HL Deb 12 May 1936 vol 100 cc930-5

THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (THE EARL OF ONSLOW) moved to resolve, That is is desirable that a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament be appointed to consider whether it is expedient, and if so in what circumstances and subject to what conditions, to authorise the measurement of gas supplied by gas undertakers to consumers by means of meters so designed as to register in therms instead of in cubic feet.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, a rather complicated situation has arisen in regard to the question of the measuring of gas supplied by gas undertakers to consumers. At the present moment the meters used register in cubic feet the amount of gas consumed. Last session the South Metropolitan Gas Company promoted a Bill to enable meters to be designed so as to register in terms of therms instead of in cubic feet. After a considerable amount of discussion the Bill was dropped last year, but it was re-introduced in the present Session. I understand that the Government saw a very considerable objection to the proposal put forward by the company, and gave their views, not by Counsel, before the Select Committee of the House of Lords presided over by Lord Cozens-Hardy. In spite of the Opposition of the Board of Trade and of the London County Council, who I think were represented by Counsel, the Committee decided, after a long and patient hearing, in favour of the proposals submitted in the Bill. As I understand it the Board of Trade still maintain their objection to a proposal of this kind being introduced in a Private Bill, but they have intimated to me that they are prepared to allow the whole question to be considered, with a view to its being the subject of public legislation, provided that the case put forward by the company can be proved.

The House of Lords is naturally and rightly very careful when it is proposed by the Government, or anyone else, to override a decision of a Select Committee of this House who have very patiently and carefully heard a case and decided thereon. But of course it is obvious that Parliament can at any stage of a Bill take any action it considers right, and it is open to any Member of Parliament, including, of course, the responsible Minister, to persuade the House of the correctness of his point of view. A suggestion has been put forward, which I think this Motion embodies, and which it seems to me is one which, from the point of view of all parties concerned, would tend to a satisfactory solution. It is proposed that a Joint Select Committee should be set up and the terms of reference are those which appear in my Motion on the Paper.

There is only one other point to which I would refer. Of course the company might be placed at a certain disadvantage if the Committee find in favour of their proposal and then time is not available for public legislation during the Session. They would gain their case, but in practice they would lose, because if the Bill were dropped they would have to wait for public legislation to be undertaken. Therefore, I understand that the Government would be willing to withdraw their opposition to this Bill, if the promoters agree to drop it should the Government be able to introduce and pass a Public Bill this Session. If there should not be time for such a Bill it is agreed, and I think it would be fair, that the Bill which will be before this House tomorrow should be allowed to go forward, and subsequently it will embody such decisions as may be arrived at by the Select Committee should a Public Bill not be produced this Session. By this means, if the company are able to persuade Parliament of the desirability of their case, they will not lose should a Public Bill not be introduced this Session. In these circumstances I understand that the Government offer no objection to the Bill being read a third time to-morrow.

Moved to resolve, That it is desirable that a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament be appointed to consider whether it is expedient, and if so in what circumstances and subject to what conditions, to authorise the measurement of gas supplied by gas undertakers to consumers by means of meters so designed as to register in therms instead of in cubic feet.—(The Earl of Onslow.)


My Lords, I do not want to keep you from a much more important discussion, but I feel that this is a matter of some importance. I would like to remind you of the history of this Motion. What happened was that I and four other noble Lords sat for two days listening to the ablest Counsel of the Parliamentary Bar discussing this matter. We came to certain very definite conclusions. We were unanimous, and there was no question in my view that our decision was a perfectly right one. Then we were informed that the Board of Trade intended to oppose this Bill on Third Beading. I was quite content with that situation, because I had no doubt that if the Board of Trade did oppose our conclusions on the Third Reading your Lordships would pay no attention to that. Yesterday I received a letter telling me that the Board of Trade had decided not to oppose the Bill on Third Reading, but that a compromise, so-called, had been arrived at. Why was it arrived at? Well, it was arrived at partly because the Board of Trade did not want to have to oppose a Bill which had been passed by your Lordships' Committee, and partly, so far as I can make out, because the threat was employed that if this compromise was not arrived at the Whips would be put on in another place, and the Bill would be thrown out by the well-regimented squadrons over there.

I make this protest because I feel that it is a gross bit of blackmail, and I regard it as a gross denial of your Lordships' rights. I also regard it as reducing the whole system of Committees in this House to a farce. If a Government Department takes it into its head to make a threat of that kind and to say: "Very well, do it if you like, but you will lose the whole Bill, because we will put the Whips on in another place," then where are you going to stop? Why should you ever have a Committee at all? I say this quite frankly, because I feel a sense of grievance, and a man with a sense of grievance perhaps never speaks too clearly. We sat two days on a Gas Committee—not a very amusing entertainment—very little "wine, woman and song" about that. We did it with the aid of the best Counsel with one object only, to help your Lordships, and we did it to the best of our ability. If, at the end of all that, simply because a Government Department takes it into its head that this matter is of importance, all our efforts are to be wasted and the whole costly farce is to be gone through again, I say to your Lordships that you are likely to find it extremely difficult to ask at any rate the younger members of your Lordships' House to have any part in your Committees again, because if we are only going to be rubber stamps we would rather be absent. With that protest, I sit down.


My Lords, my noble friend who has spoken with his usual eloquence, did not give me notice that he was going to raise this subject to-day, or I should have been prepared with a defence of the Department which I have the honour to represent in your Lordships' House. I can assure him that I personally was quite unaware that any threat had been made to defeat the Bill by the nefarious process of putting the Whips on in another place. If he will take it from me, I will convey what he has said to the Department, and I hope he will take it that I have said sufficient on this subject for the moment. I really rose to say that, as the Lord Chairman has stated, the difficulties raised with regard to this Bill have been carefully reconsidered and, on behalf of the Board of Trade, I welcome this proposal for the appointment of a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament to consider whether it is expedient, and if so in what circumstances and subject to what conditions, to authorise the measurement of gas supplied by gas undertakers to consumers by means of meters so designed as to register in therms instead of in cubic feet. Of course, the Government raise no objection to the Third Reading of this Bill to-morrow.


My Lords, I think I must say one word with reference to the speech of the noble Marques. I have no acquaintance with the circumstances to which he refers, but I am bound to say I have the greatest sympathy with him in his protest. What appears to have happened is that, whereas your Lordships' House had sent a Bill to a Private Bill Committee and that Committee had arrived at certain conclusions, the emissaries of a Government Department came and said: "Unless this decision is reversed we shall use the mechanical majority of the Government in order to overbear you." In other words, the action of your Lordships' House, either by its Committee or as the House itself, is to be overthrown by the orders of the representative of a Government Department. That, of course, is an intolerable position. I speak with the greater emphasis because this is not the first time it has occurred. On the last occasion on which it occurred the matter did come under my own notice, and I said what I think any of your Lordships would have said under the circumstances. I said that nothing would induce me to give way for a single second in deference to a mere direction from a Government Department. One of the Houses of Parliament to be overridden merely because the President of the Board of Trade or his emissary thought that we ought to give way, and said: "If you do not give way the House of Commons"—probably a weary House of Commons—"under the orders of its Whips will override you"—that is an impossible position, and I sympathise very much with the noble Marquess in the protest that he has made.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Ordered, That a Message be sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith, and to desire their concurrence.