HC Deb 28 June 1897 vol 50 cc652-67

THE PRESIDENT OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOARD (Mr. HENRY CHAPLIN, Lincolnshire, Sleaford) moved the Second Reading of this Bill.

MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

characterised the Measure as a miserable little Bill, which had been introduced by the Government in fulfilment of the much larger promise made by them to the House, and especially to the London Members. The right hon. Gentleman who introduced it said it would strengthen and improve the position of the, water consumers and give adequate redress to those who were suffering front the water companies. What London wanted, however, was a supply of water rather than a redress of grievances. The main grievance was that under certain circumstances and conditions there had been a failure on the part of certain companies to give a proper and constant supply of water in many parts of London. In regard to the administration of the companies they had no unity, no control, and therefore no popular authority. The fact was the interests of the consumer and the shareholder were antagonistic. Not one of these matters was incidentally touched on by the Bill, which the President of the Local Government Board said would remedy the grievances of the water consumers. What was wanted while the Royal Commission was reporting was a more expeditions, inexpensive, and decisive mode of obtaining redress of individual grievances. In order to obtain the redress of minor grievances the only means the consumer had were either to go to a magistrate or appeal to the Local Government Board, and it was now proposed to add a further tribunal to give the consumer a better opportunity. But he doubted whether the tribunal selected would be of great advantage to the consumer. He doubted whether it would be more expeditious; it would be more cumbersome, and unquestionably it would be more expensive, and it would play largely into the hands of the water companies. If, under the Bill, the local authority could adopt the position of the individual it would be an advantage, but if, in the poorer parts of London, where the local rates were heavy, and the local authorities went to law, the cost would come out of the ratepayers' and consumers' pockets. If the local authorities were to be brought in they should have a measure of control and some power of carrying out their wishes. The fault he found with the Bill generally was that it would add a tribunal which would be expensive, slow, and cumbersome, and which would be scarcely used by individuals or local authorities. He would not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, but he expressed his regret that the Government, in dealing with the water companies, had put aside the question of purchase and popular control by the appointment of a Royal Commission, and had proposed an additional tribunal with no positive reform in the existing law, which should be more in favour of the consumer and against a monopoly.

MR. E. H. PICKERSGILL (Bethnal Green, S.W.)

remarked that the First Lord of the Treasury had said the Session ought not to pass without a solution of the question being arrived at. No one could say that the Bill was a solution of the question or anything like it. The real mischief of the position was that Parliament had conferred exorbitant powers upon the London Water Companies without imposing upon them corresponding obligations. The Bill neither restricted those powers nor enlarged those obligations. All that it attempted to do was to provide another tribunal for determining what the rights of the water consumer were, and enabled certain local authorities to bring complaints or assist the private individual to obtain the decision of any question relating to water supply of general interest. This Bill was at best only a Bill dealing with procedure, and it left the substantial rights of the water companies precisely where they were. Contracts between the water companies and the consumer were outside the purview of the Bill. They ought not to be, because in many cases the consumer was compelled to enter into a contract with the company, and the company with its vast resources on the one hand and the consumer on the other were not on equal terms. The Bill should deal with unreasonable contracts as well as the failure to perform a statutory duty. Any local authority might itself complain. It must not be lost sight of that at present there were two local authorities which could complain, any Metropolitan water authority had at present the power of complaining, and the water authorities were the City Corporation and the London County Council. No doubt during recent years it would have been competent to the London County Council to complain, but as he understood the London County Council was advised that it would not be worth while to take proceedings and to sue for penalties provided by the Act. By this Bill, however, he understood the Commission would have power to enforce its own orders. How it would be able to enforce its order, and whether in practice it would be found to be effective was of course a matter which only the future could decide. Then, with regard to the power to complain of the quantity or quality of the water, the Bill only provided an additional tribunal. As the law at present stood it was open to some 20 householders to approach the Local Government Board, if they wished to complain of the quantity or quality of the water, and the Board might make an inquiry, and the Metropolitan authority might then sue. The only real change which was made by the Bill in this respect was to set up as a new authority, the Railway and Canal Commission. He was afraid that Commission as a body had not so far established itself very firmly in the confidence of the public—["hear, hear!"]—and he was not sure that the ratepayers of London would be satisfied with the proposal. He would like to say a good word for Clause 2 of the Bill, because he thought the ratepayers would hear with considerable satisfaction that power was to be given to a local authority to aid financially a water consumer who was fighting a case in the interests of the public. He noticed that the directors of the water companies disliked this clause very much, and therefore he was sure it was calculated to do good. The Bill did not in any way affect the subtantive rights of the companies, and the consumers of London would be bitterly disappointed if two provisions were not included. In the first place, they thought it a very hard and indefensible thing that they should have to pay for water which they did not receive, and he hoped the Government would insert a proviso to the effect that if a water company did not supply water, from whatever cause the failure might arise, it should not be entitled to payment. The second point was in regard to the practice of cutting off the supply, which had been a matter of frequent complaint. When a company cut off the supply there was the additional grievance that it charged an exorbitant sum for reconnecting the supply, and, moreover, a dwelling-house without water was by the Public Health Act, 1891, a nuisance which was liable to be dealt with summarily. It was monstrous that a water company should be empowered to cut off the water supply if the consumer did not pay his quarterly water rate in advance on the very day. He hoped the Government would introduce a provision which would relieve the unwary consumer of water of this disadvantage.

SIR JOHN LUBBOCK (London University)

said that the two hon. Members who had endeavoured to disparage this Bill did not represent the general opinion of London Members. The Bill did not profess to deal with the whole subject, but so far as it went it was a valuable Measure, and even the hon. Members who had spoken did not deny that it contained useful provisions. It was no small merit of the Bill that there was a general consensus that what was in the Bill was good, though the opponents wished to introduce additional provisions. It was said that the East End was in favour of purchase, but surely that was a question of price. If the water companies had been bought up, under the arrangement made some years ago by Mr. Smith, the shareholders would have had £1,100,000 in dividends more than they had actually received. He hoped that the Royal Commission would lose no time in making their Report. The hon. Member for Poplar said that the great grievance was the failure of supply which had taken place in East London, but that was due to the action of hon. Gentlemen opposite. Mr. Burdett, who spoke with such high authority, had stated—he believed with truth—that the tendency of opinion amongst those who had studied the question was in favour of control rather than of purchase. It would be found ultimately that the Government, by appointing the Commission and introducing this Bill had taken the wisest course in the interest of the ratepayers of the Metropolis and the solving of the problem of the water supply of London.

MR. LIONEL HOLLAND (Tower Hamlets, Bow and Bromley)

thought the Bill a perfectly harmless Measure. If it brought but little benefit to the consumers it, at any rate, left their rights, such as they were, undisturbed. But the Bill would cease to be harmless, if it were to be considered for one moment to be in any way a fulfilment of the announcement contained in the Queen's Speech; if it were to be taken in any way as a satisfaction of the demand of the consumers for a more regular and a more efficient supply; if it were to be adduced as an argument for not bringing forward legislation as soon as possible for the removal of the inequalities and irregularities of the present system; or if it were to be considered as a step towards the establishment of a policy of control. He understood from the speech of the President of the Local Government Board in introduction of the Bill, that the Government considered it a temporary Measure. But the Member for London University put a somewhat different interpretation on the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman regarded it as the first step towards a policy of control. But the Bill did not deal with any of the disadvantages or anomalies of the present system of supply, such as the power of the companies to raise their toll on a house as the rateable value went up, although they did not supply a single additional gallon of water, and were not put to a shilling of additional expense, and to compel the consumer to pay for water whether he received it or not. He need not go through the anomalies of the present system of supply. They were made manifest by the Reports of the innumerable Committees and Commissions which had sat to investigate the question. Not one of those inequalities or anomalies was even touched upon in the present Bill, and therefore if it were to be considered a bar to future legislation when the Commission reported, or as the first step in the policy of control, it would become a very harmful Bill. He accepted the Bill simply and purely as an Amendment to procedure, and he trusted that when the Commission reported there would be no delay in bringing in legislation, now long overdue, for permanently settling the problem of the water supply of London.

MR. T. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

said that he was afraid the Government would be known in history as the Government which had excited great hopes by the subjects which it had named to be dealt with, and the greatest disappointment by its manner of handling those subjects. The Government did not seem able to get away from this metropolitan water question. They began by causing the County Council Bills to be defeated, then they introduced a Water Trust Bill, and the question appeared in the Queen's Speech. And now, in fulfilment of all this promise, this miserable Bill was introduced. He could not see what benefit the inhabitants of London were to derive from the interference of the Railway Commissioners in the Water Question. What had the Commissioners done? They were one of the standing jokes of the Estimates. But the Water Question was urgent, as the conduct of the Government and the sufferings of the people of the Metropolis showed. Last year there was a famine in the East of London, and this year there had been one in the South, and these famines would frequently recur under the present system. The attitude of the companies—who in the last few years had come to Parliament to ask for power to raise nine millions of money—showed that they recognised how inadequate the present arrangements were. Purchase on a broad and fair basis to the owners of property was the best way of solving this Question; and he hoped that the present Bill would not be accepted as a substitute for that great policy. As to the Bill, there was nothing in it.

MR. EDWARD BOULNOIS (Marylebone, E.)

said that he did not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill; but as it had been introduced as a public Bill the water companies lost their opportunity of being heard on the various points raised. The companies had no need to fear any investigation. They had endeavoured to carry out the statutory obligations in the past, and if they did not do so in the future they were willing that the consumer should have a Court before which he could lay his complaint. At the same time, the provision allowing the local authority to aid the consumer out of the rates in carrying his complaint before the Courts required very serious consideration. The companies disliked that provision, because they thought it would lead to frivolous complaints being brought before the Courts. It was, in effect, the doctrine of maintenance, and why should it be applied to the water companies only, and not to the railway and gas companies, and perhaps to the London General Omnibus Company? He would suggest the insertion of a safeguard, requiring the local authority to obtain the sanction of the Local Government Board or of the Attorney General. Clause 3 would require careful consideration. The consumer in the outside areas would be put to considerable expense in altering his fittings for a constant supply. He should suggest certain amendments in Committee, and, as they would not interfere with the principle of the Bill, he hoped they would be favourably received.


said that it was hardly accurate to describe the Bill as having been introduced in fulfilment of the promises of the Government last year. It was introduced in fulfilment of a promise which he gave at the beginning of the Session. The Leader of the House had in a letter expressed the strong desire of the Government to arrive at some solution of this question at the earliest opportunity, and the Government had done what was wisest and best for that end. They had appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into a number of important subjects intimately connected with this Question which had never been thoroughly thrashed out, and, in addition, they had introduced this Bill as a more or less temporary measure pending the Report of the Commission. An hon. Member had charged him with having spoken of this Bill in the most grandiloquent terms on its introduction. What he actually said was that it was "a simple and modest Bill" and a "very short one." He added: — The new powers and duties which we are conferring upon the local authorities must not be underrated, because, in my opinion, they are very considerable. To that opinion he still took the liberty of adhering. Some hon. Members had done their best to disparage the Measure, but he supposed that was only an assertion of their position sitting in opposition. Even they, however, were compelled to admit that there was, at all events, some good in the Bill, and the Government had no reason whatever to complain of the general reception it had met with in the House. ["Hear, hear!"] But the Bill did a good deal more than appeared on the surface. It was no small matter to bring in all the local authorities and to give them power to initiate complaints without waiting for the initiative of individual consumers. It was said this power was not new, but whereas 20 complaints were now required before the Local Government Board could take notice of it, under the. Bill a complaint could be made by any single individual. Very often, he thought, the water companies had been unfairly attacked, and he would give an instance. It was alleged that the Lambeth Water Company had seized the opportunity of the Jubilee to cut off the supply of the people. As soon as information reached him that there was difficulty in that quarter, he made it his business to inquire at once, and, so far as he had any knowledge of the subject, he was at a loss to conceive how the difficulty could have been avoided, no matter in whose hands the control of the water was. What occurred was this. There was an extraordinary and quite abnormal invasion of fish-spawn in the river. This was always a difficulty, he understood, which arose every year more or less during June, but this year it was quite exceptional. The previous cold weather was supposed to have delayed the spawn. Then came two days of extreme heat, and this was followed by the abnormal invasion of spawn which blocked the filters, and quite prohibited any further supply of filtered water until the spawn had been removed from the filter beds. Even with a large staff of men this work took some time, and that, he believed, was the reason of the dearth of water which occurred only a few days ago. Where the companies did their duty the Bill would be inoperative; where they did not, they would have a formidable body of local authorities always ready to bring them to task, and fight them for any transgression of which they might have been guilty on perfectly even terms. The position, therefore, would be very different from that of the unfortunate individual consumer in the past. As to the suggestion that individuals would have difficulty in persuading the local authorities to act, he doubted it very much. Did the hon. Member opposite, who had some experience of the London County Council, think it would be very hard, when a legitimate opportunity arose, to persuade that body to take action against the metropolitan water companies, for whom they had no very great affection and with whom they had a good many outstanding quarrels? With regard to suggested amendments, from whatever quarter of the House, he could only say that the Government were prefectly prepared to give them, one and all, the most careful consideration.

MR. JAMES STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

desired information on two points—first, the sort of cases in which the promoters thought the Bill would be applicable; and secondly, the nature of the new tribunal. The utility of the tribunal would depend largely on whether it was an expensive one or not. It had been alleged that the Railway Commission was an extremely expensive body. [The ATTORNEY GENERAL: "No!"] That should be denied, for it was clear it would be a very serious thing for either an individual consumer or a local authority to appear before a body where very large counsels' fees might be paid by the water companies and the costs ultimately thrown on the complainants. The right hon. Gentleman, with a courtesy which they all recognised, endeavoured to make out that the promises made by the Government were not involved in the Bill at all. He altogether denied that what the Government had done in connection with the Royal Commission— which was the only thing they had done except to throw out the late Water Purchase Bills— was in any sense a fulfilment of what all sides must have been led to expect. He held in his hand an extract from the letter of the Conservative Member for East London, addressed last August to the First Lord of the Treasury, and in his reply the right hon. Gentleman, speaking on behalf of the Government, said, "We strongly feel that next Session ought not to pass without a solution being arrived at." There was nothing about "a step towards a solution;" it was "without a solution being arrived at." When the right hon. Gentleman made that statement in the letter it was very generally received with approval, and accepted as an indication that the Government had risen to the occasion and recognised their duty, seeing that the danger was not to be avoided by any other means, and the whole question of London water supply was urgent and ought to be dealt with without delay. In the Queen's Speech at the opening of the Session there was a paragraph to the effect that a Bill would be submitted to the House for improving the arrangements for the water supply of the Metropolis, and he asked was this the promised Bill, or should they look for another Bill. Was the Bill now introduced the fulfilment of the promise or not? If it was not, then where was the Bill and why had it been suspended? Had the Government altered their minds since they prepared the Queen's Speech? Or if this was the Bill indicated, where had the right hon. Gentleman's argument vanished to? Was the present Bill a mere emanation from the right hon. Gentleman's speech on the London County Council Bills? Was it a fulfilment of the promise in the Queen's Speech? These were questions he would like to have answered? As to this Bill, he certainly should not oppose it. It was a Bill that was neither here nor there;" it was a slight, small, unimportant Measure, and nobody would long to make it anything else. The position seemed to be this, that the Bill was an essential part of the Government promise, but they could not go further just now, for they had tied their own hands, and it was just this position into which the Government had brought themselves of which he complained. Let the House look at the situation. For many years there had been a series of Committees and Commissions on this London water question, and all undoubtedly pointed in one direction, purchase by some municipal authority until there was the famous and all-important Committee of 1891, presided over by the present Home Secretary. It was a strong Committee, and it investigated the whole of the question from the point of view of joint management, from the point of view of constituting a new authority, from the point of view of simple purchase, and the Committee recommended that the London County Council should be empowered, or practically obliged, for that was what it came to, to consider the whole question and bring in a Measure for constituting a water authority, and if it should constitute itself a water authority, or propose to do so in this Measure, it was bound to purchase the water companies by arbitration. The Council brought in a Bill to carry this out, and the Government opposed that Bill. They were last year under the glamour of some idea that they could do something other than that Sir Mathew White Ridley's. Committee recommended. They still believed that some middle course was possible, but there were some Members on the other side of the House who saw better than the Government, and knew this could not be so. This year, when the Government had to face the question straightly, instead of trying to find a middle course, they were obliged to arrange a Commission, which Commission should enter into the very things Sir M. W. Ridley's Committee reported upon. The Government had landed themselves in an impassable position; they could not get out of that position, and they appointed a Commission to consider the whole thing over again when it was ripe for solution. So they had tied their hands, and could not do anything but bring in this exceedingly small, unimportant Measure. He could not accept the right hon. Gentleman's history of how the Bill came to be introduced, when he said it arose out of his pledge given when he was calling upon the House to throw out the London County Council's Water Purchase Bills. The First Lord of the Treasury said the Session ought not to pass without a solution of this question being arrived at, and the Queen's Speech contained a promise of a Bill to improve the arrangements of the water supply of the Metropolis. Was this Measure a fulfilment of that promise, or was it not?


did not rise to follow the hon. Gentleman's survey of the question and the comments on various topics he had introduced into his speech, but to answer specific questions as to the cases which, as he conceived, would be dealt with by the Bill. At the present time, of course, proceedings could be undertaken by twenty water consumers, and by application to a magistrate, to enforce what he might call the minor duties of water companies; but there was not any ready tribunal for dealing with greater questions. If hon. Members would look at the second sub-section of the first clause it would be seen that it was contemplated that such questions as the quantity and quality of water supplied, and of a constant supply, should be dealt with by the Railway Commission. Those who had studied the subject would agree that a magistrate, or even an arbitrator, except under special circumstances, were not the best tribunals for the settlement of such questions as these. Hon. Members had spoken of the great expense of proceedings before the Railway Commission, but they bad been led into exaggeration on this point, and their statements were absolutely contradicted by cases within his experience. There was a safeguard in the Bill which was excluded from the Act of 1888, that all costs would be within the discretion of the tribunal, and everybody would know perfectly well that if the Commission found there was good foundation for the complaint they would throw the whole cost of proceedings on the Company. Under the present law there was no practical means of raising such questions as the quantity and quality of water, or of adequate supply, except by proceedings for mandamus in the High Court, and it would not be suggested that this procedure would be less costly. He did not wish to repeat what his right hon. Friend had said. For serious causes of complaint the Bill offered a remedy, and as such he asked the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

MR. JOHN LOWLES (Shoreditch, Haggerston)

said though he, in common with other London Members, would have liked a more comprehensive dealing with the subject, he had come to the conclusion that it was wiser to have an inquiry by a Commission of experts, because the question, after exhaustive inquiry, might be settled once for all. He did not minimise the importance of the present Measure, and it would be assessed at its proper value by those who had felt the effects of the water famine. It gave individual consumers an opportunity to set in motion power of inquiry into the shortcomings of water companies. The whole question of water supply fully deserved serious consideration, and East End Members felt this strongly; but the feeling would be general that the Government had acted wisely in trying to settle the question conclusively by means of an Inquiry by a Commission of experts. Meantime he regarded this means by which individual consumers would be able to set in motion power to compel water companies to fulfil their obligations as exceedingly useful. It would have a preventive effect, the knowledge of such a power would stimulate the anxiety of companies to meet the requirements of consumers.


said there was an advantage in the proposed mode of procedure over the method of expropriation which had so many advocates on the other side of the House. Directly they entered on the question of expropriation they involved all questions of interference with rights of property, necessitating the utmost possible caution against raising the opposition not only of those whose property was immediately interfered with, but of those who might think their turn would come next, and who would therefore join hands in resisting the proposal. Moreover, the dislike of expropriation was intensified by mistrust of the London County Council, and a reluctance to do anything that would throw the administration of the whole of the London water supply into its hands. It was, he thought, a difficulty which was likely to occur over and over again in the municipal government of London that the extraordinary want of tact which had marked the County Council's manœuvres had created a prejudice against it which would go far to destroy any advantages which might have been expected from a great popular institution like that. So long as it went on masquerading as London's Parliament, so long as it was inflated by the spirit that animated The Daily Chronicle, so long would it be found that Parliament, and many persons outside Parliament, were extremely reluctant to increase, in any respect whatever, the authority intrusted to the County Council. If they would be more wisely guided, if they would adopt an attitude of greater humility —[Opposition laughter]—and would be content to be only the first municipal corporation of the country, then, certainly, it would be possible to extend very largely their powers with a just confidence that those powers would be wisely used. An advantage of proceeding by the method of control was that they controlled the companies and they compelled them to do their duty. No question of property would arise; no question of whether a new authority was to be constituted which might be distrusted, as was the case with the County Council. They had the simple method of compelling the existing authority to do its duty, and therefore he, for his part, was very glad indeed that the Government had seen fit to adopt the method of control rather than some more ambitious kind. He hoped that when this Bill was passed, there would be no reluctance whatever to use its provisions and compel the water companies at all times to do their duty. ["Hear, hear!"] There was one power which he thought might have been added to the Bill, and which, perhaps, the Government would consider when they came to the Committee stage. This was the granting to the Railway and Canal Commission the power to deal with the question of water rates in so many cases as the water had been defectively supplied, whether in point of quality or quantity. Nothing had struck people as more conspicuously unfair and unreasonable in connection with the water companies than their action in exacting the full measure of their rates when, through frost or drought, they had been unable to supply the full measure of water. It would be an advantage if a clause could be inserted in the Bill which would enable the Commission to make an order for diminished water rates in proportion to the diminution that had taken place in the quantity of water supplied. He thought that would be an eminently fair regulation, and would give a sensible relief to the aggrieved water consumer, and it would act as a kind of automatic penalty of which the water companies would be afraid, and which they would take the utmost trouble to escape. It would become more desirable, in the Committee stage, to investigate somewhat more at length the question whether the tribunal to which these powers were to be intrusted was nearly so expensive as had been suggested by the hon. Member for Shoreditch, but, as he was glad to hear, the Attorney General denied. If it was the fact that it was an expensive tribunal, it would surely seem that the expense must arise from some cause which could be regulated, and which might, therefore, form the subject for amendment in this Bill. A clause might be inserted similar to the one in the Clergy Discipline Act of 1892, under which a small judicial committee were given power to make rules so that they might reduce the expense and facilitate the process of litigation as much as possible. Some amendments of the kind he had indicated would, he thought, improve the Bill, but he was convinced that he was only reflecting the opinion of his constituents when he said that the great majority of those who had complained, and very reasonably complained, of the action of the water companies in the past would feel the Government had taken a great step towards removing their grievances in introducing a Measure which would establish effective control over these companies.

Bill read a Second time, and committed for Thursday.