HL Deb 03 May 1933 vol 87 cc682-95

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Falmouth.)


My Lords, I desire to move that this Bill be read a second time this day three months. I only saw the Bill yesterday. It is my own fault, but it looked to me at first sight to be such an innocent Bill that I did not take the trouble to read it. I think, however, that if you will listen to what I have got to say you will see that the Bill is one which, though it contains two or three clauses which are harmless, had better be rejected on the Second Reading, and if necessary the clauses which are harmless can be introduced in another Bill. This Bill by Clause 11 says: Any undertakers may be authorised to purchase land within their area of supply compulsorily for the purpose of the erection thereon of a station for transforming converting or distributing electricity by means of an order made by the undertakers and submitted to the Minister of Transport and confirmed by him in accordance with the provisions (so far as they are applicable) of the Second Schedule to the Housing Act, 1930. The result of that is that if the Minister of Transport agrees, any undertaker—that is, any electricity company—may take a piece of my garden, or a piece of my park, or a piece of a field on one of my farms, and without a word from me erect on it a building for transforming, converting or distributing electricity, and the only safeguard is the Minister of Transport.

I do not quite know what the Minister of Transport has to do with it, but personally I object very much to the habit of making Ministers dictators, and allowing them to say what is to be done to a man's property. If there is any necessity to acquire a person's land it should be done, as it always has been done in the past, by an Act of Parliament authorised by Parliament; and the idea of substituting a dictator, in the form of a Minister, for Parliament to my mind is absolutely wrong. It is not a Minister's duty to go about and say whether it is advisable that a building should be erected on somebody else's land, and whether or not equally suitable land could not have been obtained somewhere else. As your Lordships know, there is no difficulty whatever at the present moment in acquiring land, and therefore these powers not only are quite novel but they are quite unnecessary and quite wrong.

Then there is another extraordinary provision. In one of the clauses there is power to break into a man's house, and there is nothing in the clause which says that when you have broken into a man's house you must repair the damage. All it says is that you may break into a man's house providing it is unoccupied, and you must not do more damage than is necessary. I was always brought up to think that an Englishman's house was his castle, that only a police constable with a warrant from a magistrate could enter, and that nobody else could do so. I had better make quite sure, and I will read the clause. Clause 9 (2) says: Where any premises which any undertakers are entitled to enter in pursuance of the said Section twenty-four, Section sixteen of the Electric Lighting Act, 1909, or this section are unoccupied or where the undertakers are unable to obtain admittance to any such premises though occupied they may in any case of emergency without notice and in any other case after giving not less than forty-eight hours' notice to the owner thereof or if he is unknown to them and cannot be ascertained by them after diligent inquiry by affixing such notice upon a conspicuous part of the premises forcibly enter the same doing no unnecessary damage. Really, we are living in strange times if powers of this sort are to be given to electricity companies. Then there are other provisions which allow any local authority, company, or person authorised to supply electricity, to break up any private street he likes. That is Clause 2. There is nothing to say that they must put it down again and repair the damage, but I suppose that that is more or less understood. There is another very bad thing in this Bill, and that is that it is so much legislation by reference. Everything is by reference—this, that, or the other.

In Clause 14 you come to the railway companies and there again the Minister comes in. Clause 14 says: Any undertakers may with the consent of the owner of any building or any bridge over any street or road attach thereto such brackets electric lines and attachments as may be required for the purposes of their undertaking. Those are very nice words, "with the consent of the owner," but if you go a little further you will see that that is only camouflage, because if the owners do not agree then comes in the Minister and the Minister may compel the owner to do this. He may also compel any railway company to have these brackets or electric lines and attachments attached to houses and bridges. Then there is a clause providing that wherever a person fraudulently uses electricity for a purpose other than that for which he obtains it, certain penalties are to ensue. That is quite right, but it is unnecessary. Only a few weeks ago before the bench on which I sat a man was summoned by the electricity authority for attaching a flex to a wire which he had for the purposes of power. The charge for power was ½d. or a 1d. per unit, whereas the charge for lighting was considerably higher. This man attached the flex and lit a room with it, but the authorities found it out and the man was summoned. I happened to be in the chair, and I fined him, and I should do so again. But why put that provision in this Bill? It is quite unnecessary, because the existing law gives power to the undertakers.

I do not know what the object of the Bill is, but I do know that seven years ago, when I rather objected to the powers which were then given to the Electricity Commissioners, I was told that we were going to have cheap electricity. Well I have not got cheap electricity yet. A year or so ago the cable of one of these companies was about a mile and a-half from my house, and I asked them if they would supply me with electricity. They said they would, and I asked: "How much? "They replied: "A minimum charge of £400 a year." I have only a modest country house and the lighting was only for the house, not the stables. £400 a year seemed to be rather a large sum, and I naturally refused to have anything to do with them. Whether or not the reason for all this is that these electricity companies have got into a mess, and spent a great deal of money which will not return a revenue, and want to get out of that mess, I do not know; but, at any rate, the powers which are asked for in this Bill ought not to be given to any company. I beg to move the rejection of the Bill.


My Lords, I do not intervene to take any part in this debate, but on a point of order. Your Lordships will appreciate that there is no Notice down of an Amendment. I think my noble friend can achieve his end by voting against the Second Reading.


I am quite agreeable.


I am only mentioning that fact in order to preserve the Rules of the House.


Then I hope the noble and learned Viscount will vote with me.


My Lords, may I say a word or two in favour of this Bill? Except in two matters I think it is entirely founded on precedents which your Lordships have sanctioned in the past in Private Bills. Health and social legislation of this kind is very largely founded on experimental private legislation. A local authority promotes a Bill which contains certain clauses. That is taken up, and it becomes the usual practice for Parliament to grant the same clauses to one local authority as have been granted to another. And gradually the number of local authorities enjoying the powers asked for becomes more numerous and then, when circumstances permit, a Public Bill is introduced and it becomes the general law. This Bill, as I say, is founded on precedents in every clause except two. I may mention that the two clauses which my noble friend Lord Banbury referred to, Clauses 9 and 14, were both in the Bury Corporation Act, 1932; they were Sections 101 and 102 of that Act. So that the principle has been accepted in the case of Bury. When I saw this Bill was on the Paper I asked my noble friend who moved the Second Reading and others interested if we could meet, and I understand that it is his intention to make certain changes in Clause 2, which was referred to by Lord Banbury, and perhaps that will render the clause more acceptable to him. Clause 2 has a precedent in the Bacup Act, but I think it is not quite followed. Therefore I believe my noble friend will suggest Amendments to it which will make it generally acceptable, and will make it conform to what has been accepted by Parliament in that Act. I venture to think this Bill is a useful Bill. It will save a great many clauses in Private Bills—clauses which have already been accepted—and thereby save expense, which I am sure will appeal to my noble friend Lord Banbury.


Is this a Private Member's Bill or a Government Bill?


It is a Private Member's Bill, but not a Private Bill; it is a Public Bill—general legislation. But I was pointing out the advantage and the economy of embodying the substance of clauses already passed in Private Bills in a Public Bill like this. I am venturing to hope that the Government will be willing to support it.


Should not the Second Reading have been moved by a private member?


It was, but without a speech.


My Lords, I am sorry to differ from the Lord Chairman of Committees, but I suggest that he has pronounced rather a dangerous doctrine. He has suggested that this is founded on precedents, but suddenly to incorporate in a General Bill a series of precedents in Private Bills may lead your Lordships a good deal further than you wish to go. I think your Lordships will remember an old tag, which says exceptio ne transeat in exemplum. And there are many decisions on subordinate points in Private Bills which probably, if argued on their merits with regard to public legislation, would not be accepted. I cannot help thinking that the circumstances under which this Bill was presented to us are rather unusual. The noble Viscount who introduced it, I understand, gave no explanation at all, and surely on a measure of this kind—general legislation—the Government ought to have some view of their own. I do not know what the future of this Bill will be, but if it goes to another place at this time of the Session as a Private Member's Bill I imagine it will have no chance at all. On the other hand, if it is to go as a Government Bill I think your Lordships should consider it at rather greater length than you have already. Only this morning, the first time I heard of the Bill, I had representations showing that the gas companies wish to put forward certain Amendments for consideration in Committee. Altogether I think it is a matter of rather too great a magnitude to be passed this afternoon, and I would suggest that the debate should be adjourned. I do not know that I wish to press that against the general sense of your Lordships' House, but, in order to get some further statement than we have yet had from the Government, I move that the debate be now adjourned.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Lord Rankeillour.)


My Lords, I entirely agree with what my noble friend said. It is the practice of Parliament to embody in Public Bills clauses which have been tried out in Private Bills and tried out satisfactorily. My view is that these particular clauses for which precedents exist have been satisfactorily tried out, and they would be admitted by Parliament in Private Bills. Therefore, if they are put in a Public Bill they will become law automatically. I think that has been done very often.


My Lords, I must say I was considerably surprised by the method adopted by my noble friend Lord Falmouth. I came down to the House in order to hear an explanation of this Bill by the noble Viscount, but he simply rose and formally moved the Second Reading. I agree with my noble friend Lord Banbury. Like him, I have only just had an opportunity of looking through the Bill. He referred to Clause 11. Clause 11 is one that certainly should be explained by the introducer of the Bill, because, as Lord Banbury said, it is legislation by reference. At this moment I have no idea what is in the Second Schedule of the Housing Act of 1930, I have no idea if the Minister can give his decision without any appeal, or whether he listens to the owner of the premises or not. I certainly support the suggestion put forward by my noble friend Lord Rankeillour, that we should not proceed with the Bill to-day.


My Lords, may I offer the House an apology that I did not explain the Bill when I introduced it? And with your Lordships' permission, may I say a few words to elucidate some of the points in the Bill? It deals with the supply of electricity, and, as your Lordships know, a number of Bills connected with the supply of electricity have been passed since 1882. No fewer than four Bills have been passed since the War, all connected with the supply of electricity. Of these four Bills, three have been of very great importance. This Bill is a much more modest measure than the three others I have mentioned. It merely seeks to smooth out certain difficulties which have arisen with the supply of electricity, and which experience has shown require legislation to deal with them. That this is so your Lordships will realise when you notice that many of the Private Acts recently passed have contained clauses in connection with the matter of electricity supply. As the Lord Chairman said, these clauses are very carefully examined upstairs in Committee, and if they prove satisfactory they are subsequently embodied in Private Bill legislation, and looked upon more or less as model clauses and introduced very often in Bills when required without discussion in Committee. The object of this Bill is to collect these various clauses which have proved to have been an advantage in the course of time to the electrical industry, and to embody them in a Bill.

There are many precedents for a Bill of this character. I do not want to take up the time of your Lordships' House by quoting all the precedents, but the last one was the Public Health Act of 1925, which chiefly consisted of the collection of clauses from the various Acts passed dealing with public health. This Bill only seeks to apply to the country generally powers in connection with electricity supply which have been conferred on private undertakers in the same way as a Public Health Act did in connection with public health. All the clauses in this Bill are clauses which have appeared in various Private Bills, with the exception of Clause 1 and Clause 16. Clause 1 is framed with a view to meeting a special difficulty. It deals with the breaking up of streets. Under the 1882 Act electrical undertakers are entitled to break up streets belonging to public authorities on giving notice to the public authorities, and, in the case of dispute, that dispute is referred to the Ministry of Transport. But the 1882 Act defines what a public authority is, and, as in 1882 county councils were not in existence, there is no mention of county councils in that Act, which is a considerable handicap at the present moment to the administration of these particular clauses.

The second object of Clause 1 is to deal with streets which are not dedicated to the public, and for the repair of which there is no body responsible. If there is no body responsible for the repair, it is impossible to apply to anyone for leave to break up the streets. In very many cases, such as housing estates which have been developed rapidly, and of which the streets have not been dedicated to the public, there is no body to whom you can apply to break up the roads. This is a very serious matter, and very often leads to delay and considerable additional expense. It is got over in practice when an order to supply electricity to a district is made, by naming all the streets in that area, but that is a very unsatisfactory method.

The other new clause is Clause 16. That is a clause inserted to deal with the question of what is meant by "stand-by supplies." In the 1922 Act the question of "stand-by supplies" is raised, but there is no mention there as to how "standby supplies" are to be determined. For this reason it is thought fit to include Clause 16 in this Bill. Your Lordships have realised that all the other clauses, not actually in the same words but for the same purpose, are included in private legislation which has been passed from time to time through this House.


My Lords, I understand that the question now before us is whether the debate shall be adjourned or not, and before we go to a Division on that point I think that in a Rill of this importance we should have some guidance from the Government as to what their attitude is. I attach some importance to the arguments brought forward by Lord Rankeillour and other noble Lords who have rather taken exception to the procedure on this particular Bill, but I do think we ought to have some guidance from the Government before we go to a Division.


My Lords, I do not think it is necessary for me to say very much in connection with this Bill on behalf of the Ministry of Transport, nor do I think it is really my business to defend any particular provisions which are included in the Bill. At the same time I must say I am a little surprised at some of the objections which have been raised against it and at some of the arguments used in favour of adjourning the debate. I think your Lordships will see, if you look at the back of the Bill, that it was introduced as long ago as the 22nd of March, and therefore it is difficult, surely, to sustain the argument that your Lordships have not had sufficient time to examine the provisions of the Bill. Neither do I really think that the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, has brought forward arguments sufficiently strong to warrant your Lordships in refusing to give this Bill a Second Reading. As I said at the commencement of my remarks, I do not look upon it as my business to defend every individual provision in this measure; but I think that the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, when referring to Clause 11, stated that this was an entirely novel provision and suggestion. Perhaps, if the noble Lord will give me his attention for a moment, I might disabuse him on that point. I say the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, said in respect of Clause 11, which deals with the acquisition of land for sub-stations, that the provision of this clause was an entirely novel one. I think he is entirely incorrect in making that remark. I understand that undertakers already have powers to take action of this kind, temporarily at any rate, under the Public. Works Facilities Act of 1930.


If that is a bad precedent this is no reason to have another.


I was merely explaining to the noble Lord that he was wrong in what he said. As I stated, I do not look upon it as my duty to defend every provision contained in this Bill, and I am quite willing to admit that it will need amendment if your Lordships give it a Second Reading, but I think that the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Falmouth, are fully justified in connection with it. This Bill appears to consist almost entirely of provisions concerned with the supply of electricity which have been allowed in a number of Private acts in past Sessions. The fact that such provisions are continually being sought in Private Bills may, I think, be taken as evidence that they are found to constitute a useful supplement to the general form of legislation applicable to all authorised electricity undertakers, and it is clear that a certain amount of public time and expenditure in the future would be saved if these provisions were added to the general code, thus rendering it unnecessary for such powers to be sought in individual cases.

Seeing there are a large number of precedents for most of the clauses of the Bill, one would have hoped—but apparently it is not yet so—that it would have been of a non-controversial character. Although it may be found necessary, as I said, to make amendments on matters of detail at a later stage if the House gives this Bill a Second Reading, am informed that the Minister of Transport and the Electricity Commission, whom he has consulted, take the view that, in general, the conferring of powers of the kind sought by this Bill should prove of assistance to authorised undertakers in their relations with consumers, and may do something to facilitate electrical development. The House will perhaps agree to give this Bill a Second Reading so that the proceedings may be considered in further detail in Committee, and so that it may be found out whether there is any chance that this Bill could be regarded as an agreed one. I think it only fair to say in conclusion, however, that the Government cannot, at this stage at any rate, give any promise that the Bill will receive further facilities later on, or that it will be passed into law during this Session.


My Lords, there is one difficulty in regard to this Bill which occurred to me during this debate. I am not sure that it is a reasonable one, but it is a difficulty which, so far as I understand, could not be dealt with in Committee owing to the title of the Bill. It is this. Granted that it is for the public advantage that electrical undertakings should have the benefit of these provisions, may it not unfairly prejudice gas undertakings if these powers are given to electrical undertakers alone? Possibly that point will be thought of and dealt with later. I only wish to add the explanation that I do not happen myself to be personally interested in gas undertakings. The point merely occurred to me during the debate.


My Lords, there are one or two points in this Bill which closely affect the gas industry. They are both points of principle and points of detail. There is a body called the Joint Conference of Public Utilities Associations, which includes official representatives of gas, water and electricity undertakings, and a special meeting of that body is summoned for next week when it will consider these points, and I hope will come to a, satisfactory agreement. I have had the advantage of a private conversation with the noble Viscount who moved the Second Reading, and I understand that he will be quite ready to defer the Committee stage, should the Bill pass your Lordships' House to-day, until after the meeting of the Joint Conference. I have felt it necessary to say this at this point so as not to allow the Bill to go through sub silentio.


My Lords, I rise on behalf of certain people who, I believe, are correctly termed statutory undertakers, such as the docks and harbour authorities, and authorities for inland navigation, who are very far from satisfied with some of the provisions of this Bill—provisions which infringe their rights, and provisions which, at any rate in their opinion, are contrary to precedent. Much, however, will depend as to the entent of their opposition, I understand, on the attitude of the Ministry of Transport towards the proposals which they are putting forward. The Minister of Transport is, I understand, as usual, in a dual position with regard to electricity. Not only is he, as the Minister, the authority who should protect highways and roads, but he is also in control of the Central Electricity Board, and, I presume, the Electricity Commissioners come under his purview also.

I must own that I think his position is an extremely difficult one, and it may not be amiss to call the attention of your Lordships at this juncture to the difficulty in which he is placed. For instance, at the present moment the Central Electricity Board and the electricity supply undertakers are pushing their lines right and left through the country, and crossing innumerable roads and highways. The Minister of Transport, presumably, is the person to whom reference has to be made when the interests of the users of the highways, and of the county councils and other bodies concerned with highways come in conflict with the views and interests of the Electricity Board and the supply undertakers. I fear that there is at present some reason to believe that the influence of the Ministry of Transport is used to promote the interests of electricity rather than that of highways, and I would seek this opportunity of urging upon your Lordships that too great powers should not be granted to electric supply companies and electricity undertakers of all sorts without very carefully paying regard to the interests of road users, road owners and other statutory undertakers. I shall have later to bring forward, if this Bill is allowed to proceed further, a number of Amendments.

On Question, Whether the debate shall be now adjourned?

Their Lordships divided:—Contents, 21; Not-Contents, 31.

Elibank, V. [Teller.] Banbury of Southam, L. Hay, L. (E. Kinnoull.)
Exmouth, V. Barnard, L. Marley, L.
FitzAlan of Derwent, V. Carrington, L. Parmoor, L.
Charnwood, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Arnold, L. Conway of Allington, L. Rankeillour, L. [Teller.]
Askwith, L. Deramore, L. Sanderson, L.
Auckland, L. Dynevor, L. Strachie, L.
Teynham, L.
Sankey, V. (L. Chancellor.) Bertie of Thame, V. [Teller.] Howard of Glossop, L.
Churchill, V. Kinnaird, L.
Reading, M. Falmouth, V. [Teller.] Mildmay of Flete, L.
Salisbury, M. Hailsham, V. Newton, L.
Mersey, V. Phillimore, L.
De La Warr, E. Redesdale, L.
Iveagh, E. Bayford, L. Rochester, L.
Lucan, E. Clwyd, L. Stanmore, L.
Onslow, E. Danesfort, L. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Plymouth, E. Darling, L.
Roth[...] E. Denman, L. Templemore, L.
Gage, L. (V. Gage.) Wharton, L.

Resolved in the negative and Motion disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Bill read 2a.


My Lords, I am very unwilling to trouble your Lordships further, but I do seriously think that this is a Bill that ought not to be taken in Committee on the floor of the House. The various precedents are very minute and intricate And Amendments will be very difficult to consider in Committee of the Whole House. I will not press my proposal if it is not accepted, but I do wish to suggest that this is a Bill that ought to go to a Select Committee. If I am in order I move that it be committed to a Select Committee.

Moved, That the Bill be referred to a Select Committee.—(Lord Rankeillour.)


I should be prepared to withdraw my opposition to the Second Reading if this proposal is accepted.


The Second Reading has already been passed.


My Lords, I have considered this question and having gone through the clauses of the Bill carefully, I find that they are stock clauses which are put into Private Bills regularly—of course I understand that noble Lords would not have that information before them—and it did not seem to me to be strictly necessary that the Bill should go to a Select Committee. I took all the advice at my disposal and it did not seem to me to be necessary. I quite see the point of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour, however, and probably the position might be made clearer if the Bill went to a Select Committee. Therefore I see no objection to the course he has proposed. Indeed I think it might be helpful.


I should be quite willing for the Bill to be referred to a Select Committee if the House decides on that course.

On Question, Motion agreed to.