HC Deb 04 August 1845 vol 82 cc1358-65
Mr. Hawes

presented a petition from the Chairman of the Cambridge and Lincoln Railway Company, a gentleman who stated that he had an interest in the London and York Railway. The object of the petition was to impute very extensive frauds in the concoction of the subscription list. The petitioner stated that his attention and the attention of other parties was only called to this subject on Thursday last, and that the result of his inquiries had been that subscribers to the amount of half a million sterling appeared in the contract deed by fictitious names or a fictitious description of places of abode; and that the petitioner could prove the above facts. The petition then contained a long list of names and figures, with the sums for which the parties had subscribed. The petitioner stated that he was pursuing his inquiries into the bonâ fides of the subscription list, and did not doubt that he should discover numerous other instances of fraud, besides those which were specifically alleged. He prayed the House to institute an inquiry, and to afford him an opportunity of proving the allegations of the petition before a Select Committee. As the third reading of the Bill was to take place to-day, and as it was not likely that the House would often meet again, he moved that the petition be printed with the Votes to-morrow.

Mr. B. Denison

said, that the hon. Member for Lambeth had done him the honour to show him the petition. It was quite impossible for him to say whether the signatures were correctly stated or not; one signature, however, did catch his eye, and that was the signature of a most respectable solicitor residing in London, who, although it was stated that he was not competent to pay his subscription contract, was, to his knowledge, perfectly competent to pay six times the sum standing opposite his name. The name was Michael Thomas Baxter. This proceeding had been going on for some days, and he held in his hand a circular signed by a person who called himself a parliamentary agent.

The Speaker

Does the hon. Member object to the petition being printed with the Votes?

Mr. B. Denison

replied that he objected to it, and he also objected to the Motion of which the hon. Member had given notice. Supposing all that was contained in the petition to be true, there was another tribunal before which the subscription deed would go, which was competent to inquire into it; and he submitted that this was a wrong time to bring forward a petion of this sort, and he hoped the House would not lend itself to this mode of stopping the further progress of the Bill. He had not the slightest objection to the accuracy of the deed being inquired into; he was willing, if there were fictitious signatures, that the whole thing should be exposed. The utmost pains were taken to ascertain the respectability and responsibility of every person who signed the deed. The circular to which he alluded was headed "urgent," and was addressed to the postmaster of Lincoln, and signed by E. Croucher, parliamentary agent. He strongly suspected that all parliamentary agents were, to a great extent, under the control of the Speaker; and he meant to ask whether it was not a breach of privilege to send a circular of this description? It stated that an investigation was pending before the House of Lords; that extensive frauds and forgeries had been discovered, and requested information to be sent whether letters had been delivered to certain parties, specifying the names of persons in the neighbourhood. On inquiry it turned out that this was a circular which had been sent to almost every town in the kingdom in which it was supposed that any person resided who had become a subscriber to the London and York Railway. He was in a condition to prove that parties had been going about London, within the last forty-eight hours, stating that they were authorized by the House of Lords to make inquiries as to A. B. C. In this way the case was got up to stop the progress of the London and York Railway. It was only a repetition of various attempts of a similar character, with which he need not trouble the House. Even during the sitting of the Committee, expedients were resorted to to wear out the time of the Committee and the directors; and he believed this to be a part of the same proceeding. He therefore, objected to an inquiry being instituted at this the eleventh hour, on the day fixed for the third reading of the Bill.

Mr. Hawes

did not think that the hon. Member had assigned any good grounds for opposing the printing of the petition. The hon. Member said that the petitioner had used improper means to make various inquiries. He knew nothing of the parties who were promoting the line, or who were opposing it. He had had no sort of communication, direct or indirect, with them. This petition had been brought to him by a most respectable gentleman, and was signed by a most respectable gentleman. He was informed that the gross sum impugned by the petitioners amounted to 658,000l. Of that there was 200,000l. of fictitious signatures, and 458,000l. by parties who were wholly irresponsible. He stated this on the best possible evidence, which had satisfied his mind that the facts ought to be disclosed to the House of Commons. As to this being the last stage of the Bill, the House would recollect that on a recent occasion the objection to the signatures was not taken before the Standing Orders' Committee, or after the second reading of the Bill, but when it came before the House of Lords. One of the signatures was that of a gentleman, whose address was stated to be Finsbury-square, who signed for 25,000l. No such person was known, although inquiries were made of all the general and twopenny postmen. Then there were the names of John Theobold, and John Taylor, who signed for 1,200l.; and the mistress of the house stated that she knew nothing of him. Another gentleman, who signed for 5,000l., turned out to be receiving alms from the Charterhouse. Then there were the names of collectors of the Treasury, excise officers, widows, and persons in all situations of life; but no trace could be found of their locality, nor was there any proof of the ability of these persons to fulfil the contracts they had signed. He had not the smallest interest in the matter, directly or indirectly. Two hours ago he should have given his vote on general principles in support of the Bill; but when respectable parties impugned the subscription contract and said that there was 650,000l. of fraudulent or fictitious signatures, could hon. Members turn their backs on the petitioners, and refuse inquiry?

Mr. Bernal

knew nothing of this line, but he knew enough of railways to say that with all the safeguards which the House might think proper to adopt, they could not put a stop to stockjobbing; they could not put an end to gambling day by day, and the mischief that must arise from such a system as this. He had no doubt that the hon. Member was convinced of the truth of the facts stated in the petition; but let it be recollected that he came later than the eleventh hour. If he thought that he was depriving the hon. Member of his remedy, he would not oppose his Motion; but there was another tribunal more competent than the House of Commons, and if they refused this Motion, they did not deprive the parties of any relief to which they might be entitled. The House of Lords could examine witnesses upon oath—an advantage which the House of Commons did not possess. Why had not the parties discovered these facts before the third reading of the Bill? It would be difficult to assemble a Committee of the Commons at this time of the Session, but in the other House they had little to do. The hon. Member might abandon his Motion with safety without depriving his clients of their remedy.

Mr. Roebuck

said, that the question was, not whether fraud had been practised on the directors of the companies, but whether fraud had been practised on the House of Commons? Some time ago the House had passed an Irish Bill, the famous Galway Bill; that was taken to the House of Lords, and there subjected to a peculiar ordeal. It was discovered, after the House of Commons had passed it, that they had been performing their onerous duties in vain, and that one-half of the list was fictitious. What was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander; what was law for Ireland, ought to be law for England. The Galway Bill had been turned out for a fraud which was discovered in the House of Lords; but here a fraud was discovered in the House of Commons. It was not proved, certainly; but the House of Commons was now exactly in the position in which the House of Lords was when the fraud was discovered. What did the House of Lords do? They did not say "You have come too late." They said "You have presented a petition which makes such imputations and involves such interests, that we must inquire." When the same imputations were made as to an English Bill, should the House of Commons say, "We will not inquire, let the Lords inquire." Was not this abrogating their functions? It was said that the House of Lords could examine upon oath; but they refused to allow a prosecution for evidence given under that oath. In the case of the Galway Railway, amongst other evidence was that of the secretary to the company, who said that most careful inquiries had been made into the list, and that nobody had been admitted who was not proved to be a respectable person, and yet it turned out that 500,000l. had been subscribed by paupers.

Mr. Ward

said, that if the House sanctioned this objection, no Railway Bill would pass before the close of the Session; they should give this Bill fair play. If the respectability of the shareholders of the London and York Railway could be impugned, let the matter be sifted in the House of Lords. Three or four days only of the Session remained, so that it was utterly impossible to make an inquiry in this House. He had to inform the hon. Member, that in consequence of the notice he had given of this Motion, the shares of one line had risen, and the shares of the other had fallen, so that his public virtue might be made an instrument in the hands of opposing parties. He should vote against the Motion, in the expectation that there would be a most searching inquiry in the House of Lords.

Mr. Darby

stated, that the original share list was before the Committee; that every word of the deed was discussed and commented upon, and yet not a hint was thrown out against the responsibility of the shareholders.

Petition to be printed.

Mr. B. Denison

then moved that the London and York Railway Bill be read a Third Time,

Mr. Hawes

would take that opportunity of answering a question which had been put to him by the hon. Gentleman. Before the Committee of the House of Lords it had been said that the subscription list of the London and York Company was unimpeachable, and it was only on Thursday last that the petitioner had been made aware that such was not the fact, and he was still pursuing his inquiries. He fully believed that the Standing Orders' Committee were afforded no opportunity of looking into the matter—all the companies had joined in a compromise so that each should abstain from impeaching the subscription list of the other. The parties who waited upon him were respectable, and he believed that the allegations they had made were true, and, as far as he was concerned, he would assist them in sifting the matter to the bottom.

Mr. Roebuck

would move that the Bill be read a third time on that day three months, and he did so on the ground that the House had determined that certain things should be done before a Railway Bill should be proceeded in—that a subscription list should be put in, and that it should be a bonâ fide one. If the Standing Orders were of no use, let them be abrogated; but so long as they formed part and parcel of the orders of the House, let them form part of the proceedings on these Bills. It was directly asserted that the Bill which they were then called upon to read a third time, had been carried through all its stages under a fraudulent pretence. Of course, he did not mean to say for a moment that the hon. Member for Yorkshire was any party to the fraud; but fraud was alleged, and it was not attempted to be denied. [Mr. Denison dissented.] It was all very well to shake the head, but would they go before a Committee and prove that the allegations were false? The gigantic frauds which had been practised in railways was something new—it had come upon them like a thunder-clap. With, perhaps, some half-dozen exceptions, the whole House were dabblers in railway shares. You could not meet a man but he was full of the price of shares; nay, you could not meet even a woman in society, who was not learned in the value of scrip. It was altogether a monstrous phenomenon. The House had now some grounds to go upon. Let them fully inquire into the allegations of the petitioners, and if they were found true let them take steps to put an end to the monstrous system altogether. Suppose they were to postpone the Bill; it might be inconvenient to some parties, but where was the harm to the public if the Bill should be delayed until next Session? It was asserted that the parties promoting the Bill had practised fraud upon the House, yet the House was about to be asked to suspend the Standing Orders, in order that it should be enabled to pass—it was monstrous. He moved that the third reading of the Bill be postponed for three months.

Mr. W. Patten

would vote for the third reading of the Bill, because he considered that it would be unjust to throw it over at that late period of the Session. A Committee had sat eighty days, he believed, upon the Bill; they had fully investigated it, and their labours ought not now to be thrown aside. If the House should agree to do so, he certainly would never serve upon a railway committee, except upon compulsion. He really did not know what measures it was in the power of the House to take to prevent such frauds, if they had not been successful in the case of the London and York line, with which he was wholly unconnected. But, even if the allegations of the petition were true—if the whole 600,000l. had been fraudulently subscribed for, still there would remain a sufficient subscription list to answer all the requirements of the Standing Orders. Under all the circumstances, he would vote for the third reading of the Bill.

Mr. Aglionby

The House and the country were very much deceived if they thought that the Standing Orders of the House afforded any sufficient protection against frauds of the description pointed out in the petition. When Bills went before the Committee upon petitions, the agents mutually agreed to wave all dispute upon the subscription lists, well knowing that any inquiry would most probably be fatal to all the Bills. He believed that frauds which had been practised upon the House during the present Session had been very flagrant, and he was most anxious that they should be able to find some mode of checking them. In respect to what had fallen from the hon. Member for Bath, he trusted there were many more than six hon. Members who were not tainted with the railway mania; for himself he had no connexion with any railway whatever, nor would he ever have, while the House chose to place him in the responsible and judicial situation of a Member of the Standing Orders' Committee.

Mr. Ward

said, that he considered it highly desirable that men of known honour, integrity, and capacity, should be openly and avowedly interested in enterprises from which the public derived so much benefit as from railways. He had himself been a railway director for ten years; and so long as he saw those concerns with which he was connected conducted with propriety, he should not be ashamed to avow his participation in them.

Amendment withdrawn. Bill was read a third time and passed.

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