HL Deb 11 July 1940 vol 116 cc889-900

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to move the Third Reading of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead Gas Bill. This is a Private Bill which was promoted by the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Gas Company to enable it to acquire another undertaking to extend the limit of its supply and to erect an additional gasholder considered necessary for its work. It was introduced in another place and it was there petitioned against by the Newcastle Corporation and by some small property owners. It was passed with some Amendments and it came to this House, went through the First and Second Readings and was referred in the usual manner to a Select Committee presided over by Lord Carnock. The opposition was renewed, but the Bill, with a further Amendment accepted by the Corporation, was passed by the Select Committee and now comes to your Lordships' House for Third Reading.

I understand that Lord Rankeillour is to move that the Bill be re-committed to a new Select Committee. He tells me, however, that he does not propose to go into the merits of the Bill at this stage. Accordingly, I shall not say anything on the merits of the Bill at present, but will reserve my right to speak, if necessary, on the new Motion. I may say that I have no connection with either the Gas Company or the Corporation, but I am connected with the gas industry and it is on behalf of the National Gas Council of Great Britain that I am voicing these views. It may, perhaps, be of some use to those of your Lordships who do not usually sit on Select Committees, if I recall what the procedure is. All the other stages, except the Committee stage, in this House are purely formal. A Private Bill of this nature, after it has passed its First and Second Readings, goes before a Select Committee made up of five noble Lords with a Chairman selected by the Committee of Selection. They are the body who deal with the real examination of the Bill. They hear counsel and witnesses, they read the documents put in, and they do all the things we cannot do on the floor of this House. When they have reported to the House it is almost the invariable practice for the Bill to proceed. Very considerable expense has already been incurred and, if the Bill is re-committed, that expense would have to be incurred again, and as your Lordships will remember expenses of public bodies are found by the ratepayers and, in the last resort, by the consumers. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a—(Viscount Mersey.)

4.16 p.m.

LORD RANKEILLOUR, who had given notice that, on the Motion for the Third Reading, he would move, that the Bill be re-committed, said: My Lords, I feel constrained to intervene on this Bill because its recent history involves matters of principle and precedent with which the House, as a whole, is concerned. I have no local interest or any personal interest whatever in the matter in dispute, and I imagine that I was appealed to on this question largely on account of my being familiar with questions of this kind as Chairman in another place. When, however, I went into it, I came to the conclusion that there had been, in the course of the examination by the Committee, serious departures, I shall not say from the procedure, but from the practice of this House, with which your Lordships, as a whole, ought to be acquainted.

On the face of it, the matter is of no great national or general interest. It is the kind of question that might arise at any time. On the one hand, the Gas Company wish to have a new holder—not for gas-making but purely for holding gas—and, in the other hand, the proposal is opposed by the Corporation of Newcastle-upon-Tyne on the ground of its interfering with their town-planning arrangements and by a number, amounting to 200, of residents in the neighbourhood, 91 of whom are owner-occupiers. The Bill, as the noble Viscount has said, was not opposed on Second Reading, and was committed to a Select Committee, which met for the first time on June 18. They met at a moment of extreme general national tension—a tension which inevitably, and very naturally, could not be excluded from the Committee room. It became clear that the Committee were working under very difficult circumstances, and that they felt that it was very difficult to give attention to matters of this relatively small importance in those circumstances. I might illustrate the position by quoting one or two observations that fell from the Chairman at that time. First of all the Chairman said: Counsel will, I hope, keep this as short as they possibly can. The Committee are all anxious about other subjects. The learned counsel for the promoters no doubt was much shorter than he would normally have been, but still he took up fourteen and a half columns of the Report, and his principal witness took up fourteen more, so that it cannot be said he was in any way debarred from putting his case fully before the Committee.

But, as the hearing went on, it became clear that the Committee tried to effect an agreement, and put on, if I may say so, some degree of pressure that an agreement should be come to. The Chairman, for instance, said: …I must own I am very surprised that this case should be fought out now at this crisis. For all we know, Newcastle may not exist in a week's time. And, at the end of the proceedings, he said: I feel, and I am sure their other Lordships agree with me, that at this time of terrible national crisis we ought not to be here in this room discussing a gasometer. That argument from the crisis and the resultant tension surely cuts both ways. If they ought not to hear the opposition, why should they trouble themselves about this gasholder at all? The gasholder was not a matter of prime necessity. It was not in any sense a matter of importance, and, furthermore, it was extremely doubtful whether it could be constructed for a long time to come, because it was to consist largely of steel, and it was very doubtful whether the company could get the steel for a considerable time as it obviously had no priority. With regard to the question that they ought not to be discussing the matter in that room, well, the primary cause of their being in that room was not the opposition but it was the promotion of the Bill.

At the end of these proceedings a certain offer was made to the opposition, but it did not touch the real merits of the case. It only mitigated the apprehensions which were felt by the Corporation and the residents, and it was impossible for counsel for the opposition at that time to give an answer. Next day, when the Committee met, he stated that his clients could not accept the offer because they objected to the whole site where the gasholder was to be, and they were not disposed to accept this mitigation of the threat to their amenities on that account. In the course of conversation before the room was cleared the Chairman again addressed counsel for the opposition and said: …what we feel is this, that unless you have got some evidence different from and of more importance than that which you had before the Committee of the other House, although of course we must listen to you, you will not have the sympathy of this Committee. I cannot help thinking that was an unfortunate observation. As I understand the work of both Houses, they are not in either case a Court of Appeal from the other House which has only to consider questions of principle and has to be satisfied with the evidence taken in the other place. They have to consider the question on its merits and de novo, coming to their own decision on what they hear, and not from what they infer from what they have read as happening elsewhere.

Later the Chairman said more. Addressing counsel for the opposition he said: …the Committee dislike the opposition to this Bill, and I am going to clear the room for a minute to discuss what decision we are coming to. Later the Chairman said that they could not adjourn and tie up the whole question, as had been suggested, but they would be willing to go on in spite of what they had said that they disliked the opposition, and they would hear the opponents' case. Now that put counsel for the opposition in a very serious and awkward dilemma. They had been told that the Committee ought not to be considering the question at all. They had been told the Committee disliked the opposition, and it was quite clear to them that they could not hope to prevail. But not only that, it might well be that if they had fought and stated their case to the end, they would have been liable to have an order for costs of both parties made against their clients; and in view of that, leading counsel said that: We feel that the whole matter is so unreal after what has happened, that we have no alternative but simply to accept, even now, the offer and go away. Of course I cannot say whether an order for costs would have been made against them, but that they could not have prevailed is, I think, perfectly clear from what fell from the Chair. It was said: We really think (I am going to tell you this now) that the promoters have made out their case…Naturally we are quite prepared to hear you to the bitter end, but-still that was the general feeling. In those circumstances, I submit counsel could not possibly have gone on with the risk of bringing a great expense upon his clients. I have said that I would not argue the merits of the case. I do not argue them. Very possibly the decision that the gasholder should proceed may have been right. That does not affect me, but what does affect me is that the Committee practically decided to ignore an opposition which they had not heard. I do not speak of what the effect of the gasholder would be, but what I do say is that a number of people, 200 small residents, 91 being owner-occupiers of property, were left with the impression that their case had not been heard and that justice had not been done to them. That is the gravamen of the matter, and it involves a reflection, if it is allowed to pass into a precedent, on the procedure in your Lordships' House. Therefore I ask and move that the Bill be recommitted. There are precedents for this. There was a precedent in Lord Morley's time, and there has been a much more recent precedent in another place, the Gas Light and Coke Bill in the Session of 1935–36. That is the precedent and that I suggest is the proper course for your Lordships to take. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Leave out nil words after ("be") and insert ("re-committed").—(Lord Rankeillour.)

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, I was the Chairman of the Committee of your Lordships' House which dealt with this Bill. I want to say before I go into it, very shortly, three things. First of all, I have no interest whatsoever in any gas companies, or Newcastle. I have only seen it from the train. I therefore went into the Committee absolutely unbiased. I also wish to say that your Lordships' Committee were in no way influenced whatever by the decision that had been taken before a Committee of the other House. Of course we were quite aware what that decision was, although we were not influenced by it. The third thing I want to say in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, is that we never contemplated making an order for costs against the opponents of the Bill. It never entered our minds for one moment.

The noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, has given you roughly the facts of the Bill. It seemed to us that it was rather like Nero fiddling while Rome was burning that we should be discussing a thing which was of no vital importance at that moment. Whether the thing would ever have come to completion I do not know. We do not know what the general situation, or the situation in Newcastle, will be after the war. I do not deny that I spoke strongly—probably too strongly—when I expressed what I believe to have been the feeling of the whole of the Committee. I felt, and I still feel, that in the stress of the present crisis, when such vital questions are at stake and when the enemy are at our very gates, the opponent and promoters of the Bill should have been able to settle the matter between themselves. It cost money and the time of counsel, of solicitors and of witnesses who had to be brought down from Newcastle, all to discuss a thing that may never come to pass. That is why I adjourned the Committee in the first instance. I begged the parties to try to come to a satisfactory conclusion and I adjourned for the whole day in order to give everybody time to discuss the matter.

The offer made by the promoters before I adjourned was about the height of the new gasholder. I may mention that when the Bill left the other House the height was fixed at 175 feet. The promoters stated before us that at an expense of £15,000, by digging a deeper trench, they would lower the height to in feet. I thought that was a very generous offer. It was to cost the gas undertakers £15,000, and I frankly told the opponents of the Bill that I thought it was a very generous offer and that in my opinion they should accept it. I may go further and tell your Lordships that I have a very strong impression that the line which divides the two parties is not so wide as it is made to appear and that there was a possible point at which they might have come to an agreement. However that may be, and however strongly I may have spoken, I wish to emphasize this fact, that I never closed the door to a continuance of the opposition.

The noble Lord read out what I said. I always said we were prepared to listen. Counsel for the opponents were still, and always were, at liberty to insist on being heard, however hopeless they may have thought it. If they felt that I spoke too strongly it must not be forgotten that we were sitting in very abnormal circumstances when the discussion of what was to happen in the future in Newcastle seemed to me—and I know to other members of the Committee—almost a waste of time. I may as well say that some of the members of the Committee were engaged in work of very great national importance, and that it was essential that they should be attending to those duties and not sitting in a Committee room of your Lordships' House. At the same time I am glad of this opportunity of pointing out something which I think has not been sufficiently realised, that counsel themselves offered rather hurriedly to withdraw their opposition. Moreover, when counsel for the opponents, though refusing to continue with their case, accepted the generous offer made by the promoters—this very costly concession—their attitude might have been more consistent if they had refused to accept any compromise at all. But they accepted the compromise. Now they are objecting and want the whole case brought up again. That is all I say. I say nothing about the merits of the Bill. We did not go to see the site, but we were shown photographs and plans. Newcastle is not a garden suburb and the gasometer is alongside the railway. I leave the matter in your Lordships' hands.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, as I was a member of the Committee I should like to say a few words on this matter. I have only been in your Lordships' House for a short time and this is the first time that I have addressed you. Your Lordships, I am sure, will realise that I should not go out of my way to choose the occasion of the discussion of a rather technical and dry subject of this kind to make my first speech, but if I have any modesty left after twenty-four years' political life in another place I have enough left to lead me to think that I may be able to help those of your Lordships who were not members of the Committee in coming to a right conclusion on the question of re-committing this Bill. If I can say so without disrespect, I think a certain amount of what has been said already this afternoon is rather beside the point. I think the only real point is that our Chairman, after the room had been cleared and the parties had come back, said quite distinctly: Yes, Mr. Craig Henderson and Mr. Turner, I understand that we should be creating a very unusual precedent if we adjourn. Therefore we will ask to hear the opponents' case. That was followed by the learned leading counsel for the petitioners saying:— If that be the decision.…we feel that the whole matter is so unreal.…that we have no alternative but to accept, even now, the offer and go away. Your Lordships, and even perhaps some members of the Committee, may think that some things might have been done or said differently, but there is no question that the ultimate decision not to proceed with the case was taken by-learned counsel instructed for the petitioners.


May I be allowed to interrupt the noble Lord for a moment? It was taken in view of the very distinct intimation made to him both on the previous day and on that day.


That is, of course, undoubtedly true, and we were all impressed by the studied moderation with which the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, moved his Motion. But the Chairman was not alone in his opinion. I have preserved a very rough note which I passed to the Chairman before the room was cleared. Like a good many notes of this kind that may be brought forward in evidence it may cut both ways, but with your Lordships' permission I will read it: If you feel that this hearing ought to be adjourned owing to the war circumstances I am with you, but think we ought to consult the Clerk on this point. If, how-over, you consider the promoters' case reasonable and that the petitioners' appear to be worthless I entirely agree so far, but think we simply must hear the petitioners. That was our view at the time. Although my experience in your Lordships' House is very short I took great interest in Private Bill legislation in another place for eighteen years, sitting on Committees as Chairman and for a long time as; Senior Chairman. I think it would be most undesirable, if I may say so respectfully, that noble Lords who were not present and cannot be seized of the whole circumstances, the evidence and the atmosphere, should now support a Motion to recommit a Bill which has been examined by a Committee selected from the membership of your Lordships' House.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I also was a member of this Committee. I have sat on Private Bill Committees for thirty years now and it has always seemed to me that it is impossible to draw an exact line as to whether a Committee should or should not hear evidence. The question has arisen over and over again in the proceedings of Committees on which I have sat. Sometimes the most drastic measures have been taken to stop evidence, and I have always understood that your Lordships gave the Committee to whom you had referred the Bill a large amount of discretion in this matter. In my considered opinion that discretion was not overstepped.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, I think perhaps you will expect me to say a few words on this matter, but they will be a very few words, because while the Committee was sitting I was so unfortunate as to be absent from your Lordships' House, and I have, therefore, only the records upon which to base such an opinion as I may have been able to form. Noble Lords who have spoken before me have put before your Lordships the case and the circumstances as they arose, and therefore I will say a very few words on that point. It appears to me—and I speak subject to correction—that after the opening speech for the promoters and part of the first witness's evidence, the Chairman strongly indicated—I think he has intimated to your Lordships that he spoke strongly—that the Committee considered that the parties ought to come to an agreement, and he therefore adjourned the Committee till the following day in the hope of such an agreement being reached; but next morning it was found that this had not been possible.

Then the hearing continued for a short time, after which the Chairman again intervened and said that the Committee wished to hear no more evidence from the promoters, and that though, of course, they would hear the opponents' case, they were against the opposition and it would take strong evidence to alter their point of view. As the result of these remarks, counsel for the opposition said that in view of the attitude of the Committee they would take no further part in the proceedings but would accept the offer made by the promoters to lower the height of the gasholder to no feet. Then the proceedings closed and the Bill was reported with that Amendment. The owners and occupiers of the houses then decided to bring the matter before your Lordships' House with a view to your Lordships considering the re-committal of the Bill.

With the information at my disposal, and after reading the evidence—the papers and notes—very carefully, I confess I agree that my noble friend expressed himself, shall I say, perhaps rather more strongly than possibly is usual in Committees of your Lordships' House. But it appears to me, if I may say so with great respect, that counsel for the opponents were also precipitate in refusing to continue their opposition. Whatever the feeling of the Committee may have been, whatever my noble friend may have said, the door to the opposition was not closed; and, as has been pointed out to your Lordships, I think, by every speaker, my noble friend made this perfectly clear.

Of course this matter is one entirely for your Lordships to decide. The criticism of the Committee is to the effect that my noble friend expressed the Committee's view rather too strongly before the arguments had been heard for the opposition. On the other hand, my noble friend Lord Carnock made it clear that the Committee did not refuse to hear anything that the opponents might wish to say either by counsel or by means of witnesses. But Mr. Craig Henderson, who was counsel for the opponents, stated that he felt the whole matter was so unreal after what had happened that he had no alternative but to accept the offer—that is to say, no feet instead of 175 feet—and go away; and Mr. Keen, who was representing the owners and occupiers, supported the attitude he had taken up.

Your Lordships' House has always most carefully, and rightly so, insisted on maintaining the high reputation and confidence which Committees of your Lordships' House enjoy all over the country and among all local authorities in particular. If your Lordships consider that the action of the Committee or the language used by my noble friend was such as to prejudice the interests of the opponents your Lordships may think it is advisable to agree with my noble friend Lord Rankeillour. On the other hand, in view of the fact that although it was more than once urged upon learned counsel that the Committee were ready to hear them "to the bitter end," in the words of my noble friend Lord Carnock, yet they did not pursue their argument, your Lordships may perhaps in those circumstances consider that the matter may be left as it is. But it is a matter entirely for the decision of your Lordships whether you should accept the advice of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour, or whether you should consider that, after the explanation that has been given by three members of the Committee, including the Chairman, the matter may be allowed to remain as it is.

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, I am very sensible that this House, like the other House, always wishes if it can do so to support the decisions of its Committees. After the speech of the Lord Chairman, and seeing that no one else has supported the point of view I have taken up, I will not put the House to the trouble of a Division. Nevertheless, I do not regret bringing this Motion forward, because I think it was quite clear that the Committee had come to a decision in their own minds without hearing the opponents, and that that was so clearly intimated to Counsel that in the circumstances it was really impossible for them to proceed. They might have run the risk—because they could not know what was in the mind of the Committee—of bringing down upon their clients an order for costs on the ground of unreasonable opposition. Therefore I think it was right that this matter should be noted, but in all the circumstances I will not press the Motion to a Division.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.