§ Mr. Thurnham: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what assurances he has received from the chairman of British Gas regarding the impact of the company's streetworks on small business. 
§ Mr. Eggar
I have received a letter from Richard V. Giordano, KBE, chairman of British Gas plc, the text of which says:Thank you for your letter of 28 April regarding possible disruption caused by British Gas in undertaking streetworks. British Gas takes a great deal of care to ensure that disruption caused by streetworks is kept to a minimum and has a liability under the 1986 Gas Act to compensate for physical damage caused directly by those works. Following our recent discussions and the Standing Committee debate, we have been giving further careful consideration to the question of economic loss caused to small businesses in exceptional circumstances of prolonged streetworks disruption.In order to minimise the risk of such disruption, TransCo is revising its existing Code of Practice in respect of communication and co-operation with owners of commercial premises. In particular, TransCo will identify the nature of the work, explain why it is necessary, the anticipated start date and the likely duration. TransCo will subsequently discuss, with individual business owners, issues including vehicular access, customer access, special notices and any special requirements.In those exceptional cases where small businesses suffer severe and clearly established loss of business over a prolonged period as a direct result of streetworks carried out by British Gas or its agents, British Gas will give sympathetic consideration to claims in respect of financial loss, on an ex-gratia basis. However, such payments would clearly be inappropriate in respect of escape-related or other emergency works.For indicative purposes British Gas would regard a business with a turnover of less than £500,000 per annum (in constant 1995 price terms) as a "small business" and streetworks over a period exceeding four weeks as a "prolonged period".Payment of ex-gratia compensation would be subject to the Director General of Gas Supply providing British Gas with reasonable assurance that such payments will be taken into account in any review of applicable price controls.I am also concerned that gas should not be unduly disadvantaged vis-a-vis competing fuels and would ask you to take this into account when considering the position of other relevant networks.I believe that this undertaking, together with TransCo's revised Code of Practice, demonstrates our continued commitment to high levels of performance in relation to streetworks and a responsive approach to the concerns of the small business community234W
This undertaking from British Gas, to which the Government expect it to adhere, in the spirit as well as the letter, will address the concerns raised by my hon. Friend in a practical and appropriate way.