§ Adjourned Debate on Amendment to Second Reading resumed.
§ MR. EDMUND ROBERTSON (Dundee)
Mr. Speaker, Sir, I think I may venture to repeat, with reference to this Bill, the complaint made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fifeshire, with reference to the Bill which has just passed from the House. My right hon. Friend complained that the Prisons Bill had been discussed in a discontinuant way, in scraps is of time which prevented its proper consideration by the House. Well, Sir, that is the position in which we find ourselves with reference to this Bill, one which is not less important than the Bill we have just discussed. We are now at a late hour of the evening resuming the discussion of the Second Reading of the Bill. I do not know whether the discussion will finish this evening, but if not, we shall have spread it over three nights in dealing with this Measure. I think that, so far as the result of the first night's discussion is concerned, there is one fact which 122 stands out in a perfectly clear manner, and that is, that while the House at large has expressed its sympathy—I will not say with the principle of the Bill, because I fail to find a principle in it, but with the object at which the Bill professes to be aimed—nearly every hon. Member has agreed in condemning the manner in which the Government seeks to attain that object. On both sides of the House this candid criticism has prevailed, and the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Measure has admitted as much himself, because, he told us, the other night, that the only recruit he had made was the right hon. and learned Member for Clackmannanshire; and it is a singular and significant fact that the only voices raised in praise of this Bill have been the voice of the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself, the present Lord Advocate, and the voice of the late Lord Advocate. Whether that coincidence is a mere coincidence, or whether it is traceable to the origin and home of the Bill, is a matter upon which the House can form its own opinion; but, Sir, it appears to me that the opinion of the House, so far as it has, been expressed, is a faithful reflex of public opinion in Scotland upon the 123 matter. So far as the great public authorities have spoken, their voice also is in favour of the object which the Government seek to attain, but in condemnation of the method by which they seek to reach that object. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate spoke in terms which I thought hardly worthy of himself, or of the occasion, with reference to the Memorandum or Report of the Town Clerk of Dundee, Sir Thomas Thornton. I do not think the language which the right hon. Gentleman applied to that document was justified by anything contained in the document, nor, considering that not one of its arguments has been answered, did it seem to me a suitable way of dealing with the subject. I would invite those hon. Members who have not seen that valuable Report to read it before coming to a conclusion on this Bill. They will find a most serious and severe indictment of the Government proposal, and, after all the criticisms contained in that Report, I will venture to say that neither the Lord Advocate in charge of the Bill, nor the late Lord Advocate who supported it, has said anything to weaken the force of Sir Thomas Thornton's argument. Now, Sir, I have this difficulty in dealing with this Bill, that I doubt whether it is proper or prudent to introduce the element of nationality into this problem at all. I doubt whether you are dealing fairly with the subject in attempting to nationalise the private Bill procedure of this House. There is no element of Home Rule in this proposal. Whatever may be thought in some parts of Edinburgh about this Bill, there is no question of nationality in the grievances that are complained of. And I do hope that my hon. Friends the representatives of Wales, who are understood to be in favour of extending this Bill to Wales, will pause before they press the question, and deliberately consider whether the scheme of the Government is one that ought to be set up in any part of the United Kingdom. They will think twice, and three times, I am sure, before wishing such a Bill to be extended to Wales. Sir, in the Memorandum, the most candid and fair Memorandum, which the right hon. Gentleman has prefixed to the Bill, the objects are specified in four paragraphs; and I call the attention of the House tot his most remarkable fact, 124 that the Memorandum does not pretend for a moment that either of the two great evils of the present system is to be remedied by this Bill. What are all these evils? Everybody knows them. The present system is too expensive; the present system is dilatory. When you have said that. I think you have said all that can be said in condemnation of the Bill, for while the right hon. Gentleman specifies what this Bill does, there is not a word in the Memorandum to show that this Bill will either cheapen private Bill procedure in this House, or expedite the proceedings of private Bill Committees. The two main objects which ought to be aimed at by the Government are not pretended to be accomplished by this Bill. Now, Sir, following the same line of argument, I venture to say that before beginning to deal by legislation with this problem the House has powers of its own—not by Bill at all, but powers of its own—to deal with its own affairs, which ought to be exhausted before you invoke an Act of Parliament to remedy that procedure. Why, Sir, there are many things we could do, and which we ought to do, before we attempt to set up a separate nationality for private Bill procedure for any part of the United Kingdom. To begin with, we can, by a more order of the House, reduce the exorbitant expense attending the present system. We can, by an order of this House, assented to by an order of the other House—and as to the assent, I do not for a moment doubt that it would be given—we can establish one Joint Committee of both Houses, instead of two Committees; and so get rid by one blow of half, or very nearly half, the cost, and half the causes of delay in the present system. We can by order of this House withdraw the exemption, of which I do not myself complain, because I have often enjoyed the advantage of it, by which a very largo section of the House is permitted to abstain from service on private Bill Committees, thereby throwing the burden on the other section, and adding to the causes of delay. We could make service on private Bill Committees, if we so thought fit, compulsory, on the whole House; and that, again, we could do without invoking the aid of legislation. And, further, if we must have legislation, why should we not face this problem, 125 this question: whether among the powers which must now be sought by private Bills in both Houses, there are not some which, could be devolved directly upon the public authorities which seek them, without, compelling them in come to this House at all, or compelling them to go to any other tribunal whatever. Surely we ought to begin by discriminating between what the Bill calls Parliamentary powers, and set aside, if we can, these which ought to devolve automatically upon the great public authorities, and those which cannot be given without some sort of Parliamentary sanetion. Well, Sir, if we did all that, we should then be in a position to consider what should be done as to parts of the United Kingdom, whether in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, and I do no know why we should not say pails of England, because if a grievance exists it is common to the extreme south-west and the extreme north of England, in extent equal to that to which it exists in Scotland. If you took these preliminary proceedings, then, after first cleaning our own House, we could sit down and consider whether a proposal such as the right hon. Gentleman now makes is necessary or desirable. My belief is, that when that has been done, we shall find that most of the grievances have been removed, and that very little remains for an Act of Parliament in do. Looking at the question from that point of view, and with perfect sympathy with those who complain of the grievances existing under the present system of procedure, I do not find anything in the Bill but a proposed system which must be dealt with on its own merits, and the merits of that system appear to me to be so doubtful that I do not think, so far as I am concerned, and I speak only for myself, that I could give this Bill my support on the Second Reading. Sir, there is a certain amount of odium which, is pretty certain to be exercised against those who do not accept this Bill—those who cannot accept it will be said to be false to their constituents and to Scotland—but I will ask my hon. Friends from Scotland not to be led into voting for the Second Reading by fear of that sort. We know perfectly well from what sources these menaces come, 126 and by what people they are inspired, and I will give the House an example of a proceeding which we can easily apply to this Bill. Many Members opposite are in favour of old ago pensions. How many voted for the Bill which was discussed here the other day? How many voted against it? We are no more bound—we who desire reform in this matter—to give a Second Reading to this Bill than him. Gentlemen are bound, who are in favour of old age pensions, to vote for any miserable Bill that may come before the House bearing that title. I wish for a few minutes to direct the attention of the House to three of the main points of the main points of the Lord Advocate; and it is simply the merits of that proposal, and not the merits of the bodies at which it is aimed, that I propose to discuss. There are three main points which challenge attention in the scheme which, the right hon. Gentleman has laid before the House. One is the position of the Secretary for Scotland, the second is the confusion in the system of private Bill procedure which this Bill seeks to establish, and the third is the new tribunal which is to take the place in part of the tribunal with which we are all familiar, consisting of delegated Members of this House. These are the only three points as to which I shall trespass upon the indulgence of the House, and I shall only deal briefly with each in turn. A good deal has been said about the views of the Secretary for Scotland, but I do not feel that the measure of the power proposed to be conferred upon him by this Bill has been realised by the House. As I read this Bill, the Secretary for Scotland has an absolute veto in the future upon the proceedings under this Bill, and I will proceed to make that plain by a reference to the sections of the Bill, and if hon. Gentlemen will turn to Sections 3, 5, and 7 they will see what I mean. Now, the other night the Member for Clackmannanshire was defending the Bill, and I therefore call his attention to the words which I am now going to ask the House to consider for a moment. Section 3 declares that after the Chairmen have reported the Secretary for Scotland shall take the petition for a Provisional Order into consideration, and, subject to that Report against any part of the Order 127 that they may make, may, if he thinks fit, direct inquiry as to the propriety of assenting to the prayer of the petition. What is the natural meaning of that language? Docs it not mean that, if he chooses, he need do nothing? The Chairmen report. The Secretary for Scotland shall take the Report into consideration, and he may, if he thinks he will, direct an inquiry into the prayer of the petition, and then nothing more need come of it. There is, I repeat, an absolute veto placed in the Secretary for Scotland in all procedure under this Bill. My right hon. and learned Friend went out of his way to suggest to the Lord Advocate a road out of this difficulty, and he repeated to us the old legal suggestion that "may" and "shall" have the same meaning. "May" sometimes may mean "shall," but "shall" never means "may." The Lord Advocate accepted that suggestion, and promised that, if there was any doubt, words should be introduced to make it clear. I challenge him here now, and say that the proposal made by the Government in these words is this, that, if the Secretary for Scotland thinks fit, he may order no inquiry, no proceedings will be taken, nothing will be done, and the proposal will altogether be lost. That gives him an absolute veto upon every proceeding under this Bill. It is no use telling us that "may" means "shall." Turn to Section 5, and you will find a further proof of what the original scheme of the Government is, because it begins thus—When the Secretary for Scotland determines a Commissioner shall be appointed.That is on all fours with the previous words, which give him power to order an inquiry if he thinks fit, and therefore gives him power not to order an inquiry if be does not think fit. That is the scheme of the Government, and I challenge the Lord Advocate to say it is not. If the right hon. Gentleman stands by the interpretation suggested to him by his predecessor in office, I have no hesitation in saying that the Government on this as on other occasions has changed front in the course of the discussion in this House.
§ THE LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. A. GRAHAM MURRAY,) Buteshire
The view of the Government in drawing the Bill was that there might be occasions where, the Chairmen not having reported against any petition, the powers asked subsequently might be granted without any inquiry. That is the meaning of the "may" and "shall."
§ MR. EDMUND ROBERTSON
I have gone through the Bill very carefully, and I find nothing in it bearing out that suggestion. So far as I can see, there is nothing especially provided for, except as the result of inquiry; the inquiry is what follows from a Report of the Chairmen, and it is left entirely to the goodwill of the Secretary for Scotland; and as to "may" meaning "shall," that may be so in ordinary cases, but to say that "may if he thinks fit" can have any other meaning than the one I have given it is a conclusion to which I cannot bring myself. Besides, if the view of the Lord Advocate is adopted, and if "may" does mean "shall," then you will only be getting out of the frying-pan into the fire, because the result of that will be, in the case of an unopposed Bill or a Provisional Order, that there will be a local inquiry even in that case by the Commissioners. That appears to me to be rather worse than the original proposal, and worse a good deal than the existing system, and I cannot reconcile the explanation given when the Bill was last before the House, and that which is given now by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Lord Advocate. Further, if hon. Members will look at Section 7, the same difficulty occurs there, because—After the conclusion of the inquiry the Secretary for Scotland shall refuse to issue a Provisional Order if the Commissioners in their Report shall advise that the allegations of the petition have not been established to their satisfaction, or may issue an Order as prayed, or with such modifications as, having regard to the recommendations of the Commissioners, shall appear to be necessary; but before making and issuing an Order, if any modification has been made in the draft Order origipally deposited, the Secretary for Scotland shall cause a printed copy thereof to be deposited in the office of the Clerk of the Parliaments and in the Private Bill 129 Office of the House of Commons, and also at the Office of the Treasury and of such other public departments as shall be prescribed, and shall not for such time as may be prescribed issue a Provisional Order.There, again, as it appears to me, the Secretary for Scotland is left with absolute control of the proceeding from beginning to end. He need not order an inquiry unless he likes, and after the inquiry is finished he need not take proceedings upon that inquiry. Well, Sir, that, in my belief, is the scheme of the Government, so far as the Secretary for Scotland is concerned. I am only enlarging upon that, because others have been assailed by hon. Members who have preceded me; and, taking their objections in connection with this one, it is not going too far to declare that this Bill simply proposes to substitute Dover House for the House of Commons. The Secretary for Scotland is a mere name. He must do things by his clerks and deputies, and the proposal to which you now come is that the permanent officials of Dover House, of whom I desire to speak with all respect, are to take the place of a Parliamentary Committee. The candid Memorandum of the Lord Advocate states that this Bill enables Parliamentary powers to be obtained without coming to Westminster. What does that matter? Not coming to Westminster does not enable Parliamentary powers to be obtained without coming to London. This Bill asks you to go to Dover House, and not to Westminster, and if the choice is between these two places I am mistaken in my countrymen very much if they do not prefer that which they have to that which this Bill wishes to set up. The second point was what appears to me, subject to any explanation that may be made, to be the confusion set up in this Bill in all matters which are not governed by the rides of private Bill procedure. I believe that anyone who looks at Clause 1 will see that it is true about that clause, that, if this Bill passes, in all matters you must begin by a Provisional Order—by petition for a Provisional Order. Now, the right hon. Gentleman told us the other day that his great object was to divide Parliamentary 130 powers into two classes, one of which might be called the important class, which must be dealt with by private Bill, and the other, the less important class, which ought to be dealt with by Provisional Order. I accept that. All proceedings which now may be taken by private Bill are in future to be taken by petition for Provisional Order, and it is only when you come before the Chairmen, whether they sit together or not, that they determine that your petition for a Provisional Order belongs to the more important class, and then the proceedings by way of Provisional Order are to drop, and it is to be available for a private Bill in the next Session of Parliament. Mark, first of all, the uncertainty of many cases as to whether you are to have a Provisional Order or a private Bill. Assuming that a proposed scheme is of such a character that obviously it must go to a Private Bill Committee, just see where this proposal of the Government will take us. Take a great railway scheme, or any case in which it is perfectly manifest from the very beginning of the proceedings that you must go by private Bill and not by Provisional Order, and then what does this preposterous Measure propose? You must begin with a petition for a Provisional Order. The Chairman says it is not a matter for a Provisional Order, but for a private Bill; and, having done that, you are to be left with your notice in your hand till the next succeeding Session of Parliament. In every important matter a private Bill must in future take two Sessions instead of one. It must begin by a deliberately abortive petition for a Provisional Order, and in the succeeding Session of Parliament it must proceed by way of private Bill. Surely that is a most extraordinary proposal for a Government to make. I think now I have dealt with that sufficiently. In the next place, I am strongly of opinion that the attention of the Lord Advocate ought to be drawn to the very loose language of the first two sections of the Bill. He has himself almost acknowledged the looseness of these two sections; and whether it is a lawyer or a layman who looks at the language 131 employed in them, he will find it extremely difficult to realise what the Government actually mean by the language used. I pass from that. I think I have made it clear to the House that this new proposal, so far as the system is concerned, introduces confusion into the existing system, which, at all events, is simple in principle, however defective it may be in execution, and involves, the absurdity of compelling all the great Measures to be spread over two Sessions, and begins with a procedure which is known at the time to be futile. Then I come to my last point, and that is the nature of the tribunal which is to take the place of the Private Bill Committees in this House. Now, the panel itself I do not care to dwell upon, because that has been dealt with most fully in many of the speeches which have preceded mine, but I would like to ask my hon. Friends as to the meaning of the proposals of the Government as to the authority which is called a panel. I refer to Clause 4, sub-section 2 (a) (b) and (c). I will not read them again, because it would only weary the House if I did; but here is a line or two which I am afraid has led many people wrong—The Secretary for Scotland shall, as soon as may be after the commencement of this Act, convene, and if need be re-convene, at such time and place as he shall think fit, a meeting consisting of two representatives of the conveners of counties in Scotland nominated as hereinafter provided, and two representatives of the lord provosts and provosts of the burghs in Scotland hereinafter mentioned, and shall preside at such meeting.I understand now that the Lord Advocate has explained that this meeting is to consist of four people representing each category of official persons. [The LORD ADVOCATE: And the Secretary for Scotland.] Yes, and he is to convene the meeting, and that meeting is to consist of these persons. If that is the true meaning of the words, I am glad of it; but certainly in any Order dealing with this Act the thing must be made abundantly more clear than it is at present. I will tell the House and the right hon. Gentleman that I asked a lawyer of distinction equal to his own, and of a rank equal to his own, to look at these sections, and to 132 answer this question: Supposing there are 30 lord provosts and conveners in Scotland, what is to be the size of the meeting? He read the clause over, and said, "One hundred and twenty." That is a mistake which, I observe, has been made by other persons. No doubt the Lord Advocate is right in his interpretation of the ideas of the Government, but a great deal must be done before we consider the clause at all satisfactory. The Deputy Clerk Registrar, in the case of an equality of votes, is to decide. Yes, but there may be an equality of votes of an extraordinary kind. You might have 30 persons nominated for the four seats, or 30 for the two belonging to each category. Is the Deputy Clerk Registrar to take the place of the constituency, and to decide then in the case of an equality? Is that a satisfactory way to arrive at the final authority which is to select the panel which is to take the place of the House of Commons? I do not think that the authority is constituted even in an intelligent manner, and when we come to the work which the authority is given to do, I am bound to say that I agree with the criticism that has been made almost universally on both sides of the House as to the unsatisfactory character of the language. I will not dwell upon that criticism. I will call the attention of the Lord Advocate to this very singular feature: in this Bill you have got your State Commissioners, you have got a panel of 20 persons, and you have a reserve panel of 10, from which the Secretary for Scotland can draw. Will that be more satisfactory to Scotland than the Committee which sits upstairs? Nobody can guess what will be the nature of the panel itself as to men of affairs, and, when you have got 30 men together, no mortal man knows how the officials at Dover House are going to make their selection. Is that a tribunal which any man in his senses will attempt to set up in comparison with the elected Members of this House, working under its eye, and according to its traditions? Will anyone accept it? In what respect does it resemble a Parliamentary Committee? It imitates it in one respect 133 alone, and that is its weakness. A Parliamentary Committee is weak, because it is a fluctuating tribunal, and consists of so many men one week, and of so many other men another, but it deals with a paramount authority, which is far more authoritative than the tribunal here set up. Now mark what this Bill does. It selects, in imitation of that Committee, a panel of a fluctuating character. It goes out of its way to make a fluctuating tribunal. It selects these panels, and leaves the Secretary for Scotland to take out two men for one week and two men for another, and produces as near an imitation as you can possibly make of the Parliamentary Committee. It is an extraordinary result, and I invite someone in the Government who may speak upon this Bill to explain why they have gene nut of their way to have a fluctuating tribunal. What value is there in the mobility of it? What good does it do to give this power to one set of men one day and one set another? That is a point upon which I should like to have some explanation in justification of the action taken by the Government upon this important Measure. Now I should like to give a summary of what I should like to see this Bill contain if I had charge of it. I see it first establishes two svstenis—that of the Provisional Order, and that by way of private Bill, without giving any option. Secondly, it leaves it quite uncertain as to which system is to be adopted in a particular case. Thirdly, it makes it possible, after the Provisional Order system is adopted, to have subsequent procedure by private Bill. Fourthly, it makes it impossible to get a private Bill through in less than two Sessions; and, fifthly, it empowers the Secretary for Scotland to stop private Bill legislation altogether. It establishes a fluctuating tribunal—a foolish and unnecessary imitation of the Parliamentary Committee. Now, that is as accurate a summary of the scope of the Bill as can be found. What is to become of the Measure I do not know. I see the First Lord of the Treasury is now in his place, and I am sure he will not mind my saving that in the course of the present Parliament there has only been one other Bill which has been so universally 134 condemned even by those who professed to be believers in the principle of the Bill. He knows the Bill to which I allude. [The FIRST LORD of the TREASURY: Indeed, I do not.] I allude to the first educational Bill of the Government. [The FIRST LORD of the TREASURY: Oh, no; that Bill passed the Second Reading.] It passed its Second Reading, true, and there may be a majority for the Second Reading here. I was comparing the destructive criticism passed on the Education Bill two years ago to the criticism that has been passed upon this Bill on both sides of the House. I remember very well the day when the right hon. Gentleman came down to this House, and, to use his own phrase, destroyed his own Bill. He said, "I have come here to destroy this Bill." I hope he will say so now with regard to the Measure before the House. [The FIRST LORD of the TREASURY: What was the phrase?] I remember it perfectly well; it was a most apt and masterly phrase. He said, "I have come down to destroy this Bill," and he did so by moving to report Progress; but, whatever he said, I hope that he is in the same happy frame of mind to-day and will do the same thing to-night. I do not care how it is done; whether it be referred to a Select Committee, which can do nothing in the way of legislation, but which can only inform the mind of the House upon this important question, or whether it is done in some other way. But whatever course the Government take, I say I cannot support the Bill, and I urge my Scotch colleagues on both sides of the House to give every scope to their real opinions, because the condemnation has come from both sides of the House, and I invite English Members of this House to consider that the efficiency and the integrity of Parliament itself is attacked in this Bill. It is not a Bill which interests Scotland alone. It is a Bill which deals with the entire field of Parliamentary activity. No doubt it relates to Scotland in the first instance, but it affects the whole of the three kingdoms, and I hope that English Members—none of whom would accept it for themselves—will not inflict upon Scotland this Measure. Much as 135 Scotland may feel the effects of the present system, she has never asked for, and never would willingly accept, such proposals as are contained in the Measure now before the House.
§ MR. J. PARKER SMITH (Lanark, Partick)
The right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down appears to me to have developed more false points in his speech against this Bill than I could have conceived possible. I think the Bill is open to a great deal of criticism, but to develop false points against it is merely to strengthen the hands of the astute debaters who have charge of the Measure. I agree, however, with his closing words, in which he expressed the opinion that the Bill ought not to be treated as a Scotch matter at all, but as one directly affecting the three kingdoms, and from what has taken place in this Debate, I think it has been so treated. We have not been limited in the discussion to Scotch Members, but English Members have also taken part in it. The right hon. Member for Bodmin came in and took part in the discussion, and showed how, in his opinion, it affected England. The argument of my right hon. Friend appeared to go farther than he stated. He argued in favour of a strong permanent court, outside this House altogether, to deal with private Bills in their preliminary stages. Now my hon. Friend did not say anything about that, but it seems to me obvious that you cannot have a strong court merely to deal with Scotch business. If you have it at all, it must be a court to deal with the private Bill procedure not only for Scotland, but for England, Wales and Ireland, like the Railway Commission. Hitherto all the strong arguments in favour of this have not been Scotch, but general arguments. They apply with greater force to England. The objects of the Committee of 1888 were declared to be three—the interests of suitors, the economy of the time of Parliament, and the reduction of cost. These apply not only to Scotland, but to the whole of 136 the three kingdoms. The Scotch Bills are only a small fraction of the private Bills. In the 10 years up to 1890 only one-ninth of the private Bills were Scotch Measures, and it is obvious that the relief brought about by taking away Scotch Bills would be very small indeed. The serious part of the question is obviously to deal with England and not Scotland. In the Report of the Committee of 1888 no special proposal was made by the Committee as to Scotland. It was stated that the objection to the expense was greater there, but the Report dealt generally with the three kingdoms. The question has been intensified in Scotland by local feeling, but it does not seem to me that the local feeling in Scotland is sufficiently strong to justify the change, unless it be made applicable to the other parts of the kingdom. The present Bill goes much further than the proposals which were made by the Committee in 1888, or in the Bills which followed. The Minority Report which this Bill professes to be based on did not go so far as the Majority Report in that respect, because the Minority Report of 1888, which was, moved by Lord Balfour, the present Scottish Secretary, went on the principle of giving option to the promoter in all cases of saying whether he would proceed, as at present, by private Bill, or whether he would go in for a Provisional Order. This is what the Minority Report says—The Committee are of opinion that it is by no means certain that any saving of expense would be effected by local inquiries, except in the case of comparatively unimportant Bills and of Bills which affect a very narrow locality. By an extension of the Provisional Order system many of these Bills could be inquired into on the spot by an inspector from a Government Department, and in more important cases these Departments might be empowered to conduct an inquiry by a small Commission appointed for the purpose, which would any greater weight than any single official.The whole idea of the scheme was that there should be option given to the promoters. Lord Balfour himself, in the Amendment which he moved to the Majority Report, put the whole ground as to the change on the difficulty of finding a sufficient number of Members 137 to serve, and after stating that difficulty strongly he went on—Except for this consideration, the Committee are of opinion that the present system of private Bill legislation is open to as few objections as any system which it has been proposed to substitute for it, and that the complaints made, against it could be obviated by changes being made in matters of practice and of detail, and by reasonable extension of facilities for granting Provisional Orders with local inquiries in matters which may be held to be of purely local concern.Now, Sir, I think that the extension of the Provisional Order system is most undoubtedly desirable, and I should like to do that. I do not cure how far you do that, so long as you give promoters the option of coming here. The system of Provisional Orders undoubtedly suits less contentious cases. There are many inquiries that can be settled locally, and that are settled locally. I asked the President of the Board of Trade what the figures were in regard to Provisional Orders, and he said that in the last five years his Department had introduced, under Confirmation Bills, 326 Provisional Orders, of which only 11 had been opposed and only two rejected. But, Sir, the cases that are chosen for Provisional Orders are the cases where no strenuous opposition is expected. Otherwise you do not go for a Provisional Order, but come straight to Parliament. In many cases an option exists at present. In the Index to Statutes, 1896, for instance, you will see that there are 19 classes of local and private Acts, besides the class of Provisional Orders Confirmation Acts. Provisional Orders are granted under an enormous number of heads. There are 22 heads under which Provisional Orders are granted; they are under 10 different Departments; and out of the 19 classes of private Acts you can proceed alternately in 11 classes, either by Provisional Order or by private Bill. The promoters are guided by considerations of economy and convenience, and their hands are the safest in which to leave that choice. In this Debate we heard a great deal about the poor opponent, and the danger that the poor opponent might be crushed; but the real protection for a poor opponent is not anything in a private Act, but it is the Land Clauses Act. He is almost never opposed 138 to the preamble of the Bill. He wants to get the best terms for himself, and those terms he gets from the Land Clauses Act more than from clauses in the private Bill. The real fight upon the preamble is almost invariably between rival corporations or between men with large interests. A great deal might be done for the poor opponent in the way of reducing fees, enabling clauses to be discussed in the first House, and otherwise making it more easy to oppose a clause. There is more danger to the poor opponent in making the promotion of schemes unduly easy by eating away the provisions of the Land Clauses Acts. Accordingly the principle that has been hitherto accepted has been the principle of granting the option to suitors to take whichever course they like. That course was approved by the railway companies, and it was approved by the Corporation of Glasgow. The Report of the Corporation of Glasgow should be considered, not merely as the Lord Advocate was inclined to treat it, as being the utterance of one very able gentleman, as in the case of Dundee, but as the utterance of the Parliamentary Commit tee of the Town Council, who have had a Report before them, and have endorsed it. The Glasgow proposal was this—While the Parliamentary Bills Committee offer the above suggestions with an earnest desire so to improve the Bill as to make it a really valuable Measure, and so to further the object which the Government are desirous to serve, they are strongly of opinion that, even when so amended, it would not be wise to make it compulsory in the first instance. An effort should therefore be made to have the Bill amended, and to provide that if should be in the option of promoters to proceed under the existing private Bill system whenever they consider, for example, that such a coarse would facilitate the obtaining in one Measure of powers to effect a variety of public objects, or when it would secure dispatch. A scheme such as is now proposed, if amended as suggested, would in a large number of cases enable beneficial measures to be obtained at reduced expense. The experience so gained would also be available with a view to perfecting a more extended scheme.Now, Sir, this point of option is one to which I attach very great importance. I think that private Bills, whether opposed or unopposed, should at some stage of their proceeding's come before Parliament. I agree with, the right hon. Member for South Aberdeen that private 139 objectors to a Bill can, in general, take care of themselves, but that where no private interest is concerned, it might happen that public interests might suffer. Various instances were given by the right hon. Gentleman when he spoke. Granted that there are few cases in which it will be the duty of the House to interfere, you will very seldom interfere, but ought to reserve the right. I do not think that the charge of this ought to be given to a Department. Take the case of procuring adequate dwellings for working men. No Department, out of its own head, could have started the question. It was started in this House. After a standard was laid down, and a rule of thumb adopted, the Department was perfectly capable of imposing that rule of thumb. I do not think it would be the duty of the Department to start, out of its own head, that such precautions were necessary, and to enforce such precautions upon any corporation or any body that was destroying a large number of workmen's houses. Sometimes such rights have no technical locus, and therefore cannot be listened to in the Committee Room, or in inquiries elsewhere. We are guided, and rightly guided, in our Committees by locus standi. Therefore, in all cases, Bills ought to come here at some of their stages. There is another point in regard to unopposed Bills, and that is with reference to the various Departments. The Lord Advocate the other day laughed at the idea of the Scotch Office flouting the Treasury. I think there is more difficulty in the matter than he realises. I have experienced it in this way. I sit on a good many Committees on unopposed Bills, and there you always have a Report from the various Departments—from the Board of Trade, from the Local Government Board, and other Departments—and these Reports make a large number of recommendations. Many of the recommendations are accepted by the promoters; other recommendations they decline to accept, and they give reasons why those recommendations ought not to be enforced; and we, as a Committee of the House of Commons, exercise our discretion as to whether we will enforce those recommendations, or whether we will not. We are subject only to an appeal to the House, and our decisions 140 are accepted as a matter of course by the Department. But it would not be accepted at all in the same spirit if one Department were being overridden by another. On the other hand it would not be satisfactory if the Secretary for Scotland was to consider that he was bound to adopt every suggestion made by one of the Departments. Let me turn, to the provisions of the Bill. There is too much of the Scottish Office and too much of the Chairmen, too much private discretion and not enough judicial discretion in the matter. I do not want to go through the Scottish Office point; that has been discussed very fully. In the first place, there is the composition of the panel, then the choosing of the Commission, the dealing with reports of the Department, and the dealing with unopposed Bills. Those are far too great powers to give to any Department. They ought to remain in our own hands, or the hands of people responsible to us. In regard to the Chairmen, I do-not feel satisfied in regard to their action. The position is this: The petitioner is bound to proceed by petition for a Provisional Order, but he may make representations to have a private Bill, and it, is for the Chairmen to decide whether it is suitable for a Provisional Order, or whether it is to go as a private Bill. I should like to know what the view of the Government is. Are the petitioners to be heard when they wish to proceed by private Bill? and if the petitioners are heard, are the opponents to be heard also? Again, supposing there is no representation, can anyone else—can any opponent petition that the proceedings shall be conducted by private Bill and not by Provisional Order? and if he can petition, will he be heard? The question whether any particular scheme is specially suitable for a private Bill or a Provisional Order is not one that can be determined by simply looking at the Bill and the petitions. It requires some further information. I do not see how you can convey that information to the Chairmen, except by their hearing the two sides. I have the honour to sit on the Board of Referees, and it is our business to decide questions of locus standi—to decide whether any 141 petitioner has a right to be heard. The Referees hear a single counsel on each side. They scarcely ever ask for evidence, though they are entitled to do so if they please. Their decisions are, I believe, usually approved, and lead to considerable saving of expense. The question whether a matter is suitable to be inquired into here or at a local inquiry is of a very similar nature, and could be satisfactorily dealt with in a similar manner. Now, Sir, I think that without assistance of that kind it will be hard work for Chairmen to decide on all the schemes, and it will be very invidious work, because the cases they will have to determine will ex hypothesi be very contentious cases. It is true that they are at present able to dispose of a great many non-contentious points in private, but I think the lighting points ought to be decided in public, after giving both sides the opportunity of saying anything that can be said. That can be done in two ways—either by an outside tribunal, which would be perfectly capable of deciding whether it should keep a question under its own jurisdiction, or whether it should remit, it for the decision of Parliament: or it might be done by a Joint Committee on the lines of the Court of Referees. I say that the more confidently because it was the scheme of one of the previous Bills. It was the scheme of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury in the Bill for Scotland and Ireland that he introduced in 1892. That Bill proposed to establish a Standing Joint Committee composed of the two Chairmen, two Members of the other House, and two Members of this House. A Joint Committee of that kind, working under the same kind of rules as these of the Court of Referees in dealing with questions of locus standi, would be a very satisfactory Committee, which would give a speedy determination of questions submitted to it, and at small expense. I am glad to notice, in the course of this Debate, that all speakers have agreed in approving the proposal of a Joint Committee. Certainly 142 it would be absurd to have two inquiries by Parliament after the preliminary inquiry, and I believe a Standing Joint Committee would in every case dispense with that. I will not detain the House by going into minor matters, but generally, Sir, my objections to the Bill are these. The scheme is too provincial; it looks to Scotland alone. I think it ought to be made to fit into the three kingdoms. Then it is too compulsory; I think you might to give more option to the parties. And further, it removes Bills too much from Parliament. I think it should be a condition of any scheme of this kind that all Bills should, at some stage or other, pass under the direct cognisance of this House. It any man comes to Parliament asking for special privileges, the very least he can do is to submit his scheme to the judgment of the House. Now, Sir, the problem of private Bill legislation is a very difficult one, but it is not insoluble. We certainly need great changes in our present system, and, as far as I know, almost every speaker has agreed in that. But in regard to this Bill the Government has declared that it intends that it shall be discussed on the floor of this House. I think the changes required in the Bill are too great to be made on the floor of this House. I believe that to attempt to introduce them would lead to the destruction of the Bill; and I hope the Government, after hearing the opinions that have been expressed in all quarters, will be prepared to adopt the suggestion which was made first by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Courtney) of appointing a Select Committee. That Committee could, if necessary, take evidence—I do not think much evidence will be wanted after all that was taken in 1888; at any rate, the inquiry need not be a long one; but the Committee could discuss and change the scheme far more freely than could be done on the floor of the House, and I should hope that, as the result of that, the Government will be able to bring in a scheme which will be much better than this, and will meet with a more favourable reception from the House.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR,) Manchester, E.
I do not pretend to conceal from the House that the reception given to our proposals is one which has greatly disappointed us—at all events, it has greatly disappointed me. The object which the Bill has in view is one which has occupied, or, at all events, occupied at one time a great deal of my attention. I was myself responsible for one solution, as I thought it, of the question, and I have had occasion, from time to time since then, to consider Scotch opinion on the subject, and to consider also the objections that were brought against particular methods of solving the difficulty. I think no one can have listened to this Debate without feeling that while almost all Scotchmen are agreed, or profess to be agreed, that some change in our existing system is necessary, they cannot bring themselves to agree as to any solution by which that desirable end is to be accomplished. Of course, unless some such agreement is arrived at, that end which I believe all Scotland, speaking broadly, is desirous of seeing accomplished really cannot be accomplished by this House. I heard almost every conceivable scheme, discussed by gentlemen sitting on both sides of the House with a happy independence, advanced as the one which they would support if they had the chance. Some gentlemen are in favour of a permanent tribunal, some are in favour of a fluctuating tribunal; others are in favour of dealing with these subjects through the instrumentality of Members of Parliament travelling about the country, and dealing in localities with the various problems in which the localities are interested; others, again, regard that—and I admit, practically, that I regard it—as a most chimerical and impossible scheme, and are prepared to support the Government so far in suggesting that, at all events, it would be absurd to restrict your choice of a tribunal to the gentlemen who compose this House. Again, there are those who desire to see the tribunal which deals on the spot with the questions in dispute nominated by an official; others would desire them to be 144 selected by an electorial body; other gentlemen would wish that any scheme which this House adopted for devolution in the matter of private Bill legislation should be of a character applicable, not to Scotland alone, but to England, Wales, and, presumably, to Ireland—applicable, I do not mean on general principles merely, but in its terms. The Government—following, I believe, in this respect the general trend of Scotch opinion—holds the view that for Scotland, at all events, it would be better to have a panel in which Scotchmen should have a preponderating influence. There was one gentleman who holds that this Bill should be open to municipalities, but should not apply to individuals. This is, I believe, the view of the hon. Member for Fife, who is not in his place now, but who seconded the Amendment to this Bill. We, on the other hand, hold that if this Bill has any merits at all, as we think it has, those merits are as much concerned with giving the right of appearance to private individuals as they are to wealthy corporations, whether municipal or otherwise. Again, there are gentlemen who hold that this Bill should be optional; there are others who hold that it should be compulsory; or, to put the same view in different language, there are gentlemen in this House who hold that the wealthy corporations should have the power of determining whether the Bill should come before a costly tribunal or whether it should be left to a cheap tribunal. This is a variety of opinion with which I admit it is very difficult for us to deal. Let the House remember that it is the practice of Scottish Members, especially of Scottish Members on the other side of the House, to say that Scotch opinion in relation to Scotch matters is overridden by the general opinion of the Imperial Parliament, and especially by English opinion. Here is an example in which what no Scottish Member will deny to be the general view of the Scottish public is overridden, not by English Members, but by Scotsmen. The general public of Scotland is, without question, desirous of seeing some Measure adopted by which private Bill legislation shall be rendered more local and cheaper. All 145 Scottish. Members are prepared to vote for that abstract Resolution, but they are doing their best to defeat it when any particular plan which is brought before them is opposed by a majority—I will not say of Scottish Members, but of these who claim to speak on their behalf. I do not in the least wish to minimise the reception given to this Measure, in which the Government believed, by Scottish Members of this House. Amongst these who have addressed the House on this subject we have had but one cordial supporter—no, we have had two cordial supporters, the hon. Member for Peebles and Selkirk and the late Lord Advocate; they have been, so far as I know, the only two Scottish Members who have spoken cordially in favour of this Bill. I do not deny it, I do not attempt to minimise it; but I say that so long as the temper of Scottish Members remains as it is, and so long as their diversity of opinion remains as it is, there is no Bill that can be brought forward by any Government which would not have the same reception in this House. [Mr. CALDWELL: The reception is from your own side too.] I am not drawing a distinction between one side or the other: I say Scottish Members. I make no Patty attack. But on a subject so difficult as this, in which so many conceivable alternatives can be presented and arguments of undoubted force can be brought forward in favour of any particular alternative, I say unless Scottish Members can come to same kind of agreement it is impossible that the wish of the Scottish people as a whole can be carried into effect. This is not a Party objection; it is wholly irrespective of Party, and it is directed to the solution of a question, the full complexity of which I, who have endeavoured to solve it myself, am quite willing to recognise. Now, I challenge any Scottish. Member, to whatever side he belongs, in say Scottish opinion is inclined to any particular solution of this question. Every gentleman is prepared to end his speech with a 146 peroration to the effect that Scotsmen are desirous of seeing private Bill legislation modified in the direction aimed at by this Bill. They are all ready to make eloquent remarks upon that subject, but I say that if the Scottish Members, irrespective of party, had shown any inclination to one solution rather than to another of this vexed and difficult question, to that solution the Government would have been prepared to incline a ready ear. But no such trend of opinion has made itself manifest; no solution, backed by a solid phalanx of opinion, has been proposed. All that the Scottish Members are prepared to do is to get up and say, "We wish this question to be settled; we do not agree amongst ourselves as to how it should be settled; all we agree upon is that the particular solution the Government proposes is open to many objections, and we should be sorry to see it adopted." I think the House will agree that I have not misrepresented or exaggerated the attitude the Scottish Members have taken up on this subject. They, and they alone, are responsible; not Englishmen, nor Irishmen, nor Welshmen, but Scotsmen alone are responsible if this Bill, or a Bill carrying out its objects, is not carried into law in the course of the present Session. I have to admit—I was going to say as an old Parliamentary hand, but I have no claim to that title—as a person of some experience of Parliamentary ways I admit, that when a Bill, intended to meet the views of the Scottish constituencies, is dealt with by representatives of the Scottish constituencies as this Bill has been, dealt with, it is impossible that we should proceed with it in a Committee of the whole House until some preliminary measures have been employed in order to enable my countrymen to arrive at some common agreement. Therefore, if the House will consent, as I hope it will, to the Second Reading of this Bill, embodying a principle upon which I understand, whatever our diversities of opinion, we are all agreed, then I for my part, on behalf of the Government, am prepared to consider the propriety of referring it to a Select Committee. I am 147 afraid—and I wish to be perfectly candid with the House, with the public, and, above all, with the Scottish public—that the conclusion to which we have been driven by the Scotch representatives on both sides of the House may end in preventing the Bill becoming law in the course of the present Session. That is not absolutely necessary; but, as the House knows, the period succeeding the Easter holidays will be largely occupied with the principal Measure of the Session—the Irish Local Government Bill. I think it is possible, I venture to hope that it is even probable, that sufficient time will be given for the threshing out of this Measure by a Select Committee before the opportunity arises for the Bill to be considered by a Committee of the whole House. I hope that is so for many reasons; but, whether it is or is not so, I, on the part of the Government, disclaim all responsibility for driving the Bill through in the course of the present Session. I repeat that the action of Scottish Members, and the action of Scottish Members alone, renders it necessary to take the course I am now indicating; but, in face of a necessity which I deplore, but which I admit, I am prepared, on behalf of the Government, to allow this Measure to go to a Committee, either a Committee of this House, or a Joint Committee of the two Houses. Whether it should be discussed and thrashed out by a Committee of this House, or whether, the subject being one eminently pertaining to the business of both Houses, it should be dealt with by a Joint Committee, I do not yet say. That is a matter which the Government will take into consideration. But I am prepared at the present time to say that, if the House will read the Bill a second time, I shall be prepared to refer it to a Committee, and have it thrashed out before that Committee, leaving the House to determine its subsequent chances of success.
§ MR. J. MORLEY (Montrose Burghs)
Some years ago I was a Member of a Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons which had to deal with the subject dealt with in the Bill 148 now before the House. At that time I formed certain opinions with which, I am bound to say, I do not think the present Bill is in harmony. But that is not my only reason for rising to say a word. The right hon. Gentleman admits that the hostility with which this Bill has been met has not been a Party hostility. He candidly admits that from both sides the Scottish Members, with two exceptions, criticised very sharply the Second Reading of this Bill, but the right hon. Gentleman forgets that some of the most powerful criticisms directed against the Bill did not come from Scotch Members at all. For example, I may remind him of the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bodmin and the experienced Chairman of Committees, the Member for Sowerby. Then there were the speeches of the Members who sit behind him, the hon. and learned Member for Stroud and the hon. Member for Norwich. These are all English Members, speaking, most of them, from a very large experience of the subject with which this Bill deals, and they were even more hostile to this particular method of solution than any Scotch Member who addressed the House. Therefore, we have two propositions which may safely be advanced. The first is that there has been no Party attack on the Bill, and the second is that English Members have been even more hostile to the solution proposed in the Bill than Scotch Members have been. But for my part I have been prepared from the first to vote for the Second Reading of this Bill, because, imperfect and defective as it must be held to be, and as I think it to be from my own knowledge, whatever that may amount to, of the subject, in spite of the skilful defence of the hon. Member for Clackmannan, I still feel that there are defects of the very gravest kind attaching to the procedure of the Bill as it now stands. I listened to, and admired, the skill with which the Lord Advocate dealt with the most hostile attack made upon it. I am not such an old Parliamentary hand as the First Lord of the Treasury, but I have never heard a Bill exposed to 149 so damaging an attack as this Bill was when the Second Reading was moved the other night. But, though I admired the skill and courage with which the Lord Advocate dealt with that attack, I still feel that, though we must agree with much that has been said about the Bill, we must welcome all attempts at devolution, especially dealing with private business. Now, the First Lord of the Treasury has announced the willingness of the Government to refer this Bill, criticised as it has been, with the holes that have been made in it by that criticism, to a Select Committee. I do not know whether I am speaking for my brother Scottish representatives, but I am bound to say that that is a proposal which I think we should incur a very grave responsibility if we rejected. Therefore, for my part, I for one shall certainly vote for the Second Reading, on the understanding that the Bill is referred to a Select Committee. I repeat that the criticism to which the Bill has been exposed has not been a Party criticism, but a genuine criticism from the Scottish point of view, and that some of the most experienced Members of the House have pointed out defects in the Measure.
§ MR. J. CALDWELL (Lanark, Mid.)
The peculiar position in which the House finds itself is owing, not to any fault of the Scottish Members; it is owing entirely to the nature of the Bill which the Government has introduced to the House. It is all very well for the Government to say that they did not expect opposition to the Bill. I would like to ask the Government, did they take the slightest precaution, before they brought forward a Bill of this kind, to ascertain the feeling in Scotland, or to ascertain from their own supporters even that a Bill of this kind would give satisfaction? If the Government do as they invariably do in the case of Scotch legislation—if they take no notice of Scottish opinion, and take no pains to consult Scottish opinion on the subject, what else can they expect than that their Bill 150 should be criticised on both sides? It is the fault of the Bill, not of the Scotch Members. Now, it is proposed that this Bill, with all its defects, is to go to a Select Committee. I venture to ask this House upon what principle a Bill of this kind, criticised as it has been, should be sent to a Select Committee? What will be the effect of that? If the Bill goes to a Select Committee, you will have a repetition exactly of what has occurred on the Second Reading. Members of the Committee will differ just as much as Members of the House have differed in the course of this Debate. I cannot see that any possible good can result from sending the Bill to a Select Committee. Of course, after the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, it is hardly worth our while to go further into the Bill; but I would say that, so far as the Bill goes, there are certain points in it that I greatly admire. In 1891, following upon the Report of the Committee of 1888, the then Lord Advocate brought a Bill into this House, and what was the nature of that Bill? It substituted one local inquiry for the joint inquiry of the two Houses. There was only to be one inquiry, and that was to be a local inquiry, and in every other respect the Bill was to pass through the two Houses on the strength of that local inquiry. There is nothing unusual in the idea of local inquiries. We have had them already under the Provisional Order system. One advantage of the Bill of 1891 was in regard to cheapness; it provided for only one local investigation, whereas this Bill provides for two—one in Scotland—and then, if the Bill is opposed, there is to be an inquiry before a Committee of this House. The Bill of 1891 proceeded on Unionist lines—the supremacy of this Parliament as regards legislation for the whole of the United Kingdom. That was the foundation of the Bill of 1891. But this Bill proceeds upon purely Home Rule lines, and, of course, we on this side welcome a Bill upon those lines. It proceeds on the 151 assumption that this Parliament is overwhelmed with business, and that there ought to be devolution, and devolution on national lines. What more, it may be asked, could we on this side of the House desire than that? Well, our great objection to the Bill is that you may have private Bill legislation applicable to Scotland which may never come before the Imperial Parliament at all. The finding of this Committee is to have the full force of an Act of Parliament; it does not even require the Queen's assent. The Bill will take away the control of private Bill legislation from Committees of this House and the other House, and give it to a Commission which can in no sense claim to be representative of the people of Scotland. So far as the Bill makes for Scottish Home Rule, of course we on this side welcome it. Our only objection is that you do not go one step further. Probably, if we have a Bill introduced next year dealing with private Bill legislation, you will find it will go to the full extent, and then Scottish private Bill legislation will be determined in Scotland locally, by Scottish opinion, and it will not be necessary to come to this House at all. If you once admit that principle with regard to private Bill legislation, depend upon it it will not be a great while before you apply the same principle to Imperial legislation.
§ SIR EDWARD CLARKE (Plymouth)
I suppose it is certain that this Bill will now be read a second time, whatever may be its subsequent fortunes. But I cannot help thinking that we have a rather curious Parliamentary position. A Bill is usually sent to a Select Committee because it has been approved by the body of the House, and only amendments of detail have to be dealt with; but, so far as one can gather from the trend of the Debate, and even from the very candid speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, this Bill is to go to a Select Committee, because everybody agrees that it is a bad Bill, and because there has been 152 no indication in the course of the Debate of the way in which the House generally desires the Bill to be framed. I think my right hon. Friend the Lord Advocate is deserving of our sympathy, because, while year after year the cry has been raised, especially by Scottish Members, that they must have some scheme of devolution, some local treatment of their private Bills, the moment this Bill is introduced no sort of sympathy is extended to his desire to meet that national wish, but hon. Members on both sides of the House, one and all, fall upon the details of this unfortunate Bill. I am bound to say that I do not think this Bill will, at any future stage, come under the consideration of the House, and that being the case, I should like to say a word upon one or two of the larger aspects of this question. I should have very willingly supported the Second Reading of this Bill, or, indeed, of any Bill embodying the principle of devolution, provided the Bill were capable of being moulded into proper shape either in Committee of this House or by a Select Committee. I should have supported it because it is painful to see how incompetent this House appears to be for carrying out any practical reform at all. If a practical reform is proposed that is very large, its very magnitude is a drawback. If a practiced reform is proposed, dealing with only a part of the subject, then the objection is raised that this is piecemeal legislation. Now, if there be a question with regard to which piecemeal legislation, separate legislation for the different nations, would be injurious, it is, I think, this question. Suppose we passed this Bill now, dealing only with Scotch private Bills. This mischief, which we are all at one in lamenting, the extravagance, the uncertainty, the inefficiency of the private Bill work of this House, would be remedied so far as Scotland is concerned. But what would be the result suppose the Measure were not successful? The failure of the Bill would have thrown a great obstacle in the way of any legislation for England or Ireland, and the reform is wanted even more for Ireland than for 153 Scotland, for Irish schemes generally need some assistance from English capital, and England itself is almost equally interested. If the plan succeeded in Scotland we should have lost the assistance of Scottish Members in any energetic efforts to get the same advantage for England or Ireland. Therefore, I should like to see this question dealt with upon principles common to all three countries. There should be devolution, not to a shifting tribunal elected For the purpose, but to something in the nature of a judicial tribunal which should be permanent and fixed, above the risk of corruption, and above the imputation of being chosen for the purpose by an official of the Crown, a tribunal which should give satisfaction to the people of the three countries. I confess that, after what has happened to-night, we shall probably have to wait some time for any new scheme applying either to one country or to the three countries. But there are certain things which can be done by the House without any legislation at all. For instance, the excessive fees that have been maintained by the House in respect of private business might be reduced, although the House fees are the smallest of the pecuniary burdens that fall on the promoters of private Bills. Then there is another change which might be made. I think nearly all the gentlemen who have taken part in this Debate have expressed themselves in favour of the substitution of a Joint Committee of both Houses for the two Committees which now sit. No one can have watched the course of a Bill before the two tribunals to which it is now referred without seeing that that procedure involves the most extravagant waste of time, hearing over and over again the same thing, even to the repetition of the technical evidence, the mere delays of which throw an enormous burden upon those who come for private Bill legislation to this House. But there is another suggestion I should like to make to the House. Why not apply to private Bill legislation that proposal which I have more than once urged, and which I shall continue to urge on 154 the House and on the country, and that is the abolition of the stupid and mischievous rule that we cannot take up in one Session the work which we have partly done in the preceding Session? Of course, in regard to public business, there may be objections to this course, the force of which I can appreciate, though I may not think them overwhelming, but I can conceive none that would apply to private Bill legislation. The effect of our present rules is to cram the discussion of private Bills into some four months in the year, and when time is pressing, when it is getting late into the summer months, and many Bills are before the Committees, promoters have to submit, in clause after clause, to the burden of making payments in satisfaction of clause interests, not from any recognition of real public justice, but because, unless the opponents can be "squared" in time, all the expense and trouble will be thrown away, and the whole thing have to be gone through over again in the next Session. All these things fall on the public. There is no burden which is borne by a company or a corporation which does not, in the long run, have to be discharged by the public, and I confess that I think if these three things were done, if expenses were reduced, if a single Joint Committee were substituted for the two Committees, and if we allowed Bills to be dealt with in one Session and then resumed at the stage at which they were broken off at the beginning of the next Session, before new Bills had engaged the attention of the House, we should have done a great deal in the interval which, I am afraid, must elapse before we have a large Measure dealing with the whole question to remedy the evils which are so justly lamented in the present system. After the reception which this Bill of the Government has met with it is hardly likely that the experience of this Session will encourage further attempts in the same direction; but I do hope that the Government will consider whether, without the cumbrous machinery of an Act of Parliament at all, some amendments 155 cannot be made that will remove, at least, some of the objections made against the present system.
§ MR. J. COLVILLE (Lanark, N.E.)
We have listened to some severe strictures passed by the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury upon "his countrymen," but I may remind him that some sturdy supporters of his, sitting for English constituencies, were also among the critics of the Bill. The one public body in Scotland which supported the Bill—namely, the Convention of Burghs—pointed out several matters in which it was defective, and themselves proposed no less than seven definite amendments. I have referred—as I have no doubt other Scotch Members have done—to a memorial from the premier County Council of Scotland, the Council of Lanarkshire. They very unanimously denounce the present Measure. While they, of course, hold strong views, as do all hon. Members who have spoken, as to the desirability of local inquiry, and as to the vital necessity of reducing the cost of private Bill procedure, they find at least six distinct and serious defects in this Bill. In the first place, the cumbrous and complicated machinery it sets up, instead of reducing expense, will in all probability lead to increased expense. It will be necessary to appear before the Chairman of Committees by counsel, and to follow that up by evidence before the local inquiry in Scotland. The Lanarkshire County Council also take special exception to the panel, pointing out that the method of election of the panel is cumbrous, and gives no certainty as to the class who are to be elected, or that it will be a desirable panel. They further point out that the powers to be given to the local Committees will be in serious derogation of the powers now enjoyed by the Secretary for Scotland. The two hon. Gentlemen who supported the Bill from the other side of the House could not say that any strong feeling existed in Scotland, in favour of the Measure. If there 156 be a considerable feeling in its favour in Scotland, it is remarkable that we should have had no memorials from public bodies in support of the Bill. The only one that has been produced is a Resolution from the Edinburgh Town Council. For my own part. I could hardly wish for any better weapon to use with my own constituency than that of hostility to this Bill, which aims at withdrawing from Parliament its legitimate powers and conferring them upon an irresponsible panel, giving the Secretary of State powers which belong rightly to the High Court of Parliament, and establishing tribunals which do not claim to be popularly elected. For these reasons I feel bound to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, and I will have no hesitation in answering for that opposition to my constituents.
§ MR. T. C. H. HEDDERWICK
The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House has expressed great surprise that so many Scottish representatives have been found to oppose this Bill, and he gave as a reason for that surprise what he called the "universal feeling" in Scotland in favour of a Bill to confer on Scotland the management of its own private Bill legislation. I confess that I do not think the right hon. Gentleman drew a correct inference from his facts. I do not deny that there is a great desire in that direction, although I do not think it can be described as "universal." I think it will be found on inquiry that there is a considerable section in favour of the present system. It seems to me that the true inference to be drawn is that the present Bill in no sense satisfies the desires of the people of Scotland, and I think the reason is not far to seek. In my opinion, it is to be found in Clause 4, which sets up the panel which is to take the place of the present Committees of the two Houses. Now, if there is one thing about which there is no doubt whatever, it is this, that, whatever may be the change which is required, the Scottish people have absolute confidence in the 157 fairness of the present tribunal; and, therefore, unless the Government are prepared to offer to the people of Scotland a tribunal which shall equally command confidence in its impartiality, they will be very slow to accept any Measure, from whatever quarter it comes. What is the tribunal proposed by the Government? You are to have two men nominated by the conveners of the counties of Scotland, and two men nominated by the provosts of burghs containing more than 15,000 inhabitants. These four men, and the Secretary for Scotland, are to put their heads together and appoint a panel of 20, and reserve panel of 10; and when all that is done, if the Secretary for Scotland sees fit to direct a local inquiry, he is to nominate two men from this panel, and the Lord President is to appoint a Chairman in the person if a sheriff. I think a more preposterous scheme never entered the mind of man. I confess I am at a loss to understand who concocted this scheme. I do not for a moment suppose that it can be the emanation of the unassisted mind of the Lord Advocate. Looking at its strange and carious ingredients, I am tempted to fancy that the Lord Advocate must have encountered the weird sisters on some blasted heath in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, and invoked their aid in the compounding of this strange and remarkable hotchpotch. Are my unfortunate follow-countrymen to be forced to swallow this unsavoury mess. I trust not; but if they should be, it scarcely requires the gift of prophecy to predict that the compulsion will be regarded as an out-range upon throats accustomed to fare of a very different and superior quality. Sir, I do not intend to go further into the provisions of this Bill, because the Debate is dead. I will only add that we appear to have now reached this extraordinary position that the Bill is to be referred to a Select Committee, on the ground that only two Members of this House had a good word to say for it. If it is to go to a Select Committee—and I suppose we shall all vote for that now—I hope that the Lord Advocate will see his way, at any rate, to substitute for the provisions of Clause 4 something in the nature of a tribunal, which will command the confidence of the people of Scotland.
§ MR. ALEXANDER CROSS (Glasgow, Camlachie)
I would throw the responsibility for the disappointment of what I believe to be the sincere wish of the people of Scotland on the gentlemen on my own side who have addressed hostile criticisms to this Bill, from the point of view, largely, of the large interests opposed to it, and also quite as much on those gentlemen on the other side who have joined in the hue and cry, nothing unwilling to have a hand in doing what they believe to be a mischief to the present Administration. In my view the Government have made a bold attempt to deal with a very important and difficult question. I hope that in spite of the opposition which has been manifested to it in the course of this Debate, the Government will have no idea of dropping the Bill, but that they will do their best to expedite the proceedings of the Select Committee, so that we may not have heard the last of it in this House when we have given it a Second Reading.
§ Amendment by leave withdrawn.
§ MR. CALDWELL
On the question that the Bill be committed, I understood the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord to say that it was to be referred to a Select Committee. I should like to ask why that course is not to be adopted. When a Minister in the responsible position of the First Lord of the Treasury says that if a Bill is read a second time it shall go to a Select Committee, it is rather extraordinary that it should be committed in the ordinary way.
§ MR. GRAHAM MURRAY
My right hon. Friend said that the Bill should be sent either to a Select Committee of this House or to a Joint Select Committee of the two Houses. Until it is determined which course is to be adopted, the only thing to do is to commit the Bill formally.
§ Bill committed.