HC Deb 24 February 1882 vol 266 cc1539-46

Order for Committee read.


, in moving that the Speaker leave the Chair, said: I wish, Sir, to make a statement which I have some hope may tend to simplify the course of Business this evening. The hon. Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Harcourt), who with great ability brought forward the subject of the tax upon ratepayers in respect of the main roads of England last year, has given Notice to move this evening, on the Motion that you, Sir, leave the Chair— That, in the opinion of this House, immediate relief should, in some form, be afforded to ratepayers from the present unjust incidence of rates appropriated for the maintenance of Main Roads in England. When that question was brought forward last year, the hon. Member will recollect we met it, not by objections taken upon principle, but by pointing out our inability to deal with it at the moment. I am at present in a different position. It has been our duty during the Recess to consider the whole matter of local taxation. When a Motion was before the House the other day which referred to local taxation generally, I could only, in asking the House to waive the discussion, refer to the general declaration made in the Speech from the Throne. Now, when the hon. Member comes to a particular subject, I am able to say, although I should wish to strike out one word—namely, the word "unjust," which is a strong word that I do not think it necessary for me to adopt—I am able to say that we have considered this matter, and are now of opinion that the time has come for dealing with it. And it will unquestionably be a part of our duty, in connection with the finance of the year, to make a proposal upon this subject, and that proposal will precisely conform to the general statement of the Motion of the hon. Gentleman—namely, having in view relief to the ratepayers from the present incidence of the rates appropriated for the maintenance of the main roads in England. I think it will hardly be necessary to give the assurance that when I speak of relief to be afforded in that matter to the ratepayers I do not refer, as the fulfilment of that promise and engagement—which I consider to be a very serious and grave engagement, made in. the face of the House—I do not mean division of the rates. That might be considered to be a fulfilment of the engagement. I do not express any opinion on the subject of the division of rates, which is a measure of great importance; but the relief I speak of will be a relief from the incidence of the rates. Of course, it is not possible for me to enter upon the details of such a measure, because, in order to redeem the pledge we have already given, we must take a comprehensive view of the whole expenditure, and the best mode of meeting it; but, having thus given my assent to the actual statement of the hon. Gentleman, I hope in the present state of Public Business, and the pressure of time, he will not find it necessary to proceed with his Motion. I think such a proposal will he to the general advantage, and I trust that if my statement has not been full and clear enough the hon. Member will allow me to make it clearer. Under such circumstances, I will refrain from entering into the reasons at this moment, or from dealing with the subject in any way, but will reserve my statements until the proper time. I cannot, of course, expect hon. Members opposite to accept my proposal as a matter of course; but I trust that those who place confidence in us will understand that the Government are making a perfectly unequivocal promise and will give them their support. There are one or two other points to which it may be convenient that I should make some reference. As to the Business to-night, I cannot make any doubt that we should be able to deal with the most important Vote—that for the Irish Constabulary—and possibly with the only essential Votes to-night. The position in which we stand is this—it is absolutely necessary, in order to enable us to obey the law with respect to the payment of public money, that we should be in possession of the money, not only by the Vote in Supply, but upon the Report of that Vote, and the reception of that Report on Wednesday next. On that day we have not command of the order of procedure, and yet it is necessary by law that we should not be later than Wednesday. The House will therefore perceive that even if Monday were surrendered for the purpose, we should still be dependent upon the support—the energetic support—of the House to make sure of having the Vote in time to enable us to obey the law. I hope, in these circumstances, after what I have said, we shall be allowed to proceed as promptly as possible. Then there is another matter to which I wish to refer. It relates to the Miscellaneous Estimates which my noble Friend (Lord Frederick Cavendish) presented some time ago, and which may be circulated any morning. Many Gentlemen are interested in a number of these Estimates—first of all, with regard to grants in aid. These Votes will appear in the Estimates as they would have done if Her Majesty's Government had given no engagement to consider the subject. Members from Scotland are greatly interested in certain of these Votes. Well, I wish to say this—it was obviously impossible for us to take any oilier course than to present these Estimates in this form; and hon. Members will, therefore, not think from anything they see in these Estimates that there is the smallest derogation from anything we have promised. We were obliged to proceed on the old forms until we could substitute the new forms. I beg to move that the Speaker do now leave the Chair.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."—(Mr. Gladstone.)


begged to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. He should, however, like to know whether the undertaking of the right hon. Gentleman was entirely irrespective of fresh legislation. The Times yesterday referred to that fresh legislation as "fugitive and evanescent as a morning dream; "and he hoped that a matter in which he took so much interest was not to be connected with dreamland. After what had been said, he had nothing left except to take the engagement in perfect good faith; and he hoped that if the objectionable word "unjust" were removed the right hon. Gentleman would allow the Resolution to be passed as an unopposed Motion.


said, that such a course would be entirely without precedent, and would not be of the smallest advantage to his hon. Friend. He had already taken upon himself everything contained in the Motion of his hon. Friend. When the Government, or any Member of the Government, had announced an initiative upon any particular subject, it had never been the practice of the House to intervene by a Resolution which might be ambiguous in its terms. With regard to fresh legislation, he might point out that it would be absolutely impossible that any change such as he had indicated should be carried into effect without legislation; but this pledge he would give freely to the hon. Gentleman—the Government would do their best to detach this subject from legislation of a difficult or embarrassing kind. Their desire was most earnestly to proceed with the whole matter, and they had done their best thus far to secure this by giving the subject the first place in the legislation of the year. He now gave the hon. Gentleman this further pledge, that they would do their best to detach the question from difficult legislation which they might not be able to carry out so speedily as they desired.


said, that, in accepting the offer of the right hon. Gentleman, he should like to say one word as to this fresh legislation. If he had moved this Motion he should have made one suggestion. There was a sum of money which the First Lord of the Treasury looked upon as the pin money of the Exchequer, and which he now had in his pocket; and that was the difference between the malt duty taken off and the beer duty put on. He thought the agriculturists had a sort of lien upon that money. If that were written off the Estimates against half the expenses of the maintenance of roads which ought to be made main roads in England and North Wales he should be perfectly satisfied.


thought it was desirable that they should arrive at a definite understanding on this question. The promise of the right hon. Gentleman he understood to be that the Government were going to deal with this subject in a separate way from that in which they were going to deal with other local taxation. Was it the case that they were going to have the main roads absolutely paid for out of pockets other than those which now paid for them, so that some other fund would be charged with the maintenance of these roads?


said, he understood the right hon. Gentleman to mean that relief would be given by a re-adjustment of the finances of the year, in connection with the Budget, which would, no doubt, involve legislation of some sort. All his hon. and gallant Friend desired to be assured of was that the question would not be bound up with the legislation respecting county government and local taxation which was shadowed forth in the Queen's Speech.


asked whether the relief was to be restricted to those who paid for the main roads, and whether the Irish grants were to be considered together with, and on the same lines as, the English grants?


, in reply to the last question, said he must refer the hon. Member to a higher authority— namely, the authority of the Speech from the Throne, in which it was declared that, in the case of Ireland, the local grants, some of which they were going to deal with to-night, must receive separate consideration. They could not possibly, he thought, be included in the same category on account of the very great difference of circumstances which attached to them. In reply to the hon. and gallant Member for West Sussex (Sir Walter B. Barttelot), he should be venturing upon very dangerous ground if, at that moment, he were to pledge himself that there should be a difference of form between one branch of the reliefs and another branch. It might be so; he could not tell at that moment. The subject was a very complex one, taken in its whole range, and it would be quite impossible for him to say what he adhered to. He fully embraced as a principle, and as a declaration of contention, what the hon. Member for Oxfordshire had declared in the Motion; and he promised that the Government would do all in their power to detach that particular relief from any risk of being intercepted by any connection with difficult legislation, upon which they might not find that the House was in perfect accord.


asked whether the separate consideration which would be given to the subject of Irish main roads was to proceed side by side with the consideration of the subject of English main roads, and whether the same principles would be applied to both countries?


said, he apprehended it would be quite impossible that such measures could proceed side by side; but if the hon. Gentleman and his Friends, and other Members of the House, would give the Government such assistance that they should be able to deal with the question for Ireland during the present year, he should feel extremely well satisfied, and would do his best to further the scheme.


said, that he might inform the House, with respect to the questions put to the Prime Minister by two supposed Representatives of Irish constituencies, that there was absolutely no analogy whatever in the system of maintaining main roads in the two countries. The two hon. Members knew absolutely nothing of the main- tenance of main roads in Ireland. One of them, doubtless, was thoroughly conversant with the internal economy of Her Majesty's War Office, and the other might be well acquainted with the system of accounts of the Great Northern Railway; but in regard to the internal economy of the system of road government in Ireland they knew absolutely nothing.


said, he might express his belief, from what had fallen from the noble Lord, that he knew almost less about the subject than either of the two hon. Gentlemen whose remarks he had criticized. He was not surprised that the noble Lord expressed no anxiety whatever for a reform of the system of managing main roads in Ireland. English Members probably did not know that the maintenance of roads in Ireland was paid for exclusively by the tenant farmers, and the landlords did not pay any proportion, such as they did in England, towards that maintenance. He could only conclude that the noble Lord was either totally ignorant of the system prevailing in Ireland, or, what was more probable, was not anxious for its reform.


pointed out that the object of the Motion made by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Harcourt) was to relieve one class in England which was exclusively taxed for the maintenance of roads; and, therefore, the questions asked by some hon. Gentlemen from Ireland were very fair.


said, that he had arranged to use the occasion for calling attention to the administration of the Irish Coercion Act, and moving a Resolution on the subject. He believed the Irish Members would be in a position to substantiate the charge which they proposed making against the Government, and to demand from the Government a further explanation of their systematic breach of promises and their treatment of the prisoners. He and his hon. Friends had, however, after consultation, come to the conclusion that this entire question could be raised during the progress of Supply; and, therefore, he did not propose to stand between the House and the discussion of the Constabulary Vote, and wished to postpone his Motion for the present.


said, he had a Notice on the Paper for this evening which was very similar to the Notice standing in the name of the hon. Member for Longford (Mr. Justin M'Carthy), and he also desired to postpone his Notice. He intended to substitute for it a Motion which would raise only one of the questions put by the Resolution of the hon. Member for Longford; and that Motion would express regret that the Government had thought it necessary, for the safe custody of the persons confined under the Coercion Act, to keep them locked up in solitary confinement for 18 hours out of every 24.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," agreed to.