I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
In bringing this Measure before the House, I am sure it will be in the recollection of many Members that in travelling along the railway during the last year we were constantly reminded not only of the dry season, but of the great damage that was done to the occupiers of land by the fires which had occurred all along the railway. In some cases, of course, they were small fires, but in some cases they were a great deal larger, and in my own recollection there is a case, not far from Cambridge, where a fire had spread right across one field and had burnt the agricultural implements on the other side. Railway companies are liable for unlimited damage when you can claim negligence, but negligence is not by any manner of means easy to prove, and, therefore, no doubt, it was that in 1905 this House passed a Measure, the Railway Fires Act, by which persons who had a fire caused by sparks or cinders from railway trains were enabled to claim damages of £100, although there was no negligence on the part of the railway company, who were unable to plead that they had statutory running powers. This Bill, which is a very small Measure, and one which I hope will receive full approval from this House, seeks to alter that very small limit of £100 to £200, and the reason is that when this Measure was passed in 1905, the value of the produce alongside the railway was, practically speaking, one half what it is to-day. The average value of wheat, for instance, for the seven years ended in 1904 was 27s. 4d. or thereabouts, but the value of wheat to-day is practically double. The railway rates to-day are certainly double what they were before. These rates are fixed with a view to meeting the expenses of the railway companies, and one of those expenses is the liability no doubt which they incur by these fires. Then again, under that Act of 1905, a man bad to lodge notice of his claim within seven days, a very short time, and he had to state particulars of his claim within fourteen days. Under this Bill we ask for an extension of those periods so that a man may give notice of a claim within fourteen days instead of seven days, and a statement of his claim within twenty-one days instead of fourteen days. Under the Act as it stands, if a claim is made which exceeds £100, and an action is brought to recover the sum, it fails, because the claim is for more than £100. We consider that that is very unfair, and that, if the claim is limited to £200, as we suggest, then, although the damage may be more than £200, the person suffering the damage should be able to receive that amount.
It is not necessary for me to go very largely into the matter, but I should like to draw the attention of the House to the original Act as it stands, so that the House may realise what the powers are and what it is that we seek to amend. That Act, to amend which is the object of this Bill, deals only with agricultural land and the crops growing thereon. As soon as the crops, whether they be grass or cereals, are harvested and are led away and stacked, the liability ceases. It is only for the crops which are on the ground; as soon as they are led away the liability ceases. The liability also extends to plantations and orchards, but not to moorlands or to buildings. This Bill, as I have said, is a very small Measure, but it is one that interests a very large number of people. The railways, of course, run here, there, and everywhere, and all the way along the side of the railways there is a liability to these fires—a liability which, as we saw last year, is a very real one. It oftens happens that smallholders—men who have been recently put upon the land— are in occupation of these lands close to the railways, and therefore it may easily be that these men whom we want to protect more particularly, the smallholders, are the men who are most liable to suffer. If damage is done to the extent of between £100 and £200, it is not such a big matter to a really big man as it is to the smaller man, although the value of the produce having doubled, a man, whether he be big or small, is surely entitled to the same ratio of compensation as he was in the past.
I hope the House will not be led into one idea that I have heard stated, namely, that the railway companies had to pay heavily for the right of going through the land, and that that amounts to compensation. So much land in England has changed hands recently, and so much has been sub-divided up into little pieces, that I hope that will not be allowed to weigh. I repeat that this matter, small as it may seem to the House, and small as the liability will be upon the railway companies, is a matter of intense interest to a very large number of the farming community. They may insure their farm produce, but they cannot insure it along the line except at a very high rate, and, although the amount of any individual claim may be small, it is a matter that comes home very nearly to a great many small men in the country. I appeal to the House, therefore, to make this extension as an act of justice, seeing that in 1905 they acknowledged the principle, and seeing the alteration that has taken place in the value of produce and in railway rates.
I beg to second the Motion.
The principle upon which this Bill is founded is, I submit, a principle which is entirely just, namely, that where loss is suffered and there is no contributory negligence or default on the part of the man who suffers the loss, then that the man who causes the loss should be liable to pay compensation for the damage he has done. Of course, before 1905, the farmer or smallholder whose land happened to lie beside a railway was in a most unfortunate position, because he could not by any conceivable chance get compensation from the railway company unless he could prove negligence on the part of the driver of the train. The first thing he had to do was to discover what engine had actually passed his land at the time, and, secondly, after he had found that out, he had to prove that the driver of the engine had been guilty of negligence in that he had allowed sparks to fly. Of course, the long and short of it was that no possible action was likely to succeed, and very few were ever brought. The case is different to-day, and all that we are seeking to do is to amend the 1905 Act. I submit that that Act is unsatisfactory for five reasons. In the first place, whereas the value of crops has increased enormously since the year 1905, the amount that the railway companies can pay remains constant, being limited to £100. To show the way in which the value of crops has gone up, I may mention that wheat, since 1905, has risen by 112 per cent., barley by 81 per cent., and oats by 98 per cent. The second reason is that road transport has no statutory protection, and road transport can far more easily be traced. I think that the railway companies, who are given by Statute a great many advantages, should not escape liability, however great the damage is, by the payment of a sum not exceeding £100, and that, in asking for a limit of £200, we are not being unjust to the railway companies of the country.
Thirdly, by the Act of 1905, notice of the claim has to be submitted by the farmer within seven days, and particulars of the damage he has suffered within 14 days. That has been found to be very difficult to work under, and this Bill is much more equitable in seeking to give 14 days in which to send in the claim, and 21 days in which to set out the particulars of that claim. In the fourth place, the sums that have actually been paid by the railway companies are very much less than the damage which has actually been inflicted. I have been given a list of a great number of claims which were put in last summer. Of course, it is true that last summer there was a drought, and the damage liable to be caused by sparks flying from railway engines was far greater than would be the case in a normal year, but I should like to give the House one or two examples of cases which occurred in 1921. A Suffolk farmer, in the month of August, lodged a claim for £893 for damage that he had suffered, and the Great Eastern Railway Company paid the insurance company £45. In another case a Cambridgeshire farmer, in July and August, 1921, had two claims amounting to £391, and he recovered £182 5s. In two other cases, although claims were put in amounting to £200 or £300, not a penny of damage was paid by the railway company at all. Lastly, if the claim put in by a farmer exceeds £100, which was all that the railway company could give, then as I understand now under the Statute the unfortunate farmer could recover nothing, because Section 1, Sub-section (3), says:
This Section shall not apply in the case of any action for damage unless the claim for damage does not exceed £100.
In the present Bill, in order to protect the farmer, and to show that he may not send in a claim for more than the maximum amount which he can expect to receive from the railway company, words have been inserted in Clause 2 stating that the amount of
the claim must not exceed the said sum of £200. Since 1905 with the progress of science and invention the railway companies must have much better methods of obviating the danger of creating damage by sparks. I should be interested to learn, from any hon. Members interested in railway companies, whether the rail-May companies are doing all they can to eliminate the damage done by sparks. It has been said, with what truth I do not know, that the railway companies find this difficulty in that respect, that if they seek to put in operation some new device to eliminate the flying of sparks, unless every company adopts that device on every train, a company might be got at for negligence because of the existence of the device and of their failure to use it. I shall be curious to learn some details on that point if any hon. Member can give them. I submit that this is a reasonable Bill, and that the old legal maxim, which was invented many centuries ago, applies to-day, sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas—use your own goods in such a manner that they will not injure any other person. It is acting on that principle that we ask for a Second Reading of this Bill.
The hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham (Captain Bowyer) has said a great deal about the principle of the Bill. It seems to me that the main principle behind the whole thing is to have one further charge against that unfortunate body who are always to be shot at by anybody, the railway companies. The hon. and gallant Member gave some figures which he alleged supported his case. He quoted the case of a claim for £800 by a farmer who got only £45. If he got only £45 obviously the limit of £100 was not the reason why he could not get more. He gave another instance of a man who got, I think, £182. Surely if the limit was £100—
He gave still another case of a man who claimed, I think, £200 or £300 and got nothing. Those figures are no evidence. The fact that a man got nothing, though he claimed £200 or £300, has nothing to do with the limiting of the claim to £100. Neither the Mover nor the Seconder has produced one tittle of evidence to show the need for this Bill. It is all very well to say that pricey have gone up. Prices have been up before and have come down. I do not know whether the promoters of the Bill propose still further to reduce the limit even below £100, if prices go down accordingly. This is just one more of these unjustifiable attempts to add still one more burden to the railway companies of the country, and, however small it may be, obviously the effect, though relatively only small, will be that the more these kinds of charges are levelled against railway companies the community in the end has to pay the railway rates and fares in the long run, and has to stand whatever amount is involved in legislation of this kind. I do hope, in the absence of any real evidence of the need for this Bill, that the House will refuse to pass what seems to me to be a most unnecessary and merely meddlesome attempt to add one further burden to the railway industry.
Like the hon. and gallant Member for Hulme (Lieut.-Colonel Nail), I listened with interest to the speeches of the Mover and Seconder, and listened in vain for any reason to show why the Act of 1905 should be altered. The Act of 1905 did give compensation to the value of £100, without having to prove negligence, to men whose crops were destroyed. I have been listening to hear in what way circumstances have arisen which would make it necessary for Parliament now to say that the value should be increased from £100 to £200. As I understand, the original Act was passed because it was felt that there might be hardship in cases where the value of the crops destroyed was comparatively small, so email that it was hardly worth while going to law with the railway companies because the cost would absorb any damages which the claimants were likely to obtain, and it was pointed out then that these cases did not often occur, and the Act was only to deal with a certain number of individual hardships, which it was thought Parliament ought to look to. It was also pointed out, and I think rightly, that the reason why the railway companies have not been made liable for these damages in the first instance, and why negligence had to be proved, was because, when the land was bought—and this was referred to by the hon. Member who moved the Second Reading—so high a price was paid that it covered all damages to amenities, including the damages claimed for in this respect, and I submit that the original figure of £100 was agreed to purely as an act of grace and nothing else.
That being the case, unless some very good reason can be put forward, I can see no reason why the amount should be increased from £100 to £200. The hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham (Captain Bowyer) gave various reasons why the amount should be increased. The first was that the value of the crops had increased in the course of the last few years. It might have been supposed in that case that the figures would show that the value of the claims had risen to such an extent that no longer did the £100 cover claims put forward, but the figures supplied by the railway companies show that out of some 400 claims put forward to the railway companies last year, in the exceptional summer that has been referred to, 335 claims were for less than £25. That is to say, 10 per cent, of the claims were below the figure of £100. Only five per cent, of the claims made were over £100. That being the case, it does not appear that there is any reason at the moment why the figure should be increased from £100 to £200, nor, as far as I can see, is there any reason why the time of notice should be increased from seven to 14 days. Most hon. Members would admit that the Post Office is not as satisfactory as it was in the year 1905, but that is hardly a reason for altering an Act of Parliament.
I am very glad to hear that that is not a reason. I was trying only to help my hon. Friend to put forward a possible reason. What it comes to is that circumstances have not altered to any extent and that there is no reason why the amount should be increased. It has become then, a question whether a little more can be got out of the unfortunate railway companies. If the amount to be taken out of the railway companies is to be increased, the railway companies will have to find some way of keeping up their revenue. Yet we have the agricultural community demanding, I think rightly, that rates, and especially agricultural rates, should be reduced. They cannot have it both ways, for the two do not go together. I hope the House will not give the Bill a Second Reading.
The question whether railway rates are on a fair basis or not does not enter into the consideration of this Bill. The point has to be considered on its merits. I was rather astounded at the argument of the hon. and gallant Member for Hulme (Lieut. -Colonel Nail). He seemed to think that there were certain people in this House who were animated solely by the desire to add to the burdens of the railway companies. I am certainly not animated by such a desire. In my opinion, however, the railway companies have added considerably to the burdens of the general public and the trading community.
My hon. and gallant Friend says this Bill will add another burden. If loss has been sustained, it has to be met in some way. It is said, in effect, "If you compel the railway companies to meet it, the community in return will also have to suffer. "Take the case of the smallholder. Labour and capital have been expended in producing crops, and the railway companies, in cases of lire, are the bodies best competent to bear the loss, and in equity they ought to be compelled to do so. The hon. Member who spoke last cold us that only 5 per cent- of the claims made were for sums over £100. The number does not affect the principle. If there were only 1 per cent, there would still be a strong case for the Bill. Is it a fact that devices are in existence for preventing sparks doing damage to crops? I am informed that railway companies have refused to adopt such devices, because as soon as one engine used the device the principle of contributory negligence would be settled. If it is possible to obviate the flying of sparks by the adoption of any device, we ought not to encourage the railway companies to refrain from adopting the device; on the contrary we ought to stimulate them to do so by insisting on their acceptance of the obligations under this Bill. The companies have been telling us that they feel compelled to double their rates. That is evidence of the fact that prices in general have risen. If a limit of £100 was justifiable under the 1905 Act, to double that figure now is wholly defensible. As to the time for giving notices and making statements of claim, a new factor has arisen in the last few years. The large- estates of the country are being cut up. It is the settled policy that we should induce small men to go on the land, and we have now a large number of smallholders who are not accustomed to business methods. It is reasonable that we should ask that they should have a little longer time in which to prepare their claims. This Bill is of small dimensions. Nevertheless, it involves a principle of some importance and the House ought to give it a Second Reading. Criticisms of it may be put to the test before a Committee upstairs.
I think there is a little misapprehension as to the legal basis on which this matter rests, and perhaps it is as well that the House should understand that it is not exactly a question of negligence at the present time. Parliament has long ago authorised railways to be constructed, and it has authorised them to be constructed for the benefit of the general community. It has given them statutory powers and it has passed Acts to enable railways to be laid throughout the land. It is probably impossible to construct an engine that will prevent sparks from flying under any circumstances. When the Acts were passed, it was known that fires were caused by sparks, and from time to time fires have been caused. The hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham (Captain Bowyer) quoted a legal term and suggested that the railway companies should use their own property in such a way as not to damage the property of others. The maxim is really not applicable to railway companies. Railway companies are permitted by Parliament to use what are, ex hypothesi, dangerous instruments, namely, railway engines— dangerous in so far as they are liable to emit sparks. Legislative authority has permitted them to be used. In their nature they are dangerous to those who have agricultural produce on land adjoining a railway.
Therefore, it is not the fact that Parliament has authorised something which can be used with or without negligence, but that Parliament has authorised something to be used which in in itself dangerous to the country through which it passes, though, of course, much less dangerous now than it was before some of the devices in use to-day were introduced. Parliament authorised that because it is on the whole a benefit to the community that these great engines should traverse the land. When fires first took place railway companies were sued in respect of them, but, in accordance with a very well known legal principle, if you are using statutory powers in a proper way you cannot be made liable for the consequence of the use of those powers. The railway companies were acquitted except in cases where it could be shown they were not using the best known devices for preventing damage. It has been suggested that the railway companies are refraining from using the best known devices because if they put one of these devices on the funnel of an engine, or any other part of an engine from which sparks are emitted, they will be held liable. If there is any device known, whether fitted to single engines or not, it is the easiest possible thing to prove in a court of law that the railway company has been guilty of negligence, and it will not affect the question of whether the device has been fitted to one engine or to no engine. All that is necessary is to call some gentleman to prove that there is such a device in existence, and that the railway companies have not availed themselves of it. Then it would be held, as it has been held in numbers of cases, that the railway company was not using its statutory powers reasonably.
That is sufficient to show that this is not altogether a question of such negligence as my hon. and gallant Friend the Seconder of the Motion suggested. He said it would be necessary to trace out the engine driver and to prove that he had operated the engine negligently. That might be one way of proving negligence, but all that is necessary is to prove that the proper devices are not being used. It is said that it would be difficult for an individual to do this, but in these days of associations who fight all cases of this sort, it is not exactly the fact that an individual is powerless against powerful railway companies. Individuals in these days have associations and unions to protect them and assert their right. It is not right that railway companies, having been authorised by Statute to use their lines in the manner approved by Parliament, should be penalised on the grounds put forward in this Bill. The Act of 1905 was a concession by the railway companies. On what ground is it sought to extend that concession? People know that when they take a farm or purchase land near the railway, they receive the benefit attaching to contiguity to the railway, as well as the disadvantages attaching to the risk of fire. A farm which is five miles from the railway, necessitating long haulage, is not so attractive as a farm adjoining a railway station. If people take the benefits they must also take the burdens. It may be said that a farmer who has a farm between two stations, and a distance from both, is not affected on that ground, but, at the same time, in a great many cases, nearness to the railway is a great advantage, and, broadly speaking, a farm which is near the railway is, except in some districts, favourably situated as far as transport is concerned.
The Bill rests upon a fallacy. To suggest that because the price of produce has risen, say, from £100 to £200, the Act of 1905 should be amended, is a fallacy. Supposing a man has damage done to a field of three or four acres, that the whole field is swept by fire, as sometimes occurred last summer, he does not get an amount proportioned to that damage. He gets £100 at the present time, irrespective of the total damage done. There is no reason why he should get £200. It is not a question of getting compensation for a certain bulk, and it cannot be suggested that because the bulk destroyed was once worth £100, but is now worth £200, that he should now receive £200. The principle of the Act of 1905 was that the small man should get a small amount of the damage to the extent to which the railway companies were prepared to accede. That was fixed at £100, a purely arbitrary figure, and therefore it is not a question of valuing a bulk or a certain weight of produce or of timber or of anything else, but of giving the man an arbitrary sum. The railway companies were prepared to pay £100 to avoid disputes in this matter, and therefore the arguments as to the increased value of produce are not altogether relevant.
It is quite true that railway rates have been increased, but I do not think they were increased for this purpose. They were increased because other expenses have gone up. If we once begin to amend all the Acts of Parliament before 1914 which mention sums of money, and to double those sums, Parliament will have plenty of work before it. On these grounds, I venture to think the Bill is unnecessary, and is at the same time unfair to the railway companies and will not encourage them to give concessions in future on the lines suggested by the hon. and gallant Member for Hulme (Lieut.-Colonel Nail), and I suggest it should not get a Second Reading.
I rise to support the Second Reading of this Measure. Had I any doubt about supporting the Measure, I should be induced to take that course by the arguments of those who oppose it. On the one hand we were asked by the hon. Member for Hulme to consider the misfortunes of the railway companies and the hardships caused to them, while the hon. Member for Richmond (Mr. Murrough Wilson) took care to explain that out of the 400 claims made against the railway companies last year 70 per cent, were under £25. On the one hand, we are told the railway companies will have to pay an additional burden, and on the other hand that the damage done to the farms is so small as to be almost negligible. I do not think we ought to consider the "unfortunate body" of the railway companies, but rather the luckless smallholder whose holding happens to be contiguous with the railway line. This was described by the Mover as a small Measure. It is a small measure of justice and I agree with the right hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. G. Roberts) that even if in the course of the year only half a dozen cases arose where this Measure would come into operation, for the sake of those six cases it would be worth while passing the Bill. It may involve some unfortunate smallholder in utter ruin. I think I may even rely on the argument of the hon. Member who said that in the end the community had to pay. Is it not fair that the community should pay? The railways are run for the advantage of the whole community, and the community ought to bear the occasional loss that does arise from the destruction of crops. That ought not to fall upon the unfortunate farmer or smallholder. Though a trifling burden on the shoulders of the community, it would be a crushing burden to fall upon one man. It is because this Measure is a measure of justice to the small man and the individual as against the community that I support the Second Reading.
I want to support the Second Reading of the Bill. It may be of interest to say that when the £100 limit was fixed the price of wheat was 26s. a quarter, and even though the price of wheat is double that to-day, most people know that it does not pay to grow it; therefore anything that hinders the development of corn growing is going to be a serious handicap to the production of food. Whatever may be said from the point of view of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Inskip), who spoke from the legal standpoint, it is far more essential to come to the realities of the situation and to realise the difficulties of farmers, and to note that this is a small Bill brought forward to help them at a time when they want all the help they can get. This Bill has the approval of every farmers' association and is commended throughout the length and breadth of the rural community. Things have been said to-day which make one think that the realities of the situation are not always appreciated. My hon. and learned Friend talked about a farmer going to the High Court, and so on. Those of us who live in rural districts know that the last thing the farmer wants is to go into the High Court; it is not the nature of the farmer to do that sort of thing. He would prefer to get a settlement made in the locality, through some arrangement put through by the local stationmaster, in a commonsense way, rather than go to a High Court, even though he has an association to work with.
There is another factor—those who are interested in railway companies will correct me if I am wrong—which is that one now sees bigger and bigger engines, drawing heavier and longer trains, and where they are going up inclines, and the steam pressure has to be greater, the danger of sparks coming out is not a diminishing one. To come back to the value of agricultural produce, my hon. and gallant Friend who seconded the Bill (Captain Bowyer) gave figures with reference to crops which I do not think were altogether correct. What we are all trying to do is to get a larger bulk per acre, to make the land more fertile and to produce more quarters of corn per acre, and that point has not been considered. The argument which has been put forward that a farmer alongside a railway gets any benefit from the railway does not always hold. There may be something in the argument if he happens to have bought his land close to a railway station, but there are miles and miles of railway running through farm land far from any station at all, and farmers there may be seriously injured, especially if the land happens to lie near an incline, without deriving any benefit from the contiguity of the line. This is a commonsense Bill brought in to deal with an acute problem in agriculture. I see the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) has now arrived in his place. I know him to be a keen farmer and greatly interested in agriculture, for I have had many talks with him on the difficulties of the land, and the burdens of the land, and we shall see to-day if he is prepared to do something for those people with whom ho works and whom he has an interest in. I should not like to make a forecast, but I think he must be rather torn in his feelings about this Bill. I hope, however, that he will give agriculture his support, and that in these times of difficulty which we have to face he will be prepared to recommend to every director of the railways that this Bill should be supported in every possible way.
I also desire to add a word in support of the Bill and to say a word on the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Inskip). He delivered a long legal argument, which I should not feel competent to follow, but it showed that the railway companies were subject to no penalty, because they were running through the land under statutory powers. It is quite clear they are only running with statutory powers subject to penalties which Parliament has provided. It is most reasonable in the difficult circumstances facing agriculture at the present time—it is almost vital to agriculture—that the situation under this Bill should be put on a fairer basis. I could not follow the argument of the hon. and learned Gentleman when he said that the penalty of £100 agreed upon in 1905 was not a penalty bearing any ratio to the value of the crops which were destroyed. That seems to be an utterly absurd and ridiculous argument. I could not understand it, and I could not follow it. Surely if the damage is twice as much to-day, compensation should be paid at an increased rate. Small people who, he says, are banded together in unions and associations may be able to put their case forward, but every business man in the country, however big and however important he may be, knows the difficulty of fighting a railway company, or any other big corporation. It is a very serious task; no business man would undertake litigation against a railway company unless he were pretty sure of his point, and pretty certain that he was going to succeed. I suggest that the railway companies should look upon this with a lenient eye to-day and should not come here to-day opposing this Bill. We in this House know that a Bill is coming before the House on Monday in which they are asking for great powers, and I do not think it is wise for them to come here to-day threatening the small agricultural interests with opposition to this Bill, which may mean that there will be opposition inflicted upon them on the Bill which is coming forward on Monday night. There is a great difference also which has arisen since the 1905 Act was passed. The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Foot) mentioned the case of smallholders. There is also the case of allotment holders. Their case does press for the more sympathetic consideration which this Bill asks the House to confer. For these and other reasons, I desire to say that my support will be given in favour of the Bill.
The hon. Member who has just sat down has advanced very curious reasons for the acceptance of the Second Reading of this Bill. First of all, he says the House must remember that the agricultural industry is in a very difficult position to-day, which is absolutely true. Why should the railway companies be chosen to put it in a better position? Why does not the hon. Member come forward and, out of his own pocket, help to put agriculture in a better position? Does the hon. Gentleman really suppose that the Bill is going to do any good to agriculture as a whole? Of course it will do no such thing. Agriculture, as a whole, is in a bad position, and if the hon. Gentleman would support me in putting a duty on the import of wheat and corn and other products of agriculture, then I would agree with him. But I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is doing what is a very common thing— being generous with other people's money, and as he thinks that the railway companies are people who are easily shot at, it will be a very good thing to see if he cannot get something out of the pockets of the unfortunate shareholders who, I beg to remind him, have not participated in the profits which manufacturers and traders made during the War, but have been obliged to be content, not only with not a larger dividend, but, many cases, with a smaller dividend than they had before the War. When he talks about allotment holders and smallholders do not let him forget that the vast majority of railway shareholders consist of people holding £400 or £500 of stock.
Then the hon. Gentleman says, "Ah! do not let the railway companies be foolish. Some of them, not all of them, are going to have a Bill on Monday, and if they object to this Bill to-day, we shall object to the Bill on Monday. "What an argument! It is not a case of whether the thing is right or wrong, but because the hon. Gentleman thinks he may put on a little pressure, he says the Bill on Monday may be objected to. Blackmail!
That is rather like the old saying, "Don't nail his ears to the pump. "What the hon. Gentleman would do himself I do not know, but what he said was evidently an inducement to other Members to follow the bad advice he was prepared to give to the House. If he came down to my private house and said to me, "Unless you do so and so, I shall exact a penalty from you," and I rang the bell and telephoned for the police, he would be arrested and brought before a court of law for endeavouring to obtain money by threats. Therefore, I hope the hon. Gentleman will think better of the advice which he gave a short time ago to the House.
I remember perfectly well the Bill of 1905. What is the true position with regard to the railway companies. Do not let the House be under any misapprehension. When the railway companies were started they had to buy the land, and they bought it for a specific purpose. That purpose was to run trains drawn by steam engines over that land. The landlords took very good care to obtain a very good price for the land—more than they would have obtained in the ordinary course—because it was thought that considerable danger would be involved by having trains running over the land. Having bought the land for the express purpose of running trains over it drawn by steam locomotives, and having to pay a much larger price than they would have got it for for agricultural purposes, they are now told they must pay an additional sum. Was anything more unreasonable ever put before any House of Commons in any country in the world? What is the remedy for the tenant farmer? It is this. He should say to the landlord, "I have got a farm, and part of that farm runs along the railway. There is a certain risk attached to it in a dry season. You or your predecessors obtained a very considerable sum of money for the land. You have sold it to the railway company, therefore you can afford to let my farm rather cheaper because it has certain disadvantages under these circumstances." There is no question that a farm adjoining the railway has certain disadvantages, unless there is a station, which would give the farmer a very great advantage.
Those are arguments which I cannot think any reasonable man, who divests his mind of prejudice, can possibly oppose. My hon. Friend is mistaken if he thinks the damage done now costs twice as much as it did in 1905. Does he mean to tell me the price of oats or wheat at the present moment is twice now what it was in 1905? Of course, he knows it is not. He knows that cereals, to say nothing of other things, are rapidly coming down to the prices of 1905, and does he propose, if they come down to those prices, that there should be a Clause inserted in this Bill reducing the limit back to £100? Because unless ho does, then his argument that, because prices have increased, this amount ought to be increased falls to the ground. But, like everything else connected with this Bill, the people who have brought it forward want to have everything their own way, and to have their cake and eat it, too. I do not think the House in 1905 would have disputed the argument? have advanced, but there was a sort of appeal ad misericordiam, and it was agreed that for a distance of 100 yards from the line the railway company should be liable in every instance for fires, not exceeding £100 for each fire. What is the actual result? Last year was the worst year, from the point of view of railway companies, that has existed since 1905, owing, as the House knows, to the extremely dry season, which made it extremely difficult to stop fires, and when a small fire did occur, it naturally spread. Take the figures of claims made against the Great Northern Railway Company. There were 478 claims settled in the year, and they worked out as follows: 335 under £25; 70 over £25 and under £50; 34 over £50 and under £75; 14 over £75 and under £100; and, out of the 478, only 25, or 5 per cent., above £100. That shows the absurdity of making this alteration. In all probability the Great Northern Railway was a larger sufferer than other railways except the London and South-Western, which runs through even a drier district, but we may take it that this is, more or less, the experience of all the companies.
The next point is that the time for making a claim is to be extended from seven to 14 days. Why? A farmer, especially a small farmer, knows perfectly well whether a fire has occurred or not, and if you are going to wait 14 days, how on earth can the railway companies check whether the fire really occurred, owing to their sparks, or whether it occurred from some other reason? Last year was a very bad year for all spring corn. If an agricultural labourer dropped a match and set fire to a bad crop the farmer might say, "I am not sure what did it; it might have been a spark from an engine, and I will put in a claim on the chance. "That is not impossible, and, therefore, I think the extension of the seven days to 14 is even worse than the extension of the £100 to £200. After all it is easy for the farmer to deliver a letter informing the station-master that a fire has occurred on such a date, or to spend 2d. in writing a letter to the head office of the railway company informing them. So that I do not see any necessity whatever for the extension of time from seven days to 14, unless it be with the object of allowing claims more or less fictitious to be brought forward, because it is not an easy matter always to ascertain how a fire arose. Many fires have occurred—I do not say for a moment through incendiarism—but you do not know how they did occur, and therefore to extend the period to 14 days seems absolutely absurd, and the same applies to the time for delivery of particulars being extended from 14 days to 21.
In view of the enormous burdens that are put upon the railway companies at the present time, and in view of the fact that a Bill of this sort is certain to encourage litigation without remedying any evil, there is no need for the Bill. I have proved that in the driest year we have had within the memory possibly of anybody in this House that, in connection with one of the largest railways, over 5 per cent, of the claims have been over £100. In this world you have nothing perfect. Whatever legislation take place must have its defects in one way or another, and as against one person or another. Here you are going to alter the law for the sake of 5 per cent, of cases which arise, and that seems to me to be absolutely ridiculous. It does not follow that this 5 per cent. of claims is all that have been settled. The companies endeavour, although I am not certain whether I quite agree, to keep out of the Law Courts, because, unfortunately, juries generally take the same view as my hon. Friend opposite, though in a different way. They consider the railway company is rich. That is not true; I wish it were! But the juries say, "Oh, it is the railway company, it will not make a great deal of difference to them; it will not hurt them, let us give damages, they will do some poor man good. "I think I have advanced reasons sufficient to induce the House to throw out this Bill. There is no need for it. It may inflict certain injustices on the companies and it may add to litigation.
The Government place this matter in the hands of the House to decide, and, therefore, in the few words I shall utter, I am not speaking officially, though, so far as personally I am concerned, I support the Bill. We have just heard a most entertaining speech from the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City (Sir F. Banbury), who told us he was a landlord, which is not now a popular thing. It is, however, becoming more popular, I think. He has adopted the more popular calling of a chairman of the railway company. It would have been very much better if he had spoken from the point of view of a landlord or a farmer, for his audience to-day are not likely to help him to throw out this Bill. What did he tell us? He said the Bill was quite unnecessary, because the great majority of claims against the railway company were less than £100. What follows from that? That the damage or harm which is likely to be done to the railway company is infinitesimally small! He suggested that the railway companies may have in a way to make good any deficiency in the farmers' income, but nobody thinks that this little Bill is going to cure agricultural depression. Nobody suggests that it is going to have any big or general effect at all. What is it going to do? I believe it would provide a remedy where one is needed for certain individuals. On this ground I think it ought to be supported. The right hon. Baronet said that 5 per cent, of the claims were over £100.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN:
Which runs through a dry district! And in the case of his own railway, the right hon. Baronet says only 5 per cent, of the claims will be affected by this Bill. I put it to him, therefore, that the effect of this Bill upon the dividends to his shareholders and the general prosperity of the railway will be practically nil. On the other hand, those individuals who have had these claims would receive compensation. They are smallholders, small farmers and, maybe, some of the ex-service men whom we have, recently placed on the land. In the case of the latter, justice merely would be done. My right hon. Friend made another remarkable statement. He said that when the railways were originally constructed the landowners sold land to the railway companies and that, therefore, the railway companies on their part had the right to send their engines throughout the country, doing what damage they liked In other words, they had the full right to run trains, and he justified his position on this ground that, the landowners having got a good "whack" out of the railway companies, the companies were for ever entitled to do this damage.
I did not say that. What I was endeavouring to suggest was the difference between the present proposal and the previous Bill. Negligence on the part of the railway companies may be proved notwithstanding that the railway companies have taken every human precaution to prevent conflagrations.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN:
I quite understand that point. It is that the right hon. Gentleman thinks that, in view of the fact that the landowners invested large sums in the companies, the companies have a right to run their trains doing damage—as he himself admitted— and that unless you could prove there was really culpable negligence the claim should not hold! That I believe to be a correct statement; but my right hon. Friend overlooked the difficulty on the part of the individual farmer to prove culpable negligence. Farmers as a rule have not got legal advice handy, and, again, it is a difficult question to say what is negligence in this matter. Is it negligence if a railway company has not adopted some device to prevent the emission of sparks? Is it negligence if the drivers stoke up their engines at certain particularly dry places where the damage to the crops is likely to be great? It must be obvious to the House that to prove negligence is a very difficult matter. Therefore, in 1905, to meet this demand, what I consider was a fair compromise was arranged. It was laid down when the Act was passed that up to £100 compensation should be given without the necessity of proof of negligence. Everybody realises, as has already been pointed out more than once, that the value of money has entirely changed since 1905, and if £100 was fair then there seems to be a primâ facie case for looking into the matter now, to see whether a rather higher limit ought not to be imposed on the present occasion. Therefore, in my humble judgment, the House would be well advised to give this Bill a Second Reading. The matter could then be fully discussed before the Standing Committee.
I am not for a moment saying that I would like to commit myself to a limit of £200 because £100 was right in 1905. The value of money has changed. We should not now enact another permanent Measure fixing the amount at £200 for all time. The value of money is fluctuating, and in a few years' time it may be what it was in 1905. Again, another matter which the Committee might take into consideration is whether this charge should be a permanent one or a temporary one to meet the temporary fluctuations in the value of money. In any case, it does seem to me that this Bill aims at remedying a small injustice, which I admit may be a large one in individual cases, and it falls upon certain individuals. The cost to the railway companies would be small, and therefore I think the House would be well advised to give this Measure a Second Reading.
There is an ancient saying that when thieves fall out honest men come by their own. I cannot help thinking that at first sight this Bill gives an apt illustration of that maxim, because the landlords and the railway directors are not in agreement.
The right hon. Gentleman is interested both ways, and yet he opposes the Bill. On the whole, I have come to the conclusion that this is not really a question between the landlords and the railway companies. If I remember rightly, we passed last year the Railways Act, which established the fact that railway companies were allowed to keep their freight rates and their fares high until it could be shown that their profits were excessive.
That is not right. The railway companies were supposed to be allowed to keep up their rates and charges, provided they did not exceed the dividend of 1913, and if they did, 80 per cent, was to be given to the traders and 20 per cent, to the revenue.
That is a perfectly accurate statement. This is not really a question between the railway companies and the landlords, but between the landlords and the traders, as to who should get the benefit of any surplus profits. This Bill will pro tanto affect the profits of the railway companies. This is really a question between the landlords on the one hand and the community on the other, and they are both interested in this Bill.
We have just had a very valuable admission from the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London. He made it quite clear that when railway companies were started they paid a fancy price for the agricultural land they bought. I always thought that that was blackmail in order to get the Bill promoted by the railway companies through the House of Commons, but that evidently was not so. When they paid extortionate prices for agricultural land for their railways it was not merely for the acquisition of the land, but it was also for the acquisition of the right to run railway lines through the land. We have now had explained what has always been obscure as to why these prices were paid. The railway companies have always been saddled with these high prices, and the traders are paying for them. The reason given was that these engines should be allowed to run through the peaceful country side scattering sparks right and left. In any case there was a bargain struck, It was not really the sale of so much land for grazing cattle, but it was for putting railways on the land. For landlords to come down here, drawing long faces, and relating pitiful stories about the destruction wrought by these wicked engines seems to me to be unfair, because the bargain they drove was a pretty hard one. They made their bed and now they should lie upon it.
This is not a matter affecting only the railway companies and the agriculturists. We are getting here too much into the habit of allowing these matters to be debated without any consideration whatsoever being given to the interests of the community and the consumer. Looking at the proposals in this Measure quite dispassionately, I say that there are many interests in the country which ought to come before the smallholders and those other interests which have been mentioned. There are other sections of the community who must have consideration before we begin increasing compensation to any particular group who may think they are going to be affected by the damage done by railways. What about all the people who have to travel? What about impecunious Scottish Members who have to pay now double the pre-War railway fare every time they go to their constituencies 1 Are they going to have any consideration from the Minister of Agriculture? The right hon. Gentleman is dealing with the problem of compensation to farmers and smallholders in exactly the same spirit in which he has been handling the important problem of Canadian store cattle. He has been dealing with this matter as if it were a question which only affected the agriculturists of this country and no other section of the community. I maintain that that, again, is a problem for the consumer of the home-grown butchers' meat, and, on that ground, I have challenged the decision. Here, again, to-day he says that the sparks which have cause so much discussion this afternoon— [HON.MBMBKRS: "Divide!"]—I am sorry that those who affect to believe in independent Liberalism should wish to avoid discussion of an important Measure, but I shall not be diverted from my argument. The Minister of Agriculture pictured the woes of the smallholder, who might conceivably be nearly ruined by sparks falling among his crops. The smallholder has suffered these dangers all along, and he has been compensated under the Act of 1905.
I listened to my hon. Friend who introduced the Bill and to the Seconder, but I failed to discover that they had any substantial reason for proposing any alteration in the law at the present juncture. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the Ctiy of London (Sir F. Banbury) took up a very interesting point with reference to the amount which the landlords have already got out of the railway companies. Some of my hon. Friends opposite, I know, hold very strong views as to the amount of money which the landlords wore able to extort from the railway companies when new lines were being developed in all parts of the country. I can take hon. Members to a little line running through a portion of Scotland which covers far more agricultural land than it need necessarily have done, for the simple reason that the land- lords in that part of the country thought that their mansions were going to be spoiled if the railway came too near. Consequently, in Perthshire you have the line twisting and turning through most valuable agricultural land because the landlords in those days hated the railways as they hate motor traffic to-day. The railways had to pay fancy prices for the right of going over that land, but I have to pay extra for every mile I travel because of the demands of the railway companies. I think my hon. Friend realises that when he comes down here with a Bill of this sort he is not very easily going to get the support of people who are interested, not in agriculture, but in the rights of large masses of people in industrial areas, whose rights ought to come before the supposed grievances of any particular section of the community
I am sorry. I was replying to my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend said that it is not a right of the railway companies to burn crops, but my hon. Friend the Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Inskip) has explained the law on that point. You will have accidents happen whether from sparks or in other ways, and damage will be done, but that is no reason why on a Friday afternoon the Legislature should suddenly be asked to pass a Measure which is going exactly to double the burden put on the railway companies. It has been represented that this is a very little thing and that it is not going to affect railway dividends or anyone, and we are told not to worry about it, but to do this justice to a very deserving class, some of whom have fought on the field of battle. All honour to them, but there are hundreds of thousands of other men who fought as strenuously in all theatres or war, and they are going to be penalised, at any rate, to some extent, for the benefit of the very few. I do not think that is the sort of principle which we ought to introduce here. Someone has got to pay this money and, knowing the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London and other railway directors, I guarantee that in the end it will be the railway travellers. We are all railway travellers, and we ought to oppose this Bill. On the whole, there is far too much tendency in the Legislature to treat agriculture as a spoilt child. It is always getting some concession and, when agriculture is mentioned, Members representing agricultural constituencies always become almost lachrymose. You find influences of it in the most unusual and most unexpected quarters.
Nowadays, I live under a strong feeling that is constantly being pressed upon me that, as a Liberal, I am suspect in certain quarters of the House. I read a great deal about the return of one of the impeccable few the other day from a Division called Bodmin (Mr. Foot), and I thought that now we should hear something of these pure and undiluted principles of Liberalism which I am always trying to discover but never hear anything about from the benches opposite. I find, however, that he is in favour of this class legislation. He has in his constituency a few smallholders with holdings near the railway line, and therefore he has made it his business to tell the House that they ought to have compensation out of the funds of the whole community. I welcome this early opportunity of the appearance of the hon. Member for Bodmin to tell him that, having been nurtured in pure Glad-stonianism, I do not think it is any part of the business of an undiluted Liberal like himself or myself to come down here and argue on a Friday afternoon for a Measure which is purely sectional and very much class legislation.
No. I would not like to deny my hon. Friend the pleasure of listening to me for so long as he is disposed to remain in his place. I have enumerated a few of the reasons why I oppose this Measure. There is in Scotland a scheme for the electrification of the Highland Railway. That, it seems to me, will dispose of the sparks and all the trouble connected therewith, much more effectively than any Measure which can be brought forward in this House. For my part, I sincerely hope that that electrification may be carried out to cover all the areas as soon as possible as far as the Western Isles, so that my hon. Friend opposite, who is vitally interested in the matter, will also be able to enjoy some of the fruits of this great benevolent scheme. I think I have finished. We have to recognise that this Bill, although its scope may appear to be limited, nevertheless contains an important principle. It provides that a section of the community shall draw compensation from the great mass of the people of this country. I trust that my hon. Friends will give thought to all the arguments which have been advanced against the Bill, and that they will not press it to a Division which might cause it to be assumed that some of us are opposed to agriculture. I have endeavoured to make it clear that my sympathies are with the legitimate demands of agriculture, but when it comes to the point of asking us to pass this for the advantage of agriculture, then I would urge that there are others equally needing assistance. It should be borne in mind that the travelling public and the traders are among the classes which ought to have consideration, and ought to get relief from the pressing burden which this Bill would impose by means of the votes of travelling Members of Parliament.
I think the speech to which we have just listened shows that the hon. Member has greater interest in the Bill down next for discussion than in this particular Measure. I would remind him that he will have plenty of opportunity later on for dealing with that. I think it is a pity he should have taken up such a long time to-day. It has been represented by the opponents of this Measure that it is intended to put an additional burden on the railways and on the public generally, but the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) has shown that this particular burden is absolutely insignificant. If evidence were required of that it is to be found in the fact that the right hon. Gentleman himself was late for this Debate. I never knew him, when a railway Bill was down on the Order Paper, to be late, and I think we are entitled to* assume that his late arrival proves that here there is not very much at stake as far as the railways are concerned.
If the hon. and gallant Gentleman wants to know why I was late, I may tell him that a railway company of which I am chairman had a very important board meeting to-day, and I came down here as soon as it was over.
Evidently the right hon. Baronet was dealing with matters of greater interest to the railway companies than this Bill. It seems to me that the object of this Bill is not so much to provide the farmers or smallholders or anyone else with compensation as it is to try and stop these fires taking place and thereby to protect our food supplies. Who is it that can stop the fires? It is the railway companies. The farmers and the smallholders cannot do it. Experience has shown that the number of these fires has tended to increase in recent years, therefore it is highly desirable in the public interest that some additional pressure should be put on the railways to stop them. They, alone, as I have said, are the people who can do that. They certainly could do something more than they have done in the past to put spark-preventers on their engines and to give better notice to tenants of lands adjoining their lines when they have started fires, so that the damage may be minimised as much as possible. The Scottish Farmers' Union have considered this Bill, and, although they do not look upon it as wholly satisfactory, they do believe it is a step in the right direction. I therefore ask hon. Members of the House to support it in the interests of agriculture.
Like the last speaker, I have been requested by the Farmers' Union, in Lincolnshire, to support this Bill. I think it is a perfectly reasonable proposal. I do not wish to put any extra burden on the railway companies, but I do think that the grant of a little increased compensation would tend to make the companies more careful, and induce them also to investigate measures for preventing sparks from their engines damaging the countryside. I have seen in Canada the enormous damage done to a whole countryside through mere carelessness, and I think that in this more highly cultivated country we ought to insist on great care in this respect. It has been admitted that the question of compensation is a comparatively small matter so far as the railway companies are concerned. I believe the passing of this Bill would remove a great feeling of injustice now entertained by the farmers of this country, and for these reasons I shall vote in favour of the Measure.
It is with considerable misgiving that I have listened to the Debate. I should have thought that a Bill of this character could have passed through the House with practically no discussion, but I have rather gathered that some of the speakers have been occupying the time because they do not want to have to talk on the next Bill which is to come on for discussion. I have been considerably relieved of that fear by the fact that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Aberdeen (Major M. Wood), who naturally desires to express his views and to give his vote on the next Bill on the Order Paper, has also felt it incumbent upon him to take part in this discussion. I am afraid some of the remarks which have been made have rather blinded the House to the real facts which have given rise to this Bill. We listened to a very interesting disquisition by the right hon. Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) upon the history of the way in which railway companies acquired land in order to construct their lines, and I think everybody will agree that the railway companies probably did have to pay excessive prices for the land which they acquired. But it is rather difficult to believe that the railway companies have not by this time set their finances sufficiently in order to have recovered and recouped themselves for that excessive price from those who use the railway, either as passengers or as senders of goods, because the right hon. Baronet, I am quite sure, will not deny that neither his company nor the other companies are philanthropic institutions. It is true they perform a great service to the country, but they demand a certain amount of compensation for that service. I would like to remind the right hon. Baronet that what we are discussing to-day is a small Amendment to a Bill which was passed at a time when his own party were in office. I do not know what attitude the right hon. Gentleman took up towards the Bill of 1905.
Then he was a Diehard in 1905, and he did what everybody probably imagined he had done. He opposed that Bill, as he has opposed so many others, and as we all hope he may live long to oppose many more. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Inskip) gave a clear enunciation of the principles on which railway companies are liable for negligence, but that really is not relevant to the discussion of this Bill. It is quite true that where a man can establish negligence against a railway company he can recover damages, but we all know that there are many cases where farmers suffer, not from the negligence of the railway companies, but from the action or, perhaps, even the accidents of railway companies, and it is well known that there is nothing which may perhaps cause a farmer, and particularly a small farmer, greater damage than a small spark from an engine when it sets fire to his crops. We are not here discussing the principle. The principle was accepted in the 1905 Act, and all that we are discussing to-day is two small Amendments on matters of detail. The first is with regard to the notice which shall be given to a railway company by a farmer whose property has been damaged by a spark. The right hon. Baronet said that 14 days was too long, but let him consider the position with which many of us are acquainted, of the farmers who live in remote country districts. They probably do not know of the Act of 1905, and I do not suppose they will know of this Bill when it becomes an Act, but it does not follow that it is not important to them, any more than it does not follow that it was not important to the right hon. Baronet because he did not come down until after his meeting with his directors, and for all I know this very Bill was perhaps under discussion.
Then I imagine that the Great Northern Railway Company did not consider that it was a measure of such a revolutionary character that it was necessary to discuss it at a directors' board meeting. The farmers in the country districts will probably not be acquainted with the provisions of this Bill, as I was saying, and therefore it is necessary for them, when their property is damaged by fire, to consult a solicitor. In many parts of the country a farmer will go into the nearest town only once a week, or perhaps once a fortnight, or even once a month. Solicitors, like railway companies, are not philanthropists. They expect to be remunerated for their services. They therefore do not have offices in remote rural districts, but in the towns, and I can conceive of many occasions on which a farmer would not, perhaps, have the opportunity of consulting a solicitor for a period of 14 days. Therefore, I do not think it unfair to extend this period from seven days to 14 days, as is proposed. After all, it is very few landlords of whom it can be said that their tenants all have motor cars, as the right hon. Baronet is able proudly to claim for the tenants on his estates. It is a matter of great interest for all of us to observe the attitude taken up by the right hon. Baronet, who combines in himself not only the position of a railway director and a landlord, but also, I understand, that of a pretty considerable farmer. Apparently, as a landlord, he does not own a motor car. I do not know whether as a railway director he requires one, and it would be interesting to know whether his own landlords are as good to him as he is to his tenants, and whether as a tenant he possesses a motor ear. We all know that, generally speaking, smallholders and small farmers in the country districts certainly do not possess motor cars, and therefore it is not unreasonable to give them an opportunity of considering the matter under discussion for 14 days.
The other small Amendment proposed is with regard to the amount which can be recovered. It is proposed to make it £200 instead of £100. I agree with the right hon. Baronet that it is not very relevant to this discussion to discuss the question of the price of oats and wheat at the present time. The figure of £100 was decided upon in 1905, not in relation to the damage which might be sustained by farmers, but it was taken as an arbitrary figure. To-day all that we are asking is to make it £200, and I think there is good ground for that, and there would certainly not be much harm done to the railway companies, because, as the right hon. Baronet said, in only 5 per cent, of the cases was the amount claimed over £100. In view of that fact I cannot see that by passing this Bill we shall be heaping upon the railway companies or upon the community at large that great measure of disaster and of considerably heavier burdens which has been so gloomily prophesied by one or two hon. Members who have spoken to-day. It seems to me that they are perfectly reasonable Amendments in view of the circumstances in which we live. The industry of agriculture is probably more depressed than any other industry at the present time, and the small farmer is certainly suffering, and when it may be possible, as it is, for the small farmer to be deprived of the whole of his capital by a spark from an engine, it is not too much for us to give him this small measure of justice.
The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) made a very interesting speech, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Aberdeen (Major M. Wood) suggested that the right hon. Baronet came down to the House at a later period than he usually does. The House will agree that the right hon. Gentleman gave a most emphatic explanation, but I cannot help thinking that the right hon. Baronet's appearance in the House at a rather later hour than usual may have been affected to some extent by the fact that on his way here he was perhaps having a great conflict with himself to decide which part of him, that part which is landlord or that part which is railway director, should have the victory. That may possibly account for his late appearance. The point I want to make is this, that I cannot understand, after listening to the right hon. Gentleman's speech, why the part which' is the railway director really won the day, because his speech was really as much for the Bill as against the Bill, for after telling us that he did not consider it was a good Bill, he told us that the total number of claims over £100 was only 5 per cent.
I think the right hon. Baronet will probably accept that. He gave some figures as to the total number of claims, which, I think, was 475, and, taking that on a 5 per cent, basis, we find that the maximum total of the claims against his company last year, if this Bill had been in force, would have been £2,500, which is not, so far as the working of a railway company is concerned—
There were 25 claims over £100, and, if my hon. and gallant Friend doubles the £100 and makes it £200, and multiplies the £200 by 25, he will find that it comes to a very much larger amount than he has mentioned.
I beg the right hon. Baronet's pardon. He is quite correct; that is the maximum. But what I intended to say was that it is not likely that every one of those claims would be for the full maximum of £200, and one might certainly assume that the average would be somewhere about £2,500 or £3,000. That is not a very serious matter, considering the actual earnings of a large railway company in any one year. The hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Sturrock) proclaimed, on the strength of that, that the rights of the travelling public are being attacked, that the unfortunate ratepayer is again going to suffer, and that, in particular, the Scottish Members, of whom I happen to be one, are going to be put to great disadvantage, which is a natural aspect for a Scottish Member to take up. I do not think that that criticism is entirely justified. I do not think that any claims that are likely to be made against the railway companies in this matter would in any way affect fares, freight rates or dividends. The amount is not large enough in any sense of the term really to affect any of these three items upon which the hon. Member for Montrose based his opposition to this Bill.
I do not think that the Bill is really of that importance which some people attach to it. It is merely a very small Bill which gives to a certain small number of people an act of justice. It is quite true, as the right hon. Baronet says, that the number of actual smallholders or ex-service men now occupying small holdings who would be affected by this alteration of the £100 limit to £200 would be probably infinitesimal, because, from the figures which the right hon. Baronet very kindly showed me during the Debate, the maximum amount of the claim of any one of these people would probably not exceed £50, having regard to the amount of land that he would hold. The fact that it will not necessarily affect the smallholder, and would affect large landlords, is not, however, an argument against the justice of the Bill, and I, personally, should certainly be prepared to vote for its Second Reading if the hon. Baronet chooses to divide the House. I have spent a good many years in South Africa, and from my experience there I know the enormous damage that can be done by a spark from a railway engine. I also happen at the present time to be a member of the Royal Commission on Fire Prevention, and a very considerable amount of evidence has been laid before us on that particular subject. One of the points brought to our notice quite recently is that the large fire which, as the House will remember, occurred in Hartlepool, where the railway goods yard was destroyed and a large portion of the town was burnt, and where a largo number of railway sleepers belonging to the company were also destroyed in the goods yard, was caused almost certainly by a spark from an engine which was shunting on the line. There is no doubt in my mind that if this Bill, by placing a rather heavier penalty on the railway companies, tends to make them pay rather more attention to the question of the prevention of sparks, then in that direction it will certainly be doing good, because sparks from railway engines not only destroy crops on agricultural land, but many other things as well.
Hartlepool is an interesting example of the kind of damage that can be done in this way. The damage done was very serious because the fire fighting organisation of that particular area was inadequate. With regard to the other provision of the Bill as to extending the date of the claim the right hon. Baronet did not say anything about it. In reference to the proposal to extend the time for sending in claims it is said that farmers greatly dislike writing letters or putting pen to paper. I have heard even that it is a matter of the greatest difficulty to get them to make Income Tax returns. I do not know whether that is true, because I do not represent an agricultural constituency, but I do not think it a sufficient justification for extending the time for the actual notification of the claim from seven days to 14. It is a different thing to extend the time for sending in a detailed notice to 21 days, but to give a much longer time for notifying claims without any detail may tend to encourage the putting in of claims which may not be justified, and that particular point, I hope, will receive attention when the details of the Bill come to be discussed. But, as regards the general purpose of the Bill, I would like to support it.
Almost everything worth saying on this Bill has been said. [HON. MEMBEES:"No!"] A certain proportion of Members who have been present throughout the discussion will also agree with me that a great many of these things have been said more than once. At the same time it does occur to me that there is one aspect of this question which has not yet been touched on, or, if it has, which has not yet been sufficiently emphasised. It seems to me that the effect of this Bill will be, not to penalise the railway shareholder or to be of any considerable advantage to the farmer, but that the immediate and permanent effect will be to give a stimulus to invention and scientific research. In spite of the observations made by the right hon. Baronet and others to the effect that many of us are actuated by not very elegant motives in dealing with railway companies, the plain fact is that neither this Bill nor the Act of 1905 would ever have become necessary had we apparatus to our hands to prevent these sparks. To whatever party we belong, we have all been taught that sparks will fly upwards. I am not sure whether in these advanced days we ought to accept that with complacency, but even if they must fly upwards the complaint made is, not that they fly up but that they come down again.
Should we be unable, with the assistance of science, to prevent them going up, we might, at any rate, do something to prevent them coming down, and if they must come down, cannot we do something to prevent their destructive effect once they reach the fields of the farmer? I make a suggestion in all seriousnesss. Last year we passed a Bill which many of us are beginning to regret having supported. It reduced competition among the railways and gave them a modified monopoly which is already be- ginning to show its dangers. Monopoly always paralyses initiative and deadens enterprise, and one of the immediate effects of last year's Act will be that railway companies will not devote as much time to scientific research as they have done hitherto. I do not wish to support the Bill in order to penalise railway shareholders, not primarily in order to benefit farmers, though I have a great deal of sympathy with them, but I wish to support the Bill most wholeheartedly because it seem6 to me that one of its first results, and I hope one of its continuing results, will be that it will give a much needed impetus to invention and scientific research.
The Debate has been exceptionally interesting, especially to those of us who sit on the Opposition side. We have listened to the exponents of the farmers claim and to the exponents of the railway companies' claim. I am imagining what would happen to the little man with a small plot of land or small property when a railway engine emits sparks on that land or property. I imagine that the legal expenses connected with his claim would be more than the amount he would receive from the company. I am not an expert on the effects of sparks. Knowledge of that subject apparently belongs to the Celtic race, and as a Welshman representing an English constituency I am not quite as conversant with that part of the problem as my hon. Friend who has just spoken. One point has been missed. It has been presumed during the Debate that when a claim for compensation is made it will be made on the railway company and will be met by the railway company. As a matter of fact, the railway company will first of all transfer its liability to the insurance company. One can imagine the process that will be adopted. The claimant will first of all send his notice to the railway company. The railway company will acquaint the insurance company, and the insurance company will come back again to the claimant. Then the circle will go round and round, and in the end, perhaps, the claim will be settled.
There is nothing in the Bill touching the emission of smoke from railway engines. This is a point which requires the attention of the scientists. There is as much damage done by the emission of black smoke from railway engines, as by the emission of sparks, particularly in a county like Lancashire. Hon. Members who are connected with the railways covering Lancashire ought to take that point into consideration. A Bill like this is absolutely necessary, because I have seen the devastating effects of railway engines emitting sparks and burning up-very rich crops and very valuable property. Some means should be devised to make the railway companies understand, once and for all, that they are not in future to have the monopoly they have had in the past. With due respect to some hon. Gentlemen here, the companies are becoming too audacious by far. They have come to the conclusion that they can do with the community what they like, and if this Bill serves to bring them to their senses, then I shall support it.
It is with the greatest possible diffidence that I rise to address the House on this question, because I know there are a number of hon. Members who, feeling that a real principle is involved in the Bill, are anxious to speak upon it. I know there are also hon. Members willing to give their views to the House upon other subjects. For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Whitechapel (Mr. Kiley) can scarcely be restrained, and I am sure the House would like to hear from him some of those interesting statistics which he gives us from time to time. I assure him that I, at any rate, will not stand between the House and those interesting figures longer than is necessary. Before I deal with the principle involved in the Bill, I should like to refer briefly to the remarks of the deputy leader of the Labour party. I could not understand why the deputy leader of the Labour party was opposing this Bill, until I discovered he was under the impression that it was the landlords who were to benefit under it. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New-castle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) is so obsessed with the idea that landlords are the cause of all the evils in this country, that he thinks landlords must be attacked on each and every occasion when he can drag them in. From his own point of view, he is quite wrong in regard to this Bill, because for every single landlord who will get any benefit under the Bill, there are 99 smallholders.
My hon. and gallant Friend cannot possibly, on this Bill, array the landlords on one side and the community on the other. Next I come to deal most respectfully with the observations of the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury). He is so notoriously fair in matters between capital and labour, and the House expects such a fair point of view from him, that I find it hard to understand his standpoint in regard to this particular Bill. I cannot help thinking the right hon. Baronet has allowed himself to be biassed by his position as a railway director. [HON. MEMBERS; "Withdraw!"]
As far as my personal interests are concerned, they would be the other way, as I happen to be a very large farmer, and that disadvantage will probably remain with me; but it does not follow that I shall always be a railway director.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will acknowledge that I commenced by saying that his reputation for having an open mind on all questions was well known to the House. But it does seem to me that his point of view on the purely legal aspect is so hard to define that I thought he had allowed himself to be carried away for a moment. If it is not so, I most certainly and willingly withdraw. The first point on this matter is a simple and elementary point. It is the first point that every student of law is taught when he comes to the subject of wrongs between citizens. It is the old and well-known maxim of Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. That may be paraphrased for the lay mind as meaning that any citizen or corporation, whether a railway company or any one else, must so use his own that he does not injure the property of private citizens, and where he is clearly responsible for such injury he must pay the damage. There is a second maxim that also applies, that is, Res ipsa loquitur— that where such a thing as a railway emits sparks, which must of their nature do damage, therefore negligence will be presumed and the person responsible for that damage will pay in exact proportion to that damage. I utterly fail to understand why a small ex-service man—and I am sure this will appeal to the Members of the Labour party—who may run an omnibus and is unhappily involved in some kind of accident should have to pay to the full for any damage, without any limit—if the machine he was driving was constantly emitting sparks it would not be necessary for people claiming from him to show any kind of negligence—and why a limit of £100 should be put in these cases. Then I do not think the right hon. Baronet is entitled to say the sum is unreasonable. In 1905 it was fixed at £100 and £100 then was the equivalent of £200 to-day. I think this Bill not only embodies a most valuable principle, but is highly logical, and as far as I can see, satisfactory to both parties. If I am unfortunate enough to be a Member of the Committee that deals with this Bill, I shall venture to move an Amendment, not to shorten but to lengthen the time of notice of damage done. It is quite possible to imagine 101 cases in which for one reason or another people neglect to give notice of damage to their property, and I hope the length of notice will be slightly prolonged.
I am not a railway director. I do not admit the soft impeachment, I am afraid I must admit I have no very direct interest in the matter because the crofts in my constituency are separated from railway sparks by 70 miles of sea. Before the spark travelled that distance I am afraid there would not be much of it left, but as I do not see any Member from the Highlands rising—in fact I am not sure I see any Member from the Highlands present—I think it would be advisable to say one or two things. I am extremely sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Whitechapel (Mr. Kiley) who was to bring in another Bill, is to be deprived of that pleasure, because 1 should like to see some signs of revolt among the Coalition Liberals corresponding to those shown by the Conservatives. But what brought me into this Debate was the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. T. A. Lewis) that this Bill will encourage scientific research. The Bill which was to follow this one would also encourage scientific research, and therefore I am speaking for that Bill as well as for this Bill. The Safeguarding of Industries Act has retarded scientific research. It has been the greatest block to scientific research that we have had for a long time. I could show a reason for that, but I am sure it would be out of order. Therefore I shall confine myself to the present Bill. The country which I come from is not regarded as a dry country. Therefore people might think that sparks from railway engines would not do any damage there. That is entirely a fallacy. I was in the Highlands recently, and the weather there was delightfully dry. I did not see any wet weather until I got back to London. Therefore this has some reference to the Highlands of Scotland, which are largely made up of smallholders, whose interests, I think, should be safeguarded in this House. In the Highlands even the heather gets on fire, and therefore crops are apt to get on fire also. My hon. Friend the Member for Montrose (Mr. Sturrock) is particular in these matters, especially when it gives him away. I suppose he saw a little protection in the Bill that is to follow.
As I suggested, the interests of both Bills are so identical that one forgets which Bill one is talking about. With regard to the limit of time given under this Bill, I think it ought to be extended because farmers and smallholders are apt to forget that the time is getting up. As I did not see any hope of the next Bill coming on, I did not see why I should not say a word or two in support of this Bill, which I think is on sound lines.
It is not necessary for me to deal with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Dr. Murray), because it was a speech upon the next Bill, and not upon this Bill at all. I merely rise to supplement the reasons which were so concisely given by the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) and the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Sturrock) why this Bill should not be read a Second time, and it is only necessary for me to supplement their reasons because so pathetic were their evident struggles after compression in their arguments. It was evident that they did not want to keep these railway fires burning to prevent other and more important Measures being considered by the House. I begin by scouting, with all the vehemence I can, the statement that was made that there is any evidence of any division or contradiction in the right hon. Baronet's speech in his capacity as a railway magnate and in his capacity as a farmer and a landowner. There was complete harmony between the two wings of that Coalition, so far as I could see, in the speech of the right hon. Baronet, and the fusion between the two points of view left the impression that the unanimity in the thought of the right hon. Baronet could not be subject to any criticism. The speeches that have been delivered on the other side admitted, I think, of the strongest criticism from the legal point of view. There seemed to be a legal fallacy underlying the whole argument for this Bill. Perhaps the strongest argument put forward for it is that pronounced by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture and repeated by several other hon. Members—the old, old argument that, if injustice was done to a railway company it was, after all, only a small one, an argument that has been discredited ever since the days of Midshipman Easy. Whether an injustice be small or large, none the less it is an injustice, and ought to be voted against by this House of Commons.
The fallacy that seems to underlie the arguments in support of this Bill is a fallacy that, in justice and in law, whenever an injury is done by anything, the owner of that particular thing is responsible to the person damaged. Everybody in this House, especially my right hon. Friend who has now left the House, knows very well the meaning of the maxim, Nemo tenetur ex domino tantum. [HON. MEMBERS: "Construe!"] In other words, in the vernacular, in the vulgar tongue, no one is liable simply because he is the owner of any particular thing. That old maxim, to be found in Justinian's "Digest, "lies at the root of a very important branch of English and Scottish law. Hence the railway company, in application of that maxim, is not liable for the damage which its engines and its sparks do simply because the railway company happens to be the owner of that engine and of those sparks. It is only when the fire and the sparks are brought into the domain of fault, and guilt, of culpa, that the railway company becomes liable. Ex culpa tantum, and not ex dominio. That argument disposes of the specious fallacy that was addressed to us from the other side, namely, that whatever damage is done by sparks, the I railway company must morally be liable. The railway company has been granted statutory rights for running over a special part of the country, and it is an incident to these rights that this vehicle, the railway engine, which, as everybody knows, has to emit sparks, it is an incident of that right for it to emit sparks, and if a fire is caused, that arises by a mere accident. The argument that some method could be taken to prevent these sparks flying out is not relevant, because if some method could be taken to prevent the sparks from flying, then it is a fault not to use it, and nothing abolishes fault on the part of a railway company. You have only to say that a railway company should have used this and that device, and you can get damages at the present moment to any limit yon like. It is a contingency which can be guarded against by reasonable skill, whereas this abolition of the statutory defence was simply directed against this mere accident of the sparks being allowed to go over the crops setting them on fire. That is what is known in law as an act of God, which is something that reasonable care could not anticipate or guard against, and that is not a fault.
If crops take fire from a railway train it is not fault, but an act of God. I think it was Lord Young, a famous Scottish judge, who laid down that an
act of God was an act which no reasonable man would expect God to do.
If the act could have been foreseen and guarded against by human agency, then it is not an act of God, but if it could not be foreseen, then it must be an accident. Under the present law, it is a mere accident when a spark sets fire to a lot of crops. Accordingly it was a great and handsome concession of the railway companies, ex gratia, really to allow the original Act to pass through; and so, if a man gets his crops burnt, the railway will give him £100; but to make that concession the starting point for new claims against the railway companies is an injustice to which this House should not consent. I have tried to be as brief as possible, and, having advanced what I consider to be incontrovertible arguments to the House, I beg to support the Amendment, "That the Bill be read a Second time this day six months."
|Division No. 88.]||AYES.||[3.50 p.m.|
|Ammon, Charles George||Doyle, N. Grattan||Jodrell, Neville Paul|
|Ashley, Colonel Wilfrid W.||Edwards, Allen C. (East Ham, S.)||John, William (Rhondda, West)|
|Bagley, Captain E. Ashton||Edwards, Major J. (Aberavon)||Johnstone, Joseph|
|Baldwin, Rt. Hon. Stanley||Edwards, Hugh (Glam., Neath)||Jones, Sir Evan (Pembroke)|
|Balfour, Sir R. (Glasgow, Partick)||Elliot, Capt. Walter E. (Lanark)||Jones, J. T. (Carmarthen, Lianelly)|
|Barnes, Rt. Hon. G. (Glas., Gorbals)||Evans, Ernest||Kennedy, Thomas|
|Barnett, Major Richard W.||Falcon, Captain Michael||Kiley, James Daniel|
|Barnston, Major Harry||Finney, Samuel||King, Captain Henry Douglas|
|Bell, Lieut.-Col. W. C. H. (Devizes)||Foot, Isaac||Lewis, T. A. (Glam., Pontypridd)|
|Bellairs, Commander Carlyon W.||Forrest, Walter||Locker-Lampson, Com. O. (H'tingd'n)|
|Bennett, Sir Thomas Jewell||Galbraith, Samuel||Loseby, Captain C. E.|
|Birchall, J. Dearman||Ganzoni, Sir John||Lowther, Major C. (Cumberland, N.)|
|Boscawen, Rt. Hon. Sir A. Griffith-||Gardner, Ernest||Loyd, Arthur Thomas (Abingdon)|
|Boyd-Carpenter, Major A.||Gibbs, Colonel George Abraham||Lyle, C. E. Leonard|
|Bridgeman, Rt. Hon. William Clive||Gilbert, James Daniel||Lyle-Samuel, Alexander|
|Broad, Thomas Tucker||Goff, Sir R. Park||Mackinder, Sir H. J. (Camlachie)|
|Brown, Major D. C.||Greene, Lt.-Col. Sir W. (Hack'y, N.)||Maclean, Rt. Hn. Sir D. (Midlothian)|
|Buckley, Lieut.-Cotonel A.||Greig, Colonel Sir James William||McNeill, Ronald (Kent, Canterbury)|
|Burn, Col. C. R. (Devon, Torquay)||Gretton, Colonel John||Macpherson, Rt. Hon. James I.|
|Butcher, Sir John George||Hacking, Captain Douglas H.||Malone, C. L. (Leyton, E.)|
|Camplon, Lieut.-Colonel W. R.||Haslam, Lewis||Martin, A. E.|
|Cape, Thomas||Henderson, Rt. Hon. A. (Widnes)||Molson, Major John Elsdaie|
|Cecil, Rt. Hon. Lord R. (Hitchin)||Henderson, Lt.-Col. V. L. (Tradeston)||Morris, Richard|
|Clynes, Rt. Hon. John R.||Hennessy, Major J. R. G.||Munro, Rt. Hon. Robert|
|Cockerill, Brigadier-General G. K.||Holmes, J. Stanley||Murray, Dr. D. (Inverness & Ross)|
|Colfox, Major Wig. Phillips||Hopkins, John W. W.||Naylor, Thomas Ellis|
|Colvin, Brig.-General Richard Beale||Hudson, R. M.||Neal, Arthur|
|Cope, Major William||Hunter, General Sir A. (Lancaster)||Newman, Sir R. H. S. D. L. (Exeter)|
|Cowan, D. M. (Scottish Universities)||Hurd, Percy A.||Newson, Sir Percy Wilson|
|Davison, Sir W. H. (Kensington, S.)||Jameson, John Gordon||Newton, Sir D. G. C. (Cambridge)|
|Ormsby-Gore, Hon. William||Scott, A. M. (Glasgow, Bridgeton)||Wheler, Col. Granville C. H.|
|Pearce, Sir William||Sexton, James||Williams, Aneurin (Durham, Consett)|
|Pease, Rt. Hon. Herbert Pike||Shaw, Hon. Alex. (Kilmarnock)||Williams, C. (Tavistock)|
|Peel, Col. Hon. S. (Uxbridge, Mddx.)||Short, Alfred (Wednesbury)||Wilson, Colonel Leslie O. (Reading)|
|Percy, Lord Eustace (Hastings)||Spencer, George A.||Windsor, Viscount|
|Pinkham, Lieut.-Colonel Charles||Sprot, Colonel Sir Alexander||Wise, Frederick|
|Pratt, John William||Stewart, Gershom||Wood, Major M. M. (Aberdeen, C.)|
|Purchase, H. G.||Strauss, Edward Anthony||Yate, Colonel Sir Charles Edward|
|Raeburn, Sir William H.||Sturrock, J. Leng||Yeo, Sir Alfred William|
|Raffan, Peter Wilson||Sugden, W. H.||Young, E. H. (Norwich)|
|Bees, Sir J. D. (Nottingham, East)||Sutherland, Sir William||Young, Robert (Lancaster, Newton)|
|Rees, Capt. J. Tudor- (Barnstaple)||Swan, J. E.||Young, W. (Perth & Kinross, Perth)|
|Richardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring)||Taylor, J.|
|Roberts, Rt. Hon. G. H. (Norwich)||Thomas, Brig.-Gen. Sir O. (Anglesey)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Boberts, Samuel (Hereford, Hereford)||Thomas-Stanford, Charles||Mr. Townley and Captain Bowyer.|
|Samuel, A. M. (Surrey, Farnham)||Watson, Captain John Bertrand|
|Armstrong, Henry Bruce||Hayward, Evan||Sueter, Rear-Admiral Murray Fraser|
|Cecil, Rt. Hon. Evelyn (Birm., Aston)||Hills, Major John Waller||Walsh, Stephen (Lancaster, Ince)|
|Curzon, Captain Viscount||Hoare, Lieut.-Colonel Sir S. J. G.||Ward, Col. L. (Kingston-upon-Hull)|
|Davidson, J. C. C (Hemel Hempstead)||Irving, Dan||Warren, Sir Alfred H.|
|Davies, Rhys John (Westhoughton)||Lindsay, William Arthur||Wedgwood, Colonel Josiah C.|
|Dawson, Sir Philip||Mills, John Edmund||Woolcock, William James U.|
|Glyn, Major Ralph||Nicholson, Brig.-Gen. J. (Westminster)|
|Green, Joseph F. (Leicester, W.)||Nicholson, Reginald (Doncaster)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Griffiths, T. (Monmouth, Pontypool)||Nield, Sir Herbert||Sir F. Banbury and Mr. James Wilson.|
|Hall, Rr-Adml Sir W. (Liv'p'l, W. D'by)||Rawlinson, John Frederick Peel|
|Hannon, Patrick Joseph Henry||Robertson, John|
Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.