HC Deb 10 June 1890 vol 345 cc486-509

Order for Second Reading read.

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

(3.5.) MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)

I rise for the purpose of moving that the Bill be read a second time upon this day six months. I do so at the request of my constituents and other inhabitants of Belfast. My own constituents number, probably, one-third—certainly one-fourth—of the population, and as they have no representation whatever—not a single voice or vote in the Municipal Council of Belfast—I think it will be conceded by the House that any representation I make on their behalf is entitled to consideration. Belfast was divided 50 years ago into five wards, when the town only numbered 60,000 inhabitants, and it is still divided into the same wards, although the population is now about 250,000. Those wards are so distributed that one-third of the population associated with me in politics have no representation on the Council, and they will continue to be unrepresented on the Council until there is afresh partition of the municipal area. That being the case, my constituents have asked me to request the House to reject this Bill unless provisions are included which will carry out the recommendations of the Royal Commission made 10 years ago, namely, that the wards of the borough shall be re-distributed and their numbers greatly increased. I am sensible, however, that it would be an inconvenient and unusual course to press the House in the middle of a busy Session to include within the limits of such a Bill as this a plan involving much labour and great delay. I am, therefore, disposed to waive that claim for the present, although I consider it ripe, and I am the more disposed to waive it because we are promised a Local Government Bill for Ireland, which will include local government of the Irish cities and boroughs, and then Belfast will be effectually dealt with. I am, therefore, disposed to modify the demands of my constituents so far as not to press upon the House the question of a fresh partition of the municipal area; but I think I shall be able to prove in a few words that it is necessary in the public interests of Belfast that the House should assent to the Reference of the Bill to a Hybrid Committee and to the Instruction which I propose to move. If the Reference and Instruction are accepted, I do not propose to divide the House; but if they are refused, I shall be obliged to challenge most strenuously the principle of the Bill; and if it passes this stage, I shall be obliged to oppose it on its future stages. The promoters attach great importance to the fact that the terms of the Bill have been approved by a majority of the ratepayers, but the main financial considerations have never been submitted to them. The only question submitted to the ratepayers was whether the Corporation should acquire a site for a new city hall, but there is a question beyond the acquirement of the site, and that is the consideration of the terms and conditions of the bargain and further financial questions, involving nearly £200,000—that is, if the site should be used, as I contend it should be, for a public park, of which that great manufacturing town is so seriously in need, and not for the erection of a costly city hall, when there is an excellent one, only built 20 years ago, already in existence. Although the acquirement of the site has been approved, the intention of the Corporation to build a City Hall at a cost of £170,000 is so much disapproved of that 4,000 inhabitants of Belfast opposed the terms of the Bill. It is in the name of those persons that I ask the House to adopt ordinary measures of inquiry. The circumstances of the case are extremely peculiar. In 1782 a public meeting was held in Belfast of linen traders and other inhabitants, for the purpose of founding a public market hall for the sale of white linen. A public subscription was set on foot, and application was made for a site on which to erect this hall. In 1783, 107 years ago, Arthur, Marquess of Donegall, by an indenture granted a piece of meadow ground in the town of Belfast, to be held for ever, at an annual rent of £4 10s., upon trust to be used for ever as a public market for the sale of linen. Upon that site the Linen. Hall was built. Twenty years after, in 1803, George Augustus, the succeeding Marquess of Donegall, gave a second piece of ground, adjoining the first, for the use of the inhabitants of Belfast, at an annual rent for ever of 1s. It actually has been used from that day to this as a public walk, and yet this is a part of the property which the Corporation of Belfast are about to purchase from a body of private persons. The Trust has continued to be ad-administered, but under circumstances, which to me seem to demand strict inquiry, because here is a Public Trust which has for some time been alienated from the public use and turned to private account. The building has been used for many years for private offices and warehouses, and the Trustees have alienated their Trust. I submit, therefore, that the circumstances under which that Public Trust was alienated must be examined by a Committee of the House. The late Marquess of Donegall, the owner of the estate, died seven years ago, and the Countess of Shaftesbury passed into possession as the new tenant for life. Two years ago the Countess of Shaftesbury and her son, a minor, instituted an action in the Irish Chancery Division claiming that the public grants of a century ago were void by reason of some flaw, that the deeds should be cancelled and possession of the land given up, and that the Trustees should pay to the Countess rents and profits for the period since the death of the late Marquess. That action is still pending. In it the Countess and her son are plaintiffs, and the Trustees of this; Public Trust, long since alienated for public use, are the defendants. The Bill recites that the action is still pending, that it involves questions of doubt and difficulty, the decision whereof will involve considerable delay and expense. But doubt, difficulty, delay, and expense to whom? The Corporation are not a party to the action—the Countess and her son are the plaintiffs and the Trustees are the defendants. Surely there are hon. Members who will agree with me that it would be best for the Corporation to waive this question of the erection of the hall until the rights of the parties have been determined by the suit at issue. The Corporation, however, purpose out of their munificence—it would be more admirable if it were their own money—to treat both the parties to the action as if they were upon the impossible footing of both parties having won the action; they propose to pay the legal costs of the Countess of Shaftesbury, and also the legal costs of the Trustees of the Linen Hall, the defendants. They propose to pay the counter rents and profits since the death of the late Marquess; and, on the other hand, they turn round and propose to pay the Trustees in hard cash the sum of £19,000. What does the Bill say about the legal rights of the Trustees? It says the White Linen Hall has for many years past ceased to be used as a public market, and has been used for private warehouses and for the accommodation of the Belfast Society for the Promotion of Knowledge. It occurs to me, that if the original use has ceased to exist, the Trust ought to have been transferred to some other analogous use in the public interest generally without any charge being made. In the Bill, too, whilst it is proposed to pay £19,000 to certain persons called proprietors and occupiers, it gives no particulars whatever as to the nature of that interest, or as to the basis of compensation. I claim, before the Bill is advanced another stage, that we are entitled to receive a categorical description of the names of persons. The whole of the proprietors are to receive £6,500 between them. They are said to be representatives of the original subscribers, but the original subscribers are all dead two generations ago. Not only the masters, but the servants are to be compensated, even the Belfast Society for the Promotion of Knowledge. This Subscription Society asks to be compensated, because for many years it has received a benefit. A more peculiar inversion of any ordinary rational doctrine of compensation has never come under my notice. The occupiers are to get £13,000. Who are the occupiers? This place was never intended to accommodate them. Have these tenants paid any rent? There is nothing about it in the Bill. I demand to know, before this matter goes further, what rent has been paid, to whom, and to what use it has been applied. I also wish to know whether, if the rent has been paid, it has been invested in order to make provision in the event of compensation having to be paid. There is one provision of the Bill which I would commend to the attention of the-Attorney General for Ireland. The Bill provides that the interests of the proprietors of the Linen Hall shall be compensated; but it is admitted that their interests, if any, cannot be proved-Among those to be compensated are the Belfast Society for the Promotion of Knowledge, tenants who have derived advantage from the alienation of these Trusts, and even sub-tenants who have received advantage under them. A more grotesque and fantastic proposal m reference to Trusts Funds was never submitted to this House. The total sum to be paid for the site is £30,000, and I hope the Chairman of Committees will take into consideration that not only the late Mayor, Sir J. Haslam, but the present Mayor, who is promoting the Bill, are on the Committee of the Linen Hall. In fact, there is to be a payment by the Mayor as head of the Corporation to the Mayor as one of the occupiers of the Linen Hall. Under such circumstances, T respectfully submit that the Corporation and the Mayor himself ought to be most anxious to secure a full inquiry. The Bill goes on to say that the terms offered to the Countess of Shaftesbury are very generous and ought to be accepted. Possibly it may be so; but, if they are generous, I think the Mayor and Corporation ought to be willing and glad to have the fact proved. So far as the expense of an inquiry is concerned, any objection, on the ground of expense would come with a bad grace from the Corporation of Belfast. Nevertheless, I am prepared to undertake, if a Committee is granted, that the expense shall be very slight. We on our side propose to engage no counsel, and it would only be necessary to examine three witnesses, one for the Corporation, one for the proprietors, and one for the ratepayers. I would further undertake that at the end of a couple of sittings the Committee should be in a position to report. In the next place, I wish to point out to the House that the question of the cost of erecting a City Hall has never been submitted to the ratepayers. My own constituents are shut out from representation, and have no voice in the Municipal Council, and it is idle to tell me that the period of three years which is to intervene between the passing of the Bill and the erection of the hall will be any protection to their interests. It is said that the present City Hall is inadequate. I have had occasion to visit it more than once. It is conveniently situated, and there is no pretence for saying that the new site is more convenient or more central. Both sites are close together, in the heart of the city, and one is just as convenient as the other. It must not be forgotten that Belfast is now engaged in spending £300,000 of the ratepayers' money on main drainage and other sanitary works, and that one-third of the ratepayers of the city are shut out from representation. I think they have a right to say, as they do say, that this new scheme shall be deferred until the main drainage plan shall have been completed. Three years ago I introduced a Bill for extending the franchise in Belfast. The Corporation resisted me strenuously, but in the end they gave way. They are now making a boast of what was then done against their will. I trust that the House will accept the proposal I now make.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Sexton.)

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

(3.30.) SIR E. HARLAND (Belfast, N.)

I am sure that the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. Sexton) does not seriously mean to jeopardise the passing of this Bill. I have no doubt that he is as proud of being one of the Representatives of that city as I am myself, and I doubt if it is possible to find another town, except, perhaps, Middlesborough, which has made such gigantic strides in prosperity as the City of Belfast. In 1831 the population only amounted to 41,000; in 1861 it was 120,000, and in 1891, when the next census is taken, I believe it will be found to have increased to 250,000 or 260,000. That fact speaks well for the continuous development of the city in the past, and the great progress it has made. The hon. Member has referred to the history of this Trust, the complicated conditions which have been attached to it, and the manner in which it has become disassociated from its original purposes. It only affords another illustration of the manner in which property, when it becomes disassociated from its original purpose, gradually falls into the hands of others, not from any dishonest process or want of care, but from the way in which a great deal of the land in Ireland has gradually fallen away from its original possessors into the hands of the tenants, whose claims at this day are being constantly equitably decided upon. With regard to the value of this ground it is said that it might have been obtained tor £20,000.




Well, £26,000. It is quite possible that at one time the property might have been obtained for such a sum, but that time has been allowed to pass and the value has been greatly increased. From my knowledge of the City of Belfast I may say that I should be very glad indeed, as an individual, to become possessed of this estate for £50,000, and I look upon the price which it is proposed to pay, namely, £30,000, as very low indeed. I can only compliment the Corporation of Belfast upon having acquired so perfect a site for the erection of public buildings at so small a cost. It is quite true that a Town Hall and Municipal Buildings are already in existence, but they have become quite inadequate for the purposes for which they are intended. The existing building only cost £16,000, and it may be readily imagined that such a structure is not adequate for the wants of a city like Belfast. If the House will compare the cost proposed to be incurred here with the expenditure in other large towns it will be admitted at once that the proposal of the Corporation is most reasonable. Bradford, with a population of 150,000, has expended £85,000 on a Town Hall; Leeds which, like Belfast, has a population of 250,000, has expended £130,000; Glasgow, with a population of 507,000, has spent £520,000; and Manchester, with a population of 500,000, has spent £832,000. The figures range from 10s. to 30s. per head of the population, but in the present case the cost will only amount to something like 15s. a head. It will, therefore, be seen that the sum we ask for is extremely moderate. If the hon. Member complains that his friends have not obtained that representation which he would like them to possess, I can only say that they are themselves to blame. They have full opportunity, by enterprise, perseverance, and energy, of obtaining representation. The election to seats on the Council rests entirely with the constituency, and hitherto, without paying the slightest respect to any particular section of the community, the cleverest and most able men have been elected. Comparisons are not always agreeable, but I may point out that the population of Belfast and Dublin are at the present moment about the same, and while only 8,315 ratepayers are enabled to vote in the municipal elections in Dublin there are 30,480 who are entitled to vote in Belfast.


Will the hon. Baronet allow me to say that that is the result of a reform which I carried three years ago against the Corporation.


These figures are an illustration, and certainly there can be no objection made that the franchise in Belfast is so limited that the hon. Member's friends have not adequate means of being represented. I feel that the objections raised to this Bill are extremely weak, and that few of them are worth any consideration whatever. Reference has been made to the White Linen Hall having gradually become disused, but we all know how trade changes. Once there was a trade in Belfast connected with the manufacture of cotton. It has completely disappeared, and has been replaced by linen. When the latter trade was being developed it was a very great boon to the linen merchants to have a common market for their trade, but with the use of the telegraph and the development of business, it was found that the trade could be more readily carried on in the establishments of the merchants than in the market, which consequently became disused. The same thing has happened in Belfast with regard to the brown linen market, land for which was originally given by the Marquess of Donegal, and in which one piece of linen is offered for sale once a year, in order that the rights of the brown linen merchants may be maintained to the possession of the land. None of us, I think, will attempt to bolster up for a moment such a procedure as that, and it would be but fair and graceful to return the land to the representatives of the original owners. The piece of ground referred to in the Bill is most beautifully situated in the centre of the city, and I have no doubt that the Corporation will take very good care that sufficient space is reserved for the recreation of the public and for the general purposes which are now considered necessary in the centre of the city. But I hold that there is no necessity for the whole of the piece of land which is to be acquired to be thrown completely open. No city in the Kingdom less requires parks and open spaces than Belfast, because there is no other town where there is so large an area occupied according to population, and this arises from the fact that nearly every workman in Belfast occupies his own house. I do not think that any city is so perfect in its sanitary arrangements as Belfast, and in the miles of wide streets it possesses, the air from the mountains is enabled to come through the streets. I feel very great confidence indeed in asking the House not to put the Corporation of Belfast to the expense of from £1,800 to £2,000 in order to satisfy the wishes of the hon. Member opposite.

(3.45.) MR. M. HEALY (Cork)

The hon. Member for North Belfast (Sir E. Harland) has, from beginning to end of his speech, carefully avoided any reference to the various points which have been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast. He has told us that Belfast is a very prosperous place, and that its prosperity is without a parallel. That may be so, but it has nothing to do with the questions we are discussing in connection with this Bill. The hon. Member has dwelt upon the necessity that exists for providing a Town Hall, and he made various comparisons between the condition of Belfast and of other cities. For my part, I think it would be well for one of the supporters of the Bill to address himself frankly and fairly to the important questions which have been raised by my hon. Friend, and offer some reason why the course he suggests should not be adopted. My hon. Friend has displayed great moderation in his opposition to the Bill. He has told us that his desire is not to reject the Bill. All he asks is that before it is passed into law, its provisions shall receive full and fair inquiry at the hands of this House. Now, what are the facts? Let me call attention to the provisions of the Bill. A more extraordinary measure was never introduced. The Corporation or Belfast propose to acquire a valuable piece of property in the City of Belfast. What is the usual course taken when the promoters of a private Bill seek to acquire power of that kind? Before they bring in their Bill they ascertain who are the persons interested in the property—the owners, lessees, and occupiers—and they then deposit in the office of this House a schedule setting forth that information. When that is done, and when the Bill is passed, an arbitrator is appointed under the Lands Clauses Act, by whom all claims and rights are considered, and a decision arrived at as to the amount of compensation which shall be awarded to each. This Bill, however, enacts that after the Bill shall have been passed, without ascertaining who the owners, occupiers, or lessees are, it shall be referred to an unskilled arbitrator, who shall decide, without question and without appeal, who the persons interested in the property are. The Bill goes on to say that the arbitrator shall exercise these extraordinary powers, not having regard to ordinary legal principles, or in accordance with the legal rights of the parties, but on such terms and in such manner as he shall think most fair. Now, I venture to submit that a more extraordinary proposal was never made in any measure submitted to a legislative assembly. As it is an unopposed Bill, it would not, of course, go before an ordinary Committee of this House, but it will be decided without the hearing of counsel or having the interests of the parties discussed, or any opportunity being afforded of inquiring what the legal, rights of the parties are, and, indeed, without the taking of any evidence at all. My hon. Friend does not propose that the Bill should be rejected, but simply that so exceptional a Bill shall be dealt with in an exceptional manner—that it should not follow the ordinary course of going before an unopposed Committee, but that it shall be referred to a Special Committee, specially appointed by the House, consisting of nine members, which Committee shall be empowered to take evidence and to hear counsel. I think that a fairer or more reasonable proposal could not be made, and I am sure that the promoters, of the measure will gain nothing by ignoring it, and seeking to get the Bill passed by a side wind. It is a case of Trust property, which, by some unexplained means, has passed out of the hands of the Trustees into those of private persons, who have used it not for public purposes, but for their own private gain. I think that this fact alone demands that a searching inquiry should be made. The hon. Member for North Belfast says that it is a matter of every day experience to find that property has been transferred in some extraordinary way from public to private purposes. My hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast has pointed out that a portion of this property belongs to the people of Belfast, and is used by them daily as a pleasure ground. Yet the proposal in the Bill is that the people of Belfast shall buy from the Trustees this land, which is already their own property. I cordially support the Motion which my hon. Friend has made.

SIR J. CORRY (Armagh, Mid)

who was very indistinctly heard, was understood to say: The hon. Member for West Belfast says that a large portion of the people of Belfast have no representation in the Town Council. Many hon. Members will recollect that a few years ago there was considerable discussion in this House in reference to the propriety of increasing the representation of the inhabitants of Belfast, and the result was that the number of electors was increased from 6,000 to 30,000.


I must remind the hon. Baronet that the proposal which was made three years ago was strenuously resisted by the Corporation of Belfast.


The hon. Member has told the House that the ratepayers have had no knowledge of the proposals of the Corporation. All I can say is, that the provisions of the Bill were published in the local papers, and that a plébiscite was taken as to whether this land should be acquired or not. I think the Corporation are to be congratulated upon the successful efforts they have made to secure this property for public purposes. As to the value of it there can be no doubt at all. It is well worth £50,000, or double the amount which the Corporation propose to pay for it. Fifteen thousand of the ratepayers voted in favour of the Bill, and only 4,000 who voted against it were absolutely opposed to it. A considerable number voted because; hey thought that some inquiry should be made in reference to the matter. If the friends of the hon. Member for West Belfast are so strongly opposed to the measure, why have they not taken steps to show their opposition in the usual way? They have not done so, and I would earnestly appeal to the House to pass the Second Reading.

(4.0.) MR. COURTNEY (Cornwall, Bodmin)

I understood the hon. Member for West Belfast to intimate that, although he moved that the Bill be read a second time upon this day six months, he does not intend to press that proposal, if he can only secure the two alternatives which he has placed upon the Paper—one that the Bill be referred to a Hybrid Committee, and the other an Instruction to the Committee to make provision in the Bill to secure that any resolution of the Municipal Council of Belfast to use the Linen Hall estate otherwise than as an open space shall not be valid unless it be confirmed, upon a poll, by a majority of the persons qualified to vote for members of the Municipal Council. With respect to the first question, that of referring the Bill to a Hybrid Committee, the hon. Member rests his case on the statement that, the acquisition of this White Linen Hall, and the ground on which it stands, will cost the city more than the real value of the estate. It is proposed to give £30,000, and some one is reported to have said it would have been got for £26,000; but two hon. Members have stated that they would be glad to give £50,000, if they could get it for that sum. However, it is not necessary to enter into the question of the adequacy or inadequacy of the price. It is, at all events, clear that the question of acquiring the estate for the purpose of erecting a Town Hall has been carried by a vote of 15,000 ratepayers against 4,000. Therefore, the Corporation have, I think, a primâ facie case, which ought not to be re-opened in this House. But it is urged that a question of title may be raised, and of the interests of those who are concerned in this hall. If so, it could have been considered on Petition in a regular manner. The friends of the hon. Member for West Belfast have not thought it desirable to oppose the Bill in the usual way, and as they have not done so I confess that I do not think the House would be justified in going out of its way in order to refer the Bill to a Hybrid Committee. It is proposed by the Bill to raise a sum of £200,000, and out of that sum £170,000 is to be appropriated to the erection of a Town Hall. Now, it is quite true that the question of providing a Town Hall was submitted to the popular vote; but no question was submitted as to the cost of that Town Hall. That matter has not, as yet, been submitted to the municipal electors, and it affords some justification for the contention that there is still a question which ought to be submitted to a popular vote. The reply of the promoters is that they have inserted in the Bill provisions that no action shall be taken in respect to the erection of a Town Hall until after three several municipal elections shall have taken place, and as one third of the Town Council are elected every year, before the question becomes finally settled the whole of the Town Council will have been re-elected. That looks on the face of it a very good answer, but I am bound to say that, in my judgment, it is not a perfectly good answer. The reply to it is that Belfast is divided into wards so unequal in size and population that the election of Town Councillors through them does not seem an accurate reflection of the opinions of the electors. This is certainly possible, and it does not appear to be denied that the existing division in wards was authoritatively condemned some years since. I think that a case has been made out for the adoption of a mandatory Instruction, requiring before the sum of £170,000 shall be expended in erecting a Town Hall, that question shall be put before the electors by means of a plébiscite. What I would recommend is, that the proposal for the rejection of the Bill should be withdrawn. There is no strong reason why it should be referred to a Hybrid Committee, but I think that the House might not unreasonably entertain the Instruction proposed by the hon. Member for West Belfast, and require the opinion of the electors of Belfast to be taken before the erection is proceeded with, so that the whole decision should not rest upon the view alone of the Town Council.

(4.7.) MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

One of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast is whether in this case there has not been a bargain made by private individuals for the sale of property which ought to belong to the public; and whether the whole of the proceedings have not been conducted in a questionable manner. I understand that one of the strongest objections urged by my hon. Friend is that the citizens of Belfast are asked to purchase for the site of a Town Hall, property which has been held in trust for public purposes, and which, in a manner which has not been explained, has passed into the hands of private individuals. Such a matter is one in regard to which the House of Commons ought to be exceedingly jealous. It is perfectly conceivable that a ring of persons interested in the possession of Trust property for their private advantage may have an interest in selling it for a large sum of money to the citizens of Belfast, in order that they may divest themselves of the position they now occupy as owners of the White Linen Hall, and be able to divide the proceeds. The Chairman of Committees has, I think, given the go-by to that point, but, so far as this House is concerned. I think it is one of the strongest points in the speech of my hon. Friend. I do not profess to understand all the details of the question, and I will, therefore, only refer to the statement of the hon. Baronet (Sir E. Harland), who knows so much about Belfast, that private individuals would be glad to give £50,000 for this property. The Corporation of Belfast are going to give £30,000, and, therefore, I think I am entitled to take the statement of the hon. Baronet with a grain of salt. If the Corporation are so anxious to have the property why did they not buy it long ago? I have yet to learn that the owners of property in Belfast are so patriotic and public- spirited that they are prepared to part with an estate worth £50,000 for £30,000. I do not believe one word of it. On the contrary, I believe that one of the chief promoters of the Bill is a gentleman who is himself personally and privately interested in the White Linen Hall, and who, when it is sold, will obtain a considerable share of the purchase money. I entirely support the proposal of my hon. Friend, and I have certainly heard nothing from the promoters of the Bill which should induce me to vote for it.

(4.13.) MR. MACARTNEY (Antrim, S.)

I wish to say in answer to the objection raised by the hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon), and previously referred to by the hon. Member for West Belfast, that this Linen Hall was founded by a Public Trust, that that is an entirely erroneous view of the original foundation of the estate. It was founded for the purpose of advancing the Donegal Estate, and it owed its origin to a rivalry which existed between the towns of Newry and Belfast. In no sense can it be regarded as a public Trust, and everybody who knows anything about the town of Belfast and its constituency must know that that portion of it which the hon. Member for West Belfast represents in his opposition to the Bill contains the most ignorant and illiterate of its inhabitants. I am surprised, however, that the hon. Member should know so little of the Bill which he denounces. If he had taken the trouble to go to the office of the Clerk of the Peace, or to consult the Schedule lodged at the Private Bill Office, he would have found the amounts inserted which are to be given to each proprietor in the shape of compensation.


The Bill itself says that many of them are not known.


I think that the hon. Gentleman is unintentionally misleading the House. No compensation is to be given to any person unknown, but the names of those who are to receive compensation are stated. I cannot understand why, if there is so much objection to the Bill, it was not opposed in the ordinary way.


The Bill itself proposes to set aside £6,000 for compensation, and it states that the representatives of the original proprietors are not known.


Does the Bill propose to give those persons compensation?


Yes, certainly.


Perhaps the hon. Member will point out how the Bill proposes to give compensation to persons who are not known.


That is what I want to know.


The hon. Member asks that the Bill should be sent to a Hybrid Committee. Why should it go to a Hybrid Committee? The hon. Member's constituents had an ample opportunity of petitioning against it. They do not pay one-eighth of the taxation of the City of Belfast. The proposals contained in the measure have already been submitted to a plébiscite, and carried by a large majority. Moreover, the hon. Member says that if it is referred to a Committee he does not consider it of sufficient importance to warrant the employment of counsel. The hon. Member for Cork (Mr. M. Healy) complains that the ordinary course has not been taken in the Bill of referring to arbitration, under the Land Clauses Act, the claims of the proprietors, occupiers, and other persons interested in this scheme.


What I said was that in ordinary cases when a Bill of this kind is introduced there is a schedule lodged with the Clerk of the House of the persons interested, and that this schedule is conclusive; but that in the case of this Bill the arbitrator has to find out who the parties interested are.


I am informed that that has been done.


Oh, no.


At all events, no ratepayer or proprietor or anybody connected with the scheme has made the same complaint as the hon. Member, who has no interest in Belfast and comes from the South of Ireland. I venture to assert that in regard to a private Bill of this nature the House has rarely listened to arguments of a more fallacious character for its rejection, or arguments supported by such a small amount of evidence.

(4.20.) MR. T. HARRINGTON (Dublin, Harbour)

I must protest against the insolent observations of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Mr. Macartney) in regard to the illiteracy and want of intelligence of the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast. If the hon. Member and his friends are presumed to monopolise the intelligence of Belfast, I am afraid that the people of this country will be induced to arrive at a very erroneous estimate of its extent. It would seem that the hon. Member has not read the Bill at all, and that he is wholly ignorant of the subject on which he has claimed the right of addressing the House. I think it has been made perfectly clear by my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast that a course has been taken in regard to this Bill which is most unusual in this House. Before bringing in the Bill it was the duty of the promoters to have ascertained carefully who were the persons interested in the property, and not to have inserted the names of some of them with a fishing commission to some arbitrator to find out the rest. That is, to say the least of it, a very unusual course, and a course which has never been taken in reference to a private Bill introduced into this House. I certainly think that the House will be departing from its usual course if it lends its countenance to the proposal which is made on the other side. The proposition of the hon. Member for West Belfast is a fair and reasonable one, and I shall be very much surprised if the House refuses to adopt it.

(4.23.) MR. RENTOUL (Down, E.)

It is only right to say that at the last election, out of the electors of Belfast who supported Unionist candidates, and who numbered about 18,000, there were only 560 illiterate voters; whereas in the Division of West Belfast, with a constituency of 7,000, the number of illiterate voters was 999. Belfast is a city which is singularly prosperous, and its prosperity has been made, to a large extent, by the two hon. Baronets who have to-day addressed the House. I am afraid that I cannot point to a single constituent of the hon. Member for West Belfast who has done anything whatever to make the city prosperous, or to enable it to take the place which it at present occupies. I think, therefore, that some consideration should be paid to the views of those hon. Baronets, rather than to an hon. Member whose constituents have contributed nothing whatever to the prosperity of the city.

(4.25.) MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)

I think that the constituents of the hon. Member for West Belfast who are now objecting to the Bill ought to have opposed it in the usual way. They had a locus standi to go before a Committee, where they would have been able to state their objections. It is not those who are promoting the Bill who are taking an unusual course, but those who might have opposed it, but who neglected the opportunity. Admittedly the constituents of the hon. Member for West Belfast represent only one-eighth of the valuation of Belfast; and upon a question which involves the expenditure of money, I think the House ought to listen to seven-eighths of the ratepayers rather than to one-eighth. It is rather a suspicious fact that, with one exception, the proposal to reject the Bill is supported only by Members from Cork, Mayo, and Dublin.

(4.26.) MR. JOHNSTON (Belfast, S.)

I have no wish to continue the discussion in an acrimonious spirit, but I rise to correct a statement which has been made on the other side of the House. In the Preamble of the Bill, upon page 14, will be found a reference to the indentures of 1783, and again in 1803, and also books of reference containing the names of the persons who were owners, or claimed to be owners, and trustees of the Linen Hall Estate, as far as could be ascertained. It states further that those names have been duly deposited with the Clerks of the Peace of the City of Belfast and the County of Antrim. If the hon. Member for West Belfast knows of any means by which to deposit names which cannot be ascertained I am sure the Town Clerk of Belfast will be glad to be informed. I usually support the suggestions of the Chairman of Committees; but I regret that I cannot do so on this occasion. I think the promoters of the Bill are bound to ask the House to approve of the Bill as it has been submitted, and I ask the House to endorse it as it stands.

(4.28.) MR. CLANCY (Dublin Co., N.)

I am sorry that the hon. Member for South Antrim should never rise for the purpose of making a speech upon an Irish subject without attempting to irritate somebody. On this occasion he has made observations which could be only calculated to excite hostility from this side of the House. He told the House that my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast represents the most illiterate constituency in that city. At all events, that constituency had intelligence enough to elect the most intelligent Member for Belfast. In this case not a single Corporate Body is interested in preventing the adoption of the proposals contained in this Bill. The only persons who are interested are individual citizens, and it is ridiculous to expect any man, however wealthy, to take upon himself the grievous pecuniary burden of petitioning the House and employing Parliamentary agents and counsel in order to oppose the Bill. But this House is competent to deal with this question, which is one of the malversation of public funds. The hon. Member for South Antrim astonished us by stating that there was no trust imposed. That is not so.


No public trust.


We are not talking of any other. We are not discussing private trusts, and this House is rarely called upon to do so. This is, I presume, another proof of the supposed superior intelligence of Orange Ulstermen. I maintain that the question of a malversation of public funds is one which the House of Commons ought to deal with; and I trust that hon. Members on this side will insist on carrying on the Debate until we get a more satisfactory explanation.

(4.34.) Colonel SAUNDERSON

rose in his place and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put," but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.

Debate resumed.

MR. M'CARTAN (Down, S.)

It is a curious thing to find the hon. and gallant Member for North Armagh moving the Closure in a Debate on matters of such importance to Bolfast citizens. An hon. Member has referred to the illiteracy of the voters for West Belfast. Well, I have the honour of being a voter for that Division, and all I can say is, that if they are illiterate they have not shown it by the choice of their Representatives, for they have elected one who has contributed more to the advancement of Belfast since he entered the House than all the other Members for the City put together. The hon. Member for East Down, in his maiden speech, dealt with only two points—one was the illiteracy of the electors, and the other was his praise of the hon. Baronet who had spoken immediately before him. Well, I have seen his election addresses. I can only remark that he has well used all these phrases before. This is a question of a public trust, and the question is, how is this money to be applied? The hon. Member for South Tyrone told us that we represented only one-eighth of the ratepayers of Belfast. But whose fault is it that the municipal franchise is so limited that in that Division there are so few voters? As a matter of fact, we represent one-third of the inhabitants of Belfast—the third who live in the poorest localities and who require more breathing space. We have the interest of their health at heart. If this transaction is a pure and honest one why should hon. Members object to the inquiry we suggest? I think it is our duty to insist on an inquiry, and to use all the forms of the House in order to obtain one if possible. There is the question of the appointment of the arbitrator. Mr. Murphy, of Belfast, may be a very able man, but I doubt the expediency of appointing a Belfast man at all. Again, he is not a lawyer, and how can he be expected to decide delicate questions of law? While we are anxious to see this Bill passed in a form which will be beneficial to Belfast, we do think the inquiry we ask for should be granted.


I will ask the promoters of the Bill whether, if I withdraw my opposition to the Second Reading, they will assent to the suggestion of the Chairman of Ways and Means? In deference to the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman, I will not divide on the Second Reading. I beg, therefore, to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

(4.40.) MR. SEXTON

This was intended originally to be a public trust. It belongs to the City of Belfast. I denounce this Bill as an attempt, after a long course of illegal acts, to alienate a public trust by a Parliamentary enactment, and to make large payments of public money to certain individuals. I have spoken in the interests of purity and honesty in the administration of public affairs, and I shall now take a Division on the Motion to refer the Bill, in order to throw the responsibility of what it does on the House itself.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be committed to a Select Committee of Nine Members, Five to be nominated by the House and Four by the Commitee of Selection."—(Mr. Sexton.)

(4.45.) The House divided: —Ayes 158; Noes 234.—(Div. List, No. 124.)

Bill committed.

(4.57.) MR. SEXTON

I beg now to move the Instruction which has been recommended by the Chairman of Ways and Means. Out of £200,000 the sum of £170,000 is to be spent in the erection of a City Hall, whereas Belfast already has a very commodious City Hall, erected about 20 years ago on almost the same site as that which is now proposed. The provisions of the Bill give no protection to the ratepayers, and I call upon the House to give them protection by passing this Instruction. By providing that one election of Councillors must intervene between the passing of the two resolutions provided for in this Bill you merely allow an opportunity for altering the constitution of one-third of the Council, and the other two-thirds may still have the power of imposing their will on the minority. I call on the House to give the ratepayers the protection which this provision will afford them.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it be an Instruction to the Committee that they make provision in the Bill to secure that any resolution of the Municipal Council of Belfast to use the Linen Hall Estate otherwise than as an open space shall not be valid unless it be confirmed by a majority in a poll of the persons qualified to vote at an election of the members of the Municipal Council of Belfast, such poll to be taken in the way and subject to the conditions prescribed in Schedule 1 to the Borough Funds (Ireland Act, 1888."—(Mr. Sexton.)

(4.59.) MR. J. LOWTHER (Kent, Thanet)

The power which is given under the Borough Funds Act has been found to work very well in the past. I think this Instruction stands on a somewhat different footing to the last Motion. I decidedly approve of the proposal of the Chairman of Committees, as an assurance that the ratepayers shall have a voice in the disposal of their property. I think that Local Authorities sometimes require a control of this character. I wish to say nothing invidious of the Corporation of Belfast, who are deserving of the greatest respect; but the reasons that induced us to apply the provisions of the borough" funds to English Corporations should lead us to support the proposition in the present case.

(5.1.) MR. J. CHAMBERLAIN (Birmingham, W.)

As a question concerning Belfast, I can understand hen. Members voting in favour of the exceptional proposal, but the speech of the hon. Member for West Belfast connects it with a general policy to which I, for one, am entirely, utterly opposed, that is to say, the general policy of interposing between municipal representatives and their decision the right to call for a plébiscite. That is a proposal which strikes at the root of all Municipal Representative Government. So far as my experience goes, the application of the Borough Funds Act has been in almost every case exercised very much to the injury of Local Government. The carrying out of the Free Libraries Act has, in some cases, been delayed, and even prevented by the operation of this unfortunate proviso, a public benefit though that Act has been shown to be. On general principle it seems to me that, having provided for popular representation, a certain amount of discretion should be allowed to those representatives.


The right hon. Gentleman will allow me to say that one ward in Belfast containing more than a fourth of the ratepayers has no voice at all in the Council.


I continue my own argument. If, in such cases, after having selected your representatives, you then interfere with their discretion by a proviso for reference to a plébiscite, you check the free action of Local Government, and you will not have the best men seeking position on the Council. The hon. Member says the system in Belfast is not thoroughly representative; and, if that is so, the way to deal with it is by a reform of the present system in Belfast, not by the introduction of an unnecessary and undesirable proviso.

(5.5.) MR. M. HEALY

Yes, Sir: but before that reform can be applied, this Bill will be carried and £170,000 spent under it. Instead of repeating his general view in relation to the Borough Funds Act, the right hon. Gentleman would have made-a more valuable contribution to the Debate if he had addressed himself to the particular Bill before the House. The proposal of my hon. Friend has been advocated and supported not in reference to general policy, but in reference to the conditions of municipal life in Belfast, which have wholly changed during the last 30 or 40 years. The population has enormously increased, and whereas when the Act was passed and the existing division into wards made, the population was not more than 50,000 or 60,000r it is now 250,000. That being so, the present division of the wards is an anomaly and an anachronism, and has resulted, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, in the exclusion from the representation upon the Municipal Council of a third of the population of Belfast. There is not at present at that Council Board a single representative of the Nationalist Party or of the Roman Catholic religion. It is to these special circumstances that my hon. Friend addressed himself. I am not going to discuss the Borough Funds Act. I am not going to discuss the question whether it is or is not right there should be an appeal from a Municipal Corporation to the people themselves before a large expenditure is incurred upon public works; that is not the question. The question is, the Corporation of Belfast being constituted as it is with a third of the people unrepresented, whether in that state of things there should be an appeal to a plébiscite. This proposal has been supported by the Chairman of Ways and Means, the highest authority in the House on the subject of Private Bill legislation, and I think we are entitled to some intimation from the Government as to how they propose to treat this proposal, which is as much that of the Chairman of Ways and Means as of my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast.

(5.10.) MR. FLYNN (Cork, N.)

We might anticipate that some importance would be attached to the opinion of the Chairman of Ways and Means, and he in definite language has supported this Instruction, and we have not heard a word in opposition to it except from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, who knows nothing about the peculiar position of municipal affairs in Belfast. This question has never been submitted to a plébiscite at all. A reference to this was made in the former Debate, but, as a fact, the question of the erection of a Town Hall was not submitted to the people, who will have to pay for it if it is decided upon. We have, too, the anomalous condition of things that the district and population my hon. Friend represents has no voice in the Council. Under the circumstances, I think we are justified in looking for something more than a conspiracy of silence. It is a reasonable proposal in itself, and it has the support of high authority. Whatever justification there may be for the general views expressed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham upon the Borough Funds Act as a piece of general legislation, here is a special condition of things not to be judged by the general principles in relation to that Act. Here is a large and important city with a third of its ratepayers without civic representation. It appears to me our case is made out, and there is no argument offered against it.

(5.12.) MR. M'CARTAN

The House should not be induced to overlook the importance of this matter because Members opposite are impatient. The question of town halls or open spaces has never been submitted to the ratepayers. In the last plébiscite some of the ratepayers voted for an open space, and these were declared spoiled votes. I need only refer to the exclusive nature of the municipal representation to confirm what has been said by my hon. Friends, and I think it cannot be denied that the present ratepayers should have a voice in this important matter.

(5.15.) The House divided:—Ayes 186; Noes 254. (Div. List, No. 125.)

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