HC Deb 25 February 1948 vol 447 cc2065-81
Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I beg to move: That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 10th February, 1948, entitled Electricity (Price Control) Order, 1948 (S.I., 1948, No. 224), a copy of which was presented on 11th February, be annulled. As you will have seen, Mr. Speaker, there is on the Order Paper a second Motion in the name of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre): That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 10th February, 1948, entitled the Electricity Supply (Relaxation of Obligations) Order, 1948 (S.I., 1948, No. 223), a copy of which was presented on 11th February, be annulled. They both relate to certain matters concerning the nationalisation of electricity. I do not know whether it would be convenient for them to be discussed together?

Mr. Speaker

I think that the principle of the two is more or less the same and, therefore, probably it would be for the convenience of the House if we had a discussion on the two on the first Motion. If the House agrees, I think that that would be the most convenient course.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The Order No. 224 is one which provides that, except with the licence of the Ministry of Fuel and Power, electricity charges may not be reduced. I desire to address the House solely with respect to the provisions of this order. I understand that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest will put forward certain considerations in connection with the other order which we are discussing. I fully understand the reasons which have caused the Minister of Fuel and Power to make this order. In fairness to him I should say that, paradoxically enough, on the Second Reading of the Gas Bill the Minister of Fuel and Power, switching with considerable speed to the subject of electricity, indicated his intention to make this order. In fairness to him, perhaps I should read a few words that he spoke on that occasion, because they give his reasons for introducing this order. On 10th February, according to the OFFICIAL REPORT, the right hon. Gentleman said: I am sorry to have to tell the House that in certain cases our confidence in the local authorities in this matter has been misplaced. There have been cases where large rebates have been granted to consumers as a sort of parting present from the municipal undertakings."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1948; Vol. 447, c. 232.] I understand that the order No. 224 is intended to deal with the matter. The first point to which I would invite attention is that this order is not confined to the municipalities. It covers all electricity undertakers. That is to say, it covers not only the municipalities, but also the electricity companies. On the right hon. Gentleman's own statement there would appear to be a clear distinction between the two cases. The first objection to this order on the face of it is that it goes beyond the municipalities and also affects the companies.

So far as the municipalities are concerned, I fully appreciate the bitterness which many of them feel not only at losing their electricity undertakings, but also at receiving for them such miserably inadequate compensation. So far as my own Royal and Ancient Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames is concerned, the effect will be that a relief of the rates calculated to amount to 1s. in the £ will not now be realised. That is part of the price to them of this Bill. Having said that, I concede at once that this House having decided, rightly or wrongly, to nationalise electricity on these terms, it would be quite wrong to attempt to thwart the declared will of this House. Therefore, so far as this order is designed to do that, it seems to me that its intentions are wholly admirable. I would emphasise that, even with regard to the municipalities, this placing of a kind of inverted ceiling upon prices is an extremely clumsy and inefficient method. But so far as the municipalities are concerned I am prepared to concede that the intention behind the order is not unreasonable.

However, it goes further and covers the companies, and that is a very different matter. No one will recollect better than the learned Solicitor-General, whom I am glad to see on the Front Bench opposite, that the Electricity Act of last year bristles with penalties directed against the directors of companies who do anything to deprive the Minister of Fuel and Power of his full prey when nationalisation comes into effect. Indeed, as the result of the almost pathological feeling of distaste which the late Minister of Fuel and Power appeared to entertain towards directors, the provisions of the Electricity Act cannot be criticised for any lack of sanctions directed against electricity companies who dissipate their assets in advance of nationalisation. That side of the matter is admirably taken care of: if not admirably, at any rate, efficiently, from the point of view of hon. Gentlemen opposite. Therefore, it is, on the face of it, unnecessary to introduce this order and apply it to the companies. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary comes to reply he will appreciate that, so far as hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House are concerned, the main ground of complaint against this order is its applicability to the companies.

I would go further. I would say that in forbidding electricity companies to lower their prices something is being done which is not only unnecessary from the point of view of safeguarding their assets, but which is definitely harmful from the broadest national point of view. The point is not academic. There is, indeed, certainly one electricity company—the Notting Hill Gate Electricity Company—which only a few months ago was able to reduce its charges by reason of the return of population to the London area, and the consequent greater spreading of overhead costs, and the consequent cheapening of production costs per unit. It is, no doubt, the case, though I have not made any deep researches into the matter, that other companies have considered, or actually taking, that step. Therefore, the possibility on perfectly sound economic grounds of companies' desiring to reduce their charges is a very real one, and it is far from being merely an academic matter. It is all the more deplorable that the Government should have seen fit at this particular moment to prevent the reduction of electricity charges.

I appreciate that there is provision in the Order for these charges to be reduced if a licence is obtained from the Ministry of Fuel and Power. I intend no discourtesy to that Department when I say, that those of us who have had experience of dealing with the Department know that if an application were made for a licence today there would not be the slightest chance of a definite answer before 1st April, which is the vesting day under the Electricity Act; and I am certain that the Parliamentary Secretary would not seriously dispute that. No reliance can, therefore, be placed upon the licensing provision of this order.

Let us face the fact that what this order amounts to is a freezing of electricity prices, not in the sense of the term "freezing" as it was used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day, meaning the prevention of a rise, but, indeed, in the exactly opposite sense—the prevention of a fall in electricity prices. That being so, it is surely apparent that this order is extraordinarily inconsistent with the declared policy of His Majesty's Government. It is a very clear example of the right hand not knowing what particular brick the left hand is engaged in dropping; and it runs, of course, completely counter to the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer less than a fortnight ago. Hon. Members will recollect that on that occasion the Chancellor, with an air of resolute resignation, appropriate, perhaps, to an ageing strip-tease dancer, revealed the nakedness of the land; and he went on to say that not only had prices generally got to be reduced, but that if private industry did not take steps and immediate steps—to reduce them, very serious consequences would happen to private industry. The Chancellor made that abundantly clear. Lest any hon. Member disputes that, let me refer the House to what he said on 12th February: It is essential, therefore—and from this it is impossible for us to get away—that if wages and salaries are not to be increased generally there must be a halt in price increases, and wherever possible a reduction in prices. Having said that he had written to the Federation of British Industries and told them so, the right hon. and learned Gentleman went on to say something very relevant to this Order: On this point there is a special observation I would like to make. There is no need, where prices are fixed at a maximum, for any company to charge that maximum. That is precisely what this Order compels electricity companies to do. The Chancellor went on to say: Our objective is to reduce prices wherever possible, and to reduce profits."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th February, 1948; Vol. 447, C. 597–8, 600.] An electricity company which has been moved and touched by the pellucid eloquence of the Chancellor, and desires to act in accordance with his wishes, now finds that if it does so it is met by the express prohibition of the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

It is peculiarly inappropriate that this limitation of reduction should apply to electricity, which is, as the House knows very well, a substantial element in the costs of production of many industries relying upon electricity. Equally, it constitutes a very substantial element in the cost of living. Therefore, from the point of view both of the direct costs of production and of the indirect effect upon wages and the cost of living, it is lamentable that a Government which has pledged its economic fortunes to price reduction so far as private industry is concerned should make a deliberate exception to that policy in the case of an industry which it proposes to take over on 1st April under a nationalisation Measure. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will make Government policy on this matter abundantly clear. Is it their policy simultaneously to say to private industry, "Reduce your prices or we shall threaten you with the whole apparatus of the law," and to say that that reduction of prices in which, according to the Government, it is necessary in the national interest for private industry to indulge, is not to be allowed to industries which are nationalised or about to be nationalised? Surely we and private industry outside are entitled to be given a clear indication of Government policy in this regard.

This Order has given rise to considerable discussion outside, because of its apparent inconsistency with the whole policy of His Majesty's Government. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies I hope that he will endeavour to meet that inconsistency, and to explain, if he can, that there is no inconsistency. I hope also that he will do two things: first, undertake to reconsider this order so far as the companies are concerned, because it would be possible to draft it so that it applied only to municipal undertakers; and, secondly, assure the House that, when any municipal undertakers desire to reduce prices for genuine and good commercial reasons—not with any intention of defrauding the Government or the electricity authority, but where there is a sound economic case for doing so—they shall, not only not be refused permission, but shall be given speedy permission to act, and where they can put forward a case for, say, a 5 per cent. or a 10 per cent. reduction, there shall not be a prolonged examination of the matter such as will delay the whole decision until after nationalisation. Only if the Parliamentary Secretary can do those two things—undertake to reconsider this matter so far as private industry is concerned, and give the assurance for which I have asked so far as municipalities are concerned—will he be able to reassure opinion outside, or indeed dissipate the suspicion that the Government are half-hearted in their policy of price reduction, and desire price reduction only where it causes losses to private industry, and are not prepared either to give a lead to or march alongside private industry in their own nationalised industries when their own direct financial interests are concerned. It is only if the Parliamentary Secretary can do that, that he can prevent a blow to the reputation of the Government and any response to the appeal of the Chancellor of the Exchequer can be expected.

10.15 p.m.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest and Christchurch)

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) has put the case very fairly and without heat. I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary what is the particular significance of bulk supplies being exempted from the operations of Clause 2 of the order which governs rebates. I would also draw attention to the proviso, which says that there may be either a maximum rebate of 5 per cent., or whatever may have been the mean charge in the three years immediately preceding the introduction of this order. How will that affect the development of the trading estates in particular? For very obvious reasons, electricity has been wanted in considerable amounts in the development areas, and I think I am right in saying that the undertakings, in order to spread their charges, have made considerable reductions. As I understand it, every single one of these rebates will be automatically nullified if it is over 5 per cent. I wish to ask whether that is the case, and whether any other arrangements in other parts of the country will also be nullified and have to be rearranged through the Ministry in accordance with the specific terms of this Clause.

I pass now to Order No. 223. It seems most extraordinary that the Ministry of Fuel and Power should have introduced this Order at this particular moment. If we turn to the Explanatory Note, we find that the Order relaxes the obligations upon electricity undertakers, imposed generally by the application of the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, 1899. Surely the withdrawal of the safeguards and guarantees provided by that Act when nationalisation is being introduced is not something which should commend itself to the House? In the way the Order is drawn, it is very difficult to see exactly which Sections of the Act are to be withdrawn. I will mention one or two of the provisions which are to be withdrawn so far as I can judge.

Section 24 (1), which provides that six people may make a representation to an undertaker, and on their representation the undertaker is bound to give them a supply of electricity, is to be withdrawn, and the provision that if an undertaking happens to be a private company, then the local authority, by a majority vote, may demand a supply from the undertaking, is also to be withdrawn. Section 27 (1) provides that any man who is situated within 50 yards of a mains supply can demand to have electricity laid on. That provision, I understand, will also be withdrawn, as well as the provision in regard to what happens if an undertaker should default on his obligations. I noticed that the Parliamentary Secretary indicated assent in each of these cases. It seems a most extraordinary thing, after the many statements made by the present Minister of War and the present Minister of Fuel and Power, that the first thing to be done after all the Debates which took place on that Measure, that these privileges and safeguards for the consumer should be withdrawn. It is quite incomprehensible.

I ask the House to look more closely at the first paragraph. Under (a) a nationalised undertaking need not give or continue a supply of electrical energy to the owner or occupier of any premises not connected with the mains of the undertakers before the commencement of this Order. As I read it it is perfectly open to the Minister not only to refuse to sanction after the vesting date any contract for the installation of electrical power which takes place between 13th February and the vesting date but he can cut off any company or user of electricity at his will. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will correct me if I am wrong on that, but it seems to me to bear no other interpretation whatsoever.

If one looks at (b) it will be seen that it states that an electricity undertaking is no longer required to furnish or lay any electric lines for the purposes of a supply of electrical energy to any premises not so connected or a supply of greater power to any premises. That can only mean that every single safeguard under the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, to which I have referred, and which enables the consumers of this country, domestic and industrial, to claim the privileges of an electrical supply are now taken away. That seems to me to be something which this House would be very rash to allow. I must admit that when I saw this Order first I read again the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, and I saw how much had been done by this House in the past to secure an adequate supply for consumers, domestic and industrial. Then I saw this Order which takes away all those facilities and allows the Minister, without any appeal, to dissociate himself from any existing supply and gives him the power to cancel any existing contract and to refuse a supply to anybody at any time in the future. We should be doing a rash thing if we passed this Order which allows those things, and it is for those reasons that I second the Motion.

10.23 p.m.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

I do not wish to add very much to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) in moving this Prayer and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre) in seconding it, but there is one aspect of the matter to which I would like to call the attention of the House and that is, the actual form of drafting of Order No. 224. It will be seen that the order begins with the words: The Minister of Fuel and Power (in this Order referred to as 'the Minister'). I read the entire Order down to the interpretation Clause and I did not find one single reference to the Minister. Those words by themselves are entirely unnecessary. In the interpretation Clause there is this reference: 'licence' means a licence granted by the Minister; 'the Minister' means the Minister of Fuel and Power. I submit that if in the first words of the Order we are told that the Minister of Fuel and Power is the Minister, then it is a little unnecessary to finish the order by saying that the Minister is the Minister of Fuel and Power.[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad hon. Members opposite agree with me. We have here a perfect example of that form of bad drafting to which my hon. and learned Friend the junior Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss), on a number of occasions, has drawn the attention of the House. There is another drafting matter which, again, I think, should be brought to the attention of the House. Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Order begin with the somewhat strange expression: Unless under the authority of a licence, no undertaker shall. … Those words grated somewhat on my ears. I referred to the dictionary, where I found that the word "unless" is a conjunction and, therefore, entirely inappropriate to use in this connection. When we look at the wording of paragraph 2 and take account of what is obviously intended by the word "unless," and substitute a phrase such as "if not," it would run: If not under the authority of a licence, no undertaker shall in connection with any supply of electricity (not being a supply in bulk). We have there three negatives running one after the other. [Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite may not be very willing to come forward and speak on these Orders. No doubt they do not take the trouble to read the Orders to try to make some sense out of them. Someone, it is to be supposed, will try to make sense out of them, and, therefore, I submit that it is essential that the Orders should be drafted in such a way as to make good grammar and good sense.

I agree that after taking a certain amount of trouble it is possible to see what is the meaning of this Order, but I submit that it is wholly slipshod and wholly excessive in its language. In a sense that reflects on the meaning of the Order as expounded by my hon. Friends. It is not only in its language that the Order is slipshod and excessive, it is equally so in effect. What the Order does is to take an immense sledgehammer to crack the smallest possible nut. If the Parliamentary Secretary had come to the House and asked, as he might well ask, for powers to carry out what was stated by his right hon. Friend in the Second Reading of the Gas Bill, I do not think anyone here would have taken the trouble to raise the matter this evening. It is merely because these Orders take powers to do things far beyond what anyone has suggested is necessary for the purpose of the Government that we oppose them tonight.

10.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)

I am sure that the hon. Member for South Hendon (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) has gained the full approval pf the grammarians judging by the chorus of cheers which greeted his remarks, and having satisfied the Opposition, I am sure he is pleased. When he was speaking of drafting, I was surprised to hear him use the phrase "wholly excessive," and I wondered what kind of drafting that was.

If I may turn to the remarks of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), who opened the Debate, I was rather surprised to hear him say that he was not developing an academic argument, because it seemed to me that his argument was entirely academic and did not get down to the purpose of this order. The point he made in relation to the necessity of having an order which dealt with both the private undertakings and the municipal undertakings, which he indicated was not necessary because of the power we already have under the Act in relation to private undertakings, is met by the fact that there are drafting difficulties in distinguishing between the two types of undertaking. I agree that the hon. Gentleman said it was an easy matter to draft it; but that was not the view we took after looking at it very carefully.

There is one other point I must take up with the hon. Gentleman. It was a very nice debating point, such as we expect to hear from him. He accused the Ministry of Fuel and Power of being a long time in dealing with matters of this character, and, in effect, he suggested that we had deliberately held back any licences until after 1st April. I am very pleased to tell him and the House that we have received, since the date of the order, 18 applications and have agreed 12 or 13 of them already. There is no desire on our part not to grant licences where those licences are right.

This order is designed to prevent the dissipation of assets until 1st April, when the order will be revoked. It is not intended to affect normal legitimate rebates; indeed, it expressly excludes rebates for prompt payment up to five per cent. and—this will answer the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre)—also for any greater amount of discount or rebate where it has been the custom to have a higher amount of discount over the past three years or so. That is perfectly clear, if the hon. and gallant Member will look at that particular paragraph.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

The question I asked the hon. Gentleman was about trading estates.

Mr. Robens

That is bulk supply, and I will deal with that matter, but I wanted to deal with this rather important fact, because the hon. and gallant Member indicated that we were limiting this to five per cent. rebates. We are doing nothing of the kind. Where it has been the custom to give higher rebates, these will be continued, and there will be no difficulty about it. There are a number of discounts that will be automatically granted when licences are applied for. One type of case is the Stratford Board, who have been giving special rebates to help with fuel economy. They have been giving a discount where a customer has reduced his consumption of electricity by one-third. That is a reasonable type of discount, and that would be agreed to quite easily.

We have the case of bulk distributors who receive supply in bulk and then dis- tribute it, and who, in some cases, have been overcharged and the overcharge has been put right by a credit from the supplying company. They have a right to pass on that overcharge, and the credit they have received for it, to the consumer. Here we would agree at once that they should be licensed so that they can remedy that state of affairs. There is another group of undertakings which have not continuously altered their tariff charges. Instead of altering them, they have given fluctuating rebates or discounts, and in cases of that character we would give the same favourable consideration in the granting of licences. The bulk of applications we have had already fall under heads like these, and the majority we have dealt with in the short time, have been granted.

What is the order really intended to do? It is to prevent the dissipation of assets. I shall cull an extract from the "City Press" of 24th October, 1947, to show how necessary this order is. It reads: Local Authorities Distribute Power Reserves. Money Belongs to the People—Not the Boards. Non-Socialist municipal corporations throughout the country are distributing the reserves accumulated in their electricity supply enterprises. They are taking the view that those reserves belong to the customers and not to the new electricity boards, and they are paying them back to the customers by way of special discounts. Many of the corporations have announced big discounts for prompt payment, and this movement is growing. Hastings Corporation is giving a 33⅓ per cent. rebate, which involves giving away something like £20,000. At Morley, in Yorkshire, a big rebate has been proposed. In that area the Socialists have put up a fight, but they are not succeeding. Barnes, in London, has announced a 25 per cent. reduction on bills for the next quarter. In none of these cases did these undertakings give discount prior to the nationalisation of the electricity supply industry, so that it is clearly a departure from their normal practice and one which, we claim, is done deliberately to reduce the assets which the socialised industry will take over.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I would like to ask whether, since it is a fact that the hon. Gentleman has referred solely so far to municipalities, one is to understand that the sole intention of this order is to deal with municipalities?

Mr. Robens

I have already indicated that the Bill provides all the safeguards which we regard as necessary for the companies, and that only drafting difficulties in the legislation between the two types of supplier have made the order necessary for both. Exeter City Corporation have taken over £30,000 out of the reserves to the relief of the local rates, and this is an aggregation of the sums they might have transferred year by year over the past five years under the statutory authority of the Electricity Supply Acts. Nevertheless, I am not sure of the legality of this action, and it may well be that more may be said about that later. It is, however, another indication of the wanton way in which less public-spirited municipalities are proposing to hand over undertakings on 1st April in a less advantageous position than they are in at the present time, or have been in the past. A great number of municipal undertakings have not taken this narrow view, but have accepted the Parliamentary decision to socialise the industry, and are handing over their undertakings without first "milking" them. If all undertakings had been public spirited, then there would not have been the need for this order. We feel, however, that it is in the national interest that dissipation of assets should not take place, and accordingly I ask the House to oppose this Prayer.

When we come to Order No. 224, dealing with the supply and the obligation of undertakings to supply electricity, there is a different set of circumstances. Under the r800 Act, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the supplying authority is compelled to connect and supply any would-be consumer whose premises are within 50 yards of any of the distributing mains. In normal circumstances, that represents no problem, and is, in fact, a safeguard against monopoly abuse; but plant is in short supply—generating plant is very short at present—and in the national interests there must be priority lists of would-be consumers of electricity. It would not be in the public interest, remembering the shortage of generating plant, cable, and other ancillary requirements, for people with, say, gas lighting, to insist on electricity being supplied to them for lighting purposes instead of to a house in another road in the same locality where new houses are being built which are waiting for electricity to be connected to them. I think all hon. Members must agree that at present there must be a priority for people who have neither gas nor electricity.

May I say that industry, and the workers in industry, have made a good effort in staggering hours to help the problem, but although big savings have been made, I have to say that the domestic consumer has continued to increase his demands on the electricity undertakings. In support of this, I can say that at Hove we have the case of a local resident taking legal action against a supplier in connection with the provision of two power points in his home. In this particular case, the main in question was already laid, but the power supply to that house for the two power plugs could not be given to that consumer without endangering the supply to the other consumer on that cable. There were costs against the supplier, but the action was dismissed. Clearly it is not in the national interest that supply undertakers should be put in the rather ridiculous position when they are physically incapable of carrying out a statutory obligation. It is clearly wrong, and there is need to absolve them from that.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

While I agree with the case the right hon. Gentleman has quoted, would it not be better, if he is going to introduce this blanket order, to make some provision for appeal, because as it is now drafted, it is left to the national undertaking to make its decisions relative to the consumer.

Mr. Robens

No, that is not quite so. Hon. Members in all parts of the House, and particularly Members opposite who represent rural areas, in letters to me week after week, and in conversation, ask me what I can do to secure a supply of electricity to farmhouses and places in rural areas. I naturally want to do so and, where I possibly can, to provide power and lighting to a whole group of essential users of electricity. What we have done has been to say to the undertakers, "Here is a list of priority consumers who should be served first." It is impossible for them to do that if this statutory obligation still remains upon them of having, by law, to supply anybody on the lines of the provision which the hon. Gentleman read to the House a few minutes ago.

What is the list? Let us have a look at it. We have to supply all essential public service requirements, domestic or commercial premises, war-damaged houses which have been made habitable again, houses which have been divided into separate tenements, farms and farm workers' cottages, where the war agricultural executive committee has certified that the installation will assist increased food production, existing premises where the present facilities for heating or cooking are inadequate or where hardship would result if the supply were not provided, and where a medical certificate is produced justifying a supply.

It seems to me that these are very important priority claims and that they cannot be met if there is this blanket statutory obligation to supply every whim and desire of someone who happens to live within fifty yards of an existing main. It is right, and in the public interest, that what supplies there are available—physical supplies of labour and generating plant—should be used first in those places where they are most greatly required. That is the sensible thing to do, and that is the reason for the order. I hope that, after this explanation, the House will vote against the Prayer to annul the order.

Lord William Scott (Roxburgh and Selkirk)

Will the Minister tell us why it is necessary to bring this in now, and why it was not necessary twelve months ago.

Mr. Robens

It was necessary, perhaps, some time ago and we have been dealing with the electricity supply under difficulties. By and large, we have been trying to meet the priority people, but they are now faced with certain associations who will use the law as it stands to prevent them from carrying out our list of priority applications because they want to see more contractors' work done in closely populated areas.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Perhaps I might say a few words in reply to the Debate. I think that it has served two very useful purposes. First, it has made clear, as far as Order No. 223 is concerned, that statutory rights which electricity consumers have possessed for many years are being taken away from them under nationalisation, and they are receiving in exchange for those statutory safeguards the mere discretion of the electricity authority. It is quite lamentable, if it is decided to do that, that no provision of any sort should be made for appeal for any of the people adversely affected. I hope people outside will appreciate that they are having taken away from them rights enjoyed for many years, and are being given in return nothing but the unfettered discretion of the British Electricity Authority.

As far as Order No. 224 is concerned, the Parliamentary Secretary in his speech, very frankly I thought, confirmed the suspicion I had entertained before this Debate that the whole object of the order was to deal with the municipalities. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hendon (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) said, the Minister has an enormous sledgehammer to crush a very small nut. The Parliamentary Secretary has, in addition, caused this inconvenience, not in order to remedy an evil that has anything to do with the companies, but in order to prevent someone else from doing something wrong. Then he comes forward and tells the House that the only reason he does this is because, with all the resources of his Department at his disposal, he finds it impossible to draft an order distinguishing between an electricity company and a municipal authority. That is the most fantastic argument of all, and reflects on the technical capacity of the Department, of which he is a distinguished member.

This distinction has been made over and over again. If the Parliamentary Secretary will look at the Electricity Act of last year, he will see that the distinction is made with great clarity on a point of great importance. A totally different scale of compensation is provided in the Act for municipalities and electricity companies, and if it is impossible today to define in an order the differences between a municipal electricity authority and an electricity company, how has it been possible in the Act to provide for totally different scales of compensation?

This Debate has been useful because it has not only shown the danger to which consumers are exposed, but has revealed also the technical incompetence of the Ministry of Fuel and Power in causing unnecessary and handicapping controls to be imposed on electricity companies simply by reason of the Department's own inadequacy in draftsmanship. As far as I can see, it is admitted, so far as municipalities are concerned, except in one or two exceptional cases, that things have been done which justify the making of these orders. Under the unfortunate procedure of delegated legislation, it is impossible for us on this side of the House to register our protest in the Lobby at the unfortunate drafting relating to the treatment of companies without supporting municipalities which are not playing the game, and for that reason alone the matter will not be pressed to a Division.

Question put, and negatived.