HC Deb 15 February 1973 vol 850 cc1611-22

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

I shall now take the House away from Concorde to the gas industry, which unfortunately is much in the news at the moment. The present position of the gas industry is a sorry reflection upon the competence of the present administration. It is sad that an industry in which many generations of loyal workers have served has had to wait until now for a strike brought about by a purely political decision by the Government.

It is not my intention to discuss the labour relations of the gas industry, bad as they now are, but to turn to the public relations of the industry and the relations between the powerful new Gas Corporation which has been established by the Act which came into force on 1st January and the gas consumers.

The Under-Secretary of State served with me on the Standing Committee which for months looked at the Bill during the last Session. At least one Opposition amendment relevant to the consumer aspect was accepted. We were very glad that consumers' councils, instead of being called consultative councils as they had been in the past, were given a new title. The change of name was more than a substitution of one title for another. It was intended—this was common ground in Committee—to be a plain indication of the independent consumer status of the consumers' councils.

I do not want to take too long in quoting the Under-Secretary, but in Committee he certainly said: It is my intention and the intention of the Government to do everything possible to ensure that the consultative councils are watchdogs for the consumer. We want to ensure that they are strong and able and can carry out the kind of investigation needed to represent consumer interests which hon. Members on both sides would like to see."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. Standing Committee B. 18th April 1972; c. 689.] I trust that the hon. Gentleman recalls those words. However, he was not prepared to concede that the consumers' councils should be free to elect their own chairmen. He stood by the system, admittedly practised by the Labour administration, of external appointment. I think that was wrong. This is particularly true of the new consumers' councils for the gas industry. No longer will the chairman of the consumers' council, as in the past, be a member of an area board, if only for the reason that there are no area boards.

The consumers' councils must now stand in an openly critical relationship on behalf of consumers with the local management of the new national Gas Corporation. The matters which it is their obligation to consider and to achieve justice upon between the executive and the consumers are tariffs, service given and individual grievances, all of which demand attention. It seems, therefore, that the chairman of a consumers' council must be not only an able person but, by background and experience, closely in touch with life as it is lived by the average householder and gas consumer.

How, in practice, are these paid appointments made? How is the considerable patronage given to the Minister by the Act exercised? There was a lot of discussion of this matter in Committee, as the hon. Gentleman knows. In fact, evidence taken by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries was frequently called in aid. I particularly recall the evidence given to the Select Committee by a senior lady civil servant. Her evidence, if it is right—I can recommend it as good light reading in some senses—was frank but hardly reassuring. She said that often in her past experience the board chairman was consulted as to a suitable name. I think that he should be the last individual to be consulted.

That lady, who was a very candid witness, also stated that knowing a Minister or even a Member of Parliament could help if such an appointment were required. She also explained that temperament entered into it. The person appointed must have a level head. She did not say a steady head. I do not think she meant it in that respect. The person concerned must be a fairly calm sort of individual, she thought. Her words, which I have taken from the report, were that she would not want anyone whose life was one of "continual aggression". That, I think, would rule out any Member of this House, apart from the fact that a Member of Parliament cannot serve on a consultative council. But nowhere was it suggested in the evidence given to the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries that a good qualification for the chairmanship of a gas consumers' council was a knowledge of and interest in consumer protection and presumably in the gas industry itself. The Under-Secretary, to be fair to him, gave the Standing Committee assurances that all this was in the past, that it would not be repeated and that in future relevant experience would count.

I believed the hon. Gentleman. I took his assurances at their face value—until recently, just before 1st January, which was the vesting date under the Act, when the name of the chairman of the consumers' council for the South West was announced to a startled public. Men and women of ripe experience and knowledge were brushed aside and we were told that instead there was to be appointed a retired general of marines.

The gentleman in question is General Sir Peter Hellings, who lives at Milton Combe, Devonshire—and the Under-Secretary is the Member for Honiton, Devonshire. I have never met Sir Peter. I am sure he is in his own sphere a fine man. I have simply gone by his record in Who's Who. He had a distinguished war record as a marine on land and sea. His recreations are given as shooting, fishing and sailing, a little variation on the classic theme. It seemed to me, therefore, that if the Minister wished to break through all the obvious guidelines for relevant knowledge and experience in making such an appointment, he could not have done worse on the face of it.

The experience of a professional soldier, however distinguished and now a country gentleman, means little to my hard-pressed constituents in St. Paul's and Easton wards in Bristol, Central. I believe that many of them are far more typical of gas consumers than those who are residents of the part of Devon from which the new chairman comes. Indeed, it is whispered abroad that he was not a consumer of gas at all. He left the Services as recently as 1971. That is understandable, but it did not give him much opportunity, I should have thought, to adjust himself to civilian life.

I am not saying anything against Sir Peter personally. My objection is to the act of a Minister, who made an appointment which in Bristol has certainly given very great offence. There were excellent men and women serving on the former consultative council—now the consumers' council—who were passed over. I must mention in this respect particularly Councillor Bert Pegler, who had been vice-chairman of the old consultative council, a leader at one time of the majority Labour group on the Bristol City Council, a man much respected by all in Bristol irrespective of party. I do not blame him that as a result of this appointment he decided to resign from the consumers' council.

I have with me a list of all the appointments which have been made under the legislation, because there are now not only the usual area consultative councils but there is a national consumers' council. I do not say that any of these appointments are in principle party political. I do not think that an appointment should be looked at in that way. On the other hand, if the appointments are not intended to be party political, a fair balance of party interest should naturally result, as with a magistrates' bench. I feel that in looking at the list of appointments it is difficult to see that a proper balance of party interest has been arrived at, as I believe it should be.

The chairman of the national committee is a woman. I think that in itself is good. She is lady Macleod, the wife of a former conservative Minister. No doubt there is justification for that appointment, but it will be interesting to know how many others were considered. I say to the Minister that I know the difficulty of making appointments of this kind and how hard it is to please every-one, but I am only reinforced in the view which I and my hon. Friends put in Standing committee that ideally a democracy demands that in a proper representative system the consumers' councils of nationalised industries should elect their own chairmen. If that were done we would have as chairmen those who felt a normal corporate responsibility to the consumers' council. The allegations of favouritism, of those who have given good service being passed over and those with inexperience being brought in artificially in the way that this appointment was made in the South West, would be avoided and I greatly regret that the suggestion of election made by the Opposition during the Committee stage was not accepted.

11.35 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Emery)

I start by saying to the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) that on this occasion he could not have been more wrong. Perhaps he will listen to what I say because I think I can advance an argument which even he must accept as being in the best interests of the consumers in the South West, even of his constituents.

This matter, although comparatively small, is of considerable importance in two particular ways. First it concerns the men and women who are willing to act as the leaders of consumer protection who are the very epitome of the watchdog of the rights of consumers—in this instance gas consumers—and to ensure fair, proper and reasonably prompt service to the customer by a giant State monopoly.

Chairmen of consultative councils need the ability not only to lead their committees in their task, to be good chairmen, but also to have the drive, the public appeal and the understanding to win the confidence of the man in the street—or, I hasten to say, woman, because most men leave the unpleasant task of writing or complaining about bad service or faulty workmanship to their wives to deal with at the local gas showroom. I say they have to win the confidence, because without that ordinary consumers will not believe that this body, called a consumers' council, of which they have little or no experience, can help them.

Then, secondly, the chairman must have the drive, the public appeal—yes, even the charisma—to win the publicity for the work of his committee, for the manner in which it can help, in which it can protect the consumers and for its ordinary activities, which often do not have the "sex-appeal", the schults or the carefully judged newsworthiness of a bad murder, a local robbery or even, at times, the activities of the local political parties.

I have no doubt that of the available candidates who could have been considered to fill the vacancy in the South West, Sir Peter Hellings was head and shoulders above anybody else in meeting the criteria I have set out.

What I have been trying to do since taking office is inspire new confidence into the consumers' councils and to let them see and realise the much greater emphasis that the Government wished to place on their activities and our willingness to provide extra staff, to carry out the recommendations of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, which stressed the need to ensure their obvious independence and their separate structure in the nationalised corporations.

I am trying to encourage the sometimes unbelieving public into realising that these men and women on consultative councils are there to help them and that they have certain powers of approach and action which could ensure that the underdog is able to have a fair hearing against "them". "Them" is sometimes the faceless anonymity of bureaucratic inaction or the seemingly impenetrable jungle of being pushed off from one person to the next, and then the next, the next and the next all claiming that the matter will be attended to, but nothing happens—or what is even more frustrating, the claim from "them" that it is not their responsibility.

I do not want anyone to believe that this is the normal business approach of gas or electricity boards to their customers. It certainly is not. But no one can sit in my office and not realise that this happens and happens more often than either I or the consumers' councils or the nationalised industries wish to see. This is why consumers' councils need strong and intrepid chairmen or chairwomen who will carry out this task. They are often people who will accept the challenge of being chairman of a consumers' council but are unable or unwilling to spare the time to be just one of 20 or 25 members of the council.

Mr. Palmer

May I ask the hon. Gentleman a very plain question? How many names did he consider?

Mr. Emery

Approximately 27.

In considering the appointment of chairmen to consumers' councils the new Gas Act made many changes but it did not change the method of appointment of the chairmen. It provides that these appointments are to be made by the Secretary of State who is not required to make the appointment from the council membership. It thus continues the method of appointment adopted when consumer machinery was first set up in the gas industry under the Gas Act 1948.

The reason why the present and previous administrations decided that in the case of these appointments selection is better than election is that often the best available candidate is not a member of the consultative council.

Mr. Palmer

He should be.

Mr. Emery

I want to stress the importance of getting the best available candidates and drawing on as wide a field as possible and not one confined to the existing council membership. Without this policy we would not now have Dame Elizabeth Ackroyd as Chairman of the South-East Electricity Consultative Council. If the appointment was made by election the field would be limited to the membership, as indeed would be the case if by statute or practice Ministers always made these appointments from within that membership.

The statutory provisions governing these appointments make clear that it was not Parliament's intention that they should be made only from the council membership. Nor has it been the prac- tice of previous administrations to appoint only people with previous service as members of councils.

Let me hit over the head the hon. Gentleman's suggestions. I begin by analysing the facts under the previous administration. Six new appointments were made of chairmen of gas consultative councils by the Labour Government. Of these, only one was or had been a member of a gas consultative council.

I might also point out that of the two appointments which have been made since the new British Gas Corporation came into being, one has been from outside, that of Sir Peter Hellings, and one from inside. There is another invitation out and, provided that it is accepted, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased about where the person in question comes from.

I have no knowledge that the propriety of appointing these chairmen from outside the council membership was questioned by the hon. Member; nor did the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in its report on relations with the public recommend any change in the method of appointment.

I mention what happened under the previous administration to demonstrate that the appointment of a chairman from outside the council is not a new policy by the present Government.

These criticisms would apply to all the previous appointments of outside chairmen and indeed to the policy of all previous administrations in not limiting the appointments to council members.

Chairmen are not appointed for their expertise in gas consumer affairs but for their personal qualities required for chairing, administering and leading their councils. The chairmen who have previously been appointed from outside have shown that someone without experience of council work can do the job excellently. It is no slight on the council members to say that the best candidate available may be outside its membership. Even within the council membership the field is restricted because some members could not give the time required for the chairman's job or because of age would be out of the running.

I should also like to take this opportunity, which is really the first, to relate how I see the Director General of Fair Trading who is being created by the Fair Trading Bill, now in Committee, acting and co-operating with the consumers' councils in the gas and electricity industries and their chairmen. First let me make it clear that the director general's appointment is not intended to downgrade the activities or the authority of the consumers' councils but rather to strengthen and extend the work that they will be able to achieve.

The director general is not precluded from inquiring into consumer trade practices in the nationalised industries, but I am sure that he will wish to co-operate and co-ordinate action with the already existing consumers' councils. He will in no way wish to duplicate their work.

I expect an early working relationship to be established between the chairmen of the consultative and consumers' councils and the director general so that they can assist one another. This will be a two-way flow of information and help rather than one leading the other.

It is possible that complaints about the nationalised industries will in some cases be made direct to the director general. The exact number of these complaints will be a measure of the efficiency and the wide acceptance of the work of consumers' councils. When the director general receives them I envisage that he will immediately ask the existing bodies whether they will consider and, wherever appropriate, act on them. I hope that this will normally be the successful end of the matter. However, if that is not the case the consumers' council can consult the director general as to the action that should be taken, either through the existing legislation or through the rather wider spread of action allowed by the Fair Trading Bill.

In certain areas there will be matters on which the consumers' councils may not themselves have powers to act—for example, where central heating is installed by private contractors—or may be able to act only by using a sledgehammer to crack a nut—for example, Ministers' powers to give general directions to the boards. Then I see the director general being able to provide added help and assistance to the work of the consumers' councils.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

Will the director general receive complaints about the consumers' councils themselves? I have found the North Thames Gas Board Consumers' Council completely incapable of discharging its function. It displays many of the characteristics that the Minister ascribed to the bad nationalised authority.

Mr. Emery

The director general can consider any complaints concerned with consumers in specific areas. It depends on the type of complaints whether, because it affects the structure of the nationalised industries, the Minister's permission would be needed before detailed action could be taken. The Government are taking action to strengthen the consumers' councils in the type of chairman we are providing. They will retail the rôle assigned to them under the Gas Act and the Electricity Act, but they need to be capable of striving, of hitting the headlines, of rejecting the cosy "You scratch my back", easy-way-out approach. That approach sometimes resulted from using certain of the people that were just thrown up by the nomination of local authorities, not always the best people from local authorities, in a way that was not accepted by consumer protection organisations. They have been condemned by such organisations. The structure of the national consumers' council under the British Gas Corporation is most carefully balanced. Half the members are the existing chairmen and the other half have been chosen with consultation right across the board. There has been no political aspect in that consideration.

I have been criticised because of the appointment of some persons who, it was felt, were inappropriate. I have wanted to see the widest spread of persons, people who would be able to bring their judgment, understanding and drive to the benefit of consumers generally.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

The hon. Gentleman has drawn a comparison between the new type that he wants and another type that he sharply criticised. I hope he will take the opportunity to say that he was not referring to the other members, notably the vice-chairman of the council in question, in his very stern words about the type of chairman he did not wish to appoint.

Mr. Emery

What I have made absolutely clear is that it is our intention to try to get the best. I do not wish—

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 nine minutes to Twelve o'clock.