HC Deb 28 June 1978 vol 952 cc1396-9

3.36 p.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to appoint a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Nationalised Industries; and for purposes connected therewith. This is my second attempt to introduce this Bill in the House. I introduced the Bill about a year ago, and it fell because of lack of time.

The House already, in its wisdom, has created a Parliamentary Commissioner to deal with Government Departments. We have a Parliamentary Commisisoner to deal with the National Health Service and we have now created Parliamentary Commissioners to deal with local government. I have had the honour for the last four years to serve on the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. During that period I have come to realise the value of the Parliamentary Commissioner, commonly called the Ombudsman. I believe that this system makes a vital contribution to our democratic process and enables Members of Parliament to have problems investigated in some depth.

We in this House have a right and a duty to fight for citizens and to uphold their rights in pressing complaints as citizens of this country. One problem we face in our society is that we are creating bigger and bigger organisations. This makes it more and more difficult for the citizen to get his rights cured The large industries in our society are often the nationalised industries. Therefore I believe that there is a need for a Parliamentary Commissioner to examine complaints about the nationalised industries.

If one examines the annual reports of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the last four years, one does not see many cases which he has had to refuse to investigate because they are part of the nationalised industries, but if one adds complaints about the Post Office, it can be seen that he has had to reject 25 to 35 per cent. of complaints in that respect. Therefore. I believe that there is a need to improve the position in that regard.

The Member of Parliament has two steps to take if he wishes to complain about a nationalised industry. First, he can write to the chairman of a nationalised industry, and sometimes that produces a result. Normally he receives a nice public relations letter saying that everything is now in order and that the matter is being looked after, and suggesting that the hon. Member concerned can forget about it. However, if that is not good enough the hon. Member can go to a consumer council. That council can examine the complaint and often will put the matter right.

However, there is no examination beyond that point to see whether there is anything that is happening in the nationalised industry which affects other peaple and which could be put right to assist other citizens. The consumer councils do a good job, and I do not want to knock their work, but they merely put right individual complaints. They do not get behind the case at issue, do not examine the books, and do not carry out a full investigation. For that reason I believe that the provisions of my Bill will further a citizen's rights.

We operate the Select Committee procedure, and that looks at the nationalised industries. But I believe that the role of the Select Committees is to look at the policy, the financing and the programme of a nationalised industry rather than to investigate individual complaints. There is, therefore, a role here for a new commissioner to play.

We then come to the consumer councils. I was unaware until today of how many there were. If I as a Member of Parliament do not know how many there are, obviously the citizen does not know either and is therefore not in contact with them in the way that he should be.

Perhaps I may give six examples of matters that have crossed my desk which I believe could have been referred to an Ombudsman of this sort. A school was being built in my constituency but it could not get a gas supply laid on. Every way possible was tried but without success. I wrote to the relevant consumer council and the gas supply was connected, but no one said why the delay had occur- red or why the school could not have the gas. A commissioner would do that.

My next example concerns the electricity boards. In my constituency recently the board sent out cards explaining that meter readers could not call a second time because it had insufficient staff owing to sickness and so on. A commissioner could investigate to find out why the board could not do proper meter readings.

British Airways is another case. People I know went on holiday. They went to Heathrow and were waiting to be called for their flight. They were not called. They were shown instead into a lounge which was not equipped with Tannoy and they were not therefore informed that the aeroplane was taking off. Too late, they discovered that the aircraft had left. They wrote to British Airways and I wrote to the chairman. In spite of all the letters that were written there was no way in which an investigation could be held of why that happened. These people were fobbed off, they got no compensation and they lost a great chunk of their holiday.

British Rail is another area where an improvement is needed. I have a number of complaints about timetables that are not relevant to people's travel arrangements and that often do not work, That is something that a Parliamentary Commissioner might correct.

We come next to the Post Office. For some odd reason letters coming from Norfolk to my constituency seem to take two days longer to arrive than letters from anywhere else. I have written on a number of occasions to the Post Office, but all I get back is a letter saying that the Post Office does not understand it. My constituents understand it. They think that there is incompetence and error and these need to be investigated.

About 18 months ago in my constituency coal prices were higher than anywhere else in the country. The National Coal Board could not understand why, and nor could the retailers. No one could provide an answer. That is something else that could be investigated by the Commissioner under my Bill.

The local bus company in Reading, the Alder Valley Bus Company, could not get parts for its buses. We were riding around Reading in Bournemouth Corporation buses which were a gay yellow and which may have enhanced the community, but that does not help us to understand the possible fundamental reason for this occurrence, a matter which should be investigated.

My conclusion is that the nationalised industries have a monopoly. They use vast sums of taxpayers' money. They do not seem to take as much account of the consumer as private industry does. We need watchdogs in this House. We have the Select Committees to which I have already referred. In addition, outside there are the consumer councils that do a reasonable job. But we need an Ombudsman to pursue obvious questions of maladministration, to make a report and perhaps in that way to improve the standards provided of service provided to our citizens and deal more effectively with their grievances.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

And the same should apply to private companies that take the public's money.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke, Mr. Donald Stewart, Mr. Michael Shersby, Mr. David Hunt, Sir George Young, Dr. Alan Glyn, Mr. Michael Neubert, Mr. Michael Morris and Mr. Tim Smith.