HC Deb 27 June 1871 vol 207 cc686-95

, in rising to move for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the present system of legislation in regard to Local and Personal Bills, said, the subject to which he asked the attention of the House was one of great interest and importance. It was not a local but an Imperial question—the grievance was universal; though it was more severely felt in Ireland than in England or Scotland, owing to the greater distance, and the complete separation by the sea; and also because Ireland was comparatively much poorer than Great Britain. That grievance was, firstly, the increased expense of a contest conducted at a distance from the place where the parties interested resided. As an illustration he would read from a letter of Mr. Fitzgerald, an eminent solicitor of Dublin, and brother of Mr. Justice Fitzgerald, who stated that the total expense of the Dublin Main Drainage Bill would not be under £15,000; there were also the Alliance Gas Bill, the Newry Waterworks Bill, the Dublin Tramways Bill, all of which had occupied the time of the Legislature at a vast expense, and all of which could have been heard before a Judge in Dublin at one-tenth of the cost, and with no loss of time. Those observations referred only to a contested Bill; but even when there was no opposition, a primâ facie case must be established, and therefore even in the case of an unopposed Bill, witnesses and other persons must attend in London. Another great objection to the present mode of procedure was the uncertainty as to the principles on which the decisions of the present tribunal were based. That was even worse than the expense of bringing witnesses from a distance, as it tended greatly to the increase of litigation, and increased the expenses of the contest. If they had a case before the Queen's Bench, and consulted a competent lawyer, he would say decidedly—"If the facts be so and so, I think you are sure of a verdict." But if they consulted a Parliamentary Agent he would probably reply—"I think your case is a fair one, but these things are always uncertain. It depends greatly on the Committee that may be appointed." Now he (Mr. Pim) certainly did not mean to attach any blame to the Committees on Private Bills. He had sat on such Committees himself, and he felt sure the Members of those Committees anxiously desired to give a fair and impartial judgment; but they were not infrequently without experience, and it was notorious that much uncertainty attached to the verdict of that tribunal, and that uncertainty necessarily led to litigation. The hon. Member then read from a speech of the Marquess of Salisbury—[3 Hansard, clxxiii. 649]—the Petition of the Associated Chambers of Commerce, in which the Petitioners, after referring at length to the great expense and uncertainty attending the carrying of Private Bills for Public Works through Parliament, concluded by saying— Your Petitioners respectfully submit that this evil would be best remedied by referring the evidence in support of, or in opposition to, such Bills to some permanent judicial body of competent and experienced persons, sitting in public, and who would hear and examine the same, and report thereon to each House of Parliament. It appeared by a Return which had been laid on the Table of the House that the fees paid in that House on all local and personal and other private Bills amounted in 1869 to £23,377 7s., and in 1870 to £25,219 14s. 6d., of which latter sum England contributed £19,921 5s. 6d., Scotland contributed £3,228 7s. 6d., and Ireland £1,911 12s. 6d. No doubt that large sum was applied to a proper object; but what that object was he did not know. No one defended the present system as working satisfactorily; the question then was—how could the defects be cured? A Select Committee on the subject was appointed in the Session of 1863, when several suggestions were made by men of eminence who gave evidence before the Committee and others. The first of those suggestions was to substitute a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament for the separate Committees of each House. That was proposed by Lord Redesdale, and seemed to have met with some approval. Another proposition, suggested by the right hon. and gallant Member for Lancashire (Colonel Wilson Patten), was for the establishment of a distinct tribunal, external to the House, to ascertain the facts and report to Parliament. Again, it was proposed to empower the Board of Trade, under certain limitations, to issue provisional orders for all private undertakings. That proposition was supported by Mr. Booth, the Secretary of the Board of Trade, and by Earl Grey. Lastly, it was suggested that a distinct tribunal should be formed—a Court independent of Parliament in its constitution, with full power to hear and decide respecting all matters of private legislation, but whose decisions should not have legal force until confirmed by Parliament. That was the suggestion of Sir Erskine May, and a suggestion nearly the same in effect came from Mr. Richards, the counsel to the right hon. Gentleman the Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman the present Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Lowe) was a member of the Committee, and also supported that proposition given in the proceedings, but which was not adopted by the Committee. That proposition made by Sir Erskine May, and supported by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer and others, was nearly identical with that contained in the Bill of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Tipperary (Mr. Heron), except that his hon. Friend also provided that the Court should sit in the locality to which the proposed legislation referred. All those suggestions were, however, rejected:—and a Resolution, proposed by Lord Stanley, was carried in the Committee by 7 Members against 6. Several of the witnesses before the Committee of 1863 dwelt on the supposed unwillingness of the House to part with its jurisdiction. But that could scarcely be advanced now, after the precedent set by the Election Petitions Act of 1868. That Act provided that the decision of the Court of Common Pleas should be final, and that the Report of the Judge as to corrupt practices should— Have the same effect, and may be dealt with in the manner, as if it were a Report of a Committee of the House of Commons appointed to try an election petition. It also provided that the trial should take place in the county or borough to which the case referred. The House had thus parted with its jurisdiction in the most important matter which could come before it—namely, the validity of the elections of its own Members; and it had decreed a local trial, the decision of which was final and conclusive, and on which might depend, and had depended, the disfranchising of a borough, when, corruption had been proved before this new tribunal which was external to the House. The hon. Member having read extracts from the speeches of Mr. Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone during the debates on the Election Petitions Bill—[3 Hansard, cxc. cxci. cxcii. cxciii.]—proceeded to say that no one suggested that the change then adopted was injudicious. No one thought of proposing to bring back to the House the consideration of Election Petitions. The saving of expense under this Act was worth considering. The taxed costs of the Limerick inquiry—he spoke, of course, of the successful party, the unsuccessful settled his costs with his attorney without submitting them to taxation—was £285, which was the lowest. The highest was £1,281 15s. 4d., being the costs of the Petitioners in the case of Dublin; while the costs of the respondent to the second Petition in Dublin were taxed at £986 18s. 6d. Those were, no doubt, large sums; but the trial lasted for 11 days, and was thoroughly contested. He could not speak from personal knowledge of the costs of the trial of Election Petitions, but the thought it would be no exaggeration to estimate the probable amount in such a case at five times what the costs in Dublin actually were in 1868. That showed the great advantges of local inquiry, in regard to saving of expense; but a local inquiry was also of great importance as a means of arriving at a correct judgment respecting the matter under consideration, whether unopposed or disputed. Take the case of the Dublin railways. In the year 1865 there were five rival schemes for uniting all the Irish railways at Dublin. Two of those projects proposed a central station within the city, and two others proposed to effect the junction by lines not passing through the city itself. Each of those four had warm supporters, and, of course, warm opponents. The contest was a fierce one, lasting 23 days and costing over £50,000. At length the Committee decided in favour of the fifth project—of which he would only say that in Dublin everyone thought it so preposterous as to be unworthy of serious consideration. Of course, nothing or almost nothing had been done since, and Dublin had lost the great advantage of a central station, which we should certainly have had if either of the projects which included a central station had been chosen. He (Mr. Pim) had commenced by stating that the question was one of Imperial magnitude; but he also maintained that it affected Ireland more than any other part of the United Kingdom, because Ireland was more distant from London, and the cost of conveying witnesses to be examined was consequently greater. He wholly disavowed any desire to tinge the question with a political bias, or, as had been suggested, to take a step in the direction of a severance of the union between Ireland and Great Britain. His great object was to have a local tribunal, the decisions of which, he believed, would be generally respected, and not often impugned by the House, even though it should possess the power of setting them aside. The question had excited much interest in Ireland. He could speak as regarded his own constituents; and his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast (Mr. M'Clure) presented a Petition some time since, from the Corporation of Belfast, strongly in favour of the Bill introduced by the hon. and learned Member for Tipperary (Mr. Heron). Therefore, the Corporation of that rapidly increasing borough, which might be considered as representing the province of Ulster, was found united with the citizens of Dublin in looking for better and less expensive arrangements for private legislation. In this matter, at least, both North and South were united. He would not detain the House longer, except to thank them for the kindness with which they had listened to him. He begged to move the Resolution of which he had given Notice.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the operation of the present system of legislation as regards Local and Personal Bills, and to consider whether means may not be devised for the improvement of such legislation."—(Mr. Pim.)


, in reply, said, that while agreeing with the spirit of much that had fallen from his hon. Friend, he differed from him with respect to the methods he proposed to adopt. No doubt a Private Bill Committee of that House was an expensive, a slow, and to a certain extent, owing to its composition, an uncertain tribunal, while to the public outside it often had the appearance of being more capricious in its decisions than it was in reality. Indeed, a Private Bill Committee was somewhat in the position of a jury without a Judge to guide them. On the other hand, these tribunals had great virtues and valuable qualifications, which in some respects rendered them singularly suitable for the peculiar kind of questions they had to deal with. The questions they had to decide were not strictly legal ones, as they frequently had to consider questions of policy, and to ascertain the balance between private disadvantages and the public good. Again such Committees were not only strictly impartial, but they were universally admitted to be so. They consisted of hon. Members who were in the greatest measure guided by the public opinion of the time in regard to the questions brought under their notice. In the case of railways, for example, public opinion had undergone a complete change during the last 25 or 30 years. Now, if questions relating to railways had been tried by a fixed and permanent legal tribunal, one of two things must have happened; either that tribunal would have adhered to settled rules and precedents, which would have become opposed to the wants or feelings of the people in less than tea years, or else it would have been characterized as a capricious tribunal. He had himself endeavoured to effect improvements in our Private Bill legislation, and he felt disposed to remit, as far as possible, the trial of all the smaller kinds of cases, which did not much depend on public opinion, to a tribunal outside the House. This had been done to a certain extent by the further extension of the system of provisional orders. Little good, he thought, would be effected by the appointment of a Select Committee to consider generally the subject of Private Bill legislation. In the last 18 or 20 years there had been no fewer than 16 Committees of the House which had investigated the subject; but most of the changes introduced during that period were due, not to the recommendations of those Committees, but to some particular case having shown the necessity of a change. Not long ago Committees of that House dealt with cases of divorce, naturalization, turnpike trusts, copyholds, and inclosures; but all these matters were banished almost entirely from the House, and remitted either to Courts of Law or to bodies of permanent Commissioners. Then, in regard to sanctioning public works, a great deal had been done in the same direction by extending the system of provisional orders. Tramways, and in some cases gasworks and waterworks, could be dealt with in the same way. The system of provisional orders, however, could only be extended gradually and tentatively; because if persons were compelled to resort in the first instance to a provisional order, the result in regard to large and strongly-contested schemes would be merely to add another inquiry to the Parliamentary inquiry. He hoped that gradually the work of the Committees might be lightened, and that persons might be enabled to obtain authority for works which they wished to undertake by a shorter process than necessarily coming to Parliament. A step in advance was taken last year, and the discussions which had recently taken place showed that that was as far as the House was disposed to go at present. An Act was passed last year to enable the Board of Trade to make provisional orders in the case of tramways authorized by the local authorities; but when the feeling on the subject became strong, persons did not rest satisfied with the preliminary decision of that Board, but insisted on coming before the House. However much he might be disposed to advance in that direction, he did not think that the present was a favourable time for doing so. The hon. Member had alluded to Ireland, and the case of Irish promoters was somewhat hard, because they were put to very considerable expense in bringing their witnesses to this country; but something might be done by means of Standing Orders and an Act of Parliament to meet their case. The Chief Secretary for Ireland had now before the House a Bill on the subject of Local Government in that country which would in some respects meet the objections that have been urged by the hon. Member, and would enable the making of provisional orders in cases where it was now necessary to apply to Parliament. Something further might be done to enable Irish promoters to obtain provisional orders by application either to the Lord Lieutenant in Council or to the Chief Secretary in the case of railways and gas or waterworks, and such a course was not adopted without precedent. But, in order to do that, it would be requisite to pass a short Act of Parliament, and not merely to have the Report of a Committee. The hon. Member for Dublin might not be aware that a Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons had been appointed in the present Parliament to consider this subject, and they had reported in August, 1869; but, as their Report had never yet been considered by the House, it would be premature at present to appoint another Committee. Under the circumstances, he hoped the hon. Member for Dublin would be satisfied with having called attention to this subject, and especially to the circumstances of Ireland and the difficulties of promoters in that country. He was disposed to consider the points which the hon. Member had brought before the House, and would be willing to do what he could to obviate the difficulty without putting Ireland in a position different to the rest of the country. No one was more sensible than he of the defects of private legislation, and no one was more anxious to remedy them; but he was convinced that it was only by proceeding gradually that the House could advance safely and satisfactorily.


said, that during the whole of the time of this discussion there had not been enough Members present to form a House. He had, however, refrained from calling attention to the fact, being anxious that the hon. Member should have an opportunity of bringing forward this subject, and that the Chairman of Committees should be able to give the explanation which he had afforded to the House. He now thought that to continue further the discussion of a subject of this importance in a House of 30 Members would be idle and trifling, and therefore he begged to move that the House be counted.


admitted that the Chairman of Committees had thrown a great deal of light upon the subject of the Motion, and had given them the benefit of his experience. The hon. Gentleman, however, had acknowledged that Committees were not the best tribunals that could be devised for the determination of important questions of local interest. The hon. Gentleman had compared the position of the Committees to a jury without a judge; and certainly nothing could be more unsatisfactory than such an incomplete tribunal. The practice of deciding the local affairs of distant places in London—and the observation applied to York, Edinburgh, or Aberdeen, as well as to Dublin or Cork — was unjust to those places, and to the individuals or public bodies who sought to promote local improvements there. To those whose property or interests were likely to be prejudiced by some projected scheme, the present practice was equally unjust. The expense of opposing a Private Bill in Parliament was often fully equal to the injury which a party might sustain by the Bill passing into law. Besides, the present system showed to what disadvantages these distant localities were subject compared with the Metropolis. The House had seen within the last few days a measure affecting the interests of a portion of the Metropolis re-discussed and re-opened after it had been decided by a Committee of this House; and the residents of that part of London who objected to a tramway passing before their doors had sufficient influence with hon. Members to induce the House to set aside the ruling of the Committee, and they got rid of the apprehended inconvenience of tramways in Oxford Street and the other portions of the Metropolis sought to be affected by the Bill to which he alluded. He might ask, would the opponents of local tramways in any other locality than the Metropolis have had a chance of success if they had appealed from the decision of a Committee upstairs? There was no doubt us to the ability displayed by Committees, nor of their impartiality, nor of the care they bestowed on matters referred to them; but the whole question was whether such inquiries would not be much better held in the localities to which they referred. It was obvious that the opportunities for a full and fair investigation of the merits of schemes for local improvements were considerably greater when the inquiry was held on the spot, and the expenses would be proportionally decreased. Besides, the Business of the House had greatly increased, and it was desirable to lessen the duties of hon. Members, by allowing local inquiries to be disposed of locally, so that they could devote themselves to the consideration of Imperial measures, which they were now called upon to do not only at night, but at Morning Sittings. Nothing was more usual than for hon. Members to move the adjournment of debates on the very fair ground that they were exhausted from protracted attendance on Committees in the morning, followed by late sittings in the House during the night. Committees on public questions were necessary and incidental to the carrying on of the public affairs of the country; but private business could be better investigated, and conducted both more cheaply and expeditiously where the questions originated than under the present system. On the ground of expense, and of the inconvenience to which the public were subjected by the present system, and also from a fair regard to local interests, he trusted the Motion of his hon. Friend would receive the favourable consideration of the House.


rose to address the House—

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present—


proceeded to address the House—

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at half after Ten o'clock.