HL Deb 28 July 1948 vol 157 cc1317-22

After Clause 64, page 79, line 39, at end insert as a new clause—

Consumers' freedom of choice.

"Nothing in this Act or in any regulations made, or direction given thereunder, shall limit the right of any person to choose such available source of fuel or power of different kinds as he considers most suitable to his needs."

The Commons disagreed to the above Amendment for the following Reason—

Because the Amendment is unnecessary and would have no effect.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House do not insist on the said Amendment.

Moved, That this House do not insist on the said Amendment.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, I am not going to ask the House to insist on this Amendment, but I do think that before we part with this subject we are entitled to have a little clarification. I attached great importance to this Amendment when it was moved by my noble friend, Lord Rennell, because I thought that without this new clause it would be possible for the Minister, by reason of his general powers of direction under the Bill, to deprive people of the use of one kind of fuel and tell them to use another. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, with great frankness, said that that was so; that the Minister ought to have that power, that it might well be that gas ought not to be supplied in an area where gas is now supplied by a small undertaking, that it might be much more in the national interest, as he put it, to develop electricity, and that therefore the people were to be given electricity instead of gas. That statement left us in a state of uncertainty in regard to the powers of the Minister and as to whether people should be deprived of gas, which might be much better and much cheaper for their purpose. Of course, when we turn to industry, we know that the kind of fuel it receives is a vital thing, and nobody other than the people in the industry knows what the fuel should be. So dangerous did your Lordships consider this power of the Minister to interfere with the domestic and industrial life of the country by directing everybody as to what fuel they were to use, and depriving them of another, that your Lordships divided upon it. On the whole, I think the Lord Chancellor agreed that Lord Lucas's rendering was right, although I am not quite sure. Then the clause went down to another place. Your Lordships will be interested to know that the Solicitor-General—from whose remarks I am going to quote because it was a pronouncement of Government policy and intention—took an entirely different line. He said: "Really, you need not be afraid or bothered by this clause. It is wholly unnecessary because the Minister has no power whatsoever to do the things which this clause directs him not to do." In column 1051 of Hansard of July 26 the Solicitor-General said: My reasons for inviting the House to disagree with this Amendment, are, in brief, that it does nothing at all. Lord Lucas told us that the Bill gave a chance for making the most colossal reforms, but the Solicitor-General says, "It does nothing at all." I am delighted to find now that they are adopting the admirable aphorism of Lord Melbourne—namely, "I wish they, would leave it alone." The Solicitor-General went on to say: Under the Bill, once there is an available source of fuel or power, then, so far as the Minister is concerned, the consumer's rights of access to it are governed by the express terms of the Third Schedule, and the Minister cannot interfere with his rights to that available source. Assuming that the Solicitor-General is right, I am delighted to hear that the Minister cannot do all the things that Lord Lucas said he had the right to do, and was going to do. I am leaving out a few sentences, but the Solicitor-General went on to say that so long as there is a gas main within twenty-five yards, the consumer is entitled to have his premises connected up, and nobody can stop him. Then he says: All the clause would do is to say that the Minister cannot interfere with something with which, in any case, he cannot interfere, and, therefore, is would be completely otiose. The Minister cannot do these things, according to the Solicitor-General, who then goes on to say: If there is, pursuant to the discharge of their duty"— that is, the duty of each Area Board to give a supply of gas— made available a source of gas supply,"— and of course there will be, because they are taking over all the existing sources of supply— then the Minister cannot interfere at all. The consumer, if he finds himself within the three corners of the Third Schedule, can insist, as a matter of statutory right, on being furnished with a supply from that available source. I do not think that I can advance the matter further by repeating what I have said by way of argument. When the Solicitor-General goes down to the other place, both sides of the House treat him, quite rightly, as giving a considered view of what is the law. We expect a statement of law. We sometimes get arguments from the Attorney-General which are useful on our week-end platforms. But here the Law Officers were confining themselves to their proper, or their wise, sphere, which is the law. The Solicitor-General said: I do not think that I can advance the matter by repeating what I have said by way of argument, and that is that this clause does precisely nothing, and simply says that the Minister cannot interfere with the access to an available supply. He cannot do that now. My Lords, I am delighted to hear, on the authority of the Solicitor-General, that all that Lord Lucas told us last time was entirely wrong, and that all these great plans which the Minister has in mind for telling us what fuel we should or should not use, and how he is going to control our family life and our manufacture are, to use the Solicitor-General's happy phrase "completely otiose," because he will not be able to do it. However, I would like an assurance that the Solicitor-General is right and that Lord Lucas is wrong.


My Lords, I, too, would like an assurance on this point. I am somewhat worried about this clause. I have tried hard to understand it, but I must say that I do not understand it at all. I have read with interest what the Solicitor-General said, and have heard what he said. I was unable to be present on the day, during the Committee stage, when Lord Lucas made the speech which has been referred to, but I read with interest the report of what he said. The reason given for the Commons disagreement to this Amendment is that "the Amendment is unnecessary and would have no effect."

The Third Schedule says that: An Area Board shall, upon being required to do so by the owner or occupier of any premises situated within the Board's area of supply and within twenty-five yards from any main of the Board give and continue to give"— those are the important words— a supply of gas to those premises… Clause 55, if I may read what is stated at the beginning, says: As from the vesting date, the Third Schedule to this Act (which contains a code of provisions relating to gas, supply) shall apply to Area Boards: Provided that, if it appears to the Minister, as respects any obligation imposed by the said Schedule, that it is not reasonably practicable to require an Area Board to fulfil that obligation in relation to any part of the area of the Board as respects which the obligation was not imposed on the undertaker supplying gas in that part before the vesting date, he may by order provide for relieving the Area Board from that obligation, in relation to that part of their area, for such period not extending beyond five years from the vesting date as may be specified in the order, on such conditions as may be so specified. Again, under Clause 7, the Minister may give such directions of a general character as may appear to him necessary in the national interest. If I read it correctly, Clause 55 can overrule the provision in the Third Schedule, which lays down what the domestic consumer should have a right to have and continue to have. That is why I should like further clarification of this important point.

In 1936, I sat on a Joint Select Committee on behalf of this House to consider the question of freedom of choice with regard to gas and electricity. A body—I think it was the West Ham Corporation—who were authorised undertakers of electricity and also a housing authority, objected to tenants having freedom of choice. The Gas Light and Coke Company opposed this. I think we sat for eight days, and the unanimous opinion of both Houses was that, within the Act, all consumers, where practicable, should have freedom of choice. As a result, a Bill promoted in 1936 by the Gas Light and Coke Company was passed.


My Lords, I am in, a very embarrassing position if I have, as it were, to act as arbitrator between the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the Solicitor-General. Of course, I am biased in favour of the Solicitor-General, because the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, said he was pleased to read what the Solicitor-General had said. If I tell the noble Viscount that Lord Lucas was right, he will be disappointed. That, of course, leads me to say that I naturally incline to do what I can to cheer up the noble Viscount at this stage of the day. I think the explanation of the whole matter is this. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, with extreme ingenuity, endeavoured to discover a set of circumstances to which the clause might apply, and the Solicitor-General has said there is no set of circumstances to which it might apply. That, I believe, is what it all comes to.

Look at the words of the Amendment to which the Commons have disagreed: Nothing in this Act… shall limit the right of any person to choose such available source of fuel or power of different kinds as he considers most suitable to his needs. That presupposes that a person has a right to choose from various sources, they being all available. Where do you find that right in the Bill? If you find that expressed in the Bill, then he has got that right, and there is nothing that can take it away. You certainly cannot by regulations deprive a man of some right which he has under the Bill. Therefore, it seemed to the Solicitor-General that this clause was meaningless, notwithstanding the ingenuity of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—who will find some meaning for almost anything if he applies his mind to it. I think we had better let the mater rest with the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, being happy and the Solicitor-General being right.

On Question, Motion agreed to.