HC Deb 26 June 1899 vol 73 cc691-6

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question (21st June), "That the Bill be committed to the Standing Committee on Trade, &c."

Question again proposed.


Perhaps I may be permitted to take this opportunity of stating to the House what are the arrangements that have been made with the National Telephone Company since this subject was last before the House. There are three points that have been discussed with the National Telephone Company. The first is the difficulty which has arisen with regard to certain large boroughs where the National Telephone Company have practically done away with the overhead system, and have spent considerable sums of money in establishing an underground system. This was done before there was any probability of any Bill of this kind being introduced into the House, and that money was expended although the way-leaves were granted under leases terminable on very short notice. There was a very strong fear expressed on the part of the National Telephone Company that the corporation of a borough which, under this Bill, has new powers given it to establish a telephone system of its own, might see its way under this Bill to establish a telephone monopoly of its own within its own bye-laws, give notice to the Telephone Company to terminate its way-leaves in six months, and so practically confiscate large sums of money expended in such a borough by the Telephone Company. That is, of course, something which I do not think is at all likely to occur, though, of course, if any corporation did take such a step it would be sheer confiscation, and I agree with the National Telephone Company that it should be a condition of any licence to be granted to any corporation or company in a borough where such money had been expended that these way-leaves should be practically secured to the company during the remainder of their licence. I think that only a fair step to take. In the first place, it is no great concession, because I do not think any corporation would have behaved in the way in which the National Telephone Company thought was possible, but, as a condition of so securing their way-leaves, I required that the company should come under control. One of the greatest complaints made against the company was that they were unregulated, that we had no control over their rates, either maximum or minimum, and that they were not obliged, as all other public companies were, to treat with the public at all upon equal terms. That in the future will be limited, and the company will be prohibited from granting any preferential terms what-ever.


They never did.


At any rate, that will be impossible in the future. Although my right hon. friend is right in saying that they never did, still, my right hon. friend will admit that theoretically they have that power now. The second point is this, that I realise that if we are going to induce either new companies or special corporations to embark on this work, a licence extending only to 1911 is hardly sufficient temptation to them. I think we ought to give to those new companies and corporations a substantial term of either 20 or 25 years; and if we were to do that it would be grossly unfair, I think, not to extend the National Telephone Company's licence also, subject, however, to the same restrictions and prohibition of preferential rates. Everywhere the company will cease to be a monopoly. In those limited areas where the company have already exchanges, competition will be encouraged by the Bill, and the company have undertaken to enter no new areas—that is to say, that, whereas under existing conditions they have a perfect right to compete throughout the whole of the country, in future the licence will be so limited that they will not be able to set up exchanges in any area whatever. That, of course, will be a great protection to the smaller municipalities, where there is no exchange at present, and where the National Telephone Company will be prevented under the present Bill from setting up competition. I hope the House will acknowledge that the company have treated the Government most fairly, and I trust that, now they have come to terms, the result will be a more efficient service throughout the length and breadth of the land. The House will, I hope, deal with perfect fairness by the company, now that terms have been arranged, and allow the Bill to be sent to the Standing Committee on Trade.

* MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)

I believe I shall he in order if I move to omit the words "Standing Committee on Trade," and insert the words "Select Committee of this House." I only wish to say that my right hon. friend some time ago said he did not know how anybody could object to this proposal who had served on the Select Committee upon this question last year. Now it is precisely because I have served on that Committee that I make this motion, because the Bill before the House is diametrically opposed to the recommendations of that Committee. I should not be in 0111er if I attempted to establish the truth—which I could do—of what I have just said; but I am in order, I think, when I ask the House to refer this Bill to a Select Committee, because, in consequence of the form which it has now assumed, it raises entirely new issues. It now affects different considerations upon which we ought to have an investigation and evidence, and we ought to have witnesses who are capable of informing us how far the proposals of the Bill will be affected by the change which it has now undergone. I am not able to argue on this motion why I make this statement, but I claim in support of my Amendment not only the vote of the right hon. Gentleman who presided over that Committee with conspicuous ability, but I also claim the support of my right hon. friends on the front bench who, by consenting to the appointment of a Joint Committee of both Houses to inquire into this dangerous growth of municipal trading, have themselves recognised that the principle is wrong. I submit, therefore, that they ought not to oppose the appointment of a Select Committee, and I beg to move.

Amendment proposed, To leave out the words 'the Standing Committee on Trade, &c.,' and add the words 'a Select Committee.'"—(Mr. Cohen.)

Question proposed, "That the words 'the Standing Committee on Trade, &.,' stand part of the Question."

* MR. KIMBER (Wandsworth)

I think it is somewhat hard upon hon. Members who, with due diligence, have endeavoured to find an opportunity on the Second Reading of this Bill to express their views that a great many of them have been prevented from doing so by circumstances over which they have no control. I presume that now I am limited, as a matter of order, to discussing only the question of the Committee to which the Bill can be referred, and it is not open to us to discuss the merits of the Bill. It is more hard still that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury should have brought forward this evening more new matter which seems to shift the ground, and alters the reasons upon which the Bill was referred. In referring this Bill to the Grand Committee many of us probably will be deprived of that opportunity which we should get either in a Committee of the whole House or on a Select Committee, where we should have the right of bringing evidence upon the subject. The Bill appears to me to be a money Bill involving an expenditure of £2,000,000, and it seeks to give power to local authorities to raise money out of the rate-payers' pockets for the purpose of entering upon municipal trading.

It being after midnight, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.