HC Deb 14 November 1949 vol 469 cc1654-7
2. Mr. I. J. Pitman

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether in view of the fact that the South-Western Area Gas Board has felt obliged to refund the increases made in its charges for gas, and to discontinue all increases proposed in its notice dated 27th June, 1949, and is therefore unable to earn revenue adequate to fulfil its duty under Section 41 of the Gas Act, 1948, he has consulted the Treasury with a view to giving his consent to further temporary borrowing by the board under Section 42 of that Act.

Mr. Gaitskell

I see no reason why the South-Western Area Gas Board should be unable to earn revenue adequate to fulfil its duty under Section 41 of the Gas Act, 1948. But as regards temporary borrowing, I have recently received an application from the Gas Council seeking authority for this in order to meet the needs of all the area boards in respect of capital expenditure and additional working capital. This application is now the subject of consultation with the Treasury.

Mr. Pitman

Will the Minister give directions to the area gas board to see that the consumers of 1950 are not surcharged for the error of the board in sending out their charges for consumption in 1949?

Mr. Gaitskell

No, Sir. I should certainly not regard it as part of my duty to give directions to an area gas board on a matter of this kind.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth

Does the reply of the Minister mean that, where refunds have been made and there is a short-fall and the right hon. Gentleman has not allowed additional borrowing, those refunds will again be recovered retrospectively?

Mr. Gaitskell

The hon. Member has asked me a series of hypothetical questions which it is quite impossible to answer, and I do not intend to answer them.

Captain Crookshank

Whose business is it to watch these matters? My hon. Friend has been very active on behalf of his own constituents, but surely there must be some authority which maintains an oversight?

Mr. Gaitskell

It would be better if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman were to await my replies to the two further Questions which the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) has on the Order Paper.

Mr. Charles Williams

Why is the Minister so very reluctant to protect the consumer against these errors?

Mr. Gaitskell

I do not consider that the consumer needs any protection in these matters.

5 and 6. Mr. I. J. Pitman

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power (1) whether, in view of the wide divergencies among the forms of notice by area gas boards in publishing fresh tariffs under the terms of Section 53 of the Gas Act, 1948, he will make a statement on the consultations he has had with the Gas Council with a view to giving a general direction to area boards on the framing of new tariffs;

(2) whether he is aware that the majority of demands for payment of gas supplied by area boards under new tariffs published by them since 1st May, 1949, are unenforceable and may remain unpaid; and what steps he proposes in order to minimise the financial deficiencies which will result.

Mr. Gaitskell

I do not at all accept the hon. Member's assertion that the majority of demands for payment by area gas boards under new tariffs are unenforceable. One area gas board—the South Western—has withdrawn notices issued at the end of June and is proposing to issue revised notices because of a doubt as to whether the original ones were in a form to comply with Section 53 of the Gas Act, 1948.

Under this Section, the framing and publication of tariffs is entirely a matter for the area gas boards who are also responsible for safeguarding their own financial position. A divergence in the form of notice among the different areas is not necessarily to be deprecated and I do not propose to issue any general directions on this matter.

Mr. Pitman

Is the Minister aware that the notices for the tariffs sent out seemed to indicate that every area board in the country has at least some tariffs which are subject to doubt, and, that being so, that the nation really needs a clarification of the issue in regard to the validity of the accounts which have been rendered for gas?

Mr. Gaitskell

I really cannot accept the hon. Member's assumption. The question whether or not the notices are in accordance with the Act is a legal one and not one on which it is my business to advise the boards.

Mr. Pitman

Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to accept later from me and to give me an answer, which may be published to the House, specific examples in regard to every area which I can furnish him?

Mr. Gaitskell

This is entirely a matter for the gas boards themselves. It is their business to seek the necessary legal advice to ensure that they comply with the Act. It is not my business to tell them how they should do that, or to interpret the Act myself.

Mr. Hollis

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the chairman of the South Western Board said that the legal position is uncertain, and that, by his own confession, he is anxious to have guidance?

Mr. Gaitskell

No, Sir. He has not asked me for guidance anyway.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, since this matter has arisen, he has consulted with the other boards to ensure that their tariffs are legal, and can he give an assurance to the House that in all areas other than the South Western the tariffs put out are valid?

Mr. Gaitskell

No, Sir. I have not consulted with the other area gas boards.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

Does the right hon. Gentleman not consider that he has a duty placed upon him to protect the interests of the consumers in this matter?

Mr. Gaitskell

I cannot agree that the interests of consumers are threatened in this matter. It is purely a legal point.

Air-Commodore Harvey

Will the right hon. Gentleman recommend that a commission be appointed to inquire into the whole position in order to see what is legal and what is not?

Mr. Pitman

If the right hon. Gentleman will not accept from me by private letter specific cases where the notices are illegal and payment may be withheld and act, how can he assure the House that he is not interested in the Question? Surely the question of the legality of these charges is of interest to him and is it not fundamental to the whole question?

Mr. Gaitskell

I am afraid I find that supplementary question far too involved to answer.

Mr. Mitchison

Is it not about time that someone took legal advice instead of asking the Minister for it?

Commander Galbraith

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he has or has not a duty to protect the consumers' interests?

Mr. Gaitskell

Certainly, I regard it as part of my duty to protect the consumers' interests, but not my duty to give legal advice to the gas boards.

Mr. De la Bère

Has there not been a great deal of unfinished thought about this?