HL Deb 05 March 1888 vol 323 cc139-48

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read, a second time, said, that if he could have had an assurance from the Government that they would be willing to take this matter in hand he would not have troubled their Lordships on the present occasion. He desired their Lordships to regard this question, from the point of view of health, of science, of more light, of safety, and of the preservation of property. The object of the Bill was to remove what had proved to be prohibitive restrictions upon an industry which was deserving of every support. The restrictions imposed by the Act of 1882 were certainly most unusual, if not altogether unprecedented, and they had acted very harshly. The President of the Board of Trade, replying last week to a Question in the House of Commons, said that since the passing of the Electric Lighting Act of 1882, 59 provisional orders and five licences had been granted to Companies, and 15 provisional orders and two licences to Local Authorities. The President of the Board of Trade was not aware that in any single case where these powers had been obtained they had been exercised. Such was the crushing effect of the Electric Lighting Act of 1882. Still he wished to say a few words in praise of that measure, which it was the object of this Bill to amend in only one or two small but important particulars. The Act of 1882 was a most elaborate measure for dealing with a then almost unknown science. It successfully prescribed safeguards against dangers which had only since become manifiest, and its object was to impose checks on rash and ill-considered schemes. It now only required trifling amendment to allow the industry to proceed, and he claimed that the time had arrived for action in that direction. In the United States there were 120 electric Light Companies, paying dividends from 6 to 14 per cent. In the German and Austrian Empires there were over 600 local Companies, and in almost every large town in Italy electric lighting was making great progress. It was only in England that the science was comparatively at a standstill, and he hoped that state of things would not be allowed to last much longer. The present time was propitious for several reasons. There never was a time when a larger amount of capital was lying idle, or when there was a larger army of unemployed seeking work and finding none, and by passing this Bill lucrative work might immediately be provided for thousands of men, women, and children. He thought it would not be too much to call upon the Board of Trade to make incandescent electric lighting compulsory in all mines, factories, schools, churches, theatres, hospitals, and other places where human beings congregated together, and where, under existing conditions, gas-jets consumed the lion's share of the oxygen. He ventured to say that when such a demand was made the Government of the day would be neither willing nor able to resist it. Many of their Lordships had no doubt visited factories lighted by gas full of toiling men, women, and children from 6.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m., and had noticed the vitiated state of the atmosphere. The difference between that and a factory lighted by electricity was manifest in a moment. It was like being transported suddenly to another planet. Workmen who had been employed in factories lighted by electricity had told him that nothing short of starvation would induce them to work again in factories lighted by gas. It was the same in the case of mines. Electric lighting would minimize the dangers which now occurred through naked lights or faulty lamps. Then, as to fires in the Metropolis, Captain Shaw's Report showed that the total number of fires in 1887 was 2,363, and no less than 671, or 30 percent, were directly attributable to causes connected with existing systems of lighting. These figures did not include 691 fires, the origin of which was uncertain, and of these a least 30 per cent might fairly be said to be due to the same cause. Then as to destruction and damage to property. Some of the first tradesmen in London had told him that they had effected great saving since they had substituted the electric light for gas in their showrooms and shops. It was also well-known that the use of gas was very prejudicial to pictures and books, and the employment of electric light in libraries would be a great advantage. The Bill was precisely similar to the Bill which was passed by this House last Session, and it proposed to extend the licence granted by provisional order to any Company from 21 years to 42 years. The period of 21 years fixed by the present Act was found to be too short and to be insufficient to allow electric lighting companies to recoup themselves. The Board of Trade acceded to this view, and this extension of the life of the provisional order would render the clauses with regard to the terms of purchase of loss importance. He would therefore be willing to strike out of the Bill all reference to the purchase of "the goodwill" which, he understood, had hitherto been a stumbling block and a cause of opposition to the Bill. In bringing forward this measure he was solely actuated by a desire for the public interest. There existed at present a great want of employment, and yet, as was well-known, there was a vast amount of capital waiting for investment. His connection with banks enabled him to say that, if the present Act was amended as this Bill proposed, he believed that of the £100,000,000 of capital now lying idle many millions would thereby find useful employment.

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


said, the Bill did not appear to contain any regulations as to the laying down of the electric cables. At present these lines were growing in number and were being run over everybody's house without the assent or consent of householders, and he thought that it should be defined in any Bill dealing with this subject what the rights of Electric Companies exactly were. There had, so far as he knew, been no decision in the Law Courts upon the point. At present a quantity of telephone wires were to be seen running in every direction in the Metropolis. The cables for electric lighting would be still more dangerous. They would in time become a great nuisance, and if the Acts dealing with electric lighting were silent on the point it would hereafter be said that Parliament had unreservedly conferred on these Companies the right of running these cables over houses as at present. In New York, where electric lighting was more developed than here, the Electric Companies were bound to place their cables underground. If it were found impossible to make a similar provision in this country, still some regulations ought to be made as to the course they should follow so as to prevent them crossing and recrossing public streets as at present.


said, he agreed that the Electric Lighting Act required Amendment, but he thought it was desirable, if they were to legislate in the direction of Amending an Act, that they should do so thoroughly, and not simply amend a single clause, which, in his opinion, would effect no good change. Besides, the Act of 1882 was really obsolete so far as the present position of electric lighting was concerned. Where an electrician six years ago would hesitate to supply a place a mile away with light, he would now undertake to supply houses 30 miles off. In 1882, when the first Act was passed, a determination was formed that the promoters of electric lighting schemes should not enjoy a monopoly, and was accordingly resolved that when cables were laid in the streets of any town by an electric company, its work should be purchase-able by the Local Authority. Another provision of the Act laid down that no work should be undertaken by a Company without licence from the Board of Trade, or a special Act, or a provisional order. These two provisions had been fatal to the measure. Licences and provisional orders had been applied for, but no work had been done. He suggested that the promoters of a scheme ought to be allowed to make their own arrangements with the Local Authority. Let the Company pay rent for the use of the streets in which they placed their mains, and let them be absolved from the obligation of supplying light to every corner of a given district when there might be no chance of a reasonable return for their outlay. He looked forward to the day when Companies would be able to lay their cables underground with a good prospect of success; but he asserted that the risks attending exposed electric mains were fewer than the risks which attended either telephone or telegraph wires. When snow fell upon an electric light main it inevitably melted, but it accumulated on other wires with the result that serious accidents were not uncommon. He hoped that the Bill before their Lordships would be read a second time. Hereafter he intended to place before them a Bill of his own, and he hoped that his proposal would have the effect of removing a great many of the disabilities and disadvantages under which the Electric Lighting Companies at present laboured.


said, that the Government were not disposed to introduce a Bill upon this matter, because they had already announced a number of measures upon which it was desirable to legislate. They would consider themselves exceedingly fortunate if they were able to carry all those Bills, and they did not consider it wise now to add to the number. The Bill, as explained by the noble Lord opposite, was much less important than it was as printed. There was a long clause in the Bill which repealed some of the provisions of the existing Act; but he understood that when the Bill was considered in Committee the whole of that clause would be withdrawn in order that to the term of 21 years during which Provisional Orders must now run, a further term of 21 years might be added. The Bill, as it was amended, did not appear likely to be productive of great harm, and he was prepared to assent to the second reading on the conditions the noble Lord had suggested. He did not know whether the reason given was the only reason why electric lighting had not been more extensively adopted; but there could be no doubt that public expectation had been greatly disappointed in the matter. We had all hoped that electric lighting would have been much more largely used. Whether it was on account of the limitation in the number of years allowed to Companies and not to the fact that promoters found themselves unable to supply the electric light at prices that would compete with gas, or whether it was on account of difficulties in carrying out the supply of electricity, he did not know; but of this he was certain, that if a small alteration in the law was likely to facilitate the adoption of the electric light in London and other large towns the Government would have no objection to it. He understood the noble Earl behind to intimate that he would introduce another Bill, and if that was the noble Earl's intention it would be well that they should be in possession of both Bills before this one was considered in Committee, and that both should be considered with reference to the provisions of the Bill of the Government dealing with Local Authorities, which would soon be produced in the other House, and which must naturally affect the powers of Local Authorities in this as in other matters.


said he was not quite sure he understood what it was the Government was prepared to assent to. As far as he could gather, it was that the Act of 1882 was to be amended by substituting 42 years for 21 years. If no other alteration was to be made, he much doubted whether the Bill would have the effect desired. It was very much to be regretted that in this country we had not made the advance in electric lighting which had been made in other parts of the world. He had long desired to avail himself of this important improvement; but he had found it to be utterly impossible, for the reason that the Legislature had put impediments in the way of the spread of this invention which was not put in its way in any other country. He believed that in the South Sea Islands the electric light was more used than it was in London. This was not altogether to our credit. Nobody could suppose that there was not plenty of capital in this country to be invested in this new enterprize, and that there were not plenty of people who would be desirous of availing themselves of it. Why, then, had they not electric lighting in this country to the same extent as on the other side of the Atlantic? There could be only one answer. The terms which had hitherto been imposed on those prepared to undertake the enterprize had been such as to render it impossible for them to obtain the necessary capital. The terms had been made too onerous. He quite sympathized with the desire to prevent undue interference with the control of Local Authorities, and it might be expedient to provide that Local Authorities should ultimately, if they wished, be allowed to become purchasers of electric lighting apparatus, and to supply the electric light as they now supplied gas. He did not personally feel very strongly on that point; but he was not at all sure whether the balance of advantage was not against allowing Municipal Corporations to become trading bodies. With regard to the electric light, there was danger in doing this, because in some cases their conduct might be affected by the fact that they were owners of a gas business, and the electric light would be a serious rival to gas. At all events, the power to acquire apparatus ought to be conferred in such a way as not to cripple the progress of invention and improvement. It was too much to ask the present generation to forego the advantages of electric lighting because their doing so might render it cheaper 30 or 40 years hence. There was no difficulty, he thought, in arriving at a basis of purchase. They had gained experience in India with relation to railway matters. There the Government had been empowered to purchase railways on paying the value as indicated by the average price of shares during the preceding seven years. It had been found that capitalists were prepared to risk capital on these terms, and possibly a similar arrangement might be found satisfactory to the promoters of electric lighting. He would urge the Government to consider whether on some such terms the adoption of electric lighting might be facilitated.


I sympathize entirely with the remarks of the noble and learned Lord; but I cannot help remembering that he was a Member of the Government which passed the Act that he has denounced with so much vigour. When I sat exactly where he is sitting now I pleaded in vain for a greater extension of the number of years, and I prophesied the results which have actually occurred. I rather think the noble and learned Lord opposite is imitating those sectaries of the Middle Ages, who went about laying stripes on their own shoulders for the sins they had committed. The noble and learned Lord has held up to our admiration the example of the South Sea Islands in this matter; however, I am too delighted to see that the noble and learned Lord recognizes the difficulty in which we find ourselves to be critical as to the precise means by which his conversion was brought about. It is matter of regret that we have not been able to make a greater use of this invention, considering the vast amount of capital we have at our disposal, and the great need in our smoky towns of diminishing the unconsumed carbon in our atmosphere. Although the Board of Trade has, acting under the guidance of the distinguished statesman who presided over it during the term of Office of the noble and learned Lord, to some extent, lam afraid, since that time, exaggerated the danger of liberty in this matter, it is fair we should remember that we have had very severe lessons in respect of leaving uncontrolled powers to municipalities and public authorities to make binding bargains with trading companies. On the subjects of water and gas we have had very severe lessons, and we are now struggling under the difficulties that have arisen. The noble Viscount near me (Viscount Cross) was said some years ago to have wrecked the Government by the proposals he made for the purchase of the undertakings of the London Water Companies. We now only wish that the proposals which were then denounced could be revived with success and carried into effect. We have bound ourselves by promises to the Water Companies which give them a hold upon us that I do not know we shall ever shake off. Undoubtedly, the price at which this essential article may be furnished must have very considerably affected the progress of sanitary measures so much required in many parts of the Metropolis. We have contrived to make some agreement with the Gas Companies. Twenty years ago we woke up to the fact that we had allowed most improvident agreements to be made with them, that we had allowed them, on the faith of competition which did not exist, to charge enormous prices. At the present moment, in regard to Gas Companies, we are under difficulties which could not have been foreseen by our forefathers when these terms were made, or I am convinced that the mea- sures which they allowed to pass would have been seriously modified. The truth is that in both these cases we have made exceedingly bad bargains, and we are bound by them; and, therefore, it is not wholly unreasonable that in dealing with this new element we should approach it with some amount of caution. I quite believe we may have been too cautious, and may have run into an opposite extreme, and, by hindering the production of the electric light at the cheapest prices, may have prevented the development of this new industry. If the noble and learned Lord can show us that the terms we ask can be reason-ably modified, no feeling of self-love will prevent us from making any alteration which your Lordships may think desirable. I think we ought not to be misled by the desire to give the municipalities control over these matters. We have a sufficient number of examples as to the capacity of the municipalities to carry on the business of traders on a large scale. We know the temptations are enormous, and the danger we have to face is not that the municipalities themselves will administer these trading concerns, but that they will be in the hands of paid officers wielding an enormous and irresistible power, exposed to temptations to which the municipalities themselves will not be liable, and at the same time not having the responsibility which rests upon the municipalities. I feel that the whole question of the expediency of giving this power to the municipalities has of late years been too much assumed without sufficient proof, and we should be cautious about surrendering ourselves wholly to them, and preventing that protective competition of private Companies which has proved of so much benefit, and which is so desirable in the interests of the community at large.


said, he remembered perfectly well that the noble Marquess objected to the Bill of 1882 as being too stringent; but the latter part of the speech of the noble Marquess answered the preceding part, namely, that the Government and the House in 1882 had before them evidence of the previous mistakes that had been made with regard to gas and water legislation. The Board of Trade, which was then presided over by Mr. Chamberlain, was extremely anxious that in the matter of this new invention they should not fall into their former errors. In the discussion on the Bill in 1882 he admitted that it was an experiment, and that they might possibly, by future legislation, be compelled to amend the Bill if they found that they had erred on the side of severity. It was much safer to err on that side than on the side of indulgence. With regard to the municipalities, they undoubtedly ran the risk of having too much officialism; but he would point out that there was likely to be a most severe pressure put upon the ratepayers in the carrying out of improvements, and it was a matter worthy, in his opinion, of very careful consideration whether by giving the municipalities the power to work this large invention, which provided what was, in fact, one of the necessaries of life, they should not be affording them the means of relieving themselves to a considerable extent of the burdens under which they laboured. It was on the whole reasonable, he thought, that the terms in this matter of electric lighting should be made somewhat less stringent.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly.