HC Deb 31 October 1984 vol 65 cc1304-18 3.53 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I beg to move, That the draft General Consumer Council (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd October, be approved. It seems to be customary for me to rise just before the House begins any form of recess. I remember that just before the House rose for the summer recess I was kept here by a Scottish hon. Member. I promised to do what I could for him but, having returned to the House in another capacity, I have passed that responsibility on. The House begins another temporary recess tomorrow, and I have come to the Dispatch Box for the first time with my new responsibilities.

The order is the outcome of long and sometimes difficult consultations and deliberations. It is based on the recommendations of an independent advisory group of experts on consumer protection which have received widespread support from the Northern Ireland Assembly and from consumer interests in the Province. My predecessor also consulted representatives and Northern Ireland hon. Members before the order was drawn up.

The order has a long history. A proposal for a draft general consumer council order was first published on 27 September 1982 and was referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to local consumer interests, but misgivings were expressed in three main areas. The first was that electricity consumers would in future have a less effective watchdog, particularly in dealing with individual complaints. The second was that the suggested budget of about £118,000 then available to the existing bodies, which it was proposed to amalgamate, would be insufficient for the new body to carry out its functions properly and amounted to less favourable financial treatment for Northern Ireland than the comparable provision in Great Britain. The third was that any consumer council must have clear power to deal with individual consumer complaints.

At the end of the Assembly debate on 14 December 1982, Members refused to take note. Neither the then Minister of State nor the Secretary of State wished to press ahead with the proposal in the face of such substantial reservations. The proposal was therefore withdrawn and the Secretary of State asked the Minister of State to consider how best the matter might be taken forward. His view was that there should be an objective and expert examination of existing arrangements by a small advisory group. This view was generally acceptable and an independent advisory group under the chairmanship of Professor Colin Campbell, professor of jurisprudence, Queen's University, Belfast with Mrs. Joan Macintosh, vice-chairman of the National Consumer Council and Mr. David Tench, legal adviser to the Consumers' Association, was established. The group's terms of reference were: to review the arrangements for consumer protection in Northern Ireland currently provided by the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, the Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers Council, and the Northern Ireland Transport Users' Committee, having regard to:—

  1. (a) the principle that overall, consumers in Northern Ireland should enjoy no less a standard of consumer protection than consumers in other parts of the United Kingdom;
  2. (b) the special interest of consumers of the services provided by monopoly public utilities (but not the Post Office); and
  3. (c) the desirability of devising a system which, having regard to the scale of Northern Ireland, will fill any gaps in the existing arrangements and provide a consumer protection service which is cost-effective, economical, comprehensive and well co-ordinated, and to make recommendations."
The report of that group and a discussion paper by the Department of Economic Development were published on 19 October 1983. The report and discussion paper were made available to this House and have been the subject of further consultation with local consumer interests and with the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Assembly's report on the advisory group's report was placed in the Library of the House on 16 January 1984 and the Government's response was placed in the Library on 9 April 1984. These documents set out the issues involved. Hon. Members will appreciate that I have gone over this ground with the intention of demonstrating just how much deliberation has gone into the provisions which I am about to describe.

This order is not lengthy. It contains only eight articles and three schedules, but it is important to Northern Ireland and its people who are all, of course, consumers of varied goods and services. It proposes to establish a single new statutory body, the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland to promote and safeguard the interests of consumers in Northern Ireland. It abolishes existing consumer protection bodies and subsumes their powers and duties into the new council. The wording of the order has been made deliberately wide to enable it to consider all aspects of consumer affairs.

It is proposed to bring the order into operation in two stages to enable the council to be appointed 14 days after the order is made and to put in train practical matters such as appointing staff and acquiring premises so that business can start on 1 April 1985 when it is hoped that the order will become fully operative.

Articles 3 and 4 provide for the establishment of a general consumer council for Northern Ireland and set out its functions. Article 4 makes it clear that the council will have the power to deal with individual complaints should it appear that that would be appropriate. This provision reflects the views which have been expressed that while the council should have the power to receive and handle individual complaints, that should not become its main activity. I expect that the council will become directly involved in individual complaints only where existing channels for complaints are inadequate or where no adequate alternative channel exists.

No matters have been specifically excluded from the remit of the council. However, in the various documents and debates which preceded the order there has been reference to postal services in particular. Postal and telecommunications services are, as we know, reserved matters, and although it is considered that the interests of consumers on such matters can best be safeguarded by the existing consumer bodies, the council will be expected to ensure an input to consumer protection bodies in the reserved area should it appear appropriate in any particular circumstances.

Article 5 requires the council to consider and, where it appears to it to be desirable, to make recommendations on any matter affecting road or railway passenger transport services and facilities in Northern Ireland, and services and facilities provided for passengers travelling to and from Northern Ireland. The council will be competent to consider and, if appropriate, to make recommendations about sea and air services and facilities provided for passengers travelling to and from Northern Ireland.

Right hon. and hon. Members will know that there is a non-statutory body—the Air Transport Users Committee—appointed by the Civil Aviation Authority which is charged, inter alia, with the investigation of complaints against the suppliers of air transport services. Bearing in mind what I have just said in relation to article 4 about how I expect the council to interpret its brief, where there are existing routes to deal with complaints, I do not consider that there will be any conflict or overlap.

Article 5 also abolishes the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, empowers the new council to exercise its functions, and provides for consequential amendments to the Transport Act (Northern Ireland) 1967.

Article 6 requires the council to consider and, where it appears to it to be desirable, to make recommendations about any matter affecting the generation, distribution and supply of electricity including the variations of tariffs and the provision of new and improved services and facilities. It abolishes the Electricity Consumers' Council, empowers the new council to exercise its functions, and provides for consequential amendments to the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order 1972.

The provision to be made for electricity consumers and the proposed abolition of the Electricity Consumers' Council were probably the matters which provoked most comment because it was first proposed to form a single consumer protection body. I shall refer to this shortly.

When the then Minister commended the draft Agricultural Marketing (Northern Ireland) Order 1982 to the House on 16 July 1982, the Minister said that part II of that order made no provision for a consumer committee to report on the effects of any scheme on consumer interests. He pointed out that it was intended that that role would be undertaken by an amalgamated consumer protection body looking after a wide range of consumer interests in Northern Ireland. Therefore, article 7 now requires the council to consider and report to the head of the Department of Agriculture on any complaints made to it as to the effect on consumers of any agricultural marketing scheme in force under part II of the Agricultural Marketing (Northern Ireland) Order 1982. Article 7 also requires the council, where it appears to it to be desirable, to report to the head of the Department of Agriculture on the effects on consumers of any such scheme.

Provision is made for the council to be brought into consultation by the Milk Marketing Board for Northern Ireland in relation to a scheme administered by the board and to the manner in which the board is required to give written notice to the council of its plans to exercise certain powers conferred upon it by a scheme under part II of the order. The board is also required to consider any representations which the council may make in relation to the exercise of those powers. It is made clear in the order that the council will be concerned only with the effect of agricultural marketing schemes on, or complaints in relation to such schemes by, domestic consumers as opposed to industrial or trade consumers. Article 7 also provides for consequential amendments to the Agricultural Marketing (Northern Ireland) Order 1982.

Article 8 enables the repeal, in schedule 3, of relevant parts of legislation replaced by the order.

Schedule 1 sets out the arrangements for the status of the council, the appointment of its officers and members, the ordering of its business, the employment of its staff, and the acquisition of premises, funding and accountability. It will have no more than 16 members, although the Department may by order, subject to negative resolution, vary that number. Funds will cover an initial salaried staff of nine—a part-time chairman and deputy chairman, a director, deputy director, research officer, administrative officer and ancillary staff. That compares with three part-time chairmen, and four and a half full-time salaried staff serving with existing bodies.

As the financing of the proposed council in the previous proposal for a draft order was the subject of some criticism, I should here say that I have set aside a sum not exceeding £200,000 for the financing of the new council. That is a major improvement on the £118,000 in the original proposal and is rather in excess of proportional funding for the Great Britain consumer bodies. I am, however, satisfied that this is perfectly justified because the nationalised industries consumer councils do not operate in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland interests in that area will be the responsibility of the new council.

The council will be required to establish four mandatory groups—for transport, food, electricity and energy other than electricity. There will be cross-membership between the electricity and energy groups. The council is also empowered to establish such other non-mandatory groups as it considers necessary and may co-opt to all groups persons with relevant experience. Such persons will not have voting powers, nor will they exceed the number of council members in any group, thus ensuring that control of its affairs remains with the council.

When dealing with article 6, I referred to the strong views held and expressed about the provisions to be made in relation to electricity. We inclined originally to the view that a single energy group, which would be capable of making comparisons on prices and services in relation to all forms of energy resources, would be the best way to provide for consumer protection—a view shared by a number of consumer bodies which is made clear in the evidence. Against this, I have balanced other views and so the order provides for separate mandatory energy and electricity groups with two council members common to both groups. I have however taken power to make subordinate legislation after consultations with the council and, subject to negative resolution, to reduce the number of mandatory groups which the council is required to have. I expect that this power will be excercised only where, in the first instance, the council indicates that it considers that it would be advantageous to reduce the number of mandatory groups.

I expect the initiative to come not from the Government, but from the consumer council, if, after experience, it finds that that is a better way of organisation.

The draft order represents a major step forward in consumer legislation in Northern Ireland. It is the product of extensive consultation and has sought to reconcile as far as possible, conflicting views. I believe that it will provide for arrangements for consumer protection which will be both simple and effective, and which will admirably suit Northern Ireland's needs.

I commend it to the House.

4.8 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I welcome the Minister to his new post and tell him that if he continues to bring such orders before the House at this time of day, he will earn not only my gratitude but the gratitude of all hon. Members. When such orders usually come before the House in the early hours of the morning, most intelligent people are fast asleep in bed. It must be said that, sadly, in the normal run of events. the eyes of the nation would not be focussed on the General Consumer Council (Northern Ireland) Order. I welcome him and this practice, although I doubt whether he will be able to deliver the goods in this way in future.

I should emphasise that the function of the council is to promote and safeguard the interests of consumers. Those aims do not usually get the support from the Government that they deserve, and such councils are either starved of adequate resources to make them effective pressure groups or they are given insufficient powers or leaway. From my reading of the order, and my understanding of the views pressed upon the Minister by various people, I believe that it has emerged much better than might have been expected in the early days. Therefore, I welcome it on behalf of the Opposition.

The new council will excercise the functions previously performed by the Northern Ireland Transport Users' Committee and the Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers' Council, both of which have been abolished. It also creates a single statutory non-departmental body—the Northern Ireland General Consumers Council—to replace the Northern Ireland Consumers' Council, the Northern Ireland Transport Users' Council and the Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers' Council. The order provides, first, separate mandatory energy and electricity groups; secondly, two council members common to both groups; and, thirdly, departmental powers to amalgamate groups where appropriate.

I do not wish to take the time of the House, although I suspect that we might hear more from the Ulster Unionist Members. However, I should say that the report of the independent advisory group concluded that consumer protection in Northern Ireland has been accorded a low priority by the Departments responsible, and that there has been a relative lack of attention to education and training about consumer affairs. As the Minister said, Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of Britain in the attention given to consumer affairs and the resources provided.

The position is especially unfortunate given the problems faced by Northern Ireland consumers. I draw the Minister's attention to a fact about which I have addressed the house on several occasions and which, should I be in a position to do so, I shall bring to the Minister's attention in future. It is that the people in Northern Ireland face a relatively high cost of living, high unemployment, restricted energy sources and, therefore, high energy costs, and high rents for those who live in Government-financed or local authority housing. The people of Northern Ireland are being squeezed at both ends, from the point of view of income and the basic expenditure that any family must incur. Therefore, it is especially important that the new consumers council should be free to operate effectively, that it is innovative and has the resources to do the job.

I recognise that there is general approval for the order. There is some opposition to it, but I suspect that it is less than some people would have us believe. My main regret is that it has taken two years or more to get the order before the House. The delay has disadvantaged the people of Northern Ireland, perhaps not for the first time.

4.12 pm
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)

I extend my good wishes to the Minister on assuming his new position. I wish him well, although I cannot promise that I and my party will agree with him at all times.

I and my party oppose the order for several reasons, but all those reasons could be covered by one phrase—a phrase that has been used in the House many times—which is that we in Northern Ireland wish to be treated in the same manner as is the rest of the United Kingdom. Not only does the order fail to do that, it leaves us in a much weaker position than heretofore, despite the fact that the right hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior), when he was Secretary of State, said in a letter to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 February 1983: The objective of any further proposals would be to guarantee parity of consumer protection with Great Britain. We also object to the methods by which such orders are passed, without hon. Members being able to change a full stop or a comma. It was pointless for the former Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler), to propose in a letter of 6 April 1984 to lay this Order in Draft dispensing with the consultative stage in view of the very extensive consultations which have already taken place. The Minister repeated that today. The truth is that the General Consumer Council (Northern Ireland) Order 1984 has only recently been available, and its contents have not been discussed until now.

Another reason for my opposition to the order is the cavalier treatment of the Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers' Council. That body has the support of almost everyone in Northern Ireland, and 25 of the 26 district councils supported its retention as a separate body. From beginnings similar to those of the Northern Ireland Consumers' Council and the Northern Ireland Transport Users' Council, the Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers' Council has left those bodies far behind, especially the transport users' body, in expertise and in concern for those whom it serves.

Even those who support the abolition of the electricity council praise its achievements, and I wish to put on record the admiration of the Official Unionist party for the excellent work carried out by the council, its chairman and its permanent staff. Some of those who supported the order, and who do not appear to wish Northern Ireland consumers to have parity with consumers in Great Britain, say that the Northern Ireland Electricity' Service is not a nationalised industry. Although one could concede that there is a difference between, for example, the National Coal Board and the Northern Ireland Electricity Service—leaving aside the different fuels—those of us who fight daily against the unsympathetic Northern Ireland Electricity Service have no doubt that we are dealing with a Government monopoly or a nationalised industry.

The House need not take my word for that. I draw hon. Members' attention to Hansard of 19 December 1983. The hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) asked the former Minister of State for Northern Ireland for which nationalised industries he was responsible in Northern Ireland, and his plans for their future privatisation. The reply was: There are no formal nationalised industries in Northern Ireland. However, the Northern Ireland Electricity Service, the Belfast Harbour Authority and the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company with its four subsidiaries (Ulsterbus, Citybus, Northern Ireland Railways and Northern Ireland Airports Limited) are regarded as broadly analogous to nationalised industries. I have at present no plans for their privatisation, but the prospects for these and other publicly owned industries in Northern Ireland are kept continually under review."—[Official Report, 19 December 1983; Vol. 51, c. 86.] Having established that the Government, and more especially the former Minister, concede that the Northern Ireland Electricity Service is broadly the same as a nationalised industry, may we now consider what the real experts in this area said about the relationship between nationalised industries and nationalised industry consumer councils. What better can we do than to consult the Department of Trade and Industry's review of nationalised industries' consumer councils, entitled "Strategy for Reform December 1982." The foreword to the review contains a comment by the then Minister for Consumer Affairs: I am convinced that the nationalised industries' consumer councils are needed now more than ever. Paragraph 7 on page 2 states: The nationalised industry consumer councils have an essential role in this monitoring process in relation to standards of service and so on. Paragraph 8 on page 2 states: The nationalised industry consumer councils should be a mouthpiece for the ordinary consumer; so it is essential for the channels upward from the local level, to the national level, in the nationalised industry consumer council structure, to work efficiently". The review also called for an increase in statutory bodies in paragraph 26 on page 7. Since then the National Electricity Consumer Council for England and Wales has indeed been given statutory status from 1 September 1983.

Having illustrated the relationship between the Northern Ireland Electricity Service and the Great Britain nationalised industries, and emphasised how essential these nationalised industry consumer councils are, I shall now point to the difference between Northern Ireland's treatment, which under the order will have an amalgamation of bodies, and the review's conclusions for Great Britain.

Paragraph 29 of the departmental review, on page 8, clearly states: One suggestion in the consultative document was to amalgamate the nationalised industry consumer councils into three broad sectoral organisations dealing respectively with energy/utilities, transport and communications. It was suggested that this might create a more streamlined and authoritative structure than at present. Opinion in the consultations however was decisively against it. The Government have accepted that its disadvantages—in terms of the risk of increased remoteness of the nationalised industry consumer structure both from consumers and from industry management—would outweigh the possible advantages. The Government intend therefore to retain the essentials of the present 'one to one' nationalised industry consumer council/industry structure". What the order proposes for Northern Ireland is quite different. The consumer councils will indeed be amalgamated, even though that is contrary to what was said in the experts' paper.

Let us further compare like with like between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the light of the former Secretary of State's letter stating that there should be parity between the two. I have with me the structure of consumer protection in the United Kingdom. In Great Britain there is the Electricity Consumers' council with 14 regional committees, whereas in Northern Ireland there is the Northern Ireland Electricity Consumer Council. In Great Britain there is the Post Office Users' National Council, with two regional councils for Scotland and Wales, whereas in the Province there is the Post Office Users' Council for Northern Ireland. In Great Britain there is the Gas Consumers' Council with 12 regional committees, but there is no comparable body in Northern Ireland. That is understandable. Great Britain has the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, and again there is no comparable body in Northern Ireland.

In Great Britain there is the Central Transport Consultative Committee with 11 regional committees, and in the Province there is the Northern Ireland Transport Users' Committee. Great Britain has the National Consumer Council (General Matters) and Northern Ireland has the Northern Ireland Consumer Council. There is the National Water Council in Great Britain and the Northern Ireland Water Council in the Province.

This system exists at present, but when the order is approved—and it appears that it will be—all those structures will exist in Great Britain, but Northern Ireland will have the Post Office Users' Council for Northern Ireland. the Northern Ireland Water Council and a General Consumer Council. If that is like with like, my opinion differs greatly from that contained in the letters of the former Secretary of State, from the present Minister and those who support the order.

The position that I have just stated is totally opposed by the "Strategy for Reform". It may be argued that Northern Ireland does not have enough consumers to be given a Northern Ireland electricity consumers' council. The nearest comparable figures that I have been able to obtain shows that south Wales has an electricity consumers' council with four local committees catering for 0.85 million consumers. The north of Scotland has its electricity consumers' council with five local committees serving 0.55 million consumers. Northern Ireland, with 0.53 million consumers, has its one Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers' Council, and that will be abolished. It is obvious that Northern Ireland is not as well served at present, but at least it has its own electricity consumers' council.

I have quoted from the detailed and well-researched "Strategy for Reform" paper which, incidentally, is also quoted extensively in the Electricity Consumer Council's 1984 annual report. It can therefore be seen that the "Strategy for Reform" is of some significance in consumer affairs.

One could be forgiven for expecting that this important review would play some part in the examination of the whole subject in Northern Ireland. However, lo and behold, following the rejection of the similar draft General Consumer Council (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, the independent advisory group set up by the Minister of State responsible for the Department of Economic Development under the chairmanship of Professor Campbell, arrived at almost the same conclusions as the Minister and, more importantly, the Department of Economic Development. That group was appointed by the Minister and given its guidelines by him. Its conclusions had been rejected previously. I shall not comment on the about face in the Northern Ireland Assembly when it overturned the previous decision on the almost identical 1983 order, except to say that that original decision was fully supported by my Assembly party colleagues and is in keeping with the opinion of my parliamentary party colleagues. That is to reject the concept of the amalgamation of our consumer councils into one general body.

The Campbell advisory group ignored the "Strategy for Reform". It never mentioned it. Nevertheless, it found time to take several sideswipes at the existing Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers' Council. I refer to paragraphs 3.1, 3.3 and 5.6.2. When those misleading remarks were challenged by the NIECC chairman, who asked for the evidence to back up the comments, Professor Campbell could only write in reply that he had read the letter with care, but did not feel, having done so, that he would wish to qualify anything said in the report of the Group. That is a fine explanation of how his advisory group reached its conclusions.

If, as it would appear, the order was constructed on the foundation of the advisory group's report, reaching a conclusion for Northern Ireland in direct opposition to the document "Strategy for Reform" for Britain, either Britain's system, which was accepted by the Government, is wrong, or the order should be withdrawn at once.

The changes in the new, 1984, order compared with the 1983 draft order are virtually contained in paragraph 10. However, in article 5(2) the letter (b) is missing after "1967". I do not know whether there is any significance in that. It may be a printing error. In addition, in article 6(2) the letter (c) is missing. I see from schedule 1 paragraph 2(2) that 50 per cent. of nominated members will no longer be confirmed by the Minister. Instead, all the members will be appointed by the Minister when he conducts the consultations. Schedule 1 paragraph 2(3) has no specified time limit for members. That was formerly three years.

Paragraph 10(8) of schedule 1 reveals the sting in the tail of the paragraph and, indeed, of the order. Any little concessions that were given under publicly elected representatives' pressure can, under the notorious negative resolution procedure, be removed at the will and pleasure of the Department. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) was good enough to explain to me that means that there is no procedure. I have experienced what consultation between any of the bodies in Northern Ireland and the Department means. I say "at the will and pleasure of the Department" regardless of any consultations carried out. If the Department wishes, as was the original intention, that the bodies should disappear into one body without the small sub-groups, under the negative resolution procedure it is within its power to remove them at a stroke. Who is to say that they will be there in six months' time?

I hope that the Minister will consider the suggestion that, if the negative resolution procedure is to be used in future if the order goes through, he will at least consult the publicly elected representatives who are sent to the House to look after the interests of their constituents before he takes any decision.

In conclusion, I only hope that the uneasy feeling experienced by my hon. Friends and myself—that somehow the order gives the impression of being fashioned around the position or personality of a future chairman—will be assuaged by a future announcement that will surprise and please us all. My right hon. and hon. Friends will seek to divide the House on this matter.

4.35 pm
Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I cannot claim to have the specialist knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) on this matter, but every impartial listener will have concluded that he put forward what has so far been an unanswerable case. I support what he said.

I, too, extend my good wishes to the Minister. He reminded us that the former Secretary of State appointed what he called an objective and specialist group to examine the matter under debate today. The most important of the terms of reference listed by the hon. Gentleman today was that the object should be to ensure that people in Northern Ireland enjoy no less a degree of consumer protection than those living in other parts of the United Kingdom—Britain. If that was the intention, why depart from the structures which exist in Britain? We are bound to go on to ask whether those structures in Britain are somehow defective. They appear from the chart to be workable and they seem to be a practical method of ensuring consumer protection across the field of activities in the nationalised industries with which they deal. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us, but so far I can see no justification for departing from the previous structure.

The Minister said, and I do not contest it, that the Northern Ireland Assembly devoted much study to the report of the specialist advisory body. But, as my hon. Friend reminded us, at an earlier stage the Assembly devoted a similar amount of time to considering the opposite view and came to opposite conclusions. It would not be fair to ask the Minister by whom the Northern Ireland Assembly members were manipulated and for what purpose. But it is strange that a body of elected representatives meeting in the Northern Ireland Assembly should suddenly stand on their heads and approve a recommendation which was precisely the opposite of that which was approved unanimously earlier.

The document to which my hon. Friend drew attention was, I think I am right in saying, produced by a former Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs in Britain. My hon. Friend quoted from paragraph 29 and the final words to which he drew attention should be repeated. It said: The Government intend therefore to retain the essentials of the present 'one-to-one' … structure. Nothing said during the consultations, and nothing produced by the advisory body, gives sound justifications for departing from what the Government intended, which was to retain the essentials of the one-to-one structure.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that energy costs in Northern Ireland tend to be higher than those in the remainder of the United Kingdom, and that is common ground between us. The collapse of the Kinsale gas project makes us more dependent on electricity supplies. Coal has also played an important part in our energy supplies. My party has done its best to co-operate with the National Coal Board. It may be of some comfort to the hon. Member for Hammersmith to know that I have found Mr. MacGregor a little difficult to communicate with. On one occasion I attempted to get to grips with him on what I believed to be a matter of mutual interest. His acknowledgements of my letters contained even less than the cards that we send as a holding reply. In the end, he concluded that it was not a matter for the NCB and suggested that I seek advice elsewhere—yet I was simply trying to help him.

We have done our best to preserve a balance in energy supplies for Northern Ireland, and coal plays an important part in that. However, people in Northern Ireland will not be enthusiastic about a greater dependence on coal supplies in the light of Mr. Scargill's behaviour—unless, of course, the consultations between the NUM and Colonel Gaddafi provide for cheap Libyan oil for the remote parts of the United Kingdom.

The Government have acted against their professed target and doctrine of parity with Great Britain. We had always hoped that we and the Government were of similar minds on the matter. I accept that the hon. Member for Hammersmith takes a different view. We have accepted in good faith that the Government believe that there should be parity of treatment between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but the Government have now acted against that doctrine.

People must not adopt a fallback position and say that because Northern Ireland is such a small part of the United Kingdom it cannot sustain or justify a wide range of consumer protection councils. My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) dealt admirably with that point when he said that most of the consumer protection bodies in Great Britain were regionalised and broken down into small bodies which, in the words of Lord Whitelaw, provide a close contact with people in the regions.

The argument that Northern Ireland is a small area and therefore should not have a full range of consumer protection devices cannot be sustained because they are available in similar small regions in Great Britain. The Government have acted contrary to their policies in Great Britain. Because of those unjustified contradictions, I have no alternative but to advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against this ill-thought-out legislation.

4.45 pm
Dr. Boyson

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). I listened carefully to the remarks of the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux). In passing, may I say that I hope the hon. Member for Hammersmith will feel that he has as good service from me in the future as I have tried to provide in other areas in the past.

There have been a considerable number of changes from the original order, which was flatly turned down by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The money has been almost doubled and we have supported the idea that the electricity and energy groups should be separated within the council. The order places more stress on the power to consider complaints that are not resolved by the organisation. One complaint was that people dealt only with the organisations, but the order provides that, if that fails, individuals can make representations to the consumer council.

I have before me a copy of the Government's reply on 9 April—signed by the then Secretary of State—to the Northern Ireland Assembly report on consumer protection. The reply accepted the majority of points raised. I understand the philosophical and political approach of the hon. Member for Antrim, South and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley in their desire for total identity within the United Kingdom. But, surely, the important point is that there is parity in fact, and the order provides for that. It opens channels for the Northern Ireland consumer that will be as effective as those in England, Scotland and Wales.

The functions of the nationalised bodies will be taken up by the consumer councils and exercised by the General Consumer Council. I accept that the population of Northern Ireland is similar to that of south Wales and parts of Scotland. However, for the first time the consumers will have channels through which they can obtain satisfaction. Although the actual bodies may be different, they are equivalent to those in England, Wales and Scotland.

Earlier, I read out the names of those who would sit on the advisory group, and two of the three are known to me. I am astonished by the idea that the Government can control the advisory group. The belief in the influence of the Government and previous Northern Ireland Ministers is such that I am humbled by the thought that I should achieve similar total control. The professor of jurisprudence at Queens university, Belfast, is not known to me, but I am aware of the standards and status of that university. I would be surprised if a distinguished scholar from that university did not have independence of mind. Mrs. Joan Macintosh is the vice-chairman of our National Consumer Council, so the grip of Northern Ireland Ministers in patronage will be minimal—even if such patronage would have any influence on her—which I doubt, as I know that she is a powerful lady. Similarly, David Tench, who is the legal adviser to the Consumers' Association, is of independent mind.

Although the philosophical and political considerations have been mentioned by hon. Members, we are concerned with the satisfaction of the consumer. I received a letter recently from the Consumers' Association. I did not ask for the letter and it is not an example of the extension of government. I did not know that right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland would divide the House this afternoon. It is pleasant to be surprised but the surprise of a Division is not one that I want on every occasion following my appearance at the Dispatch Box. The letter is signed by the deputy director and not by one of the two members who might have been influenced in the past. He wrote: I am enclosing, for your information, a copy of a briefing note on the General Consumer Council (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which we will be circulating to a number of MPs'. I should like to know to which Members the briefing note was sent. The letter continues: As you will see, the Consumers' Association supports the Government's proposal to establish a unified Consumer Council for Northern Ireland and to establish one group in relation to the supply of electricity and another in relation to the supply of other forms of energy. The hon. Member for Antrim, South and I share at least one interest and that is football. I am glad that Northern Ireland has a good football record. One of the features of my move to the Northern Ireland Office which delighted me was the soccer record of Northern Ireland and even that of the Republic. The hon. Gentleman and I will see eye to eye, or even foot to foot, on soccer if on no other matter.

I should explain to Northern Ireland Members that I have taken about six weeks to learn what I must say on certain matters and must not say on others. They will appreciate that that remark is not directed to philosophy. It will not be my purpose to hurt anyone intentionally. I have tried to embody the old definition of an English gentleman.

It is not the Government's intention to override the General Consumer Council. If the council wants to retain the four bodies, it will do so. I hope that that will satisfy to some extent right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland. Any change will have to follow a decision of the council to make a change. The decision will not come from the Government and we shall not start the process of any change.

I realise that right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about those who wall sit on the new body. Every body is as strong or as weak as those who sit on it and it is important that there are as many independent-minded individuals on the council as possible, provided that they are not so independent that they represent no one but themselves. We do not want a set of anarchists. There s a need for individuals who represent bodies of opinion within Northern Ireland and who have the strength of mind and the will to state their views with clarity. We shall be receiving nominations and I shall be disappointed if right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland do not submit recommendations. They are citizens of Northern Ireland and they will be affected by the outcome. I have heard their views this afternoon, which they have made clear, and I expect them and all other interested bodies in the Province to submit recommendations.

I know that I would need the tongue of an angel to convince right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland that they should not vote against the order. However, I shall plead with them for a moment although I do not believe that I shall be able to influence their decision. I know that they are a truly independent group and that they would form a splendid council. We have been waiting for the order for two years. It has taken longer to get it through the House than the gestation of an elephant. If I were to say, "Yes, you are quite right"—I am certainly not saying that—"and we shall take the order back and start again", the debate would start all over again and protection for the consumer, which is the purpose of the order, would be further delayed. Upon that I rest my case. I believe that the order will be advantageous to the Northern Ireland consumer and the sooner it is implemented the better.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 173, Noes 8.

Division No. 480] [4.54 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Alton, David Beith, A. J.
Amess, David Bellingham, Henry
Aspinwall, Jack Best, Keith
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Blackburn, John
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Boscawen, Hon Robert
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Bottomley, Peter
Baldry, Tony Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Gummer, John Selwyn
Bright, Graham Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Brinton, Tim Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Hancock,.Mr. Michael
Browne, John Hannam, John
Bruinvels, Peter Hargreaves, Kenneth
Buck, Sir Antony Harvey, Robert
Burt, Alistair Hayward, Robert
Butterfill, John Heddle, John
Campbell-Savours, Dale Henderson, Barry
Carlisle, John (N Luton) Hill, James
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hind, Kenneth
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Holt, Richard
Cash, William Hooson, Tom
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Howard, Michael
Chapman, Sydney Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Chope, Christopher Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Hunt, David (Wirral)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Jackson, Robert
Colvin, Michael Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Coombs, Simon Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Cope, John Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Key, Robert
Dickens, Geoffrey Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Latham, Michael
Durant, Tony Lawler, Geoffrey
Emery, Sir Peter Lawrence, Ivan
Evennett, David Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Eyre, Sir Reginald Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fallon, Michael Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)
Favell, Anthony Lilley, Peter
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Lord, Michael
Forth, Eric MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Franks, Cecil Mates, Michael
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Mather, Carol
Freeman, Roger Maude, Hon Francis
Fry, Peter Meadowcroft, Michael
Gale, Roger Meyer, Sir Anthony
Galley, Roy Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Montgomery, Fergus
Garel-Jones, Tristan Moynihan, Hon C.
Gow, Ian Needham, Richard
Grant, Sir Anthony Neubert, Michael
Onslow, Cranley Stern, Michael
Oppenheim, Phillip Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Ottaway, Richard Stradling Thomas, J.
Page, Sir John (Harrow W) Sumberg, David
Page, Richard (Herts SW) Taylor, John (Solihull)
Pawsey, James Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Penhaligon, David Temple-Morris, Peter
Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Pollock, Alexander Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Powley, John Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Proctor, K. Harvey Thurnham, Peter
Rathbone, Tim Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Rhodes James, Robert Tracey, Richard
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Viggers, Peter
Rifkind, Malcolm Waddington, David
Robinson, Mark (N'port W) Waller, Gary
Ryder, Richard Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Sackville, Hon Thomas Warren, Kenneth
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Watts, John
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Wilkinson, John
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Winterton, Mrs Ann
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Winterton, Nicholas
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Wolfson, Mark
Sims, Roger Wood, Timothy
Skeet, T. H. H. Woodcock, Michael
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Wrigglesworth, Ian
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Yeo, Tim
Soames, Hon Nicholas Younger, Rt Hon George
Speed, Keith
Speller, Tony Tellers for the Ayes:
Spencer, Derek Mr. John Major and Mr. Ian Lang.
Steen, Anthony
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Maginnis, Ken Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down) Tellers for the Noes:
Skinner, Dennis Mr. Harold McCusker and Mr. Roy Betts.
Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft General Consumer Council (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd October, be approved.