HC Deb 10 March 1882 vol 267 cc656-64

, who had the following Notice on the Paper:—To call attention to the action of the Local Government Board in the matter of the appointment of the General Superintendent of Roads in South Wales; and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that adequate time should be given to the Authorities concerned to take steps for the efficient discharge of his duties, before the termination of the present arrangement, said, that he did not object at all to the legislation proposed, but only to the manner in which it was to be carried out. The duties of the officer in question were important and very extensive. He had to examine, inspect, and manage the affairs of all the turnpike roads in South Wales, to supervise the execution of all improvements and works upon them, and to superintend and control all the overseers and officers of the district County Boards in all the counties of South Wales. In addition, he had to examine, audit, and check the whole of the accounts of these County Boards, to prepare a general statement of their expenditure and revenue, and an estimate of the probable expense of all proposed improvements, alterations, and works. It was true that about 1876 the real reason for the payment of this officer's salary by the State came to an end, and representations were made to the then President of the Local Government Board that he should not continue the salary of this officer. That position of the subject remained unchanged until the present Government came into Office in 1880. If the Government disapproved of the existing arrangement, it was their duty to declare their opinion to that effect on their coming into Office, and to provide a better system; but they did nothing, though the question was raised. It was again raised last year; but until January of the present year the authorities in South Wales heard nothing of the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman. At that period, however, an intimation was conveyed to them to the effect that the Government intended to legislate on the subject, and asking their advice. Now, he did not complain of the proposal to legislate on the subject, but only maintained that it was desirable that adequate time should be given to the authorities concerned, to enable them to provide for the efficient discharge of the duties of the General Superintendent of Roads before the termination of the present arrangements. All he asked was that the President of the Local Government Board should bring in his promised Bill as soon as possible, so that the House might have an opportunity of duly discussing it; and he objected strongly to any Bill dealing with this important subject being hastily scrambled through. He wished to know also to what extent the Government proposed to aid the maintenance of main roads in South Wales?


said, he hoped that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board would be able to see his way to comply with the very moderate request of the noble Lord the Member for Carmarthenshire (Viscount Emlyn), especially after having gone in the other direction and paid this gentleman's salary for a considerable period after the term for which he was originally appointed had expired. After having done so much to get these roads properly looked after, it seemed to him a pity that they should go back and take this officer away before provision was made for replacing him. As a monetary question it was a very small matter indeed. It was simply a question of three months' salary, and if the House of Commons objected to pay it, rather than get rid of the services of the Superintendent of Roads, why he (Mr. Davies) would pay it himself. He did not imagine, however, that any difficulty could arise on that head; and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board would see his way to comply with the request of the noble Lord.


said, he thought his noble Friend had some cause to complain of the way in which South Wales had been treated in the matter of this gentleman's salary. The holder of the office of Superintendent of the South Wales Roads was appointed in the year 1875, and at that time there were many thousands of pounds to be looked after which had been raised previously to pay off the debt on the South Wales turnpike roads. He believed that some of the debt, although only a very small portion, was still unpaid. The gentleman who then retired had been in receipt of a large salary—something like £1,200 a-year—and it was arranged that the incoming Superintendent should receive a much smaller sum, with the knowledge that his duties, as far as the State was concerned, would rapidly come to an end. But when the debt was paid off the Statute requiring this appointment to be maintained was neither repealed nor altered, nor could it be without requiring that elaborate machinery should be set up in its place; and, as his noble Friend had stated, until Parliament had time to provide a substitute for the existing machinery under which an admirable system of road management had prevailed for so long a period in South Wales it was only reasonable to leave this gentleman in the receipt of this small salary of £400 per annum, and to keep together the system of local government for road purposes by which these six counties in South Wales were bound together. Another objection to any interference with the existing circumstances was that the system which prevailed in South Wales was really a model system for the rest of the country. He did not mean to say that the whole of the country should be pledged to the details of the South Wales system; but there could be no doubt that it was an excellent system, giving great satisfaction, and it would be a great pity to disturb it. He hoped that his right hon. Friend's Bill, when they came to see it, would not disturb that system, but would require that a Superintendent of the South Wales Roads should be retained and paid at the joint expense of the six counties. Whatever his noble Friend's wishes might be as to these six counties having a voice in the matter, and then going their own way as to the payment of any portion of the salary, he must say that a far better plan would be to keep the system together as a whole for a year or two until the whole question of road management for England and Wales could be brought under one system. That being his view, he should certainly be sorry to see the pre- sent system spoilt; and it would be a thousand pities if, before general legislation was decided upon, the office of Superintendent of the whole of these six counties should be got rid of. The small salary of £300 or £400 a-year could be of very little importance. His noble Friend's contention was that only a small portion of the salary would be required for the coming year, and that the counties would have to put their hands in their pockets for the rest. By all means let them do so; but he should very much deprecate a permissive system which would enable four or five out of six counties to escape from the guarantee which, under the original Act, required one system for the whole of these counties.


said, the noble Lord the Member for Carmarthenshire (Viscount Emlyn) was quite correct in stating that he had expressed great dissatisfaction with the present system, owing to its cost; and it was quite true that the proposal to relieve the State of this payment had been made by him. He had certainly made a Motion for the removal of the Superintendent of Roads in South Wales, and he was not a little surprised to hear so much complaint made of the course taken by the President of the Local Government Board in carrying out the removal of that officer so many years after the period for which the original appointment was made had expired. He had made a short calculation, and he found that the National Exchequer had paid for the inspection of roads in South Wales something like £41,000. It must also be remembered that in Wales the road authorities had still the benefit of turnpike gates. The Government were now asked to continue for an uncertain time to pay the cost of inspecting the roads out of the National Exchequer, and that when the grants which had been promised by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer towards the expense of maintaining the main roads of England were provided they should come in for a full share of them. Surely the noble Lord forgot the important fact that the road authorities in Wales still had the benefit of turnpike gates on their roads, while in England they had to maintain their roads from the rates. They had also to pay the salary of the same individual for the inspection of the main roads; in his county—the county just over the Border—they had all these expenses to bear from the rates; and if the services of this gentleman were so valuable to the six counties of South Wales, he did not see why they objected to put their hands in their pockets to continue to pay him for the discharge of the duties which they considered to be so very necessary out of the rates of the six counties, and save the Imperial Exchequer £844 per annum. He was surprised that such an application should be made; but he felt that it was one which the Local Government Board would find it impossible to entertain.


said, he had taken part on two or three occasions in Committee of Supply in the discussion of this charge upon the Exchequer; and certainly he had a general impression that on more than one occasion a promise had been made by the Government that the Exchequer should be relieved from it. The duties of the office for which this gentleman was originally appointed had now been completed for several years, and on several occasions the Government promised to get rid of the salary. It therefore excited his astonishment to find that the noble Lord, who must be aware of the pledge having been given, should now come before the House with something like a lamentation that the Government had succeeded at length in carrying out their pledge. He did not wonder at the noble Lord, or any Member of the House who found out how difficult it was to get any Government to effect any real economy; he did not wonder that the noble Lord should feel surprise that the Government had actually carried out the intention they had so long expressed. He must say that he thought the request made by the noble Lord to the Local Government Board was one which they ought not for a moment to comply with. Surely, during the period which must elapse before a general measure dealing with County Government could be passed, the county authorities in South Wales ought to be able to make any temporary arrangement that might be necessary for insuring the efficient inspection of the roads. He had not the slightest doubt they would do so; and if the Government disregarded the appeal of the noble Lord the counties would still continue to pay the salary of this gentleman until general legislation was completed. If this course were not taken, he did not know how long the Superintendent's salary might not remain a burden upon the Imperial Exchequer. It would be far better that the expenditure should now stop, and proper measures be taken by the local authorities in South Wales to secure the efficient inspection of their roads.


I can only repeat substantially what I said yesterday in reply to a question put by the noble Lord. I do not think that this is a matter that need be discussed at any length. It is quite true that a discussion took place in Committee of Supply last year, and that I then made the statement which the noble Lord has referred to. The Local Government Board have adopted the course which I then pointed out as possible, and have put an end to the payment by the public generally of the expense of maintaining this officer, who has been employed for the benefit of these particular counties. There is no need to remind the House—for I have no doubt it was explained by the noble Lord before I entered the House—how it came about that so exceptional an officer was appointed. It was mainly because the Government had advanced money for the extinction of the debt upon the roads in South Wales, and an officer was appointed and paid by the Government to watch over the administration of the money, and to see that the debt on the tolls was not increased, so as to impair the Government security for their loan. In 1874 the Superintendent who had been appointed by the Government died. At that time the debt had been nearly paid off; and when the present Superintendent was appointed, it was expressly explained that his appointment would not be a permanent one. The debt was entirely paid off in 1876; and the appointment ought to have been put an end to when the debt was paid off. But it lingered on from one year to another. Attention was called to it the year before last by the hon. Member for Herefordshire (Mr. Duckham), and again last year, and I stated that I should have taken last year the course which I have taken this, had it not been that the House of Lords had a Committee sitting on the general subject of highways; and I deferred acting in the matter until it was seen whether their Report would have any material bearing on the subject. In the meantime it was found that we should not be able to legislate on the subject of highways at large; and we gave notice of the termination, with the current year, of the payment of this officer. With regard to what the noble Lord has said as to the inconvenience to which the counties will be put, and the impossibility of carrying on the management of the roads, it does not appear likely that serious inconvenience can arise to the counties from the termination of the arrangement. The Act specially provides that the annual meetings of the County Roads Boards shall be held in the months of January and February, and that at those meetings the Superintendent must submit estimates of the expenditure of the year, and of the materials required. The estimate of deficiencies on the tolls are required to be made good out of the county rates, and a statement of accounts has to be furnished. That is the main part of the work of the Superintendent, and for the current year it has already been completed. Therefore, in going out of office the Superintendent is leaving behind him the substantial portion of the work of the year already completed. I have made inquiries in order to ascertain whether there is anything immediately to be done after the annual road meetings in January and February; and I have been informed that practically there is very little or nothing to be done by the Superintendent for some time to come. Therefore, I am of opinion that no material inconvenience will fall on the County Boards, even if there should be an interregnum pending legislation. I have consulted the different Road Boards of each county in order to ascertain what their wishes are; and, having ascertained their wishes, I am prepared to bring in a Bill in conformity with them. The Bill which the Government propose to bring in will give them the power, either singly or in combination, as they may prefer, to appoint an officer to carry out the duties necessary for the administration of the roads. It will be a very short and a very simple Bill. The noble Lord seems to think that it will be a Bill requiring a great deal of discussion.


I did not say so.


No, the noble Lord did not say so; but he talked about a Bill being hurriedly scrambled through the House, as if he imagined it would require considerable discussion.


I said it would probably be hurried rapidly through both Houses at the end of the Session.


The noble Lord certainly implied that proper time would not be afforded for the consideration of it. Now, I think that when the Bill is introduced, it will be found to be so simple that it will not occupy any length of time in discussion. I can only say that if it can be proved to us that any material inconvenience will result to the counties from any delay during the short interval which will elapse, pending legislation, the Government will endeavour to assist any arrangements to enable the duties to be carried out. The noble Lord talks, by the way, of the arrangement being for my convenience, or that of the Government. That is not so. The introduction of the Bill is for the convenience of the counties, and that being so, I trust the noble Lord will use his best endeavours to expedite its passing.


said, he thought the argument of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board answered itself. The whole proceeding certainly appeared to be' an extraordinary one for doing away with the salary of a public officer before the formulation of any scheme to supply the want. The excuse of the right hon. Gentleman was that the interregnum would be short, because he was about to introduce a Bill which would not take long in its passage through the House. If that were really the case, it formed a very good ground for not attempting to stop or interfere with the salary of the Superintendent until the Bill passed. But the real fact, as the right hon. Gentleman knew very well, was that these little Bills, which were considered to be so easy to pass through the House, were often impeded, and did not pass for several Sessions. Little Bills often fell through because they were little Bills. The Government did not care to force them on, and in that case a slight interregnum, which was the only justification the right hon. Gentleman could give for the course he now proposed to take, often proved fatal; and if any accident happened to the Bill in this instance, according to the right hon. Gentleman's own confession, great inconvenience would be occasioned. If the right hon. Gentleman apprehended any danger or difficulty, it would be better to adopt the advice of the noble Lord and continue the salary of this officer.