HL Deb 19 February 1913 vol 13 cc1448-73

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee, read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Granard.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL OF DONOUGHMORE in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 and 2 agreed to.

Clause 3:

Duration of Act.

3. This Act shall continue in force for five years after the passing thereof and no longer, unless continued by Parliament.

THE EARL OE GRANARD moved an Amendment to leave out from "thereof" to the end of the clause, and insert, "and thereafter if and so long as it may be continued by Parliament. Provided that where the increase of rates or charges with respect to which the complaint is made is an increase made before the expiration of this Act, this Act shall apply thereto whether the proceedings were instituted before or after the time when this Act ceases to be in force."

The noble Earl said: This Amendment is put down to meet, if possible, some objections which have been raised to the Bill. The first portion of the Amendment is intended to make clear that it is the intention of His Majesty's Government, as I explained to your Lordships last night, to prolong the Bill after the limited period if circumstances such as the conciliation scheme require it. The proviso becomes essential if a time limit is in the Bill. There is no limit of time within which an increase of a rate or charge can be challenged under the Act of 1891. A party aggrieved cannot recover damages unless his complaint is made within a year of the discovery by him of the matter complained of, but proceedings with the object of getting an increase disallowed could be undertaken at any time. All that a trader would have to do would be to wait until the Act expired and then challenge the increase, and the railway company would then be without such protection as the Act afforded. If it was a case of the repeal of an Act the ordinary law would meet the difficulty, but in the case of an Act lapsing it is necessary to provide for it. It is for these reasons that I have put the Amendment on the Paper. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Clause 3, page 2, line 27, leave out from ("thereof") to the end of the clause and insert ("and thereafter if and so long as it may be continued by Parliament. Provided that where the increase of rates or charges with respect to which the complaint is made is an increase made before the expiration of this Act, this Act shall apply thereto whether the proceedings were instituted before or after the time when this Act ceases to be in force ").—(The Earl of Granard.)


In all probability it will be more convenient to argue the main question on this Amendment. I need hardly point out that the noble Earl's Amendment in no way meets the real difficulty created by the clause as it stands in the Bill. I am very much in the hands of your Lordships' House. I can argue against this Amendment to show that it is quite insufficient to meet the purpose, but I think it would probably be better that I should raise the general question of the clause at this time so that we might have one discussion.


Hear, hear.


The circumstances under which the engagement was given by the Government to the railway companies eighteen months ago were fully explained to the House on the occasion of the Second Reading yesterday. In regard to that there is really no conflict of opinion. The account given by the noble Earl in moving the Second Reading of the Bill is substantially accurate from the point of view of the railway companies. But what I want to emphasise is this, that at the time the engagement was given a time limit formed no part of it at all. Clause 3 introduces a time limit. I want to make it perfectly clear that the question of a time limit was never even mentioned so far as I know to any one representing a railway company until last week, and when it was first suggested in another place the President of the Board of Trade was as hostile to it as possible. He resisted it in Committee, and the proposal when first made only secured forty-two supporters in the Division Lobby. That was for a three years' time limit. On the following evening the President of the Board of Trade opposed a five years enactment, and when the Report stage was taken in the other House he used these words— I do not think I can add much to what I have already said on the part of the Government in opposition to t his proposal, which is in substance the same as the proposal we had last night. It would not be in conformity with the undertaking of the Government, and, secondly, it would be destructive of the main object of the Bill if my hon. friend's Amendment were accepted. I hope the house will support the Government in rejecting a time arrangement, which would not be in the interest of the traders, and which, I am sure, would be detrimental to the men, and which would be opposed to the undertaking which the Government gave. You cannot have a more stringent, a more absolute, and as I think a more decisive, negative to a proposal than that. Later in the same evening the Attorney-General, in opposing it also, said— If we inserted the Amendment it would look as if the intention of Parliament was that the Bill should be limited. But that was not the pledge given by the Government…I submit that this is a case in which the House should support the Government in carrying out the undertaking which they have given. Subsequently the Amendment was agreed to without a Division, although the President of the Board of Trade said in his speech— I have stated more than once that in my opinion the undertaking of the Government was a continuous one. With regard to the special proposal now before the House, I have to point out that a mere reference to the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act is in no sense a fulfilment of the pledge. It is all very well in certain circumstances. I believe that an Act so important as the Ballot Act is in the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act, but that is not a thing which touches private interests between different sets of people. The case for the railway companies is this, that under certain circumstances a distinct pledge was given. The railway companies had grave doubts about the policy of giving way to the solicitations of the Government. I was not myself actually on the deputation which attended at the Board of Trade when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was also present, but the circumstances were fully reported to us at the time. I was in London and followed the whole proceedings, and I venture to say without fear of contradiction that the patriotism of the railway companies, of the directors and shareholders, was appealed to not to stand in the way of what was a very important point of policy—first, that trade should not be disturbed; secondly, that there should be no fear of interference with the food supply of the large cities; and, if I am not very much mistaken, a still more important suggestion was made to the companies that there were circumstances not unconnected with foreign affairs which rendered it extremely inexpedient for an industrial fight of this kind to be prolonged. In other words, a distinct appeal was made to the patriotic instincts of the directors by those who were representative of the Government, and I venture to say without fear of contradiction that no patriotic man, without taking a responsibility upon his shoulders which no one would have liked to take, could have refused the appeal which was made.

It is not the same to refer us to the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act. I will tell your Lordships why. This promise was made by the Government, and not only by the Government but by certain important members of the Government. Five years hence it is quite possible that the same Government may be in power—I express no opinion, and I make no prophecy—but if by any accident the present Government should not be in power then those who will be in power, from whatever Party they are drawn, will not be bound by the promise given to the railway companies, and nothing of the kind can be pled. And if the same Government are in power the same individuals may not be in the same offices, and the same appeal to the promise which was made could not be made with similar effect. But, my Lords, the contention—and in this I have the support of the President of the Board of Trade—goes much further. No doubt if an increase of prices goes on and wages are raised, the wages paid by the railway companies are not likely to be reduced. I sympathise with what the noble Marquess said last night that many of the men are poorly paid, and probably in the rise of prices they were insufficiently paid. I have no hope that those circumstances, which are not the fault of the railway companies, will be much altered in the future, and therefore I say that the wages now paid are not likely to be reduced, and I can put it even higher than that because further claims for increased wages may have to be met in the future.

Now let me call your Lordships' attention to another point, a very strong one, on behalf of the railway companies. The railway companies years and years ago got the power, on making their railways, to have a series of certain maximum charges beyond which they were not to go. Do not let it be thought for a moment that this Bill is an intention to increase the maxima of those charges. There is nothing of that sort in the Bill. Indeed, it is provided in the first clause of the Bill that the present maxima shall under no circumstances be exceeded. In other words, the railway companies have made a bargain with the State to do certain things at certain rates. After these rates were codified and put into an easy form twenty years ago, the Act of 1894 was passed which had the effect of preventing railway companies from raising their rates even within the maximum promised to them without the consent of the Railway Commissioners, and all that the undertaking of the Government was intended to do was this. That the Railway Commissioners should take into consideration the fact that extra cost had been put upon the railway companies by the rise of wages, and that that should be a valid reason for increasing the rates, not beyond the maximum, but beyond what they happened to be before the cost of doing the work had been increased. That is a very important point, and I think it should be carefully remembered.

There has been a correspondence between the chairman of the Railway Association and the Prime Minister. A great deal of it is beside the point that we are discussing to-night, and I am not going into it. But one of the points which the railway companies made was that this Bill with the insertion of a time limit was a departure from the bargain made eighteen months ago. A letter has come in to-day under date, February 19, from the Prime Minister to the chairman of the Association in continuance of the letter which the Prime Minister was good enough to write a day or two ago. With the first three paragraphs of it I have no concern to-night, because they touch other points and not the particular point of controversy before us at the moment. But the last paragraph of the letter, as it cannot have been published yet, the House will excuse me reading. It is in these words— On the general question whether or not the Bill as passed by the House of Commons fulfils the undertaking given by the Government to the railway companies in August, 1911, the Prime Minister does not think that any useful purpose would be served by pursuing the controversy further. He desires me, however, to enclose for the information of the railway companies a copy of an Amendment which will be moved in the House of Lords on behalf of His Majesty's Government. The Amendment is intended to make somewhat clearer the intention to continue the Act after the period of five years, and also to secure that even if it should cease to be in force its provisions shall continue to apply to the determination of any complaint referring to increases of rates or charges made while the Act was in operation. I am very much obliged for the kindly testimonial to my fairness which the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for India gave me the other night, although he added that on that particular occasion I had fallen from the high estimation in which he usually held me. I am very anxious to get back into the noble Marquess's good graces, and therefore I will take care not to overstate my case.

Just let me take two points in the paragraph I have just read. I have dealt with the question of whether the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act meets the case, and I think I have made this point—that even if this Government were in power in five years it would be doubtful whether they would be in complete command to carry the Bill. They might not be able to carry it in the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act schedule, and, if they are not, this is absolutely no security to us at all. The Prime Minister says, with regard to the first point, that he does not think that any useful purpose would be served by pursuing the controversy further. When you have nothing to say it is a very good plan not to try to say it. There can be no doubt whatever that a definite and distinct promise was given, a promise in particularly precise and I should say in almost sacred terms. I do not want, as I say, to overstate my case; but it was reported to us at the time, and it was repeated in a letter from the chairman of the Railway Association a few days ago— As to the terms on which the Railway Strike was settled in August, 1911, the representatives of the railway companies pointed out to the Ministers with whom they were in negotiation that opposition to the proposed legislation might be expected, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer distinctly replied, 'We will carry the Bill or go to defeat.' I do not want to put that too high. I do not know what the circumstances in another place may have been, but there is no evidence, so far as I can see, that the Government were in danger of defeat. The Amendment the previous night for the three years limit was beaten with only forty-two supporting it. The President of the Board of Trade and the Attorney-General, speaking for the Government, were equally emphatic on the second night. I have never had the privilege of being in the other House and I do not know what the procedure is; but surely there is some method by which, even if it were not thought expedient to stake the existence of the Government upon it, the sense of the House could be taken—with the Government Whips at the door, or something of that sort—to show what really was the feeling of the House. But nothing of that sort was done. There was no Division taken, and the question was allowed to go by default. Now the Government have only to tell the Irish and the Welsh Members than if they do not attend they will lose the Bills they care for; that it is a question of confidence, and they can keep faith with the railway companies.

Without wanting to make undue controversy, I do think that in this matter the railway companies have been treated with less than perfect fairness. It seems to me that the only thing which it is fair to do is to omit this clause for the purpose of giving the other House of Parliament a chance of reconsidering a decision which seems to have been come to with undue haste and without full consideration. In the meantime, of course, I am only opposing the Amendment of the noble Earl, but when the time comes I shall probably ask the leave of the House, without further remark, to move the deletion of the clause which contains this time limit.


The noble Lord has substantially told your Lordships what has been the history of this matter up to now, but I think the Government have one cause of complaint. After all, this Bill is in no sense a Party Bill. It is, if I may say so, a purely national one. It was to end, and the promise was given to end, a very critical state of affairs in the year 1911. The Government gave a promise at that time which they have endeavoured to carry out. But, my Lords, what were the facts of the case in the House of Commons the other night? I have a letter here from the President of the Board of Trade with regard to it. I understand that he received no support whatever from any members of the Opposition; in fact, he tells me that there were five or six very strong speeches in favour of the retention of a time limit. I also understand that no member of the official Opposition took any part whatever or even voted on the Bill through all its stages in that House. As your Lordships are aware, when we first brought in the Bill we were not in favour of any time limit whatever, but we had to face the feeling of the House of Commons; and, as far as I understand, on the occasion in question there was no doubt whatever that there was a hostile majority in the House against us, and however much we might have wanted to carry out our undertaking we should certainly have been beaten on that occasion. We cannot do the impossible. After all, the majority of the House of Commons rules, and under the circumstances we had no option then but to accept the Amendment. I understand from the noble Lord that he proposes to press this matter and refer the Bill again to the House of Commons. We as a Government would be very sorry indeed to see this Bill lost. We have given our pledge to pass it into law, and, of course, it is quite impossible for me to say what the feelings or the action of the House of Commons will be if this Bill returns to them with the time limit deleted. As your Lordships are aware, their time is very short, and I am much afraid that there might be a possibility of losing the Bill if this clause is struck out. I do not think that we can be accused of breach of faith. We have done out utmost to pass this Bill into law, and I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will see your way not to press for the omission of this clause.


I do not propose to take up the time of the House by discussing the intrinsic merits of this clause or of the Amendment which Lord Granard has moved. I will only say, in passing, that the clause itself seems to me to be a very badly conceived one. What we all desire, I take it, in this case is that there should be something in the nature of a settlement. If this Clause 3 remains in the Bill there is no possibility of a settlement. After the period of five years is over the fray can be or will be renewed de anno in annum on every occasion on which the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Bill comes up for consideration by Parliament. The clause seems to me to open up an endless vista of trouble between the railway companies and the traders. But, my Lords, that seems to me, after all, to be a minor consideration. The question of the merits of the clause is really somewhat beside the mark.

The real question which your Lordships have to consider is whether His Majesty's Government can retain this clause in the Bill without bringing the gravest possible discredit upon themselves. This Bill, your Lordships should remember, is the outcome of a pact deliberately entered into between the Government and the railway companies, a pact entered into at a moment when we were in the midst of a grave crisis in our industrial affairs. The bargain was accepted in some cases very reluctantly by the railway companies, but it was accepted in all cases only because the Government were able to offer the companies in return a valuable consideration—namely, the promise of a Bill which would enable them to vary their charges, not, as my noble friend pointed out just now, to any extent which they pleased, but within the statutory limits laid down, I think, by the Act of 1888. His Majesty's Government by this clause are importing an entirely new term into the agreement—a term that was undreamed of by either party at the time the agreement was entered into. The words of the pledge itself gave not the slightest indication that there was any intention on the part of the Government to make this contract subject to a limit of time. If there was any doubt about the actual terms of the pledge, the action and the language of the representatives of the Government have been of a kind to remove that doubt most effectively. In the course of the discussions the President of the Board of Trade resolutely opposed both the proposal for a time limit of three years and also one for five years, not upon the ground that those particular limits were inappropriate, but upon the broad ground that any limit at all was opposed to the principle of the Bill and the principle of the bargain which had been struck between the companies and the Government.

I have read the reports of the discussion which took place in the House of Commons, and it is impossible to come to any other conclusion than that these things happened at a moment when the House was badly attended, when most of His Majesty's Ministers were absent—I understand that telephonic communication with the Prime Minister was resorted to at the last moment—and when a great deal of confusion prevailed in the minds of those present. One thing, however, appears very distinctly from the reports, and it is that more than one supporter of the Government got up and pointed out that he did not feel himself free to give his vote according to his convictions on account of the pressure put upon him by the Government Whips.

I cannot insist sufficiently on the gravity of this matter. At this moment there is a kind of lull in regard to these industrial disputes, but can any of us doubt that in the future these disputes will arise again? The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack the other evening, in speaking on the Trade Unions Bill, used language which made it perfectly clear that in his opinion we might have to reckon with these great industrial difficulties again, and that there may be difficulties affecting what he called "the arteries of our national life." When these crises occur again, as they will, His Majesty's Government will be in the position of holding the balance in their hand. It will be for the Government to intervene if intervention is necessary. It will be for them to use repression if repression is necessary. It will be for them to protect those who stand in need of protection. But when that time comes it will make the whole difference to His Majesty's Government if they possess what is, after all, the most precious asset that any Government can possess, and that is a reputation for absolute good faith. The most disastrous thing, in my opinion, which could happen to the country, or to the Government of the day, would be that it should become generally understood that after a great public bargain of this kind has been entered into, the Government of the day is at liberty to repudiate it under Parliamentary pressure. For these reasons I shall most certainly give my vote to my noble friend Lord Balfour when he presently moves the omission of the clause; and with regard to what Was said just now by Lord Granard, who threatened us not obscurely with the loss of the Bill, I venture to express my opinion that the loss of the Bill would be a much less misfortune than that loss of reputation which, I believe, would result from the retention of this clause.


I think that I ought to reply at once to what has fallen from the noble Marquess opposite, because I certainly do not yield to him in his estimate of the gravity of this matter in the form in which it is brought before us so far as it can be in any way held to involve the reputation of His Majesty's Government for acting in good faith. My noble friend behind me has stated what occurred in another place, and he stated with full truth that there His Majesty's Government did their best to carry the Bill through in the form in which it had been introduced, and in the form in which it is evident that the representatives of the railway companies thought it ought to be carried in order to meet the terms, as they conceived them to be, of the arrangement between themselves and H is Majesty's Government. But my noble friend has pointed out that the Government did not find it possible in the circumstances to get the Bill through the House of Commons in that form. I shall have a word to say later about the supposed terms of the arrangement, but that, of course, is not the point at this moment.

The point at this moment is that His Majesty's Government did try to carry the Bill through in that form. It certainly would not be right to regard the Opposition either in another place or here as in any sense specially representing the railway companies. It may so happen that at the moment of this debate they appear to be simply taking the side of the railway boards, but it is, of course, also the case, and it was particularly clear in the debate in the House of Commons, that the Opposition or many members of it regard themselves especially in this matter as representing the interests of the trading community. In the course of the debate that took place in the House of Commons the time limit was strongly advocated by hon. Members such as Mr. Bathurst and Mr. Peto, who are, I believe, regarded as specially representative of the agricultural community. The time limit was also advocated by at any rate one Member speaking on behalf of the Labour Party, and by another hon. Member, Sir Arthur Markham, who, as noble Lords opposite know, is a highly independent supporter of His Majesty's Government. Apparently, therefore, the effect would have been if a Division had taken place that Ministers and the leading members of the Opposition—if we are right in assuming that the Front Opposition Bench there take the same view, or would have taken the same view, that the noble Marquess has just expressed—would have walked into one Lobby together, whereas the whole of the rest of the House there present would have gone into the other.


What is the evidence of that?


All the evidence that we have at our disposal is the view that was taken by the Parliamentary officials concerned, and the fact that every single speech that was made from every quarter of the House was in support of this particular provision. The noble Marquess has said that if this provision is merely legalised for a certain number of years and then appears only in the schedule of the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act, it would be open to the Government of the day, or to the Opposition of the day if they were strong enough, to strike it out of that schedule and so to nullify the present work of Parliament. If that were so, I take it that it would be equally easy for them to repeal the Act or part of it, and I confess, therefore, that no very great weight that I can see attaches to that particular argument. Therefore when the noble Marquess speaks of the fray being renewed on every occasion when the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Bill is before either House of Parliament, if the materials for the renewal of the fray exist they would also exist for a discussion of the whole question and a possible repeal of the Bill or a part of it.

Now I go back to the question of the principle involved in the bargain, if that is the proper word, which was made between the Government, not as a Government but on behalf of the country, as the noble Marquess very truly said—it was a national bargain—and the railway companies. I took no personal part in the negotiations that took place at that time because they did not fall within my purview as a Departmental Minister, but I may venture to remind the House that I have always taken a close interest in matters affecting railway rates; and I suppose, with the undoubted exception of my noble friend opposite, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, I have had as much to do with railway rates and their settlement as any noble Lord in this House. It was said, I think, by the noble Lord opposite, Lord Faber, that it was necessary and only honourable to make this pledge a pledge of permanent' continuance because there was a principle involved in it which, once admitted, could not be departed from. That is, if I may say so, not an accurate description. There is not, so far as I can see, any principle involved in the statement that on this particular occasion a general rise in the wages paid to railway servants affords a sound reason for a general raising of tolls or charges within the maxima provided by Parliament. That is not a principle; it is a particular application of a general principle which is very much wider. That general principle is this, That in consideration of the monopoly, or the qualified monopoly, possessed by railway companies, the country—that is, Parliament— reserves to itself the right to fix maxima above which railway companies must not charge either in respect to the carriage of passengers or of goods; and the further principle exists that the sums which railway companies are to be entitled to charge should be such as to give them a reasonable opportunity of earning a fair return on the capital invested. That was the principle on which the bargain was based. But this particular arrangement is merely a single application of that principle.

I should like your Lordships, therefore, to remember that as a matter of fact a time limit, whether you name a term of years or whether you admit that a Bill of this kind must of need be subject to possible modification in the future, is in fact inherent in such a proposal as that which is made to allow this particular increase of charges. A rise of wages is not the only factor which affects a railway company in solving the question whether it is receiving a fair return on its investment. As we all know there are many other subjects, such as, for instance, the increase or the decrease of local rates, the payment of which forms such a large part of the liability of railway companies. Then there are questions connected with the price of materials, the prices, for instance, of coal, of iron, or of timber which are all used in enormous quantities by railway companies. It would therefore not be too much to say that any changes of an abrupt kind, either in relation to local rates or to the price of commodities or to the discovery, if such a thing were possible, of some fat cheaper means of traction—all those, just as much as a rise or fall in the wages that have to be given to railway servants, would not only justify but make absolutely necessary a further revision of this proposal. I say therefore, quite fearlessly, that a time limit, whether you like to put it into the Bill in this form or not, is absolutely inherent in a Bill of this kind, and that, whether you put it in or whether you do not, when the time conies, if it comes, that justice demands that owing to the large gains of railway companies their charges and rates should be reduced, or that owing to their being put to some further expenses of the kind which I have mentioned they ought to be given a further opportunity of increasing those rates and charges—that in any one of those cases a bargain of this kind must be subject to revision. I venture to put it, therefore, to the House that, as a matter of fact, the existence of this five year limit, whether it is in the Bill or not, cannot be regarded as a matter of serious moment. It is a matter of the most serious moment, as the noble Marquess has quite truly pointed out, if the Government is thought or believed to have gone back on its word; but so far as the actual effect of placing a time limit in this Bill is concerned, I cannot understand the view of its great importance which is evidently, from the speech of Lord Claud Hamilton, taken by the representatives of the railway companies, because, as I say, when the circumstances demand, whether in relation to wages or anything else, revision is simply bound to come if it can be shown that the earnings of railway companies have either been largely increased or largely reduced by extraneous circumstances.

To return once more to the debate in another place, it is quite clear that my right hon. friends there saw that the construction placed upon the agreement by the railway companies was what the noble Marquess opposite has described it as being, and that being so it was certainly their duty to try to get the Bill through in the form in which it was introduced. I do not know whether it is disputed that the Government did their best. From the noble Lord's intervention just now I rather gather that he thinks that the Government did not put on all the pressure they might have done. I am assured that that is not the case; they did their very best to get the Bill through in that form. In the circumstances I cannot believe that, by altering the Bill as my noble friend Lord Balfour will shortly propose to alter it, he is really doing much service to the cause he has at heart, or that he is replacing the Government into the position of moral credit from which he thinks they have removed themselves by their own act. It is naturally most painful to His Majesty's Government to have their good faith impugned in a matter of this sort; but quite apart from the question of the merits—as to which I have ventured to say a word, and I hope I put the matter in a light somewhat different from that which it has already assumed—quite apart from that, the Government did their best to carry the Bill through in the form which the other parties, the railway companies, obviously expected.


I quite recognise the difficult position in which the Government are placed at the moment with regard to this particular Amendment, but I think that all railway interests will agree that the question of rates may be open to revision at any time that Parliament feels disposed to interfere. Of course, every railway company gets its Bill on certain conditions laid down by Parliament, but that does not prevent Parliament from interfering with regard to rates or anything else if it feels so disposed. But I think that this pledge, or this bargain, was something rather different from that. It was a special advantage to be given to the railway companies for a special purpose—namely, to meet any additional cost which would be put upon them by agreeing to terms with their workmen. It requires two parties to make a bargain. The bargain was made, and, of course, the usual thing is, if any words in an agreement are considered not likely to carry out the bargain properly, that the bargain is thrown up; but in this case the railway companies are unable to do that because the Government has received its payment. The advances have been given to the men, the difficulties have been settled, and all that is left is for the Government to carry out its promise to the railway companies. I quite realise that the Government had great difficulties to contend with in another place.

But the whole question is—What was the bargain, and how has that bargain been carried out? It is absolutely necessary, if a bargain is entered into by two people, that both of them should be satisfied that the words in the agreement carry out the bargain at which they have arrived. The railway companies are perfectly satisfied, so far as I have been able to gather, that the terms proposed by the Government do not carry out the pledge which was given to them. I therefore cannot understand the position taken up by His Majesty's Government on this question. It is most important when you are dealing with a matter of this kind, which not only concerns the traders but concerns the whole of the workmen of the country, that there should be no doubt whatever that a pledge entered into by the Government should be carried out and should be carried out on such lines as will satisfy the other parties to the bargain. The railway companies are not satisfied; they consider that the pledge is not being carried out; and I think it is the duty of the Government to take such action as will satisfy those who have fulfilled their share of the bargain.

I personally have had many negotiations of various kinds with workmen and with traders, and I can say this from my experience—that there is nothing that creates so much bitterness as the idea that a bargain has not been properly carried out once it has been entered into. What does the trader do if he finds that one of his customers does not carry out his bargain? He refuses to have anything more to do with him. What happens between workmen and employers if the workmen or the employers consider that a bargain has not been carried out? Great bitterness of feeling is displayed, and I assure you that the parties always hesitate a great deal afterwards about entering into any other bargain. We have not got to the end of these negotiations, and I think it would have been very much better if the Government had strained a point, whatever their own views may be, to have satisfied the railway companies, because I believe this will have an effect upon any other negotiations that may take place. I think it is very bad precedent to create to give the impression throughout the country that the Government enters into a pledge and does not carry it out to the satisfaction of the other parties to the bargain. This is not a Party question, and I think it is a very unfortunate position which the Government have taken up, and I regret it extremely.


The course which the proceedings have taken in your Lordships' House this evening has placed me in some slight embarrassment. I was under the impression, or I should have risen before, that we were discussing the Question put by the Lord Chairman as to the Amendment to Clause 3 in the Bill, but what has happened is that we are now discussing an Amendment that is not before the House. As that is so, perhaps I may venture to intrude on your Lordships' patience. Lord Balfour of Burleigh used arguments which it would be futile for me to deny carry great weight, and also in the same way the words which have fallen from other noble Lords it is equally impossible to set on one side. But at the same time in a Bill of this kind there is another interest which has to be taken into consideration, and which has up to the present been almost entirely ignored—that is the interest of the traders.

I represent in this House this evening only one branch of the traders, and that is the agricultural community. Let me call your Lordships' attention for one moment to the history of this Amendment. The noble Marquess the Leader of the House has referred almost incidentally, if I may venture to say so, to the action taken by Mr. Bathurst and Mr. Peto, but practically it was owing to the action of those two hon. Members in the House of Commons that the question of the time limit was brought forward at all. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware, but if not it is desirable that you and that the public also should know that the agricultural community feel, rightly or wrongly, a very considerable grievance against the railway companies. They consider that they have undue burdens placed upon the profitable conduct of their industry. Their great difficulty in the past has been to get in touch with the directors of the railway companies and with the Railway Companies Association. It is undeniable that the Railway Companies Association is an extremely powerful body. It is represented here on these Benches in very great strength this evening, and I would ask the numerous railway directors who are seated all around me to consider whether in the future they could not do something to conciliate the agricultural interest more than they have done in the past.

What happened was this, if your Lordships will throw your minds back. The Government, with a view to giving effect to the pledge which they had given at the close of the strike, brought in a Railways Bill. The agricultural community, and particularly the Land Association and the Central Chamber of Agriculture, with which I am associated, hoped that here was an opportunity, without in any way impugning the good faith of the Government to carry out their bargain, to obtain some kind of protection for themselves. That Bill, as your Lordships know, was dropped, and therefore a very large portion of the chances of the agricultural people was gone. Then the Railways (No. 2) Bill was introduced, and Mr. Bathurst and Mr. Peto and other Members fought our case in the House of Commons with what I consider the greatest energy and skill that could possibly be brought to bear upon it, and I am thankful to know that Members on the other side of the House concurred with the agricultural people in the views which they took. We feel that if we are to get nothing we shall have placed upon us for all time the disadvantages under which we contend we suffer at the present time. You will recollect that Mr. Bathurst pressed the President of the Board of Trade to I bring forward a far wider Bill dealing with the whole question of railway rates. Owners' risk rates is one of the greatest difficulties we have to contend with and one of the greatest evils, but the right hon. gentleman did not see his way to accede to that request; and as a pis-aller this time limit was put in in the hope that by that means some pressure could be brought to bear on the railway companies before the expiry of the time limit, whatever it might happen to be, to meet the agriculturists. I quite see that I am fighting an almost forlorn hope here, yet I venture to put before you this aspect of the question which has not received consideration, and I appeal to the strong body of railway directors whom I have the honour of addressing to see if they cannot do something to remove the feeling of grievance which exists.


I need not tell your Lordships that every member on this side of the House has the greatest sympathy with the difficulties of the agricultural interest in this country. It would be very strange if we were not in sympathy with them. Many of us are not only intimately bound up with agriculture ourselves, but we reckon amongst our friends the very large body of the tenant farmer class who are even more directly interested than we are, and we have always been deeply anxious to do justice to them. But, my Lords, justice is due, not only to the agriculturists, but to the railway companies of this country. As I said last night, we hold no brief for them. We are here in an absolutely impartial position merely to see that justice is done, and when it is told us upon high authority that an absolute bargain was entered into between His Majesty's Government and the railway companies I think we should be the lowest of mankind if we did not see that that bargain was adequately fulfilled. We have looked into this matter. I am sorry to trouble your Lordships with quotations, but really this is a case in which it is necessary to quote. I am not going to read all the correspondence which has passed between the railway companies and the Government; but here is a passage in a letter written on February 14—


By whom?


This is written on behalf of the Railway Association and signed by Sir George Armytage— On the 12th instant representatives of the railway companies saw the President of the Board of Trade in his room at the House of Commons at his request. The President informed t hem that there was a strung feeling in the House in favour of the insertion of a time limit in the Bill, and asked the representatives whether they could agree to some extended limit. They informed him definitely that the railway companies could not accept the Bill as a fulfilment of the Government pledge if any time limit was inserted. The matter was fully discussed, and the President promised the representatives of the railway companies that he would resist any such Amendment. That was the letter sent to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister did not accept that statement, and here is a passage in the answer of the Prime Minister— The promise given by Mr. Buxton to the railway companies representatives on Wednesday, February 12, with regard to a time limit, referred to the only Amendment down on the Paper—viz., a time limit of three years. The promise was duly fulfilled, as stated in your letter. Then the railway companies replied on February 17— Mr. Buxton's promise of February 12 referred explicitly to the principle of a time limit, and was not confined to t he question on the Paper. What light do we get upon that by the debates in the House of Commons? Let me read to your Lordships what the President of the Board of Trade said himself on February 13— I do not think I can add much to what I have already said on the part of the Government in opposing this proposal, which is in substance the same as the proposal we had last night. The House should remember that the undertaking given by the Government was not, as some seem to think, conditional for a particular time and to come to an end at an early period when the events connected with that time had ceased to exist. It was a condition of the acceptance of the Report of the Royal Commission, through the Conciliation Boards, to improve the pay and conditions of labour, and to impose on the railway companies obligations which have led already to a considerable increase in pay and improvement in the conditions of work. Mr. Buxton definitely said that there was no condition such as suggested; that there had been definite money value given by the companies for the fulfilment of this condition; and that if the Amendment were carried—the very Amendment which he afterwards accepted—that condition would not be fulfilled by the Government.

Let me read what was said by another member of the Government who by his profession is well qualified to give a precise statement. I refer to the Attorney-General, and not only is he Attorney-General but in this Government he is a member of the Cabinet as well. This is what the Government say through their Attorney-General, a member of the Cabinet— If we inserted the Amendment it would look as if the intention of Parliament was that, the Bill should be limited. But that was not t he pledge given by the Government. The Attorney-General went on to describe the necessity for fulfilling obligations and the difficulties some people found in doing so. He said— When an obligation is incurred everybody is ready to bear his share of the burden, to put his hands in his pocket, and almost to pay money in a time of great stringency and difficulty; but, unfortunately, when that period of stringency and difficulty has passed, hands do not go into pockets but rather button them. The Government is bound by the pledge it has made, and ought to be supported in carrying out what the whole House, or the vast majority of the House, wanted at that moment in the interests of the vast majority of the people, and which the vast majority of the people also supported. Now, my Lords, I submit, in the face of those circumstances, it is not possible for the Government to run away from their undertaking. Why should they run away? What is the penalty? What was the noble Earl, Lord Granard, so much afraid of when he did his best to apologise for the conduct of the Government? He said the Government would have been beaten. Does that matter so very much? I do not mean merely from the point of view of a Party attack, but was not that contingency faced by the Government themselves? What did the Chancellor of the Exchequer say? He said, "We will carry the Bill or go to defeat." He said so himself. He faced it. The thing which seemed to be impossible to the noble Earl and to the noble Marquess who leads the House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer foresaw and faced and at the time the bargain was entered into he said "It doesn't matter if we are beaten; we will carry the Bill or go to defeat."He faced the contingency. But that was in the old days to which the Attorney-General referred. Now we have got to the time when they button up their pockets. The noble Marquess and the noble Earl have buttoned up their pockets and thrown over the challenge given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I assert that there are no people in this House who are more ashamed of what has been done than the members of the Government opposite. I am perfectly certain that, if they were free to speak, they would say "We quite agree with you"—and with their supporter, Lord Joicey, who spoke just now—"that this is a bargain which ought to be kept." When yon have received valuable consideration for a bargain you are bound to carry out the bargain.


When the noble Marquess rose he began with an expression of sympathy. I hoped for a moment that it was for the Government, but we found that it was exclusively for the agricultural interest. I wish to draw attention to what I think is the real point before us. We were obliged to do our best for this Bill and we want to get it through to the utmost of our ability, and if we have taken the course in the other House that we have done, it is because we feel we are bound to the railway interest and want to do our very best for them. I quite agree that we had in our minds no definite idea of a time limit until these very recent discussions to which allusion has been made. I agree that what was in our minds was to make a permanent change in the law. There is, of course, no such thing as a permanent Act, because Parliament can always alter the terms of any Act. But we did not contemplate putting anything of the kind in, and we certainly should not have proposed any Bill in that form. I go further than that. I think that we had undertaken to the railway companies that there should be no time limit, not in terms, but in a spirit which precluded it; and to-day our desire is to get done the utmost we can in the way of fulfilment of our undertaking to the railway companies, not merely for our own credit but because we think it right and just towards the railway companies who made this bargain with us at the time of the settlement of the great strike, and whose position ought to be recognised.

When the Bill came on in the House of Commons what happened was this. It has been described to me by a distinguished Member of Parliament. The Government had not a single friend in the House except the few people who represented the railway interest. The agricultural interest, as we have heard from the noble Lord opposite, was strongly represented on the Opposition side of the House, and everybody turned against the Government. Their own supporters went against them. That is a very unfortunate position, and your Lordships may say that it ought to have led to the Government resigning. But had they resigned it would have produced no other effect than that this Bill would have been lost altogether. We did not desire that this Bill should be lost, and therefore it was essential that we should not go to a Division. If we had gone to a Division all the indications were that the Government would have been beaten, and accordingly the course that was taken was the best they could take in the circumstances. My right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade pointed out that he conceived himself bound to the railway companies, that his view was the other way, but that he did not oppose the Amendment to the extent of bringing about a defeat because he felt that the best he could do for the Bill was to take, not the three years Amendment which had originally been proposed and which he had said to the railway companies he would resist to the utmost of his capacity, but the subsequent five years Amendment, which was pressed and which he was practically compelled to accept.

Let us dismiss the position of the Government. I agree that our position is an unhappy one. But we have done our best, and we cannot do more. What we want to do now is to save this Bill. I now come to the question of saving the Bill. I am apprehensive if it goes back with Lord Balfour's Amendment made that it will be in danger. I can only say we will do our best for it in whatever shape it goes back, but I am seriously apprehensive about the passage of this Bill if it is amended in the way suggested; and what I would respectfully urge your Lordships to do is not to make impossible a task which is difficult enough as it is at the present time. The Amendment of my noble friend Lord Granard is designed to give to this Bill a natural character of permanence—that is to say, to carry it on with reference to the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act and to make it easy to renew the Act. I do not suppose anybody suggests that the Act should be or could be passed in a form in which it never could be revised; but we want to give it the general form of permanence, and with a view to that end to adapt it to the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act. If your Lordships think fit to take that view you will, by accepting that course, at all events have done the very best that can be done for the prospects of the Bill at the present time.


I am sure that the whole House concurs with the noble and learned Viscount that the Government find themselves in a very unhappy position. But when we go from that and enter into the merits of this case the noble and learned Viscount says that what he desires is to do what is best for the railway companies and to preserve a portion of the original Bill rather than lose the whole Bill. Unfortunately the railway companies take a different view. As Lord Balfour of Burleigh has stated to your Lordships to-night, they consider that this Bill with the tune limit is of no value to them. They say it is distinctly quite a different bargain—and the noble and learned Viscount does not differ from them in that—from the bargain which was made with them. That is the real point. The question is whether the Bill in the shape in which the Government propose it now is of any value to the railway companies. The railway companies up to the present, at all events, have said that they do not think it is; and therefore it seems to me that the noble and learned Viscount is more anxious for the interests of the railway companies than they are themselves. Surely in a matter of this sort the opinion of the railway companies is rather to be taken than the opinion of the Government. The question whether the Government did or did not do everything they could in order to pass the Bill in its original form is a matter for argument. It is a very strange thing that the Prime Minister was not present on the occasion when the Government were so anxious to pass the Bill. Moreover, the Government did not put it to the test of a Division, and unless it was put to the test of a Division how could the Government possibly have told that they would be defeated? As the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, reminded your Lordships just now, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking at a time before the Government had received valuable consideration, said that the Government would support the Bill even if it involved their defeat. All we know is that they did not put it to that test. They simply accepted the Amendment, and now they ask your Lordships to accept the Bill in this emasculated form on the ground that half a loaf is better than no bread. Our discussion to-night has been more irregular, I may say, than usual, because we are supposed to be discussing an Amendment which has been proposed by Lord Granard, whereas at least five-sixths of the debate which has taken place has been with reference to an Amendment which is not yet before the House, and which, so far as we know, may never come before the House. I apprehend that the Question which the noble Lord in the Chair is going to put to us is whether Lord Granard's Amendment is to be accepted or not, and I cannot help thinking—it is merely my own opinion—that it would have been better to have disposed of that Amendment before discussing the subsequent Amendment which your Lordships may perhaps be called upon to consider hereafter.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


The Question now is, That Clause 3, as amended, stand part of the Bill.


I move to leave out Clause 3, and in doing so I want to say a few words in reply to what has fallen from the Bench opposite. The noble Marquess who leads the House talked about the possibility of revision; but there is the possibility for revision in the Bill, because the railway companies are distinctly told that if they think it ought not to be permanent and ought to be revised there is a provision for that, and therefore that point is answered. The question of losing the Bill does not arise at the moment. When the Bill comes up here again, if, as I hope will not be the case, the other House rejects our Amendment, we shall have an opportunity of considering whether or not we insist on our Amendment, so that the saving of the Bill does not comp in question now. As it stands, the Bill is not a fulfilment of the bargain made, and therefore I move that this clause be not added to the Bill.

Amendment moved— Leave out Clause 3.—(Lord Balfour of Burleigh.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

Then (Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended) Amendment reported: Bill read 3a with the Amendment, and passed, and returned to the Commons.