HC Deb 03 July 1900 vol 85 cc379-88

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

MR. DOOGAN (Tyrone, E.) moved that the Bill be read a second time this day three months. He said that if the Provisional Order was confirmed it would confer a monopoly on the Dungannon Gas Company, to the great loss of the people of that town. The local authority of Dungannon, up to the 1st April last, was a board of town commissioners constituted under an old Act, the 9th of George IV., whereby special privileges of rating were given to the occupiers of that town. The board of guardians was the sanitary authority, and the sanitary and water rates were paid half by the landlord and half by the tenant. If the town commissioners had before 1st April last obtained powers to provide a gas scheme, the incidence of rating would have been altered, and the payment of rates would have fallen altogether on the tenant, en- tailing a loss of £540 per annum, a loss which would have more than counterbalanced any gain to be derived from the possession of gas works. The passing of the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 had, however, changed that position. It enabled the town commissioners to apply to the Local Government Board to be constituted an urban council and sanitary board with all the powers conferred upon them by the Local Government Act. The gas company, knowing that the Dungannon council would now enter into competition with them under the provisions of the Act of 1854 which they could do without any practical change in their rating system, determined to forestall the council, and prevent them exercising their new power, had applied for this Provisional Order, which if confirmed would give them the statutory right to break up the streets, and exclude the local authority from supplying gas in the interests of the ratepayers. During the whole of their existence the gas company never before applied for a Provisional Order, and never had the power to break up the streets, but this Bill, if passed, would give them that power, and also enable them to sell their undertaking to the people of Dungannon at an enormous profit. This was a Bill to create a monopoly in the hands of a private company which had been paying a dividend of 10 per cent. for sixteen years. They had charged 5s. 10d. per 1,000 feet of gas, a price much higher than in any neighbouring town in the county of Tyrone. The price in Strabane is 4s. 2d.; in Omagh, 4s. 7d.; Corkstown, 4s. 7d; the price in Armagh is 3s. 4d., and in the adjoining county, Portadown, 3s. 9d. In no Ulster town is the price so high as it is in Dungannon. If the Bill passed there was no prospect of the gas company ever lessening the present price, and they would continue to make an enormous profit out of the people of Dungannon. The company started with a capital of £3,000 –600 £5 shares. Afterwards the company made a call of £2 on their shareholders, which increased the capital to £4,200. So far as he could ascertain that was all the additional capital the shareholders had ever paid into the company. But the capital was nominally raised in 1880 to £6,000, on which constantly a dividend of 10 per cent. had been paid since for sixteen years. Another inflation of the capital had been made a short time before the company sought this Provisional Order. A new company was formed, and at one stroke the capital was raised from £6,000 to £9,000, without a penny being paid; but the new company was nothing but the old company, which merely raised their shares from £10 to £15, and had themselves registered a new company. The transaction was the very embodiment of simplicity in the art of flotation. This Confirmation Bill would enable the company to charge the ratepayers of Dungannon a price sufficiently high in order to pay 10 per cent. on their inflated capital. The present price of gas was so prohibitory that out of 1,040 householders in Dungannon only 245 made use of it, and that on such a small scale that the gas supply of the town was only sufficient to make darkness visible. The policy of the House had been to give the control of public utilities to the local authority. If this Bill be confirmed it would inflict a great injustice on the people of Dungannon; their streets would be broken up, their representatives would be precluded from supplying gas at a popular price, and allocating the profits to the reduction of Urban rates, and the gas company would make themselves both inconvenient and intolerable with the ultimate purpose of enormously enhancing the value of their undertaking and compelling the town to buy them out on their own terms. Hitherto the company had been mere trespassers on the streets, but this Bill would give them power of using the streets to put down mains and supply pipes, and to interfere with the sewers, the water supply, and the general efficient management of the streets. In fact, if the Town Council of Dungannon were to put a steam-roller on their own streets they would be liable for an action for damages if a leak were to occur in the company's pipes, He would give an illustration of how the company had used their powers as private monopolists. He was told on undoubted authority that about 1879 a gentleman bought a hundred £5 shares for £3 each. In 1880 these £5 shares were raised to £10, so that his capital of £300 was raised to £1,000, on which a dividend of £100 was paid; and if the Bill were passed that dividend would be raised in future to £150. Talk of Klondike. Why, it was not in it with this private company's gold mine in Dungannon. It was high time that the company should be checked in their career, instead of being confirmed by the House in their monopoly, which would enable them to break up the streets of Dungannon in despite of the unanimous opposition of the citizens and the local sanitary authority, in order to force upon them gas at a price so high that more than three-fourths of the householders at the present time refuse to use it. The local authority, in whose hands the lighting of the town should be placed, had no objection to buy the undertaking of the Gas Company at a fair price based on their true capital. But if the company obtained statutory powers they would be able, by making themselves unpalatable to the people, to force a sale on the basis of their nominal capital and at an exorbitant price. Having regard to all the circumstances in connection with this Bill, he appealed respectfully to the House to reject it, and he begged to move the motion standing in his name.


It will be unnecessary for me to occupy the time of the House at any length in seconding the motion of the hon. Member. The hon. Member for East Tyrone alluded to that portion of the country in which Dungannon is situated, and naturally it falls to my hon. friend to make the motion concerning it. I am asked by the Urban Council of Dungannon to identify myself with his opposition, and I am requested by the chairman of the urban council, who is also agent for Lord Ranfurly, Governor of New Zealand, and by the people of the neighbourhood to take a prominent part in laying before the House the opposition to this Bill. I do not wish to say a single word against the Board of Trade. The President of the Board of Trade has always shown himself most anxious and most earnest in developing the resources of the country. While not finding fault with the manner in which the Commissioner who was sent down in March conducted the inquiry, or with the report that he made, and while I do not wish in any way to reflect upon the general management of the Board of Trade, or the manner in which its representatives act on occasions of this sort, I wish to state that a remonstrance has been sent to the Board of Trade on the part of those who object to this Provisional Order. I regret that due effect was not given to that remonstrance, for if that had been done it would have prevented the expense that will be incurred by the urban council of Dungannon in opposing this Bill in Parliament. It is unnecessary that I should at any length follow the hon. Member in the statement he has made concerning the high price of gas under the management of the gas company, and the large dividend which is paid to the shareholders. I merely wish to say that the urban ratepayers are unanimous in asking the House to reject this Bill. If this Bill is passed the householders of Dungannon will suffer a great injustice, and the only remedy that will be left will be the adoption of the electric light. I ask the House to carefully consider that this is one of those opportunities given to local bodies of developing the resources of Ireland. If the House refuses to reject this Bill on this, occasion it will be striking a blow at the local government of Ireland and stultifying a measure which caused them much effort and was successfully passed through the House last session.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day three months.'"—(Mr. Doogan.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

MR. MURNAGHAN (Tyrone, Mid)

I wish to say two or three words on this, subject. I have, like the hon. Member for South Belfast, been requested by the people of Dungannon to move in this matter and to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. I do so as a Member from the County Tyrone and in compliance with the wishes of a great many of the inhabitants. It is quite true that the price of gas in Dungannon has been abnormal. In the county the price of gas is 1s. 3d. per 1,000 feet less. than in the town of Dungannon. In the neighbouring towns it is. still less. The methods by which the gas company has carried on business are certainly not such as to commend it to public favour. After what has occurred, I think we must ask the House, to reject the Bill. We are now dealing; with a little town in Ireland, and I ask the House to do for that town what it has done for great towns.


Compared with the, other lighting questions before the House to-day and yesterday, this is no doubt a very small matter, but it is rather an important matter for the town of Dungannon, part of which is in my constituency, and that is the reason why I speak on the subject. The first thing the House has to bear in mind is that, until the Local Government Act of 1898, the town commissioners of Dungannon were debarred from either acquiring or erecting gasworks. They had no power. They were absolutely precluded, and therefore this company is in existence and has grown up. This company, which has been in existence a great many years, has had a rather curious history. It has an entire paid up capital amounting to £4,200. Under the Order it is proposed to make this capital into a sum of £9,000. What has taken place is this They have supplied gas to the town of Dungannon, and for the last thirty years the price of gas has varied from 7s. 6d. to 5s. 10d. per 1,000 cubic feet. They have paid dividends consistently of 10 per cent., and the profits, after payment of 10 per cent., have been used in extending the works. This inflated capital has been made through the consumers of gas in Dungannon being compelled by a monopoly to pay an exorbitant price. That is the second thing the House ought to bear in mind. I wish to call the attention of my right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade to this matter. The gentleman who hold the inquiry was asked to go and inspect the works —this is really an important matter for the Board of Trade—and he declined to go. He stated that he had seen them from the railway as he passed. I rather think that on the question of inflated capital that is a fact which should be taken into account. The gentleman who inquired really did not inspect the works at all. Now the price of gas is 5s. 10d. per 1,000 feet. For fifteen or sixteen years it has been enormously in excess of the price charged by other companies in towns in the immediate neighbourhood. I think these are facts the House ought to take into account in dealing with the question, but when all is said and done this company is in possession. It has property which cannot be disposed of unless it is disposed of fairly and honestly. I have been appealed to by both parties. The chairman of the gas company is an old friend of my own—he formerly represented in this House the county a division of which I now represent—Mr. Thomas Dickson. Mr. Dickson, as representing the gas company, has given what I think is a perfectly fair proposal. This is a matter for purchase at a fair price. The town commissioners, now that they are entitled by law to purchase, have proposed to give the gas company £7,000 for the undertaking. Mr. Dickson has asked £9,000. He has, I think with perfect fairness, stated that the gas company is quite willing that £9,000 should be the maximum, and that the difference between £7,000 and £9,000 should be settled by the Government arbitrator. I recognise that as being a very fair offer. I have received a telegram stating that the Urban Council have agreed in principle to the purchase, and that the question now is one of price. I am going to make an appeal to my right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade. I have been engaged for two days in opposing him, and I do not know that he will be in any very good humour for listening to any appeal I may make, but I am sure he will recognise the fairness of what I am going to ask. The question is merely one of terms, and the gas company have made an offer which cannot very well be resisted in principle by the Commissioners. What I ask is this: Do not pass this Bill to-day. By doing so you will give the gas company a statutory position which we ought not to confer while negotiations are going on. Will my right hon. friend agree to postpone this Bill for a fortnight? It has been through the House of Lords, so that it is perfectly safe. This can then be taken before an Unopposed Bill Committee, and all will end well. The local authority will get the gas company's undertaking, and the gas company will get a fair price for their undertaking. I hope my right hon. friend will make this concession, and although I have been opposing him yesterday and to day, I trust he will heap coals of fire on my head by agreeing to my proposal.


I can assure my hon. friend that I do not at all object to his opposition; I rather like it than otherwise. Of course, it must not be supposed that a Bill for confirming a Provisional Order is in any sense a matter promoted by the Government. It is merely an opportunity for the House to decide on the matter. My hon. friend asks for a postponement for a fortnight. Having regard to the circumstances and the facts he had brought before us, I do not think the House should resist that appeal.

MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

It occurs to me that this is really not quite a satisfactory way of settling this matter. In fact, I question whether it is in order. We have had a debate on the matter, and surely we do not want on a future occasion to have that debate all over again. Now, with the facts fresh in our minds, the question might be decided. Dungannon has been very badly treated by this company; there is no law for its protection at all, there is no sliding scale; and I think the House is well advised as to what should be done under the circumstances. Having heard the facts and listened to the debate, I think we ought to decide this simple question, and if my hon. friend goes to a division I shall certainly support him.

MR. CALDWELL (Lanarkshire, Mid)

In order to bring the matter to a point, I will move that the debate be now adjourned.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the debate be now adjourned."— (Mr. Caldwell.)

MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

I am sorry this motion has been moved before I had an opportunity of speaking with reference to the proposal made by the hon. Member for South Tyrone, but I will endeavour to keep what I desired to say in order on the motion for adjournment. I have no objection to the proposal of the hon. Member for South Tyrone, although I do not think any legitimate ground was shown for keeping this Bill hanging in terrorem over the town commissioners of Dungannon. Still, I shall not oppose his suggestion, as it would not be a prudent thing to do under the circumstances. The hon. Member tells us that the gas company and the commissioners have come to an agreement in principle, but there is a great difference between coming to an agreement in principle and coming to an agreement as to figures. As I understand, the town commissioners are willing to pay £7,000. or nearly double the amount of capital ever subscribed to the undertaking. The chairman of the gas company wants £9,000, and in order to put pressure on the town commissioners of Dungannon to increase their offer it is proposed to keep this Bill hanging in terrorem over the commissioners, instead of doing as the House should do—reject the Bill. The hon. Member, having made a powerful attack on the gas company, suggests an adjournment in order to allow the gas company and the town commissioners to come to terms. I recognise that, without having specific instructions from the town commissioners of Dungannon, it would be taking a very serious responsibility to divide in face of that offer, and with the Bill accepted by the President of the Board of Trade. I am not prepared to take the responsibility, but I am entitled to demand, on behalf of the citizens of Dungannon, that if this compromise is agreed to the Government or the President of the Board of Trade shall give us a pledge that the Bill will be finally dealt with not later than this day fortnight. That is a matter of very great importance, as having once been withdrawn from the power of the House it may be pushed off until the end of the session, when the Irish Members may have dispersed, and then be passed. That would be a monstrous injustice, and we ought to have a definite understanding that the Bill should be placed on the Paper not later than this day fortnight.


I think the House would not be justified in keeping this Bill hanging indefinitely in its present condition, and I am clearly of opinion that the House ought to decide upon the issue not. later than this day fortnight.


I might point out, that the £9,000 asked by the gas company for their undertaking is exclusive of £1,739 balance of revenue, and also of the amount of coal in stock. These items if included would bring the price demanded up to between £11,000 and £12,000. I mention this as it may cause a disagreement in the arbitration. On behalf of the Urban Council, I accede to the adjournment.


Having seconded the motion of the hon. Member, I rise to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very considerate reply, and to say I have no objection to the adjournment.

MR. FIELD (Dublin, St. Patrick)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is the understanding that this. question should be taken about the same date as the Irish Estimates?


That, of course depends on when the Irish Estimates are taken.


That is what we want to know, as then the Irish Members will be here.

Debate to be resumed upon Tuesday, 17th July.