HL Deb 03 May 1852 vol 121 cc88-96

said, that certainly it was not without much consideration that he ventured to ask their Lordships, in the terms of the Motion of which he had given notice, to grant a Select Committee to inquire into the operation of the Acts relating to the Drainage of Lands in Ireland, as administered by the Board of Works. It was with great reluctance that he troubled the House on this subject, for he was aware that' attendance on a Select Committee required a sacrifice of valuable time: but the complaints, not from one district alone, but from all parts of Ireland where these works had been carried on, were so general with respect to the course which had been pursued by the Board of Works—and indeed evidence of the fact was to be found in the reports furnished by the Board itself—that it appeared to him to be absolutely necessary that a searching inquiry should be made. When on a former evening he presented a petition on this subject, the noble Lord at the head of the Government expressed an opinion that a Government inquiry would probably be sufficient; but that if it would not, he should have no objection to grant a Parliamentary inquiry. Being anxious not to take up the time of their Lordships unnecessarily, he had consulted with those whose opinions on this subject were most valuable, and had asked them whether a Government inquiry would answer the purpose which he, and those who thought with him, had in view. It appeared to them, and to him also, after some deliberation, that the result of a Government inquiry would not give satisfaction in any quarter. The only mode of giving general satisfaction appeared to them to be an inquiry before their Lordships, when all the facts which were necessary could be fully brought forward and thoroughly investigated, and where the ground might be laid for a prompt and effectual remedy. He was most happy in being able to inform their Lordships that in laying down the ground on which he based his Motion, he should not have occasion to trespass long on their attention. Without at all entering into details or bringing forward a single matter of dispute, there were a few plain, broad, and simple facts, admitted on all hands, which he thought would of themselves form quite a sufficient case to convince their Lordships that an inquiry was necessary. Their Lordships were, doubtless, aware that for many years past very large engineering works had been in progress in various districts of Ireland to relieve the land from superfluous water. They were carried on at the expense of the parties to be benefited, the immediate funds being provided by loans, partly from the local proprietors, and partly from the Treasury, the same as under the Land Improvement Act for England; and the loans were secured as a first charge upon the land. It appeared from the returns for which he had moved at the close of the last Session, that the amount which had been actually expended in this manner, up to the 30th of September, was 1,375,559l., and that the estimate of the total cost, when the works should be completed, was about two millions sterling. But then there were other works which were not actually commenced, but which had been in some degree examined, while in other cases the surveys and estimates were complete; and, as far as he could judge from looking over the returns in their Lordships' library, the whole cost of the works when completed, if they were all carried out, would amount to about five millions. Such was the magnitude and such the scale of the operations which he was now anxious to submit to an investigation before a Committee. These works were carried on in some respects in the same way as similar works were in England; but there was this important difference, that in England all such works were carried on under private Acts of Parliament. In Ireland they might be carried on in a similar manner; but the Legislature, with the view of affording increased facilities for the execution of such works, had provided in the first instance, that where the assent of the proprietors representing two-thirds of the lands to be benefited had been obtained, but subsequently where the assent of more than one-half of the proprietors had been obtained, that then the Board of Works should be invested with powers similar to those of a Committee under a Private Act. So that while in England there was one way in which such works could be carried on, namely, under a Private Act; in Ireland there were two ways—by a Private Act, and also by certain Public Acts administered by the Board of Works. Practically, as far as he was aware, no works were at present carried on in Ireland under a Private Act. The Board of Works, having obtained the assent of the proprietors representing more than one-half of the land to be benefited by the proposed works, were invested with very large and perhaps necessary powers. The proprietors, on the other hand, although they might observe that the works were carried on upon a much larger scale than ever they assented to—although they might see that the estimates must be largely exceeded—yet they had no power, and no control. The Legislature had, probably very wisely, entrusted enormous powers to the Board of Works, enabling them to carry out improvements without the intervention of those who were called upon to pay for them. Now, the principal complaints made against the Board of Works were the following. The first was, that the cost of the works in progress was greatly in excess of the estimate. The proof of the complaint was to be found in the return laid upon their Lordships' table at the beginning of the Session, There were about 193 of these works, and they were arranged in alphabetical order. The first was at Ardee, the original estimate for which was 8,388l.; and the total amount that had been expended up to the present time was 17,820l.; while the works were still unfinished, and nobody could tell how much they might ultimately cost. The next were the works at Bonis in Ossory, where the estimate was 3,486l.; and the amount that had been actually expended reached the sum of 9,296l. The next case that he would mention was the works at Bandon, the original estimate for which was 47,329l.; but the present estimate of the cost of completing the works was no less a sum than 76,000l., and the proprietors had no assurance that they would be completed at that amount. He would not weary their Lordships by going over the rest of the cases in detail; but the summary of the whole of these 193 works was, that up to the present time 1,179,374l. had been expended upon them; and the Board's present estimate of the cost of completing them was 1,863,168l. He thought that return proved that the first complaint to which he had directed their Lordships' attention, namely, that the Board had largely exceeded the estimates, was well founded. And it must be remembered that these estimates were not like the estimates of an architect employed to erect a fancy edifice, or perhaps some great national building, where he would have the public purse at his back; but these estimates purported to be estimates similar to those that were made by a contractor for his own guidance, when he undertook the works himself; and there was ample proof that the fullest assurances were given in various places, that the estimates were of that character—that under no circumstances would they be exceeded—that there was a large margin taken for contingencies—that the character of the Board of Works was an ample security that they would be executed for the sum for which they undertook to execute them. The next complaint was, that the works were not executed by contract. In this country, he believed in every case, the committee under a Private Act took this course. They appointed an engineer, who prepared a survey, with an estimate giving detailed specifications, and then the work was put up for contract. But the Board of Works had pursued quite an opposite course, having appointed their own engineers, their own surveyors, clerks, and in fact a large staff, and sent them to carry out each individual work—just in the same way as a gentleman sent his steward. It was obvious that a system of that kind might be liable to great abuse. The total annual cost of this large staff for the Drainage department he found came nearly to 30,000l.— a tolerable amount of patronage for one officer in a public board. The third complaint was, that the accounts had not been bonâ fide brought within the reach of the proprietors. Now, where works were carried on, not by contract, but in this loose manner, with engineers, surveyors, clerks, and other persons, over whom, perhaps, the Board could not exercise any effective supervision, it was obvious that it would have been advisable to have had the attention of the local proprietors directed to the accounts of the expenditure, and thus to have secured a more perfect check than could otherwise have possibly in all circumstances been exercised over the servants of the Board. But so far from keeping the resident proprietary aware. of what was going on, and thus enabling them to act as a check, the complaint was that the Board of Works had not complied with the provision of the Act of Parliament, which required that every year a statement of the accounts should be deposited with the clerk of the peace of each county. He was not prepared to say that this complaint was well founded throughout the whole of Ireland, because he had not felt that it was his business to go to every clerk of the peace for the county in Ireland to make the inquiry; but he could state that in King's County there were several works in progress: he had asked the clerk of the peace there whether the Act had been complied with or not, and he found that it had not, and that the accounts had not been deposited with the clerks of the peace. The fourth complaint was, that, having obtained the assent of the proprietors to works on a small scale, the Board had undertaken works on a large scale, without the assent of the proprietors, and left them unfinished after expending the whole amount of the original estimates. He would illustrate this complaint by adverting to one instance, respecting which he had made particular inquiry. He had examined the printed survey and estimates furnished to the proprietors before the work was undertaken, and also the estimate, when the whole sum was found to be expended, and the Board called upon them to assent to a much larger advance money. In addition to this a correspondence had taken place between the Board of Works and the proprietors, which he had had the advantage of seeing; and although he could not refer to that correspondence because it had not yet been pre sented to their Lordships, still he might be allowed merely to say that, having perused that correspondence, he felt the more confident that in the statement he was now making he was not misleading their Lordships. In the case of the Brusna drainage, as he had already stated, the original estimate was 47.329l., and the present estimate had increased the amount to 76,000l. A very long interval elapsed betwen the survey of the works and their actual commencement, so that if any works could be said to have been undertaken after apparently mature deliberation, they were the works to which he was now alluding. With some difficulty the assent of the proprietors to this work was obtained, many of them thinking that the outlay of 47,000l. would not pay; but they had the distinct assurance that, whether it would pay or not, at all events, under no circumstances would the work cost more. At length, in July last, the proprietors were furnished with the book which he held in his hand, purporting to be a fresh survey and estimate, stating what further sums would be necessary for the work. He begged their Lordships' attention to this point, as affording, in the instance of a particular work taken as an example, a proof that the Board, in a variety of instances, without consulting the proprietors, or having ascertained their wishes, had altered the works to a larger scale, and having expended the whole of the money, had called upon the proprietors to assent to the expenditure of perhaps as much more. The Board stated as an excuse for the excess over the original estimate, that that excess was caused in the first instance by a complete change in the plan originally proposed, namely, the adoption of a new river course, instead of following the old one. It might be asked, what right had the Board of Works to depart from the original plan to any considerable extent? As far as he could collect from the reports in their Lordships' library, the excuse was, that it was done for the benefit of the proprietors. The proprietors differed altogether from this, and stated that the cost of the works in some instances would exceed the fee-simple of the land. But even if the object of the alterations was the benefit of the proprietors, what right had the Board to make them, and to incur additional expense, without the assent of those who had to pay it? He had already stated the four principal complaints which he wished a Committee of their Lordships to inquire into. Some might ask, what motive could the Board of Works have had for carrying out these improvements in a different way from what they originally intended, and for conducting them upon a much larger scale, without the consent of the proprietors? All he could say was, that in a question of this nature he knew nothing of motives—he had done his duty in stating to their Lordships what he believed to be facts; and he was quite sure that the only investigation that would be satisfactory to the country in a matter where it was considered there had been great dereliction of duty and abuse of power, was an investigation, conducted under the authority of Parliament. The Select Committee for which he asked would not interfere with the very important Committee now sitting upstairs, on the Irish Consolidated Annuities. Indeed, he would be sorry to enter into this inquiry without the assistance of noble Lords serving on that other Committee; but it was very desirable that the preliminary arrangements should be made so that, when the Committee did undertake its labours, the inquiry should be begun without less of time. The noble Earl concluded by moving for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the Operation of the Acts relating to the Drainage of Lands in Ireland, as administered by the Board of Works.


admitted that the subject was one of considerable importance and interest, the importance being no less than providing an entirely new system of arterial drainage for a large portion of Ireland. In many cases that system would involve the altering the course of rivers, and other changes, providing a sufficient outfall by which a large portion of that country should be provided with drainage— measures necessarily involving great operations, and consequently a very great expenditure. The powers vested in the Board of Works were of a very extensive character, and they necessarily must be for carrying out operations on such a large scale; and he was by no means prepared to say that a Board invested with such extensive powers ought not to be very diligently watched, not only by the proprietors of land, but also by the public, who more indirectly have an interest in the due discharge of these duties by such a body. He did not, therefore, intend to offer any opposition to the Motion of his noble Friend (the Earl of Rosse) in his Motion for a Committee of Inquiry as to the practical working of the present system. At the same time he begged to disclaim any intention of prejudging the question, or of casting any blame whatever upon the Board of Works, for results which frequently were not under their control. He was afraid that all their Lordships had found by experience that whenever a great work was undertaken, whether of drainage, improvement, or building, it was completed at an expense considerably larger than was expected, or the science and skill of the most able architect or engineer could have foreseen. But in this case, when they looked at the large scale of the works in progress, they could easily understand that there must sometimes be a considerably larger outlay than was originally contemplated. In such cases he would not at all deny what the noble Earl (the Earl of Rosse) had said, that if the total charge was to be determined by the Commissioners, they ought to have the consent of the proprietors. But he could at the same time conceive many cases where the Commissioners would be justified in extending their operations, and incurring increased expense. He might here mention that the Board of Works was presided over by a gentleman whose name would give the best security that could be given for efficiency and ability—Mr. Griffiths; and he was sure the name of that gentleman would be recognised as that of one who had conferred important benefits on Ireland: and that he had succeeded in carrying out with great industry and success the various operations with which he had been connected, would be readily acknowledged by all who were acquainted with that country. It might be as his noble Friend (the Earl of Rosse) had said, that the staff, employed by the Board of Works was a very large and expensive staff; and if that were so, it was a fair subject for inquiry. But when his noble Friend complained that the Board of Works had not put up the works to contract, but had carried on its operations by their own agents, and their own staff, he must say he thought they had exercised a sound discretion in doing so, and that that was a better mode than trusting to contractors, for the sake of apparently greater economy, but which ultimately would be found to be attended with neither greater economy nor the same amount of success. At the same time this was a question which he (the Earl of Derby) did not at all like to prejudge— the Commissioners themselves were satisfied they had discharged the duty for which they were appointed, and they were very far from shrinking from any inquiry— even a hostile inquiry—still less from such an inquiry as his noble Friend proposed to institute, which would be not an inquiry of hostility, but one in a fair and liberal spirit. At the present moment the Commissioners were preparing a Report for Parliament, which would very shortly be laid before both Houses, and would embrace, he feared, a very voluminous correspondence; but it would place Parliament fairly in possession of all the facts, and he thought that until that Report was ready, the Committee would probably do better if they deferred any practical operations till that correspondence was laid before them. He could not offer any opposition to the Committee; and he was glad the noble Earl (the Earl of Rosse) had adverted to one point, namely, the services rendered by the noble Lords who were lately sitting on the Irish Consolidated Annuities Inquiry, which was in some degree cognate with the one his noble Friend proposed; and he thought his noble Friend would do well if, appointing his Committee in the first instance, he would endeavour to obtain the assistance of those noble Lords whose knowledge would be a most efficient aid to his inquiry. He thought his noble Friend was quite justified in bringing this question before Parliament, for it certainly was for the public interest that, where a large trust was confided, it should be exercised under the strict superintendence, not only of those more immediately placed over it, but also of the Parliament by which that trust had been confided.

Motion agreed to,

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