HL Deb 26 July 1849 vol 107 cc963-9

The EARL of GRANVILLE moved the Second Reading of this Bill, the object of which was to enable railway companies to abandon any portion of their undertaking by means of a cheaper process than that which at present existed.


said, he thought that this was one of the many Bills of which the House had a right to complain being forced on their attention at so late a period of the Session, when there was no possibility of giving it proper consideration. The Bill proposed to abrogate a power which had hitherto belonged to their Lordships' House, and to vest it in the hands of Railway Commissioners. He would not express any opinion about the advisability of such a step; but he thought that where the House was about to do so important a thing as to place a power which it had hitherto exercised, in other hands, some time for discussion ought to be allowed. He objected to the present Bill, because it went farther than a similar measure which had been projected and passed by the Earl of Dalhousie. It was provided by that Bill that the whole of the shareholders in a company must agree to its dissolution, and to the winding up of the concern; but by the present Bill it was only necessary to obtain the consent of three-fifths of the shareholders in order to abandon an undertaking. He also objected to the Bill, because it enabled parties to do that by a side wind which their Lordships had objected to after consideration. The noble Earl concluded by moving that the Bill be read that day three months.


said, that he entertained some very strong objections to the provisions of the Bill, in consequence of the position in which parties would be placed who might have railway works loft in an unfinished state upon their property.


thought that there was a great difference in the case of railways being abandoned where no works had been commenced, and in other cases where the works had commenced. In the one case, he considered it advisable that every facility, consistent with the interests of all parties, should be given for enabling them to got rid of speculations into which they had entered, perhaps too rashly. But, in dealing with the latter class of cases, great caution was necessary, as the injury sustained by the abandonment of the railways could not be decided by the amount of compensation which had been originally given for the land, that amount having been received on the supposition that a railway would be made upon the land.


observed, that there had been many propositions for enabling joint-stock companies to settle their affairs outside the walls of Parliament, but generally it had been thought not expedient to take authority of so grave a character out of the hands of Committees of that or the other House of Parliament. The present Bill, however, had been regarded as an exception to that rule; and it was likewise thought by those who were best qualified to form a judgment on such subjects, that the Railway Commission would be an extremely fit body to decide upon the conflicting claims with which the measure now before their Lordships was intended to deal. He was sure every one would agree with him in thinking it highly advantageous to all parties concerned, that railways should be abandoned in every case whore the companies which undertook them did not possess sufficient capital for carrying out the works. In such cases it would be highly desirable to have all claims settled before it became too late; and let it be remembered that the Bill was not one to settle the affairs of railway companies, but merely a measure to enable them to apply to the Railway Commissioners for leave to settle their affairs.


said: I know nothing of this measure except what I have heard since the commencement of the discussion upon it; but, my Lords, it appears to me, that if you pass this Bill, you will at once, in effect, repeal that vast number of Acts which you passed during the last few Sessions, and which involved the outlay of millions of money, and the interests of vast numbers of persons—and you will wipe away the whole of the property which has been invested on the faith of those Acts of Parliament. Great powers may have been given to the Railway Commissioners by former Acts of Parliament; but, my Lords, I believe that when those Acts were submitted to your Lordships, time was given for their consideration. But no time has been allowed to us for the consideration of this measure. Here is a Bill which was only introduced three days ago, and now, within three days of the prorogation of Parliament, your Lordships are asked to give it a third reading. Are we to decide at so short a notice to give to a Government Board and to individuals personally interested, the power of, in fact, repealing many of the Acts which were deliberately passed a few Sessions ago? We have not had time to look through this Bill, nor to consider the condition and security on which the Railway Commissioners are to adopt the course proposed by it. I am sure, then, that your Lordships will feel that this is a measure which you ought not to pass at this late period of the Session.


entirely concurred with his noble and gallant Friend who had just sat down in the objection he had made to proceed with the Bill at this time. If their Lordships were not determined on the last days of the Session to pass every Bill brought up from the other House of Parliament—if they meant to put an end to the vicious system of thus disposing, without time for consideration, of the measures brought before them, there was no measure to which they could apply the rule so wisely and judiciously as the present one. There was no necessity for the Bill in point of urgency—there was no reason why it should not have been brought under their consideration a long time ago; and he saw nothing in the Bill to prevent it originating in their Lordships' House, and being subsequently discussed in the Commons. He found on their Journals a Standing Order that was very applicable to the present proceeding. On the 5th of May, 1668, there was a report of the Lord Chamberlain in regard to a Bill that was very long, and consisted of many paragraphs, coming from the House of Commons so near the time of adjournment; and he stated that he was commanded to enter upon the Journals of the House that no such argument should be used hereafter as had been then used, namely, the shortness of the time for the passing of a Bill as a reason for precipitating the passing thereof; and upon due consideration the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled agreed to the report, and ordered it to be entered upon the roll of the Standing Orders of the House. He (Lord Stanley) hoped that the Peers of the present day would bear in mind the objection that was taken in 1668, when it was laid down as a Standing Order that no such argument should be used in regard to any Bill for the future to precipitate the passing thereof in a short time before the rising of Parliament. It might be quite right to facilitate the abandonment of railway speculations; but at the same time he entertained a great doubt whether they should give those great facilities for the abandonment of projects undertaken for the benefit of the public, and for the performance of which extraordinary powers were obtained at the hands of Parliament. It might be right to save those parties from the expense of separate Bills in each particular case, and by one Bill to divest their Lordships of the power of judging in a Committee of the House of the expediency of abandoning the works in each particular case; but surely it was most important, when they were passing such a general measure, that they should have the fullest opportunity of discussing the provisions under which they gave up that power to the Railway Commissioners. He would not then pretend to discuss the merits of this Bill; but, considering the number of petitions against the Bill—considering the great interests involved—considering also that this was, in point of fact, a measure to permit the railway companies to abandon projects which were sanctioned by Parliament, and likewise that their Lordships were divesting themselves of the power of judging in each particular case—he hoped the Government would not press the Bill in the course of the present Session; but that, if a general power was given, it would be given under circumstances in which the House might give full consideration to the details of the Bill, so that it would meet the object that was sought to carried out.


also considered that the measure required the most mature deliberation, and it would be a public detriment to hurry it forward this Session.


said, if their Lordships intended to persevere in their opposition to the Bill, of course the Government could not expect to pass it this Session. At the same time he thought that its rejection would inflict great injury on those very parties in behalf of whom the noble Earl (the Earl of Eglintoun) and other noble Lords had addressed their Lordships. If this were a Bill to give a general and indiscriminate power to railway companies to procure an order for dissolution from the Railway Commissioners, it would be an extremely objectionable measure. But, on the other hand, it was perfectly clear that there were many cases in which railway companies had commenced their operations without any adequate means. It was most desirable that such parties should be allowed to dissolve after making compensation to the landowners whose land they had cut through. The Railway Commissioners would, under this Bill, have to consider each individual case of dissolution which might be brought before them, and notice of the intention to apply for leave to dissolve would have to be inserted in the newspapers; and parties concerned would be heard against the proposed dissolution. Their Lordships must assume that the Railway Commissioners would exercise their powers rationally and judiciously. Due care would be taken to carry out the clause giving compensation to the landowners and other parties affected by the undertakings. If their Lordships rejected the Bill, their doing so would be prolonging the existence of insolvent and ruined companies, and driving them to further expense—amongst other things driving them to the expense of an individual Act of Parliament, and thus materially diminishing the funds that might remain to them for the payment of their debts. It was, therefore, manifest that such a measure as this ought not to be objected to. He was far from denying that the Bill was open to the objections taken by the noble Duke, and admitted that. Parliament having, a few years ago, authorised by Bills railways to be formed, it was a great inconvenience to give those Railway Commissioners the power of setting aside those Bills. That inconvenience resulted, however, from the careless manner in which Parliament had passed those Bills. Little or no inquiry was made as to the necessity of those railway measures, or as to the solvency of parties promoting them. Having got into this difficulty, the question now was how they were to get out of it. He believed that the best course, upon the whole, was to adopt the simple machinery provided by this Bill for investigating individual cases, and enabling those companies who could not go on to distribute their funds to the best advantage. Although he admitted that noble Lords had the power of delaying the measure by pressing their objections, yet he could not disguise it from himself that by doing so they would inflict injuries on the very parties they professed to serve.


said, that the Bill had been very carefully considered, not only by the Solicitor General, but by many other Members of the House of Commons. As the Bill was important, and not lightly brought forward, he did hope their Lordships would at least allow the debate to be adjourned till To-morrow, He admitted there were certain defects in the measure. If between that time and To-morrow those imperfections could be remedied, he should bring the subject again under their notice, otherwise he should not press the measure during the present Session.


did not admit the claim of parties who had entered upon these speculations to be allowed to get out of their difficulties by dissolving their respective companies, without the slightest reference to the localities for whose benefit the scheme purported to have been designed. He suggested that, instead of this proposal, companies unable or unwilling to prosecute their schemes, should be enabled to sell their lines to some other company disposed to buy them.


supported the Bill. They had never beard that the powers of the Railway Commissioners were abused, and if they looked to the clauses of the Bill, they would find it only provided that, after hearing and considering the circumstances, the Commissioners were to pronounce their judgment. When they looked to the responsibility of their position as regarded both Parliament and the public, they could hardly doubt that the decision of the Commissioners would be a sound one.


felt very strongly the argument of his noble Friend at the table, and his noble Friends behind him, as to the impropriety of passing a Bill of that nature without due discussion; but at the same time he should deeply lament the necessity for stopping the measure for this reason—he could not help thinking that Parliament was responsible for passing those Bills so easily, and with a degree of facility that was surprising. He should most deeply regret if it were found impossible to pass it, but only for the reason he had just stated.


thought the proposition made by his noble Friend was a perfectly fair one, namely, that the second reading should be postponed to the following day for the purpose of procuring further information. If this Bill were rejected, it might have very ill consequences, and more especially as it related to a Bill that had already passed their Lordships' House.


hoped it would be understood, after the discussion that night, that the Bill, in its main provisions, was not to be persisted in by Her Majesty's Government.


consented to withdraw his Amendment, on the understanding that the Government would state To-morrow evening, whether they thought it expedient to proceed with the Bill during the present Session.

Debate adjourned till To-morrow.