Orders of the Day — Gas Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th June 1948.

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Photo of Sir John Foster Sir John Foster , Northwich 12:00 am, 16th June 1948

I think he will admit that, maybe a little churlishly rubbing his nose about it. That delayed the proceedings of the Committee on that occasion and on that score. The Bill is still a bad Bill in spite of the efforts of the Opposition in Committee, but it is a Bill which has been improved. I do not think that an outsider, looking at the time that was spent in Committee in considering the nationalisation of this great industry, would have considered that it was excessive. It was perhaps excessive for hon. Members opposite, who were not allowed to speak by their Front Bench, and who, probably, had useful contributions to make, but were not allowed to make them. It was also excessive for hon. Members opposite who had to sit there, in order to form a quorum of 20 for the Closure, when certain technical matters were being discussed which were interesting in themselves, but not of general interest, and it was, therefore, only the experts who were left to consider these matters.

Why is it a bad Bill besides that? It is a bad Bill because the object of nationalisation, as avowed by hon. Members opposite in this case, namely, the assurance of efficiency in the industry, will not be achieved by this Bill. It has a top-heavy structure, in spite of the efforts of the right hon. Gentleman at decentralisation. It is a bad Bill, also, because of the defects which are inherent in nationalisation. I am not prepared to canvass them now in this case. They have very often been pointed out by hon. Members on this side of the House. I think it is a matter for regret that at this late stage in our economic crisis, the Socialist Party have selected for nationalisation an industry which is working well, where the workers are contented, and which is efficient.

The yardstick adopted in this Bill for compensation is the yardstick of Stock Exchange quotations. The reason Stock Exchange quotations are not suitable is that they apply only to 5 per cent. of the securities of the gas undertakings. Another reason is that the 1945 dates which are taken are not fair, because the Clause as to war damage does not provide for many companies which have suffered war damage to be compensated for that. The 1947 values are not fair because already the threat of nationalisation was hanging over them. For these reasons, we say that the compensation to the owners of securities is not fair.

Compensation to municipal undertakings is not fair, because it takes each undertaking at an entirely different value. Attempts have been made by hon. Gentlemen opposite to say that this is a matter merely of transferring undertakings from one section of the community to another section. I assume that they would acknowledge that if it was a transference from one private owner to another private owner it would be most unfair. Their argument is that this is merely one section of the community handing over property to another. That is not so. We have individual communities. This is not a case of the community at large. We have one municipal undertaking which will get no compensation at all because it has no outstanding loans. I refer to Evesham. We have another undertaking which will get £1,155 per million cubic feet sold. That is an enormous range of difference. In between that, we have all possible ranges of compensation, with Aberdeen at £73 and Leicester at £230. That is obviously unjust.

The main argument of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury against that—it is hardly believable—was that if this was so unpopular and unfair it would never have been recommended by the Socialist Party before they went back to face their electors at the next General Election. Therefore, it could not be unfair. That is not much of an argument. When the Financial Secretary speaks, one cannot but be reminded of the law case in which counsel addressing the jury said, "My client talks like an idiot; my client looks like an idiot; but do not be deceived, members of the jury, because he is an idiot." The Socialist Party must find a better argument than that for defending this method of compensation. One cannot but think that at the next General Election the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary will be proved wrong on that score. The Bill should have provided that fair compensation would be paid.

When the Socialist Party were making out their programme, it was one of the promises held out to the electors that fair compensation would be paid. One cannot find in this Bill, or in any other of the Nationalisation Acts, proof that proper compensation is paid. For these reasons, I say that this Bill is ill-conceived. If one cares to counter-prophesy to the hon. Lady the Member for Lanark, who spoke about the price of gas, I think that one can safely say that within the next two years inevitably the price of gas will rise. While certain levelling out may be done by the Minister, the general average level will rise. Just as is the case with all other commodities which have been nationalised, we shall find that the cost will increase. Therefore, I urge the House to reject this Bill and not to give it a Third Reading.