HC Deb 19 December 1927 vol 212 cc176-82

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 8th November, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I desire to be brief on the matter which I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister of Transport. If I abbreviate my remarks however it is not because I wish to under-estimate the importance of the issue but because other Members desire to speak. The Electricity Commissioners have now submitted their scheme for South-East England to the Electricity Central Board. It affects 165 authorised undertakers. It will fix supply and price for 14 counties and in the area covered by the scheme a population of something like 11,000,000 persons is affected. Among the 165 authorised undertakers there are 59 municipal undertakers and the trade unions catering for their staff represent 30,000 to 40,000 employes affected. Therefore, we can claim that the scheme is of considerable dimensions and ought not to be put into effect unless all those interested and particularly the public bodies, feel that every side of the case has been thoroughly considered. The 59 municipal undertakers, with possibly one or two exceptions, feel that they have a strong case in the first place against the financial structure of the scheme. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that they challenge the financial basis of the scheme. Secondly, they have grave doubts as to whether the scheme will yield cheaper electricity supply to the users, particularly under those authorities which have efficient municipal stations. Their third contention is that whereas now the local authorities share in almost equal proportions the generation of electrical power, it is assumed, I think, on good grounds, that under the scheme a good deal of the generation of municipal power will pass to private companies. Whatever our views may be of private or municipal generation I do not think Parliament contemplated that municipal enterprise should suffer from that type of legislation.

I do not hold myself responsible for the statements which have been made but I feel there is a sufficient weight of opinion behind those statements to demand a public inquiry. I must condense my remarks into a form which may appear blunt and therefore I put a series of questions to the Minister and I hope he will be equally direct in his replies. First, does the Central Electricity Board accept the financial structure of the scehme as prepared and submitted by the Electricity Commissioners? Secondly, is Section 5 of the scheme ultra vires? Thirdly, will municipal generation under the scheme suffer as compared with the proportion' now existing?

I would also like to ask the Minister if he can make a frank statement with regard to his powers under this form of legislation. As I understand it, under Section 4, paragraph (2), of the Electricity Act of 1926, provision was made for a, public inquiry under certain conditions. I recognise that the Central Board have more or less the final power, but under what conditions can we have a public inquiry if the present situation does not warrant one? Here we have 59 local authorities—one or two may have been accommodated now—who consider that their difficulties and doubts in regard to the scheme are sufficiently weighty for them to press for an inquiry. Apparently such is not going to be considered, or rather, so far no statement has yet been made. Are we to take it that we can have a large volume of public opinion, which local authorities must be assumed to represent, and the Minister is going to take up the position that he has no powers and that the Central Board can override views of that description?

The Minister, while not having direct powers, has, I understand, certain opportunities under the Act. The Central Board cannot raise the necessary finance for the scheme unless, first, the Minister, with the Treasury, passes certain Regulations, and gives them certain powers, and surely the withholding of those powers should give the Minister an opportunity of conveying public opinion as expressed to Parliament on this important matter. My final point is that if the Minister is not disposed to assist us to obtain a public inquiry, or if the Central Board stand pat on the matter, will the right hon. Gentleman ask that the authorities interested may have an opportunity of revising the scheme which the Central Board may ultimately put forward, before it passes?


I want to support the appeal which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), and I will imitate my colleague by the bluntness of the way in which I shall put my views forward, owing to the lateness of the hour. So many statements are made on behalf of the municipal authorities regarding this scheme that I think the case for inquiry, prima facie, is absolutely made out. For example, it is said that the consumption figures, which are taken in the proposed scheme as being at the rate of 16.9 per cent. for eight years, and 20.4 per cent. thereafter. are entirely wrong, based on consumption during the last few years, which has been 11.5 per cent. There is the further point that, of the 29 stations that are to operate under the scheme, 24 will have not spare plant above their peak load needs. Those two facts alone, I think, call for a very keen investigation. We are not putting this forward in any obstructive sense, but we think it is absolutely in the public interest, before a great scheme of this kind comes to be put into action, that there should be an inquiry, and therefore I support my hon. Friend's appeal.

The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Colonel Ashley)

I know that a few of my hon. Friends want to talk, so I will be very brief. May I explain the position under the Act of last year? It is the duty of the Electricity Commissioners to put up a scheme to the Board. The Board, when they receive that scheme, have the duty of publishing it and asking for representations, and then, when they have received the representations, they can adopt it wholly or in part. Before adopting it they can hold, under the Act of last year, such inquiries, if any, as they wish. It is, therefore, quite clear, rightly or wrongly, that under the Act of last year absolute discretion as to what sort of inquiry should be held rests with the Central Electricity Board, and with nobody else. I am within the recollection of those who were on the Committee upstairs last year that the criticisms made when we were discussing the powers to be given to the Board were, not that there should be a public inquiry, with all its expense and probable delay, but that there should be given some real opportunity to those who may be vitally affected of orally putting to the Board their point of view.

May I inform the House what has been the procedure of the Board up to now, and I think they will agree that it is a very sensible and a very common-sense one? Directly the intimation was given to those concerned that they should send in representations, the Chairman of the Board and his Chief Engineer visited practically all the big interests and had long and informal conversations with them. The Board, since representations have come in, has been in constant, almost daily session, and is receiving deputations from all the interests concerned, and discussing the matter with them. The Central Board has also had the advantage of several interviews with the Joint Electricity Authority of London, a very important body, and they will shortly receive a deputation from the Conference of Municipal Authorities. What is as important as anything, is that the engineer officers and accounting officers of the Board have been in consultation with a great number of those interests concerned with a view to discussing costs and efficiency, so that the whole thing may be thoroughly explored. I put it to the House that no more business-like procedure could have been adopted so far to enable the Board to get a clear view of what the case is, and also to remove any suspicions of underhand conduct or want of sympathy on the part of the Central Board. They have relied hardly at all on written representations, but are relying on oral representations.

Finally, the members of the Central Electricity Board are, as I think everyone will acknowledge, men of business, of high character and of outstanding public attainments. It is inconceivable that they should wish to favour municipal enterprise as compared with private enterprise, or private enterprise as compared with municipal, because they are not the sort of men to do that. As a matter of fact, in the scheme for Scotland, which has gone through, I understand that municipal enterprise has practically been chosen for all the selected stations. Possibly in London it will be the other way round. But what the Board have to do is not to consider politics—municipalisation or nationalisation, or private enterprise. They have, for their own sake, to make a sound and workable scheme. They have to justify the scheme, justify the finance of the scheme, and the success of the scheme, and only by taking the most efficient stations for their selected stations, whether municipal or private stations, will they be able to do that. With that explanation I hope the hon. Members opposite will be satisfied that every consideration is given to the interests for which they are so justly anxious.


May I ask whether the Minister will answer particularly the last point I put to him? The investigations now going on are into details. When the Central Board have come to their definite conclusions will they consider their complete revised scheme?

Colonel ASHLEY

When they have the evidence they will consider, as is their duty under the Act, whether any inquiry is necessary or desirable.


Of course, I agree with my right hon. Friend that in no circumstances could there be any suggestion of anything underhand being done by the Central Board or any of the parties connected with this investigation. I would like to say, to the hon. Gentleman who has raised this question, that it is largely due to the activities of his own Friends in Committee upstairs that we have this peculiar position, namely, a Central Board whose actions are removed entirely from the purview of Parliamentary discussion. I think that the hon. Member has been somewhat at sea in referring to the Commissioners, because the Central Board, who now have this scheme sent to them by the Commissioners, have nerely to discharge the duty imposed upon them under the Act of Parliament, and that is, in their discretion, having investigated the scheme, to discover whether it is necessary, in order to arrive at a, correct judgment, to have a public inquiry or not. I have no idea whether they will decide that it is necessary to have a public inquiry.

Colonel ASH LEY

May I make it quite clear that they are not leaving public inquiries out of account, but it is only when they have gone through these various processes of consulting all the parties privately that they will come to a decision.


I quite agree. I think my right hon. Friend is only reinforcing what I am saying. As far as I know, the Board are exploring this scheme in a quiet, unbiased manner, detached from all political influence. When they have explored the scheme, I presume—I do not know, I have no reason to know—they will decide whether a public inquiry is necessary. They may decide that it is necessary or they may decide as a result of their inquiries with the municipal authorities and companies that a public inquiry is not necessary. Whatever decision they come to it cannot be questioned in Parliament. Hon. Members upstairs put on the Statute Book an authority detached entirely from Parliamentary criticism. My only point is that the Electricity Commissioners are not involved in this question, and the Ministry of Transport is not involved. They have discharged their duty and sent this matter to the Central Electricity Board who are not answerable in any sense to Parliament. When the scheme is settled they can carry it out absolutely without being responsible to this House.


They cannot.


They are the creatures of Statute. They are entrusted with duties which they are bound to discharge, and no criticism whatever can be levelled against them in this House in discharging those duties. As far as I know, the gentlemen who compose that Board will, according to their information and according to the evidence submitted to them, discharge honourably and faithfully that duty, but when they have discharged it we cannot question their decision and have loyally to abide by whatever they decide, owing to the powers we have entrusted to them.


I think the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has rather forgotten that, before the actual closing down of any station takes place, there is an appeal to an independent arbitrator. That is a very important safeguard.


That is quite a small subsidiary point, which, I agree, can be checked by an appeal to an arbitrator; but it is not the point which is before the House at the moment.


That may be true, but we have been told in the last few days that we are unsuited to investigate the Prayer Book, and it seems to me that we are still more unsuited for investigating a technical subject like electricity. A small number of people in this House are, but there are not many who could really debate this question. I tried to find out, in listening to the hon. Member who introduced this question, for whom he was speaking. After all, in London the Joint Electricity Authority are overwhelmingly municipal, and yet they do not come here and ask for an inquiry, but two independent Members do. I see the time has arrived for me to stop; otherwise, I could make a very eloquent oration on this matter.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'Clock.