§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. CRAWFORD
Sir, in rising to move the second reading of this Bill, I am about to take what I am afraid some hon. Members of the House will consider to be a great liberty. I am going to ask them to proceed to the consideration of this Bill with their minds free and unbiased by the influences which have been endeavoured to be brought to bear upon them by the various letters and circulars, the button-holdings, the ear-wiggings, and the various other methods by which parties interested in Private Bills endeavour to influence the minds of Members. I will ask hon. Members to do that which their Chaplain every day expresses the devout wish they may be able to do—namely, that they will" lay aside private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, "and proceed to the consideration of this Bill, as a Bill which intimately affects the interests, the comforts, and the well-being of 3,000,000 of people. Now, Sir, my own position in reference to this matter is not a very enviable one, because I have on the one hand the corporation of the City of London, representing by the process of annual election a great civic community, requesting me to bring in this Bill, and to move its second reading, and, on the other hand, I have amongst my constituents a vast number of gentlemen interested in gas companies, whose interests I am bound not to disregard. But, Sir, I am not one of those persons who neglect a duty, and I have, indeed, considered it a part of my duty to wade through the whole of the letters and publications that have been sent to me upon this subject. I have 1598 read every one of them. I have read the whole of the gas companies accounts; I have also made myself master, so far as I am able, of the Gas Clauses Act of 1847, and the Metropolis Gas Act of 1860, and having done so, I have come to the conclusion that the question of the gas supply of the City of London, and not of the City alone, but of the whole metropolis, is one eminently deserving investigation at the hands of the House. Now, Sir, amongst the number of Gas Bills before the House in the present Session, the Bill of the City of London especially comprehends in its preamble the various points at issue between the consumers and the suppliers of gas, and presents a favourable opportunity for bringing this question under the notice of the House; and it is because I wish that the question may be fairly settled, that the interests, not only of the consumers of gas in the City of London, but those of the whole metropolis, should be considered, that I have placed upon the Paper a notice of a Motion that I shall make, in the event of this Bill obtaining a second reading. I have no desire to occupy the time of the House by going into a long history of gas legislation. It may be sufficient for me to say, that so far as the City of London is concerned, it was supplied until a recent period by two companies, the Chartered Company and the City of London Gas Light and Coke Company; and, in the year 1823, the City was, to use that singular word, "districted," upon the representation of Sir William Congreve. At that time the price of gas was 15s. per 1,000 feet, and the price of lighting the public lamps was five guineas each per annum. In the course of years some reduction in the price of gas was effected. By 1844 it had been reduced to 7s. per 1,000 feet, and to four guineas per lamp to the public. A further reduction was attempted shortly after; but about 1847 public attention was much excited upon the subject. The corporation of London taking part, as they always had done, and properly so, in aiding the inhabitants of the City, endeavoured to procure the establishment of a separate company to enter into competition for the supply of gas in the City with the two companies which I have named. They, of course, met with vast opposition, and for two years the company, which now goes by the name of the Great Central Gas Consumers' Company, failed in obtaining its Bill; but in the year 1851 the Great Central Gas Consumers' Company entered 1599 into an agreement with the City, by which they bound themselves, under covenant, that in the event of the Act being obtained, they would come into an arrangement by which the price of gas should never be more than 4s. per 1,000 feet; that it should be reduced to 3s. 6d., and subsequently to 3s., in the event of their sale of gas being sufficiently large to enable them to pay to the shareholders a dividend of 10 per cent. Parliament gave its sanction to that Bill, and the consequence was immediately manifest. The price of gas was reduced to 4s. per 1,000 feet, and the price of the public lamps, which was originally at five guineas, was reduced to £2 9s. 6d. But at a later period, about 1857, the public discontent in the metropolis generally about the supply of gas and the price of gas became very great, the gas companies at that time having come to an understanding among themselves about districting the metropolitan area, which, in point of fact, would enable them to supply gas on their own terms. In the years 1858 and 1859, Committees of this House investigated the question, and, as the result, the Metropolis Gas Act, 1860, was passed, by which, and by the Gas Clauses Act of 1847, the whole question of the gas supply, manufacture, and sale, is now regulated. The City was advised by its law officers that the measures contemplated by the promoters of that Bill would not affect them. They, therefore, took no part whatever in the agitation; but after the Bill had become law, they found upon an appeal to a court of law that they were subject to the law, and that the effect of the law was to annul the understanding which had been entered into between the City and the Great Central Gas Consumers' Company. The consequence of this was that the Great Central Gas Consumers' Company, which had been brought out under the fostering wing of the corporation of London, confederated with the other gas companies, and the price of gas was immediately raised to 4s. 6d. per 1,000 feet, and the price of the public lamps was increased, until two months ago, to £5 9s. 6d. per lamp, against the £2 9s. 6d. per lamp in the year 1853. The effect of this upon the interests of the inhabitants of the City may be well conceived: competition was dead; the gas companies supplied such gas as they chose, and at such prices as they pleased. That state of things continued until a recent period—the gas consumers always complaining, and the 1600 corporation always trying to do something on their behalf. In consequence of the attention directed to the subject, the corporation of London gave notice last year that they would introduce a Bill for the purpose of manufacturing gas on behalf of the citizens for their own use. That, in fact, is the Bill now before the House. The application to Parliament for that Bill was a matter of necessity to the corporation, representing, as I have before stated, the ratepayers and the gas consumers of the City. The City finding itself in this position, invited the chairmen of the various gas companies to confer with them. They came—they had a long conference; but the end of it was this: the City on the one hand objected to the quality of the gas, and the quantity of the gas, and the price charged for it; the gas companies, on the other hand, assigned reasons why it was impossible for them at that time to comply with the demands made upon them, but promised, after an indefinite time, that the price of gas should be reduced. The result of the conference was so unsatisfactory to the corporation of London, that they gave notice of the Bill now before the House. Now, Sir, upon the merits of the Bill itself, it is objected to upon various grounds. In the first place, it is said to be an irregular and an improper thing that the corporation should undertake the sale of an article like gas. My answer to that is, that the principle has been admitted by Parliament, and that in many cities and towns throughout the country gas and water are supplied by the corporations of those towns, to the great benefit of the ratepayers and inhabitants; and, I believe, that in those instances where it has been carried out on a large scale, and notably at Manchester, great advantage has been derived from that practice. But, Sir, I am told that the Act of 1860 was a settlement of the question. Well, Sir, I have yet to learn that any Act of Parliament is a settlement of a question. It is as competent for the House to re-consider what it has done at any time, on cause shown, as it is to pass an Act de novo. But the point which I wish to come to is this—that the gas companies are bound by that statute to make an annual report to Parliament of the state of their affairs. They have done so. The accounts of all the gas companies, their capital, their receipts, their expenditure and their division of profits are all presented to Parliament, and are to be found on the Library of the 1601 House. Well, the view that I take of the filing of these accounts on the Records of the House is this, that those accounts are intended to be examined by the House, and upon the accounts so rendered the gas companies are to be held answerable to us. It is for that reason that I have ventured to suggest, that in the event of this Bill being read a second time the inquiry should be extended to the whole metropolis, in order to enable Parliament to see that the gas companies have complied with the requirements of the Act of 1860, which compels them to supply gas of a proper quality and quantity, so that their profits shall not exceed 10 per cent, I have examined into the accounts of two of these companies. I will take the case of the Great Central Gas Consumers' Company, because it is one of the companies with which the City has to deal, and I find that in the year 1864 this company was not only dividing the sum of 10 per cent upon its capital, but it also laid by a considerable amount. I find that in the year 1864 the gross profits of this company were £47,428 I that they divided 10 per cent. upon their capital of £ 185,400; that they paid themselves a further sum of £11,781 as arrears of dividends due upon former years, and that they carried to a separate account, to the next year's account, a further sum of £17.017, that is to say, that whereas £18,000 was applied to the purpose of paying their dividend of 10 per cent, that they carried two sums, one of £11,000 and the other of £17,000 over and above that amount to other accounts. Now, Sir, the other case to which I will call the attention of the House is that of the Imperial Gaslight Company. That company is possessed of a capital, according to their last returns, of £1,235,000; they have also another item of capital which, I think, requires some investigation. They have £130,000 of what they state to be proprietors' 10 per cent bonds; but as those bonds figure in the accounts, as taking the place of capitalized profits of former years, I take it that these bonds represent the surplus profit of former years, for which nominal bonds have been granted to the shareholders. This increases the amount of capital on which 10 per cent is fairly payable. In the year 1844 this company made a gross profit, in round numbers, of £560,000. Out of this large sum they paid a dividend to their shareholders of 10 per cent on the capital stock. They, of course, paid all their charges. They paid 1602 all the interest on their borrowed money. They paid to the proprietors 10 per cent upon their capital, but upon another portion, their proprietors' bonds, they paid £26,000, that is to say, upon that last portion of their capital they paid 20 per cent. Besides that, they credited £42,570 to their contingent and reserved fund, which has now £90,000 in all at its credit. Now, Sir, the proposition that I venture to lay down is this—that in this particular case the Imperial Gaslight Company has made profits largely in excess of 10 per cent, and that the public are not benefited, as it was the intention of the Legislature the public should be benefited, by the diminution in the price of gas. I do not mean to say that the directors and other officers of these establishments are in any way chargeable with fraud, or with any colouring of their accounts; I believe that they simply take a different view of the operation of the Act of Parliament to what other persons do. It is for that reason, having these accounts now before us, that I am anxious that the gas proprietors themselves should he afforded on opportunity to have the affairs of their companies brought up for examination before a Committee of this House. I cannot conceive that the gas proprietors can decline this; if they are right, if their accounts have been properly framed, and submitted in the proper form to Parliament; if they have not divided more than they ought to have done, then the case of the City corporation, now before Parliament, falls to the ground, But if, on the other hand, they can be shown to have divided more I profits than they ought to have done, then I say that the corporation of the City of London is justified in coming before Parliament with a Bill to supply the City with gas. There is one point more upon which I should like to say a word. Amongst the companies now before Parliament is a company asking powers from Parliament to erect new works at Hackney Wick, at a cost of £300,000, which they allege to be undivided profits. Now, surely, if the statement which is made in this paper is correct—if this company is coming to Parliament to ask for powers to capitalize £300,000 of undivided profits, in addition to money which they are authorized to raise by their Act of Parliament, it stands to reason that the company must have been charging more during the last few years than they are justified in doing, according to the provisions of the Act of I860. In 1603 the ease of these two companies, which are connected with the City, application has been made to Parliament already for permission to lay out a further sum of £1,000,000 sterling. The corporation of London does not ask to supersede the gas companies, but what the corporation of London asks for is this: they Bay, we find that we cannot bring these 'companies to reason, and the only way in which we can protect the interests of our constituents is by asking Parliament for leave to compete with them, and it cannot be said, if the City is permitted to take up the ground which these companies are now seeking to take up, that the City is in anyway superseding the gas companies. Now, Sir, I hope I have said enough to convince the House that the question of gas is a large question, affecting the interests of the inhabitants of the metropolis; and, as far as the Act of 1860 is concerned, there is primâ facie evidence that the gas companies have not acted in the spirit in which that Act was framed, and that the time has come when an inquiry should take place into the operation of that Act, and for that reason, after the Bill has been read a second time, I shall move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee. A Select Committee of the character I propose has this advantage, that whereas it is not usual in an inquiry before an ordinary Committee to hear parties by counsel, in this particular case the parties interested either for or against in these Bills would be allowed to appear and be represented by counsel before that Committee, so that there would be a thorough and, I should hope, an impartial investigation into the subject. Sir, for these reasons I trust that the House will allow this Bill to be read a second time.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the second time."—(Mr. Crawford.)
said: Sir, I should not have ventured to intrude on the House upon this subject, but for this special reason, that I was on the Committee of which Mr. Sotheron Estcourt was Chairman in 1860, and, in his absence from the House, I feel bound to say a word or two which I do with great reluctance, because my leanings are decidedly in this direction —that, if it be possible, there should be some mode of dealing with these gas companies. I do not think that they treat the public fairly. If there is one thing more important even than to provide against 1604 the effects of monopoly, it is the maintenance of the public faith in the House of Commons. What seems to me a matter of extreme importance is, that whatever we do in connection with commercial undertakings, when we hold out prospects by which persons are induced to become connected with commercial undertakings, we should observe the most scrupulous good faith. Now, Sir, this Committee of Mr. Sotheron Estcourt's sat during the greater part of the Session of 1860. After a great deal of dissension and a great deal of conflict, a settlement was arrived at, and that settlement was this—that various parts of London should be, as the phrase is, districted, that is to say, that they should be marked out as, so to speak, the gas property of these respected companies. [Cries of "Hear!"and "Oh, oh!"] I beg hon. Members who cheer to hear the view that was entertained by the Committee. Certain rigid conditions were imposed upon these Companies as to the amount of illumination that was required of them, and that it should be provided also in accordance with the General Act for all gas companies that after they had divided 10 per cent, and paid up back dividends for a certain limited number of years, I think it was six, and had also provided for the thorough efficiency of their works; that all surplus profit was to be divided to the benefit of the consumer. Well now, as I understand from the hon. Gentleman opposite, his case is, that these conditions have not been complied with, and if the matter had rested there, and he were able to substantiate a primâ, facie case of that kind, I should not have a word to say against the second reading of the Bill. But my objection is that he has gone to the wrong tribunal. The Committee of 1860 was careful to provide a remedy more easy than an appeal to Parliament in order that the gas consumers might have justice done to them, and they inserted a clause in the Bill of a very peculiar character, and I trust that I may invite the attention of the House to it—The limits of each of the said companies shall be the respective districts supplied with gas by such companies as the same are defined upon four duplicate maps signed by the right hon. Thomas Henry Sutton Sotheron Estcourt, and which maps have been severally deposited with the respective Clerks of the Peace for the counties of Middlesex, London, Surrey and Kent.Then it proceeds—Provided that at the expiration of three years next after the passing of this Act, and of every three years thereafter, Her Majesty's Principal 1605 Secretary of State for the Home Department for the time being may, cither upon the application and with the consent of any two or more of the said gas companies whose districts adjoin one another, make any alteration in the boundaries of such districts, or upon the application of any local authority, or upon the requisition of not less than twenty gas consumers within any district or districts proposed to be affected, and upon proof to his satisfaction being given that any of the said gas companies are not in a condition adequately to supply with gas their respective districts, or have substantially failed to fulfil the obligations imposed by this Act, may make such alterations in the boundaries of such districts or admit any new company respectively, as he thinks proper,Now, Sir, I want to ask if the corporation of London have adopted that remedy pro vided for them by Parliament? and I would submit that if instead of going to the Secretary of State, as they are bound to do, they have come with a Private Bill before this House, this House is bound, in respect of the provisions which this Act contains, to have recourse to the remedy provided by law, and when that remedy has failed, and not till then, the parties may come to the House of Commons. Sir, I move that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.
§ MR. ADAIR
Sir, I have risen to second the Motion of the noble Lord, whose very lucid explanation of the circumstances which led to the Gas Act of 1860, renders it unnecessary for me to make any observation upon the particular part of the subject. But I am anxious to draw the attention of the House to the circumstances under which this proposition comes before it, whose Bill it is, and how it is proposed to be carried out. It appears to me that certain ratepayers of the City of London, being dissatisfied with the quality of the gas supplied to them, and not having thought it necessary to apply to the proper tribunal for redress, that is to say to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State, who sits below me, go to the Common Council of the City of London in a fit of spasmodic activity, and say we must bring in a Bill to remedy their grievances. Sir, who are the Common Council of the corporation of London? Why, Sir, it is the corporation of London itself. And what is the corporation of London? A very venerable and powerful institution, so powerful that it has been able three times to defy the threatened attacks of the right hon. Gentleman below me, and to its own admiration it remains to this day the only unreformed and irresponsible corporation in the kingdom. Well, Sir, the House will 1606 hardly be surprised when I draw their attention to some of the clauses of the Bill which emanates from the corporation of the City of London. In the first place, the corporation have a dislike to any interference from any person or body without the walls of the City; and having that dislike, they propose that they shall he exempted from the operation of the Act of 1860, because that relieves them from any superintendence and guiding influence of the right hon. Gentleman who presides at the Home Office. Well, Sir, what do they next propose to do? They then propose that they shall have the power of raising money upon all their funds, upon all their resources, upon all their estates, and upon all their dues whatsoever and wheresoever. Now,; I need not call to the recollection of the House the miscellaneous and very extensive sources of income which the City of London possesses. I need not call to their recollection that many of them do not arise within the City of London, but the richest of them is contributed by an area of at least twenty miles around the centre of the metropolis. Well, Sir, with this proposition, they come also with what they consider will be a very attractive proposition. They say, we, your trustees, want no money, we will manage your property for nothing, we will not only give the gas for a mere nominal value, but we will also beautify and improve your streets and the metropolis at large. Now, Sir, I think I may venture to say, that if my hon. Friend the Member for the City, and his colleagues, go to a tribunal upstairs, that tribunal will not be inclined to take the same view as he has been advised to do. But, Sir, there is another very peculiar point in this Bill, which is, that a corporation propose to deal with the property of two or three existing companies, making no provision whatever from the beginning to the end of their Bill for in any way compensating or purchasing existing interests. Now, Sir, I venture to say that, with the exception of one or two boroughs in this kingdom, there is no municipal corporation who light a town, who has not done that in one of three ways; it has either originated the lighting when it had no lighting, or it has compensated existing interests, or it has absolutely purchased existing interests. Now, Sir, I think that these are questions which are well worthy I the consideration of the House, and for this reason I hope that the House will not 1607 consider it right and proper that this Bill should not proceed to the stage of a second reading. I object to it on the responsibility of the corporation whose Bill it is; I object to it likewise that the taxation is general, and that the benefit is local and limited; I object to it moreover, that under the operation of the Act, any one of the opposing companies may be summoned at the instance of the Commissioners of Sewers, they themselves a portion of the Common Council, summoned before another member of the corporation, the alderman who happens to be the magistrate of the day, and that therefore this corporation must virtually sit as judge on those who are their rivals in trade. I think I need hardly supplement an arrangement of that sort with any further observations. Now, I appeal to the House whether there ever was a more striking instance of civic torpor and administrative incapacity. I therefore hope that this Bill will not be allowed to proceed further, and I hope that the metropolitan gas companies will not be allowed to be harassed by projects of the same nature, and with the same object. I think the House would do well to oppose any tendency of that sort, if it is calculated to foster the idea and encourage the expectation that this legislation may emanate from this House, if it be only pressed forward by well sustained importunity. Sir, for that reason I second the Amendment of the noble Lord, that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Viscount Cranbourne.)
§ MR. ALDERMAN LAWRENCE
Mr. Speaker, after the last speech I feel it incumbent upon me to say a few words with regard to the matter before the House. The hon. Member who has spoken in favour of this measure being read this day six months, has alluded to circumstances which have nothing whatever to do with this Bill. This Bill has been introduced by the corporation of the City of London, because it has been pressed upon their notice by the whole of the inhabitants of the City, and the corporation feels that when they do anything for the benefit of the City, they do it also for the benefit of the inhabitants of this great metropolis. Sir, on the last occasion when the gas companies united to prevent another company being introduced into the City of London, the same attacks were 1608 made, the same arguments were used as on the present occasion, in order to prevent the new company being introduced into the City of London. What was the effect of the introduction of that new company into the City of London? It was to reduce the price of gas throughout the whole of this metropolis, and throughout every city and borough in the kingdom. That was the effect of the introduction of a new gas company into the City of London. Now, on the present occasion the gas companies seem to be afraid of a Committee of Inquiry upstairs. That is the wish of the corporation, that the whole of the Bills which are now introduced may be sent up to that Committee, and that there may be a full and fair inquiry into the subject, and they have no fear as to the result. Now, Sir, it is quite clear that the whole of this metropolis is unanimous that the manufacture of gas ought to be removed to places out of the City of London. It has been shown that gasometers may explode, and therefore it is necessary that the gasometers at Whitefriars should be removed to some place beyond the City, to a distance which would not endanger either St. Paul's or the Temple; and the gas companies, in order that they may prevent an inquiry, are anxious that this Bill should be thrown out on the second reading. We know that the gas which is supplied to the House of Commons is of very pure quality, and sufficient in quantity, and suits the purpose for which it is required. But the public does not know that that gas is manufactured specially for this purpose, and that it has a 22-candle illuminating power; and in the same way the House is not aware of the quality that is supplied to the general consumer. The public say that the article supplied to them is deficient in quantity, and is bad in quality, and that they have to pay a high price for it, and that it damages the sight of those who use it. Now, Sir, I think that a fair case has been made out why this Bill should have a second reading, and why it should be sent to a Committee upstairs; and I can tell my hon. Friend, who says he hopes that Bills of this kind may not be brought for-word annually, that if he succeeds in throwing this Bill out, the inhabitants of the district will band themselves together, in order to adopt some means by which they may protect themselves.
§ SIR GEORGE GREY
Sir, in consequence of the statement of the noble Lord (Viscount Cranbourne) who was a Member 1609 of the Committee of which Mr. Sotheron Estcourt was Chairman, by which the present arrangement with respect to the gas companies was settled, I will say a few words upon this subject. Now, the noble Lord stated very fairly the clause, the substance of which he read to the House, which, in fact, after providing for the metropolis being divided into certain districts, provides that on the application of certain persons, those districts may be re-arranged by the Secretary of State; but I rather think the noble Lord misled the House, I am sure, unintentionally, when he spoke of the power of interference of the Secretary of State under that clause. I will read the lines of the clause, which I think will put the House in possession of the real state of the question. At the end of the clause it is stated—And no other company or person than the company to whom such limits are for the time being assigned, or shall hereafter he assigned, shall supply gas for sale within the said limits unless authorized by Parliament so to do.This clause, therefore, contemplates an application to Parliament for a new company, with power to override those powers under that Act. Now, Sir, the question is, whether a case for such a Bill has been made out? And I think that on a fair construction of that clause, no breach of faith can be imputed to Parliament by giving a second reading to this Bill. There is, in a subsequent clause, another power given to the Secretary of State, in case of complaint made of the quality or quantity of gas. He may then appoint a competent person or persons to inquire into those complaints. In one case, and in one case only, a complaint under that clause has been made to the Secretary of State, and he directed an inquiry to be made as to the gas supplied in the district to which the complaint referred. The gentleman appointed to make the inquiry reported that the gas was defective, and the company were required in the terms of the Act to remedy the defect. No other complaints have been made, and I presume that in that district the defect was remedied. Now, I think that the hon. Member for the City of London has made out a case for inquiry. Then, Sir, the question arises, should a Committee of this House be appointed specially to conduct that inquiry, or would it be better to read this Bill a second time, and refer it to a Committee to which the Bills have been submitted that have been promoted by these gas com- 1610 panies themselves? I am inclined to think that the best way would be to read this Bill a second time, and refer it to the Committee suggested by my hon. Friend, and to instruct that Committee to inquire into the operation of the Act of 1860. If the result of that inquiry should be to show that those gas companies have not fulfilled the conditions which they were bound to fulfil, they will report accordingly. If the gas companies show that the conditions imposed by the Act of 1860 have been fulfilled, then I think there is no case for the Bill; but if, on the other hand, it be shown that they have not fulfilled those conditions, then I think this Bill might be allowed to proceed.
§ MR ROEBUCK
One word, Sir, and that is as to the truth of the statement that the House itself is a very unfit tribunal for trying questions of this kind. Can anybody doubt for an instant from the appearance of the House that the House has been packed for the occasion? That is, people have been taken by the button-hole, letters have been written, constituencies have been applied to, Now, I want to know by whom? Why, by the gas companies. Now, Sir, I ask the House, for its own honour, to consider what it is doing, and to ask itself whether it is now acting in that judicial capacity in which a Private Bill calls upon them to act, and whether they are worthy to do so? Now, Sir, what does the hon. Member for London himself say? Why, that he is in a peculiar position. That on the one side there is the corporation of London, and on the other the gas companies; that he is pulled by one tail of his coat by one, and the other tail of his coat by the other. Is it not clear that the proper course is to send this Bill to the tribunal which the wisdom of Parliament has long ago said is the proper judge of private legislation, and that we should not take upon ourselves, in this unseemly manner, to decide this question?
§ MR. CRAUFURD
Sir, I am not connected with any gas company, therefore my vote will not be interested, but the reason why I object to this Bill being read a second time is that it involves a question of principle. If the gas companies have misconducted themselves let there be an inquiry. The gas companies themselves, I am sure, will be the first to court an inquiry. There are plenty of Bills before the House promoted by gas companies which will give the opportunity of an in- 1611 quiry or, it might be, a Public Committee. The other day the reason given why this House should not object to a second reading of a Bill, on which a grievance was alleged against a railway company was that there was no Bill before the House which would give the opportunity of inquiry; but in the present case there are plenty of Bills promoted by the various gas companies, on which inquiry might take place. But the ground, and the principal ground, on which I ask the House to reject this Bill is the principle on which this House ought to legislate—namely, to refuse corporations the power of competing with existing gas companies. There has not been a single case in which this House has acceded to this proposition. Last year a Committee sat upon a Private Bill, and one of the Committee on that Bill was no less a person than the right hon. Gentleman the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, whose views on that occasion I might quote in opposition to the arguments of his colleague, in the representation of the City of London. There are many instances which might be quoted to show that no corporation has been allowed to compete with existing companies. That is the principle of the Bill. Will this House sanction solemnly the second reading of this Bill, which involves a principle which has been uniformly and unanimously rejected by the House? On that ground, and on that ground alone, that being the principle of the Bill, I entreat the House not to agree to the second reading.
§ MR. AYRTON
Sir, no man is more likely to defer than I am to the wish of the House to divide; but there are occasions when it is necessary to say one word before a division takes place. The question really is this—Will the House divide on the mere question of form, or will it divide on the substance of the question before it? No doubt if we divide on the form, we shall almost be unanimous in rejecting the second reading of this Bill, because I can hardly conceive that the House of Commons would grant power to the City of London to constitute itself into a gas company; but, independent of the question of form, there is besides the great question of substance; that is, whether the House will avail itself of the present proceeding to extend the inquiry into the operation of the Metropolis Gas Companies Act? And I beg the House not to reject this substantial question 1612 too hastily, because I happened to be one of those called on to represent the inhabitants of the metropolis in their endeavours to have that Act passed, and I was a Member of the Committee upstairs which sat to take evidence leading to the introduction of that Bill, and I recollect when we were endeavouring to take that evidence, the inquiry was defeated by the interest of the gas companies by their having a resolution passed that it was desirable that an investigation should take place with the assistance of counsel, at the instance of some parties interested in the inquiry, and we, not having funds at our disposal to combat those gas companies, were obliged at once to abandon the inquiry, and I myself made a Motion that the Committee report its proceedings to the House; and it was in consequence of that course taken by the gas companies on that occasion that there was not that full inquiry which should have taken place before legislation, and it was in consequence of the difficulty we were placed in in endeavouring to obtain for the inhabitants the light which we demanded, that that Act was imperfect. But the Act having been passed, no doubt we are bound to observe public faith, but we are only bound to observe it according to the strict letter of the Act, considering the circumstances under which it passed. Now, Sir, the corporation of London took no part in the inquiry; I never knew it do anything for the benefit of the inhabitants, and, therefore, I am not surprised at it; but the question is, whether, making allowance for the inexperience of the corporation of London not doing anything for the public good, we ought not now to look to the substance of the question, and not to be carried off by a mere idle form, because it is a mere idle form; if we are to reject the second reading of this Bill, if it is to be passed under the conditions proposed by the hon. Member for the City of London. I have had some experience in what are called Hybrid Committees; I apprehend that when you read a Bill a second time you do not pledge your mind to the principle of the Bill: what you pledge yourself to is the instructions in the first instance, and I apprehend the Committee must form its proceedings upon the instructions it receives before it can proceed to the Bill itself. Therefore, the substantial question is, will you allow a Committee to be appointed upstairs? Now, Sir, I ask the House to agree to that upon this ground, 1613 that no such Committee in the face of these wealthy gas companies can possibly pursue the inquiry unless there be some one before it, possessed of great resources and means, for the purpose of conducting that inquiry; and if the corporation of London, for the first time, propose to devote some of its resources to such an inquiry, I say that we ought to allow it to do so. It is the first time that they have passed from "gastronomy to gas," and I hope that the House will, pledging itself to nothing, agree to the instructions which my hon. Friend has proposed in the interest of the public.
§ Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ The House divided: —Ayes 219; Noes 193: Majority 26.
§ Mr. Serjeant Gaselee, Member for the Borough of Portsmouth, came to the Table, and stated that he had gone by mistake into the wrong Lobby, and while intending to vote with the Noes had voted with the Ayes; but Mr. Speaker stated that as he bad gone into the Lobby with the Ayes, and had been counted with them, his Vote must stand so recorded.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time.
§ MR. CRAWFORD
I now move, Sir, that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee of twelve members, five to be chosen by the Committee of Selection, and that it be an instruction to the Committee to inquire into the operation of the Gas Act of 1860.
§ MR. ROEBUCK
Before you put the Question, Sir, allow me to call the attention of the House to the fact that there are two retorts or gasometers, where gas is made and stored, near the Temple. Some time ago a serious accident occurred through the explosion of a gasometer, and I think that it ought to be a special subject of inquiry before the Committee, whether there can be any safety in the City while this state of things is permitted to exist.
§ MR. AYRTON
There is a Bill before the House for the removal of these works, and I think it is part of the arrangement that that Bill should go before this Committee, and then the whole subject will be discussed.
§ Bill committed to a Select Committee of Twelve Members, of whom Five shall be nominated by the Committee of Selection: 1614 Instruction to the Committee to inquire into the operation and results of "The Metropolis Gas Act, 1860."—(Mr. Crawford.)
§ And on April 13 Committee nominated as follows:— Mr. HASTINGS RUSSELL, Mr. DUTTON, Mr. WOODS, Colonel NORTH, Mr. MORRISON, Mr. WESTROPP; and on April 16 Mr. Alderman LUSK added; and on April 17 Colonel NORTH discharged, Mr. STANILAND added.