HC Deb 13 March 1885 vol 295 cc1070-5

asked the President of the Board of Trade, Whether he has received any and what reply from the Railway Companies to his suggestion or request that the Bills for Revision of Bates should be withdrawn; and, whether he is now prepared to state the course he intends to take or advise with reference to these Bills in the event of their not being withdrawn?


I have to thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in postponing this Question; and as the subject is one of very great interest and importance perhaps the House will allow me some little latitude in making a statement on the matter. The House will recollect that the subject of the classification of railway terminals was dealt with by the Railway Rates Committee in 1882; and they recommended, among other things, that one uniform classification of goods should be adopted for the whole railway system, and that the terminal Charges should be recognized, subject to their publication by the Companies, and, in case of challenge, to the sanction of the Railway Commissioners. Last year the Government brought in a Bill dealing with the whole subject of railway legislation, and they endeavoured to carry out these recommendations of the Railway Committee in a clause in that Bill, the important part of which in reference to this subject I may quote— It shall be lawful for a Railway Company to charge a reasonable sum for terminals subject in case of dispute to the sanction of the Commissioners, who may prescribe the manner in which the scale of such terminals shall be published. The provisions contained in this section with respect to such terminals shall not apply to any Hail way Company until such Company has submitted to Parliament a revised classification of rates and a revised schedule of maximum rates, nor until such revised classification and schedule have been approved by Parliament. I have seen it stated that the Board of Trade are responsible for the Bills referred to in the Question, and I suppose that opinion has arisen from the terms of the Bill introduced by the Government last year. But I may point out that the provision in the Bill is one of a number of concurrent provisions; and it does not follow that because it would be right to pass a Bill dealing generally with railway grievances it would be right to take out one particular subject and deal with it separately from all the rest. I have also to state that the Board of Trade is not in any way committed to the details of the particular Bills which are now before the House. These are nine in number, and I am informed that they deal altogether with no less than 381 Acts of Parliament, and also with the rates and charges upon something like 28,000 articles. It will, I think, be evident to the House that if these Bills had been generally accepted by the traders as a fair basis for the settlement of this rather difficult and complicated question, it might be very well to refer them to a strong Hybrid Committee, which would have been, in that ease, able to deal with any disputed points which might have remained over. Unfortunately, that has not been the case, and it must be clear from recent agitation that the trades generally, either because the Bills are in themselves objectionable, or owing to some misapprehension as to their provisions, are entirely opposed to these Bills. Under these circumstances, there would be so much contentious matter to be laid before a Parliamentary Committee that I confess it is almost impossible to suppose that within any reasonable time any Parliamentary Committee could deal with the vast number of questions that would be presented to it. It wa8 under these circumstances that I received, a short time ago, a communication from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Bernhard Samuelson), who, speaking on his own behalf and on behalf of a very influential Committee of Members of both Houses of Parliament, who had been selected to represent the interest of the traders, suggested that this was a matter which ought, in the first instance, and before any legislation on the subject was attempted to be inquired into by some efficient tribunal, and my hon. Friend suggested that the Railway Commission would be the natural tribunal for such an inquiry. I must say that I thought such a suggestion was one which deserved very careful and even favourable consideration, and I have since been in communication with the Railway Companies on the subject. I was very anxious to have the assent, and the willing assent, of the Railway Companies to any proposal of the kind, because I felt that if an inquiry of this kind were forced upon either party it would probably be unduly prolonged, and we could hardly hope that the Report, when received, would be as satisfactory a basis for legislation as it would be if it were the result of an amicable arrangement entered into between the two parties. I have seen the representatives of the Railway Companies on several occasions, and for the last time this morning, when the Chairmen and officials of some of the leading lines were good enough to wait upon me, and I am glad to say the Railway Companies assent to the principle of the inquiry which has been proposed; but there is still some difference of opinion as to what should be the character of the tribunal. The Railway Companies, as I understand, agree that the Railway Commission must be the nucleus of such a tribunal, and they think that it would be right and proper that two representatives of the traders and two of the Companies respectively, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, should be added to the Commission, as expert Commissioners, to assist them in coming to a conclusion. They think, also, that it is desirable that the Commission should be further strengthened by the addition of the names of one or two gentlemen of independent and great position, who would command the confidence both of the traders and of the Railway Companies. I have had some little experience in forming Commissions, and I am bound to say that I have found it on previous occasions very difficult to please all parties, and I am not very hopeful of being able to find gentlemen of the position and character desired by the Railway Companies who would be willing to undertake such a laborious and difficult technical task as that proposed, and who would, at the same time, enjoy the full confidence both of the traders and the Railway Companies. The matter, however, is one for further consideration; but if it should prove impossible to find such gentlemen, then I confess, speaking for myself, my opinion is that it would be desirable that these Bills should be referred to a Commission, appointed according to the suggestions I have already referred to, and consisting of the Railway Commissioners and the four experts added, and that they should be instructed to inquire into the railway charges with the view to see how far the Bills before the House provide a satisfactory settlement, and if they do not, in what way they should be modified. I hope, under these circumstances, the Bills will not be proceeded with.


Has the right hon. Gentleman found any difficulty on the part of the Railway Companies in defining the scope and the duties of the Commission?


As none of these Bills deal with the question of preferential rates on foreign goods, will that question be referred to the Commission? The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the agricultural interest suffers greatly upon the subject.


The right hon. Gentleman has not made a definite reply to the Question on the Paper as to the answer which the Railway Companies have made. We are still in ignorance as to whether they intend to withdraw their Bills.


Do I understand correctly that the question to be referred to this Commission, if appointed, will be simply that of rates and charges, and that it will be so referred without prejudice to any more general questions that may arise on railway management?


In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Durham (Sir Joseph Pease), I do not anticipate that there will be any difficulty in coming to an agreement as to the terms of reference. They will be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Bernhard Samuelson) has suggested, to inquire into the rates and charges, without prejudice to any other and entirely different questions. That will be my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Causton), for while I admit the extreme importance of preferential rates, yet that is a subject on which we have sufficient information, and which is ripe for legislation when time admits for the introduction and pressing forward of a Bill. As to the Question of the hon. Member opposite (Mr. E. H. Paget), I thought I had given very fully the reply of the Railway Companies. Before giving any definite and final answer they have to consult their constituents; but I am under the impression that they will not, in the end, object to the proposal which has been made, and with regard to the principle of winch they have expressed themselves in entire agreement. Under these circumstances, the Bills will not, of course, be proceeded with. If, however, the Railway Companies should think it proper to proceed with the Bills, then I think the House will be able to deal with them.


Are we to understand that this Commission will not include the question of preferential rates?


I thought I made myself quite clear. I said that was not a question to be referred, because it is one which has already been inquired into, and upon which we have sufficient information to be able to legislate as soon as there is time.


Will the constitution, functions, and jurisdiction of the Railway Commissioners come within the scope of the inquiry?


No, Sir.


I should like to ask whether, as the question of through rates from the Continent is not to be submitted to the Commission, it will be dealt with in a Bill to be brought forward after the Commissioners have met?


It is rather premature to make a statement with regard to legislation which may hereafter be introduced.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether a Bill has been prepared by the Government on the subject of foreign rates? The agricultural interest suffers very much from these rates, especially in the Eastern counties, where they are very unfair?


I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can throw any more light upon what he considers to be ascertained facts? He says he is ready to introduce a Bill upon the subject of preferential rates; can he say in what sense he has proposed to deal with it?


I cannot give an answer to that Question without making along speech; but I may say that the whole question was inquired into by the Railway Rates and Fares Committee upstairs, and we have full evidence to enable us to deal with it.