HC Deb 15 May 1996 vol 277 cc935-7
6. Mr. Jamieson

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what steps his Department is taking to monitor complaints from gas consumers about fraudulent attempts to switch customers from British Gas to other suppliers. [28361]

9. Mr. Graham

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what steps he is taking to check the activities of private gas companies fraudulently mis-selling gas contracts to consumers. [28364]

Mr. John M. Taylor

My Department is not aware of any cases where licensed gas suppliers have acted fraudulently in the domestic market. Any person with evidence of such activities should bring it before the proper authorities.

Mr. Jamieson

Is the Minister aware that Devon trading standards officers have received 336 complaints about SWEBgas and its mis-selling of contracts to people in the south-west? Does he not realise that his reluctance to root out such practices demonstrates the Government's incompetence and neglect of consumer interests?

Mr. Taylor

I reject that analysis. I find the Opposition's attitude profoundly depressing. Some 40,000 households in the south-west are benefiting from competitive gas supplies at prices between 15 and 20 per cent. below those of British Gas, representing an annual saving of about £70 per household. When will the Opposition stop whingeing and start welcoming the tremendous benefits for customers that competition brings?

Mr. Graham

Does the Minister realise that this is about not cheap gas but quality of service? As a former member of the Scottish Gas Consumers Council, I am astounded by the number of dissatisfied customers and people who have been conned by unscrupulous private gas companies. Ofgas is not acting on their behalf either. When will the Secretary of State do something to give consumers confidence in the industry and the protection that they deserve from this or any other Government?

Mr. Taylor

Consumers are benefiting from reduced prices and greater choice. The consumer is protected in a wide range of ways. A great deal of information has been provided. Ofgas operates a helpline; then there is the Gas Consumers Council; and there are trading standards officers. Moreover, customers have the right to withdraw from contracts if they want to. Meanwhile, there are plentiful benefits in the form of choice and gain for the consumer.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Is my hon. Friend entirely satisfied that the recent activities of the regulator are in the long-term interests of those who consume gas and those who work in the gas industry?

Mr. Taylor

The recent activities to which the hon. Gentleman refers—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hon. Friend."] I apologise for misdescribing my hon. Friend. The regulator has to strike a balance of interest between provider and consumer. If British Gas feels hard done by following those recent decisions, it is open to the company to ask for the industry to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission—but it must be self-evident to everyone that falling prices are good for consumers.

Mr. Neil Hamilton

Does my hon. Friend agree that the one thing consumers are not complaining about is the 23 per cent. fall in prices to domestic consumers since privatisation and the real terms 50 per cent. fall in prices to industrial consumers? Does not the nature of the questioning from the Opposition show that old Labour is alive and kicking, completely failing to understand the market economy and the benefits of competition? As a result of decisions taken in the Department when I held my hon. Friend's portfolio—decisions to free up the market in gas—will not the consumer in the years ahead enjoy even greater benefits than those experienced so far?

Mr. Taylor

The consumer must be the beneficiary of those things. I understand that, if implemented, the new Ofgas price control proposals will bring further price cuts of 10 per cent. to consumers nationwide in 1997, and more reductions in later years.

Mr. Harvey

What will be the effect on the prices gas customers pay in a competitive market if an interconnector with Europe is established? Continental Europe pays much higher prices for gas than we do.

Will that not give gas suppliers a new market, which, in terms of supply and demand, will result in much higher prices being paid in this country?

Mr. Taylor

No. I condemn that as nonsensical. The more variety there is for the customer to choose from, the better. Let the consumer be king in these matters—provide the consumer with variety and let the consumer choose.

Mr. Bill Walker

Is my hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members welcome the fact that we have competition, because it is as a result of competition that we get competitive prices? Having said that, I remind my hon. Friend that some of us believe that Scottish Gas has done a very good job in Scotland. The fact that we welcome competition does not mean that we in any way devalue the work that Scottish Gas has already done.

Mr. Taylor

My hon. Friend speaks very fairly of Scotland. He has the advantage over me in having a Scottish constituency, but all the evidence and anecdotal reports that I have received suggest that what my hon. Friend said is right, and that credit should be given where it is due.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

Is it not astonishing that a Minister has not read the critical report, published this morning, by the Office of Fair Trading on that matter? Why do Conservatives seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing? Why are they not taking steps to tackle the fraudulent mis-selling of those new gas contracts by revoking the licences of SWEBgas and Calortex? Is it not the case that dogs bark, ducks quack and Conservative Ministers join the boards of privatised utilities?

Mr. Taylor

The pilot scheme operating in the south-west is operating there because the Gas Consumers Council for the south-west argued that it was the appropriate area for the pilot to run in. In a pilot scheme, when there is no precedent and no previous experience to follow, it is likely that, on one hand, there will be zeal by salesmen, and on the other that there may be some confusion, but nearly 50,000 people have taken up that offer of choice, and they will benefit from lower prices. I do not want to deny them that.