HC Deb 06 July 1832 vol 14 cc154-60

On the Motion of Lord Althorp the House went into a Committee of Supply.

Lord Althorp

, in Committee, said, that when the civil contingencies were last before the House, a vote of 1,000l. to Mr. Telford was withdrawn, in consequence of the absence of the hon. member for Westminster, whose name was introduced in the discussion on that vote. The hon. Baronet being then present, he (Lord Althorp) wished to state the circumstances of the vote to the Committee. Several years ago great complaint was made relative to the supply of water to the Metropolis; and a Committee was appointed, of which the hon. Baronet was Chairman; and that Committee recommended that a Surveyor should be employed to ascertain whether such a supply as was required could be obtained. The Ministry of that day, however, finding that the expense of such a survey, according to Mr. Telford's Report, would be extremely large, did not think themselves authorised in spending the public money for that purpose; and in this position the case rested till the present Ministry came into office. Application for a survey was then again made; to which his first answer was, that he entirely concurred in the opinion of the former Government. The hon. Baronet, however, pressed upon the Government the necessity of the survey taking place, and stated that, in case the Ministry thought proper to institute an inquiry, he himself would be answerable for any expense that might be incurred. He (Lord Althorp) was ready to admit, that the course which the Government adopted on this occasion was a course which ought not to have been taken; because on more mature consideration, he thought that they ought not to have permitted a private individual to defray expenses incurred for an object of public benefit. This, however, was not the view that was taken at the time; and in consequence the offer of the hon. Baronet was acted on. It now appeared that the expense would be something between 3,000l. and 5,000l.; and when he considered how much the health of the metropolis depended on a good supply of water, he thought himself justified in moving for a vote of 1,000l. in part payment of the expense of the survey.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that when this subject had been last under discussion, the noble Lord had supposed him (Sir Robert Peel) to have been influenced by some personal feeling on this subject, than which nothing was more remote from his mind, as he had taken the subject up solely upon public grounds. There were two questions '—first, whether the expense incurred were justifiable in itself; and, secondly, if justifiable, whether it ought to be defrayed by Parliament. He had always been of opinion, that it would not be just to charge the public generally with the expense of making surveys for the benefit of the metropolis; and he had also been of opinion, that the supply of pure water would be best obtained by public competition, and that it would be exceedingly difficult to sanction a grant for London, on grounds which were not equally applicable to Manchester and Liverpool, or, at all events, to Dublin and Edinburgh. He had never undervalued the importance of a supply of water for the metropolis, but, as a general principle, he thought it better that it should be undertaken by companies or individuals. The moment Government stepped in, there ceased to be a check upon its proceedings. Hitherto the metropolis had been supplied with water by the exertions of five or six companies competing with each other. Many of these had exerted themselves to improve the supply; they had constructed reservoirs, but the moment Government stepped in, their exertions would cease. They would have done more; and it had been the intention of some of them to draw their supply from the river Colne: for this purpose they had gone to great expense in surveys, and a Bill had been introduced into that House; but, on finding that the Government had taken the matter up, they stopped at once, after incurring, as he was informed, an expense of upwards of 5,000l. In every case he was opposed to interference by Government, and the propriety of his opinion was proved by the superiority of the supply of London, as compared with Paris and other capitals, where the governments chose to interfere. He admitted that there were justifiable complaints as to the badness of the water, but he objected to the expense of the survey. Suppose, however, the expense of the survey incurred, he could not understand how it was to be made available; for the Government could not force the water companies to make alterations, or do as they wished. He quite agreed that, in the first instance, it would not have been right that the hon. Baronet should be allowed to undertake this at his own charge: but, when the noble Lord had urged his objection to the principle, and that the hon. Baronet still persevered, and offered his guarantee for the expense to be incurred, he certainly did think that the hon. Baronet was called upon to fulfil that guarantee. From the papers on the Table, it was clear that the Treasury had been studious to fasten the expense on the hon. Baronet. Mr. Telford had said, that he felt a difficulty in acting under any authority, except that of the Treasury, and the noble Chancellor was right in giving that order; but he was also equally right in reminding the hon. Baronet of his guarantee. He maintained that the whole matter had much better be left to private speculation, and for that reason, in addition to the others which he had stated, he should certainly oppose this vote.

Sir Francis Burdett

said, that as the water companies enjoyed a monopoly, under which they gave so bad a supply of water, and, at the same time, gained such enormous profits, he was clearly of opinion, that they ought to bear the expense of the survey, for which this vote was asked. In answer to the right hon. Baronet, he had only to state, that he was willing to bear all the cost of the survey, should the Committee decide that he was the responsible person. Indeed, he felt so strongly a conviction of the great benefit which would accrue to the public from a supply of pure water, that he should feel that he had not lived in vain, if he could persuade himself that he had been at all instrumental in obtaining for his fellow-citizens so important and salutary a necessary of life as pure; water. It would be for the Committee to decide whether he or the Government: should bear the expense: but, whatever was the issue, he would, at every personal cost, persevere. At the same time, he I thought it would be but just that the House should comply with the recommendation given in the Report of the Committee which had been appointed to inquire into this subject, and which was unanimously of opinion that the survey should be made.

Mr. Robinson

thought, so much money should not be voted for the completion of a survey, from which it was doubtful if any practical benefit would result.

Mr. Spring Rice

defended the vote. It was in principle similar to the cost of surveys of new lines of road (the Holyhead, South Wales, and York, for example), which the Government took upon themselves, though the forming of the roads was left to private enterprise. Though the money thus expended had, in the first instance, benefitted private individuals, it had ultimately proved a great public advantage. The right hon. Gentleman was wrong, therefore, in supposing that there was no precedent for this sort of vote. But the precedent went further; for, in the case of Dublin, to which the right hon. Gentleman had alluded, the Government had not only obtained information, but had gone far to supplying the water itself to Dublin. It would be establishing a very objectionable precedent, to make the hon. Baronet pay for an undertaking from which the public would derive the benefit, and in which he could have no personal interest, and he was sure the committee would not for a moment entertain the proposition.

Mr. Warburton

said, that he objected to the inquiry being further pursued at the public expense—at least if it was to be conducted in the way in which it had hitherto been. There had been originally much exaggeration as to the state of the Thames water, why it was celebrated all over the world; and he was convinced that if it was examined fairly, it would be found to be better than the water which it was proposed to fetch from a distance.

Mr. Goulburn

objected to the proposed survey, for he did not believe that any ulterior result could be obtained from it beneficial to the public, for the companies would not avail themselves of the suggestions that the Report might furnish. It was true that the Government had paid for the information that was given to the water companies of Dublin, but then they had bound the water companies, at the same time, to erect public fountains for the use of the poorer classes there, so that a great public benefit was the immediate object in view.

Mr. Vernon Smith

thought, there was no difference between the case of the Government furnishing information with respect to the formation of roads, and their furnishing it with respect to the means of supplying water. The Thames water would not necessarily be excluded from use by this examination; and as to the assertion that the companies would not avail themselves of the information, he believed that the effect of competition would enable them to do so. Indeed, the New River Company had already declared themselves ready to avail themselves of the information which might be afferded. He thought that the money would be well expended in carrying into effect an object which Committees and Commissioners had equally recommended.

Mr. Briscoe

said, he shouhd vote for the Motion, as he thought the inquiry might be productive of great public benefit. He believed that the water companies would take no steps to improve the supply of water, if they did not see the Government moving in the matter. He gave his sincere testimony of respect to the hon. Baronet, the member for Westminster, fin his liberal offer, but thought that the House ought not to take advantage of the hon. Baronet's generosity.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that when he had, during the time he was in office, been applied to for an order, directing Mr. Telford to go on with the examination which was recommended by a Committee, he had declined to grant the order, solely because it was irregular in any officer of the Government to incur any such expense upon the mere recommendation of a Committee. He; was not entitled to do so till the recommendation had received the sanction of that House.

Lord Althorp

certainly thought it desirable that something should be done, and unless the Government took up the matter, he feared that the survey would not be made. It was asked, what good would arise from the survey? Why, this good—that the public would know that means did exist for furnishing them with better water than they were supplied with at present. If that information was given, he was sure that there would be found plenty of individuals who, if not for any other cause, at least for their own benefit, would take advantage of it.

Sir Robert Peel,

after what had passed, saw clearly in what way the vote would be carried, and he should not waste the time of the Committee by a division. He should only say now, that it would be a great advantage if Mr. Telford was called on to say in what state the survey was at present, and what was the prospect of its being finished.

Lord Althorp

stated, that the survey was in a very advanced state, and had been suspended only from what had taken place in the Committee on the former occasion.

Mr. Hunt

was astonished at the disposition shown to resist the trifling expense for the improvement of the supply of water, when millions and millions had been so freely voted away for other "purposes not half so good. There was no doubt the Thames water was excellent, but then a great many things got into it that were very bad, and, in his opinion, the money required would be well expended in trying to ascertain how that could be avoided. This was an expenditure for the good of the poor, and he should support it. He should now say a word as to the hon. Baronet, the member for Westminster. When he (Mr. Hunt) was in Ilchester Gaol, which he was at the time that this discussion first began, he thought that the hon. Baronet's interference in the matter was very well—that it was doing something for his constituents in return for their electing him free of expense—that, in short, it was a good electioneering scheme; but since then he had investigated the matter out of doors, and the result was, that he thought the whole of the hon. Baronet's conduct in the affair was such as to reflect the highest honour upon him. As he (Mr. Hunt) entertained that opinion, he felt bound to express it, though he and the hon. Baronet differed on so many points. He hoped the Government would go on, and complete the inquiry as to improving the water. If the attempt succeeded, it would be a great public advantage; if it failed, the money would not have been thrown away on a worthless object.

Mr. Alderman Wood

should support the Motion. The discussions on this subject had already occasioned a great improvement in the water that was furnished to the metropolis.

Vote agreed to.

The sum of 202,482l. 10s. 10d. was then voted for the charge of the Disembodied Militia of the United Kingdom, from January, 1832, to March, 1833.

The House resumed.—The Resolutions reported.