HL Deb 01 December 1983 vol 445 cc795-8
Baroness Burton of Coventry

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have now considered the proposals made by the chairmen of consumer councils for operating guidelines concerning nationalised industry consumer councils: and whether they intend to give priority for a debate in Parliament on these proposals.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, as I told the House on 27th October, we are currently considering these proposals: and further discussions will be necessary with the councils and others concerned before the guidelines are finalised. The question of a debate is a matter for the usual channels.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, we do not seem to advance much further. Does the noble Lord recall that I sent him a list of Questions going back three years in which I had persevered on this matter? May I ask him whether the Government are really saying that nationalised industries are not for the Government to consider? Does he realise that this is a matter not only of consumer affairs, but of consumer affairs in nationalised industry? Could he not look further into that particular point?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I should not like the noble Baroness to feel that she has not made progress. I think it is not least due to the persistence of the noble Baroness that we now have the Electricity Consumer Council on a statutory basis: we have new arrangements for liaison between the national councils under the auspices of the National Consumer Council having been made; and of course preparations for guidelines have stimulated the consumer councils to reassess their working practices and approaches to several matters for the benefit of all.

So far as opportunity for a debate is concerned, there is of course the opportunity of the Wednesday debates allocated to the political parties, and balloted short debates on the same days, and an Unstarred Question. If the noble Baroness is thinking of a debate outside one of the more usual methods, then I would just make the point that the Order Paper is probably as congested as at any time during this time of the year in your Lordships' House. Only this week the House has sat on two days until well after 11 o'clock.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I appreciate that. I am sorry—no, I am not sorry, for one has to be persistent.I know that the noble Lord wishes to help, but does he realise that I really am tired of being pushed off on the question of a Wednesday debate, an Unstarred Question, or something like that? Does he not realise that the point I am making is that the question of nationalised industries is one for the Government? If the Government wished to give time they could. and why are they so resolutely refusing to do so?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I certainly accept on behalf of the Government the responsibility so far as the consumer councils are concerned. It is because the guidelines will define the operations of the consumer councils for some time to come that we have to get them right, and this means that we must talk with the consumer councils themselves, with the industries concerned, and with their sponsor departments.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend reassure the noble Baroness that the best method of protecting the consumers of nationalised industries is to denationalise the industries?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that of course is precisely what the Government are doing.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, can the noble Lord give us an assurance that, when the Government have reached a conclusion about the representation of consumers, the same provisions will apply when the Government hold only a minority interest in these companies?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, we have a good example coming in the British Telecommunications Bill. So far as consumer interest is concerned, I think that I shall be able to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, absolutely when that Bill arrives in your Lordships' House.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, if he and his Government had accepted the advice of the noble Lord, then the consumers in vast areas of Wales, Scotland, and the North of England would not have electricity, gas, drainage, or piped water, and the fear is that with denationalisation these services will be worse than they were before?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, with respect to the nobleLord, I do not accept his thesis. But so far as his thesis may be true, that is precisely why we have acted in the way we have so that the citizens of Wales still have these very important public services.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, following the point that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, made, may I ask the noble Lord whether, if any of the big publicly-owned industries are privatised and they fall into a terrible condition and the nation is threatened, as in the case of Rolls-Royce, even a ConservativeGovernment, as they did then, will not hesitate to nationalise them? Are representatives of the consumer councils contacted when any possible price increase is envisaged on instruction by the Government against the desires of those who are running the industry?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, on the first point, I should be happy to give the noble Lord an assurance that there will be a Conservative Government in this country for a long time to come. and there will be a policy of denationalisation continuing for aslong as it is needed for a long time to come. On the noble Lord's second point, it is important for me to make the point that one of the things that the consumer councils have done of their own volition as a result of turning their minds to the guidelinesis to look closely at dealing with complaints from the industries that they monitor.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that under the British Telecommunications Bill the Government have done away with POUNC, which was one of the more effective consumer councils, and that they are replacing it with the Office of Telecommunications? Is he sure that that office has sufficient teeth to correct any poor performance by British Telecom, who under the Government plans are going to own 97 per cent. of the market? Is he also sure that Oftel are going to have some obligation to see that there is true competition among consumers so that they can make their choice after denationalisation?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think we need to discuss these things when the Bill comes before us. The assurance I can give my noble friend is that the Office of Telecommunications will protect the interests of consumers in respect of all telecommunications matters.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, if we should at some time, unfortunately, find ourselves in a serious financial crisis in the United Kingdom and have to dispose of our assets, would it be worth our while to consider disposing of your Lordships'House, privatising the House of Lords, and getting a good price for it in a reasonable market?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord's charm is only competed for by his irrelevance.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, might I ask the Minister, while accepting that we have to get the guidelines right, whether he is aware that the consumer organisations would like a chance of discussing these guidelines when they are put forward by the Government? Does it mean that when they have looked into this matter, we shall have a chance of doing that? Arising out of the point made by his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, does he not agree that if we exchange public monopoly for private monopoly the needs of the consumers will equally require looking at?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I do not think I shall follow the second part of the noble Baroness's supplementary question any further. But concerning the first part, it is precisely because discussions need to take place with the national consumer councils that it is necessary for a bit more time to elapse before the guidelines can be published.