§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ SIR WINDHAM ANSTRUTHER
, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said: The object of the Bill that I now beg the House to read a second time is to empower municipal authorities of burghs in Scotland to manufacture and supply gas for public and private purposes. This they cannot do at present without applying to Parliament and obtaining a private Act—a costly proceeding, involving an outlay under the most favourable circumstances of from £500 or £800, and acting as a complete bar to the local authority in the small Scotch burghs, where the ratepayers are desirous of having the gas supply under their control, from obtaining such a useful privilege. The Bill does not apply to any burgh, or to any part of a burgh, or to any district in which a municipal authority or a gas company, having statutory powers, are supplying or are authorized to supply gas. When the Commissioners, the local authority under the Bill, have obtained the consent of the ratepayers, and it is left with the ratepayers to decide whether the Bill shall be adopted, or not, they may erect gas works, and they may purchase gas works established in the burgh of which they are the local authority. Every care has been taken in the Bill to protect existing rights and interests, for, unless this had been done, the Bill would not be an enabling, but a confiscatory measure. In the burghs where there are companies established by private enterprize supplying gas, it is optional with the shareholders to sell their undertaking to the Commissioners; but it is compulsory on the Commissioners not only to make an offer to purchase, but to purchase existing gas works, if the shareholders consent to sell, before they can avail themselves of the provisions of the Bill. The Commissioners and the shareholders of a gas company are free to make their own bargain; but, when there is a difference of opinion as to the price to be paid for the undertaking, that price is to be fixed by arbitration. 4 It is only when the shareholders of a gas company refuse to sell their undertaking that the Commissioners can erect their own gas works. The Bill is a general Bill, applicable to all the burghs in Scotland, in which it can be applied, no two alike; and it has been found impossible to fix any hard-and-fast lines. The Commissioners are elected by the ratepayers; one-third are elected annually; they are themselves in many instances the largest ratepayers, and this is the best guarantee against extravagant mismanagement or an exorbitant price being charged for gas. By the Bill no profit can be derived from any gas undertaking when acquired by the Commissioners, and whenever the receipts of any year exceed the expenditure, the rates charged for gas in the following year must be reduced, so that the annual revenue received shall balance the annual expenditure. I think it right to mention that, by an oversight on my part, an important omission has been made in the Bill, which I propose to rectify in Committee. As the consumers of gas will receive all the benefit when there is a profit, so will they have to bear the loss, by paying an increased price for gas in any year in which there has been a loss on the preceding year. There are various other clauses in the Bill for the protection of the shareholders, when the Commissioners have become possessed of the undertaking of a gas company, for the guidance of the Commissioners and the gas consumers; but, as the Bill is one of details, and as these will be considered at a future stage of the Bill, I will not now detain the House by any allusion to them. It may be asserted that this Bill confers too great powers on the local authorities; but in the Police and Public Health Acts, powers as large and as extensive have already been entrusted on them by Parliament. The result had been pre-eminently satisfactory. This Bill is nothing more or less than a very slight addition to those powers which have been used so wisely and so well. If allowed to become law, it will be considered as a great boon to Scotland, and be the means of saving many thousands of pounds to the ratepayers in that country. With the assistance of my right hon. Friend the Lord Advocate, to whom I am under very great obligations for the aid he has given me in preparing the Bill, and to whom 5 I beg to offer my sincere thanks, and, with the assistance of hon. Members on both sides of the House, I hope that the Burghs Gas Supply Bill may become law during the present Session.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second, time."—(Sir Windham Anstruther.)
§ GENERAL SIR GEORGE BALFOUR
said, he fully recognized the great benefit which Scotland would derive from the powers which the Bill would confer upon the local authorities, but at the same time he could not but be aware that there was great danger that the interests of shareholders in existing Gas Companies might be injuriously affected. It was for the purpose of protecting those interests that he had given Notice of a a series of Amendments. It was of the greatest importance that the Bill should be carefully considered, and therefore he hoped no objection would be made to the proposition of the hon. Chairman of Committees that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee.
§ SIR EDWARD COLEBROOKE
said, he approved of the general object of the Bill which had been brought in by his hon. Friend and Colleague, and the opposition he had felt bound to offer to a similar Bill last year proceeded from no objection to its principle. Had the Bill been passed as it was originally introduced, probably he should not have said a word against it; but later in the Session it re-appeared in a new form, which he conceived injuriously affected the interests of his constituents inhabiting the burghs which surrounded the City of Glasgow, and therefore he took that step which had proved fatal to the measure. The Bill proposed that the powers conferred should not be applicable where any adjoining burghs possessed statutory powers of supplying gas to it; and as Glasgow had such powers, the prohibition would prevent the adjoining burghs from supplying themselves. He agreed with the hon. and gallant Member for Kincardine that the Bill could very properly be referred to a Select Committee.
§ MR. RAIKES
said, this was a Bill of considerable interest, not only to Scotland, but to other parts of Her Majesty's dominions, because it raised 6 in rather a peculiar manner the question of the expediency of vesting as far as possible in the local authorities the control of the gas, or it might also be the water supply, of burghs and populous places. He thought the tendency of public opinion during the last few years had been setting more or less strongly in that direction, and it had become almost an axiom of public policy that, wherever it was possible, it would be better that these powers should be in the hands of the local authorities rather than in those of private companies. Great difficulties, however, frequently arose with regard to the action of municipal authorities in matters of this kind, as compared with private Companies, in passing their measures through Parliament, owing to the fact that municipal bodies were more or less placed under the strict surveillance of the public Departments, such as the Local Government Board and the Board of Trade, in cases where the interests of the ratepayers were supposed to be directly interested. Therefore he hailed with some satisfaction any step that would facilitate the construction or transfer of such works as these to the municipal authorities. At the same time, he could not fail to see that in this Bill it was proposed to take rather a novel step—a step somewhat in the direction of what was sometimes called "Home Rule." It was proposed by Clause 19 of the Bill to transfer the jurisdiction and authority exercised by this House to a local authority in the neighbourhood which was to be affected by these measures; because the Commissioners whom it was proposed to appoint for the purpose of supplying gas were to go before the Sheriff with a view to obtaining a decree from him to enable them to erect gasworks in the case of a burgh where there existed at present an independent Company not incorporated by Act of Parliament. The principle involved was one of some importance; and it was certainly an innovation upon the practice that had hitherto prevailed with regard to Private Business, which the House should not easily and lightly, and as a matter of course, assent to. He thought that if the measure were to become law in anything like its present shape, it would be necessary to consider the case of Ireland, and also that of England, with regard to 7 cognate measures; and therefore the House would see that it was a matter which concerned not Scotland alone, but those other parts of Her Majesty's dominions. The hon. Baronet the Member for Lanarkshire (Sir Edward Colebrook) had objected to certain exceptions in Clause 2. This was a matter purely of Scotch or local interest. He had never known any matter of Private Business that produced so much interest among Scotch Members as this question between Glasgow and its neighbouring burghs. Therefore, if the House should adopt the suggestion he would presently make to send the Bill to a Select Committee, it would be desirable that the Committee should be in a great degree composed of Scotch Members. Since, however, the matter was one which might come to interest districts in England and Ireland, consisting of a large town with a number of smaller suburban districts around it, he thought it would be desirable to secure such a Committee as would speak with authority on the subject, and whose deliberations might be a guide to the House if any further steps had to be taken.
§ MR. ORR-EWING
said, he was authorized by the hon. Baronet who had brought in the Bill (Sir Windham Anstruther) to state that he had no objection to refer the measure to a Select Committee. The objections which had been taken by the hon. Baronet the Member for Lanarkshire (Sir Edward Colebrooke) were scarcely objections to the Bill, but rather to the City of Glasgow, which was in a peculiar position in regard to the supply of gas to the neighbouring burghs. The Committee, however, would have it in their power to consider all Petitions and Memorials from persons interested.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time.
§ MR. RAIKES
, in moving that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee, explained that he had not suggested that the majority of the Members should be Scotch Members.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Bill committed to a Select Committee.
§ And, on March 21, Committee nominated, as follows:—Mr. MASSEY, Mr. SALT, SIR JOHN 8 St. AUBYN, Mr. GOLDNEY, Mr. RODWELL, Sir EDWARD COLEBROOKE, MR. ION HAMILTON, MR. CAMPBELL BANNERMAN, MR. WHITELAW, MR. CAWLEY, MR. GRIEVE, MR. O'SHAUGHNESSY, AND SIR WINDHAM ANSTRUTHER:—three to be the quorum.