HC Deb 15 June 1934 vol 290 cc2095-111

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment proposed [12th June], on Consideration of Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee).

Which Amendment was, in page 26, line 6, to leave out Clause 27.—[Mr. Rhys Davies.]

Question again proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out, to the word 'to' in line 7, stand part of the Bill."

2.5 p.m


When this matter was last before the House some doubt appeared to be shared by Members of the House as to the need of Clause 27 and as to the reason for its insertion in the Bill. It will, perhaps, assist the House if quite shortly I explain why this Clause finds itself in the Bill, what the Clause does, the suggestions that have been made for it being in a revised form, and how the different objections to it have been met. The Bill is based upon a Departmental Committee known as the Wrottesley Committee, and it is quite right, as the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) said, that there is no recommendation of the Wrottesley Committee that a Clause in these terms should be inserted in the Bill. It is for the very good reason that what is known as the Kettering Act was passed in July, 1932, whereas a good deal of the labours of the Wrottesley Committee were some time before that.

The Clause is one for which the industry has asked. The Board of Trade have been in general sympathy with what is known as the Kettering Clause, and there are now several instances of Acts of Parliament in which a Clause with this intention is part of the law. The matter came before this House in connection with the Gas Light and Coke Company's Bill, in May of 1933, and there was a general Debate upon the matter, in which the House made it clear that it approved of a Clause of this type. When the Clause was put down on the Amendment Paper in connection with the work of the Committee upstairs, in May, 1934, it was put down in wide and general terms.

The result of the publicity given to those wide and general terms was communications received by the Board of Trade from two different bodies, the Urban District Councils Association and the Municipal Corporations Association. It was pointed out that, whilst a Clause of this kind must necessarily be wide if it is to have the effect of preventing local authorities attaching restrictive conditions, because it would be quite impossible to forecast in the form of words all the different methods of ingenuity that might be used to find some way of avoiding them—while it must be in general terms, there were obvious limits which had to be applied. Our attention was called to a certain phrase in the original draft which appeared to be wider than were necessary. An assurance was given accordingly, and the Urban District Councils Association intimated their willingness to withdraw any opposition whatever, provided that I, on behalf of the Board of Trade, undertook not to move a further Amendment that stood in my name on the Paper.

That assurance was given and consequently the urban districts councils' point was met, and I do not think we shall have any spokesmen on their behalf here to-day. That left the Association of Municipal Corporations. It is not necessary for me to trouble the House with the nature of the communications sent by that Association to its members. Members of the House will have received from town clerks in their divisions, copies of the printed communication sent round by that Association and I think I can summarise the matter by saying that the deductions and inferences in those communications were not, I believe, rightly drawn from the Clause appearing in the Bill. However, that may be, in order to leave the matter beyond any doubt I have tabled an Amendment to modify the Clause in accordance with the principal lines indicated by the objectors and I have a letter dated 12th June, 1934, showing that these Amendments go a long way towards removing the objections raised by the Association. No doubt the Association would still prefer the Clause to be withdrawn but, in face of the Government's intimation that the Clause is not going to be withdrawn, there appears to be no objection to this wording.

The Clause simply provides that the local authority shall not be at liberty to impose a condition which fetters the choice of a tenant in determining the method of lighting and heating the house which he occupies. It is a Clause to which it was difficult to find objection in any part of the House when the question arose on the Gas Light and Coke Bill. When another Bill came before the House there was some objection to a matter which ought to form part of the general legislation appearing in a limited Bill. Now I understand the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol objects to it being brought forward in a general Bill and says that it ought to be confined to limited Bills. However, these are the exchanges across the Floor of the House which are associated with Parliamentary debate and the House has now had the Clause before it in both forms. It was in the Gas Light and Coke Bill which was limited as to area. It is now submitted in this Bill, with the sentences to which objection was taken properly revised, and with that explanation I hope that the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) who has put down an Amendment to leave out the Clause will realise that that is not practical politics. As we have met the objection raised to the wording of the Clause perhaps he will find it possible to advise his colleagues that the Clause as revised by the Amendments which I propose to make is one which they can accept.

2.9 p.m.


I think we ought to make clear our position on this Clause. The Parliamentary Secretary has told us that the gas industry wants this Clause but we on these benches feel that we must pay heed to an interest which is more important than that of the gas industry. The important people in this connection are the local authorities and, though some of these happen to be Labour local authorities, the vast majority are Conservative local authorities and they object to this Clause.


indicated dissent.


The hon. Gentleman has confessed that the Association of Municipal Corporations still object to the Clause and, in fact the Urban Councils Association would prefer not to have the Clause in the Bill. They only accepted it because the Government insisted upon it and they asked for modifications of it. They are accepting it in that spirit. I know the hon. Gentleman is very insistent upon getting the Clause but, in spite of all he has said, we are bound to declare definitely that when that very important body, the Association of Municipal Corporations, representing a large proportion of the people of this country are opposed to the Clause we shall have no hesitation in voting against its inclusion in the Bill.

2.11 p.m.


During the discussion on this Clause the other day it was suggested, though not I think categorically stated, in certain quarters, as one of the arguments against retaining the Clause in the Bill, that it had not received adequate discussion in the Committee upstairs. In justice to those, including myself, who were responsible for bringing forward this Clause in Standing Committee I ought to tell the House what occurred. I have here a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT of the proceedings in Standing Committee from which it appears that shortly before this Clause came on for discussion, it being then almost one o'clock, I moved that the Committee should adjourn, suggesting that it was impossible to conclude the Committee's proceedings at that sitting. The Parliamentary Secretary then said: I had hoped that we should dispose of the whole of the remaining Amendments in a very few minutes. I know of nothing severely controversial that will take anything more than a moment of explanation. The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) who was representing the Labour Party in that Committee then said: On behalf of the whole of the Labour party in this Committee I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Standing Committee D), 31st May, 1934, col. 73.] In view of those statements I did not press the Motion for the Adjournment and when I moved the Second Reading of this Clause I did so formally having intimated to the Committee that I understood that the Government did not propose to raise any objection to it. I mention these facts because, although clearly they do not constitute any argument against detailed discussion of the Clause now, they do absolve by hon. Friends and myself from any blame in regard to the shortness of the discussion in Committee. The whole purpose of this Clause was to support the principle of the right of a tenant of property owned by a local authority to enjoy the benefit of any public utility service available. It was found that a number of local authorities who owned housing estates and also electricity supply undertakings but who did not own gas undertakings, had sought to prevent tenants on their housing estates from using gas. My attention has been called to some 56 cases in which this has been done to a greater or lesser degree.

We urge in the first place that that is very unfair to the tenants. A canvass was taken in three cases where this was done with the following results. The first case was at Taunton. Out of 580 houses to which the Taunton Corporation would not allow gas to be supplied the tenants of 515 said they wanted gas. The second case was at Barnsley where, out of 250 houses to which the Corporation would not allow gas to be supplied, the tenants of 190 said they wanted gas. In the third case that of Honiton out of 28 houses the tenants of 27 said they wanted gas. Other cases could be brought before the House in which through this action by local authorities, tenants have been compelled to use oil or candles because they could not afford to pay the price of electricity.


Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how much propaganda was necessary in order to secure these results?


I can only say that this was a canvass undertaken, naturally, on behalf of the local gas company and that the question was put to each tenant, "Do you or do you not wish to have gas if you can have it?", and the answers were as I have stated.

We also urge that such a procedure as I have outlined on the part of local authorities is very unfair to private gas companies, because they pay rates like other people; indeed, in many of the cases I have in mind the local gas company is one of the biggest ratepayers in the district, and it is pointed out that housing estates are brought into being, first, on the security of the rates, and, secondly, they are often, to some extent, financed out of the rates. It is argued, therefore, that it is most unfair that gas companies should first contribute to those rates and, having done so, should be debarred from carrying on their legitimate business in such houses. Attempts have been made to deal with this matter in the House on several occasions. It was first endeavoured to deal with it by general legislation, as far as I can discover, in the case of the Housing Act, 1930, when an effort was made to put a similar kind of Clause into that Measure in Committee. That was defeated. Then efforts were made to get these Orders in private Bills. The first case, I think, was that of the Newport Corporation Act, 1925. We have the hon. Member for Newport (Mr. Clarry) here, and he will, no doubt, be able to tell us about that.

The next case was the Kettering Gas Bill, to which the Parliamentary Secretary has referred. There was a long and interesting debate on the Floor of this House on the Second Reading of that Bill when it was sought to prevent the Kettering Urban District Council from debarring tenants of its houses from the use of gas. The attitude taken by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), who was leading the Labour party on that occasion, was that, whatever might be the merits of that particular case—to quote the hon. Member's words— Such a principle ought certainly not to be settled in a private Measure, but ought to be dealt with in a general Bill brought in by the Government of the day."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1932; col. 147, Vol. 263.] That, of course, is what is being done now.


Surely it was not the Government who brought in the Clause? I understood that the hon. Member himself brought it in.


I will put it in this way—that the Government have accepted this addition to the Bill, and the Bill is a general Bill. Of course, the Labour party were not unanimous in their objections to the Kettering Bill. Hon. Members may remember a very spirited speech made by the hon. Member for Plaistow (Mr. Thorne) who pointed out A local authority has no right to impose an embargo against people burning coal if they wish to do so, or using gas or electric light, whichever they may wish."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1932; col. 130, Vol. 263.] In fact, after considerable Debate, there was no division on the Second Reading of the Bill. Similar powers have been obtained since by the Gas Light and Coke Company and the Commercial Gas Company, and I remember very well on the Third Reading of the Gas Light and Coke Company's Bill the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade referred to the shocking character of evidence which had been given in Committee as to what was going on. He reminded us that cases had occurred where gas lights had been filled with liquid cement and where they had been cut through with a hack-saw without even removing the automatic meter, and he generally reminded the House that this was a question where it could be clearly shown that many local authorities had behaved in a most unreasonable manner to their tenants. In the present Session the principle is being sought in a Bill promoted by the South Metropolitan Gas Company, and by the Brighton Gas Company. It is obvious that if the principle is not enshrined in this Bill, it will merely mean that it will be put into a great number of local private Bills dealing with different parts of the country. I submit that we have now got to the stage when it should be dealt with as a general principle applicable to all.

As to the exact wording of the Clause, the Parliamentary Secretary has told us that he would endeavour, in which I gather he has been successful, to satisfy the Association of Municipal Corporations and the Urban District Councils' Association by putting on the Paper an Amendment which would vary the wording of this Clause. I think I may say that those who acted with me in Committee upstairs are agreed that, as long as we get the principle for which we are fighting, we are quite content to take the Board of Trade form of words. May I, in conclusion, remind the House what that principle is? It is that the tenant of property owned by a local authority shall have the right to enjoy the benefit of any public utility facilities which are available.

2.22 p.m.


I should like to add one word in appealing to the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies), not to press his Amendment to a Division. My own personal connections are with the electrical industry, but having been at the Board of Trade, in that office, which the Parliamentary Secretary now holds, I always have a friendly interest in the gas industry, although it is in competition with one with which I happen to be personally connected. But this is a principle which seems to me fundamental. We ought not to permit municipally-owned houses to become tied houses of the worst conceivable kind. I thing it is entirely wrong that where a corporation happens to own a number of houses it should use its powers as a landlord to coerce its tenants to do something they do not want to do. Let anyone consider the conditions of his own house. I use electricity for six distinct purposes in my house and I use gas for two, and I have come to that decision because that is the most convenient thing to do. It seems absolutely intolerable that we should deprive any tenant of a Tight to use that form of fuel or that form of illuminant which he desires. So far as I am aware, those concerned with private interests in electricity would not desire that the prosperity of their industry should depend on this form of coercion; in other words, they are quite willing to compete in a fair field without any favour. I do not think that we should subsidise indirectly electricity undertakings in this undesirable way, and I do press the hon. Gentleman not to take his Amendment to a Division.

  1. CLAUSE 27.— (Avoidance of provision in lease, etc., preventing supply of gas.) 1,199 words, 1 division
  2. cc2105-6
  3. CLAUSE 34.—(Application to Scotland). 194 words
  4. c2106
  5. CLAUSE 35.—(Short title, citation, extent and commencement.) 210 words
  6. cc2106-8
  7. SECOND SCHEDULE (Minor Amendments). 583 words
  8. cc2108-11
  9. NEW CLAUSE.—(Power to Scottish local authorities to borrow for purposes of special order.) 1,324 words