HL Deb 17 July 1879 vol 248 cc605-12

rose to ask, Whether the attention of the Government had been called to the preferential rates given by the Railway Companies to the carriage of foreign as compared with English agricultural produce, especially American? Since his attention had been called to the subject he had found that for many years the railways of this country had given preferential rates in favour of the carriage of imported meat from America, from the seaports at which the meat was landed, to London; and they had not confined those preferential rates to foreign meat, but had included corn also. He did not think that it was generally known that the rates for the conveyance of American meat between Liverpool and London was 25s. per ton, in quantities of not less than 10 tons, whereas the rates for the conveyance of English fresh meat were 50s. per ton; and what was more extraordinary was, that if a farmer in the North of England sent his stock to Liverpool, and was unable to sell it in the Liverpool market, and wished to send it to London, he was obliged to pay the price which was charged for sending English fresh meat. Now, this was a very serious question, and one which must seriously affect the business of farmers and graziers. They very much complained that they were over weighted by reason of the increased rates charged them for the conveyance of their goods to London. It was not only from Liverpool that this difference was made. There was another town well known to their Lordships as a town from which large quantities of meat were sent by railway—he meant Glasgow. American meat sent from Glasgow to London was charged 60s. a-ton; whereas fresh meat brought from districts near Glasgow was carried at the consigner's risk for 70s. per ton. and at the Company's risk for 77s. per ton. These preferential rates acted most prejudicially against the farmers in the South and West of Scotland. Their Lordships could not but see that an extra rate of 10s. a-ton in favour of American meat must act very prejudicially to farmers in those districts. He was not going to mention the names of any individual railways. They had laid their heads together, and they all charged the same rates to London. He had made some inquiry into the subject, and he found that they all charged exactly alike. He had furnished the noble Lord opposite (Lord Henniker) with a table of rates. He had nothing particular to complain of with regard to the Companies themselves. They had treated, him with the greatest courtesy; but still they did not deny the fact that there was a preferential difference in their charges. But what they said was this—that they would not carry the American meat at all unless they did so at a very low rate; that if they charged the American meat the same rate as the English the ships would not unload at Liverpool, but would take their cargoes straight on to London. On this point, it was only necessary for him to state the remark made by one of the managers of the railways, and that was, that unless they charged very low rates they would improve the traffic off the railways altogether. He did not know how that might be; but, as the matter stood, he thought it could not be denied that the English and Scotch farmers had a very great grievance. It had been suggested that the Railway Commission established by the Act of 1873 would afford a remedy; and certainly Clause 11 of that Act was very strong, because it enacted that every Railway Company or Canal Company should, according to their respective powers, afford all reasonable facilities for the carriage of goods, and that no Railway Company should give any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person, or Company, or description of traffic over another. Now, on the face of this clause, it certainly said that no Company should give an undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to one customer over another; but the reply of the Railway Companies to the charge was—" It is true that we do not charge the importers of foreign cattle so much as we do you, but we do not charge the English cattle rates as high as we are entitled to under the maximum charge in the Act;" and they went on to say that they obtained a much larger profit from charging the foreign cattle at the lower rate than they did the English at the higher rate; and that if the dealers in English fresh meat chose to send as much as the Americans did over the railways, they would be entitled to be charged at the lower rate also. Now, the English farmers said—and, it appeared to him, they said with great truth—that that was an unreasonable and undue preference of foreigners over Englishmen. He was not prepared to say that the Railway Companies were bound to carry small parcels of goods at reduced rates; but what he did contend for was, that they ought not to be allowed to give the goods of foreigners a preferential rate, and thus, practically, prevent the English breeders and farmers from sending their produce to the London market at all. He should be very curious to hear the arguments of even the most ardent Free Trader in their Lordships' House, who would venture to get up and argue in favour of a state of things which was nothing more or less than protection of the foreign as against the English producer, although it might be in favour of the London consumer—and that, in a few words, was what it really was. There was another branch of the same subject to which he wished to call their Lordships' attention. He found that most of the Railway Companies running out of London gave a special rate in favour of foreign corn sent out of London to millers and merchants, as against English corn; and it was a fact that, supposing a quantity of English corn were sent up to London and a quantity of foreign corn imported into the port of London, if both were required to be sent out of London for any purpose whatever, the cost would absolutely be one-third more for the carriage of the English corn than it would for the carriage of the foreign. Now, upon what principle the Railway Companies should give a preference for the carriage of foreign corn as against English corn out of London—a preference to the extent of charging a third more for English than foreign—he really could not understand. What they said was, that it was for the benefit of the local millers, who, in return for the advantages given to them, sent back a large quantity of flour to London over the lines. The practical effect upon the English farmer, however, was that he was obliged to accept for his corn the lower price by 6d., 1s., and even 1s. 6d. per quarter. If that was not pure protection by means of the Railway Companies to foreign as against English corn, he did not know what was. Now, taking into account the large quantity of agricultural produce that must or might, and in ordinary cases would be, sent by railway from one part to another, might not this proceeding on the part of the Railway Companies be called killing the goose that laid the golden egg? He did not complain of the advantage they were giving to the foreigners so much as of the fact that they were starving the men who supported them for the purpose of enriching those who really, practically, gave them nothing in return; and ho might say that since he had placed his Notice on the Paper, he had received hundreds of letters from farmers from all parts of the country, pointing out the injury that was being done to them, and asking him to advocate in their Lordships' House a policy that would give more encouragement to the English farmer. There was one Question he should like to put to the noble Lord op- posite, and that was, Whether Her Majesty's Government considered that this was a subject which would come within the scope of the inquiry of the recently appointed Commission on Agricultural Depression? He trusted also that the Government would not wait until a Ministry of Agriculture had been constituted; but that the Board of Trade would at once take the matter up, and hold out some hope to the British farmer that the injustice to which he was being subjected would be removed.


said, he thought their Lordships would agree with him that there could be no doubt that the question to which his noble Friend opposite the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Huntly) had called the attention of the House that evening was one which deserved every consideration. The facts which his noble Friend had brought before their Lordships certainly appeared to show that the agricultural produce of Great Britain was at a considerable disadvantage as compared with the agricultural produce imported into this country, so far as the rates charged for its conveyance over the railway systems of England and Scotland were concerned. It might, perhaps, be known to their Lordships that the Board of Trade had no means by which they could tell what were the particular rates charged by any Railway Company with respect to any article. The only information they had on that point was the special Acts of each Company, which specified the maximum rates the Companies were respectively authorized to charge. He must, therefore, say that until the noble Marquess brought this question forward, the attention of the Board of Trade had not been directed to the preferential rates which he stated were given to foreign as compared with English produce by the Railway Companies. The noble Marquess was conversant with the provisions of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act of 1873; and he understood him to ask whether the 11th section of that Act did not provide a remedy for the grievances complained of? It was, however, a question upon which he (Lord Henniker) should hesitate to give an opinion, as he could hardly undertake to place an authoritative construction upon the words of an Act of Parliament. He would ask their Lordships to allow him to read the exact words of the Act to which he referred, at the risk of reading to them what they knew already, so as to make his statement as complete as possible. The 11th section provided— "That no Company shall make or give any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to or in favour of any particular person or company or any particular description of traffic, in any respect whatsoever, or shall subject any particular person or company or any particular description of traffic to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage in any respect whatsoever. That Act, their Lordships might remember, was passed in consequence of a recommendation of a Joint Committee of their Lordships' House and of the House of Commons, and which was formed of Members of both Houses who were well able to give an opinion upon such questions. In fact, it might be called a very strong Committee. The question of undue preference was gone into most thoroughly before that Committee, and, in consequence of the evidence given, the Act of 1873 became law. This point, however, which the noble Marquess had brought forward was one, as he had said, of great importance; and he might add that a Return, which was ordered by their Lordships' House two years ago, showing the maximum rates authorized to be charged by each Railway Company, would be shortly placed in their Lordships' hands. It would give much information as to the rates which could be levied—it would, not, however, of course, give in any way the information required as to the actual rates charged. Indeed, it was almost impossible to do so—these rates varied so much and were so constantly changed that it would be impossible to prepare such a Return to lay before the House. The noble Marquess wished to know whether the Order of Reference for the Royal Commission which was about to issue on the subject of agricultural depression would contain any specific allusion to the question which he had raised? He (Lord Henniker) could only say that, from what had passed in the other House, it would certainly appear to be the intention of Her Majesty's Government to give as large a scope to the inquiry as possible, and not to limit this important investigation to any narrow lines. If it should be found during the progress of the inquiry that the point mooted was one which could be usefully considered, there was, he thought, but little doubt that the Commissioners would feel they were in a position not to disregard a matter involving such large interests.


said, that as the noble Marquess had appealed to the Government on this subject, he rose to say that he fully admitted its importance. The noble Marquess had told their Lordships that he had been treated with every courtesy by the Railway Companies, who had given every information he desired, and which he had now given to their Lordships. From the statement made by the noble Marquess, it appeared that the Railway Companies had made a distinct admission that considerable inequality existed in regard to the carriage of foreign and English agricultural produce, and that, in fact, they were every day breaking the law. He must confess that, under those circumstances, he was very much surprised that no one had thought it worth while to bring the matter before the notice of the Railway Commission. The noble Marquess alluded to the 11th clause of the Act of 1873; but he did not quote what appeared to him to be the still stronger provision in Clause 90 of the Railways Clauses Consolidation Act, 1845, which enacted that a Railway Company should not vary their tolls for the purpose of favouring any particular person, but that all such tolls should at all times be charged equally to all persons and after the same rate for goods of the same description conveyed under the same circumstances. Therefore, he thought it quite possible that when the circumstances became fully known, the remedy for the evil complained of might be found in the existing law.


said, he did not rise to speak with any authority upon such a matter; but he had a strong impression that the kind of remedy which the noble Duke sketched out was, some years ago, tried in the Court of Common Pleas in a case of Oxlade v. the North Eastern Railway Company, in which a coalowner considered himself aggrieved with the carrying regulations of the Railway Company. But he believed the decision of the Court was not quite consistent with the interpretation of the clause which the noble Duke thought was clear upon the face of it. Whether the decision was right or wrong, he would not pretend to say, but it had never been appealed from to the House of Lords.

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