HL Deb 05 June 1846 vol 87 cc32-9

rose for the purpose of introducing the Resolutions on the subject of railway legislation of which he had given notice. The noble Earl said that their Lordships were aware of the difficulties which had been at an earlier period of the Session anticipated from the number of railway projects which were about to be brought forward, and the means which had been adopted with a view to prevent them. The number of railway companies dissolved, in accordance with the powers which were given to the companies by the measure that Parliament had agreed to, was exceedingly small—so small as to be capable of creating no diminution of the pressure on the money market; and it was therefore to be desired that their Lordships should adopt some other course, calculated to obviate the difficulty which was anticipated. He held in his hand a return of the Bills then in progress, and he found that, if their Lordships should agree to all the Bills which would be brought before them this Session, it would require upwards of 90,000,000l. to carry them into effect. He ought to add that some of those Bills included in that calculation had already passed; but if an allowance, of 10,000,000l. were made for those, there would remain 80,000,000l. of expenditure to carry the others into effect, in case they were agreed to—a sum the payment of which was calculated to produce an important effect on the money market—an effect which their Lordships might judge of, when he informed them that the largest loan ever raised during the war was 45,000,000l. in 1815. He had considered the subject, and with a view to suggesting to their Lordships a means of diminishing the evil which such a pressure would produce, he had prepared a series of Resolutions, which he would read to their Lordships. He gave the Government credit for their intention to prevent the evil of a too great pressure on the money market, in the scheme which they proposed at an earlier period of the Session; but that scheme had not been successful in diminishing the number of railway speculations to any extent; and he therefore felt satisfied that if their Lordships now entertained the same opinion with respect to this anticipated evil, which they did last March, they would be disposed to try another experiment with a view to avoiding the difficulty; and he would add, that if any of their Lordships proposed a more efficient means of avoiding the difficulty than he (Earl Fitzwilliam) was about to propose, he was not so wedded to his own plans as not to withdraw those Resolutions if a better experiment were suggested. There was no doubt that railway legislation ought to be regarded and dealt with as a whole system, which, although now in the infancy of its progress, would ultimately become the great means of communication throughout the country. A great misfortune was, that the Railway Bills had up to the present time been dealt with according to an old technicality as Private Bills, whereas it was highly desirable that the whole system of railway legislation should be placed in a connected form before them. In order to obviate the difficulties which it was feared might arise under the present system, he had prepared four Resolutions, which he would read to their Lordships:—

  1. "1. That this House will not pass any Railway Bill, giving Power to raise Capital, either by the Issue of Shares, or by borrowing Money, which has or may come up from the House of Commons this Session, until all such Bills shall have been read a Second Time.
  2. "2. That when all such Bills shall have been 34 read a Second Time, this House will appoint a Select Committee to take them into Consideration, to classify them according to their public Importance, and to select such as it may seem expedient to pass.
  3. "3. That it be an Instruction to the said Committee not to select, for passing, Bills by which it shall be proposed to raise Capital exceeding 60,000,000l., whether by the issue of Shares or borrowing Money."
He would remark with respect to this Resolution, that he would not object to the sum being named as 50,000,000l., if it were thought preferable; but he had been desirous, in framing the Resolution, to give a large margin. 4. That a Message be sent to the House of Commons requesting a Conference on the Subject of such Railway Bills as have originated in this House, and are now pending in the House of Commons. The effect of these Resolutions, if agreed to and acted upon, would be to remove much of the evil of too great a pressure, an evil which might be dreaded under the present system. The noble Earl concluded by moving the Resolutions.


said, that however desirable it might be to narrow the limits of railway enterprise in general, which was the object of the noble Earl, and however ready he (the Earl of Dalhousie) might have been at the commencement of the Session to adopt some resolutions similar to those proposed by the noble Lord, he ventured to represent to the House that, under existing circumstances, and after what had passed both in this and the other House, they could not, consistently with common justice and fairness, adopt the recommendation of the noble Earl. He (Earl of Dalhousie) might be permitted to remind their Lordships of what had taken place in Parliament in the early portion of the Session, with reference to this subject. During the very first days of the Session the question of railway legislation was brought under the consideration of both Houses of Parliament. The vast number of railway schemes projected, and the great amount of capital required to carry them out, were pointed out; and a Committee was appointed to consider the best means of dealing with the subject, which reported to the House. Their Lordships then adopted certain Resolutions; and, with the concurrence of the other House, certain Railway Bills connected with Ireland, and other Bills, the progress of which had been suspended in the last Session, together with new projects connected with them, were to be originated in their Lordships' House. It had been stated that no specific plan, with reference to this subject, had been submitted by the Government to the Committees of either House of Parliament. He (Earl of Dalhousie) would not occupy their Lordships' time by discussing that question; but he might state that a plan was submitted in extenso to their Lordships' Committee on the part of the Government, and received their consideration. At that time the Committee of the other House presented their Report; in which, after stating that there were 562 Railway Bills standing for consideration, and adverting to the arrangements which might be made for their consideration, they proceeded—"Under these circumstances your Committee have not deemed it advisable to recommend to this House to make any selection from, or to place any limitation on, the number of railway schemes to be submitted to the consideration of Parliament during the present Session." Upon this declaration of opinion the inchoate railway companies had proceeded; their Bills had been for five months under consideration in the other House; they had expended immense sums of money; and many of them had attained the object they had in view, and had received the sanction of Parliament to their Bills. The other House of Parliament, which possessed the effective power in these matters, having distinctly declared the opinion he had quoted, and the railway companies having consequently gone on in the prosecution of their several projects, he thought, in common fairness and justice, their Lordships could not now turn round to the House of Commons and say, "True, you said there should be no selection or restriction, yet now we will select and we will restrict." Such a proceeding would really amount, he must say, though he did not wish to use strong terms, to a breach of faith on the part of their Lordships. But their Lordships had afforded to the projectors of these schemes another and another locus pœnitentiœ. They had adopted certain sessional orders, which, though they were not intended to stop the progress of railway enterprise, afforded those who were anxious to abandon their projects an opportunity of doing so; and their Lordships had since passed a Bill, which was now in the other House of Parliament, with the same object. It was, therefore, impossible for them to turn round now upon the projectors of these schemes, and to say that they would select and they would restrict. To one of the Resolutions submitted to them by the noble Earl opposite, he (the Earl of Dalhousie) entertained very great objection, namely, to that which recommended that their Lordships should not pass any Railway Bills which proposed to raise an amount exceeding 60,000,000l. He stated on the part of the Government at the commencement of the Session, that they were not prepared to say there should be any direct restriction imposed upon railway companies with regard to capital. He objected to this Resolution, on the ground that if they determined they would not sanction any railway scheme for which it was proposed to raise an amount exceeding 60,000,000l., they tacitly admitted that a capital of 60,000,000l. might fairly and properly be raised for such a purpose. He thought the House ought to be extremely cautious in dealing with such a question as this, and that an attempt to fix any positive limit of capital with regard to enterprises of this nature would be attended with great danger. There was one remedy in their Lordships' hands for the evils to which the noble Earl opposite referred, if they chose to exert it, in the strict and firm exercise of the power of Committees of that House. If the Committees of that House would do their duty fully, and in investigating these railway enterprises would not merely consider whether there were any fatal objections to Bills, but whether it was necessary under the circumstances of the times that those Bill should be passed, they possessed the means of limiting and diminishing, if not of absolutely preventing the evils to which reference had been made on this and former occasions. He trusted their Lordships would not adopt the Resolutions of the noble Earl.


concurred with the noble Earl (Earl Dalhousie), that if their Lordships were now to adopt any restrictions with regard to railway projects before Parliament, after what had passed in the Legislature, they would be chargeable with a breach of faith. If the noble Earl (Earl Fitzwilliam) had contented himself with proposing only the first of his four Resolutions, he (Lord Kinnaird) would have felt no objection to it, for it could not have injured any parties now before their Lordships. By limiting the amount of calls, and extending them over a longer space, a great relief would be given to the labour market. The Committee at present had no power of selection; for they felt that if a railway was not opposed, they had scarcely the right to throw it out. A serious derangement would take place as soon as the great number of Bills now before the House had passed, and the calls began to be made on them.


said, that in the present position of affairs, he had so strong an objection to almost anything that could be proposed, that he did not see his way clearly enough to support the present Resolutions. If the amount required for the construction of the railways passed this Session, came at all near to that which had had been stated, there could be no doubt it would derange the monetary system, and produce confusion through the country. At the same time, the state of the case ought not to be exaggerated. If the railways passed this Session required a capital of 60,000,000l., it should be remembered that the calls were usually spread over a period of three years, and that only one-third of that amount would be required during the present year. He did not lose sight of the fact that calls would also be made during the present year on behalf of railways which were in the second or third year of their construction; but he could not see in what manner Parliament could again interfere.


said, that the first Resolution of the noble Lord, to stop the Bills until they reached a certain stage, would have the effect of collecting the Bills in one mass, and passing them at nearly the some time. It would thus create the very inconvenience which the noble Lord wished to avoid. He should like to see the instructions given to the Committee (for he supposed it would be necessary to give them instructions) before he was called upon to judge of the noble Lord's proposition. With respect to the first Resolution, he would again submit to their Lordships that it would collect all the Bills into one mass, and their Lordships would be called upon to pass them at the same moment.


said, it was not decent that the House should not take some pains to put railway legislation on a proper footing. Almost all the Bills granted a compulsory power of dealing with landed property; and railway companies, during the period of three years allowed them, took the land or not, just as suited the exigencies of the moment. During this time the owners of land were kept in suspense, while the companies, in military phrase, were only "occupying a position" which they feared the enemy might attain. It was unjust to give companies power over parties to take their land whether they would or not over a period so long as three years; for during that time improvements were stopped, and everything was in a state of suspense. He entreated their Lordships to take some step or other to improve the present system of railway legislation.


thought the thanks of the House were due to his noble Friend (Earl Fitzwilliam) for calling attention to this subject; at the same time he agreed with his noble Friend the President of the Board of Trade, that it was impossible to carry the Resolutions now before the House in justice or fairness after they had suffered matters to go on so long. The House ought to frame resolutions for another Session. Their object was not to stop the construction of proper railways, but to prevent Bills being obtained for branches that were never intended to be made, but which were brought forward to defeat railways that would be more useful to the public. He had been on a Committee where the company sought for powers to take land extending over a period of five years; the Committee, however, had given them only eighteen months. Companies said that the reason why they required so long a term was, that they found it so difficult to deal with landowners. He thought the House ought to limit the power which companies now possessed of borrowing money; that was the way to check some of those reckless schemes. At the present moment it was impossible to attend to the Standing Orders without feeling that they required great revision, and that they ought to be made more clear and decisive. An instance of this had occurred to-day in the operations of what was called Lord Wharncliffe's clause. Their Lordships should also, if possible, come to an arrangement with the House of Commons, so that when Bills had passed the Standing Orders Committee of the other House, they might be immediately brought before the Standing Orders Committee of their Lordships' House. The latter Committee, after a company had spent 8,000l. or 10,000., did not like to throw out their Bill upon some technicality. He hoped the present Session would not be allowed to pass over without some arrangement being made for a future Session; but until railway companies were compelled to conform strictly to the Standing Orders, things would never be put wholly right.


agreed with the noble Duke that some improvement ought to be made in the Standing Orders. Their Lordships ought to insist that a line should be laid down so accurately that the engineers might at once proceed to work upon it, instead of sending in plans so imperfectly prepared that they wanted more time to revise them. He agreed also in the opinion that railway companies ought not to be allowed to borrow any money, and that all their capital should be raised by shares. He thought that some limit upon speculation was desirable; but their Lordships could not interfere again now. There was a great deal of leniency towards companies on the part of the Committees to whom they were referred. The duty of the Committee was to say whether the line before them was the best that could be laid down; and they had a right to call for evidence upon this point. In other countries the selection of the best lines was made by the Government. To say that because parties had spent a great deal of money, their Bill ought to pass, was to offer a temptation to getting up crude schemes. He trusted that Committees would inquire strictly into the merits of every Bill before them.


replied. He concurred in thinking that Committees ought to be more strict, for at present their Lordships took every Bill into consideration, with reference to its own peculiar claims to being passed, without regard to the effect it might produce on the country generally, in consequence of so much capital being employed in one branch of speculation. He would not, however, press the Resolutions.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned.