HC Deb 19 April 2000 vol 348 cc1064-6
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 117, line 28, at end insert— '(2A) The Council shall maintain staff in each region for which there is a Government Office for the Regions.'. Schedule 2 provides for the establishment of the Gas and Electricity Consumer Council. The amendment would ensure that staff of the council would be available in each region. The proposals on which consultation is taking place through the shadow Gas and Electricity Consumer Council are causing considerable concern in the north-east of England. I guess that they will cause similar concern elsewhere when the details become clear.

The proposals provide two alternatives: the physical presence of staff of the new Gas and Electricity Consumer Council in either three or five places in mainland United Kingdom. That availability of professional staff is not sufficient to deal with the problems and complaints of consumers. It will give rise to considerable difficulty, and will not provide the service that the Government intend the new council to offer.

A particular feature of both proposals on the table for consultation gives rise to concern in the north-east. Either all the north-east, in one case, or part of it, in the other, would be served from Scotland. Given your presence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that of my right hon. Friend the Minister, 1 hesitate to quibble about that, but the experiment has already been tried, and has failed. During the 1990s, British Gas attempted to operate both its customer accounts services and its technical repair servicing in the north-east of England from Scotland. The system did not work, and had to be reversed. That is why there is concern about this proposal.

There is also concern because the consumer councils in the north-east are dealing with a staggeringly large percentage of the total volume of complaints. In 1999, half the complaints to the Gas Consumers Council went to the council in the north-east of England. That is not surprising, because the north-east of England contains the greatest concentration of people with pre-payment meters and budget payment plans. Those are the two factors that most often give rise to consumer complaints. Moreover, it was the north-east that experienced the first "hit" of consumer problems with the dual fuel provisions, which were piloted there by Northern Electric. Those provisions gave rise to a huge volume of consumer complaints.

The lack of professional staff with expertise to help consumers with their problems will cause considerable difficulty in the north-east. The age of welfare dependency is coming to an end: consumers want a voice for themselves, although they frequently require professional assistance and back-up. They do not passively accept the failures in service, difficulties with charging and problems with service delivery that were accepted without complaint in the past. I hope that the Government will take seriously the need for professional staff to be available to deal with consumer complaints in every region of England.

Mrs. Liddell

I well understand the reasons for the amendment. It is important for consumers' views to be taken into account, wherever those consumers may be. The amendment would insert in the Bill a requirement for the Gas and Electricity Consumer Council to maintain staff in each region for which there is a Government office. That would not necessarily comply with the structure of the energy industries, and might result in a disjointed arrangement in terms of the location of companies. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), who is anxious to ensure that the voice of consumers is heard, to pause and consider whether the degree of prescription that he suggests is necessary or appropriate.

Our general approach on organisational issues is to give the council a clear set of functions, but also to give it the flexibility that will allow it to organise itself in the way that it considers best suited to the fulfilling of those functions. Ours is an arm's-length approach, and it strikes us as the right one. If an organisation is given a job for which it will be accountable, it makes sense to enable it to organise itself cost-effectively.

The idea of a staff presence in each region might be attractive in the short term, but it would not necessarily be attractive in the longer term as the nature of the industry changed. Increasingly—especially now that gas and electricity can be offered by the same company—companies are centred in different regional capitals, serving industry and consumers from those regional bases.

9 pm

Consumers' needs and requirements may change, just as the industry changes; the structure of the gas and electricity industry may change further. The Bill ensures that there is the necessary flexibility to allow those changes to be taken into account.

It is more important for the Bill to get the functions of the council—the outputs, if you like—right than to prescribe in detail how they should be delivered, but I recognise how important it is to ensure that regional issues are taken into account. For example, the chairman of the Gas Consumers Council, who will become the chairman of the Gas and Electricity Consumer Council, has recently consulted on that organisational structure. She will come back with a final set of proposals following the consultation. I have said to her that it is important that she considers the outputs.

My hon. Friend may care to reflect on whether regional needs could be met by the establishment of regional panels, as distinct from regional offices. Many issues will be raised, including that of pre-payment meters, which is of considerable importance in my constituency because of the socio-economic mix of the people there. We may not need the office to have a specific regional focus, provided that a regional perspective is used in dealing with complaints.

I am anxious to ensure that when the chairman makes her proposals, she includes mechanisms to ensure that the views of consumers throughout the country are taken into account. However, I have grave doubts about whether an extensive office network based on the Government office areas is the most cost-effective way to do that. There is no such overlap between Government office boundaries and the gas and electricity companies. Many consumer issues will have a national perspective. For instance, one of the issues that we have discussed a lot during consideration of the Bill is doorstep mis-selling. That is happening throughout the country and we are all anxious about it, so I ask my hon. Friend to consider the case that I have made.

Mr. Cousins

I do not want to detain us for long, but I seek an assurance from my right hon. Friend that she intends consumers in each region to have ready access—at no cost, or minimal cost—to the sort of professional back-up that the Gas and Electricity Consumer Council is being set up to deliver for people with complaints and anxiety about quality of service.

Mrs. Liddell

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I hope that, having been given it, he will be prepared to consider withdrawing his amendment.

Mr. Cousins

I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to