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New Clause—(Alteration Of Pressure Or System)

Volume 439: debated on Monday 23 June 1947

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(i) Before an Area Board gives a supply of electricity to any new consumer, the Board shall declare to that consumer—

  • (a)the type of current, whether direct or alternating, which they propose to supply;
  • (b)) in the case of alternating current, the number of phases and also the constant frequency at which they propose to deliver the electricity to the supply terminals; and
  • (c) the constant voltage at which they propose to deliver the electricity to the supply terminals.
  • (2) The type of current, the number of phases and the frequency in the case of alternating current and the voltage declared as aforesaid shall be constantly maintained subject as respects the frequency to a permissible variation not exceeding two-and-a-half per cent. above or below the declared frequency and as respects the voltage to a permissible variation not exceeding six per cent. above or below the declared voltage, and shall not be altered or departed from nor shall the aforesaid permissible variations be exceeded except with the consent of the Electricity Commissioners and subject to such terms and conditions as they may impose.
  • (3) Public notice in such manner and for such period as the Electricity Commissioners may approve or require shall be given by the Area Board of any application made by them for the consent of the Electricity Commissioners to an alteration of the declared type of current, or the number of phases or the frequency in the case of alternating current, or the voltage, as the case may be, or of the aforesaid permissible limits of variation in respect of frequency or voltage.
  • (4) If any Area Board shall make any alteration of the declared type of current, or the number of phases or the frequency in the case of alternating current, or the voltage, as the case may be, all such modifications to, or replacements of, any electrical fittings of any consumer as shall be necessary to place such consumer in substantially the same position as before the making of such alteration shall be carried out by the Board, unless the Board shall pay to such consumer such sum as may be agreed or, in default of agreement, as may be determined by arbitration to be the reasonable cost to the consumer of and incidental to such alteration, and the Board shall, in any event, pay to the consumer compensation for any loss or damage suffered by him in consequence of the alteration.
  • Provided that unless otherwise agreed no liability shall attach to the Board in respect of any electrical fittings acquired or first connected by a consumer after notice has been served by the Board in pursuance of the next following Subsection hereof.
  • (5) A notice of their intention to carry out any such alteration as aforesaid, together with a copy of this Section, shall be served by the Board on every consumer who will be affected by such alteration; and the said notice shall be served on the consumer not less than one month and not more than six months before the Board carry out the alteration in relation to the supply to him.
  • (6) Any question that may arise between a consumer and any Area Board under Subsections (4) and (5) of this Section shall be determined by an Arbitrator appointed on the application of either party by the Minister.—[Sir A. Gridley.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

    We have put down this new Clause because it is essential to provide these safeguards for consumers. The Clause is in line with the existing Regulation 34 of the Electricity Commissioners, who were empowered to make regulations from time to time. This new Clause provides for the area boards to declare to their consumers
    "the type of current, whether direct or alternating,…the number of phases and also the constant frequency"—
    of alternating current—
    "and the constant voltage at which they propose to deliver the electricity to the supply terminals."
    Subsection (2) merely provides for the usual variations in voltages, and so on. Subsection (3) deals with the manner in which public notices are to be given. Subsection (4) provides that where the consumers, as a result of changes in the system of supply, have to provide new apparatus to replace that which becomes unsuitable, the cost of so doing must be carried out by the board; or, alternatively, the reasonable cost to the consumer of changing his fittings and suchlike must be paid by the board. There is a safeguard so that the board cannot be caught if, after the notice has been served, the consumer foolishly spends money on fittings which become unsuitable.

    It is important that the Government should accept this new Clause, for the following reason among others. For the purpose of my argument I shall assume that, once these undertakings are taken over by the State and the area boards got to work, the amount of standardisation which has yet to be done will proceed more quickly perhaps than it has done in the past, although, as we know, that process has been very seriously retarded by the war years. It would have proceeded much further, and would, in fact, have been completed before now but for the intervention of the war. In the past the companies—and I assume the local authorities too—where there have been changes in the system of supply, have paid their consumers the cost of the necessary changes involved in the apparatus in the house, office, or wherever it may be. This is an essential safeguard for the consumers in the country. I would remind the House that when the Bill was originally drafted there was practically nothing in it, from beginning to end, to safeguard consumers. As a result of the work in Standing Committee certain safeguards for consumers now appear. This one does not appear.

    Although under Clause 52 the Minister may vary existing regulations, we do not want this regulation varied. It is already written into our Statutes, and we do not want the Minister to vary it. We think that this should be written into the Bill, and not be subject to any regulation which the Minister might make hereafter.

    I beg to second the Motion.

    My hon. Friend has framed the argument for this new Clause in the most moderate and, I think, persuasive language. I support it because, apart from anything else, I am anxious that the Minister should not be unduly tempted to lean towards the financial success of his boards rather than the protection of the consumers. Indeed, it seems that there is a danger, unless one has safeguards of this sort, that that might very well occur. I am sure the Minister would agree that, broadly speaking, the claim put forward by my hon. Friend, to ensure that where equipment is replaced or modified it should be done at the expense of the undertakers and not at the expense of the consumers, is a fair and reasonable one to put forward in the consumers' interests. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has certain powers under Clause 52 to vary the existing regulations. However, I think the House should realise clearly at this time that today we are not dealing with the Electricity Commissioners themselves, who, in the past, were the guardians of the public as against the undertakings. They have disappeared, and instead we are dealing with the Minister, and all the power of the courts which lies behind a Minister as against the consumer.

    There is already a good deal of evidence that the interests of the consumer are not always to be regarded as of paramount importance. For example, at an earlier stage, in dealing with the non-inclusion of non-statutory undertakings, the Parliamentary Secretary made it quite plain that they were not to be taken over mainly because taking them over would be of no value to the new Board, and would not be in their interest. It is true that in that particular case, so far as the non-statutory undertakings were concerned, probably their consumers were less well supplied. But that type of argument provides no answer. If the financial success of the Board is to be the main issue—and there is a temptation that it should be, as I well know myself—rather than the protection of the consumers, we are justified in putting forward a case on the lines contained in this new Clause. Its acceptance would be no derogation from the duty of the Minister, but would show quite plainly that he was desirous of working on the common basis of protection for the consumer in all fairness, and at all possible times.

    I can assure the hon. Member for Wavertree (Mr. Raikes) that the primary object of the contemplated British Electricity Authority is not to conserve its financial position—although that cannot be ignored—but to protect the interests of consumers. That is my view, as it must be the view of every hon. Member. The words contained in the new Clause are quite suitable; I take no exception to them, nor to the substance of Clause. But that does not mean we could embody those words in the Bill. As the hon. Member for Stockport (Sir A. Gridley) said, these words are copied from the Electricity Supply Regulations; indeed, they are taken almost verbatim from those regulations. I can give the hon. Member for Stockport and other hon. Members an assurance that they will be reproduced in the Regulations we are empowered to provide under Clause 52.

    4.30 p.m.

    May I direct the attention of hon. Members to what appears in that Clause? It states:
    "The Minister may make such regulations as he thinks fit for the purpose of securing that any supply of electricity furnished to any consumer by an Electricity Board is regular and efficient, and that the public is so far as practicable protected from any personal injury, fire or other dangers arising from the use of electricity so furnished."
    Within those powers—the powers vested in the Authority and the Ministry—I give the assurance that we will continue the substance of the wording contained in the existing regulations. That being so, it appears to me to be unnecessary to embody the words contained in the Clause. Obviously, it was always intended that provision of this kind was more appropriate to regulations than to the Bill. Having given the assurance that they will be continued—perhaps with some-slight modifications not affecting the substance—perhaps the hon. Member for Stockport will withdraw his Motion.

    This seems to me to be rather unusually bad taste in the technique of giving assurances. The Minister tells us that there may be no doubt whatever that every Member of the House agrees with the objects of the new Clause. He tells us that there is no objection to the wording or to the substance of the Clause, and, having said these three things, he then says that it is impossible to give them statutory effect. I should like to ask a question, and here I apologise for ignorance. I expect that the Minister is right, and that his point about Clause 52 is technically a fair one, but I do not think it is arguably decisive.

    On looking at the wording again, I feel some doubt about the legal position. I am sorry that we have no legal advice available at the moment, but perhaps the Minister would turn to page 64. line 27, which states that the supply to any consumer must be "regular and efficient." That is what the regulations must deal with—there is no question of safety concerned here. The question I should like answered is this: Is it legally asserted that what is being asked for in this new Clause—the assurance that the change of equipment made necessary by the action of the supplier shall not be at the cost of the consumer—comes under these words "regular and efficient"? Has there been specific consultations of the legal advisers upon that point? If there has, I do not think it necessarily makes the Minister right, but if there has not been legal consultations, it seems to me that it clearly makes the Minister wrong, and that the House ought to pass this Clause.

    The Minister has said that he accepts the general idea of this Clause, and that he wishes to see it embodied in the regulations which he undertakes to make under Clause 52. I do not know whether he has noticed—certainly my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Sir A. Gridley) referred to it —that Subsection (3) makes specific reference to the Electricity Commissioners. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is going to abolish the Electricity Commissioners, but who is he going to put in their place? Does he intend putting himself in their place? What is to appear in the regulations to replace them? It will probably be the Minister himself. Is that the same safeguard to the consumer as would be pro- vided by an appointed body such as the Electricity Commissioners? The Minister may argue that he is a safeguard in the matter, but that is not the view we take. This Clause was put down to make certain that there should not be changes made at the arbitrary will of the Central Authority, backed up by the Minister. We put in these words because we wanted the consumer adequately safeguarded. If the Minister could tell us who is to succeed the Electricity Commissioners, it might help in the matter.

    The position is that it does not affect the Electricity Commissioners' status or continuance. What I have said is that the words contained in the Clause have been taken bodily from the existing regulations which were drafted by the Electricity Commissioners. The Electricity Commissioners, with the consent of the House, will pass away, and the British Electricity Authority will take their place. The Minister, under Clause 52, is empowered to make regulations, and I give the assurance that the substance of the Clause will be embodied in the regulations to be drafted by me.

    I hope that I shall be in Order in referring to Clause 52, in view of the fact that the Clause we are proposing is largely an alternative to it. I suggest that the first part of Clause 52 is a much weaker instrument than what we are suggesting. It begins by saying:

    "The Minister may make such Regulations as he thinks fit"
    And goes on to say:
    "…that the public is so far as practicable protected."
    It is hedged about with a number of inhibitions which are not found in the Clause we are suggesting. It gives the impression that the interests of the consumer are not as well protected as they should be, nor as well protected as they would be if this Clause were substituted.

    While I am a little disappointed that the Minister has not seen his way to agree to our proposal that this Clause should be written into the Bill, he has given what I call a most "definite assurance" that the substance of the new Clause will be embodied in the regulations. In these circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

    Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.