HL Deb 07 February 1854 vol 130 cc291-6

, seeing the noble Lord the Vice-President of the Board of Trade in his place, would take the liberty of putting to him a question of very great and peculiar interest to the public at the present moment. He alluded to the question of the great increase of railway accidents in this country. Day by day—above all, during the last year—the number of accidents had been increasing, and the consequences of many of those accidents had been most deplorable. He had reason to know from what had occurred elsewhere, that it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to introduce some legislative measure on this subject. He was sure the public would owe them much gratitude for undertaking such a task; but the Members of their Lordships' House ought to be placed in a position to be able to judge of that Bill when it came before them. A provision was, he believed, made by law that all those occurrences should be reported to the Government, and there existed in the department with which his noble Friend was connected the materials that would enable them to make these reports. A very considerable time had, however, elapsed since the House had received any efficient return on the subject; he not only thought it was important that Parliament should have these returns now laid before them, but that periodically, as the occasions should arise, the Government should undertake to give them this information hereafter. He was persuaded that there would never be an effectual responsibility unless public attention was constantly and promptly called to the facts; because an accident that had occurred twelve months ago would not excite even in the minds of their Lordships the same attention as if it had been reported on in the course of the week succeeding the occurrence. The only effectual steps that had been taken, the country owed to his noble and learned Friend the Lord Chief Justice, for which the public owed him deep gratitude; but, next to his noble Friend, the most effectual means to avert or to punish these accidents were afforded by the public newspapers. They had done their duty well by calling immediate attention to these casualties; but he was rejoiced to think that they were likely to have the additional remedy of efficient legislation on the subject. As for the excuses and apologies which were offered by the companies for these accidents, he attached to them no importance whatever. They were asked to compare the number of accidents with the number of persons who travelled, and were told that the proportion between the numbers of casualties and of passengers was so small that they should pass the question by with indifference. He could in no way recognise such a doctrine. Was it a consolation to 500 who had suffered, that they might be 500 out of 2,000,000 or 20,000,000? for he contended that so long as accidents occurred which it was in the power of wise legislation or proper administration to avert, they should not discharge their duty if they did not inquire—if necessary, legislate also. It was not the relative proportion between the number that travelled, and the number of those injured they ought to look to, but the positive damage to limb and the loss of life that were produced by railway accidents. He would now take the liberty of asking his noble Friend whether there was any objection to lay before the House, with as much despatch as possible, the returns of railway accidents from the last return that had been made up to the present period; and, whether, hereafter, Her Majesty's Government would give Parliament information from time to time with respect to those matters?


begged, before the noble Lord the Vice-President of the Board of Trade proceeded to answer the question that had been put to him, to suggest to the noble Lord whether it might not be desirable, if there was legislation on the subject, that the legislation should begin in their Lordships' House rather than in the other House of Parliament. He would not take upon himself to say why he thought so, but he would leave it to the silent contemplation of their Lordships, with the conviction that the reasons would suggest themselves to their Lordships, though it was not very desirable that any Member of that House should state those reasons openly. He begged to ask the noble Lord if Her Majesty's Government had taken into consideration whether it would not be desirable that the legislation upon this subject should begin in their Lordships' House?


could assure their Lordships that Her Ma- jesty's Government were deeply sensible of the great importance of the subject; they viewed with deep concern the numerous accidents that occurred, and were as anxious as any of their Lordships to adopt some effective mode for remedying the evil. His right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Cardwell) had already given notice in the other House of Parliament of his intention to introduce a measure which, he hoped, would have the effect of correcting some of the evils of which the public complained; and the fact that notice had already been given in the other House, and that a Committee had sat upon the subject last year, and had inquired into and reported on it, appeared to afford a reason why the Bill should be introduced in the other House rather than in the House of Lords. With regard to the question of the noble Lord relative to a return being made of the number of accidents that had occurred, and the correspondence that had taken place, he could assure him that the matter had been fully considered, and it appeared to his right hon. Friend and himself that there could be no objection to comply with such an application as had been made by his noble Friend; but, on the contrary, that great advantage would result from it, They had before them the blue book, containing a report of the accidents in 1852—it was presented in August, but did not come into their Lordships' hands until the present meeting of Parliament—and he purposed that not only should the report since the last return be laid before their Lordships, but that from time to time, as accidents occurred, a return of them should be immediately laid upon the tables of the two Houses of Parliament, at such periods in the course of the Session as should be found necessary.


said, that the reason which his noble Friend (Lord Stanley) had given for introducing a general measure of legislation in the other House, rather than in their Lordships', might be a good one; but he could not help thinking that there was much force in what had fallen from his noble Friend on the cross benches (Earl Fitzwilliam), and knowing the circumstance to which he alluded, he owned he was not very sanguine that they would have sent up to that House from the other a Bill that would effectually meet the public interests upon this important subject. He could not help suggesting to their Lordships that they had power in their hands (if they thought fit to exercise it) which would enable them to render great service to the public in this matter. There was hardly a railway company in England that was not constantly coming to Parliament for fresh powers of some kind or other. In the present Session a number of applications would be made to Parliament for extensive additional powers from various lines of railways. Now, he thought it would be of great advantage if their Lordships were to come to a determination that in all those cases in which railway companies applied for additional powers, they would not consent to grant those powers without a thorough inquiry into the manner in which the powers already possessed by those companies had been used, and whether they had been used for the public benefit, and without inserting in the Bills such clauses as might be necessary for the efficient protection of the public. If they adopted a rule of that kind, he was persuaded that they would in a very short time carry their object practically into force, not by any general measure of legislation, but by a clause introduced on the same uniform principle, and in that establish adequate protection for the public. This was a matter of consequence, not only on account of railway accidents, but because the Postmaster General had informed them that the power which he possessed over railways was perfectly inadequate to enable him to effect the due performance of his duty. If that were the case, let them grant no amalgamation Bill—let them give no new powers—without making it a condition for granting those powers that the company requiring them shall do what is requisite for the convenience and security of the public. Again, was there one of their Lordships conversant with railway management who was not aware of the very great abuses that exist upon the subject? That blue book to which his noble Friend had adverted, was full of the most remarkable evidence respecting the gross abuses that prevailed upon railways—how companies were fighting with each other to the injury of the public interests; or how a company, having got possession of a line where they thought there was no opposition, made the most unreasonable demands upon the public or withheld from the public proper accommodation. There was a case of this kind; for instance, if you paid for 300 miles you were charged a certain price, but if you paid for 60 miles further, you paid a great deal less; so that a person was obliged to pay something more because he did not go the additional 60 miles. They had these things brought before them; but owing to the circumstance to which his noble Friend on the cross benches (Earl Fitzwilliam) had so significantly alluded, it was extremely doubtful whether any general measure of legislation would pass which would put a stop to those abuses; and, therefore, he thought their Lordships would not do their duty if they did not come to a resolution that they would not grant additional powers to any existing railway company without a preliminary inquiry into their administration of the powers which they already possessed, and without introducing into new Bills such clauses as were necessary for the convenience and protection of the public.


was of opinion that new legislation on the subject was indispensably necessary. He frequently had occasion to lament that the existing law was not sufficient to protect the lives of Her Majesty's subjects as regarded railways; but he hoped they would have some more effective mode of doing it than that which had been just suggested by his noble Friend. It would be a libel upon the House of Commons to suppose that there was any interest, however powerful or overwhelming, that would overwhelm the cause of justice; and he trusted that, before the present Session elapsed, there would be a Bill passed by both Houses of Parliament which might do justice to the country. That Bill ought certainly to be introduced by Her Majesty's Government, and he would most willingly lend his aid in assisting them in the object which they all had in view. For that purpose there were two points to which he would beg leave to draw their Lordships' notice, in which he had found the present law was defective. One was respecting the liability of the servants of the companies for acts they did beyond what might be legally and strictly considered within the scope of their authority. The Judges had determined—and he must suppose wisely—that a railway company was never liable for anything that was done by any of the servants of the company that was unlawful. It had happened over and over again that persons travelling by railway had been imprisoned at stations, and treated in the most barbarous manner; and when an action was brought against the company, they said they gave no orders to warrant that proceeding, and the plaintiff was nonsuited. Where it had happened that the policeman or police sergeant, or porter, had gone to the station-master and asked his advice, and went by his orders, it was said the stationmaster had no authority from the company to give those orders; they were unlawful, and the company, as a corporation, cannot be liable for acts done by their servants beyond the scope of their authority. It was necessary that the company, as a company, should be responsible for all that was done by their servants, when the servants were believed or supposed to be acting within the scope of their authority; and without such an enactment justice could not be done. There was another point to which he would also call attention, and it had reference to actions on contract, or for false imprisonment. For example, when an action on contract was brought against a railway company, they said, "By the law we are a corporation, and we can only contract under the corporation seal;" and unless it could be shown that the contract was under the seal of the company, the plaintiff was nonsuited. There were some exceptions with regard to municipal corporations. They might hire a cook—such was the early necessity for culinary services—without the contract being under seal; but the general rule was, that a corporation could only contract under the corporation seal. He would suggest to his noble Friend, whether that technicality of the corporation seal should not be dispensed with, and that wherever a contract was entered into by those who are the real agents of the corporation, they should be liable, without any such technicality as requiring the corporation seal.

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