HL Deb 17 October 1985 vol 467 cc699-701
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 further to their answer to the Baroness Burton of Coventry on 27th June (cols. 829/830), what is the present position of those nationalised industry consumer councils which had not, at that date, completed discussions with their respective industries on the original draft guidelines and the letter dated 22nd February sent to them by the Department of Trade and Industry; and what action the Government now propose in connection with these guidelines and the responses made.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth)

My Lords, discussions between the Post Office Users' National Council and the Post Office have been successfully completed. After further consultation with my department, the Central Transport Consultative Committee and the London Regional Passengers' Committee have completed their internal preparations and are about to hold discussions with the operators.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, from 23rd October, 1983 until today, 17th October, 1985, is a long time. Does the noble Lord the Minister recall that the first date was the occasion when I put down my first Question on this matter and that we still do not have a proper Answer as to what action the Government now propose to take? May I ask the Minister whether he recalls on 27th June last (at col. 830 of Hansard) telling the House: There will always be room for consumers". I wonder whether the Minister can tell the House what effect he thinks these consumer councils will have on questions regarding price and value for money when the Government consistently ignore those who run the gas, the water and the electricity industries concerning these matters? Or does he consider that consumer councils have nothing to do with prices or value for money?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I recall my answer to the noble Baroness on 27th June. Indeed, I believe that the consumer councils have a role to play in representing to the nationalised industries matters that concern consumers. In so far as the water boards are concerned, the noble Baroness will recall that these are non-statutory undertakings and it is for the water boards themselves to make their own arrangements for consumer representation. I understand that that is what they have done.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, for clarification, did I understand the Minister to say that the consumer councils had a voice concerning prices and value for money? Does he recall that in the water industry, the Thames Water Authority last year was forced by parliamentary decree to raise prices by a great deal more than they themselves thought necessary?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I said that the consumer councils can make and do make representations with regard to the effect that costs and prices have upon the consumers. I can only repeat that so far as the water boards are concerned, they are a non-statutory body and that it is not for the Government to make arrangements in those cases for representation of the consumer. The boards themselves make those arrangements which I understand operate over the whole range of the 40-plus water boards.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord what relationship there then is between the Department of Trade and Industry and the consumer councils that are part of their subsidiary organisations? Is it a fact that the Department of Trade and Industry does not pay any attention to what the consumer councils ask or say?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, we have in my department responsibility for the setting up of these consumer councils and for the appointment of all members of them; we have responsibility for effecting the guidelines in accordance with our 1982 publication, Strategy for Reform of the Consumer Councils. It is for the industries and the consumer councils to attend to their own matters and not for the Department of Trade and Industry to interfere in those discussions.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, are we to understand from that reply of the noble Lord that the Government regard themselves as being in a position of complete neutrality as between the consumer councils on the one hand and the industries on the other? Surely the noble Lord will agree that when all logic, all right and all justice lie on the side of the consumer councils on particular issues it might not be too much to expect that Her Majesty's Government exercise a little pressure on behalf of the consumer councils.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am not quite sure what pressure the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, expects the Government to impose upon a body which is set up by statute with certain terms of reference. If the consumer councils feel that their representations are not being properly taken care of, they would no doubt report to my department and we would see what we could do. But so far no such allegation has been made by any of the consumer councils.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, does the noble Lord mean by that answer that if OFTEL comes to the department and discusses the increased charges for telephones, he might be more sympathetic to the telephone users?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords under the Telecommunications Bill, OFTEL was set up specifically to attend to the matters to which the noble Baroness refers. It reports annually to Parliament. That will be the time to debate whatever the Director-General of OFTEL has to say about those matters.

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