HC Deb 01 February 1982 vol 17 cc4-5
3. Mr. Gwilym Roberts

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will now make provision for the introduction of local energy consumer committees with the responsibility to advise and assist consumers with electricity, gas and solid fuel problems.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

We shall decide what changes are needed in the arrangements for improving the representation of consumer interests in the energy sector, and in other nationalised industries, following completion of the consultations on the Nationalised Industries' Consumer Council reform, which started before Christmas following the publication of our consultative document, which so far has had a favourable response.

Mr. Roberts

Will the Minister at least accept that there is a need to strengthen the energy consumer's voice? Are not many of the problems common to the various forms of energy? Is there not a need to strengthen the services available to consumers of solid fuel? Despite the work already carried out by the Solid Fuel Advisory Service and the approved coal merchant scheme, is there not a need for a consumer voice at local level?

Mrs. Oppenheim

As the hon. Gentleman is aware from my previous remarks, I am especially concerned that the consumers of nationalised industries' goods and services should have adequate protection, as they are often dissatisfied. They are dealing in an area where there is no choice because there is no competition.

On the question of energy consumer councils, one option in the consultative document is to make a stronger energy "poly-NICC" at regional and local levels, which would take account of domestic coal consumers. However, there is no evidence that the market for domestic coal consumers is large enough to warrant any increase in that area before the consultations have been completed.

Mr. John Smith

Will the Minister bear in mind that her proposals give no opportunity for consumers to comment on prices? She knows that the Government are forcing the gas industry to increase prices by 10 per cent. above the rate of inflation. Is it not clear that consumers need protecting from the Government? Does the right hon. Lady approve of that price increase?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would know already that the Government's actions under the Competition Act 1980, especially section 11 references, had the objective of finding out what aspects of costs in relation to prices were justified, especially in the area of efficiency. The reports that we have received so far show clearly that there are areas where improvements can be sought. The consumers have the right to know about the costs that are reflected in the prices. The nationalised industries concerned must mend their ways.