HL Deb 08 May 1862 vol 166 cc1353-8


On Motion that the United Kingdom Electric Telegraph Company Bill be now read 3a,


said, he wished to call the attention of their Lordships to the practice of Parliament in regard to the passing of Bills of this nature, and he would suggest that greater notice should be given to the Members of their Lordships' House of the provisions which these Bills contained, affecting as they did the interests of persons in all parts of the country, without sufficient knowledge of the power sought for by the Company, being made public. No copy of the Bill was distributed amongst the Members of either House of Parliament, and no publicity given to the project. As regarded railway Bills, every person whose property might be effected by them received special notice of the objects and provisions of the measure; but in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a Bill like that before the House, treated as a private Bill, was never looked into in its passage through: the House. This Electric Telegraph Company was asking for powers of the most extensive nature, and which, if granted, would enable the Company to use all roads, highways, streets, and towns in England, Scotland, and Ireland, with the most imperfect protection to the rights and interests of property. This power was to be exercised, under certain circumstances, with, the consent of the Surveyors of the roads; but in other cases it might be exercised without the consent of any party interested. Now, however desirable it might be to give such powers, he thought it was essential that every person who might be affected by them should have full notice of them. There was already in existence one telegraph company which had power to go along every road in the Kingdom, to cut down trees which might be in their way, to enter upon the property of every proprietor, to place their wires before the door of any person who might reside in a suburban villa or in a country residence. It was absolutely necessary that their Lordships should know what they were about when these Hills were before them. As Parliament was ignorant of the great powers which had been obtained under former Acts without its cognizance, Bills conferring such powers should be treated otherwise than as purely private Bills. There was a class of Bills known as as hybrid, that was to say, of a nature partly public and partly private, and Bills of that description were required to be printed and delivered to Members of Parliament, so that in their ease the House might know what was sought to be done. Whether a Bill such as that under discussion should be placed in that category it was for their Lordships to determine; but they ought at all events, he contended, to be taken out of the list of private Bills. The country, as their Lordships knew, was paying no less than £35,000 a year, and for forty years, for the Red Sea Telegraph, from which it had derived no benefit whatever, and that Bill was introduced in the first instance as a private one, Parliament being ignorant of its provisions. If the Bill had been introduced as a public Bill, no such provisions as those which it contained would have been assented to. There was a Bill called the Mersey, Irwell, and Weaver Navigation Bill, which contained provisions in regard to summary process of a very stringent nature, affecting a very large portion of the country, and which ought not to be dealt with in a private Bill. He trusted that in future Bills like the one before the House would be regarded both as private and public Bills.


said, the remarks of the noble Lord referred to a subject which required the most anxious consideration of their Lordships, and that remark did not apply to this Bill alone, but to a great class of Bills of the same nature. He thought that a copy of every Bill should be Bent to every one of their Lordships in order that its provisions might be made generally known.


agreed that the present practice of Parliament in regard to these Bills was very objectionable. Bills of this description were frequently of great general importance, and in corroboration of the statement he might adduce the Dublin Markets Bill, on which he should deem it to be his duty to comment when it came on for second reading, much as he felt indisposed to take that course with respect to a measure which came before their Lordships in the shape of a private Bill. He hoped that some plan would be adopted by which the public interests would be protected, and that all the circumstances connected with private Bills might be brought before the House, in order that they might receive a deliberate judgment.


said, their Lordships would be perfectly well aware that he was the last person in the country who wished to extend the principle of private legislation beyond proper limits. On the contrary, he had in many instances refused to treat questions as matter fit for private Bills which a former Chairman had allowed to be so treated, and which he (Lord Redesdale) thought ought to have been made matters of public concern. At the same time, it was exceedingly difficult always to say whether Bills were public or private in character, especially of Bills relating to public improvements. Nobody would deny that the electric telegraph conferred great advantages on the country by the transmission of messages, but that advantage would be very much limited unless competition were allowed to enter into the practical working of the invention. Indeed, the difference between the cost of communication in those instances in which competition existed and those in which it did not was, he believed, as much as that between sixpence and half-a-crown. The House ought therefore, he contended, to be careful not to take any steps which would unduly interfere with the action of an in- strument of such great public utility, or with the development of new inventions. He was not surprised that the Bill relating to the electric telegraph should in the first instance have been treated as private. What were called hybrid Bills were those which were introduced by the Government, as they came within certain Standing Orders which made them partly public and partly private; but he did not know that that class of Bills received the most attention in passing through Parliament. He suggested that, with respect to all Bills in which powers which affected general interests were contained, it should be in his (Lord Redesdale's) power, as Chairman of Committees, to recommend to the House that such Bills should be referred to a Public as well as to a Private Committee. It was true they might now be referred to a Private Committee; but, as many of those Bills were unopposed, the Committee were not in a position to obtain much information. He thought that if his suggestion were adopted, the attention of the House would be called to the subject, because as a consequence a print of the Bill would be sent round to noble Lords in regular course. It was desirable also that a power should be introduced into private Bills to the effect that the matter contained in them should be subject to any general Act which might be passed upon the subject by Parliament. He thought that more protection would be obtained, by that course than by any other that could be suggested. He would not say that Parliament had not now the power to interfere by general legislation with the powers granted by private Acts; but it might be imprudent and inexpedient so to interfere after parties, on the faith of particular Acts of Parliament, had been induced to invest their money in speculations thereby authorized; but if such a clause as he suggested was introduced in the first instance, it would prevent any subsequent objection to the principle of interference. Some general legislation upon the subject was, he thought, necessary; and applied, if it could in the opinion of the House be reasonably and properly applied, to companies formed under existing Acts, partly on the principle that it was unreasonable that one telegraph company should have greater powers and privileges than another, and partly because Parliament had certainly granted that which it had never contemplated—namely, the power to do that which the law declared to be a nui- sance, such as the erection of posts and lines in front of a dwelling-house. It was a matter which should be considered by the Government and the Board of Trade, whether some general regulation might not be fairly applied to all existing telegraph companies, or whether the clause he had suggested would be likely to afford greater protection.


said, he was Chairman of the Committee by which the Bill before their Lordships had been considered. He was certainly startled when he saw the extensive powers which were sought by it, but five other instances in which similar —in two cases larger—powers had been granted were adduced, and the Committee felt themselves, in a great measure, bound by the precedents thus brought forward. He believed that a revision of these Acts was called for, and he would be very ready to support the noble Lord whenever he introduced such a measure as he had described.


said, he doubted whether the present was a time for any general legislation on the subject. It was clear, however, that the House ought to hare full information with respect to those Bills before being called upon to pass them, and with that view he concurred in the suggestions which had been thrown out.


said, he did not desire to be understood as having expressed any censure on cither the promoters of the Bill or on the Committee which had considered it. He was bound to say that material alterations had been made in the Bill, and that the promoters had expressed their readiness to do anything in their power to meet the views of those who had pointed out objections. He held it to be most desirable that a measure such as that suggested by the Chairman of Committees should be introduced, so as to enable Parliament to settle and revise the powers granted to electric telegraph companies.


said, he thought the best course would be to prepare a Standing Order upon the subject, and he trusted, with the help of his noble Friends who had given some attention to these matters, to be able to do something useful. He was not quite sure that the same mode of proceeding which might be adopted in that House would be feasible in the House of Commons. If a private Bill were to be referred to a Committee of the Whole House in the House of Commons, it would frequently happen that it would not come on until late at night after more important business had been disposed of, and in that way a Bill might be passed through. If any steps were to be taken in the matter, they could not be taken too soon.


hoped that some useful legislation would take place on the subject, in order that private parties and public bodies might know how to deal with those companies.

After a few words from Lord WENSLEYDALE, Bill read 3a

Amendments made; Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.

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