HL Deb 17 March 1885 vol 295 cc1418-27

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that its object was to regulate the powers of the Water Companies—to improve the system, but not to take the powers entirely away. The present state of the law was that a householder was assessed on the annual value of the premises, and he was also required to pay in advance the quarter's water rate. If he failed to pay that amount in advance, the Company had the absolute right to cut off his water supply without further question. Such was the present state of the law; but since it had become so the Valuation Act and other Acts had been passed, by which this annual value became a shifting one, and one which was difficult to decide. The first point raised in this Bill was the proposal in the 4th clause that every Company should send in to every owner becoming liable a claim or demand note containing a statement of the particulars. The object of this proposal was perfectly simple. It was to insure the consumer receiving a full and complete statement of the demand made upon him and the particulars of that demand. In making a proposal of this kind, he was not proposing any course that was in any way exceptional. It was the course followed by a parish when it collected parish rates, as well as by the Crown in collecting taxes. It was also what was done in every case where a private bill was presented to a customer, the amount and the particulars of that amount being stated. But there were even stronger reasons to advance in favour of this proposal. It appeared to him most important, not only that the consumers should know the charges made upon them, but also that they should know, when changes were proposed to be made in their assess- ment, what those changes were, and all the details of them. The present practice of most Companies was, when they were making a change in the assessment, to give no information whatsoever. He did not wish to go into details, but he would give one instance of the working of this practice. When he had raised a similar proposal before in that House, a friend of his, a Director of a Water Company, had said that he thought he was a little hard on the Companies, and that some of the cases he had quoted were hardly founded upon fact. He had replied that he would take his own case, and he applied to the Grand Junction Water Company for details of their charge. As soon as he had received the details, it appeared that the surveyor in his statement was charging him twice over. On asking for an explanation of this he had received the answer that they found he was perfectly correct, and that an error had been made; the excuse given being that the amount of work in the reassessment of the district had compelled them to employ new and untried hands. That was the result of the test case which he had taken up, and for which he could vouch. The Company had, afterwards, finding that they had been entirely wrong, sent him a new note altogether, and the result was that his premises were twice re-valued in six months. With regard to the right of the Companies to cut off the water supply, he was not proposing to take it away altogether; but by Clause 5 he proposed to make it necessary to obtain leave to do so from a magistrate or some Court of summary jurisdiction. It was necessary that some restriction should be placed upon the exercise of this power; because, in his opinion, it was one which was being improperly used for purposes which the Legislature had never contemplated when it gave the power. When the Waterworks Act, 1847, was passed the Legislature had never foreseen that this power would be used in cases of disputes. His great complaint was not so much that the Companies had exercised their power in enforcing payment of their bills, as that when disputes as to amount had arisen between them and consumers in many instances the Company had threatened the consumer with the entire removal of his water supply unless he consented to the demands which they made upon him. These instances could be multiplied to a large extent; but there was great difficulty in getting small consumers of water to come forward and give their names, as they were afraid of the Water Company. There was another danger which he would like to point out, which was that the Companies had used this power in some cases against tenants when they had disputes with the landlord. He would not have troubled their Lordships further if it had not been for a Paper which he had received that morning, and which he supposed had been circulated among their Lordships, bearing the names of Messrs. Baxter and Co., and other eminent firms of Parliamentary agents, and which he presumed was the statement of the case of the Water Companies in answer to this Bill. He would invite their Lordships' special attention to the contents of that Paper. It was there stated that this Bill would cause serious loss and inconvenience to the Companies, that it was un-called for, and that, if passed, it would be unjust. But this Bill only proposed that the Companies should render accounts in the ordinary form as a parish or the Crown did. With regard to the statement that the proposal had been brought in without any communication with the Water Companies, his experience of making an application to them was that they would offer opposition in every possible way, direct or indirect, in Parliament and out of Parliament. One of the Companies having appeared before Parliament for a Bill, he took the opportunity of endeavouring to introduce clauses into the Bill, and the Company objected to his proposal, saying that it was a mean and petty mode of legislating. Now that he had introduced the measure in a form in which even the Companies could not object to it, they said that if it was desired to alter the existing law the change should be undertaken by the Government of the day after careful inquiry, and that the matter should not be hastily dealt with by patchwork legislation. Under those circumstances, he asked their Lordships whether it would have been of much use for him to have appealed to the Water Companies if they were disposed to receive his proposals in that manner? The next allegation in the Paper to which he referred was that the restrictions now sought to be imposed had never before been suggested. But then Parliament had never supposed that that power would be used for settling disputes; it was a question of the payment of rates, and not of settling disputes. It was further alleged that the necessity of delivering demand notes and particulars to each consumer would involve serious trouble and inconvenience to the Companies. Of course it would; but it appeared never to have occurred to the Companies that the consumers had some rights in that matter, and that they incurred most serious inconvenience from the Companies giving them no information whatever. Then the Paper stated that Section 5 of the Bill would deprive the Companies of that which was practically, as respects a certain class of houses, their only mode of obtaining payment of the rates. That he took to be the real sting of the Bill, and to be the chief cause of the opposition of the Companies. They said that very seldom was the power of cutting off the water supply exercised, and never except after repeated applications for payment; that they issued over 50,000 notices of their intention to cut off the water unless the rates were paid, and that, with but few exceptions, the notice had the desired effect. The same plea might be urged in defence of the kourbash in Egypt—namely, that it was seldom actually used, the threat of its employment being sufficient to secure the payment of the taxes demanded, regardless of whether they were just or unjust. The Companies said they had 700,000 consumers, and they annually served those notices on nearly 8 per cent of that number, the notices not being very often pressed, because they generally had the desired effect. The kourbash in Egypt had the desired effect; but was it desirable to apply it? Now, he maintained that it was not desirable that when a dispute arose it should be settled summarily and at the arbitrary will of the Company. The Companies utterly ignored the fact that they had any duty towards the public; and it seemed that, in their opinion, the object of water supply legislation was simply to enable the Companies to extract from the consumers the amount of rates which they thought fit. He held that some legislation was absolutely necessary to protect the legi- timate interests of water consumers, and therefore he asked their Lordships now to read that Bill a second time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a "—(The Earl of Camperdown.)


in moving that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, his experience of law-making was very little; but he thought there never was a case brought before a Legislative Body asking for an Act to be passed with so little ground or foundation as the present one. That was a proposal to interfere with all the Water Companies in the Metropolis and throughout the country. He did not know whether the noble Earl was aware that he had left out those water suppliers who were Corporate Bodies, and not private Companies.




said, he supposed, then, that Corporations were to possess those powers which private Companies were to be required to give up. The Bill was an interference with all the Water Companies in England and Wales, an interference with millions of capital, and that without any case being made out before their Lordships, except that which the noble Earl had told them of his own: particular knowledge and particular acquaintance. Was that reasonable? Was it right that the bargain that was made between the public and the Water Companies in the Acts which constituted them should be interfered with at all, or, at all events, without some better reason than any which the noble Earl had adduced? He knew that at that moment the Water Companies were not at all popular. They were considered proper objects of plunder and of ransom; and the reason for that, he supposed, was because they had been successful—at least, he knew of no other reason. There was a great outcry about the tyrannical conduct of the Companies; that was one of those cases in which he often thought it would be desirable if they could collect the voices of the silent. Everyone who supposed that he had a grievance against the Companies thought fit to make it heard, and cried—"Down with them;" but those who were contented, and had no complaint, held their tongues. Then, great reliance was placed on what was called the extortionate disposition shown by the Companies; and reference was made to the decision of their Lordships' House in Mr. Dobbs's case. What happened in that case? The Companies thought they had a right to charge on the gross value; their Lordships' House thought that they had not, but that they must charge on the net value only. Were the Companies entirely to blame? Three of the most distinguished Judges of the Court of Appeal agreed with the Companies, and their Lordships' House had reversed their decision; and if three of the greatest Judges held that view, were those unfortunate Companies to be severely blamed for sharing it? The noble Earl had quoted his own experience in that matter. Let him mention his. He had obtained the particulars of the Water Company's demand against him; and, finding that they had undercharged him in regard to several items, being honest to the extent of a few shillings a-year, he had paid what was due to them. He had presented to their Lordships a Petition signed by the Chairmen of eight Metropolitan Water Companies, and also Petitions from the Water Companies throughout England. The Metropolitan Companies had 700,000 customers; and, as stated by the noble Earl, they gave 50,000 notices of the cutting-off of the water supply in the year, because until they did so they could, not get paid; nor would the notice induce the payment; it was only when the workman came with his tools in his hand to cut off the water that the Company could get paid. And the result was that, for non-payment and otherwise, they cut off the water in only 1,400 instances. That was at the rate of but one case out of every 2,000 customers; and yet there was all that outcry against the Companies. The noble Earl talked of the kourbash, but the Companies did not use the kourbash; the threat of it was enough. If, by applying the mere threat of doing what you had a right to do, you induced people to do what they ought to do, it was a very good thing. What would be the consequence of taking away this convenient and summary remedy? The Company, before cutting off the water, would have to apply to a magistrate, who, if the customer still failed to pay, would make an order that the water should be cut off. Thus the Company would be put to considerable inconvenience, and the customer would incur heavy additional expense. As matters were now, if the Company exercised their power wrongly, they had to pay a penalty of £10. But, in fact, this penalty was never imposed. Why? Because the power was never wrongly exercised. The proposal of the noble Earl was most mischievous, both for the Company and the consumer, and was an unjust interference with rights conferred on the Company by the Legislature. It was not unreasonable that notice should be given by the Company of the amount and items of the claim. He thought it was given.


They do not.


Then one had only to write and ask. Then, with the proposed application to the magistrates, people would be sure to say they had had no notice of the claim. In "another place" a right hon. Friend of his said that he had strong views on property, and would have given Shylock his pound of flesh. Well, he had one strong view on property, that it should not be stolen. In the case of Shylock he would have decided with the fair Portia, on the ground that the Jew was attempting to infringe the law, which said, "Thou shalt not kill." It did not follow that, because you might not kill, you might steal. He asked their Lordships to discard any unworthy prejudices against Companies, which had their rights as well as individuals; and he hoped, therefore, that they would reject the Bill.

Amendment moved, to leave out ("now") and add at the end of the Motion ("this day six months.")—(The Lord Bramwell.)


said, that when he saw the Notice of his noble and learned Friend (Lord Bramwell) he was full of curiosity to know what reasons his noble and learned Friend would assign for moving the rejection of the Bill. The principal clause of the Bill interfered with no rights or powers of the Companies. It only required that they should give information of the grounds of their demand to their consumers. The other clause, to some extent, no doubt, interfered with their power of cutting off the water. But the method of exercising that power was a matter for Committee, and not a ground for throwing out the Bill on the second reading. The case for the principle of the Bill appeared to him to be a perfectly? reasonable one. He was full of wonder when he heard the arguments of his noble and learned Friend, who went off into a speech on references made in "another place" to Shylock, and talked about stealing and the rights of property, and that on a Bill which contained nothing which could be construed as an attack on property. The Companies had obtained from Parliament the practical monopoly of the supply of one of the first necessaries of life on very favourable terms. The Metropolis and other large urban populations were wholly dependent on them. They supplied the water, not according to the amount used, but according to the valuation of the house supplied. The Bill did not take away any of their rights, or interfere with their property or the bargain which they had made with the State. All that the principal clause did was to require the Companies to let the consumer know what the valuation was, what real charges were, and upon what items of consumption they were based. In the only two cases they had heard of, in which particulars were detailed, it turned out that the Companies had made mistakes; and how could they know that no mistakes would be made again? The recent case of Dobbs, to which the noble and learned Lord referred, proved that those Companies had for many years been making their charges upon a false principle of valuation. As for the other clause, about which there might be some room for controversy, when they got into Committee, all that need now be said was, that when there were disputes concerning the liability, and when the consumer was not told the particulars of the charge made against him, using, or even the threat to use, the summary power of cutting off the water was a thing which perfectly justified some safeguard to protect the consumer against being so treated.


said, he regarded the Bill, not as an interference with the "Water Companies, but as a measure for the protection of the public. It was intended to secure the public against the excessive charges which the Companies, perhaps inadvertently, but still illegally and unjustly, attempted to enforce. Therefore, he thought their Lordships were deeply indebted to the noble Earl who introduced the Bill.


said, he must confess he did not think that a case had been made out for rejecting the second reading of the Bill. The 4th clause was, in his judgment, a most reasonable one; but he hoped that, in agreeing to the second reading, he should not be supposed to assent to the 5th clause. That was a very stringent clause indeed, and if it were passed, he did not think the business of the "Water Companies could be carried on. At present the remedy of cutting off the water could not be regarded as satisfactory, inasmuch as there were sanitary objections to it, and it often happened that, in consequence of a change of tenancy, it hit the wrong person. He did not think Parliament was bound to continue a system which had sanitary evils, and was injurious to the health of the population, merely on account of a previous bargain having been made with the Companies by Parliament. If, however, Parliament removed the remedy of cutting off, it ought to provide the "Water Companies with some other remedy equally efficient. He asked the noble Earl who had charge of the Bill whether he could see any objection, when the Bill had passed the second reading, to refer it to a Select Committee, by whom this point might be considered?


hoped that the Bill would be read a second time and referred to a Select Committee, so that the Committee might have an opportunity of stating their objections.


admitted that it was not unreasonable that people should be supplied with particulars of the charges made by the Companies; and he was quite content that the Bill should be read a second time, and referred to a Select Committee.


said, he disclaimed all desire to do any injustice to the Water Companies, and expressed his willingness to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, on the understanding, however, that no counsel should be heard before it. He was perfectly able to state certain portions of the case himself on one side, and he knew that the "Water Companies had among their Directors and officers persons perfectly able to bring the case of the "Water Companies before the Committee.

Amendment (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

Bill read 2a, and referred to a Select Committee.