§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
I wish to speak against the Clause standing part, so that I can have some assurance from the Minister of Transport. Clause 5 deals with Special Orders made by the Electricity Commissioners and, under the Act of 1919, before they can take possession of certain land for the purpose of laying down their electric cables, they have to hold a public inquiry. That was in order that members of the public affected by the scheme could raise their objections. So far as I can gather, the procedure is altered altogether in this Clause. The Electricity Commissioners are obliged to inform those whose rights are affected under a Special Order that certain things are to be done. These people are then empowered to write to the Electricity Commissioners stating any objections they have. The Commissioners then agree to the objections or refuse them, and report to the Minister. The Minister communicates with the objectors who can again make their objections. Then absolutely the last word rests with the Minister, and it is not necessary to have a public inquiry.
On the Second Reading, the Minister made a passing reference to it in his reply, towards the end of the debate, saying that he thought that the opinion put forward by me was a misunderstanding of the Clause. He went on to say that the Clause deals with Special Orders and the electricity supply, but does not alter the procedure of the Electricity Commissioners, and enables the Minister to settle disagreements as far as he can, and to act quickly with any opposition that is left. In fact, he already can waive frivolous objections. Was he really correct in that statement? I have consulted legal authorities concerned with the drafting of Amendments and with Bills, and they certainly are of the opinion that this will take away from those who object the right to have an inquiry. Let me give a case in which a grave injustice would have been done, where the Electricity Commissioners wanted to carry their lines over a certain estate. It had been decided by the owners to lay out 2363 the estate for building purposes, making it an ideal residential district connected with the town which I represent. They sent forward their objections, and, first of all, the Commissioners would not take any notice, but they had power to demand an inquiry, and it was demanded. The Minister sent down his inspectors. Then, when the report was made, and it was shown how the district would be altogether spoiled by laying these overhead lines, it was decided that an alternative scheme must be put forward. The Commissioners did find an alternative route and the matter was at an end.
Under this particular procedure, those persons would have had no right to an inquiry and no inspector would have been sent down, and the Minister, on the evidence put forward by the Commissioners, would have overruled objections by anyone else. It may be said that if we are to have these inquiries there will be possibly some delay. I do not think so. If the Minister employs for the time being one or two inspectors to deal with these cases, the delay at present is due to the fact that you have a limited number of inspectors, and it is a question of waiting until they can get round to the various districts. If you want to hasten procedure, you should appoint more inspectors.
§ Mr. HERBERT MORRISON
The hon. Member, I think, is mistaken as to the change which will be effected. In fact, there is no change in the existing procedure up to the point the Order reaches the Minister of Transport for the purposes of confirmation. All the rights of the objectors are preserved up to that point. But there is a class of unopposed special orders that are made after considering in writing various objections made by the Commissioners, and they then become unopposed special orders, but the Minister, nevertheless, is bound to delay confirming the Order 21 days, for the receipt of objections to the confirmation. After the Minister has done that, it has to be confirmed by the two Houses, and they are not always confirmed automatically. I believe that in their Lordships' House they allow still more elaborate procedure, and that from the beginning to the end they can take from 15 to 18 months to get through. I really think that is an 2364 indefensible state of affairs, particularly where no great point of contention is involved.
In the great majority of cases, as the result of consideration of objections by the Electricity Commissioners, they are not opposed. Out of 57 orders made last year, 48 were not opposed, and, in such cases, application to publish intention to confirm and receive objections is a needless waste of time. Sometimes, as in the case in which one of the Members of the Liberal party is interested, it will tipple over into the end of the Parliamentary Session, and we cannot confirm until we come back in October. There are only four cases where the Minister will be able to dispense with this procedure. First, where there are no objections. Secondly, there is the case where objections have been withdrawn. There will be no objection to the power we take in that respect. Thirdly, there are cases where outstanding objections appear to the Minister to be frivolous. This is continuing an existing state of the law and, if altered, we should be making the position worse from the point of view of time. The fourth case is where the real change occurs, where any outstanding objection appears to have been removed by Amendments made by order of the Commissioners. That is the long and the short of the provisions. It is not a particularly revolutionary thing. It would not turn the electrical world upside down and enable it even now to do things as quickly as we would like. It is useful speeding up, and I hope that the House will give us this Clause.