HC Deb 14 February 1865 vol 177 cc231-4

asked Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Is it the intention of the Government to institute any and what inquiry into our Railway system, with a view to future legislation, should such legislation appear practicable and advantageous? He was, by the rules of the House, prevented from making any observations, but as the right hon. Gentleman understood the object of his Question, he hoped that he would give a definite reply to it.


Sir, I am quite aware of the object of the lion, and learned Gentleman in asking this Question, and I will endeavour to give him a reply which shall be so perfectly definite as to admit of no misunderstanding as to the intentions of Her Majesty's Government, either on the part of the House or of the public. It is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to advise the Crown to appoint a Commission to inquire into the economical questions connected with our railway system—that is to say, into the cost of conveyance upon railways, and into the charges which are made by railway companies to the public. It is not their intention to take any step which could under any circumstances at all compromise or commit cither ourselves or Parliament with reference to any legislation upon a matter of this vast importance. The whole object of the measure that they propose to take is, to bring all the facts and information bearing upon the subject into a state in which it may be thoroughly available for Members of Parliament, and likewise for the public at large. Every one is quite aware that railway conveyance has now become one of the vital instruments by means of which the whole traffic and intercourse of this country are carried on, and, in point of fact, that it is the principal one among those instruments. Further, I think they are aware that the benefits derived by the country from the railway system have been in their own sphere immeasurable; and, of course, they are likewise aware that there are various difficulties which are found to exist in the application of the laws bearing upon the subject. For instance, that which is known as the provision for equal treatment under equal circumstances, is a matter which necessarily, and without the slightest blame to anyone, is full of difficulty in its application. It is known to Members of this House, and it is well known to Members of Her Majesty's Government, that a great feeling and a great anxiety exists among the productive classes of the community, not so much to the effect that any blame is attributable to the managers of railway companies, whose duty of course it is to obtain the best dividends they can for their shareholders, but rather in the shape of a desire to be informed whether it is possible, by any means that might be suggested, to effect a still further extension of those benefits which have up to this time been proved to be of such vital importance to the community. Therefore, I beg that it may be understood that it is not the intention of Her Majesty's Government to advise the appointment of any Commission that shall enter upon any question of policy. We are of opinion that if we were to do so we should be, if not prejudging the opinion of Parliament, in some degree by extraneous instruments trespassing upon ground which belongs to Parliament. It is simply into the economical facts of the case and the benefits that we should derive that any such commission should be authorized to inquire. We, of course, have taken into our consideration the question whether it would be desirable that this inquiry should be conducted by a Royal Commission or by a Committee of this House. If we were going to inquire into any matter of policy it would, undoubtedly, be far more useful to institute that inquiry by means of a Committee of this House than by means of a Commission. But we do not entertain any such intention. On the other hand, we have to take into account that the investigation of the charges and cost of railway conveyance, especially as regards the carriage of goods and minerals, is a subject so vast and so intricate, requiring such minute examination and such close application, that it would not be possible to expect of Members of this House, charged as they are with other duties, such devotion. Indeed, I doubt very much whether the limits of the Session would permit such devotion to it as would enable the inquiry to be conducted to a satisfactory conclusion. For these reasons we have determined upon giving the advice I have mentioned; and I hope that in a few days—at all events, in a very short time—I may be able to lay upon the table the terms of the Commission which it is our intention to advise Her Majesty to issue. In it hon. Gentlemen will find defined with accuracy and precision the purely economical nature of the inquiry.


The right hon. Gentleman says he will confine the inquiry to the conveyance of goods and passengers. I would suggest to him that it would be well to extend the area of the Commission so as to investigate into the circumstances which lead to the creation of railways.


I understand that my right hon. Friend proposes to lay the terms of the Commission upon the table. Might it not be advantageous both to the Government and the House, and also to the community, that he should move an Address to the Crown for the appointment of a Commission, so as to give him an opportunity of either adding to or modifying the terms which he may lay upon the table?

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