HC Deb 17 June 1969 vol 785 cc225-9
1. Mr. Lane

asked the Minister of Power what steps he has taken to ensure that advice to consumers on the safe operation of appliances converted to natural gas is adequately publicised.

17. Mr. J. H. Osborn

asked the Minister of Power what research is being carried out on the combustion of natural gas in domestic appliances, including those suitably modified, to reduce the danger of producing carbon monoxide; and how many deaths and accidents due to this cause have been notified to him to date this year.

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

Gas boards issue new instructions to consumers with conversion sets if operating methods change as a result of conversion to natural gas. Special arrangements have been made for labels giving advice on safe operation to be fixed to water heaters in bathrooms. Research into all aspects of the use of natural gas in domestic appliances, including their safe operation, is carried out at the Gas Council's Watson House Research Station. One death from carbon monoxide poisoning has been reported this year, due primarily to lack of ventilation, not conversion to natural gas.

Mr. Lane

In addition to that, is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that, in the various communications which the area gas boards rightly have with consumers before conversion, enough stress is laid on safe operation?

Mr. Freeson

The important thing is to ensure that consumers are informed on these matters when the appliances are fixed, rather than in the general notices which are received beforehand during the programming of conversion, but I will certainly draw the attention of the Gas Council to the point.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Is my hon. Friend satisfied, however, that these conversions are always done by completely competent individuals, particularly when the work is sub-contracted? Are adequate arrangements available for inspection by gas board staff?

Mr. Freeson

On the last point, that is the position. I accept that, in the early stages of these conversion programmes, there have been some difficulties—one should not exaggerate their extent—with the training of certain personnel. Having had close contact with the industry on these matters in recent months, I am persuaded that they have caught up with the problems and that things will improve rapidly from now on.

5. Mr. Dudley Smith

asked the Minister of Power if he will institute an inquiry into the increased charges being imposed on the consumer in areas where conversion to natural gas has taken place, in view of the official assurance to the public that natural gas would not cost the consumer more.

Mr. Freeson

No, Sir. There has been no change in gas charges since the general increase over a year ago, which was not related to conversion to natural gas.

Mr. Smith

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the West Midlands Gas Board has been inundated with complaints about there having been substantial rises in gas bills following the conversion of appliances to natural gas? As all these complaints cannot be based on the increased consumption of gas, is not the slogan "Natural gas is cheaper" something of a confidence trick from the public's point of view?

Mr. Freeson

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman includes that text in his next advertisement in his local newspaper. The probable answer lies in the fact that there was a sharp spell of cold weather earlier this year. Individual bills may, in some cases, have gone up. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there has been a general increase in charges as a result of conversion. On the contrary, a number of boards have introduced reductions rather than increases.

6. Mr. Dudley Smith

asked the Minister of Power what is the rate at which the Board's workmen are recalled to do work again on natural gas conversion in the West Midlands Gas Board's area; and whether he will direct the Board to carry out all legitimate repairs and adjustments, made necessary by faulty conversion, at no cost to the consumer for at least another six-month period.

Mr. Freeson

In the West Midlands Board's area, about 25 per cent. of conversions now need further attention. The Board does not set a limit to the period during which a follow-up service clearly attributable to conversion is carried out free of charge.

Mr. Smith

As members of the public have no choice about being converted, will the hon. Gentleman make it perfectly clear to the Board that it must allow a reasonable time for repairs to be done owing to the abnormal number of callbacks that have been made?

Mr. Freeson

I am not clear for what the hon. Gentleman is asking. I have indicated—I understand that the Board indicates this clearly in the circular letters which it sends out locally and which I have seen—that where there is a requirement for a follow-up service which is clearly attributable to conversion, there is no time limit on the carrying out of that work free of charge.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that the West Midlands Gas Board has already given an unequivocal assurance that it will examine any complaints that are made? However, will he please take note of the fact that there is a great deal of constituency concern over this matter?

Mr. Freeson

I am aware of the concern that exists, not only in my hon. Friend's constituency and in that of the hon. Member for Warwick and Learning-ton (Mr. Dudley Smith) but in a number of other constituencies. This is the reason why we have had previous Questions on the subject. I wish to make it perfectly clear that no matter how considerable the number of complaints may seem, taken in toto they represent a very small percentage indeed of the total programme which is being undertaken in Britain.

Mr. Emery

Would the hon. Gentleman in future please take more seriously the complaints that are made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith) and not deal with such matters lightly or make unnecessary comments? [HON. MEMBERS: "Get on."] Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that a call-back figure of 25 per cent. is high and should be reduced? Is the present call-back rate better than it was a year ago and is the position being improved?

Mr. Freeson

I cannot, off the cuff, quote figures about the earlier position in this programme. Each successive expansion of the conversion programme in the areas of boards is showing a reduction in the call-back numbers. There are bound to be a number of call-backs when thousands of appliances are involved and particularly when, in some instances, boards are coming across appliances of which both the consumers and boards were not aware at the time. I assure hon. Members that there is a progressive reduction in the number of call-backs and that the reduction will continue as the Boards gain experience.

9. Mr. Woof

asked the Minister of Power what progress is being made in conversion of industrial consumers to the use of natural gas.

Mr. Freeson

Up to 31st March, 1969, nearly 3,000 industrial consumers had been converted; consuming about 45 per cent. of natural gas being supplied direct. A major expansion of the industrial gas market is planned, to increase sales nearly fourfold over the next five years.

Mr. Woof

To what extent have industrial conversions been satisfactory? What success has been achieved in expanding markets particularly in preference to the use of other forms of fuel?

Mr. Freeson

The actual programme works that have been undertaken in the industrial field have proceeded very smoothly. Boards and converting firms have reported satisfaction with the results in papers delivered to technical conferences where representatives have made their views known. As to success in expanding markets, new contracts which have been concluded will build up to more than total industrial sales last year. The contracts for I.C.I. and Shellstar alone account for nearly 1,000 million therms a year.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Will the Parliamentary Secretary persuade the Council to use the highest possible proportion of natural gas for industrial purposes in view of the wide dissatisfaction with the use of this gas for domestic appliances?

Mr. Freeson

I do not accept that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the domestic use. As I said earlier, there have been a minority of cases where problems have arisen and are continuing. On the question of industrial sales the hon. Gentleman is asking the gas industry to do precisely what it is already doing.