HC Deb 26 April 1870 vol 200 cc1908-14

, in moving, according to Notice, for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the Law and the administration of the Law of compensation for accidents as applied to Railway Companies, said, that he should have brought this subject under the notice of the House at an earlier period during the present Session, but for the absence of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, which he, in common with every other Member of that House, deeply regretted; and he had, moreover, deferred the Motion at the request of the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary of the Board of Trade, who did not, he believed, intend to oppose it, but was too much occupied in other Committees to allow of his devoting his personal attention to this particular matter. When he addressed the House last Session, he did so entirely upon his own responsibility and without any communication with the railway companies; but since that time he had had the opportunity of ascertaining the views of almost all the companies, and he believed that in making this Motion he now had their unanimous concurrence. The grievances of which the companies complained had been set forth in the Petitions which he had presented upon the subject. They urged that, whereas they were compelled to carry all persons at rates fixed by law, they had, for the benefit of the public, and in accordance with their requirements, undertaken unusual and special risks; had undertaken to carry passengers at a high rate of speed; that all those extra and special risks were by the law, as it stood, made to fall upon the railway companies; while they were compelled not only to exercise due care and vigilance, but to pay in cases of accident compensation, without limitation, according to the social position of the persons injured. If it were argued that the rate of speed was within the control of the companies, he would ask, what would be the feeling in the minds of the public if the railway companies for one month only were by arrangement among themselves to reduce their speed to 20 or 25 miles an hour? Complaint on the subject would be general throughout the country; and yet they were subjected to a law which might have answered very well when the conditions of society were entirely different, when the maximum rate of speed was 10 miles an hour, and when the conveyance was under the control of a single individual. He had no doubt if this Committee were granted that he should be able to adduce such a body of evidence as would convince any fair and reasonable man of the existence of a very serious grievance. The Report of the Royal Commission, of which the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the First Commissioner of Works were both Members, by whom this subject had been considered, recommended among other things, that railway companies should be held responsible for all injuries which resulted from their own negligence; that the amount of compensation should be regulated by the class by which the person injured was travelling, but that any passenger should on the payment of a small extra tariff be entitled to claim an insurance of a higher character; that claims for compensation should to made within a limited period; and that the companies should have a right to institute medical examination in cases where injuries were alleged to have resulted from accident. There could be no doubt that railway companies also suffered much from the prejudice of juries, and that the latter so habitually found verdicts for the plaintiffs, that the companies, rather than run the risk of being saddled with the costs of both parties, submitted, in many instances, to claims which they knew to be excessive, and which they believed to be fraudulent. The companies, therefore, asked that a tribunal of arbitration should be appointed, which would save expense both to the claimant and the public, and would, at the same time, put an end to what was fast becoming an organized system of fraud and imposture. How excessive the damages were when compared with the amount of fares received by the railway companies would appear from the following instances. When the New Cross accident occurred the whole of the money received as fares was £16, while the sum already paid as compensation amounted to £45,000, and the claims lodged amounted to upwards of £100,000. In another case, a passenger who had paid only 1½d., received upwards of £2,000 damages, and the costs incurred by the company were upwards of £500. As he understood that the Secretary to the Board of Trade would not oppose the Motion, he would not detain the House any longer, but simply conclude by moving his Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Law and the administration of the Law of compensation for accidents as applied to Railway Companies."—(Mr. Denison.)


, who had given notice of an Amendment to include shipowners within the scope of the inquiry, withdrew his Motion.


, who had given notice of an Amendment to add the words— And also to inquire whether any and what precautions ought to be adopted by Railway Companies with a view to prevent such frequent accidents as now occur, said, he could quite understand that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Denison) had consulted all the heads of the railway companies and obtained their concurrence for the Motion he had made. It would be very much for their interest if the Motion were agreed, to. It was not in behalf of the companies, however, but of the public that he rose to move an addition to the hon. Gentleman's Motion. At present the great and almost the only guarantee which the public had for the safety of passengers and for insuring the exorcise of caution and care on the part of the railway companies was the heavy damages to which the companies were liable when accidents occurred; and if the object of the Motion was to cut down the amount for which the companies were responsible it would so far diminish the guarantee which the public possessed. It was a necessary consequence, therefore, that there should be an inquiry as to whether certain means could not be adopted to prevent those accidents altogether. By the Returns for 1869, which seemed more like a list of casualties after a great battle, it appeared that 1,553 persons were killed and wounded by railway accidents during that year, whereas in 1868 the number was 812; so that it appeared that the terrible lesson taught by the Abergele accident and the comment it had excited had not been turned to much account. He was pleased to hear that no opposition would be offered to his Amendment; but, at the request of the Under Secretary to the Board of Trade he would omit from his Motion the words "such frequent accidents as now occur," substituting simply "accidents."


, in seconding the Amendment, said, that had he not been forestalled by his hon. Friend, it was his intention to have brought this question forward himself. During the last three years the injuries and deaths from collisions, pure and simple, were 1,876, while from all other causes whatever, they were only 595. That was a strong reason for trying whether these accidents, over which he maintained some control was possible, could not be prevented. It would, he thought, be necessary, if Parliament released the responsibility of railway companies, that they should, at the same time, endeavour to secure by other means the safety of the public. During the last few years, the Inspectors had been very constant in recommending the adoption of the block system, and this seemed to show it was a question which ought to be considered whether the Government should not have power to enforce certain regulations from time to time.

Amendment proposed, At the end of the Question, to add the words "and also to inquire whether any and what precautions ought to be adopted by Railway Companies with a view to prevent accidents."—(Mr. Hinde Palmer.)


objected to this question being discussed as though it only involved the interests of the railway directors. It involved also the interests of the public, and he was glad that the addition of his hon. Friend (Mr. H. Palmer) had given a wider scope to the inquiry.


said, that when the hon. and learned Member for the South Biding (Mr. Denison) last Session brought forward this question, his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade intimated that the Government would not oppose a Committee of Inquiry if moved for during the present Session. In assenting, however, to the Motion of the hon. Member he must not be taken to assent to his arguments and conclusions. The subject he had introduced was a somewhat wide one, and involved other considerations than those he had alluded to. The hon. Gentleman had, no doubt, made out a strong primâ facie case on behalf of the railway companies. They often suffered injustice at the hands of juries; they were mulcted very heavily in court, and cases of a monstrous character sometimes occurred—such as that mentioned last September, when a lady obtained £1,200 because she sprained her foot in tripping over a hole in a carpet at a railway station. Then there were cases of another kind—such as that of the late Mr. Pim, whose family obtained £12,000 damages against the Great Northern Company, because he had neglected out of an ample estate to make provision for his younger children, and was killed in an accident. It seemed to him that the Courts, in admitting considerations as to the future advancement of a claimant, and the possibility of his rising in a profession, had opened the door to claims of an almost exaggerated character; but hard cases did not always mean bad laws and bad legislation—they must look rather further for the effect of the general working of the law. The whole amount paid by the companies, though large, formed but a small percentage of the gross receipts. Then, again, the principle on which the companies were responsible was one of very wide application. The responsibility of the employer for the negligence of his servant, was a principle which ran through our whole jurisprudence; and in some respects it seemed to be a harder case that the owner of a carriage should be responsible if his coachman negligently drove over a man in the streets than if the railway company having engaged to carry a passenger safely, an accident occurred to him through the negligence of their servants. Shipowners, dock companies, and a hundred other such companies were subject to the same law. Another consideration which the hon. Member had not sufficiently borne in mind was the extent to which the present law operated as an inducement to railway companies to adopt all reasonable precautions to prevent accidents. It had been the settled policy of Parliament hitherto not to interfere in the management or working of railway companies, but to hold the companies responsible for their negligence. Now, the Board of Trade were being constantly urged to adopt and to enforce fresh provisions for the safety of passengers. The hon., Member for West Essex (Sir H. Selwin-Ibbetson) had urged the enforcement of the block system; but the Board of Trade had hitherto uniformly resisted this, believing that divided responsibility would not ultimately tend to good management as to the safety of passengers, and that the bettor course was to hold the companies strictly responsible for the consequences of their management. In the case of ships Parliament had interfered to a greater extent, and in a variety of ways; and in introducing the Merchant Shipping Bill he relied upon the same principle, but he must say he should be unwilling himself to lessen in any material way that sense of responsibility on the part of those great carriers over whom they had so little control; should they do so at all, it would, perhaps, be desirable to consider whether some greater control ought not to be exercised over them with a view to the prevention of such accidents. Inquiry, therefore, would hardly be satisfactory unless it embraced more of those topics brought before the House by the hon. Members for Essex and for Lincoln. With these reservations, however, he thought it might not be without use that a Committee should inquire into the subject. It might be that means might be devised for preventing those grosser cases without really diminishing the responsibility of railway companies. The Royal Commission, while upholding the importance of not relieving companies of their responsibility, were of opinion that, on the one hand, companies should be absolutely responsible for all injuries to passengers not due to the personal negligence of such passengers, and, secondly, that their liability should be limited within a maximum amount. The principle aimed at by the hon. Member had already been to a limited extent conceded by this House in the ease of two; or three metropolitan companies, which were compelled to run workmen's trains at a very low price. Parliament had, limited the compensation in the event of accident to £100, and had provided special arbitration clauses, which were much valued by the companies. In some negotiations which he had had with other metropolitan companies, with a view to extend this, he had found that, if the companies could obtain this limitation of liability, they would be willing to give the facilities wished for, and it would, therefore, be well for the Committee to inquire whether such principles should be extended. On the whole, then, he thought that a Committee might be of use in inquiring into that subject, provided it were sufficiently wide to embrace the subjects he had alluded to; but for the present, as he had already two important Committees to attend to, what he would suggest was that the hon. Member should not nominate his Committee until the state of business in the House permitted, even at the risk of its not concluding its work during the present Session.


said, he regarded the addition proposed by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. H. Palmer) as an improvement.

Question, "That those words be there added," put, and agreed to.

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the law and the administration of the Law of compensation for accidents as applied to Railway Companies: and also to inquire whether any and what precautions ought to be adopted by Railway Companies with a view to prevent accidents.