HL Deb 16 November 1911 vol 10 cc213-21

[The Commons reasons are printed in italics.]

Lords Amendment:

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 I mds 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 ease of' particular individuals and throws a new and considerable burden upon others.


Your Lordships will remember that it was mentioned last week that my noble friend Lord Shaftesbury would be absent from the United Kingdom on duty at the present moment, and for that reason I stated that I would move this clause on his behalf. I do not think I need go into the merits any more than they were gone into last week. I have been prompted to recommend the adoption of this clause to your Lordships owing to the exceptional circumstances of the case which I consider exist in Belfast. The clause is practically in the form now in which I held it in my hand last week when I first mentioned it to your Lordships. The actual form in which I held it was the form in which it was originally circulated. It has since, however, been slightly amplified in order to remove a doubt which it was felt by all parties might arise under the definition of the phrase "public health rate." I understand that the railway companies are agreed that the clause carries out what the Belfast Corporation offered, though, of course, they are not satisfied, as we all know, with the. actual settlement; and, of course, their case by any action they have taken in this matter is in no way prejudiced as regards any future action they may take in other Bills that may come before your Lordships' Committees. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do not insist upon the Amendment to which the Commons have disagreed, but propose the following new clause in lieu thereof: "In respect of any rate levied by the Corporation for defraying any expenses of the Corporation, which at the passing of this Act were defrayed out of that portion of the Borough Rate or Fund then known as the Public Health Rate or Fund, and in respect of any increase of, or addition to, the General Purposes Rate which may be made for any of the purposes of this Act, all lands used as a railway constructed under the powers of any Act of Parliament shall be assessed and liable in the proportion of one-fourth part only of the net annual value of such lands."—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)


My Lords, after the statement on the last occasion of my noble friend the Lord Chairman that he considered that any further opposition on behalf of the railway companies would lead to the abandonment of this Bill by the Belfast Corporation, and in view of the fact that undoubtedly the Bill gives powers to the Corporation which are very urgently needed and of vital necessity, the railway companies concerned have desired me to say that they have decided not to press opposition to this measure further. The question, however, is of much wider importance; it is, in fact, of great importance to the whole of the railway interests in this country as well as in Ireland. I am sorry to say that in arguing this question expressions have at different times been used which might imply that the exemptions which are sought for by the railway companies are in themselves unreasonable. The principle of allowing railway companies in urban districts what is known as the three-fourths exemption with respect of rating of the actual railway lines has been recognised by Parliament ever since the inception of general sanitary legislation, and the few exceptions which exist, of which Belfast is one, are anomalies arising out of peculiar and particular local legislation. I must therefore say, my Lords, that had the companies thought that in this expression of opinion the Lord Chairman was in any way supporting this view, we should have felt it our duty to oppose it by every means in our power in the hope of persuading your Lordships to reject this suggestion. But the Lord Chairman informs me that in advising the House to accept this proposed compromise he wishes in no wise to give support to this particular view, and in those circumstances the railway companies have decided not to press the matter further on the present occasion.


My Lords, in view of what the noble Viscount has just said, I think it desirable to state that from my point of view I greatly regret that the matter has not been thoroughly discussed, because I think it might have been shown to your Lordships that the special exemption which the railway companies claim is against the law in Ireland and against the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Local Taxation over which Lord Balfour of Burleigh presided. I think it could also be shown that no such exemption as the noble Lord has claimed for railway companies exists in London; and it might also, I think, be shown that the cases in Ireland in which exemptions are allowed do not, when really examined, support the contention of the noble Lord. However, as matters have reached the present stage, I can only express my regret that circumstances do not permit of the whole case being fully argued.


My Lords, in considering the position at which this question has arrived, I think we are all agreed that the proper course is that recommended by the Lord Chairman. At the same time, I should like to express my regret that the other House was not able to accept an Amendment which I venture to think was a perfectly fair one. I am afraid I must disagree with Lord MacDonnell in what he said on that subject, though I fully bow to his great knowledge of Irish affairs. I cannot help thinking that the general law as laid down in Ireland is extremely clear. The Committee, at all events, could find no reason why what the noble Earl the Lord Chairman has described as an anomaly should exist in the case of Belfast. I venture to think that great care is required in dealing with railway companies at the present time. Demands are being made upon railway companies which are very likely to eventuate in great concessions being asked from them, and I cannot help thinking that it is the duty of both Houses, as far as lies in them, to weigh very carefully the conditions under which railway companies are dealt with by Parliament, in order to make sure that while, on the one hand, Parliament is anxious that railway companies should make concessions to meet the spirit of unrest, Parliament, on the other hand, does not press them unduly on the side of the contributions they are called upon to make to public authorities.


My Lords, this case is a very instructive one as to the method by which we proceed and the method in which changes in important matters of practice are brought about. Here is a sort of compromise passing through without opposition, with which I venture to say no one of the parties concerned is absolutely satisfied. It is perfectly clear that the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees does not think that on its broad merits, except, as he said, of exceptional circumstances, this is a wise change to make. The noble Lord opposite, who was Chairman of the Committee which adjusted the clause that went down to another place, is not satisfied. The railway companies, as represented by the noble Viscount, are clearly not satisfied, and there are other persons who are not satisfied, of whom the noble Lord opposite (Lord MacDonnell) was the mouthpiece. He said that the whole custom as now existing was contrary to law, and he made an allusion to the Report of the Local Taxation Commission over which I had the honour to preside.

I have also at intervals had to deal with this matter from the position occupied by the noble Earl the Lord Chairman, and I can see, reading between the lines, exactly what has happened. A hard case is pleaded, and owing to the very great hardship of that case and the exceptional circumstances a new departure is made and a sort of compromise suitable to those particular circumstances is, if not agreed to, at any rate passed. Well, somebody comes along with a slightly different set of circumstances in a subsequent year and says, "Oh, here is a precedent in the case of Belfast." And they say it will do for, it may be, Liverpool, or Manchester, or Glasgow, or Birmingham, and it is very difficult for any one in the position of the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees to go into all the circumstances and make sure that the precedent is on the same lines. Therefore I want to put in a word of caution, not on behalf of any particular interest, whether corporation or railway company, but really for the sake of having these sort of changes considered on broad principles, and not so much on the exceptional circumstances. It may be that some particular privilege which is possessed by a railway company or a corporation is attacked by those against whose interest it seems to be, and it may be that something in that particular provision was condemned by the Local Taxation Commission, but you must not plead for a particular change of this kind on the authority of that Commission unless you are going to take the whole of the reform in local taxation of which this was a part.

I am not going to oppose what is suggested now, but I do want to put in a word of caution, in regard to this being pleaded as a precedent, that we must take great care that by pleading a series of precedents we do not break down the whole position of rating of railway companies in this particular matter of sanitary provisions. I would venture to say that in this matter the position of railway companies is very hard, because they have no vote, and it is very doubtful whether they get any direct benefit from all these sanitary provisions, and yet if their quasi exemption is to be broken down they will be penalised to a very large extent. Therefore upon the ground of the undesirability of making exceptions of this kind upon what is a well understood and general code, and further upon the ground of the grave doubts as to whether the change itself is expedient, I do hope that if we pass it to day it will not be pleaded as a precedent against railway companies in the future.


My Lords, the Government are disposed to welcome the compromise which has been reached between the Belfast Corporation and the railway companies, chiefly because this Bill contains clauses dealing with sanitation which were the outcome of an inquiry instigated by the Local Government Board in Ireland. As I daresay is known to your Lordships, the state of health in Belfast has been far from satisfactory in the past, and those clauses are regarded by the Local Government Board as essential to the hygiene of that city. Although one welcomes the compromise, I certainly agree with what has fallen from Lord Balfour of Burleigh that there is something rather unsatisfactory about it. It is quite true that there is a great deal to be said for the merits of the case when railway companies expect a certain rebate, but what is, I think, rather objectionable is the way in which their case is brought before Parliament. If they were to put forward a general Bill dealing with their position and attempt to get the Legislature to treat them with the consideration which they think they should obtain, that would be all very well, and this House would be disposed to consider the case of the railway companies on its merits, and I think there is a good deal to be said for them. But I think it is a little objectionable that railway companies should, as it were, lie in wait, and then when a corporation comes before Parliament with a general Bill, dealing not specifically at all with railway interests or not adversely affecting railway interests, should seize the opportunity and practically hold the corporation up to ransom, and, in effect, be in a position to prevent the passage of the Bill unless the corporation comes to terms with them.


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but if corporations never held railway companies up to ransom we should probably get on a little better than we do at the present time.


I was speaking generally. As to precedents, there is a precedent in the case of Dublin, which I consider a very bad precedent.


May I interrupt the noble Lord to point out that we felt on the Committee that that was not a precedent, and it was not so considered by the Committee.


The noble Lord did not consider it a precedent, but the railway companies were encouraged by the success which attended similar action on the part of railway companies in the case of Dublin. I think we shall agree that it is not a satisfactory way of dealing with the situation. As far as this particular case is concerned I would remind Lord Balfour, who says that corporations are apt to hold railway companies up to ransom, that in Belfast, owing to peculiar circumstances, the railway companies have for the last thirteen years enjoyed a privilege which they were not entitled to enjoy in strict legality. I may say, with regard to what fell from Lord MacDonnell, that it is perfectly true to state that there is no general Act in Ireland exempting railway companies from rates or granting them any preferential conditions. As a matter of fact, there are only two Acts under which railway companies do obtain preferential treatment. The first is the Towns Improvement Act of 1854, the provisions of which were availed of by a great many—I think by nearly all—of the small towns in Ireland. But in that case the preferential treatment only applies to lighting and scavenging, quite minor matters; and I believe that in regard to Belfast the original case which the companies tried to make out was that they were to get a rebate of all rates, including the police rate. Surely the noble Lord cannot say that railway companies do not benefit from the protection of the police.


Railway companies do not get any deduction on that rate.


But they asked for it; and in that respect they went a great deal further in their demand than can be claimed in the precedent of the Towns Improvement Act, 1854. The other Act under which railway companies claim rebate is the Act of 1878, which applies only to urban sanitary districts, and in that case the companies are able to obtain a rebate of three-fourths on the public health rate alone. But with those two exceptions there is no rebate in Ireland for railway companies in any municipal borough or in any rural district, and so it is not right to say that there is a generally recognised principle of law in Ireland under which railway companies are entitled to a rebate. I think some misconception has arisen because it was thought by many members of your Lordships' House that the claim on the part of the railway companies in this case was merely to remove an anomaly which existed in Belfast only, or in Belfast and a few other towns. The Government, however, do not wish to say anything which would upset the compromise which has been reached. Although, perhaps, not quite satisfactory in principle, I think it is not quite unsatisfactory in practice, and if the Bill goes through as it is now proposed to amend it, His Majesty's Government see no objection to it whatever.


I should like to be allowed to correct the noble Lord on one point. He referred to the police rate, but if he will look at the details of the police rate in Ireland he will see that it is by no means in the nature of a police rate as generally understood.


I only speak again in order to make two points clear. The first was the point just mentioned by Lord Welby, and it reacts on what was said by Lord Balfour, who is anxious that this case should not be quoted as a precedent. I am quite satisfied that there is no parallel whatever between the rating system as worked in Ireland and the rating system as worked in England, Scotland and. Wales, and I am also satisfied that it would be very difficult indeed for a railway company to draw a precedent from the decision that your Lordships are taking this afternoon that would help them at all in any case which might be before a Committee of your Lordships' House at some future time.


Or for a corporation to draw a precedent.


It would be difficult for either side to draw a precedent. The actual names of the rates are so different in Ireland from what they are on this side of the Channel that it is almost impossible to draw a parallel. For instance, the police rate has been mentioned. I understand that in England, Scotland, and Wales the police rate is what it is supposed to be, but in Belfast the police rate includes public lighting, fire brigade, street widening, and public conveniences, and I think it would be very difficult to draw a precedent from a rate of that kind when it is called a police rate and apply it to a police rate in this country. I wish to make this second point quite clear. My noble friend behind me spoke of a compromise reached between the Belfast Corporation and the railway companies. This is a compromise reached between the corporation and the noble Lord who was Chairman of the Committee who gave the decision. The railway companies are not parties to the compromise, and I do not think anything would have made them parties to the compromise.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and Bill returned to the Commons.