HC Deb 11 February 1897 vol 46 cc140-51

On the Motion "That this Bill be now read a Second time,"


rose to move to leave out the word 'now' and at the en I of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months.' He asked whether the subject of the Bill was such that it ought to be dealt with in a private Bill. The Bill was not promoted by any body constituted under the public Acts, but by the Corporation of the City of London, a body not subject to any municipal corporation Act or to the general Acts relating to boroughs or urban sanitary districts, and under it the Corporation sought to have transferred to it the powers vested in the City Commissioners of Sewers under a, certain Act of Parliament. The Corporation of the City of London had no governing statutes or Acts of Parliament settling its constitution or regulating its election of officers or the constituent members of the body and it now proposed to deal with an area having a rateable value of live millions sterling and extending over 112 parishes. It sought the repeal of no less than 23 public Acts of Parliament, amongst which was the Valuation of the Metropolis Act, 1869. The administration of that Act was entrusted to the Commissioner," of Sewers and not to the Corporation, but the Corporation proposed to transfer the powers and duties of that Act to themselves. They also proposed to transfer from the Commissioners to themselves the rights and powers under the Local Loans Act, which referred to the borrowing and repayment of money. The Corporation was not now subject to the Local Loans Act, but could borrow as much money as it pleased on its own corporate property, unrestricted by the provisions that applied in this respect to every municipal borough under the Municipal Corporations Act. In addition to this a Public Health Bill was passed specially for London in 1891, and Parliament, by public statute, conferred the administration of those powers as regarded the City area upon the City Commissioners of Sewers. Those powers likewise it was proposed to transfer to the Corporation. Having regard to the enormous area affected, and to the fact that legislation dealing with this great area, had hitherto been undertaken by public, or by Government, Bills, he asked whether it was right or reasonable that the House should assent in this case to the large changes proposed being effected by means of a private Bill. He submitted that such huge changes should only be brought forward in a public Bill. ["Hear, hear!"] The practical effect of the Bill would be to remove by private Bill legislation the whole question of the Local Government of London, as regarded the City area, from public discussion and treatment in that House, and he urged that that was not a wise or desirable thing to do. ["Hear, hear!"] Under the Act of 1848, when the City Commissioners of Sewers for London was created, that body was constituted the sole authority for executing certain municipal powers within the City area, and it was stipulated that the members should be nominees of the Corporation, though the Corporation, as he understood, were not bound under any Act to confine their nominations to members of their own body. Under that Act the Commissioners could only be deprived of their powers through the appointment of a new Commission. That being so, the Commissioners of Sewers was not, in fact, a statutory body of the Corporation, but a separate and independent body. This had been proved by the fact that in many public Acts certain powers and duties had been entrusted distinctively to the Commissioners of Sewers. Attempts had been made to alter the constitution of the Corporation of London, and it was curious that the Corporation had no rating powers beyond those connected with the City Police. But all these efforts had been made by way of public legislation. In 1888 the City of London and area was settled by a public Bill. Its position was then defined, and the late President of the Local Government Board, in discussing the Bill, stated that it was the intention of the Government to deal with that area according to their own proposals, showing that it was contemplated that any legislation affecting the City area of London should be undertaken by public or by a Government Bill, and certainly not by a private Bill. ["Hear, hear!"] He submitted that a. Bill dealing with such important changes as those proposed, and affecting such a large area, should be a public and not a private Measure, and accordingly, he moved that the present Bill be read a Second time that day six months.

MR. T. LOUGH, (Islington, W.)

in seconding the Amendment, said he thought that the House was in rather an extraordinary position in regard to the question. No explanation had been given of the reasons why this far-reaching proposal had been brought forward in such a sudden and unexpected manner. ["Hear, hear!"] The object of the Bill, as had been staled, was to transfer to the Corporation the powers now exercised by the Commissioners of Sewers. He had searched through the papers that had been issued on the matter, and he could not find in them any reason at all why the change should not be made. No allegation of improper discharge of duty, no reflection whatever in this regard was made against the Commissioners. ["Hear, hear!"] The Commissioners were nominated by the Corporation, and it appeared to him that the Corporation had made the great mistake of supposing that because they nominated the Commissioners of Sewers—who, it must not, be forgotten, were charged with certain duties under Act of Parliament— they could abolish that body and take their duties upon themselves. Moreover, no assurance was given that, if the proposed transfer of powers and duties was made, the Corporation would carry out the duties now discharged by the Commissioners, and he doubted whether the inhabitants of London would have the power to enforce them to do so. Let the House look at these duties, as they were specified in Clauses 6, 7, and 8, and which were to be repealed. In one clause the Commissioners were required to meet at certain times and to hold weekly meetings. In another clause their powers were restricted, they were compelled to keep books, and there were restrictions about contracts, they being obliged to give notice of contracts above a certain amount, and they were obliged to obtain estimates before undertaking work; and in other clauses very important duties were imposed on this body nominated by the Corporation. Now all these were to be repealed, and no one could enforce against the Corporation the duty of attending to these necessities of the inhabitants of the City. So much for the body to be suppressed, and then he invited attention to the Bill. It was a very short Bill, with a long preamble; but within that preamble there would not be found a single statement of any reason why this step should be taken. There was no allegation that the existing authority had failed to discharge their duty. The preamble simply stated: "Whereas it is expedient that the Commission of Sewers should be dissolved." There was no reason or argument in support of that, and it was just this expediency that he called in question. The object of the Bill was to abolish a statutory body by Parliament, and to put in its stead an old body exercising powers under an old charter that no one understood. ["Oh, oh!"] Certainly no one understood the charter, no one understood the rights, powers, and duties of the Corporation of the City of London. He viewed that Corporation himself with the greatest interest. [Laughter.] It was the noblest relic of bygone days we possessed; but nobody knew what duties it owed to the people, no one could point to any Act of Parliament under which it exercised its powers, and the House was asked to lay violent hands on a body which had a statutory position, and to transfer its powers to an old Corporation the duties and liabilities of which no one understood. Clauses from 11 to 16 dealt with offices to be abolished and compensation to be given to those persons holding such offices, and the pensions those deprived of employment were to enjoy. But why deprive them of employment? No charge of failure to discharge their duties had been made against them. Why lay on the inhabitants of London the expenses of these compensations? It was not necessary at all, and there had been melancholy experience of the abolition of offices. If there was one strong reproach which even the friends of the Corporation would admit, it was that of extravagance. The high salaries paid by the Corporation rivalled in some cases the excessive salaries enjoyed by right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench. He believed something like £50,000 a year were paid to officers of the Corporation, and now the House was asked to sanction a proposal to provide a large sum for compensation for the taxation of the City. This important Bill should be introduced as a public Bill, and ample time should be given by the House to its discussion. In every Act dealing with municipalities up to the present time, the House had been reforming these Corporations, constituting them statutory bodies with defined duties; but to-day the House was asked to do something else, to destroy a reformed Corporation, and to substitute for it one that had no definite shape or defined duties. There was no precedent for the step they were asked to take, and he invited hon. Members who were responsible for the Bill to reconsider their position, to withdraw the Bill, and introduce it in another Session as a public Measure.


took the opportunity to enter his protest against a Bill of this far-reaching and extended nature being dealt with as private Bill legislation. This very question of legislation dealing with the metropolis had been matter of consideration in the House on more than one occasion in recent years. It was incidentally mentioned by the President of the Board of Trade in 1888, when he introduced the Local Government Bill of that year, that it was the intention of the Government to deal with the question of London reform by—presumably—a public Bill recognising, as the House would recognise, that, in dealing with so important a constituency as the City of London, the duty should devolve upon a responsible Government rather than upon private Members. That was in 1888; but in 1895 this very question was brought before the House by his hon. and learned Friend now Lord James of Hereford, who, upon the Second Reading of a Bill promoted by the London County Council, objected to the introduction of such a Bill as a private Bill, and appealed for the Speaker's ruling. The reasons he gave for his objection were as follows. He said:— I desire to ask your judgment, Mr. Speaker, on a point of order affecting this Bill, whether this Bill is a fit subject to be introduced into this House as a private Bill? I do not now ask yon to fix any definite rule as to what constitutes a private Bill—it is difficult to form an exact rule—but I respectfully suggest to you that this Bill clearly goes beyond the line which divides private from public Bills. In the first place, although without doubt it only refers to London, it affects 5,000,000 of Her Majesty's subjects. It is moreover stated in the preamble that it is introduced for the purpose of forming a common basis of Imperial and local taxation; it also proceeds to change entirely the law as to the mode of assessment for rating and taxation, and it abolishes the jurisdiction of a Court which has hitherto administered the law, and creates a new tribunal of an entirely different character. Upon this point of order the Speaker gave a ruling at length, in which he said that a Bill affecting the metropolis should as a rule be introduced as a public rather than as a private Bill, and finally said:— I have no doubt upon the matter. I am of opinion that the Bill ought to be introduced as a public Bill. The opinion expressed by the Speaker on that occasion was summed up on page 634 of the tenth edition of Sir Erskine May's "Parliamentary Practice," in the following words:— Bills concerning the metropolis have been dealt with as public Bills, as the large area, the number of parishes, the vast population, and the variety of interests concerned, constitute them Measures of public policy rather than of local interest. Surely, if that test be applied to this Bill—the importance and scope of which had been indicated—it must be apparent that it was a matter for public and not for private Bill legislation. Some hon. Members took exception to the remark of the seconder of the Amendment when he said that the charter of the City of London could not be understood; but they would probably accept the Report of a Royal Commission, when it said that the Corporation had no governing charter and no Acts of Parliament defining its constitution. Therefore his hon. Friend was perfectly right. They were not animated by any hostility to the Corporation in taking the course they were doing. It was rather because they had such a high appreciation of the importance of the City of London—[ironical Ministerial laughter]—that they said this should be a matter of public rather than of private legislation. The mover of the Amendment pointed out how it was proposed by this private Bill to repeal public statutes. Some of them realty appeared to him to be very salutary Acts, which it would be very well to preserve. There was, for instance, the one referred to in the Second Schedule as "Estimates to be obtained for commencement of works to the amount of £100." There was a public Act directed against jobbery, and here, by a private Bill, they were going to repeal it. Then there was "Previous notice to be given of contracts for the amount of £200 and upwards." ["Hear, hear!"] There was, again, a public Act directed against jobbery, and they were going to repeal that by a private Bill.


was understood to say that both those sections were in private and not in public Acts.


asked whether it was right, even so, that those important sections, dealing with such important subjects as the manner in which large sums of public money ought to be spent, should be got rid of by private Bill legislation. This Amendment was moved in no spirit of hostility to the promoters of the Bill. It was regarded as being a Measure which the House should keep before it in all its stages. There was no question here of any intricate examination into plans or documents such as could only be conveniently dealt with by the machinery provided for private Bill legislation. There was here a simple question of policy as to whether or no the City of London was to have transferred to it powers, duties, and responsibilities which it had never yet exercised, and whether or no a wide-reaching reform of that kind was to be undertaken by private Members when they had the clearest intimation from the Government of 1885 that it was in contemplation to deal with this matter by a public Bill.

MR. W. O. CLOUGH (Portsmouth)

pointed out that the Bill which constituted the Commissioners of Sewers in 1848 was a private Bill. As he understood, all the present Bill sought was to give the Corporation of the City of London power to deal with the particular acts and duties which at present were discharged by the Commissioners of Sewers. For all practical purposes, the Commissioners of Sewers was a Grand Committee of the Corporation of the City of London. ["Hear, hear!" and "No!"] For all practical purposes it was, and they had this anomaly that they had the Commissioners of Sowers exercising authority in the City of London, and the only power which the Corporation had to veto any of the decisions come to by the Commissioners of Sewers was by creating a fresh Commission. This Bill, as he understood, was to prevent that necessity. It was to provide that the Commissioners of Sewers should be in deed and in, fact one of the Grand Committees of London. They had heard a great deal about the Corporation of London being an unreformed corporation. Well, he was a member of it, and he was a member of it because he believed it was one of the most democratic corporations that could be found in the United Kingdom. He supported the Bill because he thought it was simply a. Measure intended to give to the Corporation power to deal with its own household. It was not intended to create new duties. The hon. Member for Islington said that they proposed to deprive the officers of the Commissioners of Sewers of their duties and to lay upon the citizens of London a heavy expense for such pensions as might be voted to them. If the Bill passed, several of the officers, such as the engineer and certain inspectors who had experience in the duties which devolved upon the Commissioners, would, automatically, go over to the Corporation, and clauses were, or would be, inserted in the Bill for that purpose. The hon. Member for Plymouth in the statement which had been circulated, said "The Corporation is unrestricted in its powers of borrowing or redeeming its debt." The Corporation was just in the same position as any other borrower. Its stock stood well in the market, and it looked well to see that there was always a safe margin in connection with any of its loans or in dealing with Corporation money. It was further set out in the statement, that the only power of rating that the Corporation exercised is in connection with the City police. All other duties relating to the provisions of municipal government and functions now classed under the comprehensive title are carried on by the said Commission of Sewers under public statutes. He ventured to traverse that statement. As a matter of fact, there was a rate levied called the Militia rate. The rates which were necessary to be imposed in connection with, the requirements of the City were also levied and, therefore, the statement was quite misleading. He hoped that if the Speaker's ruling was asked he would rule that, as a private Bill constituted the Commission of Sewers, by a private Bill the Corporation might resume its exercise of those duties, and have control over its own committee.


said this Bill dealt with a purely domestic matter concerning the arrangements of the Corporation of London. The Corporation thought, that as in these days so many duties were cast upon local authorities it would be better that these particular duties should be discharged by themselves, instead of as they were now by a body not elected by them, and whose nomination was revocable at will, so that they might be more directly responsible. The hon. Member for Islington said that certain duties were imposed upon these Commissioners by statute, and that if this Bill passed the Corporation would have no duties. If he would turn to Section 6 he would see that in every Act of Parliament giving any power or authority to either impose any duty or liability to the Commissioners it was provided that the Acts should be read and have effect as if the words "Common Council" were substituted for the words "Commissioners." He asked the House to pass this Bill, and then it could be examined by a Committee upstairs.

*SIR WILLIAM HAKCOURT (Monmouthshire, W.)

said he had always abstained from taking part in discussing private Bills in this House except when they had seemed to him to be matters really of public importance. There was, he thought, nothing more important to that House than to discriminate between the subjects of private Bill and public Bill legislation. He did not wish to regard the particular character of the Corporation of London except so far as it was necessary in considering the transfer of these powers. What was it this Bill proposed to do? Here was a body, the Corporation of London, which was under no statutory regulation. For the security of the ratepayers all other municipal bodies were regulated by Acts of Parliament, but the Corporation of London was not so regulated. It was now proposed to confer upon this body a number of powers it did not at present exercise, therefore those powers were not under the regulations which they would be under if they were given to the ordinary Corporation. That was all he wished to say upon the distinctive character of the Corporation of London. His hon. and learned Friend had referred to one of the most important of the regulations, that was to say, with reference to the making of contracts. They knew that of all things in the world that which was most liable to abuse by bodies of this character was the dealing with contracts. The right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Committees said that the Commission of Sewers was created by a private Act. How did that affect the question? When the Commissioners of Sewers were constituted by a private Act they were placed under express restrictions for obvious public reasons. But they were now going to hand over this power to the Corporation of London without the restrictions which would be placed on any public body if it was under a statutory enactment. Could they conceive a more unfair, injudicious, and impolitic proceeding as regarded the public? They were going, in point of fact, to take away from the ratepayers, in a district of which the rateable value was £5,000,000, a security which existed in the body which now exercised those powers, restricted by the condition in question. They were about to give a premium upon these very trans- actions which had proved a scandal to bodies of this kind, by granting powers without the restrictions which were imposed upon every other municipal corporation. The fact that they were given by a private Act did not affect the question at all. If they were going to give these new powers to the Corporation of London, they should give them under the same public securities that were provided in the case of every municipal corporation. What they were about to do now was to convert the Corporation of London into a municipal corporation with all its powers but with none of its restrictions. The effect would be, by a side wind, in a private Bill—to give to a body dealing with this important area, all the powers of a municipal corporation, while absolving it from all the restrictions. This was a very serious matter, and it would not stop there. It was not a question of dealing with Corporations alone; it was dealing with a most fundamental principle of local government, and this would be a precedent to open the door to loose dealing with matters of this description. He would take it, if they liked, that the Commissioners of Sewers were a private body regulated by a private Act. That was perfectly true, but if they were going to take over these powers, which were regulated when in the hands of the Commissioners of Sewers, and hand them over to a body which would not be governed by a public Act, he did not know how far the regulation with reference to loans would go. The Corporation of London was not restrained at all by the rules which applied to other corporations with regard to the spending of public money. They were not under the Borough Funds clause, which required the consent of the ratepayers and so forth. The Commissioners of Sewers were acting under the Public Loans Act, under the Valuation (Metropolis) Act, 1869, under the Sanitary Acts, and the various Metropolitan Acts for local government, and they were going to transfer the powers of the Commissioner's of Sewers to the Corporation without any of the securities which would be given in the case of every municipal corporation. It was said that, after all, the Commissioners of Sewers were merely a deputation from the Corporation, and that was thought to be a valid argument. But was not the Watch Committee of a municipal corporation much more distinctly a deputation, because they could not appoint anybody on the Watch Committee who was not a, member of the Corporation, whilst here they might have the whole Commissioners of Sewers non-members of the Corporation. He thought it was an extremely improper thing to give the power asked for by a private Bill, and he did not sea why the Corporation of London should have any reason to fear the action of this House dealing with the matter by a public Bill. He submitted that it would be much better that in matters of this kind the Corporation should proceed by a public rather than a private Bill.


said the argument of the hon. and learned Member for York, that this Bill should be a public Bill, was not illustrated by the case quoted, for the private Bill introduced some years since by the London County Council to amend the Valuation (Metropolis) Act, 1869, was held to be wrong, because the Act of 18G9 was a public Act, whereas the Act now sought to be amended was a private Act. If the Commissioners of Sewers were agreeable to the transfer, as they were, and the Corporation of London preferred to take the responsibility, the amalgamation should be allowed. Every vestry transacted such business through a committee, and the Corporation should be allowed to do so, instead of as now leaving control of its business to a delegate authority. If any particular clause were objected to, that would be for the Committee of the House. The proposal was perfectly reasonable, and, although some Members, from hostility to the City, might raise objections, he trusted the Bill would be read a Second time, and the City thus be given the opportunity of proving the expediency of the change stated in the preamble.

The House divided:—Ayes, 204; Noes, 95.—[Division List, No. 23.]