HL Deb 15 August 1911 vol 9 cc1079-92

[The Commons Reasons are printed in italics.]

Lords Amendments.

Leave out Clause 94 as follows, viz.—

. The following Institutions in the City (that is to say):—

shall as from the thirty-first day of March one thousand nine hundred and twelve be and the same are hereby exempted from assessment to and the payment of any rates leviable by the Corporation.

and insert the following new clause A.— . For the purpose of any rate (other than Poor Rate and the Borough Rate) to be made and levied by the Corporation under the provisions of this or of any other Act within the City at any time after the passing of this Act, all lands used as a railway belonging to or leased or occupied by any railway company and constructed under the powers of any Act of Parliament for public conveyance shall be assessed and liable in the proportion of one-fourth part only of the net annual value of such lands respectively.

The Commons disagree to this Amendment for the following Reasons:—

Because it is inexpedient to alter in a Private Bill the existing public legislation as is proposed by the said Clause A.

Because there is nothing in the Bill which gives any ground for the proposed alteration of the existing incidence of rates in Belfast.

Because the said Clause A gives large exemptions from rates in the case of particular individuals and throws a new and considerable burden upon others.


My Lords, as far as the first Amendment is concerned, which deals with Clause 94, the Belfast Corporation, on whose behalf I am speaking this afternoon, do not intend to question the decision with regard to the institutions mentioned on the Paper. On that Amendment I have nothing further to say, but as regards the insertion of the new Clause I shall have a Motion to make.


The noble Earl who represents the Belfast Corporation this afternoon has been good enough to inform me of his intention on this point. I believe that the objection as regards Clause 94 has crept in through misapprehension. There was no mention of any objection to the omission of this clause in the debate which took place in the other House. I therefore move that your Lordships insist upon your Amendment leaving out Clause 94.

Moved, That this House do insist upon the said Amendment.—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.


My Lords, with regard to the insertion of the new clause on the Paper, I desire to move that your Lordships do not insist on your Amendment. As a member of the Belfast Corporation I want to put this case as forcibly as I can to your Lordships. I am well aware that this House invariably agrees with what has been transacted upstairs by your Committees, but on this occasion there is a strong reason for asking your Lordships not to insist upon your Committee's Amendment. If your Lordships were to insist on the Amendment you would be altering the existing law. The law at present is that railway companies should pay their full rates, and the effect of the Amendment is that they shall be entitled to an exemption of three-quarters of the rate in respect of the principal rates—the police rate which is 11d. in the £, and the general rate which amounts to 2s. 6d. in the £. That is a big concession.

On what grounds do the railway companies claim this exemption? As far as I can make out, their claim is based upon the Public Health Act. Under this Act where a local authority became a sanitary authority after the passing of the Act railway companies were entitled to claim certain exemptions from rates. But before that Act was passed the Corporation of Belfast was the sanitary authority, and therefore the railway companies could not in any sort of way claim this exemption. It is perfectly true that by some oversight on the part of the officials of the Belfast Corporation a certain remission was granted to the railway companies for a period of some six years, but when new officials were appointed it was discovered that the concessions had been granted quite illegally. The natural result was that the concessions ceased, and now the railway companies have to pay full rates in the city of Belfast.

The Belfast Corporation have been working hard all this session with the view of getting this omnibus Bill passed into law. The purpose of the Bill is to enable them to extend their tramway system, to acquire land for cemetery purposes and street improvements, and there is also a very important scheme in the Bill for the prevention of the flooding of the city. Owing to the city being built on low-lying ground, there has always been the danger of flooding when there is a heavy rainfall, and it has always been a drawback to the advantages of the city to have this threatening danger. The corporation have long had it in their minds to do what they could to get rid of this danger, and a scheme with that object is included in the provisions of this Bill. The Corporation naturally anticipated that a Bill of this sort, dealing with so many private interests, would have a good many petitions against it. There were a number of petitions, but they have all been met in one way or another and been withdrawn with the exception of the claim of the railway companies to exemption from three-quarters of the rates. Surely at this late hour of the session it would be a very unfortunate thing if a Bill of this sort promoted by a great corporation entirely for the benefit of their ratepayers should be lost; but it will be lost if your Lordships insist upon your Amendment.

I do not like to impute anything to the railway companies. I have no doubt they are entitled to every consideration. But it does seem a wrong moment when a public body is promoting a Bill for the benefit of the community at large, and a Bill which in no way affects railway companies and does not in any sort of way increase the rates or interfere with the incidence of taxation, for the railway companies to take up this position. The moment when a corporation is promoting a Bill of this sort is surely not the moment for the railway companies to come along and use the occasion as a lever for securing relief from rates. I submit that the whole subject of railway rating should be dealt with by general legislation and not by the insertion of a clause of this character in a Private Bill. It may be said that it is practically the general case all through Ireland that railway companies are exempt by legislation as to three-quarters of the rates. That is true to this extent—that by the Town Improvements Act of 1854 all towns which wanted to acquire land for the purpose of improving their streets were allowed to adopt the Act, and having done so were forced to exempt railway companies from the payment of full rates; but this was only the case with the small cities in Ireland. The large and important commercial centres had no occasion to take advantage of an Act like the Town Improvements Act. They never adopted the Act, and in those circumstances the law insists that railway companies should pay their rates in full.

If this clause were insisted upon, it would mean that the railway companies would be exempt to the extent of three parts of their rates. As I have said, the police rate is 11d. in the £ and the general purposes rate 2s. 6d. in the £, and the giving of the proposed exemption to the railway companies would amount to well over £2,000 a year. The case is aggravated by a recent legal decision defining what are lands for rateable purposes in regard to railways. Originally the law intended to cover only land on which the rails ran. That was the general idea of the Legislature; but by a recent decision lands used for railway purposes include platforms, sheds, pens for cattle markets, all kinds of goods sheds and everything else. In those circumstances it is a serious thing from a municipal point of view to allow railway companies to be exempt from the payment of rates to this extent.

If the railway companies are relieved of this £2,000 a year, it must come out of the pockets of the ratepayers, and it will involve to them an extra rate of a half-penny in the £. In those circumstances I ask your Lordships to consider whether this is a clause which ought to be inserted in a Private Bill of this character, especially at this late period of the session. It would mean the establishment of a great principle; and so much weight and importance do the Corporation of Belfast attach to the principle which underlies this clause that they would feel compelled, if the clause is insisted upon, to drop the Bill, which would be lamentable after all the work which has been done in connection with it during the whole of the year. I therefore beg to move that this House do not insist on the said Amendment.

Moved, That this House do not insist upon the said Amendment.—(The Earl of Shaftesbury.)


My Lords, I rise to oppose the Motion which the noble Earl has just submitted. This question was very carefully considered by the Committee to which your Lordships entrusted the examination of the Bill and over which I presided, and the decision at which we arrived was a unanimous decision. I would point out that, out of 124 towns in Ireland, railway companies enjoy this exemption in 104, and that in four towns they enjoy some exemption though not to the extent of three-fourths. Therefore in nearly the whole of the towns in Ireland railway companies obtain this exemption, and the Committee of your Lordships' House in these circumstances could not see any fair reason why the railway companies in Belfast should not enjoy the same exemption. A point which had considerable weight with your Lordships' Committee was that up to a year or two ago the Belfast Corporation actually granted to the railway companies an exemption over a considerable period of time, and I believe I am right in saying that when that exemption was first granted it was also granted in respect of several back years, showing that the Belfast Corporation at that time did not think that the remission of railway rates to the extent of three-fourths was unjust or unfair.


I explained in the observations I made that an exemption had been given to the railway companies under some misapprehension for something like six years, and that it was due to an oversight on the part of the officials of the corporation. When new officials were appointed the oversight was found out and the exemption stopped.


My point is that the allowance was granted by the Belfast Corporation of their own free will. Two or three years ago, however, their attention was called to a decision of which they were not aware, and on that they came to the conclusion that they were prevented from granting this exemption. Here you had the Belfast Corporation granting of its own free will this exemption, and only withdrawing it on the interpretation of a legal decision under which they believed they could not legally grant the exemption. Moreover, in 104 towns in Ireland this exemption is granted in respect of land occupied by railways. These grounds appeared to your Committee to be so strong as to justify them in inserting this clause.

There were other reasons which influenced the Committee, but I do not lay very much stress upon them. One was that to a very large extent the same kind of exemption is granted in England, and seeing that it was also granted throughout the larger part of Ireland it seemed to the Committee not right that it should not apply to Belfast. If the exemption is fair in one case it is surely fair in the other. Moreover, I do not think railway companies in Ireland are so prosperous that they can afford to dispense with this exemption. I cannot say that the arguments adduced by the noble Earl were such as to induce me to change my mind on the matter, and I doubt very much whether they would change the minds of the Committee. Indeed, I have heard from several members of the Committee, and they are unanimous with me in asking your Lordships to adhere to your Amendment.


My Lords, I can quite understand that your Lordships would feel great reluctance in differing from the finding of your Committee, and in that respect I share the view of the noble Earl, Lord Shaftesbury. At the same time I also share with him the feeling that the question here involved is one of such importance that it is only right that your attention should be called to it with a view to considering whether you ought to insist on the Amendment inserted by the Committee upstairs. The noble Earl opposite has correctly explained to your Lordships the character of the Bill we are considering, and the character of the Amendment with which we are specially concerned.

I may recall to your Lordships that this Amendment, which proposes to treat the railway companies of Belfast on a differential footing with regard to rating, appeared in the original Bill. It was rejected in the House of Commons in the Committee stage, and was reinserted by the Committee of your Lordships' House. The Commons now disagree with your Lordships' Committee and object to this clause. I believe that Lord Welby's Committee in inserting this Amendment were influenced by what is really a misconception of the facts of the case. They thought, and Lord Welby's language here to-day rather confirms me in my view, that Belfast was in an anomalous position; that in practically the whole of Ireland railway companies enjoy this differential treatment; and that the insertion of this Amendment would put Belfast in the same position as the rest of Ireland.


We were aware that in by far the larger number of towns railway companies have the advantage of this exemption.


The noble Lord stated in the course of his remarks that Belfast was an exception, and he said he thought the railway companies of Belfast were entitled to the same exemption as prevailed all over Ireland. I cannot help thinking that the English law with regard to this question, under which railway companies do derive the advantage of differential treatment, may have influenced the Committee in their decision. But, as a matter of fact, the general Irish law on the subject of differential treatment is not the same as the law in England. Under the general Irish law no railway company is entitled to differential treatment at all. The only differential treatment that exists is that empowered by the Town Improvements Act of 1854, and the Public Health (Ireland) Act of 1878. Neither of those two Acts applies either to the large boroughs in Ireland or to rural districts, and therefore if there is any exception it is rather that in some places railway companies under special legislation do obtain this advantage. The general law of Ireland is quite clear. Under it railway companies are not entitled to special treatment. The Amendment in question, far from removing an anomaly, actually creates an anomaly.

What the Office which I am now representing feel is that this is not a moment to consider the merits or demerits of differential treatment with regard to the rating of railway companies. There may be a great deal to be said for differential treatment. If t hat is so, the Irish railway companies are in a position to introduce a Bill into Parliament for the purpose of putting them in the position which they think fair and which English railway companies enjoy. But they do not do that. They do not come to Parliament and ask the Legislature to put them in that position. What they have done in the past and what they are doing now is to take advantage of the fact that a corporation is promoting a Bill—a Bill which has nothing whatever to do with railway companies. This Bill does not impose a new rate and does not alter the incidence of rating. In fact, it is a Bill for the general improvement and good government of the City of Belfast, and when corporations come to Parliament with these Bills the railway companies hold them up to a species of blackmail, I think the noble Earl said, and they say, "If you do not square us we shall oppose the passage of your Bill and very likely you may lose it." My strongest reason for hoping that your Lordships will not insist on your Amendment now is that the very same thing happened in the case of the Dublin Corporation in 1900.


We specially put the Dublin case out of our consideration altogether. There were peculiar circumstances connected with the Dublin Bill which made us think that it was not a precedent.


I am quite prepared to believe that Lord Welby was not influenced by what happened in the Dublin case. But the railway companies are, and it is the precedent of Dublin which has emboldened the railway companies to act in this way. It was a bad precedent, and I suggest with great respect that it would be very unfortunate if your Lordships seemed to give support to a course of procedure which is really nothing short of a sort of squeeze placed on corporations when they are trying to carry these difficult omnibus Bills, which raise a lot of opposition and are not easy to get through. With regard to the effect of the clause, Lord Shaftesbury has stated that it would throw a burden on the Belfast Corporation of £2,000 a year. The railway companies have not done so badly in Belfast, because for thirteen years I am given to understand they enjoyed a rebate on their rates of £2,000 a year, and this, I am informed, was due to an oversight on the part of the officials of the Belfast Corporation. Lord Welby claimed that the Belfast Corporation had granted this rebate of £2,000 a year out of their own good will to the railway companies, but if your Lordships will turn to the statement submitted to this House by the railway companies themselves you will see that in the last paragraph they use the expression "the railway companies applied to the corporation." I do not for a moment think that the fact is established that the corporation out of good will to the railway companies, feeling that they were entitled to different treatment, granted them this rebate. I am told that the reverse is the case; that the Corporation were in error as to what their powers were in this respect, and that directly they found out their mistake they took steps to compel the payment of the full rates. That is the position.

I may mention that there are many other towns concerned which might be put in similar straits. Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Londonderry, Wexford, and other towns are in a position similar to Belfast to-day, and if your Lordships establish this precedent it is only human nature to expect that the railway companies will be emboldened by it and act upon it when occasion arises. There may be a good deal to be said for differential treatment of railway companies, but if those companies feel that they are able to persuade Parliament of the justice of their claim, then I say they should bring in a Bill for that purpose and not take advantage of a corporation situated as Belfast is to-day and seek to obtain, by direct pressure, that which they have not had the courage to ask Parliament to grant them.


My Lords, I hope that on reflection the noble Lord who has just sat down will regret some of the language he has used about what goes on before Committees of your Lordships' House. He talks of the railway companies blackmailing and squeezing the promoters. Is that what happens when parties appear before impartial Committees of your Lordships' House and persuade them to do that which they ask them to do? One would have thought that the Belfast Corporation were here as a sort of Aunt Sally to be aimed at, and that the railway companies have been doing something underhand in order to force them to do what they desire. Nothing of the kind has occurred and nothing of the kind does occur. It is not a question of squeeze; it is not a question of blackmail. It is perfectly open for any party to appear before your Lordships' Committees, and they only get their way if they persuade the Committee that their cause is just; and if you persuade the Committee that your cause is just you are not blackmailing or squeezing.

As regards the merits, I wish to say little. The Committee heard all the evidence on this point, and as a broad general rule I think it is desirable, unless there is very strong evidence to the contrary, that the Committee who have heard the evidence should be supported in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord who represents the Government says that if your Lordships insist upon this Amendment you will be creating an anomaly. I am not going to split hairs with him over the definition of words, but you would be creating an "anomaly" which already exists in England, and which exists in 104 towns in Ireland—so I ant informed, and it was stated in debate in another place by my right hon. friend Mr. Campbell, whom I generally regard as an invaluable authority upon Irish matters. There are very fee towns in Ireland in which railway companies do not already enjoy what the Great Northern Railway Company now ask for in Belfast.

As I have said, I do not desire to go into the merits. But there is one point to which I think, in my special position, I should draw your Lordships' attention as regards the progress of this Bill through Parliament. My noble friend opposite spoke of the late hour of the session. He is an optimist. I wish I could think that this is a late hour of the session. So far as I can see, we shall be here until shortly before Christmas. He then went on to say that it would be a great pity if this Bill were lost. I agree that it is always a pity if a Bill is lost at the tail end of a session, but I feel I ought to call attention to the way your Lordships have been treated by the promoters as regards this particular clause. What happened? The opponents obtained a decision in their favour in Committee upstairs, and, though there is no legal obligation to that effect, I think your Lordships who have had experience of Committees upstairs will agree with me that the usual procedure is for promoters to accept a decision whether they like it or not and go on with the Bill, or else to drop the Bill or a particular part of the Bill, or, if they do not do that, to ask your Lordships on Third Reading to reverse the decision of your Committee upstairs. But the Belfast Corporation did not do this. They did something for which I can find no precedent within the last ten years. They accepted the decision of the Committee upstairs; they asked your Lordships to read the Bill a third time, without one word to the effect that there was a provision in the Bill to which they objected; and then they asked the other House to disagree with your Lordships' Amendments—not, as I claim, dealing straightforwardly with your Lordships having previously accepted the Bill as it stood on Third Reading.

There have, of course, been instances where the House of Commons in similar cases to this have disagreed with Amendments made in your Lordships' House, but the last case I can find is the Dublin Bill which has been referred to—the Equalisation of Rates Bill, 1901. But there I notice that on behalf of the promoters the late Lord Spencer drew your Lordships' attention to the point to which objection was taken, and the matter subsequently was the result of Messages between the two Houses and was decided in the way he desired. I do feel that if the Belfast Corporation intended to ask the other House to disagree with the decision of your Lordships' House to which they objected, they ought to have followed what was the usual course and attempted to reverse the decision here on Third Reading first. If they had followed that course there would have been plenty of time for negotiation between the parties; there would have been no danger of the Bill being lost owing to the usual procedure as regards Messages between the two Houses. And if this Bill is lost as the result of the exceptional course which the Belfast Corporation have followed in not dealing straightforwardly with your Lordships in this matter, no one will be to blame but themselves. That is all I desire to say on this point, but I thought it my duty to bring this to your Lordships' notice, because it would be a very undesirable practice to see grow up that parties should accept decisions in one House, allow the Bill to go through the further stages in that House, keeping it in their minds that they were going to ask the second House to disagree with the first House. If that became general, we should have a crop of differences between the two Houses which would be very undesirable and unnecessary.


My Lords, although it is true that in a number of towns throughout Ireland railway companies have differential treatment, those towns are small towns. In all the important commercial towns in Ireland, numbering, I am sorry to say, not more than fifteen or eighteen, the rule is that no differential treatment is given. That is the universal rule which applies. This particular clause proposes that in Belfast differential treatment should be given. That is introducing an exception into the rule which applies to all the important commercial towns in Ireland, and I submit to your Lordships that it is not on a Private Bill such as this that an exception should be introduced. If such an exception is to be introduced let it be discussed upon its merits and not in connection merely with a clause introduced into a Private Bill. The other important commercial towns in Ireland will have strong reason to object if this procedure is followed in this case, because if Belfast is made subject to differential treatment the railway companies in the other important towns to which reference has been made will endeavour to obtain similar treatment.


My Lords, before the question is put I should like to say one or two words with regard to the point which the Lord Chairman brought before the House, which I admit is a very strong point—the question of the procedure of the Belfast Corporation with regard to this Bill after it had passed your Lordships' Committee. As far as that is concerned, let me assure your Lordships—whilst admitting, of course, that the Lord Chairman is amply justified in condemning the course taken—that there was no question of want of straightforwardness in the matter. I am rather inclined to think that what happened was due to the fact that the only member of the Belfast Corporation who is a member of your Lordships' House is very erratic and never in the same place more than two days running, and perhaps the Corporation were looking for a champion for their cause and would not have acted in the manner in which they did if they had found a champion or had been more familiar with the procedure of your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord opposite who presided over the Committee which considered this Bill and also the Lord Chairman seemed to think there was no cause for pressing for the deletion of this clause owing to the fact that the Corporation had allowed these railway companies for a long time to receive exemption. Therefore it occurs to me that perhaps your Lordships would be satisfied if some arrangement could be arrived at by which the railway companies would pay only the amount of rate which they were charged by the corporation until recently when they were called upon to pay the full rates. The noble Lord seemed to lay such stress on the fact that the corporation had allowed these railway companies to be exempt in respect of a portion of the rates for some years that I would ask him whether he would rest content if the railway companies should be charged the same amount as they had to pay during the six years in which they enjoyed the exemption referred to.


Does the noble Earl mean that the Belfast Corporation would allow the railway companies a fixed sum?


The sum that was allowed by the corporation before they found out their mistake and made the companies pay the full rates.


I understand that during the time referred to the railway companies were only charged on one-fourth of the rateable value.


Oh, no; that is not correct. The railway companies were allowed certain exemptions, which amounted to something like £600 a year. I suggest that your Lordships' Amendment should be withdrawn and that something to the effect I have suggested should be inserted in the Bill.


I understand that the suggestion of the noble Earl who represents the Belfast Corporation is that they are prepared to meet the railway companies to a certain extent. If that be so, would it not be better to adjourn this debate in order that the matter could be considered between the corporation and the railway companies? I move that the debate be adjourned.

Moved, That the debate be adjourned.—(Viscount St. Aldwyn.)


On that Motion I should like to say that no one is better pleased than I am that there is a prospect of agreement, but I would suggest that it should be arrived at as soon as possible. It is advisable that the matter should be settled within the next twenty-four hours, so that the Bill should receive the Royal Assent before we adjourn.

On Question, Debate adjourned sine die.