THE UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. GEORGE RUSSELL,) Bedfordshire, N.
moved—That the Committee of Selection do appoint a Committee, not exceeding nine Members, to whom shall be committted all Private Bills promoted by Municipal and other Local Authorities by which it is proposed to create powers relating to Police and Sanitary Regulations which deviate from, or are in extension of, or are repugnant to, the General Law. That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records, and that three be the quorum of the Committee.
§ MR. JOHN ELLIS (Nottingham, Rushcliffe)
said, their proposed Committee was an important one, and he thought it would be advisable that, before the Question was put, a few observations should be made. It was a good many years since the Committee was first appointed, and though it had to some extent been of an intermittent character, yet in its inception it had the important object of preventing from creeping into Private Bills any Clauses deviating from extensions of or re-payment to the public law. In 1893 the then President of the Local Government Board made a speech with respect to its procedure, and at the conclusion of his remarks went as far as to say that he should reserve his right in the Session of 1894 to oppose the appointment of the Committee. That was strong language for the President of the Local Government Board to use, but it was justified on the ground that the original idea of the appointment of the Committee had to a certain extent been departed from. The Committee was intended to act as a safeguard, but in some quarters its very existence had been regarded as an invitation to local bodies to secure in Private Bills powers which would not be granted by any Public Bill. The speech to which he had referred was made under very different circumstances from those in which we now found ourselves, because then there was a very strong instruction to the Committee which he did not notice on the paper to-day, which made certain standing orders applicable to all Bills that were referred to the Committee; which instructed the Committee not to sanction any clauses 863 which should be the subject of five Acts of Parliament, and which required a certain interval between the Committee report of Bills and their consideration by the House. That instruction did not appear when the Committee was moved for last year, nor did it appear now. The Under Secretary for the Home Department said that the Standing Order 150 and 173A were applicable to the proceedings of the Committee, and that it was unnecessary, therefore, to move the instruction. Certainly, some objections had been taken to the instruction because of the limiting and hampering nature its effect would have, but on the other hand he considered that the Standing Orders which the Home Office deemed applicable were in themselves of a limiting character. It was clear from them that Parliament considered it necessary and obligatory on the Committee to see that cases were fully made out before they granted powers, that in fact presumption was against granting them unless there was ample and abundant proof that they were necessary. He did not speak as having been a member of that Committee, but as a Member of the House, and he thought that anyone cognisant with the proceedings in the Torquay and Eastbourne cases would acknowledge that this was a matter which required great care in treatment. All the difficulties in those cases had happened simply and solely because the Police and Sanitary Committee allowed in the Bill of these Corporations some words, the effect of which was not brought thoroughly home to the mind of the Committee. The consequences in the cases of Torquay and Eastbourne were most serious. Special Committees had to be appointed; the time of the House was wasted; and in the localities concerned the most lamentable proceedings took place. The Division this Session on the Glasgow Corporation Bill was an indication of the mind of Parliament. In that case a large minority supported a proposal to strike out without further proceedings two clauses of that Bill that in their opinion were objectionable. He did not wish to oppose the setting up of the Committee. It undertook very heavy work, and its indefatigable chairman had very arduous duties to perform. But he asked from the Under Secretary for the Home 864 Office some assurance that the Department considered that what he had indicated as the mind of Parliament was amply safeguarded by these two Standing Orders governing the proceedings of the Committee. He also asked from the Chairman of that Committee some assurance that the Committee would be guided by the principle he had endeavoured to lay down—namely, that a case must be proved up to the hilt before exceptional powers were granted, and that Parliament should be fully and adequately informed of the reasons of the Committee as to why they had been granted.
§ SIR C. W. DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)
said, he had no doubt the Chairman of the Committee would take as a testimony to his impartiality that the objections which he (Sir C. W. Dilke) would urge were exactly in an opposite direction to those urged by the hon. Member for the Rushcliffe Division. The Association of Municipal Corporations, and those who represented their feelings in the House, were of opinion that the Committee, instead of interfering too little interfered too much with the Bills of the Municipal Corporations. Surely they ought to allow Municipal Corporations, who were responsible to their own electors, to have their own way upon matters of purely domestic and internal concern. The country talked about centralisation, but this Committee had been in conflict with local bodies upon matters which one would think entirely concerned themselves. The Instruction to which the hon. Member had referred was omitted last year after debate, on the suggestion of the Member for Islington, who was Chairman of the Association of Municipal Corporations, in consequence of very strong representations made by the whole of the Municipal Corporations of the country with regard to the proceedings of the Committee. He was bound to say that the Home Office view that it made no difference had proved to be correct, because the proceedings of the Committee since the Instruction was omitted had been precisely the same as the proceedings previously. [Mr. LONG dissented.] The reports in every case showed that the Committee had never allowed a Municipal Corporations to depart from the general law of the land unless there were exceptional and special 865 circumstances shown as a reason for so doing, precisely the same as before the Instruction was omitted. The strong case put forward last year for allowing Municipal Corporations more freedom than the Committee was disposed to afford them was that of the Corporation of Leeds. The Bill of that Corporation had been completely cut to pieces in the preceding year, and the feeling of the House was, that the Committee should be more careful in dealing with the Bills of such Corporations. He admitted that this year the House seemed to have reverted to its former feeling; but he thought there was reason for asking it; to pause, in the interests of those great responsible Municipal Corporations before going back again too strongly in the opposite direction. It had been suggested that the right way for these Corporations to obtain such special regulations as they wished was by Provisional Orders. They had a very interesting Debate two years ago on a Provisional Order Bill, relating, among other places, to Coventry; and because objection was raised, on behalf of a single landowner, to a particular scheme, the Government at once abandoned it. Since that time the Corporation of Coventry had been placed in this position—they had been unable to carry forward that scheme; no one had been able to suggest any other workable scheme, and they were being prosecuted now through no fault of their own. So long as Corporations were placed in this position they would have to come to the House by means of private Bills. The Provisional Order system could not meet the case unless the Government were prepared to support them to some extent to which they had not been prepared to go in the past. As an instance of the manner in which the Committee dealt with Corporations, he would give the case of the Gloucester Corporation Bill last Session. That Bill contained a clause dealing with a trifling matter—the scattering of handbills in the streets. That clause was actually struck out on the ground that there was no precedent for it. It seemed to him that a Corporation responsible to its own electorate ought to be allowed to have its own way in a trifling matter of that kind; and it was ridiculous that a Committee should strike a clause out of the 866 Bill of a public body, not because it was objectionable in itself, but because there was no precedent.
§ MR. WALTER LONG (Liverpool, West Derby)
said, that speaking from recollection, he thought the Gloucester Corporation proposed to make the offence punishable in a rather severe manner.
§ SIR C. W. DILKE
said, it was impossible to tell what was in the mind of the Committee. The reason he had named was the only one that came before the House. But if it were only to the extent of the penalties that objection was taken, that was a matter in which the Corporation might have come to terms with the Committee. Then there was the case of the Cardiff Corporation Bill. The Corporation proposed certain regulations with regard to bake-houses, but the Committee refused to sanction them on the ground that they were too stringent. That was a matter; he thought might very well have been left to the Corporation of a great city like Cardiff. In the same Bill they deleted a clause relating to flowers in cemeteries. The Committee objected to that on the ground that there was no precedent. If the work of the Committee was very heavy it was partly caused by the extent to which they went into such very small matters as those which he had mentioned, while larger matters, such as those suggested by the hon. Gentleman, were allowed to escape their attention. He had been led to make these remarks as a correction from the point of view of the Municipal Corporations to those made by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, and he was sure the Chairman of the Committee would take them as a testimony to the general impartiality of the Committee.
§ SIR JULIAN GOLDSMID (St. Pancras, E.)
thought the speech of the right hon. Baronet strongly confirmed the contention of the hon. Member for Rushcliffe that there ought to be a special reason given when there was a departure from the general law. The Corporation of Gloucester proposed the creation of a new offence. That was a departure from the general law, which the Committee very properly refused to sanction. He agreed with the principle that the Committee should go into every proposed departure from the general law: should have the case proved up to 867 the hilt, and should give the reasons on which they sanctioned the departure. He thought it was not usual, when a Committee of nine was appointed, that only three should be a quorum. He would like to know why there was this change from the usual practice. He believed that the usual number would be five for a quorum in a Committee of this kind, and he would like to know why three had been adopted as the quorum in this particular case.
MR. GEORGE RUSSELL
desired to say briefly and generally that the speech of his hon. Friend, and the views he had expressed as to the functions of this Committee, entirely coincided with the views entertained by the Home Office. It was held last year that without the instruction the Committee would be able to conduct its business as effectively as before, and the presence of his hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Long) as Chairman of the Committee was as good as any number of instructions. He could not agree with the remarks of the right hon. Baronet the Member for the Forest of Dean (Sir C. Dilke) as to procedure when he said that the drainage of Coventry was an interesting subject. That did not strike him as an interesting topic of debate. That was, in his view, the sort of business that was better dealt with by the procedure which this Committee afforded than by Provisional Orders. It was a satisfaction to know that the Member for Rushcliffe had the support of the hon. Baronet the Member for South St. Pancras in this matter.
§ MR. WALTER LONG
did not know that he had any title to take part in this Debate, except that some reference had been made to his position as Chairman of the Committee. The thanks of that Committee were due to the Member for Rushcliffe for initiating this Debate, and for the support of the Member for St. Pancras (Sir J. Goldsmid); also, for the intimation that they had given as to the course of the procedure of the Committee in the future. The hon. Baronet the Member for the Forest of Dean (Sir C. Dilke had criticised the details of the work of the Committee. He was sorry that he had not the materials at hand at the moment to show why the Committee declined to sanction the particular clauses in the 868 Bill to which the hon. Baronet had referred; but he could assure him that the Committee had not unduly developed upon minutiœ. The desire of the Committee had been to meet the requirements of the municipal corporations, but, at the same time, to bear in mind the explicit instruction of the House, that the Committee should not sanction a departure from the general law of the land, unless there were some very strong reasons advanced in the particular locality which made that locality different from the circumstances of any other locality affected by the same law. The right hon. Baronet had, moreover, told the House that no practical difference had been made by the omission of the instruction. The difference had been in the reports made to the House. Owing to the instruction, it had been held that the reports must be made under the individual authority of the Chairman of the Committee, and must go into detail showing why a departure had been allowed from the general law. Under the Standing Order, the reports had not been so explicit. He hoped that in future the reports would state distinctly what the alterations had been, and why the alterations had been made. If it were his privilege to be again appointed Chairman of the Committee, he would accept that as an instruction from the House. The right hon. Baronet had told the House that, in his opinion, the Municipal Corporations ought to be able to obtain the powers sought by them, but, if that were carried to its logical conclusion, why should the Municipal Corporations be called upon to come to the House at all to obtain those powers. It was generally extremely difficult to ascertain from those who represented the Corporations in these cases, whether or not the particular Legislation asked for in their Bills had been really approved by the ratepayers. Evidence was, indeed, given that the requisite statutory formalities had been complied with, but, on inquiry, it generally turned out that the meeting called to consider the proposed Bill had been attended by only some 40 or 50 persons out of a constituency of perhaps 100,000 or more. Was that to be taken as a fair indication of the views of the inhabitants? The right hon. Baronet spoke of a hard case. He would tell him of another hard case. In 869 a certain Bill, it was proposed to make it a penal offence for excursionists to a particular seaside town to throw about the paper in which they carried their buns. It was most important that the House should realise the responsibility which these Committees had to perform, and that the House should say whether it was desirable that a Committee should absolve Parliament from the responsibility of altering the criminal law of the land, for that was what it came to. Standing Order 173A was sufficient for the Committee if they dealt with it in light of the expressed opinion of Parliament. The Local Government Board only criticised those parts of a Bill which they considered to be departures from such portions of the measures as they had control over. The reasons which led the Committee to come to their conclusions were to be found in the evidence given before them. As to the quorum, he agreed that the number now proposed was too small in a Committee of nine. It was, however, found that the Committee were often unable to begin the hearing of Bills, because a larger number of the Members of the Committee were not present. Although the Committee had proceeded with formal parts with a quorum of three, they had never proceeded to consider the important parts of a Bill until a larger number were present. It was solely with the object of enabling the Committee to deal with the formal parts of a Bill that the quorum of three was proposed. He hoped that the Committee would be appointed as proposed by the Under Secretary for the Home Department. If he were appointed to serve on the Committee, he would certainly carry with him the recollection of this Debate.
§ Motion agreed to.