HC Deb 20 June 1934 vol 291 cc456-81

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

7.30 p.m.


The substantial point with regard to this Bill is contained in Clauses 3 and 4, with regard to which a Motion for an Instruction appears on the Order Paper. The next Clause, Clause 5, is unobjectionable from our point of view. In view of these facts, my hon. Friends and I do not propose to divide the House on the Second Reading, but to make our case on the Instruction.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed.


I beg to move, That it be an Instruction to the Committee to leave out Clauses 3 and 4. I move this Motion with some personal regret, because in doing so I find myself opposed certainly to two hon. Members for whom I have the greatest personal respect, and I should like at once to make it quite clear that this Instruction is not moved in any spirit of hostility to the ancient city of Taunton, a city which I myself have always found to be a most hospitable city, and in which, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson) knows, both he and I have spent many laborious if not very profitable days. It is necessary, in approaching this somewhat complicated and difficult matter, that there should be a few words of explanation as to how it is that the House finds itself examining this Bill to-night. Hon. Members will recollect that, in 1926, Parliament passed the Electricity (Supply) Act; and under that Act there was set up the Central Electricity Board, as the central supply authority for the whole country. The object of the Act and of the scheme has been to concentrate the supply of electricity for the whole country in a limited number of selected stations. Those selected stations are under the obligation to supply to the Central Electricity Board the whole of their output, and they receive back from the board as much power as they require for their own purposes. Out of the surplus, the board provides electricity in bulk to other undertakers.

The Act contains a large number of complicated terms and conditions. I need not trouble the House with these at the moment, but the House will appreciate that, where power is generated at a selected station, the undertakers who run that selected station are under very stringent terms and conditions. The whole thing is now familiarly known to the man in the street as the grid scheme, and many people are conscious of it only as being the cause of the pylons which are such a marked and striking feature of our rural scenery. Of course, the grid scheme is not universal; it does not cover the whole of the electricity generated in this country; and Taunton is one of the towns which have remained outside the scheme. Up to the present time, Taunton has generated and consumed its own electricity. It found itself at the beginning of last winter in a position of shortage, not being able to generate as much electricity as the inhabitants of Taunton and the surrounding country desired to consume, and being faced, therefore, with the necessity of extension. Under the Act Taunton could not extend without taking into consultation the Electricity Commissioners. They went to the Electricity Commissioners, and there were protracted negotiations, which resulted, I understand, although the matter is in some little obscurity, in an agreement being made between the corporation of Taunton and the Central Electricity Board.

I observe that, in the statement which has been circulated to Members of the House to-day, it is said that if this Bill is not passed Taunton will not be in a position to supply its consumers next winter, but I venture respectfully to suggest to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Taunton (Lieut.-Colonel Gault) that, if that be the position, Taunton has the alternative of going into the grid scheme under the conditions which were suggested as an alternative to the agreement which was actually made. As I understand it, the city of Taunton has in fact made an agreement with the Central Electricity Board whereby the board is to take over the existing generating station at Taunton, and in return the board is to supply Taunton from that station with the whole of the electricity which Taunton requires. The Preamble to this Bill says, with what appears to me to be a certain amount of disingenuousness, that doubts have arisen as to the validity of this agreement, which does not surprise me at all, because it appears to me, and it has appeared to others who are far more competent to judge than I am, to be definitely an illegal agreement, outside the Act of Parliament altogether.

I and my colleagues who sit for Bristol are not faced here with a new position. It is a position which has arisen before at Bristol, as the Minister of Transport knows—the position of something having been done which was definitely illegal, and then a Measure being brought before Parliament ex post facto to legalise what has already been done. In these circumstances, the City of Taunton comes to Parliament and says that, having made an agreement which is illegal, it now desires these two Clauses of a Private Bill to go through the House of Commons in order to legalise that agreement. The first objection that I take is a minor one, but it is just as well that it should be stated quite clearly. It is that this is a wrong method of procedure in any event. If a corporation desires to legalise an agreement which it has made then, in common sense and fairness, that agreement ought to be scheduled to the Bill, so that Parliament, if it is asked to pass a Private Bill of this sort, may know exactly what it is. Here we are acting very much in the dark; we are not even told in the Bill that the agreement has been made. Clause 3 of the Bill says that it shall be lawful in future for Taunton to make agreements for the supply of electricity to the board by Taunton, and for the supply of electricity to Taunton by the board; while Clause 4 is a most objectionable form of legislation, for it says that the Act shall be retrospective, and that any agreement which has already been made—without admitting that there is any agreement—shall be legal. That appears to me to be a most objectionable form of procedure.

I am speaking to-night for the City of Bristol, which takes very strong objection to these two Clauses. Bristol is one of the selected stations under the Act of 1926. There are seven selected stations for the South-Western area of England and the area of South Wales, and one of the largest and most important is the new station which has been erected by the City of Bristol at Portishead. It was begun in 1926, under the Act of that year and at the express request of the Electricity Commissioners under the scheme which was made for the South-Western part of England. It is a vast undertaking, with a capacity enormously greater than the requirements of Bristol and the surrounding district, and I do not think it can be disputed for a moment that the original intention of the scheme was that Taunton, in common with Exeter, Devon and the South-West of England generally, should be supplied from Portishead. In fact, the Portishead station is at the present moment linked up with Taunton; the line which supplies Exeter goes through Taunton, and the machinery is there in existence at the present moment.

The very large sum of money—somewhere in the neighbourhood of £2,000,000, I believe—which was expended on the construction of the Portishead station, was borrowed by the ratepayers of Bristol. That station having been constructed, and it being now a selected station, the city of Bristol is under a double liability. It is under the liability, in the first place, to generate as much electricity as the Central Electricity Board tells it to generate, and it is also under the liability to supply to the board the whole of the electricity that it generates. Taunton, originally intended to be supplied from Portishead, is now seeking by some back door to make an agreement with the Central Electricity Board whereby, in effect, Taunton, outside the scheme altogether, becomes a substituted selected station, and whereby the City of Bristol, which has been put to the whole expense of building this vast power station, so much bigger than is required for its own needs, is deprived of a large amount of revenue to which it is justly entitled to look as the result of the undertaking.

I am aware that the statement to which I have already referred says that it will be cheaper for the inhabitants of Taunton if the Act of 1926 is torn up in this way, and if they are allowed to go outside and behind it and take their electricity under this special agreement. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Taunton will forgive me if I do not share his natural enthusiasm for that point of view. My desire is to protect at this stage the citizens of Bristol, and to say very strongly that, Parliament having passed an Act, and public money having been expended in carrying out that Act, no municipality ought now to be allowed to go behind the Act and do something which would have a result detrimental to another municipality; but that undertakers who have come into the grid scheme and taken part in this expensive and elaborate machinery are entitled to expect that it will be loyally carried out.

If this were nothing more than a mere dispute between the City of Bristol and the City of Taunton, I should not venture to take up the time of the House, and I should be quite properly told from the other side, that this a point which counsel could argue before a Private Bill Committee; and that would be quite a valid answer. But there is an entirely new and different element in the situation. Since this Bill was first introduced—I understand that it was prepared at about the beginning of January—the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies has introduced in another place, with the sanction of the Government, another Electricity (Supply) Bill, which is by no means the same as the two Clauses we are now discussing. There may be, and I do not doubt that there will be, very strong arguments in this House against that Bill, which has passed through all its stages in the other House, and is, in fact, on the Order Paper of this House for Second Reading to-morrow. I should be out of order in referring to it to-night except in so far as it affects the position with regard to the Taunton Bill.

The Government Bill has already been very considerably amended in the other House, and it may be further amended here. I have no doubt that there will be strenuous efforts to that end. It contains, even in its unamended form as it comes from the other House, much more elaborate safeguards and much more definite conditions than are laid down in Clauses 3 and 4 of this Taunton Bill. But the Debate, which was protracted, in the other House, demonstrates quite clearly that this matter of agreements, outside the Act of 1926, between the Central Electricity Board and municipalities or private undertakers, is a very highly controversial one, and that it would be contrary to the best interests of Parliament at the present time to allow a subject of this sort to be discussed on a Private Bill.

I move this Instruction for three reasons: First of all, because this is an attempt to go behind the 1926 Act. I do not stress the purely local aspect; I do not stress the point that this is going to damage my own constituents for the purpose of improving the position of my hon. and gallant Friend. That is purely a Committee point. But Bristol, after all, is only one out of many selected stations, and what is done to Bristol to-day may be done to any other selected station to-morrow, and once you concede a principle of this sort you begin to eat away the whole fabric and substance of the Act of 1926. There are at present without exaggeration millions of pounds sunk in generating stations all over the country under the aegis of the 1926 Act. Undertakers who have loyally observed the terms and conditions of that Act are entitled to expect the same sort of treatment from the Central Electricity Board as other undertakers who have not yet come within the Act.

The second reason why we urge the Instruction on the House is that we believe it to be quite contrary to the best Parliamentary practice to proceed with Clauses of this sort in a private Bill at a time when there is before Parliament a public Bill covering very similar ground. In the statement that reached me this morning on behalf of the corporation of Taunton, it is said: We are afraid that this public Bill may not get through Parliament before the autumn, and we are very anxious to have Taunton properly lighted next winter. There is, of course, the obvious alternative of coming into the scheme, but for some reason Taunton does not want to come into the scheme. The Second Reading of the public Bill is down for Thursday, and it must get through very soon. The only reason that could possibly delay it for a long time would be if there were to develop in this House a strenuous and protracted opposition. If there were a real obstacle to the passing of the Bill, that would be the only thing that could prevent it going through in a comparatively short time and, if it is likely that a substantial and strenuous opposition is going to develop to the Government Bill, how much more dangerous is it to pass in a private Bill a principle which is to be so hotly contested? If these two Clauses are dropped, this becomes in effect an unopposed Bill. If they are not dropped, it will go through all its stages as an opposed Bill. It may expose the ratepayers of Taunton and Bristol, and possibly other ratepayers, to considerable expense and, not only that, but it will take up a great deal of Parliamentary time unnecessarily.

The final reason why we urge the Instruction is that in any event this is not the sort of thing that ought to be dealt with in a private Bill at all. If there is one thing on which everyone would be agreed, it is that the fundamental motive in the mind of every Member of Parliament at present must be to maintain the proper position of this House in the life of the country. This is only a small matter; it would be ridiculous to attempt to elevate it to anything more, but it has its bearing on that which must be the guiding principle of all of us. This is a matter of serious principle, and it would be quite wrong for this House to allow a private Bill to go through dealing with a matter of general principle which ought to be dealt with in a public Bill.


I beg formally to second the Motion.

7.50 p.m.

The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Mr. Oliver Stanley)

I am sure this is an occasion when the House will think it right for me to state the position of the Government and, that being so, it will probably be for the convenience of all that I should state it at the earliest possible moment. I do not intend to go at all into the very difficult technical point which has been raised and which is the substance of the two Clauses to which my hon. Friend objects. I should only like to congratulate him on the clarity and the brevity with which he has dealt with the point. Without going into the merits or demerits of his arguments, I agree with him on two points. The first is that a real question of principle, and a principle of general application, is raised by these Clauses, and, secondly, it is a principle which, although I and the Government support it, is opposed in other quarters.

It seems to me that the whole position of this private Bill is rendered extremely complicated by the fact that a public Bill introduced in another place is now awaiting the consideration of this House. It is true that the terms of that Bill are rather different from the terms of the Clause to which my hon. Friend objects, but they are only different because to him they are less objectionable, and it is certain that the general principle raised by the Government Bill is exactly the same general principle that is implicit in the Clauses to which he objects, and the House may well consider whether it is in accordance with Parliamentary precedent and procedure and with the public interest that at the same time that it is called upon to consider and to pass judgment upon a public Bill which raises a general question of principle and general application it should, through the medium of another of its Committees, be called upon to consider the same principle in a limited form and applicable only to one particular area.

It may well be that the House will think that a question of such importance and such general application as this should be settled once and for all by a general decision of the House as a whole upon the principle that is raised in a public Bill and not on this Bill. I quite understand the difficulty of the promoters of this Bill and their desire that in one way or another the principle shall be settled, either on this Bill or on the Gov- ernment Bill, in plenty of time for them to make whatever arrangements they have to make as a consequence of the decision that the House takes. The public Bill has already passed through all its stages in another place. It is the intention of the Government to pass it into law. While the date on which the Bill can be taken must depend upon other business, the Government fully recognises the importance of the time factor, and there will be no avoidable delay. I can give the promoters of the Bill that assurance, but, in so far as it falls to me as a Member of the House to advise them at all, I could not advise them to raise in this Measure, and through this medium, and in a limited form, the very principle which the Government are going to call upon them to discuss and decide in the widest possible form and by a procedure which is the appropriate one for the occasion.

7.56 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel GAULT

I fully appreciate what the Minister has said in regard to the Government Measure, but Taunton is in the position at present of finding itself without the resources of supplying consumers of Taunton and the surrounding countryside with electrical energy next year unless they are given powers to purchase from the Central Electricity Board, and I am informed that business arrangements have been entered into by the authorities concerned, and it only remains for the necessary authority to be given in order that those business arrangements should be carried into effect. I have no intention of dealing with the local aspect of the Bill, but I should like to point out that at the present juncture Taunton is endeavouring not only to supply its own needs but the needs of the countryside and country districts in the neighbourhood which for many a long year past have been crying out for an electricity supply. It seems rather strange that in this year, 1934, there should be districts crying out for electricity when practically every part of of the world is supplied. All that the Bill asks is for the corporation to have the right of entering into an agreement with the Central Electricity Board to enable it to obtain additional supplies of electricity to meet its obligations to the borough itself and to the surrounding districts in the coming year. I trust that the House will in its generosity and wisdom give the Bill a Second Reading.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir Dennis Herbert)

I must point out to the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the Second Reading has already been dealt with. We are now on the question of an Instruction to the Committee to omit certain Clauses.

Lieut.-Colonel GAULT

I am also in a position to say that the promoters of the Bill will be perfectly prepared to accept a new Clause in Committee to bring it into line with the Government Bill. All that the corporation asks is that it shall have authority to obtain an electricity supply in the not far distant future for, if that authority cannot be obtained, it simply means that electrical development in the locality is going to be very seriously curtailed, to the disadvantage not only of the citizens of Taunton but of the citizens and the rural people of the whole countryside.

8.0 p.m.


We seem to be in a difficulty. If we do not press forward the Instruction which has been moved, the House will in principle have given assent to the two Clauses, and by implication, therefore, given assent to Clause 1 of the Bill which has already passed through another place. I do not think that on this Bill we should give assent to something which we shall want to debate at much greater length than we can debate the circumstances of the particular corporation to-night. The essential feature about the Bill, as far as those who have nothing to do with the West country is concerned, is that it raises vital questions of principle. There are in the Bill certain other matters, which, though perhaps not of great importance, are such as I imagine the Taunton Corporation require. The Minister has made a declaration that it is the intention of the Government to press forward, to the best of their ability, with the Bill which has been introduced. Clause 1 of that Bill proposes, rightly or wrongly—I think it is very much open to criticism—that certain agreements never contemplated under the 1926 Act are to be sanctioned after certain procedure has been gone through. Only if it is desired to concede the principle generally should it be conceded to anybody, and for those reasons I am strongly of opinion that the Instruction ought to be pressed, and, if the majority of the House take the view which I take, it should be carried.

What is the great question of principle? In 1926 we passed a Bill, the general principles of which I supported though I did not like all its details. The general underlying principle was that there were great economies to be effected in the generation of electricity if, by the linking of stations, you could eliminate a very large amount of spare plant which had to be maintained in stations when it was not wholly required. Out of that principle, stimulated by Mr. Insull, who has not been as fortunate in other matters as he was in that, the great grid has been built up. That grid has to be financed. It is part of the duty of the board, with the approval of the Commissioners, to fix different tariffs for different areas. The country is split up into a number of areas, and the tariff has to be so constructed that after a period of years it will pay all the charges with which the Central Electricity Board are faced. The board have to pay the cost of the construction of the grid, and up to now the interest charges have been paid out of capital. We are now reaching the stage when those charges will have to be paid out of interest. In addition the board have to pay the selected stations who generate the electricity the cost of generation. Therefore, broadly speaking, the grid tariff for each area has to consist of two items, the cost of generating the electricity and the cost of transmitting it, that is to say, the grid cost. The tariff is fixed on that basis.

What is the object of this agreement? It is apparently to permit the board to sell electricity to Taunton at a lower rate than the grid tariff. If the grid tariff is the right tariff, it will result in the board not making any profit in the wider sense, but merely enough to meet the charges. Therefore, under the Bill it is proposed to sell electricity to Taunton at rates which must involve a loss if the tariff has been correctly constructed. Therefore, those who do not make special arrangements will have to pay more in order to compensate for the lower price which Taunton will pay. You have only to keep on making agreements and no one will be left to pay the cost of the grid. Some of us are therefore perturbed. It is true that there is no Government guarantee—I think some £50,000,000 has been spent—but there is a certain moral guarantee, because it is under the control of a board which has the sanction of Parliament. The ordinary person who subscribes to public issues of capital, even if there be no Government guarantee, assumes at the back of his mind that if anything goes wrong the State in the last resort would step in and save those who have subscribed their money in good faith to what they regard to all intents and purposes as a State institution. Therefore, we ought to look upon the matter with the utmost care and ought not to sanction the proposal to-night. If we do, we shall be doing it without having the fuller and more exhaustive Debate we are bound to have when the Government Bill is under discussion.

On the other hand, I have every sympathy with the problems of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Taunton (Lieut.-Colonel Gault) who does not want to see his constituents in the dark next winter, but that matter does not arise. There will be opportunities for Taunton to obtain current on grid terms. That is open to them. Therefore, it is no good trying to terrify the House by saying that the people of Somerset will be in the dark if the Bill be not passed. If the Government Bill or this Bill be not passed, they will be able to get current. The question is whether Taunton will get it cheaper so that everybody else will have to pay more. That is the issue. There is the grid tariff. They want something better than that. To the extent that Taunton pays less per unit the board will have to raise money to balance their accounts. Every penny which Taunton objects to pay, somebody else will have to pay. The hon. and gallant Member for Taunton and his immediate neighbours are against the rest of the world. They are seeking to get advantages at the expense of the rest of the world. We sympathise with them.

This case may lead to a very much more careful examination on the part of all of us of the way the board is carrying on its operations. Everyone has the greatest sympathy with the distinguished gentlemen operating the board, but they have a great responsibility to the public if they enter into what we are advised are illegal agreements. I understand that they have entered into similar agreements with other people which no one up to now has thought to be illegal. They have entered into an agreement with the Wimbledon Corporation which is a very successful undertaking. I was for three years a member of their Electricity Committee. They generated electricity so economically, that that was, I think, the reason why they were stimulated to offer special terms. People asked why was it that Wimbledon was much more efficient than the grid, but I am not going into that matter. Many years have elapsed since I had responsibility, and the success is not due to me. I do not think we ought to give Taunton these powers tonight. The House ought to make it definite that they will not be given in isolated cases because of the fundamental principles which must be raised. We are custodians for a great undertaking. Ultimately the responsibility is ours. If, later on, emergency steps have to be taken to support the grid in any way, this House will have to take them. Therefore, we ought not, on a private Bill, to drive a coach and four right through the 1926 Act. We do not even know the design of the coach and four. It is an extraordinary thing that we should have in a Bill the words contained in Clause 4, which are as follow: Any Agreement which may have been entered into between the Corporation and the Board prior to the passing of this Act for any of the purposes mentioned in the last preceding section of this Act shall be deemed to have been lawfully made and shall he binding upon the Corporation and the Board. We are not told one word of the terms of the Agreement. There is in the document circulated to-day by the Taunton Corporation certain financial calculations as to the effect it will have on them if one or other scheme is adopted, but they do not tell the House what illegal agreement they are asking this House to validate. It is an intolerable position, and on principle we ought not to assent to these Clauses being allowed to remain in the Bill.

8.10 p.m.


The situation of the Taunton Corporation in this matter is one of considerable difficulty. I will deal with some of the difficulties, which, it has been suggested, arise on this Bill, and which I will endeavour to show do not and cannot arise in view of the undertaking which has been suggested by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Taunton (Lieut.-Colonel Gault). The position of the Taunton Corporation was that they did not desire an agreement of this nature at all. Their desire was to obtain the necessary loan in order that they might have an opportunity of developing on the most economical lines to suit the necessities of their own district, the undertaking for which they are responsible, and which has been committed to their administration. That was the situation in which the local people administering a local matter of local self-government desired to find themselves.

Unfortunately, they have not succeeded up to now in obtaining the sanction from the authority under the Act for the loan of money which they desired, and which would have been the most economical course for them to adopt. In those circumstances they were offered instead a supply of electricity, and then came the question, could an agreement lawfully be made? Was it an agreement which, having regard to the terms of the Act of 1926, Was within the power of the other side to enter? The other side took advice, and they were advised, and as far as the corporation know are still advised, that this was an agreement which they could lawfully make, having regard to the terms of the Act of 1926. If the House will forgive me for using one of those bits of dog Latin used in the Law Courts about these matters, they were advised ultimately that the matter was within their power, that is to say, intra vires. The corporation themselves had some doubt about it, and they took advice which was to the contrary effect.

They found themselves placed—and it is a commentary on the difficulties of the corporation—in this position, that, desiring to get a loan which they could not get, they were offered something else which would be of assistance to them, although more expensive than that which they desired, but which in the circumstances was the only thing to take. They were then advised that the people who were proposing to enter into that contract had no power to enter into it, although the people on the other side were advised that they had the power. The Taunton Corporation did the only thing they could do in the circumstances. They could not leave the people in their district to suffer as the result of this legal difficulty—and however interested the House is in the legal difficulty and whether the conditions of the Act of 1926 are to be treated as sacrosanct—the consequences in the succeeding winter of being without electric current.


May I interrupt?


No. That being the position, the corporation promote their Bill, and, having promoted it for the purpose of giving effect to this arrangement and indeed to remove the doubt which has arisen, the Government then introduce their Bill, which deals with a much wider problem, and, as I understand, with other problems. The corporation waited and waited all through this Session of Parliament in the hope that business would be so conducted that it might be possible for them to drop their Bill, or to drop these Clauses, by reason of the fact that the Government Bill had gone through. I am not ascribing or attempting to ascribe to anybody in any part of the House any blame for that situation. It arises owing to the congestion of public business. That is why at this time, still faced with the same difficulty, the corporation cannot, in pursuance of their duty to the public, any longer leave this matter without attempting to get it regularised, so that the agreement, which is the only thing offered to them, may be lawfully entered into. That is the position.

In those circumstances, if the Government Bill had the smallest possibility of getting through this Session—by which we mean when we go into Recess at the end of next month—the corporation of Taunton are not in the least interested in this great problem, in this great principle. Neither are they interested in anything except doing their duty to the people of whose affairs they are in control. If there were the smallest chance of that happening the Instruction would be accepted without any more ado. The corporation want to administer their electrical property. They do not want to put on the Statute Book any sort of principle that is going to affect other cases. Indeed, if it were possible now for the loan to be granted so that they could go on in the ordinary way, in the way they want to go, there would be no necessity for this Bill. It does, however, raise a difficult situation, and one which I beg the House not to regard lightly, as I am sure it will not.

As to the questions which, have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. Williams), I do not think that he has done full justice to the offer that was made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Taunton with regard to our accepting, when the Bill goes upstairs, the terms of the Government Bill, of the Government section, as it stands at present. Perhaps I may be permitted very briefly to tell the House the effect of that. First of all, the agreement must be subject to the approval of the Electricity Commissioners. The corporation are content that that should be made a term of their Bill and of their agreement. Secondly, under the Government Bill the Commissioners are not to give their assent unless they are satisfied that the arrangement will not result in financial loss to the board. That answers one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon. The Commissioners are to give authorised undertakers—I commend this to the attention of my colleagues from the city and county of Bristol—who are under contract to supply electricity, the power to make representations dealing with this very matter. I have no doubt, and I suggest that there can be no doubt, that those safeguards which have been introduced into the Government section, if they were introduced into the Taunton Corporation section, as we contend that they should be, would have the effect of removing a great many of the difficulties which have been held over the heads of some of us in the course of this evening's Debate.


Suppose that this House, in its wisdom, should make further alteration in Clause 1 of the Government's Bill, what then?


My hon. Friend cannot really expect the corporation of Taunton to undertake to put into their Bill a section which they have never seen. They are content to accept the section in the terms in which it has left another place, the section in the Bill which is now upon the Order Paper of this House, and my argument is that that is sufficient, and ought to be sufficient, to meet the difficulties, because the corporation is providing a new safeguard for other places and for ensuring that there is no loss to the board. I do not desire to follow my hon. Friend the Mem- ber for Bristol, South (Mr. N. Lindsay) into an examination of the true situation with regard to the Portishead Station. It is sufficient for the moment for me to say that some question has arisen in regard to the boilers at that station, and that we are by no means satisfied with the position.

In these circumstances, I do ask the House not to say with regard to this borough that by merely passing this Clause to deal with an urgent situation in one particular district the House is giving away any question of principle whatever. Without expressing any view, indeed, if the House likes, reserving every view as to the ultimate fate of the Government's Bill on the larger question which the Government Bill may involve, and in dealing here with what has become, and will become during the next few months, an emergency situation, I do say that the House ought to permit the Bill to proceed, or this Clause to proceed. We are asking that the Clause should be allowed to proceed so that, having regard to the exceptional situation and the emergency which is going to arise, the Corporation may have an opportunity of making out their case, if necessary, for exceptional treatment. I have the very largest sympathy with those who think that exceptions to the general law of the land ought not to be made, as a general rule on behalf of particular councils, but here the position is at least doubtful whether an exception is being made.

The House will appreciate that if this thing is intra vires, if the opinion obtained by the board should turn out to be right, the agreement could have been made and brought into force without the necessity for any Bill. Therefore, what the House is really doing if it passes the Instruction, on something where, apparently, the lawyers differ, where there is a doubt, whether the board could do it or not is to say that the Taunton Corporation in these circumstances shall not have the opportunity upstairs of trying to prove their case and of trying to get the powers which they tell the House, through my hon. and gallant Friend and myself, they are really desirous of getting, because they feel it their bounden public duty to try to get. That is the issue, not an issue as to whether we are giving away a question of principle but whether the House thinks that it is right to stop this local body from putting forward its case upstairs, having regard to the situation in which its expert people, and those who advise it from the electrical point of view, tell it that it is going to find itself during the coming winter months.

The House must realise that if by any chance there is delay with regard to the Government Bill, and none of us can prophesy about it—we appreciate the position in which my hon. Friend the Minister of Transport finds himself—the situation may very well be that nothing will be able to be done during the course of this year. In these circumstances I appeal to my hon. Friends. With their general point of view on this question I have the profoundest sympathy. I have acted with them on this principle where there has been no exceptional local conditions which justifies an amendment of the general law in favour of any local authority, but I appeal to them, in this particular case, not to pocket or destroy their principles but to permit these Clauses to proceed to the Committee upstairs where the matter can be thoroughly investigated. If by that time it should turn out that this question has been raised in the courts and that this form of agreement has been held to be intra vires—I understand that one of these agreements has been in existence for years and has never been challenged, at any rate, it has not got into the law courts—we might find ourselves in the ridiculous position of having refused the corporation an opportunity of trying to prove their case when they might well have done it without seeking any approval at all. As to the point that the House is being invited to approve an agreement of which it does not know the terms, that is met by a later Clause which the promoters are willing to accept which will safeguard the interests of those who object. For these reasons, too inadequately placed before the House, I appeal to my colleagues to permit the Bill to go upstairs and give the corporation a chance of dealing with a situation which they regard as grave and troublesome.


Would not the promoters in any event have to produce any existing agreement to the Committee upstairs?


They probably would. I am not in a position, from my own knowledge of the procedure upstairs, to say whether that is so or not, but I am much obliged for the suggestion as it is an additional reason why the matter should be allowed to proceed. If the Committee upstairs comes to the view that the agreement is wholly unreasonable I suspect that that fact might have an adverse effect on the passage of the Bill.

8.28 p.m.


I congratulate the hon. Member for South Bristol (Mr. N. Lindsay) on the admirable and lucid manner in which he has submitted the case for Bristol. I can confirm what he has said. Equally I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson) on having put before us a thoroughly fair and perfectly clear statement of the case as far as the Taunton Corporation is concerned. I find myself in this difficulty. We are faced with a private Bill containing Clauses which, in fact, cannot properly be presented to the House otherwise than in a public Bill. It deals with matters not only affecting the relations of Bristol and Taunton but the relations of every selected station and every owner of a non-selected station. While a private Bill contains such matters it is clear that it is totally inappropriate to consider it as a private Bill. On the other hand, a Bill is coming from another place to amend the Electricity Act of 1926. It amends that Act in only one particular, and that is to extend the powers of the Central Board, and in so far as it is a Bill to give effect to that one simple object, the Central Board being a statutory authority, it should in the ordinary course come before this House as a private Bill. We find ourselves therefore in the peculiar and complicated position of having to resent Clauses in a private Bill which should never be dealt with in a private Bill and also Clauses in a public Bill which in my judgment can only be considered appropriately in a private Bill.

Let us try and get the matter straight. The difficulty arises under the 1926 Act, where all selected stations are bound to operate entirely under the direction and control of the Central Board. The whole of the output of these stations to be absorbed and consumed by the selected station owners themselves, or the balance of the aggregate transmitted to other stations, was to produce such economy that the board would be able to establish a grid tariff, which would enable them to offer such tempting and favourable terms to non-selected station owners that they would be tempted to buy their current from the grid. That has not materialised. The selected station owners, Taunton to wit, simply have no use for the tariff under the grid scheme. Then the Central Board says, "Cannot we make a bargain with you?" and they thereupon enter into a bargain which I hold, and have always held, to be ultra vires to the Act of 1926. They say, "We will give you current at such a price." I have not seen the agreement, indeed, I never heard it, referred to until this evening, but I can say that it is based on these terms; your costs amount to so much, we will give you a price which, including deductions equal to the contributions which will be necessary to amortise the outstanding debt upon your station, shall not be dearer than your price to-day.

Several of these agreements have been entered into. In my particularly difficult position, so closely identified with the electricity industry, I have endeavoured to do nothing and to say nothing which will embarrass the Electricity Commissioners or the Central Board, but when these matters emerge on the Floor of the House the least I can do is to try and give the House such guidance as I can by a clear exposition of the position, without any desire to take sides in the issue, but simply with an endeavour to see that the House has the issue clearly before it.

The whole question in this Bill, which should never have been brought forward as a private Bill, and the issues which will arise in the other Bill, is the question whether, despite the 1926 Act and in spite of the 1926 Act, we are now to say that as the grid tariff does not work we are to give powers at large, a blank cheque, to the Central Board to make agreements in any terms they may desire. They may say "Go to the Electricity Commissioners." My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bridgwater has had experience of the relationship between the Central Board and the Electricity Commissioners. I cast no aspersion and make no suggestion and am dealing only with the facts. My hon. and learned Friend has said that Taunton desired to extend their plant, that they were refused, that they went to the Central Board and made a bargain with the board. Why cannot the Commissioners give power to extend the station? They have to make this bargain to get current at a price which is below the grid price. At the expense of whom? It can only be at the expense of the selected station owners. The Central Board have not a penny invested in power stations in England. The money must come out of the capital resources of other people.

I do not want to burden the House with a mass of detail, but I do urge my hon. Friend the Minister to have regard to the fact that this matter digs deeply into principles which will not only affect electricity supply but will affect many other institutions, enterprises and businesses in the country. If we are not to consider these matters from that standpoint, but to consider each one merely as a trading proposition, I am afraid that this House has ceased to function in its proper capacity. My hon. Friend the Minister of Transport said that the principle in these two Bills was exactly the same, and he rather indicated—I do not think he went so far as to state—that the Government Bill will come before the House and will be pressed through. I do hope that my hon. Friend in his ministerial capacity will keep an open mind.

We are in this country drifting dangerously near the control of the Minister by the Department in many of our affairs, and the time has come when we must assert definitely the control of this House over Ministers and Ministers' control over the Departments, rather than the Departments' control over the Ministers and the Ministers' control over this House. I hope that nothing I have said will in any way indicate any feeling of antagonism or of distrust of either the central board or the electricity commissioners. I do not think I exaggerate when I say that all the members of both those bodies are not only esteemed, but I think I can call them personal friends; and I am stating what I state as I feel bound to state it, very reluctantly. I detest becoming embroiled in matters that affect the industry but whatever odium attaches these things must be stated unless we are to drift into a parlous condition.

8.39 p.m.


I hesitate to intervene in this Debate, because I have no special technical knowledge. I was most impressed by the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson), but it occurred to me that there is surely a greater responsibility on the Government than the hon. and learned Gentleman had assumed. I invite the Minister of Transport to state when the Government propose to bring the public Bill into this House and to pass it. The Minister told us that this would be done without avoidable delay. I am sure the Minister can give us a much closer approximation to the time when the Bill is likely to come forward. He does not tell us more closely or more definitely, I am afraid, because he fears that the Bill may not come before the House until after the Autumn Recess. In that event surely this House is not going to refuse to the Taunton Corporation at least a hearing before the Committee. That is what we are really discussing. I say nothing as to the particular merit of Taunton's case, because I am not competent to do so. I understand that the Law Committee of the Association of Municipal Corporations have considered the matter, and that with all the weight which they have they have expressed a somewhat similar view. I do not propose to go into the details of the Measure, but I press the point that unless the Minister can tell us something much more definite the House ought to permit the Bill to proceed, so that the Taunton Corporation can have an opportunity of proving its case before a Committee of this House.

8.42 p.m.


I should not have risen but for what has been stated by the last speaker. This is really a question of principle and of a principle which goes a very long way. Those of us who are connected with the industry feel the deepest sympathy with the unfortunate position in which Taunton has found itself. The question behind this is, what electricity is to cost in future and who is to pay for it? One cannot possibly admit that that question is to be decided by a side issue in a private Bill. The whole question is essentially one for the House to consider, possibly by a Select Committee, and it is essentially a question for the House to consider in due course and without haste. It is entirely wrong that there should be an attempt to prejudge it in a private Bill, however awkward that may be for the people concerned.

8.43 p.m.


We have now reached the stage when we should come to a decision on the matter. I would like to reinforce what my hon. Friend who has just spoken has said. In his admirable speech my hon. Friend the Member for South Bristol (Mr. N. Lindsay) laid stress not so much on the merits of these Clauses as upon the procedure which the Taunton Corporation adopted for securing powers. I thought that the whole matter would have been closed when we had the expression of opinion from the Minister that this was too great a principle to be decided in a private Bill, and, seeing that a Government Bill which covered the same powers—covered them perhaps in a way which might not satisfy the Taunton Corporation because there are additional safeguards in the Government Bill—I had hoped that the hon. Members who represent Taunton would see that it was not fair to the House to expect a Second Reading Debate upon the great principle of future charges for electricity and the mode in which the Central Board shall conduct its operations. I do not want to discuss the merits of the Clauses, although much might be said about them. We shall have an opportunity of discussing these points presently on the Electricity Supply Bill which is on the Order Paper for Second Reading to-morrow. I suggest to the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson) that it is strange that the Taunton Corporation should persist in endeavouring to secure the passage of this Bill when there is a Government Bill dealing with the very same points on the Order Paper and the Minister of Transport has told us that that Bill will be proceeded with without unavoidable delay.


In the interests of accuracy, may I point out that what I said was "without avoidable delay" and not "without unavoidable delay"?


I accept the hon. Gentleman's correction. The hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater is of course an adept at addressing juries and enlisting sympathy for those whom he is defending, but in this case I think he has rather wasted his rhetorical gifts on the Members of the House. He did not deal with any of the points referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Bristol. He suggested that the Taunton Corporation, knowing that they were going to be short of electricity during this winter, had applied to the commissioners for a loan to enable them to extend their plant, and that they had not been able to obtain that loan. But the statement of the corporation does not say that the loan has been refused. The corporation make the extraordinary statement that no communication has since been received from the commissioners upon the subject. If the Taunton Corporation feared that their citizens might have darkened homes during the coming winter because of lack of electricity supply, surely they would have seen to it that they got a reply from the commissioners to their request.

Then, the hon. and learned Member told us that they had applied to the board and that, unless this agreement—the legality of which they were rather doubtful about—was carried into effect, the inhabitants of Taunton would be without electricity in the course of the winter. He did not tell the House that it is within the option of the Taunton Corporation to join the grid system and to take electricity at the tariff rate. There is no necessity for the inhabitants of Taunton to be without electricity if they do not get an extension of plant. They can take electricity in the same way as any other non-authorised station. The harrowing tale told by the hon. and learned Member apparently appealed to the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) who thought it was an appalling thing that the people of Taunton should be left without electricity, merely because of a doubt in this

House as to the wisdom of the course which the Taunton Corporation is adopting. Let him be assured that the inhabitants of Taunton can get electricity when they want it by taking it at the tariff rate from the grid instead of getting it in the roundabout and preferential manner advocated by the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater. We are not conversant with the nature of this agreement. The hon. and learned Member when asked whether the corporation would amend these Clauses so as to make them conform with the Clauses in the Government Bill, said the corporation could not be expected to accept a Clause which they had never seen. We have never seen the agreement between the corporation and the Electricity Board. The hon. and gallant Member for Taunton (Lieut.-Colonel Gault) said that the agreement had already been effected.

Lieut.-Colonel GAULT

Entered into.


We do not know the nature of the agreement and I suggest that if the Taunton Corporation are really anxious to secure these powers and this preferential treatment, it would be much better, both from their own point of view and from the point of view of Parliamentary procedure, that they should await the passage into law of the Government Bill. Thereby they would avoid expense both to themselves and to the Bristol Corporation, because that body will feel bound to oppose these Clauses. For those reasons I trust that the House will accept the Instruction which we have moved and await a full consideration and discussion of the great principles involved in these Clauses on the Government Bill when it is submitted to the House.

Question put, "That it be an Instruction to the Committee to leave out Clauses 3 and 4."

The House divided: Ayes, 105; Noes, 35.

Division No. 296.] AYES. [8.53 p.m.
Agnew, Lieut.-Com. P. G. Clarry, Reginald George Fremantle, Sir Francis
Atholl, Duchess of Clayton, Sir Christopher Fuller, Captain A. G.
Balfour, George (Hampstead) Curry, A. C. Graves, Marjorie
Benn, Sir Arthur Shirley Davison, Sir William Henry Grenfell, E. C. (City of London)
Bernays, Robert Dawson, Sir Philip Gritten, W. G. Howard
Bevan, Stuart James (Holborn) Dickle, John P. Guy, J. C. Morrison
Blindell, James Dixon, Rt. Hon. Herbert Hall, Capt. W. D'Arcy (Brecon)
Boulton, W. W. Duckworth, George A. V. Hamilton, Sir George (Ilord)
Broadbent, Colonel John Duncan, James A. L, (Kensington, N.) Hanley, Dennis A.
Brocklebank, C. E. R. Ellis, Sir R. Geoffrey Hannon, Patrick Joseph Henry
Burnett, John George Elmley, Viscount Harbord, Arthur
Chapman, Col. R. (Houghton-le-Spring) Emmott, Charles E. G. C. Harris, Sir Percy
Christle, James Archibald Essenhigh, Reginald Clare Hellgers, Captain F. F. A.
Herbert, Major J. A. (Monmouth) O'Donovan, Dr. William James Sotheron-Estcourt, Captain T. E.
Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hackney, N.) Oman, Sir Charles William C. Southby, Commander Archibald R. J.
Hunter, Dr. Joseph (Dumfries) Pearson, William G. Spencer, Captain Richard A.
Hunter-Weston, Lt.-Gen. Sir Aylmer Perkins, Walter R. D. Stanley, Rt. Hon. Lord (Fylde)
James, Wing-Com. A. W. H. Procter, Major Henry Adam Stones, James
Janner, Barnett Radford, E. A. Storey, Samuel
Ker, J. Campbell Ramsay, T. B. W. (Western Isles) Strauss, Edward A.
Leech, Dr. J. W. Ray, Sir William Taylor, Vice-Admiral E. A. (P'dd'gt'n, S.)
Levy, Thomas Reed, Arthur C. (Exeter) Thomson, Sir Frederick Charles
Liddall, Walter S. Reid, William Allan (Derby) Thorp, Linton Theodore
Little, Graham-, Sir Ernest Rickards, George William Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.
Lovat-Fraser, James Alexander Ross, Ronald D. Ward, Lt.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
MacAndrew, Lieut.-Col. C. G. (Partick) Ross Taylor, Walter (Woodbridge) Ward, Irene Mary Bewick (Wallsend)
McKeag, William Runge, Norah Cecil Ward, Sarah Adelaide (Cannock)
Magnay, Thomas Rutherford, John (Edmonton) White, Henry Graham
Mander, Geoffrey le M Salt, Edward W. Whyte, Jardine Bell
Manningham-Buller, Lt.-Col. Sir M. Sandeman, Sir A. N. Stewart Williams, Herbert G. (Croydon, S.)
Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Selley, Harry R. Wills, Wilfrid D.
Martin, Thomas B. Shaw, Helen B. (Lanark, Bothwell) Withers, Sir John James
Mayhew, Lieut.-Colonel John Shute, Colonel J. J. Womersley, Sir Walter
Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univer'ties) Smith, Louis W. (Sheffield. Hallam)
Nall, Sir Joseph Somerville, Annesley A. (Windsor) TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Nation, Brigadier-General J. J. H. Somerville, D. G. (Willesden, East) Mr. Noel Lindsay and Mr.
Acland-Troyte, Lieut.-Colonel Gillett, Sir George Masterman Maclean, Nell (Glasgow, Govan)
Aske, Sir Robert William Greenwood, Rt. Hon. Arthur Mainwaring, William Henry
Batey, Joseph Grenfell, David Rees (Glamorgan) Mallalieu, Edward Lancelot
Brown, Brig.-Gen. H. C. (Berks., Newb'y) Griffiths, George A. (Yorks, W. Riding) Milner, Major James
Buchanan, George Hall, George H. (Merthyr Tydvil) Owen, Major Goronwy
Daggar, George John, William Tinker, John Joseph
Davies, David L. (Pontypridd) Jones, Henry Haydn (Merioneth) West, F. R.
Davies, Maj. Geo. F. (Somerset, Yeovil) Kirkwood, David Williams, David (Swansea, East)
Davies, Rhys John (Westhoughton) Lawson, John James Young, Ernest J. (Middlesbrough, E.)
Davies, Stephen Owen Liewellin, Major John J.
Dobbie, William Logan, David Gilbert TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Edwards, Charles Macdonald, Gordon (Ince) Lieut.-Colonel Gault and Mr. Croom-
Gardner, Benjamin Walter McEntee, Valentine L. Johnson.

Question, "That the Bill, as amended, be now considered," put, and agreed to.