§ This Act shall continue in force for five years after the passing thereof and no longer, unless continued by Parliament.30
§ Lords Amendment to leave out the Clause read a second time.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
This Amendment which has been made in another place restores the Bill to the form in which it was originally presented by the Government to this House, and I am going to propose to the House that they agree with the Lords in the Amendment. In doing so, as some misunderstanding undoubtedly exists in regard to this matter, and as I think it was largely upon that misunderstanding that changes have been made which reflect upon the good faith of the Government, I must say one or two words to show how the question has reached its present phase. It will be in the recollection of the House that the origin of this Bill was an agreement entered into between representatives of the Government—my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer took a leading part in the negotiations—and the representatives of the railway companies in the month of August, 1911, with the object of putting an end to the deplorable industrial dispute which at that time threatened the best interests of the country. The substance of that agreement was that the Government, in consideration of the railway companies making concessions in regard to wages and conditions of labour to those in their employ, would do its best to promote legislation in Parliament, which would have this effect, that if the companies could make out before the Railway Commissioners a case, that the increase in wages which they had agreed to necessitated or justified a corresponding or commensurate increase in the charges on goods, that should be a matter which the Railway Commissioners should be entitled to take into consideration.
That, I think, was the substance of the agreement come to. I may just point out two things in regard to it. In the first place, of course, it was beyond the power of any Executive in advance to pledge the decision of Parliament. All they can do is to undertake to do their best to induce Parliament to accept the proposals which they have agreed to put forward. Further, I need not point out to anybody that still less is it in the power of any Government to prevent Parliament in future from dealing, either by way of repeal or by way of modification or by any way which seems fit, with any proposals which in any particular year have been accepted by any particular Parliament. Lastly, on this 31 point, I understand—although I did not myself take part in the negotiations I was pretty well informed of what went on—the question of the duration of the proposed or promised legislation was never a matter which entered into the discussion between the parties at all. I think I am right in saying that I do not think it was mentioned from first to last. When I say that, I must not be understood as suggesting that duration is an unimportant point—not at all. I think it was certainly implied, though not in terms or expressed agreement—the whole thing was conducted under a certain amount of stress—and I regarded it as an honourable obligation, as part of the bargain entered into between the railway companies and the Government, that no such limitations should be introduced as would really render nugatory or impair the value of the promises made.
The Government, in pursuance of that undertaking, introduced this Bill into the House of Commons, and I think I am speaking within the knowledge of all Gentlemen here when I say that it was a very unpopular Bill. It was unpopular among my hon. Friends behind me and among hon. Members below the Gangway, and it was certainly not very popular among the party opposite. In fact, I do not think it had many friends in the House, except the Government and the representatives of the railway companies. At any rate, it never bad ostensible demonstration of friendship. However, we introduced the Bill, and were fortunate enough to obtain the sanction of the House to the Second Reading. When it got into Committee it was met by a number of Amendments from all quarters, the adoption of which, or of almost any one of which, would have been, if not fatal to the Bill, would not, in the view of the Government, have been carrying out their undertaking. Among them was an Amendment to limit the duration of the Bill to three years. That was resisted, and perfectly rightly, by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, and was rejected upon a Division. The Bill, after a somewhat stormy career, and not in a very amicable atmosphere, survived the ordeal of the Committee and got to the Report stage. On that stage an Amendment was moved to limit its operation to five years. That was resisted by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, on similar grounds to those on which he re- 32 sisted the more drastic Amendment which had been rejected in Committee, but, as the Debate proceeded, it became evident that this point of view had no support from any quarter of the House. A number of speeches were made on both sides, and as the Debate proceeded it was felt by those who had their fingers on the pulse of the machine and were best qualified to judge that if the thing were pressed to a Division there was not only a risk, but something very much more, the probability and practically the certainty that the Government would be defeated. Under these circumstances my right hon. Friends took this course. They said, "We will see what the sense of the House of Commons is, and we will not resist the Amendment which has been proposed to the point of dividing against it, but it must not be supposed that we accept the Amendment in the form in which it has been submitted to the House. We do not think a simple limitation of the operation of the Bill to five years would be doing justice to the railway companies, or would be in accordance with the spirit and intention of the agreement between us."
They intimated what was afterwards carried out in the House of Lords, that if the Government did not in the circumstances resist that Amendment by going to a Division against it, they would take care that the form in which it was ultimately inserted in the Bill was such that it should be clearly manifest from the language employed that it was the intention to include the Bill after the expiration of five years in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, and next—that was strictly carried out by the Amendment in another place on behalf of the Government—that the expiration of the Bill at whatever date it should take place should not interfere with any rates fixed at the instance of the railway companies during the currency of its operation. I wish to say in the most express terms that, while I quite agree that to a mere limitation of the operation of the Bill, be it three or five years, the railway companies were reasonably and properly entitled to object and the Government could not have accepted it, yet the limitation to five years, supplemented by those two conditions, was not and is not now in my judgment, or in the judgment of my colleagues, a breach of any promise or undertaking we have given to the railway companies. The House knows very well 33 that some of our most important legislation is carried on year by year in the Schedule to the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. There are the cases of the Ballot Act, the Agricultural Rating Act, and the case of an Act which has been Continued in that way, I believe, for something like seventy years—the Act for the Exemption of Personal Property from Rating.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
That is another point, into which I will not enter now. Perhaps the hon. Member is right, but what I am pointing is what in practice an effective security its inclusion in the Schedule of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act affords. There is an Act to which many people take exception, and that is the Agricultural Rating Act. The Ballot Act, we may assume, is another case unless we assume that all parties are agreed upon it. I hear only a faint challenge of dissent from the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Then I am sorry. It is, however, sufficient for my purpose to point out that in practice the inclusion of a measure of this kind in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act is found to be a very substantial guarantee of its permanent enactment, because, although it is perfectly competent to move the omission of an Act from the Schedule, before it can be omitted the assent of both Houses is required. It is, therefore, not quite so cumbrous a process as the actual repeal of an Act of Parliament.
I am sorry to have gone at such length into the matter, but I was anxious to clear the atmosphere from any imputation of bad faith. The Government have really honestly tried to carry out what was a very difficult bargain. I am not in the least blaming the railway companies. It was a bargain which, in the public interest, we were bound to enter into and endeavour to carry out in good faith. We have endeavoured to do so at every stage of this Bill, and I think the Amendment introduced on the part of the Government in the House of Lords might have been accepted by the railway companies without 34 in any way impairing the efficiency of this measure. But at the same time I agree, in deference to the reasons I have given, that the difference between the practical effect of such an Amendment embodied in the Bill and the Bill as it was presented to this House in its original form is not a difference which is worth fighting for, and, rather than it should be said or suggested or believed in any quarter that we had not to the utmost of our ability and in the completest good faith, endeavoured to carry out our bargain in the letter as well as in the spirit, I am quite prepared now to recommend to the House that instead of the Amendment which the Government proposed in the House of Lords, the Bill should be restored to the shape in which it was originally introduced. I am ready to say to those who object to this Bill on principle, and who think the Government were wrong in entering into this agreement—[HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"]—Yes, there are some who think so, but I beg them to remember that in the first place the Government were bound at that moment to take into consideration not merely the particular dispute between the two particular parties which was then going on, but the very large and momentous matters of public interest affecting the nation—I am not going too far when I say affecting the Empire—and the railway companies—and I say this in the frankest arid fullest way—though in many respects they were in a very strong position, responded to that appeal sympathetically and loyally, and against what they believed to be their own interests at the moment. An agreement come to under stress of circumstances such as those is one which Parliament ought to carry out, even if it disapprove on reflection of what was done, and even if it thought a better way might have been found out of the impasse which then existed. That is an agreement to which Parliament, in the common interest, ought to do everything in its power to give effect. Therefore, whatever objection may be taken—and I believe there is a great deal to be said in the way of criticism of agreements of this kind—I ask the House at this stage of the proceedings, now that the difference between us is really for practical purposes in my opinion almost infinitesimal, to agree to restore the Bill to the shape in which it was originally introduced by the Government. I beg therefore to move, "That the House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I think the right hon. Gentleman has taken the only possible course, and I should like to congratulate him not only upon taking that course, but also upon the speech in which he has just announced his intention. As regards the history of the transaction given by the right hon. Gentleman, I see nothing to take exception to except in one respect. [HON. MEMBERS: "Speak up!"] I am sure there is a great deal to be said for his view, that the course taken by the Government did fairly represent the bargain which they intended to carry out; but unfortunately, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me, the strength of his argument in that direction is entirely destroyed by the fact that two of his colleagues, both of them Members of the Cabinet, stated in this House, when the Amendment was under discussion, that if they accepted it they did not consider they would be acting in accordance with the agreement.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I endeavoured to make that clear. My right hon. Friends were referring to the simple limitation of five years without the conditions that were subsequently imposed by the Government.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I am not going to enter into any controversial argument, but I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the very point of the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Bill was mentioned, and was therefore before the mind of the Government at the very time they made the statement they would not regard it as fulfilling the bargain. The statement of fact mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman was this: No Government can force the House of Commons to ratify a bargain they have made. That is perfectly true. In this case, the railway companies actually realised the possibility of some such situation arising as did arise, and they put it to the representative of the Government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer: "Suppose the House of Commons does not ratify it, what then?" And the Chancellor of the Exchequer then replied: "In that case, we will fight and go to a defeat rather than not carry it through."
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
Therefore, the Government were in the position that in order to fulfil their bargain they had to carry out the agreement in the sense understood by the two parties to it. In the Debate in the House of Lords 36 the representatives of the Government read a letter from the President of the Board of Trade in which he said no Member of the official Opposition voted in support of the Government in regard to this Bill. That, as a matter of fact, is not accurate. It was entirely owing, I think, to the extraordinary stress with which we were working at the end of the Session that neither my colleagues nor I were able to be present while the Bill was under discussion. I was, as it happened, here on one occasion when a Division was taken against the Government, and I voted for them. I did so not at all with regard to the merits of the transaction, but I felt—and I feel now—we were bound to throw our minds back to the state of things which existed at the time this bargain was made. It is easy enough now to say this is a bad bargain, but I venture to say there is not a Member of this House who at that time, if the choice had been put before him of ending the strike or of allowing the strike to go on, would not at once have ratified the bargain. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is my view, and I am sure the great majority of the House take the same view. If that is so, it is in the highest degree unfair; more than that, it is in the highest degree against the interests not only of this Government, but of any Government which may ever hold office in this country, that the House of Commons should not ratify a bargain solemnly entered into under circumstances such as that. I am not going at all into the merits of the Bill, but I listened on one occasion to a speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in which he promised on behalf of the Government that an inquiry would be made into the whole question of railway rates. It happens that the only official connection I ever had was with the Board of Trade. I had many opportunities of going into the question of preferential rates, and the conclusion I came to was in the sense in which that Act was passed. There is practically no breach of these regulations, but whether I am right or not, and much more information is required than I possess, I came also to this conclusion: The result of our present railway system is that on the whole a preference is given to foreign produce against the produce of our own country. That is my view, and I do not think that is in the interests even of the railway companies themselves. I am sure it is not in the interests of the country, and I hope 37 the Government will carry out their promise and have a real inquiry made into this matter, and that the result of it will be that if there is any preference that preference will be given to home produce and not to produce which comes from abroad.
§ Mr. WARDLE
I very much regret that I was not here when the Prime Minister was making his statement with regard to the Lords Amendment to this Bill. I understand, however, it has been decided by the Government to accept the Lords Amendment, taking out the five years' limit. Personally, I very much regret that decision, and I am quite sure my Friends will not vote in favour of that Amendment. I, and those of my Friends on these benches who specially represent railway men, have not voted against this Bill either on the Second Reading or the Third Reading. We have kept ourselves specifically free from voting against it, because we recognised that we were in the position of special trustees for railway men, and could not vote against a Bill which gave the railway companies the opportunity of increasing their wages. The Government, in my opinion, would altogether have carried out their agreement even had the five years' limit remained in the Bill. There is a considerable difference between an agreement made between two parties when they bind other people and an agreement when they bind themselves only. In this case the Government gave a pledge, but that pledge was to bind the House of Commons, and I hold that any pledge given under such circumstances as that is always a pledge conditional upon the House of Commons ratifying it. Let us take the other side of the question. Have the railway companies fulfilled their obligation to their employés and in reference to this particular strike? I do not want to say very much at this time with regard to a question which is agitating the country outside, and, indeed, I should not be entitled to do so, but I should like to point out that in the Richardson case we say distinctly there is on the part of the Midland Railawy Company a breach of the agreement come to between the Government, the railway employés, and the companies; and, if that is so, we hold that before this Bill is finally passed into law it should be the business of the Government to see it is carried out in its letter, and in this spirit. I quite recognise the difference and the difficulty. There is considerable difficulty where parties to an agreement bind other people. I quite recognise 38 the railway companies may have a difficulty in carrying out their agreement because they bind the whole of their officials; but if they say, as was said in the House of Lords, they must be satisfied that the agreement is carried out, then we say the employés and the Government ought to be satisfied that the companies also carry out the agreement. Under these circumstances, and still further, in view of the fact that the five years' limit would constantly give Parliament an opportunity of reviewing the circumstances of bringing the railway companies up to the standard and of seeing they keep their agreement, I, for one, feel bound on this occasion to vote against the Lords Amendment being accepted.
§ Mr. C. BATHURST
As I had the experience of moving the Amendment in the Committee stage of this Bill to a similar effect, and of seconding the new Clause on the Report stage, perhaps I may be allowed to say that I have listened to the statements made, both by the Leader of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition, with the greatest possible regret, and I feel that these statements will be received with something like dismay by farmers throughout the country and by small traders whose interests are so seriously affected. The Prime Minister spoke, in effect, in favour of the merits of this Clause, although eventually he moved, unfortunately in my opinion, that this Clause should form no part of the Bill. He did not suggest, as has been suggested elsewhere, that this Clause was in any sense a breach of faith. What he said was that it might be so construed, presumably by ignorant people, but we Members of this House are presumably in this matter not ignorant people. We know the full circumstances of the case, and we fully realise the gravity of the conditions which existed both at home and abroad at the time when this so-called undertaking was given. I should like to ask this House and the Prime Minister what is the actual nature of this undertaking, and to whom that undertaking was given? The nature of the undertaking is plainly stated in the printed Memorandum which was issued in connection with this Bill. It is to the effect that the Government will proceed with a proposal next Session—that is, the Session which is just coming to an end—which will provide that increased cost of labour due to the improvement of the conditions of the staff will be a valid justification for a reasonable 39 general increase in the charges within the legal maximum. The most that undertaking amounted to was that a certain proposal would be made to Parliament. Proposals have been made to Parliament, and Parliament, the more democratic part of Parliament, has not seen fit to accept these proposals in the form in which they were submitted to Parliament. If the Government undertaking were in any sense to be whittled down, and they were to accept a five years' limit, they could still satisfy themselves that they had carried out their undertaking. They have submitted these proposals to Parliament, and Parliament—the representatives in this House, who, after all, represent the people, and, above all, the traders and farmers of this country—has declined to accept those proposals in the exact form in which they were presented. I say we are perfectly entitled to do so; in fact we should not really be fulfilling our obligations to our constituents and to the country if we did not. We are not bound to accept word for word every proposal that comes from the Government Bench, or be accused of breach of faith if we decline to accept it.
In the second place, to whom was this undertaking given? It was not given to the public whom we represent. It was not given to us in this House. It was given outside those walls altogether to the railway companies. Are we bound, as representatives of the British public, to keep that undertaking as one which is binding upon us in every word which its Parliamentary, statutory crystallisation may embrace? Why, the very suggestion is the negation of democracy. I utterly decline to accept such a suggestion as any justification or support of the Motion now before the House. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister himself has admitted that there was not a single supporter of this proposal which he is now making except the representatives of the railway companies when the Bill was last before the House, and we remember that the representatives of railway companies then left it entirely to the unfortunate President of the Board of Trade to endeavour with great difficulty to find a word of argument in support of their contention. I believe that eventually some of them did rise in their wrath, and protest against the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman, but I am bound to say, in the opinion of many of us, that to far too 40 great an extent that attitude was in favour of the railway companies, the greatest monopoly of the country, and opposed to those interests which he, above all other Gentlemen and right hon. Gentlemen, is supposed to protect. But even the representatives of the railway companies in this House or elsewhere did not put forward a single possible argument or reason why this five years' limit should not be part of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman below me (Mr. Bonar Law) and other right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen—including one who represents the Midland Railway Company—I am sorry in existing circumstances he is not here to-day—used some very strong language, but that language did not contain a word of argument against the five years' limit. The Prime Minister has said that this Bill is not popular, which means, I suppose, that the proposal to insist upon a limited period is popular, and yet, although the whole House is against it, he asks the House to carry this proposal which he has made into law. This really means that if it were not for the Government Whips being put on this afternoon this Motion would not be carried. That being so, all I can say is that hon. Gentlemen and right hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House will find it very difficult indeed to justify their attitude to their constituents when the question is discussed, as it will be discussed, shortly, in the constituencies.
I should like also to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is going to offer the farmers of this country any sort of a quid pro quo as a result of the withdrawal of this Clause, which was intended as some sort of solatium to them in view of the fact that part of the original Government Bill, which would have been of some advantage to them, was entirely dropped, and anything that was to the advantage of the railway companies has been phoceeded with. Proposals have been made on previous stages of the Bill that the Government might with advantage give an undertaking that some of the long-standing and admitted traders' grievances should be dealt with in a short Bill in the coming Session, and some, sort of a quid pro quo be given to those who have got to bear the whole expense of this arrangement between the railway companies and their servants. I should like to ask the Prime Minister and the President of the Board of Trade whether in asking the House to accept this Bill without this Clause they are prepared to give some 41 undertaking to the farmers and traders of this country, and particularly the small shop-keepers, who will suffer very materially, that in the next Session they will be prepared to introduce a Bill containing some of the Clauses which the Railways (No.1) Bill contained and which would have afforded some little compensation to the traders for the extra burden which is to be placed upon them.
§ Lord CLAUD HAMILTON
The hon. Member for Wilton (Mr. C. Bathurst) has absolutely got railways on the brain. [An HON. MEMBER: "What have you got?"] I really do not understand the interruption of the hon. Gentleman. It appears that the hon. Member for Wilton thinks that no British railway does any good—that the railways are the enemies of the country, the enemies of the traders, and the enemies of the farmers, and are absolutely inferior to the railways of other countries. I believe the hon. Member some years ago was asked to a dinner party and he did not arrive in time, and the Great Western Railway Company were unable to explain how the delay occurred. Ever since that date he has never in the Debates in this House lost an opportunity of displaying his hostility to them.
§ 4.0 P.M.
§ Mr. C. BATHURST
I should like to state at once that I have never enjoyed the hospitality of any railway company. There is not the smallest ground for the suggestion made by the Noble Lord that I have any personal antipathy to the railway companies for their lack of hospitality or otherwise, but I have the strongest antipathy against their methods.
§ Lord CLAUD HAMILTON
I should like to ask the hon. Member this question: Supposing that in August, 1911, he had been asked publicly by the Prime Minister to state on behalf of his constituents whether he desired the strike to go on or the strike to be ended through the intervention of His Majesty's Government, would he have ventured to say, on behalf of his constituents, that he desired the continuance of the strike? I do not believe he would have ventured to do so. It is not right, after the lapse of time since that incident, to now attack the Government and the railway companies—the Government for carrying out the bargain they honourably made with the railway companies, and the railway companies for 42 being parties to it. I should like on behalf of the railway companies of the Kingdom to express our obligation to the Prime Minister for the statement which he has made, though somewhat tardily, this afternoon. I admit that, when the President of the Board of Trade announced the other night to the House the message he had received from the right hon. Gentleman, I spoke in no measured terms as to what I considered, and I believe rightly considered at the time, to be the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman. But, after what has fallen from him to-day I unreservedly withdraw. The action of the Prime Minister is the best vindication of the course I took on that occasion. The right hon. Gentleman committed one slight inaccuracy in relating what took place between the Government and the railway companies in August, 1911. He said that in consideration of the railway companies raising the wages and improving the position of their men the Government agreed to do so-and-so. We did a great deal more than that—we undertook the appointment of a Royal Commission and to abide unreservedly by the Report of that Royal Commission. We had no idea in our minds at the time how far-reaching that Report might be. As it proved, it was very far-reaching, but it might have been far worse. We undertook obligations on behalf of the railway companies which were very risky and very dangerous, but we did so on account of the strong representations made to us by His Majesty's Government from a national point of view. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has thought it right to amply and honourably fulfil on behalf of the Government the pledge the Government gave to us in August, 1911. I believe the effect of that action on the part of the Prime Minister will be more far-reaching than is realised. It has become the fashion in the last few years, owing to the unfortunate industrial and social disputes which are continually arising in this country, for the Government of the day to intervene as a sort of independent arbitrator. I do not say whether that is a good or a bad system, but it has certainly found favour with the general public. There must be at least two parties to every dispute, and if one party were to feel and believe that the Government could not be trusted——
§ Mr. WEDGWOOD
On a point of Order, Sir. Is the Noble Lord in order in going into the question of the intervention of the Government in industrial 43 disputes, and, if so, may other hon. Members reply?
§ Lord CLAUD HAMILTON
The effect would be very far-reaching if one party to the dispute felt that the honour or the word of His Majesty's Government could not be trusted. The intervention of the Government in the future would be rendered absolutely useless. Therefore I believe that the action of the right hon. Gentleman has thought fit to take will greatly strengthen the position of this or any other Government in any steps they take to bring to a conclusion the unfortunate industrial disputes which now so often affect us.
§ Mr. ROWLANDS
I fully realise the very difficult position in which the Prime Minister is placed. Those of us who for a long time during the last stage of this Bill appealed to the President of the Board of Trade to make some little concession to those who were not particularly in favour of this Bill, distinctly said over and over again that we threw our minds back to the time of the railway strike, and did not charge anything against the Government for trying to bring that serious labour difficulty to an end. We had no complaint whatever against the Government for trying to fulfil the promise which it made under most trying conditions for any Government, but we say distinctly that, in trying to the utmost of their ability to carry out the promise, in the interests of the well-being of the community at large, some concession might be made to us. Speaking as I am from below the Gangway on their own side of the House, and as one of the advanced Members of my party, I am speaking in support of the position we took up with regard to the Bill in the last Debate in the interest of the whole of the trading classes in my Division and throughout the country. It fell to my lot to be chosen by a huge number of those who use the railways for sending goods to present a most powerfully worded and largely signed petition to this House in favour of a concession being made in connection with this Bill. I speak to-night entirely independent of party. The Government, to the best of their ability, have carried out the promise which they made, and the point is, not 44 that the Government should, but whether the railway interests cannot meet us with a little conciliation in the interests of the traders, and especially the small traders, of this country. We have found on the part of the railway interests an iron-bound opposition. They have distinctly taken up the position that they will make no concession whatever.
Those of us who heard the philosophically calm speech of the hon. Member for South Kensington (Lord Claud Hamilton), when the President of the Board of Trade made his concession, know the spirit in which we must expect to be met by the railway companies. It is very nice to have a conciliatory speech this afternoon when the Noble Lord has got all he wants, but we know we have nothing to expect from them in the interests of the trading community. Why do they not give way on the question of the five years' limit? It is a little thing upon which to give way, but it is of great interest to the community at large. We have voted for their measure—I have voted for it, not to my own interest as a politician, and not to my interest in the Constituency, but because the Government made that concession. We ask as a concession that the measure should be limited to five years, and that it should then be included, like other important measures, such as the Employers' Liability Act, in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. We all know the difficulty of getting any measure taken out of the Schedule of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. It would have been an act of generosity if the representatives of the railway companies, instead of forcing the Government into the position into which they are forcing them on a Bill which is admitted by everyone to be unpopular, had said that they realised the position we have taken up, and had conceded that the five years' limit, under which this measure would come up for discussion at the end of five years, was a legitimate decision for which the trading community had a right to ask. If this measure is passed into law, as I suppose it will be to-day, I do not think that the antagonistic criticism would be directed against the Government, but against the railway interests. I can assure the Noble Lord opposite (Lord Claud Hamilton) that he is not the only one who wants an inquiry. We desire an inquiry to overhaul the whole conditions under which the railway services of the country are carried on at the present time, and we wish to press some- 45 thing with regard to the increases of capital, the present charges and the conditions of labour which we think will open the eyes of the public, and perhaps the companies will find, long before the five years are up, that they would have done better to concede the five years' limit. They will drive us to fight, which many of us are prepared to do, in the interests of the trading community of the country.
§ Mr. GARDNER
It is my opinion that the bargain ought to be carried out. I believe that at the time of the strike the Government was in a very difficult position. They knew a great deal more about the dangers of the international position than most of us, and were quite justified in making the bargain they did. I am glad that they mean to carry out the pledge they gave. Without going into the merits of the strike, it is quite conceivable that the railway companies considered that they occupied a very strong position, and that in all probability in a very short time they would have broken the strike and gained a victory. Notwithstanding that, when approached by the Government, they adopted a most patriotic and proper course, and agreed with the Government that they would make certain concessions on conditions which were laid down. An hon. Member opposite said that this was a very unpopular measure. I should like to know why it is unpopular. It may be for the reason that the populace will have to pay some of the cost of the revision of these rates. I am not sure that it is a very bad thing under existing conditions. It is all very well to incline to philanthropy in dealing with these affairs, but if people know they will have to bear some of the cost they will exercise judgment. The hon. Member for the Wilton Division (Mr. C. Bathurst) said that Members for agricultural districts would have great difficulty in justifying their attitude towards this Bill to their constituents. I had no chance of giving a vote upon it, but since the Bill was discussed I have met my Constituents, and I have told them, agriculturists and traders, that I should have voted for the Bill and against the Amendment. I have had no remonstrance since then, nor do I know of any which is likely to come. I think the bargain with the railway companies is justifiable on the part of the Government. They were right in entering into that bargain and they have a right to be supported in carrying it out.
§ Mr. WEDGWOOD
I am sorry the Government have taken the course they have of accepting this Amendment of another place. It is very unfortunate that the Government should begin to give way to charges of dishonesty and breach of pledge made by the other side. We know that during the last year or so these charges have become the common stock-in-trade of the Tory party. I do not think any Prime Minister has ever been so accused of breach of faith and as being a traitor and a man without honour as the present Leader of the Liberal party at the hands of the party opposite. When the last debate on this Bill took place we heard the Noble Lord (Lord Claud Hamilton) in a white heat of fury, pouring forth abusive epithets upon the Prime Minister as to his breach of faith, and we saw in the "Times" the following day letters equally abusive, all making the same charge, that the Prime Minister was not a man of honour and could not keep his word, and that this instance of the Railways Bill was the most notorious one that there had ever been. Everyone who attended that debate and everyone who has heard the Prime Minister to-day knows perfectly well that there was no breach of faith whatever. Everyone admits that the way in which the Government have brought in this Bill against the wishes of their own party, against the wishes of the Opposition, against the wishes of nearly every Member in the House, is a standing example of people sticking to their pledges at all costs. To take an occasion such as this to make these charges seems to me to be contemptible, and, at the same time, to merit not mild acquiescence in the charges made, but rather the castigation which an adverse vote in this House would give, seeing that such an adverse vote would cause the dropping of the Bill.
There is another reason why I think it is unfortunate that we are accepting this Amendment. If there is any type of Bill which is peculiarly fitted to go into the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, surely it is this Bill. As everyone will admit who heard the debates in Committee or on Report, it is absolutely a leap in the dark. No trader knows what the result will be, and even the railway companies themselves do not know. The difficulty we had over the exact wording of paragraph (d) of the first Clause, and the other questions to be taken into account by the Commissioners in considering the justification of an increase of rate shows clearly that 47 the railway directors themselves and their legal advisers, and the trading bodies and their legal advisers, are all equally in the dark as to what use this Bill can be put to by the railway directors. That being so, surely it is all the more important that Parliament should keep its hand upon the safety valve and see what is likely to be the use made of this Bill by the railway companies. I believe myself that in agricultural districts where competition is impossible we shall see a very tight stringing up of rates for the carriage of agricultural produce. Where there is competition we shall not see any increase in the rates, and I think in such cases, seeing that we are legislating in the dark, it is most important that this Bill should come up for revision or at least for an opportunity of discussion—because that is all that the presence of a Bill in the Schedule gives—every year so that we may be able to bring points to the notice both of the Board of Trade and the railway companies periodically.
My second reason for saying it ought to be in the Schedule is this: We have got this peculiar position. This legislation is favoured by one particular vested interest—the vested interest of the railway companies. That vested interest is fortunately not now so strong in this House as it was ten or twenty years ago, but it is still firmly entrenched in another place. There the railway directors are supreme. If we ever find that the railway companies are using this Bill to strangle industry, we shall have the very greatest difficulty in passing a repealing Act. However easy it may be to get it through what the hon. Member (Mr. Bathurst) called the democratic House, where we have to justify our actions to our constituents, it will be extremely difficult to get it through the other House where the vested interests have such a direct interest in the perpetuation of this Bill. It will be a very different pair of shoes. If we had it in the Schedule of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, this House alone would be able to force the hand of the other place. The House of Lords would have to accept the excision of the measure because they would not risk throwing out the Expiring Laws Continuance Act which includes a great many other. Bills that they want to perpetuate, amongst them, the Agricultural Rating Act.
There is one other point I want to raise. The Noble Lord (Lord Claud Hamilton) 48 advocated this measure, not as being beneficial particularly to the railway interest, but because he considered such a measure would be of advantage now that the-Government have taken to interfering in industrial disputes. To my mind this measure is one of the worst results of the Government interfering in these industrial disputes. What will happen if the intercourse between the Government and the railway directors is to be repeated for all other disputes? Arc we to have the Government regularly, whenever there is a dispute in which they are requested to interfere, bribing the masters' side with some legislative sop in order to get them to give way to a certain extent to the men's terms? Is the Government not merely to become an arbitrator in trade disputes, but at the same time to put itself in the position of a Byzantine monarch of a thousand years ago, when they had to buy off the attacks of the barbarians by increased doles? It is not a proper position for a Government to take up, and it is not advisable that this Act should be a precedent for the future, because I want to urge the Government, if they ever have to interfere between masters and men on strike again, not to seek to buy off either side, but to use the powers that a Government has of coercion, not merely upon the workers by calling out the soldiers and police, but upon the directors and managers. Just as it was suggested during the coal strike that if things went on much longer the Government would put in receivers in charge of the mines to work them as Government concerns till the mine owners came to their senses, so it would have been perfectly feasible in 1911 for the Governmnt to have put in, not necessarily receivers, but managers, in charge of the railways, as was indeed done during the South African war in connection with the South African railways. There British officers were put in charge of the railways, and made to work them, and the railway companies were told the thing was to be settled up with them after the war was over. In the great railway strike of 1911 the same steps might have been taken. Military officers might have been put in charge and the companies might have been told that when the strike was over the Government would settle up with them. It would not have been necessary to put military officers in charge of the railways. The mere threat of acting on those lines would have brought the companies to their senses much quicker even than the promise 49 of a bribe at the expense of the rest of the community, such as we are to our deep regret carrying out to-day.
§ Mr. JAMES MASON
The hon. Member commenced his remarks by enlarging upon the advantage of putting this Bill into the Schedule of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. In my belief, and I think in the belief of a good many other people, it would be impossible by any form of words which could possibly be devised for any Government to ensure that this Bill would pass into that Schedule at the end of five years, because that would involve binding the Government which might then be in power. I should like to say a few words to express our satisfaction at the attitude which the Prime Minister has taken up on this matter. I believe that action is really the only one which is consistent with the fulfilment, both in the letter and in the spirit, of the pledge which he gave to the railway companies consistent with the dignity of the high office which he holds, and, above all, consistent with the sanctity of the pledges given by the State. I believe the people of this country will really be relieved to find that they can still place confidence in a promise given by a Government—a matter as to which they felt some doubt a few weeks ago. We who are connected with the railway companies have been criticised for not having intervened on the occasion when this Clause was inserted in the Bill on the Report stage. But the whole question of a time limit had been thoroughly thrashed out in Committee the night before. It had been fully explained by Members of the Government as being inconsistent with the pledge which had been given, and it had been defeated. When it was being discussed on the Report stage the President of the Board of Trade and the Attorney-General both said, clearly and precisely that it would be a breach of the pledge, and it really seemed as if there was nothing more to be said on the subject, and that there was nothing to gain by prolonging the proceedings.
I should like to say a word in regard to the attitude of the opponents of the measure. I quite admit that all Bills affecting railways affect also the interests of the traders, and hon. Members in all parts of the House are perfectly justified in offering the utmost and the most strenuous opposition they can to Bills of that kind. But this is no ordinary case of a railway Bill. This really was not a question of the interests of the railways as 50 against the interests of the traders. It was a question of whether or not the Government should be allowed to fulfil to the full degree, as they desired to fulfil, a pledge solemnly given to the railway companies. It seems to me that the importance of the fulfilment of a pledge of that kind is very far reaching. It is quite obvious that under the present conditions, in which the Board of Trade is constantly asked to intervene between the parties in various disputes, the whole usefulness of the Board will be very materially affected and very materially injured if it is felt by the parties to a dispute that a pledge given by the Government will not be confirmed by this House. It seems to me that hon. Gentlemen who are opponents of the principle of this Bill should realise that, in preventing the Government, if they could, from fulfilling this pledge, they would be taking upon themselves the very great responsibility of endangering the whole sanctity of State and official promises so far as the settling of future difficulties of the same kind are concerned, and also in other cases in which pledges of the Government might be necessary. I am sure these hon. Gentlemen will feel that in allowing the Government—although they may not approve of the terms of the Bill—to fulfil their pledge in an honourable way they are doing something which is far more important and far more far-reaching than any question of the interests of either the railway companies or the traders.
§ Mr. KEIR HARDIE
The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. James Mason) has spoken of the State and "we." I do not know who is either the State or the "we" in this matter. The Prime Minister certainly made no such claim, and it would be very interesting to know who arc the "we" to whom the hon. Member for Windsor, and also the Noble Lord the Member for South Kensington (Lord Claud Hamilton) referred. It seems to me a case of pocket interest against State interest.
§ Mr. KEIR HARDIE
I understood, and therefore it is a case of the railway directors against the community, and the fight that is being put up is exclusively in the pocket interest of the railway directors and the railway shareholders. The point at issue this afternoon is whether this measure is to come up for revision at the end of five years, or whether it is to be saddled in perpetuity upon the nation. I 51 quite agree with the Prime Minister's argument, and also that of the hon. Member for Windsor, that it is a difficult matter to repeal an Act which appears in the Schedule of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. The point is this: It is not a question of repealing the measure, but a question of having an opportunity of discussing the effect of the Bill we are now considering upon the trade and commerce of the nation. No case has yet been made out for this Bill, and there has been no attempt to make out a case except by referring to the promise which was given. In connection with that promise I wish to take serious exception to one statement made by the Prime Minister in the course of his remarks this afternoon. He told us that this pledge was given to the railway companies to induce them to abandon the exclusively favourable position which they held in connection with the dispute. We, on these benches, I am sure, with perfect unanimity disclaim any such interpretation of the then existing situation. It is quite true that the railway directors had behind them the whole of the British Army, and other forces as well, but their calculations as to the number of men involved in the strike had entirely miscarried, and despite the presence of the military and the shooting of strikers, the strike was spreading, and the favourable position, if there was any, at that particular moment was not with the railway directors, but with the men who were on strike.
While no attempt has been made to make out a case for this Bill, as a matter of fact all the evidence is against the Bill, even from the point of view of the railway companies. The dividends are going up. A few days ago the railway companies published their balance-sheets. I have not got the figures beside me, but the statement can be verified that there has been a large increase in the takings during the past year, and despite the increase in wages, higher dividends are being paid than previous to wages going up. The argument for this Bill is that the railway companies are to be able to recoup themselves out of the trading community to the extent which the improvements in the conditions of their employés involves extra cost. But that is putting a premium upon slovenly management. What right has this House to assume that the increasing of wages is going to add to the cost of working the railways? Take, 52 for example, the tramway systems of Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, and London, and it can be shown that just as the rates of pay to the men increase and the working day is reduced, so do the profits increase. That is the outcome of actual experience. Low-paid men cannot be expected to give good work. Men who are getting 15s., 16s., or 17s. a week have not the stamina to give good work, and they have not the spirit. Besides, the railway companies have already taken good care to recoup themselves for any increase in expenditure. Excursion rates are being raised; week-end fares have been raised, and season tickets have gone up. The size of trains is being increased, and altogether railway companies, partly by increased fares, partly by more efficient management, and partly by co-ordination in connection with working arrangements which results in avoiding competition and also the running of three or four trains at the same time covering the same area, are, I believe, recouping themselves for any increase caused by the improved conditions of the men. Therefore the alleged case for this Bill entirely fails. The Prime Minister had agreed to accept the Amendment made in another place in order that he may not even have the appearance of violating the promise made to the railway directors. He does not wish to render that promise nugatory or to impair its value. That is the phrase he used. I hope he is going to follow the same kind of action in regard to Women Suffrage and see that his promise on that question is not rendered nugatory.
Apart from that, I fail to see anything in the five years' limitation which in any way either impairs the promise made to the railway directors or renders it nugatory. Already, as every Member of the House is aware, the trading, commercial, and agricultural interests of the country are seriously handicapped by the high rates paid in this country as compared with those paid by our Continental competitors, and this Bill proposes to still further handicap our trading interests at home. That would be a splendid argument for Tariff Reform. If the Government want to impress that upon the railway directors and those in favour of Tariff Reform, this Bill will be most effective. But it will have another effect which this House should not lose sight of. If this Bill becomes law it will add considerably—I cannot say how much at present—to the value of the railways. There is bound to come a time when this House will follow the example 53 of every other great industrial nation by nationalising the railways. When that time comes we shall have to pay millions more for the railways in consequence of the Bill we are now discussing. If the railway directors come here and tell us that they cannot work the railways and yet pay the workers a reasonable living wage without this Bill, let them admit their failure. Let the Government take over the railways and work them in the interests of the community, and for the benefit of our trade and commerce. This is not the time when the Clause now under discussion should be omitted from the Bill. The House of Lords is showing its contempt for the Government and the House of Commons by holding up two at least of the great measures of the Session, and we are asked, at their bidding, overriding the free will of the House of Commons, to injure the trade and commerce of the country, and for no other reason or purpose than to enhance the value of the pocket interests of the railway companies themselves.
One point more: If the Government is to scrupulously observe its promise to the railway companies, it ought to insist on the railway companies scrupulously observing their undertaking as the outcome of the strike and as part of the settlement. A Commission was set up to inquire into the circumstances of railway working, and especially into the relationships between the companies and their employés. One of the recommendations of the Commission was that before a railway servant could be dismissed for disobedience he should have an opportunity of stating his case, and of bringing forward witnesses in his own defence. The Commission pointed out that to, first of all, dismiss a man and then try his case was putting him at a serious disadvantage. It was a case of Jeddart justice—hanging your man and trying him afterwards. A case of that kind is now agitating the whole country.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
That does not arise on this question. What the House is now discussing is only the question of the time limit.
§ Mr. KEIR HARDIE
I understood from the speeches that a discussion on this point could be raised. The point I want to make is that since the Government has observed scrupulously its promise to the railway companies, on the other hand it should insist on the railway companies carrying out scrupulously the recommendations of 54 the Royal Commission. The case, which I will not discuss, is in direct violation of those recommendations which were accepted by the railway companies amongst others, and if the Government is going to carry out scrupulously its undertaking to the companies, then in common fairness it should insist upon the companies carrying out scrupulously their obligations towards the men. We on these benches shall vote against this Amendment for one reason that we do not want even to make it appear that the House of Lords has still power to coerce the House of Commons, for we know that apart from the pressure of Government Whips the House would not accept the Amendment now being offered. And the second reason is because a Bill so dangerous to the trading interests of the community should not be imposed in perpetuity upon us, but should come up for discussion from time to time under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill.
§ Mr. PETO
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Wilton in regretting the decision to which the Prime Minister has come this afternoon. I desire to call attention to the way in which he explained that the Government had come to their decision. He said that the Government could not possibly accept any Amendment which would render this Bill nugatory or impair the value of the concession which he had made to the railway company. When this particular Amendment was debated on the Report stage in this House, two hon. Members who were railway directors, the Noble Lord the Member for Kensington and the hon. Member for Durham, both used similar words. Both said that the Amendment would render the Bill a nullity. I want to ask the House to consider what that really means. Does not it imply that so bad from the trader's point of view, and of course in the interests of the country, is this bargain which the Government have made, that it is perfectly certain, if it ever came up for revision again before this House even in five years' time, there is not a ghost of a chance of its going through the House of Commons? Is not that the strongest possible argument for keeping some kind of control over it, and are we not entitled to say undoubtedly this was a bargain made as a temporary expedient in a time of great pressure, when there were great forces arrayed one against the other, in a moment of intense excitement? Surely it is only reasonable now that a precise limit should be placed upon this pledge of 55 the Government, and that we should not bind a future House of Commons, but should give it the certainty that after some years it should have an opportunity of deciding whether this Bill is to go into the Expiring Laws Continuance Schedule or come up for revision. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition referred to one matter of grievance between the traders and the railway companies as to the preferential rates that are given to foreigners. I quite agree that that is a very important matter, but, compared with the other great grievance under which traders in this country suffer, it is a comparatively small matter. There is a whole list of questions long since due for settlement, and I think that unless we have in the Bill this Amendment, which was put in after full consideration and with the approval of the Prime Minister himself as carrying out his pledge subject to the reservations and restrictions he mentioned this afternoon, after the experience of the Government during the present Session of touching railway matters at all, the trading community of the country may wait for a great many more years than five before a Bill is brought in to remedy the great grievances under which they suffer. I may refer briefly to two or three of them. Not only is this question of preferential rates a burning question, but all such questions as that which has been a subject of recommendation by a Departmental Committee, the question of accounts——
§ Mr. PETO
I am sorry that I cannot refer to these matters, which are an argument in favour of having a limitation upon this present Bill and some opportunity of revision. I will, however, return to the argument against the Amendment, omitting the five years' limit in another way that will come within your ruling. I want to refer to the fact, amongst others, that the Conciliation Boards which also were appointed at the same time are not permanently established either. Further, that the whole relations between the trading community and the railway companies are bound to come up, and ought to come up, at some very early period for the consideration of this House; and as the whole question of transport of goods in this country is at the present time in a condition of absolute flux and transition, when 56 we find that new methods of transport are coming forward and entirely new conditions affecting materially the whole cost of transport, and the whole question of the ability of the railway companies to grant increased wages without increasing the rates that they charge for the transport of goods, when all this is the condition of affairs in this country, this is not the time when this House should saddle upon the traders, like the Old Man of the Sea upon the back of Sinbad, this Bill as a perpetual burden. I ask the House to consider now the question which is coming forward very strongly, the use of the main roads of the country for heavy goods transport. On account of the very heavy railway rates now charged for the transport of goods, we find the main roads of the country being used for vehicles of increasing speed and carrying an increasing tonnage of goods every day on account of the great expense of transport by rail. Surely we are not going to leave over the question of these roads, which correspond to the permanent way of the railways, and are largely kept up at the cost of the local ratepayer, while it is the goods traffic of the country which is being transported over them.
When such a great transition in transport is taking place we ought to insist upon having every opportunity of reconsidering the whole principle on which the concession was made, the principle that any increase in wages must necessarily mean an increase of the burden of railway rates in the country. We have reports now of a lot of almost forgotten Royal Commissions and Departmental Committees on all kinds of subjects which have been pigeon-holed, or put aside. Though all were designed to do something to facilitate the transport of goods in this country, yet not, one of them has been touched by the present Government or any other Government in recent times. I say, therefore, that this is the only opportunity we have got of putting in any degree a screw upon the Government and the railway directors to undertake that some day these questions should have some consideration. Therefore I shall not be able to agree to the surrender of this concession, which was fully debated and carefully considered and which in the form in which it was finally put out of this Bill, was according to the Prime Minister himself such a very small matter as to be almost infinitesimal. If that is so, I at any rate wish to be no party to its being taken out and the whole of the long and heated debate in this 57 House being made absolutely valueless, and that when we thought we had gained, not a concession, for I do not regard it as a concession, but some powers in the hands of the Members of this House who represent the interests of the trade of the country, we are to have it snatched away from us at this eleventh hour.
The hon. Member for Stockport said just now that this was a bargain between two parties that could not bind a third party. The third party that he referred to was the Members of this House. Not only is it perfectly true that it could not possibly bind the decision of this House—and the Prime Minister never assumed in his speech that it could or that a decision of this House would involve a violation of the pledge he gave to the railway companies—but there is another important party to be considered: that is the trader of the country. The Noble Lord the Member for Kensington asked the hon. Member for Wilton just now if at the time when this railway strike was in full force he would have said to his constituents, "Do you want it to go on or be stopped?" That is not the question, and does not even approach the question which is before us. We do not propose to go back upon this bargain that was made. We only say, do not let us be saddled with it without any possibility of revision for an indefinite period of years. Considering the whole trading and agricultural community in this country, which admittedly could not be consulted at the time, it is not within the competence of hon. Members in this House representing various trading and agricultural interests to say to their constituents in effect that, although they were not consulted as to this method of settlement and the very principle that underlie it, though nobody has got a word to say in favour of it, yet because we are told now that this five years' limit is to be taken away, we are to acquiesce in that and humbly to say that we really did not mean what we said when we were debating this question in their interests only a few days ago in this House. I hope that hon. Members will vote in the Division Lobby in favour of placing some limit upon the application of this Bill, and I hope that every single hon. Member who was here the other night when this question was debated on the Report stage will support the other hon. Members who are prepared to challenge a Division and vote in accordance with their principles on this Occasion.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Mr. C. E. PRICE
I should not have taken part in this Debate but for the fact that we have had two speeches from directors of railway companies. I do not know whether hon. Members have read the remarks made by chairmen of different railway companies at meetings of their share-holders, and noticed the way in which the Prime Minister has been attacked for the statement that he made in the House, or that was made rather through the President of the Board of Trade, that if the five years' limit was accepted in the Bill he would not look upon it as a breach of the pledge. Notwithstanding that statement, the great bulk—in fact I think every chairman of every railway company which has met since we have met—has taken the occasion of the presentation of the report to the shareholders to attack the Prime Minister for that speech. It is perfectly certain that when the statement made to the House by the Prime Minister, giving the pledge to allow the railway companies to advance their rates if they could prove to the Commissioners that the advance in wages warranted their doing so, that pledge was given to get rid of a strike. Surely five years is sufficient to allow railway companies to raise wages. The bargain was that if the railway companies raised wages, then on the strength of the rise given they were to be at liberty to raise the rates to meet that charge. Both parties to that bargain accepted it. It is very extraordinary, since this Bill has assumed its present position, that many financial papers have expressed the view that it would have a beneficial effect on the dividends of the railway companies. In almost all cases they have been able to show that the effect of the Bill would be to improve the position of the railway companies, and have a beneficial effect on their dividends. For myself, I am quite sure that the effect of this Bill will be precisely the same as the effect of the Bill of 1898, which proved disastrous to the traders of the country. The railway companies took advantage of that Act to enormously increase their rates, with the result that the great mass of the small traders of the country suffered grievously. I am quite sure that the effect of this Bill will be of precisely the same nature. I do not know whether it is possible for the Prime Minister or the President of the Board of Trade to answer the question which was asked by the Member for Wiltshire (Mr. Bathurst), as to whether anything is to be done in the coming Session by introducing the provisions of the 59 other Railway Bill, which was dropped, I presume, for want of time. Many of the Clauses of the other Railway Bill are extremely valuable to the traders, and I think it would be a great pity if at the earliest possible moment those Clauses were not introduced.
§ Mr. MILDMAY
I feel very strongly on the point at issue, from which I think a good many hon. Gentlemen have travelled very widely. I need not follow the hon. Member opposite in investigating alternative methods to which there might have been recourse for settling the dispute. I think we all know that at that moment of national crisis there was no alternative method of settling the strike immediately, and that it was desirable it should be settled. I am sorry I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Wiltshire or the hon. Member below the Gangway who just now supported him. I am not a railway director, and I am the representative of an agricultural constituency, and there is no man in this House more keen to champion the interests of tenant farmers and of small traders as far as railway rates are concerned than I am. But I do feel that duty points out only one course to follow on the present occasion, and that is to support the Government. Why? Because to my mind the whole country was a party to the bargain made at that time. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no."] I merely state that as a matter of opinion. The people of the country knew that the crisis was one of almost Imperial importance, and I am quite sure I am right in saying that no voice was raised throughout the country at that time against this bargain. [An HON. MEMBER: "They knew nothing about it."] I think they were really aware of what was going on. I say it is not open to us, having received the benefit of that bargain, to turn round and say to the railway interests concerned that we are not going to be true to our obligation. Honour requires that we should fulfil that bargain. I do not think the position of the traders of the country would be prejudiced, for the reason given by the Prime Minister, if we were to put a measure like this into the Expiring Laws Continuance Act; where, as experience shows, it would be likely to remain for ever.
Years ago, in the thirties, a measure was included in the Schedule of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act which absolved personal property from being liable to the payment of rates, and I see no prospect of 60 getting that question tackled. It really seems to me that the farmers and small traders would be relying upon a broken reed; and if they reject the Amendment of the House of Lords, they would be in no better position, rather otherwise. I attach very great importance to the suggestion made by the Leader of the Opposition, wherein he stipulated, or at any rate appealed to the Government, to give early attention to the question of the preference which is at present given to foreign produce on our railways. It was a very important statement he made when he declared that his experience at the Board of Trade had convinced him that there was substance in this grievance. As has been said by the hon. Member behind me and by others, I hope the Government will in the coming Session, and without delay, bring up this whole question, which cries out for settlement, and I trust that, before proceeding to a Division, the Prime Minister or the President of the Board of Trade will be able to give us an assurance to that effect. For the reasons I have given, I think honour requires us to cement the bargain which was consented to last year.
§ Mr. LOUGH
Though I was a strong opponent of this proposal, yet I desire to say a few words in support of the course which the Prime Minister has now asked the House to adopt. My hon. Friends who have spoken against that course have gone into the merits of the question, and, in one or two instances, were called to order. None of us can admit that this is an occasion on which the merits of the question can be discussed. We all know that the promise was made, and although I made my protest against it at the time, and pointed out that it would have a far-reaching effect and would be of a serious nature, as this House one day would see, yet I think the bargain, having been made, should be at once carried out. The occasion to protest against the proposed bargain was when it was suggested; but hon. Members below the Gangway were certainly parties to the negotiations, and it was then they should have said that they would not accept them. There was a very serious situation, and this promise was made with a view to a settlement of this kind. I was one of those who thought it was too high a price to pay for the settlement, and that was the occasion on which to discuss the point. But to bring it up now, after the strike has been settled, the bargain carried out, and the money paid 61 for it, if I may so put it, whether the thing was right or wrong, seems to me an extremely foolish thing to do. I think the Prime Minister has adopted a straightforward course. My hon. Friends, some of whom have had less experience of this House than I have had, seem to think that these two futile proposals contained in the Amendment, and which were clamoured for at the end of the discussion, are of some value.
The first proposal is that at the end of five years this measure shall come up for consideration, the effect being to tie the hands of this House in regard to the matter. But the bargain having been made, let it be carried out, and carried out handsomely, as the Prime Minister proposes. Why should we have this five years' limitation? Supposing the measure turns out badly, and there are complaints and grievances, why should we have to wait five years? Let us at the end of one year, or two years, come together and endeavour to get rid of the Bill. Hon. Members think that at the end of five years there will be a great settlement and that they will be full of zeal. Nothing of the kind. My submission is that instead of putting in this five years' limit, the Bill should be carried as proposed, and then, at the end of one or two years, we would be able to deal with it. My experience is in the case of a five years' limitation that the end of that period always comes at an inconvenient moment. There was the Agricultural Rating Act, of which I was one of the most strong opponents, and which was put into the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. We have not been able to do anything with regard to it. The end of the five years' period is two or three years off, and the experience is that the period concludes mostly at the time of a General Election, or at a time when nothing can be done. The five years' limit, instead of helping those who are opposed to the policy of this Bill, will hinder them, while, at the same time, the five years is an absolute protection to the railway companies.
The other point as to including this measure in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act is one which has given rise to an interesting debate, and it is rather assumed that it will afford a most opportune time to put an end to this nefarious policy. That is a ludicrous view to take of the matter. The Expiring Laws Continuance Act is one of the pious frauds of the British Constitution. Once a measure 62 is put into the Expiring Laws Continuance Act you cannot get rid of it. It comes up automatically in the middle of the night, perhaps, and nothing can be done with it at all. The truth is, if I were Prime Minister with a very shady proposal to make, I would at once offer to put it in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, for once there one might regard it as safe for ever. I suggest to my hon. Friends that, viewing all the circumstances, and viewing the doubtful character of the two proposals—this five years' limit, which will give the railway companies five years' security, and the inclusion of the measure in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act—they should have nothing at all to say to them, but should recognise that if we made a bad bargain, as I think we did, nevertheless we should carry it out, good or bad. The Prime Minister wishes to carry it out, and I submit that the bargain having been made it should be carried out in the handsome spirit in which he proposes to do it. Let us, not at the end of five years, but at any time, when our duty to our constituents requires it, endeavour to effect some alteration in the measure which will benefit them in the highest degree.
§ Mr. GEORGE ROBERTS
I happen to have been concerned in the negotiations which took place during the strike of 1911, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mildmay) that I certainly had not the impression that the bargain was a matter of common knowledge. I never understood that an undertaking of the character incorporated in this Bill was given by the Government.
§ Mr. G. ROBERTS
I would not intentionally misstate anything to this House, but my understanding at that time was that the Government undertook to put to the House of Commons whether something should be done. My point is that the Government pledge was fulfilled when they made their proposal to this House. It certainly is not competent for them, or for the head of any Government Department, to pledge this House to any proposal of a particular character, and therefore I do not think that the Prime Minister or anybody else could reasonably be charged with having broken a pledge if they submit their proposal to the House of Commons, and, if it did not find favour with the House, in the exercise of their powers they are perfectly capable of 63 declining to accept it. It appears to me that the position of the Leader of the Opposition is a very peculiar one to occupy. I have listened to very many speeches from that right hon. Gentleman objecting to the extraordinary powers now being exercised by the Executive. He and his followers are constantly protesting against the Cabinet becoming dictators of the House of Commons. This proposal at any rate is an acquiescence in that particular policy, and therefore it appears to me to be hardly a consistent argument emanating from that quarter. I am not going to dispute with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Islington (Mr. Lough) respecting questions of Parliamentary procedure and practice. Certainly his long experience here gives him authority for speaking to which a young Member like myself can never profess to aspire. Nevertheless, I cannot conceive it to be possible when we have the two parties in thorough agreement here this afternoon, that the matter can be reopened within five years. I think that they would immediately tell their respective supporters "we found ourselves in agreement and in co-operation, we entered into an undertaking, and we think five years is too small a period, or two or three years, as the case might be, for the matter to be reopened effectively." I think that five years certainly would give the various interests concerned some experience of the operation of this measure, and if the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill provides any facility at all, it is one certain opportunity. At any rate in my opinion it is, and I know it has been exercised even if it comes in the middle of the night. On that point I think the various parties might exercise their influence with the Government in order to ensure that the Bill came up at a time to allow reasonable consideration to be given to any of the Bills incorporated therein.
We on these benches are of the opinion that some opportunity ought to be preserved to this House to revise this measure, which I am certain, if the Whips were taken off, would not possibly pass through the House. I know hon. Friends who are entirely opposed to the measure, but will be compelled to vote for that with which they entirely disagree because of the obligations involved in it. They will be voting for the purpose of retaining the Government in power, a position I thoroughly appreciate; 64 but I say that proves, if the matter was left to the unfettered judgment of the House, that the right hon. Gentleman's proposal could not possibly be accepted this afternoon. I recognise that the trading community as well as the railway men have substantial grievances. I sat on a Departmental Inquiry where we had representatives of agricultural, trading, and commercial interests appearing before us with grievances which could not possibly be controverted. The railway companies have declared that those interests have no right to contemplate consideration as the result of various economies that they are effecting already. In my opinion, the experience of the railway world proves that the railway companies are able to do the just thing towards their employés, and able to do the just thing towards trade and commerce at present, while under this Bill those grievances must be intensified and the agricultural and trading communities generally will find an increasing difficulty in getting any redress, because, what happens? If a trader has a grievance he has got to go before an extremely expensive tribunal, the Railway and Canal Commission. It is a common cause of complaint in the country that, as a matter of fact, the railway companies occupy an impregnable position as against any combination of traders.
An hon. Gentleman argued this afternoon that an increase of wage must necessarily be accompanied with the obligation of its being passed on to the consumer; but here we are dealing with the monopoly which does not apply in every other case in the community, and, as it is, we allege that this monopoly is already receiving a very good return on the capital, and that the companies did not need the further facility provided under this Bill. We have also to recognise that the trading community is entirely in the grip of this monopoly, and therefore their grievances are bound to be aggravated. There should be facility provided whereby this Act would come under periodical review and whereby those grievances would have some chance of being ventilated. I know that the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister is scrupulously a man of honour, but I do not feel that the resistance to the Lords on this occasion would in any way violate the pledge that he has given, and that resistance would certainly not, I think, endanger this Bill at all. I listened to the debate in another place, and the Noble Lords who spoke did not 65 pretend to speak in the name of the trading community or in the name of the railway men; they got up and spoke candidly in the capacity of railway directors. They want this Bill, whether there is a five years' restriction in it or not, and I feel sure, if the Government had decided, as I believe everybody contemplated they would, to resist the Lords in this Amendment, then the Lords would have given way, and the railway directors would have seen that the Bill was not destroyed, because, I believe, that those who understand railway finance already contemplate this Bill to be a very valuable acquisition to their existing privileges, and that it will enormously enhance the capital value of railways, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr (Mr. Keir Hardie) has made reference. For my own part, I profoundly regret that the Government should have yielded on this Motion. I think if they had stood firm the Bill would have gone through and the various sections interested in the House would have been more satisfied—that opportunity would have occasionally occurred for them to review its operation. Having regard to the decision of the Government, my colleagues and myself will have no hesitation whatever in challenging a Division and going into the Lobby against this proposal.
§ Mr. JOWETT
I entertain, along with a great many hon. Members, very great respect for the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Islington (Mr. Lough), but I am sorry to say that the inconsistencies which seemed to run through his speech appeared to me to altogether destroy its value from the point of view of being an opponent of the attitude which we are taking regarding the Lords Amendments. Let me point out one of those inconsistencies. He reminded the House that at the very outset when this Bill was proposed, or an indication was given that it would be put forward, that he warned the House seriously as to the very far-reaching effect and the very great importance of the principle that was being put forward, and yet in the same speech he tried to argue that the Bill itself is not so important as the railway directors appear to think it is, and he has altogether minimised the very proposal which he had previously stated was a very important and far-reaching one.
§ Mr. LOUGH
As the hon. Gentleman has charged me with inconsistency, it was when the promise was made by the Government originally in the settling of the strike that I said that that promise would 66 be found to carry this House a long way. That is quite different from saying, when this Bill, which has been attenuated to the merest fulfilment of that promise, that we will be treating it wisely or unwisely by rejecting the present Amendment.
§ Mr. JOWETT
I thought the right hon. Gentleman went rather farther than that, but of course I accept his explanation. As many of us objected when the Bill was discussed before it went to the Lords, it is certainly our duty now to press that objection again when the House of Lords has interfered. There is a great constitutional principle really involved in the proposal contained in this Bill, and that is that for the first time, as I read the situation, Parliament is going to give statutory recognition to an advance in prices to correspond with wages. We are all sorry that prices have advanced, but when we are told it is because wages have been advanced, I do not think we are told the truth, as I think there are other circumstances which might be brought in. Still, we all think that it is a very bad thing, and that it is a weakness if we cannot raise wages without increasing the price. Here is the Government of this country deliberately, by Statute, putting the power into the hands of the railways, not only to increase prices, not only to resist those who complain of an increase of prices, but actually to go further and say that the increase shall be put on not to meet a particular circumstance at a particular time, but that for all time the railway companies shall be indemnified against the risk of increase of wages, and that, however low the wages may be paid, if redress is sought, that redress shall be at the expense of the public instead of at the expense of the railway shareholders. When this matter was discussed before it was pointed out that the railway companies are making very large profits. Even if the profits seem to be small in percentages, they are not really small when all the conditions are taken into account, and there is no excuse whatever for what is being sought to be put on the traders of this country in the way of extra expenses for increase in wages having regard to the fact, not only that the railway companies pay large profits under all the circumstances, but also that they have increased the prices of the weekly tickets and excursion tickets and contract tickets, and that they are making special charges for demurrage, and insisting on charges being paid for warehousing. Every kind of burden they can put on the ordinary public is being put on, and all those burdens are 67 increasing the value of railway shares. Here now is Parliament asked to further increase the value of those shares by an enactment which will indemnify the companies, not only for five years, but for all time against any increase in the increased cost in wages. A further point that I wish to emphasise is that from the point of view of representative government this bargain is absolutely indefensible. Members are elected to vote according to their convictions; they represent the public. What right has any Government or Cabinet to make a bargain with any set of interested parties in the country, and to try to force that bargain on a body of representatives who have not been parties to the making of the bargain, and who, if they had been, would clearly have gone against the opinion of the vast majority of those whom they were sent here to represent? There has never passed through this House in my time a Bill which had fewer friends than the measure under consideration. Apart from interested parties, one looks in vain for any real friend of the Bill. What an object-lesson we have had in this discussion! Various interested Members have spoken. I may mention, chiefly, the Noble Lord the Member for Kensington (Lord C. Hamilton), who represents the Great Eastern Railway Company. There has also been a Member representing the Great Northern Railway Company; another representing the Great Central Railway Company; another representing the Midland Railway Company; and another representing the Great Western Railway Company. The whole thing is absurd. To go through the list of supporters of the Bill gives the case away entirely.
I am absolutely opposed to the Lords Amendment being accepted. I am very sorry indeed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the real author of the Bill, is not present. The bargain is truly typical of him, and it is because of that bargain that we are now in this sorry mess. The Government have often been charged by Members opposite with being under the dictatorship of the Leader of the Irish party. I have never believed that charge. I have always thought that the Members of the Government were as sincere in their belief in Home Rule as I am. But when we have an exhibition like the present, when, after full consideration, the Government and their supporters have deliberately inserted the Clause to which 68 the Lords object, and then, because of the storm raised by the Noble Lord the Member for Kensington (Lord C. Hamilton), their new dictator, and his Friends, they go back on their considered attitude, it makes one think that, after all, there is a dictatorship somewhere. Members of the Opposition have continually taunted Members on these benches with unwillingness to press matters to a Division. That charge is not true. Let us see what happens to-day. We shall press this matter to a Division. The Opposition can turn out the Government to-day if they choose. Will they do it?
§ Mr. JOWETT
They will not turn out the Government on any question affecting the interests of property. Vested interests of any sort or kind they will protect. They are willing at any time, as far as I can make out the position, to enter into a conspiracy with the Government in order to protect property, but they will not turn out the Government on a question which affects the lives and interests of the masses of the community. If they were so willing, here and now would be their chance.
§ Mr. STEPHEN WALSH
As one who-took part in the two previous Debates on this matter, I should not like to give a silent vote this afternoon. On a previous occasion I pressed as strongly as I could the desirability of inserting a three years' limit. I would like to consider for a few moments some of the arguments put forward this afternoon by supporters of the action which the Government now propose to take. One hon. Member asked the House to go back in memory to the conditions that prevailed in 1911. He said that at that time there was a great national emergency. So there was. On that we all agree. But there was a great national emergency also a few months later, and with that emergency the House again dealt. The cases of the railway workers and of the miners were absolutely parallel. Both cases arose from the necessity for the payment of better wages to the workers, and a great stoppage took place in each case. What did the Government do in the case of the miners? They imposed upon the mine owners an obligation to pay a minimum wage—for what? For all time? Not a bit of it. They said that the obligation must come to an end after three years unless Parliament otherwise determines. There is 69 nothing about the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. The measure is positively to come to an end unless Parliament declares its willingness to continue it from year to year. There is no question of a repealing Bill having to risk its fate at the hands of the House of Lords. The obligation is to come to an end after three years. The railway workers also had a promise that their case should be taken into consideration. A promise was made to the railway directors that if they would come to a kind of agreement to raise their workers' wages they should in effect have the right—because this is what the action of the Government means—to levy a tax upon the country for all time. It is very curious that the obligation upon the mine-owners to pay a minimum wage to workers admittedly in the most dangerous occupation that the mind of man can conceive must come to an end in three years unless Parliament otherwise determines, while the obligation upon the country to recoup wealthy railway corporations must go on for ever. I submit that no Government which attached the slightest value to any shred of consistency could support those two propositions.
Further, there is being placed upon the promise made by the Government an interpretation which no honest use of the English language can possibly justify. It is perfectly true that it was said that any increase in the cost due to increase of wages should be made a matter upon which the railway companies could apply to the Railway and Canal Commissioners and obtain a certain relief by the raising of rates; but it was not said, and no Government is competent to say, that the matter should be put out of the reach of Parliament for all time. There is not a single word in the statements made in this House to say that the promise imposed an indefinite obligation upon the country to recoup the railway corporations, no matter what changes took place. Moreover, the promise itself was obtained under false pretences. That is rather a strong statement to make, but I guarantee to prove it to the hilt. The promise given was based upon the fact that railway workers' wages were extremely low, and that the Conciliation Boards had failed in the endeavour to remedy the conditions of which the railway workers complained. The Conciliation Boards were set up in 1907. Between 1907 and 1910 the actual wages in bulk of the railway workers went down by hundreds of thousands of pounds. One company alone—the Midland—were paying in 1910 a less wage 70 bill by £190,000 than they were three years earlier. The London and North-Western Railway Company had a less wage total by well over £40,000. The Great Northern Railway Company were saving £5,000 a year. The Great Eastern Railway Company were saving £5,000 a year. That is in 1910 as compared with 1907. And yet the Conciliation Boards were set up ostensibly for the purpose of raising the wages of people who were disgracefully paid. That is not too strong a description to apply to the wages of people who even now by tens of thousands are receiving less than £1 a week for adult labour, with, in hundreds of cases wives and families to support. The promise was obtained by the pleading of the railway directors in forma pauperis, and yet they had been actually saving in the three preceding years hundreds of thousands of pounds on their wages lists.
If it was right at all to have made such a promise—and I, for one, say that the promise having been made it is impossible for the Government to recede from it—it is certainly very unfair that there should be placed upon that promise an interpretation which by any honest use of language it cannot possibly bear. The cases of the miners underground and of the railway workers are admittedly parallel cases. The nation's industry was brought to a standstill from parallel causes, namely, the absolute determination of the workers concerned to have attention paid to their grievances. In both cases industry came practically to an end for the time being. The grievances of the men were admitted. The claim of the miner for better wages was admitted; the claim of the railway workers for better wages was equally admitted. In the case of the miners a definite limit of three years is applied to the Minimum Wage Act, and unless Parliament otherwise determines the employers are not to be saddled with any further obligation. Where does consistency come in? If parallel causes and parallel results are admitted—and that was the case—why should we impose upon the public in the case of the railways a burden from which they are never to obtain relief, while in the case of the miners we impose upon the mineowners a burden from which they are to obtain relief three years hence. Another point is this: that with every desire to be fair to these wealthy corporations we believe in the five years' limit, after which the thing shall not come to an end. It is not suggested that it should come to an end. It is only suggested that 71 Parliament should keep within its own grasp its right of review. Five years is at least a fair time within which these very wealthy corporations should be given the power of recouping themselves, if they have suffered any loss or grievance. But when we know perfectly well that at this moment the railway corporations are paying dividends higher than they have paid for forty years.
§ Mr. S. WALSH
Only a few weeks ago—less than four weeks ago—the Midland Railway Company declared a dividend for the last half-year higher than that which they had declared any time within forty years. The London and North Western Railway Company declared a dividend of 8 per cent.—higher than any declared for the last forty years. They carried a greater amount to reserve than they have carried for many years past, and altogether it is admitted that the condition of railway dividends at this present moment is better than at any time within the last quarter of a century. That in itself surely enables us to say, indeed, compels us to say, that while on the one hand we do desire that an honest promise should be honestly carried out, on the other we should fight against any dishonest interpretation of such a promise. It has been said, "Oh, well, you will be fobbed off very readily with the Expiring Laws Continuance Act." I listened with very great respect to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Islington, but I wondered as I heard him whether he is a better judge of the interests of the railway corporations than they are themselves! I wondered after all whether their interests are not better understood by hon. Gentlemen like those whose names were read out, and by gentlemen of the type of those in another place! They, I think, better understand and better represent the railway companies than does the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Islington. I should like to ask after all when points of honour are being so freely bandied about in this House, when it is constantly being urged against poor men that they assist the Government for the purpose of keeping salaries of £400 a year—with how little truth I care not to say—I wondered whether the point of honour has ever struck hon. Members who are directors of these vast corporations; whether they are entitled to vote on occasions like this? Whether after all £400 a year is not of infinitely less importance 72 than the importance of the vast corporations over which they preside, and out of which, I am quite assured, they make a very handsome thing. I have wondered whether after all—take the names of those hon. Gentlemen which have been given—if a high sense of honour did actuate their Parliamentary life they would not feel it better to keep out of the Division Lobby on an occasion such as the present.
One word more. We ourselves believe that the trading public of the nation has a right to be protected by every Member in this House, from the Prime Minister downwards. We believe that if there is a real chance of the trading community being prejudiced, their case ought to be stated in this House by the humblest Member amongst us. We believe that as against these wealthy corporations the trading community in the past has had little or no chance. What is everybody's business is nobody's business. The wealthy railway corporations have the best legal intellect at their disposal. They have their accounts kept in a manner which certainly satisfies them, but which mystifies everybody else. It is almost impossible—it would hardly be an abuse of language to say it is utterly impossible—for traders not very well represented, having not nearly so good talent at their disposal, having nothing like the vast resources of the wealthy corporations, to get anything like evenhanded justice when they go before the Railway Commissioners. That makes it the more necessary that this House should pay constant attention to the interests of the trading community, and that is the reason why we on these benches will oppose the action of the Government.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
On behalf of the traders I wish to say a very few words in regard to this proposal. I represent a Division in a city that is particularly prone to trade, and I think therefore as one of the representatives of Liverpool I am entitled to speak upon this very important matter. We are considering the present proposal in the light of two or three facts. The first fact is that our railway rates in England to-day are the highest in the world. They are so high that I believe I am perfectly right in——
§ Mr. SPEAKER
We are not discussing the Bill as a whole now; the hon. Member should confine himself to the particular topic.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
I apologise if I have transgressed in the slightest 73 degree. But when we were arguing this point a while ago, which we did at very considerable length, and when this Clause was inserted, it was a question as to rates, and from the point of view of the trading community we felt very keenly. Having regard to the shape of this Bill, it was thought very desirable that its operation should be restricted to five years. I will not pursue that line of argument, but we also have to have regard to the fact that undoubtedly the Bill was called for, and that these rights were to be given to the railway companies in view of perhaps a very serious discrepancy in the wages of the men. Attention has been called from these benches to the fact, and I can fully corroborate it from my own experience—because there are little homes in my own Constituency where for three or four days a week the family has nothing to eat but porridge. They cannot afford it. The people I refer to are in the employ of the London and North-Western Railway Company——
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member must confine himself to the question as to whether this Bill is to be continued regularly or whether there is to be a time limit. I do not see that porridge has anything to do with the matter.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
I regret very much that I have rather strayed away from the point. From the point of view of the traders it was considered exceedingly desirable that the operation of this Bill should be restricted to five years. I spoke and voted in favour of that being done the other night. Having regard to the speech which we have listened to from the Prime Minister, I could certainly be disposed to agree to the proposal of the Government if we on behalf of the traders can only get from the Government a pledge that during the next Session they will deal with the traders' two principal grievances. The traders thought these were going to be dealt with in this particular Bill. It is principally for that reason that we desired that this Bill should be restricted to five years, so that at all events the traders will have the opportunity within a reasonably stated period of seeing whether, to some extent, they cannot get their grievances dealt with. I do not intend to argue those grievances. That, of course, would be out of order. But the two simply stated are these: First of all there is the very important question of owners' risk, and, secondly, there is the question of withdrawal of facilities. If 74 I can get a pledge from the Government Bench that these two matters would be dealt with during the coming Session, I should say, on behalf of the traders, that we have got something which would enable us to accept the proposal of the Government to-day and would enable us to allow this Clause to be struck out. If we cannot get such a pledge on behalf of the traders, then I, for one, will go into the Division Lobby with the hon. Members on the other side below the Gangway and will vote against the Government. I take the view that this matter is not a political one. It ought not to be made political. It was a great mistake on the part of several hon. Members to whom I have listened to make any insinuation against any party in the House, because I believe we are all here to try to do what we believe to be substantial justice.
What would be substantial justice in this matter? There is no doubt that the pledge was given and that that pledge was given in a panic. It was given to avert or put an end to a strike. We have had several versions of what that pledge was. First of all we had the version given to us by the President of the Board of Trade. Then we had the version of the Attorney-General, which was even stronger. Then we had the message from the Prime Minister, which told us that the information respecting the pledge which had been given by the other two right hon. Gentlemen was not quite accurate, and that after all this Clause could be accepted as within the promise that had been given to the railway companies. We ought to deal with this matter from an absolutely non-political point of view. We should deal with it without prejudice. The railway companies are clearly entitled on the promise which was given to them to be able to raise rates. Whether or not they are to be able to raise rates, the exact amount of the additional wages beyond what was being given in 1911, when this pledge was made, I do not know. But the whole trading community look upon this Bill with the greatest possible suspicion, and therefore they are desirous of it being restricted to five years. Their suspicion arises very largely from two facts. It arises from the fact that the tribunal before whom they have to go is absolutely out of the reach of any private trader. Of almost all combinations of traders which exist there are scarcely any that are in the position to undertake an expensive and protracted inquiry before the Railway Commission. That is one great element of suspicion 75 which the trading community feels with regard to this Bill, and in consequence thereof they desire it to be restricted to five years. The other one arises from the curious way that the Bill itself is worded. If you look at Clause 1 you will note it takes for granted an increase in the rates. There is to be an increase, and then there is to be a complaint by the trader. The traders cannot make this complaint to-day as they do not know the full facts. It is a very difficult thing to cast upon the traders the obligation of making complaints. It is only after a complaint is made—and the case has to be substantiated by the trader—it is only after a complaint is made that the words seem to cast upon the railway company any onus whatever to disprove it. The mere fact that under this Bill—if not expressly indicated it is implied—that the railway companies can put any increase on which they like, and that they have only got the onus of disproving afterwards when there is a substantiated complaint. That very fact has caused the greatest possible amount of anxiety.
They consulted a good many Members of this House, including myself, but it was found impracticable by any reasonable Amendments to alter the Clause in question. The Clause therefore remains today what it was in the original Bill. The trading community practically to a man in every great town in the country, protest against this Bill, and are extremely anxious that it should not be allowed to run for more than five years. At the end of those five years it will be put into the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. We know perfectly well that if the Government of the day choose to put it into the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill that it is almost certain to be continued, and we also know—and this has been done frequently in the course of my experience in the House of Commons—that the Government can drop a Bill out of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. I have seen several Acts dropped quietly out of the Statute Book by the Government leaving them out of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. It would be competent therefore for the Government of the day at any time to quietly drop this Act out. We want the power by a simple Resolution of this House, after the end of five years, without going through the formality of a repealing Act, with all its difficulties of being brought in and discussed, to drop this 76 Act out if we find that it does not work. The trading community are afraid of it. They are already paying enormous rates; and they are afraid of the increase of the statutory charges which the railway companies will be able to put on at will and only take off afterwards if there is a complaint. It is for these reasons I opposed the Bill the other night and why I take this action today. I think there might be a way out of the difficulty. I think the Government might put in even a longer period than five years. Some such words as these might be inserted, "Unless put an end to by Parliament in the meantime." If that were done there might be a ria media. May I be allowed to apneal again to the Government? Will they give a pledge to the trading community to deal in the next Session of Parliament with the traders' two great grievances? If they will, then I for one under the circumstances and especially having regard to the way the Prime Minister put it, will vote with the Government, but if they still continue silent and will not give that pledge, then I shall vote with my hon. Friends below the Gangway.
I have not much to say on this question. What I might have said has been well said by the Prime Minister. One or two Members on this side and also Members on the other side have, however, put certain questions to me with reference to future legislation. That question was discussed when the Amendment was first proposed in regard to the three years' time limit. I then said that I could not undertake to introduce a Bill dealing with the various points during the course of the Session which begins next week, and which is already very fully mortgaged. It would be idle, therefore, for me to give any undertaking to the House to introduce a Bill in the next Session dealing with what are controversial matters. I very much regret it. I very much regret that I was not able to have, the opportunity of obtaining a Second Reading for the Railways (No. 1) Bill, which, among other things, cheapen access to the Railway Commissioners. I certainly can give this undertaking, that as far as I am concerned I am not only anxious to deal with these matters, but I am anxious to deal with them at the earliest possible moment. While I am unable to give an undertaking to deal with all these matters during the Session which begins next week, there is one suggestion that has been made by the hon. Member for Wiltshire (Mr. C. Bathurst) to which I 77 would particularly refer. He asked whether, without being able to deal with the larger and more controversial questions, it would be possible to deal with the question to which traders attach much importance, namely, owners' risks, during next Session. That is a matter upon which I do not know that there is any great controversy between the two great interests concerned, and if I am able to deal with that question alone on a more or less non-controversial line I will endeavour to see what I can do in regard to that matter during the coming Session. In regard to the larger questions, I should have been glad to have dealt with them during the Session which is now ending, but for reasons which the House knows I was unable to deal with them, and I can only repeat the assurance that I shall deal with them at the earliest possible moment.
§ Mr. S. ROBERTS
Before we go to a Division I want to draw the attention of the House to what is the object of this Bill. The object is simply this, to remove the doubt which exists at present as to whether the Railway and Canal Commissioners, when a case is brought before them, have the right to take into consideration the cost of general improvements. In the Statute of 1894 there are no guiding words for the Commissioners, and I understand that they have taken upon themselves the power to take into consideration the cost of the increasing working expenses for particular traffic.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
That is not the subject before the House. It might be a suitable topic for Second Reading, but not for the present discussion.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
I was coming to that point, and to show how this bears on the five years' time limit. This Bill enables them to take certain facts into consideration. The railway companies say—I am not speaking for them, but this is what I understand their position to be—"You are by this Bill going to take away the doubt. We say that you ought to take away the doubt exists to-day; therefore it would the Amendment which they accepted the other day, said, "No; we will restrict it to five years." The railway companies, on the other hand, say that that would not be fair, because the doubt will exist after five years in exactly the same way as the doubt exists to-day; therefore it would not be reasonable to say that this Bill should only be for the period of five years, and then let it take its chance. All this Bill does is to enable the Commissioners to take into consideration a simple fact; it does not necessarily increase the rates at all; it simply gives the power to the Commissioners to take that fact into consideration, and the companies say that it is reasonable that the doubt as to whether the Commissioners could take the fact into consideration should be taken away for all time, and not for a restricted period of five years. That, I suggest, is reasonable, and I hone the House will support the Government in agreeing to the Lords Amendment to leave out the time limit of five years.
Question put, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."
§ The House divided: Ayes, 154; Noes, 45.79
|Division No. 605.]||AYES.||[6.11 p.m.|
|Abraham, William (Dublin, Harbour)||Castlereagh, Viscount||Ginnell, L.|
|Acland, Francis Dyke||Cawley, Harold T. (Lancs., Heywood)||Gordon, Hon John Edward (Brighton)|
|Allen, Arthur A. (Dumbarton)||Cecil, Evelyn (Aston Manor)||Greenwood, Hamar (Sunderland)|
|Allen, Rt. Hon. Charles P. (Stroud)||Chancellor, H. G.||Greig, Colonel J. W.|
|Asquith, Rt. Hon. Herbert Henry||Chapple, Dr. William Allen||Griffiths, Ellis J.|
|Baker, H. T. (Accrington)||Clancy, John Joseph||Guest, Major Hon C. H. C. (Pembroke)|
|Baldwin, Stanley||Clough, William||Guest, Hon. Frederick E. (Dorset, E.)|
|Balfour, Sir Robert (Lanark)||Collins, Stephen (Lambeth)||Gwynn, Stephen Lucius (Galway)|
|Banbury, Sir Frederick George||Compton-Rickett, Rt. Hon. Sir J.||Hackett, J.|
|Barran, Sir J. (Hawick Burghs)||Cotton, William Francis||Hamilton, Lord C. J. (Kensington, S.)|
|Bathurst, Hon. A. B. (Glouc., E.)||Crumley, Patrick||Harcourt, Rt. Hon. L. (Rossendale)|
|Beach, Hon. Michael Hugh Hicks||Cullinan, J.||Harcourt, Robert V. (Montrose)|
|Beauchamp, Sir Edward||Dalziel, Davison (Brixton)||Harmsworth, Cecil (Luton, Beds)|
|Beck, Arthur Cecil||Davies, David (Montgomery Co.)||Hayward, Evan|
|Benn, Ion Hamilton (Greenwich)||Davies, Timothy (Lincs., Louth)||Hazleton, Richard|
|Benn, W. W. (T. Hamlets, St. George)||Delany, William||Henderson, J. M. (Aberdeen, W.)|
|Boland, John Plus||Denman, Hon. R. D.||Henry, Sir Charles|
|Booth, Frederick Handel||Donelan, Captain A.||Hobhouse, Rt. Hon. Charles E. H.|
|Brady, P. J.||Doris, W.||Holmes, Daniel Turner|
|Buckmaster, Stanley O.||Duffy, William J.||Howard, Hon. Geoffrey|
|Burke, E. Haviland-||Esmonde, Dr. John (Tipperary, N.)||Isaacs, Rt. Hon. Sir Rufus|
|Burns, Rt. Hon. John||Esmonde, Sir Thomas (Wexford, N.)||Joyce, Michael|
|Butcher, J. G.||Farrell, James Patrick||Keating, Matthew|
|Buxton, Rt. Hon. Sydney C. (Poplar)||Fitzgibbon, John||Kennedy, Vincent Paul|
|Cassel, Felix||George, Rt. Hon. D. Lloyd||Kimber, Sir Henry|
|King, J.||Murray, Captain Hon. A. C.||Roe, Sir Thomas|
|Lambert, Rt. Hon. G. (Devon, S. Molton)||Nolan, Joseph||Rose, Sir Charles Day|
|Law, Rt. Hon. A. Boner (Bootle)||Nugent, Sir Walter Richard||Samuel, Rt. Hon. H. L. (Cleveland)|
|Law, Hugh A. (Donegal, West)||O'Brien, Patrick (Kilkenny)||Scanlan, Thomas|
|Lewis, John Herbert||O'Connor, John (Kildare, N.)||Sheehy, David|
|Lough, Rt. Hon. Thomas||O'Connor, T. P. (Liverpool)||Simon, Rt. Hon. Sir John Allsebrook|
|Low, Sir Frederick (Norwich)||O'Doherty, Philip||Smyth, Thomas F. (Leitrim, S.)|
|Lundon, Thomas||O'Dowd, John||Spicer, Rt. Hon. Sir Albert|
|Lyell, Charles Henry||O'Kelly, Edward P. (Wicklow, W.)||Strauss, Edward A. (Southwark, West)|
|Lynch, A. A.||O'Kelly, James (Roscommon, N.)||Talbot, Lord E.|
|Lyttelton, Hon. J. C. (Droitwich)||O'Malley, William||Terrell, H. (Gloucester)|
|Macnamara, Rt. Hon. Dr. T. J.||O'Shee, James John||Tobin, Alfred Aspinall|
|MacNeill, J. G. Swift (Donegal, South)||O'Sullivan, Timothy||Toulmin, Sir George|
|Macpherson, James Ian||Pearce, William (Limehouse)||Trevelyan, Charles Philips|
|MacVeagh, Jeremiah||Pease, Herbert Pike (Darlington)||Walters, Sir John Tudor|
|McKenna, Rt. Hon. Reginald||Pease, Rt. Hon. Joseph A. (Rotherham)||Wason, Rt. Hon. E. (Clackmannan)|
|M'Laren, Hon. F.W.S. (Lincs.,Spalding)||Phillips, John (Longford, S.)||Wason, John Cathcart (Orkney)|
|M'Micking, Major Gilbert||Pollock, Ernest Murray||White, J. Dundas (Glasgow, Tradeston)|
|Marks, Sir George Croydon||Price, Sir Robert J. (Norfolk, E.)||White, Patrick (Meath, North)|
|Mason, James F. (Windsor)||Redmond, John E. (Waterford)||Whittaker, Rt. Hon. Sir Thomas P.|
|Mildmay, Francis Bingham||Redmond, William Archer (Tyrone, E.)||Wilson, Rt. Hon. J. W. (Worcs., N.)|
|Molloy, M.||Richardson, Albion (Peckham)||Wood, Rt. Hon. T. McKinnon (Glas.)|
|Mooney, J. J.||Roberts, Charles H. (Lincoln)||Wortley, Rt. Hon. C. B. Stuart-|
|Morgan, George Hay||Roberts, S. (Sheffield, Ecclesall)||Younger, Sir George|
|Morton, Alpheus Cleophas||Robertson, John M. (Tyneside)|
|Muldoon, John||Roch, Walter F.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—Mr. Illingworth and Mr. Gulland.|
|Munro, R.||Roche, Augustine (Louth)|
|Murphy, Martin J.|
|Barnes, G. N.||Hudson, Walter||Rutherford, Watson (L'pool, W. Derby)|
|Bentham, G. J.||John, Edward Thomas||Smith, Albert (Lancs., Clitheroe)|
|Bowerman, C. W.||Jones, J. Towyn (Carmarthen, East)||Smith, Harold (Warrington)|
|Brace, William||Jowett, Frederick||William Snowden, Philip|
|Chaloner, Col. R. G. W.||Lambert, Richard (Wilts, Cricklade)||Stanley, Albert (Staffs, N. W.)|
|Crooks, William||M'Callum, Sir John M.||Sutton, John E.|
|Dalziel, Rt. Hon. Sir J. H. (Kirkcaldy)||Markham, Sir Arthur Basil||Thomas, J. H.|
|Duncan, C. (Barrow-in-Furness)||O'Grady, James||Thorne, William (West Ham)|
|Edwards, Clement (Glamorgan, E.)||Palmer, Godfrey Mark||Walsh, Stephen (Lancs., Ince)|
|Gill, A. H.||Parker, James (Halifax)||Wardle, George J.|
|Glanville, Harold James||Peto, Basil Edward||Wedgwood, Josiah C.|
|Goldstone, Frank||Pointer, Joseph||Williams, J. (Glamorgan)|
|Hardie, J. Keir||Price, C. E. (Edinburgh, Central)||Wilson, W. T. (Westhoughton)|
|Henderson, Arthur (Durham)||Richards, Thomas|
|Hinds, John||Richardson, Thomas (Whitehaven)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—Mr. G. Roberts and Mr. C. Bathurst.|
|Hodge, John||Rowlands, James|
Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.