§ Order of the Day for the Second Beading read.
§ LORD ELTISLEY
My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I would like to claim the indulgence of the House in order that I may explain briefly, and I trust clearly, the public need for the Bill and what it is that the Bill seeks to accomplish. Thirty-seven years ago, long before the Electricity Commissioners were set up as a body, the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, 1899, was placed on the Statute Book. By this Act provision was made for the appointment, on the application of the local authority or a consumer, of "electric inspectors," whose duty it was, unless otherwise agreed between the supply authority and the consumer, to certify that the meters in use were capable of accurately measuring the supply of electricity—that is to say, within the prescribed limits of error—and to approve the patterns, type and construction of the meters which were installed for that purpose. These inspectors were to be appointed by the municipal authorities in areas where the supply of electricity was given by a company, and by the Board of Trade where the municipal authority was supplying the electricity.
The duties and functions of these inspectors included the work of officially "certifying as appropriate" the meters to be installed in consumers' premises. For reasons with which I am not familiar and which I can only surmise, no inspectors were ever appointed except in London and a few other centres. This may perhaps have been for reasons of economy, or else because in practice it was found there had not seemed to be any public demand for such inspectors, and therefore they were not appointed. At all events, the position now is that tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of electrical meters have 169 been installed which, although of approved type, are nevertheless not individually certified as appropriate for the measurement of supplies of electricity. The difficulty before your Lordships is therefore how to deal in a practical, commonsense manner with the twofold problem: first, of the meters which have been installed during the course of many years and which, as I pointed out, amount to many millions and are in daily use; and secondly, of the new meters which will in future be installed.
As to the meters already installed, there are no reasonable grounds for believing that those meters now in use, just because they have not been officially certified, are in any way unsuitable for the work which they perform. For years past I might say that practically no meters have been installed or put into service unless they were designed and manufactured in accordance with the specifications laid down and approved by the Electricity Commission, and unless it had been proved after elaborate tests that they were accurate within the limits of error prescribed under the regulations of the Electricity Commission. All meters now used for measuring electricity are in fact built to types which have been officially approved; they are tested by the manufacturers and they are re-tested in special testing halls by the municipality, where they are the undertakers, or by the company undertakers, before they are installed for use by the public. After all, any errors in these meters are likely to be against the authority which is giving the supply, because the tendency of a meter as time goes on is to slow up and to register rather less current than it did. It is also inclined to get a little sluggish in starting, and perhaps if one lamp or the wireless set is turned on the load may not be sufficient to start the instrument recording. The testing which the meter receives before it is installed is thorough and elaborate; and to test a meter once it has been installed is an even more elaborate and more expensive proceeding than to test it before it has been installed.
Millions of consumers of electricity are in fact affected by this Bill. There are said to be, although no accurate figures are available, over 7,000,000 users of electricity, many of whom have two or more meters installed. Only this year the 170 Electrical Development Association, the active body whose business it is to put out propaganda for the use of electricity, have set out to gather in 1,000,000 new consumers. Their campaign has met with remarkable success, and there is every probability that this large figure will be reached. I venture to mention this matter only by way of illustrating the magnitude of the problem if the law as it now stands is to take its full course. All these meters would have to be individually certified after a test, or they would have to be replaced by certified new meters.
Little imagination is required to see what a great expense would be involved. It is said that it would cost anything from 10s. to £1 to take out, test and replace a meter, or return the old meter after certification. If that be the kind of figure, a charge of some £5,000,000 or £6,000,000 would have to be incurred to carry out to the full the provisions contained in the Act of 1899. Moreover, it is very doubtful indeed that sufficient technical personnel would be available to carry out those tests in a reasonable time and in a satisfactory manner. Constant complaints are heard as to the cost of electricity. The charges for electricity are based on costs, and as the costs are reduced, so may we hope for, and possibly obtain, a reduction in the price of current. Now, if the expense of this great certification of meters be incurred, it puts even further off the likelihood of reduction in the cost of electricity to the consumer.
The need for this Bill is a simple one. It would be quite easy to go on doing what has been done for the last thirty-seven years. It would be relatively easy to let sleeping dogs lie and take no action. But by a recent judgment in a case tried a few months ago it was established that, technically speaking, the great majority of the meters now in use have not been officially certified and, as a result of that fact, are not legal instruments with which to register or to measure sale of current. This judgment obviously creates a difficult situation for the electrical supply industry. Any cantankerous individual is entitled to challenge his account for electricity on the ground that it has not been metered through an appropriate certified meter, and the Courts, so I understand, must in law find in his favour, although for 171 some mysterious reason this will not relieve the consumer of the obligation to pay an appropriate sum for the electricity which he has in fact consumed. The Bill is introduced to ensure that all meters shall in future be officially certified, and it also is an attempt to obviate the huge expense of official certification of all meters at present in use.
The Bill, which has recently passed through all stages in another place, suggests that the only practical solution, having regard to the great expense which retrospective action would involve, is to make legal the presumption, which is technically true, that the meters already installed and now in use are generally speaking accurate. All the associations of supply undertakings, both municipal and company, have agreed that the best method would be to extend this work of certification to officers appointed by the Electricity Commission. At the same time, the Bill sets up an effective body of persons to whom any consumer having a grievance or believing he has a grievance can appeal for a test of his meter, if he is not satisfied by the tests now being carried out by the undertakers. It will be observed that if the Bill be passed the protection given to the consumer will apply to meters already installed as well as to those meters which will be installed after the passage of the Bill. In practice, if this Bill be approved, the consumers will be placed in a more favourable and more satisfactory position than they have ever been in since the passing of the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act. As to the supply authorities, they will no longer be harassed by the uncertainty which now confronts them of a possibly enormous potential expenditure, which of course they would make every effort eventually to pass on to the consumer.
For these and other reasons I trust that your Lordships will be willing to give this Bill a Second Reading. At the same time I am aware that it is desirable that one or two Amendments should be incorporated in it during the Committee stage. Some words may be required to make it clear that this Bill is to apply to all supply authorities, notwithstanding any words which may appear in the special Acts or Orders which certain municipal authorities and companies may 172 have obtained. It will be found that the Bill, under Clause 2, is retrospective in character, and I think everyone in your Lordships' House appreciates the un-desirability of anything in the nature of retrospective legislation. It must be remembered, however, that in this case the law was passed no less than thirty-seven years ago, and that in consequence considerable administrative difficulty will now be encountered if the law were to be fully carried out for the first time.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Roche, has been good enough to point out to me that, as it stands, Clause 2 of the Bill might have the effect of altering a decision already given by the Courts. He has most kindly indicated to me a method by which the clause might be amended, so as to secure the reasonable objects of the Bill without being open to this objection. I am most grateful, and desire respectfully to thank my noble and learned friend for his kind suggestion and promise of assistance. I propose to submit the terms of the Amendment, after consultation with him, to this House on the Committee stage, so that the Committee may deal with the point he has raised. In conclusion I beg to thank your Lordships for the kind attention given to my humble endeavour to explain the Bill, and I hope I have been able to establish to the satisfaction of the House that there is a real need for legislation in the interests of the supply authorities, whether municipal bodies or companies, as well as in the interests of the consumers, whether existing consumers or future consumers. I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Eltisiey.)
§ LORD GAINFORD
My Lords, I want in a word to support the Second Reading of this Bill, and to ask the House to agree to it to-day. It is a Bill which will avoid a very difficult situation, and the fact that a very complicated position might arise on this Bill is another indication of the necessity for a Second House. This Bill has passed through all its stages in the other House without, apparently, adequate consideration. There are one or two Amendments to be proposed in the interests of the protection of consumers, which those interested in the passage of this measure are prepared to accept, and I think that the Bill 173 will leave this House in an improved condition. Therefore I hope that the Second Reading will be given to-day.
§ LORD ROCHE
My Lords, I should like to trouble your Lordships' House with a few observations upon this Bill. I share with the noble Lord who has spoken last some surprise that this Bill was passed without any amendment, or suggested amendment, in another place, because as it stands I can see that the Bill, unintentionally no doubt, is radically bad. I can indicate that fact by a short reference to the history of the Bill, which arises directly out of the case to which the noble Lord has referred. I was a member of the Court which adjudicated on that case, and as a member of the Court of Appeal I need not say that I should not be addressing your Lordships now unless I had ascertained that there is to be no appeal to the House of Lords. Therefore the case is not sub judice but res judicata, and this Bill is obviously, intentionally and avowedly directed to the situation created by that decision.
The history of that decision is this. A small tradesman in the East End of London took his supply of electricity from the local undertakers. He had never during any winter quarter consumed more than fifteen to sixteen hundred units of electricity, and during any summer quarter not more than four hundred and fifty units. Therefore he was surprised when in the summer of 1934, a time of heat and drought, his meter registered 2,000 units. He thereupon said: "My meter is wrong. I will pay what is due and no more." The local undertakers cut off the supply. With the true spirit of John Hampden, which it is pleasing to see still subsists in the East End of London, the tradesman brought an action in the County Court for an injunction, and he obtained an injunction on two grounds. The first was that it was a bona fide dispute, and the Acts of Parliament said that if there was a bona fide dispute then the undertakers could not refuse to supply. Secondly, the local undertakers said that their meters were conclusive, but they had never been certified as they ought to have been under the existing Acts of Parliament, and the County Court Judge held that such meters were not conclusive, because the Acts of Parliament expressly enacted that they were not to be conclusive unless they were certified. The case proceeded to 174 the Court of Appeal of which I was a member, the judgment of the learned County Court Judge was there upheld, and the case is not being appealed to this House.
The case was unanswerable. The question is, what should be done about it? The noble Lord has introduced a Bill which provides, as I understand it, for a more economical certification in future. Well and good. The Bill also provides—and this is the vice of the Bill as it stands—that, notwithstanding anything that was ordered by previous Acts of Parliament, an existing meter, until it is disconnected and removed, shall be deemed to be and always to have been as good as if it had been certified. What the noble Lord row proposes is something very different and if effect is given to that by the Amendment the matter will, I conceive, be in order. He said in the course of his speech that the Bill will raise a legal presumption that the meters are registering properly. Well and good. If that is done, then the Bill will be in order. That is to say, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred where the reading is approximately right the matter will go through and the bill will be paid; if it is presented to a Court the meter will be admissible evidence of the amount of electricity received. But in the odd case in which a meter goes wrong, as it obviously did in the case to which I have called attention, then the meter will have then to be inspected and then to be certified and proved to be in order. If, as I understand to be the case, the noble Lord gives an assurance that an Amendment in that sense—not pledging the noble Lord to the exact wording of the Amendment—will be made, I for one have no objection to the Second Reading of the Bill. I have ventured to call your Lordships' attention to these matters in order that when the Bill reaches the Committee stage, some of your Lordships may take more interest in the further progress of this Bill than appears to have been taken elsewhere.
My Lords, as a supporter of this Bill, I was somewhat anxious as I listened to the noble and learned Lord's opening remarks. But your Lordships have learned from the end of his speech that, with certain Amendments which have already been indicated by the noble Lord who moved 175 the Second Reading, the Bill, if passed, would be of value to the community, as it certainly would be of value to the supply companies.
THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (THE EARL OF ONSLOW)
My Lords, I have nothing to say against this Bill; I hope your Lordships will pass it. But I understand that its object is to get the undertakers out of a difficulty which has been created by a decision of the Courts. I understand that the Board of Trade consider that every electricity meter should be approved in the same way as a gas meter before it is installed, and that legislation should be introduced to give effect to this. I would like to ask my noble friend opposite if it is intended to give effect to that recommendation at a future date. But if it proved controversial now, naturally your Lordships would wish to do something to get undertakers out of the difficulty in which they have been placed by the decision. I would like to ask whether it is proposed to undertake general legislation such as I understand the Board of Trade favour, because I think that is rather important.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE COLONIES (THE EARL OF PLYMOUTH)
My Lords, on behalf of the Government I only want to say that it desires to give general support to the Bill. It feels that a case has been made out for the alteration of the law. As it at present stands there obviously is a difficulty. It is clear from what has been said that Amendments will be put down on the Committee stage and, as I gather from the promoters of this Bill, will be agreed to. If the Ministry can help in any way in solving the difficulties, they will be only too glad to do so. With regard to the question that the noble Earl put to me, I am afraid I am not in a position to answer at the present moment, but that is a matter we will take into consideration.
§ On Question, Bill read 2aand committed to a Committee of the Whole House.