HC Deb 25 March 1889 vol 334 cc683-97
*SIR W. HOULDSWORTH (Manchester, N. W.)

I beg to move— That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Mersey Docks and Harbour Bill to inquire whether or not any modifications of the constitution or mode of election of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board may be necessary or expedient, and to make provision for the same accordingly; and that all Petitions against the Bill presented within the time limited by the Standing Orders relating to the constitution or mode of election of the Board be referred to the Committee; and that such of the Petitioners as pray to be heard by themselves, their Counsel, Agents, or Witnesses be heard on their Petitions, if they think fit, and Counsel heard in favour of the Bill against such Petitions. The object of this Instruction is simply to enable the Committee sitting on this Bill upstairs to make inquiry with regard to two points in the constitution and mode of election of the Board; and although the subject is not technically contained within the clauses of the Bill, it is so closely connected with it that I venture to ask the House to allow this Instruction to be passed in order that these two points may be dealt with by the Committee. The Motion, I may say at the outset, does not proceed from any hostile or outside body. Those whom I represent are, practically, the proprietors of the Trust. The Trust itself was constituted in 1857. Before that the Harbour Board was elected upon an entirely different principle, but it was felt that the management of the Docks should be in the hands of a Board elected by those who use the port and pay the harbour dues. That principle was strongly affirmed at the time the trust was constituted, and especially on a report presented by the Board of Trade. That report says:— The principle adopted is that with which the country is familiar—namely, that taxation and representation should go together; those who pay directly towards the expenses of the Trust, i.e., the Dock and Harbour ratepayers, are, it is proposed by the Bill, to elect the Trustees. My Lords believe that this is the true principle, and that no other will be found to be at once just and practicable. That local bodies having interests often directly at variance with those of trade ought not to have the control is clear from the history of Liverpool itself; and management by the Central Government is not to be thought of. A question might be raised to what extent representation should go, as all persons producing or consuming goods exported or imported have more or less direct interest in the harbour and docks through which they pass. But the principle representation will probably be thought to be carried as far as practicable when it is extended as in the present Bill to all merchants, manufacturers, or dealers, who pay rates on goods or on ships to a certain given amount, more especially as they can vote by proxy. The persons I represent are the traders who form the electorate of the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board, and they have been affirmed by Parliament to be the proper persons to manage this important Trust. Their Petition lets out that those who take an interest in this matter consist of 30 Corporations, Local Boards, Chambers of Commerce, and trading societies in the North of England; and it is also signed by 300 firms or individuals not connected specially with Lancashire, but spread over the whole of the United Kingdom including Cork and other places in Ireland. It cannot, therefore, be said that we are intruding upon a measure which has no connection with us. We approach it in no hostile spirit; but, being our own Bill, we think we have a right to lay before the Committee the views we entertain in regard to the constitution of the Dock Board. Nor do we entertain the slightest hostility to Liverpool and Liverpool interests as represented by the Dock Board. There are naturally a large number of the electorate who reside in or about Liverpool, and we do not propose to destroy their rights. All we say is that they possess too exclusive powers at present. It has been asserted that this is a device on the part of the Manchester Ship Canal Company to throttle the Docks. That assertion is entirely without foundation. I do not represent the Ship Company in any way. This is an old question, which was discussed long before the projection of the Ship Canal. In fact, I represent a large number of persons who must always use Liverpool both for the import of their raw material and the export of their goods, and all they wish to do is to place before the Select Committee the two points I have mentioned. At present electors who live at a distance from Liverpool will not take the trouble to place themselves on the register of electors, because they know that it would be necessary to go to Liverpool on a particular day in order to exercise the right of voting. All we ask is that in future they shall enjoy the same privilege that every railway shareholder in the Kingdom has—namely, the right of voting by proxy. The Board of Trade, in the Report to which I have referred, placed great emphasis on that condition, so that the traders might have an opportunity of dealing with their property in the way they thought best. It may have been natural in 1857 to require a candidate for a seat on the Board to reside within 10 miles of Liverpool, but, as a matter of fact, 50 miles form no greater distance now than 10 miles did in 1857; and there can be no difficulty in getting a man who resides 50 miles from Liverpool to perform his duties as a member of the Dock Trust. At present there are 2,481 electors on the register, the qualification being the payment of £10 in the course of the year in dues. That by no means represents by many thousands the number who ought to be on the register, but of those 2,481 electors 2,239 are connected with Liverpool, leaving only 242 for the area outside Liverpool. Out of 24 elected Members, there is not a single representative of any interest outside Liverpool. So far as a precedent is concerned, a similar Instruction to the one which I now move was passed in the case of the Aire and Calder Canal. It is said that the bondholders ought to be consulted, and that they ought to appear before the Committee before any alteration in the constitution takes place; but I do not see how the interests of the bondholders can possibly be affected by this Instruction. The principles on which the Trust is managed have already been settled by Parliament; and all we ask by the Instruction is that the Committee shall consider whether greater facilities shall be given to the electorate in order that they may record their votes, and greater liberty be given to them in the choice of representatives. A suggestion has been made that the Instruction should be amended by introducing the words—"If the Committee think fit." We should have no objection to the introduction of those words, and we are quite willing to allow the Committee to decide whether they will enter into these questions or not. Another suggestion is that the words "and to make provision for the same accordingly" be omitted. I cannot consent to that for this reason—that if the Committee think it is right to make a change, that change should be carried out at once. The Instruction deals with a grievance which for 30 years has existed between the Dock Board and the traders, not only of Lancashire, but of the rest of the Kingdom, and we are desirous of seeing the grievance removed. I beg to move the Instruction which stands in my name on the Paper.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Bill to inquire whether or not any modifications of the constitution or mode of election of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board may be necessary or expedient, and to make provision for the same accordingly; and that all Petitions against the Bill presented within the time limited by the Standing Orders relating to the constitution or mode of election of the Board be referred to the Committee; and that such of the Petitioners as pray to be heard by themselves, their Counsel, Agents, or Witnesses, be heard on their Petitions, if they think fit, and Counsel heard in favour of the Bill against such Petitioners."—(Sir W. Houldsworth.)

*MR. W. P. SINCLAIR (Falkirk, &c.)

The Instruction which has been moved by the hon. Baronet opposite proposes to deal with a Bill of very small administrative character, which is intended to improve the working of the Trust of the Mersey Estuary and the Mersey Docks, which has been devolved by Parliament upon the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Originally the harbour accommodation was in the hands of the Liverpool Town Council, and it was they who in old days developed the trade of the port, and by the facilities granted alike to ships and to the goods they carried, created the enormous trade now centered in that port. In 1857 a Bill was introduced into this House, which was ultimately passed into law, and which transferred the management of the Harbour and Docks to a separate body—created as the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. The present Bill is introduced by that body, and it is entirely of an administrative character. It proposes no Constitutional changes, and it asks for no fresh borrowing powers. It consists of 36 clauses, half of which deal with the deviation of a short railway already authorized, which deviation has become necessary in consequence of the increase of the trade of the port, and which it is desirable to promptly effect in order to enable a certain dock to be deepened, and to provide increased facilities for carrying on the trade of the port. The other provisions are purely of an administrative and technical character, dealing with questions affecting the tender of pilotage services, anchorage, and navigation; nevertheless, the hon. Member for North-West Manchester (Sir W. Houldsworth) seeks to found upon a simple Bill of that kind an Instruction of a very far-reaching character. I think it would be very much against the constituted precedents of the House to pass any Resolution or Instruction of the kind proposed. The House has provided a method by which a change or reform of the sort desired can be introduced. It can be done in either of two ways—either by moving for a Committee of Inquiry, on whose investigations a Bill might be founded, or by those who feel aggrieved introducing a Bill setting forth the reforms asked for. Neither of these methods has been adopted by those who agree with the hon. Baronet; but a third method has been proposed, which ought to meet all the necessities of the case. The Docks and Harbour Board do not seek to stifle any inquiry at all; they rather court it. It has been said, and said rightly, that this is a national matter; and if the conduct of the Board is to be inquired into, they are prepared to maintain that the Trust has been managed in the interest not of Liverpool alone, but of the traders using the port. For example, take one of the matters mentioned in the Petition. When the Board was constituted the town dues were bought from the Corporation of Liverpool, the amount paid for them being £1,500,000. Those dues produced a very large sum then—they produce now nearly a quarter of a million annually, and are increasing. But these dues are applied, not for the benefit of the City of Liverpool itself, but absolutely and entirely for the benefit of the Dock Trust, and therefore the town dues are now purely dock dues, only levied under another name. It may be said, and apparently very fairly said, "Why, then, keep these town dues—why not abolish them and increase the dock dues?" The answer to that is very simple, though not very acceptable, I am afraid, to those who support the Instruction, for it discloses the imaginary nature of their supposed grievances. It is this—that the dock dues are liable to be rated for poor rates and municipal rates, but the town dues are not, and if the town dues are abolished, the result would be that the dock dues would be increased by a quarter of a million, and further increased by a sum of £24,000 or £25,000, which would be required to be additionally levied as dock rates, to pay over as poor rates and municipal rates. The interests of those who live outside the port have always been fairly considered, and very many of the cases suggested as being instances whereby the interests of those outside have been injured are really eases where the interests of all have been considered, and where the Trust has been conducted with due consideration for national interests, and not with reference to local interests at all With regard to the question of the bondholders, all I would say is, that if either of the methods ordinarily used in Parliamentary procedure had been adopted they would have had notice that a Bill had been introduced or that a Parliamentary Inquiry had been granted. Now legislation is sought for at a comparatively late period. Under ordinary circumstances, notice would have to be given in the month of November, but here we are in the month of March, and fair and reasonable notice cannot be said to have been given to all those interested by an Instruction of a far reaching kind being sought to be foisted upon a small Bill like this. I hope the House will not accede to the Instruction unless the hon. Baronet is prepared to amend it by inserting the words he said he was willing to insert, and to omit the words, "And to make provision for the same accordingly." I beg to move the omission of those words.

Amendment proposed, in line 4, to leave out the words "and to make provision for the same accordingly."—(Mr. W. Sinclair.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

MR. JACOB BRIGHT (Manchester, S.W.)

I wish to say a word in support of the Motion. It seems to me that the Instruction proposed would require the Committee only to attend to a very limited matter. They are seeking, mainly, an improvement in the representation of the Mersey Harbour Board; they do not want to change the electoral body or to extend the suffrage, but simply to ask that the electors should have the power of voting by proxy. These electors are now scattered all over the United Kingdom, and unless they have the power of voting by proxy they are really a disfranchised body. That is the main change required. There is one other change asked for—namely, that instead of men who are eligible as candidates having to reside within 10 miles of Liverpool, that distance shall be extended, and they shall be able to elect candidates residing within 50 miles of Liverpool. These are the two propositions which we wish the Committee to consider and deal with, and with regard to them the Committee could take their own course The Port of Liverpool, as everyone knows, is maintained mainly by manufacturing and commercial interests. At a considerable distance from Liverpool, where interests have no voice in the Harbour Board, it is sought to give them that voice. We wish to throw a little light on to a somewhat close body, and to have better management. We believe that the management we propose would be to the advantage and also to the commercial interests not only of the district, but of Liverpool itself.

MR. RATHBONE (Carnarvonshire)

I was one of the Members of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce when they came to Parliament to construct this Trust, and, therefore, I wish to say a few words as to the reasons which guided Parliament in framing the Trust. Originally the Corporation of Liverpool was an exclusive Conservative body, and they had shown a greater foresight than the Corporation of any other town in the country in maintaining the Port of Liverpool as a National Trust, without any beneficial interest whatever. But, although they showed this foresight, the time came when those who used the Docks thought that the Trust should be placed on a wider basis, and that those who owned them should have the management of them. Parliament accordingly, in 1857, established the existing Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. The Board received no payment for direction, and the Docks and Harbour have been managed hitherto without any suspicion of corrupt motives. When it was proposed to introduce the system of voting by proxy I saw some of my friends in Manchester, and pointed out the very great danger there would be in inducing people who were living all over the country to watch the management of the Docks and take an interest in them. There is a fear that such individuals might be got at by persons with private interests of their own to serve, and might be persuaded to use proxies against those who are in the actual management of the Trust. One strong reason why the Government and the House of Commons should be cautious in this matter now is that there has been a large undertaking set on foot for private profit, called the Manchester Ship Canal, and my hon. Friend opposite largely represents those who are interested in that Canal. Now, if the Canal is to be of benefit to the country, it must be kept entirely distinct from the Railways and the Harbour Trust, because the three bodies ought to be in competition, or the public will get no advantage from the new undertaking. If those who are in favour of this Instruction can show any way by which this National Trust can be made more national and more beneficial to the country at large nobody will be more glad to see it than the people of Liverpool, whose prosperity is so extensively bound up with it. Their desire is that the Dock rates should be kept as low as possible. Nobody is interested in having them high. If it is considered necessary to make a change, it ought only to be done by a carefully drawn Bill regularly laid before the House, instead of being dealt with by a side wind in this manner.

*MR. COURTNEY (Cornwall, Bodmin)

Although there are numerous Members representing Liverpool and Manchester and the adjacent towns, not to speak of others like the hon. Member who has just sat down, and the hon. Member for the Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Sinclair), who are more or less connected with Liverpool, I trust I may be allowed to intervene early in the debate, as I would wish the question at issue to be settled without raising too keenly those local jealousies that seem to lurk about it. It has been truly said that this Bill is in itself a comparatively moderate measure, but the Instruction which has been moved is one which raises a very important principle. Moderate as the Bill is, there are in it some alterations—not, I admit, of a very important character—but still alterations which do affect the mode of electing the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Therefore the Instruction, as far as it relates to the mode of election, is not out of order. The Instruction, however, goes further, and it expresses a desire that the conditions of the qualification upon which persons may be elected shall also be inquired into. That is a somewhat large question, which is not directly raised by the Bill itself. The Instruction, therefore, is an expansion of the provisions of the Bill, and an expansion such as I think the House ought to be slow to entertain. I believe that many Members will regard with jealousy any proposals to raise in Committee with Bills, simple and restricted in their scope, large questions not involved in them as submitted to Parliament. I gave expression to that jealousy last year in reference to the Aire and Calder Bill, but on that occasion the House showed itself so bent on having its own way in the Instruction then moved that it was carried without a division. It did not result in anything, because the Bill was afterwards dropped, but still the House insisted on carrying it. In this case the opponents of the Instruction are willing that there should be inquiry, but they are of opinion that the Committee should not be entrusted with the power of making a provision to carry into effect any change which they may deem necessary. That, I think, would be a lame and impotent conclusion. It amounts to this—that we are to entrust a Committee with the power of inquiry, but not to entrust them with any further power which may result in a particular course of action; and I therefore feel that those who are opposed to any alteration are practically adopting an inconsistent position when they say that inquiry may be made, but that it shall not be followed by revision. The issues raised are of a most important character, and I agree with the hon. Member for Carnarvonshire (Mr. Rathbone) that the Trust may be exposed to risk if any undefined alteration is made in the constitution of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, who are charged with important functions in connection with interests which make the Mersey Board a National Trust. It must not be forgotten that we may be exposing to risk the interests of persons who have lent the Board between £14,000,000 and £16,000,000, seeing that the credit of the Trust rests entirely upon the good management of the Board. I would therefore suggest as the best way out of the difficulty, while at the same time safeguarding the interests of the bondholders, that the Bill should be referred to a Hybrid Committee, and that, in addition to four Members appointed by the House, there should be three Members added by the Committee of Selection. You would then have a Committee of weight and authority. If that suggestion is adopted it will be necessary as a matter of form to withdraw the Instruction altogether, and to move that the Bill be referred to a Hybrid Committee.

*MR. HOYLE (Lancashire, S.E., Heywood)

When the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board come here for additional powers, surely it is not unreasonable that the Committee to whom their Bill is referred should look all round the question, and have power to make such Amendments in the Bill as circumstances require; that, as I understand it, is what the Motion of the hon. Baronet comes to. There is a population of some millions of people residing within 40 or 50 miles of the Port of Liverpool, and the Mersey is the chief inlet for the food of that population, as well as the chief outlet for the products of their industry. They have certainly a right to some share in the management of the port. Take one trade alone—the cotton trade. The imports and exports of that trade amount to something like £100,000,000 sterling a-year, the greater part of which goes through the Mersey. What do those who are intimately connected with that trade want? First, sufficient accommodation for the traffic they send; and, secondly, that the management of it should be economical, so as to ensure reasonable charges. They think that those two objects would be best secured by giving those who pay the dues a larger share in the administration. It is objected that persons elected from a wider radius than 10 miles from the centre of Liverpool would rarely attend the meeting; but that objection answers itself, for, if so, the people of Liverpool, in the absence of Members from a distance, will have matters all their own way. It must not be forgotten that Manchester is only 40 or 45 minutes from Liverpool, and so, practically, as near the docks as persons living in the suburbs of Liverpool. For these reasons I heartily support the Instruction moved by the hon. Baronet.

*MR. NEVILLE (Liverpool, Exchange)

I represent those who would be most affected by this Instruction, but I do not ask the House to come to any decision upon the merits of the question on this occasion. It is not a question as to whether the constitution of the Dock Board is the best that could be obtained, or whether any alteration might improve it. But it is a matter of such great importance, affecting such varied interests, that I think it would be wrong for the House to take a course which would enable those who are opposing the Bill of the Dock Board in an indirect and irregular way to effect a reconstruction of the Board. The persons who are advocating this proposal to-day are the persons who are most interested in the Manchester Ship Canal, and the owners of a rival port. You are, therefore, asked to put into the hands of a rival port the administration of the Liverpool Docks. ["Oh!"] It is all very well to say "Oh,! oh" but I would ask hon. Members to wait and see. If you give the right to vote by proxy to all traders who pay £10 a-year in goods or tonnage, and the right of selecting their candidates within a radius of 50 miles of Liverpool, you will virtually take away from Liverpool the management of her own Docks, and make alterations so extreme as to be utterly indefensible. Liverpool, which is so much affected by the action of the Dock Board, does not wish to exclude investigation into the way in which the Docks are managed. At the same time, I do say this—that if so important a change is to be made it ought to be made in a regular way. Why, in a Bill of this kind, should issues be raised which are totally outside the subjects with which it at present deals? I should like to point out that the only alterations which are to be made by the Bill in the method of voting are the increase by one hour of the time during which votes may be given and the prolongation of the notice which is to be issued. I would ask the House to bear in mind that these alterations were inserted in the Bill at the request of Manchester men themselves. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board were asked to make these changes in the method of voting, and now they have done so their concession is used as a peg on which to hang the Instruction which has been moved in the House to-night. This is a matter of immense importance to Liverpool, and I contend that hon. Members ought not to use the omnipotence of this House for the purpose of denying to the people of that city what I submit are their ordinary rights.


I do not suppose that the House will think of hearing all the Members who are interested in this question on one side or the other, but I wish to point out that the immediate question before the House is the Amendment last submitted, which would have the effect, if carried, of debarring the Select Committee from giving any effect to the decision they come to upon the Instruction. The result would therefore be to nullify the reference. Hon. Members have said that great interests are at stake in this matter. Well, I do not think the House has so little confidence in its Committees as to doubt that any proposal of this kind will be considered with all the care which it deserves. I do not see why it should be thought that the Select Committee will not be thoroughly competent to do justice to both sides of the question, and nothing is more common than, when a Corporation asks for additional powers, the occasion should be seized to propose changes in its constitution which experience has prompted. No doubt the hon. Member in charge of the Bill will have no objection to the proposal of the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees, that the Select Committee should be strengthened by the addition of Members to be chosen by the Committee of Selection. I do not think anyone who desires the Select Committee to come to a fair conclusion can oppose that suggestion. It has been said that the object of this proposal is to give rival ports the right to interfere with the Port of Liverpool. I should like to point out that there are a great many more large centres of industry concerned than merely the City of Manchester. Liverpool is surrounded by a network of railways connecting many towns which are concerned in the management of its port. I hope the House will reject the Amendment.


If I understand the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees to be merely that this Bill be referred to a Hybrid Committee, I have no hesitation in saying that I will accept it.


The question before the House is the proposal standing in the name of the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. W. P. Sinclair). Does the hon. Member accept the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees?


I propose, Sir, to move the Adjournment of the Debate, in order that those whose interests I represent may have an opportunity of considering it.


I hope that the hon. Member will not press his Amendment, but will accept the suggestion of the Chairman of Committees. There is no doubt this is a very large and important question, which goes far beyond the mere management and control of one harbour. There are bondholders to the extent of £16,000,000, who have no voice whatever in the action of the Board. The bonds are renewable on short terms of from three to five years, and it is, therefore, undesirable for the House to do anything which will in the least disturb the minds of the holders. I think that such a strong Committee as was indicated by the Chairman is the best body to which to refer this question.


Does the hon. Member for Falkirk accept the suggestion?


Before accepting it I will ask whether those who introduced the Instruction will not be at least fair enough to allow those of whom I am the only representative in this House to consider it? On behalf of the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board I would request that the debate be adjourned.


I do not think the hon. Member and his Friends would be in any way injured if he withdrew his Amendment; because, as has been pointed out, the Instruction of the hon. Member for Manchester will in any case have to be withdrawn for the present; and if there are any objections to the course which is suggested they can be urged when the reference to a Hybrid Committee is formally moved.


After that explanation I will consent to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


I beg to give notice that I will move to refer this Bill to a Hybrid Committee.

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