§ Question again proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ SIR C. W. DILKE
resuming, said: The traders had spent a great deal of money in the Lords without tangible improvement, and without obtaining those terms which the Board of Trade had thought they should obtain. He feared that, the great collieries having made their own terms, there would now be much risk in going to a Committee, in which the interests of the smaller men and of the inhabitants generally would probably be sacrificed. The Board of Trade reported in favour of the adoption for the local traffic of the Midland maximum scale. The Lords inserted only the actual rates in operation at the date of the passing of the Act. But those rates were, as the Board of Trade had shown, extraordinarily high rates, which were specially granted to this little local company on account of the curious shortness of its "lead." The whole line was on so microscopic a scale that special rates were conceded to it, by consent of the Board of Trade, originally, which would never have been granted to a greater line. Now that that line was passing to two great companies, they had to consider what was their character for liberality; and he had to say that if the purchase were by the Midland he should be content to trust that company, but the Great Western had not met the traders in such a manner as to make him inclined to trust himself to their mercy. The companies said that they had bought the line on the understanding that they should have the present rates, and they had offered to improve those rates in the course of time if the traffic increased, and they said that if this offer were not adopted they should drop the Bill. He was quite prepared to run the risk of the dropping of the Bill, in which, however, he did not believe, as the companies had strong reasons for desiring to keep competitors out of this district; and he felt certain that (while the local line, so far as it lived, must live on the district itself) the great companies, which were wholly independent of that district, and to which it would be but a small item, could not be trusted without Parlia- 541 mentary control to thoroughly meet its needs. A great deal of favour to the Bill came from those who were shareholders in the present line, as the companies had made a purchase which had conferred a value upon the ordinary shares, which previously had none, and had raised the value of the Preference Shares. But this was no reason why the district should continue to be handicapped by rates which would not be tolerated in the event of a new line being applied for by the larger companies, and he must press, as his minimum, for the principle of the Board of Trade Report—namely, the Midland maximum scale.
§ SIR A. ROLLIT (Islington, S.)
seconded the Motion. One strong objection to this Bill was, he said, its tendency to put the Forest of Dean in what he might call a railway ring fence. He was not fully acquainted with all the local circumstances, but he did not think that such a proceeding ought to be tolerated for one moment except for the gravest reasons and under the most adequate safeguards. This was especially so in the present absence of a general law to prevent undue preference being given to one district over another. A company ought not to be permitted to abstract trade for its own benefit from a district to which it properly belonged. The only practical check against action of that sort on the part of a railway company had been found to be in competition. Yet the effect of this Bill would be to prevent competition, and to place the district in the hands of at least one railway company which had interests conflicting with those of the district. In the absence of a general law, there was only this course open to them in order to resist the Great Western Company, which had sinned against the interests of all concerned. The tendency in most companies was to reduce rates in order to attract traffic, but here powers were sought under an antiquated Act to impose heavy rates on the local traffic. This Bill would, if it passed, put the small traders in the district into the power of the combination, and under the circumstances he objected to the Bill going further. Not only were the powers he had alluded to objectionable, but other parts of the Bill seemed to him to be quite at variance with modern railway legislation. For instance, no power was given to compel the company 542 to grant through rates from their own systems to stations on the combined line. Surely in these days of business organisation, when through rates were so necessary to the success of a trader, some provision of this character ought to be inserted in the Bill. He understood that negotiations had taken place on the subject, and he thought this was a matter on which they were entitled to have further information. No doubt he would be told that matters such as these could best be dealt with in Committee, and he admitted that under general circumstances such would be the case; but in this case the very basis of the Bill was an attempt to legitimise combination, and to place in the hands of that combination a large district inhabited by small traders, while no power was taken to impose on the company the ordinary requirements necessary for the protection of the trader. In the absence of such provisions he could not assent to a Bill so utterly at variance with modern railway policy.
§ 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 C. W. Dilke.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ SIR J. DORINGTON (Gloucester, Tewkesbury)
said, he ventured to intervene in the Debate, not on behalf of the Great Western, or Midland, or Severn Railway Company, but as representing the County Council of Gloucestershire, and in that capacity he did express a sincere hope that the Bill might be allowed to go before the Committee. The question from a railway point of view had been very fully dealt with by the right hon. Baronet the Member for the Forest of Dean, and he would only add that the body which was bound to take action in the interests of the district most concerned—i.e., the County Council of Gloucestershire—had petitioned when the Bill was before the Lords, and as they had not got all they desired, they had again petitioned in this House. They would do all they could to get Midland rates for local traffic, but he must remind his right hon. Friend opposite that the line was a very poor one, and not likely 543 to be a competing one. On those grounds he thought that they ought to send the Bill to a Committee, in order that the matter might be fully considered. On the general question, he considered that the House of Commons would be usurping the functions of a Committee were they to settle so complicated a matter offhand, and he ventured, therefore, to ask the House to agree to his proposal.
§ SIR M. HICKS-BEACH (Bristol, W.)
said, he thought he might claim to be taking an impartial view of the question, for he had no interest whatever in either of the companies affected by the Bill. He did not understand that the right hon. Baronet desired that the Second Reading of the Bill should be negatived, provided that he saw a reasonable prospect of the question of rates being carefully considered in Committee at a later stage, and he hoped, therefore, that the House would allow the Bill to be read a second time. He believed that the district would be better served by the joint railways than it had been by the small company, which, as had been pointed out, had not sufficient capital to make necessary improvements. He thought Parliament in past years had been far too neglectful as to the rates it allowed to be charged when it sanctioned amalgamations of this kind, and he had always thought that there should be some department or official specially charged to watch these amalgamation Bills. He saw no reason why the company should not be allowed to charge a somewhat higher rate over that portion of the line joining the Severn Bridge. If the matter was considered in Committee, he trusted that the Board of Trade would see that the interests of the public were represented, by the recommendations to rates which were made in the Board of Trade Report on the Bill being properly brought before the Committee, either by an official of the Board, or, if necessary, by a Parliamentary agent or by counsel, as the traders of the district were very likely not in a position for want of funds to state their own case. He trusted, therefore, that if the right hon. Gentleman saw his way to allow this that the right hon. Baronet would be willing to withdraw his opposition to the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ SIR T. ROBINSON (Gloucester)
said, he, too, hoped that the Bill would be 544 allowed to go to a Second Reading, so that the details might be thoroughly gone into before a Committee. When it was first introduced certain members of his constituency were opposed to it. Since then, however, several concessions had been made by the promoters, and he therefore felt fully justified in supporting the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. BRYCE,) Aberdeen, S.
said, that while there was a great deal of force in the arguments that had been raised against the Second Reading of the Bill, he considered that it was in many respects a very useful measure, and one likely to be of benefit to the districts, especially as the company that now owned the line was admittedly not in a financial position to work it with advantage. It was unnecessary for him to do more than refer to the docks, as the proposal was merely to transfer them from one company to another. On the question of rates he considered that the Committee had taken a rather singular course. The company was allowed to charge higher rates owing to the great expenses incurred in making certain portions of the line in connection with the Severn Bridge. He thought, however, that the opinion expressed in the Report of the Board of Trade was correct, and that the consideration that induced Parliament to allow the company those higher rates should cease to carry the same weight under the altered condition of things. Why the Committee had not thought fit to act upon the advice of the Board of Trade he could not, of course, say. He agreed with the remarks that had been made by the hon. Member for Bristol, that it would be advantageous if an official were sent down to investigate matters in order that he should be in a position to give evidence before the Board. The suggestion of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Bristol was one which should undoubtedly have consideration, with a view to seeing how far it might be properly adopted. As he had said already, he did not think they ought to reject the Bill on the Second Reading, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would be satisfied with the discussion that had taken place and would withdraw his Motion. For himself, he was not bound by anything that had been said now, and any further action on the part 545 of the Board of Trade might depend upon the form the Bill took when it left the Committee.
§ SIR M. HICKS-BEACH
expressed the hope that the Board of Trade would give evidence in support of their own Report. That suggestion became really more necessary in view of the observations of the right hon. Gentleman, which pointed to the possibility of the Board of Trade objecting to the decision of the Committee.
§ SIR C. W. DILKE
would not put the House to the trouble of a Division, and he thought after what had fallen from the two right hon. Gentlemen, the present President of the Board of Trade and a former occupant of that position, that he and those who agreed with him on this matter had gained something. He also understood the President of the Board of Trade to say that he reserved complete freedom of action as to the course he would take on the Report. On that understanding he asked leave to withdraw his Motion.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed.