HL Deb 19 April 1983 vol 441 cc506-24

4.45 p.m.

Report, on Clause 7, received.

Clause 7 [Arrangements by water authorities for representation of consumers' interests]:

Lord Sandford moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 5, line 31, at end insert— ("(1A) Arrangements under subsection (1) above shall require each water authority to establish Consumer Consultative Councils. (1B) Each water authority shall consult on such arrangements with organisations appearing to it to represent consumer interests in their area including each relevant local authority and on submission of a report to the Secretary of State under subsection (1) above, shall publish in the London Gazette and in one or more newspapers circulating in every part of its area, details of the arrangements indicating that representations thereon may be made to the Secretary of State within a period of not less than 28 days from the date of publication. (1C) The water authority shall make provision in arrangements under subsection (1) above, as respects each Consumer Consultative Council, for:—

  1. (a) at least one member thereof to be appointed by each relevant local authority and a number of other members to be appointed by organisations representing the interests of the consumers;
  2. (b) the Chairman thereof to be appointed by the members;
  3. (c) administrative and financial arrangements that will enable the effective and independent working of the Consumer Consultative Council;
  4. (d) enabling policy issues which are not of an urgent or confidential nature to be brought before Consumer Consultative Councils before the water authority makes decisions on them and for meetings of Councils to be open to the press and the public;
(1D) In this section, "relevant local authority" means, in relation to a Consumer Consultative Council, the council of a London Borough or of a county or district as defined in relation to England in section 27(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 or of a county or district mentioned in section 20(3) of that Act (which relates to Wales) or the Common Council of the City of London of which the area or a substantial part of it is in each case included in the area of the Consumer Consultative Council.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 1. In doing so, following the business to which we have just been listening, one cannot help reflecting what a pity it is that we cannot have a single Minister dealing with Clause 21 of the Energy Bill and Clause 7 of the Water Bill, so that we could get some consistency into the business of consumer consultative councils. However, in moving Amendment No. 1 I must refer to Amendment No. 3, because that is a Government amendment tabled after I and my various noble friends whose names are on the Marshalled List had tabled our Amendment No. 1 to Clause 7.

With the tabling of the Government Amendment No. 3, I hope we shall have the assurance of the House that the House will have one further look at this matter before the consumer consultative councils come into operation on the basis of the guidelines to be issued by the Secretary of State. That being so, my intention would be not to press Amendment No. 1, but to suggest to my noble friend on the Front Bench that he takes this debate as the opportunity to indicate to the House exactly where we now stand, the matters that are agreed about the characteristics which these consumer consultative councils are to have, the matters which have already been established by the first draft of the guidelines, which have been set out in the answers he gave to my noble friend Lady Trumpington a few weeks ago, and generally to put that on the record so that we know where we now stand and have a reference point for the day when the guidelines are laid before each House of Parliament in accordance with Amendment No. 3. On that basis, I beg to move Amendment No. 1.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, in seconding the amendment that has been moved, I should like to follow up what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has said by agreeing that, when the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has the opportunity to reply, he should indicate how far we have got. It would appear that fresh guidelines are to be issued, because some of the points have already been covered in statements which the noble Lord has made to the House, either through Questions for Written Answers or in Committee. Therefore, it would be helpful if the noble Lord could give us some indication as to when the second consultation document will be issued and perhaps the date of the return. Perhaps he could also help by enumerating some of the matters which he thinks ought to be included in the second consultation document.

I think that there is still a need to clarify the position of the secretaries of the consumer consultative councils and also the places wherein they might meet. I think that all Members of this House who spoke on the Second Reading debate and since in Committee have stressed that, if the consumer consultative councils are to be the bodies that we expect them to be, they will have to be consumer consultative councils not only in name but also in the way they act. Who will finance the secretariat, and where they will meet, are important points which ought to be included in the guidelines.

We recognise that there is a timetable. The new consultation document goes out; it has to come back in; the guidelines have to be set; these then have to go out to the water authorities; the water authorities return their comments, under Clause 7, to the Secretary of State; then, if they are approved, one presumes that the water authorities go ahead with appointing members to the CCCs. When does the noble Lord expect that a final date will be given by the Government and when shall we know who has been appointed to the CCCs? This is an important issue.

We came to the conclusion in Committee that the only democratic part of this Bill relates to the consumer consultative councils. Therefore, it is envisaged that the people to be appointed to them will exert a tremendous amount of influence on the water authorities, and be part and parcel of some of the preliminary decisions of a water authority before they come to final conclusions. Unless these councils act in the true sense of a consumer consultative council their role will become, as with so many nationalised industry consultative committees, a much maligned one. One would not like to feel that the water authorities, or the Government, were going to place the CCCs into the category of being simply the names of people, but people without consequence and influence.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, as I am one of the other signatories to this amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, it might be helpful if I indicated that the course of action recommended by the noble Lord to your Lordships' House with regard to this amendment is one which my noble friends and I on these Benches entirely support. We wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for his indefatigable efforts with regard to this important part of the Bill, efforts which have resulted not least in part of the Bill receiving a very effective scrutiny which perhaps it might not otherwise have had. I should also thank the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for having come forward, perhaps at the eleventh hour, with what appears to be a workable compromise which meets the needs and wishes of so many Members of your Lordships' House.

I think it would be right in the fullness of time, if this amendment is withdrawn having been discussed and commented upon, that we then unite to support the later amendment, Amendment No. 3. This really is a desperately important matter. Like many other noble Lords and noble Baronesses in your Lordships' House, I have had some experience of consumer consultative councils. From that experience I genuinely believe that there is always a risk of those bodies becoming no more than a receptacle for complaints, where those complaints are allowed to remain while time passes until perhaps the frustration or the anger of the complainant has been allowed to simmer down.

If the consumer councils are to have genuine effect they must have proper access to the activities of the body they are scrutinising. They must also have an opportunity to publicise what they are doing so that their efforts are seen by the public to be effective, and to be acting as a genuine scrutineer on behalf of the public of the body over which they are required to watch. Without the kind of detailed discussion we have had about these proposed guidelines and the various provisions which will be brought into the working of this part of the Act, there was perhaps a danger that these consumer consultative councils would be little more than ciphers. I myself have great hopes that at the end of the day they will prove to be effective.

If they do not, then we are embarking on a dangerous course. We have appointed water authorities with the press largely removed, with the ombudsman partly removed, and so on. Therefore, never has the need for a consultative council been more clearly demonstrated. I am grateful for the work that the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has done to make sure that these gaps have been filled. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin—this will perhaps save me having to say it at a later stage—for the conciliatory approach which he has adopted to the arguments advanced to him.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, because I missed his first opening remarks, but I shall of course read them in Hansard. I am grateful that this amendment is to be withdrawn, because on any objective analysis it really is possessed of several vices. It seeks to formalise what is otherwise informal, thus reducing the very flexibility of which other noble Lords have spoken. It seeks to introduce this novel and, I am afraid, unworkable concept by reference to decisions of policy not of an urgent or confidential nature, without any machinery by which such question could be resolved, and indeed on a question where it is possible to entertain a serious measure of genuine disagreement.

Lastly, it relates to the subsequent amendment, Amendment No. 4, by seeking to establish this new statutory body, the consumer consultative council. It paves the way to that Amendment 4 which envisages a piecemeal extension of the jurisdiction of the local commissioner in relation to complaints of maladministration by water authorities at the instigation of any member of the consultative body. There is no special need shown for that. If the amendment were to have been accepted it would have been unworkable in practice as any reasonable means of securing the interests of consumers, and on the contrary would have tended to clog the channels of due administration.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I rise briefly to seek some further information on the work of the consumer councils. I am concerned about the position of people who can get rate rebates and rent rebates, but apparently can get no rebate for their water charges. I wonder whether this question would be within the terms of reference of the consumer councils? I ask this in all sincerity because I put down a Question on 13th April, and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, told me in a Written Answer that there was no provision under the Housing Benefits Scheme to help in the payment of water and sewerage charges. We must all know that these charges are becoming an increasing proportion of the domestic expenditure of many people, and for many households a worrying proportion of the household expenses.

The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, stated clearly on 13th April, at col. 302: The Government do not provide resources to assist water authorities to deal with cases of hardship, but these authorities normally make available special payment facilities for those in need". I should like to ask whether there is any formalisation of the noble Lord's rather vague statement, and to know what part the consumer councils would be able to play in trying to help in cases of hardship. Also, are there to be any national arrangements or will it be left to each authority to do what it thinks best?

I noticed, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, the reference in the proposed paragraph (d) to the rights of the consumer consultative councils to deal with policy issues which are not of an urgent or confidential nature and the fact that they should be dealt with before the water authority makes decisions on them. I do not know what the noble Lord had in mind in drafting this, but the most important matter for all water users is how they will meet their charges and what help there will be, either through the consumer consultative councils or from other directions, to deal with that problem. I realise that people on supplementary benefit would normally have these charges met, but some of the most hard-up people in this country are those who are just slightly above supplementary benefit level. They have no fat to cut into when there is a sudden increase in such essential services as water and sewerage charges. I should be interested to know what the Government and the noble Lord have in mind for such cases of hardship. While we have met a need through rent and rate rebates, there is a lacuna concerning water and sewerage charges.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, may I add a query on the same subsection, particularly following the line of my noble friend. I should be glad if my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale would explain how these policy issues are to be decided. It appears, by implication, that the regional water authority itself will have to decide whether a policy issue is not confidential or urgent and can therefore be discussed by the consumer councils before it is decided by the regional water authority. But if the regional water authority decided that no such issue ever occurred the consumer council would never have such a matter before it. It might complain and ask why it did not. The answer would be that no such policy issue came before the water authority. In other words, the amendment which my noble friend Lord Sandford has put before us does not seem to me to be entirely practical. I shall be grateful if my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale will explain how he sees this paragraph (d) being put into action.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend Lady Jeger. She is absolutely right and on to a good point about rebates. If one of the alternative answers is to have one's water metered—as some people do now because they find it less costly—someone still has to pay for the installation of the meter. It is these people who cannot afford to pay for the installation of the meter who will be at a great financial disadvantage. This is another item which should be included with rate and rent rebates and the other schemes of rebate for people in financial need.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, this debate has rather run away with itself, but I return to my noble friend Lord Sandford. With an offer like that, how could I possibly refuse? When we debated this matter the other day I made it clear that Government objections to Amendment No. 2, moved by my noble friend, existed, and exactly what they were. My noble friend, as he has explained, has taken note of my objections as set out in the Official Report, and has tabled this present amendment which differs in significant respects from that which we discussed in Committee.

My noble friend would prefer us, in subsection (1A), to refer to the consumer consultative councils rather than consumer consultative committees as in the guidelines. He has suggested that this change would underline their independence. We do not, however, wish to move in this direction. There are significant differences between what is proposed in the guidelines and the existing structure of nationalised industry consumer councils. In particular, the strongly local emphasis of our proposed committee and the need for a strong local government input—because, in a sense, the committees are taking the place of the local authority members hitherto appointed to water authorities—underline this difference. We are not saying that the committees should be committees of the water authority in the conventional sense; they will be genuinely independent, with an independent and independently appointed membership. They will not be operating to policy instructions from the water authorities. Nevertheless, we distinguish them from nationalised industry consumer councils and we prefer to retain the word "committee" which we do not consider to be ambiguous.

As for consultation and publicity, the water authorities will, no doubt, find it desirable to hold consultations on drawing up their reports. What is essential—and we will require this in the revised guidelines—is that publicity should be given to the proposed arrangements before a report is submitted to the Secretary of State. There should be good local publicity, which should inform individuals where they can see or obtain a copy of the draft report. We should not, however, require publication in the London Gazette, which would be an unnecessary expense. The water authorities will be required to submit a summary of the comments they receive, and how they have taken them into account, when they submit their report to the Secretary of State.

As for item (1C), we are agreed that each local authority wholly or substantially within the area of a CCC should have a right to appoint a member and we are agreed about the chairmanship. I have explained that the accommodation and secretariat should be provided by the water authority, which will be more efficient, less bureaucratic and less costly than any independent arrangement.

I was asked a number of questions, I believe, by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, about where these meetings would be held. It might be appropriate for them to be held (shall we say?) in the Maltings at Snape, and it might be appropriate for them to be held in county council offices or even in the offices of the water authorities themselves. This would be a matter in the consultation procedure of each water authority. I cannot at this moment say where would be appropriate in any particular case.

Since expenses are to be paid, since the committees will have control of their own agendas, since they must be consulted well in advance on major policy questions and since the water authorities and companies must supply whatever information is needed for the committees to discharge their tasks—for all these reasons, we believe that the effective and independent working of the CCCs is assured.

I was asked a number of questions by noble Lords. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, asked how far we have reached in the matter of timing. I have nothing further to report since she asked virtually the same question last week. The revised draft guidelines are to be issued soon for a short period of consultation which I would think would not be as long as four months, but probably greater than six weeks. Incidentally, last week I was asked a question by my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn, to which I did not reply at the time, which was: how many members would the consultative committees have? This would vary in each case, but I would not expect them to have more than 30 members.

The noble Baroness also said that the only democratic part of the Bill would be Clause 7 and the formation of the consumer consultative committees. I take issue with her on this because my noble friend Lord Bellwin was at pains to point out at an earlier stage of the Bill that the local authority representation on the water authority is a form of democracy in itself. As we shall be discussing later under Amendment No. 4, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, there will be the opportunity for the aggrieved consumer to address his complaint, if it is not entertained by the water authority, to the local ombudsman. I should have thought that that was a defence of democracy, to use the noble Baroness's words.

The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, rather stumped me when he referred to a conciliatory approach. I rushed to the dictionary as I had always thought it meant "giving way". But, having re-read the dictionary, I find that it means something entirely different. It means "doing things in a spirit of genuine understanding". This, of course, is exactly what I and my colleagues in the department have sought to do during the course of this Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, produced a rather different point. The snap answer is that the matter of water rebates is not primarily a matter for consumer consultative councils, but is a matter for the Government's social security policy. The Government approach is that help for those in difficulty over their water bills (as in the case of electricity and gas bills) should be brought about through the social security system. If the CCCs wish to make suggestions for alleviating hardship over water bills, they are entitled to do so. This must be taken as seriously by the water authorities as they would take any other matter which was referred to them by the consumer consultative committees. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, asked about meters.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I did not ask a question. I said it would be too expensive for people who would require, or deserve, a rebate to install a meter. I am saying that to the Minister so that he does not have to spend time answering a question that I did not ask. I stated a fact.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in that case, one comment can be answered by another. It is by no means clear that water meters save money. It depends on different cases. If the noble Baroness wants to take this up with me later, I shall pursue it. From what I have said earlier, I agree with my noble friends Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Nugent. It is not for me to defend part of the amendment which is concerned with enabling policy issues which are not of an urgent or confidential nature to be brought before the consultative councils. I am happy to reiterate what has been said on numerous occasions: that it is for the consultative committees to form their own agenda and to bring to the notice of the water authorities, once having discovered the facts, anything that they feel they need to do. I do not think that at this moment I need to go further than that. We shall be debating Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 in a moment.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me, is he really happy to leave the uncertainties that there must be in this subsection as to what are the obligations of the water authorities in this matter? Is it really clear as to whether they have any obligation to put issues before the consumer councils; or can they say with their hands on their hearts, "We have heard nothing which is not either urgent or confidential and therefore can put nothing before you". Will this not leave a possible basis of misunderstanding between these important new bodies and the water authorities?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I shall have to consider that. I can see that it might if I were going to accept this amendment; but I am not. I explained to your Lordships on an earlier occasion that if you wished to have a debate when the guidelines were issued and laid before Parliament it would be possible by arrangement through the usual channels. I am happy to repeat that assurance today. With the assurances that I have made this afternoon and earlier in Committee, I hope that your Lordships will agree that there really is no need for Amendment No. 1. Accordingly, I invite my noble friend to do as he promised and withdraw the amendment.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I hope that the House will agree that it has been useful to have these debates, and this one in particular. There was one important matter which I do not think my noble friend mentioned although we have discussed it before; namely, the assurance that the meetings of the consumer consultative councils will be open to the press and the public. I do not think that there is any need for him to restate that now. It was recorded earlier on. But I should like it to be on the record again as it is one of the things which has been established in the course of the debates on this clause. Having said that, I, personally, am well content to leave the matter now to the laying before Parliament of the guidelines when they have been finalised. That will be the moment, perhaps, to come back to the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Nugent. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Drumalbyn had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 2:

Page 5, line 34, at end insert— ("( ) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to lay before each House of Parliament a copy of any guidelines issued by him under subsection (2) above".)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not propose to move Amendment No. 2 since it is in almost identical terms to Amendment No. 3.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

5.17 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 6, line 40, at end insert— ("(10) The Secretary of State shall lay before each House of Parliament a copy of any guidelines issued by him for the purposes of this section".)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House may recall that when we debated this matter last week my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn had a virtually indentical amendment to that which he has tabled for debate today and which he has just very generously not moved. I indicated then that the Government accepted the principle of his amendment, that the guidelines should be laid before Parliament but that we preferred some slightly different wording. I undertook to bring forward an amendment at Third Reading. However, everyone concerned put their skates on and the Government tabled this amendment on Thursday last to be debated today. This was at the earliest possible opportunity. My noble friend follows the precedent of bullying the Government by putting his own amendment down again, which is a reasonable attitude for a Back-Bencher in your Lordships' House to take. At least, I hope so, because I have done it myself on at least one occasion. He has, however, again done the decent thing by not moving his amendment.

As I explained on Wednesday, we believe that there is advantage in providing formally for the guidelines to be laid before Parliament and that this underlines the statutory significance of the guidelines. The fact that they are laid before Parliament will be recorded in your Lordships' House; copies will be made available in the Printed Paper Office as well as in the Library and they will be advertised on the green Minutes of Proceedings and the pink paper. Noble Lords may then decide whether or not they wish to raise any points on the guidelines through the usual means. I have already referred to the fact that it would be possible, by arrangement through the usual channels, to have a debate on this subject if a Member of your Lordships' House particularly required it. In the light of what I have said, I hope that your Lordships will now agree that this is an acceptable and sensible position for the Government to take. I beg to move.

Lord Drumalbyn

My Lords, I should like to express my thanks to my noble friend. I dare say that he put his amendment down before he had seen mine. I think that we have reached the right solution. I should like to congratulate my noble friend on the dexterity with which he dealt with the last amendment. Obviously, it was quite impossible for him to say what progress had been made in the discussions; for probably there have not been any further discussions since the last time we debated this matter. Certainly, he has made it possible for my noble friend Lord Sandford and all of us who supported him to do what we wanted to do; which was to make certain that the matter came to Parliament in some form so that we would have the opportunity to debate it if it seemed necessary to do so.

I think that, in deciding whether or not to debate it, we should wait and see what representations we get from the various authorities and whether they are sufficiently unfavourable to warrant a debate on the guidelines. I do not think I need say anything more. What my noble friend Lord Nugent was saying is answered, because quite obviously it is impossible to say what the guidelines will contain in the matter of policy issues or anything of that kind. We now have to wait for the guidelines. We have had the assurance that there is the widest possible discussion in their preparation, and so I am quite certain that the Government will have no other object in mind than to get the greatest possible consensus. I personally am optimistic about this, and I should like to thank my noble friend very much for the way he has handled this matter.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, we on this side of the House should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and to pay a tribute to him. He listened to our criticisms during the Committee stage and discussed with us later the possibility of coming to some compromise. The amendment which has been tabled today goes a long way towards what we all desired, which was that even if the guidelines are not printed on the face of the Bill, parliamentarians in both Houses should be aware of what they are. The very fact that a copy will be laid before the House for any purpose under this clause is something for which we would thank the noble Lord. We admire the speed of the skates he used in being able to bring this forward in three days.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, perhaps I might just say how very glad I am that this decision has been reached about the guidelines. Could I also say how sorry I was not to be able to get here earlier, but the monitoring machine in the Library was not working; otherwise, I should have liked to support the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in the work he has done in this connection with the Consumer Council. I think the guidelines are a very important thing for any consumer council to have, and I look forward to further discussion on these particular issues. I really only wanted to congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Skelmersdale and Lord Bellwin, on the skates which have been used to such good effect.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I be allowed to say very briefly that this amendment, inspired by my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn, is highly important and wholly apt because it acknowledges the obligation of the Executive to indulge in a requisite measure of open government in a situation where intervention by the Judiciary is not in any way envisaged. Therefore, it is, in submission, greatly to be welcomed, and my noble friend is also greatly to be congratulated.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, may I briefly follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, in the substance of his theme and also in extending our congratulations to the Government and the Minister for bringing forward this amendment. I note, of course, that this amendment is concerned only with arranging for the guidelines to be set down in relation to Clause 7. May I express the hope that it may be possible on a later occasion for the Government to look with sympathy at a request to make out guidelines for Clause 5 in the same way?

Baroness White

My Lords, may I take it that the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in col. 263 of Hansard for 13th April, stands? That is, that the draft guidelines, which is a different document, will be in the Printed Paper Office and not only in the Library; because that is, from a practical point of view, for the convenience of the House. They are two separate documents, as we appreciate.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am very grateful to the House for the reception of this amendment. Most certainly the Government will not publish final guidelines without the greatest possible measure of agreement. That I can certainly confirm. The noble Baroness, Lady White, was correct in saying that there are two different documents. As I said on a previous occasion, I will make arrangements for the draft guidelines, before they are decided upon, to be put in the Printed Paper Office; but I am afraid it will not be possible to have them covered by this amendment. If that assurance will satisfy the noble Baroness, I will certainly see that is done, and in the meantime I am very grateful to all who have spoken.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

5.26 p.m.

Baroness Serota moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 6, line 40, at end insert— (" (10) In section 26(2) of the Local Government Act 1974 (which relates to the entertainment of complaints by a local commissioner) there shall be inserted after the words "member of the authority, or any other authority concerned" the words "(including a member of a Consumer Consultative Council set up under section 7 of the Water Act 1983".")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 4, which stems from the very strong views which were expressed on all sides of the House at earlier stages and which have been expressed here again today at Report stage. The new consumer consultative committees should be far more effective bodies in representing consumer interests than any of those we have seen so far in connection with the existing nationalised industries. The amendment would enable members of the new consumer consultative committees, in respect of whom the November draft guidelines (there are so many of these that I think it would be easier from the point of view of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, if in fact I mentioned the month, which in this case is November) envisaged some responsibility for dealing with consumers' complaints, to be able to refer complaints of maladministration causing injustice to individuals to the local Ombudsman if they are unable to settle the matter locally themselves or if the matter is of such a nature that it requires the resources and the expertise of the local Ombudsman to investigate it properly.

When at Committee stage the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, generously conceded the case for retaining the local ombudsman's jurisdiction over the whole range of the reorganised water industry's activities, he agreed that it would be wrong, primarily for reasons of consistency and tidiness, to remove a public right of continuing value and on important safeguard. He also saw the Government's decision at that time as an important concession to local accountability, and I believe that the whole Committee welcomed his statement and the Government's willingness to accept the strength of the argument for retaining the local ombudsman's jurisdiction.

But unless this amendment is also agreed, the changed nature and size of the new authorities will considerably restrict the individual citizen's access to the local ombudsman, as all complaints will have to be channelled through one of the nine to 15 members who will be operating over very wide geographical areas and vast populations. Moreover, as we have been frequently reminded during the passage of this Bill through the House, these members are to be appointed for their managerial and executive skills and not for representative purposes, and the new consultative committees will in future represent the voice of the consumer.

When replying to the debate on the Recommitment stage of this particular clause, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, last week maintained that complaints to the ombudsman were always routed through a member of the body complained against, and I believe he looked to me for confirmation of that statement. That is certainly not the case in the instance of the National Health Service, where the patient or the patient's relative who wishes to make a complaint to the Health Service Commissioner has direct access to the Health Service Commissioner, provided he or she has first raised the complaint with the appointed health authority concerned.

In central and local government, MPs and elected councillors have long-established representative functions, based on their defined geographical constituencies and wards, quite unlike the new "watercrats" who are created by this Bill. I hope therefore, now that the Government have fully accepted the need for the local ombudsman's jurisdiction over this essential service, that they will also accept the amendment and thereby enable the members of the new consumer consultative committees to refer a complaint to the local ombudsman, if they cannot settle it locally, or if the complainant so wishes, and thereby not reduce the existing rights of individual citizens which will otherwise be substantially less as a result of this Bill. My Lords, I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I oppose this amendment, because under Clause 7 of the Bill it appears that proposed arrangements for the representation of interests of consumers in an area, which is informal, in some way crystallises into the formality of the Consumer Consultative Council, which is a new statutory body to which it is proposed to give formal powers under this proposed amendment. Apart from the question of flexibility, which has been put and needs no repetition, there is an objection to any piecemeal extension of jurisdiction to the local commissioner, in relation to complaints at the instigation of any member of this new statutory body, in connection with maladministration by the water authorities. Is there really any special case of established need on the general merits, which has been made known to your Lordships? Is this formalising of what is informal, and extending this jurisdiction by piecemeal extension, appropriate? With the utmost respect, I would have submitted not.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am happy to give the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, the assurances which I believe she is seeking with this amendment. She gave us a very concise, if not potted, history of this amendment and I must say I agreed with that.

When we agreed that the jurisdiction of the ombudsman over the water authorities should be retained, it was no part of my noble friend Lord Bellwin's intention that we should in fact restrict access to the ombudsman, nor is that the effect of the Bill as it now stands. There will, it is true, be fewer members of water authorities in future to act as a channel for complaints, but we do not believe that this will have any practical effect. In our view, it will be more than compensated for by the establishment of the new consumer consultative committees.

We have had a very helpful letter from the Commission for Local Administration in England commenting on our first draft of guidelines. The commission have suggested the need, which we fully accept, for the guidelines to include a clear and comprehensive statement of how complaints should be made and considered. This is a matter which we are looking at in the context of revising the draft guidelines. We will wish to consult the water authorities and the Commission for Local Administration. But I may say now that the guidelines must contain a reference to the citizen's right to take certain matters to the local ombudsman.

Complaints are, in the first instance, for the water authorities or companies to consider, in spite of what the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, said. As I understand it, the health service have their own ombudsman to whom a member of the public may bring a complaint if he has not succeeded through the original approach to the health authority concerned, whereas the local ombudsman has the approach defined through the aggrieved body, as I said on a previous occasion. I hope that this clears up the matter and that I shall not have to return to it.

Where there is an unresolved allegation against a water authority of injustice because of maladministration, the authority, or the CCC if they are aware of the matter, should draw the complainant's attention to his or her right to take the matter to the local ombudsman and should also point out how to exercise that right. In the first instance, this means by taking the matter to a member of the water authority—perhaps the member who is himself a member of the consumer consultative committee. This may or may not be appropriate, and this is one of the matters upon which we shall have to consult. The CCC will of course—themselves and quite separately—have an interest in the way complaints are handled and may in appropriate cases wish to take up these complaints. So there are matters to be clarified here, and there will be consultation. However, in the light of my assurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will see fit to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, the noble Lord commented that there are problems and difficulties; and said that the Government have not made up their minds on even this point. If we are to have some guidelines, as he has just said, the point about the ombudsman has become part of them. I should like to support my noble friend, because it is very difficult for citizens to find out where to make their ultimate complaint, when they have approached the water authority itself, the consumer consultative council and everybody else who might be able to help. People may still not be satisfied, and my noble friend Lady Serota could give many examples of where a complaint about maladministration has finally gone to the ombudsman.

We are concerned that, at some stage, the citizen has to know how to get his rights resolved, and how to go through a certain person. The difficulty is where members of local authorities are sitting on consumer consultative councils. The member for the ward concerned will be very tempted to say to the complainant, "I shall take up your complaint as your local councillor". But unless we clarify this issue he will find that he cannot do that. The whole matter needs clarification. It is unfortunate that we could not have the clarification today, because, as my noble friend so ably explained, this amendment is dealing with the rights of the citizen and that is the important issue.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I had not intended to speak to this amendment, but I am surprised at the Government's attitude to it. This is part of Amendment No. 1, which was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, most of which will now go into the guidelines. But this amendment was quite deliberately picked out and moved separately because there is such strong feeling that it should be on the face of the Bill. My noble friend Lady Serota explained the matter so well that it is unnecessary for me to take up the time of the House by going over it again. However, the Minister said that this would have no practical effect, that they are smaller authorities. The fact that the authorities are smaller makes out a case for the consumer consultative committees to be given more responsibility.

It seems to me that at this stage of the Bill the Government ought to accept this clarification. The Government accepted my noble friend's amendment that under this Bill the water industry should be covered by the ombudsmen. Although the Government believe that this provision is already included in the Bill, many of us do not believe that it is. The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, put down his name to the amendment, so it is not a party political matter. We need to put this matter beyond any doubt. The only way to do so is by putting it on the face of the Bill and making it part of the statute. The Government are being a little obstinate, or they are still making up their mind. I believe that the Government should agree to this amendment, and I hope that the Minister will say that they do.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, I, too, had not intended to intervene in the debate. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, will recollect, it was my amendment—to retain the jurisdiction of the ombudsmen in this field—which was so graciously acccepted by the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin. I am not trying to take the credit; the credit clearly rests very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, in whom there is no greater authority on this subject in your Lordships' House. However, I was very relieved that my amendment was accepted. I thought that that was the end of the matter, but if it now appears that some obstacle could be placed in the way of the aggrieved citizen getting his complaint of maladministration, from which injustice may have arisen, to the ombudsman, then it seems that our previous exercise was in vain.

I was puzzled by the answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. At the outset he seemed to say that he could reassure the noble Baroness: that she would be delighted to hear that in his correspondence with the commissioner discussing the guidelines everything would be smoothed out and that access to the commissioner would be easy. But now it appears that it is not going to be quite so easy.

There have always been problems about access to the ombudsman. So far as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is concerned, noble Lords will know that complaints have to be referred by a Member of Parliament—not necessarily by the complainant's own Member of Parliament but by any Member of Parliament. However, they cannot be referred by a Member of this House of Parliament, which seems to me to be a very odd exclusion. It must be referred by a Member of the other place.

With regard to the local commissioner, my impression—the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, who is a great expert, will correct me if I am wrong—is that the normal procedure is for a complaint to be channelled through a member of a local authority. However, where a complainant with a genuine complaint has found it impossible to get his complaint to the local ombudsman by that route, the local ombudsman—certainly in the case of the local ombudsman for the North, Mr. Pat Cook—has found it possible to investigate that complaint, even though it has been passed direct to him by the complainant.

I hope that a citizen with a complaint will be able to get it to the ombudsman. I do not think we have had an unequivocal assurance on this point from the noble Lord. The complaint can go through a member of the water authority but now it appears that it cannot go through a member of the Consumer Consultative Council. But can it, at the end of the day, as with local government, go direct from the complainant to the ombudsman if the complainant finds that in some way he is being obstructed? Unless at some stage we are satisfied that the channel of complaint to the ombudsman will be open in some way, we shall have to deal with the matter again. I am not entirely sure how the noble Baroness intends to deal with her amendment, but I hope that we do not leave the matter in its present state of uncertainty.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I, too, should very much like to support what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Serota. I was waiting for the reassurance which I understood the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to say at the beginning he intended to give her. I support also very much what the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said. I thought that this matter had been dealt with. I very much hope that we shall be able to take it further. Or perhaps, as the Government have been really helpful on the matter—much more helpful than Governments usually are on consumer matters—the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, could be equally helpful and explain what is the real objection of the Government to accepting the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Serota.

Lord Drumalbyn

My Lords, it seems to me that in this particular case there is no absolutely exact parallel which we could follow. We have to judge it on the composition of the bodies which could help and not seek to force a precedent which is not really a precedent. It seems to me that the obvious course for an individual in a particular part of the country to take is to go to his local representative on the consultative council. There are local representatives in all parts of the country. The local representative on the consultative council will have experience of water matters. It seems to me that the right course to take is to allow him to pass the complaint to the water authority. Several complaints in the locality may be involved. These complaints should be discussed by the consultative council before they approach the water authority. The water authority can then consider the matter and reply, Yea or Nay.

If all fails, at the end of the day the individual will have to go to the ombudsman, who will investigate the matter with the water authority. This seems to me to be the natural procedure to follow. It will cover all cases. I wonder whether my noble friend would consider that point when he deals with the other matters. I am sure he has not made up his mind. We are all agreed on the principles involved. The only question to be resolved is the best procedure to follow.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I ought to answer some of these very serious questions. Perhaps the House will permit me to begin by quoting from Section 26 of the Local Government Act 1974, which set up the local ombudsmen: (1) Subject to the provisions of this Part of this Act, where a written complaint is made by or on behalf of a member of the public who claims to have sustained injustice in consequence of maladministration in connection with action taken by or on behalf of an authority to which this Part of the Act applies, being action taken in exercise of administrative functions of that authority, a Local Commissioner may investigate that complaint. (2) A complaint shall not be entertained"— these are the important words under this part of the Act— unless—

  1. (a) it is made in writing to a member of the authority, or of any other authority concerned, specifying the action alleged to constitute maladministration, and
  2. (b) it is referred to the Local Commissioner, with the consent of the person aggrieved, or of a person acting on his behalf, by that member, or by any other person who is a member of any authority concerned, with a request to investigate the complaint".
The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was absolutely correct. It goes on to say: If the Local Commissioner is satisfied that any member of any authority concerned has been requested to refer the complaint to a Local Commissioner, and has not done so, the Local Commissioner may, if he thinks fit, dispense with the requirements in subsection (2)(b) above"— to which I have just referred. So in the last resort, yes—there is direct access to the ombudsman. But I did not understand, when I was addressing the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, that we were at that stage talking about the last resort. If I have confused the House, I apologise.

Lord Drumalbyn

My Lords, may I intervene again to make my point clear? We are not dealing here with local authorities. In any case, there will have to be an amendment to the Act, and we can make what amendments are the most appropriate.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I would remind the House that this is Report stage. Nonetheless, in accepting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, my noble friend Lord Bellwin did in fact agree to amend the Local Government Act 1974 so as to include the water authorities in order that they may come under the jurisdiction of the local ombudsman. If I am wrong on that point, I shall of course inform the House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, asked about the position of a member of a local authority. I am informed that a member of a local authority cannot take up a complaint against the water authority in the formal sense, as set down in the Local Government Act 1974, unless he himself is a member of the water authority. I hope that is clear.

There is obviously a division of opinion on this point. At least some of the steps to which the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, referred in her speech do seem to me to be logical and I have no doubt that in her answer to the draft guidelines the noble Baroness would make exactly that kind of point—as may the local commissioner, the local authorities, and the water authorities themselves.

I apologise to your Lordships because I did get myself into a slight muddle. My noble friend Lord Bellwin did not amend the Local Government Act 1974 because he did not need to do so; water authorities are covered by the Act and continue to be so, exactly as now.

Baroness Serota

; My Lords, I do not wish to detain the House much longer on this amendment but I must express my gratitude to noble Lords who have spoken in support of Amendment No. 4 and for the many points that have been made in relation to the right of the individual citizen to take his complaint to the local ombudsman.

May I first assure the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that the intention of this amendment is by no means to extend piecemeal the jurisdiction of the local ombudsman or of any other ombudsman for that matter. It is concerned purely with the question of access. As I pointed out at an earlier stage of this Bill, in this country, access to the ombudsman is, with the one exception of France, the most restricted in the world—be it in a developing or developed country.

Tempted as I was at earlier stages to develop the question of extending citizens' access to the local ombudsman, all I am asking for in this amendment is that access should not be further restricted. The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, said there was no exact parallel. The nearest model, I believe, would be the National Health Service model—again, a service administered by appointed bodies subject to the jurisdiction of the health service commissioner. In that case, complainants' access is direct.

Again, I was not arguing that particular case—and nor were other noble Lords who put their names to this amendment. All they were asking was that the members of the consumer consultative committees should be able to refer complaints if they were unable to get them settled locally. I recognise, and I believe the whole House will recognise and appreciate, the further thought that the Government have given to this particular point. I accept their goodwill in this matter and I certainly agree with the proposal the Government have made—supported, as I understand it, by the Commission for Local Administration in England—that there should be a reference to complaints systems in the guidelines that are to be issued. I hope it will be laid down that all authorities should have clear and well-publicised arrangements for making complaints, and also that individual citizens will be advised of their right to go to the local ombudsman with a complaint if it cannot be settled locally.

As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has just said, there is a strong division of opinion here. I feel that this is a matter that the House should decide. In those circumstances, I should prefer to leave this amendment to a vote of the whole House.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with the leave of the House—

Noble Lords


Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I must make one point on this amendment which I have not made so far because—

Noble Lords


5.56 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 4) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 84; Not-Contents, 92.

Ampthill, L. Chitnis, L.
Aylestone, L. Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.
Bacon, B. Clifford of Chudleigh, L.
Baker, L. Craigavon, V.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Cudlipp, L.
Beswick, L. Diamond, L.
Birk, B. Elwyn-Jones, L.
Bishopston, L. Evans of Claughton, L.
Blease, L. Ewart-Biggs, B.
Blyton, L. Fisher of Rednal, B.
Bowden, L. Foot, L.
Brockway, L. Gallacher, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Gladwyn, L.
Burton of Coventry, B. Hale, L.
Caradon, L. Hampton, L.
Hanworth, V. Peart, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Hooson, L. Rochester, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Ross of Marnock, L.
Ilchester, E. Rugby, L.
Irving of Dartford, L. Sandford, L.
Jacobson, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Jacques, L. Serota, B. [Teller.]
Jeger, B. Shannon, E.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
John-Mackie, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Kagan, L. Stone, L.
Kennet, L. Strabolgi, L.
Kirkhill, L. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Lee of Newton, L. Underhill, L.
Listowel, E. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Lloyd of Hampstead, L. Walston, L.
Lovell-Davis, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Mackie of Benshie, L. Whaddon, L.
McNair, L. White, B.
Nathan, L. Wigoder, L.
Nicol, B. Willis, L.
Northfield, L. Winstanley, L. [Teller.]
Ogmore, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Oram, L. Young of Dartington, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Luke, L.
Allerton, L. Lyell, L.
Avon, E. McFadzean, L.
Bellwin, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Belstead, L. Macleod of Borve, B.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Mancroft, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Margadale, L.
Caithness, E. Marley, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Merrivale, L.
Cathcart, E. Mersey, V.
Coleraine, L. Mills, V.
Colville of Culross, V. Milverton, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Molson, L.
Cottesloe, L. Mottistone, L.
Daventry, V. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Davidson, V. Newall, L.
De La Warr, E. Onslow, E.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Orkney, E.
Dilhorne, V. Orr-Ewing, L.
Donoughmore, E. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Eccles, V. Portland, D.
Elles, B. Rankeillour, L.
Elton, L. Renton, L.
Faithfull, B. Rochdale, V.
Ferrers, E. Romney, E.
Ferrier, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Fortescue, E. Saint Brides, L.
Glanusk, L. Sherfield, L.
Glenarthur, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Grantchester, L. Spens, L.
Gridley, L. Stamp, L.
Grimston of Westbury, L. Strathspey, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Swansea, L.
Swinfen, L.
Hives, L. Swinton, E. [Teller.]
Hornsby-Smith, B. Terrington, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Teynham, L.
Killearn, L. Thomas of Swynnerton, L.
Kinloss, Ly. Trefgarne, L.
Lane-Fox, B. Tryon, L.
Lauderdale, E. Vaizey, L.
Lawrence, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Vivian, L.
Long, V. Young, B.
Loudoun, C.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.