§ Order for consideration, as amended, read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now considered."943
§ Mr. MORTON
I beg to move, "That the consideration of the Bill be postponed until the accounts of the Port of London Authority for the year ended 31st March, 1910, have been published, as required by Section 24 (4) of the Port of London Act, 1908."
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member will not be entitled to move that. He may move that the Bill be considered upon this day three months, or he may move a direct negative.
§ Mr. MORTON
Then I will move: "That the Bill be considered upon this day three months." When the Bill was before the House for Second Reading we complained that we had not last year's accounts presented, as required by the Act of Parliament, although that time was two or three months beyond the end of the financial year, 31st March, 1910. We thought we could get the accounts in Committee or before the Committee sat. That is my great cause of complaint to-night, because if these accounts had been presented in proper order it is probable that I would not have taken up the time of the House at all, as we should have got the matter considered in Committee. At the present moment we have no authentic knowledge at all of the state of these accounts, and what we claim is that unless we see them we have no means of coming to a determination as to whether or not it is right to make a charge on the food and necessaries of the people of London. In Committee the chairman of the Port of London Authority (Lord Kearley) was asked in regard to these accounts (Question 156) whether he suggested that he did not know what the revenue is, and his answer was, "I suggest that nobody knows, and I will take good care that nobody knows until the accounts are in their final position and audited by the Board of Trade auditor." Having put his foot in it, he modified that answer in reply to further questions, but the sum and substance was that he prevented any extract or summary of these accounts being presented. He stated in his evidence that they were to be presented, in the first instance, to Parliament. That is not a fact. The Act of 1908 simply says that they to be "published." Therefore, the Committee was in the extraordinary position that they were not told what had been the result of the working of the Port during the previous year, and that a considerable charge was to be made on the food and necessaries of the people of London, while the 944 Port Authority altogether refused to say what they were going to do with the revenue. I wonder what would be said if the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on introducing his Budget, refused to give to the House and the country any account of last year's proceedings, or if when he said he was going to put on such and such taxes he would not tell the House how he was going to spend the money? If the Chancellor of the Exchequer were to do that, he would put the House in a position similar to that which the Committee were in when dealing with this Bill. No account was given of what has been spent during the past year, or how the money to be got from the new charges on the food and necessaries of the people of London is to be spent. All we could do in Committee was to get the tax taken off fish, and that, of course, is something. The President of the Board of Trade was, I think, quite satisfied that that charge should be taken off the list, but what astonishes me is that he ever put it there. This is a Provisional Order for which the Board of Trade is responsible. Having got that one article of food taken off the list, we—and when I say we I mean the Corporation of the City of London. which is the market authority for all London—wanted to get more articles taken out. We say that there are a good many articles which will be taxed under this Bill where the charges could be materially reduced. Evidence was given in one case that it would cost £1,000 to collect £1,000 of these dues. The articles which come under this Bill are several hundreds. In fact, almost every known and unknown thing you can think of is charged under this Bill. We have to think of the 5,000,000 to 10,000,000 of consumers in or about London. We are willing to help the traders if we can, because they are very often tenants of the Corporation. The question has been asked, Why do not the traders appear? Some of the traders have made bargains, and they think they have done the best they could, but we do not appear so much for the traders as the consumers. What appears to me most extraordinary is that a Free Trade country should introduce this Tariff Reform Budget in London. They may say that it is only a small charge, but whether small or large, it is getting in the thin end of the wedge, and it is an absolute charge on the food and necessaries of the people, which ought not to be put on unless you can give good reason. 945 They have given no reason. They will not give us the accounts, and, so far as my personal knowledge goes, there is no occasion for putting on a charge at all. When Parliament consented to the doubling of the tonnage dues on vessels using the Port of London there was provision made for plenty of money for everything the Port Authority could possibly do in the river. If they have paid three times what ought to have been paid for the docks——
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member keeps harking back to the Act of 1908. That policy was decided by the House two years ago, and we have to accept it.
§ Mr. MORTON
I did not intend to make use of that fact except to point out that the interest to be found under the Act itself amounts to £800,000 a year. I will not pursue that matter further. My great point is that until we can see the accounts we do not know that the money is wanted at all, and we do not know what it is going to be used for.
If it is to be used for dredging and improvement of the Channel then the foundation of my opposition goes. But so far as my own personal knowledge goes, there is plenty of money for all those purposes without taxing the food of the people. Some people tell us that the authority has too much money, and that if we could only see these accounts they would prove that they do not want this extra charge. At any rate it is all a mystery at the present time. We cannot see these accounts. I do hope and trust that the President of the Board of Trade, recognising the public duty that is upon him in this matter, will allow this question to stand over until we see those accounts. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has seen them, but he ought to see that the people of London are dealt with fairly and honestly, so that we shall not have another Metropolitan Water Board game. Having had warning by that we should at least have proper information with regard to what is wanted now. I do not want to say it, but it is a fact that we shall have to go to the House of Lords for what we cannot get in the House of Commons, if we cannot get this information here. I am sorry to have to say so, but we shall do so. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will see that in fair play the people who are called upon to pay the money should be allowed to see the accounts so that they may know how the money is being spent. They have got 946 these accounts and will not show them. However, with the view of getting at the opinion of the President of the Board of Trade, and if possible of obtaining the information we require, I Move that this Bill be considered on this day three months.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Sydney Buxton)
I think my hon. Friend (Mr. Morton) misapprehends the financial position at the present moment. He complains that the Port of London Authority have not, in accordance with the Provisional Order, yet published their accounts for the last financial year. But I do not think the two things have anything to do with one another, and for this reason: The Provisional Order which we are now discussing is framed under an Act of Parliament passed two years ago, under which the Port Authority were to draw up a schedule of rates in order to raise certain revenue for certain purposes.
§ Mr. SYDNEY BUXTON
Which, of course, is an instruction to them to do so. It is quite clear from the Clause that that was intended. During the time the matter was discussed it was perfectly obvious to every Member of the House when the Port Authority was created that not only would they do so, but——
§ Mr. MORTON
The Board of Trade said they may; but except to provide for a sinking fund, according to the opinion of the Board of Trade at that time, they would not be required to do so.
§ Mr. SYDNEY BUXTON
That is the first time I have heard such a statement as that, but I should have thought—and I had something to do with the drawing up of the Bill—and my right hon. Friend, who was then President of the Board of Trade, and the House of Commons understood that certain revenues would be required possibly for carrying on the work of the Port Authority, and certain moneys required to meet interest and sinking fund for any new capital which might be borrowed both for dredging and improving the port, including the docks——
§ Mr. SYDNEY BUXTON
New capital and for other purposes, and that these moneys would have to be raised in this 947 way. My hon. Friend says that these accounts ought to be produced as a sort of Budget statement. But the matter before the House is not for this year, next year, or any particular year. It is a question of maximum rates, which will, as far as I know, never be required to the full extent. It is only giving power to the Port Authority to raise certain revenue for certain purposes, and I cannot think really that the question of the annual accounts of the present moment has anything to do with the question of these rates. I understand that the chairman of the Port Authority the other day when he was examined explained that the reason—and it was a very simple one—why in this particular year the accounts had not been already presented was that the Port Authority had taken over no fewer than four distinct undertakings, three docks, and a portion of the Thames Conservancy that required a readjustment of accounts. The difficulty of making these readjustments is considerable, and up to date it has not been possible to produce the accounts. As my hon. Friend is aware, under the Act of Parliament separate accounts were to be given for these separate undertakings, and I do not think it out of the way in a matter of this kind that there should be some delay. I would point out that the accounts really have no particular bearing at this moment on this matter. These rates are intended for the future revenues of the port, and have nothing to do with the accounts of last year I may point out that in what the hon. Gentleman said in a portion of his speech, which, I understand, was chiefly directed to a later Amendment which he has on the Paper, he did me an injustice in reference to the Schedule. He said that the Board of Trade had insisted on a rate on fish. On the contrary, fish were put out of the category of articles on which rates were to be placed. I struck them out of that category, leaving the matter open for the Committee to consider. Therefore, so far as I am concerned, instead of putting a duty on fish, I have done my best to prevent any rate being put on, and I am glad to say that the Committee came to the same conclusion.
§ Mr. SYDNEY BUXTON
No, they were not. Before the Provisional Order was introduced at all the question whether fish would come under the category on which 948 duties should be placed was left an open question. It was put in by Lord St. Aldwyn in the inquiry over which he presided as chairman, but, as far as I am concerned, I have been adverse to the taxation of the fish coming into the port, and I am glad to say that the Committee agreed with my view. I hope that the House will understand that the question of these accounts is really not germane to the question of the rates which are proposed to be levied under the Act of Parliament, but that these rates are quite apart from the question of the annual accounts for the last financial year, and that therefore the Amendment of my hon. Friend should not be accepted.
§ Bill, as amended, considered.