HC Deb 06 April 1949 vol 463 cc2157-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

8.31 p.m.

Mr. Heathcoat Amory (Tiverton)

The subject I want to raise is quite different from the matter we have been discussing up to now. It is the question of the charges for electricity connections in rural areas. I hasten to add, after what we have heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that nothing I have now to suggest will impose an additional burden on the Exchequer. All parties are committed to a substantial programme of agricultural development, and a pre-requisite to carrying out that programme is improvement in housing, water, electricity and transport. I suggest that the present rate of progress under all these four heads is too slow, if people who live in the rural areas are to believe that the Government really mean business.

What has happened is difficult to reconcile with the promises made by the Government in 1945. Nationalisation was to mean cheap and plentiful electricity, but today the terms for connections of electricity are certainly no better than under the old authorities. Higher prices are being asked, and the delays are said to be long. I hold no brief for the achievements of the old electricity authorities so far as extensions in rural areas are concerned. Some of those authorities were enterprising, but some were not. We were told that under nationalisation things were to be different, but that does not seem to have been the case. I wish to make it clear that I am throwing no bricks at my own area board, the South-Western Board. They have a great job to do, and they are very keen to tackle it and do it well. I was particularly glad the chairman of that board said the other day that he was very keen to keep responsibility as near as possible to the consumer, which seems to be a very good thing to do.

I suggest however that at present these area boards seem to be somewhat handicapped by existing regulations. The present policy, which is being followed in general with electricity connections, I believe, is that the boards look for a gross return of about 20 per cent., which I do not think is unreasonable in the long run. The customer is generally charged a capital contribution and also asked to guarantee a minimum revenue payment for five years. To quote a hypothetical case, if an extension was to cost £1,000 the board might say, "We expect you to pay £40 per year as a minimum for the current you take, and if you do that we shall pay £200 of the capital cost, leaving you to pay the balance of £800." I am told that costs have gone up nearly 50 per cent. since 1945 and have also risen substantially in the last year, although I am not prepared to say by how much, since nationalisation was introduced. I understand also that the estimates of capital costs of extensions are now made according to a formula laid down by the boards—it may be by the individual board—and that in many cases the work can be carried out at a considerably lower price than the price quoted in the formula. I wish to ask, in the case of these estimates, whether any overheads are included, or whether the boards propose to recover their overheads out of their revenue charges.

I should like to quote an actual case that came to my notice, which makes the position fairly clear and shows the point I am trying to make. I know of three contiguous farms in one area where electricity was wanted in 1946. The farmers approached the then authority, and they were told the price would be £324 by way of capital contribution, plus an annual payment of £25 each for five years. They decided that that was too expensive. Last year another attempt was made, but this time an additional farm was included. They were given a price of £624, with an annual payment of £25 each, or alternatively a capital payment of £724, plus a revenue payment of £20 each per year. That was the price quoted for the group, but had there been only one farm the price would have been very much higher in comparison. In addition to these charges, the farmers would have to pay the costs of wiring and provision of the electrical equipment required.

Now in my own county, Devon, 50 per cent. of our farms are 50 acres or less, and such charges as I have mentioned are absolutely out of court as far as the small owner-occupier is concerned, who is already hard put to it to find the working capital he requires for his farm. I also understand that some applications are taking two to three months to be dealt with—I do not want to link this with my own board because I have not heard this said in their case. There is, however, a widespread fear that the machinery which has been created is likely to prove too slow-moving for the job. There is also an impression that the present administrative overheads are likely to prove very high although the answer to that may be that we should wait and see what the accounts for the first year's working will show.

The National Farmers' Union have taken the initiative in this matter on several occasions. They reached an agreement with the old authorities several years ago for a programme of rural extensions. They submitted a memorandum to the Electricity Commission in 1946 and they submitted a memorandum to the British Electricity Authority in March, 1948. The 1946 memorandum showed that there were 150,000 farms without electricity connections and of course there were innumerable small houses as well in the neighbourhood of the farms. They estimated that the cost of providing electricity connections to these farms was then about £45 million. In addition to that, it was estimated that the farmers concerned or the landlords would have to incur an expenditure of about £27 million to complete the job. They recommended that the programme should be spread over five years.

I have several suggestions to make to the Parliamentary Secretary. First, as recommended by the National Farmers' Union, will he see that the B.E.A. undertakes a national programme to complete the job of connecting up these 150,000 farms and cottages in those areas within a given time, say, 10 years? Secondly, will he encourage the B.E.A. to take a long view, a national view, about terms? After all, agriculture is one of our most important basic industries. The problem of electrical connections in rural areas varies in scale, of course, according to the area board concerned. In an area like London there is not, I imagine, much of a problem about rural connections. But when we come to areas like the South-West, North Wales, Eastern and North-Eastern areas, the expenditure required is very formidable indeed. The 1947 Act visualises that the Minister will deal with certain problems of national interest. Section 5 gives him powers of direction to area boards on such matters, and Section 1 provides that area boards are required "to plan and carry out an efficient and economical distribution to persons in their area who require electricity." Under Section 2, boards are required to "secure, so far as is practicable, the development, extension to rural areas, and cheapening of supplies of electricity." Surely, this is a problem of national interest.

I understand that the B.E.A. set up, a year ago, a sub-committee to report on what would be the best method of dealing with the extension of electricity to farms. I understand that that committee has not yet reported or, if it has, that nothing has happened to their recommendations. I should like to know when that committee is likely to produce results. Meanwhile, most of the boards seem to be proceeding on the terms of the old authorities, with one or two exceptions. The Merseyside and North Wales Area Board have worked out a standardised method of charging for connections on an acreage basis, irrespective of the distance involved. I believe the charge is £5 for a smallholding, rising to £100 or so for a 500-acre farm. The North-Western Area Board themselves pay the full cost of high pressure extensions, and demand a contribu- tion for the low pressure connection to the actual premises. The Eastern Area Board have a scheme of reduced capital contributions spread over a period.

I would ask how these alternatives are working out? I suggest that the B.E.A. should try to find a solution of this problem which will eliminate capital contributions altogether. I believe they are unfair to the customer who first decides to go ahead and connect his premises with the electricity supply. Either the area boards or his neighbours are apt afterwards to reap the advantage of the courage he has shown. If the capital development programme is spread over some such period as I have mentioned, any deficiency in revenue that would arise as a result of the boards being responsible for all capital expenditure would be relatively small, and would soon be recovered.

I believe that tariff improvements could be designed which would give people a greater incentive to make full use of the electricity supply when they have got it. I believe that the average revenue from electricity from farms which have been connected is today twice as much as it was before the war. It may be, however, that the time is not yet ripe, that the Parliamentary Secretary may say that he does not want greater use to be made of electricity at present owing to the shortage of generating plant.

I think I know one or two of the things which the hon. Gentleman will say in reply to the Debate. He will say there is a great shortage of poles and cables. I understand that this year about 100,000 poles are available for area boards as against the 90,000 which were used before the war, so that the supply of poles would seem to be improving. The hon. Gentleman will say that generating capacity is very limited. We know that to be so, but even with all this I believe that it would mean only 1½ per cent. additional consumption if these 150,000 farms and cottages were linked up to the supply. Would it help if small self-contained generating sets were supplied as a temporary measure for remote isolated communities?

There are, however, two things which I hope the hon. Gentleman will not say: first, that the present boards are doing us well as the old authorities would have been doing in similar circumstances. I do not consider that even that would have been good enough for what we want today in country districts; second, that the machinery is there—the area boards, consultative councils and everything else and nothing more is required.

I know the difficulties very well. We cannot expect that all this will be done in a day, but I suggest that the Minister should give a positive directive to the B.E.A. to prepare forthwith a national rural programme which will complete this job within a given time. He should instruct them to work out a scale of charges for these extensions which will be within the means of the customers who wish to take the supply. He should make it clear that when the Government said that priority would be given to electricity extensions in rural areas they meant what they said. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will tell me that he has agreed with every word I have said tonight and that he and his right hon. Friend, when they arrive at their offices tomorrow morning, will at once set about doing everything I have suggested.

8.49 p.m.

Mr. Percy Wells (Faversham)

I should like to add my plea to that which has been made by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory), because those of us who represent rural areas consider this matter to be of great importance. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman said, but at any rate I find myself in the happy position of being in such agreement.

I intervene in this Debate because I have been requested by the East Kent Federation of Women's Institutes in my constituency to do so. I have here a letter from them which contains this passage: In this area we are deprived of both gas and electricity, and we wondered if you would help us at all in our efforts to get electricity at least brought to our homes. At present the only lighting is by oil lamps, and these arc not only dirty and troublesome but very dangerous where children are about. I could add to that by saying that I have received a letter from a constituent living in the area saying that since the Labour Government came into office, the globes which he has to use, crack without any apparent reason. I received a reply to that Women's Institute letter from the South Eastern Electricity Board. It was a courteously worded letter and it said: Were the Board to extend supplies to those districts"— that is, the villages of Throwley and Badlesmere— the Board would be embarking on a scheme calling for a disproportionate use of materials, having regard to the small number of consumers to be supplied. Although the Board agrees with your views on the importance of electricity in the rural areas, it is regretted that, as long as the present restrictions remain, much general development work must be deferred. The position is that we are continually in that frustrated situation. We receive petitions from villages, and we are told that because of the lack of density of population the service cannot be supplied. In the old days when I was doing my best to get candidates into this House, I used to tell dwellers in the rural areas that when we nationalised the electricity industry, we would consider providing a service and not so much consider the question of making a profit. But I have also a petition from another village in my constituency, named Doddington, and the people say: It does not seem credible in the year 1949 we are still without lighting of any description, and have to use oil lamps. I am very pleased to say, in connection with that petition, that the South-Eastern Electricity Board have agreed to meet me to see what can be done. I hope the Minister will be able to refute the statement made in this House last night that much of the difficulty that is being experienced is because of the fact that certain municipal electricity authorities have not been taken over. I hope he will read what has been said in this Debate and realise that this is an opportunity of demonstrating that we recognise the hardships and difficulties of the people who are in the rural areas and who are doing such an excellent job for the nation at this time.

8.54 p.m.

Mr. York (Ripon)

I ought to warn the hon. Gentleman the Member for Faversham (Mr. P. Wells) that he had better be careful or he will get on the black list of his party. I was glad to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory), and I rise to support him, because I have some evidence to place before the Parliamentary Secretary to help him in his negotiations on this matter. One of the baits that was held out to the electorate in my constituency at the General Election was that nationalisation would very quickly bring electricity supplies to the villages. Unfortunately, in many cases we have been unsuccessful in our attempts to obtain the necessary supplies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton dealt with the wide subject of rural electricity. I want to direct the attention of the House to the narrower issue of the supply to farms and, in particular, isolated farms. My hon. Friend said that the terms offered by electricity boards under nationalisation were no better than those offered by companies and authorities before the war. I am sorry to have to tell him that he was inaccurate; they are very much worse than they were before the war. I will give the Parliamentary Secretary evidence of that. Before the war in the West Riding the National Farmers' Union had an arrangement with the electricity company for the area under which the company agreed to connect farms within half a mile of one of their 11,000 volt main lines without any capital charge. When nationalisation took place and the electricity boards took over, this arrangement apparently was ended. We can, at least, see that in the controversy raging over what the companies did and what the electricity boards are doing, the companies win hands down.

I have some examples. I do not wish to name boards. My area is on the boundary of two boards and I want only to give general complaints and not to specify them so that they may be personally investigated. Discussions are taking place about these cases. In one case where the farm was no more than 600 yards from the main supply line, the first figure asked of the farmer was £900 for a connection. That was impossible for the farmer. Another offer was made of £450, which was still too much. The farmer wrote to me and asked me to help, and negotiations are going on. Another example refers to a municipal authority. The owner who wished to have a connection to an isolated farm got an arrangement whereby the connection would be made for £25 capital contribution from him. Unfortunately, owing to the conditions at the end of the war, that connection was long delayed, and when a chance of having that connection arose, the electricity authority had taken over under nationalisation and was asking £60 for the connection.

Those illustrations are sufficient to show the Parliamentary Secretary that there is cause for reflection in his Department upon what the electricity authorities are doing. I hope that as a result of the very moderate and careful case put forward by my hon. Friend, the Parliamentary Secretary will cause a thorough investigation to be made. I have two direct questions to ask him. Is his Ministry now considering the whole matter? Are negotiations at present taking place? I am particularly glad to take this opportunity of joining in this discussion because I spent about a month trying to get a Question past the Table and failed lamentably. The Table could not accept my argument that this was the responsibility of the Minister.

I believe that all area boards need guidance from the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and unless and until they get that guidance they will not be able to make the right move to do away with these capital contributions altogether and connect up these farms, if necessary with a reasonably guaranteed rental or maximum payment per year for the first five years, as was suggested by my hon. Friend. That would be reasonable. But to ask farmers on isolated farms to bear these heavy capital demands is most unreasonable. In closing, I make a plea to the Minister to consider not only the isolated farms but, where it is possible, to take these lines past small hamlets, isolated cottages and other houses, so that the rural inhabitants in general may be able to take advantage of the supply of electricity as it goes to the isolated farms.

9.1 p.m.

Mr. Palmer (Wimbledon)

I want to say a few words on this matter, not because I am a farmer or sit for a rural constituency, but because I have some professional experience of the electricity supply industry. The hon. Member for Ripon (Mr. York) was perhaps rather more fortunate in his experience with one company in the past than some of us have been. It is quite true that some of the companies in days gone by were extraordinarily progressive in this matter and they certainly had many difficulties, but other companies were not. I remember that when I debated on the wireless with the hon. Member for Stockport (Sir A. Gridley) on the subject of the desirability or otherwise of the nationalisation of electricity, before the Electricity Bill came before this House, I had many letters from people living in rural districts supporting nationalisation because they felt they had been badly treated by companies in the past and, of course, they hoped for a greatly improved service in the future.

The House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory) for raising this subject. There has been great neglect in the past, and it is to be hoped that with the new opportunities which should now be available to the area boards, the backwardness of this country in rural electrification will be made up. This country is certainly behind in these matters. Those of us who have studied the subject abroad and have seen the tremendous progress made in countries like Sweden or Switzerland or in rural Norway realise that. The British electricity supply industry has always been somewhat handicapped in this matter because we put much greater insistence than they do abroad, and quite properly, upon engineering standards and safety. One of the most successful rural electrification schemes in this country is the Dumfries scheme. It is now under the South West Scotland Area Board but was previously carried on under the supervision of the local County Council; it was a public authority scheme, not a company scheme.

The hope of the rural electricity consumer, or of the potential consumer, now lies in nationalisation and he looks to the Government and to the area boards to make definite progress. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Tiverton talked about the British Electricity Authority, but he will agree with me that, strictly speaking, the British Electricity Authority really has no direct statutory power in this matter, which is a responsibility of the area boards.

I have always thought that there were two economic ways of making electricity available for the countryside. One is to group the urban and rural districts and, by so doing, use the urban consumer to subsidise the rural consumer. I see no particular objection to that, but if such a method is to be carried through quickly it would mean placing a very heavy burden upon the urban consumer at a time of economic difficulty. If it is regarded in the national interest to have an efficient and up-to-date agricultural industry, the Government might consider making a direct subsidy or assisted loans for this sole purpose of rural electrification.

Mr. Amory

Would it be relatively a very heavy burden?

Mr. Palmer

If it is to be done quickly it is likely to be a fairly heavy burden on the urban consumer. It would be a normal economic way of doing it. I would not be against it in principle, but I think we should be honest about it; we should, in fact, be asking the urban consumer to pay a special charge to enable us to bring about the electrification of the countryside. If it is in the national interest—and I believe it is—that the countryside should be electrified, so that we can have an up-to-date, mechanised, electrified agricultural industry, then perhaps there is an argument for making the charge a national one rather than a tax upon the urban user of electricity.

I agree entirely with hon. Gentlemen on both sides in saying that this is a matter of great urgency. The Government cannot properly sit indifferent to it or put the responsibility solely upon the area boards; nor is it the business of the area boards to continue some of the past practices of the companies. The companies were sometimes the culprits in this matter in days now past, and it would be wrong to use their practices as a guide for a future which, we hope, will be very different.

9.8 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Corbett (Ludlow)

The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Palmer) and the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. P. Wells) have both said that they had support for nationalisation from the rural areas. That support, I think, was probably given because people were led to believe that if the industry were nationalised they would have electricity provided as a public service as of right, and that they would no longer have to pay the capital installation fees; that they would merely absorb the current and pay for the amount which they used. That is the general impression which was given. But what we now find is that the charges for installation are on very much the same lines as those which existed with the private companies, except that they are higher, and that the whole thing is something of a swindle. Those people feel that they have been let down and that the promise of nationalisation as it was presented to them has not been fulfilled.

One point I want to make in particular is that the spread of electricity into the rural areas, which we all agree is most essential to efficient farming, is being held up for reasons already mentioned by my hon. Friends, and for another reason which they have not mentioned. That is that although the farmer sometimes will co-operate to pay the capital charges necessary for an electrification scheme, on many ocasions two or three farmers cannot persuade some of their neighbours to enter a scheme, because those mean neighbours feel that if the other farmers who are very keen to get electricity will pay the capital charge, eventually, because the end of the line has come so near to them, they will then get electricity for next to nothing. That is precisely what happened in our district and I know several cases where is has occurred. It is essential that we should make use of the one possible benefit which may be derived from nationalisation and that is that we should get some system by which everyone will know what he must pay to have electricity brought to his farm, his shop, his home or wherever it may be. I hope the Ministry will work that out.

I must also point out that, as with the telephone and many other services, it is most unfortunate that electricity costs most to those who are farthest away in the most remote areas and they are often least able to afford it. I hope the hon. Gentleman will study that point. On the borders of Wales and on the marginal lands and hills, many small farmers would greatly benefit from the installation of electricity, but the capital charges they would have to pay under the present system are absolutely prohibitive and make it impossible.

I would express a difference of opinion on one thing which my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory) said—that the spread of electricity was going too slowly under private companies. Perhaps we were lucky in our part of the world, but had it not been for the war, as things were going with the company which served South Shropshire and Herefordshire, very little of that district would be without electricity now. I think it only right that someone should say that in their defence. The circumstances of war alone prevented the spread of electricity at a reasonably rapid rate and I am certain that it would have spread by now but for the war.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will look on this matter as one of urgency so that there shall be no squabbling among farmers and others as to who should pay the capital cost and no opportunity for anyone, by being canny, to derive the benefit while others are paying. He might also take into consideration the case of those who are putting in electricity now, or have put it in recently, and see whether some rebate can be given in respect of their expenditure.

Colonel Ponsonby (Sevenoaks)

I wish to emphasise what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Mr. York) in connection with installations, so that where possible they should take in any outlying places. It so happens that today I received a petition from residents in a little hamlet called Stangate, which is rather off the beaten track. They asked if I could intervene to help them to get electricity, which actually passes within a few hundred yards of the hamlet. I hope the Minister will use his influence with the electricity authorities to pay particular attention to this matter. As all hon. Members who have spoken have pointed out, it is of great importance that rural areas should have electricity. Nothing makes for worse feeling between these small places than a situation in which one has electricity and, for some inscrutable reason, another has not.

9.14 p.m.

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

I do not think there is any difference of opinion between hon. Members with regard to the real need for development of electricity in the rural areas. It is important today, when farming is so highly mechanised, that from a production point of view electricity should be made available to the farms as speedily as possible. From the amenity point of view, in order that we may attract many more people to live on the land away from the towns and the cities, it is important that they should be provided with electricity so that they can enjoy the amenities that so many who live in the towns already have. There is no difference between us at all on the desirability and the need to do what the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory) asks.

I think this Debate divides itself evenly into two parts: first, the rate of progress of the development of electricity in the rural areas; and secondly, the terms and conditions of supply. If the House agrees with me that those are very largely the lines of the Debate, I will turn my attention to those two rather important points. There is one thing, however, that I ought to say first, and that is that while hon. Members opposite do not appreciate at this stage the advantages of nationalisation, nevertheless this Debate has given them an opportunity to ventilate the question of capital charges, whereas under private ownership it was a matter of contract between buyer and seller. Therefore, if all that they expected or all that we are reputed to have said they should have expected from nationalisation has not materialised, at least they have had that great advantage tonight.

I am very glad to have an opportunity to say something about this matter. It is important, in view of the rising capital costs involved in the installation of electricity and the linking up of electricity to the farms. Let us consider the rate of progress. The number of farms that were connected up on 31st March, 1948, that is by vesting day, was 81,853, and it is perfectly true that at that stage there were a number of schemes going on. Schemes for linking up did not start on vesting day. Naturally a number of schemes were taken over; development plans were taken over; and during the past 12 months new schemes have been added and greater developments have taken place. During the nine months up to 31st December, 1948, that number had increased to 88,147, so that in those nine months there was an increase in the number of farms linked up of 6,294.

I have made some inquiries about the area covered by the area board in the Division which the hon. Member for Tiverton represents; that is, the South Western Area Board. While they have had an increase of some 659 from vesting day to the end of the year, they have gone ahead, and although the number of farms connected up in the area in which the hon. Member's constituency is situated was 7,118 at 31st December, 1948, in the last three months up to 31st March those have increased to 7,350. Therefore, the hon. Member has had a total of 891 farms connected up since vesting day for the 12 months ending on 31st March this year.

As those figures indicate, the rate of progress has been accelerated. Of course, it is perfectly true that the speed at which this job can be done must obviously be limited by the usual factors that limit all matters of production or erection. Those are, of course, the materials and the manpower available. I am not referring to generating plant at this stage because, as is well known, the generating plant position is a peak load rather than an overall consideration. My own view, for what it is worth, is that the rural load will be useful to the electricity undertakings because milking and so on is not done in peak load hours. I do not think that it represents quite the generating problem which electricity link-up elsewhere would present.

The speed with which this job is done is determined by the amount of material and labour available and, of course, by the distances of the linkage. There are always technical difficulties about that. The hon. and gallant Member for Seven-oaks (Colonel Ponsonby) referred to a petition which he had received from the little village of Stangate saying that electricity was passing within a hundred yards of the village. It may well be that some electricity is within a hundred yards of the village, but it is possible that the amount of electricity passing that village is not sufficient for the line to be tapped and the electricity used for the village through which it passes. I cannot say without some advice on the matter. The village might need much greater capacity than the present supply. Merely because a line passes near to a village does not necessarily mean that it would not require a fair capital outlay to make that line suitable to provide electricity for the adjacent village.

A good deal of the work involves, of course, the use of poles, and this has been referred to by hon. Members tonight. The hon. Member for Tiverton is right—indeed, he under-estimated the situation. It is rather interesting to see that, in 1945, 39,500 wooden poles were used and that that number has increased consistently until in 1948, 108,750 were used. I give these figures because I want to give two other figures about poles to show that the situation is easing. It is estimated that in the first half of 1949 84,000 poles will be required and that in the second half of the year 101,000 poles will be required. This year 185,000 poles will be required, as compared with 108,750 for the whole of 1948, and that shows at least the physical work involved is getting under way.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

Would the Parliamentary Secretary say that today the supply of poles was not an inhibiting factor?

Mr. Robens

I should say that it was not the problem it was a few months ago. It is easier.

Mr. York

Are the poles available?

Mr. Robens


Mr. York

Will the 180,000 be there?

Mr. Robens

That is why the estimate has been made—in order that the suppliers shall know exactly what is required. The budget has been carefully worked out and, assuming that things go on evenly and supplies come forward as it is anticipated they will, these poles should be available. It is not merely some figure which someone has said is desirable; it is not that someone has said this is a desirable number of poles. It is the number of poles which can be used with schemes which are to be developed and the number expected to be available during the year. It is as reasonable an estimate as one could possibly make. Of course, to the figures which I have given for 1948 as against 1945, and the increase throughout, has been added the large number of poles which were surplus from the Air Ministry and the War Office and which were used, but I will not weary the House with those numbers.

One of the important things which we have to remember is that the whole of the material and the whole of the labour available cannot be used for the extension of new supplies. Obviously we have to make up for the war years, for arrears of work and of maintenance. Conse- quently, a proportion of the labour and material has to be used to that end. I have been asked about future schemes of development and whether the Minister is being consulted, or is giving advice, or indeed is directing the boards on this matter. In point of fact, the British Electricity Authority have advised us that the capital budgeted for the area boards for rural schemes to be initiated during the year commencing 1st April, 1949, is upwards of £5 million. Of that, £3 million is estimated to be required for extensions to the existing networks, and £2 million is for development in entirely new ground.

As to the Minister's position in this matter, hon. Members will recollect that Section 5 (2) of the Act provides that In carrying out such measures of reorganisation or such works of development as involve substantial outlay on capital account, and in giving directions to any area board with respect to such measures or works, the Central Authority shall act in accordance with the general programme settled from time to time in consultation with the Minister. So the area boards send up their programmes to the British Electricity Authority, and the British Electricity Authority consult with the Minister, and they settle the programme.

Let me turn now to the terms and conditions of supply. Many examples have been given of what would appear to be fairly high capital contributions that farmers were expected to make. I ought to say at the beginning that really this question of tariffs for the rural areas raises a very high policy issue. I observe from speeches of hon. Members on the other side of the House that they recognise that to be so. What is one to do? Is one to say, "Let us have electricity throughout all the rural areas. They shall pay no more than anybody else in any other part of the country, even in the urban areas." That would mean we should have to raise the general tariff so that the town dwellers would be paying more to subsidise the rural dwellers. There may be a very good argument for that.

Lieut.-Colonel Corbett

They are lucky to live in towns.

Mr. Robens

There is something in that, I suppose. Some think it is lucky to live in towns, though personally I think it is lucky to live in the country. Some may put up the argument that if elec- tricity were laid on to a farm it would enable the farmer to produce more from his farm and so to make greater profits, and therefore he ought to pay a little of the capital cost. That may be a fair argument; I am not making it, but only stating a possibility. The farmer might be able to dispense with a certain amount of labour by reason of having electricity on his farm, and there could be an argument that there should be recognition of his saving there. These are all arguments—there are many others which will come readily to the minds of hon. Members—on this question of tariffs, which want serious consideration.

The British Electricity Authority has remitted this matter to a special committee it has set up. While it may be true that the Mersey and North-Western Board has worked out some sort of scheme on acreage, and so on, these are interim arrangements pending a final decision on broad, general policy as to what should be done in connection with this rural development. So we have to await the final decision of this committee which has been set up by the British Electricity Authority to determine what shall be the broad general policy. Then we shall have some uniform policy throughout the whole of the country. Until that time we shall have these differences. The electricity boards will continue to have to carry on the practices of the former undertakings, but that is merely until such time as this general policy can be decided by the B.E.A.

The hon. Member for Tiverton paid a compliment to the area board in his area. I am reminded by that of a speech which the chairman of the board, Mr. Stewart, made on 1st April to the National Farmers' Union on this matter, which deals with the capital issue. He said: In this area we are at present working on the principle that development, including that in rural areas, must be economically self-supporting. However, the capital cost of giving a supply has increased considerably in recent years owing to the increase in the cost of materials and labour. For instance, you may have seen recently that a scheme for supplying Widdicombe, which before the war required a contribution of £5 per consumer now requires a contribution of £17. The revenue anticipated from rural schemes is seldom sufficient to cover the annual charge which the board has to find, such as repairs and maintenance, interest, depreciation, rents and management, as well as the actual cost of the energy. That would seem to reply to the question raised about the administrative costs being included. So far as this board is concerned, clearly they include all their administrative costs, and at this stage are carrying on the former practice. That is the practice now being operated by the Merseyside and North Wales Board and others, and this practice is pending the report of the special committee and a proper overall policy being agreed to.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

Can the hon. Gentleman say when the special committee is likely to report, and, if the arrangements being made meanwhile are to be revised when that report comes out?

Mr. Robens

I understand that in some cases arrangements have been made with farmers. Hon. Members who represent rural constituencies know that no two cases are alike, but I am given to understand that in many cases the arrangements are that there will be a revision when the new policy is announced, and, in point of fact, the practice now being operated will be looked at once again.

Mr. Amory

I understand that the offer that is being made in the South-Western area is that if a farmer or other customer has accepted the present terms and the scheme is in hand but not completed at the time that a new scheme is put into force, then he will get a repayment, but if the scheme is completed then it will not be revised.

Mr. Robens

I should think that would be about right. I think it would be difficult for area boards to go over completed schemes because then the argument would be as to the limit which should be put on the time when a scheme was completed, whether it should be ten years back, five years, one year or six months. Therefore, I have no doubt that what the hon. Gentleman says is quite correct. All that I am saying is that in certain cases there will be a revision when the new scheme is worked.

Mr. Turton

When does the hon. Gentleman expect that the special committee will report?

Mr. Robens

I am not able to say when they will work out their final policy because this is a committee of the B.E.A. itself. It is not an outside advisory body but a sort of departmental committee of their own. I am not informed when the committee will make a final decision, but they are obviously anxious to get this rather important policy decision made, and I am certain that they do not wish there to be any great delay in coming to a decision. At the same time, it is a most important decision to make, and it is right that every aspect and argument should be adduced on the one side and the other and carefully weighed up, so that the policy decided upon is good, sound and attractive to the consumer in the town or city and to the rural dweller alike.

Mr. York

Can we see this report?

Mr. Robens

Well, I do not think we could see such a report. After all, a business organisation with which hon. Gentlemen opposite may be connected as directors may set up a special committee to investigate some aspect of the business; the report goes to the directors, who deal with it; but they do not expect the shareholders to have the report. Clearly, on a matter of this sort the report would be for the B.E.A.; it would be for them to act upon it, and I very much doubt whether it would be published in any way.

Mr. Turton

It must be published.

Mr. Robens

It must be published, of course, in the sense of being written.

Mr. Palmer

Perhaps it could be mentioned in a paragraph of the British Electricity Authority's report, which will have to come ultimately to this House.

Mr. Robens

When the policy has been decided the reasons will have to be given, and I have no doubt that it may appear as my hon. Friend suggests. As for the publication of a report by a committee set up by the British Electricity Authority in order to give advice, I doubt very much whether it would be published. Personally, if I were a member of the British Electricity Authority, I should not advocate publication of a report by an internal committee. At least, that has not been my experience in similar positions with other bodies.

Mr. York

We cannot ask Questions about this, and we are obviously interested to know the policy decided upon. Could the hon. Gentleman explain how Members of Parliament are to inform themselves, first when the policy has been decided, and secondly what the policy is?

Mr. Robens

The policy would be very apparent, because when decided it must be made known to prospective consumers. A matter of that kind could not go by without appearing in the report of the British Electricity Authority, so that it would receive the widest publicity. Indeed, the B.E.A. would want the widest publicity for their decision on electrifying rural areas because of the necessity to get as many consumers as possible to take advantage of what they offer.

Mr. Amory

I think this committee was appointed over a year ago.

Mr. Robens

It would not be quite a year ago.

Mr. Amory

I understood it was appointed just before vesting day—in March, 1948.

Mr. Robens

At all events, there it is. I do not think that there is much point in our going on about this. I have made it clear that the B.E.A. are examining this very carefully by setting up this small committee to report to them, and in due course a decision will be arrived at. I repeat that it is a very good thing that they should have plenty of time carefully to examine this question.

I apologise for making such a long speech at the end of a day such as this, but this is an important subject, and I know that hon. Members on all sides are anxious about the development of electricity in rural areas; so are the Government, and we will do all in our power, as I am sure will B.E.A. and the area boards themselves, to see that greater use is made of electricity in rural areas, not only for the benefit of the electrical industry but for the benefit of those who use electricity and of the country as a whole.

9.39 p.m.

Mr. York

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker, may I ask for your guidance on this matter? We have just been listening to a case in which the Minister has to approve a certain policy, whereas Members of Parliament are not allowed to ask Questions in the House about that policy. Would it not be possible for a decision such as this to be ascertained by Questions to the Minister?

Mr. Speaker

This discussion shows the great advantage of Adjournment Debates. The hon. Member asks about Questions, but I think he had better read carefully the Ruling I gave on this matter. He has said that he could not get Questions on the Order Paper, and I daresay quite rightly so, because they related to what were merely administrative matters. Where it is a question of general policy, it is a matter for my discretion, and I have given a Ruling which I recommend the hon. Member to study.

9.40 p.m.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

We have had a very pleasant and non-controversial Debate, and I do not wish to change its atmosphere. There is one thing that the Parliamentary Secretary said, however, which should be followed up. He said that as a result of nationalisation we are in a much better position to obtain co-operation with the British Electricity Authority than we were in the past with the old companies, and that we should congratulate ourselves on that. I differ from that view. I remember, during the Second Reading Debate on the nationalisation Measure, commenting on the fact that nationalisation would destroy the arrangement that had been almost reached at that time between the distributive companies and the National Farmers' Union. I ask the Minister whether he was prepared to promise that the New British Electricity Authority will carry out the agreement made between the National Farmers' Unions of England, Wales and Scotland and the present supply authorities made in September, 1946, to provide supplies to all farm premises at present without electricity, which number some 150,000, except in the most remote and inaccessible areas, within five years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd February, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 1483.] As I anticipated, that all went by the board when nationalisation came, and we have heard no more about it.

The application from the N.F.U. was renewed in a different form later on, but so far as I know no agreement has been come to. The Parliamentary Secretary has quite rightly congratulated the boards on the fact that in the first nine months of their operations a further 6,294 farms have been provided with electricity. I should like to support from my experience in Sussex what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ludlow (Lieut.-Colonel Corbett) said about the company in his part of the world. To be perfectly honest, I do not think there is much difference in progress since nationalisation. I would point out, however, that the more farms that are supplied with electricity the easier it is to progress, because each time one or two more farms are brought nearer to the mains. Recently, I went through plans for one estate in the Home Counties and one in a county further off. In one case there were few places that were not within half a mile of the mains, whereas in the other case the figure was nearer three miles, which meant that the capital costs were quite impossible and the plan had to be abandoned until such time as help could be given.

I recognise that one of the limiting factors is manpower and materials. I would like to know whether all the qualified manpower is being employed? The other day I got two men, who had been discharged by an electricity company, to do some wiring for me, and they were very good workers. I wonder whether that sort of thing is happening elsewhere. I gather that the supply of poles is easier, but is any effort being made to find poles from local sources? For a number of my farms which I have had connected to the supply I have found the poles myself, but I have never been asked whether I could find poles for adjoining farms. I am not trying to sell them, of course, but I might have been able to help if I had been asked. I believe that only 12 or 15 poles would be required per farm, and that many more poles could be obtained from local sources. Even if they came up to the high standard of quality, length and diameter required by the authority it should not be difficult to find 15 to 20 trees in most country districts.

I also believe that there should be a subsidy from the Government for connecting up isolated farms where much expense would be involved. At present, 50 per cent. of the cost of laying water on to farms is met by the Government. If the same was done for electricity I do not believe it would cost more than £20 million, spread over five or 10 years. That is about one-twentieth of our food subsidies today. I believe this would increase our food supplies and lead to economy. Electricity is nearly as important as water in the economy of our farms.

Mr. Speaker

I hope the hon. and gallant Member will not develop further the point about the £20 million as that must involve legislation, and would be out of Order.

Colonel Clarke

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker.

Lastly, I hope a sense of urgency will be brought into this matter. The statement made by the Parliamentary Secretary about the B.E.A. sub-committee does not give me the impression that there is any great activity about this matter. We have elicited that it exists, and we understand that in due course it will report to someone, but it seems unlikely that we shall ever hear about its conclusions. It seems to be a body which has been set up to meet the pressure for something to be done about the provision of rural electricity supplies. It seems to be a case of a task being set for one body which it then passes on to someone else, as so often happens in the Army.

Mr. Robens

I must protest. I understood it was common ground that a matter of high policy should be properly worked out. Surely, the correct way to arrive at such a policy is to put experts on to the job. It is not a question of "passing the buck" to a committee. An expert committee has been appointed to give its advice to the B.E.A.

Colonel Clarke

I am not making a party point but one knows from experience that highly important matters have been referred to expert committees and have never been heard of again. I hope this is not going to be a similar case. There seems to be such shyness in giving any promise when we are likely to hear of the report that it makes one a little anxious. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary, realising as I see he does, the importance of this matter will insist he gets this report and will give us it in due course.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nine Minutes to Ten o'Clock.