HC Deb 10 May 1928 vol 217 cc492-7

Motion made, and Question proposed. That so much of the Lords Message [27th March] as relates to the Resolutions That it is expedient that in the present Session all Private Bills for the exclusive purpose of consolidating the provisions of existing Private Acts of Parliament lie referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament: That the Joint Committee shall not take into consideration any Petition against any such Bill which seeks to alter the existing law' be now considered."—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]


There is one point which I wish to raise in connection with this Motion. I read the discussions in another place, and I understand that the Motion is designed to refer all consolidation Bills of a Private Bill nature to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. There have been a number of such Bills in previous Sessions, but I understand that none of them dealt exclusively with consolidation. Accordingly, these Bills have been subject to the normal and ordinary rule of Parliament, namely, that when a promoter comes to Parliament with proposals regarding powers which he has already been given, these powers are subject to review. I understand that the object of the Motion is to initiate a new procedure to facilitate consolidation, which is, I admit, a worthy enough object, and to insure that the practice, which has been well established in regard to public Bills, shall be the practice followed in all respects with regard to private Bills. There is a Bill before Parliament entitled "an Act to Consolidate the North Metropolitan Electric Power Supply Acts, 1900–1927." It is said that this is a Consolidating Bill pure and simple, and I understand that if this Motion be carried, it will go through, and no objection to it will be allowed to be heard. If this is a consolidating Bill pure and simple, if it is merely a re-enactment of existing law, I quite see that no one's interest would be materially affected. If, on the other hand, I can prove that Clause 117 of this Bill does not correctly re-enact Section 13 of the Act of 1919, but is a considerable departure from it, it is conceivable that certain interests will very materially be affected.

I wish to adduce one instance where this procedure would operate harshly. In 1899 the Urban District Council of Finchley were authorised to supply electrical energy for all public and private purposes in their area. They accordingly erected a generating station, and since 1903 they have supplied the district. By the Act of 1909 which the North Metropolitan Power Company purports to reenact by Clause 117 of the present Bill, it is provided that the company shall not supply energy within the district of the Finchley Council without the consent of the Council under its Common Seal. But under existing circumstances it would be open to the Finchley Council to argue that it has a veto on supplies by the North Metropolitan Supply Com- pany, but that they would lose that right if the Act of 1909 were re-enacted, in view of the provisions of the Electricity Supply Act, 1926, by which the Finchley Council is deprived of the right of obtaining a direct supply from the Central Electricity Board. To explain the matter in simpler language, it means that if the needs of Finchley increase, as undoubtedly they will, the Finchley Council will not be able to obtain supplies from the Central Electricity Board, but will have to seek them from such a source as the North Metropolitan Supply Company, which will ultimately entail increased charges to the users.

The whole character of electricity legislation has been subject to constant changes to meet the changing needs and conditions. The first public Act was passed as long ago as 1882, and this was modified and amended by subsequent Acts in 1888 and 1909. Another great change was effected by the Act of 1919 by the establishment of joint electricity authorities throughout the country, and a still greater change was effected in 1926, when the Central Electricity Board was established. Doubtless, if Parliament in 1909 had realised the possible effect of the Section that was then enacted, consequent upon the passing of the Act of 1926, the Section would not have taken its present form. In view of these considerations, I wish to ascertain whether this Motion, if carried, would definitely preclude the Committee's consideration of petitions which merely ask for an alteration of the existing law. I can fully appreciate the advantages of consolidation, but consolidation in this instance operates very harshly, and I should like very much to have some further elucidation of this question.

The CHAIRMAN of WAYS and MEANS (Mr. James Hope)

There is no question of policy whatever in this Motion. It is merely a matter of convenience for all those who have to take part in Private Bill precedure. The truth is, that long-established companies, and perhaps local bodies also, have a very great number of Acts, and when they come before Parliament with some new Bill, all those engaged, whether in support or in opposition, counsel, Parliamentary agents and Members of this House, have to search through a number of Acts in order to find out the exact position. The whole object of this Motion is to facilitate the consolidation of Acts in those cases, whereby everyone concerned may know exactly what the law is, without this endless digging up of old Statutes. For example, the Gas Light and Coke Company have a large number of Bills, and although they consolidated their Acts in 1868, they have had no less than 23 Acts or Orders since. The South Metropolitan Gas Company have had 16 Acts from the time of their foundation; and so on. It is purely a matter of convenience for Committees, and those who have to appear before Committees, that this Motion is made. I think that I can best explain the scope, in answer to my hon. Friend, by laying emphasis upon the actual Motion. It is: That it is expedient that in the present Session all Private Bills for the exclusive purpose of consolidating the provisions of existing Private Acts of Parliament be referred to a Joint committee of both Houses of Parliament. That is to say, no Bill will go there if it seeks to change the law. It must be exclusively for purposes of consolidation. Then I come to the second part:


It seems to me that the wording there is rather difficult. I am not clear, as it is worded, whether the emphasis is on the word "Petition," or on the word "Bill." If it is on the word "Petition," and it means "any Petition seeking to alter the law," I could understand it, but if the emphasis is on the word "Bill," it seems to contradict the first part of the Motion.


There is a conceivable cause for misunderstanding here, and I was coming to that. I should have no objection, if the hon. Gentlemen wants to move an Amendment, to accept it. I cannot go through the whole question of the North Metropolitan Supply Company, but if that Bill seeks to change the law, or can be alleged to seek to change the law, my hon. Friend's local authority will not be debarred from asking for a locus, and appearing before the Court of Referees as they can to-day. On the other hand, if they think it does not change the law, I am quite sure that no Court of Referees would give a locus to them now, though they would have to come and argue their case. It sometimes happens that, when a new Bill comes forward, people who have an old standing grievance with a company or an authority promoting a Bill, think that they have a chance to come in, but if that Bill does not in fact change the law, the position really, I think, will be the same, because I am certain that the Court of Referees will not give a locus in this respect. The Joint Committee will have to satisfy themselves that these Bills are really consolidating Bills and do not seek to alter the law. If I were convinced that any Bill did any more than consolidate and continue the existing law, it would be my duty to come down to the House and move, that the Order be discharged, and that the Bill be committed afresh to a Private Bill Committee in the ordinary way.


I am much obliged to the Chairman of Ways and Means for his explanation, but, as I read the Motion now, it does seem as if the emphasis can be either on the word "Petition" or on the word "Bill;" and, if it means "any such Bill," the House ought not to pass it, but if the Chairman of Ways and Means says that the wording makes it quite clear that it is the Petition which must not seek to alter the law, I have no wish to move. To make it quite clear, however, I would like to move an Amendment to insert the word "Petition" after the word "which."


I find a difficulty in accepting such an Amendment, because that would be trying to correct the grammar of the House of Lords.


It is not a matter of grammar, hut of importance, I think, in the construction of the Motion. I am a child in these matters, but it seems to me that as the Motion reads now, any Bill which seeks to alter the law cannot be petitioned against. I am quite sure that that is not the intention of the Motion, and as it is now worded, it is not only a matter of grammar, but of construing the intention of the House of Lords.


If the hon. Member will look at the two parts of the Lords Message, he will see that the construction he suggests in the latter part would be a contradiction in terms, for a Bill which seeks to alter the law would not be a Bill exclusively for consolidating existing Acts of Parliament. I do not think that there is really anything in it.

Question put, and agreed to.

So much of the Lords Message considered accordingly.

Resolved, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Resolution."—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]

Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.

Forward to