HC Deb 04 February 1969 vol 777 cc361-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Miller.]

10.53 p.m.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

In taking this opportunity to emphasise the need to increase public awareness of the Consumer Council's machinery, I realise that the subject covers a number of industries and services, but I shall confine myself principally to the power industries, that is, coal, gas and electricity, adding a word or two about transport.

It is 20 years since we established the consumer consultative machinery for these four major industries, and in this respect, in relation to the principle of public ownership, which I support absolutely especially as regards these industries, there remains a good deal of room for improvement. I hope that this debate tonight, short though it will be, will make its contribution to increasing public awareness of the machinery which exists.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who, I know, is well versed in all the forms of consultative machinery from local government through to national level, will be sympathetic to the points I have to make. What is particularly encouraging to me is that I know that he is very knowledgeable about these things and I think that he will acknowledge that a failure in any of these industries or services—coal, gas, electricity or transport—can, at worst, cause a major crisis, on an intermediate level can create hardship and, when things are not going quite perfectly well, can create a great deal of irritation, since, between them, their products are essential to modern life. It is, therefore, incumbent upon me to outline what I understand to be the consultative machinery.

In the coal industry I understand that there are the Industrial Coal Consumers' Council and the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council. The objective is primarily to consider any matter affecting the sale or supply of coal, coke or manufactured fuel which is the subject of a representation made by consumers or what the Council thinks ought to be considered, and to notify its conclusions to the Minister where action appears to be necessary, and also to consider and report to the Minister on any matter that he might refer to it.

The research departments of the National Coal Board have done a remarkable job in producing new forms of smokeless fuel in such a range and so swiftly. They have made a great contribution not only to keeping our homes warm but also, in conjunction with the Clean Air Act, to keeping the air of our great cities as reasonably clean as can be in this day and age.

It is, therefore, irritating to me when I read or hear ill-informed criticisms of the Board and its research departments about the production of smokeless fuels. Yet, often, when an area has been designated a smokeless zone, and a variety of new grates have been offered, nothing can be more irritating than when, for some reason or other, there is suddenly a shortage of specific fuel for specific grates.

From time to time, hon. Members have submitted to the Department complaints from constituents. This in itself seems to indicate that there is not enough knowledge, even among hon. Members, of the correct machinery which should be used. I confess to guilt in this respect in having sent direct to the chairman of the Board or to the Minister complaints from constituents. But I have often also pointed out to constituents that consumer councils exist to assist them in these matters. People are often amazed to learn that such machinery exists. That is the gravamen of my case.

The same applies in the electricity industry. I understand that each area board has its corresponding Consumer Consultative Council, and that the members of the Council—not less than 20 and not more than 30—are appointed by the Minister of Power as follows: … not less than two fifths and not more than three fifths from a panel nominated from members of local authorities in the area by the representative local authority associations; the remainder, after consultation with such bodies as the Minister thinks fit, to represent agriculture, commerce, industry, labour, the general interests of consumers of electricity, and other persons or organisations interested in the development of electricity in the area. That is quite a formidable list. Therefore, the endeavours of this great publicly owned industry are most commendable in theory, but for the housewife, the ordinary home consumer, we have not yet been able to pierce the fog, the blanket of not knowing what machinery exists, so that they can use it to the full, which would be an advantage both to the consumer and the area board.

The area board is compelled, under its terms of reference, … to consider any matter affecting the distribution of electricity in the area, includng the variation of tariffs and the provision of new or improved services and facilities within the area, whether as a consequence of a representation or not, and to notify its conclusions to the area board; … That alone shows that the general Council has been as wide as possible in laying down its terms of reference to cover every eventuality.

In the gas industry the arrangements are very similar to those I have outlined for the electricity industry. I understand that they stem from Section 9 of the Gas Act, 1948. There is a consultative council for the area of each board. The members—not less than 20 and not more than 30, plus the chairman—are appointed by the Minister of Power; and not less than half and not more than three-quarters from a panel nominated from members of local authorities in the area by the representative local authority associations. In addition, consultations are held with other bodies.

The structure is also similar in the transport industry. Beneath the Nationalised Transport Advisory Council, which advises the Minister on questions relating to co-ordination and so on, there are area transport users' consultative committees which the Minister may establish for such areas of Britain as he may prescribe, on the express condition, however, that there must be one such committee for Scotland and one for Wales and Monmouthshire. I cannot understand why there is not one for England. We should look into this. I can understand the necessity for having such boundaries on what might be described as national lines in view of the particular problems of language in Wales and various other matters. But it is wrong not to have an advisory council or consultative committee for England on its own, since the other two countries have them. Generally speaking, the efforts that have been made in the establishment of the various consultative councils are admirable, but somehow or other they have failed to click.

The Consumer Council has published an admirable work called "Consumer Consultative Machinery in the Nationalised Industries". It is a pity we cannot have a full-scale debate on such a report, rather than me having to cram it into this debate tonight. In the paragraph relating to the public awareness of the Consultative Council, it says that one of the major conclusions … which emerged from our field survey was how very limited is the extent to which the general public is aware of the existence of the consultative bodies 12 per cent. only of the sample being aware of the electricity councils, and 12 per cent. of the gas councils. Knowledge of the actual functions of the councils and of the work they are doing on the consumer's behalf must, therefore, be more limited still. This should be a matter of grave concern to my hon. Friend and I am sure that he will treat it as such. Surely the answer lies in more publicity? Will he consider advertising the functions of the various consultative committees in local newspapers, on local radio and T.V.? There could be a number of experiments in parts of the country, results could be examined to see if public awareness has been increased, and the experiment could be stepped up.

I acknowledge the efforts made by various councils to increase public awareness, but that quotation shows that the efforts made through leaflets and handbooks have not proved successful. We should tell people that this is not just a method of advancing complaints. The public should be encouraged to submit ideas, too. For people involved in top-line policies, small suggestions can prove to be very useful. Perhaps leaflets could be exhibited on works' notice boards, and lectures and talks could be inaugurated on the reasons for such machinery. Film shows are a possibility. There is much advertising in the cinema, some interesting, some humourous. Perhaps we could do something along these lines?

Will my hon. Friend also consider increasing the liaison of our councillors and Members of Parliament with the area boards and the consumer councils? There are many more things I would like to say, but my time is running out.

I ask my hon. Friend to take this matter seriously and to start a new drive to increase public awareness. He might even find an imaginary inflammatory document to hit the headlines and create excitement, thereby contributing to the increase of public awareness. If a programme such as I have outlined is not undertaken there is a danger of a first-class idea becoming nugatory and withering away.

My hen. Friend might also consider a conference between the three big industries—and he might pass this on to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport—to examine ideas for increasing public awareness of the consultative machinery.

One of the principles of public ownership is that the public not only own the industries, but the industries function on their behalf, and one of the bulwarks of modern society is that the public should be entitled to submit complaints, and should take an interest in how the industries work. With interest will come understanding; with understanding will come efficiency; with efficiency will come satisfaction.

11.12 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) was kind enough in his opening remarks to refer to my interest in this subject. I assure him that since I came into the House and was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power, two years ago, my interest has not flagged. I hope that I have done something, perhaps without publicity, to stimulate interest within the purview of my Department, and the industries on which he has concentrated.

I have recently, without prior notice, sat in on a number of consultative councils in the electricity and gas industry, and also on district committees, which operate under the umbrella of the consultative councils and to which my hon. Friend did not refer. While it is not for me to discuss here my reactions in detail to those meetings, I found them interesting End I have picked up a number of ideas which I shall pursue in my Department.

As I have said elsewhere on a number of occasions, we have embarked upon an era of consumer politics in a wide range of activities, not only the area which is the concern of the Ministry of Power. This subject will be at the centre of politics in the years to come. It is to be seen in housing, urban renewal, education and consumer products purchased in the stores, as well as in our industries.

It is right, at the beginning of my remarks, for me to give due credit to the many people who, over the last 20 years, have given voluntary public service throughout the country to the consultative councils and district committees under them in the electricity and gas industries and, to a degree, in the coal industry. Indeed, I could make the same remarks about those industries which do not come under my Ministry.

Many people have given excellent service, and, whatever examination one makes of the consultative machinery in the electricity, gas and coal industries, and whatever constructive criticisms which may be made of that machinery, one aspect of which we are discussing this evening, it is right to say that a lead has been given which has yet to be followed over a large part of our economy in other spheres of activity. Whatever advances may be made in the future, most of our economic activities have yet to catch up with the efforts of this consumers' representation on a formal basis which has been established over the past 20 years.

I listened with interest to the various suggestions made for extending publicity in this area. My first reaction is that I accept fully that the consultative councils in these industries are not as widely known as they could and should be. I agree very much that it is important for consumers to be made more aware of the existing machinery to protect their interests and of the proper places for them to lodge complaints and ideas.

Naturally, the most important requirement is good management customer relations, whereby people have an effective way in which they can make representations and get matters seen to promptly at managerial level. In that connection, the consultative machinery should be seen, not exactly as a long-stop, but as a reserve channel through which matters can be investigated further if it is felt that complaints or views have not been dealt with adequately by the management concerned.

Over the last two years or so, I. have taken every opportunity possible to see for myself what is going on in the country. In my view, the lack of awareness of these organisations is due to the fact that, over the 20 years of these industries under their present set-up, there has been a steady improvement in relations between the managements and their customers. However, I hope that I do not sound smug about that, because I agree that there is a need for greater awareness.

I want to go over a number of the matters that have been activated by the consultative councils in the electricity and gas industries chiefly, though to a lesser degree in other spheres with which my Department is concerned. My hon. Friend will find that a number of his points have been picked up already, though perhaps not to the extent that he and I would like, or that members of the consultative councils would like. This question of awareness and the need for publicity is one that I have repeated constantly in my discussions with representatives of these bodies.

On the point made in the Consumer Council's Report, the same point was made subsequently in a report about which I am sure my hon. Friend will know but to which he did not refer. It is a publication by the Co-operative Party entitled "Public Monopoly and the Consumer", issued in the latter part of last year. A good deal of consideration has been given to publicity and awareness by the consultative councils since the point was made in those reports a year or 18 months' ago. Quite a lot has been done since.

Arrangements vary between councils, but there are displays of posters and leaflets in showrooms. If hon. Members, members of local authorities or members of the public, note that these are not on display, they are welcome to make the information known to us, and we will get in touch with the appropriate showrooms and do our best to ensure that adequate publicity is given to the posters and leaflets which are available for display in showrooms.

These leaflets and posters have been made available recently to the G.P.O. and they are gradually being displayed throughout the country in various post offices. An attempt is being made by many of the consultative councils to get local authorities to display posters and leaflets in such places as public libraries, town halls and other local offices. The success of these efforts varies considerably, but there is this constant pressure. The more local representatives, Members of Parliament, councillors, as well as the Ministry and the people in the consultative councils, can bring to the notice of local authorities and other similar bodies, including local post office managers, the need to put these items on display the better.

These leaflets and posters are being produced and distributed. Some boards, as a result of the representation of their consultative councils, have issued notices when the bills go out so that members of the public know that, if they are not satisfied with consideration of their complaints or queries by the management, they can go to the consultative councils to pursue the matter further because they have the addresses and the names of people distributed to them.

I understand that a number of councils distribute their annual reports and other literature to the local Members of Parliament concerned. Others have liaison with the local citizens' advice bureaux, the welfare departments, and the local authorities. Talks are being given. In certain cases councils make a point of holding meetings in different parts of their area during the year. I have seen something of this recently, having sat in on meetings at various addresses within the Board areas.

I do not mean that it is common practice to find a high standard everywhere. There is need to maintain pressure and interest in the publicity to which my hon. Friend has referred, but the councils are prepared to consider new methods. I am sure that they will read the report of tonight's short exchanges between my hon. Friend and myself and will take note of ideas. I will certainly read HANSARD to see whether there are any particular points which we can put to the chairmen of the consultative councils at Ministerial level.

My hon. Friend referred to radio and television, broadcasts. There have been such broadcasts recently in some areas. There have also been discussions on television between secretaries and chairmen of some of the consultative councils. There have been discussions on radio and on television in certain areas of the very Consumer Council Report referred to by my hon. Friend.

I have already mentioned that standard posters have recently been produced and are being circulated throughout the country. There are other—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock.