I beg to move to leave out the word "now," and, at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months."
I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Sir W. Jenkins) is not able to be present to move this Amendment, because he would probably have had something to say regarding the way in which the Bill would affect several of the districts within his Division. I wish at the outset to criticise the action of the National Gas Council of Great Britain and Ireland. They have circularised the Members of this House, and in what I think is very bad taste they have questioned the right of Members of this House to pay any regard to requests that are made to them from time to time in the best interests of public life, as to the way in which local authorities should carry out their duty. If we regarded this circular we must not comply with any request made by a local authority or take any step which transgresses against what the National Gas Council considers to be a regulation.
I object to the first paragraph of the circular. The hon. Member can read the circular. I object to its tone and language right through. It is an attempt to browbeat Members of this House, when we are simply exercising our rights to examine any private Bill before it is sent upstairs. Let hon. Members look at the circular and they will find substantial ground for the complaint that I am making. I speak on behalf of one of the biggest urban district councils in Great Britain, the Rhondda Urban District Council. They have made a demand of us who have been sent here as their elected representatives.
I have been elected as a representative of Rhondda, just as the members of the Rhondda Urban District Council have been elected, by the same ratepayers, and I am asked to take some part in protesting against the Second Reading of this Bill. The National Gas Council has exceeded the bounds of decency. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] Yes they have. They are attempting to dictate to Members of this House how they shall carry out their duty, and they try to defend their action by saying that the Incorporated Municipal Electrical Association is at the root of the action taken by Members who object to this Bill. As far as I am concerned it is nothing of the kind that has actuated me, because I have received no communication whatever from that source. I resent the imputation and the accusation made in this circular. The urban authorities of Pontypridd and Rhondda and Neath object to the Bill.
I am clearly of opinion that Clauses 5 and 6 ought not to be considered. This is an attempt on the part of a private company to land themselves on a pitch which has already cost the ratepayers a good deal of money. It has been acquired as a site for building by the Kettering Urban District Council, which owns electricity works. That Council almost unanimously, at any rate by a majority made up of Labour, Co-operators, Conservatives and Liberals and one Independent, passed a Resolution with regard to the Council's housing estate and houses. That estate has been purchased with the ratepayers' money. The Council passed a resolution that so far as these housing sites and the houses owned by the council were concerned, the rule would be that only electricity should be used for lighting, heating and other purposes. This decision aroused the antagonism of the local gas company, which stands for private enterprise, and the company is calling upon all the powers to assist them with the view of preventing the local authority doing what is thought to be best in the interests of the ratepayers.
Has the hon. and gallant Member got the terms of the resolution to which he refers? Does it specifically say that only electricity shall be supplied to these houses, and that gas shall not be supplied?
I am not the local Member, but he is here, and perhaps the hon. Member will refer to him. The resolution affects the houses and the estate of the municipal authority alone.
I have simply been supplied with the facts by my own local authority. They think that a new principle is being introduced and that it is not in the best interests of local authorities that Clauses 5 and 6 of this Bill should be discussed upstairs. I hope that the demand of the Gas Company will be rejected and that no step will be taken by this House to grant a condition which must impose a burden on the urban authorities. [HON. MEMBERS: "why?"] Because a very large amount of the ratepayers' money has been spent. Anyone who has taken any part in the provision of electric light can understand the worry and the anxiety of the local authority in this matter. I have some slight knowledge regarding the expense of breaking up the streets. It is said that a gas company will pay for the making up of the streets if it has to break into them. I am Chairman of the Rhondda Roads and Bridges Committee. We have several times had the gas company breaking up our roads, and we have found, when a disturbed road has been made up that in 18 months or two years it has to be resurfaced, whereas if undisturbed it would have lasted several years. I hope that this condition will not be imposed upon the Kettering urban authority. They are not afraid of competition. They do not want to be placed in a sheltered position, but, as far as their own property is concerned, where they are going to provide all the modern amenities that are possible, they ask to be allowed to be masters in their own house.
As far as I understand the matter, they do not. This Resolution, of which I have already spoken, is quite clear. They have already established an electricity concern, and they intend to supply the new houses which they are going to build themselves on these sites in that way.
I beg to second the Amendment.
I have been for a number of years a member of an urban district council, now a borough council, where we have had an experience similar to that which, apparently, is now being had by the Kettering Urban District Council. We own an electricity undertaking, and we built some 1,300 or 1,400 houses. We had experience of both gas and electricity, and because of that experience we are now supplying our houses with electricity from our own undertaking. Apparently, the Kettering authority now propose to supply their houses from their own undertaking. It is also the case that the authority of which I am a member is supplying electricity at the same price as that which is being charged by the Kettering Urban Council. In the early days of our building scheme we had. as I say, experience of gas in connection with a great many of our houses. In some cases we had gas for all purposes. In other cases we had it for cooking and for power, that is, for heating irons and that kind of thing. Our experience led us to the view that when gas was put in after the houses had been built the roads were broken up, and although the gas company made good the damage, as they were compelled to do, they did so in such a way that it became necessary to resurface the roads within a very short period. In all cases where roads are broken up in that way, that, in my experience, is always the result.
In addition to that consideration we found that the gas company put their pipes under the boards and ran them up the walls of the houses. The gas pipe is generally a cheap miserable-looking pipe, very far from being in any sense beautiful or artistic, and the effect was to destroy the whole appearance of a room. The pipes were not put in any kind of casing. Then I do not think it will be denied that the cost of the maintenance of the houses afterwards, as far as decoration is concerned, is approximately doubled by the introduction of gas as against electricity. Up to last year I lived in a house—doubtless many other hon. Members have had the same experience—where we had electricity for lighting, and gas for heating and cooking. In earlier days I have had gas for lighting, heating and cooking, and I have also had gas for lighting only, with ordinary coal for heating and cooking. With all this experience I say, and I do not think that anybody will dispute my statement, that the decoration of a house which is lit with electricity will cost less than half the amount involved in the decoration of a house which is lit by gas.
That is a serious consideration for the local authority which has to bear that cost, particularly as no local authority to-day which owns houses or is building under any of the Housing Acts is able to maintain the houses out of the amounts allowed by the Ministry. That is one of the problems which housing authorities have to face. In addition, in the case of the modern houses built under the more recent Acts, the cost of maintenance is a very serious problem for local authorities. It seems extraordinary to me that hon. Members opposite who are so keen about the rights of property owners as a, general rule, should argue that a local authority which happens to be a property owner ought not to possess the rights accorded to other property owners. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Private property owners possess and exercise the right to say whether electricity or gas is to be allowed in their houses. I can give examples of that from my own area. Many property owners exercise that right in a way which I think is not the way in which it ought to be exercised in the interests of the tenant. However that may be, the fact remains that they have that right and exercise it.
If we concede that right to private property owners why should we refuse it to the Kettering Urban District Council or any other district council? The Kettering Council has built these houses, and is probably subsidising them out of the local rates. They have also established a local electricity undertaking. The houses and the electricity undertaking are owned and have been paid for by the local ratepayers, and the local ratepayers have the right to determine just as private property owners would determine, how they shall manage their property, and what they shall allow as far as the tenancy of that property is concerned. I say unhesitatingly that if this were in the district which I represent, where we own our electricity undertaking and also own houses, we would claim and I think we would be entitled to exactly the same right as that which is being exercised by property owners in that area at the present time. There are property owners—many of them—there who have refused the requests of tenants for the installation of electricity in their houses. We have, on many occasions, conducted canvasses for the purpose of finding out how many tenants desired to have electricity installed for lighting only, and we found a considerable proportion of them were anxious to have it, but when they approached the landlords they were told that the installation of electricity would not be permitted.
The reasons given for this refusal were various, but the reason which appealed to me more than any other was that the installation meant interference with the structure of the house. It was said that however well the job might be done, parts of the house would have to be pulled apart, nails would have to be driven into walls, and the value of the property would deteriorate. That may or may not be the case, but the reason appears to me to offer, at least some justification, for the refusal. If that be so as regards electricity, then I assert positively that that reason applies with infinitely greater strength to the installation of gas. Where electricity is installed, the wires are covered with a casing, which is not, at any rate, as inartistic as the ordinary gas-pipes.
Apart from these considerations, however, there is the principle of the right of the local authority to exercise care of its property which is given to every private owner of property. Why should not the ratepayers of Kettering or Waltham-stow or any other town, if they build houses, have the right to use their own judgment as to who shall occupy those houses and the conditions under which they shall be occupied? There is not, I venture to say, a single Member here who, if he owned house property, would not desire and would not get in law the right to determine who should occupy those houses and the conditions of tenancy. If such an owner desired that neither gas nor electricity should be installed in the houses, he would have a perfect right in law to make that condition. If he desired that only gas and not electricity should be installed, he would have a right in law to make that condition, and I can give numerous instances to show that that is the case. Why then should a local authority be deprived of a right which is granted to every private owner? On those grounds I hope that the Bill will not be given a Second Reading.
There is also the question of a matter of vital principle like this being introduced in a Private Bill by an organisation of property owners who have only a personal economic interest in the matter. They are only concerned with profits. They are not concerned at all with the well-being of the tenants in any sense. They are concerned with the opportunity for their company to make a profit out of the residents in the council houses.
The hon. Member has referred to the effect upon the decorations of the houses of gas as against electric light. May I ask him whether these council houses are to be provided with electric fires and electric cooking ranges, or open coal fires and ordinary ranges which burn coal?
I am trying to answer the hon. Member's question if he will allow me. I am speaking of what is, I believe, the unanimous opinion of the council of which I am still a member, with an experience in every way similar to that of Kettering, and I say without any hesitation that the cost of decorating, in the town in which I live, and of whose council I have been a member for 12 years, in any houses that are lit by gas, would be double what it is in the case of houses lit by electricity.
I am answering it as I understood it. I only made reference to the cost of decoration, and I say unhesitatingly that the cost of decoration will be infinitely dearer in the cost of gas-lit houses than in the case of electrically-lit houses. I have had a gas cooker and a gas heater, but I have now got an electric cooker and an electric heater, and I say without any hesitation that the electrically heated house and the electrically cooked joint are infinitely better than the other, and no dearer.
When I was interrupted, I was making reference to the right, which I challenge, of any private organisation such as those who are promoting this Bill to endeavour to settle a large question of national policy by means of a private Bill, and I cannot help thinking that there is a great deal of personal interest being shown in regard to this Bill by its promoters and supporters. I cannot help feeling that those who are supporting the Bill would not support any Measure in- troduced in the same way and for the same purpose which sought to interfere with the rights of the owners of privately-owned houses in the way in which it is proposed to interfere with the rights of the people who publicly own houses. The people have a right to determine this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "The tenants!"] If the people or the tenants are dissatisfied with the action of their council, they can easily settle the question at the next election down there, and I think it is generally true that when a local authority exercises its power against the will of the people when the next opportunity comes the people determine that they shall no longer exercise that power.
So far as I know—and I have made some inquiries—there is nobody in Kettering, except the gas company, who has raised any objection whatever to the methods of the local authority. There has not been one tenant on the council estate down there who has applied to the council for the right to put in gas. The gas company, in their memorandum, which I, in common probably with every other Member of the House, have received, say that there are tenants on the estate who desire to have gas, but they give no proof, and the fact is that not one tenant has made application to the local council to be permitted to put gas into his house. I ask hon. Members who are supporting the Bill, if that is not so, whether they will give the name and address of any tenant on the whole of the council estate at Kettering who has asked for the right or the opportunity to put in gas.
If the tenants do not want it, and it is obvious that they do not, and if the people of the town do not want it, and it is obvious that they do not, why should Members of this House be so anxious to provide an opportunity for the gas company in Kettering to exploit the people of the town to a greater extent than they are being exploited at present? One is led to believe that there must be sonic other motive than would appear on the face of it. I cannot believe that public policy is the only principle that is guiding Members in their attitude on this Bill, and I hope hon. Members of this House will not give a Second Reading to a Bill for which the people of the town have not expressed any desire, for which the tenants of the houses have not expressed any desire, and to which the local authority is obviously opposed.
I have listened very carefully to the mover and seconder of the Amendment, and I have failed to find any adequate reason for the artificial agitation that is being brought against this Bill. The mover called attention to a circular letter issued by the National Gas Council, but when I asked him to point out the objectionable words, he said they w ere in the first paragraph. The only words in the first paragraph that I can find which might have any reference to that remark are:
A number of Members of Parliament, acting at the request of local authorities.
That does not seem to me objectionable, and I can only think that the real complaint is that this letter is too pungent and too much to the point for the hon. and gallant Member's liking.
I hope the hon. Member will not misrepresent me. I said not only the first paragraph, but the second, third and fourth paragraphs. I took exception to the language used there, and if the hon. Member reads the second paragraph, he will see the words "the normal practice." There have been dozens of instances of a new principle such as is embodied in this Bill in which the House has refused a Second Reading to the Bill.
The letter, to me, does not appear in the slightest degree objectionable, and I can only conclude that it is pungent and to the point, and that is really the hon. and gallant Member's objection to it, I am afraid. I think there must be a misunderstanding, because, although no case has been made out against the Bill, so far as I can see, it contains only two effective Clauses, Clauses 5 and 6. Clause 5 gives power to lay pipes in private streets, which is a quite usual thing. There must be several hundred private gas Acts in existence to-day which contain that power, and there is nothing abnormal about that. The other Clause prevents the council imposing restrictions on the form of light, etc., to be used in council houses.
This is a question of freedom for the supply of gas and freedom for the tenant to have it if he wants it. There is no cost entailed to the local authority if this Bill becomes law, nor is there any obligation on the local authority or on the part of the tenants of this estate to have gas. It is their option to take it if they want it, and the local gas company have agreed—and this was considered six months ago—to bear the cost of laying the mains on the estate and to take the service pipe up to the meter in each case where it is asked for. It is purely a question of a contractual arrangement between the tenant and the gas company. He may have it if he wants it; if he does not want it, he can refuse it. The fact that no applications have been received by the urban district council does not surprise me a bit, because that would be the very last place to which anybody wanting gas would apply, because they do not supply it.
There are four estates. In the first there was an arrangement between the local authority and the gas company whereby the authority supplied the electric light and the gas company supplied for other purposes. In the three further estates which have been or are about to be erected, the local authority have refused to give the gas company permission to do these things for which they are asking in the Bill. The whole point is that it sets right an intolerable situation, a discrimination in Kettering which, to say the least of it, is not creditable to the high standard set by local administration.
Reference has been made to a resolution. I have the resolution here, and I dare say it will interest the House. It was passed by the housing committee of the Kettering Urban District Council on the 9th September last, and it says:
That the Kettering Gas Committee be granted permission to lay gas mains on the Piper's Hill housing estate for the purpose of enabling tenants to obtain a supply of gas for all purposes other than lighting,
free of any expense whatever to the council, the company to be responsible for the cost of any repairs or re-instatement consequent on the laying of gas mains or services.
That was passed by the housing committee, but a week later the council agreed, "That the recommendation be not adopted," so that there can be no question that the local council are asking for certain rights. First of all, they made the arrangement with the company. The housing committee, appreciating the position, was agreeable to the arrangement, which was turned down, however, for reasons that are best known to themselves, or that may he surmised by the Members of this House.
The vote on the housing committee was five to three, and in the council 14 to three. It shows that the housing committee were more careful of the interests of their tenants on the estate than were the council as a whole. As to the question of general legislation, in the last Government the Minister of Health stated, on the question of discrimination in council houses, that there were 90 per cent, in which there was no question of injustice, so that there is only a remaining 10 per cent., of which Kettering is one, in which there is a desire to discriminate adversely against a local company. The situation in different parts of the country regarding that discrimination is so diverse that it would be extremely difficult to get general legislation to cover the point, and, as hon. Members know, it is not usual to bring in general legislation unless there are sufficient precedents in private legislation to warrant it.
As a matter of fact, there is one precedent to warrant this present step, and that happens to be Newport, the town which I have the honour to represent. In 1925 the corporation brought forward a Bill asking for certain powers with regard to land. Prior to that there had been a tendency to show discrimination against the gas company in Newport. In that Bill there were certain words which might be held to give a statutory confirmation of what they had been doing in the past, and the local gas company asked for an explanation and to have the matter put right. They took it to a Committee upstairs, and the Committee imposed a certain Clause. The House ought
to know what the Clause is because it constitutes the precedent which is said not to exist. The Clause is:
The corporation shall not make or impose under the powers of this section any term condition or restriction with respect to the form of light heat power or energy to be used in any house shop office warehouse or other building or on any lands or with respect to the taking by any particular local authority company body or person of any form of light heat power or energy.
In 1930 the Newport Corporation had to come again to Parliament, which accepted this protective Clause without question or opposition. It protects not only the gas company, but the purchasing rights of the tenants on the corporation estate. A good deal has been said on one side and another as to rights. The gas industry, which is a very big industry, has 10,000,000 consumers and probably serves 13,000,000 of our inhabitants. We can agree that they have not troubled Parliament unduly during the past. They have looked with a little alarm at the fostering of their rival by State aid and Departmental boosting, but they feel now that the attitude of Kettering has gone too far, especially when they are suffering—not making any fuss about it, but minding their own business and getting on with the job—from the fetters of obsolete legislation. Acts of 1847 and 1871 were rightly passed when gas was a monopoly. It is no longer a monopoly; it is subject to the fiercest competition, and yet a number of those old provisions remain to-day. It would be in the interests of the country, of the consumers, of the public generally, and of better service if that matter can be dealt with at some future date. It is apropos of the point of general legislation, for it is the line on which general legislation should take place on behalf of all. Little has been said why this Bill should not go upstairs for the hearing of proper evidence and arguments on the question of the arrogant feudalism which seems to react against a local trading company and the tenants of the housing estate of the council.
I have to claim the indulgence of the House for making a maiden speech; I also ask for, and I think that I deserve, the sympathy of the House, because I am the Member who was returned at the last election for the Kettering Division. I want to deal with this Bill from two aspects—the local and the general. I have tried to ascertain the general feeling in Kettering on this Bill, and I say at once that it is "Let the tenant have his own choice; it is up to the tenant to make up his mind." Indeed, as far as I can ascertain, the urban district council itself is not unanimous in opposing this Bill. There are members of the council who hold the popular view that the tenant ought to make his own choice. I should hesitate very long before I disagreed with the common sense of the general opinion of the people of Kettering. They have a very strong civic sense, and a very strong common sense, which they showed unhesitatingly last October.
Although that is the general opinion of the citizens of Kettering, I cannot help thinking that, as far as this House is concerned, the matter goes much deeper than the general statement, "Let the tenant have his choice." There are certain rights which apply to ordinary landlords, and which apply even when the landlord happens to be an urban district council. I can imagine a situation where a landlord with a big estate might have his own electricity plant and two or three small houses to let. He might say to the persons who wanted those houses, "By all means you can have them and become my tenants; you shall pay reduced rents on the understanding that you help me out with my electricity plant and share electricity with me." That is a perfectly normal and proper position for a private landlord to take up, and that is a point of view that ought to be considered in the case of a landlord who happens to be a municipality. It is a point of view that has been taken in Kettering with successful results. The actual charge for electricity is 8d. per week and ¾d. per unit. This probably compares favourably with the charges in any London borough and of any private company. As a result of Kettering having taken up this electrical undertaking, they have saved each year since the War something in the neighbourhood of a twopenny rate. In addition, the council have been able to reduce the rates to 12s. 8d. in the £ a year, which speaks well for the municipal government and for the electricity undertaking which the municipality have carried on.
The gas company supplies about 50 per cent. of the council houses in Kettering. As far as I can ascertain, they give good and cheap gas, and they are prepared to supply the extra houses without putting any charge on the local authority. That is a most important matter, for it means that whatever happens with regard to this Bill, there will be no charge put on the local authority. The London County Council recognise that. I understand that they allow their tenants to have either electricity or gas, but if this Bill gets into Committee it is important that the Committee should be certain that the municipality will not have to pay unpaid bills for gas of some tenants, and will not have to make good structural damage which may be done by the laying of pipes by the gas company. I have to say on behalf of the gas company that it is admitted generally that gas cooks much quicker than electricity, and that cooks prefer gas to electricity for cooking. On the other hand, there is no doubt that for lighting purposes electricity is probably much better than gas. I mention that because it may become necessary, if this Bill is passed, for the Kettering Urban District Council to be able to put themselves in a position in which all private electricity companies are, namely, to have the power to make a different charge for electricity for lighting and electricity for power. It is doubtful whether under this Bill the council will have that power. I suggest that if this Bill goes to Committee it is vital, from the point of view of the municipality, that they should have a right to make a different charge for light and a different charge for heat.
That is the local point of view. As far as I can see it the pros and cons of the argument between the gas company and the municipality are pretty even. Much has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the injustice of a municipality attempting to dictate terms to a private company. As far as Kettering is concerned, there is the utmost good feeling between the municipality and the gas company, and I cannot help thinking that it is unfortunate
that the National Gas Council of Great Britain and Ireland should have inserted a clause like this in the circular they have sent out:
The efforts of municipally-owned electricity undertakings constitute an abuse of their authority as landlords, and are a negation of fair play quite unworthy of British local administration. Moreover, they suggest the possibility of many unfair developments of municipal trading.
As far as Kettering is concerned, that paragraph is—I was going to say rubbish, but ought I to say "with respect it is rubbish"? There is no question of unfair trading as far as Kettering is concerned. The municipal undertaking and the gas company are perfectly sound concerns, competing in their own ways and are perfectly friendly towards one another.
I would say one word on the general standpoint. It is rather strange that this far-reaching principle should have to be dealt with in a private Bill. There are a large number of municipal undertakings supplying power or light. As a matter of fact, some 126 have done me the honour of communicating with me directly or indirectly, all of whom are anxious about their municipal undertakings should this Bill become law. Some of them have, perhaps, arbitrary regulations as far as their council houses are concerned; they differ from one another in the price they charge; they differ in the service they give and in the general rate that they charge. On the other hand, I ask hon. Members to remember that a private company supplying light or power exercises just as much of a monopoly as a muncipality. To my mind it does not make much difference whether the owner of a monopoly is a private company or a municipality; in each case it ought to give the best service it can to the people it supplies, and further, the efforts of the two ought to be co-ordinated as much as possible.
From the general point of view this question goes far beyond the concerns of the people of Kettering. It deals with a matter of principle which ought to be the subject of a general Bill and not of a private Bill. There is no question that over quite a large part of the country and in the case of both gas and electricity, there is discontent with the service and the price of light and heat. Letters from the suburbs of London which appear in the newspapers bearing the addresses "The Hollies," or "The Firs," or "Sandringham," or "Balmoral"—whether they come from those addresses or are written in Fleet Street—show that there is considerable dissatisfaction with the prices charge by municipalities and private companies for heat, light and power. Therefore, I respectfully make this suggestion to this House, that perhaps it would be better to send the Bill to a Committee, so that the matter, can be further investigated there. It makes no difference to me as far as I am personally concerned. But I would point out that it is dealing with this matter in a piecemeal way to try to settle a great principle on the case of one municipality alone. The principle is so far reaching and so difficult to decide that it ought to be dealt with by the Government, after careful consideration, in a public Bill rather than in a private Bill.
I must congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Eastwood) upon his maiden speech. It seems appropriate that it should have been on the subject of gas, in view of the gas generated in this House in so many speeches good, had and indifferent. I have risen for the purpose of supporting the Bill. There has been no "Cabinet decision" on it so far as the Labour party is concerned—that is, there has been no decision by the Parliamentary Labour party as to whether we should or should not support it—and, therefore, I am committing no breach of any understanding between myself and my colleagues, for I am a party man and have always voted with my party, because one cannot run a Government machine unless one works with the majority of the party. Further, I hope that none of my colleagues will charge me—and I do not think they will—with any base motives, or with having any financial interest either in this or any other proposal that comes before this House. I am protesting against the arbitrary power exercised by the Kettering local authority exactly as I protested against the action of the Ministry of Health when, in days gone by, we in West Ham were promoting a municipal housing scheme and they endeavoured to prevent us from having fireplaces in some of the rooms. I would ask hon. Members, especially those who are interested in the coal industry, whether, if a local authority were to decide that no fireplaces should be put in any of their houses, they would not enter a very energetic protest against it. At any rate I should, because I believe a local authority has no right to impose an embargo against people burning coal if they wish to do so, or using gas or electric light, whichever they may wish.
There are a large number of local authorities who have got both the gas and the electricity in their areas under their control and as far as I know not one of them has placed an embargo upon their tenants using either gas or electricity, but let them have both. In my humble judgment the Kettering local authority has no right to put an embargo upon its tenants using gas. Hon. Members know my views on all these questions. I would have all the gasworks and electricity stations under direct municipal control—and everything else under Government or municipal control. I am absolutely opposed to private interests in any shape or form. Nobody can charge me with having bolstered up private interests since I have been in this House. I have been a Member of the House for 24 years, continuous service, and I have never found myself in a more difficult position than I am in to-night. I am the vice-chairman of the Joint Industrial Gas Council, upon which there are representatives of municipalities and representatives of private companies and men are represented who are working not only at gasworks but also at generating stations, and we have had to take into consideration the position in a number of places where local authorities have placed an embargo on the tenants using gas, or vice versa, and we have had to enter an energetic protest. That was as far back as 1928. At that date the joint National Gas Council passed this Resolution:
This council views with concern that in certain cases local authorities, by inserting conditions in leases have interfered with the liberty of choice of the tenants in determining what form of heat, light, or power they shall use. We consider that tenants should be free to use whatever form of heat, light, or power they desire to use.
That was the unanimous decision of the Gas Council. On the borough council of West Ham we have 58 Socialist Labour members out of 64, but we have never
attempted to place an embargo upon the tenants of our council houses, and they have the right to use either gas or electricity. I do not wish to say that local authorities have exceeded their powers in this respect, but local authorities cannot do what they like. At any rate, we were not allowed to do what we liked in West Ham, where we had an embargo placed upon our local council, and a very rigid one, too. In West Ham the board of guardians at one time were allowing a scale of out relief which we thought would provide a reasonable standard of comfort and living, but we came into contact with the Minister of Health, and we had to conduct our business under the wing of that authority. A circular has been sent out preventing local authorities doing what they think proper. My hon. Friend the Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee) spoke about the powers of landlords in his constituency, but the powers of the landlords in West Ham are on all fours with their powers in Waltham stow.
I would prevent the landlords from putting an embargo on tenants using gas if they wish to do so. Property owners should not have the power to prevent anybody using gas in their houses. I dare say that when this Measure goes to a Division, I shall find myself in very strange company to-night, but I am not very much concerned about that, and I shall probably get over it. I may be chastised by some of my own party, but surely a man is entitled to his own convictions. I do not know what attitude the Minister of Health is going to take upon this Measure. Hon. Members know that the principle contained in this Measure was discussed upstairs in regard to a housing scheme when an effort was made to insert a Clause similar to the one in the Newport Bill which prevented that council from exercising the powers that the Kettering company are trying to obtain at the present time. That was turned down in Committee, and when the Measure came to this House, another effort was made to insert the Clause, and the House of Commons again turned it down.
I tell hon. Members quite frankly that I am not interested in the Kettering Gas Company, or the Gas Light and Coke Company, or any such undertakings, but I have a right to promote the interests of the people I represent exactly in the same way as other hon. Members. I think that I am justified in the course I am taking, because there are a large number of men in the union with which I am connected working for local authorities, and working at generating stations. I am sure all those men working either at generating stations or for the local authorities will be in favour of tenants having the right to say whether they will use electricity or gas. I do not want to go into the pros and cons as to whether gas or electricity is better. So far as cooking is concerned, gas is miles ahead of electricity, but for lighting purposes electricity is far ahead. I am sure that gas will heat a room in half the time that electricity takes to heat it, and gas can be better regulated for heating purposes.
Some hon. Members may say that I am taking this course because I represent a large organisation engaged in the gas industry, numbering some 30,000 men. There are 120,000 men engaged in these undertakings in different parts of the country, but I hope my colleagues will give me credit for acting conscientiously when I say that I am not going to vote for this Bill because I want to promote the interests of the Kettering Gas Company, but because I think that a tenant should be at liberty to choose either gas or electricity.
I have no interest whatever in electric lighting or gas undertakings, but to me this Measure raises a very important matter. The landlord, obviously, has some rights in regard to his tenants. He has a right to see that the sanitary conditions are such as will not be harmful either to his own tenants or to their neighbours. He also has a right to see that tenants shall not interfere with the comfort of their neighbours. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Rhondda (Lieut.-Colonel Watts-Morgan) said that Kettering wanted to be masters in their own house. There is another familiar saying that an Englishman's home is his castle. I strongly resent interference by a land- lord, whether municipal or private, with a man's judgment as to his own convenience and taste. It is a very dangerous principle, because, instead of a man judging for himself, a body, certainly of elected people, judges for him on matters affecting his convenience. The next thing that will be said will be that ping-pong must not be played in these houses, as the children may strike their boots against the walls. I have been a supporter of municipal enterprise, and even of municipal trading, but, if there is anything that will set people against it, it will be this interference by municipal authorities in matters which are really matters for the people themselves, and in which they do not desire arbitrary interference by anyone else.
I notice, from the memorandum supplied by the Kettering District Council, that they are very anxious to protect the pockets of the tenants, but I think the tenants are quite capable of looking after their own pockets without advice from the council. If they think that the gas is dearer than electricity, they simply will not have it, and they are not compelled to have it, but I claim that every tenant should have the choice as to which he will have. Over and over again I have fought against private landlords who in my view have arbitrarily interfered with their tenants, and I am equally anxious to fight against municipal landlords if they take up the same arbitrary position with regard to their tenants. We have heard to-night that the council are anxious to make their electricity undertaking pay, but I wonder what this House, or anyone, would think if the London County Council, because it happens to own the tramway service in London, were to say, "As we own that tramway service, you may not travel on anything else but our trams." It is identically the same as if a local authority who owned a municipal washhouse were allowed to say that people must not wash anywhere except at the municipal baths. [HON. MEMBER: "Ridiculous."] Yes, it is ridiculous for municipal authorities to intervene in matters which should be entirely outside their concern, but should be left to the wisdom of the people who pay the rent.
I see that the circular states that there is no clause in the agreement entered into by the tenants which would impose any restriction as to the form of lighting or heating that may be used, but what is the use of having an agreement which has no restrictions when you take care that in no circumstances can the tenants get the alternative form of light or heat? It seems to me to be absurd. Unquestionably, the average working-class family generally prefers gas, at any rate for cooking. It is said that the laying of the pipes spoils the houses, but the gas pipes have been already laid, and the only question is whether they shall be used for some other purpose than the original purpose. No damage will be done to the walls or to the houses, and, in fact, the Kettering District Council has already agreed to the laying on of gas in 50 per cent. of its houses, or, at any rate, the tenants are left a free choice.
I have sometimes been accused of having Socialist tendencies, but I am still sufficient of an individualist to maintain that the people should have as much liberty as possible. The landlord, whether private or municipal, gets his rent, and constant interference in such matters as this becomes irksome and irritating, and tends to make people dislike municipal control, because they think that worse is to come, as may indeed, be the case if Kettering has its way. I wish that we had the opportunity of voting, not merely on this particular Bill, but on the general principle; but it is no use waiting for that opportunity. The principle is being applied to Kettering, and it is not fair either to the gas workers or to the tenants that they should be thwarted in their desire to make their own choice. I am not suggesting that they should have electricity or should have gas. All that I ask, and I think it is quite fair to ask, is that, provided the tenant maintains the sanitary condition of his house and does not offend against the amenities of his neighbours, he should have the right to do as he likes in his own rooms for which he has paid.
In rising to make my maiden speech to the House, I ask for that indulgence which the House so kindly grants to one in my position. I would ask hon. Members, in whatever direction they may vote, to give me a sympathetic hearing on this, my first occasion. I am glad that the first speech I shall make in this House will be one for the freedom and liberty of the individual. I consider that that freedom and liberty have been grossly infringed upon in the years since the War. I believe it to be entirely wrong to grant to any council the power to force either gas or electricity upon its tenants, and not to allow them the choice of having either or both. I am not thinking so much of gas companies or of electrical companies; I regret that I have no financial interest in either the one or the other; but I am very keen on the principle of this Bill. There are in this country to-day far too many laws restricting the liberty of the individual, and, if this Amendment were agreed to, it would be just one more restriction of that liberty which we all prize so deeply. People all over the country are sick to death of D.O.R.A. and all her descendants and relations, and this would only be one further restriction on the liberty of the people.
I am certain that, for whatever reason we were sent to this House, it was not to add to the restrictions on liberty. Every Member of this House, if he lives in London, has the advantage of being able to use either electricity or gas, and he propably uses them both. I do not think it is the wish of the country that anybody who is poorer should be denied that use. We know that, if this Bill is not passed, the poorer tenants in these council houses at Kettering will not be able to afford electric light, and will have to use candles and oil lamps. I speak as a doctor who spent many years of my life in Lambeth working under such conditions as that, and I can assure the House that it is very difficult indeed for a doctor to attend adequately to any patient in distress under such conditions. I have been told that in certain council houses in this country to-day this condition of affairs again exists, and that doctors who have been called in to confinement cases have had to carry on their work by the spluttering light of a candle. That is a monstrous thing to happen in these days. I am very keen, in supporting the Bill, that such a fate may not await the poor tenants of the council houses at Kettering. I ask the House to give the Bill its Second Reading. It is a Bill for fair play and equal opportunity and one which, if passed, will remove a restriction of the liberty of the people.
I wish to compliment the hon. Member on the first occasion of his making a speech in the House. I am sure it was received with sympathy by everyone, and hope that it will be by no means the last occasion on which we shall have the pleasure of bearing him. I came here with an open mind. I have been circularised on behalf of the Bill and also by those who are opposed to it, and I found myself coming here with a wish to listen to the arguments on both sides, and to vote according as I was persuaded was right. It was the speeches of the Mover and Seconder of the Amendment that convinced me firmly that I ought to vote for the Second Reading, and to voice my reasons for doing so. The predominant reason is that, I think, any tenant, where these opportunities can be provided for, ought really to have the choice as to whether he should have either gas or electricity, or both. The great majority of people are convinced that, while electricity is, perhaps, better for lighting purposes, for heating and cooking gas is preferable. The hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee) said that he prefers electricity for both. I think, if he were to poll the vast majority of tenants, he would find that the great preference was for gas for cooking and heating.
Surely it is right and proper to give people the choice so that they may try out from experience and then be able to use whichever source of heat, as well as light, they prefer, instead of being tied down to one only. It is from the point of view of the tenant primarily, and not on behalf either of the gas company or the municipality that I think the decision of the House ought to be given. The Mover of the Amendment spoke of the hardship to the municipality. What hardship ought there to be to the municipality? Is it that it would not get its revenue from electricity? Does that mean to say that, if they were quite free, the tenants would prefer to use gas?
The hardship would be this: They are building houses on the site. They have already obtained experience in nearly 50 per cent. of the houses already built, and they will be able to avoid the extra cost with regard to the installation and with regard to the cutting up of the streets which, obviously, must take place.
The extra cost of cutting up the streets would have been avoided in the first instance if the gas mains had been allowed to be put in when the streets were first made. On the other hand, the gas company, if it was allowed to put in its mains, would have to do it at its own expense and make the roads right. It has been said that this restoration of the roads would not be properly done. I cannot see what trust the hon. Member has in his borough surveyor or engineer to overlook it properly. I have had roads taken up time and again and, if they are properly looked after, they can be restored quite adequately.
The next argument adduced by the opponents of the Measure is that those who are supporting it are actuated by a desire to hurt municipalities, and that our love for tenants is something new found and strange. It would be easy to retort that the love of hon. Members opposite for landlords is something still newer and still more strange. I can well imagine that, had the case arisen of some private individual who was a landlord and who refused to give a block of his tenants the power to put in an alternative system of heating and lighting, we should have had fulminations from the benches opposite as to the abuse of their position by landlords, and it would be said that an end ought to be put to such a system.
As a landlord myself, the very last thing that I. should ever dream of doing is to prevent any tenant having an alternative. That is one of the things that I believe should not be done by any landlord, whether a municipality or a private owner.
I take one further argument, that the tenants of the newer part of the corpora- tion's buildings expressed no wish to have gas installed. I think that shows great simplicity on the part of the hon. Member for West Walthamstow. Is the real absence of requests to the corporation proof positive that gas would not have been welcomed? What would have been proof—the hon. Member carefully refrained from giving it—was that the tenants of the first part of the property that had been erected had ceased to use their facilities for getting gas, and that there was no more gas used in those houses. If he could adduce proof of that, there would be some reason for saying there was no need to put down gas mains for the second lot of houses, and unless and until we know that the first set of tenants have ceased using the gas that they can get, it is idle to say that the absence of requests by the others is any proof at all that gas it not desired. Those are argument which predispose one against the case for which they are brought, and, if I had listened to nothing else, I should have been inclined to take the opposite line from those two hon. Members. First and foremost, broadly, speaking, is it not right to let the tenant have a choice? It is quite clear, and it is being shown in experience in the most advanced communities, that the increase in the use of both electricity and gas goes hand in hand. In Chicago, where the use of electricity had grown most rapidly, the use of gas had increased alongside. The whole general experience is that both are requisite and both are desirable. Surely, it is too late in the day to say that the ordinary tenant should be denied the choice of one of them when it is perfectly simple and easy for him to have both. The ordinary procedure with regard to private Bills should be followed, and the Bill should be given a Second Reading by the House. There ought not to be an interference with the ordinary procedure when the case brought against the Second Reading is as weak as that which we have heard to-night.
In rising to address the House for the first time, may I crave its indulgence? My reasons for intervening in the Debate are, first of all, because I have received very considerable representations from my constituency; secondly, because the Bill to some extent defines the rights of private enterprise as opposed to those of a public body; and, thirdly, because I believe that the matter affects the liberties of the individual citizen. For a great many hundreds of years, I believe, this House has always been the custodian of the rights of the citizen, and I feel that if hon. Members think that the Bill has been introduced because it is necessary to protect those rights, then in a very short time it will find its way to the Statute Book.
The facts in this case appear to be clear and simple. The Kettering Urban District Council decided to enter upon a housing scheme, and that the houses to be built should be equipped from an electrical power station in which they themselves have a very large interest, in fact, I think they own the whole of it. At the commencement of the scheme there appears to have been no objection to the houses being equipped with both electricity and gas, provided that gas was used only for certain purposes. We have been told already this evening that nearly 50 per cent. of the houses have already both gas and electricity. As the building scheme progressed, the council appeared to formulate the idea that it would be much more profitable if more electricity and less gas were used. Therefore, they decided that they would prohibit the Kettering Gas Company from supplying any further houses that were built, or houses which had not been supplied with the dual system of gas and electricity. Their only possible justification for reaching such an arbitrary decision would be one of expense. But the question of expense does not enter into the argument at all, because we have already been told that the gas company are prepared to bear the entire expense of putting the gas pipes into the houses from the mains.
Therefore that argument can be ruled completely out, and the position comes down to this. Here is a public body, supported by public funds, building houses for the public to live in. Instead of studying the interests and wants of their tenants they merely turned round, just as a dictator might turn round, and issued a decree saying, "You may use electricity, but only council electricity and you may use nothing else." That is an extremely arbitrary decree for any local body to make, and it is obvious that the powers which were given to district councils were never intended to be used in that manner. Public bodies using public funds must realise that they are in a different position from undertakers of a private character, and, further, that, public money, whether, spent upon housing or anything else, is never intended, and is never given, for the purpose of throttling private enterprise. Why should not the tenants of these council houses be allowed to choose for themselves as to whether they should have a gas oven or an electric oven? As a matter of fact, I do not even know whether they are being offered an electric oven, but I put a charitable construction upon it. Why should not they be allowed to say whether they should have a gas geyser as opposed to an electrical geyser?
It is a most monstrous thing that any local body should interfere with the private domestic rights of the citizens in this matter. The gas company do not wish to compel the tenants in these council houses to take gas, but they say that they should be able to supply them with gas if they want to have it, and they also say that they see no reason why a council, a county council or a district council or any other body should be allowed to stop them from supplying gas to anyone who wants it. I, therefore, support the Bill, because I feel that a great injustice is being done, not only to the gas company, but to the rights of private citizens.
I should like to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Captain North) upon having passed through what is one of the greatest ordeals through which a man can pass, that of addressing the House of Commons for the first time. Disraeli has said in one of his books that the ordeal of speaking in the House of Commons for the first time is the most appalling that any man can face. The hon. and gallant Gentleman passed through the ordeal successfully, and I hope that we shall have the opportunity of hearing him many times in this House.
I wish to oppose the Amendment which has been put forward by the Opposition. I resent the action of the Kettering Urban District Council as an act of oppression and of tyranny. The spirit behind their attack is the spirit of tyranny and oppression, and it is the duty of the House of Commons at all times, when it comes up against that spirit, to oppose and to crush it. The mover of the Amendment is a very old friend of mine and comes from the Rhondda Valley, which I Nave known for many years. When the Rhondda, Valley was flourishing, and anybody could get work in the mines it was the custom of the shopkeepers, when they wanted to save money, to buy houses. They got as tenants as large families as possible, and then they compelled the people to deal at their shops. One shopkeeper in Rhondda dealt in sausages, and if he had any sausages which were not sold on Saturday night they were taken round to the tenants. If the tenants did not buy the sausages, he got the tenants out of the houses as soon as he could.
I protest against these statements. I have been in Rhondda since 1882, and have been in public life for nearly 38 years, and I have never known an instance such as the hon. Member is trying to describe. It is true that some of the grocers at one time tried to get the houses under the auspices of the colliery owners. The rigmarole about sausages is certainly untrue in regard to the Rhondda Valley. I should like to have chapter and verse for the statement.
I must leave it to the House to judge between the hon. and gallant Member and myself. I will tell him something else about the Rhondda Valley. It was the custom in the Rhondda Valley to place the collection of rents very largely in the hands of insurance agents, and it was a common thing for the insurance agent before he would "give the key" to prospective tenants, to require their names on his book. Therefore, in many cases people had to pay—
It is not nonsense. I know as much about it as the hon. Member. It was the custom to extort perhaps 8s. or 9s. for rent and 1s. for insurance. The action of these insurance agents and the action of the shopkeepers was no more tyrannical, despotic and oppressive than the action of the Kettering Council. It took a different form, but the oppression and the
tyranny were there. I should like to call attention to what has happened in other places. I am glad to think that not all public bodies are inspired by the spirit of oppression. May I call attention to what has been done by the London County Council? Up to 31st March, 1931, the London County Council had erected over 52,000 houses, finding accommodation for 236,000 people. Since 31st March, 1931, many other houses have been erected, and the total expenditure of the county council on housing schemes has been about 240,000,000. On 17th February, 1931, the county council passed the following resolution, and I would like the Kettering Council to take note of it and follow it:
That as far as practicable it is desirable, provided that no additional charge on the rates is involved thereby, that equal opportunity should be given to gas companies and electricity supply authorities to instal their services in the council's dwellings, and that the council's tenants should be afforded freedom of choice in the use, wherever available, of gas or electricity, or both.
I will also mention Woolwich, which began badly but turned over a new leaf. In 1925 the Metropolitan Borough Council of Woolwich commenced the erection of a large housing estate known as the "Page Estate." In connection with that estate the council passed a resolution that the tenants should not be permitted to take gas for any purpose. In spite of that fact, however, one tenant requested a supply of gas, and the South Metropolitan Gas Company, in accordance with their statutory obligations, afforded a supply. Notice to quit was immediately served by the borough council upon the tenant. That is probably what would happen in Kettering if any tenants of the council houses were to ask for, and to insist upon a supply of gas. As the tenant refused to give up possession, a summons was issued in the county court, but before the hearing of the summons the Municipal Reformers obtained a majority of two on the Woolwich Council. The council immediately indicated that no steps would be taken against any tenants on the estate who took a supply of gas for any purpose. Since then the Woolwich Council has started a housing estate of 500 acres, and they have notified that the tenants on this estate are to have absolutely unrestricted freedom in the choice of the medium of heating,
lighting and cooking which they desire to take. These are the actions of enlightened municipalities. Let those opposite try to persuade the Kettering Council to follow suit.
My support of this Bill is based chiefly on the fact that the opposition to the Bill, by monopolistic power, financed from the pockets of the ratepayers, is attempting completely to eliminate private enterprise of a competitive nature in whatever industry they choose to move. The opposition so far as we have heard it to-night is neither more nor less than an attempt to bring about at some future date a system of back-door Socialism which the electors of this country have refused to allow to enter through the front door. I am convinced that if this Bill were to fail it would give not only a lead to local authorities throughout the country which have not already adopted or attempted to adopt the Kettering policy, but it would also give some inclination to those authorities to think that a precedent had been set to enable them to go further in regard to other commodities of life.
It was said in this House during the attempted passage of the Local Authorities (Enabling) Bill that we were living in municipal houses, washing in municipal water, lighting by municipal electrical power, riding on municipal trams and omnibuses, walking on municipal roads, being educated in municipal schools, playing on municipal recreation grounds, reading in municipal libraries, being nursed in municipal hospitals and finally being buried in municipal cemeteries. To-night, so far as the opposition to the Bill is concerned, we see a definite attempt to enforce upon the people a system which will ultimately prevent us, when we want to see a little more light in the darker subjects of municipal activity, from having a choice of illumination suited to our own vision. I can see the time arriving, if the opposition get their way, when they would say: "We have a delightful municipal farm, a delightful herd of municipal cattle, fed on municipal food, a delightful municipal slaughter-house, wonderful municipal butcher shops, municipal butchers, and municipal retail prices. Therefore, now that you are compelled to roast your meat by municipal power, you must be
compelled to buy your meat from municipal authorities and organisations." This is a very dangerous line of development, and it is because I can see at the back of the opposition to this Bill a tendency towards Socialism in all services, that I propose wholeheartedly to support the Bill. Much has been said this evening on the question of private enterprise. This is what was said by the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) on 14th February, 1930:
If it be true that private enterprise in all circumstances can compete successfully with public enterprise, why should private enterprise be in the least afraid of the powers asked for by this Bill?
That Bill was the Local Authorities (Enabling) Bill. He concluded by saying:
I submit that public enterprise can only survive if it gives a better and cheaper service to the community."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th February, 1930; col. 842, Vol.235.]
Here you have a position in Kettering—and possibly throughout the whole of the country if the opposition had their own way—where public enterprise, whether it be successful or unsuccessful, will function by virtue of its monopolistic power, and where private enterprise will be completely squashed out as far as competing for the purpose of producing a better service at a cheaper rate is concerned. That, in my humble opinion, is destructive to the most valuable enterprise of life in this country or any other country. It destroys initiative and incentive towards progress in all industrial activity, and the more we get rid of that state of affairs, the better will be the conditions in the country.
The hon. Member for East Rhondda (Lieut.-Colonel Watts - Morgan), in seconding the Amendment, told the House that the Kettering Urban District Council were not afraid of competition. It strikes me as rather peculiar, if they are not afraid of competition, that, in respect of 60 per cent. of their housing sites and the houses they have erected, they refuse to allow the local gas corporation, which is privately owned, to compete against them. It is very significant that they are afraid of competition. They are not only afraid of competition which the Kettering Gas Bill would bring against them in the supply of power, but they are also afraid that the community of Kettering will realise that gas is not only more economical and—I will not say cleaner—as clean as electrical power, and is certainly from the point of view of power cheaper than the electrical power which they can supply. If they are not afraid of competition, let them prove it conclusively by giving to the Kettering Gas Company the power to compete, and giving to the community of Kettering the right to choose for themselves which power they will use at the earliest possible date, and so save this House and many other concerns throughout the country an enormous amount of expense in future in so far as the application of legislation on this matter in respect of other localities is concerned.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Plaistow (Mr. W. Thorne) referred to the coal industry in regard to houses that might be built by the corporation without fireplaces. He asked the House to realise the great wrong and damage that would be done to the coal industry if a corporation inflicted an injustice of that description. If this Bill is defeated tonight, it will be one of the greatest possible incentives to all Socialist organisations to create a position of that description, and more and more monopolistic powers not only as regards gas and electricity, but every other commodity of life. It is the duty of every hon. Member, in view of the widespread depression throughout the country and unemployment in practically every trade, to open his arms freely to any Measure that tends in any way to create more enterprise, and consequently more employment for those who are so sorely in need of it.
I intervene for a moment to express the views of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. I think hon. Members will agree that the crux of the whole problem was put in the admirable speech of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Eastwood). He was quite aware that there was something to be said on both sides. I do not rise for the purpose of discussing the general merits raised by Clause 6, but only to say that my right hon. Friend has given this matter very careful consideration, and it is his clear opinion that this Bill should go to a Committee of the House where the issues can be thrashed out, evidence heard on both sides and a reasoned decision come to. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering that he will find that every one of the points, including those he put so skilfully, on the one side and the other will be adequately, fairly and competently dealt with in a Committee of this House, if the House should decide to send the Bill there.
I am rather disappointed that the hon. Member who speaks for the Government failed to express a personal opinion on this Bill. I happen to recall that on 8th July, 1930, when a similar Clause to this was moved by hon. Members then sitting on these benches, the hon. Gentleman, apparently after due consideration, voted against that Clause being embodied in the Housing Bill of 1930. I presume he thinks to-day as he thought then, but, unfortunately, he has been persuaded by his right hon. Friend to express a different opinion on this Bill. I appreciate that his position is rather a difficult and delicate one. The hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. Pike) made a very sound speech on private enterprise and municipal enterprise. The right hon. Member for Tamworth (Sir A. Steel-Maitland) also made the case one of private enterprise versus municipalisation, plus power being left in the hands of the private occupant of any dwelling to determine for himself the service he should choose.
Almost every speaker, including the hon. Member for Newport (Mr. Clarry), deliberately omitted to mention what is, after all, the vital thing that we are discussing. I want to go back to what we regard as the general principle confronting the House at this moment. It is not a question of private enterprise versus municipal enterprise. It is the question of the great national principle as to whether housing authorities should be restricted in the conditions they lay down for the tenants in any part of their property. I suggest that while the general principle may be one that ought to be discussed in this House and settled once for all, so that it may be applied from Land's End to John o' Groats, and not merely by small local authorities, this is an inappropriate moment to settle such a great national principle in a very small private Bill. From that point of view, whatever the merits of the case of the Kettering Gas Corporation or the Kettering Urban District Council may be, such a principle ought certainly not to be settled in a private Measure, but ought to be dealt with in a general Bill brought in by the Government of the day.
I have promised to make a reference in a few moments to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, and I will deal faithfully with the points that he submitted. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have the power to pass any Bill that they desire. Those hon. Members who were in the House when this discussion opened at 7.30 were in no doubt in the first few minutes as to what was going to happen to the Bill. It was never intended by hon. Members that any consideration should be given to the principles embodied in it. Their minds were made up. They intended to give no consideration to the point of view of the Kettering Urban District Council. It is because they refused to look at the principle as it affected the local authority that I said that this discussion started, and has continued, from the wrong end. If hon. Members say that the merits of the case may be dismissed, we do not object to that, but we submit that a comparatively small urban district council ought not to be called upon by the Kettering Gas Company, or by this House, to bear the burden of contesting a principle which will apply to the whole country.
Therefore, we suggest that this Bill is inappropriate, and that it ought not to receive a Second Reading. The company had an opportunity in 1929, when the local authority was elected, to extend the area and to raise the question of provisions of this kind. They failed to do so. They made no reference when a subsequent opportunity was given in this House in a general sense on 8th July, 1930. At that time, the House rejected a Clause similar to the one that is embodied in the private Bill which we are now discussing. We repeat that this is not only a side wind to secure a general principle, but it is a very subtle method of establishing a principle in a private Bill that ought not to be employed by any private company in any part of this country.
May I interpose to say that the precedent has already been created as I explained in respect of Newport. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman understands that there is only a difference of 10 per cent. in the whole of the houses erected by the municipal authorities. Mr. Greenwood said in the last Parliament that in 90 per cent. of the municipalities there was no question of this supply
I am fully acquainted with all that my right hon. Friend said when he replied to the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley), who said that in 80,000 houses erected by local authorities certain conditions were laid down for the tenant. The ex-Minister for Health said that since the War we had erected approximately 1,250,000 houses, and that the problem is a small one and only applies to a very small number. The principle is as sound to-day as it was then. If we are to deal with the principle, we ought to deal with it in a general way and not incur the financial expense in which the Kettering Urban District Council will be involved if this Bill secures a Second Reading and goes to Committee. It is obvious that, if this Bill receives a Second Reading, it is almost bound to pass through Committee and to receive a Third Reading. The inevitable consequence would be that in all subsequent cases this Bill would be regarded as a precedent. [Interruption.] An hon. Member says, "Hear, hear." He understands clearly enough. He is in no doubt that he and his colleagues are attempting to establish a national principle through the medium of a small private Bill. That ought not to happen.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health should note what happens in the Division to-night. I notice that in the Division on 8th July, 1930, upon a Clause identical with the one embodied in the Kettering Bill, the present Home Secretary voted against it and so did the Secretary for Mines, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), and many other hon. and right hon. Members, after they had listened to the Debate, read the proceedings in Committee, or had heard the Debate on the Report stage. They voted against the Clause by about 254 to 150 votes. The composition of the House is changed, but the principle remains the same. Hon. Members are in a position to pass the Bill, but it does not follow that in passing Bills they are doing the right thing either by a local authority or by the nation as a whole.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Tamworth (Sir A. Steel-Maitland) said he came to the House with an open mind and that he intended to listen to speeches from both sides and make up his mind according to the argument. When he spoke, his mind was fully made up to vote for the Second Reading of the Bill, and he told us that he had reached that conclusion because the local authority had given no proof or clear indication as to why they were denying their tenants the right to choose between gas and electricity. The right hon. Gentleman said—
It is within the recollection of the House, and I shall be quite willing to read the right hon. Gentleman's speech to-morrow and, if it is clear that I have misinterpreted what he has said, then I will withdraw my remarks. He said that the Kettering Council has given no clear indication as to why they were denying the tenants the right of choice. If the right hon. Gentleman will read a statement submitted by the local authorities, I think he will find that the reason is quite clear. That statement says that the 423 houses in which there was a dual service were first erected by the council. It goes on:
Having regard to their experience in connection with the houses and in view of the urgent necessity for reducing constructional costs so as to permit of houses being let at the lowest possible rent, the council decided not to incur the expense of a dual installation in connection with the remaining houses, which were accordingly wired
during construction for a supply of electricity for lighting and heat.
The local authority, be it remembered, stepped into the houses, after private enterprise had stepped out, as was the case in almost every area in every part of Great Britain. It is always the case with private enterprise that if no profit is forthcoming it steps to one side for the local authority to come in. The local authority in this case was not a Socialist authority. It had 12 Co-operative and Labour members, 12 Liberal and Conservative members, and one Independent, and by a majority of 16 it declared in favour of adopting the policy embodied in paragraph 6 of this statement.
Those who have spoken so far from the Government side say in effect, "The council have no right to determine what their housing policy shall be." I know they put it in different language, but they say in effect, "Why should the council tenants be denied the right to determine whether they shall have gas or electricity?" The local authority is responsible for the finances of these houses and is responsible for determining which is the cheapest method of giving the maximum service to its tenants. If the tenants are disappointed with the action of the local authority, every three years they can dismiss its members. They have an opportunity of expressing appreciation for services rendered or of showing resentment by clearing the members out of office. But it is contended now that the local authority shall be permitted to do only what the private company thinks it ought to do. That is the purport of this Bill. The Bill states clearly in Clause 6:
The council shall not in or in connection with the selling, leasing, letting or other disposal of any house, shop, office, warehouse or other building or any lands for the time being belonging or leased to them. …
do certain things or make certain provisions. There is no suggestion in the Bill that the private company shall be denied the right to do certain things or to lay down certain provisions, but the local authority is restricted from making conditions applying to its own houses. The private company is in business, not for the service it can render, but for the profit it can make from that service. The company is not concerned about the choice of the tenants; it is concerned only with the profit it can derive from
the supply of gas at a price which the company itself determines. If the council's tenants or the tenants of any other property are not satisfied with the service of the company they cannot dismiss the directors. Like soldiers they can grumble, but they must continue to pay. In attempting to impose these restrictions on a local authority those who support the Bill are not serving the best interest of the nation or of local government.
I am sure that no local authority ought to be actuated by a desire to make profit. It all depends, of course, on how one interprets "profit." If hon. Members regard profit as merely £ s. d., I see no reason why local authorities should endeavour to make profit. If, however, hon. Members regard profit as the best possible service at the least possible price, to that extent all local authorities ought to strive for the maximum profit. If the House is going to tell local authorities that they should be subservient to private profit-making companies, clearly that is not going to improve local government. It will make local government much more difficult in future than it has been in the past. If popularly-elected councils are not capable of determining what is best for their own people, what private company is likely to be?
It may be asked what we would do if a local authority denied a tenant the right to have a coal fire. That question has not arisen here. I can say, however, that in certain mining areas where the mine workers received so much coal per month, before the advent of council houses the usual fire grate and copper for wash-day were available. In the council houses a gas copper was provided, and at the outset some of the tenants objected strenuously. Was the council justified in insisting on the gas copper? I did not then hear of any protest from the National Gas Council or from the hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. Pike). These tenants more recently have been brought round to the view that a gas copper is much cleaner and more convenient than a coal fire copper, and is no loss to the tenant. From that point of view it may be argued that to deny a person the right of doing what he or she likes is quite a good argument.
My main point, however, is not whether private enterprise or municipal Socialism is better. My main point is that this big general principle ought not to be settled in a private Bill. No small local authority ought to be called upon to bear the brunt of a fight in Committee over this Bill. The National Gas Council, who have not been very generous to Members of the House, should not be able to establish now a principle that they were unable to establish in a general sense only about 18 months ago. For those reasons and because we think that local authorities ought not to be subservient to private profit-making companies some of us will vote against the Second Reading of the Bill.
It is customary sometimes in this House, I may inform some new Members, when a Debate has been wound up on one side, to permit a few observations to be made on the other side and we are discussing an issue of such fundamental importance that I think it is worth while staying just a few minutes longer, while we consider the merits or the demerits of the proposal involved in this Bill. The weakness of the case against the Bill has been well illustrated by the speech of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). In order to sustain his case he quoted paragraph (6) of the statement issued by the council and implied that it had something to do with the Bill which is under discussion. Now that paragraph explains why the local housing committee decided not to pipe the houses. But under this Bill it is not, proposed to compel the council to pipe the houses and therefore paragraph (6) has no bearing on the issue. Yet the hon. Member for Don Valley submits it as the main technical ground on which his case is based. If an hon. Member is reduced to those straits in making his case it indicates how weak that case must be.
The hon. Member tried to reinforce his argument by introducing an element of prejudice in relation to profits. There is only one thing wrong with this country at this moment and it is that not enough profits are being made. It is no ground for dissatisfaction if profits are being made but rather a ground for profound satisfaction and that was purely an argument of prejudice introduced by the hon. Member. When profits are called "divi" by the co-operative societies they are regarded as rather high-minded. Profits do not degenerate because of the individuals who receive them, or the reverse. The hon. Member suggested, as the hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee) also did, that the purpose of the Bill was to enable a gas company to exploit tenants who would not take their gas. It is amazing that the case for the rejection of this Bill on its Second Reading should have been supported by arguments of so little intellectual merit.
Will the hon. Member allow me to draw his attention to paragraph (7) of the case sent out by the National Gas Council. That is where the question of profit-making was introduced into the Debate. They suggest the possibility of an unfair development of municipal trading. That is grossly unfair, we suggest, when referring to a Private Bill. It is raising a vast principle, but that was introduced long before I spoke.
As we are quoting from circulars may I in turn call the hon. Member's attention to the circular sent out by the Incorporated Municipal Electricity Association? That is based, not on the ground of electricity versus gas, but on the ground of municipal ownership, and it was purely on the ground of municipal ownership that hon. Members opposite commenced to object to the Second Reading of the Bill. Therefore, it was not the National Gas Company, whose memorandum I have not got, who brought that element into the Debate but those who by their opposition prevented this Bill receiving a Second Reading, after Prayers, on the day it was first put down. The hon. Member said that the Bill raised a principle which ought not to be raised in a Private Bill. But who raised that principle? It was not the Bill which raised the principle. The Kettering Council raised the principle by denying to their tenants what practically every other tenant can get. If it costs the council a lot of money it will serve them right for raising that principle which is a bad principle. It was not those who are supporting liberty and individualism who raised that principle. I hope that the House will go to a Division on the Bill, and that the Bill will be carried by a thumping majority as a clear indication that we are getting tired in this country of invasions of liberty from all quarters.
I do not approach this subject with any prejudice as to whether it is gas or electricity which is involved. I was brought up as an electrical engineer, and for the 18 months that I was at the Board of Trade I had, subject to the jurisdiction of my President, some responsibility for the gas industry. I think I can see the two problems, but this is not an issue of whether gas is so much a therm, or electricity so much a unit. It is an issue of Whether the tenant shall be free to have what he wants. It is only six weeks ago since nearly every newspaper in the country gave nearly a column of space to an isolated instance of a single landlord in Wimbledon who refused to allow a tenant to instal the telephone. There was no person in this country who did not take the view that a landlord by using his rights, in that monopolist spirit, was invading the principles of liberty. It is because we stand here supporting the principle of liberty, it is because the spirit behind the opposition to the Bill is the spirit of monopoly, and we are opposed to monopolies whether private or municipal, that we hope the House will give the Bill its Second Reading by a majority which will be a clear indication of what the House thinks on the question of principle involved.
I think those who have been in the House since half-past seven o'clock will agree that this subject is of such interest and importance that there is no particular reason why the discussion should be brought to an end at ten o'clock. The most remarkable thing about this Bill is the fact that it should be necessary to introduce it at all. We have had the spectacle of this public authority using their position as landlords of their housing estate, to give what are, in effect, special privileges to the electricity supply undertaking which they control. We are told that out of 867 houses, in 423 no gas is allowed for lighting, and in the remainder, no gas is allowed for any purpose. I think most Members will agree that, in the case of a private landlord, such conduct would be open to grave objection. In the case of a municipality it is open to additional objections.
The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) is very anxious that the issue of municipal trading should not be raised. I can understand that anxiety. He did not wish attention called to the prejudiced position in which this district council stands. If a private owner in Kettering decided to build houses, he would not be able to go to the gas company and compel them to contribute to the cost of building those houses or maintaining that estate. Yet that is what the district council can do and what the district council does. The gas company are among the largest ratepayers in the district. They are compelled to contribute to the erection of these houses and the maintenance of the estate. Now on top of that, the district council say: "You must not do any business with the tenants." That brings in the second objectionable feature in the action of the council. Quite apart from the general consideration that a tenant should be allowed to choose what form of heating or lighting he requires, the situation, to my mind, is not creditable to the district council concerned, and I do not think they make it any better by the statement that they have circulated to Members of this House in support of the Motion for the rejection of the Bill on Second Reading. The hon. Member for Don Valley pointed out that, in his opinion, the principal ground for objecting to the Bill was that it raised a question of general principle. I think he is right there, and I think that is the principal ground put forward by the council. They say:
The Bill raises a question of general principle in connection with the operations of housing authorities generally throughout the country which, the council submit, is inappropriate for consideration in connection with a private Bill.
Is not that tantamount to saying that, because most municipalities do not abuse their position as landlords on their housing estates, and because in consequence it has not been found necessary to make any general law on the subject, there-
fore, when a municipality does abuse its position, as Kettering has done, this House should not be allowed or asked to intervene? I submit that that is a very thin argument.
So far as the general principle is concerned, it would seem rather to cast doubts on the wisdom of making municipalities landlords and giving them the control of big industrial undertakings. It is an illustration of the dangers to which we should be subject if they were allowed to go more widely into trade, as many hon. Members opposite wish them to do. If it is true that the gas industry as a whole suffers under many disabilities, I see no reason, therefore, why this particular gas company should be asked to put up with a special injustice, and I hope the House will give a Second Reading to the Bill.