§ MOTION FOR LEAVE. [ADJOURNED DEBATE.]
Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [26th February].
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend Procedure with respect to Private Bills in Scotland and Ireland."—(Mr. A. J. Balfour.)
§ Question again proposed.
§ Debate resumed.
§ (2.47.) MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)
The scheme, Sir, embodied in this Bill I think I am justified in describing as a mere anachronism. Twenty years ago it might have excited some little interest in Ireland—even ten years ago it might have attracted some attention — but, considering the changed circumstances and the position of the Home Rule movement, the proposal is one which has no practical relation to the demands and the requirements of the Irish people. The second observation I would make is that the Bill is of a Separatist character. At present the Private Bill procedure affecting the three countries is identical, but this Bill proposes that whilst in future the English Bills should follow their present course, the Scotch and Irish Bills should go to a body of non-legislative persons operating outside the walls of Parliament. That indicates a fundamental departure calculated to surprise one all the more as coming from a Unionist Government, and is scarcely defensible on any ground whatever. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury explained that the promoters of the Bill had two objects in view. One was to relieve Parliament from overwork and lighten the labours of Members; and the other was to relieve suitors somewhat of the expense they are put to in promoting Private Bills. As to the first point, I am not aware of any serious complaint on the part of Members of overwork. Whatever may be the case as to the House collectively, and no doubt it does occasionally suffer from a pressure of 1830 business, there are a considerable number of Members who certainly enjoy a good deal of idle time. I am disposed to doubt if relief is necessary, but assuming that relief is required the question arises would this scheme afford relief? I think not. Now, Sir, the interests of Private Bill legislation in England are greatly more important than those of the other two countries. The total number of Private Bills introduced last Session was 170. Of these 137 were English, 27 were Scotch, and 6 were Irish. As regards Scotland, we have the authority of my right hon. Friend the Member for the Stirling Burghs that the number of disputed Bills coming from Scotland in the course of a year does not exceed six or seven. He said these contested Bills were chiefly due to the North British and the Caledonian Railway Companies, and that these companies have lately entered into an alliance for a long number of years that will greatly reduce the number of Bills. Therefore, Sir, the relief that will be afforded to the Members of this House by removing from the cognisance of Committees upstairs the very small number of Scotch and Irish Bills that fell to be disposed of will be a relief that is so infinitesimal that it will not reduce the Session of Parliament by one single day. The claim of the right hon. Gentleman that this Bill will relieve Parliament must, in the circumstances, be abandoned. Then, Sir, it should be borne in mind that the stage of Third Reading, which, under the existing practice of the House, is merely formal, will, under the scheme of the Government, become a contentious stage. The other plea on behalf of the Bill was that it would relieve suitors, and on that point I regret the right hon. Gentleman did not think it necessary to afford us some indication of the measure of the relief. I think it would be immaterial, whilst the scheme would introduce elements of uncertainty that do not now exist. Any person promoting a Bill knows at present what the procedure will be; but if this Bill passed, the promoters of an Irish or Scotch Bill would not be able to forecast their expenditure or procedure, because it would depend upon a decision of the Joint Committee whether any particular Bill would have 1831 to go to a Committee of this House or to the Commission. Until the Joint Standing Committee had decided whether the Bill involved any new principle, the promoters would not know whether their Bill was to go to a Committee or otherwise. That would operate prejudicially to the promoters. Now, would there be a material relief in the matter of expense? Observe, the London agency would have to be retained, the fees of both Houses would still have to be paid, and we all know that the fees of both Houses required before a Bill passes the Standing Orders constitute in most cases the preponderating part of the expense. Therefore the local inquiries proposed to be substituted for an inquiry by this House would, for the reason that the inquiry was local, be more likely to be prolonged than an inquiry before a Select Committee, whilst the expense would be proportionately greater. There is, for example, the item of the salaries of the officials. I rather expect the main inspiration of this Bill is in the breasts of those who desire a new post to be created. I suppose the Railway Commissioners will require additional pay for their additional work.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
No, Sir; there is no ground for such a supposition. The Railway Commissioners have accepted their present position on the distinct understanding that they would have to undertake any duties of this kind without any additional remuneration.
§ MR. SEXTON
At any rate there would be the Assistant Commissioners, and they would have to be paid, and the army of other officials that would be created would have to be paid; so that by this scheme the promoters of Private Bills would be obliged to pay the fees of this House and the House of Lords, the fees attaching to the local inquiry, and they would, moreover, have to bear the cost of the Commissioners and of the officials of all grades whom the Bill will create. On the whole, I am inclined to doubt whether the combination of the two methods in compliance with the Standing Orders here, and the holding of a local inquiry, would really result in any financial saving. I would add that as under this Bill the Third Reading will 1832 become a contentious stage that also would involve the promoters of the Bill in additional expense. Of the two objects of the Bill, as defined by the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury, the first, I hold, would not be attained, and the second is problematical. As to the scheme itself, it introduces an extraordinary novelty. The Chairman of Ways and Means in the House of Commons, together with the corresponding official in the House of Lords, with the addition of two Peers and two Commoners — six gentlemen altogether — are to have power to direct this House to pass the First and Second Readings of a Bill, and to do so without debate. I doubt very much whether any existing Statute gives such a power. Supposing you pass this Statute during the present Parliament, do you think the next Parliament would go on the dictum of those six gentlemen, and pass the First and Second Readings of a Bill without debate? And if the House did agree to that, what would be the value of a Private Bill taken without debate? Would it not be better to abolish the First and Second Readings altogether? The Joint Committee are to have power to say whether the Standing Orders have been complied with, without knowing the facts. Secondly, they have power to say whether the Bill is Irish or Scotch, or both together. And there is a third power by which these six gentlemen would be able to say whether or not the Bill involves any new principle, and to that proposal I object. Although the Bill may not involve a new principle, that is not a sufficient reason for removing it from its place in this House, because there may be a proposal to apply a familiar principle on a novel combination of facts, and the new aspect of the facts may be as important as any new principle can be. Take the Bill of the Belfast Corporation the other day; there was no new principle involved in that Bill, but what made it important was that the local circumstances of Belfast are extremely peculiar. In that case, if the Bill had been referred to the six gentlemen named they would, no doubt, have said, "The Bill contains no new principle, and we will 1833 send it to the Commission in Ireland." I should not be disposed to assent to the principle that any three Members of this House, with an equal number of the other House, should, upon the mere declaration that the Bill contained no new principle, have power to remove that Bill substantially from the consideration of the House. The power of legislation would thereby be removed from this House, and the Second Reading would have to be taken without debate on the order of these gentlemen. The Committee stage would be taken in Ireland or Scotland by the Commission, and the Third Reading would be taken here. The Third Reading would be the only Parliamentary stage of the Bill, and even then it would not be competent to introduce Amendments here. The House would either have to accept or reject the Bill; they would not be able to amend it. All they could do would be to carry an Instruction to the Committee in Scotland or in Ireland to insert Amendments. I would ask anyone whether the Third Reading of a Bill, as the culmination of this scheme, would be a satisfactory proceeding? It would resolve itself into an appeal to this House from a Court outside, which had taken evidence, and upon that evidence had come to certain conclusions. It is complained that this House is not a fit Assembly to which to take appeals from Courts outside. Any proposal to amend the Bill would necessarily be a proposal dealing with evidence, and contentious arguments on that evidence, before the Commission in Scotland and Ireland. I would ask the Lord Advocate, or the Solicitor General for Scotland, to consider whether the Third Reading of a Bill, taken as an appeal from the decision of a tribunal outside, on evidence, could be taken satisfactorily in this House, and more especially under the conditions and limitations of debate, with the Speaker in the Chair? I have not the slightest doubt, while the present system continues, suitors will object to come to this House, and the result of this Bill will be great dissatisfaction. But I have a fundamental objection to this scheme, so far as Ireland is concerned. It is truly and simply a Bill to appoint a new Government 1834 Board for Ireland. But we have a supply of Government Boards already such as leaves nothing to be desired. Our hope is that the time may soon arrive when we will be able to dispense with a lot of these Boards. The practical and universal opinion of the Irish people with regard to this scheme is, that they cannot favourably entertain a scheme which proposes to devolve any part of the duty of legislating in the interests of Ireland to persons not elected to legislate.
§ (3.15.) MR. J. C. BOLTON (Stirling)
I would appeal to the First Lord of the Treasury to give the House a little more information than he has already done, in order that we may come to a wiser decision than we are likely to do without it. The right hon. Gentleman based his scheme on two grounds, the saving of labour to hon. Members, and the saving of the pockets of suitors. It is impossible that the House can form a correct idea of the saving of time and labour on the part of hon. Members of this House if we are not first informed what labour they have hitherto undergone. The Return before the House does not give the time separately of the days occupied in the consideration of Scotch and Irish Bills exclusively. Nor does the Return which was granted on the Motion of the late Mr. Craig Sellar for 1883–4–5 gave details, but only the total cost to suitors in private legislation concerning Scotland, and I believe concerning Ireland also. The House ought to be informed what is the amount of the charges which will be affected by the proposed change. I think it will be found that the labour imposed on hon. Members is not so onerous as probably the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury supposes, and speaking from an experience of upwards of a quarter of a century, it is my firm belief that the saving which the right hon. Gentleman hopes to obtain for suitors is imaginary. With regard to the proposed Joint Committee of both Houses, I submit that no Committee could in all cases tell whether the Standing Orders have been complied with unless the litigants are represented before it. A Bill does not in all cases disclose its effect, and as an illustration I may suggest that a Railway Bill in 1835 Scotland may, and almost invariably does, affect railways out of Scotland, though it does not disclose the fact. As a further illustration, I might point out that there is a Bill at present before the House for the transfer of a small piece of railway in the West of Scotland from one bay to another. The only opponent of that Bill is an English railway company, and that English railway company have to go to Aberdeen without any saving of litigation. That, of course, would mean increased cost. The powers proposed to be conferred upon this Committee are legislative powers. The Committee will have power to reject the Bill, and, in the event of its rejection, I presume that would not be reviewed by this House. In that event I suppose a tribunal not composed of elected members, but composed of a selected few will exercise powers of legislation which I believe ought to be and were generally supposed to be, confined to Members of this and the other House of Parliament. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider these points, and will at some future stage give us his views upon them. And, I would further press upon him to give the House the information which I ask for.
§ (3.26.) MR. ESSLEMONT (Aberdeen, E.)
I think a good deal of the uncertainty and dissatisfaction which exist with regard to Private Bill legislation is connected with the large double expenses of House fees in both Houses of Parliament. And, however unimportant a Bill may be, however small it is, notwithstanding any expenses that may be saved by having a local inquiry, still, so far as the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman goes, I do not see anything in the way of a proposal to deal with the question of House fees at all. To deal with this question in a way which will be permanent it will be necessary to deal with the question of House fees. I admit that so far as Scotland is concerned there has been a feeling during the last ten years that there will be certain advantages if we have local inquiries. But I would point out to the House that circumstances have greatly changed since this agitation was set on foot. A great deal of the expense incurred in Private Bill 1836 legislation was incurred by the large Corporations of Scotland applying for powers to supply gas and water. There were many of them large undertakings, such, for instance, as bringing the water supply of Glasgow from Loch Katrine, a scheme in connection with which the Corporation had to deal with private proprietors in different parishes and with various Local Authorities. And, it was a large scheme which involved a great deal of expense. But, I submit that the supposed saving of the expenses by having local inquiries is very much imaginary. I would give as an illustration the case of the Corporation of Dundee, who applied for the purchase of the gas works in that town. At that time it was decided that the gas works should be purchased by arbitration. That led to the same kind of inquiry which I presume would exist if this Commission were established. It is perfectly well known in Dundee that the Corporation were sick of that inquiry, and they regretted that this question was not disposed of and decided by a Committee of this House, because, if it had been, it is a notorious fact that the expenses in that case would not have been one-fourth of the expenses incurred in the arbitration. And, therefore, the expense was not saved, and the decision of the arbitrators was much less satisfactory in the locality than a decision of this House would have been. What we want in Scotland much more than an alteration in regard to Private Bill legislation is the devolution of a large number of small matters which come up here for decision, and which ought undoubtedly to be decided by the County Councils of the localities where the undertakings are proposed. We have large Corporations in the cities, then we have County Councils, which embrace in their area of jurisdiction a large number of little burghs that require small municipal Bills for conducting their own Corporation matters. It is notorious that no evil whatever could come if these little matters with regard to gas and water, and other things which are purely local, were decided by the County Councils without troubling this House at all. In the large burghs in Scotland the big undertakings are all accomplished 1837 facts. Bills in regard to municipal matters have been largely brought into working, and such schemes will not in the future be again before the House. After all, we object to any departmental Court having placed within their province a judicial decision as to what are the wants of the locality as against popularly elected bodies. Most people are satisfied that the responsible Members of this House constitute a Judicial Body without prejudice. Every Committee dealing with a Private Bill has that Bill before them for the first time, and they approach it in quite an impartial way. We believe that if there were a Department created in Scotland to deal with these Bills under the Board of Supervision and other Boards in Edinburgh, we would be placed at the will of some permanent official, who would practically take the matter in hand and decide questions very much according to his own views. The principal Bills that come from Scotland would then go before this Commission sitting in Edinburgh, composed of officials, many of them highly paid. And we have a strong suspicion that the agitation which has been going on in Scotland is kept alive by certain individuals who have the expectation of getting situations as permanent officials for looking after the work. A General Committee on this subject was appointed seven years ago. One of the gentlemen on that Committee, who had been a leading light on this question, wished me to submit my evidence to his surveillance before it was given; in point of fact, he wanted evidence in favour of the views he himself was in favour of as a member of that Committee, and because my evidence was not in that particular line my name was removed from the Committee, and another witness was taken up from Aberdeen, a gentleman who knew very little or nothing at all about Private Bill legislation, and he was substituted for me, who had considerable experience. At the end of his evidence, however, when asked if he had anything to add, he said that the people of Aberdeen rather than submit their matters to a Commission at Edinburgh, largely controlled by Edinburgh lawyers, 1838 would prefer to pay their fares to London and come before a Committee of this House. I am aware that the present Bill is a great improvement on the one we had before us last year, but notwithstanding that I do not consider we have given enough consideration to the points I have brought before the House. I think also we are largely exaggerating the advantages which will be given by the Bill. There is a feeling growing up in Scotland, as in Ireland, in favour of Home Rule, which has been largely provoked by the way in which Scotland has been thrown aside on all convenient occasions, and her Representatives have not been listened to with regard to Scotch matters. Therefore, in Scotch opinion, it would be well not to deal with this question now, not to provide local inquiries for Private Bills, but to wait until you can hand all these matters over to the Scotch Members themselves. We have shown that we know probably as much about Scotch matters as the English Members do, and we should have the advantage of not being outvoted by English Members who had not listened to our arguments. That may not be the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Stirlingshire (Mr. Bolton), who is Chairman of a great Railway Company, and we know that these railway companies are very influential in the House, which is the largest, and therefore for them, the best tribunal. But railway Bills, which supply a great part of the Private Bill legislation, cannot be dealt with locally, and it is the opinion of all parties that no advantage would be gained by so dealing with them. There are also other schemes, such as water Bills, which are so large that they must come before this House, but if the local inquiries are confined to only small matters we shall be reduced, as far as Scotland and Ireland are concerned, to dealing with a very small number of Bills, and in respect to them the saving by a local inquiry would not be so much as is contemplated. I think also the House would do well to consider whether it is wise to depute these powers to any Commission whatever. If that is done I am convinced that when the Bills come up here for Third Reading you will have all the 1839 weight of Party faction and public opinion brought to bear against the decisions of the Commission, and Members will be compelled to discuss the question de novo, and unless the Commission has departmental powers to settle the question on their own judgment the saving of the time of this House will be much less than is expected. If the previous Bill had been passed it would have been in haste and without satisfaction, and I think it would be well if the right hon. Gentleman would not press the present Bill this Session, although it is an improvement on anything we have had before, and is a step in the right direction. There is another Bill, which has been before the House for many years, and which the Lord Advocate (Sir C. J. Pearson) is about to introduce, which will remedy a great many anomalies existing in the police burghs of Scotland, and the usefulness of that Bill as compared with the other is beyond calculation, but whether the right hon. Gentleman will press that forward in preference is for him to say. If the Government think this Bill can be passed without a good deal of time for discussion, more time than I think will be at the disposal of the House this Session, I think they will be mistaken. On these grounds I thought it my duty to make these few remarks to the House on the introduction of the Bill.
§ (3.38.) MR. LENG (Dundee)
I wish to say a word or two in explanation of my hon. Friend's allusion to the Dundee gas case. Our Gas Bill was before the Committee upstairs for several days, and the majority of the Town Council and a number of members of the Chamber of Commerce and traders were in attendance, but it was not the fault of the Committee that the matter was referred to arbitration. It was decided that the works should be transferred, but the price was left to arbitration. That was unfortunate in view of the experience of the Corporation on several occasions. The present generation is not aware of the great expense of arbitration. The parties all came to London before the umpire and two arbiters, who allowed evidence to be given which would not have been 1840 allowed in any Committee of this House. On another occasion a number of experts were brought from London to Dundee, and I suspect that the latter arbitration was even more expensive than the former. I therefore agree that it is better to thrash out every question in Committee and not to refer any at the fag end to arbitration. I also concur in recognising that the Bill is a great advance, and is far more satisfactory than anything we have hitherto had before the House. But it is desirable that we should have further information. Scotch people desire to have these inquiries, because they believe they will be conducive to convenience and cheapness, but we have had no information yet to assure us that there will be any cheapening by these inquiries. I presume that the promoters must come to London for the preliminary stages of the Bill, so there will be no saving there. Then we have had no intimation that there is an intention to reduce the House fees, which have been so repeatedly and justly complained of. We see no reason why this form of indirect taxation should exist, and it is a great burden to the small burghs which simply want to obtain sanction to the construction of a tramway or small gas works, or for the provision of a water supply. We should like some assurance that the charges made will be in proportion to the work done. To large places like Glasgow and Edinburgh, even Dundee and Aberdeen, these charges are not so material, but to small places of about 2,000 inhabitants, which cannot get a supply of water, or transfer their gas works, without having to incur an expenditure rarely under £700 or £800, and often upwards of £1,000, the question is one of great importance. Unless we have the assurance that this will be remedied, there will be little anxiety on the part of the small burghs for the passing of the Bill. For the preliminary procedure it appears to me an admirable proposal that the Chairman of Committees (Mr. Courtney) and other officers of the House shall be practically a Joint Committee to decide questions of principle and considerations of innovation, but many of us in Scotland do not approve of this mixed system of devolution and 1841 delegation. I have been from the first in favour of simple devolution. There are no tribunals in this country which enjoy more respect and confidence than Parliamentary Committees; they are formed of men of fair minds, knowledge, and discretion, who are not influenced by stereotyped considerations; they are not bound by precedent. You are proposing to appoint Judges of the Court of Session and members of the Railway Commission. We respect our Judges as interpreters of the law, but we shall not have the same confidence in them as makers of our laws. It is a dangerous principle, in some respects, that men who may subsequently be called upon to interpret Acts of Parliament should have a considerable share in making them; and the Railway Commissioners are necessarily very much bound by prior considerations and precedents created in other cases. We should prefer two Members of this House and two Members of the House of Lords to decide these questions. I agree that many of the cases which now proceed by Bill would be more efficiently and expeditiously disposed of by Provisional Orders, and the Scotch Office might be empowered to issue such Orders. While I recognise that the Bill is a great improvement, I still think it admits of amendment, and trust that the right hon. Gentleman will keep an open mind and be willing to adopt such Amendments as the feeling of the House may show to be desirable.
§ (3.45.) COLONEL WARING (Down, N.)
I deprecate extremely the growing practice of discussing Bills on the First Reading before we have their details before us. The hon. Member who has just sat down complained of want of information, but he seemed to be taking the best possible way to defer that information. I did not hear what the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. Sexton) said, but it is quite possible that from his point of view he would prefer that the Bill should not be introduced, as it would probably remove part of the stock-in-trade of the supporters of Home Rule. It is often urged as one of the grievances of Ireland that she must bring her Bills to this House, but now that a Bill is brought in to remedy that, hon. Members 1842 opposite would probably prefer to do without it. I am pleased to see the Bill, and I speak not only in the name of my own constituents, but of those represented by Irish Members on this side, and by two or three hon. Members opposite, who would desire to encourage the Government in pressing forward and giving them an opportunity of dealing with these matters locally without putting witnesses and promoters to the expense of coming to London. I think it most desirable that this discussion should be short, so I will only say that I hope the Bill will be read a first time immediately.
§ (4.50.) MR. SEYMOUR KEAY (Elgin and Nairn)
I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite that I have no wish to enter into a long discussion at this stage of the Bill, and I should not have interposed had I not thought that the right hon. Gentleman did not give us as full information as is usual on such an important question. He was extremely clear and explicit with regard to the Joint Committee, but I regret that he stopped short there, and did not give us similar information with regard to the Commission, which will necessarily do the principal part of the work, and the constitution and conditions of appointment of which must be of the very greatest importance. The small amount of information the right hon. Gentleman gave seemed to foreshadow little else than a reproduction in some way of the features of the Bill of last year. The only remarks the right hon. Gentleman made on that subject were these. He said, "The actual constitution of the Commission was a matter of less importance." I do not think many Scotch Members will agree with that. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say it would be sufficient to say they were utilising the existing Railway Commissioners, and he added, "They are highly-trained and good officers. They contain among them a Scotch Judge, who is an ex officio member for Scotch affairs," and, lastly, he added that there was power to grant additional Commissioners if necessary. I turn, Mr. Speaker, to the Bill of last year, to which there was so much objection on this side, and I find that the character and composition 1843 of the Commission was the stumbling block which led to the wreck of the Bill. In July last the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote a letter in which he said that the Government were extremely surprised at the extraordinary attitude which had been taken up by the Liberal-Gladstonian Members as he termed them, which he thought we should find it difficult to justify to our constituents, and dared us to speak to our constituents on the subject. We did speak to our constituents, and explained our position to their satisfaction. I pointed out to my constituents that the Commission of last year practically turned the Bill into nothing more nor less than a Lord President's Bill, by which the whole industrial development of Scotland was to be placed, bound hand and foot, at the feet of a clique of ultra-Conservative lawyers in Edinburgh. The right hon. Gentleman's remarks seemed to foreshadow that the present scheme is on all fours with that of last year. There were four Commissioners last year, but the right hon. Gentleman did not tell us how many there would be under this Bill. In the previous scheme the first Commissioner was a Judge of the Court of Session, appointed by the Lord President, under the Railway and Canal Act of 1888. The second Commissioner was to be one of the Railway Commissioners under that Act, and in that appointment the Lord President would also have a voice. There was to be a third Commissioner, called an appointed Commissioner, and the method of his appointment was most extraordinary, and could only have been designed for the purpose of excluding any idea of popular representation on the Commission. There was to be, first, a panel of five persons chosen by the Judges of the Court of Session, of whom the Lord President is the chief.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I may save the hon. Gentleman some trouble if I say at once that none of the provisions of the Bill of last year with reference to the body which the hon. Member is discussing find a place in this Bill.
§ MR. SEYMOUR KEAY
My mind is much relieved by the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, and I am obliged to him. My idea was founded on 1844 the right hon. Gentleman's remark that the Railway Commissioners would be utilised as last year, and there was to be power of appointing others. I am very glad indeed that the character of these appointments will not only be altered but greatly improved. After the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman I have no wish to detain the House, but I wish it to be distinctly understood that the Scottish people and the Scottish Members will resist to the uttermost of their power any scheme whereby the industrial interests of the country would be placed in the hands of a clique of lawyers in Edinburgh.
§ (4.1.) MR. DUFF (Banffshire)
I wish to ask why there is not in this Bill any provision dealing with the expenses of unopposed Bills? Reference has been made in the course of this Debate to the very great expense which is incurred in this way, and in a Return I obtained last year it was stated that the average of the last five years' fees on unopposed Bills alone was £4,000 a year. I think that is a point upon which we in Scotland have very great reason to complain. Of course I draw a distinction between opposed and unopposed Bills, and I agree with the hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Esslemont) that a very large number of these Bills ought not to come here at all. I will speak of a special matter in which my constituents are interested—a matter of a harbour. A very small community want to make a slight alteration in the harbour and they have to come to Parliament for permission to do it. We think that is a matter which might very well be arranged locally. In one case that was brought under my knowledge the total outlay in the alteration of a harbour was £12,000 and the Parliamentary expenses were £1,200. These are things that the Scotch people complain of, and I have found whenever this question of Private Bill legislation is mentioned the Scotch people claim that they are entitled to some relief from the heavy burdens which are now imposed upon them. For instance, with respect to the question of the extension of harbours, if all parties are agreed I do not see why the matter could not be settled in some manner before the Sheriff. That principle 1845 is not unknown in Scotch law. Take a case which the right hon. Gentleman will understand, that of a School Board. If a School Board desires to acquire land they take action under the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act, and in 99 cases out of 100 it is arranged privately, and the whole transaction is carried out before the Sheriff at a cost of a few shillings. If in the same way a piece of land is required for a harbour, even though everyone is agreed, we have to come to Parliament. I am perfectly well aware that the case I have referred to is not analogous to that of a harbour, but I think if the Harbour Department would issue a scale of maximum and minimum fees for harbour rates, as it does for railways, it would facilitate matters, and when the parties in any particular case are agreed, I do not see why the matter should not be carried on locally before the Sheriff. So far as my own constituents are concerned they have reasonable ground of complaint that they are made to come to London over very small matters which might certainly be arranged in the locality. I do not want to detain the House, but I desired to bring this point before the Government and I hope it will engage their attention. I mention the subject at this stage, because when the Bill was last before the House an Amendment was moved to the effect that these matters should be arranged locally, and it was ruled out of order. I hope the Bill will contain some reference to this devolution which will enable us to deal in a cheaper and more effective way with purely local questions on which everyone in the neighbourhood is agreed.
§ (4.6.) MR. SOMERVELL (&c.) Ayr,
I should be glad if this Bill could extend to Scotland the powers which exist to a limited extent in England, and which it is proposed to confer upon Ireland, by which the divisions of wards in boroughs can be altered to suit local conditions without the necessity of appealing to Parliament. In England, if by reason of increase of buildings or population the Municipal representation shall become unequal, the Local Authority has, I understand, power to alter the divisions of the wards without appealing to Parliament for power to 1846 effect the desired re-distribution. And the Leader of the House has intimated that in his new Irish Local Government measure he intends to introduce a clause which will give the same facilities to Ireland. In Scotland that provision does not exist, and I venture to suggest that this measure affords a convenient means of introducing that reform. One of the boroughs in my constituency would be affected by such an alteration, and I hope opportunity will be taken to introduce a clause of the kind I suggest into this Bill.
§ (4.9.) MR. SINCLAIR (&c.) Falkirk,
I think the last speaker is a little too sanguine as to the powers which exist in England in the matter of altering the boundaries of boroughs. In Liverpool, for instance, the question just now is a burning one, but the Corporation can do nothing without the assent of Parliament. I think the question is one, however, which might very well be dealt with either in this Bill or in the Police Bill. The general principle which the Scotch Members desire to see recognised is, that their should be local investigation of local requirements, and the feeling of anxiety is not so much that the matter should be postponed until the best method of securing that end can be found, but that an early effort should be made by legislative enactment bringing some method into effect which will secure that object; and, if afterwards a better method can be discovered, it may be substituted. The question also of House fees is another very serious matter, especially for the smaller boroughs, and I hope the attention of the Government and of the Authorities of the House will be directed to this matter. In all parts of Scotland the decisions of the Committees of this House are received with great respect, and so, also, are the decisions of the Judges who now try Election Petitions, a function which in former times was discharged by this House, and I think we might take that as a precedent, and relegate to the Judges some of the inquiries which are now made at great cost in London. It has been said that there is danger in allowing makers of the law to afterwards become interpreters of the law, but it is competent for the Attorney General and Solicitor General 1847 of England, and also of Ireland, to become Judges, and the late Lord Advocate is now a Judge. No one did more than he, probably, in preparing the details of the Local Government Bill for Scotland; but now that he has become an interpreter of the law which he assisted to make, I am sure he will address himself in the most fair and impartial manner to the duties which he has to discharge. I hope that this Bill will be successful and will be passed into law.
(4.14.) MR. PARKER-SMITH (Lanark, Partick)
I think, for the purposes of this discussion, it is necessary to divide these Private Bills into two classes. There is one class in which very large pecuniary interests are involved, and another in which only very small interests are involved. In Railway Bills very large pecuniary interests are involved on both sides, and I think the present tribunal is as satisfactory as any that could be found for dealing with them. But there are a number of cases where only small pecuniary interests are involved, and in those it is extremely unsatisfactory that the people should be put to the expense of coming up to London to give evidence in support of a Bill or to oppose it. Just now, for instance, Glasgow is proposing to erect a fever hospital in my own constituency, and there is a very strong feeling against it in the neighbourhood. This is a purely working class neighbourhood, and I presented a Petition from these people bearing 2,000 signatures. That Petition doubtless had as much influence as Petitions usually have; but the unsatisfactory thing is that, as these people are not able to spend £100 in opposing the proposal and making their case heard, they can do nothing but petition. I think matters of this kind might very well be removed from London and dealt with by the Sheriff, or in some much more summary way than is at present adopted.
§ (4.17.) DR. FARQUHARSON (Aberdeenshire, W.)
It is probably inconvenient that a Second Reading Debate should take place at this stage of a measure, but the temptation to hon. Members is almost irresistible when the Minister in charge of the Bill has made his explanatory speech on this stage. 1848 I agree with the Member for Belfast in the jealousy he feels in delegating any of the duties of this House to those outside unless a very urgent case is made out. I have been very carefully through the evidence which was given to the Select Committee, and I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman who suggested that the tendency of special tribunals is to become "groovy." I should not like to be compelled to explain the word, but probably hon. Members will understand the sentiment which I wish to convey. In many cases I think investigations in the locality would tend to increase rather than to diminish the expenses, because a large number of witnesses would be called, and local passion, local heat, and local fury would have a tendency to extend the proceedings. And in any case this House must have the last word, and that would involve a Debate; and if the House differed, perhaps through the influence of the local Members, from the finding of the Local Authority, there would have to be another local inquiry, and the matter would then have to come before us again. Then, with respect to the work done by Members on Committees, I think the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Mowbray) who presides over the Committees of this House has somewhat exaggerated the "dodges," as he called them, to which Members resort to avoid serving on Committees, and I do not think those dodges which he has described are creditable to the House. This Committee work is not only work that we are bound to do, but I think it is work of a very interesting character. I often think that Members would be more usefully occupied upstairs than in lolling listlessly on these Benches with nothing to do, which causes a deterioration of the physical and mental faculties that I know nothing to equal. Upstairs they might be doing useful work for their constituents, and it would give them an excuse for not going down to their constituencies to open bazaars and flower shows if they could declare that their Parliamentary duties occupied so much of their time that they could not get away. But I think it should be more equally divided. There are so many Members who escape because they are 1849 Railway Directors, or lawyers, or physicians; and I wonder what will happen to the Committees in the next House of Commons, which threatens to be tilled with lawyers. Of the 670 Members of this House, only about 120 are required to serve on the Committees, and I think everyone should be prepared to take their fair share. I consider that the whole difficulty of the case might be met without any drastic change such as is now proposed, but by the very sensible suggestions of Lord Balfour of Burleigh, that the House fees should be reduced, the lengthy and expensive notice required by the Standing Orders Committee be reduced, and the work begun much earlier so as to prevent the confusion of the present method, and the Provisional Order system extended. Then we should get all the benefit of local inquiry. County Councils and other responsible bodies might well be entrusted with some class of this work. I hope the House will not delegate its powers in the way that some hon. Members have proposed.
§ (4.29.) MR. THORBURN (Peebles and Selkirk)
I know the ground of many of the complaints which have come from Scotland, and I say that the people are looking with very great interest on the progress of this Bill. I differ from many hon. Members who sit on this side of the House as regards the principle and the details of last years Bill. For my part, I thought the Commission set up under the Bill of last year was one of the best possible Commissions we could have had. It was composed chiefly of professional men, men accustomed to weigh evidence; and I think there could be no Commission which could report to this House more clearly and distinctly on any kind of Bill than the Commission proposed under last year's Bill. The Commission to be appointed under the present Bill has, however, this advantage, that you have Representatives of both Houses of Parliament upon it, and you will thereby save the expense of one inquiry. At present, of course, Bills coming before this House have not only to go before a Committee of this House, but a Committee of the House of Lords. Now, as an illustration of the great expense from the present 1850 system I may mention that last year a gentleman of my acquaintance was examined on the Princes Street Tunnel Bill. He was kept here ten days, and every day it was said he was to be examined, and he got, I believe, seven guineas a day for the whole of that time. Well, that is an expense which can be obviated under the present Bill, and I hope sincerely we shall have this system of Local inquiry passed this Session. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirlingshire (Mr. Bolton) apparently objects to the Commission under the Bill having power to throw out a Bill; but I may point out that Committees appointed by this House have exactly the same power of throwing out Bills. The hon. Member for West Belfast appeared to have as his fundamental objection to this Bill that if it became law as regarded Ireland it might put a spoke in the wheel of Home Rule. From my point of view that will be a very great advantage indeed, and I hope that this system of devolution will eventually be adopted by the country and not such a drastic measure as is proposed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Midlothian which I believe will be fraught with the greatest disaster to this country.
§ (4.33.) THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR,) Manchester, E.
We have already, I think, discussed this stage of the Bill sufficiently, and now Sir, I shall not attempt to survey the whole ground of the controversy which has been opened this afternoon. But I suppose the House will desire that I should briefly reply to some of the points and objections which have been taken by the friends of the Bill and also by those who do not feel able to support it. Perhaps the most detailed criticism passed upon the measure, or at all events the criticism of the most general kind passed upon it, was that contained in the speech of the hon. Member for West Belfast. He, I think, objected to the Bill upon almost every possible ground. He thought it was inconsistent with our principles in that this was a step towards separation; and he thought it was inconsistent with his principles in so far as it did not carry out the principle 1851 of separation nearly far enough. Well, Sir, on that point I would only say that though it is true that this Bill applies to Scotland and to Ireland it is not, in my view at all events, necessarily and ultimately to be limited to those two parts of the Kingdom. I regard this as an experimental measure. So far as I am concerned I should be quite content if the experiment were limited to Scotland if that were the desire of the House. Admitting it to be experimental I do not wish to press it unduly upon too large an area at once; but I do not admit that it is in any sense a step in the direction of Separatism, because I have been most careful in framing the measure to maintain the control of this House in all the important stages of Private Bill legislation. Then the hon. Gentleman went on to say that he did not think it would save the time of private Members, and one of his main reasons for saying that was that the Third Reading would be of so contentious a character that practically this House would be asked to take as large a part in the Private Bill procedure under the new system as it does under the system now in force. Sir, I admit it to be true that the Third Reading will be probably a more contentious stage under this Bill than it usually is at the present time; but that is because we transfer from the Second Reading to the Third Reading the Debate which takes place at present on the Second Reading. I do not believe that there will be more debate on these Bills than there is now. I believe the only change that will take place is that the Debate will take place, not on the Second Reading before the Bill goes to Committee, but on the Third Reading after the Committee has reported upon it. Then, Sir, upon the general question raised by many hon. Members of this House, and, among others, by the hon. Member for Stirlingshire (Mr. Bolton) that there is no relief to be offered to Members of this House by a Bill of this kind, I would say that if that be so, what becomes of all the speeches which have been made by Members in all parts of the House, but chiefly from hon. Members on the other side of the House, upon the merits of delegation 1852 and devolution? This is distinctly a case of delegation and devolution; and I think it is strange that hon. Members who support delegation and devolution in the gross should so strongly object to carry out these principles when proposed in a more limited form. Then, Sir, the hon. Gentleman was of opinion, and in this also he followed other Members of the House, that very little economy would result from this Bill. Well, it is perfectly true that this Bill leaves unaltered the amount of House fees which are charged. I grant that; but surely it will be admitted that the amount of the House fees charged is but a very fractional portion of the total cost of fighting any Bill through Committee of this House and of the House of Lords. It really is absolutely insignificant when so considered; and when we are told of how few Private Bills come to this House from Scotland and Ireland, and therefore that the relief to Scotland and Ireland will be very small, do not hon. Gentlemen who use that argument forget that one of the reasons why there are so few Private Bills from these countries is, not because there are few undertakings which Scotsmen and Irishmen would like to see carried through by means of Private Bill legislation, but because the cost of such legislation is so great that many useful schemes have to be choked off by the very fact that their promoters have to come to this House for sanction to carry them into effect? The hon. Gentleman the Member for Stirlingshire, among other objections which he raised, said that we were giving legislative powers to this Commission, and, therefore delegating to them the powers which we ought jealously to keep in our own hands. Let me in the first place point out that if that be a crime, it is a crime which we already commit, because under the system of Provisional Orders there is at present local inquiry carried out by an official of the Department who has power to prevent the Bill going a step further if he so determines. That is the power which the hon. Member does not desire to give to the Commission, yet it is the power already given to an official, the power of inquiry in the case of a Provisional Order.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
That is no doubt true; but in so far as the actual operation of a Provisional Order is concerned, I think the hon. Gentleman will admit that an officer of the Department has precisely the same kind of powers to which objection has been taken on the present occasion. But that is not all. Observe the inconsistency of the opponents of this Bill, for while the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stirlingshire objects to the very humble amount of legislative delegation given by this Bill to the Commission, most of the other Gentlemen who have spoken against the Bill say that it does not go far enough, and that we ought to give to the County Councils altogether the power of dealing with these matters which are now dealt with by Private Bill legislation. Well, only one of these contentions can be true. They cannot both be true, that we go too far and also that we do not go far enough. Well, what do we think of this proposal to hand over legislative powers to County Councils and Local Authorities wholly unchecked and wholly uncontrolled by this House? I am perfectly ready to increase the dignity and the importance of those Bodies as far as I possibly can by giving them every duty they can properly undertake; but I do not think they can properly undertake the particular kind of business which I understand hon. Gentlemen desire to hand over to them, if it involve either a judgment upon the commercial or financial prospects of the undertaking to be adjudicated upon, or if it involve the compulsory taking away of private property for the sake of those undertakings. One hon. Gentleman, I am not quite sure who it was, in the course of this Debate reminded us of the precedent of taking land compulsorily for school purposes.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Yes; but school purposes are a perfectly well-defined public object, involving no financial interest at all, wholly divorced from financial interests, and I do not see any analogy between giving the Sheriff powers in such cases, and giving the same official or the County Council 1854 the power of deciding that land should be compulsorily taken either for harbour works or gas works.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I am not referring to the hon. Gentleman, I was referring to other hon. Gentlemen who certainly did not confine themselves to unopposed Bills, but who said that all Bills, whether opposed or unopposed—all Bills of a certain class—should be handed over to the Sheriff or to the County Council. Observe, that in all probability, if you hand over to the County Council or the Local Authority the power of deciding these questions you are making them the judges of their own case. They are often the very Authorities who desire to acquire the land for the purposes of gas works, or who desire to take land compulsorily, or to undertake the responsibility of carrying out operations involving financial considerations. They are not the proper judges to determine whether that land ought to be taken, or whether that financial operation is sound. You require in these cases to have an independent tribunal. If you do not find one in this House you must find it in some such Commission as we propose to set up. My hon. Friend the Member for the Ayr Burghs (Mr. Somervell) pointed out to the House, with I think great force and propriety, that there is at present no power under the Scottish Law to alter municipal areas without coming to Parliament, and he reminded us also that we proposed to give those powers in the case of Ireland, and that in a somewhat imperfect shape they already existed in the case of England. I entirely concur in the general spirit of my hon. Friend's remarks; but I would suggest to him that the proper way of dealing with the difficulty to which he has called attention is by an amendment of the Local Government Act for Scotland rather than upon a Bill dealing with Private Bill Procedure. One further point only requires to be dealt with, and it is that relating to fees. Almost every hon. Gentleman who has spoken against the Bill in this House has told us that the great obstacle to Private Bill legislation, the great hardship 1855 inflicted upon suitors who come up to this House, is the magnitude of the fees which this House charges before the Private Bill can become law. Now, Sir, I do not venture to give an opinion upon the propriety of the scale of fees which this House charges. It is not a subject on which I am competent to offer one; but I would venture to point out that it is not by legislation that those fees can or ought to be altered. They are not fixed by legislation. They do not require legislation to alter or modify them. They are fixed by the House itself, and if the House is of opinion that they are too high, there is no difficulty whatever in the House carrying out its own views upon that point without either going through the formality of a Bill, or consulting the other House of Parliament on the question at all. I do not know that I need deal at greater length with objections which I gather will be laid before us in a more formal shape at later stages of the Bill. But nothing I have heard has done anything to convince me that this simple method of devolution and delegation, by which this House will certainly be relieved of some of its labours—how much, will depend on the reception you give to this Bill—by which undoubtedly witnesses will be saved the trouble and the expenses of coming from Scotland and from Ireland; by which undoubtedly the advantages of a local inquiry will be conferred in many cases where by universal admission local inquiry would be desirable—nothing that I have heard can persuade me out of the belief that a Bill of this kind will be of advantage to the two parts of the United Kingdom to which it applies. If I am told that the power and authority of Parliament is diminished by the fact that some of the judicial duties now given to our Members will be handed over to a judicial body not nominated or controlled by this House, I would point out that this Bill elaborately provides all the principles by which that tribunal shall be guided in its decisions, while the final decision of that tribunal shall in every case be open to revision by this House itself, shall be open to alteration if the House should so desire, or to rejection if that should seem good to 1856 the majority. Under these circumstances I venture to hope that the further consideration—a consideration which will be better afforded when the Bill has been printed—will mitigate some of the objections which hon. Gentlemen opposite may feel, and will enable us to confer upon Scotland, if not upon Ireland, a boon which I am quite certain that Scotland urgently desires.
§ (4.46.) MR. LEA (Londonderry, S.)
The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury has referred to the question of fees as being one with which only this House can deal. We who represent Ireland know that a case has been made out for legislation of this kind in spite of what has been said to-day by the Member for West Belfast. The hon. Member for West Belfast has told us that there were only six Private Bills from Ireland last year. That in itself surely proves the necessity of a Bill like this, because it shows that many projects that would otherwise be proceeded with are absolutely killed by the expense to the promoters in having to come to this House for powers. I would like, then, to ask the right hon. Gentleman, in reference to this question of fees, whether he would be willing to appoint a small Committee to consider that question with the view of seeing whether the fees could be reduced, or whether the scale could be so altered that for the smaller projects the fees might be lessened, so that they might pass through Parliament at much less cost?
§ (4.47.) MR. MARK STEWART (Kirkcudbright)
I also would like to ask my right hon. Friend one question—namely, whether, in order to lessen the costs to parties promoting Private Bills from Scotland, a Scotch agent could, in the preliminary stages, appear as a Parliamentary agent, or whether it is imperative that a Parliamentary agent should conduct, in this House and in the House of Lords, the preliminary stages of the Bill? Perhaps my right hon. Friend will consider that point while considering the question of expense. Of course, my object is simply to lessen the amount of expense as far as possible.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I am afraid I cannot answer these questions straight off; but if my hon. Friend will put a question on the Paper I will make inquiries into the matter.
Question put, and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. A. J. Balfour, the Lord Advocate, Mr. Jackson, and the Solicitor General for Scotland.
Bill presented, and read first time. [Bill 242.]