HC Deb 25 June 1940 vol 362 cc272-4
The Chairman of Ways and Means

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

In moving the Second Reading of this Bill, it is right that I should refer to certain points which I raised on the Bill notice of which appeared on the Votes on Wednesday last. The points arise from their not being provided for by the existing Standing Orders. The Bill is one promoted by what is called a parent company, a company controlling through its holdings some 24 other companies. Most of these companies are statutory gas companies; but some of them are gas companies which are registered under the Companies Acts. The Bill asks for powers, not for the promoting company itself, but for those controlled, or subsidiary companies. The powers asked for are quite ordinary ones in the case of gas companies, but the point is that, being promoted by a company which is not in itself a gas company, but only a controlling company, there are no provisions under the Standing Orders requiring, for instance, the holding of what is known as Wharncliffe meetings, in order to get the consent of the proprietors of the companies concerned. There are similar points, as, for instance, that unless special steps are taken—and those steps are not provided for under the Standing Orders—powers might be obtained which might affect consumers without the consumers having notice of the application for the Bill.

There are considerable advantages in this form of Private Bill legislation. For instance, in this case, if the Bill were not promoted by the controlling company, it would mean that every one of the 24 subsidiary companies would have to promote a Bill. Many of them are very small, and the expense of promoting a Parliamentary Bill would be heavy and, indeed, in some cases almost beyond the possibility of the company. I have consulted the Lord Chairman of Committees in another place, and we have acted together on the same line in this matter. Perhaps I cannot do better than tell the House the line which was taken on the Bill in another place. It was referred by the Lord Chairman of Committees to a Select Committee. That Committee reported that having regard to the present national emergency and the statement made on behalf of the promoters, that before the Bill became law ordinary meetings of all these subsidiary companies would be held, and having regard also to the special financial position of the promoting company relative to the subsidiary companies, in their opinion the Bill should be allowed to proceed. The Bill has passed through all its stages in another place and comes down to this House. I have no doubt that the House will pass the Second Reading of the Bill—I see no reason why they should not do so, as it is in this particular case quite innocuous—and, moreover, Wharncliffe meetings have already been held by special arrangement in this case of all the subsidiary companies, so that in this case the difficulties have been got over. But, as this will be a precedent and one which may be followed in other cases, I should like to tell the House that I propose to appoint a small expert Committee to consider this type of Bill and advise me as to what alterations should be made in the Standing Orders relating to Private Bill legislation in order to deal with a Bill of this kind. When I get the report of that Committee, I shall have to ask the House in due course to pass revised Standing Orders.

Mr. Thorne

This seems to be a complete departure from Parliamentary practice, and I think that the Chairman of Ways and Means has some doubt in his own mind as to whether the Bill should be passed or not. As he has stated that he is setting up a Committee for the purpose of advising him for the future, I have no objection to the Second Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Graham White

The reasons given by the Chairman of Ways and Means seem to be sufficient for allowing the Bill to proceed, and the fact that meetings of the subsidiary companies will be held before the Bill reaches its final stages seems to be an adequate safeguard. But the Bill does, in fact, create an important precedent. I am interested to know whether the subsidiary companies have gone to the Board of Trade and asked for any observations from them.

Mr. Levy

I have been dealing, in company with a number of other hon. Members, with Private Bills for a good many years; and this is a departure. I will not make any comment with regard to the passing of the Bill, but, as the Chairman of Ways and Means has said, it is one of great significance and may lead to abuses. There are many Private Bills where the promoters seek to obtain powers which are peculiar to their own area.

Mr. Neil Maclean

Would it not be advisable that a Bill of this kind, establishing quite a precedent, should be withdrawn until the Committee has been set up?

It being Three of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.