HC Deb 23 March 1846 vol 84 cc1420-32

moved, pursuant to notice— That a Select Committee be appointed to consider how far, and under what regulations, the further Amalgamation of Railways would be consistent with a due regard to the commercial and general interests of the Country. In making this Motion, he was influenced by no undue jealousy of railway promoters; on the contrary, he believed that railway companies generally, so far from deserving the jealousy or censure of that House for any of their arrangements, were a most liberal body of men, and were entitled to the greatest praise for the anxiety they had shown to meet the wishes of the public. It was not his object either to disparage the amalgamation of railways in general, believing that, under proper restrictions and regulations, those amalgamations might be rendered not only not injurious, but, in some instances, more beneficial to the promoters, and at the same time conducive to the general interests of the public. But the extent to which it was now proposed to carry railway amalgamations was such that, in his opinion, and in the opinion of the Members forming the Committee on which he had acted, it was highly desirable the House should be in possession of more accurate information and more enlightened opinion as to the result of these amalgamations, before it proceeded finally and irrevocably to commit itself to the step now proposed. There were now before the House no less than thirty-three Amalgamation Bills, comprising a great proportion of the railway communication of this country; and if these lines and their ramifications were carefully looked into, it would be found that they extended almost from one end of the country to the other, both in length and breadth. Some of these were separate Bills, which might be supposed only the particular district in which it was proposed they should operate; but in some of these instances, two—sometimes three, and, in one or two instances, five or six—separate companies were proposed to be placed under one management, whereby the competition would be diminished on which the public had heretofore had to rely as a security for reasonable rates for traffic, and for commercial intercourse between one part of the country and another. Many of these Bills were likely to be opposed; and with reference to such, it would be possible to obtain sufficient and accurate information as to their general bearings upon the country. Others were not opposed, and to them public attention had not been drawn; for the public attention was more drawn just now towards new railway projects than to these Amalgamation Bills, which, not having to go through the same Standing Orders, were apt to pass through the House before the parties affected by them were at all aware of the effect they would have upon commerce. Not only in railways was this taking place, but in canals: he hold in his hand a list of canals which it was proposed to amalgamate with railways. The object of this was most manifest; the old system of carriage, water carriage, had been found to be so inconvenient a competitor with railways, that it had become absolutely necessary for the one to buy up the other, and for the two to be amalgamated under one company. He did not say that this was necessarily an evil, for he knew of instances where it had been conducive to the public interests for railways and canals to be united; at the same time, it required the most careful examination before the House permitted such things to take place. It was quite obvious that a canal would not be bought up by a railway, nor a railway by canal, unless with a view to the increase of profits, by raising the rates of carriage on one or the other. Such was the importance of this question, that if the House did not place proper restrictions and regulations on these companies, there would very soon be a connected link of communication from one end of the country to the other, which would for ever put a stop to competition. There was now a Bill before the House, which, when looked into, appeared to establish a connected link from Scotland to the city of London in one direction, and from Scotland to Bristol in the other, almost all under the same control. And it was quite clear that, unless provision was made in these Bills, giving other parties the power of running on these lines, or taking advantage of them in some other way, it would be almost useless for Parliament to authorize a company to make a competing line; in fact, it, would be almost impossible for a company to raise sufficient capital for such a purpose. This was sufficient to prove to the House that the system of amalgamation, as now going on, should be closely and carefully watched. Then came the question, how this could be most efficiently done? It had appeared to the Committee, of whom he had the honour to be Chairman, that in one of two ways alone could this be effected—either by leaving these Bills to be dealt with by the Group Committees, or by referring them to a Select Committee. The objection to the Group Committees was, that they could only get the necessary information in those cases where the amalgamations were opposed; without obtaining power from the House, they could not compel the production of papers and witnesses; and many railway companies would consider it unfair to saddle them with the expense of witnesses not necessary for their particular cases. If the hon. Member the Chairman of the Committee of Selection could have formed a Group Committee of Members who would have carried with them the confidence of the House on a question of such importance, and power had been given them to send for papers and witnesses, he, for one, should have been perfectly satisfied. At the same time, that would be an unusual mode of dealing. Then came the question, whether the subject was one that could properly be referred to the Committee moved for by the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Morrison). To this he should not object, provided the hon. Member for Inverness would consent to take the subject of amalgamations into consideration at the commencement of the sittings of his Committee; because it was extremely important that no unjust delay should take place. But if these Bills could not come on while towards the middle or the end of that Committee's proceedings, it might occasion their being put off for this Session. Therefore, by the advice of the Committee on which he had the honour to serve, he had given notice of the present Motion. The chief object of the Committee was to obtain from those parts of the country chiefly interested in those amalgamations that information which the House was not yet in possession of. It was true the House was in possession of information which it had most sadly neglected, and not treated with the deference it deserved—the Report of the Board of Trade of last Session, which was well worthy the consideration of every Committee of the House. Had the Committees of last Session paid a little more attention to that Report, they would have done their duty more effectually to the public; he knew instances where neglect of attention to the recommendations of that Report had involved very serious consequences to the parties. The House had not thought fit last Session to attend to that Report, and had passed measures in direct contravention of it; and there was no reason to believe that the House had changed its mind. It was, therefore, chiefly on these considerations, and believing that the House was in want of further information, that he brought forward his Motion.


said, it appeared to him highly desirable that some rule should be laid down by the House, in order that railway companies might know, before their application to Parliament, on what grounds they were to proceed in order that their measures might pass. It would be found on investigation that the acts of amalgamation proposed were, in many instances—he might almost say, most of them—of a purely defensive character. He was sure that, if such a Committee were formed, the principles laid down by them would be not only beneficial to the companies interested in the different amalgamations, but also to the country generally. He would most cordially support the Motion of the hon. Member for North Lancashire.


said, that the question to which the Member for North Lancashire called the attention of the House was one of paramount importance, because, as was said in a discussion arising out of the Motion of his hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, unless they were now prepared to take certain precautions against the abuse of those powers which Government granted to railway companies, in the course of a few years they would find all means of communication vested in the hands of certain companies who would be placed beyond the control of the Legislature. But he confessed that though he thought it desirable that a Committee should be formed for the purpose of laying down certain principles of railway legislation, yet he did not gather from the speech of his hon. Friend what appeared to him (Sir G. Clerk) to be the object of the investigation of the proposed Select Committee. If the Select Committee should lay down certain general rules under which they would permit certain railway companies to amalgamate, and stated certain circumstances under which they would not allow them to do so, he (Sir G. Clerk) thought that they would be doing little more than giving their particular sanction to the principles laid down in the Twenty-first Report of the Board of Trade last year. If that was the object of his hon. Friend, it would be extremely desirable. After having done that, and after having adopted the principles laid down in the Report of the Board of Trade, they could not throw any objection to the amalgamation of lines having the same interests; but when the lines were not identified, and where the interests of the companies who projected them were opposed to each other, and where a company would be induced, under the fear of competition, to combine with another for the purpose of self-defence, in order to maintain a monopoly with the existing company, and to rivet that monopoly closer, it was quite clear that in such a case the interests of that company and the interests of the public might be at variance. His great difficulty was the manner in which these general rules, after being laid down, should be applied in each individual case. It would depend on the peculiar circumstances of each case. He was afraid that his hon. Friend would only be able to get over the first part of his object, namely, to call the attention of the House to the recommendation of the Board of Trade last year. He (Sir G. Clerk) hoped that, before whatever tribunal the decision of each individual case should come, that tribunal would look with extreme jealously to all those proposals of amalgamation, because it was impossible, in the present state of railway speculation, to know what might be the effect of those amalgamations some years hence. He thought that the objection of the Board of Trade was a just and a sound one, namely, the inconvenience that would arise from a premature decision on the proposed amalgamations. One advantage would arise from a postponement of the decision on the proposed amalgamations, for there were many modes in which an amalgamation might take place by private arrangement, which did not involve that necessary degree of permanence which arose from Parliamentary sanction. He therefore hoped that, after a Committee should be appointed to act upon the principles established by the Select Committee, they would look with extreme jealousy to those proposals. The Board of Trade pointed out strong objections to extensive amalgamations last year. Their recommendations were carried into effect, and their suggestions as to the great public inconvenience that might arise from extensive amalgamations had their due weight. If the House did not not believe that the Committee, which was moved for by the hon. Member for Inverness, would have under its consideration a sufficiently wide field of inquiry, he thought that this subject might be very fairly submitted to them. But, considering the number of questions which they had to deal with, he was inclined to support the Motion of his hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire.


agreed with the right hon. Baronet that this subject was one, no doubt, of great difficulty and importance. The question, however, embraced two points: first, how they ought to lay down rules for the present Session; and, secondly, how they ought to provide for future cases. He doubted, with regard to Railway Bills now before the House, whether another proposition would not provide a better plan, namely, that of selecting a Committee of five, to whom all Amalgamation Bills should be referred, and giving them the power, in cases of unopposed Bills, of sending for witnesses, and of communicating with the Board of Trade. If the Committee now moved for were appointed, the House would perhaps get no Report this Session, or at best a very hurried Report, which could be of no present use. The right hon. Baronet (Sir G. Clerk) had said, that the Report of the Board of Trade last year had not been sufficiently attended to by the House. That very Report stated, as to laying down general rules for amalgamation, that "nothing could be more difficult than to lay down any general principles by which all amalgamations should be regulated." They would have the same uncertainty now; and he was afraid they could not settle the rules for amalgamation until they had settled the general principles of railway legislation. If they were prepared to rely upon the principle of competition alone, then following that one principle, they must reject all amalgamations; for if they allowed amalgamation at all, they violated the principle of competition. But if they reserved some power of Ministerial interference, adopting something of the French system, they need not be so jealous. He thought the Amalgamation Committee would report that it was impossible to lay down any general rules till they got the Report of the other Committee. His impression was, that the appointment of Committees, and the attempt to legislate through Committees, would produce inefficient legislation; and that it was proper to compel the Government to take this as well as other subjects under their consideration, and to bring forward measures for regulating railway legislation upon their own responsibility as a Government. Till then they would have only inefficient legislation upon this subject. It was natural that the Government should prefer to devolve this duty upon Committees of this House, rather than take it upon themselves, as it was a very awkward subject to deal with; but he believed that until the House determined that Government should undertake, it, they would get only inefficient legislation. He did not object to the Committee, but he should have preferred the other course.


said, the right hon. Gentleman seemed to think that Her Majesty's Government had neglected the great subject of railway legislation. [Mr. BARING: No, no!] He thought that the House ought to share this reproach with the Government. He only wished that hon. Members would read the able Report on this subject made by the Committee of the Board of Trade last year. The Board laid down certain principles, which they considered proper to be applied to cases of amalgamation brought before Parliament, admitting that there were cases in which it might be for the public advantage that they should be relaxed; and there was no doubt there were cases in which amalgamation, under proper conditions, would be for the advantage of the public, as well as of the railway companies. The recommendations of the Board of Trade, however, were not acceded to by the House; and he only asked the House to share the reproach of the present state of things with the Government. The House was actually jealous of the interference of the Government; the House overruled, in many cases, the decisions of the Board of Trade, and it would perceive in this a reason why Her Majesty's Government wished that the interference of the Executive should be called for by a decision of the House of Commons as necessary for the public interests, rather than it should, a second time, interfere on its own Motion. He could not help thinking that there was some difficulty in adopting the proposition of his hon. Friend (Mr. W. Patten). The House had adopted the Motion of the hon. Member for Inverness; and if they had another Committee to consider the principles of amalgamation, he feared they might have different reports from each, and a conflict of opinions. They had adopted a proposition with respect to railways that had termini within the city of London and the metropolis, to reserve them for a separate inquiry by a Commission appointed by the Crown; and perhaps it might not be inexpedient to pursue a similar course here, by appointing a Committee not a Commission, on the subject of amalgamation, so far as regarded Bills now presented; that a Committee should be appointed to consider, not the principles of amalgamation generally, but a Special Committee to consider Bills now introduced, in which amalgamation is proposed, and to suggest such general principles as seemed most applicable to such cases. This would not bring the Committee into conflict with the Committees of the hon. Member for Inverness; and he feared that, unless a distinct line were drawn between the Committee now moved for and that of the hon. Member for Inverness, there might be a conflict of opinion, which would involve the House in great difficulty.


wished to call the attention of the House to a difficulty which existed. The Committee moved for by his hon. Friend (Mr. Patten), and the one appointed on the Motion of the Member for Inverness, ought to be kept distinct, and the report of the one ought not to interfere with that of the other. The difficulty which he saw was, that the opinions of the Committee now moved for might clash with those of the Group Committees, who were to decide on the proposed amalgamations. In his opinion the Committee of his hon. Friend should lay down certain rules of amalgamation, and the Group Committees would consider the proposals subject to those rules. From what he had seen of the Amalgamation Bills before the House this present Session, it appeared to him quite clear that all further progress in them should be suspended until the House should come to some defined determination.


said, that they ought to recollect that amalgamation was a voluntary act, and that there was nothing to hinder companies from amalgamating before the House came to a determination. The question of amalgamation depended on a principle of the appropriation of fixed capital embarked in railways, or on the principle of taking some security against monopoly. The hon. Member for Lancashire complained that no attention was paid to the Report of the Committee last year; but would the hon. Member allow him to remind the hon. Member that he was the first to surrender the Report? Other hon. Members were greatly impressed with the weight and importance that attached to it, and thought that the Government ought to give it their serious attention. He thought the most complete surrender of the Reports of the Board of Trade, and of the noble Lord who had displayed so much ability in drawing them up, had proceeded from Her Majesty's Government. The blame of not attending to the Report of the Board of Trade should not be thrown on the House generally, when the Government were the first to throw over the laborious and very able investigations of that body.


said, the noble Lord was labouring under a great mistake in supposing that the Government had interfered with respect to any Private Bill. When it became a question whether the Government, as a Government, should interfere with a Private Bill, although it had been recommended by a Committee, and had received the sanction of the Board of Trade, he should be sorry to see such interference. But when there was a question between the promoters of two Bills before Parliament, and the opinion of the Board of Trade itself was to be supported, he remembered coming down to support the decision of the Board of Trade.


alluded to an early discussion which took place at the commencement of the Session.


would have liked to have seen the weight of the Government displayed more energetically in favour of the recommendations of the Board of Trade, which he thought were made with great judgment and discretion. He thought that the suggestion which had been just thrown out by the right hon. Baronet would remove a great many of the objections which he had entertained to the proposition of his hon. Friend the Member for North Lancashire; but he considered it would be a still greater improvement if the proposed Committee were made to perform the functions of the Committees on the several Bills. He thought it would be a hardship to call upon parties to make out their case before the Preliminary Committee, and then oblige them to do the same thing over again before another tribunal. There would be a double investigation, and a double expense, and the parties would have just cause of complaint.


thought the Government ought not to interfere in ordinary cases with a private Bill. If rules were laid down for the amalgamation of Private Bills by the Board of Trade, he was sure that the House would be disposed to support such rules, and have its Committees guided by them. It would be well to have rules laid down for the purpose of securing uniformity. If a general principle was laid down and sanctioned by the House, the Committees would have little difficulty in acting upon it. If there was a preliminary Committee which performed its functions as the Board of Trade did last year, that Committee might take a view of all the Amalgamation Bills, and say whether they could not come within general rules. If that was done, there would be no necessity for discussion on the second reading; and he hoped the inquiries of the Committee would be limited to some particular object.


, as a Member of the Classification Committee, begged to say that the object of that Committee, in bringing the matter before the House, was to call its attention to the magnitude of the subject. The question of amalgamation was one of the most important connected with the whole railway subject, especially as the present proposed amalgamations exceeded in extent anything of the kind proposed before, for there were no less than thirty-three Amalgamation Bills. He was quite willing to adopt the course recommended by the right hon. Baronet.


thought the Amalgamation Bills should be grouped together, and a competent Committee of five appointed, who should determine on the merits of the Bills, instead of subjecting the Amalgamation Bills to a second and remote trial hereafter. He would suggest that all the Amalgamation Bills should be extracted from the groups in which they had been placed, and that one group should be made of them, which should be referred to the Committee he had just suggested, who should go into the merits and demerits of these Amalgamation Bills, and decide their fate by making a Report to the House.


thought that a railway which came before Parliament, and proposed an amalgamation with another, should, to a certain extent, be treated as a new line, and Parliament should impose any conditions it thought proper for the security and benefit of the public. Some general regulations should be applied to all railways; amongst others uniformity of fares for passengers, and of charges for the carriage of goods, &c. He considered that Parliament had a right to deal with amalgamations as it thought fit, and to impose upon them whatever new conditions it thought proper.


said, that the question before the House was, how were they to deal with those Amalgamation Bills which were before the House during the present Session? He confessed, after the discussion which had taken place, that he agreed with his right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport, that the House had better not appoint any Committee to consider that question; the question respecting amalgamations generally was one of importance, and, for his own part, he was inclined to think that railroads, like other things, were likely to be managed better on a great scale than otherwise. But that was not the question. The question was, how they were to deal with the amalgamations actually before the House in the present Session of Parliament? He thought they could not have a safer guide than the principles laid down in the Report presented to the House two Sessions ago. He would prefer leaving the matter in the hands of the Government to those of the House.


thought that some principles should be laid down for the guidance of Committees with respect to amalgamations. There were two kinds of amalgamations—those which were made for the public interest, and those which were made for private benefit. With respect to the latter, the House ought to interpose. Supposing, for instance, that the London and Birmingham, or the Eastern Counties Company, were to buy up the London and York, if it were made, that would be no amalgamation for the benefit of the public, but the giving a monopoly to whoever had the longest purse.


said, that he agreed with the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down. It was difficult to lay down any general rules for the guidance of Committees with respect to Amalgamation Bills. He considered that it would have been better on the whole if the House had adhered to the rules laid down by the Board of Trade; but as the House had not adopted the views of the Board of Trade, it was the more necessary that the House should take the initiative in the matter. It might be for the public advantage in some cases that a short line should be amalgamated with a great line; but in other cases an amalgamation of a short line with an original line might be only to confirm a permanent monopoly. The course which appeared best to him was to appoint a Committee, in which the House would have confidence, to lay down general rules for the guidance of all Committees with respect to Amalgamation Bills. He did not think that such a Committee would interfere with the Committee of the hon. Member for Inverness.


would suggest that no more amalgamations should be permitted till the Committee had made its Report. He did not think that any mischief could be done by adopting such a course, but, on the contrary, great benefit might accrue from it. He thought they might be in the hands of a few monopolists sooner than they were aware of.


said, that the result of the amalgamation of the London and Birmingham and the Grand Junction Companies had been an immediate reduction of fares, which proved to be beneficial to all parties. He thought that the principle of amalgamation should be encouraged. He did not think there was any danger of monopoly, because railway directors now found it their interest to adopt the system of low fares.


thought that the adoption of the suggestion of the hon. Member for Montrose would be of the greatest advantage. When they saw railway companies possessing so much money that they would be likely to command the communication of the country, the House ought to be cautious how they sanctioned those Amalgamation Bills. He did not see how any evils could result from postponing Amalgamation Bills, even for the present Session.


said, that he had endeavoured to alter the terms of his Motion, so as to meet what he collected from the discussion to be the general feeling of the House. The words of the amended Motion were— That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the principle of amalgamation as applied to the Railway and Canal Bills, now under the consideration of Parliament.

Amended Motion agreed to.

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