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Audit Of Railway Accounts Bill

Volume 115: debated on Wednesday 2 April 1851

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Order for Second Reading read.

in moving the Second Reading of the Bill, said the circumstances and transactions out of which the Bill arose were so notorious, that it would not be necessary for him to detain the House at any length. He thought the House would agree with him that the fact of that notoriety rendered it absolutely necessary that some legislation should take place on the subject. In the year 1848 a noble Lord in another place introduced a Bill for the establishment of a Railway Audit. That Bill passed the House of Lords, but was rejected when it came before the House of Commons. In 1849 the same noble Lord introduced another Bill, which likewise passed the House of Lords. That Bill was founded on the principle that railway proprietors were not able to manage their own concerns, and that it was necessary to place them under some external control. The railway interest then found it necessary to take some steps in regard to this measure, and they determined to resist the Bill. Accordingly a meeting of deputies from the various railway boards was held, at which a resolution was come to adverse to the proposition for the establishment of a Government board to investigate the accounts of railway companies. A deputation from that meeting waited on the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and if he (Mr. Locke) were correctly informed, the noble Lord stated that ho was not anxious to interfere with the management of railway property or affairs, provided he had an assurance that a Bill would be brought in which would give satisfaction to the great body of railway shareholders. On that understanding the Bill then before the House was withdrawn, and the railway directors convened the different bodies of proprietors, with a view of ascertaining their sentiments. The result was, that they found an unanimous opinion to prevail amongst the proprietors against any Government interference, although there was great diversity of opinion with respect to the measure which would be satisfactory to them in regard to the audit of the accounts. In consequence of this difference of opinion, the directors did not think it necessary to proceed any further in the preparation of a Bill, and they left the matter in the hands of the shareholders themselves. The Government, therefore, finding that no Bill was forthcoming from the directors, introduced another Bill last Session, for the purpose of regulating railway audit. The railway shareholders had already deputed delegates from the largest railway companies in the kingdom—from the Great Western, the South Western, the North Western, the Great Northern, and other important companies, representing an interest of 120,000,000l.—to consider some measure; and he thought he might say that the measure now brought forward, having emanated from such a body, was entitled to be fairly and deliberately considered by the House. That measure was entrusted to Lord Stanley, and was introduced on the 11th of March. The two Bills were referred to a Committee, and the result was that the two were blended together. The Bill, as it came to that House, contained, with one exception, every clause of the Railway Shareholders Bill, but engrafted upon it were several other clauses which, though interfering less directly in the management of railway affairs, yet interfered with it sufficiently to make it liable to considerable objection. The consequence was, that several petitions were presented against Lord Stanley's Bill. Now, considering the circumstances under which this Bill was brought forward, he thought the railway shareholders, from whom the Bill emanated, were entitled to a more favourable consideration than they received from the hands of the Government. But that Bill also was withdrawn, and the shareholders were left at the end of last Session without any Bill. They met, however, and instructed him to move for leave to bring in the Bill which had been presented last year to the House of Lords by Lord Stanley. In pursuance of these instructions, he moved for and obtained leave to introduce the Bill of which he now moved the second reading. He hoped that it would not be maintained that men who had spent 120,000,000l. in great public enterprises were not fit to manage their own affairs. He admitted there were some differences of opinion as regarded the provisions of the Bill, but he hoped they might be so improved in Committee as to give satisfaction to all parties. They were fully considered by forty gentlemen who represented the railway interest, and having the best professional assistance, he felt satisfied that the provisions of the Bill would bear the fullest examination of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

said, that he did not rise to oppose the Motion of his hon. Friend; but, at the same time, he could not allow the Motion to pass without making a few observations upon the subject. He deeply felt the importance of having some efficient system of railway audit; but he could not disguise from himself, or from the House, that he was at variance with his hon. Friend as to the principle which he thought should animate the House on this subject. His opinion was, that do what they might, they would never enable the railway shareholders of this country to establish a real and effective control over the accounts in cases where the boards of directors were not trustworthy, or where they wished to deceive the public and the shareholders. He came, therefore, to the conclusion, that the audit of railway accounts should be founded on some principle beyond the railway companies. He thought that there should be an independent audit; he did not say a Government audit, for he agreed in the position that Government should not interfere in matters of this description. And he always most anxiously recommended the House to disentangle the Government from any such connexion. But he thought that the Bill of Ids hon. Friend, founded as it was on a different principle from that which he had stated, would not protect the shareholders or the public in those gross and flagrant cases where the board of directors were either dishonest or incapable, and where they desired to deceive the public and the company as to the real state and position of its affairs. And it was to be recollected that it was for these extreme eases they were bound to provide. He therefore would never be a party to the bringing forward of any measure for the establishment of a railway accounts audit which was not founded on something independent of the railway company itself. He was afraid that the present measure would be found to he a delusion—more plausible, perhaps, in appearance, than the existing system—but which would not work in the way intended by his hon. Friend, and would not give the public or the shareholders any real protection in the supposed case of a fraudulent, incapable, or dishonest board of directors. He thought that there were some defects in the details of the Bill, which he would not then enter upon; but he might mention that the system of railway accounts which his hon. Friend proposed in the schedules was extremely defective, and in that respect the Bill differed from the measure introduced by Lord Stanley in the House of Lords. He thought that a system of accounts which there was no power of altering was a material objection to the Bill. Seeing the great jealousy which there was on the part of the railway interest to any interference with the management of their affairs, and knowing how difficult it would be for any Government to introduce and carry a measure founded on the principle he was prepared to adopt without their concurrence, he was not prepared to introduce a measure himself; but he should, indeed, with very ill grace, oppose the proposed scheme, for though it might not do all that was required, it was an improvement on the present system. He doubted, however, that the measure would be productive of any good results, and be trusted that when it came before the Committee, the Members of the House generally, and those interested in railways in particular, would narrowly scrutinise the provisions of a Bill which was of infinite importance, not only to the railway interest, but to the general interest of the country.

thought the Bill would have a different effect from what the right hon. Gentleman seemed to anticipate. He had not a railway share in the world, and be was therefore in a position to give a candid opinion.

said, that he should move the addition of certain clauses in Committee and the omission of others, with a view of affording greater protection to proprietors.

said, that though he thought a great many of the scandalous transactions to which the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade alluded, might have been sooner discovered or altogether avoided, if the existing powers intrusted to railway companies had been properly exercised, yet he begged to state, as the representative of a largo railway interest, that they thought it their duty to avail themselves of a considerable portion of the Bill, and that they had brought it into action in the large concern to which he referred. He should vote for the se- cond reading of the Bill. At the same time he wished to state, that he reserved to himself the right of objecting to several clauses as they now stood in the Bill. He considered that the efficiency of the measure was destroyed by the wording of some of the clauses. He supported the Bill, because it proceeded on a different principle from that which the right hon. Gentleman laid down as the proper one to be applied to the audit of railway accounts, He was greatly surprised when the right hon. Gentleman said, that in the measures he proposed he avoided the introduction of the principle of Government interference. He would appeal to hon. Gentlemen who attended to these matters, whether those Bills alluded to were founded on any other principle than that of Government interference in the details of railway concerns.

Bill read 2°, and committed for Wednesday 7th May.

The House adjourned at nine minutes before Six o'clock.