HL Deb 20 May 1908 vol 189 cc207-11

Order of the Day read for the consideration of Commons' Message.


My Lords, before your Lordships agree to the Message of the House of Commons and appoint a Committee of five Lords to join with a Committee of the House of Commons to consider this Bill, I should like to say a word or two on the position of this Joint Committee as it appears to me. A statement was made in the other House by the Minister in charge of the Bill that the Second Reading which the House had given to the Bill must be assumed to carry with it the determination on the part of the House that the interests in the Port of London should be purchased. That, of course, was quite within the competence of the other House, but when they ask your Lordships to join in a Joint Committee I think it is necessary that we should regularise our position in the matter. I am aware that in the year 1903 a similar Committee was proposed, and was presided over by my noble friend Lord Cross. Lord Cross, I think, agreed that after the declaration which had been made by the President of the Board of Trade, then Mr. Gerald Balfour, in terms almost identical with the declaration made this session in the House of Commons, it was not desirable that the Committee should enter into the question of the purchase of the interests in the Port of London. I do not know what may happen if your Lordships agree to this Joint Committee. I think it extremely likely that the Committee will decide in the same way—namely, that this is a matter into which they need not inquire, as obviously if they should inquire into it and decide that it is not desirable His Majesty's Government would not proceed with the Bill. But all I wish to do in asking your Lordships to join with the other House in this Committee is to say that the Members of this House must have a perfectly free hand, and be allowed to go into that Committee to inquire into every part of the Bill. This House cannot be bound by a decision or instruction of the other House; but, as I have already said, in all probability the Committee will come to a unanimous decision in the first instance as to whether or not they will consider the question of purchase. Therefore I can confidently recommend your Lordships to join with the Committee of the House of Commons to consider this Bill.

Moved, "That the Commons Message be considered."—(The Earl of Onslow.)


My Lords, I think the noble Earl the Lord Chairman has done quite right in calling your Lordships' attention to this matter, because it involves an important principle. One of the characteristics of this House which is most useful to the country is the well-known impartiality of its Private Bill Committees, and this Bill deals with private interests though in form it occupies the position of a public Bill. The noble Earl, I think, told us that the House of Commons, at the instance of the Government, have assented to the principle of the Bill.


The principle of purchase in the Bill.


That is, they have agreed to the main principle in the Bill. In that case it is quite possible that the members who may be appointed on this Joint Committee by the other House may consider it their duty to vote against any inquiry into the principle of purchase. On the other hand, the five Members who will be appointed by your Lordships' House will, of course, be in a perfectly free position. This House has, I believe, always objected to giving even an instruction to a Committee. When we deal with a private Bill the reading of it a second time is a merely formal proceeding for the purpose of enabling the Committee subsequently to inquire into the points with regard to which opposition has arisen. I believe there are petitions against the Bill, and it is quite possible they may not have any locus standi to appear before the Committee. That evidently is a matter which the Committee will have to decide. In what position will our five representatives find themselves? The five representatives of the House of Commons may very likely consider themselves bound to vote against any inquiry into the principle of purchase. Our five representatives may wish to consider whether the petitioners against the principle of purchase have, or have not, a right to appear before them. The voting in that case, supposing the five Peers to take that view, would be a tie, and as the course of procedure in this House is always adopted on Joint Committees it will depend on the way in which the Question is put whether the opponents have, or have not, an opportunity of even urging their case before the Committee at all. Suppose, on the other hand, that this matter were dealt with first in one House and then in the other by ordinary Committees. In that case, of course, the five Peers would have a free and independent opportunity, without being hampered by five votes already committed. They would have an opportunity of deciding what should be done. It seems to me that in this way this Joint Committee, so far as your Lordships are concerned, will be more or less hampered in its proceedings. The noble Earl the Lord Chairman has said that he feels pretty confident they will arrive at one decision. I daresay he has more knowledge of this matter than I have, for I have no knowledge at all; but suppose that he is wrong. I think this House will then be in rather an awkward position. As, however, the noble Earl advises your Lordships that the matter should be referred to a Joint Committee, I do not wish to oppose his Motion; but, at the same time, I think this is a matter which requires, at all events, notice on the part of this House, if it does not require a caveat against similar proceedings in future.


My Lords, I did not know that the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees was going to raise this point, or I would have endeavoured to refresh my memory on the whole subject. But, as the noble Earl opposite knows very well, and as the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees knows, if possible, better still, there is an absolute precedent for this proceeding in what was done by the late Government with reference to the purchase of the water companies' undertakings. At that time a Joint Committee was formed, of which I happened to be a member, and the very thing which the noble Earl dreads occurred in that Committee. A decision was taken which was not in accord with the desire of the Local Government Board, of which Mr. Long was at that time the head. We were then told that it was not within the competence of the Committee to deal in any way with the principle of the Bill. That was the instruction we got from Mr. Long, through Lord Balfour who was chairman of the Committee; and on the strength of that when the disputed point ultimately came to be voted upon, and there was a tie, Lord Balfour, as the noble Earl has indicated, put the question in the way which carried out his view. That may point—I am not sure it does not point—to a Joint Committee not being an ideal way of dealing with these matters at all; but as it was adopted in that case, and as the Bill became law, it seems to me hardly reasonable to raise any objection to a similar procedure on this occasion. As a matter of fact, I should hope, from what the noble Earl has said, that no difficulty is likely to arise on the question of purchase, because I understand that all the vendors have agreed to the proposed terms.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Moved, "That a Committee of Five Lords be appointed to join with a Committee of the House of Commons to consider the said Bill."—(The Earl of Onslow.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.