HL Deb 11 May 1989 vol 507 cc818-58

House again in Committee on Clause 2.

Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 20:

Page 2, line 8, leave out ("Part") and insert ("Act").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 20, 21 and 22 are grouped together and therefore we shall discuss them together, but it is in fact Amendment No. 20 which I and my noble friend Lord Williams are most anxious to use as a basis for exploring the role of the consumers' committees. We investigated that issue just a short while ago in relation to Amendment No. 19 and the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, very helpfully clarified some aspects of the matter. However, I now wish to pursue it further.

I shall start in the usual way by asking a question. The Bill says "Part" and that part I take to mean Part I; therefore it does not apply to the rest of the Bill. The reason that we have put forward the proposal to substitute "Part" for "Act"—which I assume to be the correct word, rather than "Bill", although I am not an expert in such matters—is that we wish to ask why certain matters which occur in the later parts of the Bill have been left out.

Perhaps I may direct the Committee to certain clauses in Part II and then much more importantly in Part III in order to ask why they are left out. The clauses that I have in mind, although there may be others, are, first, Clause 70, which deals with the so-called target investment limit and matters related thereto. I know that that is a highly technical matter but I do not see why it should be ruled out of any consideration by the consumers' committees.

However, much more important than that are Clauses 92, 93, 94 and 95, which deal with the matters such as the security of buildings and grants and loans in connection with aspects of storage and reprocessing of nuclear power. Clause 94 deals with statistical information and Clause 95 deals with our favourite subject, restrictive practices, and so on.

With leave of the Committee, perhaps I may partly answer my question relating to why such matters have been left out. In my view they have been left out in one way because of the Government's emphasis on the local nature of the consumers' committees, to which the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, has drawn our attention. I do not wish to anticipate the debates that we shall have on the amendments tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, which deal with what one might call the national nature of a possible consumers' committee.

Therefore, it may be that the reason for the inclusion of the word "Part" instead of "Act" is precisely that the Government wish the consumers' committees to concentrate solely on local matters. It is possible that that is the explanation. But if it is, I would then have to say that I do not agree with it. I think that the consumer interest is on a larger scale than just that. Moreover, when we come to debate such issues in relation to a later amendment, I shall wax heavily on that aspect.

This is our opening shot on the issue. It seems to me to put the point in its simplest form: consumers are interested in all aspects of everything contained in the Bill, which I am sure will one day be an Act. Therefore it seems to me that the consumers' committees should not prima facie be limited in any way to what they may at least become interested in. I am not suggesting for one moment that they will necessarily be encouraged to take an interest in any technical matters; but I certainly believe that that is the central issue. I say that because we use many of these amendments as a means to learn what the Government have in mind so as to understand the nature of the legislation which they are putting forward. We also use such amendments in order to try to explain to the Government our views of how the Bill might be improved.

I am convinced that the Government could easily accept Amendment No. 20, which is the one upon which I concentrate at present, without in any way undermining the principles of the Bill or losing credibility with their supporters in terms of not making concessions. It is an example of something which would in a minor way improve the legislation. However, whatever one thinks of that view, I should especially like to hear the noble Lord's argument on this matter with a view to reflecting upon it.

Lord Renton

I have studied these amendments and I must say that I think for the three which are to be grouped after Amendment No. 20 there is no case whatever to be made. However, we should seriously consider whether Amendment No. 20 should be made; namely, in subsection (1) of Clause 2 to refer to this "Act" instead of this "Part". At the moment I have an open mind on the issue. The only possible later clauses are those from Clause 92 onwards. Quite frankly, I do not think that consumers' committees will be involved in them. Clause 92 is headed: Directions for preserving security of electricity supplies". That is not a matter which will impinge upon the services which consumers will receive; it only impinges very indirectly and contingently. It deals mainly with civil emergencies. It is important that it should do so. I do not think that consumers' committees should be involved in that.

Clause 94 concerns "Provision of statistical information". It is permissive that the Secretary of State may provide information and serve a notice on a licence holder for an exemption, but then again in the nature of things consumers' committees will obviously get such information as is available. I think that it is stretching things rather to say that any of these other matters—that is, competition and restrictive trade practices, rights of entry and so on—should become the responsibility of the director and the committees. Therefore, although I still have an open mind on the subject, I am not convinced that there is a case for Amendment No. 20.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

Perhaps I may follow the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and respond primarily to his Amendment No. 20, since he has not referred to the other amendments specifically. I should like to begin by explaining that Part I of the Bill establishes the regulatory regime for the electricity supply industry after reorganisation. The regulatory regime is designed to protect the interests of the consumer from possible abuses of monopoly power by the reorganised and eventually privatised industry. Within the overall regulatory framework, the consumers' committees have a vital role to play.

Those committees will form an integral part of the director's office and will carry out on his behalf a wide range of activities such as monitoring the activities of the public electricity suppliers, (that is the successors to the area boards) investigating customers' complaints and helping the suppliers to formulate codes of practice on the payment of bills and on the special needs of the elderly and disabled.

The main role of the consumers' committees is to assist the director to carry out responsibilities for protecting the interests of the consumer. All the provisions in the Bill relating to the committees' role are therefore to be found in Part I and that is why Clause 2(1) is drafted in the way that it is, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Peston, realised when he floated the question.

I shall come to the specific point in a moment but I have to say that there is no role for the committees to play in the areas covered by Parts II and III of the Bill, which are, as my noble friend Lord Renton pointed out, largely concerned with wider matters. They are concerned with the transfer of the property of the boards and the Electricity Council to the successor companies and the resolution of a number of issues relating to these transfers. As such, not only are they not suitable for what is proposed, but they are matters for the Secretary of State and will largely have been completed before the committees even begin their work. That is the rationale lying behind the clause as it is at present drafted.

The noble Lord raised points about a number of clauses, and perhaps I may take Clause 70 first. In essence, it prevents a future government from renationalising the industry without new primary legislation. I should have thought that that was more of a political question than one for consumers. Clause 92 is about security precautions and, as my noble friend said, about emergency planning. Again, these are more matters of national policy than for a consumer body to deal with. Clause 93 activates Schedule 12, which is about the payment of financial assistance on nuclear liabilities. I have to say here that the Secretary of State's use of this will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. So, again, it is not really suitable for consumer committees.

Lord Williams of Evel

On that point under Clause 93 and Schedule 12, does the noble Lord really believe that consumers' committees should not make any input into that discussion at all?

Lord Glenarthur

I dare say they can make an input, but the input surely will take place during the parliamentary scrutiny. It is rather like the kind of scrutiny we are conducting now where consumer bodies make their representations known. I suggest that that is the appropriate mechanism. It is not one which should be directly part of the consumer elements which we are talking about. At the moment we are dealing with those elements under Part I of the Bill as opposed to Parts II and III.

That does not mean that just because the clause as written does not go so far as Part III or this element of it, it will not be possible for consumer views to be made known. I am saying that it will be a matter subject to parliamentary scrutiny and not to that of consumers' committees, although consumer views will be known.

Clause 94 is about the collection of government statistics and Clause 95 is about competition law. Again, that leads us on to matters such as the Monopolies and Mergers Commission which I do not think are matters for consumers' committees. In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that it is logical that the consumers' committees should be established for the purposes of Part I only.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

Before my noble friend sits down, is he saying that the regional consumers' committees would not be in a position to give evidence to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and that it is not envisaged that they should do so, should the occasion arise?

Lord Glenarthur

I am bound to say that I do not know the answer to that. I suspect that it is possible for them to make some representations. I know that anything to do with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is fairly complex and I hate to trespass on that ground. I shall certainly try to find out, in order to satisfy my noble friend.

Lord Peston

As always, the noble Lord has answered in a very clear, forthright manner. We are indebted to him for that, but I do not like the content of the answers. First, as I understand it, these committees cannot give evidence. They have no locus in order to become involved in, say, monopolies, mergers, restrictive practices and that sort of thing. That is my understanding of the Bill.

Lord Renton

With great respect, the jurisdiction of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is derived not only through representations and references made to it by government. The commission can consider representations from anywhere else in society.

Lord Peston

What it considers is of course up to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. What we are concerned about is what these people can do by right and obligation with respect to protecting consumers in the industry. What I have in mind and have been probing for—and let us take the restrictive practices; I can argue through all these clauses and give examples—is where a local consumer body believes that the local production of electricity or supply of electricity is being subject to abuse of monopoly power. First, I feel it is only right that it should be drawn to the commission's attention. It is a matter that concerns the commission and I should be horrified to be told that it did not think the matter concerned it.

Secondly, I should like to see in the legislation at least some notion that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission had some broader obligation to listen to consumers' committees. After all, we are discussing competition and consumer protection. I give that as just one example. I am bound to say that again — —

Lord Trafford

Is the noble Lord asking that there should be some method of referral by these committees to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? If that is so, with respect it does not make sense. But if he is talking about whether, on request, the consumers' committees, can give evidence, then of course they can, as can any other body. But they cannot initiate a referral, which is what the noble Lord seems to be implying from his example.

Lord Peston

I do not know whether the Minister wishes to speak before me on this point. What I have in mind is clearly not that the committees should make a referral. I am not seeking via this Bill completely to change the mergers and monopolies legislation of this country. I am capable of doing so but I am not seeking to do that at this moment. I am simply asking what, as of right and as normal behaviour, these consumers' committees can do.

My conception of them is not simply as bodies that deal with complaints, although I think that is very important. It is as bodies which concern themselves with consumers' affairs generally. That is a very important matter. I happen to believe that the abuse of monopoly power is a major issue for consumers. It is my view—I am not certain that the Government will agree with it—that there are serious problems of potential abuse of monopoly power with respect to the Bill. Therefore, I strongly wish to see the committees have some more specific role.

I give that as an example, but I think the noble Lord is aware that on the point that was made as to whether there is any reason why local consumers should have an interest in matters to do with nuclear power and all that, I am inclined to think that it is not something which should be ruled out of their remit.

Lord Trafford

Perhaps I may refer the noble Lord to Clause 12, which covers some of the points he is asking about. It concerns how the director and others may refer matters to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

The clause states: The Director may make to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (in this Part referred to as 'the Monopolies Commission') a reference which is so framed as to require the Commission to investigate". That surely is the pathway, if that is what the noble Lord is looking for, through which these committees can influence matters, even if it does not allow them actual power. In other words, the director can refer matters to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Lord Peston

I am indebted to the noble Lord for his remarks, but that is not my point. My point concerns the consumers' committees. I agree that what the noble Lord has said clarifies the point that arose under the earlier amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. Our vision of the consumers' committees is of something rather more independent than is the Government's vision, as I see it. The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, was very clear in his response to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, as regards the close relationship between the consumers' committees and the director general. Essentially, I am pointing out that that is not quite our conception. Our view is an alternative view, and one which I think is at least worth considering in terms of consumer protection.

I hope that we do not want to have at this moment a debate on the detail of everything that the consumers' committees do. It is a question of the broadness or narrowness of the remit of the committees. I am not clear what the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, is trying to say to us. At one point it seemed as if he was arguing that the remit of the consumers' committees was narrower than our vision, but at another time it seemed as if he was saying that the committees could do almost anything they wanted to under the terms of Part I of the Bill and that they did not have to worry about Part III as their conditions were already stated under Part I. All I am seeking to establish is that anything these committees believe is of relevance to consumers should be something that will not be considered to be ultra vires.

Lord Glenarthur

I shall try to help the noble Lord a little further. The first point to make is that the Bill specifically states that the committees have a wider role in consumer affairs than just that of handling complaints. They can of course advise on anything that the noble Lord would wish them to advise on.

The noble Lord homed in on Clause 95 and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission case. My noble friend Lord Trafford is broadly right on this. The committees can of course give evidence to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. They do not need to be involved in Clause 95, because Clause 95 is about the operation of competition law. That is a matter for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the Director General of Fair Trading and not the director as regards this Bill. That is why, in the broad terms in which the noble Lord seeks to explore this issue, the role of the committees is relevant only to Part I of the Bill and not to the later parts. I think that he may be under a misapprehension.

Lord Peston

The point of these amendments is to remove misapprehensions that Members of the Committee such as myself have. I put the simple question that if a local consumers' committee comes to the conclusion that it perceives an abuse of monopoly power, could it, with no problems whatever, simply go directly or write directly to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or the Director General of Fair Trading to say that it had discovered what in its view constituted an abuse of monopoly power? The committee could not refer it to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or the Director General of Fair Trading in the sense that the noble Lord, Lord Trafford, pointed out, but could it draw it to the attention of those bodies?

Are the Government saying that that kind of thing can happen and that the same can apply to related matters, and there is nothing to stop the committees, if, for example, they have certain views about the security of nuclear installations in their local areas, expressing a view to those bodies? That is all the reassurance that I require. I do not necessarily require it at this moment. But the point of the amendment was to clarify that kind of issue. We are seeking to discover what these committees can do. As the Government will see in respect of other amendments, we want the committees to be active defenders of and protagonists for the interests of consumers. The last thing we want to discover in a year or two's time when this Bill is law is that we have passed a Bill which gives the committees very limited roles.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

The short answer to the noble Lord is, yes. If he cares to look at Clause 49(a) of the Bill, he will see that it refers to the general duties of the consumers' committees to advise the director. Not only would they be able to give evidence to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and, I daresay, also take up any other matter with the Director General of Fair Trading, but no doubt they would also, through making the representations that Clause 49(a) allows them to do, be able to advise the director, who may himself be able to do precisely what the noble Lord seeks.

Lord Peston

I shall obviously read that answer more precisely again. I think some of this may turn on the use of words like "might", "ought", "have a right to" and other such expressions. I shall consider those words and come back to them. However, I am to some extent considerably reassured. Nevertheless, I must study the matter further.

I wish briefly to refer to Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 which are slightly more in the nature of drafting amendments, in particular Amendment No. 21. There seems to be some confusion between, as it were, the word "appointed", which I felt referred to specific people, and the word "established", which referred to the committee. I felt that in that case the Government meant "established" and not "appointed". That is purely a question of the use of the English language rather than anything else.

Similarly, the words "authorised area" suggest. that that concept is written in tablets of stone. In fact I should have thought such an area is absolutely a proposed authorised area as regards the Bill as it now stands. It only becomes the authorised area subsequently.

I was going to say that I do not enjoy nit-picking; however, I do enjoy that. These two amendments show just how carefully we are scrutinising the Bill in order to get the wording right. I merely wish the Minister to ask those who are perhaps more expert than either he or I whether the wording is precisely right.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I am rather puzzled about what would happen if the members of the consumers' committees wished to raise a complaint regarding the director himself being in default. Who would they go to? I have had a great deal of experience of the health service before the last reorganisation as the deputy chairman of the Manchester Executive Council of Health. I was also the chairman of the services committee, which used to deal with complaints against general practitioners, dentists, opticians and pharmacists. It was always a very difficult task when a complaint had been made against one of those individuals. In the main, general practitioners were involved in the largest percentage of the complaints. It was always extremely difficult to get professional people to be critical of their colleagues.

I believe that the Minister has made it clear to my noble friend that the consumers' committees can approach the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. However, I do not envisage that that is the type of complaint that those committees would mostly deal with. Must we assume that the director will be in an unassailable position, and that finally he will only be the vehicle for any complaints those committees may wish to make? If that is the case, I do not think that the situation is sustainable, because people do not tend to react dispassionately and impartially if they are the subject of a complaint. There may well be a surfeit of complaints against the director. I find this situation rather odd. The position must be made clearer before I can be satisfied that the consumer is being given total protection.

Lord Glenarthur

We covered this point before dinner in some detail. If the noble Lord reads what was said then, I think he will be reassured to learn that the committees concerned can always approach the Secretary of State direct. I think that that takes into account the case that he envisages. However, I urge him to study the point which was considered in considerable detail before dinner.

Lord Dean of Beswick

That frightens me still further. I refer the noble Lord to a particularly shocking case that occurred in Leeds. I am not criticising a Conservative Secretary of State. I am talking about a tragic event in which a woman died due to negligence by a neuro-surgeon as a result of which the widower received substantial damages. The lack of action on the part of the Minister at the time—who, as I say, was not a Conservative Minister—was outrageous. The only reason that the case was ever fully dealt with—not to the satisfaction of the husband because he did not get his wife back—and the neuro-surgeon was censured was the persistence of members of the local community health council.

I am sorry that I missed the debate just before dinner, but if the Government believe that total protection for the consumer is enshrined in the Bill, I think that they are whistling in the dark. I do not believe that any such protection is encompassed in what the Minister said or in the Bill. I say that on the basis of experience in public life both as an MP and a local councillor.

Lord Glenarthur

I do not think that it is possible to draw conclusions from one experience in a different field, of which I accept the noble Lord has considerable knowledge. The Secretary of State has a most important role to play. That is why it is important that if the committees are not satisfied for some reason with the work of the director—and his role is set out in Schedule I—they have the right to go to the Secretary of State. I am quite sure that the Secretary of State would not be satisfied if it was possible to uphold the kind of point which the noble Lord has raised.

Lord Dean of Beswick

I am sorry to belabour the point but more recently, about two years ago, in Yorkshire 17 elderly people died of salmonella. The Secretary of State for Health appointed a committee to investigate the matter. In the committee's report there was implied criticism of the chairman of the Yorkshire Regional Health Authority and the chairman of the Wakefield District Health Authority. In the next round of changes in chairmanship, I and others involved with Yorkshire suggested that those two gentlemen ought to be removed because they had not done the job they were appointed to do. Sad to say, the Secretary of State in the present Government re-appointed them.

Therefore, in my experience the possibility of recourse to the Secretary of State does not mean what the Minister thinks it means. I have been involved with cases in which it has meant nothing at all.

Lord Glenarthur

I am not sure that we shall ever reach agreement on this point. I was slightly surprised to see that there was an earlier amendment which was not moved which would have exempted the director from scrutiny by the ombudsman. In the circumstances it is a good thing that it was not moved.

Perhaps I may revert to the most important aspect of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and explain how the clause will work. The director will establish a number of consumers' committees. The committees will consist of a chairman and between 10 and 20 members. The director will appoint the chairman of each committee after consultation with the Secretary of State, and will appoint the members after consultation with the chairman. There will be a committee for each of the area boards' successor companies in the first instance, with the flexibility to take account of new companies which may become public electricity suppliers in the future.

The noble Lord's amendment would have no effect on the numbers, responsibilities, membership or method of appointment of the committees. In technical terms, subsection (1) of this clause requires the director to bring the committees into existence, and subsections (3) and (4) provide some of the detail of what he is to do. It is appropriate to describe this process as "establishing" the committees, and that is why the word "establish" is used in subsection (1). Subsection (2) deals with a different topic, namely defining the area within which each committee may exercise its functions. So a different word is required, and the draftsman has chosen—I think with ample justification—to use the word "appointed". I do not think that there is very much between us and I hope that the noble Lord will not feel it necessary to press the amendment.

Lord Peston

Of course I shall not press the amendment. As always, I am extremely interested in the use of the English language, particularly in respect of legislation which is not my subject, as the noble Lord well knows. If the words had been reversed and the first sentence had had "appointed" and the second "establish", he would have put up an equally good defence.

Perhaps I may refer to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Dean. It may be because we have been out of power for so long that we on this side of the Chamber are hypersensitive to certain matters of a political nature connected with appointments and need to be reassured. We do not regard matters related to appointments as trivial. We are not raising the issues quite as politically as it sometimes may appear; we think that there is more to it. I just make that remark en passant. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 not moved.]

Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 23:

Page 2, line 11, leave out from ("supplier,") to end of line 13.

The noble Lord said: I hope that we can deal with this amendment very briefly. We are intrigued as to why there might sometimes be a committee covering a wider area. Have the Government included the provision hypothetically in case a need may arise? Or do they have in mind the possibility that the consumer committees might be used more generally for such suppliers? The noble Lord, Lord Renton, emphasised earlier the need to distinguish very carefully between suppliers and generators. I think that here we are discussing suppliers. I shall have questions in due course about generation.

All we want is a very quick answer as to whether the provision is included just in case it is needed but is not likely to arise or whether this will be the norm. If it is the latter, we may pursue the matter further. The purpose of the amendment is very much one of clarification. I beg to move.

Lord Ezra

Perhaps I may add that there are two aspects of the wording which concern me. The first was referred to earlier in connection with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and concerned why the Secretary of State should suddenly be brought into the matter. We have heard the Government argue vigorously that the director should determine all these matters and now we have the Secretary of State coming in.

The other point is that I am as concerned as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, by the doubts that he raised as to whether the committees should apply to an area covered by a supplier or by more than one supplier. There seems to be some doubt and ambiguity. I cannot see the case for enlarging the responsibilities. The areas covered by the suppliers are fairly considerable in themselves and I should have thought that that is the way that it ought to be established in the first place.

Lord Glenarthur

When the property rights and liabilities of the area boards are vested in their successor companies they will be vested in their entirety. The successor companies will, on receipt of their licences, become the public electricity suppliers for the existing areas of the area boards as they are presently constituted. The Government are fully committed to the appointment of one consumers' committee in the area of each of the 12 successor companies to the area boards and the two successor companies in Scotland.

The Bill before the Committee is designed to promote competition in the electricity industry. It is therefore possible that at some time in the future—as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, forecast—a new company could obtain a public electricity supply licence for a small part of the area, or an area, of an existing public electricity supplier. The area of the new supplier might be so small that it would not be practical to appoint a new committee to serve it. Clause 2(2)(b) gives the Secretary of State in this instance the ability to decide that it would be sensible for the existing consumers' committee to serve the areas of both those suppliers. I should have said that that was an important element because it introduces the sort of flexibility that will be needed if, at some point in the future, such a small area comes into being. With that explanation of the essential point of flexibility, I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied.

Lord Peston

I thank the noble Lord for that answer which deals with the matter entirely to our satisfaction.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9 p.m.

Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 24:

Page 2, line 15, at end insert: ("( ) The consumers' Committees shall represent domestic electricity consumers and shall have the following duties—
  1. (a) to provide effective and independent representation for such consumers in any investigations carried out by the Director or by any other bodies including the Office of Fair Trading or the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and Parliamentary Select Committees;
  2. (b) to disseminate advice and information to electricity consumers on energy-related matters.").

The noble Lord said: This is an important amendment, but I hope that I shall not need to delay the Committee too long. The relevant arguments have already been largely advanced by myself and others with regard to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil. Certain of the arguments with regard to paragraph (b) of the amendment were put forward in respect of Amendment No. 9 when such matters as energy conservation arose.

What we should like to see written more specifically into the Bill—I believe, regrettably, that we are somewhat at issue with the Government on this matter—is the independence of the consumer bodies. On the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, the noble Lord, Lord Glanarthur, used such expressions as "fully integrated with the director's office". I must repeat, although not wishing to do so to the point of tedium, that I am not happy about that aspect. I should like to see those bodies more independent. If we were to write the words "effective" and "independent" into the legislation, that would at least help a little. I therefore ask the Government to at least consider amendments of their own which might deal with the matter.

Similarly, with respect to paragraph (b)—I thought I heard this point mentioned earlier, but often one does not take sufficient note—the noble Lord, or one of his colleagues, said that the consumers' committees would do what we propose under paragraph (b) anyway. I believe that I heard that point being made, although I may have misunderstood, when we were discussing matters such as energy conservation. If what appears in paragraph (b) is undoubtedly part of their role, that is fine; I need no persuasion.

However, given the importance of energy efficiency, which has been debated, and the importance of conservation, if there is any doubt that one of the bodies that might be involved is the consumers' committee, we should write that provision into the Bill to make sure that there is no doubt about it. I should be most happy to be told that there is no doubt about the matter and that the Bill says that this happens in some form that I have missed. I have made my points about paragraph (a). I hope that the Government will take them seriously.

Lord Trafford

Perhaps the noble Lord will glance at Clauses 43 and 44 and, to a lesser extent, Clause 45. It seems to me that they render the amendment unnecessary. It is true that independence is not written in, but the independence of the committee depends upon its appointment, composition and so forth, which we debated earlier. If the noble Lord looks at those clauses, he will see for example that Clause 44(1) states: It shall be the duty of each consumers' committee to investigate any matter which appears to the committee to be a relevant matter". To a large extent, that seems to cover what the noble Lord wants, but I accept that there is no mention of the term "independent". However, as we have already debated that matter and decided on the composition and appointment of the committee, it would be almost a contradiction to write the provision in as proposed. Be that as it may, I believe that the functions that the noble Lord wishes the committee to perform are covered.

Lord Renton

I am mystified by what is included in the concept of the three words, "provide … independent representation". What kind of representation? In what sense is it to be independent? Does the word "provide" mean "pay for", or is it to be done by the consumers' committees' own staff? I find this altogether puzzling.

As to paragraph (b)— to disseminate advice and information to electricity consumers on energy related matters"— that could cost a certain amount of money each year. Is that to be carried on the budgets of the consumers' committees? I should have thought that information to consumers is surely something that the providers of electricity would provide just as companies provide all kinds of information not only to their shareholders, but also to consumers. I should be interested to hear what my noble friends say, but I think that the amendment introduces one or two elements of confusion.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I go along with my noble friend Lord Renton. That is not simply in order to get my own back on the noble Lord, Lord Peston, who assumed an attitude of lofty neutrality in respect of the helpful suggestion that I made previously; namely, that consumers' committees should be made independent of the director general. I do not mind where they come from, but, I wish them to be divorced from the director general.

Here we have an amendment from the same source saying that it should be the duty of the consumers' committees to provide effective and independent representation". One asks independent from whom? The consumers' committees will depend for their livelihood and very existence upon the director general. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, accepted that point just now. How is it that he can now appear at that Box and propose an amendment of this kind?

I was just now seeking independence, and instead of supporting me in my humble and modest gesture the noble Lord took a rather lofty stance in a neutral corner. How very disappointing! It is surprising that now he should appear in a different position altogether. One wonders who is independent from whom? Who will be the effective judge of the "effective and independent representation". Only the person who makes the appointment has the sanction. That is the problem.

I hope that the Government will consider this matter a little more because I personally am unhappy about it, as I said previously. I have grave misgivings about encouraging a committee to disseminate advice and information to electricity consumers on energy related matters. Every channel of communication today is clogged up with huge quantities of advice, some of which is very bad. We need to be very careful whom we authorise, let alone encourage, to add to the flood. I see no reason why we should encourage the noble Lord in this amendment.

Lord Renton

There is not enough room in the waste-paper baskets.

Lord Glenarthur

I certainly understand the interest of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in wishing to ensure the protection of the interests of domestic consumers and indeed the interest of my noble friend in securing precisely the same object. It is a concern which I think we all share. But I think I can explain why it would be unnecessary to amend the clause in the way proposed by the noble Lord.

Taking the parts of the proposed amendment in turn, we do not feel that the reference to domestic electricity consumers is necessary. The duties of the consumers' committees in the protection of domestic consumers are well documented in the Bill—for example, the committeees are required to make representations to and consult with each public electricity supplier allocated to the committee about all such matters as appear to the committee to affect the interests of customers or potential customers of that supplier.

Secondly, we do not feel it necessary to place a duty on the committees to provide effective and independent representation for consumers in the way in which the noble Lord suggests. The fundamental basis for our proposals for consumer protection is that the new consumers' committees should be an integral part of the office of the director general. The noble Lord seems to think that that is a bad idea, but the fact is that by keeping these two close together it is more likely to be satisfactory than otherwise.

The balance of duties and roles between the director and the consumers' committees will be a fine one. It is designed to achieve the best results for the consumer. I suggest that the amendment proposed by the noble Lord would drive a wedge between the director and the consumers' committees and would have the effect of upsetting the careful balance that I have described. The network of local consumers' committees will help the director to protect consumers' interests by advising him as appropriate. It would inhibit this process if the committees operated independently of the director when he or any other body is carrying out an investigation, as this would isolate them from the rest of the regulatory organisation and in the end act against the consumers' interests.

The proposals contained in the Bill will result in a fully integrated regulatory framework and that, I think, will produce the best results on behalf of all consumers. Again, as I have mentioned in the past, these proposals have been warmly welcomed by the area electricity consultative councils and the Electricity Consumers Council.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

I wonder whether my noble friend can say whether anybody else in all the consumer bodies has taken the same line as the Electricity Consumers Council. Is there another single consumer body that has taken that line?

Lord Glenarthur

I cannot say whether any individual consumer body has done so. I can say that the area electricity consultative councils have taken that view. I do not think one can lump them together and call them one body, but they certainly have welcomed the proposals.

Lord Williams of Elvel

Perhaps I can help the noble Baroness. The answer is no.

Lord Glenarthur

I am not sure that I can necessarily take the noble Lord's word for that but I shall certainly check on it. I said to my noble friend that I did not have that particular information. I said that the area electricity consultative councils apparently welcomed those proposals.

Lord Williams of Elvel

That may be true. The noble Baroness asked whether any other consumer organisation welcomed the proposals and the answer is no, so far as I know.

Lord Glenarthur

I should have thought that there had been many that had represented consumers' councils. I should have thought that many of those who spoke in another place in support of the Bill when it went through Committee there could be counted upon as supporting those councils in their approach to the Bill. Indeed, I can quote at length some remarks in support of the consumer protection proposals in the Bill from a range of different councils. One example is the Eastern Electricity Consultative Council. If I were to go through them all I would weary even the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. However, if he would like me to go through them ——

Lord Williams of Elvel

I take the point about councils. The noble Baroness asked about consumer organisations other than the area councils. So far as I know there are no others.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

Those that I have listed here are councils. Whether or not there are any other individual bodies I do not know, nor do I know whether one counts the electricity supply trade union council as one. However, we may perhaps be tilting at windmills in this case because the majority of people welcome these proposals. Those are the people who are represented by the electricity consultative councils of the areas and the Electricity Consumers Council. Perhaps I may continue.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

I must make my point clear. I was referring to a very narrow point. I was claiming that nobody else but the Electricity Consumers Council had welcomed, not the general consumer protection elements of the Bill, but simply the fact that the regional committees would suffice in their present form and not independent of the director. It is a very narrow point that the Electricity Consumers Council has welcomed this. It has not been supported by anybody else in the consumer movement so far as I am aware.

Lord Glenarthur

I know that my noble friend has an important role in the consumer movement. We are all aware of that. Perhaps she does not go so far in her council as both the Electricity Consumers Council and these other individual ones. I do not know of any other individual outlet that has made these particular claims. However, perhaps we can move on to the other parts with which this amendment deals.

We have already provided for the consumers' committees to play an important role in representing the consumer. They will have their own specific role in complaint handling. The director will have a duty to investigate any complaint which deals with any of the supply companies' duties or obligations under the Bill, or the licences, and which is made directly to him or referred to him by the consumers' committees, and the committees will have a duty to investigate any other complaint made to them or referred to them by the director.

In addition, when the director sets out the standards of service which the supply companies will have to achieve in supplying domestic customers he can ask the committees to determine any disputes arising over failures to meet those standards or over compensation.

Turning to the third part of the amendment of the noble Lord, the Bill already contains important provisions for the dissemination of information and advice by the director. For example, the director will be required to collect and publish comparative information about all the public electricity suppliers so that consumers for the first time will be able to compare their local suppliers directly with all the other suppliers in the country. The committees will also have an important role to play. For example, they will be required to report to the director on any such matter as he may require and may make a report to him concerning any matter they consider likely to affect the interests of customers, or indeed potential customers, of the public electricity supplier allocated to the committee. They are also required to report to the director on their activities, including matters on which they have advised the director, and the director may arrange for the publication of the reports made to him by the consumers' committee.

The amendments of the noble Lord would have very little effect on the duties on the consumers' committees as they have already been set out in the Bill. To that extent, I believe them to be quite unnecessary.

Lord Peston

I thank the noble Lord Perhaps I may say how disappointed I am at the view of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, of my amendment. I may sound lofty, but I was genuinely open-minded about his amendment. As I argued, I have problems on achieving independence. I was aware of my amendment and of his, and I was trying quite honestly to find a way through them. I still am.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, referred to driving a wedge. The difference between us is that I want to drive that wedge. That is my concept of independence. I have certain ideas, but I am not certain how to accomplish them. That is why I spoke in the way that I did on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. I was genuinely uncertain although I have some ideas to which I may return at Report stage on how to accomplish what I want.

With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, I thought that his suggestion that the relevant information will be disseminated by producers was preposterous. The producers are in the business of selling electricity. The issue relates to consumers. I want consumers to be able to be advised, "Don't buy this electricity because you can economise on it in the following way." I should certainly not ask the producers to be the centre of information on conservation and economy and such matters. I cannot make any sense of his intervention.

If I may refer again to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton—so that we may annoy each other even more—I do not believe that the channels of communication are clogged or excessive, as was argued earlier. I do not intend to delay Members of the Committee, but electricity is wasted. There is a great opportunity here for the rational use of electricity in our country. It would be in the national interest to support a movement to that effect. I think the consumer councils can help to do that. I understand the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, is telling me that they can help to do it and perhaps they will help to do it. My point was to bring it specifically to their notice.

These are matters to which I can return. I think they are serious. I certainly warn the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that I regard the question of independence as a very serious matter, as he does, and I hope that on Report we may get a meeting of minds between the two of us as to how we can get the independence we have in mind. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 25 to 30 not moved.]

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 31:

Page 2, line 22, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

("(4) In appointing persons to be members of a consumers' committee the Director shall have regard to the desirability of appointing persons who have experience of matters relevant to—

  1. (a) industrial consumers;
  2. (b) domestic consumers and fuel poverty;
  3. (c) the geographical make-up of the area;
  4. (d) the impact on the environment of electricity supply; and
  5. (e) the provision of electricity supply services.").

The noble Lord said: This is an important amendment because it seeks to set out more clearly than is done in the body of the Bill the type of person who should be appointed to these consumers' committees. The Bill itself simply refers to, a person who has experience of, and has shown capacity in, matters relevant to the provision of electricity supply services".

I do not see that that really describes the kind of person about whom we are talking. This could be somebody who has spent his life supplying electricity. It could be someone who has spent his life making equipment with which to supply electricity. What we need are people who are conversant with the needs of consumers.

The amendment, as amended in turn by Amendments Nos. 32 and 33, which should be taken with it, seeks to set out more clearly the kinds of persons and the qualifications they should have to be selected to serve on these committees. I very much hope that the Government will accept that this is a helpful amendment. It spells out clearly the kinds of persons needed. It does not lay down precisely who they should be but merely says that when they are appointed regard should be had to these kinds of qualifications and this type of experience. I beg to move.

Lord Peston moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 31, Amendment No. 32: Line 5, after ("industrial") insert ("and agricultural").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I speak also to Amendment No. 33. I rise with trepidation on these two amendments to the amendment. I was hoping that at least one of the noble Lords in whose names the amendments stand would precede me on this matter.

As the Committee will be aware, this concerns agricultural and rural matters. I am an overwhelmingly urban person who is delighted that the countryside exists and is kept in good condition by other noble Lords so that I can visit it occasionally, but not too often. I am well aware that in matters of this kind what I might call the agricultural interest always feels neglected. Speaking on behalf of my noble friend Lord Carter, I should like to say that he was most anxious that we add this to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, to which we are very sympathetic anyway. This is simply adding a dimension, and I am certain that noble Lords opposite who themselves are much more involved with the countryside than I am will add their voices.

It is the normal sensitivity of the farming and rural community that people assume that there is something very primitive about their lives and that matters to do with electricity and things of that sort do not concern them. Of course they clearly do. They are very concerned about the electricity supply, which is involved with livestock units in terms of milking and automatic feeding. There is the general problem of the isolated farmstead and access to electricity.

The general question of costs of connection in rural areas needs to be taken into account. The rural community is most anxious that the consumers' committees should not be dominated by urban interests. It is anxious that people should realise that poverty, which in the public image is often associated with urban areas, should be recognised as existing in rural areas, and therefore that this should be taken into account. On behalf of my noble friend Lord Carter I beg to move the amendment to the amendment.

Lord Wise

I should like to add a few words to what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has said regarding these two amendments. There is considerable concern within the argicultural industry and the rural communities that due regard should be taken of their interests. I understand that the Secretary of State is determining that the number of consumers' committees shall be the same number as the authorised areas but with possible additions of suppliers. I am not familiar with those areas but it must be fair to say that the rural communities will constitute a considerable proportion of the majority of them.

I hope that the local sub-committees to be established by the consumers' committees will include persons who have knowledge and experience of the needs of the agricultural industry and rural communities. It is by no means certain that they will; therefore it is most desirable that agriculture is represented on the main committees by people who have experience of its particular needs.

As the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said, the costs of the supply to rural areas are greater. Companies may be disposed to concentrate their efforts on the relatively more profitable urban areas. However, the needs of rural areas must be considered, taken account of and safeguarded. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will pay due regard to this matter.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

I should like to support the amendment. I live in a very isolated agricultural area. Electricity makes all the difference in terms of farming equipment and the quality of life of people in remote cottages. The words, "including rural areas" would cover areas concerned with agriculture and possibly others as well. This is terribly important. When I first went to live in the country there was no electricity; I cannot tell you how appalling it was. It would be quite simple for the Government to insert these two suggestions: "and agricultural" in line 5 and "including rural areas" in line 7. This would be much appreciated by the entire agricultural community. It is not something that could make difficulties for anyone else.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

Greatly as I regret it, the harmony which ought to exist and would normally exist between the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and myself has not been at such a level that the confusion made by my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley is to be tolerated at all. I hope in future he will be very careful to embarrass neither the noble Lord, Lord Peston, nor myself.

Lord Tordoff

Perhaps the noble Lord will recognise that it is not the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley; it is the noble Lord, Lord Wise.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

The noble Lord's guidance is always helpful. Having listened to the discussions on this amendment and on the amendment to the amendment, I feel a slight measure of regret that I did not move the previous amendment. If that had not been there—if the need to appoint people knowledgeable in the electricity supply industry had not been there—it would not have been necessary to add all the others.

I very much regret the notion that there must be people who are knowledgeable about electricity. What is wanted is people who are knowledgeable about other matters and who are good at asking experts questions and detecting lies in the answers. That is what is necessary. I do not want experts in the electricity or any other industry, but I want to have people who represent customers generally and who have some knowledge from their own background. However, the idea that whoever makes these appointments should go round dredging each section of the community for some suitable nominee is not one which I find at all acceptable. With great respect to my noble friend Lady Elliot who just spoke eloquently in support of the farming community, I do not believe that this would satisfy the farming community any more than it would any other section of society.

Lord Monk Bretton

I should also like to say a few words in support of my noble friend's amendment to the amendment. As regards the rural areas, it must be remembered that it is not merely about environment and scenery; it is about rural people and those who earn their living in the country.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar

Perhaps I may also speak in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. Clause 2(4) as it stands is most unsatisfactory and in parts is almost unintelligible. It refers to persons being appointed having experience and having shown capacity in matters relevant to the provision of electricity supply services. Of course if you are supplying services, someone has to receive them and that is the consumer. There is no mention of the consumer at all in selecting persons to sit on the consumers' committees. If one looks in the margin, the clause is entitled "Consumers' committees". To have a consumers' committee in this Bill composed of people experienced only in supplying electricity and not receiving it is a contradiction in terms, although I may be misreading the Bill entirely.

It creates a double standard, because the person not only has to have "experience of but also has to have: shown capacity in, matters relevant to the provision of electricity supply services". One has to ask how a person's capacity is to be measured. Is it to be by his qualifications or because he has done something spectacular in the electricity sphere? The amendment proposed will bring a proper balance into the selection of persons to serve on the committees and in the public view will make it look like a consumers' committee rather than a suppliers' committee.

Lord Glenarthur

The consumers' committees will be able to review and report on any matter in their area relating to the supply of electricity as well as carrying out a number of functions relating to the protection of electricity consumers' interests. Therefore, it is only right that when appointing members to a committee the director should have regard to the desirability of appointing a person who has experience of the matters and indeed has shown capacity in, as the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, mentioned—and I shall come back to that element in a moment—matters relevant to the provision of electricity supply services. This does not mean that they need to have worked in the industry, but it points towards the desirability of candidates with relevant experience; for example, in consumer issues——

Lord Ezra

The noble Lord has just referred to experience in consumer issues, and that is. precisely what the Bill does not say, and that is the burden of our intervention.

Lord Glenarthur

The noble Lord has hardly given me a moment even to get to my feet. If he allows me to proceed I will endeavour to explain why I cannot agree with him in his argument. I was about to say that I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Peyton that what we need on these committees are people who are capable. They should be lay people who have the sort of background which will enable them to discharge their duties effectively in much the way that my noble friend described it—people with bags of common sense and wide experience. There are many ideas which could be encompassed in the suggestions made by the noble Lord, but those are the sort of people who should usefully be employed on these committees. In a sense this argument is similar to that which we had on Clause 1 about the people who ought to come forward to be considered for director.

I fear that the effect of the amendments would be unduly restrictive, and they could shut off from membership a great proportion of very able people who do not meet the criteria which my noble friend Lord Peyton described. There is no reason why under subsection (4) as currently drafted people with experience in matters affecting industrial and domestic consumers, the needs of low income groups and pensioners or the impact of electricity supply on the environment should not be appointed to a committee; nor does subsection (4) as currently drafted exclude persons with experience in matters affecting agricultural consumers, as my noble friends Lord Wise and Lord Monk Bretton would have them do. Those agricultural consumers would be from rural areas and could be appointed to a committee in the same way as anybody else. However, we need to give the director maximum flexibility so that he can appoint able and useful people from all walks of life.

Lord Tordoff

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. May I simply say that Clause 2(4) does not do that. It is restricting the applicants to people who have experience and capacity—"capacity" is an unfortunate word to use when referring to electricity because it has a specific meaning, but I set that aside—in matters relevant to the provision of electricity supply services, not to the consumption of electricity supply services. Frankly, I would settle for the deletion of the word "provision" and the substitution of the word "consumption". One could argue that that is less restrictive than my noble friend's amendment. I hope that the Minister may settle for that.

Lord Glenarthur

The noble Lord has perhaps missed the point in subsection (4), which states: In appointing a person to be a member of a consumers' committee, the Director shall have regard to the desirability of appointing". To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, the subsection then continues: and has shown capacity in". If we take that "regard" into account, it does not in any sense restrict the persons which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and my noble friend seek to bring forward. As regards "has shown capacity in"—again to pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay—that is a feature which is used elsewhere. I cannot say precisely in what part of the Bill, but I gather that it features in the Water Bill. There is therefore a precedent.

The main point is that the amendments would restrict the sort of people who have sufficient ability to come forward as members of these committees from so doing. The amendments also seek to ensure that the members of the consumers' committees should have experience of the geographical make-up of their area. I assure the Committee it is our clear intention that these committees should provide local representation for all consumers. I am sure that the director will reflect this when he comes to make his appointments. As the Committee will be aware, the Bill already provides for the consumers' committees to appoint, if appropriate, local sub-committees in extensive and sparsely populated areas, so that all consumers will have a locally available representative body.

It is important that there should be real and effective representation for the consumer. I suggest to the Committee that the kind of additional factors that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has written into his Amendment No. 31 (as amended by my noble friends and the noble Lord, Lord Carter) would confine it rather than allow it to be as wide as it should properly be. I understand the intention that lies behind his amendment, but that is indeed what would happen. I hope that, with that explanation, he will not feel it necessary to press the amendment.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

Before my noble friend sits down, I was most encouraged by his warm endorsement of the arguments that I attempted to put forward. Would I be right in construing that as an invitation to put down the amendment again at Report stage to leave out subsection (4)?

Lord Glenarthur

I hesitate to invite my noble friend to put down any amendment. This clause goes some way to supplying the kind of considerations that a director has to have regard to when it comes to appointing the committees. I do not believe that the method that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has chosen would leave the matter open enough. I believe that it would go the opposite way and restrict it.

Lord Peston

It was not my intention to prolong this discussion, but I am most perturbed. I wonder whether the noble Lord is aware of the paradoxical nature of the argument that he has put forward. Essentially, we are concerned with the appointment of consumers' committees. Subsection (4) gives us the only criterion we have here. It has been amply pointed out that the only criterion that seems to concern the Government is someone concerned with the provision of electricity supply services. What the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, seeks to do and what I was slightly amending, is to say that if we are going to specify any criteria at all for consumers' committees, then we might as well specify some consumer criteria. Alternatively, we can adopt the view of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and not specify any criteria at all.

The oddity is precisely the part that the Government have written in. The only matter they have sought to write into the consumers' committee part of the Bill is to make sure that the producer interest is represented. It is a matter for congratulation to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, because I had not realised how absurd this part of the Bill was until he made it abundantly clear.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Surely this is just play on words. I am a farmer, I have a house and I consume electricity. As a farmer it is enormously important to me that the provision of electricity is right. My interest is in the provision of electricity. Of course I am a consumer, but that is my interest and that is what it says. As a householder I am interested in that which is provided. I believe that when the noble Lord reads Hansard he will find that he did not quote that section just now. He said that they were persons concerned with the provision of electricity. That is not what it says. Clause 2(4) refers to: the desirability of appointing a person who has experience of, and has shown capacity in, matters relevant to the provision". The matters that I am interested in are: matters relevant to the provision of electricity". It can be put either way but I believe this is really stretching a point. It may be that the subsection should say "consumption", but that is the consumers' end. What is being criticised is how it is provided. It seems to me that there is nothing wrong with that.

Lord Tordoff

Will the noble Lord consider the possibility of rewording the second part of the clause to give emphasis to consumption rather than to provision? If he insists on having something in these terms to spell out to the director general the kind of person he should have, I hope he will take the point that we shall not go to the stake over a shopping list of people who ought to be on these committees. However, the balance should be on the basis of the consumer rather than the provider of electricity services.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

This has been an interesting discussion. Although I should like to study what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Tordoff and Lord Ezra, and others, what my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil said may perhaps be a much more straightforward method than that suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. I should like to study what has been said. I am certainly not prepared to commit myself at this stage but I hope that the noble Lord will allow me to consider it.

Lord Ezra

As the noble Lord has said, we have had an interesting debate. I am glad that he will take the matter away to study it. I should like to make only one point before I ask leave to withdraw the amendment. I do not think that my amendment is any more restrictive than the wording in the Bill. The words are the same: "shall have regard to". They are not at all restrictive. I should be quite happy to insert after "shall have regard to" the words "inter alia" in order to make quite clear that this is not a restrictive proposition. However, as the noble Lord has said that he will look at the question again, it is my intention to withdraw my amendment.

Lord Peston

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment to Amendment No. 31 standing in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Wise, and my noble friend Lord Carter.

Amendment No. 32, as an amendment to Amendment No. 31, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 33 not moved.]

Lord Ezra

I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 31.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 34 to 42 not moved.]

Lord Peyton of Yeovil moved Amendment No. 43: Page 2, line 31, at end insert— ("(6A) In the event of a dispute arising between the Director and a committee, the committee shall have the right to make representations to the Secretary of State.").

The noble Lord said: It would appear to be the desire of the Committee and indeed of the Government to give the consumers' committees some power and status. I fear that they are already in danger of becoming too much the creatures of the director. The very simple remedy for that would be to give them a measure of access to the Secretary of State. I am not even asking for some formal appeal machinery to be established but merely that they should have the right in the event of a dispute to make representations to the Secretary of State.

That would put those who might feel that they are in control of the consumers' committees on warning that they are not in total control of the position. In the event of a real dispute the last word will be with the Secretary of State, and the consumers' committees will have that degree of standing added to them. In view of the arguments that have been adduced on recent amendments I very much hope that my noble friend will find this a relatively easy argument to accept. I beg to move.

Lord Ezra

In supporting the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, I should like to say that it is my understanding from when we were discussing his earlier amendment that the Government have accepted the fact that if the committee should disagree with the director it would have access to the Secretary of State. I believe that Hansard will show that that was stated. If that is so, there is no reason for this provision not being spelt out in the Bill.

Lord Renton

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Peyton, who is an old parliamentary friend in every sense of the word, will not take amiss what I am about to say. I do not think that we need to give power to anyone, whether statutory or otherwise, to make representations to a Minister. Indeed, if there were to be anything written into a Bill—although it is quite unthinkable in these circumstances—it would be a power to prevent them from doing so.

Therefore I should have thought that this being a free country, any body of people has the right to make representations to a Secretary of State. In the particular context of this Bill it would be unthinkable if a consumers' committee could not make representations to the Secretary of State. After all, he will have been consulted about its set-up and so on. Therefore I would not really expect my noble friends to accept this amendment.

Baroness Seear

I should very much like to support this amendment. It is all very well for the noble Lord to say that in a free country anyone can have access to the Secretary of State. However, what we want is to ensure that the people on such committees are listened to when they have that access. Surely it makes a great deal of difference to have written into the legislation the fact that they have such access.

In my view, these consumers' committees are already far too much the creatures of the director. Indeed, it would have been much better if they had been elected. However, they have not been and I do not suppose that there is any hope of getting that provision in. As I said, they are the creatures of the director and therefore they need all the safeguards that they can get. Having such a provision written on the face of the legislation must make a difference. Of course in theory we can all go and talk to the Prime Minister if we wish, but we are not very likely to get inside No. 10 Downing Street.

A noble Lord

Not for a year or two anyway.

Lord Glenarthur

I certainly appreciate my noble friend's concern that consumers' commmittees should be able to appeal to the Secretary of State if they find themselves to be in an irreconcilable dispute with the director. Of course we hope that the director and the consumers' committees will be able to work out any differences between themselves. One of the advantages of the new approach to consumer representation under the Bill is that such committees will not be stuck out on their own, isolated from the rest of the regulatory organisation, but will be fully integrated with the directors' offices and reporting directly to him. That will mean that the committees and the director's offices will be working together with the same aims and objectives. This co-ordinated and integrated approach should mean that the potential for disputes will be greatly reduced, if not removed altogether.

However, in the event of a dispute between a committee and the director which proves impossible to sort out, of course, as I said in answer to an earlier amendment, it is open to the committees to make representations to the Secretary of State. Indeed, it is open to all of us—that is, Members of this Chamber, Members of another place, pressure groups, representative bodies and the general public—to make representations to the Secretary of State in regard to something about which we are concerned. Moreover, I can say from personal experience that people do so and they do so very regularly. I am sure that all my noble friends on this Front Bench would find themselves in precisely that position. Therefore I very much agree— —

Baroness Seear

Perhaps I may intervene here for just a moment. I find myself at present in a position with two colleagues of this Chamber where we have been trying for three weeks to get an answer to a letter from someone in such a position. However, we have not even had a reply.

Lord Glenarthur

I am always happy to take on board the concerns of the noble Baroness about letters. However, in this instance I am not sure whether the letter has anything to do with the Bill. But if it has I shall certainly look into the matter. The fact is that people do have the right, as my noble friend Lord Renton pointed out, to make representations, and they do so. I very much agree with him that, if one were to put anything on the face of the Bill about that point, it would only be wise under the circumstances—which I do not think exist—to do it precisely the other way. That is to write it down in order to prevent that right which we are all so keen to seen maintained. That would, of course, be a nonsense.

Given the Secretary of State's duty relating to the protection of consumers' interests, he would wish to listen to the concerns of consumers' committees and do what he could to resolve them. But I do not believe that it needs to be written into the statute. It is the right of us all, a right which should be maintained, and I hope that my noble friend will see the force of the argument.

Lord Peston

This is an important point. As Members of the Committee are aware, I was not able to take part in the Second Reading debate on this matter. But anyone who has experience of regulations will be well aware of what the Americans call "regulation capture", namely that in the end the regulator gets captured by the industry. The Americans are perfectly well aware of that and it is a very serious matter. That is why some of us adopt the view that, whether it is done via the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, or through certain ideas which I have, we should like a wedge between the regulator and the consumers. That is because we are fearful that in due course the regulator will be captured by the enormously powerful industrial interests which will always be at work. It is quite right that they should be at work, but regulatory capture is not a satisfactory state of affairs.

I believe that the central point is the one made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I hope that Members of the Committee will not take this in the wrong spirit but I can remember reading books which said that in Stalin's Russia every Soviet citizen had the right to go to see the great leader. I am not suggesting for one moment that any Secretary of State on the government side, or on our side when we return to power, will be quite a Stalin. But the notion that we all have the right to go to see the Secretary of State is all very well if we are talking to 11 year-olds, trying to give them a view of British democracy. But it bears no resemblance to the practice. Neither does it bear any resemblance to another matter on which I think the noble Lord ought to reflect. In due course the Secretary of State himself might become a bit fed up with the director and would like to have written into the legislation a direct representation notion.

Therefore I do not think it is as simple as the constitutional doctrine which has been enunciated by one or two noble Lords. The true position is precisely the one to which the noble Baroness has drawn our attention. Having been in your Lordships' House a while now, I am getting the hang of the nature of argument in the House. One of the arguments which I most like to listen to is the answer to almost every amendment put down. Noble Lords opposite say that it has precisely the opposite effect from the one we have in mind. Personally I cannot see that. I think that if this amendment were in the Bill it would have exactly the effect we should like it to have. Far from discouraging them, it will encourage the consumer bodies to make representations to the Secretary of State.

I am not happy at the ease with which the noble Lord seems to dismiss the amendment. One does not wish to press it at this late hour, but I think it is at least worth considering.

Lord Renton

Will my noble friend allow me to intervene? The answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, is that if the Secretary of State declined to consider the representations made, there would be the most awful political row.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

The form of words does not matter to me at all. The precise procedures do not matter. Perhaps I may deal with the point of my noble friend Lord Renton. It does not worry me that the only right should be representation. Committees may have a formal right of appeal, anything they like, anything Ministers like. In replying to the debate my noble friend said that under the present arrangement the potential for disputes has been greatly reduced, if not removed altogether, or words to that effect. That phrase conveys a Utopian sense and I very much doubt whether it will be brought into existence by any legislation that any of us will ever see.

My noble friend said that the committees are perfectly free to make representations as things stand. Of course they are free to do so; we know that. But Ministers tend to have a somewhat one-sided view of the response that is sometimes made to representations. The point has been made that letters are not always answered with great dispatch. I would be very willing to give my noble friend an example that I have experienced recently. I do not think it is unfair or unpleasant to mention this publicly. My noble friend must address a simple question. Why is it that the chairman of a consumer body came up to London to see me recently and was particularly keen that this provision should be put into the Bill? That is the view of those bodies.

I do not wish to prolong the debate, but I must tell my noble friend that some of us are deeply anxious about this Bill. If we find that all the provisions in it, no matter what arguments are adduced against them, seem to be set in concrete, then far from putting our minds at ease the unease and anxiety which we feel will be increased. That cannot make the passage of the Bill any easier for my noble friend.

I willingly concede that my noble friend is the most courteous and reasonable of men. I hope that he will tell us from the Dispatch Box tonight that he will give further thought to this point.

10 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

The difficulty I find with the suggestion of my noble friend is that he is seeking to write on the face of the Bill a provision which is the right of us all in any case and which would not in effect add to what is already provided for by the right that we have discussed. My noble friend seeks to write on to the face of the statute something which is already the right of us all. My noble friend says that a consumer body has made a representation to him— —

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am not asking my noble friend for anything now. I am simply asking him to give further thought to the arguments which have been adduced on all sides of the Chamber tonight in order to enshrine in the Bill recognition of the fact that the committees which the Bill is setting up will have a formal right to go to the Secretary of State.

Lord Glenarthur

If my noble friend had allowed me to continue, I would have reached that point. My noble friend is suggesting that we write something into the Bill which is already there, as of right, for all individuals. He claims that there are those who suggest that this would be the most practicable way of taking forward the kind of concerns which have been registered with him. My concern is that such a provision would be contrary to the kind of practice we normally follow in legislation and possibly even to the practices in some of the pieces of legislation which my noble friend dealt with in his time as a Minister. That is a real risk. Nevertheless, I am perfectly prepared to accept what my noble friend says as regards this matter being one of concern generally throughout the Chamber. I am, of course, prepared to look at it again. I do so without commitment because I wish to study what has been said. However, I shall gladly study the matter.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I welcome what my noble friend has said. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes moved Amendment No. 44: After Clause 2, insert the following new clause: ("Electricity Consumers Commission. .—(1) The Secretary of State shall, as soon as practicable after the appointed day, establish an advisory committee for matters affecting domestic consumers of electricity supplied by public electricity suppliers; and shall be known as the Electricity Consumers Commission. (2) The Electricity Consumers Commission shall consist of a chairman and such other members, being not less than two and not more than four, as the Secretary of State may from time to time appoint. (3) In appointing members of the Electricity Consumers Commission the Secretary of State shall so far as practicable, ensure that the members of the Electricity Consumers Commission include members who are familiar with the special requirements of domestic consumers of electricity supplied by public electricity suppliers. (4) A member of the Electricity Consumers Commission shall hold and vacate office in accordance with the terms of the instrument appointing him and shall, on ceasing to hold office, be eligible for re-appointment. (5) The Electricity Consumers Commission shall make representations to the director on any matters which it considers to be of interest to the domestic customers of any public electricity supplier. (6) The Electricity Consumers Commission shall consult as they see fit with the chairmen of the customers' committees. (7) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (5) above the Electricity Consumers Commission may make representations to the Director on matters relating to the operation of the electricity grid. (8) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (5) above the Electricity Consumers Commission may make representations to the Director on matters relating to the operation of the electricity generating industry, including matters which relate to only one generating station. (9) The Electricity Consumers Commission may make representations to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the Office of Fair Trading on any matter that falls within subsections (5), (7) or (8) above. (10) Subject to subsection (11) below the Electricity Consumers Commission may make representations to whomever it considers appropriate, and may publish in any such manner as it considers appropriate, any matter that falls within subsections (5), (7) or (8) above. ( 11 ) In carrying out its functions under subsection ( 10) above the Electricity Consumers Commission shall have regard to the need for excluding, so far as is practicable—

  1. (a) any matter which relates to the affairs of an individual, where the publication of that matter would or might, in the opinion of the Electricity Consumers Commission seriously and prejudicially affect the interests of that individual; and
  2. (b) any matter which relates specifically to the affairs of a particular body of persons, whether corporate or unincorporate, where the publication of that matter would or might, in the opinion of the Electricity Consumers Commission seriously and prejudicially affect the interests of that body.
(12) Subject to subsection (13) below the Director shall furnish any information held by him to the Electricity Consumers Commission when requested. (13) The Director shall not be required to furnish any information to the Electricity Consumers Commission unless—
  1. (a) the Director is satisfied that it relates to a matter falling under subsections (5), (7) or (8) above; and
  2. (b) the Director is satisfied that giving the information the Electricity Consumers Commission will not result in a breach of section 40(5)(a) and (b) below.
(14) Notwithstanding the generality of subsections (5), (7) or (8) above the Electricity Consumers Commission shall not make representations on behalf of any one individual domestic customer of electricity. (15) The Electricity Consumers Commission shall, within eighteen months of being established and annually thereafter, make to the Director and Secretary of State a report on their activities in the previous twelve months or, in the case of the first such report, their activities since being established. (16) Subject to subsection (10) above the Director shall publish any report made under subsection (15) above in such manner as he considers appropriate. (17) The provisions of Schedule (Electricity Consumers Commission) shall have effect with respect to the Electricity Consumers Commission.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 44 I should like also to speak to consequential Amendment No. 61. Disagreeable though it is to have to move this amendment at such a late hour when I know that Members of the Committee are tired— —

Lord Renton

No, we are not.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My noble friend assures me that he is not tired. In many ways I am delighted to be doing so at this hour because the debates that have taken place in Committee this afternoon and this evening have paved the way for this amendment far more eloquently than I could have done. When I have described the amendment I think that the Committee will see that it will resolve a number of the problems which have vexed noble Lords on both sides of the Chamber during the course of the Committee stage and answer a number of questions which have not been resolved.

This is an amendment to which the National Consumer Council attaches a great deal of importance. Its purpose is to improve the structure of electricity consumer protection following the privatisation of the electricity industry.

I hope that the Committee will not be alarmed by the length of the proposed new clause which I shall describe briefly in a moment. Although it is long and we at the National Consumer Council believe of great importance to consumers, it is very modest indeed in terms of the resources that it would require and in relation to the Bill as a whole. The Electricity Consumers Commission proposed under subsection (2) of the new clause would consist only of a chairman and up to four members within the office of the regulator but independent of the regulator. This is what we have been talking about in relation to previous amendments in the case of the regional committees: this small committee in the regulator's office, at national level and independent of the regulator. I am sure that the very modesty of such a proposal will commend itself to the Committee. Indeed it is so modest that I cannot believe that my noble friend Lord Glenarthur will be able to resist it.

Modest or not, it is a crucial amendment if consumers of a monopoly supplier of their basic needs are to be effectively protected. The passage of the Bill through your Lordships' Chamber provides a golden opportunity to ensure that the regulations which will govern the industry after privatisation and the structure of consumer protection will truly protect the interests of consumers.

There is already very much to be welcomed in the Bill for consumers, as I pointed out in detail at Second Reading. The regional consumer committees are very welcome and, as has emerged from debates this afternoon, will be able to deal primarily with complaints against their own regional electricity supply companies. They will also be able to advise, indeed they will have a duty to advise, the director on matters relating to their own areas. However, those matters will relate to their own areas only. They will not in any way give a national picture.

Who then will gather the information which is vital to national policy in the director's office, and who is to use that information for the formulation of national policy as the Gas Consumers' Council does? There is no one in the director's office specified for that task, with the staff, the responsibility or the specific resources for carrying it out. It is far too important a function to be left to some little haphazard, in-house sub-committee that the director may or may not set up, as my noble friend implied in reply to an earlier amendment. How cosy can you get?

Who, for example, will analyse the information coming in from the 12 consumers' committees? Who will make the comparisons about the performance of the 12 companies so far as concerns their customers? It will certainly not be the director; he will be far too busy negotiating prices with the 12 companies and watching the generating companies to ensure that there are no cartels or distortions of competition, while his staff at regional level will be cognisant only of regional performance and local problems.

Subsection (1) of the new clause sets up a new additional consumer body within the Bill, the Electricity Consumers Commission, which would have a remit to do what the local consumers' committees could not do and to do so in a way that is independent of the director. It would fill a very important gap in the otherwise excellent structure for consumer protection proposed in the Bill. The commission would be a small body appointed by the Secretary of State—not by the director, and it would therefore be independent of him, although within his office. Preferably it should be resourced by the Department of Trade and Industry, like the Gas Consumers' Council, because it is always preferable that such a body should not be resourced by the sponsoring department of the industry concerned.

Small though it may be and modestly resourced, the Electricity Consumers Commission would not be peripheral but central. It would not be lightweight, but extremely influential. It would be well and accurately informed, like the Gas Consumers' Council. Above all, it is necessary to supplement what will inevitably be very local knowledge in the case of the regional committees and to apply a national dimension to negotiations on both standards and policy.

Among the strengths of the Electricity Consumers Commission would be its independence from the regulator. No one has yet said in the debates that have taken place in Committee why that is so important. The independence is important because the consumer's interest is not always necessarily identical with the regulator's interest. He must strike a balance; it is right and proper that he should. He must strike a balance between the different interest groups, of which the consumer is but one. We are not quarrelling with that. That is exactly as it should be, but it makes it all the more important that there should be a body at national level which is independent. Particularly as the regional committees are not to be independent, it makes it all the more important that this body should be created. There would be a good working relationship between the regulator and the commission. Indeed, they would be complementary, as has been so in the case of British Gas, but it would not be a cosy relationship because there would be that independence.

Subsection (3) is inserted to ensure that the commission focuses on the interests of domestic consumers and also that the Secretary of State appoints a chairman and members who are familiar with the special requirements of consumers.

Subsection (5) gives the commission a duty to make representations to the director on the generality of domestic consumers' interests and a special duty to see that the consumer interest is protected in the operation of the grid and in the operation of the generating industries under subsections (7) and (8). That will be vital for consumers because generating costs will have by far the largest influence on the prices that consumers will pay.

Subsection (6) ensures that the commission keeps in touch with the problems emerging and the performance of the regional companies so that it knows what is happening across the country and can formulate national policy to be negotiated by the regulator. I hope that, although it is not specified in the new clause, it could also be supplied with the excellent information retrieval equipment that the national Gas Consumers' Council has, which would help it carry out detailed analysis and identification of problems across the nation. That would help the new Electricity Consumers Commission to keep in touch in an immediate way with the issues as they develop in the regions. That information could be digested and carefully considered before national policy was formed and no one would be, as it were, shooting their mouths off in a premature or ill-informed manner, as some people may fear.

By virtue of subsection (9), there will be no doubt that the new Electricity Consumers Commission—here we come to an important point that we have debated previously—will also be able to make representations to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission where the most contentious regulatory issues will be decided. So whereas the regional committees will not be able to do this, this commission would be able to make representations to the MMC as the Gas Consumers' Council already does and has done very successfully and without breaking any precedents whatsoever. Certainly this is not now possible for the regional committees. We have had that confirmed by my noble friend this afternoon. So that is another very important function for this national body.

Under subsection (16) the commission would also be able to keep customers informed of the regulatory issues that are under discussion and the director would have a duty to publish its reports. This is not so again in the case of the regional committees.

Subsection (12) ensures that the commission can keep itself informed as well about what is happening in the industry. The other part of the subsection ensures that the commission is under the same obligation as the director, quite correctly, not to prejudice the interests of individuals or companies and also that it reports on its own activities at regular intervals.

Although this new clause is necessarily long, I can assure the Committee that it is based squarely on precedents in the Telecommunications Act 1984, in the Gas Act 1986 and in the schedule to the Water Bill that is currently in Committee before this Chamber. I hope that the Committee and my noble friend will agree that we should have no fear in taking what is best from other privatisation measures and incorporating it in this one. Indeed, the consequences of getting it wrong for consumers in this industry are far greater than they are in any of the other industries.

I have described as briefly as possible this long but what we at the National Consumer Council believe to be necessary new clause and schedule. I dwelt at some length during the Second Reading debate on a number of reasons why a national body was necessary, pointing out that, although the regional committees were valuable and necessary and we have welcomed their creation, they could not replace the need for some form of national representation. I quoted the example of the excellent national Gas Consumers' Council and how important its advice has been to its regulator and how many achievements he has had based on the advice and co-operation of the national Gas Consumers' Council.

I do not in any way wish to appear to denigrate or detract from the importance of the regional committees. Their role is important but it must be recognised that it is limited. With the best will in the world—and I speak from personal experience—it is not easy to find sufficient people at regional level who are of the requisite calibre to deal with national policy based on nationally assessed performance and national standards.

Also there is always the danger from time to time of a cosy relationship developing between the regional committees and their local companies. That need not always be a bad thing but it could be, and it has been known to happen. Together with the regional committees an Electricity Consumers Commission at national level would provide an umbrella of consumer protection far better than that which exists in today's public sector electricity industry and indeed better even than that which exists in the privatised gas industry. This amendment would put the finishing touches to what I know my right honourable friend the Secretary of State wants to be a customer oriented electricity industry in the private sector.

At this point I must say that it would be churlish not to mention the present Electricity Consumers Council and its chairman. Indeed I should have mentioned it during the Second Reading debate and it was very remiss of me not to have done so. However, it was not quite as churlish as the Secretary of State is being in banishing him and his whole council in the Bill. I hope that this will not be looked upon by the public as a lack of regard for the excellent work that he and his council have done; indeed, I know that my noble friend the Minister and her colleagues in the Department of Energy have benefited from its excellent advice, and that given particularly by the chairman of the Electricity Consumers Council, Mr. John Hatch. He has been a splendid chairman, and has been advising my noble friend's department throughout the drafting of the Bill. We at the National Consumer Council were pleased to see that he is to become a non-executive director of the grid company, where he will no doubt continue to keep an eye on the consumer interest.

Be that as it may, we at the National Consumer Council are not in entire agreement with the advice that he has given to the Minister. I very much regret that my council was not also consulted during the drafting of the Bill. I fear that we did not receive the consultation document. Perhaps it was lost in the post. If we had, our strong views might have been considered at an earlier stage and the need to move this new clause would have been avoided.

However, it is never too late to do good. Privatisation provides opportunities substantially to improve the consumers' lot. This amendment supplements and sustains the benefits that I feel the Bill will bring. I beg to move.

Lord Ezra

As the noble Baroness quite rightly said in moving this amendment, it flows naturally from the debate which we have had in this Chamber during most of this afternoon and evening. Concern has been expressed all round about the adequacy of the consumer arrangements, in particular as regards their independence.

I regret that the proposition put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, was not accepted. Perhaps we may return to that with regard to the regional bodies. However, it is clear that the independence of this national body would be secured if this proposal were accepted by the Committee.

The proposal also fills a glaring gap—namely, the lack of any national consumer body, in particular to represent and safeguard domestic interests. I strongly support the amendment on the grounds of independence, and the need to have some central national body to represent the consumers in the way set out in this amendment.

Lord Glenarthur

It may save the time of the Committee if I respond at this stage. I hope that my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes will realise that we gave considerable thought to the question of whether such a new national body as she proposes is needed in the privatised industry. As Members of the Committee will be aware, the Select Committee on Energy in another place recommended to the Government that there was no need for such a body. Indeed, the Government accepted that view in its formal response to the committee's report.

My noble friend referred to the Electricity Consumers Council. The last thing that I wish to do is to drive any wedge between two different consumer bodies who have at heart the interests of those they represent. However, the ECC's own annual report, to which I referred earlier, was published today. It states that in its view: the consumers committees both will and should be able to communicate their views and advice directly to the Director General". It continues: Any separate body … would merely get in the way". We have therefore had to give due weight to the advice of the existing national body that it should not be replaced.

Nonetheless, I entirely agree with my noble friend that national co-ordination of the activities of the new consumers' committees will be a vital part of the new arrangements. It is clearly very important that the experience of the various committees at local level is pooled and exchanged in order that national lessons, where appropriate, can be drawn.

Our existing proposals give this role to the director general, who will of course have the ultimate statutory duty to protect consumers' interests. Indeed, the purpose of Clause 45 of the Bill, which we shall have the opportunity to debate in due course, is to give the director a positive duty to make arrangements for the provision of information to the committees and for facilitating the exchange of information between them.

Our view has been that the reorganisation of the generation and transmission side of the industry and the introduction of genuine competition renders superfluous the kind of national body which my noble friend seeks to introduce. That is why we have avoided creating a new body which might come between the director general and the consumers' committees. That approach has been supported in the annual report to which I referred just now.

However, I have to say that my noble friend has considerable experience in this field, and the body which she chairs at the moment is one of considerable eminence. My noble friend has taken the trouble to set out in this amendment a very thorough exposition of what she feels such an electricity consumers' commission should consist of. She has certainly made a number of very important points and she has been backed up by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra.

Having heard what she said, and understanding the relevance of the important points which she made, I should like to consider this matter again. It is one which opens up an area of policy which we have looked at in the past, but I am perfectly prepared to take it away and look at it again. I hope that with the reassurance that she raised some important points she will be content to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

I strained my ears to hear messages of hope in my noble friend's reply. I was a little disturbed to hear him say that his department had given great weight to what the Electricity Consumers Council had said. I do not understand why it was necessary for his department to give great weight to the opinion of one council and not to consult at all my council or other consumer organisations on this matter.

There is no question whatsoever of a wedge being driven between the two bodies. The National Gas Consumers' Council works in perfect harmony with the regulator and with the regional offices. That is something which is already self-evident. No advice need be taken on that. However, if my noble friend can give me an assurance that he believes a case has been made that he can pay attention to, I shall withdraw the amendment for further consideration with a view to moving an amendment on Report if the Minister has not come up with something before then.

Lord Glenarthur

I raised the matter of wedges. When I referred to the ECC's annual report and my noble friend's responsibilities as chairman of the National Consumer Council I said I did not seek to drive wedges between two different bodies which were essentially trying to deal with the same matter. Indeed, in her amendment my noble friend seeks to bring forward yet another commission, so to some extent the argument that she has just used could be turned on the body which she proposes to create.

My noble friend has set out some important matters which I should like to look at again. That is the assurance I give her. I will take the point away and look at it. I cannot forecast precisely what the nature of the review will be, but nevertheless I take her remarks very seriously.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

On the basis of that reply, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 45 to 59 not moved.]

10.30 p.m.

Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 60: Page 74, line 36, at end insert— ("10. In paragraph 1 of the Schedule to the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 (bodies to which Act applies in England and Wales), at the end there shall be inserted the following sub-paragraph— (ii) consumers' committees established and maintained under the Electricity Act 1989."; and the functions of a consumers' committee shall be regarded as public functions for the purposes of that Act.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment stands in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, myself, the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. This may be the last amendment that we will be discussing tonight. It may also be the first that the Government will accept as an extremely good amendment to the Bill—not that there may not have been several others that they might have accepted earlier as extremely good amendments.

The amendment on the face of it appears to be highly technical but it has a very important practical purpose. It would require the regional consumers' committees—we have not gone into the detail of the committee chaired by the noble Baroness—to admit members of the public to their meetings. That is the essential consequence thereof. This amendment has an interesting background in that a similar amendment was moved by one of the Government's own supporters in another place in connection with the Water Bill. I hope that the fact that we are moving an amendment from this side, prompted by what was moved before, will strengthen the view of the Government.

I hope that the noble Lord will comment on the fact that the Bill does not require consumers' committees to hold meetings at all. It does not require them to have direct contact with the public and therefore it overwhelmingly strengthens such committees. The noble Lord has gone out of his way, slightly more strongly than I would have done, to recommend those committees and their activities to us. I hope that this amendment will commend itself to him.

Since the Bill applies to Scotland but the amendment does not, I understand that were this to be acceptable to the Government there would be a need to produce a further amendment for Scotland. However, that would be a technical matter.

In a nutshell, this is a very sensible and practical amendment. It is the kind of amendment that we might have expected to come from the government side but we have moved it in order to be as helpful as we possibly can, particularly as it is our last amendment of the evening.

Lord Renton

The 1960 Act, to which reference is made in this amendment, was the one on which the Prime Minister made her maiden speech in another place when moving the Second Reading of the Bill which became the Act. Therefore, I do not know whether Members opposite realise that in moving this amendment they might be currying favour with the Prime Minister. That would be quite a good thing for them to do anyway.

Lord Williams of Elvel

If that is the reason why the noble Lord is speaking, then I am perfectly happy to withdraw this amendment if he feels that the object of it is to curry favour with the Prime Minister. We have no desire to do that.

Lord Renton

I shall let that point pass. I think that the noble Lord might regret, in view of what I am about to say, a suggestion that he might withdraw the amendment.

There is a serious point here and one that ought to be considered by the Government. I have an idea that this was moved in another place as an amendment to the Water Bill, or something like it. If it comes into the Water Bill, there seems to be no logical reason why it should not come into this Bill as well.

Lord Ezra

I should simply like to say that I believe that this modest amendment would reinforce the role of the consumer committees. It would make them more visible to the public and the public would be able to be more conversant with what they do. The matters discussed by the committees would be of direct interest to the public anyway. Therefore, with other Members of the Committee who have spoken, I very much hope that the Government will accept this amendment.

Lord Glenarthur

It has always been part of the Government's plans that there should be some public meetings of the consumer committees. Certainly, that has not been precluded in any sense by the current drafting of the Bill. Nevertheless, we must be quite clear that the new committees, thanks to the new rights and duties which they will have been given, will have, on occasion, access to commercially confidential information and, indeed, to the personal details of individual complainants. The latter may well include details of customers who are experiencing hardship and it would clearly be improper to allow an automatic right of access to the general public to meetings of the committee dealing with such matters. Indeed, in such cases, the committee's ability to discharge its duties effectively might be quite seriously impaired.

There will undoubtedly be other instances where the issues under discussion will be of general interest and will not give rise to questions of privacy or confidentiality. However, I feel that it must be left to the committees themselves, in consultation with the director, to decide which occasions are suitable for public access and which are not. It is not an area which the Bill should define in advance. It is difficult, as I believe the noble Lord will appreciate, to foresee all the various circumstances which may bear on such a decision.

However, my noble friend Lord Renton pointed to the fact that the Water Bill contained a provision closely similar to this. Indeed, that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. Therefore, even though this may be the last amendment that we shall deal with tonight, I cannot accept it in the form in which the noble Lord would like. However, I am prepared to take away the matter and consider it.

Lord Peston

I am obliged to the noble Lord. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that I am always interested in history and matters of historical importance, quite independent of currying favour with the Prime Minister. His intervention was of enormous interest and I shall obtain a copy of the appropriate Hansard in order to see what arguments were put forward on that occasion from which one might learn something. I know that he was pulling one's leg about currying favour. I am afraid that I have never succeeded in currying favour with anyone. That has been a more general problem in matters which concern me.

On the substantive issue, I am most obliged to the noble Lord. I hope that when he comes back, he will elucidate two matters for us. The obvious one is why there is not simply a carry over from the motions put forward on the Water Bill to the Electricity Bill.

Clearly, that is a logical problem: whether there is anything special about this Bill. Secondly, the noble Lord knows that in moving an amendment of this kind I am doing it very much as a lay person and not in any sense as a legal expert. What we want, and what I believe the noble Lord said, is a broad obligation for public meetings plus some capacity for the committee, occasionally, to go into private session.

I have certainly sat on bodies which are largely open to the public but there is always some reserve business, as the noble Lord quite rightly pointed out, when one is dealing with individual cases of a sensitive nature. I am entirely with him that that is what we should try to achieve, and I look forward to his response.

Lord Williams of Elvel

Before we conclude this evening's proceedings I should like to address some remarks to the noble Baroness on groupings. We had a problem this morning with groupings. By 11.30 a.m. we had not received any suggested groupings from the department. It is difficult for the Opposition to conduct their affairs if we do not receive the suggested groupings early in the day or, as in the case of other departments, the night before.

This morning I had to sit down and prepare groups and suggest to the department what groupings should be taken. I am not an expert on how to group amendments and I am afraid that some of our debates today have shown that my groupings were defective. Therefore, I ask the noble Baroness to ensure that the department produces groupings in good time.

Baroness Hooper

I take the point made by the noble Lord. I apologise for the fact that he had a problem. The department had worked out certain suggestions for groupings which were waiting to be printed on the Marshalled List in order to make them easily conveyable. I regret that the usual methods through the usual channels seem to have resulted in this problem arriving on the noble Lord's lap rather late in the day.

Lord Williams of Elvel

It is not my lap, if I may say so, but the Government Whips' office. The proof is that the Marshalled List was out yesterday at 3 o'clock.

Baroness Hooper

No, it was later.

Lord Williams of Elvel

Whatever the time was, this is the first time I have dealt with the Department of Energy. I have dealt with other departments where there is a clear procedure so that the Government Whips' office has the suggested groupings early in the day. It is a question of negotiation between us as to how the amendments are finally grouped. Other noble Lords are also concerned with groupings because they have amendments.

Lord Peston

I should like to add one supplementary remark to those of my noble friend.

In some ways today has been a thoroughly interesting but relatively easy part of the Bill—at least, I understood some of the parts in which I was taking part! However, we are about to move on to a number of extremely technical matters where it is absolutely vital that we get the groupings right. I know that the noble Baroness would not disagree with that. If we are to make progress and not flounder I hope that my noble friend's remarks will be taken extremely seriously if for no other reason than that we could find ourselves discussing the wrong subjects. I look for some sympathy from the noble Baroness because we have some hard work ahead of us on this Bill.

Baroness Hooper

Noble Lords have my every sympathy; I am simply at a loss to understand why they did not receive our suggested groupings of amendments because it went much further than the groupings eventually agreed. However, I understand that it was because the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, was unavailable, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, mentioned earlier, that a grouping could not be agreed.

Lord Peston

I think the point has been made and I thank the noble Baroness. I ask leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

The Earl of Dundee

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.

House adjourned at sixteen minutes before eleven o'clock.