HC Deb 21 December 1982 vol 34 cc838-40 4.12 pm
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With great respect, I seek your guidance on a matter involving ministerial behaviour that I believe to have been grossly discourteous to, some would say contemptuous of, this House and, at the same time, downright misleading to the right hon. and hon. Members directly concerned on both sides of the House.

Some weeks ago I asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expected the reports of the consultants who have been examining the standing charges imposed on gas and electricity consumers, which, in the case of meter credit gas consumers in my constituency, have increased from £1.50 a quarter in April 1979 to £9.20 a quarter today. In reply, I was told that the reports were expected by the end of the year.

On 10 December, I asked the Secretary of State if he would seek to have the reports of the consultants expedited in order for him to be able to make a statement before the Christmas Adjournment. The reply I was given to that question was: It would not be practicable to do so."—[Official Report, 10 December 1982; Vol. 33, c. 652.] I then asked the Secretary of State, in a question for priority written answer last Friday, to set out the practical difficulties in the way of expediting the reports, so that he could make a statement to the House before the Christmas Adjournment. The reply to that question came not last Friday, but last night when I was told in a reply from the Under-Secretary: The reports are not yet ready."—[Official Report, 20 December 1982; Vol. 34, c. 326.] Almost at the very moment that that reply was being given to the House, there was an announcement by the Electricity Council outside the House that, on the basis of the report that it had received, it would recommend the area electricity boards to cut their standing charges. The House was, therefore, misled by the Minister's reply to me. I trust that you will agree with me, Mr. Speaker, that the matter is a serious one and I shall be most grateful to have your guidance.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Nigel Lawson)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I assure the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) that he has not been treated badly, and I shall explain why, but I regret that he feels that he has been treated badly because I know how long and with what great sincerity he has been campaigning over the issue of standing charges.

Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe is confused between two different and separate matters, which I originally announced in October. The first was the setting up, by agreement with the gas and electricity industries, of independent inquiries by outside consultants into standing charges, that composition and control of the costs that went into them. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State was asked about those reports and he correctly replied: The reports are not yet ready."—[Official Report, 20 December 1982; Vol. 34, c. 326.] That is correct, as we have not yet received the reports.

Simultaneously in October I made a request to the electricity supply industry and the gas industry, which was simply a request and quite apart from the reports, about whether they could do something special for the small consumer. I have no power to direct the industries, and I am still awaiting a response from the gas industry.

However, I am glad to say that at 4 pm yesterday, on its own behalf, the Electricity Council—I am pleased about this and I hope the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe is also pleased—said that it would accede to my request and would recommend the area boards to implement the scheme as soon as possible so that in future about 2 million small users, at least half of whom are pensioners, will no longer have quarterly bills in which the standing charge element is bigger than the amount consumed. In future, the standing charge element will be no larger than the amount of units consumed. I am sure that that will be widely welcomed throughout the House and the country and by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe.

These are two separate matters that the right hon. Gentleman is confusing. With regard to the issue of the Electricity Council, that is a matter over which I have no power. Even if my hon. Friend had wished to do so, it would have been wholly wrong for him to anticipate their recommendations in his answer.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance because the Secretary of State said that the statement by the Electricity Council will be welcomed by the House and by the country. By "the country", I understand that he means England, because the statement by the Electricity Council does not relate to Scotland. How can we find out the position of Scotland and ensure that the statement is extended to include Scotland? There is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about the matter.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that he can find out. He knows how to find out without my telling him how to handle his parliamentary affairs.


Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is about the Secretary of State's attempt to explain away the difficulty over standing charges. Does it not show, and does not the resulting exchange show clearly, that there is a problem for my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and others? They wish to question matters relating to nationalised industries and their day-to-day administration, while at the same time the Minister, who is not operating under the guise of a director of the nationalised industries—a point to which my right hon. Friend could have referred—can operate on the basis of trying to give some gimmicky electral handout? I wish that it would be the £2 million for pensioners that he described, but it will not be. At the same time, my right hon. Friend and others who wish to question the Minister about matters of day-to-day administration are prevented from questioning these facts. Neglect has been shown to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and the House should once again question the day-to-day administration of nationalised industries and general directives.

Mr. Speaker

I have allowed the House to hear these exchanges, but it will realise that there is nothing further that I can add.