HL Deb 01 April 1886 vol 304 cc421-6

, in rising to move that these three Bills be referred to a Select Committee, said, that the Act of 1882 had been found to be insufficient. But no mere extension of time would be sufficient. He understood that the Government would not be averse to extend the period of 30 years to 40 years; but the mere extension of time was not sufficient for the equitable dealing with the matter. At the end of the period, whatever it was, the plant of the undertakings would be sold as old iron. He did not believe anyone would invest their money under such circumstances. At all events, the best course would clearly be to refer the three Bills to a Select Committee. He belonged to a society which comprised distinguished men of science like Sir W. Thompson and men who were acquainted with the practical application of science like Mr. Preece, of the Post Office, and which, might, in distinction from the purely scientific and commercial aspects of the question, be fairly said to represent educated public opinion on the subject. It was most important that the evidence of such persons should be taken, and clearly the best way of dealing with the question was to refer the three Bills to a Select Committee. He thought that the Bill which he had the honour to introduce dealt with the subject in a much simpler manner. It provided that electricity should be supplied by meter, and that the Company should not interfere with the manner in which the user of electricity chose to use the electric energy placed at his disposal. There was hardly any limit, he might observe, to the ways in which electricity might be used, and more than one meter had been found which was accepted by electricians as efficient. These were matters, however, for expert evidence, and they could be discussed far better before a Committee than by talking about a Bill over their Lordships' Table. This was one reason why he thought all these Bills should be referred to a Select Committee. If his noble Friend's Bill, as it stood, became law, it would be impossible to get capitalists to embark a sufficient amount of money in the undertaking with any fair prospect of success. His noble Friend opposite stated that there were some purveyors of electricity who were willing to come under the terms of his Bill. It might be so; but he would venture to express his belief that the terms would not be sufficiently attractive. His own Bill differed in one respect from that of his noble Friend behind him, who proposed that electricity should be put upon the same footing as gas, and that there should be no fixed date at which the concerns should be handed over to the Local Authority, but that, like Gas Companies, they should be perpetual, and that only their dividends should be restricted. His scheme was that at the end of 40 years the Local Authorities should, if they so desired, have a power of coming in and buying the concern at a fair price as a going concern. The noble Lord concluded by moving that the three Bills be referred to a Select Committee.

Moved, "That the Bills be referred to a Select Committee."—(The Viscount Bury.)


said, that the question was whether Municipal Bodies were to be authorized, at the end of some period which was only to be determined by the Government Bill, to buy the undertakings of Electric Light Companies for something less than they were worth. Was the Corporation of any town to be allowed to buy a going concern for something less than it was worth from those who had had the risk of starting it and keeping it going? In support of that proposition he had heard nothing, except that the Corporations would like it. No doubt they would like to have the same power with regard to railways and gas and water. It was entirely uncertain whether Electric Lighting Companies would be financially successful or not; but although, their success was uncertain, and hitherto none had succeeded, the House was asked to give Corporations the opportunity of playing the game of "Heads I win, tails you loose." If the Companies paid and became prosperous the Corporations would buy them; if not, they would leave them alone. He would admit that the Companies ought not to receive the extra price allowed by surveyors for compulsory purchase, usually 10 to 20 per cent. The noble Lord had mentioned offering to light Chelsea on whatever might turn out to be the final terms of the Government Bill. He should like to know what they could not get an offer for? In his experience he generally found that the highest offer was the worst bargain; and he was convinced that if they hampered undertakings in the manner proposed that it would only tend to bring financially weak, incompetent Companies into existence; that these Companies would do their work badly, especially during the latter years over which the order extended; and that they would be giving Local Bodies a right which not even the State had ever before enjoyed, even over Companies whose success was certain if they were properly managed, and he was convinced that such a power ought not to be granted.

LORD HOUGHTON (for the Board of Trade)

said, that the question whether the Bills should be referred to a Select Committee rested entirely with their Lordships' House. If he were right in supposing that the Government Bill would be satisfactory to the promoters of electric light undertakings, it did not seem to him, under those circumstances, that there was any reason for sending it to a Select Committee. The whole of this subject was threshed out thoroughly before a Select Committee of the other House in 1882, and a most voluminous Report was made. All the technical questions to which the noble Viscount had referred were then thoroughly gone into, and if another Committee were appointed the same evidence would have to be taken. He did not think that the result would be to place the Committee in possession of any new scientific or commercial fact upon the subject. Moreover, to send the Bills before a Select Committee would be practically to prevent any legislation taking place before the end of next Session.


said, that in his opinion these Bills ought to be referred to a Select Committee. He did not wish to find the least fault with those who were responsible for the original Act, by which the Electric Light Companies were given a lease for 21 years. No doubt the authors of that Act were actuated by the best possible motives, and were solely desirous of making the best bargain for the public with the people who embarked their capital in these undertakings. In attempting to make a good bargain for the public in 1882 the Government offered such terms as positively no one would accept. He believed that there had been one application only—he was not quite certain that there had been even one—for a Provisional Order under the Act of 1882. That this was the case was not surprising. If at the end of 21 years the undertakers were bound to sell their property, not, perhaps, at the price of old iron, but for its value as it stood, capitalists would not embark their money in the undertaking. It might very well be that after struggling against difficulties for many years, just as a Company had overcome them and were but beginning to be able to pay a reasonable dividend upon their shares their terms of concession would expire, and the Local Authority would step in, and, being able to borrow money at 4 per cent. would buy them out. The proposal contained in this Bill was that the term of concession should be 30 years, or, with the consent of the Local Authority, 40 years.


said, that in the event of the Local Authority objecting to an extension of the term the Board of Trade would be empowered to extend it to 40 years, or longer, with the approval of Parliament.


said, that in 1882 the Government had only offered half the advantages to a Company that they did now; but he was positively assured that even the terms now offered were so bad that even under the new Bill, as under the old Act, there would be no electric lighting. Confessedly 20 years was too short a time; 30 were now offered, or 40. On what information would their Lordships hold that 30 or 40 years were enough, and not too much? He did not think that their Lordships would, without further information, arrive at the conclusion that 40 years was a sufficiently long term; and, therefore, without the slightest desire to oppose their Bill, or to throw difficulties in the way of the Government, he held that it should be referred to a Select Committee.


pointed out that the history of the Act of 1882 showed that the original proposal of the Board of Trade was that the term should be seven years only. That term was extended to 14 years in the House of Commons, and to 21 years by that House. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to feel much confidence that the Board of Trade had hit the exact length of term necessary for those undertakings in the present measure. The stringency of the provisions of this Bill would probably prevent the public from obtaining the benefit of electric lighting at all.


said, he hoped that the Government would consent to their Bill being sent to the Select Committee. So many points and details had been raised during the debate that it was quite clear they could only be thus properly considered. But even a Select Committee would find it difficult to form a correct estimate of the length of the term necessary from the evidence of professional witnesses who were likely to appear upon both sides and to give evidence opposite ways with equal positiveness.


remarked that the arguments which had been put forward in favour of sending this measure before a Select Committee were of a very different character. He could not, however, but perceive that the feeling of the House was in favour of a Select Committee. At the same time, both individually and on behalf of the Board of Trade, he must enter his protest. The Board of Trade were extremely anxious that this important question should be settled at once. The delay which had already occurred had been very injurious to one of the most useful inventions of late years. He entirely agreed that it would be an almost hopeless task for a Select Committee to attempt to settle the number of years' term that would induce capitalists to invest money in these undertakings. He felt convinced that if the Bill came out of the Select Committee, and was approved by their Lordships' House on the principle which had been very generally advocated that night, there was not the slightest chance of its passing through the other House of Parliament, and that the question would be indefinitely delayed. He quite admitted that it was a matter for the House itself to decide; and, as the opinion of the House seemed to be in favour of referring the Bill to a Select Committee, he could only join in the hope expressed by the noble Earl who spoke last that a conclusion might be arrived at by the Committee as soon as possible.


said, he must express his gratification that the noble Earl opposite had assented to the reference of the Bill to a Select Committee. Their Lordships could have but one feeling—namely, that the question should be dealt with as speedily, and at the same time as soundly, as possible. At present there was practically a paralysis of public electric lighting. What they desired was that some means should be found by which the public of this country would more largely enjoy the benefits of that invention. While full protection was secured to the public interest, they did not wish capitalists to be deterred, as they were at present, by the conditions of the existing law.


said, he would suggest that the Select Committee should be a small one.

Motion agreed to: Bills referred to a Select Committee accordingly.