HC Deb 04 May 1934 vol 289 cc655-63

(1) Unless otherwise agreed the undertakers shall, at their own expense, carry out the necessary alterations to consumers' existing apparatus to suit any altered system or pressure of the supply or pay to each consumer injuriously affected by the alteration of system or pressure such sum as may he agreed upon or, in default of agreement, as may be determined by an arbitrator to be appointed on the application of either party by the Minister of Transport as the reasonable cost of, and incidental to, the change of system or pressure (including compensation for any loss or damage incurred in consequence of the alteration), and upon such appointment being made the reference to the arbitrator shall be deemed to be a reference to a single arbitrator under the provisions of the Arbitration Act, 1889.

(2) Provided that in any case where notice of their intention to carry out the aforesaid necessary alterations is served by the undertakers on a consumer not less than one month and not more than six months prior to the date fixed by the undertakers for carrying out the said alterations, no liability shall attach to the undertakers in respect of apparatus installed by the consumer after the service of such notice unless otherwise agreed between the undertakers and the consumer and a condition to this effect shall be clearly stated in any such notice as aforesaid.

(3) The undertakers shall send a copy of this section to each consumer at the same time as they send the notice of their intention to change the system or pressure.—[Mr. G. Peto.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.3 p.m.


I beg to move "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This New Clause is proposed in place of Clause 19 now in the Bill which I understand the undertakers are not prepared to accept. On behalf of the consumer I hope that they will be able to accept the New Clause. Under the existing law and the regulations of the Electricity Commissioners undertakers may not change the system or pressure of a supply without the authority and licence of the Commissioners and when the Commissioners give their consent they impose certain conditions. This Clause repeats those conditions as far as Sub-sections (1) and (2) are concerned but Sub-section (3) introduces a condition which is most important to consumers. Consumers ought to know what their rights are when a change-over of this kind is made in the system or pressure and at present the consumer in many cases is not aware of the fact that he has power to recover from the undertaker the cost of replacement of a wireless apparatus, fittings and so on, if the change-over necessitates such replacement.

The other day I was sent a notice by a supply company with regard to a change over from direct to alternating current. The notice simply stated that a supply of electrical energy would be given by direct current for wireless apparatus on special terms and conditions as shown in a separate leaflet. The separate leaflet stated that a direct current wireless apparatus must be connected with a separate circuit—which is expensive—that it was necessary to hire a meter at a rental of one guinea a year and that the charge would be 6d. per unit for the supply of electricity—although the same company supplies current for lighting in normal circumstances at prices ranging from 3¾d. to 4½d. per unit and for power purposes at 1d. per unit. Far from telling the consumer that he had the right to have his wireless apparatus replaced free of charge they only tell him that he has to pay a higher charge for the electricity, as well as the rental of the meter and the cost of connecting up with a separate circuit.

I would like the Minister to tell the House whether supply companies have the power to enforce conditions of that kind. If they have that power, it seems to me to be directly in contradiction to the conditions under which the Electricity Commissioners grant the licence. At any rate, my point is that such rights as the Commissioners confer upon the consumers should be made known to the consumers. It is impossible for individual consumers to study a notice in small type which appears once for all in a local newspaper, probably months before they know anything about the change over. At the time of the change-over, when the consumer is notified of it, he should also be notified of his rights as provided in the regulations issued by the Electricity Commissioners.

1.6 p.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

The hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. Williams) referred to the Act of 1899, but since then conditions have altered enormously. We now have the Central Electricity Commissioners spreading their tentacles all over the country, and eventually it will become a monopoly, and this Bill tends to give everything to the undertaker and to take away many of the rights of the consumer. I have known many cases myself where the periodicity or voltage has been altered and consumers have been asked to pay something towards the alteration of their motors or apparatus.




It is so, but in any case there is no harm in this new Clause, because the first two sub-sections of it are definitely the instructions of the Central Electricity Commissioners, and our idea is to have them in the Bill, so that they shall be sent to the consumers, who will then know what their powers are in the matter.

1.8 p.m.


The hon. Members who have moved and seconded this Clause would appear not to be familiar with the fact that the Electricity Commissioners always insist upon a similar kind of undertaking before they authorise the voltage to be changed, but as the hon. Members wish to have it in the Bill, I think there is no objection to it, except that there is this disadvantage, that the Commissioners may think they would have insisted upon even more rights to the consumer than those contained in the Bill. Nevertheless, as the hon. Members wish to have it, I see no objection to it if the House agrees to its insertion.

1.9 p.m.


I understand the anxiety of the hon. Members who support this new Clause, but I can assure them that they are under an entire misapprehension. Years ago my own premises were changed over by the municipal authority, who were the suppliers, and notice was served in the ordinary way. They inspected all the apparatus and changed it over. I have served notices in a large number of cases where a change has been made, and everyone of the premises has been visited and inspected, and there has been no trouble. Perhaps confusion arises where a change is made at the same pressure, where there is only lighting in the house, from direct current to alternating current, and the question of wireless apparatus arises. I think that is the only case in which there might be a cause of grievance, but to alter the general Statute with such far-reaching effects in order to overcome such a possible defect would be, in my opinion, a grave mistake.

Even any difficulty arising in that connection is very fully covered, because, in the first instance, no supply authority has any right to make any change, once it has declared its system and its pressure, which would involve any expense whatever to the consumer. That is the position at the present time, and we have been at great pains in recent years to set up administrative machinery, namely, the Electricity Commissioners, to deal with a great many of these points. Now it seems that we are going to re verse that operation, take away from the Commissioners many of their rights and proper functions, and insert those functions in a Bill, and I suggest that it will be doing a grave disservice to the consumers if we do anything of the kind, because under the regulations affecting these questions hon. Members will find that there is ample provision made for the protection of wireless and all other apparatus on consumers' premises. In the case mentioned by my hon. Friend opposite, in which the consumer had to pay part of the cost—


I read out an actual notice.


I was referring to the other hon. Member, who mentioned a case where a consumer had to pay part of the cost of changing an apparatus.


He did not pay, because he happened to know the law, but he was asked to pay.


Even so. I agree that there may be cases where people pay, but the only case, I think, in which they are under any legal liability to pay is where, by agreement, and by agreement only, a man perhaps has a very old 10-horse-power motor and, owing to in creased activity, wants a 20-horse-power motor, and he agrees to pay the agreed difference in value, which is good value to himself. Except for such the consumer is under no liability in law to incur any expense in relation to a change of periodicity or pressure, and if any doubt arises, he is amply covered under the regulations laid down by the Electricity Commissioners. In the interests of the consumer, therefore, I would press my hon. Friends not to pursue this Clause.

1.13 p.m.


I rise to support my hon. Friends who ask for the inclusion of this Clause. I agree that the consumer is amply covered by the present state of the law, but the trouble is that the consumer does not know it, and unfortunately some electricity undertakers persistently take advantage of the fact that the consumer does not know the law. I believe that that is being done with great persistency as regards wireless apparatus, and that they regularly endeavour to persuade and advise consumers that as regards wireless apparatus they, the undertakers, are not bound to pay for the cost of conversion. I suggest that the part of this new Clause that would be really useful to the consumers is that which is set out in Sub-section (3), namely, that the undertakers shall send a copy of the existing law to the consumer at the same time as they send notice of their intention to change the system or pressure. If my hon. Friends could see their way to omit the first two Sub sections of the Clause, which I believe are rather dangerous, because they restrict the existing rights and powers of the Electricity Commissioners, and would stick to the third Sub-section only, I think it would be helping the consumers better than by insisting upon the whole Clause.

1.15 p.m.


The statement has been made that plant and fittings have been made obsolete owing to the change from continuous to alternating current and that consumers are not compensated. I have known cases where fittings have been made obsolete owing to this change and the owners have certainly received no compensation whatever. In the main, I am inclined to agree with the Bill, but I support those who, in putting forward this new Clause, think that the consumer is at a great disadvantage in not being aware of his rights under the law. I knew a man who had no sleep for weeks because he feared what would happen when the change was made from continuous to alternating current, although, if he had known his legal rights, he need have had no fear.

1.16 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM

I appreciate the desire of hon. Members to safeguard the interests of the consumers in this matter, for it is obvious that the consumer should not be harassed in the way it is suggested he has been harassed in the past. The first two Sub-sections of the proposed Clause take the form of an extract from the conditions that the Electricity Commissioners attach to their formal consent to undertakers when they change their system of pressure. These conditions have been adopted since the Commissioners came into existence in 1920 and are in conformity with the conditions attached by the Board of Trade prior to that date. There is a difference, I think, between putting these conditions definitely in an Act of Parliament and leaving them as they are at present. To put them in the Bill would tie the hands of the Commissioners and might not be altogether satisfactory. Under the Commissioners' regulations they have full discretion as to what, if any, conditions they will attach in a particular case. Under the proposed new Clause they would be definitely tied down.

I am not an expert in electricity, but there are a great many experts in the House, and I suggest that in an industry such as the electrical industry, where changes are taking place continually, it is very difficult to state that these conditions, which are applicable at the present time, will always be applicable in future. Modifications may be necessary in the interests either of the consumers or of the undertakers, and it would be a mistake to set out these conditions definitely in an Act of Parliament. I think that the real point that my hon. Friend has in mind is summed up in Sub-section (3) of the new Clause, and I can definitely state that to meet that point the Commissioners are prepared to give an undertaking that in all future consents they will make a condition that undertakers, in addition to the notice published in the local Press, must notify each individual consumer affected by the change over of his rights under the conditions. I think that that assurance should be sufficient to satisfy all anxiety about the consumers knowing the rights which they possess.


Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman realise that that only applies to supply undertakings which make the change over in future? The vast majority of them, I imagine, have already received their authority to change over from direct to alternating current, and their consumers are helpless. Otherwise, I welcome the suggestion.

Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM

Obviously, notice cannot be given in the past, and this will only apply to future notices.



The Parliamentary Secretary has suggested that Sub-sections (1) and (2) of the proposed new Clause would tie down the Commissioners in making regulations in future. Unless we supersede the present Acts by repealing them, I do not think it will do anything to tie them down. If these Sub-sections are only extracts of existing regulations, their insertion in the Bill cannot tie them down. With regard to Sub-section (3), if, as appears from the undertaking of the Commissioners which has been given by the Parliamentary Secretary, there is agreement that something should be done to let the consumers know their rights, there can be no harm in putting it in the Bill.

1.22 p.m.


The Minister's reply is inadequate. It is not sufficient to have only Sub-section (3) of the proposed Clause; the consumer should be told what the law is. I have a case in my town where men were rendered permanently idle because a consumer was not aware of his rights under the law. He set up a small electrical welding works and obtained substantial contracts for

making iron gates. Ultimately, the pressure was changed, and he got prices for unwinding a transformer and things of that kind. He was faced with great expense, not knowing the law, and had to dispense with his business. The man worried so much until ultimately he was faced with liquidation. Consumers are not aware of the law in this matter, and I am glad that the promoters of the Bill are moving to put this Clause in.

1.24 p.m.


Is not there a real risk which the Minister has not foreseen if we take out Sub-section (1) and (2) and leave only Sub-section (3)? If the first two Sub-sections are only regulations of the Commissioners and are not put in the Bill, they may be altered by them. As the hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) pointed out, we should have them in black and white in the Bill. It will be a grave risk if we do not put them in, and it will nullify Sub-section (3), for these regulations might be changed so that they will not be the protection to the consumer that we want them to be. I submit, therefore, that it will be better to accept the new Clause as it stands.

1.25 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM

I think the Clause would be undesirable, because as the industry changes it is necessary to have the power to issue new regulations. It has been decided by Parliament that that matter should be left in the hands of the Electricity Commissioners, whose object it is to develop the supply of electricity throughout the country and they are therefore just as much concerned with the interests of consumers as of the undertakers. Obviously if the industry is to develop it must be run on lines which are satisfactory to those who use electricity. I am only suggesting that it would be well to allow the discretion in this matter to remain with the Commissioners on the undertaking that they inform all consumers of electricity what rights they have.

Question put, "That the Clause he read a Second time."

The House divided: Ayes, 63; Noes, 58.

Division No. 240.] AYES. [1.26 p.m.
Anstruther-Gray, W. J. Barclay-Harvey, C. M. Brown, C. W. E. (Notte., Mansfield)
Attlee, Clement Richard Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'th, C.) Campbell Johnston, Malcolm
Banfield, John William Broadbent, Colonel John Cape, Thomas
Chorlton, Alan Ernest Leofric Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly) Rutherford, John (Edmonton)
Clayton, Sir Christopher Lamb, Sir Joseph Quinton Smith, Tom (Normanton)
Daggar, George Lovat-Fraser, James Alexander Southby, Commander Archibald R. J.
Davies, David L. (Pontypridd) MacAndrew, Lieut.-Col. C. G. (Partick) Summersby, Charles H.
Davies, Rhys John (Westhoughton) Macdonald. Gordon (Ince) Sutcliffe, Harold
Dickie, John p. McEntee, Valentine L. Tate, Mavis Constance
Dobbie, William McLean, Major Sir Alan Thorne, William James
Edwards, Charles Magnay, Thomas Ward, Lt.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Foot, Isaac (Cornwall, Bodmin) Mainwaring, William Henry Ward, Sarah Adelaide (Cannock)
Gault, Lieut.-Col. A. Hamilton Moreing, Adrian C. Wedgwood, Rt. Hon. Joslah
George, Major G. Lloyd (Pembroke) North, Edward T. West, F. R.
George, Megan A. Lloyd (Anglesea) O'Donovan, Dr. William James Whyte, Jardine Bell
Greenwood, Rt. Hon. Arthur Patrick, Colin M. Williams, Edward John (Ogmore)
Grenfell, David Rees (Glamorgan) Peto, Sir Basil E. (Devon, Barnstaple) Williams, Dr. John H. (Llanelly)
Groves, Thomas E. Ramsay, Alexander (W. Bromwich) Wilmot, John
Grundy, Thomas W. Renwick, Major Gustav A. Young, Ernest J. (Middlesbrough, E.)
Hales, Harold K. Rickards, George William
Hamilton, Sir R. W. (Orkney & Zetl'nd) Runge, Norah Cecil TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Jackson, Sir Henry (Wandsworth, C.) Russell, R. J. (Eddisbury) Mr. Geoffrey Peto and Mr. A. C. Reed.
Allen, Lt.-Col. J. Sandeman (B'k'nh'd) Hellgers, Captain F. F. A. Remer, John R.
Balfour, George (Hampstead) Howard, Tom Forrest Ropner, Colonel L.
Brocklebank, C. E. R. Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hackney, N.) Ross Taylor, Walter (Woodbridge)
Cadogan, Hon. Edward Hume, Sir George Hopwood Rutherford, Sir John Hugo (Liverp'l)
Caporn, Arthur Cecil Ker, J. Campbell Sandeman, Sir A. N. Stewart
Clarke, Frank Lindsay, Noel Ker Sanderson, Sir Frank Barnard
Cooke, Douglas Lockwood, John C. (Hackney, C.) Scone, Lord
Crossley, A. C. Maitland, Adam Skelton, Archibald Noel
Denman, Hon. R. D. Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Somerville, Annesley A. (Windsor)
Duckworth, George A. V. Mayhew, Lieut.-Colonel John Spens, William Patrick
Duncan, James A. L. (Kensington, N.) Mitchell, Sir W. Lane (Streatham) Strauss, Edward A.
Elliston, Captain George Sampson Morris-Jones, Dr. J. H. (Denbigh) Thomson, Sir Frederick Charles
Goodman, Colonel Albert W. Morrison, William Shepherd Turton, Robert Hugh
Grimston, R. V. Moss, Captain H. J. Williams, Charles (Devon, Torquay)
Hacking, Rt. Hon. Douglas H. Nation, Brigadier-General J. J. H. Wills, Wilfrid D.
Hamilton, Sir George (Ilford) Penny, Sir George Withers, Sir John James
Hannon, Patrick Joseph Henry Procter, Major Henry Adam Womersley, Walter James
Hartland, George A. Raikes, Henry V. A. M.
Haslam, Henry (Horncastle) Ramsay, T. B. W. (Western Isles) TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Headlam, Lieut.-Col. Cuthbert M. Ramsden, Sir Eugene Mr. Herbert Williams and Sir
Francis Fremantle.

Question put, and agreed to.