HC Deb 27 May 1907 vol 174 cc1407-14

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment to Question [9th May], "That the Bill be now read a second time.

Which Amendment was— To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months.'"—(Mr. Courthope.)

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

MR. J. WARD (Stoke-on-Trent)

said he wished to make one or two references to the conduct of this particular business so far as the present and the last session of Parliament were concerned. The difficulty which London reformers found them selves in with regard to this matter was largely due to the attitude of the Board of Trade last session. For some ten years past this subject had been discussed in London, but it had not been settled because the last reactionary Administration would not allow a scheme giving public control to be adopted. London County Council elections bad repeatedly taken place, and those contests had been fought upon the principle of pubic control of monopolies, and on every occasion for the last twenty years the verdict of London had always been in favour of the public control. The London electors, however, had never been able to achieve their object, because there had always been in possession of the legislative machine a reactionary majority opposed altogether to the municipal unified life of London. But January last year saw a Parliament elected to deal with this and other subjects, and for the first time they had the happy conjunction of a Progressive majority in the House and on the London County Council, and London reformers naturally expected to see the problem solved. But for some unaccountable reason the Board of Trade failed to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them last session, Although it was known that the reactionaries would move Heaven and earth to recover the ground which their own incompetence had lost them, that the monopolists and the trust promoters would pour out money like water in order to chloroform the electors, and that a snatched victory was well within the bounds of possibility, the solution of the problem was delayed, and it had proved a very disastrous delay so far as the people of London were concerned. To accept the recent verdict of the electors of London as final would place them in a very awkward position, and that was the feeling of the majority of the Members of the House during the discussion which took place on the Bill before the holidays. He was not satisfied that had the position been reversed and the monopolists and reactionaries been in an overwhelming majority, and the London County Council been composed of a set of men holding entirely opposite principles, the then President of the Board of Trade would have accepted the verdict of London and placed a measure of this kind upon the Statute-book. They were all aware that matters of the greatest importance to London had been burked and thwarted when the monopolists were in power. Considerations of public convenience never weighed in the slightest degree with the late Government, and it was only when there had been a reactionary Council erected for the first time that there had been any hurry and baste to settle this problem. Surely it would be absurd to call the recent County Council election a decision upon the important principle here involved. The sole object of the private monopolists was the exploitation of London's mighty resources. Had the Liberal Party forgotten the London programme upon which elections had been fought for a number of years, in which public control and the public working of these monopolies had been the foremost plank? He was glad that they did not intend entirely to desert their posts because some of the outworks were in the hands of the public enemy. The recent snatch victory at the London County Council election should not be too hastily acted upon, and the County Council and the ratepayers should be given a further opportunity of considering whether they meant to hand over this great city to private exploitation. He agreed that the Instruction placed on the Order Paper by the President of the Board of Trade somewhat modified the position which otherwise he would have been obliged to take up. If that Instruction were adopted it would give breathing time both to the London County Council and to the ratepayer, and an opportunity of considering whether under all the circumstances and the possibilities of the case they considered it advisable to part with the enormous monopoly which this Bill would place in their hands. In view of that Instruction he would certainly vote for the Second Reading, because the Bill recognised as its main principle that the London County Council was the proper authority to control such a monopoly. That was one good principle contained in the Bill. He wished to reserve, however, for himself and for those on whose behalf he was acting, the full right to reconsider their position when the Bill came back from the Committee.

*SIR EDWIN CORNWALL (Bethnal Green, N. E.)

congratulated the President of the Board of Trade upon having submitted a proposal which would allow the debate to take a more harmonious turn. He doubted whether the House had ever found itself in the position in which it was that day upon a subject of that kind. The Bill was introduced with the names of four hon. Members of the House upon it, but it was now practically being promoted by other people. That state of things had been brought about by exceptional circumstances. The hon. Members whose names appeared on the back of the Bill were members of the London County Council when that body had a Progressive majority. They were still Members of the House, but the London County Council had now a majority holding different views, and they were promoting the Bill. That was an extraordinary position to be in, and but for the urgency of the question the best thing would have been for the present London County Council to have brought in another Bill embodying their own views in their own way, instead of proceeding with this measure. The urgency of the question, however, justified the present County Council in going on with the measure, and justified those hon. Members who spoke upon the last occasion supporting the Second Beading. He understood the President of the Board of Trade was willing to set up a hybrid Committee, before which a full inquiry could be held, and in his opinion that was the best course to pursue under the circumstances. In allowing that course to be taken, they were rather looking to that Committee to do more than Committees usually did. He agreed that the independent judgment and impartiality of Committees of that kind were invaluable to the work of Parliament; but looking to the particular difficulties of this question, they expected from the proposed Hybrid Committee a full and exhaustive inquiry which would give them help and guidance in regard to the whole question-He had been in communication with the representatives of the outside authorities who were very much concerned about the present condition of things. They said: "We are more or less disturbed at the idea of the London County Council having these very wide powers over our area. If the London County Council get, as they propose, powers from Parliament, and if they then hand them over to a company, we, the outside authorities, will not know where we are in a bargain of that kind." He reminded the House that the Bill extended over an area very much wider than that of the County Council. As to the Instruction which the President of the Board of Trade had put on the Paper, he believed it would enable the Hybrid Committee to go fully into the question. The whole problem must be inquired into. The President of the Board of Trade had stated that they were dealing with the Bill drafted by the London County Council. That was technically true, but it was not only this Bill which would go to the Hybrid Committee, but also the proposals which were made in 1905 and 1906, and the Report of the Committee of last year. It was a little difficult to understand what the present County Council really mean. They were going on with this Bill as drafted, but the following resolution had been passed at a meeting of the London County Council— That the London County Council (Electric Supply) Bill be submitted for Second Reading in the House of Commons with a view to securing an arrangement under which private enterprise undertakes, subject to the control of the Council, the business of the supply of electrical energy, and on the understanding that such alterations as may be required in the Bill to effect this object and to deal with any other matters of importance which may arise on the Bill, will be reported to the Council for its approval as soon as possible. He wanted to know what the London County Council meant by that. Did the present County Council mean to ask Parliament to give them powers and a franchise, and then to lease those powers and that franchise? He ventured to say that there was no precedent for Parliament handing over a franchise to a local authority in order that the local authority might lease it. If the County Council meant to enter into the whole inheritance which Parliament gave them, and to undertake the whole responsibility, so far as the business was concerned, and then to lease it to some proper body to carry out the working, there was nothing unprecedented in that from the point of view of the House, or from the point of view of other parts of the country. If the County Council were going to lease the franchise, then he agreed with the hon. Member for Stoke that the House must reject the Bill on the Report stage. The hon. Member for Dulwich, when the Bill was recently discussed, referred to the important question of purchase. In the case of electric light undertakings, Parliament had laid it down that the period of purchase was to be forty-two years by the local authorities, but in the case of electricity in bulk Parliament had, he understood, fixed no term of purchase. Here they had a proposal for bulk supply, but the date of purchase of the electric lighting companies had an important bearing. The term of purchase in the case of the present electric light companies in London expired in 1931. They had, therefore, a difficult problem to deal with. He did not suppose that any man would take a lease which expired in 1931, because it would be too short to make it a successful undertaking. How the Hybrid Committee would get over that it was difficult to see, but it must be carefully considered, having regard to dividends, the price to the consumers, and the conditions of labour. It was not a new thing for the Government and local authorities, when entering into contracts, to insist that certain conditions of labour should be observed. He was not one who wished to prevent anyone making a profit, but the business must be conducted on a basis which would give protection to the consumer, and provide that the economic considerations should not be complicated by water-loaded capital. The present local authorities in the county of London had £12,000,000 invested in electric-light undertakings, so that the House would see there were not only matters of great principle involved in the Bill, but most important details connected with the whole problem of electric supply. The House must look to the Hybrid Committee to help them very materially with regard to this great question. Everyone admitted that the present position in London was unsatisfactory and uneconomical. If the Bill failed to pass into law for any reason, it would mean that the existing electrical systems would have to be developed, which would be the worst possible thing for London. They would have the existing companies coming to Parliament next year—they could not for all time prevent their developing their systems, and that would mean going on with small stations and sub-stations, instead of working on the economical basis of a large generating station down the river, at which large vessels could deliver. In voting for the Second Reading, he and many others reserved their right to move whatever Amendments they might think desirable on the Report stage.

*MR. CAVE (Surrey, Kingston)

said he desired to enforce what the hon. Member opposite had said, though from a different point of view, in regard to the outside areas. It was a fact that the outside areas were greatly interested in this matter. The whole area included in the scope of the Bill exceeded 400 square miles, and of that only a little over 100 square miles were in London. He denied that the authorities outside the county of London were satisfied with the Bill as it stood, or that an arrangement had been made with them. Letters had been written by the outside authorities to the London County Council, in reply to which they had only received an acknowledgment. In Croydon, Wimbledon, Kingston, and elsewhere, electrical undertakings had been established, and large sums of money had been spent upon them. The light was supplied at a reasonable price, and power could be obtained for a very low price. He did not think that anybody in those areas desired that the electrical enterprises should be handed over, even to some extent, to the London County Council. He protested against the proposal that another authority should be allowed to come into those areas after the local authorities had been encouraged to take part in the establishment of electric light and power works, and should either compete with the local authorities or succeed to their options of purchase. He was not sure that the local authorities in the outside areas would be better off than at present by what was proposed by this Dill as explained in the Memorandum accompanying it. He thought it was rather a strong thing to hand over to a private company the powers which had been granted by Parliament to public local authorities. That was a grievance with which he sympathised, and with which he entirely agreed with hon. Gentlemen opposite. At any rate, the outside areas should have some kind of voice in the constitution of the private company and the terms to be made with it. He would not divide the House against the Second Reading of the Bill, but he reserved his right to raise the question on the Report Stage or on the Third Reading, if necessary.


said he did not rise to discuss the various points put forward by different speakers. Although all hon. Members could not see eye to eye on the details of this Bill, it was generally agreed, he thought, that it should get a Second Reading and be sent upstairs for detailed discussion. Therefore he asked the House, in view of the discussion to be resumed on the Small Holdings Bill, to allow the Bill to be read a second time.

Ordered, That all petitions already presented against the Bill be referred to the Committee; that the petitioners praying to be heard by themselves, their counsel, or agents, be heard against the Bill, and counsel be heard in support of the Bill.

Ordered, That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records.

Ordered, That five be the quorum.— (Mr. Courthope).

Ordered, That it be an Instruction to the Committee that if any power be conferred upon the London County Council to transfer or lease to any company, local authority, body, or person any of the powers, duties, or liabilities entrusted to it by this Bill, the conditions upon which such power shall be exercised shall be embodied either in this or a subsequent Bill.—(Mr. Lloyd-George.)