HC Deb 05 February 1845 vol 77 cc138-52
Mr. Wallace

begged to call the attention of the House, especially of those Members belonging to the Committees of Selection, to the waste of time and money which the present arrangements of Private Committees involved. He mentioned last Session that, in the instance of one Railway Bill, the expense had reached the enormous amount of 100,000l. He trusted the present Session would not pass without some effectual arrangement being made on the subject. He was far from impeaching the conduct of Members on those Committees, who bestowed the greatest pains and labour in endeavouring to keep them in a serviceable condition; but they had it not in their power to do that which they so much desired. Last Session he called the attention of the House to two Private Bills, which were introduced in March, and not passed until August. He thought it would be wise of the House to come to some arrangement by which it should be directed, that Private Bills should remain but a certain time in the House. He was convinced that it would be greatly for the convenience of Members if counsel were excluded from these Committees, and the examination of witnesses carried on by the Parliamentary agents. He thought also that fees should be given up. If encouraged by hon. Members, he would move for a Committee to inquire first, whether fees could not be abolished, and next, whether the dilatory proceedings of such Committees cannot be shortened.

Mr. Ewart

begged to ask a question of the right hon. Baronet. He had endeavoured on all occasions, whilst performing his duties as a Member of that House, to act free from bias, and independently of his interests. The House would remember that in the course of last Session the usual mode of proceeding with respect to Railway Bills had been superseded by the appointment of a Select Committee, formed of Members not interested in the competing lines. The utility of this proceeding had been fully established by the Parliamentary agents interested in the Bills. He hoped the Government was prepared to take up this subject, and he wished to know from the right hon. Baronet whether he was disposed to relieve him from the responsibility of bringing forward the Motion relative to it of which he had given notice, as, if not, he should feel it to be his duty to proceed with it.

Sir R. Peel

was not prepared to relieve the hon. Member from the duty which he had imposed upon himself; it was very difficult to determine what was the extent of the indirect interest of constituencies in Railway Bills, and he should be exceedingly sorry to see the disqualification now enforced on Members with respect to local interests extended to this class of Parliamentary business. He was not prepared to make any announcement on the subject. His private opinion on the question was already known, but he must abstain from expressing any public opinion on the matter, as the Motion of the hon. Member for the following day would afford an opportunity for discussion. With respect to the observations of the hon. Member for Greenock, it must be obvious how great the difficulty was of controlling counsel in the length or duration of their addresses before Parliamentary Committees. The practice certainly very greatly enhanced the expenses attendant on the private Bills thus argued, if they did not, indeed, chiefly arise from that source. Upwards of 75,000l. had been expended in carrying a Railway Bill through the Committee after the Second Reading, when it failed; the Bill in question was the Rugby and Stafford; his advice on the subject, which was to pass the Bill, had not been taken; it was the intention, he believed, of the parties to bring it again before the House.

Viscount Howick

said: I certainly have had it in my intention to bring forward a proposition with a view to enlarge the time for receiving Petitions on Private Bills, more especially with respect to Railway Bills; and the ground on which this suggestion is justifiable in my apprehension is the extreme inconvenience and the great injustice which will be suffered, and which has been already entailed upon parties to railway projects, by submitting all such schemes to the preliminary ordeal of an examination and a judgment on the part of the Railway Committee of the Board of Trade. The House is aware that a great many decisions upon projected lines have been already pronounced by the Railway Committee, and that some of their decisions are still unknown. But, with respect to those lines which are already judged upon, and the decisions made public, I must observe, that the House and the public are left in complete ignorance of the grounds upon which the officers of the Board of Trade have pronounced their decisions. It would, therefore, be manifestly unjust to call upon those parties whose intended lines have been rejected by the Railway Committee of the Board of Trade, to decide at once whether or not they will abandon their projects; and it is for that most obvious reason I am desirous of enlarging the time for the presentation of their Petitions to this House. If we proceed at once to adopt the Resolution which is before the House, we must of necessity compel those parties whose projects have not met with the sanction, and consequently will not have the recommendation of the Board of Trade, to incur in their present state of ignorance as to the grounds of the decision that has been pronounced, all the preliminary steps which compliance with the Standing Order would impose, and consequently subject them to the heavy expenses attendant thereon, such as printing, soliciting, and preparing the Bill and Petition; or else we shall, on the other hand, put them out of every possibility of appearing at all, by abandoning their Petition. It is not competent for the parties who are thus situated to come to either of these decisions at present; for if the reasons which have guided the Railway Committee of the Board of Trade in coining to their determination are found, when they are known, to be good and sufficient, and felt to be so by those whose projects are thus adversely regarded, those parties will at once deem their rejection justified, and will not throw any more money away upon their schemes. But it may also happen that neither the decisions to which refer, nor the reasons upon which they are grounded, will be satisfactory or conclusive to those whose projected lines are thus rejected; and they may, therefore, feel themselves justified, before they abandon their Bill, to call upon the House to reconsider the subject, with express regard to the Report of the Railway Board itself. I urge this consideration upon the attention of hon. Members, because I presume that neither the House nor the Government intend it to be understood that the decision of the Railway Committee of the Board of Trade is to be final. I have looked upon the subject in this point of view, and I have so treated it in my argument, because I find it laid down in one of the Reports which were presented to Parliament in the course of last Session from the Railway Committee (the fifth Report I believe), that this Committee of the Board of Trade is not to be constituted an authority to decide, but merely one to investigate the various elements upon which the projected lines submitted to them are based, to report upon those subjects, and to afford thereby some guidance to Parliament in forming its decisions upon these most important matters. Such is the substance of the recommendation which was made by the Committee on Railways in the Report to which I have referred; and the right hon. Gentleman the late President of the Board of Trade, in bringing the subject forward, and in suggesting to the House the expediency of adopting that recommendation, did so, expressly declaring at the same time that it was not done with a view to clothe the officers of the Board of Trade with any authority in the matter, but simply an order that their previous examinations of these various projects might afford some aid to the House in arriving at a just and proper decision respecting them. In coming to a determination upon these matters, we agreed, during the last Session, to refer the Report of the railway officers of the Board of Trade on any railway project to the Committee on the Bill. What could have been the view of the House in coming to this arrangement last year, but that which I have just pointed out? I trust and hope that view will not be lost sight of, and that the Report of the Board of Trade will be simply regarded in the light of an elucidation I of, and not a decision upon, the question. But, from what I see going on out of doors, I must confess I argue that there is a degree of authority attributed to the decisions of the Board of Trade, to which I deem it necessary to call the attention of the Mouse. No; man in this House is mote alive than my self to the imperative necessity that exists for introducing some change into our system of legislation respecting Private Bills. A reform in that branch of Parliamentary proceedings is, in my opinion, most loudly called for. I therefore highly approved of the Resolutions which were brought forward during the last Session respecting railways, and which were adopted at the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman who then held the office of President of the Board of Trade. I think, likewise, that the preliminary examination before a Committee of that Board of a railway scheme, is a proceeding calculated to afford most valuable assistance to the House in cases where large and conflicting interests are involved. If, therefore, this preliminary proceeding be confined to the simple offer of advice and information, the Railway Commitee of the Board of Trade will, I believe, be found a most valuable assistance to the House. But if, instead of being regarded in the light of advice and information, the Report of that Committee is to be accepted as an authority, and its decisions upon the various lines examined by its members are to be held to be conclusive as to the rejection or the inadmissibility of a Railway Bill—then I say, that this is a most enormous power, and one which the Board of Trade is not the fitting or appropriate tribunal to wield. Is the House, let me ask, aware of the vast amount of the interests which are involved in these various conflicting projects? Let me give one instance in order to show the extent to which they have gone. There is one scheme, the London and York line, which has 60,000 shares. Those who deal in these speculations have made bargains at 20l. premium for each share, conditionally that the Board of Trade favours the line—that is to say, if the Report of the Committee of that Board is conclusive in favour of the particular railway in question, that circumstance alone will add 20l. to the value of each of the 60,000 shares, by which means the determination come to by the officers of an inferior department of the Government will have the effect of transferring at once the sum of 1,200,000l. from the pockets of one part of the community to those of another. The decision of the Railway Board will either give that additional value to those shares, or it will reduce their value to less than nothing. Now, is a power so enormous as this to be granted in such a manner? I do not wish it to be supposed that I find any fault or have any reason to blame those who exercise this power for the manner in which they perform their duties; but, regarding it as a tribunal for the consideration of subjects involving so large an amount, and such a variety of conflicting interests, I say that this is not a power to be thus confided. I have shown the House one case wherein the sum of 1,200,000l. depends upon the fiat of the Railway Board, but this is only a single instance out of numerous others involving equally magnitudinous interests; and if the decisions of that Board are to be regarded as authoritative, its Members will have disposed of millions, in comparison with which the sums adjudicated upon by the Lord Chancellor and the other judicial authorities in Westminster Hall are totally insignificant. Now, I ask again, is a body of officers constituted in such a manner as the Railway Committee of the Board of Trade, competent or warranted to assume such high and responsible functions? How has that Board been formed? The noble Vice-President of the Board of Trade is its chief; and to assist him there are four Gentlemen, not one of whom scarcely ranks higher than a chief clerk of a department; one of these Gentlemen was promoted, I believe, from the post of private Secretary to the right hon. Baronet opposite. The constitution of this Committee is such as to make its decisions unsatisfactory, if they are to be accepted as final. I can speak of the proceedings in this respect as of my own individual knowledge, having been personally concerned in one of the railways reported upon by the Railway Board, and consequently having become acquainted with the course pursued. The promoters of a railway send in a short statement of its extent and direction, and in due time the plan and the necessary details are furnished to the authorities at the Board of Trade. When the promoters of the line to which I refer had done this, they thought that the case of their opponents would be made known to them. This had been kept a profound secret until the 30th of November, when it was lodged with the Clerk of the Peace for the county, according to the regulations; and after that they thought that they would have been informed of the case of the opposite side, and that thus learning the nature of their opponents' allegations, they would have been enabled to answer and refute them. The time, however, passed over—the meeting of Parliament was near, and we began to think our scheme would be pronounced upon, without our having an opportunity of learning the case of our opponents. I consequently applied to the Board of Trade for a hearing on behalf of the promoters of this line. I was received by the right hon. Gentleman with that courtesy which distinguishes him. We went there knowing nothing of our opponents, save the plans and details which in common with ourselves they had sent in. Their arguments in favour of their project, their objections to ours, we were totally ignorant of. We stated our case in the interview which ensued, which was limited to half an hour's duration, and we detailed the reasons which we hoped would have induced the Board of Trade to give our line the preference. In the course of the conversation which took place, one gentleman observed, that he had expected we should have been called upon to reply to the arguments and objections of our opponents. To this observation the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade, replied, "that the point was of no importance whatever, inasmuch as it was physically impossible for the Railway Board to listen to the comments and arguments of conflicting parties." That observation, I admit, was perfectly true. It would have been physically impossible to have heard the conflicting parties. It was equally so for the Board to scrutinize closely and minutely the plans laid before them, or to ascertain with any degree of accuracy whether the estimates were well founded, and which of the conflicting projects was best adapted to the economy and the other wants of the district through which it passed. Such being the case, I entertain no objection whatever to the course which I have described as pursued with reference to railways by the Board of Trade, provided the Report from that Department is merely to be regarded in the light of a document to be taken into consideration by the Committee of this House on the Bill. There is no doubt whatever that the Railway Board will be found to have had strong reasons for coming to the decisions which they have pronounced, and that parties going before a Committee of this House on a Railway Bill which has been adversely pronounced upon by the Board of Trade, will do so at an imminent hazard of failing to make good their case. But to this risk I have not the slightest objection, nor do I see indeed how the officers of the Railway Department at the Board of Trade could act otherwise than they have done; neither have I any doubt that their Reports will be found to afford the most valuable assistance in guiding the decisions of the Committees on the various Bills. But if these Reports themselves are to be considered in the light of decisions, and as such to be conclusive and binding on the Committees of this House, why, then, I must say that in common justice the conflicting parties ought to have been brought together, and their different statements and arguments heard, whilst the facts were carefully sifted and examined by those whose duty it was to decide. If the House thinks that a new tribunal ought to be created for the purpose of adjudicating on these matters, other than itself, it is competent for the House to act on that opinion; but if such a tribunal is constituted, let it consist of persons of a rank and station proportionate in dignity to the enormous amount of property upon which they are called upon to decide, an amount far exceeding, as I have shown, the sums adjudicated upon by the highest tribunals in Westminster Hall. The fact being as I have stated, let the rank and station of the persons constituting this tribunal be equal to those of the authorities in the Courts of Law. There is likewise another question to be considered with reference to this subject. In the ordinary course of life, a case involving the right to a basket of oranges or apples is not judicially disposed of, except under circumstances of the utmost publicity: I say that this practice is of the greatest use, and that it will never do to have recourse to secrecy, or to pronounce upon questions such as those to which I am referring, in the absence of the parties interested hearing them state their conflicting views in each other's presence. I say, if you sanction such a course as this, you will open a door to corruption and jobbing of the grossest and rankest nature. And I say further, that these objections do apply stringently to the system pursued by the Railway Board with respect to the railway projects, if their decisions are, though not nominally, to be held as really conclusive. I say again, that you will act in this manner if you decide that these decisions are to be final as rejecting the projects pronounced against. We know by experience how constantly matters such as these are made the subject of solicitation and private influence amongst Members of this House. Now, I must remind you that if you are to reject these projects on the Reports of the Board of Trade, that rejection will be binding and final, because no one in this House would resist such a decision if the Government thinks fit to support its officers at the Railway Board. We shall thus establish a system by which the Board of Trade will be sheltered by the House from the responsibility which attaches to its conduct, and there will be some danger of a party spirit being infused into such questions, which, in addition to the practice of private solicitation amongst Members of the House, will complicate and render the question a most difficult one to deal with. I do not, in thus expressing my sentiments, mean to impute to Her Majesty's Government, any more than I should, were my noble Friends near me sitting on the other side of the House, charge them with any desire to job or to confer favours on their political supporters by the means I have indicated; but I do say this, and I cannot too emphatically express my opinion, that the system at present in operation is full of objections and of suspicions, and it goes far to violate and to abolish that wholesome rule of official decorum which ordains that the person who is at the head of Her Majesty's Government shall take as small a share in the regulation and transaction of the private business of this House as possible. We know how honourable it is to the character of this country, whether we look at one side of the House or the other, that the statesmen of England have ever stood above the suspicion of jobbing. I attribute much of this to the wholesome rule we have adopted, that Her Majesty's Government should abstain from interfering with questions of private legislation—with those questions in which a great amount of money is involved. I should deprecate any breaking of this wholesome rule. The conclusion which I would draw from what I have stated is, that the decisions of the Board of Trade ought not to be considered as final, and that the Railway Bills, which have been unfavourably reported on by the Board of Trade, ought not on that account to be rejected on the Second Reading. What I contend for is, that until you make a change in your system—until you establish some tribunal capable of dealing with these great interests—until you re-cast the existing arrangements, if you believe such a change to be necessary, conflicting Railway Bills, notwithstanding the Report of the Board of Trade, shall be submitted to the scrutiny of a Committee of this House. What are the words of the Resolution of last year? That in the case of Railway Bills, if any report made under the authority of the Board of Trade upon any Bill or the objects thereof be laid before the House, such report shall be referred to the Committee on the Bill. It is perfectly clear, when this Resolution passed, it was the intention of the House that the Report of the Board of Trade should go before a Committee, there to be scrutinized and considered. If that be the arrangement which Her Majesty's Government intend to adopt, I have no complaint to make of the course which has been hitherto adopted by the Board of Trade, because, if this be so, those who are interested in railways of which the Board of Trade have disapproved, will have an opportunity of considering the Report, and the reasons on which it is founded; they will have an opportunity of considering the statements on the other side which will be submitted to the Committee in the face of day, before which tribunal they will be able to have these matters scrutinized. I hope to learn that this is the course intended to be adopted by Her Majesty's Government. I cannot help feeling great anxiety on the subject, because no one can have watched these proceedings without seeing, whether it be well founded or not, there is a notion abroad that these Reports are to be considered as conclusive and decisive; and because also, on another point to which I will only gently allude, already some of the inconveniences likely to arise from the Executive Government taking too much upon themselves with respect to private interests, are beginning to work. Whispers begin to circulate of an I injurious kind, which I believe to be now unfounded, but of which I am convinced too much will be heard if the present system be continued. I, therefore, hope that Her Majesty's Government will not conclude that we are to be ruled exclusively by the decisions of the Board of Trade; but that these decisions will be considered as the exposition by unprejudiced parties of their reasons for preferring some lines and rejecting others. If the question be so treated, if the whole subject be fairly considered before the Committee, all parties will be satisfied, but not otherwise. And, this, Sir, brings me back to the point from which I started, and to the proposal I have to make. If the House should agree in my opinions, — if Her Majesty's Government and the House should approve of the views which I have taken,—I am sure they will follow me in the course which I propose, and allow some further interval of time to enable the promoters of railways to consider whether they will persevere with their measures in spite of the unfavourable Report of the Board of Trade. I will frankly state, Sir, that I am interested in a project which has been unfavourably reported on by the Board of Trade. I do not contest the judgment of that Board. Till I know the grounds on which that judgment is founded, I am not in a situation to do so. All I can say is, that I, and those with whom I acted, believed that the public interests would be best promoted by the railroad we supported, as it could be executed at a smaller expense, and afforded greater facilities to the public, and that it was, in my own opinion, the better of the two; but I am free to admit that we are not always fit judges in our own cases,—every man has a partiality for his own bantling; and all I ask is, that we should not be called upon to proceed with, or to abandon, our Bill till we know on what the decision of the Board of Trade is founded. If this time be not given, we must come to a decision at once: within a day or two we must incur the expense of presenting our Petition for the Bill, or allow that Bill to fall to the ground. If, however, you will give us time to consider the Report of the Board of Trade, I will tell you frankly what are our intentions. We mean to consider that Report fully and fairly, if we believe that the Board have taken a well-founded view of the case; if we believe that they have come to a just and reasonable decision, we will proceed no further, we will submit to their decision, and we will retire from the contest. On the other hand, if we see nothing to alter our own opinions that our line is the better for the public, and if we believe the Committee will take that view of the case, we shall then proceed. The railway with which I am concerned is comparatively unimportant; the expense is very small, and the adverse scheme — the promoters having fortunately adopted much of the scheme of their opponents—is not of greater magnitude. But there are other cases in which the lines are of great importance, and in which expenses to a great amount have been incurred. The question is whether you will allow all that expense to be fruitlessly incurred, or whether you will allow an appeal from the Board of Trade to another and a different tribunal; when all the reasons will be before the Committee, who will be able to come to a conclusion, knowing the grounds on which the schemes have been hitherto condemned? On these grounds it is that I ask the House to give an extension of time for the presentation of Petitions praying for the introduction of Railway Bills. I am aware, Sir, and you have kindly pointed out to me, that it is not by a mere alteration of the Sessional Order that this can now be done; but we may introduce into the Sessional Order, providing for the presentation of a Petition for any Private Bill within twenty-one days an exception in favour of railways, and then I will move a separate Resolution on another day altering the Standing Orders of the House. This is a course which I venture to recommend to the House, and it is one which is, in my opinion, of very considerable importance. I will, therefore, now move, as an Amendment, to introduce the words "with the exception of Railway Bills," and with respect to them, I would propose to limit the presentation of Petitions for Bills to a period within twenty one days from the Report affecting any Railway Company being presented to the House.

In answer to a question,

Viscount Howick

added, that he would propose to allow twenty-one days after the Report of the Board of Trade affecting any particular railway had been laid on the Table, within which it should be competent for any particular Company to present its Bill.

Sir R. Peel

It is impossible not to feel that there is much force in the objections which have been urged by the noble Lord; at any rate to the extent that the consideration of this Order should not be proceeded with to-day. I believe that this Sessional Order is only confirmatory of the Standing Orders of this House, and that if we adhere to the Standing Orders we can make no alteration in the Sessional. The Standing Order requires that all Petitions for Private Bills shall be presented within twenty-one days of the first Friday after the meeting of Parliament, and the present Sessional Order only carries that into effect. At the same time I think this is a subject well worthy of the consideration of the House, and that there is so much force in the observations of the noble Lord that we cannot now satisfactorily decide it. Whether it will be better to postpone this discussion or to withdraw the original Motion, I must leave to the decision of those better versed in the usages of Parliament than myself. I concur, however, with the noble Lord in the opinion that it will not be right this day to come to a determination.

Mr. Hume

said, that most important interests were involved in this question, and in the absence of the official Gentleman connected with this department, who was not then in the House, they would be legislating in the dark. The subject mooted by the noble Lord was most important. A belief existed that secrecy was not kept; that others had an opportunity of knowing what was doing, and the Government were implicated because it was a department acting under Ministers. It would be better, therefore, to postpone the discussion.

Sir R. Peel

Instead of hon. Members saying that whispers were about that the secrets were not kept, it would be better to say explicitly what statements had been made, and to say what the allegation really was, than to make vague and not very intelligible insinuations against public officers, which were not capable of contradiction.

Viscount Howick

was most anxious that what he had stated on this point should not be mistaken. What he had referred to was, what had appeared in the City Article of The Times of that day, and, he believed, before also; and in one or two other papers, where it was distinctly alleged that large purchases had been made in particular lines immediately previous to the Report of the Board of Trade being made public. He was convinced that these allegations were ill-founded, but it was an objectionable system, whether the reports were ill-founded or not, which enabled parties to set such statements abroad.

Mr. Buck

believed that, in addition to the lines rejected, there were others which were recommended to be postponed, in which the public were quite as much in the dark, and he thought they should have the same means of considering the Reports with respect to all the lines.

Mr. V. Smith

would not oppose the postponement of the discussion; but there was one question asked by the noble Lord which must have occurred for the consideration of the Government, and it was, whether it were the intention of the Government, when the Reports of the Board of Trade were laid before the House, to stand by them as Government measures? This point must have engaged the attention of Her Majesty's Government, and he wished to know whether the House would have to decide these matters with the weight of the Government authority used on one side or the other? He wished for a reply to this question, and thought the noble Lord had usefully and wisely brought it before the House.

Sir R. Peel

The House would no doubt recollect that the interference of Government arose from the strong recommendations of the Select Committee on railroads; on that Report the Committee were the organ of the House—the Report which was adopted by the House strongly recommended the assistance of the Government to assist the House. In consequence of that Report his right hon. Friend the late President of the Board of Trade did undertake the question, greatly to the credit of himself, and did devote much of his time and attention to the subject. He certainly had never understood that there would devolve upon the Board of Trade any absolute power. In the Report of the Committee they said, It is the opinion of the Committee that such Reports should on no account be regarded in any other light than as intended to afford to Parliament—firstly, additional aid in the elucidation of the facts by the testimony of witnesses competent by knowledge, habit, and opportunity, and officially responsible;—and—secondly, recommendations founded on such elucidation. In his (Sir R. Peel's) opinion, the weight of the opinion of the Board of Trade would depend upon the conclusiveness of the reasons they advanced. The question, he fairly owned, had never come under his consideration; but to any course which involved the Government, as a Government, in matters of private legislation he would object. If the conclusions of the Board of Trade were so strong that they would meet with universal assent, he did not say that the House should not adopt them; but, in general, it must tend to raise the character of public men in this country if they abstained from interfering with Private Bills, but should allow them to be debated without its being thought that they received the influence of the Government. The House would not expect him then to state anything more than a general rule; he did not say that the rule should be absolute in every case but he hoped that the Government would maintain a neutrality which was most fair towards individuals and most consonant with the character of the Government itself.

Viscount Howick

quite concurred in the propriety of adjourning the discussion, and thought the right hon. Baronet had said that he substantially concurred in the reasonableness of giving time for the presentation of Railway Petitions.