This Bill is not dissimilar from the Bill we have just been discussing. The only reason why the provisions of this Bill were not incorporated in the Prices Bill is that it was deemed to be desirable to keep legislation relating to the control of gas prices in a separate statute because there is quite a code of law in existence dealing with the regulation of the price and quality of gas.
The Bill is, otherwise, however, identical in most respects with the Bill which has now passed from the Seanad. It provides for the introduction of control of gas charges in certain cases in certain circumstances, either when a committee has reported that gas charges are unduly high for reasons within the control of the sellers of gas or when temporary supply difficulties create the risk of the public being exploited in respect of gas charges.
I should explain that gas charges are at present controlled under the Supplies and Services Act, which will, as I have already said, lapse on 31st December. Before the war, there were a large number of Acts relating to gas charges—some applying to gas charges generally and others applying to the charges of individual companies. Some of these Acts provided for control on the basis of fixing maximum charges and others for control on a sliding scale arrangement which related the price of gas to the dividends paid to the shareholders. These Acts provided that, when the price went up, dividends had to come down. These Acts became completely inoperative and difficult, due to the circumstances of the war and the low quality of the coal. The problems of that day made regulations on that basis impossible. Consequently, control was exercised under the war-time emergency legislation and has up to now been exercised under the Supplies and Services Act.
When that Act has lapsed, unless this Bill is enacted, these old Acts will come back into question, and, while I do not want to deprive the Seanad of its power to insert amendments, I should point out that, if they do so, these Acts which relate the price of gas to the profits taken by a company will be back in operation and these companies will, I think, have to remain out of production until the necessary changes in legislation have been made, although it would not be beyond human ingenuity to find a way out of that problem. I am proposing in this Bill that control shall be exercised in the future only in relation to the larger undertakings which are in private ownership.
There are quite a number of small undertakings which supply gas to the smaller towns which I am not proposing to control at all, because most of them are continuing in business only with great difficulty and their problem is not so much that they want to increase the price of gas, but that they cannot get for the gas they sell in competition with other sources of energy and heat a price that will enable them to cover their operating costs. It would be rather futile to talk about control in their case. Nor do I purpose control in the case of undertakings owned by municipal councils. There are a number of such undertakings in this country. If they are presumably managed, conducted and operated in the interests of the ratepayers of the locality, the representatives of the ratepayers on the council can exercise all the control necessary.
The Bill, therefore, is limited in its operation to the undertakings which are listed in the First Schedule. These are privately-owned undertakings engaged on a larger scale of operations than the remainder. The principles of control are the same—no control at all, unless a temporary position of scarcity arises, or unless a committee has reported, on investigation, that circumstances which are capable of being remedied and which are within the control of those engaged in the undertaking are operated to cause charges to be unduly high.