HC Deb 10 November 1926 vol 199 cc1211-6

I beg to move, in page 15, line 26, after the word "which," to insert the words "in the opinion of the Electricity Commissioners."

I do not think this Amendment requires very much explanation. Clause 13 places a limitation upon the price to be charged to the owners of selected stations, and the limitation is conditional upon proof to the satisfaction of the Electricity Commissioners that the cost of taking the supply from the Board exceeds the cost which would be incurred if the authorised undertakers themselves generated a like quantity of electricity. The concluding words of the Clause are: the charges by the Board to those undertakers for the supplies of electricity furnished to them shall be so adjusted that the amount charged in that year does not exceed the cost which the undertakers would have incurred in themselves generating the electricity. We put in the provision as to proof to the satisfaction of the Electricity Commissioners that the cost is greater, and we want merely to correlate with it the concluding words of the Clause by providing that the amount shall not exceed the cost which in the opinion of the Electricity Commissioners the authorised undertakers would have incurred.


I want to say one word on this Amendment, because in Committee the Government set great store by the safeguards which Clause 13 gave to owners of selected stations. As the Clause is drafted, this question of cost must be proved as a matter of fact. The Amendment which my right hon. Friend has just moved—without, I think, any adequate warning to those concerned, except in the ordinary way of notice on the Order Paper—whittles away the safeguard given in Clause 13, on the strength of which a great many owners of selected stations have been induced to believe that they had some sort of protection. Now, instead of relying on the proof of a fact, they are simply to depend upon the opinion of the Commissioners. The Commissioners may be a thoroughly sound body to advise on technical matters, but, if it was thought right in the first instance to give the owners of selected stations the guarantee supplied in the Clause as it is printed, on which they were assured that they would have protection if they could prove the fact—that they would have the right of access to the Courts, where they would get a thoroughly impartial and unprejudiced decision—I earnestly suggest that it is rather going back on all the promises of guarantee and safeguard that were made in Committee apropos of the protection afforded by Clause 13 if at this stage we suddenly insert these words and to a large extent whittle away the protection which has been given.


I should like to add a word in support of what my hon. Friend has said. I am sure the House will appreciate at once that it is quite wrong to leave a matter of this importance in the discretion of the Electricity Commissioners, who are one of the two interested parties concerned in the matter. I feel sure that my right hon. Friend will be doing the right thing if he allows this to stand on the proof of a matter of fact, and does not allow such an important matter to be dependent—because there is not even any method provided for the stating of a case— merely upon an opinion expressed. As I think my right hon. Friend will agree, even though the opinion written down as the opinion of the Electricity Commissioners were contrary to fact, there is nothing in this Clause which would entitle people, whose interests had possibly been seriously damaged, to any remedy. If this Bill be analysed, it will be found that throughout it runs this same thread. You have a closed circuit consisting of a Board and Commissioners, with unlimited funds provided at the expense of the taxpayer. We have that cycle and we have here the security that if there is to be any question of doubt or any complaint made as to the price, the Commissioners are to decide. It is in no sense reflecting upon the particular Department. I am dealing merely with the matter of public policy that it is wrong, as a matter of public policy alone, that we should rely upon any one Department so deeply interested themselves in the scheme, which they, in the first instance, set up, and I think it will be found as a matter of prudence in our public life that it is not fair to impose upon the Electricity Commissioners the sole burden, if there is any dispute about the matter, of deciding it by expressing an opinion.


This Clause as drawn provided that the people concerned should not have to pay more than the actual cost which they would themselves have incurred in generating the electricity. That, of course, is a question of fact. Now we have this Amendment proposed by the Government, for what reason I do not know, in the last stage of the Bill. It is to decide that that particular question of cost shall be one which rests entirely in the decision of one of the parties to the contest. The Electricity Commissioners can correctly be described as one of the parties to the dispute, if there is a dispute. I do not know, and the Attorney-General has not told us, what is the reason of his introducing the Amendment, but I think members of the Bar will regard it as somewhat extraordinary that the leader of the Bar, with all its traditions, should be put, by some force which I do not know— [HON. MEMBERS: "Impossible!"] No doubt the Attorney-General will say whether that suggestion is correct.


What my hon. Friend does not know I cannot tell the House, but that there is any force which compels me to do anything, except the fact that I am moving what is practically almost a drafting Amendment, in fact to reproduce in line 26 the same provision which is already in line 17, is quite untrue.


The Attorney-General I am sure, will acquit me of being responsible for the suggestion made from the opposite side. But the fact of a travesty of justice—I do not think that is too strong language—in an earlier part of the Bill is no excuse for trying to repeat it here. With some acquaintance with the Courts of the country, I regard it as a sad thing that, whatever the cause may be, whether of his own volition or on a suggestion from outside, the leader of the Bar should be put in the position of moving, for no reason that I can see—moving gratuitously—an Amendment to a Clause in his own Bill in order to put the decision on a question of great importance to the subject in the power of the opposite party to the dispute. Without giving any reasons whatever, the Attorney-General has proposed an Amendment which I suggest is contrary to the sense of justice. I can only hope that he will not press the Amendment. Unless he or his representative is prepared to give us some better reason for it, I do not think it is fair to the House for him to ask that the Amendment should be carried.


I am astounded that the Attorney-General should suggest that this is a drafting Amendment. It simply comes to this, that the opinion of the Electricity Commissioners is to be taken as the deciding factor as to whether electricity can be generated at a certain price or whether it cannot. The Electricity Commissioners at the present time are not all expert engineers; they are qualified in various branches, some in finance. With the vast amount of work which they have to perform, they will not be able to keep themselves cognisant of all the great improvements that take place with regard to electrical engineering; notwithstanding, if an authorised undertaker is not satisfied with the cost, it is to rest with the Electricity Commissioners to say that in their opinion, without giving any reason whatsoever for their opinion, the cost is so much. It is an extraordinary procedure. When this Clause was under discussion in Committee a vast amount of argument took place. It was not then proposed by the Attorney-General that the Electricity Commissioners should have the last word to say in regard to cost, and I am surprised that practically at the eleventh hour we should be asked to swallow an Amendment of this description. [HON. MEMBERS "Vote against it!"] I will if I can get anyone to tell with me.

Question put, "That those words be there inserted in the Bill."

The House proceeded to a Division:

Major Cope and Captain Margesson were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but, there being no Members willing to act as Tellers for the Noes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Ayes had it.