HC Deb 25 November 1985 vol 87 cc593-5
2. Mr. Pike

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received regarding the proposed privatisation of British Gas.

9. Mr. Ron Davies

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received about his plans to privatise the British Gas Corporation.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Peter Walker)

My right hon. Friend and I have received a number of representations from various organisations and individuals regarding the privatisation of British Gas.

Mr. Pike

Is the Secretary of State aware that public opinion shows clearly that there is no belief that this industry should be taken out of public ownership and put into the private sector? People believe that this major source of energy should be kept in public ownership and that that is the right way forward.

Mr. Walker

If the hon. Gentleman believes that, I shall look forward to fighting the next election with the Labour party promising to bring back nationalisation.

Mr. Ron Davies

May I first express my surprise that my question has been linked with question No. 2, because I did not receive the customary notification? However, does the Secretary of State accept that gas prices have risen by 36 per cent. in real terms in the past six years and that that increase falls most heavily on the low paid and those on fixed incomes? If privatisation is successful, and if world energy prices are stable or fall in real terms, how will those benefits be transferred to the consumer?

Mr. Walker

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if he was not notified, and I shall look into the reason for that.

I am certain that the price regulation methods that we shall employ will mean that consumers will benefit from the improving efficiency of British Gas in future, and therefore this will be very much to their benefit.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Will my right hon. Friend accept that I and many of my constituents are very much in favour of the privatisation of British Gas? However, will he assure us and many others that the elderly and the disabled, who currently have a good code to protect them in case of disconnection, will continue to have that protection under the new regime?

Mr. Walker

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that it is the intention of British Gas to continue with the same code of practice.

Sir Dudley Smith

Privatisation is much to be welcomed, but what will be done under the new arrangements for the significant minority of people who at present do not have a gas supply and who are affronted that they do not?

Mr. Walker

There will be provisions under the legislation whereby in those areas where British Gas does not supply at present it will be open to outside organisations to come in and do so.

Mr. Hardy

How many of those letters have asked the Secretary of State whether he has any reason, other than the attachment to a rather ugly dogma, for the privatisation of a corporation that is inherently and significantly successful, and how many of those letters have asked the Secretary of State whether he subscribes to the view that the privatisation of British Gas is designed to provide the Government with the funds to produce an electoral bribe at the end of this Parliament?

Mr. Walker

Any letters that I might have received stating such arguments would have had Labour party letterheadings.

Mr. Coombs

How many representations have drawn attention to competition as opposed to privatisation? Irrespective of the answer to that question, does my right hon. Friend agree that the gas industry needs the maximum competition, in the interests of keeping gas prices to the consumer as low as possible?

Mr. Walker

Of course. My hon. Friend will recognise that for the domestic user, street by street, competition has not existed since 1845 in Britain, nor does it exist around the world. Competition can apply, as extended by the 1983 Act, and improvements can be made on that. I am certainly in favour of competition, but competition involving several gas pipes down the same street is unlikely.

Mr. Rowlands

Has the right hon. Gentleman drawn any conclusions from the experience of OFTEL? How well does he think domestic telephone users have been protected by OFTEL? Would not the privatisation of gas be a pale imitation of what happened to the telephone industry?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman should reflect on how marvellously the consumer has done under nationalisation, without a regulator. Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, when he was a member of the last Labour Government, in one year, without a regulator, gas prices went up by 12 per cent. at the beginning of the year and by 9 per cent. six months later?