§ Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [8th June], "That Standing Orders G2, 204, 223, and 235 be suspended, and that the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Houldsworth.)
§ Question again proposed.
§ Debate resumed.
§ MR. SCLATER -BOOTH (Hants, Basingstoke)
I have to move, as an Amendment to the Motion made by the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Houldsworth), to leave out all after "Standing Orders," and insert—204 and 235 be suspended, and that the Bill be referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.I have to offer an apology to the House for interfering with a matter in regard to which I have certainly no personal interest, nor have any of my constituents, so far as I know. But I have, as the House knows, taken some interest in the conduct of Private Business for a good many years, and I was also Chairman of one of the Committees which considered this Manchester Ship Canal Bill, and I have watched with great interest the progress of this important undertaking since. This proposal to pass over the Standing Orders seems to me to go far beyond the necessities of the case, and we are running the risk of being placed in a false position with the country. Everybody must know that of late there has been a growing indisposition on the part of the House to interest itself in matters concerning Private Bill legislation, and there has been a certain degree of recklessness as to the consequences of this neglect, as was exemplified in the celebrated Hull and Barnsley case. It is well known how the House found itself situated in regard to the exceptional legislation which then took place. I do not propose to go into the case now, and I have only alluded to it by way of example; but I think that every hon. Member who is aware of the action of Parliament in that case will 1707 not feel inclined to allow on this occasion a second departure which may be established into a precedent, and which may have the effect of misleading public opinion and of inducing those who are ordinarily prudent in regard to the investments they make to relinquish this prudence on the faith of a Parliamentary arrangement. No doubt this case differs very much from that. This is a case where the undertaking has not been commenced, and in which the share list has not been fully subscribed; but, nevertheless, the House is asked to enable the promoters to raise £4,000,000 of capital by Preference Stock, and to pass by that which has always hitherto been regarded by Parliament as an important preliminary—namely, that the consent of the shareholders should have been secured. The hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Houldsworth) proposes to suspend Standing Order No. 62, which is the Standing Order which requires that a Wharncliffe meeting shall have been held in accordance with the regulations laid down by Parliament, under which the shareholders of a Company should have received due notice so as to give them an opportunity of withdrawing their consent to an alteration in the financial conditions under which an undertaking was originally promoted, and the capital of that Company was authorized to be raised. One of the difficulties I have in pressing this Motion is that it may have the effect of delaying the progress of this measure, and that it may be dangerous to the future success of the scheme. That, of course, I have no wish to do; but I think that Parliament would act very wrongly if it were to allow the Bill to go forward without being satisfied that the spirit of Standing Order No. 62 had been complied with—that is to say, that the original subscribers to the undertaking had cast in their lot with the present Bill. The original shareholders are now told that £4,000,000 Debenture Stock are to come before them, so far as interest is concerned; and what I maintain is that the original shareholders should have a full opportunity of giving their assent, or, if they are so minded, of retiring from any subscription they have already agreed to make. There is another difficulty which I may mention, and that is that the Standing Order refers to the proprietors 1708 or the proprietary of the undertaking, and I am not sure that there is any proprietary at all in this undertaking. We have been told that something like £700,000 have been actually subscribed, and that £3,000,000 have been subscribed sub modo—that is, taken conditionally upon something else being completed. It is a matter of doubt whether, if this Bill goes before the Examiners, it could be held that there is any proprietary in the strict sense of the word, or whether those who have only subscribed sub modo are competent to exercise a discretion as to whether the Bill shall be completed or not; but whether it is competent for thorn to do that or not, what I contend is that Parliament should take care that whether they are competent to exercise an opinion "Aye" or "No," that, at all events, they should be at liberty to withdraw their subscriptions if they are so minded. That is the object I have in proposing this Amendment to the proposal of the hon. Member for Manchester. I feel that there will be a little further difficulty in the event of this Bill finding its way before an ordinarily constituted Parliamentary Committee—namely, the doubt whether a Private Bill Committee will, unless it receives special instructions, be competent to inquire into the whole circumstances of the case. Parliament may incur a heavy responsibility if, without full consideration, it is prepared to sanction such an unusual and unsatisfactory course of action. I, therefore, venture to hope, whether my Amendment finds favour with the House or not, that the Bill will eventually be sent before such a Committee as may be charged with and competent to perform the duty of inquiring into the whole facts and circumstances of the case. Knowing the value which at this moment is attached to the time of the House, I do not intend to enter into the subject at any greater length; and I have only considered it necessary to bring it forward now in order that mischief may not be done either on one side or the other. As I have said, I have no personal interest in the case; but I think that Parliament ought to be scrupulous not to establish a precedent which may hereafter prove to be unsatisfactory.
After the words "Standing Orders," to add the words "204 and 235 be suspended, and that the Bill be referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills."—(Mr. Sclater-Booth.)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ MR. HOULDSWORTH (Manchester, N.W.)
I fully sympathize with the views which the right hon. Gentleman has expressed on the subject, and I can assure him that the promoters have not the slightest intention, in what they propose to do, of injuring or altering the position of the present proprietors of the Manchester Ship Canal, or the persons who may have applied for shares. We have been most scrupulous on that point, and I think I shall be able to satisfy the House that the steps we are taking will be sufficient to place every applicant for shares and every present shareholder in a position in which he will be not only enabled, but called upon, to give his consent before the arrangement we are asking Parliament to sanction can be carried out. Now, the House will remember that the power which we received under the Manchester Ship Canal Act was a power to raise £8,000,000 of capital. We now propose to divide that capital into two, one part to consist of Preference Stock, which is to receive the first payment of a dividend of 5 per cent; but as this preferential claim is not cumulative the shareholders who subscribe this Preference Stock will take a substantial risk, along with the ordinary shareholders. The ordinary shareholders may be taken to represent the present shareholders and the applicants for shares. Perhaps I ought to inform the House that the present shareholders represent a subscribed sum of £750,000 of capital; the balance between this sum and the £3,000,000 which we have at present guaranteed represent shareholders "who have applied for shares to that extent, and these shares have been applied for on certain conditions, as the right hon. Gentleman has stated. Now, with regard to those applicants, a Circular, which I hold in my hand, has been sent out to them, and the condition there stated is that unless they absolutely and entirely give their consent to this arrangement, and practically apply again for the shares they have proposed to take, we shall have 1710 no hold upon them, but they will be perfectly free. With regard to the present shareholders, it is not intended, in asking for a suspension of Standing Order No. 62, to evade the holding of a Wharncliffe meeting. The only portion of the Standing Order we desire to suspend is that part of it which provides that we should report to the Examiners that the meeting required by the Act of Parliament to be held has been actually held. We do not intend to evade any of our responsibility, but all we want to do is to save a few days, and we are prepared to give an undertaking, and, if necessary, I should be prepared to add it to this Motion, that we should report to the Committee on the Bill that such a meeting has been held, and that the necessary proportion of the shareholders have given their assent to the undertaking before we seek to have it performed. Under the circumstances, I think the House will see that we have done everything we possibly could to gain the consent of those more interested in the matter. I have no desire to occupy the time of the House or to trespass upon it, for I am anxious to give our opponents an opportunity of saying everything they have to say with regard to the proposition we are now making to the House. Time, however, is an element of the greatest importance in the case. I believe that unless the House is prepared to sanction the second reading of the Bill on the present occasion, it will be almost impossible, if not quite impossible, to make the necessary arrangements for carrying on the undertaking. If opportunity is afforded for a protracted inquiry, the time for the completion of the undertaking, which lapses on the 5th of August, must necessarily lapse. But if our opponents think that the lapse of the powers we at present possess will kill the Manchester Ship Canal, then they are very much mistaken. The only effect of defeating us now will be that we shall have to apply to Parliament again next Session, and another £50,000 would have to be added to the £150,000 already spent by the promoters of the undertaking in getting the necessary sanction of Parliament to it. I believe there is no doubt that, whatever our opponents may do, the feeling of Lancashire and Yorkshire has been so much aroused in this case that the effect of defeating us at this moment will only be 1711 to delay an undertaking which its opponents cannot absolutely kill. I am quite aware that we are asking from Parliament, on this occasion, certain unusual powers; but I ought to explain that that is not the fault of the promoters of the Bill; it arises very much from the conditions which were imposed in the original Act of Parliament, by which we were prevented from carrying out any part of the undertaking until practically the enormous capital of £8,000,000 was actually subscribed. That is an unusual condition; but it is not a condition of which we have ever complained, or in regard to which we complain to-day, although it has placed difficulties in the way of the promoters which cannot be fully appreciated except by those who have to carry out the working of such an undertaking. It was made a condition precedent that this very large amount of capital should be raised before the works were commenced, and we have experienced considerable difficulty in raising it in Lancashire at a time when trade has been so much depressed. If I may use such an expression we have had to do it in cold blood, and with a great deal of uncertainty hanging over the people of Lancashire in regard to whether this undertaking will ever really be carried out or not. We are now in a position to say that the arrangements we have made will render it perfectly certain that the capital will be raised without any doubt whatever, and the mere announcement of that fact has had an electrical effect in stimulating the interest which is felt in the undertaking. I am informed that 70 per cent of the shareholders, although they were only applied to on Thursday last, have sent in assents confirming their applications, and that only one-half per cent have expressed dissent with the new arrangement which has been proposed. I may add, further, that there have been new applications for shares from three times the number of persons whose dissent has been expressed; and, therefore, it is quite evident that the shareholders do not believe they can be placed in a worse position than that which they would have occupied before the new arrangement was made. I urgently appeal to the House to grant us the facilities we ask for. We do not require the suspension of the Standing Orders for the pur 1712 pose of preventing our opponents from carrying out any legislative opposition they can legitimately bring to bear upon the scheme. The object of asking for the suspension of the Standing Orders is simply to save time, without depriving our opponents of any of the rights they would enjoy under ordinary circumstances. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that our opponents can have very little to do with the question that is before the House, and the proposal which is now introduced. It is not a question in which they are interested in the slightest degree. The opposition to the scheme, all along, has been occasioned by the fact that the opponents thought their own interests were likely to be sacrificed, and that the position of the Port of Liverpool might be jeopardized by the carrying out of this undertaking. I do not believe a word of it. I do not believe that the interests of Liverpool will be jeopardized in the slightest degree; on the contrary, I believe that neither the interests of the Port of Liverpool nor of the Railway Companies will suffer in the end. As I have said, although the matter is of the utmost importance to the promoters, if this Bill is not passed now, it will only delay a measure which must come on again next year. Therefore, if the Bill is to be passed, I would ask the House to pass it at once, because a single day may involve the risk of upsetting the whole of the arrangements which have been entered into.
§ THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Mr. COURTNEY) (Cornwall, Bodmin)
I think it will be the opinion of the House almost universally that as little time as possible should be occupied in this discussion consistently with the importance of the subject; and it is with the hope of abbreviating the discussion that may follow that I have risen thus early. With respect to the question raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hampshire (Mr. Sclater-Booth), it has been made clear by the speech we have just heard that the rights of the shareholders will be substantially protected. The spirit of the Standing Orders will be carried out, even if the words are for the moment set aside. The Wharncliffe meeting will be held on Monday next, and, if there be dissentient shareholders, these shareholders will not be precluded from carrying on 1713 their opposition to the Bill in precisely the same way as if the Wharncliffe meeting had been held before this stage. Therefore, allowing this stage will in no degree prejudice the right of these shareholders. There is, however, another question of which we shall probably hear a good deal, and which it is important for the House to consider. This scheme has been sanctioned by Parliament, after repeated examinations by Committees of both Houses. It has been sanctioned to this extent—that the opinion of the Legislature has undoubtedly been expressed that it is a scheme which might fairly be tried. At the same time, Parliament has laid down very extreme financial conditions under which it is to be carried out. Those conditions cannot be lightly disregarded. It is impossible to pay attention to the approval of the scheme and disregard the conditions annexed to it. Those conditions, I apprehend, were annexed on this principle—that the scheme does expose very considerable interests to some risk, and that risk ought not to be entered upon wantonly or without some substantial security—not only that the matter was prosecuted banâ fide, but was prosecuted under conditions to give guarantee of the substantial character of the undertaking. It was for that reason, I apprehend, that the strict financial conditions were annexed to the sanction given by Parliament; and the Bill now proposed is, in effect, to dispense in some degree with those financial conditions. We ought, if possible, to secure the same authority in favour of dispensation that we had in favour of originally imposing the conditions. This House, speaking of it as a body, is no more competent to undertake the question whether or no those financial conditions are absolutely necessary than it was competent to undertake the question whether the scheme, as a whole, should be passed or not; but the Committee which annexed those financial conditions to the scheme is a competent body to advise us on the question whether the conditions can be dispensed with. Without, therefore, allowing a Committee to go into the mercantile or engineering character of the scheme, or to enter on that which has been decided, it is, I conceive, a very proper thing that the precise question which is now treated in this Bill—namely, the dispensation with the finan- 1714 cial conditions—should be referred to a Committee, and before that Committee the interests which were protected by these conditions should be allowed to appear. I took the opportunity of bringing together the agents interested in this matter—the agent for the promoters, and those representing the London and North-Western Railway, the Mersey Docks, and the Liverpool Corporation—and suggested to them that the Bill might be allowed to be read a second time if it was understood that it should be referred to an ordinary Committee of four Members, and that the examination before that Committee should be strictly confined to this issue—whether the substitution of the proposed financial arrangement was one that could be sanctioned, having regard to the motive and purpose of the original arrangement, and the large amount of capital which is involved. Perhaps I may be allowed to add that since I have been in the House I have received" a message from the agent to the promoters of the Bill, stating that they assent to the condition which I proposed. In these circumstances I apprehend the opponents would be perfectly satisfied with the conditions of reference; and if the agent of the promoters, as I understand, is ready to assent to these conditions, I think the House may consent to allow the Bill to be read a second time, upon the understanding that it shall be referred to an ordinary Committee of four Members constituted for that purpose. No time should be lost in getting to work, and the inquiry, as I have said, should be confined strictly to the question as to whether the financial conditions under which the Bill was formerly sanctioned could be transformed to the proposed conditions consistently with the respect paid to those interests in regard to which the financial conditions were presumably imposed.
§ MR. HOULDSWORTH
Perhaps I may be allowed to say that the agent for the promoters had no authority to give consent to the proposal of the Chairman of Ways and Means, and I am quite sure he has not done so without authority.
§ MR. SCLATER-BOOTH
I am quite satisfied with the proposal which has been made by my hon. Friend, if my hon. Friend will undertake that the Committee shall receive an Instruction in the direction I have intimated. In that are the necessary preliminary of 1715 a reference to a Wharncliffe meeting might be waived, on the understanding that the Examiners of Private Bills should be satisfied as to the bonâ fide character of the assent of the shareholders in regard to the conditions which I have specified. In that case I shall be perfectly content to withdraw my Motion.
§ MR. COURTNEY
I assent entirely to the stipulation which has been laid down by the right hon. Gentleman. So far as the remarks of the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Houldsworth) are concerned, in reference to the assent of the agent for the promoters, I have only to say that I received the message from the agent since I entered the House.
MR. SINCLAIR&c) (Falkirk.
There is one question which I should like to put to the Chairman of Ways and Means, and it has reference to the proposed Reference to the Committee. Will the hon. Member accept the Motion which I have placed on the Paper that the Select Committee to whom the Bill is referred shall consist of nine Members; that the Petitioners against the Bill shall be entitled to be heard; and that the Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers, and records?
§ MR. COURTNEY
The proposal of the hon. Member is to increase the number of the Committee, which is always undesirable unless there is a special reason for it. I do not think it would be advisable to allow everybody to come in and to raise any matter which may not be legitimate to the issue submitted to the Committee.
§ SIR JOHN R. MOWBRAY (Oxford University)
I agree with the Chairman of Ways and Means that, as a general rule, it is undesirable to increase the numbers of a Committee, especially in a matter like this, where you have already had the question tried six times over. I think that four Members are quite sufficient to deal with such a question as that which is proposed to be referred to the Committee, and I hope the House will not consent to increase the number.
§ MR. WHITLEY (Liverpool, Everton)
On behalf of the Corporation of Liverpool, I believe I am justified in saying that they will be prepared to accept the proposal of the Chairman of Ways and Means.
I am quite ready to withdraw my Amendment, on the understanding that the Chairman of Ways and Means will frame an Instruction to the Select Committee in regard to the points which I have mentioned.
§ MR. WOOTTON ISAACSON (Tower Hamlets, Stepney)
I should like to remind the House that we have not yet had an assurance that the promoters of the Bill are prepared to accept the proposal of the Chairman of Ways and Means.
MR. HOULDS WORTH
All I have to say is that I was not made aware of the negotiations with the promoters of the Bill to which the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means has referred. I received no information upon the subject of any kind. Now, however, I am given to understand that the promoters have been consulted. I shall not, therefore, further oppose the proposition. I still hold strongly the opinion that the course suggested is unnecessary. The Bill itself distinctly provides that certain formalities must be gone through before the works are commenced, in order that Parliament may be satisfied that the financial conditions have been fulfilled. For instance, the Company are bound to prove to the satisfaction of the Board of Trade that £5,000,000 have been raised in a bonâ fide manner, and a certificate to that effect must be given before the work is begun. At the same time, as there appears to have been some kind of assent given by the promoters, although without my knowledge, to the course now proposed to be taken, I will not further oppose it.
§ MR. SINCLAIR
I cannot see that there is any great difference between the proposal of the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Motion which I have placed on the Paper; and, therefore, on the part of the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board, I may say that I do not intend to persist with my Motion. At the same time, I think there would be considerable advantage in having the matter thoroughly investigated in the way I suggested.
§ MR. ADDISON (Ashton-under-Lyne)
As the proposal of the Chairman of Ways and Means has come on the House by surprise, I should like to understand exactly what it is that is proposed to be done. It must be borne in mind that, up to the present time, the Bill has not 1717 been agreed to; and there may be fresh opponents whose opposition would have the effect of increasing, to an enormous extent, the delay which may arise in passing the Bill. What we complain of is that the course which is now being pursued may enable our opponents to do, by a side wind, something which they would not venture to do openly in the House. What I want to know is whether a number of persons who are interested in this question, but who have no locus standi, are to be allowed to appear before the Committee; and in that ease it may be necessary to give a further Instruction to the Committee, somewhat similar to that which was given on Friday night in regard to an important public measure—namely, that the Bill must be reported to the House by a certain day? Unless something of that kind is done, I am afraid that the Bill may be defeated by the opposition that may be raised to it in certain quarters, although the opponents can have but a very small interest in the undertaking. For instance, I fail to see what interest the London and North-Western Railway Company can have in opposing a Bill of this kind. The only object of the Bill is to enable the promoters to raise the money which is necessary to enable them to carry out an undertaking that has already received the sanction of Parliament, and they are simply proposing to divide their capital. When I have witnessed the alacrity with which the opponents of the measure—some of whom, I am sorry to say, are sitting near me—accepted the compromise suggested by the Chairman of Ways and Means, I fear that if they succeed in carrying their opposition much further they will prevent the ultimate passing of the Bill. Therefore, I think we ought to know who the opponents of the Bill are, and how many of them are to be allowed a locus standi, and we ought further to know, to some extent, the reasons upon which a locus standi is to be granted.
§ SIR JULIAN GOLDSMID (St. Pancras, S.)
As a shareholder of the London and North-Western Railway. I cannot, for the life of me, see what that Company has to do with the matter. This is a question solely as to how the capital is to be raised; and I think the House ought to say that the only persons concerned are the shareholders of the 1718 Company and the public. Therefore, I hope that the Instruction moved by the Chairman of Ways and Means will be a very narrow one, or we may have this result—that the persons who have opposed the measure hitherto, and who have been beaten, will raise the whole of their opposition again in a more insidious form. I therefore trust that the Chairman of Ways and Means will take care that the London and North-Western Railway Company are not allowed a locus standi.
§ MR. COURTNEY
There is, I think, no danger of the multiplication of persons having a locus standi, as the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Addison) has suggested. You may be sure the agent will not consent to that. But to enter into the question now raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras (Sir Julian Goldsmid) would be really to argue the whole question. As a matter of fact, if we are asked now to go into the question whether the London and North-Western Railway Company are to have a locus standi to oppose this Bill, it would amount to a discussion of a question which had far better be left to the Select Committee upstairs. It was in order to avoid a discussion of that kind that I suggested the compromise between the promoters and the opponents, with the sincere hope that the consideration of the matter would not occupy any considerable amount of time. In all probability, the only bodies to whom locus standi will be granted will be the London and North-Western Railway Company, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, and the Corporation of Liverpool, who, in all probability, will be represented by the same counsel, although I am not absolutely entitled to say that that will be the case. At all events, the Reference will be a most narrow one. I believe that both the opponents and promoters of the measure are actuated by a sincere desire that the matter should not occupy much time, and that the Committee should be strictly confined to the point which has been raised. The promoters of the Bill are, I believe, satisfied that the proposal will not in any way imperil the scheme, owing to the efflux of time.
§ SIR HENRY JAMES (Bury, Lancashire)
The Chairman of Ways and Moans cannot guarantee that the in- 1719 quiry will be a short one, because that must depend upon the character of the opposition. I therefore wish to give Notice that when the Chairman of Ways and Means moves the Instruction to the Committee, I shall move, as a further Instruction, that the Select Committee shall report the Bill to the House by a certain date which I shall be then prepared to give.
§ MR. SINCLAIR
May I ask the indulgence of the House in order that I may refer to an observation which fell from the hon. and learned Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Addison). The hon. and learned Member referred to the alacrity with which the opponents of the Bill had accepted the proposal of the Chairman of Ways and Means. I would only say that those opponents would very much prefer to thresh the matter out on the floor of this House rather than in a Committee upstairs; but they have accepted the suggestion of the Chairman of Ways and Means, in deference to the quarter from which it proceeded.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Amendment made, by leaving out 204 and 223.
§ Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.
§ Ordered, That Standing Orders 62 and 235 be suspended.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed.