HC Deb 03 April 1957 vol 568 cc526-33
Sir F. Soskice

I beg to move, in page 6, line 18, to leave out subsection (4) and to insert: (4) The Minister shall formulate from time to time as may be necessary a general programme for the purpose of carrying out such measures of re-oganisation or such works of development as involve substantial outlay on capital account after consultation with the Electricity Council and the Electricity Boards in England and Wales. This proposal is in keeping with proposals which we have earlier made and which are in general designed to secure more uniformity in the development on a national basis of the electricity industry. We seek to substitute our proposed subsection (4) for subsection (4) of Clause 7.

As we understand Clause 7, what is to be done under the provisions of subsection (4) is that a general programme is to be settled by each of the boards. That is to say, when there arises the question of reorganisation on a capital basis, involving substantial outlay of money, each board is individually to draw up a general programme covering such reorganisation on a large-scale basis. That general plan, drawn up by each individual board, is to be approved by the Minister, the Electricity Council being taken into consultation.

Our anxiety is that subsection (4) as it stands will make for a piecemeal development of the industry. We seek to substitute a proposal which would draw the industry more into one coherent, single cohesive whole. We propose that it shall be the Minister who is to initiate and carry through the formulation of a general plan for substantial capital reorganisation.

The initiative has to come from the Minister and he has to take into consultation the Electricity Council and the electricity boards. We seek in that way to introduce the overall supervisory guidance of the Minister himself and we seek by so doing to ensure that there will not be the piecemeal and individual unrelated development pursuant to the judgments and decisions of individual boards which the Bill at the moment gives reason to believe there will be.

As we have raised this issue on a number of previous occasions, and did so over and over again in Committee, without meeting with any favourable response from the Government, I move the Amendment with some despondency and without any very great optimism that the proposal will be accepted. Nevertheless, in this proposal we touch on a very important fundamental principle and we in the Opposition think that even if the Minister is likely to vote us down again, we are none the less in duty bound, as and when occasion arises, to call attention to what we think is a fundamental defect in the Bill.

The Minister still has an opportunity between this stage of the Bill and when it reaches another place to repent and to see the light. I greatly hope that he will be illuminated by the argument I have addressed to him and to the House in general and will, even at this eleventh hour, accept our proposal in the spirit in which we make it, perhaps using other language, but incorporating the purpose and design of the Amendment.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

The right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) has moved the Amendment in a very smooth and simple way and without very great enthusiasm. I suppose that it is so comparatively late in the evening that he wants to draw the proceedings to an early close and not give too much trouble at this stage of the Bill. There is a more sinister motive behind the Amendment which should be exposed.

Of course, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is being entirely consistent with Socialist philosophy. Socialists like everything planned by the State from start to finish. They do not agree with competition within the United Kingdom. They have this glorified conception that the Minister is all-powerful, omniscient and capable of developing a complete plan for the reorganisation of the industry as a whole. The Labour Party has never accepted that there should be any kind of yardstick of efficiency within the United Kingdom.

In matters like civil aviation, where B.O.A.C. or B.E.A. is in competition with world airlines overseas, there is competition and efficiency, but in matters like those affecting the Bill, the railways, the Coal Board and other totally internal industries which are nationalised, there is no possible yardstick of efficiency or enterprise, unless one decentralises and allows competition.

In their wisdom, the Government have recognised that fact and in subsection (4), which the right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to exclude, they say in measured terms in six lines that it is only by allowing the area boards to develop their own programmes in the light of their own opinions that we will get an advancement in science and technology in the electricity industry within the United Kingdom.

What other yardstick have we? Are the officials of the Ministry of Power to go to Germany, France and the United States to see what they are doing, in comparison with what we are doing? How can we possibly have a proper development of the technology of electricity supply, production and dissemination unless we allow the officials of the area boards to watch each other with lynx eyes to see how efficient each of them is, and what enterprises are being produced?

It cannot be done. The great fallacy of the Socialist Party is that it lives in a kind of dream world in the application and advancement of science and technology. Its whole purpose is directed to a centralised structure, which cannot be pitted against competition in the world outside because the means of communication are too few and the opportunities for scientists and technologists in the electricity industry to go overseas to see what the rest of the world is doing are too meagre and unsatisfactory.

The Government have rightly recognised this. We should allow each area board to develop an ethos and purpose of its own. The Southern Railway, before the war, was a very good example of what can be done with regionalised industries and services.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

No competition.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Yes, competition of prestige and opportunity. Before the war, the Southern Railway, by its electrification processes and its enterprise, produced a standard which, but for the war and subsequent nationalisation, would have inspired the other large main line railways. I glory in the fact that it is now possible to look forward to the occasion when the Eastern Electricity Board, the Southern Electricity Board, the North Western Electricity Board, or whichever one it may be, with an inspired chairman, board and administrators, will develop a system of service and a cheapness of price which will set the yardstick for the advance of the electricity supply industry in the United Kingdom for ten or twenty years.

Hon. and right hon. Members opposite, by the fundamental stupidity of their ideological thinking in these matters, might be capable of setting back the enterprise in electricity, vis-àvis what happens in the rest of the world, by ten or twenty years. They might stultify all our process of advance. I am delighted with the provision already in the Bill, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will stick to it.

Mr. Palmer

The hon. Member has put up an interesting argument in relation to the distribution side of the industry, but I hope that he has not overlooked the fact that the generating side was decentralised and remains decentralised under the Bill.

Mr. C. R. Hobson

The hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinching-brooke) has made an amazing speech. Judging from his speeches in the House and during the Committee stage of the Bill, I should have thought that he would have preferred the Minister to have the power rather than a coterie of experts upon the Generating Board or the area boards. It is revealing to hear him speaking in defence of the experts rather than those forms of organisation which have a lay predominance.

At present, the subsection provides that there shall be consultation with the Minister. In my opinion, the Minister's decision should be overriding. In this period of post-war economy, where there is strong competition for the amount of capital available for the electricity supply or any other industry, the Treasury, more often than not, has the overriding influence.

9.45 p.m.

I suggest that the Amendment meets the position as it is today. What is that position? The Minister of Power made a speech yesterday in another place in which he stated categorically what the programme will be. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the 19 nuclear power stations have been decided on solely by the British Electricity Authority? Of course not. That was decided in consultation with the Minister, and, therefore, our Amendment meets that point. I cannot see why this Amendment should not be accepted. There is to be an overall programme and consideration of it in relation to the amount of capital available for this purpose.

I should be grateful if the Minister would explain why the Amendment cannot be accepted, particularly in view of the statement made by the Minister of Power in another place yesterday. The Minister went into great detail about the programme. It was not the experts on the Generating Board or the atomic energy experts who said that; it was the Minister. It seems to me logical, therefore, that the Amendment should be accepted.

Mr. Maudling

I think that the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) was right in saying that this Amendment reflects again the basic difference of opinion between the two sides of the House—which also existed between the two sides of the Standing Committee—on the organisation of the industry. The difference arises from the relative importance which we attribute to the boards and the Electricity Council. I think I am right in saying that we believe in the maximum devolution of responsibility to the individual boards, with the Electricity Council acting as a sort of co-ordinating body. Hon. Members opposite—I admit in line with the Herbert Committee recommendations—would give more central executive responsibility in a number of matters to the Electricity Council.

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that this has been debated on many occasions and it is not necessary to repeat the arguments again now. But, looking at the matter from his own point of view, I should like to suggest to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that his Amendment is not a good way in which to put forward the view that he has in mind. It seeks to cut out the existing arrangement for supervising and approving capital programmes of boards and to substitute a new one. Subsection (4) as at present drafted states that the various boards shall act in accordance with a general programme settled by the Board from time to time after consultation with the Electricity Council and approved by the Minister. I understand the concern of the right hon. and learned Gentleman that this should not mean the fragmentation of the industry, and that the various area boards and Generating Board should go off on their own and put forward their own capital programmes without relation one to the other and without there being a catholic view taken of the whole of the activities of the industry. We consider that the apprehensions which the right hon. and learned Gentleman may properly have entertained are met by our own provision that these programmes should be settled after consultation with the Council and approval by the Minister.

Our subsection has the same purpose as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has in mind; that these various boards should together come to the Electricity Council and put their various programmes on the table, as it were, at the Council; that all the programmes should be discussed and then, obviously, amendments and changes might be made in the light of the discussion. It is after that discussion that the Council will have to consider the various programmes put forward.

Mr. Warbey

The right hon. Gentleman says that all the area boards will put forward their programmes together and that they will be considered together. Where is there any provision that the programmes shall be put forward together and considered together?

Mr. Maudling

That arises from the fact that the Minister has the power of approval. No Minister would be prepared to approve one programme in isolation. He would want to look at the industry as a whole in the light of his responsibilities under the Ministry of Fuel and Power Act, 1945. We believe that the subsection will provide adequate cohesion.

The Amendment changes the whole picture completely and places the initiative with the Minister. That is not the way it would work out in practice. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. C. R. Hobson) said that in practice the nuclear programme, for example, is considered in consultation by the Authority and the Minister. That is absolutely true. Consultation of that kind will go on between the Minister and the Council under the Bill as we propose it, but initiation of the plan will not come from the Minister but from the industry itself. I should have thought it was within the general conception of nationalised industry, both of hon. Gentlemen opposite and of ourselves, that the commercial initiative must rest with the boards. They have the statutory responsibility which we give them to provide electricity and to pay their way. Therefore it must rest with them initially to make up their minds on the sort of capital outlay in which they would like to engage.

As a matter of practice, I do not believe that the Minister is in a position to formulate and initiate plans of this kind. It is the function of the nationalised industry to decide what is needed and to put forward proposals for meeting the need. It is for the Minister, and for the Electricity Council advising the Minister, to say whether those plans seem suitable. To go further, as suggested in the Amendment, and to place responsibility on the Minister for formulating plans would put on the Minister a responsibility which no Government Department is equipped to carry out, and would take away from the industry the initiative which it should properly have.

I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's fears of fragmentation and lack of co-ordination in the capital plans are covered in subsection (4) as drafted. It is because I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Amendment will give no greater co-ordination than our proposals, and will place upon the Minister a responsibility which he should not undertake, that I ask the House to reject the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.