HC Deb 17 March 1986 vol 94 cc29-44

(1) It shall be the duty of the Gas Consumer's Council to appoint in accordance with a scheme under this section individuals to be local representatives of the Council.

(2) It shall be the duty of such individuals representing the Council in any locality:

  1. (a) to be available for receiving on behalf of the Council representations from consumers or prospective consumers of gas in the locality;
  2. (b) to consider and investigate any matter which appears to affect the interests of gas consumers or prospective gas consumers;
  3. (c) where action appears to be requisite as to any matter referred to in paragraph (b) above to make representations to the Council; and
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  5. (d) where action appears to the Council to be requisite as to any functions assigned to it by this part to assist the Council in making representations to achieve that action in any way in which the Council deems appropriate.

(3) The scheme shall be prepared by the Gas Consumers' Council within a period of twelve months beginning with the appointed day.

(4) The scheme shall have regard to the individual requirements and circumstances of the different regions and areas of Great Britain with, in the first instance, specific arrangements appropriate to each of the marketing regions of the "successor company" (interpretation as in section 64 of the Bill). Insofar as it fixes the number of local representatives to be appointed the scheme:

  1. (a) shall come into force on being approved by the Secretary of State
  2. (b) may be varied from time to time and if the variation affects the number of local representatives, such variation shall require the approval of the Secretary of State.'.

Government amendments Nos. 16 to 18.

Amendment No. 20, in clause 33, page 37, line 8, at end insert 'and any matter relating to the manufacture importation, supply, installation and maintenance of gas fittings'.

Government amendments Nos. 22 to 25, 39 and 40.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

As hon. Members who participated in the debates on the Bill either on Second Reading or in Committee realise, a major priority of the legislation must be to ensure that the interests of all gas consumers are fully protected. When I say all gas consumers, I mean of course not only domestic gas consumers, but industrial and commercial consumers. These categories were covered in the original Bill, but because of the system of regulation that was being set up, with the power to appoint a Director General of Gas Supply, the powers of the new Gas Consumers Council were directly related to tariff consumers and also to the relationship that they have with the Director General of Gas Supply.

This would not, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained on Second Reading, inhibit the council, once it had been set up, from acting on behalf of all consumers, not just tariff consumers. None the less, having listened to the lengthy debates in Committee on the important issue of the interests of gas consumers, my right hon. Friend and I are concerned by the views that have been expressed in the House both on Second Reading and in Standing Committee.

The powers relating to the role of the Gas Consumers Council are specifically set out in the Bill. This means that there should be no doubt about the responsibilities of the council. I have had full consultations with Miss Sheila Black, the chairman-designate of the new Gas Consumers Council, who made it plain to me that she and her colleagues on the old council would like these powers to be fully and clearly set out in the legislation.

That is the background to new clause 8. The Bill already lays a duty on the council to investigate complaints concerning the supply of gas. However, the new clause puts the new council's remit into statutory form. It provides the new council with power to investigate any complaints from gas consumers about all relevant matters concerning the sale, installation, use and maintenance of gas appliances and fittings, whether they are in use in people's homes, or whether they are for sale in shops and intended for use. The council will also have the power to investigate any other matters associated with the use of gas or gas fittings. In particular, it will have the power to investigate safety matters. All those who participated in the debates on the Bill believe, as do the Government, that this is of paramount importance. The new clause seeks to set out precisely what the Gas Consumers Council can do to enforce safety.

These powers are not in themselves adequate unless the council is able to follow up its investigations in whatever way it feels is appropriate, given its wide remit. It is important that the council should have the power to take follow-up action when it has investigated a complaint. Therefore, the new clause provides the council with the power to pass on any of the findings of British Gas or of any other supplier to the Director General of Fair Trading, the Health and Safety Executive, the complainant, or any other person or organisation that has an interest in the matter.

I hope that the new clause meets the wishes of the House and fulfils in statutory form the Government's intentions relating to the powers of the Gas Consumers Council and the points that have been made in our debates. The new clause has been warmly welcomed by Miss Sheila Black, the chairman-designate of the Gas Consumers Council. She wanted these powers to be fully spelt out. I hope that the House will accept that the new clause fulfils those objectives.

Amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 18 are required to achieve consistency in the extent to which the new Gas Consumers Council receives copies of documents. The Government have accepted an important amendment in Committee. It provides that the council is to receive copies of the annual report of the Director General of Fair Trading. Having accepted the amendment, the Government looked carefully into the matter to see whether the amendment needed to be extended to include other documents. I hope that the House agrees that it is right and proper that the council should be made fully aware of any proposals relating to a modification of the authorisation.

Amendments Nos. 22, 23 and 25 are consequential upon the new clause, if introduced. They extend the statutory remit of the new Gas Consumers Council to cover all complaints from gas consumers. The amendment will allow the council to pass on, without the normal confidentiality restrictions that are povided for in clause 41, relevant information that is gained in the course of its investigation of complaints. It will be able to give full information to the Health and Safety Executive and to Ministers and trading standards officers for the purposes of the consumer protection and consumer safety Acts. This will ensure that matters relating to the safety and standards of gas appliances can be drawn to the attention of the proper authorities.

Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 enable the Secretary of State for Energy—in practice, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—to be involved in setting the terms and conditions of employment of staff of the Gas Consumers Council. As drafted, paragraph 3 of schedule 2 requires these terms and conditions to be approved only by the Treasury. The amendments retain this requirement, but add to it the need for the approval of the Secretary of State. This is a sensible extension of the requirement, because the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should be involved in this matter. He can bring to bear his experience of other consumer bodies.

As new clause 8 and its associated amendments are of interest to the House, they will probably form a substantial part of our Report stage debate. We have put into statutory form a substantial number of the matters that were discussed in Committee. However, I emphasise again that, as originally drafted, the Bill would not have inhibited the Gas Consumers Council from doing any of the things that we are now seeking to set out in statutory form.

As I said earlier, I hope that the new clause and its associated amendments meet the wishes of the House. The Gas Consumers Council will be able to act with complete confidence, knowing that its powers are provided for in the Bill, and investigate all complaints—not just those of tariff consumers—and deal with all matters relating to appliances, fittings and installations. I commend new clause 8 and its associated amendments to the House.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

I wish to deal first with new clause 6, but before I do so, I should like to comment on what the Minister of State has just said about new clause 8. I agree that it takes into account some of the points that were raised in Committee, but may I direct his attention to paragraphs (b) and (c) of subsection (3). The last two lines of new clause 8 say: but nothing in this subsection shall require the Council to send any such copy to the Director. That is unsatisfactory. The Director General of Fair Trading will not have the power to make references. Furthermore, he will not receive copies of complaints. We are dealing not just with competition but, as the Minister of State said, with wider aspects relating to the powers of the Gas Consumers Council.

The Opposition's new clause 6 deals with representations to local representatives of the Gas Consumers Council. This matter was debated in detail in Committee, but the Government have not seen fit to take into account the representations that were made then. Therefore, the Opposition have decided to put them before the House at Report stage.

The Minister referred to the chairman-designate of the Gas Consumers Council, Miss Sheila Black, but we are indebted to the South-Western Gas Consumers Council, which has submitted a great deal of evidence to the Committee and to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Clause 2 refers in only the vaguest terms to the Secretary of State when it says that he shall have regard to the desirability of having members who are familiar with the special requirements and circumstances of different regions and areas in Great Britain when appointing members to the new Gas Consumers Council.

In Committee, the Under-Secretary told us that it was intended that the new Gas Consumers Council would have the powers to set up an advice structure on the various industrial and consumer interests in any area or to ensure that widely scattered consumers are adequately represented. However, that seems entirely to depend on the disrcetion of the future chairmen of the new Gas Consumers Council. The view of the recently appointed chairman of the new Gas Consumers Council, as expressed in her evidence to the Select Committee, is that local representation, certainly in its present form and extent, does not carry out a vital function. We contest that because our information is that over the years regional bodies of the Gas Consumers Council, perhaps not with great publicity—we have learnt more about this since the Bill—have carried out a great deal of important investigative work and have played a major part in monitoring a major publicly owned industry. I do not need to remind the House that this will be a major privately owned monopoly. The circumstances do not change.

Local representation is vital and a duty needs to be placed on the GCC rather than just on the chairman to draw up and maintain a scheme of local representation. When, as I have pointed out, the industry is transferred from public ownership into a private monopoly, the same consumer interests will remain. Therefore, they need adequate representation.

Among the main functions of local representatives is, first, troubleshooting. Customers who have complained against British Gas ask local members to take up individual problems which they have not been able to sort out themselves in, for instance, the south-western region. The same applies to Wales, Scotland, the north-west and every other region in the United Kingdom. They represent them in finding a way through the bureaucracy of the monopoly. They deal with straightforward problems by personal contact or telephone, thus preventing long written reports, and pass on to the Gas Consumers Council those cases which need a more detailed analysis or assessment. Those are important areas in which the Gas Consumers Councils act and they will be denied such opportunities when that regional representation is taken away from them. That is the vital factor.

Therefore, new clause 6 takes into account the need expressed by the Under-Secretary in Committee to maintain flexibility in the new arrangements. The proposed new clause does not take away flexibility. It makes the use of that flexibility subject to a broader base of disrcetion than the whim of an unknown future chairman of the Gas Consumers Council. In effect, it transfers from the regional gas consumers councils, based on the Gas Act 1972, section 11, to the new Gas Consumers Council the duty to draw up and maintain a scheme for local representation. However, in the requirement to have the Secretary of State's approval to the numbers in the scheme, the residual right of appeal by any regional interest group is left, should it be felt that any future proposal to dismantle, reduce, or alter the scheme set up by the new Gas Consumers Council is not justified. It widens the base of the responsibility for exercising the disrcetion to the Gas Consumers Council and the Secretary of State rather than leaving it to the apparent disrcetion of one particular person, however good that person might be, to which I have already referred. The provision relating to numbers also exists in the Gas Act 1972. Nevertheless, the new clause allows flexibility to change those arrangements without altering the prime legislation as appropriate.

4.15 pm

That is the basis of new clause 6 and I have made the case for its adoption. In effect, we are trying to put back what the Government are taking out of current legislation. I have also pointed out the weaknesses of new clause 8 and perhaps, when he replies, the Minister will deal with my points on subsection (3)(b) and (c) because we are extremely concerned about the fact that any reference to the director is removed from the new clause.

I understand that it is not possible at this stage to move new clause 6 but that will be our intention at the appropriate time.

Mr. Peter Rost (Ere wash)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on introducing this important new clause, into which he and his Department have put a great deal of effort. It allows one or two of his hon. Friends to start the proceedings on Report in a rather more harmonious way than might be the case later when some of the amendments put down by the members of the Select Committee come up for debate. Nevertheless, it is gratifying to see that the Government have responded in full measure to the large numbers of representations that some of us have had from the consumer organisations. Indeed, I understand that they are pleased with the new clause.

It is also pleasing to see that the Government have responded so adequately to the amendment put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) in Committee. Unfortunately, he has to be absent for the moment this afternoon, but I know that he initiated the prodding of the Government in order to ensure that the legislation provided a little more adequate protection for the consumer by putting a few more teeth behind the consumer organisations. That my right hon. Friend has done and in doing so he has also responded magnanimously to the Select Committee's recommendations. We also received a great deal of evidence from consumer organisations suggesting that the procedures to protect consumers in the legislation needed stiffening up a bit, and that my right hon. Friend has done.

We are pleased to say that he has also made reference to the funding of the consumer organisation. The Select Committee was concerned as to whether resources would be adequate to do the job properly. However, my right hon. Friend has given the Select Committee the assurance that whatever resources are needed to do the job properly will be provided. Thus, from all points of view the new clause is most satisfactory, and I am happy to wish it well.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

I am pleased to speak to this group of new clauses and amendments because, since the termination of the Committee stage, I have received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State covering two safety points that I raised. I thank him for his helpful letter.

My first point concerns gas cookers. The situation will probably improve substantially, but it still needs to be watched carefully.

More consideration should be given to open flue heaters. I may be raising detailed points, but they will be important when the Government's massive legislation is implemented. Open flue heaters have received some publicity already. In his letter the Under-Secretary of State wrote: the heater in question is now obsolete and it is likely that only a few old properties remain. I have made some inquiries, and I believe that until recently there were about 10,000 such heaters in the southwest region alone. The number has now been reduced to about 8,000. About half of them are in the Bristol area, as they tend to be concentrated in inner city multi-occupation accommodation. Yet the south-west is only one area, and the problem is probably still larger than the Under-Secretary of State would have us believe Thus, the situation needs to be monitored carefully.

The Under-Secretary of State also said in his letter that anybody who had this sort of heater should have it checked by a competent gas installer, which brings me to my next point, because it is expected that as a result of privatisation there will be some touting for business. Two of my constituents recently drew my attention to a reply-paid card advertising something called "South West Services". One of my constituents works for the South-West gas board and says that, to the casual observer, the logo is not dissimilar from that used by the board. Moreover, there is a freepost address in Keynsham, Bristol. Keynsham is the headquarters of the South-West gas board, and my constituent feels that the material is so similar to that sent out by the board that someone might well think that it comes from that official source. Moreover, the service is based in Stokes Croft, and there is no indication whether the people concerned are properly registered suppliers. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will look into that. I should be happy to give him the details if they would be of any help.

We welcome the Government's move towards the point that we made in Committee, but there is still much to done to locate defective appliances. Even at this late stage I ask the Under-Secretary of State to consider asking the successor authorities to institute some sort of census of appliances that may be defective, even if it means putting a question on the part of the gas account that is returned with the bill.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

We must welcome the fact that the Government have apparently, at this late stage, seen the light and the necessity to strengthen consumers' rights. Throughout the Committee stage we argued that consumers' rights were not properly enshrined in the Bill. We believe that their position is being severely weakened through the watering-down of the regional consumer councils. Access to advice and information is vital, especially for those with fuel debt problems, and we believe that that access will be reduced. The abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC will also put at risk citizens advice bureaux, which deal with thousands of fuel problem cases. As drafted, the Bill yet again weakens the consumers' position.

Given the huge, powerful and wealthy monopoly that will lie in private hands, it is important that the rights of consumers should be strengthened. It is vital that they should have strong statutory protection. Thus, I welcome the Government's new clause. Throughout the Committee stage we expressed our concern and said that there should be regional offices which were adequately staffed with efficient and experienced personnel in each British Gas region. Given the tight budget, it seems unlikely that such offices will be adequately staffed. I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance on that point.

There is obviously a need for complaints to be handled at regional level. It is essential that there should be regional complaints offices, with adequate staffing, which come under the overall management of the national body. It worries us that the scale of the proposed budget will not allow for some essential consumer services.

In Committee the Minister told us that the funding of the Gas Consumers Council was to be demand-led. He said: There is no intention to introduce a cost-cutting exercise because the function of the Gas Consumers Council must be demand led and not financially constructive to enable it to carry out its reasonable functions in the most effective way."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F; 21 January 1986, c. 166.] How is that demand to be decided? Apparently the Department of Trade and Industry is assessing future workloads for the new council and its regional offices in order to discover the demand for staff and to work out the new structure. How much confidence can gas consumers have in the new council if they are told that it cannot deal with their complaints effectively because British Gas will not co-operate or because the council does not have the resources available?

As the Government have tabled this new clause early in the debate, I hope it means that they will support our new clause, which furthers the needs of the consumer, because these needs are clearly not adequately covered by the Bill as drafted.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

I shall be brief. I welcome the Government's move and the fact that we have the support of the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) on behalf of the Select Committee. In Committee there was little support from members of the Select Committee, apart from myself.

Can the Minister say whether the consumer has any protection against the right of entry? I have put that question to him before, but I have never had an answer. I believe that a private sector monopoly will be able to decide to enter a person's private home without a magistrate's order. If I am wrong, the Minister will no doubt put me right, but there should be a provision in the Bill to protect the consumer from the threat of the private sector. A subcontractor, or perhaps a cowboy, employed by a gas supplier could take the decision to enter a person's home. The foreman on the site might decide to do that.

I hope the Minister can assure us that under new clause 8 consumers will be protected from a decision to enter their home or private property. Civil liberties are involved, and the people should be protected.

4.30 pm
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

The amendments and new clauses are important. I am pleased that the Government have accepted our arguments in Committee and that the surveillance area of the Gas Consumers Council is to be extended under new clause 8. However, those of us who come from the provinces, regions and nations that make up Great Britain regret that the new Gas Consumers Council is to have a centralised complaints role.

The regional gas consumer councils were set up by the 1972 Act and broadly continued the existence of the consultative councils set up in the Gas Act 1948. Herbert Morrison was one of the chief architects of nationalisation. He believed that when the large monopolies were created in the public sector it was important that the industries served the people and that people should have a say in the running of those industries. We argued in Committee that that ethos is even more important in relation to a large private monopoly.

The Government's attitude is typical of the Conservative party. They believe that market forces will decide all things, that British Gas plc's functions will be maintained and general standards levelled as people buy their goods or purchase energy from it. Under the new monopoly people will not have real choices and the normal market forces will not operate. That is why we want the right representation structure to be established for consumers. Consumers of gas will number almost 20 million by the end of the century and they will have to buy their energy from British Gas plc.

The Government will say that everything is working well now and that after vesting day they will still work well, but it will be a different kettle of fish with the large private monopoly. Clause 2 refers only in the vaguest terms to the Secretary of State having regard to the desirability of having members who are familiar with the special requirements and circumstances of different regions and areas in Great Britain when appointing members of the new Gas Consumers Council. That is not good enough. We should go much further. During the Standing Committee's sixth sitting the Under-Secretary of State said: the new Gas Consumers Council will have the powers to set up an advice structure on the various industrial and consumer interests in any area or to ensure that widely scattered consumers are adequately represented. I do not know whether the people of Wales or of the north-east and north-west of England regard themselves as "widely scattered consumers". I am sure that they would prefer more formal representation to ensure that by statute they have a right to be involved in the consumer protection aspect of gas.

That representation under the Bill depends on the disrcetion of the future chairman or chief officer of the new Gas Consumers Council. Miss Sheila Black, the current chairman, expressed her view recently to the Select Committee. She said: Local representation in its present form and extent does not carry out a vital function. We are unsure whether appointments to and developments of the new structure will be left to her disrcetion.

The Under-Secretary said in Committee that the Government's desire was to maintain flexibility. He said:

Every word added would be a restriction, and inflexibility would rule."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 21 January 1986; c. 168.] That is an example of the woolly thinking and limbo state in which we shall be left as a result of the Bill. The Government just seem to be hoping that things will happen. Because everything has gone marvellously for British Gas in the last 10 years, the Government hope that things will carry on like that. I have less faith in their friends in the City and in private management than they have. The general record in the private sector shows that our views are justified.

The arguments have been well rehearsed in Committee. The Opposition believe that there should be a more structured relationship between the consumer and British Gas plc. We believe that that structure should be enshrined in the Bill.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

I speak briefly in support of new clause 6. We believe that new clause 8 is an improvement to the Bill. It is certainly an improvement on the consumer protection proposals that we debated in Committee. Ministers have said repeatedly that the Bill offers the best deal for consumers and for their protection. We dispute that, but it is futile to pursue that line in the time available.

New clause 6 follows the line that we have pursued in trying to improve the Bill. If the Government are correct in saying that the Bill gives consumers the best deal, that is no reason why we should accept that the Bill is perfect and incapable of further improvement.

New clause 6 deals in particular with the regional aspect. It tries to ensure that regional and district consumer councils are strengthened and preserved. Throughout many hours of debate we have expressed our concern that many people who have given valuable time and experience over many years, representing consumer interests at district and regional level, will be swept away and their expertise will no longer be available. The Bill provides for some regional representation, but it will not be as strong or as efficient as it is at present. We want to improve on the present position.

As I have said on many occasions, there is considerable regional variation. Most consumers will find it easier to contact officials locally and any move towards a system of centralism and the relegation of the regions' importance will be a detrimental step. The proposals that are set out in new clause 6 go some way to redressing the deterioration that would ensue if the Bill were enacted unamended.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The Minister appeared to be resting a large part of his case on the somewhat smug response of the Government after consultation with Miss Black, the chairman of the National Gas Consumers Council. Unfortunately, the response that the Minister has offered the House does not seem to offer any reassurance. New clause 8 does not respond to the needs that were clearly emphasised in our long consideration of these matters in Committee, and we remain entirely dissatisfied and deeply concerned.

I emphasise the argument that has been advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). We cannot object to the modest progress and the slight change that is being made, but it will still leave a state of affairs that could become entirely and disgracefully unsatisfactory.

The hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost), who contributed to the debate, is a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Energy. He may distance himself slightly from the Government at a later stage, but he seems to be accepting new clause 8 with equanimity. Paragraph 93 of the report of the Select Committee on Energy states: The proposed Gas Users' Council must have powers and duties to srcutinise the actions of British Gas in all areas of its operations. However, the hon. Gentleman represents a Derbyshire constituency which comes within the area of East Midlands gas, which serves my constituency as well., and when the Bill is enacted and implemented there will be only one person to represent the large area of the east midlands. That one person may reside a long way from the hon. Gentleman's constituency, or from mine. Twelve individuals all represent large areas within which there will be, perhaps, millions of consumers. That shows how disgracefully the Government have responded to the Select Committee's recommendations.

Mr. Rost

The hon. Gentleman referred to one paragraph of the Select Committee's report. That paragraph goes on to state that the Gas Consumers Council should have adequate resources to perform its task, which is something that has been conceded by the Government. I do not accept that the srcutiny point has not been conceded. A little more centralisation might provide a more effective consumers' organisation.

Mr. Hardy

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not have cause to regret that comment in due course. If he believes that one individual representing millions of consumers, or potential consumers, in the east midlands will be satisfactory, he has a great deal more faith in centralisation than I have.

The hon. Gentleman must consider the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks). We are not talking about slight and unimportant matters. We must bear in mind, as we stressed on many occasions in Committee, that gas is a volatile substance and that there are circumstances in which there could be peril and risk for the consumer. On the grounds of safety and security, it is grossly unsatisfactory to have only one person representing millions of consumers.

4.45 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) shed light on another aspect of this issue when he said that we are giving a great deal of power to a private monopoly. Its representatives will be able to enter private property. It is a serious and strange departure for the Conservative party to confer such powers when it has always stood for the principle of an Englishman's home being his castle. If the Government are giving powers to a private monopoly to operate in such a way, there is even more of a case for the consumer councils to have a proper regional character. Even though the Government have moved slightly in acting on the advice of Miss Black, they have not satisfied those who are concerned that regional cover should be adequate. The Minister may have paid attention to Miss Black and to the Gas Consumers Council, which she represents, but the evidence of the South-Western gas consumers council, which was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South, was probably much more wise and valuable than that from other sources.

Apart from anything else, the new arrangements for local structures could be wiped out at the whim of an individual. There is nothing in the Bill that removes our anxiety about that. We do not believe that the appointment of one person to represent the interests of gas consumers in each of the 12 gas regions will be adequate. A comprehensive network of officers is necessary and they must have adequate resources. It is astonishing that the Government did not adopt that approach when the Bill was introduced. The fact that their conversion has been entirely half-hearted causes us still to be anxious. The fact that they are still reluctant to provide an adequate assurance that the interests of regional consumers will be protected leads us to the view that the Government are far more concerned to please the future shareholders of British Gas than to ensure that consumers' needs are met.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

With the exception of the speech of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), I began to feel that the Government's new clause was welcomed generally. The hon. Gentleman, in language to which we became accustomed in Committee— for example, he said that he was "entirely dissatisfied"—went a little over the top. In contrast, the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) said that there were certain directions in which he would like to see the Government go further. When the hon. Member for Wentworth reflects on these matters, I think he will appreciate that we have gone a long way towards spelling out in considerable detail the statutory responsibilities of the council. I am delighted that hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken that view, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost), who is an experienced member of the Select Committee on Energy. The Government respected the views of the Select Committee, and I am glad that my hon. Friend feels that its views on these matters have been covered by the new clause.

When we were dealing with new clause 8, I was asked specifically why there was not an obligation to submit a report to the Director General of Gas Supply.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Methyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Surely the director should receive reports.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The hon. Gentleman makes a good suggestion and one that might be acted upon. I should explain to the right hon. Member for Salford, East that the reference to the director has been added for the sake of clarity. There is already fierce competition in the gas appliances and servicing market, and the competitors are not gas suppliers. It is an area in which competition law already applies. The new clause requires the council to refer reports as appropriate to the Director General of Fair Trading, who will be concerned with any anti-competitive practices or monopoly abuse in supply and servicing. That is why we put it in that way, as in tariff matters the National Gas Consumers Council already has a direct role in relation to customers, reporting to the Director General of Gas Supply if it so wishes.

In relation to the other statutory extensions of powers in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), it is made absolutely clear that these are not covered by the director general and that the reports are made to those responsible for those matters. To save the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) intervening at this point, I should make it clear that if the council feels that in any matters covered by those provisions it might be appropriate to inform the director general or if it feels that he should act on an investigation which may have begun in one area and extended into another, nothing in the new clause will prevent the council from informing the director general and the director general from acting on the matter.

The new clause seeks to clarify the functions of the Gas Consumers Council. It is therefore important to make it clear to whom the council is responsible when it has investigated a complaint and wishes to make a report. In the interests of clarity, therefore, the right hon. Member for Salford, East may conclude on reflection that we have got it right.

Mr. Orme

The Minister talks of clarity, but the last two lines of new clause 8 confuse the situation. I cannot see why they are included. What is wrong with the director general being informed even if there are no immediate implications for him or for action by him? He is an important part of the new set-up, together with the Gas Consumers Council and British Gas plc, and each should know what is happening. The new clause concludes: but nothing in this subsection shall require the Council to send any such copy to the Director. We believe that that provision is wrong and should be deleted.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

This brings us back to a fundamental difference between the two sides, which arose many times in Committee. In the area of regulation, in which the director general has strong powers of control, we have sought to make the limits of his responsibility absolutely clear. Spelling this out in relation to the Gas Consumers Council also makes it clear to whom the council is obliged to report. The council is not required to report to the director general, but it is perfectly free to do so if it wishes.

The new clause makes it clear to whom the council should report—for instance, the Director General of Fair Trading—in relation to various matters. We believe that that clarity of responsibility is necessary. The Opposition would like the director general to have a wider role. That is the fundamental difference between us.

Mr. Rowlands

Perhaps I may suggest a more modest reason why the wording is not appropriate. Clause 33(1) refers to the director general's powers to review activities connected with the supply of gas through pipes, including appliances and installation. That being so, under the general review procedures he should at least receive reports from the Gas Consumers Council in relation to complaints.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The director general does not have a role in this area. Clause 33 simply allows him to inform himself about the general activities. Including a direct requirement for the council to report to him under the new clause could lead to confusion as to the person to whom the council is required to report. We have made it absolutely clear who is responsible for following up references by the Gas Consumers Council.

New clause 6, as the right hon. Member for Salford, East made clear, turns on local representation and the local role of the Gas Consumers Council. The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) also referred to this. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) fears over-centralisation in Gas Consumers Council activities, and the hon. Member for Wentworth made a similar point.

While we were preparing the Bill, the existing National Gas Consumers Council, without any prompting from the Government or the Department, carried out a review of its own activities and the effectiveness with which they could be carried out. As the evidence to the Select Committee by Miss Sheila Black shows, the existing council—not the new body, of which only the chairman-designate has been appointed—felt from its experience of dealing with complaints that the existing statutory system of regional councils was over-rigid and over-structured and did not necessarily achieve the most effective representation of consumers or the most effective protection of their interests.

It was very much in the light of that evidence that, after consultation with colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry, who are ultimately responsible for consumer matters, we decided that representation and protection of consumer interests would be more effective under the structure that we have proposed, and which I freely admit is more centralised in one sense, although members of the council will be drawn from and represent every region of British Gas. Staff will be appointed in each area and there is power for the council to set up whatever consultation or advisory procedures it thinks appropriate.

It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that no two regions are alike, but there is wide variation from the Scottish region, catering for a wide geographical area with many scattered communities, to North Thames region at the other extreme. What is appropriate for one region may well be inappropriate for another, in view of the entirely different circumstances. The Bill in no way restricts the ability of the new Gas Consumers Council to set up the structure that it believes appropriate in the various regions to satisfy the responsibilities laid upon it by the Bill.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

Having referred to the great variations between, say, Scotland and North Thames, the Minister said that under the Bill it would be for the new Gas Consumers Council to decide what structure was suitable for Scotland and for North Thames. At what stage will the people of Scotland be consulted as to what structure is best for them?

Mr. Buchanan Smith

If the hon. Gentleman had been patient for a moment longer I would have desrcibed the consultation procedures which are being undertaken before any final views are taken as to precisely what structure should be set up. There is no question of the Government imposing a structure from the centre, although I emphasise that it is not the responsibility of my right hon. Friend or myself but the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, given his statuory responsibilities for consumer protection. However, I can give the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) the assurance that what is eventually decided will be decided only after full consultation with the existing regional council offices.

5 pm.

I have heard no criticism throughout the passage of the Bill of the conduct of the regional councils and of how assiduous they have been in their work of investigating complaints and representing the intersts of consumers in their different areas. It is the existing regional councils and those employed by them whom we are currently consulting. We are also consulting with them in relation to the work that is now being done to set up an organising committee to deal with the new structure. I emphasise to the House, and particularly to the hon. Member for Dundee, East, that a number of existing regional consumers council chairmen are represented on the organising committee. For example, the present chairman of the consumers council in Scotland is a member of that committee. I think that there are concerns in Scotland. I say to the hon. Member for Dundee, East that I have met representatives of the local committee in the Grampian region in the north-east of Scotland in my constituency and I understand their views. I know that they have made their views clear to us. We have urged anybody who has approached us to direct their views to the organising committee through their own regional chairman. Therefore, I believe that there is a scope for local views to be taken into account in setting up what I admit may be a less structured, less rigid, and more flexible arrangement than that which currently exists. We are doing that in response to what the existing National Gas Consumers Council feels is in the best interests of consumers.

One of the questions which I know the council is examining in detail is the precise structure and organisation of the local representatives that would be appropriate. At this stage, I do not want to pre-empt its deliberations but, as we have repeatedly made clear, there will be staff who will work with the council of representatives appointed from each region to take up complaints at local level and keep in close touch with the views and needs of local consumers. On that point, I am at one with the right hon. Member for Salford, East. I think that it is important that there are grass roots links with consumers. Certainly, our objective is to provide a body that can give speedy and effective help. As I have said, we have been persuaded that the present system has been too rigid and it is for that reason that we are trying to provide a more flexible approach.

I would like to express my thanks to those who have served on the regional gas consumers councils because they have done an extremely good job. They have given much time and effort to dealing with the problems of gas consumers and I am sure that both sides of the House will join in paying tribute to those who, over the years, have served on the councils at local level.

One or two other points were raised during the debate. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) raised the question of safety, which we rightly debated at considerable length in Committee, and in my opening remarks today I expressed the importance that we attach to that. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the installation and maintenance of gas fittings is already covered by the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1984 which are administered by the Health and Safety Executive. In addition, the Department of Trade and Industry has considerable powers under the Consumer Safety Act 1978 in respect of the sale or supply of unsafe goods. Trading standards officers can take action to prevent the sale of any appliance considered unsafe. Those powers are to be reinforced.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bristol, South for raising that matter because it gives me the opportunity to repeat on the Floor of the House what my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and I said in Committee. The Department of Trade and Industry is hoping to introduce regulations later this year in respect of the sale of gas cookers. I repeat that because I do not want there to be any confusion about the fact that there is already an effective legislative structure to deal with safety in a number of areas.

The right hon. Member for Bristol, South raised the substantial question of appliances which might be dangerous and which were already installed. He said that he would send more details to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and myself. I would be grateful if he would do that and I or my hon. Friend would be happy to respond to him on that point. I think that we are all united on the need to ensure that safety is as effective as we can make it.

The hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and the hon. Member for Wentworth raised the question of rights of entry. The point made by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford is that British Gas will be a private company and not a nationalised industry in the future. I accept that, but British Gas could exercise compulsory rights of entry only in limited circumstances. I refer the hon. Gentleman to clause 18, and in particular paragraphs 14 to 17 of schedule 5. That clause and the paragraphs of schedule 5 control rights of entry. I do not think that there is any disagreement or concern over the need for rights of entry in an emergency. But, outside emergencies, rights of entry can only be exercised with a magistrate's warrant under the procedure set down in the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954.

That is particularly relevant to the new clause and the debate on the consumer councils, because if there were any question of abuse of those powers, it is certainly an area where the council could receive a complaint, investigate it and act upon it in order to assist a consumer, if the consumer felt that any of the powers in the Bill were being abused in any way.

Mr. Lofthouse

I should like to clarify a point. On page 77, in schedule 5, paragraph 17, the Bill spells out the provisions as to powers of entry: Where in pursuance of any powers of entry conferred by this Part of this Schedule, entry is made on any premises by an officer authorised by a public gas supplier". Before the officer can have that authority, must he have a justice's warrant?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I should like to look into that point and I shall reply to the hon. Gentleman.

The important point in this debate on consumer councils is that we must ensure that the consumers council has the power to investigate any complaint from a gas user.

We have had a useful debate on what is an important matter. I make no complaint about the amount of time spent on Second Reading, in Committee or during Report this afternoon in debating the interests of consumers, and the best way to protect them and deal with them. By spelling it out in the new clause, we have made it clear what the powers of the new Gas Consumers Council are, and to whom it can refer any complaints that it feels are justified. I am grateful for the welcome that has been given to it.

I am sorry that I cannot accept the new clause of the right hon. Member for Salford, East or the amendments associated with it, for the reasons that I have explained, but I believe that what is now in our new clause, if the House approves it, will give the new Gas Consumers Council a much clearer background against which to operate. I am sure that that is to the benefit of consumers.

Mr. Orme

We shall not oppose the Government's new clause, although we feel that it does not go far enough. It is only the guillotine that prevents us from voting for our new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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