HL Deb 08 May 1918 vol 29 cc997-1008

My Lords, as I understood that the Chairman of the Select Committee which considered the Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Staffordshire Electric Power Bill—my noble friend Lord Muir Mackenzie—was anxious to invite an early expression of opinion from his Majesty's Government as to their policy with regard to Bills conferring, as in some cases they do, exceedingly large powers on private companies of this character, I put down the Third Reading of this Bill for to-day. I desire to mention, however, that as it is necessary that a further clause, the language of which has not yet been finally agreed, should be added to the Bill, in order to bring it within the provisions of the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act of 1899, I propose later to move the adjournment of the debate to a date after the Whitsuntide recess.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Kintore.)

LORD MUIR MACKENZIE had given notice, on the Motion for the Third Reading, to call attention to the Bill, and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have considered the bearing of its provisions upon the public interest. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in calling attention to this Bill I do not desire in any way to defeat its progress, or to delay it, or to prejudice the proceeding of it when it goes down to the other House. The object of this Bill, which has been through a Committee of your Lordships' House, is to obtain for a private company very large powers for the supply of electricity, over a very wide district corresponding to what is commonly known as the Black Country. In opening the case before the Committee, counsel for the promoters put the matter so high that he said he thought that our decisions might be of great influence upon the whole use of that form of energy. The Committee were not unaware of the recommendations said to be before the Reconstruction Ministry as to the immense advantage both in efficiency and economy which might be expected from a national system of great power stations, and they felt great hesitation as to whether they ought to proceed with a Bill of this scope while so large a matter of policy was actually under the consideration of the Government.

There were four points which decided the Committee to proceed with the Bill. In the first place, there was the fact that it had been read a second time and referred to the Committee, and they felt that it was, of course, a strong order for them simply to hold up the Bill. In the second place, there was the fact that the Bill itself purported to set up a scheme of the very nature that was understood to be foreshadowed by the propositions under the consideration of the Government. Thirdly, there was the fact that the Board of Trade had not opposed the Bill provided that they should be satisfied that nothing would be done in it to prejudice public action when it should be thought necessary to take it. Fourthly, there was the fact that the Committee had before them the express desire of the Ministry of Munitions that nothing should be done to delay the Bill, because they appeared to expect assistance in matters of national import from the operations of the company when it should get the powers that were proposed.

The Committee proceeded with the Bill and reported it to the House with various Amendments and limitations, including a clause with the object of preventing the company from raising the price against the Government, or against any public authority which might within the term, I think it was said in the Bill, of seven years, wish to purchase the undertaking. The Committee did not in any Report to the House direct attention to the Bill, but I thought that, as Chairman of the Committee, I should be doing only what your Lordships would think right in calling attention to a Bill for which the promoters themselves claimed such very high importance, and inviting the Government to express some opinion as to the general policy that ought to be pursued with reference not only to this undertaking but to possible future undertakings, which might step in before the Government had made up their mind as to what was the best course for them to take.

Besides that, my Lords, there was an important though subsidiary matter which came before the Committee, and which they took a great deal of time to consider. It is a point upon which I should rather hope that the Lord Chairman might think it right to express some opinion in the House. It is with regard to the question of nuisance, which, of course, is a very important matter in connection with undertakings of this kind—as to whether or not they are liable to find themselves in difficulties because actions are brought against them for annoyance (things amounting in law to a nuisance), which they find it difficult to avoid if they are really to carry out their operations.

It appears that Committees of this House have not acted on any fixed principle in this matter for many years. There was a Committee which sat upon the subject so long ago as 1898, and presented a Report which inclined to a general view that undertakings of this kind—electric undertakings, in fact—should be relieved from the ordinary liability for nuisance; but the practice appears to have been by no means uniform. There is no evidence, or at any rate there was no evidence before us, to show that any undertaking had ever been hampered because it had not been exempted from this liability. Generally speaking, it seems a high-handed thing that a private undertaking should be allowed to be carried on regardless of the rights and amenities of its neighbours; but, on the other hand, it is undesirable that a great public undertaking should be prevented from carrying on the very objects for which it was constituted because it is liable to attacks from sensitive individuals. In this case the Committee, having taken the view that the new power station which was to be erected under this Bill was in the nature of a public undertaking, did think that the most favourable terms ought to be given that could possible be assigned in such a case. The subject seems to me to be of so much importance that I trust your Lordships will think that I did right in bringing it forward when the House is asked more or less as a matter of course to pass the Third Reading of a Bill of this kind.


My Lords, in response to my noble friend's suggestion I desire, with your Lordships' leave, to say a few words on this question of nuisance; and may I say at once that I think my noble friend was fully justified in bringing it before the House. The Committee on this Bill have decided that the undertakers, who are proposing to erect and carry on a large generating station, are not to be subject to legal proceedings for nuisance unless it can be shown that they have been negligent in carrying out their powers. Your Lordships will no doubt he aware that all gas companies and nearly all electrical companies are subject to the common law of nuisance, which as I understand it, is to say that they must not cause a nuisance and that any person aggrieved has only to prove a nuisance in order to get an injunction.

Railway companies, on the other hand, are not subject to liability in this form. No doubt it is regarded as impossible that a railway can be carried on without causing some annoyance—for instance, by smoke, noise, vibration, and so on. Railway companies, therefore, are liable for nuisance only if it be shown that they have been negligent in their working. So that the question is whether an electrical generating station should properly remain in the same category as are gasworks; whether it can be reasonably expected to be carried on without creating a nuisance; or whether the liability should be modified as in the case of railways. In the one case the party aggrieved has only to prove the nuisance; in the other case, he has to prove not only the nuisance but also negligence on the part of the company.

Now, it is quite true that Lord Cross's Committee in 1898 recommended that where the site of a generating station is acquired under compulsory powers and is specified in the Bill, the undertakers should be in the same position as railway companies—that is to say, liable only in the case of negligence. But it seems important to note that Parliament, in passing the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, of 1899—the year following Lord Cross's Report—imposed on electrical companies the broad liability to which gasworks are subject. Under that Act of 1899 hundreds of electrical undertakings have been carried on in all parts of the country, and although I have not the statistics before me. I understand that the number of actions successfully brought for nuisance is almost neglibible. If that is so, may I suggest that it may be fairly presumed that nuisance in the case of a generating station is not an inherent necessity, and that the undertaking can be carried on without causing annoyance to neighbours.

My Lords, it is true that Lord Cross's recommendation has been followed by Parliament in the case of some of the large power stations authorised during the years following the Report. It has now been followed by the Committee on this Bill; and though I entertain a good deal of doubt as to the expediency of the concession, I feel sure that the Committee has arrived at its decision on it careful consideration of the evidence, and I desire in this ease, as in all others, to support decisions of Committees of this House. At the same time I venture to think that on some future occasion the question of nuisance, as also other questions relating to electrical undertakings, may usefully be reconsidered by a Parliamentary Committee. Among other reasons which lead me to say this is this one, that electrical companies are now embarking on the working up of residual products, operations which are of the same character as those carried on by gasworks, and it may seem hardly proper that in this matter gasworks should be under one law and generating stations under another.


My Lords, the two points which have been alluded to are closely inter-connected. The reason why in the case of railway companies the Legislature has not thought fit to impose a condition making them liable for nuisance when they exercised statutory powers—which ipso facto legalise what they do—is that railways are regarded by the Legislature as undertakings in the interests of the public. Generating stations may or may not be in the interests of the public. If they are conducted for private profit, if they are in the position in which gasworks have been held to be, they ought not to be exempted from liability for negligence, any more than any other statutory body which obtains powers for its own purposes.

The question, therefore, which arises is whether these generating stations are in their nature of a public order. That question has entered upon a new phase in the present year—a phase which brings me to the point which I wish to submit to the House. The Committee over which it was my privilege to preside—and which derived no weight on that account, but derived great weight from the circumstance that some of the first electrical engineers and experts in the country sat upon it—made a Report which wan published some months since upon the whole question of the generation of electricity. The Committee pointed out that at present we waste just two-thirds of the coal which we employ in getting power. In the country there are some 600 generating stations of the most wasteful character, because everything conducted on a mall scale is wasteful. The proportion of steam engine wastage to the result in electricity is very great. What was recommended by the Committee was that the generation of electricity in this country should be concentrated in the hands of about sixteen super-power stations, situate if possible in proximity to pit heads with a sufficient supply of water, and it was calculated that in that way 80,000,000 tons of coal which we use for supplying power for our industrial processes could be replaced by 25,000,000 tons; or, to put it in another way, we could get three times the amount of power by using the present amount of coal.

This conclusion was worked out in considerable detail by the Committee of which I speak, and the recommendation passed to the Ministry of Reconstruction and to the Board of Trade. I understand that the Board of Trade, impressed with the Report, appointed another Committee, an expert Committee also, to work out tine form in which the principle should be applied and the methods which should be adopted to secure the benefit of this great reform if it could be carried out for the public. That Committee, I understand, has reported, or is about to report, and the Board of Trade, or some branch of that Department, is doubtless in possession of the conclusions to which that Committee has come. These conclusions must necessarily involve consideration of tine terms and conditions under which statutory powers should be given to electrical generating stations. This affects the whole of the groups of Bills of which the Bill we are discussing is only one—there are several more down on tine Paper to-day—and it affects them profoundly.

What I submit to your Lordships is that it is not reasonable to ask Parliament to proceed with these Bills without at least our having the considered view of the Government, expressed by the Board of Trade, as to what attitude the Government are going to assume in the future to these proposals, because naturally when a suggestion of this kind comes before Parliament there is a rush of all the small electrical generating companies to get fresh powers and to call fresh companies into existence; and they will block the way and will be able to claim compensation from the public if the super-power stations come into existence. These super-power stations may be semi-public. They certainly will come within the larger category of which the Lord Chairman spoke. There is no doubt they will be put on the full footing which Parliament accords to institutions which are there for public ends. Here we have a group of Bills and we have absolutely nothing from the Board of Trade to guide us as to what its policy is. It is not enough to put in a sterilisation clause. I dare say the Board of Trade may say that a sterilisation clause should be inserted. I do not know whether they will or will not, but that is not enough. We ought to get from the Board of Trade what its view is as to the future policy with regard to the whole group of Bills of this kind because a very grave public interest is involved.

I need not remind your Lordships that the coal supplies of this country are not unlimited; nor need I tell your Lordships that it is of the utmost importance that we should get everything we can out of the coal which lies still underground in these islands. Fortunately, we are so well situated that if we make the proper use of that coal by generating electrical power under the best conditions we shall be in such a condition that we shall be able more than to compete with those countries with large water power. That is established to the satisfaction of the Committee of which I speak. But all this turns on our making the best use of our opportunities. I should regard it as a serious loss of a great opportunity if the Government did not give us guidance as to what policy is to be adopted, and if they did not say whether these sporadic undertakings should be allowed to spring up either for creating new minor generating stations or for giving new powers that will enable them to continue for a long time in existence.

It is to no purpose that I am told the Ministry of Munitions would like this. This is not an industry for creating a supply of munitions during the war, but it is an industry for supplying electrical power after the war. I would venture further to say that I should like to be satisfied that the Ministry of Munitions was acquainted with the large question of principle which is under consideration of the Board of Trade, and in which the Board of Trade is the organ of the Government which only can pronounce. I should also like to be satisfied that the Board of Trade had really considered this matter, that it had gone into it. Therefore, welcome what was suggested by the Lord Chairman to the effect, as I understand it, that there should be a little delay for the purpose of looking into the nuisance clause, but still more for the purpose which I had in view, that the Board of Trade should give us a considered view upon this matter, and not merely a sketchy answer. I see sitting opposite the noble Lord who represents the Board of Trade, and it is very unlikely that he should have been furnished with materials on the point I am now raising, but if we have a sufficient interval to enable him to go to the Board of Trade and obtain its considered view and the Report of its own new Committee, and at any rate the view of the President of the Board upon this large question of policy, then I for my part would certainly feel happier. I should not have felt that I had done my duty—realising as I do the gravity of the industrial question before the country, the possibility of immense waste continued in the future, and the necessity of taking a step like this which is vital if we are to maintain our own in the industrial struggle which is before us after the war—if I had not brought before your Lordships the point raised in this clean, sharp form in the group of Bills which comes before the House to-clay.


My Lords, the Question before your Lordships this afternoon is the Third Reading of the Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Staffordshire Electric Power Bill. As your Lordships know, this Bill has been considered by a Select Committee, of which my noble friend Lord Muir Mackenzie was the experienced chairman. I was not altogether surprised, and I do not think any of your Lordships will be if you have read the minutes of the proceedings which took place before that Select Committee, that my noble friend Lord Muir Mackenzie raised no objection, as I understand, to your Lordships giving a Third Reading to this Bill, with the amendments which the Committee of which he was chairman thought proper to insert.

I have here the minutes of the proceedings of April 18 last, in which I see that the noble chairman used these words— I will give the decision of the Committee upon the three main points, I think, that have arisen in this discussion upon the proposed Act. The Committee approve of the site as described in the Bill; they are also of opinion that the company should be exempted from the nuisance clause; and thirdly, they have decided that the longer of the two alternative clauses that have been drafted as to the exercise of the company's power should be inserted in the Bill. With regard to what is called the nuisance clause, the Lord Chairman has mentioned already the history of the procedure of this House of late years in respect to the matter. I think he stated that the action of Parliament has been governed largely by, the Report of the Joint Committee of Parliament on Electrical Energy (Generation Stations and Supply), which sat in the year 1898, and of which the late Lord Cross was chairman. One of the main questions referred to that Joint Committee was— whether powers should be given in any cases for acquiring lands compulsorily for generating stations, and, if so, under what conditions as respects liability for nuisance notices to surrounding owners and otherwise. This Committee, after taking a great deal of evidence from Parliamentary authorities, Government Departments, local authorities, promoters of undertakings, and others, reported in favour of the granting of compulsory power for acquiring sites for generating stations, and with regard to the liability for nuisance said— They are of opinion that where the site for a generating station is acquired under compulsory powers and is specified in a Provisional Order or Special Act, the undertakers should not be subjected to any further liability than that which according to Lord Blackburn (Geddis versus Bann Reservoir, 3 App. Case 455) is imposed by the Common Law in the case of persons exercising statutory powers and duties. In making this recommendation the Committee quoted the opinion of Lord Black-burn, namely— It is now thoroughly well established that no action will lie for doing that which the Legislature has authorised if it be done without negligence although it does occasional damage to any one; but an action does lie for doing that which the Legislature has authorised if it be done negligently. And I think that if, by a reasonable exercise of the power either given by Statute to the promoters or which they have at Common Law, the damage could be prevented, it is within this rule negligence not to make such reasonable use of their powers. Since the date of the Report of Lord Cross's Committee twenty-six Private Acts have been passed authorising the compulsory acquisition of sites for generating stations without the application of the nuisance clause. It is the fact that during the same period thirty-four similar Acts have been passed in which the nuisance clause has been applied, but in fifteen of these cases the Acts related to combined gas and electricity undertakings, and I think it is fair to assume that in many others the restriction was accepted by the promoters in order to avoid the expense of a Parliamentary opposition. Also since the date of that Report the Standing Orders of Parliament have been altered to provide that, where lands are proposed to be used for generating stations, notices must be given to owners and lessees of dwelling houses within 300 yards of the lands.

By the Electric Lighting Act, 1909, Parliament empowered the Board of Trade to grant powers for the compulsory acquisition of land for generating stations. The Board have not had many applications for that purpose, but as recently as 1913 they granted an Order, which was confirmed by Parliament, by which power for the compulsory acquisition of land for generating stations was given and the nuisance clause excluded. That is in the Rumford Electric Lighting Order, 1913. It is true that in the case of a later Order (Waterford, 1914) the Lord Chairman, after the Order had been made by the Board of Trade, struck out the provision excluding the nuisance clause. The Board of Trade are not aware if there were any special reasons for this action. It has never been brought to the notice of the Board of Trade that the exclusion of the nuisance clause has been found to be detrimental to the interests of owners of property in the neighbourhood of generating stations. After that statement your Lordships will, I hope, consider that Parliament has acquiesced in the question of whether or not the nuisance clause should be inserted inthe Bill being left to the discretion of the Committee. The Committee over which Lord Muir Mackenzie presided thought fit not to impose the nuisance clause in this particular case of the Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Staffordshire Electric Power Bill, and it would be, I submit, a strong order, after the Bill has been thoroughly considered by the Committee and after what the noble Lord has said on the point, for your Lordships to refuse it a Third Reading.

With regard to the rather more general objections that were taken by the noble Viscount, Lord Haldane, to Parliament proceeding with Bills of this character at this time, I can only inform your Lordships that the Government have appointed a Committee (the Electric Power Supply Committee) to "consider and report what steps should be taken, whether by legislation or otherwise, to ensure that there shall be an adequate and economical supply of electric power for all classes of consumers in the United Kingdom, particularly industries which depend upon a cheap supply of power for their development." That Committee has not yet reported, but the Report is expected daily. Other Committees appointed by the Government (the Coal Conservation sub-Committee of the Reconstruction Committee, and the Electrical Trades Committee) have made strong recommendations on the same subject. It would be a grave step if the electrical supply industry, a key industry on which other industries depend so much, and on which they will depend to an even greater extent in the future, were at this time, when the Government are endeavouring to ascertain in what way greater facilities may be afforded for the provision of an adequate and economical supply of electric power throughout the country, to be deprived of an important safeguard which had been conferred upon them by Parliament as the result of the recommendations of the Joint Committee of 1898 after very full evidence on the subject had been taken from all sides.

I do not altogether understand the Opposition of the noble Viscount, Lord Haldane. The sub-Committee of which the noble Viscount was chairman recommended the division of the country into a certain number of districts, and one of the courses suggested by them was that where there is a statutory company operating in a district that company should take over the whole of the operations for the whole of the district. The Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Staf-fordshire Company are a statutory company operating to a large extent and providing a considerable amount of electricity for the purposes of the Ministry of Munitions, by whom the Bill is supported, and on behalf of whom evidence, if I am not mistaken, was given before the Select Committee.


My Lords, may I explain that the noble Lord is under a misapprehension about the Report of the Committee to which he refers. It was only under strict conditions that the local electric supply companies were to be allowed to deal with these matters. We recommended strict conditions. He says that, the Committee of the Board of Trade has just reported or is about to report on this very subject. May we know what the Committee has reported to the Government before we determine under what conditions these things are to go forward?


My Lords, as I mentioned just now, I propose to move the adjournment of the debate in order to allow time to bring the Bill within the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act. 1899. I therefore move that we adjourn the debate until a date after Whitsuntide.

Moved, That the debate be adjourned.—(The Earl of Kintore.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly to June 5.