HL Deb 11 May 1948 vol 155 cc799-808

6.2 p.m.

LORD LLOYD had the following question on the Order Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government, (i) Why the regulations specified in the Electricity Act, 1947, Section 55 (1) have not yet been laid in draft before Parliament; (ii) How many employees in the electricity supply industry are likely to suffer loss of employment or a worsening of their position in consequence of this Act and thus be eligible for compensation under this section; (iii) When these regulations will be laid before Parliament. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to ask the question which stands in my name on the Order Paper, I think perhaps I ought to remind your Lordships that under this section of the Act the Minister, in co-operation with the Secretary of State for Scotland, was placed under the obligation of laying draft regulations before Parliament to deal with the question of compensation for officers of this industry who suffer either loss of employment or a worsening of their position as a result of the operation of the Act. Nine months have passed since the Act reached the Statute Book, but to date no regulations, draft or otherwise, have materialised.

The Parliamentary Secretary, when questioned on this matter in another place the other day, was unable to give any indication of when the regulations would be made, but from his reply it appeared that before they could be laid discussions would have to take place with the national association which represents the interests of the employees, and it also appeared that these discussions were not concluded at that time—that is on April 22 last. When we consider that matter, and when we remember also that after the discussions have been concluded the regulations have to be thoroughly scrutinised in both Houses of Parliament, it seems clear that a further considerable delay must inevitably ensue. That, in my opinion, is a most lamentable state of affairs. The senior officers in this industry who are likely to be affected are still, after nine months, left in a state of complete uncertainty about their financial future, and no man, I suggest, can possibly give of his best with an anxiety of that kind preying upon his mind. The result is bad not only for the individuals themselves, but for the industry as well.

The Parliamentary Secretary, when questioned on this matter, tended, I thought, rather to discount the importance of that latter point by saying that few people would be involved. Actually, he was unable to produce any figures, and the estimates that I have received show that, at the most conservative calculation, 180 senior officers are likely to be involved—that is to say, they will become redundant, they will have to seek employment elsewhere, or they will have to seek posts not in keeping with the salary and status of those they now enjoy. That does not take into account the immediate juniors of those senior officers, who obviously will be prejudiced if their seniors are demoted. I do not think that the question of numbers is relevant, because, after all, what is unfair and inconsiderate in the case of a thousand people is just as unfair and inconsiderate in the case of one man, and we shall have reached a sorry state of affairs if the rights of individuals are considered only if there are enough of those individuals to make themselves an embarrassment to the Government of the day.

One of the main criticisms of the Government's nationalisation schemes has been the dislocation and uncertainty which they create at a time of crisis. That is inevitable, and I do not believe it would have been possible to reorganise the whole of 510 different undertakings so soon after the vesting date. But the fact that there is so much inevitable dislocation is surely a reason for making absolutely certain that where possible every uncertainty should be avoided. In this case I cannot understand why the preliminary discussions to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred were not concluded months ago and the regulations laid well before vesting day. In conclusion, I hope the noble Lord who is to reply on behalf of the Government will be able to give us some convincing answer in regard to the very long delay which has occurred. It is important that he should do so, for two reasons. First, the Government have always claimed that employees would be better off as a result of the paternal care which they would receive by the industries coming under the ownership of the State. I submit that unless the explanation for which I ask is forthcoming, on the face of it this is not a very encouraging example of that paternal care. Secondly, I cannot believe that without some such convincing explanation—I speak of course for myself, but I believe other noble Lords on these Benches agree with me—we would be justified in relying on that claim in the future, in view of the importance of the matter to so many individuals.

6.7 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to detain your Lordships at this hour, but I may say that I know from my personal experience that there is unrest among people who are doubtful about their future, and good work obviously cannot be done by people who do not know what their prospects for the future are. I venture to doubt whether the noble Lord who has just sat down is correct in saying that a certain number of persons will be found redundant as a result of the taking over of this industry. Experience has usually shown hat staff is liable to be increased rather than decreased by actions of that sort. But, whether the numbers are increased or lot, it cannot be good for any industry for the people in it not to know what their future is, and I can say from my personal knowledge that there are people who are in a state of anxiety and worry. May I add one last comment? Before a scheme for taking over a big industry like this is brought forward in the form of a Bill, which subsequently becomes an Act, it would seem to be an elementary precaution to think out a plan dealing with the persons concerned. Where there are amalgamations or other reorganisations of that sort in the commercial world of this country, it is certainly unusual to proceed with such schemes without dealing with or considering the matter of the personnel. If that be good commercial practice, it would seem to be good criticism that the Government has not seen fit to follow it in respect of electricity.

6.9 p.m.


My Lords, I should also like to support my noble friend Lord Lloyd. Having had something to do with this Bill during its passage through the House, I am also very perturbed about the situation; and I can assure your Lordships that there are a great number of people who are dubious as to what their future is to be. They have applied for jobs and they have been interviewed, but they have not yet obtained jobs. I think they ought to know whether they will be given jobs or whether they are to receive compensation and, if so, what the form of compensation will be. It was agreed in this House that the regulations should be laid in draft, as my noble friend also said, so that they can be carefully scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament. I hope that we are not going to be told now that the Ministry have not had time to get down to this matter. I have taken a little trouble to go into it, and I find that in 1947 no fewer than six Special Order-with regard to electricity were laid before both Houses of Parliament, and that ten Special Orders were laid in 1948. I hope, therefore, that we shall not be told that the draftsmen have not had time to get down to this. It must be most disturbing to senior and other officials in the industry that the present state of uncertainty should continue. I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government will be able to assure us that progress is being made, and will continue rapidly to be made, to clear it up.

6.11 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord who has put these questions. In the course of the passage of the Bill, or the Act as it is now, through Parliament, undertakings were given, I understand, that any staffs to be discharged or amalgamated, should not in any case lose, in comparison with what they were formerly getting, and that efforts would be made to appoint them to offices of equal status and carrying the same rate of pay as they had previously been receiving. During the passage of the Act, a small committee, appointed by employees in the electrical industry, visited the Ministry on different occasions with the object of putting the case for the employees. They were told—and I understand that it was an undertaking—that these cases would be attended to immediately after nationalisation took place. Statements about this have been made to-day, and I personally know that these cases are not being looked after. I say that it is a deliberate breach of undertaking on the part of the Government. They have not looked after these people, and if there is any reason why they have not done so, I think they ought to tell us what it is. In any case, we ought to have from the lips of the noble Lord who is to reply on behalf of the Government an assurance that they will go into these cases and settle them as quickly as possible. That will remove from the minds of these people something that is causing them very deep and grave anxiety at the present time.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin by saying a word in reply to the noble Viscount who has just resumed his seat? He charged the Government, as I understood him, with deliberate breach of faith. I should be glad if he could give me particulars of these people who, he says, have, in fact, been left without employment. So far as I know, there are none.

One of the points to which the question of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, is directed, is whether, in fact, there will be people left unemployed or in a worsened position. It is true that in the course of the observations which the noble Lord addressed to your Lordships' House, he said that he did not regard this as a very important part of the matter. I think he suggested that the reply given by the Parliamentary Secretary (which indicated that present information is to the effect that there will be very few of these people indeed) was really rather beside the point. The noble Lord puts the point in this question, and I should have thought it was a matter of considerable importance. The information which we have at present is that the number of cases of people who are likely to suffer loss of employment, or worsening of their position, will probably be very small. The noble Lord gave some figures which certainly did not tally with that information. In view of the information in my possession, I am afraid that I am not able to accept those figures. Upon the materials which I have before me, I cannot go further than that.

The point which seemed to exercise the noble Lord's mind particularly, however—and I think it exercised the minds of other noble Lords who have spoken also—was how long it is likely to be before the regulations will be issued, so that people who may now be in some uncertainty may be relieved. We appreciate that there may be anxiety on the part of some people, although when they realise that there are unlikely to be more than a few cases in which loss of employment will occur, I think their anxiety will disappear. As your Lordships realise, the electricity industry is an expanding industry, and although it was suggested by one noble Lord that when nationalisation takes place the result is increased employment, rather than rationalisation of the industry, that is an accusation which I certainly cannot accept.

This is an industry which is bound, under the management of the National Board, which is being set up, to expand substantially. And it will continue to expand, for electricity will be taken into country districts where, under the old private profit motive, it would never have appeared in a hundred years. Undoubtedly, there will be substantial increases—


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for a moment? He made a statement just now which he cannot prove, and which I say is not accurate. Electricity would have been carried into these country districts. The sum of £70,000,000 was waiting in the hands of the electricity companies to be used to take electricity into the country districts. I therefore challenge that statement of the noble Lord; that is the purpose of my rising.


I really cannot enter into that question now, but, if the noble Viscount is right, this is an expanding industry, and it will have room for all the people who have previously been working in it. Indeed, there will undoubtedly be recruitment into this industry. The matter to which the debate has been principally directed is that of these regulations. In regard to that, the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, said that he had expected the Government to take up a paternal attitude, and, so to speak, to produce something out of the hat in five minutes. That is not what we on this side of the House understood to be a proper approach to this sort of matter. In another place, at the time when the Bill was going through Parliament, the Minister gave an undertaking that these regulations would be properly discussed with the representatives of the industry and the workpeople.


I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord, but I wish to point out that he has just misquoted me. I did not suggest that the Government should produce something out of the hat in five minutes. I pointed out that they had had nine months to produce something, and I said that I wondered why they had not, in fact, produced something, as that is the normal gestation period.


I would point out that the vesting date was April 1.


The Act passed on August 13.


Actually, the industry was taken over only on April 1. So the normal gestation period, as noble Lords will appreciate, gives us another eight months, which I hope that we shall not need. I am not in a position to give the noble Lord any firm date as to when these regulations will be forthcoming. They will have to deal with an exceedingly complicated problem. I can tell the noble Lord that discussions have been going on with the representatives of the organisations to which the Minister made a specific promise at the time when the Bill was going through Parliament. As I say, the discussions have been going on, but it has been found that there are considerable difficulties in the way of having regulations drafted and agreed and, in these circumstances, it may well be some little time before they are ready. I appreciate that the noble Lord will not regard this as a very satisfactory answer, but that is the position.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, having led my Party on this Bill I am bound to add a word, in view of the extraordinarily unsatisfactory nature of the answer given to my noble friend. The noble Lords who were engaged on this Bill will remember that we had a long discussion as to whether these regulations—or let me use an anodyne word, these provisions—which entitle the displaced or injuriously affected persons to compensation, should find their place in the Act of Parliament or should be put into regulations. It was pointed out that in the old days, when Parliamentary franchises were given to railways or other authorities, Parliament had always been most careful to provide in the Act of Parliament what should be the measure of compensation to people who were displaced. We were doubtful about this, and it was only on the firmest assurance of the Government that it would be much more satisfactory to the men concerned, and that their cases would be dealt with expeditiously and sympathetically, that Parliament agreed not to put the provisions in the Act and to leave them to the Minister to make. I had a great deal to do with this Bill and I certainly say that if I had not accepted at its face value the assurance that the Government were to be expeditious about this, we would not have accepted the proposal that these provisions should go into regulations.

This was no question of compensation to shareholders. This was a question of decent treatment for old employees. The noble Lord says, "What are you worrying about—the vesting date was only a month ago." This has nothing whatever to do with the vesting date. The noble Lord said these regulations are made by the Boards. Let him go and read the Act. These regulations are made by the Minister. We were led to understand that all this had been carefully planned, and that regulations were already drafted. The relevant date is not a month ago, but August 13, 1947, the day on which the Electricity Act received the Royal Assent. I suppose that we shall be told that the Minister is so busy preparing the next of the rabbits which he beneficently produces from time to time out of his hat that he cannot deal with this. He is the Minister on whose behalf a noble Lord will present to the House to-morrow a magnificent Bill about petrol. I do not often agree with Mr. Shinwell, but for once I find myself in complete agreement with him. The Government had much better think out the way they are going to carry nationalisation into effect before they introduce their schemes. The noble Lord says that these men need not worry, they are to be well treated. I am not sure. I am anxious to see these regulations. Unless the thing is set out in black and white, from which the Government cannot squirm away, these men will get nothing.

I will tell you why I say this. The noble Lord can carry out his own investigations and if he can deny this I shall be interested, and on the appropriate occasion he can challenge me in any respect. I speak now on the authority of one of the major companies, which was extending into rural areas. May I tell the noble Lord, as he elected to introduce this point, that I have been trying to get an extension of electricity into a rural area and cannot get it, unless I pay the whole of the capital cost of putting it there and an extra 20 per cent. on the tariff? I was told by this company that they had the habit, which is the common practice in bad private enterprise, that when men who had served them well retired after thirty or forty years, an honorarium—a tip, if you will; something more than their contractual rights—was paid to the men. In this case there were over a hundred men who had come to retire, and the company asked if they could pay some £500 or £700 to these men. "Certainly not," said the Minister. "What are their contractual rights? "There were no contractual rights. It was a bonus which it was the custom of the company and, I may say, the custom of all decently managed companies, to give. But it was not written in the Bill, and it was only with great difficulty that the Minister finally said that perhaps something might be given. That is the human touch which nationalisation is going to bring! I say this on the authority of the late managing director of that company, and the Minister will correct me if I am wrong in any particular.

That leads me to suppose that unless this is written in the bond, and the bond is written pretty soon, these men will receive a peculiar form of generous treatment. I take note of the possibility that, after all, nobody is to become unemployed, that the policy of full employment will take care of that. We were told, when this Bill was going through, that among the great advantages of amalgamating several hundred undertakings were the great economies that could be effected, particularly in administration. I will do the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor justice. He was anxious to say there would not be cheap and abundant electricity; but both he and the noble Viscount the Leader of the House said there would be great economies. I would be greatly surprised if it did not lead to some economies on overheads. Amalgamation is supposed to lead generally to better organisation. I think my noble friend on the Liberal Benches would feel the same. While it may be a comfort to the men (if the assurance is taken at its face value) to know that they will all be employed, at the same time I take note of the fact for future use in other measures that may come before us, that there will not be any economy in administration.