HC Deb 21 April 1903 vol 121 cc70-83


Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

SIR EDWARD STRACHEY (Somersetshire, S.)

said he rose with some reluctance to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill. At the same time he would at once say that he did not do so in hostility to the Bill itself or to the Company, but because he felt that this was the only opportunity he would have of raising a question of great interest not only to his constituents but to the agricultural industry throughout the length and breadth of the land: the question of railway rates. He also raised this question on the Second Reading of this Bill because the President of the Board of Agriculture, in a speech to the farmers at a meeting at Leicester on the 12th January last, said— If the companies did not treat them fairly, when the companies came before Parliament every year for fresh powers agriculturists should make their grievances known by their representatives in Parliament That was a direct invitation to Members who represented agricultural constituencies to take the course he now took, otherwise the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would have a perfect right to say the farmers were not willing to help themselves because those whom they sent to represent them there would not take the opportunity of raising questions of this sort which deeply affected those whom they represented. On the other hand he admitted it was a matter of great difficulty to attack. He was not now attacking the Great Western Railway, because everyone knew the Railway Association governed this matter. He was attacking the whole railway system. The President of the Board of Agriculture in the same speech said, upon this point— There was no doubt much injustice, but it was difficult to do much in the matter because railway companies had so much influence in the House of Commons. That being so, he opposed this Bill not so much in the hope of getting the alteration he had asked for as regards the carriage of milk in particular, but rather to make use of this opportunity of raising that question and also of rates for agricultural produce generally. Up to last year the Company, though carrying milk at owner's risk at half the rates allowed by the Act of 1891 at Company's risk under very strict regulations, did not enforce them, and gave compensation for milk lost in transit—generally one half of its value. The Act of 1891 which applied generally to all railway companies, sanctioned a charge of what in these days are practically prohibitive rates, and the consequence has been that the railway companies introduced new rates called "owner's risk" rates, the conditions of which were— The Company will not undertake either the collection or delivery of milk. The Senders and Consignees must assist in the loading and unloading of the cans when the milk is carried at the Reduced Rate. Two Rates are in operation for the carriage of milk:—One the Ordinary Rate charged when the Company accept the ordinary liability of a Railway Company with respect to the carriage of perishable merchandise by passenger train; the other a Reduced Rate adopted when the Sender agrees to relieve the Company and all other Companies or persons over whose lines the traffic may pass, or in whose possession the same may be during any portion of the transit, from all liability for loss, damage, misdelivery, delay or detention, either with respect to the milk or the milk cans when full or empty, except upon proof that such loss, damage, misdelivery, delay, or detention arose from wilful misconduct on the part of the Company's servants. Now it was utterly impossible for the farmer to prove that any loss that occurred was owing to the wilful misconduct of the company's servants. How could a farmer living in Somerset prove any fault on the part of the company's servants at Bristol, Swindon, or London? The effect of these regulations had been to put the farmer entirely into the hands of the railway companies, and the reason no effort had been made to attack the companies was that these restrictions had not been put in force until recently, although the companies had always had power to enforce them. It had been contended by some companies that they had been in the habit of paying compensation for the loss of churns; that was to say, where a churn, whether empty or full, had entirely disappeared whilst in the company's possession, the company had paid compensation not only for the milk but the churn as well; but this the farmers denied, and some had told him that although they had lost a considerable number of churns they had had no compensation. Another question that arose with regard to this milk rate was that the railway company said they carried this milk at great inconvenience to themselves, and in fact that they had lost money on its carriage in large quantities at owners' risk; and another thing was, that it was carried in a way which prohibited it being sent in small quantities, because there is a minimum quantity of twelve gallons. If a farmer wished to send a small quantity to a private family, say four gallons, the company charged him 3d. a gallon. Four gallons sent 100 miles would cost 3d. a gallon instead of Id. per gallon. In bringing forward this matter he was supported by the North East Somerset Farmers' Club, the Somerset and Gloucestershire Dairy Farmers' Association, and Somerset Chamber of Agriculture, who have ail proposed resolutions condemning this new practice of the company. It was on behalf of these bodies and of the milk sellers of Somerset that I approached the Great Western Railway with the following three proposals:—1. The Great Western Railway Company to revert to their former practice of considering claims for milk lost in transit, and not to refuse compensation. 2. The company to pay full compensation for milk churns lost or damaged while under their control. 3. The company to compensate for loss incurred owing to milk churns being put out at the wrong station. The House would agree that these were not very onerous obligations to put upon the company, and seem only to be reasonable. In fact they had accepted the first proposal but had qualified it to a great extent. As to proposal 2 they accepted half of it only, and as regards proposal 3 they refused to accept it altogether; and he had no doubt they were acting for the Railway Association in this matter. They had said that— While maintaining the provisions of the owner's risk consignment notes when milk is so conveyed, the Great Western Railway will not refuse to consider claims for milk lost in transit, under exceptional circumstances. The Great Western Railway will not consider the provisions of the owner's risk consignment note as disentitling traders to compensation where churns of milk are lost while under control of the Company.


The hon. Member is taking a very unusual course in discussing the details of risks on contracts of this sort on the Second Reading of an omnibus Bill.


Then I will leave that part of the question and go on at once to refer to what has been said by the Great Western Railway. The hon. Gentleman continuing said the company contended that, having regard to the fact that the average retail price of milk was 1s. 4d. per gallon, the price they charged for carriage was not excessive, and that the farmers ought to be able to obtain a profitable payment for the milk they supplied. Could any statement be more misleading? While it might be true that the retailer got that in the West End of London, it was perfectly well known that the farmers had to be content with from 5d. to 7d. per gallon, and the margin of profit was so small that he felt any increase in the rate or any change in the conditions under which milk was carried by railway companies. It was a matter of great difference to him whether he paid a farthing or a halfpenny a gallon for milk sent to the Metropolis. Again, what encouragement did the railway companies offer to farmers to supply the consumers direct, to the advantage of both, and so do away with the middle-man. None at all, for the Great Western rates for small quantities of milk were prohibitive at owner's risk, minimum of twelve gallons, e.g., five gallons over 100 miles at 1s.¾d. equal to 3d. a gallon. To this must be added 1s. for delivery, or equal to over 5d a gallon, or nearly equal to the cost of the milk itself. Great Eastern rates equivalent were 1d. per gallon and worked out at 4¾d. a gallon for carriage, while value of milk was only 5d. to 7d. a gallon.

But it was not only for milk that the Great Western Railway rates were so high. Take their rates (owner's risk), with free delivery in usual limits, for farm and dairy produce not exceeding thirty miles, and compare them under the same conditions with other railways they found that the Great Western Railway for 4d. carried 4 lbs. for not exceeding thirty miles, while the Great Eastern Railway for 4d. carried 8 lbs., or double, for the same distance. The Great Western Railway carried for 5d. 6 lbs. for the same distance, the Great Eastern Railway carried 16 lbs. for 5d. Again, comparing three railways carrying these same goods for thirty miles with the Great Western Railway, the Great Eastern Railway carried 72 lbs. for 6d., the London and North Western Railway carried 48 lbs. for 6d., and the Great Northern Railway carried 48 lbs. for 6d. The Great Western Railway carried 24 lbs. for 6d. He would give two more examples. The Great Western Railway rate for 32 lbs. was 7d., while the Great Eastern Railway carried 88 lbs. for that amount, and carried one cwt. for 9d., while the Great Western Railway's rate for one cwt. was 1s. 5d., and the London and Brighton, Great Central, London and North Western, and the Great Northern rate was 1s. 2d. per cwt. The Great Western Railway rate for feeding stuffs is arbitrary from Bristol to Clutton ten miles, the rate is 2s. 7d. for two ton lots of corn, and 3s. 4d. for two ton lots of cake, the same in either case whether in sacks or loose.

But this question of railway rates and owner's risk was not only an agricultural question, for he noticed that the Report of the Council of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce referred to it. The Report said:— The action of railway companies in asking for a declaration freeing them from considerable liability, which as common carriers the traders consider legally belonged to the railway companies, has been the cause of meetings of Chambers of Commerce in various parts of the country, when the course adopted by the companies was strongly condemned, and it was urged that it was calculated if persisted in to inflict serious injury on local industries. It was also resolved to recommend the commercial community not to sign the general agreement for goods to be carried at reduced rates at owner's risk, pending results of negotiations with the companies. Chambers of Commerce were highly organised bodies and could make their voice heard, but not so the scattered agricultural interest, and their only resource was this House. He might be told by the representative of the Board of Trade who deals with this matter that they could appeal to the Railway and Canal Commissioners on this question, but how could a farmer go to that expensive procedure. That had been recognised in the case of Ireland. Would that the English farmer had the protection afforded the Irish farmer by Section 17 of the Agriculture and Technical Instruction (Ireland) Act, 1899, which provided that the Irish Board of Agriculture might appear as complainant on behalf of any persons aggrieved in reference to any matter which the Railway and Canal Commissioners had jurisdiction to hear and determine. For what use is it for the Government to tell the English farmer that he can appeal himself at his own cost to those Commissioners? They might not have the President of the Board of Trade on their side, but they knew they had the sympathy of the President of the Board of Agriculture, and it was upon these grounds, and because the farmers were unable to speak for themselves, that he begged to move that this Bill be read a second time this day six months.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months.'"—(Sir Edward Strachey.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

MR. DICKINSON (Somersetshire, Wells)

said he was bound to say he was to a certain extent in agreement with the hon. Baronet, but on the other hand he lived in the district that the Great Western Railway traversed and was a constant passenger on that line, and must bear witness to the good accommodation they afforded to their passengers, and the courtesy shown by the officials. There was no doubt that in the rural districts they looked for some improvements in the rates now charged by the Great Western Railway, and as a representative of one of the greatest dairy districts, perhaps the largest in this country, he could not allow this Bill to pass without according some support to the hon. Baronet in the contention that he had laid before the House. As the hon. Baronet has said, because of the speech he made at Devizes and other places, some confidence has been placed in the President of the Board of Agriculture. Opposition was coming to the Great Western Railway, because a very important railway was now in course of promotion between London and Bristol, and while on the one hand so good was the passenger accommodation of the Great Western Railway that he could hardly imagine any system or new railway being able to compete with it, yet this new railway, if it was to live at all, could only be assumed to be able to live out of the goods traffic, and therefore one would naturally suppose there was some cause of complaint with regard to the treatment of agriculture in the rural districts. There was one other matter he should allude to on this occasion, and that was that Parliament always viewed with great jealousy any amalgamation of railway companies. There was in this Bill a clause, Clause 44, which alluded to the amalgamation with the Great Western Railway of the Ely Valley Railway, and he believed this particular clause was the exact case that was brought against the Great Western Railway, because by that clause the rates now charged by the Ely Valley Railway would be swept away, and the new rates of the Great Western Railway were to be substituted. That was a point which might possibly be explained by the fact that the Ely Valley Railway was a very small railway, and that there was no object, therefore, in unduly pressing the point; but it was a matter which was closely connected with the Bill in question, because they were anxious to obtain a reduction of rates and they were anxious that the Great Western Railway should bring that forward.

MR. LLEWELLYN (Somerset, N.)

said he could understand the position taken up by the hon. Baronet opposite, but not the position taken by his hon. friend. In reply to the remarks of the hon. Baronet, he might say he did not speak only as a director, but should like to appeal to the House as a trader, farmer, and milk-seller for a great number of years. The hon. Baronet opposite had carefully omitted one point from his remarks. He had spoken of the milk rates of the Great We tern Railway and the system of introducing "owner's risk" rates for milk. He would remind him that prior to 1888 there was no obligation on the part of the railway companies to carry milk except as goods, and certainly no obligation to carry it by passenger train. Then came a time later on, when, by an order of the Board of Trade, following the Bill of 1888, arrangements were made with regard to the carriage of milk by passenger train. It then became necessary, so far as the Great Western Railway was concerned, that there should be not only the ordinary company's rate, but there should be also the rate known as "owner's risk rate." When these rates were first instituted in 1893, the rate for a district within 100 miles of London, where most of the milk consigned to Paddington came from, for twelve gallons was 1s. 7d. That was the company's risk. Now came the price under the owner's risk. As against 1s. 7d. company's risk the owner's risk was 1s. 4½d. In that same year, in consequence of representations made to the company, a further reduction was made in the owner's risk rate which was reduced to 1s. 3d. Again, in 1896 there was a further reduction in consequence of the statement that was made that the railway company were called upon to refund next to nothing on account of damage done, and the owner's risk rate is now 1s., the company's risk rate remaining as it always has 1s. 7d. Thus in three years a reduction of 25 per cent. has been made on the carriage of milk. In 1886 the course taken by the farmers and traders was different to that which had been taken by the hon. Baronet to-night. Then the farmers and traders of the West of England approached the directors of the Great Western Railway and met them in conference, with the result that, as he had said, the rate from Bristol and other places was reduced by 25 per cent. in three years. There was all the difference in the world between the owner's risk and the company's risk rate. The owner's risk rate was a lower rate because, when the owner took the risk, he signed every day an agreement mentioning the amount of milk in his churn, and he had to agree to certain conditions which were published and which, every morning and afternoon, either he or his agent had to sign before the milk could be sent away. The hon. Baronet opposite, as a milk seller, had signed those conditions for many years, and he had never objected.


Yes, I did, but I was forced to sign them because you would not take my milk else.


The hon. Baronet signed those conditions again and again and there was not the slightest doubt that he was satisfied with the agreement that was made. In 1882 the Great Western Railway carried 750,993 gallons, and in 1892, ten years after, they carried 1,089,156 gallons, which will show to some extent the amount of our milk-carrying trade in the West of England, and anybody who knows anything about it will appreciate the difficulty of carrying such a huge amount of milk without accidents occasionally happening. What really has happened is this, that when these rates were reduced from time to time the farmers unfortunately did not get the full benefit of the reductions the fact being that whenever the company reduced its rates the London dealers lowered their price to farmers, and farmers submitted without a word, and so really gained nothing by the railway concession. The whole profit going into the pockets of the dealers. With regard to the price of milk, the average price that a farmer obtained was in winter 8d. per gallon, and in summer 5d. per gallon. The ordinary charge in London was something like 1s. 4d. per gallon, or double as much as the farmer got in winter, and three times as much as he got in summer. The public did not complain, and now the House of Commons was asked to say that it was the railway company's fault that the farmers did not get the benefit of the charges. Until the farmers combined together and sent up their milk in the way that other produce was sent up, they would remain at this disadvantage. The fact of the matter was that his hon. friend wanted the advantage of the company's risk at the owner's risk rate. He admitted, on behalf of the railway company, that at times there had been irregularities. But in speaking of the damage to churns and so forth, it had to be remembered that the churns were not entirely in the hands of the railway company. The agreement was that they should be put on the trucks, and that assistance should be given by the farmer's men. When the milk was in transit it was undoubtedly in the charge of the company, but the company had nothing whatever to do with the delivery of it, and anyone who had been at any of the large termini in London in the early morning would have seen the reckless way in which these churns were knocked about. Damage must ensue, but it was not fair to the company to say that the damage was done entirely by their servants. He did not ignore the fact that certain cases of hardship had arisen. Some time ago it was the habit of the company's servants to give compensation carelessly, or to recommend cases for compensation for damage done when the cans had been sent at owner's risk. The attention of the servants was called to the fact by the chief officers, and possibly in some cases they went to the other extreme. The public had only to make their cases known to the chief officers, and they would receive fair attention. This Bill was not a Bill simply to create charges for milk or other rates; it was an omnibus Bill involving an expenditure of a million of money. The question of rates did not arise except indirectly. With regard to new works that were to be carried out, powers were being sought to put them with respect to milk rates in the same position as the rest of the system of the Great Western Railway. In that respect, and in that respect only, could the question of rates be brought into the discussion of the Bill. It was much against the wishes of the Great Western Railway Company Directors, and of the officers of the company, that difficulties should arise, and if hon. Gentlemen representing those engaged in the trade would only write direct to the chief officers, he could guarantee that they would not get simply an official answer, but that men would be sent immediately into the neighbourhood to see into any complaints. For these reasons he did not see that hon. Members would have any reason to complain if they allowed the Bill to pass. He therefore hoped that the ordinary course would be followed, and that the Second Reading would now be allowed to be taken, and the Bill sent upstairs for full inquiry.

LORD EDMUND FITZMAURICE (Wiltshire, Cricklade)

said that anyone listening to the debate would naturally suppose that this was a Bill containing a new schedule of rates for the carriage of milk, whereas it was a Bill for conferrin; powers on the Great Western Railway Company in respect of their own undertakings and upon that company and certain other companies whose names were recited in respect of undertakings in which they were jointly interested, and upon the Fishguard and Rossland Railways and Harbours Company in respect of their undertaking, and for amalgamating the Ely Valley Railway Company with the Great Western Railway Company, and other purposes. There was an expenditure of about a million and a quarter of money involved in this Bill, and it would be a very serious disaster indeed to that part of England with which those Members who had spoken were connected if the Bill were not passed. He therefore thought his hon. friend had brought up this question more by way of a protest than with any serious intention of taking a division. But with regard to the specific point to which he had referred he had not heard there was any serious discontent; certainly nothing had yet reached him from those whom he represented. It might, of course, be said that although he was not a Great Western Director, he was tarred with the Great Western brush, because a part of his constituency comprised the large town of Swindon. But a large number of his constituents were agriculturists, and from the circumstance that his constituency was partly agricultural and partly urban he claimed to be able to look at this question in an impartial manner. He quite admitted and it had been admitted by the hon. Member who had just spoken, and by the Great Western Railway Company themselves, that from time to time there had been cases of hardship owing to misunderstandings with regard to this question of owner's risk. But while that was admitted, the Great Western Railway Company had gone three-fourths of the way, as he understood, towards meeting the views of his hon. friend. Every member of the House who had seen the unloading of these enormous numbers of milk-cans at Paddington Station must be perfectly aware that there was a great risk of loss and injury; that these cans got knocked and battered about by rough handling, and that naturally claims for compensation from time to time arose. But it had also to be borne in mind on the other hand, as the statistics which had been given of the gigantic increase of this traffic showed, that these rates had not had the effect of paralysing or checking the milk traffic in the West of England to any appreciable degree. On the contrary, if anything, agriculturists in the West of England were rather inclined to lament that the whole of the country was now being put down to grass, that the making of cheese and butter was being entirely abandoned, and that the farmer thought of absolutely nothing except producing milk, putting it into these cans, and sending it up to London. He would not discuss whether that was a wise or a foolish thing to do, but it showed that although there were undoubtedly cases, as the Great Western Railway Company themselves admitted, of occasional hardship, there could not be anything in these milk rates which could be said to paralyse or check that great industry which was increasing by leaps and bounds. That being so, he hoped the Bill would be allowed to go to Second Reading. If it was desired to raise any of the points to which reference had been made he submitted that the natural and proper course would be to take any legitimate opportunity there might be to thresh them out in the Committee upstairs.

MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Staffordshire, Lichfield)

said the whole point that his hon. friend had raised was that the Great Western Railway was extending its system over which it had a monopoly, and that they would put their high rates on to the new railways that were being built, and also on to the railway which was to be amalgamated, and on which the present rates were lower than those of the Great Western Railway Company. It had been suggested that his hon. friend and others who had grievances should go direct to the directors and represent them. That was all very well for isolated cases, but it was to the general principle of high rates that they desired to draw attention. The very people who could not go to the railway directors were the small farmers, and the small people, who were the great sufferers, and it was to those people that they wanted to extend the general principle of the reduction of rates for milk and agricultural produce throughout the country. He looked upon this as a national question, because what applied to this railway would apply to other railways, and the House, by allowing railways to extend their systems, and to apply their scales of rates and charges over agricultural districts, prevented new railways being the benefit they ought to be to the agricultural parts of the country. While he hoped his hon. friend would not go to a division, he looked forward in future days to seeing some curtailment of these powers instead of their extension.


asked leave to withdraw the Amendment. He had no hostility at all to the Great Western Railway Bill as a Bill; he had simply taken this, opportunity of raising a question which affected not only his constituents, but also the farmers at large in the West of England.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.