§ Order for Consideration read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be ordered to be read the third time."
§ MR. ALGERNON EGERTON
said, the question involved in this, and in the North British Railway (Steamboats) Bill, and the Morayshire Railway Bill, was whether railway proprietors should become proprietors of steamboats, and that was a matter which ought rather to be dealt with by a general Act, assented to by the whole House after mature deliberation, than by a Private Bill Committee, and he therefore would suggest that the consideration of the subject be postponed to next Session. Parliament had always shown itself jealous in granting powers of that nature to railway companies. This was a question of public policy; the sea traffic stood upon a totally different footing from inland traffic, and ought to be open to the freest competition. The reason why Parliament gave monopolies to railway companies was that otherwise railways could not be worked without 859 danger to the lives of passengers. He begged to move that this Bill, as amended, be considered on this day two months.
To leave out from the word "be" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "taken into Consideration upon this day two months,"—(Mr. Algernon Egerton,)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
objected to the attempt made by this Motion to defeat Bills which had already successfully passed the ordeal of opposition before Committees of both Houses of Parliament. He opposed the Amendment, moreover, on the ground that there were several instances in which Parliament had given such powers as were now asked to railway companies—for example, in the case of the London and North Western and Chester and Holyhead Companies, and the London, Chatham, and Dover Company. The opposition to the Bill was twofold—first, from the General Steam Navigation Company; and secondly, from the Chairman of the Committee of the House, who was endeavouring to overthrow the decision to which his own Committee had come. Why should the General Steam Navigation Company be allowed to have a monopoly? He hoped the House would not set aside the decision to which the Committee had come.
said, as a general rule, the House did well to abide by the decision of their Committees, but this was not a mere question of detail or of evidence, but of general and national importance. The House, however, from time to time asserted its controlling powers over the decisions of its Committees, and, unless he had been misinformed, there were peculiar reasons for doing so in this case; because it was laid down in the Standing Orders, that, as a general rule, railway companies should not have the power of running steamers. If railway companies were allowed to have the powers sought for in the present instance, they would be able to establish a complete monopoly; for a company having 200 miles of railway traffic and twenty miles of sea traffic might choose to work the sea traffic not only without profit, but at an absolute loss, for the purpose of driving away competition; and when once that object was accomplish- 860 ed, it was not to be supposed that the low fares would be continued. The same arguments as were put forward to justify the present Bill would justify a railway company in engaging in a mining or any other private speculation; and as the question was one on which Parliament should pronounce a deliberate opinion, he thought that the best way of proceeding was to suspend a decision for the present, for the purpose of afterwards referring the subject to a Select Committee, before which evidence could be taken.
§ MR. WOODD
said, that the hon. and gallant Member for Harwich (Captain Jervis) was mistaken in supposing that he, as Chairman of the Committee on the Bill, had anything to do with the present opposition to the measure. At the same time, he thought the question well worthy of the consideration of the House, as up to the present time the principle had always been maintained that railway companies should not have steamboat powers, unless the water passage was in the nature of a ferry. If the House conceded the powers to the Companies in the present instances, they could not refuse like powers to other Companies; and thus the formal decision of the House would be set aside by the decision of its Committee. He regretted that this opposition should have been raised at this stage of the Bill; but, as Chairman of the Select Committee, he thought he should be discharging his duty in opposing the further progress of the measure.
§ MR. MILNER GIBSON
observed, that there were precedents for granting the powers sought for in the present instance; and as the companies had a perfect right to ask for these powers to be given to them, and the Committee had reported that they might be given, he thought they ought to be given, unless it could be shown that some great public mischief would arise from conceding them. In this particular case he thought it would be very unjust to throw the Bill over to another Session. By agreeing to the Bill the House would not sanction or introduce any new principle—they would simply say that that in these cases these powers might be given. As far as he was aware, the Bill scarcely raised the question as between railway companies and steamboat companies. The Great Eastern Railway Company desired to start steamboats from Harwich to Rotterdam, between which places private enterprise had not yet provided steamboat accommodation; and it 861 would be a great convenience to the agriculturists and inhabitants of the district about Harwich, and in accordance with the Report of the Select Committee, if the present Bill was allowed to pass, establishing that steamboat accommodation, which was not likely to be established otherwise. Formerly there was a great objection to permit railway companies to have steamships, as at that time steam vessels could not be conducted by persons having the advantage of limited liability, which incorporated railway companies enjoyed; but that objection no longer existed, as all companies consisting of a certain number of shareholders could now obtain the power of trading with limited liability.
§ SIR HUGH CAIRNS
said, that if this Bill was passed into law, the House would be prevented at a future time from considering the general principle. Hitherto steamboat powers had never been granted to railway companies save in exceptional cases, where there was what could be deemed a ferry. It was obvious that a railway company could convert such powers into a most unjust monopoly, and drive all other competitors off the line. As to the injustice to the promoters of rejecting these Bills on the third reading, the fact was that such a step could scarcely be taken at an earlier stage. Any opposition on the second reading would at once have been met by the answer that there were exceptional circumstances in the case, which ought to be considered by a Committee. A Standing Order of the House distinctly laid it down that no measure of this kind should be agreed to unless the Committee reported the special facts and reasons which led them to believe it ought to be passed. Now, in the case of the Great Eastern and the two following Bills, the Committee had reported only that in their opinion the Bills ought to be sanctioned, but had stated no facts or reasons in support of that view. He put it to Mr. Speaker whether, under these circumstances, the Standing Orders had been complied with?
§ MR. CRAWFORD
concurred in the reasons so well stated by the hon. and learned Gentleman why the House should not assent to the third reading of this Bill. It was true that power to run steamboats had already been given to railway companies; but experience in those cases, if it proved anything, showed that the House should carefully avoid granting similar 862 powers in future. If the Great Eastern Company were to be allowed to run steamboats to Flushing and Antwerp, there was no reason why they should not be permitted to open steam communication with Hamburg; or why the Great Western, which had a station at Falmouth, should not send steamboats to Vigo and Lisbon.
§ MR. MASSEY
agreed with the noble Lord the Member for Lynn (Lord Stanley) that this Bill involved a question of public policy, and one which should not be determined in a discussion on the merits of a private Bill. If power were granted to enormous and ambitious railway companies to conduct sea traffic, the immediate and ultimate consequence must be that all the independent steam companies would be driven off the ocean. The possession of steamboat powers must be followed by pier and harbour powers, and thus a gigantic monopoly would be erected, against which Parliament, if it wished to retrace its steps in future years, would find it vain to contend. It had been said that it was hard that Harwich should be excluded from the benefits which this Bill would confer; but, on the other hand, if the effect of this measure would be to throw a monopoly into the hands of the Great Eastern Company, and to drive from navigable waters independent steamboat companies, it would be very hard that persons who desired to go to Rotterdam should be obliged to pass through Harwich. The House had also been told that it was hard upon the promoters of this Bill who had been heard before two Committees, and obtained the sanction of both, that they should be defeated at the last stage; but, so far as that House was concerned, he agreed with the hon. and learned Member for Belfast (Sir Hugh Cairns) that it was certainly not to blame. The Bill originated in the other House, where there was no such Standing Order as existed here, and the Great Eastern Company well knew that they were promoting a Bill which was contrary to the policy expressed in the Standing Order of the House of Commons. It was consequently incumbent on them to establish an exceptional case, such as would warrant a Committee in recommending the House to pass the Bill as one not coming within the scope of its Standing Order. But what had the Committee done? Instead of reporting facts, they had only reported their opinion; and the House had no knowledge of those things which it was the intention of the Standing Order 863 to put them in possession of. The Committee had not stated intelligible and sufficient reasons for their decision, and consequently he thought the promoters were not entitled to complain if the House refused to pass their Bill. In conclusion, he had only to add that in his opinion it was most desirable that the House should consider the general question of permitting railway companies to run steamboats, and should lay down some clear and intelligible principle for the guidance of private Committees.
thought it was quite evident that the Standing Order had not been observed in this case. It clearly laid down that powers should not be given to a railway company to run steamboats except upon a special case shown. Now, he had seen the Report of the Committee, and it was in such general terms that nobody could say there were any special grounds assigned at all. The House had not heard a single fact, and it was consequently not in a condition to determine whether the Committee had come to a right conclusion or not. If the President of the Board of Trade thought that the Standing Order ought to be repealed, he should ask the House to repeal it as a matter of general principle, but here he sought to do so by a particular and exceptional case.
§ MR. COBBOLD
said, that it would be a harsh proceeding towards the promoters of the Bill if, on account of some error of the Committee, the House were to reject the Bill at this stage. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxfordshire wished to know what special reason there was for the Great Eastern Company asking for powers to establish a steamboat communication with the Continent, his answer was that the company could not obtain at Harwich the means of speedy communication with the Continent. The company could not induce steamboat companies to put on boats to run to the Continent from that port.
§ MR. MALINS
thought it a matter of public policy to have a route of six or seven hours instead of one of twenty-five or twenty-six hours, and hoped that that object would not be defeated on a mere technical 864 ground, for which the promoters were not responsible.
SIR HERVEY BRUCE
, as a Member of the Committee, said, that they had intended to comply with the Standing Order in recommending this Bill to adoption by the House. A precedent for this Bill was to be found in the Bill of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company. That measure was found to contain powers which it ought not to have contained, and they had been struck out; but the House still left in it a power of running steamers from Dover.
§ MR. HASSARD
said, that a Committee of which he was a Member last year had this project of steamboats, in connection with the Great Eastern Railway Company, before them, and had rejected it.
§ MR. SPEAKER
As a question on a point of Order has been put to me, I think it my duty to reply to it. If the House will allow me to read the Standing Order which has been referred to, I have a very strong belief that when I have done so there will be very little difference of opinion in the House with regard to its interpretation. The Standing Order is in these terms—No railway company shall be authorized to construct, or enlarge, purchase, or take on lease, or otherwise appropriate any dock, pier, harbour, or ferry; or to acquire and use any steam vessels for the conveyance of goods and passengers, or to apply any portion of their capital or revenue to other objects distinct from the undertaking of a railway company, unless the Committee on the Bill report that such a restriction ought not to be enforced, with the reasons and facts on which their opinion is founded.The public policy of the House is strongly described by the language in the first part of the Standing Order; and it is not to be departed from, except on conditions, which are also specially described. It is impossible for me to say otherwise than that, in my opinion, those conditions in this case have not been fulfilled. Therefore, this Standing Order has not been complied with. It is now for the House to consider in what way substantial justice in their own view can best be accomplished, and in what manner they should deal with these Bills. It is in the power of the House, if they think right, to reject these Bills, or refer them back to the Committee, with an Instruction that they should report the 865 special facts and evidence on which their recommendation rests.
§ COLONEL WILSON PATTEN
observed, that as his noble Friend the Member for Lynn (Lord Stanley) and his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Belfast (Sir Hugh Cairns) had already spoken, and could not speak again, he had their authority for stating that they thought the proposition laid down from the Chair was so reasonable—that the Bills should be referred back to the Committee, with an Instruction to state the reasons of their decision—that they were quite ready to acquiesce in it.
§ Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill re-committed to the former Committee.
Instruction to the Committee,
That they do report, in compliance with Standing Order No. 140, the reasons and facts upon which their opinion, that the restriction as to the acquisition and use of Steam Vessels ought not to be enforced, was founded.—(Mr. Richard Hodgson.)
§ Leave given to the Committee to sit and proceed To-morrow, at Twelve of the clock.