feeling among the agricultural community that, although their contribution is lower in relation to the value of their property, it is still too high in relation to the risks involved. There seems to be no reason why, for example, the owner of a farm should contribute in respect of damage done in a town any more than that the mortgagee of a town property should equally share the losses of the mortgagor, a principle which the right hon. Gentleman has declined so far to accept. While we do not ignore the fact that the global figure would give the enemy some rough idea, as a matter of interest, of the damage done, it could be of no conceivable military usefulness to him. Furthermore, even if he does receive the figure, I am certain it will not be in accordance with his own.

What are the arguments in favour of the publication of the figures in relation to the scheme under Part I? The principal argument is that the obligation to publish is a Section in the principal Act which had a large influence in inducing those affected by the Act to accept it without much greater opposition at the time. Certainly, in this House, on the Second Reading of the Measure, it was looked upon as being almost in the nature of a promise. At any rate it was certainly a collateral term of the agreement, as it were, between the House and the right hon. Gentleman to give the Measure a Second Reading in face of the doubts which a great many hon. Members felt at that time as to its principles. While, as I said on Second Reading, I do not put this on a moral plane at all, for it is purely a question of expediency, I do think the Chancellor ought to consider whether it is right on such small grounds, to fail to implement a provision which played its part in securing the Second Reading of the Measure.

Moreover, if the figures are published, they will go far to allay the widespread feeling—I am not saying whether it is justified or not—that the amount of contribution is not in fact warranted by the risks. Everybody will understand that a fund of this kind must have a substantial reserve. Although it is not for me to speak for property owners, I feel that the small property-owners—I hope the right hon. Gentleman is following me; he is exhibiting certain signs of mystification about what I am saying but it is quite plain. I hope, I say, that small property-owners will be placed in a position to judge whether the amount of their premiums is in fair relation to the risks run. Unless the matter is to be surrounded with mystery that can only be done by publication of these figures. I hope the right hon. Gentleman understands that argument.

In conclusion, may I say that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw and I would be the last persons to propose this Amendment if we thought it would be of the slightest utility to the enemy if it were passed. Even so great an authority as the Prime Minister has stated that the plea of public interest and public security should be sparingly invoked, but we are finding that it is being increasingly invoked; if it is to be extended from the strategical and tactical spheres to cover questions more distantly removed, such as the question we are now discussing, then I think the plea of public interest is being strained and may be brought into such discredit that, when it is really necessary to plead it, it will not be accepted without challenge as it ought to be.

I am sure that the Committee will be comforted by my opening remarks when I say that I do not intend to delay them very long on this issue. I say that because I have an idea that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has, on due consideration, seen the force of the potent arguments put forward on Second Reading. I should like to remind the Committee that in the previous Act it is very little which the Chancellor is bound to disclose. In Clause 56 of the principal Act all the Treasury shall do in relation to each financial year is to cause to be prepared a statement of payments made by the Commission and sums recovered by the Commissioners. In other words, all they have to do is to present a cash statement, and that cash statement will not represent the total amount of damage done in the financial year and will not show that the total payment for whatever damage has been done has been made. I suggest, therefore, that we are not asking for very much.

Do not let us get a false idea of the meaning of property owners in relation to this Bill. Property owners mean the homes and houses of the people, whoever they are and whatever their relations may be to their homes, whether they are tenants or owners. These people are being asked to pay a special tax in order to enable them at some time or other, either during the war or after, to obtain compensation for acts done by the King's enemies, and I think the Committee will agree that they should have some rendering of the accounts as soon as possible. Obviously, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) has said, if the information to be disclosed under the principal Act was such as to give valuable information to the enemy, we should not ask for it. What we do say is that, when the Government are imposing a tax of 2s. in the £ per annum on the assessable value of property, which is a very considerable amount to small and large householders alike, they ought to know something about how their money is being spent, and whether the 2s. in the £ is excessive or not. As the war goes on they may be asked to pay more than 2s. in the £, and I do not think the Government can justify such an application without saying, "Here is the account of what we have received and what we have spent." I therefore support the Amendment which has been so ably moved.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) have put forward their case, as they always do, with clearness and force. The Committee will remember that, when my hon. Friend raised this matter during the Second Reading Debate on the Bill, he rather challenged the whole of the Clause, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General gave various reasons, which I thought were powerful, in regard to certain of its particulars. It is quite obvious, for instance, that no one would desire the total sums of marine losses to be given, and there are various matters in connection with the business scheme which obviously must be avoided if they give information to the enemy—replacement of damaged plant and machinery is an example. The House was assured during the Second Reading Debate that the Exchequer are not dealing with this matter from the point of view of keeping information from the Committee or from the people who make these contributions, but on the grounds which were then given. My hon. Friend asked me—and I did as he desired—to take up this matter with those responsible for security, and I think the Committee will agree with me when I say that they have a very difficult and onerous duty to perform—one wants to have a certain amount of sympathy for their difficult task. They have agreed with me that in the circumstances, particularly on the grounds which my hon. Friend put forward, and the fact that the particulars would not be published for some considerable time, and then for the most part would relate to what we call first-aid repairs, a good deal of the misapprehensions would disappear.

The form of the Amendment which my hon. Friend has put forward is not quite as the Parliamentary draftsmen would desire. I think it would be more convenient from the point of view of the drafting of the Bill if my hon. Friend would allow me to give him the appropriate form in which he could move his Amendment on the Report stage, leaving the matter at present as it stands. On the question of the division of information, I will have the necessary consultations to see what it is possible to do. Neither I nor my friends acting with me in this matter have any desire to hide anything from the Committee. I am very anxious indeed to give all the information, and it was solely from the point of view of security that the Clause appeared as it did. Therefore, I suggest that my right hon. Friend does not press his Amendment at the moment, so that in the meantime the Parliamentary draftsmen can put the matter in its proper form. My hon. Friend will be able to move his Amendment during the Report stage, and in the interval I will make inquiries to see how far it is possible to give the information he desires.

Can the Chancellor of the Exchequer give any indication now of the approximate state of affairs? It would be a great help in dealing with some of the points raised in the Bill.

I may be able to do that on one of the Amendments, but I do not think the information will be quite so satisfactory as some people would consider from the point of view of their advocacy of some alteration in the financial arrangements.

I should like to be allowed to thank my right hon. Friend for accepting the principle of the Amendment, and to say that I am certainly not sensitive in relation to the Parliamentary draftsmen. I shall be very happy to accept an Amendment effecting the same purpose as the Amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper. On the question of the first date on which the figures will be published, the principal Act gives November, and my right hon. Friend now says September. Of course, we do not take exception to that.

Will the second Amendment be as easy to understand as the Amendment on the Order Paper?

Do I understand that the hon. Member asks leave to withdraw his Amendment?

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clauses 5, 6 and 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.