HC Deb 23 July 1839 vol 49 cc707-16
Mr. French

rose to move, "that an hum- ble address be presented to her Majesty, praying that she will be graciously pleased to direct such measures to be taken as will secure to the different provinces in Ireland the advantages of railway communication." The hon. Member said, it was difficult, almost impossible to present any question to the House to which under present circumstances the colour of party would not be given, and that now before them had to encounter much hostility, much misrepresentation. Yet if ever a Parliamentary question was free from the complexion of party in itself, it was that of railways in Ireland, for this reason, that it bore upon the interests of the whole community of the United Kingdom of all classes, and he might say, of all individuals of that community, with the most entire and perfect impartiality. The great rivers with which nature had intersected the bosom of the land did not dispense their benefits as means of transport more impartially than would these proposed results of art and capital. The case of Ireland had been in various places ignorantly by some, intentionally by others, misrepresented. From the English Parliament they asked no favour, the demanded justice both in words and deeds, in neither of which had it hitherto been rendered to them. His object would be, first, to endeavour to show that the system under which the great leading lines of communication or highways in the country had been managed had proved a decided failure; secondly, that the construction of railways by the State was more conducive to the interests of the public than by private enterprise; and, thirdly, that the security offered in this case was more than sufficient for the advance that might be required for the works. The making and repairing of highways (and railways were about to be the highways of the kingdom) had always been considered the special duty and care of the State. By our ancient laws no man was exempt from the burden of keeping them in good and sufficient repair. It was part of the "necessitas trinoda," mentioned by Blackstone, to which every man's estate was subject, and was conformable to the Roman law, "for the construction and repair of roads and bridges." He alluded to the Roman law, because on it the law of England relating to highways was founded. An ancient author stated, "that the Romans paved the ways throughout the world, in order to make the roads straight, and keep the multitude out of idleness." Both these objects were as necessary and as desirable to accomplish at the present day as they were at any former period. The Roman law distinguished the high roads between the principal towns from those between small towns and villages. The former, viœ publicœ, were made and maintained at the expense of the State; the latter, viœ vicinales, at the expense of the towns or villages they connected together, the magistrates of which were empowered to levy on the inhabitants the sums required for that purpose, and those who were not able to contribute in money were obliged to contribute their personal labour. That part of these laws which related to the viœ vicinales was alone retained by our Saxon ancestors, being more congenial to their feudal institutions, and was by them applied to public as well as private roads. At a later period the judges, who had a charge to enquire "of common highways destroyed, and who bound to repair or mend them," "declared, that the counties were bound at common law to make good the reparations of a highway." By the statute of Philip and Mary the parishes were compelled to repair the highways, and surveyors were appointed to superintend and enforce such repairs Following the example of this misapplication of Roman law this statute provided that the funds for this purpose should be raised in each parish, either by composition or personal labour. A number of statutes were passed subsequent to this, all based on the same principle, a wrong one. He contended that the occupiers of each parish were bound to keep the highways in repair, for the use of the public, and were only productive of great discontent and much litigation. At length the greater proportion of the roads in England were placed under the management of trustees, who were empowered to erect turnpikes, and take toll in aid of statute labour. This expedient had also proved unsuccessful. The trusts were encumbered with a heavy amount of debt, and the time appeared to have arrived when a change of system was indispensable. According to a paper in the appendix attached to the report on turnpike trusts in 1833 the expenditure of the trusts for a distance of 20,000 miles exceeded their annual income by 44,726l., and there was a debt of 7,785,178l. The report just made stated the debt to be now upwards of 9,000,000l. More than 2,000,000l. of this debt was for Parliamentary expenses alone. The committee reported, that They had not failed to observe from the evidence adduced the great benefits which had arisen from the consolidation of trusts round the metropolis; that all the witnesses, sixteen in number, that had been examined, concurred in recommending a system of general control for the management of the roads of the kingdom, to introduce one general economical course of management as the only means of reducing the enormous amount of debt, releasing the country from the burden of statute labour, and the high rate of toll now levied on every district. And the committee recommended the immediate adoption of measures calculated to carry that object into effect. It appeared, then, that the principles recommended for Ireland by the Railway Commissioners must soon be adopted even in England, namely, that the great, leading lines of communication should be made and maintained by the State. The transition which the peasantry of Ireland were at present undergoing from unemployed and pauper landholders to, he trusted, that of employed and remunerated labourers, was necessarily attended with much suffering, and it was only by an extensive system of public works that suffering could be alleviated, and that they could reconcile the ultimate and lasting benefit of the country with the least possible amount of present misery to its inhabitants. The political grievances of the Irish people might be subjects of dispute; there could be no question as to their wretchedness and destitution, and much credit was, he contended, due to her Majesty's Government for their adoption of the principles laid down by the Railway Commissioners for their endeavours to grapple with a question hitherto neglected, but one of vital importance to the future interests of the empire, as to how the unemployed peasantry of Ireland was to be set to work in a manner beneficial to themselves and advantageous to the State. An unmixed plan of Government construction was, in his opinion, the most likely to realize the advantages anticipated from the introduction of railways in Ireland. No private capitalists whose object must be personal emolument, would venture to compete with the State under such fearful odds as existed against him. Government could obtain money at from 2½ to 3 per cent., whilst private individuals could not obtain it on the security of their works, if indeed they could obtain it at all, in the market under 5 per cent. A bill to enable Government to construct railways would be carried through both Houses without expense, whilst an enormous charge would be entailed on private undertakers by a Parliamentary investigation, which could not be denied where private interests were affected by works to be undertaken by commercial speculators for their private emolument. It was well known to the House that the money expended in this way on the Brighton-Railway would have completed a very considerable portion of the line, and all this when the works were finished the public would have to pay in the shape of high fares. In the case of companies too the large sums demanded by landed proprietors for the ground required for the works, which, for reasons not then necessary to specify, must be paid in the first instance, and afterwards levied on the public. These sums had exceeded the estimates in a most extraordinary way—on the London and Birmingham more than one half; on the Grand Junction the estimate was 120,000l., the sum paid was 240,000l.; on the Great Western it was 70 per cent. over the estimate; on the Southampton the estimate was 90,000l., the sum paid was 260,000l. In the case of Government making the railway, land could be obtained for its fair value. During the discussions on railway bills in this country, in the struggle between rival lines, hostile engineers and grasping landowners, the interests of the community were completely overlooked. Had the principles which ought to have regulated so great a change in the means of communication been attended to, vested rights of a perpetual nature would hardly have been conceded to any of those companies nor would the Legislature be driven as it now was to the dangerous expedient of ex post facto legislation to secure for the public those advantages which ought to have formed the original conditions on such bills were allowed to pass. It appeared to him that the adoption of the private enterprise principle had been a serious legislative error. The public had a right to expect that the Government should secure to them all the advantages of economy and of speed which this mode of conveyance was susceptible. It was notorious, from the causes he had already explained, that there had not been a mile of railway constructed in England which had not cost much more, in many instances 10,000l. and 20,000l. a mile more than, it could have been constructed for under a different system. But that was not all the: proprietors had, in many instances, the unlimited right of fixing the charges for conveyance and passengers in respect of a mode of conveyance which, of necessity, drove all others off the roads, which admitted of no rivalry, and of which they were the undisputed masters. They might now declare, and petitions presented to that House spewed they had declared, what persons should, and what persons should not, send goods by their railway, as there was no limit in charges for passengers and goods, save the endurance of the public. So it was with respect to speed, which being expensive, would be reduced to the lowest point in the scale which marked the superiority of the railway over the conveyances it had superseded. Rival railroads were not to be hoped for, and competition with all the advantages it afforded to the public was at an end for ever. In 1833 the French Chamber, following the example of the American government nine years before, directed surveys to be made at the public expence of the lines of railway most likely to prove beneficial undertakings, and after a protracted delay, the government, in 1837, brought forward a project for the execution of six lines of railway, by means of private companies, to whom the public assistance was to be given in proportion as it was supposed the State might profit by the work. This view was opposed both by those members who considered the government should itself undertake the works, and by those who were in favour of leaving them exclusively to private enterprise. The bills were lost. In 1838, a new project was submitted by ministers to the Chambers, embracing nine great trading lines, four of which the government proposed to execute at the public expense, at a cost of 14,000,000l. sterling; but under this plan so long a time must elapse before France could obtain the benefits of railways, government proposing to take a vote but for the twenty-fourth part of the sum required for the works. A well-founded opposition was raised in the Chamber of Deputies, which, after several interesting discussions, was referred to a select committee, which sat for two months, and produced a long report, the substance of which was, that notwithstanding the great interest the nation had in the execution of such works, government should not undertake them, except in cases where private enterprise had declined to do so, on account of the inadequacy or uncertainty of the profits; they also proposed a series of guarantees which should be required from private companies before the power of constructing railways was intrusted to them. The government contended, that public works which were likely to prove advantageous to the nation were uniformly neglected by private enterprise in France, where the cost was considerable, and that if railways were not constructed by the State, they were not likely to be constructed at all the measure was, however, lost. The result had proved the government to have been right; nothing had been done, or nothing appeared likely to be done, in that country worthy of notice. On the other hand, look to Belgium, where by the adoption of a system such as was proposed by her Majesty's Government, in less than six years the advantages of railway communication had been given to the entire of the population at one-third of the price paid in England, and it was important that that country afforded facts for their guidance, that in place of urging on the House a thing to be adopted, they were enabled to point out an example to be followed. He would read a most important document from one whose intelligence and ability, joined to his intimate knowledge of the working of the railway system in this country, entitled his opinions to great consideration —he meant Captain Moorsom, who for eight years was the manager of the London and Birmingham railway. It was a letter addressed to Mr. Pim, a director of the Dublin and Kingstown Railroad. The hon. Member accordingly read the the letter which advocated, in strong terms, and at some length, the principle of Government taking into its own hands the construction and management of railways, which it could effect cheaper and better than any company. It was his conviction, the hon. Member continued, from what he had observed in England, and from what he knew in Ireland, and he had considered the matter with some care, that if railways there were left to private enterprise, vast works would be begun on a vast scale, funds would be exhausted, individuals would be ruined, and the works would come to a full stop. They would have incipient railways here, and nascent embankments there, to survive as monuments of the vast distance between the scantiness of their means and the magnificence of their ideas; Mr. Pim had made a calculation, that had the railways from this to Liverpool had executed under the different system, the fares for the first class carriages, which were now 2l. 11s. 6d., would be amply remunerative at 1l., and for the second class, now 1l. 17s., 10s. Was it not the duty of Government to prevent the useless waste of the national wealth, particularly when by so doing they would add so much to the comfort and convenience of the middle classes? One class of persons, the economists, opposed the advance of money for the construction of railways in Ireland professedly on the point of security being doubtful. Before, by their expressions or by their votes they gave currency to a statement so unfounded as this, it was their duty diligently to inquire, and accurately to inform themselves, which they could do by means of official documents, if the opinion they had so long indulged in were correct or otherwise, and it might probably startle them to hear that the boasted liberality of England towards Ireland was but ideal, that in her pecuniary transactions with us she had ever demanded and always obtained a pecuniary advantage, and that her generosity has been confined to borrowing money on the credit of both countries at two-and-a-half per cent., and lending it to us at five. In one instance the money advanced has not been repaid—640,000l. out of the million fund. The Irish Members at the time told the House it was not years afterwards declaring it a loan, claiming and enforcing its repayment. He would not detain them by showing how England acted towards foreign countries. According to a. Parliamentary paper of 1822, No. 293, she paid to them in loans and subsidies, from 1793 to 1816, not one shilling of which had been repaid—77,751,944l. Nor should he say anything of their expenditure in Canada or elsewhere; but to come more home to the question, how had they used the national credit for their own purposes at an eventful crisis? They came forward in favour of their own landed proprietors. They enabled the Bank of England to lend them large sums of money at a low rate of interest, and saved their estates from being forced into the market. Since 1817, 6,250,000l. borrowed on the credit of the United Kingdom, had been used for your separate local purposes, for railways, for roads, for canals. On what principle of justice, he would ask, was Ireland to be refused a similar privilege? They tendered security superior to that on which your Exchequer Commissioners here sanctioned loans for England to the extent of upwards of 12,000,000l. sterling. They offered security equal to any in your power to give, if you pledged the entire property of England for it. They proposed to you as collateral security, a rental of millions to pro vide against the possibility of a deficiency on a sum which at four per cent. would amount but to 92,500l. annually. They asked, in return, the completion of a plan which would raise a portion of this empire from comparative poverty to wealth, which would throw open an extensive and every day extending market for your manufactures, and which would annually increase your revenue by millions. The declaration of the commissioners could not be too often impressed on you, that by raising the Irish to the level of the English an enormous increase would take place in your revenue, under one head alone they calculate, that of excise, to the extent of 6,000,000l. a year. It was safe, it was more than safe, it was profitable for the State to lend its credit for the construction of railways in Ireland, and for the sake of the community it was, he contended, bound to do so. The measure of her Majesty's Government was, as a recent writer remarked, one of work for the unemployed, and food for the hungry—a measure of humanity, a measure of protection, a measure of security for the peace of society—one promoting the interest of all classes. Both Houses of Parliament had recorded their solemn pledge to advance the interests of Ireland, and how could either of them, with anything like consistency, reject this the first measure proposed for that purpose? He could not sit down without assuring his noble Friend the Secretary for Ireland that the Irish people would long remember with deep gratitude his effort to improve their physical and moral condition, and to record his conviction that hereafter should he be successful in it he would derive more gratification from this work than from any other event in his official career, even should that career be as long as the friends of Ireland could wish, and as useful as his own anticipated. He would conclude by moving an humble Ad- dress to her Majesty in the words of his notice.

Viscount Morpeth

said, he should not be tempted to offer any answer to the speech of his hon. Friend, because his hon. Friend had made an eloquent and a convincing speech in favour and on behalf of the measure which the Government had proposed, and the principles which he had asked the House to adopt at an early period of the present Session. At that time he stated a plan which he had been reluctantly compelled to abandon, as far as this Session was concerned, and if next Session it should be found that private enterprise was insufficient and incompetent to complete these works, which it was admitted would be beneficial to Ireland, it would then be the duty of the Government to consider whether they ought not to lend their assistance. He did not suppose his hon. Friend intended to press his motion; for both her Majesty and the Government had done all they could in the matter at present, and the carrying into effect the objects his hon. Friend had in view must depend on the concurrence of Parliament. Neither did he presume his hon. Friend called for any formal pledge from the Government, and therefore he could only repeat, that if private enterprise failed to complete these works, the duty would devolve on the Government to propose that which they thought would be most conducive to the interests of Ireland.

Mr. Wyse

rejoiced that the motion had been submitted to the House by his hon. Friend, because it had elicited from the noble Lord (Morpeth) a more satisfactory explanation than he had before given. After the debate which had taken place on a former occasion, it was supposed by the Irish people that the matter would be left entirely to private enterprise; but the declaration of the noble Lord showed, that so far from giving up his views, he only wanted a fitting opportunity to carry out his beneficent intentions with respect to Ireland.

House counted out.