§ Order for Second Beading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ Mr. LOUGH (Islington. W.)
said this Bill was one which was familiar to the last Parliament. It dealt with the great London monopoly, with regard to which very serious complaint was made by those who suffered from it. Not only had London local authorities, but Parliament itself had had to investigate the affairs of this company. A Committee of that House in 1899 made certain recommendations which were to be carried out before any more capital was to be granted, and yet none of those recommendations had been carried out in the Bill now before them, although they had been accepted by the South Metropolitan Company. The Gas Light and Coke Company, although it had the best area in the world for selling gas, charged 3s. 5d. per 1,000 feet of gas, as against 2s. 8d. charged by the South Metropolitan Company, and each extra penny represented a charge of £80.000 a year on the people of London. Thus a single company, by this extra charge, levied a tax of three-quarters of a million sterling on the residents of a portion of the Metropolis-He proposed to move the rejection of the Bill, and although it might be suggested it was necessary to pass it in order to enable the company to get the capital they required to carry on their undertaking, he thought he would be able to prove that there was no immediate necessity for this Bill at all. The Bill sought to find further capital for the company, 1517 which only required £200,000 of capital each year to carry on its undertaking. But the last balance-sheet, published three months ago, showed there was a balance of nearly £700,000 to the company's credit. Therefore it clearly had enough capital to enable it to go on for two or three-years. Again, the company had got the permission of that House to issue £280,000 of capital—a permission of which it had not yet availed itself. Moreover, a Bill had recently passed through the House, one of whose objects was to enable this company to sell to the South Metropolitan Company a large area which it had on the south side of the river. This transaction could be completed in a moment, and it would put the Gas Light and Cote Company in possession of £900,000 of capital without incurring any additional charge for interest whatever. Therefore it was plain that the company could get the money it required without pressing through this Bill. The company had circulated among lion. Members a Paper in favour of the Bill which, he was sorry to saw was a very disingenuous document, ft was said, in the first place, that a similar Bill had been read a second time two years ago, but it did not add that it was rejected by a Committee of the House of Lords. Moreover, the Bill of last year was rejected by a Committee of the House of Commons. Net now they were asked to put the authorities of London to the trouble of again opposing a Bill which was precisely the same in essential matters. This Bill was opposed by the Corporation of the City of London, by the London County Council, and by all the local authorities in the area affected. They were unanimous in asking the House not to pass the Bill until the company, in accordance with the recommendations of Parliament, had put its house in order. It was almost incredible that a private trading company should prove itself so recalcitrant, and so utterly disregard the opinions arrived at by the House after most careful deliberation. The Gas Light and Coke Company had given the House more trouble than any other private trading company in the country. As an instance of the hardship occasioned by the high price charged for gas he would like to point to the penny-in-the-slot meters, of which there were 1518 now some 200,000 in London, and for which, under the regime of this company, the poor had to pay on the average £2 16s. a year. If gas were supplied by the company at a fair price, as it was on the south side of the river, there would he a saving to these poor people of between His and 18s. a year, which would constitute a very important addition to the fund for feeding and clothing the children. All classes of the community in London were vitally affected by this Bill, and he therefore asked the House to reject it.
§ MR. ALBAN GIBBS (City of London)
seconded the motion for the rejection of the Bill. He was, he said, happy for once to find himself in complete agreement with the hon. Member opposite, and with the action of the County Council. The only attempt in the Bill to meet the recommendations of that House was in the redemption clause, and he was sure the House would agree that that clause-was utterly perfunctory and insufficient. The Committee recommended that before any further power was given to the company to issue fresh capital, the sliding scale should lie reduced. But the company had made no effort whatever to do that, and he therefore hoped that the House, without troubling a Select Committee for the third time, would reject the Bill.
To leave out the word 'now,' and at the-end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months.'"—(Mr. Lough.)
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ Mr. CRIPPS (Lancashire, Stretford)
urged that, as a matter of business, there was no reason why this Bill should not be read a second time, in order that it might be properly discussed by a Committee upstairs. It was undoubtedly the fact that the company wanted fresh capital, and it was in the interest of all parties that that capital should be raised in the most inexpensive way. The reason why two years ago a Bill was thrown out by a Committee of the House of Lords was because the time was inopportune, for Sir James Rankin's Committee had not then issued its 1519 Report. The second Bill was thrown out because its terms were not in accordance with the recommendations of Sir James Rankin's Committee. Last year power was asked to issue two and a half millions of capital, but in this Bill the capital asked for had been reduced to a million, in order to comply with the recommendations of Sir James Rankin's Committee. It was the intention of the company also to comply with the recommendations of that Committee in regard to the redemption clause, and the Committee upstairs could see that that was done. The question as to slot meters could likewise be more effectively dealt with by a Committee upstairs. What reason was there why this Bill should not have its Second Reading? Full opportunities would be given of discussing all these objections before an impartial tribunal in the Committee upstairs. He thought that on these grounds ordinary business principles ought to be extended to the present case, and he hoped the House would adopt the Second Reading.
§ MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)
thought this measure was one of the most impudent proposals he had heard for many years. This question had already been before Committees of this House and the other House, who had made recommendations upon the subject, and yet this was identically the same Bill, and contained exactly those provisions which both this and the other House had decided against. The hon. Member for Stretford contended that this was a different Bill, but in the circular issued by the company they did not themselves claim that more than one out of five of the recommendations of the Committees had been carried out. It was said that the company were now asking for a capital of £1,000,000 instead of the £2,500,000 previously applied for. But it was quite obvious that under the proposals of the company the money would last them for a much longer period than that which had been stated. Under the Bill passed by this House they were going to sell to the South Metropolitan Gas Company a portion of their area for something like £1,000,000, and with this sum and the amount provided for in the Bill they would then be able to 1520 defy the House of Commons for a long time to come. Again, the company had picked out of the five recommendations made by the Committee only those which were of the least importance to the general public, arid after doing this they claimed that they had complied with the Committee's recommendations. The Committee had come to the conclusion not only that this company was badly managed, but that it ought not to have special powers without complying with those recommendations, and until they were inserted in the Bill he hoped the House of Commons would refuse to pass it.
MR. CRAY (West Ham, N.)
said he desired to join in the opposition to this Bill. Having regard to the nature of the measure, he thought they ought not to allow the local authorities to be involved in the cost of attending before the Committee upstairs. The local authorities had already borne the expense twice, and he suggested that it would be most unbusinesslike to throw that cost upon them again. In those parts where this company had to compete with the South Metropolitan Gas Company they charged a lower rate, but when they had disposed of their South London property they would be free to charge the higher rate to their consumers in those districts. His constituents saw no reason why the ordinary consumers should be made to pay for mismanagement. The Committee which had been alluded to recommended that whenever another Bill was brought forward by this company it should contain a clause fixing the price to be charged for gas. But this Bill did not contain a clause. It was ridiculous for the company to come to the House and ask them to pass a Bill against the wishes of all the local authorities. He hoped the House would decide to protect the consumer, and not show such a tender interest for some of these monopolies. If the ratepayers of Loudon knew the nature of this Bill they would be up in arms against it, and he hoped the House would teach this company a lesson, and throw out the Bill by a large majority.
§ MR. JOHN BURNS (Battersea)
pointed out that the City Corporation, the County Council, and all the local 1521 authorities were unanimous in their chorus of condemnation in regard to this Bill. The hon. and learned Member for Stretford said that as a matter of business this Bill should be allowed to pass its Second Reading and be sent upstairs, but they had had so much of the Gas Light and Coke Company's legislative proposals that they were getting tired of them in their attenuated form. He objected to discussing skeleton Bills which had been rejected by Committees of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and until this company brought in their proposals in such a way that they could be accepted on matters of principle be was not disposed to allow the time of the House to he wasted. Already this company had put the local authorities to an expenditure of something between £7,000 and £10,000, which was utterly unjustifiable. What did the South Metropolitan Gas Company do when they asked fur legislation. They came forward with a whole, a full, and a good Bill, and they put all those proposals which the hon. Member for Stretford wished to be discussed upstairs into the Bill itself. In this way the local authorities had a chance of considering them fully, and the company were frank about it. The Gas Light and Coke Company, however, did no such thing. At the present time this company was charging the consumer 3s. 5d. per 1000 feet for gas, which was 9d. per thousand more than the company on the south side whose Bill had been passed this year. He believed that that difference in price was inexcusable and indefensible, and he contended that with efficient management that extra charge of 9d. could be reduced to 4d. or 5d. The manager of the South Metropolitan Gas Company made no secret of it. for he had stated that if this House compelled all the gas companies to amalgamate under his management. 2s. 8d. per thousand feet would be the uniform price all over London. At present the Gas Light and Coke Company charge 3s. 5d., the South Metropolitan Gas Company 2s. 8d., the Crystal Palace Company 2s. 10d., the Wandsworth and Putney Company 2s. 4d., or 11d. less than this wealthy company which was introducing this Bill. He appealed to the House not to put up with these 1522 extortions, and lie asked hon. Members to reject this Bill because the local authorities were unanimous against it. He believed that the House of Commons had made up its mind that this company should not be allowed to continue to impose these exorbitant rates upon the consumers of gas.
§ MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)
said that the constituency he represented had been the victim of these extortionate charges for a long time. The question involved was nothing less than the authority of the House of Commons itself. It was subversive of the authority of the House of Commons that a private company should be encouraged to ignore and disregard the representations of a Select Committee. He was not there to advocate all the recommendations of tile Select Committee. It was quite possible that the House of Commons itself might find some of them could not be given effect to. He would remind the House what this company had done. They first introduced a Bill when the inquiry by the Select Committee was going on. Then they introduced a Bill ignoring altogether the recommendations of the Committee, and now, forsooth, they had the face to come before a Committee of the House obeying those recommendations of the Committee which were of least value to the consumers, and disregarding every other one. That system of dealing was not becoming on the part of a private company, and he hoped that the House would, by rejecting the Bill, tell the company that they would not be treated in that way.
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. GERALD BALFOUR,) Leeds, Central
said the matter they were considering had been before two Private Bill Committees, in two successive years—one a Committee of the House of Lords, and the other a Committee of the House of Commons. The Committee of the House of Commons had in distinct and emphatic terms objected to the Bill on the ground that the company had not given effect to the recommendations of the Select Committee of 1899. The Bill now before the House was substantially the same as the one of 1523 1899 and 1900. Notwithstanding what had been said by the hon. and learned Member for Stretford, he failed to see that the company had complied with the Committee's recommendations, and lie was sorry to say that he was forced very reluctantly to ask the House not to read the Bill a second time.
§ MR. CRIPPS
said that, having regard to the opinions expressed in the House, he was authorised on behalf of the promoters, to ask leave to withdraw the Bill.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill withdrawn.