HC Deb 04 July 1889 vol 337 cc1484-93

Order read, and Motion made, "That the Bill be now read a third time."

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

I rise to oppose the Bill at this its last stage, and I do not think I shall be acting unreasonably if I recall the pledges of the Government with regard to this matter at an earlier period of the Session, and show how they have been fulfilled. On the 25th March last, the hon. Baronet the Member for the Barnard Castle Division (Sir Joseph Pease) asked the First Lord the following question:— Whether he had noticed that at a recent meeting of the London County Council, that Council declared its opinion, by a majority of 76 votes to 31, "That it was inexpedient to renew the London Coal and Wino Duties Act,' which was to expire in July, and the hon. Baronet asked whether her Majesty's Government were still of opinion that that Act should not be renewed. Now, before I give the First Lord's reply to that question I should like to point out how the hon. Baronet plays fast and loose with the County Council. At one time he puts the decision of the London Council Council on this coal question in the fore part of his argument, and at another time he tramples on the opinion of that Council with contempt. Well, this is what the First Lord of the Treasury said in reply:— The Government adhere to the view that they have repeately expressed, that this is a question primarily for the decision of the Metropolis itself, and they will not, therefore, take any steps to bring about a renewal of the Act in question. Now, I confess I am at a loss to see how the right hon. Gentleman can honourably reconcile that pledge with the action he took a fortnight ago, and yesterday, and again to-day, having regard to the position he has given this Bill in the order of business. The plea has been put forward of urgency, amounting almost to necessity, but who is responsible for a considerable measure of the delay that has occurred? What are the facts? The Second Reading of this Bill was taken on Wednesday, May 22nd, and it was not until Friday morning of the following week that the promoter of the Bill placed upon the Notice Paper his motion for the appointment of a Committee. I have no doubt the interval was fruitfully employed. It was used, no doubt, in negotiations between the hon. Baronet on this side (Sir Joseph Pease) and the hon. Baronet who represents the City on that side (Sir R. Fowler), and also, as some of us know, in the comings and goings of the City Remembrancer and other too familiar features of the progress of the intrigue between the City of London and Members of this House. Last evening we had the advantage of hearing, besides the speech of the hon. Member for St. Pancras, who we are informed was in a minority of one on the Committee, speeches front the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Baumann), and the right hon. Member for Leeds (Sir Lyon Playfair). As regards the speech of the hon. Member for Peckham, who is so far as I can see not now present, I need not say much, but this I think I may say, that an hon. Member who deliberately makes the statement that the Charters of the City of London have been confirmed by statute shows that ho has not even grasped the A B C of this question. One word in regard to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds. I venture to think that the right hon. Gentleman scarcely spoke with his usual ingeniousness. at all events I am sure he did not speak with scientific precision, for he quoted the mere gloss put by the ingenuity of a City official upon an Act of Parliament as if it were the Act of Parliament itself. We were told that these bonds for the repayment of money borrowed in connection with the Holborn Valley improvement were issued on the security of the prescriptive rights of the City. Well, what are the terms of the statute as to security? That primarily the security should be the statutory duty of four pence, and secondarily the security was to be the estates and revenues of the Corporation. Nothing is said and nothing was intended to be said at that time by either party as to alleged prescriptive rights of the Corporation. It is not my purpose to detain the House. Last night we bad the advantage of hearing what I am sure I shall have the concurrence of hon. Members in describing as the masterly treatment of the subject by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dundee (Mr. Firth). That speech has not been answered, and personally I retain the opinion that it cannot be answered, but as an actual fact no answer has been made to it; that speech continues to hold the field. Now, therefore, because I feel that I could not add a single word on the merits of the question so ably dealt with, I only desire further to point out that from the speech of the hon. Member for St. Pancras, and the undisguised corroboration supplied in the speeches of the hon. Member for Peckham and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, it is perfectly apparent that this Committee did not pursue the instructions given to it, that it did not ascertain and declare the value of the rates claimed by the Corporation of the City of London, and in the second place did not adequately investigate the mode in which the money was expended, and in the third place that it did not, except in the most slovenly and perfunctory manner, ascertain the precise amount of the debt now due. We can only protest and we do protest against this proposal on its merits, and I may say almost that we protest still more strongly against the manner in which this scheme is forced through the House.

MR. HOWELL (Bethnal Green, N.E.)

I beg to move that the Bill be read a third time this day three months. I will not go over the ground already traversed by the previous speaker, but I feel it my duty once again to call attention to the manner in which the Bill is being hurried through. The fact is, it was sprung upon the House in a manner not creditable to the Government or Members on this side, who took part in the transaction. It was hustled into existence as the result of an unholy alliance between the London Corporation and some of the Northern coalowners for their own special benefit. For this reason among others I shall continue my protest. This is an unexampled case of a Bill founded on the Report of a Committee being hurried through the House of Commons, not only without Members having a copy of the evidence, but even the Report of the Committee is not attainable. I have inquired over and over again for the Committee's Report. Under other circumstances there is no difficulty in having a Report circulated among Members the following morning, but the keeping back of this Report is significant and suspicious when we remember the whip circulated among Members. There are other circumstances of an extraordinary character in connection with this Bill. The hon. Members who are promoting this Bill made up their minds to print and circulate copies of the report of the Debate on the Second Reading, but singularly enough I received only yesterday by post a copy of the report of the first Debate that took place, but the letter accompanying it was dated May 27. My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch had the same treatment. All this, I venture to say, is in the nature of a conspiracy for the purpose of hurrying through the House a measure which is well known to be antagonistic to the great mass of the people of London, and altogether at variance with solemn pledges given by the Government in this House. I take the measure side by side with another measure which is before the House, a measure founded on the Report of a Royal Commission, one of the most important Commissions that has sat for many years, and whose Report was unanimous. In pursuance of the recommendations of that Commission the President of the Local Government Board of the day, with the Attorney General of the day, introduced a measure, for what object? For the purpose of preventing the alienation of estates belonging to this same Corporation. But for this measure we can find no opportunity. The Corporation have blocked it from time to time, and have prevented its coming on; but here is an instance of extraordinary facilities being given to a Bill to make up a deficiency for the Corporation after the money has been expended which was specifically granted by the House for the Holborn Improvement, and the deficiency has been caused by the incompetency or mismanagement of the Corporation. Land sufficient to have paid the whole of the capital expended has been suffered to lie idle for years. In one instance £15,000 was refused for land that was allowed to remain idle for something like five years, and to-day I understand the Corporation have accepted a much smaller offer than they refused five or six years ago. This is the way in which the Corporation of the City of London has been in the habit of managing its affairs. If the Corporation has not refunded the money that was handed over to them from the Coal Dues, they ought to make up the deficiency out of their own estate. Any other body would have been called on to do so. Had the Corporation of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, or any of the other large towns of the country have been placed in a similar position, there is no doubt that they would have had to refund the money out of their own estate. Why, then, should not the Corporation of London take the same course? Let them spend less money on entertaining people in the City, and the money saved could be used in paying the interest, if not the capital, of the enormous amounts outstanding against them. Had the City Corporation let the matter go into the proper hands—namely, the hands of the County Council, they would have been able to pay off the remainder of the debt in a way that would have given satisfaction to the people of the Metropolis, whose industry and poverty are now to be taxed to pay the debts of what is but a small portion of the whole. I do not think it worth while to prolong the Debate, as I know that the Government, by an enormous mechanical majority, are prepared to assist the hon. Baronet who sits near me in carrying this measure through the House; but, after all, they will find that this will be stigmatized as a conspiracy on the part of the Northern coal owners and the London Corporation to tax the whole of the Metropolis to meet the deficit caused by the mismanagement of the City Authorities. I move, Sir, that the Bill be read a third time this day three months.

Amendment moved, to leave out the word "now," in order to add at the end of the Question the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Howell.)

Question proposed "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

MR. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras)

I cannot say that I at all sympathize with those who are responsible for this measure. Speaking as a Metropolitan Member, I look on the measure as one that is greatly against the interests of my constituents. As certain clauses have been inserted, I will not say to benefit, but to give fair play to existing rights in the City, I do not object to them as far as they go, although I do object to the Bill absolutely, completely, and in tots. I object to it the more strongly because—and I desire to say so in making what may be the last protest I shall have the opportunity of offering in this House against it—I think that in the past the Coal and Wine Dues have not been felt as an oppressive burden on the ratepayers of London. I do not believe, with the Royal Commission, that we shall be able to purchase our coals one farthing cheaper on account of the abolition or reduction of the impost; and there can now be no way of raising the half million that is needed, except by means of a rate. I am positive that I am speaking the opinions of a vast majority of my constituents when I say they have a great objection to the high rates prevailing at the present time; and therefore, on their behalf, I protest against this measure being passed by the House of Commons, nor do I think it has received that consideration which ought to have been given to it by this House. I think the question ought to have been brought before the House weeks before it was, so that the Metropolitan Members might have had the opportunity of going thoroughly into it, and of seeing whether it was the wish of the people of London that these dues should be remitted at all; for, in my opinion, they would much rather have the Coal and Wine Dues continued than pay an additional tax and have an addition made to their rents.

MR. H. COSSHAM (Bristol)

I shall give my vote in support of the Amendment, that the Bill be read a third time this day three months, on these grounds:—I cannot conceive any tax that is less defensible than a tax on one of the necessaries of life, and next to a tax on food I regard a tax on coal as the most objectionable tax that could be levied. I cannot understand how the Corporation can have a right to pledge the inhabitants of the Metropolis to such a tax. Moreover, what right had the Corporation to expect that there would be a prolongation of the Coal Duty? They knew that the tax was to expire, and had no right to go beyond the limit fixed by the Act. Again, the Government have acted in a manner which I cannot but condemn in the very strongest language. We have understood from beginning to end that the Government were going to help us in putting an end to this tax. No pledge that has been given to this House or country was ever given in more explicit terms; and I oppose this Bill because I think the Government have entirely misled the House and country in assisting the framers of the measure to obtain a continuance of the Act.

MR. ROWLANDS (Finsbury)

I think we have every right to protest against this Bill. We were first of all treated to a suspension of the Standing Orders; we have had the whole business of the House of Commons considerably disarranged on two occasions for the purpose of furthering this measure, and now we are met by a conspiracy of silence on the part of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. The hon. Baronet in charge of the Bill dare not say a word; he has entered into a compromise with the City, which is not creditable to him, whether it is creditable to the City or not. He allows the people of London to be put to the heavy charge of 4d. per ton for all the coal brought into London, and beyond this we are to be defrauded of £16,000 in addition, making £300,000 altogether, of which the inhabitants of London are to be defrauded by this measure, an amount more than equal to a twopenny rate over the whole Metropolis. And for what? What claim has the City to this? No one has attempted to put forward or justify any claim on the part of the City of London to such an impost. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds (Sir L. Playfair), who was Chairman of the Committee, could not tell us what the claim was except that it was under, the old Act; but the statement of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green, who quoted the Act of 1846, that the City has no claim, remains unanswered, as also does the speech of my hon. learned Friend the Member for Dundee, no one on the other side of the House having ventured to take up the gauntlet the hon. Gentleman threw down. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have been afraid to speak on this question, because they know the hon. Gentleman would have the right of reply, and they know that his facts and arguments are too crushing and strong for them to grapple with. We are bound hand and foot, and sold by the majority, which sides with the City Corporation, and the chief regret we have is that Members of our own Party are supporting them in such a procedure. No one has attempted to make out a case with regard to the action of the City Corporation in reference to the Holborn Valley improvement. The accounts in relation to that matter have been purposely left in the dark. Besides, it is perhaps advisable that those in charge of this Bill have not supplied the House with the evidence that has been taken on these matters. If we had that evidence I think we could make out such a case that Members on this side of the House at least would not be prepared to go on with a Bill which will inflict so heavy a fine on the people of London. I was glad to hear an hon. Member on the opposite side of the House, representing a Metropolitan constituency, speak out boldly against this Bill, believing it to be his duty to resist such a measure. It is true the hon. Gentleman believes in the Coal Duty as a distinct source of revenue; but that is a question apart from that before the House. I will not prolong this Debate, but I think it necessary to enter my protest against a proceeding which I regard as unjustifiably unwarrantable and corrupt.

* MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

As I do not intend to vote against the Third Reading of the Bill I will give my reasons. As I understand the Bill, it abrogates all rights of the City of London to levy duties on any kind of coal, and it grants to the City a statutory right to levy a duty of 4d. in the pound for one year. Now, the City claims under certain Charters a clear right to levy more than 4d. per ton for an indefinite period on all sea-borne coal, and they allege that that right extends further. I may here say that I do not care one jot for the City, I never had any great love for it, and I should not mind taking away these rights without compensation, because they are rich enough to bear it—if we were in a position to do so. But as a matter of fact, unless the right to levy this 4d. per ton for one year be conceded, Parliament will not be in a position to take away the legal rights of the City. As far as my own vote goes I shall give it in favour of the Bill, because the coal trade of the county of Northumberland will be paralyzed, and great inconvenience will result in the Metropolis from the uncertainty that will arise as to what coal is liable to duty and what is not.

* MR. JAMES STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

The whole point of the matter lies in the question whether the City has this right and is free to enforce it. We deny that it has the right, and it is on that ground that we oppose the Bill, which is to grant a continuance of the duty for another year, and even if it had the right, we deny that it has the power to enforce it. As long as the Bill did not contain this grant we were among its firm supporters, being glad of there being a statutory end put to what we think a claim which cannot be supported. But we oppose the Third Reading of the Bill because, in our opinion, it is a gift of £300,000 from the people of the Metropolis to the City of London. We say this, that if the City of London had had confidence in its claim, if they had a proper and satisfactorily based claim, they would not have been so ready to give it up for a year's purchase. In the Vote we are about to give, we will vote against the equivalent of a 2d. rate being taken off our constituents to pay for the debts of the City, which we do not believe were practically incurred for the benefit of Metropolitan improvements, but were largely incurred, if indeed the whole balance remaining was not incurred, for an expenditure which was purely local, and for an expenditure upon property from which the City is itself in some instances at present deriving rents.

The House divided:—Ayes 226; Noes 106.—(Div. List, No. 174.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.