HC Deb 07 April 1892 vol 3 cc814-23

Order for Second Reading read.

* SIR J. LUBBOCK (London University)

The question of the Metropolitan water supply is of great, of pressing, and increasing importance. It is not necessary in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, nor have I any desire, to impugn the quality or quantity of the companies' supply; but the population of the Metropolitan area and the surrounding country increases very rapidly, and, of course, that implies a corresponding increase in the demand for water, while it increases the difficulty of maintaining the purity of the supply. I do not wish to trouble the House with statistics, and will merely point out that the population, which in 1870 was 3,350,000, in 1891 had become 5,700,000, and is still increasing. The demand for water within the Metropolitan area supplied by the companies is now, on an average, 184,000,000 gallons a day. The average daily quantity taken from the Thames is 97,000,000 gallons, rising upon occasions to 105,000,000. The amount considered by the Royal Commission as the maximum which ought to be taken from the Thames was 110,000,000, and the maximum amount which legally can be taken is 130,000,000. We are then approaching very nearly the limit of our tether, and this in the face of a rapidly-increasing population. The matter is the more pressing because, even if this House granted a new supply, that must be taken from a source at such a distance from London that it would certainly be ten years before the supply would reach London. Under the law as it at present exists, London is prevented from taking any steps to protect itself, and to insure this future supply, while other cities are appropriating the remaining sources of supply. As regards taking more water from the Thames and its tributaries, that would be a proposal, I am sure, vigorously resisted by the Home Counties, the alternative, sometimes recommended, is to have recourse to deep wells. I may quote the Report of the Royal Commission of 1869, where they say with justice— Any water obtained by tapping the chalk reservoirs would only pro tanto diminish those streams and would, therefore, be little or nothing gained to the general supply. Now, the majority of my colleagues on the London County Council do not always agree with the Corporation of London, but upon this subject I am happy to say the County Council and the Corporation are working harmoniously together. We did at first differ on the subject of water, but when we came to compare our views and to take counsel together we found we arrived at the same conclusion; and I desire to recognise the courtesy we have received from the representatives of the City on this subject. I have the honour to introduce the Bill on behalf of both the County Council and the Corporation, and the combination will, I hope, insure a favour- able consideration from the House. We propose to constitute a Joint Water Committee to deal with the whole question. The Corporation will have power to nominate any competent persons to represent them. As the Bill stands the County Council will be limited to our own members, but there is great force, I think, in the recommendations of last year's Committee that the same freedom of selection should be afforded the County Council. That, however, is a matter for Committee. Now objection, I understand, has been taken to the Bill by the Water Companies—I hope it may not be so, but I am anticipating what may be said, though I do not know that it will be — that the Bill authorises the County Council to introduce into Parliament Bills for promoting schemes for independent works in competition with the undertakings of existing companies. But I desire to point out that in this respect all that London asks is to be placed in the same position as other Municipalities. The introduction of this clause does not indicate a desire to take any unfair advantage of the companies in this respect. But Parliament has never laid down a hard and fast rule that under no circumstances should such a course be refused. We can imagine circumstances in which it might be necessary. All the Bill does is to place London in the same position as other Municipalities, and it will not authorise us to carry out any such scheme, but only, if we think it necessary, to prepare such a scheme and place it before this House. That is a power possessed by every Municipality, and in introducing a Bill dealing with the subject I do not see why London should not have similar power. It is also said the Bill is not now as necessary as it was, and that it ought not to be pressed forward on account of the fact that Her Majesty's Government have appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into the subject, but I submit to the House that that fact shows all the more strongly the desirability of passing some such Bill as this I have now the honour of moving. It shows at least that in the opinion of Government there is a primâ facie case. If the Royal Commission should report in favour of a new or supplementary water supply, then before we could do anything to give effect to such a recommendation at least a year, and perhaps more, would be required to pass a preliminary Bill such as this now proposed. We only ask Parliament to place us in a position to act promptly should the Royal Commission declare the necessity for doing so. In consequence of the appointment of the Royal Commission the Bill will have to be materially modified. As it stands Clause 5 gives certain powers of inquiry to the County Council which in view of the inquiry by Royal Commission are not now required. The clause was adopted before the Government had determined upon the Commission. We have no desire to harass the companies or to act unfairly towards them. We propose, therefore, to omit the clause in Committee. Then it has been thought that Clause 3 goes too much into detail, and we propose, at the suggestion of Government, to modify the clause, striking out the detail and inserting general powers. I do not know that in moving the Second Reading I need go into further detail. We had a very interesting discussion not long ago on the subject of a water supply for Birmingham, and I think it was shown that there is a general opinion that quite enough water is taken from the Thames, and in view of the rapid increase of population the subject of our water supply is one of great importance. Under the circumstances, and seeing that the Bill is not very complex in character—that it only asks that the London County Council shall be invested with the powers enjoyed by other Municipalities—I hope the House will now give the Bill a Second Reading.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir John Lubbock.)


I went through the Bill in conference with the representatives of the Corporation and the London County Council, and I think they have fairly met the objections I felt to some of the clauses in view of the fact that the Government had appointed a Royal Commission to deal with the London water supply. As my right hon. Friend knows, the Government were originally of opinion that it would have been better to have followed the suggestion made by the Committee on the Water Bills of last Session, that the County Council itself should conduct an inquiry into the question of the London water supply; but the London County Council represented to us, as did the Corporation, that they would be considerably hampered in the want of power to conduct a proper inquiry, and they pressed on the Government an inquiry by Royal Commission. We acceded to the request of the London County Council and the Corporation, and I think my right hon. Friend and the House will admit that, both in regard to the instructions given to the Royal Commission and the personnel, we have done our utmost to meet the necessities of the case, and to secure a proper, full and impartial investigation into this enormously important question. Having done that, I represented to the gentlemen who waited upon me that it was impossible to assent to the clause enabling the County Council and the Corporation to conduct an inquiry into the question, and to examine into the books and works of the Water Companies. I think it would be very unfair to them that while an inquiry such as this was being undertaken by a Royal Commission, a similar inquiry should be conducted by the County Council and the Corporation. The justice of that view was acknowledged, and, therefore, as my right hon. Friend says, Clause 5 will disappear from the Bill. I also objected to Clause 3, because I thought not only did it give power to the County Council to introduce a Bill connected with the water supply, but it was framed on rather too combative a principle, putting in the forefront of the clause some of the most debateable questions possible to conceive. I was also informed by the Chairman of Committees that he would regard such a clause as contrary to the views expressed by the Committee which sat last year. But I also said at the same time that I did feel, looking at the position at which we had arrived on the water question, that I did not think the Government could fairly ask the House of Commons to reject a clause giving the County Council some power to introduce a Bill. I intimated that while not approving of Clause 3 I should be satisfied with a clause giving general powers to the County Council to introduce a Bill. As a matter of fact, what it amounts to is this: simply that if they introduce a Bill they shall be enabled to pay the cost of such introduction from the rates. This is the same power any other Municipality has in introducing a Bill, but unless a clause of this kind were inserted they would have to run the risk of having to pay the cost of the Bill. I felt that a body like the London County Council having gone carefully into the matter, and a Committee of the House of Commons having indicated that the County Council ought to proceed further, the Government could not fairly ask the House to refuse power to the County Council to introduce such a Bill if they should think it necessary. I think it is extremely probable that the County Council may think it undesirable to introduce such a Bill until the Royal Commission have reported. I do not imagine they have any idea of doing so until then, but they say it is possible they may require or wish to act promptly after the Royal Commission have presented their Report, and for this reason they ask for this power in the Bill. My right hon. Friend has omitted to mention two points upon which the Bill will need amendment. Sub-section "A" of Clause 4 should be omitted. Power is taken by that for the London County Council to make and enforce regulations now made and enforced by the Local Government Board in respect to every water supply throughout the whole country. Whatever form powers in connection with those regulations may take at some future time, I think they should not be transferred until matters are further developed. There are also the words "public or" which should be omitted from Sub-section "B." I see no reason why the London County Council should not have power to make a private inquiry while the Commission make a public inquiry. When these Amendments are made the Bill will assume this shape: it will set up a Joint Committee of the London County Council and the Corporation, and this Joint Committee will have power to make private investigation and to endeavour to come to arrangements with any Water Company who may choose to have negotiations with them, and it will give the County Council power, when it is thought right, generally to deal with water business.

(2.25.) COLONEL MAKINS (Essex, S.E.)

The Water Companies are now perfectly satisfied with the action of the Government and the right hon. Gentleman. The Bill as first introduced was in an objectionable shape, but now, by agreement between my right hon. Friend and representatives of the Corporation and the London County Council, it has been brought into a shape to which there is very little objection indeed. I think, if the companies had been addressed in the moderate tone and fair manner in which my right hon. Friend has introduced this measure, there would have been no necessity whatever for saying anything in opposition to the Bill. The Bill itself, no doubt, carries out practically, or to a very great extent, the recommendations of the Select Committee which reported in July last year. In one important respect, however, it does not do this. The Select Committee made it a very strong point that the County Council should not take steps to introduce competing measures with the Water Companies, and that the House should not give countenance to such measures. That is the only point upon which I should like some further assurance. No doubt the Water Companies are unpopular, but be it remembered they are the creatures of Parliament, they were created by Parliament, that they are bound hand and foot by Acts of Parliament, and are controlled by the Board of Trade and the Local Government Board, and if they have committed faults heavy penalties have been imposed, and they may charitably be supposed to have purged any offence they may have committed. If competing Bills are to be brought in, a large amount of ratepayers' money, as well as shareholders' money, may be wasted in useless attempts at legislation. It is quite true that other large towns have powers to promote Bills, but I am not aware that in all these 50 or 60 cases there has been shown that very strong feeling of antagonism towards Water Companies which has been displayed by some of the members of the London County Council, and there has been no case in which the rights of a Water Company have been compulsorily acquired without arbitration. If everyone had spoken in the tone my right hon. Friend has adopted, the companies would have less objection to the Bill. But there are other members of the Council, such as Sir Thomas Farrer, who, in speeches, in evidence before the Committee, and in letters to the newspapers, have never ceased to exhibit towards the Water Companies an animus finandi of the most violent character. It would not be difficult to give quotations to justify my statement, and but a few days ago Sir Thomas Farrer gloated over the ruin which he thought had been brought upon the Water Companies by the efforts of himself and others, and in proof of his success Sir Thomas Farrer referred to the fall in the value of Water Stock. But what does this mean—this fall in the value of the Water Companies' Stock? It means that a great deal of unnecessary loss and pain falls upon widows and orphans who hold the Stock, and though little sympathy is expressed I think that as much is deserved by them as by the working classes of whom so much is said. Sir Thomas Farrer has expressed delight at the fall in the price of Stock, but that reduction has nothing to do with the value of the property, it has only to do with those who are compelled to sell. The property is held on the faith of Acts of Parliament, and so long as those Acts are maintained the property will keep its value. I hope we shall have the assurance confirmed that there is no intention to introduce competing Bills into Parliament. As I have said, the Water Companies were created by Parliament, and are content to rest their case in the hands of Parliament. If there is no intention to work injustice to the companies by these competing measures I have no more to say, but if there is no such intention, let the fact appear on the face of the Bill, by an Amendment that should be made perfectly clear. I have given notice of an Instruction which would bring the Bill into absolute accord with the Report of the Select Committee, but after the very fair and moderate way in which the Second Reading has been moved, and after the speech just made by the President of the Local Government Board, I think we may rest satisfied that no injustice will be done. I am quite sure that this is the desire of the great majority of the House, though unfortunately that is not an unanimous desire. Having made a protest against confiscating legislation, I shall best consult the interests of those I represent, and of the House generally, by giving notice that I shall not move the Instruction standing in my name.

(3.34.) MR. J. STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

As I suppose from the withdrawal of the Instruction that the Bill will be allowed to go through without opposition, I think I should not allow this opportunity to pass without a reply to the remarks of the hon. Member who has just sat down, with respect to my friend Sir Thomas Farrer. The attitude of Sir Thomas Farrer on this question has been extremely misrepresented by the hon. Gentleman, who has spoken as if Sir Thomas Farrer and other members of the London County Council have not due regard for the interests of widows and orphans. We admit there may be widows and orphans who may be owners of shares in Water Companies; but, Sir, there are widows and orphans who are ratepayers of London, and whose interests equally demand consideration. The hon. Member seems to think that the first action of the London County Council should be to buy up the Water Companies' property at the price the Stock stands in the market now.


No, by arbitration.


I should like to point out that the early anticipation of an arrangement to purchase is an easy ready means of keeping up the price of the shares; but on the other hand the fall in price shows that it is undesirable to hurry in the matter. As to the London County Council introducing competing Bills for a water supply, I may observe that the power to introduce such Bills is in no sense co-extensive with the probability of such Bills being passed. There is no intention of granting to the London County Council any privileges or rights other than those possessed by every other Municipality in the country. All we seek is the right to introduce certain Bills which, being introduced, the House will decide upon them on principles of fairness and justice to all parties.

*(3.37.) SIR J. LUBBOCK

I merely wish to add a few words. As to the 5th clause, we should not have introduced it at all if at the time we had been aware that the Government were about to appoint a Royal Commission. That Commission being appointed we felt the clause was unnecessary, and though, technically, we could not withdraw it, we are prepared to do so in Committee. As regards Clause 3, I may say it was not introduced in any combative spirit, but from a desire to show our intention fully, and we are quite ready to accede to the suggestion of the President of the Local Government Board.

Bill read a second time, and committed.