HL Deb 06 July 1897 vol 50 cc1197-205

Order of the Day- for the Second Reading read.

LORD THRING moved "That the Bill be now Read a Second time." He said that the Bill was similar to one which passed the House last year after full consideration, and he had intended to make the Motion without troubling their Lord-ships with any observations, but he presumed, after notice of opposition had been given by Lord Heneage, it was necessary for him to give a short explanation. The object of the Measure was simply to enable County Councils to give their aid in checking floods where there was no other local authority having power in the matter. It was unnecessary to dilate on the dangers and disasters caused by floods, and their Lordships were well aware that over the greater part of the country the measures for controlling floods were under the authority of conservators, elective boards, and commissioners. The Bill did not in the least affect the jurisdiction of these bodies, or interfere with their authority in any way. There were, however, large districts, and especially in the Midlands, where there was no authority for checking floods, and often in those districts., the removal of a very small obstruction, the clearance of an arterial stream, at a small expense would be sufficient to prevent a flood, and the Bill was to enable a County Council to do this work. There was no compulsion in the Bill, there was no power conferred to take land compulsorily, the Council would have no power to rate a subordinate district except with consent. Simply, the Bill gave power to a council, if it should be thought for the benefit of any part of the county, to pay for the removal of the obstruction. He could not conceive any Bill less objectionable. Last year the noble Marquess at the head of the Government said the Bill hail not sufficient safeguards, and thereupon clauses were inserted which satisfied the noble Lord, and the Bill passed the Standing, Committee. Of course it would be idle to withstand noble Lords opposite if they wished to throw out the Bill, or to attempt to pass the Bill against opposition in the Commons; but every single clause to which exception was taken last year had been eliminated or amended to remove opposition. The Bill was approved by the Local Government Board, and he had not the remotest notion why it was objected to now. It was impossible for him to forestall the noble Lord's objections, and he could hardly conjecture them.


said he objected to this Bill on three grounds. He objected to it, first of all, because it was inequitable. No attempt had been made to put any real safeguards in the Bill or any equitable clauses for the advantage of the uplands and midlands who were to pay for the prevention of floods in the lowlands. He objected to it, in the second place, because of the powers given to County Councils. He was as strong an advocate of local government as any Member of their Lordships' House, but he had always deprecated sending controversial questions to be managed by County Councils, and no single agricultural question was more controversial than the one dealt with in the Bill. His third objection was that it was brought in as a private Member's Bill in the middle of July instead of being brought in, as a question of this kind should be brought in, as a Government Measure at the beginning of the Session, when the Bill could be thoroughly canvassed and examined into by chambers of agriculture and different County Councils. The Bill was entirely in opposition to the recommendations of any Committee which had ever sat. There was no difference made in the payments for anything done between the midlands and the lowlands and the uplands, although it must be perfectly clear that the only people who could possibly benefit under the Bill were those who resided in the lowlands, while those who would suffer from having their water-courses interfered with must be those in the uplands and midlands. Under this Bill there was not a single water-course, not a single supply of water, not a single storage of water that could not be interfered with by the inspectors of a County Council at their pleasure, and he did not think that that sort of power ought to be given. They could enter upon the land at any time on a week's notice to the occupier. No notice whatever need be given to the landlord. A landlord might have been at great expense in putting up a dam to provide water for one of his farms, but he might find the very next year, if there was a drought, that that water supply had been tapped and taken away, and then he would have to pay his share of the rates in having that damage done to him. Nothing could be wider than the definition of a water course. It not only included a river and canal, but any inland navigation, steam, drain, culvert, outfall, and passage under or over or through which water passed. So that there was not a single pipe which might be laid down by any of their Lordships to bring water, in case of drought, to any of the farms or villages on their estate which might not be rendered entirely useless or tapped under the clauses of the Bill. Why were they to have this legislation entirely for one class of land? It was quite true that occasionally floods did a great deal of damage to the lowlands, but it was equally true that drought did a great deal more damage to the uplands and to the midlands, and if they were not to be in a. position to store their water, if they were not to be in a position to take advantage of good years of rain, then he was afraid that a good deal of the uplands would go out of cultivation. In the case of the lowlands, if disaster from floods fell upon them one year, they gained great advantage in the years afterwards, owing to the very luxuriant crops which followed the floods. It was recommended, he believed, by one of the Committees of their Lordships' House that if a Bill of this kind was to be proposed, some equitable provisions ought to be taken on behalf of the uplands and midlands. It was said that something ought to be done to enable water to be stored in case of dry years, and it was particularly asked that there should be a. differentiation between the rates that would be paid by the uplands and midlands and those paid by the lowlands. That was the line taken in the Bill of 1882, which was introduced by the Government of that day, and though in other respects that Bill was almost as objectionable as the present, it was equitable on that point. He asked their Lordships to consider whether it was wise to adopt the principle of a Bill which could not, at this period of the Session, really go much further, and to tie their hands by such a course, or whether it would not be much better to reject the Bill on the Second Reading and allow it to be brought in, if it was a good and necessary Bill, by the responsible Government next year. He begged to move to leave out the word "now," and to add at the end of the Motion "this day three months."


said he did not quite know what the noble Lord meant by the House adopting the principle of the Bill. Their Lordships' House had already done that.


By accident.


said he did not know what the noble Lord meant by that. The Bill was largely discussed on the Second Reading; certain criticisms were made by the noble Marquess opposite. Amendments were introduced with a view to meet those criticisms, and ultimately the Bill passed by common consent. There might be grounds for amending the Bill, but that was a different thing from rejecting it.


I do not think the Amendments that were made were entirely satisfactory for disposing of all the criticisms advanced on the Bill. The objection to the Bill is that it is too crude a performance for dealing with so great a subject. The powers are given to the County Council without any limit or selection whatever. They could walk into your front garden and they could take your fishpond and they could make what they pleased of it, and if they could establish that it was your duty to keep your fish pond clean they could charge you with the expense. Certainly they could do so with any ditch on your property—["hear, hear!"]—any river, any weir, or any dam, the definition is of such extreme latitude and there is no restraint on the action of the County Council. Now, I think that in great matters you call very fairly trust, with tolerably complete confidence, the action of these local bodies. Where they require to be watched is in small matters, because small matters fall into the hands of some small permanent official who does exactly what he likes. Therefore, I look with considerable apprehension to the power that is given to these County Councils to meddle with any bit of land that happens to have a bit of water upon it, without any restraint or guidance or limit whatever. I do not say that I could improvise a. Bill to meet the case satisfactorily. I consider the matter is one of very considerable difficulty. I should like to see a broader anal more careful investigation of the whole subject. If I may say so without offence, I think that this Bill is the pastime of some journey. As he was going by railway the noble Lord put down what had occurred to him and all the watercourses upon which his eye rested—[laughter]—just as we know that the division of our New Testament was entirely done by a bookseller who happened to be going from Paris to Lyons. [Laughter.] I think some such journey as that must be the explanation of the action of the noble Lord. [Laughter.] It is the imperfection of the Measure of Which I complain, I think the consideration the noble Lord has put before us, that the Bill has previously passed the Second Reading, is one of considerable force, and, if he pressed it now, being a man of great authority, I should not resist the Second Reading. But I confess that, in the present state, I cannot look forward to doing anything to put the Bill upon the Statute Book. It is far too rash and headstrong, and speaks too much of the unrestrained passion of youth—[loud laughter]—for me to venture to accede to the wish of the noble Lord. At the same time, I wish to pay every homage to the desire of the noble Lord to remedy what is undoubtedly a position of danger, but I think it requires to be done somewhat more liberally.


It is unfortunate that this general objection was not taken last year, because this Bill did not merely pass the Second Reading but passed the House. ["Hear, hear!"] Unquestionably the subject is a very difficult one, but I think there are more safeguards in the Bill than the noble Marquess, perhaps, has observed. For instance, no money can be levied in a district without the consent of the district or the parish council. Again, all rights are saved of persons or bodies of persons who have a right to water. I do not think the Bill is so entirely crude and ill-considered as the noble Marquess thinks. It is extremely desirable that there should be an authority, properly guarded, that can see that all these ordinary water-courses are kept in a proper condition, otherwise great damage is done to the land below and very often to cultivation. I must say I sympathise with my noble Friend, and T think the House may, at all events, give the Bill a Second Reading without binding itself in the least to all the provisions of the Bill.


said that Sub-section (2) of the Second Section provided that full compensation shall he paid by the County Council to the owner or occupier of any land for any damage unlawfully caused to them or either of them. Would the noble Lord explain what was meant by "unlawfully caused?"


said that if it was the duty of an owner to take away an obstruction, and he did not take it away, he might not be compensated for any damage. He confessed he was surprised and extremely disappointed by the speech of the Prime Minister. Last year the noble Marquess was good enough to point out that certain savings were wanted. In the Standing Committee those savings were put in, and it was understood the noble Lord was entirely satisfied. As to the speech of Lord Heneage, he was afraid he must contradict every proposition that noble Lord made. The noble Lord said the House had now no time to consider the Measure. Why, it was fully considered last year, it passed through every stage, it went down to the House of Commons, and could not be moved there for want of time. He brought the Bill in now because everybody knew a Measure had no chance in the House of Commons except it was brought in at the end of a Session. The noble Lord feared that the Bill would interrupt the storage of water. It would do nothing of the kind. They could not take a single yard or inch of land without the consent of the owner, and how all the evils predicted were to arise from the Bill it was impossible for him to conceive. In former years he drew Bills dealing with the uplands and lowlands, but they failed because they were too big. Now he brought in a. small Measure on behalf of the majority of the County Councils, and it was said it ought not to be carried because it was small and crude. The Measure could not by any possibility injure anybody. He was afraid there was no hope whatever of their ever being able to do anything to prevent one of the greatest evils that existed—the recurrence of floods. During the 25 years he was in office, he assisted in drawing Bill after Bill. They all failed, because they were too large. This was to fail because it was too small.


said he was quite ready to give all credit to Lord Thring for the attention he had paid to the work of the County Councils, but still he hoped the noble Lord would withdraw this Bill. In the first place, there was no reasonable chance of the Bill passing this Session, and, secondly, the Measure introduced a new principle in respect to the action of the County Councils. In matters of importance, County Councils Proceeded after deliberate public inquiry by members of their own body. This Bill enabled them to act at once, without any public inquiry. That was a new principle which might not be accepted by the House. He could not recognise that principle, and therefore should be obliged to vote against the Second Reading if the noble Lord went to a Division.


said that about 1880 or 1881 he had charge of Bills for the prevention of floods. Those Bills were discussed at great length, and it was quite true, as Lord Thring had said, that they were lost because of the wide scope of their clauses. It was of the greatest possible importance that something should be done to prevent this great evil. He could not see that there were such great dangers as had been pointed out. The Bill was specially guarded, but his noble Friend had said that if it was not efficiently guarded he would add any safeguard that was reasonable. Both the noble Lord who moved the rejection of the Bill and Lord Northbrook had referred to County Councils. Lord Heneage said he did not wish that County Councils should have any controversial matters to deal with. He was surprised to hear that, because County Councils had now controversial matters to deal with. He was happy to think they very seldom took a political line, but constantly, in his County Council, they had acute controversies on subjects connected with local affairs. Surely County Councils were capable of facing controversial matters such as were dealt with by this Bill. Lord Northbrook said that County Councils were in the habit of holding local inquiries and proceeding with great caution. That was quite true, but did his noble Friend suggest for a moment that County Councils would put a single clause of this Bill into operation without making the most careful inquiry?


remarked that there was no provision in the Bill as to inquiries.


admitted that the Bill contained no such provision, but he was quite certain that every County Council would proceed with the greatest possible care in this matter and would make inquiries as they did in other respects. He would be extremely sorry if his noble Friend withdrew the Bill. The Measure, small though it was, dealt with a great evil, and he would greatly regret if it failed to receive their Lordships' approval. ["Hear, hear!"]

The House divided:—


Belmore, E. Hawkesbury, L. [Teller]
Buckinghamshire, E. [Teller.]
Herschell, L.
Kimberley, E. Leigh, L.
Morley, E. Lingen, L.
Spencer, E. Norton, D.
Stanhope, E. Reay, L.
Strafford, E. Sudley, L. (E. Arran.)
Thring, L.
Oxenbridgo, V. Tredegar, L.
Sidmouth, V.
Halsbury, L. (L. Chancellor.) Balfour, L.
Bolton, L.
Cross, V. (L. Pricy Seal.) Boston, L.
Calthorpe, L.
Churchill, L. [Teller.]
Richmond, D. Connemara, L.
Crawshaw, L.
Bath, M. Glenesk, L.
Salisbury, M. Greville, L.
Harris, L.
Camperdown, E. Heneage, L.
Carnwalh, E. Kenry, L. (E. Dunraven and Mount-Earl.)
Cowper, E.
Lauderdale. E. Ker, L. (M. Lothian).
Mayo, E. Lawrence, L.
Northhrook, E. Mendip, L. (Clifden)
Portsmouth, E.
Rosse, E. Monckton, L.(V. Galway)
Selborne, E.
Waldegrave, E. [Teller.] Servile, L.
Stanley of Alderley, L.
Yarborough, E. Wemyss, L. (E. Wemyss).
Falkland, V.

Resolved in the negative; Bill to be Read 2a this day three months.