HL Deb 23 May 1905 vol 146 cc1075-87


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(Earl Carrington.)

On Question, agreed to.

Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed: the Committee to be proposed by the Committee of Selection.


My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name, viz, "That it be an instruction to the Committee to which the Bill may be referred that they shall strike out Clause 20." The Bill which has just been read a second time contains a number of provisions which, no doubt, may very properly be considered hereafter in the usual manner by a Committee of the House. There is, however, one clause which, if allowed to pass into law, would, as it seems to us, work grave injustice and form a dangerous precedent. Clause 20 proposes to abolish certain rights at present possessed by docks and railway companies in the Borough of Woolwich and almost everywhere in the Kingdom. The general district rate is one imposed by local authorities for services rendered in respect of lighting, sewers, streets, recreation grounds, etc., and in virtue of a series of Public Health Acts beginning in 1848 and culminating in the Public Health Act, 1875. In these Acts a special allowance of 75 per cent, has always bean allocated to railway companies and owners of land covered by water outside the Metropolitan area. No doubt the reason for this special allowance was to alleviate in some degree the hardship to railway and dock companies of the established system of the rating of their property. These companies contribute on a very onerous basis towards local expenditure, receiving in return but little benefit. As an instance I may mention the fact that they provide their own police, repair their own roads, maintain their own system of sewage, light their own property, require no baths or free libraries, and last, but not least, they have no votes. That the exemption or allowance is justified therefore in theory, no one will, I think, be bold enough to dispute.

I do not, however, base my objection to the clause on this ground—strong as it is—but because the provisions of a Public Act ought not to be nullified by a Private Bill. For some reason, into which I need not now enter, this provision, though extending to all the rest of the country, was not applied to the Metropolis. Until 1899 Woolwich did not form part of the Metropolis. In 1899, however, His Majesty's Government introduced a Bill which brought Woolwich and some other districts within the Metropolitan area. In doing so, however, the Prime Minister pledged himself that all the then existing rights would be upheld. This promise, I need not say, he scrupulously fulfilled. The exemptions were carefully considered by the House of Commons in Committee of the Whole House on the 15th of May, 1899. There was a lengthy debate on an Amendment which had for its object the abolition of these very exemptions. The Prime Minister and the Solicitor-General both strongly resisted the Amendment, and the Prime Minister said that he could not imagine that privileges conferred by Act of Parliament should be taken away by a stroke of the pen and without compensation. The House of Commons, by 207 to 114, adopted the Prime Minister's view and agreed to Section 10, by which it is expressly provided that— Any scheme under this Act … shall make provision for protecting the interests of owners and occupiers of any hereditament which is exempt from any rate or liable to be assessed thereto at a less amount than other hereditaments. Scarcely, however, had the Act become law when the Borough of Woolwich endeavoured to evade the law and defeat the express undertaking of the Prime Minister. The question was fought out in the Law Courts, and the Lord Chief Justice decided against the local authorities. He said— We are all clearly of opinion that this contention cannot be maintained. … We think that it was clearly intended that though Woolwich and other outlying places were to come within the Metropolis generally, yet that exemption should continue. That the Bill does propose to repeal provisions contained in a Public Act indeed is very fairly admitted by the promoters of the Bill. Clause 20 proposes to change the incidence of the rate— Notwithstanding the regulations and conditions contained in the London Government Act. Avowedly, therefore, the local authorities come before us and ask that the rights given by the Public Health Acts, which the Prime Minister promised should be maintained by the London Government Act of 1899, which were maintained by that Act, and which the Lord Chief Justice says were clearly intended to be, and as a matter of fact were, protected by that Act, should be swept away by a Private Bill.

My Lords, I think it would be easy to show that there were good grounds for the rights conferred on the companies. Moreover, large sums have been invested on the faith of these rights, and surely the shareholders are entitled to claim the support of His Majesty's Government and to call on them to carry out the pledge given by the Prime Minister. It cannot reasonably be contended that the railway or dock companies have gained any benefit whatever by their property in the Borough of Woolwich being included in the Metropolis, or that the borough have been saddled with any extra expense by the change. I believe I am right in saying that the general district rate at its present figure would bring in something like an additional £1,750 per annum if levied, in full on the properties which at present enjoy the three-fourths exemption. Now, as your Lordships are all, no doubt, aware, there have been proposals for some time past to expropriate all the London dock undertakings for the purpose of forming a public trust, and only this year the London County Council promoted a Bill with that object. The effects of Clause 20 of this Bill would, I am told, be a clear loss of over £1,000 a year to the London and India Docks Company alone, and if the purchase of their undertakings is carried out while the Woolwich rates are at anything like their present figure, the purchasing body would be in a position to claim that their undertaking is worth £30,000 less than it is to-day. This would manifestly be most unjust.

The present system, which rests on a series of Public Acts and the pledge of the Prime Minister, is just and right in itself. But even if Parliament considered that there were sufficient grounds for depriving the companies of their rights, I submit to your Lordships that this should be done openly and by a Public Act. On these grounds it has seemed to those whom I have consulted that we are justified in asking your Lordships to withdraw the clause from the cognisance of the Committee. Rights, given by a Public Act and confirmed by Parliament over and over again, ought not to be over-ridden by a Private Bill. I submit to your Lordships that if we pass the Second Reading of this clause we shall be establishing a mischievous precedent, that we shall strike a blow at public confidence, and I confidently ask His Majesty's Government to support the instruction and thus give effect to the pledge of the Prime Minister, on the faith of which the Metropolis Management Act of 1899 was passed by Parliament. Moreover, if this clause is allowed to stand it will infallibly be urged hereafter as a precedent in such an event, for instance, as that of the great districts of East and West Ham being hereafter brought within the Metropolis, a contingency that has already been seriously suggested in Parliament by the Prime Minister. In thos boroughs there are very extensive dock and railway systems, and it would doubtless be attempted to extend the injustice against which we now protest, and to quote this Bill as a direct precedent in favour of doing so. My Lords, I have no direct personal interest in this matter, but it seems in the first place unfair and unjust to interfere with an arrangement deliberately made by Parliament; and, in the second, most improper that provisions deliberately adopted by a succession of Public Acts, and on the faith of which large sums have been invested, should be upset by a Private Bill.

Moved, "That it be an instruction to the Committee to which the Bill may be referred that they shall strike out Clause 20 of the Bill."—(Lord Avebury.)


My Lords, perhaps I ought to say a word with regard to this Bill, which has come up from the House of Commons, where the matter has been considered by a Committee of that House. As soon as I saw the notice standing on the Paper in the name of the noble Lord, I asked that I might be supplied with a copy of the evidence which was laid before the Committee of the other House. I only received that evidence on Saturday, and I have, therefore, been unable to express to the noble Lord the views of my Department with regard to the Bill; but after having carefully looked into the matter, I find that, as the noble Lord has informed your Lordships, this particular question has been under the consideration of the High Court, who took the view which the noble Lord has already stated. And perhaps it would be as well if I quote to your Lordships the words of the Lord Chief Justice in delivering judgment. The Lord Chief Justice said— Section 10, Sub-section 1, of the Act of 1899 provides expressly that a scheme shall make provision for protecting the interests of owners and occupiers of any hereditament which is exempt from any rate or liable to be assessed thereto at a less amount than other hereditaments. We think that it was clearly intended that though Woolwich and other outlying places were to come within the Metropolis generally, yet that exemption should continue. The object of the Bill is to over-ride the decision of the High Court, because, of course, nothing short of an Act of Parliament could do so, and it is claimed that the Act as it appears upon the Statute-book does not in truth convey the intention of Parliament. I did not, under those circumstances, feel it my duty to take the usual course of moving the Second Reading of this Bill, and it has been moved by the noble Earl opposite (Earl Carrington). The Act of 1899 is a general Act affecting the whole of the Metropolis, and I think I am right in saying; that when it was passing through Parliament the intention of the Government was expressed that all existing saving, rights ought to be and should be protected, and I am therefore not able to concur in the view that the intention of Parliament has not been properly expressed in the Act.

It is not in any way desirable that it should become the practice of this House to move instructions to Committees. As a general rule, it is much better that all Private Bills should go to Committees to be thrashed out, but when a Bill is introduced to say, not what is the law, or how the law ought to be altered, but what was the intention of Parliament in making a law, then I venture to think that your Lordships as a body are entitled to express your opinion. I cannot contend that the moving of instructions to Committees is without precedent. There have been two precedents, one a good many years ago and one in the year 1902, which dealt with a Bill promoted by the London County Council to bring tramways over Westminster Bridge. On both of those occasions an instruction was moved in this House, and on the last occasion, although my predecessor in the office which I now occupy held the same view that I do, that it was inexpedient and undesirable that instructions should be moved to Committees, your Lordships decided otherwise, and the instruction was carried. In the circumstances of this case I do not propose to ask your Lordships to oppose the Motion of the noble Lord, but I confess I think it would have been much better if, in view of the expression of opinion that has been given to them, the promoters of the Bill had adopted the usual course and withdrawn the clause rather than compel your Lordships to go to a division upon it.


My Lords, I hope the House will allow me to say a few words on this clause as I had the honour of moving the Second Reading of the Bill. The noble Lord who moved the instruction to the Committee went so far as to say that the provisions of Clause 20 of this Bill constituted an unjust and unfair arrangement, I hope it is hardly necessary to say that if we had considered that there was anything unjust or unfair about the arrangement we should be the last persons in the world to have given any sanction to it; but I think the case is really not a very difficult or complicated one. The borough of Woolwich as it now exists, consists of the parish of Woolwich, the parish of Plumstead, and the parish of Eltham, all welded into one large borough. It is, I believe, the second largest borough in London. The parish of Woolwich was the only parish in the Metropolis which retained its local board till it was dealt with by the London Government Act of 1899, and when the Government passed that Act they intended, I believe, that Woolwich should be placed under the general law applying to Metropolitan boroughs. The Chairman of the Committee, who had paid great attention to the arguments urged by counsel on both sides, said— We had to consider what was the probable intention of Parliament in framing these clauses. The intention of the Government was to place Woolwich under the general law applying to metropolitan boroughs. They never intended that the London and East India Docks Company, the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company, and the Great Eastern Railway Company should be exempted from paying three-fourths of the rates of the parish of Woolwich. The intention was that they should pay the whole of the rates payable, as they do in the parishes of Eltham and Plumstead.

I do not think that the promoters of this Bill have any reason to complain at all of the attitude taken by the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees in your Lordships' House. He was quite frank on the subject, and said he would not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. It should be remembered that this Bill has been approved by the Police and Sanitary Committee of the House of Commons and by the House of Commons itself, and that the Local Government Board and the Treasury have carefully considered Clause 20, which is as follows— From and after the thirtieth day of September next, after the passing of this Act, all kinds of property within the parish of Woolwich, for the time being by law assessable to the general rate to which Sub-section (1) (B) of Section 211 of the Public Health Act, 1875, applies, shall be assessed on the full net annual value of such property not withstanding the exceptions regu- lations, and conditions contained in that section and the provisions of the London Government Act, 1899, or any scheme or order made there under. Provided always that nothing in this section shall prejudice or affect any exemption from any rate or any right or liability to be assessed to any rate at a less amount than other hereditaments under or by virtue of the Metropolis Management Act, 1855, or any other enactment applying to London, and are satisfied that the change proposed to be effected is necessary and desirable. In these circumstances I do most respectfully submit that we have a very strong case. We have been told that this is an attempt to alter a Public Act by a Private Bill. No doubt that would be a very improper thing to do, but I submit that this public law, as it is called, never did apply to London at all. Before the passing of the Act of 1899, Woolwich was not a part of London for local government purposes. It became an integral part of the Metropolis when that great Act was passed, and all country Acts relating to Woolwich were supposed to have been repealed and the London Acts applied. The present state of affairs, which Clause 20 proposes to remedy, arose really through a mistake in the drafting, and advantage—I will not say unfair advantage—has been taken of the mistake that was made.

I am empowered to say that the borough of Woolwich does not object in any way to proper opposition to this Bill; they do not object to opposition from any of the companies. They wish for fair play, and are quite ready to accept the result. But they do object to this side wind being brought in to prevent an inquiry which I respectfully submit ought to be made before the proper tribunal, namely, a Committee of your Lordships' House. I have nothing more to say. I leave the case of the borough of Woolwich with the greatest confidence in the hands of your Lordships. I would only repeat, in conclusion, that both the Local Government Board and the Treasury have carefully considered the clause and are satisfied that the change proposed is necessary and desirable. Surely, in those circumstances, it is a little hard that the clause should be disposed of by an instruction to the Committee, thus depriving the Committee of the opportunity of giving the matter the consideration it deserves. The companies concerned, whose interest Lord Avebury seeks to protect, would still have every opportunity of opposing the Bill before the Committee, who may safely be left to safeguard any rights they may have. I hope your Lordships will not accept the instruction moved by Lord Avebury, but will allow the Bill to go to a Committee and proceed in the ordinary course.


My Lords, I should like to say a word or two on the second point raised by the noble Earl who has just sat down. I will not touch on the merits of the Bill. What I object to, on principle, is that by the provisions of this Bill—a Private Bill—it is sought to repeal a Public Act. I can assure your Lordships that by Section 10 of the Act of 1899 any scheme under that Act must make provision for protecting the interests of owners and occupiers of any hereditaments exempt from any rate or liable to be assessed thereto at a less amount than other hereditaments. That provision, so far as it affects Woolwich, is sought to be repealed by this Private Bill. I hope this House will not agree to that. Some years ago in the House of Commons a Private Bill sought to repeal a Public Act of Parliament. I ventured then to call the attention of the House of Commons to the matter, and, with the full sanction of the Speaker, the House condemned the principle, and that Bill, so far as it proposed to repeal a Public Act, was not proceeded with.

I would remind your Lordships that the mode of procedure in passing Public and Private Acts is entirely different. In the case of Public Acts public opinion is brought to bear on their procedure through both Houses of Parliament, and they are discussed on their merits by those who know what public opinion is; but in the case of Private Bills no such procedure takes place except in a very modified form, and if this principle is to prevail you may have a Public Act, the principle of which has been discussed in both Houses of Parliament repealed by a Private Bill, at the consideration of which by the Committee the public were totally unrepresented. The promoters of a Private Bill and the opponents might, for instance, come to terms as to a clause, and that clause might repeal a Public Act. The principle is altogether a bad one, and I hope your Lordships will not sanction it. If the contention of the noble Earl who moved the Second Reading of the Bill is right, let them remedy the matter by a Public Act.

There is another objection—a practical objection—in referring to which I am certain I shall receive the support of the noble and learned Earl on the Woolsack. The Judges who have to administer the law have records of every Public Act, but no library, except a few local libraries, possesses copies of Private Acts. Judges have no records of Private Acts, and yet they are supposed intuitively to know that a clause of some Private Act has repealed another clause of a Public Act. This mode of legislating places those who have to administer the law in a false position, and I hope, for the reasons which have been stated, the Motion moved by Lord Avebury will be carried.


My Lords. I should like to offer a few remarks with regard to what has just fallen from the noble and learned Lord opposite. I think he has put the case in rather too strong a light. He says that Clause 20 of this Bill proposes to repeal a Public Act. I think that is far too strong an expression to use. I quite admit that it proposes to modify conditions which hold good under a Public Act, but only in order to bring it in accordance with the London Government Act, 1899, which has been passed for the whole of London. These conditions which it is now proposed to apply to the Borough of Woolwich are conditions which were applied by a Public Act to the whole of the rest of London. You have at this particular moment the Borough of Woolwich alone in which these particular corporations are exempt from the payment, of a certain share of the rates.

The noble Lord who moved the instruction to the Committee argued this question rather on the justice of the case. He said it was hard on the dock and railway companies that they should be subject to these rates because they did not use the baths and washhouses or the public library, and derived no benefit from the objects of the rate; but I do not think that is a good argument. It does seem to me that whoever holds property in a particular district is bound on that property to pay for the benefit of the whole district and for the services which apply to the whole district. Therefore, I say it is a fair thing and common justice that these great corporations should be brought in to contribute fairly to the general rate of the Borough of Woolwich. I had thought it was accepted by all parties that one of the great desideratums was that in London the burden of the rates should be equalised. In every other part of London, as I have already informed your Lordships, the rates fall on corporations of the kind which my noble friend now endeavours in the case of Woolwich to exempt, and I do not think it is fair that they should be so exempted in the case of Woolwich.

As the noble Earl who moved the Second Reading has pointed out, the Bill has passed through the House of Commons, has been examined by a Committee of that House, and has received the support of the Treasury and the Local Government Board there. I should like to know what the view of the representative of the Local Government Board in your Lordships' House is with regard to this Bill. We are now asked by Lord Avebury to pass an instruction to the Committee to which the Bill may be referred to strike out Clause 20. All we are asking is that this particular clause should be allowed to go to a Committee of your Lordships' House to be discussed, in order that the whole merits of the case may be brought before the Committee and thoroughly threshed out. I had always thought that there was nothing this House was more opposed to than limiting the discretion of its own Committees. The Committees of this House have deservedly obtained a high reputation for the way in which they deal with Private Bills, and I urge your Lordships not to depart from the ordinary practice in this case, but allow the Bill, without this instruction, to go before the Committee and be discussed and decided on its merits.


My Lords, I only rise to point out the view of Sir Erskine May in regard to the repeal of Public Acts by Private Bills. Sir Erskine May says that it had been questioned whether a Public Act might be amended by a Private Bill, but that— No rule has been established which precludes the promoters of a Private Bill from seeking to amend a Public Act, though such a proposal required proper supervision. He gives a good many precedents, and states that in 1887 the Dover Harbour Corporation Bill was passed through Parliament repealing the Dover Harbour Public Act of 1861.


My Lords, I only wish to say that I entirely associate myself with the remarks made by my noble and learned friend Lord James. It may be, where some great case has been made out and where there is an overwhelming necessity for it, that a Private Bill may, as Sir Erskine May says, be allowed to repeal a Public Act; but it is idle to say that there is any such overwhelming necessity in this case. The Borough of Woolwich wishes to obtain more rates, but that is not an overwhelming necessity such as would justify the repeal of a provision in a Public Act. I trust, therefore, that your Lordships will not sanction the clause in question going to the Committee.


My Lords, I rather regret being obliged to say anything on this matter, but I feel some difficulty in agreeing to the course urged by my noble friends behind me. I am not going into the merits of the matter as to whether the clause is a just one or not, and I will not even go into the question which Lord Tweedmouth has so clearly put with regard to the general Act, and the bringing of Woolwich into line with the other boroughs in this matter; but I do confess I feel strongly that the view put forward by my noble and learned friend Lord James is the correct one, that a, Private Bill should not be allowed to repeal a clause in a Public Act. The Act in question is a very important general Act, and I feel very great difficulty in the matter. This is a case of a Private Bill seeking to set aside a clause in a Public Act, and, without going into the merits of the case at all, I should feel great difficulty, if it came to a division, in following my noble friends behind me and voting against the instruction proposed by the noble Lord.

There is another matter which I cannot help referring to as a layman who does not find it always easy to interpret Acts of Parliament. I allude to the fact that in this clause there is a greater sin of reference than almost any that has been committed. I consulted a very distinguished lawyer on the question, and he said he was ready to look into it, but the clause was so complicated that even he could not in a few hours give a clear view upon it. That, I think, is a good example of what the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and my noble and learned friend opposite referred to last night—the evil of legislating by reference. I regret to have had to make this statement, but I feel that there is considerable force in what has been said against overriding a Public Act by a Private Bill. If it is unjust to exempt Woolwich in this matter, that injustice should be remedied by a Public Act, and not by a clause in a Private Bill.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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