§ 4.8 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)
My Lords, I beg to 835 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 1 [Director General of Gas Supply]:
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)
The first amendment before the Committee this afternoon is on the Supplementary List. It is Amendment No. 17, by the Lord Diamond.
§ Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 17:
§ Page 64, line 18, leave out ("numbers and").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 17. Perhaps I may explain that although it is on the Supplementary List, this amendment was of course on the previous Marshalled List. It and the following amendment have obviously been left out by a printers' error, because they misjudged the point we had reached when last the Committee considered this Bill.
As the Committee will recollect, we are dealing with the duties of the Director General of Gas Supply. Paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 states:
The Director may, with the approval of the Treasury as to numbers and terms and conditions of service, appoint such staff as he may determine".
The office of director general is very important. We have already all agreed that it is crucial to the protection of the consumer where you have, as you inevitably do under this Bill, a privatised monopoly. Therefore the director has to be strong and effective. That is a common purpose between all Members of the Committee.
§ What I am suggesting to the Committee is that the director will need such a staff as he finds from experience that he needs in order to carry out his very important responsibilities. It is he who will know from time to time, and not necessarily from the word "go", what he needs in the way of numbers. It is the Treasury which should properly be consulted as to terms and conditions of service, especially as the staff will, certainly as to their pay and as to many other conditions of service, be related to Civil Service standards and procedures. In my view it is right, therefore, that the approval of the Treasury should be sought as to the terms and conditions of service; but it is not the Treasury which knows about the numbers required. It will be the director general who will know what numbers he requires from time to time as his work develops or as he is able to carry it out the more efficiently with a reduced staff.
§ The director general will know what numbers he will need and it is not an answer to my amendment to say, "Well, this might lead to additional expense falling upon the taxpayer"; because we know that the arrangements which we shall come to in due course, and which are covered in this Bill, provide for those expenses to be recovered in such a way that they do not 836 fall upon the taxpayer at all. They are paid out of public moneys in the first place and then recovered though charges and fees. So what will happen, in effect, is that those costs previously borne by the taxpayer will now be borne by the consumer. What I am suggesting is that it is in the consumers' interests that the director general should have the staff he needs to carry out his duties. I hope the Committee is persuaded that what I propose is sensible. I beg to move.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
This is a very relevant amendment which has been well moved by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. He is right to be concerned about this matter. So far as I can see there is nothing specific in the Bill about the adequacy of staffing for Ofgas and the Gas Users Council, but the memorandum on the effects of the Bill on public service manpower anticipates that the director general and the Gas Users Council will between them have 80 to 100 staff. That is the anticipation but, frankly, that is absurd and almost insulting to both organisations. I would be obliged and I am sure the Committee would be obliged if the noble Lord opposite can explain just how Ofgas and the Gas Users Council are expected to carry out even the limited functions that they have under the Bill with such a small body of staff.
I well remember the arguments we had in Committee on the Telecommunications Bill. Indeed, we keep coming back to that Bill. That is the example we have to work on, and what a bad example that has proved to be. I well remember the arguments we had in Committee on that Bill about the resources that would be available to the dirctor of Oftel and the number of staff he would be able to employ. Our protests that Oftel would be under-resourced and under-staffed were pooh-poohed and swept aside by the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, who has now taken himself off to Europe and left behind the problems which others now have to solve. He pooh-poohed everything we had to say.
We were right then, and the recent rise in the staff of Oftel from 84 to a projected figure of 113 and an increase in expenditure to £3 million proves the point that we were making. The fact is that to date Oftel has not been affected in the protection of consumers' interests, and the fact that consumers need looking after under a privatised monopoly is confirmed by the increase in the number of complaints received about the telephone service since privatisation. That it likely to happen when gas is privatised. The number of complaints to Oftel has in fact doubled and those complaints are more difficult to deal with either because of the lack of staff with adequate expertise or because Oftel lacks, or is denied, the information that would enable that body to do its job properly.
British Gas supplies over 16.5 million domestic consumers, 500,000 commercial customers and some 83,000 industrial customers. How on earth can their interests be looked after on £2 million and 80 staff? I think the amendment is worthy of support and if the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, decides to press it we shall support him in the Lobby.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
I could not help reflecting with some amusement, while the noble Lord, Lord 837 Diamond, was addressing the Committee, on what his reaction would have been had a similar amendment been moved in this Chamber during the years when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I somehow suspect that the noble Lord's attitude would have been quite different.
There really is nothing significant or useful in this amendment. Nobody knows better than does the noble Lord that the Treasury is the department which has the greatest experience in assessing not only the levels of remuneration but the number of staff required in official, semi-official or para-official organisations. It has valuable experience which most people in charge of an organisation would be very happy to use. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, seems to assume that the Treasury would simply give a blank refusal to any proposal, however justifiable, in respect of numbers of staff. I simply do not believe that and I do not believe that it is borne out by the experience of the innumerable other bodies in the Government's machine involved with appointing staff.
I have only one other comment. I think it is a fallacy to believe that in an organisation like this there is any great merit or virtue in numbers. It is true that the late Lord Nelson once observed that only numbers can annihilate, but in truth and in fact we have seen so often—I hope I may be allowed to say, without offence, particularly during the administration of noble Lords opposite—how organisations have grown and become overmanned and overlarge with a resulting diminution in efficiency. Therefore I suggest that the Committee would be sensible to leave the provision in the Bill as it is and leave the provision of staff for this organisation in the competent hands of the Treasury, which handles so many other activities for so many other organisations. The director general will presumably be articulate enough to argue his case and he will be doing so with sensible and reasonable people. I suggest that we leave it there.
§ The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for highlighting the weaknesses in this amendment and for pointing out that there is nothing to fear so far as concerns staff numbers; indeed, quite the contrary. I think the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, used the Oftel example in support of his case; the suggestion being that the official number selected was quite inadequate and therefore had to be changed. However, that is making my case that the fact that the Treasury has to be consulted need in no way be an inhibiting factor. Indeed, regarding the British Telecommunications Bill and the eventual numbers employed in Oftel, those have doubled since the original estimate of numbers of staff likely to be employed in Oftel was made in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Telecommunications Bill as it was presented to Parliament. I am not for a moment suggesting that the same will happen with Ofgas; but the important message with Ofgas is the same as for Oftel.
It is not the number that was initially estimated that will necessarily become the final complement. The Government's policy is that the numbers actually employed shall be adequate to carry out effectively the 838 functions assigned to them under the Act. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, who moved the amendment, made his case effectively, as he has done for other amendments; but I am afraid that I do not find it convincing. Indeed, as we are talking about this subject, the more I think about it, the more I suspect that probably my noble friend had a very good point when he said that had this amendment appeared a few years ago, when the noble Lord was Chief Secretary, he would have taken a very different view.
In government I have suffered at the hands of the Treasury, as have most Ministers in whatever government happens to be in power, because from time to time we all get cut down to size by not obtaining money that we should like to spend or by not being allowed to do something that we should like to do. Quite frankly, in this particular case I think it is no bad thing that the Treasury has to be consulted. Ofgas will be a non-ministerial government department manned by civil servants. Therefore, it is inevitable that the Treasury will be involved. However, it ill certainly be the intention to give the director the appropriate level of staffing in order for him to exercise his regulatory functions properly and adequately. In the light of those comments, I hope that perhaps the noble Lord might be prepared to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Bruce of Donington
There is another aspect about this question with which the noble Lord might care to deal. It may well be that in the normal course of events, within the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, that the Treasury at one time may have regarded itself as the custodian of the national interest and in the national interest it may have made certain decisions about economy, efficiency and so on. But can we now be so sure about this, with the Treasury and the City of London in particular being so close together and meeting on terms of such easy informality (almost of intimacy, or so we understand)? Bearing in mind that the Minister himself has given broad hints to the City that the director general will function with a loose rein and will not intervene unduly in the business of the new, privatised company, might it not be reasonable to suppose that the Treasury itself is no longer interested in strengthening the department of the Director General of Ofgas, but is interested rather in economising to the extent where in fact it can only govern with a light rein?
These are possibilities which, even though the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, did not say so explicitly, I am quite sure are a consideration that he must have held in the back of his mind. For my own part, I am in no doubt because it was in the front of my own mind—and I say it quite frankly—that it is not in this Government's interest that the Director General of Ofgas should function with the ruthless efficiency with which the noble Lord has informed the House that he undoubtedly will function. It is not in this Government's interest that the department of the Director General of Ofgas should be adequately staffed in order to be really tough in the public interest. Therefore, I think that the noble Lord will be well advised to leave the Treasury out of it and give no power to the Treasury to determine numbers and rely on the good offices of the Treasury, in conjunction 839 with the City of London, to explain as best they possibly can, to the effect that the public interest will not wear any endeavours to weaken the Director General of Ofgas.
§ Lord Ezra
I should like to follow the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, by saying that clearly in our view there is a conflict of interest here. The Treasury's concern is to save money on behalf of the nation, which is a very worthy concern. However, the other aspect of this matter is that we should have a regulatory body which is adequate for its purpose. These two issues are in conflict.
We are now moving into territory which is totally uncharted and we should not have a Treasury limitation on numbers of staff. So long as the Treasury can exercise its opinion upon the wages, salaries and conditions, that is something that is accepted in the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Diamond, but the numbers should surely be determined by the director. At an earlier stage of these debates, we ourselves pressed to have the director replaced with a commission which we thought would have been far more adequate. But if we cannot have that, at least the director should be left free to determine the numbers of staff and the status of staff that he requires to perform his function. We must not have this conflict of interest which has been introduced by the wording of the schedule. Therefore I fully support my noble friend Lord Diamond in his amendment.
§ Baroness Burton of Coventry
I should like to support the very moderate amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Diamond. As the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, knows, I am by no means convinced that this regulatory authority will be anything like strong enough or have the force or numbers to deal with the problems that arise. I cannot see that accepting the suggestion put forward by my noble friend that we merely leave out the word "numbers" will do any harm to the Bill. He has left in the words, "with the approval of the Treasury".
It may be that on future points there will be an opportunity to develop this particular theme; but I am by no means convinced that either the Government or the City desire a really strong regulator. It seems to me that every small item which can detract from the powers that he can use to make him a strong regulator will be used. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has said because if the director has to have the approval of the Treasury for those whom he shall appoint, I cannot see any reason why the word "numbers" should not be deleted.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
I have listened carefully to what the noble Baroness has said and to what the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Donington and Lord Ezra, have contributed to this short debate; but I really do not think that they have been able to overcome experience. It is quite clear that the proof is here with Oftel. The numbers in Oftel have doubled since they were originally envisaged, without any inhibition by the Treasury. The Treasury obviously take a realistic view. We have made it absolutely clear, and indeed 840 paragraph 4—which is the paragraph that we are debating—makes it absolutely clear that it will be for the director to appoint staff with the approval of the Treasury. Therefore it is not possible to give a definitive view at this stage on the number of staff which will be needed. That will only be determined by the director in due course.
I really cannot see that there should be such strong objection to the role which we envisage for the Treasury in this matter as is being suggested. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, was in a particularly suspicious mood, but then he is a chartered accountant and I think that it is part of their training for them always to tend to be suspicious. Chartered accountants that I have come across in business have always had that trait. But I think that his suspicions have been unnecessarily extended this afternoon.
I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, may be prepared to withdraw the amendment, but if he wishes to press it, I must ask my noble friends to oppose it.
§ Lord Diamond
I shall certainly pursue the amendment and rest my case on what the noble Lord the Minister has just said. He said that the number of staff can be determined only by the director in due course. That is exactly the view that we take: the number can be determined only by the director. He is the person who knows and who, if the Bill remains in its present form, will make recommendations which the Treasury may turn down and will turn down if the pressure on public expenditure remains as great as it is at the moment, when hospitals, education and everything else one can think of are suffering.
I am not here to hold a brief for the Treasury. I am here to speak from my experience as a Chief Secretary to the Treasury which is longer than that of anybody before or since. Drawing on that experience I suggest to the Committee that if we want a strong director and strong protection against the privatised monopoly, there must be an adequate staff.
Every attempt that we have made so far to strengthen the director has been totally rebuffed, as has every attempt that we have made to protect the consumer. Here is an opportunity to protect the consumer in this privatised monopoly which would cost the taxpayer nothing. We accept that we have to have a privatised monopoly; your Lordships have given the Bill a Second Reading. But we do not accept that no steps should be taken to protect individuals against the excesses which always follow the creation of a private monopoly.
Therefore I am bound to pursue this amendment, especially as the noble Lord says that there is nothing to fear; the staff will be doubled. What on earth is the point of having a provision that the Treasury has to be consulted as to numbers when we know that that will in no sense be effective? Both the noble Lord and I agree that the person to be considered is the director. Let him make the responsible decision as to what staff he needs to carry out his duties under the Bill; let the Treasury make the decision as to what the pay and other conditions should be. That is the only way in which we shall start to move to a minimal extent towards protecting the consumer.
§ 4.33 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 17) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 91; Not-Contents, 107.842
|DIVISION NO. 1|
|Airedale, L.||Listowel, E.|
|Amherst, E.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.|
|Ampthill, L.||Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.|
|Attlee, E.||Lockwood, B.|
|Aylestone, L.||Lovell-Davis, L.|
|Banks, L.||McNair, L.|
|Bernstein, L.||Mayhew, L.|
|Birk, B.||Mishcon, L.|
|Blease, L.||Molloy, L.|
|Bottomley, L.||Mulley, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Nicol, B.|
|Burton of Coventry, B.||Oram, L.|
|Campbell of Eskan, L.||Parry, L.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.||Phillips, B.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Crawshaw of Aintree, L.||Prys-Davies, L.|
|David, B.||Rathcreedan, L.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Diamond, L.||Roberthall, L.|
|Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.||Rochester, L.|
|Dowding, L.||Sainsbury, L.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||Seear, B.|
|Ewart-Biggs, B.||Serota, B.|
|Ezra, L.||Shackleton, L.|
|Falkender, B.||Shepherd, L.|
|Fisher of Rednal, B.||Silkin of Dulwich, L.|
|Gallacher, L.||Simon, V.|
|Galpern, L.||Somers, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L.||Stallard, L.|
|Grey, E.||Stedman, B. [Teller.]|
|Grimond, L.||Stewart of Fulham, L.|
|Hampton, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Hanworth, V.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Hayter, L.||Thurlow, L.|
|Hooson, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Houghton of Sowerby, L.||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Ilchester, E.||Walston, L.|
|Irving of Dartford, L.||Wells-Pestell, L.|
|Jacques, L.||White, B.|
|Jeger, B.||Wigoder, L.|
|Jenkins of Putney, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Kagan, L.||Willis, L.|
|Kennet, L. [Teller.]||Wilson of Rievaulx, L.|
|Kilbracken, L.||Winstanley, L.|
|Kilmarnock, L.||Winterbottom, L.|
|Kirkhill, L.||Ypres, E.|
|Ailesbury, M.||Carnegy of Lour, B.|
|Ailsa, M.||Cathcart, E.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Coleraine, L.|
|Alport, L.||Cottesloe, L.|
|Annan, L.||Cox, B.|
|Auckland, L.||Craigavon, V.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Croft, L.|
|Beloff, L.||Cullen of Ashbourne, L.|
|Belstead, L.||Davidson, V.|
|Bessborough, E.||De Freyne, L.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Denham, L. [Teller.]|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Drumalbyn, L.|
|Braye, B.||Dundee, E.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Eccles, V.|
|Broxbourne, L.||Ellenborough, L.|
|Bruce-Gardyne, L.||Elliott of Morpeth, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Elton, L.|
|Caccia, L.||Ferrier, L.|
|Caithness, E.||Fortescue, E.|
|Cameron of Lochbroom, L.||Fraser of Kilmorack, L.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Gainford, L.|
|Gardner of Parkes, B.||Mowbray and Stourton, L.|
|Glenarthur, L.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.|
|Gray of Contin, L.||Norrie, L.|
|Gridley, L.||Orkney, E.|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.||Orr-Ewing, L.|
|Hardinge of Penshurst, L.||Penrhyn, L.|
|Harris of High Cross, L.||Portland, D.|
|Hives, L.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Hood, V.||Rawlinson of Ewell, L.|
|Hylton-Foster, B.||Renton, L.|
|Ironside, L.||Romney, E.|
|Killearn, L.||Rugby, L.|
|Kimball, L.||St. Aldwyn, E.|
|Lane-Fox, B.||St. Davids, V.|
|Lawrence, L.||Sanderson of Bowden, L.|
|Long, V.||Sandford, L.|
|Lothian, M.||Sandys, L.|
|Lucas of Chilworth, L.||Shaughnessy, L.|
|Luke, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|McAlpine of Moffat, L.||Strathspey, L.|
|Macleod of Borve, B.||Sudeley, L.|
|Mancroft, L.||Swansea, L.|
|Mar, C.||Swinton, E. [Teller.]|
|Marley, L.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Merrivale, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Mersey, V.||Whitelaw, V.|
|Milverton, L.||Wise, L.|
|Monk Bretton, L.||Wynford, L.|
|Morris, L.||Young, B.|
|Mottistone, L.||Zouche of Haryngworth, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 4.41 p.m.
§ [Amendments Nos. 18, 18A, 18B and 18C not moved.]
§ Schedule 1 agreed to.
§ Clause 2 [The Gas Consumers' Council]:
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 19:
§ Page 2, line 18, leave out from ("chairman") to end of line 20 and insert—
§ ("appointed by the Secretary of State, and not more than thirty other members made up of—
- (a) the chairmen for the time being of the Regional Gas Consumers' Councils or, if one of those chairmen is appointed chairman of the Gas Consumers' Council, the remainder of them; and
- (b) such other persons as the Secretary of State may from time to time appoint after consultation with such bodies as he thinks fit.")
§ The noble Lord said: With this amendment I hope that the Committee will think it convenient to consider Amendments Nos. 21 and 29. As the Committee will note, Amendment No. 19 sets up a different system of appointing the National Gas Consumers Council by including the chairmen for the time being of the regional gas consumers councils together with such other persons as the Secretary of State may from time to time appoint after consultation with such bodies as he thinks fit. Amendment No. 21 leaves out subsection (3) that would become redundant, while Amendment No. 29 sets up the regional consumer councils.
§ It is clear from the Marshalled List that lack of proper arrangements in the Bill for regional and local consumer representation is causing concern on all 843 sides of the Committee. While my amendments come first, they are among many dealing with this issue. There are other amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, from the Alliance Benches, by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. The amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, could indeed be complementary to my own, and we shall support it.
Before proceeding further I should like to draw the attention of the Committee to an advertisement in the Guardian of 23rd April in which the Gas Consumer Council advertises for 11 regional managers. The advertisment, headed "Key Management Appointments", goes on to say:
Under the Gas Bill now before Parliament the existing National Gas Consumers Council is to be disbanded and the Gas Consumers Council will become the statutory body representing consumers interests, taking up unresolved problems and complaints".
§ The advertisement is for 11 posts of regional manager at salaries on a scale of £10,980 to £13,801. These regional managers are to be appointed by July. I must confess that I am rather puzzled by this. The first question that I have to ask the noble Lord is: what is the position if the Bill has not received Royal Assent by then? What happens to the appointments that have been made should the Bill not have received Royal Assent by July?
§ Secondly, does this mean that Miss Sheila Black, or the Government, or both, have taken it for granted that the House of Lords will simply rubber stamp the arrangements in the Bill and will make no amendments? If so, does it not show a contempt for your Lordships' House and parliamentary procedure? I hope sincerely that this is not the case. I shall await, as I think the Committee will await, the noble Lord's response with the greatest interest.
§ In this connection the noble Lord will perhaps also explain why the Gas Consumers Council has decided to merge the North Thames and the South-East offices at a single new office housed in London. This means that the South-East region of British Gas—a very large region with a hell of a lot of consumers—will be the only region without a gas consumers council office in its area. The South-East region has the largest number of consumers outside London. It seems ludicrous and unfair that it should be the only region without a consumer office. I hope sincerely that the noble Lord will be able to comment on that matter. Consumers in the South-East will be most interested to learn that the region is to be merged with the North Thames region and that it will not have an office of its own accessible to them.
§ My amendment seeks to retain the regional structure basically as it is. There is great merit in doing so, especially bearing in mind the added need for consumer protection when a public monopoly is transformed into a private one. Since the major objective of a privatised monopoly will be to maximise profits for the shareholders and as the constraint of parliamentary accountability will be removed, it is of great importance that consumers have a stronger, not a weaker, voice. In my view the removal of the regional tiers and with them the important local committees on which many people serve will weaken 844 considerably the position of consumers vis-à-vis British Gas plc.
§ As the Committee will know, regional gas consumers councils have existed since 1948. There are 12 at present. Working with them and appointed by them are 63 local committees. Appointments to regional councils are made by the Secretary of State, following consultation, from among serving members of local authorities and from commerce and industry, labour and the general interests of gas consumers. Although the chairmen of regional gas consumers councils are paid a modest salary, all members serve on a purely voluntary basis. I had thought that the voluntary principle, where people are prepared to give their services for the benefit of their fellow men and women without any payment, was something that the Government have sought to achieve. That voluntary principle has served the consumer well over a period of time. The functions of councils include tariffs, supply of gas or gas fittings, installation, provision of services and facilities, and any other matters affecting the interests of gas consumers generally or a particular class of consumer. Clearly, if these admendments are carried, we shall at a later stage provide for functions within the context of the Bill.
§ The regional councils deal with many thousands of significant complaints every year and many thousands more inquiries. For example, the northern region dealt with 12,000 inquiries alone last year. The kind of matters with which they deal, apart from tariffs, include services for the elderly and disabled, who need these services—particularly in winters such as we have just experienced, with the problem of hypothermia—the sale of dangerous appliances by unscrupulous dealers, danger in the home, problems concerning gas bills, cut-offs, and a wide range of other problems affecting consumers.
§ The Government may argue that the regional arrangements are not compatible with a privatised gas industry, but I would remind the Committee again that the gas industry will remain a monopoly. That will be the case for very many years, and the consumer needs additional protection.
In its document issued as recently as 1982, entitled the Nationalised Industry Consumer Councils, A Strategy for Reform, the Department of Trade emphasised the need to maintain close contact with consumers at grass roots and singled out for action,
liaison and co-ordination between the national, regional, and local tiers of the nationalised industries consumer council system".
That is what the Department of Trade said in 1982. But here we are in 1986 by this Bill smashing to little pieces the well tried and tested system.
The noble Lord opposite may very well say that in its evidence to the Select Committee on Energy the present National Gas Consumers Council argued against the continuation of a regional and local structure and proposed what it termed as a streamlined structure instead. How far that really represented the considered view of the National Gas Consumers Council rather than an informed guess as to what the Government would propose in their Bill we shall probably never know. What is absolutely certain is that that view did not win universal acclaim from the regional councils. At least one of those
regional councils (the south western) carried a resolution—it must have been very difficult to carry a resolution against its own national council—dissociating itself from the views of the National Gas Consumers Council. The resolution said:
The South Western Gas Consumers' Council wish to dissociate themselves from the personal views expressed by Miss Sheila Black, Chairman of the National Gas Consumers Council at the Select Committee on Energy on 27th November 1985 as they do not represent the interests of gas users in the South West Region".
One could not get any greater condemnation than that. Those were the feelings of the south west region, and probably other regions felt exactly the same way.
§ On the Opposition Benches, we believe that the Government are wrong in their proposals for consumer representation for two main reasons. First, they wish to keep British Gas on the lightest rein unencumbered by consumer power. Secondly, they wish once again to save money at the expense of the consumer. The present consumer councils cost £1.75 million a year. But apparently, as we have discussed earlier, the plan now is to finance both Ofgas and the National Gas Consumers Council to the extent of only £2 million a year. That is the only figure we have heard, and the only one at the present time that we can believe. Perhaps the Minister will have something to say about that. I hope that he will; and we shall listen carefully to him.
§ Clearly the amount of money available to the National Gas Consumers Council is to be slashed considerably if it is to be only £2 million for both Ofgas and the NGCC. Indeed, both Ofgas and NGCC will have only two-thirds of the money (£3 million per annum) that Oftel will receive this year. We believe therefore that our amendment is right for the consumer and the nation. We shall certainly listen to all the arguments on this amendment and subsequent amendments. What is absolutely certain—and I think that the Committee will be behind me here—is that the Government have not got consumer protection right. We shall all be listening very intently to the Minister's reply to this amendment. We shall all hope—indeed we shall expect—to hear either that he accepts it or that he intends to take the whole matter on board and himself produce an amendment that will be acceptable to the Committee, will assuage the fears of the Committee, and meet their undoubted wish for strengthened consumer representation arrangements. I beg to move.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Aylestone)
I should point out that if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 20.
§ Lord Ezra
It is surely paradoxical that while the gas industry was under public ownership there was an organisation to safeguard consumers' interests which had a national and a regional presence. Yet during that period in addition the public had the safeguard of parliamentary supervision and government supervision. Now that both Parliament and government will be removed from the scene on the privatisation of the enterprise as it now stands at the very same time it is proposed in this Bill that the consumer organisation be weakened. This is very difficult for us to understand. I fear that as we go 846 through this Bill we have the impression more and more that the Government are determined to put a body in the private sector which will have very little control of the public interest, and yet the reverse should be the case.
We have already adamantly been told by the Government that they have studied the American system and rejected it. However, all we can say is that in the United States when they have had monopoly utilities operating they have been very careful indeed to safeguard the public interest. Even if we do not go as far as they have done, we should go in that direction in some measure.
I fail to see why we cannot maintain the regional organisations for the consumer councils. It will be no answer to this for the Minister to say, as no doubt he will, that it is intended to have an official in each of the regions. There is a world of difference between a consumer writing to an official with his complaint and writing to an independent local authority, to a body which owes nothing more than its allegiance to the consumer, and is not employed or salaried by government. These are people who have served the interests of gas consumers over the years and it is difficult to understand the reasoning which has led to their abolition.
The only conclusion that one can draw—a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, has drawn attention—is that the reason is a paltry saving of money. As he pointed out, it is apparently intended that the sum approximately expended previously on the consumer organisation should not be stretched to include the organisation of a director. In other words, we are to have two for the cost of one, when, in the opinion of this side of the Committee, the protection for the consumer should be strengthened. It should be doubled rather than halved in financial terms.
I should therefore like to urge very strongly upon Members of the Committee that this series of amendments be considered with very great care because the public outside are concerned about this issue. They want to know where they stand when they have complaints about their bills, about being cut off, and all the other matters that arise concerning gas supply. I think that it is our duty to reassure them, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this proposition.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I very much hope that the Minister will have good news for the Committee. However, having read the Minister's remarks during the Second Reading debate, and from conversations that I have had, I suspect that there may not be a great deal dividing us. I am prepared to believe that it is the intention of the Minister and the Government to seek to perpetuate some kind of structure to allow the articulation of the consumer voice. I am strengthened in that view when I look at col. 373 of Hansard of the Second Reading debate on 10th April where the Minister said:I should now like to turn to consumer matters in the Bill. The Gas Consumers Council has always been a priority in preparing this legislation.I believe that the new Gas Consumers Council, which is to be found in this measure, will be able to operate widely in the same way as the existing councils which have carried on such sterling work".847 I move down a paragraph and—in no way attempting to damage the sense of my argument—the Minister there said:I am pleased to be able to tell the House that it is the Government's intention that the present regional structure, with a separate staff office to serve each British Gas region, shall continue in the future.Whether it is suspicion, unease, or uncertainty, we are concerned at the Minister's belief that the new National Gas Consumers Council will in effect replicate what we already have and what this and other amendments are putting forward. If we believe that this is what we in Parliament want, why not put it in the Bill? Why not lay it down as a duty? This Minister and others never hesitate to lay down duties for a range of matters. We are really saying: why not lay down a duty to protect the consumer?
I know very little about the personalities who are currently likely to be the leaders in this matter. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, has a distinguished record of service in many matters, not least this one. I also know the noble Baroness's successor, Naomi McIntosh, the wife of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, has served equally well. We are not concerned about the intentions; we are concerned about the realities.
The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and my noble friend Lord Stoddart, said that people outside believe that the voice of the consumer will be weaker in the future than it has been in the past. Goodness gracious! When we move from the public sector to the private sector we ought to pay particular attention to trying to satisfy those matters.
Today a series of events is taking place throughout the country—the elections for local councils. I am absolutely certain that every town clerk and every chief officer is satisfied that he does not need the advice of locally elected people, that he knows what is best. Nevertheless, we believe it is right that there should be elections; that there should be many little people with knowledge of what happens on their patch, in their community. It is not that we distrust officials; it is not that we believe they cannot interpret what is in the Bill. We are saying that throughout the country we want men and women who have some knowledge of local affairs.
In this amendment we want to ensure—not hope for, pray for or believe; we want to lay down as a duty an arrangement for local people to be appointed and to serve. The Minister knows very well that there is a school of thought which believes that these people are irritants, that they are nuisances, that all they do is bring complaints and tell the local officials what is wrong or what can be done to put it right. That is what is called democracy. It is part of our ethos. I very much hope that the Minister will give this very serious consideration.
Not a great deal is being asked of the Minister in the amendment of my noble friend Lord Stoddart. I declare a modest interest because of my long association with the Co-operative movement which boasts a network of contact with 8 or 9 million people. There are people at the centre who, quite frankly are capable of articulating on behalf of those people without having recourse to advice and guidance. Why 848 do we do it? We do it because we want to involve more people in the running of our organisation. We have 8,000 stores and thousands of people who serve on committees.
It is always a moot point as to the degree of impact that people in a locality make. We are asking the Minister not only for a sympathetic answer and an assurance that he believes it will be all right, but we are also asking him to consider very seriously the intention of this amendment. If he does that, he will go a long way towards assuring people like me, who do not have a particular axe to grind and who are not grinding the axe of privatisation or public ownership. As my noble friend Lord Stoddart, said, we are concerned to make sure that ordinary people know that they not only have an office and a competent official, but that they know the men and women involved, who are the great and the good in their local community. I am not talking about people who have national aspirations; I am talking about people who I know and who everyone else knows, who want to serve locally and regionally. I very much hope that the Minister can be helpful.
§ Lord Sanderson of Bowden
This is a most important clause and we must spend some time getting to the root of the problem which faces us, which seems to be whether or not we change from the current system. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, has spoken of Miss Sheila Black's evidence to the committee in another place on this matter, but I look most closely at the words of those who are actually doing the job at present. Whereas this business of change from the present to something that is different is bound to be a controversial subject, I am bound to say that I am interested in what Miss Black said to that committee on this particular subject. She said that: the existing council felt from its experience of dealing with complaints that the existing statutory system of regional councils was over-rigid and over-structured and did not necessarily achieve the most effective representation of consumers or the most effective protection of their interests.
That is what we are discussing this afternoon. I think we must consider very carefully whether that actually reflects the views of this Committee. Miss Black also said something else which is vital:We would like to see accessibility to the consumer very much simplified and publicised.As I come from one of the regions further away from London, I appreciate only too well the importance of regional knowledge and regional representation. That is why, apart from what is written into the Bill at present, I am attracted by an amendment put down by my noble friend Lady Macleod, and I hope that the Government will look very closely at that in relation to regional representation.
However, if the present National Gas Consumers Council is minded that some change should come, we must seriously consider the views that it expresses to the Committee and weigh those against the experience of what has gone on in the past.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve
I find myself in a certain amount of difficulty this evening because the learned Deputy Chairman of the Committee has ruled that my amendment cannot be taken if Amendment 849 No. 19, which has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is carried. I hasten to say that my amendment is very different indeed.
I was the first national chairman of the National Gas Consumers Council and so perhaps I am very out of date. On the other hand, I feel that change for change's sake is not necessary nor is it in the best interests of consumers. From this Bill it would seem that the National Gas Consumers Council, and those who are helping it throughout the country, will have a wider remit than it has had up to now. That means that it will have to have more staff and it will have to work longer hours than even I had; and mine were three days a week with a great deal of travelling. To represent the consumers adequately, many people will have to be involved whether they are paid or whether, as up to now, the National Gas Consumers Council will rely on the voluntary sector for the help at grassroots level. So far as I am aware, this has worked very well indeed. The gas lady—it is not the gas man who doesn't cometh—or sometimes the gas man who is there is known in the area as somebody who knows about gas. We shall come to that then we discuss Amendment No. 26, which my noble friend Lady Gardner has put down.
One of the reasons I am sorry about the wording of Amendment No. 19 is that I feel that the director or the Secretary of State should have flexibility to appoint, as and when he thinks fit, not more than 30 members. I am sure the maximum would be 30. I think we had about 20, made up of one council chairman for each of the 12 regions plus another eight individual representatives from all kinds of organisations, including some for the disabled. Whether the Government are considering allowing, or as a result of this amendment will allow, the regional gas consumers councils to carry on, I shall not know until my noble friend helps us with his comments.
On Amendment No. 20 I should like to say as briefly as I can that I have put down (and I hope my noble friend will agree to it) that a representative—who would not be a paid official but somebody appointed by the Secretary of State—shall automatically be a member of the Gas Consumers Council. It is the same role as the chairman had before, whether they are called councillors or representatives or perhaps still chairmen. If they are not chairmen of something, they cannot be called chairmen. That is why I have put "representative".
In my experience, which was only for five years though I travelled a great deal, it is vital, for the reasons that other noble Lords have given, for the consumers to be adequately represented on the National Gas Consumers Council from all parts of Great Britain. That includes every region. I had every region and I got to know how very different the problems were in each region. It is no good saying that the South-West has the same problems as the North-East, or Wales the same as the South-East, because they are all so different. I learnt a great deal in that capacity.
I do not know what I do now except plead with my noble friend the Minister to harken to what I have said. Perhaps he will give us an indication in the not too distant future as to whether he is likely to keep the 850 regional consumer councils. If he does not, I hope that he will take note of my plea that a representative of each region should be on the National Gas Consumers Council.
§ Lord Sandys
; I should like to support what my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve has said. She speaks from great experience on this matter. Perhaps it is not too previous in our discussions to refer to Schedule 2. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and some of his noble friends have referred to the problems of the consumer in this regard. Schedule 2, paragraph 4, may assist him. The paragraph states:The Council shall have power to do anything which is calculated to facilitate, or is incidental or conducive to, the performance of any of its functions under this Act".That power conferred on the Gas Consumers Council, to which we shall come later, is one which one can say is comprehensive in its scale. We shall rely on my noble friends on the Front Bench to describe precisely what is intended by that, but I feel it confers considerable powers which may allay the fears of those who have spoken about their anxiety that there is a lack of opportunity for those who wish to present their case as consumers.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Burton of Coventry
In a way, I find myself in the same difficulty as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, with these two amendments. I wish they could have been taken together. I wonder whether I may try to explain to the Minister what I think is the background problem to all this. I have an interest to declare which goes back to 1950, which is a very long time, in another place and against all governments. I think this Government have their attitude completely wrong in so far as consumers are concerned.
In our Second Reading debate I said I thought that on the Gas Bill the Government were bringing privatisation into disrepute. A good many Conservative Members in another place were unhappy for the same reason. I am not being abusive on that; I am simply saying that a great many people and the general public are greatly concerned as to what they see are the problems now arising for the ordinary people, the consumers. We are becoming more and more alarmed when we see what is arising out of British Telecom and what we are afraid may arise out of this.
If I remember correctly, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said when we were discussing this at the last Committee stage that in the Notes on Clauses provided by the Government for the Bill it was stated that the legislation for British Gas was the same as that for British Telecom. I for one am very concerned about what is arising by permission of the legislation for British Telecom.
I could not agree more with what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said very succinctly, and I could not improve on it: that we were worried about government and parliamentary control being removed from consumer affairs. The Government should take warning from these matters. The general public and probably people such as myself are not greatly concerned with shares and billions of pounds. We feel that that is beyond most of us. But the public are 851 greatly concerned about increases in telephone charges and about what they fear will happen over gas.
I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will not need reminding that we tried in this Chamber, during questions on British Gas, to say how worried the people were over the differentiation shown on charges of British Telecom for those who were better off and for those who were not. Equally, I think the noble Lord will not require reminding that in today's issue of The Times we read that the Office of Telecommunications—that is, Oftel—has written to British Telecom:to express 'concern' over reports that BT is about to offer big price discounts to its major business customers in an effort to compete with its rival, Mercury Communications".In that same statement, it says that there really is doubt as to whether this is not illegal under the terms of British Telecom's Government licence. I think that this is running right through what the Government are doing, and I for one have no faith at all in the care and attention that they are going to give to the ordinary consumer. I think that consumers and pensioners are very useful to the Government at times of election, but I do not think that they are a lot of use at other times.
I do not believe that we are going to have feelings from the grass roots on this matter of the Gas Bill brought up unless we have real communication whether through any particular gas councils or regional councils; for I am quite sure that we shall not get them through the officials. I should like to say very strongly that I think that all of us on this side of the Committee—and I do not think that it is only on this side of the Committee; for I think it is the general public—would like to tell the Government that we are worried, that we do not have faith in what they are going to do with the ordinary consumer over gas matters, as is evidenced by what has happened over British Telecommunications; and we should do all we can by supporting all the amendments to bring greater force to the regional committees and the other committees so that support from the grass roots can really get through to the Government.
§ Lord Gallacher
Perhaps I should begin with a confession which is that in an otherwise unblemished youth I served for six years on a regional gas consumers' council. I have kept in touch with that region's reports ever since although I no longer live in their area. Thus, I have some idea of the routine of the work and of the value of what they did, as has already been pointed out, in an unpaid, voluntary capacity so far as concerns representation of the consumer in the region for which they were responsible. I share totally in the view that the fact of their being unpaid strengthened their work and strengthened the work of the committee vis-à-vis British Gas as it now is because, above all, we were able to give a totally independent view on the issues which came before us. I think that impartiality and independence are the most essential qualities which will be required of consumer machinery regardless of the form it takes.
But the regional councils as they exist currently for gas in my opinion ensure that there is a wide spectrum of opinion available to British Gas and I should have thought that British Gas plc would equally have welcomed that broad opinion. The existence of the 852 regional bodies is known in the showrooms because over the years much publicity has been given to their existence and notices are on display there. The resource of being able to write to them is also mentioned on the back of the bills which are sent to consumers. I think, too, that the preservation of the regional concept is important after privatisation because I notice that British Gas already appears to be moving in the direction of thinking of itself as a national organisation.
Whereas once upon a time we knew all about Segas and North Thames, and that was the information which appeared in all publicity, you will now find that "British Gas" is the first heading and "South Eastern Gas" or "Segas" appears further down the list in a secondary role. In addition, the cheque which one draws in payment of one's bill is now drawn in favour of "British Gas" whereas formerly it was drawn in favour of a regional undertaking. I should dislike it very much if the private monopoly were to lose its regional character because I think that will make it even more remote from consumers than it is otherwise in danger of being.
Turning to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, I should have thought that, given her adherence to the view that regional representation at national level is thoroughly desirable, she would have found it possible to support Amendment No. 19 together with the grouped Amendments Nos. 21 and 29; because the fact that the regional bodies are in existence I think will ensure that the representative coming from those regions to the national body has a point of contact and a degree of experience that will be invaluable to him and to the national body on which he serves. That seemed to me to be the thrust of what the noble Baroness had to say and it is inherent in the amendment which is now before the Committee.
I would also point out to the Committee that regional bodies exist for electricity and are to continue in being. Indeed, I was greatly intrigued to see a very bold advertisement in The Times today in which the regional machinery for the electricity industry appears to me to be going to be substantially strengthened. How odd it will be that a public industry has the supervision of Parliament and consumer machinery as well as the overlordship of the Minister; yet a privatised national monopoly is to have a substantial measure of its consumer protection machinery swept away!
We were told at Second Reading that regional officers will be maintained throughout the country and will serve in post there. We welcome that. But a regional officer is not the same as a regional committee. However, their existence is important because, as I see it, such regional officers can in turn service regional committees so that the cost of maintaining regional machinery will not require the establishment of a secretariat and the cost thereof. I think, too, that the regional officer for his part will find the fact that he has a committee depending upon him, relying upon him, sometimes making calls on him, will be invaluable to him in the work in addition to broadening his experience and strengthening his influence as a regional officer vis-à-vis his national employer.
853 Lastly, if I may I would say that we had gentle fun the other day during a Starred Question when the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, pointed out to us that when privatisation takes place and everybody is a shareholder there is a sense of ownership, a sense of possession, of private possession, which cannot exist in the faceless public enterprises that we now have. I put it to him that if a shareholder turns up at the annual general meeting of British Gas plc, whether it is held in Wembley Stadium or at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, and wishes to raise a point with the chairman under "Any Other Business" about the quality of his service or the charges that he gets or matters of that kind, he is going to get pretty short shrift indeed. I would therefore suggest to the Committee that what we are putting forward in this very modest series of proposals is something which will be advantageous not merely to consumers but to British Gas plc itself. I hope that when the Minister replies he will have something encouraging to say to the Committee particularly in view of the discussion that has taken place on these amendments.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
Before the Minister rises, may I say briefly that it seems to me that we must be careful about this. We need to get rid of the thinking of a nationalised industry where everybody felt threatened by government decisions about gas and where it was essential to have a large voluntary organisation doing this work compared with the thinking of a private industry, albeit a monopoly. I know that many people have enjoyed their work for the regional councils enormously. It has been very great fun to do and very interesting and they have worked extremely hard. But from talking to various people whose opinions I respect who have taken part in this organisation, I feel that they think that it is an opportunity to do something more streamlined.
At the same time, it is essential, obviously—and I speak as a Scot—that this new organisation has a Scottish dimension and that the point of view which is peculiarly Scottish about these things should be put when discussing consumer affairs. I speak now because I wanted to support my noble friend Lady Macleod in her amendment. It seems to me that to have a Scottish representative on a national body formerly in statute is the right way. Then, if the organisation finds that it needs other ways than it has through its officials of consulting locally, it will be free, no doubt, to do so. But I do not think that we should land the nation and land the consumer by statute with a voluntary organisation set-up again. All the signs are that that is not the right thing to do. If one were convinced that it was absolutely essential one would have to do it, but I am not convinced from my information. I think something along the lines that my noble friend is suggesting in the next amendment is infinitely preferable.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Lord Belstead
This has been an interesting debate. We have had a speech from the first chairman of the National Gas Consumers Council, my noble friend Lady Macleod, who intervened because indeed it would not be possible for her Amendment No. 20, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, has also 854 attached his name, to be moved if this amendment were to be agreed to.
We had an interesting speech both to open the debate and to close it from the Opposition Front Bench. The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, spoke from a certain amount of experience some years ago. If the noble Lord will forgive me, I do not generally disagree with him but I could not entirely go along with him when he said that the accountability of a privately-owned company was not as great as it should be. All I can say is that any privately-owned company which does not look to both its shareholders and its customers is playing with fire.
One of the things I am glad to be able to say to the noble Lord who asked me what was to happen to the regional structure of British Gas in the future, is that it is quite clear that British Gas is highly sensitive to the kind of considerations which the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, put in his speech concerning the importance of the regional structure. I am advised that there is no intention for British Gas to change its present regional structure or alter the present arrangements under which the day-to-day affairs of gas supply are dealt with by local management in the 12 regions of British Gas.
However, this is of course an amendment about the regional structure of the consumers council, not of British Gas. I realise that, and I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution now to try to explain the rationale behind the proposals embodied in the Bill, which Amendment No. 19 and the related amendments would seek to alter. I think it is worth recalling that during the period when the Bill was in preparation the existing National Gas Consumers Council, without any prompting from the Government, carried out a review of its own activities and the effectiveness with which they were carried out under the existing legislation. My noble friend Lord Sanderson of Bowden referred specifically to the words spoken in evidence to the Select Committee in another place by the chairman of the National Gas Consumers Council. Those words showed that the existing council felt from its experience and its extensive contact with the present regional structure that the existing statutory system of regional councils was over-rigid and over-structured and did not necessarily achieve the most effective representation of gas consumers' views or the most effective protection of their interests.
I am sure that was in no way intended as a criticism by the chairman of those who have devoted so much time to manning the regional councils. That expression of view derives rather, as I understand it, from the reason which was put forward by my noble friend Lady Macleod, who reminded us that no one region is exactly the same as another. It was for that reason that the present chairman of the National Gas Consumers Council felt that the existing system of regional councils could be said to be over-rigid and over-structured; supported, as she was, by her own council in saying that.
It was against the background of that evidence and after consultation with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Energy that the Government came to the conclusion that the representation and protection of consumer interests 855 would be more effective under the more flexible structure that we are proposing. The new structure will be set up, if it is set up—I say that because of course all this is subject to the deliberations of this Committee and those in another place—only after consultation with the regional council offices (which is currently under way) and as a result of the work being undertaken at the moment in the organising committee of the new council, which incidentally already includes five members from the existing regional councils.
I should like to feel, from what I have said, that there really is no difference between the Government and Members of the Committee who have spoken in support of Amendment No. 19 and the related amendments as regards the importance of a grassroots link with consumers in all parts of the country. The aim in our proposals is to produce a body which can provide speedy and effective help.
Perhaps I may just say to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton—and she will know this so much better than I do, from her enormous experience of the work of consumer councils—that when she devoted a great deal of her speech to suggesting that the help which will be necessary for the consumer under a privatised gas system will need to be greater than it has been in the past, and when she illustrated that by stating what she asserted had happened under British Telecom, I should like to remind her that with privatisation in view (as it is at the moment with this Bill being debated) British Gas felt it right to announce a reduction in standing charges as from 1st May this year. In other words, we are not talking about a situation where an organisation which has been rightly praised as having served the public sector well is in some way now girding itself to put up prices enormously because it is going to enter the private sector. That announcement which British Gas has made shows that is not the case, and in any case we have the price formula in the authorisation which we still have to deal with.
Despite the fact that I feel noble Lords opposite and the Government are quite close on this, the difficulty is that we cannot agree on exactly what the structure of the regions, from the point of view of the consumer councils ought to be. If one looks at Amendment No. 29 one finds the effect of the Opposition amendments would be that some 300 members would have to be appointed to man regional councils. I am taking a mean figure of 25 per council and multiplying that by 12.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, in his speech said he felt the Government were ripping things apart so far as London is concerned. I was a little—
§ Lord Belstead
The South-East; I apologise. I was a little surprised that the noble Lord was not aware of the reasons why the Government decided it would be better to house the staffs dealing with the North Thames and South-Eastern regions in one office. I tried to explain that on Second Reading and I said then that we felt it would be more efficient to house these staffs in one office, together with the headquarters 856 organisation for the council, and that would give a considerable extra benefit of giving those managing the staff valuable direct involvement with the actual handling of complaints.
As I informed noble Lords on that occasion, I understand the intention of the organising committee is that there shall indeed be dedicated staffs in that central office dealing with complaints from customers in the two regions concerned. The details of the staff dispositions to give the most efficient service are properly a matter for those concerned with setting up the council and I believe it is right to leave them to arrange those matters as they think fit.
The noble Lord also suggested that in the matter of consumer councils, the Government were going very much to cut away at the finance. I think it is important, in answering this amendment, that I should say quite simply, as was said in another place, that in essence the financing of the consumer council under the Bill will be demand led. My noble friend Lord Sandys was absolutely right to read out the paragraph which is to be found in Schedule 2 to the Bill, which says this:The Council shall have power to do anything which is calculated to facilitate, or is incidental or conducive to, the performance of any of its functions under this Act.".
§ Lord Belstead
May I finish this point? There is nothing in the fears expressed by some noble Lords that the Government's intention is to sell the consumer short.
§ Lord Belstead
As the noble Lord knows from looking at the schedules—which I agree we are not talking about now, but I have referred to a schedule so I must answer the noble Lord—there is also the Treasury hand in this. But I have just gone out of my way to make the point—and it has been made in another place so I am saying nothing new—that, in essence, the financing of the consumer councils under this Bill will be demand led. I have repeated the paragraph which my noble friend Lord Sandys read out. Obviously, it means what it says, that the National Consumer Council could make the best dispositions that it wished.
Members of the Committee will ask, following on what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said in his intervention: What does this add up to? Do the Government feel that a regional structure ought to be put into the Bill? With great respect to the persuasive speeches which have been made—not least by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and others—we do not, for the reasons that I have attempted to deploy, feel that a regional structure is right to be put into the Bill. We really feel that, in the light of the evidence which was given to the Select Committee, we would be returning to something which the existing National Gas Consumers Council felt was over-rigid and over-structured.
857 But I very much hope that we are not going to head in a few minutes towards a vote which might ram Amendment No. 19 into the Bill, because if we did that it would make it impossible to call Amendment No. 20; and I shall not conceal from the Committee that the Government are very attracted to Amendment No. 20, which is in the names of my noble friend Lady Macleod and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth.
There is a problem about Amendment No. 20 so far as drafting is concerned, and if I have not kept the Committee too long, I think in order to be perfectly straight I must just add this. That amendment refers to appointed representatives of the regions. I am sure that my noble friend has in mind the regions of British Gas; but, quite properly, Amendment No. 20 does not refer to British Gas by name, because this would not be admissible in Part I of the Bill, which deals with the authorisation of suppliers in general.
My noble friend may also be thinking, in putting down her Amendment No. 20, of the possibility that other public gas suppliers may be authorised and that the structure of the membership of the council may need to reflect this. But while avoiding such problems, Amendment No. 20 does not clearly state which regions of Great Britain should be represented. Somehow we shall have to sort that out, if we are to go down the road which Amendment No. 20 is asking us to go down.
I therefore say this. In resisting Amendment No. 19 and the related amendments—and I am afraid that I must, for the reasons I have given—when we come to Amendment No. 20, if we do, I should like to offer to take the subject away and consider, within the constraints that I have just set out, how the Government might be able to achieve the purpose of Amendment No. 20, and indeed very nearly the purpose which is down in Amendment No. 22 as well, which is in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. I will, and can, go so far as that. I am afraid that I cannot accept Amendment No. 19.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Diamond
I found the Minister's reply encouraging in one respect, but unsatisfactory in many others. I must delay the Committee for a moment or two to give some of the evidence which has reached me and which, apparently, has not reached some noble Lords on the other side.
I was not impressed by the ambivalence of the noble Lord the Minister in dealing with the arguments. At one point he said: you have the price formula to protect the consumer, you have what has been announced about standing charges to show the goodwill of the future monopoly, so why—this is the conclusion one draws from those two comments—do you need to strengthen the position of the consumer? He then went on to tell us that there is no need to have the arrangements that we want for improving the situation of the consumer because the present arrangements in the Bill are adequate and more efficient.
You cannot have it both ways. We are satisfied that the natural increase of pressure in favour of the shareholder as opposed to the consumer, which is the 858 dilemma to which the Minister himself referred, will mean that the consumer has to be more protected, not less, than at the moment if that pressure is to be resisted and if the consumer is to enjoy broadly the same charges and services as he enjoys at the moment.
We have heard a great deal about the evidence of the chairman of a central committee about the views of the regional committees. Experienced parliamentarians as we all are, we are very familiar indeed with this. Of course, that is what the central committee thinks, but it is not what the regional committees think. We have letters from regional committee members saying: "We hope that you are going to continue with the regions. We hope that you are going to continue with the voluntary workers", for the very good and moving reasons about which the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, told us.
I shall bother the Committee with only one letter, because it seems to me to encapsulate all that is being said. This is a letter from the chairman of the Southern Electricity Consultative Council, which is an existing council. The chairman wrote a long two-page letter, the main point of which is that her council,is very disturbed to see that the new Gas Bill, whilst still paving lip service to some regional presence for the Gas Consumer Council, makes no provision for any voluntary participation at that level. It appears that the Gas Consultative Council will simply be a central Board and its regional officers will be manned only by professional staff.The next paragraph reads:The problems for local gas customers, however, will remain the same—account muddles, threatened disconnections, safety queries. Committed members of the community available out of office hours clearly independent and unpaid, able to visit people at home as well as take local telephone calls are the cheapest and often most effective way of solving problems quickly, as well as being able to reflect back to the centre trends which need national action.That is appealing to those of us who are willing to do so to support any arrangement which will strengthen the consumer representation in the way of continuing the voluntary element in the local areas. That is evidence directly in support of what these amendments are saying; and I have attempted to explain why it is not surprising that there is a certain dichotomy between the views of the chairman of a central committee and the local committees. This is to be repeated time and time again.
So although we are very grateful for what the Minister has said about looking sympathetically on the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, we cannot help but hide our dissatisfaction with the way in which the Government are continuing to resist every attempt on our part to improve the position of the consumer throughout the country.
It is not my amendment and it is not therefore for me to say what is to be done about it. I imagine that there is a good deal of sympathy for what the noble Lord the Minister said about allowing the amendment of the noble Baroness to be called, but that is for others to decide.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
I shall not keep the Committee very long. I have listened very intently to the arguments. Indeed, I listened particularly intently to the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. I was pleased to note that there was certainly some movement on his part, though I shall seek to shoe that 859 that movement has not gone far enough to satisfy me and my colleagues.
I listened very closely indeed to the arguments. All of us listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod. We have to listen to her because she has had experience. She knows about the Gas Consultative Council and she knows about regional councils. Although I understand exactly her difficulty that she had another amendment down, nevertheless when she spoke there was undoubtedly a great note of regret that the regional council arrangements would pass away. She had found them most useful bodies in her experience, and that is an experience to which we have to listen. I recognise the difficulty of the noble Baroness but I hope that she will come along with us. Here we have a tried and tested system that we all know, that we have all used and that we have all worked with. It is dangerous, particularly as we are converting a public monopoly into a private one, to reduce the arrangements that are available.
I come now to the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. We do not want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but some of his arguments simply do not hold water. He says that the National Gas Consumers Council undertook a review of its own organisation and came to the conclusion that the present structure was over-rigid. By getting rid of all the regional bodies and having only one body how can you make it less rigid? I should have thought that the reverse would be the case.
If you have this one quango—call it what you want—it is bound to be more rigid because it operates from one place—London. It is bound to be more rigid than 12 regional councils, each having people with experience in those areas and being devoted to the well being of their fellow people. We cannot accept the argument that a single organisation will be less rigid than a manifold organisation. It simply is not on and it is against all our experience. Indeed, there will be more power to the centre and there will be none to the regions. There will be no real power.
The noble Lord's other argument was that 300 people would be involved in these regional councils. That is one representative to 570,000 people. That is not over-representation. The fact of having 300 people to serve 17½ million consumers throughout the whole of the United Kingdom is not, I should have thought, a dreadful matter. I should have thought that we were getting very good value for money. The noble Lord must not be too horrified about having this number of people involved in looking after consumers' interests. Indeed, when we come to voluntary work we want more people involved, and more people involved in areas which they know, of which they have experience and where they know the people and have experience of them and their needs. That is what the whole argument is about. That is what regionalisation is about. That is why we want to decentralise away from London and let the people at the sharp end have a say in what is going on and about their problems.
I wish to make one other point about financing. The noble Lord the Minister said that that was demand led. We have some accountants in this, Committee. My noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington is an account 860 ant, as is the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. I do not know what they mean by demand led but I have always taken it to mean—and I was at one time chairman of a finance committee of a local authority—open-ended. If I am wrong noble Lords will correct me—and I hope they will get up and do so—but from my experience demand led is open-ended. Can we take it that there is an open-ended commitment now that whatever the Gas Users Council demands by way of money it will get? I am sure that Miss Sheila Black and her committee will be delighted with this debate and with the assurance that the Minister has given.
I should be ungrateful if I did not thank the noble Lord for the concession that he is offering. He has gone a little way and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that; but for all the reasons that have been put forward in this debate, and if I may say so the arguments were on my side—
§ Lord Diamond
Having regard to the fact that the Minister has already said that the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness is not acceptable in its present form, will the noble Lord accept from me that that amendment will not be moved, that therefore if the noble Lord chooses to divide on this amendment he will not prejudice in the slightest what the Minister has said, and that we should be happy to support him?
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
That is very helpful and I thank the noble Lord. What he says is absolutely right. Therefore, for all the reasons I have given we feel bound to press our amendment because we believe that this is the best way to proceed on behalf of the consumers.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 19) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 74; Not-Contents, 103.861
|DIVISION NO. 2|
|Airedale, L.||Harris of Greenwich, L.|
|Amherst, E.||Hayter, L.|
|Ardwick, L.||Howie of Troon, L.|
|Attlee, E.||Irving of Dartford, L.|
|Aylestone, L.||Jacques, L.|
|Birk, B.||Jeger, B.|
|Blease, L.||Jenkins of Putney, L.|
|Bottomley, L.||Kilbracken, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Kilmarnock, L.|
|Burton of Coventry, B.||Kirkhill, L.|
|Campbell of Eskan, L.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.|
|Crawshaw of Aintree, L.||Lockwood, B.|
|David, B. [Teller.]||Longford, E.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||Lovell-Davis, L.|
|Diamond, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.||Milner of Leeds, L.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||Mishcon, L.|
|Ewart-Biggs, B.||Molloy, L.|
|Ezra, L.||Mulley, L.|
|Falkender, B.||Nicol, B.|
|Gallacher, L.||Oram, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L.||Phillips, B.|
|Grey, E.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]|
|Hanworth, V.||Prys-Davies, L.|
|Rea, L.||Stedman, B.|
|Ritchie of Dundee, L.||Stewart of Fulham, L.|
|Rochester, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Seear, B.||Underhill, L.|
|Sefton of Garston, L.||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Serota, B.||Walston, L.|
|Shackleton, L.||White, B.|
|Shaughnessy, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Shepherd, L.||Willis, L.|
|Silkin of Dulwich, L.||Wilson of Langside, L.|
|Simon, V.||Wilson of Rievaulx, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Lane-Fox, B.|
|Ashbourne, L.||Lawrence, L.|
|Auckland, L.||Long, V.|
|Beaverbrook, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Beloff, L.||McAlpine of Moffat, L.|
|Belstead, L.||Macleod of Borve, B.|
|Boardman, L.||Mancroft, L.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Margadale, L.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Marley, L.|
|Braye, B.||Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.|
|Broxbourne, L.||Merrivale, L.|
|Bruce-Gardyne, L.||Mersey, V.|
|Buckinghamshire, E.||Milverton, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Molson, L.|
|Caccia, L.||Monk Bretton, L.|
|Caithness, E.||Morris, L.|
|Cameron of Lochbroom, L.||Mottistone, L.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Mowbray and Stourton, L.|
|Carnegy of Lour, B.||Munster, E.|
|Cathcart, E.||Napier and Ettrick, L.|
|Colville of Culross, V.||Newall, L.|
|Cox, B.||Orkney, E.|
|Croft, L.||Orr-Ewing, L.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Pender, L.|
|Dacre of Glanton, L.||Penrhyn, L.|
|Davidson, V.||Portland, D.|
|De La Warr, E.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]||Rawlinson of Ewell, L.|
|Dundee, E.||Renton, L.|
|Eccles, V.||Romney, E.|
|Ellenborough, L.||Rugby, L.|
|Elliott of Morpeth, L.||St. Aldwyn, E.|
|Elton, L.||Sanderson of Bowden, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Sandys, L.|
|Ferrier, L.||Sempill, Ly.|
|Fraser of Kilmorack, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Gainford, L.||Somers, L.|
|Gardner of Parkes, B.||Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.|
|Gray of Contin, L.||Sudeley, L.|
|Gridley, L.||Swinton, E. [Teller.]|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.||Teynham, L.|
|Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Halsbury, E.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Hardinge of Penshurst, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Harris of High Cross, L.||Vickers, B.|
|Hemphill, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Hives, L.||Whitelaw, V.|
|Hood, V.||Wynford, L.|
|Hylton-Foster, B.||Young, B.|
|Kimball, L.||Zouche of Haryngworth, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve moved Amendment No. 20:
§ Page 2, line 18, after ("chairman") insert (", an appointed representative of each region,").
§ The noble Baroness said: I should like briefly to thank my noble friend the Minister for his help with my particular amendment. As I drafted the 862 amendment myself, I can well understand that it is by no means perfect and needs considerable alteration. However, if the Minister will be kind enough to take the amendment away and help me with redrafting it, and then perhaps bring it back again at Report stage, then I shall be enormously grateful and happy. My idea was that the regions should be coterminot6, with the gas regions, but perhaps I did not make that point completely clear. Having said that, I should like to hear what my noble friend the Minister has to say.
§ Lord Belstead
The constraints to which I referred when we were earlier discussing Amendment No. 20 put down by my noble friend and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, really relate to drafting. I must make it absolutely clear that I wish to accept the spirit of Amendment No. 20, but the two main difficulties are that somehow one must define the regions, and all this part of the Bill is about public gas suppliers and not about a single supplier—although, as we all know, it will be British Gas who will be the first public gas supplier. However, there is a drafting problem there.
That problem is at the heart of the difficulty, and in agreeing gladly to trying to meet the amendment of my noble friend and the noble Viscount, there is a quite difficult drafting point to overcome. If my noble friend and the noble Viscount will recognise that there are some drafting constraints, then I should nonetheless like to offer to take this subject away, consider it carefully, go so far as we possibly can to meet it, and return on Report in co-operation with my noble friend and the noble Viscount with an amendment that will appeal to this Chamber.
§ Viscount Hanworth
I thank the Minister for that very helpful reply. I feel sure that he knows what is the spirit of the amendment and that something along its lines will be possible.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve: I thank my noble friend the Minister and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 21 not moved.]
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 22:
§ Page 2, line 22, leave out ("have regard to the desirability of having") and insert ("choose")
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment concerns a very small point, and it is really a question of saying what we mean. I would have thought, quite frankly, that it would be much better and clearer to the Committee if we put in the word "choose". Not, "shall have regard to the desirability of having members" but, "choose members". Surely that is a small amendment which the Minister would accept in the interests of good clear English and ensuring that everybody knows what the Bill is all about. We have far too much sloppy language used in our statutes. Here is an opportunity, albeit a small one—and I agree that this is a small amendment—to strike a blow for good English. I beg to move.
§ Lord Belstead
I have already said that the Government will now consider the drafting of this part 863 of the Bill in order to deal with the subject matter of the amendment put down by my noble friend Baroness Macleod and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth. It may be that in drafting a change we shall also be able to give a more direct kind of message, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, proposes; and I am very ready to look at it, if the noble Lord and his noble friends will agree that it might be withdrawn on that basis. I cannot give an absolute commitment because there are drafting difficulties which I have attempted twice to explain. I want to be very careful that I do not promise something which cannot actually be carried out.
But I must say I believe we can either get to the position which the noble Lord wants or we can get very close to it, as it is set out in Amendment No. 22. I promise the noble Lord that if he is prepared to withdraw the amendment I shall do my best to accept the spirit of it.
Lord Bruce of Donington
Can I press the noble Lord a little further on this? It is agreed, so far as I can see, that the Secretary of State will appoint. There can be no doubt about that. The subsection appears to be quite clear. The Secretary of State appoints; before he appoints, I would imagine, he goes through the normal methods of appointment as I see it, and in my own particular sphere, which is a very limited one and certainly not a public sphere, I have been responsible for making appointments. It is quite true that one sees a number of candidates. One looks at their CVs, takes up the references, hears the views of colleagues to which, unless one is a complete nitwit, one has to have regard. There can be no doubt about that.
In having regard, you pay attention to what you have heard, but you have at least heard it and in exercising the having regard, you may decide that you can ignore it; but you certainly have regard to it. Then ultimately you have to choose.
Now, what are you doing when you are appointing? Before you appoint, you must choose, surely. I appeal to the noble Lord: why should he boggle at the use of the word "choose"? He might, if he does not like the word because it is an Opposition word, perhaps say "select". But why does he not grasp the nettle? Why does he have to take such a simple matter as this away to be considered? After all, I assume that the noble Lord, being a Minister, has to have regard to what his officials have to say, to what his department has to say. But does he finally leave the choice to them? If so, he is not worth the position of a Minister; he is only worth appearing as a caricature in the programme "Yes, Minister".
Cannot the noble Lord of his own volition, on his own authority and with his own intellect—and he is a person of some considerable accomplishment—without looking over the shoulder of his Civil Service, come up and say, "Yes, what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, says is quite alright. 'Choose' is the word I mean. I will be decisive for once and independent, I will assert my independence of my own Civil Service and I will do the commonsense thing".
Surely the noble Lord can do that now? He does not have to regurgitate over a series of staff conferences in 864 the next fortnight, and solemnly deliberate everything that has been said. It is plain common sense, he knows it is common sense. Why does he not accept the amendment?
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, is very persuasive in what he says, but he has, I think, fallen into the trap of muddying the waters somewhat. I have a great deal of sympathy for what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said. I think the English is terrible. But if the words are replaced with the words which the noble Lord has on the Marshalled List, in fact what the Minister will do is to be obliged to choose those who have the particular qualifications. He cannot choose anyone who does not have those qualifications. If the words used in the original drafting are continued with, the Minister may choose people who have those qualifications, but he can choose others who have not. I think Lord Stoddart's amendment considerably curtails who the Minister can choose. For all that, I hope the English can be improved.
§ Viscount Hanworth
May I simply ask the noble Lord whether in his office there is a copy of Plain Words and a Roget's Thesaurus? If there is not, I suggest they purchase them. If there is, I suggest they read them.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Lord Belstead
I am most grateful for all the diverse advice which I have been given. Indeed, I was delighted to feel that I moved from being a caricature to somebody of some ability in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. The difficulty is this. If the noble Lord looks at Amendment No. 22 and at the amendment of my noble friend and Viscount Hanworth (Amendment No. 20) I think the noble Lord will see that my noble friend's and the noble Viscount's Amendment No. 20 is really rather more specific than Amendment No. 22 in the name of the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. Although the noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite have used the word "choose" which sounds very decisive, they have been very relaxed in the way in which they have put the amendment down because the Government are only being asked to agree to choosing, and then the words of the Bill follow after, which are:members who are familiar with the special requirements and circumstances of different regions and areas in Great Britain.My noble friend Baroness Macleod and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, are asking the Government to go a little further than that. I think it would be best to take both Amendments No. 20 and 22 away, not just in order to tread water, but in order seriously to look to see what we can do to meet the case which is being made in both, because the amendments are slightly different.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
I think the noble Lord is being accommodating in this, and, if I might say so, today has been a pleasant change from the previous two days; third time lucky, so to speak. But the noble Lord has been accommodating. I understand the difficulty which he has outlined and the tie-up with Amendment No. 20. I think it would be sensible in fact if he were to look at it. He has given that 865 undertaking which I accept and for which I thank him very much. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Gallacher moved Amendment No. 23:
§ Page 2, line 24, at end insert ("and with the special requirements and circumstances of the elderly, the disabled and of other disadvantaged groups").
§ The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 23 will I am sure commend itself to the Committee. It is perhaps unfortunate that we reached it so early in the evening. If it were taken much later, I think the Committee would feel even more sympathetic to it because they might feel they qualified under one of the headings described in this amendment. What we are seeking to do is in making appointments to the National Consumer Council, to have special regard to the circumstances of elderly people, disabled people and other disadvantaged groups.
§ From my own experience of this type of work I think it is pretty definite that committees benefit from first-hand experience of categories of people who have particular problems, whether they are of a physical or a financial nature. I know it can be said that there are many people who are not within those categories who are well able to speak for them; but in the case of the disabled—and I speak now more with regard to transport users committees—it was certainly a revelation to me to hear people who were confined to wheelchairs telling officials of British Rail what their requirements were regarding mobility and their capacity in wheelchairs to make use of the train services.
§ Similarly, in this vexed question of cut-offs for non-payment of accounts, or indeed of the pricing policy itself, in many instances the person who is disadvantaged is better able to put his or her case than someone who is not personally disadvantaged but merely sympathetic to those groups. Again, in the case of elderly people and the way gas appliances are designed, accessibility to meters and matters of that kind, it is often better that elderly people make the case themselves directly. In this way I think the Gas Consumer Council will have the benefit of first-hand experience. It is for that reason we have put down the amendment standing in the names of my noble friends. I beg to move.
§ Lord Belstead
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, together with the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart, Lord Williams and Lord Diamond, whose names are to the amendment, have provided us with the opportunity to discuss the important area of the protection of the less advantaged among British Gas customers.
It should be borne in mind, first, that British Gas is well aware of its obligation to elderly and disabled customers. This has been made clear by the extent of the special services provided in the past and I believe there is no prospect of any reduction in those services in the future. Indeed, British Gas has said that safety and care for the consumer are fundamental to the success of the company. In this spirit British Gas has said that it will continue its free safety checks for the elderly and disabled and will continue the existing 866 disconnection code, which means that the most vulnerable elderly people are not disconnected in winter. It is of course right that British Gas should look after those groups who will be more susceptible to accidents. It is inconceivable that the interests of the elderly and disabled would ever be overlooked.
Nevertheless, for the reasons very clearly explained by the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, this amendment has been tabled and I have to say that if it was not already covered I would be very rapidly accepting the amendment, or something very much like it. Indeed, I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin is not handling this amendment. We agreed a few days ago that he would, and then we changed our batting order. I say that because the suggestion was made in a jocular tone by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, that it had been rather hard going on the first two days of this Committee stage. As the noble Lord knows, there is nothing that my noble friend Lord Gray likes better than to accept amendments which are well conceived. The trouble was that he did not have any opportunity to do so in the first two days. This amendment would have given him a golden opportunity.
The fact is, however, that the position is covered. I suggest that Members of the Committee refer to paragraph 11 of Schedule 7, which applies Section 14(1) of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 to the consumers council. The effect of this is that the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, as amended by Schedule 7, will provide that in the appointment of persons to bodies such as the Gas Consumers Council regard shall be had to the desirability of including one or more persons with experience of work among, and the special needs of, disabled persons.
To make this matter crystal clear I shall read out to the Committee Section 14(1) of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act as it will be amended if the Committee agrees to paragraph 11 of Schedule 7 when we reach it. It says:In the appointment of persons to be members of any of the following advisory committees or councils, that is to say, the Transport Users' Consultative Committees, the Gas Consumers' Council, the Electricity Consultative Councils, the Post Office Users' Councils and the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, regard shall be had to the desirability of the committee or council in question including one or more persons with experience of work among, and the special needs of, disabled persons and to the person or persons with that experience being or including a disabled person or persons".I hope that the Committee will perhaps feel that the amendment, which is most certainly well conceived is covered by Schedule 7.
§ Lord Gallacher
In view of the very satisfactory reply made by the Minister I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 24:
§ Page 2, line 24, at end insert ("and for that purpose shall consult representative bodies and institutions in those regions and areas.").
§ The noble Lord said: I am bound to feel that the amendment speaks for itself. It needs no explanation. It is a normal process and I hope the Minister will be 867 able to say either that it is already covered in the Bill or that it is a procedure which will undoubtedly take place. I beg to move.
§ Lord Belstead
The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, asked me to confirm that the effect of Amendment No. 24 is covered by what happens. I can give that undertaking. The appropriate machinery already exists within the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry and will continue to operate after privatisation. In practice, when a vacancy arises the existing councils will indicate the nature of their requirements to the Department of Trade and Industry, which will then approach any number of a comprehensive list of organisations who produce a short list of suitable candidates for consideration. Names collected as a consequence of such approaches are kept in a data base for further reference. This data base is updated regularly and the people whose names are on it are approached to determine their continuing interest in the possibility of appointment. The Department of Trade and Industry may also approach bodies such as the Public Appointments Office for possible candidates.
If I may say so, the intention of the amendment, so far as the Bill is concerned, is something which is already done by the Department of Trade and Industry when dealing with the National Gas Consumers Council and its regional councils in its present form. Before the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, says, "Well, why not accept the amendment?" I should add that there is a practical difficulty with the amendment. It is drafted to lay a duty to consult so that any body or institution which felt that it was representative but was not consulted would presumably then have a case against my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. The Government are not able to accept the amendment as drafted because of that particular danger.
§ Lord Diamond
I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister. He has outlined what is the practice. He does not like this amendment—and none of us expects our amendments to be perfect—but as that is the practice, both past and continuing, is there any reason why the Minister should not bring forward an amendment which is acceptable to the Government to cover by statute what is to take place?
§ 6.30 p.m.
Lord Bruce of Donington
Perhaps I may follow the point which has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. If one looks carefully at the wording of the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, it does not say, "and for that purpose shall consult all representative bodies". If the amendment had included the word "all", then what the noble Lord has said would be quite true, that if any representative body felt that it was being ignored it would have cause for complaint—though I do not know what action it could take against the Minister.
I do not think, in the strict wording of the amendment, that there is any such inhibition. I am bound to ask the noble Lord the straight question: if what is set out in the amendment is already normal 868 practice within the DTI—and as a matter of experience I know that practices within the DTI vary from time to time, from administration to administration, season by season and indeed temperament by temperament, because that is the way that departments work—is there any real harm in including that wording? If the wording expresses what is already being done, surely it must be quite acceptable, particularly in view of the fact that it does not contain the word "all".
§ Lord Belstead
If I may say so, I think that the absolutely straightforward answer to the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Diamond, is that what I said about the existing practice of the Department of Trade and Industry is in fact the case, but it does not entirely equate with what the noble Lord is trying to achieve in his amendment. Let me be perfectly straightforward about this. One of the reasons why it does not equate with the amendment is, as I said, because in practice, when a vacancy arises under the present situation, the existing councils will indicate the nature of their requirement. As the Bill is drafted, and as Members of the Committee have agreed by disagreeing to Amendment No. 19, almost certainly there will not be regional councils. So this amendment is trying to ensure that there shall be consultation at large.
That brings me back to the problem that I outlined at the very end of my remarks. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, has said, I should have thought that there was a danger with this amendment that if an organisation which felt that it was representative had not been consulted, there could then be trouble. I am perfectly ready to look at the amendment, but for that reason I do not think that it is an amendment with which we shall be able to do very much.
§ Lord Diamond
I understand that argument, and I am grateful to the Minister for his patience in coming back to this. However, I am really asking him if there is any reason why what he says has been the practice and will continue to be the practice should not be incorporated in statute in words that are acceptable to him. If that can be done at a future stage, there is no problem whatever, and perhaps the Minister will indicate that he is prepared to consider that. There may be difficulties. I do not take the view that all of us possess all wisdom when speaking off the top of our heads at any one moment. I certainly do not take that view. I shall be grateful if the Minister will consult his advisers to see whether there is any way of incorporating in the Bill what he says will be the continuing practice, so that it will not rest on the say-so of the Minister but on a section in the statute.
§ Lord Belstead
I have already said that I shall look at it. I have tried to outline what I think are the problems.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 24A:
§ Page 2, line 24, at end insert ("and who represent commerce, industry and labour").869
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 24A. I believe that this is an eminently sensible amendment which in fact should appeal to the Government and to Members in all parts of the Committee. It seeks to ensure that the Gas Consumers' Council has within its ranks people who are conversant with the problems of industry and commerce—and, of course, labour.
§ It may be argued that in the natural course of events the Secretary of State will appoint people of experience in commerce and industry, and indeed people from both sides of industry, but there is no certainty at all of this within the Bill. That is why we wish to write it into the Bill itself. At the Committee stage in another place the Minister argued that this was merely special pleading for a sector of consumer interest, but I believe that he did not fully recognise that people with special experience and knowledge not only of consumer interest but of business problems, including those of British Gas plc itself, could be of enormous value to the Gas Consumers' Council in the conduct of their affairs. I believe that such experience would be invaluable when deciding about complaints and in running their business.
§ After all, Members of the Committee sitting opposite believe—quite rightly, in my view—that there is a wealth of talent within the business community, and I think that such talent should in fact be used and used from both sides of industry. Indeed, these days we hear a great deal about the need to have representatives from industry and commerce at all levels involved in the business of the nation.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
Indeed, that is right, and it is necessary for business people to take an interest in these organisations. In actual fact I wish that more business people would take an interest in local authority work, for example. I think that there are too few such people in local authorities up and down the country. This is an attempt to involve people in the business of the nation, and it is an opportunity for them to be so.
I mentioned local authorities, and if I am not mistaken there is in fact a precedent here in that local authorities are now by law bound to consult industry and commerce before they set a rate. So there is almost if not quite, a precedent for this amendment already in the law relating to local authorities. I therefore hope that, for the reasons I have mentioned, this amendment will find favour. I beg to move.
§ Lord Ezra
In supporting the amendment that has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, I should like to say that, quite apart from the benefit that the council would derive from having representatives of industry, commerce and labour among their members, there could well be instances when some of the problems with which they have to deal will come from the smaller commercial or industrial consumers,, and therefore a knowledge of the way to deal with those problems within the council would also be helpful. In these circumstances I hope that the Minister will be able to accept this very useful amendment.
§ Lord Belstead
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, called in aid a precedent which he said concerned a requirement on local authorities to consult with industry and commerce before they set a rate. I can only say that if some local authorities which I can think of had consulted industry and commerce before setting the rates which they have set at the moment, I think they would have had some pretty direct answers back from industry and commerce.
Perhaps I can be a little more helpful in my initial reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. I think there is one important point that I should try to make before saying a word or two in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and that is that we should not forget that subsection (3) states:In appointing members of the Council, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of having members who are familiar with the special requirements and circumstances of different regionsThat is how the subsection (3) stands at the moment, though I have agreed that we shall look at it.
I think that the Government feel very strongly that that would take into account those who have experience of the special requirements and circumstances so far as concerns business or commerce, or indeed anything else. Nonetheless, I realise that that answer does not satisfy the Committee. The amendment has been put down precisely because Members of the Committee want further to refine the drafting of the Bill.
I emphasise that the Government's intention is not to require members to be appointed only on a geographical basis. As with the current National Gas Consumers Council, we believe that the Bill should permit the appointment of other members who have experience or qualifications which will strengthen the council, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who will be making the appointments, will need to take account of a variety of interests, and those of commerce, industry and labour are among them.
Before Members of the Committee ask why I do not accept the amendment, let me say that if we specify rigid categories of interest to be represented, we risk creating a council that could be unbalanced and risk precluding other interests. For instance, what about the industry in which I work and of which other noble Lords have great experience? Why should not agriculture be represented on the council? It is indeed an industry, and those of us who work with and in it constantly refer to it as such. But it is not defined as such in any legislation so far as I know. What about education? Why should not representatives or a representative of education be included on the council?
I am not nit-picking; there is a serious point here. We get into the argument that is often deployed by speakers, particularly on the government side, when they may not be very taken by an amendment: if we become too particular and if we are not careful, we may find that we exclude other interests. There could be that danger here if we accepted the amendment.
Lord Bruce of Donington
The noble Lord asks why not agriculture or education. Do we take it that he is inviting further amendments in order to clarify the position?
May I put one point which I think is of relevance? The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, seeks to make smaller the circle of people from whom the Minister can make his choice. If we go back to the words that he did not like:shall have regard to the desirability of having members who are familiar with the special requirements",and add the amendment, it is the equivalent of saying, "and who also represent commerce, industry and labour". That would mean that the Minister could not include among the members those who did not represent commerce, industry and labour. I do not think that that is the objective of the amendment, but it is the effect.
§ Lord Belstead
Before the noble Lord decides what he will do with the amendment, I must say that I owe an apology to noble Lords opposite for omitting one piece of information to which I do not think any of us has referred. But we can all be forgiven for that because it comes after and not before this part of the Bill. If Members of the Committee will glance at the opposite page, page 3, they will see that in Clause 4 the duties of the Secretary of State and the director are set out. In Clause 4(2)(a) those duties refer specifically to the interests of consumers. The Secretary of State will therefore wish to think about the interests of all consumers. I believe that that is better guidance than referring only to the interests of certain people who should be represented on the council.
Noble Lords have understandably chosen for this amendment commerce, industry and labour, but, as this short debate has shown, there are other interests as well. My noble friend Lord Ferrers also put an important point.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
Yes, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is absolutely right. Our objective is to add to the council people with specific interests. If the Minister says that he will accept the amendment, I am sure that we can brush it up and make it acceptable to the noble Earl and, indeed, perhaps to myself.
The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said that the amendment would risk an unbalanced council. I agree. We cannot have an unwieldy national council. I agree that if we appointed to the national council everybody that we wanted to, the membership would probably number about 110. But I have to go back to Amendment No. 19. If the Committee had only agreed with that amendment, we could have had all the experience of industry and commerce. We could have had 300 people from the regions throughout the country to choose from. Unfortunately, that time has passed. I understand the problem of an unwieldy and perhaps too large council.
This was a probing amendment. We have heard what the noble Lord has said and we shall consider it. I hope also that he will read in the Official Report our concerns and see that there are people on the National Gas Consumers Council who will be able to assist 872 consumers and to assist the National Gas Consultative Council in carrying out its duties. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 25:
§ Page 2, line 31, leave out from ("Council") to end of line 32 and insert ("shall cease to exist upon the expiry of one month after the Council takes office. The Regional Gas Consumers' Council shall cease to exist upon the coming into effect of such arrangements as the Council shall make for dealing with the special requirements and circumstances of different regions and areas in Great Britain.")
The noble Lord said: This amendment refers to the final subsection in Clause 2 where it is stated:
In consequence of the provisions of this section, the National Gas Consumers' Council and the Regional Gas Consumers' Councils shall cease to exist".
The amendment would make it absolutely clear that there was no gap. In fact, the preference is for a slight overlap. In other words, it is proposed that the National Gas Consumers Council,
shall cease to exist upon the expiry of one month after the Council"—
that is to say, the new council; the Gas Users Council—
There would therefore be one short period of overlap so that the experience of the outgoing body could be handed on to the incoming body without a gap in arrangements.
The amendment then refers to the regional gas consumers councils and says that they,
shall cease to exist upon the coming into effect of such arrangements as the Council—
that again is the council referred to in the subsection; the new Gas Users Council—
shall make for dealing with the special requirements and circumstances of different regions and areas in Great Britain".
§ We have already been told that the choice, the power and the initiative rest with the new council to see that local representation is effective and adequate. When it has done what it has to in order to achieve that it would then be right for the present regional gas consumers councils to cease to exist. It would not be right for them to cease to exist and then have perhaps up to a year's gap in which local consumer difficulties would accumulate, with inadequate machinery to deal with them because the Gas Users Council has to take time to give effect to its local arrangements.
§ This is a practical issue. There is no party aspect or philosophy behind it, but merely the desire to see that the system works and that there is a convenient and satisfactory takeover. I beg to move
§ Lord Belstead
I realise that this is a practical matter, as the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has explained. In the Bill we are proposing a clear break that we believe will be helpful for all concerned. It is surely more effective to have the new Gas Consumers Council operating from the appointed day in conjunction with the Office of Gas Supply with its staff securely in place. Since we imagine that there will be a considerable cross-over between the staffs of the old and the new councils—I hope very much that many of the old council staff are going to be members of the new council staff—it must be right for there to be a 873 clear break between their old and new jobs, especially since the terms and conditions of the new jobs will differ from the old. Also, I cannot actually see how the gas consumer could benefit from the arrangements being put forward in the noble Lord's amendment. I am perplexed as to what useful purpose the old National Gas Consumers Council would fulfil in the last week or so of its existence.
At the local level it is, of course, our intention that by the time the new council is appointed the local arrangements that will service the regional offices of the new council will be settled so far as possible. This is a subject that we shall discuss when we reach Amendment No. 26 in the name of my noble friend Lady Gardner and other noble Lords. All this is being planned at the moment in the organising committee of the new council. It will, in consultation with the existing regional councils, be framing the detailed arrangements to ensure that the gas consumers' voice is heard at local level in all parts of Great Britain. There will, of course, be different needs associated with different parts of the country. The arrangements that will be worked out will, I hope, reflect these differences so as to ensure that the best interests of the consumer are protected.
Once all the regional representatives of the new council have been appointed, I would hope by the middle of the summer—it is necessary to try to plan ahead as the legislation goes through, although I must be careful here because the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, I know, felt that we were perhaps treating Parliament with disrespect—they will be able to play an important part in helping to finalise work in their own regions. Until the appointed day the regional members of the new council will have nothing to divert their attention from the work of planing what the local arrangements should be. I believe, therefore, that both parts of the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has put forward are better met by the arrangements that are going on than would be the case under the amendment. I hope that the noble Lord, having heard what I have said, may agree.
Lord Bruce of Donington
We on this side are very sorry that the noble Lord has not seen fit to take up this amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. It was once said I believe, by my noble friend Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, that seven days is a long time in politics. In this Bill we have an appointed day; we have a transfer date; and we have the date upon which the Secretary of State exercises his power for the disposal of shares. These events lie in the future. None of us knows what the future holds. But one thing is for sure: it would not be right, and your Lordships would be entirely in the wrong, if a situation was permitted to arise where there was a gap in the services provided to the consumer. Really, this is all that it is about.
The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has said that there are no party politics involved. Indeed, I have been surprised at the absence of party politics here today. We are all trying to be constructive with one another. Why does the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, baulk at the obvious endeavour in the amendment to provide a practical, organisational overlap to ensure complete continuity of consumer safeguards? On a certain date, 874 the appointed day, consumers of gas in the United Kingdom will not all be switching off their gas for a period. Life will go on, one trusts, in exactly the same way. Why, therefore, should there be any gap in the safeguards provided for consumers between the time when the industry is responsible to the nation as a whole and the time when it ceases to be responsible to the nation and becomes responsible to the new plc?
I would remind the noble Lord the Minister that under the provisions of the Bill, even after the transfer date, the Government retain the shares until they are disposed of. The Government cannot, therefore, get away from the responsibility to the nation that they are bent on running away from. They will hold all the shares and British Gas plc will be responsible to them. So, why not accept the amendment? Why try to muddy the situation by bringing in a whole series of considerations irrelevant to the central purpose of what the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has put forward? I believe that the noble Lord the Minister if only for the sake of progress, let alone anything else, could take this amendment on board without ruffling the feathers of anyone in his own party heirarchy. We support the amendment.
§ Lord Belstead
One of the great difficulties, if I may say so briefly, presented by the amendment is that there are staff of the old council who, in many cases, I hope, will be members of the staff of the new council. It becomes tricky therefore if one is saying that the old council should go on for an extra year in order to give the new council time to get itself up and running. That is a problem. The second point is that the amendment addresses itself, so far as local representation is concerned, to a difficulty that does not exist. There is going to be time enough for the organising committee to arrange what the best local arrangements should be. This is a matter to which we shall come on Amendment No. 26.
§ Lord Diamond
I listened carefully to what the noble Lord the Minister had to say. He has been helpful in saying that the process of consultation, and giving effect to what is in the Bill, has already started, and that, therefore, there is unlikely to be the kind of gap that I feared. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, for accentuating the point about which we are concerned. In his first speech the Minister said that there was unlikely to be a gap of more than two weeks. He indicated a period of about two weeks. We do not see why there should be any gap at all. The whole takeover is based on the old finishing one day and the new starting the next. Accounts are being prepared on that basis. The old accounts are the starting accounts for the new organisation. The philospophy is that there is not to be a gap.
I realise that what we are discussing is related to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, and that until we have dealt with that amendment we shall not know precisely how to deal with that now being discussed. I shall not therefore press my amendment. I am, however, saying to the Minister that we shall read his remarks very carefully and that we may well come back, after hearing the rest of the debate, at Report with an amendment to secure what is common sense and not in any way against the views of the 875 Government—that there should be no gap in either the functions fulfilled by the National Gas Consumers Council or whatever arrangements are made to follow upon the present regional gas consumers councils. That presents a very special difficulty in our present position. We shall be able to deal with it more objectively when the Bill has passed through its Committee stage.
With that understanding, and with a view to leaving the matter wide open to return to at a later stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, at what I hope will be a convenient moment to the Committee.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 2 agreed to.
§ Lord Denham
I think that this is probably a suitable moment to break for the adjournment. In moving that the House do now resume, I think it would be best to let noble Lords know that we shall not be coming back to this Bill before eight o'clock. I beg to move that the House do now resume.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.