HL Deb 04 July 1974 vol 353 cc343-6

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, as the power to give general directions to nationalised industries is common to all sponsoring Ministers, and as it is explicitly recognised or implied that these industries may be monopolistic suppliers but that they should not abuse that monopoly, they will now take steps to look into the effectiveness of the consumer interest in these public monopolies, as any consideration of redress to members of the public has recently been treated with indifference by the electricity industry, the Post Office and British Airways.


My Lords, the nationalised industries are subject to general consumer protection legislation. Further arrangements for safeguarding the consumer interests are provided in many industries by Statute or voluntarily. The Government do not accept that the industries are indifferent to the interests of consumers.


My Lords, while sparing my noble friend the Minister the examples of their indifference, may I ask him whether the consultative councils have a responsibility for the public interest and that the consultative councils have a respon- sibility for the consumer interest? Bearing that in mind, does my noble friend realise that there is widespread dissatisfaction as to the efficacy of the consultative councils in nationalised industries?


My Lords, I would of course agree that Ministers have responsibility and that the consumer councils have responsibility, too. But I would ask the noble Baroness to bear in mind that there are experiences which are somewhat different from hers, and in consequence everybody has not the same opinion of nationalised industries consumer relations as has she. For example, in the last few years I personally have had reason for two complaints with quite different nationalised industries. In both cases I got prompt attention and complete satisfaction, although indeed the causes of the complaint were beyond the control of management in both cases. I think that might be borne in mind.


My Lords, would the Minister realise that it would be a help for him to appreciate that I am not concerned with individual complaints about nationalised industries? Is he aware that I am on major ones, such as electricity charges on night storage heaters, on the West London Air Terminal and on the continuing worsening of delivery of mail prior to the present position? I am on much bigger affairs than his example. Does he agree that the Post Office Users National Council would seem in its terms of reference to have built on the lessons of the last 25 years? Could the Government consider the advisability of other consultative councils having the same terms of reference as, for example, the Post Office Users National Council?


My Lords, I would have a great deal of sympathy and agreement with that. The position is that the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in the other place put forward the Post Office Users National Council as a model. I would hope that the Government, in their advice to the nationalised industries, would further that view.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, while one would acknowledge the perfection regarding consumer representation sought by my noble friend, with all publicly-owned undertakings there are better safeguards for consumer representation than in private industry? From his own experience, would not my noble friend agree that, on the whole, these representations have been reasonably dealt with? Naturally we are not always satisfied with the result of our representations, but on the whole there is procedure available that far exceeds that operated by private enterprise. If my noble friend could assist in further representation for consumer interests by private industry, too, she would receive the wholehearted support of this House.


I quite agree, my Lords.


My Lords, even though the position may be as the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, says, that here the opportunities of representation far exceed what is often available in private industry, so far as nationalised industries and their monopolistic features are concerned, the poor consumer has no choice. He cannot go anywhere else. That is the crux of the whole matter.


I would agree, my Lords, that the nationalised industries, in some cases at least, have a monopoly. That is why they provide better machinery than other enterprises to deal with complaints.


My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right, the machinery is there. But the trouble is the nationalised industries do not today listen to a single word said by the consumer councils or consumer consultative bodies if it does not happen to be what they want themselves. I have experienced this.


My Lords, in fairness may I ask whether the Minister would be able to draw to the attention of honourable Members—and, if I might put in a plug, to my own Chief Whip—a Motion which I have had on the Order Paper for months asking for the subject of consumer interest to be looked at in relation to nationalised industry and private corporations?


My Lords, may I reply, hoping to bring this Question to an end, by saying that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry will have an opportunity of raising the subject on the Queen's Speech?

Back to