§ MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)
The Instruction which I have placed upon the Paper appears complicated in form, but it is really very simple in its object. The object of the Instruction is that this House instructs the Committee on the South Metropolitan Gas Bill to insert certain clauses in the Bill to carry out the recommendations of the Select Committee which considered the metropolitan gas companies. I think it will be agreed that this Instruction, at any rate, is absolutely necessary, because the Select Committee to which reference is made was a very important body appointed by the present Government, moved for by the other side of the House, and which carried on its deliberations for three or four months of last year. Unless such an Instruction as is down on the Paper is agreed to, the Gas Bill which has already passed a Second Reading this year, and other Gas Bills, might go up to Committee after Committee without any regard being had 190 to the important decisions that were arrived at by this very weighty Select Committee, which was presided over by the hon. Baronet Sir James Rankin, whom I see opposite. Therefore, I desire that we should instruct the Committee to have regard to the recommendations that that Select Committee made. Now, there is a good precedent for the course that I ask the House to take. A Select Committee considered the question of Metropolitan Gas in the year 1875, and that Select Committee dealt with just the same objects as are dealt with in this Instruction—namely, the standard price, the sliding scale, and the amalgamation of areas; and the recommendations of that Committee of 1875 were adopted by the subsequent Committees which sat on Gas Bills; in fact, the whole gas law of the metropolis since has been shaped in accordance with the recommendations of that Committee. Therefore, I think it is a good precedent for the course that I ask the House to take this afternoon. Although the Instruction looks complicated and technical, in reality it is very simple. It deals with only two subjects, the first being the question of the standard price. It reduces the standard price of gas by 3d. per 1,000, but it gives a new sliding scale, and the effect of this sliding scale is that the reduction in price will not injure the company provided the price is low. That works out in this way. If the price of the gas is over 2s. 6d. per 1,000 feet, the new sliding scale prevents them from obtaining such a large dividend; if it is from 2s. 4d. to 2s. 6d. it will allow them to pay the same dividend; if it is under 2s. 4d. per 1,000 it allows them even a slightly higher dividend than they pay now. Therefore the object of this sliding scale that the Committee has recommended is to give a great inducement to the company to reduce the price of gas, and that is an object which has generally been pursued by this House in dealing with this gas question. That is the first object, to induce the Committee to have regard to the recommendations of the Select Committee with reference to the standard price and the sliding scale. I do not think I need discuss it further, because I believe the promoters of the Bill are willing to accept the Instruction; they recognise the advantage that it will be to them, and therefore I do not think I need delay the House any further on that. 191 The second part of the Instruction may just require a single word. The second part deals with the question of area, and it recommends that effect should be given to the finding of the Committee that a certain district which is now worked by the Gas Light and Coke Company on the south side of the river Thames should be transferred to the South Metropolitan Company. Now at present the South Metropolitan Company exercises great influence in that small area belonging to the other company which is south of the river, for it fixes the price of gas in it, and gas is sold as cheap in this small area as in the larger area of the South Metropolitan Company, but it does so at the expense of the north. The Gas Light and Coke Company explained to the Select Committee that they were only able to sell gas so cheap in that southern area of theirs by throwing a new burden upon the consumers of gas in the north. Now it does not seem fair that the people who consume gas in the north of London should have to pay in addition to the price of their own gas something to enable the people in the south of London to obtain their gas a little more cheaply. Therefore the Select Committee recommended that this anomaly should be done away with by the area being transferred to the South Metropolitan Company. I hope the House will consider that that is a very fair and reasonable recommendation, and that it will be willing to instruct the Committee to insert clauses in the Bill to carry out these two recommendations. The matter has become a very serious one in London, as the price of gas north of the river is quite 10d. per 1,000 feet higher than it is on the south side of the river. The Committee had good reason to hope that if these recommendations were carried into effect a substantial reduction in price would take place, and thus a great burden be taken off the people of the north of London. I think I have made the matter sufficiently clear, and as I understand that the company and the promoters of the Bill will not object to the Instruction, I hope that the House will pass it unanimously.
§ *MR. MARKS (Tower Hamlets, St. George's)
In seconding the Instruction that has been proposed, I am not forgetful of the fact that suspicion frequently attaches to such Instructions given to 192 Committees, and that grave suspicion attaches when those Instructions take a mandatory form, but there are circumstances in connection with this particular matter which, I venture to think, differentiate it from almost all other cases that have recently come under the notice of the House. On an ordinary Second Reading of the Bill it would be perfectly competent to suggest, and no doubt it would be suggested, that the matters which are covered in this Instruction and cognate matters could well be threshed out before a Committee upstairs. In this particular case the matters have already been threshed out. The recommendations which are involved in this Instruction are not the opinions of any particular section of men. They are opinions and recommendations evolved by a Select Committee of this House after some four months careful and exhaustive inquiry. Let me remind the House that the Select Committee whose recommendations this Instruction deals with was appointed after no less than six years agitation on the part of gas consumers in various parts of the metropolis. Those consumers allege certain grievances—serious grievances—against the gas companies, and after repeated and the most earnest efforts, with great trouble and against great opposition, a Select Committee was finally appointed to inquire into the matter. That Committee investigated all the grievances, and it prepared a most careful and thorough Report, in which, after summing up all the evidence which had been taken on behalf of the consumers, and the evidence which had been given in public on behalf of the companies, it arrived at certain deliberate conclusions. Those conclusions were embodied in the recommendations of the Committee, and two of those recommendations—those which concern the South Metropolitan Company—form the subject matter of this Instruction. Now it might be urged that there is no necessity to have put this Instruction in such a mandatory form. I anticipate that some such objection may be urged. It may be said, Why not leave it to the Committee to consider these matters? But they have already been investigated by a Committee appointed ad hoc, and before that Committee, as I have said, the consumers appeared. Why should they be put to the necessity of appearing twice? Why should these people, who after five years 193 of earnest effort did finally get a hearing, he compelled after that hearing has elided to come and try their case over again? If the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into what is a public grievance is a serious matter one might naturally assume—at least, a comparatively young Member of this House might be pardoned for assuming—that the Report of that Committee should bear some fruit. This is about the only way in which the Report of the Committee ever can bear any fruit. The recommendations of the Committee were designed to take effect when the companies concerned should come to the House for any extension or alteration of their capital powers. This company now comes to this House for an extension and alteration of its capital powers. The event anticipated by the Committee has arisen, and in seconding this Instruction I do urge the House to give effect to the principles which the Committee has embodied in its very careful and weighty Report: to adhere to the recommendations of its own Committee, and to allow the gas-consuming public of the metropolis to derive the benefits of the investigation finally allowed them.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the South Metropolitan Gas Bill to insert such Clauses in the Bill as may be required to give effect to Recommendations 1 and 2 of the Select Committee on Metropolitan Gas Companies, as follows:—
- (1) That the standard price shall be reduced to 3s. 3d. to carry the standard dividend of 10 per cent., and that the existing scale of increase and decrease for dividend of¼per cent. for every penny of increase or decrease of price below or above 3s. 3d. be maintained, and that a secondary or additional scale be imposed which should permit of an increase or decrease of dividend over and above that regulated by the present scale of¼per cent. for every complete 3d. of decrease or increase below or above the standard price of 3s. 3d.
- (2) That the area south of the River Thames, at present part of the district of the Gas Light and Coke Company, should be transferred from the Gas Light and Coke Company to the South Metropolitan Gas Company at a fair and reasonable price."—(Mr. Lough).
§ SIR JAMES RANKIN (Hereford, Leominster)
I rise to move an Amendment to the Instruction which has just been moved by my hon. friend opposite, and it is to the effect of preventing that Instruction being of a mandatory character. Having had the honour of being chairman of the Select Committee on Metropolitan Gas Companies, I agree to a very great extent with the conclusions at which they arrived, but I do not think it is fair that on the companies coming before the House with their various Bills connected with this matter the South Metropolitan Gas Company and the Gas Light and Coke Company should not have a chance of being heard upon the recommendations of the Committee. Although, no doubt, we had before us very full evidence on the whole of the matter, yet our recommendations were never argued or considered directly by the gas companies. My chief reason in wishing to move this Amendment is this, that although the South Metropolitan Gas Company may agree to the Instruction moved by my hon. friend—and I admit it would have very little effect upon them, because they are a very well-managed gas company and produce gas at a very low rate yet if that Instruction were carried it would equally affect the Gas Light and Coke Company. That company has not agreed to this Instruction, and, I think it is only fair that they should have a hearing on this matter before the Committee upstairs before a conclusion is arrived at. I would point out that it is a very complex matter indeed, although my hon. friend will say it is a very simple one. I doubt very much whether, on once reading it over, any Member would understand exactly the effect which is carried out by this Instruction. With regard to the transfer of the area now belonging to the Gas Light and Coke Company south of the Thames to the South Metropolitan Gas Company a great number of complex arrangements would have to be made before it could be fairly carried out. I would also point out that the mere price of coal would have a very considerable effect upon fixing a standard price. I think all the matters should be heard and should be considered by the Council upstairs before we pass a mandatory Instruction. I would venture to suggest that if after the word "Committee" in 195 the second line of my hon. friend's Instruction the words, "to consider whether it be desirable" were inserted it would make it a perfectly fair Instruction to be carried. I think myself that it is highly desirable that this Committee upstairs should have regard to the various recommendations made by the Select Committee of last year, and in case—which is very improbable, I must say—their attention was not directed to it, I therefore quite agree to an Instruction of that sort; and I rather apprehend that my right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade would agree to such an Instruction also. I think I have stated sufficient reason upon general grounds—and here I may say I altogether agree with my right hon. friend the Chairman of Ways and Means, in his views as to what should guide the House in dealing with these matters—I think I have stated enough to show that it would be better to allow the Committee upstairs a free hand rather than tying it by a mandatory Instruction in the House.
To insert, after the word 'Committee' in line 2, the words 'to consider whether it is desirable.' "—(Sir James Rankin.)
§ Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. Ritchie,) Croydon
I hope the hon. Member who moved this Instruction will agree to the Amendment. I think that it is a practical impossibility for the House, upon an ex parte statement, to take upon themselves to decide whether the Committee to which this Bill should be referred should be ordered to insert in the Bill certain clauses which have been recommended by a Select Committee. Of course, the recommendations of the Select Committee must necessarily carry with them great weight before the Committee on the Bill. They would in any case, I think, have to consider them, but if the Committee decide to accept the recommendations it should be because in their discretion they think the recommendations are reasonable. If we are to instruct definitely the Committee to insert in the Bill these recommendations, it would, practically, be giving the powers of a law to the recommendations of Select Committees; and I do not think it would be advisable for 196 the House to agree to that. My hon. friend the Member for St. George's in the East has said that these companies have been heard. That is quite true; they have been heard before the Committee on the general question; but they have never been heard upon the special recommendations made by the Select Committee, and I think they are entitled to be heard, and I believe the House will so consider. I do not think the hon. Gentleman will be in any way damaging the cause for which he has been five years fighting if he accepts the suggestion of my hon. friend the Member for Leominster, and if he does accept it I think he will be placing the Committee in the position, in which they ought to be placed, of hearing the evidence which will be brought before them on these Bills.
§ MR. RITCHIE
I did not say so, but I assumed that it would be so. I think that both the South Metropolitan and the Gas Light and Coke Companies' Bills ought to go to the same Committee, so that they may both be considered at the same time.
§ *MR. MARKS
May I ask my right hon. friend if the addition of the words proposed will enable the Committee to add these clauses if they find them desirable?
§ MR. LOUGH
On the Amendment, I think the words, even if we accept the sense of the hon. Baronet opposite, who has moved them, might be a little improved. We might put it, "to consider, and, if desirable, insert." I am sure that would meet the hon. Baronet's wish, and I think those words are distinctly better. After what has fallen from the President of the Board of Trade, whose assistance in this matter one would naturally desire to secure, if the hon. Baronet would amend his Amendment in that form, I would accept it.
§ MR. RITCHIE
Does that not seem to imply that they should consider, and if they think desirable to put in these clauses, they shall, but they shall not put them in in any form? Would that not seem to be implied? I think that would be unfortunate.
By inserting after the word 'Committee,' in line 2, the words 'to consider whether it is desirable.'"—(Sir James Rankin.)
§ Ordered, That it be an instruction to the Committee on the South Metropolitan Gas Bill to consider whether it is desirable to insert such Clauses in the Bill as may be required to give effect to Recommendations 1 and 2 of the Select Committee on Metropolitan Gas Companies, as follows:—
- (1) That the standard price should be reduced to 3s. 3d. to carry the standard dividend of 10 per cent., and that the existing scale of increase and decrease for dividend of ¼ per cent. for every penny of increase or decrease of price below or above 3s. 3d. be maintained, and that a secondary or additional scale be imposed which should permit of an increase or decrease of dividend over and above that regulated by the present scale of ¼ per cent. for every complete 3d. of decrease or increase below or above the standard price of 3s. 3d.
- (2) That the area south of the river Thames, at present part of the district of the Gas Light and Coke Company, should be transferred from the Gas Light and Coke Company to the South Metropolitan Gas Company at a fair and reasonable price.