HC Deb 26 June 1890 vol 346 cc22-37

Order for Consideration, as amended, read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill, as amended, be now considered."

(3.5.) SIR ROPER LETHBRIDGE (Kensington, N.)

I rise to move, as an Amendment, that the Bill be considered upon this day six months. I admit, at once, the inconvenience of moving the rejection of a Bill at this stage, and, therefore, it is necessary that I should explain at once why many metropolitan Members regard it as their bounden duty, notwithstanding that the measure has received the approval of a Select Committee, to offer to it an uncompromising resistance. It is one of the penalties which arise from the devolution of Private Bills to Select Committees, that on certain occasions it becomes necessary to raise a discussion in regard to them in the House itself.

(3.7.) SIR W. PLOWDEN (Wolverhampton, W.),

speaking from the Front Opposition Bench below the Gangway: I rise to a point of order. I wish to draw your attention, Sir, to the inconvenience of having the floor of the House occupied by a new contrivance connected with the presentation of Petitions, which renders it impossible for Members sitting here to see or hear what is taking place. [The hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that the centre of the floor of the House from the Bar to the Table was occupied by a series of wooden boxes of a cylindrical form, containing a Petition awaiting presentation in favour of the Local Taxation Bill.]

*(3.8.) MR. SPEAKER

I had no idea that the Petition would have assumed such large proportions. I have already given directions that immediately after the Private Business shall have been disposed of, the Petition shall be removed. The House will see that the framework adds largely to the proportion of the Petition.


Before I was interrupted I was placing before the House the conditions which render it the bounden duty of the metropolitan Members to offer astrenuous resistance to this Bill, even at this late stage. We had hoped that the Select Committee would have safeguarded the rights of the residents of the Metropolis against the undue intrusion of officials upon what has always been regarded as private property. This Bill confers upon the officials of the London County Council powers of compulsorily interfering with the rights of private individuals such as, I venture to say, have never before been authorised by this House except under the gravest and most special circumstances. They are powers which may probably have been given by a warrant, but a warrant can only be issued in circumstances of a very special character. No doubt an interference with the rights of private property for private objects can be made by a special Act of Parliament, passed pro hâc vice for a particular purpose. This Bill proposes to give for all time to come to the officials of the London County Council power compulsorily to enter upon private premises, in order to put up and to extend overhead wires, not only upon one occasion and for one purpose, but for all eternity. I believe that such extraordinary powers have never yet been asked for in a Bill of this kind, and I trust that the House of Commons will never consent to grant such powers to any bureaucracy or any official person whatsoever. I hope that no attempt will be made, on either side of the House, to make this a Party question, or in any way to regard the Motion which I now respectfully submit as in any way tending to an expression of distrust in the London County Council. I am one of those who have the fullest faith in the future of the County Councils of this Kingdom, and certainly in the future of the London County Council, and in the wisdom and discretion which will be shown by that important body which this House has clothed, and rightly clothed, I think, with full Local Authority in the Metropolis. At the same time, I am bound to admit that the existing London County Council may possibly have laid itself open in some measure to a charge of interfering with matters which hardly, at this time, or at this stage of its existence, come rightly within its purview. I regard it, however, as youthful arrogance on the part of the London County Council, and I entertain the hope that future Councils will learn wisdom by experience, and will avoid the errors which the present Council has committed, mainly by reason of its youthfulness and inexperience. I wish it to be thoroughly understood that the metropolitan Members, in resisting this Bill, are acting in no sense in opposition to, or from distrust of, the London County Council. We object to any officials, whether they are connected with the London County Council or any other authority, having conferred upon them for all time the inquisitorial powers which are proposed to be conferred by this Bill. It may be alleged by those who are promoting the Bill that some means must be found for enabling the necessary communications for telephonic wires to be made; but I think it is wise for those who are promoting schemes of this nature to submit to the House some proposal against which the same objections will not apply, and which will not interfere, in the same way, with private rights. One of the reasons why the Bill was not opposed in its earlier stages was that it came before the House simply as a Subway Bill, which proposed to carry telephonic and other wires through the congested thoroughfares of the Metropolis by means of subways. I admit that this would have involved a larger outlay, but it would have been more consistent with the convenience of the residents of the Metropolis. I confess that, personally, I had no idea when I heard of a Subway Bill that there was any intention of empowering the officials of the London County Council to come into all our houses and put up these wires. That, I think, is the main reason why the progress of the Bill was not opposed in its earlier stages; and if it were still proposed to deal with these wires by means of subways our objections to the measure might be overcome. The Bill has now assumed a very different form, and many important Local Bodies in the Metropolis have signified the strongest objection to its provisions in its present form. I speak here as the representative of my own Vestry—the Vestry of St. Mary Abbots, Kensington, and it will be within the knowledge of many Members of the House that a considerable number of the other Local Authorities in the Metropolis have pronounced a similar opinion—even such important bodies as the Benchers of the Inner and Middle Temple. Therefore, I venture to submit that although it is a somewhat late period at which to bring forward objections, yet, considering that the measure was introduced under another name, and under a guise in which its real purpose could not be suspected, I have no alternative but to move the Amendment which stands in my name.

*(3.20.) MR. BARTLEY (Islington, N.)

I beg to second the proposal of my hon. Friend, that the Bill be read a second time on this day six months. It does seem to me a somewhat startling thing that, under the name of a Subway Bill, we should be asked to pass a measure which is to enable the Local Authorities in London to enter the house of every inhabitant.

(3.21.) SIR T. ESMONDE (Dublin County, S.)

speaking from the lower end of the Front Opposition Bench below the Gangway: May I ask, Sir, as a matter of order, that you would direct the removal of the obstruction which is now blocking up the floor of the House? Alf I can say is that we on this side do not know who the hon. Member is who is addressing the House.


I have already answered the question in regard to this Petition. I am sorry that hon. Members are suffering inconvenience, but I hope that they will put up with the inconvenience for a few minutes longer. It shall be removed as soon a3 the Private Business is disposed of.

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

Will the hon. Member stand on one of these things (pointing to the wooden cylinders containing the Petition)?


(removing from his place on the floor of the House to a seat behind the Ministerial Bench) continued his speech: I am afraid—he said—that the houses of the Metropolis will be similarly inconvenienced and obstructed when they are covered with these telephone poles. I had the honour on one occasion of having one of them put upon my house, and, therefore, I know what they are. This Bill proposes to enable the authorities to erect a telephone pole whether the owner or occupier likes it or not. It is the beginning of a very singular state of legislation for the Metropolis, and what will be the result when electric lighting becomes general, is, I think, a matter for very serious consideration. Whether the owner or occupier is a consenting party or not it is proposed that the Local Authority shall have power compulsorily to put up these poles and wires. Clause 11 of the Bill contains a most extraordinary provision. It authorises the erection of poles and wires against the will of the occupier, but at the end of the lease the owner may require them to be taken down. There is even a worse provision in the Bill, empowering the County Council or the Local Authority to enter a man's house at any hour in order to superintend these overhead wires.

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

To inspect them.


The hon. Member docs not say what the inspection is to be. If he does not know, my own personal experience will enable me to tell him. At any hour, whether the occupier is ill or well, whether his wife is ill or well, or whether anything is happening in the House, the officers of the County Council are to have the right to send workmen into the House, cause them to go upstairs, make use of his private apartments, get upon the roof, and walk about the slates. I had, on one occasion, a very long pole placed on the top of my house, and I found that at all hours, and pretty nearly on every day of the week, work people were engaged in superintending it, or inspecting, or whatever the hon. Member opposite likes to call it. In fact, workmen were walking up and down my stairs every hour of the day. The only reason that can be urged for accepting the Bill, is that it has already been passed by a Select Committee. As a general rule, that is a valid reason for accepting a Private Bill, but on this occasion, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Kensington (Sir Roper Lethbridge), that there are substantial grounds why that reason should not be allowed to apply. The measure was brought in as a Subway Bill, and, in my opinion, it is only by means of subways we can get rid of the nuisance that is created by the extension of these wires through the streets of the Metropolis. If it is necessary to take houses for the erection of telephone wires, they ought to be purchased in the ordinary way. It may be said that there already exists a means of providing compensation, but the compensation is most inadequate, and fails to meet the necessities of the case. The ordinary payment for a pole is a guinea a year, but a payment of 2 guineas, or 5 or 10, would be no consideration compared with the nuisance inflicted upon the occupier of a house by these private trading companies having the right of entering his premises. I venture to think that the House were to a certain extent deluded when they allowed the Bill to be read a second time. It would never have been read a second time if it had stood as it does at present. I sincerely trust that the House will throw out the measure.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Sir Roper Leth-bridye.)

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

*(3.25.) MR. CHILDERS (Edinburgh, S.)

I wish to raise a point of order. The business of the House is seriously impeded by the cylindrical wheels which are now blocking up the floor of the House. They are most inconvenient, and I appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, whether they ought not to be removed.


The Private Business is lasting a longer time than I anticipated it would. I have already stated that it is obviously inconvenient that the Petition should be allowed to remain on the floor of the House; and will ask the officers of the House to have it removed at once.

MR. MACNEILL (Donegal, S.)

Has any one examined the contents, or will it be open to any hon. Member to do so?


The contents will be examined by the Committee on Public Petitions. [The Petition was then rolled out in detachments, by the officers of the House.]

*(3.28.) SIR J. BAILEY (Hereford)

It was my fortune to act as Chairman of the Committee, but although the Committee are in no way responsible for the title of the Bill when it was first brought into the House, I think it is fair to say that there was nothing in the title which was intended to deceive. Originally it was a Bill to enable the County Council of London to make subways through the Metropolis, and to possess certain powers over overhead wires. The power to make subways was met with strenuous opposition from every vestry in the Metropolis, and that power was consequently cut out of the Bill before it came to the Committee. The hon. Member who spoke for the Kensington Vestry, ought, I think, to know that the Committee did not accept the Bill in the shape in which it first came before them, giving the London County Council power over the streets of the entire Metropolis. It struck that provision out of the measure, making the County Council responsible only for the framing of by-laws, and giving to the Vestries and Local Boards the duty of looking after and controlling overhead wires. The Bill, in its present shape, proposes to carry out the Report of the Select Committee which sat in the year 1885, and, with the permission of the House, I will read a few words from that Report to show what the opinion of that Committee was. The Committee say that the risk of danger to the public from overhead wires had been greatly exaggerated, but they were of opinion the probable development of the telephonic system made it desirable that there should be some change in the law relating to the control over wires, with a view to their better supervision. Dealing with telephonic wires, they say, at the end of their Report, that they were of opinion that, under proper regulations, permission should be given to pass wires over property without the owners having the right of prohibition; but that the facilities afforded should confer no vested interest. With regard to "attachment," that can only now be made with the consent of the occupier and owner; but powers are proposed to be conferred in certain cases where it is impossible to obtain access to premises for the purpose of connecting them with a general telephonic system, owing to the refusal of an individual to permit the attachment. The Committee say that they are of opinion that in special cases where it is proved to the satisfaction of the Local Authorities, on investigation, that particular individuals or districts are deprived of the public convenience of telephoniccommunication owing to such refusal, the Local Authority shall be authorised to give permission to attach wires to premises, under suitable regulations, and on the payment of such compensation as the Local Authority may deem just. This Bill simply carries out the recommendations of the Select Committee. The Committee upstairs have most carefully considered and safeguarded the interests of all the householders in London, and the fears which have been expressed by two of the metropolitan Representatives appear to me to be absolutely without foundation. It is said that the Bill will empower the Council's officers by day or night to enter into private houses. Now, one of the great dangers of the overhead wires is that there are in London a great number of derelict wires, which have been used in former times, but are now abandoned, and, therefore, it is most necessary that workmen should be appointed by the Local Authorities to deal with them, as it is obviously ridiculous to expect an Inspector to inspect them through a telescope. Clause 8 of the Bill provides that the Inspector of the Council may enter a private house provided he is iii uniform, and is duly authorised in writing by the Local Authority, and provided that notice shall have been previously given. The Inspector' may then enter at some reasonable time to be named by the occupier. The rights of householders being thus most stringently guarded, I hope the Bill will be now considered.

*(3.40.) MR. H. LAWSON

As one of the Members in charge of the Bill, perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words. The hon. Member who has moved the rejection has availed himself of the opportunity to attack the London County Council, and I think that fact affords an explanation of the motives by which those who are opposing the measure are actuated.


I especially disclaimed any such intention.


The House will be able to judge for itself whether I am right or not. These attacks are becoming a little stale, and they show the jealous hostility of some Metropolitan Members to the body which has succeeded the Metropolitan Board of Works, for which they retain a lingering affection. The London County Council has had very little to do with the drafting of the Bill. The question is one of public safety and convenience. As the Chairman of the Committee has already told the House, it mainly carries out the recommendations of the Committee presided over by Mr. George Russell, who sat in 1885, and contained three metropolitan representatives, as well as Sir J. M'Garel Hogg, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works. I believe that now, as well as then, the House is' agreed upon facilitating the development of the telephone system. The hon. Member for Kensington has painted an alarming picture of the officers of the Council entering houses at any hour of the day or night, putting sick persons to inconvenience, and annoying the inhabitants. But if there are to be telephone wires it is absolutely essential that they should be inspected.


Place them in subways.


It is absolutely impossible to force the telephone wires into subways everywhere, first, because out of 1,200 miles of metropolitan streets and roads there are only 8½ miles of subway; secondly, because of the difficulty of putting high and low tension wires together. Moreover, the by-laws of the County Council will have to be approved by the Board of Trade and enforced by the District Authorities. The title of the Bill has not been changed, as some hon. Members suggest. The original title was "London Subways and Overhead Wires Bill," and the word "subways" has been dropped because that subject no longer has a place in the Bill. There could be no better arrangement than that the overhead wires should be placed under the Central Authority for London, acting through the various District Authorities. The objection to Clause 11, which gives power to attach wires upon private property, is frivolous, as it will only be exercised where an unreasonable objection is taken by the owner or occupier subject to arbitration.

*(3.45.) MR. DIXON-HARTLAND (Middlesex, Uxbridge)

The Member for Hereford stated that the Committee was entirely composed of householders, but he did not state that any one of them had ever given permission for a pole to be placed upon his house. I should like to mention my own experience in regard to telephone wires. Unfortunately, I gave a telephone company permission to put a wire over my house, and from that time the House was never my own. The Inspectors were always in and out, my stair carpets were worn out, and my silver had to be constantly locked up for fear it should be stolen. The pole, moreover, was fixed so badly that considerable damage was done to the roof of the house, by the action of the wind upon the pole. The company declined to repair the damage, and it cost me £50 to put the roof in order, when I applied for the removal of the pole. To that inconvenience every person will be subjected who has wires fixed to his house, and I protest against its being done, whether an owner or occupier objects to its being done or not. The question is not altogether one of erecting telephone wires, but of electric lighting wires, with the erection of which we are threatened all over London, and which is a very much more serious matter. We are now in the infancy of the system, and yet we have already realised that these wires greatly increase the risk of fire, a proof of which is that the insurance offices have raised the rates for property to which electric lighting wires have been fixed. In other countries, Sweden and America particularly, where such wires have been brought into requisition, the companies are compelled to have stations in various parts of the town or city from which the wires are run, and as this is a matter promoted by a company for private interests I think the promoters should be compelled to purchase fairly the rights they require, or demand, for carrying out their undertaking. It would be most arbitrary and unjust that they should have the power to interfere with the rights and convenience of the public without any consideration, and I hope the House will reject this ill-digested scheme, I think it would be altogether revolutionary to do away with the idea that an Englishman's house is his castle, and to authorise officers of the County Council to enter a man's premises, whether he likes it or not.

(4.50.) MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

I wish to point out that if this Bill passes an entirely new departure in legislation will be made, for under whatever authority the Bill is applied it will give an arbitrary power of interference with property, whether the owner objects or not, and without compensation. Every occupier or owner ought to have the right to object to anything being done to his property, reasonable or unreasonable, subject only to this—that if the objection taken is against the general good he must give up his right on fair compensation. But the Bill provides no such condition as this, and by Clause 2 a man may have his property interfered with without his consent, and those interfering with him may even claim to judge whether his objection is reasonable or not. Is the House going, for the first time in the history of English legislation, to say that an occupier is not to be an occupier to the full extent which he believed he was when he entered into his property? The objections to the Bill are serious, and I trust it will be rejected.

(3.53.) SIR H. SELWIN-IBBETSON (Essex, Epping)

There is yet another objection to be urged against the Bill. Since the introduction of the electric lighting system in recent times the number of attempts to enter private houses under false pretences by persons describing themselves as Inspectors has enormously increased, and I fear the Bill will enhance the danger. There will be constant applications from persons describing themselves as Inspectors, who will enter your houses, and do very much what they like with your property. In my own case applications of this kind have been made, but the Cerberus in charge of the premises was a little sharper than is usually the case, and the applicants were not admitted. One wanted to look at the gas, and another to inspect the electric lighting, which did not exist.

*(3.53.) MR. H. GLADSTONE (Leeds, W.)

I think that the remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman as well as the speech of the hon. Member for the Uxbridge Division are in favour of the Bill, which proposes to set up a proper system of supervision in regard to overhead wires. The Committee very carefully considered all the clauses of the Bill, they were unanimous upon the matter, and they have safeguarded the interests of private householders. To those hon. Members who say that we are giving new powers to the County Council, if they will refer to the Bill they will see that the Board of Trade will have a controlling voice in the bylaws to be administered by the County Council. The hon. Member for Northampton spoke of a new departure. That may be so in one sense, but the system of putting up overhead wires has been increasing of late years by leaps and bounds.


I did not say that it was a new departure in reference to overhead wires, but that it was anew departure in legislation as to the mode of dealing with a person's property without compensation.


It is for the House to say whether this is not necessarily a new departure in order to meet a new condition of things. In cases where the public convenience is concerned the Legislature has already interfered with private rights, as, for example, in the painting and cleansing of houses, and in other respects, on behalf of general convenience. I hold that public interest and necessity justifies this Bill, and I sincerely hope that the House will reject the Amendment.

*MR. R. G.WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)

It is too much the habit of certain hon. Members to say when we desire to look into a measure promoted by the London County Council fairly and equitably, that we are attacking that Council. The County Council must not imagine that its measures are to be exempt from the criticism which Parliament exercises in all other Bills promoted by other bodies. Now, no one can, I imagine, object to the clause which deals with derelict wires. This Bill is not a permissive but a compulsory measure. It gives powers to the authorities to say to the householder you shall have posts or polls placed on your house whether you like it or not; and, further, you shall have the wires that run through your premises inspected from time to time. No doubt this power is to be exercised under certain restrictions, but none the less it is a completely new departure, and one to be carefully watched. A Londoner does not wish his house to be considered his castle, but at any rate his home. But it is said that the men who are to inspect these wires are to produce duly signed credentials, and wear the uniform of the County Council (whatever that may be). Even that privilege does not seem an attractive one to the householder. This is no attack on the County Council. Did we wish to attack that body the heavy increase in the rating under its regime would offer a more vulnerable point of attack than its action in the various and varied measures it has introduced to the notice of this House. This Bill is one which confers extraordinary powers upon the Council, and I oppose it as a new and great departure.

*(4.3.) SIR J. LUBBOCK (London University)

I hope that the opposi- tion to this Bill is not an attack on the London County Council, but an endeavour to regulate overhead wires. The opponents of the Bill, however, attack solely two of its clauses, and it would surely be unreasonable to throw out the whole Bill on account of two clauses. As regards Clause 11, the hon. Member for Northampton says that the authority seeking the right to put up a pole is itself to determine whether a refusal was unreasonable. That is not so; the London County Council are not owners of overhead wires, and have no interest except that of the public. Then, as regards Clause 8, it is objected that the officers of the London County Council ought not to have any right of entry; but if the duty of inspection is imposed On them they must have some right of entry. The Bill has been characterised by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Dixon-Hartland) as an ill-digested measure, but it is a Bill which has been recommended by two Committees of this House, and I hope the House will support the Committee.


I am afraid that I shall be under the painful necessity of having to go into the opposite Lobby to my hon. Colleague. There is a good deal of force in what he has said, but I consider that all London matters should be handed over to the London Council. I want to wash my hands entirely of all London matters as far as this House is concerned. This is a question which concerns the ratepayers of this Metropolis, and it is for the County Council to settle it.

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

I should be very sorry to see everything connected with the Metropolis left to the uncontrolled discretion of the County Council. This Bill has been considered by a Committee of this House, and no one could have listened to the speech of the hon. Baronet who presided over that Committee without feeling impressed with the care that has been given to the subject. I hope, therefore, that the House will not reject, in this summary manner, what has been agreed to by the Committee. Another reason why we should reject this Amendment is that the strongest objection against the Bill has been brought by the hon. Member for Northampton, who objects to one clause of it only. But even if that clause were struck out, there is much that is valuable left in the Bill, to which no substantial objection can be taken. The Bill deals with the natural state of facts, namely, that there are a great number of overhead wires in London which form a source of danger and inconvenience to the inhabitants of the Metropolis, and it is most desirable that some authority should look after the wires. I venture to submit that Clause 8, which has been objected to, is a very reasonable way of dealing with the question of wires already in existence, attached to houses by the permission of the owners and occupiers.


I have not the slightest objection to the provisions dealing with the case where the owner gives permission; what I object to is the provision that poles may be erected whether the owner likes it or not.


What the hon., Member objects to is the subsequent clause, which raises a separate issue, and should be disposed of by itself. I contend that the Bill is a very valuable provision for looking after a danger which everybody knows exists. I admit that the power to put up a pole against the will of the owner of the house is a considerable step in advance, but I hope the House will not reject the Bill on account of this one item.


That power forms the essence of the Bill; or if it is not the essence it is quite as important as all the other provisions.


I submit that this is not so at all. With respect to that point, which forms the subject of a separate clause, I think it is essential that there should be some authority able to say whether these poles should be set up. The authority appointed by the Bill is the County Council, which has no private interest in the matter, and would only act as the guardian of the public interests. They can give notice to a person who, in their opinion, offers unreasonable objections, and if he continues to assert his objections the matter would he referred to an arbitrator appointed by the Board of Trade. Those who are so devoted to the rights of property as to want special leave for the erection of every pole, can, if they choose, move that this clause should be rejected; but it is an entirely different thing to oppose a Bill which is admittedly a useful measure.

(4.14.) GENERAL GOLDSWORTHY (Hammersmith)

The suggestion made by the Chairman of Ways and Means was conveyed to the promoters of the Bill; and personally I offered to withdraw my objections to the measure if it were accepted. The promoters, however, intimated that they were not in a position to accept it. We are not talking so much of keeping our houses as our castles as of preserving them as our homes.

(4.15.) The House divided:—Ayes 200; Noes 203.—(Div. List, No. 159.)

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Consideration, as amended, put off for three months.

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