HC Deb 09 August 1889 vol 339 cc981-91

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

* MR. H. W. LAWSON (St. Pancras, W.)

I wish to enter a protest against the underhand and even treacherous way in which, in connection with this Bill, the Government have behaved.

* THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH, Strand, Westminster)

I rise to a point of order, Sir. I appeal to you, is it right that the hon. Gentleman should term the action of the Government "underhand and treacherous."


The word "underhand" is certainly not Parliamentary.


I at once withdraw the word, Sir. I think the right hon. Gentleman entirely misunderstood the meaning I meant to convey, which was certainly not directed against him personally. I wish to explain to the House exactly what happened in regard to this Bill. This is not the original London County Council Money Bill. It is a supposititious Bill introduced by the Government after withdrawing the other without notice to the Council, and the difference between the two is this, that the eighth clause of the former which gave the Council power to pay any costs with respect to an inquiry into the water supply of London by the Council, has been withdrawn. It is, to say the least, open to doubt whether this Bill should be introduced at all. When the Local Government Bill was in Committee last Session we moved a clause placing London in exactly the same position as Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, with respect to the manner in which money should be raised, but the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board insisted that the County Council should only raise money after application to Parliament. It was then understood that this Bill should be settled between the County Council and the Government. The original Bill was so settled. There were conferences between Sir Reginald Welby, representing the Treasury on the one hand—I am not bringing him into the matter ad invidiam—and Lord Rosebery, Lord Lingen, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee on the other. This clause was agreed upon, and the Bill was introduced into this House by the Government. Lord Rosebery went abroad, and, without the Council receiving any intimation, the Bill was suddenly withdrawn owing to the opposition of persons connected with the water companies, and another Bill was introduced from which the clause objected to was omitted. I think that in this matter the people of London have been hardly used. They wish—and justifiably so—to obtain more information as to the water supply which they have to put up with. It does not follow that they will spend excessive sums to supplement inquiries which have already taken place, but they want power to make use of them which the original clause gave them. We have reason to complain that by a sort of back-stairs intrigue the clause has been spirited out of the Bill, and I hope the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be able to give us some satisfactory explanations on the subject. If the Treasury approved the Bill in the first place, why did they not adhere to it; why did they cut out this clause? The water supply of London is a matter of intense importance to the people; they have reason to complain of the defects, costliness, and impurity of the present system of supply, and they ought to have a right of inquiry. I shall, therefore, try to re-insert the clause on the Committee stage.

MR. A. BAUMANN (Camberwell, Peckham)

I think the Treasury have done wisely and well in cutting out this clause. I think it would be a monstrous thing if the County Council of London had been allowed to conduct a fishing inquiry into the capital of the water companies at the expense of the ratepayers, especially as there exists on record a very complete account of an inquiry into the water companies held not many years ago, and the members of the County Council can find out all about the water supply by consulting the evidence given before Sir W. Harcourt's Committee. Now, there are two things I should like to know. How long is the practice going to be continued of a Government official rising in his place without any explanation and introducing a Bill, of the details of which he knows nothing, and without affording any opportunity for discussing it? If the House of Commons is to exercise any effective control over the expenditure of the London County Council, Bills such as this ought to be introduced by some member of the Council who could make the details of the clauses plain to the House. Under this Bill the ratepayers of London will be called upon to supply £1,760,000, and I say that before passing it we ought to have full information given us. I do not know whether on the Motion for the SECOND READING I should be in order in referring to clauses of the Bill, but there are some in respect of which we are surely entitled to demand some explanation. Under a sub-section of Clause 5, for example, the County Council asks for £350,000, nothing being said as to the purposes for which that sum is wanted. The House is surely entitled to know what the money is wanted for. Under another sub section of the same clause the Council seek to obtain power to borrow money with the object of acquiring a site for a chamber. No sum is specified, however, and if the clause is agreed to in its present form they will be able to borrow any amount and to build themselves a "lordly pleasure house" indeed. I have heard of a sum of £3,000,000 being spent on such a purpose, and I do not believe that the ratepayers wish that so very large a sum should be spent on the construction of an Hotel de Ville for London. Again, under the Metropolitan Board of Works Act, 1881, and the Metropolitan Board of Works Bridges Act, 1884, power is given to borrow a sum of £791,000, and this Bill gives the Council power to borrow a sum of £17,000, provided that all the money borrowed and expended under these Acts does not exceed £791,000. But it seems to me that £1,100,000 has already been borrowed, and I should therefore like an explanation of these figures. Considering that the rate levied under the régime of the County Council has already reached 12d. and a fraction in the pound, I think that the representatives of the ratepayers in this House have a right to ask that the details of the Bill under consideration should be fully explained either by a Government official or by a representative of the London County Council.

MR. J. ROWLANDS (Finsbury, E.)

I will leave to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury the task of explaining to the Member for Beckham his responsibility for introducing a Bill of the details of which he knows nothing. But I think this discussion will lead the House to realise the unenviable position in which it is placed in trying to retain control over the expenditure of London. It is the result of attempting to keep London in a "go-cart." If we had been successful in our Amendment last year, we should have relieved the House of Commons of the necessity of being parties to this Bill. London ought really to be in the same position as the large Municipalities throughout the country, and I say it is impossible for Parliament to keep control over it by means of a Bill like this. Whether the expenditure is too great or not is a question which must be left to the Council's constituents. If the Council does not fulfil its stewardship honestly the ratepayers can call it to account. We in London are suffering from the present system of water supply. We want, not to rush into any scheme for buying up the water companies, but power to thoroughly investigate the sources of supply, and to ascertain whether a cheaper supply than the present cannot be obtained. Those Members of Parliament who have objected to the presence in the Bill of a clause which would have enabled the County Council to effect their purpose in this respect are either directors of existing water companies or relatives of directors. If hon. Members look at to-day's papers they will see an account of an action between a City firm and a water company. The firm owned an enormous warehouse in which hardly any water was used, and they naturally desired to be supplied by meter. They gained their judgment in the First Court they went to, but the company appealed and got it reversed. Then the City firm took the case to the House of Lords, which sustained the decision of the Court of Appeal, and it is now settled that the people of London cannot get their water supply by meterage. They must, instead, submit to pay on assessment, no matter how small a quantity of water they may require. Is there any other commodity which the people have to pay for on the same conditions?


Order, order! The water supply clause does not form part of this Bill.


Possibly I shall have an opportunity of raising this question when my hon. Friend moves in Committee to insert the clause. I think we have good cause to complain of the manner in which we have been treated in regard to this Bill. I am told that great pressure was brought to bear on the Government to cut out this clause. I do not care whether the pressure came from this side or the other side of the House; all I say is that we have a just demand for an inquiry into the water supply of London.


I think that the Metropolitan Members of this House, whether they sit on this side or on that, will desire to scrutinise very closely the large powers of expenditure which it is proposed to confer on the London County Council by this Bill; and, therefore, I trust that the hon. Member for Dundee, who represents the Council in this House, will give us some adequate explanation of the proposal. The hon. Member for Finsbury, who spoke last, said this was a matter for the London County Council itself to consider, and that it rested between the members of that body and their constituents. Well, but, Sir, for the next three years the constituents of the London County Council will have very little opportunity of saying anything on this point, or, indeed, upon many other points, as to which I suspect they will have a bone to pick with their present representatives in the London County Council when they come before them for re-election. The constitution of the London County Council has been fixed by this House with the very purpose of our exercising a certain amount of supervision over its powers of expenditure during the early period of its existence, and I venture to think that the London ratepayers are inclined at the present moment to be thankful that this House possesses that power of control. I hope that this House and that the ratepayers of London will observe that the fault found by the hon. Member for St. Pancras with this Bill is that it does not confer on the London County Council sufficiently wide powers of expenditure. I must say that from the somewhat cursory perusal I have been able to give to this Bill, it seems to me that the powers given are very large indeed, larger certainly than I should be inclined to agree to until we have had adequate explanations from those who officially speak for the County Council. I hope the ratepayers of London will observe that the hon. Member for St. Pancras wishes to enlarge these enormous powers and to enable the County Council to hold a fishing inquiry, and expend upon it a very considerable amount which will come out of the pockets of the ratepayers.


The hon. Member is attributing motives to me which are not justified. The Treasury introduced this clause into the original Bill.


The hon. Member is criticising this Bill because that clause has been omitted from it, and therefore I maintain, with all deference to him, that he does desire to give increased powers of expenditure to the London County Council.

MR. T. C. BARING (London)

I think it is perfectly impossible at this period of the Session and this hour of the night properly to discuss a Bill of this description. I also confess myself unable to reconcile the figures in the body of the Bill with the figures at either end of it, although the discrepancy may possibly admit of some explanation. For instance, although the Bill authorises the expenditure by the Council during the year of £880,000 odd, when I come to examine the figures in Clause 6, I find they do not amount to £800,000. I hope that next year, if we are to exercise any control over the expenditure of the London County Council, the Bill will be brought forward in such a form, and at such a time, that those who desire to understand what the people of London are paying for may be able to obtain the necessary information.

* MR. R. K. CAUSTON (Southwark, West)

The hon. Member for Peckham says the Government have done wisely and well in omitting the clause providing for the payment of the expenses of a water supply inquiry. I hope I shall be in order in asking the Secretary to the Treasury to explain why the Government have omitted from the Bill the clause authorising an expenditure by the London County Council for the purposes of an inquiry into the water supply of the Metropolis. The hon. Member also said that this would be a fishing inquiry. Well, I say that, fishing or otherwise, the people of London demand that there should be an inquiry into the pressing question of the water supply. Perhaps, too, I should not be out of order in pointing out to the House as regards the omitted clause——


Order, order!


At any rate, I think we may demand from the Secretary to the Treasury some explanation of the extraordinary conduct of the Government.

* MR. W. L. JACKSON (Leeds, N)

I think the explanation is very simple. The clause referred to has not been introduced, as stated by the hon. Member for St. Pancras, by the Treasury, though no doubt the Bill with that clause was sanctioned by the Treasury. The hon. Member for St. Pancras spoke of the underhand and treacherous way in which this Bill has been dealt with. I do not think they were proper words to apply to action which is taken in this House in the ordinary course of business.


Order, order! The hon. Member withdrew the words complained of.


I apologises Sir, for referring to them. I wish to say that I found, when the Bill was introduced, that there was very great opposition to the clause on both sides of the House, it being pointed out that this annual Bill had always been regarded simply and only as a Money Bill, conferring borrowing powers on the municipal authority for the purpose of carrying into effect works which had been previously sanctioned by Parliament, and it was pointed out that this clause gave power to spend money on purposes not already sanctioned by Parliament. Her Majesty's Government were of opinion that there was much weight in these objections, and that, having regard to the period of the Session, it would be unreasonable to ask the House to make this innovation. They, therefore, moved the discharge of the Order for the Second Reading of the first Bill and, brought in this amended Bill. The hon. Member for St. Pancras has spoken of the underhand conduct of the Treasury in this matter, and he states that this clause was withdrawn without any communication with the Chairman of the London County Council. But the hon. Member knows perfectly well that I endeavoured to communicate with the Chairman, and was only prevented doing so owing to his having gone abroad, and the hon. Member also knows that I did the next best thing, and communicated with the Deputy Chairman.


Lord Rosebery went abroad after the last sitting of the Council. He could have been communicated with, before that.


That does not affect my point at all. The statement has been made that no communication was made, whereas the hon. Member knew I had endeavoured to make the communication: that I communicated with the Deputy Chairman as early as I could, and that I also communicated by letter with the Council.


I learned from the Deputy Chairman that he was not communicated with.

* MR. FIRTH (Dundee)

My hon. Friend is mistaken. I wrote a letter to the Financial Secretary on the matter.


Yes, afterwards.


I have now explained to the House the course I took. The hon. Member for Peckham has asked for information as to one or two points, and, first, as to a sum of £350,000 referred to in Sub-section 2 of Clause 5. Under the Local Government Act the County Council is entrusted with the power of dealing with lunatic asylums in Surrey and Middlesex, and this sum is for the purpose of carrying out certain buildings that are required. As to the apprehensions of the hon. Member respecting the power given in respect to building a Council Chamber, these are not very well founded, as no money can he actually expended until the expenditure has been previously sanctioned by Parliament. It would not be wise to put in the Bill the sum proposed to be given for the site when negotiations are in progress as to the amount to be paid. My hon. Friend also asked as to the proposal to give power to borrow £17,000, provided the total sum borrowed for certain purposes does not exceed £791,000. He suggests that that sum has already been exceeded, and that £1,100,000 has been borrowed. But, as a fact, the £17,000 will bring the amount borrowed under the Acts of 1881 and 1884 to £791,000, and I think my hon. Friend must be confusing the figures and including sums previously authorised to be borrowed. May I add that the duty of moving the Second Reading of this Bill is not one which the Secretary to the Treasury voluntarily undertakes, but that it is a duty imposed on him by an arrangement of long standing.

MR. F. W. ISAACSON (Tower Hamlets, Stepney)

Will any amount be put in the Bill to show what will be paid for the site of the new Council Chamber?


No; I am afraid the negotiations will not be completed in time. But the agreement for purchase cannot be made without the sancton of the Treasury.


I should like to explain a matter on which a little discrepancy which has arisen. This deletion of the clause was made before I had any notice of it, and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras was the first to give me information about it. I told him when he called on me I had heard nothing about it, but subsequently I found on the Table of the Chairman of the Council a letter conveying the information.


Perhaps I ought to explain that I fell into a mistake. When I referred to the deputy Chairman I meant the hon. Baronet the Member for the University of London, and not the hon. Member for Dundee.


The titular appellation of the hon. Baronet is Vice Chairman. I may say that the clause which has been omitted is in exactly the same language as that contained in a Bill which I proposed in 1882, in the Markets Bill, which we carried through at half-past three in the morning. I think the Secretary to the Treasury has given a sufficient explanation of the Bill; but I may add that the sum of £350,000 which is authorised to he raised is for buildings which we are bound to erect.


With reference to Subsection 4, Clause 5, may I ask if any steps have been taken to see if it is not possible to alter the present offices so as to make them suitable for the Council?


I think that no one who has been through the building which the County Council are now occupying would wish them to remain there longer than possible. A Committee has thoroughly investigated the matter. We have temporarily enlarged the building, and if the hon. Member will do us the courtesy to call, I think he will fully agree with the steps we are taking to get new offices.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.