§ THE EARL OF WEMYSS
My Lords, I rise to present petitions against clauses in Private Bills respecting municipal trading. I gave notice yesterday that I should call attention to the petitions which I have to present, in order to show the House the strong feeling which exists upon the subject to which these petitions relate. Since then, however, what has happened in another place really justifies these petitions, and renders unnecessary any remarks on the subject. Still, my Lords, it is one so important that I ask your Lordships' permission to point out the serious questions involved in these petitions. This large roll of petitions, my Lords, numbers 144, and they come from Chambers of Commerce, Gas, Water, Tram, and Electric Lighting Companies, employers of labour, property owners, ratepayers' associations, and corporate bodies of traders throughout the country. Besides these, my Lords, there has been a most important petition presented to both Houses of Parliament by the Society of Arts, which, as your Lordships know, is not a political body. This question of municipal trading came before that society, and the Attorney-General was in the chair on one occasion when a most able paper was read by Mr. Davidson, showing the dangers likely to arise to ratepayers and the public from municipal trading. The Debate was adjourned, and two nights' discussion afterwards ensued, the result being a petition from the Society to both Houses of Parliament on the subject. This petition puts so clearly the position which I think is rightly taken up on this subject that I will venture to read a few words from it. The petitioners say that municipal trading would result, firstly, in risk to ratepayers; secondly, in injury to traders; thirdly, in checking private enterprise; and, fourthly, in arresting national progress. Your Lordships will, I am sure, recognise that it must be a risk to ratepayers for municipalities to enter upon trading and manufacturing concerns. By way of illustration, take the question of electricity. An electric patent, for example, may be purchased by a municipality, and a large amount of money spent on bringing it into use for the 1180 benefit of ratepayers. Shortly afterwards, however, it may be found that another invention is better and of more public utility, and the result would be that the money expended by the municipality on the prior invention would be rendered useless. Thus the great evil of municipal and State trading would be the checking of private enterprise and the progress of invention, being, at the same time, a hindrance to national progress. Therefore, my Lords, I rejoice to find that this subject appears to interest Her Majesty's Government. The petitioners propose that all these Bills—there are 70 of them—containing a manufacturing and selling clause should have their powers suspended until there has been a full inquiry into the whole question of municipal trading. My noble Friend the Chairman of Committees in your Lordships' House, as soon as he saw this clause in these Bills, not only suspended the clause, but struck it out altogether, thus acting wisely, as I believe, in the public interest. I understand that Mr. Lowther, in another place, has followed the same course. Therefore, there is no danger from these Bills this year, but still the principle remains, and what the petitioners ask is that there should be a full inquiry into this subject, either by a Commission—Royal or otherwise—or by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. Mr. Balfour, in the other House, has announced that the Government intend immediately to refer this matter to a Joint Committee of both Houses, and I am sure the petitioners will greatly rejoice at this action. A very wise French statesman once said that in all these questions the State should limit itself in its interference with trade and commerce and private enterprise, so that it in no way checked private enterprise or limited personal responsibility. I think that is a good rule, and I hope the result of this inquiry will be the laying down of this rule in order that a stop may be put to the ambition of municipal traders.
§ Petitions presented.
§ House adjourned at half-past Five of the clock, to Monday next a quarter before Eleven of the clock.