HC Deb 17 February 1845 vol 77 cc530-42
Viscount Howick

wished to put a question with respect to the Railway Department of the Board of Trade. He observed, that the Reports of that Committee were signed by all the five Members of it. Now, he wished to know if, from that circumstance, they were to infer that all those five Gentlemen signing that Report concurred in it, and whether they were all of the same opinion? This question was of considerable importance, because, as it was now determined that those Reports were not to be conclusive, but only to be influential so far as they were consistent with reason, it, of course, made a very material difference in their authority whether they were the unanimous Reports of those five Gentlemen, or whether they were approved of only by two or three of them. It struck him that, in a vast number of railway projects, it was almost impossible to find five Gentlemen of the same opinion; and that it would be very remarkable to see five men of the same opinion as to any; but here we had five who, upon all subjects submitted to them, happened to have precisely the same opinion. He found it was very currently reported, that as to the only Report hitherto presented by them, the fact was not so; that one of the five Gentlemen did not vote, and the other four being equally divided, the question was decided by the President of the Board giving his casting vote. If that was the fact, it was one they ought to know, and he hoped the right hon. Baronet the Vice-President of the Board of Trade would specify whether the Report implied only that the particular conclusion set forth in it had been come to, without implying that all the five Gentlemen concurred in the opinion therein expressed. He should also like to ask whether it were the intention of the Board of Trade to lay before the House, as an appendix to their Report, the statements of the competing companies, on which their Reports were founded? It was of great importance that the House should possess the statement of each company, and the Documents which they had laid before the Board of Trade upon which the Reports of that Board had been founded.

Sir George Clerk

said, that with regard to the first question, he believed there was no precedent for it. He believed that when a Report was made by any public Board, that Report was to be taken as the act of the Board collectively, for which they made themselves responsible. It was the first time that any question had ever been asked as to what discussions had taken place at the Board, and he must decline giving any answer, because, if he were to answer such a question, it would be establishing an inconvenient and dangerous precedent, and he had only to request that neither the noble Lord nor the House would draw any inference as to the Report from his silence. With regard to the second question, he had to state that the Board of Trade had no intention of laying before the House the voluminous statements which had been submitted to them by the various parties to railway schemes. He was not aware that there would be any objection to laying those statements before the House if the noble Lord should think them necessary. In the future progress of those measures, no doubt the parties interested would lay before the Committee appointed to consider them all the statements they had to make, either in recommendation of their own schemes, or in opposition to the schemes of their rivals. He knew of no reason why these should not be printed, except that they were exceedingly voluminous, and would take a long time to copy.

Mr. Roebuck

begged to observe, for the information of the right hon. Gentleman, that with regard to the first question put by the noble Lord, it was confidently asserted in the city that certain Members of the Board had so voted, and their names were mentioned. It was stated that a casting vote had been given by the person at the head of the Board of Trade. If there was a casting vote, it was presumed by the persons best informed that there was an equal division of votes, as no person had two votes; and therefore, that all the parties on that Board must have voted, which led to a very important conclusion. Now, in such a state of things, it would not do, now-a-days, to shut out investigation. Upon a question like this, they must know all and everything. If not, suspicion would rest upon those who shut out the light. If so, such a tribunal would not be a satisfactory one for the guidance of Parliament, and he believed that Parliament would utterly discard the recommendations emanating from such a tribunal, and enter anew into each particular investigation as if no such Reports had been made.

Mr. Wallace

said, that the first Report of the Board of Trade had been printed, and that he intended to move that there should be laid on the Table of the House all the Documents on which that Report had been founded, so that the House might understand what had been done. The right hon. Gentleman had said that this was an unprecedented proposal; but it should be recollected, also, that the House was placed in an unprecedented situation by this new Board which had been imposed upon Parliament, and he would test the House whether it would act under the dictation of the Board of Trade, or would act independently.

Mr. C. Wood

did not think the answer of the right hon. Baronet calculated to give satisfaction either to the House or to the country, however he might be justified by precedent. He, too, had heard such reports as those alluded to by the hon. and learned Member for Bath, amongst members of the community interested in railways; and before the same question was again put and the same answer given, the Government should consider whether such an answer was calculated to give confidence in the Railway Department of the Board of Trade. He had heard from other sources the reports to which allusion had made. It had been stated in the city, and upon authority upon which some reliance was to be placed, that, with regard to the only Report yet laid upon the Table of the House, one of the Members of the Railway Board had not voted at all—that the other Members were equally divided—and that the casting vote was given by means of a double vote on the part of one of the Members of that Board; and that the Member who did not vote was the only engineer who was on the Board. If there was the slightest truth in that allegation, it was clear that the opinions of the Railway Department were not entitled to the weight they ought to have. If the Government wished that the Reports of the Committee should be received with any degree of confidence, he confessed he thought they were taking the worst possible course to ensure any degree of trust in the justice of their decisions.

Mr. Milnes

did not attribute much importance to the alleged want of unanimity in the decisions of the Board. The House was called upon, not to judge by the authority of the names appended to a decision inserted in the Gazette, but to act on their own view of the grounds stated in the Report. If that was the right interpretation, he did not think the authority of those Gentlemen's names had a great deal to do with the matter. Of course their Report could not be considered in any degree decisive; every thing stated by the Gentlemen led them to believe that it was merely intended as a guide to the labours of Parliament, and by no means to be authoritative on any of its decisions. Its validity, as a guide, would in no degree be impaired by the circumstance that some of the Members of the Board had yielded in opinion to others.

Mr. B. Escott

was sorry to hear that suspicions had been excited with reference to some of the proceedings of the Railway Board; but it was important that they should consider whether there was not something in the constitution of that Board which made suspicion inevitable. It was his conscientious belief that no Board having to decide on matters of such grave importance as those brought under the notice of the Railway Department of the Board of Trade, could ever give satisfaction unless its proceedings were open to the public. This Railway Committee sat as a court of judicature pronouncing on some of the greatest and most important questions that could come before any tribunal; and he had not the slightest doubt, however honourable and upright the parties might be, their decision would always be liable to suspicion, as long as they were secret.

Mr. Labouchere

was of opinion that the answer given by the right hon. Baronet was anything but satisfactory. It was important to consider the distinction between this Railway Department and other Boards. The duties had been entrusted to a responsible department of the Government, and it was not intended that it should be left to a tribunal composed of Gentlemen who had no Parliamentary responsibility. It was true that the Committee last year had recommended that the Board of Trade should examine the applications to be made to Parliament for new railway projects, and for rival railways, and should report to the House their opinion of their merits; but he did not think that the Committee, in making that recommendation, at all contemplated that there should be constituted a new tribunal, exempt from Parliamentary responsibility. He had been a Member of that Committee, and to speak for himself, he never had contemplated any such thing. He thought that the Board of Trade would transact the business itself, and that the President or the Vice-President, or some Member of the Government, being responsible to Parliament, would have provided for the proper performance of this business in the Railway Department. He thought the Board of Trade was bound to take the duty upon itself, and he never before had heard of the appointment of a tribunal constituted like this. If such a Board had been constituted at all, it should have been in a different mode, and have been composed of Privy Councillors. Questions of such great import, and involving such vast pecuniary interests, ought not to have been decided upon by these Gentlemen, however respectable, and against whom he should certainly be the last to whisper a suspicion regarding their integrity. Still when he saw that one Gentleman, who had only yesterday filled the situation of Private Secretary to a right hon. Baronet, should have been promoted to an office of such extraordinary power and importance as this, he must say, if suspicions had arisen — suspicions which he would not confirm, and which from personal knowledge he could say were unfounded — that the Government had to thank themselves for it, in having constituted this Board on so improper a basis. However, the mischief had been done, and could not very well be remedied so far. Still he must repeat that he did not think the answer of the right hon. Gentleman had been satisfactory. He agreed with the hon. Gentleman opposite, that whatever effect the Report of the Board of Trade might have on the House, must depend on its impartiality. If it was found that the Engineer of the Board differed from the rest of his colleagues upon the nature of the Report, that must, of course, very much detract from it.

Mr. Gladstone

did not intend to enter into the question upon which this discussion commenced, namely, an examination or an analysis of the Railway Board as to the opinion of its Members. But there were two other matters introduced, upon which he wished to say a few words. The hon. and learned Member for Winchester expressed a strong opinion that if the judgments of the Board were to carry any weight, their proceedings must be public. Now, he (Mr. Gladstone) ventured to state most strongly to the House, that there was no choice between having their proceedings not public, and having no Railway Board at all. There was no alternative. If the House was of opinion that they should establish public proceedings before a Board of that nature, they must have regular and formal examinations of witnesses—the parties, counsel, and agents, must be constantly present—they must have regular statements and replies—they must have all that delay and expense which the very Gentlemen who complained of the want of publicity were parties to expose before that House. With regard to the composition of the Board, the right hon. Gentleman opposite was the first person from whom he had heard any censure, and far less such severe censure as that of the right hon. Gentleman. It was easy to find fault with its constitution, or any plan that might be adopted under the circumstances; but if he looked to the alternative to which the right hon. Gentleman pointed, in the remarks addressed to the House, he was not at all shaken in his conviction that the course taken in the appointment of the Board was the best course of which the circumstances would admit. The right hon. Gentleman said, that if there was to be a Board at all, he would have it constituted of Privy Councillors. Now, he would ask the House, how was it possible to constitute the Board of Privy Councillors, the Members of which should have patiently devoted themselves from morning till night, for the space of four or five months, to receive deputations, to examine papers, and form conclusions connected with 240 railways? Perhaps it might be the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman that such things were possible. In his (Mr. Gladstone's) opinion, it was totally visionary; and he was astonished to hear such a plan recommended by any person; but particularly by a Gentleman of great ability, who had held high public office in the country. Another plan was, that the President and Vice-President of the Board of Trade might proceed with regard to Railway Bills as they did with regard to other Private Bills, and treat them departmentally. That would be the best course to pursue, if it was physically possible that the business of the Railway Department could be got through in that manner. But the organ of the Board of Trade, in that or the other House of Parliament, had many other matters to attend to. He had to attend to many commercial and financial measures, and to many important matters connected with their foreign and colonial policies; to say nothing of the other Private Bills. At the present moment, the circumstances of the Railway Department were such that they demanded the undivided mind and time of those who were called upon to conduct the affairs of that Department. Therefore, although the institution of a novel mode of proceeding was in itself disadvantageous, yet the Government were absolutely driven upon it; because the usual machinery of Parliamentary representation would have been totally inadequate to the purpose. It was absolutely necessary, with regard to such important matters as railways, to take some means of assuring the House and the country that there had been, according to the opportunities possessed, a patient and laborious investigation of the facts; and he did not think it possible for any Gentleman who heard him to imagine that such an assurance could have been given by a Member of the Board of Trade, and to an audience in that House similar to that which usually decided upon Private Bills. Although the plan adopted was very far from being theoretically perfect; and although, as must always be the case where such great conflicting interests were at stake, great dissatisfaction prevailed, yet it was remarkable that no Gentleman had pointed out a course of proceeding, which, on the whole, would be attended with so few disadvantages. It had been objected to one of these Gentlemen, that he had been private secretary to the right hon. the Secretary of State for the Home Department. He did not himself see that that was in the nature of a disqualification, or in the nature of proof or presumption that this gentleman was unfit for his position, seeing the changes that were constantly taking place. Who censured the appointment of the Gentleman who was lately private secretary to Lord Haddington, now the Joint Secretary to the Admiralty. Other gentlemen who had been private secretaries had been afterwards called into high office; and he really could not see the force of the objection as regarded the post of a Member of the Railway Board. He believed that the word "clerk" had been applied to those Gentlemen. It had been said that the Gentlemen who dealt with these vast interests were persons scarcely higher in station than clerks. Now it was scarcely possible to use a word more ambiguous than the word "clerk." A "clerk" might mean one who was engaged in the discharge of mechanical duties; or it might be applied to a person in a public office, who discharged duties requiring very high and delicate discretion. Now, the position of the Board of Trade was this—the President and Vice-President of that Board acted as the head of it; he was one of its Members, and those five were the most competent persons that could be found to assist him; three had been connected with the Railway Department, and another had been extensively connected with railways in his private capacity. So far as those persons were concerned, the object had been to select those who were best qualified by their knowledge and experience. So far as regarded the head of the Board, he stood, in respect to any transactions he might conduct in connexion with that Board, in the position of a responsible and Parliamentary Officer. His decisions were given under that responsibility; and he (Mr. Gladstone) could not see that those decisions would be of less value by the President having been assisted by intelligent persons. The Reports of the Board had been called the Reports of three or four Gentlemen. The same might be said of all Reports. You might call the three Principal Secretaries of State three Gentlemen; or, you might call the Secretary of State for the Home Department, one Gentleman—or you might call the Report of a Committee of that House, the Report of three Members, or of one Member. But the fact was, that the Reports from the Board of Trade were Reports from a Department of the Government, and he would contend for it that they should be held as the deliberate and formal Reports of that body. He could say, that while he was connected with that Board he exercised his best abilities to give satisfaction; and he would now say, that if he were still connected with it he would defend its acts on the floor of that House, and, connected with it now or not, he would still be ready to defend all they did while he was connected with the Board.

Mr. Bernal

had listened with great attention to the right hon. Gentleman, and was happy to hear that he was ready, as a gladiator, to undertake the defence of the Board of Trade. The difficulty the House saw regarding this question seemed to evince the necessity of removing the first steps of private business from the control of this House. This was not a popular view of the question; but they were approaching an era in civilization, unlike any that had been seen before, and a whole mass of private business poured in on them, for which they were not provided. They had sketched out an imperfect and hasty plan, for trusting some of it to the Committee of the Board of Trade, and what had been the result? Why that respectable Gentlemen were indirectly—he might almost say directly—accused of not discharging their duties candidly and honestly. Those Gentlemen were placed in an odious position; they were exposed to every random shot fired at them by speculators, or by those who were not speculators. He for one would not consent to stand in such a position, and would rather give up the post of Secretary or President of the Committee, than encounter the odium it produced. It was said there must be some tribunal; but it could not be expected that hon. Members, who were occupied by public business, could give up many hours every day to attend to railway schemes in which they had no local or personal interest whatever. What, then, was to be done? Let the Government boldly sketch out the plan of some open tribunal, out of doors, where the merits of these railway schemes could be discussed, and where there were agents and counsel in attendance—for he did not mince the matter; and he was sure that the decisions of such a body would give more satisfaction than the decisions of that House. The present Committee had not sufficient time to attend to the business thrown upon it—all was hurry and confusion, and so great was the pressure to get ready the plans and documents for the last day on which they could be given in, that several working engineers lost their health, and some their lives, from the excessive labour; they would never exonerate the House from suspicion of self-interest till they removed the control of its Private Business to some other tribunal. There were certainly difficulties attending every new arrangement; but if they studied the credit of the House they would lose no time in taking the question into their serious consideration.

Mr. Gladstone

said, he had been misunderstood by the hon. Gentleman on an important point. He had stated at the commencement of his observations, that he hoped the Government never would have occasion to interfere in that House, with respect to Private Bills, in the same manner as they did with respect to Public Bills; and he afterwards said that he, as the organ of the Board of Trade, had he continued so, would have defended the Reports of the Railway Department. There was no contradiction in these two statements. The organ of the Board of Trade not un-frequently made a statement in that House of his views in reference to Private Bills, and took his chance of being defeated or not, as the case might be; but the Government, as a Government, were not involved in the proceedings.

Viscount Howick

explained, that he had on a former occasion stated, that the Gentlemen constituting the Railway Committee of the Board of Trade, had to dispose of property larger in amount than that disposed of by the Judges in Westminster Hall; and he added, that those to whom was committed the disposal of this large amount of property ought to be of a station in some degree at least approaching to that of Judges. That was all he had said, and he never meant to use the word "clerks" in any invidious sense.

Sir R. Peel

was somewhat surprised at the observations which had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Labouchere) and he thought it unfortunate that that right hon. Gentleman, with his experience, had not taken, last Session, when this subject was under consideration, the course he had pursued to-night, and had not warned the House of all those inconveniences which he had dwelt on just now. He was sorry that there should be an impression that the Government had assumed a power which had not received the sanction of that House. It appeared to him that the Government had acted as nearly as possible in conformity with the Report of the Select Committee on Railways, and with what appeared to be the sense of the House. The Select Committee appointed on Railways had to consider whether the then present mode of conducting railway business before Committees of that House was satisfactory or not, and that Select Committee also considered the question as to the degree of supervision which it might not be right for a Department of the Government to exercise over future railway schemes in their earlier stages. The Select Committee considered that some preliminary examination was necessary before these railway schemes were submitted to Committees of that House; but would not discuss whether that examination should be transferred to any other Department of Government, assuming that the duties of the Railway Department would continue to be attached to that particular branch of the Executive to which it then belonged? If the House of Commons had entertained a different opinion, that opinion should have been stated at the time. The Select Committee having then recommended this preliminary examination by the Board of Trade, leaving it at the same time to the House to determine ultimately on the various railway schemes, then proceeded to specify what should be the nature of the Reports to be made by the Board of Trade; and the Committee stated as their opinion,— 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 upon such elucidation;—that their purport should be, not in any case to give the absolute advice that a given railway should be made, but to state whether or not there were further reasons which ought, in the opinion of the Department, to be decisive against it, or whether it ought to be postponed until its merits could be examined in connexion with those of some other scheme, or which of two or more contending schemes appeared preferable, in the event that only one should appear likely to receive the sanction of Parliament. What, then, had the Board of Trade done? In some cases they had reported favourably, and in some they had reported in favour of postponement; and in doing so they had only acted in conformity with the recommendations of the Select Committee. The Select Committee also stated,— That the adequate and satisfactory discharge of their duties would entail upon the Board of Trade a great additional amount of labour and responsibility, and it was the opinion of the Committee that if the recommendations of that and of its other Reports were adopted, it would be necessary to enlarge the Railway Department of the Board of Trade, and improve its organization,"— leaving that matter to the decision of the Government. He repeated, that the Reports of the Railway Committee of the Board of Trade were in conformity with the recommendations of the Select Committee; and the Government never thought that in making these Reports the Railway Committee was acting at variance with the intentions of the House of Commons, which modified its Standing Orders, in order to meet the views of the Select Committee. With respect to the question which had been put to his hon. Friend the Vice President of the Board of Trade, he thought his hon. Friend had taken the proper course in declining to enter into a discussion of any supposed difference of opinion among the Members of the Railway Department. When the Members of that Department signed a Report, that Report must be taken to be their collective opinion; and to enter into a discussion about minor differences of opinion, which might have been removed by subsequent explanations, would have been most unwise. The Report in question bore the signature of every Member of the Railway Department, and the presumption ought to be that the Report was sanctioned by them all.

Mr. Labouchere

had not complained of the Board of Trade for making these Reports; that was their duty, enjoined by the House. What he complained of was the mode in which the Board of Trade or the Government had thought fit to carry the recommendations of the Select Committee into effect by constituting the new Board. Nothing had passed in the House of Commons, and nothing appeared in the recommendations of the Select Committee which at all led to that conclusion. It was a cumbrous and inconvenient mode of proceeding—it raised subordinate Members of the Board of Trade to a parity with the President or Vice President, and was therefore a most inconvenient course in respect to a Public Department. With regard to the mode in which the duty imposed on the Railway Department had been discharged, he had expressed no opinion.

Mr. Wakley

said, that there was no complaint against the Government or the Board of Trade which was not as applicable to the House of Commons; because what had been done last Session, had been done with the sanction of the House itself. It was alleged that the system had not worked well, and it was hoped that a remedy would be applied. It was impossible that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone), while occupied as President of the Board of Trade, in the investigation of the different railway schemes, could divest himself of the weight of his authority as a Cabinet Minister. The right hon. Gentleman stated that they were to choose one of two things;—they must have a secret tribunal or none at all and he then said, that he was perfectly satisfied with the mode of investigation adopted by the Select Committee of the Board of Trade, and that he was prepared, in his individual capacity, to defend the decision of the Board. If so, what harm was there in giving general publicity to their proceedings? At present, great dissatisfaction was given to a large portion of the public by the decisions of the Board; and in one case the whole of the West of England was dissatisfied. His own opinion was, that it would be infinitely better to have no tribunal at all than a secret one; its secrecy subjecting it to great suspicion.

Mr. G. Bankes

wished to say, in consequence of an observation made by his right hon. Friend the other night, that he (Mr. Bankes) had come rather too soon before the House with his objections to the Report of the Committee of the Board of Trade,—that the reason he did so was, that he was in hopes of thereby stopping an arrangement which he understood was planned under the sanction of the Board of Trade, which he thought would be very injurious to the interests of the county which he represented. He understood that the Board of Trade had made themselves a party to that arrangement; and he believed that he could produce proofs that a guarantee had been given by the Board for the fulfilment of conditions which he considered would be most injurious to the county.

House in a Committee of Ways and Means.