HC Deb 28 April 1865 vol 178 cc1193-203

If the House will favour me with its attention, I will briefly explain on what grounds I move that the Greenock Railway Bill be re-committed. This case is one of first impression, originating in the new practice under the recent Standing Orders of the House on the subject of Private Bills. It is one of some peculiarity. The House is aware that the new Standing Orders require the Referees on Private Bills to make a Report on certain points. One of these points is the sufficiency of the estimates for the works proposed. The Standing Order says that the Referees shall inquire into the engineering details, the sufficiency of the works for the proposed object, and the sufficiency of the estimates for executing the same. Now, the Referees considered these questions, and made a Report to the House, which, unfortunately, was couched in ambiguous terms, which neither found the estimates sufficient nor insufficient. The Report was in these terms—"The Referees consider that the promoters' estimate is vague and unsatisfactory." The House will observe that the finding was ambiguous, and capable of being regarded by the Committee, as either sufficient or as insufficient. After hearing counsel the Committee—which was presided over by the hon. and learned Member for Reading (Sir Francis Goldsmid)—found, in the following terms— That the Report of the Referees on Private Bills has been referred to the Committee, which Report is considered by the Committee as stating the opinion of the Referee that the estimate is not sufficient for the proposed undertaking; and in consequence of said Report the Committee did not proceed to consider the allegations in the preamble, and determined to report that the preamble is not proved to their satisfaction. The parties, therefore, by this preliminary conclusion, were precluded from going into the merits of the Bill. The Bill was rejected and reported against, and unless it be re-committed it is gone. Now, the question for the House to consider is whether the finding of the Referees' Report was a finding that the estimate was insufficient; and I have some reason to believe—of course I have no right to quote the Referees—but I have some reason to believe that if the Committee had communicated with the Referees on this question, they would have been told that it was not intended to convey by that Report to the Committee that the estimate was insufficient; nor did they wish to preclude the Committee from investigating the merits of the case. This matter, therefore, is one on which we are fairly entitled to hear the opinion of the Referees in this House. As far as I understand it, this is more or less a miscarriage of justice, owing to the terms in which the opinion of the Referees was expressed, they not being in exact accordance with the language of the Standing Orders. I do not, therefore, understand why the Committee should have thought fit to prevent the farther progress of the Bill. The consequence is that the parties have not been heard. This, of course, is purely a technical question, and does not relate at all to the merits of the case. And as it is the first point that has arisen under the new state of things, I have thought it advisable to bring the matter under the notice of the House. It is simply a question whether this has been a miscarriage of justice in consequence of the Committee misunderstanding the intention of the Report of the Referees. I observe Gentlemen in the House distinguished Members of the Court of Referees, and, therefore, I hope they will take the opportunity thus afforded them of expressing their intention by this Report, and that the House will take care that through this unfortunate ambiguity injustice is not done to those who promoted this Bill. I now beg to move that the Bill be re-committed to the former Committee.


I beg to second the Motion made by my right hon. Friend. I sincerely hope that some means will be taken to enable the parties to be heard on the merits of this scheme. I should have thought that when a doubt was felt by the Committee as to the intention of the Referees, reference would have been made to them to know their meaning. I think it is a case in which they might and ought to have done that; and if there he any doubt still remaining, I trust the Referees will explain what their intention was.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Greenock Railway Bill be recommitted to the former Committee."—(Mr. Edward Pleydell Bouverie.)


As I was one of the Referees who signed the Report, I will take the liberty of briefly explaining to the House the circumstances adverted to by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. E. P. Bouverie). A practice has crept in among engineers of drawing up their estimates in a very loose, vague, and unsatisfactory manner; and since the establishment of the Court of Referees, it has been determined by us that we will have these estimates more clearly set out. When we came to examine the estimates, we heard a great deal of conflicting evidence on the subject, we were not satisfied that as much care—though as much as the previous practice of Parliament had required—had been exercised on this occasion, as we should in future insist upon; and, therefore, with that view, I and my Colleagues thought it necessary to introduce in the Report the words that the estimates were "vague and unsatisfactory." We should perhaps have said that the principle on which the estimates were framed was "vague and unsatisfactory," or some words to that effect. We were satisfied that though we should not have been justified in declaring that the estimates were "insufficient" for the works contemplated, yet the principle on which they were framed was "vague and unsatisfactory." We also thought it our duty to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that in an estimate of £350,000, on the promoters' own showing there was only left a margin of £5,000. It was under these circumstances that we made the Report containing the expressions which have been read. We were satisfied that the estimate was sufficient, though the principles on which it had been framed were so "vague and unsatisfactory;" and we hoped this would be received as an intimation that greater accuracy ought to be shown, and would in future be required by the Referees.


I wish to say a few words in corroboration of what as just been said by my hon. Colleague. Having shared with him in drawing up this Report, I concur with him in all he has said with regard to the circumstances under which it was drawn up. We considered whether we should not declare the estimate "insufficient," but we had some hesitation in doing that, although there were circumstances to which we thought it proper respectfully to draw the attention of the Committee, so that they might consider the whole question; but nothing was farther from our intention, in drawing up that Report, than that we should altogether debar or preclude the Committee from considering the Bill on its merits.


I have, I confess, been not a little surprised at the Motion which has been made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock. I should certainly not have expected such a Motion to emanate from a Gentleman of so much experience as my right hon. Friend. The right hon. Gentleman says there is great ambiguity in the language used by the Referees. Now, I cannot think so. There appears to me nothing at all ambiguous in the phrase they have employed. The estimate is pronounced by the Referees "vague and unsatisfactory." The Chairman of the Committee, a Gentleman of great experience in such matters, tells us that on the ground of that Report they decided on throwing out the Bill. Are we thus to understand that whenever a Bill has been thrown out because the Referees have reported against it, that the wording of their Report is to be criticized, the merits of the Bill discussed in this House, and Motions made for re-commital? If you agree to such a Motion in this case, where are you to stop? All I can say is, if the terms "vague and unsatisfactory" are not sufficient to indicate that an estimate is insufficient, the terms ought certainly to be applied to the Referees' Report. I think the proposition which has been made by the right hon. Gentleman a most mischievous one, and I shall divide the House against it.


I think what has just been stated by the hon. Member is hardly sufficient to induce the House to reject the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. E. P. Bouverie). The Referees state that the practice of the House had been such that when they came to consider it they thought it unsatisfactory, and ought to be changed. But the present estimate was framed according to the old usage. That is the first thing to be considered. Then, said the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Adair), "We wanted to draw the attention of the Committee to the manner in which the estimates had been framed." Therefore they used words not in accordance with the Standing Order, but in accordance with the fact. Well, what did the Committee do? They did not pay attention to that fact, but they seized on these words, and declared the estimate insufficient. Now that, we are told by two of the Referees, was not their notion, They merely wished to call attention to the matter in hand, saying that they considered that engineers should make their estimates in a more satisfactory manner. Shall we, then, be doing justice if we refuse to recommit this Bill? I think not. In every new system these mistakes must occur every now and then. As things go on, the machinery will work more equably; but in the outset you must expect things of this kind. Let us, when the case is pointed out, put the matter to rights; and I say, after what we have heard from the Referees, we ought to recommit this Bill, and let the Committee determine whether the estimates are or are not sufficient.


Having been Chairman of the Committee to which this Bill was referred, I wish to state, in very few words, what was the view we took of the Report of the Referees, and why I think, as the matter stood, we were perfectly right. I shall then, with the permission of the House, state what course I think ought now to be taken with regard to the Motion of my right hon. Friend, The question of the sufficiency or insufficiency of the estimates was referred to the Referees. It is admitted that if the estimates were found to be insufficient, the Committee ought not to proceed with the Bill. Well, the Report finds that the estimate is "vague and unsatisfactory." The first remark I make upon these terms is this—it cannot possibly be maintained that they are equivalent to saying that the estimate is sufficient. But we are told that the subsequent part of the Report makes it appear, nevertheless, that that was intended. So far as I understand the subsequent part of the Report, it has a contrary bearing. It is well known that in all works of this description unexpected expenses occur, and in order to the suffi- ciency of an estimate, it is necessary to allow a considerable sum for contingencies. But the Referees themselves point out the smallness of the sum. Only £5,000 on an estimate of £350,000 had been left for this purpose. It has been said by my right hon. Friend who made this Motion, and by my hon. Friend who seconded it, that the Committee ought to have communicated with the Referees, that they might have explained the language of their own Report. I think the Committee would have miscarried if they had made such a reference. The Committee thought the Referees had already expressed themselves in intelligible language; the Committee believed, and they acted on the belief, that the Referees meant by the language they had used that the estimates were "insufficient;" and I have not heard anything yet to induce me to think that the House ought to re-commit the Bill. But it is said the Referees only wished to guard against similar errors in future. I think if this Bill be re-committed, it will, in the strongest possible manner, encourage such errors. Such is the view which I myself take of this question. At the same time, if the House should think proper, after the explanation of the Referees, to re-commit the Bill, I am quite sure the Committee will be ready to proceed with the investigation on the merits.


I consider this question entirely a matter of procedure. The promoters of a Bill are virtually on the defensive as regards the sufficiency of the estimate, unless a Bill is opposed on the ground of the insufficiency of the estimates. The opposition to this Bill proceeds only from a rival company; all the landowners on the line are in its favour, and the important town of Greenock, where it originates, also strongly support it. I think the House will not be inclined to draw the rule with extraordinary strictness for the sake of defeating such a Bill. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Adair) has stated that he did not think the Referees would have been justified in absolutely certifying the sufficiency of the estimates; but neither did they endorse the opinion of the opponents of the Bill by declaring them to be insufficient. I shall support the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman.


I consider such miscarriages of justice exceedingly likely to arise in the working of new machinery; and the House can well afford not to be too strict in enforcing the rule, which it may be well hereafter to enforce with the greatest strictness. Still, if I had presided over the Committee, I should have taken precisely the same course, and probably I should not have troubled myself to explain any ambiguity in the language employed. I should have considered it enough that the Report did not certify the sufficiency of the estimate. But unless the Reports of the Referees are decided yes or no, they will not answer the purpose for which they are required. I shall vote for the Motion.


Unless the Referees stated positively that the estimate was insufficient the Committee were bound to go into the consideration of the Bill on its merits. This being the case I think the House ought to re-commit the Bill.


I think it is desirable to know how matters stand in reference to the Standing Orders of the House, especially as a very serious question is raised by the Motion of the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock. The duty of inquiring into the sufficiency of the estimates in connection with works proposed to be undertaken by the promoters of a Private Bill is a duty thrown by this House upon the official Referees. I take it, that when the Referees have given their decision, no further reference is to be taken by the Committee to disprove the facts which have been reported by the Referees. The meaning of this is, that after the official Referees have inquired into the sufficiency or insufficiency of the estimates, the question of the sufficiency of the estimates is not to be inquired into by the Committee to whom the Bill is referred. If, therefore, the House decides now upon referring the Bill back again to the same Select Committee by whom it has already been considered, the Committee will assuredly feel themselves bound to abide by the Standing Orders which have already regulated their proceedings, and they will at once say that they have no power whatever to enter into the question of the sufficiency of the estimates. The result will be that there will still be no Report as to the sufficiency of the estimates in regard to the works proposed to be undertaken. As I the case stands at present, the estimates have been declared "vague and unsatisfactory," and if the question is referred back again to the same Committee, I do not sec what different result can be arrived at.


A question has arrisen whether the estimates are suffi- cient or not. The Referees say that the evidence is "vague and unsatisfactory," and I hope that the House will support the Report of the Referees. As a question connected with the conduct of private business of the House, I think that the Report of the Referees is now on its trial, and that it ought to be supported. If the matter had been decided in the first instance by the Committee to whom the Bill is referred, their decision would be regarded as conclusive, and would not have been challenged, because the House invariably supports the decisions of its Committees. The effect of this is most salutary, inasmuch as it prevents disputes after the decision of a Committee has once been given in regard to the preamble of a Bill. Unfortunately the decision of the Referees is not final, but the question has still to go before a Committee; and as a considerable interval elapses between the decision of the Referees being made public and being considered by the Committee, any person feeling aggrieved by the Report of the Referees has an opportunity of getting up a case against their decision. I think it is of great importance that the Report of the Referees should be supported.


I hope the House will take care what it does on this subject. The Court of Referees when first established was not received well by the public, but since it has been in action it has gradually won their favour. If, however, a stone is to be thrown by this House at their decisions, what is to become of the public out of doors? As I understand, by the rules of the House the Referees are required to take into their consideration the question of the sufficiency or insufficiency of the estimates. It is true in this case that they have not reported that the estimates are insufficient, hut they have used a term quite equal to it; and in that case, I think, after the explanation that has been given, that the Committee to whom the question was referred has acted most consistently and properly. I must express a hope, that this being a new Court, we should not now, by an adverse decision, with regard to the judgment of the Referees, call into question a Court which we ourselves have created, and which I believe is gradually obtaining the confidence of the House and the public.


The hon. Member who has last spoken seems to imply that the Referees have pronounced a decided opinion, whereas the real truth of the matter is, the Referees came to no decision on the question at all. The hon. and learned Member for Guildford (Mr. Bovill) has quoted the Standing Order; but if the House will refer to the wording of that Standing Order, they will find that the Referees are to decide whether the estimates are sufficient or insufficient. They have not done so in this case. All they say is, that the estimates are vague and unsatisfactory, which is a very different thing. I think the House ought to proceed in strict accordance with the letter of the Standing Order, and if they do that, there can be no difficulty in allowing this Bill to be re-committed.


I think it would be a very unfortunate custom if it should become the habit of the House lightly to re-commit Bills reported upon adversely by the Referees or rejected by Committees; but, at the same time, the House must be very careful that they do not in some exceptional cases do any act of injustice, which will fall somewhat hardly on the promoters of Private Bills. In this case I have no doubt the Referees reported accurately that the estimates were made out in a vague and unsatisfactory manner; but, at the same time, they certainly do not report that the estimates are insufficient. That Report from the Referees went before the Committee appointed to inquire into the merits of the Bill, and construing it in the strictest manner, the Committee threw out the Bill. We have now heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich, who was Chairman of the Referees, and who signed the Report on their behalf, that it was not the intention of the Referees to convey to the Committee an opinion that the estimates were insufficient. Under these circumstances, I think the House would do well to allow the Bill to be re-committed. The hon. and learned Member for Guildford (Mr. Bovill) asks how the Committee are to deal with the subject of the insufficiency of the estimates after it had already been dealt with by the Referees; and he has called our attention to Standing Order No. 91, arguing from that that the Committee have no further powers to inquire into the matter; but if the learned Member would look at the next Standing Order, No. 92, he would see that any Select Committee to which a Bill is referred, may, subject to the approval of the Chairman of Ways and Means, remit any question arising in this way back again to the Re- ferees. Under all circumstances, I think the proper course in this case will, be to allow the Bill to be re-committed, there being a power given to the Committee to refer back to the Referees their Report on any subject on which they may require information.


I wish that the hon. Member the Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Dodson) had addressed himself to answering the question which was asked by the hon. and learned Member for Guildford (Mr. Bovill), which really lies at the root of the matter. The Motion before the House is to re-commit this Bill in order that it shall be referred back to the Referees upon the question of estimates. Now, no one pretends to say that the Report of the Referees holds out the slightest impression that the estimates are sufficient. The language of the Report, equivocal as it may be, is clear upon that point. We come, then, to the question of the Standing Orders, and if this Bill is to go back to the Committee, what course are they to take?—because, as I understand the effect of the Standing Orders, it is not within the scope of the powers of the Committee to go into the question whether the estimates are sufficient. If that is really so, and they cannot go into the question of the sufficiency of the estimates, the whole subject must again come before us for our decision; and we should then have to declare, upon the vague statement of the Referees, whether the estimates are sufficient or not. The Chairman of Ways and Means says very properly that this is a special case; but I doubt whether we should not be laying down a worse precedent by sending this case back to the Committee, who would be unable by the Standing Orders to go into the question whether the estimates are sufficient or not, than by letting the Bill stand over for a year, and affording time for the estimates to be laid before us in a proper form. If the Motion goes to a division, I shall certainly vote against the proposition of the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock.


I think that the right hon. Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley) could scarcely have heard what I said, or he would not have made the observations which he has addressed to the House. All I did was to point out that Standing Order No. 92 gives power to refer back to the Referees any question arising out of their Report upon which the Committee may entertain a doubt.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Greenock Railway Bill be re-committed to the former Committee."

The House divided:—Ayes 110; Noes 76: Majority 34.