HC Deb 06 February 1844 vol 72 cc286-96
Mr. Gladstone

proposed the following Gentlemen as a select committee on Railways:—Mr. W. Gladstone, Mr. Labouchere, Lord Seymour, Mr. Wilson Patten, Viscount Sandell, Mr. Gisborne, Lord Granville Somerset, Sir John Easthope, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Russell, Mr. Patrick Maxwell Stewart, Mr. Greene, Mr. Maclean, Mr. Tbornley, and Mr. Cardwell.

Mr. Wallace

had a strong objection to any person being appointed on this committee who had a direct pecuniary interest in railways. There were no fewer than five directors of railways on the list now proposed, besides the right hon. Gentleman whose name was first on the list, and who, though not a railway director, was, as he himself had stated, a considerable proprietor of railway shares. In order to come to a vote on this question, he would content himself with proposing that the name of the right hon. Gentleman should be struck out of the list, and he felt convinced that a large portion of the House would support him, and notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's official position, merely in consequence of the suspicious circumstance of his being personally interested in the subject. The House had on former occasions decided that such a circumstance constituted a strong objection to the appointment of a Member on a particular committee. He would merely take this, the first name on the list liable to the objection; it would be unnecessary and invidious, at all events at present, to name the other persons on the list similarly situated.

Mr. Gladstone

thought this a fair subject for the consideration of the House. For himself, he had thought it his duty to look in some degree to what had been done on former occasions; and had he found any rule laid down by which persons connected with railways were excluded from a participation in the conduct of inquiries as to railways, he should very gladly have accepted the exemption, deeply occupied as his time and attention were by other important subjects; but he found, on the contrary, that on the former committee of railway inquiry, parties directly interested in railways were charged with the conduct of these inquiries and therefore he had not felt himself justified on this occasion in shrinking from the responsibility himself, or in excluding Gentlemen who were concerned in the direction of railways. It was a great mistake to suppose that a uniformity of feeling pervaded the bodies who conducted the various railways. In point of fact, the interests of those who were connected with the existing railways were exceedingly different from the interests of those who were connected with the new undertakings; and the interests of the high-fare railways, as they were called, were quite different from the tendencies which must be supposed to pervade the low-fare railways.

Mr. Labouchere

considered that if the House agreed to the motion of the hon. Member for Greenock it would be acting on quite a different principle from that which it had hitherto pursued. On all former committees to inquire into particular interests, whether mercantile or agricultural, the practice had always been, not merely to allow, but to make it a point, that there should be appointed, as members of such committee, a certain number of gentlemen specially and directly interested in the particular subject inquired into; and there was no reason why a railway inquiry committee should not follow the rule which had been uniformly carried out in all similar committees. With this view of the point, if the hon. Member pressed his motion to a division, he should vote for a retention of the name of the right hon. Gentleman, who, from his official situation, was a very proper person to form part of this committee, notwithstanding the admitted fact of his holding railway shares. It was another question whether the railway interest did not preponderate in the composition of this committee. He must confess, for himself, that on looking over the list of names, his impression was, that the railway interest was represented in that committee to a degree which might deprive the committee, in some measure, of that weight with the public which, for any useful purpose, it ought to possess. But this was quite a different question from the unjust, inconvenient, and unprecedented proposition of the hon. Member.

Mr. Hume

said, that the right hon. Gentleman represented this as a novel proceeding. Now, he believed that the principle of conduct adopted in committees was much the same as that which prevailed in the House, and he would state that in the House he had himself, on more than one occasion, challenged the votes of Gentlemen upon questions in which they were personally interested. He had, for instance, challenged the votes of Mr. Pascoe Grenfell and other Members upon a question affecting the St. Katherine's Docks, on the ground that those Gentlemen were pecuniarily interested in that undertaking; the challenge was taken into consideration, the reason assigned admitted to be a valid one, and the votes were struck out. On previous occasions a similar principle had been acted upon by the House, and the same principle of securing a thoroughly impartial tribunal ought always to be carried into committees. He recollected having made, on a former occasion, a similar objection to that now advanced, and the answer he then received was, the committee has to ascertain facts; it is, therefore, desirable to have on the committee parties for and against the question. By this means the truth on both sides will be best elicited and the completest report be drawn up, because each party will take care to have the information supplied which best meets its views; and the House having thus full information on both sides will be the better able to come to a proper decision. But, despite this argument, he was of opinion that persons connected with the particular question should not sit on the committee.

Viscount Howick

would point out that the question as to the St. Katherine's Docks, was quite different from the present question. That was the case of Gentlemen voting on a particular measure, in which they were directly interested. This was a question whether persons interested in various railways were competent judges as to the rules to be enacted for the regulation of certain new railways about to be applied for. Obviously, this was quite a different thing from the case put by the hon. Member for Montrose. It would be a very inconvenient rule to lay down that persons connected with railways as shareholders should be excluded from railway committees. He regarded the presence, for instance, of the right hon. President of the Board of Trade in this committee as desirable, not to say necessary. But, he was also of opinion, that the railway interest on the proposed committee was much too strong. It appeared to him that persons holding high situations in, the management of railways, such as directors, and above all, chairmen, were not the proper persons to be nominated on this committee. Such were probably the first, and among the most important witnesses who would be examined, and it would be greatly inconvenient to have the same persons appear in two characters, first as witnesses, and then as judges to decide upon their own evidence. If the motion was put to a division, he should vote for the retention of the names, but he hoped those who took a part in the management of railways would not be included in the committee.

Mr. Roebuck

would vote for the retention of the name of the right hon. the President of the Board of Trade; but he quite agreed with what appeared to be a general feeling in the House against the admission into the committee of certain gentlemen, on account of their being deeply interested in the particular subject of inquiry. As the list at present stood, the railway interest was most unduly represented. Take one case among many others. There was Mr. Russell, the chairman of the Great Western Railway, nominated as one member, a man deeply interested in the subject of the inquiry, and in its results. There would be Mr. Russell acting on one and the same committee as a member putting questions, as a witness answering questions, as a party negotiating, and as a judge deciding; and the same would be the case with several other gentlemen. Persons connected with railways, and persons connected with the Government, would have the whole thing entirely to themselves, and the interests of the travelling public would find no representative in the enquiry.

Lord John Russell

would have been glad to have had the opinion of the right hon. President of the Board of Trade more fully stated on the subject of those persons nominated who were connected with railways. The general sense of the House was, that persons holding important offices in the management of railways ought not to be included in such a com- mittee as this. The right hon. Gentleman stated, that he was acting in conformity with precedent in putting down the names of such persons; but he ought to have gone further, and told the House what was his opinion and judgment on the matter. He must confess, that were the right hon. Gentleman to state it to be his judgment that some of the directors of railways—that chairmen of railways—ought to be on the committee, he should pay great deference to the right hon. Gentleman's opinion; because, while on the one hand, there was doubtless an objection to interested persons forming any considerable proportion of such a committee, on the other hand, it was highly important to obtain, with reference to the eliciting of evidence, the co-operation of men practically acquainted with the subject. As to the number of such Members on a committee there was also some difficulty. How was the selection to be made among hon. Gentlemen who were connected with railways? If any one or two Members so situated were admitted, these one or two Members might be connected with a particular railway, whose principles of management were quite different from those of other railways, and the regulations adopted, perhaps on their suggestions, might be altogether dissatisfactory to the hon. Members connected with those other railways, who might then complain loudly that they had not been admitted. He should request the right hon. Gentleman opposite to state his opinion on the subject, as his own vote would be guided in a great measure by the right hon. Gentleman's judgment.

Mr. Gladstone

thus appealed to, was quite willing to state his opinion. He must confess, then, that it appeared to him to be extremely desirable, if the House was prepared to admit that parties interested were in any form or degree to be allowed to act on the committee, that the directors of railways should be upon it. There was an abstract objection he would grant, to every person who had a personal interest; but this objection alike applied to shareholders in railways and directors; indeed there were many shareholders who had a far larger share in their respective companies than some of the directors. Mr. Glyn, he had understood, whose name was so intimately connected with the subject, had no more shares for instance, in his particular company, than were necessary to qualify him as a director; but then the far greater information, experience, and practical knowledge of the directors gave them a title to take part in such a committee, much superior to that possessed by the great bulk of shareholders. It was therefore desirable in his opinion, whatever the abstract objection, to have a reasonable number of directors on a railway committee, for the sake of their valuable practical knowledge of the subject. On the former committee there were several gentlemen connected with railways, and those gentlemen connected with that interest who had now been nominated, had been selected solely for their acknowledged practical acquaintance with the subject. He frankly admitted, that this, which appeared a trifling matter, was in reality a very difficult subject. The House was tied down to some important rules which it was desirable to observe. He had been, he might say, assaulted by demands made upon him with reference to new schemes, or existing schemes, for railroads in different parts of the country; the parties complaining that there was no adequate representation of the districts with which they were connected, or the interests they represented. If it were the pleasure of the House to depart, in this instance, from the rule which had been laid down as to the number of Members constituting a committee, although it would be necessary to guard against such a precedent being turned to exceptionable uses hereafter, it would enable the House in the present instance to get rid of the principal difficulty; but if the House deemed it important to adhere to the rule of fifteen members, he was not sure that any mateterial improvement could be made in the committee as it stood. He did not think it very important whether there were three or four directors on the committee, for it was not by the votes of the majority that any steps would be really taken. The committee would have no decisive power, its operations being confined to a preliminary inquiry. Undoubtedly if he saw that any measure was likely to be carried in the committee by the votes of a majority, composed in part of directors of railroads, he should feel that the proceedings would lose a considerable portion of their weight. There were other Gentlemen in the House whom he should have been most anxious to see on the committee if possible. Several of them had been on committees before, and one of them the hon. Member for Kendal, had taken a very active part in the composition of the Standing Orders relating to railway bills. The hon. Member for Inverness, also, had taken a very active part, not in committee, but in the House, with respect to railways, and had made some very important propositions; but in answer to an inquiry addressed to that Gentleman, he had stated that his attendance upon the committee could not be relied upon, in consequence of his not residing continually in the metropolis. There were details connected with this subject which it was very hard to adjust, and he should be very glad to hear suggestions from hon. Gentlemen as to the best mode of proceeding; but as to the specific proposition to postpone altogether the nomination of the committee, he thought the difficulties as to the composition of that body would be as great on a future day as at present; and as the present step must immediately bear on the bills which were coming before Parliament, and upon the rights of individuals, he thought it material that the inquiry should be instituted at as early a period as possible.

Mr. Hawes

said, it was of the utmost importance that this committee should be a committee carrying with it considerable weight, and worked with the utmost impartiality. He was sure that the right hon. Gentleman was anxious to place upon it those who were most competent and most impartial; but at the same time he must say he thought the right hon. Gentleman had not answered the objection of the noble Lord—that the railway interest was too strongly represented, and on that ground a sufficient objection to its composition was, that the committee would have to consider not only those bills which bad been already, or might be hereafter, brought before the House, but also by instructions hereafter to be issued, to consider whether any and what alterations should be made in the regulations of railways already established. The right hon. Gentleman had stated that this was a most important era in railway history—that there were sixty-six bills of which notice had been given, and that it would be the duty of the committee to consider, not only the Standing Orders with respect to new bills, but also to deliberate whether any alterations should be made for the protection of the public against the concentration or amalgamation of interests of different companies. Now, was the proposed committee the best adapted for this purpose? He thought not. The right hon. Gentleman had no objection to increase the number of the committee. He thought that would be a most objectionable departure from the rule which had been laid down, and which was invaluable in its operation. He trusted the House would not alter the existing rule on this point. He understood the House, then, to be adverse to increasing the number of the committee, and the hon. Gentleman was opposed to any alteration of the names. If he might venture a suggestion, it would be, that the right hon. Gentleman should suspend the appointment for the present, and if, upon inquiry, it should appear that there was a large preponderance of gentlemen connected with railways, that some alteration should be made to meet that objection. There were two Gentlemen not on it, the hon. Members for Kendal and for Inverness, than whom there were no two Gentlemen within the walls of that House more competent to assist in such an inquiry. The hon. Member for Bath also had given notice of a motion which he intended to bring forward on the subject; and having paid considerable attention to it he had some claims upon the consideration of the House. All he asked was, that in appointing a committee, which would have to deal with the interests of large masses of capital, care should be taken that it should possess sufficient moral weight; and he thought that object was hardly attainable from the present constitution of the body, after the objection which had been made. He hoped, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman would not persist in appointing the committee, because it was unpleasant to be called upon to divide upon particular names. If he were called upon to vote upon the right hon. Gentleman's name, he should certainly vote in favour of it, because it would be wrong to exclude him from any such committee; but there might be some names against which Gentlemen might find themselves in the painful position of being obliged to divide. He hoped that the number of the committee would not be increased, but that by the substitution of two or three gentlemen who were not connected, with railways, for those who were known to have such relations, the object in view might be satisfactorily attained.

Mr. P. M. Stewart

said, that as one of those whose names were introduced on the committee, there need be no difficulty or delicacy in disposing of his humble name as the House should think fit. His name had been placed on the list without consultation by his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. He certainly felt grateful for the selection, although not in the least ambitious of the distinction which it conferred. After the manner in which the compliment had been paid him, it would have been uncourteous in him to decline, but the House would judge of his fitness or unfitness for an office of so much importance to the country when he stated that he was an honorary director of the Greenock railway, but not in any way connected with details, nor was he, as had been said by an hon. Member, a large holder of railway stock. It was of importance, that the right hon. Gentleman should consider what weight belonged to the objection raised against the fitness of some members of the committee, and if he was convinced, from the arguments which had been used, that their names were liable to the objections urged against them, he recommended his right hon. Friend to postpone the measure until he should have reconstituted the committee; but he was the best judge in the case, and as his name had been put on the committee without his consent, he should not take the least offence if it were taken off without his consent.

Mr. Warburton

would state some conclusive reasons why he should not be placed upon the committee. In the first place, with regard to the details of the necessary regulations, he had no experience or knowledge whatever. In the next place, he held an office which took up his whole time, and would prevent his attendance at the committee; and, in the next place, although he was no subscriber to a railway, yet notice had been given of a bill in which he should be expected by his constituents to take more interest than otherwise by becoming a subscriber. These were reasons why he should not be placed on the committee. He considered the objections to the constitution of the committee to be very forcible; but he thought the objection urged by the hon. Member for Bath the most cogent of all. He did not see on the committee one name which could be considered as representing the interests of the travelling public. He did not know whether his hon. Friend, the Member for Wolverhampton, was either a director or a shareholder. Of his opinions he had no doubt. He was sure that he would attend to the interests of the travelling public; but he agreed in the opinion, that there ought to be on the committee neither directors nor shareholders. He concurred with the hon. Member for Lambeth, that the House should adhere to the number of Members already established, and thought the best way certainly would be, for the President of the Board of Trade not to name the committee on the present occasion, but to reconsider it. He did not object to the appointment of some who should represent the railway companies, but he thought there should be a proper mixture of interests, and that there should be some on the committee who went there to attend to the interests of the travelling public.

Mr. Hamilton

expressed a hope that there would be some Gentlemen placed upon the committee who were connected with Ireland.

Sir John Easthope

said, that if the right hon. Gentleman could be relieved from any difficulty by withdrawing his name, he should be most happy to accede to such an arrangement. It was quite true that he was a nominal director of a rail-road. He had been chairman of a board of directors, but he now stood in the situation of being a director, and holding an interest in a railway. He was sure it was quite unnecessary to disavow the operation of any personal interest, but he would leave it to the right hon. Gentleman to select some other name to which no objection could be made, and in that proposition he repeated he should be most happy to concur.

Mr. Gladstone

said since he had spoken some Gentlemen had expressed their willingness to retire; that made a difference in his resolution. He was not anxious to press the appointment of the committee at the present moment, those Gentlemen having expressed the sentiments they had.

Sir G. Grey

begged to mention to the right hon. Gentleman, as it was his intention to postpone and reconsider the constitution of the committee, that at present there were five Gentlemen on it connected with Lancashire.

Mr. Wallace

hoped it would not be considered that he had said one word personally affecting any one of the Gentlemen named, and when he objected to the name of the right hon. Gentleman on principle, he begged to assure him, that there was not one individual to whom, personally, he should have less objection than to him.

Motion withdrawn.