HC Deb 09 April 1867 vol 186 cc1339-49

said, he rose to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the means adopted by the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company for raising the share capital and exercising their borrowing powers under the various Acts of Parliament authorizing the construction of the main line and its extensions and branches. He should be wanting in candour to the House did he not at once state that he felt that he had grievous reason to complain of what he conceived to be the unfair and improper manner in which his name had been so prominently put before the public in connection with this company. It was not, however, upon his own account, but upon public grounds, that he asked the House to appoint this Committee, as he believed that a careful review of all that had transpired in connection with this company by a Select Committee of that House would teach the public some valuable lessons with respect to the legislation in the future for railway companies. In drawing the attention of the House to a few of the main circumstances connected with this company, he might state, in the first place, that the line with its various branches was 136 miles in length, while no less than twenty-six Acts of Parliament, or something like an Act of Parliament for each five miles of the line, had been passed by that House in connection with this company. When the House took into consideration that these Acts had only been obtained after the severest competition and at great cost, he thought it would concur in the necessity for the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the expediency of permitting a single company to indulge in such an excess of legislation. The whole line had been split up into five distinct undertakings, having their own separate capitals and interests, which were worked by the parent line at certain fixed rates and charges. No less than thirteen suits in Chancery had been instituted by the various interests connected with these separate lines, to determine the rights of each against the others. There were twenty-four debenture powers arising out of these lines, and there were as many Chancery suits pending to determine the rights under each; there were twenty-nine separate share powers, and there were three separate share powers to be charged upon funds not yet created. He felt strongly that these facts formed a sufficient ground for inquiry by a Committee without personal imputations being thrown upon any one. One fact that had come prominently before him in 1863, when he first knew the position of the company, was that while the actual capital of the company consisted of several millions, the nominal capital, the holders of which alone possessed any control over the company, only amounted to £700,000. He hoped that in all future railway legislation, the House would feel the necessity for making some provision by which the debenture-holders and others having pecuniary interest in a railway company might have a power of veto with regard to the undertaking of additional schemes by the company. He would also suggest that companies should possess the power of abandoning all such schemes as were actually found not to be required, which would be a source of great and immediate relief. With regard to the constitution of the Committee he should wish, if it were appointed, that its members should be chosen by the Committee of Selection, so that it might command the entire respect and confidence of the House and the country. Although in making this application he only had in view the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company, yet it would be quite possible, if the House should think fit, to extend the power of the Committee to inquire into the circumstances connected with any other railway they might think proper. On these grounds he trusted the House would grant the Committee—and that the hon. Member for Maidstone would not press the Amendment of which he had given notice.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the means adopted by the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company for raising the share capital and exercising their borrowing powers under the various Acts of Parliament authorising the construction of the main line and its extensions and branches."—(Sir Morton Peto.)


I confess that, having listened to the terms of the Motion of the hon. Member for Bristol, I have great difficulty in ascertaining and in recognising the connection between the subject of his Motion and the duty of the House of Commons to investigate it. No doubt we all know that there have been great disasters in connection with the enterprize, and I am sure that all who know personally the hon. Member for Bristol must regret that he has in any way been connected with those disasters. For myself, I may say that I have recognised with admiration the enterprize and energy of his character, and I deeply regret that he should have been mixed up with these troubled affairs. The House must also sympathize with an hon. Member who has sat among us for so many years, and who has shown so many high qualities which entitle him to our respect. Still, I think we must hesitate before we authorize—for the purpose of obtaining some object which it is natural that the hon. Gentleman should wish to attain—an investigation into matters with which it appears to me the House of Commons has no concern. The undertaking with reference to which this inquiry is sought is what, in comparison with the other proceedings of this House, we may call a private speculation, and those who have become connected with it must be prepared to take upon themselves all the responsibilities which may have arisen in consequence of its affairs not having turned out satisfactorily. I ask the House to consider for a moment where the line is to be drawn in the event of our assenting to this application of the hon. Member. If, in the event of any observations having been made upon the conduct of any individual Member of this House, in connection with any transaction, however extensive, we are to be asked successively to grant a Committee of Inquiry, I wish to know where the line is to be drawn? If we are to examine into the affairs of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company, whose affairs have never been brought before the House of Commons, and with which the House of Commons has no connection, why should we not investigate the affairs of any other railway company, and why should we limit such inquiries to railway companies, and not extend them to the circumstances attending the failure of any great bank with which any Member of this House might be connected? If we agree to enter into the investigation of the case of this railway company, would not that Member have a right to come forward and ask us to inquire into the affairs of that bank, on the ground that its failure had created a great sensation in the public mind, and that many persons had complained that they had been much injured by the conduct of the managers of the concern—the imputation being altogether false—and therefore that if we would investigate the matter it would be shown that, although unfortunate, the conduct of the managers had been strictly prudent? The energies of the House of Commons are sufficiently tasked at the present moment in dealing with questions affecting the public interest, and I very much regret, therefore, that the hon. Member for Bristol has found it necessary to make this Motion. I cannot advise the House to agree to the Motion; as, if they do adopt it, I am sure they will establish a precedent which they will afterwards very much regret. Under these circumstances, if the hon. Member for Bristol persists in his Motion I shall feel bound to oppose it.


said, he wished to ask the hon. Member for Maidstone whether he intended to proceed with his Amendment, an Amendment which, from its wording, seemed to imply that the hon. Gentleman had some charges to make against certain hon. Members in that House?


felt that, after the opinion that had been expressed by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer given against the appointment of a Committee, he should not be justified in persevering with his Amendment. At the same time, he wished it to be perfectly understood that he was willing to meet the hon. Gentlemen who were mentioned in the terms of his Motion in any way they might think proper.


I do not know, Sir, whether we are to regard the last speech as equivalent to a challenge; but without entering into private matters of that nature, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that an hon. Gentleman has placed upon the notice paper an Amendment couched in language clearly insinuating something amounting to fraud on the part of three Members of this House, and that the hon. Gentleman does not substantiate his charges when called upon to do so. I do not know whether any breach of order has been committed; but, if not, I still think that the opinion of the House ought to be expressed in discouragement of conduct which certainly constitutes a breach of the ordinary course of Parliamentary practice.


said, he desired it to be perfectly understood that if it was the wish of the House he was quite prepared to make his statement.


said, he rose to order. He believed that no hon. Member was in order in bringing under the consideration of the House the conduct of any hon. Member unless the conduct complained of had been committed by the hon. Member accused in his capacity as Member of Parliament or in the House of Commons. He therefore submitted to the House that it would not be in order for the hon. Member for Maidstone to proceed.


A notice of a somewhat personal nature has been placed on the Paper referring to the affairs of a certain railway company, and an hon. Member proposes to add to that Motion "and also into the means adopted" by certain Members of this House "for raising money" in connection with certain railway companies. An hon. Member who spoke just now says that the Amendment contains an insinuation of fraud. The words do not directly bear that construction. Whether anything out of order may arise in the discussion proposed by the hon. Member for Maidstone, it is not for me now to say; but there is nothing in the notice placed on the Paper that can be considered as a violation of order.


I apprehend, Sir, that technically, the hon. Member for Maidstone would be prevented from giving his explanation to the House on the ground that he has already addressed us once. I think, however, that the wish of the House has been misunderstood by the hon. Gentleman in his very natural desire to vindicate himself from any imputation of cowardice in shrinking from proceeding with his Amendment. It was very natural and laudable, too, that any hon. Member who felt himself to be injuriously affected by that Amendment, should challenge its being proceeded with; but I do not believe that it is the wish of the House that that course should be adopted. When my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone rose in his place I expected that he would, as I think he is bound to do, disavow any imputation with regard to the three Members mentioned in the Amendment, and now that no charge has been made against those hon. Members, we ought to regard their conduct as in no degree affected. I trust, therefore, if this discussion does not proceed, as I do not believe it can proceed, that those three hon. Gentlemen, whose high character and untainted honour are well known to us, will be regarded as being still as free from dishonour or suspicion of crime as they ever have been. With regard to the original Motion I have little to say beyond echoing the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, both with regard to the just tribute he has paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, a man who has obtained a high position in this country, by the exercise of rare talents, and who has adorned that position by his great virtues, and also in the course which the right hon. Gentleman has recommended the House to adopt. The right hon. Gentleman was perfectly right in representing to my hon. Friend that he has no locus standi in this House for proposing his Motion. It may be true, perhaps, that my hon. Friend might be justified in making such a Motion on the ground that railway companies solicit special Parliamentary powers, and that Parliament itself claims greater powers over railway companies than it does over other companies; but still, when it becomes a question of policy, I think that the observations of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer are unanswerable, and that we cannot draw the line between the case of those embarrassed railway companies and other companies in positions more or less analogous. The consequence of acceding to this proposition would probably be very considerable embarrassment in the conduct of this inquiry, and undoubtedly great future embarrassment in dealing with the precedent which this Motion would set up. I hope, therefore, my hon. Friend will consent to withdraw his Motion.


said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the position in which the question then stood. The hon. Member for Bristol had moved for a Committee of Inquiry as regarded himself, whereupon the hon. Member for Maidstone proposed an Amendment, asking inquiry into the conduct of other Members. The hon. Member placed on the paper, where it remained for several days, a notice reflecting on the conduct of other hon. Members, and when he (Mr. T. Baring) asked him whether he meant to persist in his Motion, his answer was that he was ready to give him any explanation anywhere else, but that it was not his intention to proceed with the Motion. Hon. Members might say that the matter should drop there; but surely when a Gentleman said that although he did not mean to persist with his Motion, he was ready to proceed if the House wished him to do so, there was no real withdrawal of the Motion. He (Mr. T. Baring) thought the House was bound, in justice to the hon. Members whose names were mentioned in the Amendment, to allow the hon. Member to proceed.


said, he addressed the House with the deepest pain. The hon. Member for Maidstone was his Colleague in one important undertaking, and his hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon was his Colleague in another. For both he had great respect. Some years ago the shareholders and bondholders in the latter enterprize, then in much difficulty, put the whole concern into his hands, and it became his duty fully to investigate everything connected with it, and especially the transactions for which the hon. Member for Huntingdon was responsible, and he was bound in duty to say that he had come away from that inquiry with admiration for the honour, uprightness, and the other high qualifications characteristic of the British merchant, by which the conduct of the hon. Member for Huntingdon had been distinguished. No doubt, the enterprize with which they were now both connected, had been unfortunate; but if men were to be hunted down because any enterprize with which they were connected had been unfortunate, where was this persecution to stop? The hon. Member for Huntingdon had become connected with this undertaking in his capacity of agent for one of the colonies, and he stood by it through good report and through evil report, and risked his own money to a large extent, in order that the work might be completed in its integrity as a property. When the day of settlement arrived, the hon. Member had in his possession securities amounting to several hundred thousand pounds, given to him to cover advances, which he might have realized for his own benefit; but, instead of doing so, he took his position as an ordinary creditor, in a manner that did him infinite credit, and he gave up these securities without condition. As representative of the bondholders and chairman of the company, he felt bound to express his high admiration of such conduct. He might also mention that at a meeting of the company to which he had alluded, at which some of the largest bond and shareholders attended, a resolution of thanks was unanimously voted to the hon. Member for Huntingdon for the magnanimous conduct which he had displayed.


said, he desired to make a few observations, because he was personally interested in the implied charge against those concerned in the conduct of the Grand Trunk of Canada Railway. Any charge with reference to that matter which was brought against the hon. Member for Huntingdon should also be preferred against the hon. Member for Kendal and himself, for nothing connected with the financial arrangements of that undertaking had been done or sanctioned by the one which had not also been sanctioned by the others. He was, indeed, proud to regard himself as included in this implied censure; for nothing had been done in the matter by himself and those associated with him which he was not prepared to justify, defend, and explain in that House or before any tribunal whatever; he would not say "anywhere else," because the phrase was capable of varied interpretations, but he would say that he was willing to meet those implied charges before the bondholders or shareholders, or any tribunal of law or equity.


said, that when he used the words referred to, he meant in that House or anywhere else. If he had appeared to go beyond what he ought to have done, he was now perfectly willing to express that he did not intend to attribute any personal act to the hon. Member for Huntingdon. He had merely raised this question on public grounds, and by reason of the confidence given to the public by so great a name being attached to the guarantee. If he had said one word more than he ought to have done he was willing to withdraw the expression.


said, that the hon, Member for Maidstone had withdrawn the inferred charge against the hon. Member for Huntingdon, who was no doubt infi- nitely obliged to him. With respect, however, to himself, he could tell the hon. Gentleman that he was ready to meet any accusation which any hon. Member might make against him, either in the House or out of it; but he demanded from the hon. Member an explanation as to his grounds for making the accusation he had. As far as he understood the Amendment of the hon. Member, it charged him, in company with the hon. Member for Huntingdon and the hon. Baronet opposite, with some guilty conduct in respect of the raising of money for the Grand Trunk of Canada Railway. As a matter of fact, his connection with that railway was very simple. He was an original shareholder, and had paid cash for the full price of his shares. Originally those shares stood as a first charge on the concern; they had since been converted into a fourth charge, under an arrangement made by the hon. Member for Stockport, who had assured the shareholders that the arrangement referred to was for their advantage. Possibly it was so. [Mr. WATKIN protested that he must explain.] He had great faith in the business qualities of the hon. Member for Stockport. What he had said was not spoken as a covert charge; he had no doubt that the arrangement was to the benefit of the shareholders. Leaving that point, however, he remarked that all he had to say with reference to the concern was, that it had been unfortunate. Still, he insisted that it had been managed honestly; and not a breath of calumny had been raised against its conductors, except what had been thrust upon the House by the hon. Member for Maidstone. He was quite sure, however, that no Member of the House would believe that any of the hon. Gentlemen concerned in the management of that company had done anything inconsistent with professions of the highest possible character. But the hon. Member had also made some indefinite charge against him with reference to the raising of money for the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company. He asked him upon what authority he implied a charge; and, if no charge were implied, then what he meant to convey by his Amendment? The contents of the notice papers of the House were not circulated in the metropolis alone; they found their way to every part of the mercantile world; and the Amendment of the hon. Member, with its implied charge, had gone with the rest. The hon. Member was therefore bound to tell the House what he meant. He especially desired him to explain himself because he courted the opportunity to answer whatever statement the hon. Member might make. He could not, consistently with order, go into the history of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway himself. He admitted, however, that the firm with which he was connected had conducted the legal business of the company for many years; and he ventured to say that there was no undertaking of greater public importance; nor had any undertaking been more independently and honourably promoted. The railway had been originated to meet the requirements of the landowners of Kent; and it had grown as necessity for it arose. It was first a line from Chatham to Canterbury, then it stretched from. Canterbury to Dover, and finally obtained powers to run up to London, when it became a great undertaking. It had been unfortunate, but its misfortunes could not be referred to him; and he called upon the hon. Member to substantiate his charges, or, if he could not do so, to withdraw them. He (Mr. Freshfield) could not be content to ride off on the high character of the hon. Member for Huntingdon, for he also had a character to lose—a character that was very dear to him. He thought the hon. Member for Maidstone owed it to the House to proceed with his Motion.


said, that after the observations which had been made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire, he had no choice but to withdraw his Motion. At the same time, he could not refrain from thanking those right hon. Gentlemen for the courteous terms in which they had spoken of him. He was especially thankful to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. After having sat in the House for twenty years, with the exception of a brief interregnum, in political opposition to the right hon. Gentleman, the remarks which had fallen from him were extremely gratifying to his feelings.


said, he desired to repeat, in behalf of his hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone, that lie had taken action in the matter simply because he was under the impression that the public desired some Parliamentary investigation into the financial questions he referred to. His hon. Friend also wished him to say that his sole motive for withdrawing the Amendment was that the hon. Member for Bedford, who was the Chairman of the Committee of Elections, had told him that it was not the province of Committees of the House of Commons to inquire into matters connected with railways which had not previously come under the cognizance of the House. Thus the motive of his hon. Friend for giving notice of the Amendment was simply a public one; and his motive for withdrawing it was not to be traced to unwillingness to go into it.


said, that the hon. Member for Maidstone ought not only to be ready to retract, but he (Mr. Serjcant Gaselee) thought it ought to be done almost upon his knees. If the hon. Gentleman could not speak himself—if he were a mere puppet in this matter—the hon. Gentleman should have come forward in a manly manner to express regret, and to make apology to those Gentlemen whom he had slandered.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.