HC Deb 12 April 1934 vol 288 cc604-10

Order for Second Reading read.

10.7 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The House will not need any reminder from me of the importance of the gas industry in Great Britain. Coal is the one great raw material of which this country has such magnificent supplies, it is the mother of energy and gives us forms of energy which under modern conditions possess great utility and attractions. The gas industry had its origin in Great Britain. We were the pioneers and other countries followed suit largely with British capital. Apart from the local authorities whose capital of course cannot be mentioned, it is calculated that the capital of the industry exceeds £140,000,000 sterling, the consumption is 300,000 million cubic feet per year and there are more than 10,000,000 individual consumers. We need not worry about the history of the industry, but the gas companies originally broke up the roads in competition with each other. The nuisance of breaking up a road so constantly brought the House in the middle of the last century to allow gas companies to be formed only in limited numbers and to allot to them areas. As soon as you had gas companies formed with an area to each you had a monopoly and the system of price dividend control began to be devised.

I said gas was a convenient form of energy. One has only to think of it in comparison with solid fuel and to know of the adaptability of gas as a heat-producing method in industrial processes to which temperature control within given limits is extremely important and then think of the slow and varying combustion and difficulty of moving solid fuel to see what great disadvantages attached to the latter. Gas is an industry that supplies our needs in illumination, power and heat, carbonises large quantities of coal and produces by-products on which the well being of the country depends alike in peace and war. Why then is there any need for a Bill, and why in a session already full should it be necessary to introduce this one? Because committees which have been set up to deal with the suggestions relating to this industry have made reports, to which effect must be given, to free the industry from unnecessary handicaps in modern conditions and render flexible the supply of, gas in special circumstances. For instance, why should the slack time of the day not be used for the supply of gas to industry in a manner which would help the producer and at a price which would make it attractive to the consumer? Why should not the gas company furnish bulk supplies as the competitive fuels are able to do? Let me go through, quite shortly, some of the terms of the Measure itself, and make the position of the House in dealing with this Measure, with its 37 pages of print and large numbers of Clauses and Schedules, a simple one. Apart from one or, two points, the Bill gives effect to unanimous recommendations made in the reports of the Gas Legislation Committee appointed by the President of the Board of Trade in 1931.

The Bill divides itself up into several groups. "Capital and Renewal Funds" are all based on recommendations in the official report of the Gas Legislation Committee. Similarly powers have regularly been inserted in private Acts; it is time these powers were made general. The second group of Clauses dealing with charges is to give effect to recommendations in the second interim report of the Gas Legislation Committee, with one or two minor exceptions, that efforts should be made to extend the use of gas, and these methods of charging will help in that direction. The next group of Clauses gives effect to recommendations of the Gas Legislation Committee regarding non-statutory undertakers and certain others. There is a fourth group of Clauses providing Amendments to the Gas Regulation Act, 1920, some of which are consequential on Clauses in the last group and some assimilating the standards used in the sale of gas to that of other commercial measuring standards. There are a large number of miscellaneous provisions that have been found necessary principally as administrative measures with which, unless questions are raised, I do not think I need trouble the House at this stage in detail. They will, of course, be dealt with in Committee.

There is one matter to which some prominence should be given, and that is the question of gas referees. When the sale of gas was regulated by the Act of 1920 the measurement of heat units was not in a satisfactory position. It was necessary to place responsibility for the tests in the hands of experts, and the gas referees who had previously been responsible for testing gas in London were the appointed experts. I should like to emphasise the debt which consumers of the gas industry owe to those gentlemen who, under the appointment of the Board of Trade, have held that office for so long. Only those in connection with the work that has been done can appreciate its value, and to-day, as a result, the determination of heating value can be effected for commercial purposes with very great precision. The Bill provides an interval of five years before the office of gas referee ceases and the Board of Trade becomes the authority. There are other provisions which I think need not be mentioned in detail, but the Bill may be said to be a modernising instrument by which the needs of the industry, as shown by experience, are provided for, by which a certain elasticity is introduced into the working and machinery of gas supply and of the raising of capital by gas companies which has been found to be requisite. The legislation is brought about as the result of a committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Wrottesley, a distinguished King's Counsel and member of the Parliamentary bar, whose reports have met with nothing but praise. I think I need say nothing more than ask the House to give me a Second Reading.

10.16 p.m.


I am very glad that the Bill is going forward. I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman has the needs of the industry at heart and the industry may feel that the Bill goes some considerable way, but not necessarily all the way that they would desire. They feel, however, particularly grateful for small mercies as they are handed out. They have felt that the gas industry is more or less the Cinderella of industries. They have watched their more pampered and favoured sisters receiving gifts from the fairy godmothers, the Government Departments. Now they are very glad that some notice has been taken and that they are to receive something from the same quarters. I sincerely hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will regard with sympathy any practical matters that may be raised in Committee. In relation to charges, the Bill goes some considerable way towards the point which has been aimed at for a long time in order to give the industry an opportunity of meeting their great rivals under competitive conditions and knocking off some of the shackles which have been put upon them by legislation many years ago. The Bill, as far as it goes, is welcome, and I hope that we shall see a Measure which will redound to the credit of the Government, to the benefit of consumers and of the industry generally.

10.18 p.m.


I am sure the Bill will meet with the approval of gas under- takers. I should like to say something in respect of the miscellaneous and general provisions, because they seem as much out of date as they could possibly be and they are covered by legislation of 1871, 1847, and, I think, 1831. They contain many things which are not quite fair to the consumer. There is the question of entry on to premises, cutting off supplies and keeping appliances in repair. One point that I want particularly to mention is in Clause 18 (4). That Clause deals particularly with the cutting off of supplies. The cutting off of supplies may entail inconvenience and hardship upon consumers who to a large extent may be innocent of any misdemeanour brought against them. Power ought not to be given immediately to cut off the supply without notice being given by the undertaker that there is something in default. An opportunity ought to be given for matters to be put right before the supply is taken away. Clause 19 deals with the entry of premises, and raises the question of entering homes without authority. No authority is required by badge, uniform or anything of the kind. People are getting vary chary of persons coming to their houses and saying that they are so-and-so. These things ought to be looked into in Committee, and I have no doubt that they will be. Clause 20, paragraph (a), says that, the meter shall be deemed to have registered erroneously to the degree so found since the beginning of the quarter next preceding the date of the test. That means to say, that if a meter has gone wrong, notwithstanding the fact that an inspector has been and taken the reading of the meter, the consumer is liable to be charged the full extent of the quarter preceding that in which the test was made. That is something which requires looking into. A charge can be levied against the consumer for a period of as much as 5½ months. Although we do not desire to discuss these questions to-night we wish to give an idea of what we shall expect to be done in Committee. Sub-section (3) of Clause 21 says: Where a consumer is required by this section to keep in use any appliance, he shall at his own expense keep it in proper order and repair, and repair, renew or replace it if it is not in proper order or repair. The appliance is something which is supplied by the undertaker, but the consumer is apparently compelled to keep it in repair and to replace it if necessary. That seems to be rather harsh. The interests of the consumers must be protected. In Sub-section (7) of the same Clause it says: All undertakers shall have access at all reasonable times to any premises supplied by them with gas upon which the undertakers have reason to believe that a compressor or compressed air or extraneous gas is being used. What is a reasonable time? There ought to be some notice given by the undertakers that premises are to be visited in the belief that there is something which may be going wrong and about which they are not sure. The undertakers ought to consult the persons with whom they have to deal. I am satisfied that in the centre part of the Bill the undertakers are really being given too much power over the people to whom they supply their commodity. There ought to be a fairer balance between the two. I do not say that everything ought to go to the consumer or to the undertaker, but in this, as in many other things, the happy medium ought to be struck giving satisfaction to the consumer and to the undertaker.

10.25 p.m.


I should like briefly to comment on something which the Minister said. He said that, apart from one or two points, the Bill gave effect to the recommendations of the Gas Legislation Committee. There are one or two points to which the gas industry attach great importance, and I support the request from the hon. Member for Newport (Mr. Clarry) that when the Bill comes before the Committee the Government will sympathetically consider Amendments which will strengthen the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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