HC Deb 16 May 1851 vol 116 cc1063-72

On the Motion for the adjournment of the House till Monday,


said, he would take that opportunity of calling the attention of the noble Lord the Chief Commissioner of Sewers to some extraordinary facts with which he bad just been made acquainted. When he had asked the noble Lord some evenings ago for certain information respecting the expenditure of the Commissioners, the noble Lord recommended him to go to their office, and he had done so. The result was, he had to make some charges of a serious nature against those Commissioners, who were perfectly irresponsible, who had levied heavy rates, had control over more than 8,000,000l. of property, and whose liabilities were enormous. He found in the Metropolitan Sewers' Act, 11 and 12 Vict. c. 112, the following provisions:— Sect. 24. And be it enacted, that the clerk of the Commissioners shall keep the record of their proceedings at their courts and minutes of proceedings of committees in proper books. Sect. 25. They shall cause a seal to be made, and shall cause to be stamped therewith decrees, orders, and records of proceedings; and ratepayers may inspect, As a ratepayer he went to inspect accordingly, and—would the House believe it?—this Court of Record had kept no record whatever from the 11th of October, 1850, to the present time. He then desired to see a manuscript minute of proceedings of the Court when the last rate of 6d. in the pound was ordered to be prepared, and was shown a rough paper sent to each member of the court, showing the business to be transacted on the 6th of December, 1850; and the 28th order of the day was the following:—No. 28, "As to ordering preparation of sewers' rate in the undermentioned districts; namely, western division of Westminster sewers, and the Greenwich district." He then desired to see the order, and was shown a piece of paper with an order, no date, no signature; and, as regarded the order for such rate for the Westminster district, such order has never to this day been entered in any book whatever. He asked whether the order was passed by the Committee or by the Court of Record. The Secretary said he did not know to whom the paper belonged, but he concluded that it belonged to the Court, because it contained some allusion to its proceedings: On the 11th of April the Court met and made a vote for 6d. in the pound, on 4,000,000l. of property. That order had never been entered in the minute book. He asked the Secretary how it was possible that the business of the office could be conducted in this way; and he received from him the extraordinary statement that rough minutes, or rather heads of minutes, were taken, and that he (the Secretary) was obliged to trust to his memory to draw them out for the Book of Record. Now, he begged the House to remember that not one of those minutes had been entered in the books since the 11th of October, 1850. His noble Friend the Member for Bath (Viscount Duncan) and himself were no less than two hours and thirty-five minutes engaged in examining the papers, which it required the solicitor or lawyer of the Commission and eight clerks to produce, such Was the disgraceful state of confusion in which they were. In happened that on Tuesday last he heard that a large sum was to be borrowed by the Commissioners. On Wednesday morning he went to the office, and asked if such was the fact, and he was told that on the 15th of April a Resolution was passed in Committee asking for the shortest term at which a Mr. Peath would lend 10,000l.; that on the 29th the Committee recommended the Court to borrow it; and that on the 2nd of May a Court was held to consider the subject. Would the House believe it? There was no entry in the books respecting the result; but he was informed that the 10,000l. was borrowed for five years at 5 per cent. He maintained that this was disgraceful to the Commission; and when his noble Friend gave, the unsatisfactory answer a few nights ago to the question whether he intended to bring in a new Bill with respect to the Commission, he (Sir Benjamin Hall) was not surprised that his hon. and gallant Friend (Captain Fitzroy), who was at the head of the parish of St. George, Hanover-square, repeated the question, and expressed his astonishment that the Commission had been allowed to continue so long. He (Sir Benjamin Hall) asked the Secretary to show him the minutes of the Court from January the 1st to the present time. The Secretary answered that they were not entered. He then" desired to see the rough minutes; and the Secretary said, "I will give them to you, but I am afraid you will not be able to make anything out of them, they are so mixed together." This was certainly quite true, for he had never seen, in the whole course of his life, any public documents in so disgraceful a state as the documents in that office were; and he hoped that what he was now saying would reach the eyes and ears of the ratepayers, and that they would go and judge for themselves. He found that many of the papers were not signed, or dated, or authenticated in any way whatever; and yet those Commissioners had power to raise taxes upon 8,500,000l. of property. The Secretary admitted that from January to the present time no minutes whatever had been entered in conformity with the Act of Parliament. In order to be careful in what he stated to the House on this subject, he read over to the Secretary every word of what he had now stated. He asked him in the presence of his noble Friend the Member for Bath (Viscount Duncan) whether he had misstated, or been mistaken, on any one point, and he was informed that he had not; so that whatever contradiction might be offered to his present statement must be directed against the Secretary, and not against his noble Friend and himself. On the 17th of December last a gentleman went to the office of the Commissioners and desired to see the minutes of proceedings. He was informed that he could not examine the last series, as from the 21st of June to the 15th of August they were in the hands of the binder; from the 15th of August to the 29th of October they were in proofs; and from the 29th of October to the 12th of December they were not entered up. This was mentioned to the right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the 8th of February last, but there had been no amendment. He wished also to call the attention of his noble Friend at the head of the Government and the House to the disgraceful way in which the Commissioners acted towards the public. Would the House believe that the Court was adjourned from the 12th of July to the 19th, and from the 19th to the 26th, and from the 26th to the 2nd of August, in consequence of no Commissioner having been present at any one of those times? so that people who desired to appeal against rates were put off from week to week, and had their time wasted, all because the Commissioners did not attend to their duties. On Saturday last a Court was appointed to meet at 12 o'clock for the purpose of ordering works, hearing appeals against the district rate of the Western division of Surrey, to receive presentments of rates, presentments in case of nuisances, to hear parties summoned to appear, to affix the seal of the Commission to contracts, and to order summonses to be served on defaulters. The parties who went waited one hour and a half, and no Court was made. He asked his noble Friend if such things could be allowed to go on? He wished also to call the attention of the House to—he would not call it a fraud—but an imposition which had been practised on it. On the 14th of February the Committee of Sewers ordered Mr. Joseph Smith to make a survey of Victoria-street sewer. On the 4th of March Mr. Joseph Smith presented that Report, and the Committee passed a resolution directing their engineer to report upon the same, and to propose a system for cheeking, by means of Mr. Joseph Smith and his staff, the works performed by contractors, and declaring that no set- tlement be made until such works should have been so examined, &c. On the 28th of March, he (Sir Benjamin Hall) gave notice for a return of that Report. He begged to say that he had no communication with Smith or with a single person connected with that Court; but three days afterwards the Court met and desired the attendance of the surveyor, whom they rated soundly for having, as they imagined, given him (Sir Benjamin Hall) some information on the subject. On the 8th of April the engineer presented his Report to the Commission. It was read, but instead of receiving the Report, the Commission sent it back and desired him to revise it. On the 10th of April the House ordered Smith's Report and the engineer's Report to be presented. They were presented on the 2nd of May, Smith's Report as it stood, but the engineer's not as presented, but as revised, although it bore the date of its former and not amended state. Both Reports were now in the office of the Commission, but neither of them had been entered in the books. He hoped that what he had said would induce the Government to take some steps with respect to the Commission, for the manner in which it performed its duties was disgraceful to the metropolis. With respect to its financial affairs, too, it contrasted most unfavourably with the former Commission, the liabilities under which were only 58.195L; whereas the liabilities of the present Commission were 135,342l. [Viscount EBRINGTON dissented.] His noble Friend, he observed, shook his head; but he assured him he quoted from the document sent to that House by the Commissioners themselves. [Viscount EBRINGTON: So he it.] His noble Friend said "So be it;" but the people had got to pay for it. He hoped that, after what he had said, the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department would be induced to bring in a Bill to suppress the present useless and extravagant Commission, and to place the management of the metropolitan sewers on a better and more satisfactory footing than that on which, as the House had seen, it now rested. He had only to add that he had shown his noble Friend (Viscount EBRINGTON) all the documents he had quoted; and that, if he should deny the statement he had just made, he hoped he would remember it was the statement of the Secretary of the Commission.


said, he had to solicit from the House that indulgence which they always extended to those who had to answer such charges as had been made on the present occasion. With the exception of the last sentence but one of the hon. Baronet—that in which he expressed a wish that the Commission should be placed on a better footing—there was no other single statement which he should not be obliged to deny, or give a different colour to, in the course of his explanation. Now, the first charge which had been made was, that the Commissioners attended hardly at all to the business of the Commission. Upon this point he had to refer the hon. Baronet to the Act of Parliament, which stated that the Commissioners should hold one meeting in the month—twelve meetings in the year. This was the total number of meetings required by the Act of Parliament to be held. The Commissioners were only twelve in number, half of whom, by the clumsy legislation of that House, were required to be present to constitute a quorum. The hon. Baronet would see, on reference, that the number of Courts held last year was thirty-two, and that the number of Committees was seventy-seven. This gave an average of rather more than two Courts for every month. It was to be remembered that these Courts were not primarily for the consideration of the business of the Commission; they passed those orders and decisions which the Commissioners, after mature discussion and consideration, had previously agreed upon; and, therefore, every single hour spent in those Courts represented a far greater number of hours spent in the deliberation and consideration of the business of the Commission. Now, in order to give the House some idea of the mass of business frequently transacted at one single Court, it was necessary to state that the printed minutes, ninety to one hundred pages in length, had frequently to be copied with the formal minutes of the proceedings of a single Committee, and that the same number of pages had to be copied with the original minutes. The Commissioners, in addition to their other arduous duties, were a Court of justice also, entrusted with very large and complicated jurisdiction. In the Courts at West minister, the few short words of the Judges, "For the defendant," had to be translated by the officer of the Court into a longer minute; and in like manner a long translation had also to be made at the office of the Commissioners of Sewers. What was the course adopted by a very analogous body to the Commissioners, namely, the Court of Quarter Sessions, which consisted of a body of justices executing important works, and taxing the public, and at the same time passing judicial sentences? The hon. Member for Oxford-shire (Mr. Henley) knew that in the case of an indictment preferred against the inhabitants of a parish for non-repair, the few simple words of the Court required a very large subsequent expansion on its records; and he (Viscount Ebrington) was acquainted with a case in which that record had not been entered for months afterwards, because it was found necessary to take legal advice as to the manner in which the record should ultimately stand. The Commissioners of Sewers had no other object in view but that of serving the public. They were not sinecurists receiving large salaries; they were a body of gentlemen, almost all of them having other public or private business to attend to; and he was only astonished at the large amount of time they bestowed on the enormous mass of business constantly coming before them. He had already said that the Commission of Sewers was a newly-constituted body acting under a complicated Act—an Act of no fewer than one hundred and forty-six clauses. They had to frame a new set of forms, for they had no precedent under the old law of sewers to guide them. They found the clauses of the Act of Parliament gave them power to do many things; still, it became frequently necessary to take legal advice as to the form in which the final record was to be entered on the minutes. The record of the Court was kept in manuscript; and whenever any delay ensued from the difficulty of ascertaining the shape in which the formal record should be entered, it was found necessary to delay the entry of all subsequent matters also. The consequence was, that in cases where one hundred pages of manuscript had to be inserted from time to time, errors of the sort mentioned by the hon. Baronet were unavoidable, and would necessarily continue to be unavoidable. For instance, requisite notices had to be expanded in a complicated legal form, several pages long. Now, it was not true that minutes were not kept, and carefully kept, of the proceedings of the Commission. The proceedings of the Commission originated in Committee; in the minutes of the Committee were to be found almost invariably all the recommendations on which the proceedings of the Court were founded; and, when these proceedings were agreed upon, the minutes of them were again submitted to the Commissioners for their sanction and verification before they were finally entered in the records, and sealed with the seal of the Commission. Though the entries in the formal Record were still somewhat in arrear, he could state that he had seen, in print, the minutes of the Courts up to the 6th of the present month. It was true that upon the same day when the Report of Mr. Smith upon the Victoria-street sewer was received by the Commissioners, they directed their engineer to inspect the sewer and prepare a report upon it. On the 8th the engineer came to the Committee of the Commissioners, and said he wished to consult them on some points connected with Mr. Smith's Report, and he brought a rough draft with him on the subject. The Committee told him to revise the draft, and said that they could not receive it in its rough state, but that they would receive his Report in its final shape on some future day. He revised it accordingly, and on a subsequent day presented it. The hon. Baronet was, therefore, not justified in saying that the Report obtained by the House was not the Report it had ordered; for long before the 10th of April, when the Order of the House was made, the engineer had been ordered to report by the Commissioners; and quite early in the month, several days before the 8th, he (Visct. Ebrington) had consented that the Report so ordered should be moved for unopposed, and had agreed with the hon. Baronet on the very terms of the Motion. So much, then, for the impropriety, or fraud, or evasion, charged upon the Commissioners with reference to the order of the House. Now, when he interrupted the hon. Baronet respecting the alleged financial position of the Commissioners, he did so on this ground—that the statement did not contain their financial position at present, though it did set forth accurately their financial position at the time of which it bore date. The liabilities were then what they appeared on the face of the papers laid on the table of the House; but at the present moment a very considerable reduction had been made in them, a great part of the rates having been now collected. The expenses of management for the seven former Commissions, during the eleven months of 1847, averaged 6s. 7d. per cent on the rental of the district within their active jurisdiction; and the management expenses of the present Commission during twelve months of the past year had been only 3s. 11d. per cent on the rental of the district under their active jurisdiction. The economical management of the old Westminster Commission had been much praised, and the expenses of their management amounted, in the eleven months of 1847, to 4s. 7d. per cent on the rental of the district under their charge, while the whole expenses of the management over the same area was now, as he had before stated, only 3s. 11d. per cent. They had executed works of drainage at one-fifth less than the expense proposed to be incurred by the old Commission, as ascertained from the estimates they left in the office. The reduction was accomplished by the present Commission executing the drainage in a superior manner. A good deal of the present pressure upon the ratepayers of the expenses of the Commission, had been occasioned by the clumsy legislation of Parliament, and the consequent difficulty of borrowing money for the purpose of diffusing over a series of years the cost of the works in the manner contemplated in the Act. It was true a rate of 6d. in the pound had been levied; but how was it expended? Not in improving fashionable neighbourhoods—for the Commissioners thought that work might safely be postponed a while—but in draining and effecting other sanitary improvements in the wretched localities where the poor dwelt in large numbers. In addition to the comprehensive schemes for the arterial drainage of the metropolis, both north and south of the Thames, which the Commissioners had proposed, and presented to the public since their appointment, they had executed works to the extent of 200,000l. last year; and their drainage had been done at a much less cost per yard than their predecessors had paid. They had nothing to conceal. They invited investigation into their proceedings; and if the hon. Baronet would bring forward a Motion in a fair and tangible shape, and take a vote of that House upon it, they would willingly appeal from the vestry at Marylebone to the British House of Commons.


said, that all that the noble Viscount had stated would not make up for the irregularities in the accounts of the Commission, and the illegality in their proceedings. Nothing that his hon. Friend (Sir Benjamin Hall) had stated was intended to impute improper motives to the members of the board; but he showed, that somehow or other, everything was in confusion, and it was no wonder that the ratepayers of Marylebone were pestering him and others against what they considered a species of robbery. He hoped that the ratepayers would, in consequence of the suggestion which had been made, go and verify the accounts for themselves. He believed that the Victoria sewer had been executed by the Commissioners at more than 50 per cent above the estimate. So much for the economical management of the Board. He hoped the Government would feel it their duty to inquire into the subject.


denied that the minutes were in a state of confusion or arrear; and explained that as to the minutes of the Board, there could be no mistake about them as they were made up to the 6th of the present month; and as to the accounts he could not only state that they were in the best possible order, but that the Government Auditor, an independent authority, had complimented in the highest terms the Commission on the state in which he found them.

Subject dropped.

The House adjourned at a quarter before Eight o'clock till Monday next.