HC Deb 16 February 1888 vol 322 cc664-89

Mr. Speaker, at this hour of the night (12.55) I will be as brief as the subject can possibly admit of. The Metropolitan Board of Works, to which my Motion refers, administers, to a large extent, the municipal affairs of an area comprising 122 square miles, and that area is inhabited by a population numbering over 4,000,000; it has a rateable value of over £30,000,000; it raises for the administration of the affairs of that area a yearly income of over £1,700,000, and it is responsible for a gross debt of £27,000,000, and for a net debt of £17,000,000. I shall not be exaggerating if I say there are many independent Sovereign States in Europe who would envy the dignity of those administrative proportions. And I shall be equally in agreement with the House when I assert that it is perfectly obvious, even to the most warped and prejudiced intelligence, that a body administering affairs so large is bound to possess, if it is to be efficient, the most entire public confidence which can well be imagined. If it does not possess that confidence, and that large amount of public confidence, it will be inefficient, and it cannot in the nature of things perform its duty as it ought to do with respect to the people it is supposed to provide for. That is my first proposition, which I do not think anyone will controvert. My second proposition is, and no one will controvert it—although there are several respected members of the Metropolitan Board of Works in this House—my second proposition is that the Board does not possess that public confidence. On the contrary—for reasons which I do not care now to examine—there has been a growing diminution of public confidence in the Board of Works amongst the inhabitants of the Metropolis. The Board has altogether fallen upon evil times, and the great services the Board of Works has undoubtedly rendered to London in the way of great Metropolitan improvements has been to a large extent forgotten. The vast body of opinion in the Metropolis and outside has ceased to look to the Metropolitan Board of Works with that confidence which I venture to assert is essential to the efficient performance of its duties. Now, I do not want the House to suppose for a moment I make myself any party whatever to the allegations which have been made against the honour of the Metropolitan Board of Works as a body. I do not. But I cannot blind myself to the fact that allegations of a serious character have been made against the Metropolitan Board of Works; against their character for incorruptibility, and against their character for provident management of the vast funds which they administer. These allegations have been made from many quarters, and these allegations do not stand altogether by themselves. These allegations had been supported by public opinion in the Metropolis, and the ground on which I base my Motion to-night is not that the allegations have been made by newspapers and individuals; the foundation for the Motion which I make to the House is that these allegations have been given force to by the conduct of the Metropolitan Board of Works itself. Now, Sir, let mo for a moment summarize what these allegations are. I have taken the trouble to extract them from the various quarters from which they have emanated. In the first place, it is alleged that members of the Board and officers of the Board have been interested in syndicates or companies formed for the purpose of speculating in property required for the public use, and have gained advantages by buying or leasing property from the Board through privileged channels. It is alleged, further, that architects hold seals at the Board, and sit in judgment upon applications for building sites, being at the same time in the paid service of the applicants. It is alleged that a member of the Board was the architect for the Pavilion Music Hall; he was only nominally the architect in order to get the plans through, there being associated with him a private architect who did the work and drew the fees. I make myself no party to the allegations I have now read; but as to the latter allegation, I believe it is the fact that a member of the Board, an architect, signed the plans for the Pavilion Music Hall and the Hotel Métropole in the Northumberland Avenue. Now, it is further alleged that a member of the Board was architect of the Grand Hotel, another great hotel in Northumberland Avenue, and of a large portion of the Queen Victoria Street buildings. It is further alleged that members of the Board engaged outside in professional duties used their personal influence inside the Board in favour of schemes submitted to the Board in which they were professionally interested. It has been alleged, and it is a general allegation which is part of the former, that the letting of Board land has been in the hands of a clique which has been guided by interested and personal motives. But, Sir, these are the allegations against the Board, and I make no scruple in admitting that these allegations have been made by a newspaper—mainly by a newspaper— of no insignificant circulation, and I am told of no inconsiderable authority, The Financial News. That paper has generally summarized the public opinion which is either hostile to or suspicious of the Board of Works, and has made itself the main channel of public accusation against the Board of Works. But there are other allegations of serious import also. It is undoubtedly alleged, and I believe there is a certain amount of primâfacie evidence in support of the allegation, that members of the Board have owned newspapers or have maintained newspapers— have run newspapers, relying mainly for the support of those newspapers upon the advertisements it was necessary for the Board of Works to insert in newspapers in pursuance of their business. And I came across an article the other day in a newspaper which I hope will not excite derision in the House, as I believe it is a newspaper of influence amongst the Nonconformist Body, which contained a very remarkable statement. The paper is called The Christian Commonwealth, and on the 21st of July, 1887, this paper stated that the Board of Works is the most corrupt public body in London, that it is quite notorious amongst architects and builders that officials of the Board had been bribed. The paper states that it made the same accusation two years ago, giving names, giving facts, and it goes on to state that the proprietors were threatened with an action for libel unless they withdrew or apologized for the charges they had made, but that they declined either to withdraw the charge or to apologize for having made them. No action was brought against the paper. Well, Sir, these are the allegations, and, as I said before, they are undoubtedly allegations of a vague and general character, of an indefinite character. If they rested on the authority of newspapers alone or upon the authority of irresponsible individuals, I do not think anyone would dream of asking the House of Commons to appoint a Royal Commission, and especially one armed with the powers I propose to investigate them; but these allegations derive their force, and their strength, and their disagreeable appearance mainly from the conduct of the Board as a whole, and the statements of members of the Board made publicly at the meetings of the Board. Now I will first of all read to the House statements of members of the Board. At a meeting of the Board held on the 30th of July last year, the senior member of the Board— Mr. Richards—a man, I believe, above all suspicion of any sort or kind—a man of most honourable character, stated publicly that a Royal Commission was necessary, as in the Board's own minutes a record appeared to the effect that some of the members had made themselves very busy about sites. Mr. Laurence, a member of equally high character but not of such long standing on the Board, made a statement of immense importance at a Board meeting. He said the Estate Office was corrupt from top to bottom. Now, that statement, I believe, ha made first in a different form. He said the Board was corrupt from top to bottom, and that was naturally objected to. The Chairman of the Board called upon Mr. Laurence to withdraw the statement, and he said he had used the word Board by mistake, what he meant was the Estate Office. He said the Estate Office was corrupt from top to bottom, and that statement passed without contradiction. According to the proceedings of the Board that modification of the accusation was accepted and no protest was made against it. At the same meeting Mr. Williams, another member of the Board, stated publicly that he had been informed that a man had bought a particular piece of land, and had made a profit of £400 out of it. No one contested the statement; no one thought fit to inquire into the truth of it. Well, then, we come to a very odd story in connection with a gentleman of the name of Robertson, District Surveyor to the Board. His conduct in connection with the Pavilion Music Hall was brought before the Board, and he stated before a Committee of Inquiry that a certain Mr. Walker, who is a District Surveyor, and therefore a man in a position to know a good deal—had imputed that he, Mr. Robertson, had received £6,000 from the Colonial Institute, and that he had settled £30,000 on his wife. Mr. Robertson and Mr. Walker were summoned before the Board, and Mr. Walker denied that he had made the statement; but Mr. Robertson informed the Chairman publicly that he could tell him the name of a member of the Board who had told him Mr. Walker had made the statement. The Board did not press the matter further. Well, now I come to another very serious statement, not made by a member of the Board, but made by a Metropolitan Member of Parliament, who sits near me—the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Uxbridge Division of Middlesex (Mr. Dixon-Hartland), who went to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Matthews) on a deputation with regard to London theatres. The hon. Gentleman stated publicly—and his words were reported in The Daily Telegraph of the 16th of December last—that some of the officials of the Board applied to the theatrical managers for free tickets, pointing out that if they did not get what they wanted they had power of inspection.

MR. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)

What is the date?


The 16th of December, 1887. I have nothing to do with the rights or the wrongs of that statement; but that statement was publicly made and reported in all the Metropolitan newspapers. It has never been noticed by the Board; and no effort has been made to disprove it. I have given the House the general allegations which are made against the Metropolitan Board of Works. Now, if the House will bear with me, I will endeavour to bring before it the force which attaches to these statements from the conduct of the Board itself. The conduct of the Board itself must be examined from two points of view. It must be examined from the point of view of the manner in which it dealt with certain specific charges against individuals; and it must be examined from the point of view of the manner in which it dealt with regard to the motion made, by member after member, in favour of a public and independent inquiry. There were two distinct charges against officers of the Board, which were examined into by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The first was a charge which arose, in 1885, against Mr. Robertson, who was Assistant Surveyor to the Board of Works, and who, I believe, was the principal and the most active officer of the Estate Committee. Mr. Robertson was charged with having used his position for the purpose of making money for himself out of the leasing of sites belonging to the Board of Works. I do not wish to go into the case of Mr. Robertson; it is a very long case, and would take up too much of the time of the House; but the House can judge of the nature of the case of the Board of Works with regard to it. The Board of Works thought the charge so serious that it appointed a special committee to inquire into it. I may mention that the action of Mr. Robertson involved the Board in a charge of having improvidently disposed of the property of the public. The Board leased a very valuable site of land—I think it was the Piccadilly Circus— to a Mr. Villiers, who had been owner of the London Pavilion. The Board leased this site for a rent of £3,000 a-year, with a premium of £15,000 paid down. It was not denied that at the time an offer of a rent of £4,000 a-year was made to the Board.

MR. TATTON EGERTON (Cheshire, Knutsford)

The offer was not made at the same time.


I know my hon. Friend is well acquainted with the affairs of the Metropolitan Board of Works; but, at the same time, I am well informed.


As the offer was made through me, I think the noble Lord has boon wrongly informed.


Though made subsequently to the offer of £3,000 a-year, an offer of £4,000 a-year was made.


I rise to a point of Order. I should like to know whether if the hon. Gentleman, who was a party to the transaction, knows that the noble Lord is making an inaccurate statement, he is not in Order in stating that the noble Lord's statement is inaccurate.


The noble Lord is in possession of the House; and if the noble Lord does not give way, he is entitled to continue his remarks.


I was very careful in making this statement; and I felt that my information was above all suspicion. The fact of the matter is, this property was let for £3,000 a-year with a premium of £15,000 paid down by Mr. Villiers. Before the contract was signed an offer of £4,000 a-year was made for the same property; but it was not considered. The Board thought they ought to stand by their word. But there is this also very awkward fact as regards the charge of improvident dealing with the property of the public, that within a year this very property was sold by the lessee to a Joint Stock Company for £115,000 and £6,000 in debentures of the Company. If we take that as the value of the property, we cannot acquit the Board of having made an uncommonly bad bargain for the public. Quite apart from the question of whether the Board made a good bargain or not, we have the case of Mr. Robertson, who is accused of having derived advantage for himself and relatives out of the transaction. What was the result of the Special Committee appointed to inquire into the matter? The Report which the Committee submitted to the Board was to the effect that Mr. Robertson had been injudicious in allowing relations to become tenants of the Board without informing the Board; but they did not think there was anything worthy of more censure. The Report of the Committee was brought up to the Board; but it did not satisfy the general feeling of the Board, and an amendment was moved to dismiss Mr. Robertson. That amendment was lost by 25 to 19, upon which another amendment was moved to this effect— That the Board is of opinion that none of its officers should be interested in a financial sense in dealings with the Board's property. Considering that Mr. Robertson admitted financial connection with his brother under the assumed name of Gray in such a dealing, and considering the unauthorized substitution of one of his brothers for Mr. Foster, a tenant appointed by the Board, the Board consider such conduct is most improper and deserving of censure. The Board, as a whole, considered the conduct of Mr. Robertson worthy of censure. At the same time, they would not dismiss Mr. Robertson, who had been liable to the charges set forth. Very well, this censure was passed, apparently rather hastily and without notice, and. there was considerable doubt as to whether it should be confirmed by the Board or not. After repeated delays the censure was confirmed on the 11th of November, 1887, and on the 18th Mr. Robertson was removed from his department. He was considered to be no longer worthy to entrust with the dealings of the Metropolitan Board of Works; but from that date to this date—the 16th of February, 1888—the position of Mr. Robertson has been under the consideration of the Board, and he has been in the enjoyment of a holiday on full pay. The fact remains, that there is now in the employment of the Board of Works a man who has been censured twice—formally censured by the Board for dealings with the property of the Board, which, to say the least of it, were of a grossly improper character. That is the first case, and it is undoubtedly the fact that there is an impression in the public mind that Mr. Robertson's influence is so great with many members of the Board that the Board dare not dismiss him. It is believed there is a feeling on the part of the Board that if he were dismissed, and if, therefore, his tongue were unloosed or freed from all official responsibility in connection with the Board, he would make disclosures which might be very unpleasant. It is certainly clear, and admitted, that great efforts were made by the Board to prevent such action being taken in respect to Mr. Robertson which would have immediately been taken by any private commercial concern. Those efforts have, up to the present moment, been successful. There was one more case which attracted, if possible, more public attention, and that was the case of Mr. Hebb, who was Assistant Architect to the Board. This was called "The Theatre Scandal." Mr. Hebb, the Assistant Architect to the Board, wrote to Mr. Augustus Harris, of the Drury Lane Theatre, asking for tickets for private boxes or stalls, and the letter was published in the columns of a daily paper. This does not seem, at first sight, a very important matter; but it is, nevertheless, a matter of great importance. Mr. Hebb's duty was to look after the theatres in the Metropolis, so far as the Board was concerned; he had to see that the theatres were in a state consistent with public safety. He could make reports which might induce the Board to call upon managers of theatres to undertake certain expenditure, and Mr. Hebb, holding such a position, thought it consistent with his position to apply to the manager of Drury Lane Theatre for tickets for private boxes for himself and his friends. It has also been alleged—and not denied—that members of the Board used to apply for boxes and stalls at the theatre. Well, now, the Board thought this was a very serious charge, as indeed it was, and they appointed a committee, as they did in the case of Mr. Robertson, to inquire into the matter. The committee of the whole Board recommended that Mr. Hebb be called upon to resign. It was a much stronger committee, and a much more intelligent committee—I should say than the one which dealt with Mr. Robertson— and they recommended that Mr. Hebb should be called upon to resign. That was on the 16th of December, 1887. No decision was come to upon this recommendation, and the meeting was adjourned over the Christmas recess. On the 20th of January another report was brought up, stating that, in the opinion of the committee—now, mark this, a change had come over the spirit of the dream of the committee—having in December declared that Mr. Hebb ought to be called upon to resign, in January they said that the justice of the case would be met by the Board expressing their condemnation of Mr. Hebb's conduct, and prohibiting such practices in the future upon the pain of instant dismissal. There is a marked difference between calling on a man to resign and allowing a man to remain on, contenting themselves with a censure. But my hon. Friend the Member for the Knutsford Division (Mr. Tatton Egerton) was extremely dissatisfied with the latter view of the committee, and he moved an amendment to remove Mr. Hebb from the supervision of the theatres, an extremely good amendment. My hon. Friend was defeated upon a division, 25 voting for his amendment and 25 voting against it, the noble Chairman (Lord Maghera-morne) declining to vote. There were equal votes, and therefore the amendment was defeated, and the original motion, which declared that the justice of the case would be met by a censure, was carried by 25 votes to 17. I am informed that since their decision Mr. Hebb has been relieved of this particular branch of his duty—namely, the superintendence of theatres. But the fact remains that Mr. Hebb, who it is admitted has grossly misused his official position, remains, like Mr. Robertson, in the employment of the Hoard. These are two important cases, and they refer to very important officials of the Board, and I cannot help thinking that the House will be of opinion that it is not to be wondered at that the Metropolitan Board of Works does not command the public confidence. Now I come to the last matter which I have to bring before the House, and which, I think, is certainly the most important of all, and that is the action of the Board with regard to the motion made at the Board meetings in favour of a public and independent inquiry. I do not wish to blame the Board for the attitude they have taken up. They are, no doubt, a body of high public spirit, who are conscious of having rendered great service to the Metropolitan public, and it is natural they should be most unwilling to commit themselves to anything which might be supposed by the public to condemn themselves. The resolutions of the Board with regard to the necessity of a public inquiry show plainly how easy is the feeling of the Board in respect to these charges. On the 29th of July, 1887, after the case of Mr. Robertson, and before the case of Mr. Hebb, Mr. Fardell—a member of the Board—moved that the Government be requested to appoint a Committee to inquire as to the charges made against members and officials of the Board with reference to the sale of certain lands. This was lost on a division by one vote—17 voting against it and 16 for it. However, the majority of the Board thought they ought to do something themselves, and they appointed a special committee of their own body to inquire as to the truth of certain statements in the newspapers against officials and members of the Board with reference to the sale of land other than by public auction. Well, that committee came to an abrupt and unsatisfactory conclusion. The members of the Board who formed the committee found that no evidence was brought before them. The fact of the matter was, people declined to give evidence, and the committee had no power to examine witnesses on oath. Although the committee inquired, and although no evidence was laid before it such as the Board considered injured its character or the characters of its officers, the Board could not feel quite happy in its mind. Mr. Fardell again proposed to take steps to secure an independent public inquiry into the charges of irregularity preferred against the Board, and to communicate with the Secretary of State for the Home Department for that purpose. That motion was not pressed to a division. The mover was afraid to proceed with it, and the opponents were afraid to oppose it. A compromise was proposed, and an amendment was moved in the following terms:— Inasmuch as numerous Vestries and District Boards are of opinion, and on their part desire, that a public inquiry should be instituted into the charges made against the Board and its officials, a communication be addressed to the Home Secretary informing him that the Board will give every assistance if such an inquiry he instituted. That was agreed to, and such a communication was addressed to the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary; but I am informed that up to this date the right hon. Gentleman has not been able to give any answer to it. I hope the House sees my point—namely, that the conduct of the Board itself with regard to resolutions affirming the desirability of a public inquiry shows plainly that an inquiry is absolutely necessary. If the House bears in mind what the conduct of the Board has been and recollects also the general allegations against the Board, allegations made by individuals of the public, by members of Vestries at Vestry meetings, and by the Metropolitan Press as a whole, I think it must come to the conclusion that inquiry into the working of the Metropolitan Board of Works is needed. I can understand that there are some hon. Members who will think a Parliamentary Committee preferable to a Royal Commission. I think a Parliamentary Committee has many advantages, but there is this great disadvantage about such a Committee— that owing to its composition, and to the character of the House of Commons, a Parliamentary Committee cannot prevent itself from being more or less of a Party character. I think it would be most dangerous to the interests involved in connection with the Metropolitan Board of Works, and most dangerous to London government, if the House of Commons gave a shadow of encouragement to the introduction of Party spirit into this matter. There is this also to be said—that a Committee is rather irregular in its sittings. Its attendance is fairly good; some hon. Members attend one day and some another; and a Committee may be always brought to a conclusion by the termination of the Session, or the termination of a Parliament. I think that from every point of view, if the House comes to the conclusion that an inquiry ought to be held into these matters, a Royal Commission composed of eminent men, beyond all possibility of being suspected of any Party feeling, would be a preferable body to a Parliamentary Committee. Well, Sir, I feel I have detained the House too long. Parliament owes a great duty to the people of London. The people of London have no municipal institutions in the sense that other towns in the country have—therefore Parliament has a peculiar and special duty with regard to the people of London. The people of London unanimously demand this inquiry. There is not a single Metropolitan Member who will get up and oppose the inquiry; but the enormous majority of Metropolitan Members are in favour of it. The entire Metropolitan Press clamour for it, and on such a subject the opinion of the Metropolitan Press has great weight. Twenty Local Bodies and Vestries, representing a rateable value of over £16,000,000 out of the £30,000,000 which is the rateable value of the whole area governed by the Metropolitan Board of Works, have either petitioned Parliament, or have passed resolutions, or have written letters to the Board of Works, insisting upon and demanding inquiry. In these circumstances the House of Commons and the Government have really only one duty to perform, and that is to grant an independent public inquiry; and to be certain that the inquiry which they grant shall be a bonâ fide one—a genuine one—shall be animated by no other desire than to get at the truth. That is the plain duty of Parliament, and I venture to think there is no other duty to perform. Of course, if the Motion is acceded to, the duty will rest upon the Government of pressing whatever legislation may be necessary to empower the Royal Commission to do its duty efficiently. I beg to move— That an humble Address he presented to the Crown, praying that a Royal Commission, empowered by statute to take evidence on oath, to compel attendance of witnesses, to grant certificates of indemnity to witnesses in such cases as may be desirable and proper, and to call for all necessary records and documents, he appointed to inquire into and report upon the working of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and into the irregularities which are alleged to have taken place in connection therewith.


I think a slight alteration in the form of the Resolution is necessary in order to give efficiency to the Royal Commission, and to enable it to carry outfits duty. A better form would be— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that a Royal Commission be appointed to inquire into and to report upon the working of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and into the irregularities which are alleged to have taken place in connection therewith, and to assure Her Majesty that this House will concur in empowering such Commission to take evidence on oath, to compel attendance of witnesses, and to call for all necessary records and documents.


If you will allow me, Sir, I will move the Motion in the form you have suggested.

MR. DIXON-HARTLAND (Middlesex, Uxbridge)

seconded the Motion. There was, he said, no doubt that the Metropolitan Board of Works had lost the confidence of its constituents, and had, in the words of one of their own committee, "given rise in the mind of the public to grave suspicion and mistrust of the administration." The noble Lord (Lord Randolph Churchill) had quoted from the statements of many members of the Board and others as to the state of affairs; but, with reference to the Pavilion or Robertson case, he had omitted to state the large sum—he believed over £70,000—the Board paid the lessee for his old lease before granting him the new one at so inadequate a sum. He thought it would be of the greatest advantage to the Metropolitan Board itself that a Royal Commission should be allowed to sit, for it would enable that body to show that it was not guilty of the scandals imputed to it. It was said that the Board could not deal with its own officials, and in endeavouring to whitewash them, had taken their place at the bar of public opinion to answer the heavy indictment that had so long been accumulating against them, and therefore the sooner the Commission sat the better.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying Her Majesty that She will be graciously pleased to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into and report upon the working of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and into the irregularities which are alleged to have taken place in connection therewith, and to assure Her Majesty that this House will concur in empowering such Commission to take evidence on oath, to compel attendance of witnesses, to grant certificates of indemnity to witnesses in such cases as may be desirable and proper, and to call for all necessary records and documents."—(Lord Randolph Churchill.)


said, that in a very few words he wished to state the attitude the Government proposed to take in regard to the Motion of the noble Lord. In one sentence he would say that the Government assented to the Motion; but he would accompany that assent with one word of caution. This Royal Commission was a tremendous engine to set in motion, and one which the House of Commons ought to hesitate to set in motion merely on newspaper charges, or charges in the mouths of the public which had not yet assumed any shape of proof in the form of a civil action. If precedents were looked into, he believed that something more than mere rumour was necessary to justify the assent of the Government to an inquiry of this kind. He had, however, received communications from 27 Vestries—all the Vestries, he thought—from Boards of Works, and different Governing Bodies of London, all praying that the inquiry should be held. That, perhaps, might not be sufficient; but he had two communications from the Metropolitan Board itself on the subject. In the first, they stated that they had received numerous resolutions from local Vestries in favour of the institution of an inquiry; and that if an inquiry were instituted, and the Government would communicate with them, they would render every assistance in their power. That was not inviting an inquiry, but informing him that they would be willing to assist him if an inquiry were held. Yesterday, however, he received a further communication from, he believed, the Chairman of the Inquiry Committee, which was too long to read in full, but in which the writer stated that evidence bad been collected, and urged the Government to assume the responsibility of instituting an inquiry, or to give support to the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington (Lord Randolph Churchill) when he brought forward his proposal for the appointment of a Commission, with power to take evidence on oath and to compel the attendance of witnesses.


That is not from the Metropolitan Board of Works.


That is from the Chairman of an independent Inquiry Committee.


said that, at all events, the Metropolitan Board was an assenting party; therefore, lie thought this formidable engine should be set in motion. In assenting to the Motion, he must not be taken as endorsing the charges made against the Metropolitan Board; in fact, he trusted the result would be to exonerate them.

MR. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)

said, he did not rise to oppose the noble Lord's Motion; but he would like the noble Lord to give them some information as to the scope of the inquiry he proposed to set on foot, for he need hardly remind him that the Metropolitan Board of Works had been the local Governing Body of London since the year 1855; that of the 59 members of the Board there were no fewer than 27 who had been elected since 1885; and that it was previous to 1885 that the circumstances upon which the two main charges made by the noble Lord rested occurred. Now, he (Mr. Webster) was not a member of the Board when the circumstances occurred, and it would be as easy for him, or for any other member of the Board, to defend the Board from those charges as it would be for the present War Office to defend the administration of their Department from charges brought against it founded upon circumstances which took place during the Crimean War. The noble Lord might be able to point out two or three small slips which might have occurred in the various departments of the Metropolitan Board of Works since 1855; but that two or three small slips might have occurred was not to be wondered at when it was remembered that in one year alone the Board had to decide on something like 300,000 questions respecting the Metropolis. The noble Lord had referred to the laches of two men in one department of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Well, only two days ago it was stated by the Home Secretary in the House that he could not be responsible for the action of every policeman in the whole of the Metropolis. The right hon. Gentleman had apologized in the House for the fact that a policeman had—and in this he (Mr. Webster) quite agreed with hon. Gentlemen opposite—failed in doing his duty in a fit and proper manner. Well, when it was known that the Metropolitan Board of Works had no fewer than 1,248 officials at the present time responsible to them for their action, it would be seen that, however careful the present administrators of the Board might be, they might not always be able to prevent small slips. It was desirable, under the circumstances, that the scope of the inquiry should be known. Was it proposed to examine and inquire into each and every transaction carried out by the Board since 1855? Were they going through millions—he might say tens of millions—of matters that the Board had to do with? Why, in 1880 not a quarter of the present Board were members of that body; and how could the Board, therefore, be expected even to know what had taken place, much less be responsible for it? Certain statements had been made with regard to the working of the Board. He could not speak as to what the working had been in the past, as he was only a new member of the body, having sat on it but a couple of years; but he could say that the Board now did its work in a very efficient and business-like manner. There were 59 members; and out of that number from 54 to 56 were constantly in the habit of attending the meetings. The work of a member of the Metropolitan Board was, with the exception of a very short recess in the autumn, continuous; and they were unable, therefore, to find time to take tours, as hon. Gentlemen and noble Lords were, in Russia and elsewhere. He himself had done his duty to the best of his ability, and during the past winter and autumn had given from 20 to 30 hours per week voluntary service in the Board's work. In 1885 there had been no fewer than 388 meetings—Board meetings, committee meetings, and subcommittee meetings. The House of Commons had from time to time thrust on the Metropolitan Board of Works very difficult duties. They had placed upon them the responsibility of carrying out 100 Acts of Parliament relating to drainage, Thames floods prevention, Metropolitan improvements, parks, and open spaces. As to the question of parks, he might state that the Board had under its jurisdiction and control 2,300 acres of parks and open spaces, 300 of which had been removed from the control of the First Commissioner of Works to that of the Metropolitan Board of Works by the Parks and Open Spaces Bill of last Session. As to who was the noble Lord's informant as to the working of the Board, no doubt it was Mr. Fardell, who was Chairman of the Finance Committee for two years. From the statements in the papers and the statement of the noble Lord to-night it was no doubt this gentleman who was supplying the noble Lord with information.


said, the hon. Gentleman himself was, to some extent, his informant, for he had seconded the motion for inquiry made at the Metropolitan Board of Works by Mr. Fardell.


said, the noble Lord went rather beyond his (Mr. Webster's) views in seconding the Motion. His intention in seconding the Motion was this. He had stated pretty distinctly that he did not think the Metropolitan Board of Works required inquiring into for any laches on their part; but he had been of the same opinion as the noble Lord that there was a general feeling in the Metropolis that after this Board had been in working for 33 years, and there had been a newspaper published apparently for no other purpose than to abuse the Board, and after various Vestries in the Metropolis had asked for an inquiry, an inquiry was desirable not, as some would think, as an attack upon the Board, but rather for proving to the Metropolis and to the country the, excellent and efficient work the Board had done. The Board had had to take over important bridges; they had important duties to discharge in regard to the Fire Brigade of London, and it was a fact that the cost of the Fire Brigade to the inhabitants of London was only one-ninth of the cost that fell upon the inhabitants of New York. If they were to have an inquiry which was to ramble over all the questions which the Metropolitan Board of Works had dealt with since 1855, they might go on inquiring for the next 50 years. The Board had to carry out the various Acts of Parliament respecting buildings in the Metropolis. They had to make arrangements regarding the testing of gas, with a view to seeing it was of the quality prescribed by Act of Parliament. [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite appeared to be in a right good humour. If he were allowed, he would add to their amusement by stating various other duties which the Metropolitan Board of Works had to perform. The Board had to look after slaughter-houses, the storage of petroleum, Contagious Diseases (Animals) Acts, and the storage of explosive substances. The gentleman to whom the noble Lord had alluded was for two years the Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Board. What did that gentleman say in bringing in his report of the Estimate for the year 1887? He said— I also desire to again express my appreciation of the admirable manner in which the books and accounts are kept, as well as my obligations to the officers who have assisted me in dealing with a somewhat difficult and complex subject. When the friend of the noble Lord made those observations, he was not altogether in unison with the noble Lord on all points. For instance, he severely criticized the speech the noble Lord, made when a certain deputation went to him asking for a renewal of the Coal and Wine Dues. It was not only the noble Lord who was mistaken in regard to matters in which the Metropolitan Board of Works had to deal, but the Treasury also laboured under the wrong impression. In 1883 it was stated by the Treasury that the debt of the Board amounted to £19,000,000, but at that time it was clearly shown that the Board's net indebtedness only amounted to £14,815,000. The Treasury, therefore, were misinformed to the extent of between £4,000,000 and £5,000,000 sterling. There was one fact deserving of notice; it showed the confidence felt by the mercantile community in the work of the Metropolitan Board of Works. In 1874 the Board issued a loan at the rate of 3½ per cent. That loan was taken up at £94 and some odd shillings. In December of last year the Board issued a loan at 3 per cent, and it was taken up at £100 and some odd shillings. Now he did not intend to dwell upon the Robertson incident, though invariably, in the course of the discussions at the Board, he voted with the minority. He would, however, refer in some detail to the more recent case of Mr. Hebb. Whilst he voted with the minority for the instant dismissal of Mr. Hebb, he acknowledged that subsequently, when he made close inquiry as to the work done by Mr. Hebb in regard to theatres, he found that Mr. Hebb had done his work in a most strict and honourable way. He voted for the dismissal of Mr. Hebb, because he considered that official had written letters of an improper nature, because he had proved himself unworthy of the confidence of the Board, though he had not injured the business of the Board. But it should be borne in mind that the existence of those letters was long known to a gentleman who had not now a seat in the House of Commons, and to another Gentleman who was now a Member of the House. The existence of the letters was known three years before they were disclosed, either to Members of the House of Commons or of the Metropolitan Board of Works. He contended that when gentlemen heard of the letters it was their duty to bring their existence to the notice of the Metropolitan Board, but they did not do so. They kept the letters in their pockets till it was understood a Bill to regulate theatres in London was to be introduced by the Board of Works. He was glad to hoar the Home Secretary state that he intended to bring in a Bill for the protection of life against the danger of fire in theatres throughout the country, and he hoped that, in conducting the Bill through the House, the right hon. Gentleman would not forget the action of certain managers of theatres in keeping back the fact that the letters in question had been written. The work which the Board had to do was of an administrative and not a legislative character, and he contended that the Governing Body in London was responsible for very important undertakings directly connected with the welfare of the Metropolis of the Empire. The administration of local government in the Metropolis should be the best in the country, and in his belief, as far as the Board of Works was concerned, he was not sure it was not so at present. He was not going to refer to the fact that there were many towns in the country whose rates were very much higher than were those which prevailed in London, and that whilst the Metropolitan Board, for the last 33 years, had the management of most of the important local ques- tions affecting a population of over 4,000,000, and had been attacked, time after time, regarding the various important works they had constructed, on nearly every occasion popular opinion had been wrong, and the Board right. He was not going to lay very much stress on the fact that since the Metropolitan Management Act was carried in 1885, and since the Metropolitan Board of Works had come into existence, that the death-rate in London had fallen from 29 per 1,000, to 19 or 20 per 1,000, due, no doubt, to the colossal works of main drainage. It was easy, and it was simple, for the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington, amidst the millions of transactions which were undertaken by the Board, to pick two or three matters in which not the public Press alone, but also public opinion, had come to incorrect conclusions. But he did say to such that the inquiry, if one at all were held, should be of a thoroughly satisfactory character, because he believed that if it were carried through it would show the tremendous amount of work of a useful and valuable character that the Metropolitan Board of Works had done since 1855, and it would show also how well that work had been accomplished, beginning with the construction of the Thames Embankment, and coming up to, he believed not ending by, the opening of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, Putney and Hammersmith Bridges, and many parks and open spaces in and around London. The inquiry, in his belief, could only strengthen the present government of London; and though some of the hon. Members opposite might desire to see it based on more democratic lines, they were not likely to secure their aim by bringing forward matters of complaint for which there was no good foundation. The Metropolitan Board of Works had now such undertakings under their charge as the making of the Blackwall Tunnel, the purchase of land for a people's park, and great works of drainage and new streets. They had brought about the erection of a large number of artizans' dwellings. But when they were transacting this kind of business, the Press took no notice of their doings. These matters were treated as comparatively unimportant; but immediately a reporter was able to find out some little scandal, the publication of which was likely to sell his paper, then a great deal of fuss was made over it. He would support the Motion of the noble Lord, lie would not go as far as saying that, amidst the countless transactions, one or two mistakes might not have been made; but he believed the work generally would be found to have been done not only efficiently, but honourably also, and he hoped the inquiry would be made a practical one.

MR. BROADHURST (Nottingham, W.)

said, he wished to move an addition to the noble Lord's Motion. He would ask the House to add after the word "therewith," "and also in the transactions of all such of the London Vestries and District Boards as the Commissioners may deem necessary." He was very glad to hear the noble Lord say that he was desirous of making this inquiry full, complete, and effective; but it was impossible for the noble Lord to accomplish that without adopting the words which his (Mr. Broadhurst's) Amendment suggested. The object should not merely be to secure an inquiry into the working of the Board of Works, but into all questions arising within the Board of Works; and any Commission that might be appointed would soon discover their movements hampered to a serious extent, if the noble Lord's Motion were carried in the form proposed. The fact was that the Board of Works and the London Vestries were inextricably mixed up, and unless a Commission had power to inquire into the doings of the Vestries as well as of the Board of Works the appointment would be useless, and no good results could ensue. The Vestries were constantly engaged in large and important financial transactions, and while he was not proposing to make any specific charge against any individual Vestry that night, yet he ventured to say that there were transactions in connection with those bodies that required an independent inquiry. He understood that an objection against the Amendment was that it would unduly prolong the inquiry; but in reply to that he had to point out the terms of the Proviso were entirely permissive, and it would not be compulsory on the Commissioners who might be appointed to inquire into the doings of anyone of the Vestry. They could let them alone if they thought fit, but if they came to the conclusion that there was necessity for an inquiry, then they would have full power to make that inquiry. He therefore ventured to submit that the addition of the words he had proposed would not in any way increase the length of the inquiry, yet it would make the investigation thorough and complete; and he sincerely hoped that the House would agree to add the words. He might say that Mr. Mark Judd, one of the noble Lord's constituents, who was a great authority on London municipal affairs, had written a letter, strongly supporting his Amendment; and he would, in conclusion, only say that he relied on the common sense of the Home Secretary, who had charge of that question, to secure the adoption of the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, After the word "therewith," to insert the words "and also in the transactions of such of the London Vestries and District Boards as the Commissioners may deem necessary,"— (Mr, Broadhurst,)

Question proposed, ''That those words be there inserted."

MR. PICKERSGILL (Bethnal Green, S.W.)

said, that, as a London Member, he rose to support the Amendment, and to express satisfaction with the original Motion, so far as it went. He thanked the noble Lord for having brought it forward, because it was likely to prove exceedingly useful, and he believed it would be rendered even more useful by the addition of the words proposed by the hon. Member for West Nottingham. The Metropolitan Board of Works was founded on the Vestries. The whole system was one system. It would stand or fail as a system; and if there were corruption, it was corruption throughout, and the charges which were made against one were, to a large extent, equally applicable to the other. He believed the inquiry could not be sufficient without the addition of the words contained in the Amendment. And he further was of opinion that the investigation would afford admirable material for their future consideration when dealing with the government of London.

MR. TATTON EGERTON (Cheshire, Knutsford)

said, that though he agreed with the Motion of the noble Lord, he did not quite coincide with the reasons advanced in support of it. The Board had been attacked on two particular grounds—the Robertson case and the Hebb ease. He was sorry to have to traverse the statements of the noble Lord, but he felt compelled to do so. It had been asserted that £3,000 was offered by Mr. Villiers as rent, and £15,000 down as well. The fact was that the rent was to be £3,000, and the £15,000 represented the value of the licence when obtained. It was further stated that a rent of £4,000 was offered simultaneously by another gentleman. But, as it happened, that latter offer was not made until after Mr, Villiers' terms had been accepted, and the Board had decided to give Mr. Villiers the plot of ground on the terms of the architect's valuation. The question was thoroughly discussed, and the Board came to the conclusion that a tenant who had been able to maintain a licence was a valuable tenant, and one to whom the plot should be sold, not alone on the architect's valuation, but also on the valuation obtained from independent valuers. As to Mr. Hebbs case, a grave charge had been made, and it had been made in a most improper manner. The letters on which it was based had been suppressed; indeed, they had only been brought up for a particular purpose. The gravamen of the noble Lord's charge was that the Board did not immediately dismiss Mr. Hebb. He (Mr. Tatton-Egerton) could not vote—he could not agree with some of his Colleagues that there should be any dismissal at all. He could only agree in removing him from his work in connection with the theatres—work upon which he had been engaged for a long time— and he did not think that there ought to be a dismissal simply because he had committed an offence of that kind, especially as he had not re-committed it subsequently. He believed that the accusation made in the newspapers was unsupported, and when an inquiry was offered—when a public inquiry was offered—there was no proof forthcoming in support of the allegations against Mr. Hebb. They must remember that he had done good service for the Board for many years, and the case was not one in which dismissal was called for.


said, that on behalf of the Government he was unable to assent to the Amendment. A Commission that was intended to possess power to give indemnity to witnesses pre- supposed that there had been something criminally wrong, and that it was impossible to discover it without giving indemnity to people who might be called upon to incriminate themselves. He believed that an inquiry into the work of the Vestries was entirely outside the necessities of the case. There were no charges whatever suggested against any one of these Bodies, and it struck him that the House of Commons should hesitate to say at half-past 2 in the morning that they would grant a Commission such as had been asked for. Not a single Vestry had been named, not a charge had been mentioned, "which ought to have been inquired into. The hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. Broadhurst) had merely suggested that the Metropolitan Board of Works was connected with the Vestries, and that they were based upon one system. But it did seem to him that in the absence of any definite charges he ought not to be called upon to assent to the proposed addition to the Motion.

MR. J. ROWLANDS (Finsbury, E.)

said, it was a source of satisfaction to him that the Government had assented to the Motion of the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington. During the last Session, he (Mr. Rowlands) suggested to the First Lord of the Treasury that it was desirable that a Commission of that kind should be appointed. He looked upon this as a very serious matter indeed. He did not think, with all due respect to hon. Gentlemen who sat upon the Metropolitan Board of Works, that all had been said with regard to that Board that could be said in connection with the Hebb and Robertson cases. He wanted to have a thorough investigation into the various transactions of the Board of Works, and he was not afraid if they went back for the purposes of the inquiry to the year 1855. He did not stand there as a defender of the Vestries; but he knew a great deal about them, and he was certain that their transactions alone would form ample work for a special and separate Commission. He hoped that the Commission would not be endangered by the suggestion of his hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham; but he was prepared to go with him entirely in a proposal for a separate investigation into the conduct of the Vostries of London.


said, he was in a position to state that some of the observations made by the noble Lord the Member for South Padding-ton were of doubtful accuracy; for instance, the increased price obtained from a company by Mr. Villiers for the Pavilion site, He believed, included the building, which hadcost£50,000 atleast. He did not intend to oppose the Motion for a Commission; but lie hoped the House would quite understand that the newspapers were inclined to exaggerate what had taken place. The Metropolitan Board of Works itself could not ask for a Commission; but they were only too glad that the Home Secretary was willing to grant one, and that some Member had taken upon himself the responsibility of asking for its appointment, because they would be relieved of the accusations which had been levelled against them for so long a time. With regard to the Hebb case, he wished to remark that when the committee first recommended the Board to dismiss Mr. Hebb they had not heard him in his own defence; they came to a too hasty conclusion; but after the Board had heard him, and bearing in mind the services he had rendered them in the past, they felt bound not to adopt the committee's recommendation. He was glad that the Commission was to be appointed; because he believed that the members were free from any blame in connection with the charges which had been brought against, the Board, and he was also convinced that in the result it would be found that the allegations made against the officers of the Board were in the main unfounded.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 39; Noes 130: Majority 91.—(Div. List, No. 4.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty, praying Her Majesty that She will be greatly pleased to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into and report upon the working of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and into the irregularities which are alleged to have taken place in connection therewith, and to assure Her Majesty that this House will concur in empowering such Commission to take evidence on oath, to compel attendance of witnesses, to grant certificates of indemnity to witnesses in such cases as may be desirable and proper, and to call for all necessary records and documents:—To be presented by Privy Councillors.