§ 3. Mr. Clifton-Brown
To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will take steps to ensure that British Gas will continue to maintain its free gas care services for the elderly, disabled and blind.
§ 13. Mr. Jon Owen Jones
To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will meet the Gas Regulator to discuss the future of services to gas customers who have disabilities.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy (Mr. Charles Wardle)
British Gas has made it clear that it will not cut the services that it offers to the elderly or disabled, and that it will not introduce charges for such services. The forthcoming Gas Bill will provide that all suppliers make special services available to those groups of customers.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been a 15 per cent. cut in the price of gas in real terms since privatisation, even after allowing for the recent increase in VAT, and that customers have therefore had an extremely good deal from British Gas? In those circumstances, the interests of those in society who are less able to look after themselves—the old, the disabled and the blind—should be fully protected. Will my hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that those interests are fully protected both now and, above all, under the new Gas Bill? When the industry is deregulated such services will come under further pressure.
§ Mr. Wardle
My hon. Friend is right about the fall in gas prices; he will also know that the standing charge has fallen by 28 per cent. in real terms since privatisation. British Gas is not cutting special services. It was made clear in the consultation document last May that all suppliers of gas would have to offer such special services, and that obligation will be written into the Bill which will be published shortly.
§ Mr. Jones
Why can the Minister not guarantee that British Gas will continue to offer the sort of free service currently available to the blind and disabled? We have heard rumours that under the new regime the company will charge blind people up to £25 for the privilege of having their meters read. Can the Minister guarantee that there will be no additional charges for disabled or blind people?
§ Mr. Wardle
The hon. Gentleman should not listen to such rumours or stir such mischief. He knows that British 329 Gas provides the special services to about 1 million customers, at a cost of about £30 million, and that the company has no intention of charging for them.
§ Mr. James Hill
My hon. Friend will be aware that the gas companies are very capable of helping in the regions, especially in connection with the arts, culture, the support of orchestras, and so on. Clearly there is much good will in the British Gas corporation, but will my hon. Friend ask it again to dispense with the myth that heavy penalties may fall on the elderly, the disabled and the blind?
§ Mr. Wardle
I am happy to confirm yet again that there will be no such penalties. It is also worth adding that safety remains of paramount importance to British Gas. The company has recently spent more than £1,000 million on replacing pipelines in the interests of safety, and routinely spends £100 million a year on safety checks and measures.
§ Mr. Nigel Griffiths
But Michael Alexander, the director of public gas supply, has said that he cannot guarantee the special services unless there is a level playing field. Paragraph 6.11 of the Minister's discussion document says that obligations to elderly and disabled gas customers are a matter for debate; the document also says that it may be unnecessary to retain prescribed levels of service. If the Minister thinks that he can pretend otherwise, he is a nitwit.
§ Mr. Wardle
The hon. Gentleman is in more than usually excited and excitable form. I hope that he will bear in mind what the consultation document says—that a condition of the licence that gas suppliers will need before they can supply domestic consumers is that they must offer such special services. So who is the nitwit?