§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD GF TRADE (Mr. J. BRYCE, Aberdeen, S.)
rose to move for leave to introduce a Bill to facilitate the construction of light railways in Great Britain. He said that frequently in past Sessions, and also in this Session, the House had had its attention called to the absence of facilities which ought to exist for the conveyance of agricultural produce from the agricultural districts to the markets of the country. At this moment, in particular, when the agricultural industry, in which they all felt so deep an interest, was suffering from a depression so severe and so long-continued, it became their duty to take every step they could to remove any cause which might contribute to that depression, and to show the interest they felt in the prosperity of that industry by facilitating, as much as possible, the conveyance of agricultural produce from the places of production to the markets. Besides the interest they all felt in the prosperity of the agricultural community, there was also the interest they all had in seeing that the rural districts were no longer depopulated by the influx of their people into the towns, and also in seeing that the establishment of industries in small towns and in rural districts was facilitated, as far as possible, by cheaper conmunication. He did not say that the measure would go very far in relieving the depression in agriculture, which was due to causes operating over the whole world, and many of which were by Parliament quite irremovable. He made no such claim, and he produced the measure as nothing more than a palliative of some evils, and one which, in many agricultural districts, would give the farmer a better chance than he now enjoyed. He would shortly state what were the provisions of the Bill and what had induced the Government to adopt them. In the month of December last he asked a number of gentlemen representative of various agricultural bodies, of railways, of engineering, and of municipal corporations, to meet at the Board of Trade in 1701 order to discuss the propriety of introducing a measure of this kind. That conference was widely attended, and it appointed a Committee, which held a very large number of sittings, and ultimately produced a valuable report, which had been already laid on the table. He tendered his sincere thanks to the members of that Committee for the great pains they had bestowed upon the subject and for their valuable Report. The Committee was presided over by the hon. Member for the Banbury Division of Oxfordshire (Sir B. Samuelson), and it included, besides eminent engineers and distinguished Members of the other House, the right hon. Member for West Bristol (Sir M. Hicks-Beach), the right hon. Member for one of the divisions of Leeds (Mr. Jackson), and hon. Members for Northamptonshire, Wolverhampton, Somerset, Montgomeryshire, Sunderland, and Islington. It would be seen that public opinion in all parts of the House was well represented, and the Bill he was introducing was based upon the recommendations of that Committee. Those recommendations went mainly to two points—namely, the cheapening of the method by which railways were now authorised in dispensing with the heavy preliminary expenses which were incurred in passing a Bill through Parliament, and also the relaxing of those requirements which it had been the custom of the Board of Trade to impose, in some cases under the absolute direction of Parliament, and in other cases under a sense of duty which had become practically imperative as regarded both the construction and the working of railways. As to procedure, the Bill proposed to commit the authorisation of light railways to county councils, including in that designation county boroughs, and it was provided that county councils should receive proposals made to them by the promoters of light railways. If a county council considered that a primâ facie case was made out, then it was to appoint a Committee to inquire into the matter. The promoters were to make out their case, to state the area through which they would pass, and to show that they had consulted all the local authorities; thereupon the Committee was to prepare a draft order, and that was to be sent to the Board of Trade, which was to consider it with a view to three 1702 points in particular. The first was the magnitude of the undertaking, so as to secure that under these exceptional provisions no railway should be carried out which ought—in respect of its length or the importance it might have otherwise, for instance, as a connecting link between two great systems—to be subject to the judgment of Parliament. It will be the duty of the Department to see that the provisions of the Bill are not used to remove from Parliament any of the jurisdiction which it ought in the public interest to exercise. Secondly, the Board of Trade will consider the proposals from the point of view of the safety of the public, and will insist on all the provisions required therefor. Thirdly, the Board of Trade will be charged with the duty of protecting landowners; and any landowner who thinks that his land ought not to be taken compulsorily, will have locus standi before the Board of Trade, in asking that the order for the taking of his land shall be varied. These will be found adequate safeguards for the new procedure which the Bill proposes. As justifying the provisions of the measure, I will read from the report of the Committee—The Committee think that it is not reasonable that undertakings of limited scope, when they are approved of by the locality they are intended to serve, should be forced, as they are now, to have recourse to the expensive tribunal of a Parliamentary Inquiry. The Committee are of opinion that the recent creation of popular local authorities of various degrees throughout Great Britain opens the door to an escape from the great cost attending applications to Parliament, by enabling powers and responsibilities with reference to the authorisation and control of light lines to be conferred on those bodies; and that the time has arrived for Parliament to consider whether this should not be done, an ultimate appellate jurisdiction being reserved to the Government Department charged with the inspection of railways, which, it may be assumed, would be exercised with due regard to the existence of such local control and responsibility. If this were done, the initial cost of construction, and the expenses of working, could be so greatly reduced that many light railways or tramways, promoted either by independent companies, or by the existing lines of railway and tramway, could be undertaken to the great advantage of districts, and especially agricultural districts, at present without satisfactory means of transport.These words represent the unanimous judgment of the Committee, which was 1703 in every sense a representative body. Although several of the members of the Committee desired that its recommendations should go further, there was no difference of opinion find no minority Report on this particular point. In making these proposals the Government is, of course, asking Parliament to part with a certain measure of its power; but as far as experience of these local authorities has gone, there is every reason to believe that they are discharging their duties with circumspection and judgment. They act in the light of public opinion, and are responsible to their constituents; and it will be the duty of the Government Department, in charge of the matter, to see that they do not go beyond what is the proper scope and intention of this measure; and I submit that the time has come when, in a matter of this kind, Parliament might endeavour to effect the enormous saving which will unquestionably be the result of these provisions. As to the question of construction, everyone knows that the construction of our railways was excessively costly. No engineer will deny that our railways are, in respect of construction and service, the best in the whole world. But it would be quite impossible, if communication is to be readily extended, to continue to maintain the extremely high standard of convenience and safety thought necessary when the great trunk lines of the country were made. With respect to those trunk lines, I should not propose to reduce the elements of safety at present secured by the Board of Trade requirements, especially in connection with the swift passenger traffic. But these small lines will run at comparatively slow rates of speed, and in respect of them the severity of the requirements may be relaxed, and their construction may be permitted on a different standard. The Board of Trade may be a little more tolerant of level crossings, may dispense with the present elaborate station arrangements, and in many ways may materially diminish the whole cost of construction and working, if only the necessary authorisation from Parliament is given. It has been stated that the Board of Trade has been too severe. The Department has felt bound to consider the safety of the public as its first charge, until Parliament, as the organ of public opinion, authorises it to relax its 1704 requirements. But the evidence supplied has convinced the Board of Trade and the Committee that it is possible to dispense with a great many of those requirements in this case without any increased danger to the public or to the traffic. The same remark applies also to the working of the lines. It will be much cheaper if there is a less expensive permanent way, less station accommodation, and a smaller number of railway servants. Next, as to the probability that these lines will be made without the provision of some kind of public aid. It has been suggested that public aid should be given to these enterprises from the national Exchequer. I do think that the Government would be justified, in the present condition of the public revenue and of public opinion in regard to this question, in proposing a measure so novel and open to so many serious objections of policy. It has never been the policy of this country to subsidise railways, and Parliament would be making a serious new departure in taking such a step. The result of that policy in various foreign countries is well known. It has also been suggested that the making of these railways ought the be aided out of the local rates, and three members of the Committee signed a separate Report in which they made that suggestion. There is, no doubt, much to be said for this suggestion: and I do not suppose that the local authorities, seeing how strong an interest they have in avoiding any unnecessary expense, would be imprudent in using the power if it were conferred on them. But, at the same time, I must feel that very great objections would be taken in the House to the conferring of such a power. Expressions of opinion have reached me from many quarters which make me feel that if the Government proposed to give to the County Councils the power of subsidising these undertakings, some persons would fear that they would remain ultimately as a charge on the rates, and the measure would meet with a great deal of opposition, from which, I hope, it will escape. We are, to a certain extent, in a stage of experiment. It may turn out ultimately that the making of these lines will be so great and clear a public benefit that either the National Exchequer or local authorities may be author- 1705 ised to give them some aid or assistance. All I can say now is that the case does not seem to justify the trial of that experiment at present. The House knows how great has been the expense at which the railway system of this country hat been created. I have heard the total expense of our railways in Great Britain estimated at something like £50,000 a mile, counting all that has been spent on Parliamentary contests, upon construction, and upon the acquisition of land. Whether that estimate he an excessive one or not, there can be no doubt that the cost of construction and Parliamentary expense are estimated by the best authorities as being on an average not less than £10,000 per mile. That is a cost which has been found very largely prohibitive. Everybody knows that when the great railway companies are asked, as they frequently are asked by localities, to make branch lines, the localities are often told the lines will not pay. No doubt the reason why branch lines are so expensive is that they are constructed upon the scale applied to the great trunk lines. The estimates I have been able to obtain point to a probable reduction in the cost of making the proposed lines of from an average of £10,000 per mile to £35,500, or according to some authorities, to £3,000 per mile. That obviously is a diminution so great that it offers a very strong inducement to a railway company to make a great number of branch lines which it does not find worth while to make at this moment. Therefore, even apart from what may be done by private enterprise, the formation of companies and the public spirit of landowners, who, I believe will in many cases feel that so great a benefit will be conferred upon their districts and properties by the construction of these lines that they will give the land necessary at a very low price, or perhaps for nothing at all—even apart from this I believe it will be worth the while of many of the great railway 1706 companies to construct these lines. I have been unable to obtain any accurate estimate as to what the difference in working will be, because it is clear everything must depend upon the circumstances of the particular district and the particular railway, but there can be no doubt that the reduction in the cost of working will also be very large—in many places it will probably amount to half. Looking at these considerations, I hope I have shown the House good reason to believe that the proposals which the Bill contains will supply a sufficient inducement to the railway companies to make these lines, and thus dispense with the necessity of a subsidy from any other quarter. I trust that if the House accepts the Bill they will see as a result of it a considerable addition to the number of railway communications in the country, and incidental benefits to those trades which are most directly concerned, and a sensible benefit to agriculture in many parts of the country. Feeling that this is a moment at which we ought to take every opportunity we can to give such a stimulus, I commend the Bill to the favourable consideration of the House.
§ MR. CHAPLIN (Lincolnshire, Sleaford)
I have listened with great interest to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, who commenced by stating that this Bill is introduced mainly in order to give effect to the deep and abiding interest which Her Majesty's Government feel in the present condition of the agricultural interest. When I heard that I began to hope we were, going to have unfolded some proposals which would prove of real and substantial assistance to that distressed industry. I cannot, however, help owning to a feeling of disappointment now that we have heard explained what we understand to be the principal measure which Her Majesty's Government have thought it their duty to introduce this Session in order to give aid and assistance and support to that industry which requires 1707 it so greatly. It is true the right hon. Gentleman was careful to say the proposal is nothing more than a palliative, not a remedy, for the evils under which agriculture is suffering, and which I rather gathered from the statement of the right hon. Gentleman are, in his opinion, mostly irremovable. [Mr. BRYCE: "Some of them."] Perhaps the Government will make another attempt during the present Session to deal with the removable evils. Will the Bill be a palliative for the evils and the miseries under which agriculture is suffering? I have great doubt whether it will be a palliative at all. As far as I can gather, the main effect of the Bill will be to give greater facilities for the making of light railways and to render the construction of such railways, perhaps less costly than lines now are. But who is going to undertake the making of these light railways? What inducement is held out to anybody to embark on the enterprise? The right hon. Gentleman referred to the views which have been expressed in various quarters, that under no circumstances ought public aid to be given for the construction of these railways. He pointed out that there are two sources only from which public aid can come. First of all there is the National Exchequer. But what did the right hon. Gentleman say on that point? Why, that it would be an entirely novel precedent, and even if it would not be an entirely novel precedent the experience of foreign countries who have adopted such a course leads us to put it on one side. Surely, when he said that the right hon. Gentleman spoke without remembering what has occurred already in the United Kingdom. Was not public aid given from the National Exchequer for the construction of light railways in Ireland? [Mr. BERCE: "I am perfectly aware of that."] How am I to know the right hon. Gentleman was only referring to Great Britain when he said that this would be an entirely novel precedent in the legislation of this Parliament? [Mr. 1708 BALFOUR: "And in Scotland," And also in Scotland. Unless he was mistaken, aid had been given or had been promised by the Government for the construction of light railways in Scotland; and he should say that benefit from the policy of the Government was far more likely to be derived in parts of Scotland, especially in the Highlands, if applied there, than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Agricultural depression undoubtedly existed in Ireland; but it was nothing like so severe as he had reason to believe it was in numerous parts of Great Britain at the present time. And although State aid in the construction of light railways had been given in Ireland, where, as he had said, the agricultural depression was not so great as it was in England, when the subject was mentioned in regard to England, the President of the Board of Trade flew off at a tangent and said it would be so novel a precedent altogether, and one which the Government could not possibly adopt. One thing, however, he was glad to hear and that was that there was no possibility of any cost in connection with the light railways falling on the rates. If the agricultural party in the House had been offered this boon at the expense of the rates they would have declined it altogether. The condition of agriculture was so bad at the present time that agriculturists could not bear the slightest addition to their burdens which already fell upon them. Having said so much, he would not add anything that might appear to be hostile to the proposals of the Government. If the Government, by their proposals, facilitated the construction of light railways, he should be ready to heartily congratulate them on the success of their efforts. But he could not say he was so sanguine as to share the views of the Government. It seemed to him that the Government would be exceedingly fortunate if this measure, so far as he understood it, had any considerable effect towards the relief, or even 1709 the palliation of the agricultural depression. He sincerely hoped that the Government might be right and that he might be wrong. But he should say, on behalf of the agricultural interest, that if this Bill was the only measure the Government had to recommend during the present Session, for the relief of agriculture, there would be no bitter feeling of disappointment throughout the country. If this Bill was all the Government had to propose, it proved the truth of what he had said over and over again, that they did not recognise in the slightest degree the gravity of the agricultural situation or the sufferings which agriculturists were labouring under at present.
§ MR. J. GRANT LAWSON (York, N.R., Thirsk)
said, the great object of the representatives of the agricultural interest was to secure that assistance towards the construction of light railways should be given not from the rates but from some Imperial source. That point could only be raised on the First Reading. If they were to allow the Bill to go to a Second Reading and then to move a clause wishing a charge on the public Exchequer they should find themselves entirely out of Court. He would, therefore, like to point out to the House a precedent as recent as 1889 for a grant being made out of public funds in aid of the construction of light railways. The Light Railways (Ireland) Act, 1889, authorised the Treasury to advance a capital sum as a free grant, or as a loan, or partly the one and partly the other for each of those undertakings. The Bill before the House, which was confined to England, proposed to mete out different treatment to English agriculturists. There were some principles of Irish legislation at any rate, which he should be glad to see applied to England. The boon proposed by the Bill was of a twofold character—first the Board of Trade was not to be so exacting in its requirements in regard to light railways, and the promoters of the light railways would not have to come to Parlia- 1710 ment. This boon was expected to reduce the cost of the construction of the light railways by one-half. He failed to see it. Under the Act of 1864 the promoters of a railway, if there were no opposition to their scheme, could at present get a certificate from the Board of Trade and proceed without a Private Bill. The only advantage of the Bill before the House was, that in the case of opposition, the promoters went to the County Council instead of to Parliament. But he believed the cost for inquiry before the County Council would fall very little short of the cost of an inquiry before a Parliamentary Committee. The only economy would be in the fares to London. Then there would be a second inquiry before the Board of Trade.
§ MR. GRANT LAWSON
said, that if the Board of Trade were to decide appeals without having counsel it would hardly be a satisfactory arrangement in the interest of the landlords at least. It appeared to him that everything rested with the Board of Trade. The inducement to people to put money into the light railways was that the Board of Trade would not be so exacting in the future as they had been in the past. But what guarantee was there that there would be always as lenient a President of the Board of Trade as at the present time? or that the Board of Trade requirements, unless limited by the Bill, would still continue moderate when the era of interest in light railways had gone by? [He was afraid the Bill would prove of no assistance to the agricultural districts.
COLONEL W. KENYON SLANEY Shropshire, Newport)
, remarked that the attention of the agricultural Members of the House had been concentrated for some time upon the measure which the right hon. Gentleman had asked leave to introduce. At the commencement of this Session they raised, to the best of their efforts, the needs and wants of agriculture, and 1711 they produced from the Leader of Her Majesty's Government in the House, nothing more than a long speech of chaff and ridicule. The only solace they could produce; for the agricultural constituencies was an oration from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was noted in every newspaper report as being accompanied by roars of laughter repeated over and over again. They had, therefore, looked earnestly to the time when they were to have produced for their consideration a measure which was really to embody the the collective wisdom and deliberate judgment of Her Majesty's Government, as to what was possible to be done in the circumstances under which agriculture was suffering. And so to-night, when they heard the preamble of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, they were struck by the weighty words he used, and the intense earnestness of his remarks. The President of the Board of Trade, in asking for leave to introduce this Bill, had told them the Government felt that every possible step should be taken to remove the depression under which agriculture was suffering. Every possible step to remove the agricultural depression, and alleviate the needs and miseries of the agricultural districts, was therefore bound up in the measure which the right hon. Gentleman was now asking leave to introduce. All he could say was, that this measure did not fulfil the idea of hon. Members representing agricultural constituencies of every possible step that could be taken, and it would be regarded as a poor and paltry measure indeed. The Bill not only expressed every possibility of which the Government was capable in the direction of removing the depression, but it was also, they were told, to prevent the depopulation of their districts and provide the cheaper communication so essentially important to all other rural districts. Those were the opening remarks of the right hon. Gentleman; but he afterwards went a tone or two lower, and told them that after all he did not expect it to prove more than 1712 a palliative. If he had said that at first' and left out the higher language with which he opened, it would have been more consonant with the conclusions the right hon. Gentleman had been able to put before them. What had they got before them? They had a measure which seemed to be conceived in a very simple spirit, and which was this—that if some people, but not the Government, chose to take an interest in this matter, then something might occur which, under possible circumstances, might be of benefit to some, districts connected with agriculture. The right hon. Gentleman had been emphatic in his declaration that there was to be no aid whatever from the National Exchequer. Agriculture did not expect that sort of treatment from the custodians of the national purse. There were other circumstances connected with agriculture in which the National Exchequer had been willing to spend money. He had a recollection of a proposal in which it was thought advisable to devote £250,000 of national money under a measure dealing with the evicted tenants of Ireland; but to a measure connected with the unevicted tenants of England the National Exchequer could not contribute a single farthing. He was glad the right hon. Gentleman repudiated the idea of putting this burden upon the rates, and he must have recognised that those who were interested in agricultural districts would have considered any such suggestion as a mockery and a farce. The right hon. Gentleman had said that the money was to be provided by national sources and national causes, and among these he had mentioned the public spirit which he hoped would induce landowners to give their land for nothing, in order that these experiments might be tried. The right hon. Gentleman should have remembered that he brought forward this measure appealing to the public spirit of the landowners in the year subsequent to that in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer did the utmost that was possible 1713 to ruin these landowners once and for ever. When he besought the public spirit of the landowners to come to the relief of the National Exchequer he should remember that last Session, by the proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer the Government were engaged in mutilating and destroying the power of the landowners to do that which they were now appealed to do. If they could not get the landowners as a class to do that which the Government themselves would not do, they then said that the railway companies would possibly undertake this task. But they could not suppose that railway companies would undertake anything of the sort from the merely philanthropic point of view in which landowners had often done such things, and would now if the Government had not deprived them of the power. Railway companies could only do it where there was a prospect of a possible and legitimate profit to their shareholders, and it was a doubtful question whether in this case, there would be such a profit. The agricultural districts will be divided roughly into two classes. There were the districts near the main track which, being already well served by existing railways, could not be expected to benefit by a subsidiary measure such as this; and there were the districts situate in mountainous or rather wild parts of the country, where from the conformation of the country the expense of laying lines would be greater. These, too, would be the districts where, from the thinness of the population, the distances over which the lines would have to run would be considerable, and those were the very circumstances which would make the lines less likely to pay. The facts were inconsistent with the idea that railway companies could make these lines as paying concerns except under exceptional circumstances. The Government were depending on a broken reed. They were depending on the generosity of a 1714 class of the population from whom they had taken away the power to be generous. They were depending on the business-like capabilities of another class whose interests would go in the very opposite direction to that in which they hoped to enlist them. After the experience of last Session, when the Government inflicted upon the agricultural interest a wound from which their very life blood was now flowing, it was almost a mockery and absurdity to try to heal that wound with the ridiculous sticking-plaster of this Bill.
§ *MR. E. STRACHEY (Somerset, S.)
submitted that those who represented English constituencies had a right to claim that as long as public money was given for the purpose of benefiting agriculture in Ireland and Scotland, the same policy should be pursued as regards England. On the other hand, he was quite ready to admit that there were strong arguments against any State aid at all for such local enterprises as light railways. But then it must be the same in every part of the United Kingdom, and no exception must be made in favour of one part. England should no longer be taxed for developing the local resources of Ireland or Scotland and herself receive no such aid. In the past it might have been argued that Ireland and Scotland were poor countries, and that England was a rich country and could afford to do without a guarantee while paying for a guarantee for Scotland and for Ireland. But that was not the case at the present moment, and he thought that if the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade were to ask the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Agriculture, the latter would tell him that an imperial guarantee for the making of light railways would be as much required in Essex as it would be in the case of any county in Ireland or Scotland. The fact was, that the cost of making these light railways 1715 would have to come out of the pockets of the local landlords and farmers.
§ *MR. STRACHEY
considered that it was not very likely the great railway companies would undertake the cost of making lines which might eventually compete with their own. It was also most improbable that people would sell out of the Consols or out of the ordinary railway companies' stock in order to invest their money in the construction of these light railways, whatever might have been the case in the old days. The landlords and farmers would not now be able, in view of the present depressed state of agriculture, to contribute very largely, if at all, towards the construction of these proposed lines. He thought pressure might be brought to bear upon the great railway companies to lower their present excessive rates by the threat of the construction of light railways. It would be possible in many cases to construct these lines with some probability of success, and the great railway companies would think it worth while to make concessions. He knew of one case in which a railway company had consented to reduce their rates for the carriage of milk by one-half in consequence of the local farmers threatening to send their milk by road instead of by railway. In the same way it would be quite open to the farmers and the landlords of the locality to say to a railway company—If you do not reduce your rates we will ask the County Council to sanction the construction of a light railway through our district;and he believed that such a threat might be successful and would lead the railway company to reduce their rates. In many cases the reduction of railway rates would be as beneficial to a district as the construction of a light railway. In his view, however, the present Bill, if it 1716 were to pass, would remain a dead letter in too many cases.
§ CAPTAIN BETHELL (York, E.R., Holderness)
said, that he was inclined to think that in some parts of the country, at all events, the provisions of the Bill might possibly operate beneficially, but he thought that it was open to doubt whether a permissive Bill of this character could be useful to any great extent. If the railway company were to agree to construct these light railways, some power should be conferred upon the Board of Trade to prevent the companies from charging excessive rates. The measure conferred upon the County Councils for the first time very large legislative powers, and authorised them to sanction the construction of these lines by mere resolution. County Councils ought to be compelled to consider in certain circumstances these resolutions carefully and fully. [Mr. BRYCE observed that the hon. Member's point would be met by the Bill.] Then there was the question of guarantee. He quite agreed that they could not allow County Councils to burden the rates with these guarantees. The farmers would rise up in arms against such a proposal, agricultural distress being so great. A public guarantee was, of course, a difficult matter, but precedents were supplied by the cases of Scotland and Ireland.
§ CAPTAIN BETHELL (York, W.R., Holderness)
said, that in Scotland there were railways which were guaranteed in order that suffering agriculturists might be assisted, and the principle applied in the cases of Ireland and part of Scotland might well be extended to England, where, partly owing to circumstances beyond their control and partly to the 1717 action of the present Government and their supporters, agriculture was in an extremely distressed condition. He was inclined to think that the precedent might have been followed in the urgent circumstances of the case, but it would of course be necessary to use very great care in applying it. Something ought certainly to be done to palliate the distress in those parts of the country where the great railways were unwilling to undertake new works. One could not, of course, expect very much from a Light Railways Bill. It was introduced, he understood, to relieve hon. Gentlemen opposite from the charge that they were not very solicitous for the welfare of the agricultural interest, a charge rightly based upon their action a year or two ago. But he was afraid that this poor little Bill would not do very much to assist them in this matter, and he feared also that it would not do very much to assist the agricultural interest.
§ MR. W. CROSFIELD (Lincoln)
thought that the chief merit of the measure lay in its simplicity and in the cheapness of the methods which it proposed. That being his view, he was not surprised that the hon. Member who represented Shropshire should have been somewhat more vigorous in his denunciations of the measure than the right hon. Member who represented Sleaford. The effectiveness of the measure would be different in different parts of the country. He could well believe that in Shropshire the element of cheapness would not be so conspicuous as in other counties. The hon. Member for Thirsk had expressed the wish that the bridges which should be built should be made wide enough to bear ultimately the ordinary gauge of railways. But this measure did not contemplate a plan of that kind. The light railways under consideration were to be accessories to rather than limbs of the great railway system of England and Wales. In Shropshire, no doubt, owing to the configuration of the country, it would be necessary to build bridges and make 1718 embankments, but in the Eastern counties there would be greater simplicity, and they would derive greater benefits and experience them sooner than the more hilly parts of the country. During the past week he had had the pleasure of visiting Holland, and he was very much struck with the extreme prosperity of the country. He could not help recognising the fact that that prosperity seemed a good deal to result from the network of steam tramways that existed in the country; which, by bringing not only produce but passengers to the stations of the larger towns, secured to Holland the benefits which he believed would ultimately result to this country from the Bill the House was now considering.
*MR. W. E. M.TOMLINSON (Preston)
said, that in many parts of the country tramways had been constructed along roads. Their cost was considerably less than that of Light Railways, and it would be a matter of which the companies would have no right to complain if the Board of Trade required that, where it was possible, they should combine with the passenger traffic they now carried on certain facilities for dealing with agricultural produce. Two things would be required to make tramways available for this object, one that the tramway proprietors should be put under some obligation to deal with merchandise, and the other that they should be connected with the great railways. He felt sure that something might be done in this way to develop the resources of the agricultural districts. At the meeting in December, to which the right hon. Gentleman had referred, a good deal was said, and a paper was circulated upon what had been done in Belgium. He was strongly impressed with the idea that the tramways and connecting links with railways in that country received substantial aid from the Government; and he did not believe that it would be possible in this country in the agricultural districts to carry out any system unless 1719 some aid was given by the Government. The prospect of the railway companies doing anything to promote these Light Railways did not seem to him likely to be realised. Everyone knew from what took place before the Railway Rates Committee, how little the railway companies cared to give any facilities for carrying British agricultural produce. The revival of agriculture was impossible if the railway companies were to be allowed to continue to put the rural districts at so great a disadvantage as they did at present. In the light of their past action, it was hardly to be expected that any help was to be got from the railway companies.
§ MR. J. A. PEASE (Northumberland, Tyneside)
said, that the case of Ireland was not a precedent. The position of Ireland was different from the condition of affairs which existed in agricultural districts at the present time here. When it was considered necessary to apply to the Exchequer for aid to make railways in Ireland, it was to save thousands of the Irish people from starvation in the congested districts. The Government had, therefore, done well to refuse any national funds for the purpose of the Bill in this country. Distress and depression existed in other industries besides that of agriculture, and if agriculture received this aid, in all probability other industries would claim it likewise.
§ *MR. T. H. BOLTON (St. Pancras, N.)
sympathised with the Gladstonian county Members on this subject. They seemed to be in an exceedingly depressed frame of mind. They had gone about the country talking so much about this Measure being one which would largely alleviate agricultural distress, that they were now to be pitied when they found that, in satisfaction of all their large expectations, they received a little Bill like this. If the Bill would not do any harm, certainly it would not do much good. A great deal of simplicity appeared to prevail if it was believed that the 1720 Bill would do much for agriculture, or that railway companies were likely to invest the money of shareholders in these Light Railways, or that capitalists would give much capital to further such undertakings. If the Government had been anxious to promote Light Railways in England they would have adopted the course which was adopted in Ireland; they would have proposed some material assistance so as to induce the companies or the capitalists to embark upon such undertakings. It was suggested that landowners would give their land for the purpose of enabling the railways to be made; but it was not always in their power to give land. Where land could be given a Light Railway might not be wanted, or it might probably not be successful if made. The cost, moreover, of obtaining the necessary order for making the railway, if the scheme was opposed, would certainly approximate towards the cost of the inquiries before the House of Commons, because counsel and skilled witnesses would have to be taken into the country. It was novel, also, to find that the safeguards thought to be necessary in similar undertakings should be dispensed with to such an extent as the right hon. Gentleman had suggested. Take the case of level crossings. He was under the belief that the strongest abjection was entertained to level crossings being considered safe, even where they were attended, and if left unattended the danger was greater. He doubted whether there would be that enormous saving of expense which the right hon. Gentleman suggested. Upon the whole he must say that in common with every person in that House who took an interest in the agricultural districts, he viewed this Bill with great disappointment. He believed that it would do absolutely nothing to relieve the present agricultural depression. It night afford opportunity to certain speculators to bring out companies and take some money from the public, and a 1721 little might be spent in the agricultural districts, and it might promote and assist some railways here and there. But to suggest this as a policy for the alleviation or the palliation of agricultural distress was the height of absurdity. It was bringing forward a quack medicine to cure a serious disease. If this was the only measure that the Government had for the purpose of relieving agricultural depression, he very much sympathised with the Members who represent agricultural constituencies. He was very much inclined to think that they would spend a good many bad quarters of an hour in the country if they told their constituents that all the Government could do for them would be to pass an Act to allow them to make Light Railways at their own expense. Under those circumstances the Bill received a certain amount of indifference, which showed the general sense of the House with regard to it. Even Members who had spoken in favour of the Bill had spoken in a very qualified way. They had damned it with faint praise, but one, a strong supporter of the Government, had expressed his unqualified dissatisfaction with the measure. If only other Members would get up and say what they thought of the Bill, they might find out how many of them approved of it. He did not know that anything but barren sympathy was to be expected from the Government for the agricultural community. Having taxed the landed interest they now asked the landed interests to put their hands into their pockets and help themselves. He thought they would like to hear something from the Members for agricultural constituencies supporting the Government. This was the great measure, this was the only measure, which the Government had to relieve the agricultural interest. It seemed to him to be a measure which might do very little harm, but certainly would do very little good.
§ *MR. J. W. LOGAN (Leicester, Harborough)
, as representing one of those 1722 agricultural constituencies, referred to by the hon. Member. He wished to trouble the House with a very few remarks. He should have felt regret if the Government had proposed to construct these Light Railways at the expense of the communities. His belief was that relief from agricultural depression would not be found in any Measure brought in by any Government. The late Government was in Office for six long years. What was the state of agriculture during that period? It was in anything but a prosperous condition, yet he failed to recollect that the late Government brought in any Bill to deal with it. Agricultural depression was a landlords' question and, if by means of Light Railways or by any other means, the tenant farmers of England could be put into a position to pay their present rents, then he asserted that the expense of measures to bring about that change should be borne by the landed interests of the country, and that it would be monstrously unfair to expect that the community should be taxed for the benefit of the landowners.
§ *SIR MICHAEL HICKS BEACH ( Bristol, W.)
said, that the hon. Member had asked the Opposition to state any measure which the late Government had brought forward for the relief of the agricultural interest. He would tell the hon. Member what they did. They relieved the pressure of local taxation on the agricultural interest, and they did not increase Imperial taxation on that interest, as the present Government had done. He ventured to agree with the statement that it was impossible, by any measure of this kind, to relieve the agricultural distress of the country. Unfortunately for the President of the Board of Trade his colleagues had for many months past heralded the present measure as that by which the Government intended to relieve the prevailing agricultural depression, though the right hon. Gentleman himself was not so foolish, and said, in fact, that he did not regard this Bill 1723 as more than a palliatory measure. It was no doubt, a useful little measure as far as it went, as it took away some of the restrictions in the existing law, in regard to the manner in which light railways could be sanctioned and the mode in which they were to be constructed and worked. He hoped it was not ominous of any results of the policy initiated that night that the measure which stood in the Orders immediately before this Bill was one for inquiring into fatal accidents. He entirely sympathised with the right hon. Gentleman's desire to make the Amendments in the law which he suggested, but it was a delusion that these could be palliatives for agricultural distress, and such a delusion ought to be dissipated for ever. Not merely had that been scouted by Members of the Opposition side, but also by the most strenuous supporters of the Government. His view was that in the case of light railways in agricultural districts these restrictions might safely be modified, and he did what he could in the Committee to assist the Government in this matter. The principles of the Bill were good and useful, but he feared that the measure would not have the effect which they all desired. He thought that the financial question was at the bottom of the whole subject. Landowners had made these railways largely in the past. They had made branches at great cost to themselves, which the great railway companies had starved and had afterwards purchased at half the original cost. That did not hold out much hope that the railway companies would go to the expense of constructing these railways themselves. The landowners could not afford, in the present condition of agriculture, to do it. They had been penalised by the legislation of last year; they had suffered from the general depression, and it was impossible, under present circumstances, for the English landowners to do what they had done in the past. They were driven to the conclusion that, though in some more 1724 favoured districts, the making of light railways might be promoted by the legislation now proposed, yet, where they were most wanted, and where agriculture was most depressed, this Bill would not secure their construction. He was very sorry that the Government had put their foot down against any policy of assistance by the State. He entirely differed from the view expressed by an hon. Member that the assistance given to the construction of railways in Ireland was to save thousands of people from starvation. The assistance was not given for that reason at all. In many districts where it was given in Ireland no question of starvation arose. The construction of railways was aided in Ireland to enable agricultural and other produce in that country to be taken more cheaply to market, and what was good for Ireland in this respect ought, if wanted, to be good for England, too. He defied the Government to get over that argument. He asserted that there were agricultural districts in England where such help was quite as much required as ever it was in Ireland. In saying what he had said he did not, however, forget the dangers of extravagance arid jobbery in such matters. But the Irish example had taught thorn a good deal, and they had heard sufficient evidence before the Committee which had been appointed by the right hon. Gentleman to make it perfectly clear that there were modes in which assistance might be given, which would not be open to the extravagance and jobbery which might result from other proposals of the kind. He did not desire to press the Government to introduce any scheme of the sort into the present Bill. He knew that it was impossible to do so, and hoped the House would consider the Bill apart from any question of the kind, and entirely as a simple and small proposal for amending the existing law. It was really that and no more. The right hon. Gentleman was certainly entitled to some credit for having looked into the question, for having made these proposals, and for 1725 placing them before the House; and, therefore, he trusted that the Bill would not meet with opposition or with anything but reasonable criticism in its progress through the House. He should be glad to aid its passing, but he hoped that from that night forward they would hear no more about the Bill as a remedy for agricultural depression, and that if hon. Members opposite who represented agricultural districts found it necessary to go to their constituents and inform them that the Government were friends of the agricultural interest, they would find some better ground for proving that statement than any reference to this Bill.
§ MR. J. G. WEIR
complained that no attempt whatever was made by the Bill to benefit the "Western Highlands and islands of Scotland, which were greatly in want of facilities of the kind proposed. It had been asked how the money for the intended Light Railways was to be obtained. The money, he had no doubt, would be found by the Company promoters and the landlords, mainly by the former, who were certain to be pretty active in extracting it from the pockets of the widow and the orphan. In common with several other Scotch Members, he regretted that the Bill would not apply in any way to the congested districts of Scotland, and he could not understand why the Government should be so ready to grant large sums to Ireland for the construction of light railways, while Scotch Members could not get a shilling out of them for similar purposes. The poor people in the Highlands, it seemed, might die like rabbits for aught the Government cared; and why? Because they were law-abiding and peaceful, and did not raise disturbances. In the island of Lewis, for example, a light railway was very badly needed, and it was absurd to suppose that the owners there could raise the money required to make it. In those circumstances, he asked the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary for Scotland, to consider the propriety of making some provision in the Bill for the Western Highlands and islands. The necessity was urgent and the demand reasonable, and he could assure the right hon. Gentleman that if no attention was paid to the request, he was resolved to take further action in the matter.
1726 Leave being given, Bill presented accordingly, and read 1° to be read 2° on Monday next, and to be printed. [Bill 2l6.]