HC Deb 24 November 1919 vol 121 cc1581-4

The Electricity Commissioners shall have power on the application of any district electricity board, after hearing the parties interested, by Order to require any authorised undertakers to give such reasonable facilities for the supply of electricity within their area of supply as may be specified in the Order, including the provision Of new works, and if any authorised undertakers are unable or unwilling to comply with any such Order, the Board of Trade, on the representation of the Electricity Commissioners, shall have power notwithstanding anything in this Act either—

  1. (a) to order that the undertaking of the authorised undertakers, or any part thereof, shall be transferred to the district electricity board upon the terms prescribed by Section two of the Electric Lighting Act, 1888; or
  2. 1582
  3. (b) to confer on the district electricity board power to supply electricity within the area of supply of such authorised undertakers, or any part thereof.


I beg to move, to leave out paragraph (b).

This Clause empowers the Commissioners to require authorised undertakers to give facilities for the supply of electricity, including the provision of new works, and if the undertakers are unable or unwilling to comply with the Order then they may be required forthwith to sell their undertakings to the district board, or the district board may be given powers to supply within the area of the undertakers. The point of my Amendments, briefly, is this: If the undertakers do not see their way to the expenditure, they may forfeit the remainder of their Parliamentary tenure, or they may be exposed to the competition of the wholesale suppliers. There is no limit to the location, or the character or the magnitude of the new works which the undertakers may be called upon to provide. It is obvious, therefore, that it would be possible for the Electricity Commissioners, at the instance of the district board, to call upon the undertakers to tarry out works outside their area of supply, for which they have at present, and under the Bill, no legal powers—works which in their discretion, they think likely to be unremunerative or for which they are unable to find the capital. If they fail to comply with the Order to carry out these works, then they are to be penalised by the expropriation of the remainder of their tenure without any compensation; or, as an alternative, they may be exposed to the competition of the wholesale suppliers—that is to say, the district board. What would be the result? That competition might result in the destruction of the whole business of the undertakers, and I therefore, submit that it is necessary, in order to protect them against such an obvious injustice, to leave out paragraph (b).


The object of this Bill, as has been stated over and over again, is to get a cheap and efficient supply of electricity. You have an undertaking in an area, and that undertaking knows perfectly well that at any time Parliament may authorise other undertakers to go in as competitors. The Electricity Commissioners, on the application of the board— it is not under the board itself—may inquire as to whether in a certain area certain work is necessary. They come to the conclusion that for the purposes of the public it is necessary. They may give the undertakers the opportunity of doing it, and if they cannot do it, or will not do it, are the public to suffer or are the Electricity Commissioners to carry out the powers with which they have been entrusted by Parliament, and which will enable the public to receive a supply of electricity I Therefore, I hope the House will reject the Amendment.


One would judge from the speech of the Home Secretary that the undertakers were simply there as an ornament, and not to carry out matters of business. The right hon. Gentleman surely knows that the Amendment is most reasonable. You are making two penalties by the provision now, and putting two provisos on these people. You may ask them to carry out obligations which they cannot reasonably do, and then you are to be in a position to turn round and say, "We are going to provide competition."


Can the undertaker who is superseded or who is having competition rely on Clause 12, and say, "Under the circumstances which have arisen, I call on the district board to take me over"? Is that right to continue whilst this Clause operates? I suggest that as a corollary to Clause 12 the undertaker ought to be able to call on the district board to take over the undertaking.


I think we ought to have an answer from the Home Secretary on this point. During the whole of the discussions to-day the Government have said, "After all, there is no unfairness in the Bill, because if the undertakers do not like the terms of it there is Clause 12, which enables them to require the Government to take over their whole undertaking." I am glad my hon. and learned Friend opposite is here, because he told me a little while ago that I was not competent to decide upon the inner meaning of Clauses in an Act, but so far as I am competent, I would say this, that a later Clause overrides a former Clause. If this was not so, the Home Secretary would have told my hon. and gallant Friend (Major Greame) that Clause 12 was not overridden by Clause 14. If Clause 14 does override Clause 12, then I think the Amendment should be accepted, but if the Amendment is not accepted there should be an appeal from the Electricity Commis- sioners. After all, who are the Electricity Commissioners that they should be entrusted with the property of obedient subjects of the realm? I presume they are very excellent people, but they remind me rather of the two gentlemen—I have forgotten their names—who under Charles I. went about the country levying taxes. They were very unpopular people, and my hon. and gallant Friend reminds me that they were fined by the Court of King's Bench and insulted by the rabble. We do not want that to fall to the lot of the Electricity Commissioners, but I venture to say that this country is not going to stand having gentlemen, however estimable they are, stuffed into the position of Commissioners who are to go about and tell people what they are to do with their property. If that is so, I think history may very likely repeat itself, and what happened to those gentlemen will happen again. Therefore I think we must have an undertaking from the Government that Clause 14 does not override Clause 12, or have the Amendment of my hon. Friend inserted in the Bill.


Clause 14 has no relation whatever to Clause 12. Clause 12 deals with the case where generating stations are compulsorily taken from the undertakings and vested in the district board or authority, and, therefore, they have certain rights given to them enabling them to put themselves into a better financial position. Clause 14 does not deal with compulsory taking in the least; it has no connection with Clause 12.


But does the defaulter have the benefit of Clause 12?


Of course not; they have no relation to each other. Why should the defaulter have the benefit of a Clause which is given to a man whose property is compulsorily taken? The one is a defaulter; the other is a man who is not a defaulter in any sense of the word, but who happens to be the subject of the action of an Act of Parliament. Therefore I ask the House to accept this Clause as it stands. It provides for nothing unreasonable at all. It provides for that which, under the Act of 1888, the undertakers are bound to carry out, or somebody else is allowed to come in and do it for them. Therefore there is no necessity to suggest that Clause 12 applies or to put in words to make it.

Amendment negatived.