HC Deb 20 March 1940 vol 358 cc2074-86

Order for Second Reading read.

7.2 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bernays)

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

This Bill, which was passed without opposition in another place, proposes to make provisions similar to those included in the Special Acts (Extension of Time) Act, 1915. Its predecessor was unanimously accepted by both Houses, and I hope that this Bill will follow that pre- cedent. I do not think it contains anything which could cause discord either in the party opposite or among my hon. Friends. As the House will be aware, if a local authority or a statutory undertaker wants to construct new works it has normally to obtain authority by means of Private Bill legislation, and Parliament, in granting such authority as it sees fit, imposes a time limit. In peace-time an undertaker may find the programme is delayed, and there is risk that the works will not be finished by the prescribed date. It is right and proper in such a case that the undertaker should have to come back to Parliament with a further Private Bill and satisfy Parliament as to the reason for the delay before any extension of time is granted. Under war conditions the circumstances are obviously very different. It is very likely that, if there is delay, it is not due to any fault of the undertaker. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has good reasons for restricting borrowing, and there are the inevitable restrictions on materials like timber and steel, and, of course, there are conflicting demands for man-power. In such circumstances I think the House will agree that it would be unreasonable to impose upon undertakers the burden and expense of carrying through further Private Bill legislation in order to get their time limits extended.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

Does this mean a temporary abrogation of the right of a Member of Parliament to block a Bill that may come forward?

Mr. Bernays

No, Sir. This Bill enables a Minister of the Crown to consider the prayer of the undertakers for an extension of time. It is concerned with an extension of time for projects to which Parliament has already given its approval. The relative phrase is at the end of Subsection (1) of Clause 1, where it says that if the Minister is satisfied that such modification is requisite or expedient by reason of any circumstances directly or indirectly attributable to war then, after due notice to the parties concerned, and, if need be, after a local inquiry, he may publish in the "Gazette" an order extending the time limit.

There are two differences between this Bill and the Act which was passed in 1915, and I think the House will agree that they are necessary differences. The Act of 1915 gave power to extend time-limits for one year only, without prejudice, of course, to a further extension. His Majesty's Government have publicly announced that they are preparing for a war lasting three years, and the present Bill therefore enables the Minister to give an extension of three years instead of merely one year. We have carefully considered the question, raised in another place, whether the three years' extension might tend in any way to reduce the volume of public work available to absorb labour in the demobilisation period. There are many problematical factors involved, and I can give the assurance that, if the House sees fit to pass the Bill into law, we will see that the Departments are specifically asked, when exercising power under this Bill, to give particular consideration to the possible effect of any proposed extension of time on the post-war labour situation. If, for instance, it seemed likely when an extension of time was asked for that the war were shortly coming to an end, then the appropriate Minister would take that into account and might grant an extension for only a short period.

Another new feature of the Bill is found in Clause 1 (3, b), where we say that the duties and powers to which this Act applies include any power to purchase, or power of re-entry exercisable in relation to, a public utility undertaking, or part of such an undertaking. That is rendered necessary by the Electric Lighting Act, 1888. That Act and subsequent Acts gave local authorities an option to purchase certain electricity undertakings at the end of 42 years, and if that right is not then exercised, it revives at intervals of 10 years. As it was clear that these options could not mature until 1930, and it was not thought, even in the gloomy days of 1915, that the war would last until 1930, it was not regarded as a sufficiently live issue to call for legislation at that time. To-day the position is different, because these options are now becoming exercisable, but war conditions will in general make it impossible for local authorities to avail themselves of the options. This is true also of certain other undertakings, such as gas and water. The Bill therefore provides that on the application of any interested party for an extension of the time at which the option shall become exercisable the application may be granted, with, of course, corresponding adjustments of the dates of subsequent options. I think the House will agree that that is reasonable. Difficult questions may be involved in proposals to exercise purchase rights, and it might be unfair to more than one party that they should have to be handled in the middle of a war, with the knowledge that if the power were not then exercised it would go into cold storage for another 10 years. There is one technical point that is new. The Application to Scotland Clause in the Bill is necessitated by the passage of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act, 1936. I hope after this explanation that the Bill will win the same general acceptance as did its predecessor in 1915.

7.12 p.m.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

I see that Clause 4 makes the Bill applicable to Scotland, and I notice that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is here. There is a passage in Clause 4 which is underlined. It is only underlined with a single line. If our Whips are underlined with three lines, we know it is something serious, but even with one line it is evident that they wish to draw attention to the fact that something is going on, and I should like the Undersecretary of State for Scotland to explain what this really means. It says: (b) Sub-section (3) of Section two shall have effect as if Sub-sections (2) to (5) of Section two hundred and ninety of the Local Government Act, 1933, applied to Scotland with the substitution of references to an order for references to a summons, and the omission of the word 'summarily' in Subsection (4) and of the words from 'and every such order' in Sub-section (5) to the end of the Sub-section. To bring something like that before us in this haphazard fashion is to treat Scotland a little too cheaply. It might mean anything. It is all right for the lawyers over there to be smiling away, but this is how Scotland has been "diddled" time and time again, and we look to you, Mr. Speaker, to safeguard the rights and privileges of private Members. We have to keep a watch here because there is a war going on and the Government are making that the excuse for filching from us all the rights we have. That is why I asked whether the Bill meant filching away from us our right to stop any Private Bill that might be brought before the House. I should like to have an explanation from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland of what Clause 4 does.:

7.15 p.m.

Captain McEwen

May I be permitted to answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood)? His eagle eye has, with its usual perspicacity, taken in various facts, among others that there is an underlined paragraph in Clause 4. The underlining merely means that this particular paragraph was taken out of the Bill on the Third Reading in another place on the ground of Privilege, and the fact of its being underlined once rather than twice or thrice has no further significance. With regard to this particular Clause, as the hon. Gentleman will know, and indeed as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport has already said, the promotion of Scottish private legislation is governed by the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act, 1936, in the terms of which the promoters are required to proceed by presenting a petition to the Secretary of State praying him to issue a provisional order.

I would say at this point that the fears expressed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dumbarton Burghs on the score of the rights of private Members are entirely unfounded. The first paragraph of the Scottish application Clause in the present Bill, which is the Clause of which we are now speaking, provides that where it is desired to extend the time limit in an order or Bill under the 1936 Act, the appropriate Minister shall be the Secretary of State, and Clause 4 (b) to which reference has been made makes the necessary Scottish adaptation in Sub-sections (2) to (5) of Section 290 of the Local Government Act, 1933, which are applied by this Clause. I hope that with these few words of explanation and with my assurance, the hon. Gentleman will believe that no filching of rights, Scottish or otherwise, is being attempted by this Bill and that he will be satisfied with that explanation.

7.18 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

This is a necessary and useful Measure, and my hon. Friends and I are offering no opposition to it. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport has given us a reasonably clear explanation of the Measure, and we hope that it will be administered in the spirit of his speech, because undoubtedly it may be very necessary to grant some of these orders for less than the maximum period, having regard to the necessity there may be at some stage, let us hope in the not too distant future, to resume a good many of the activities which this Bill proposes to give us powers to postpone. Of course, one way of meeting the situation might be in certain cases not to grant the order for the full three years, because the Bill is quite clear on the point that postponement is to be for not more than three years, and therefore presumably an order made for less than three years would be valid; and if it is not already in the Bill, arrangements should be made for its extension if at the end of the period for which it was granted it appeared desirable to do so. Nothing should be done to make it difficult to start public works if they should be needed.

More particularly do I desire to direct my remarks to the suggestions with regard to the exercise of purchase rights of local authorities over electricity undertakings. In this matter the Government are moving with what, judged by the standard they accept, we must regard as commendable speed, because it was on 15th November last year that I drew attention to the necessity for this matter. They have taken only just over four months, and at the rate at which they do most things they are probably exceeding the speed limit; and the hon. Gentleman may find himself in difficulty with his own Department about that matter. This is a vitally important matter, and I hope that the period that the Government and the local authorities and the electricity industry generally will gain through this Bill will not be lost, but that an effort will be made to see this problem in its modern aspects as distinct from the aspect that it bore in those far-off days of 1888 when electric lighting was coming into vogue in this country.

It is curious that in those days, although we had a Conservative Government in office, no one doubted that in the long run the ownership of the electricity undertakings should properly be in the hands of the local authority. The order was granted to the local authority. They could lease it to a company, but at the end of 42 years that order was to revert to the local authority subject to their paying the persons to whom it had been leased a reasonable compensation at the end of the 42 years for the value of the undertaking as it then would exist. So that it was recognised even in that very Conservative House of Commons that the principle of public ownership of an electricity undertaking was the right and normal thing. Of course, a good many of the orders in the country have, in fact, been worked by the local authorities. I believe the majority of the electricity undertakers in the country are local authorities, at any rate as far as England and Wales are concerned. It is only with regard to those areas in which the companies have obtained a lease of an order that this matter arises.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we are reaching the time now when a large number of these orders are falling in. Forty-two years ago from now takes us back to 1898, and it was during the nineties of the last century and the first decade of this century that a very large number of these orders were granted in areas which have since developed very considerably, and it would have been quite fatal to the original conception of Parliament if this period of 42 years had been allowed to run out during the period of the present war. It is clear that the Treasury will not sanction the raising by the local authorities of the necessary loans to acquire these undertakings during the war.

I have here a list of the undertakings within the area of the London and the Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority over which purchase rights become exercisable within the next five years. It shows the importance of this particular matter at this particular date because if you take just one block of local authorities some of the most valuable undertakings in the outer London area will come under this purchase option during the next five years. In the area supplied by the North Metropolitan Electricity Company the purchase rights in respect of Enfield become exercisable on 22nd July, 1944; in Edmonton they become exercisable on 24th July, 1942; in Hertford and the neighbouring parishes under a special order they become exercisable on any 29th March at two years' notice; in Southgate they become exercisable on 2nd August, 1945; and in Tottenham they become exercisable on 31st December of this year. In St. Albans they become exercisable on 26th September, 1942, and in Slough there is a special right that is exercisable now by one year's notice. There are various other important parishes in the immediate vicinity of London where these purchase rights are almost immediately exercisable and will probably be affected by this Bill. Therefore, this is a Measure which is exceedingly desirable, and my hon. Friends and I welcome it as giving the local authorities a real chance of exercising their option in circumstances more favourable than those existing at the moment.

There is one other matter to which I must allude before I leave this subject. The position that arose in the county of London after the last war gives us a very serious warning with regard to what may possibly happen in the areas that I have mentioned. The right under the 1888 Act is to purchase at the value of the undertakings at the date at which the purchase is exercisable, quite irrespective of what was the original cost of the assets taken over. The rights in London became exercisable just after the last war when values were very considerably inflated owing to the temporarily high cost of materials, and the replacement value of the copper alone at that date was so great that the responsible committee of the London County Council held that it was impossible to exercise those rights with any economic justification at that time. I do not want to go into the political controversy that arose on the London County Council with regard to this matter; the London County Council was then in different hands from those which now control it, and a very bitter controversy arose. I am giving the view that was advanced by the responsible committee in those days for not exercising the purchase rights and in agreeing to the postponement of their exercise until the year 1971. It seems only fair that if purchase rights in the neighbourhood of London and throughout the country are to be postponed in the way provided in this Bill, there should be some arrangement by which the public who may have to exercise these purchase rights should not find their position worse as a result of a purely artificial increase in the values created by the conditions that may arise out of this war. I hope the lesson that was brought home, I think, to all con- cerned by the history of the negotiations on the inner circle of London after the last war will not be lost when provision has to be made for this particular phase of the matter to be dealt with. It is proposed to put down an Amendment before the Committee stage that will raise this matter quite directly, and I trust as there will be some days in which the Amendment can be seen the hon. Gentleman and his Department will give some attention to the point I have just raised.

There is one other matter I think the hon. Gentleman ought to give his attention to while he has the breathing space that this Bill will provide. In 1888 no one foresaw the immense development that electric lighting was going to achieve during the 42 years that these orders ran. Further, I venture to say no one in 1888 foresaw the Local Government Act of 1929 and the very complicated review of county districts which took place under it. The effect of these two things together has been to make such a mosaic of the electricity map when it is imposed on the local government map as to make it almost impossible in many cases to exercise these purchase rights because of complications that have arisen. Because a little bit of an undertaking has been transferred for local convenience from one local authority to another the consequence is that the purchase rights in respect of that small piece are exercised by a different local authority from the local authority that exercises rights in regard to the larger piece. The orders have virtually been amalgamated through companies like the North Metropolitan Company which have developed a system so intertwined that to abstract one piece may inflict serious technical injury on the whole. These great complications are making the original intentions of Parliament to secure ultimate public ownership of electricity supply exceedingly difficult of achievement. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that either by a Departmental Committee or in some other way he should use the time this Bill gives him to ensure when the normal functioning of the Electric Lighting Act is resumed it shall be resumed in an atmosphere of reality in which the original intentions of Parliament can have a reasonable chance of being achieved. As I have indicated, we welcome the Bill. It will do something to make these purchase rights really exercisable, but there are so many complications now that I trust the hon. Gentleman will use some of the time at his disposal to make the Act of 1888 a reality instead of a futility as it applies to these complicated cases.

7.34 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

There are certain Clauses embodied in the Bill by which the privileges of local government authorities are affected more than we thought they would be. The first question I would ask the Minister is whether the local authorities have been consulted in regard to this Measure. If not, will they be consulted before the Committee stage? My next point is to ask for an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary, although the question was raised in another place, but there are several lessons I have learned in this House. This is not a personal matter. One of the lessons I have learned is that you cannot place too much reliance on what is said in the House. It is what is contained in a Bill that matters, and I do not want the Parliamentary Secretary to take this to himself personally. I have learned more and more by listening to Debates in the House, assurances given by Ministers, and through following court proceedings in the "Times" from day to day.

Under Clause 1 the Minister has very wide powers, and I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether any assurance that he has given can be put in more concrete form during the Committee stage in order that many of my hon. Friends, some of whom have had to leave, can be reassured. In my own locality we suffer more from mining subsidence than any other area in the country. The miners'society has spent a tremendous amount of money dealing with it locally. They also got the House to pass a Bill, but although it was passed it was thrown out in another place. Does the Clause dealing with public works mean that if the Bill was passed after the war, they would have to wait three years to carry out public works of this kind? I remember that after the last war a large number of men were unemployed for a considerable time, and the county councils and the municipalities and other public bodies desired to carry out as much public work as possible. This will be the position in a more intensified way after this war. Therefore, between now and the Committee stage, will the Parliamentary Secretary consult his advisers and other people in order to see that this is put into more concrete form?

7.37 p.m.

Mr. Tomlinson (Farnworth)

Might I reinforce that appeal? I have listened to the arguments of the Under-Secretary and listened to his arguments in regard to the Extension of Time Act of 1915 as related to the present Bill. If the argument had been advanced towards the second portion of the Bill, the one dealing with undertakings about which my hon. Friend has spoken, I could have understood it, but I cannot understand the argument in relation to the first portion of the Bill. It seems that the Bill applies only to those powers obtained or now running or that will be sought during the progress of the war; that is, private Bills which have been obtained and under which work is either being carried out or is already put forward. Anyone who comes to the House in war time asking for powers to carry out work must have a very good case, or it must be an urgent necessity, otherwise the House will not grant the order and the Treasury will not grant the money. I cannot see the possibility of this being held up by war circumstances, because it would probably be those circumstances that had led to powers being granted.

In these circumstances and in these conditions, why extend the period of time beyond 12 months? The numbers will surely be few in which extensions will be sought or in which powers will be sought under present circumstances. Therefore, it seems to me the Minister will have ample time to devote to considering these questions if 12 months were the limit instead of three years. I can see many conditions happening in three years and work that ought to be carried out being shelved and the terms granted under the Bill being used for the purpose of shelving the work. The Minister has power under this Bill to grant an extension for periods of less than three years, but I am afraid the order as set out in the Bill will become the accepted thing, and if it is 12 months instead of three years, he can make any power he requires, particularly in regard to Sub-section (3, a). In regard to (3, b), I can see the strength of the argument in regard to three years. Even if the war finishes. I would not plead for an alteration in that regard. In regard to the first, I think he would not only have the confidence of the local authorities in the matter, but it would be to his advantage and that of the House generally and would strengthen rather than weaken the Bill if this were done.

7.41 p.m.

Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

I wish to raise a more detailed point. Though I agree that one would welcome the Bill, we do want some assurance in regard to it under Clause 1, Subsection (3), where there are these words: any duty or power imposed or conferred by a local or private Act…or an order. That raises the question in the minds of local authorities whether the orders will be under the Local Education Act, the Public Health Act, or the Public Works Facilities Act. It is quite certain that some orders may be covered by the Bill, particularly in respect of housing. But these orders should be defined as local Acts or Acts of a private nature. A doubt as to whether the Bill applies to these orders arose by reason of the fact that the orders themselves do not contain any time limit. If they are incorporated under the Section of the Land Consolidation Act, a time limit of three years is fixed. There is considerable doubt as to whether or not the Clause does cover that. If the Minister can give an assurance, a great deal of anxiety will be set at rest among all those responsible for its administration.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. Bernays

I would like to express my appreciation of the manner in which this Bill has been received. The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said we have taken four months to do it, but with his expert knowledge of the subject he will understand that a Bill of this kind has required a great deal of negotiation. One main question has been put to me, and I understand there is some anxiety in the House on the subject. I am asked to extend the period to one year instead of three years. Three years is a period that has advantages from the point of view of administration. I have given firm assurances, and it will be possible for the Department concerned, in granting a further period, to take into careful consideration the possible effect on post-war labour questions of any proposed extension of time. On the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith), who says that what matters is what is in the Bill, not what is said in the House, I agree, but I cannot make my assurances more concrete than I have made them. If, however, the hon. Members will put down an Amendment on the Committee stage, I will give it very careful consideration and take the sentiments of the Committee on that Amendment. The hon. Member for Stoke also asked me whether local authorities had been consulted. The local authorities' associations have been most carefully consulted. The hon. Member for South Shields raised an interesting point as to what might happen in London where, after the war, local authorities might be in the position of having to pay very inflated values. He informed the House that he intends to put down an Amendment. I do not know whether his ingenuity will enable him to get such an Amendment on the Paper. I am not sure that it comes within the scope of the Bill. Of course, I will give careful consideration to what he has said, and I will consult my advisers between now and the Committee stage./

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, for Tuesday, 2nd April.—[Lieut.-Colonel Kerr.]