§ On the Order for Second Reading,
§ MAJOR DARWIN (Staffordshire, Lichfield)
said, he desired a statement of the Government's policy in regard to this Bill. The Railway was at present charging illegal fares, and the object of the Bill was simply to whitewash these illegal fares. He would briefly state the history of the case. The subject had been before the House for nearly two years. He raised the question in March 1893, and was then told that the whole question would be referred to a Committee. He thought the Board of Trade ought to have known that a Committee had no power to decide rights of this sort. He raised the question by a letter to the Board of Trade, and was told that the Board had no power whatever to act. He afterwards raised the question on the Estimates and was told that the Board of Trade had ample power to act. So far the Board of Trade had made two serious mistakes in dealing with this question. In September 1893, he was told that care would be taken to look into the whole matter. The matter 266 was afterwards further postponed owing to the indisposition of the Treasury Counsel. He had subsequently, in September 1894, received a courteous intimation from the President of the Board of Trade saying that the matter would be put before the Law Officers again. In answer to a question in February 1895, his right hon. Friend said he had endeavoured to make a satisfactory arrangement with the Railway Company, but had failed, and had been obliged to instruct his solicitor. That was an extraordinary answer for a Government Department to give. What was to be the policy of the Board of Trade? If he was wrong, and these fares were perfectly legal, he could only express his regret for bringing the matter forward, but, in that case, he thought the District Railway Company had some ground of complaint, for the delay made it very difficult for them to act. It was possible that the action which the Board of Trade were bringing, to contest the legality of their fares, might not be concluded until after the Bill had been dealt with by the House; and he asked whether it was a satisfactory state of things that a Committee on the Bill should be considering the question of a redistribution of fares when the result of the action might show that the present fares charged were illegal. It was probable that if this Bill became law the legal proceedings pending might prove to be altogether illusory. At any rate, the present state of things in regard to this Railway was very unsatisfactory, and he repeated that there was reason to complain of the dilatory action of the Board of Trade. He had no interest direct or indirect in the Company, and he had drawn attention to the matter purely on public grounds and in the interests of the working classes, by whom this Railway was largely used.
§ MR. H. KIMBER (Wandsworth)
said, the hon. and gallant Member had shown no substantial reasons against the Second Reading of the Bill. He had full power and opportunity of bringing any complaint or grievance he wished to urge before the Committee on the Bill. The hon. Member had complained that the matter had been two years in the hands of the Board of Trade, but if the Company had been acting illegally, the Board had had power to come down on them. Moreover, the Board had power 267 at any time to stop the Bill if it appeared to sanction illegal fares, and in those circumstances lie saw no reason for them troubling the House with the matter. The present Bill was not confined to the question, of fares; it related to other matters of public utility, and it was a fact that this very question had been investigated by a Committee in 1893. That Committee sanctioned a readjustment of fares in order to bring them under a uniform mileage, and the Company wore seeking similar powers under the present Bill.
§ SIR A. K. ROLLIT (Islington, S.)
said, the Bill was not retrospective, and the Second Reading would prove no bar to legal proceedings. He understood that the Committee would thoroughly investigate the Bill, and that the County Council and Board of Trade would be represented before them. The public interest, therefore, would not be unrepresented.
§ MR. G. HOWELL (Bethnal Green, N.E.)
said, it appeared to him that if the Committee were empowered to revise and readjust the fares, the matters under discussion might well be referred to them.
§ THE PRESIDENT Of THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. BRYCE,) Aberdeen, S.
said, he noticed that his hon. Friend had not submitted any Motion to the House, and, therefore, he did not understand that he wished to move the rejection, of the Bill. The hon. Member urged that it was the duty of the Board of Trade to determine whether the fares referred to were legal or not, and whether some other arrangement could not be made. The only reason for any apparent delay on the part of the Board was, that if the fares had been declared to be illegal, the Company would probably have charged up to their maximum, and that would have involved much more inconvenience to the public. The Committee, in dealing with the Bill, would not be constituted into a Court of Law, to decide on the legality, or illegality of the fares; their object and purpose would be to endeavour to determine the best arrangement that could be made. If they went to court, all they could do would be to obtain an injunction restraining the Company from charging the present fares. The Committee would not say what fares were legal, and 268 that question therefore would still remain. He thought in the circumstances it was reasonable that the Bill should be sent to a Committee which would investigate the whole circumstances, and determine what was an equitable scale of charges to be made by this Company. This had net been done before, because on a previous occasion the Company withdrew its Bill, and the Committee had no opportunity of determining the question. If the Company adopted that course on the present occasion, the Board of Trade would take steps to obtain a legal decision. But he thought the present discussion would have the effect of impressing upon the Company that the matter had reached a stage at which it was proper that these fares should be reviewed.
§ Bill read 2°.