§ Notice taken that 40Members were not present; House counted, and 40Members, being present—
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Mr. MARRIOTT
I was speaking of the Bill of 1919, and reminding the House that there was, as I believe, general agreement as to the insistent necessity of an ampler and cheaper supply of electricity, but there was a very wide divergence of opinion as to the means by which that end was to be attained. At the time the Bill was introduced those who were responsible for its introduction, the Government of that day and of this day, were still under the spell of the collectivist idea, an idea which has now had to be abandoned under the stern discipline of experience. Had the Bill of 1919 been passed in its original form, it would undoubtedly have led to the ultimate nationalisation of the electrical supply industry, both as regards the generation of electricity and its distribution. In my opinion, and in the opinion of others much better qualified to judge, that would have meant not progress in the electrical industry but absolute stagnation. It was on that ground that we opposed it. The Standing Committee which sat on the Bill upstairs occupied several months, 1257 and in the course of the discussion and examination of the Bill it was practically turned inside out. It was subjected to further amendment, very properly I think, in another place before it became an Act, and it was virtually transformed into a voluntary instead of a compulsory scheme. In particular, the compulsory setting up of District Electricity Boards, an essential part of the original Bill was, I think very fortunately, dropped, and in that way not only the Government, but what is much more important, the country, was saved, as I think, from a very disastrous experiment. Did the Government show us any gratitude for the escape which undoubtedly they had? Did they profit by the wisdom of their successful opponents? I think that they only betrayed their obstinacy by bringing in the abortive Bills of 1920 and 1921.
Let me remind the House briefly of what actually was done. Under the Act of 1919, which has led up to the introduction of this Measure, the Electricity Commissioners have been set up—that was the central feature of the modified form of the Act of 1919—to promote, regulate and supervise the supply of electricity under the general direction of the Ministry of Transport, and, in due course, the Electricity Commissioners presented a very elaborate and interesting Report. As far as my information goes, the Electricity Commissioners have been mainly occupied in mapping out provisional electricity districts, and in holding a number of local inquiries both into the boundaries of these districts, and also for the consideration of schemes for improving the supply of electricity in those localities. I believe that eight or 10 of such local inquiries have been held, and I may draw the attention of the House to the three last, and I think the three most important of these inquiries. One was held in the city of Birmingham in November, 1921, when a municipal authority and a power company submitted to the Commissioners a voluntary scheme for the setting up of an advisory committee instead of a joint electricity authority for the South-West Midlands electricity district, and I believe that that scheme is still under consideration by the Electricity Commissioners. The point to which I wish to direct attention is the submission of a voluntary scheme for the setting up of an advisory committee 1258 and the rejection of the principle of a joint electricity authority.
The next inquiry was held in Manchester, quite recently, to consider a scheme for the South East Lancashire electricity district. There again those best acquainted with the local conditions and requirements were absolutely opposed to the setting up of a joint electricity authority, and suggested, as in the case of Birmingham and the South West Midlands, the setting up of a joint advisory board on the voluntary basis, and I understand that the same thing happened at the most recent of these inquiries, which was held in regard to the North Lancashire and South Cumberland electricity district. What is the moral to be drawn from these cases? The obvious and unmistakable moral which I think the House may fairly draw from the history of these recent inquiries is that the most progressive industrial districts are strongly opposed to the setting up, not only of the district boards, which were originally proposed in 1919, but even of these joint electricity authorities on anything approaching a compulsory basis. What they are anxious for is co-operation between the authorised undertakers, of course on a voluntary basis.
Why do the great industrial areas of Birmingham, Manchester, and the North Lancashire district object to these joint electricity authorities? For this reason: these areas are supremely anxious to go ahead with the development of electrical energy, but they are convinced that the best hope of rapid progress in this direction is to be found in the encouragement of private enterprise, and they see in these joint electricity authorities not a guarantee of rapid progress but the certainty of delay and the probability of a timid handling of this great industrial problem. The object of the Bill now before us was explained by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport very briefly but clearly in a single sentence:—"The object of the Bill was the development of the electrical industry and the provision of a cheap supply widespread throughout the land." I am personally rather sceptical as to whether the Bill will attain that object, for there is nothing in the Bill to protect the consumer, the public, against apathy and inaction on the part of any electricity 1259 authority, against stagnation in industry. There is nothing to insure the attainment of that which is the professed, and no doubt sincere, object of the Bill.
It is of supreme public interest that there should be obtainable a cheap supply of electricity. The consumer cares comparatively little how that object is attained provided that it is attained, but there are two other interests to be considered in relation to the Bill. First, there is the interest of the industry which has been the pioneer in this great development, the interest of the electrical industry itself, and there is—and for this the House ought to be still more anxious—the interest of the taxpayer and the ratepayer. What the industry needs is obvious. Its interests are identical with those of the consumer. It wants a chance of rapid development and it believes that the possibility of rapid development of electrical industry depends on three things—on security, on freedom and on finality. I submit that we should be in an infinitely better position to-day as regards the supply of electrical power if the whole of this matter had been finally disposed of in 1919, and if the Government had not put local authorities, and private companies, into a state of feverish apprehension by the futile and abortive Bills of 1920 and 1921.
I draw a distinction in this matter between the Government and the Electricity Commission. I wish to pay a sincere tribute to the way in which the Commissioners have performed their duty since they were set up. They are not only men of the highest technical and scientific eminence, but I believe that they have interpreted their functions in a spirit of modesty and consideration for all parties concerned. But there is one more interest with which the House is concerned, which is the most important of all. This House represents the taxpayer, and indirectly the ratepayer, and this is my own primary interest in this matter. In this Bill there is a number of Clauses dealing with financial provisions. In the first Clause of the Bill power is given to the authorities to borrow money in such manner and subject to such conditions, and so forth, to borrow temporarily and issue bonds, to make arrangements with banks, in fact, to borrow money for the development of the industry. Clause 2 provides for the 1260 temporary suspension of the Sinking Fund, on unremunerative undertakings, for a period of five or six years—a rather doubtful financial provision—and then, most important of all, Clause 5 gives power to authorised undertakers to do various things—lend money to the joint electricity authority and subscribe for any security issued by the joint electricity authority, or to guarantee, or join in guaranteeing the payment of interest on any money borrowed by joint electricity authorities. These are very considerable financial powers. They reproduce, I think, some of the worst features of the Bill of 1919. The district electricity boards have gone, but in their place, as I have already hinted, we have the joint electricity authorities, who are put virtually in the same position as the deceased boards. They are to be financed by the local authority on the security of the rates. It has been computed by a very acute financial critic that this will mean an initial outlay of £110,000,000.
So far"—I am quoting from his report—the Electricity Commissioners have divided the country into 16 electricity districts, and it is probable that there will be six or eight more making about 25 in all. According to the first annual Report of the Electricity Commissioners the capital expended on generating stations already in existence throughout the country was in December, 1918, £48,293,000. This expenditure has, certainly risen by now to over £50,000,000, and to this must be added the cost of various transmission lines, transforming apparatus, etc., say, another £10,000,000. That makes £60,000,000 to be paid by the joint electricity authorities, if they are to take over, as they have power to take over under the Act of 1919, the existing generating station transmission lines, etc. Then it is conceivable that each joint electricity authority will erect and equip a new generating station and lay down new transmission lines. Those will cost a further £50,000,000 at a low estimate, an average of £2,000,000 per station for each district.So that, altogether, the joint electricity authorities will have to borrow the colossal sum of £110,000,000. That is a gigantic experiment in municipal trading. I ask what possible control is to be possessed by this House over the expenditure of this vast sum of money? That point was very fully and admirably dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. G. Balfour). Under this Bill all financial power is given by way of resolution of this House. This House, if it passes the Bill, will 1261 part with all financial control other than that which is maintained by the passing of a resolution in the ordinary way with which Members are familiar. I want to suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary whether he would not be prepared to give an undertaking to the House, before we go into Committee on the Bill, that that financial procedure will be altered, and that in place of procedure by resolution we should in every case proceed by way of provisional order. If my hon. Friend would be good enough to give that assurance it would very greatly curtail discussion both here and in Committee.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of TRANSPORT (Mr. Neal)
I thought I made it clear in my opening statement, in submitting the Bill for Second Reading, that it was the desire of the Government to retain Parliamentary control. I am advised that we have done that. As has been said, this is a matter of very great importance, and I am quite prepared to consider any Amendment which may be put on the Paper in Committee upstairs, with a perfectly open mind, in order to secure that reasonable and adequate protection is given to this House to control expenditure undertaken by these authorities. I do not think my hon. Friend ought to press me to say that I will accept a particular form of procedure for effecting that purpose; but I want to make it abundantly clear that in some form or other the Government desire to give effect to the perfectly proper wish of Parliament that these questions of great financial interest should have Parliamentary control and Parliamentary sanction.
§ Mr. MARRIOTT
I am very much obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary for his intervention. I rather hoped, although it may seem ungracious even to express the hope, that he would have been able to give the House a more definite assurance in this respect, and would have accepted the suggestion that the procedure should be by way of provisional order rather than the procedure provided in the Bill. I put it to the House that this is a matter of very large public policy, and that this Bill, to the Second Reading of which I do not propose to object, should receive very careful consideration when it goes elsewhere.
§ Mr. GILBERT
As a member of the London County Council I wish to support the Second Reading of this Bill. The House knows that there is a group of London Members who meet specially to consider Bills which affect London. They met recently in order to receive a deputation from a committee of the London County Council who have specially watched this matter. The chairman of the Electricity Committee attended before the group and produced a report from the London County Council of their special Committee on London Electricity Supply. It contained a resolution as follows:The Committee recommend to the Council that the Council welcome the introduction by His Majesty's Government of the Electricity Supply Bill, 1922, supplementary to the Act of 1919, and urge upon the Government, in the public interest, to take every step in its power to ensure this Measure becoming law in the present Session of Parliament.In support of that resolution the chairman of the County Council Electricity Supply Committee made an able statement to the London Members as to the present position of electricity supply in London. I am sorry to say that the London Members forming the group were not unanimous, but I think we were all very much impressed by the statement made to us. The London County Council is very much interested in electricity supply, because it is the purchasing authority of a good many of the present undertakings to the year 1931, and has, under the Bill of 1919, put up a scheme to the Electricity Commissioners. If that scheme is accepted by the Commissioners, it will provide a working arrangement, so far as the larger district of London is concerned. In that district there are 83 different suppliers of electricity. Of these, 41 are local authority suppliers and 42 are company suppliers. Anyone who has given the slightest study to the question of electricity realises that if we are to have cheaper electricity we must have larger areas of supply and larger means of supply, and there must be some kind of working arrangement by which a great many of the smaller municipal and company supplies are scrapped and the supply dealt with from a larger supply station.
London electricity supply has been chaos from the time when electricity was first introduced into London. We have numerous municipal supplies, some of 1263 them small and some of them very good. Some of them have one maximum figure as the price they can charge and others have a smaller maximum figure. In practice you have different areas supplying electricity and some of them have flat rates which are different from those of other areas in the immediate neighbourhood. The same criticism applies to the companies. You have different maximum prices of supply and different prices at which they supply customers. In the outside London areas the thing is even worse. In the municipal corporations, in the larger electrical supply area of London, you have a great variety of maximum prices, varying in some cases from 8d. to 10d., and you have the same variety of price for customers in the outside municipal corporations. The same thing applies to the urban district councils which supply electricity. Those of us who have taken any interest in the question, from the London point of view, are convinced that it is necessary that something be done on the lines of the Joint Commitees which have been approved by the Electricity Commissioners in other parts of the country.
Last week I listened with great attention to the speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. G. Balfour) and the hon. Member for West Lewisham (Sir P. Dawson), both of whom spoke against the Bill. They are both London Members. I did not gather that they put up any scheme which would give London cheaper electricity, as against the scheme either of the 1919 Bill or the present Bill. If you are to have the best method evolved in London and the Greater London area, and you have these voluntary Joint Committees working effectively to give the consumer cheaper electricity, there must be financial powers such as those provided in the Bill. I support the Second Reading. The points raised by the hon. Member for Hampstead and by the, last speaker are Committee points which can be dealt with upstairs.
§ Mr. G. BALFOUR
By leave of the House, I will say a few words which may shorten the Debate. In view of the observation made by the Parliamentary Secretary, that if financial powers are not preserved to this House over the operations of the Joint Electricity Authorities, 1264 he is prepared in Committee to see that ouch financial powers are preserved to this House, I shall be only too pleased, by leave of the House, to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question again proposed.
Mr. L. MALONE
The withdrawal of the Amendment does not in any way affect my attitude towards the Bill. In fact, I think that the assurance which the Parliamentary Secretary has given makes the Measure even more reactionary than it was. Recently, when passing Gwydyr House, where the Electricity Commissioners are housed, I noticed that its porch was lighted by a lamp with an upright incandescent gas mantle, that on the side of the door were two old-fashioned torch snuffers and an old-fashioned crank bell—the sort of bell you pull without effect, and pull again savagely only to feel heartily ashamed of the result. I hope that those things do not indicate the way in which the Government would equip the Electricity Commissioners with the latest type of machinery. This Bill is one of the latest attempts of the Government to yield to the pressure of powerful vested interests. It subordinates the general welfare of the community to private vested interests. It is a step back on a step back, if such a thing be possible. It is a step back on the 1919 Act, which was in turn a step back on the promises of a new land which were given by the Prime Minister before the last General Election. The House will remember that on 16th November, 1918, at the Central Hall, Westmister, we were promised great things. Firstly, in the matter of agriculture, the Prime Minister said that £300,000,000 worth of the produce of the soil was imported from abroad, the production of which here would employ many thousand more hands in the healthiest of all occupations.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. James Hope)
I must ask the hon. Member to show some relevance in his observations to the supply of electricity.
This particular speech gave us great promises, not only as regards agrciulture, but as regards transport, a housing scheme, the maintenance of wages at a high level, and, lastly, an electrical power scheme. This Bill represents one of the last broken pledges of the 1265 present Government. The Bill itself does, indeed, provide certain financial powers, the absence of which rendered the 1919 Act almost ineffective, and, poor and truncated as that Act was, the new financial powers are all to the good. Half a loaf is better than no bread. On that ground I shall support the Bill as it stands now. In fact, I have been asked by my local authority to support the Bill, and I shall do so, but I shall also express my views upon it. The financial powers given by the Bill are more than outweighed by the retrograde Clauses which give further powers to the big electrical interests in the country, to obstruct the efficient national development of electrical supply. In the Debate the other day the Parliamentary Secretary gave us some account of past events, and I wish to dwell for a moment on some of these. We have in this Bill an instance of the continual pushing of the national aspects of the problem into the background. The Report of the Advisory Council of the Ministry of Reconstruction on Electric Power Supply in 1919, following the Reports of the Williamson Committee, the Coal Conservation Sub-Committee and the Board of Trade Committee on Electrical Trades, all took the wide national view of the development of electricity. All these Committees realised the appalling waste both of fuel and of labour and the inefficiency of the existing system. They realised the unnecessary expenditure of capital and the increased cost to the consumer to pay the dividends of inefficient private undertakings.
If I may quote one or two figures, I think I can show the relation between private enterprise and public enterprise. The last pre-War figures I have been able to obtain show that the capital expenditure per kilowatt of maximum load by local authorities—that is public bodies—was £96, while that of private companies was £153. The working expenses per unit sold, in the case of local authorities or public bodies, was 0.80d. and of private companies 1.27d. The average charge per unit was 1.70d. in the case of local authorities and 2.52d. in the case of private companies. These figures are taken when the load factor, that is to say, the ratio of actual to possible output of units by the plant installed, is practically the same in each case, so that there is no excessive charge caused by running high power plant to produce 1266 a low output. As a matter of fact, the load factor was 20.68 per cent. in the case of the local authorities, and 18.53 per cent. in the case of the private companies, so that the two plants are practically the same. I could, if I had time, quote several other instances by which it is clearly shown that great economy results from public enterprise in the electrical world. All the committees to which I have referred urge the need for unified national development of electricity as a means of extending the productive resources of the country. There are a great many ways in which the country will benefit by real national electricity development. The extent of which electricity may be further applied to mechanical production, improved railway service, electro-chemical and metallurgical processes, to agriculture and to domestic labour-saving apparatus, is altogether incalculable. These committees saw how far behind this nation was in the development of electrical power, as compared with other nations. They realised in the stress of the War emergency how urgent it was for this nation to develop its resources. They made recommendations, and as a result of those, and in the glory of the 1918 election, the 1919 Bill was drafted.
The Parliamenary Secretary has described the fate of that Bill. The hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. G. Balfour) on the 12th May, in moving the rejection of the Bill, dwelt with pleasure on the fact that he and his friends began the work which was completed by the Noble Lords of eviscerating this Bill, so that it emerged "in a manner that would not do any particular harm," as he said. I may add that as it stands it will not do any particular good in developing on a broad, comprehensive, national scale the electrical organisation of this country. As regards electrical organisation we shall be left with the chaotic system which was condemned by the Committee in 1919, a Committee presided over by Sir Henry Birchenough, an eminent business man, who is a director of, I believe, more than 12 public companies, and is not surely a man whom the hon. Member for Hampstead would regard as an unpractical visionary. Now it is complained that nothing has been done, and the complaint is made by the very people whose object was, and still is, to prevent anything comprehensive or constructive being done at 1267 all. Now we have to-day this Amending Bill. As the Parliamentary Secretary explained, the Noble Lords in 1919, among other iniquitous actions, cut out the financial Clauses. Now in a sort of halfhearted way, the financial Clauses are going to be restored. An attempt is to be made to restore the dynamo which had been previously removed in order to prevent the machine from working, but the dynamo which is to be put back, is so small that there is great danger of the armature fusing, without very much current being produced. The Bill is being sent back, if I may mix my metaphors, with so many spokes in the wheel that I doubt if it will last very many more Parliamentary Sessions.
Any one who has read the reports of the Debates on this Bill, in another place, will agree that the object openly avowed by several Noble Lords was that of providing better protection for private electricity companies and concerns. That appears to me to be the special object of Clauses 10 and 16 of the Bill, and probably of Clauses 9 and 12 also. We ought to look at the electrical organisation of the country from the point of view of the nation as a whole, and not from the point of view of a few companies and vested interests. There is a good deal of opposition from companies which are making money out of the poor consumer by charging higher rates than would be charged for electricity supplied by national or municipal undertakings. There is also a good deal of opposition from the gas and coal interests, because they see that if electricity is developed in the way it should be, they will suffer, because we shall have them replaced by power stations driven by oil engines. I hope the House, before it passes the Bill, will realise that it is a reactionary Bill, bolstering up the vested interests of this country. We have gone back on the proposals of the Reconstruction Committee appointed at the end of the War, the proposals of a Committee composed of very eminent business men, men whose visions were clarified and broadened and who appreciated the fact that it was possible to organise nationally more efficiently than to allow development to proceed by way of private interests and private rights. The 1919 Bill, as finally passed, was one retrograde step.
§ Mr. G. BALFOUR
On a point of Order. Is not this entirely outside the scope of the Bill, which is confined to a very simple matter, namely, the powers of the electrical authorities and does not deal with the whole question?
I was saying, in conclusion, that the 1919 Bill was a definite retrogressive step away from the new world and away from the promises made by the Prime Minister. This Bill is another step in the same direction. It represents one of the last pledges this Government is able to break. There are very few pledges left, for them to break, and this is one of their last efforts. To one who looks for the development of industry in all spheres for the public good rather than for the development of private interests, this Bill is terrible. It is terrible to see national needs sacrificed more and more by the Government to private interests and private rights.
§ Major GRAY
I am always deeply interested in the versatile political mentality of the hon. Member for East Leyton (Mr. Malone). I understood from one of his statements that he is anxious to support the Bill, but from first to last every sentence he uttered was condemnatory. A strange mentality that!
§ Major GRAY
I also understood the hon. Member to say that, acting at the behest or request of a local authority, he was supporting the Bill, but his own private opinion was that it was bad. That, also, indicates a mentality which I cannot quite understand. I noticed, too, references to a certain election in which I think the hon. Member himself took part, and had he not supported the principles which were then enunciated by the Prime Minister, he would not have had the honour of sitting in this House.
§ Major GRAY
It seems strange then that still believing in those principles the hon. Member is still here. That makes my confusion worse confounded. Let me pass from his comments upon the Bill, which really were of no serious import- 1269 ance, to the Measure itself. May I, in the first place, urge my hon. Friend in charge of the Bill to be careful and cautious as to how far he pledges himself or the Government in regard to procedure under this Bill. The question at issue is really a Committee question, and not an important Second Reading question,i.e., whether the procedure will be by Special Order or by Provisional Order. As I understand it, a Special Order provides the minimum of delay, the minimum of expense, but also the minimum of Parliamentary control, while a Provisional Order can be described as providing the maximum of delay, the maximum of expense, but the maximum of Parliamentary control. I think it will be for the Committee, therefore, to consider very carefully how far it would be prepared to take the advantages of the one or the advantages of the other system. It has always been a disputed point in this House which of the two forms of precedure should be adopted, and I can only hope that caution will be exercised and no definite pledge given, in order that it may be carefully discussed in Committee with an open mind. There is only a sentence or two more that I need utter, because I do not wish to indulge in an oration on a Bill which is practically agreed by the whole House. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]
The hon. Member for East Leyton appeared to condemn this Measure because it will not go sufficiently far in favour of municipal as against private enterprise. I should not have attempted to take any part in this Debate but for the fact that the largest municipal authority in the country, the London County Council, is strongly in favour of the Bill and anxious that it should be passed at the earliest possible date. In saying that, I am afraid I shall have aroused the suspicions of my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), but may I explain to him two reasons why the LondonCounty Council is anxious that this Bill should proceed, and then I am sure that his fears will be allayed? The first is that this Bill proceeds on a voluntary basis, and the second is that one of the Clauses in the Bill provides that these enterprises shall be self-supporting and shall not throw any charge upon the rates. The fact of those two provisions being enshrined in the Bill ought to placate the right hon. Baronet. The condition in 1270 London is really so chaotic that we should welcome any Bill which showed a way out of the difficulties with which we have had to contend for years. There are 83 authorities, big and little, efficient and inefficient, and hanging over the heads of many of them is the possibility of purchase by the London County Council in a few years' time. They do not know whether or not the County Council will give notice in 1928 that they propose to exercise their powers to purchase them, and how can authorities, whether private or municipal, develop their generating stations and their distribution of electric energy with the great uncertainty as to the future which they must inevitably feel when they are so uncertain whether they can continue to work on their own lines or whether they will be taken by compulsory purchase? If this Measure passes, that power of compulsory purchase will be transferred to the Joint Electricity Authority for the Greater London area, and one of the difficulties in the way of development will pass away.
§ Major GRAY
The power of purchase would no longer remain with the London County Council. It would be, it. is true, transferred to the Joint Electricity Authority for the area of Greater London, but that authority would have to proceed in accordance with a scheme which must be subsequently submitted to this House, and, as I gather, such power could not be exercised until that scheme had been approved and until the Clauses of this Bill have been put into operation and the finance necessary for the purpose had been secured, either by contribution or by loan, or in some other form. The real point is this. The Act of 1919 set up machinery which is practically inanimate. This Measure breathes into that inanimate organisation the breath of life. It gives the electricity authorities power to function. At present they can form their schemes, they can constitute their authorities, they can delimit their areas, but little can be done in the way of developing great electrical enterprises, and, speaking from the point of view of our Council, we do realise how largely dependent this great city is upon a better and a larger supply of electrical power. We know from painful experience during 1271 recent years that we have much plant which is obsolete and which ought to be eliminated; we have much which ought to be developed; and we are conscious of the fact that new generating stations ought to be established and properly equipped for the discharge of the great duties required for the development of power in this great city. Therefore, looked at altogether from the view of the consumer in Greater London, sweeping aside all considerations of private or municipal enterprise, anxious only for the well-being of the user of electricity, my Council has asked me to give this Bill most cordial support, and, unlike the hon. Member for East Leyton, I am able to do that, to satisfy My local authority, and to satisfy my own conscience at one and the same time.
§ Mr. KILEY
I have been requested by my local authority, the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, who, I believe, have the largest electricity generating station in the County of London, to give support to the Second Reading of this Bill, and I am all the more glad to do that for the reason that I believe it will bring about considerable improvements in the electricity supply of the great County of London. It has been my privilege for some years to occupy the chairmanship of an electricity committee, and the amount of waste in the generating and distributing of electricity in the County of London is appalling. I can endorse every word that has been said as to the desirability of a speedy improvement, which can only have one result, that of adding to the convenience and health and comfort of the great population of London. It is for that reason that I rise to give support to the Second Reading of this Bill, reserving, as I am bound to do, for the Committee stage certain important Amendments which I desire to move, especially in relation to Clause 16, but as the Minister in charge of the Bill has expressed his willingness, on the Committee stage, to give consideration to Amendments which are important and of substance, I will not dwell in detail upon them at this stage, but reserve them for the Committee stage, relying, as I do, en the consideration of the Minister in charge when that time arrives.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I understand the Minister in charge of the Bill has given certain undertakings to the House, and 1272 therefore I do not wish to make any lengthy speech upon the Second Reading of this Bill. I do not know that I should have risen at all but for the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Accrington (Major Gray). I do not know that I care any more for the Electricity Commissioners than for the London County Council. I do not like either of them, and I do not think they should have to deal with matters which ought to be dealt with by private enterprise. I think, on the whole, I would even prefer the County Council to the Commissioners in certain circumstances, because at any rate we should be able to get more knowledge of their proceedings than we should have of the proceedings of the Commissioners, but, in any case, in my opinion, both of them are bad. I would like to get rid of both of them and go back to the old days when we made prosperity in this country by private enterprise. The hon. and gallant Member told us that one of the questions was whether tile action of the Electricity Commissioners should be by Provisional Order or by Special Order, and I realise that he did not express any opinion himself as to which was the better method, but he gave an indication—at least, I thought so—because he laid great stress on what he said was the effect of a Provisional Order, which had the maximum of delay with the maximum of expenditure, whereas a Special Order had the minimum of delay with the minimum of expenditure. To a certain extent that may be true, but the Special Order is practically useless, because it comes on after 11 o'clock at night, when everybody is tired, and you can only ascertain by going to the Clerks at the Table and asking whether anything has been deposited.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I know, but you do not see them. In these days, when the Order Papers are so bulky, even I, with some knowledge and experience of the House, can never find anything in them, and I can only find out by going to the Clerks at the Table, whom, as a rule, I do not like to disturb. They are extremely courteous, and I do not like to disturb them unnecessarily, but the vast mass of Members do not in the least know what is going on. If they find out that 1273 there is such an Order on the Paper at about five minutes to 11, they say, "I have got to catch a train," or "I have been here since 11 this morning on a Committee." On the other hand, if you proceed by Provisional Order, there is some opportunity of a certain number of people knowing what is going on, and in that way you do keep the control of the House. I wish the House to understand that personally I object to all these Bills, and I objected to the Bill which was introduced some two or three years ago on this subject. Hon. Members of this House then said what wonderful things were going to happen in the way of harnessing the water, and how we could not do without it, but those things did not happen, and we are all right as we are. I believe this sort of thing can only result in loss to the people who invest their money and in loss to the State.
§ 6.0 P.M.
§ Mr. AMMON
The House always listens with pleasure to the right hon. Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), for, after all, he is the one living link we have with mediaeval times, and I am sure that whatever differences of opinion we may have, the House would be very sorry to be deprived of the pleasure of e contrast afforded by the right hon. Baronet from time to time. I rise to join my voice in hoping the House will pass this Measure, with reservations in Clause 16, because really it is the outcome of an agreement. The London County Council have unanimously agreed on this scheme, and while I quite agree with the hon. Member for East Leyton (Mr. Malone) that this Bill does not come up to the scheme of 1919, here, at any rate, is a vast improvement on conditions as they are. Although the right hon. Member for the City of London would rather we went on with the 84 conflicting authorities in London, some of us think it is not good business, as well as not making for progress in the right sense of the word. At present we are not able to develop our electricity undertakings in any part of London, and the London County Council have again and again found itself in great difficulties with regard to other local authorities. In the report of the Special Committee of the London County Council, it is pointed out:The alternative, so far as London is concerned, will be to continue the present haphazard and disconnected arrangements, 1274 involving extravagant and piecemeal expenditure, and the deferment of essential schemes of improvement until the time arrives for purchase as at present provided for.I should have thought that as the present arrangements are extravagant and wasteful, we should have had the support of the right hon. Member for the City of London, if only on grounds of economy, because this scheme certainly does make for economy and efficiency. The position of this House is quite safeguarded. The London County Council will have to come to this House for sanction for all capital expenditure involved in connection with the rendering of such assistance as may be required, and that, after all, is conserving all we have any right to expect. Some of us are not agreed on all the Bill. For instance, Clause 16, I think, does require a considerable amount of modification, but that is a matter for the Committee. Anyhow, we hope the House will give this Bill a Second Reading, and help forward very considerably what has been required for many years in London, namely, a consolidation scheme, in order that we may get along with the necessary works, which have been hitherto deferred, and which are obstructing some of the local authorities, as well as large private electricity undertakings. I have pleasure in supporting the Bill, and trust the House will give it unanimous support.
I am no unfriendly critic of this Bill, and I am not likely to offer any criticism that will distress my hon. Friend who is in charge of it. But what does give me a little concern is what gives the right hon. Baronet opposite pleasure. What delights him is that these concerns are going to be self-supporting, and are not coming on to the rates. That is under Clause 17, but it is just that Clause 17 which gives me a little disquietude, because I find embodied in this Bill that entirely novel proceeding in connection with business undertakings which this House inserted in the Railways Act. There we laid it down that the railway companies were to be allowed to make such charges as would ensure to them not less than their receipts in 1913. When we were discussing the Bill, a great many Members of the House felt rather anxious, I think, about that provision, and the effect it was likely to have. So far as I can read this Bill, 1275 these authorities are going to have even more favoured-nation terms than the railway companies got. Whereas under the Railways Act all that the railway companies got was a guarantee, as it were, of net receipts, under this Bill these joint electricity authorities are to be allowed to make such charges as will cover everything that is likely to come up against them. It seems to me that does remove it entirely from the category of business undertakings, and makes them really more of—I hardly know what is the apposite word to use. There is no more a question of a balance sheet; it is a question of a budget. All that they have got to do is to add up on one side all their interest charges, their sinking fund and costs, and so on, and fix their prices to cover that.
That appears to me to be a course of conduct which, I confess, I can hardly see how you are going to avoid, because the very essence of this Bill is to rule out all competition. You cannot have any more competition in the matter of the supply of electricity, I gather, in an area, if this Bill goes through. Competitive prices are ruled out. If we do not get them now, we certainly will not get them under this Bill. I think in Committee we shall have to consider very carefully whether this Bill does contain all the safeguards to the consumer that ought to be in it. We do want to protect the people who are going to draw on these concerns for power or lighting purposes from being loaded up with prices which arise either out of over-capitalisation, dead capital, inefficiency in administration or matters of that sort. That is really the only comment I desire to make upon the Bill, and I make it in no unfriendly spirit. But it is a matter to which I think the attention of the House should be directed.
Mr. J. JONES
Representing one of the outside London authorities which happens to be a great electricity authority, although not so great as the London County Council, I want to give my poor praise to the Bill so far as it goes. A mountain has been in labour, and we are now dissecting the mouse. But some of us are rather surprised to discover some of the great economy Members of this House are opposing this Bill, which leads directly to economy in public administra- 1276 tion. As has been already said, there are 84 public and private authorities in London dealing with the supply of electricity in the London area. In my own constituency we have two—a private company, with one of the largest stations in the country, and we have our own municipal generating station, and I venture to suggest that any economist who studied the matter seriously, would realise that either of these, properly developed and organised, would be capable of supplying us with all we wanted. Therefore, I should have imagined that those who claim to be the particular representatives of the principle of economy would have supported us in the proposition for co-ordination. If we cannot do it nationally, we should do it locally so far as possible. I am a believer in public enterprise. Among the people from whom I come there are a very large number in favour of municipal enterprise in this matter, but we quite realise that very large sections of the country are not with us, and we are not going to insist upon our own ideas against the ideas of everyone else. We take the best we can get, and make the best bargain possible, and we claim that this Bill represents a bargain. Of course, it is nothing like the promises we were given at the end of the War. Promises are now like addled eggs; and the chickens are coming home to roost.
We want to realise, so far as we are concerned, we are all here representing constituencies interested in a matter of this character. Some of us have had the opportunity of reading the works of great men on electricity, and we were told that the best way to get cheap electricity was to have it in the widest possible way, and that the greatest economy could be secured by utilising natural resources. I once read Lord Kelvin on the subject. I am not much acquainted with the aristocracy, except when they present us with free literature. He said at one time there was sufficient water power in the Avon or the Severn to provide practically the whole of Great Britain with the necessary electrical power. I do not know whether he was right, because I cannot enter into competition with him on the subject, but I know the huge total amount of power which is absolutely thrown away in this country and that the time has arrived when we ought to be conserving our energy, and pro- 1277 ducing power at the cheapest possible price. I say that any opposition to this Bill is not coming from those who call themselves economists, but simply those who are defenders of private vested interests, as against the progress of the community. Some of the members of my union are opposed to a Bill of this kind. They oppose the development of electricity. If I were speaking for them I should oppose the development of electricity because they are gas workers, but I am not taking up the attitude of my right hon. Friend. I do not put the interest of the members of my union against the public interest. I am standing out for the communal interest, believing that eventually the best interests of the community will be the best interests of the worker, and that we should get the organisation of industry under proper conditions. Therefore, in so far ash this Bill makes for economy in production, reorganisation and the prevention of overlapping, I am in favour of it, and my only regret is that it does not go far enough in the right direction.