HL Deb 27 July 1926 vol 65 cc217-26

Read 3ª, with the Amendments.

LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM moved, after Clause 49, to insert the following new clause:—

For protection of consumers.

".The Corporation shall be liable for all damage or loss that may be sustained by a consumer with whom an agreement to supply current is in force, arising from the Corporation having failed or neglected, without reasonable excuse, or having unlawfully refused to supply current to the consumer. The Corporation shall further be liable in any such case to a penalty not exceeding fifty pounds per day for each day daring which the default continues, and such penalty shall be surcharged on the members of the Corporation jointly and severally."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I move this new clause in consequence of what happened during the General Strike. The Swindon Corporation—as I believe other Corporations did—cut off the supply of electricity from the local newspaper. An electrical engineer and some assistants arrived with authority from the Electricity Committee of the Corporation, removed the fuses and prevented the local newspaper from publishing. The local newspaper, after two or three days, did succeed in publishing by buying an engine and running their machinery with that engine. The Corporation also cut off the supply from the local laundry and from, I think, the tobacco factory in Swindon, and one or two other factories. This was done by order of the strikers. The Corporation wrote to me and also saw me after I had put down this clause. They stated that the Electricity Committee did this without the knowledge of the Corporation as a whole and that as soon as they were able to find men to replace the strikers they reinstated the power.

The representative of the newspaper, however, in a letter written to me since then gives a rather different version. He says that the Corporation were incorrect in informing me that "as soon as men could be found to take the place of strikers the supplies which had been cut off were restored." According to this letter, the supplies were reinstated because Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, who was then acting for the Government, informed the Corporation that unless they reinstated the supplies the Government would send naval ratings and do it for them. The writer further tells me—I am reading from the letter—that only one worker in the electricity works went on strike. He further says this— Many members of the Electricity and Tramways Committee were already themselves on strike as affecting their occupations; as such they were interested in closing down other industries that all work might be brought to a standstill; at least one member of the Committee was also a prominent member of the central strike committee. I should say that in this particular Bill there are fifteen clauses dealing with electricity and the Corporation inform me that they propose to spend £300,000 of the ratepayers' money upon extending the electricity plant and works.

Your Lordships will agree with me that if corporations, whose members are elected by all classes of society and who are bound in these democratic days to have trade union members upon them, are to be allowed without any penalty, because it is to the interest of some members of the corporation, to stop newspapers publishing and to prevent other people working when there is a general strike, the whole machinery of domestic life can be brought to a standstill. Therefore I propose to put in a clause which will enable the consumer to be recompensed for the injury done him. That, I am informed by my noble friend the Lord Chairman, is more or less the law as it stands at present, but I want to go a bit further and provide that the people who bring about this state of things should themselves be penalised. Therefore I put at the end of the clause a provision that members of the Corporation doing this shall be jointly and severally liable for a penalty of £50 a day as long as the default continues. As long as the Corporation can say to them selves that it is the unfortunate ratepayer who pays they will very likely do this sort of thing whenever they are threatened by strong trade unions. But if they have to put their hands into their own pockets it may be that they will think twice before they do it.

I understand that my noble friend the Lord Chairman is going to say that this is a clause with which he does not disagree in principle, but that it is a clause which ought to be put into a General Bill and not in a particular Bill promoted by a single corporation. Of course, my idea is to make this a general clause. I do not wish to confine it to Swindon. I have only put it down now because the fact that the Swindon Corporation has a Bill at the moment dealing with electricity gives me the opportunity to bring forward the clause. I understand that my noble friend the Lord Chairman is going to suggest that a clause of this sort should be put into the Electricity (Supply) Bill which is now before the House of Commons. That is all very well. As an argument I do not quite see how you can controvert it.

But, as a matter of fact, how do we know, if this clause is withdrawn now, that the Government will do that? If I could get an undertaking—I see some prominent members of the Government here—that on the Electricity (Supply) Bill they will deal with this question and deal with it, I do not say exactly in these words but in the same spirit, and impose a penalty upon people who do not do their duty, I should then accede with pleasure to the request of the Lord Chairman and withdraw the Amendment, but only on that understanding. If it is put now into this Bill it is perfectly certain—at any rate, it is very nearly certain—that it will become a model clause and be put in all other Bills. But unless I get a distinct understanding from the Government that they will bring in a similar clause when the Electricity (Supply) Bill is considered, then other Bills will be dealt with and nothing done. Before I withdraw the Amendment I hope that either my noble friend the Lord Chairman or myself will be able to get an assurance from the Government that something will be done.

Amendment moved— Page 24, line 30, after Clause 49, insert the said new clause.—(Lord Banbury of Southam.)


My Lords, I desire wholeheartedly to thank my noble friend for meeting me as he has done as regards the procedure in connection with this proposal, which from an early date he informed your Lordships he desired to have discussed. I think his mind worked favourably in the direction of moving an instruction to the Committee, but I appealed to him to let that stage go through—without prejudice, of course, to his right to discuss the matter on Third Reading—and in that way the matter comes before your Lordships to-day. I am very grateful to him for allowing that course to be pursued.

This is a difficult case to understand. I heard, of course, what my noble friend said on the previous occasion; I have listened carefully to what he has said this afternoon; I have interviewed the representatives of the Corporation; and I have seen a certain amount of correspondence that has been placed before me—correspondence that took place at the time. Your Lordships will remember that these proceedings took place during the General Strike when everything was not recorded everywhere quite as accurately as our usual habit is. It is very difficult quite to classify in one's mind the order of events, or even what the events were. My noble friend has referred to discussions that took place between certain representatives of the. Corporation—because the Corporation were not a happy family over this matter and they did not all agree as to what was desirable to be done. My noble friend has referred to Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, who was one of the officials on the Government side in this part of England at the time, and perhaps it may be convenient if I read an extract from a letter which has been supplied to me by the promoters from Sir A. Griffith-Boscawen to the representative of the Corporation.

It throws, I think, a little further light upon the facts as they occurred and for that reason is valuable to us in coming to a conclusion upon the matter. This is what he said in a letter to the Town Clerk:— What actually happened was as follows, to the best of my memory:— this is as regards his part in the pro ceedings— On May 5 Lord Winterton, the Civil Commissioner for the S. Midland District, asked me if I would go to Swindon as his representative, as the condition of affairs there was serious. He particularly mentioned that the Electricity Committee of the Corporation had cut off the power from the local newspaper and other firms and asked me to take any steps I could to get it restored. On arriving at Swindon on the 6th, I immediately interviewed the Mayor and yourself. We discussed the special difficulties at Swindon which arose from the fact that the G.W.B. employed the great majority of the men in the town anti that they were all on strike. Among the strikers were members of the Corporation and Electricity Committee"— I lay stress on that fact— including the Chairman of the latter. The Chairman therefore was himself on strike. The Mayor said that if the power were restored he feared that all the workers at the power station, or the majority of them, would come out and the town would be plunged into darkness, and that volunteers capable of manning the station could not be obtained in Swindon, to which I replied that I might be able to get them outside. The next day I received a letter from you to the effect that if I could get competent volunteers from outside the Mayor and Corporation would at once restore the power and I accordingly set to work to procure the same. By the following Monday—10th—I was able to bring down fourteen men, chiefly naval pensioners from Portsmouth, who were lodged by the Corporation in the town. The order was given to restore the power, whereupon a few, but not, so many as had been expected, of the power station men went on strike, and so far as I remember five (riot one only, as stated in the Report by Lord Banbury) of the volunteers were drafted into the station and worked with the men who had not struck. This is really all I know of the proceedings, but I regarded the solution as a very satisfactory one at the time. The particular reason why I wanted to read this extract was this. Having interviewed the parties and done my best to understand what occurred it was evident, as it will be evident to your Lordships from this letter, that the Corporation were not a very happy family at the time but that certain members of the Corporation did their best to deal with the situation as it faced them and to perform their public duty as soon as they could. That being so, I suggest that it is a case in which we might be lenient with them rather than severe in reviewing what happened in the past. My noble friend, I know, is never obstinate as regards the form of a clause when he proposes one. I would point out, however, that this clause is one of general application. It is not confined to what might happen in future strikes only and that seems to me to be, perhaps, rather severe in its attitude towards the Corporation with the clause as proposed in these words. But I do not want to stress that point too much. What I do want to point out is that at the moment there is an alternative. There are penalties on those who are charged with the duty of providing electricity. The law has already taken cognisance of the possibility of difficulty and has made provision, and I think I ought very briefly to remind your Lordships of that provision.

Section 30 of the Schedule of the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, 1899, enacts that— Whenever the undertakers make default in supplying energy to any owner or occupier of premises to whom they may be and are required to supply energy under the Special Order they shall be liable in respect of each default to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings for each day on which the default occurrs. That is not an empty threat. I have before me an extract from the Evening Standard of one day last week, reporting a case which occurred in Walthamstow and this is the wording of the newspaper report:— For cutting off electric current and depriving a works of power during the General Strike, Walthamstow Urban District Council were at Stratford to-day fined 20s. for each day from May 6 to May 12 inclusive, and ordered to pay 25 guineas costs. They were summoned by five firms, but only one case was taken, and the other summonses were withdrawn. I only mention this to show that our lawgivers have not been oblivious to the dangers on this point and I suggest to my noble friend that although the penalty here is far less than he considers adequate—because 40s. a day would take a long time before it equalled the £50 which is in his mind—still I think we may be satisfied that the public are safeguarded under this section.


Yes, there is a £50 penalty.


Yes, there is a £50 penalty later on. But more than this, my noble friend has referred to the fact that I was going to appeal to him to let this matter be dealt with by general legislation. Here again, we have a legal precedent to which my attention has only been called this afternoon. Although it goes further than the Act of 1899, it does not refer to electricity. It refers to gas and water. I think it is an argument in his favour—in favour of doing something—but I think it is also an argument in my favour, in favour of doing that something by general legislation. It is the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, 1875, which enacts that Where a person employed by a municipal authority …. who have …. assumed the duty of supplying …. gas or water, wilfully and maliciously breaks a contract of service …. he shall …. be liable either to pay a penalty not exceeding twenty pounds, or to be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three months, with or without hard labour. My noble friend, I think, would have rejoiced had he known of these exact words before. But I suggest to him that, if circumstances have now so much altered that what was thought necessary in 1875 as regards gas and water should now be extended to electricity, the matter is one that might very rightly be considered by the proper authorities. For that reason I would remind my noble friend that there is an Electricity (Supply) Bill before Parliament. I do not know whether that would be the proper place in which to enact such a clause as this, if it was thought desirable to extend it to electricity, but I suggest to him that that would be a better method than doing it in one Private Bill, applied to one authority. For that reason, I would appeal to him not to press this Amendment now, but I would join with him in appealing to the Government to consider whether they could rightly include the treatment of this matter in the Bill which is now before Parliament.


My Lords, I might mention that the Section of the Act of 1875, to which the Lord Chairman referred, has been extended by a later Statute to electricity.


My Lords, the important thing which has been brought out in the Lord Chairman's speech and in what has been said by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack is that this subject matter is one that Parliament has always dealt with generally and not as regards particular corporations. It is obviously very undesirable when a Private Bill comes up to put in a penalty for an offence which ought to be an offence applying to every corporation and not to a particular corporation, and make it the law of the land that there should be one law in Swindon and quite another for the rest of the country. But what the Lord Chairman and the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack have said make it plain that the Act of 1875 is, in principle at all events, regarded as applying to electricity as well as to gas and water. If that is so, it is obvious that our proper course is to consider the question in relation to that state of the law.

If the penalties under the Act of 1875 are too weak, which I see no reason to suppose, and if the statement of the law made from the Woolsack is correct then, on the Electricity (Supply) Bill or some other suitable measure, we can consider it, and that is the proper course to take. It is obviously a departure from every rule which we have laid down for ourselves to create a special offence in regard to one corporation, the Corporation of Swindon, while not extending it to the rest of the country, and I, for one, should regard it as very deplorable if we inserted in a Private Bill an alteration of the criminal law which ought to be an alteration for the whole country if it is to be introduced at all. Therefore, I think the advice which the Lord Chairman has given to the House is wise advice, and, speaking for myself, I shall support it.


My Lords, I had hoped that the Government would have said something about this matter. I agree that legislation of this sort ought to be general. I do not think there can be any question about it. But unless one makes a beginning it is very difficult to get anything done. It was because there happened to be in this particular Bill clauses dealing with electricity that I proposed to move this Amendment and not because I wanted to make any attack upon Swindon or to differentiate its position from that of any of her corporation. If the Government would give me some little hope that on the Electricity (Supply) Bill a clause of this kind would be introduced I would certainly agree to the course proposed by the Lord Chairman. I could bring in a clause of my own in regard to the Electricity (Supply) Bill; but if I take that course, am I to be met with the whole force of the Government denouncing it? If that is so, it would be better for me to do something now. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Peel would be kind enough to say a word on the subject.


My Lords, I cannot speak with very great authority on this subject because I have not heard anything more about it than has been said by noble Lords who have spoken. I am, of course, familiar with the contents of the Electricity (Supply) Bill. That Bill deals, of course, with electricity in bulk supply, the setting up of gridirons for the distribution of electricity all over the country and so on, and I should have thought, speaking offhand, that such an Amendment would probably be out of order. But if it pleases my noble friend I will certainly say, though I can make no definite promise, that the point will be considered.


My Lords, I am in a rather awkward position because I did not know whether it would or would not be out of order; but might I venture to hope for the support of the noble and learned Viscount, the Leader of the Opposition, if I withdrew my Amendment? If he would agree to support me I would withdraw the clause. Am I to take it that silence gives consent? In those circumstances I ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.