HC Deb 08 July 1965 vol 715 cc1973-84

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

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Harry Howarth (Wellingborough)

The question which I wish to raise tonight is that of the charge made by the electricity board for houses where freedom of choice is not given for water heating. I do not pretend that this is a problem which has suddenly come to light, and it may be that the subject has had the attention of the House on previous occasions before I came here. It appears, however, that little or no progress has been made, and I am hopeful that as a result of the appeal which I am making tonight the Minister will be able to say that something will be done in the interests of all those who are hoping for a solution to this problem.

Wellingborough Urban District Council is particularly concerned at what is taking place at the present time. The council has for some time past been developing industrial estates not only in the interests of the area which it represents, but also to help industry move from the congested London area. It is a pleasure for me to say that the development has been rapid and continuous, and that more and more firms are finding that a move to this central part of the country is of benefit to their industries and to the staff who move with them.

Such industrial growth usually brings with it the problem of housing, for it is reasonable for management to say, "If we move our premises to a new town, what about housing the staff who come with us?" I said that this usually presents a problem, but in Wellingborough the urban district council, working in conjunction with the former London County Council, and the present Greater London Council, has shown considerable initiative in the housing programme planned to cope with this development, and houses are ready for occupation as workers arrive in this overspill town.

It is to those and future houses that I am referring tonight. There have been teething troubles from time to time but in general these have been overcome, and the one problem which remains is the policy of the East Midlands Electricity Board on the subject of connection charges. May I say now that I am not complaining, neither, so far as I know, is the council, about the co-operation that it has received in dealing with this extensive development. Relations between the council and all those who have assisted in what has been, and is being, done to provide the necessary services have been extremely good. Any criticism that I may have is in regard to a certain policy, and not to the work which is involved.

During the past two years there have been several meetings between representatives of the council and officers of the electricity board at which the council has objected to the demands of the board for a capital contribution of £10 per house in respect of those dwellings where other water heating equipment indirectly prevents the tenant from having freedom of choice for water heating. The board has remained adamant that these charges must be paid despite the fact that some of the houses built by the authority are designed to be all-electric whilst others are serviced by gas.

It is important to note that the gas boards make no similar charge on the ground that there is no freedom of choice. The East Midlands Electricity Board says that it does not insist on the provision of electrical equipment such as cookers and water heaters in new houses and asks only that the occupants shall be free to use such equipment if they wish and that the houses should be equipped with the necessary circuits plus an immersion heater boss on the hot water tank so that appliances can be readily installed and connected. In any case, the houses which are serviced by gas in the overspill town of Wellingborough also have electricity connections, or other apparatus for water heating. The district council has in practice divided sensibly and equitably between the two rival sources of supply and the proportion of houses using electricity for water heating is roughly equal to that using gas.

The district council believes that the electricity board has failed to take into account the overall position concerning the housing development. As the matter could not be resolved with the electricity board, it was subsequently referred to the East Midlands Electricity Consultative Council, which supported the views of the board. It is difficult to see why the board should stick to the principles which I have outlined.

It appears that it adheres to an agreement of 1956, an agreement known as the working formula, which was reached between the local authority associations and the predecessors of the electricity board. The agreement provided that unless costs were exceptional, no charge would be made by the board towards the cost of substations and mains—apart from any service charge normally made for electricity supplies to new local authority housing—where the electrical installations were in accordance with the prescribed minimum standards and the occupiers had freedom of choice to use electrical appliances if they so desired.

The representations made by the district council are reasonable when one considers the industrial development in this overspill town and the resulting use of electricity on the industrial estates.

I have referred to the situation which is giving concern to the Wellingborough Urban District Council, but the general principle does not apply only to that area. This is a nationwide problem. Writing in the Spectator of 12th March, this year, Mr. Leslie Adrian said: The underground war being waged by the local electricity boards against the installation of gas appliances in new houses has still not come to the surface as far as the general public is concerned, although it is at their expense. The first rumblings were heard a year or two ago, when electricity boards began to bargain with private developers and local authorities about the connecting charges levied for wiring new houses into the mains. If the houses were constructed without any gas installations at all, some electricity boards were prepared to waive their installation charge completely. That article may have been brought to the notice of my hon. Friend.

In fairness to him, I must say that I have reason to think that his right hon. Friend the Minister is not completely satisfied with the present position. That at least is my impression from his letter to me after my representations on the subject. I am further encouraged by the reply to a Question on 6th July when the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) asked the Minister whether he would make a statement about the terms under which the gas and electricity boards were allowed to compete for business from new housing estates. In reply to a supplementary question, my hon. Friend said: Some competition between the fuel industries is inevitable and, indeed, very desirable, but there must be co-operation between nationalised industries and that should be in the consumers' interests."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1965; Vol. 715, c. 1339.] I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I gather that the East Midlands Electricity Consultative Council also is not satisfied, for in a letter to the Clerk of the Wellingborough Urban District Council on 16th June it suggested that it might well be that a new formula would be evolved in the not too distant future.

I am, therefore, encouraged in raising this subject tonight, since it is essential to help local authorities which face enough problems in their housing programmes without having to overcome hurdles and incur expenditure of this kind, especially those authorities which are taking overspill and which have acted fairly and responsibly towards both the electricity and the gas boards. It gives me no satisfaction to have to criticise the electricity boards tonight. I fully recognise the great work which they are doing for the nation. But sometimes one has to criticise one's friends in an effort to show them that something is wrong. I hope that a solution can be quickly found.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend inherited this problem. It is not of his making. It existed under the previous Administration. But, if he can give some hope to the Wellingborough Urban District Council and to the other councils which are seeking a solution, he will have their very grateful thanks.

10.51 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. John Morris)

It is my pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Harry Howarth) on his perseverance in raising this matter. He first raised it with my right hon. Friend in correspondence, and, not being satisfied with the situation as it was then put to him, he has, as a good constituency Member, raised it on the Floor of the House tonight. We have had the pleasure of listening to an able and reasoned speech from hill, and I am sure that his constituents will be very proud of the manner in which my hon. Friend has made representations on their behalf.

I have not been able to go in detail into the facts of the Wellingborough case. There are good reasons for that. But my understanding of the case is that it is not unlike many others elsewhere in the country. It is not a local problem, as my hon. Friend said, but a national one. Since I took office as Parliamentary Secretary, I have had occasion to look at a number of these cases, and, as recently as last Tuesday, I had a Question about it, as my hon. Friend said.

The conclusion to which my right hon. Friend and I have come is that the present situation is manifestly unreasonable. It is not new. It is a problem which we have inherited. It has been going on for years. But my right hon. Friend and I have the will to find a solution to it. A parallel can be found in the resale of electricity. On occasion, unscrupulous landlords would take advantage of tenants of flats, bed-sitting rooms and the like and charge extortionate prices for electricity resold to them. The situation had reached a stage when it was possible for the unscrupulous to advertise meters as a method of making money. If a landlord had a fair amount of property and a certain number of electricity meters, he could set the meters at whatever pace he liked and make money out of the resale of electricity.

My right hon. Friend was determined to find a solution to this well known problem which had been with us for many years, and I am very glad that he was able to find one which has been seen to be fair. In like manner, he is equally determined to find a solution to the problem which my hon. Friend has raised tonight.

My right hon. Friend has no power to intervene in the specific case raised by my hon. Friend. This is a day-to-day matter within the powers of the publicly-owned industry itself. The Minister has reserve powers, and if it is in the national interest he is able to issue a general direction, but this kind of problem is a matter within the powers and duties of the board.

Leaving aside the individual problem raised, and my hon. Friend having said that it is a national and not a local problem, the House will want to know what my right hon. Friend is doing. The solution is not easy. If it were, perhaps it would have been found years ago. But the Minister is discussing with the Electricity and Gas Councils how this kind of problem can be resolved. It is a difficult matter because there is reason and justice on both sides. It costs an electricity board practically the same to connect a house to the mains whether for lighting and small appliances or for a supply including electric cooking, water and space heating. But the revenue in the first case is very much less, and electricity boards have found that in general it does not cover the capital cost of the connection. They therefore seek to preserve their freedom to compete for the water heating and space heating loads.

The electricity boards do not insist that gas should be excluded or that particular electrical appliances should be installed when the house is built—only that there should be wiring so that the occupier may put them in, if he wishes to do so, without great expense. Because appliances such as cookers and water heaters are put in by a local authority or private developer, electricity boards may think it necessary to make a connection charge, because their ability to compete for these loads is reduced. It must be recognised that this has the effect on occasion of excluding gas, since the local authority or developer may find it uneconomic to provide both services and must inevitably choose electricity.

The Minister's aim is to achieve a sensible solution which will ensure freedom of choice for occupiers of houses to choose the fuel which they prefer where both fuels can economically be made available. He is not prepared to let the matter drag on and would not rule out the possibility of imposing a settlement if agreement is not reached in a reasonable time. Perhaps that meets the point made by my hon. Friend. Certainly there is the will to achieve a solution, and the Minister is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to achieve a sensible solution.

A settlement will need to be on broad lines and will not necessarily cover every case. Although there has been no opportunity to study the details in Wellingborough, it seems possible that the eventual agreement would not preclude a connection charge. The terms of the agreement have not yet been settled, but it is clear that the occupier's freedom of choice should be preserved wherever possible. My hon. Friend indicated that his council has tried to find a solution on its own by seeing that some houses were connected and supplied with electricity and others mainly with gas. But when houses from time to time became vacant for new tenants, there would be no freedom of choice for the individual who took a particular house. That is an indication in one small aspect of the complexity of this problem. Our aim is to ensure that a fair and just solution is reached as speedily as possible to ensure that the consumer has freedom of choice wherever possible.

Mr. Howarth

If it is correct for the electricity board to make a connection charge, why does the gas board not insist on a similar charge, when electricity is used in every house for lighting and television whereas gas has only secondary consideration? The gas board does not insist on a connection charge.

Mr. Morris

I tried to indicate earlier that there were arguments on both sides here, and if there was time I could go into the arguments on behalf of the attitude taken up by the gas industry. But one thing that is apparent is that every house must have some electricity, and the amount that is consumed simply for lighting and/or the television set alone is very small indeed. The point I was trying to make is that the amount used for these purposes alone frequently does not cover the capital cost of connection, whereas—although I speak off the cuff—if there is a gas user, in all probability he is a substantial consumer and uses at least sufficient to justify a good part, if not the whole, of the capital cost of connection. But I should not like to pursue the argument in detail. All I say is that there are arguments on both sides, and cases have been put forward by both industries.

What we are anxious to find is a proper and just solution. We have had a number of representations from many hon. Members from time to time, including my hon. Friend, and I think that at the end of the day he will take pride in the knowledge that among the representations that have been made to ensure that the pot is kept on the boil is the one by himself on behalf of his own local authority. I hope that before long my right hon. Friend will be able to announce a proper solution to the problem.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I think I am in order in raising another topic on the Adjournment. I hope so.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. H. King)

Before the hon. Gentleman goes on, might I ask two questions. Has he informed Mr. Speaker of his intention to do so, and has he informed the Minister concerned?

Mr. Cooke

The answer to both questions, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is no, but I would hope to be in order in making a few—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Before the hon. Member continues, I would just inform him that if he has not done those things and if he speaks now, he is within his rights but is doing something which has been deprecated from the Chair on a number of occasions for reasons of courtesy.

Mr. Cooke

No discourtesy is intended, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if in the few moments that remain I say what I have to say, because I feel that I have a right to make these remarks in the light of the way in which I have been treated by Her Majesty's Government in seeking to ventilate a particular problem.

The subject I want to raise is the question of the National Youth Theatre Centre. I put a Question to the Parliamentary Secretary in charge of the arts when that hon. Lady was at the Ministry of Public Building and Works. The hon. Lady was transferred to the Department of Education and Science—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is continuing but so that the record may be quite clear, I should like him to understand that the Chair deprecates his continuing a speech raising a matter of which he has not given the Minister or Mr. Speaker notice.

Mr. Cooke

I am in great difficulty. I apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I have in any way put the Chair in a difficult position. But I am not criticising a particular Minister. I am criticising the Government's attitude on this subject, and there are so many Ministers involved that I thought it would be difficult to have them all here at this time of night. Perhaps I could just finish my remarks, and if I have strayed too far I apologise.

I have no doubt that the hon. Lady was anxious to answer the Question which I put to her, but she was transferred to another Department. The Question, because of the rules of the House, did not follow her to that other Department, and I did not discover this until some weeks had elapsed. Then I transferred the Question to the Department of the Secretary of State for Education and Science, and I thought that the hon. Lady would be in a position to answer it. But apparently because my Question had the word "youth" in it, the Parliamentary Secretary in charge of sport took it upon himself to answer it.

I received an Answer about the National Youth Theatre. Because the Question had the word "youth" in it it was apparently lumped in with sport. The hon. Gentleman gave me an Answer which said that a grant was to be made. A grant was made by the previous Government. But I had asked for a grant for the National Youth Theatre Centre, which is a building to be created in some part of London, one hopes—the Centre for the National Youth Theatre. The National Youth Theatre itself is something which exists all over the country. So I was given a reply to a Question which I had not asked by a Minister to whom I had not addressed it. That put me in considerable difficulty.

I looked around to try to find ways in which I could raise these matters. It was impossible to reach any of the Ministers concerned because time is running out and we are reaching the end of the Session. When there was time left over this evening I decided that I would try to make my case. If I have given any offence to anyone, or if I have put the Chair in a difficult position—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. The hon. Member flatters himself if he thinks that he has put the Chair in any difficulty. The Chair is simply asking him to conform to the ordinary practices and courtesies of the House. If he cares to look at Erskine May, seventeenth edition, page 391, the hon. Member will see that he is transgressing against the whole spirit of the Adjournment debate procedure.

Mr. Cooke

Perhaps I have chosen an unhappy word, but what I was trying to say was that I had hoped I had not transgressed to the extent of putting anybody in a difficult or unhappy situation. What I was trying to say is that I hope I have given no offence to anyone. If I have used a device which, although legal, is not within the usual practice of the House, I apologise; but my point is simply that here is a worthy institution which should have support but which has not received any support, while Questions which I have put down have not been answered because of transferences.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members of the Government will read HANSARD, for I am sure that they would then agree that I have a valid complaint. This was the one opportunity that I could find, with what ingenuity I have, for raising this matter. Many brave policies and many splendid schemes, we are told, are to be put into operation for the furtherance of the arts, and I have taken the only opportunity open to me to ventilate this matter. Perhaps the Government will consider that here is something worthy of more than private patronage, and, in putting my case, I hope I have not transgressed. If I have, I apologise.

Mr. Harry Howarth


Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Harry Howarth) has exhausted his right to speak. It is not for the Chair to reprove an hon. Member, but if the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) had wished to raise a matter of this kind on the Adjournment, he should have informed Mr. Speaker, and also have let the Minister, or group of Ministers, concerned know of his intention.

Mr. Cooke

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. It was purely fortuitous that I was able to raise the matter. When I saw that the opportunity was likely to arise I took that opportunity to inform the Chair of my protest, and I hope that I have conformed with both of your requirements.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.