HL Deb 05 June 1986 vol 475 cc1091-138

3.25 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Belstead.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair].

Schedule 5 [Public gas supply code]:

Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 103A:

Page 79, line 37, at end insert—

("Energy service safety

  1. (1) The supplier shall provide an effective and continuously attended service for the receipt by telephone, of reports of escapes of gas supplied, or believed to be supplied, by the supplier. Effective arrangements shall also be made for the receipt at the suppliers points of contact during their normal working hours of such reports made in person. The supplier shall, by appropriate means secure that adequate publicity is given to the ways it can be contacted for the purpose of reporting such escapes.
  2. (2) The public gas supplier shall make safe all escapes of gas whether by cutting the supply of gas or otherwise, free of charge. Where repairs are associated with a supply of gas, the first half hour of work associated with that repair shall be free of charge.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 103A standing in my name and in that of my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington. This amendment comes from the authorisation itself. However, it has been altered in two significant ways. First, it separates own gas leaks from third-party gas leaks, but it also goes further. The authorisation says that leaks shall be made good but allows solely for the cut-off and make-safe provisions. The amendment allows for both to be carried out. It seeks to prevent what is apparently becoming a practice in the BGC—deferred repairs; that is, putting off the actual repair work until a more suitable time. That may very well be when men are not on call-out or overtime, and therefore it is of course cheaper. While at the moment strict criteria is applied—for example, looking at the distance to residential property, or the density of population and the like—simply making safe could slip into being a general pattern of deferred repair.

As a matter of current practice the BGC provides that the first half hour of repairs associated with leaks is carried out free of charge. That is something which consumers enjoy at the present time and it is necessary to ensure that this facility remains and does not disappear under privatisation. That is why we believe it should be a statutory duty on the BGC to maintain and, if possible, improve the status quo. It is not sufficient to leave it to the authorisation.

The experience of British Telecom again provides a warning on this in relation to its treatment of 999 repairs and the repair service provided to district health authorities. While no costs are available for the abolition of this form of free service, it is known that district health authorities have to find an additional £12 million per annum to maintain the standard of repair work from BT which, previously to privatisation, they enjoyed for nothing.

I hope that this amendment will commend itself to the Committee. It is an important amendment. It is a matter relating to safety and will carry on the present practice of the BGC of carrying out the first half hour's work (that is, safety work) free of charge. I beg to move.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, for tabling this amendment because it gives us an opportunity to talk about the very important subject of safety. In this Bill we are strengthening the whole gas safety regime by bringing it into line with the general requirements of health and safety legislation. This means that the Health and Safety Executive can enforce those requirements with the wide range of powers available under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Among other matters, this provides for the possibility of prohibition orders and custodial sentences for their breach. Indeed, specific obligations are being tightened: the maximum response time for reported leaks of gas is being halved, and the obligation on British Gas to make safe reported leaks is being extended for the first time to the customer's side of the meter.

British Gas have an extremely good safety record and fully recognise their obligations to their 16 million customers and the public in general. They have made clear publicly, and to their employees, that safety will continue to be a priority after privatisation and will continue to be fundamental to the future success of their company, and I am sure they will recognise it will be in their own best commercial interests to honour that commitment. They have a very strong interest, after all, in promoting gas as a safe fuel, and in this spirit have also made it clear that they will continue to provide the first half-hour of work associated with a repair free of charge.

Our basic approach to the question of which obligation should be placed on a public gas supplier directly by the Bill and which should be imposed through the authorisation has been to place those obligations which will apply to all public gas suppliers in the Bill, and those which may need to vary according to the circumstances of a particular case in the public gas supplier's authorisation. This is the approach which we have accepted in relation to gas escapes. Paragraphs 13 and 14 of Schedule 5 to the Bill impose obligations which will apply to all public gas suppliers. Under paragraph 13 a public gas supplier is subject to a criminal offence if he fails to prevent his own gas from escaping within 12 hours of being informed of that escape. It is clear from paragraph 13 that the public gas supplier must so prevent the gas from escaping without charge. That, then, is the basic obligation on all public gas suppliers in relation to escapes of their own gas.

It is, of course, implicit in paragraph 13 that the public gas supplier must maintain an effective service for the receipt of complaints so as to enable him to fulfil his obligation to prevent the escape. But we do not consider it to be appropriate to specify the precise nature of the emergency service that should be provided in the Bill itself because we consider that this must be a matter for the authorisation, so that there is sufficient flexibility to tailor the obligations that are imposed to the circumstances of a particular public gas supplier, to the needs of the customers which he supplies and to the time at which the authorisation is to be granted. What is appropriate now in relation to emergency services may not be what is needed in 25 or 50 years' time.

I cannot therefore accept the noble Lord's amendment. But there is yet another reason why the amendment is unacceptable, and that concerns the obligation that the amendment would place on a public gas supplier not only to prevent the gas from escaping free of charge (which is, as I have explained, the effect of paragraph 13 as it is presently drafted, and which Condition 11 of the draft British Gas authorisation requires British Gas to make clear to its customers) but also to carry out 30 minutes' repair work free of charge. We can see no justification whatsoever in imposing such an obligation on a public gas supplier. While British Gas do at present carry out 30 minutes of repair work free of charge, and have publicly stated that they will continue to do so, we do not consider that the statutory obligation on a public gas supplier should be to do more than to prevent the gas from escaping. Thereafter it is a matter for the consumer to make such arrangements as he considers appropriate to have any necessary repair made, which may of course involve the public gas supplier or any other competent gas fitter, as the customer thinks fit.

I hope the rather lengthy explanation that I have given will satisfy the noble Lord. Having given my reasons for not being able to accept the amendment, perhaps I can persuade him to withdraw it.

Lord Ezra

I find it difficult to understand why the Government should, neither in the Bill itself nor in the proposed authorisation, put in place what the existing British Gas Corporation are doing and are saying that they wish to continue to do. They have shown the way for good practice by undertaking this extra half-hour of repair work without charge. Why do the Government feel that this excellent example should not be enshrined either in the legislation or in the authorisation?

Lord Gray of Contin

I tried to deal with that very point which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has raised in my concluding remarks. I explained the intention of the British Gas Corporation—which will be by far and away the largest supplier of gas and which in the eye and the mind of the public will still be the principal distributor of gas—but we do not consider it necessary and we do not believe there is any real justification for imposing such an obligation on any public gas supplier. We believe that in the case of the statutory obligation it is not reasonable to write this into the legislation. It is of course in the best interests of any gas supplier to ensure safety, and indeed the British Gas Corporation have publicly stated that after privatisation they will carry on just as before. But we do not believe it is necessary to write it into the legislation itself.

Lord Bruce of Donington

Before the noble Lord sits down, would he mind answering a question? He said that it is not the present intention of British Gas to do anything other than what they are doing now. Will the noble Lord therefore give a Government guarantee, particularly since there is to be privatisation, that the board of directors of British Gas plc will remain there in perpetuity?

Lord Gray of Contin

I think the noble Lord is very well aware that I simply could not give any such guarantee: of course not. However, I would remind the noble Lord, with his experience of private sector companies, that he would perhaps be the first to acknowledge that a private sector company which is worth its salt will always adopt the methods which are likely to bring it the greatest success; and in the distribution of gas the private sector company which does not observe the very highest safety standards is unlikely to prove popular with the public.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

May I ask the Minister (who I thought spoke very clearly and simply about this, and so the fault must be mine) one question? When he was talking about this I thought he said it would be up to the consumer to make what arrangements he or she thought necessary in the event of the gas supply failing or escaping. Does his answer mean that the consumer will have to pay for that?

Lord Gray of Contin

Perhaps I could go over that part of the answer which I originally gave and which I think covers this point. I said that we saw no justification in imposing such an obligation on a public gas supplier. I went on to say that while British Gas at present carry out 30 minutes of repair work free of charge and have publicly stated they will continue to do so, we do not consider that the statutory obligation on a public gas supplier should be to do more than prevent gas from escaping. That certainly is a statutory obligation. Therefore it must be a matter for the consumer to make such arrangements as he considers appropriate to have any necessary repair made, which of course may involve the public gas supplier or any other competent gas fitter, as the customer thinks fit.

My answer to the noble Baroness—and I fully recognise her very great concern for the consumer—would be to say that the consumer might be responsible for repairs to his own appliances, but as far as work on the supply itself is concerned it must be done by British Gas, who will have control of the distribution system. So far as the question of payment is concerned, this reverts to the provision for the first 30 minutes of work being free. Thereafter it may be that the consumer would be required to pay a contribution towards what might have to be done.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

I was asking why the consumers should have to pay anything. It is nothing to do with them; it is either the equipment or the supply that is wrong, so why should the consumer be expected to foot any part of the subsequent bill?

Lord Gray of Contin

I do not think that it is necessarily the case that the consumer should be completely relieved of any responsibility. It may not, in fact, be the actual supply which is contributing to the leakage. The first 30 minutes of free work will enable the British Gas Corporation to determine what is the cause of the trouble. If it is something to do with the distribution system, which is their responsibility, then the consumer would not be expected to pay. But it could conceivably be something which is not directly related to the distribution system.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

All of us who are householders, and who have people coming to make repairs, know that the first half-hour of work may well be free, as the Minister has said. It is what comes after that that is the trouble, and I cannot see why a consumer should have to pay for something which is not his fault. That is the point I am trying to make.

Lord Gray of Contin

If I may first deal with the point made about an appliance, this may be something which is far removed from British Gas and something with which they have had nothing at all to do. They are obliged to carry out work free of charge to make safe a gas escape. This work must be done free of charge, whether it takes 30 minutes or longer, if it is directly connected with the distribution system for which British Gas have responsibility. Work on the supply must be done free of charge by British Gas.

It is only work on the consumer's own appliances for which payment must be required. If British Gas have supplied a particular appliance and that appliance is the cause of a gas leak, presumably in the early stages that will be under guarantee in any case. But so far as the supply is concerned, it would be quite unrealistic to hold British Gas responsible in perpetuity for appliances. If the problem is to do with the actual supply system for which British Gas are responsible, that is one thing. If it is to do with any appliance which was supplied by British Gas, obviously that cannot be the responsibility of British Gas for ever and ever.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

Am I to understand from what the Minister has said that, if the fault is in the appliance which is owned by the consumer, then the consumer may have to pay? If that is so, I quite understand. But what I want to know is whether, if the fault arises from something other than the actual appliance, the consumer is still liable to have to pay.

Lord Gray of Contin

No, the consumer is not liable to have to pay if the problem is in the distribution system. If it arises from an appliance or something relating to an appliance, then obviously at a certain time that would become the responsibility of the consumer, just as it is with anything else which is bought from British Gas or from any other supplier. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness because I think, as she so often does, she has helped me in my case by highlighting just how difficult and in appropriate it would actually be to write into the legislation what this amendment seeks to do.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

I thank the noble Lord for his patience and I hope mutual self-help will make progress later on.

Lord Jacques

May I put this specific question to the Minister: Let us assume that the fault is nothing to do with an appliance or with general distribution, but rather with a leak in a pipe under the floor of a house. In that case, presumably, the gas supplier has a duty to stop the leak and to do half an hour's free work to repair it. But after that, is it the responsibility of the householder?

Lord Gray of Contin

Yes; the noble Lord is correct.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

The smell of gas escaping in Ronan Point must have been in several flats. One presumes that it would have taken much longer than half an hour to find where it was escaping and where it was to be turned off.

Lord Gray of Contin

I should have thought that in an example such as the noble Baroness has given, if that situation was occurring in more than one flat, and if the first leak was repaired and the smell of gas had not been removed, then another flat would have been examined and then another and another. Of course, that is a different exercise each time. Ultimately, if the work within the flat was of a nature that required more than half an hour's work, then the responsibility would not be the corporation's.

Lord Diamond

I am bound to say that I do not find the Minister's answers for the present provision in the Bill at all satisfactory. What is proposed in this amendment, among other things, is that certain-activities shall be free of charge. I hope we can avoid the confusion concerning the point at which the supplier becomes responsible and the point at which the problem relates to the apparatus and so on.

Here we have a provision for making safe all escapes of gas free of charge. Everybody recognises that that is a sensible public duty. The avoidance of it could lead to loss of life. At the moment the gas supplier, British Gas Corporation, recognises and carries out that duty free of charge. The noble Lord, in replying to the request that this should be incorporated into the statute, says that it would not be appropriate to put this responsibility into the statute. He referred to this as an imposition. Is it an imposition to say by statute that what you are doing is right? Is it an imposition to say that what you are doing and what you have said you propose to continue doing is right? I just do not understand the use of the word "imposition" in those circumstances. It is right that this practice should continue. It should continue in the interest of public safety, and therefore it is right that it should be put into the Bill.

I must say, once more, that I get very impatient at the idea that the purpose of the Committee is to give power to a Minister to do what he likes, in a licence or in an ancillary document over which your Lordships' House will have no further control whatsoever. The House must stand up to its own responsibilities and say whether it thinks that this protection of human life should be provided free of charge. I think it should. The present gas corporation thinks it should. It is therefore appropriate that it should be in the statute and I hope your Lordships accept that view.

Lord Gray of Contin

I feel that the noble Lord is using rather emotive language here—

A noble Lord

Not at all.

Lord Gray of Contin

Yes, indeed he is. In this respect, nobody is more concerned about the protection of human life than the Government, and the suggestion that the Government are casting this aside as something which is of little importance is totally wrong. In my earlier remarks, I pointed out that in this Bill the Government are strengthening the whole gas safety regime and bringing it into line with the general requirements of the health and safety legislation. To suggest otherwise is simply to turn a blind eye to the actual facts of what is happening.

We have extended the obligation, which at present covers only British Gas's own pipes, to all escapes whether they are British Gas's pipes or the customer's. The obligation in the Bill is to deal with escapes absolutely free and I am pleased, therefore, to say that the Government fully agree with the noble Lord that it should be in the statute. But what the noble Lord is suggesting in this amendment is going much further than that, and I really cannot understand why the noble Lord or his noble friends are so anxious to include these requirements in the Bill.

Lord Diamond

The noble Lord said—and, if I may say so, I think he was in error—that the Bill provides for this work to be done free. Can he, rather than just relying on generalities in words, point out to me where in this Bill it says that it shall be provided free of charge?

Lord Gray of Contin

What I said was that the obligation in the Bill is to deal with escapes of gas in the distribution system free.

Lord Sefton of Garston

I think that the Minister has been poorly briefed on this point. There are two ways of dealing with a leak and may I, after about 35 years' experience in fitting gas cookers and so on, point out that if there is a responsibility on the part of the new gas authority to deal with a leak, that may merely consist of turning off the gas at the point of entry to the property? What some noble Lords are wondering about is the cost of repairing the pipes that occasion the leak. Is it true to say that the only obligation put upon the new authority is to turn off the gas, if there is a leak on the customer's side of the meter? If that is so, why cannot somebody in the realms of government advise the Minister properly?

Lord Gray of Contin

The obligation in paragraph 13 of Schedule 5 must be carried out free. It is a statutory obligation which must be dealt with, without the supplier making any charge.

Lord Diamond

What I asked some time ago is: where does it say that? We all understand that the licence says it is free; we all understand that the present practice is to provide the service free and we all understand, therefore, that to put it in a statute is by no means an imposition, because it is being done already and is accepted as a responsible attitude and in the best interests of a commercial organisation. So I am repeating to the noble Lord the Minister that either he has to admit that the Bill does not give authority for this service to be provided free, or to show us where in the Bill we can see the words "free of charge".

Lord Gray of Contin

The provisions of the Bill are carried forward virtually unchanged from the 1972 Act. No reference is made there to the extent to which charges arise. However, where a statutory obligation arises, that is to prevent escapes. It may be the simple operation of making safe and no charge will be made. The service must be performed at the supplier's expense. So it most certainly is free.

Lord Sefton of Garston

All that means, in other words, is that the gas board have to turn off the gas. May I ask a question arising from something the Minister said earlier, because I am rather concerned about the way he so blithely threw the responsibility for having no amendment at all on to the fact that the present gas authority have said that they will continue certain practices, and the Minister relied on that as an argument. Will he tell me, and the public generally, where it is in the Bill that he relies upon a future body, British Gas plc, to carry out any promises or commitments made by the present organisation? The real truth is that there cannot possibly be any.

Lord Gray of Contin

With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, he is not correct. When a statutory obligation is placed on a body, that body cannot charge for the carrying out of the obligation. This is implicit in the interpretation of any statutory duty. This is implicit—

Lord Sefton of Garston

I am sorry, but that is not what the Minister said earlier. The Minister was dealing specifically with the fact that work would be carried out on the consumer's premises for half an hour free of charge, which is done now. If one notifies the gas board now that there is a leak, they will go to the consumer's premises and, if they are occupied by somebody who is evidently poor or elderly, and only a small amount of repair is needed on the premises to the consumer's fittings, the gas board will carry it out free of charge.

I am glad to see that the Minister agrees with me, because he went on to say that the gas board gave him an assurance—I do not know who it was in British Gas who gave that assurance; perhaps he would like to tell us—that that same practice will be carried out under the new arrangement. This means that what the gas board have said is that, purely gratis and as a favour, they will carry out some repairs on the consumer's premises free of charge. I am not talking about turning off the gas. Anybody can turn off gas.

The Minister then went on to say that, because he had had that assurance, there was no requirement for the amendment in the Bill. Will he tell me where there is an assurance in the Bill, or how he intends to see that an assurance is given, that British Gas plc will carry out any obligations accepted by British Gas at the moment?

Lord Gray of Contin

I have tried to make this as plain as I can, but I am afraid the noble Lord is not correct. When a statutory obligation is placed on a body, that body cannot charge for the carrying out of the obligation. That statutory obligation is carried forward. I have explained already that the requirements of the 1972 Act—if the noble Lord will listen to me for a moment instead of his Front Bench—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

He is getting more sense from there.

Lord Gray of Contin

From here, yes. The 1972 Act has been carried forward and, therefore, anybody who supplies gas has to comply with those obligations. When a statutory obligation is placed on a body, it simply cannot charge for it. It is a statutory obligation. I am not going back to the question of the half-hour. That is a separate point altogether and I have already answered the noble Baroness. But may I just repeat for the benefit of the noble Lord that work on the distribution system must be done free by British Gas. It is only work on its own appliances for which there may be payment. Indeed, even on those appliances in the early days—the days of guarantee—the payment would be avoided, but thereafter that would not continue forever.

4 p.m.

Lord Diamond

I am afraid that we are by no means out of the wood. First of all, perhaps I may direct the noble Lord to the Bill itself, because he has some hesitation in referring to it. We are talking about paragraph 13 and the prevention of escapes of gas. The last line of sub-paragraph (1), to which I draw his attention, states: (whether by cutting off the supply of gas to any premises"— to which the noble Lord has just referred— or otherwise)". So we are talking about more than just going along—as the noble Lord said, any fool can do that—to turn off the main tap.

The Minister has come along with a new proposition. He no longer maintains that the statement "free of charge" is incorporated in the Bill—which is the whole purpose of this amendment. He no longer maintains that it is incorporated explicitly in the Bill. What he now says is that it is implicit. The noble Lord would have to talk to me for a long time before he could persuade me that that was so. He is saying that it is implicit in the Bill because any body which has a statutory obligation has to carry out that obligation free of charge. I wish that were even 1 per cent. true.

For example, one of the obligations in the Bill is to supply gas. There is a statutory obligation in the Bill on the gas supplier to supply gas. Is the noble Lord the Minister seriously suggesting that because it has to supply gas, it has to supply it free of charge? Of course it has not. The Minister is being misinformed, and therefore we come back to what we were talking about. We do not want anything that is implicit. We want something that is explicit. We want a plain statement saying that what is right, what is the present practice, what is intended to be continued, should be in the statute.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

We now see the difficulty of making progress with the Bill. The debate which we have just had shows quie clearly that noble Lords are concerned about very relevant matters. The noble Lord the Minister has not been able to satisfy the very relevant and real questions which have been put. The noble Lord tried very hard—I appreciate that—to satisfy this side of the Committee and perhaps his own side as well, but he has not satisfied them. There is no question about that; he has not satisfied them.

My noble friends are absolutely right in saying that all that the Bill and condition 11 of the authorisation do is to put a duty on the gas supplier to cut off the supply of gas, whether it be by simply turning a lever or perhaps making a temporary repair to a pipe or other fixture—perhaps a meter—concerned with the supply of gas. That is all. That is the only obligation. What we are seeking to do is to continue, and continue in law, the obligation which British Gas itself has accepted to perform a half-hour's work, if it is necessary, to repair a gas leak.

I should have thought that the Minister would have seen the point we are making. It is all very well for him to say that British Gas has said, "We will continue this practice". The present British Gas Corporation would expect to continue that practice, but there is no certainty that its successors will wish to continue it. Indeed, if profits were falling and shares were falling on the Stock Exchange and the new British Gas plc wanted to increase profits by reducing costs, this might be one of the items on which it would wish to save by removing the practice. What we are seeking to ensure is that it cannot be removed because it is in the statute and Parliament has said that it shall remain.

We are talking about safety. We are talking about the safety of people. Although it may sound far-fetched, it could very well be that poor people who feared that they might be faced with some expense would do nothing if they occasionally smelled a leak of gas. But they should do something about it. This half-hour's free repair service is an encouragement to people to report gas leaks which may be very dangerous, even though the consumer—the member of the public—does not realise it. There is a real reason of public safety why this practice should be continued and why it should be written into the statute so that nobody can discontinue it after British Gas is privatised.

The amendment also states: The supplier shall provide an effective and continuously attended service for the receipt by telephone of reports of escapes of gas". That is not in the Bill, but it is in the amendment. In the interests of public safety I hope that Members of the Committee have listened to this debate and that they see how serious a matter this is and realise that it would be sensible and safe—much safer—to write the provisions in the Bill by voting for this amendment. I fear that I really must press the amendment, in spite of the courteous patient manner in which the noble Lord dealt with it; That I appreciate. We are not satisfied with his replies, though that perhaps is not his fault. In the light of the fact that he is not able to make any concession I fear that I must press the amendment to a Division and ask noble Lords from all sides of the Committee to support it.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

Before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may, briefly, put forward a suggestion. Members on all sides of the Committee are worried about the safety of gas; otherwise we would not be here this afternoon. We are, so far as I can make out, at rather an impasse. It is very difficult. The Minister has to decide and, indeed, the Secretary of State has to decide whether this provision should or should not be in the Bill. Before we ask the Committee to divide I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister whether he will take this away and let us have a considered opinion at Report stage.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

That is a very useful suggestion and I appreciate it, coming from where it does. Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord whether he is prepared to respond now to the reasonable suggestion of the noble Baroness. Perhaps the noble Lord wishes to say something before I press the matter to a Division.

Lord Gray of Contin

There is really little more that I can say. I can but reiterate that it is only where specific provision is made for payment that such payment is allowed. So I think that the point about payment is clearly dealt with.

So far as concerns writing the requirement into the Bill, this is a straightforward amendment, and I am sure that my noble friend Lady Macleod is aware of that. I shall do something that I do not normally do, out of deference to the very great knowledge that my noble friend Lady Macleod has of the subject, and because of the interest she has always taken in it. I shall do so totally without commitment. If the noble Lord is prepared to withdraw his amendment, then I shall take further advice. I do not feel that the Committee would expect me to do more, but I am prepared to do what I have said, if that is the Committee's wish.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Frankly, I really do not think that that is good enough. The noble Lord has made no concession to the arguments that have been put from this side of the Committee—no concession whatsoever. If he had done so, then it would have been right to withdraw the amendment. However, the noble Lord made no concession to us at all. He said that his undertaking was totally without commitment. Perhaps he should have committed himself rather further than that to examining the matter seriously. Perhaps he should have said that he would at least try to do something with the authorisation, if not make an amendment to the Bill. I fear therefore that I shall have to press this matter to a Division.

4.11 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 103A) shall be agreed to?

On Question, their Lordships divided: Contents, 92; Not-Contents, 101.

Airedale, L. Crawshaw of Aintree, L.
Ardwick, L. David, B. [Teller.]
Aylestone, L. Dean of Beswick, L.
Banks, L. Denington, B.
Beswick, L. Diamond, L.
Birk, B. Dowding, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Ennals, L.
Bottomley, L. Ewart-Biggs, B.
Brockway, L. Ezra, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Fisher of Rednal, B.
Burton of Coventry, B. Foot, L.
Caradon, L. Gallacher, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Galpern, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Phillips, B.
Grey, E. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]
Hampton, L.
Hanworth, V. Rathcreedan, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Rea, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Rhodes, L.
Hayter, L. Richardson, L.
Hirshfield, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Hughes, L. Rochester, L.
Hunt, L. Sainsbury, L.
Ilchester, E. Seear, B.
Jacques, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Jeger, B. Shepherd, L.
John-Mackie, L. Somers, L.
Kilmarnock, L. Stallard, L.
Kirkhill, L. Stedman, B.
Lawrence, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Leatherland, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Leathers, V. Strabolgi, L.
Listowel, E. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Tordoff, L.
Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. Underhill, L.
Lockwood, B. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Lovat, L. Walston, L.
Lovell-Davis, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
McNair, L. Whaddon, L.
Mar, C. White, B.
Mayhew, L. Wigoder, L.
Meston, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Monson, L. Wilson of Langside, L.
Morris of Grasmere, L. Winstanley, L.
Morton of Shuna, L. Winterbottom, L.
Nicol, B. Wise, L.
Oram, L.
Aldington, L. Glenarthur, L.
Auckland, L. Gray of Contin, L.
Beaverbrook, L. Gridley, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Haig, E.
Beloff, L. Hardinge of Penshurst, L.
Belstead, L. Hemphill, L.
Bessborough, E. Hives, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Hooper, B.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Killearn, L.
Broxbourne, L. Kimball, L.
Bruce-Gardyne, L. Kinnaird, L.
Butterworth, L. Kinnoull, E.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Kitchener, E.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Lane-Fox, B.
Chelmer, L. Layton, L.
Coleraine, L. Long, V. (Teller.]
Colville of Culross, V. McFadzean, L.
Cottesloe, L. Mancroft, L.
Cowley, E. Margadale, L.
Cox, B. Marley, L.
Craigavon, V. Marsh, L.
Cross, V. Melville, V.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Mersey, V.
Davidson, V. Mills, V.
De Freyne, L. Milverton, L.
De La Warr, E. Molson, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Morris, L.
Derwent, L. Moyne, L.
Dilhorne, V. Norfolk, D.
Dormer, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Orkney, E.
Dundee, E. Orr-Ewing, L.
Eccles, V. Pender, L.
Ellenborough, L. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Elles, B. Plummer of St Marylebone, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B.
Elton, L. Porritt, L.
Erne, E. Portland, D.
Faithfull, B. Rankeillour, L.
Fortescue, E. Romney, E.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. St. Davids, V.
Gainford, L. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Sempill, Ly.
Glanusk, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Strathspey, L. Vivian, L.
Swansea, L. Ward of Witley, V.
Trefgarne, L. Whitelaw, V.
Trumpington, B. Wolfson, L.
Vaux of Harrowden, L. Young of Graffham, L.
Vickers, B. Zouche of Haryngworth, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

4.19 p.m.

Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 103B: Page 79, line 41, after ("shall") insert ("at his own expense").

The noble Lord said: I propose to move Amendment No. 103B, if only because in the list of groupings it was not grouped with Amendment No. 103A but with Amendments Nos. 103C, 103D and 103E. Therefore, I give mouth to the usual phrase and say that I believe it would be for the convenience of the Committee if Amendments Nos. 103C, 103D and 103E were to be considered at the same time.

As to Amendment No. 103B, this is a simple insertion of the words: "at his own expense". I hope that it is not necessary for me to cover all the ground again and that the Minister will simply say that he will take away the amendment and look at it. That is a reasonable request. There is considerable doubt as to the correct interpretation of the Bill as it now stands. There is a clear desire on all sides of the Committee that safety should not be impeded in any way by the thought of charges. If I may say so, I should like to add one small point in that connection. It is not within my own experience but I gather that many people are afraid of asking for assistance, not only because of the charge but because there is a minimum charge—which is often substantial—for sending a man out in the first place. I gather from many housewives that that is a real deterrent.

If there is less than half an hour's work in rectifying a fault—and I can well believe that is the average case—it represents the difference between a substantial minimum charge for sending out a man and doing it for nothing. A substantial minimum charge could be a real deterrent in the mind of a consumer. The last thing we want is any reason why someone smelling gas should not immediately notify the authorities with the assurance that if it is purely connected with gas escaping, and something incidental to it, it would be put right with no charge on a consumer's very limited budget which has no place for repairs of this kind.

In view of that, I hope the Minister will agree to my request with regard to Amendment No. 103B. I do not ask for a commitment, just an undertaking that he will look at it. We have the highest regard for the Minister and for his integrity. If he says that he will look at the amendment, we know that he will and that he will take whatever action may be necessary before Report stage.

Amendment No. 103C proposes to leave out "twelve" and insert "six". This will amend Schedule 5, paragraph 13(2), on page 80 of the Bill, which reads: If a public gas supplier fails within twelve hours from being so informed effectually to prevent the gas from escaping, he shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale". We certainly accept that it should be a criminal offence. The amendment relates to the words "twelve hours".

The present situation, as I understand it, is that originally a period of 24 hours was put into statute form. That has been reduced to 12 hours. So far, so good. But the evidence of the Minister himself in another place was that the British Gas Corporation acts currently well within that limit. In practice, action is at present taken in around two hours. Therefore, I do not see that there is much advantage in, so to speak, relaxing the limit and putting in 12 hours when one knows that on average the time taken is two hours. In those circumstances, I should have thought that six hours is giving ample latitude for possible difficulties that one has not envisaged. In a statute one must allow a certain flexibility.

That is the reason why we suggest not two hours, which is in fact the time taken, but six hours, which is a reasonable latitude; but we would hope the minimum time would continue to apply. In any event, there is an escape clause in the sense that the Bill refers to it being as soon as "reasonably practicable" so one could really put in two hours and rely on the "reasonably practicable" defence in case it took over two hours. However, I do not suggest even that. I cannot see therefore why the suggestion of six hours should not by anything other than welcome.

Amendment No. 103E covers the same point. I therefore beg to move Amendment No. 103B.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

I support the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Diamond. I hope the Minister realises that the high charges which have to be made to bring out skilled men to do a job are a real deterrent to householders. I fully appreciate that the skill has to be paid for; but in such cases it may well deter the less well-off sections of the community from sending for a skilled worker when necessary. With those few words, I hope that the Minister will consider the matter further.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

I must confess that I am particularly concerned about what the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, said in supporting Amendment No. 103B. I thought that, in essence, this argument had been settled on the previous Division. I find it extraordinary that the noble Lord should continue to persist with the argument that the supplier should deal with these problems at his own expense. To my mind that is absolutely typical of so much so-called consumer legislation which assumes that a corporation can take on to its expenses something entirely unconnected with the expenses charged to the generality of consumers.

What one is arguing about in all these instances is not whether the consumer shall pay—the consumer will of course pay one way or another—but whether a particular consumer should pay or whether the generality of consumers should pay. That is the only distinction and that is the only area where expense arises. To my mind what the noble Lord proposes again on this amendment is far too sweeping. It is not inconceivable that an individual consumer will have caused and be logically responsible for the escape of gas to which he is at risk.

I freely confess to the Committee that recently I chopped down a tree which hit an electrical connection and plunged a village into darkness. The electricity board had to repair the damage and restore the supply. The noble Lord will insist that the generality of customers should have to pay for that through the additional expense which would have to be carried on their bills rather than that I should pay. That seems to me to be entirely illogical. The noble Lord wishes to intervene?

Lord Diamond

I was merely going to ask the noble Lord whether, when he went to the relevant authority, he said, "I am sorry, I cannot tell a lie. It was my fault"?

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

In fact I did. I accepted full responsibility, as of course it was. The point is that if this amendment were to be carried, that would not arise. If I had caused a gas leak it would nevertheless not invalidate the fact that the responsibility for the cost of repairing that leak would fall upon the gas corporation. The noble Lord says that it should be "at his own expense". What it means is that it is at the expense of the generality of consumers. To my mind that is a classic example of where so-called consumer legislation lands consumers with the bills to pay.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I do not really know why the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, intervened. Bearing in mind the felling of the tree across high tension lines, his act could in fact have resulted in a charge of criminal negligence. However, let us not go into his private business, although he told us about it.

The noble Lord does not seem to realise that gas is a very volatile and dangerous substance and that a leak in one person's premises can cause disaster which affects not only those premises but the premises of others as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, explained, that is why we think it is necessary to have this sort of amendment, which will encourage people to report gas leaks and give them the assurance that if they do so they will not be faced with high hills. That is the objective of the amendment, because gas is a difficult and dangerous substance. We all know that the consumer will in general pay in the end, but we have put down this amendment for the protection of all consumers. I do wish the noble Lord would see that point. If he does see it, perhaps he will vote with us for the proper protection of the public after the Gas Corporation is privatised.

I do not want to delay the Committee for very long because we have a great deal to do in a very short time today, but I myself have put down Amendment No. 103D, which I can deal with briefly. It proposes to leave out "twelve" and to insert "two". We have put down this amendment because of the distribution code of practice of the existing British Gas Corporation which, in response to a report of a leakage, says: Within normal working hours the supervisor shall dispatch a distribution team to the site as soon as possible but certainly to arrive not later than one hour after receiving the message Having dispatched the team, the supervisor shall attend the site as soon as possible, normally within two hours". That is the existing practice. That is why we have put down an amendment with a time period of two hours. Perhaps the noble Lord will explain why he is proposing a period of 12 hours instead of the requirement of two hours which already exists.

Lord Chelmer

Can the noble Lord tell us what is the current statutory requirement in terms of hours?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

I think that this question of the statutory requirement, which as I understand it is being reduced from 24 hours to 12 hours, is perhaps a point that should be brought out. What is much more important and seems to have been written into this Bill is something which was not written into the Bill of 1972. It is contained in the very helpful notes to which the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has referred on previous occasions in explaining this Bill, and is that the obligation to deal with escapes has for the first time been extended to the customer's side of the meter. That is a most important provision.

Lord Gray of Contin

I think we have had a short but useful debate on this subject. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, said that he hoped I would take the amendment away and consider it, and I find myself feeling a little inhibited. Throughout the course of this Bill I have been accused of being intransigent and of not being prepared to take points away for consideration, but the first time that I offer to do this I have the offer thrown back in my face. So I am hardly in the mood for taking away amendments. Nevertheless, I can assure the noble Lord that in my reply I shall consider very carefully what he and others have said.

First of all, perhaps I may answer the question that was raised by my noble friend, who asked what was the statutory position regarding hours. At the moment the period is 24 hours.

Amendment No. 103B, which was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, also subscribed, would require a public gas supplier to prevent any escapes at his own expense. For one brief moment I must return to the point which I made many times during our earlier discussion on Amendment No. 103A; namely, that it is an accepted principle in law that, where a statutory obligation is created, the person on whom the obligation falls must foot the bill unless specific provision is made for recovery of costs.

There is no such payment provision in paragraph 13; hence the duty must be fulfilled free. Therefore, I suggest to the Committee that no expression of this point is therefore necessary in the Bill. However, we have made clear in Condition 11 of British Gas's draft authorisation that making safe will be free of charge, though customers may be liable for the cost of repairs associated with an escape. I explained that point a little earlier also.

Lord Diamond

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but can he explain, when there is already a statutory obligation upon the gas supplier to carry out this duty free of charge, why the Government have found it necessary in the authorisation to use the very words that we are seeking to put in the Bill? If it is so clear, why does it have to be put in the authorisation?

Lord Gray of Contin

Because the authorisation is something which is prepared and given to any company which will supply gas, but it is not in statute. It still has very full effect but it is not actually written in statute. I could put the question back to the noble Lord or comment on what he has said: if it is in the authorisation, then it is not necessary to have it in statute.

Lord Diamond

I apologise, but the noble Lord has said that it is not necessary at all because there is a statutory obligation upon the public gas supplier to carry out this duty free of charge. It is a statutory obligation: it is not necessary to mention it. If it is not necessary to mention it at all, why is it in the authorisation?

Lord Gray of Contin

With great respect to the noble Lord, I think we are getting into the semantics of the problem. If it is not necessary to mention it at all, it is not necessary to have it as an amendment. However, when I gave way to the noble Lord I was pointing out that under Condition 11 of British Gas's draft authorisation making safe will be free of charge, though customers may be liable for the cost of repairs associated with an escape. This is only fair, given that one of the improvements that we have effected in the Bill is to extend the obligation to prevent escapes to the customer's side of the meter—this was commented on by my noble friend Lord Sanderson—as an escape may equally arise from a defective appliance as from a defective pipe.

Amendments Nos. 103C, 103D and 103E, which were spoken to by both the noble Lords, Lord Diamond and Lord Stoddart, seek to reduce the response time for preventing escapes. First, I should comment again that the Government have already halved the response time as expressed in the 1972 Gas Act from 24 hours to 12 hours, but it is necessary to bear in mind that in sub-paragraph (2) it is tied to the commission of a criminal offence if that condition is not met.

I recognise that the target response time of British Gas is two hours, which the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, pointed out, but I do not think that it would be appropriate to adopt that period where a criminal offence is concerned, or even the period of six hours, as suggested. I think that we have moved a long way forward by reducing the period from 24 hours to 12 hours. I readily acknowledge the superb achievement of British Gas in having an average response time of two hours. That is very good indeed. But where we are creating a criminal offence, I think that it is probably wiser at this stage to have a reasonable overlap, and that is what we have achieved.

In view of those remarks, I do not think that noble Lords have made the case for the amendment. I wonder whether on this occasion the noble Lord will consider withdrawing it.

Lord Ezra

In regard to Amendment No. 103B, are we right in understanding that according to the Minister the wording means quite clearly that there will be no charge? If that is so, we must accept his interpretation. I would only say that I think that it is a bit hard to expect the average consumer of gas to be a constitutional lawyer and to understand that, even though a statute does not say so, in fact the service will be rendered without charge.

Lord Gray of Contin

I refer the noble Lord to Condition 11 of the authorisation which deals with emergency services. Paragraph 1, line 7, states that the supplier shall by appropriate means secure that adequate publicity is given of the ways in which it can he contacted for the purpose of reporting such escapes. I think that was the point about which he was anxious.

Lord Ezra

I was asking why the average person reading the Bill would suppose that the provision meant that the service referred to would be rendered free of charge.

Lord Gray of Contin

With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I do not think that the average consumer would be reading the Bill. It is entirely up to the supplier to make sure that he conforms with the requirement of his authorisation in order to publicise the methods that can be used to contact him. I am not suggesting that people will not read the Bill, but the sort of people who will read it will be informed people connected with the industry or with various concerned associations. With respect, I doubt whether the example that the noble Lord chose is a good one.

Lord Ezra

Those people would be unlike us, because we did not understand the provision to mean that.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Diamond

My noble friend is the late chairman of the coal board. I mean "late" in the sense of ex-chairman, or, if members of the Committee would prefer it, in the sense that he has just participated, as most of us have, in an all night sitting. I am saying that he has that experience with the coal board. If somebody as closely associated with the fuel industry was not automatically aware of the new interpretation which the noble Lord seeks to put on that provision, it is not surprising that others are in the same difficulty: and I was not aware of it and still do not accept it.

I am not talking about the average consumer reading the Bill. The average consumer who is in difficulty goes to the consumers' council or the local citizens' advice bureau and says: "I have had a bill for so-and-so. What do I do about it?". The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, must have had endless experience of such occasions. We have received letters from various citizens' advice bureaux to say that they have that very problem. It is to them that reference is made, and they or their legal advisers must know exactly how to answer. They cannot consult a Silk as to what is the implicit responsibility of a statutory supplier when there is no mention in the Bill which gives him those exclusive rights that the service has to be supplied free.

I am bound to say to the Minister that I do not understand why, when there is all that difficulty on all sides of the Committee, that he should take up the most extraordinary attitude and say that he is not prepared to take the amendment away to look at it between now and Report stage. That is a minimum request which I am bound to put to him again. It cannot hurt at all.

Even if by Report stage he is able to write me a letter saying that there can be no doubt that that is the interpretation to be placed on the paragraph, we shall still certainly be moving an amendment saying: "For the sake of removal of doubt it is hereby stated", and then write it out clearly. We think that any citizens' advice bureau secretary or anyone concerned with a consumer council ought to be able immediately to refer to a statement in statute which makes it absolutely clear what answer is to be given to a complainant who asks: "What do I do about this bill that I have just had? I thought that the service was to be provided free of charge".

I am not saying what I propose to do at the moment with this amendment. I am asking the Minister whether he will be good enough to take what is the normal attitude at Committee stage and say, if he likes, "I think that everybody else is wrong and I am right, but nevertheless I shall take the amendment away, consider it between now and Report and do whatever is necessary or drop a line to the noble Lords, Lord Diamond, Lord Stoddart, and others who are interested". I cannot see why he should not do that. I appeal to him, before we reach a decision on the amendment, to be good enough to do that.

Lord Gray of Contin

No. On this occasion I am not prepared to take this back. We have had a useful debate. I think that I have won the arguments. I do not think that the noble Lord or his friends have put forward sufficiently strong arguments to make me either accept the amendment or to do as I offered to do last time, to no avail. It was thrown back in my face when I generously offered to take the amendment away.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Will the noble Lord—

Lord Gray of Contin

No, not at the moment. Let me just finish what I have to say. I do not feel that the arguments are strong enough for me to do that. In my ministerial career I have specifically avoided giving such assurances unless I felt that I could genuinely do so. When I give such an assurance, I genuinely take the matter back and look seriously at it to see whether I can accommodate the noble Lords who have raised the matter. I shall not devalue the practice that I have followed for many years. I offered to do it last time but it was rejected. I do not feel that the case is strong enough for me this time to take the proposal back.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am sorry that the noble Lord should feel that his offer to consider the last amendment without commitment was thrown back in his face. It most certainly was not. I had to make a quick decision, and I hope that I rejected, if that is the right word, his offer courteously and explained the reasons why I felt that it did not go far enough and that I had to press the matter to the vote. I hope that he is not using, and will not use, that to refuse to accede to the reasonable request of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, to have another look at the matter. It was not my intention, and it was not in my manner, to throw his offer back in his face.

Lord Gray of Contin

Let me make it absolutely clear that I meant nothing personal to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, with whom I have done battle on many occasions and for whom I have the highest respect. did not allow that to prejudice my decision. I shall conclude by saying what I said earlier. It is easy—and nobody knows this better that the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, who for many years was a Minister in another place—to stand at the Dispatch Box and say, "Oh yes, I will take this back and have a look at it", in the knowledge that one can do nothing about it. I do not do that. If I agree to take something back, I genuinely feel that I may be able to do something about it; I genuinely believe that the arguments put to me have merited that. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, who is very persuasive on many occasions, on this occasion he has not convinced me. If he insists on pressing the amendment, I must ask my noble friends to reject it.

Lord Diamond

I hope that I have made it clear to the noble Lord that I do not desire to go endlessly down the route of dividing the Committee; I desire to make progress on the Bill. I desire to enable the noble Lord the Minister to give us some indication as to whether we shall see some improvement in the Bill at its final stage. We have a long, long way to go. We are only halfway through the Committee stage. We have the Report stage and Third Reading to come.

I hope that I am not to take it that the normal attitude of the noble Lord the Minister is that he will say in response to a request, when there are clear doubts in many parts of the House—the vote last time showed that—that he will refuse to look at matters, without any commitment. I understand the responsible attitude that a Minister must take of not yielding to temporary pressure and getting himself into difficulty at a future stage in the Bill. I understand that well. That is why I gave him what I thought would be a hand which he would take, when I said that on Report we would table an amendment saying, "For the sake of the removal of doubt, it is hereby declared". That hurts nobody. It merely puts in what the noble Lord the Minister says is the fact. I should have thought that as a minimum he would have said. "I am prepared to take this back and see whether it would be helpful to put in such a declaratory statement". It is frequently put into legislation when a legal officer takes a particular view. Of course, here, we are under the disability that we have no such legal adviser as a Member of this place whose function it is to give legal advice to us of a non-party nature.

It is therefore only reasonable that there should be put into the Bill a declaratory statement of that kind, where there is reasonable doubt, for the sake of removing that reasonable doubt. For the last time I say to the noble Lord the Minister, is he prepared, without any commitment to take back this amendment and see whether such a declaratory statement might remove doubt?

4.54 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 103B) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 82; Not-Contents, 102.

Airedale, L. Kagan, L.
Ardwick, L. Kilmarnock, L.
Aylestone, L. Kirkhill, L.
Banks, L. Lawrence, L.
Birk, B. Leatherland, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Bottomley, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. [Teller.]
Brockway, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Lockwood, B.
Burton of Coventry, B. Lovell-Davis, L.
Caradon, L. McNair, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Monson, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Morton of Shuna, L.
Crawshaw of Aintree, L. Nicol, B.
David, B. Oram, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Phillips, B.
Denington, B. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Diamond, L. Rea, L.
Dowding, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Rochester, L.
Ennals, L. Seear, B.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Sefton of Garston, L.
Ezra, L. Stallard, L.
Falkender, B. Stamp, L.
Fisher of Rednal, B. Stedman, B. [Teller.]
Foot L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Gallacher, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Galpern, L. Strabolgi, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Grey E. Tordoff, L.
Hampton, L. Underhill, L.
Hanworth, V. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Walston, L.
Hayter, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Hirshfield, L. Whaddon, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. White, B.
Howie of Troon, L. Wigoder, L.
Hughes, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Hunt, L. Wilson of Langside, L.
Jacques, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Jeger, B.
John-Mackie, L. Wise, L.
Aldington, L. Faithfull, B.
Beaverbrook, L. Fortescue, E.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Fraser of Kilmorack, L.
Beloff, L. Gainford, L.
Belstead, L. Gardner of Parkes, B.
Bessborough, E. Glanusk, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Glenarthur, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Gray of Contin, L.
Broxbourne, L. Gridley, L.
Bruce-Gardyne, L. Haig, E.
Butterworth, L. Hardinge of Penshurst, L.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Harris of High Cross, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Hives, L.
Chelmer, L. Hooper, B.
Clinton, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Coleraine, L. Killearn, L.
Colville of Culross, V. Kimball, L.
Colwyn, L. Kinnaird, L.
Cottesloe, L. Kitchener, E.
Cowley, E. Lane-Fox, B.
Craigavon, V. Lauderdale, E.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Layton, L.
Davidson, V. Long, V. ([Teller.]
De La Warr, E. Macleod of Borve, B.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Mancroft, L.
Derwent, L. Margadale, L.
Dilhorne, V. Marley, L.
Dormer, L. Marsh, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Eccles, V. Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L.
Ellenborough, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Merrivale, L.
Erne, E. Mersey, V.
Milverton, L. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Molson, L. Sempill, Ly.
Monk Bretton, L. Shannon, E.
Morris, L. Shaughnessy, L.
Moyne, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Orkney, E. Somers, L.
Orr-Ewing, L. Strathspey, L.
Pender, L. Swansea, L.
Peyton of Yeovil, L. Teviot, L.
Plummer of St Marylebone, L. Trefgarne, L.
Trumpington, B.
Porritt, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Portland, D. Vickers, B.
Rankeillour, L. Vivian, L.
Renton, L. Ward of Witley, V.
Richardson, L. Westbury, L.
Romney, E. Whitelaw, V.
St. Aldwyn, E. Wolfson, L.
St. Davids, V. Young of Graffham, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.2 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 103C, 103D and 103E not moved.]

Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 103F:

Page 80, line 24, leave out paragraph 14 and insert—

("14. Where an escape of gas reported to the supplier relates to gas supplied by another gas supplier authorised under the Act, the supplier shall act as if he had supplied the gas. The supplier will be able to recover the cost of such emergency repairs either—

  1. (a) by standing agreement with the other supplier, or
  2. (b) by charging that other supplier per call-out.")

The noble Lord said: I have to move this amendment; that is certain. It is, in fact, a very important amendment. I am afraid that it is necessary to read out the present paragraph 14 of Schedule 5. It says,

"It shall be the duty of a public gas supplier to take such steps as are necessary to ensure that, if he is informed of an escape of gas that he is not required by paragraph 13 above to prevent, he passes the information on. as soon as reasonably practicable—

  1. (a) to the person who appears to the public gas supplier to be responsible (whether under that paragraph or otherwise) for preventing the escape; or
  2. (b) in the case of an escape occurring in the authorised area of another public gas supplier, to that other public gas supplier".

The amendment reads:

"Where an escape of gas reported to the supplier relates to gas supplied by another gas supplier authorised under the Act, the supplier shall act as if he had supplied the gas. The supplier will be able to recover the cost of such emergency repairs either—

  1. (a) by standing agreement with the other supplier, or
  2. (b) by charging that other supplier per call-out".

I have already said that the amendment is a most important one. Because of that, we believe that the Government should seriously consider accepting it. I have explained that Schedule 5 to the Bill allows British Gas to accept reports of gas leaks other than in respect of its own system. In itself, that is a sensible provision. However, if British Gas is informed of a gas leak in some other supplier's installation, all that British Gas is required to do is to inform the other supplier that such a leak of gas has been reported to it. That might be adequate if we were talking about a defective vacuum cleaner. But we are not. Gas is a highly volatile substance, dangerous in any uncontrolled environment. Any leak of gas should be dealt with immediately. That is the point that I want to make.

The amendment seeks to provide that any supplier receiving a report of a gas leak in another supplier's installation should be under a statutory duty to repair that leak and to recover the cost of the work if he has not previously made a standing arrangement in accordance with the amendment. This means that public safety is given absolute priority. If necessary, where there is no mutual agreement, the haggling about money can take place later.

The amendment also provides protection for British Gas. It is almost inevitable that members of the public observing a gas escape will report it to British Gas rather than to the owner of the installation who is unlikely in any event to be readily identifiable by ordinary members of the public. Certainly, if the leak is not attended to, and especially if there is an explosion, British Gas will almost certainly incur the odium although it will have carried out its duty in accordance with the authorisation and with the Bill as it now stands.

The amendment, I believe, is also sensible in practical terms since British Gas has facilities for dealing with gas escapes virtually throughout the country. I believe that this is a necessary and essential amendment in the interests of safety. I hope that it has the support of the Committee and that the Minister will accept it.

Lord Gray of Contin

The amendment is the proposed new paragraph 14 put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Gallacher. It would require a public gas supplier to prevent any escape of gas reported to him whether or not he was the supplier, although he would be able to recover the costs. Paragraph 14 of the schedule is a new provision. It recognises that in the future gas may be supplied by another company but that British Gas will remain by far the most familiar company in the mind of the public so that any escape might be reported to it.

I am sure that British Gas, with its experience, can be relied upon in these circumstances to take whatever steps are appropriate. In terms of resources it will be by far the best equipped to deal with escapes, but it would not be appropriate to tie British Gas's hands now in establishing whatever arrangements seem best between itself and any third party in the future. We have already effected significant improvements in the Bill in respect of the escapes provision and we do not feel that it would be necessary to change what we have in mind and incorporate this amendment.

I cannot agree that it would be sensible to require British Gas to deal with other companies' escapes. In order to deal with escapes safely a supplier will need both knowledge and control of the situation: knowledge of where pipes are and the way they operate, and control so as not to cause problems at other parts of the supply system. British Gas will have neither in the case of other companies' pipes. It would not therefore be safe to oblige it to deal with all escapes.

I do not think that this amendment improves the Bill. I clearly recognise and acknowledge the concern of noble Lords to ensure that safety is of the highest, but I am not persuaded that accepting this amendment would do anything to improve the safety provisions which we have in mind. Therefore I must ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I do not know that I can withdraw the amendment. The noble Lord was very reasonable in his reply. But we have to remember that some of the new gas suppliers may have an odd installation here and there. One may have Shell (U.K.) Ltd. for example, or the small oil company, supplying over 2 million therms of gas to a specific firm, factory or installation. It may well be, therefore, that they will not have the facilities on hand to deal with such a leak. Under the existing Schedule 5, paragraph 14, all that British Gas has to do is to tell them. It may take the company quite a long time to get to the installation. While they are getting there a dangerous situation may be arising. It would clearly be sensible for British Gas—if it received that report and there was to be a delay—to have the power and authority to repair that gas leak in the interests of public safety and then charge the other firm an appropriate charge for making the equipment safe.

That seems to me to be eminently reasonable. In practice, if this amendment were carried British Gas may make arrangements with these other gas suppliers. This provision would certainly encourage them to do so and would encourage the other gas suppliers to enter into agreements with them that British Gas should repair leaks should they occur.

I think that it is a sensible and reasonable amendment. Obviously, I must ask the noble Lord whether he wishes to say anything more or, in the light of what I have said and the mutual concern for the safety of the public, whether he would like to have another look at this between now and Report stage. I think that it is probably worth looking at.

5.13 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 103F) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 75; Not-Contents, 95.

Airedale, L. Gallacher, L.
Ardwick, L. Galpern, L.
Aylestone, L. Graham of Edmonton, L.
Banks, L. Grey, E.
Birk, B. Hanworth, V.
Boston of Faversham, L. Hatch of Lusby, L.
Bottomley, L. Hirshfield, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Burton of Coventry, B. Howie of Troon, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Hughes, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Hunt, L.
Crawshaw of Aintree, L. Jacques, L.
David, B. [Teller.] Jeger, B.
Dean of Beswick, L. John-Mackie, L.
Denington, B. Kagan, L.
Denning, L. Kilmarnock, L.
Diamond, L. Kirkhill, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Ennals, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Lockwood, B.
Ezra, L. Longford, E.
Falkender, B. Lovell-Davis, L.
Foot, L. McNair, L.
Mayhew, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Monson, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Morton of Shuna, L. Strabolgi, L.
Mulley, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Nicol, B. Tordoff, L.
Oram, L. Underhill, L.
Phillips, B. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Pitt of Hampstead, L. Walston, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.] Wells-Pestell, L.
Whaddon, L.
Ritchie of Dundee, L. White, B.
Rochester, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Sefton of Garston, L. Wilson of Langside, L.
Stallard, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Stamp, L.
E. Stedman, B.
Auckland, L. Lane-Fox, B.
Beaverbrook, L. Lauderdale, E.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Layton, L.
Beloff, L. Long, V. [Teller.]
Belstead, L. Macleod of Borve, B.
Bessborough, E. Mancroft, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Margadale, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Marley, L.
Broxbourne, L. Marsh, L.
Bruce-Gardyne, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Butterworth, L. Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Merrivale, L.
Clinton, L. Mersey, V.
Coleraine, L. Milverton, L.
Colville of Culross, V. Molson, L.
Colwyn, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Cottesloe, L. Morris, L.
Cowley, E. Mottistone, L.
Craigavon, V. Moyne, L.
Cranbrook, E. Orkney, E.
Cross, V. Orr-Ewing, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Pender, L.
Davidson, V. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
De La Warr, E. Plummer of St Marylebone, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.]
Derwent, L. Portland, D.
Dilhorne, V. Rankeillour, L.
Dormer, L. Renton, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Romney, E.
Eccles, V. St. Aldwyn, E.
Eden of Winton, L. St. Davids, V.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Elton, L. Sempill, Ly.
Faithfull, B. Shannon, E.
Fortescue, E. Shaughnessy, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Gainford, L. Somers, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Strathspey, L.
Glanusk, L. Swansea, L.
Gray of Contin, L. Teviot, L.
Haig, E. Trumpington, B.
Hardinge of Penshurst, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Harris of High Cross, L. Vickers, B.
Hives, L. Vivian, L.
Hooper, B. Ward of Witley, V.
Hylton-Foster, B. Whitelaw, V.
Kimball, L. Wolfson, L.
Kitchener, E.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.23 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 103G:

Page 80, line 34, at end insert—

("Maintenance of pipelines and installations

  1. .—(1) The gas supplier shall ensure that all pipelines and installations associated with the transmission of gas shall be maintained in a safe condition. He shall be obliged to expend such 1117 monies as are necessary to achieve that objective. In any event, the supplier shall need to make application to the Director should he wish to expend less in real terms than that amount which is expended on the day that this Act came into force.
  2. (2) On receipt of that application the Director shall seek the comments and approval of the Health and Safety Executive.")

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 103G standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. This amendment reflects the concern that we have on the operation of the price formula. The reducing X factor could mean that a risk analysis is made in order to see what may be put off in the matter of maintenance and replacement to reduce other costs. Of course the X factor relates to other costs in the authorisation.

The British Gas Corporation has a splendid record of mains replacement, having implemented the programme and replacement recommended by the King Report, and in fact it did it ahead of him. In the last 10 years the British Gas Corporation has relaid some 14,866 miles of mains and laid 17,475 miles of new mains; that is a great achievement. I think all noble Lords would wish to recognise that achievement. In 1984–85 there was a 233 per cent. increase in mains relaid over 1975–76. Since we have been talking about safety, that of course is good for safety and shows what happens when an industry is under public ownership.

On the other side, 1984–85 saw 10 per cent. fewer miles of mains relaid over the previous year. While there is a forward planning programme of relaying, the price formula could quite easily interrupt that particular programme; hence this amendment which follows the recommendation of the Health and Safety Executive in its report following the Putney gas explosion.

The Health and Safety Executive said that BGC, or its successor company, should be obliged to maintain mains replacement expenditure in real price terms and he obliged to justify any decrease. It did this because of the state of not only the mains but also the roadways covering the mains. While BGC would doubtless get around to looking at mains of the type at Putney, it could do that only if it planned a programme which was to go ahead. We talked about the pressure on the X factor of the price formula, and there is no doubt that this could be a worry.

In the light of the HSE's recommendations I think that this amendment should form part of the statute so that there is no doubt in the mind of the privatised British Gas that it had the obligation to maintain in proper order its pipelines and installations. I beg to move.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

On this subject I wonder whether we are going a little further than perhaps we should in telling the future company how to go about its business. After all, so far as protection of the consumer and maintenance and so on is concerned, everything reverts to the vital Clause 4. If I read it aright, in particular subsection (2), the protections given in regard to maintenance and the furtherance of a good system are surely inherent in that clause. It would therefore be up to the Secretary of State and the director in particular to ensure what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is getting at as a result of what is written into that clause itself.

Lord Gray of Contin

We realise the concern to which gas explosions such as that which occurred in Putney give rise. The publication of the Health and Safety Executive's recent report into the Rutherglen, Glasgow, explosion underlines that concern, which is fully shared by the Government. As a safety matter responsibility in this area falls to the Health and Safety Commission and the Executive.

British Gas has an ongoing mains replacement programme. In 1984–85, for instance, nearly, 2,000 miles of pipe were relaid at a cost of half a million pounds. British Gas fully recognises its obligations to its 16 million customers and to the public at large. As we made clear in debating an earlier amendment, it is essential to its commercial future to maintain public confidence in the safety of gas.

Following the Putney explosion British Gas undertook to set up its mains replacement programme in line with the recommendations in the Health and Safety Executive's report. The Health and Safety Executive is already pursuing the implementation of its recommendations and will do so with the successor company as it would with British Gas.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, the Health and Safety Executive can take whatever steps it considers appropriate to secure public safety and is not bound by considerations relating to maintaining expenditure in real terms. If, for example, the HSE considers specific work is necessary on grounds of public safety, British Gas is required to spend the necessary money, subject to a reasonable practical test. The existing legislation is therefore a considerable advance on what is proposed in the amendment.

We believe that the record of British Gas speaks for itself and that its commitment and the provisions of existing legislation are able to secure what noble Lords are seeking to achieve. The point which the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, raised with the X factor highlights what my noble friend said on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, about the absolute necessity to get the X factor right both in the interests of the British Gas Corporation and the consumer. I do not think that the noble Lord fully appreciated that what we are doing in the Bill in itself goes even further than his amendment. In those circumstances I wonder whether he would be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon

Before my noble friend replies to the Minister I should like to support him in this amendment, but I wonder for an instant what he means by "real terms" here when he talks about the value of the expenditure. I hope that he will not measure in this instance "real terms" merely in relation to the retail price index but would bear in mind such guidelines as the Baxter indices of construction costs, which are somewhat different from the retail price index and much more apposite to this amendment.

Lord Gray of Contin

I think that question was directed to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, not to me.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I think so too. I am obliged to my noble friend for drawing our attention to this important matter. It is quite true that the retail price index does not necessarily reflect the costs of re-laying pipes. Those costs and costs related to them may go up far more steeply than the elements in the retail price index, which include items such as tobacco and house mortgages which at the moment are coming down. I appreciate that point and it is one which should have consideration.

I have listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Gray, has said. In this case it would be as well if I read carefully what he said because I think he has convinced me that it may very well be that the matters we are concerned about are covered in the Bill. On that basis and on the basis that we can bring something else forward at Report stage, I shall be prepared to withdraw the amendment and I beg leave to do so.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 104:

Page 82, line 9, at end insert—

("Requirement to hold a recognised qualification

17A. It shall be an offence for any person to attempt to rectify faults, to install appliances, or to tamper by way of inspection or other deed with service pipes (whether or not belonging to the supplier) appliances or other fittings unless he is properly qualified by a recognised qualification.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Gallacher. There are two aspects of safety attributable to the use of non-qualified labour: first, gas leaks, which we have discussed at fair length this afternoon and, secondly, flue defects. All of us will have heard some horror stories not only about gas leaks but the way appliances are installed and the tragic deaths which have been caused because gas appliances have not been properly ventilated and no proper provision made for the escape of flue gas. There is much evidence of cowboy installers leaving appliances which either leak or fail to combust correctly, leading to gas leaks and explosions. Bad fitting or no flue installation leads to a build-up of carbon monoxide and, subsequently, asphyxiation. Many coroners' reports, as the Committee will know, have been made on this aspect, including that of a West Midlands coroner who offered a reward for the identification of a cowboy installer who caused several deaths among the immigrant community by failing to provide effective flues to appliances. That is what our amendment seeks to deal with.

There is no doubt about this. We have seen programmes on the television and we have seen incidents in our own experience which have led to these tragic accidents. It is essential that people who install gas appliances or deal with gas in any way should be qualified. That is why we are seeking in this amendment a requirement that people who carry out this work should hold a recognised qualification. For example, no qualified engineer would install or leave appliances in the way that I have outlined. But cowboy engineers or fitters, or whatever they are (they are not really fitters at all, they are simply cowboys) go to people's homes; they persuade old people, and sometimes young people who do not know any better, that they can do the job more cheaply. They are allowed into the house to interfere with gas fittings and gas appliances. They leave after having taken their money and that person's life may then be at risk from an explosion. That is what we are concerned about.

The amendment is essentially concerned with life and death situations. It would be callous and irresponsible for us not to feel very strongly about this matter and I hope therefore that in this instance the noble Lord will feel able to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Howie of Troon

I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept this amendment, which is clearly extremely sensible. But I am not sure whether my noble friend on the Front Bench has gone far enough. This is something to which we might return at a later stage in the Bill. When he says "a recognised qualification" the amendment might be greatly strengthened if it were to state by whom it must be recognised. If the amendment were accepted it might be good if we added later a phrase such as "recognised by the Engineering Council" or "a recognised qualification such as a City and Guilds certificate" or something a shade more specific than the amendment as it stands. The principle is admirable and ought to be supported, but it would be strengthened if it were later made more specific than it is.

Lord Gray of Contin

I am grateful to take this opportunity of debating this point with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I am glad he put this amendment down because it gives us an opportunity to talk about an important element of safety.

I should like first of all to remind noble Lords that matters of gas safety are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Employment, but we are all committed to ensuring that standards of safety in the gas industry are maintained or improved following privatisation. During the preparation of the Bill, we had extensive and detailed discussions with the Health and Safety Executive and the Department of Employment on guidelines set out by the Health and Safety Commission in order to explore fully what changes needed to be made to the existing provisions. These are reflected in the Bill.

Noble Lords are of course aware of the Health and Safety Commission's consultation document on an Approved Code of Practice on Standards of Training for Gas Installers. We do not want to explore that in detail now since it forms the subject of separate amendments to be debated under Clause 18. However, I should just say that we believe that what is proposed will go a long way to fostering improved standards of training for the purpose of installation and servicing work.

The amendment seeks to create an offence of carrying out any work of servicing or installation without a recognised qualification. It is not made clear what the penalty for such an offence would be. Let me say first that BGC themselves have an extremely comprehensive training programme for their fitters and engineers, leading—and this to some extent, takes up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon—to City and Guilds certification. Employees of members of the Confederation of Registered Gas Installers are also required to be trained to appropriate standards. BGC and CORGI jointly cover approximately 60 per cent. of the installation market, so the proportion with which we are concerned is a minority, if quite a substantial one. But all installers, like the public at large, are subject to the requirements of the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations of 1984. Regulation 3 specifically states that, 'no person shall carry out any work in relation to a gas fitting unless he is competent to do so, and requires employers to ensure that their employees are competent and that the provisions of the regulations as a whole are complied with. The Approved Code of Practice will seek to define standards of competence.

It is important that everyone associated with gas supplies should be aware of the safety regulations—suppliers, installers and consumers alike. Under the new safety regime established under Clause 18 of the Bill, breaches of the Gas Safety Regulation will attract penalties under health and safety legislation, which provides for custodial sentences in certain circumstances. We shall have the opportunity for further debate of these matters under Clause 18.

We believe that the provisions of primary and subordinate legislation supported by HSE's important new initiative will combine to achieve what the noble Lords are seeking in their amendment. I hope that they will not consider me in any way discourteous or condescending when I say that I really believe that what they seek in their amendment is likely to be achieved by the Bill. But I share their concern on this matter. It is one of which there is certainly no difference in any part of the Committee. In view of what I have said, I wonder if the noble Lord might be prepared to withdraw his amendment. He can read carefully what I have said and if he feels that we are not going as far as he would wish he will have another opportunity to reconsider the matter.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Howie of Troon. I think he has raised a relevant point. It is one which perhaps we ought to consider between now and Report stage. Also, I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, said in relation to this amendment. I shall probably need to read what he said and particularly so in relation to the existing regulations requiring people who undertake gas installations to be competent. "Competent" to do so is rather different from being "qualified" to do so.

As it happens, I think that I am competent to fit a gas appliance. I believe that I am competent to fit a gas fire or even a gas cooker, for example, but I am certainly not qualified to do so; and, because I think I am competent that should not give me the right to put my family's safety at risk and certainly not the right to put somebody else's family and property at risk. That is really what we are talking about—that we need people not merely to be competent. Competence is a term which has a different connotation in different situations. What we need and what we are seeking to do by this amendment and others is to ensure that they are properly qualified, that they have been trained to a proper and recognised standard. I think that is somewhat different. I think it would be as well if I looked at what the noble Lord has said. We can come back to this matter at Report.

Lord Howie of Troon

Before my noble friend sits down, would he reflect that my reference to the Engineering Council bore in mind the fact that the qualifications which they recognise depend on academic attainment, on competence and on training? I think that is exactly the kind of thing he is looking for.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

That is absolutely right. I am exactly in tune with my noble friend. As I say, we shall have the opportunity to come back to this matter at Report stage but before pressing the matter further I should like to read what the Minister has said. That I shall do and in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 105:

Page 82, line 31, at end insert— ("( ) No officer shall be authorised by the public gas supplier unless that officer holds an appropriate recognized qualification.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 105, which stands in my name and in that of my noble friend Lord Gallacher. I think it would be convenient if, with this amendment, we took Amendments Nos. 108 and 111. Now we come back to qualifications. The effect of Amendment No. 105 is to ensure that any officer authorised by the public gas supplier to enter premises to work on gas supply equipment is properly qualified. As I have already noted, failure to ensure adequate qualification will have serious implications for both the officer and the consumer.

Under Section 2(2)(c) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, the employer is obliged to ensure such provision of such information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure as far as is reasonably practicable the health and safety at work of his employees. It is especially important that those who are involved in working with such a dangerous material as gas should be fully trained. Here we come back to the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Howie of Troon. They should be adequately trained and qualified so that they will not cause themselves harm; but the amendment also seeks to ensure that the work performed is of sufficiently expert a standard to make its safety for the consumer certain.

We really must be concerned about the consumer. We really must be concerned about the people whose houses are to be entered and appliances maintained.

I want to remind the Committee once again of the horror stories we have heard about badly-fitted gas appliances. I have remembered now what I should have remembered when I spoke to the last amendment. It concerns an item which was shown in the programme "That's Life", where a number of tragic deaths had taken place because gas appliances had been installed in bathrooms without, in many cases, a flue being installed with the gas appliance. The result was a build-up of carbon monoxide, which caused deaths. That is the sort of thing we are trying to avoid by this series of amendments, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Lord Gray of Contin

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for taking these three amendments together. They have a common theme; that is, the standard of training of officers authorised to enter premises, whether for the purpose of disconnection on safety grounds or otherwise. That standard of training is very important indeed.

As I explained in the debate on an earlier amendment, safety, including standards of safety training, is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Commission and its executive. But of course both British Gas and the Government are fully committed to maintaining safety standards. I am glad to be able to reassure noble Lords that all British Gas service engineers undergo full technical training; those personnel exercising powers of entry are fully competent to exercise these powers by virtue of training and experience.

There was an interesting point which was made, and perhaps I may refer back to it. The noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, I think, made the point during the debate on the last amendment, and I appreciate the interest which the noble Lord takes in this subject and his desire to ensure that people are qualified. However, I would make just one point. The noble Lord is perfectly right in saying that there is a difference between being competent and being qualified. However, I believe that "qualified" denotes a higher standard than the mere holding of a paper qualification and that the regulations are right to specify this. I do not suggest that a qualification is not a highly desirable achievement, but I would rather put it the other way round. It does not always follow that in every sphere the person who does not have a qualification is necessarily inferior to the person who does. I would relate this particularly to tradesmen.

The point I wish to make is that it would be a great pity if somebody who had spent a great part of his life in a trade, practising what he had been taught although perhaps not the holder of a piece of paper, should be debarred from pursuing his work further simply because of a regulation. I realise that I have gone off at a tangent, but the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, raised this issue. I think it is a valid point and is worth airing while we are discussing this subject. I will willingly give way to the noble Lord.

Lord Howie of Troon

I do not think it was me who raised that point. I could be thoroughly demolished on it, but I think it was my noble friend on the Front Bench who raised it. If I am to be demolished as a surrogate for him, I am perfectly willing to suffer that fate, but in fact it was not me. I am an innocent bystander in this particular encounter between the two Front Benches.

My view is a very simple one. I respect totally that kind of qualification which is based upon competence and experience, and, as a chartered engineer, I have never stepped back from that view. However, my major point is that, whatever qualifications we think are appropriate, they should be some kind of amalgam of theory, practice, training and experience. That is true of the whole engineering business, at whatever level—the artisan level, the technician level or the chartered engineer level. The principle is the same, although the weight which may be put on the various elements may be different. I realise I am now making a speech rather than what started out to be an intervention. I shall draw it to a close.

Lord Gray of Contin

I am grateful to the noble Lord. Certainly my remark was not in any way meant to provoke either the noble Lord himself or his noble friend on the Front Bench. The point had been raised, and I thought it was during his intervention and that it was worth commenting upon. I apologise to the noble Lord.

It is of course a requirement of health and safety legislation that employees should be provided with information, instruction, training and supervision. Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 lays this down. Employers also have a duty to conduct their undertakings in such a way that the public are not put at risk. That is contained in Section 3 of the same Act. Paragraph 18(2) of Schedule 5 and subsection (6) of Clause 18 of the Bill both make clear that officers exercising powers of entry, may be accompanied by such persons as may be necessary or expedient for the purpose for which entry is made". Thus, any specific skills not possessed by the officer concerned can and will be provided for in practice. I do not think there is really anything between us on the level of competence and qualification which we seek to achieve.

Amendment No. 11 requires similar qualifications from officers authorised by the Secretary of State in respect of supplies other than those by public gas suppliers. The expectation would of course be that emergency arrangements, including a right of access, would be included in any contract between supplier and customer. Indeed that is one of the main reasons for enabling safety conditions to be attached to supply authorisations under Clause 8. The arrangements provided for in Clause 8 are therefore very much a backstop. We intend that, as at present, Health and Safety Executive inspectors will be authorised by the Secretary of State for this purpose. Apart from their own expertise, as is provided for in the regulations, they are advised to take appropriate experts with them.

I hope the explanation which I have given in reply to the amendments dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, will satisfy him and I trust that, following those comments of mine, he might be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, for his interesting intervention in this part of the Bill and also for acting as a surrogate for my demolition. In fact, the intervention had the effect of doing a counter-demolition job on the Minister, so we are both demolished now! I appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, has said, but I do not really know that I am satisfied. I am not at all sure that I agree with the arguments he used with regard to competence and qualification.

The fact of the matter is that if one has a qualification—and I well understand the position of people who have worked in an industry for a long time and have worked on appliances, and so on—that qualification does show that the person concerned has followed a proper and organised course of training and at the end of it has shown that he is competent to do the particular work involved. So—

Lord Howie of Troon

May I assist my noble friend at this point? The Minister spoke about paper qualifications as though they were mere things. I think he has perhaps forgotten or overlooked for the moment, and temporarily, I am sure, the fact that within the engineering industry qualifications are, on the whole, based on peer judgment, which means that a person in the engineering business is judged by other engineers to be competent to do engineering. The piece of paper merely certifies that this is so.

6 p.m.

Lord Whaddon

I am impressed, as the whole Committee no doubt is, by the competence shown by my noble friend Lord Howie and his peers in the engineering profession, but I ask him to bear in mind that the Ark was built by amateurs: the "Titanic" was built by qualified engineers.

Lord Howie of Troon

The "Titanic" actually sailed longer than the Ark!

Lord Ezra

We seem to be trying to prevent the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, from finishing what he was going to say. But I shall like to say, upon the question of competence and qualifications, that we should be very careful where safety is concerned. I have had some experience in the mining industry and I may say that where safety in mines was concerned, for any person having any responsibilities in that connection experience was of course vital. The qualifications were laid down by law.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

That has been a most interesting side debate and I suppose most of us would have preferred to be in the Ark rather than the "Titanic". That was a very well-made point, if I may say so.

Getting back to the question of qualifications, I think the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, is absolutely right. Qualifications do not necessarily have to be paper qualifications, although in general one would expect that even where there is a peer judgment there will be some form of certification, and I think that is a very important thing. However, it is necessary for us to ensure that people who are dealing with gas as a substance, and with appliances to which gas is connected, have been properly and thoroughly trained and that they have a complete understanding of what the substance is and of what they are doing with appliances. As I said earlier, many of us think that we are competent to do many things, but when it comes to it, perhaps we are not as competent as we thought. In most cases that will not matter, but in the case of gas, where people's lives and property are very much at risk, it is essential.

There is one other point I should like to raise. We are not simply talking about British Gas. We are talking about any gas supplier, and although British Gas undoubtedly will have (and indeed I know, they have) a proper training programme which will ensure that their people are qualified as well as being competent to deal with gas appliances and gas installations, other undertakers and other suppliers may not be in that category and it may very well be that they will employ contractors to do their work. Indeed, those contractors may themselves employ sub-contractors who are not necessarily properly qualified. Under the Government's own policy—and I would not like to say they are doctrinaire about this, because we have heard a lot about doctrine in this debate during Committee stage—their whole ethos is to encourage private employment or self-employment. In encouraging self-employment, it may very well be that there will be a greater number of unqualified and perhaps even incompetent people who will be employed to undertake work on gas fittings and installations. I hope the noble Lord will bear that in mind.

We have had an interesting debate here. I do not want to press these amendments because I know that the Minister is just as concerned about safety as I and every other Member of your Lordships' House. What I should like him to do is to give an undertaking that he will read the debates which we have had about safety and perhaps communicate with me, or even say that he may wish to come back with amendments himself on Report stage. If he could say that to me, it would be very much easier for me, and perhaps he could intervene now to say whether he is prepared to look at the debate.

Lord Gray of Contin

I give the noble Lord my absolute assurance that I shall certainly read all the debates we have had on these safety clauses, and if I were to find that the legislation was defective in any way I should take advice about it. More than that I do not think he would expect me to say at this moment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I thank the noble Lord for that. He shall read and consider and we shall read and consider and we shall have the opportunity to come back at Report stage. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 106 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Lord Gallacher moved Amendment No. 106A:

Page 82, line 46, at end insert—

("Services to consumers.

  1. .—(1) The public gas supplier shall maintain in every area a point of contact for the consumer which shall sell appliances and offer services to customers including payment of bills, advice on installation and servicing of appliances, and advice on general energy matters as well as the use of gas.
  2. (2) The public gas supplier will offer advice on the purchase, installation and use of appliances; positioning of gas meters; servicing and safety checks and pass word schemes for the protection of the blind, free of chrge to elderly and registered handicapped people.
  3. (3) The point of contact shall be available for lodging of complaints on all matters connected with gas whether or not arising directly from gas supply.
  4. 1127
  5. The point of contact shall keep a record of all complaints received. (4) At the point of contact the supplier shall use his best endeavours to resolve complaints. If he is unable to do so he shall refer the matter to the local Trading Standards Officer. If the Trading Standards Officer is unable to resolve such complaints, he shall forward the complaint to the Gas Consumers' Council. Both the supplier and the Trading Standards Officer shall forward any relevant documents together with the complaint to the Council. At all times the consumder will be kept informed.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 106A is concerned with service to consumers and it seeks, in effect, to oblige the public gas supplier to maintain in every area a point of contact for the consumer. That point of contact would, of course, normally be the present gas showrooms, but not necessarily and not exclusively so. It would be possible, for example, if a showroom were not available or if it was held to be uneconomic, for the public gas supplier to make arrangements to take space in another store or shop and to make that his point of contact, but in the main I think we are thinking in terms of the 800 showrooms currently operated by the British Gas Corporation.

The consumer regards the gas showroom as his point of contact with British Gas and at the present time those showrooms provide a wide variety of services to consumers, well beyond the normal function of selling appliances. Some indication of the range of services currently provided is set out quite clearly in the first subsection of Amendment No. 106A. For example, the paying of bills is a very valuable service to British Gas, because it enables payment to be made promptly and also it sometimes avoids the cost to the consumer of remitting bills by other means.

At the gas showrooms or other point of contact advice is available on the installation and servicing of appliances, the conclusion of maintenance agreements and various other functions of that kind. Also, we envisage the point of contact as a place where advice on general energy matters can be obtained. The Government gave an undertaking at an earlier stage to look at energy advice and conservation as part of the possible changes to the Bill at a later stage, so I think that to make provision for that at the point of contact would be very useful indeed.

In addition, the whole range of advice on purchases is covered and, more importantly, advice to the disadvantaged about the facilities available to them, whether they be blind, elderly or registered handicapped persons. This is not a range of services that can be provided anywhere else. Organisations like the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, which do excellent work in this regard, would in the normal way direct people with queries of that sort to the gas showroom, where they know that expert and impartial advice is available free of charge.

The maintenance of points of contact also has the advantage that, if work is commissioned from British Gas plc, it will be undertaken, as has already been pointed out by the Minister, by fully qualified people. To that extent, it will go some way to avoiding problems arising from the employment of less well qualified people undertaking functions which require skill, and certainly, at all times, some attention to the safety aspect.

We also envisage the point of contact giving a facility which is currently not really there and is not necessary at the present time; that is to say, it will give gas users generally a place where they can lodge complaints on all matters connected with gas, whether or not they arise directly from gas supply. At the moment, this facility is not necessary because the British Gas Corporation has a very well developed system of consumer machinery, including area committees, regional bodies and a national body through which all unsatisfied complaints can eventually be filtered; that is to say, if a customer complains to a gas board and gets no satisfaction, or is dissatisfied with the way in which the complaint is treated, it can be referred by the customer to the area committee. In turn, if the area committee is unable to resolve the matter or feels that it raises a major issue, the regional committee can be brought in and, indeed, even the national body can, from time to time, take up points with British Gas arising originally from local complaints.

We see the point of contact which we are suggesting in this amendment as being a valuable place for the customer to undertake to make complaints, particularly as this other machinery about which I have spoken will no longer exist, because the Government so far appear fairly firmly committed to a single body, the Gas Consumers Council, as being the sole body responsible for protecting consumers after privatisation.

We go further and suggest a method whereby complaints might be dealt with at the point of contact; that is to say, if the parties are unable to resolve the matter amicably between them, they will, in effect, call in the local trading standards officer and he will attempt to resolve such disputes. If he is unsuccessful, then the complaint can be sent to the Gas Consumers' Council with the documentation prepared by the trading standards officer, a copy of the complaint being kept by the consumer and, at all times, the consumer being kept well informed.

The Committee may ask: why should this be necessary? In my experience of complaints of this kind, particularly if they are to be handled only at national level, it will become very important indeed that the documentation relating to the complaint should be properly prepared and should be available in factual form, so that the work of the national body is not hamstrung, first, by the volume of complaints it receives and, more importantly, by the state of the complaints when they reach the national parties.

We have all had experience in life of taking up complaints, sometimes from very indignant people, which on examination are not found to accord with the facts as given verbally. Consequently, if the matter goes before any body charged with the responsibility of dealing with those complaints, there can be a very great difference of opinion as between the parties as to what actually happened, when it happened, what was said, etc.

So we see this function as being important for the protection of consumers, and indeed as helping considerably the work of the Gas Consumers Council. As I say, it would continue a service which the British Gas Corporation has traditionally given. To that extent, it would ensure that after privatisation the ordinary customer would see British Gas as very much the organisation which had served people well in the past and which was well equipped to serve them equally well in the future.

Another point which has not been mentioned is the question of spare parts. The British Gas Corporation has a very good record of maintaining spare parts in respect of appliances that it sells for quite a long period of years after it sells them, so that a customer is not so disadvantaged by being unable to acquire a spare part that he or she has to indulge in the purchase of a new and very expensive replacement, when a small expenditure on a vital spare part would obviate the necessity for a large sum of money having to be found so soon in the life of the asset.

Therefore, I think there is a strong case here for a sympathetic consideration of the matter. The Bill appears to restrict to some extent the role of the gas business by the way in which it is currently defined. Therefore, I think that to ask the Government to consider recognising points of contact, as outlined in Amendment No. 106A, is fair and reasonable and I hope that we can expect a sympathetic response from the Minister. I beg to move.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Belstead

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, is seeking in this amendment to maintain in every area a point of contact for the consumer, and it is on this basic point that the noble Lord made most of his speech. It is clear that British Gas will very much wish to go on selling appliances and they have already given an undertaking that showrooms will continue to offer a full range of services covering all of the matters to which the noble Lord has referred in his amendment.

The Committee will recall that British Gas's draft authorisation will require the preparation of codes of practice on the services available to tariff customers and on the payment of bills—a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, particularly referred. There will therefore be a strong incentive to British Gas, when it is privatised, to develop services and to make available to customers as much information as possible.

The second subsection of this amendment is a little more complicated in that it deals with several things. It is of course a normal part of the activities of retailers of goods of whatever description to advise customers on the most suitable item to meet their needs and tastes, which is the first bit of the second subsection. I realise that particular considerations arise in relation to the use and installation of gas appliances; but so far as concerns safety, let us be clear that the requirements are fully set out in the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1984 which are administered by the Health and Safety Executive.

If I may just say a brief word about the positioning of gas meters, which is specifically referred to in the amendment, this, again, is dealt with in the 1984 regulations. Members of the Committee who have been involved with this Bill will recall that British Gas is offering full servicing of facilities and an inexpensive five-point safety check to all customers. Regarding elderly and disabled people, may I just repeat the reassurance which was given earlier: British Gas will continue to offer free safety checks to the elderly and disabled, and current arrangements for the protection of blind customers will also be continued.

As to the third subsection of this amendment, this is where the noble Lord seeks to make showrooms the point of contact for complaints. All I can say here is that I realise it is normal practice for customers to seek satisfaction from the supplier, and no doubt showrooms will continue to receive complaints just as they do now. They are, after all, the public face of the industry and certainly under a privatised system this will be very much in the mind of British Gas.

That leads me to the last paragraph of the amendment which is about the resolving of complaints. I shall say just two things here. First of all, the amendment says that, the supplier shall use his best endeavours to resolve complaints", an expression which I rather thought did not find favour on the other side of the Committee. We agonised over it some days ago and eventually, with regard to standing charges, the Government agreed to take the words "best endeavours" out of the Bill, and I thought noble Lords seemed rather pleased. However, the words are in the amendment and I shall not dwell on that. I shall simply say that we have provided in the Bill already comprehensive arrangements for the director and the Gas Consumers Council to deal with a full range of complaints. Indeed as the Committee will remember, Clause 33 was specifically put into the Bill in another place to ensure that the Gas Consumers Council can investigate any complaint relating to appliances. That will be on a local basis, not on a national basis as the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher seems to think.

The other point to make on subparagraph (4) is that I do not think it is necessary to require a trading standards officer to act as an intermediary. Trading standard officers have a role under consumer safety law in monitoring appliance standards, and they keep a record of all complaints reported to them. We would expect them to co-operate with the Gas Consumers Council in any matter where there is a shared interest.

In essence, in reply to this quite detailed amendment, I am saying that I very much share the thoughts which are behind the amendment but that I am confident that as a commercially oriented organisation British Gas will develop and maintain its services to customers, and let us not tie it up in red tape. As to the handling of complaints, we have established in the Bill a fully comprehensive range of powers for the new Gas Consumers Council. I hope that noble Lords opposite will feel that I have said enough to assure the Committee that all the points in the amendment are fully covered and that they will feel able to withdraw it.

Lord Diamond

I want to speak for one minute only to add my support to the amendment and to respond to the interesting comment made by the noble Lord the Minister about using "best endeavours" to resolve complaints. I am bound to make this comment because what he referred to was an amendment of mine about standing charges.

Where one person has power within his own control to make a decision you do not need the words "best endeavours". But where two people are involved in resolving complaints, you cannot say for certain that you can control the understanding and feelings of the other fellow but you can do the best possible and use your "best endeavours". I think that the words are very helpful in this context.

Lord Bruce of Donington

I am sorry that the noble Lord has not seen fit to take on board this amendment. Throughout this debate, not only today but on previous days, it has been noticeable—indeed, it is odd and somewhat ironic—that the Government when asked to incorporate certain safeguards and measures into the statute itself have sought desperately to reassure the Committee and the public that the new plc will do as well as the existing corporation. It is a very odd commentary for a Government who are seeking to put a corporation under private ownership and private control to have all the time to use the nationalised undertaking's excellent record to ensure, to undertake and to plead that the new plc will do as well as the undertaking that has been privatised. It is a comment on the bankruptcy of the whole of the Government's approach to the matter. All they can offer is that the new plc will continue the best practices of the undertaking that they are seeking to transfer.

That is a purely general point. We are on to the particular. What we have tried to indicate to the noble Lord is that it has been the practice of the corporation in the past not to rely on the various consumer councils or machinery or external means of complaint to bring to the attention of the corporation the various difficulties which from time to time consumers—gas consumers—must meet. They have always been able to go along—indeed, many have done so—to their local gas showrooms not merely to buy appliances or to pay bills but, if they get into difficulties, to go along to their local point of contact.

This is a very healthy aspect of managerial efficiency. If you are running a concern, particularly a large corporation of this kind, it is vital if the management is to arrive at the correct short-, medium- and long-term management decisions, for it to have a continued input of information as to what is happening in the world outside among its consumers. In this your local gas showrooms have played a most important part. The noble Lord has once again given us the assurance that the practice will go on. He has not said it is going to be improved, although privatisation is supposed to improve everything, but he has given the assurance that it will continue.

There are difficulties because, as the noble Lord well knows, the reason why it has not been necessary to incorporate such safeguards as are incorporated in this amendment is precisely because the corporation was a public corporation, responsible to the public, responsive to parliamentary question and inquiry and responsive to such representations as were made either at the top, or were made up through the various points of contact, or in some cases, as we have heard, through the consumer councils themselves.

All we have heard is that it is quite unnecessary to have a safeguard of this kind because the policy will continue. We need to be reminded sometimes that times are changing and that under privatisation new pressures will be brought to bear. I have in front of me at the moment the publication by Wood Mackenzie & Co. Ltd. which acts for the Government in advertising the virtues of British Gas, "The largest ever equity holding". Let us see what Wood Mackenzie says about the future policy in relation to gas showrooms. I refer to page 45. The company points out that there are only 800 British Gas showrooms throughout the United Kingdom. Then it states: The main use for the showrooms is the payment of domestic accounts. They handle over £800 million a year in cash and about as much again in cheques. Additionally 8 million visits are made to the outlets every year to buy gas savings stamps and some 6 million visits to make general service inquiries. About 3 million visits relate to appliance sales".

6.30 p.m.

Let us for a moment contemplate the 6 million general service inquiries, which are the very matters to which parts of the amendment refer. What does the report continue to say about the future existence of the showrooms? It states: British Gas has promoted British-made appliances to the benefit of domestic manufacturers. There is, however, growing competition from imported appliances. Consequently, the showrooms' market share is likely to come under pressure. It is most unlikely that the showrooms would make profits if their sole activity was the retailing of appliances. Similarly, by the company's own admission, the showrooms would not be commercially viable were the retailing function to be removed".

The report goes on—and this is the point: Further shrinkage of the 800 strong chain is possible as competitive pressure on the retail activity may build and more domestic gas users might be persuaded to use other methods of account settlement. At the same time it must be expected that there will be a continuing background of some turnover and changes. It is normal practice that the effectiveness of the showrooms is regularly reviewed and that some may, as a result, be closed or re-sited. Equally new showrooms may be opened". So commercial pressures are to apply.

The noble Lord cannot say that the board of directors of British Gas plc will remain the same. It does not lie within his bailiwick what decisions may be made by British Gas plc after one or two years, particularly under the pressure of its institutional shareholders, who will want profits, and some of whom will want capital gains. The Minister cannot say that commercial short-term and medium-term considerations will not outweigh the public interest. The Minister cannot possibly do that.

In view of the fact that the public interest and the national interest are no longer the specific concern of the new plc we are trying to ensure that proper provision is made. Unhappily, we now have to do that by statute because British Gas will no longer be open to public pressure. We have to do it in the form of an amendment to the Bill. We are very sorry that the Government cannot accept it. Unless the noble Lord is prepared to give the Committee an indication that the matter will be radically reconsidered, we will have no alternative but to press the amendment to a Division.

Lord Belstead

I will make one comment in reply to the noble Lord. I understand why noble Lords opposite and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, finally have laid very great stress on the importance of showrooms. Indeed, their concern is the basis of the amendment. But when the noble Lord quotes from the Wood Mackenzie report, he might be a little more comprehensive. If he would care to glance at page 8 of the report, there he will see the kind of balanced and wise statement that I believe he would be the first to applaud. These are the words: The significance of the gas showrooms is not in the profits they make but in the overall support they provide to the domestic gas business and the fact that they are the public face of the BGC and its main link with its customers". I make no secret of the fact that I know that British Gas has been in the position where it felt that it had to close an uneconomic showroom. On the other hand, as all Members of the Committee will know, it has taken opportunities to open profitable new outlets. I suggest to the Committee that it would be wrong to require British Gas to keep open unprofitable outlets. That would require cross-subsidy by gas consumers and would put British Gas at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other gas appliance retailers. It is right for us to remember that British Gas, operating entirely commercially in the future, will have it very much in mind that its showrooms are its public face. I know that it will place importance on the preservation of showrooms where it is right to do so.

Lord Ezra

The issue raised here is a matter of very great importance. The fact is that we are here talking about the 16 million consumers of gas who have over the years been used to having somewhere to which they could go to pay their bills, to see the newest appliances, or to obtain advice. To do that by any other means would impose difficulty and a degree of uncertainty on the customers.

The Government have, throughout consideration of the amendments proposed to Schedule 5, repeatedly said that there is no need for them to be accepted because assurances have been received from the existing British Gas Corporation, but it is difficult to accept that those assurances would necessarily be honoured by any successor organisation. If it is recognised that it is necessary to have a point of contact in each area, I fail to see why that cannot be said. The amendment does not suggest that those points of contact should be unprofitable. It does not even lay down what they should consist of. Surely it must be recognised as being an exceptional situation, in which we are talking about one organisation supplying 16 million consumers with a particular product of which it will in practice be the sole supplier for that particular market.

Lord Gallacher

I thank the Minister for his reply and for those parts of it that have given some measure of reassurance; namely, that gas showrooms will continue to operate, and that they will be allowed to perform the services that they currently do. It may have been even more reassuring had the Minister not mentioned the trend that showrooms were closing but that new showrooms were opening in other centres. My advice is that there are at the present time 800 showrooms, whereas in 1980–81 there were 900 showrooms. That represents a fairly substantial reduction during a period when the gas industry has been expanding very rapidly for a variety of reasons. That trend reinforces the point made by the amendment as to the importance of a point of contact.

The Minister had rather less to say about the resolution of complaints. When proposing the amendment I thought that I had developed a fairly substantial argument that if one is going to rely simply on a gas consumers council—a national body—it will require some local machinery, if not regional machinery, to process complaints so they will arrive before the national body in a form that will allow it to adjudicate fairly—fairly, that is, to British Gas plc and certainly to the customer who has complained in the first instance.

The Minister said that machinery would continue to exist, but to the best of my knowledge, and having listened carefully to all that has been said so far in that connection in our consideration of the Bill, the only concession that the Government appear to have made is that there is to be an officer of the council operating in the existing regions of British Gas, no doubt with a supporting staff. He will certainly be an employee of the consumers council, but whether he will be fully equipped and able to deal with the volume of complaints that he will receive, or even to resolve them—which is very important—is questionable. It is one matter having a complaint put before an impartial committee, but it is another matter having it resolved by someone who, although the servant of that committee, is still a paid servant. I am not certain that that is an entirely satisfactory arrangement for what is to be the new private monopoly of British Gas plc.

The attempt to involve trading standards officers is fully justified. I have some experience of the fact that the Office of Fair Trading, which also comes into the Bill, is very disappointed that it has been unable so far to persuade a single retailer in the land to establish a code of conduct for dealing with customer complaints. The reasons for this are numerous. There are many traders who say, "Our name is a good enough assurance. We are not concluding any sort of agreement on a trade association basis with the Office of Fair Trading because that would identify us with traders with whom we do not wish to be associated".

The whole basis of the Office of Fair Trading's codes of conduct, whether for retailers or for anyone else, is that there should be provision in them for a form of arbitration, and the chosen route of the Office of Fair Trading is ultimately to bring arbitration before the Institute of Arbitrators. I have no objection to that, but it seems to me to be fairly expensive. Indeed, where it is provided for in existing codes of conduct it usually requires the parties who are going before the Institute of Arbitrators to pay substantial deposits so that frivolous complaints are not referred to professional people.

Therefore, in suggesting that local trading standards officers might perform this role we are attempting to break new ground and to give British Gas plc a pioneering role in an area where, as I say, the Office of Fair Trading feels that the consumer is in need of protection. If the Minister had been more encouraging about these aspects of the amendment, it might have been possible for us to say that we would reflect on what he had said and, if necessary, come back at a later stage. However, in the light of what the Minister said I feel that I have no alternative but to test the opinion of the Committee.

6.41 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 106A) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 66; Not-Contents, 84.

Airedale, L. John-Mackie, L.
Ardwick, L. Kirkhill, L.
Attlee, E. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Aylestone, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.
Birk, B. Lockwood, B.
Boston of Faversham, L. Longford, E.
Bottomley, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Broadbridge, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Brockway, L. McNair, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Molloy, L.
Burton of Coventry, B. Morton of Shuna, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Mulley, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Nicol, B.
Crawshaw of Aintree, L. Oram, L.
David, B. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]
Dean of Beswick, L.
Denington, B. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Diamond, L. Rochester, L.
Donoughue, L. Seear, B.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Ennals, L. Stallard, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Stedman, B.
Ezra, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Falkender, B. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Gallacher, L. Strabolgi, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.] Tordoff, L.
Underhill, L.
Grey, E. Walston, L.
Hanworth, V. Wells-Pestell, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Whaddon, L.
Howie of Troon, L. White, B.
Hughes, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Jacques, L. Wilson of Langside, L.
Jeger, B. Ypres, E.
Arran, E. Faithfull, B.
Beloff, L. Ferrers, E.
Belstead, L. Glanusk, L.
Bessborough, E. Gray of Contin, L.
Birdwood, L. Greenway, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Haig, E.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Hardinge of Penshurst, L.
Broxbourne, L. Harris of High Cross, L.
Bruce-Gardyne, L. Hives, L.
Buckinghamshire, E. Hooper, B.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Kitchener, E.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Lane-Fox, B.
Coleraine, L. Lawrence, L.
Colville of Culross, V. Layton, L.
Cottesloe, L. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Craigavon, V. Long, V. [Teller.]
Craigmyle, L. Lothian, M.
Cranbrook, E. Macleod of Borve, B.
Cross, V. Mancroft, L.
Davidson, V. Margadale, L.
De La Warr, E. Marley, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Derwent, L. Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L.
Dilhorne, V.
Eccles, V. Merrivale, L.
Eden of Winton, L. Mersey, V.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Molson, L.
Elton, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Monson, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Mottistone, L. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Mountevans, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Moyola, L. Strathclyde, L.
Munster, E. Swansea, L.
Nelson of Stafford, L. Swinfen, L.
Orkney, E. Trefgarne, L.
Orr-Ewing, L. Trumpington, B.
Pender, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Peyton of Yeovil, L. Vickers, B.
Portland, D. Vivian, L.
Rankeillour, L. Ward of Witley, V.
Renton, L. Wolfson, L.
Renwick, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

6.49 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 106B:

Page 82, line 46, at end insert—

("Supply of back-up gas

. A public gas supplier may reach an agreement with a third party supplier to make available gas where that third party supplier's gas is temporarily not available. In reaching such an agreement, the public gas supplier may make such charges as are necessary for purchase and storage of such gas; in reaching such an agreement the public gas supplier must ensure that his obligations under section 9(1) and section 10(1) of the Act are fulfilled. Nothing in the foregoing shall permit the public gas supplier to make good the supply of third party gas if the contract with the third party is for an interruptible supply of gas.

Nothing in the foregoing shall oblige the public gas supplier to reach such an agreement with a third party gas supplier.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment seeks to address itself to the obligations of the public gas supplier in the supply of back-up gas. It is perhaps unfortunate that we have been unable to discuss the authorisation in great detail. We have tried on a number of occasions to put all or part of the authorisation into the Bill, but that has been rejected by the Government in this Committee, and we must accept that. Nevertheless, this amendment seeks to correct what we feel is a defect in the authorisation and we can do it only by moving an amendment to the Bill.

The draft authorisation as it stands compels the public gas supplier to make available supplies of backup gas should a third party supplier not be able to make good his supply. It seems to us that that obligation is very one-sided. This amendment makes the negotiations much more even-handed between the public gas supplier and the third party supplier, including the provision that British Gas (if that is the public gas supplier in question) can refuse to reach agreements if its own commercial and statutory obligations could thereby be harmed. In other words, we are seeking to put the price and the relative negotiating strengths of the third party supplier and British Gas back into the market in the same way as other major purchasers of goods and services are in the market; and British Gas, as a major supplier, should be in the market.

However, there is one important qualification, which we introduce into this amendment, and that is that if the contract is for an interruptible supply of gas then British Gas should not be permitted to make up the shortfall. This seems to us to be a sound energy policy principle.

Though the amendment is perhaps rather long, it is addressed to a particular point in the authorisation, and if the noble Lord the Minister could assure us that the authorisation itself will be looked at in the light of our amendment, we shall be perfectly satisfied. However, it seems important to make sure that the negotiations between the public gas supplier and third party suppliers when back-up gas is required should be even-handed and not one-sided, as they appear at present in the draft authorisation. I beg to move.

Lord Belstead

I am glad to discuss for a moment with the noble Lord the common carriage provisions to which we now come, and indeed in this case backup gas. After hearing the last few words of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, it occurs to me that Members opposite may have overlooked the amendments which the Government introduced into Clause 19(4)(a)(iv) in another place to enable the director to give directions as to the supply of back-up gas. What happened was that we had Condition 10 in the authorisation which, as the noble Lord is obviously well aware, sets out an obligation for British Gas to supply such gas on reasonable terms.

The Select Committee in their report questioned whether the condition fully made clear that the director could set such terms, and the Government finally decided that the best solution would be to put directly into the Bill a provision which allows the director to set terms for supplies of back-up gas alongside the other common carriage provisions. We therefore added to the directions that may be given to public gas suppliers under Clause 19 the direction: for regulating the terms on which the supplier will supply gas to the applicant". In doing this we wanted to make clear that such supplies should not put at risk those customers who had already contracted with British Gas for normal supplies of gas or those with statutory rights for supplies under the Bill. We therefore extended the provisions achieving this—in the case of common carriage under Clause 19(3) of the Bill—to cover the circumstances of back-up supplies of gas. This amendment covers the same ground but does not impose any requirements in relation to back-up supplies.

With respect, I do not think that is right. The Government believe that the provisions to encourage competition in the gas industry ought to be strengthened, and I feel that we have done this when we talk about directions being set to the terms for supplies for back-up gas.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that the amendment deals with interruptible contracts in the sense that back-up supplies should not be permitted in order to meet the needs of an interruptible contract entered into by a third party. I doubt very much whether we ought to fetter the director's freedom to determine what is most sensible in the light of the circumstance of any case which comes before him. In particular it is not possible to predict what kind of contracts any third party supplier would have with his customers, but all of them are likely to have some force majeure provision to deal with interruption in some circumstances and hence the contract could be described as interruptible.

Whatever the detailed provisions for interruption, I very much doubt whether we ought to prevent backup supplies being allowed to have some hand in helping supplies which are interruptible, and the Government do not really like that part of the amendment at all. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that the part of Clause 19 to which I have directed his attention goes down the same road as the amendment that he has put forward. In that case he may feel that we are on the same wavelength for this particular amendment.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his reply. As he says, it is certainly true that we are on the same wavelength. I think that the problem that we have in the Bill as drafted is that the director will once again be involved in yet another negotiation. These events happen—they are bound to happen—at very short notice. There will be an interruption of the gas supply by a third party supplier at times that we cannot predict and, as we are legislating for the long term, we shall never be able to predict.

We fully understand that there has to be some sort of deal between the public gas supplier and the third party supplier. Our problem is that the director then becomes involved. We have a three-way negotiation (if I can put it that way) between the public gas supplier, the director who is the final arbiter on this matter, and the third party supplier who has failed to supply the gas. I accept what the Minister says and maybe the Government feel it is desirable; I simply question yet again whether the director is being overloaded with responsibilities. Having said that, I accept that the Government obviously have a reasonable point about interruptible supplies of gas and I do not think that we shall wish to press that particular point. We wanted to put it on the record and to hear the Government's view. In the light of what the noble Lord has said and in the light of my comments on his remarks we shall not press this amendment, but I hope that he will bear in mind that on this side we are very anxious that the director should not be overloaded with all sorts of responsibilities which will involve him and his staff in exceedingly complex negotiations exceedingly quickly. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 106C not moved.]

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

I think that we have reached a suitable moment to adjourn the Committee for dinner and, in moving that the House do now resume, I propose that we should not return to the Committee stage on this Bill until eight o'clock. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.