HC Deb 03 July 1972 vol 840 cc177-205

10.26 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. David Howell)

I beg to move, That the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order, 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 15th June, be approved. The order gives effect to the provisions contained in a Bill which had passed through all stages of the House of Commons in Northern Ireland and had had its First Reading in the Senate of Northern Ireland before Prorogation. It provides for thereorganisation of the electricity supply industry in Northern Ireland.

This Measure is being brought forward now for two reasons. As long ago as 1963 an independent report on the industry recommended such reorganisation and a first step towards this was taken in 1967 when the Joint Electricity Authority, a co-ordinating and planning body, was established. As hon. Members may be aware, a thorough reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland is in train and the Government decided that within the framework of this reorganisation, which inevitably raises the question of the future of municipal electricity undertakings, further progress should now be made towards a unified electricity system.

The object of the reorganisation of the industry is to provide a more efficient and economical system of electricity supply. This will involve the reorganisation of all aspects of electricity supply from the long-term planning of future generation and transmission requirements to the servicing of the individual consumer throughout Northern Ireland. The reorganisation will be in a new body to be known as the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. It follows that the existing bodies comprising the industry—that is to say, the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Joint Electricity Authority and the municipal undertakings at Belfast and Londonderry—are to be dissolved.

The generating capacity of the Northern Ireland system is 1,200 megawatts, compared with a capacity of 50,000 mega- watts in Great Britain, but demand is increasing at a rate of nearly 10 per cent. a year. Capital employed exceeds £150 million and the industry has an annual revenue of over £30 million.

The order confers the necessary powers on the service to enable it to complete the reorganisation of the industry and thereafter to run it on efficient and economical lines. This will be subject only to the retention by the Ministry of Commerce for Northern Ireland of certain powers of decision and guidance on policy matters, for example, capital expenditure and financing, as well as consents to such matters as the erection of overhead lines and generating stations.

Provision is made in the order to ensure that in the long run all costs incurred whether on capital or revenue account must be recovered through sales to consumers, and over the years accounting equilibrium must be maintained.

The present borrowing limits in relation to the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland, which is currently responsible for most capital expenditure, is set at £160 million. Having regard to the proposed amalgamation of the board and the other undertakings and to the high degree of capitalisation inseparable from the economics of electricity supply, there is provisionin this order for an immediate borrowing ceiling for the new Service of £350 million, to be raised by order where necessary to a ceiling of £500 million.

The order provides also for the establishment of a Consumers' Council—which is a new concept in Northern Ireland electricity legislation—for the expression of the consumer interest. Representation on the Consumers' Council will be on the lines provided for in the Consultative Councils established under the Great Britain Electricity Acts of 1947 and 1957. Special provision is made for the establishment of local committees to act as local representatives of the Council and thus maintain close consumer relations at local level and assist in the development of plans to meet local needs.

The transfer provisions with regard to the staff of existing bodies in the industry are designed to protect the interests of these employees and also to provide compensation should they find themselves in a less favourable position because of the transfer. The Ministry will be empowered to make orders safeguarding the rights of all affected employees. Staff and trade union organisations will be consulted before any such orders are made.

No redundancies in the electricity supply industry are expected as an immediate result of this order. However, it is hoped that savings in staff will be made as administrative services are rationalised, but it is expected that these will be offset by normal wastage. The opportunity has also been taken to bring together in the order all the relevant statutory provisions affecting the industry from as far back as 1882.

I should like to take this opportunity of placing on record my appreciation of the work performed over many years, but particularly in the past three years, by all those in the electricity industry in Northern Ireland. Not only have the management boards and committees of Belfast Corporation, the Londonderry Commission, the Electricity Board in Northern Ireland and the Joint Electricity Authority been called upon to exercise their judgment and make decisions in most difficult circumstances, but the workers in the power stations and in the field have faced unusual hazards in order to maintain a vital public service. It would be invidious to mention individuals, but it is only right that I should pay a tribute to the whole of the industry at this moment when it enters on a new phase of its existence.

In conclusion I should like to express my confidence that the framework provided by the order will further the efficiency and success of the industry and provide good standards of service to the consumer.

I therefore ask the House to support the Motion.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

It is appropriate for the order to be taken under the special procedures under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act, because, as the Under-Secretary has explained, it went through all its procedures in the House of Commons at Stormont. However, it is obvious that, if we were to be presented with a Measure which had not been discussed in Stormont, our procedures would be inappro- priate to deal with a highly complex and technical Measure like this, even if the vast majority of the information and decisions in it are non-controversial in the party political sense.

The order unifies the Electricity Board, Belfast Corporation and the Londonderry Development Commission, which were formerly involved in electricity supplies, and the Northern Ireland Joint Electricity Authority. I ask the Under-Secretary to make it clearer how the functions of the joint authority are to be carried out by the new organisation. It is obvious how the new body will take control over generation and transmission which were carried out by the joint organisation. It will no longer have to acquire all supplies of electricity and then redistribute. There is the question of making recommendations to the Ministry of Commerce on matters relating generally to the supply of electricity.

My first main question concerns the financial objective of the new body. Over almost exactly the last 10 years there has been much discussion in this House about financial objectives. I have here Command 3437, "A Review of Economic and Financial Objectives", of November, 1967. There have been changes in this respect since. They may be only marginal, but changes have taken place. I suppose that if we want to turn to the fountain head it is still the 1967 White Paper. On page 12, paragraph 33, it states: Clear financial objectives will continue to be necessary"— for the nationalised industries— so that the industries know what is expected of them by the Government. Thus they serve both as an incentive to management and as one of the standards by which success or failure over a period of years may be judged. What is the financial objective of this new organisation? Article 17 of the order states: The Service shall perform its functions so as to secure that its revenue is not less than sufficient to meet charges properly chargeable to revenue account, taking one year with another. As I recall, that is almost word for word what was in the original nationalisation Statutes of 1945 to 1950. I agree that not all the nationalised industries have been given a financial objective. That is so with British Rail, for example, and one or two other industries which still operate under that general rubric. However, it is important, when a matter like this comes before the House, to find out what the management has to set out to do in the context of Northern Ireland.

Now that there is direct rule, from where will the new nationalised organisation get its money? Will it come through something equivalent to the National Loans Fund, but operating under the Ministry of Finance? I will not develop that theme. Indeed, given the scope of the order, one could develop most of these points at great length, but I will leave that matter.

Now that we have a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries be able to look at this new organisation? Will the Select Committee on Science and Technology, over which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) presides, be able to look at it? What about the PAC and the Expenditure Committee? If the great discussions which have taken place over the last 10 to 15 years about the place of nationalised industries, their relationship to the House of Commons, and our desire to set up bodies which can look with greater precision and detail at the running of them are relevant, they are equally relevant to nationalised corporations in Northern Ireland.

The next question, on which the Minister touched, concerns the people employed by the new composite body. The hon. Gentleman said there was no question of redundancies. I am not thinking in the context of redundancies. Will there be a larger number of people employed in future, not because of the amalgamation, but because of technical change, and so on? Were the trade unions brought into the discussions before the order was placed before us and before the Bill was put through the Northern Ireland House of Commons? I understand that discussion will take place now. I wonder how much discussion had taken place before the Bill was drawn up.

There are two aspects of that order with which I hope the Minister will deal. Article 42 contains a provision about the transfer of officers and Article 43 refers to compensation. I raise these matters because in the last six months I have learned of the extremely sensible political work done by the trade unions in Northern Ireland and I know, too, of the work that they have done in the industrial field over the years.

I can work only on the figures that I have been able to obtain, and they may not be as accurate as those which the Minister can get from his Department. As I understand it, there are about 387,000 premises in the North of Ireland which can obtain electricity, the largest numbers being in the Province as a whole, with 130,000 in Belfast and 14,000 in Londonderry. The total number of premises is 450,000, so there is a gap of 70,000 to 80,000. What action do the Government propose to take to provide a 100 per cent. supply? From the little research that I have been able to do by looking through the annual report of the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland, I am pleasantly surprised to learn that the board made excellent progress in supplying electricity to farms, which must mean that, given my figures, many homes in rural areas, and perhaps in urban district areas, do not have any supply. This was brought to my notice when I visited the Province recently.

During the debates at Stormont it was estimated that it would take three years for a harmonisation of the rates between the three bodies. Need it take so long? Belfast has the lower tariff, and I imagine that that was the case for public ownership in this country, that the towns would have had a lower tariff than the rural areas. What is the Government's aim? Is it appropriate that it should be a Government aim, or will it be left to the new authority? Is it a question of the Belfast rates going up to carry the rural areas, or have the Government something else in mind?

Consumer consultation has been the least successful part of nationalisation over the last 25 to 30 years. As the Second Report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries said last year, there is too much identification with the industry concerned and not enough independence so that the consumer bodies can look where they like and say what they like with a great deal of freedom. The Committee recommended that the cost of the consumer consultative bodies should not fall on the industry concerned and that they should be enabled to comment on matters of general principle involving their respective industries and on any matters which impinge directly on consumer interest. Does Article 14 mean just that?

One thing about which I am not clear is how many part-time and how many full-time members there are. That is a matter which has exercised the minds of hon. Members in this House, as has their rôle. Heaven forbid that we should reach that pitch of having a statutory Catholic for the sake of it, but it is important to use all the professional ability that is available in Northern Ireland. I wonder what instructions are being given by the Department via the Ministry in Northern Ireland to the new organisation to make sure that this is done. What criteria are adopted? Our major nationalisation Acts between 1945 and 1950 laid down the sort of abilities the Minister would look for when he appointed part-time and full-time members to the nationalised industries' boards. I see no sign of that here. Perhaps it arises in another piece of legislation, or I may have missed it. Perhaps the Minister could put me right.

If there is increased capital investment it will mean that more homes will be electrified. I notice from the Northern Ireland Economic Report for 1971 the forecast that domestic capital expenditure in the public sector is to increase by about £4 million compared with the 1971–72 figure. That is under the heading for utility investment, and it does not distinguish between gas, electricity, transport, the Post Office and the BBC. Is that enough to deal with the figures the Minister gave us?

What proposals are there for more power stations? I understand that there was a proposal for a new power station at Kilroot in County Antrim. Is that still on? Are there any other proposals for capital investment to increase the output to meet the expected 9 per cent. increase of demand? Involved in that increase is the need to deal with electrification in rural areas, but it must at least to some degree be a sign that industry in Northern Ireland, despite the great problems it has had in the past three years, is remarkably resilient.

I do not want to develop the question of joint activities with the South, because we have talked about it before. But when joint activity between North and South on the political level is almost a subject people keep off, and is not something we can discuss in an academic sense, here is something we can discuss in a practical sense. What joint activities are there between the North and South in electricity supply? For the South and the North to meet and to work together practically in the context of power, for what is in many respects for the North and South in economic terms a backward area, makes very good sense. More than that is needed. What is on my mind is the most interesting article on economic development in the South of Ireland by Mr. Crotty in The Times today, making it quite clear that it is not just technological questions that matter when we are considering the economic advance of the Irish.

Can the Minister give some idea of the source of fuel for the power stations that the new authority will take over? The report refers to both oil-firing and coal-firing. Can the hon. Gentleman give us some idea of the proportions? The question matters to this country because as far as I know there is very little coal in Ireland, and most of it will be a different sort from that needed for power stations. In view of the problems affecting oil supply in different parts of the world, is any thought being given to more coal-burning power stations in the North of Ireland?

The Minister has power to give orders to the new public corporation. The power that interested me was on page 50, concerning damage or interference with works, which says: If any person without lawful authority wilfully or recklessly cuts, damages or interferes with any electric line or works… he shall be liable to a penalty of five years' imprisonment or a fine, or both. Coming back to the stark reality of the situation, may we assume that there is a close liaison with the security authorities for the protection of the vital installations of the new body? I raise this question because while in our more general discussions with the Secretary of State the other day we talked of low profile response, the no-go areas, and so on, I just want to be quite sure that when one reads in the Press of people talking of cutting supplies to certain areas the security authorities, on the instructions of the right hon. Gentleman, are watching the position very carefully. It is important in our view that, low profile though it may be in one respect, there should be a very high profile response to anyone who talks of taking the law into his own hands in deciding to which part of the Province electricity supplies should go.

In general, we welcome the order, and shall do all we can to facilitate its progress.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I welcome the order, which is of great importance to the people of Northern Ireland. It will benefit everyone in the community, and because of that it takes on a new importance. As there is so much taking place in the Province which is divisive, it is a heartfelt pleasure to take part in a debate which has as its aim the betterment of all Ulster people regardless of religion or politics. I regret that, once again, Republican Members from Northern Ireland have failed in their duty as Members of Parliament to attend to debate a matter which is essential for all people in the community there.

My constituency is made up of both rural and town areas. It takes in a considerable slice of the Belfast suburbs, where the electricity consumer has generally had a satisfactory service from the Belfast Corporation Electricity Department, which has always manifested a humanitarian approach to those who had fallen into arrear through no culpable fault of their own. I hope that the new Electricity Service will continue to show this decency and understanding to those who, through illness or other misfortune, have been unable to meet their bills. To my knowledge, we have had no case in Northern Ireland where an elderly person has died from lack of heating as a result of having the electricity supply cut off. This is to the credit of the electricity service.

The Belfast Corporation has been efficient and competent in the manner in which it has provided a full electricity service to its citizens, but I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) that the people who live in the rural areas have not been so fortunate. Whenever a farmer wished to install electricity on his farm he had to pay a considerable sum. Some people, who have little knowledge of farming, take pleasure in attacking the farming community, and in suggesting that the farmers are all well off. To them the grass grows and the cattle fatten without any assistance from the farmer, who just leanson his gate and watches it all happen!

I doubt whether many people in Northern Ireland work such long hours as the farmers do—out in all weather, at the mercy of the weather, with such a small return on his capital investment or his labour. Quite apart from the need to provide electricity for the farm dwelling house, the electrification of the farm is necessary and vital to enable the farmer to get his hard-earned marginal profit in these times of high competition. The financial burden of paying heavily for the installation of electricity acts as a deterrent to some. In most cases it imposes a liability which makes those living in rural areas second-class citizens. The hon. Member for Leeds, South mentioned the difference between the tariffs in Belfast and elsewhere. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will deal with that important matter. Why should the cost of the installation of electricity be so prohibitive in the rural areas? I hope that the new service can do something considerable towards helping those living in the rural areas.

Those who live in the country form a large section of the Ulster community, and I trust that they will have adequate representation on the board and the council. I should add that the proper number of representatives should be judged not upon the present number of consumers of electricity, but upon the potential number and their great need.

I strongly criticise the name of the new electricity undertaking, the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. There seems no valid reason for the departure from the title of the present undertaking. If I had the power to move an Amendment, which I have not, I should seek to change the title to that of "Northern Ireland Electricity Board". That is the name by which the service has always been known in Northern Ireland and the electricity undertakings in Great Britain are also known as "boards". Why make this unnecessary change? It will add an unnecessary burden to the cost of the new service, which will have to engage in new printing, get rid of its existing writing paper and make all the other necessary changes. It is an unnecessary waste of money.

The service is to have nine members, who are all to be paid a reasonable salary. They have an important function to perform and I trust that the best possible people will be chosen. It is right that the new Service should have the best? The criteria by which they should be judged is their technical ability and knowledge of the industry. However, I strongly object to the fact that only four members will be necessary to form a quorum. In other words, less than half the membership will be able to make decisions. Surely five should be the minimum where there are nine members.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Kilfedder

I am glad of the agreement of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) on this matter.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the hon. Member aware that the service will be able to function with three officers and one member. In effect the three officers, with the addition of one member only, will be able to run the whole concern.

Mr. Kilfedder

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his remarks. I am puzzled by the quorum. If the members are to play a proper part in deliberations and in decisions, then one must expect them to be diligent in their attendance. It is pointless to reduce the number needed for a quorum to four.

There was one disappointment in the short speech of the Under-Secretary. He made no reference to the possibility of nuclear power. He said that demand is running at the rate of 10 per cent. increase each year since there is a tremendous demand for electricity in Northern Ireland, we should be thinking in terms of providing for that potential growth by generating electricity through nuclear power. I ask my hon. Friend to look into the matter. Under the order a consumer is responsible for the maintenance of his own electricity meter. If the consumer asks for the meter to be checked, he will, I understand, have to pay for it. Surely the service should carry the charge for meter checking. The mechanism from time to time must surely need attention, and this should be the responsibility of the service.

The reports of the new service are to be laid before Parliament, as are the reports of the Electricity Consumers Council, but the Parliament referred to in each case is Stormont, which is suspended and we do not know when, if ever, it will be restored to life. There is therefore no proper provision for considering the reports at the moment, but such consideration will be exceptionally important in the first year of operation of the new organisation. How will this defect be remedied?

Under Article 49, Statutory Instruments can be made, subject to affirmative Resolution, but again of the Stormont Parliament. A number of these powers will need to be exercised in the very near future. What provision is being made to enable such orders to get proper public scrutiny?

I share in the tribute paid to the electricity service of Northern Ireland. It is right to remember the terrible atrocity committed in August, 1971, by the explosion at the headquarters of the electricity board, when a constituent of mine, a young man of 23, was killed and 35 other people were injured, some of the girls being horribly maimed. It is also right to remind the House of the fact that throughout all the troubles which have been visited upon Northern Ireland the electricity service has maintained supplies and should be given full credit for doing so.

I have pleasure in supporting the Motion.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

The House knows my long-standing interest in electricity supply questions. I can claim to have taken part in every debate in the House affecting electricity supply during the periods I have been a Member, and since this Motion is before the United Kingdom Parliament I do not propose to make any apology for taking part in the debate, even though my constituency is in the South-West of England. I have been to Northern Ireland on many occasions in connection with electricity supply and other matters. Indeed, I recently spent two days in Belfast talking to my friends and colleagues in the Electrical Power Engineers' Association and in other centres of electricity supply knowledge and opinion in the city.

Electricity supply is by its nature a complicated matter and the legislation about it is bound to be complicated as well. Electricity perhaps more than any other public service in modern life enters into every nook and cranny of our lives; it spreads to everywhere there are people; industry and agriculture rest solidly upon ample supplies of electrical energy. Therefore—without being too fanciful—when we discuss electricity we are discussing life.

It is a great pity that we have so little time this evening. The important and intricate technical, administrative and financial questions that arise on this legislation are not being scrutinised in any detail by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, yet the order is in front of us. I therefore want to make my protest that legislation of this significance should be dealt with in such a summary fashion. If the United Kingdom Parliament is to legislate, the United Kingdom Parliament should know the background to the question, and it would not have come amiss if we had had a White Paper setting out that background. That is done for any normal major change of this kind—and here virtually the nationalisation of the electricity supply of Northern Ireland is proposed and will be carried through in a short while when the order is through tonight.

I make a comparison with what has happened in the case of the present Gas Bill, with which I am rather closely connected, in terms of the affairs of this House. The Gas Bill makes a substantial change in the situation, it is true, but within the present structure of the nationalised gas undertakings of England, Wales and Southern Scotland. In that case we have had not only the publication of the Bill; we have had the Second Reading and no less than 27 sittings in Standing Committee upstairs. We have already partly discussed the Report stage, on two Fridays. Yet here we are dealing with legislation for the complete reorganisation of electricity supplies in Northern Ireland and we have only 1½ hours' discussion.

Like other hon. Members, I agree with the general principle of the legislation, which is to establish a unified Electricity Service in place of the present undertakings—two corporation undertakings in Belfast and Londonderry, the Northern Ireland Electricity Board, and the smaller Joint Electricity Committee. They are all to be lumped together under the general title of the "Electricity Service". In short, this is to do what was done for England in 1947, with the second reorganisation in 1958, and was done for Scotland in the 1944 Act for the Hydro-Electric Board, and for the South of Scotland Board in 1952.

The Minister argued correctly that this will bring much advantage in economies of scale, capital allocation, planning, and the loading of networks, and probably in terms of the capacity to employ the best staff. But consumer accountability is important. I welcome this particular reform in electricity affairs in Northern Ireland, which means—I understand—that the principles of consumer accountability which have been well used in nationalisation legislation on this side of the water are to be applied in Northern Ireland.

The question of employees' conditions of service is also most important. I ask for an assurance from the Minister—I have had no time to investigate these matters in all details, in spite of my trip to Belfast—that in the matter of legislation for the regulation of terms and conditions of employment, joint consultation, and so on, the very best practice is being followed, and that there are no special exceptions or different approaches—because I have discovered something extraordinary in the Schedule, on page 36 of the order, under the general title, "Officers". So as not to be tedious, I shall not read paragraph 12, but I assure the House that it is a fairly standard provision for settlement of negotiations of terms and conditions of employment and so on and for the promotion and encouragement of measures affecting the safety, health and welfare of persons employed by the service.

What is curious is paragraph 11. It is unlike anything I know in other nationalisation legislation in the rest of the United Kingdom. It says: The qualifications, remuneration and conditions of service of officers of the Service shall, where not prescribed by regulations under sub-paragraph (2), be determined by the Service subject to the approval of the Ministry. Regulations may make provision with respect to"— the appointment of officers of the Service and the establishment of an advisory service and so on.

This is extraordinary. Is it suggested that the Ministry should take power in certain circumstances arbitrarily to decide from on top the remuneration of certain classes of employees? If so, there must be some special reason, and it is very different, as I say, from anything known in the electricity service here, where with a few exceptions every grade of employee from top to bottom is subject to free collective bargaining. Is this arrangement outside the normal negotiations between trade union, or staff association, and the new Electricity Service? I shall be glad to have an assurance about that, for in the ordinary way Northern Ireland prides itself on closely following the models here. This difference is remarkable, and I hope that an explanation will be forthcoming.

The existing staff are concerned about their future. It is true that there were detailed and useful discussions between the unions and the Belfast Corporation, the Electricity Board of Northern Ireland, and other existing undertakings. The staff are concerned that there shall be a proper and full system of compensation in the event of anyone being displaced. The Under-Secretary rather optimistically said that on the reorganisation of an expanding service it was unlikely that anyone would lose his job, but experience of reorganisations shows that that optimism is not always justified and it is important that the position of employees in a public service of this kind should be fully safeguarded for the longest possible period up to the standard which has become customary.

There is also genuine concern about pension protection for employees of the Belfast Corporation. There have been several pension schemes, there. One has been non-contributory, and those who have built up reckonable service in it are anxious not to lose anything by the transfer arrangements. I am not saying that the arrangements will not be all right, but it is important that firm assurances be given and be implemented swiftly.

What about future accountability to this House? It will be interesting to know as my hon. Friend said whether the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries will be able to investigate the affairs of this new nationalised undertaking. The term "Ministry" is used throughout the order rather than "Minister". I imagine this is to give a certain flexibility if further political changes take place in Northern Ireland. Will we be able to question the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on electricity supplies with the same freedom—which is somewhat limited because the public corporations manage their own affairs—as we are able to question the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about electricity affairs south of the Border and the Secretary of State for Scotland about the affairs of the South of Scotland Electricity Board and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electricity Board? It would be valuable to know whether such questions will be in order.

I think I can speak with some practical experience of the problems, as a power supply engineer, of running an electricity supply system. It is a 24-hour responsibility and there are certain dangers faced by operating employees. We tend to forget that sometimes in a year up to half a dozen employees, of varying grades, lose their lives due to mistakes, not always their own fault, in switching, isolating, and in other ways. It is a somewhat danger occupation at times in any case but the dangers have been added to enormously by the present bad political state of Northern Ireland affairs.

The House should therefore pay tribute to the electricity supply workers of all grades who have maintained this essential service under conditions often involving great personal danger. In the ordinary way they do not expect any particular thanks, but when electricity supply installations, because of their bearing on the whole organised life of the community, are made the subject of special armed and bombing attack, then the industry's employees are particularly at risk. Irrespective of the views we may told about the future shape of a political settlement for Northern Ireland at least we can say that those who work for the Electricity Service have done nobly by their industry, their community and their country.

11.18 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

This is an important Measure and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer). I believe I speak for all Northern Ireland Members when I say we welcome his valuable contribution. This is, as he says, the United Kingdom Parliament; the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part and parcel of this kingdom, ruled from this House and it is only right that this House should pay the closest possible attention to all Measures it enacts which will affect the well-being and the life of the Province. On behalf of the people of Northern Ireland may I say that we are always glad to hear such vital contributions as has been made by the hon. Member. This is the type of contribution that can help us in Northern Ireland to get out of some of the great difficulties in which we now find ourselves.

I found myself in disagreement with the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) because I did not feel I could go along with him when he said that he was perfectly prepared to accept this legislation because it had been discussed in the Northern Ireland Parliament. I discovered from the HANSARD reports of the debates that six Stormont Members took part in the discussions on Second Reading and during the Committee stage. If hon. Members avail themselves of the Northern Ireland HANSARDS, they will see that that was typical of the way in which legislation was passed through Stormont. When it is passed in such a way, this House has a stern duty to look very closely at legislation brought before it by Order in Council. Six Stormont Members and the Minister took part in the debates in Northern Ireland on this very important Measure. [An HON. MEMBER: "A quorum".] Yes, a quorum.

There are people who have agitated in Northern Ireland, saying that things are not right concerning social amenities, and yet when we discuss a Measure which affects the well-being of all people in Northern Ireland, whether they be Protestant or Roman Catholic, Republican or Unionist, they are conspicuous by their absence. I should like Members of this House to take note of that point. If those people are sincere in their strong professions about wanting to help to improve the amenities of all the citizens of Northern Ireland, they could make a vital contribution to this debate, and they should be here to make it.

This order does away with the present system whereby electricity is supplied to the Province of Northern Ireland by three main suppliers: the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland, the Belfast Corporation Electricity Department and the Londonderry Electricity undertaking. This order proposes to dissolve those suppliers and to bring into being the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. I would not make heavy weather of the name which it should be given; that is not important. The important matter is to get the electricity to the people. Therefore, it does not worry me what the undertaking is called, as long as it delivers the goods.

I represent both an urban and a great rural district. Many areas of it are completely devoid of amenities. I am speaking for people who occupy houses publicly owned by the local councils. Their properties have neither electricity nor water. Heretofore they have had no chance of getting water and electricity. I defy any hon. Member to take me up on this point. I have people in my constituency who have waited 20 years for electricity and water, and they are still waiting. A slogan which I used during my election campaign on the Bann Side was "Wholly water for these houses". In the village of Ahoghill, which no doubt the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) knows very well, people still use the village pump, in a built-up area, and they still bury their sewage in their back yards and small back gardens.

Those are the issues in which I am interested. I welcome this order because it brings nearer to people I represent the possibility of having electric light in their homes. The tragedy is that people who had electricity installed in their homes, even though those homes were publicly owned, had to pay for that installation. Their rents were increased, and some have been paying for 15 years for something which they should have been given as of right. It is surely the duty of the authorities concerned to supply electricity to those publicly-owned properties and it should not be on the shoulders of the people who live in them.

I have been to the homes of people who have waited for years for electricity to be supplied. They sit in their rooms lit by oil lamps, or candles and it is in those conditions they try to rear their families. Furthermore, some of them have to carry water for 200 yards. Therefore, I welcome this order which will bring at least one modern amenity to those homes—and perhaps after that will bring others.

The rural districts of Ulster have been sadly neglected in the provision of electricity. Farmers have had to pay dearly for the installation of electricity. I went into one farmer's home and every electric light in the place was burning. When I asked the farmer why all the lights were on, he said, "I had to enter into an agreement to pay so many pounds every year for electricity. If I burn it I pay for it, and if I do not burn it I pay for it. So I burn it." It is that sort of installation cost that causes such an irritant in the farming community.

We must also consider the matter of way leaves and the right to erect electrical apparatus on people's properties and on farmland. I have made criticisms of the EBNI, but I would pay tribute to it because its record in many cases has been a good one. I also pay tribute to the Belfast Electricity Board which did such a good job in electrifying the City of Belfast.

However, in regard to some of the way leaves which were negotiated, the farming community had little option but to allow poles and other installations to be erected where the EBNI desired them to be placed. One of my constituents had a piece of ground for which he had applied for planning permission. The EBNI decided to put a row of poles on that land, and my constituent had to go to the civil authority before he could get the board to change its original idea. Eventually the board decided to put the poles in the hedge rather than in the middle of the field. That may be an isolated case, but it should certainly never be repeated. I trust the Minister will see that there is ample negotiation beforehand so that installations are not put in places which may have an adverse effect on amenities. These are little things which may perhaps not mean much to hon. Members in this House, but they mean a lot to people in Northern Ireland who own property and who wish to use that property to the fullest possible advantage.

I turn to the important matter involving the setting up of the Electricity Consumers Council. I agree with this proposal, but wish to draw attention to Schedule 2, paragraph l(b), which refers to the fact that the Council shall consist of not more than 30 other members, in addition to the chairman, of whom not more than 10 may be appointed by the Minister from a panel of persons nominated from amongst members of district councils by such organisations as appear to the Minister to represent the district councils". The people who need electricity are the people in the rural areas, but there is no statutory obligation on the Minister to have proper representation on that council from the rural districts. It is possible for him to select all members from urban districts. I ask the Minister to ensure that rural constituents, who are eager to have electricity, will have their views, represented on the council.

The Electricity Service is to consist of

  1. "(a) a Chairman and a Deputy Chairman appointed by the Minister;
  2. (b) the Chairman of the Council;
  3. (c) not more than six other members…"
Under Part II of Schedule 1 the quorum is to be four, which means that the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Service, the Chairman of the Council, and one member can run the undertaking. This should be altered so that at least two non-officers form part of the quorum.

We who represent Northern Ireland constituents are in the difficulty that we cannot amend the order: we must accept it. Many points which have been made tonight were made when the Bill was discussed at Stormont. Although the Bill will give a monopoly in the supply of electricity, it will do so in such a way that some rural districts may never get electricity. Article 30 provides that a person other than the Service shall not supply electricity". However, a private person can generate electricity for his own use. This is essential in Northern Ireland, because some areas may not get electricity for a long time. The building of houses should be a priority in the Province. Some houses which are owned by public councils would, if they were privately owned, be condemned as unfit for human habitation. Sanitary inspectors have told me, "If that house were owned by a private person, I should close it, but because it is owned by a public council it is still occupied".

Such houses have little chance of being connected to the electricity supply. Builders trying to develop property will be prohibited from saying to would-be occupiers, "The only thing I can do is generate electricity for you".

The duty of the Electricity Service is as far as is practicable to extend the supply of electricity to rural areas. Government Departments at Stormont have pointed out to me that it is not practicable to bring electricity supplies to some rural districts. Are these people to be without electricity for ever?

These are problems that come home to the lives of the individuals concerned. After all, Parliament is about people. I should be happy to discuss these problems rather than having to dwell upon graver problems concerning law and order and the present terrifying situation in the Province.

Although we would not dream of voting against the order, we from Northern Ireland believe that it could have been improved. I trust that when further legislation comes forward we shall all have an opportunity, not to have a Second Reading, a Committee stage, a Report stage, and a Third Reading, crammed into one, but to deal at length with matters affecting the wellbeing of every person in Northern Ireland irrespective of creed or class.

Mr. John E. Maginnis (Armagh)

Many of the points which I intended to raise have already been mentioned by other hon. Members. However, I should like to take up the point about the old Electricity Board giving a supply of elec- tricity to people in Northern Ireland over manyyears. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), I should like to pay tribute to the staff at the Electricity Board headquarters for the fortitude which they showed during their terrible ordeal in 1971 after the bomb blast. I hope that when the new board takes over the electricity supply service it will be free of such atrocities for many years to come.

The hon. Members for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) mentioned North-South relations over electricity. A former Member of this House used to talk about the hand of Maynooth being on the switch of Southern Ireland. My hand is very near the switch of Northern Ireland because Tandragee substation is the link with Maynooth. I have a great interest in this matter. At least in one sphere of activity we have this co-operation. We have many others, on which I will not dwell tonight, but electricity is a vital asset. It is not generally known that over past years electricity has been brought to Northern Ireland by this link. Unfortunately, owing to recent troubles, that link has been broken at a place in South Armagh.

I want to refer briefly to another point on which the hon. Member for Leeds, South, dwelt, namely, the new electricity supply. At Camlough in South Armagh we have a new hydro-electricscheme. However, we are running into difficulties. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) talked about the farmers not being happy about the money they are getting for way leave. The Camlough farmers are not satisfied with the amount of money they are receiving for their land. This hydro-electric scheme is important. It is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland and will bring much needed employment to an area of high unemployment.

I am sure the House will agree that atomic power is not competitive, because atomic power stations are unable to reach full capacity owing to a technical fault on which I will not dwell. I am sure that many experts here tonight know why they cannot run to full capacity. However, in the not too distant future we hope to have an atomic power station at Lough Neagh where there is plenty of water for cooling.

Electricity is a source of energy which has been properly harnessed in Northern Ireland. I hope that in the near future all the energies of the people of Northern Ireland will be harnessed to building up the Province rather than pulling it down.

Another point concerns the connecting charge for electricity. In 1947 when my part of the country first saw the light—in other words, got a supply of electricity—the farmers had to pay dearly for the connection. Some of them had to pay as much as £170 per year. No wonder the hon. Member for Antrim, North spoke about the farmer who kept his premises well illuminated. People in those days tended to use more electricity than they needed, because they had to pay for it anyway.

There is a lot of development going on in Northern Ireland, despite the troubles. Many new bungalows and houses are going up in rural areas, especially in my area, which is the Beverley Hills of Craigavon. This will be a problem, because, under the new Bill, a house will be supplied with electricity only if it is at a reasonable distance from the mains. This will be a sore point for many years. What is a reasonable distance from the mains? Will the new service supply the additional poles required, or will they be paid for by the consumer?

I should like to mention a case in point about a constituent of mine whose premises are situated between two distribution points. Over a certain distance from these distribution points no electricity will be supplied. I think the distance is about 900 yards. It is appalling to think that one, two or three farmers, with electricity all around them, waited for more than 20 years to be connected to a supply, and have been connected only in the last few years.

I hope that this kind of thing will not happen in the future, because it leads to a lot of ill-will. A vast number of people in farming areas have been supplied with electricity and are thus able to run electrically-operated milking machines, and so on, and some even have electric central heating, yet there are isolated examples of farmers without any supply at all.

I wish the new electricity supply service every success. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) who said that he would rather have the old electricity board's name carried on. That may be all right, but there are so many boards in Northern Ireland that one fewer will not make any difference. If there were any more boards we should have the place boarded up.

I should like the Minister to explain why the stamp duty on agreements for the supply of electricity is still in operation. I think that the original Bill proposed that this duty should be dropped, and perhaps the Minister will consider that.

Will there be any delay in the introduction of this new service, seeing that Stormont is prorogued? Would the Minister tell the House the number of consumers in Northern Ireland who are still without electricity? That information would be of great help to all hon. Members.

I repeat that I wish the new service every success, and I hope that before long very few areas of Northern Ireland will be left in the dark.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. David Howell

I am acutely aware that we have insufficient time for these debates and that when I rise to reply there are still many comments to be made and still one or two hon. Members who want to speak, but the fact remains that if I am to give even the minimum attention which I am sure the House would like me to give to the many questions that I have been asked, it is necessary for me to seek permission to reply to the debate in the few minutes left to us.

I am grateful to the House and to hon. Members for the general welcome which they have given to the order which is of fundamental importance to the future of the Province and to the long-term industrial, domestic and customer strength of Northern Ireland. It is an important and valuable order, and one that we shall all have cause to welcome in due course and say that this was the right way forward.

The hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) asked me 13questions, and if I take them at some speed it is only to try to get in all the answers.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the future of the Joint Authority, which has existed for some time, which has been the co-ordinating supply and distribution authority. That is subsumed into the new service. The whole point is that the new service is a generating, distributing and co-ordinating service and is able to carry on both this central and key function of transmission, distribution and supply and the co-ordination of balancing and supply at any time of the day or night, and the other functions as well formerly carried on by the constituent parts.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the financial objectives. The objective achieved by the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland in recent years has been about 6.6 per cent., which compares with current targets for the Great Britain electricity authority of 7 per cent. No precise figure has been fixed for the coming years for the service. This will have to be fixed at an early date.

I was asked where the new service gets its money from. The answer to that is the Northern Ireland Government Loans Fund.

The hon. Member for Leeds, South and the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) asked whether the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries would be able to look at the service. The Committees of the prorogued Stormont would have been able to look at it. If another Parliament emerges, that will be resumed. At present it is the Secretary of State who is held accountable for all aspects of the service. He can be questioned, not on day-to-day matters, but certainly on the broad operations and policy of the service. If the Select Committee of this House wished to look into the Northern Ireland electricity service, no doubt this could be discussed, but as a matter of procedure and normality that would not be the position. As with many other aspects of what we discuss, we are in a temporary situation, which is not satisfactory, as my right hon. Friend would be the first to recognise. That means that the question of the Committee examination of this nationalised industry is not for the moment satisfactorily resolved.

The trade unions have been consulted, and firm undertakings have been given that the staff and trade union organisations will be consulted by the Ministry before any orders are made which may result in changes of employment or transfer of employment of a kind affect- ing an employee's rights. There has already been consultation.

I was also asked about the proportion who are not at present connected. The figure I have is that 450,000 connections exist now, out of a total population of 1.5 million, which is a relatively high proportion. The total number not connected is not available. I shall come to the important question of rural electrification and installations. A number of farms are not connected, but overall the figure of 450,000, which is higher than the figure the hon. Member for Leeds South had, is a considerable achievement, representing a very high proportion of connections. It is a satisfactory situation, although obviously there will be no complete satisfaction until there is electricity supply for all those who wish it throughout Northern Ireland.

It is certainly the case that in the past the smaller domestic consumers in the cities, in Belfast and Londonderry, have benefited, and there will have to be some adjustment. I was asked why that should take three years. That was the suggested time during which the harmonisation would take place, which would mean an upward movement for the smaller domestic users. The Belfast Corporation has suggested that it should be longer, and the Government would certainly be sympathetic to looking again at the whole question of the time in which the tariffs should be harmonised. We have an open mind on the matter, and are prepared to consider it very carefully.

The position on new power stations is that Kilroot has now been approved, subject only to various local planning permissions, and will go ahead. That is a 1,200-megawatt oil-fired station. Camlough hydro-electric station is going ahead. There have been some difficulties there, but I believe they can be overcome. That, too, will make a major contribution.

There are no plans for nuclear developments, simply because the scale of the Province's requirements, even on present growth projections, does not justify that kind of investment. But minds are open on that. If the technical requirements and the projected possibilities point to the kind of nuclear development some hon. Members have in mind, that will be considered, but at present such developments are not contemplated.

Joint activities with the South were mentioned by the hon. Member for Leeds, South and by my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Maginnis). The position is that the so-called interconnector was knocked out, but the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland hopes in the next few weeks to be able to repair some of the distribution lines in the area, and if that work goes well we may be able to move forward to repairing the interconnect or as well. But certain difficulties have been encountered, and the first thing to do is to repair some of the distribution lines.

This raises the question of security. There is very close and continuous security scrutiny, and the need for it is something of which we are all very much aware. I can assure my hon. Friend that there is very close and tight scrutiny indeed. We have to maintain continuous security throughout the whole system which in certain circumstances could be vulnerable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) referred to the title of the "Service", a subject which was raised on Second Reading in Stormont. The preference for the title "Service" is not strong, but lies mainly in the belief that it is important to get away from the idea that the Electriciy Board for Northern Ireland is taking over the other bodies. It is not, and it is important that that is made much clearer by calling the new board the "Service" rather than a board.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North that if meters are claimed to be broken and are then taken out, tested and found to be broken, the authority bears the cost. The cost is borne by the owner or occupier of the house in which the meter is placed only if, when taken out, it is found to be perfectly all right. This procedure is perhaps not satisfactory in someways but it is normal throughout the United Kingdom and in the normal situation of electricity supplies, and it is that which prevails.

The hon. Member for Bristol, Central has very great experience in these matters and speaks on this subject with considerable authority. He asked why, as this was complicated legislation, there had not been a White Paper. There have been various reports preceding the legislation, which was discussed at Stormont. It would, of course, be desirable to discuss it in more detail, but this order has not just come out of the blue. There have been very detailed reports leading up to this proposal.

The hon. Gentleman thought that paragraph 11 of Schedule 1 was rather odd from the point of view of employee conditions. It is the fact that if the Service does not operate a code of employment the Minister may by regulation require the operation of such a code. It is thought proper to ensure this in Northern Ireland legislation because it relates to requirements under community relations. That is the reason for this rather unfamiliar paragraph.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to accountability, and I have said that the Secretary of State can answer questions, although not on the day-to-day operation. He also asked about superannuation. It is right to say that no one will be deprived of existing pension rights. I know that some older men are not in funded schemes, but their pensions will be paid. I am satisfied that the superannuation provisions are substantial.

Rural electrification is a highly important function. The Ministry has insisted that it be retained in the order, and we intend to press ahead with further rural electrification installations. Costs are a problem. Even now the charges do not cover anything like the full cost. If the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) has a specific case which he thinks particularly unfair I will gladly look into it. As to the farmer who has to go on using light even though he does not pay for it, I can say that this position has been abolished.

I was asked for an assurance that there will be full rural representation on the consultative council, and I can say that there most certainly will be.

I think that I have covered nearly all the points put to me. No doubt I have missed some, but my time has run out. I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order, 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 15th June, be approved.

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