HC Deb 20 November 1919 vol 121 cc1197-208

All the powers and duties of the Board of Trade under this Act or the Electric Lighting Acts or the Orders and Regulations made there-under or any local Act relating to the supply of electricity or any enactment relating to matters incidental to such supply shall, as from such date as His Majesty in Council may fix, be transferred to the Minister of Transport, and accordingly references to the Board of Trade in any such Acts, Orders, Regulations, or enactments shall be construed as references to the Minister of Transport. Provided that the power of appointing Electricity Commissioners under this Act shall be exercised by the Ministry of Transport after consultation with the Board of Trade.—[Mr. Shortt.]

Brought up, and read the first time.


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

This is a Clause reinstating in the Bill certain proposals rejected by the Committee. There is no new policy involved in the setting down of this Clause; no change of policy on the part of the Government of any sort or description. Originally the question of electricity was proposed to be dealt with in the Bill which sets up the Ministry of Transport, and certain powers were given to the Ministry, when established, which included the power of dealing with all questions of electrical power and electricity generally. This was in Committee withdrawn from the Bill setting up the Ministry of Transport. I made it perfectly clear then that it was not withdrawn because of any change of policy on the part of the Government; it was withdrawn solely and simply that the matter might be dealt with in an Electricity Bill. A provision was inserted in the Ways and Communications Bill by which was transferred to the Ministry of Transport all the powers and duties of the Board of Trade.

I must go into this I am afraid in some little detail; because, of course, I am asking the House on the Report stage to reverse the decision of the Committee upstairs. I fully realise that that can only be done where the Government appreciate that it is of the greatest importance to the Bill as a whole that this Clause should be passed. We have considered this question very carefully. We have investigated it in every direction to see if there was any means by which we could meet the wishes of the Committee upstairs, and at the same time not do that which, in the opinion of the Government, would greatly impair the efficiency of the Bill. But we have not been able to find any method of what I may call compromise as between the view of the Committee and the view of the Government. Therefore it is that I am moving this new Clause. May I just briefly remind the Committee of what is the object both of this Bill and of the Bill which establishes the Ministry of Transport? There are two things which are absolutely essential to industry and social development in this country. These are transport and power. You cannot develop industry of any kind unless you have transport. You cannot develop agriculture or any form of industry unless the products of that industry can be conveyed to their markets. Equally you cannot, without transport, make all those changes and improvements in the housing system of our people which we all very greatly desire.

Indeed, there is hardly any form in which one seeks to better the conditions of the country that does not require as an essential transport above all. Equally, transport without power is of no value. You must develop power and you must develop your power so as to supply it, not only as cheaply and as rapidly, but as efficiently as you possibly can. It is no good, however, having cheap power if it may fail you at any moment. It is no good having a secure and certain power if it is too expensive to make it a commercial proposition. You have, therefore, two things required. You must have certainty of supply and you must have cheapness of supply. These are the two great essentials for progress in this country—transport and electricity! This House has already arranged by creating a Ministry of Transport that all forms of transport are to be co-ordinated. That principle has been accepted by this House, and is now an established fact. It is an established fact for the time being; and although I do not prophesy, I would venture to say that that is a decision of the House which it will never reverse. What is the fact in regard to electricity? Electricity is probably, in the future at any rate, going to be one of the main sources of power. Every time this subject has arisen, I have said that I would not for a moment suggest that private enterprise, which has been the pioneer of electricity in this country, has failed in its duty. Those concerned have, under difficult circumstances, done very great and very good work. No one will, I suppose, suggest that they have attained to anything like complete success? There is a great deal to be done. What is to be done essentially requires driving power. This Bill provides that, whatever authority deals with the electricity, they shall have to see to it that enterprise is forthcoming, and energy, and initiative. For example, there is power given to the Electricity Commissioners to conduct experiments and investigations into the use of electrical power and fuel. There will be an advisory committee set up, part of whose duty will be to make to the authorities suggestions as to and directions and methods by which improvements may be attained. During the transport period there is power for the central authority to construct generating stations, and generally to provide that no offer shall have to wait an overdue time for the chance of success. Equally there are other provisions which require supervision, but which require something more, and that is driving power behind the central authority. The question then arises—which of our existing Departments is the best from that point of view? I do not think anyone in the House will now suggest the setting up of a new Ministry, and whether that will come in the future is another matter. No one will suggest the advisability or propriety of setting up a new ad hoe Ministry, and therefore we have to consider which of the existing Departments is the best and most suitable to put at the head of this great and important subject of electricity.

The services are out of the question. Departments like the Home Office are equally out of the question., and I think if you come to investigate you will find that it lies between two Departments, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Transport. Now which of those two Departments is best fitted to assist a new body, to encourage new enterprises, and the forcing of its driving power, initiative, and energy? The Board of Trade has done excellent work in the past, but it is not work of driving power or of initiative. The Board of Trade has a very good staff, but it is chosen and trained for the purpose of supervision, of enforcing regulations and purposes which have the effect rather of curbing instead of encouraging enterprise and initiative. That is the sort of staff they possess—and rightly possess. It is an adequate and able staff, but it is not trained to anything except supervision and regulation. They have no staff of engineers or electricians that could undertake the work of erecting new generating stations as provided for in this Bill in an area where there was no district board or local body. They have no such staff, and if this duty remained with the Board of Trade it would mean that they would have to do the equivalent of setting up a new Ministry, because it would mean the reorganisation of the whole staff.

The Ministry of Transport already has a suitable staff. They have highly skilled engineers and electricians, and they must have those men for the work they have to do. The very raison d'être of their existence is that they are not to supervise, regulate, and curb, and their whole object is to force, drive, encourage, and ensure all that is necessary to go forward and progress. [An HON. MEMBER: "Regardless of expense!"] Of course not regardless of expense. I hope I am asking for nothing unreasonable. Their main duty is driving force and energy, and neither of those attributes appertains to the staff of the Board of Trade. Therefore the Government are convinced that it would be detrimental almost to the point of destruction to put this Bill under any Department except the one which is properly fitted to carry out its provisions.


Has the Minister of Transport got a staff of engineers?


Yes, he has a great many, but I do not say that his staff is complete. He is bound to have engineers and electricians, because the one great method by which we can improve transport is through electrifying the lines. Therefore he must have them. Whether he has got all he requires I do not know, but he has a very considerable staff indeed. He has the nucleus of the staff, and he is completing it every day. I think everybody admits that if you want to do any good in a matter of this kind you must co-ordinate the transport system of this country. It was admitted by the House on the Second Reading of this Bill that you must, if you are to have a really efficient service of electricity, have unity and co-ordination. That is admitted with transport and power on every hand. There is another thing which is just as important, and it is that your transport without power is useless, just, as power without transport is useless, and therefore it is just as important you should have co-ordination in your transport as it is that you should have co-ordination between power and transport. You must have co-ordination in each, and it is almost more important that you should have co-ordination between the two.

Transport, is co-ordinated under that Department, and the only way you can have co-ordination between power and transport is by putting them under the same Department. If you have two Departments working as sympathetically as possible, it is impossible for them to work as one would work. Even if you have two Departments working together there must be unavoidable friction, and you cannot have that smoothness and unity which is essential to complete success that you can get when you have only one controlling Department. On these grounds, the Government have come to that conclusion with regret, because they would, if they could have done it, tried loyally to have accepted the decision of the Committee upstairs, I have tried briefly to explain why it is that the Government cannot accept that decision and are bound to ask the House to reverse it. Therefore I ask the House to accept this proposal.


This is the second occasion upon which the Home Secretary has had to auk the House to reverse a decision come to in Committee, and I wish to express to him personally my sympathy for the position in which he finds himself. He has told us in somewhat solemn terms that the decision come to by the Committee is, in the opinion of the Government, calculated to wreck the usefulness of this Bill, and I suppose we may take it from that that if the decision of the Committee is confirmed by this House the Government will not proceed with the Bill. I cannot help making the comment that the opinion of the Cabinet seems to be rather sudden. For the benefit of those hon. Members who were not members of the Committee I would like to say that when this Clause was discussed in Committee the Home Secretary was not able to be in his place. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport was not in his place either, and the defence of the Clause was left to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who was supposed to maintain, in face of an unsympathetic Committee, that his Department was incompetent to carry out the functions entrusted to it by the Bill. Under these circumstances it is, perhaps, hardly surprising that the Committee did not attach the same importance to the rejection of this Clause which apparently the Government are now disposed to do.

Speaking for myself, it appeared to me all through that the question as to whether the Functions which in the Bill were ascribed to the Board of Trade should be handed over to the Ministry of Transport was one on which we had to be convinced by very powerful arguments. I listened carefully to what the Home Secretary said on the subject when he was moving the Second Heading of the Transport Bill. I also listened to what he said on the Second Reading of the Electricity Bill, but I could not listen to what he had to say on the subject in Committee because he was not there. I have listened to his arguments this afternoon in support of the change, and I confess that I am still unconvinced of the desirability of this change. He has told us a good many things about the importance of developing the power system of this country as well as the transport system. He has told us a good deal about the virtues of co-ordination of the different systems of electricity and co-ordination between transport and power, but he has not told us why it is necessary to secure that co-ordination that the Electricity Commissioners should act under the direction of the Ministry of Transport rather than under the President of the Board of Trade.

I have been unable to see that any sufficient argument has been brought forward to convince me of the necessity of the change, whilst I do see some distinct disadvantages which I should like to put before the House. If this Clause is passed I venture to say that it will be exceedingly unpopular in the country. I do not put that forward on political grounds, but when you are introducing a big Bill of this kind it should be introduced with general good will, and a Bill that begins in an atmosphere of suspicion has not got a good start-off. Why do I suggest that it will be unpopular? Because the Ministry of Transport is itself going to be a great consumer of current. That is part of the Home Secretary's argument, and it will therefore be looked upon in the light of a competitor with other users of current. If there is any difference as to where current should be generated or as to the nature of the current to be generated, or if there is any difference of opinion, let us say, between the local authorities and industry generally or transport, then it is not considered that the Ministry of Transport will be in an impartial position to judge the case. Various functions are assigned by this Bill. Some of these functions are of a judicial character. For instance, Clause 7, which deals with the price to be paid for undertakings of private companies to be vested in the district electricity boards, says that if it is shown to this satisfaction of the Board of Trade that the expenditure calculated in a certain way would work hardship, then it is to go before an arbitrator appointed by the Board of Trade. That is a judicial function. The Board of Trade have to be satisfied that an injustice is going to be created, and then they have to appoint an arbitrator. That is not a position in which you ought to put the Ministry of Transport when they themselves are interested parties in the supply of electricity. Again, the Board of Trade may, by Order, authorise the Electricity Commissioners to abstract water from rivers, streams, canals, inland navigation, and other sources. That is a position which should be entrusted to an entirely impartial Ministry. I do not for a moment want to suggest that the Ministry of Transport would not be impartial in this matter, but I feel that there would be some sort of suspicion created which it is very desirable to avoid and which is of disadvantage if you are considering the handing over of these duties to the Ministry of Transport.

I will also call attention to the Schedule. It lays down the procedure to be adopted by the Board of Trade before confirming any special Order under the Bill. They have to hear evidence, consider objections, amend the Order if they think fit, and so forth. These qualities of energy, driving power, and initiative, which the Home Secretary has recommended to us as being the qualities of the Ministry of Transport, are not exactly the qualities that we look for in a person who has to administer justice in the way provided in the Schedule. It seems to me that the Government, in their anxiety to put the work of Clause 19 of the Bill, namely, the expenditure of the £20,000,000 and the exercising of the powers of the district boards before they are set up. under the Ministry of Transport have lumped in other functions for which the Ministry of Transport is not at all suitable and have not really given sufficient attention to the possibility of separating these various functions and putting some of them under one Department and some under another. I certainly should be the very last to desire to see all the time that the members of the Committee—I among them—have given to this measure thrown away by the dropping of the Bill. I do not want to see the Bill dropped at all, but I am not here to vote as I am told—I am here to vote according to my convictions—and I do think that I am entitled to ask the Government to give me convincing reasons for changing my opinion before I do so, and before I give a vote to the Clause in its present form. I cannot vote for the Clause in its present form, and I do ask my right hon. Friend to see whether it is not possible, after all, to go into this matter a little bit further and to separate what I have called the judicial functions of the Department of State under which the direction of the Electricity Commissioners are to act from those functions that they will have to exercise under Clause 19.


As a general rule the House would be unwilling to override the considered decision of a Committee on a question of detail, though I am bound to say, looking at the length of the Order Paper, that is a view which does not appear to be shared by a large number of Members. The Amendment which the Home Secretary has moved involves very broad questions of principle and no mere question of detail, and I think the House will be glad of an opportunity of reviewing the decision of the Committee, particularly as the arguments in favour of the Clause were singularly wanting in Committee. I have read the Report of the pro- ceedings, and I do not think that the real merits or demerits of this Clause were in the least discussed. I would like to show what are the principles which are involved. I sincerely hope that the House is going to give its decision on this Clause on questions of principle, and not on questions of personality. I am glad that hon. Members cheer that statement, and I hope that it will be carried out. The argument ad hominem is always dangerous, is generally fallacious, and is very often biassed. But whether that be true or not it is always a bad thing in this House, because we do not legislate for the life of a particular Minister, or the political life of a Government, but for all time.

The first principle involved is one which was enunciated by the Home Secretary. You cannot set up a new Ministry to deal with this matter. You have to decide to which Ministry you can best assign these functions. All Ministers are extraordinarily busy and they are all overworked, but if one were asked to select any particular Department at present more overworked and with more obligations culminating upon it in the critical trade period during which we are passing than any other one would, I think, say it was the Board of Trade. The House, therefore, would do well to pause before it added to the obligations of the Board of Trade, unless it were satisfied that there was no other Ministry that could do the work equally well. As a matter of fact, the Ministry of Transport is a much more natural Ministry for the purpose than the Board of Trade. Inevitably, the Ministry of Transport is going to be day in and day out concerned with electricity. I am aware that may be a two-edged argument, and hon. Members may say that because the Ministry is so interested in electricity it cannot be expected to exercise these judicial functions impartially. All these things were said originally about the Ministry of Transport. We were told that the roads would go to perdition if we placed them under the Ministry of Transport. As a matter of fact, the first thing that the Minister of Transport did was to appoint an officer in charge of them, who had won the confidence of every single officer and man who had served in France. If that argument is used on the one side, I am perfectly entitled to argue that I would have the interests of electricity in the hands of the Minister directly interested in it.

There is a second point of even more importance. This Bill, as it comes to us from the Committee upstairs, divides the responsibility in respect of electricity between the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Transport. There is not now presented to us a simple alternative as to whether we will assign these functions wholly to one Ministry or to the other. The Bill comes to us with divided responsibility. There has already been inserted in the Bill—and inserted, I think, by the general consent of the Committee—provisions which give to the railways and the Ministry of Transport what is practically a dual jurisdiction. If there is one principle of administration which is radically unsound, it is that of divided responsibility between two Departments. Any Member who has had any experience of Government administration knows that perfectly well, and no one knows it better than the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lady wood (Mr. N. Chamberlain) in his administrative experience in Government Departments. Every member of the Select Committee on National Expenditure time and time again has drawn attention to the inconvenience and delay and excessive expenditure which are caused by divided responsibility for one subject between two Departments. As a matter of fact, every member of the public who corresponds with the Departments, as well as every ordinary Member of this House, knows it. Nothing irritates Members of this House more than to address a question to one particular Minister and then to be told that as regards the first part he is able to give an answer, but as regards the second part the hon. Member must address himself to the Minister in charge of another Department. An ordinary business man does not know to which of two Departments to write, and he cannot write to a single Department and get a single decision. This is the thing which, in administration at the present time is irritating the community. It is really the first elementary principle of administration to make one Department the single executive authority for one subject.

5.0 p.m.

There is a third consideration which weighs with me. Not only is this provision contrary to all sound canons of administration, but it really cuts at the root purpose of the Bill. Under the scheme of the Bill the Board of Trade are responsible for the district boards. Under the Clause which has been added to the Bill the railways may say that they desire to have a supply of electricity of a kind, of an amount and of a frequency which they require. It is well known that there will be divergencies of opinion as to which frequency is best. The railways may well say, "We want a frequency of 25," and, on the other hand, commercial men may say, "We want a frequency of 50." The worst solution of a difficulty of that kind is to say to two Departments, "Go your own way and set up two power stations, instead of one." That goes absolutely to the whole root of the subject, and that is what is going to be done if you leave this matter under this dual control. If you carry it you cannot get economy in construction, or in coal, or in cables, or in production. It is the surest way to get an extravagant solution of the whole problem. We have been told that the Minister of Transport will do things in a most extravagant manner. If this House, wishes to keep real control over the Minister of Transport, if it wishes to see the expenditure under this Bill economically carried out, it will insist on making one Minister responsible for the whole administration, a Minister whom it can call to account if it cosiders the expenditure excessive. If the Minister of Transport is made responsible for the whole field of electrical enterprise and not merely for a part, then he may be expected to take broad views, but without a single Minister the wider aspects will not be properly attended to. If these considerations had been present to the mind of the Committee I believe it would have come to a different decision, and I hope the House will not endorse a proposal which not only cuts at the root principle of the Bill, but which also transgresses the first principle of quick, economical and efficient administration.


As a member of the Standing Committee which considered this Bill, I think it is deplorable that a decision come to almost unanimously should be upset at such short notice by the Government. The last speaker suggested that the Committee had taken out of the Bill the generating stations belonging to the railway companies, and left them to the Ministry of Transport. But the Bill, as submitted to the Committee excluded the railway generating stations, and many of the Committee would have been only too glad if the whole of the generating stations, whether railway or other, could have been in the hands of the Electricity Commis- sioners. It is somewhat ingenious to suggest that, because the railway generating stations were excluded from the Bill, we should now take the whole of the electric service from it. I submit that that argument is entirely fallacious and should not carry weight with this House. I submit further that it is a sound principle that buyer and seller should not be one and the same body. That is a part of the Bill which will make it very difficult to get ready co-operation throughout the country from the various undertakings, whether private companies or municipal undertakings. In order to secure their hearty co-operation in the carrying out of this scheme it is necessary they should feel that the Electricity Commissioners will be in an entirely independent position.

Forward to