HC Deb 20 November 1919 vol 121 cc1277-81

(1) As from such date or dates as may be specified in the Order constituting a district electricity board, all generating stations then existing within the district, other than railway generating stations, dock generating stations, and private generating stations, and such main transmission Hues as may be specified in the Order, oilier than main transmission lines belonging or leased to railway companies, shall by virtue of this Act vest in the district electricity board, subject to the payment by the board to the owners thereof of the standard price, but freed and discharged from all mortgages and other charges to which the same may be subject, and the proviso to Section seventy-eight of the Schedule to the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, 1899, shall apply as if the generating stations or main transmission lines had been sold under Section two of the Electric Lighting Act, 1888.


I beg to move, in Subsection (1) to leave out the words "railway generating stations, dock generating stations, and." I desire to thank the Home Secretary for his acceptance of our Amendment.


I hope this Amendment will not be pressed now, and instead of proceeding with this Amendment I beg to move "That the Debate be now adjourned." When the Bill was before the Committee, and during the period of the summer before the Recess, my advisers and I had to consider the position of railway companies and we did so in consultation with those hon. Members who understood railway matters, and were responsible for speaking for them. Let me say, quite-frankly, the position with regard to railway companies was one which I, per- sonally, on behalf of the Government agreed to, and I am quite responsible for having agreed to it. Subsequent reflection has made it not quite so clear whether the arrangement I made was a wise one. I had been advised that, no matter who had control of the electricity, the railway generating stations coud not be of any value to the scheme. I was advised that it was necessary to keep the right-of-way leaves over the railway lines, and that we did. But I had been advised that the railway generating stations—


That is not so.


Indeed, it is exactly as I have stated. I therefore made the arrangement that I did. It has been suggested that it is not a wise arrangement. I have, therefore, put down these Amendments, not because I desire to go back in any way upon my arrangement, or to deny that I made it, or anything of that sort, but purely for the purpose of the reconsideration of the matter. I do not think that we can reconsider it tonight. We ought to discuss it when those who are competent to speak on behalf of the railway companies are here. Therefore, having regard to that position, I would ask my hon. Friend not to press his Amendment, and to allow me, instead of moving my Amendment, to move to adjourn the Debate.


I had already proposed the Question on the Amendment. I will, therefore, now put the Question, "That the Debate be now adjourned."


It is rather unusual, when a Minister has an Amendment upon the Paper, for him to get up at the last moment and want to withdraw it and ask to move the Adjournment of the Debate, simply because the railway directors are not in the House. All the other Members interested are here, and are anxious to press their case, but because the railway directors are only represented by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), the Debate is to be adjourned in order that the Government may make out a case for withdrawing their Amendments. I protest that that is not treating the House fairly. We have been here all day waiting for this Amendment, and now, when we have reached it and we withdraw our Amendment in order to accept that of the Government, the Home Secretary moves to adjourn the Debate, He tells us that this is an important question, but so are a great many other questions that have been discussed to-day. It is a concession to the pressure which has been brought to bear upon the Government by the railway companies, and it is illustrated by the withdrawal of the Home Secretary's Amendment.

10.0 P.M.


I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend will reconsider what he has said when I tell him what exactly has taken place. It is not a question of any pressure. It is not a question of the railway directors not being here. Here is one railway director, there is another, and there is a third. Therefore the first statement of my hon. and gallant Friend is incorrect. So is his second statement; and I am perfectly certain that he will be on my side when I tell him what has taken place. Some weeks or months ago the Board of Trade had an interview with the representatives of the railway companies. Sir John Snell, who is a permanent member of the Board of Trade, made an arrangement with the railway companies. That arrangement resulted in an Amendment being moved in the Committee upstairs, and it was accepted by the Government as an agreed Amendment. Not only was that accepted by the Government as an agreed Amendment, but two other Amendments which were made under the same circumstances with the Board of Trade were also accepted by the Government in Committee as agreed Amendments. To-day, for the first time, Amendments appear on the Paper altering the agreement, which had been entered into not only with the Board of Trade, but also with the Committee, and which the Government had accepted in Committee.

I know perfectly well that my hon. and gallant Friend will agree with me when I say that during all his experience in this House and during all mine, the thing that all parties have agreed upon is that an agreement made must be maintained. It is no use coining down and saying that it was not a wise agreement. I am surprised that the Home Secretary should come down and say, after having made it, that he does not think it a wise agreement. When two people make a bargain, one of them is sure to get a little the better of the other. If I make an agreement with my hon. and gallant Friend and I find that he has got the better of me, as he would, that is no excuse for me saying that I have not been wise and that I am going to break the agreement. That is the position, and I am rather sorry, because we cannot get over the fact that the Government did put down these Amendments, which were a distinct breach of faith. I make that charge deliberately, and though, of course, the Government have admitted, a little tardily, that what I say is correct, I am not at all sure that the way to meet it is to adjourn the Debate. In the old days of this House if any member of any Government had realised what he had done, he would have said, "I am sorry, I was mistaken, but I did make a bargain, and that bargain I am going to keep." We are really entering upon a very serious innovation in the experience of Parliament. All Members of the House know that for very many years I made practically all the arrangements between the Conservative party and the Liberal party. On only two occasions did I ever know any attempt to break those arrangements. One occasion—I will not mention any name—is as long ago as 1893. The arrangement was broken, and the results were very bad. On the other occasion when an attempt was made, it was thought better of, and the arrangement was not broken. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Bridgeman) knows that what I say is correct. If now we are going to create a new precedent, and if the Government, having entered into a bargain, are going to break it because it is not a wise one, then that is the end to Parliamentary government.


I join with the right hon. Baronet, and I say that this Bill is breaking faith with Parliament right through By Section 2 of the Electric Lighting Act of 1888 certain conditions were laid down in the event of purchase. Unfortunately, we have got into a new era, and we find that the Government of the present time do not respect contracts that have been entered into by their predecessors. That is a bad thing for any Government to do. People outside have made their contracts relying upon an Act of Parliament, never expecting and never having known an Act to be torn in pieces. That is what is done by this Bill, and I protest most strongly against it. Personally, I am surprised at the attitude adopted by the Government. We pass measures upstairs and get them through in a legitimate way. Then we come down here, and we find that, irrespective of what has been done by the Members upstairs, every pressure is used to undo their work.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.