HC Deb 10 July 1879 vol 248 cc122-32

Order for Second Reading read.


I cannot expect, at the time of night we have now arrived at, to enter into a full explanation of this Bill; and think the best thing for me to do is to move the second reading, and very briefly to state what I know the Board wish to do. With regard to my hon. Friend the Member for Midhurst (Sir Henry Holland), who has removed his Notice from the Paper, I may say that, as long as I have the honour of holding the position I do, I will never again put down my name to any Bill without some consultation with the Government. With regard to my hon. Friend opposite the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk), I know he objects to the expenses but I will take care to put in a Schedule in the Bill in Committee explaining the whole matter, and I may tell my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester that a large question like this, of the supply of fresh water for the whole of the Metropolis, was very ex- pensive, and we found it necessary to consult the best engineers and the bestchemical analysts to test the various qualities of water. When we went into the question it appeared desirable to provide a double source of supply and, after a long consultation, we found that a saving of upwards of £ 130,000 a-year would result from the adoption of a double supply, as compared with the cost of the necessary alterations in the existing supply. My hon. Friend wishes to make a statement, and I think I shall best consult the convenience of the House by reserving any observations I may have to make for my reply, although am prepared to go into the whole question. I beg, therefore, to move the second reading.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir James M' Garel-Hogg.)


The Amendment that I have had on the Paper for the last fortnight, or more, I removed at the request of my hon. and gallant Friend, who undertook to make a statement in defence of the action of the Board of Works in promoting the Water Bills of last Session. I am a little surprised that my hon and gallant Friend has made so brief a statement, and one not in any way explaining the merits of the case but as he has said he will reserve his defence, I will, as briefly as I can, state the allegations I have to make against this Bill; and I shall conclude by moving the Resolution that has been standing in my name— That, in the opinion of this House, no justification is shown in this Bill for the large expenses incurred by the Metropolitan Board of Works in the preparation and in the abortive promotion of the two Bills for which they ask an indemnity from Parliament. It will be in the recollection of the House that last year the hon. and gallant Member introduced two measures into Parliament—one was introduced as a Public Bill, and the other, I believe, as a Private Bill; but I am not quite certain about that. [Sir JAMES M'GAREL-HOGG: It was so.] In the case of the public Bill the expenses ought not to have been very great; because the promoters were spared the Parliamentary fees and costs that any other town or Corporation in the Kingdom would have had to bear inasmuch as they would have to bring in their Bill as a Private Bill; but that is a small part of the objection I have to this proposal of my hon. and gallant Friend. The Metropolitan Board of Works having brought in these Bills they were, as a matter of course, read a first time, and subsequently a discussion took place on the second reading but I am sorry to say those hon. Members who took part in the discussion on the Water Supply last year are now conspicuous by their absence. I do not know why that is the case; but, probably, they were not aware a Bill of this importance would be brought on at 2 o'clock in the morning. I have no doubt the Metropolitan Board of Works were actuated by the best motives in seeking to provide a pure supply of water for the Metropolis; but whether they were the proper body to undertake that duty is a very different question, and one upon which, I think, it was obligatory on the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works to have consulted Her Majesty's Government. But my hon. and gallant Friend did not take that course. He introduced these Bills, and has been good enough to place in my hands the Schedule which I believe he intends to move in Committee, showing in what way those costs were incurred. Amongst them is a very large item for counsel's fees. I cannot but think if my hon. and gallant Friend had expended a small part of that sum in taking the opinion of counsel as to the legality of the proceedings of the Metropolitan Board of Works, it would have been a wiser course than that adopted; but I presume he did not do so, for if he had, he would have found out that the course the Board had adopted was certainly illegal. I am astonished my hon. and gallant Friend has not alluded to the Acts of Parliament under which the Metropolitan Board of Works were called into existence, and in which all their duties and all their powers are carefully accurately defined; but in this case, I think, he has been found wanting. If he had looked at the Acts that regulate the proceedings of the Metropolitan Board of Works, he would have seen they had no power to acquire Water Works, buy Gas Works, and initiate important schemes of that nature. In this Bill the Metropolitan Board of Works take credit for having incurred those expenses in good faith, and believing they were, in promoting the Bills, making application to Parliament for further powers for the public benefit of the inhabitants of the Metropolis. Why has not my hon. and gallant Friend given us some reason for not having consulted the counsel who are usually consulted by the Board? Why did the Board incur those enormous expenses? For, although my hon. and gallant Friend has not stated what the amount is, in the account he has placed in my hands I find the amount to be between £ 15,000 and £ 16,000, and I shall presently have to call the attention of the House to some of those items. In the first place, the amount which is paid to counsel is £ 1,045. Then, there are two distinct accounts; but one is of the amount paid in 1878, and the other which is paid, or payable, in the year 1879. That which was paid last year has been disallowed by the auditor, and, therefore, that payment is illegal; yet, notwithstanding that, I find in the Bill before us it is stated that questions have been raised, and are still pending, as to the legality of the Metropolitan Board of Works defraying those expenses. I ask the House, if such questions are still pending, is it not premature to introduce a Bill of this nature? I should be glad to know whether this question is still pending. Is my hon. and gallant Friend prepared to admit that the act the -Metropolitan Board of Works have committed is illegal; or is he prepared to submit to a court of competent jurisdiction the question whether they were justified in incurring these expenses or not? If he is prepared to abide by the latter course, say at once the Preamble of this Bill is not proved, and we ought not to proceed further with the Bill, at all events this evening, until the question has been decided. Now, the items are remarkable. We have, first, the amount paid to engineers, which is very small—100 guineas but I find there is another for chemists of £ 1,438, and for Parliamentary Agents of £ 1,378. I have stated that engineers have been paid 100 guineas; but an item is still owing to them re new works and purchase of existing works, and as witnesses, amounting to £ 6,320 7s. 8d. I should be glad to know what are those new works which have been executed by the engineers without the sanction of Parliament? Let me remind the House that the Bills were read a first time. [Sir JAMES M'GAREL-HOGG: One was read a second time.] One was, but the other was not; and it is really trifling with the House for my hon. and. gallant Friend to make that remark, inasmuch as he dropped both the Bills at an early stage. Yet I find that £ 6,320 was spent upon works, and my hon. and gallant Friend is not justified in coming to this House and asking it to indemnify the Board for an expense of that nature. Now, Sir, I want an answer to this question. The Metropolitan Board of Works, I understand, were divided on the question as to the propriety of bringing in these Bills in 1877. I do not know—for I have not inquired—as to the number of members of the Board of Works who opposed the proposal—but I believe there was, at all events, a considerable dissentient minority. The Board of Works were warned, over and over again, that their proceedings were illegal before they brought in those Bills, and yet they persevered with them; consequently they do not come with a good grace, when they seek to saddle the ratepayers of the Metropolis with the expense. I speak on this as a public question; and I say it is not fair to seek to saddle the ratepayers with £ 15,000 or £ 16,000 in respect of schemes which they were not justified in bringing forward. Well, Sir, having done with the engineers, I find an item which has already been paid for costs—£ 1,438 for analysis; district surveyors, £ 270 Parliamentary costs, £1,378—a considerable item maps and plans, £ 400 and advertisements, £ 1,100. What on earth were those advertisements for? I must ask the question, for I have some doubts on the subject. Were they in respect of the purchase of land for the erection of works, or were they connected with the Parliamentary requirements in reference to the Private Bill? Well, Sir, the whole of those costs amounts to £15,146. Of course, it would be a great hardship, and I do not for a moment say that it ought to fall on my hon. and gallant Friend, or on his Colleagues individually; but, collectively, I think they are liable to blame for what they have done and I think there should be some guarantee on their part that such steps shall not be taken by them in future—at all events, they will now have received fair warning, if they go beyond the letter or spirit of their Acts, that such expenses will fall upon them. This is not the first time the Metropolitan Board of "Works have exceeded their powers. Some few years ago they expended illegally some £4,000 on the erection of a pavilion and seats in Hyde Park on the occasion of a National Thanksgiving; that offence Parliament condoned.; consequently, it is not with the best grace possible that they come again before Parliament to ask for another indemnity—at all events, it is a great hardship on the ratepayers of the Metropolis. The first objection I have to the Bill itself is that no sum is named in it. The 2nd clause provides that the Metropolitan Board of Works may defray the expenses incurred by their order in the promotion of the said Bills, and preliminary and incidental thereto. I object to the wording of that clause and do so because it asks Pariament to affirm the legality of that which is illegal ab initio. You cannot make what has been done illegally a legal act. You may condone the offence of the Metropolitan Board of Works and defray those expenses, and override the decision of the Auditors; but you cannot, even by an Act of Parliament, say what is done illegally is legally done. The costs or expenses preliminary to, and incidental to, the preparation of this Bill are to be paid by the Metropolitan Board of Works. I ask, what are the expenses of preparing a Bill of this nature? Would five guineas be the total expense? Let us know what the amount is. I object to such a clause being inserted in a Public Act, even though it is promoted by the Metropolitan Board of Works.

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


resumed: I shall not detain the House much longer. I wish to draw attention to the fact that no amount is mentioned; but I understand that my hon. and gallant Friend undertakes to insert in the Bill a Schedule, giving the items of expenditure in detail. He has given that promise to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson), who asked for the statement. If, however, there is a question pending with regard to the legality of those expenses, I think that should be first decided. The words are, "questions have been raised and are pending." I will not press the matter further, if, as I understand, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will move to expunge those words in Committee. There is no doubt that the functions of the Board of Works are most important—they are most useful—and have been carried out with general approval. They are a very important body—at the same time a very costly body, in some respects an extravagant body—and I believe that is the general opinion of the ratepayers of the Metropolis. I am very sorry to see there are so few of the Metropolitan Members present; but the hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke) is present; his name I see is on the back of this Bill, and, no doubt, he will speak on behalf of the ratepayers; indeed I hope he will urge—as I have endeavoured to do—that the Board will be more careful in the future in taking steps of a similar nature. Petitions have been presented, and meetings have been held in the Metropolis in regard to this Bill, and resolutions have been passed by the Livery of the City against the conduct of the Board of Works; but I do not consider it necessary to take up the time of the House by reading them. I have raised this question as a public question, one which, I think, is well worthy the consideration of the House. I will not further detain the House, but beg to move the Resolution I have placed in your hands.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, no justification is shown in this Bill for the large expenses incurred by the Metropolitan Board of Works in the preparation and in the abortive promotion of the two Bills for which they ask an indemnity from Parliament,"—(Mr. Monk,)—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed be left out stand part of the Question."


I will not detain the House for more than two minutes; but as I had my name down for a short time as opposing the second reading, I wish to point out that I was fully justified in -withdrawing it, in consequence of the full statement of the hon. and gallant Member, that he will undertake not to put his name to any Bills like those of last Session in the future without the consent of Her Majesty's Government. These Bills have cost the ratepayers some £16,000. They cost the Water Companies—although they combined with a view of reducing the expenses of opposition—some £11,000; and that money, therefore, has been simply and entirely wasted, because of those Bills having been brought in. The second Water Supply Bill was only brought in by a majority of 3—on the Metropolitan Board the numbers being 20 to 23—and on the 8th of December, when the draft was brought before the Board, the Preamble was only carried by 5—the numbers being 12 to 17, I think those circumstances fully justified me in putting down the Notice of opposition to the second reading of the Bill. The statement, however, of my hon. and gallant Friend, that he would not apply again in this way, has justified me in withdrawing it.


I think it would be desirable some considerable reduction should be made in the recitement of the Preamble, and I should propose to strike out a considerable portion of it. I should also strike out "now pending," and add, at the end of Clause 2, "that such expenses be duly audited." I give Notice of those in Committee, and, with that qualification, I think we may agree to the second reading but, at the same time, I think it is a matter in which they have exceeded their powers.


When the Bill is known throughout London—which I expect it will be after the discussion of to-night—there will be a strong opinion against it. It is idle, at this time of day, for the Metropolitan Board of Works to tell the people of London that they could not know they were doing that which was an illegal act. Sir, it happens in the country, when public Bodies like Municipal Corporations take upon themselves to exceed their powers, they are visited—and I do not see why the Metropolitan Board of Works should be placed in a different position—with the consequences, and could get no bill of indemnity such as this. I object to this Bill; and I am quite certain, when it is known throughout London, the people of London will set their faces most strongly against it. I, for one, will divide the House on this question, and will not allow it to pass the second reading without a protest.


I am not aware why the hon. Member for York should speak for the ratepayers of London.


I have been for years a ratepayer of London; and on that ground, if on no other, I am entitled to enter my protest against this Bill.


As a Representative of a London constituency, I have a right to support this Bill; and if the House think well to go straight to the question, or ask why these Bills were introduced last year, I may say it was because the people of London are poisoned by the water supplied by the Water Companies, and wronged by their charges. There is the strongest feeling against the treatment the people have received at the hands of the Water Companies.


I wish to say it will be a very wrong thing to pass, at this hour of the night, a Bill for the allowance of such an expenditure by so important a public body, which ought to have availed itself of the means it had to get proper legal advice.


I hope the House will pass this Bill. These Bills were brought in—I may say it was almost the result of that Committee on I which have had the honour of sitting—namely, that on the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, for, though we did not go into the question of the supply of water for domestic purposes, we could not help seeing that the water supply of the Metropolis was in a very bad state. It should also be remembered by the House that the expenses for consulting the most experienced engineers are very heavy, and that the Metropolitan Board of Works have to find the best help they can among the civil engineers, and, as we all know, they charge a very high price indeed for their professional services. I am not interested, in any gas or water shares, and, at the present time, I am not a ratepayer; so that I can speak perfectly independently from the facts brought before me when sat upon that Committee, and I hope that the water supply of London, by some plan or other, may be improved. I hope the House will agree to the passing of this Bill, as I think it is perfectly necessary.


I think I may appeal to the sympathy of the House in the course I have taken in bringing my case before them. I was perfectly prepared to enter fully on the whole question; but I refrained from doing so at so late a hour. As to the legality which has been questioned, allow me to ask the House to have patience, and hear the 144th Section of the Metropolis Management Act, which is as follows:— The Metropolitan Board of Works shall have power to make, widen, or improve any streets, roads, or ways, for facilitating the passage and traffic between different parts of the Metropolis, or to contribute and join with any persons in any such improvements as aforesaid, and to take by agreement or by gift any land, rights in land, or property, for the purposes aforesaid (or otherwise) for the improvement of the Metropolis, on such terms and conditions as they may think fit; and such Board where it appears to them that further powers are required for the purpose of any work for the improvement of the Metropolis or public benefit of the inhabitants thereof, may make applications to Parliament for that purpose, and the expenses of such application may be defrayed as other expenses of the said Board. We have been for the last 23 years doing our best for the good of the Metropolis we have, by our action with regard to gas legislation, been the means of improving the quality and reducing the price of gas we have done, year by year, all we could to improve the general condition of the Metropolis, and the auditor has passed the accounts. There has never been a single question raised as regards the power of the Board to promote Bills, until the present occasion; and it is by no means clear that the decision of the auditor is right. We have had counsel's opinion, and there is great variance in the views expressed on the subject; but, in order to set the matter at rest, we thought it right to come to Parliament for an Act of Indemnity; and I hope, next Session, Her Majesty's Government will introduce a Bill for the purpose of letting us know what our powers really are.


I wish to explain the reason for my vote. I shall vote for the Bill; and I shall do so because I understood, the hon. and gallant Member has promised that such a thing shall not occur again. I think the Metropolitan Board are a very extravagant body; and though they do some good, they do that good in a most extravagant and costly manner.


I wish to refer to one remark of the hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir Charles W. Dilke). He says the water of London poisons the persons who drink it. Whatever else the Water Companies have done—whether they have robbed and poisoned the people or not—they have done all they could—they have carried out their bond; and I think it is a strong way of putting things, when they have done all they could, that they should be accused of robbery and murder.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 37; Noes 12: Majority 25.—(Div. List, No. 158.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time and committed for Monday next.


I wish to ask my hon. and gallant Friend if, before Monday, he will place on the Paper the Schedule which was asked for by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson)?


The Schedule will be put in the Bill.


Unless the Schedule is placed on the Notice Paper, I beg to give Notice that I shall move that the Bill be committed on that day three months. I do that because the hon. and gallant Member gave a distinct pledge that he would place the Schedule in the Bill.


I said I would have it put in the Bill.


Then I withdraw my Notice.

House adjourned at Three o'clock.