HC Deb 21 August 1846 vol 88 cc929-36

On the Motion that the House resolve itself into a Committee on the Railway Commissioners Bill,


said, the Bill would entail great expense on the country, besides giving an increased patronage to the Government; and it would also have the effect of establishing another Board of Commissioners like to the New Poor Law Board, of which they had heard so much of late in regard to the way in which they had done their duty. He hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer would give the Bill a little more consideration, which he had no doubt would lead to its postponement until the next Session. A measure of such importance should be allowed sufficient time for consideration. He felt such strong objections to the Bill, that unless his proposition was fairly met, he would move that the Bill be put off for six months. If he did not succeed in that, he would move to have the sixth and seventh clauses expunged.


would make this proposal to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, that if he consented merely to transfer the powers possessed by the Board of Trade to this new Board, leaving other matters to be the subject of future consideration, he was not disposed to give further opposition to the Bill; but the latter part of the Bill gave powers to which he must object; and which was too weighty a subject to be considered in the present thin state of the House. If the suggestions thrown out were not attended to, he should feel it his duty not only to oppose the Bill, but to contend against every clause of the Bill.


considered that a Board of the kind proposed to be appointed, was in the present state of railway business absolutely necessary. If the hon. Gentleman who had objected to the powers conferred by the Bill, had been, like him, on the Committee which suggested the appointment of the Board, and had heard the evidence of the engineers and others who were examined, he would not consider the powers more than were required under the circumstances.


said, that had that evidence been before the House to which the hon. Member for Montrose referred, the Members of that House might be enabled to form an accurate opinion on the Bill before them, otherwise they must be in great ignorance on the subject. Why should that House be called on to legislate on the present measure, when that evidence was not placed in the hands of Members? His opinion was, that the Bill either went too far, or did not go far enough. It went to establish a new Commission, and at great expense, while it conferred neither powers nor authority which the Privy Council did not already possess; that was a serious objection. He was in favour of such a Commission, if suitable powers were conferred, and its duties properly defined. The question really resolved itself into this—was there a necessity for the formation of such a department? But whether there were or not, the Bill did not appear to carry out what might be considered the important objects for which it was intended; at least as far as he could see. Had he no objections to the principles of the Bill, he must object to it because of the late period of the Session in which it was introduced.


said, it would be time enough when the House went into Committee to consider the clauses which appeared to be objectionable. He was fully aware of the inconvenience of bringing forward the question at this late period of the Session; but if they did not appoint a railway board now, they would be in the same position next Session as they were at the beginning of this Session; and, under these circumstances, he thought it much better that they should pass the present Bill. They all knew that abuses existed; and there was no proper machinery to put a stop to them. He did not by that observation intend to impute the slightest blame to the Members of the Board of Trade, although there were general complaints that the business had not been fully attended to by that Board: they arose from the multifarious duties the Board had to perform. He hoped the new department would, by its superintendence, prevent illegal acts of every description from being committed by railway companies, and particularly in the prevention of such conduct as was recently brought under the consideration of the House—a railway company borrowing sums of money in a way to which it was not entitled. He fully anticipated if the Board were established, that at next Session of Parliament it would have acquired that experience by which it would be enabled to give the most important information as to the future guidance of legislation.


thought the principle of the measure one of great importance indeed; for, construe it as they might, the step now taken was neither more nor less than to appoint what would ultimately be considered a Secretary of State for the Superintendence of Public Works; and he thought the sooner they brought it to that point the better. He was not fond of borrowing much from our neighbours on the other side of the channel; but he confessed he did think that a department of Government constituted on the same principle as that of the Minister of Public Works in France might be extremely useful in this country in the present state of things; because the operations of railways, whether considered in a commercial point of view, or in regard to their more remote but not less important social objects, were of gigantic importance and of enormous consequence to the best interests of the country; and ought at once to be placed under the care of a distinct department of Government. He cordially agreed, therefore, in the object of the present Bill, though he considered it defective to this extent—that it conferred too limited powers upon the Board for the objects which it proposed to accomplish. He would wish to see the Board have a more permanent character, a more ample responsibility, and more abundant powers.


would give the Bill his cordial support. It might be true that the Board of Trade had all the powers which it was proposed to confer on the new Board; but he could not forget that during this heavy Session of Parliament, when the House had had more to do with railways than on any former occasion, they had not received one iota of assistance from the Board of Trade. He did not blame the Board of Trade for this; he admitted that its reports last year had been received with less deference than they deserved; and the Board might on that account not care to proffer much assistance. With respect to the present Bill, he did not believe that it was possible for the ingenuity of any man satisfactorily to frame a law, and construct all the powers with which it was necessary to invest the proposed institution, in the short time the right hon. Gentleman had had to prepare the measure; and if the law were to be allowed to continue in a crude, ill-digested, and ill-arranged shape, he admitted that it would be more mischievous than even the absence of such an institution; but, on the other hand, if the Board were constituted with the limited powers contained in the present Bill, it would be an essential part of the duty of the Board, morally speaking, although not defined by the Bill, in the course of the recess, to prepare another Bill, containing all the powers which their inquiries and experience would show to be essentially necessary to enable them to fulfil the objects which the House had in view.


concurred in the necessity of the present measure, and thought the Chancellor of the Exchequer had exercised a wise discretion in confining the Bill to those points on which the public were pretty generally agreed.


trusted that the Board when appointed would direct its attention to the subject of the excessive speed of railways, which was the occasion of so many accidents.


thought that the speed on railways was a great public convenience, and should not be reduced. He should, however, in consequence of other circumstances, join in suggesting that the consideration of the present question should be deferred until the ensuing Session. The great evil in railway legislation was, that when a Bill was introduced it was considered not on its merits, but according to what were the interests of the shareholders—and particularly of shareholders who had seats in that House. That was an evil for which the present Bill provided no remedy, as it left full power to Members of Parliament to vote on subjects in which they were personally interested—a power which they should not have. No system of railway legislation could go on satisfactorily while contractors in railways, Members of that House, who had large sums embarked in them, were allowed to vote, and decide by these votes what Bills should be carried and what Bills should not. It had been said, that the Board of Trade was so overcharged with work, that it could not attend to the business which would devolve on the new department. Had the Board of Trade said so? Had that Board declared that it was so overloaded with work, that it could not attend also to this public duty? Not one Member of that Board had said so. He did not wish to throw out any insinuation against the Board of Trade. He believed it to be composed of useful public servants; but still it was too much to call on Parliament to constitute a new department expressly for the purpose of lightening their burdens, and especially when there was no remonstrances that that Board was overburdened.


merely rose to say a few words on the subject before the House. Since the introduction of the Bill, he had taken considerable pains to ascertain its necessity; and he understood that it was the general opinion of Committees of both Houses, as well as of those persons who turned their attention to the subject, that it was desirable to have such a Board as that contemplated in the Bill before the House. When the measure was introduced to the House, it was stated that if it should be thought that this was not the proper time to bring it forward, and if it were found that a general assent would not be given to the measure, it should be given up. After taking due time to consider, as he understood there was no objection to the proposition, the Bill was brought forward; indeed, the preponderance of opinion in favour of it was so great, that they meant to proceed with it. Paying all due deference to the opinion of the hon. Member for Winchester, yet his opinion could not weigh in opposition to all those who were ready to support the Bill. He did not think it possible, if the duties of the proposed Board were to be added to the Board of Trade, that they could be adequately performed, considering what that Board had already to do. It was, therefore, desirable that the Bill should pass without delay. The House, therefore, had better proceed with the measure, although it was found impossible to invest the Commissioners who might be appointed under the Act, with all that power and authority which could be exercised by Railway Committees in Parliament.


thought that the Bill ought only to continue until the end of next Session.


said, that the difficulty which was to be contended with year after year, was the influence of Members of that House who were connected with railways; which influence was considerably on the increase in both Houses of Parlia- ment; and, unless the new department now about to be instituted could stem that influence and power, it would not effect much good, nor would it secure the confidence of the public. Any one who sat on Parliamentary Committees connected with railways must be aware of the number of Bills which were introduced, and of the immense number of clauses of which they consisted, many of which involved interests often very injurious to the public; but they were so involved and intricate, that instead of being rejected, they passed in the lump without consideration. It might be wrong to set up a board without accurately defining its duties; but as the present Bill arose out of a case of emergency, he would give it his support.


was of opinion, that in regard to the difficulties which attended the subject, the state of matters would not be improved by delay. He anticipated a great saving of expense to the country from the institution of such a board as that proposed.


did not think the report presented yesterday was such as to induce the House to entertain much regard for Commissions or Commissioners. But the disadvantages which might attend such boards, might, in some cases, be met by countervailing benefits. Considering the gigantic evils connected with the railway system, he could imagine nothing more incompetent or insufficient for the removal of those evils than the proposition before the House. He disliked the division of authority. Why should not one man be selected to superintend the department which the Bill proposed to entrust to five? Those five Commissioners had no efficient authority; all they could do was to report in certain cases; and on going over the Bill, he really could not discover that they would render any services to the public: with such a number, the responsibility was so divided, that blame could not be brought home to the proper parties, unless a Committee were to sit for four or five months to carry out an investigation. But if they had one man to deal with, they knew where to put their finger. Looking to the incomplete and inefficient powers given by the Bill, he for one should entreat the Government to postpone the measure till another Session of Parliament. From the tone of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell), he inferred that the noble Lord's own inclination was to follow that course.

The House divided on the Question that the Speaker do not leave the Chair:—Ayes 64; Noes 0: Majority 64.

[We need not publish the List of the Ayes; the two tellers for the Noes were Colonel Sibthorp and Mr. Escott.]

House in Committee on the Bill.

On the First Clause being put,


was surprised at the conduct of those Gentlemen who, after having spoken against the Bill, yet voted for it when the House came to divide. Thank God! he had never been guilty of such despicable conduct; his course had always been consistent and independent. The introduction of so important a Bill as this at so late a period of the Session, was nothing less than a gross trick played upon unsuspecting and absent Members. Had he chosen last night, he could have stopped the further progress of the Bill this Session, because there were not forty Members present at the time that it was read a second time; but he scorned any underhand work.


said, that whatever were the formation of the new Board, its superintendent should be a political officer connected with the existing Government, and removable with that Government. If otherwise, the Government of the day would be obliged to support him in all the proceedings of the Board, however inconvenient—and yet such a consequence would follow if that public officer held his situation independent of the existing Government. The House had that observation fully verified in what occurred respecting the Poor Law Commissioners, the Government of the day being obliged to take their part, although not responsible for their proceedings. Let there be a proper efficient officer placed at the head of the department, assisted by a well-qualified secretary, and the best results might be expected to follow; but let it be arranged that the head of the department change with the Government. He did not think it would answer any good purpose to have a large board which would be even nominally independent of any superintending power.


said, that the Government were of opinion that the President of the new Commission to be appointed under this Bill, should be a Member of either that or the other House of Parliament, so that he might be prepared to furnish any information connected with the Commission to such Members of the House as might desire it. He was happy to find that the jealousy of members of such boards holding seats in Parliament was rapidly dying away. The object of the Government in introducing this Bill was to appoint men in the place of the former Commissioners, who would command the confidence of the public, which, from some reason or other, the late Commissioners did not, notwithstanding their great talents and fitness for their office. The only new burdens which this Bill would impose upon the public would be the payment of the services of the President and two Commissioners.

Bill went through the Committee, and was ordered to be reported.

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