HC Deb 20 May 1825 vol 13 cc793-6
Sir G. Clerk

having moved the order of the day for the further consideration of the report of this bill,

Lord A. Hamilton

said, that owing to the importance of this measure, as well on account of its principle as for the pe- cuniary interests which were involved in it, it called for the serious consideration of the House. The greater part of the inhabitants of Edinburgh and Leith were opposed to it, and for his own part, although he Would not move the rejection of the bill himself, he would vote in favour of that motion if it should be made. The port of Leith, which was, in fact, a part of Edinburgh, had been put up to sale by the corporation of Edinburgh, and had been bid for and bought by a joint-stock company, We had not the slightest local connexion or interest with Scotland. This transaction was not only illegal in itself, but a large debt was due from the docks, 265,000l., which was the subject of a trial now pending. The House had always guarded against interfering, by an act of the legislature, with the administration of the law by the proper tribunals; and yet this it must do, if the present bill were entertained. He hoped this consideration would have its proper weight with the lord Advocate; who, however, friendly he might be to this bill, was, he trusted, not less friendly to the observance of the law of the land. Although he had not read the whole of the evidence, he was sufficiently acquainted with the facts of the case to justify him in saying, that this was the most objectionable measure, and brought forward by the most objectionable parties, that he had ever known, and that he trusted the House would reject it.

The Lord-Advocate, without entering into the merits of the case, for which this was not a proper opportunity, disclaimed any of the responsibility which the noble lord would cast upon him for any part he had taken in this measure.

Mr. Hume

wished to know how far ministers were responsible for this measure, which they seemed to have taken under their patronage. It was one of the most shameful and barefaced jobs that had ever been brought before the House. He wished, if the ministers had been in the House, to Know distinctly whether lord Melville had not promised the sanction of the government to the measure. On the part of those who sent him to parliament, and on that of the whole community of Scotland, he protested against its further progress. He contended, that the corporation, as trustees, had violated the trust which had been reposed in them for the public benefit, by making sale of this right to themselves. Instead of borrowing the money they wanted at 4 per cent., they had bargained to secure to themselves a dividend of 6½ per cent. for ever. It was a fact which could not be denied, that some members of the town council had sold their shares at a premium of 15 per cent. He was sure the lord chancellor would declare such a transaction to be illegal. His objections to the bill were insuperable; and he called on the House to reject it on these two grounds: first, because it imposed a burthen upon the trade of Leith; and secondly, because actions were pending to decide whether the magistrates had acted legally. The proceeding had already caused much mischief, and received the reprobation of the whole community, with the exception of those who had profited by it, and those were the members of the council.

Sir G. Clerk

said, that the two honourable members who had opposed the measure had not attended the committee on the bill for a single day. It was not surprising, therefore, that they were ignorant of the measure, which was really deserving of the support of the House. The corporation of Edinburgh had acted throughout the transaction in the most fair and open manner. The real facts of the case were shortly these: some years ago the city of Edinburgh incurred a debt of 250,000l. in constructing some docks at Leith. The returns, in the way of dues, were by no means so great as had been anticipated, and the corporation were placed in a state of great embarrassment. Under these circumstances, it was proposed to sell their interest in the docks to a joint-stock company. This plan did not originate with the corporation, but with a merchant at Leith. At first, the shares were at a discount, because the speculation was considered a bad one; but they were afterwards taken up, owing to the favourable state of the money-market, induced by the declared intention of the bank of Edinburgh to lower its rate of interest, and ultimately bore a premium of 15 per cent. The transaction, he repeated, was an open and fair one. With respect to the bonus, it was evident that some must be held out to induce the company to enter into the transaction. The only question was, whether that bonus should he provided for by the corporation, or by the trade of Leith. It was determined that the latter would be the best course to be adopted. Six and a half was objected to as too high a rate of interest; but he thought it was as low as could fairly be expected, considering the risk which attended the speculation. He denied that government had taken up the question, with the intention of overpowering all opposition. In conclusion, he thought that the transaction had been most beneficial to the city of Edinburgh, and he trusted that the House would agree to the bill.

Mr. J. P. Grant

said, that his opposition to this bill did not rest upon anything which had come out in the committee, but on the broad principle of law. The magistrates of Edinburgh, as trustees of the harbour of Leith, had, in violation of their duty, sold the trust property, and Sold it, too, to themselves, and afterwards disposed of their interest on shares at a premium of 15 per cent. Such a proceeding would, he was certain, be declared illegal in the court of Chancery. It was a proceeding which came within the scope of the Bubble act, for the corporation had clearly speculated on the getting of an act of parliament to sanction their conduct. The community of Leith, and of every town on the Leith coast trading with that port, had petitioned against the bill. He therefore called upon the House to reject the unjust and iniquitous measure, and to protect the law of the country, and a portion of the community which was not represented in that House.

Mr. W. Dundas

supported the bill, and said that the corporation of Edinburgh resorted to the bill only to provide for the excess of expenditure above the receipts of the harbour of Leith.

Lord Glenorchy

protested against the manner in which these Scotch jobs were managed in the committes up stairs, which were, when a Scotch bill was the matter in question, generally composed altogether of Scotchmen.

Mr. Abercromby

thought the question before the House a most important one. He had two objections to the bill. The first was, that it proposed to transfer the docks to an irresponsible body of persons, who had no interest in the prosperity of the trade of Leith. The second was, that the conduct of the magistrates could be defended on no principle of law or equity. They had entered into the transaction for their own benefit, and had been guilty of a gross breach of trust. No member could, in his opinion, vote for the bill, unless he was prepared to maintain, that persons acting as trustees had a right to sell the trust property for their own advantage.

Captain Wemyss

said, he had attended the committee on the bill at every sitting, and could conscientiously declare, that a more gross job had never come under his knowledge.

Mr. T. Wilson

said, he had heard enough to satisfy him that the corporation had acted most improperly. He would therefore vote against the bill.

Alderman Wood expressed his astonishment at the conduct of the magistracy.

The House divided: For the bill 15, Against it 41. Objection was taken by Mr. Hume, to the vote of sir John Marjoribanks, who voted with the Ayes, on account of his having a direct pecuniary interest in passing the bill. Sir John was heard in his place; and having allowed that he had a direct pecuniary interest in passing the bill, that on that account he had not voted in the committee on the bill, and that he had voted in this instance through inadvertence, his vote was disallowed; and the numbers were declared by the Speaker, to be Ayes 14, Noes 41. The bill was consequently lost.