§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This is a modest Bill, and I hope and believe that it will prove to be as uncontroversial as it is brief. It follows in cause, to some extent, what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was saying this afternoon. It is an economy measure, and is designed to limit the immediate expenditure of capital investment. Its immediate object is to postpone the date by which electricity meters which are not at the present time certified will require to be certified. If I may, I will in a few moments explain to the House the brief history of this matter.
The story begins with the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, 1899, Section 49 of which provided that the value of the supply of electricity to ordinary consumers was to be ascertained by a certified meter. The years passed and very few certified meters were provided. That, I think, is not really surprising, because 129 certified meters had to be provided by being certified by people who rejoiced in the name of "electric inspectors." Electric inspectors were created by the local authorities, but in point of fact local authorities created scarcely any at all, so it was not surprising that comparatively few meters became certified.
All went perfectly well under that system until one day a particularly bright consumer declined to pay his electricity bill because he had not received his supply through a certified meter. That precipitated a crisis; the matter had to go before the court, and the court found that the consumer was perfectly justified. Something had to be done about it, and in consequence Parliament passed the Electricity Supply (Meters) Act, 1936, which provided, amongst a few other things, for the legalisation of the use of the then existing meters which were installed even if they were uncertified; it made them legal until either they were disconnected and other meters were installed instead, or 1st July, 1948, whichever date should be the earlier.
From that time certification proceeded normally and all new meters installed were certified meters. However, the war postponed further certification, and during the war the procedure lapsed entirely. By the end of the war it was quite clear that it would be impossible by 1948 to catch up the back-log of certification which was necessary, and so the Government which was then in power—through, I think, the predecessor of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal), who is now on the Opposition Front Bench—introduced Section 52 into the Electricity Act, 1947, which postponed the date by which meters were required to be certified for a period of five years, until 30th June, 1953.
The object of the Bill which is now before the House is still further to postpone that date until 30th June, 1958. The reason is that the present situation is that there are, roughly speaking, 15½ million electric meters in this country. Out of this number there are some four million which are uncertified. If all these four million meters had to be replaced or certified by 30th June, 1953, it would necessitate special arrangements being made for the manufacture of meters, and it would involve a capital cost of some £3½ million. We do not consider that is 130 a necessary and essential investment to make at the present time.
It would also forfeit a direct economy which will arise as a result of postponement of the date of certification until 1958, because there is a substantial amount of current which is now consumed which passes through meters on a direct supply. If by 1953 we had to certify the meters, we should have to instal certified meters for measuring the direct current which is received by these particular consumers. That supply should be changed by 1958 and will become alternating current, so that if we did before 1953 instal certified meters to measure direct current, we should have to take them out and instal fresh certified meters for measuring the fresh type of current which is being installed. That would cost an additional £390,000, and it really does not seem to be worth while.
There is one other thing which perhaps I should say, because I think that the House would wish to know whether or not the postponement of certifying these meters is going to have an adverse effect upon the consumers. Is it going to mean that the consumers are to be charged more for the electricity they take because the meter through which it is valued is an old-fashioned one or a bad one? I think that I can give the House an assurance upon that point.
The meters which at the present time are being certified—the meters which are being taken out from the consumers' supply at the present time—do show on test that very often they are perfectly accurate within the margin of error which is allowed by the regulations, but where they do err—where they are outside the margin of error—it is far more usual for the meter to have run slow with age and consequently to charge the consumer for less electricity than he has actually received. Therefore, it is unlikely that the consumers will have any objection whatever to this proposal that for five years some of them will have to continue with their existing meters.
On the other hand, if they themselves should have reason to believe that their meters are running fast and they are being charged excessively for their electricity, they have a statutory right to require that the meters should be examined, and if they are examined by 131 an official examiner and found to be running fast, so that the consumers are being charged more than they should, then they have the right of recovery against the electricity board.
That is the effect of this brief Bill. I conclude by quoting the words of very nearly half the speech of the late Mr. Bryce who moved the 1899 Bill from which this springs. When he moved it, he said:I think this is a Bill which the House will agree in considering a very useful Measure, and one which is, therefore, likely to be a considerable convenience.That was one-half of his speech, and the other half explained the Bill. I am afraid that I have taken up rather a lot of the time of the House, but I adopt the words of the hon. Gentleman who spoke on a previous occasion.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Neal (Bolsover)
In welcoming this Bill on behalf of the Opposition, I should like to take the opportunity of congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary upon what I believe is his first speech from the Front Bench, and also to compliment him on the precise and explicit manner in which he has moved the Second Reading of the Bill.
There are some things Governments do whether they choose or not. Time and circumstances overtake them, and they find themselves taking action in matters which they have neither designed nor contemplated. Consequently, we find the Parliamentary machine often grinding out legislation of an obscure character with which the average citizen is often unfamiliar. Onlookers on the Parliamentary scene would hardly believe possible what is now being enacted, because this is one of those rare occasions upon which the Opposition is in complete agreement with the Government. I hope right hon. and hon. Members opposite will not take this as a precedent likely to be followed during the rest of this Session.
The original Act of 1899 defined that electricity should be supplied through certified meters. It was an Act which, to say the least of it, was not very closely observed. The 1936 Act attempted to repair this oversight with equally disappointing results. A further attempt was made in the Electricity Act of 1947 132 and a date was fixed upon which all meters should be certified. Again, however, the target has not and is not likely to be reached. Neither the men nor the materials are available to certify the remaining number of meters within the specified period. Indeed, I doubt whether it would be wise at this vital stage of our economic life to divert the essential materials and labour to the completion of this job.
During the brief, bright and glorious hour of life that I spent at the Ministry of Fuel and Power I went out of my way to canvass the opinions of electrical engineers in at least four or five areas covered by the electricity boards in the country. They were all unanimous in believing that there should be a postponement of the appointed day. I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary that the electricity consumer should feel no perturbation about postponement, because it is generally known that uncertified meters run slowly, which means that they operate to the advantage of the consumer. I welcome this Bill again on behalf of the Opposition. I wish it a quick and easy passage.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)
I should like to add a few brief words, because this is the grandson of my Bill. The 1936 Act was a Private Bill, and its history is rather interesting. There was an electricity consumer in East Ham, which had a Socialist controlled local authority, who received a bill for about ten times as much for the corresponding quarter of the previous year. He declined to pay, and the East Ham Corporation cut off his electric power. He happened to have had a legal training, and he proceeded to study all the Electricity Acts. He found out that for some reason an electricity inspector had never been appointed, except in the Metropolitan area, and that East Ham was outside the Metropolitan area.
This all happened during the General Election of 1935. I was away engaging in the Election, but when I got back to my office I heard this story. The Electricity Commissioners were in a jam, as were the power companies and one or two municipal organisations. I said that the only thing to do was to validate all existing meters and provide, by Act of Parliament, that they had all got to be checked within a certain time.
133 I had no difficulty in squaring the Labour Whips at the time, because it was a Socialist council which was in a jam. Other domestic consumers in the country were refusing to pay their bills, because there was no basis on which to compile a bill. In passing, this only applied to domestic consumers. Power customers were charged in a different way. The obvious thing was to pass a Bill to put the matter right.
I sat down and drafted a one-Clause Bill which would solve all the problems. The officials got really busy then, and although it was my Bill it was taken over and re-drafted by the Electricity Commissioners. Hon. Members will be aware that, in the end, every Bill is drafted by a lawyer. Not a word goes into a Parliamentary Act but some lawyer benefits. Unfortunately, Hitler came along and the job was not finished. If it had been finished then there would be no need for the present Bill. As I was the author of the original Act, the only Electricity Act to be promoted by a Private Member, I thought it appropriate that I should say these few words.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Standing Committee.