§ Considered in Committee under Standing Order No. 71A.
§ [Mr. JAMES HOPE in the Chair.]
Motion made and Question proposed,
That it is expedient to charge on the Consolidated Fund any sums required by the Treasury for fulfilling any guarantees of the payment of interest or principal on any loans raised under any Act of the present Session to amend the law with respect to the supply of electricity which may be given by the Treasury under that Act.
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Mr. Ronald McNeill)
This Resolution will not, I hope, occupy the Committee for a very long time. It is necessary in connection with the Electricity Bill. The Committee is aware that under the financial scheme of that Bill there is a system of Treasury guarantees, and if hon. Members turn to Clause 26 of the Bill, they will find that the second sub-section of that Clause shows the purpose for which this Resolution is required. I notice that three or four of my hon. Friends have put down an Amendment to the Resolution. I do not know whether they will think it wrong of me if I suggest to them that a much more suitable occasion for making the points which they wish to raise would be given at a later stage of the Bill. The Ministers concerned with the Bill are, I may say, very much occupied at the present moment, and I doubt very much whether the Committee will be competent to deal with the figures of this scheme now as fully as they would be dealt with on the Committee stage of the Bill, or on Report. I simply make that suggestion to my hon. friends, because obviously the Bill will be entirely upset, in its financial arrangements, unless this Resolution is carried.
§ Mr. HARDIE
May I ask in relation to the Committee on the Electricity (Supply) Bill which is sitting, if any part of this Resolution carries any financial responsibility for that Bill, which is in Committee?
§ Mr. McNEILL
I am afraid I did not follow the question. Perhaps the hon. Member would make it more clear.
§ Mr. HARDIE
I want to know if this Resolution is distinct from the Bill under consideration at present by a Standing Committee.
§ Mr. McNEILL
It is to enable the financial Clauses of the Bill to be discussed in Committee. They must be founded upon a Financial Resolution in Committee of the whole House.
§ Major KINDERSLEY
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that we could not have a much worse time for discussing this Resolution than to-day, when everybody's minds are occupied with other things, and we protest very strongly against this Resolution having been put down for to-day. It is no small matter. The Committee is being asked to pass a Resolution guaranteeing no less than £33,500,000, and it only shows the lighthearted way in which finance is treated in this House that we are asked, at a time like this and without discussion, to pass a guarantee for £33,500,000. With regard to the rest of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, our contention is most distinctly that this Resolution is not in the least necessary to the Bill, and that is what we hope to prove. I do not think it well to allow this Resolution to go through without discussion, and I must move my Amendment if the Government decide to continue with the Resolution. They are at present in Committee only on Clause I of the Bill, and this refers to Clause 26. If they like to postpone this Resolution until another day, therefore, it will not affect the proceedings in Committee at all.
§ Major KINDERSLEY
I beg to move, in line 2, after the word sums," to insert the words, "not exceeding ten thousand pounds."
§ Sir FREDRIC WISE
I am very sorry that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury should say that this Resolution was necessary.
§ Sir F. WISE
I took down what the right hon. Gentleman said, and I under- 1097 stood him to say that it was necessary at the present time, but he also said that Ministers were occupied elsewhere, and I think I would agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hitchin (Major Kindersley) that it is a great pity that this Resolution is not put off. When you are guaranteeing £33,500,000 of the taxpayers' money at the present time and when there is great criticism in regard to this finance, I cannot help thinking that it is most important that this Resolution should be discussed in full detail. I am not against the Electricity Bill, but I am against the idea that this £33,500,000 should be guaranteed by the taxpayers' money. I feel that it is not justifiable. The Bill and the Weir Report are full of complexities. You have the Weir Report, and in Part V., alluding to the technical scheme, which will involve during the next 15 years new money to the extent of £250,000,000, or about a third of our pre-War National Debt—a gigantic amount. This is divided into two parts over the 15 years, and, although I need not go into the details of those two parts, one of them is for the capitalisation of the interest on the £33,500,000 over five years. That is not sound finance. It is all very well for a new company perhaps, in Canada or elsewhere, where they have to develop their electricity, and it may take five years before there is any return, but this is something which is a monopoly for the holders of the stock to the extent of £33,500,000, presumably debentures.
There was a Memorandum issued with this Bill, which stated that the Board are required to fix tariffs—that means the full interest which is required—which shall cover their expenses, with such margin as may be allowed that shall give the necessary powers to raise capital up to £33,500,000. I contend that, with that Clause and these tariffs, the security is good enough without a Government guarantee. What does it mean to the taxpayer? It means a responsibility of £1,675,000 a year in interest at 5 per cent on the £33,500,000, and also the money has to be found. Therefore, the taxpayer is responsible not only for this interest but also for the capital which has to be raised. I ask myself two questions: Is it necessary to guarantee it? And can the taxpayer afford it? Let me take the first question. The Attorney-General, who 1098 made a most excellent speech on the Second Reading of the Bill, which we all appreciated, told us that there would be savings of millions and millions of pounds, and if anybody refers to the Weir Report, he will see that there also it is suggested that there will be savings of millions and millions of pounds if this scheme is carried through. It is very attractive, but I contend that it is not necessary that the taxpayers should give their guarantee. I contend that the main thing is that the Central Electricity Board should have men on it who will command capital. What has happened in the past? Let me refer to the London Power Co. I would specially like to draw the attention of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to that issue, which was made on the 25th February, of £3,000,000 5 per cent redeemable debentures, and the price of issue was 96. It is redeemable in 1972. I believe that issue was over-subscribed almost immediately, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hitchin will state whether or not I am correct in that respect.
§ Sir F. WISE
Why was that? It was because it had a Board which commanded the confidence of the people. I need not mention all the names on that Board, but they included such names as Mr. Walter Leaf, which carry weight. Why could not this Electricity Bill have a Board composed of names like that? Here we have the brokers, Messrs. R. Nivison & Co., and anybody who knows them knows that they can underwrite millions almost immediately, and I contend very strongly that, as far as this is concerned, it is not necessary to guarantee this issue. What would it mean if this were not guaranteed? It might mean an extra 1 per cent. I am sure the Attorney-General will say we cannot afford an extra 1 per cent, but what does that mean? It means an extra £335,000 per annum, and you are giving up the taxpayers' guarantee. I should have thought that if there was one person who would have welcomed my suggestion, or that of the hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin, it would be the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Why? It would be 6 per cent., for argument's sake, instead of 5 per cent., and the country would not have had that guarantee, and also would he not get a little more In- 1099 come Tax on 6 per cent. than he would on 5 per cent. I am sure we want every penny we can get at the present time to make our ends meet. That is my first point.
My second point is, can the taxpayer afford it? We have been spending millions and millions on all sorts of guarantees and subsidies of every sort and description. Even this week, a Resolution went through this House relating to the Merchandise Marks Bill which was taxpayers' money. There must be an end to this use of taxpayers' money. We cannot possibly burden the taxpayer more at the present time. Anybody who studies our National Debt must realise, that although this is only a guarantee, it is literally adding to the National Debt, because we are responsible not only for the interest, as I said before, but also the capital.
There is another point, also, why I should have thought the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have agreed with what I have said, and that is in regard to the maturities. These vast maturities are becoming due in the next two and a half years, £900,000,000 in one case and also an option on £2,000,000,000 of National War Stock. An issue of this sort affects those maturities. It affects the taxpayer. I also rather contend that it might be more successful without a Government guarantee. It may sound rather absurd to say such a thing, but we had instances only last month of issues where the Government guaranteed such things as the Blue Star Line for £2,750,000 and also an issue of Pearson and Dorman Long of £2,000,000, and the underwriters were left with 70 per cent. Yet since then we have had the Glasgow loan, which was not guaranteed by the taxpayer and which was over-subscribed, and issued at a bigger price than the guarantee of these two loans which I have just mentioned.
The Port of London has not got any guarantee. Why is this guarantee necessary? Surely the security of this great monopoly, because it is a monopoly, should not have the advantage of a taxpayers' guarantee. It is a new departure. Gas companies have not got it. When gas matured about 100 years ago, I am sure the Government in those days did not give guarantees. Where does this £33,500,000 come from?
1100 [HON. MEMBERS: "From the workers."] Yes, it comes from the workers and the others by the savings they make. It is the savings of the people that subscribe to a loan of this sort, and I contend the only way this can be successful is by the saving being great enough to subscribe to a loan of this sort. If it is a trustee loan, as it will be, if the principal and interest are guaranteed by the Government, a different class of person takes the trustee loan from that which would take a loan such as the London Power Company's stock.
In conclusion, I do impress upon the Financial Secretary and upon the Committee, the vital necessity to stop this sort of finance. It is doing us harm; it is doing our trade harm, and I contend that the sooner it stops the better it will be, not only for this country, but for the taxpayers of this country.
§ Mr. AUSTIN HOPKINSON
I should like to support what was said by the hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin (Major Kindersley) in regard to this. It seems to me that this Board which is to be set up for the supply of electricity in this country, must be set up on some basis by which we have some criterion of its efficiency, and I cannot conceive of any real criterion of the efficiency of any Board of Directors of any commercial concern except what one might term the criterion of the market, that is to say, the position that can only be justified by the agreement of the market in that form of policy. In other words, if we relieve them from the necessity of justifying their position in the market by giving guarantees, we at once do away with the only useful criterion we have, and the only safeguard the people of this country have, that they shall be efficient, or take the consequence of inefficiency.
The other point I wish to put forward, very briefly, is this. The Motion starts with the words, "It is expedient", and so on. I think Members on all sides of the Committee, and certainly the general public, would very strongly disagree with that phrase, because, consider the position of the taxpayers and the industries of this country. For many years now we have made immense sacrifices, through our taxation, to put our finances upon a satisfactory basis, all this being done with a view of 1101 being able to convert the large loans in the next few years on to a lower rate of interest. Three years ago, before the Conservative party committed suicide in 1923, there was every prospect that the bulk of that money could be replaced somewhere in the neighbourhood of 4 per cent. I venture to say now, there is not the faintest prospect, as far as we are fixed at present, of being able to convert on any favourable terms whatsoever. Recent issues guaranteed under the Trade Facilities Acts have shown conclusively that the Government have to borrow now at about 5 per cent. In other words, all the sacrifices we have made in industry during the last few years have been completely wiped out and rendered nul by the policy of the Government in this reckless expansion of Government credit. I know very well the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the business to-day realises as much as anyone how serious the position is, but I do ask this House to consider seriously whether it is wise at this juncture, and with this immense amount of loan money, to be replaced in the next few years, that, in the words of the Motion, "It is expedient" that we should do this thing.
§ Major KINDERSLEY
I wanted to say a few words upon this question, but I am afraid that owing to a mistake I omitted to do so when I spoke before. Therefore, I would ask the Committee to bear with me a little while. The reason we have put down this Amendment is, first of all, because we think it can be shown by reference to the Bill that this guarantee is entirely unnecessary; in other words, that the statutory powers which are conferred upon the Board give ample security for any money they will require. That is our first point. Our second point is, that it is not expedient, for financial reasons, that this guarantee should be given, and, with the permission of the Committee, I propose to deal first with the point that the guarantee is not necessary, and, in order that I may prove that, I must ask the Committee to bear with me while I refer to certain Clauses of the Bill, which I will do as shortly as I can.
In order to visualise the position one must assume that a scheme has been prepared under the Act. That would be under Clause 4, and it would be for a 1102 large area such as the London and Home Counties Electricity District which has already been commenced, and which comprises the Counties of London and Middlesex and parts of six adjoining Counties. The Central Board themselves prepare the scheme. They decide which stations in the area shall be "selected." That is under Clause 4 Sub-section (la) and then the Electricity Commissioners confirm the scheme with or without modifications. Up to this point the Board will not naturally have spent anything at all on their scheme. The scheme, then, having been formulated and approved the expenditure would begin. It is under five heads. First of all, they must—and I want hon. Members to remember that word—they "must" lay down main transmission lines connecting the selected stations and systems of authorised undertakers, but only in accordance with their own scheme. That is under Clause 8, Sub-section (1).
Secondly, they "may" take over, so far as the scheme provides existing main transmission lines of undertakers in the area. That is under Clause 8, Subsection (2). Thirdly, they "may"—and again may I call attention to the word "may"—take over generating stations whose owners, subject to certain appeals, refuse to alter or extend them, but according to the power given to them the Board can please themselves. That is Clause 6 Sub-section (1). Fourthly, they may build new generating stations if they satisfy the Commissioners that such stations are needed, and that the Board cannot get other people to build them. Here, again, it is optional. They can please themselves.
§ Mr. A. V. ALEXANDER
On a point of Order. Is it in Order on this Resolution to go into the main question of the Bill?
§ The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: (Major Sir Archibald Sinclair)
The hon. and gallant Gentleman is not in Order, on this Resolution, in raising the whole scheme. He must, I think, confine himself to the question in the Resolution.
§ Sir JOSEPH NALL
On the point of Order. Is my hon. and gallant Friend not in Order, seeing that it is proposed to spend this money, in dealing with the purposes for which the money is spent?
§ Major KINDERSLEY
With respect to you, Sir, I was desiring to point out that this guarantee was unnecessary because of the statutory powers given. I do not see how I can deal with the matter properly unless I am allowed to point out what statutory powers there are under the Bill. It seems to me impossible to discuss this Resolution unless I can show that the guarantee is unnecessary. However, I shall keep so far as I can, on a straight line. This is practically a summary of the position—I do not want to weary the House by quoting Clauses and Sub-sections—but the Board can first of all select the cheapest market in which to buy their electricity, they can control the output of the stations to suit their needs, and can commandeer the whole of the output of the most cheaply provided electricity. They can prevent any competition, and any electricity they have to sell the Board can force on buyers at a price which must show a profit. Under these circumstances it is difficult to see why a guarantee of £33,500,000 is necessary seeing the Board have these enormous statutory powers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford (Sir F. Wise) said, they can go into the money market and raise as much money as they want, I do not say possibly at quite the same rate as they could raise it if they had a Government guarantee, but at a very, very favourable rate and one which considering the size of the undertakings, I do not think would really affect the price of electricity in the least. Therefore that is our first point, that this guarantee was not necessary.
The second point is that it is not expedient. I am perfectly free to admit that as industry develops in this country along its present lines you will probably have a good many public utility industries of this class which may be socialised, but not nationalised. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Yes, I quite understand those cheers, but I do not mean by that expression "socialized" either municipalised or nationalised. I mean, you will have great Boards clothed with statutory powers — like the Port of London Authority, the Metropolitan Water Board, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board—so clothed with great 1104 statutory powers as to enable them to raise money and to run their enterprises on an absolutely economic basis. In that case I have no objection, and that is what I mean when I say it is socialised industry as opposed to municipalisation or nationalisation. Municipalisation and nationalisation are altogether different. It is quite impossible for this House to run an industry. It is not capable of doing so. That is one pitfall of nationalisation, and that pitfall has been avoided by this Bill. The other pitfall is this; that when you nationalise an industry you also nationalise the savings of the people and invest them in industry, which you have no right to do, whether it be the House of Commons or a borough council.
This is the first time that the Government has done this. We had, of course, the Trade Facilities Act, but that was passed for a particular purpose in order to create work, temporarily, for the unemployed. You have a temporary guarantee in the case of the sugar-beet industry, and so on. In this case you are embarking on an absolutely new principle, and it is because I think that in future you will have similar cases like this where you will have what I have called the socialisation of other public services that it is of the utmost importance That the Government should not fall into that great pitfall, which is really one side of nationalisation, and possibly the worst side, the nationalisation of the savings of the people. For that reason we are deeply opposed to this new departure.
The question of the inflation of Government credit, which is very important at the present moment, and far more important than it was two weeks ago, has been dealt with by my hon. friend the Member for Ilford (Sir F. Wise), and I agree with every word he said. We have, I am glad to say, decided to drop the Trade Facilities Act, but now the Government come down, on a Friday, in the middle of a tremendous crisis, when people interested in this subject cannot get here, and calmly ask us to pass a resolution guaranteeing £33,500,000. That is not the way to manage the finances of this country. I maintain that there is no need to move this Resolution at the moment, because Clause I of the Bill is not through Committee. It almost 1105 amounts to a scandal that the Government should put down this Resolution to-day, and I protest against it in the very strongest terms. As I said before, any friends and I intend to divide against the Resolution, not because we are opposed to this electricity scheme—we believe that the scheme is excellent—but because we believe we have shown that this Resolution is not necessary to the scheme, which could be carried on perfectly well without it. We are also dividing against the Resolution because, as I said, we regard this guarantee as a most dangerous and unnecessary departure from the fundamental principles for which the party to which we have the honour to belong stand.
§ Mr. BASIL PETO
I do not intend to follow the two hon. Members on this side who moved and seconded the Amendment to this Financial Resolution in any of the financial arguments they have put to the Committee, but I wish to submit two or three other considerations. This Financial Resolution is brought forward to enable the Committee upstairs who are considering the Electricity Bill to proceed with their business. The object of that Bill is to promote and to develop the industry of this country. If there is any justification for the Electricity Bill at all, I cannot imagine circumstances under which it could be more urgent for us to do everything to assist the Government in developing industry, and I cannot think hon. Members on this side of the House are well advised in setting up their views, in opposition to the views put forward by the Government, as to what steps, financial and other, are necessary to carry through this project. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford (Sir F. Wise), who is so learned in finance, has told us that this Financial Resolution is wholly unnecessary, and quoted cases in which electricity undertakings have been able to raise money very successfully without any Government guarantee, their issues having been subscribed five times over. Surely that defeats the hon. Member's own argument against this Financial Resolution, because if there be no necessity for a Government guarantee then the guarantee will not become operative.
§ Mr. PETO
That is quite another aspect of the case, with which I shall deal presently when I am answering the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. A. Hopkinson). He said that before the Conservative Government committed suicide, as he expressed it, in 1923, most of these great commercial operations could have been carried through at 4 per cent., but that there was no chance of that now. What a policy of despair that is: Because, according to the hon. Member for Mossley, Government credit is not what it was, we are to do nothing, we are not to employ the guarantee of the State to assist the development of industry. I quite agree that Government credit is not what it was, and that the more we pile up Government guarantees, or Government loans, which are much more important in this respect, the worse that credit is likely to be; but if we are to say that from this moment we must hold our hands, and must vote against this Resolution, which the Government say is a part of their scheme, it is a policy of despair, and I will not subscribe to any such thing for a moment. I am very sorry the hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin (Major Kindersley) and the hon. Member for Ilford (Sir F. Wise) think it necessary to say they will divide the Committee on this question. For my part I feel more confident than ever that at this juncture I ought to give support to the Government in what they propose. Not for a moment do I pose as a financial expert, but I do say that the arguments put before the Committee defeat themselves. If there be no need for the guarantee, it will not operate, and if there be need for it, now is the time to use Government credit, and anything else we have got, to develop industry and to find employment for a great many people who will be wanting it in the near future.
§ Mr. J. HUDSON
I am considerably mystified by some of the things said during this Debate by those who are undoubtedly financial experts. I always listen with interest to what the hon. Member for Ilford (Sir F. Wise) has to say upon matters of this sort, but as far as I can gather from his speech on this occasion he suggests that had the scheme been carried through as he would have carried it through, from a financial point of view, it might have led to underwriting by financial houses, and that 1107 would have meant an imposition of an extra 1 per cent., to be paid somehow, but to come ultimately, as he says, from the savings of the people. He said that financial gentlemen like R. Nicholson & Co. would have been able to underwrite the amount, but that the interest charged would probably have been higher by 1 per cent. than the Government will pay under their scheme. It is all very well to talk about the savings of the people being the fundamental fund from which we draw the means to carry on these undertakings, but I object to these intermediate processes, if we can avoid them, by which certain private financial interests are able to extract from the community money the payment of which can be avoided if we go about the work in a different way. At this moment, when I am most desirous of opposing the Government—I have never felt so desirous of opposing them, though I am keeping my temper—I am sure, in spite of the financial advice we have had from the other side, that it is the duty of those who want schemes of reconstruction undertaken to see to it that as far as possible financial interests are kept out of them and that the community are made responsible for raising the funds. I have no doubt that those who talk about credits will agree with me that credits are finally dependent upon the willingness of the community—and of the workers—to believe in the possibilities of the future. If you can get an electricity scheme which will give some hope to the workers and make production easier it will be very satisfactory. In that way the amount of credit at our disposal will be increased and you will establish a greater willingness and capacity to take part in the reconstructive work to which I have referred. Seeing that the present Government believes it possible by this method to raise money cheaper, I think it is in the interest of all parties that we should support this Resolution.
§ Colonel GRETTON
With regard to what has been said by the hon. Member who has just sat down I would like to point out that even if the loan is issued with a Government guarantee the process of underwriting will have to be resorted to, and that process is not peculiar to loans which are issued without Government guarantee. I think, therefore, we can dismiss that point from the hon. 1108 Member's speech, for obviously he did not catch the remarks upon which it was founded. I want to confine my observations to the general matters raised in this Resolution. These financial resolutions are an important part of our financial procedure, and the House of Commons itself has to decide upon the general principles involved. The constitutional forms of dealing with money resolutions are very carefully devised so that at every stage the House of Commons may have full control, and we should not pass lightly over any stages of important money resolutions. I do not think these powers of raising money ought to be handed over to Committees upstairs although it may be right that a Committee should have power to agree to a Government guarantee.
With regard to this guarantee I think a mistake is being made. I am quite aware that there will have to be some power to raise money if the Electricity Bill is to proceed further, but I do hesitate very greatly in this matter of the guarantee. One of the effects will be that a Government guarantee releases the promoters of the Bill very largely from those carefully drawn provisions which would attract to their scheme the subscriptions of large sums of money in the money market at a low rate of interest. If the scheme had to depend upon its industrial efficiency for its financial success and soundness in the future, at every stage the Government and the Treasury would have to keep in mind the necessity of raising the money required. These schemes should be thoroughly sound and able to raise money on their own merits rather than with a Government guarantee. I agree with everything that has been said, notwithstanding the criticisms from some quarters, as to the necessity of being most careful with our national credit, and the events of the past two weeks have done much to injure our position. I think we should be most careful about taking any step which may, in any way, hamper or decrease our national credit. For these reasons, unless the Government is able to show that this guarantee is absolutely necessary for their scheme I shall have to vote with my hon. Friend.
§ Major Sir RICHARD BARNETT
I am one of those who spoke against the 1109 Second Reading of the Electricity Bill but, now that the House has approved the principle of the Measure, the Committee ought not to refuse the Financial Resolution which the Government thinks necessary for its success. Whether or not some limit to the amount might be accepted by those in charge of the Bill is another question. I agree with what has been said about the great expansion of Government obligations and the cheapening of our credit by giving guarantees in all directions. If the supply of trustee stocks exceeds the demand, the inevitable effect must be that our credit will deteriorate, and in the end we shall have to pay a higher rate of interest. It has been suggested that it might be better to issue a six per cent. stock without guarantee rather than a guaranteed 5 per cent. because the Chancellor of the Exchequer would then be able to get more income tax, but I think that argument comes from topsy turveydom. On those lines it might be urged that it would be advisable to issue a 10 per cent. stock because the Chancellor of the Exchequer would then get even more from the income tax.
At the same time I think it is very desirable to limit the amount of the guarantee. One reason why I think my right hon. Friend in charge of this Bill might very well agree to some limit is that a great deal of this money is going to be spent upon power stations, and if low temperature carbonisation comes in, all the present power stations will have to be scrapped.
We may have spent tens of millions on constructing power stations, and we may have to sweep them away altogether and put our power stations in the coalfields. Low temperature carbonisation of coal may be discovered this afternoon. That is an argument why we should limit the amount of our guarantee. Personally, I should like to see my right hon. Friend prepared to accept same limit, though not £10,000, which would be a limitation pour rire. If this Amendment goes to a division, I shall, as a loyal supporter of the Government, although an original opponent of the Bill, feel it my duty to go into the Lobby in support of the Resolution, but, when I have said that, I wish to endorse many of the arguments which have been used in support of the Amendment.
§ Mr. RADFORD
On a point of Order, may I ask, if a seconder be unnecessary, how it is that some other hon. Member seconded?
§ Mr. RADFORD
I wish to make it clear that I am not supporting this Amendment in any spirit of hostility to the Electricity (Supply) Bill, but for the same reason that I opposed the extension of the State guarantee under the Trade Facilities Act recently. Each of these guarantee which we give puts back the hand of the clock, and postpones the time when we may convert our larger War Loans into a cheaper security. I do not suggest for a moment that the addition of some £33,500,000 of contingent liability on the part of the British Government on top of the £7,000,000,000 odd which we already owe is itself seriously going to affect our credit, but I would like to point out a direction in which our credit is seriously affected and our chances of conversion prejudiced. All money available for investment, as has been truly said, comes out of savings, savings either of wealthy or of poor people.
I would like the Committee to visualise those savings, which can be drawn upon, as coming out of three separate and distinct springs. Spring No. I we may regard as capital belonging to people who are prepared to risk the loss of the whole of it in an endeavour to secure either considerable capital appreciation or a high return on their money. Such people invest their money in ordinary industrial or mining securities. Spring No. 2 may be regarded as capital, the owners of which are prepared to run a certain amount of risk, possibly 20 per cent. or 30 per cent of their capital, in an endeavour to secure 6 per cent. or a little more. Spring No. 3 is what I would call the gilt-edged spring, representing capital which is held by trustees or by people who for one cause or another must have absolute security, and are therefore content with a return of 5 per cent. It is Spring No. 3 to which the Government must look three years' hence, when £3,000,000,000 of our debt will be 1111 come available for conversion, if the the Government are in a position to do it on terms that will show a national saving. A saving of only half per cent. would mean £15,000,000 per annum saved to the Exchequer.
I said at the outset that I was not opposed to the Electricity (Supply) Bill, and that I was not supporting this Amendment in any way as an attack upon it. I contend most strongly that the guarantee is quite unnecessary for the purpose of efficiently carrying through the Bill and for its working subsequently. The Central Electricity Board will have at their control a potential monopoly of electricity supply in the country. Clause 24 of the Bill provides the purposes to which the £33,500,000 which they are allowed to raise shall be applied. It is clear that under the terms of that Clause the Central Electricity Board will have sound assets to represent the money which they raise—the construction or acquisition of such main transmission lines, generating stations, and so on. At any rate, in addition to those sound assets which will be created by the money which the Board raises, there will be that boundless goodwill represented by a monopoly of electricity supply in this country, and I do say that a well-drawn prospectus setting forth those facts free from any Government guarantee would raise the money at 5½ or 6 per cent.
I do contend that this light-hearted way—I do not know whether that is too strong a term—in which we are continually giving Government guarantees to ensure money being raised on terms approximately equal to Government terms is a wrong policy to follow. The people who will benefit by the cheap borrowing of this money by the Electricity Board are not the stockholders of the Electricity Board, but the electricity consumers in the country, because Clauses 7 and 11 provide that after the Electricity Board have purchased or generated it they shall supply electricity at cost price plus all expenses, including interest on money borrowed. Therefore, the only effect of enabling them to borrow at the cost of the Government credit is that electricity will be to that extent cheaper. In conclusion, I submit to the Committee that, in order possibly to save 1 per cent. on £33,500,000, 1112 that is, £335,000 a year, to the electricity consumers of this country, the general tax-payers may be mulcted to the extent of £15,000,000 or £30,000,000 in additional cost of the interest on the debt.
§ Major COLFOX
I am not an expert either in electrical engineering or in high finance, and I think that some of the speeches to which we have listened rather give one a warning not to plunge into the intricacies of finance. But I crave that I may be considered to hold the views of the typical mugwump in these matters. It is noticeable that on this occasion, as on some previous occasions, we see an alliance between the Government front bench and the nominal Socialists in the House. I recall an instance, not so long ago, when just the same thing happened. That was when the London Traffic Bill was going through the House. We then saw the Conservative Leaders allying themselves with the Socialist Party, who were then the Government Party, and those of us, including myself, who opposed that Bill, foretold a state of affairs very similar to that which we have seen in the last few days. We did our utmost to persuade the Government and our own leaders that it was wrong to abolish, or to do anything which helped to abolish, the independent private omnibus owners, who have, in all too small numbers, come to the rescue during the last week. I only give that as an instance of the sort of thing that makes one suspect an alliance between the Conservative Front Bench and the official Socialists.
One of the most applauded and generally approved portions of the Budget statement recently made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer was that the Trade Facilities scheme would come to an end, but here we have, as it seems to me, the worst features of the Trade Facilities scheme resuscitated once more. The country has been, and, indeed, still is, passing through a great crisis. We do not know, nor does anybody at present know, what that crisis is costing the country, but it is quite obvious to everybody that it is costing the country enormous sums, both in cash and in credit. Nevertheless, we find, in the midst of this crisis, that the House of Commons is being asked to pledge the national credit to the extent of some £33,000,000. That appears to me, not being a financial expert, to be a most reckless thing to do, particularly in the 1113 present circumstances. The country's credit is, obviously, bound to be severely shaken by the crisis, and, surely, this is the most inopportune moment possible for pledging the credit of the country to this very large extent.
We should do everything, both now and henceforth, to reduce the commitments of the nation both in cash and in credit—which are for this purpose the same thing—and thereby help the nation to pull through these difficult times. By doing what we are doing, it appears to me that not only are we not helping to overcome the results of the crisis, but we are making its results worse than they otherwise might be. I do not profess to have any very definite views on many of the details of the Electricity Bill. It has been argued, as it seemed to me quite convincingly, that it is unnecessary, in order to make the Electricity Bill a success, that it should have behind it the backing of Government credit. Be that as it may, and I am inclined to think that it is totally unnecessary, I feel that, even at the risk of upsetting some of the provisions of the Electricity Bill, we should be most unwise now, before we are able to take stock of the financial position created by the present crisis, to pledge the nation's credit still further to this enormous extent.
§ Mr. GROTRIAN
Like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Western Dorset (Major Colfox), I do not pretend to be a financial expert, and I do not wish to exercise myself in great matters which are too high for me. At the same time, there are one or two points which I think my hon. and gallant Friend has not very clearly brought out. I think that this guarantee may be necessary, and for this reason, that the reason why this money is required is that the proposals of the Electricity Bill are not commercially sound—that is to say, the money is required, not for productive enterprise, but for such things as standardisation of frequency throughout the country. There is no money to be made out of standardising anybody's frequency—
§ The CHAIRMAN
I do not know whether the hon. and learned Member is referring to the average number of times that different Members address the House, but, if so, it is not in order.
§ Mr. GROTRIAN
I am sorry I am not in order, but the point I wanted to make was that, if you ask the public to subscribe money for a productive undertaking, and show them that there is a profit to be made, they will subscribe the money, but I doubt whether this money could be raised without the Government's guarantee, and, thertfore, I should, to that extent, support the Amendment. We do expect, however, that in Committee the Bill will be so-amended and altered for the better that probably this money would be able to be raised without the guarantee, and, therefore, I would plead with the Government to postpone this Resolution until we have some idea at any rate as to how the Bill is going to emerge from the Committee. If it emerges in such a form that the guarantee will be unnecessary, well and good, but in the meantime I shall feel bound to support the Amendment.
§ Mr. H. WILLIAMS
As a Member whose frequency is, perhaps, rather high, I apologise for intervening, but I want to say one or two things. I think it is unfortunate, at a time when the Government have announced that they do not propose to continue the system of Trade Facilities guarantees, they should propose a guarantee on such a large scale, involving a sum nearly equal to half the total guarantees under the Trade Facilities Act. It is a transaction on a very big scale indeed, and, while I have always held that the Trade Facilities Act was justified, because its object was to divert such capital as was available for the purpose of stimulating industries which for the moment were very badly hit, I think, now that the general trade situation is better, that that justification has passed, and that the Government are right to drop it. I think it is a pity to re-introduce it in this connection, because it will relieve the Board of that stimulus which they ought to have if they are going to do their job efficiently. After all, whether capitalism be good or ill, there is an element of risk about it which is very stimulating. I always believe that to give anyone absolute security is a mistake. This will give the Board absolute security. Whether they are successful in their technical operations or not, those who subscribe will get their money, and the Board will not feel any anxiety 1115 because of their inability by their operations to raise sufficient profit for the purpose of paying the interest.
I wish there were some possibility of having not a fixed rate of interest at all but some degree of variation—that they might in some years distribute less and in some years more, but keeping it within moderate limits. Do not let us mix up credit and credits, as I think the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Hudson) was doing. Credit is a psychological thing. Credits, after all, depend not on psychology but on the amount of cash there is available for new investment. They depend essentially on past savings which have not yet been devoted to any new purpose, and the amount of those savings available at any particular moment is not unlimited. However great your credit may be, there is only a limited amount that you can obtain at any given time. If a large proportion of what is available is raised under Government guarantees at comparatively low rates of interest and is diverted to particular purposes, the amount of new capital available for ordinary enterprises is proportionately restricted, and very much higher rates of interest will have to be paid for capital raised for other enterprises. Therefore, in benefiting one enterprise, whether it has the Government behind it or not, you may be prejudicing every other new enterprise and forcing it to borrow money at very much higher rates of interest, and therefore holding back a great many enterprises which are very desirable. That is one of the unfortunate ways in which a system of guarantees operates, and though I should not be justified in voting against the Resolution I think it right that those who feel as I feel should voice our protest against this continued extension of a system of financial facilities which is no longer justified.
§ Sir GERALD STRICKLAND
I trust all Conservative Members will vote against this Amendment. If the Bill is to be postponed, or even opposed, I do not think this is the logical way of doing it. No Bill of this description can even be discussed in Committee without observing the form of previously passing a Financial Resolution. I also regret that among the arguments in support of the Amendment we have heard far-reach- 1116 ing objections against Government guarantees. My honourable Friend opposite (Sir F. Wise) has spoken almost in the same breath, coupling the guarantees proposed in favour of this vast scheme and the guarantee for a very minor concern called the "Blue Funnel Line." When guarantees are given side by side with collateral securities of comparatively immense and increasing value, such as this electrical undertaking will be, there is no injury whatsoever to the general credit of the British Government, and this security could be made liquid to cover guarantees. Take parallel cases in Australia. How many schemes in Australia have not with advantage received Government guarantees? Have any of such Government guarantees when given for first-class schemes done any harm whatever to Australia's credit?
§ Sir G. STRICKLAND
I say Australian Government guarantees for Australian schemes have not injured Australian credit, and so British Government guarantees for schemes of which the goodwill and realisable assets will be of enormous and of increasing value can do no harm to the national credit. On the other hand, such guarantees may do immense good, because they accelerate electrical progress. When a great scheme is encouraged by Government guarantee, that is so much additional help to industry, and it will diminish unemployment and not do harm to anyone. The ordinary investor does not always want to take the trouble to judge what is safe. He has not the time or the skill to learn and differentiate between a good investment and a bad one. If this Government guarantees an investment he is quite confident that it is safe to keep his money in the country, and it saves him an immense amount of anxiety. The Amendment is really a blow at the Bill itself.
There are good direct reasons for opposing the Bill; nevertheless, it should be carefully and seriously considered and recast. The Amendment is very clumsy, and should not come from anyone who is prepared to vote with the Government on the Bill itself. When it is drastically amended, I shall be prepared to vote for the Bill in all its subsequent stages. I feel it is full at present of dangers and 1117 difficulties which ought to be thoroughly thrashed out. I have been very closely connected with Government attempts to run commercial enterprises by salaried official Boards and Committees. They often begin well. My experience is that schemes are sometimes started by men who are full of ability and earnestness, men who are personally interested in the success of the undertakings, but when these creators of a scheme pass away, the management lapses into the hands of Committees which sooner or later become careless, expensive and wasteful. Officials have their pensions and pay secured, not only when they are very good, but also when they are just passable. Moreover, the success of British business enterprise depends upon the punishment of nonsuccess. The official escapes those penalties, others have to suffer the penalties of non-success, bankruptcy, no pay, no pension, and so forth.
§ Sir. G. STRICKLAND
Although I am by no means favourably disposed to the Bill as it stands, or to its adoption at an early date, I hope the method of shelving the Bill now before the House will receive no countenance whatsoever.
§ Captain VISCOUNT ELVEDEN
I appeal to the Committee not to oppose the Resolution but to let the Government go on with the Bill. I am not convinced that it is exactly an admirable Bill but, I think the Committee should be allowed to consider all its points and that this Committee should not to-day take the responsibility of preventing the scheme the Government are bringing forward from having proper consideration. As I understand the scheme in its entirety, it is to enable us to get out of a tangle, so that the nation as a whole shall be able to have certain savings in administration on electricity. But the difficulty is to see who is to finance that proposition. If the Government does not bear the financial responsibility it is very difficult to see how we can go on with the Bill as drafted. Therefore, it seems to me that we ought to pass the Financial Resolution in order that the Standing Committee may consider the various proposals and place before the House a fully considered scheme.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
I think it is exceedingly unfortunate at the present stage of electricity in this country that the Government should have deemed it advisable or desirable to introduce such a Resolution, and a Clause in the Bill which necessitates such a Resolution. My very profound conviction is that if the Bill emerges from Committee somewhat in the form in which it has been presented, and if it is necessary to use the machinery provided by the Financial Clauses resulting from such a Resolution, then there can only be one result. A higher price will have to be paid for all the money that is to be employed henceforward in electrical development in this country. Of that I am profoundly convinced. I am sorry that I was not able to be present earlier, but I was detained dealing with these very problems of the raising of large sums for electrical enterprise and placing very large orders for electrical machinery. It is exceedingly unfortunate that the Government should take this line at the present time, in view of the reaction which a policy such as this will have. It will undoubtedly hit the large undertakers in the country, particularly the privately owned ones, because the municipally owned undertakings will have to a certain extent the protection and the guarantee of the large cities behind them. It is particularly unfortunate that we should be faced with a Motion of this kind at the present time.
Reference has been made to Australia. Not only Australia but Canada to-day have great territories which are under-populated compared with the population in the cities and that under-population is due largely to the very policy which is being adumbrated in the Motion now before the House. Restrictions have been placed upon the utilisation of private capital both in Australia and Canada. I remember being in the King Edward territory of Toronto over 20 years ago when concessions were offered to be financed in this country but the conditions imposed were of a very similar character to the conditions that will follow from such a Motion as this, with the result that those with whom I am associated would never again go to Canada. It is no use going to Canada with private enterprise in this respect. One very large territory was handed over to the Ontario Hydro-Electric 1119 Commission. If hon. Members would read the speeches made in the Ontario Legislature by men of the highest distinction, renowned jurists, they would see that this policy was referred to as a policy of theft. I will not enter into a discussion of that matter, but if hon. Members would analyse the results of the Ontario Hydro-electric development and study the policy and its reaction on employment, they would find that there is a vastly less population in that country to-day resulting from that policy than would have been the case had they left the enterprise to be developed freely and unfettered by local authorities or private enterprise.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
With respect, I suggest not. I am trying to show the immediate effect of passing a Resolution such as this, which will undoubtedly compel people to pay a higher price for the development of electrical undertakings in this country. I was showing that where you have one large territory taken over in that manner, blocking the free flow of capital and of population, the results are very unsatisfactory. In this country, of course, the question of the flow of population has not the same relation to the question as is the case in the great territories of Canada; but I maintain that the energies of the people engaged in these undertakings will undoubtedly be diminished, and the diminishing of that energy will re-act in a great degree in diminishing the proper supply of electricity under state-aided and state-guaranteed schemes resulting from such a Motion as this.
I had hoped that the Attorney-General would have seen his way to have delayed this Motion. He does not intend to do so. I would, however, make a plea to him. We are speaking under very trying circumstances whatever subject we debate at the present time in this House. Very few members understood that this particular Motion would come forward to-day, owing to the non-circulation of Parliamentary papers. If we decide not to divide against the Motion, I hope that it will not be said later that the Motion passed the House without a division. If the Attorney-General wished to sense the 1120 feeling of the majority of the members of his own party I think he would find that the vast majority would, had there been a proper opportunity, have attended here to-day and have expressed pretty much the same views that I am now expressing.
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Douglas Hogg)
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hitchin (Major Kindersley) and the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Balfour) have both expressed regret that this business is being taken in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Although I was not personally responsible for this particular business being taken on this particular day, I think that those responsible for arranging the business of the House have acted with great prudence and with wisdom in continuing to bring forward the ordinary business of the House in spite of the crisis which exists. Nothing could be more ill-advised than to postpone particular Measures or Resolutions which would normally have been discussed, on the ground that the crisis prevents our being able to proceed. I think that perhaps nothing has more tended to steady public opinion in this country than the fact that the House of Commons has continued to function normally and to discuss its ordinary business affairs.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
Would it not have been convenient for other business to have been taken rather than this?
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL
This business has not keen accelerated, expedited or postponed. It is being taken in the ordinary way. My hon. friend was not here when the Amendment was moved, in which a bitter protest was made against bringing this business forward at this time. The hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin is very strongly opposed to it. It is important that the Committee should agree with the view I take that the ordinary business of the House of Commons ought to be carried on unaltered by reason of the crisis in which we find ourselves. I think that has had a very valuable effect outside. I am not speaking from a party point of view, because I think hon. Members opposite would say the same thing.
Dealing with the merits of the Resolution and the Amendment, I would like to remind the Committee of what it is that 1121 this financial resolution is designed to do. The hon. Member for Ilford (Sir F. Wise) spoke of the Weir Report containing a sum of £250,000,000, and said that this was an enormous tax on the savings of the community. It is true that in that report it is anticipated that during the next 15 years some £250,000,000 will be spent on electrical enterprise. Of that sum it is anticipated that £125,000,000 will be spent on capital expenditure connected with distribution, with which this Bill has nothing to do. A further £100,000,000 is expected to be expended in that period on new stations. This guarantee is not intended to affect the building of new stations.
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL
No, I am explaining how it is made up. There is the sum of £125,000,000 for distribution, £100,000,000 for new stations, £25,000,000 estimated to be the cost of main transmission lines to be built under the Weir scheme, and £8,500,000 anticipated to be the net cost of standardisation of frequency, which is an essential part of the Weir scheme. The Weir Report suggested that the £100,000,000 which would be required for new stations should be guaranteed by the State, that the £25,000,000 for main transmission lines should be guaranteed by the State, and that the £8,500,000 required for standardisation of frequency should either be paid out and out or advanced in cash by the State and repaid later on. The Government did not see their way to accept these suggestions.
They thought, and quite wisely, that it was very undesirable to burden the public credit with such large sums of money and accordingly they decided, first, that there should be no cash advanced by the state and, secondly, that there should be no guarantee of the £100,000,000 required for new stations. The figure of £33,500,000, which is the only figure referred to, is made up of the £25,000,000 required for transmission lines and £8,500,000 required for the standardisation of frequency.
It is suggested by those who oppose this Resolution that the guarantee is unnecessary because there is no risk. They say, "You can easily raise the money on the Stock Exchange at a slightly higher rate of interest." It is curious that the only 1122 people who hold that view ale those who desire to wreck the Bill. No friends of the Bill, and no experts, hold any such view. It is only those who consistently oppose the Bill who press its merits so much as to say that no State guarantee is required. In fact, it is an essential part of the Bill. It is not true to say that when the Board requires this large sum of money, this £33,500,000, that it would be in a position to raise it on commercial terms on the Stock Exchange. The Board is precluded from making any profit and at the time when it raises money for the building of transmission lines it will have no assets at all in its possession. The only assets are those which will be created by the use of this money—the erection of the main transmission lines—and if you asked the public to lend you £33,500,000 in order to build your main transmission lines, at a cost of 25 million pounds, and then when they are built they are to be incapable of returning any profit you would have considerable difficulty in obtaining anything like that sum of money at a reasonable rate.
§ Sir F. WISE
May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman? What about the monopoly which is more valuable than anything else?
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL
The hon. Member is misusing language when he speaks of a monopoly. A monopoly right, which a monopolist can exploit for his own advantage, is very valuable, but it is on the essence of this Bill that the Board shall make no profits at all. The monopoly that is given, such as it is, is a monopoly only of the right to buy from suitable stations and resell to authorised undertakers at cost price such electricity as the authorised undertaker may wish to take from the Board. There is no obligation on any undertaker to take any current from the Board, but there is a provision that they shall not be allowed to charge their consumers any more than they would charge if they were taking their own supplies from the Board. There is no question of a monopoly as a money making concern. There is a board formed to discharge a great public function, and for that purpose it has the right to raise a sufficient sum of money from the public, on the guarantee of the State in order to perform that public duty.
1123 It has been said, and said truly that the only people who will benefit by the granting of this guarantee will be the consumers of electricity I admit that at once, but I go a little further, and I say that we claim it as a reason for using this credit The consumers of electricity in this country are already the great bulk of the population, and if we are able to encourage the use of the electricity, as we hope to do by cheapening its cost, we are conferring on the community at large a very great advantage for which a wise use of State credit may properly be devoted. It is in our view an essential part of this scheme that this guarantee should be given. The Committee is only authorising a Clause of the Bill to be discussed in Committee upstairs when it is reached, and I appeal to the Committee to prevent the Committee upstairs proceeding with the Bill by voting against what the Government regard as an essential feature of their scheme. I agree that it would be ridiculous for me, if this Resolution were passed without a division, as I hope it may be, to say that on that account any sanction has been given to any particular feature of the Bill by the House at large. The House has already sanctioned the general principle of the Bill on Second Reading, but this Resolution, if it is allowed to pass without division, does not do more than enable the Committee upstairs to discuss the proposal on its merits. I hope it may be possible for the Committee to come to a conclusion on this matter and proceed to the other business on the Order Paper.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
The Attorney-General used the expression "not trading for profit" just now. I am quite sure he meant to say, earn their full interest and depreciation. Full interest would be something like 5½ per cent. The average of company undertakings throughout Great Britain for the last 10 or 15 years is about 5 per cent.
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL
Of course the Board is not to make a lose. They are to so regulate their charges that they make no profits. They merely pay back interest to these people who take up these bonds and provide the sinking fund necessary to redeem them, but they 1124 are incapable of returning any bonus or dividends of any kind beyond the actual sum necessary which they have to hear as interest on capital.
§ The ATTORNEY-GENERAL
As a protection against a risk of that kind we have the guarantee. The Bill provides that the Board shall so regulate its charges that there shall not be a loss, but if there is a miscalculation in one year, then the charges would have to be a little higher the next year.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Main Questions put, and agreed to.
§ Resolution to be reported upon Monday next (17th May).