HC Deb 29 April 1902 vol 107 cc174-84


Mr. PIRIE, Member for, Aberdeen (North Division)

rose in his place and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz., "the act of the Secretary for Scotland in interfering with the action of the Commissioners holding an inquiry under the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act, 1899, in the case of the Aberdeen Tramways Provisional Order, by taking upon himself the appointment of the place of meeting, which by the statute is in the discretion of the said Commissioners only"; but the pleasure of the House not having been signified, Mr. SPEAKER called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than forty Members having accordingly risen,

(4.15.) MR. PIRIE

(who, in consequence of loud cries of "Divide," was almost inaudible) said there was something far more important in this question than appeared on the face of the Motion. It concerned a great principle approved by the House in connection with the devolution of its work [Cries of "Divide!"]


Order, order! The hon. Member has obtained, by the process open to him under Standing Orders, the right of addressing the House, and I trust hon. Members will accord him a hearing.


said he could assure the House that it was far from his wish to waste its time, but a great principle was at stake, which concerned the right of the people of Scotland to manage their own affairs and exercise the whole power given to Scotland by the House two years ago. He would not interfere on a local question were a great principle not at stake, and he would be as brief as he could. But there was a great principle at stake on this question, in regard to which the mere example of Aberdeen was but a way of bringing on a discussion so as to avoid the creating of a precedent. The matter in brief was this: Two years ago, by an Act passed by the House, power was given to obtain Provisional Orders for private Bills in Scotland by Commissioners who were appointed to visit various localities in order to settle on the spot whether parties applying for Provisional Orders should obtain them or not. But this year a new practice had for the first time come into operation. It had come before the House in the first instance last Thursday owing to a Question put by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Aberdeen, who asked whether the Commissioners in the present instance were conducting their inquiries locally or in Edinburgh. He was sure the Lord Advocate would acquit him of in any way accusing him of any mala fides in the answer to that Question, but the statement he made, however unintentionally, conveyed a completely false idea of what had actually taken place. The right hon. Gentleman had said that the Order in question was one of a group remitted for inquiry to the Commissioners, embracing schemes for the North-East and South-West of Scotland, that Edinburgh was selected as the most convenient and central place, with the concurrence of the Chairman of the Commissioners, and, he held, with the approval of the great majority of the parties interested. These three statements, he was afraid, did not tally with the facts as he understood them. It was completely at variance with the spirit of the Act that several schemes should be included in one large group, and that schemes actually from the two most opposite parts of Scotland should be settled at Edinburgh. The object of the Act was to obviate a number of witnesses having to travel, and to enable the Commissioners, from local knowledge acquired on the spot, to settle more expeditiously and with greater economy the point at issue before them. The Lord Advocate himself in 1898, in introducing the Act, spoke of one of its objects as being to prevent the continuance of, as he called it, smaller interests being bludgeoned by great Corporations. This act of the present Secretary for Scotland, in settling that this Inquiry should take place at Edinburgh, placed the smaller interests in exactly the unfavourable position which the object of the Act was to prevent. Today they had another story. They were told that neither the supporters nor the opponents of the measure were consulted in the selection of the place. So far as his knowledge went, the statement of the Lord Advocate on Thursday was inaccurate. He said also that this had the concurrence of the Chairman of the Commissioners. The Chairman had been interviewed, and he completely denied ever having been consulted or having concurred in any way with the decision of the Secretary of State. Therefore, they had what amounted to a gross illegality at the present moment going on. They had also a grave injustice to the localities concerned. Something like seventy-two witnesses had been brought up from Buckie and its neighbourhood to waste about a fortnight of their time at Edinburgh. He regretted that the hon. Member for Banffshire was not in his place, or he would be supporting him. As fat as the Aberdeen tramway scheme was concerned, some leading citizens had been obliged to waste their time ten days or a fortnight in Edinburgh for exactly the same purpose; whereas four Commissioners could have gone down to Aberdeen and held an Inquiry there, much more expeditiously and much more economically. He felt quite certain that what had taken place would turn out to have been an entire mistake, but it was more for an opportunity of giving the Lord Advocate a chance of rectifying his error, and as a protest which he thought it was very important to make at once, in order to prevent any repetition of the occurrence, that he took this step. It might be said, of course, that the increased fees to counsel for going over to Aberdeen or Buckie would in some way have been saved by holding the Inquiry at a central place such as Edinburgh. But any such argument as that was of no account in view of the enormously increased expense incurred by the witnesses being obliged to travel up to the central position. Then again, the amount of evidence which would have been required, had the Commissioners been on the spot, as regarded the Buckie harbour, or had they been required to visit the actual ground of the Aberdeen tramway, would have been infinitely less than under the present circumstances. He trusted they would have an explanation of the circumstances attending this question, and avoid a repetition of the matter.

MR. CALDWELL (Lanarkshire, Mid)

seconded the Motion. He was sure the Lord Advocate would be the last to deny that this was a most important question. The whole object of remitting Bills to Scotland to be considered was to have the Inquiry held in the locality affected, and Parliament definitely decided that the Commissioners alone should fix the place of Inquiry. The Lord Advocate had told them that the Secretary for Scotland felt it was necessary to issue some preliminary notice as to the place of Inquiry, and that he had therefore taken it upon himself to fix, along with the Chairman of the Commissioners, the place where the Inquiry was to be held. The Commissioners could surely have held a preliminary meeting in London to fix the place of the Inquiry. Local inquiry was the basis of the Act of Parliament——


Order, order! I should not have allowed this Motion to be introduced if I had thought it was to be argued on the merits of the question whether a particular case ought to have been tried in Edinburgh or Aberdeen. It was only admitted as a matter of urgent public importance on the ground that the Secretary for Scotland was alleged to be introducing a new practice for the first time, contrary to the tenour of the Statute.


apologised for having gone into that matter. But he wished to make it clear that the selection of the place of Inquiry was left by the Act solely to the Commissioners, and the Secretary for Scotland had no right or power to take it into his hands. There had been an unwarrantable interference with the intentions of Parliament in the matter, and he hoped that in future the practice would be in conformity with the Act, and that the intentions of the Legislature would not again be frustrated in this manner.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Pirie.)


I do not complain of the tone in which this matter has been raised, though I think the hon. Member might have found a day more convenient for it. I am rather in a difficulty in speaking about the interview with the Chairman which has been referred to. The reporter's idea of what Lord Clifford's views are, may not be precisely the same as his Lordship's, and I do not exactly know how to treat the interview. It is quite impossible for his Lordship either to have denied or affirmed its accuracy, because it was only published in the Aberdeen Journal yesterday, and as Lord Clifford is at this moment sitting in Edinburgh, it is quite obvious that he has not had time to take public notice of the matter at all. I can assure the hon. Member that the last thing in the world that the Secretary for Scotland wishes is in any way to interfere with the undoubted province of the Commissioners in fixing the Inquiry, and no such thing has been done in this case. If hon. Members compare the dates they will see that that is so. Of course it is very easy to ask why the Commissioners should not have met in London. In some cases they might, but in others they could not very well, because unfortunately, of course, the Scotch Office has no jurisdiction over the Commissioners to keep them in London. It so unfortunately happened that the names of the Commissioners were published in London just at the time when they were all going away from London, and it became consequently a matter of practical impossibility to get a meeting in London. Hon. Members will at once appreciate that it was impossible to send Commissioners down to Scotland and say that the day after they arrived they were to have an Inquiry at such and such a place. Ample notice must be given to opponents and promoters of Bills when they are to have their cases heard and where. Everybody will agree with that. I will give the dates. The names of the Commissioners and the noble Chairman were published on 20th March, and that was the first intimation that the Scotch Office or anyone else had. On the 21st March Lord Clifford, having been nominated Chairman, called at the Scotch Office and was told of the group of Bills which it had been arranged should be taken by the Commission. That did not necessarily mean that the whole group was to be, tried at one place. Lord Clifford was told that the group included the Buckie Extension, Aberdeen Suburban Tramways, the Caledonian Railway Act, the Glasgow Corporation Acts, and the Glasgow and Rothesay Tramways. He was also put in possession of all the information that the Scotch Office had, as to where the promoters and opponents of the various Bills considered would be the most convenient places to take them. That was the meaning of my first answer. When I spoke of the majority of those interested, I did not refer to the one Bill the hon. Member was asking about, but to the whole group, and I believe they all wished to have them tried at Edinburgh with the exception of the Aberdeen Tramways. Undoubtedly the information of the Scotch Office was that the promoters of the Buckie Bill wished the case tried in Edinburgh, a letter to that effect having been received from the permanent counsel to the Private Bill Commissioners. The Secretary for Scotland discussed the matter with the Chairman, and said that on the whole he thought Edinburgh would be the most convenient place. In that view the Chairman acquiesced. That was the 21st of March, and either on that day or the next the Chairman went abroad, and he did not come back till four days before the Inquiry opened, so that it was impossible to get a meeting of the Commissioners. During that time, no doubt, an intimation was made on behalf of the Aberdeen Tramways people that they would sooner have the case heard in Aberdeen. But the Secretary for Scotland was put in a difficulty. He could only do the best he could without consulting the Commissioners. He said the matter had been mentioned to the Chairman, and the hearing had been fixed for Edinburgh, and he could not hold out any particular hope that that determination would be changed. More than that he did not and could not say. Then came the Easter recess. Lord Clifford came back on 18th April and called at the Scotch Office, and the Inquiry was to open on the 22nd. He was told when he called that this representation had been made, and there the matter ended. Accordingly the Inquiry was opened at Edinburgh. The Buckie case began on the 22nd of April, and lasted until the 28th. Nothing more, of course, could have been done about the Buckie case, because that was the first Order on the Paper. But I should like to point out that if the Aberdeen Tramway people had still kept to their views that it was expedient that the Commissioners should shift to Aberdeen, there was no reason whatever why they should not have made application to the Commissioners and asked them to go to Aberdeen, and there was certainly no reason at all why the request should not be acceded to. If this system is to be worked at all we must make provisional arrangements, so to speak, at the Scotch Office. If we communicate those to the Commissioners—although it is perfectly true that the Commissioners should themselves determine the question—I do not see that there is any absolute necessity for a formal meeting. So far as the Aberdeen case was concerned, there was still time to make the application. If it was not made, I cannot help thinking that the promoters must be held to have acquiesced in the general arrangement, and the provisional arrangement became permanent. There is absolutely no view on the part of the Scotch Office, or any anxiety, to use the Private Bill Legislation Act for the purpose of making a centralised tribunal in Edinburgh; nor had counsel anything to do with fixing the place of meeting. Their fees would be precisely the same in Edinburgh as at Aberdeen, and their interests would be the same, because there was nothing else going on at Edinburgh, and I suppose they would just as soon be at Aberdeen. I can assure my hon. friend that the counsel are the very last people who are considered at the Scotch Office. It is absolutely necessary to first make a provisional arrangement. The arrangement was made with the concurrence of the Chairman, and though there was not a formal meeting, the Chairman and the Commissioners practically adopted the arrangement, and though I admit that the first Order could not be changed, so far as Aberdeen was concerned there was nothing in the world to prevent the Aberdeen people on the first day of the week making an application to the Commissioners to hold the Inquiry in their case at Aberdeen.

(4.30.) MR. BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.)

said the matter was an excessively simple one, because it turned on the words of the statute, which said— The Commissioners shall hold their Inquiry at such place in Scotland as they may determine, with due regard to the subject matter of the proposed Order and the localities to which the Commissions relate. The case made by his hon. friend and by those who had put questions on the subject was this: The statute had not been observed. It said the Commissioners should fix the place. The Commissioners had not been consulted, and the place of Inquiry had been fixed without reference to them. The Lord Advocate said the Chairman had been consulted. That was true, but the Chairman was not the same thing, after all, as the Commissioners. In the next place, the Lord Advocate said the Chairman went abroad. He (Mr. Bryce) thought he went abroad because he supposed the matter had been settled at the interview he had with the Secretary for Scotland, and he considered that, after the expression of the opinion of the Scotch office, he had nothing more to do with the matter. The Lord Advocate asked, why did not the Aberdonians remonstrate with them when they found that the Inquiry was not to be held at Aberdeen. But they did express their opinion in the first instance. They said they wished the Inquiry to be held there, and the only reason why they did not continue their remonstrance after the Commissioners had begun to sit was that they also thought the matter had been settled, and that it was no use trying to alter it. That, after all, was the long and short of the matter. He was glad to accept the assurance which the Lord Advocate gave that the Scottish office had no view that these inquiries ought as a rule to be held at Edinburgh. He was sure that statement would be received with satisfaction, because there was no denying that what had happened in this case had caused a certain amount of disquiet, and had made people feel that the beneficial effects which were expected for Scotland—because this was by no means a mere question of Aberdeen—from bringing the hearing of those cases to the very places which were affected, to the very doors of the parties and witnesses, was considered to be a great boon. That was the boon which was expected from the Act, and if it had been lost through the precedent set in this case, there would have been general regret and disappointment. He was glad to find that the Lord Advocate repudiated any such construction as had been put upon the action of the Scotch Office, and had practically admitted that a mistake had been made, and he hoped that in future steps would be taken to guard against any similar occurrence. If it was difficult to have an actual meeting of the Commissioners—although he thought the statute contemplated a meeting—there should be an opportunity for ascertaining the opinions of all of them. He was quite sure that if a thing of this kind was to happen again there would be very great disappointment and regret. However, after the explanations they had heard, although they might regret any inconvenience which had been caused in this case, he thought they would all feel that the discussion had been of use, and that the real intent and meaning and working of the Act had been elucidated by it.

MR. CROMBIE (Kincardineshire)

thought some assurance should be given that there would be no repetition of this procedure. A breach of the law had been committed, and steps should be taken in future to see that the Commissioners discharged their duty, and that a meeting should be held in London to determine where they should sit.

DR. FARQUHARSON (Aberdeenshire, W.)

was very glad to hear the assurance from the Lord Advocate that this precedent would not be followed in future. He considered, with his hon. friend, that the Secretary for Scotland had flagrantly broken the law, and acted absolutely and distinctly against the statute, and knowing something of local conditions he could tell the House that very grave inconvenience and expense had been incurred on account of this decision of the Commissioners to allow themselves to be overborne by the central authority in London, instead of asserting their authority and coming to the conclusion on their own knowledge of the localities where the Inquiry should be held.


said it was incumbent on the House to see that a bad precedent was not established in this matter. The Scotch Office had no right to interfere, and their action was ultra vires, for the Act distinctly said that the Commissioners, and the Commissioners alone, should settle the place at which the Inquiry should be held. He hoped that in future the Secretary for Scotland would not interfere in these matters, but he was afraid there was a clique of experts in Edinburgh for whom the Scottish Office desired to make provision.

One of the objects of the Act transferring those Inquiries to Scotland was to save expense, but if Edinburgh was to be the scene of them, well, then the work might just as well have been kept in London from an economical point of view. He hoped the Scottish Office would make it their business to sot the Commissioners right when they attempted to go wrong.

MR. BLAKE (Longford, S.)

said his colleagues were watching anxiously and jealously the working of this Act, because there were by no means obscure intimations that a similar scheme might be made applicable to the country in which they were more deeply interested. He could assure the Government that nothing would be less calculated to favourably introduce a measure of that character to the consideration of the Irish people than for the Irish Office to copy the example of the Scottish Office. The discussion had been useful and he hoped it would be fruitful. Under the circumstances he hoped the Amendment would not be pressed to a division.


I have no desire to press this question to a division, as I now understand it is admitted that a mistake has been made but that it will not occur again. I ask leave, therefore, to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.