§ Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.
§ Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 19:
Page 2, line 8, at end insert ("such removal, without prejudice to the Appellant's other remedies, being subject to appeal to an industrial tribunal established under Section 128 of the employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move this amendment standing in my name. The word "removal" in the amendment refers to the removal of the director. Your Lordships will remember that this point was subject to some discussion and inquiry during Committee stage. We elicited the fact that the director was not going to be an employee for the purposes of the Employment Protection (Consoli-dation) Act and that therefore if he felt himself to have been unfairly dismissed from his office, he could not appeal in the same way as every other employee could appeal. He could go to the courts and he would get his answer there if he lived long enough, but the courts are a very slow process, while the tribunal is a very fast and inexpensive process. Therefore it seemed to me that it was only fair, that it was, indeed, an essential part of the freedom of the individual, that he should be entitled to appeal to an industrial tribunal if he felt himself to have been unfairly or improperly dismissed.
During the course of the discussion in Committee it was also suggested that the director might prefer to go to court in search of damages. That is why the amendment proposes that the appeal to the industrial tribunal should be,
without prejudice to the Appellant's other remedies",
namely, his remedy of going to court if he prefers. Whether he can do both I know not, but it matters not so long as he can choose whichever he wants to do. Certainly I think that he ought to have the right, which is the main purpose of this amendment. I hope that the Government share that view. I beg to move.
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, is quite correct in recalling the proceedings which took place in Committee. The 1978 Act extends only to employees and not to office holders. I have to make the point that this was not an Act which was passed by a Conservative Government; it was passed by a Labour Government. If the government of the day thought that it was right that the legislation should extend only to employees and not to office holders, I think that we are in a position where, if there is to be an amendment, it needs to be made to the 1978 Act and not in this way to this Bill.
Having said that, there is more than a technical problem here. As I understand it, there are reasons why the 1978 Act extends only to employees. The 830 noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has not addressed himself to that problem. He simply wants to see the director in this particular case covered by the Act. That would be an exception which would not be possible. One could not possibly legislate in that way. It is on that ground that with regret I must resist this amendment.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I certainly have not considered all the provisions of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act. Naturally I assumed that the Government with the resources and advice at their disposal would be in a better position to do that than a single Member of your Lordships' House such as myself. I have listened to what the Minister has had to say. I recognise that it is not wise to legislate for a particular difficulty in this way. We ought to address the Act itself, but the Act is not to come before us and this is therefore the only method we have of dealing with the problem. I think that what the Minister has said has force and therefore with your Lordships' permission I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments No. 20 to 23 not moved.]
§ Schedule 1 [Director General of Gas Supply]:
Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 41:
Page 64, line 3, leave out paragraph 1.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move this amendment. I do so in order to probe the contents of paragraph 1 of the schedule. Although we have been given a certain amount of information, this is an excellent opportunity for the Minister to give the remaining information which I know he was anxious to give in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, earlier but he was not sufficiently informed at the time. On further reflection I remember that the Minister recollected the information in question and gave it to the noble Lord. Unless the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, wants to pursue any further question on this I shall beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 24 to 28 not moved.]
Lord Gray of Contin moved Amendment No. 29:
Page 64, line 12, leave out ("it appears to the Secretary of State") and insert ("the Secretary of State determines")
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, in the debate on his Amendment No. 16 in Committee, raised a point about the drafting of paragraph 3 of Schedule 1. Although we were unable to accept his amendment, we looked very carefully at this point and in the light of what he said we decided that something ought to be done in the interests of clarity. We believe that this amendment effects a significant improvement and achieves the clarity which we were seeking. I therefore recommend it to the House. I beg to move.831
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for having taken on board the daring suggestion that the drafting was not perfect. I am grateful to the Minister and congratulate the draftsman on a very neat piece of redrafting.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to. [Amendment No. 30 not moved.]
Lord Gallacher moved Amendment No. 31:
Page 64, line 17, leave out ("with the approval of) and insert ("after consultation with")
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 31 I shall, with the leave of the House, speak also to Amendment No. 32. These two amendments are designed to give the director greater freedom as regards the appointment of staff than is currently afforded to him under paragraph 4 of Schedule 1. As paragraph 4 now stands,
The Director may, with the approval of the Treasury as to numbers and terms and conditions of service, appoint such staff as he may determine".
Amendment No. 31 would simply delete the require-ment to have the Treasury's approval, and would oblige the director to consult with the Treasury, but no more than that. Amendment No. 32 would allow the director to be the judge of the number of staff which he deems necessary for the fulfilment of his functions.
§ In broad essence, the amendment seeks to draw attention to the importance of Ofgas and in particular to its having sufficient resources in terms of staffing to be effective in its role. Treasury consultation would still be required under the amendment, but it would remove from the Treasury the power which it now has to give approval to proposals for staffing.
§ In view of the discussion which we had on previous amendments regarding what I call the "top echelon" of the directorate, it is equally important that in the matter of staff in general, the director should be the judge rather than require Treasury approval for what he is seeking to do. It is understandable that the Government want to involve the Treasury in the matter because it concerns finance. However, as Ofgas is to be financed by a fee on public gas suppliers, funding in that connection should not be an insuperable problem even though the Treasury may have a legitimate interest in it. Therefore, for that reason I feel that the argument about the supremacy of the Treasury in matters of finance should not apply in this case.
§ In addition, as regards both the privatisation of British Gas and the privatisation of British Telecom, much has been made of the suggestion that one of the objects of the exercise is to free the private statutory monopolies—the plcs being created by Parlia-ment—from undue supervision by Ministers of the Crown and by senior civil servants. I do not accept that argument since it only took the stage, as it were, when the Government of the day decided to privatise successful public corporations. Although it may be a supporting argument for what they are doing, it is not one to which we on these Benches attach a great deal of importance. Nevertheless, if there is any merit in it, it rather supports the proposition in Amendments 832 Nos. 31 and 32 that if this public company—British Gas plc—is to have this magnificent freedom, then some minor degree of freedom might be afforded to the director of Ofgas the better to discharge his duty of protecting consumers in accordance with other provisions in the Bill. I beg to move.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, we have already debated in Committee the necessity for the involvement of the Treasury in approving the number, terms and conditions, of Ofgas staff. As we made clear then, Ofgas will be a non-ministerial government department manned by civil servants. It is therefore inevitable that the Treasury will be involved. It will not be sufficient for them merely to be consulted; they must specifically give their approval to these matters to ensure that funds are properly spent. As to the second amendment, it is certainly the Government's intention that Ofgas should be properly staffed. Since the director and Ofgas will be creatures of statute, they will be required to ensure that their statutory duties and functions are properly fulfilled and to employ sufficient staff to achieve that end.
These amendments are really inappropriate and, without in any way being disrespectful to the noble Lord, I think that they are also unnecessary. They go over well-trodden ground. We could not accept amendments of this kind in Committee and I am afraid that we are still not persuaded that they are of value. I must therefore ask the House to reject the amendments.
Lord Diamond: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he can help the House by giving some indication about the size of the staff. Obviously that is a matter which is troubling those of us on this side. There has been the tentative appointment of a director. There have presumably been discussions with the director about the tentative size of the staff. Is the noble Lord able to give us an indication of what size of staff is contemplated? We know the size of the staff of the Oftel. In this instance is it to be similar, greater or smaller? If the noble Lord could help us in that respect, it would remove a great deal of anxiety.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, the present estimate for 1985–86 is up to approximately 30 staff. It will then be a matter of seeing how that number works out. It may be necessary to increase it slightly, but that is the present estimate.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I am rather puzzled by the noble Lord's reply. I thought that the case put forward by my noble friend Lord Gallacher was very reasonable. The case which he is putting is rather different from the case which was put forward in Committee, because it seeks to continue consultation with the Treasury and I feel quite sure that that would be sufficient, bearing in mind new Condition 15 of the authorisation. I may be misreading it, but new Condition 15, concerning the payment of fees, appears 833 to relate the licence fee directly to the staff and the running costs of the director general and of the Gas Consumers' Council.
It seems to me that here we have a situation where the costs of those organisations are being raised directly—and it is implicitly so in the authorisation—from the gas suppliers themselves. Therefore, the Treasury ought not to be able to put a veto on the amount of money which the director general and the gas council need because it is being paid not by the Treasury—although it may very well be being paid through the Consolidated Fund—but, under Condition 15 of the authorisation, by the suppliers themselves. The amounts of money about which we had no idea in Committee, are specified here and, I am glad to say, they are specified very clearly. Indeed, this is new information which I welcome. However, it poses a different position from that which appertained when we were discussing the matter in Committee. Perhaps the noble Lord will address himself to that aspect.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, with respect I think that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is mistaken. By leave of the House, perhaps I may say that, as I explained when I originally answered the amendment, Ofgas will be a non-ministerial government department manned by civil servants, and it therefore is inevitable that the Treasury will be directly involved. That is something that we just have to accept, because the Treasury itself, as is its custom in government, would insist that it was involved in order that it could have direct sight of how the money was being spent.
The licence fee will be calculated to cover the costs of the council and of Ofgas and any MMC investigations under the Bill. I should like to correct one thing. When I answered, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, I said that the estimate of staff was up to about 30 for 1985–86.I should have said 1986–87. I am sorry that that mistake was made. The points that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has made, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, do not really make the position any different from that which existed when we debated this matter in Committee. The position so far as the staff is concerned is unchanged.
§ Lord Gallacher
My Lords, I found the Minister's reply somewht disappointing, because it is obvious on this side of the House that the structure of the staff of the director is to be a Civil Service affair. That means establishments and all that jazz, and it allows very little flexibility from the point of view of the director in recruiting people with specialist skills to discharge specialist tasks. Let us imagine within the framework of the establishment a situation in which immediately under the director—who, as I understand from information given previously, is to have the rank of a deputy secretary in the Civil Service—the No. 2 in the department is an under-secretary, and that that is virtually the only under-secretary that the Treasury is prepared to authorise within a staffing complement as low as 30 people.
834 Then let us assume that the director, who is a qualified chartered accountant, discovers early in his career that he is no lawyer, and that he badly needs a lawyer not merely to give legal opinions in due course of time but quickly in order that he can respond to the pressures upon him. The job is advertised, but it will have to be advertised within the Civil Service range. If it cannot be advertised at the under-secretary's rate because there is already an under-secretary, it may have to be advertised at the assistant secretary's rate. Whether that will attract someone with the necessary legal experience and capabilities in a highly specialised field of law is open to question.
I make this point by way of illustration to show how inflexible is paragraph 4 of Schedule 1. Those of us on this side have previously expressed doubts about the balance of ability. Whoever is the lawyer in the office of the Director General of Ofgas, he will certainly be up against some fairly highly-skilled legal people in the employ of British Gas plc, to whom these restrictions on salary will certainly not apply. For this reason the competition is beginning to take on a rather one-sided appearance.
I feel that the Government are wrong to resist these amendments, and the arguments they have advanced in defence of their position are somewhat anaemic, to say the least. Nevertheless, I do not propose at this time of night to divide the House, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 42:
Page 64, line 17, leave out ("Treasury as to numbers and") and insert ("Secretary of State as to numbers and of the Treasury as to").
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move this amendment all the more strongly in view of the discussion to which we have just listened. May 1 read the paragraph with the amendment which I propose? It would read:
The Director may, with the approval of the Secretary of State as to numbers and of the Treasury as to terms and conditions of service, appoint such staff as he may determine.
This is related to a discussion we had previously but is a quite different proposal, and is much strengthened by what the Minister was good enough to say to me a short time ago.
§ The proposal in this amendment is that the Treasury should continue to be concerned with what is its proper business; and the proper business of the Treasury is the terms and conditions of service. The numbers are not the proper business of the Treasury, and I say that with knowledge that from time to time it has not been the business of the Treasury to determine numbers in cases like this. The Treasury has to have oversight of expenditure, but the numbers from time to time are not part of the Treasury's responsibility.
§ Ministers opposite will know that this responsibility has gone to and fro from time to time. I am suggesting therefore nothing very novel or revolutionary when I suggest that the Treasury should do the part it is best capable of doing, and that the Secretary of State 835 should do the part that he is best capable of doing. The Secretary of State will know what is required. He will be advised by the director as to what is required, and he will act responsibly in terms of numbers, and then the Treasury will perform its usual job in terms of the financial side. That is the first point I want to make.
§ The second point is that the numbers which have so far emerged show that it is proposed to run this enormously important establishment with approxi-mately half—half, my Lords!—the staff that Oftel has. It is 30 as against the last authorised number I have of 58, but it is probably about 60 by now. I am open to correction, but that is the information that I believe is accurate and that I am putting to the House. The proportion is about a half.
§ In my view that is quite impossible. The responsibilities resting on the office of Ofgas will, if anything, be greater and not less than the responsibilities on Oftel. A much bigger task; many more consumers involved; and much more important in the standard of living of the consumers concerned, quite apart from the problem that with Ofgas there is no competition whatever. There is nothing to help the monitor, as competition would, in securing efficiency, whereas in Oftel of course there is. There is Mercury, and we all know that that is designed to encourage—and does in fact encourage—a measure of competition.
§ Both on grounds of theory and of practice it seems to me superficially—because naturally I have had no opportunity of examining it; we are on the outside and we depend on the Government for advice—that far from the staff being half the size, it should be considerably larger than the staff of Oftel. That is my second point; the anxiety I have as to the question of numbers. If the numbers were to be at the final decision of the Secretary of State, it would still be a very responsible decision but it would be much more objective and have regard to the true need in carrying out this important service of monitoring.
§ The third point I want to make is that we have been told time and time by the Front Bench opposite that of course there are important responsibilities resting upon the director but that he will have ample opportunity of appointing whoever he wants to do this job and that job. Of course he will not on these numbers.
§ The first example that the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, referred to was that of a legal officer. Of course he would need a legal officer. I have in front of me a copy of the list of Oftel staff and details of the organisation of it. It is divided into branches under the director and the deputy director. There is a director of each branch. Branch 4 is the legal department and there is a director of the legal branch of Oftel. Of course it is necessary to have one such person. All the difficulties to which the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, referred in the discussion on the last amendment would therefore apply.
§ For those three reasons I think that the director will evidently be in real difficulty if he is limited to the numbers proposed. One can only assume that they have been proposed with a view to saving money and 836 not with a view to carrying out the responsibilities under the Bill. He will be under great difficulty if the provision is left as it is in the Bill. We know that we are not talking about any costs to the Exchequer. That has been made clear. The costs incurred in running the office of director will be recovered from the licence fees charged to the licensed applicants. So no cost falls on the taxpayer at all. Therefore, the Treasury could consider this with a more relaxed mind than might otherwise be the case.
§ I repeat that I hope the Government will have regard to the needs involved in doing the job, as Ministers have previously mentioned. I hope that the Govern-ment will recognise that the present intended size of staff is wholly inadequate to do a proper job of monitoring, encouraging efficiency and protecting the consumer, and that this amendment therefore is wholly appropriate in an attempt to achieve that. I beg to move.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, once again we are dealing with an area of the Bill which we have already considered in Committee, and which was voted against at that time. However, the noble Lord has raised no new points which have persuaded me that the present provision is in any way likely to give rise to difficulties. As I have explained before, the Government have expressed their clear intention that the office should be properly staffed to meet the demands that will be made on it.
If necessary, the director will have the power to engage staff with special skills. The director will determine the number of staff he needs to fulfil his functions. However, as Ofgas will be a Government department it must be right that the Treasury should be consulted, especially on the Ofgas staffing levels, as part of its overall responsibility for public service manpower. As I pointed out in Committee, the numbers at Oftel have doubled without any restriction from the Treasury, since it obviously takes a realistic view on these matters. I cannot accept the simple comparison with Oftel. For example, the jobs are quite different and the number of staff must reflect the different jobs, but the figure I have given is for 1986–87. If experience shows that this number is not adequate for the tasks, it is possible that the complement will be increased. I can tell the noble Lord that Oftel increased its staff significantly after the first year.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but it would help if the noble Lord could tell us the up-to-date staffing position of Oftel.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, I cannot give that figure immediately, but no doubt it will arrive in due course.
There are important differences between telecommunications and the gas industry. Therefore, the two are not wholly comparable. But I use the example for illustrative purposes so that your Lordships will understand the much-maligned Treasury—though it is probably no more maligned now than it was when the 837 noble Lord was Chief Secretary. The Treasury is a department which is maligned because it keeps the tabs on every other department to ensure that they do not spend unnecessarily. I am told that the up-to-date figure for Oftel is approximately 100. So whatever we may say from time to time about the Treasury, it is being realistic in this matter. We have no reason whatever to suspect that it would not be equally realistic with Ofgas. Therefore, I am not persuaded that the amendment is necessary. Perhaps the noble Lord will consider withdrawing it.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lord, before the noble Lord withdraws his amendment, perhaps I may say that I am becoming just a little confused. I have listened to what the noble Lord has said, but I have also read Condition 15 of the revised authorisation. Condition 15 states:The Supplier shall pay the following amounts to the Secretary of State for Energy at the times stated—(a) on 31st March, 1987, or such earlier date as the Secretary of State shall determine upon giving the Supplier not less than 4 weeks' notice, the sum of £3 million, and (b) on 1st April 1987 and on each anniversary thereof (the year beginning on each such date being hereinafter referred to as a 'fiscal year') a renewal fee which shall represent a fair proportion of the costs".Then it goes on:(i) estimated by the Director as being likely to be incurred in that fiscal year in the regulation and enforcement of public gas suppliers' authorisations and in the exercise of his functions under the Act".And then it continues.
I read that as saying that the director in estimating his costs obviously will be estimating the number of staff that he shall have; and the cost of the number of staff that he shall have will be covered by raising money by way of licence fees from the gas suppliers. Therefore, if that is so under the authorisation, why is it necessary for the Treasury to intervene? In fact, it is explicit in the authorisation that the director is entitled to raise the money by way of licence fee. It is true that it does through the Treasury but the position is rather different from what it was at Committee stage and the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, was quite correct to return to it because I think it is necessary, bearing in mind Condition 15, that we should know the position exactly.
Otherwise, it could be that the director estimates a given amount of money and it is raised by way of licence fees and then the Treasury says, "Oh, no! You may have estimated for 100 staff and we have raised the licence fee to cover that 100 staff. But we do not think that you should have 100 staff; you should have only 80. Therefore the money involved in the difference, between 80 and 100 staff, will be paid into the Treasury". The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, is quite correct to be a bit cautious and to ask ask for further explanation over and above that which was given to us at Committee in the light of Condition 15.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, by leave of the House, regarding Condition 15, the matter which the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has raised, £3 million is the estimate of the 1986–87 costs of Ofgas and the Gas Consumers' Council. For subsequent years, the 838 authorisation fee will cover the costs of Ofgas and the Gas Consumers' Council, but the Treasury has overall control of public sector manpower and costs to ensure that there is no extravagance or unnecessary Civil Service manpower. Is that clear to the noble Lord? Would he like me to repeat it?
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I think it is clear. I am wondering what the Treasury will get up to.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I think that the discussion we have had clearly underlines the necessity for a clause of this kind. We are told now—and 1, as usual, have been very modest and have under-estimated the figure—that the figure is not 58 as it used to be at the end of 1984 but is now nearer 100. The Minister says that the proposed staff of ofgas which, I repeat, at first glance would seem to have much more onerous duties than those of oftel, is to be 30—something less than one third of the present staff of Oftel.
I do not know how the Government expect us to believe that this office will be capable of carrying out the duties which are being placed upon it (and on which the Government are relying and asking the country to accept) with a handful of 30 people in staff. It is incredible. It has to cover Scotland, Wales, all the districts of the UK, all the districts into which the gas board is at present divided. It has to cover the whole country, to cover all these responsibilities of improving efficiency, protecting the consumer, with a handful of 30 people looking after the long-term developments of gas—all the problems which we have been discussing for hours at Committee stage. I do not understand it.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give way. I am just as puzzled as he is about this staff of 30. Although a figure of £3 million has been mentioned in relation to Condition 15, for the fiscal year beginning 1 st April 1987, the figure shall not exceed £6 million, and after 1st April 1988 it shall not exceed £9 million; so that there is built in here additional costs. I am wondering what is happening to that additional money if we are talking about 30 staff.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I am just as puzzled as the noble Lord; but I am, as usual, very cautious about attempting to interpret figures when I do not know what they refer to. All I know is that they refer to more things than the staff of Ofgas. So far as I recollect, they refer to the consumers' council as well, so it may well be that it is contemplated that the consumers' council will build up its responsibilities in the various areas of the country over a period and that the out-of-pocket expenses will be very high. Certainly, if there is going to be only one consumers' council in London, and everybody has to pay fares to get from distant parts of the country to London every time there is a meeting, there will be a huge bill in respect of travelling expenses alone which will run into millions. I do not know how this is made up and I cannot guess. 1 am trained to look at the facts and not to pull them out of the air.
839 If the Minister can help us, that will be fine. Until he can, I am bound to say that common sense means that the staffing of the office of Ofgas, as presently intended, is far too low to enable the Government to implement their undertaking and to enable the director to carry out his enormous heavy responsibilities.
I am asked: what do we do about it at this stage? We are in the difficulty that it is already late at night, but the Government are under this ridiculous pressure of business and want to carry on, no matter how late the night and no matter how few the numbers. As I indicated earlier, I do not want to embarrass the Government by finding out how few supporters they have, so I cannot push the amendment to a Division at the moment. But it may well be that we shall have to come back to this because it is quite impossible to persuade me—and I hope other Members of your Lordships' House—that the director will be able to carry out his functions when he is limited in this way.
I have already indicated that there is no reason for tying the numbers to the Treasury. They have a different and necessary outlook. The Secretary of State is a responsible person and the Government could well accept this amendment without causing embarrassment in any quarter whatsoever. But if the Government are not going to move on this, all I can do is beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, before the amendment is withdrawn, may I say that I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his consideration of the Government's feelings. I can assure him that there is no danger of the Government being embarrassed. If the noble Lord feels that he wants to press this amendment to a Division, then I suggest that he does so. The Government will not be embarrassed in any way. The Government have plenty of people here, and if the noble Lord feels that he must divide then I suggest that he does so.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Presumably, he was not here on the two occasions when the Government did not sustain a House and when, if the matter had been carried to its proper lengths, business would have come to an end earlier than it did. Therefore, I have to have regard for carrying on the business of the Government, even if the Government do not have regard to it.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 32 to 40 and 43 to 45 not moved.]
Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 46:
Page 65, line 10, at end insert—
("( ) Any reference in this schedule to the duties and powers of the Director shall be subject to the provisions of section (Directorate of Gas Supply).").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 46, with which I think it will be convenient to discuss Amendment No. 194. This—
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, I wonder whether I may interrupt the noble Lord one minute. May I ask: what 840 about the 20 or so amendments which fall between Amendments Nos. 46 and 194, all of which hang between the two amendments?
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I have already been consulted about this. There are very good reasons why they should be grouped in the way that I invited them to be grouped, and in the way that, so far as I know, they are grouped. We shall have a discussion on Amendments Nos. 46 and 194, a separate discussion on Amendment No. 63, which is a different point; a separate discussion on Amendment No. 109, which is a different point, and then my list does not cover the rest. But there are three more groupings covering the whole of those amendments. That being the case—and I shall have no difficulty in satisfying the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, that the most convenient way of dealing with the various amendments is in the way I have indicated and in the way they have been grouped—I am now moving Amendment No. 46 and speaking at the same time to Amendment No. 194, to which this paving amendment leads.
Perhaps I may deal first of all with Amendment No. 194, which is to be found on page 44 of the Marshalled List. Amendment No. 194 proposes a new clause:If at any time after the passing of this Act it shall appear to the Secretary of State, whether on representations made to him by the Director or otherwise".I need not dwell on that. It is obvious that the Secretary of State can either think about it on his own initiative or the director himself can have a word with the Secretary of State or other people can. The amendment continues:(a) that in order to protect the interests of consumers or to promote efficiency and economy or to protect the public from dangers or to enable persons to compete effectively, all as described in Section 4(2) above".In other words, I am not inventing any words at all. I am merely repeating what the Bill—and we have not reached Clause 4(2) yet—provides in terms of protec-tion of the consumer, the promotion of efficiency and so on. I return to the new clause, which reads:If at any time after the passing of this Act it shall appear to the Secretary of State …(b) that in order to enable the Director fully to perform any one or more of the functions assigned to him by this part".Then I have gone on to list them as they are listed in the Government's annex to their own notes, because I think it is for the convenience of everybody looking at the Bill and considering this to know which duties are being referred to and where they are to be found in the Bill itself. They are listed. So if it appears to the Secretary of State that for either of these two major reasons,it is requisite for him so to act, he shall appoint one or more additional Officers of Gas Supply to join with the Director in constituting the Directorate of Gas Supply (in this Act referred to as 'the Directorate') for the purposes referred to in paragraphs (a) and (b) above.One is not inventing any new purposes; they are the purposes laid down in the Bill. They are the responsibility which this Bill puts on the Secretary of State and on the director in protecting the public, encouraging efficiency and so on. Up to now we have endeavoured quite unsuccessfully to persuade the 841 Government that one director will not on his own be able to match up to the responsibilities that are laid upon him and which are repeated here. Those of your Lordships who are good enough to be looking at paragraph (b) of the amendment will see how many duties are laid upon him—a vast number of duties. We believe it is quite impossible for one man to stand up to that total weight of commercialism in order to protect the consumer as is required. We have not been able to convince the Government that that is so.
The Government have said. "No, we believe that one man will be able to do it". But we are then forced back to the position—not that we believe this is right but we know it is all we can do—of saying to the Government, "Just suppose for one second that you can be wrong". It can happen to even the most able of governments that they occasionally make a miscalculation. We are saying to the Government, "Just suppose that you are making a miscalculation in regard to the ability of the director to carry out all the responsibilities that you are laying upon him by statute. Suppose you are wrong, then here is a method of dealing with the situation, at the discretion of the Secretary of State and with no compulsion whatsoever, if, after a period of six months or a year, it becomes obvious that this huge ongoing commercial concern that is British Gas is far too powerful and dynamic for the newly-fledged child of Ofgas to stand up to it, especially as there will be but one officer with a handful of staff who is paid a salary of one-third of the level of the chairman and probably of several members of the board of Ofgas". If it transpires that such is the case, then the Government should welcome the opportunity of putting that situation right.
It is the Government's position that this Bill will not prejudice consumers or gas efficiency. It is the Government's case that, notwithstanding the privatisation of gas, a situation will arise, partly as a result of the appointment of a director to monitor matters and partly as a result of the duties and responsibilities being placed upon him by this Bill, where there will be protection for the consumer; where there will be encouragement and efficiency and all the other duties to which I have referred.
Here is an opportunity for the Government to say, "We thought that there was enough. We thought that we were right in having one person. We thought that we were right in denying the director the help of two assistant directors. We thought that we were right in refusing to consider the American pattern of three commissioners. We thought that we were right in doing all those things, but it has turned out to be the case that the director has insufficient teeth to be able to do his job". I have referred already to writings, to television programmes and to other such points of view joining in the conclusion that we see expressed in many sections of the press that the director of Ofgas had better have more teeth than the director of Oftel if he is to be able to do his job.
That is why I hope that the Government will look kindly upon an amendment that compels them to do nothing but gives an opportunity, if it should turn out to be necessary in the future, to appoint one or more 842 additional officers of gas supplies to join with the director in constituting the directorate ofgas supply. In those circumstances there would be a directorate, that directorate might consist of two people, or three, or four. It might consist of as many people as the Secretary of State was satisfied, on the basis of experience and not of conjecture, there should be.
I hope that the amendment to which I am speaking is seen by the Government as being a thoroughly constructive proposal. However, the amendment that I am moving is Amendment No. 46, to insert at the end of line 10, on page 65 of the Bill, that,Any reference in this schedule to the duties and powers of the Director shall be subject to the provisionsof the section to which I have just referred; namely, the creation in certain circumstances of a directorate of gas supply. The particular reference here is at line 10 on page 65. It is at the end of Schedule 1 and refers to all the duties described in that schedule which are imposed on the Director General of Gas Supply. That is a start.
There are many other duties contained in the Bill. Some of them are of a parallel nature and some are of a separate and extremely onerous nature and require separate discussion and decision. So far as the responsibilities mentioned in Schedule 1 are concerned, I hope that the Government will feel that it may be necessary to give themselves the freedom of action which is provided for in this amendment. It is in that spirit that I beg to move.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Lord Whaddon
My Lords, I appeal to the House to support this eminently sensible and reasonably argued amendment.
The Government are taking the nation into an entirely uncharted sea with this Bill. The argument that we have all heard for decades from the Conservative side and that we all learned in our studies of basic economics is that competition could and should produce efficiency and the best deal for the consumer. There is a strong argument to be made for that.
But we on this side of the House are deeply disturbed at the risk the Government are taking with tens of millions of consumers in feeding them to this new monster of a privately-owned monopoly; or, as it has been called on previous occasions, this Dracula, waiting to get its fangs into the jugular of the housewife. The situation facing the sales managers of the new public limited company must be making the mouths of every salesman water. There is this huge public supply to which millions of households are committed and as soon as they wish to buy any device which depend on gas they must do so from British Gas plc.
Tens of millions of devices will be sold, but who is to protect the housewife? There will be a staff" of only 33 against the many sales points suggested. The odds are overwhelmingly in favour of the company. I beg the Government to reflect on Cromwell's words: "Consider ye might be wrong". This pitiful barrier of 843 33 may prove to be totally inadequate. How ashamed the Government will be if hundreds of thousands of cases are queuing up, unresolved and unrequited.
This amendment very reasonably does not force the Government to increase the number of staff to protect the public, but simply keeps the option open so that any future Minister will not be able to say, "I cannot increase the staff. I am bound by statute". It gives the Minister a little extra power to use for the protection of the poor British housewife whose future is at stake in this Bill. I have the greatest pleasure in supporting the eloquent case made by my noble friend.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, we have already explained at some length why we believe that the right course is to appoint an independent regulatory body which will of course have at its head a well qualified and experienced director. He will be supported by the number of staff necessary for the fulfilment of its functions.
The director of Ofgas will be the head of a non-ministerial government department and will be able to negotiate additional staff with the Treasury on equal terms with any permanent secretary. Therefore it is not necessary to provide for the Secretary of State's intervention. It is of course likely that, as in the case of Oftel, a deputy director will be appointed, but for reasons that we have already fully explored and explained we do not believe that it would be either right or necessary to go further than this.
Perhaps I may again remind your Lordships that the numbers at Oftel have doubled since it was first set up. As I said a little earlier, it would be the Government's clear intention to ensure that Ofgas is properly staffed to carry out all its functions effectively. We believe that we have provided in the Bill for a strong and effective regulatory body with the appropriate machinery for the appointment of staff. Therefore I must invite the noble Lord to accept that the Government have recognised the best interests of consumers in these arrangements and perhaps he will consider withdrawing his amendment.
§ Lord Sanderson of Bowden
My Lords, before the noble Lord considers whether or not he will withdraw his amendment, I must say that it was quite interesting to hear from the Benches which he occupies the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, who said at an earlier stage of this Bill that the position of the consumer under a monopoly has never been solved and nothing satisfactory has ever been devised. My view is that surely we are now moving into the uncharted waters of privatisation of the gas industry, but I should have thought that with the Ofgas directorate in position and the clear guidelines that it is given, we are moving into an area which, with those safeguards, we should do well to explore.
§ Lord Diamond
Whatever that means, my Lords. The position is, as has truly been stated, that we are moving into uncharted waters. So far as I am aware it has never previously been the case that gas has been a single entity in private hands. It has either been under the limitations of control by its constitution, or under dividend limitations and so on. Price control has been 844 effected through dividend and profit limitation rather than in any other way. So far as I am aware it has never been a wholly private sector business—one single business running the whole of the gas supply industry and serving, therefore, all the 167 million consumers in this country—never.
That being the case, surely one ought to provide for eventualities. That is all I am saying. It is the Government's present view that one person can do the job. That is not our view, and it is not the view held outside this Chamber. Even if we were wholehearted Government supporters, we must not convince ourselves that people outside the Chamber take the same view as Government supporters in this Chamber. Far from it. They take the view that the Oftel arrangement is unsatisfactory and that, as they put it, "For Heaven's sake, if you are going to do the same with gas, then give Ofgas more teeth than Oftel". That is the view that they take.
All that the Government are proposing in substan-tiation of that view is to reduce the staff that Oftel finds necessary by two-thirds. The suggestion is preposterous, however much the number of staff increases in the future—and we have no assurance about that and no assurance that the director will be free to have his and the Secretary of State's responsible views as to increases in staff carried into effect. However, we are asked to believe that that is a possible way to carry out the Government's undertakings to protect the consumer and to promote the efficiency of gas. That is quite incredible.
I am sorry that the Government are so adamant. The amendment puts no compulsion whatsoever on them. It does not require them at any stage to do anything different from what they would have done had the amendment not been in the Bill. The amendment imposes no compulsion. If the amendment is adopted into statute, nobody could ask in five years' time, "Why did you not do so and so?". The Government can say that they did not want to, they thought it best and it was their view not to do anything different. It puts no compulsion whatsoever on them. It gives them a freedom that they may wish they had. More than that, it gives a future government a freedom which they may wish they had.
If the Government continue to insist on privatising gas in a way that is wholly unacceptable to the other half of the country, they must not be surprised if at some future date a Labour Government come to power and say, "This was totally objectionable to us. We shall reverse it".
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I am on the side of the Alliance; I am on the side of reason, compromise and good sense. I am on the side of those who believe that no government ought to act as if they had such a steamrollering majority that it entitled them to steamroller every possible opposition and every suggestion. That is the side that I am on.
§ Lord Diamond
I shall give way in a moment, my Lords. The noble Lord has asked for the view of the Alliance on the problem of the privatisation of gas and other privatisations. Our view is that a government with the enormous power that this one have in both Houses should exercise it with restraint and have regard to the future. They should not force the country into the situation which we have, and of which we are all sick and tired, of nationalising and privatising, nationalising and privatising. That is our position.
§ Lord Diamond
I shall give way, my Lords. I have not forgotten. 1 do not have such a bad memory. The noble Lord will be patient, I am sure. We have lots of time. It is not yet a quarter to ten. That is the view of the Alliance. I wish that that view could be taken on board by a government who are acting in the most power-sick way that I have ever known any government to act. I shall now gladly give way to the noble Lord.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, am I right in thinking that the noble Lord said that the policy of a future Alliance Government, if such were to happen, would be to renationalise the gas industry?
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, if the noble Lord thought that I said that, I can understand why he is incapable of answering sensibly any of the amendments we have put forward. He is incapable of listening to what has been said. I never said one word about that. I was not vague; I was precise. I was talking about a future Labour Government. We have to contemplate that; it is a possibility. Whether or not it is welcome is a different matter. But a Labour Government may come 846 to power and decide that a Tory Government had been obstinate and onesided—indeed, pigheaded—and had insisted in refusing every possible amendment, however reasonable, and forcing down the throats of Parliament a Bill which takes away the protection of Parliament from 16½ million consumers. If the Government are so determined to do that, they must not be surprised if another government take an opposite view.
I said if a Labour Government were to do that. The noble Lord encourages me to say what an Alliance Government would do. The Alliance, as has been said many times, is totally objective about nationalisation and privatisation. Each case must be considered on its merits. The onus of proving it must be on those who wish to change. If an industry were in private hands, and there were a proposal to nationalise it, those who proposed to nationalise it would have the onus of proving the case. That is what happened when gas was nationalised in the first place. There was a huge inquiry. The Heywarth Committee was set up to look into the gas industry as it was then being run. It was not being run within the private sector.
The committee reported in favour of nationalisation and that is what happened. I hope that I have answered the noble Lord. I hope that he is fully informed as to Alliance policy even if he is not fully informed as to the amendments which we are moving. I am sorry that he is not prepared to accept the amendment. In the circumstances, I must await a more suitable opportunity to impress our view upon the Government. In the meantime, if no other noble Lord wants to intervene, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ On Question, amendment negatived.847
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Clause 2 [The Gas Consumers' Council]:
Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 47:
Page 2, line 20, at end insert ("together with the Chairman of the Regional Gas Council for Scotland, the Chairman of the Regional Council for Wales and four Regional Chairmen of the Regional Gas Councils in England who shall serve in rotation in accordance with a scheme prepared by the Regional Gas Councils for England and approved by the Secretary of State").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is convenient to take with this amendment Amendments Nos. 48, 56 and 57. Amendment No. 48 is a purely consequential amendment. Amendment No. 56 lays down duties for the regional gas consumer councils, and Amendment No. 57 constitutes the councils. Your Lordships will recall that in Committee we had a significant discussion about regional consumer councils. At that time the Government's view was that regional councils were not appropriate to the new, privatised British Gas, and would in any event be too large and unwieldy. I think that summarises the Government's case in Committee.
§ I have always tried to be helpful, as noble Lords opposite know. When the Government are in difficulty over something I try to get them out of that difficulty. That is precisely what I have tried to do with this series of amendments. I listened to the Government's argument in Committee, and although I did not necessarily agree with them, I have tried to meet their arguments and criticisms. First, I have limited the number of regional council chairmen who would serve on the Gas Consumers' Council. I have also limited the number of members of regional councils to a maximum of 20 plus the chairman.
§ In Amendment No. 56 I have identified the duties of the regional councils. One of the duties that I have included is that of appointing local committees or representatives in accordance with a scheme approved by the Secretary of State. I have tried my best to meet all the objections which were raised in Committee.
§ I hope, having done my homework and drafted these new amendments, that the Government may feel able to accept them. Without repeating all the arguments made at Committee stage, there are very good reasons for maintaining the regional councils. First, British Gas has said that it will maintain its regional organisation intact after privatisation. It seems logical therefore that there should be regional councils to follow the regions that will still exist when British Gas is privatised. Secondly, regional councils can recruit people from a wide range of interests who have knowledge of the regions, because they live there, and of the problems related to the regions. Thirdly, the opportunity is given to people, on a voluntary basis, to assist their fellows, and points of contact can be maintained between the gas industry and consumers at grass roots level. I would have thought that this would commend itself to every noble Lord present.
§ We should take into account the fact that the regional councils have worked very well without complaint for the last 40 years. Indeed, they have done 848 a valuable and useful job for gas consumers and the gas industry during that time. That is again something that we should take into account. Why sweep away organisations that have done such a good job of work over such a long time? That seems to me quite ridiculous and absurd. We should not do it. That is why I am giving the House the opportunity to reconsider the matter at this stage.
§ I believe that there is a need for some other body than the national Gas Consumers' Council. It is frankly absurd to centralise in this way. That is what we are doing. We are saying to the regional councils and to the local committees that they are to be abolished and that everything will be done at national level. There is a great danger in having just one central body. There is the danger that a cosy relationship will develop between the national Gas Consumers' Council and British Gas plc, and if we have regional councils with local committees, that simply would not be allowed to happen and could not happen. This is another good reason for retaining regional councils.
§ Following this amendment, we shall be discussing Amendment No. 49 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, which deals with regional representation on the national council and later, Amendment No. 59, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, which deals with local representation. I must not at this stage discuss those amendments in detail. They are not grouped with mine. I am, however, entitled to say that they are in no way a substitute for what I propose and that they do not reflect the need for a proper regional representative structure.
§ I have been brief because we must get on with our business. We have much to do tonight. I feel sure that the House does not want to stay up all night. I am prepared to do so, as, no doubt, the noble Lord and also the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, are prepared to do so. We are used to it, but there are others who are not used to it. We must have some consideration for them.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
Yes, my Lords; I was looking at, and thinking about, the noble Baroness. I appreciate the enormous effort that she puts in, in particular in respect of matters relating to gas and energy. We have consideration for her. I have therefore moved the amendment very briefly. I hope that noble Lords, having listened to the arguments, will accept them and will support the amendment. I beg to move.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, I should like to support the amendment which has been proposed. At a later stage—I hope not tonight—we shall reach Amendment No. 196 in my name, which deals with the regional structure of the organisation. However, tonight we are specifically dealing with the regional structure of the consumer council. While the Bill goes some way to meet the requirements of the noble 849 Lord—that the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of having members familiar with the special requirements—this amendment makes it quite specific that the regions with their own separate problems will have representation in the central body and that the regional councils will continue to exist.
I do not need to describe to the Minister con-cerned—he has just left, although he was on the Front Bench a moment ago, and who was Member for a constituency in the far north of Scotland—the special problems of that area, which are quite distinct from those of other parts of the United Kingdom. I know that Scottish Peers who are present tonight will appreciate this point. It is important that the gas consumer council dealing with these special problems should continue to exist on a local basis. There is nothing revolutionary about this. We are creating a private monopoly in this case. But in the case of state monopolies it is already provided for in the constitutions of British Rail. I had the pleasure of being the Chairman of British Railays in Scotland for a number of years. Why was there a British Railways Board? Because we were close—much closer than Marylebone—to the problems of Scotland and the problems of distribution, transport, rural transport and so on. So we created that separate organisation.
The same is true of broadcasting. They have local regional boards for broadcasting. The IBA and BBC have Scottish boards because they know that they are exercising a monopoly service and that they should reflect local interest and concern. This is true also of the Post Office structure, which has regional consumers' organisations, which make represent-ations to them on local matters. Quite apart from the state monopolies, most of the large building societies recognise that in these areas there are special problems and situations and almost all of them have local consumer boards on representation in their structure. The banks also do it.
We are now creating a private monopoly. In these circumstances it is all the more important that that private monopoly should not abuse its power and that the consumers' organisation—which are already doing a first-class job in this industry—should continue to exist on a regional basis. I would hope that the Government will see the wisdom of this proposal.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, noble Lords made reference to the more remote parts of the United Kingdom and the way in which the problems are different. We do not want to repeat the arguments. I know that the rules of the House are that one does not repeat arguments at length on Report. We have discussed all this already at Committee stage.
We need to remind ourselves that what we are now setting up is not a state monopoly. It does not have the attitude of mind of the state monopolies. The problems of the state monopolies are different from the problems that there will be with a private monopoly. It will be very important to have access to local opinion from time to time. I am interested to see that there are amendments down to do this in a flexible way. It will be the greatest mistake to perpetuate the enormous network of gas consumer councils, excellent 850 though they be. I have never been on one, but they are quite excellent. However, there is no need for them. To create that structure would be a waste of many people's efforts. Personally, I hope very much that we shall not accept the amendments.
§ 10 p.m.
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, these amendments are seeking once again to maintain the existing structure of gas consumer representation, although they have gone a step further in providing for the regional chairmen, other than for Scotland and Wales, to serve on the national body on a rotational basis, and in defining the role of and a reporting structure for the proposed regional councils.
First, I am grateful that the noble Lord. Lord Stoddart, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, have made it quite clear that the objective of the amendments is to continue with the structure as we know it today. My noble friend Lady Carnegy has put very briefly the argument in the opposite sense; namely, that a rigid regionalised structure, which we debated at the previous stage of the Bill, is something which we believe we can improve upon. Of course. it is right to remember that that is also what the chairman of the Gas Consumers' Council felt She gave evidence to that effect in another place. My understanding is that the existing national Gas Consumers' Council thinks in the same way.
It was very much against the background of that evidence given to the Select Committee by the chairman of the Gas Consumers' Council and after consultation between the Department of Energy and the Department of Trade and Industry (which is and will remain the department ultimately responsible for consumer matters) that we came to the decision that the representation and protection of consumer interests would be more effective under the more flexible structure that we are proposing in Clause 2. That structure would be set up only after consultation with the regional council offices which is currently under way, and as a result of the work being undertaken in the organising committee of the new council.
There is a little more to the story than that. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was characteristically very fair when he mentioned that, in response to views expressed during the Committee stage, we have sought to clarify how the interests of consumers at regional level may best be met. I believe that those interests will be properly protected by the next amendment, which is to be moved by my noble friend Lady Macleod. I am referring to Amendment No. 49. We are also bringing forward, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, mentioned, Amendment No. 59, in response to the case made by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes in Committee to provide for local representation of the Gas Consumers' Council.
Therefore, there is no difference between all of us in the House on the importance of a grass-roots link with consumers in all parts of the country. The aim of our proposals is to provide a body which can provide speedy and effective help. However, I have to say that we on this side of the House believe that there are strong consumer arguments in favour of moving away from a rigid, statutory structure. It was my hope that, 851 on reflection, your Lordships would agree that the amendments which we have yet to reach would meet the case and would render this group of amendments unnecessary.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for his support. He has experience of the difficulties which may be caused when there is no local organisation to deal with local problems. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, that the problems that will arise when the gas industry is privatised will be different. However, they will be no less acute and they will certainly not concern local customers any less than they do now. Indeed, the problem consumers will find is that whereas previously they used to be able to go to the regional council or to their local representative and, of course, to their Member of Parliament—there were three avenues of approach—under the Bill they will have nowhere to go other than to the Gas Consumers' Council. The local customers are being robbed in three ways of their representative rights.
The situation is different. I cannot imagine—and I do not believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, imagines—that the privatised gas industry is going to think better of its customers than the nationalised gas industry does. The privatised gas industry will be compelled to maximise its profits, and it may well do so at the expense of the customers. Therefore, the customers need more protection and not less.
The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, quoted the chairman of the previous national Gas Consumers' Council, who of course is Mrs. Sheila Black. He said that she was against keeping regional councils. She was about to be appointed chairman of the new Gas Consumers' Council, so "She would be against them, wouldn't she?" After all, it was in her interests to be against them because she was going to be the chairman of the new council, and she knew it.
Even more important than that, the lady spoke for herself. She certainly did not speak for the regional councils because most of them—and indeed my own South Western Regional Council—disowned her. They disowned her in public and in writing by resolution. Therefore, that is no argument that the noble Lord puts up. It is no argument against the reasonable case that I put forward that the chairman of the existing national Gas Consumers' Council is against the retention of regional councils. That is no argument. That is an argument on my side, because if she wants to centralise then we should beware. We ought to beware of centralisation generally. There is too much of it, and far too much of it under this Government. This Government are worse than Henry VII. They seem to want to centralise everything—local government, and now the regional gas consumers' councils. It is not good enough.
There is a good case to be made for the retention of these councils. I believe I made it, and I believe that they should continue. This is an important amendment, and I appeal to noble Lords to have regard to what I have said, to have some consideration for the future needs of gas consumers, and to support this amendment, which I am bound to press to a Division.
§ 10.9 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 47) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 26; Not-Contents, 47.
|Airedale, L.||Kagan, L.|
|Blease, L.||Kilmarnock, L.|
|Crawshaw of Aintree, L.||Pitt of Hampstead, L.|
|David, B.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||[Teller.]|
|Diamond, L.||Simon, V.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Ezra, L.||Taylor of Gryfe, L.|
|Gallacher, L.||Whaddon, L. [Teller.]|
|Grey, E.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Hacking, L.||Willis, L.|
|Hanworth, V.||Wilson of Rievaulx, L.|
|Howie of Troon, L.||Winstanley, L.|
|Abinger, L.||Long, V. [Teller.]|
|Bauer, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Belstead, L.||Macleod of Borve, B.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Mar, C.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Marshall of Leeds, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.|
|Burton, L.||Onslow, E.|
|Caithness, E.||Pender, L.|
|Cameron of Lochbroom, L.||Polwarth, L.|
|Carnegy of Lour, B.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Crathorne, L.||Renton, L.|
|Davidson, V.||Sanderson of Bowden, L.|
|Elliot of Harwood, B.||Sandford, L.|
|Elton, L.||Shannon, E.|
|Gardner of Parkes, B.||Skelmersdale, L. [Teller.]|
|Gisborough, L.||Stodart of Leaston, L.|
|Glenarthur, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Gray of Contin, L.||Ullswater, V.|
|Halsbury, E.||Windlesham, L.|
|Hives, L.||Wise, L.|
|Hooper, B.||Wynford, L.|
|Ingrow, L.||Young, B.|
|Kimball, L.||Young of Graffham, L.|
|Lindsey and Abingdon, E.|
§ Agreed in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ [Amendment No. 48 not moved.]
§ 10.17 p.m.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve moved Amendment No. 49:
Page 2, line 22, leave out from ("shall") to end of line 24 and insert ("so far as practicable, ensure—
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we are now on Clause 2. With your Lordship's permission, I feel that I must say one or two words about how this 853 amendment arose in my name. Noble Lords who were here on the Committee stage will probably remember that I moved an amendment to Clause 2, from which I hoped that the Secretary of State would be able to appoint regional chairmen to be members of the national Gas Consumers' Council. My noble friend the Minister in his reply drew my attention to the fact that my amendment was incorrectly worded. He said that he would help to draft something which we all wanted to be put into the Bill; and, indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has said, it is absolutely essential.
§ But, unfortunately, the words that I used were incorrect. The first word was "regional". That was because the word "region" is not on the face of the Bill. "British Gas" is not on the face of the Bill. "The supplier" is what is alluded to on the face of the Bill. It was for that reason that my noble friend the Minister gave me his helpful advice so as to put forward this particular amendment instead this evening. It is more complicated than the one that I put forward. It is not perhaps in my normal language, but it is in parliamentary language. I think it covers completely the ground that I wanted to cover originally in that the Secretary of State will be asked to appoint people who have specialised knowledge of certain areas to sit on the national Gas Consumers' Council.
§ The reason why British Gas, and anything to do with that body, is not mentioned in the Bill is, as I understand it, that British Gas might alter considerably in the next 20 or 25 years and it is felt—in my view, absolutely rightly—that to tie the future organisers of gas to a word like "regions" might be wrong. They are now called regions, which is why several noble Lords have already referred to the regions of British Gas, and indeed to what is coterminous—the regions of the national Gas Consumers' Council. But in view of the fact that the regions will perhaps not exist in the future and, as I have said, they are not on the face of the Bill, I have tabled this amendment with the help of my noble friend.
§ I am certain that everybody who has had anything to do with British Gas, or with the national Gas Consumers' Council, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, so very rightly and eloquently said, realises that the regional structure, and the people representing the various parts of this country on that council, do an excellent and necessary job. I am told that it is the intention of British Gas plc to continue with the representation, although it will not be tied and it will be more flexible, and that the representatives from the various parts of the country will be appointed by the Secretary of State.
§ It is a complicated matter and I felt that I owed it to those who knew that I wanted this structure—if that is the right word—to be part of the Bill, even temporarily, to move this amendment. I hope that the Minister will agree to accept it. I think it is couched in terms that are acceptable to the parliamentary draftsman and that it can be put in the Bill. Noble Lords will notice that the authorisation has been changed very slightly and that Condition 12, which is to do with the consumers' interests, has also been changed. When we hear the Minister I think he will be able to tell us that the codes of practice which are now 854 enshrined in the authorisation will meet all the problems about this part of the Bill. I beg to move.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, we must be very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, for moving this amendment. She has shown consistently very great interest in these affairs and we must honestly pay her very great tribute for trying very hard to get something acceptable to all sides of your Lordships' House.
I have certain problems with the drafting. I hope that the noble Baroness will excuse me, because I mean no offence, and I am not sure to whom I should address the problems I have on the drafting, but perhaps I should start with the noble Lord. Lord Belstead. I have precisely 11 points which I should like to raise on the drafting of this amendment. First, what is the meaning of the expression "so far as practicable", when the Secretary of State "shall, so far as practicable, ensure"? I wonder whether the noble Lord could enlighten me as to exactly in what circumstances it should be considered practicable, and in what circumstances it should be considered impracticable.
My second point is that in paragraph (a) of the amendment the "members of the Council" shall include members. We are not clear from this—and perhaps the noble Lord can give us some guidance—about how many members: what proportion of the council might be composed from members appointed under this amendment. Arc there going to be 153 members of the council with two members appointed under the amendment? What proportion does the noble Lord have in mind?
My next point is on the question of familiarity. What does "familiarity" mean? The noble Baroness when she introduced her amendment said, I think, that they would come from the areas in question. There is no reference in the amendment to the fact that their geographical origin should be from the areas in question. They should be familiar with the areas in question, and familiarity can take a number of different forms. Some of us would claim familiarity with all sorts of areas and all sorts of businesses on a fairly superficial plane. I hope very much that the noble Lord may be able to enlighten us on that.
Then there is a point of English on the question of different areas. I was always brought up to believe that something was different from something else. You cannot simply say that there are different areas. You can say that there are various areas, there are regions, but for something to be different it has to differ from something. Will the noble Lord ask the draftsmen whether they can possibly correct what I regard as a slight misuse of the Queen's English?
Then we come to the small businesses. As I understand the amendment, it is members who—and I shall paraphrase the amendment for the sake of convenience—are familiar with the special require-ments of areas or small businesses. It is to me unclear whether these members are going to be both familiar with areas and the small businesses; or, alternatively, familiar with one or the other, in which case one would wish to know how many members were going to be familiar with small businesses and how many 855 members were going to be familiar with the areas. I think the noble Lord will wish to comment on that.
My next point is that they will act together. Paragraph (a) says,are able together to represent the interests of consumers".Does this mean that they will act as a body on the council? Does this mean that they will be required in some way to co-ordinate their advice and their votes on the consumer council, or is that an expression which perhaps is a little superfluous? Perhaps the noble Lord will enlighten us on that. Then there is the expression,in all those areas and of such businesses".Again I come back to more or less the same point as I made before. Are these members required to act together in both those areas and those businesses; or can some members act for some areas and others for some businesses? The amendment is unspecific on the question and we should like to know more about it.
Paragraph (b) uses the expression "different areas" but then it goes on to say that those should be represented by "different members". Does this mean that there is one member for each area? Does this mean that different areas which differ one from another will be represented by members who differ one from another? What is the meaning of this?
My tenth point concerns the "various parts" in the penultimate line of the amendment,the various parts of the gas supply industry".Are we to assume because of this amendment that the gas supply industry in Great Britain is going in some way to divide itself up into various parts? If so, perhaps the noble Lord will be able to enlighten us on what these "various parts" are or might in the course of time become.
Lastly, there are the last two words in the amendment "organise themselves". It appears from the amendment that it is now envisaged that,the various parts of the gas supply industry",will be able to organise themselves. I am quite unclear from all I have heard—and I have sat through a number of debates on this Bill—that we have any authorisation for the various parts of the industry to start organising themselves. I should be most grateful if the noble Lord would kindly illuminate me on these points.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Lord Sanderson of Bowden
My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Baroness for moving this amendment. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, reminded me of someone trying to do a Latin unseen, and I must say that I have some sympathy with the points that he has raised. I look forward to hearing the detailed answers from my noble friend Lord Belstead.
I have only one question to put to my noble friend before he replies. In this I believe I have the sympathy of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, because I too have concern for matters north of the border. Am I to understand, among all the difficulties of trying to comprehend the parliamentary draftsman's wording, that we are to have regional representation from all 856 parts of Great Britain? Is that the intention behind all of this? I should like to have confirmation of that. I know that we are not allowed to talk about amendments that are to follow, but if that is the case, then in combination with Amendment No. 59, that seems to satisfy many of the needs that those of us north of the border have so far as concerns consumer councils.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
My Lords, I greatly enjoyed listening to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, but more as an entertainment than anything else. I rise to support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Macleod, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will in his reply make clear that he does not wish to define too precisely some of the words and phrases, as requested by the speaker from the Opposition Benches.
Flexibility in the way in which members are appointed, and the choice of those to be appointed, are matters that should be left open so that any individual who may be perfect for the job can be selected. The more that these matters are dealt with in specific terms, the more limited the Minister will be in choosing the right people. Also, the person who may be right for the appointment one year, may be different from the type of person who would be right for appointment some years ahead, when the reappointments are due to be made. I hope that in answering the points raised on this amendment, my noble friend the Minister will accept the amendment and will not tie himself to any inflexible structure of the kind for which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, might wish.
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, in Committee on 8th May my noble friend Lady Macleod, supported by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, moved Amendment No. 20 calling for tighter wording on regional representation on the Gas Consumers' Council. In debate on an earlier amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, the Committee had established there was all-party support for such a change. The noble Lord opposite asked the Government to consider also changing the indirect words,the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of having members",to something more direct.
While I was unable to accept the noble Lord's amendment on that occasion, I readily agreed to take away the consensus view that regional representation at a national level was a desirable aim and to consider how that could best be expressed on the face of the Bill.
Also, in Committee on 11th June, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, tabled Amendment No. 133, which also attracted all-party support, concerning advice for the director on matters affecting small businesses. On that occasion my noble friend Lord Gray was unable to accept the amendment as it stood, but he agreed to take that subject away for future consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, made the suggestion that it might be possible to appoint to the Gas Consumers' Council a member with special knowledge of the interests of small businesses.
Amendment No. 49 represents further consideration on those two matters—regional representation 857 and the interests of small businesses. It represents also a certain amount of discussion that has gone on with my noble friend Baroness Macleod and the Government between the two most recent stages of the Bill. However, I must make it clear that this is my noble friend's amendment. She is very much to be thanked, together with the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, for bringing forward the original amendment.
I hope, despite the difficult questions that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has posed, that the Committee will feel that Amendment No. 49 fits the bill. Paragraph (a) provides that in appointing members of the council the Secretary of State shall "so far as practicable", and so on. That means he will take steps to secure proper representation if this is practicable, taking into account various factors such as an efficient size for a council of this nature. In other words, he could not be forced to take into account things which were clearly impracticable.
To return to paragraph (a), it provides that my right honourable friend shall, so far as practicable, ensure that members shall include, first, people who are able to represent the interests of small businesses, and, secondly, people who are familiar with the special requirements and circumstances of different areas of Great Britain, so that those members together are able to represent the interests of all gas consumers in Great Britain.
I shall come back later to one or two of the other questions on paragraph (a). As regards paragraph (b), I shall try to answer the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in this way. Paragraph (b) provides that the Secretary of State is to ensure also that he has regard (again, so far as practicable) to the way in which the industry is organised in making appointments so that different areas may be separately represented. This will enable recognition to be given to the particular interests of consumers in specific areas—for example, those with a particular terrain and with dispersed population —where this is reflected in British Gas's regional organisation. In other words, the regions of British Gas in the future can be represented on the Gas Consumers' Council by statutory right on the face of the Bill.
My noble friend Lady Macleod explained why the amendment is tortuous. It is because we cannot, in this part of the Bill, refer to the regions of British Gas. Part I of the Bill does not refer to British Gas. It refers only to public gas suppliers. We cannot, in Part I, start referring to British Gas or the regions of British Gas. However, I assure my noble friend Lord Sanderson that it is the intention of my right honourable friend to appoint separate members to represent the interests of gas consumers in each of the British Gas regions. I repeat what I said a moment ago, that the sum total of this amendment is that by statutory right, if my noble friend's amendment is accepted, the regions of British Gas can be individually represented on the Gas Consumers' Council.
Before I conclude, may I quickly try to pick up one or two of the questions—
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, may I finish before giving way? Otherwise I am in some difficulty.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked a string of questions. On the issue of how many members, the advice of my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes is wise. We want to leave as much flexibility as possible, provided there is the assurance that there will be representation for each of the regions—and that is the intention—on the Gas Consumers' Council.
The noble Lord asked why the word "familiarity" was used, because that means that the person should be acquainted with the special requirements and circumstances of different areas. There are, of course, a number of different areas in Great Britain and this is what the amendment refers to; but it occurs to me that, again, one needs a certain flexibility in the wording. It could be that somebody is familiar with an area because he lives there but possibly does not work there. That might be the reason. The noble Lord asked what "acting together" meant. I think I have already answered that in what I have said.
Finally, on the reference to different areas, the intention is that there should be a member for each British Gas region. I am repeating myself but I believe it is worth doing so. I wish we could have used the word "region", because I think that my noble friend Lady Macleod would have liked it much better, but I advised her in conversations that the word "region" was something which I thought would run us into difficulties. My noble friend accepted that advice when drafting her amendment, and that is the reason why the word "areas" is used in the particular amendment that my noble friend has brought forward.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I say that I am most grateful to him for his response, but does he recognise that in his statement he has more or less completely rewritten the whole amendment? Does he think it possible to take the amendment back again and ask the parliamentary draftsman to look at it and to draft it in slightly clearer terms for Third Reading? Is this not a fair request? The noble Lord has given us a lot of extra information about the amendment which we did not have before. We will take his word as a Minister and accept the assurance that he has given, but I would ask whether it would not be proper to have it on the face of the Bill.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would he be good enough to clarify the point that he was making and say what he contemplates or imagines will be the size of the council, having regard to both regional representatives and other interests? Can he give us some idea of the number—between two figures, what will be the total number of the council?
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, just before I come to that particular question, may I say incidentally that on the question of flexibility there was a specific question which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked me about small businesses. It was the same sort of question again: what would be the amount of representation?
Here again I must take the question absolutely head on. This point is deliberately left vague by my noble friend. The point is that as of right small businesses should have statutorily on the face of the Bill a 859 representation on the council. Let us not forget that there is statutory representation on the council for disabled people, which results from one of the schedules. I do not think that I have heard anyone complain that there might only be one representative as a result of that. Therefore I do not think that we ought to overplay the fact that small businesses might have representation of only one or two people. My advice is that we would think of the council as consisting of up to about 25 members.
Before I sit down, may I say finally that this is the amendment of my noble friend Lady Macleod? However, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked the Government a direct question as to whether, for our part, we should advise that the amendment ought to be brought back again. I think that nobody knows better than my noble friend Lady Macleod that there has been a certain amount of agony over how to draft what appeared to be a very simple point. I warned my noble friend Lady Macleod during the Committee stage that there was a drafting difficulty. If I remember rightly on that occasion I said that we could not refer in the Bill—at least not in Part I—to the "regions of British Gas" because British Gas is not mentioned in Part I; only public gas suppliers are mentioned, and therefore there was a drafting problem.
In discussions with my noble friend I think she kindly took on board that it was really quite difficult to draft this amendment to get what was wanted. I shall certainly have a word through the official channels with the parliamentary draftsman and draw his attention, so far as the Government are concerned, to what has been said in this short debate. But if my noble friend Lady Macleod wishes to put the amendment to the House, as I very much hope she will, then I hope that we shall get it on to the face of the Bill.
May I end by saying on behalf of the Government that this amendment achieves one simple point, which we promised the House that we would try to achieve? By moving this amendment my noble friend is achieving it: namely, by statutory right there can be regional representation on the new Gas Consumers' Council.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I do not know what the cries of "Order!" are about. I have not spoken so far on this amendment.
§ 10.45 p.m.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I intervened once to ask for clarification while the Minister was on his feet. I do not know if that counts as a speech; if it does not, then, not having spoken, I seek the leave of the House to speak now.
I was merely going to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, that she deserves the congratulations of the House for the endeavours that she has put into this amendment and the hard work that has gone into it. 860 I say to the Government and to my noble friend Lord Hanworth, who is also closely interested in the matter, that, frankly, I well understand the difficulty of the wording. We are pleased that the point has been raised and that the Minister has promised to have another word with the draftsman. I hope that the noble Baroness presses the amendment and that the House accepts it. It is a step, or perhaps two steps, forward. It does not go anything like the distance that we want. But they are two tiny steps forward. To that extent we are grateful to the Government.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I thank my noble friends Lady Gardner and Lord Sanderson very much indeed for their support, and I also thank noble Lords on the other side of the House, despite the fact that, quite rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, did not go along with all the wording of the amendment. He might have done better with the drafting, but I did my best.
I also thank my noble friend the Minister very much indeed for agreeing to the amendment. It seems to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s, or whatever one does. At this time of night, in this dark and gloomy Chamber, it is difficult to know what one is doing. I am most grateful to him for accepting the amendment.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 50 not moved.]
§ Lord Diamond moved Amendment No. 51:
Page 2, line 27, at end insert—
("( ) The Council shall have the power to do anything which is calculated to facilitate, or is incidental or conducive to, the performance of any of its functions under this Act")
The noble Lord, said: My Lords, I gather that it would also be convenient to discuss Amendments Nos. 52, 53, 55 and 60. Amendment No. 51 merely transfers from the schedule to the Bill itself a most important statement about the council's powers:
The Council shall have power to do anything which is calculated to facilitate — the performance of any of its functions under this Act".
Those are very wide powers indeed. With respect to the draftsman and to the Government, it seems to me that those powers are so important that they should be incorporated in the body of the Bill and not left in a schedule where they might be overlooked or might be thought to have less than their full power. In my experience it is not normal to have powers like that put in a schedule. Details of pay and so on are appropriate to a schedule, but a main statement of the powers of the council should go into the body of the Bill. That is the purpose of the first amendment.
Amendment No. 52 reads:
if at any time it appears to the Secretary of State that the represent-ation of consumers throughout Great Britain or their ease in voicing individual complaints, can be improved by providing additional facilities, he shall, after full consultation, take such steps as appear to him appropriate for those purposes".
The purpose of this amendment is fairly plain. It is to enable individuals who have complaints to know where to go to voice them, or where to write or to ring up—to have human contact. If at any time the Secretary of State feels that the present representations
are inadequate and that they can be improved by providing additional facilities, he shall do so. He shall take such steps as appear to him appropriate for those purposes.
§ It is not putting an obligation on the Secretary of State to do anything other than to think about it, and he shall do that after full consultation. That means what it says; consulting all the bodies which are relevant and which ought to be consulted. The amendment is necessary because in the future the present arrangements may not appear to be adequate. I do not think that they are adequate. The Government must think that they are, because they are not providing for anything else. As a safeguard, I should have thought that it was asking little of the Government to ask them to accept an amendment which does not compel the Secretary of State but which enables him to improve the representation of consumers, if he thinks that it is necessary. It does not compel him to do so. He may feel, with experience, that he wants to make those changes. That is the purpose of Amendment No. 52.
Amendment No. 53 starts in the same way and is therefore merely an alternative. It goes on to say in the last four lines:
In reaching a conclusion as to the provision of additional facilities the Secretary of State shall have regard to the need to ensure that the gas consumers' voice is heard at local level in all parts of Great Britain.".
Those words are excellent. They describe exactly what we want, and they are the words of the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, copied straight out of Hansard. With respect to the prophet, I can do no better than use the prophet's own words. That may be regarded as an unnecessary frill. The Government may think that it is wise to say what the Secretary of State shall have regard to. If they think that is so, they will prefer the second form of the amendment (Amendment No. 53) to the first form (Amendment No. 52).
§ It is for them to decide whether they will accept either of them. I hope that they will because it is, as I say, mainly an attempt to give flexibility in the future to the Secretary of State, if he feels that something more needs to be done to cope with the problem of individual complaints and if having on the national council somebody who comes from the locality does not completely satisfy that need for those who want to know where they can telephone or to whom they can write if they have a complaint. If the Secretary of State thinks that is necessary in the future, he has powers in the Bill to provide for that without having new legislation. I hope that the Government will look very favourably on either Amendment No. 52 or No. 53.
Amendment No. 54 merely gives the construction of the matter. It states:
All references to the Secretary of State in this section and in Schedule 2 to this Act shall be construed as references to the Minister of the Crown for the time being having responsibility for consumer affairs".
Normally the Secretary of State would be the Secretary of State dealing with energy matters, but here we are dealing with consumer matters. It is a valuable point. It was suggested to me by a Member of your Lordships' House. When we are dealing with consumer matters, the Minister of the Crown who is
responsible for consumer matters should be the Minister to be consulted, amendment No. 54 provides for that. It says:
All references to the Secretary of State in this section and in Schedule 2 to this Act shall be construed as references \o the Minister of the Crown for the time being having responsibility for consumer affairs".
§ Amendment No. 60 merely leaves out the paragraph in the schedule which is transfered under Amendment No. 51 to the Bill.
§ There are a number of amendments, but the one which I have moved is the first one. It embodies in the Bill the powers that the council has. I hope that, in addition, the Government will look in a kindly manner at some way of improving the ability of the relevant Secretary of State—the Minister of the Crown dealing with consumer affairs—if at any time in the future he wants to add facilities in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said that they should be provided. I beg to move.
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, these are important amendments. I recognise the concern that the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has expressed about the adequacy of consumer representation arrangements at local level. I come straight to the point and say that we are bringing forward an amendment about this when we come to debate Amendment No. 59. This has been tabled in response to the Committee stage amendment of my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, supported at Committee stage by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond.
As I made clear in Committee, we believe that the power in Schedule 2, which the noble Lord. Lord Diamond, seeks to transfer to Clause 2—I refer to the first of the amendments—is sufficiently wide to enable the council to do anything necessary for the performance of its functions. However, in response to my noble friend Lady Gardner and to avoid any possible doubt, we are bringing forward Amendment No. 59 to Schedule 2 which will make clear that the council may appoint persons at local level to assist it. This will ensure that the grass roots link with consumers, which we all agree is vitally necessary, will be maintained. Given the broad nature of the existing power in Schedule 2 and the proposed amendment which we shall be debating very soon—Amendment No. 59—I do not think it is necessary to make further provision for additional facilities to enable consumers' complaints to be dealt with. That is my answer to Amendments Nos. 51, 52 and 53.
As to Amendment No. 55,I would wish to make it clear that there will be no gap of the type envisaged in that amendment. The national and regional gas consumers' councils will cease to exist as a consequence of the new Gas Consumers' Council coming into existence. This is made clear in subsection (6), which the noble Lord is seeking to amend, by the inclusion of the words:In consequence of the provisions of this section".They make the matter explicit.
In addition, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, spoke to Amendment No. 54 on a rather different point. It was a matter to which the noble Lord alluded in Committee—namely, making clear to which Secretary of State the references are when we talk about the 863 Secretary of State having responsibility for consumer affairs. It is a well established practice in legislation to refer to the general expression "Secretary of State" rather than a particular Secretary of State so that the duties and functions set out under a particular section or schedule can be exercised by whichever Secretary of State the government of the day consider to be most appropriate. Where appointments to the Gas Consumers' Council—one of a number of statutorily appointed consumer bodies—are concerned, it is this Government's policy that the appropriate Secretary of State will be my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who has the responsibility for consumer affairs.
There is obviously a necessity to have some flexibility here in the event of changes of responsibility within government. To tie oneself down on the face of primary legislation to a particular Secretary of State when one can use the now accepted general expression "Secretary of State" would be a pity. I hope that in not accepting the noble Lord's amendments, I have nonetheless indicated that this has been a valuable exchange. It gives the Government for the first time the opportunity to refer in a little detail to Amendment No 59 that we intend to bring forward. I like to think that that amendment meets the local level point made in the noble Lord's amendment, Amendment No. 53.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, before he sits down, I should like to ask the noble Lord to clarify one point. Will he be a little more clear about Amendment No. 51? This is the proposal to transfer the statement of powers from the schedule to the clause. Is the noble Lord saying that the powers will not be increased as a result of putting them in the clause and that these powers—vitally important and very wide, as he says —are adequately placed in the schedule?
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, it only remains for me to thank the Minister for having in large measure met most of these points and to delay the substantive discussion until we get to the amendment to which he has referred, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. I therefore beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 51.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 52 to 57 not moved.]
§ Schedule 2 [Gas Consumers' Council]:
§ 11 p.m.
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 58:
Page 65, Line 20, at end insert—
("(1A) Any contract of employment with either the National Gas Consumers' Council or a Regional Gas Consumers' Council in force immediately before the transfer date shall become a contract of employment with the Gas Consumers' Council, on the transfer date, upon the same terms and conditions of the said contract of employment. The rights and liabilities of the National Gas Consumers' Council and the Regional Gas Consumers' Council under any agreement or arrangement for the payment of pensions, allowances or gratuities shall be vested in the Gas Consumers' Council upon the transfer date and accordingly any
period of employment with the National Gas Consumers' Council or a Regional Gas Consumers' Council shall count for all purposes as a period of employment with the Council.
(1B) Access to the pension scheme of the public gas supplier will be retained following transfer of undertakings.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I move Amendment No. 58—the words on the Marshalled List. This is a very simple amendment and I shall be brief.
§ It refers to contracts of employment with those who are at present employed by the national Gas Consumers' Council or regional gas consumers' councils. On this side of the House we believe that there should be, as is usual in these cases, no rupture in the terms of employment once the national Gas Consumers' Council or regional gas consumers' councils no longer exist, and the Gas Consumers' Council as proposed under the Bill starts to exist. It is a question of making sure that the employment of the people in the consumer councils is protected, that their contracts are honoured and that their pension entitlements are protected. This is in (1B).
§ I think that this is a relatively simple amendment and I am sure that the noble Lord will have no difficulty in either agreeing to the amendment or explaining exactly how the Government propose to meet this rather important point for the employees of the Gas Consumers' Council. I beg to move.
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, as I think I made clear at a previous stage of the Bill, it is the Government's policy to standardise the terms and conditions of employment of non-departmental public bodies—such as the new Gas Consumers' Council will be—on terms analogous to those of the Civil Service. This policy has begun to be put into effect in the London Regional Transport Act 1984 and the creation of the London Regional Transport Committee.
We think that this is a logical development since the functions involved in representing the interests of consumers have a general application which makes it appropriate for bodies charged with this responsibility to be run along public sector lines. The task that these councils perform, and the responsibilities with which they are charged, are clearly more akin to those of the Civil Service than those of the industry over which they have oversight, whether the industry be in the public or the private sector.
The new consumers' council will be a strong public body for protecting the public interest in this important area and it will carry on the excellent work which has been done previously. I have no hesitation in paying tribute to the services which have been given by the staff of the current councils. Because of the changeover, however, to terms and conditions analogous to those of the Civil Service it will be necessary for some staff redundancies to take place and to have redundancy notices issued to all staff. But staff have already been invited to apply for jobs with the new council, and existing staff—whether or not they are taken on again by the Gas Consumers' Council-will receive full compensation payments on terms analogous to those of the British Gas redundancy scheme. It will be for the new Gas Consumers' Council to decide on which staff to appoint. However, it is clearly a very relevant consideration that staff of the 865 existing councils will be experienced in dealing with gas consumers, and obviously this will carry an advantage for them in applying for jobs with the new council.
So far as pensions are concerned, it would not be appropriate for those re-employed by the new council to stay with the British Gas pension fund. The purpose of the change is for employees of the GCC to be employed on terms analogous to the Civil Service—and this includes their membership of a pension scheme analogous to that for the Civil Service. It would be anomalous to do otherwise.
Current employees re-employed by the new council will thus be able to freeze their existing pension within the British Gas scheme and start afresh with the Civil Service analogous scheme, or transfer across their length of service entitlements to the Civil Service analogous scheme under the public sector transfer arrangements, whichever is more favourable to them. Although I have not met all the points which the noble Lord has made—for, indeed, the main thrust of the amendment is to receive assurances that there will not be redundancies, and that, of course is an assurance that I cannot give—nonetheless I hope that the information which I have given will be both an assurance and of interest to the noble Lord.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I thank the noble Lord for his reponse but, of course, as he admitted, it does not go as far as we should like. However, the noble Lord has explained the circumstances in which those employees who are required to do so will move across, and that goes some way, although, as he says, not the whole way, to satisfying what we want. In the light of that and the fact that it is late, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Belstead moved Amendment No. 59:
Page 65, line 23, at end insert—
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 59. Your Lordships will recall that in introducing her amendments on local consumer councils, my noble friend Lady Gardner said that the aim was to introduce a statutory basis for genuine grass roots representation. I have now referred to the Government's reaction to that, which is that we are bringing forward Amendment No. 59 in order to try to meet the case which my noble friend made so eloquently at Committee stage.
§ The amendment to Schedule 2 which I am proposing, in response to my noble friend Lady Gardener, would insert two new sub-paragraphs in paragraph 3. The first of these would make clear that it is within the council's power to appoint persons to be 866 available in particular localities to assist the council in the performance of all of its functions. Your Lordships will note that it will not be necessary to obtain the approval of the Secretary of State as to numbers and terms and conditions; this is because these local representatives will not be employees as such but rather in the nature of volunteers. I believe that it was the voluntary service which has been given in the past to the gas industry at local level which was one of the reasons which prompted my noble friend to move her Committee stage amendment.
§ The second sub-paragraph provides that local representatives shall be paid expenses. This is a normal practice with appointments of this kind.
§ I hope that your Lordships will take the view that this amendment gives clear expression on the face of the Bill to the power of the Gas Consumers' Council to appoint local representatives on a clear basis which I trust is acceptable to you. If it is acceptable, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Gardner on creating a situation in which this amendment has been brought forward. I beg to move.
Lord Diamond moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 59: Starred Amendment No. 59:
Line 2, after ("available") insert ("at no addresses").
§ The noble Lord said: I shall deal with this amendment very briefly. I do not know what has happened regarding the printing, but as it stands it is unintelligible. What I intended to ask was whether the amendment which the noble Lord has moved will make it possible for complainants and other consumers who want to make complaints to get in touch with these individuals who will be local volunteers, as it were, at given addresses and telephone numbers. It is no use unless complainants know how to get hold of their representatives. That is all that I need say about it. Having asked that question. I suppose that I had better move the amendment. I beg to move.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, may I address my remarks to the original amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. I apologise for appearing in the form of a gadfly on the question of drafting but there are some points in this amendment on which I should like clarification. I do not understand (2A) in the amendment. If I may omit some words which I think are omittable, if I may use that expression, and read it out I think your Lordships will understand why I do not understand it.For the purpose of ensuring that there are persons available in particular localities … the Council may … appoint such persons to be so available as it may determine.".In other words, in order to ensure that there are people in certain localities the council may appoint people to be in certain localities. That is what the words, as I understand them, mean, as opposed to what the noble Lord might wish them to mean or indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes.
It is a purely drafting question. In other words the council may move people, or pick on people, or may pick on whoever it likes, and say, "You are to be available in a particular locality", whether or not that 867 person actually resides in that particular locality at the time. This is a drafting point. I am not claiming that it is anything else.
The second point on (2B) is a little more serious, and perhaps the noble Lord can help us on this. I do not understand why in the original schedule members of the council may be paid—and this is paragraph 2 of Schedule 2:The Council may pay to any member such sums … as the Secretary of State may with the approval of the Treasury determine"—and yet the person, or persons, who are to be available in particular localities are specifically in the schedule to be prohibited from being paid such sums, and they are only allowed expenses. I wonder whether the noble Lord can explain to us exactly why that is the case. I have two problems. One is the drafting of (2A), because I am not sure that it makes sense, and the second is the problem of payment under (2B).
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, may I, with the leave of the House, say with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that although we sit on opposite sides of the House I often follow his advice and always listen to him, but I think just for once he is not on to a good point so far as (2 A) is concerned. The difficulty of the criticism that the noble Lord aimed at the Government is that the noble Lord uncharacteristically rather unfairly left a lot of words out. It is:For the purpose of ensuring that there are persons available in particular localities to assist the Council in the performance in those localities of its functions under this Act, the Council may …appoint such persons to be so available as it may determine.With respect, that even to me is absolutely as plain as a pikestaff, and there is no difficulty about it.
I have received advice which says, "Persons should be available in particular localities to assist the council". The noble Lord, Lord Williams, has omitted important words. Therefore, my rather off-the-cuff reply is in line with the official advice I have received, and I am still receiving advice.
Of course I shall look at it again and wait to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, has to say, but at the moment I do not go along with the criticisms that the noble Lord aimed at subsection (2A). But I do not want to be hidebound, and I am very ready to have a word with the parliamentary draftsman to see whether we can make it any clearer, though I like to think it is clear.
So far as the second question is concerned, these are supposed to be local representatives who would be in the nature of volunteers, and would not be paid in the same way as full members of the council, but would of course need to be paid expenses. If the noble Lord likes to cast his mind back several weeks, I have no doubt that he and I had a look at the proceedings in another place in Standing Committee, where there were considerable eulogies delivered early on about how the voluntary principle had worked at grass roots level so far as working for the gas consumers' councils in the regions was concerned at district or locality level. It is for that reason that in paragraph (2B) we have gone for the voluntary principle.
868 I think that is enough from me. Perhaps my noble friend Lady Gardner would like to intervene before I am allowed to put the amendment to your Lordships.
§ 11.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
My Lords, I am delighted to see this amendment because I feel so strongly that there is need for local availability of people to deal with the problems of local consumers. I should perhaps comment first on starred Amendment No. 59. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, said it was unintelligible as printed on the Marshalled List because I have looked at it and tried to puzzle over what it might mean. It does not signify very much as it is printed there. I accept the principle of what he said and I should like to assure him that the way in which these local district committees have operated in the past and the way in which local representatives would continue to operate is that there is always a list published and exhibited in the showroom of the local gas office or authority giving the name, address and telephone number, where that is appropriate if a number exists, where the local person can be contacted. Strangely enough, I found that I had finished on the gas consultative council by the time that everyone started to telephone me. That was because there was delay in printing the lists. I hope that will not happen again. It is important that these lists should be available, and we are hoping that it will be done at an early date.
The essence of my amendment originally was that-speaking basically about London—to have one large Gas Consumers' Council in the centre of London would not help people on the fringes of the metropolis who needed to get in touch with somebody nearby who could pop round to speak to them or see for themselves what the problem was and then report back to the centre. In this way the amendment as it stands ensures that local people can be appointed. The principle of money is not at issue because the committee that I served on, or the consultative council as it was called, did not receive any payment, but out-of-pocket expenses are very useful and can cover babysitting or the costs of someone to care for an elderly relative. It helps people in that way who would like to serve on these bodies and who might otherwise not be able to do so. The description in paragraph (2B) of the amendment is perfectly acceptable, continuing the tradition of voluntary service that has proved to be so successful in the past.
I spoke in terms of London because that is the area I know; but the House would like to hear that today I had a letter from the Gas Consumers' Council for Scotland. It writes to say how delighted it is about this matter. The letter makes the point that the council supports the amendment because of the understanding of the need to ensure that there is effective representation for consumers at local level. The important sentence is:The West District Committee considers this especially important in areas such as Scotland where townships can be very isolated".I was interested to receive that because speaking from quite a different part of the country where the big city creates its own type of isolation for people, it is interesting to hear that this is just as important to people in isolated parts of Scotland, and no doubt, in 869 other parts of the country as well. I am most grateful to my noble friend the Minister for bringing forward this amendment. If further matters are to be considered at a later stage, I should be happy for him to look at it again following the points raised during the debate. I am grateful to him and I am sure that this will be to the benefit of consumers in general and to the good will and good spirit that will be maintained between the consumers and the gas industry in the future. I thank my noble friend for bringing forward this amendment.
§ Lord Sanderson of Bowden
My Lords, before my noble friend Lord Belstead rises, I too should like to say how grateful I am to see this coming into the Bill. My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes has mentioned Scotland. I think that this is just the very point where the over-rigidity, perhaps, of what has been going on with the regional consumer councils in the past is overcome by something that is more flexible. I know that in some parts of England it is thought that Scotland is not a very big country. It is, in fact, an extremely big country so far as the mileage is concerned. To have this kind of flexible approach is important—and I know that my noble friend Lord Gray will realise this since he comes from Inverness and I come from just over the Border and there are 250 miles between us—because it is extremely difficult to get a Scottish regional consumers' council to work effectively. This arrangement, to my mind, recognises the geography and recognises that volunteers are absolutely crucial to the success of any consumer body. The flexibility that the amendment gives, I think, answers a lot of the questions that have been raised in the House over this matter.
§ Lord Belstead
My Lords, I am wholly out of order but if I may be given the permission of the House to be wholly out of order for just 20 seconds and reply to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, on starred Amendment No. 59, really the detailed arrangements must be for the Gas Consumers' Council. But, of course, the clear statutory intention in government Amendment No. 59 is that local representatives shall help locally with problems that arise in their areas. I would like to think that the value of this is that it is on the face of the Bill.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, may I seek leave of the House to withdraw my amendment to Amendment No. 59?
§ Amendment to the amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ On Question, Amendment No. 59 agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 60 not moved.]
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
My Lords, this is a convenient moment for me to beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned.
§ Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House adjourned at twenty-three minutes past eleven o'clock.