HL Deb 17 June 1974 vol 352 cc724-9

2.39 p.m.


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 they have drawn the attention of the Director General of Fair Trading to the advertisement of the National Electricity Council in January, 1972, which stated that "The White Meter records day time electricity at one price, and then switches itself automatically to overnight electricity—for everything that uses it—at half that price"; and, if not, and the guarantee of half price is no longer valid, they will now do so.


My Lords, it would not be appropriate to do so. The introduction of a fuel cost adjustment clause into domestic tariffs was considered by the independent statutory Consultative Councils who have the responsibility of protecting the interests of electricity consumers. They raised no objection. The night rates have risen more proportionately than the day rates, but they are still substantially below the day rates. The industry could not have foreseen the sharp increases in fuel costs, and there was never any guarantee that the precise relationship between night and day rates would remain the same for all time regardless of circumstances. The advertisements referred to in the Question ceased in March, 1972.


My Lords, while congratulating and welcoming my noble friend on what I believe is her first occasion answering Questions at the Dispatch Box, I regret that I cannot congratulate her on the Answer. Is she aware that ever since this matter surfaced I have been wondering whether the consumer had any redress under the Trade Descriptions Act? Can I ask my noble friend whether I am correct in saying that when a service is advertised at a price and then is declared non-available, the consumer has redress under Section 14(1)(b) of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968?


My Lords, may I first thank my noble friend for half of her question. The reference to the Director General of Fair Trading in this Question is, I regret, based on a misconception. There is no provision under the Fair Trading Act for the Government to draw the Director General's attention to the matter. Under Section 14 of the Fair Trading Act 1973 the Minister may refer to the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee for a report on the question, but the Director General of Fair Trading could make such a reference in respect of electricity only with the consent of the appropriate Minister. I must reiterate that the Consultative Councils, which act as the consumer watchdogs, did not raise any objection to this practice, although they were all well aware of it.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am not concerned what any Council did or did not do? I wonder whether she would be kind enough to look again at the reference which I have made? I should also like to ask her whether she is aware that on Thursday last, at column 616 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, we were told in this House that existing contracts of supply were honoured by the Electricity Council when conditions changed in 1969? Why are the contracts of the White Meter consumers not being honoured similarly?


My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, there was never any undertaking, and there never can be, that anything, either in this or any other economic field, will remain the same for all time regardless of circumstances. The escalation in fuel prices was due to the quadrupling of oil prices which took place towards the end of 1973, and this was anticipated by nobody in the early part of the year. There is no doubt that prices had to go up, and, as I have said, although they have gone up across the board, night storage rates are still below the ordinary rates.


My Lords, apart from the legalities, is it not a fact that many people put in these storage heaters because they thought they would get their electricity at half the normal rate? Is it therefore not a sense of injustice which people feel and about which something should be done?


My Lords, I can only repeat that as circumstances change, those which were beyond our control, it is impossible to keep the same conditions for ever.


My Lords, that is all very well, but in joining the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, who is answering from the Dispatch Box, may I ask whether she is not resting too much on the Consultative Council in seeking to avoid the responsibility of the Government for these charges which many people regard as a breach of faith?


My Lords, while thanking the noble and learned Lord for his kind opening remarks, I am certainly not just relying on the Consultative Council, nor, indeed, on the actions of this Government. It was clear that the previous Government were intending to introduce domestic fuel clauses and to raise prices generally. In another place on March 13 the last Minister of Fuel put this into words which I am sure the noble and learned Lord will find in the relevant Hansard.


My Lords, may I ask whether my noble friend is aware that although I do not use off-peak electricity now I did so for many years? I was strongly advised to purchase storage heaters and to use off-peak electricity on the grounds that I would save considerable expense. I assume that thousands of other consumers did the same. Is it fair to come along now and use the alibi of increased fuel charges, which of course apply all round, and make an excessive charge to those who were told they would have the benefit of lower prices provided they purchased storage heaters?


My Lords, I sympathise very much with my noble friend's question because I happen to be in the same position. However, I can only say again that the alternative would have been to put up the price of ordinary electricity and as everybody, including the very poor, use electricity such an action would have caused even greater hardship.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness whether the Consumer Committee has made any statement on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Byers? If not, what powers have the Government to sack the members of the Committee?


My Lords, I regret that that is not part of the original Question. I must ask the noble Lord either to let me write to him about it or to table it as a separate Question.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that many people in the country regard what is being done, not only as a breach of faith, but in the long run as bad business for the Electricity Council?


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. In reply to it and to the many other points which have been raised by noble Lords in all parts of the House, your Lordships may be assured that I shall certainly take it upon myself to ensure that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is aware of the comments and the anxiety which has been expressed. I will undertake to do that.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness how she justifies her statement that generating electricity at this time costs four times more than the hydro-electric power, which most of Scotland is enjoying? Thihs is water running wild which we were told at one time would be amortised when the cost of the dams were paid off in fifty years.


My Lords, that is an absolutely different question which I cannot possibly answer now.


My Lords, in light of the fact that my noble friend Lady Birk has undertaken to convey to her right honourable friend the strong views of your Lordships' House can we agree that it is unnecessary to pursue this matter today and that perhaps we may move to the next Question?


I am sorry, my Lords, but I rose with the Lord Privy Seal who has a somewhat louder voice, although I sit behind him. May I ask whether the Minister is aware that I am not on the question of prices rising? Of course they rise. Is she aware that what is so unjust is the proportion of the rises and the fact that people have spent money on these appliances? Would she please look at what has been said with some urgency?


My Lords, I agree with the Leader of the House that we should leave this matter, particularly in light of the Answer that the noble Baroness gave a moment or two ago. But in view of the interest that has been expressed from all parts of the House, when she has reported this matter and has conveyed the strength of feeling in the House to her right honourable friend the Secretary of State, will she come back on a later occasion to inform us of his reaction?


My Lords, may we be told also what has happened to the clock?


My Lords, I also noticed that because the House will remember on previous occasions I have always relied on the clock for support to move on to other Business. I think that my noble friend will take into account what the Leader of the Opposition has said. Of course further courses are always open to the House, but I am sure she will try to convey to those who have been interested the consequences of her discussion with the Secretary of State.