§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)
I beg to move, in page 1, line 7, to leave out "twenty," and to insert "seventeen."
This is a little Bill, and a little Amendment. But for a piece of bad luck I should not be moving this Amendment now. My watch was a minute slow, and I arrived in the Standing Committee upstairs at 10.31 a.m. to find the whole transactions had been finished in one minute, and the Committee busy thanking the Chairman for his arduous and splendid services in the Chair. I wanted to raise this issue, and the only opportunity then left to me was to move this Amendment now.
I did speak on Second Reading, but I would remind hon. and right hon. Gentlemen now present of the origin of this matter. I am the father of this Bill in the sense that it amends an Act which I conducted through this House in 1936. I would briefly remind the House how that came about, in order that it can appreciate the significance of my Amendment.
A gentleman who lived in East Ham received an electricity bill for about 10 times the usual amount and objected to 1724 paying it. The Socialist East Ham electricity undertaking cut off his current, and he was annoyed, and, being a legal gentleman, he started reading the Electricity Acts and discovered that the Board of Trade should in 1899 have appointed inspectors all over the country. However, they forgot to do it except in the County of London. It was the duty of the inspectors to inspect the meters to make sure that they were accurate. The result was that it was found that 90 per cent. of the domestic meters had never been inspected, with the result that they were illegal instruments. That applied in the case of the gentleman in East Ham, and so he won.
This put the municipal and other electricity undertakings in a grave situation, because they could not sue for their bills. In those circumstances, at a time when I had some connection with the electricity supply industry, I thought the thing to do was to legislate to validate temporarily all the installed meters, and my view was accepted unanimously by all parties, and my Bill became law after a very short passage through this House and another place.
I thought at that time that 10 years was a reasonable period in which to check up on the meters. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power has probably more accurate figures than I have, but I believe there were about 9 million involved at that time. They did not start work until the appointed day sometime in 1937 because they had to appoint the inspectors, and then, unfortunately, the war came along after they had been at work for only about two and a half years. I imagine very little work was done during the war on this inspecting and testing.
In 1947 the late Government extended the period of grace by five years. That period runs out this year, but there are still large numbers of meters untested. I believe the number is about 4 million. Whether they are accurate or not I do not know. It may be that several millions of householders in this country are being overcharged for electricity, because nobody knows whether these meters are accurate or not.
The Governmnent are asking for another five years of grace, which will mean altogether 20 years have been allowed in which to test 9 million meters. It may be necessary in existing circumstances to 1725 allow five years grace. I am moving the Amendment, to insert 17 years instead of 20, to take three years off that proposed further period of five years. I want some assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that this matter is being properly attended to and that real vigour is being put into the job to make sure that electricity consumers are not being cheated by the use of meters the accuracy of which is in doubt.
§ 6.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Crouch (Dorset, North)
I beg to second the Amendment.
It is quite unnecessary for me to make a long speech after the trouble my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) has taken to explain to the House why we have put down this Amendment. I have found that at all times my hon. Friend is always watching for the small things in the legislation that goes through this House, and I feel there are a great number of people who owe him a very great debt for the work he puts in on their behalf. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us that this work of inspection will go forward with much greater speed in the next three years compared with the last 15 years.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)
The House will not find me behind my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) in my admiration for my colleague the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), but I feel that in the speech he has just made my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East has departed somewhat from the strict line of conduct and action which I have expected from him hitherto. It appears that he wants more inspectors, for a shorter time than we have had hitherto, and he is evidently concentrating upon the importance of inspections.
I am sure that hon. Members must be aware that the manufacture of electricity meters is a very important, highly complicated, and scientific business. In the City of Edinburgh there is probably the most important meter manufacturing company in the country. That is by the way, but an observation which I felt it appropriate to make. In some ways this Bill is an indictment of the scientific 1726 accuracy of those meters and suggests that they are not capable of carrying out the functions for which they are designed.
But my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East dwells upon a rather different point. If the law says that these meters are to be inspected and they have not been inspected, then I am entirely with my hon. Friend in the desirability of accelerating inspection. But I am concerned with the implications in this matter—first, the increase in the number of inspectors in this over-inspected world, and second, the challenging of the high skill and scientific precision of British engineering, which is internationally supreme. I enter this demurrer, which is painful to me because it is somewhat at variance with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East; but I feel justified in making these observations in defence of the engineering industry of this country.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)
I must say first how welcome I find the moral support of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling), if indeed support it was. Although I do not think we could accept the Amendment, I welcome the opportunity of giving him the assurance for which he asked and also of answering the very reasonable questions put to me. Why should it have taken, or be estimated to take, some 20 years to certify all the electricity meters which will be in use in this country? It does seem a very long time, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), pointed out, it did not start until 1st July, 1938—not 1937—which was the appointed day upon which the Electricity Supply (Meters) Act, 1936, became operative.
Just as certification of meters was getting into its stride the war came, and that completely interrupted the whole business. Then, after the war, the need for reconstruction, and the transitional period, again delayed its resumption. The nationalisation of the electricity industry later interfered with the even flow of inspection, testing and examination of these meters.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East was about right, so far as we can judge, in saying that in 1936 there 1727 were about 9 million meters which were untested. There are no exact records, but that is the approximate number. Since then—and I think this is a fact which my hon. Friend did not take into account—all meters installed have been certified. In addition to the certification of old meters, all new meters have been certified, and so the number has been ever-increasing.
Some 5½ million new certified meters have been installed and some 64 million old meters have been certified. As we know, there are at present something in the region of 15½ million electricity meters in the country. I will assist my hon. Friend by doing a rapid deduction and calculation for him and assuring him that we reckon there are now about four million uncertified meters. At present we are able to certify approximately one million meters a year.
That is a very substantial number indeed, because certification of these meters is by no means a simple thing. It is rather comparable to the repairing of a clock on a big scale. It needs the removal of the meter. It is taken to test benches where the atmosphere, circumstances, and surroundings are of the best to give an exact performance for a very delicate instrument indeed. There is renovation in most cases, for they are old meters, and calibration and, ultimately, testing. After the testing, which is done by the electricity boards themselves or by the manufacturers, it is necessary for the Government examiner to come along and examine them, generally by testing samples from batches.
I do not think it would be possible to expedite the procedure to a greater speed than one million meters annually without a quite disproportionate disturbance of industry and the provision of additional capacity and plant which is not at present available. Therefore, I think the five years period for which we are asking is a reasonable one. We hope the job will be completed before the expiration of five years.
But I must explain that these uncertified meters are not evenly distributed throughout the country. There are areas where, before nationalisation, some companies or municipalities had dealt with their meters more rapidly than 1728 others, and it is quite likely that there will be some area boards in whose areas all meters have been certified well before the end of the period of extension for which we are asking in this Bill. On the other hand, there will be some areas where it will be a very difficult job to complete the matter in time. But I am convinced that it will be possible, and I am quite sure that my hon. Friend will have noticed that we have not included in this Bill any power for its further extension by Regulation. Therefore, if we should fail to examine all the meters within the available period for which we ask, it will necessitate the introduction of a further Bill.
§ Mr. Crouch
; I wonder if my hon. Friend could tell us if there is any means by which a householder can tell whether he has a certificated meter which has been recently examined? How can one tell whether one has an old meter? Are there any means of distinction?
§ Mr. Joynson-Hicks
Yes. If my hon. Friend can persuade his constituent to climb into the very small cupboard in which these meters are generally placed, in the most inaccessible part of the house, he will find that if he has a certified meter it will be stamped with a Government stamp, whereas if the meter is not certified it will not be so stamped. I would add that if a meter is not accurate the probability is that it is running slow and, therefore, to the advantage of the consumer and not the board.
§ Sir H. Williams
In view of the explanation of my hon. Friend, I do not desire to press this Amendment. I am certain that the debate will stimulate the activities of the inspectors. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 7.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Joynson-Hicks
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."
In view of what I have already said, I think there is little I need add about this Bill. I hope that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal) will add any additional explanation or ask for any additional information.
§ Mr. Harold Neal (Bolsover)
On the occasion of the Second Reading of this Bill I expressed the hope that it would have a quick and easy passage, and I do not propose to interrupt its journey to another place for more than a few moments.
This modest Measure, which was inherited from the last Administration, is most reasonable and essential, because it is physically impossible to implement the existing law before the statutory period of certification expires. The present Measure will afford a respite of five more years for the completion of a task which has three times been miscalculated in previous enactments.
The Parliamentary Secretary has indicated that there are some 15½ million meters in this country, 4 million of which remain uncertified. Even if it were possible to complete the certification of those remaining 4 million meters by 30th June, 1953, it would create a double expense in those areas where there is a change of current from direct to alternating.
As the Parliamentary Secretary also said, the consumer is not likely to be disadvantaged by this postponement. Experience has proved—as he has proved to his hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams)—that old meters run slow and, consequently, they are to the advantage of the consumer; but if the consumer is aggrieved he has a statutory right to have his meter examined and, if it is proved to be inaccurate, he has the power of recovery from the board who supply him with his electricity.
Despite this reassurance, I feel that there should be some finality to the estimate of complete certification envisaged in the Acts of 1899, 1936 and 1947. Without apportioning blame to either side of the House for previous postponements, or for this postponement, I venture to express the opinion that this will be the last one. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, with his wide experience and knowledge of legal matters, will agree that repeated postponements tend to bring the law into ridicule and disrespect.
The present Government will have disappeared long before this period of grace has expired, but they will receive the support of this side of the House if a 1730 vigorous attempt is made to ensure that the work of certification is finished so that further postponements are rendered unnecessary.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.