HC Deb 15 November 1939 vol 353 cc756-69

5.3 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, in page 5, to leave out lines 4 and 5.

This is an Amendment to which my hon. Friends and I attach very considerable importance. Its effect would be to remove the Electricity Commissioners from the Schedule to the Bill. I am pleased that we have present with us, to assist us in the discussion of this Amendment, the Minister of Transport and his Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of Shipping and his Parliamentary Secretary, although the latter is occupying a somewhat modest position on the bench behind. I am sure, from what was said yesterday and at Question time on 8th November, that Members of the House will realise that the position of the Chairman of the Electricity Commissioners—he is also Director-General of Shipping—is a matter oh which the House is entitled to the very fullest information.

The last thing I want to do, as one interested in electricity, is to deprive the Electricity Commissioners in any way of the services of Sir Cyril Hurcomb. I have had the pleasure of working with him, both when he was at the Ministry of Transport and since he has been Chairman of the Commissioners. No words could express too highly the appreciation one has of the ability with which he discharges whatever function the Government think fit to impose upon him. I gathered at Question time, on 8th November, in reply to a supplementary question of mine, that before the present arrangement was reached the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Minister of Transport had consulted several hon. Friends of mine. I asked the following supplementary: Does not the right hon. and gallant Gentleman think that the job of being Chairman of the Electricity Commission at the present time demands the full-time duties of this gentleman? The answer given by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman was: This course has been taken after consultation with the electricity industry; and I may say that I have consulted at least two prominent Members of the hon. Gentleman's party opposite. We believe that it is in the best interests of the industry to keep Sir Cvril Hurcomb as titular Chairman of the Electricity Commission at the present time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th November, 1939; col. 202; Vol. 353.] The impression conveyed to my mind and to the House was that the consultation took place before the decision was reached in regard to Sir Cyril Hurcomb. It is very difficult to say who are prominent members of any party. I have made careful inquiries, and I have found two colleagues who sit beside me on the Front Bench who might be suspected of being to a certain extent prominent—one is an hon. Friend and the other is a right hon. Friend—who were consulted by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. My hon. Friends says that he passed the right hon. and gallant Gentleman on to my right hon. Friend with that deference to superior authority which is always becoming, even in this House. They assure me—and this is the important point which I want to make clear from the point of view of my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend—that this consultation with them did not take place until after the decision to send Sir Cyril Hurcomb to the Ministry of Shipping had been taken. At the time they were consulted the matter was not fluid and capable of very easy adjustment.

The Electricity Commissioners were constituted under Section 1 of the Electricity Supply Act, 1919, for the purpose of promoting, regulating, and supervising the supply of electricity. Sub-section (2) provides that they shall not exceed five in number; Sub-section (3) provides that three of the commissioners shall be whole-time officers; Subsection (4) provides that three of the commissioners shall be selected for practical, commercial, and scientific knowledge and wide business experience including that of electrical supply; Sub-section (6) provides that the commissioners may act by two of their number and notwithstanding a vacancy in their number.

The position for some months past—I am not sure that it does not now reach into years—has been that there were only three commissioners, including the chairman. With Sir Cyril Hurcomb's departure to what must be for all practical purposes a whole-time post as Director-General of Shipping, only two commissioners are left, and they can act only by two. In the event of one of those two being ill, or in any other way incapacitated, the commissioners would be unable to act. We are told, of course, that Sir Cyril Hurcomb could be brought back to give decisions of major importance. I do not know that that is not nearly the height of irresponsibility—I would almost have thought impracticability—in the conduct of the commission. Clearly, if the present chairman is to advise the Minister on matters of major importance he must be in a position to give a substantial amount of time to considering the evidence on the various matters concerned. It is not fair to the electricity supply undertakers or the electricity industry, or to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman himself, that they should have to depend for decisions of major importance upon a chairman whose main thought must at the moment be given to questions of shipping and to the issues that are raised in that Ministry.

The two other gentlemen are very well known to me and I wish to speak of them in terms of the very highest respect. it must not be thought that I do not regard them as exceedingly suitable persons to hold positions as Electricity Commissioners at a time when the Commission is reasonably fully constituted; but they do represent a narrow experience as compared with the wide issues of public policy which the Commissioners have from time to time to take into their consideration. One of them, the deputy-chairman, was for 26 years a partner in the firm of Kennedy and Donkin, consulting engineers—between 1908 and 1934. The other gentleman, Mr. Morley New, has some experience, although not of the very widest kind, in municipal electricity supply. Those are the two remaining Commissioners after the withdrawal of Sir Cyril Hurcomb.

It is highly important not that there should be some possibility of reducing their number, as may be done by an Order made under the Bill, but that steps should be taken at the very earliest possible moment to strengthen the Commission. I know there is a feeling in some parts of the industry that it would be a good thing if the Commissioners were put into cold storage for the period of the war, so that the industry could conduct itself without what the persons to whom I now allude regard as the interference of the Commissioners. I suggest to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that it may be very desirable at the present time that the Commissioners should be strengthened. No one knows the duties that some unexpected turn of the war may throw upon the Commissioners, in the preparation and examining of schemes and in submitting to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman appropriate advice upon them.

I should like the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to consider one matter which is an inheritance from a distant past. The Electric Lighting Act, 1888, enabled a local authority which had obtained an Order for the supply of electricity to its district to hand that Order over to a company to run. At the end of 45 years the local authority was to have the right of purchasing the undertaking from the company. Inasmuch as a great number of those Orders, the earliest Orders, in respect of districts which were then reasonably well-developed, and which have since become highly developed, were granted in the nineties, the 45 years are now coming to an end in a very large number of cases. So far as the County of London is concerned, the position has been stabilised until 1971, but in the area outside London, the remainder of the area controlled by the London and Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority, no fewer than 42 of those purchase rights mature within the next five years.

They affect 10 companies and 23 local authorities. These purchase rights can only be exercised after consultation now with the Electricity Commissioners, and if they are exercised in a certain way there has to be an Order by the Elec tricity Commissioners. In any event there has to be consideration by the Commissioners of the financing of any such arrangement. The Electricity Commission is the body which sanctions loans for this purpose. I want to reinforce what I have said by referring to a conversation which I had recently with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. I was ill-advised enough to put a question on the Order Paper asking how many sanctions had been granted by the Electricity Commissioners during the months of September and October, and as a result of that the Parliamentary Secretary took me into one of the more secret parts of the Palace of Westminster and explained to me that I really ought to be very careful about probing so deeply into the inner recesses of Government administration, because there was no telling what use the enemy might make of the information. For a moment I was seriously perturbed lest I might be handed over to the tender mercies of the Attorney-General, as was the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys).

Apparently, the way in which these loans are dealt with at the present time is regarded as a very important matter. I could well understand the point if I had asked for details in regard to certain parts of the country—the way in which the action of the Commissioners might help or impede the supply of electricity to munition factories and to any places where a shifting of the population may have taken place. I suggest that the reasons I have adduced are serious reasons for considering not the weakening of either the numbers or personnel of the Commission but a strengthening of that body. As to the position of Sir Cyril Hurcomb, I understand that the real difficulty is that his salary as Chairman of the Commissioners is higher than the salary he will get as Director-General of Shipping. I am quite sure that there is no hon. Member who would say that we should call upon the Chairman of the Electricity Commission to leave that job and go to another for the public advantage and lose what, I understand, is a substantial sum of money, in the process. If there is any difficulty on that score I am sure it would be far better for the Minister to be quite frank with the Committee and say that we really must preserve Sir Cyril Hurcomb's position as Chairman of the Electricity Commission, so that he can go back to it at the end of the war and not lose money in the meantime.

Speaking for my hon. Friends and myself no objection would be raised to any arrangement of that kind. It would be infinitely preferable to making him responsible for giving advice without being able to give his whole time to the consideration of the intricate questions which are involved. We should frankly prefer some way of dealing with the matter whereby he is withdrawn from the Electricity Commission for the period of the war on the clearest understanding that when war ends his services can be dispensed with at the Ministry of Shipping and he can be reinstated as Chairman of the Electricity Commission. That would be a better solution of the difficulty than the one which we understand is at present under consideration. All those connected with the electrical industry will be reluctant to lose Sir Cyril Hurcomb for any length of time. Vital as electricity is to this country we recognise that in the present circumstances of the nation shipping must have priority, and as Sir Cyril Hurcomb had extensive and successful experience of shipping during the last war it is highly desirable that, as he is still available, he should bring his undoubted gifts to the public service in the Department of the Ministry of Shipping.

We have always felt that the national control of electricity was a matter of vital public policy. What I have said with regard to purchase rights and the way they are maturing is some indication why certain interests in the electricity supply world may very well desire that the whole of the electrical administration shall be put: into cold storage for a period which would get them over some of these purchase dates. We feel that the existence of war can be no excuse for depriving the public of rights which were secured to them as long ago as 1888, and that if anything is to be done with regard to cold storage it is advisable to suspend the dates for the exercise of these purchase rights to cover whatever period is occupied by the war. Then, in normal times, nobody's rights in the matter would be prejudiced. We should prefer that they should be exercised at the dates already provided for, but if in the circumstances that is not possible I suggest that what I have put before the Committee is a reasonable way of dealing with the position. I trust that the Committee will realise that nothing I have said is to be construed in the slightest way as a reflection on the capacity of either of the three existing Commissioners. I have endeavoured to make it plain that we recognise the difficult position in which they are placed. It is highly desirable in the interests of all concerned, including the commissioners, that the frankest possible exposition of the position which has arisen should be made by the Minister and- I trust that after what has been said he will be able to withdraw these two lines from the Bill.

5.24 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris

I want to fortify what the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has said. He has done a real public service in calling attention to this matter. I also want to endorse the tribute he has paid to the qualities and abilities of Sir Cyril Hurcomb. We know what valuable work he did as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. The efficiency of that organisation is largely due to his administrative abilities in the early days. He laid the foundation on sound lines. He is obviously suited by training and experience to be the chairman of such an important body as the Electricity Commission. The hon. Member is right to insist that the Commission is not properly constituted if it is limited to members with engineering experience and training. When the Commission was first instituted one of its first members was put in primarily because of his financial training and experience—Sir H. Hay ward. He left an important position on the London County Council to become one of the first members of the Commission, and he was able to give them the advantage of his ability and training in the delicate matters of local government finance, which is as important a part of the work of the Commission as is that of deciding on the technical and electrical development of this great industry.

There happens to be a way out. We do not want to do anything which will mean that in giving his great services to the Ministry of Shipping Sir Cyril Hurcomb will suffer financial loss. On the other hand, it is most important that this great industry and its future development should not be hindered by the absence of what may be described as the civil side in working out policy. I suggest that if the Minister can find someone with financial experience, some official connected with local government who is coming to the end of his period of service in local government, he is the kind of man who could do useful work in the war years. It may be that if the war should unfortunately drag on, the development of electricity will become increasingly important. The experience of the last war was that with the shifting of the location of industry different forms of power to what was required in ordinary peace times became urgent, and therefore, if the Minister will accept the Amendment, or meet the spirit of it by some gesture, he will get over what is a practical difficulty. It would be a disaster if the services of Sir Cyril Hurcomb were in any way curtailed or decreased on this most important department. The Department of Shipping will be increasing in importance as the months go by but, on the other hand, we do not want to see the great electrical industry suffering because the Chairman has had this exceptional training and experience. I suggest that here is an opportunity of meeting a practical suggestion and I hope the Minister will take advantage of it or put forward some practical alternative.

5.30 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Captain Wallace)

I should like, first of all, to say how much I appreciate the tribute which the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has paid not only to Sir Cyril Hurcomb, but to his two colleagues on the Electricity Commission, and I am very glad that the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) also associated himself with those extremely well-deserved encomiums. I shall be as frank with the Committee as the hon. Member for South Shields has been, and meet him in the spirit in which his speech was made. The reason for the proposal which I have put before the Committee is precisely that which the hon. Gentleman has stated; it is to deal with the situation created by the transfer of Sir Cyril Hurcomb to the Ministry of Shipping. The hon. Member for South Shields was good enough to make for me, in much better language than I could, a good part of my case.

Sir Cyril Hurcomb is a man with very unique experience, and when it was decided to set up a Ministry of Shipping, I was asked whether Sir Cyril could be spared to assume the office of Director-General. The Committee will have no difficulty in believing me when I say that I was extremely loth to contemplate the departure of Sir Cyril from the chairmanship of the Electricity Commission, where I know, even in the short time I have been Minister of Transport, he has done very fine work indeed; but as the hon. Member for South Shields very truly said, it was quite patent that at the present time the interests of the Ministry of Shipping must come first. Therefore, I had no difficulty whatever in deciding that I must raise no objection to the release of Sir Cyril Hurcomb to take over these vitally important duties. The question with which I was then confronted was what was the best arrangement that could be made in the interests of the electricity industry, for which I am the Minister responsible; and after consulting Sir Cyril Hurcomb and other people, I came to the conclusion that, at any rate as far as I can see at present, the interests of the electricity industry would be best served by retaining him in the titular chairmanship of the Commission. I very much appreciate the generous attitude adopted by the hon. Gentleman opposite in regard to the question of salary, and I should like to assure him and the Committee that we are not doing this because of any difficulty in regard to salary. We appreciate that that matter could be adjusted. My sole motive in making the proposal is to do what I believe to be best for the electricity industry.

The hon. Member for South Shields described to the Committee the origin and functions of the Electricity Commissioners, and it is not necessary for me to repeat what he said. Immediately prior to the war, there were three whole-time Commissioners, including the chairman, and they had a staff of 142 people. The existence of a state of war has obliged the Commissioners to put on one side, at any rate temporarily, some major questions of electricity policy which otherwise would undoubtedly have been engaging their attention, and mine as well. For instance, the reorganisation of electricity distribution is one those major questions, and another is the question of holding companies in the electricity industry. Hon. Members will remember that before the war the Government were proposing to introduce a Bill dealing with the reorganisation of electricity distribution, and shortly after I assumed office as Minister of Transport; I assured the House, in answer to a question, that the Government regarded this as a matter of major importance with which they intended to deal as soon as circumstances permitted.

But apart from the disappearance, at any rate pro tem,oithese major problems, there has been a change in the other work falling upon the Commissioners. That is in connection with what one may call their more routine duties in regard to loan sanctions and sanctions for overhead lines, both of which in the normal course of events provide the Commissioners with a good deal of administrative work. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has repeatedly issued injunctions to public bodies that they should limit loans to cases of pressing public need or war requirements, and these injunctions have naturally been taken into account by the undertakers, who might otherwise have been putting forward applications which would have been justified in peace time. At the outbreak of war, a very large number of applications for sanctions for overhead lines were outstanding, but in the altered conditions of to-day, undertakers in general are pressing only those which are of urgent national importance, that is to say, for things such as munition factories, where the questions involved would be technical engineering problems, with which, I agree with the hon. Member opposite, the other two Commissioners are particularly fitted to deal, and which are not questions of major policy.

Like some other public departments, but perhaps not all, the Commissioners have found some reduction in the correspondence on general electricity affairs which they received from the public, and of the 142 members of the Commission's staff, 54 have up to the present gone to join the Forces or to employment on war work in other Government Departments, and it has not been found necessary to replace them. I think these facts show that the war has appreciably reduced the day-to-day work of the Electricity Commission, and the possible new duties referred to by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton), whose speech last night I read very carefully, would be very largely of a technical character which, I think, the other two Commissioners, by common consent, could very effectively undertake. Naturally, I should be the last person in the world to want to work with an Electricity Commission which was understaffed either in quantity or in quality, because if anything went wrong I am the person who, to use a popular American phrase, would have to "take the rap." I assure the Committee that my interests lie entirely on the side of seeing that this Commissian is an efficient body to do the work it has to do, in every sense of the word, but I must say frankly that the inquiries which I-have made show that the two whole-time Commissioners who are left, to whose ability we have already heard tributes, together with the extremely experienced and efficient secretary, ought to be able to carry on the day-to-day business of the Commission, and I will take the risk of saying that I am satisfied that they are.

There is then, of course, the question of major policy. I am assured by Sir Cyril Hurcomb himself—and here again, I think the Committee will feel that he is in as good a position as anybody to judge—that, consistent with his whole-time duties in the Ministry of Shipping, he will find it possible to see that no question of major policy is submitted to me as Minister on which he has not had an opportunity to pronounce. I agree with the Committee that a very good case can be made in theory for saying that one man cannot do two jobs, and that if he is whole-time at the Ministry of Shipping, it is not possible for him to give some time each week to me; but I hope the Committee will recognise that in war time it has often been found before that people can always do a little more than they were expected to do. I will say frankly that, as at present advised, I would prefer to rely upon the fact that Sir Cyril Hurcomb was available, so to speak, round the corner for any question of major policy than to make any other arrangement which I conceive to be possible at the moment. I fully realise that I am not the only pebble on the beach and that the electricity industry itself has a right to have just as much say in this matter as the Minister. Yesterday morn ing, I was fortunate enough to have a meeting with a body of persons including representatives of three main bodies—first, the Incorporated Municipal Electrical Association; secondly, the Joint Committee of Company Associations; and last, but not least, the Conference of Joint Electricity Authorities, Joint Advisory Boards, and Joint Committees. I am assured—and I do not think it can be contradicted—that those three bodies together may be said to represent the electricity industry.

Mr. Ede

They might claim to represent the supply industry.

Sir H. Williams

Not the manufacturers.

Mr. Ede

Nor the consumers.

Captain Wallace

Not the manufacturers or consumers. I think the Committee will consider that it is an important point, and one which I am entitled to stress, to say that these three bodies together, having had the situation put to them as frankly as I have put it to the Committee to-day, feel satisfied that the arrangement which I propose—that Sir Cyril Hurcomb should remain titular chairman of the Commission and that the number of whole-time Commissioners should be reduced to two under the arrangement proposed in the Bill—is satisfactory to the industry at the present time and in the best interests of the industry. I realise, however, the force of the argument put by two hon. Members opposite and by the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green, and I will say that, although I am satisfied that these are the best arrangements in the interests of the industry which I can make at the present time, I should be the last person in the world to adopt a stand-pat or non fiossumusattitude, and that if in the months to come I can be convinced that any other arrangements would be more to the advantage of the electrical industry as a whole—including the consumers—I should be only too willing to listen to any representations and to make my contribution to some solution which would achieve the object which I am sure it is the desire of everybody in the Committee to achieve, that is to say, to have the most effective and efficient Electricity Commission we can get. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentle man will be good enough to withdraw the Amendment on the strength of the assurance I have given.

Mr. Ede

I thank the right hon. and gallant Gentleman for the frank answer he has given. There is one point with which he did not deal, and with which I would like him to deal. Section I, Sub-section (6), of the Electricity Supply Act, 1919, reads as follows: The Commissioners may act by two of their number and notwithstanding a vacancy in their number. I asked the right hon. and gallant Gentleman whether he proposes to vary that. That is a matter which would have a very considerable influence with my hon. Friends and myself in the attitude which we adopt towards the speech the Minister has made. We feel very strongly that the Commission ought still to act by two of their number, and we are anxious that some arrangement should be made whereby they shall be two people who can give their whole time and consideration to the problems. It is not, of course, necessary to appoint a chairman. The Minister still has power to appoint two more members before he reaches the maximum of five. I should like also to say a word about the body which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman saw yesterday. It is the Joint Committee of Electricity Supply Associations. There was not one member of a municipal electricity supply undertaking on that body. There are three engineers on it and the clerk and solicitor of the London and Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman discussed with them matters of major policy. I am only speaking about the municipal side and I would point out to him that this is a body composed entire of officials, and I know that one of those officials had been told both by his chairman and his vice-chairman that they took the view which I have placed before the Committee this evening. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman will, I hope, realise that in dealing with the municipal side of the industry it is desirable to deal with the members of the authorities rather than with the officials on these matters of high policy. I should be obliged if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman could explain the point about the Commissioners acting through two of their number.

Captain Wallace

The Committee has probably appreciated the fact that the proposal which we are discussing is merely permissive. It simply enables me to submit to His Majesty a draft Order-in-Council and I will certainly undertake that in drawing up that Order-in-Council, the point which the hon. Gentleman has raised will be properly dealt- with. I imagine that he will regard that as satisfactory. I appreciate the point he has made and I shall be glad to discuss it with him afterwards in order to see whether we cannot arrive at some practical solution.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question, "That this Schedule be the Schedule to the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, considered; read the Third time, and passed, with Amendments.