HC Deb 01 March 1892 vol 1 cc1581-7

Order for Second Reading read.

(3.6.) MR. NORRIS (Tower Hamlets, Limehouse)

In moving the Second Reading of this Bill I will be as brief as is consistent with the interests of those I represent on this occasion. It is a Bill that seriously affects the interest of the town of Southampton, indeed I may say the County of Southampton, and especially it interests the railway and dock undertakings of the port. The proposal in the Bill is the sale of the property of the Dock Company to the South Western Railway Company, and I understand the opposition which emanates from the representatives of dock interests in the North of England rests on a question of principle, but of course it is easy to argue how a general principle does or does not apply to a particular case. The hon. Members who have given notice antagonistic to this Bill represent two Northern boroughs, and I cannot for the life of me see what they have to do with the arrangements of the Southampton Docks. The great dock interests of London have exhi- bited no opposition; recognising this as a means by which the Southampton Dock Company can get out of its financial difficulties. It is not the Railway Company which is the principal promoter of this Bill. It is not in any sense from a desire to create a railway monopoly the Bill is promoted, it is the only feasible means for the Dock Company to relieve itself from serious and increasing depreciation. The Railway Company are holders of £50,000 4 per cent. mortgage debentures and £250,000 4 per cent. preference stock of the Dock Company, and at the same time they have advanced £30,000 by way of temporary loan, making a total of £330,000. They hold about a quarter of the whole property of the Company, and have therefore a large amount of power in the Company's affairs. A subscription of £250,000 was authorised for assistance in the construction of a new deep water dock. We have endeavoured, as far as possible, to keep pace with the demands of the times and the requirements of the port. We are on good terms with the Dock Companies on the Thames, and I cannot see why the North Country dockowners should oppose a Bill of such a reasonable character. The Railway Company has already a very large interest in the dock. The net revenue of the dock has declined during the last four years, and the opening of the new dock has not brought the increased traffic which was anticipated. The Company only paid 2 per cent. in 1891 on the 4 per cent. preference stock, and the revenue is still declining; and I may point out that a large portion of the stock is held by trustees for widows and children, and much is in the hands of working men. No dividend on the ordinary stock has been paid since 1890, when ½per cent. was distributed among the shareholders. This movement was initiated by the shareholders, and not by the Railway Company. I may also mention the severe loss the docks suffered in 1873 by the withdrawal of the Peninsular and Oriental Company. We have attempted to make good this loss, but we have taken nothing, certainly, from the Northern Docks. We employ a large amount of labour, as the hon. Gentleman opposite, the Member for Southampton, can tell you, and if the docks are closed, as, possibly, they might be if the money is not forthcoming, this important town and port of Southampton may be ruined, and the labourers there will be in a state of penury and destitution. I believe nearly every Railway Company in the Kingdom having coast communication has docks of its own; the Great Western and the North Western have docks, and the North Eastern has, or is endeavouring to secure, docks of its own. The London and Brighton Company has the port of Newhaven, and the South Eastern has docks of its own. Therefore, it seems to me very much like a dog-in-the-manger policy for these North Country docks to interfere in regard to what we are doing for the port and town of Southampton. I hope the Government will assist us in the endeavour to obtain a Second Reading of this Bill. It is a question of local interests and local self-government, and I hope those hon. Gentlemen who justify the principle of local self-government will support the Second Reading. There is no other principle involved here. In the circular sent round by our opponents—lukewarm opponents I hope I may call them—a lame pretext is put forward, and no strong argument against the Bill. They say that in 1872 there was a Joint Committee of the two Houses of Parliament, which gave utterance to the assertion of a certain principle, or the expression of a sentiment, in regard to the amalgamation of Docks and Railway Companies. But, as hon. Gentlemen will understand, we have advanced and progressed since 1872, and principles that then held good are different from those which obtain to-day. To treat this as a matter of general public principle seems to me a most unnecessary interference with local interests. It is little to the interest of the Railway Company, though, of course, they would not undertake the purchase unless they found that the two undertakings could be worked better and more cheaply, with advantage to the interests of all parties concerned. Without going into the history of the docks, I may say they have made the most laborious endeavours to keep the docks up to the requirements of the time. We are ready to receive the largest ships, and if the great Union Steamship Company, the Royal Mail Company, and others do not come to us, they certainly will not go to any of the ports represented in any way by the hon. Members for Whitehaven and South Shields. So I think their interference in our proposal is wholly uncalled for. At any rate, we are in an almost destitute condition. I might almost say we are pleading before the House in formâ pauperis for the good of the property, for the good of the working classes of Southampton. I hope we shall have the support of the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Buxton), whom I see opposite, and others who interest themselves in labour questions. I think we ought to have the sympathy of those hon. Members who have in recollection the labour strikes at Southampton, and the position of working men there. We object to a Hybrid Committee, because reference to such a Committee must lead to a postponement of the carrying out of the proposal, and will entail much additional expense, which we are not able to bear. I do hope that the Government will justify their own principle of local self-government, and assist us in passing the Second Reading.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Norris.)

(3.15.) MR. F. H. EVANS (Southampton)

I rise to support the Motion for Second Reading. The Bill is introduced by the Southampton Docks Company, because that company finds itself in the position of having a very large accommodation for shipping and not the means and appliances sufficient to attract the larger shipping, and make the undertaking pay. The borrowing powers of the company are nearly exhausted, and the means of raising money gone. Capital is required to complete the finest docks in the Channel. The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has pointed out that a large amount of labour has been expended to keep the docks open. I cannot go so far as he has gone in the apprehension of the danger of the docks being closed, and I think even if the Bill were thrown out still we should find the Southampton Docks would be maintained; and I do not join in pleading in, formâ pauperis. The opposition to the Second Reading, so far as I can make out, is based on the general principle that Railway Companies should not be allowed to acquire docks. My own experience is that general principles exist in theory, and may be sustained so long as there is nothing to apply them to, but as soon as they are applied to individual instances, then general principles are likely to get more and more attenuated. If, in the present instance, the Dock Companies were opposed to the amalgamation, then there would be good reason for the House to hesitate before granting a Second Reading to the Bill, but that is not the case here. The Southampton Corporation have passed a resolution in favour of the Bill. The railway shareholders have passed a resolution in favour of the purchase, and the dock shareholders, by a very large majority, have agreed to the sale, and I do not see that opposition should come in on the ground of general principles to the carrying out of a measure which all parties are eager to have passed. I do not see on what principle the House should refuse a Second Reading to the Bill. It is not because the London and North Western do not happen to possess the Liverpool Docks. Surely hon. Members will not apply an analogy of that kind. It is not that the London and South Western Railway Company want to obtain possession to the exclusion of all other railway interests, for there are provisions to secure the public weal, so that the London and South Western Company will not obtain power of that kind. I agree with my hon. Friend that a Hybrid Committee will be an expensive solution of the difficulty. I prefer inquiry by an ordinary Select Committee, and I do hope that the House will, in the interest of the town of Southampton, which I represent, and in the interest of the Dock Company, which I also represent in this case, grant a Second Reading to the Bill to the advantage of all parties concerned.

(3.20.) THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Mr. COURTNEY, Cornwall, 1586 Bodmin)

I rise thus early in the Debate to ask the House to consider the real point involved in this discussion, because the hon. Members who have spoken have shown considerable ingenuity in avoiding altogether what is the matter in dispute. We have had an interesting view of the force of general principles from the hon. Member who has just sat down, who seems to think they are only useful on platforms in view of elections, but are to be put aside when concrete cases present themselves for the application of those principles. There is no real objection to the Second Reading of the Bill, but there is involved a principle long recognised as beyond the immediate interest of a locality. We have a Standing Order of the House that in the case of any Bill which contemplates the acquisition of a dock by a Railway Company, that Bill shall not be referred to a Select Committee unless there is a special Report made thereon showing reasons for a departure from the general rule. That has been a Standing Order of the House for a long while. But a Joint Committee of the two Houses came to the conclusion that the Standing Order was not sufficiently strong, and that proposals of the kind, the acquisition of a dock by a Railway Company, and possibly the creation of a powerful monopoly, should be referred to a Hybrid Committee. Now, the question before the House is not really the acceptance or rejection of a Motion for Second Reading, but whether the Bill should be referred to an ordinary Select Committee of four Members, or whether it should go before a Hybrid Committee. Now, questions of general public interest cannot be sufficiently examined by an ordinary Select Committee, for no one appears before it to represent the wider interest beyond that of the locality, but before a Hybrid Committee there will be evidence and arguments on points affecting the general public interest, as well as the local interests. The hon. Member for Lime-house (Mr. Norris) has an apprehension that much more expense is involved in the examination by a Hybrid Committee, but I think he will find that examination before a Hybrid Committee is not much more, if at all more, expensive than examination by a Select Committee of four Members. This would be an expensive business, looking to the character of the opposition raised, if all the Dock Companies who are endeavouring to maintain their independence in competition were represented, but I am assured that the opposition will be brought to a single representation, and there is no intention to go through the reduplication of evidence. I do not think, therefore, there will be much additional expense, and I should recommend that the Bill be read a second time, and referred to a Hybrid Committee.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

MR. J. C. STEVENSON (South Shields)

I beg to move the Motion standing in my name.

SIR JAMES BAIN (Whitehaven)

I beg to second the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be committed to a Select Committee to consist of Seven Members, Four to be nominated by the House, and Three by the Committee of Selection.

(3.25.) MR. NORRIS

Of course, in face of the representations made by the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees, and understanding from him that this course will not lead to delay or great additional expense, I will, with the concurrence of the House, fall in with his view.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That all Petitions against the Bill presented three clear days before the meeting of the Committee be referred to the Committee; and that such of the Petitioners as pray to be heard by 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. That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records. That Three be the quorum.