HC Deb 17 January 1972 vol 829 cc175-86

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I wish to bring to the attention of the House some of the problems that have been faced by some of my constituents in North Devon and Crediton in connection with the conversion to North Sea gas.

I welcome the change to natural gas and I acknowledge that benefit will accrue from the change. However, many unnecessary problems have arisen, and I air this issue because, while it may be too late to help some of my constituents, others may benefit from the mistakes that have been made. It is to be hoped that the gas board will profit from the mistakes it has made, even though it is a nationalised industry.

I could quote many examples. I have received scores of telephone calls, letters and visits from constituents. Their representations have been passed to the gas board.

The Chairman of the Northam Urban District Council says this: I feel that it should be brought to your notice that a large number of people in my District are enraged at the incompetent preparations for our conversion to Natural Gas. Wrong parts were delivered and in many cases no parts arrived at all, and as a result many dwellings are without proper cooking and heating facilities for a week. Even now some dwellings are unconverted in spite of continual requests for help. Many empty flats, chalets and caravans were completed first, leaving those who needed it, the priority ones, last. In consequence considerable hardship has been caused. This is in marked contrast to the confident assurances given to my Council when one of your publicity officers addressed us some weeks ago. I come to some individual cases. There is a Mr. Bawden, of Penqueen Place, Crediton. His gas fire had been condemned. He was told that up to 18 months ago it could have been converted, but not now. Unfortunately for him, he is 71 years old and a pensioner, and he cannot afford a new gas fire.

There are some old people living in an old people's home at 21 Aysha Gardens, Westward Ho. These are bungalows built six years ago, but the inhabitants are told that structural alterations are necessary before even a start can be made on the conversions. The estimated cost is £35 for each bungalow. These people cannot afford that.

Another series of cases is from the Northam Residents' Association. The association criticises the gas board and the operation very severely. It talks about the initial survey and says that some people were visited six times and others were left out altogether. It seems to be the root of the problem that in this very large area in North Devon the board failed to carry out the survey adequately and properly. My complaint is; why did the board start on this conversion before it had done the initial survey properly? It is no excuse to say that it could not get into various houses and, therefore, had problems later. Why start?

Another rather pathetic case is an elderly man I have known for some time, a Mr. Lewis of Bideford. He thanks me that through my representations the board has at least called on him. But he has been informed that unless he is prepared to pay £52.50 nothing can be done. This is in contradiction, he says, to the brochures and to what I have told him—that in these cases the board will provide something. But it will not; it is £52 or he does not get his water heater. He has been without hot water for 12 weeks. It is an appalling situation.

I could go on and on, but the worst case of all, with a lack of any sympathy or feeling by the gas board, astounds me. I received a letter from a home help concerning two elderly ladies. One of the ladies is 91; the other is 76. Since November 15th, when the conversion to natural gas was commenced in this area, they have been without heating of any sort in their bedroom, and in this cold, wet weather it is a real hardship. The home help says that this is especially so for the older lady. Several different men have called, but nothing at all gets done, and I think it is disgusting to leave these two elderly people in this state for so long. Can there be a worse case? It is appalling. So there are frustrated and angry people in my constituency.

What annoys me even more is that on many occasions the gas board employees do not even bother to reply to the free phone which one is invited to ring to get some action. These things must not be allowed to happen again. It is true that the board, so it says, will convert where it can and will help by supplying a reconditioned appliance, as my hon. Friend says in his letter. However, the cases I have quoted prove that this is not always so, for some reason. It costs some people money. I suppose that the trade-in value of an old appliance is not very high and another appliance must be found, and for elderly people this is expensive. I understand, too, that portable gas fires cause a problem, and new ones must be bought.

Then there is the problem with flues which are not up to standard. I mentioned the cost of renovating the flues in the old people's home. Those running the home were quite happy to go on as they were before conversion. Conversion has been a very expensive business for them.

I am sure that salesmen have brought pressure to bear on some people. After all, one way of exerting pressure is to create worry by saying, "We could do it, but there are problems, and it would be better to buy a new gas stove." In this way they sell a new appliance. Old people, through reading about some of the problems arising from North Sea gas, are concerned and give in.

Whatever the board says, I believe that some people have to pay. It is expensive, and pensioners can ill afford it. This is why I have written to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, because further help must be given in some cases. Today I have received a reply from the Supplementary Benefits Commission which repeats the same story, that the board will always convert or will provide another appliance. That just is not true, as some elderly people know to their cost.

Something must be done to ensure that this nonsense does not continue in the South-West or elsewhere. First, the South-Western Gas Consultative Council must not whitewash matters, as I believe it does at present. The council stands between the consumer and the board, and it must point out firmly and critically the faults the board makes. The Secretary of the council has been particularly helpful to me since I have been in contact with him and problems have been dealt with quickly.

Second, I believe that the council must advertise so as to make it quite clear, through the medium of the local Press, what people are entitled to.

Third, the survey must be done well and the conversion operation should not begin until the survey is completed. It is ludicrous to have a survey if it is not carried to completion and if the board does not find out what are the needs in each house.

Fourth, letters from the board, particularly letters to the aged, must be more helpful. Some of the letters I have seen show a complete lack of any feeling of sympathy towards the elderly. I hope that the board will heed this and will be more helpful, rather than worry people.

Fifth, the free phone must operate, or the entry should be taken from the telephone directory. What is the use of having a free phone if it does not work?

Sixth, there must be a better performance by the private contractors, who have been doing most of this work. Perhaps the fault lies in lack of supervision by the board, but there is fault.

Seventh, next, there should be more generous help for the retired and the elderly. After all, they did not ask for this conversion, and it creates problems.

Lastly, because of the problems in North Devon and Crediton I believe that there should be an inquiry by the gas board into the reasons for these problems and why they have been so acute. All sorts of excuses have been made, such as the survey and the unusually high number of old appliances. Fair enough; but why start before one has the proper spares and all the facilities necessary to do the job?

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. David James) wishes to say a few words, so I shall say no more. The gas board has made a mess in North Devon and in Crediton, and the lesson should be learned so that this can never happen again.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. David James (Dorset, North)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills). I am afraid that the story of North Dorset is as sad as the story of North Devon. I returned from a personal fact-finding trip to Belfast last night, so that I have not had much opportunity to do any homework on this subject, but the build-up of letters in the 10 days that I have been away from the neighbourhood indicates that this has been far and away the largest problem in my constituency.

Shortly before Christmas I had a letter from the chairman of the local gas board saying that he would be glad if I would get in touch with the board if any problems arose. However, the problems did not start to arise in my constituency till just after Christmas. On Wednesday, 29th December, which was not a very intelligent day on which to start work, squads moved into the villages of Blandford St. Mary and Spettisbury to start conversion. The men engaged on conversion had, no doubt, been specially trained for a crash programme. They get highly paid, and it was predictable that many of them would not turn up for the three days from 29th December in view of their very high earnings in previous weeks.

After the five-day Christmas no-shopping period many housewives who wanted to go shopping on Wednesday, 29th could not go out because they were awaiting the arrival of the gas men. The gas men did not arrive. They arrived on the Thursday. The housewives were able to do their shopping, but the job was not finished. Therefore, a large number of my constituents, old people and young people, some with children, had a long and chilly weekend without heating, cooking facilities or hot water with which to wash the nappies. I cannot find anyone who was without all three of these facilities for more than 17 days, but anyone who has had young children will know that this is a very serious state of affairs for a housewife.

Just before I went away I had time to dictate a letter to my agent asking him to fill in the details of the complaints that reached me during the Christmas period. Today, I am assured, the Bournemouth Echo has two columns of letters of complaint. I support my hon. Friend in his reference to the cavalier way in which the complaints have been dealt with. People have been promised the benefits of the free phone service. I have no doubt that the complaints have been so numerous that the free phone service had to slam down the receiver.

On page 127 of the Bournemouth telephone directory there is a full page devoted to the gas board, whose number is there for all to see. It serves 250,000 people in Bournemouth, Dorset and some parts of Hampshire. I have heard that it has taken up to 15 minutes at the height of the trouble to get in touch with the complaints department.

I caused two check calls to be put through this afternoon. One at 3.30 lasted for five minutes without an answer. One at 4.15 lasted six minutes, and finally the exchange advised my constituent to ring off because there were four other people in the queue. This shows that there must be a large volume of complaints still being made.

There has been a certain flippancy about the way in which these matters are dealt with. Following a large number of complaints before they got as far west as my constituency, an executive of the gas board wrote to the Bournemouth Echo on 22nd December replying to a letter which had been sent by a person who signed himself "Prompt Payer". The executive used these immortal words: We used to have a rule to send anonymous letters back unopened. Rather naturally, quite a lot of people took the point and said, "How in hell could that happen?", and in the end the gas board replied to say that it was a joke. Frankly, in the view of my constituents, if it was a joke, it was a very sick joke. If people have been without any heating, cooking or lighting facilities for 15 days, they do not take it kindly or as a joke when an official of the gas board writes to a local newspaper to say, We used to have a rule to send anonymous letters back unopened. But that remark is there to be seen in the Bournemouth Echo of 22nd December.

My hon. Friend has done a valuable job in raising this matter, which is of widespread concern. We are entitled to look for much better service for our suffering elderly constituents and people with young children.

11.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary, of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

This is the first day after the recess, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) on having secured the Adjournment in order to raise a matter of great concern to his constituents. He has every right to air it in the House. He has been most active, and I congratulate him on the amount of effort he has put in to try to help his constituents in what has. I know, been a trying and difficult time for many of them. My hon. Friend has put pressure on the South-Western Gas Board. He has put pressure on the consultative council. He has put a certain amount of pressure on me and my hon. Friends, which I entirely accept.

However, I must tell my hon. Friend that I am replying from a neutral position, because this matter is the responsibility of the gas board. I am not responsible for its conversion activities. I am responding tonight merely to try to help my hon. Friend and to make sure that what he has said does not go unheard or unanswered.

Both my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington and my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. David James) have made their points very clear, and I am sure that they will reach the ears of the gas boards. Perhaps I may say to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North that I was not expecting to hear about troubles in that part of the country, and I shall not, perhaps, be able to comment on what he said. But I am sure that his observation will be noted in the appropriate quarter.

First, I wish to express sympathy to anyone who has suffered from the conversion programmes to which reference has been made. But there is another side to the story. In this connection, I refer briefly to a letter which appeared in the Bideford and North Devon Weekly Gazette of 10th December, a letter of appreciation of what the gas board and many people employed in the conversion programme have done to help old-age pensioners, that letter being signed by Mrs. Pascoe, the publicity officer of the Old-Age Pensioners' Association. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington will admit that individuals concerned have done their very best to help those who have had to put up with some hardship as a result of the conversion programme.

My hon. Friend suggested that there should be an inquiry into these events. I assure him—perhaps what I have to say will convince him—that what took place and the causes of the trouble are pretty well known. I very much hope that such events will not be repeated in any other part of the country, and I think that the gas boards will have learned the lessons of North Devon.

One has to put these matters in perspective. There has been a national conversion programme, and 5½ million homes have already been converted. There are bound to be problems and there is bound to be inconvenience, but, on the whole, it must be admitted, I think, that the programme has been very well executed. At the beginning of the programme, the national call-back rate was about 25 per cent. It has now fallen to about 15 per cent. That shows that the boards are improving in their skill in this rather difficult task.

The rate of conversions is at present running at 44.000 households per week. That is a considerable number, and it is a considerable achievement to manage to proceed without trouble. In the South-Western Gas Board's area the conversion began late in the day, because North Sea gas did not reach the South-West until April, 1970. Conversion did not start in North Devon until September, 1971, but it got off to a good start in the rest of the board's area, where 90,000 consumers were converted in the first year, with a well below average call-back rate.

It was, however, in the North Devon area that the trouble started. There were two causes. The first was the failure of the Ilfracombe governor, which I understand is a device that reduces the pressure under which the North Sea gas is held in the pipes so that when it comes through to consumers' appliances it is at the requisite pressure. The failure meant that a large number of consumer who had already been converted had to be revisited to have their gas switched off until the governor could be mended, and that caused extra confusion, embarrassment and delay to those who had been converted.

But perhaps the more serious defect was that the pre-conversion survey was inadequate. My hon. Friend rightly mentioned this, and I confirm what he said. There was an inquiry into North Sea gas and the conversion programme under Professor Morton. It was finished before the South-Western Gas Board started its conversion programme. In addition to safety, Professor Morton commented on the planning and implementation of the conversion programme. He confirmed that it was of a generally high standard and that most of the planning had been carefully done before conversion started. In North Devon it turned out that many houses were not accessible. There was perhaps insufficient time allowed for a follow-up visit, and when the converters appeared they found that many of the appliances were old and in some cases obsolete. A very large number of varying types of spare parts and conversion kits were required, and they did not have adequate stocks. This was the main cause of the slow progress, the long delays and the problems which my hon. Friend's constituents met and which he has so graphically described tonight. It also coincided with a two weeks Christmas holiday. Although the board did its best to bring in extra fitters, some of the conversions were still not complete by Christmas, which left some consumers without facilities over the Christmas holidays.

All gas boards will have learnt the lesson of this, which is that the pre-conversion survey must be done with the utmost thoroughness and care and in plenty of time in advance of conversion.

My hon. Friend talked a great deal about compensation and the costs of conversion to consumers. I should like to go into this in some detail, because it is very important to make the position exactly clear. If the appliance to be converted is susceptible to conversion, the task is carried out free and no expense arises to the consumer; if it is found to be unconvertible because of its type or form of construction, either a trade-in allowance is given towards the new appliance or, if the consumer wishes, a free reconditioned appliance is supplied instead. So even where appliances are unconvertible the consumer does not have to pay if he is given a free reconditioned appliance, for which he can readily opt.

My hon. Friend also mentioned portable fires. These have been withdrawn altogether because they are deemed to be unsafe, and Professor Morton confirmed in his report that that was a right decision. I emphasise that the dangers from portable fires do not arise from the use of North Sea gas but that portable fires are now thought to be unsafe whether town's gas or North Sea gas is used. The gas board in the South-West has offered to buy back all portable fires for £3. This is not a lot of money but is probably considerably more than their written-down value in relation to what many of them cost in the first place. I accept, however, that in many cases it will be inadequate to cover the cost of a new heater, but the heater which might he installed is probably of a much higher standard and is new whereas the old appliance might be reaching the end of its life. Portable fires probably did not represent a large investment in the first place although it is always embarrassing when one is called upon to replace equipment before one expects to have to do so.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the question of installing flues or altering a building. Here again I must admit that expense can fall upon the consumer. When hardship arises as a result of these arrangements, however, as with pensioners or people of very limited means, the Supplementary Benefits Commission will consider paying, and has paid, grants in individual cases to those who are unable to afford the costs incidental to conversion of the sort of which my hon. Friend has spoken.

My hon. Friend would, I think, agree that it is much more important that all those who use gas should use it in entirely safe conditions. It is perhaps a crum of consolation that the conversion programme has removed many unsafe appliances in unsafe rooms which might, indeed, have caused serious injury or death had an explosion or an asphyxiation occurred. As a by-product of the conversion programme, therefore, we have probably saved some lives which might otherwise have been lost.

My hon. Friend referred to high-pressure salesmanship. If he has any cases which he would like to put forward to the board, I am sure that it will consider them. In response, however, to the consultative council's suggestion, the South-Western Gas Board asked all consumers whose installations were to be converted to sign a form stating that they understood the compensation arrange- ments which I have just outlined. This is probably more effective than newspaper advertising. To have to sign a piece of paper stating that one is aware of the available choices is probably more likely to register with everybody than the chance reading in a newspaper of an advertisement saying what the rules are. I even have with me a signed copy of the "Confirmation of sale of natural gas appliances" signed by the constituent about whom my hon. Friend wrote to me concerning her problem with the cost of conversion.

In conclusion, therefore, I would say to my hon. Friend that I think the gas board was right to issue these notices for people to sign. I think that the board set out with the best endeavours to make a good job of the North Devon conversion but that there were two unfortunate things. One was the failure of the governor and the second was the inadequacy—

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-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.