The Marquess of Clanricarde
wished to ask some questions of the noble Earl the President of the Board of Trade, of which he had given notice, on the subject of Railways in Ireland. It was a subject of very considerable importance. The first question which he wished to ask the noble Earl was, whether, in the recommendations of certain railways by the Railway Committee of the Board of Trade to Parliament, those recommendations were to be considered as pointing out the line positively the best possible, or merely relatively to others the best, and that the recommendation of a line was merely founded on the comparison with other lines which might be before the Board? He was induced to ask this question in consequence of a Report which was laid on the Table only early last week, although it was dated the 3rd of April, and, by some means or other, had been printed in Irish newspapers a week before it was laid before Parliament. He wished to ask this question, because the Report to which he referred related to railways in the part of Ireland with which he was connected—namely, the west of Ireland. He saw in that Report that the Board of Trade alluded to only two lines: he did not intend to discuss the relative merits of those lines, or to find fault with the Report because it recommended one line in preference to the other, nor did it seem to him to be the right time to give any opinion on the subject; but he thought that neither of those lines would be the best possible line for effecting the object in view, namely, a railway to Galway. He asked this question because he thought the Legislature and the Executive Government stood in a very different position with regard to railways in Ireland from that in which it was placed in England, when railways were first set on foot in the latter country. No 581 doubt it was wise and prudent, in the first instance, to leave the formation of railroads in the hands of private companies, and not to commit themselves on the subject, as the consequence of such undertakings was very doubtful; and the great results which had followed, although anticipated by some, were far from being generally expected. It had, however, been frequently the subject of regret in that House, in the course of the two last Sessions of Parliament, and from which expression of regret he had never heard a dissentient voice, that, considering the great results arrived at by these undertakings, and the importance they had obtained in this country, the Government had not more directly interfered to point out the lines which, for the advantage of the country, should be undertaken—avoiding in some cases monopoly, and bad lines in others, and interfering in many respects, by which the community would have received more benefits than had accrued to it by the course which had been adopted. But with respect to Ireland, they stood in a different position; there they had new ground and a new country, with the advantage of the experience they had derived from what had occurred in England; and, therefore, the department of the Government to which these matters were now referred, might very fairly take a much more decided line, and announce a much more positive opinion upon the proposed lines, than was called for in England. On that principle their Lordships would see the advantage of not leaving those matters, in Ireland, too much to private speculation. He made those remarks because, as he had stated, it appeared to him that neither of the lines mentioned in the Report were the best possible lines to effect the object in view. Two other lines were slightly adverted to in the Report; and they led him to the second question which he wished to ask, namely, how far the Committee of the Board of Trade examined into and inquired whether the companies that came before them, as original and incorporated companies, and who proposed to resort to Parliament as companies, had complied with the provisions, the very stringent provisions, of the Registration Act passed in the last Session of Parliament? Those provisions were, doubtless, very stringent; and if they were too stringent in the opinion of the Board of Trade or of Parliament, the law in that respect ought to be altered; but, undoubtedly, while the law remained in force which was 582 intended for some security, as it was, to the public against gambling and fraudulent speculators, as well as for other reasons, the provisions of the Act ought to be complied with. He was induced to make those remarks, because he saw that in this Report a scheme which he thought—but he might be wrong in his opinion—would be as advantageous as those mentioned in detail in the body of this Report, was very slightly referred to as a project into which the Board of Trade did not think it right to go in detail, upon the ground that a mere outline of the plan had been laid before them. Now the projectors of that plan, although they had no company formed, and had taken no particular steps, were still entitled to as patient a hearing as any company that had not complied with the provisions of the Act; indeed, he thought that, having avowed themselves only projectors, and not represented themselves to be a company, nor violated any law, they were entitled to more protection than persons who came before the public as a company, but who had not complied with the law. He did not mean to say positively that others had not complied with the law, but he had been given to understand that they had not; and he thought that that was a subject of great importance, because it would be a great misfortune for Ireland that capitalists should be induced by untrue, if not fraudulent—he did not mean to say that these were such — representations to embark their money in schemes which were not likely to be carried out, and were not set on foot with a bonâ fide intention of being executed. He found, to his great surprise, on Saturday last, that in the last winter his name had appeared in a prospectus with which he had nothing to do, and to which he had never given his sanction. One of the regulations in the Act to which he had adverted was, that within a month of registration, a return should be made, showing; the paper by which all the promoters of the scheme shall have bound themselves to take one or more shares in the company to which they lend their names. And he could conceive nothing more improper than a person to lend his name to a scheme to which he was not ready to lend his money. He (the Marquess of Clanricarde) had always refused to have anything to do with forwarding speculations of this kind unless he was prepared, at the same time, to embark some money in them. There were at present schemes in the market—and he 583 said in the market, because he saw them advertised — headed by noble and hon. Friends of his, who, he knew, had no concern whatever with those speculations. Their Lordships were aware of the manner in which matters of this sort were managed. Prospectuses were issued by interested parties, accompanied by a notice that applications for shares were to be made by a certain day. The shares were then sent into the market at a premium, and persons not acquainted with the process were induced to buy them, supposing that the persons whose names they saw to these prospectuses were engaged in the undertakings; and loss inevitably followed to those speculators thus misled by statements which ought never, not only according to equity, but by the provisions of an Act of Parliament, to have been given to the public. For those reasons, the Board of Trade should be cautious in recognising as companies persons who might come before them as such, unless they were sure that the provisions of the Act had been strictly complied with. At the same time, he thought that, whether they were companies or no companies, it would be wise in the Board of Trade to examine into every project and every suggestion that might be made as regarded the different lines; because in the country to which he referred it was essentially necessary to keep in view great lines of communication — that none but good lines might be sanctioned, and that those lines should be really and bonâ fide executed.
The Earl of Dalhousie
was anxious, before he replied to the questions put to him by the noble Marquess, to account for a fact which the noble Marquess seemed to think required some explanation; he meant the fact of the Report itself having appeared before the public in the Irish newspapers previously to its having been laid before that House. It was very true that the Report was to be seen in the columns of the newspapers before it was laid on the Table of their Lordships' House; but the reason of this was to be found in the fact of their Lordships having adjourned some time previous to the other House of Parliament, and the Board of Trade being desirous that this Report should be submitted to Parliament as early as possible, several Reports were laid on the Table of the House of Commons after their Lordships had adjourned, and, which, therefore, could not be laid on the Table of that 584 House until after the recess. With respect to the first of the questions, the noble Marques had asked whether the recommendations of the Board of Trade were to be regarded as absolutely recommendatory of the best line for particular districts, or for any quarter of the country, more especially in Ireland, or as relatively recommending one line as compared with another line. He had no difficulty whatever in answering that the recommendations or opinions contained in the Reports of the Board of Trade were not to be taken as absolute recommendations of a line as the best of all possible lines, for a country. The terms in which the Report of the House of Commons advised the appointment of the Board, precluded them from taking that course. The matter was referred to the Board, and they were to report upon it, taking into consideration the plans and sections, and such matters, with the Bills, as might be laid before them. The Board was to consider whether there were public reasons that ought to be conclusive against the schemes, or which scheme of two ought to be preferred by Parliament. On these grounds they had acted; and when two schemes were laid before them they had given the preference to that one which appeared, upon the whole, to confer upon to the public the greatest amount of advantage. The noble Marquess had also inquired how far it was advisable for the Government not to leave these matters to private enterprise, but to lay down its authority as to what lines of railway should be adopted. Upon former occasions he (the Earl of Dalhousie) had alluded to that subject, and he should not venture to say more upon it on the present occasion than that he thought such a course of action might, in the first instance, have been followed; but that, having proceeded for so long a period upon a different line, it was impossible to have recourse to it then. But if it were unnecessary or impossible for the Board of Trade to follow such a line of conduct now, it was doubly unnecessary to do so with regard to Ireland, inasmuch as in that country, under the sanction of Government, such an inquiry had taken place, and a most elaborate, able, and admirable Report had been many years since laid upon the Table. He need not assure their Lordships that upon entering into the consideration of railways in Ireland, constant reference was made to that Report by the Railway Department as the highest authority, and they had not on any other 585 occasion departed from the terms of that Report without great hesitation, after the most careful consideration, and only where circumstances seemed to have altered since the date of the Report, and under which, as they knew, a different course of action would have been adopted by the Commissioners. With regard to the second question of the noble Marquess—namely, whether the Board had been sufficiently cautious in recognising as companies those projectors who had come before them, and who had in many instances broken the provisions of the Registration Act passed last Session of Parliament—he was aware that those provisions were stringent; but so far as the Board of Trade was concerned they had no authority whatever in the matter to take cognizance of the observance or non-observance of them. It was referred to the Railway Department to enter upon the consideration of certain plans, sections, and Bills to be referred to them, and the particular points into which the inquiry was to be made were specified in the Report of the House of Commons; but as to whether companies had complied with the Standing Orders of Parliament, it formed no part of their consideration. A question arose very early in the inquiry of the Board with reference to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, as to whether any Report on a Railway scheme which had notoriously failed to comply with the Standing Orders of the House of Commons should be submitted to Parliament by the Railway Board. Their Lordships were probably aware that in consequence of the enormous pressure of business during last Session of Parliament, it became almost impossible for every railway company to comply with the Standing Orders of Parliament; and it seemed to the Railway Board that, inasmuch as the question whether the Standing Orders had been complied with rested with the House of Commons itself, the Board might find themselves in this position, that having declined to report to Parliament on a scheme which had failed to comply with the Standing Orders of Parliament, if the House of Commons afterwards declared there were valid reasons why the Standing Orders should not be insisted upon, the House of Commons, finding no Report on the scheme from, the Board of Trade, might turn round and ask the Board why they had taken upon themselves to decide whether these Standing Orders had been complied with or not? With respect to the Registration 586 Act, it was no part of the duty of the Board to inquire into it; they were merely told to report upon the schemes that were laid before them. He was not prepared to deny the existence of what the noble Marquess had stated, namely—that in many instances the provisions of the Registration Act had not been complied with. The clauses of that Act required that no shares should be transferred until after the complete registration should have been had of the joint-stock companies. But a complete registration, it appeared, could not be had until the measures had proceeded somewhat further than they had gone through Parliament, and consequently there could be very little doubt that all the transfers of shares made in the meantime were contrary to the provisions of the Act of Parliament. The Department charged with the Registration Act were not negligent in this matter, and upon being made acquainted that such traffic was daily connived at, they issued notices to the Stock Exchange in London and Dublin, and put them also in the different journals of the kingdom, warning parties that they were acting illegally, and subjecting themselves to a penalty—that the transfers so made were null and void, and that by making them they placed themselves in difficulties. He should add that there was some little doubt entertained whether the clauses of the Act were strictly applicable to railway companies. It was, however, now believed that they were applicable, although in other respects railways were excluded. Having given that notice, it was impossible that the Registration Department could proceed further, inasmuch as, although they could lay hold of a company if it performed an illegal act, yet it was impossible to lay their hands upon private individuals, and more especially upon those engaged on the Stock Exchange, where all the transactions were kept secret, and where detection could not follow. He might at the same time also observe, what was well known to their Lordships, that in the ordinary operations of the Stock Exchange, transfers and modes of dealing were recognised which were often entirely at variance with the law. He merely mentioned that to show that those charged with the Registration Act were not negligent of their duty, and so far as the Board of Trade was concerned they had nothing whatever to do with it.
The Marquess of Clanricarde
said, he thought the Clause of the Act was a little 587 more easy of enforcement than the noble Earl seemed to consider. The 5th Clause provided,—That if for a period of one month after the particulars hereby required to be registered, or any of them, shall have been ascertained or determined, the promoters of any company shall fail to register any such particulars, or any of them, then, on conviction thereof, such promoters and every of them shall be liable for such offence to forfeit a sum not exceeding 20l.The noble Marquess proceeded to read the section referring to the execution and registration of the deed of settlement of public companies, and then continued to observe that the most prominent names in the prospectuses of some companies were those who had not signed any such agreement as the Statute required; and he was aware of such being the case in some instances. He begged to observe that he did not attach any blame to the Board of Trade on the ground of their not having inquired into this subject; but he certainly thought the Government were bound to look after such matters as railway schemes in Ireland with more care than in similar cases on this side of the Channel. In the Report of the Board of Trade to which he had already alluded, he could not understand why one body of promoters, who proposed to take up the line recommended in the Second Report of the Railway Commissioners, had been so entirely passed over, because they had not made the necessary preliminary arrangements, if it happened that the promoters of the other schemes had not complied with the Standing Orders, and with the provisions of the Registration Act.
The Earl of Dalhousie
said he did not believe it was very regular to prolong the discussion; but he wished to be permitted to observe that he considered the clause read by the noble Marquess quite compatible with the position in which he (Lord Dalhousie) had represented the Board of Trade to have been placed. He did not deny the truth of the allegations made by the noble Marquess, nor was he defending the conduct of the companies complained of; but he wished to explain, that the Board of Trade had no alternative to act differently from the course they had pursued. With respect to the remaining charge made by the noble Marquess, the line of railway alluded to had met with attention, but certainly not to an equal extent with the two companies who had deposited their money, and completed all 588 their other arrangements. It would not have been consistent with the duty of the Board to place these companies in the same position with the promoters of a third line, who had no money deposited, and who were not before Parliament, and none of their plans completed.
§ Subject dropped.