Skip to main content

Clause 10—(Provisions Relating To The Armed Forces)

Volume 440: debated on Friday 25 July 1947

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move, in page 9, line to, to leave out Subsection (3).

We gave very careful consideration to the arguments which were advanced from both sides of the House in regard to this Subsection which, as the House will recall, would have the effect of reducing the amount of damages which a soldier on duty might recover in the case where he has been injured by two or more defendants. We have had careful regard to those arguments, and in deference to them we have decided to move this Amendment.

On behalf of myself and the other hon. Members who raised this matter before, I should like to thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for meeting the arguments which we put forward.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

1.35 p.m.

I do not think the learned Attorney-General would think it seemly that a Bill which he introduced on Second Reading, with a good deal of justification, as a Measure of major importance, should be allowed to have its Third Reading without something being said about it. It would be almost indecent, and it would certainly show a lack of respect for the speech which the learned Attorney-General himself made in moving the Second Reading. As the House will recollect, the learned Attorney-General said that not only was this a Bill of major importance, but also one in connection with which it was a palpable weakness to pat oneself on the back. If I may say so, with respect, the learned Attorney-General indulged in a good deal of self back patting during the speech which he made in introducing the Measure.

I think all hon. Members agree that this Bill does a certain amount to get rid of a lot of legal lumber, and to consign to salvage a good deal of stuff which ought to have gone to salvage a long time ago. But the learned Attorney-General perhaps overrated the amount of good which this Bill will, in fact do. The House appreciates the fact that a goon deal of the antiquated lumber of which the Bill disposes was lumber more of a formal nature than lumber of real weight and substance; that is to say, while a good deal of the procedure which the Bill does, away with was quite illogical and out of touch with modern conditions, yet it had been so successfully by-passed in so many ways that it did not cause anything like as much injustice as, on the face of it, it would be likely to do. On the other hand, I personally regret the fact that in substance, and on points of importance, the Bill does not go further than it does.

The particular point to which I invite the attention of the House at this stage is Clause 30. It will be noted that that Clause not only does not abolish the very considerable privilege which the Crown, as a public authority, enjoys in respect of litigation in that actions have to be brought against it if they are to be brought at all, in a much shorter space of time than is the case with a private person, but, by Subsection (2), goes out of its way to perpetuate that anomaly When the Government were setting out, as according to the learned Attorney-General they were, to do what according to the learned Attorney-General ought to have been done years ago, namely, to put the Crown, so far as is possible, in something of the same position in litigation as the subject, then I suggest it is a great pity that they did not go further and put the Crown in the same position as the subject from the point of view of the limitation of actions.

As I understand it—and as a result, so far as Scotland is concerned, of the Amendment which was accepted today—the position is still that the subject who desires, under the machinery of this Bill, to bring an action against the Crown in regard to a tort, has to commence his action within 12 months whereas, if the person whom he desires to sue is a private citizen he can, under the Limitation Act, 1939, have six years in which to do it. I suggest, first of all, that one year is too short a period; and secondly, that it is anomalous to have a different period if the defendant is the Crown—

On a point of Order. Is it in Order for the hon. Gentleman to allude to what is not in the Bill?

No. I am afraid I was not paying very close attention to what the hon. Member was saying, being otherwise engaged. The Debate must take place upon what is in the Bill, and not upon what is not in the Bill.

I fully appreciate that, and that is why I am dealing with d specific provision, in fact, Subsection (2) of Clause 30. If the Home Secretary has not a copy of the Bill in front of him I hope that he will be good enough to obtain one. No doubt his Parliamentary Secretary can oblige. This is what the Subsection says:

"Subject to the provisions of the preceding Subsection, nothing in this Act shall prejudice the right of the Crown to rely upon the law relating to the limitation of time for bringing proceedings against public authorities."
That is to say, there is a specific provision maintaining in full the effect of both the Public Authorities Protection Act, 1893, and the Limitation Act, 1939, so far as actions against the Crown are concerned. I am entitled, I submit, to have regard to that Subsection, and I suggest it is a pity that it is in the Bill.

I will give my reasons. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee who have had any direct experience of litigation will know that in possibly a small but appreciable number of cases, particularly where the plaintiff is a person of poor financial position and is unable as easily as a wealthier person to commence proceedings, action is rendered impossible when it is not commenced within one year, where the defendant is a public authority. That state of affairs will be perpetuated in actions against the Crown. It seems unjustifiable for the Crown to operate within such a narrow limit.

If it is contended that a year is sufficient, then it is anomalous that it should be six years in the case of a private individual. The Government should have gone further to clear up the legislative morass which surrounds Crown proceedings and should have put the Crown in the same position, from the point of view of the limitation of action, as a private individual and certainly should have provided a period longer than one year. The Crown as defendant is in a strong position in many ways. The Attorney-General will agree, no doubt, that the Crown has the best possible legal advice at its disposal and unlimited funds for litigation. It has skilled servants, in the Treasury Solicitor's office and elsewhere, who are at least a match for any that the subject has at his command—I except, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Joynson-Hicks)—The Crown is extremely well served on the legal side. Why is it necessary to give the Crown this procedural advantage, which is of the greatest value when it is dealing with the small, ignorant man, or the man without adequate legal advice? Is it necessary to do this?

I welcome a good many of the provisions of the Bill. While we concede that the Attorney-Genera'] is right in giving himself one gentle pat on the back in respect of it, we believe that it might have been so much better if the Government had had the courage to do as they have often been pressed to do during the last two years, tackle the privileged position which the Crown has as defendant, in respect of the limitation of action.

1.45 P.m.

I do not often agree with my Parliamentary neighbour the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) but I do agree with him this morning when he says that we ought not to let this great Bill pass without a few comments. The point that the hon. Member has made is similar to a number that have been made during the course of the Debate pointing out what hon. Members consider to be little blemishes. Unfortunately, as there has been some concentration upon the so-called blemishes in the public Press and on the wireless, the merits of the Bill have tended rather to be overlooked.

We all welcome the purpose and the principle of the Bill, but the habit of concentrating upon blemishes has led people to believe that the Government are doing something wrong and something to the detriment of the subject, instead of, as they ate, giving subjects the greatest advantage vis-à-vis the Crown that they have had since the Bill of Rights. The matter of the Bill has been under consideration for 26 years—consideration of all kinds, active, very active, urgent, and so on. Any number of Parliamentary Ouestions has been put down, and the answer has always been that the matter was being given consideration, active, very active, or urgent, as the case might be. It has fallen to the Labour Government, despite the press of the legislation for great schemes of social benefit that have been passed through this House during the last two years, to bring in this great constitutional advance.

It is a complete answer to people who hold that the Government is totalitarian or has totalitarian tendencies or that it has no interest in the common man as an individual. The Bill sweeps away a historical anachronism in the courts of justice. No longer will the Government have to resort to shifts and devices in order that cases may be heard in the courts and subjects obtain a remedy to which in law they were not entitled. The Bill also extends to civil servants a course of action which they have never had before. In fine, it is a Bill of which we can be proud. I commend it not only to the House but to the country at large. I specially want to thank the Attorney-General and his noble Friend for doing what no other Lord Chancellor or Attorney-General has done in the course of the history of this country.

1.48 p.m.

I would not enter the discussion on the Bill were it not for an observation made by the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. Rees-Williams). He claims great credit for the Government for bringing forward the Bill. Surely, what made the Bill extremely urgent was the number of nationalisation Measures carried through or proposed by the Government. When the State acquires a great many industries and masses of property there are great openings for action between the citizen and the State. Therefore, an extension of the right of citizens to bring actions becomes necessary. Hon. Members w ho have taken part in the Standing Committees on Nationalisation Bills have questioned the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General as to the position of a citizen when the State takes over the ownership of industries and properties. We have been told that a Measure of this kind would be introduced to safeguard everybody. We are, therefore, very glad to give it our support. It was necessary, in order to make the position a little clearer.

1.49 p.m.

I must correct the misapprehension under which the hon. Member for Stockport (Sir A. Gridley) seems to lie in regard to this Measure. The Measure has no effect whatever on the right of action against the variots nationalised industries. On a number of occasions, and on one at least in answer to the hon. Member, I have explained that industries which are being taken under public control are managed by put-lie corporations, which can be sued just as any other corporation can be sued, under the ordinary processes of the law. The special exemption which the Crown has hitherto enjoyed has never been extended to nationalised industries. This Bill was introduced to deal with claims against the Crown, and it is a Bill for which there has been a demand for e long time. That the importance of the Bill, which has so long been pressed for, both by the public and by the profession, should now be belittled by certain organs of the Press, and certain of our opponents, is not altogether surprising, and I must agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. Rees-Williams) that the account of the Bill given by the B.B.C., which recited only what the 13:11 does not do, and said nothing of the important things that it does, was a little remarkable.

I do not propose to follow, in detail, the observations made by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) save to say that the answer to him is exactly the same as the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) This is not a Bill to make general reforms in the law; it is a Bill to put the Crown on the same basis as the ordinary public corporation. The Crown will be in no special position in this matter of limitation; it will take advantage of the existing laws which apply to all public authorities in this respect.

The Crown is a public authority, I suppose the largest public authority of its kind in the world, and the analogy is to public authorities, and not to private individuals. Before we speed this important Measure upon its way, I would like to thank Members on all sides of the House for the help and assistance they have given us in connection with it. We have, between us, overcome all the doubts and difficulties which prevented our more timorous predecessors from producing this long overdue reform, and I have no doubt that it will make a very significant contribution to the efficiency and justice of our law and the equality of all people before it.

1.53 p.m.

In view of the final observations of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I must say a word or two before we part with this Measure. That it is an important Bill no one on this side of the House will dispute. We have not sought, as I thought for one moment the Attorney-General suggested, to minimise its importance On the other hand, we do not want to compete, like the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. Rees-Williams) for some of the jobs with the Coal Board, and in other places—

It is not only an absurd but a gratuitous insult to say that I supported this Bill in order to get a job with the Coal Board. Already this morning I have been accused by the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) of speaking too often which, in his case, is a classical example of Satan rebuking sin, but this is too much.

If I drew the wrong impression from the phrases which the hon. Member used in connection with this Bill, and his exaggerated remarks, I withdraw what I said, but the hon. Gentleman did say that this was a complete answer to any suggestion of a totalitarian tendency, or anything of that sort. The Attorney-General said that this Bill placed the individual in the same position, in suing the Crown, as in suing the ordinary corporation. On the Second Reading, we talked a lot about the equality which now existed between the State and the public. The Crown is still insisting on priorities of its rights in certain actions which we may discuss later. While we think this is a good Bill, we regret that the Government have not found the time to clear up the whole of this lumber, which requires attention.

The Attorney-General seemed to make some criticism of the report of our Debate by the B.B.C. I did not hear that report, but I assume that it is quite natural that when both sides of the House are engaged in trying to improve an important Measure, and there are questions and answers in relation to that, a fair report of a Debate on it would give more attention to what has been said than to the good points in the Bill, which had not been subject to Debate. I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman thought fit to attack and criticise the B.B.C. in that matter. However, we can pass this Bill with the satisfaction that some progress is being made, although not so much as those on this side of the House would desire.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with Amendments.