HC Deb 19 April 1836 vol 32 cc1186-94

Mr. Maurice O'Connell moved the third reading of the Dublin Steam Packet Company's Bill.

Sir M. S. Stewart moved, as an amendment, that the Bill be read a third time that day six months.

Mr. Emerson Tennent

supported the amendment, and said, that if they were to allow the proprietors of this company, whose responsibility was only limited, to raise a large sum of money in this way, the effect would be the crushing of all minor speculations, and the prevention of anything like competition from which advantage would be derived to the public. It was his opinion that steam packets required no more protection than sailing vessels; and for his part he could not understand why any more favour should be shown to them. This company obtained their first Bill in 1828, and in 1833 they were enabled to raise a sum of 74,000l.; but they had never rendered any account of how that money had been expended. When they came forward to pray that Parliament would allow them to raise that sum, they slated that it was intended for the improvement of the river Shannon. He admitted, that it might be advantageous to them to improve that river; but then they should be confined to the navigation of the Shannon, and not suffered to embrace the navigation of the whole of the ports connected with the British Channel. It was, he contended, most unfair that they should be permitted, with a limited responsibility, to compete with companies, every proprietor of which was responsible to the last farthing of his property.

Mr. Ewart

said, that they would not be acting justly, if they allowed one Steam Company to possess advantages which were denied to others. He did not see why this company should have privileges which were not extended to all others, and, therefore, he should vote for the amendment.

The Attorney General

expressed himself hostile to the Bill, and said, that his constituents were strongly opposed to it. They thought that this company should only be allowed to stand forward in the terms of fair competition, and as the Scotch steam companies were liable to the whole extent of their properties, so ought this company to be. If, however, it were necessary to make a distinction between the parties, why let them at once propose one general law upon the subject, by which all such companies should be placed upon an equal footing, or let the promoters of this Bill confine themselves to the navigation of the river which they intended to improve, by an outlay of then capital. He hoped the Government, in the exercise of their authority, would never consent to give an advantage to one company over another, more espe- cially, when in the one case only a limited responsibility existed, while in the other, the whole property of the parties was embraced in the speculation.

Mr. O'Connell

conceived that he had great reason to complain of the hon. Member for Belfast, for entering into a discussion of the details of the Bill, which were proper matters only to be introduced in Committee. It was generally admitted that the principle of the Bill was good, as it contemplated the improvement of Ireland, on which it had already conferred numerous benefits; and if what they asked the House was granted, which was nothing more than permission to raise money among themselves, they would extend their usefulness and confer further benefits on that country. Objection had been taken to this measure, in consequence of the shareholders being freed from all responsibility, beyond the amount of their shares. For this, however, there were precedents, as two Bills, conferring similar exemptions, had passed that House within a short time, but they were for London; and it is only now when this company, which had worked admirably for the interest of Ireland, had come forward that the grievance was discovered, and the evils that it would entail had become apparent. It had also been urged that one general law should be promulgated, by which to regulate the liabilities of companies. He had no objection to such a law; but the best way of effecting it would be, to grant the powers claimed in the present Bill; and then let some half-a-dozen powerful and wealthy companies co-operate in applying for a measure of this description. He hoped the subject would be maturely deliberated on before hon. Members came to a determination of opposing it; and that they would bear in their recollections that by defeating it they would be retarding improvement in a country where there was little capital and much room for the ex- tension of it. But if they had made up their minds on the subject, he trusted their opposition would not prove successful.

Sir Henry Parnell

said, he should op- pose this Bill on public grounds. The establishment of such companies as this, with exclusive and peculiar privileges, instead of encouraging the employment of capital, actually prevented it from being embarked. Why was it, that there was only one steam-packet company in Dublin? Because private adventurers could not go into competition with a company managed on the principle of non-liability. The business of a company, the partners in which were not liable for loss beyond a certain amount, was never conducted upon the true principles of trade and commerce. Why was it that London had only two steam-packet companies, while there were so many in the various other ports of England and Scotland? Because the London companies possessed exclusive privileges. He had always heard that the packets employed by the London steam-navigation company in its trade with foreign ports, of which it possessed a monopoly, were greatly inferior in point of size, accommodation, and management, to the steamers trading between London and Edinburgh, and other ports in Scotland. He must differ from his learned Friend, the Attorney General, as to the expediency of extending generally the principle of limited liability. He thought that such a principle was a bad one, and it was opposed to the great principle under which the wealth of this country had grown up. The introduction of such a principle in the formation of trading companies had been attended with bad effects both in Ireland and France.

Lord Clements

said, that the House should bear in recollection that this company was the first to establish a steam conveyance between Dublin and Liverpool, and also with the different parts of Ireland which enabled the inhabitants of remote districts to send their agricultural produce to Dublin for shipment to England. These were two important considerations, which should not be overlooked, when the parties only required the power of raising and expending their own money. It was urged that they should not be allowed this privilege, and that they had capital sufficient for all their purposes. This he denied; and the result of a refusal would be to give all the advantages to the Scotch steam-packet companies, who had larger capitals than that of the Dublin company. He (Lord Clements) on his part, would be happy to see the Scotch companies competing with the Irish, and to have the non-liability extended to them. It would have rather an awkward appearance for people not to be permitted to subscribe their own capital to their own purposes, and that by one of the most efficient companies in the kingdom.

Mr. William Roche

said, he knew not any public company which could present itself before Parliament and stand the test of the minutest scrutiny more fearlessly, or rather with more perfect confidence, than the Dublin Steam-packet Company, pointing as it could to the most satisfactory performance of every duty and of every responsibility that devolved upon it as well as to the more than ample realization of every public benefit expected from it. It associated at a time when none else were disposed to take up, he might say, the neglected cause of the Shannon, that noblest river of our home empire. It commenced its proceedings with moderation, it advanced with caution, and progressed with the most extraordinary advantages to the community and the revenue multiplying in the very short space of three years, the amount of tolls payable by it—by twelve fold, and increasing consequently in a similar ratio, the industry, trade, and commerce of that district—a district where the employment of the people not only conduced, as it always does, to national prosperity, but was, in fact, an act of humanity and charity so destitute of employment and consequently of every comfort was the population of that quarter. This company, too, was the first to introduce a new and liberal element into its operations, that of rendering those who dealt with it participators in its prosperity. As to the charge of monopoly, he considered it quite untenable, for this company does not say, confer on us special privileges but withhold them from others. On the contrary, it invited every other company to place itself in the same condition, if such company deem it advisable and can establish similar claims to public confidence and approval. As to the privilege of limited responsibility, so much observed upon, he considered it, under proper guards and on fitting occasions, a very useful principle of legislation because it promoted concentration of capital for great public purposes not otherwise practicable. But this limited responsibility the Dublin company already possessed, and therefore had no occasion to ask for it, all it seeks for, being permission to increase its capital somewhat in proportion to the wants of its increasing business, and acknowledged great public utility. On the whole he felt that were he to vote against the passing of this Bill, he would virtually, be voting for the suppression of one of the most valuable sources of Irish improvement and prosperity, and that merely to soothe the jealous feelings of rival companies. He therefore would most cordially support the third reading of the Bill.

Mr. Wallace

was not disposed to detain the House for any length of time, as he had already declared on what principle he was induced to record his opposition to the Bill. No doubt it was important to the people of Ireland, that the river Shannon should be improved; but money could be obtained for that purpose, without granting the power to this company of raising such an addition to their large capital, on such a limited responsibility as the shares of individuals. The evidence which he held in his hand, delivered before the Commissioners of Post-office Inquiry, stated, that the authorities of that department had sanctioned this company in building additional steamers for the purpose of contracting with them for conveying the mails; and that in such expectation a sum of 170,000l. was expended in new vessels. He would not depart from the principles of responsibility for the advantage of any company; and he saw nothing particular in Ireland that would induce him to confer privileges on her which Scotland did not enjoy. When the company had an addition made to their capital on a former occasion, their improvements were rather limited; and of the shares, amounting to a sum of 74,000l. a considerable sum remained to be paid up. Under all these circumstances, he did not think the parties entitled to the privileges which they had claimed, and with this impression on his mind he would oppose the motion.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

would take the liberty of saying a few words on this Bill, as he did not like, in giving his support to the third reading, that it should be supposed he did so on the principle of sustaining the interests of Ireland against those of Scotland, or any part of the country against another. He distinctly denied that it was the duly of the Government to interfere with subjects of this kind, with reference to their respective or relative merits. These were matters for the consideration of a committee, and for that House, upon which every hon. Member was at liberty to record his individual opinions, without any interference on the part of the Government. But it rather unfortunately happened that there was too much mixed up in private Bills, by which the Government, and particularly that department over which he presided, was called upon to interfere. It was too much the practice to introduce enactments in them affecting the public revenues and customs laws, which obliged the Government to interfere, for the purpose of calling the attention of the House to them. It was because of a principle which was involved in the measure that he (Mr. P. Thomson) had considered it his duty to interfere on the second reading of the Bill, and to intimate his intention on the part of the Government to oppose it, unless certain clauses were expunged. In doing so, however, he did not desire to have it understood that he had come to any decision on that great question of limited responsibility. The clauses objected to were struck out of the Bill, and it was read a second time, without any further interference on the part of the Government. He, however, felt much surprised at a letter having been put into his hands by an agent for the Bill, calling attention to it. He admitted that it was incumbent on the Government to look into the provisions of the Bill; and if they were objectionable, it was the bounden duty of the Government to express their disapprobation. But it was too much to say, that the Government had approved of a Bill that they did not interfere in further than as Members of that House. His hon. Friend near him (Mr. Wallace) had adverted to evidence and to statements of engagements having been entered into on the part of the Post-office for the furtherance of the views of this company. He (Mr. Poulett Thomson) had no doubt that a satisfactory explanation would be given on this subject which would convince the hon. Member that no such expectations had been held out, or any favour contemplated. There had been a great variety of opinions delivered in that House on the subject of limited responsibility; and during the present Session no less than from eight to ten Bills had passed, imposing conditions of one kind or another, involving it. So seriously had he considered the subject, that he had placed in the hands of a high legal authority in the country, all the documents that would enable him to come to a sound conclusion with the view of submitting some measure emanating from the Government to that House, during the present Session, or in the next, which would comprehend partnerships of less than six individuals and Joint Stock Companies. His object in so doing would be to put an end to the unfit state of the law as it now stood, by the introduction of a Bill for deciding the question generally. In the present instance all that was asked for in the Bill under consideration was, for permission to increase capital, and he could not, on his own part, feel justified in refusing the application, or consider it a justification for depriving the Dublin Company of the privileges they enjoyed under the Bill as originally passed. It was urged as an argument then, that the limited responsibility of the shareholders prevented them from directing proper attention to the affairs of the company. If such was the case, the increase of capital would be one of the best means of correcting the evil, as it would deter people from hazarding their money, and make them more watchful how they engaged in a speculation that, if not properly managed must lead to serious consequences. Having stated his opinions on this Bill, he should not feel justified in offering it any opposition, but leave it in the hands of the House.

Mr. Cumming Bruce

had presented a petition from his constituents against the Bill; but it was not alone on the petition that he offered it his opposition, but on the general principles so ably stated by the hon. Gentleman who had preceded him. He was quite sure, that the right hon. the President of the Board of Trade would give satisfaction to all parties. The hon. and learned Member for Dublin, in supporting the Bill, did not reflect on the great injustice to Scotland, to have her steam companies competing with unlimited responsibilities, against Irish companies with limited responsibility.

Mr. Labouchere

was asked whether the Post-office department had given any assurance, or held out any expectations to this company of the contract for conveying his Majesty's mails; but he could assure the hon. Member for Greenock (Mr. Wallace) and the House, that no such expectations were held out or assurances given. The evidence on which the charge rested was rather vague, and did not go the length of imputing such an intention on the part of the Post-office; but if the hon. Gentleman meant to do so, he laboured under a very great error. The only communication on the subject was through a general circular letter, which was addressed to the company as well as to others to ascertain whether they would be disposed to undertake the service.

Dr. Bowring

declared, that in his opinion nothing could be more discreditable to the mercantile community than the law which made the private property of individual shareholders responsible. He could not agree with his right hon. Friend, the Member for Dundee (Sir H. Parnell), as to the injurious tendency of a limited responsibility. He believed, on the contrary, that the time would soon arrive when the principle of a limited responsibility would be recognised as the most judicious one. However, he would not consent that one company, with a limited responsibility, should have the opportunity of competing with another of unlimited responsibility, and he would therefore oppose the motion for a third reading.

Lord Morpeth

supported the Bill. The objections which were raised to the principle of the Bill should have been urged in Committee, and not after it had reached to such an advanced stage. He was fully aware of the advantages which would be derived to Ireland from the outlay of capital, and the judicious exertions of this company. Under these circumstances he would support the measure to the extent of his power, and he hoped it would receive the favourable consideration of the House and pass into a law.

Lord Francis Egerton

supported the Bill, and referred to the services already rendered by the company.

The House divided on the original question.

Ayes 120; Noes 174:—Majority 54.

Bill put off for six months.