HC Deb 13 March 1996 vol 273 cc971-2
8. Mr. Home Robertson

To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will discuss with the Office of Gas Supply measures to improve the security of gas supplies to domestic consumers. [18695]

Mr. Page

I was sorry to hear of the supply failure that affected part of the hon. Gentleman's constituency during the exceptionally severe weather last December. The stringent security standards set out in the gas licences are appropriate to ensure that such events are rare.

Mr. Home Robertson

The Minister knows that 5,000 households in my constituency had their gas supplies cut off during the Arctic weather at the end of December, with dire consequences. We still await the Ofgas report. Is the Minister aware that the compensation paid by British Gas is derisory, and that the excuses offered by TransCo—that it was very cold, and that consumers were using too much gas—are laughable? Does he accept that gas consumers have a right to expect secure gas supplies in cold weather, and that effective and binding contractual conditions must be imposed on this wholly profitable privatised utility?

Mr. Page

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. He has been a doughty battler on behalf of his constituents. I must point out, however, that public gas transporters are required to design their systems to meet peak demands that are likely to occur once in 20 years, and that the demands in late December were likely to occur once in 80 years.

Having said that, let me add that British Gas TransCo has offered those who were disconnected compensation of some £20 per day of disconnection. Moreover, I understand that it plans to reinforce the local system as part of an on-going work programme—some 1.25 km is involved—to ensure that the situation does not occur again.

Mr. John Greenway

Does my hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding the difficulty encountered by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) in his constituency, gas supplies generally are much more secure than electricity supplies, which are more likely to be disrupted by the kind of weather that we have seen over the past few months? Is that not the reason why more and more people would like their homes to be connected to gas, and will he ensure that British Gas continues to take every opportunity to ensure that it is available in rural areas where it is not currently available?

Mr. Page

I can only say to my hon. Friend that the answer must be yes, we must try to ensure that the gas network expands. One of the reasons why people wish to connect to gas is that in real terms gas prices are down by some 23 per cent., excluding VAT, to domestic users and by some 46 per cent. to industry. When the south-west becomes open to free and open competition, prices to the domestic consumer will decrease by a further 15 to 20 per cent., so it is no wonder that people want to sign up for gas.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

Will the Minister investigate the Gas Consumers Council's complaints that elderly people have been left without heating because the gas company puts a 30-minute limit on the time that it allows for fault repairs? What kind of Government would introduce legislation such as the Gas Act 1995 which permits a company to act in such an indefensible way?

Mr. Page

Once again, the hon. Gentleman is saying things that are not completely accurate. It is nothing to do with the Gas Act. When there was a disconnection in the constituency of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), British Gas provided heaters for people who were most vulnerable.