HC Deb 17 April 1996 vol 275 cc700-1
5. Mr. Jamieson

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what discussions he has had with the Director General of Gas Supply about mis-selling of gas contracts in the south-west. [23920]

The Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Tim Eggar)

My Department is keeping closely in touch with the Office of Gas Supply about the progress of gas competition in the south-west.

Mr. Jamieson

Is the Minister aware that trading standards officers in Devon have received record numbers of complaints about the selling by Swebgas of contracts to customers who were tricked into signing those contracts? Is he aware that Ofgas is totally helpless to protect customers? Is this yet another example of the Government looking after the market and putting the interests of consumers second?

Mr. Eggar

I have never heard anything more nonsensical, even from the Opposition. This Government introduced competition in the south-west and made it possible for consumers to be offered reductions of up to 25 per cent. in their gas bills.

Mr. Hicks

While in no way condoning unnecessarily aggressive salesmen, does not the introduction of other companies supplying gas in Devon and Cornwall afford the opportunity for gas price reductions in real terms, particularly in a region which hitherto has suffered as a consequence of regional differential pricing?

Mr. Eggar

I absolutely agree. Consumers in the south-west trial area can choose their gas supplier from 10 different competitors, a number of which are offering supplies without a standing charge or with substantial discounts to low-use as well as high-use consumers. That good news for consumers has been widely welcomed throughout the south-west.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

Given the record number of complaints from customers in the south-west about mis-selling, how can consumers trust the same company to take over half the country's electricity generation?

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman always accentuates the negative. He is meant to represent the interests of consumers for his party, but we have not heard a single word of welcome from the hon. Gentleman for the substantial reductions in gas prices for individual consumers. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that individual consumers in the south-west can get reductions in their gas bills of up to 25 per cent. Why does the hon. Gentleman not welcome that fact, even though he has always opposed competition up to now?

Mr. Harris

Will my right hon. Friend reject the predictable carping of Labour Members and accept the genuine thanks of consumers across the south-west, who welcome increased competition which in some cases will mean £70 off the average gas bill? Is that not a good example of Conservative policies in action to the benefit of consumers?

Mr. Eggar

I completely agree. Those Conservative policies were introduced in the face of opposition by Labour Front-Benchers, whose arguments have been disproved by the results of competition so far in the south-west. I have no doubt that in the coming months large numbers of my hon. Friend's constituents will benefit considerably from reductions. He mentioned £70 off the average gas bill, but in my view that figure may be extended—and there are likely to be increased standards of service to individual consumers in addition to price reductions.