HC Deb 02 February 1934 vol 285 cc689-728

Order for Second Reading read.

11.5 a.m.


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

Although a Bill of this kind is perhaps more familiarly dealt with when introduced as private legislation, none the less this is a public Bill. It is introduced because of the very considerable increase that there has been in the supply of electricity, and, consequently, in the user of electricity. In other words, legislation, if I may say so without any disrespect, has not kept pace with the requirements of the various suppliers of electricity. Indeed, at the moment it is necessary for people seeking statutory powers for the purpose of laying electric wires and other matters of that kind to apply for very extensive powers, and that process is always going on. People apply for statutory powers in private Bills, and they obtain those statutory powers only after careful examination in various committees. Ultimately a series of precedents is evolved, so that those who apply at a later date obtain more extensive powers than those who have applied at a previous date. If the present Bill should receive favourable consideration at the hands of the House, it will undoubtedly shorten the work that has to be done when various provisions and Orders are applied for in private legislation. In a word, it may be said that the main object of the Bill is to avoid what might be called piecemeal applications to the Legislature for statutory powers. In these circumstances, having regard to the lapse of time since any Electricity Bill of any size was passed, the present Bill has been introduced in order to bring the legislation up to date.

There is a precedent—indeed, there are many—for introducing legislation of this kind, because a great many Acts of Parliament of general importance at the present moment had their origin in one or more private Acts of Parliament. The powers given in private Acts were found to be very useful and to effect a saving of public time and money, and therefore general Acts have been passed incorporating those private Acts. During the 40's of last century a number of Acts of Parliament were passed with the object of providing facilities similar to those provided by this Bill. For example, compulsory powers were given to people for the purchase of land in connection with canals, roads, and railways. In course of time those compulsory powers became practically stereotyped in their form, and they consequently led to the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act, 1845, which has been, and still is, a very useful Act and forms the foundation of the existing law on that subject. The same thing happened in the case of the Companies Clauses Act and the Railway Clauses Act, stereotyped forms that had appeared in private legislation having there found their place in public Acts. In 1847 there was the Gas Works Clauses Act, and in 1882 the Electric Lighting Act. These and various other Acts—the Waterworks Clauses Act, the Commissioners Clauses Act, the Markets and Fairs Act, the Towns Improvements Clauses Acts, and so on—were passed on precedents in private legislation which had been already passed.

Before the passing of these Acts it was necessary to put into private Acts Clauses incorporating powers conferred in various other Acts. That is confusing and certainly inconvenient, leading to waste of the time of the House, of local authorities, and of those who have to work with these Acts of Parliament. An even closer analogy is to be found in public health legislation. Here again, when local authorities have promoted private Bills, parts of those Bills have been found to be of general public utility and have been incorporated in public Acts for general application throughout the country. This can be said of the first Public Health Act of 1848, which with some amendment led to the Public Health Act, 1875, and the Public Health Act, 1925. It will perhaps be not without point to refer to some observations upon private Bills which were made by the Select Committee on Private Bills in 1930, and, with the leave of the House, I should like to read a short extract from that Committee's Report, which was published in July, 1930. Dealing with the subject of the Public Health Acts, the Committee said: There is one obvious way in which the bulk of local legislation might be diminished, and that is to reduce the gap between local and general legislation, so that powers, granted by Parliament as a matter of course in local Acts, might be embodied in the general law and made of general application. The last Amendment of the Public Health Act took place in 1925, but there is still more that needs to be carried out. The Ministry of Health stated in their Memorandum that, owing to the provisions as to borrowing in the Public Health Act, 1875, not being up-to-date, it was necessary, in the case of a private Act in 1929, to incorporate no less than 18 Clauses for this purpose. There is a universal desire for more frequent amendments of the Public Health Acts, and the only real difficulty is for the Government of the day, on account of the pressure of business, to find time for such legislation. But a Bill of this character, drafted by the appropriate Department, which is in possession of the necessary information and machinery, would only make general the provisions which have been allowed over a period of years in numerous local Acts, and if referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses in the same way as Consolidation Bills, should have an easy passage through Parliament. Your Committee recommend that amending legislation of this kind should be passed approximately every five years. As regards electricity supply, the public legislation concerned is to be found in the Electricity (Supply) Acts, 1882 to 1933, together with the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, 1899, the Schedule of which contains provisions which are in nearly every special Act or Order. The Electricity (Supply) Acts apply only to undertakings, that is to say, local authorities, companies, statutorily authorised persons, or persons authorised by Orders. When it is realised that the first public Act relating to the supply of electricity was passed in 1882, it is not difficult to see that much legislation has been applied in that time which is now out of date because of the enormous increase in the use and value of electricity. The powers in that Act, and, indeed, in many of these Acts, are not applicable to and not suitable for the greater demands of to-day. The changed conditions have required at various times amending Acts. The Act of 1882 was amended by an Act of 1888, and again in 1909, 1919, 1922, 1926, 1928 and 1933. The last two Acts, however, did not effect very considerable amendments, so that the Act of 1926 is really the most recent Act which increased those powers and brought them, comparatively speaking, up-to-date.

In view of the recommendation that this should be reviewed every five years, and of the fact that some seven years have elapsed, the time is now ripe for putting into operation a further amending Act. The Bill has been carefully considered, and it has received the support and encouragement of various people who have, naturally, a very intimate and detailed knowledge of the subject. It has the approval of the Electricity Commissioners, the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Association of Electric Power Companies, the Provincial Electric Supply Association of the United Kingdom, the London Electricity Supply Association, and the London and Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority. In another place a Bill in substantially the same form received some approval. The Bill is entitled a Bill to amend the Law with respect to the supply of Electricity and for other purposes connected therewith. It might have been more aptly called "the Electricity (Various Powers) Act," because its main object is to provide undertakers and suppliers of electricity with powers additional to those which they have now.

It follows precedent in the main and those precedents, naturally, have received, so far as they are taken from Acts of Parliament, the approval of Parliament. At the same time, there are Clauses for which there is no precedent. There is no precedent for Clauses 1, 2, 17, 23 and 25. With regard to the other Clauses I can, if necessary, draw attention to the private Bill which constitutes the precedent for their introduction. Clause I is to remove an anomaly owing to the fact that in 1882 there were no county councils. Roads are repairable by highway authorities, and the repairing of highways by county councils, which were not considered to be highway authorities, led to difficulties, and roads could not be broken up. Clause 2 again gives power to break up private streets. Undertakers have power to break up private streets subject to notice and plans approved by the Ministry, but if a street is not repairable by a local authority, consent has to be obtained. As streets are not repairable by the highway authorities until they are dedicated, people seeking to lay electric wires are unable to do so except by getting consent or going to a great deal of trouble and expense. If the Bill is passed in its present form, electrical authorities can lay their wires although the streets may not be repairable by the local authority. Needless to say, there are proper safeguards for compensation, and various provisions with regard to restoring the streets after the wires have been laid. The position is very analogous to that of gas and water companies under the Public Health Act, 1925, Section 80, which in itself is not applicable to electricity. The remaining Clauses have in the main precedents for them. They have only been altered to bring them into a suitable form for legislation in a public Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) has raised a point about the power to refuse to supply electricity on the ground that by-laws have not been complied with. My hon. Friend's point is that there should be power to inspect a building in course of erection. That suggestion seems a very logical one. Indeed, there seems some absurdity in watching a person put up a building and, when he has done it, saying, "This, that and the other does not comply with the by-laws, and we will not supply you with current." It would be better for all concerned if the power of inspection were to be given, so that in the course of a building being erected there should be a general power to inspect the wiring and warn people that such and such alterations would be advisable. No doubt, any reasonable person would be only too glad to meet those objections. If my hon. and gallant Friend will raise the question in Committee, a small Amendment might be put in to meet the point.

Another question has been raised as to whether there should be an independent tribunal to decide any disputes as to whether by-laws were complied with or not. The suggestion has been made that any such dispute between a supplier and a consumer should be referred to an association consisting of people who were working in the business and were familiar with it. I do not see my way to accept that suggestion. The Electricity Commissioners have pointed out that there are already in the Bill, as drawn, ample safeguards to meet any such question if it should arise, and that, before by-laws can come into operation, they have to be approved, and that a dispute as to whether they have been complied with would go to an electric inspector. An electric inspector is not a mechanical robot, but a human being, an indepen- dent person of high technical qualifications who may be relied upon to decide whether by-laws have or have not been complied with.

11.25 a.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

I have the honour of seconding this Bill which has been so ably proposed by my hon. and learned Friend. He has probably sufficiently sketched to the House the history of the Bill and the necessities for it, and has pointed out the very important fact that, as legislation which deals with electricity is somewhat old, certain cases have arisen which the law does not cover. I do not propose at this point to try to give any further general outline as to why the Bill is advisable, but another point of great importance is the fact that the Bill is the outcome of deliberations which have taken place over a long period between people who have been engaged in supplying electricity, both local authorities and private companies, who are called undertakers, and people who during that time have been in the Government. Therefore, the House can take it that the Clauses of the Bill have only been put in after very careful scrutiny and after a great deal of trouble has been taken to see that they do in fact effect what they purport to effect. Although I do not wish to bore the House by going through all the Clauses, at the same time, possibly a useful purpose would be served if I were to touch generally on the actual Clauses of the Bill.

On looking into the Bill for many weary hours I have come to the conclusion that the Clauses may properly be divided into three classes. First, there are such Clauses as deal with existing anomalies; secondly, such Clauses as are required by the undertakers of electricity for more properly carrying on their work; and, thirdly, certain provisions which, in view of modern conditions, are necessary for their proper protection. Dealing first with the question of anomalies, I think the House will readily understand that the first two Clauses with which the proposer has so ably dealt constitute a particularly good instance. I was going to explain those provisions, but they have been so fully explained that it is not necessary for me to do so, but, if the House will look at Clause 5, I think that hon. Members will come to the conclusion that it deals with an anomaly which it is right and proper should be put right. They will see that previously, although current might be cut off if the cost of it had not been paid, it did not apply actually to the cost of the fittings. It seems to be a peculiar anomaly that, although statutory powers were given by the Act of 1882 for undertakers to cut off supplies where payment had to be made for the current itself, as far as another important matter is concerned, that is to say, fixtures, and hire or hire purchase of fittings, they have no power, if the money is not forthcoming, to cut off the supply. This Clause endeavours to effect that purpose, and possibly the House will agree that it is an anomaly and that it is necessary that the undertakers should have that power.

Under Clause 6 the cost of cutting off supplies may be recoverable if there is no payment. It so happens, the world being what it is, and men not being quite as perfect as they might be that current which is supposed to be used in one way is used in another way. Sometimes current which is supposed to be used for power is used for lighting, and in that case there is no power under which the undertakers can take steps to prevent it by cutting off the supply. This Clause gives power to the undertakers to remedy a thing of that kind. In regard to Clause 7, a very peculiar anomaly has arisen. Although any money which may be due for the actual supply of power may be recovered in the police court, if a person who uses power thinks fit for some reason not to pay for the fixtures and fittings, it is necessary for an undertaker to go a county court. Probably the House will agree that there is no reason at all why, if the money can be recovered for actual supply, the second rule should not also apply to the hire of fixtures and fittings which, after all are a very essential part of the service. Under the same heading there are two other Clauses. It is rather peculiar that until the actual passing of this Bill no power is given to undertakers to enter premises to see whether there has been any contravention of Acts or Orders relating to the undertaking. I know that this House is properly very jealous of the rights of people so far as their private liberties are concerned, nevertheless dangers may arise where rules and regulations are not complied with, and Clause 8 seeks to give safety in that respect by allowing inspection to take place in certain cases.

There is another peculiar anomaly which the Bill seeks to remedy, and it is dealt with in Clause 12. The best illustration of the necessity of this Clause can be put as follows. Sometimes when people who are supplying electricity get into a certain area a rather peculiar or silly position arises. Although the houses are within the area, it turns out that the street abutting on them is outside the area. Therefore, unfortunately, those who are supplying electric light or power are unable to put the light or power in those houses because they are unable to break up the street which abuts upon them. That seems anomalous, to put it at its lowest. Undertakers are very much handicapped by this lack of power to break up the road, and this Clause seeks to deal with the anomaly.

The second heading deals with powers which are necessary owing to modern conditions. It is almost impossible for modern Acts to keep up with the progress of electricity. In these circumstances, from time to time it turns out that the electricity undertakers have not the powers which they reasonably might have in order effectually to carry out their business, and the Clauses with which I am about to deal seek to give power where the lack of that power at the present time is preventing the undertakers from performing their duties. Clause 9 deals with transformers. It has been found in many cases that it is extremely useful where there is a transformer on a building to use it for other tenements or for parts of that building, but as the law now stands there is no such power. It has been thought by those responsible for this Bill that powers should be given to undertakers so that they can use transformers in the way I have mentioned, without having to come to this House to get statutory powers.

Clause 10 deals with the acquisition of land for sub-stations. There are powers which enable people engaged in supplying electricity to buy land for substations, but it has been found in practice that the steps that have to be taken are unreasonably expensive, and this has led to difficulties and delay. At the present time before it is possible to buy land an application has to be made to the Electricity Commissioners, and I am sure that every hon. Member who knows what it means to deal with Government Departments and the powers-that-be will appreciate that there is sometimes a little delay. It is necessary, in the first place, to apply to the Electricity Commissioners and then an Order has to be made, and that Order has to be confirmed by both Houses. In these circumstances, it would probably appear to the House to be reasonable that greater facilities should be given, and this Clause proposes to cut out the long procedure that I have mentioned and to give power to the undertakers to get their land subject, of course, to the confirmation, I think, of the House of Commons or, alternatively, of the Electricity Commissioners. I am not quite certain on that point.

The same thing applies so far as dwelling-houses are concerned. Undertakers go to a district for the purpose of carrying on their job of supplying power and electricity, and they often find that at a moment's notice they want somewhere to house their employés. The position of the law as it now stands is that it is often impossible to get that accommodation within a comparatively reasonable time, and Clause 11 deals with that point. Clause 13 relates to brackets. There is no statutory power to attach brackets to buildings where electric light or power is to be supplied. That can only be done under statutory power and even then it is necessary to get the consent of the owners, and other formalities are also necessary. In many cases very unsightly electric light posts are erected. In the small village where I live electricity has recently been brought and, although the electricity is very useful, I do not hesitate to say that the electric post put up is exceedingly unsightly. In many cases it would be possible for attachments to be placed upon buildings if better facilities were afforded. We propose that before that can be done the person who owns the building must give his consent, but that consent must not be unreasonably withheld.

There is no power at the present time for undertakers to make bylaws for the safety of the public, except in the case of local authorities who are undertakers. There is no power, except in the case of local authorities, for the undertakers to make any rules or regulations to secure the safety of the premises where power or light is supplied. Although power is given to the local authorities, so far as they are concerned, for a reason which I do not understand, no such orders have ever been made. I am sure the House will realise that it is essential that when electricity is being put into a house there should be safety from fire and other dangers, and those who are responsible for the introduction of the Bill are of the opinion that the undertakers should have the power to make bylaws or rules and regulations which will ensure safety so far as the building is concerned. Such rules or regulations would have to be approved by Parliament.

Lastly, I should like to deal with certain Clauses which seek to give adequate protection to undertakers in view of the different circumstances in which they now find themselves compared with the time when previous legislation was passed. Clause 3 deals with the penalty for using for lighting purposes electricity which is supplied for power. I am told that sometimes when electricity is supplied purely for the purpose of power, people manage to get light in the house from the same source.


And they get music nowadays.


Yes, music as well. It is possible, apparently, to get both music and light and be in the fortunate position of not having to pay specially for it. I suppose we are all liable to get something for nothing if we possibly can, but as fair-minded people we must appreciate that the other side are perfectly entitled to have protection, and Clause 3 gives protection in cases of that sort. Clauses 16 and 17 are not quite new. In another place these two Clauses were one and have now been made into separate Clauses, because the cases are rather different and the penalties are also different. One Clause seeks to meet the case of someone who may play a prank. It was thought that possibly some small boy, with the human weakness which is characteristic of a boy, when he saw an electric fitting might be inclined to see how it was made and to pull it to pieces. It is to be hoped that if and when he tries to do that he will not be electrocuted. At any rate, it is merely a boy's prank and, therefore, the penalty is small.

Clause 17 deals with a much more serious matter. It deals with the case where someone wilfully and wantonly interferes with the electric light for the purpose of preventing it being used at all; and Clause 18 prevents its improper use. Clause 22 deals with the case of the seals. I am told that this provision is very necessary because some people when they have electricity for power, and it is cut off make rather a short cut in order to get a little something for nothing again. I am told that what they do is to break the seal. There is usually a fuse box, whatever that may be, and I understand that sometimes they take an instrument, break the seal and insert a new fuse, with the result that they succeed in getting something for nothing. If, however, they are not so villainous as that I am told that if they want they can put in a larger fuse with the result that they get a larger amount of light than that to which they are entitled. [AN HON. MEMBER: "And set the house on fire."] As an hon. Member says, they may set their house on fire; sometimes that is an extremely useful thing nowadays.

There are two or three other Clauses which in the submission of those responsible for the Bill are essential for the protection of the undertakers. I thank the House most sincerely for their indulgence in listening to me. I am afraid that I have been somewhat dull, but a Bill of this sort is difficult to explain unless you get down to brass tacks. I am certain that hon. Members, when they realise the object of the Measure, the care that has been taken to see that every safeguard is provided, and the necessity there is for these provisions will be good enough to give it a Second reading.

11.53 a.m.


I desire to support the Bill in the somewhat unusual guise for me of an undertaker, my ordinary job being of a very different kind. The position I take up in this connection is that of a director of a company which supplies the progressive community of Welwyn Garden City, which has now a population of about 10,000, increasing steadily year by year. They consider that it is necessary to have these powers in order to support their actions. The policy of those responsible for the Welwyn Garden City is to proceed as far as possible without statutory powers and by common agreement. There is a great deal of co-operation between the different officials in the community and, therefore, it is opposed to the whole policy of the community to ask for powers, or support any proposals for statutory powers, which are in any way compulsory in cases where compulsion is unnecessary. It is only to secure the proper carrying out of proposals which have already received recognition in this House that the company with which I am associated would wish to support further proposals. The proper way of advancing any public supply of any commodity is that power should only be given as is found necessary in actual operation. Solvitur ambulando is the proper way of working the supply of a public utility commodity such as this. Compulsory powers should be given only where they are necessary. At the same time, in the case of a commodity such as this, of wide application and comparatively novel in this country, we have to be practical in asking only for such powers as are necessary.

It may be said by some that it would be better to proceed in a more leisurely way and at long intervals, and perhaps by Government legislation rather than by private Members' legislation, but I do not think that that is applicable in such a case as this. This is pre-eminently a case in which it is desirable that the public utility companies, private concerns under strict regulations, should themselves take the initiative through private Members' legislation, and bring forward proposals such as these which can be properly submitted to the investigation of this House and be allowed to advance step by step, and not wait for a more general measure of advance under compulsory powers. Advances have been made in the last few years, advances which have been very great both in requirements and in invention, and they do require such a measure as this. In that sense, taking my own Board as typical of the smaller companies supplying electricity, I support the Bill.

The Bill on the whole is good and the general powers that are proposed to be given are to the advantage of development, especially where there is a great deal of new housing and therefore a great deal of development in electricity sup- plies. Reference has been made to Clause 20. I do not want to go into details now, but I put this point as essential in supporting the Bill. In Clause 20 proposals are made for by-laws as to wires, apparatus and fittings. It is obvious that such by-laws must be wide enough to include what is required, but not too wide. It is also obviously necessary that they should be effective. My contention is that Clause 20 as it stands is nugatory for the purpose, because the undertakers may for the purpose of preventing fire or injury to any building make these by-laws, and the by-laws are limited in certain respects to which I wish to draw attention.

I maintain that Clause 20 can be made effective only if Clause 8 is also effective. Clause 8 definitely refers to the powers of entry upon premises. It says that the powers conferred by the Electric Lighting Act of 1882 of entering upon premises shall extend in certain respects. My contention is that those respects are not sufficient and that amendment of the Clause is necessary. Let me give an actual instance. We had a case recently in Welwyn Garden City. The officials of our public utility electric supply company observed some bad workmanship being undertaken in an important building. The building was being wired by an outside firm. The work that is going on in the Garden City is rather common property and there is a great deal of give-and-take about the place, and our officials are naturally on the look-out for any work which is eventually to come before them, and they take note of what is going on in the building line. In this case our mains engineer directed the attention of the foreman in charge of this work to what was being done, with the idea of saving the contractor possible trouble later.

Obviously an electricity supply company can only be allowed to refuse to supply in circumstances that are laid down in statutory regulations. It is helpful to the contractor to be told in advance that he is undertaking certain work in a way that will necessitate such refusal. Our mains engineer in a friendly way pointed this out to the contractor's representative on the spot. But the outside man was not accustomed to dealing in that kind of way; he was accustomed simply to carrying out his orders and let- ting his chief suffer if necessary. The only reward of the mains engineer was to be told to mind his own business, and he was ordered off the premises. What is the result? We have not yet reached it. By friendly representations in other ways the contractor will probably take the hint and eventually there may not be the trouble that we foresaw. But that sort of thing would not apply generally, and we therefore want power to go into a building during its erection in order that we may see whether the conditions on which we shall base our statutory right to supply or to refuse supply are being properly carried out.

Let us look into the actual regulations that apply in this case. The Bill only allows us to enter any premises to which electricity "is or has been supplied by them, whether for the time being occupied or not." Therefore our officials can go in as soon as the house is finished, and before it is occupied, but not until it is finished and not until the electricity "is or has been supplied". The regulations are quite definite as to what they have to do. For instance— The undertakers shall not be compelled to give a supply of energy to any consumer unless they are reasonably satisfied, firstly, that all conductors and apparatus are sufficient in size and power for the purpose for which the supply of energy is to be used; secondly, that every distinct circuit is protected against excess energy by means of a suitable fusible cut-out or other automatic circuit breaker of adequate rupturing capacity and suitably located. All these matters are implicit in the actual building and the house. Thirdly, that every electric motor will be controlled by an efficient switch or switches for starting or stopping. The next regulation says that the undertakers shall not be compelled to supply unless satisfied that the supply terminals are— arranged in separate pairs in such a manner that so far as is reasonably practicable there shall be no danger of shock at medium voltage. Again, that the wiring connected to separate pairs of supply terminals is kept separate and distinct. Then there is a regulation that the whole apparatus must be sufficiently connected with earth and so on. All these are matters of importance. Again, it is required that the consumers' wiring should be completely enclosed in a strong metal casing or sheath which is electrically continuous and that the supply of energy should be controlled by means of an efficient cutoff switch, placed in such a position as to be readily accessible.

These are all points concerned with the actual building of the house, and that does not mean the mere construction of the walls, but includes the plastering. At present it is only when the connections have been made and the wiring has been completed and plastered in, that the application comes to the undertakers to supply electricity. How can they tell whether there is a leakage in that wiring or not? How can they tell whether these regulations as to a proper sheath and a proper allocation of the different points and so forth have been observed until they are supplying the electricity and are able then to find out, by degrees, whether there is any leakage or not by methods of testing? Eventually they would ascertain whether there was a leakage or not but meanwhile there might be an accident and the leakage might be the cause of fire. When they discover a leakage they have to make good their case. They may perhaps even have to take it to a court of law and the contractor has to undo the plastering and a great deal of the other work that he has done, before the matter can be put right.

One or two simple Amendments are required in this Bill, but I think I have shown the House that, as matters stand, the power of entry after the electricity has been supplied, and the power of refusal at a later stage are quite useless. There should be further powers as to entry upon premises under such conditions as may be decided in Committee. There should be power of entry into premises in course of construction, in order to ascertain whether the wiring and fitting are being properly installed. That is necessary in order that we may get the most efficient and in the end the most economical construction, and save waste in the house as well as providing safeguard against accidents. If the points which I have mentioned are borne in mind in Committee upstairs then under those conditions, but only under those conditions, my company, and I take it other companies, will be prepared to give their hearty support to the Second Reading of the Bill.

12.9 p.m.


In the whole of this Debate so far, there has not been a single mention of the consumer. Throughout, it has been a debate about the position of those who supply electricity.


Except for the one reference to economy.


Surely there are two sides to this question. The hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) said something about economical working, but he did not develop that point. He just mentioned it and passed on, and it is quite evident that in the view of some hon. Members, only the suppliers are to be given any real consideration or any advantage. The speeches which we have heard seem to be directed more towards the development of particular companies and suppliers of electricity than anything else. The hon. and learned Member who moved the Second Reading of the Bill, made a very good speech. He reviewed the Acts already in operation, and I think his statement showed that a consolidation Bill is necessary. But while we are not going to take any exception to the Second Reading of this Bill, there are many points on which we propose to put down Amendments, if the Bill goes to Committee. Many of the Clauses of the Bill are not satisfactory to us because we do not think they comply with that equality between the parties concerned which ought, to obtain, or that consideration to the consumer which ought to be given by the supplier.

I must admit that I do not know much about the question of electricity, and I may be wrong in some of my arguments, but if I am shown to be wrong, I am always ready to try to put myself right. Although this Bill has, shall I say, the blessing of many great organisations such as the Municipal Corporation Association, we in this House are compelled to give full and fair consideration to all points which directly affect the interests either of the selling company, the consumers, or the community as a whole. To begin with, I would point out that Clause 1 which gives power to suppliers to break up private streets reverses the provision of the Electric Lighting Act, 1882, which definitely states that electricity undertakers may not break up streets, not repairable by the local authority, without the local authority's consent. This Bill confers this power upon undertakers, on the application of owners or occupiers of premises abutting upon undedicated streets. Does that mean that if a street is not dedicated it is taken as belonging to the property owners, and that the undertakers can break it up without the consent of the local authority, on the application of tenants in that particular neighbourhood?

Then there is nothing in Clause 1 as to laying dawn the road again after it has been broken up by the undertakers. There is no provision requiring that it shall be laid down to the satisfaction of either the local authority, or the owners or occupiers of property near it, nor is it stated who is to be the judge as to whether a road has been left in a proper condition or not. These matters should not be left entirely to the undertakers. In Clause 3, Sub-section (2), powers are to be taken in regard to the misuse of electrical power. I think the penalties laid down in this Clause are too heavy, particularly for small consumers. It is true they are said to be maximum penalties, but a fine of £5 and of 40s. for every day on which an offence is committed after conviction seems to impose a penalty which is in excess of the offence. People of course ought not to misuse electricity, but the penalty ought to be within the competence of the consumers.

Clause 4 deals with the supply of electricity by agreement. I understand that undertakers may be and are required to supply electricity within the meaning of paragraph 30 of the Schedule to the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, 1899. I do not know whether there have been any subsequent orders or regulations altering that Schedule. Paragraph 30 of it states that undertakers failing to supply energy to any owner or occupier, to whom they may be and are required to supply energy, shall be liable in respect of each default to a penalty not exceeding 40s. for each day on which the default occurs. If that provision has not already been altered, this Clause is going to alter it, because Sub-section (I) provides if the undertakers fail to supply electricity to such persons they shall not be liable for any damages occasioned to such persons, by reason of such failure unless the failure is caused by, or in consequent of the wilful neglect or default of the undertakers. Who is going to be the judge of "wilful neglect"? Is it to be where a supplier has failed in his contract or undertaking with the consumer? "Wilful neglect" ought really to be defined by some competent person or competent authority, and I am sure that that could be done. It appears to be a one-sided matter if everything is to be left entirely at the discretion of the undertakers. In Clause 5 there is a question which has been mentioned by others this morning as to the power to cut off supplies when charges have not been wholly paid by the consumer for energy or for apparatus or fittings supplied on hire purchase terms. It is quite new to include the cost of fittings, which are quite a separate thing.


It is not quite accurate to say that that is new, because it is already in Section 23 of the Oxford Corporation Act, 1933.


I am not referring to what is in a private Act, but to whether it has been provided in a public Act. A private Act of a city or corporation cannot be looked upon as being the law of the land. It is something specifically defined for the benefit of that particular area, and I am confirmed in what I have said that these things ought to be treated separately from every point of view, and ought not to be looked upon as one charge. Also in Clause 6 there is power to charge the consumer for the cost of cutting off supplies. If people are not fulfilling their contract, I suppose you are right in cutting off supplies, but I am sure that in Clause 6 something is being introduced which is not in common practice. The undertakers determine that a consumer's supply shall be cut off, and they send their inspector or workman to cut it off, afterwards sending in a bill for the cost of the work. It is like a trader sending in a bill for a debt and charging the cost of the postage. I think that the cost ought to be borne by the undertakers, because the consumer is not asking the undertakers to cut off the supply.

These are only one or two points which probably will have to be dealt with in Committee. Then Clause 7 gives power to recover summarily as a civil debt any sum less than £20. Why £20? Does that mean that the small consumer is to be singled out for different treatment? A small consumer may be in debt for a sum of £5, £10 or £15, but a large consumer may owe £50, £60 or £70, and the same power, according to this Bill, is not given to prosecute if the amount is over £20. Is this provision definitely put in, in order to penalise the small consumer?


It is the very reverse. The object of putting that in is to avoid taking two sets of proceedings against the small consumer, so that he may have the whole case dealt with in a court of summary jurisdiction.


I am quite satisfied with the reply of the hon. Gentleman, because he understands the law better than I do. In Clause 8, power of entry is given. That has been mentioned also, I believe, by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle). It is rather a peculiar thing, because everyone looks upon their own home as their own property, at least as long as they are paying rent for it, and it is not reasonable for any inspector or person employed by the undertakers to insist upon a right of entry and inspection without proper notice being given. There is nothing in Clause 8 to say that an inspector must give notice if he wants to inspect an inhabited property. Under Sub-section (3), 48 hours' notice has to be given where property is unoccupied. Why should they have power to demand an entrance to a house to inspect the building or anything else without giving due and fair notice to the tenant? Why should the circumstances of occupation not be taken into consideration?


There is no tenant when the house is unoccupied.


I am speaking about houses when people are living there. Surely they are entitled to the privacy of their own homes, unless they are given proper notice asking for inspection. In Sub-section (3)we find that if the premises are unoccupied, not less than 48 hours' notice must be given. That is reasonable, provided every effort has been made to find who is really the owner. Then, in Sub-section (4), if immediate admission is refused to any officer of the undertakers, or he is hindered from exercising such powers, a person may be liable to very heavy penalties. Why should the undertakers have a right to insist upon going into private homes, and persons who refuse them admittance be subject to very heavy penalties? These are points which will be raised in Committee, and we are hoping to move several Amendments to the Bill as it now stands, because we do not consider it quite reasonable from the points of view to which I have referred. Then Sub-section (5) of Clause 8 says that the provisions of the Clause shall only apply to dwelling-houses. Why this differentiation? Is it intended to penalise the small consumer or the poorer section of the people who use electricity?


I want to help the hon. Member. One very much appreciates that a man's house is his castle, and therefore it is necessary to take some steps to see that a tenant or owner is protected; but the purpose of this Clause is to deal with cases of emergency. Cases may arise where, perhaps, there is a fuse or something of that sort which might possibly set the house on fire, in which circumstances it would be, obviously, impossible to give 48 hours' notice.


I can understand that, but I have never known anybody who would not give way in case of emergency or who would rather see their house burnt down. If there was any emergency, I am sure that nobody would stand in the way of an immediate entry by anyone who was going to help in the difficulty to be faced. These are some of the points with which we want something done, because in some cases the penalties are too heavy. In Sub-section (4), for instance, the penalty is to be a matter of £5, and 20s. for every day on which the offence is committed after conviction. Clause 10 deals with the acquisition of land for sub-stations, and I agree that they must have land, but there are powers and opportunities for getting land under present Acts of Parliament. There is a provision in Sub-section (1) as follows: Provided that the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act, 1919, shall not be incorporated with any order made under the provisions of this section except in the case of an order made by a local authority. Why the word "not"? Is it in order to give some further power to suppliers or undertakers to get land by easier methods? I am sure that the opportunities now open for the acquisition of land that is proved to be necessary are numerous and not very difficult to operate.


It is only in the case of local authorities that they have these powers, not in the case of private companies.


Why should private companies have them?


Private companies are not given the powers.


In Clause 12 power is given to break up a street for the whole width of the street, and again nothing is said about relaying the street to the satisfaction of any authority or owner. I think that is giving the undertakers far too much power. It is a kind of home rule to do what they think right and proper without consultation, agreement, or understanding with other people. Clause 13 deals with the attachment of brackets, and so on, to buildings and bridges. I had to deal with this question a very great number of years ago, because I happened to own the house in which I lived at that time and they required to put a bracket on the chimney stack of my house. I took objection, because to me it was obnoxious; I did not like it. I thought it was not only defacement of the property, but something which I would not allow if I could avoid it. However, I had to yield to the powers that be. I feel that a large number of people are like myself and do not want these attachments to their houses, and if they do not want them, they ought not to be compelled to have them, because there are other means whereby wires can be carried, without imposing a nuisance, or an eyesore on persons owning property in order to meet the requirements of an undertaking.

It is never impossible to find a second way out of the difficulty, and I think these people ought to have the right to say that they shall not have what they believe to be unsightly, or it might even be dangerous, fixtures attached to their property. If it is neither unsightly nor dangerous, it may certainly be distasteful to the property owner, and I hope something may be done in this regard. We are not going to vote against the Second Reading of the Bill, but, as I say, we reserve to ourselves the right to put down Amendments in Committee, because I feel that the Bill as it stands is one-sided and ought to be given further consideration in the interests of the consumers, of the local authorities, and of the community as a whole.

12.30 p.m.


I approach this Bill from the point of view of the private individual who is a little bit afraid of monopolies. The House has heard already that nearly every one of the powers asked for in the Bill has been granted, either to a public authority or a private distributing company, in the Committee rooms upstairs, no doubt after very careful and, it must be added, very costly inquiry, but I think the time has come when the House of Commons should have an opportunity of taking a bird's-eye view of the whole of these powers that are creeping into, private Acts of Parliament, so as to be able to see whether the course of these various powers is such as to interfere unduly with the rights, and not the liberties, but the pockets of private citizens. For that reason, I was very glad to hear the hon. Member who spoke last say that his party would not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, because this, to my mind, is eminently a Bill to be dealt with in Committee upstairs, and there is no doublt that the promoter of the Bill will be willing to listen to any reasonable requests that are put forward for amendment in the direction of protecting the private citizen.

There is no doubt that the Bill is backed by an immense amount of authority. It has already been stated that the Electricity Commissioners have given it very careful consideration and, I believe, taking it all along the line, their approbation. I do not think it is out of order to say that in another place it has gone through the whole of its stages after extraordinarily careful examination, so that I would urge that the Bill should be allowed to go now to its Committee stage, where any objections by individuals or others can be dealt with. One point more. I think that, in view of the costliness of legislation to undertakers in having constantly to apply for one or other of these powers in Bills which they have to put forward, it is in the interests of the community as a whole and of avoiding wastage of time and expense—those who are connected with local authorities know how much time and expenditure it takes in order to carry private legislation through—the House should deal with these various powers in a comprehensive Bill like this, which will be carefully considered in Committee.

12.32 p.m.

Commander COCHRANE

I do not wish to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, but I can find absolutely no enthusiasm in its support, and my principal reason for that is that it does not deal with the one thing which, to my mind, is all-important in regard to the supply of electricity, and that is the disparity of prices in different parts of the country. I recognise that it would not be reasonable for me to oppose a Bill introduced by my hon. and learned the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Thorp) merely because he is not setting out to do something which I would have liked him to do. Therefore, I will come at once to the two Clauses in the Bill about which I want to say a word. My hon. and learned Friend gave a very impressive list of associations in support of the Bill, but I failed to detect in the list the name of any association of consumers, and it is with that in mind that I view one or two of these Clauses with some doubt. I come, first of all, to Clause 21, the title of which is, "Period of error in defective meters". This Clause deals with the case where the meter of a consumer has been in error, and it is found subsequently that the amount of the charge by the supplier to the consumer is either too high or too low; and it sets out that in such a case the adjustment is to be limited to the amount of the under or over-charge which has accrued in one quarter. I understood from the speech of my hon. and learned Friend that this was one of the Clauses for which he said there was a precedent.


It is in the words of the Worksop Act of 1933.

Commander COCHRANE

There is a difference of view between my hon. and learned Friend and myself and some other Members of the House as to whether a Section in an Act of some particular corporation is a precedent for general legislation. I cannot hold that view. Although Worksop has this power, I do not know whether it has worked there well or ill; but when it comes to saying to the whole country that where a meter, which is probably the property of the supplier and which in any case can be sealed by him, is found to be in error, and it is found that consumer has been paying too much for a period perhaps of a year or more, before the error is found, the consumer is not to be able to recover the overcharge, this is a Clause that requires careful examination. As I understand, the charge for electrical power is not always based on the figures shown on the face of the meter. Sometimes, owing to the type of agreement between the supplier and the consumer, the figures which can be read on the face of the meter have to be multiplied by a factor, which may be 1.1 or 1.5, or something of that sort. Suppose, however, that by carelessness when the meter was installed, the wrong factor was put on the face of it, and for a year the consumer pays too much for his current, he would be unable to recover the overcharge. I cannot find any justification for a suggestion of that sort.


There is a provision by which the consumer can contract out of the operation of the Clause altogether.

Commander COCHRANE

I know, but I cannot see that that is a satisfactory excuse for bad legislation. Suppose the consumer has not contracted out or does not know of the provision, that is no excuse for putting in a provision of this character. I pass to Clause 25 and I am not certain whether I have interpreted it aright or not. On the face of it, it appears to me to limit the power of Parliament to alter or revoke special orders, and to provide that in the future Parliament will only be able to do so with the agreement of the undertakers in question. I am certainly very doubtful whether it is desirable that Parliament should give up its rights in this matter in favour of the party which, after all, is the interested party in the case of a special order of this character.

12.38 p.m.


I should like to relieve the anxieties of the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Parkinson) with regard to the breaking up of roads. In Section 12 (2) of the Electric Lighting Act of 1882, he will find that the provisions of the Gas Works Clauses Act, 1847, with respect to the breaking up of streets for the purpose of laying pipes, etc., are applied. If he will consult the Gas Works Clauses Act, for which Sir Robert Peel was responsible 87 years ago, he will find in the summary of the Sections at the side, "Streets etc., broken up to be reinstated without delay." The next Section is, "Penalty for delay in reinstating streets", and in case of delay other parties may reinstate and recover the expense. The words "make good" are used. What the hon. Member desires, therefore, is already part of the law.


That does not mean that they are compelled to reinstate to the satisfaction of the local authorities.


The phrase "make good" is used.


That is only a proviso in case there is delay and other people take on the work to make good.


In Section 11 of the Act of 1847 it says they shall make good; "making good the same" are the words used, and power to put up red lamps and all the usual things with which we are familiar were provided for as long ago as 1847. I do not think, therefore, that the hon. Member need worry very much about that aspect of the matter.

My hon. and learned Friend was kind enough to ask me to put my name on this Bill. I did so with pleasure, because I thought of the days 30 years ago when I was trying to understand such things as the electro-magnetic theory when I was an engineering student. I was inclined then to believe that the lack of electrical progress in this country was due to the fact that it was so complicated and that we did not succeed technically in the way we should have succeeded. Later on, when I got into practical affairs, I found that it was not our lack of technical skill that was the trouble. The delay in progress of electricity in this country originated in the Houses of Parliament. The Act of 1882, passed by a Liberal Government, and the Act of 1888, which slightly improved the position, passed by I Conservative Government, apparantly thought that everybody who was going to risk his money in an electrical undertaking must be presumed to be a scoundrel, that it was not right to make any money, and that if he did provision must be made that within a measureable period of time somebody should come and take the undertaking away from him. This country was the pioneer, the country of Faraday, who discovered the process on which this great industry has been built up. It was the country which had the first electric undertaking—Mr. Gatti and his restaurant started the first electricity supply company, and Ferranti, running on new lines, opened up the second. In those days the idea of distributing current more than half-a-mile from the station was not dreamt of.

There was chaos and anarchy and varying systems of supply areas in this country because we were the pioneers and doing all the experimental work, but Parliament, instead of helping, very largely hindered. It was not until 1919 when the Act of that year was passed to set up the Electricity Commissioners, and also to some extent to liberate the enterprising people, that we really started to make progress. I do not know whether hon. Members realise what amazing progress has been made. If you contrast the output of units by the authorised undertakers, that is to say, those people who generate current to sell to somebody else, excluding the railway companies which generate for their own use, it will be found that the authorised undertakers in 1933 produced three times the number of units produced in 1923. It is the most amazing progress, for it was made in the main during periods of difficult trade. There was no boom throughout that period. Progress has continued during the worst time of the slump, and that progress has not been in the least assisted by the grid because that, practically speaking, has only just commenced to operate. Much of the progress has been done by municipalities, and I think even more by some of the greater private enterprises which have done the pioneering work in the rural areas.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Dumbartonshire (Commander Cochrane) wondered why the Bill did not deal with the variation in prices of electricity. I am afraid Parliament cannot deal with that. It arises out of physical conditions, conditions of density of population and a variety of factors. As anyone with any experience in electrical engineering will know, you cannot deal with this variation by Act of Parliament.

Commander COCHRANE

Parliament dealt with the penny post.


But the varying conditions in electrical supply are so great. It is true that if you could make the electrical supply industry in this country one vast monoply to supply large numbers of people at a loss, and recoup that loss by charging the other people more than they ought to be charged, you could get a flat rate throughout the country, but it would not be an equitable rate. It is manifest that if you have to carry expensive lines through thinly populated areas and tap off a supply from the grid that your minimum transformer installation will involve a capital charge of, maybe, £10,000, and in any event there will be an expensive local distributing system. It is clear, therefore, that those consumers cannot be supplied on the same terms as people living in a densely populated area. I remember the three years when I was a member of the electricity committee of a municipality. Two of us who were electrical engineers had to spend three-quarters of our time trying to explain to laymen why it was legitimate to charge different prices for what appeared to be the same thing, why the lighting rate should be different from the power rate. Such points are not quite so simple as would appear at first sight.

But we have made very great progress, and I think this Bill will help that progress. I should call it "a consumers' Bill"—quite honestly a consumers' Bill. Naturally, the companies and municipalities will gain, because anything which helps them to sell more electricity will be to their advantage, but they can only sell more if they have greater facilities and it is made easier for them to carry out their duties. Public utility undertakings require monoply powers, which are essential, up to a point, because of the vast capital expenditure involved. We must give them certain rights of interference, rights of digging up streets and rights of entry, because they are inevitable rights, and the more cheaply they can get these rights, provided the liberties of the public are protected, the better. If we impose upon every electricity supply undertaking the necessity of coming to Parliament, at great cost, to promote a private Bill, with all the expense of expert witnesses, counsel and Parliamentary agents, it is the consumer who has to pay for it in the long run. The purpose of this Bill is to relieve the consumer of those charges, and when the powers which are asked for are powers which ought to be general and not special I hold very strongly to the view that they should be incorporated in general Acts and not be sought for at all by special Acts.

I do not think this House ought to legislate on general matters by means, in the first place, of some small Clause in some private Bill which goes through without the House as a whole ever being aware of it. What happens is that four of our colleagues upstairs examine the Bill, and the fundamental issue which happens to be embodied in a particular Clause may not be apparent to them, and it goes through without anybody realising it. Then, in a few years' time, we come along with a Bill such as this, the bulk of which is good, and get Parliament to give its assent. A whole lot of things have crept through almost unnoticed in that way. I have objected as much as most people to private Bills which have incorporated some piece of general legislation. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week every one of us will be uttering the magic word "object" after prayers against Bills seeking certain powers for corporations. It is a very good thing that powers of this kind should come before the House for general review, and therefore this is a good Bill, from that point of view, because it gives us an opportunity of examining powers which have been given to this company and to the local authority.

In one sense this is obviously a committee Bill. There is no general, broad principle running through it, but it is made up of a series of committee points, and most of the speeches this morning have related to matters which will be developed when discussion in Committee arises. I would like to draw attention to one or two of those points. My hon. Friend the Member for Edge Hill (Sir J. Rutherford) who has had to leave in order to attend to another engagement, asked me to draw attention to Sub-section (2) of Clause 2, where reference is made to the roads belonging to canals. He is thinking there of canal towpaths. I am not certain whether the point he desires to raise is a sound one, but I am putting it forward at his request in order that the introducer of the Bill may have an opportunity of consulting with those with whom he is acting to ascertain whether the point is a sound one. They are perturbed about the breaking up of canal towpaths.


Negotiations on that point have been taking place for some time.


I am glad to hear that, and I will not press the point any more. I am not in a position to say whether the contentions my hon. Friend desired to urge were sound or not, but I promised that the Bill should not pass its Second Reading without me mentioning them. I have received a communication with regard to the proviso of Sub-section (1) of Clause 2. This is a somewhat technical matter to those who are not directors of electric lighting companies or members of electricity committees of local authorities. I am not one now. I understand that under the Local Government Act of 1929 the responsibility for the streets referred to in that proviso is no longer that of the local authority, that is to say, of the municipal corporation or urban district council, but of the county council. But in any event we are now contemplating streets which do not belong to a local authority but to private individuals or companies or co-operative societies or other bodies of that kind, and it does seem uncertain whether, in the matter of certain individual rights—vested interests if you like to call them that: all interests are vested interests, and are only undesirable when they are somebody else's—we have not thought of the wrong people.

Then by hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) discussed the right of entry, and suggested that under Clause 8 further provisions were required. He told us of a mains engineer walking past a building in course of construction and coming to the conclusion, I presume, that the insulation of the wiring would not be very satisfactory; and it was suggested that one could not find it out once the place had been built. Let me assure him that there is no particular difficulty about that. It is only necessary to apply to that wiring system a sufficiently high test voltage in order to find any weakness if the installation be inadequate. If the installation is lacking there is a little instrument which will reveal that information.


The point is that when you have detected a leak you want to know in which room it is and in which part of the wall, and after that you have to pick the plaster to bits in order to put the matter right; whereas it would be more satisfactory if the test were made during the construction of the house.


Every firm which undertakes electric wiring is familiar with what happens—that the system is not connected up to the supply mains until it has been subjected to a test, and as the contractors who have done the wiring do not want to be involved in loss—because they would have to put it right—they are careful to see that the installation will pass the test of the "unseen eye," which is much more efficient than the human eye, even the eye of the mains inspector of Welwyn Garden City. I congratulate the hon. Member on the way in which he advertised the merits of his constituency.

Clause 20 raises a point of conflict between two groups of people in the electricity industry, those who make apparatus and those who supply current. There is in this Clause, very properly, a provision with regard to the type of apparatus, in order to ensure safety against fire, and the risk of personal injury from shock. One reads occasionally of the tragedy of people being killed by an electric shock while in the bath. Water renders the surface of the body highly conductive.

It says in Sub-section 4: Byelaws made under this section shall not have any force or effect unless and until they have been confirmed by the Electricity Commissioners. Broadly speaking, it is the supply authority who will draft the by-laws and the Electricity Commissioners who will approve them. Manufacturers of apparatus take the view that they should be brought into consultation, because it is the endeavour of manufacturers to standardise. If they standardise their manufacture, they will sell cheaply, although standardisation may be the enemy of progress if the standard becomes stereotyped. If you are not careful in standardising, or if you over standardise, you will check progress.

I am a little doubtful whether my friends who are engaged in the production of apparatus would be right in trying to force upon all supply companies what, for the moment, is standard apparatus, because that might check the adoption of improved apparatus produced by somebody else. While anxious to do all that we can in the way of standardisation which results in cheaper production, and is serving the consumers' interests immediately, we must be sure that in the long run we do not check progress. In Clause 23 there is a reference to working capital. I have had some correspondence with my hon. and learned Friend about this, because that is an indefinite phrase. I do not think that the Interpretation Act has defined "working capital." It may be said that it is difficult to define, but that you "know one when you see one"—it may be that you know working capital when you see it. If my hon. and learned Friend will refer to Section 27 of the Electricity Act, 1926, he will find that a variety of types of capital are mentioned, and that working capital is one of them. Therefore, it does not fall by implication into the other capital.

What I have in mind is that when an undertaking is carrying out a development for which normally it requires sanction, because of the capital expenditure involved, they should not be put into the position of carrying through a development without notice by using capital for expenditure which, in the ordinary way, would be regarded as permanent capital expenditure. There might be opportunity for certain people to evade that strict supervision which we desire with regard to electrical undertakings if they are permitted to use as permanent capital that which is, strictly speaking, authorized as working capital. If working capital is not defined there is a chance of some improper use, and I should be glad if my hon. and learned Friend would consider that point.

One of my hon. Friends was a little doubtful about the power with regard to meters. He only interpreted it in one way, but this is a two-way matter, because it treats the supply company and the consumer in the same way. There may be occasions when the meter is running fast and registering more current than is being used, and there are occasions when the meter is running slow. There are ingenious people who, by putting certain pieces of apparatus near a meter, can induce it to run slow. Obviously, no one can know upon what date a meter, which upon the date of its installation was presumably accurate, began to go wrong. Care is taken to see that meters are initially accurate. The process of testing meters is most elaborate. Every manufacturer does it, and the meters are also tested by an independent authority before they are put into operation. If it is subsequently discovered that a meter has gone wrong, we are entitled to assume that it was right to begin with. We do not know when it went wrong. Everything is done to avoid unfairness, because some consumers might be overcharged and others undercharged.

Since no one can tell the date when the meter went wrong, Parliament has fixed an arbitrary date by saying that it will be presumed that the error commenced at the beginning of the last quarter. That seems a satisfactory way of settling a dispute which cannot be satisfactorily settled in any other way since nobody knows when the trouble began. The hypothetical case mentioned by the hon. and gallant Gentleman of a meter wrong in the beginning will very seldom arise. It may conceivably happen in a very small number of cases, but any reasonable supply authority would be willing to make the necessary adjustment to meet a case of hardship. It would be a terrible mistake to leave the law so vague that every case of the wrong working of a meter involved a dispute instead of laying down a definition of the terms upon which such disputes are to be settled. I therefore ask my hon. and gallant Friend not to press his objection.

Clause 21 is as much in the interest of the consumer as it is in that of the supply company, because meters run fast as frequently as they run slow. Since the consumer lives constantly with the meter and the supply company only sees it once a quarter, the opportunities of the consumer to influence the habits of the meter are very much greater than those of the supply company. On balance, the risk is far greater against the companies than against the consumer. I hope that the objection will not be pressed. My hon. and learned Friend is to be congratulated upon having selected this Bill, in the opportunity given him by the Ballot, and he will be rendering a service not merely to the supply companies but to the consumers if the Bill becomes law. I have indicated that there are one or two Amendments I should like to see included, but I hope the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, because it represents a step forward in the progress of the electrification of our country.

1.2 p.m.


This is a very dangerous Bill to introduce on a Friday morning. It has some 29 Clauses of penalties to be inflicted on citizens and householders, penalties of all sorts and kinds up to five years' penal servitude. My hon. Friend the member for South Croydon (Mr. H. Williams) has said that it is a consumers' Bill, and that it is all for the good of the consumer. Of course, it is very nice for the consumer to get five years' penal servitude under one Clause, or five or 10 pounds' fine under other Clauses. I can find nothing in the Bill in favour of the consumer. We are told that the Bill has been approved by the Electricity Commissioners. Surely the Commissioners ought to have some regard to the consumers, and they might have put in something to show that they had considered the consumer when approving the Bill. Hon. and learned Gentlemen will come along one Friday morning, and we shall find that they have repealed Magna Charta. Exactly what will happen then I do not know. I submit that a Bill like this——


I should like to remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the legal gentlemen who recently prevented the repeal of Magna Charta, and that they did not receive as much support from non-legal hon. Members as they might have had.


I am interested to hear that the legal Members prevented the repeal of Magna Charta, but generations change, and even legal Members cannot be relied upon. In all seriousness I submit that we ought not to have Bills on Friday morning which inflict penalties upon private citizens. If penalties are to be inflicted, let the Government introduce the Bill and let the Government expound it to us. The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Parkinson) has touched upon the case of the cutting off of the supply of electricity. Under Clause 5 the supply of electricity can be cut off— in any case in which any part of any charge or sum due to the undertakers for electricity supplied by them or in respect of any apparatus or fitting let on hire by them or supplied by them on hire purchase terms … remains unpaid. What an unwarrantable thing.


I would remind the hon. Gentleman that corresponding provisions exist in regard to gas undertakings, and that it is only by accident that they have not been applied to electricity.


We must consider the Bill on its merits. It is all very well to say that certain Clauses are included in certain Acts, and therefore ought to be included in this Bill, but, if you have a string of twenty camels with a load on each, that does not mean that you can shove the whole load on to one camel. With further reference to Clause 5, if you buy an electric kettle at a shop and do not pay for it, the shopkeeper has the ordinary recourse to the law for the recovery of the money, but if you buy an electric kettle from the electricity supply undertaking, the undertaker comes and cuts off the whole of your lighting supply, perhaps because you are a few pence in debt. You may dispute it; you may say that it is a rotten bad kettle; it may have obvious defects and need repair; but that does not matter; you are to sit in darkness until you have paid the last penny. That is very unreasonable, and I hope that, if this Bill is given a Second Reading, it will be examined very carefully by the Government and by those Members of the House who are appointed to the Committee, in order to see that the rights of the private individual are adequately and properly protected.

1.7 p.m.


We have had a very interesting debate this morning, and I feel almost certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. G. Peto), who complained of its taking place on a Friday would have complained just as much if it had taken place on any other day. I was very glad to find that I had opposite to me, in the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Parkinson), such a firm defender of the rights of private property. In that I sympathise with him, although my real estate in this country is not as extensive as his.



Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM

I do not propose to say very much this morning, because this is a private Member's Bill, and all that I want to make clear is the position of the Government. As was pointed out by my hon. and learned Friend who introduced the Bill, it is very similar to a Bill which was passed in another place in the last Session of Parliament but made no progress in this House owing to the Prorogation. Most of the provisions that it contains already exist in the private Acts of a large number of electricity undertakers, and I think that that fact may be taken as proving that the provisions set forth in the present Bill are provisions which are useful, and possibly necessary in many cases, to electricity undertakings.

The provisions of the Bill are in the main non-controversial. There may be matters of detail with which some hon. Members disagree; we have heard this morning that that is the case; but on the whole it is a non-controversial Bill, and, if passed into law, it will undoubtedly have the effect of saving in the future considerable expenditure on Private Bill legislation by rendering it unnecessary for private undertakers to ask for powers which will have become part of the general law of the land. The Ministry of Transport and the Electricity Commissioners consider that the conferring of the powers set forth in the Bill should prove useful to authorised undertakers. Therefore, the Government propose to raise no objection whatsoever to the Second Reading of the Bill, and consider that it is a Measure the provisions of which might very well be considered in Committee. If the House does give the Bill a Second Reading, and it does go to a Committee, the Government, of course, reserve their right to put forward any Amendments which they may regard as necessary on further consideration of the Bill in Committee.

1.11 p.m.


I shall not detain the House for more than a few moments. I desire, in the first place, to support the Second Reading of this Bill, and to congratulate the Mover and Seconder on the clarity and rapidity with which they explained to the House a very complicated Measure. The Seconder even went a little further than an ordinary explanation, because he endeavoured to show the House how to get electricity for nothing, and I am not sure how far he was inciting us to any criminal offence. The House will perhaps wonder how the big rival industry of the local authorities, namely, the gas undertakings, would view this Bill. Naturally, they have given the matter very careful consideration, and, jointly with promoters of the Bill, have agreed to the Measure. Of course, they do so with a sense of envy at the facility with which the younger electricity industry, backed by a vast and powerful Government Department, is able to amend its legislation, while they, a much older industry, are still in darkness, working under Acts which are over 80 years of age. I do not desire to detain the House any longer, but only to wish the promoters success through all the stages of their Measure.

Question put, and agreed to.

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