§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be read a second time upon Monday 29th April."—(Sir Stafford Northcote.)
§ MR. CRAUFURD
said, he desired some explanation with regard to this Bill, which he believed would be unanimously opposed. He had understood the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary to say, when asked whether he would proceed with the Bill before the recess, that he had made certain proposals to the Gas Companies, and that he proposed to withdraw this Bill and bring in another, differing only from the other in the extraordinary particular that the price and dividend should be left in blank. The question involved in the Bill had been treated as though it were merely one between the thirteen Gas Companies of the metropolis and the Board of Trade. But there was far more 1577 than this in the Bill, the principle of which was the principle of confiscation. It was a piece of legislation unprecedented in the history of Parliament, and ought never to have been introduced by any Government. The right hon. Gentleman might just as well come down to the House and propose to reduce the Three per Cents. The petitions which had loaded the table of the House for the last few nights showed how the measure was regarded out of doors. Such legislation was really monstrous. It had depreciated the value of gas property throughout the kingdom by £2,000,000; gas companies were in some cases unable to raise fresh capital, and shareholders could not realize their property. He was not satisfied with the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman to postpone the Bill for three weeks, and should move its postponement till that day six months.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the words "Monday 29th April," in order to add the words "this day six mouths."—(Mr. Edward Craufurd.)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
said, the course which had been taken was peculiar, but he was quite ready to answer the speech of the hon. Member (Mr. Cranfurd). When the Bill was brought in considerable opposition was offered to it, and a deputation from the London Gas Companies, and from water and railway Companies, waited upon his noble Friend (the Duke of Richmond) and stated their objections. He proposed to withdraw the Bill, and introduce another which should be similar but with the figures entirely left out. To this proposal the Companies would not agree, suggesting the withdrawal of the Bill and the introduction of another with certain alterations. One of these was the omission of the clause giving to the Metropolitan Board of Works and the City of London an optional power to purchase the gas works, and of the clause which was described as limiting the profits of the Companies to 7 per cent; while there was to be a clause allowing an increase in the charge for gas if the price 1578 of labour or coal were to rise. The Government promised to consider these points, and state, after Easter, what they would do in the matter. He could not now state the counter proposals of the Government; but it was probable they would propose an arrangement which the Gas Companies would be willing to accept, and which would form the foundation of a Bill. In his opinion, it would be very much for the advantage of the Gas Companies themselves that the matter should be dealt with during the present Session in the impartial spirit in which it had been taken up by the Government. But as the question had been raised to-night, he was obliged to remind the House of what had occurred. In 1860 an Act was passed giving to the metropolitan Gas Companies certain privileges in the nature of a monopoly, but subjecting them to certain restrictions intended for the public protection. Three or four years after that Act was passed, the gas consumers complained that though the Companies had received the full benefit of the Act, the public had not derived from it the protection which was intended. Last year, therefore, the City of London promoted a Bill enabling them to make gas for themselves. The Bill was referred to a Select Committee, who were also empowered to consider the effect of the Gas Act of 1860. The Committee took a certain amount of evidence and presented a Report, which stated that the conditions of the Act of 1860 had not been fulfilled, that the price of gas ought to be reduced, the quality improved, and better security provided that the public should be properly served. When the present Government came into office, the Report of this Committee was laid upon the table, and various deputations waited upon the Government from the Metropolitan Board of Works, vestries, and gentlemen representing consumers. The Government had no interest in the matter; but, feeling that the question was in an unsatisfactory state, they volunteered to bring in a Bill. On the other hand, the Gas Companies came to the Government and said, "We were not fully heard before the Committee. We had reason to suppose that the Committee were going to decide in our favour, so that we did not offer the evidence which we might have offered, and our case was not complete." The Government were anxious that the parties should come to a friendly arrangement and endeavoured to bring about a 1579 compromise, but were not successful. They therefore introduced a Bill based upon the Report of the Committee, intending that after the second reading it should be referred to a Select Committee. They thought that if the case of Gas Companies had not been fully heard before, those Companies would be delighted to go before a Committee, in order that it might be heard. But as soon as the Bill was introduced, objections of a most extraordinary nature were taken to it. Instead of courting inquiry, the Gas Companies challenged the Bill on the second reading, and petitions were presented containing the most unfounded allegations. Nothing, for instance, was more untrue than that the Bill was drawn with the object of reducing a guaranteed dividend of 10 per cent to one of 7 per cent. The Act of 1860 limited the profits of the Gas Companies to 10 per cent; but it had been suggested to the Government that an alteration should be made in this respect. The suggestion, he might remark, was first made to the Government by a Member of a Gas Company, who thought there ought to be a sliding scale. The Bill, accordingly, allowed the Gas Companies to carry their dividends up to any amount they could make, taking away the limit of 10 per cent, provided that after a certain amount was reached there should be a reduction in price at the same time that there was an increase of dividend, so that both the Companies and the public should be the gainers. He had been obliged to state what was the position of the Bill, on account of the objection which had been raised to the proposal for the adjournment of the second reading till after the holydays. The Gas Companies had made certain proposals to the Government, and the Government hoped to come to terms with them before the end of the Easter recess, and he therefore now proposed that the Bill should be adjourned over the holydays.
§ MR. ADAIR
said, that the Companies did not object to the question at issue being decided by some competent authority; but they did object to the Parliamentary guarantee being destroyed, and this principle of confiscation introduced. There was, however, an arrangement between the Companies and the Government that the matter should stand over until after Easter, and therefore he could not vote for the Amendment.
§ MR. POWELL
thought the Bill ought 1580 not to be set down for the first day after the recess, but that more time should be given for hon. Members to consider its provisions.
§ Motion made, and Question put, "That the Debate be now adjourned."
§ The House divided:—Ayes 85; Noes 48: Majority 37.
§ Debate adjourned till Monday 29th April.