HL Deb 01 March 1887 vol 311 cc854-62

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


said, that in asking their Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill he desired to say that its subject was not new to him, as he had for the last five years been practically and commercially connected with the industry, and had for four years been one of the few Members of their Lordships' House who had had electric light in his own house, and thus had daily opportunity of studying it, and of appreciating its comfort and convenience. It would be interesting to know how many of their Lordships actually had introduced electric lighting into their houses. He should think a dozen or a score would be the outside. Among them, however, there was, he was glad to say, the Leader of the House, the noble Marquess at the head of the Government, who had the honour of having been one of the earliest and most successful pioneers of electricity, not only in connection with lighting, but with the transmission of power. He could not help thinking that the experience of the noble Marquess would make him concur with him in thinking that the moment had now come to amend the Act of 1882, under which, as it stood, central lighting stations and house-to-house lighting were a commercial impossibility. Their Lordships must remember the circumstances under which that Act was passed. The science was then in its infancy. Not long before Lane-Fox and Edison had made discoveries in filaments and attachments that had for the first time made incandescent lighting practically possible. Electric lighting then rapidly became a medium for the heaviest gambling in shares known since the South Sea Bubble. So great was the notoriety of this gambling that the Government of the day felt bound to step in to prescribe rules for regulating and arresting the flow of capital into all kinds of hasty and ill-considered schemes. All this had now completely changed. The gambling spirit that raised £5 shares to £60 had passed away and been buried in the ruins of many of the Companies which were then promoted. Out of the 36 Companies which, previous to the Act of 1882, were in existence, only seven of any consequence survived. The stage of leisurely repentance had been reached. Meanwhile, immense progress had been made in every branch of electric lighting. One branch of the subject, almost unknown in 1882, and now justly considered as a necessary element in successful incandescent electric lighting—namely, cells or accumulators for storing electricity—had now been practically perfected. Without storage batteries engines and dynamos must be kept constantly working, and the light, which flickered always more or less with the pulsations of the engine, was injurious to the eyesight and unsatisfactory. Of course, much work remained to be done. Reliable and simple meters were still required, but the position had quite changed. Electric lighting was no longer a dream of the future but a reality, and commercially possible but for the Act of 1882. For example, ship lighting, subjected to no trammels, was now being universally adopted by all the great Companies, the Cunard, the P. and O., the German Lloyd, and by the Navies of the world. Even great buildings large enough to make them independent of central lighting stations and able to generate electricity for themselves had adopted it, such as Buckingham Palace, the Grand Hotel, the Métropole and First Avenue Hotels, several theatres, the Athenæum Club, the Junior United Service Club, the Junior Carlton, South Kensington Museum, the British Museum, the Grosvenor Gallery, and many more; but house-to-house lighting remained an utter impossibility, as capita could not be raised under the onerous provisions of the Act of 1882 for central lighting stations. Let their Lordships compare with this state of things the position of the science abroad and in America, where it was estimated that upwards of £32,000,000, of which £21,000,000 were in arc and £11,000,000 in incandescent, had been invested in electric lighting. To come, however, to the Bill before the House, their Lordships would remember what passed on the subject last year, when three Bills were introduced. For Bill No. 1 he was himself to a large extent responsible, as it was the Bill of a Committee of experts and scientific men who had considered the matter for two years and over which he had the honour to preside. That Bill aimed, no doubt, at too much. Its object was to put electricity on the same footing as gas. This was considered as a desire to set up a second monopoly, while the real object was only to enable it to compete successfully against an existing monopoly. Bill No. 2 was brought in by a noble Viscount not now in his place (Viscount Bury), whose knowledge of the subject was accurate and extensive; and Bill No. 3 was the Government Bill. Those three Bills went to a Select Committee, and important evidence was heard, among others that of Sir Frederick Bramwell, Mr. Preece, Mr. Forbes, Mr. Hucks Gibbs, Mr. Cohen, and Mr. Crompton. The result was the amendment of the Government measure, Bill No. 3, and in that amended shape it would have passed into law had it not been for the change of Government and death of the Parliament. The present Bill was founded on that Bill with only one addition. It was last year's Bill No. 3, as amended in Committee with "goodwill" added. It only amended the Act of 1882 as regarded Clause 27, which dealt with the compulsory purchase of an undertaking by a Local Authority. The clause as it stood had been irreverently called the "Old Iron Clause," because under it property was to be compulsorily bought at its break-up value irrespective of its value as a going concern, after only 21 years. The effect of that was to compel undertakers to charge such a rate for electricity as was practically prohibitive and prevented its competition with gas. On this point he must confess to holding strong views, and he could not see why this industry should be treated differently from any other in the event of compulsory purchase by a Local Autho- rity. Indeed, it had some claims to almost preferential treatment on account of salubrity, cleanliness, and safety. It seemed to be only a question of an alternative—either to allow a fair valuation of goodwill of the business, or to grant the licence for such a prolonged period as would enable undertakers to recoup themselves without charging a prohibitive price. If 50 years were granted this might meet the case; but, on the whole, it seemed wiser to shorten the preferential term, and to provide for competition at its expiry. This was the only question really to be settled. All were agreed on other points, such as the lamps clause, continuous supply, &c. The goodwill question was a thorny one, and admitted of much being said on both sides. His desire was to place it before the House as an open subject for the House in its wisdom to decide. He was willing to accept any reasonable Amendments in Committee if the House would permit the Bill to be read a second time; and he was willing to postpone the Committee stage to any reasonable date to suit the convenience of the Government and to afford time for deliberation. His only desire was that legislation should proceed this Session, and that an industry which only required fair conditions to progress should, in these days of depression and of large armies of unemployed, go on for the good of trade and of mankind at large. His object was to come to the relief of an industry capable of rendering the most important services to civilization. His own belief was that before many years they would find the Board of Trade prescribing electric lighting, on the score of health and safety, in all factories, schools, mines, theatres, churches, and the like; that the Gas Companies in England would follow the example of the Gas Companies on the Continent and in America, convert their plant and become purveyors of electricity; and that finally Registrar Generals of the future would be able to trace to this cause increased immunity from consumption and other kindred diseases which infallibly arose, to a great extent, from vitiation of the atmosphere now breathed. He could only say, in conclusion, that if the Government would undertake to deal with the matter, he would gladly leave it in their hands, and that he was willing to consider all points open to fair con- sideration in Committee, if their Lordships would accept the view he took of the desirability of speedy legislation, and allow the Bill to be now read a second time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a".—(The Lord Thurlow.)


said, that no doubt the Bill of the noble Lord was founded on the Government Bill of last year as it emerged from Committee; but there were two particulars in which it differed from that Bill—one of addition and one of omission in regard to the powers of the Local Authorities. The first referred to the veto the Local Authorities might exercise when Companies applied for a Provisional Order. When the Bills of last year were being considered by a Select Committee, the Local Authorities demanded nothing less than an absolute power of veto upon any lighting undertaking in their district. He considered this demand excessive; but he would suggest that when a Local Authority was dissatisfied with, or objected to, an electric lighting scheme, the matter should be referred to the Board of Trade, and if it saw ground for overriding the Local Authority it should make a special Report to Parliament. He hoped that this suggestion would be considered by the promoters of the Bill. On the question of the terms on which an undertaking should be acquired by a Local Authority, he considered the inclusion of the word "goodwill," in the terms of purchase, objectionable, and on this point he would await with interest the expression of the views of the Government. He hoped the Bill would be read a second time.


, as a Member of the Select Committee who heard evidence upon this question, said that the Bill raised matters of great and general importance. In his opinion, the interests of a Local Authority entitled it to favourable consideration. The lighting of a town was a strictly local question, and in the case of Dover Harbour their Lordships had just given a second reading to a Bill which proposed to give to a Corporation powers even over a military port. There were two classes of witnesses before the Select Committee, the one composed of engineering, scientific, and financing authorities, and the other of town clerks, who were each unanimous in advocating and opposing respectively the proposal that Local Bodies should pay for goodwill.


said, that he thoroughly supported the Second Reading of the Bill, and approved the payment for goodwill if the compulsory purchase of a successful undertaking was insisted upon. No doubt some consideration should be made to Local Authorities for the permission they had granted to Companies to carry out their works; but it should not be more than was just and equitable. With regard to the town clerks alluded to by the last speaker, it was only natural that they should endeavour to serve the interests of their employers by seeking to obtain a ready-made and successful business at a less cost than that they would incur in initiating such a scheme. It was worth consideration whether an arrangement could not be made for the payment of a fair and proper footage-rent by Companies to Local Authorities. If the undertakings of Electric Lighting Companies were to be taken without payment for goodwill, he did not see where appropriation would end. It might be extended to Gas, Water, and Steamship Companies, whose undertakings were all matters of public importance. He believed that in time the electric lighting would so much extend that the machinery would be at a distance from London where land was cheap, and the wires, either overhead or underground, would extend throughout the Metropolis. In that event, he did not see how compulsory purchase without goodwill could be carried out. The attempt to put electric lighting on such a footing ought to be checked at once. The subject of electric lighting was one which he had cherished for a long time, and he believed it was now in a position to stand alone, provided it had a fairer chance than it had when this legislation was introduced. He did not greatly complain of the Act of 1882. He thought that Act had kept back the use of electric lighting, but also had shown that the question must be dealt with on broad and liberal lines.


said, he was a Member of the Committee which sat on this subject, and one thing was quite certain—that legislation on it was necessary. Electric lighting was now a success which could be relied upon. Whether it could beat gas was a question; but, as a light, it was a success. At present, however, it could not be supplied to the public on account of the terms as provided by law. As the law now stood the terms were very hard indeed. It was that at some time or other—at the end of 20 years, or 30 or 40 years—however prosperous the concern might be, it was to be bought, not upon the terms paid for a successful concern, which might have been a failure; but it was to be bought according to the value of the plant and property belonging to the undertakers. It had been said that those were fair terms; but capitalists said—"We do not think so; we shall not subscribe on those terms," and it was in vain to tell them that they ought. The consequence was there was no public electric lighting. He was not going to find fault with the Board of Trade, its changing head or the permanent staff. He thought they ought to do their best for the public; but unfortunately, in this matter, they had imposed such terms that capitalists would not accept them, and so was a stop put to to electric lighting. Therefore, he said, some legislation was necessary. The Local Authorities did not undertake the electric lighting themselves; but after a Company had successfully done so, then they wanted to buy the undertaking at par, or less, not seeing that the undertakers were entitled to be paid for the risk they had run of the undertaking being a failure.


said, in the absence of his noble Friend the President of the Board of Trade (Lord Stanley of Preston) he did not like to let the subject pass without saying something on behalf of the Government; but after the speech of the noble and learned Lord (Lord Bramwell) opposite there was really very little to say. He thought the noble and learned Lord had presented the case with absolute fairness; but he wished to clear himself of the charge which the noble Lord on the Front Opposition Bench seemed inclined to level against those who supported the Bill. He had never himself been bold enough to have a single share in any of the Electric Lighting Companies. He looked at the matter virtually as a public question; and he had no interest in it, and never expected to have, except as a means of promoting a product of public utility. The history of this case was really the history of the action of a Public Department. The Board of Trade was horrified, and intelligibly horrified, at the position in which Parliament found itself in respect to the Water Companies. It was not entirely satisfied with the position in which Parliament found itself with respect to the Gas Companies. He did not say that that feeling had so much plausibility as the other. But the Board seemed to have resolved that it would not allow Parliament, as representing the public, to fall into that difficulty again; and that it would take good care that when electricity came for its authorization to Parliament, terms should be arranged which would place the public in a much better position than they were in with regard to the gas or water companies. But their very natural and praiseworthy feeling was carried to an exaggerated point. Their precautions were excessive. The legislation passed in 1882 had absolutely stifled the enter-prize of those who wished to introduce the electric light into this country, and they were now in this position—while in other countries the electric light was used for public purposes, it had not been used in this country, and could not be used, except by those Companies or Institutions or persons who could have the whole machinery for their own use, and produce their electricity entirely for themselves. He could not imagine that Parliament could look on this as a desirable state of things. Why were they not to have the comfort and advantage of this light, which those who were in a position to use it showed an increasing desire every day to have? The only argument which had any plausibility—and it was an argument which appeared to prevail in the minds of many noble Lords—was that they must save the rights of Local Authorities in this matter. He did not dispute that this was a very suitable matter for the Local Authorities to undertake, if they were willing to do so; and he could quite imagine that in 1882 the Board of Trade and the Local Authorities, generally speaking, thought it would be a pity to allow Companies to step into their place. But five years had passed away, and the Local Authorities were not inclined generally to take this enterprize up. They were really putting the Local Authorities in the position of the dog in the manger; they would not allow the Companies to enter upon an enterprize which they would not undertake themselves. With respect to the noble Lord (Lord Lingen), who had cited the case of Dover Harbour, he would point out that the two instances—that of the electric light and Dover Harbour—were not on all-fours. If the Town Council of Dover had come to their Lordships to claim liberty to fill Dover Harbour up and shut it up until such time as it should be convenient for them to open it themselves, then they would have been in exactly the position of the Local Authorities now, who wished to stifle all electric lighting enterprize until they saw their way to undertake it themselves. He did not think that that was a proposition which Parliament ought to support. He inclined, in spite of the terror of the example of the Gas and Water Companies, to go back to ideas of less restriction and greater freedom in this matter, and to allow enterprize to have its full swing, to remove the obstacles which had hitherto impeded it, and to offer terms, not such as they thought the capitalist ought to accept, but which they found by experience he would accept. So it might be possible, by giving rights which were generous and large, to procure for the public the full advantage of those scientific inventions which other nations had, and which now, by our restrictive policy, we prevented the public from enjoying without doing any good to the Local Authorities which were the subject of so much tender care.


said, he would endeavour to amend the Bill in Committee, with the object of meeting the views which had been urged.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly.