HC Deb 20 November 1919 vol 121 cc1244-8

Where upon an application to the Electricity Commissioners by any party to a contract for the supply of electricity entered into before the passing of this Act, the Commissioners are satisfied that, owing to the passing of this Act or anything done thereunder or to any circumstances arising out of the War, the contract cannot be enforced according to its terms without serious hardship the Commissioners may, after considering all the circumstances of the case and the position of all the parties to the contract and any offer which may have been made by any party for a variation of the contract, suspend or annul or, with the consent of the parties, amend as from such date as the Commissioners may think fit the contract or any term thereof or any rights arising thereunder on such conditions (if any) as the Commissioners may think fit.— [Mr. Neal.]

Brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

I propose to put the House in possession of the reasons which induced me to make this Motion. Under the Bill as it stands at this moment, the scheme is to take away from the present undertakers, whether they be municipal or private company undertakers, their generating stations in certain events, and to leave them as distributors of the current. Many of these undertakers, under Statute, have entered into contracts for a period of years to supply electricity to certain consumers, and, consequently, their whole outlook is now changed, and they may find it impossible to carry out their contracts—in fact, in some cases they may find it quite impossible to carry out those contracts at all. The Clause which I move suggests that the Electricity Commissioners whose judicial capacity has already been referred to shall be empowered in certain circumstances either to cancel the contract or to amend it, with the consent of the parties, or to vary it so far as to make it a just and equitable contract having regard to the circumstances of the case. I moved an Amendment in precisely similar terms, except with reference to the date, in the Committee, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who was then in charge of the Bill, did me the honour of saying that between then and the Report stage the Government would give consideration to the matter, though he held out no hope that they might accept it. The answer which was made to me then was this: If you refer to the Electricity Companies Act, 1899, you will find that in cases where undertakers are prevented by force, majeure from fulfilling their statutory obligations, namely, to give a supply to any person who reasonably and within the statutory limits calls for a supply, they are under no penalty. I do not think that Statute touches this matter at all. It is not a case of contractual right; it is a case of the statutory right of the public to call for a supply. It is not a case of impossibility of performance of something which a company has undertaken to do; it is, in fact, a penal Clause put in to sec that there is no preferential treatment given by the company. Therefore, I suggest that affords no answer to this Clause. The Courts Emergency Powers Act was mentioned as having some bearing upon this matter. Again, I suggest that Act is not germane to this subject. The Courts Emergency Powers Act gives to the Court power to interfere in certain contracts made before 1st January, 1917, and to do justice as the new circumstances demand in those matters. This would not come under the Courts Emergency Powers Act as to anything except the part which mentions the "circumstances arising out of the War."

The object I have in moving this Clause is to protect undertakers who through this Act are put in a position that they cannot fulfil their obligations. I was asked how that could be, and against me it was urged that under this Bill, as it stands, undertakers are given certain rights to call for a supply of electricity not less in quantity and not dearer in price than they could obtain from their own stations or from any extension of their own stations that they may have in contemplation. Even that would not cover the whole matter. May I put one single illustration? Let the House assume that there has been a contract made—I am told there are many—whereby electricity is to be supplied to a consumer at a price varying with the price of coal delivered at a generating station. Suppose as the result of this Bill, as it may well be, that generating station ceases to be operated, because obviously the policy is to scrap the ineffective stations and to establish effective stations in their places. It would then be quite impossible to carry out that contract according to its terms. That is only one illustration. I am advised that there are many more, and the submission that I make is that when those cases do arise there can be no hardship and no injustice in asking the Commissioners, who will have as full and complete a knowledge of all the circumstances of the case as anyone could wish, to see that justice is done between the parties. I do not like to invite this House at any time to interfere with contracts which have been solemnly made between parties. It is a policy which requires justification, and the justification which, I suggest is that when the House by its own act interferes with the ability of parties to perform contracts it is a necessary sequel and corollary that the House should point out in what way they are to be relieved from the consequences of the failure for which they are not responsible


I beg to second the Motion.


I certainly listened with some curiosity and expectation to learn what was the real motive of this Clause and whether it was intended to protect undertakers or consumers. I was very sur- prised when I saw an Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend on the Paper asking Parliament to interfere in a private contract. I did not know whether it was intended to assist the consumer who, having entered into a contract with existing undertakers and being bound to accept electricity from those undertakers, might want to get his current at half the price from the new district board. I thought that might be the reason, arid, as the Clause stands, any consumer who found it would be cheaper to obtain his current from a district board would be able to say that he desired to have his contract set aside. It is suggested by my hon. Friend, however, that it is intended to protect undertakers. I cannot imagine why, because Parliament has passed an Act to protect undertakers who happen to have been hit by the War, Parliament should pass another Act having nothing whatever to do with the War, but none the less enabling people to apply to have their contracts amended or set aside. An instance was given by the hon. Member of cases where the price was conditional upon the price at which the coal could be delivered to the generating station. I cannot for the life of me understand why this Bill should put an end to that contract.


It puts an end to the station.


The Bill puts an end to the station it is true, but it provides that the undertakers shall still have their electricity, and as cheaply as they could have got it. The only thing that the coal delivered at the station has to do with the question is in fixing the price at which the electricity is bought by the consumer. That is perfectly easily ascertained, and therefore there is no hardship that requires any provision of this sort to remove. So far as I know, there is no ground therefore for this Clause. So far as I know, every case of injurious affection, whether of a consumer or an undertaker, is protected. We have endeavoured to provide compensation, and, if there is any instance where we have failed, it can properly be brought up as an Amendment to some later Clause. A general Clause like this interfering with contracts without stronger grounds than any that my hon Friend has put forward is one which on behalf of the Government I am bound to resist.

Question put, and negatived.


The next new Clause (Registration of Master or Employing Electrician), standing in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Dulwich (Sir F. Hall) deals with matters which are beyond the scope of the Bill.