HC Deb 08 March 1900 vol 80 cc353-63
MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

In moving the Instruction which stands in my name, I may say that I did somewhat hope that it would be hardly necessary for me to trouble the House with the matter, as similar Instructions have already been before us, and have been agreed to, but a paper has been circulated this morning which seems to suggest that there is some objection to my proposal. According to that paper, the first objection is that the only reason for the Instruction is because a Select Committee has made recommendations in regard to this company. I do not think there could be any stronger reason for carrying this Instruction. This Select Committee has given nearly twenty days consideration to the question of London gas after an interval of twenty-five years, and if this House does not instruct the Committee to which the Gas Light and Coke Company's Bill is to be referred, to have regard to the decisions of that Committee, they may hear nothing more of its recommendations. Perhaps the chief argument used, however, is that the company was not heard against the recommendations before the Committee. Now, evidence was given before that Committee on behalf of the company by its secretary and chairman. They occupied seven whole days, they defended the views of the company in every way, and I do not think that in any sense it can be suggested that the company was not fully heard. But it is suggested that if we carry this Instruction, one part of which is that the standard price of gas shall be reduced, the reduction of the standard price will not really reduce the price of gas to the consumer. That is a little misstatement, because it will immediately reduce the price of gas, and I think the argument used in the paper which has been circulated is not a bona fide argument. The argument is this, that the reduction of the standard price can only affect new capital, and that, as the new capital is raised under the auction clause, whatever the terms may be it cannot affect the price of gas. That is hardly a candid argument, because if the Instruction is carried it will prevent such a large dividend being paid by the company, and there will be directly a reduction in the price of gas. Then, I may be asked, "Is it a fair thing?" "Is there a precedent for a reduction in the standard price of gas?" Yes, we had a precedent in the case of the Lea Bridge Company. The matter was fully considered before a Committee of this House; and, therefore, I do not think any value can be attached to the argument against this part of the Instruction. The second part of the Instruction deals with the company's area, and again I am asked if there is a precedent for transferring the area of one company to another. But this is a very peculiar case indeed. This matter was fully considered by the Select Committee, and when we remember the cheap price at which the gas is sold south of the river, and that that cheap price puts an extra tax upon all the consumers north of the river, I think it will be admitted that there is a good case made out for this particular recommendation of the Committee. There is one other point to which I must allude. There is a reference in the Instruction to the price charged by this company for the use of its "slot" meters. That is, perhaps, the most important recommendation, because in two portions of the area supplied by the company the charge for the use of these slot meters differs to the extent of 50 per cent. This company charges 9d. per thousand cubic feet north of the Thames for the use of these meters, and 1s. 2d. on the south side, and I do not think it can be suggested that there can possibly be the slightest reason why this great difference should exist. The Committee fully considered this point, and recommended that the charge should be the same in both parts of company's area. I understand that it is proposed to refer this Bill to the same Committee as the South Metropolitan Gas Company's Bill, and unless we carry this Instruction the Committee will not be cognisant of the decisions arrived at by the Select Committee after full consideration. I therefore beg to move the Instruction which stands in my name, and I hope the House will unanimously agree to it.

*MR. MARKS (Tower Hamlets, St. George's)

I beg to second the Instruction, and in doing so I should like to remind the House of the circumstances under which the recommendations embodied in the Instruction now before the House were made. A Select Committee was appointed last year to inquire into the affairs of the metropolitan gas companies. It investigated the affairs of all the gas companies in London, but it was an open secret that the complaints were mostly levelled against one particular company. The chief culprit against whom complaint was made in respect to the supply of gas was unquestionably the Gas Light and Coke Company. There were three charges practically made against that company. The first was that it charged excessive prices for its gas; the second, that the company was badly managed; and the third, that it had systematically disregarded the public interest. Upon each one of these three points the Committee took evidence at great length, and each point was proved up to the hilt. The Committee examined witnesses from the Board of Trade, the Corporation of the City of London, the County Council, and several vestries of the metropolis, as well as representatives of the three gas companies supplying the metropolis with gas. It can, therefore, hardly be contended that the inquiry was in any way one-sided, or that the parties interested on both sides were not given ample opportunity of being heard. Having heard the evidence, the Committee reached the conclusion that there had been bad management of the company, that it had not complied with the obvious intentions of Parliament when it granted, the company its privileges, and it made certain recommendations with a view to remedying the admitted grievances. These recommendations are embodied in the Instruction which has now been moved. It may be urged that this Instruction is of too mandatory a character. I would submit that, if there over was a case for a mandatory Instruction to a Committee, it is the present case, because the Gas Light and Coke Company have for years past been complained against, and endeavours have been made to voice those complaints in this House and in other places. It has been for years urged—unfortunately, in vain—that this company has failed to fulfil its obligations to the public, and it was not until six years of agitation had elapsed that the appointment of this Select Committee was secured. The recommendations made by the Committee go to the very root of the matter, and it was intended that they should be applied when the company should come to Parliament again for an alteration or extension of capital powers. Now, the Gas Light and Coke Company has come to Parliament for a further extension of its capital powers. It has come with a full knowledge of the investigations made before the Select Committee, and a full knowledge of the recommendations of that Committee, and it has, in a spirit of cynical indifference, flouted the recommendations of that Committee, and practically set at nought the authority of this House. If, as this Select Committee did report, there exists a genuine cause of complaint against the Gas Light and Coke Company, there is only one way in which these grievances can be dealt with, and that is by taking advantage of an occasion like this when the company comes to this House asking for further powers. This is the opportunity for securing that the recommendations of the Select Committee shall be carried into effect. Here is no question for any particular set of men, or for any particular section of this House. Here is an exceptional opportunity to show that honourable Members in every quarter of this House are resolutely determined to resist oppression and unjust treatment of the public on the part of any great corporation which, by favour of Parliament, is permitted to can on at a large profit the supply of a common necessity of life. The charges made by the Gas Light and Coke Company are admittedly high. By comparison with the charges of other companies they are extortionate; they exceed the charges of the South Metropolitan Gas Company by something like 33 per cent., and it cannot be contended that the difference in price is due to any legitimate difference in the circumstances of the two companies. According to the Report of the Select Committee, these excessive charges are due to mismanagement on the part of the company itself, and to a long continued and systematic disregard of the public interest. I do urge that on an occasion like this, when it is in the power of this House to remedy a real public grievance, the opportunity should not be allowed to pass unimproved, If this opportunity does pass now, the metropolitan gas consumers may find themselves for another twenty-five years, or even for an indefinite period, bound hand and foot by the privileges which this House affords to the Gas Light and Coke Company; privileges which were afforded on the understanding that they should be used for the benefit of the public, and for the legitimate profit of the company. There is no reason why consumers on the north side of the river should be mulcted to the extent of 33 per cent. more than those on the Surrey side, and I earnestly hope that my hon. friend will, if necessary, press this Instruction to a division.

Motion made and Question proposed,

"That it be an Instruction to the Committee to insert clauses in the Bill to carry into effect the recommendations of the Select Committee on Metropolitan Gas Companies (1899), as follows:—

  1. "(1) That the standard price should be reduced to 3s. 3d. to carry the standard dividend of10 per cent., and that the existing scale of increase and decrease for dividend of ¼ per cent. for every penny of decrease or increase of price below or above 3s. 3d. be maintained, and that a 358 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. "(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, fair and reasonable price being paid.
  3. "(3) That the charge made by the Gas Light and Coke Company for the rents of automatic meters and stoves should be the same to consumers north and south of the Thames for fittings of the same quality and capacity."—(Mr. Lough.)

SIR JAMES RANKIN (Herefordshire, Leominster)

Notwithstanding the speeches of the mover and seconder, I rise to propose an Amendment of a similar character to that which I moved on a like Instruction the other day.* I do so because I do not think it is giving the Gas Light and Coke Company fair play to pass this mandatory Instruction before they have been heard on the various points involved. I may point out that, although I agree in the main with this Instruction, and I hope that the principles embodied in it will be adopted, I do think that the reduction in the standard price of gas is a very drastic reform to be undertaken. It certainly should be seriously considered before any such alteration is made. I do not wish to delay the House on this matter, but I think it is altogether against the spirit of the view taken by this House of Commons in regard to the operation of Private Bill Committees to pass such a mandatory Instruction unless there are circumstances of an exceptional character to justify it. Although I hope that many of the recommendations contained in the Instruction will be adopted in the Bill, I certainly hold to the opinion that the companies should be heard, and heard fully before any determination is come to on the point. It should be remembered that circumstances have altered very much since the standard *See discussion on the South Metropolitan Gas Bill, 6th March, 1900 (page 189 of this Volume). price was fixed, and if the standard price is altered, it is quite possible that the standard dividends will also have to be altered. I am rather surprised that the hon. Member for West Islington should have brought forward the matter again to-day. I understood that he had accepted the view of the House on the South Metropolitan Gas Company's Bill, which was discussed the other day, when words were inserted similar to those which I am moving now. I think, if he will agree to the insertion of the words I have to propose, the matter may be allowed to go before a Committee in whose wisdom and fairness we can trust.

MR. BOULNOIS (Marylebone, E.)

said he wished to second the Amendment of his hon. friend. He hoped the House would accept it, emanating as it did from the Chairman of the Select Committee which considered the subject last year.

Amendment proposed— In line 2, after the second word 'to,' to insert the words 'inquire whether it be desirable to.' "—(Sir James Rankin.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."

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

said the speech of the hon. Baronet was mainly directed against the recommendations of the Select Committee, but it was too late to take up that ground now, because he himself was not only Chairman of the Committee, but had also concurred in its recommendations. The hon. Baronet said that the recommendations were too stringent and that the company had a right to be heard. But the company had been already heard, and the effect of the Amendment would be to re-open the whole question. That was a prospect which Mould appal the ratepayers of London, because, directly or indirectly, the expense of another prolonged inquiry would fall on them. In the memorandum which had been issued in connection with the Bill there was a reference to him which was inaccurate, and which he wished to contradict. It was stated that the Committee was appointed in 1898, but that it did not commence work that year because of the action of Mr. Pickersgill in moving to widen the scope of the inquiry. That statement was absolutely inaccurate.


said he did not think the responsibility for the statement rested with him, but as far as he might have been responsible he entirely withdrew it.


said that the Committee was only appointed a few weeks before Parliament was prorogued in 1898, and it was absolutely impossible that it could have proceeded with the inquiry that year. It was true that in the following year he did propose an Amendment making the Instruction more specific. In that Amendment he anticipated the objection which the company now advanced, namely, that they had no specific notice that the Committee would consider whether or not the statutory conditions as to the price of gas and the dividend should be revised. The Government declined to accept that Amendment, and he then stated that he would not press it, and that he threw on the Government the responsibility of declining to take a step which would make the inquiry really beneficial.* If that Amendment had been carried the company would have had specific notice, and there would have been no ground whatever for the objection now raised. The House, not having accepted that Amendment, would now, he was afraid, be bound to assent to the Amendment of the hon. Baronet.


The remarks of the hon. Member who has just sat down were, I think, more interesting to himself than to the House. The main question that is to be decided now is really the same question that was decided the other day in connection with another Bill, and I should have thought that the hon. Member for West Islington would have immediately accepted the Amendment of my hon. friend and have obviated any further discussion. The hon. Member for South-west Bethnal Green appeals to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Metropolitan Gas Companies, but the chairman of that Committee is the hon. Member who has moved the Amendment now before the House, and I have no doubt that in doing so he voices the views of that Committee. The recommendations of the Committee were never in- *See The Parliamentary Debates (Fourth Series], Vol. lxviii., p. 423. tended to be dealt with by the House on the Second Reading of a Bill, but to be considered by the Committee to which the Bill was referred, and it would be unwise for the House to commit itself to the ipsissima verba of this Instruction without hearing evidence. I hope the Amendment to the Instruction will be accepted, and that the Instruction will go to the Committee, not as a mandatory Instruction, but as an indication from the House that the recommendations should be considered if that course is deemed advisable.

*MR. BRYNMOR JONES (Swansea District)

said, as a member of the Select Committee, he hoped the House would accept the Amendment of the hon. Baronet. It would be a very dangerous proceeding to lay down that any recommendation made by a Select Committee on questions connected with Private Bill matters, which, though it had heard evidence, had not heard parties by counsel, should be necessarily binding on all parties concerned when they tried to obtain a private Bill.

MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)

said he was quite sure he would not be accused of not being in sympathy with the recommendations of the Select Committee, because it was on his motion that the Committee was appointed. He was glad that the hon. Member for South-west Bethnal Green now saw that his action last year was not to the advantage of the consumers.


I said directly the reverse.


said he was sorry that even yet the hon. Member did not realise that his action last year was not to the advantage of the consumers. He had very little sympathy with the Gas Light and Coke Company, whose want of management had been abundantly proved before the Select Committee, but it was to the interest of consumers that the company should be given fair play. If the company were allowed to say all it had to say before the Select Committee, he was quite sure that the wisdom and necessity of nearly all the recommendations of last year's Committee would be established, and safeguards would be inserted in the Bill in the interests of the too long suffering consumers. There was another reason for not making the Instruction a mandatory Instruction. The London County Council—a body which could not be accused of any sympathy with the company, or want of sympathy with the consumers—had recommended another arrangement which would be brought before the Committee, and the Committee would be able to decide what was just in the interests of consumers in North London, and also what was just to the company.

MR. LOWLES (Shoreditch, Haggerston)

thought the recommendation of the Committee that the principle of a sliding scale should be adopted was a clear and definite notice to gas companies of the views entertained by the House. Although he did not go so far as some hon. Members with regard to the alleged mismanagement of the Gas Light and Coke Company, there was the strange anomaly that on the south side of the Thames the charge was one-third less than on the north side, and that the South Metropolitan Gas Company was subject to the same price of 3s. 3d. now sought to be imposed on the Gas Light and Coke Company. He sincerely hoped the recommendation would be carried.


explained that the reason why he had not included the suggested Amendment was that there were certain technical difficulties in the way. He strongly supported the view that this particular company had treated London very badly, and was in a somewhat different position from that of the South Metropolitan Company. Therefore, though his judgment was entirely in favour of accepting the suggestion of the President of the Board of Trade, he left himself in the hands of the House with regard to the Amendment. As to the remarks of the hon. Member for South-west Bethnal Given, he assured the hon. Gentleman that nothing was further from his intention than to make any reflection on what he had done; the words were intended to be most complimentary.

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.


asked whether he would be in order in moving that the Report, of the Select Committee on Metropolitan Gas Companies, with the minutes of evidence, be referred to the Committee by whom this Bill would be considered.


It would be necessary to give notice, but it is really a question for the Chairman of the Committee.


Is it in order now to move that this Bill be referred to the same Committee as the South Metropolitan Gas Company's Bill?