§ [SECOND READING.]
§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ *MR. MOUNT (Berkshire, Newbury)
said this Bill had been discussed on previous occasions by the House of Commons, and the assent of Parliament was given to it by a very large majority of Members four years ago. He therefore did not think it necessary to trespass on their time at any undue length by stating the objects of the Bill and giving reasons 349 to prove the necessity for it. The object of the Bill was clearly set out in the one operative clause of the measure. It was to ensure that where damage was done by sparks emitted from railway engines to crops, plantations, and hedges, compensation should be paid by the owners of the engine. That would bring under the common law the railway companies, and it would deprive them of the privileged position they now occupied. The principle underlying this measure was that where loss had been suffered, and where there was no contributory negligence or default on the part of the owner of the property damaged, compensation should be paid by the party who had done the damage. That principle had been accepted by the House of Commons in many Acts of Parliament, and he ventured to suggest that it was one which the House should enforce wherever possible.
He would like to say a few words as to the circumstances which called for the introduction of the Act. He would desire to recall to the recollection of the House the fact that when four years ago a similar Bill was introduced it was stated that in response to a circular sent out by the Central Chamber of Agriculture answers were received showing that no fewer than seventy-five cases of fire had occurred during the previous twelve months. That state of things had been going on ever since, and the evil, so far from diminishing, had tended to increase, because for the purposes of the economical working of the railways there had been a tendency to make use of more powerful engines with more powerful blast in order to draw heavier loads. He thought that every Member of the House who had travelled much by train in the summer and autumn must have had much experience of burnt and blackened crops in fields adjoining the railways, and he was sure that Members who represented agricultural constituencies had had many instances of such fires brought to their knowledge, and had had many recommendations in favour of a Bill of this kind. The railway companies themselves were evidently well aware of the danger run by inflammmable aterial stored in places adjoining railway lines, and as proof 350 of that he might cite the case of the Great Western Railway Company, who at a spot between Slough and London had put up a notice warning engine drivers to shut off steam because they were approaching a point where large numbers of railway sleepers were stored. Further, than that he would like to point out what was the practice of the insurance companies in regard to insuring crops or plantations adjoining railway lines. It was the almost universal practice to exclude from policies of insurance crops and plantations within a certain limit of the railways, and where such insurances were accepted special and increased rates were charged, varying according to the circumstances of the case.
It was clear there was considerable damage and loss sustained by fires originating from sparks emitted by railway engines. There was an old-established axiom in the English law that where there was injury there should be a right of remedy. Now he had shown that the injuiry actually existed, and his argument was that at the present time there was no adequate right of remedy. They would be told by opponents of the Bill that anyone who had had his crop or plantations burnt by fires originating from railway engines had a right of remedy and could obtain compensation. But he would ask the House to consider what that right was. In the first place he would point out that it was of so little value that it could practically never be enforced, and anyone who realised of what that right consisted would not wonder that more advantage was not taken of it. The right was to bring an action against the railway company and to claim compensation, but it was not possible to get that compensation unless the claimant could show that the railway company had either worked its engine which did the damage negligently or had failed to use the best methods in the construction of the engine. Did the House realise what that meant? It meant that the farmer who had had his crops burnt by a spark emitted from a railway engine had in the first place to identify the engine from which the sparks came, and in the present state of our railway 351 traffic, which was daily increasing and which on the main trunk lines involved the passing of nine or ten trains per hour every twenty-four hours, that was a matter of enormous difficulty. But even when he had identified the engine he had to be prepared with expert evidence to show that it had not been fitted with the latest improvements. He had to show that the railway company had not done everything possible in the construction of their engine to obviate the possibility of danger. The House no doubt had some experience as to what expert evidence involved. They knew what great expense it entailed and how conflicting it was in its character, and it was rather too much to ask anyone who had suffered damage or injury of this kind to not only identify the engine but to produce expert evidence of the character to which he had referred. The amount of damage suffered in individual cases was not perhaps very large, possibly a sum of £50 would cover it in most cases, and it was not to be wondered at that the farmer often preferred to cut the loss rather than run this risk of engaging in expensive litigation with the possibility of having to pay the costs on both sides.
That was the great difficulty of the position in which the farmer stood in this matter, and he had had a letter from a farmers' club in Lancashire showing that in scores of cases which had occurred in a particular district since 1901 claims had been made against railway companies, and only in those cases in which it had been shown that the fire had originated in old dead grass on the railway companies' premises had payment been made, while in those cases where the sparks had alighted direct on the corn liability had been denied by the railway company and compensation had been refused. That was no doubt due to the enormous difficulty under which the farmer lay, of proving from what engine the spark came and whether that engine was negligently constructed or not. He ventured to suggest that that was a most unsatisfactory state of affairs, and as long as the present system of law continued, as long as the railway companies occupied their privileged position, so long would this grievance continue. It was because they 352 desired to place railway companies in this matter under the common law of the land with regard to liability for damage which they had done that the Bill had been brought in that afternoon. He did not believe that the provisions of the measure would impose any intolerable strain or burden on the railway companies. He was informed that in the United States of America, in Canada, and in many Continental countries the law was as it was proposed to make it in this Bill. He had never heard of this law having imposed any great burden on the railway companies in those countries, and he did not believe that it would impose any heavy burden upon the railway companies in the country. It was because he believed that the Bill would provide a means for redressing a genuine grievance, seriously felt by the agriculturists of this country, that he asked the favourable consideration of the House to the measure, the Second Reading of which he now begged to move.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Mount.)
§ MR. GEORGE WHITE (Norfolk, N.W.)
said that as he was the representative of an agricultural constituency, naturally many of his constituents were interested in the measure before the House. This Bill seemed to him to be based upon the principle of acknowledged justice to those who suffered loss from preventable causes, and those who were responsible should be compelled to pay for the damage they had provoked. He remembered that almost the first session he sat in the House of Commons this Bill was discussed, and although it was opposed by those interested in railways it was carried by a very large majority. Since that time the Government, who professed to be the friends of the farming interest, had taken no steps to meet the expressed opinion of the House by introducing a Bill dealing with the question. He wished to press upon the Minister for Agriculture the necessity for taking some steps in regard' to this matter. The great railway companies were anxious to make record journeys, and this created a danger not only from sparks but from live coals, and this danger had been considerably increased in consequence of the 353 great speed at which the trains were now running. One argument used against this Bill was that when the land was sold to the railway companies they had to pay an extra price for it because of contingencies such as those which were dealt with in this measure. To him that seemed to be a very poor argument, and one which had no force as applied to the agriculturists pure and simple. The farmer was not, as a rule, the owner of the land, and therefore he did not get anything for contingencies such as these. It was quite true that farmers profited by railways running through their districts, but there was no part of their business procedure which contemplated such a liability as was brought by the incidents to which this Bill referred.
The Bill was a very simple one consisting of one clause, which was based upon a principle of justice. How far the cause of these fires was preventable he would leave to those who had a more scientific turn of mind, but unfortunately the great railway companies were not eager to make changes which incurred expense unless those changes produced some economic advantage. Unless railway companies could be made to suffer in consequence of the damage they caused by their negligence, they were not likely to take those preventive measures which he believed it was within their power to take. Therefore, he thought the principle of this Bill was one which would be affirmed by a very large majority. He could not imagine what arguments could be brought against it, except that if the principle of the Bill was carried further then it might become a dangerous principle. It seemed to him that one very simple way of preventing the cause of this kind of damage would be to have inspectors of engines who would pay particular attention to appliances which might be adopted for the prevention of the sparks and cinders flying about which were the cause of the damage. It might be argued that the agricultural industry could protect itself under the present law if they could prove ascertained known damage from a known cause, and that the law as it stood was sufficient to give them redress. He did not, however, think that the farmers ought to be put to the expense and risk of lawsuits in matters of this kind 354 for causes which it was admitted by common consent could be prevented if due care was taken. He supported the Bill because he felt that if the House of Commons laid down the principle that compensation should be given for damage ascertained, the railway companies would very quickly find means of arresting this evil, and that was all that agriculturists desired. That would save unpleasant litigation and a great deal of damage. He thought this measure was so simple that it needed very few arguments to commend it to the House, and he hoped that the Minister for Agriculture would see his way either to bring in another measure or else accelerate the passing of this Bill.
§ *LORD TURNOUR (Sussex, Horsham),
in a maiden speech, said he might be permitted at the outset to congratulate the proposer of this Bill on the admirable way he had brought it forward. It would appear that while at common law a railway company would be liable for any damage resulting from the sparks of an engine, on the principle that if a man brought a dangerous thing on to his land he was liable if it did damage, yet, by virtue of the fact that railway companies obtained their land by special Act, they were not liable if all reasonable precautions were taken. That seemed to be borne out by the case of "Vaughan versus the Taff Vale Railway Company" in 1860, when Mr. Vaughan, who was the owner of a plantation adjoining the land of the railway, had his plantation fired by a spark from an engine and considerable damage resulted. He brought an action. The company did not dispute the cause of the fire, but maintained they were not responsible, as they were authorised to use the engines and had adopted every precaution that science could invent to prevent injury. The result of this would seem to be that if a man made a private railway on his own land, and a spark from one of the engines caused a fire on his neighbour's land adjoining, he would be liable, yet a public railway, in the case of a fire under similar circumstances, would escape all liability. The public railway acquired compulsorily the land over which it carried its line, and was not liable for any damage done to the land at the side of the line, yet in the case of the private 355 railway the owner would be liable. Yet it was possible to conceive that a private railway might be as useful and beneficial as a public railway would be.
He did not think any hon. Members would dispute that a considerable amount of damage did result from fires caused by engine sparks. The hon. Member who proposed this Bill had told them how, in one year, there were seventy-five fires caused by engine sparks. Also during the debate on this subject on March 6th, 1901, the Member for Truro stated he had had several fires caused in this way, one of which destroyed nearly a hundred acres of trees. That seemed to him a very serious state of affairs. It might very often happen that an arable farm lying adjacent to a railway might be fired, and if it happened in the months of July or August the fire would have very serious consequences. The whole of the product of the farm for that year might be destroyed from this cause. He was well aware that those who opposed the Bill might urge against it that a railway conferred great benefits on a district, and that they paid the largest portion of the rates of the parish, and that in a great many ways it conferred benefits on a district. But he did not think that this was always borne out by facts. It seemed to him that in the South at any rate, the tendency of the railways was to cater for the seaside towns and develop them, rather than to assist the agricultural industry by conveying produce cheaply and expeditiously. In some cross-country lines the companies conferred upon the inhabitants the minimum of usefulness that they expected from them. Railways were rather adapted for escaping from the hurry and bustle of ordinary life than anything else. He thought that agriculturists in this matter merely wished for a simple Bill by which they could escape from the legal technicalities which surrounded any action that might be taken for compensation for damage from a fire by engine sparks. He apologised in concluding for intruding in the debate, more especially as he thought no other hon. Member of the present House had had the temerity to address the House before attaining the age of twenty-two years.
§ SIR FREDERICK BANBURY (Camberwell, Peckham)
congratulated the hon. Member for the Horsham Division upon the excellent manner in which he had delivered his maiden speech, and expressed the wish that the hon. Member might make many more speeches in the House after he had attained the age of twenty-two. He welcomed in the House the presence of one whose speech and age gave promise of very useful service in debate. In moving the rejection of the Bill, he put the case from the point of view of the railway companies. That compensation should be paid by the person causing damage was an excellent maxim, but surely it would be unjust to require double payment from railway companies. The companies, when acquiring their land, paid under condition that the price should cover any injury that might arise, short of that caused by negligence, from the use of the land as a means of public transport. He had been informed by solicitors for railway companies that in the conveyance of the land there was a clause which said that the price paid for the land covered all possible damage or injury to the adjoining land. It was a well-known fact that at one time the State was so anxious to induce people to make railways that they granted to railway companies this privilege, but they attached certain onerous conditions. They limited the profits, imposed restrictions as to the manner in which both goods and passengers should be carried, and made onerous conditions for securing the safety of the public. As Mr. Justice Darling laid down in a recent action brought against the London and South-Western Railway Company, the Legislature gave the companies their powers in the full knowledge of the risks from sparks in the use of engines. On the faith of the conditions imposed, 1,200 millions of money had been invested in railways, and the average rate of interest was 3½ per cent. It was quite a mistake to suppose that railway companies were so rich that this claim might fairly be made on the shareholders. On every side attacks were made upon them, and their Bills in the House were continually met by blocking Motions. Between the damage done by a railway engine and a traction engine there was no analogy, because the owner of the latter 357 used the public highway, to the cost of which he did not contribute. The railway companies had bought the land, and had paid an additional price for the privilege of using it in this way, and it did seem a little hard now to come down to the House, after such enormous sums had been invested in railways, and say that railway companies were to give up what they had paid for already, and that they were to compensate people for privileges which they had bought and paid for.
The Bill was loosely drawn, it placed no limit of distance, nothing was said as to whether crops were to be growing or not, and there was no safeguard against a claim arising out of the destruction of a bad crop with dishonest motive. ["Oh, oh!"] Such things were possible. People were not always actuated by the same motives as hon. Members of that House. Had they never heard of incendiarism? Why on earth such a thing could not happen in regard to a bad crop he could not understand. How far were the sparks to be allowed to fly? It was a fact that no spark ever fell more than forty yards, and if this Bill was proceeded with it would be necessary that some limit should be placed upon the distance the spark fell, and the fires must occur within a certain distance from the railway. Supposing that a fire took place, who was to prove the value of the crop? Nobody but the farmer himself could speak as to the value of the crop, which might be a good or a bad one. The hon. Gentleman opposite did not concern himself with the question whether the principle might be extended in other directions, but in this House as legislators they should consider what they were doing, and think whether, in passing a particular Bill, they should not be extending a principle. If railway companies were to be responsible for damage done by sparks, why not for that done by cart horses that ran away as the result of fright from a passing train? It was something that arose from the use of the engine for railway purposes, and if the companies were to be liable in the one case he did not see why they should not be liable in the other. Then there was the case of timber yards and houses—in fact, they could multiply all these matters ad 358 infinitum. He supposed that the hon. Gentlemen who were so anxious that the railway companies should pay damages would not object to an amendment of the Bill which would enable the companies to charge higher fares to enable them to pay something which was not contemplated when the present fares were arranged.
His hon. friend had said that in America and other countries some law of the sort proposed was in existence now. Assuming that his hon. friend was correct in what he stated, the conditions of railway companies in America were quite different from those in this country. In America the majority of railway companies had land given to them for nothing, or, if they had to pay, it was a comparatively small amount. They were not compelled to put up fences, and the cattle had to look out for themselves; there were practically no Board of Trade regulations as here, and the whole circumstances were absolutely different. The railway companies here had been compelled not only to compensate the owners of land, but to do everything they could to prevent damage. It was not quite fair, therefore, to use the argument that something that was done in America should be done here. In putting the case from the point of view of the railway companies he had endeavoured to be moderate and to put the facts clearly before the House. He hoped the House would pause before passing a Bill which, however acceptable on grounds of sentiment, was, from the point of view of business and the agreement entered into between the railway companies and the State, unjust.
§ MR. COHEN (Islington, E.),
in seconding the rejection of the Bill, said he was not a director of any railway company, and that he approached the subject entirely from the point of view of what was equitable. He objected as a rule to class legislation, and here they were asked to legislate for a small and not a needy class, and in their interests to offer up on the altar a much larger and, in his opinion, much more needy class. As the hon. Member for Peckham had pointed out, farmers and landowners had received very great consideration, and it could be shown that they derived very 359 great benefits from the railways which passed through their properties. When railway companies were attacked in the Courts of law it was very well known that there was a disposition on the part of juries to decide against the companies, and it was surprising that the House of Commons was almost always on the same side as the juries. It was made a cause of lamentation at every half-yearly meeting of railway shareholders that the law of the land fined and penalised them in various ways. The argument was often heard in that House that taxation should always be accompanied by representation. Nowhere had that principle been so much violated as in the case of railway companies. Although they contributed heavily to the rates they had no representation on the rating boards, and now, forsooth, it was attempted to penalise them for something for which admittedly there was no redress. The hon. Member who moved the Second Reading of the Bill said it was to punish railway companies for what he called "preventable accidents." The expression "preventable" did not occur in the Bill at all. It might be very advantageous to landowners and farmers, who were already a very much favoured class, that railway companies should be made liable in the way proposed by the Bill, but he did not see on what principle of equity railway companies should be punished for accidents arising from causes which were not preventable. Nobody contended that the railway companies had not had recourse to every invention and every protection known to science, and now they were to be punished because science was not sufficiently far advanced to give them any arrangement which would prevent, in certain circumstances, locomotives drawing heavy trains from giving out a few sparks. He did not think it was quite established that farmers had often suffered in the way stated. They had very rarely suffered serious damage, but if this Bill were passed it would not be very long till cases were got up. The railway companies had been doing, and would continue to do all in their power, in their own interest, to protect the properties which they traversed. On grounds of equity and justice he would vote against the Bill.
To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months'"—(Sir Frederick Banbury.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
*MR. AILWYNFELLOWES (Huntingdonshire, Ramsey)
said that when a Bill similar to this was brought forward four years ago, the President of the Board of Trade offered some remarks in opposition to it; but since that time it had been decided that, as the Bill was really brought forward on behalf of agriculturists, the Department which he represented in the House should take charge of the matter and give their views upon it. His hon. friend who had just spoken had said that he did not think there was a great deal of interest taken in the question among the farmers of the country; but he could assure him, on the other hand, that if there was one question more than any other on which the Department had received strong resolutions it was this question. During the last eight or nine years resolutions had been sent up from the Central Chamber of Agriculture and from almost every chamber of agriculture and farmers' club of importance in the country, all expressing the opinion that farmers should not be liable to the risk of this loss, which was due to no fault of their own and against which no precaution on their part could possibly be taken. Another class greatly concerned in the question were those interested in the afforestation of the country. This subject of the afforestation of lands was very much to the front just now; but he thought there was small inducement to owners of land to embark upon such enterprises if they felt that in the future all the money they had spent on planting was liable to be thrown away through fire caused by a spark from a locomotive. He would remind the House that one of the recommendations of the Forestry Commission was this—We recommend that the Government be urged to secure the early enactment of a Bill to protect owners of woods against loss by fire caused by sparks from locomotives.He thought that recommendation ought to carry great weight in this 361 House. Of course he was only speaking for the Department. In regard to legal questions the Attorney-General would reply.
While it was fully admitted that agriculturists all over the country ought to be protected from fire, it was practically impossible for the ordinary farmer to prove negligence against the railway company, and, because it was impossible for him to do so he got heavily mulcted in expenses which he was not able to bear. But, while careful to do justice to one class, he hoped that the House was fair enough to consider whether they might not be doing an injustice to another class. He was sure that the Department did not wish to do anything which might be looked upon as in any way a breach of faith towards the railway companies. The companies were liable for damages for negligence, if it were proved, but proof was almost impossible. If, however, the onus of proof that there had been no negligence were thrown on the railway company that caused the fire, and that company could prove that it was supplied with the best appliances, no charge of breach of faith could be brought against the Bill. At the present time the public expected the railway companies to carry them at a tremendous rate throughout the country by express trains, and that was where the danger arose of damage by fire arising from sparks. Some of the railway companies had adopted appliances to prevent this danger. He knew in particular of one company which adopted a new appliance some years ago which stopped the sparks from being driven out of the funnel, and he believed that since that time there had hardly been a single case of fire over the whole system. Another company which ran fast express trains used liquid fuel for these trains, and that company had also been practically without complaints. What these companies could do every company could do. It would be to the advantage both of the railway companies and of the whole agricultural population in the districts through which their lines passed if this question could be settled on a friendly basis, and if there were no need for the Bill at all. His hon. friend the Member for Peckham said that if they once started this principle other things 362 might be brought in, and he instanced the case of horses and carts. That illustration was not on all fours with the question of growing crops. A horse was, or ought to be, in charge of somebody who had to look after it, and it was rather absurd to say that that could be put in the same catagory with growing crops which could not be guarded, and through which the railway company's trains were compelled to go. The hon. Member also referred to buildings, warehouses, and timber yards. He did not think that was the same either. These timber yards and houses had been placed near the railway for the purpose of getting easy transit for goods.
As regarded the Bill the Government would leave it to the House of Commons, as they had done in the past; but if it went to the Grand Committee they would reserve to themselves an absolute right to criticise any detail which they thought should be amended.
§ MR. MUNRO FERGUSON (Leith Burghs)
said that those hon. Members who in years past had complained of this grievance had every reason to be satisfied with the speech of the hon. Gentleman, because it showed that their contention that substantial damage had been done was true. The hon. Baronet who presented the case for the railway companies did so extremely well. The supporters of the Bill had no bias against the railway companies. They were all equally interested in the success of the railway companies. He thought that in most cases they had paid more for their land than they ought to have done. What they wished was to obviate preventable damage, and he should rather urge the Board of Agriculture to consider whether they could not appoint a small expert Committee which would investigate as to the means for preventing fire. There was the line pursued by this Bill, namely, to put the liability on the railway companies; and there was the line of trying to find whether for heavy trains certain inventions and smoke stacks would avoid fire. The sphere over which those sparks, or rather hot coals, spread themselves was much wider than was supposed by the hon. Baronet who moved the rejection of the Bill. He had known a hot 363 coal from a locomotive set fire to a plantation 130 yards from the railway. He should like to see legislation for the prevention of the planting of trees where they would run great risks by reason of their being so near a railway. But to say that there should be no crops or trees within 130 yards of a railway would mean a great waste of land. In Germany the onus was on the railway company in respect of fire arrangements, and every kind of precaution was taken against fire. In Sweden, where some of the best smoke stacks were in use for preventing fire, there was practically no fire at all. In America and Canada there were very heavy trains and engines. At Washington he had a conversation with the French Ambassador to the United States, who told him that he had travelled through Canada two years before, and that it appeared to him as if he were passing through "the valley of the shadow of death," because the whole forest on each side of the railway track was burned. This had led to the promulgation of regulations in Canada, the observance of which had produced a satisfactory state of matters; and fires were now almost unknown there. The same happened in Germany, where fires were common last year on account of the unusually dry season. He thought that an expert inquiry would be useful us showing what precautions were within practical reach to prevent fires at a very moderate expense. He did not believe in taking precautions which would impose a heavy fine on railway companies, or he would be less euthusiastic in support of the Bill.
§ *SIR JOSEPH LEESE (Lancashire, Accrington)
said that hitherto when a farmer brought an action against a railway company for damages on account of his crops being burned it had been necessary to prove negligence on the part of the railway company, either by the faulty construction of their engines or by some negligent act of their servants, whether engine drivers or stokers. What he wanted to know was whether the effect of the words in the Bill would be to relieve the farmers from that obligation, and to put on the railway company the obligation to pay for the damage by fire 364 whether their negligence was proved or not.
§ *MR. STUART WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)
said he was very glad to hear the observations which had been made by the hon. Member for Leith. No one wished that the beautiful tracts of woodland in many parts of the country should be destroyed; and the interests of agriculture ought also to be received with respect in this House. Four years ago, when this question was last under discussion, he had argued that what was wanted was not so much an alteration in substantive law, but in the procedure by which the law was enforced. He had then first made the proposition that the justice of the case would be met by reversing the onus of proof; but that proposition was not in this Bill, and it could not be put into the Bill except by eviscerating the whole of the principal clause. The Bill, he thought, was pregnant with danger to the railway companies, whom it would practically make insurers. What he meant by that was, that it would make the railway companies liable for the damage caused by fires, however much care they had taken to prevent them. The proper remedy would be an enactment that when fire had been caused by a locomotive in fields adjoining the railway, it should lie upon the railway companies to prove that they had not been guilty of negligence. The hon. Member for Leith had made the proposition that the matter should be referred to an expert Committee to devise proper precautions. That was all very well for the present time; but any appliances which that expert Committee might recommend for the prevention of fires might soon be out of date. Failure to come up to the standards of the day in regard to appliances would probably be considered sufficient proof of negligence. As to the persons for whose benefit a change in the law was to be made, there were large farmers and small farmers; large railway companies and small railway companies. He had seen model conveyances of land to railway companies which provided that pecuniary compensation was to be made for all kinds of injury to the land, and that land was bought and sold subject to those conditions. Were the railway 365 companies to be placed in the same position as the owner of a reservoir, who was subject to pay compensation for all damage caused by the bursting of that reservoir, or as a man who kept a lion or a tiger in an insufficiently protected, cage? If railway companies were to be made insurers against all kinds of damage because they put in motion a dangerous agency, there were owners of other vehicles and dangerous agencies whose profits were not limited by statute, who were not subject to statutory prohibitions and regulations, and to whom the same treatment ought surely to be applied. The representatives of the railway companies might have to take a division against this Bill, but it was not because they did not think the question capable of a rational and acceptable solution.
§ MR. CRIPPS (Lancashire, Stretford)
said that if he supported the Second Reading of this Bill it was not because he had any special prejudice against railway companies. Although at the present time there was a nominal remedy to farmers whose crops were destroyed it was not a practical remedy, because they had to go through legal processes which sometimes cost fifty or a hundred times more than the damage caused by fires from locomotives. He was not much impressed by the main argument of the hon. Member for Peckham on what he called the fraud question. If an appropriate remedy was given by legal process for damage, there was always a liabilty of fraudulent claims being made; but if that were to be taken into account it would prevent all reforms being made. As to the framework of the Bill there could be no doubt that, as it stood, the railway companies were made universal insurers, no matter whether they used the best possible means to prevent fire or not. He was not prepared to say that some basis of insurance was not the best form of remedy, but he thought it was going rather far to say that, whether railway companies had adopted the best possible system or not, they should be made in all conditions liable. The position was rather a simple one, and it came very much to this—who ought to bear the risk of the insurance, the railway company, the owner of the land, or the tenant? Of 366 course, a prudent man who had crops along a railway line or near it could always insure for a very small premium. It was true that when the land was taken by the railway company in the first instance, the company bought from the owner of the land a statutory immunity from injuries of this kind. Sufficient compensation had been given, on the whole, to the owner of the land to endow him with a fund which, if used for insurance, would provide against those dangerous risks. It would, therefore, be a hardship on the railway company to provide an insurance fund twice over. Of course that was not the universal case. It might be that a railway company ran its line near a property, none of which had been taken over by the company, and the owner of that property did not receive compensation at present for any damage caused by fire from the locomotives.
The best possible remedy, he thought, would be that suggested by the hon. Member for Leith, and that was to prevent the damage being done. He had no doubt that, with a little more scientific application, most of the damage might be prevented. Meanwhile, he thought they could introduce a practical remedy within the four corners of the Bill. To throw the onus of proof of negligence on the owner or the small farmer made the remedy ridiculous. The onus ought to be on the railway company to show that they had carried out every scientific precaution against fire. That would solve the matter, looking both to the interests of the shareholders in the railway companies and of the owners and farmers of the land adjoining the railway lines. He should certainly vote for the Second Reading of the Bill, and he hoped, when it came to be considered in detail in Committee, a fair adjustment on the lines he had suggested might be found.
§ SIR EDWARD GREY (Northumberland, Berwick)
said he thought that the hon. Member who had just sat down had made a very valuable speech, but he did not see why it had led him to a different conclusion from that of the hon. Member for Sheffield. If the spirit which animated the House was the point of 367 view of the hon. Member for Stretford, the railway companies would not, in his opinion, have very much to complain of. But what he objected to in the Bill, as it stood, was the introduction of what he believed to be an inexpedient and unjust principle, viz., that railway companies should be rendered liable for damage or inconvenience which could not be avoided by any precautions taken by them. If the House sanctioned that principle they would sanction a principle of very wide and far-reaching application, and which would undoubtedly work great injustice to railway companies. The objection of the hon. Baronet, the Member for Peckham, to the Bill was to its principle. There might be cases where very great hardship fell on a tenant farmer, but it could be said that the owner of the land had got from the railway company a fund out of which insurance could be paid, and that the farmer ought to have taken that into account in renting the land and the owner in letting it. If the Bill passed the Second Reading, he understood it would only do so on the understanding that clauses would be introduced in Committee to preserve the principle from unjust application.
He hoped the House would deal fairly with the railway companies in this matter. The hon. Member who spoke on behalf of the Board of Agriculture said he had received very many resolutions from agricultural associations in favour of this Bill, which would place new burdens on the railway companies. He was sure far more representations had been received in favour of the reduction of railway rates, but they could not have it both ways. If they were to have lower rates the House must not insist in passing measures which would cast more working expenses on the railway companies. He should like to associate himself with the congratulations which had been offered to the noble Lord the Member for Horsham on having established a record, and on having given them all the very pleasant experience of such a speech before he had reached the age of twenty-two. He hoped the noble Lord would not think he was detracting from the encomium he had passed when 368 he suggested that his Lordship must divide the honours with a distinguished Member of the House in a previous generation, Mr. Pitt. The noble Lord complained that railway trains travelled slowly, and that the companies gave a bad service; while the hon. Baronet, the Member for Peckham, suggested that one result of the passage of this Bill would be that the railway companies would give instructions to their engine-drivers to shut off steam when passing crops. Again, he would say, they could not have it both ways. The House should be very careful how it sanctioned Bills of this kind, which would lay upon the railway companies new burdens, and increase their working expenses, thereby decreasing their power to give greater facilities to traders.
§ MR. SPEAR (Devonshire, Tavistock)
said he wished to express his approbation of the attitude which the Government had taken up in regard to this Bill. The supporters of the Bill believed that it was not just that they should lose crops, destroyed by fire from locomotives, without the means of securing compensation. The hon. Baronet the Member for Peckham had alluded to the large amount of capital invested in railways on which a limited return was paid in the shape of dividends. He would point out that a vastly greater amount of capital was invested in agriculture, which received a much less percentage of return than that sunk in railways. This was not a question which ought to be settled on the principle of charity but on the principle of justice. Where negligence was proved on the part of a railway company compensation was obtainable now; but in ninety-nine cases out of 100 it was impossible to prove negligence on the part of the company even when negligence existed. The right hon. Baronet, the Member for Berwick had warned the House that the Bill introduced a dangerous principle, but the railway company ought to have the same responsibility to the farmer that the farmer had to his workmen.
§ SIR EDWARD GREY
said that the hon. Gentleman had misrepresented what he said. He only referred to the proposal to make railway companies liable where there was no negligence.
§ MR. SPEAR
said that compensation to workmen was based on the very principle which the right hon. Baronet objected to being applied to railway companies. The responsibility was very properly placed on the farmer in case of injury to any of his workmen; and he, therefore, thought the farmer was entitled to the same protection against the railway company as he himself extended to his workmen. There seemed to be a fear in the minds of hon. Members that to make it simple to obtain compensation for damage would make farmers less careful in protecting their crops. In reply to that he said that the amount of compensation which would be paid to a farmer for the damage, even if the Bill were passed, would still entail on him great inconvenience from the loss of his fodder, which he would require for his cattle during the winter. If the Bill passed—and he hoped it would—it would not encourage negligence on the part of the farmer, because it would still be to his interest to protect his crops as far as possible. He fully recognised, the justice of this measure. Four years ago a Bill somewhat similar in form passed its Second Reading by a great majority, and farmers were looking anxiously to this House for a simple measure of justice.
§ MR. BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.)
said he did not deny that there was a great deal of difficulty in the matter. This case was more difficult than one where it was clear that there was no moral liability on one side or the other. At the same time it must be admitted that the agricultural community had made out a case of grievance; and it was out of their power to take precautions to protect themselves. Therefore, there was a prima facie case for the intervention of the Legislature. The law had not been altered since 1860. It was then settled on the express ground that the Legislature had given the railway companies statutory powers; and that, therefore, the provisions of the ordinary law did not apply. But a great deal had happened since 1860. In the first place the people who had been compensated when the railways were built had now forgotten all about it; and it was not regarded as a matter of much significance. 370 The present position of the law was that the farmer was at liberty to bring an action against the railway company, and if he could prove negligence on the part of the company he was entitled to damages. The plaintiff had, however, to prove that the company had not constructed its engine in the right way, or that the engine was running in such a manner that sparks were likely to fly, and had to enter into a great many technical details on which he would be met by expert evidence on the part of the company; and which the company would be better able to supply. Therefore, he did not see how it was possible to regard the law relating to negligence as an adequate protection. Even where a company was negligent, the cost of proving it was so great as to be impracticable. One of the greatest difficulties of the law of England was its extreme costliness. It had been shown by experience that where ever an employer was exposed to responsibility as a result of negligence, it gave him the strongest inducement to take precautions. The reason why the railway companies had not taken adequate precautions was because they had relied on the ineffectiveness of the present law.
He agreed with his right hon. friend the Member for Berwick that the railway companies were being attacked from too many sides at present; and if he thought that the principle of this Bill were capable of indefinite extension against the railway companies he should not be able to support it. Standing by itself, the railway companies need not feel any alarm. But this would happen if the Bill were passed. The companies would have a much stronger motive for taking care than they had at present; and it was highly probable—experience showed it—that they would take more care to prevent fragments of lighted coal being thrown out on each side of the line than they did at present. There was reason to think that the companies did not take all the precautions they might take. When they had to choose between two persons, one of whom had got to suffer, was it not reasonable that they should throw the burden on the person who could take the better precautions. There were comparatively few precautions which a 371 farmer could take, except not stocking his harvest too near the railway line and not planting trees alongside it. What was wanted was to prevent the mischief occurring. That was more important than providing a remedy. It was, however, on the railway company rather than on the farmer that the obligation of showing that no negligence had occurred should be placed. A suggestion had been thrown out by the hon. and learned Member for the Stretford Division and the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Hallamshire Division that the Bill should be altered into one merely shifting the onus of proof. It appeared to him that it would be quite possible to introduce such an alteration; but it would not prove to be an adequate remedy. It would still lead to litigation. The railway company would prove that they had not been guilty of negligence; and the plaintiff would still be obliged to furnish evidence to rebut that contention. Subject to what the House might hear from the Attorney-General, whose opinion would carry great weight, he should support the Second Reading.
§ THE [ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir ROBERT FINLAY, Inverness Burghs)
said he cordially agreed with the right hon. Baronet the Member for Berwick, when he referred to the interest with which the House had listened to the speech of the noble Lord the Member for the Horsham Division. The speech of his noble friend was not, however, a record, as Pitt delivered his famous speech in the House when he was two mouths younger. He hoped the House would give a Second Reading to the Bill. He was not impressed with the argument that alarming consequences would follow if the principle were admitted. This was a very special case. A grievance undoubtedly existed. At present, in a large number of cases, the remedy for damage from sparks was prohibitive. No doubt, as the Bill stood, the railway company would be liable even in the absence of negligence; but in asking the House to read the Bill a second time he did not exclude the consideration of such points in Committee. Grievances that railway companies might suffer, according to the argument of his hon. friend the Member for Peckham, might be removed by the adoption of some 372 such proposal as was recommended by the hon. and learned Member for the Stretford Division; but upon those matters the position of the Government must be absolutely free in Committee. The right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Aberdeen, stated that increased efficacy as regarded remedy would lead to the adoption of increased precautions. No doubt, as necessity was the mother of invention, increased liability would lead to the adoption of further precautions by experts. Of couse it was fair to argue that owners, other than agricultural, had equal claims to compensation; but it was especially the damage caused to crops that gave rise to the demand for legislation. The drafting of the Bill would require close examination, and reserving for himself a free hand in respect to details he hoped the Bill would receive a Second Reading.
§ SIR ROBERT REID (Dumfries Burghs)
said that if the suggestion of hon. Gentlemen interested in railway matters were accepted, it would be useless to proceed with the measure. Merely to shift the burden of proof would be no remedy for the grievance of which agriculturists complained. It was an illusory proposal; and he would suggest to hon. Gentlemen interested in railway matters that the remedy proposed by the Bill was effective and that the person who did the damage should pay for it. The proposal, if accepted, would take the vitals out of the Bill.
§ SIR FREDERICK BANBURY
said that as the Government had an open mind in the matter and were not prepared to accept the Bill as it stood, he would ask leave to withdraw the Amendment. He did not accept the principle of the Bill; but he hoped, judging by the general tone of the debate, that an amicable arrangement would be arrived at in Committee.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ SIR MARK STEWART (Kirkcudbrightshire)
said he would move in Committee to include heather, game, and plantations in the property in respect of which compensation could be claimed.
§ MR. BELL (Derby)
said that railway companies were usually the right parties to be fleeced. He himself had made many demands on them; but this was a different matter. While people continually clamoured for high speed and excess of comfort on railways, and special engines had to be constructed to meet that demand, there must be sparks somewhere. He hoped some arrangement might be devised by which sparks would be prevented. There was nothing in the Bill which would prevent a company from having to pay compensation for damages to a field of corn which was set on fire at midnight, perhaps by someone else. There ought to be some proof that the damage was caused by sparks from an engine. This should be seen to in the interests of the men who worked the engines, because if a company had to pay compensation for damage to a field they would no doubt penalise the men who were in charge of the engine. The Bill required careful attention in order to properly protect all parties.
§ MR. BRIGG (Yorkshire, W. R., Keighley)
said he would suggest that it would be well to consider in Committee the possibility of creating an insurance in which the owners of property and the railway company could take equal shares. This could be done on lines similar to the insurance, effected after the passage of the Employers' Liability Bill.
§ MR. GEORGE WHITELEY (Yorkshire, W. R., Pudsey)
said he was considered to be rather hostile to the agricultural interest; but he objected to the doctrine propounded in the House and developed during the debate by the Attorney-General, that some priority of consideration should be given to agriculture over other kinds of property. He contended that the man who possessed buildings or any other kind of tenement was as much entitled to compensation as the owner of a field.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to the Standing Committee on Trade, &c.