HL Deb 01 August 1907 vol 179 cc1145-56

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a third time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 3a."— (Lord Hamilton of Dalzell.)


My Lords, I have placed on the Paper Notice of my intention, on the Motion for the Third Reading, to move that the Bill be read a third time this day three months, and I should like to explain to your Lordships my reasons for moving this Amendment and the position of the Leith Dock Corporation. In the first place, the Leith Dock Corporation have been exempted from various assessments under an Act of 1848, and in subsequent Acts these exemptions have always been continued. In the next place, the Leith Dock Corporation is not in the same position as the other dock undertakings which were compared with it at the time of the inquiry—docks such as Grangemouth, because those arc docks which belong to railway companies and earn a revenue to pay the shareholders. The Leith Dock Corporation is in an entirely different position, because it is simply a public concern under trustees or commissioners, and can only use surplus revenue for the purposes of dock works. Therefore they are not all on the same footing as revenue-earning concerns.

Leith has never subscribed or contributed a single penny towards either the formation of the docks or any of the works which the docks have undertaken. The docks do their own policing and also undertake the cleansing and keeping up of their streets within their gates, and they also keep up two and a half miles of streets outside the docks. They have to pay entirely for this out of dock revenue, and the cost is about £11,500. They also pay the poor and school rates, property and income-tax, and for public health—in all, about £23,000, including the £11,500 to which I have referred. They have also a yearly servitude of about £11,000 in redemption of debt. It has been stated that the dock revenue is nearer £50,000 than £30,000, but I am informed that the surplus revenue is only now £23,000 per annum, and for many years cannot possibly be in any way increased. The docks are about to raise a loan of £120,000. I believe they have been forced to hang it up in consequence of the decision given by the Joint Committee in Edinburgh in April. I have briefly mentioned the position of the dock corporation.

The whole Bill was unanimously approved, with the exception of Clause 4—the rating clause. A Member of the House of Commons who was on the Joint Committee and myself were of one opinion, and a noble Member of your Lordships' House and the Chairman were of the other opinion; and it seemed to me for many reasons that if any decision should have been given it should have been that the status quo ante should be preserved. I do not wish to suggest any wrong-doing on the part of the Chairman—he is a most upright and honourable gentleman—but the Chairman gave his casting vote for the assessment of the docks for the rates. The result of that decision was that half the rates were put on; that is to say, they were assessed on half the value instead of the whole. It seems to me that this is a matter of principle. If it was just to make the assessment at all, it ought to have been made on the whole; and if it was just that the exemption should be continued, it ought to have been continued on the whole. That, I take it, is the position.

If the case had come before a Private Bill Committee of the House of Commons, as it used to do in the old days before these Joint Committees were set up, and the finding had been one way, and it had then gone to a Private Bill Committee of the House of Lords and the finding had been the same, both Houses would probably have accepted that decision. But in this important matter, involving a very considerable sum of money and an important principle, the decision was given by the Chairman of the Committee, and in absolute contradiction of all the former Acts which had been passed continuing the exemptions to the corporation. It seemed to me, from that, that there was a most excellent reason for re-hearing this case, but that was refused in the House of Commons, and I can see no other way of bringing this to your Lordships' notice than by moving the rejection of the Bill on Third Reading. I would point out that it was merely the accident of this gentleman happening to be Chairman. If I or the Member of the House of Commons who held the same view as I held had been Chairman, the decision would have been exactly opposite. Therefore, I do not think a decision arrived at in these circumstances should be allowed to pass your Lordships' House, but that some steps should be taken by which the whole of this Bill could be reconsidered. I beg to move the Amendment standing in my name.

Amendment moved, "To leave out the word 'now' in order to add at the end the words 'this day three months.' "— (Lord Saltoun.)


My Lords, the course which the House is asked to follow is, no doubt, a very unusual one. It is one which it is perfectly competent for the House to follow if it thinks it expedient to do so, but I venture to say it should not be done without the most weighty and the gravest possible reasons. The noble Lord who has moved the rejection of the Bill served as one of the Commissioners who inquired into this matter in Edinburgh, and he has no doubt formed a very strong opinion as to the merits of the case after hearing the evidence. I have had the privilege of sitting on a Committee of your Lordships' House with the noble Lord, and I can bear testimony, if such were needed, to the weight and value that must attach to an opinion which he forms under such circumstances. But I feel that it is not necessary for me to do this, and indeed I feel sure that whatever method your Lordships may select for settling a diffi- cult matter of this sort the very last one which would be likely to commend itself to you would be that there should be a public weighing of the relative value of the opinion of the different Commissioners.

Now, what are the reasons which the noble Lord gives for moving the rejection of this Bill? First of all, because the docks are the property of commissioners and not of a private company. I confess that I see no reason in that to justify his proposal. These docks are certainly the property of commissioners, and it may be presumed that the town of Leith, in which they are situated, would not wish to injure them because the whole prosperity of the town is bound up in the docks. Then the noble Lord referred to the casting vote of the Chairman. I would remind the House that these Commissions consist of four members—two from your Lordships' House and two from the other House. It is, of course, obvious that in these circumstances there is always the possibility of their being equally divided on any question, and it was for that reason that the Chairman was given a casting vote in the Scottish Private Bill Procedure Act. Having been given that vote by Parliament, I presume it was intended that the Chairman should exercise it, and that a decision arrived at in that way should have just the same force and value as a decision arrived at in any other way.

Then the noble Lord said that if the assessment was to be imposed at all, it should be a full one; that it should either be a full one or none at all. In answer to that, I would point out that it is a very common thing for docks to be rated at half the total value. There are a great many cases in various parts of the country. The next reason the noble Lord gave was that no appeal had been allowed. I would remind the House that the ordinary procedure has been followed in this case. Under the Act which regulates these matters an opportunity of asking that the matter shall be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses is given in the House in which the matter originates, and that in this case was the other House of Parliament. Such a Motion was made in the other House, and was, after a very full. discussion, defeated by a large majority. So that I do not think it can be said that the procedure has not been followed to the letter in this case.

This matter raises the question of this particular procedure in relation to Scottish Bills. I speak with great deference on that subject in the presence of the noble Lord who was the father of that measure; but I see that when the Glasgow Corporation Police Order was under discussion in this House in 1901 the noble Lord said that if continual appeals were made the object of that Act would be defeated. The noble Lord pointed out that the Act was passed with the object of reducing expense, and that if continual appeals were granted these matters would be made very much more expensive than they were before. I therefore ask the House not to agree to the Amendment of the noble Lord.


My Lords, I venture to suggest to the House that if we do not take care we shall drift into rather a difficult position in regard to this matter. We have had two speeches considerably directed towards the merits of the particular Bill before us. Perhaps under the circumstances that was unavoidable, but in my opinion it is very unfortunate. I do not think there can be a worse result of any procedure than that there should be discussions on the merits of private Bills in the House as a whole. The facts before us, which are without dispute, are that certain very material interests are involved in this question, and that the decision upon one of those was arrived at by the casting vote of the Chairman. That fact was announced by the Chairman himself at the moment he gave the decision. I suggest that under these circumstances it would have been very much better if every effort had been taken to procure a re-hearing under the machinery of the Act under which this inquiry was held.

The noble Lord in charge of the Bill says that the ordinary procedure has been followed; but the ordinary procedure has been varied in recent years. Under the machinery of the Act it is only the House of origination which can order the new inquiry, but the obvious intention of the Act was that, the question should be decided ministerially as to which House should be the House of origination. The difficulty in which we are placed is the same as that in which we were placed last year. Last year, in the case of another Order, a decision was given which it became perfectly patent was contrary to -justice, and under pressure from this House a compromise was arrived at between the parties. The suggestion I make now is that this debate should be adjourned for the purpose of seeing whether some compromise in the matter cannot still be arranged. The parties on both sides must know the merits and where the truth between them lies. Here we cannot judge upon ex parie statements from one side or the other, made in however good faith The only manner in which these things can be tested is on oath before a Committee upstairs. That we are precluded from in this case.

I suggest to the Government that if they do not take more care and sometimes give this House an opportunity of judging whether there should be a rehearing or not, they will break down the whole system which was brought into force under the Private Bill Procedure Act. The idea of that Act was that there should be a re-hearing when it was demanded by either party, but under the obligation that if they failed the second time they should be cast in costs. That would have been a salutary rule, but it was not the shape in which the Bill passed. The Act was passed under the presumption that the Scottish Office would act ministerially in the matter, and hold the balance fairly between both parties. I have watched the procedure for the last two or three years, and I have observed that in every case at least where opposition or a demand for a further hearing is expected, and where a municipal authority has been a party to a Bill, that Bill has originated in the other House of Parliament; and on one occasion, although the question that was involved touched a somewhat obscure municipality in Lanarkshire, circulars were sent by municipal bodies all over England to their representatives begging them to vote in a particular way. If that is to go on it will destroy the procedure under that Act, because it will destroy confidence in it, and the larger matters which have hitherto been conducted under these inquiries will not be sent to them. Parties will object to very large interests being decided on the casting vote of a Chairman, however able, without there being an opportunity of appeal. I venture most respectfully to suggest that we had better adjourn this discussion for two or three days in the hope of some adjustment being arrived at. I see an Amendment on the Paper in the name of Lord Plymouth to leave out Clause 4. I do not know whether that is a matter of compromise or arrangement. But I venture to suggest, however well intentioned we may be sitting in the Whole House, we shall run great risk of doing injustice to one side or the other unless we give further opportunity for conference and compromise.


My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken that it is most desirable not to discuss the merits on a point of this kind, and I have no intention of doing so. But with regard to the question of the casting vote of the Chairman, the noble Lord, with his greater knowledge of the matter, will perfectly well remember that that is a provision of the Act itself, and no doubt was introduced, necessarily introduced, in consequence of the Commission consisting only of four members. I should imagine that the casting vote of the Chairman was not expected to be used very frequently, and certainly not frequently in such a case as this; but I think it must be acknowledged that in exercising it the Chairman of this Commission only performed what was his duty, and therefore that the decision of the Commission, so far as it depended on the casting vote of the Chairman, must be held to have been a valid and effectual decision. I do not say that it is the most satisfactory way of arriving at a conclusion, and I am confirmed in that by the remark which was made by the noble Lord who moved the Amendment, and who said distinctly that if he had been Chairman the decision would have been the other way. I do not think that indicates a very satisfactory state of matters.

I wish to say a word with regard to the remarks of my noble friend as to the House of origination. That is a matter of arrangement, no doubt, but I hope he will disabuse his mind of any impression that there has: been any desire on the part of my right hon. friend the Secretary for Scotland to introduce the Bill in any other way than that which was most convenient for: discussion. It is obvious that, being on the authority of the Minister, it is most desirable that the Bill should be introduced as a rule in the House in which that Minister sits; but I have the authority of my right hon. friend for saying that he quite recognises that Bills ought also to be introduced into this House, and that if there is a desire that that should be done more frequently he is perfectly willing to take that into account.

After all, there have only been, before this Bill, I think, four other Bills in which this question has arisen, and of those one was introduced in this House during the time my noble friend was Secretary for Scotland. I only mention that to show that not very many cases have originated altogether, and, although the majority have originated in the other House, I do not think there is any justification for an assertion that there is any disposition to override the convenience or wishes of your Lordships' House. With regard to the suggestion which my noble friend made, we are quite ready, if the House desires it, to adjourn this discussion for further conference. I do not think that we can undertake to set up a Committee.


You cannot.


But if my noble friend wishes the debate adjourned for futher conference we will not object.


My Lords, there is another question connected with this Bill on which I should like to say a word. This is a private Bill, but it proceeds to override several public Acts. The exemptions in respect of the Leith Docks were given by the Act of 1870, and by the Burgh Police (Scotland) Acts of 1893 and 1895. Your Lordships have always held that it is extremely undesirable in a private Bill to override the provisions of public Acts. I had the opportunity of bringing this very point before your Lordships in the case of the South Eastern Railway and some of the other railways in the borough of Woolwich. It was proposed in a private Bill to take away from them exemptions which had been given in public Acts, and when the matter came before this House your Lordships agreed that this was undesirable and struck out the clause on the ground that a private Bill ought not to interfere with a public Act. It appears to me that this is a case on the same footing. I can quite understand that it may be inconvenient to adopt the Amendment of Lord Saltoun and. Throw out the Bill on Third Reading; but I think there is strong reason why your Lordships should be consistent and do in respect of this Bill what you did in regard to the Woolwich Bill—namely, after Third Reading accept the Amendment of the noble Earl on the Front Opposition Bench and delete the clause which repeals the existing exemptions of the Dock Commissioners from assessments.


My Lords, I understand the proposal to be that this debate should be adjourned in the hope that some arrangement may be come to between the parties. The noble Lord may have better information on the subject than I have, but I understand that negotiations have taken place, but that so far they have not shown any sign of fruition. I shall not oppose the adjournment of the debate if your Lordships think fit that that course should be adopted, but I would point out that there are really two questions involved. The first is whether these Dock Commissioners should be exempted from local rates. You cannot possibly decide that question without referring the matter to a Committee, and this you are precluded from doing in this case owing to circumstances which have been explained. If your Lordships were to decide either to throw out this Bill or to adopt the Amendment which is on the Paper in the name of my noble friend Lord Plymouth, I think you could only do so upon the ground that in your opinion a re-hearing of the case ought to be had. That re-hearing cannot take place under existing circumstances, because the House in which the Bill originated has decided that it will not refer the Bill to a Joint Committee. I greatly deplore the fact that a re-hearing cannot be had in this ease. I do not base that on the fact that the decision was arrived at by the casting vote of the Chairman, because that has been fully provided for in the Scottish Private Bill Procedure Act. No doubt under many circumstances it would be right; but in this particular case there has been a battle going on for something like twenty years, and an appeal has been made to Parliament four times without success. On the fifth occasion when it is made, the point is decided only on the casting vote of the Chairman. Upon the merits of this case I say nothing, but I maintain that it is a misfortune that when a case of this kind, which has been protracted over many years, is decided in this way, there should be no means— and there are no means—available to your Lordships to have a re-hearing. I hope your Lordships will not agree to the Motion of Lord Saltoun, and I think you could only adopt the Amendment of Lord Plymouth upon the broad and general grounds that it was desirable to have a re-hearing, and not because you wished to pronounce any opinion on the merits of the Bill.


My Lords, there is a provision in the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, 1892, which entirely meets my noble friend Lord Avebury's contention. In Section 373 of that Act the words appear— Unless and until such exemption is repealed by Provisional Order confirmed by Parliament. So that the course which is taken now is exactly the one which was contemplated by the Act of 1892. I hope this Bill will be allowed to pass in its present form. I, too, do not wish to go into the details of the Bill, but I think a good general principle is that bodies and corporations such as the Leith Dock Commissioners should pay their fair share of the rates of the district in which they are. But in this particular instance the ease is a very peculiar one locally. From the time of the establishment of this corporation in 1867 up to the year 1905 —that is, for thirty-eight years—the dock corporation paid the public health rate regularly every year, and it was not until there was a decision given in a case at Greenock in 1905, that the dock commissioners ceased to pay this contribution to the public health rates; and in these two years they have escaped a payment of some £4,000. In the Bill it is proposed to leave that exemption open up to the year 1908, so that at any rate for three years the Leith Docks Corporation will be exempted from paying what I think really ought to fall on such a body as that. If this Bill is not passed in its present form I suppose it will drop altogether. I hope your Lordships will not support the Motion of Lord Saltoun, and on behalf of the Government we shall be glad to consent to a short adjournment in the hope that an arrangement may be come to. But I press on the House that if an arrangement has not been come to when the adjourned debate is resumed the Bill should be passed in its present form.


My Lords, having an Amendment at a later stage on the Paper I should like to say that I do not wish to stand in the way of the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Balfour that the debate should be adjourned. But my information coincides with that of the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees, who informed your Lordships that various attempts had been made at a compromise with very little result. Whether after the close of this debate the conditions may have altered to a certain extent, and there may be a possibility of a compromise I do not know, but for my part I certainly should not stand in the way of the suggested adjournment in the hope that some compromise may be arrived at.


My Lords, I can only speak again by the indulgence of the House. I suggested the adjournment because I thought it would be much better that there should be a renewed conference rather than that we should impose on either party a settlement on our own authority. I suggest an adjournment, say, till Monday, in the hope of arriving at a settlement which might bring peace.

Moved, "That the debate be adjourned." —(Lord Balfour of Burleigh.)


My Lords, I gladly agree to Lord Balfour's Motion in the hope that in the meantime some agreement may be come to.


My Lords, I should like to intervene for one moment in view of what has been said by the Lord Chairman and Lord Plymouth in reference to the likelihood of a settlement being come to after this debate. From information which was given to me on entering the House, I am afraid that is entirely out of the question. The offer has been made that if Clause 4 did not come into force for ten years they might agree to a compromise, but not otherwise. Therefore, I do not think an adjournment will be of any advantage.

On Question, debate adjourned to Wednesday next.