HC Deb 05 May 1887 vol 314 cc931-40

Order for Third Beading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."—(Mr. Dodds.)

MR. KELLY (Camberwell, N.)

in rising to move— That the Bill he re-committed to the former Committee, with respect to two new Clauses (rates at which water is to be supplied for domestic purposes) and (Duty to public accounts), said: I do not apologize for proposing the recommittal of the Bill, because from the point of view which I take of this measure, I consider it of the greatest importance that the circumstances of the case should be fairly stated to the House. It cannot be stated, as a matter of fact, that this Bill has ever been before a Committee in any proper sense, nor has there bean any opportunity afforded for those who are most interested in it to oppose it. The Bill was undoubtedly sent to a Committee, but those whose rights wore endangered had no opportunity of appearing before that Committee, I feel bound to notice shortly the reason why the ratepayers were not represented before the Committee. A Resolution was proposed at a meeting of the Local Board of Sutton for the presentation of a Petition, asking that the ratepayers should be allowed to oppose the Bill. That Resolution was resisted by the Water Company, but was carried, and a Petition was accordingly presented to the House of Commons; and the House allowed the ratepayers to come in. If nothing further had been done, there would have been no discussion upon this Bill, except in Committee. But an extraordinary and unwarrantable action was taken by the Water Company through one of their Directors by several of their shareholders. At a subsequent meeting of the Local Board, the Resolution authorizing the Local Board to oppose the Bill was rescinded by a majority of 1.


I rise to Order. I wish to know, Sir, whether the hon. Member is entitled, in discussing a proposal to recommit this Bill for the purpose of inserting certain new clauses, to enter into the general question of the Bill itself.


The hon. Gentleman proposes to re-commit the Bill for the purpose of inserting now clauses, and the discussion must be confined to the new clauses which he proposes to insert.


I wish to confine myself strictly to your ruling, Sir; but it will be impossible to argue the question whether the Bill should be re-committed or not, unless I am able to state the reason why the Bill was not opposed before the Select Committee, as it certainly ought to have been. I venture to think I am in Order, and I propose to be very brief in my remarks. I say that the Resolution of the Local Board to oppose this Bill was rescinded by a majority of 1.


I beg again to rise to Order. The hon. Member, Sir, is entirely disregarding your ruling.


I have not heard yet what the point is which the hon. Member desires to raise. The clauses which he proposes to insert, if the Bill is re-committed, relate to the rates at which water is to be supplied for domestic purposes, and the duty of the Company to publish accounts.


I am obliged to give reasons for proposing the insertion of those clauses. Unless I can satisfy the House that the ratepayers of Sutton have been shut out from a hearing before the Committee by what I conceive to be most unfair and unwarrantable action on the part of the Water Company, I do not see how I can justify the course I am now taking. I may say at once that I should have shrunk from troubling hon. Members with the matter at all unless I had felt satisfied that corrupt influence had been used to shut out the ratepayers from being represented before the Committee. I hope then that I am not doing wrong when I repeat again that the Motion rescinding the Resolution to oppose the Bill was passed by a majority of 1. I wish to call the attention of the House to the fact that in the majority which voted to rescind the Resolution there was one Director and two large shareholders of the Water Company. Consequently, gentlemen who had been elected to protect the interests of the ratepayers, voted against those interests, and prevented the Bill from being properly discussed before a Committee. In the interests of the ratepayers, having, I trust, satisfied the House that the ratepayers were improperly shut out on that occasion, I would venture to say one word as to the principle which usually guides the deliberations of this House in reference to Private Bills. The Water Company is now coming here to ask for powers to double their capital, and they are asking for very extraordinary powers which are now never conceded in any modern Bill, and as far as I know are not conferred upon any Water Company. I do not think it is ever found now that the words "Annual rack rent and valuation" are introduced into a Bill, and if any Company happens to come here which possesses that right it is generally exorcised from the provisions of their Bill. Of course it is our duty to revise whatever power may have been improperly or wrongly conferred upon a Company, and to revise them in the interests of the ratepayers, so that they may be made just and right. This House has done that over and over again, and has even gone a great deal further. I will only call the attention of the House to the case of the Vauxhall and Southwark Water Company. They wore required not only to do what I ask a Committees to do in this case, but a great deal more, because that Company was compelled to put by a certain sum of money to provide the payment of interest upon capital. I ask for nothing of that kind here. There was another point then raised. It was made competent for the ratepayers, as has been provided successfully in other cases, to secure that the maximum of 10 per cent profit should be reduced to 7 per cent. A provision of that kind is not asked for now. This Company is entitled to pay 10 per cent, and more than that, they are further allowed to pay back dividends for a great number of years up to 10 per cent. The Sutton Water Company now come before the House to ask for power to raise new capital. I do not for a moment mean to say that they ought not to be allowed to raise new capital, but what I do say is that they ought only to be allowed additional capital on condition of paying due regard to the wants and interests of the ratepayers. Our complaint is that in asking for fresh capital the Company propose to obtain it upon a different principle from that which has guided the House in other cases, and therefore I propose that— From and after the passing of this Act the Company shall be entitled, in the case of a supply of water for domestic purposes to any private dwelling house or part of a private dwelling house, to charge only at a rate per centum not exceeding five pounds per centum on the net rateable value upon which the assess- ment to the poor's rate is computed in the parish or district where such dwelling house is situate: Provided always, That the Company may charge for a supply of water which cannot be supplied by gravitation from any of their reservoirs, seven pounds ten shillings per centum per annum on the net rateable value of the promises supplied; "and" That the Company shall publish half-yearly a full statement of its income and expenditure from all sources whatsoever, together with full particulars of its capital account in two local newspapers in the district supplied by the Company. I have called attention to the fact that the words contained in the Company's Act are "Annual rack-rant and valuation." My contention is that in accordance with the principle which has guided recent legislation in regard to Water Companies those words "Annual rack-rents and valuation" should be altered into "Annual rent and annual valuation." I maintain that those words come strictly within the ruling of the case of Dodds against the Grand Junction Company, when the highest tribunal in this country held that the words of the Act did not mean the annual gross value but the annual net value. I have only very little more to say. If the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Epsom Division of Surrey (Mr. Cubitt) is prepared to contend that this application is not made in the interests of the ratepayers of Sutton. I would point out to the House that the right hon. Gentleman places himself in this singular position, that he is arguing that the ratepayers of Sutton are anxious to pay a great deal more for their water supply than they ought to pay. I think that will be a very difficult proposition to establish to the satisfaction of the House. I will only point out, in conclusion, that I am simply asking for the re-committal of the Bill in reference to these clauses, and I trust I have satisfied the House that it is owing to the unscrupulous action of those who are directly interested in stifling the voice of the ratepayers that this question was not discussed in Committee at the time it ought to have been discussed. I venture to think that if I have established that allegation the House will really have no option but to consent to the re-committal of the Bill in order that these clauses may be considered and dealt with.

Amendment proposed, To leave out the words "now read the third time," in order to add the words "re-committed to the former Committee with respect to two new Clauses (Rates at which water is to be supplied for domestic purposes) and (Duty to publish accounts)."—(Mr. Kelly.)

Question proposed, "That the words 'now read the third time' stand part of the Question."

MR. CUBITT (Surrey, Mid)

I am sorry, Sir, on behalf of the promoters of the Bill that I am compelled again t trouble the House upon this question. I hardly ever remember a case in which an ostensibly unopposed Bill has been so deliberately opposed in all its stages except in the proper place—namely, before a Select Committee of this House. I do not wish to detain the House by entering into the technical question which the hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Kelly) has introduced, but I must protest against the words "unscrupulous action," as applied to certain Members of the Local Board of Sutton. I would point out to the House that the Sutton Water Company is purely a Local Company, and that a great many of its shareholders, who live in the locality, have no other object than that of benefitting the ratepayers. It so happens that some of them are members of the Local Board, but it also happens that after the Bill had been road a second time the House treated all those who were interested in the matter with special indulgence. The opponents went before the Committee on Standing Orders, and obtained additional time to enable them to oppose the Bill before a Select Committee. Before the Committee sat the various questions in dispute were settled with the Local Board, and the Local Board withdrew all their opposition. The result was that this measure, instead of being referred to an ordinary Select Committee, went, as an unopposed Bill, before the Committee presided over by the Chairman of Ways and Means. Having made that explanation I am bound to say that I think this is a question which cannot be entertained by the House in this way. It is a somewhat strange thing that, although this Bill has been debated on three or four separate occasions in this House the particular clauses which the hon. Member now moves never appeared upon the Paper until a few days ago, nor was the question raised at all until the Bill had been read a second time; and, therefore, I think it would be a very singular course to take to refer the Bill back again to a Committee. I believe that the Committee over which the Chairman of Ways and Means presides would not be competent to deal with such questions as those which are raised in these new clauses. The question is one which relates to the percentage to be paid to the shareholders, and would require to be considered upon evidence which the Committee on Unopposed Bills is not competent to take. I, therefore, hope to have the authority of the Chairman of Ways and Means for opposing the unusual course which the hon. Member for North Camber well now proposes to take.


I may say that I have a considerable property interest in Sutton, but I have no connection with this Water Company. I wish, however, to point out that it would be a serious matter if, in regard to this Bill, we were to adopt a mode of procedure, which is altogether unusual. It seems to be thought now that after a Private Bill has been read a second time and considered by a Select Committee, it should be subjected to opposition on the Report stage, or upon the third reading. This is a case of that kind. All these matters have been gone into since the Bill was brought before the House, and now an attempt is made to re-open the whole question. I must say that it appears to me that unless we consent to depart altogether from the ordinary Rules and practice of the House with reference to Private Bill Legislation we ought to pay no attention to the proposal which is now made. At the same time, I am perfectly ready to admit that these clauses are very reasonable if they had been brought before the Committee at the proper time, and under proper circumstances. I must, however, strenuously resist this attempt upon the part of the hon. Member for North Camberwell to alter the practice and spirit which has hitherto guided our Private Bill Legislation.

MR. COGHILL (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I would remind the House that there was a long contest in the Law Courts over this particular question of the rateable value. Having had that question thoroughly ventilated I think Parliament would stultify itself if it omitted to put the words proposed by the hon. Member into this Bill. I also support the proposal of the hon. Member in the interest of the shareholders of this Company, because there are numerous instances in which Water Companies have been known to behave with lavish extravagance towards the water consumers. In more than one case they have provided the consumers with altogether extraneous articles, such as eels and other solid matter, which ought, in the interests of the shareholders, to have been charged for, and they ought not to have been allowed to make these gratuitous presents to the consumers without receiving payment for them. No doubt, the Company have a right to be paid for what they supply to the consumers of water; but I am afraid that their customers very much object to this extraneous matter and these foreign substances being supplied to them at all. I feel bound, on this occasion, to support, cordially, the Motion of the hon. Member.


The hon. and learned Member who has just spoken (Mr. Coghill) has treated the question in a somewhat abstract fashion, without reference to the particular objections which have been urged against the Bill. I am not going to enter into the questions which have been submitted to the House by the hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Kelly). The case is this. This is a Motion for the third reading of a Private Bill. If the Bill had gone before an opposed Committee, the questions now raised by the hon. Member for North Camberwell in which the hon. and learned Member behind me (Mr. Coghill) feels interested could have been argued and decided there; but the Local Authorities who might have brought these questions before the Select Committee failed to take the necessary steps for doing so. And now, upon the third reading, it is desired to have the whole matter sent back to the Committee, in order to do that which could have been done in the first place if the opponents of the Bill had taken the proper steps for enforcing what they say they now desire. The proposal of the hon. Member for North Camberwell is to send the Bill back to the same Committee; but I venture to say that the same Committee would not undertake this duty. It is a duty which can only be undertaken after hearing evidence. It is altogether new matter, which only an unbiased Committee could possibly decide after hearing evidence. If the House sends the Bill back to the Committee on Unopposed Bills we shall only have to report that the case is not one that can be entertained by us, and we shall find it necessary to ask the House to treat it as an opposed Bill, and to appoint a Committee to consider the matter. It is very unfortunate that the opponents, by their own laches, should have lost their opportunity of contesting the Bill. Allow me to point out that, although the House will probably affirm the third reading of the Bill, it has yet to go before another House, and if the opponents have no opportunity before the House of Commons they may be able to obtain one for opposing the Bill "elsewhere;" and in that case the questions now raised can be fully fought out in a Committee of the House of Lords. The whole matter can then be fully investigated and decided. I hope the House will refuse to enter into the merits or demerits of the particular proposals now made in respect of these clauses, and will simply insist upon reading the Bill a third time.


Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman who spoke from the Opposition Benches (Mr. Coghill), will allow me to remind him that some of the substances he has mentioned as having been found in the Metropolitan water supply are not foreign substances at all. I only rise, however, to say that if this Bill is referred back to the Committee, the opponents of the measure will be in no better position than they were when the Bill was considered on a previous occasion, because I understand that neither the hon. Member for North Camberwell, nor any person on his behalf, nor any person on behalf of the oppressed ratepayers of Sutton, will be able to go before that Committee to support the clauses which the hon. Member wants the Committee to insert. Under these circumstances, it does appear to me that the hon. Gentleman has a very bad case. I think it would be rather hard for the House to re-commit the Bill for the purpose of having a matter considered which it is quite impossible to get properly considered, even if the Bill is referred back to the Committee.

MR. E. CHAMBERLAIN (Islington, W.)

I have only one word to say. The hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Moans said the third reading ought to be passed, because no opposition was offered to the provisions of the Bill when it was before the Committee. The hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Kelly), however, has stated that the Local Board of Sutton passed a Resolution that a Petition against the Bill should be presented, praying that they might be allowed to oppose the Bill in Committee, and that this Resolution was subsequently rescinded by a majority of I only. Certainly, if, as has been alleged, the majority who rescinded the Resolution included a Director and certain shareholders of the Sutton Water Company who did not scruple to vote against the interests of the ratepayers, I think that is a matter which justifies the hon. Member in asking for the re-committal of the Bill. If this fact is accurately stated, it is quite evident that the present consumers were prevented from being properly represented when the Local Board came to their final decision. I think we ought to receive some explanation of this circumstance from those who are now supporting the Bill, in order to show whether or not the Local Board abstained from opposing the Bill under such peculiar and objectionable circumstances.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 192; Noes 102: Majority 90.—(Div. List, No. 109.)

Main Question put.

Bill read the third time, and passed.

Forward to