HC Deb 04 May 1934 vol 289 cc647-55

If the undertakers cut off or disconnect the supply of electricity to any premises and do not subsequently prove any contravention by the consumer of any Act, order, regulation or bye-law which would entitle them to cut off or disconnect the supply, the undertakers shall refund to the consumer any expenses or loss he may have incurred owing to such cutting off or disconnection.—[Mr. G. Peto.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

12.32 p.m.


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

This Clause was discussed in Committee. The Chairman said: It could be a new Clause. I do not think that this is the appropriate place for it. It has all the makings of a new Clause. I am not prepared, however, to say that it cannot be moved here—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Standing Committee C), 10th April, 1934; col. 74.]

It was moved and carried as an Amendment, without a Division, but I agree with the chairman and the promoters of the Bill that it would be better as a new Clause, and that is the reason why I am moving it. We are here trying to protect the consumers, just as certain hon. Members are trying to protect the consumers from the other Bill. The Clause means that if an electric supply company, believing that a consumer is using electricity improperly, disconnects the supply of electricity and it turns out that there is no ground for the suspicion, it is only reasonable that the consumer should be compensated for the loss and damage sustained by the supply being cut off. I think every hon Member will agree that that is fair.

12.34 p.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

It is only in keeping with what has been done in another part of the Bill by an Amendment in Committee. It is only reasonable and it follows out the decision of the Committee in that case. I suppose the hon. Member opposite, below the Gangway, who has been speaking so much on the Bill will follow with another speech. If he appreciates the value of this Amendment I am sure that he will be filled with admiration. I should like to make a kindly reference to the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams). I suppose he will follow. I can tell him that on this occasion my confidence in the new Clause is complete.

12.36 p.m.


I hope hon. Members will not persist in this proposal. They are again unduly anxious that the interests of consumers should be protected. At the present moment if an electricity supply undertaking is proved to have acted in excess of its authority and cut off the supply it is liable for damages. The new Clause is, therefore, absolutely unnecessary, and is only designed to throw the burden of proof on electricity undertakings in order to justify their action in cutting off the supply. If they did so and proceedings were taken against them the only thing the consumer would have £o prove under the new Clause would be that in fact the supply had been cut off, and the burden of proof would be on the undertakers to prove that they were justified in cutting off the supply.

12.37 p.m.


I must take notice of what the hon. Member for Platting (Mr. Chorlton) has said and come to his support on this occasion. I think my hon. Friends have made out a thoroughly good case for the insertion of these words. They are in the interests of consumers, and they also do something to clarify the Bill. It should have been done in Committee upstairs and not left to the House to put this new Clause in. I hope the proposal will be pressed to a Division, and I feel sure that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who is always looking after the interests of consumers, will give the proposal his support. I would also appeal to hon. Members who talk about the consumers and never do anything for them, Members of the Labour party, to give us their support on this occasion.

12.38 p.m.


I was very surprised at the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Thorp) in refusing to accept the new Clause. Let me give him a possible case that may arise in order to show why the proposal should be accepted. Suppose there is a large and wealthy electricity undertaking and the officials take unkindly to a small co-operative society. Hon. Members laugh at the supposition, but let me tell them that worse things than that have happened to the co-operative movement. But suppose it is the case of a man owning a small factory and there is a big electricity undertaking, the officials of which take unkindly to the owner of the small factory. Does the hon. and learned Member suggest that if the electricity supply of the small man is cut off by the big firm, and it is found later on to have been done without any reason, that the small man must go to the court and prove his case against the giant? If that is the law now then the law ought to be altered.


The law is the same for the poor man and the rich man.


Except that the rich man can buy the best brains to argue his case, whereas the poor man cannot.


The hon. Member knows that under the Poor Persons Procedure Act the poor man can get the best advice, solicitors and counsel, for nothing at all.


I was on the special committee appointed by Parliament to in quire and report on that subject, and although I know very little about the law I do know something about that. I can not agree with the statement which the hon. Member has made. The poor of this country cannot—


I think enough has been said on that subject.


I want to ask the hon. Member who has moved the new Clause and those who support him, to go into the Division lobby in support of the proposal. This is a private Members Bill and although I am speaking on my own behalf, I believe that I am justified in saying that the whole of the Parliamentary Labour party will follow into the Division lobby in support of it.

12.42 p.m.


It is quite right that we should think of the interests of the consumers, but we must not overlook the other side of this question. A consumer may run great risks and dangers, he may also endanger his neighbours, because his electricity supply is defective in some way or another. We must have a balance in this matter, and while we must consider the interests of the consumer we must also consider his interests in another way and if he is obstinate or difficult he should not be able to damage himself or his neighbours. If an undertaking exceeds its powers or acts unreasonably there is a provision in the law to meet the case, but if it acts within its powers and has reasonable cause to think that damage or danger may be incurred an undertaking should have the right to act.

12.44 p.m.


I rise to support the proposal which is in the interests of consumers of electricity. They should be safeguarded. The promoters of the Bill, it may be unintentionally, have loaded the dice against the consumer. If hon. Members will look at Clause 17 they will see in regard to meter rents that in the case of an allowance that has to be paid by a consumer on a surcharge the undertakers are to have the right to recover it in the same manner as charges for electricity are recovered. There is not a word about the poor consumer. He may go to the gas company, or anywhere else, or elsewhere, even to uncovenanted darkness. The movers of the new Clause are well advised and every bon. Member ought to support it.

12.45 p.m.


I am certain that if hon. Members will carefully read the new Clause they will realise how reasonable it is. It reads as follows: 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


You are reading the wrong Clause.


What I was about to say applies to the Clause which I should have read. It is as follows: If the undertakers cut off or disconnect the supply of electricity to any premises and do not subsequently prove any contravention by the consumer of any Act, order, regulation or bye-law which would entitle them to cut off or disconnect the supply, the undertakers shall refund to the consumer any expenses or loss he may have incurred owing to such cutting off or disconnection. As a matter of justice, if the consumer is put to inconvenience the undertaker should make up any deficit or expenditure that may be incurred thereby. The point has already been put that the consumer could never hope to be in the same position as the undertaker in prosecuting any claim. The undertakers have at all times at their disposal legal gentlemen who are able to render assistance upon the interpretation of any Act of Parliament. The ordinary consumer will always be at a disadvantage.

12.47 p.m.


The purpose of the new Clause is to secure for the consumer justice and compensation for expenditure that may be incurred owing to the cutting off of an electric supply. Would supporters of the new Clause look at page 4, line 10, of the Bill, where they will find these words : If there is found to be no such contravention the undertakers shall refund to the consumer any expenses or loss he may have incurred owing to the cutting off or disconnection of the supply of electricity to the premises. That is equivalent to what is proposed in this new Clause.


Perhaps the hon. Member was not in the House when I moved the Second Reading of the new Clause, which is to take the place of those words which he has read. The promoters have an Amendment on the Paper to omit lines 11 to 14 which the hon. Member has quoted.

12.49 p.m.


Honestly, I do not think the House is being treated fairly this morning. Several of the speeches have implied that this new Clause is needed to give to the consumer a protection that he does not enjoy at present. It was not upstairs that the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) thought that this might have been done. It was done as long ago as 1899. The Electric Lighting Clauses Act of that year, in Section 30, gives more protection than this new Clause, because it provides incidentally that in addition to doing what is necessary to restore a supply there shall be a penalty of 40s. a day for default in giving supply. That is something which has been working for 35 years without complaint from anyone. But to-day the same idea is brought in as novel and a great many totally unnecessary speeches have been made upon it.


In the case of the cutting off of electricity supply for a whole works is 40s. a day an adequate penalty?


This has been the law for 35 years, and there has been no single complaint brought forward. Those who have moved this new Clause were not aware of the existing law, because not one single speech has indicated any knowledge of it. It is not respectful to bring forward Amendments which entirely ignore the existing law, and I do not think that the time of the House should be wasted in such a way.

12.52 p.m.


I confirm what my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. Williams) has just said. [Laughter.] It is all very well for hon. Gentlemen opposite to jeer when I make such a statement. The law to-day is perfectly clear as to the right of consumers to full protection. This new Clause is only another illustration of the impossibility of legislating on serious matters of this kind in a Debate of this nature, without ample time being given to the full exploration of the Acts in existence and of the Bill which it is proposed to put on the Statute Book. I have no objection whatever to this Bill providing for these minor matters, but I do feel that we ought to be careful in scrutinising the wording of each Clause so that it will not prove an embarrassment either to the consumer or to the undertaker in future. This Clause definitely is unnecessary and will not afford any more protection to the consumer than if it were left out of the Bill. The promoters might say that that is a very good reason

for putting it in. I take the opposite view. It is the confusion caused by unnecessary Clauses that provides the greater portion of the income of the lawyers. I shall certainly vote against the Clause.


Does the hon. Gentleman think that 40s. a day fine is adequate compensation for the closing down of vast works by the cutting-off of the electricity supply?


Forty shillings a day is the penalty, but the consumers have full rights under the common law, and it is on record that substantial damages have been awarded where it has been proved that consumers were unfairly treated or that the supply was unfairly cut off.

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

The House divided : Ayes, 47; Noes, 88.

Division No. 239.] AYES. [12.54 p.m.
Attlee, Clement Richard Grenfell, David Rees (Glamorgan) Selley, Harry R
Banfield, John William Griffith, T. (Monmouth, Pontypool) Smith, Tom (Normanton)
Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'th, C.) Groves, Thomas E. Summersby, Charles H.
Bevan, Aneurin (Ebbw Vale) Grundy, Thomas W. Thorns, William James
Brawn, C. W. E. (Notts., Mansfield) Hamilton, Sir R. W. (Orkney & Zetl'nd) Ward, Sarah Adelaide (Cannock)
Cape, Thomas Jackson, Sir Henry (Wandsworth, C.) Wedgwood, Rt. Hon. Joslah
Chorlton, Alan Ernest Leofric Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly) West, F. R.
Clayton, Sir Christopher Lindsay, Noel Ker Whyte, Jardine Bell
Cove, William G. Macdonald, Gordon (Ines) Williams, Edward John (Ogmore)
Daggar, George McEntee, Valentine L. Williams, Dr. John H. (Llanelly)
Davies, David L. (Pontypridd) McGovern, John Wilmot, John
Davies, Rhys John (Westhoughton) Magnay, Thomas Womersley, Walter James
Dobbie, William Mainwaring, William Henry Young, Ernest J. (Middlesbrough, E.)
Eales, John Frederick Moreing, Adrian C.
Edwards, Charles Peto, Sir Basil E. (Devon, Barnstaple) TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Foot, Isaac (Cornwall, Bodmin) Procter, Major Henry Adam Mr. Geoffrey Peto and Mr. A. C.
George, Megan A. Lloyd (Anglesea) Ramsay, Alexander (W. Bromwich) Reed.
Allen, Sir J. Sandeman (L'pool, W.) Gault, Lieut.-Col. A. Hamilton Maitland, Adam
Allen, Lt.-Col. J. Sandeman (B'k'nh'd.) Gluckstein, Louis Halle Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R.
Anstruther-Gray, W. J. Goodman, Colonel Albert W. Mayhew, Lieut.-Colonel John
Balfour, George (Hampstead) Grimston, R. V. Mitchell, Sir W. Lane (Streatham)
Bernays, Robert Hacking, Rt. Han. Douglas H. Morris-Jones, Dr. J. H. (Denbigh)
Bossom, A. C. Hamilton, Sir George (Ilford) Moss, Captain H. J.
Broadbent, Colonel John Hannon, Patrick Joseph Henry Nation, Brigadier-General J. J. H.
Brocklebank, C. E. R. Haslam, Henry (Horncastle) North, Edward T.
Brown, Ernest (Leith) Headlam, Lieut.-Col. Cuthbert M. Palmer, Francis Noel
Brown, Brig.-Gen. H. C. (Berks., Newb'y) Hellgers, Captain F. F. A. Penny, Sir George
Cadogan, Hon. Edward Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel Arthur P. Raikes, Henry V. A. M.
Campbell-Johnston, Malcolm Howard, Tom Forrest Ramsay, T. B. W. (Western Isles)
Caporn, Arthur Cecil Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hackney, N.) Ramsden, Sir Eugene
Clarke, Frank Hume, Sir George Hopwood Reid, David D. (County Down)
Cooke, Douglas Hunter, Dr. Joseph (Dumfries) Reid, William Allan (Derby)
Crossley, A. C. Ker, J. Campbell Romer, John R.
Davies, Maj. Geo. F. (Somerset, Yeovil) Kerr, Hamilton W. Renwick, Major Gustav A.
Denman, Hon. R. D. Lamb, Sir Joseph Quinton Rickards, George William
Dickie, John P. Lambert, Rt. Hon. George Ropner, Colonel L.
Duckworth, George A. V. Lennox-Boyd, A. T. Ross Taylor, Walter (Woodbridge)
Duncan, James A. L. (Kensington, N.) Lockwood, John C. (Hackney, C.) Runge, Norah Cecil
Elliston, Captain George Sampson Lovat-Frasar, James Alexander Russell, R. J. (Eddisbury)
Emmott, Charles E. G. C. Mac Andrew, Lieut.-Col. C. G. (Partick) Rutherford, John (Edmonton)
Erskine, Lord (Weston-super-Mare) McLean, Major Sir Alan Rutherford, Sir John Hugo (Liverp'l)
Fremantle, Sir Francis Macquisten, Frederick Alexander Sandeman, Sir A. N. Stewart
Sanderson, Sir Frank Barnard Strauss, Edward A. Williams. Herbert G. (Croydon, S.)
Scant, Lord Sutcliffe, Harold Wills, Wilfrid D.
Somerville, Annuity A. (Windsor) Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L. Withers, Sir John James
Southby, Commander Archibald R. J. Ward, Lt.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Spens, William Patrick Williams, Charles (Davon, Torquay) TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Mr. Thorp and Mrs. Tate.