§ (By Order). Order for Second Heading read.
Motion made, and Question proposed—
That the Rill be now read a second time.
To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months."—(Mr. Pickersgill.)
§ MR. PICKERSGILL) (Bethnal Green, S.W.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to move that this Bill be read a second time this day six months. It is a Bill promoted by a company of which the House has heard a good deal during recent years. This company has an enormous capital, amounting to nearly 12 millions sterling, and serves a very largo area in the North of London. Throughout that vast area the most profound dissatisfaction exists among the consumers with the management of this company, and the results of that management, and the dissatisfaction is made all the more keen and all the more clamorous by the fact that the consumer on the north side of the Thames has to pay 3s. per thousand feet for his gas, whereas the consumer on the other side gets his gas for 2s. 3d., and will, according to an announcement which was recently made, get' it for 2s. 2d. in the immediate future. This Company keeps coming to Parliament for new powers. Last year it obtained an Act enabling it to split its stock, and this year the Company has a Bill of another kind, which is now before the House. All the gas consumers of North London say, and what I desire respectfully to press upon the House is, that before these new powers are granted, some conditions ought to be imposed on this Company in the interests of the consumers. The promoters of the Bill have issued a statement in which they say that this is a most ordinary type of pri- 6 vate Bill. That is a distinction to which I cannot give my assent. Part, and a very important part, of this Bill seems to me of an unusual, exceptional, and extraordinary character. It appears that from time to time lands have been acquired by the Company without Parliamentary powers. These lands were conveyed to the Governor of the Company and another person, and held by them as trustees for the Company, who now come to Parliament and, through this Bill, ask Parliament to legalise their position with regard to these lands. I think, Sir, that that is a demand made upon Parliament to which Parliament should be slow to respond, and certainly there is nothing in the relations of the Company with the public to induce Parliament to in any way consider and be lenient to this Company. The Company have been holding lands without legal authority, and I think this House ought to leave them to settle their position the best way they can, and not now condone their illegality. The remainder of the Bill deals with the proposed increase of stock. The House may possibly remember, from the discussion we have had on this Company and its management on previous occasions, that it is over-capitalised at present. But, notwithstanding that that is so this Bill actually proposes to increase the capital of the company by no less a sum than three and a half millions sterling. The promoters urge that debenture stock bears a lower rate of interest than the ordinary capital. That is true, and if the new debenture stock were to take the place of the ordinary capital, the statement would be evidently true, but this debenture stock is to be created in addition to the already existing, capital. Therefore, the interest to be provided on so large an amount of new capital must tend to an increase rather than to a reduction of the cost of gas. There is one other portion of this statement to which I must refer. An allusion is made to the poorer class of consumers, who make use of the penny-in-the-slot system. I am surprised that that reference should have been made, because of all the classes of consumers of the Gas Light and Coke Company, I think the poorer class, who have occasion to make use of the penny-in-the-slot system, are most harshly treated. I find that the Gas Light and Coke Company charge 1d. for every 22 7 cubic feet consumed, whereas the South Metropolitan Gas Company charge 1d. for every 29 cubic feet. So much for the allusion to the tender regard of the Company for the interests of the poorer class of consumers. This Bill is opposed by the Corporation of the City of London, and the fact that I am co-operating with the Corporation of the City of London in this matter—and I very seldom have the pleasure to be in agreement with that Corporation—is, I think, some sort of primâ-facie argument in favour of the reasonableness of my opposition to this Bill. I ask the House, then, to reject the Bill, but if the House should be against me on that issue, I will, as an alternative, ask the House to refer this Bill to a Select Committee, so that full inquiry may be made into the management of the Company, and the operation of the Sliding Scale, and as to the justice of the existing Statutory conditions before the House departs finally with its control over this Bill. I move, Mr. Speaker, that this Bill be read a second time this day six months.
§ MR. BOULNOIS (Marylebone, E.)
Mr. Speaker, the honourable and learned Gentleman the Member for Bethnal Green has described this as not an ordinary Bill. I maintain that it is quite ordinary in character. It is a Bill of the type which is usually sent to a Select Committee. It is promoted by the existing Company in order to raise further capital, which they cannot do unless they get the sanction of Parliament. There is no question of principle whatever involved in it; it simply asks that the Company may raise further capital in order that they may fulfil the Statutory obligations which have been imposed upon them by Parliament. It is quite impossible for this House to say whether this further capital is needed by the company or not; that is a matter for the Select Committee to inquire into in the ordinary way. As to the question of the price of gas which the honourable and learned Member has raised, I maintain that that is a question with which this House cannot deal. That is also a matter for the Select Committee. If 8 the company are charging too much, the Committee will deal with that, no doubt. There may be 20 reasons why the Gas Light and Coke Company charge more than do the South Metropolitan Gas Company on the other side of the water, and I have no doubt the former company could give a very good defence of their higher charge if an inquiry were made. My honourable Friend the Member for East Islington has put down a Motion to ask the House to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the powers conferred by Parliament on the Metropolitan Gas Companies, and this Motion had been practically blocked by the honourable and learned Gentleman the Member for Bethnal Green, who will not allow the inquiry, and also refuses the company this Bill. I hope the House will free the company from the present deadlock by adopting the usual course, and letting this Bill go to a Select Committee. The honourable and learned Member for Bethnal Green said this company was continually coming to Parliament for further powers. That is not exactly correct. It is true that they came last year or the year before to Parliament in order to get permission to consolidate or make some alteration in their stock: but it is a fact that they have not been to Parliament for 23 years for powers to raise additional capital. And when one considers the enormous growth of London, and the extension of the district which this company have to supply, I think it will be agreed that it is not unreasonable that after so long a time the company should find themselves unable sufficiently to extend their works and mains in order to supply the increased population. The honourable and learned Member has referred to the claim of the company that they are supplying the increasing demand of the working population for gas on the penny-in-the-slot system. I think it is creditable to the country that they should have established that system.
§ MR. PICKERSGILL
Mr. Speaker, I should like to say, by way of explanation, that I do not object to the penny-in-the-slot system. What I objected to was the exorbitant charge which is made by the company.
§ MR. BOULNOIS
The honourable and learned Gentleman says that the Gas Light and Coke Company charge 1d. for 9 every 22 cubic feet consumed in this way, whereas the South Metropolitan Gas Company charge 1d. for 29 feet. That is not a very great difference, and there may be many reasons why the company are obliged to charge more than the South Metropolitan Gas Company. The same thing applies to Electric Lighting Companies in London. It is quite understandable that their prices vary for many reasons. The honourable and learned Gentleman says he is allied with the Corporation of the City of London in opposition to this Bill. I should like to know whether the Corporation has given him a brief to appear for them. I should be very much surprised if the City of London were desirous of throwing out this Bill on the Second Heading, when they would have a right to appear and lodge their objections against the Bill before the Committee upstairs to which it would be sent. Moreover, the City of London have two representatives in this House who could come here and stand up for the City without the City being compelled to appeal for assistance to the honourable and learned Gentleman the Member for Bethnal Green. I am surprised at the unusual course he has adopted of asking the House to reject this Bill, and not to send it to the Committee, who could make all the necessary inquiries, examine all the witnesses, and hear all the objections which could be urged against it. This House is not the proper tribunal to deal with details, and I contend that the honourable and learned Gentleman opposite has not shown any reason why this Bill, which is urgently required by the company, should not be considered, and I hope the House will give it a Second Heading, so that it may go to Committee and be carefully considered.
§ MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)
Mr. Speaker, I should like to say one word in support of what has fallen from my honourable Friend the Member for East Marylebone, because I have had, ever since the commencement of the Session, a Motion on the Paper, which has for its object, and which, in my opinion, would have for its result, that which the honourable Member for Bethnal Green professes to desire—namely, the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the powers of charge conferred on the Metro- 10 politan Gas Companies, with a view to secure uniformity of charge on the north and south sides of the Thames. It is owing to the opposition of the honourable Member for Bethnal Green that that inquiry could not be obtained. I do not see how opposition to this Measure, or to this inquiry for which I have moved, can in any way cheapen the price of gas. The effect of the honourable Gentleman's tactics is to prevent inquiry, and also to prevent our getting before the Committee upstairs the case which we believe we have to make. I do not come to this House as a supporter of the interests of the Gas Light and Coke Company. I believe they do charge unjustly, and it is because I believe that that I want to apply a remedy which will give us redress from our grievance. But I do not want to stop the company in obtaining the Measure now before the House, which, if it does anything at all, will facilitate a more efficient supply of gas on the north side of the Thames. I believe the improvement of their plant would facilitate a cheap and expeditious supply of gas throughout their district. I am sorry that the London County Council, of which body I have the honour to be a member, is also opposing this Bill, but they do so avowedly for reasons with which I have no sympathy. They are of opinion that it will enhance the value of the undertaking of the Gas Light and Coke Company. I do not know whether it will or not, but if it does it will only do so legitimately, because the company are going to add many hundred miles of additional piping. I hope the argument of the London County Council is not one which will appeal to the House. I have the honour to be one of the representatives of the City on the London County Council, and I know that the Corporation of the City of London are in sympathy with my Motion for a Committee, which the honourable Member has blocked, and I do not know, notwithstanding that I am one of their representatives, that they are at all opposed to this Measure. I, therefore, view with with some suspicion the statement of the honourable and learned Member that he is opposing this Bill in association with the Corporation of the City of London. I hope the House will unanimously give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ MR. BARTLEY (Islington, N.)
Mr. Speaker, my constituents take a great interest in this matter, and are extremely anxious to have the inquiry which my honourable Friend has suggested. I think it should be publicly stated that the reason why this inquiry cannot be held is that the honourable Member for Bethnal Green has insisted in blocking the inquiry.
That the word 'now' stand part of the Question.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time.
§ MR. PICKERSGILL
Mr. Speaker, I Will now ask the House to take the alternative course to which I alluded just now, and send this Bill to a Select Committee. That is a course which, under similar circumstances, the House has often taken. There are many precedents, of which I will cite one or two, where a private Bill, having been introduced in connection with a subject relating to which an inquiry by the House was either pending or imminent, has been referred to a Select Committee with special instructions. In 1866 the City of London had a Gas Bill before this House, and the House read it a second time, and referred it to a Select Committee, at the same time directing that Committee to inquire into the operations and the results of the Metropolis Gas Act, 1860. In the following year there was the East London Thames Supply Bill, which was also committed to a Select Committee, with instructions to inquire into the operations and the results of the Metropolis Water Act, 1852. Again, in 1886, there was the London City Traffic Regulation Bill—a private Bill—which was committed to a Select Committee, with instructions to inquire as to the best means of regulating the traffic in the Metropolis. These are precedents on which I rely in asking the House to take the course which I suggest. I therefore propose to move—That the Bill be committed to a Select Committee of 15 Members, of whom seven shall be nominated by the Committee of Selection.12That it be an instruction to tin-Committee to inquire into the powers of charge conferred by Parliament on the Metropolitan Gas Companies, and to report as to the method in which these powers have been exercised, having regard to the differences of price charged by the various companies, and also whether the provisions of the Acts fixing the price of gas supplied and the rate of dividend should he reconsidered.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
Perhaps it will assist the honourable Member if I tell him now that his Instruction is out of order. It proposes to refer to the Select Committee on this Bill the consideration of the affairs and position of a number of other independent companies, to which the Bill has no reference. The honourable Member will see that it is an altogether impossible Instruction upon this Bill.
§ MR. PICKERSGILL
Then I beg to move that this Bill be referred to a Select Committee. The object of doing this is to enable the House to keep control over the Bill until a more effectual inquiry has been made into the management of the Gas Light and Coke Company, into the results of that management, and into the statutory conditions at present existing than would be possible if this Bill was referred to an ordinary Committee.
THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS (Mr. J. W. LOWTHER,) Cumberland, Penrith
I hope the honourable and learned Member will not persist in this Motion. After the ruling of the Speaker there can be no real object in sending this Bill to a Select Committee of 15 Members, because they would not have the power that the honourable Member intended when he put this Instruction on the Paper.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill committed.