HL Deb 05 April 1978 vol 390 cc173-229

3.8 p.m.


rose to call attention to consumer representation in the nationalised industries and the Report of the National Consumer Council; and to move for Papers. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, when I was offered the opportunity of this debate I had mixed feelings, not about its desirability but as to whether or not the long promised White Paper covering the Report of the National Consumer Council, the position in general of consumer councils and related matters, would be published before the debate. As the House will be aware, I have been trying to discover this elusive date of publication ever since the autumn of 1976. I had wished today to base my remarks on this White Paper, but obviously this is not possible, and I hope that what contribution I have to make will be of service. I am sure the House will agree with me that a publication date and time of 3.30 p.m. today could hardly have been more inconvenient from my point of view, and probably from that of my noble friend the Minister who is to reply. Obviously, the best plan is to keep to what I intended saying and to leave the White Paper to speakers subsequent to 3.30, to the Minister and to my own summing-up.

This has been a long trail for me, going back to 1950 in another place and moving on to your Lordships' House in 1962. I expect that it must have seemed a long trail to many of your Lordships here as well. What has the trail indicated, and what has the aim been about? Why hasthe House been so patient when faced frequently with what could have been termed "tedious repetition"?

The trail in both Houses has been about the right of the small person, the individual, to be heard by commerce, by industry and by Government. En the 1950s it was a lone battle starting with textiles, secondhand cars, the labelling of goods and the prices of fruit and vegetables. In the 1960s and 1970s it included independence of the Sports Council, the establishment of an Airline Users' Committee, night storage heaters, air travel, cheaper stamps for Christmas cards, the problem of savings and of small incomes in retirement. Out of that very mixed bag—selected not for my own glorification but because, looking back over 28 years, the items appear to illustrate a continuing trail towards the same end—I should like to stress briefly certain points. In all the items listed— and I think the generality is correct—one was regarded as a nuisance and received help only when the Government of the day realised that public opinion felt strongly and that something would have to be done. Usually it was grudging andoften inadequate, but eventually persistence achieved a small amount. My Lords, one has to be persistent!

I asked why the House had been so patient over so long a period. I shall come back to that matter at the end of my remarks, but there is a particular point that I should like to make now. In both Houses of Parliament, I believe, if it is thought that one has no personal axe to grind and the issue is a genuine one, support is given. In 1952 no progress would have been made on the matter of the distribution of new cars and the price of secondhand ones unless the Press had realised that this was a scandal and had forced recognition on the Government and Members of Parliament, to the considerable benefit of ordinary citizens. Similarly, in this House, over the West London Air Terminal. We all know how long that took. The issue was so obviously a genuine one that all quarters of the House joined in. We did all that we could. We won the argument. We won the vote. However, the nationalised airline refused to accept the position, and that would have made me look very carefully—and I shall look very carefully—at the White Paper which sees the light of day at 3.30 p.m.

This trail, with your Lordships' help, has been leading to one end—that of giving real influence to consumer representation and enabling the small person, the individual, to berecognised. In the beginning it had to mean just being heard and making enough fuss to enforce attention. Then, asthe consumer made progress, it meant the Government of the day, realising that votes were involved, setting up consumer committees really with little or no power, but as a sop to public opinion. From there we progressed to the Consumer Council, set up following the report of the Molony Committee in 1962, and to its first chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. That at least was progress. Thence to a Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. Most of us who have worked in this area prefer the term "consumer affairs"; we regard" consumer protection" as belonging to a previous stage. That led to an Office of Fair Trading, and to a National Consumer Council whose report is being discussed in the Motion before the House today.

In this House on the 30th January 1975 we had a debate on consumer interest in public monopoly and private corporation. I should like, if I may, to quote a remark of mine at column 569, when I spoke of the welcome announcement the previous day that the Government had set up the National Consumer Council. I went on to say: All those interested in consumer affairs will welcome this and will wish the Council and its chairman, Mr. Michael Young, every success". I am quite sure that all Members of this House will wish to assure my noble friend Lord Young of Dartington, that we wish him an equal success today and that we await with great interest his maiden speech. He little thought then, I am sure, and I certainly little thought, that we should have the pleasure of having him here today.

At that time, three years ago, the demand was for worker representation on boards. Why was consumer representation not included? It was not included because the consumer estate was not then recognised as one of the Estates of the Realm. Where will, or does, the White Paper take us on this issue today? Then and now the consumer interest I equated as the public interest, and contended that this interest is no less important than any other in public monopoly and private corporation. I happen to believe in the public interest and I do not believe it to be incompatible with commercial good sense.

The National Consumer Council for its report entitled Consumers and the Nationalised Industries had as its terms of reference, to consider and report on arrangements for consumer representation in the nationalised industries, with a view to enabling the industries to be more responsive to the consumers' needs ". The report arrived at the same general basic conclusions as were discussed in this House in 1975 and by the Consumer Council in 1968, when it published Consumer Consultative Machinery in the Nationalised Industries.

What did we all find? What were the basic recommendations? The first one was that the consumer councils of the nationalised industries were ineffective, were not sufficiently well-known and had little, if any, impact on policy. Secondly, I agree with the report when it says that if the councils had more than purely consultative status they would attract more people of the highest ability to membership. It went on to say: if the councils have no right to do more than comment on prices, and the standards and type of service which are inevitably related to them, they will not have the thrust they require". Thirdly, I want consumer councils to have more standing with Government, with Parliament and with the corporation or industry concerned. I believe that nationalised industries should have the same duty laid upon them by legislation as the Post Office has in relation to the Post Office Users' National Council (POUNC)—namely, to inform the consumer councils on any major proposed changes in tariffs and service, and that I have repeated many times in your Lordships' House. Fourthly, I think 1 would accept the suggestion that there should be a statutory period of at least two months between notification to the consumer council concerned and the final moment of decision on whether or not the change in question is to proceed.

Fifthly, and lastly, it is no use consulting people about a fait accompli. I agree that all consumer councils should have the right to make representation to the Minister and that, if the Minister rejects those recommendations, he should make public his reasons. I do not believe that, given proper status and recognition, consumer councils would be irresponsible.

So, out of this attempted background of 28 years' work in Parliament, what do I suggest should be included in the White Paper? I have five suggestions to offer and perhaps my noble friend the Minister. when she comes to reply, will, if she has sufficient time, be able to tell me whether she thinks that these are included in the White Paper. The first one is the question of independence. Any official consumer body must have funds of its own enabling it to employ the services of experts or consultants so as the better to discharge its duty. Such a body must be seen to be completely independent of the industry concerned. I think that it must be financed by Government.

Secondly, I come to the question of imbalance. For many years industry has made the error of thinking that the consumer wants only to complain. should like to make the point that the user can have valuable comments and suggestions to make on any product or service. In the past the consumer side has been inadequately informed, and there is only one way in which to correct that imbalance. The secretariat of the responsible consumer council or committee must be the equivalent of its counterpart in the industry concerned. Only in that way will possession of facts and information all round the table make it possible to argue and present a case.

I suggest that that takes us to my third point—the question of monopoly as judge. No public monopoly must he allowed to act as judge and jury on its own consumer affairs. This happened over the West London Air Terminal and was admirably summarised by Miss Eirlys Roberts four years ago on 24th January 1974 in a letter to The Times, when she said: The disquieting thing about the check-in facilities at Cromwell Road is the way in which a nationalised industry failed to consult the public about what it was doing, failed to explain why it was doing it and refused to listen to the protests while it was being done". That is why a few moments ago I supported so strongly the recommendation in the report of the National Consumer Council that all consumer councils should have the right to make representations to the Minister. And if the Minister rejects those recommendations he should make public his reasons.

I am afraid that in this same context we must include the coach service from the West London Terminal to Heathrow. As everyone present knows, I am concerned about those travellers, with baggage, who are unable to use the underground link to our main airport because no provision has been made for them to do so. Staff at Cromwell Road tell me that they receive daily telephone calls asking whether British Airways run a service to the airport. One saddened member of staff told me: To make matters worse British Airways appear to be advertising the Underground in recent full-page advertisements whilst making no mention of our own coach service". That is true. Strong representations have been made to the management, although I do not yet know with what effect. However, I gathered that the representations had been so strong that the management had agreed that in any future advertisements they would mention the coach service. Since then I have not seen any advertisements, but we shall not draw any conclusion from that; we shall hope that this will come about. However, is is disturbing.

Yesterday someone in your Lordships' House said to me, "I was at Cromwell Road the other day and someone there, whom I recognised, said ' You know, we shall not be here very much longer; we have already been cut down to 16'". That is what happened at the West London Air Terminal when we had all those discussions in 1973. The service there ceased to be advertised. At that time, too, the coach drivers were most perturbed at the deliberate run-down of this public passenger service. Therefore, I am wary and I think that the House, with its kindness, would agree that that is justifiable.

On 15th February at column 1360 of the Official Report, my noble friend Lord Oram told me that: It is for British Airways to decide on the future of the service". I do not think that that should be so, and that is part of the burden of my story today. That is quite apart from the merit or demerit of any decisions reached. My fears for the future, based on what has happened in the past, strongly reinforce the belief that only well-informed consumer councils, with access to the relevant Minister, and an obligation laid down by Parliament that they be informed at least two months before any decision is taken on a major change in public service affecting a nationalised industry, can ensure adequate consideration of these problems.

On this matter of the coaches, perhaps I might conclude with a very human postscript which I am sure the House will appreciate. Last month I received a letter from someone who is physically handicapped saying how seldom it is that anyone who is physically handicapped can use the Underground alone. She asked that, as I was trying to improve and maintain the coach service, would I put in a plea for people like her. I gladly do so now. However, my correspondent apologised for the peculiar address on the envelope which was: Baroness Burton (fly the tube!), House of Lords". I felt that no apology was needed and I am sure that your Lordships will too.

I turn to my fourth point: that is, the question of size. Sheer size seems to have defeated ordinary contact. That is why good and effective consumer councils are essential. People are reduced to despair and sometimes I wonder whether those at the top really know. What is wrong? Why is it that people just no longer care? I think that size is part of the problem and that those at the top honestly have no conception of what it is like to be elsewhere. believe that, taking transport in general and in London, where I live, if those at the top were to travel as we all do, by bus, by coach to Heathrow, by Underground, or by rail for just, say, one month each year—going to and from their offices at busy times with no privileges and unrecognised—the ordinary traveller would see a vast improvement in services.

I do not want this to be identified, but I was travelling the other day on a certain bus route. It was a little late and the conductor said, "You should live on so and so bus route because MI. X lives on that and the buses always run to time." Really and truly, it is not a case of simply having your photograph taken on a bus or a train when you have been appointed to a top job, and then reverting to type. It is a case for experiencing how the rest of us manage. There is, I think, a new spirit about in places. I believe that Sir William Barlow at the Post Office and Mr. Peter Parker at British Rail have different ideas. It may well be that others will be able to add to those this afternoon.

Lastly —and I thank noble Lords for bearing with me—my fifth point is the question of resistence. If we were setting this out as an equation, mine would read: "Resistenc=Organisation+Department +Government. Nobody knows better than I the almost impenetrable wall that is put up when Government, Department and nationalised industry decide to get together to impede progress of even inquiry. I am sure that my own Front Bench are very well aware of this and—who knows?—perhaps at times, even they have a twinge of sympathy. I appreciate that the House has suffel ed with great patience as a result. But it is all so unnecessary and involves us all in so much work.

Everyone in this House could make his own list. In my particular field of the air traveller over seven years I offer these as examples of "resistance". We spent 19 months on the West London Air Terminal. We won the argument and the vote, but the nationalised industry said, "No". We spent 15 months in getting an Airline Users' Committee. British Airways did not want one; the Civil Aviation Authority did not want one: the Government did not want one. At last in July 1973 we succeeded. We spent 13 months on overbooking, beginning in June 1975 and making such a fuss that in July 1976 a voluntary overbooking compensation scheme was started. We spent 19 months in trying to get publicity for this scheme, plus notices at airports and airtickct outlets merely informing travellers that they might be overbooked. That took us from July 1976 through to February 1978.

We have spent 21 months on what, to any sensible person, would seem an extraordinarily unnecessary task: that is. trying to ensure that overbooking compensation should apply to the whole of an air ticket and not just to half of it—and we are still trying. We have spent nearly five years on transport services to our main airport and we are still trying. What a nonsenseit all is But, if we had not bothered, who would have taken our place? Who would have fought the "desk people" (and I put that in quotes) if we had not done so? Without this House the ordinary air traveller would have had a very raw deal. He would have had an official one from a desk. And the public knows it. By the term "desk people", I mean those who work out these decisions without going to see for themselves—going to see more than once, unheralded, unrecognised and unprivileged. What may seem a long time ago I spoke of the patience of this House. As a Member of it, I am deeply grateful: one can only be as big a nuisance as the House will permit. My Lords, beg to move for Papers.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, it is always an honour to follow the noble Baroness and we are grateful to her for raising the debate today—and very timely it is. We ought to congratulate her on her persistence, and, as an air traveller who puts in a great many miles, I must say that I am sure my comfort is to a large degree the result of the effort that she has put in in the past. Persistence is obviously very worth while.

The noble Baroness also has an enormous knowledge of this particular subject. The other speakers today—not myself I should say—have a great wealth of experience of this subject and it makes one a little nervous to stand up in such an important debate. I am looking forward, as we all are, to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Young, which I am sure will be fascinating. I am a great admirer of the NCC report.

As I said, today is a rather appropriate moment. The noble Baroness ran her timing extremely fine and I see that the embargo on the actual copies is now three minutes past: consequently, I do not think that I can be expected to make any comment upon the report but shall just press on on the basis that, "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with facts". The report is interesting in terms of the councils that are represented. It is a mass of initials, but, having struggled through the initials, I was able to appreciate what an excellent report it is. I thought also that the way it covered the original history and worked its way on was particularly impressive.

When I started looking at this problem, I had fairly firm views, but, as one gained experience, so did one modify those views and the subject became a little greyer round the edges. In the end, one saw both sides of the arguments only too well, so that one drew back from the initial easy course of saying, "I believe this and this should be done". The noble Baroness covered very fully the history of consumer affairs, as we now call the subject, and of participation in the nationalised industries. She went back to the beginning—perhaps I should really say to the bad old days—of nationalisation, when big was beautiful and size was the only way that anything was going to be efficient. It occurred to people then that there would be a need to provide some voice for the consumer—at least to give an indication that the consumer had some sort of voice in a monopoly situation. If there is competition, you can withdraw your service or your custom or your trade, however you wish to put it, but, with a monopoly, you cannot: you are stuck with what is there. If a form of fuel is in question, you are sometimes locked into that type of fuel. Also, with nationalised industries, the problem has always seemed to be that there is very little in the way of appeal. Admittedly, things have changed considerably and the awareness—the need—has increased over the years.

Unquestionably, the councils have done a good job but they can only do as good a job as the powers that they are given. When I first started thinking about this subject, I fell into the trap raised on page 80 of the report, which refers to the consumer councils not having "teeth". I have to admit that I have used that cliché, and, when I came to that section on page 80, I quite rightly blushed. It puts forward very well the case that it is not exactly teeth that are needed.

The attitudes of the nationalised industries have also changed. I wrote to the chairmen of the nationalised industries before this debate and got very polite and helpful replies. They varied somewhat, and, without being unkind, I think one could say that the Post Office and the Railways were perhaps the most defensive in their replies and that all of them showed a willingness to accept the role of the consumer provided it does not interfere with the commercial running of the organisation. Of course this is the problem. All of us in this House are frustrated when some bad service occurs and we ask the Minister about it, and he has to reply that it must be left to those in charge of the day-to-day running of the corporation. That has happened time and time again. It is extremely frustrating.

I should like at the end of my speech to raise some thoughts on ways in which this could be overcome. I was rather fascinated by one reply from Mr. Michael Edwardes, who kindly gave me a handwritten note on this, and who said that British Leyland was not, technically, a nationalised industry. Technically, that is probably true but, in my book, it is a nationalised industry, with 95 per cent. public ownership. I am sure that British Leyland, because they are in a highly competitive situation, take more note of the consumer than anybody else. They are not in fact a monopoly and will therefore probably try to serve the consumer better—or they will from now on —than any other nationalised industry can.

The improvements in terms of the councils and their standing have been slow and little has happened over the last few years. The report recognises the low cognisance of the councils and I think also that it covers the question of complaints very fairly. The point really is that there is a vast feeling of discontent on a number of subjects but that many people never actually get around to complaining. It is really only the articulate who complain and who can get something done because they write a letter. But, as we see from the report, most people—and certainly the poorer people probably need assistance more than anybody else—do not like writing letters. They would much rather go and see somebody and talk their problem over. Unfortunately, the councils, and the system as we have it at the moment, are just not geared to it. I accept that you can go on giving a fantastic service and that everybody who comes along can be seen, but it costs money.

It is also interesting to note in the report—and I am sure that the costs have soared since—the costs of a complaint. Gas was shown as £4 to £10, POUNC at £5, electricity at £10 to £20, and the TUCCs (transport users consultative councils) £15 to £30. This is a lot of money per complaint. Perhaps we are fortunate that there are relatively few complaints that reach these particular bodies. That is coupled with the fact that, as the report shows, of those people who complained to the Electricity Council only half were actually satisfied with the result at the end of the day. This probably goes back to the fact that the councils themselves cannot do anything about it, because it is a matter of policy. This concerns a later section.

I feel, however, that the consumers, whether it be the hapless air traveller, or somebody travelling on British Rail in those rather disgusting carriages to Gatwick —this is another part of flying which the noble Baroness did not cover, but I think it requires some improvement—would not consider that they had a problem if they had been informed. In fact, the lines of communication as supplied by the nationalised industries are somewhat weak.

It is easy enough to criticise but, as I know, since I am in the communications business myself, it is difficult actually to implement these matters. So I will just say that I think greater attention should be paid to giving information to the consumers. If they feel they know the answer, and they feel that it is a reasonable answer, then they do not feel they have room for a complaint. This would save money all round. I think that an investment in communications—not just straight advertising, saying what a wonderful service they offer—giving information in the problem areas, would be worth while. We know that the advertising that has been given for the consumer councils has not been particularly effective, as is evinced by the low cognisance levels.

The problems that come to the councils are of two sorts. There are the physical ones, such as the problems of the working wife. She, at the moment, with most gas councils, can perhaps be informed that there will be a meter reading in a morning or an afternoon, but it is only the Eastern region which will give an appointment. For a working wife this is quite a problem. If for some time letters are sent to say that the meter reader could not get admittance and that she will be summoned, and all the rest of it, there will be a problem. This is an area where the councils could work together.

A point that came out of the report was that a lot of problems are solved time and time again, and in different regions. This is extremely wasteful, and leads to the very sensible suggestion at the end that the whole problem of the councils should be solved by housing them centrally. In that way we would prevent many of the situations in which time is wasted by one council going through all the actions and solving the problem with one Board, and it is not communicated to the others.

May I just look at the individual councils themselves. I feel that they have all done a remarkably good job. The TUCCs have done extremely well, considering the problems, because they probably have the toughest statutory limitations on what they can actually look at. I think that POUNC, being the most recent and most sophisticated, has the most to offer. Even so, what they can actually achieve is limited. It is also interesting to note that it was POUNC who managed to get the Carter Committee Report. I was also interested in the slightly defensive attitude of the Post Office to the recommendations of the Carter Committee. It shows probably that it is a pat on the back for POUNC in that sense.

The point that worries me is the recommendations that there should be participation by council members on the industry boards. I take the view that was expressed by some people in the report, that when you become a member of an organisation you try to work together and find a reasonable solution. I believe that when it comes to the consumer councils and trying to fight for the consumer, they should not he in that position, and that they should be at arm's length. The real requirement is for the consumer councils statutorily to have to be informed of changes in prices and in services and given enough time to do something about it.

The job that these councils—in whatever form they take in the future—can do is directly related to the degree of independence they have. Up until now I do not think that the councils have been so very independent. They have done their best within those situations, but they have not been that independent. From what I have heard so far of what is likely to appear in the paper—which is now available—and what has been said by the ex-Viscount Stansgate on the question of the electricity industry, it would seem that the Minister's interference would become even more intense, because he would increase his rights of patronage not only to the boards but to the consumer councils. That is not healthy, and I think it must be resisted.

The question of what the councils can do is somewhat more complicated. Some people have said that they ought to have teeth. They cannot really have teeth because if they do they are actually running the organisations themselves. There is a conflict on what is the public interest. There is also the conflict with the unions here. The unions are getting participation on the boards. I am saying that I do not think that the consumers should have participation, but I feel that the unions, because they are on the boards, because they have a say there, must accept a greater degree of responsibility to the consumers because their actions directly reflect upon prices and services offered by the nationalised industries.

The major problem, as I said, is often price. The Price Commission are not particularly adapted to looking after the consumers from the nationalised industries' point of view. They have shown themselves only too keen, with their Star Chamber powers, to interfere in private industry, but, with one or two exceptions, they have been exceptionally diffident about the nationalised industries. Perhaps at the end of the day the answer to all these issues on prices and major changes is to set up a national consumers' council for the nationalised industries; centralised, as was suggested, and with a statutory power that all changes have to be referred to them. If they disagree they could then call on the nationalised industry to prepare further proposals. If, again. they felt that the proposals were not satisfactory the matter would then have to go before Parliament, and not just before the Minister, who could rule. It must be discussed and debated.

My Lords, one of the problems, of course, is that any consumer council must try to resist price increases willy-nilly because they are not in the interests of the consumer. Some price increases obviously have to be put through. They have to be within the sort of range that I have said might exi, t. The council must obviously have an obligation to look at these requests reasonably.

Finally, the nationalised industries are a monopoly which, I think, have not served the public as well as they might. The reasons are that they do not have to worry so much about whatthe consumer suffers or needs. I am glad to see that we are moving to the stage where they would have to take note of this. I only hope that we can, as a result of the White Paperthat is coming out and of the debate today, push forward to a stage where we have a national consumers' council for the nationalised industries, which allows us to debate certain mattersas they come up in Parliament, without the situation where the Minister has to duck behind the fact that a matter must be left to the day-to-day running of the industry.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, I also should like to thank and congratulate the noble Baroness. Lady Burton of Coventry, on instigating this debate which, if I may say so, she has done with her usual precise and detailed consistency. Before f go on. I have to offer the House an apology on behalf of my noble friend Lady Seear, who is the principal speaker on consumer affairs on these Benches, who unfortunately cannot be here: she is in Brussels.

I wish to limit my remarks to the particular problems for those consumers, whose number grows bigger every day, who have occasion to go to and from, and move about. Heathrow Airport. whether they be airline passengers. sightseers, people seeing friends off, or members of the many staffs who work there. The congestion suffered by these consumers, not only at the airport but in trying to get in or out of it. has steadily got worse over the years.

In what looks like a fearful anticipation of what we may expect this coming summer, the airport authorities, in an effort to provide some alleviation, have forbidden the sale of standby tickets within the premises. On the Thursday morning before last Easter I was told that there was a four-mile queue of vehicles along the M4 trying to get into the airport. I do not think that that is a single instance. Apart from the frustration of our own consumers, it must be remembered that for many visitors to Heathrow this is their first glimpse of the United Kingdom. As things now go, on far too many occasions this glimpse is not very encouraging. It is not good for tourism and not good for the national image.

The recent extension of the Piccadilly Tube line into the central area has been, I am told, a great success and is much used. If British Rail could be induced to do away with that wretched passenger footbridge across the tracks at Feltham station—surely an Edwardian, if not Victorian. relic—and place in its stead an underpass, and if somebody could improve the bus running to the central area, then the Feitham station point of access would be in a better position to play its part. All these facilities are alleviations of the problem, but are not the cure.

The provision of more and better baggage trolleys. moving stairs and walkways, known as travelators, and better machinery for getting passengers' baggage out or aircraft holds and into the arrival halls, all help, but, I suggest, cannot be the final answer. The real problem is that Heathrow is bursting at the seams. There just is not any more cubic space for any other major development available in the central area. But the throughput of people is greater and greater all the time. The burning question is, What to do now?

Apart from the development of Stansted and Luton, and inducing more airlines to use Gatwick—which I should like to leave to another occasion—the Airports Authority, to meet this problem, propose building a fourth terminal building on the South side of the airport, alongside what are now the freight terminals. The only advantage of developing this site seems to me to be that it lies within the Airports Authority's territory, and so the Authority would not have to buy any more land. The disadvantages are that the site is reportedly not large enough to provide adequate aircraft standing. even on a short-term basis. It makes satisfactory interlining with the central area almost an impossibility.

The access from the M4 must involve a tedious road journey round a large part of the airport perimeter. People using the Tube will have to get out at Hatton Cross and then take a bus. The connection between the central area and the South site must go round a large section of the perimeter of the airport. True, there is a two-track tunnel that exists between the freight terminals and the central area, but this is a single-track tunnel each way, and winding at that. If passenger traffic by bus and coach—even if taxis and private cars arc to be prohibited--is to use this tunnel, it must take its place alongside the freight traffic, which is considerable. The ensuing delays will be considerable. Furthermore, if there is any kind of a breakdown in the tunnel, the result is likely to be catastrophic. So either this tunnel must be enlarged or a new tunnel built. Those are both likely to be quite expensive items.

The development of this site now has to go before a public inquiry. As the site is adjacent to a built-up area, it is most likely that considerable opposition can be expected from the environment people, which will cause delay. Any exchange of aircraft as between the central area and the new site would have to cross a busy runway unless they are to taxi or be towed for miles right round the perimeter. An alternative does exist in the shape of a site known as Perry Oaks, which lies immediately adjacent to the Western boundary of the airport. I rather gather that the Airports Authority shie away from developing this site, largely on account of the financial liability, the time factor and delays involved. I gather that this view is not taken by British Airways or indeed by any of the airlines using Heathrow Airport, who would much prefer to see the Perry Oaks site development.

Coming to the advantages, the site is large enough to take care of buildings and aircraft standing and to meet increases in traffic for many years to come. In fact, it is about double the capacity of the proposed site on the South side. It lies immediately adjacent to the extension of the M25, when that orbital motorway is extended from where it now stops at the top of Reigate Hill—which. apart from anything else, should greatly help interlining between Heathrow and Gatwick and also give another access to and from the M4.

There is also a spur on the Western Region Railway almost adjacent which could he developed into a rail connection with Paddington via West Drayton. However, I understand that senior thinking —or is it middle thinking?—in British Rail dismisses this idea with the argument that track occupation as between Paddingtion and West Drayton is such as to preclude any additional running. Whether or not this could be partially solved by adding additional stock to the suburban services and slipping them on to West Drayton is of course a railway operating problem. I seem to remember hearing something of the kind when there was a request to increase the frequencies to Gatwick on the busy Brighton line, but a way was found. It may just be a question of where there is a will there is a way; on this question I might talk about a permanent way.

I am told that British Rail, perhaps understandably, are not very concerned about airport traffic; it is short haul, low fare and it may not be of great interest to them. I believe that surface access from the Oaks site to the central area is possible without having to cross any busy runway, possibly involving only an underpass under a taxi track, if that. A later development could be the extension of the Tube from the central area, for which 1 am told the London Passenger Transport Board already has plans. Lastly, it is not adjacent to a built-up area and so may not be subject to a public inquiry.

As to the disadvantages, the site belongs to the Thames Water Authority and provides a site for one of its sewage works; it handles millions of tons of sewage sludge a year, most of which is dry and comes in and out by trucks. Before it could be developed as another airport terminal, it would have to be bought from the Water Authority and the sewage works moved elsewhere. Is the Thames Water Authority some sortof sacred cow and its property so sacrosanct that it could not be bought by another national authority?

To sum up, the building of a fourth terminal on the South side, with barely adequate aircraft standing and even without providing another tunnel to the central area, must he a very expensive project. The development of the Perry Oaks site would probably be more expensive. However, I submit that the South side project is but a short-term matter and cannot be made a satisfactory answer to the major problem of increasing traffic, whereas the Perry Oaks site could do so, and on a long-term basis for many years to come. Both of these plans are, in their separate ways, a patching up of the bursting and overstrained piece of fabric known as Heathrow, but I am sure the Perry Oaks scheme patch would do a much better job and one lasting into the foreseeable future. I ask the Minister to use her best endeavours to urge the Government to use their powers of persuasion, which, as we all know, are very great when they choose to use them, to induce the Airport Authority and British Rail to have another really hard look at all this, perhaps with a little more will, to find a way round this vexing problem.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I begin by expressing my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, who has been such a redoubtable champion in the consumer cause over so many years, for initiating this debate and for giving me the opportunity, if that is the right word, to address your Lordships on this, my first, occasion.

I must admit that in two respects I should have preferred it had the occasion come a little later in the year, partly because I was so recently introduced into your Lordships' House and therefore am not familiar with the procedures and conventions in the way I should like to be, and also because of the reason which has already been mentioned several times; namely, the White Paper and its, perhaps one might say from one point of view, timely production, but, from another point of view, untimely appearance right in the middle of this debate. I hope that noble Lords, who may have seen me trying to grasp what is in the White Paper while they have been speaking, will forgive me if I have not paid as much attention as I otherwise would have done to what they have been saying.

I have read and have been told that maiden speeches should be above all short and unprovocative. The second injunction I will do my best to obey, and I can only say that in doing that I do not know, because of the lack of familiarity about which I. spoke, what would be considered provocative in this House. Thus, if it turns out that anything I say is provocative. I hope noble Lords will forgive me and accept, as it were in advance, my apologies. At least what I intend to speak about for the most part are mundane matters, although because something is mundane that does not by any means mean it is uncontroversial.

The White Paper which has come into my hands during the debate is a response to the Neddy report on nationalised industries produced in 1976 and the National Consumer Council report, to which several noble Lords have referred in the debate. As noble Lords will see, the Government have taken what seems to many of us an excessively long time to make up their mind about these two reports. I am especially concerned about what they have to say about the National Consumer Council report.

In a spirit of moderately sweet reasonableness, I would say that in certain respects the White Paper must be Wecomed. Some of the recommendations—not quite I am afraid with the grand sweep about which the noble Baroness was talking when initiating the debate—have been accepted, or the fact that they have been accepted at least is recorded in the White Paper. The recommendation that an Electricity Consumers' Council should he set up for England and Wales, a national council, is accepted and indeed the Council has already been established. It is also said —again, this is only stating what has already happened—that there are to be consumer representatives on the Energy Commission. Then it is stated—I think this is new and the first time it has been put in a White Paper—that the Central Transport Consultative Committee is to be given additional powers and renamed the National Transport Consumers' Council; in future it will be enabled to consider the general tariff structure of the British Railways Board's railway, passengers and parcels services.

Regarding the Post Office, the Government are taking some credit for the fact that two members with experience of consumer affairs have been appointed to the Post Office Board. But, on the route point, and the very theme of the report of the National Consumer Council, I fear that nothing effective is said, unless in my quick reading of it I have missed something, though I think that rather unlikely. It is not proposed that any of the additional powers that the noble Lord opposite was suggesting might be given to consumer councils in their present or some new form should be given. More information will be supplied, but whether or not one likes the word "teeth", certainly there will be no substantial new powers on the lines proposed in the National Consumer Council report. Judging from what I have seen in the introduction, which I would say is extremely weak as a statement of the general position of the Government in relation to the problems of the nationalised industries, it seems that no theme runs through this document—there is no general position which the Government are stating— and if there is no general position, one cannot very well expect that the recommendations that ensue will be very convincing.

The basic problem—and I venture to say that it was stated somewhat more forcefully in the Green Book than in the White Paper—is surely that we have in the nationalised industries, a series of monopolies which are often in control of essential services that people cannot do without. These are State monopolies, protected by the State and by law, and, just because they are in this highly privileged position, these monopolies can set more or less what levels of price they choose, and can provide what standards of service, and what services, they choose. They can do this without the consumer having recourse to the competition which, in other spheres, is definitely a protection to the consumer interest.

It is because of this—and this point must have been made many times before in this House, as in other places—that there is a very special case in favour of consumers, either through consumer councils or in other ways, having the special protection which is not given to them in these cases because of the absence of competition. Unless there can be some strong countervailing influence, if not power, over these State monopolies, then I fear that consumers will go on being as dissatisfied with the operation of some of these great monopolies as the surveys reported in the Green Book suggest people were then, and I am sure, still are now.

This is a large subject, and as your Lordships see, I have been able to refer only to the White Paper, and I do not pretend for a moment to have done it justice. For the rest, I ought to concentrate on one particular point, although I cannot pretend that it is a small one. In the second paragraph on page 80 of the Green Book, there is a call for an agreement between consumers and industry on performance objectives. It is particularly on that matter that I should like to elaborate a little. Another way of putting the same point is to say that there should, in the view of the authors of that report, and certainly in my own view, be more mutuality than there is at the moment in the relations between these monopolies and the small people to whom the noble Baroness referred: the ordinary consumers of the country. At present there is a one-sidedness in that relationship. Most of the rights are on the side of the producers, and very few obligations are there to balance the rights. Consequently, consumers have only small rights to set against this power.

What was in mind, I believe—at least among some of the people concerned with this report—is that the nationalised industries should in future have an obligation to provide services of certain prescribed standards, and here I would go a little further even than the report, and say that there should be penalties if they fail to provide those required standards of service. A particular precedent here is what happens in Japan, where, if some high speed trains are late beyond a certain point, passengers are able to obtain a partial refund of the fares that they have paid.

I said that I did not want to be provocative, but I am bound to go on to refer to British Rail. In this country, British Rail have much to be proud of; I believe that the services have improved in certain important particulars. To take a small, but I think quite significant example, in their so called "brain train", British Rail are pioneering, I believe, on a world scale. They are giving commuters the opportunity to learn, if they wish, all kinds of things while they are travelling—even subjects frequently discussed in this House. Even so, I see no good reason why British Rail should not put themselves under the same kind of discipline as, at least in one respect, the Japanese railways have accepted. They should agree to work out a collective contract with the new National Transport Consumers' Council referred to in the White Paper, in rather the same way as they work out collective contracts on wages and conditions of service with trade unions. This would define the standards of service that should be provided. Where appropriate—namely, if high speed intercity trains are late beyond a certain point —I see no reason why there should not be a partial refund to passengers in the form, perhaps, of a disc given to them as they leave the platform, entitling them to a reduction when next buying a ticket.

This is just one example, and I think that other similar examples which would illustrate the general point could be drawn from almost any of the nationalised industries. In the case of gas and electricity, for instance, if supplies are disrupted by strikes or by a failure to carry out repairs within a reasonable time, could not the standing charges also be suspended during the period when service is no longer available? That might help to improve the speed with which repairs are done.

A still more telling case—and this is my last before I sit down—is that of the telephones. In the case of telephones, users have no contractual rights at all, which is one reason why the Post Office is quite untouched by the new Unfair Contract Terms Act, because there is no contract. Some of your Lordships may have seen the piece of paper which one receives when asking for a telephone. There is nothing that is even called an agreement, let alone a contract, but something called an "acknowledgment of application", which I believe the most neutral eyes would conclude is rather a brusque document. One of the clauses in it says that any shared exchange line may be converted to an exclusive line at any time by the Post Office, and an exclusive line which is not regarded as a business line, converted by the Post Office to a shared line, and the rental altered in consequence.

It was because of that kind of situation that the Carter Report—the Post Office Review Committee Report—proposed that exemptions granted to the Post Office should be as closely defined and related to specific services or circumstances as possible, since we believe it indefensible for the Post Office to enjoy a blanket cover which gives it immunity from liability in circumstances which are not unique in its operations, and in which a private undertaking would be liable". In that spirit, I should like to suggest to your Lordships and perhaps to the Post Office (if anyone is listening) some of the points that could be included in a new and genuine contract between telephone users and the Post Office which would not be nearly so one-sided as what obtains at the moment.

Point number one is that consumers should be told what they have been charged for. They should be told what was the initial, and then the final, meter reading which has led to the computation of their bill and to any credits that are allowed during the period, so that at least they would be able to check to some extent whether the charges were accurate. The second point I would suggest is that, if a line is out of order for, say, 24 hours after being reported, there should be a rebate of rent for that period given as one of the credits. Why should one pay for a service that one cannot use?

The third point is that it should be laid down with complete clarity that telephone users should not have to pay for calls where they get wrong numbers, noisy lines, or crossed lines. This should be a right of theirs, not as a matter of grace, but as a matter of contractual right. The fourth point, which is perhaps rather more debatable, is that sustained, checked and confirmed delays in getting operators (whom one needs to get partly in order to recover credits) should lead to a credit being given. They are an essential part of the service, and there should be penalties upon the Post Office if that essential part of the service cannot be provided.

My fifth point is that some unfortunate consumers should not be, as they are at present, required to pay, on a quite arbitrary basis so far as one can discover, a large deposit in advance of installation on the argument that bad debts may be reduced in consequence. This is something which particularly hits consumers living in certain poorer districts of our cities, and it seems to me an extremely unjust exercise of arbitrary power.

These few examples—detailed enough, I hope, not to be unduly provocative—show the sort of thing that I have in mind as regards the kind of collective negotiations that we on the National Consumer Council, or some of us, hoped might be the order of the day in the future when there were the same kind of negotiations and discussions between organised consumers and the nationalised industries as there are between unions and the nationalised industries. This idea of a consumer contract being fair--and, of course, it needs to be worked out in a great deal more detail than this—would, I think, be at the heart of such negotiations. My Lords, I end by thanking your Lordships for bearing with me.

4.21 p.m.


My Lords, it is a very great pleasure indeed to follow the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, and to be the person who has the privilege of congratulating him on an extremely interesting and brilliant speech. I knew Lord Young, as Michael Young, when, way back in 1962, the Government of the day sponsored the first Consumer Council, of which I was for some years chairman. He was then running the Consumers' Association and that admirable journal called Which?, and I therefore got to know his views, if not him himself, very well indeed; and I realised then what a tremendous ally the consumer had in the organisation which Lord Young set up and which has been a great success since. I have read with interest—and I should like to congratulate him very much on it—the report of the National Consumer Council (of which he was the chairman) which we are discussing today. It is an extremely interesting document, and I am sure that many of your Lordships who are concerned about this subject will want to read it.

I was very interested in two or three of the points which the noble Lord made. His view that monopolies should serve the consumer and the interests of the consumer is one which the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, has very often stressed, and it is an extremely important one. I was very interested, too, in the noble Lord's suggestion that penalties should be imposed when the monopolies let the consumer down. I think that would be very popular, and it would be very interesting indeed to explore it still further. As to the telephone service, his view that when the service is no longer available money should be refunded would also be, I think, an exceedingly popular one, and would keep those who run the monopoly services on their toes and make them feel that they really must produce the best service they possibly can.

So to the noble Lord, Lord Young, if I may, I should like to say that I hope he will pursue these views very strongly in this House, because I think he will find that in your Lordships' House the division between our Parties on subjects of this kind is quite different from what it would be in another place, since what the noble Lord has said today and what the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, has fought for so sturdily in such a sterling manner over a number of years is something that we on this side are only too happy to support as well. I should also like to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, that once again she has done something which none of the rest of us has done. It has taken her two years—though that is not so long as it has taken her to do other things she has strived for—but she has managed to get a debate on this very important Green Paper. I should like to congratulate her very much on that; and also on her speech, which, as usual, was absolutely first class.

I should like to talk about that part of the report which begins on page 176 and is concerned with Scotland, because it is important that we should consider the whole of the United Kingdom and, through my long association with Scotland, I think I know more about that than any other part of the United Kingdom. Yesterday your Lordships discussed Scotland at considerable length on the first day of the Committee stage of the devolution Bill. I must say straight away that, while the nationalised industries are not to be devolved—and with that I am entirely in agreement—it is very important that they should be in the hands of the consumer councils which will represent Scotland and that those councils should be consulted in the same way as there is urgent need to consult the General Council of the Nationalised Industries.

Those councils will have to have eyes at both sides of their heads, since if devolution ever conies into effect they will in fact have to have very close liaison with the devolved Assembly, Convention or whatever it is called, in Edinburgh, as well as very close association with the centre of the nationalised industries. I think that is not impossible, but I hope that from the word "Go the nationalised industries will realise that this is an important thing and that they must help in every way to make these two sides of the picture, North and South, effective for the consumer. There are in fact five consumer councils which will be involved in the Scottish situation; and ultimately, of course, the responsibility for what is done by the nationalised industries will remain with the United Kingdom Parliament.

One of the differences between the conditions in Scotland and those in England concerns the matter of transport. We have a transport service which has to serve not only big cities but also very widely scattered areas over long distances in the Highlands, and which has also to link the trains with the ferry services to the islands. It is interesting—this comes from the report—that 60 per cent. of the 480 complaints to the Scottish Transport Consumer Council concerned shipping and train services to the islands. It is essential, therefore, that any transport service should realise the many differences there are between England and Scotland.

Recently, there was a big change in the costs of the Caledonian MacBrayne services to the islands. Fares and freight charges were increased, but there was no consultation of any kind with the consumers in the Highlands and Islands. The islanders were never consulted; nor were the traders trading between the islands consulted—and there is a lot of trade between the islands of Scotland and the mainland. In agriculture alone, for example, the trade includes considerable transport of sheep and cattle to be sold on the mainland. This transport is costly, and every Government I can remember has had the same problem with the costs of transport to the islands. So it is most important that consultation should really take place.

There are in fact 30 links between 700 islands in Scotland with which the United Kingdom has to deal, and any rise in the fares of people living in the islands affects their whole cost of living, because everything—or, anyway, a large proportion of the manufactured goods which they have to get—comes from the mainland. It is therefore vital that the consumer should be consulted when changes of this kind take place in transport. Just recently this was not done at all, and although representation was made to the highest quarters—and I have seen letters which were sent to the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection and also to the Secretary of State for Scotland—nothing was done and no help at all was given in connection with consultation.

In Part III of the report, on page 185, it is said that the authors do not consider that Scottish consumers' interests are being catered for sufficiently in the United Kingdom framework or the various consumer committees. The report stresses the inadequate representation on the Electricity Board, the Gas Board, transport and the Post Office. I think that this is something which should be and could be dealt with. Incidentally, I have not seen the White Paper. The noble Lord, Lord Young, has been quicker than I to go to the Printed Paper Office to get hold of it, but 1 gather from what he has said that he is disappointed in some of the recommendations. I am quite sure that we shall have to fight very hard to get the Scottish interests better represented on the various boards.

The question of electricity is important. We have two Electricity Boards: the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, which is the older and long-established one, and also the South of Scotland Electricity Board. I think myself that they are rather good. I think that electricity in Scotland on the whole is very good, but they represent a tremendous number of consumers. In fact, the South of Scotland Board has 1.400,000 consumers. Therefore, I feel that the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Young, over breakdowns in service should be very seriously considered. Certainly some compensation given to the consumers would undoubtedly be very popular in an area like that. I should like to see better representation on the national bodies of these electricity councils. There is another recommendation which 1 should like also to support in the report. It is that all consumer bodies should be called consumer councils. We very often talk about them as consumer councils and I think it would be a good idea to adopt the suggestions in this regard made in the report.

In Section X, paragraphs 12 and 13, of the report, in connection with the railway section in Scotland, I have also read the useful recommendation that the Scottish Transport Users' Consultative Committee should have the right to be consulted in any major changes of either railway systems or in connection with general railway arrangements. I had some experience of this myself nearly 10 years ago when the rail line which ran from Carlisle to Edinburgh through the Borders was done away with. I made every possible effort, backed up by every interest in the area from the Chamber of Commerce down to the ordinary users of the railways, to protest against this. In those days I had support, too, from the late Lord Popplewell from the Benches opposite, who Was a tremendous help and a great railwayman.

In spite of the fact that we took deputations to London, to Edinburgh and to Glasgow, and that we raised every possible interest in any way we could to support, the claim that this should not be done, I discovered afterwards that the decision had been taken long before we knew of it and long before we could have taken anyone to protest. That is just the kind of thing which I hope will not happen in future. Undoubtedly there will be changes in the railway system, but at least let it be said that the consumer is consulted in time so that when one starts to make the protest or whatever it may be, one is not told that it is a fait accompli and that nothing can be done about it, that it is too late. Of course, it would not have been too late if one had known that they were going to do it. But they did not say, and, therefore, when we started protesting it was too late. That is a very good example of what I hope will not happen again.

Then, with the closure of so many railways, certainly in Scotland, bus services have become very important indeed. The bus services are run by the local authorities and by private companies and the bus services in the rural areas are very much interwoven so that they must work closely together. The bus services are outside the scope of the Transport Users' Consultative Council, and I should like to see them included as I am sure that that would add to the co-ordination of the transport services.

I also learned from the report that in 1974 four times as much family expenditure went on bus services as on railway services —which goes to show how important are bus services in rural areas. One very successful innovation that has taken place ill the area that I know of and I think it has happened all over Scotland — is that in very rural areas the postal buses are taking passengers. We now have (as I think they have on the Continent) some very effective and useful postal bus services. I should like to see that service encouraged and spread elsewhere because I think it is useful and does not add to costs. In fact, I think it reduces the cost to the Post Office since they get the fares in the buses from the passengers.

I should like to see a Scottish regional council for air. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton, is a great expert—as is the noble Earl, Lord Amherst—on air services and she has done more for air services than anybody else. I hope very much that we may get some pioneers in the Scottish air services who will do for them what she has done for the English-based or London-based services. For that matter, I would hope that the passengers would be treated equally as consumers whether they are in the airport or in the air. That is something which does not happen today.

The report mentions the district committees of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee. Some of those, I understand, are under threat of being done away with. I should like to make a strong plea for keeping those district committees, certainly in the widely scattered areas, because it is all very well to have a centre in Edinburgh or Glasgow, but if you live in the far North or in the Highlands and Islands on the West Coast that is of not much use to you. If you can have a district council to which you can take your complaints that is something of very great value to the consumer. I hope that in implementing these reports--and, again, 1 have not seen the White Paper—they will not do away with the district committees of the consumer councils.

Finally, on this question I want once more to say a few words about the importance of what will happen should we have devolution in Scotland. I hope that the nationalised industries will be closely associated with the devolution arrangements, that the consumer committees, as I have said, will have eyes on both sides of their heads: because they will need to have them if they are really going to represent the interests of the consumers in Scotland. I say again that I am not at all keen and do not want to see any devolution of the nationalised industries. I think it is very important that they should work as one unit. I also think it is very important tha/ they should pay close attention to what may or may not happen if, after the referendum, there is an Assembly or a Parliament of some kind in Scotland.

My Lords, I think that the report is of great importance. It is something which everybody who is interested in these subjects should study very carefully. I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, once again for this debate today and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, for his suggestions which are most original. I hope that they will be looked at by the Monopolies Commission.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, should like to begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, for raising this debate. There are few more qualified to have done so. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, on his maiden speech. I hope that your Lordships will not think that I am too young to praise the mixture of eloquence, knowledge, practical approach and gentleness which was so w ell displayed in that maiden speech.

I regret also that I have to apologise to your Lordships since I may have to leave this House—I hope I do not—before the end of the debate due to a very long-standing obligation elsewhere. Also, I have to declare my interest as President of the Mail Users' Association, an organisation which gave their views to the National Consumer's Council and was quoted in the report. I should also emphasise that, as before, I am speaking in a personal capacity.

The issues are of central importance to our national life. I believe that the growth in the power of State bodies and organised labour has been such that an effective third force, consumer power, is essential if we are to preserve a truly democratic way of life and halt the drift towards the corporate State. Hitherto, there has been much debate about whether this or that industry should be nationalised, and too little attention has been given as to how we are to make the public sector accountable to, and operate in the interests of, the public which it exists to serve, and who are its owners.

The NEDO Report, A Study of UK Nationalised Industries summed up the present state of affairs thus: There is in practice considerable ambiguity about the accountability of boards of nationalised industries—to whom they are responsible, for what functions and dimensions of performance, and over what time scale. Ministerial responsibility for nationalised industries is correspondingly ill-defined. The resulting confusion leads to a situation in which boards are not effectively required to account for their performance in a systematic or objective manner—whether it be to Parliament, to Ministers, to other legitimate interest groups or to the wider public. Also, Ministers are not generally held responsible for the consequences of their interventions". This is a common theme to many recent investigations into the public sector: it was identified as a key issue in the report of the Post Office Review Committee and in the investigations into the operation of British Steel, in addition to the National Consumer Council's report.

Sponsoring Departments have been less effective than they ought to have been in protecting the interests of users. If, for example, one looks at the performance of the Post Office—which I have studied—since 1969, there has been an enormous decline in productivity on the postal side. In 1971 the Post Office, in its booklet, Reshaping the Postal Services went on record as identifying the potential for improving productivity by £73 million by 1978 (equivalent to £160 million in present day values). It committed itself to a whole range of proposals such as improved work measurement, and local, regional, and national projects for better alignment of staff to work, and the extended use of part-timers. These proposals were endorsed by the Post Office Users' National Council in its Report No. 3, in January 1972. However, not only were the proposals not carried out, productivity actually continued to decline. It was down by another 6 per cent. by 1975-76, and fell by a further 3 per cent. the following year.

It is evident from the Carter Report that staff were not better aligned with traffic. It is also evident that once having reported to the POUNC the Post Office felt itself under no particular obligation to carry out its commitment, and that POUNC had little power over the matter. Consequently, the users of the post have been left to pay for this failure by increased charges—indeed, had productivity not fallen, a first-class letter need only now cost 7p, and a second-class one 5½p—and by reductions in service.

On the telephone side, inefficiencies tend to have been masked by a steadily increasing demand for services; but the modernisation of the network, in particular the development of "system X", appears to have slipped behind schedule, and prolonged industrial action by Post Office engineers is preventing new equipment from being brought on stream. Again, the customer has no redress. Therefore, although I welcome the recommendation that all the Councils should have, like POUNC, the power to consider matters as they think fit I do not believe that this recommendation goes far enough. There can be no doubt that the POUNC, under the able chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Peddle, has produced some excellent reports on policy. Those in 1975 on the tariff proposals were outstanding, and indeed proved more correct than the Post Office's analysis; yet they were not heeded by the Secretary of State. This experience alone suggests to me that wider powers are needed.

The problem with extending the powers of the users' councils, or developing a new body along the lines of the Secretary of State's Council advocated by the Carter Committee, or an amalgam of both, is the question of management control. Such bodies, naturally, tend to be perceived by management and Ministers as usurping their functions. I believe that they should have a type of audit role. If they are seen as the users' auditors, the problem of control should be largely solved since they will be analogous to financial auditors, and the roles of financial auditors and management are, as we all know, quite sharply defined. I suggest that the consumer audit should be carried yearly and should be published as part of the annual report of each State corporation.

This scheme, if incorporated into the procedures recommended for the Secretary of State's Council by the Carter Committee would make for a coherent monitoring procedure. The two most important of the Carter recommendations, in my opinion, were the need to submit to a Secretary of State's Council first —and annually—the operating plans and budgets for the coming year; and, secondly, —and also annually—the long-term plan and strategy and capital investment proposals. Whether or not a Secretary of State's Council is established, I believe that these recommendations should be implemented.

The formal publication of comment from the users' standpoint on how these things have been carried out would be a constant reminder to all working in State enterprises of the purpose of their work. Publication in the annual report is important because the reports of individual users' councils tend to become tucked away, and do not, I think we should all admit, reach as wide a readership as they should among the management and workforce. It would be salutary indeed to go further and have a summary of the users' councils' report circulated to all members of the staff.

I believe that this system would greatly assist both management and the sponsoring Ministries. In particular it would help their public image by preventing occasions arising such as that to which the Carter Report drew attention when the organisation appears to be manipulating the figures to such an extent that deliberate and obvious worsening in quality of service … has had no effect whatever on the quality of service recorded". Even more important, it would prevent the necessity for ad hoc inquiries, which are, as we all know, disruptive, and tend to divert management attention from the matters with which they ought to be concerned. However, management often have themselves to blame for this state of affairs for, as the NEDO study put it: Boards of nationalised industries sometimes seem to aspire to a freedom from public scrutiny which is at odds with their corporation's status as publicly-owned enterprises". The recommendations of the report about appointments and staffing are to be welcomed. There is a greater need for more professionalism among council members and their staff. This is essential if the councils are to play a greater role in the affairs of State corporations. They will have to include and involve far more people capable of meeting the board members of nationalised industries on equal terms. The report stressed that those eligible for appointment to councils should be persons of, ability, willingness to put in some hard work and capacity to look at the problems of industrial policy from the point of view of the people whom every industry exists (or should exist) to serve". Again, I believe something stronger is needed: such characteristics, I suggest, should not be regarded as possible qualifications for appointment to the councils, but rather should be essential attributes.

Further, appointment to councils is too much shrouded in mystery, I would suggest. The criteria used are not known and there is apparently no obligation on Ministers to justify their choices. The procedure often seems slow. The power of patronage in this area is considerable. As I am sure your Lordships know, under Section 14 of the Post Office Act 1969, the Minister was empowered to appoint over 100 people to the Post Office Users' National Council and to the country councils. The Minister, of course, was enjoined to consult, with such bodies as appeared to him to be representative of the interests of persons likely to be concerned with matters within the competence of the council". I would suggest that the Post Office Users' National Council is perhaps deficient in members from organisations with a detailed and professional interest in the Post Office. Only the Mail Order Traders Association and the British Office and Stationery Products Federation have representatives. This omits the direct mail industry, mail order publishers, large charitable organisations and many other categories of large postal and telephone users such as the larger types of financial institutions, including building societies, insurance companies and clearing banks, all of whom are extremely important users of the Post Office.

These industries and their various associations can provide a wealth of experience on Post Office affairs and yet hitherto those making appointments seem to have overlooked this fact. I believe that the solution to selection lies in having a properly laid-down procedure and that vacancies should be advertised. In addition, I believe there should be interviews and written tests—something akin to a Civil Service selection procedure.

It follows from my view on monitoring and control that I do not agree with the report's recommendation that members or chairmen of councils should be placed on the boards of nationalised industries. The job of a board, as I think was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Redesdale, is to weigh up the various interests making representations to it and to decide long-and short-term plans. It should not be a representative body. Some consumers should be on boards but, in my view, they should not also be members of the councils. The councils, if they have the kind of auditing and monitoring functions which are desirable, must remain outside bodies. One would not for a moment even entertain the idea of having one's auditors on the board of a company that they audit.

I have concentrated on what seemed to me to be the most significant parts of the report because in so short a time one cannot do justice to the whole report; I know that the House is greatly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Young, for its production, and to his staff at the National Consumer Council for all their efforts. Such differences as I have are ones essentially of degree and emphasis and do not refer to the broad principles. It is a paradox perhaps that the consumer movement has hitherto had most impact in the private sector, in areas where competition has provided some, albeit imperfect, protection, rather than in the public sector where there are, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Young, extensive monopoly powers. It is to be hoped that early action by the Government will redress the balance.

The need for a more powerful consumer voice in the public sector should not be interpreted as personal criticism of those involved with State corporations. In my capacity as president of the Mail Users' Association, I have had contact with the present and previous chairmen of the Post Office, the managing director of posts and the Secretary of State, as well as with many other senior officials. At every meeting I have been impressed by the honesty of purpose and the grasp of issues displayed by the persons involved. Although I am not alway sympathetic to the Government ventures, I am bound to say that the responsibilities that fall to some of the sponsoring Departments, such as the Department of Industry, and their Ministers, are enormous. I believe it is asking too much of Ministers, whichever Party they may come from, to perform their tasks effectively within the present framework. Equally the State corporations operate within such a complex environment that the construction of an effective and clear institutional framework to guide their performance in meeting national interests and enabling the views of consumers, be they private or industrial and commercial, to be given due weight, is essential.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, for moving this Motion. She has been tireless in her efforts in this good cause, and the House, as well as the country at large, is indebted to her. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, for his maiden speech. fie and I are old friends and we were both friends of, and are both still grieving for, the late Tony Crosland. The noble Lord's life has been a very distinguished one and I do not need to recite the details of his great career. I would only say that I believe I am right in saying that he wrote the Labour Party's Manifesto of 1945, Let us Face the Future, which is in many ways the cause of the debate today. This is the future.!

In some respects, I shall differ from the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, partly because I think that the time has perhaps come to be a little radical. For many years, it was held by practical men, as well as by economic theorists like myself, that the consumers' best protection was the working of the market. If a vendor sold a bad article or gave had service the buyer could go elsewhere. Coming from the stable I do, as a pupil of Lady Robinson and of her husband, Sir Austin Robinson, it will he readily appreciated--not least, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, that I do not necessarily accept this theory as readily as some people as a description of the world as it once was or, certainly, of the world as it now is. Nevertheless, I believe that it contains a vital element of truth.

The full and effective working of competition is the consumers' best protection and, over the past two centuries, it has immeasurably improved the standard of living of ordinary people. Even today we see its results all about us. For example, the mini-calculator, from being a luxury, has now become a standard item for many people who have to do sums; so, too, is colour television and so, too, is central heating. In none of these cases has the State been involved. Competition has led in our own lifetime to vast benefit for all of us ordinary consumers. Have all the consumer councils established by law done one-millionth as much? That, my Lords, is the question that I would ask.

It has been known for a hundred years at least that, in many industries dominated by large organisations, there has been little or no competition of the type described in the economic textbooks. Either one firm has dominated an industry —ICI is an obvious example in some fields of chemicals—or the firms have been tightly organised in a cartel. When I wrote the history of the steel industry, I found in the archives most of the minutes —that is to say, those minutes that had not been hastily burned before the appointed day—of the tightly-knit organisations which had controlled steel prices and output from the beginning of the century until nationalisation in 1967. The present state of the steel industry is no new thing. It arises from those monopoly practices, which are at least 80 years old.

The problem is how to control these big organisations. It is not a problem peculiar to Britain, as we know from the Common Market's efforts; nor are we the only country to have failed to solve the problem of controlling big industries. But I think that we are unique in Europe in having created extra degrees of unprincipled monopoly by nationalisation and in then handing over the industries so nationalised to largely independent corporations—corporations which are independent of Parliamentary control. The model of this Herbert Morrison type of institution was, of course, London Transport and we travel every day amid the deplorable consequences of this model.

The result is that the considerable sector of our economy which is controlled by these monopolistic corporations is subject only to Ministerial directive and, as we know, not only to that but to constant Ministerial interference, which has raised their costs and reduced their effectiveness. The deplorable history of steel under both Governments is a sufficient warning of this. Apart from this Ministerial intervention, they are on their own. They are not open to Parliamentary Question. They are largely self-perpetuating oligarchies, created and, as the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, said in his maiden speech, maintained by Statute. in the circumstances, it is perhaps surprising that they have clone as well as they have done.

It would be silly to say that the picture is entirely black. For example, I should have thought that the telephone system was fairly good. It is not so good as it is in America, but it is certainly better than it is in France. We all know that British airports are peculiarly dreadful. But I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, that the electricity boards seem, on the whole, to work quite well.

One could go on anecdotally, but I want to come to the issue of principle. There is a steady and recurrent flow of criticism, from all quarters and from all over the country, of the quality of service of a substantial number of nationalised industries and semi-nationalised industries like London Transport, which belongs to the Greater London Council. I have tried to argue that this is inherent in the circumstances of big monopoly business. When there is a monopoly, or a very large organisation run by a self-perpetuating oligarchy, it seems to me unlikely to be responsive to anybody, least of all a myriad of small consumers. But, added to this—and this is a point which has not been brought out in the debate, although it is an important and relevant one—there is a peculiar difficulty. The complaints arise chiefly from the nature of personal service.

Let us listen to some of the complaints that we have heard today. The gas man does not arrive on time, so the housewife has to stay fruitlessly at home. When he does come, we all know that he brings the wrong part. If he has the right part, it does not fit your gas cooker. I must say that this is not confined to the Gas Board, nor is it confined to London Transport. the organisation whose buses rarely run and, if they do run, are going to the wrong place. In my experience, this masterly incompetence extends far beyond the nationalised sector. It extends to the big firms, and even to firms which we very much admire. I shall name one—it may be wrong to do so--the John Lewis Group. I could give a saga which would last practically all night about my dealings with the firm in Sloane Square. As we all know, it is very difficult to organise a great many small craftsmen dealing with many thousands of spare parts for many hundreds of different machines, which are often unbelievably antiquated and ought to be in the Science Musuem, and to get the good service that one wants. inherently, it is a difficult thing to do. We ought to say at this stage, surely, that the surprising thing is that anything at all ever happens if it is run by a big firm.

This is not the field in which the big firm is likely to succeed. It is the field of the small man. I should have thought that the disquieting element of our present economic and social condition is that we have thousands of unemployed youngsters and we have hundreds of thousands of women who would like part-time jobs, yet, at the same time, it is virtually impossible for any ordinary household to get anything adequately repaired.

For many years, the whole weight of legislation and practice in this country has, under Governments of all Parties, discriminated against the small person, the boy or girl who will come around and fix your car for you, or the person who wants, on his own initiative, to come and mend the gas cooker. Yet we all know that, rather than turn to the Gas Board it is in fact to these little men, to these little women—often quite large women—that it is best to go if you really want something done. I should like to see the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington —so creative, so imaginative—set up some system to train these people and help them do the jobs that they can do and the jobs that we want done. At the moment, this country has a vast penumbra of illegal, moonlighting window cleaners, television repair men and so on, upon whom the efficient working of the consumer sector depends. but who do not appear in the official statistics and who, if they were found, would be caught and prosecuted and possibly sent to prison. This is the unmentionable part of our daily life, which we all know is true, but whose existence the official statistics and the whole Government machine absolutely deny.

This brings me by a somewhat devious route to the question of consumer councils and consumer representation in the nationalised industries which the noble Baroness has raised. I have argued for two reasons that the size of these things is so great that it is incompatible with the provision of adequate personal service, and that the nature of personal service is that it has to be done on a small scale; that these large organisations, whatever we do to set up consumer representation, are unlikely to be able to offer good service. They can make and transmit electricity efficiently, as the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, pointed out, but they cannot mend an electric kettle. In those circumstances, I think that consumer councils are bound to be largely window-dressing. I do not believe that a consumer council can mend an electric kettle.

For one thing, I am opposed to too much of this consumer stuff, because all it really means is a lot more committees, of which we already have far too many. It is what is bringing British business to a stop. Moreover, as the report of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Darlington, showed, these consumer councils are accessible only to those who are, in any case, good at writing letters or making complaints by telephone, preferably in an upper class accent and from the House of Lords. So I must confess that I am sceptical of the benefit, so far, of so-called consumer representation. I acknowledge that this is not a very constructive or helpful approach to what is, indeed, an intractable problem. However, I read on page 78 of this Green Book that the National Consumer Council said: To urge the abolition of the consumer councils because they cannot stop inflation makes no more sense than to suggest that the West Midlands County Council, or the Potato Marketing Board, or the Social Science Research Council should be got rid of because they too have not been able to dam inflation ". Exactly, my Lords. These bodies—the West Midlands County Council, the Potato Marketing Board and even the Social Science Research Council—are examples, I should have thought, to the ordinary person like myself of bodies that are not only useless but positively harmful. In so far as inflation is due to excessive public expenditure on useless objects, of course their abolition would lead to a reduction in the rate of inflation, so in that respect I beg to differ from the Green Book.

May I ask the House how this vexed question of remedying the wrongs of consumers is to be dealt with without creating yet another tier of bureaucracy? The fear that we should create yet another tier of bureaucracy is not so remote as it might seem. In the catastrophic reorganisation of the National Health Service some years ago, one of the radical innovations was that of creating community health councils whose function is to grumble but not to remedy. The result has been an immense increase in consumer dissatisfaction with the National Health Service. At one time the NHS had 97 per cent. approval in the public opinion polls, but now there is ceaseless grumbling. If I were the noble Baroness who sits on the Front Bench, I should be extremely cautious before I emulated the so-called Joseph reforms in fields other than the National Health Service.

In my view, the remedy to this difficulty if it exists—and I must confess that I doubt whether it does--is a long-term one. First, wherever possible, these gigantic monopolies should be broken up. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. I should be glad if there were Scottish nationalised industries so that there was some kind of local relationship. I cannot believe that London Transport needs to be quite so badly run as it undoubtedly is. Perhaps it is a good idea that the chairman of London Transport should travel by Tube, which, according to the Evening Standard, he does. Perhaps a little more competition might help London Transport. In America, for example, there are excellent limousine services between the airports and downtown hotels.

I cannot believe that the present bus service which the noble Baroness has so strongly defended for a good many years is the last word in consumer comfort. Why can we not break up this London Transport monopoly? Who ordained it? Just because Herbert Morrison invented it, does it mean that it has to last for ever? Next, is it worthwhile setting up a kind of consumer Ombudsman who, for a small fee, would seek to remedy wrongs committed by large organisations, both nationalised and private, and, if the complaint is justified, get hack the money as the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, proposed and pay for his or her office by a fine on British Airways or on the Gas Board, or whoever it is that has created and committed the offence?

I gather from the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, that this may be what the National Consumer Council was edging towards when it suggested that all of these bodies should be housed together. If we could get a consumer Ombudsman who was financed by levying fines upon these organisations, that would be a spur to efficiency, particularly if a charge were levied on the chairman's salary. I think that that would be an idea worth considering. It might not be effective but at least it would be self-financing and would not add to the total of public expenditure.

Lastly, what we are debating today is a subject which we have debated so frequently in the couple of years since I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House. It is a question of national morale. First, it is a question of management. I agree absolutely with the noble Lord, Lord Camoys, that it is a question of management. Our management is pretty demoralised in far too many areas of our national life. By creating all of these extra laws, bodies and consumer councils we add to the demoralisation and not to the self-confidence of the managers. Also, very large sections of the workforce are completely demoralised. They are not prepared to do the work if they are paid for it by the local electricity board, although they are perfectly prepared to do it in the evenings if they come to do it privately—by "moonlighting", with money changing hands without being declared to the taxman. I believe that this is the real heart of the problem to which we should have directed our attention in this debate.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, in the face of such expert advice from all quarters, I, too, am a little nervous about my first appearance at the Dispatch Box on this subject, although I must admit that I served for a time on the Domestic Coal Consumer Council and on POUNC. With other noble Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lady Burton of Coventry for initiating this debate and at the same time to extend to her our congratulations, since it was certainly a long shot of unerring accuracy when a Motion which had been tabled for over a year was finally debated on the very day upon which the long-awaited White Paper was published. I should like to assure my noble friend that her persistence throughout the years in trying to get answers as to when the White Paper would be published has not meant that she has been a nuisance, and I hope that the replies given to her from this Dispatch Box have not been given grudgingly. I should also like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Young of Dartington on his admirable and formidable maiden speech to us this afternoon. He has had a very long association with the consumer council. If it was a non-provocative speech that my noble friend made this afternoon, I am sure that all noble Lords will look forward to hearing him in a more provocative mood on many future occasions.

I should like to take this opportunity to record the Government's thanks to the members and staff of the National Consumer Council for their very thorough and impressive report. The report itself is a response to a commission from the then Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, the right honourable Shirley Williams, in April 1975 which asked the National Consumer Council to look into the arrangements for consumer representation in the nationalised industries with a view to making them more responsive to consumers' needs. Certainly the report which was published in August 1976 provided a totally independent look at the present structure; and that our White Paper response has taken longer than we should have wished to produce is not only due to the extensive consultations which the Government undertook with those parties most closely affected but is also proof of the very considerable food for thought which the National Consumer Council gave to us I in their report.

I regret that many noble Lords will not yet have had the opportunity to read the White Paper, but may I assure them that copies are available, which 1 am sure will be in demand after this afternoon's debate. Perhaps I should start the Government's reply, therefore, by pointing out that we fully accept the National Consumer Council's case that there is a very important role for consumer councils to play in the nationalised industries, both as the guardians of and the spokesman for consumers' interests.

For the purpose of consumer councils, there are five relevant nationalised industries: the Post Office, British Rail, the Coal Board and the gas and electricity industries and not, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, British Leyland also. Almost by definition, they are large in size and monopoly suppliers, as my noble friend Lord Vaizey has reminded us this afternoon in a very characteristic, provocative and at times somewhat sceptical speech. They are not bound by the competitive restraints of the private sector. However much they may try to avoid it, therefore, the nationalised industries run the danger of becoming remote from the public they are intended to serve. At the same time, these industries have had placed upon them two prime but at times mutually incompatible aims: to return a profit and also to provide as high and as compassionate a standard of service as possible. When we also realise that the nationalised industries are providing the public with such essential services as heat and light, public transport and the means of communication, then we see, as the noble Lord, Lord Camoys, made clear in his very thoughtful speech, the overwhelming need for the consumer interest to be expressed as forcefully and as often as possible.

The Government, therefore, wholeheartedly agree with the National Consumer Council that there is a crucial and a continuing role for structures like the nationalised industry consumer councils to exist in order to ensure that consumers' views on the quality and costs of services are made known to those industries. We are aware of very great difficulties involved in monitoring and assessing the performance of the nationalised industries—the sheer amount of money spent, and the numbers employed by these industries dwarfs the research budget and staff of their corresponding consumer councils. Thus, while both the NCC and the Government believe that there is some room for improvement in the existing structure, I should like, on behalf of the Government, to thank the 2,000 or so voluntary members of the nationalised industry consumer councils, and of the local committees dealing with gas and electricity complaints, for their past, and I hope future, efforts. Their task may at times seem an impossible one, but it is, I can assure you, my Lords, worthwhile and very necessary and the public at large owes a considerable debt to these people.

If I may now move from the general principles involved to a more detailed discussion of the issues raised by the NCC Report, I think that perhaps the major difference between the Government and the NCC's position is over the future of the gas and electricity consumer councils' regional and local committee network. The NCC argued that the complaints-handling functions of these councils and committees could better be transferred to such high-street advice centres as the local authority consumer advice centres and also to the independent Citizens' Advice Bureaux which are much better known to the public. Though the Government accept that many complaints about nationalised industries should indeed be handled by these generalist advice centres, we still think that there is a valuable role for the NICC regional structure as specialists in handling such complaints. The voluntary NICC members have developed the special expertise necessary to give advice and to pursue complaints about their particular industry, and we are anxious that these skills should not be lost.

The Government also think that, crucial though national councils are, they can only be really effective when they are made aware of all shades of consumer opinion. A comprehensive regional structure, dealing in part with complaints, is one way of providing this necessary feedback and it also identifies a broader range of suitable candidates to serve on the national councils. We are well aware that there has been some duplication of effort and resources by the consumer organisations in the field. 1.n order to avoid this in the future, we are anxious to encourage a far greater degree of co-operation not only between the NICCs themselves, but also between them and outside bodies, including the National Consumer Council. The Government therefore welcome the new degree of co-operation and the sharing of research facilities between the three fuel NICCs and the NCC over the Energy Commission. Although the future of the gas and electricity consumer councils' regional structure is one matter on which the Government differ from the NCC, I am glad to say that there are many on which we agree and which we intend to adopt.

Public transport is a case in point; the NCC quite rightly pointed out that the representation of the consumer interest in such an important field was unduly limited. The Central Transport Consultative Committee, for instance, cannot consider any public transport other than rail services; nor can it even consider the tariff structure of, or proposals for, price increases by British Rail. This area is the cause of great concern to commuters and rail travellers, and we therefore think it only right that the official consumer body in the field of public transport should have the opportunity to consider such questions. We therefore intend that the CTCC, which will be renamed the National Transport Consumers' Council, should be able to consider both bus services and all fares, and we hope that it will make a contribution towards an efficient national public transport system.

At a regional level, however, the case for consumer consultation on such matters as local bus services is not quite so simple; consumers are already represented through their elected local authority representatives who are often the public transport operators. We, therefore, think that the intervention of centrally-appointed consumer councils would not be appropriate.However, we do see a need for a structure that enables consumer views on public transport to be heard at a local level. We have, therefore, agreed with the local authorities that each shire county will set up a Transport Users' Advisory Committee, consisting of both local authority and independent lay members. These committees will help to deal with the local bus complaints, will look at the fares structure of local public transport and will act as a forum through which consumer opinion on local public transport planning can be expressed.

We also agree with the NCC on the need for an Electricity Consumers' Council to co-ordinate consumer opinion when decisions are made at a national level. We set up such a council last November on a non-statutory basis, and we hope that this will continue to establish itself as the authoritative voice of the consumer interest in this very important area.


My Lords, if I may interrupt for a moment, may I ask whether the Government are going to do anything about gas, as well as electricity?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, if the noble Baroness will wait, I am going through the Report stage by stage. The NCC also made a series of suggestions relating to appointments to the nationalised industry consumer councils. Many of these recommendations reflected changes which we had already introduced and I think that, as a result, these councils have improved considerably. It has been our policy since then to appoint more people professionally involved in consumer protection, such as local authority consumer protection officers, and also to improve the overall balance of our councils by appointing more young people and more women. We are also anxious to improve (as I said earlier) co-ordination between the NICCs, and with outside bodies such as the NCC, and we are continuing our policy of cross-membership wherever that is possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, asked about the powers of the Council, and I should now like to turn to one of the most important parts of the conclusions of the NCC's report—namely what powers should be wielded by the nationalised industries consumers' councils. The NCC proposed certain structural changes designed to give the consumers' councils much more in the way of formal powers. In particular, the report argued that the Secretary of State should always have the power to issue a specific direction to nationalised industries to comply with the consumer councils' recommendation and, in those cases where the Secretary of State decided not to issue such a direction, his decision would have to be upheld by a specific order of both Houses of Parliament. The White Paper makes clear our position on this. We believe that each council should have the right to be informed in good time by the industry of major plans, including proposed tariff increases. Therefore, we intend to bring the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council and the new National Transport Consumers' Council into line with others on these points.

We also think that each consumer council should have the right to make representation to the Secretary of State, and the White Paper expresses our intention to give the Secretary of State the power of specific direction to a nationalised industry in the national interest. Having said that, I should point out that, in the past, we have found that such powers are rarely, if ever, used and their strength lies in the fact that the industry, faced with the ultimate threat, is normally willing to come to a mutually acceptable compromise with its consumer council. We do not, therefore, believe that the formalistic, structural powers envisaged by the NCC Report would help to develop the sensible co-operation which must be the basis of the relationship between the consumer council and its industry. Above all, the consumer councils must rely on the common sense of their suggestions, and on their ability to counter the industry's proposals in a well researched and well argued fashion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, raised the question of Scotland. They are discussing there with the local authorities and with the existing Scottish Transport Users' Consultative Committee how best the consumer interest, particularly on bus questions, can be protected. These discussions are continuing now, and all I can say is that the Scottish bus users will receive a new form of protection, while of course the Scottish transport users will be represented on the National Transport Consumers' Council. The noble Baroness made specific reference to the special problems of nationalised industry and consumers in Scotland. We are anxious that the Scottish consumer does not come off second best. Already we have special consumer councils in Scotland to cover the Post Office, gas and electricity affairs, while the Scottish consumer councils are also represented on the United Kingdom councils. On the question of transport, as I said, at the moment I cannot be more forthcoming, because all the discussions are still going on.

Another aspect of the report on which I would particularly like to comment concerns the arrangements for consultation in the air transport industry. I am sure that your Lordships are all aware that my noble friend Lady Burton has made this particular problem her special area of concern, and I know that the new arrangements for air transport users, as set out by the White Paper, owe very much to my noble friend's tireless prompting of the Government. Thus the Airline Users' Committe, which will now be renamed the Air Transport Users' Committee, has been given a new chairman, an independent secretariat and budget, as well as wider terms of reference to include liaison with the airport consultative committees. How these new arrangements will work out in practice we do not know, since they came into effect only a few days ago, but I am sure that my noble friend, aided and abetted by the noble Earl, Lord Amherst, will let us know if any further measures are necessary. For my part, all I can promise is that I will use my best endeavours. I learned a lot this afternoon from the noble Earl, Lord Amherst, about Heathrow and the problems there, too much for me to attempt to answer this afternoon. I will look at them and question them with my officials, and I will write to the noble Earl, if he will be happy with that.

Perhaps I can conclude by pointing out that, though the NCC Report and our consultations in response have concentrated on how best the consumer voice can make itself heard in the nationalised industries, the White Paper should be seen in no way as setting down any fixed boundaries to consumer representation. There are, and there will be, many different ways in which the interests of consumers can be promoted, and we must respond and be in a position to respond to such opportunities as they arise.

If I may quote from the concluding paragraph in the White Paper, which some noble Lords will not yet have seen, NEDO concluded that the evidence which they had accumulated pointed overwhelmingly to the need to base nationalised industries' relationship with Government on trust, continuity and accountability. These three concepts cannot be guaranteed by legislation, by new machinery of control, or indeed by principles and objectives discussed in a White Paper. Nevertheless, the Government accept them as aims to be achieved and they believe that the measures and approach now proposed will produce a lasting improvement in their relations with industry. They hope that Parliament and the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries will find that the proposals, and particularly those for improved accountability, will provide a better basis for their continuing scrutiny of the nationalised industries and of the Departments which deal with them.

In the last six months we have seen two consumer members appointed to the newly reorganised Post Office Board, including one member of your Lordships' House, the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, as part of the experiment in industrial democracy: we have had three consumer members appointed to the National Energy Commission, and consumer representatives appointed to regional water authorities for the first time. In the future the Government hope and certainly intend that the consumer interest should continue to get a fair hearing wherever possible.

The consumer councils in the current year have cost the taxpayer £l.8 million. Maybe that is not nearly enough, and maybe it is something which can be increased when our economic position improves. All I can say is that we do value the work of the consumer councils. 1 regret that I have not, 1 find, referred to the Gas Council, but we do accept that the gas consumer councils and the Gas Council itself are doing an extremely good job of work. We will continue to sustain and to help them. We hope to provide them with the tools to do their job. I hope that my noble friend will now conclude her Motion.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness concludes, would it be possible for her to assure the House that she will give particular attention—which I do not think she has done—to the very remarkable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey? If taken seriously, as it should be, it turns upside down practically everything the noble Baroness said. I would strongly recommend, if I may, that it would be in the interests of the House that we should have some assurance that the noble Lord's views will be taken seriously into account by the Government.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am proposing to go through the debate when Hansard is published to find out exactly which points I have not covered, which points I need to draw to the attention of my right honourable friends in other places—we cover more than one field—and to make sure that they do all know the view of this House, including, as 1 said, the very provocative and at times sceptical views of my noble friend Lord Vaizey, which I am sure will be read with interest and I hope will he acted on in some parts.

The Marquess of LINLITHGOW

My Lords, I think that the basis of Lord Vaizey's remarks was a very general point. It was simply this, that although this report concerns the consumer side of the supply/consumer equation—and very rightly—and although that is the basis of the debate, is it not possible that at some future date the same amount of effort should be put into a complete investigation of the supply side of the equation? I do not think it can be any answer, or a total answer, to the dissatisfactions caused by nationalised industries to look only at the consumer side and the increase in consumer defence. Could it not be considered at least a possibility that the organisation of the nationalised industries themselves and their accountability should be examined?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, your Lordships will, of course, accept that I cannot commit any of the Secretaries of State involved with the nationalised industries. However, I think there is certainly a point there. What we were discussing today was the report of the National Consumer Council, which was basically concerned with the consumer aspects. I will certainly see that the noble Marquess's points are brought to the appropriate attention.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness finally concludes, while it is true to say that we were discussing today the report of the NCC, the statement that she has just made contains some very important policy decisions. They are contained in a White Paper which I gather is only published today, and I regret that I have not been able to read it. Perhaps she could clarify one or two points, or she may wish to do so in a subsequent debate. With regard to the increased powers of the consumer councils in the nationalised industries for controlling and monitoring and approving price increases, I should be interested to learn—because very often price increases in any nationalised industry arise from a definite marketing strategy or arise from a computation of certain costs; they are a highly complicated business--whether the consumer councils are going to have the resources to do that job effectively. Secondly, since all the nationalised industries must inevitably go to the Price Commission before they get approval for increases in prices, what is going to be the relationship between the Price Commission and the consumer councils? They will both be doing the same thing in a way, trying to see whether or not an increase in price is justified.

Finally, many of the nationalised industries are not in a monopoly position but frequently compete with other nationalised industries in the supply of power, transport and other services. Will there be any restrictions on the consumer councils causing undue delay in the approval of price increases which are vital to the economy of certain nationalised industries?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord much more fully, but I shall briefly answer the point that he has raised. On the question of resources, as I have said, in the current financial year we are spending El-8 million on consumer councils. I posed the question that perhaps it was not enough. I am speaking for the Government at this moment and can only say that when the economic position improves, we hope that they will get a much greater share. If I were to speak personally, I may say something else. However, they certainly need the resources to enable them to do the job.

As regards their relationship with the Price Commission, if the opportunities for research, for study and for independent surveys of the suggestions by any of the nationalised industries for increases in prices are available to the consumer councils, then they would, of course, have the same right as anyone else to make their representations to the Price Commission. My noble friend referred to the fact that some of our nationalised industries are not in a monopolistic position. We are trying to do something about that for example, through the Energy Commission, trying to get some sort of concerted action on fuel. I am certain it would not be the Government's intention that any powers which we were to give to the consumer councils would necessarily make undue delays which would perhaps make life somewhat difficult for some of the nationalised industries which have a justified price increase. However, if the noble Lord will permit me, I shall take further advice on the matter and write to him in more detail.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, I think that at last it must be my turn. I shall be as brief as possible, but there are one or two comments that I should like to make because, quite obviously, even with the patience of your Lordships' House, your Lordships' will not wish to return to this matter in the near future. If there was one thing 1 learned in another place, it was that you say the nice things first. I used to say the unpleasant things first and got into a lot of trouble. So, now I say the nice things first. I think we have had a most excellent debate. I should like to thank everybody who has taken part, including the last three speakers to whom my noble friend Lady Stedman has just replied, in addition to all other noble Lords who have taken part.

It is quite obvious to everyone what an asset—I hope he does not mind the term—the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, will be to the House in general and to consumer interests in particular. I hope very much that his ideas will percolate outside; I am sure that they quite obviously will. I was glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, brought in Scotland. I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, was very good fun but he got me completely wrong. I have never suggested making another tier of anything. I merely want to make what is, effective, which is a very different matter.

I wish to take the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, to task before I move on to other matters. I think he said at the beginning of his speech--he will correct me if I am wrong—that he did not really think that we needed consumer representation on boards. He thought that the union representative could speak for the consumers.


My Lords, I should like to reply to the noble Baroness on that point. The situation is far from what she has said. I said that if we had a union representative on the boards then he has responsibility to the consumers. What I said about not having consumer representation on the boards was that I thought that they were far more effective at arm's length. I thought that they had to have a statutory responsibility regarding the industries to inform them, and in time.


My Lords, I think I still disagree because I believe that we need consumer representation on boards.

Like my noble friend Lord Young of Dartington I shall try, very generously, to extend a moderate welcome to the White Paper. It is difficult to seem mean when the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has replied because she is always helpful pleasant and has an extremely good manner. Moreover, if I may say so without offence, she puts a very good gloss —I am not being offensive—on something which does not deserve it: that is why am giving it only a moderate welcome. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, has said. There is no general principle running through the introduction of this White Paper. As a result, I do not think that it has teeth. Quite honestly I am disappointed. I was handed, very kindly—due to my noble friend Lady Stedman—the Press release of the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection on this White Paper at lunch time. In that release -and I shall quote from it — is what the noble Lady has just said: The Government strongly believed that each council should have a right to be informed by its industry in good time of major plans, that the industry should consider any recommendations by that council and that in cases of disagreement the consumer council has the right to appeal to the Secretar of State. The Government intended to introduce legislation to this effect". What I should like to ask my noble friend— I am sure that she will write to me about it —is. first of all, what is meant by "in good time". Secondly, she said and the statement says that each council should have a right to this. I want to know whether that means all councils. If the Government are to legislate to this effect, if it does not mean all councils then will it differentiate so that we know where we are?

What disturbed me--and this is a serious point—is that I can find no mention of finance in the White Paper. I did ask about it. I do not believe that any consumer council can be independent unless it has finance from the Government. There is no mention at all in the White Paper of that. As with POUNC, I believe that consumer councils must be free to take on expert consultants so that they can better do their job. How will they do it without such assistance? I ask the noble Baroness whether she can clear up for me who is to finance the consumer councils—and I mean all of them.

I move to what the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, so glowingly described as the reference to the Civil Aviation Authority. At least I can cut short what I was going to say in this respect, but it really is not at all glowing. Section 38 nearly made me weep, but I shall explain what it really means. The Airline Users' Committee has no money at all of its own. It is not statutory. Will it have the right that the other councils have? Is it to be made statutory? It is financed by the Civil Aviation Authority. I think that is entirely wrong. May I also add that it took us four years on the Airline Users' Committee to disabuse people of the idea that the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority should be chairman of the Airline Users' Committee? The Government have not done it: we have done it. So we now have an independent chairman. Will my noble friend look into the matter of finance which really and truly is a serious matter?

The Government White Paper really does not deal with what we are after. I said that I did not think it was possible for consumer affairs to he discussed adequately round a table unless the consumer side and the secretariat of the consumer side was the equivalent of the secretariat of the other side--the industrial side. That is not mentioned at all. If my noble friend would look at that matter I should be very glad—it is the question of imbalance.

After those complaints—I am disappointed and I think that we have a long way to go—contrary to what I usually ask for, if my noble friend would be kind enough to write to me, we shall be able to pursue the matter a little further. However, I once more thank my noble friend Lady Stedman and everyone who has taken part for their patience. I hope that next time we debate this matter we shall all have nice things to say. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.