§ MR. DODSON
* Mr. Speaker—Sir, great care and attention have been devoted to the Private Business of the House: nevertheless, there is a feeling, both in Parliament and out of it, that our Private Bill Legislation is in that condition which is best described by the term "unsatisfactory." I, for one, share that feeling so strongly that I have thought myself bound to bring the subject under the notice of the House. Moreover, I have thought that the present Session, being one in which there is a lull in private business, offers a favourable opportunity. The subject can now be considered on general principles, without trenching upon particular interests, nor will Parliament incur the suspicion of being animated merely by a desire to deliver itself from an irksome duty. Private Bill legislation is unsatisfactory, owing to the length and costliness of its proceedings, but still more from the uncertainty, or as some would say the caprice, that characterizes its decisions. These evils may be traced to two causes. The first is the fluctuating nature of the tribunals to which the decision on Private Bills is remitted; the second and most important, in fact that which lies at the root of our difficulties, is the fluctuating state of public opinion—the changes which that opinion has been undergoing, during the last quarter 863 of a century, in regard to the concession of powers for works, and especially for railways. As to the tribunal, several persons of great ability and knowledge have recommended the substitution for Parliamentary Committees of a permanent judicial Court. Others, not less able and experienced, have recommended a system under which a Government Department, or some Court external to Parliament, should grant powers to applicants—subject however, to an appeal to Parliament. As for a permanent tribunal, whose decisions should be final, things are not ripe for such a step now, whatever they may hereafter become. At present the objections to such a tribunal are very strong. What are the questions before a Committee on a Private Bill? It is not the interpretation of a law, the construction of a document, or the ascertainment of a right and a wrong. It is a question of expediency, a balancing of advantages and disadvantages to the public. It is essentially a question of policy—often a very important question. A judicial tribunal must aim at consistency; and from the very nature of its being, always seek to uphold that which it has once decided. Imagine our position if decisions respecting railways had, during the last five-and-twenty years been left to such a Court. The court must either have broken away from its own rules and precedents—in which case it would have lost all weight and character as a judicial tribunal—or it would have lagged behind, and found itself long ago in antagonism to, the wants and the opinions of the country. In regard to a Court or Department making orders to be subsequently confirmed or rejected by Parliament, I shall have some suggestions to make hereafter. Its application, however, to cases which parties were determined seriously to contest, would be worse than useless. If Parliament fell into the habit of endorsing preliminary decisions, we should be landed in all the evils of a fixed tribunal. If Parliament investigated matters for itself, we should only have added one more inquiry to those by the two Houses we already have. Committees of this House, and more recently the Royal Commission, reported decidedly in favour of maintaining the immediate jurisdiction of Parliament over Private Bills. Parliamentary Committees are flexible; they are watchful of, and responsible to, public opinion. They bring to their duties great assiduity, ability, and perfect independence. On the other hand, they are want- 864 ing in technical knowledge of the particular subjects brought before them, in the habit of directing counsel, and of admitting or rejecting evidence; they are wanting in familiarity with the decisions given by other Committees. The establishment of the General Committee on Railways and Canals, forming a Sessional Chairman's panel, excellent as it has proved, does not, and cannot, altogether supply the element that is wanting in Committees. Few Members can undertake the labour of a continuous Chairmanship. Of those who do, not a few, when they have acquired experience, and their labours have become most valuable, are, from various circumstances lost to the service. The representative element should preponderate upon our Committees; but if we could secure, on groups of Bills involving technical questions, the presence of at least one expert possessing technical knowledge and experience of Parliamentary law and practice, it would give strength and consistency to the tribunal. In the official Referees we have such a body of experts ready to our hand, and a Referee Court is such a mixed tribunal as just now suggested. The evidence of the bar, and of other persons interested in private business, as given before the Select Committee on the Referee system, was, I may say, all but unanimous in favour of the constitution of these Courts. I will also appeal to Members who have served as Referees, and I am confident that they will agree that a mixed tribunal works well, and that a permanent official constitutes a valuable addition to a Committee. But, hitherto, the Referees have been entrusted only with part of an inquiry—not, however, as the examiners on Private Bills, with an inquiry only into the performance of certain acts by certain persons. The Referees inquire into a portion of the merits of each case. Now, the question, whether a Bill shall be passed or not, depends on an estimate of its merits in the aggregate, and to separate these is usually very difficult. The inquiries before Referees and Committees, as it were, overlap each other, and thus are attended with waste of time and of labour. To the Referees is allotted the task of ascertaining the sufficiency of the estimate and the efficiency of the engineering for the proposed object. In fact this amounts to little, if anything, less than ascertaining whether the means are adequate to the end. By the time they have done this, they have 865 directly or indirectly heard nine tenths, in some instances ninety-nine-hundredths, of the whole case. But when they have reached this point, the Referees are to stop short, and with great expenditure of time and of labour to prepare a condensed Report, in writing, on a limited portion of what they have heard, for the benefit of another set of minds. The fresh tribunal, which is to pass final judgment upon the Bill, must necessarily travel over a great deal of the same ground. The above, however, are only instances of waste of time and power. There are numberless others in which the divided inquiry imperils the arrival at a right decision. The Referees constantly find that the engineering objections made to a scheme are more or less valid, though the engineering cannot on that account be pronounced absolutely inefficient for its object. For instance, a railway is to cross a navigable river by a viaduct, marsh-lands by an embankment, a street by an archway. It is objected that the navigation, or the drainage, or the traffic will be impeded. The Referees find there will be "a slight," or "a serious," or "a certain" impediment. The actual measure of the obstacle cannot be defined in words or in figures. But the whole question to be decided is—given an impediment—is the advantage of the line such as to outweigh it? The Referees have not the advantages of the line put before them. If they have them incidentally put before them, the comparison of the good and evil is the very thing beyond their jurisdiction. The Committee, on the other hand, succeeds to the subject, and hears the good, but how is it to weigh the evil against it in the scale? To do this, the Committee must in some way hear the details of the evil, and form its own estimate of its weight. If the Committee does this, it rehears what the Referees heard. If it does not, its judgment on the matter must be imperfect.
In making these observations I am far from intending to make it any reproach to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Lancashire that he along with the Referee Courts established a divided inquiry, The establishment of the Referees is not the least of the many services he has rendered to the private business of the House. But the Referees were an experiment. The House would naturally have hesitated to entrust to these untried mixed tribunals entire Bills. The very success of the tribunal 866 now constitutes a reason for dropping the divided inquiry. I therefore would ask the House to repeal the Standing Orders providing for the divided inquiry, and to give power to the Committee of Selection to remit any group which, from the technical questions involved, or from other reasons, they deem expedient, to a mixed tribunal. In recommending this step I may appeal to experience. Last Session, by an order of the House, power was given to remit entire Gas and Water Bills to the Referee Courts. In other cases Railway Bills have been so remitted by the consent or at the request of promoters and opponents. Finally, at the close of last Session both Houses of Parliament concurred in passing an Act giving the Referee Courts the same power of examining witnesses upon oath and awarding costs as Committees possess; thus giving proof of their confidence in the tribunal, and removing the only difficulty that existed in remitting to it entire Bills. I know that some gentlemen whose opinion possesses weight are in favour of joint Committees of Lords and Commons on Private Bills. I will not now stop to discuss such a plan. I will confine myself to expressing the hope that we shall not delay reforms in this House till that union is brought about. The mere fact that the House of Lords has not yet resolved to make attendance on the part of its Members on Private Bill Committees obligatory presents a serious obstacle to our working conjointly with them. Should it at any future time be deemed expedient to fuse the tribunals of the two Houses, the course now recommended would constitute no bar to such a step. If the official Referees were still retained, there would then be a mixed Commission likely to prove the most efficient tribunal for the purpose. Before I quit the subject of the tribunal, let me say a word upon the point of practice. When our present Committee system was formed, railways were in their infancy. The appearance of one in a country was looked upon as the invasion of an enemy, rather than the approach of a friend. Owners of property and local authorities were up in arms to resist. Hence Committees naturally called upon the promoters to begin by proving that the line proposed was of such importance as to justify the overriding of all private and local rights. Now-a-days things are so changed that the presumption is that a railway will benefit the district it traverses; and the first question is, what are the objections to the work? 867 The Referees, recognizing this fact, as soon as established, reversed the proceedings. They require the opponents to begin, and the result has been beneficial. A great deal of unnecessary speaking and evidence is obviated, and time and labour saved to all parties, without detracting from the real efficiency of the inquiry. It is the most logical mode of proceeding. The case of the promoters is usually before the Committee in the shape of plans and sections, and of the Bill deposited. If the Court requires any further explanation at starting, it can ask for it. If the absence of plans, or peculiar circumstances, render it in some particular case desirable that the promoters should open, they can always be required to do so. These proceedings, however, are not regulated by, or dependent, upon any orders of the House. They are, I apprehend, matters within the discretion of Committees themselves. Probably, however, without some expression of opinion from without, each Committee, singly, would hesitate to break through the established custom. I hope that the General Committee on Railway and Canal Bills, and the Chairmen of other Committees, will consider the policy of adopting the course that has proved so successful in the case of the Referee Courts.
Thus far we have considered the means for improving the constitution of Parliamentary Committees, and of abridging and simplifying their procedure. I will now address myself to the expediency of transferring some portion of the business to a more summary and less expensive tribunal. Preliminary or provisional certificates or orders are useless, or worse than useless, where a scheme is keenly contested, because neither party will rest without appealing to Parliament and fighting it out to the bitter end. But where the stake is not so great, or the feeling is less strong, it is likely that the defeated party may acquiesce in the decision of a preliminary tribunal, and that both parties may thus be spared the expense and labour of a Parliamentary contest. The Railway Construction Facilities Act, 1864, was an attempt to give effect to this principle. It provides that where a would-be company has contracted for the purchase of all the land it requires, it may apply to the Board of Trade, and the Board may issue a Certicate giving power to make a railway. The Act has remained almost totally inoperative; and the reasons are obvious. The Act requires unanimity on the part of 868 the persons beneficially interested in the land required—a condition difficult to secure. It requires the absence of objection by any other railway—a condition which it is, one may say, impossible to secure. The repeal of section 9 would not really alter the case, because the rival railway could and would always induce some one landowner to come forward and veto the action of the Board of Trade. There should be a further Act providing that, without exacting unanimity on the part of landowners, in view of a marked preponderance of agreement in favour of a scheme, the Board of Trade might issue, if on inquiry it thought fit, not a certificate as under the Act of 1864, but a Provisional Order such as those under the Piers and Harbours Act. The provision would be, that where a railway company has contracted for the purchase of three-fourths in extent of the land required, and obtained the assent of three-fourths in number of the owners of the property to be taken, the Board might make an order. There must be the actual consent of three-fourths in number of the owners, because it is obvious that, in the case of a short line, the agreement for purchase of three-fourths of the land might represent the consent of one or two grandees only, while a large number of owners of valuable properties might be objectors. On the other hand, there must be the agreement for three-fourths of the land, because the consent of three-fourths in number of the owners might represent only the consent of the owners of some worthless cottages or bits of waste, while all the valuable property injured might be in the hands of the dissentient one-fourth. The instrument should be a Provisional Order, and not a Certificate. The difference is this:—A Certificate once laid upon the table of the House, can only be rejected by the action of Parliament itself. An opponent cannot demand a Committee, and thus traders and freighters, local bodies, inhabitants of districts, and, generally, parties injuriously affected, are shut out from opposition, except so far as they can induce the Board of Trade to listen to their remonstances. A Provisional Order is a less potent instrument, it has to be embodied in a Bill and pass through Parliament. Any Order will, on the demand of an opponent who would have had a locus standi against the scheme if introduced in a Private Bill, be sent to a Committee to be dealt with as a Private Bill. A rival company would not be able, as under the Act 869 of 1864, to prevent the issue of a Provisional Order by itself, or by putting forward one dissentient landowner to veto the action of the Department. But no opponent, whether a rival company or other, who would have had an opportunity of opposing the scheme, if introduced as a Private Bill, would be deprived of his hearing before Parliament if he insisted. Probably, however, in view of the approval of the undertaking by so large a proportion of those immediately affected and of the sanction given to it, on inquiry, by the Board of Trade, the Provisional Order would, in the majority of instances, be acquiesced in.
Next to railways, gas and water works constitute the most important part of Private Business Gas and water works, especially the former, differ from railways in this, that they are in the majority of instances of a purely local character. They affect a local community whose opinion can be ascertained either directly or through some representative body. Gas and water works comparatively seldom require to take property compulsorily, they do not affect the surface of the ground permanently, they only cause a temporary disturbance by the breaking up of roads and streets. In fact, it is usually only in order to obtain the power to break up roads and streets that gas companies, at least, are compelled to come to Parliament. They can and do, in many instances, incorporate themselves under the Joint Stock Companies' Act, and by consent break up roads, but they are, as I understand the law to be, in such cases always at the mercy of any individual who pleases to indict them. This state of things prevents the establishment of works, especially in small country towns. On the one hand, the cost of obtaining an Act of Parliament would amount to, perhaps, half the cost of the works themselves; on the other, people are shy of investing in an undertaking which exists only on sufferance. The principles of the Railway Construction Facilities Act might be beneficially extended to such cases. Where the local authority or authorities are consenting, the Board of Trade, or some other Department, might, after reasonable inquiries, be empowered to issue a Certificate, giving the requisite powers to Gas and Water Companies. Of course it must be a matter of speculation how many schemes, under such an arrangement as now recommended, might be settled by a Department without recourse being had to Parliament. There 870 are, at the present time, before the House about thirty-six Bills for the construction of gas and water works. Judging from the character of these Bills, more than one-half might probably be settled without any application to Parliament. What number of railways would be constructed under Provisional Orders, it is still more difficult to estimate: they would naturally be the shorter railways, to which a purely local interest attached. It is obvious that, the trunk lines of the country having been already made, the railways now applied for are mainly, and will be more and more, of the above description. I said at the outset that the greatest drawback to Private Bill Legislation lay in the unsettled state of public opinion. Opinion has been, and to some extent still is, in a state of transition as regards the concession of compulsory powers for the construction of railways and other public works. Hence the rules and practice of this House, having become somewhat divergent, tend to increase that prevalent confusion of ideas. The great difficulty is the question of Competition. Let me ask attention to the Standing Order on Competition. The late Mr. Phinn said, if this Order were abolished, the whole gallery upstairs, with its Committee-rooms, would become a desert. Without going so far as that, it may be said, without exaggeration, to give rise to one-half of all the Parliamentary contests. It is a very remarkable Order, because the idea that persons supplying certain articles, or providing certain accommodation to the public, are to have a formal recognized right to oppose any other persons entering into the same business lest their profits should be reduced, is one which is foreign to our notions and our policy in other matters. Let us see the reasons assigned for this exceptional policy. I will speak of railways, because they are the most important works. Let me also premise that my observations apply to opposition on the ground of competition, by an existing line, to a proposed new work. They do not apply to rival schemes presented to Parliament in rival Bills: those are alternatives out of which Parliament is invited to select one or more. I wish to state the reasons as fairly as I can; and I believe they are substantially the following:—First, that the principle of competition does not apply to railways; that the number of possible competitors is by natural necessity so limited that combination can, and will, quench competition; that we must accept things 871 as they are, and look not to competition, but to Parliamentary regulations and Government control, to protect the public against abuse of their powers by railway companies. Secondly, that the cost of making a railway is far in excess of that of all ordinary commercial undertakings; that the capital so invested is immutably fixed in that particular form; that in consequence, if two railways be made where one would suffice, the second railway represents an irrecoverable sacrifice of capital which constitutes a national loss. It is further said that that portion of the public which uses the railways will find itself in the long run worse accommodated and more highly charged by two impoverished lines than by one prosperous line:—worse accommodated, because the staff and the rolling stock of a poor company must necessarily be less efficient than those of a wealthy company; more highly charged, because a profit has to be made upon two capitals instead of one, and this must and will, in some form or other, be extracted from travellers and traders. Now, as to the first, it seems strange to argue that because an undertaking is naturally a monopoly or nearly so, it should be necessary artificially still further to secure that monopoly. Granting what no one will deny, that competition is less effectual in the case of railways than of undertakings which can be indefinitely multiplied, and that conditions must be imposed upon, and supervision maintained over, railway companies in the interest of the public, still that is no reason why competition should not be allowed free action as far as may be. That there is a waste of power where two capitals are employed to do the work of one is true of all undertakings; but in this country we leave such matters to the self-interest and acuteness of private enterprise, and believe the national interest is thereby in the long run better served than by any Government supervision. The magnitude and permanence of the outlay make no difference in principle: they must operate as incentives to greater caution on the part of adventurers. But is it the fact that competition does always end in combination, and combination in injury to the public? In several important instances we see that active competition subsists, either in charges or in accommodation, or in both, to the great benefit of the public. There is competition between London and Birmingham, between London and Manchester, between London and Liverpool. There 872 is competition for the Scotch traffic between the East and West routes. In other instances competition has resulted in combination, not however, as a general rule, with higher charges, but with lowercharges, to the public than before the competition was established. The history of many competitions has been this:—the old and the new lines begin by attempts to underbid each other, and for a time charges are unnaturally low. They then combine to carry at higher rates than the unremunerative rates they have been trying to ruin each other by, but at lower rates than the one line exacted before the competition was introduced. Such is the general tenor of the evidence before the Royal Commission; and I would especially direct attention to that of Captain Huish, late manager of the London and North Western, of Sir Daniel Gooch, the chairman of the Great Western; of Mr. Seymour Clarke, the manager of the Great Northern; and others. I would also refer to Mr. Galt's work on Railway Reform. There is a very intelligible reason why this should be the case. Experience shows that when rates have once been greatly reduced, they cannot be very largely increased without discouraging traffic. There are, no doubt, instances, but they are exceptional, in which competition results in higher charges than before. The evidence before the Royal Commission as to these cases is not always consistent, The fact is, companies shift their rates, both as regards classes of goods and as regards places, with a view to developing or trying to develope traffic; and if through combination they raise charges in one quarter, they seek to stimulate trade by reducing them in another. But even in cases of increased charge there is probably a benefit to the public from the multiplication of lines. Suppose, there being one line from A to B, a second comes in, and the two agree to raise their charges higher than the charges of the first line. Rival railways do not, like rival steamers between Liverpool and New York, traverse the same barren ocean without intermediate traffic. The second line can hardly fail to accommodate some places not reached by the first. Thereby the conveyance by cart, by waggon, by omnibus, is reduced, and the entire cost of transport to the district is diminished, although the railway charges may be augmented.
What is the history of this Standing Order? The original rule and practice of Parliament was that petitioners against 873 Private Bills were not admitted to be heard on the ground of competition. When the rule was first relaxed I have not been able to ascertain; but, judging from a passage in Sir Erskine May's valuable work on Parliamentary Practice, the first case appears to have been in 1850, when two Gas Companies were admitted to be heard against a Gas Bill. Be that as it may, the present Standing Order was made by the Standing Order Committee in 1853. No reason appears to have been assigned for it, and no debate took place upon the subject; but I have always understood that it was found that rival lines subsidized landlords, and fought through them, and that thereupon it was thought better to unmask the real opponent and bring him face to face with the Committee. Moreover, if we may read this order by the light of the Fifth Report of that which is known as Mr. Cardwell's Committee on Railway and Canal Bills, which Report was made in the same year (1853), the idea was that the line competed with might be heard to argue, not that its own profits might possibly be diminished, but that the construction of a new line would be of no service to the public. The Order made was in these words—It shall be competent to the Committees on Private Bills to admit petitioners to be heard upon their petitions against a Private Bill, on the ground of competition, if they shall think fit.It is an empowering order, authorizing a Committee to make an exception from a general rule in a particular case if it saw fit. Committees, however, acting separately, and without knowledge of what other Committees had done in analogous cases, when pressed by ingenious counsel to admit their clients, inclined, from a timidity natural under the circumstances, to hear them, as being the safer course. Thus it gradually became the practice always to admit an opponent who alleged himself competed with, unless the competition appeared so remote as to be absolutely frivolous. That practice has now become so established that no Committees or Referees would venture to break through it. While, however, this practice was growing up, the change in public feeling in regard to railways, which had already set in when the Order was made, kept increasing. Gradually the whole position of Parliament towards the promoters and opponents of Railway Bills was altered. Originally it had submitted to it a scheme for a great national highway, which was bitterly op- 874 posed by all the local interests affected. Now lines are of local concern; and when local interests oppose, it is not so much because they wish the line to be rejected as because they wish to obtain a diversion, to secure increased accommodation, or in some way to make better terms. In fact, Parliament is now-a-days little more than an arbitrator between parties all of whom are in the main desirous that the line should be made. Thus it comes that we have arrived at this state of things, that Parliament as a matter of course admits the old line to oppose, and, almost equally as a matter of course, decides in favour of the new. The directors of old lines feel bound to fight—although they probably know that they fight with a halter round their necks—lest their shareholders should blame their apathy; shareholders in old lines are led to fancy they are a protected interest; the shareholders in new lines are led to fancy they will be; Parliament is reproached by the old companies with granting too many lines, and by the new with unduly thwarting railway enterprize; if old lines do not pay, it is said Parliament has ruined them; if new lines do not answer, it is said how improvident of Parliament to have sanctioned them! Let it be distinctly understood that the possible abstraction of profits from an existing work will not be considered a ground for opposing a new work; abolish this Order; and all concerned will gain by the adoption of a fixed and intelligible policy—the old companies, the new, the public at large, and Parliament itself. Here are the words used not many days ago by one of the most eminent authorities in this House on railway matters. The hon. Member for Wick (Mr. Laing), addressing the shareholders of the London, and Brighton Railway, of which he is the chairman, said—The monopoly, and Government control over railways, were no doubt better suited to the genius of Continental nations than of England. No doubt also the public had derived benefit from the construction of so many railways, and the competition thus established; but Parliament having decided not to uphold Lord Dalhousie's reports and the Continental system of a qualified monopoly, ought to have gone to the opposite principle—free trade—instead of tantalizing Railway Companies by hopes of protection, which, however, were falsified.He instances the case of the Brighton line, which fought on, undertaking "useless" lines to protect itself, yet at last a competing line was sanctioned.They were led on [he said], by degrees, by the inconsistent conduct of the Legislature, in just 875 holding out sufficient hope of protection to induce them to make great sacrifices, trusting to a reed which broke under them, because they did not think they were to be subjected to competition.What harm can ensue from the abolition of this Order? It is said people will make useless lines: but why? To obtain an Act is expensive: the promoters incur the risk of costs if their application be held frivolous; they forfeit their deposit if they do not complete the line within a given time. They must think the line proposed is one they can work at a profit themselves, or sell or lease to other persons. In either case they must believe the line to be one that will be used by the public, otherwise it would possess no value. Surely Parliament may assume they are the best judges of their own interests—better than any Committee can be. But it is said, people apply for an Act who have no intention of making a line; they only want the power, in order that they may frighten or cajole some other company into buying them up. Here the same answer really applies: we must leave commercial men to take care of themselves, and not proceed on the supposition that people in their senses will be coaxed or bullied into buying powers to make a line that is to be of no use. I should be content to abolish the Order, and there to rest. Still, it maybe said, although Parliament is not called upon to prevent people from constructing useless works—if they are unwise enough so to do—it is not called upon to assist them so to do by granting them special powers for the purpose. In this view of the case an existing line should be admitted to argue the inutility of a new line. If it undertook to prove, at the risk of incurring costs, as it now would, under the Costs Act, that the proposed line would be of no service to the localities already served, nor to any fresh localities, let it come forward. That profit would be abstracted from the existing line would be an argument which the Referees or Committees would not listen to. Nor if a rival railway put forward a landowner, would he be allowed to go into this argument. Supposing, however, the ingenuity of counsel found means to introduce all these arguments, still it would be a great gain to disabuse shareholders of the notion that they are, or would be, protected interests. How prevalent this notion is, is evident from the language held at railway meetings, and by railway newspapers. "Look," it is said in the railway world, "at the recklessness of Parliament 876 in granting so many unremunerative lines, which have only served to ruin themselves, and to beggar older lines." In this sort of language two fallacies are involved: one, that it is in some way the duty of Parliament, before it grants a line, to ascertain that it will be remunerative to its undertakers; the other, that an unremunerative line is, as a matter of course, of no benefit to the public. Now no doubt if a line be remunerative to its proprietors, we have a proof that it is of use to, and used by, the public. But the converse of the proposition is not true. The fact of a line being unremunerative does not prove it useless. It may be unremunerative from financial mismanagement, or a hundred other reasons, and yet be a useful line. To prove it useless, it must appear that the public sends no traffic by it. As to the assumption that Parliament takes upon itself to pronounce, before it grants a line, that the investment will be a good one for the promoters, it needs only to be stated to show its absurdity. Yet this Order fosters, and gives colour to, the delusion. For if Parliament is so paternally solicitous for companies in their maturity as to take care that their profits be not reduced, as those of other traders are liable to be reduced, the inference is not unnatural that it watches with equal solicitude over the prospects of infant companies.
I have now a proposition to make in reference to the locus standi of owners of property. There is no Standing Order regulating the appearance of a landowner whose land it is proposed compulsorily to take; but by the practice of Parliament such a person has an unquestioned right to be heard. The justice of the rule that a man should be heard in defence of his own property is, I think, indisputable. But the rule is carried in some cases to an inconvenient length. Many Bills, now-a-days, are what are known as "Omnibus Bills," that is, Bills for miscellaneous matters, such as the making, by a trunk-line, of several little branch lines, each, perhaps, twenty or thirty miles apart, the raising of capital, the re-construction of the direction, &c. Any man who has a cabbage garden, or a dung-heap, one corner of which is touched by one of these little spur-lines, now acquires an indefeasible right to be heard against the whole Bill and everything in it. This appears unreasonable, and I ask the House to give Referees and Committees a discretion, not to exclude from a hearing an owner whose 877 property is sought to be taken, but in certain cases to limit his opposition to such portion of the Bill as affects himself.
There remains only one more point to which I wish to ask attention. I do not now intend to offer any observations upon the regulations imposed by Parliament upon the financial operations of companies incorporated by special Acts. I would, however, ask the House to consider Standing Order 155, by which Committees are especially directed to inquire into "the financial arrangements made or proposed by the company formed for the execution of the railway." I would ask the House to expunge these words. They are not the words that prescribe the ascertainment and fixing by the Committee of the amount of share and loan capital of the company: that is elsewhere provided for. They are words that make it obligatory on the Committee, in all cases, to investigate whence the promoters' money comes and on what terms they obtain it. If the words be omitted, it will still be in the discretion of any Committee, if it think fit, fully to inquire into these matters. As it is, Committees seldom enter into the question, and the Standing Order is ignored. The reasons for it have ceased to exist. Formerly it was required as a condition precedent to obtaining an Act that there should be a subscription contract binding the promoters and their heirs to find the money, or a large part of the money, required for the undertaking. The bonâ fides of this subscription contract and the solvency of the subscribers was then a matter for inquiry. The subscription contract proved in practice futile and deceptive, and was several years ago abandoned. The more simple and tangible security of a deposit of caution money by the promoters, to be forfeited if they failed after obtaining powers to carry out the works was substituted. By a new Standing Order adopted last Session, this deposit, whatever may have been the case hitherto, has been made, we hope, effectual as a security for the bonâ fides of the promoters. Private persons, aggrieved by the failure of a company to carry out its works, will, in future, be entitled to claim compensation out of this deposit for the injury inflicted on them. The words in Standing Order 155, however, are now not only obsolete, but mischievous. Taken in conjunction with the Standing Order on Competition, they engender and cherish the delusion that Parliament is bound to ascertain, and can and does ascer- 878 tain, before it concedes powers for making a line, that the undertaking is financially a sound and a prudent one. The idea gives a fictitious value to the schemes of private speculators, and is a lure and a snare to investors. I therefore ask the House to amend the Order as proposed.
The summary of the proposed changes then is this: A power to the Committee of Selection to remit such Bills or groups of Bills as from the technical questions involved, or on other grounds, they think expedient, to the mixed tribunal of the Referees. The abolition of the divided enquiry between Committees and Referees. The assimilation of the practice of Committees to that of the Referees in making the opponents begin. A cheaper and more summary method of disposing of uncontested or less keenly contested cases by means of Provisional Orders or Certificates to be issued by a Department. The possible abstraction of profits from an existing work to cease to be recognized as a ground of opposition to a proposed new work. Power to the Referees to restrict opposition by a landowner to such, portion of the Bill as affects his property. The removal of the obligation on the part of Committees in all cases to enquire into the pecuniary circumstances of promoters. These are changes of a more comprehensive character than have, at all events, in recent years, been submitted to Parliament; but the present lull in Private Business affords an opportunity for considering the whole subject dispassionately. At the same time they are changes that concern this House and its tribunals only—they do not touch the privileges or affect the proceedings of the other House. From this observation must be excepted the proposed application to certain cases of the system of Provisional Orders and Certificates, which, if the House be disposed to adopt it, would require an Act of Parliament. The subject of Private Bill Legislation does not give rise to popular interest out of doors, nor excite feeling within these walls; still the immense amount of property involved, and the number and extent of the private interests depending on it, render the subject eminently worthy of consideration, and will, I trust, be accepted as an excuse on my part for having brought the matter before the House. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving—
§ New Standing Orders to follow Standing Order 92.
§ A.—The Committee of Selection may, if they 879 think fit, refer any Private Bills to the Referees, instead of to a Committee of the House, with power to the Referees to inquire into the whole subject matter of such Bills, and to report them, with or without amendments, to the House.
§ B.—A Court of Referees inquiring into Bills referred by the Committee of Selection shall consist of not less than four Referees, of whom not less than two shall be Members of this House.
§ Repeal Standing Orders 93, 95, 96, and 97.
§ Repeal Standing Order 131 (Competition to be a ground of locus standi).
§ New Standing Order 131.—It shall be competent to the Referees on Private Bills, if they think fit, to admit the Proprietors of existing works to be heard upon their Petition against a Private Bill relating to similar works within a town or district served by them, on the ground of absence of public advantage.
§ New Standing Order to follow Standing Order 132.—The owner of lands or other property to be taken under the powers of a Private Bill shall be entitled to be heard on the allegations contained in his Petition, against the Preamble and Clauses of such Bill, or against part only of such Bill, as the Referees shall think fit.
§ Standing Order 133.—At the end add the words "or against part only of such Bill, as the Referees shall think fit."
§ Standing Order 151, s. 1.—Omit the words "The financial arrangements made or proposed by the Company formed for the execution of the Railway."
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee of Selection may, if they think fit, refer any Private Bills to the Referees, instead of to a Committee of the House, with power to the Referees to inquire into the whole subject matter of such Bills, and to report them, with or without amendments, to the House."—(Mr. Dodson.)
§ MR. STEPHEN CAVE
said, he thought his hon. Friend had done good service in bringing those matters under the consideration of the House. With regard to the first proposal, there could be little doubt that if the Court of Referees worked well, as was generally considered to have been the case, there could be no reason why the jurisdiction of that tribunal should not be extended, seeing that the economy which had been produced by it had been so very beneficial to the public. His hon. Friend proposed to extend the application of the system of Provisional Orders and Certificates to railway companies, gas, and water works in certain cases, to which there was reason to anticipate that the decision of a Department would be acquiesced in without an appeal to Parliament. He (Mr. Stephen Cave) might say, in passing, that it would be a good thing if the Provisional Order were in many cases replaced by the Certificate, and vice versâ, with, perhaps, some machinery for amending the Certifi- 880 cate which did not now exist. But on general grounds there could be no doubt that it would be a great benefit to the public to be relieved, as they might be in various cases, from the necessity of proceeding by way of Bill, or, at any rate, enabled to have recourse to the simpler and cheaper form of Bill lately prescribed. Parliamentary fees were reduced in that manner, and a still greater reduction was made in the expenses of professional men, witnesses, and others, by which railways have been so heavily weighted before the first sod had been turned. When his hon. Friend mentioned throwing that additional duty on Departments it became a grave question, for the discussion of which that was not the proper moment. On what Department were they to be imposed? It could not have escaped notice how many of those subjects, such as those relating to gas, water, the purification of rivers, and others which might be arranged under the head of health of the people, were distributed almost at hazard over various Departments of the State, involving great waste of power, and the still greater evil of inconsistent action. With regard to the Department which he himself had the honour to represent, it could authorize the construction of a railway and incorporation of a company when all landowners agreed, could confer unlimited powers of raising new capital, authorize working arrangements and combinations between companies, and extend the time for selling superfluous lands—all, of course, subject to the revision of Parliament. That list might well be extended. It was scarcely worth while, for instance, to compel a company to bring in a Private Bill to reduce the number of its Directors. There was a still more important point. Under a temporary Act, 11 Vict., c. 3, passed in 1847, the Board of Trade had power to extend the time for a limited period of two years for carrying out works, and they did so extend the time in the case of no less than 132 railways. There were fifty-three Railway Bills for extension of time before Parliament this Session, and if it were possible to act again under that old enactment, those companies would be saved the expense of a Private Bill in each case, and the Board of Trade might by Certificate or Provisional Order give them the opportunity of extending their time. A still more important point was that many railways had come to the Board of Trade with applications under the Abandonment clauses of the Act of last Session. 881 The Board of Trade would have extremely difficult questions to decide between promoters and their opponents, and he thought in many cases a just and reasonable compromise would be found in the alternative of extension of time for carrying out works. The question was so very urgent that he proposed that evening to give notice of a Bill for re-enacting the provisions of the Act of 1847. But he must observe that it was of little use to give facilities to companies if they would not profit by them; nor to endeavour to save their pockets if they preferred expense. Many companies were proceeding this Session by Bill for powers which they might have obtained by Certificate. Why they should be advised to take that course he could not tell. There had been no complaints of the working of the Act of 1864, and the companies which had proceeded in that way must have saved largely, as the Board of Trade did not charge more, he thought, than the £10 fee paid to counsel for settling the draft Certificate. It was necessary for Parliament to endeavour as far as possible to save expense in the making of railways. It must be remembered, as his hon. Friend had said, that the main lines of railway were nearly completed—indeed, not more than eighty miles were proposed by Bills of this Session—yet no one could doubt that thousands of miles of branch lines and extensions would be required in future, and those lines being short and the profit upon them small, the companies would not be able to endure the profligate and enormous expense which had been saddled on the existing lines. His hon. Friend had indicated one most important plan of relief—that of reducing to a minimum, opposition on the ground of competition alone. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Whalley) had more than once brought in a Bill with the same intention; but he would have thrown upon the Board of Trade legislative functions beyond what it ought to exercise, and would have increased expense by causing a double trial. Without going into the general question of Competition, as raised by his hon. Friend, his hon. Friend, if he understood him rightly, proposed that the Board of Trade should not entertain the question of Competition at all, but should grant a Certificate as it granted a Provisional Order, if satisfied in other respects, leaving the question of Competition to be tried, as now, by Parliament, which would be a discourage- 882 ment to frivolous, but not to bonâ fide opposition. The Royal Commission had, indeed, stated that a company could always oppose through a landowner. True, but even then a great deal of evidence now received would be rejected by a Committee. Parliament might also improve its practice and diminish expense in the construction of railways by taking the opinion of an independent engineer—perhaps a member of the Court of Referees—on plans and estimates, instead of bewildering itself with the conflicting statements of advocates and paid witnesses. He would only advert to one other proposal of his hon. Friend—it was the last on the Notice Paper. It would not be difficult to give illustrations of the mischievous interference with railway finance in a somewhat different sense from that of his hon. Friend. He remembered a great landed proprietor coming to Parliament a few years ago for the construction of a dock with his own money, on his own land, and the Bill being thrown out on the ground of insufficiency of estimate, though if it had really turned out so he would simply have had to supply the funds from his own resources. The landowner thus incurred the expense of another Bill, as well as the loss of a year. He had heard, on the other hand, of an estimate of £300,000 being passed for work which would cost at least £600,000. This, however, was not exactly what his hon. Friend meant. His hon. Friend referred to the financial arrangements, on which he (Mr. Stephen Cave) had expressed his opinion last Session. He questioned, however, whether his hon. Friend would be right in pressing that alteration at this moment, partly because—after the extremely lax system of railway finance of which we have heard so much—any relaxation of the supervision of Parliament might be misunderstood, and partly because new Standing Orders were agreed upon only last year for the purpose of bringing into harmony the working of the Committees of both Houses. Practically a Committee of the Commons would refuse to re-open a question on that point which had been decided by the Referees. He might mention, as germane to the subject, that a provision had been inserted in a Bill about to be introduced by the noble Duke the President of the Board of Trade, to the effect that what was called the Wharncliffe meeting should precede the introduction of Bills, instead of intervening, as at present, between the inquiries of the two Houses of 883 Parliament, so that shareholders might have an opportunity of passing their opinion upon a measure before the initiative was taken and expense incurred. Parliament did well occasionally to review its proceedings in these matters by the light of experience, and he thanked his hon. Friend for giving them that opportunity, feeling sure that his hon. Friend's intimate acquaintance with the working of our system would prevent his doing so on insufficient grounds.
§ LORD HOTHAM
said, he did not rise to offer any opposition to the proposals of the hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Dodson), nor even to enter into any discussion of their merits. The House was aware that at the commencement of every Session a Committee of Standing Orders was appointed. That Committee was nominated only yesterday, and it held its first meeting that morning for the purpose of choosing its Chairman and arranging its proceedings. The Committee were pleased to do him the honour of electing him to be their Chairman, and he could assure the House that nobody could feel more strongly than himself how inadequate he was to the discharge of the duties performed in that capacity by his predecessor, his right hon. Friend the Member for North Lancashire (Colonel Wilson Patten), who had filled that position ever since the Committee had been appointed, and who had always conducted its business in a manner as satisfactory to the country as it was agreeable to all those with whom he was associated. Immediately after the preliminary business which the Committee had assembled to transact had been disposed of, their attention had been directed to the Resolutions which the hon. Member for East Sussex had given notice that he would propose, and he was requested by the Committee to suggest to the hon. Gentleman the expediency of allowing some time—certainly not less than a week—to elapse for considering the subject, in order that the House and the Committee might have an opportunity of duly weighing the arguments by which the Resolutions had been so ably supported. It appeared to him that that was a reasonable suggestion, and taking into account the importance of the question, he felt assured the hon. Gentleman would accede to that request without rendering it necessary for him to make a formal Motion for the postponement of the discussion.
§ MR. BOUVERIE
seconded the Motion. The scheme token in its entirety would, if adopted, work a complete revolution in the mode of conducting the Private Business of the House. It was so elaborate that his hon. Friend should not then ask the House to give an opinion upon it. He should have thought that the preferable course would be to refer the question to a Committee to consider the scheme, and hear the opinion entertained by other parties connected with the Private Business of the House; but he was ready to support the proposal for an adjournment of the debate.
§ MR. DODSON
said, he had no objection to the adjournment, but expected on that occasion to have some further expression of opinion on the part of the House, considering that it was desirable that the subject should be discussed and ventilated. He trusted the House would not entertain the suggestion to refer the matter to a Committee. During the last twenty-five years there had been more than five-and-twenty Committees on the subject of Private Business. Every possible question that could be asked had been asked, and every possible amount of information that could be accumulated had been collected. The House must make up its mind to take the matter in hand itself, and take some decisive action upon it. The first Resolutions proposed the reference of Bills to one tribunal instead of to another, and after what was done last Session he should hope that the House would be prepared on that day week to come to a decision on the first two Resolutions. He was of course entirely in the hands of the House; but begged to point out the expediency of coming to an early decision on these Resolutions.
§ MR. SERJEANT GASELEE
said, he thought it desirable that the discussion of the first proposal of the hon. Gentleman, which he regarded as the most important, should at all events be put off for a fortnight. This matter concerned the railway companies, and they would not have a sufficient opportunity of conferring on it in a few days.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Debate adjourned till Tuesday, 3rd March.