HC Deb 04 March 1903 vol 118 cc1430-7

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That it is expedient that a Select Committee of this House be appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords to consider and report as to the principles which should govern powers given by Bills and Provisional Orders to municipal and other local authorities for industrial enterprise within or without the area of their jurisdiction."—(Mr. Gerald Balfour.)

* SIR ALBERT ROLLIT (Islington, S.)

I do not intend to oppose, much less to obstruct, this proposal, but there are one or two remarks I desire to make. In the first place, I object to the title "Municipal Trading." It has become a common expression, but really it is a misnomer, and is not even in accord with the wording in the body of the proposal. "Municipal powers" or "works" would be much more appropriate, while "Municipal trading" is, to some extent, a pre-judgment of the question at issue. Then, if it was intended to propose the re-appointment of this Committee, it is to be regretted that so long a delay has taken place since it previously sat. There ought to have been more continuity in regard to its action and, for my part, I regret exceedingly that the sittings were suspended, because the municipal evidence vindicated in the highest degree the municipal action which has been taken, and had produced a strong impression on the minds of the members of the Committee, and I do not believe that the municipalities shrink in the slightest degree from further investigation.

Of course, private enterprise is the basis of our commercial and industrial system, and no one would wish to place any restriction upon it. On the contrary, every encouragement the law can give ought to be given to its development. But I would point out that whatever restrictions have been placed upon it, have been imposed by this House. Take the case of the Electric Lighting Acts. It has been said, and with some truth, that there have been restrictions with reference to the general adoption of electric lighting, but that has been done by this House; just as, in the same way, one may refer to the housing of the poor, as regards which this House gave a mandate to the municipalities, but, on the other hand, placed very great practical obstacles in the way of the performance of that public duty. The municipalities have done much to carry out the duties entrusted to them, in some cases under very exceptional difficulties; but admitting all that, there is still a great deal more for municipal activity to undertake.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of this country during the past century must attribute its progress and its enterprise in a very great degree to municipal action. Take the work of the municipalities for the public health. There are no Acts of Parliament which form a more splendid code than the Public Health Acts. They have been built up by municipal enterprise, through local experience, and even municipal experiment, and if at times mistakes had been made, they have been mistakes which were the forerunners of progress; because experience, if utilised as it ought to be, may be gathered from mistakes as well as from successes. On the whole, however, the mistakes have been few and the successes have been many and great. What have the municipalities done for the people in supplying the necessaries of life, such as pure water, pure light and pure air? The results have been of the greatest advantage to this country, and I am sure this House will never overlook the indebtedness of the country to such municipal action. And it is simply absurd to call such great local and national work mere municipal trading, even from the trading point of view, for it has made the national health and strength, and so the national wealth. Nevertheless, though I think it ridiculously unnecessary, I have not a word to say against the inquiry, because I believe it will result in vindication; but I should like to add one word about the composition of the Committee. I appeal to the Government in the strongest way that they will at least have the fairness to carefully consider the composition of the tribunal which is to try this question. I say this, because I complained that in the case of the preceding Committee there were many upon it who had not had any practical municipal experience.

There was only one, or at most two, Members who were really municipal representatives; and I venture to say that no one can pass a fair and just judgment on the action and work of the municipalities unless he has had practical experience in their City and Town Councils as Mayor, Councillor, or otherwise. Notwithstanding the absence of that qualification, I admit there was much fairness; and I believe that many previous adverse and even hostile convictions were overcome by irrefutable and conclusive evidence, but I do appeal to the Government in the strongest terms that they will put on this Committee real, practical representatives of the municipalities. I think if this course is taken, good will result; that force will be given by the local authorities to the judgment of the Committee; that the result of the inquiry will be beneficial; and that as regards great public undertakings as well as private enterprise, which are really not in conflict and which ought to be reconciled, competition will be as far as possible avoided, so that both may work for the welfare of the country; or, where competition is advisedly set up, either by the one or the other, in the public interest, it will be so conducted as to conduce to that paramount end.

MR. BROADHURST (Leicester)

When this Committee was originally proposed some few years ago I opposed it; and I oppose it now on the ground that its effect, and what I fear is its object, is to harass, discredit, annoy, and obstruct corporation work. I have confidence in trading by municipalities. Who are supporting this proposal? It is supported by the professional classes, bankers and lawyers who are interested in it, and above all by company promoters. The revelations which have been submitted to us during the past twelve months by some of the organs of the Press in this country are sufficient in themselves to deter the Government from pursuing this policy of irritation and annoyance against the great popularly elected, and, in the main, economically managed local bodies. [An HON. MEMBER: Oh!] I am speaking of bodies on which I have taken a part; and, therefore, I know what I am talking about. I am not speaking of the City of London Council, but of the great corporations throughout the country, which are in the main above suspicion, and which are managed by men who give most valuable time and experience, without fee or reward, for the benefit of their fellow citizens. I think the reappointment of this Committee can only annoy the municipalities; and therefore I will divide the House against the Motion.

MR. GALLOWAY (Manchester, S. W.)

The hon. Member who has just spoken stated that this Motion is supported by bankers, lawyers and company promoters. I am neither a banker nor a lawyer, nor, as far as I know, a company promoter; but I wish to say a few words on behalf of a class not yet mentioned, that is, the unfortunate ratepayers. The increase in rates all over the country during the last ten years has been something astounding. In our great towns that enormous increase has seriously hampered manufacturers. It hampers most seriously the railway companies; and, although I do not expect much sympathy for them, because unfortunately they are looked upon as fair game, still they are entitled to consideration. Many persons have their savings invested in these enterprises, and depend almost entirely on them for their subsistence. My only complaint about this Committee is that it does not go far enough. I do not consider it is an attack on the great corporations of this country to appoint a Committee to investigate the manner in which they carry on their trading. If they carry on their trading successfully, and for the benefit of the community, they have nothing to fear from investigation; but if they carry on their trading, as I believe they do in a great many instances, at the cost of the ratepayers, then the ratepayers have good reason to complain.

My only complaint about the action of the Government is that they did not take a broader view of the question. They are merely taking in hand one side of a very large question, and are not dealing boldly with the other side. It must be obvious to anyone who has taken the trouble to inquire into the statistics, that the manufacturers of this country cannot continue to conduct their business in large towns if the rates are so high as to seriously cripple them. After all the manufacturer, although it may be fashionable to scoff at him, is very often the largest ratepayer in the town. Not only that, but he employs those who live in the town; and if he is driven out you will not only inflict injury on him but also on those who reside within the area. I hope that my right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade, who is in charge of this Motion, will not lose sight of this larger question. We ought to consider how best this great increase in the rates can be dealt with, and whether ratepayers are getting value for their money. If they are not some other restrictions on municipal trading should be imposed.

MR. VICARY GIBBS (Hertfordshire, St. Albans)

The hon. Member for South Islington was very coy about the words "municipal trading," and he suggested one or two other synonyms which would suit him better. But what have municipalities done? I will give a few instances—cold air storage, ice manufacture, concert rooms, hotels, Turkish baths, cycle tracks, and brass foundries. What is trading if that is not trading? The hon. Member also said that there were other openings for municipal activity. Let me give a few of the proposed developments. He had seen suggestions that municipal trading should be further developed so as to take in pawnbroking, banking, running public-houses—[OPPOSITION cheers]—fire insurance, and retail coal trade. That evidently pleased hon. Members opposite. He thought, therefore, it was important that they should have a Committee, or rather a Royal Commission, to inquire into the question. He considered that the matter was much more likely to be properly dealt with by a Royal Commission than by a Committee of Members either of this or the other House of Parliament.

Referring to the financial aspect of the question, he spoke of the rapid rate at which the local indebtedness of the country had grown during the last twenty-five years, and more especially during the last ten years. It was all very well for them to try to reduce the national debt, but if local debt was to develop as it had been doing there would not be much advantage gained. He asked the House to remember that local debt was not under the purview of the control of Parliament in the same way as the national debt. It was a matter for serious consideration that while during the last twenty-five years we had reduced the national debt £140,000,000, local loans had been increased by £201.000,000 in the same period. The indebtedness of local authorities was now estimated at £.330,000,000 or £10 per head of the population. These were startling figures, well worthy of the consideration of any Committee that might be appointed, and they ought to give pause to any thoughtful person not to engage in an enterprise where competition would be with Corporations having the rates behind them. The way in which local indebtedness was being piled up was one of the most serious dangers which the community had to face. He did not deny for a moment that municipalities had done a great deal of good in the country, but he held that they had made many dangerous experiments, and that their action must tend in the future, if carried into all departments of trade, to paralyse private enterprise.


My hon. friend has discussed the question whether municipal trading is a good thing or a bad thing. The question before us is not whether municipal trading is good or bad, or whether a Committee should be appointed to inquire into municipal trading, but whether the Committee which was appointed two years ago should be reappointed to inquire into a question of the greatest possible importance. From my own experience at the Board of Trade, I think it is extremely desirable that the Board should have the assistance of a careful inquiry by a Committee to enable us to come to decisions on proposals made in provisional orders for the extension of municipal trading. For instance, the Board has hitherto refused to admit into provisional orders provisions to permit municipal authorities to manufacture electrical fittings, and that is one of the points upon which the Board would be glad to have the advice of a Select Committee. I do not wish to detain the House longer at the present moment, but I do earnestly urge that the House should allow this question to be inquired into.

MR. JOHN BURNS (Battersea)

said he was very sorry that he could not respond to the appeal of the right hon. Gentleman, and particularly after the speech he had made. The right hon. Gentleman could not have cited a more unfortunate illustration for facilitating the passing of this Resolution than the one he mentioned in regard to the supply of electrical fittings. On that matter he ventured respectfully to say that the Board of Trade ought not to seek guidance from a Committee of this House. The proper body to decide whether electrical fittings should be made and sold was the local authority that undertook that particular enterprise. When the President of the Board of Trade asked that a Committee should be appointed in order that his Department might be guided, it appeared to him that the right hon. Gentleman revealed that the Resolution was a flank attack against municipal authorities managing their own business in their own way, and consequently he was strongly opposed to it. What was the Resolution? The President of the Board of Trade obviously had not given it that attention he should have done. The Resolution said— That it is expedient that a Select Committee of this House be appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords to consider and report as to the principles which should govern powers given by Bills and Provisional Orders to municipal and other local authorities for industrial enterprise within or without the area of their jurisdiction."' All the local authorities in this country acted under statutes and Provisional Orders which were passed by this House. The House had already sufficient supervision of the work done by the local authorities, and what was the reason assigned for the appointment of this Committee? The mere fact that you had a Committee two years ago which did its work, as suggested by the hon. Member for South Islington, was no reason why it should be reappointed unless there was necessity. There was no fact alleged or evidence produced about dereliction of duty by any of the local authorities to warrant this investigation. Corruption, mismanagement, extravagance, or loss to the ratepayers had not been alleged. On the contrary, all the evidence went to show that the local authorities, in regard to gas for example, managed their enterprises in such a way as to supply the consumer cheaper than private companies could do, while at the same time making substantial surpluses which were used for the purpose of lightening the burdens of the poor and reducing the charges to manufacturers. For whose purpose was this Committee demanded? The facts did not warrant it, and no section of the ratepayers had asked the Board of Trade to set up a Committee. Had the London County Council or the municipality of Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow demanded an investigation into municipal trading? Not a single one. On the contrary, outside The Times and a few company directors, whose policy on municipal trading was equal to their incapacity to manage their own affairs, there was no tittle or shadow of a public demand for this inquiry.

And, it being half-past Seven of the clock, the debate stood adjourned. Debate to be resumed To-morrow.