HL Deb 13 July 1992 vol 539 cc4-6

3.6 p.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that Ofgas is paying sufficient attention to the policy of British Gas to produce estimated bills.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, new tariffs and standards of service were recently agreed between Ofgas and British Gas and introduced at the beginning of April. The standards of service set out the circumstances in which estimated bills may be issued and set specific targets for controlling their accuracy.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. But does she not agree that while the British Gas document Commitment to Customers is both helpful and well drawn up, the paragraphs referring to estimated bills are unsatisfactory? Many poorer people—for example, those who are disabled—cannot reach their meter. They are paying large amounts of money which they need not pay. British Gas must be collecting the interest on money it should not have received in the first place. What are the Government going to do about that?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his interest in the brochure. I hope that it will go a long way towards helping people and that the deeds match the words. Under the new arrangements agreed between Ofgas and British Gas, the company is required to monitor the accuracy of estimates to ensure that procedures operate without advantage to the company. Of course the customers have the opportunity to submit their own readings. Moreover, British Gas will read meters every quarter where elderly or disabled customers are unable to take their own readings.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, is not the problem that meters tend to be inside the front door in the great majority of cases, whether it is a fiat or a house? Should not British Gas, and indeed the electricity and water companies when metering comes in, be encouraged either to site the meters outside the front door or use telephonic equipment in order to read them?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, estimating is obviously the answer to the current situation where meters are situated inside. I am pleased to advise my noble friend that British Gas, in common with other utilities, is looking into technologies for the remote reading of meters. That will result in accurate bills.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is not British Gas using the consumer as a remote reader of bills? Is the noble Baroness aware that recently my wife, standing near the front door of our home, received a piece of paper through the letter-box stating,"We are sorry you were out when we called to read your meter. Will you please read it for us?"

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I can only suggest that the noble Lord probably gave a more accurate reading.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the system of metering used by British Gas at the moment is little short of medieval? Is she aware that there are perfectly good technologies which have been available for many years? Does the noble Baroness further agree that it is time British Gas used some of the enormous profits that it is making as a privatised utility in order to install that kind of metering?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, British Gas is concerned with technology and improving the service. I point out to the noble Lord that, for every pound profit, British Gas has invested £2.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the Minister take account of the point made on her side of the House a moment ago; namely, that some of the meters are almost inaccessible, particularly to the purblind, blind people and those who are crippled? Another vital point has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. Is the Minister aware that there is a technology which can almost provide the actual amount required at the time? Does she agree that some endeavour should be made to reduce the amount of money which British Gas is taking from people and which can be shown much later on it had no right to take?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, perhaps I may clarify the situation to the noble Lord. Part of the standard agreed between Ofgas and British Gas was that there should be monitoring of the accuracy of the estimates to make sure that no one—neither the customer nor the company—took advantage. Knowing the difficulties of the current meters, there has been a customer service commitment to call and read the meters for older and disabled customers.