HC Deb 24 July 1899 vol 75 cc174-8

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [4th July], "That the Bill be now read the third time."

Question again proposed.

MR. J. E. ELLIS (Nottingham, Rushcliffe)

, said it was admitted that the Bill touched wider issues than those relating to Scotland, for it dealt with matters connected with the root of the whole Private Bill system of the three kingdoms—a system which was not only most interesting, but one of the most admirable parts of the Parliamentary Constitution; a system which had grown up through generations, and, under some of the most distinguished Members of Parliament, had been brought to a state in which it was superior to any machinery for the purpose in any other Parliament in the world. As to local inquiries, except for the smallest and simplest matters, they were very unsatisfactory methods. For important matters they must have the machinery of a Private Bill Committee. As to this Bill, it was an attenuated shadow, and there never was a time when Parliament ought to keep a firmer grasp on Private Bill Legislation than the present. He firmly believed that many of the ideas and hopes of those who had supported this Bill would turn out to be fallacious, but he hoped that the Bill would fulfil at any rate some of the expectations of those who brought it forward.

MR. PARKER SMITH (Lanarkshire, Partick)

I think this Bill is a very interesting example of the methods and character of this House. The main argument which used to be advanced in favour of this Bill was the great amount of pressure upon the time of this House. This argument, however, cannot be used in favour of the present Bill. The House of Commons has shown itself extremely jealous of parting with a shred of its power, and the main effect of this Bill will be to put fresh duties upon the officers of this House, and also upon its Members. We have shown, in dealing with this question, a profound distrust of everybody outside except ourselves. My hon. friend is still jealous of the action of the Secretary for Scotland, but his position is changed very much indeed, for he has now no voice in choosing the Commissioners of the Parliamentary Panel, for the choice rests with the Chairmen of the two Houses, in conjunction with the Secretary for Scotland. I do not know how this measure will please the gentlemen in the country who have been most urgent in their demand for this Bill, for they have always demanded a purely Scotch tribunal under the control of the Scotch Secretary. I think we shall all watch the working of this Bill with very great interest, and we shall see whether its effect is more beneficial than the alternative plan of proceeding through the ordinary channel by a Provisional Order. I think those who wish to improve the process of Private Bill legislation will have to proceed in other directions, for one thing stands out clearly in the course of the discussion of this Bill, and that is that there is no real desire or willingness on the part of this House to give up its control over Private Bill legislation. By extending and facilitating the Provisional Order system, by reducing the fees of the two Houses and also the formalities and notices; by cutting down the expenses in every direction, and in other ways making the position of opponents with small interests easier to defend; and by considering whether a single hearing before a Joint Committee of the two Houses cannot be so surrounded with precautions as to do justice to all interests without the necessity of rehearing before a second Committee—if this is done, these matters will be more beneficial than local inquiries. I have regretted very much in these Debates to notice how few English Members have taken part, for this is not merely a Scotch question, because it concerns all the throe kingdoms. I think English Members will find in this measure a useful object lesson, which will show that the best way of dealing with this question is by reducing the expenditure and retaining the whole power in the hands of Parliament. By simplifying procedure and reducing the expenses you will be conferring the greatest benefit upon the country at large.

MR. LEWIS (Flint Boroughs)

There is one argument in favour of this Bill with which I find myself in most cordial agreement. The hon. Gentleman opposite stated that it was desirable to reduce the fees of both Houses. The fees at present are unnecessarily large, and they act unquestionably as a deterrent to small corporations and individuals coming to this House to promote Bills. I hope the outcome of this discussion will be that the fees will be reduced. There can be no doubt that there is need for a drastic change in our Private Bill procedure, and that has been felt to such an extent in Wales that when this Bill was introduced I felt that a measure of this kind should also apply to Wales, because Wales applies for a larger number of Private Bills than Scotland. The Government having refused to grant a Return of the Private Bills for Scotland and Wales, I went through the records myself, and I find that in 1897 there were twenty-three Private Bills from Wales and only nine from Scotland. I do not quote these figures for the purpose of grudging this Bill to Scotland, whatever good there may be in it, with its fearful and wonderful machinery. I am glad that Scotland in this matter is the country upon which the experiment will be performed, and I trust that Wales will derive the advantage of whatever experience may be gained in this case. In the populous and industrial districts of South Wales, owing to the development of trade and commerce, those districts which are rapidly growing in population and trade are obliged to come to this House from time to time for powers which can only be conferred upon them by Parliament. In one case, I was informed that the expenditure on one side alone amounted to no less than £180,000. What the expenditure on the other side was is not exactly known, but it is said to have been much larger. Now, I think there is a real grievance in all that money being spent in London, instead of in the locality from which the money has been taken. I venture to think that a local inquiry would have considerably lessened the expense in this particular case. I trust that, in the course of time, a Bill will be passed for Wales, not perhaps on exactly the same lines as the Bill which is now being carried for Scotland, but I hope when experience will have discovered what are the weak points and the excellent points of this Bill, that it will be applied to other parts of the United Kingdom as well. I am sure everybody must have regarded with great dissatisfaction the enormous expenditure to which certain Irish railway companies were put during the last few weeks within the walls of the House. Surely a better system can be devised than that which drags over from different parts of the United Kingdom a host of witnesses who could be examined on the spot. I am sure all hon. Members deeply regret this great waste of public money.


I confess that I am unable to remain silent after hearing the remarks which have fallen from hon. Gentlemen opposite. Many of us hoped by this Bill to have accomplished a reform in Private Bill legislation on behalf of poor people who have schemes on hand, but who find their projects thwarted by the gross and wasteful expenditure involved in bringing witnesses unnecessarily from the locality to London. This Bill comes forward, and on the Third Reading it is supported by hon. Gentlemen opposite on the ground that it can do little harm, and because it is not the same Bill which the Government laid before us in the first instance. Hon. Members opposite have said that if this proves an effectual reform they hope it will be deemed advisable to extend it to England and Ireland. Now, I do ask hon. Members if they seriously think this Bill is a suitable one to extend if Ireland. I do not think the Government are at all likely to bring forward a Bill framed on these lines for Ireland. I will not say anything more upon this question, because I have already discussed the matter upon a previous occasion, but I cannot conceive the wisdom of sending down two peers and two Members of this House to hold an inquiry in Scotland while there are men of affairs in the locality who are quite as competent to hold such inquiries, especially when after that trouble and expense the question has actually to be brought back to the House in order that it may all be gone over again. I must say that I greatly regret that the Government have not stuck more firmly to their guns, and that they have not adhered to the Bill which was at first introduced, for it was a much better Bill than the one which we are now asked I to pass.

MR. DALZIEL (Kirkcaldy)

said there were so many objections to the Bill that it was questionable whether it would not be better to wait a little longer for one that was more perfect. However, he supported the Third Reading of the Bill as a step in the direction of local control of local affairs, though he would have had Scottish Members and Scottish men of affairs to deal with Scottish Bills. One great objection was the fact that after a local inquiry had been held, if there was an appeal, the appeal was made to practically the same tribunal, sitting at Westminster, as held the local inquiry in Scotland. It was a step, however, that other Governments would have to follow in the future, and he hoped the experiment would have the success the Lord Advocate anticipated.