§ Considered in Committee.
§ (In the Committee.)
MR. HANBURY moved:—
That it is expedient to authorise the Treasury to guarantee the Interest, at the rate of Three per cent., on £260,000 of the capital of the West Highland Railway Company, and to pay a sum of money, not exceeding £30,000, to that Company; and to authorise the payment, out of moneys to be provided by Parliament, and (if those moneys are insufficient) out of the Consolidated Fund, of such sums as may be necessary for those purposes.
§ * MR. BUCHANAN
said, this was a Resolution which they could not allow to pass without discussion. [A laugh.] It was a contentious proposal, and they ought to have some explanation. He did not think the introduction of this Bill was likely to facilitate a speedy termination of the Session. The first ground on which he held that this was a contentious measure was the ground of precedent. An identical proposal was made in the spring of this year, and when the late Government was defeated it was included in the category of contentious measures which were abandoned. He thought they wore entitled to claim that what, with the assent of the present Leader of the House, was regarded as contentious in June could not be otherwise than contentious in August. But there was another ground. So far as they knew, the only reason why the Government pushed forward this measure now, was a promise given in his letter to one of the promoters of the railway, Mr. Cameron, of Lochiel. The right hon. Gentleman had declined to give the date of the letter.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER (Sir M. HICKS BEACH,) Bristol, W.
I did not know the date.
§ * MR. BUCHANAN
said, the facts, so far as the public were aware, were these. On the day before the polling for Inverness-shire, a statement was made at a political meeting held in support of the present Member, to the effect that Mr. Cameron had got an assurance from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the words of the right hon. Gentleman's letter—that he would do his best to pass a Bill for providing for a Government guarantee when Parliament met in August"—were quoted in some of the Scotch newspapers. He thought the very fact of the promise being given on such an occasion, and announced in such a way, put the Bill into the category of contentious measures. The Bill was contentious on other grounds. Parliament had never had an opportunity since the subject of Government aid was broached, of discussing the proposals on their merits, though the subject was a highly important one, both financially and politically. The policy involved in the Bill had never 995 been discussed in the House of Commons, and that showed that it could be fairly looked upon as contentious. He knew that some lion. Members took the line that the Government were taking the very serious step of committing the House of Commons to the policy of State aid to railways in the poorer parts of Great Britain. That was a new policy, involving important principles and far-reaching consequences, and surely a Bill containing such a principle ought to be reckoned as a contentious measure, and ought not to be pushed through in the small hours of the morning in this short Session of Parliament. He never should have objected to the Government endeavouring to push the matter forward in a regular business Session. Indeed, after what had been said on the subject by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was only to be expected that they should do so; but what he objected to was that they should endeavour to push it through during this short Session of Parliament as a non-contentious measure. They ought not to be obliged to take a single stage of this Bill at the present moment, because they had no papers going further than July 29, 1892, on this subject, and they were promised further correspondence between the Treasury and the promoters since that time. He did not think it was fair that the House should be asked to signify its assent to the important policy involved in the Bill until they had obtained the fullest possible information upon its proposals. On these grounds he had ventured very shortly to contend that the Bill could not fairly be considered a non-contentious measure, and he earnestly appealed to the Members of the Government not to proceed with it further.
§ * THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
The hon. Member has opposed this proposal on two grounds. In the first place he says that it indicates a new policy with regard to railways in Great Britain. If it be so, at any rate it is a policy which to my mind Great Britain has quite as fair a right to claim as ever Ireland had. The proposal is the outcome of an inquiry held in 1891, and the guarantee proposed in the Bill was originally authorised by my right hon. Friend the Member for St. George's, Hanover Square, when he filled 996 the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. According to the recommendation of a Committee, this was the only means of securing the construction of this railway, which would not only be of great advantage to the crofters and farmers of the district, but would also promote greatly the fishing interests of the people of the Western Highlands. At that time, those interested in the question were not able to subscribe to the conditions which my right hon. Friend very properly laid down. Subsequently, the matter was again considered, and while the right hon. Member for West Monmouthshire was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the North British Railway Company undertook to work this railway in perpetuity, provided a guarantee of 3 per cent, were given on £260,000. But, owing to the arrangements made, by which 50 per cent. of the gross traffic receipts are to be paid to the Government, the whole charge to the country from that guarantee is certainly not likely to be as much as 3 per cent. on £260,000. That is the proposal made now. The hon. Member said that this was treated as a contentious matter last Session. I cannot agree with him. What occurred last Session was this: When my predecessor had entered into an agreement—I think in May last—with the railway company concerned, that this guarantee should be given, a notice of a Resolution was placed on the Paper to bring in a Bill to carry out the agreement. The hon. Member who has just sat down, or some other hon. Member, thereupon gave notice of opposition, and consequently, under the blocking rule, the matter could not come on after 12 o'clock. That is the amount of opposition that was offered last Session to this proposal. The hon. Member charges me with having done something like a political job in endeavouring to carry out the promise of my predecessor. I could do nothing else. The Government of the country is bound by promises of this kind made by their predecessors. The hon. Member says that my promise to fulfil the obligation of my predecessor was made use of at a political meeting. I would ask him why, on the other side, candidates did not make equal use of the promise of the right hon. Member for West Monmouthshire? Was it because they thought that possibly some of the 997 electors concerned might be disposed to believe that we were more likely to fulfil our promises than our predecessors? I trust the hon. Member will not further oppose this Motion. All that we ask for to-night is the power to place this Bill, by means of this Resolution, before the House. The Papers to which the hon. Member has alluded will be presented shortly. I hope that they will be in the hands of Members before the Second Reading of the Bill is moved. He will then see the correspondence that has passed, and will understand that this is not a "political job," but an attempt to carry out a promise made in perfect good faith by our predecessors in office for the benefit of a poor and neglected district of Great Britain.
§ DR. CLARK
said, that this was a contentious matter, which never got beyond the stage of Report in the last Parliament. Since the proposal was first made, a private Bill had been brought in and had become an Act, by which the North British Railway Company had taken upon themselves to carry out the promise given to make a railway. He did not know whether he supported the Bill or not, but he thought the different stages of the Resolution and also the first Reading of the Bill should be allowed, in order that the House might know what the Government proposed. He objected to his hon. Friend preventing them getting the Bill into their hands. At the Second Reading of the Bill, they could discuss the principle. The present Government, when in power three or four years ago, began this system of grants, and one grant they made was one he should have opposed. It was a grant of, he thought, £40,000 to the Highland Railway—a rich company, paying a 6 per cent. dividend—to continue their line from Strome Ferry to Kyllachy. What the Government now apparently proposed to do was this—having given £40,000 to the Highland Railway Company to make the line down to Kyllachy, they were now going to give £260,000 for another line which would compete with the railway they had already subsidised. They would have two lines running very nearly side by side and competing with one another. However that might be, they should allow all the stages of the 998 present Resolution to pass, and then, on the Second Reading, they could discuss the principle of the Bill.
§ MR. E. STRACHEY (Somerset, E.)
, hoped his hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen would press his objection to a division. As an English Member he entirely objected to the way the Government was quite ready to vote a large guarantee for making a railway in Scotland. The reason he ventured to urge for not proceeding with this railway was that they had not sufficient information. The information they had was only down to July 1892. Papers had been promised them and they ought to have them at once. What they were asked to do was to sanction the principle of guaranteeing the interest on a large sum of money, and making a free grant of £30,000 for a railway and harbour in Scotland. They ought on every possible opportunity to refuse to sanction the principle of constructing or partially constructing railways by the aid of Imperial funds until the Government had made up their mind whether they meant to deal with this question throughout the whole country. The other day he opposed an increased grant in a similar way for Ireland, and until this policy was settled for the whole country, it was certainly right that those who represented English constituencies should protest against this policy of piecemeal legislation. He hoped his hon. Friend would press his opposition to a division, and he should certainly support him in the Division Lobby against this principle of giving more money to Ireland and Scotland and doing nothing for England.
MR. T. M. HEALY
observed that, as he understood from the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, an Act of a private character had been passed either by the North British or the West Highland Company. If this Act was passed, it must have passed the Private Bill Committee of that House, with the assurance from the promoters that they were able to make the line, otherwise it would have been the duty of the Private Bill Committee to have rejected the scheme, and they should have the opportunity of seeing what was the evidence upon which the Private Bill Committees in the Lords and Commons enabled this scheme to go through. The Chancellor 999 of the Exchequer said the offer of a guarantee under certain conditions, as he had said, was originally made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. George's, Hanover Square, about 1892. At the time the promoters were unable to fulfil the conditions required. They then applied for a private Bill to Parliament, placing before the Committee which considered the Private Bill the fact that the Government had made this promise of these conditions. The Committee came to the conclusion they might reasonably be satisfied that the Government of the day would be willing to carry out the promise of their predecessors, supposing those conditions were fulfilled, and they therefore passed the Bill. The conditions were fulfilled, and the right hon. Member for West Monmouthshire carried out the promise of the Government. None of these matters were dealt with at all in private Acts. There was passed a General Act of a public character which enabled private companies to annex the lines. If they looked at the Midland or Great Southern or Great Northern Acts they would not find anything in them affecting the light railways in question. They did, however, find public Acts which enabled private companies to take over Government lines. Such a state of things ought not to be tolerated for a moment. Surely a Bill ought not to be squeezed through the House upon a promise made to a Select Committee. He would like to know the name of the Select Committee to whom the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his promise, and would like to see the evidence which influenced the Select Committee to pass the Bill. If private Bills affecting railway companies were to be squeezed through the House by reason of the momentum given to them by the promise of financial aid made by a Minister, there was an end to the independence of Select Committees. This West Highland Railway might be a line competing with the North British and the Caledonian. He would not like 1000 to vote against any Bill calculated to help the Scotch crofters, but he did not like the look of the present transaction. Some time ought to be afforded for the discussion of the matter in all its bearings at a further stage of the Bill.
§ Resolution agreed to.