HL Deb 14 June 1982 vol 431 cc513-8

Further considered on Report.

Lord Bishopston moved Amendment No. 67: Page 55, line 20, leave out from (" omitted ") to end of line 25.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, after the rather extensive but not undue time spent on the earlier amendments, concerning the aspects of accountability and the powers which will be given to the Secretary of State by this Bill, whereby he is able to impose directions notwithstanding any duty imposed on the gas corporation by any enactment, I do not intend to initiate a long debate. The amendment is to take out Schedule 3(10)(b) where those words again appear: it shall be the duty of the Corporation (notwithstanding any duty imposed on them by or under any enactment) to give effect to any such direction ". The legislation is peppered, if that is the term to use after dinner, with words of this kind, and indeed the Minister has extensive and indeed massive powers in almost every section to dictate or direct or over-rule, and here the power to over-rule notwithstanding any legislation. We would prefer that these draconian powers were not in this clause, as indeed they ought not to be in others. I think it would be helpful to the House if the Minister would give some justification for paragraph 10(b), in particular; if he could indicate to the House the possible circumstances in which they might be justified. That at least would be some clarification of this, although of course not a justification for it. I anticipate that, even with the Gas Act 1972, there may not be any requirement on the Minister in exercising these very considerable powers to come back to Parliament. It would be helpful if the Minister would give some justification for the powers which are sought in this part of the Bill. I beg to move.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, the noble Lord's amendment seeks to amend an amendment to Schedule 3 to the Gas Act 1972. The parent clause, if I may so describe it, is Clause 36. Therefore, we have debated this principle already very extensively, and the way in which the power is to be used. Paragraph 10(b) of Schedule 3 deals with Section 7(2) of the Gas Act 1972 and Section 7(2) taken with paragraph 10(a) empowers the Secretary of State to direct the gas corporation to discontinue or restrict activities, or to call in loans. Paragraph 10(b) deletes from Section 7(2) the proviso that the Secretary of State shall not give directions unless satisfied that he will not thereby impede or prevent the proper discharge of the corporation's duties, and substitutes an obligation on BGC to comply with directions notwithstanding statutory duties.

This is a very similar situation to that obtaining under Clause 11. The Government need to be able to exercise power under Section 7(2) in the same circumstances as the power to give directions under Clause 11. For example, when BGC is directed to dispose of assets under Clause 11 it may well be sensible at the same time to direct the corporation under Section 7(2) to cease the activity in which those assets were employed. Otherwise, the corporation would be free to continue the activity, purchasing replacement assets as necessary. This would frustrate the broad objectives of keeping within bounds the role of the public sector. I appreciate that noble Lords opposite are not in sympathy with this aim, but nevertheless that is the broad objective of the Bill, and this particular paragraph in Schedule 3 gives effect to the Government's wishes in this respect.

I think I can repeat an assurance given in another place that the Secretary of State, before giving a direction under Section 7(2), will satisfy himself that such a direction will not prevent the corporation carrying out its obligations to supply gas to consumers within 25 yards of a BGC main whose requirements do not exceed 25,000 therms a year.

I do not think I can help the noble Lord very much further. This is a matter which is ancillary to the purposes of Part II. It is, I think, logical and certainly sensible that if one is going to have powers of direction given to the Secretary of State under Part 11 one should also have this minor power under Section 7(2) of the Gas Act. It may be of assistance to the House and particularly to noble Lords opposite that any direction under Section 7(2) of the Gas Act 1972, which paragraph I 0(b) amends, must be laid before Parliament in draft, and of course like all these orders may be anulled by resolution of either House of Parliament. So there is a layer of parliamentary scrutiny in this particular instance which would enable Parliament, if it thought that the Secretary of State was behaving improperly, to prevent him doing just that.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, will he say, if there is no parliamentary scrutiny and the gas corporation are forced or made to do something which is not otherwise covered by law, whether they would, in fact, be liable for the consequences of their action, which may be the breaking of of contractual obligations as regards safety or otherwise, or whether the Minister giving the direction would assume that responsibility? One can appreciate that where such directions come before the House or before Parliament it is Parliament making a new enactment which overrules the previous legislation, which many would not dispute. But in cases where it does not come back to Parliament by either form of resolution, is one to presume that the gas corporation will have to bear the consequences of doing what the Secretary of State directs?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is making the same mistake as his noble friend Lord Mishcon. This is not intended. In fact, it does not give the Secretary of State power, in effect, in a Svengali-like manner to direct the gas corporation to behave in a way which is, one might say, against the law. In other words, in exactly the same way as I tried to explain to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that the Secretary of State could not direct, for instance, BNOC to enter into some kind of flotation which would disregard sections of the Companies Act, so the Secretary of State could not, under this power, compel or even order a breach of a contractual obligation. It simply does not arise.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure that we do not agree with the essence of what he has said, but the matter has been debated at length by the House and, therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Hayter)

My Lords, the next amendment is No. 68. I have to inform the House that if this amendment is carried I shall not be able to call Amendments Nos. 69, 70 or 71.

7.53 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve moved Amendment No. 68: Page 55, line 26, leave out paragraphs 11 to 13.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, 1 beg to move Amendment No. 68. As my noble friend the Minister will realise, Amendments Nos. 69, 70 and 71 all seek to do the same as my amendment. Representations have been made by a number of trade associations who have agreed that the industrial side of the National Gas Consumers' Council is a valuable channel for getting their views known and for airing their grievances to the British Gas Corporation and, indeed, to the Government.

This clause as it stands would remove the powers of the National Gas Consumers' Council to look after those who consume over 25,000 therms. This would exclude the smaller industries who are consumers of gas. There are 25 members of the National Gas Consumers' Council. There are 12 regional chairmen, plus 13 other members who are chosen for their interests in the subject. All of them are appointed by the Secretary of State. A balance of council members has been struck in the past. As far as possible the needs of smaller and larger consumers have been looked after. I can assure the Minister that that was the situation in the days when I had the privilege of being the first national chairman of the National Gas Consumers' Council. I can also assure the House that the thousands of representations which are made at regional and national level are dealt with in the interests of all the consumers. It would, I suggest, be a great pity if these needs were not looked after as they have been in the past.

The Minister, I hope, will have to decide whether to accept my amendment or the amendment which I am sure will be very ably put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I can only hope that I can persuade my noble friend the Minister to accept my amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, as has been mentioned and as your Lordships will see from the Marshalled List, Amendments Nos. 69, 70 and 71 which follow the amendment of the noble Baroness, all stand in my name and that of my noble friends. I am only too happy to support the noble Baroness in her amendment and I hope that it may be possible for the Minister to accept her amendment in preference to mine.

My amendment would cut out the large industrial consumers, whereas that of the noble Baroness would leave the position exactly as it is at present to take in everyone who consumes gas. That amendment would be far more preferable to my own. Therefore, I propose not to speak to my amendment in the hope that 1 shall have no need to do so. If the Minister will accept the amendment of the noble Baroness then, as has been pointed out, I cannot move my amendments.

The noble Baroness has moved her amendment with all her experience as a former chairman of the National Gas Consumers' Council. Therefore, she is fully aware of the problems, and far more fully aware of the work that the Gas Consumers' Council does than I am. In view of her experience, I hope that the Minister will find it possible to accept her amendment. I shall reserve speaking to my own amendments in the hope that they will not have to be called.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, it seems that peace is breaking out all over the Chamber. Since the last stage of this Bill, we have reconsidered paragraphs 11 to 13 of Schedule 3, both in themselves but more especially in relation to other provisions of the Bill. There is a precedent for these provisions in the British Telecommunications Act 1981. In the particular case of the gas industry there is a feeling that it would be at least premature to contemplate at this stage a reduction in the remit of the Gas Consumers' Council. In Committee my noble friend paid tribute to the work of the consumers' councils, and we accept that this work should continue on its present basis as a useful part of the system of checks and balances which will safeguard the interests of consumers after this Bill becomes law, as indeed is the case at present. So, in inviting the House to agree to my noble friend's amendment, I should thank her for putting it down and for speaking to it in the way in which she has done.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for accepting this amendment. I am certain that it will have far reaching effects. I think that the consumers of gas will, for the future, be able to rely on the Gas Consumers' Council—both regional and national—as they have in the past. I thank my noble friend.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 69 to 71 not moved.]

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendments Nos. 72 to 74: Page 57, line 10, leave out (" gaseous form ") and insert (" a gaseous state "). Page 57, line 18, at end insert—

(" The Local Government Act 1974

20A. In Schedule 3 to the Local Government Act 1974 (hereditaments to which section 19(1) of that Act applies) after paragraph 3 there shall be inserted the following paragraphs—

" 3A.—(1) Any hereditament which a private supplier is to be treated as occupying in a rating area by virtue of section 33(3) of the principal Act as applied by order under section 33A of that Act.

(2) In this paragraph and paragraph 38 below—

3B. Any hereditament occupied for or in connection with the conveyance of gas through pipes other than one which—

  1. (a) is occupied by the British Gas Corporation; or
  2. (b) is occupied by a private supplier for or in connection with the supply of gas through pipes to consumers' premises.").

Page 57, line 36, at end insert—

(" The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1975

22A. After paragraph 3 of Schedule 1 to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1975 (certain lands and heritages of the Gas Corporation to be valued by formula for rating) there shall be inserted the following paragraphs—

" 3A.—(1) Any lands and heritages occupied by a private supplier for or in connection with the supply of gas through pipes to consumers' premises, other than—

  1. (a) lands and heritages occupied and used as a dwelling house;
  2. (b) a shop, room or other place occupied and used by a private supplier wholly or mainly for the sale, display or demonstration of apparatus or accessories for use by consumers of gas:
  3. (c) lands and heritages held by a private supplier under a lease for a period not exceeding 21 years;
  4. (d) premises which arc—
    1. (i) occupied by a private supplier;
    2. (ii) used wholly or mainly as an office or for office purposes (within the meaning of paragraph 2 of this Schedule); and
    3. (iii) situated on land which, in respect of its nature and situation, is comparable rather with land in general than with land used for the purpose of supplying gas through pipes; or
  5. (e) lands and heritages occupied and used by a private supplier wholly or mainly for the manufacture of plant or gas fittings.

(2) In this paragraph and paragraph 3B below—

3B. Any lands and heritages occupied for or in connection with the conveyance of gas through pipes other than lands and heritages which—

  1. (a) are occupied by the British Gas Corporation;
  2. (b) are occupied by a private supplier for or in connection with the supply of gas through pipes to consumers' premises; or
  3. (c) are occupied and used as a dwelling house.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have already spoken to Amendment No. 72 with Amendment No. 62. I, therefore, propose to move Amendments Nos. 72, 73 and 74▀×all of which were spoken to with Amendment No. 62—en bloc. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 75: Page 59, line 15, leave out (" mentioned in ") and insert (" falling within ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a minor drafting amendment which has no policy effect. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 76: Page 61, line 37, at end insert—

("The Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Act 1982

40A. In paragraph 9 of Schedule 5 to the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Act 1982 (proceedings excluded from Schedule 4 to that Act) for the words "section 3 of the Continental Shelf Act 1964" there shall be substituted the words "section 22 of the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Act 1982".

40B. In paragraph 10 of Schedule 9 to that Act (proceedings excluded from Schedule 8 to that Act) for the words "section 3 of the Continental Shelf Act 1964 "there shall be substituted the words" section 22 of the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Act 1982 ".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a consequential amendment to the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Bill, which is slightly ahead of this Bill in its progress through Parliament. It replaces references to Section 3 of the Continental Shelf Act 1964 in the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Bill with references to Clause 22 of the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill. Clauses 21 and 22 of the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill replace Section 3 of the 1964 Act. Therefore, I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 4 [Repeals]:

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 77:

Page 62, line 4, leave out column 3 and insert—

(" Section 4.
Section 10(1).").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 77, which is a minor drafting amendment. Again, it makes no change to the substance of the Bill, but puts the existing references to the Petroleum (Production) Act 1934 on separate lines so as to improve the layout of the schedule. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

In the Title:

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 78: Line 6, after (" to ") insert (" amend the Petroleum (Production) Act 1934 and to ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, earlier my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate moved Amendment No. 36, which was concerned with the effects of the Lonsdale case. This amendment inserts in the Long Title of the Bill the fact that the Bill may cover that amendment. Therefore, I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.