§ Considered in Committee
§ [Sir E. CORNWALL in the Chair.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to amend the Law with respect to the supply of electricity, it is expedient—
§ Colonel GRETTON
I beg to move in paragraph (a) to leave out the word "twenty" and to insert instead thereof the word "five."
This Resolution is of a remarkable character, and I am not quite sure that the committee realises what it is asked to do in the short time between 8 o'clock and 8.15. The first part of the Resolution proposes to authorise the Treasury to advance £20,000,000 out of the consolidated fund for the purposes of the Electricity Dill. The second part of the Resolution proposes to authorise the Treasury to guarantee the interest on a further £25,000,000. There is also a liability proposed to be incurred in regard to the expenses of the Electricity Commissioners. 2130 The whole proceedings in relation to the Electricity Bill are subject to contention. The Bill is by no means an agreed one, and this Resolution is some measure of the ambitious scale upon which the authors of the Bill are proceeding. They evidently intend that they shall control all the electricity supplies of the country. At any rate that is the suspicion in the minds of many persons who have, examined the Bill. The genesis of the Bill is somewhat interesting. The proposal was put into the Ways and Communications Bill as a kind of afterthought. The Minister of Ways and Communications considered that he would not be able to carry out the full powers of that Bill unless he was in absolute control of the whole electricity supplies of the country. But the proposals presented in that way was disagreed with, and we now have this separate Bill brought forward and we are asked to authorise an expenditure of £20,000,000, and to guarantee interest involving a further £25,000,000, making a liability to the State in capital and interest of £45,000,000. I submit that this is not the time for the State to embark upon great adventures of this kind involving unlimited expenditure. We are already committed to the huge expenditure necessarily arising out of the War and various other contingencies which have to be met also arising out of the War. This committee would be ill advised to allow the Resolution to go through un-amended, thereby undertaking the very vast expenditure involved. On those grounds I beg to move the Amendment which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Joynson-Hicks). The sum of £5,000,000 would give the Minister opportunity to exercise his powers, and it is unreasonable and improper that any Minister should under the present circumstances and in our present monetary position in the country be allowed to spend without further reference to Parliament a sum of more than £5,000,000. There is nothing to prevent the Minister under the powers of this Bill drawing up very costly schemes and having a roving commission in connection with electricity supplies without coming to Parliament for the approval of such schemes, and it appears to me and many hon. Members that such schemes should be subject to Parliamentary control and that the Minister should not have practically unlimited powers to expend these vast sums of money without check or control.
§ Mr. MARRIOTT
It would be singularly ungracious and ungrateful if I did not recognise in these series of financial Resolutions some approximation to public virtue. I believe that these Resolutions are in pursuance of a policy which was suggested to this House by the Select Committee on National Expenditure during the last Session of Parliament of which I was a Member. I, therefore, realise that the Government, in making this detailed proposition, are attempting to meet the views expressed by that Committee. Nevertheless, I agree very cordially with my hon and gallant Friend that they arc really asking by these Resolutions for a roving commission to inquire into the whole electricity supply of this country. I submit that their demand for £20,000,000 is not justified by anything which is in the text of the Bill which they have submitted to the House, nor by any reasons which they have so far advanced in the memorandum which has been submitted. In that memorandum, I recognise another approximation to virtue, for which I am sincerely grateful to my hon. Friend (Sir H. Greenwood) or whoever is responsible. Notwithstanding the facts of the memorandum and the Bill, I still think that the Government are asking for a sum which the House of Commons ought to be very slow to give on the evidence before them at the present time. Therefore I support the Amendment.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT(Sir H. Greenwood)
The House of Commons passed the Second Reading of the Electricity Bill and following that the financial Resolution now on the Paper was put down. In addition there is in the Vote Office a detailed memorandum setting out the principal expenditure for the coming year, and it has nothing to do with £45,000,000 or £25,000,000 or £20,000,000. It sets out very clearly that the probable expenditure for the financial year ending 1st April, 1920, under the head of Capital Expenditure, will be £1,000,000, and that the expenditure for staff will probably not exceed £35,000. There is a third item, that of the guaranteed interest by the Treasury on a maximum of £25,000,000 to be raised by the Electricity Commissioners under certain circumstances. It is impossible to say what the interest will be for the coming year, but on the face of it cannot be the maximum interest on £25,000,000. I submit, therefore, that the 2132 Committee is not asked to do anything unreasonable in passing this financial Resolution, after the explanation made in the detailed memorandum which is in the Vote Office, and which I am afraid the hon. and gallant Member had not read at the time he made his speech.
§ Sir H. GREENWOOD
I agree, but as soon as a Paper is in the Vote Office, I presume that every Member of the House is at once supposed to have knowledge of its contents.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
The only time a Minister is entitled to assume that hon. Members have knowledge of Papers in the Vote Office is when they have been circulated with the Papers in the morning.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
This Paper has only just been put, in the Vote Office, and so far as our practice goes these sort of Papers arc circulated with our Papers in the morning.
§ Sir H. GREENWOOD
I was not aware that these Papers were necessarily circulated with the Votes but, on the little pink paper that every Member gets, this was mentioned, and if they wished to receive the Memorandum they would only need to make their mark on the Paper and they would get it.
§ Sir H. GREENWOOD
I regret that the Memorandum only arrived in the Vote Office to-day but the fact that it is there, giving the detailed estimate for the year, which does not approach the vast sums mentioned by the Mover of this Amendment, does justify me in hoping that after this explanation I shall be allowed to get this Resolution now.
§ Colonel GRETTON
I beg to move,That the Chairman do report Progress, and. ask leave to sit again.Clearly we ought to study this Memorandum before this matter proceeds any further.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.