The Bill was introduced on the 23rd March. The Second Stage was ordered for the 31st March, but the Bill was not circulated to Deputies until the 29th March, and when the debate opened on the Second Stage there were Deputies who rose to say that the text addressed to them in the ordinary course of post had not reached them before they left their homes that morning. Therefore, this House was expected by Deputy Cowan and members of the Government to discuss legislative proposals which had not been seen by many of its members. While we may not be enthusiasts like Deputy Cowan where private property is to be trespassed upon, we were not elected here to be enthusiasts. We were elected by our people to form a deliberative Assembly; we were sent here as prudent, thinking, far-seeing men, to deliberate together and to discuss with each other proposals which might make for the betterment of our people. We could not do that if we were to accept every proposal which comes from the Government as something coming down like the tablets of the law from heaven; and accept the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government as another Moses. That is not how we can improve measures as this measure has been improved. Nobody will deny that. I do not think that the Bill as it stands is even a good Bill, but it is a better Bill now than the measure when it was first introduced. How has that improvement been secured?
I was saying that the debate on the Second Reading opened on the 31st March. An attempt was made then by the late Minister for Local Government to steamroll this measure through the House. We were told that all stages were expected on that day—of a Bill which had only been in the hands of some members for not two days and had not reached the hands of many members at all. The Opposition refused to discard its proper function, which is that of being critical of proposals which are sent here. We have a duty as an Opposition to look after primarily the interests of plain ordinary citizens. When the Government proposes to take over to itself, or to confer powers upon any corporative authority, it is our duty to examine those proposals and see how the rights of the ordinary individual are going to be affected. We stood on that principle and, disabled and all as we were by the short time given to us to consider the measure, we did at any rate elicit from the Minister, even before the conclusion of the Second Stage, an undertaking to consider some of the objections we had expressed, some of the disadvantages and dangers of the Bill, to see if he could remedy those disadvantages and remove those dangers. It took us—let us make no mistake about it, because the concession was not willingly given—three days of prolonged and careful discussion to secure that concession from the Government.
After the debate on the Second Stage had concluded, the Committee Stage was ordered provisionally for Wednesday, 20th April last. The Dáil did not sit, however, until Wednesday, 27th April, and then the tragic and regrettable death of the late Minister for Local Government intervened and, quite naturally and reasonably—none of us could make any complaint about the delay—the Committee Stage, which had been originally fixed for the 20th April, was not taken until Wednesday, 1st June. The Opposition had no responsibility for the delay which took place between the 6th April and the 1st June and I certainly would be the last to suggest that the Government had any responsibility for that either. The hand of Providence intervened in a manner which we must all regret and we simply had to shape our purposes to its decrees. However, the Committee Stage commenced on the 1st June. There were, I think, some 45 or 46 amendments put down to this Bill on Committee Stage. They were amendments which were put down in all earnestness and in all seriousness. They were amendments which were put down with several purposes, the first one being to protect the ordinary private property owner in this country, to secure him against an unjustified invasion of his property. Others of the amendments were put down to ensure that if works were carried out by a local authority under this Bill those works would be properly co-ordinated with major works which the Central Government was carrying out through the agency of the Office of Public Works or through some other instrument such as Bord na Móna or the Electricity Supply Board.
It has been pointed out in the Drainage Commission Report and in more recent reports, the report dealing with the agricultural conditions in this country, that a great deal of damage can be done if the natural flow of water is interfered with, that drainage works, instead of being a blessing, can very often be a bane, and that the only way to ensure that they will do no harm and some good is to fit them into a preconceived and adequate design. Several of the amendments which were rejected had that purpose in view. I do not want to discuss the merits of them. I am merely stating the purpose.
Another purpose which we had in mind was this: it is quite clear and, unfortunately, it still remains the case that under sub-section (3) of Section 2 of the Bill, opportunities for, as the Americans say, dipping into the porter barrel, present themselves, opportunities for using, as I said last night, public moneys for the benefit of private individuals. We endeavoured by some of our amendments to preclude so far as it was practicable to do so the misuse of the powers which the local authorities are given under sub-section (3) of Section 2 of the Bill in that way.
Now, what was their objection in principle in amendments having one or other of these purposes? Is there anything to object to in trying to ensure that a man's land will be safeguarded against unjustifiable trespass? Is there anything unjustifiable in endeavouring to ensure that if works are carried out under this Bill they will be co-ordinated in such a way that they will yield some benefit and will not result in some disadvantage or damage? Is there anything to be ashamed of or anything to apologise for in trying to ensure that legislation passed by this House will not be abused in such a way that, as I have said, private individuals may reap a private profit out of public expense?
These were the purposes which our amendments were designed to secure. The Parliamentary Secretary accepted, in what I must candidly say was a grudging, meagre and insufficient way, the principle of some of these amendments. He rejected others. Why he rejected them is to me incomprehensible, except that, perhaps, no good can come out of Nazareth, that he believes that and that, accordingly, there could be no merit in any proposal submitted in this House by the Opposition. I suppose we owe the fact that he has accepted some of them to this, that the criticisms which we were making of this Bill made many of his followers uneasy in their minds as to the consequences of them; that a certain amount of pressure was brought to bear on him to hearken to what we were saying and to be guided by a spirit of common sense and to accept in, as I have said, a meagre and insufficient way, the principle of some of our amendments. In so far as he has accepted them, I suppose we should be grateful to him for it, but let us be clear about it that not one of these amendments would have appeared in this Bill if the Government and the Government Parties had had their way when the Second Stage of the Bill was opened in this House on the 31st March last; not one single one. The question of compensation would remain in the same unsatisfactory way as it was when this Bill was first introduced. The sole resort that a person claiming that his land had been damaged would have had would be the District Court with all the limitations imposed by law upon the District Court in relation to torts, and I think this would have been a tort.
Fortunately, and again let us give credit where credit is due, when this matter was discussed on the Committee Stage or on the Second Reading, I think both Deputy Timoney and Deputy Cowan felt that Section 5 of the Bill, as originally drafted, was a very imperfect section and they joined their voices with ours in asking the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider it. As a result of that, we have now, as Deputy Aiken has reminded the House, a section in relation to compensation which has been considerably amended and, to the extent to which it has been amended, considerably improved. I do not think it still goes far enough in that regard but, in any event, we are grateful to the Deputies and to the Parliamentary Secretary for the concessions which have been given. Now a person who claims that the damage to his land or property exceeds £20 can have the damage on that issue determined by arbitration under the Acquisition of Land Acts and I think that is highly satisfactory.
Much more satisfactory, however, from the point of view of the fundamental principle, is the amendment which has been made in regard to Section 4. When this Bill was first put before the House we had a great many lawyers, not Deputy Cowan nor Deputy Timoney, on the other side claiming that one of its merits was that the purposes had been tersely and succinctly expressed. I concede that in regard to Section 4 of this Bill, as originally introduced, because it provided:—
"A local authority or person executing works pursuant to this Act or an Order made thereunder or any officer, servant or agent of such authority or person, may enter on any land for the purposes of the execution of the works."
The succeeding sub-section of the section provided:—
"A person who obstructs or interferes with the exercise of the power conferred by sub-section (1) of this section shall be guilty of an offence under this section and shall be liable on summary conviction thereof to a fine not exceeding £10."
Very tersely and very succinctly expressed. There was no right of appeal. There was no provision, first of all, that notice should be given to the person who owned the land that entry was going to be made on the land. There was no right of appeal to any quarter to restrain a local authority from entering on that land, even if the owner of the land believed that grave and irreparable damage might be done to his property.