HC Deb 16 March 1903 vol 119 cc979-84

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [4th March], "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 I he 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. A. J. Balfour.)

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.

MR. JOHN BURNS (Battersea)

said that when he last had the pleasure of opposing the Motion, time intervened and prevented himself and other hon. Members from giving reasons why the Motion should be rejected. It also prevented the Government from giving reasons as to why this Committee should be set up again. He ventured to resume the discussion because he considered that when a Committee such as this was sought for, adequate reasons should be given to the House of Commons why such an exceptional course should be taken. He found that when a Government Department or any other institution was subjected to adverse criticism, it was generally the custom to give reasons why an inquiry should be instituted; but as regarded the present Committee, neither last year, nor the year before, nor this year, had any adequate reasons been given why it should be appointed to range over the whole ramifications of the municipal life of the country, at the mere request of one or two powerful newspapers, who made ex parte statements, and who committed themselves to misrepresentations of local government in the United Kingdom. Beyond, however, being supported by two or three hon. Members on that side, who had always taken a prejudiced view of local government, there was no reason why the Motion should appear on the Paper.

It was interesting to note that the very night on which this Motion was put down as a Government Motion, the hon. Member for South-West Manchester also gave notice of a Motion, the terms of which were in some respects similar. He had expected that when the Prime Minister assumed responsibility for this Motion he would have said that, in consequence of municipalities going further than they should, and in consequence of mismanagement, corruption, and dereliction of duty on the part of the local authorities, it was necessary to submit their action to a jury in the form of a Royal Commission or Joint Committee. That was not done. No charge was made against the municipalities or against the great municipal enterprises carried out by the local authorities. On the contrary, all the evidence collected by the Board of Trade and the Local Government Board, and all the audited accounts of these municipalities, proved beyond a shadow of doubt that they carried out the wishes of the ratepayers, and that their constituents endorsed their municipal enterprises, which were to the very great advantage of the various districts concerned.

It should not be assumed for a moment that he would object to an inquiry if cause were shown. On the contrary he believed that the municipalities had nothing to fear from any inquiry that might be instituted. All the reports issued proved that they did their work wonderfully well, and so profitably and so popularly that he thought an inquiry was absolutely unnecessary, and would be a work of supererogation. He believed further that an inquiry would lead to the suspension of many useful works already in process of execution. It would involve the House of Commons and the House of Lords in considerable expense and it would take up a great deal of time that might better be devoted by the Government to setting their old Departments in order, and to bringing the War Office and the Admiralty up to the standard of efficiency which the great municipalities of the country were at the present moment displaying.

On the very day that the First Lord of the Treasury gave notice that the work of these municipalities was to be inquired into, he asked the House of Commons to institute a Committee to inquire into the National Defence. It seemed to him that a Joint Committee would be better engaged in inquiring into national defence and the position of the Army and Navy, than inquiring into matters regarding which there was no demand for inquiry. How many more Royal Commissions and Joint Committees was the House about to set up? They had already actually sitting fifteen Royal Commissions and Committees of Inquiry. He ventured to say that that number was sufficient, and that it placed a sufficient tax on the time and energy of Members of both Houses. When the Member for South-West Manchester ventured to address the House on this subject, he said he spoke, not as a banker, or a company promoter, or a professional man, but as representing the unfortunate taxpayers. He would only say that, as a Manchester ratepayer, the hon. Member had no reason to complain of municipal trading in Manchester, because, from one branch of municipal trading alone, namely, the manufacture of gas, two and a half millions of money had been handed over to the Manchester ratepayers for the reduction of the rates; while other branches of municipal trading, such as tramways, libraries, drainage, and schools had done a great deal to improve the health of the community and to divert profits which, in the absence of municipal ownership, would have gone largely into the pockets of private owners. That money had been devoted to a reduction of the rates, to improving the health and the sanitary condition of Manchester, and to promoting the comfort and pleasure of the citizens.

An hon. Member interjected on the last occasion that Manchester had embarked on a rash enterprise in the shape of the Manchester Ship Canal; but the hon. Member forgot the fact that Manchester only embarked on the Ship Canal when private enterprise had signally failed, and when it was necessary, not only in the interests of Manchester, but of the whole of Lancashire and the North-east coast, that the Canal should be saved. It was then that Manchester, with great courage, stepped in, and to that extent it deserved well not only of the ratepayers but of the community generally. The Manchester Ship Canal had now turned the corner, and was paying a small dividend on its debenture shares; but even if it did not pay that dividend, the amount of good which it had done to the trade of the district by the way in which it had developed local industries, appreciated the value of land, and brought into operation many fields, both of private enterprise and municipal activity, justified everything the Corporation had done in that particular regard. He found that Liverpool, which was similarly situated, paid 2s. 9d. per thousand feet for its gas under private enterprise, whereas Manchester only paid 2s. 3d. He was convinced that instead of Manchester being described as an unfortunate city, it was singularly lucky in having such municipal enterprises, from the profits of which it was not only able to reduce the rates, but to?

produce cheaper and better gas, and in many other ways to improve the condition of the citizens.

And, it being Midnight, the Debate stood adjourned.

SIR A. ACLAND-HOOD (Somersetshire, Wellington)

said that in moving the adjournment of the House he wished to say that the first business to-morrow would be a small Excess Vote of £70 for the Irish Art Galleries. It was a purely formal matter; it had been before the Public Accounts Committee, and it was necessary it should be passed before the Consolidated Fund Bill was brought in. He understood there was no opposition to it.

MR. WHITLEY (Halifax)

asked if it was a second Supplementary Estimate.

SIR A. ACLAND-HOOD said that it was necessary in consequence of a Gentleman making a mistake in his accounts.