HC Deb 01 November 1995 vol 265 cc320-7

Lords amendment: No. 69, in page 23, line 11, at end insert— ("Supplies of gas illegally taken 8A.—(1) Where any person takes a supply of gas which is in the course of being conveyed by a public gas transporter, the transporter shall be entitled to recover from that person the value of the gas so taken.

(2) Where—

  1. (a) any person at premises which have been reconnected in contravention of paragraph 10(1) below takes a supply of gas which has been conveyed to those premises by the public gas transporter; and
  2. (b) the supply is taken otherwise than in pursuance of a contract made with a gas supplier, or deemed to have been made with such a supplier by virtue of paragraph 8 above or paragraph 15 of Schedule 5 to the Gas Act 1995,
the transporter shall be entitled to recover from that person the value of the gas so taken.

(3) Each public gas transporter shall make, and from time to time revise, a scheme providing for the manner in which, and the persons by whom, the number of therms or kilowatt hours represented by a supply of gas taken in such circumstances as are mentioned in sub-paragraph (1) or (2) above is to be determined for the purposes of that sub-paragraph.

(4) Sub-paragraphs (8) and (9) of paragraph 8 above shall apply in relation to a scheme under this paragraph as they apply in relation to a scheme under that paragraph.

(5) In this paragraph— gas supplier" includes a person authorised to supply gas by an exemption granted under section 6A of this Act or an exception contained in Schedule 2A to this Act; value", in relation to any gas taken in such circumstances as are mentioned in sub-paragraph (1) or (2) above, means the amount which, if the gas had been taken in such circumstances as are mentioned in sub-paragraph (2) of paragraph 8 above, could reasonably be expected to have been payable in respect of the gas under a contract deemed to have been made by virtue of that sub-paragraph.")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. Eggar.]

4.30 pm
Mr. Rowlands

The amendment inserts an entire new paragraph in schedule 2, allowing the supplier to claim the value of gas taken illegally. Is it a long-standing provision? Does it exist in any previous gas legislation? I foresee a good deal of argument about the value of gas that is taken illegally, and about how that value is to be clawed back. I know of no such cases in my constituency, but I can envisage them in the future.

Mr. Connarty

Will the Minister explain how the charge will be levied? Will it be levied on premises or individuals? I do not want the legislation to penalise a person who has been named in a formal contract as the recipient of the gas supply when someone else may have taken the gas when the premises were empty, for instance. The premises might be rented or sublet by the contracted gas consumer, or someone might be living there illegally. The commercial position may be easily explained, but what about individual gas consumers in domestic premises?

Mr. Eggar

The Gas Act 1986 allows gas charges to be recovered by public gas suppliers, whether or not the gas was taken by arrangement. That is not a novel concept. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that the amendment makes an additional provision in relation to the theft of gas. Paragraph 8 of schedule 2 provides that the owner or occupier is to be deemed to have contracted with the appropriate supplier when gas is taken without authority, but that the existence of that deemed contract will not provide a defence in any criminal proceedings for theft of gas. The amendment is therefore to plug a potential loophole.

There are, however, other circumstances where gas might be stolen and where it is appropriate for the public gas transporter and not the gas supplier to be responsible for recovering the sums concerned. For example, where premises may have been permanently disconnected or where gas is stolen in the course of its conveyance—directly from one of the pipelines—there may not a supplier with title to the gas who is able to recover the money. If gas is taken from a pipeline, no one quite knows to which company the gas belongs and a deemed contract does not exist, one must have a way of taking action against the thief because, in effect, someone is stealing gas. That is the reason for all the provisions.

Mr. Rowlands

Do the provisions apply only to the transporter? Do they not cover the gas supplier?

Mr. Eggar

The scheme that is made under the new paragraph will contain provisions for determining who is responsible to the transporter for the taken gas. One must consider this in the light of the particular circumstances of a case. We are trying to cover every eventuality and ensure that there is a case to be answered for someone who nicks gas, in the colloquial term.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 70 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 71, in page 23, line 42, after ("above") insert

("— (a)")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. Eggar.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also Lords amendments Nos. 72, 73, 81, 286 and 287.

Mr. Battle

In relation to the Minister's comments in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), today it was revealed that Clare Spottiswoode, Director General of Gas Supply, has taken a part-time job with Booker McConnell. That is surprising due to her high work load, to which she has often referred. I do not know whether ministerial consent was sought or needed, but it suggests that her work load would be more than cut in dealing with the complex and brave new world opened by the Gas Bill shortly after it becomes law. That she has time to take up a part-time job at this stage is surprising.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the justification for the regulator's increase in salary earlier this year was precisely that she did not have time to take on other jobs, which had been the basis of her original contract?

Mr. Battle

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) share my surprise. We can simply note our surprise at this stage, but, in view of our debates today, it puts something of a question mark over the regulator's role.

Amendment No. 81. deals with entry following discontinuance of supply. In the other place, Earl Ferrers tabled the amendment, which has serious implications for all gas consumers, and is of concern to the Gas Consumers Council and to us. The Lords amendment reads: Any officer authorised by the public gas transporter or gas supplier"— after 24 hours' notice lo the occupier or to the owner of the premises if they are unoccupied— may at all reasonable times, on production of some duly authenticated document showing his authority, enter the premises for the purpose of ascertaining whether the premises have been reconnected, or the supply has been restored, without the relevant consent. The amendment gives the gas supplier the right to enter the premises of a consumer who is not a customer of the supplier, perhaps because he has had his supply previously disconnected. As a result of the drafting of the amendment, the supplier will need to give no reason why he wants to enter the premises. He will not need to show the evidence that has led him to suspect that there has been illegal reconnection of the gas supply. The amendment could lead to an infringement of civil liberties and private property rights. We should know where we are. The amendment allows no redress for consumers who may have suffered disruption, inconvenience and perhaps even distress as a result of the operation of this power. The power could clearly be open to abuse.

The amendment refers to Any officer authorised by the public gas transporter or gas supplier being able to enter the premises, which compounds the concern that meter service providers should be registered and subject to a code of conduct. Entering premises could be an additional service that metering companies could provide to the supplier who has subcontracted out the work to them.

It is not clear whether, purely as a result of the authorised officer being able to produce a "duly authenticated document", he will be allowed to enter the premises of a consumer even if the consumer is not there. The present requirement is to give 24 hours' notice; that is short notice, especially at weekends or in holiday periods.

I have some recommendations for the Minister and I urge the Government to take them on board. We suggest that the supplier or the public gas transporter should be required to give at least 48 hours' notice, by recorded delivery, of the intention to enter the consumer's premises. The letter should clearly state who the authorised officer will be; any deviation should make the authorisation null and void. Any authorised officer, whether or not he is an employee of a public gas transporter or supplier, should be an employee of a meter service provider registered with Ofgas. We suggest that it should be spelt out in the Bill that the authorised officer must be an adequately qualified person to undertake the work and one in whom consumers have confidence.

A clear procedure must be established as to the grounds on which a supplier or public gas transporter may enter a consumer's premises. The consumer must be informed in the letter. The procedure should also cater for redress for consumers suffering inconvenience as a result of a pointless visit, for example. We want to ensure that the new shippers, suppliers and transporters or their subcontractors do not use less qualified people than at present, thus lowering standards.

Although we cannot make any changes at this stage, we ask the Minister to take our comments seriously and to use the delegated responsibilities that the Bill will give him to do something practical about our concerns.

Ms Judith Church (Dagenham)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). We are trying to ensure that the consumer is properly protected, but the amendment will not achieve that. Many consumers will be disconnected for one of several reasons, one of which obviously is non-payment of their gas bill. We must know who might go to their homes and with what authority. If the person coming into their homes is someone authorised to do so, rather than the gas supplier, how will consumers know about it? Will a requirement for proper communication be written into contracts to ensure that we know who is doing what? A problem could arise if an engineer from a rival gas company went into the home of one of my constituents. There are to be all sorts of reasons for such visits.

The Minister told us in Committee that we were thinking of about 30 new suppliers of domestic gas; so rival companies will be trying to carve each other up in the competition for new customers. I do not suppose that they will be rushing to get as customers those people who have been disconnected—but that is another point on which I shall not expand, because it is not relevant.

4.45 pm

We are considering the most vulnerable of people, quite often not the most educated, who do not understand. At the moment, they know that gas from British Gas is coming into their homes, that there is a British Gas van outside their homes, that there is a British Gas maintenance or service engineer, with a British Gas uniform and a British Gas card. Yet we are talking of sending in anybody, with some other sort of card, which people will not have seen. People are warned all the time about allowing others into their homes, yet they would have to admit people who might not be properly safety-conscious and who might not be there for the proper purposes.

There are many dangers and people need the 48-hour period which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West has pressed the Minister to reconsider. At least such a period would enable people to ring up to verify the letter that they had received about a forthcoming visit—presumably, it would have a telephone number on it—if they were in some confusion about who might visit their home to carry out work. A consumer could be put at risk, especially if representatives of companies are visiting homes on a fraudulent basis.

Mr. Connarty

My concern is very similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Ms Church) but goes slightly further. Someone who has lost the gas supply because of financial difficulty may be in a stressed situation—not necessarily in relation only to the gas supply. When a person receives a letter to say that someone is coming along wanting to check if the gas supply has been reconnected, it is likely that that that person will not deal with it immediately—it would be one more thing behind the clock on the mantlepiece to be dealt with when such a person got his or her life sorted out.

It worries me immensely that someone could visit homes without any reason to suspect a consumer—just to check that the gas supply had not been reconnected—and force entry. The Minister should consider the additional stress placed on someone who is already in some social, family and financial disarray in such a case. Tremendous safeguards must be written into the Bill.

Perhaps the Minister could explain how original suspicions would be triggered and how safeguards would be provided. I am thinking especially of the parallel situation of wheel clamping. Wheel-clamping agencies are hired by councils and others to go around clamping cars. It appears that they do it in the most maverick way. When I lived in London, I regularly came across people who had been wheel-clamped in the areas where I liked to park as a resident. It seems that such agencies are in the business of trying to clamp as many cars as possible. They trigger the incident, and we know of the hue and cry among the public about that.

Duly authorised persons who do not belong to a gas company at all but are part of an agency could be allowed to take on the spying and breaking into premises to try to cut the possibility of illegal gas supplies being reconnected. It is a frightening prospect for us to consider, but it must certainly be much more frightening to someone who is under stress and has financial and other social problems with which to deal.

Mr. Eggar

I shall deal first with the first point raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). My understanding is that the director general's non-executive directorship is entirely consistent with her letter of appointment. No conflict of interests is envisaged. I understand that the hon. Member for Leeds, West did not cover energy matters at the time, but it was fully explained and anticipated then. There was publicity and an announcement by the Government about a salary adjustment for her. If the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) look back at the press cuttings, they will find that there was an agreement, which was made clear at the time, for her to take up a certain number of days with a non-executive directorship.

As for the other matters, I understand Opposition Members' concern, but we must put our thoughts in context. We are talking about cases in which it is suspected that somebody is stealing gas. That is the basic background. There are provisions now, effectively identical to those before us except that they rest on a right to inspect gas equipment. It was felt that, because we had a Bill before us, it was appropriate to make it clear in this circumstance that there is no concept of inspecting gas equipment, and that the inspector is looking for possible theft of gas.

From a constituency point of view, we are making a legal change but not a practical change. It is a desirable legal change because we are making the background clear. There are concerns about forced entry, for example, and I assure the House that, as at present, that will require a magistrate's warrant. There is no change there.

In Committee we spent much time discussing the various conditions that will be imposed in the licence to ensure, so far as possible, that there will be no impersonation. It is proposed that the licences will require authorised officers to be able to identify their authority, by methods including ID cards, badges, and so on. There will also be provision for special arrangements such as passwords for pensioners and the disabled, because we are concerned that they might be worried.

The licences will also oblige licensees to safeguard the ID documents, and so on. They will be obliged to take steps to prevent impersonation. Some of the matters raised are fully dealt with in the next but one group of amendments, which we shall discuss with Lords amendment No. 82. I understand hon. Members' concern. What always worries us is the impact on our constituents, but in practice there will not be a substantive change.

Mr. Connarty

While the Minister was speaking I remembered a Faraday lecture sponsored by British Gas last year at which was demonstrated an electronic device that could read the flow of gas in a household from outside. It was said that metering as we know it, whereby the volume of gas is mechanically controlled and regulated, with meter readings, would be a thing of the past in a few years' time.

If we are moving, however slowly, into the future, the idea of someone's having to force entry to" a house to find out whether there is a flow of unauthorised gas is already a somewhat outmoded concept. The Minister said that a magistrate's or justice's warrant would be needed to make an entry. Can he assure me that those duly authorised persons will not be like the wheel clampers—agencies that go around making money out of breaking into people's homes and causing them distress?

Mr. Eggar

I hope that I have made the position on forced entry clear. I have reservations about a period of notice because we are talking about investigations into people who are stealing gas. Almost by definition, if we give 48 hours' notice of such an investigation, we may find that a reconnected supply has been disconnected again.

Much work is being done on what is known as "intelligent metering" systems, including on a site adjacent to my constituency. It is believed that within the next decade or so, gas, electricity and water—if it is appropriate—will be remotely metered, but we are some way off that. The consensus is that, while it can be done from a technical point of view, it is not cost-effective in most situations. Most people believe that remote metering will become cost-effective before very long, but in the meantime we need some provision to keep the human race involved in the process.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 72 to 81 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 82, in page 29, line 6, at beginning insert ("No officer shall be authorised by a public gas transporter, gas supplier or gas shipper to exercise any powers of entry conferred by this Schedule unless—

  1. (a) the transporter, supplier or shipper has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that he is a fit and proper person to exercise those powers; or
  2. (b) in cases of emergency, those powers are powers conferred by paragraph 19 above.

Mr. Eggar

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also Lords amendments Nos. 144 to 147, 177, 178, 197, 205, 216 and 217.

Mr. Rowlands

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The amendments grouped with No. 82 include Lords amendment No. 197, to which I wish to address a few words. Should I do so now, or when we reach No. 197?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should speak to the amendment now.

Mr. Rowlands

Lords amendment No. 197 is designed to create a new offence for those who make false statements or bogus calls, and it is very welcome. The thing that slightly astonished me was that such acts may not have been serious offences hitherto. Has the sad growth in bogus calling and other similar acts led to this very important provision?

I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House what provision exists at present with regard to such acts. Are our consumers and householders far less protected than they ought to be? I welcome the amendment very much, although it may be a sad comment on the changing times and the increasing problems with law and order that our communities are encountering. Bogus calls and false statements have led not only to thieving and burglary, but in many cases to violence against elderly people. While I support the amendment in the strongest possible terms, I must ask the Minister whether householders have been left unprotected until now.

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman asks a fascinating question, and the answer goes to prove that there is no new form of human trickery known to man. The common law used to provide for an offence of false personation, but apparently the House abolished that offence in England and Wales with the Theft Act 19.68, thereby creating a hole that the common law had filled probably for several hundred years. We are now refilling that hole. That is the background to the matter, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. I was not aware of it myself.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 83 to 132 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 133 agreed to [Special Entry].

Lords amendments Nos. 134 to 178 agreed to.

Forward to