HC Deb 16 May 1995 vol 260 cc204-21

. Nothing in this Act shall affect the operation of the following, namely—

  1. (a) sections 19 and 33 of and Schedules 3 and 6 to the General Rate Act 1967 and Schedule 3 to the Local Government Act 1974, so far as those provisions of those Acts continue to have effect in relation to periods ending before 1st April 1990;
  2. (b) the Central Rating Lists Regulations 1989, so far as those Regulations continue to have effect in relation to periods ending before 1st April 1995; and
  3. (c) the Central Rating Lists Regulations 1994, so far as those Regulations have effect in relation to periods ending before the appointed day.'.—[Mr. Eggar.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.— [Mr. Eggar.]

6.33 pm
Mr. O'Neill

On Second Reading, we tabled a reasoned amendment because, although we did not oppose the principle of the Bill, we had misgivings about the way in which it dealt with a number of issues. We expressed a number of qualifications, to which we returned in Committee. We sought additional protection for consumers, especially those on low incomes and income support, and wanted explicit guarantees that the possibility of cherry-picking and social dumping would not be allowed, but we did not get them.

We also asked about postalised pricing. The Minister said last night that he hoped that he could achieve such pricing but thought that it might not last. We were extremely concerned about all aspects of safety and matters relating to the health and safety of those working in the gas industry. In addition, we drew attention to our misgivings about the financial status of people who might be involved in the licensing process and we wanted an undertaking from the Minister about the financial status of the "fit and proper" persons.

There were debates about the concerns of some regional electricity companies, but they were not considered to be of major significance. However, we felt that the Government had not given proper status to energy efficiency or the Energy Saving Trust. Indeed, they paid scant regard to the amendments that the trust offered to the Committee and to both parties.

We were all fortunate in having access to the support and lobbying of a number of groups from the gas industry, including British Gas and the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association, from individual potential independent gas suppliers and a range of consumer organisations, some of which wanted status in legislation. We recognised that and sought to have them enshrined in the legislation.

We also felt that the Gas Consumers Council, whose future had been in some doubt, should be given certain formal responsibilities to justify its continued existence and to back its claim for additional resources. We were able to secure the interest of the trade unions involved, including Unison, which covers a plethora of different groups in the gas supply industry, and the GMB, which historically organised manual workers in the industry.

All those organisations made their amendments freely available to members of the Committee but, as far as I can recall, they were only twice picked up by Conservatives, perhaps by Back Benchers who were able to make their point and influence Ministers behind the Chair. It certainly did not happen in the Committee itself, where Conservative Back Benchers made the fewest contributions that I can recall. The one exception was the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who tabled an amendment that was subsequently defeated by the Government and Labour members of the Committee because we felt that it would endanger certain aspects of the organisation of British Gas.

Never had I been in a Committee or participated in a debate on Report in which there were so few speeches from Conservative Back Benchers, and never has so little been offered by the Government in response to reasoned arguments and debate. Inoffensive amendments were even apparently tabled by the Liberals but they, too, received no support from the Government.

The Bill has been a disappointment. We approached it believing that it was wrong that British Gas should continue to enjoy the last remaining monopoly in the gas market—the domestic market. We recognised that British Gas had enjoyed a monopoly and that the original privatisation legislation included a number of privileges in return for it meeting certain social obligations. Some of those social obligations have been diluted in the Bill because it was conceded that British Gas no longer had a monopoly of domestic gas supply and therefore should not have to carry burdens. None of the burdens or obligations that we have identified has been enshrined in the Bill.

Time after time, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) has pointed out the dilution of the quality of service that British Gas offers to consumers. There is little prospect of any improvement being made by any of the independent suppliers, either in overall or individual commitment. One group, spearheaded by United Gas, published a paper called "39 Steps and More", but because of the opposition of other independents the "and more" part was quietly dropped and we were back to the 39 undertakings to which British Gas was prepared to agree.

If we had had to consider only that aspect of the Bill, we could have said that vested interests were being taken into account and that the Government were listening to their friends in the City and in business, but there were other areas of concern too.

I should like to touch on the specific area of regulation, to which we returned in Prime Minister's Question Time today, when the division between the views of Conservative and Opposition Members was clear. We have found that division repeatedly when we have sought to address regulation. We felt that, after some nine years of privatisation and nine years of operation of the Office of Gas Supply under two different directors general, it would be appropriate to assess the situation, yet in Committee, on Report and whenever we have debated regulation we have come up against a buffer of complacency, embodied by the Minister for Industry and Energy. He says that there is nothing wrong with the world and that everything is fine. The only thing that the Government say about regulation is that, when perfect competition is achieved, somehow there will be no need for regulators. Indeed, they said last night that, like Lenin's state, regulation will somehow wither when perfect competition arises.

The nature of the market, the commodity it sells and the service that it provides to 18 million households across the country, whereby households may be heated and food may be prepared, cannot be determined exclusively by the regulator or the market alone. A regulator must take account of more than simply market considerations. It has been argued that if we changed the rules, somehow politics would intrude into the market system.

We know that, at the moment, provisions are made for the regulator to take account of the needs of elderly and disabled people, yet not of those who are on income support or low incomes. If two groups can be identified, it would be reasonable to introduce a third. It would be no less political. Indeed, we drew attention last night to the debates and the demonstrations that disabled people have staged inside and outside the Palace of Westminster in recent months. To say that disablement is not a political issue and that the rights of the disadvantaged and those on low pay is a political issue is nonsense.

I realise that there is a desire for us to complete our business this evening, so I shall not detain the House much longer. We entered into the liberalisation debate on gas in a spirit of co-operation and offered constructive criticism of the proposals. None of the issues that we have raised have received a scintilla of support or an ounce of co-operation from the Government; the Government have not travelled an inch along the road towards a compromise. For those reasons, I urge my hon. Friends to vote against Third Reading.

When we take office, we shall certainly wish to attack British Gas's monopoly and legislate for changes in it and in the gas market generally. We do not like the way in which this Bill will regulate the gas market so that 18 million families, who are dependent on gas, will have to enter the market to attain the means by which they cook their food and heat their homes. For those reasons, I ask my hon. Friends to join me in opposing the Bill.

6.44 pm
Mr. Rowlands

This Gas Bill is the third in a trilogy over the past 12 years. As a veteran of the previous two, I should like to consider briefly the contents of this Bill in the context of the evolution of the legislative process of gas privatisation.

I do not think that even the Minister could argue that there has been a logical progression in the gas privatisation process. The three Bills since 1982 have demonstrated in many ways the three contradictory objectives of privatisation: first, the Treasury demanded the maximum money possible; secondly, there was the idea of people's capitalism, with premiums on shares, which meant that the Government were not able to collect as much money; and, thirdly, enshrined in this Bill, there has been the idea of trying to create some new form of competition in what are otherwise monopolies.

As a Front-Bench spokesman on the original 1982 legislation, I remember fascinating debates with Lord Lawson, who envisaged legislation that would create an American-style privatisation—a common carriership and a huge collection of companies drawing off it. That vision was waylaid, as the Minister will be well aware because he too is a veteran of some of the arguments in the 1980s, by the corporatist tendency of Lord Walker. Barons Rooke and Walker got together and did a deal, which constituted the Gas Act of 1986. That deal basically enshrined British Gas's monopoly in the domestic market. The original Lawson legislation never intended to include the last remaining corporatist tendency, which was personified by Lord Walker and led to the 1986 Act. The Bill, as I see it, is trying to return to the original Lawson vision and create some new competition in gas.

I think that we have been very lucky, because the 1986 Act would not have produced anything like the same support for the consumer had it not been for the inspired appointment of the first director general of Ofgas, Sir James McKinnon. McKinnon has been much reviled in many circles, but he was the first regulator to care for consumers. The Littlechilds and the Carsbergs have been more interested in the theory of competition and in models. McKinnon, on behalf of the consumer, tenaciously attacked the monopoly powers of British Gas during his tenure of office.

Before we break up a large public corporation and the dominant share that it has had in domestic gas consumption, I should like to pay it one tribute. The Bill would not have been possible if it had not been for a nationalised public corporation that built the most remarkable, technically efficient natural gas pipeline. It was an amazing success story of professional and technical expertise, which was driven through despite great difficulty.

Whatever occurs in the field of competition as a result of this Bill will be dependent on that amazing exercise in technical proficiency by a nationalised concern. I know that it is now unfashionable to talk about such things—even, to a certain extent, in my party—but I pay tribute to the enormous post-war visionary generation, represented by an era of professionals, especially technical gas engineers, who built the pipeline that will enable people to develop and thrive.

Two potential absurdities and two concerns arise from the Bill. The first absurdity is already happening and will become even more evident if the Bill proceeds. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has described it. In future, when a gas engineer attends a safety call at somebody's house, identifies the problem and disconnects the supply, he will no longer be allowed to deal with the problem. He will no longer be able to repair the appliance, as he would have done in the old days. Presumably he now has to hand out a card and say, "This is the list of people you can phone." Instead of being able to deal with the problem, his operation will be ring-fenced and he will be able to deal only with the safety of the supply. In the past, he could have solved the whole problem and restored both the appliance and the supply, but now he will not be allowed to do so.

That is an appalling illustration of the nonsense and absurdity that will arise from the Bill. The second absurdity is the question of who will become the new competitors. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs on the Government Front Bench, and as he represents Brecon and Radnor, I ask him: who will be the new competitors in south Wales? The margins for such competitors will be very small; who will they be?

In fact, the only competitor to British Gas likely to emerge in south Wales is the monopolistic South Wales Electricity company. What a rich irony, and what an extraordinary situation it would be if the competition came only from another private monopoly supplier of a rival form of energy. That would reveal the absurdity of some aspects of the Bill.

I have two more concerns, one of which involves safety. I am worried not about the powers in the Bill—on safety, those are strong enough—but about the people. We have had safe gas supplies for a generation, because of the fantastic training supplied by the British gas industry since the second world war. A whole generation of gas engineers were brought up properly to care for safety and to do a Rolls-Royce job. But the new generation of gas suppliers will not devote the same effort and money as the gas industry used to devote to developing gas engineers of that quality. In fact, they will draw on the quality of the generations trained by British Gas.

Secondly, as one who represents a valley community a long way from the southern North sea, my second concern is the differential pricing that will result from the Bill. We are reassured that there will be only a 2 per cent. difference, but all the figures are guesstimates. We are told that competition will result in a 10 per cent. saving, but that for communities at the end of the line, such as most of the valley communities, that saving will be only 8 per cent. Certainly the communities in Brecon and Radnor, represented by the Under-Secretary of State, will be at the end of the line.

What will be the scale and character of the differential gas pricing? I do not believe in the 2 per cent. difference; it is a guesstimate. What will happen if the price differentials widen? Our communities will be disadvantaged as a result of the so-called competitive legislation.

I said at the beginning of my speech that this was the third in a trilogy of Gas Bills. I make one prediction: before the end of the century there will be another Gas Bill to put right the wrongs that the Bill before us will have created.

6.52 pm
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

As we all know, the Bill has been comprehensively discussed in Committee and on Report, and the same is now happening on Third Reading. By now, the Minister for Industry and Energy should be well aware of the concerns of hon. Members, not least Opposition Members. Yesterday, uncharacteristically, I was able to welcome his announcement of extra funding for the Health and Safety Executive. That shows that he has at least listened to some of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members—and it puts paid to the rumours that his ears were only painted on.

I also welcomed the Government's decision in Committee to table a subsequent amendment slightly to change the conditions for receipt of the special home services for the elderly. The Ministers knows that I was worried about that, and I am pleased that the Government decided to respond to the concerns about equal treatment for men and women.

The protection in the Bill for low-income customers is minimal. The main requirement relevant to them is that a licence must not be drafted so as to exclude the premises of customers likely to default. For the provision of services for elderly people, the Government have been prepared to give special protection in the Bill. Although I welcome that, I ask the Minister why the two cases are different. The Government have not given a convincing response to that question.

Yesterday, we discussed the possibility of access to services being restricted by requirements for deposits or specific payment methods. The Government said that they did not believe that gas companies would attempt to do that, but in a competitive market one cannot rule out the possibility. Had they offered more support for the Labour amendments, we would have been able to send a clear message to the gas suppliers to ensure that they provided a reasonably low-cost service encompassing proper choice for all who want it.

The practice of offering different prices to similar-volume consumers should not be allowed when competition is introduced into the market. It would be bad for low-income and elderly consumers alike, because they constitute the vast majority of the 20 per cent. of households with no banking facilities.

The Government have not done enough to protect the more vulnerable consumers from the effects of the introduction of full competition into the service. The prospect of cherry-picking remains a problem, and customers will be left to face it alone. The Government have made their position clear, but I hope that they have listened to what has been said about the need to involve consumers and to recognise the special obligations that fall on companies that provide such an important service.

Affordable warmth is too important to be sacrificed to competition. British Gas may be big business, but that carries with it big responsibilities that affect public safety and the quality of people's lives; potential suppliers to the domestic market must recognise that fact. I hope that the Minister will convey our feelings to them.

6.56 pm
Mr. Clapham

It will come as no surprise to the Minister to know that I am rather sceptical about the Bill. No one knows where competition in gas will take us, and many people may be disadvantaged. Already in Canada, whose gas industry is deregulated, prices have increased.

That could happen in the United Kingdom, because although there is now an oversupply of gas, the Minister will know that there is an enormous demand for gas within the energy industry. It is predicted that, by the end of the century, we shall be using as much as 40 million tonnes of gas, in coal equivalent. I also understand—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that there are now several new applications for gas-fired power stations, and that too will increase the use of gas.

In addition to the deregulation of the domestic market, the increasing marketing risks of gas production may inhibit the development of new gas fields. Those two factors—energy use and the marketing risks—could lead to higher prices. Yet yesterday, the Minister rejected the amendment that would have required the regulator to take account of supply.

The Bill is inadequate without the amendments that were tabled by the Opposition. Unfortunately, neither in Committee nor on Report was the Minister prepared to accept any of those amendments, which would have improved it. Some of them would have given the consumer safeguards. As it stands, the Bill fails to deal with consumer protection, security of supply and, in part, safety. Without new clauses 3, 6, 9 and 10, which the Minister rejected yesterday, the consumer has no statutory protection.

The Gas Consumers Council should be able to monitor the impact of the Bill on customers and to keep an eye on the prices charged and the quality of service delivered. That is fundamental if we are to ensure that the high standards set by British Gas are maintained. It is also essential that information on prices is widely publicised. I pointed out to the Minister yesterday that low-income customers on pre-payment meters consuming large quantities of gas are paying far more than other gas customers. The irony is that some customers with arrears are seeking pre-payment meters in the belief that they will save them money. Without the publication of prices in a standard form, people will not be given the opportunity to make informed choices.

When the Select Committee on Trade and Industry reported on the domestic gas market, it was unsure whether there would be advantages in terms of costs, benefits or risks. It would appear that only a small part of the cost of a therm of gas is likely to be influenced by competition. The standing charge is clearly an important element, and the Minister is aware that the regulator has proposed that the transportation element of the standing charge should be £15. That is possible because of a cross-subsidy from large users to small users. Without that mechanism, there would be millions of losers.

Do the Government intend to ensure that that cross-subsidy will continue without jeopardy? The Select Committee emphasised the need for assurance on that factor. I do not feel that social purposes will be in any way advanced by the Bill, and I urge Conservative Members to support the Opposition.

7.1 pm

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

I had considerable sympathy with the plaintive cry of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) about the Government and the Minister. They were faced with Opposition members of the Committee who were essentially sympathetic to the subject, but having moved about 270 amendments of their own, they did not find it in their hearts to accommodate a few more from the Opposition, not least my own which, as the hon. Gentleman said, were comparatively inoffensive.

The Bill is far from perfect, its most obvious flaw being the primacy it seems to give to the creation of competition in a perfect theoretical framework over the practical interests of serving the consumer. Those points have been put forward by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) and his colleagues at length—often at considerable length.

The Bill seeks to create a competitive framework for the supply of gas to the domestic consumer which will in the long term serve the consumer better than a continuing monopoly—albeit a regulated one. It may well be that, as the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) mentioned, we will find ourselves returning to legislate again on the gas industry before the end of the century. I hope that that will not be so, and I also hope that those seeking amendments of the sort which have been tabled will have better fortune in another place. But the fact remains that the measure will be in the best interests of domestic gas consumers and, for that reason, I shall be supporting it this evening.

7.5 pm

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

First, may I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D. Knox) for chairing the Committee and being so patient with us as we went through a considerable number of amendments? The amendments came mainly from the Government because this is such half-baked legislation.

I also thank my hon. Friends who have spoken today—in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—and my colleagues who have spoken with such conviction on Third Reading, including my hon. Friends the Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes). My hon. Friends spoke at length on behalf of their constituents and 18 million gas consumers. I should also like to thank my hon. Friends who spoke in Committee, including my hon. Friends the Members for Stockport (Ms Coffey), for Neath (Mr. Hain), for Dulwich (Ms Jowell), for Dagenham (Ms Church) and for Coventry North-East (Mr. Ainsworth).

This is the Third Reading of what Ministers have been trailing in the press as landmark legislation which is taking privatisation through the 1990s and is building on the so-called successes of the 1980s—successes which have turned sour for so many millions of consumers. It is amazing that not one Conservative Member spoke on Third Reading except the Minister. The Government could not get one of their own Back Benchers to stand up and say that the further privatisation of British Gas is worth supporting. It is also worth noting that none of the hon. Members from the Scottish National party is in the Chamber, and no Scottish nationalist has spoken at all in this important gas debate.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Griffiths

I am delighted to see anybody who wishes to defend the SNP, which is a dying breed.

Mr. Robathan

I understood that the Labour party wanted to go home at 7 o'clock, and I did not speak for that reason.

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman is sadly mistaken. We would be happy to fight this Bill until 7 o'clock, 8 o'clock or 10 o'clock at night, but the hon. Gentleman wants to maintain his supine position.

The Bill is supposed to be the flagship of the Government's legislation for this Session and, by giving a free hand to the private sector to lure customers away from British Gas, allows the chancers a chance to get their snouts in the trough. Yet from the hour that the Bill appeared in the Queen's Speech on 16 November, its progress has been a shambles.

Publication was expected in January, but it did not appear. The Bill did not surface at the beginning of February, or at the middle or the end of February. When it did appear in March, the schedules were not ready. We debated the Second Reading without key schedules, which did not appear until the week after the House gave the Bill its Second Reading. The schedules—the blueprint for the detail of the Bill—were simply not available because the Government had an army of civil servants struggling to close all the loopholes in this chancer's charter.

Second reading came and went, and still there were no schedules. It is no wonder the Government delayed producing the schedules. All the things that the Minister promised the House at Second Reading—guaranteed protection for elderly and disabled consumers, safeguards to protect rural gas customers and safeguards for low income groups—are not fully dealt with.

In Committee—a full 17 weeks after the Queen's Speech—the shambles continued. Some 71 amendments were tabled by the Minister to his own Bill. The Minister accuses us of opposing the legislation. Too right, but we could not match his opposition to the Bill, as shown by the number of amendments he had to table to it. He has tabled some 160 amendments to this half-baked legislation. He is saying to the House and to 8 million consumers, "Trust us—the future of gas is safe in our hands."

The Minister told the House yesterday that the poor executives of British Gas were going to make only 9p a share out of their executive options, when the real figure made so far by executives who have ripped off so many consumers is 85p, or about £1 million to the six directors of British Gas. The Minister feared that gas firms would be put off buying into British Gas if there were too many consumer safeguards in the Bill.

British Gas has already axed services and cut staff in preparation for the Bill, but the public outcry has forced the Government to introduce a battery of amendments to make sure that at least there are some consumer protections. However, the protections included are not adequate. That is why a staggering total of 231 amendments to the Government's own legislation have been tabled. The Committee chairman, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, voiced his grave reservations about the number of amendments which had been tabled, and about the fact that the Minister had tabled them so late. With more than 70 amendments tabled in the past few days, we cannot recommend this legislation to 18 million domestic gas consumers.

Who has been absent through all this? It is no wonder that the President of the Board of Trade left the Cabinet on Monday and took a plane to China. He has decided that this legislation is not safe in the Minister's hands.

Let us consider the Government's track record and why we oppose the Bill on principle. The Minister told us that British Gas has cut prices to consumers by 21 per cent., but the price that it has been paying for that gas has fallen by more than 27 per cent. since 1986. We want to know what has happened to the 6 per cent. cut that British Gas has enjoyed, which has not been passed on to consumers.

The Government say that the Bill will guarantee no cuts. It is vital that we challenge that. We challenged the cuts—the loss of 160 gas showrooms and 50 home service advisers for disabled and elderly gas consumers. We know that there will now be no curbs on British Gas or any of its competitor companies. The Government have rejected curbs on executive pay, effective safeguards for elderly and disabled consumers, price guarantees for the future and all the consumer protection that we proposed. We reject the Government and all that they stand for, and I urge the House to reject the Bill.

7.10 pm
Mr. Eggar

With the leave of the House, may I first say what a pleasure it was to be in a debate again with the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands)—these debates go back 10 years or so, but I enjoyed this one none the less. May I add my thanks to that given by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of the Standing Committee and everyone who has been involved in preparing and drafting the Bill and helping to steer it through Committee and Report? May I also join with the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), who paid tribute to the various groups outside the House who have played a constructive role as the Bill has been considered?

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South pointed out, we have had to introduce a number of technical amendments. Despite the fun that he was having at our expense, I am grateful to him and his colleagues for the sensible way in which we were able to handle those amendments. I would much rather not have had to proceed in that way, but there was no alternative.

The general objective of the Bill remains to build on successful experience in the industrial and commercial gas supply sector and to provide a sound foundation for the phased introduction of the benefits of competition to the 18 million domestic gas customers in the United Kingdom. Conservative Members believe that competition will reduce prices and improve services for consumers.

Opposition Members seem completely unable to grasp that the introduction of competition can benefit customers, whether they move to another independent supplier or stay with British Gas, and that has been a constant theme during the passage of the Bill. The reality is that nothing sharpens up a company and improves its performance more than the prospect of its customers taking their business elsewhere. Despite that essential truth, the Opposition think that customers need to be protected from having a choice.

The Opposition consistently say that they are concerned about what the hon. Member for Clackmannan calls cherry-picking. They are really concerned about not being able to interfere and dictate the results before the competition commences. The old Labour party is in the ascendant.

I shall deal briefly with the points raised by Opposition Members. They claim that the Bill lacks adequate protection for groups of vulnerable customers. Let us examine that criticism. First, special services for pensioners, the disabled and the blind will continue, just as they have with British Gas. Indeed, the Bill and the licence ensure that those requirements for those groups will be as tough as or tougher than they are at present.

The Opposition have suggested that the social obligations are inadequate because they are not on the face of the Bill, but they simply do not appear to understand that a licence condition, as structured in the Bill, is as legally binding as a provision in the legislation. A large number of the current obligations of British Gas are dealt with in its licence. Of course, the standard conditions of licences cannot be changed without the agreement of the Secretary of State.

Some Opposition Members claimed that the Bill would discriminate against low-income customers, yet the real interest of those customers is in getting cheaper gas. That is what they want and, because prices will come down as a result of the Bill, they will benefit more, proportionately, from price reductions than other customers.

If Opposition Members are really concerned about helping low-income customers, they should have supported the Bill wholeheartedly. In practice, they have opposed it in detail and, had their amendments been carried, they would have made it virtually impossible for competition to arise in any meaningful sense.

I think that there is one thing on which hon. Members on both sides of the House are agreed—we are all concerned to protect the interests of those customers who have genuine difficulties in paying their bills. The Government are as concerned about that as anyone in the House; that is why all suppliers, as a condition of their licences, will have to follow debt and disconnection procedures that are designed to assist those in genuine difficulty.

Today, The Times said that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South clearly believes in the formulation of policy on the run. It also commented: fund managers … perceive Mr. Griffiths' style to be long on threats and short on debate. Those of us who were members of the Standing Committee with the hon. Gentleman know that the fund managers are right, but we can go further and say that he is long on prejudice and short on analysis. His speeches have been wrong in almost every regard.

I shall give one example. In Committee, he said: the public are concerned that British Gas is proposing to downgrade all the current licence conditions and to review the provision of Braille controls for blind people. He continued: I fear that blind, disabled and elderly people will be forced to pick up the bill for such services."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 21 March 1995; c. 32.]

Either in ignorance or deliberately, he was misleading the Committee, because the truth is that the draft standard conditions of licences make it clear that the existing service requirement will continue. The free gas safety check, special adaptors and controls, passwords and special inquiry facilities for the blind and disabled will all be there and will be guaranteed—all without charge.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan referred, at the beginning of this Third Reading debate, to the regulator and the role of regulation. He referred to the speech that his right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) made this afternoon, which I have here. The general thrust was that, at present, the regulator has too much discretionary power.

After reading that analysis, I considered the amendments that the Opposition tabled to the Bill. In some areas, they tabled amendments that would have given the regulator more power, not less. They wanted the regulator to have the power to challenge the terms of consumers' contracts and, in effect, to be involved in decisions on the remuneration of gas company executives. They wanted the regulator to have a duty to secure choice to all consumers and not merely to promote it. Only yesterday, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) was inviting the House to agree that the regulator should have regard for the industrial and strategic interests of the British economy.

On the one hand, the right hon. Member for Copeland, who leads his party on these matters, is saying that the regulator has too much discretionary power and, on the other, that the Opposition have been tabling amendments designed to increase that power throughout the passage of the Bill. It is no good the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South just grinning. He claimed earlier in our proceedings that he had written the speech for the right hon. Member for Copeland, so he does not understand either his amendments in Committee or what he has written for the right hon. Member for Copeland. He cannot have it both ways.

The Labour party's attitude to the Bill has been absolutely fascinating. We have seen a battle played out between old Labour—the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) are in their places—and so-called "new" Labour. The hon. Member for Clackmannan made a speech last November in which he said: it is not the function of Labour to defend British Gas as the monopoly supplier of gas to any sector of the UK market. At that time, new Labour was on top and apparently in favour of competition.

To be fair, on Second Reading the right hon. Member for Copeland endorsed that competition. But official Labour abstained on Second Reading and it was left to the hon. Members for Bolsover, for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), for Preston (Mrs. Wise), for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to vote against Second Reading. In Committee, new Labour prevailed, except the hon. Member for Neath when he bothered to turn up and make speeches for the benefit of his local papers. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. What started as a series of private conversations has now become a hubbub. I am not prepared to preside over a hubbub. I therefore ask for considerably greater quiet.

Mr. Eggar

After hours of debate and a well-trailed speech by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) in which he extolled the virtues of competition, today on Third Reading the Opposition have a chance to say conclusively whether they are in favour of competition. That is the choice they must make in a few seconds when we go in to the Lobbies. Will the official Opposition represent a victory for new Labour in favour of competition, or for old Labour against competition? If they oppose Third Reading, they will show what we all know: that the Labour party has not changed and is still in favour of state control and against competition. A vote against Third Reading will be a vote for the hon. Member for Bolsover.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 297, Noes 228.

Division No. 149] [7.22 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Carrington, Matthew
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Carttiss, Michael
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Cash, William
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Alton, David Chidgey, David
Amess, David Clappison, James
Arbuthnot, James Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Coe, Sebastian
Ashby, David Congdon, David
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Conway, Derek
Atkins, Robert Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V) Couchman, James
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Cran, James
Baldry, Tony Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Bates, Michael Davis, David (Boothferry)
Batiste, Spencer Day, Stephen
Bendall, Vivian Deva, Nirj Joseph
Beresford, Sir Paul Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Biffen, Rt Hon John Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Body, Sir Richard Dover, Den
Booth, Hartley Duncan, Alan
Boswell, Tim Duncan-Smith, Iain
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Dunn, Bob
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Durant, Sir Anthony
Bowis, John Eggar, Rt Hon Tim
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Elletson, Harold
Brandreth, Gyles Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Brazier, Julian Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Bright, Sir Graham Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Browning, Mrs Angela Evennett, David
Bruce, Ian (Dorset) Faber, David
Budgen, Nicholas Fabricant, Michael
Burns, Simon Fenner, Dame Peggy
Burt, Alistair Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Butcher, John Fishbum, Dudley
Butler, Peter Forman, Nigel
Butterfill, John Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Forth, Eric
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Lightbown, David
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
French, Douglas Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Gale, Roger Lord, Michael
Gallie, Phil Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Gardiner, Sir George Lynne, Ms Liz
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Garnier, Edward MacKay, Andrew
Gill, Christopher Maclean, David
Gillan, Cheryl Maclennan, Robert
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair McLoughlin, Patrick
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Madel, Sir David
Gorst, Sir John Maitland, Lady Olga
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Malone, Gerald
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Mans, Keith
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Marlow, Tony
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Grylls, Sir Michael Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Hague, William Mates, Michael
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Mellor, Rt Hon David
Hampson, Dr Keith Merchant, Piers
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Hannam, Sir John Mills, Iain
Hargreaves, Andrew Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Harris, David Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Harvey, Nick Moate, Sir Roger
Haselhurst, Alan Monro, Sir Hector
Hawkins, Nick Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hayes, Jerry Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Heald, Oliver Nelson, Anthony
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Neubert, Sir Michael
Heathcoat-Amory, David Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Hendry, Charles Nicholls, Patrick
Hicks, Robert Nicholson, David
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence Norris, Steve
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Oppenheim, Phillip
Horam, John Ottaway, Richard
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Page, Richard
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Patnick, Sir Irvine
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Patten, Rt Hon John
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Pawsey, James
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hunter, Andrew Pickles, Eric
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Jack, Michael Porter, David (Waveney)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Jenkin, Bernard Powell, William (Corby)
Jessel, Toby Rendel, David
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Riddick, Graham
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Robathan, Andrew
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Kennedy, Charies (Ross,C&S) Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
King, Rt Hon Tom Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Kirkhope, Timothy Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Knapman, Roger Sackville, Tom
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n) Shaw, David (Dover)
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Shepnard, Rt Hon Gillian
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Sims, Roger
Legg, Barry Skeet, Sir Trevor
Leigh, Edward Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark Soames, Nicholas
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Spencer, Sir Derek
Lidington, David Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Spink, Dr Robert Trend, Michael
Spring, Richard Twinn, Dr Ian
Sproat, Iain Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Viggers, Peter
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David Walden, George
Steen, Anthony Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Stephen, Michael Wallace, James
Stem, Michael Waller, Gary
Stewart, Allan Ward, John
Streeter, Gary Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Sumberg, David Waterson, Nigel
Watts, John
Sykes, John Wells, Bowen
Tapsell, Sir Peter Whitney, Ray
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Whittingdale, John
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Widdecombe, Ann
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Wilkinson, John
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E) Willetts, David
Temple-Morris, Peter Wilshire, David
Thomason, Roy Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'fld)
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V) Wolfson, Mark
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N) Yeo, Tim
Thornton, Sir Malcolm Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Thumham, Peter
Townend, John (Bridlington) Tellers for the Ayes:
Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th) Mr. Sydney Chapman and
Tracey, Richard Mr. Timothy Wood.
Abbott, Ms Diane Cousins, Jim
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cummings, John
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Cunliffe, Lawrence
Anderson, Ms Janet (Rossendale) Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Anderson, Ms Janet Dafis, Cynog
Armstrong, Hilary Dalyell, Tam
Ashton, Joe Darling, Alistair
Austin-Walker, John Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Barnes, Harry Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Barron, Kevin Denham, John
Battle, John Dewar, Donald
Bayley, Hugh Dixon, Don
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Dobson, Frank
Bell, Stuart Donohoe, Brian H
Bennett, Andrew F Dowd, Jim
Berry, Roger Dunnachie, Jimmy
Betts, Clive Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Blunkett, David Eagle, Ms Angela
Boateng, Paul Eastham, Ken
Bradley, Keith Enright, Derek
Bray, Dr Jeremy Etherington, Bill
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Evans, John (St Helens N)
Burden, Richard Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Byers, Stephen Faulds, Andrew
Caborn, Richard Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Callaghan, Jim Flynn, Paul
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyfh V) Foulkes, George
Canavan, Dennis Fraser, John
Cann, Jamie Fyfe, Maria
Chisholm, Malcolm Galbraith, Sam
Church, Judith Galloway, George
Clapham, Michael Gapes, Mike
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Garrett, John
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Gerrard, Neil
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Clelland, David Godman, Dr Norman A
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Godsiff, Roger
Coffey, Ann Golding, Mrs Llin
Cohen, Harry Gordon, Mildred
Connarty, Michael Graham, Thomas
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Corbett, Robin Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Corbyn, Jeremy Grocott, Bruce
Gunnell, John O'Hara, Edward
Hain, Peter Olner, Bill
Hall, Mike O'Neill, Martin
Harman, Ms Harriet Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Parry, Robert
Heppell, John Pearson, Ian
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Pendry, Tom
Hinchliffe, David Pike, Peter L
Hodge, Margaret Pope, Greg
Hoey, Kate Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Hood, Jimmy Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Hoon, Geoffrey Prescott, Rt Hon John
Howarth, George (Knowsley North) Primarolo, Dawn
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) Purchase, Ken
Hoyle, Doug Quin, Ms Joyce
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Randall, Stuart
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Raynsford, Nick
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Reid, Dr John
Hutton, John Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Illsley, Eric Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Ingram, Adam Roche, Mrs Barbara
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Rogers, Allan
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Rooker, Jeff
Jamieson, David Rooney, Terry
Janner, Greville Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Rowlands, Ted
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Ruddock, Joan
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Salmond, Alex
Jowell, Tessa Sedgemore, Brian
Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn) Sheerman, Barry
Khabra, Piara S Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Kilfoyle, Peter Short, Clare
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Skinner, Dennis
Lewis, Terry Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Litherland, Robert Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Livingstone, Ken Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Snape, Peter
Loyden, Eddie Soley, Clive
McAllion, John Spellar, John
McAvoy, Thomas Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
McCartney, Ian Steinberg, Gerry
Macdonald, Calum Stevenson, George
McFall, John Stott, Roger
Mackinlay, Andrew Straw, Jack
McLeish, Henry Sutcliffe, Gerry
McMaster, Gordon Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
McNamara, Kevin Timms, Stephen
MacShane, Denis Tipping, Paddy
Madden, Max Touhig, Don
Mahon, Alice Turner, Dennis
Mandelson, Peter Vaz, Keith
Marek, Dr John Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Martlew, Eric Wareing, Robert N
Meacher, Michael Watson, Mike
Meale, Alan Welsh, Andrew
Michael, Alun Wicks, Malcolm
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Milburn, Alan Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Wilson, Brian
Moonie, Dr Lewis Winnick, David
Morgan, Rhodri Wise, Audrey
Morley, Elliot Worthington, Tony
Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe) Wray, Jimmy
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Wright, Dr Tony
Mudie, George Young, David (Bolton SE)
Mullin, Chris
Murphy, Paul Tellers for the Noes:
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Mr. John Owen Jones and
O'Brien, William (Nonmanton) Mr. Joe Benton.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I briefly ask your advice on a matter of some importance? In another place, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish announced that the jobseeker's allowance would not be introduced as planned on 1 April 1996, but would be introduced in October 1996—a delay of six months. Since then, we have obtained a little further information which makes the matter even more important.

In a written answer today, we are told that Ministers have concluded that, in order to deliver an excellent service to unemployed people from day one"— which sounds an interesting euphemism— JSA should be introduced in October 1996. It continues: the duration of an unemployed claimant's entitlement to Unemployment Benefit will, from April 1996, be the same as it would have been had JSA been introduced on that date. In other words, the cut from 12 to six months in entitlement will take effect from 1 April.

I am also told, although I cannot confirm it, that lower rates of unemployment benefit will be introduced as though JSA had been introduced on 1 April and that changes in structure, such as the differential rates for those below and above the age of 25 will be introduced on 1 April. I may be wrong, but it appears that the change in Government intention is a retreat in theory but not in substance, and that, to put it quite frankly, what happened today was a form of deception in terms of an apparent announcement that does not bear examination.

My concern is that, if they mean what they appear to mean, today's changes are extremely important. They also raise important issues about the Government, if they can announce that they do not intend to implement changes and then smuggle them in administratively. There would appear to be no need for a statement in the House or any administrative regulation or legislation in order to change unemployment structures into some kind of ghost of the jobseeker's allowance.

In view of all that, it is important that we have a statement at the earliest possible opportunity. I wonder whether you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have had any intimation of one, or if Ministers can reassure us that these rather mysterious and opaque goings on will be explained to the House so that we can judge them for what they are worth and take the appropriate action.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

I have had no intimation that a statement is to be made, but the Leader of the House is present and no doubt he will have heard what was said. Even if no statement is forthcoming, one can rely on the ingenuity of hon. Members in finding other legitimate ways of raising the issue.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Is it the same point of order?

Mr. McCartney

No, it is a different point of order. I am the hon. Member who put the questions on the Order Paper on 11 May for written answer on 16 May. The parliamentary questions were delivered to me after they were submitted to the press in the Press Gallery. However, despite that, looking at the detail of the written answers, it is clear that some fundamental questions still require answers. First, the Government did not state in the written answer—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It seems to me that the hon. Member is raising the same point of order. I have said that I can deal only with matters that relate to responsibilities of the Chair. This is clearly not the responsibility of the Chair.

Mr. McCartney

I am raising a different point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, relating to whether the Secretary of State has exceeded his powers in respect of the answer that I was given, which requires a response. I apologise if I am delaying the House, but the answer is vital to the business of the House. The position is clear—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman but I can deal only with matters that relate to the responsibilities of the Chair. The matters to which the hon. Gentleman refers clearly do not. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to desist.

Mr. McCartney

I do not want to incur your wrath, Madam Deputy Speaker, but—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have effectively asked the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. We must move on.

Mr. McCartney

The question that relates to the Chair is whether the Secretary of State's answer of 16 May in respect of my question of 11 May is ultra vires. If so, both the Leader of the House—who is present—and Ministers should come to the House with an explanation.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Those matters are not for the Chair. I am not prepared to consider them further.