HC Deb 08 February 1836 vol 31 cc166-76
Mr. Hume

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill for vesting Light-houses on the coast of England in the Trinity-house of Deptford Strond. In 1834, a Committee sat a long time to inquire into the subject of the light-houses of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and made a report thereon. As chairman of that Committee he was instructed to bring in a Bill with a view to consolidate those three important branches under one Board in London. He did so, but the Bill met with considerable opposition. In the first place, his hon. Friend the hon. and learned Member for Dublin, and the Irish Members generally, objected to their light-houses being transferred to the Trinity-house, which was the course recommended by a majority of the Committee. The Members for Scotland also did not think the Trinity-house the most proper Board to place their light-houses under; and he must candidly say, that such was his own opinion. He could wish the subject to be taken up as a Government question, and that there should be a separate Board under which these three great branches should be placed, with a view of establishing one uniform regulation among the whole, instead of their being as now, conducted under three different sets of regulations. The rate of charge for ships, it was well known, differed greatly in the three countries; and it was most extraordinary that a naval nation like this should have arrived at its present state of greatness without any Government authority having been established for, managing and carrying on these lighthouses. The consequence was, that a great waste of public money was annually incurred. It was clearly shown to the Committee that a sum of 70,000l. was sufficient to maintain alt the' light-houses of the three countries, and yet no less a sum than 240,000l. was annually exacted from the shipping interest in the shape of light-house duties, the difference, therefore, was entirely thrown away. Many members of the Committee agreed with him, that it would be better to place these lights under the management of a public Board; but it was thought by a majority of the Committee, that as a public body was already constituted in the Corporation of the Trinity-house, the first step taken should be to place the light-houses under their control. The House had heard much to-night respecting agricultural distress, and various modes of relief had been suggested. For his part, he was of opinion that the agricultural interest could not be better served than by the reduction of local and general taxation. If the lighthouse duties were reduced, it would enable the ship-owners to lower their freights, and that must ultimately be beneficial to the agriculturists, by lessening the expense of the transit of landed produce. But the greatest evil he had to complain of was, the private light-houses in the hands of individuals. Leases had been granted by the Crown to individuals, which afforded them the means, he would say, of plundering the public; because the Crown had no more right to grant to my Lord A or my Lord B the power of levying a tax on the commerce of the country, than it had at the present moment to give an order on the Exchequer to any private individual who had not done a single public act to deserve it. He did not mean to complain of the present Administration on this score so much as of former Administrations, which had allowed these leases to be renewed, notwithstanding Mr. Huskisson and Mr. Herries had often declared that they never should be renewed again. The system, however, had gone on year after year, ever since 1823, imposing this unnecessary burthen' on the trade of the country. This was the third year since he and his friends had undertaken the charge of remedying this abuse; and the fault of which he impeached the present Government was, that they had not taken the matter into their own hands. What was the Board of Trade for, if not to undertake the management of such matters as this? On one occasion, when the Bill was brought in, he was told that the Government had not made up their minds upon the subject; at another time, that the Crown had an interest in the question. Indeed, no less than 100,000l. taken from the shipping interest had already been paid into the hands of Commissioners of Woods and Forests, arising from lighthouses, which the Crown ought never to have received. On these grounds, the Bill had, from time to time, been postponed. He remembered, too, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer once told him, that objections were raised on the part of the lessees to the proposed mode of proceeding, and that time was, therefore, required to consider what other mode should be adopted. There was another great objection to the present system, namely, the appropriation of a large sum derived from these light-house duties to the payment of pensions to disabled seamen. There was no objection to a specific fund being provided for such a purpose; but it ought not to be at the expense of the shipping trade of the country. He did not mean to impugn the mode in which the distribution of the money was made; it was only the principle to which he objected. With respect to transferring the superintendence of these light-houses to the Trinity-house, he begged to observe, that that Corporation had already fifty-five lights under its management and control. The amount of revenue yielded, and the expenses for collection and maintenance incurred during the year 1834, stood thus:—

Revenue £83,000
Expense of collection £6,600
Maintaining the lights in repair 35,900
Leaving a sum of £40,500
beyond what was actually necessary for the maintenance of those fifty-five light houses. Now, he would contend that that 40,500l. if not required for maintaining the lights, or for erecting new lights, ought not to be levied, and, if levied, ought not to be appropriated, without some different superintendence and control from that which at present existed, to the payment of pensions to certain seamen. Then there were fourteen lights in the hands of private individuals, which,
In 1833, yielded a revenue of £79,676
Expenses of collection £10,000
Maintaining the lights 9,354
Thus leaving a surplus of £60,322
to be divided among twelve or thirteen individuals. The object, therefore, of his Bill was to consolidate these private lights under the authority of the Trinity-house, who had the charge of the fifty-five other lights belonging to England, leaving the lights belonging to Ireland and Scotland for the present out of consideration. It might be asked what advantage would be derived from doing this, seeing that the rights of those individuals must be maintained during the period of their leases. In the first place, then, it was his opinion that if the rights of each of those individuals were brought before a Jury of the country, it would be very difficult indeed for the parties to maintain them; therefore he thought it would become a question, fairly and properly, for that House to consider whether those rights should not, as recommended by the Committee, be all subjected to investigation before that tribunal, in order to put an end to any grants of leases that had been improperly or illegally made. At the same time he owned that he looked forward to improvement for the future rather than to derive advantage by pressing on the interests of those connected with the past. It was therefore proposed to give by this Bill a power to the Trinity-house to come to terms with those individuals if possible; but if they should not be able to agree, then it was provided that the question of right should be brought before a Jury of the country. He thought it very likely that arrangements might be amicably effected. He did not wish to throw any slur upon these gentlemen; on the contrary, he was glad to say that he had met with every disposition on their part to do what was right. The result which he expected from the adoption of this plan would be a saving of from 15,000l. to 20,000l. in the first year; and if a similar plan were adopted with regard to the Irish lights, a very large portion of the 24,000l. now paid as mere percentage on the collection of the dues for those lights would also be saved. He would not say anything about the light-houses of Scotland at present, but would leave them to some other time. He understood that this Bill, from some rule of etiquette or other, could not be introduced without first obtaining: the sanction of the Crown. Why the people of this country should not be allowed to effect the reduction of a lax without the sanction of the Crown he could not conceive. However, he hoped that that technical difficulty would be obviated by the sanction of the Crown being readily given. If not, he trusted that the Government would themselves undertake to bring in the Bill. He should be happy to transfer the Bill into the hands of the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade; but it must be upon condition that the provisions of the Bill, as recommended by the Committee, were retained. If it should be proposed by the right hon. Gentleman to leave out the Clauses respecting the discontinuance of the pensions to seamen, which were strongly recommended by the Committee, he must decline placing the Bill in his hands, because he (Mr. Hume) should be wrong, as Chairman of that Committee, not to submit that proposition to the House. The hon. Gentleman moved for leave to bring in the Bill.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

was as much inclined now as he was last year to give the Bill every assistance that he could, consistently with his own opinion upon the subject. But when his hon. Friend charged the Government with neglect of duty for not having taken up the Question, he (Mr. Thomson) really could not understand the ground on which that charge was made, on calling to mind what took place last Session when the matter was before the House. At a late period of that Session a Bill was introduced by his hon. Friend on this subject, which led to a lengthened discussion. Upon an appeal being made to the Government, he (Mr. Thomson) stated, on the part of the Government generally, and of the department to which he more particularly belonged, that he was prepared to give assistance to his hon. Friend as far as he could, differing as he did from him on some points; or if his hon. Friend judged it better, he would himself propose a Bill to the House. He was rather surprised, therefore, when he found his hon. Friend, without the slightest notice to him, come down the first day of the Session, and give notice, of his intention to bring in the pre- sent Bill. His hon. Friend certainly had a perfect right to do so, but he had not any right at the same time to charge him or the Government with a neglect of duty for not introducing the measure. But his hon. Friend now said, "I will give over the Bill to you if you will adopt all its provisions." To that proposition he could by no means consent. If his hon. Friend would leave the matter in his hands and allow him to bring in a Bill such as he might approve of, on the responsibility of the Government, he should feel it his duty to undertake that task; but he certainly could not undertake to carry through a Bill, some of the provisions of which he did not approve of. He agreed with his hon. Friend with respect to the merits of the Report of the Committee which sat on the subject of Light-houses; and he would do his hon. Friend the justice to say that it was impossible for any one to pay more attention to the subject than he did, and the Report reflected great credit upon him. He really did his hon. Friend that justice; at the same time it was worthy of remark, that his hon. Friend himself had not followed the recommendations of that Committee. The Committee recommended that one uniform system should be adopted for England, Ireland, and Scotland, and that all the Light-houses of the three Kingdoms should be all placed under the Trinity-house: but his hon. Friend had brought in a Bill for England simply. Again, his hon. Friend proposed to place all the Light-houses in England under the control of the Trinity-house, and yet he was of opinion that another distinct Board ought to have that control. In the first place, then, the Bill in one point was not according to the recommendation of the Committee; and, in the next, although in another it was in accordance with the recommendation of the Committee, yet it was contrary to the opinion of his hon. Friend who brought it in. Another point taken by his hon. Friend, upon which he differed from his hon. Friend, was with respect to the pensions to seamen. He, perhaps, agreed with his hon. Friend in thinking that it was contrary to strict principle to allow a tax of this kind to be levied from the shipping interests of the country for the maintenance of lights, and afterwards to permit the money to be distributed in pensions to distressed seamen. But it was necessary to look at this question in a practical point of view, and not confine it to abstract principles; and when they found that there was not only no complaint made by the shipping interest of this distribution, but, on the contrary, he believed it would be difficult to get up a single petition amongst them against it—and it was the shipping interest, after all, who paid this money, in order that the pensions should not be taken away—he (Mr. Thomson) was not inclined to carry out the general principle to all its consequences. Unless he saw great abuses take place under the distribution of these pensions, he was not at all disposed to meddle with the subject. Here they had parties who were anxious to continue to pay those pensions, and parties who, of course, were also anxious still to receive them. Upon that point, therefore, (and it was the stipulation which he understood his hon. Friend to make as the condition of his handing over the Bill to him), he differed from his hon. Friend, and, therefore, could not consent to take the Bill upon such terms. His hon. Friend bad taken notice of a difficulty arising from the necessity of obtaining the consent of the Crown, and asked why should the people be stopped in that way upon a subject of this kind for want of the consent of the Crown. But if the property of the Crown was involved in the question, surely it was but right that the consent of the Crown should be given. He was quite satisfied that no unusual course would be adopted by the Crown on this occasion, and that if the obtaining the object which they all had in view—that of putting the Light-houses on a better system—depended on getting rid of the property of the Crown, he was perfectly sure that the Crown's advisers would not throw any obstacle in the way of an agreement. But an arrangement could not be effected in an instant; there were other parties interested to be consulted. He could assure his hon. Friend that every endeavour would be used to come to a fair arrangement with the individuals who now hold leases under the Crown; and it would then be for the advisers of the Crown to say whether they would consent to this Bill or not. His hon.: Friend must permit him to say that the Bill involved arrangements affecting private property to a great extent: and it would be most unfair to legislate at once, and in an offhand manner, with the possessors of it, without consulting with them on the subject. He could assure his hon. Friend the matter was not so very easy to arrange as he supposed. In conclusion, he begged to repeat, that although he could not undertake to manage his hon. Friend's Bill, yet he should be willing to render him every assistance in his power consistently with his own views of the subject, and to obtain for him every facility from the Woods and Forests in the further prosecution of his measure.

Mr. O'Connell

felt it his duty to state that, whatever inaccuracy existed in the Report on which this Bill was founded, or whatever want of harmony might be apparent between them, the fault did not rest with the hon. Mover, or with the Committee. It was not supposed at the time that Ireland would be included in any alteration which might be proposed as the result of its deliberations, and, therefore, less evidence had been offered in relation to the system on which the light-houses were governed in that country than would otherwise have been. It was, therefore, judged only fair to exclude Ireland from the effect of any legislation affecting its interests on this point, until they had an opportunity of ascertaining the actual state of things there. He felt it a duty to his constituents and to the Ballast Board of Dublin, to whose care this important department was intrusted in Ireland, to state, that they lately effected some considerable additions, and judicious improvements in this branch of the public service, while, at the same time, they had, by good management, been able to relieve the shipping interest of a portion of the charges hitherto paid by vessels availing themselves of the lights on the Irish coast. They had, in fact, at once reduced the duty and increased the accommodation to the public. It might naturally be asked, at what outlay were these benefits effected? What amounts of salaries were paid for this superior species of management? Not one penny. It was all done gratuitously. This was (as far as he knew) the first instance of a Board not regularly paid which did any good. It had effected especial good in the south of Ireland, where formerly not a winter had passed without numerous shipwrecks, yet he was happy to say that for the last eight winters not a single one had occurred, mainly in consequence of the admirable arrangements of the Ballast Board. These were the reasons why Ireland had been excluded from the present attempt at centralization. It did well enough as it was, and it ought to be left so. This was the opinion both of the hon. Mover and himself, and he was sure the House would agree in the propriety of the course pursued in the Bill now brought before them.

Mr. Robinson

expressed his conviction of the necessity of placing the subject on an improved footing, though he did not think the proposed course an unexceptionable one. His principal object was to diminish the charges not intended to promote the benefit of the shipping of this country. A nation ought to look to the future as well as the present; and on a subject of such avowed importance all vested interests, whether private or regal, should be rendered subservient to the public service. He was happy to hear the President of the Board of Trade had undertaken to forward the great objects of the Bill, in which he (Mr. Robinson) felt a deep concern, and he should esteem it his duty to lend him his best support.

Mr. George Young

was sorry that the hon. Member for Middlesex had not given the Bill into the hands of Government, and lamented the pertinacity with which he and the hon. Member for Dublin clung to an anomalous system, which, it was avowed, was of no benefit to the individuals who worked it. He called the attention of the House to the fact, that the item of 42,000l. per annum, which stood in the account to the credit of the Irish Board of Management, was paid by English shipping instead of Irish, and he must therefore contend that England was called on to legislate for the protection of her maritime interests on Irish shores, and fully justified in insisting on the adoption of a consistent and systematic arrangement for the empire. With respect to the pensions, he believed that the feeling in their favour was almost universal, and no good reason was shown for their discontinuance. He defended the shipping owners from the charges which the hon. Member for Middlesex advanced against them, of apathy and ignorance, contending that they wisely discriminated in all matters of legislation affecting their interests, and only displaying the anxiety and alarm on which be animadverted when unwise and unjust attempts were made to interfere with their earnings by legislative enactments, He hoped that the Bill would pass, shorn of its objectionable clauses.

Mr. Shaw

declared, that it was exceedingly unjust to include the Ballast Board of Ireland, in the accusations which had been made against inefficient public or private bodies. It was fully established, that the system they pursued had worked well, and was conducted more cheaply, successfully, and satisfactorily than any other, and it would now be the height of injustice to disturb it, on the pretence of bad management or incompetency. He hoped that, under the circumstances, the House would see the inconsistency and unfairness of introducing; Ireland into the contemplated arrangement.

Colonel Parry

was happy to add his testimony in favour of the conduct of the Board of the Trinity House, who were looked up to with gratitude by the poor receivers of its pensions. These trifling annuities were not receivable till the claimant was past seventy; and, it was further stated as a qualification, was not able to beg. Representing, as he did, the interests of six seaports, and of a numerous maritime population, he felt happy in stating his conviction, that his constituents would be quite satisfied with the progress of the Bill under the care, which the President of the Board of Trade had promised to extend to it. He hoped, that Mr. Hume and the Government would agree to carry on the measure with a good understanding, and that the poor individuals dependent on these pensions for their subsistence would not be overlooked.

Viscount Sandon

would not allow the Irish Members to stand alone in their praise of the Ballast Board, whose merits he was happy to substantiate. He disliked the spirit of monopoly, and would be glad to see each country administering its own proper department of the public service. When a late attempt was made to break up the old establishment of Kilmainham Hospital, he was proud of the opportunity it afforded him of upholding the lights of Ireland, and advocating the consideration which should ever be extended by the Legislature to the feelings of old soldiers in the peaceful sanctuary where they had retired to end their days. He protested against the principles advocated by the hon. Member for Tynemouth, which, if admitted, would let in the interference of all the foreign shipping inter- ests that paid lighthouse toll on the Irish or other coasts, for they must in justice be consulted there. He felt quite satisfied, however, that the Trinity House was competent to conduct the English branch of the service, and he should therefore cheerfully support the Bill.

Mr. Pease

said, that it appeared to be taken for granted, that the whole amount specified by the hon. Member for Middlesex might be consistently viewed as surplus; but this, he believed, was not the case. The funds so raised by lighthouse dues were properly intended, and liable to be appropriated, to the improvement of coasts which yet needed the aid of the Trinity or some other Board, and the application of these very funds in providing an extension of illumination, and other accompanying measures, for the safety of shipping, completion of harbours, the improvement and repairs of light-houses, &c. If these funds were taken away, the Trinity-house would necessarily be debarred from accomplishing the great national ends which this Bill appeared designed to promote. He thought, that a certain portion of this surplus ought to be annually taken for the improvement of particular portions of the coast seriatim. The interests of the State should, above all considerations, be first attended to; its maritime power and wealth should receive every aid and protection, that the judicious outlay of its proper funds on the coast could accomplish; and if any surplus were afterwards found to exist, let it be applied in pensions to the most deserving and destitute. He believed it was a question whether the constitution of the Trinity House was altogether such as the House would wish, but he felt that it would be unworthy of Parliament to circumscribe a fund on which so much depended.

Bill brought in and read a first time.