§ Standing Order No. 149 read.
§ MR. ROBERTSON
said, he rose to move an alteration in Standing Order 149, relating to the proceedings of Committees on Private Bills, of which he had given Notice. He proposed to add to the Standing Order, inline 3, the following words:—Together with a judgment upon the case stating the reasons and facts upon which their decisions are based.It would, perhaps, make the alteration more intelligible if he were to read the Standing Order as it now stood. It was as follows:—The Chairman of the Committee shall report the Bill to the House whether the Committee shall or shall not have agreed to the Preamble or gone through the several clauses or any of them; or where the parties shall have acquainted the Committee that it is not their intention to proceed with the Bill; and when any alteration shall have been made in the Preamble of the Bill, such alteration, together with the ground of making it, shall be specially stated in the Report.He proposed to insert his alteration after the words "any of them." There could be no doubt as to the importance 1521 of the subject to which his Amendment related. The extent of capital invested in the various public works of the country rendered it a matter of the utmost importance that in dealing with Private Bill legislation, which was a great cause of expense, the uncertainty which now existed should be removed. It was most desirable that the decisions of the House should be uniform, and that those who were engaged in the prosecution of Private Bills should know the grounds upon which the decisions of the Committees were arrived at. He might state that in one item alone, that of railways, there had been invested up to the present year an amount of capital reaching £800,000,000, and there was an annual increment upon that one class of works amounting to about £20,000,000 annually. In addition to that, if the House would consider the sum invested in canals, for navigation purposes, gas and water, and in various other public works, they would find that the amount was as much or rather more than that which was invested in railways; so that they had £1,600,000,000 of money invested in great public works with an annual increment of more than £40,000,000—all of it invested out of the savings of the people of the country. Under those circumstances, he did not think there was any subject more deserving the attention of the House than the best way of improving the practice of Parliament in regard to Private Bill legislation. No doubt, all of them felt a personal interest in protecting the Constitution and their political rights; and most of the questions which affected the construction of the public works of the country went home to them personally quite as strongly as political questions. The present mode of conducting the Private Business of the House was admitted on all hands not to be satisfactory, and Resolutions had been passed at different times with the view of bringing about a beneficial change. He thought it was the late Chairman of Committees (Mr. Raikes) who stated, in a discussion which took place last year, that the course of proceedings in reference to Private Bills was not only dilatory, but costly and uncertain. He believed the right hon. Gentleman was quite right; and the question was, how was it possible to remedy that uncertainty which he (Mr. 1522 Robertson) believed to be the great cause of the expense? No doubt the practice had improved of late years since they gave up the plan of having very large Committees. He happened to be engaged before one of those very large Committees more than 15 years ago, when the Committee was composed of about 120 Members, and when the greater part of them never used to hear the case at all, but were whipped in by the action of the agents of the parties interested, and at the end a decision was arrived at quite irrespective of the evidence which had been given. Their practice had been much changed in that respect since; they had reduced the number of the Committee first to five, and then to four; but, unfortunately, they had not changed the mode of decision. It still was "Preamble proved," or "Preamble not proved," and there was no reason given to the parties who were suitors before a Committee to show how it was they had failed, or why they had succeeded. Now, if he had a case before one of the Law Courts he got a judgment with reasons assigned for it, whether they were satisfactory reasons or not. He was able to know, if he happened to fail, on what ground he had failed, and it became a precedent to guide future action. But if he spent hundreds and thousands of pounds in endeavouring to obtain the decision of a Private Bill Committee on an important case, affecting property to the value of millions of money, he was simply told "Preamble proved," or "not proved." There was no law, and there was no precedent, and all the labour which was brought to bear upon the proceedings of the Committee failed to establish any law to guide a future decision upon the same subject, however important it might be. It was to meet such a case that he proposed an alteration of the Standing Order. It was a very simple and small change, and would interfere in no way with the custom and practice of the House, except so far as making provision for a judgment to be given. He was aware that many plans had been tried and proposed, even to the extent of taking the decision out of the House altogether and altering the constitution of the Court which would have to give the decision. He agreed, however, that that was a very difficult matter, and he 1523 doubted very much whether it would he attended by any saving of expense if it were carried out. Probably they would hear his hon. Friend the Member for Haddington (Mr. Craig-Sellar) upon that point by-and-bye; therefore he would say nothing about it, further than that he believed the simple change he (Mr. Robertson) proposed would effect a valuable improvement in the conduct of their Private Business, whatever might he thought as to the propriety of constituting some other tribunal. There was one remarkable point which ought to be considered. If hon. Members would look at the Instructions given by the House to Select Committees they would find that they were upon very minute points. If it was the railway system that was affected the Committee were required to report upon such small matters as a level-crossing, and the alteration of an inclination of a road by which the gradient was made steeper; and in such cases, according to Standing Order No. 54, they had to give their reasons and the facts upon which their opinion was founded. Indeed, in a great number of comparatively small matters it would be found that Parliament did ask a Committee to assign a reason for its course of proceeding; but with reference to the Preamble of a Bill affecting property to the extent of millions of money and the interests of a large class of people, Parliament simply asked the Committee to say whether the Preamble was proved or not. Now, he did not believe that it was possible for gentlemen of higher position and culture to be interested with the duty of deciding these questions than the Chairman and Members of a Select Committee of that House. No doubt they devoted the utmost care and attention to the case laid before them, and heard with great patience everything that could be said on behalf of the different interests concerned; but if the public could have the result of that labour and care in a practical decision, stating the facts and reasons upon which the decision was founded, he thought the conclusions of a Committee would have very much more weight. Of course, he took a great deal of interest in this question, as he had been engaged in matters affecting the conduct of Private Bills before Committees of the House long before he had the honour of being a Member of it; and during that time 1524 he was able to speak from long personal experience, not only on what had been done inside the House in regard to these matters, but also out of it; and he was satisfied that if those who had charge of these Private Bills—namely, the solicitors, Parliamentary agents, and counsel—could have the labours of the Committee followed by a decision stating why the promoters of a Bill had failed, or why they had succeeded, they would be able to have their proceedings much better conducted and much more care taken in regard to them than, unfortunately, was the case under the present system of dark decisions. He also believed that if there were a decision with reasons accompanying each case, they would have young solicitors and counsel who would carefully follow all the cases together with the result of each, and a Parliamentary Committee would not be so close a tribunal as it was now. Much had been said about the extravagant fees paid to Parliamentary counsel. He believed that the counsel engaged in Private Bill Committees were men of the highest position and character, and that they were well entitled to be paid high fees; but still, at the same time, the infusion of a greater amount of competition into the same line of business would do no harm to the House or to the suitors in the Courts of the House. He quite admitted that, as far as he had been able to take the opinion of old friends who were counsel and Parliamentary agents, it was not altogether in accordance with the scheme he now proposed; but he was inclined to believe that they would rarely, if ever, get any approval of any change in the mode of legislation, or in the law, or in the practice of the law, from those who were engaged in it. He believed they would have to go rather to those who suffered from the results of the present practice than to those whose experience only induced them to resent any invasion of their interests in the present system. It was assigned also as a reason against the change that it would be very difficult to get a good Chairman to sit on a Committee hereafter upon questions of this kind. He did not admit that that would be so. Prom what he had seen of the Chairmen who presided over Private Bill Committees, and the patience and ability which they brought to bear upon the particular 1525 cases placed before them, he believed they would rather feel pleased and honoured by having their names connected with standard cases which might have been heard before them for weeks upon evidence of the most costly character, and with the mostdistinguished counsel to be found anywhere, taking part in the inquiry. He believed that the Chairman and Members of a Committee would be perfectly able to discharge their duty; to sum up every case submitted to them as judges, and to establish precedents for future legislation in regard to Private Bills. He was quite aware that there were many cases in which it would be difficult to find all the instances precisely analogous. No doubt that was true as regarded many of the facts; but there was a great similarity in most cases of the same class; and, whatever the facts might be, the principles that guided the decision ought to be the same, and the House ought to have such principles clearly stated, together with the reasons upon which the decision was given. He might add other reasons, but would not longer trespass upon the attention of the House. He was very much obliged to the House for having heard him so patiently, and he trusted that he might have directed their attention to a subject which was of very considerable importance to a large number of persons. He believed the change he suggested would be moat advantageous to the conduct of the Private Business of the country; and he would appeal not only to the judgment, but to the sense of justice of the House, whether, after having spent thousands upon thousands of pounds in bringing a case before a Committee and endeavouring to obtain a decision that would guide similar cases in the future, it was not desirable that there should be something to enable the promoters of a Bill to learn why it was they had failed, or why they had succeeded. He begged to move the Amendment which stood in his name upon the Paper.
After the word "them," to insert the words "Together with a Judgment on the case stating the reasons and facts upon which their decision is founded."—(Mr. Robertson.)
§ Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."1526
§ SIR ARTHUR OTWAY
said, he thought it was almost to be regretted that his hon. Friend had not reserved his speech for the Motion of the hon. Member for Haddington (Mr. Craig-Sellar), which was coming on somewhat later that evening. He was unable to assent to the conclusions contained in the Motion of his hon. Friend, any more than to some of the observations he had made. His hon. Friend stated, in the beginning of his remarks, that what he desired was that the decisions of the House should be of a character that would give general satisfaction. In that he (Sir Arthur Otway) entirely agreed; but his hon. Friend's complaint did not seem to be so much against the decisions of the tribunals of the House which now conducted its Private Business, as to the absence of reasons for those decisions. He thought he could show his hon. Friend, in a few words, that if his proposition was to have the effect he desired, it would be extremely inconvenient, because, under the present system, there was ample opportunity for ascertaining the opinions upon which the decisions of Private Bill Committees were founded. Those whose duty brought them to the House at an early hour must have observed the growing difficulty of conducting the Public and Private Business of the House. It was now the custom of the House to spend a considerable amount of time upon Private Bills; and the course proposed by his hon. Friend would so greatly extend the difficulty, that he felt certain the House, when they heard one or two of the observations he proposed to make, would hardly think the Standing Order should be amended as proposed. His hon. Friend did not concur in the wisdom of giving a judgment without assigning the grounds of that judgment. But it was not always good to give a reason. Reference had been made by his hon. Friend to the course taken by the Judges; but it must be remembered that the Judges pronounced an opinion upon matters of law, whereas the opinions of the Members of a Committee were entirely opinions as to matters of fact. At present, all such matters of fact were stated in the Preamble of a Bill—in that Preamble which his hon. Friend so much decried. The Preamble was, in point of fact, merely a statement of the facts on which the Committee 1527 were to form an opinion according to the evidence; and when the Preamble was proved, the facts so stated were adopted and verified by the Committee. His hon. Friend went further. Not content with desiring the reasons upon which the Committee might have come to a decision of which he disapproved, he was so greedy of knowledge that he actually desired to know the reasons of those who agreed with him. That he (Sir Arthur Otway) thought a most unwise desire; and he was not at all sure, if his hon. Friend heard the reasons of those who agreed with him, that he would be inclined to agree with the conclusion itself. He would point out to his hon. Friend that no harm whatever happened from the fact that there was not a statement of reasons laid before the House in regard to the decisions come to by a Committee. He would take a case in which his hon. Friend himself had been very much concerned—the case of the Wrexham, Mold, and Connah's Quay Bill. That was a case in point. His hon. Friend was, no doubt, highly dissatisfied with the decision come to by the Committee in that House, and probably regretted very much that he had not the reasons of the Chairman in order that he might have criticized them. But when the Bill went up to the other House of Parliament, there was ample opportunity afforded for hearing what those reasons were, and for considering the decision of the Committee; and, if he remembered rightly, the decision of the House of Lords was that the Bill, when it came before them, should be re-committed.
§ MR. ROBERTSON
said, his right hon. Friend was not quite accurate in regard to the facts of the case. The Bill commenced in the House of Lords, and it was re-committed to that House from the Commons. The decision was in favour of the Bill.
§ SIR ARTHUR OTWAY
said, that was what he wanted to point out, or rather that certain statements were made which caused the Bill to be re-committed, showing that the parties were not entirely shut out from all opportunity of ascertaining what the reasons had been. That, however, was only one case among many others, as his hon. Friend would be perfectly well aware. At present, it was competent for any hon. Member to move that a Bill be re- 1528 committed; and when that course was taken, it was customary for the Chairman to get up and explain the reasons of the Committee, although he was bound to say that the House generally confirmed the decision of the Committee. His hon. Friend, however, in such a case would learn the reasons which had induced a Committee to arrive at a particular decision. But that was not all. Supposing that his hon. Friend was not satisfied and wished to go still further, it was open for him, or for any other Member, to question the Bill upon the third reading; and although it was an unusual thing for a Bill to be thrown out on the third reading, still it was an occurrence that was not altogether impossible. He would mention a case in point. A Bill was brought in some time ago which was very important as far as the Corporation of Birmingham were concerned. That Bill passed through Committee; but on the third reading the House reversed the decision, and, on the Motion of the present Sir Robert Peel, throw out the Bill. Therefore, ample opportunity was afforded by the present system for discussing a Private Bill, and ascertaining the reasons which had guided the action of the Committee. If the proposition of his hon. Friend were carried out the conduct of Private Business would be almost impossible. It would be met with endless obstruction. Anyone who felt wronged in any way by the decision of the Chairman of a Committee would criticize the reasons assigned, would collect his friends together, and the very thing his hon. Friend had very properly deprecated—namely, Lobbying and bringing up Members at the last moment to vote for a measure, would be greatly increased. That practice, which his hon. Friend justly condemned, would only be intensified and made more mischievous. He was satisfied himself that if the proposition of his hon. Friend was adopted it would be quite impossible to conduct the Private Business of the House in a satisfactory manner. At present, there was no real grievance whatever. The House was well acquainted with the way in which Private Business was carried out, and he thought they would see that his hon. Friend was raising a grievance which did not really exist. Certainly, the way in which he proposed to remedy it was positively mischievous. 1529 It would lead to endless discussion upon all Private Bills, the time of the House would be wasted, and no conceiveable advantage would be obtained by altering the Standing Order. He, therefore, hoped his hon. Friend would not persevere with his Motion. On the other hand, he thought a great deal of benefit might be derived by the House if his hon. Friend would enlarge his observations from his own personal knowledge, and give the House the advantage of his experience in connection with the management of the Private Business of the House.
§ SIR JOHN R. MOWBRAY
said, he hoped the hon. Member would not force the House to go into a discussion of this question, because it only touched a small portion of a large question, which could only be dealt with by a Government measure—namely, the larger question of how the Private Business of the House was to be dealt with. He would advise the hon. Gentleman to repeat his observations later on, as he thought it would be a pity to take up the time of the House now, especially in the absence of the Members of the Government, and considering the small attendance of Members in the House generally.
§ MR. ROBERTSON
said, that after the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, he would be glad to be allowed to withdraw his Motion.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.