HC Deb 22 February 1837 vol 36 cc855-63
Mr. Warburton

, in conformity with the notice he had given on the preceding evening, rose to present two petitions to which he had adverted yesterday. The first was from the owners of land in Kent, and related to the Deptord and Dover Railway. There were three names appended to the petition, one of which he knew to be that of a most respectable individual. The amount of the capital of this projected company was 3,00,000l. There were various minor allegations contained in the petition, to which it would be unnecessary for him particularly to advert. One was, that it was said the capital of two former companies had been handed over to the present, while the transfer was not a transfer of real capital, but simply a handing over of the names of those who had subscribed to the first companies, those names being placed on the list of subscribers to the present undertaking, and the same sums placed opposite them, as had stood against them on the former lists. One other allegation was, that whereas the capital in the list of subscribers delivered into that House, appeared to be 3,000,000l., yet in an advertisement put forth by the company, the amount of that capital was stated to be only 2,000,000l. These, however, were points of minor importance; and the real complaint was contained in a short clause of the petition, which he would read. He had stated, that the capital of the company was said to be 3,000,000l. Now, the House was aware, that by the standing orders, it was necessary to lay before the House a list of the subscribers to such undertakings, whose joint subscriptions amounted at least to fifty per cent. of the estimated capital; and it was further necessary that the address, and place of residence, of those subscribers should be distinctly stated opposite their names. In compliance with that order, a list had been delivered in by the projectors of the present company; and from that list it appeared that 1,590,150l. had been subscribed for, exceeding, in a trifling degree, the required amount of fifty per cent. of the whole. In the list so delivered in, there appeared thirty-three names, and the sums placed opposite to those names, amounted to 224,900l. Now, what the petition alleged, was, that those persons had no real interest in the undertaking, that they were, in fact, mere men of straw, whose names had been obtained previous to the list being delivered in, in order to make up the fifty per cent. required by the orders of that House, before any progress could have been made with the Bill which was introduced. The second petition was short, and he would therefore read it to the House. The hon. Gentleman then read the petition, he substance of which was as follows:—that there were six out of the thirty-three names which had been alluded to put down for sums varying from 500l. to 12,000l., that the petitioners subscribed the contract of the company at the desire of one Jacob Costello, for the sum of 4s. They had since, however, been convinced that they had incurred a great and serious responsibility, and that they had been guilty of a gross fraud upon the country, and upon that House; and for these reasons it was, that they had now appealed to the House. The case he had stated was, he thought sufficiently flagrant; and there was also sufficient ground for the appointment of a Committee to investigate the whole transaction. There were other allegations in the petition, which showed that the affair had but too much the character of a bubble company; for it was stated that there were other persons of gambling habits, and no property, who appeared on the list as subscribers to the extent of 300,000l., in addition to the 224,900l. already alluded to. These were fictitious names, or the names of persons who had not paid, and who were not able to pay, any deposit, and who had no interest whatever in the undertaking. He had mentioned yesterday that those petitions involved the names of some hon. Members of that House, in the transactions to which they referred; not that any direct charge was brought forward, but only that there appeared on the list of the provisional committee the names of certain Members of that House. The names mentioned were those of Sir Andrew Leith Hay, and Mr. Hesketh Fleetwood. There was no charge against those Gentlemen beyond that of culpable negligence in allowing their names to be connected with a body, the character of which they had not sufficiently ascertained. He entreated the House to consider the consequences of hon. Members of that House allowing their names to appear on the list of directors of Companies, the respectability of which they had not sufficiently investigated. These were the gaudy flies which hid the barb by which the public were hooked and caught. He, therefore, entreated the House to grant him a Committee to investigate the whole matter, that hon. Members and the public might know the consequences which followed from allowing their names to be connected with such speculations. There were, he regretted to say, Gentlemen in that House, who did allow their names to be connected, with too much ease and unwariness, with companies like the present. Such companies as the one in question created distress with the subscribers, and when the period for the payment arrived, then the distress was felt, and the Bank was called upon to give relief, and they then made advances, which enlarged the currency; so that it was vain to say that, beyond the evil to individuals, those speculations were not pregnant with national evil. There were various other things in the petitions of a grave and serious nature, but he believed that what he had already stated, would be sufficient to induce the House to institute an investigation into the whole transaction. When, therefore, he had presented the petitions, he should move that a Committee be appointed. His own opinion was, that it would be much better to have it referred to a Select Committee, restricted in number, and certainly not exceeding at the utmost, fifteen Gentlemen, who had weight with the House, instead of referring it to a larger Committee, where the numbers would be fluctuating. He did not intend to name the Committee to-day; and, indeed, under the circumstances of the case, he thought that the Government ought to take its nomination into their own hands; and he should therefore, now only move that a Select Committee be appointed, to whom these petitions should be referred.

The petitions having been read,

Sir Andrew L. Hay

observed, that during the last Session of Parliament, although his name might have appeared in connexion with some railway companies, he had not thought it his duty, nor found it his inclination, to vote either in favour of those Railway Bills with which he was connected, or against those to which he was opposed, nor should he have thought it necessary to address the House on the present occasion, had not his name been prominently brought forward as one of the directors of that company whose conduct was thought censurable by the hon. Member for Bridport. His name was last year on the list of directors of a company for forming a Gravesend Railway, but the Bill for that object was refused by the House, and then, without his knowledge, his name was transferred to the list of directors of this railway company, and he had certainly since that time not directed his name to be withdrawn from that list. At the same time, he must say, that he had not attended the meetings of the directors, he had not signed the deed of settlement, and he had never participated in any proceedings of the company. Having been connected in common with many other gentlemen of high respectability, with this company, he did not now come forward to shrink from the consequences of an act which he must admit was one involving a charge of considerable negligence on his part. The moment, however, he had ascertained that there was any doubt as to the respectability of the proceedings of the company, he determined to withdraw his name from the direction, and although he did not believe that there was any single individual in the direction on whom the imputations thrown by the petitions could rest, he did not think it consistent with the duty he owed to others or to himself, to remain a single moment longer in connexion with the company after it had been affected by the slightest taint of fraud.

Mr. Hesketh Fleetwood

should not have intruded himself upon the attention of the House, unless his name had been used in connexion with the circumstances stated in the petitions, and for his part he had no wish whatever to shrink from any proper responsibility which could attach itself to him for allowing his name to be placed upon the list of provisional directors. His name had been put down as a director of a railway between London and Ramsgate, and he had said, that if they attempted to carry the railway on to Dover, he would cease to be a member of the company, and he had stated that circumstance as a reason for his withdrawal to the secretary before those petitions were brought forward. But in saying this, he had no wish to free himself from any imputations which could fall on members for the commission of an act of negligence, namely, that when they saw a scheme that they considered likely to lead to national benefit and advantage, they lent it their countenance by permitting their names to be used as provisional directors. He had never attended any meeting of the board of directors, but he would state one point, in justice to the individuals connected with the railway, which he thought of consequence. He thought that this should be a fair Committee, and with that view he should have a very great pleasure in assenting to its formation, with this one point in reserve—that if any party had brought forward these petitions, in order to impede the progress of this Bill, then, supposing the parties implicated should be cleared from the charges brought against them, the House would kindly indulge them with further time, and not permit the Bill to be lost.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

expressed his satisfaction that the hon. Member for Bridport had acceded to the suggestion which he had thrown out the day before, that Members whose characters were af- fected by the allegations in these petitions, might have it in their power to make any explanations which they thought it fit and right to offer. He assented entirely to the course of proceeding which the hon. Member for Bridport proposed to follow. There was one observation, however, which he wished to make; namely, that Gentlemen should be a little cautious how they lent their names to any projects of this description. He knew that there were many out of doors who were interested in this inquiry, and who were naturally interested that the investigation should be pursued; and he trusted the selection of the Committee would be such as would secure the confidence of the country. He would only say now that he earnestly hoped that this investigation would be productive of public good.

Mr. Matthias Attwood

said, that in addition to those Gentlemen whose names appeared in the list of directors, there were many other individuals whose names were well known to the House, and who were quite as respectable and as incapable of acting improperly as any of the hon. Members who had addressed the House. He was satisfied that they would not shrink from the inquiry which the hon. Member for Bridport asked for, and on their part he courted the fullest investigation into these transactions.

Mr. Gisborne

thought that the House should be careful in interfering with these matters before the right time, and that they ought to bring the case before the proper tribunals. He understood that a petition for leave to bring in a bill had been presented to a section of the Committee of 42, which had been appointed this session, and he considered that into all the allegations made by the hon. Member for Bridport, except one point, this section of the Committee would have a right to inquire. He doubted, therefore, whether it would be right to appoint a Committee to conduct an investigation which fell peculiarly within the scope of the duty which this section of the Committee of 42 had to perform. He had not the least desire to screen any of the parties, but at the same time he thought there was some danger of the House stepping beyond its functions, and the present was not the most convenient time for such a Committee to be appointed.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

differed from his hon. Friend who had last spoken, because he thought that if they gave leave to bring bills before the House, and made themselves responsible for the character of the undertakings, they must, in defence of their own standing orders, appoint a select Committee, to inquire into the facts alleged in these petitions. If they remitted parties who had trusted to the vigilance of that House, to a court of law, and exposed them to delay and expense, they would be abdicating one of their most important functions and neglecting one of their most imperative duties. He would take this opportunity of stating further, that parties applying for bills to Parliament ought to be aware that the funds at the disposal of the Exchequer Loan Commissioners were almost entirely exhausted, and Parliament would do well to reflect before they renewed that fund, whether they would give encouragement to any fresh speculations. He should be sorry if it were thought that in making this declaration he wished to throw any distrust or discredit on these great national undertakings when in the hands of responsible persons, and when properly directed.

Lord Stanley

quite agreed with his right hon. Friend in thinking that in a case which so materially affected the whole of their proceedings, it was impossible for the House to refer it to any other tribunal than one of their own. If the facts stated in the petition were true, this was one of the grossest frauds which had ever been attempted to be imposed upon the House. The statement which had been made to night must have the effect of warning hon. Members how they lent their names, their high and honourable names, to projects of which they knew nothing. He had invariably, upon all occasions, refused to lend his name as a director of a company of any sort or kind, and he was quite sure that if gentlemen would only give themselves the trouble of considering the expediency of not allowing their names to appear before the public as nominal directors, from which they could not afterwards shake off the responsibility, though they could, in truth, exercise no direction, they would see the absolute necessity of not yielding to any such solicitations. With regard to the tribunal before which these petitions should be sent, he was rather inclined to the opinion, that it should be referred to the standing orders Com- mittee. A Sub-Committee of the 42 Members must go into the merits of this transaction; they must report on the whole facts, and therefore he thought it the most proper tribunal to which the case could be referred. At the same time, if the House entertained a different opinion, and thought that it should be referred to a select Committee, he would not object to that course.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

was of opinion that the House was bound to institute a grave inquiry into the circumstances of this case. He should have been inclined entirely to agree with his hon. Friend in his motion for a select Committee, provided this case had occurred last year, because up to last year there was no other tribunal to which it could with propriety have been referred. At present it would be preferable to refer the case to the standing orders Committee than a select Committee. He did not wish in this, the first instance of the kind which had been brought before the House, to relieve the standing orders Committee of what he conceived to be their special duty.

Mr. Robert Palmer

begged leave to suggest that considerable inconvenience would result from the course which the right hon. Gentleman proposed to follow. The present was a question of facts, and if the Sub-Committee were to enter into them, one of the Sub-Committees of the 42 would be shut up from going into the investigations which were now before them. At present there were not less than ten or twelve bills before each of these Sub-Committees every day, and it was likely that as the session advanced they would have more claims upon their time. He put it therefore whether, as a matter of convenience, it would not be better to agree to the motion of the hon. Member for Bridport.

Mr. Warburton

said, that the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken had anticipated one of the objections which he was about to offer to the plan proposed by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. If his advice were followed, it must materially interfere with the progress of business in this very busy session for private bills. Again, suppose the company withdrew their bill, as they had the power to do, this would stop all proceedings. What would the standing orders Committee do then? That was the second objection. He had yet a third. It would be recollected that the parties who had subscribed their names to this petition were landowners upon the line; were they to go into this investigation before the standing orders Committee at their own expense? This was not a private but a public question, and he wished a select Committee to be appointed—first, because if these petitions were referred to the standing orders Committee, it would put a stop to the progress of private business; secondly, because it would be in the power of the parties to stop the proceeding by withdrawing their bill; and thirdly, because the expense of the inquiry ought to be borne, not by the parties but by the public.

Petitions to be referred to a select Committee.

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