HL Deb 05 March 1877 vol 232 cc1345-57

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, that the direct object of the measure was to effect an alteration in the election of the Members of the Metropolitan Board of Works. He would first remind their Lordships that under the Act of 1855, known as the Metropolis Management Act, a general system of management was established for the whole Metropolis. Vestries for each parish were to be elected by the ratepayers direct, and a Board to transact the general business of the Metropolis was to be elected by the Vestries and parochial districts. Now, he might at once say that a main proposal in his Bill was to abolish that indirect election of the Metropolitan Board of Works and to assimilate the election of the members of that body to the election of the members of Vestries. The object of this was to make the Metropolitan Board of Works directly responsible to the ratepayers whose money it spent. This alteration in the mode of election was, to his mind, absolutely necessary. It was well worth while to call their Lordships' attention to the great and growing importance of the Metropolitan Board of Works. In the Act of 1855 a very different position was contemplated for the Metropolitan Board of Works from that which it now occupied; and so widely and rapidly had its functions been enlarged that at the end of 1875 it administered jurisdiction under no fewer than 83 Acts of Parliament. It had charge in the Metropolis of the main drainage, of the main sewers, of all metropolitan improvements—under which were included such works as the Thames Embankment, the Charing Cross approach, the opening up of new streets, and other matters of that kind; of open spaces and of the administration of the Fire Brigade. Further, it was supposed to represent the interests of the Metropolis in the supply of gas and water; it administered the Cattle Diseases Act and the enactments dealing with Artizans' and Labourers' Dwellings. It made loans to Vestries and District Boards, and last, though not least, to the School Boards. Nothing was too great for the Metropolitan Board of Works and nothing too small—on the one hand constructing such works as the Thames Embankment, and on the other carrying out provisions for the regulation of a peculiar process known in the Metropolis as "baby farming." Then if their Lordships regarded the financial aspect of the question, they would see the growing importance of the Metropolitan Board, and that it occupied a position which rendered it eminently respectable even in comparison with the largest municipal corporations. Between 1856 and 1874 it had borrowed no less than £17,460,000, and had then a gross outstanding debt of £11,830,000, or, making allowances for assets and debts due to them and for the property they held, a net debt of £9,200,000. Its total receipts in 1874 amounted to £2,460,000, and its expenditure during the same year to £1,725,000. The sum which under its Acts the Board was entitled to raise by precept from the various parishes of the Metropolis amounted in 1871 to £260,000, and in 1875 to £446,000. The salaries and wages paid by the Board amounted to £35,000 in a year, and its law and Parliamentary expenses to £15,000. At present it was applying to Parliament for some millions of money—he could not say how many. These statements were in themselves sufficient to show the importance of the Metropolitan Board of Works as a managing body, and the need of its being brought into more immediate and direct contact with the ratepayers. At present the Metropolitan Board of Works was elected by the Vestries, one-third of its members retiring every year. The Vestries were elected by the ratepayers, one-third of the members of each Vestry retiring each year. So that it took three years to elect the whole of the Board or the whole of a Vestry. He submitted that such a mode of election as that applied in the case of the Metropolitan Board was anomalous and undesirable — evidently it removed the Board as far as possible from the general body of the ratepayers. If it had been intended to delude the ratepayers into the idea that they had any real effective influence over the Metropolitan Board, no better system could have been devised than the secondary process of election. It was, however, not difficult to see the way in which such a mode of election, though unknown in any other of our institutions, originated in 1855. The promoters of the Act of that date had much hope in the system they were establishing. They thought that great interest would be taken in the selection of Vestries, and that therefore in the election of the more important body it would be better to trust to the Vestries selected after much care than to the ratepayers at largo. How had their anticipations been fulfilled? He believed it was hardly necessary for him to state that very little interest was taken in the election of Vestries. When the ratepayers were called upon to elect the vestrymen they did so only for local purposes and for local considerations. He had before him statistics as to the number of voters which showed this, and also that it was very seldom a poll was demanded. Then how did the Vestries so elected elect the Metropolitan Board of Works? They could return anyone they chose, but they chose to return vestrymen. Their Lordships would see the result of that practice. It was that any person who wished to get returned as a member of the Metropolitan Board of Works must first go through the ceremony of a vestry election—an ordeal which it was easy to understand many persons had a strong objection to go through. Had the object been to conceal from the ratepayers the interest they ought to have in respect of the proceedings of the Metropolitan Board of Works, no better system of election could have been devised. Suppose the ratepayers were discontented with the Metropolitan Board of Works, let their Lordships consider how long it would take them before they could give effect to that discontent. They could only make a change by electing new Vestries—this, as only one third of the Vestrymen went out in each year, would take three years; and, as it fell to each Vestry on every third year to nominate its representatives on the Metropolitan Board of Works, it might possibly happen that it would be three years more before they had got rid of the old Board and elected a new one. Therefore, with a prospect so remote, it was no wonder that the ratepayers should be indifferent and disposed to let matters take their course. In attempting in this Bill to deal with this evil, he had followed exactly the precedent of the school-beard elections. By Clause 16 it was provided that all the members of the board should be elected at the same time; so that the issue would be distinctly brought before the ratepayers, and they would feel that they were electing persons to whom their interests and the expenditure of vast public funds were entrusted. It had been shown by the school - beard election, that when the electors felt a direct personal interest in the result a far larger number expressed their opinions at the poll; and with that view it was of the highest importance to abolish the present system of secondary election. Then Clause 4 proposed that the vote should be cumulative; and Clause 10 that it should be by ballot. Then, by Clause 3, it was proposed to increase the number of the members of the Metropolitan Board to 100 instead of 45, as fixed by the Act of 1855. If 45 were required at that time to do the current work of the Board, it was absolutely necessary, now that that work was more than quadrupled, to increase the number of Members. He found from the published Returns, that in 1874 there were 74 meetings of the whole Board, and 224 committee meetings. Looking at the number of committees of the Board acting in 1874 and at the number of members on those committees, if at each meeting of a committee there was a quorum of 15 members, each member of the Board must have been present at business on no fewer than 107 occasions. This imposed upon each member an amount of work which it was unreasonable to expect from an unpaid body. The proposed increase to 100 was by no means excessive. The Act of 1855 proposed 120 as the maximum for Vestries, and in five or six cases the Vestries actually consisted of that number. The Court of Common Council of the City of London—the work of which did not approach, either in importance or amount, that of the Metropolitan Board of Works—had 232 members; and it had never been alleged that that Body had been found too large to be manageable. Another advantage would be gained. It would redress some of those inequalities of representation which unavoidably occurred at the passing of the Act of 1855. Of course, at that time there were all kinds of local bodies, local interests, and local jealousies to be met; and it was not surprising that there should be great inequalities in the first scheme of representation. Since that time the tendency had been to increase rather than to decrease those inequalities; and if any changes were made at all, a reform in that direction was imperatively necessary. The mode in which this was proposed to be done was based on the population of the parishes or districts. He did not attach so much importance to this portion of the Bill, and he should be guided in respect to it by the opinions expressed by their Lordships; but with respect to the other part, he looked forward with confidence to the sanction of their Lordships. There was one other provision he ought to mention, that contained in Clause 5, under which the Local Government Board might by Order from time to time vary or change the area of the divisions, and might abolish any such division or divisions or constitute any new ones, and also vary or change the number of members to be elected to the Board by any division. At present the Metropolitan Board had that power in respect to the Vestries. Local taxation was become yearly and monthly a matter of greater importance, and he thought their Lordships would look with favour on a measure having for its object to bring representation and local taxation in more direct harmony. He was not able to see any good objection to the principle of the Bill; and that being so, he would listen with some interest and curiosity to the noble Earl who, on the part of the Government, had given Notice of an Amendment for the rejection of the measure. He begged to move the second reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Camperdown.)


, in moving that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, he did not deny that it was useful from time to time to bring the constitution and acts of a great public body like the Metropolitan Board of Works under the notice of Parliament; but when the House was asked to entirely change its constitution, it was necessary to look narrowly for some justification for such a measure. Now, the propositions to which the noble Earl (the Earl of Camperdown) attached the chief importance were these —the Bill proposed to increase the number of members of the Board from 45 to 100; to the complete election of the Board at one time every three years; and a direct representation of the ratepayers rather than by a secondary election by the interposition of the Vestries. The changes proposed by the Bill were either imperatively required or they were not. If not, then he need not take up their Lordships' time with showing that they ought not to interfere with an organization so extensive. The origin and history of the Metropolitan Board of Works was not shrouded in the mists of antiquity or inaugurated by the Barons at Runnymede, but from its commencement to the present time its existence was full in the recollection of most of their Lordships, and it had been throughout a most useful servant of the public. The question then arose whether there was any reasonable prospect by the action of this Bill of enabling the Board to better carry out its duties? If not, the matter had better be left alone. If, on the other hand, Parliament should think that it was required, they ought to proceed on one of three grounds—that the Board did what was wrong, or that it failed to do what was right, or that it did what was right in an inopportune manner, and he thought the noble Earl had failed to show that there had been any failure in respect of any one of these points. The noble Earl seemed to think that the Metropolitan Board had taken upon itself duties that did not belong to it. That was an error. In the Report of the Select Committee of 1866 and 1867 there was a detailed description of the duties which the Board at that time was called on to perform, and since its formation many new duties had been cast upon it connected with the local government and local taxation of the Metropolis. This was of itself sufficient to show that the Metropolitan Board continued to enjoy the confidence of Parliament. No doubt the work to be discharged by the Board was of great importance; but he did not understand the noble Earl to charge as against the Board that it was invested with an excess of powers: neither had the noble Earl asserted that the members of the Board were a set of busybodies who exceeded their powers. But even if either of those charges had been brought against the Board, there would have been a long step between that and the proposition that the constitution of the Board ought to be amended in the way proposed. It could scarcely be denied that the existing system had secured the accumulated experience of 20 years. He did not think the noble Earl objected to it on that ground. Well then, if, on the whole, the Board had risen to a sense of its obligations and conducted its business in a proper manner, the case against its present constitution fell to the ground,—for he was sure their Lordships would not be led away by a name. Parliament had shown its confidence in the Metropolitan Board of Works by constantly investing it with additional functions; such as those which had been conferred on it within the last three years in connection with slaughter-houses, the cattle plague, and artizans' dwellings. The constitution of the Board was rigorously examined in 1861 by a Select Committee of the other House of Parliament; but it was impossible not to conclude from an examination of their Report that their recommendations fell far short of what the noble Earl proposed in his Bill. He admitted that the Select Committee of that year reported that "greater authority would be attached to its deliberations if the Board were elected directly." He made the noble Earl a present of that recommendation, because the functions of the Metropolitan Board of Works were not those of a debating society; they were administrative, and not deliberative. In 1866 another Select Committee of the House of Commons inquired into the local government and local taxation of the Metropolis. That Committee also recommended another constitution of the Board from the one now in existence. It recommended, first, that property should be more largely represented on the Board by the introduction of Justices; next, that in the event of property occupied by the Crown being taxed, the Crown should be allowed to appoint two members; next, that four Members should be returned by the governing bodies as under the existing system; and lastly, that a certain number of members should be elected directly by the ratepayers. He made the noble Earl a present of this last recommendation also, when taken in connection with the three which preceded it in the same report. They were not now considering what ought to De done in a Utopia or a country of the future, and therefore he declined to embark in an abstract discussion on the relative merits or demerits of a direct as compared with an indirect representation of the ratepayers on the Metropolitan Board of Works. The noble Earl mid that under the existing system each member of the Board had to sacrifice 107 days in the year to his official duties; but when Mr. Beale, who could not be supposed to be over friendly to the Metropolitan Board of Works, was asked by a Select Committee whether he thought it was necessary to make a large allowance for the absence of members in public bodies, he pointed to that Board to show that the attendance of its members was much larger than that of any Vestry. The noble Earl urged as an objection against the present system that only vestrymen were elected members of the Board. But did not this filtration through the Vestries produce cordial and harmonious action between the Vestries and the Board itself, and did it not secure on the Board the presence of men conversant with the class of duties which the Board had to discharge? The question really was, were there such faults in the present system as to render necessary a heroic measure like that of the noble Earl? There was no reason to suppose that any advantage would follow the adoption of the principle of the Bill. With reference to the proposed increase of members of the Board, the schedule of the Bill was based, as he understood it, on population alone. But in 1855 population was by no means taken as the sole test of the matter, and he thought it would be difficult to make out that it ought to be taken as the sole test. It would be difficult to define justly the exact proportions of the various elements of representation. The Report of the Committee of the House of Commons in 1867 differed materially from the scheme proposed by the noble Earl. If we departed from the existing system we should be landed in considerable difficulty. Another point was the system of triennial elections proposed by the noble Earl. It was true that the members of the School Board were elected triennially; but he did not think that the elections of the members of the School Board had been so satisfactory to the ratepayers, so far as economy was con- cerned, that they would wish to see the system of triennial election adopted in the case of the Metropolitan Board of Works. He wanted to know why that system should be adopted. The members of the municipal corporations throughout the United Kingdom were not triennially elected. Very good care was taken so to arrange the numbers of each of those corporations that only a third of the members went out of office and a third was elected. Great improvements had been made in London since the Metropolitan Board of Works had commenced operations. The rateable value of property in the Metropolis in 1856 was £11,283,663, and under their administration it had become upwards of £23,000,000. Every act of the Board was made public and was subjected to rigorous scrutiny, and what they had effected since they were liberated from local control had commanded admiration. They had promoted the health, the happiness, and the prosperity of the toiling millions of London, and it would be the highest un-wisdom to interfere with their constitution merely to satisfy philosophical ideas and abstract theories. Under these circumstances, he begged to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

Amendment moved to leave out ("now,") and add at the end of the Motion ("this day six months.")—(The Earl Beauchamp.)


said, that this was not a proposition to sweep away the Metropolitan Board altogether, but to extend its powers, authority, and influence all over the Metropolis—in short, as he regarded the measure as being calculated rather to strengthen than to diminish the position of the Board, he should vote for the second reading. Moreover, as the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department stated last year that they did not get the best men to sit at the Vestries, he should consider that as a good reason for voting for this Bill. The noble Earl (Earl Beauchamp) had questioned the necessity for any measure being passed on the subject; but the history of the last 40 years showed that the ratepayers of the Metropolis generally were far from being satisfied with their system of local government, and consequently there had been Commissions and Select Committees and Bills and Resolutions upon the subject, in the hope of effecting some improvement in the administration of metropolitan affairs and the rates. The proposals that had been hitherto made for the improvement of that system had failed on account of their attempting too much, by suggesting the establishment of one huge, unwieldy government for the whole of the Metropolis, instead of trying to utilize the existing Metropolitan Board of Works. He thought that it would be unwise to interfere with the constitution of the City of London, which, besides being very strong and difficult to deal with, was admirably managed so far as the paving, lighting, and cleansing of the streets were concerned. He thought, therefore, it would be wiser to leave the City alone. But, so far was he from wishing to take away any of the powers of the Metropolitan Board that he would desire to extend those powers by handing over to it those duties of lighting and cleansing the streets which were now performed by the Vestries, and he would also extend the powers of the Board and give them the management of all open spaces in the Metropolis. Looking at what had been effected by the Board since 1855, he quite agreed that a large amount of good work had been done; and, as he wished the Board to become the municipal body for the Metropolis outside the City, he should give this measure his hearty support. He hoped that the Board would, when it had larger powers, perform other good works. If, however, the Bill should be rejected, he trusted that the Government would take the matter in hand and deal with it in the direction now proposed.


said, that the charges upon the ratepayers in all parts of the country were becoming heavier every year, and he contended that those who paid the rates should have a direct representation and the appointment of all officials by whom the rates were expended. That was the principle of local Government in this country, and for those reasons he must give his vote in favour of the Bill; though he hoped that the noble Earl would not press those provisions of it which had reference to an increase of the members of the Metropolitan Board of Works to 100. He did not think that the Board would be made more efficient, but would be rather weakened, by such a large increase in the number of members. The present system of management of local affairs in the Metropolis was not satisfactory; as there were, he believed, no less than 38 Vestries having jurisdiction concurrent with, or in addition to, the Metropolitan Board of Works, and entertaining very discordant views on many important questions. The consequence of all this different management was apparent by the great inconvenience which was continually experienced in passing through the streets of the Metropolis. He hailed this Bill with satisfaction as being a step towards placing the local government of the Metropolis upon a better footing.


said, that having in 1855 had charge of the Bill under which the Metropolitan Board of Works had been constituted, and under which so much good work had been done, he wished to say a few words in reference to the measure now before the House. He desired to point out that this was a question of practical, not Utopian legislation. The fact that the Metropolitan Board of Works had been very successful in transacting important duties, had expended large sums of money, and carried through an extensive system of sewage works, had proved its capacity for performing the duties entrusted to it, and therefore he thought that the disposition of Parliament would be to add to the duties of the Board, and to grant it larger powers, so that its authority and influence might be extended; and that, he contended, would be the case if the Board derived its authority directly from the ratepayers. He considered that it would be highly desirable to strengthen the hands of the Board. The subject, however, was an exceeding large one, and an objection to the Bill which might be admitted to possess some weight was that by bringing it forward now his noble Friend might be supposed to prejudge a much larger question—namely, the giving of more complete local institutions to the whole of the Metropolis. He hoped this larger question would speedily be brought before Parliament, and settled in some way or another. The noble Earl who moved the rejection of the Bill (Earl Beauchamp) certainly made an admission which should raise the hopes of its supporters. The Report of the Select Committtee of 1866 did not go the length of recommending that the whole of the members of the Metropolitan Board should be elected by direct representation, but it certainly expressed the view of the Committee that a portion of its members should be so elected. It was satisfactory, therefore, to find the Lord. Steward, although opposing the Bill of his noble Friend, admitting that some reform was necessary and that it ought to tend in the direction of election by the ratepayers independently of the Vestries. His noble Friend (the Earl of Camper-down) had done good service by bringing the matter forward, and he thought, on the whole, that little, if any, advantage could be gained by pressing the Bill to a division at the present time.


regarded. the introduction of the Bill as so far satisfactory that it afforded evidence of a growing feeling of dissatisfaction among the ratepayers of the Metropolis against the present system of management — a system which he ventured to oppose when it was introduced to Parliament, as not likely to prove either sound or economical. And the heavy pressure of the rates and the unsatisfactory state of the roads, especially in the Metropolis, had ever since too well fulfilled his predictions. He had protested against the large number of vestrymen allowed in each parish under that Bill, in many cases amounting to 120. He had. objected also to the number—45—of members in the Metropolitan Board; for he entirely agreed with his noble Friend opposite that administrative bodies in which the members made long speeches for the purpose of catching popular applause, were very unlikely to do their work well. There were a good many points in which he thought the Bill of his noble Friend highly objectionable. For instance, it was not only proposed to have a directly-elected body, but to have the whole of the members of it elected simultaneously every three years; so that if the Board. should take an unpopular line it might happen that the whole of the members would be rejected and not a single old member left to assist in carrying on the affairs of the Board according to its traditions. That would be an evil. Then, even if the great subdivision of labour made it necessary now that the numbers of the Board should be kept up in order to supply members for the different committees, to increase it to more than double the number of the present members would be, he feared, to convert an administrative body into an area of discussion in which eloquence and plausibility would attain far greater influence than an intimate acquaintance with the subjects to be dealt with; and thus sound views and practical administration would be practically eliminated from the proposed body. He could not regret that the subject of local government for the Metropolis had been discussed in their Lordships' House. It had long been a pressing question, and one that demanded the most careful and deliberate consideration of Her Majesty's Government. The magnitude of the task which he trusted the Government would soon have leisure to undertake, whether as regarded sanitary or economic considerations, could hardly be overrated. His noble Friend's Bill proposed to touch one part of the question only, and that very unsatisfactorily, and he could not therefore support it.


said he would not put their Lordships to the trouble of dividing.

On Question, that ("now") stand part of the Motion? resolved in the negative. Bill to be read 2a this day six months.

House adjourned at a quarter past Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock