HL Deb 28 June 1995 vol 565 cc755-69

3.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 17 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 67:

Page 17, line 17, after ("12") insert (", (Duty of Director to advise etc.)").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment, I shall at the same time speak to Amendment No. 147.

Amendment No. 67 extends the director's duty to advise and assist the Secretary of State to include a duty to advise on matters relating to the Secretary of State's functions on the Bill. Amendment No. 147 makes the same extension in respect of the Secretary of State's functions under the 1986 Act as amended. That will, for example, give the director a duty to advise the Secretary of State on matters such as exemption orders. Amendment No. 67 provides that the new clause comes into effect on Royal Assent so that the director is in power to assist the Secretary of State before the appointed day. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 68:

Page 17, line 30, leave out from ("except") to ("does") in line 31 and insert:

  1. ("(a) this section;
  2. (b) subsections (1) to (6) of section 11;
  3. (c) paragraphs 1 to 3, 6, 7 and 18 of Schedule 5 and section 16(1) so far as relating to those paragraphs. And
  4. (d) Schedule 6 and section 16(2) so far as relating to the repeals of paragraph I of Schedule 5 to the Fair Trading Act 1973 and section 63 of and paragraph 15(4) of Schedule 7 to the 1986 Act,").

The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 68 extends the provisions of the Bill which are to be applicable to Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 17, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 2 [The gas code]:

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 69:

Page 19, line 33. at end insert: ("(2) In so far as the provisions of this Schedule, other than paragraphs 17 to 19 below, apply in relation to a public gas transporter, gas supplier or gas shipper, they shall have effect subject to any conditions of his licence.").

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 69, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 79. Amendment No. 69 would make all the provisions of Schedule 2B, except for the safety provisions in paragraphs 17 to 19, subject to any conditions that are put in licences. That will provide consumers with an important additional protection in that in a number of places the draft standard licence conditions place restrictions or pre-conditions on the powers and rights of entry which Schedule 2 otherwise gives to licensees.

For example, the draft standard conditions of suppliers' licences set out the special arrangements which a supplier must offer to customers in genuine difficulties—a payment plan or prepayment meter and so forth—before he can use his statutory powers to disconnect. The draft conditions also affect the exercise of rights of entry under Schedule 2B, for example, by obliging licensees to co-ordinate their requests so as to avoid undue disturbance to the customer. Amendment No. 79 makes a deletion which is consequential upon Amendment No. 69. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis moved Amendment No. 69A:

Page 20, line 25. leave out from ("order") to end and insert: ("half the cost by that person and the balance by the person required to keep the meter in proper order by sub-paragraph (1) or (3) above:").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 69A is tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Poston. It is directed towards a situation where a supplier finds himself in dispute with the customer. We are seeking to make the supplier pay half the cost of having a meter tested if there is a dispute in relation to the accuracy of the meter.

This was an issue which the Gas Consumers Council raised, because the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act of 1994 caused serious anxiety in relation to the doubling of the fee for testing domestic meters. We are talking of a cost of around £40. Clearly that sort of cost, particularly for consumers who are not financially very well endowed, is likely to deter some consumers from having their meters tested. We feel that making the supplier hear at least a proportion of the cost may act as a deterrent if the supplier insists on undertaking a meter test which is not necessary, unless the accuracy is genuinely in dispute.

This is an issue which also affects those who pay promptly. I do not know whether any Members of the Committee ever find themselves in the position of paying their gas bills promptly, but I suppose it must happen. It may be found, to one's great embarrassment, that one is being asked to pay an exorbitant fee in respect of one's gas bill. There are a number of occasions where a serious dispute between the supplier and the consumer can arise in that respect.

In dealing with perfectly genuine cases we are anxious to enable an individual involved in any such dispute to go to the utility and ask the company to look at the meter. We are talking of people who are essentially hard up and will find £40 a real deterrent and threat. This issue was raised in the standing committee in another place and the Minister indicated that he was not impressed with what we and the Gas Consumers Council were suggesting. He said that there was a risk that the supplier may not have to pay the full cost where circumstances which justified that position had arisen. He said that the balance struck by the Government was about right.

We feel that we are not satisfied in that regard and nor is the Gas Consumers Council. We are seeking to weigh the scales rather more in favour of the consumer than appears in the Bill as drafted. I hope the Minister will not say that we have the wording slightly wrong—this applies to all the amendments. We are not in the position of having skilled parliamentary draftsmen and we do our best in these situations. The principle is very clear and I hope that the Government will acknowledge that. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, back into the deliberations on this Bill. It is a delight to see him, even if his first intimation resulted in the extraordinary information that he does not normally pay his gas bill promptly—at least that is what I thought he was suggesting; that noble Lords did not pay their gas hills promptly, which insinuated that it takes one to know one.

I assure the noble Lord that I shall not accuse him of not having the wording right on the amendment. But it goes a little further than that. I recognise the concern that he expresses—that people should be entitled to have the meters checked at a reasonable cost. However, I see no logic in providing for a permanent subsidy under which suppliers or public gas transporters have to pay towards the testing of meters which turn out to be perfectly accurate—especially as the supplier and transporter have to pay if the meter is found to be faulty.

The best way to approach this problem is at its source. The deregulation Act allows for the consumer to have his disputed meter tested by private sector meter examiners appointed by the director to undertake that work in competition with government meter examiners. It is intended that that flexibility will allow the actual costs of meter tests to be driven down.

To a large extent it is a temporary problem. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is familiar with the technicalities, but the old-type meters are leather diaphragm meters. Once they have been replaced—that is scheduled to happen by the end of 1996—the proportion of meters found on examination to record inaccurately should reduce.

I hesitate to tell the noble Lord that his amendment is worded inaccurately, but it does have a perverse effect in that suppliers could challenge a customer-owned meter and require the customer to pay half the cost if the meter turned out to be all right. Therefore, while I understand the noble Lord's anxieties, they are exaggerated and the situation should in time settle down.

Lord Peston

For the record, some of us actually pay more than promptly because some of us pay a regular monthly sum and in my case I am always in credit with the gas company, though I do not receive any credit for that at all. I might add that I certainly have no desire to subsidise those who pay in arrears.

Is not this a matter of balance? Essentially, someone is sitting there convinced that there is something wrong with his meter because his gas bill is disproportionately high and he is not willing to believe that he is using more gas or something like that. Then he has what is essentially a gamble. He can say, "Is it worth £40, or whatever it is, to have my meter tested?". I take it that the Government's view is that that is how it ought to be; that we have to have some deterrent from excessive neurosis about the meter and that the Bill as drafted provides that deterrent in the sense that if one wins the bet one has one's bill put hack to the right level and one is not charged for testing but if one loses the bet—the meter is perfectly all right—one has to pay the cost and the bill is not adjusted. The point of an amendment like this is to ask whether that is the right balance or whether there could not he an intermediate stage where one is less at risk. What is the Government's view on that?

I do not know how many individual privately owned meters there are. It is not a matter I have looked into. Can the noble Earl tell us whether that is a very big problem. Quite clearly, there would he an anomaly. A gas supplier who was looking for trouble—I cannot believe that there would be such a supplier—could go around demanding that privately owned meters be checked. I had not thought of such a thing. It had not occurred to me that most people own their own meters. Perhaps we could he given some information on that.

Earl Ferrers

This debate is becoming enormously interesting. First we were told by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that he does not pay his bills very often. Then the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in a burst of self-righteousness, said that he pays his hills not only on time but in advance. He is a very remarkable man, particularly as he is an economist.

The question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is a perfectly reasonable one. If one feels concerned that one's meter is a duff meter, one feels that one wants to have it tested. The noble Lord asked whether the Government are really saying that if someone is right the gas company pays and if that person is wrong he pays. One could say that that is very often what happens in a court of law. If one wins the case one has one's costs paid; if one loses it one pays the costs of the other side.

I was trying to explain that meters are pretty accurate. They are likely to become more accurate as the leather diaphragm meters are replaced. The chances of meters being wrong are pretty small. It may be that one or two go wrong. One can get some very disgruntled folk who say, "This is quite intolerable. My meter must he wrong", when the meter is perfectly all right. If one goes to the trouble of getting the supplier concerned to test a meter which is perfectly all right, I do not think it is unreasonable to say that one ought to pay. If one complains that the meter is wrong and the company finds that it is wrong, then it is right that the company should pay. I do not think that that is unduly rigorous.

The noble Lord asked how many meters are privately owned. As I understand it, there is none at the moment, but there may be some in the future.

Lord Clinton-Davis

This has been an interesting short debate because what has been revealed beyond any reasonable doubt and at one fell swoop is the integrity and naivety of my noble friend Lord Peston in terms of the payment of the gas bill. I want to make it quite clear that I am never in arrears with the payment of my gas bill. I might be resentful, but that is another matter. However, I do not think that I should allow on the record the noble Earl's impugning of my integrity in that regard, which I feel terribly hurt by.

What the noble Earl had to say in relation to the theory is fine. But what matters is what happens when one gets down to the nitty-gritty. The reality is that people who are in the very low income bracket would find this situation a deterrent. I am interested in what the noble Earl had to say about the private sector meter examiner. Who pays for that? Does that go on top of the £40? Perhaps the noble Earl will reply to that point.

One comes into collision with this sort of problem more in relation to telephone bills where some people feel that there may have been an overcharge. It is very difficult to sort out the problem. It is more difficult when the amount by some standards may be quite small; by others it may be in relative terms quite high. We feel that the balance here is not quite right.

I have been reminded of another factor by some mysterious hand a moment ago. A meter can be recording quite accurately but a high reading could indicate that a leak has occurred elsewhere. A problem might exist in that respect.

I should like the Minister to comment on the points I have made. In relation to the private sector meter examiner, who bears the cost of that? What is the amount involved if there is a charge? Perhaps the noble Earl could also comment on the point I made a few moments ago.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord said that one very often can have difficulty in checking up on telephone bills and so forth. I agree that that is a difficulty. However, I do not think that that is a strictly accurate comparison. With telephone calls, one makes a number of calls but the meter is housed elsewhere. In that respect it could be said that it is quite difficult to check, although now one gets detailed accounts it is relatively easy to check. However, one has the gas meter in one's own house. The bill consists of one set of figures which depict the amount of gas that has gone through the meter. That is a very much easier matter to determine. Where the difficulty comes—the noble Lord is quite right—is when there is a leak. There are ways of discovering and dealing with leaks. But that is not the point that the noble Lord is concerned about. He was concerned about who should pay if one wants to have one's meter checked. One comes back to what I said originally. If someone is concerned and complains that his meter must be checked—he may even be cantankerous—and the meter is perfectly all right it is not unreasonable to say that he ought to pay the bill. It is unreasonable—or could be said to be unreasonable—that he should transfer that obligation on to the company which has provided a perfectly good meter which is perfectly all right.

The noble Lord referred to private sector meters. There is no additional cost for private sector meters. The examiners act in the same way as existing meter readers. The examiners will not cost any more.

Baroness Seear

The noble Lord made an interesting point about leaks. Who pays for the leak? A leak may have occurred on your premises; it may have occurred just outside. I once had the unfortunate experience in France of having a ploughman ploughing into the water pipe and emptying my water supply completely. I had to pay for all the water, although it was not on my ground. At what point does one become liable for the leak? I had no control over what this ass was doing with his equipment which cut the pipe, but I nevertheless had to pay.

Earl Ferrers

We are getting into deep water now. We are changing from gas to water. I can quite understand what the noble Baroness says because I have done the same thing. At my agricultural operations we were operating with a mole-plough, which may not be a familiar instrument to the noble Baroness but it is one of those things that goes down about two feet below the ground. It does to electric cables what I have just done to a glass of water—it smashes them. But that is not what happens with gas. If there is a gas leak before the gas comes into the meter, that is the responsibility either of the supplier or of the transporter. The responsibility of the householder comes from the meter onwards.

Baroness Seear

If the gas pipe leaks at a point where it is in your home but before the connection to the meter, who pays?

Earl Ferrers

The responsibility for the gas pipe before it comes to the meter is with the gas transporter. If the transporter's method of transporting is inadequate, the transporter will pay. One then comes to the meter. At that point it becomes the supplier, and for a moment the transporter changes to the supplier. The supplier puts the gas into the house via the meter, and thereafter it becomes the responsibility of the owner.

Lord Peston

Perhaps I may join in because this is the most interesting event of the day. Surely, the logical point is very simple: one only pays for the gas which is metered. If a leak occurs before the meter there is no possible way that one will be charged for it. It is as simple as that. Therefore, I do not believe that the noble Earl should he in the least concerned. A leak before the meter may present problems, but one will not end up with a charge because one pays for the metered gas.

Earl Ferrers

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I did not have the slightest concern; it was the noble Baroness who was concerned. I was trying to reassure her, but the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has, of course, done it far better than I could have done.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Sefton of Garston

The question was as to who was responsible when the gas leaves the main owned by the transporter and goes into the domestic dwelling. For many years the regulations used to he that a cut-off was made within 18 inches of the boundary of the dwelling to be supplied with gas. The owner of the property was responsible for anything that ensued between the cut-off point—that is to say, the stopcock outside, and inside the dwellinghouse. So there are two ways. The occupier of the dwelling would be responsible, through the meter, for the gas, but if any repairs were necessary between the meter and the outside boundary of the estate, the occupier would also be responsible for them.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord, Lord Sefton of Garston, has a remarkable capacity for muddling up everything. I tried to explain perfectly clearly that up to the point where the gas pipe comes into the meter, it is the responsibility of the transporter and after that it is the responsibility of the individual. I do not believe I can put it more clearly than that.

Lord Sefton of Garston

I have had 45 years playing about with gas mains in the street. I can assure the Minister that he has completely misinterpreted the whole of the question as regards the law relating to the responsibility for pipes inside the dwelling.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I advanced the argument about leaks with some trepidation. My misgivings have been more than fulfilled. After all, this Government have paid very heavily for leaks and know very much more about them than we do. However, having regard to the Minister's reply, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 70:

Page 21, line 17, leave out ("until those requirements have been complied with").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 80, 83, 88 and 89. It may be for the convenience of the Committee if at the same time we discuss Amendment No. 81 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Peston.

As regards Amendments Nos. 70, 80, 83, 88 and 89, Schedule 2 provides for the disconnection of consumers' premises in a number of circumstances, such as non-payment and meter-tampering. But it also extends to more esoteric faults such as operating a gas-powered compressor without having in place an anti-fluctuator or a valve to protect the pipeline system against air getting into it.

The amendments make clear that a transporter or a supplier is under no obligation to reconnect or recommence the supply in this kind of situation until the customer has made good the default or remedied the problem that led up to the disconnection, and the supplier or transporter has been paid the reasonable costs of the original disconnection and reconnection. Amendment No. 88 inserts a new paragraph to achieve that and Amendments Nos. 70, 80 and 83 delete other parts of the schedule which are superseded by this new paragraph. I beg to move.

Lord Peston

In so far as I understand the noble Earl's amendments they are rather technical. I have not the faintest idea of the meaning of some of the words he used. I am certain that, among other things, they involve the technology of the industry. I am perfectly happy to have my amendment grouped with these amendments, but it is slightly different. The only connection is that it is to do with cutting off. Essentially, I am looking for the noble Earl's view on what we find in subparagraph (6) of paragraph 7 where the supply of gas has been cut off and the, supplier shall not be under any obligation to resume the supply…in default", until that has been made good and, the reasonable expenses of cutting off and of restoring the supply", have been paid.

I am puzzled by the way in which the Bill is drafted and leaves out what I should have thought was the main point; namely, that the customer in default simply owes the gas company money. The sensible thing, both for the customer and the gas company, is to make some arrangements for the repayment of arrears and also arrangements for payments in future so that the problem does not arise again.

My amendment is aimed at trying to find out whether those ideas are implicit in the provisions under subparagraph (6) (a) or whether we need to expand the subparagraph along the lines of my amendment in order to incorporate into the Bill what I would regard as good sense.

It is in no one's interest for a customer to be cut off. It is neither in the interest of the supplier nor that of the customer. It is in no one's interest that there should he default, but it is in everyone's interest that people should behave reasonably both as regards arrears and the future. The purpose of the amendment is to guide us towards that. It may well be that subparagraph (6) (a) means that, but I do not know. Therefore I look forward to the noble Earl's reply as to what that provision means and for his judgment on my amendment.

Earl Ferrers

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, found my vocabulary difficult. I thought that things like gas-powered compressors and anti-fluctuators were part of his everyday vocabulary, as they are of mine. I warned the noble Lord beforehand that some of these things are technical and if he does not understand them, sometimes that will make two of us—meaning, of course, the noble Lords, Lord Peston and Lord Clinton-Davis!

He said that the only link between his amendment and mine was the reference to cutting off. That was an interesting observation. Perhaps I may tell him what is the real problem about his amendment. The subparagraph which it wants to amend is proposed to disappear altogether by virtue of my Amendment No. 80, which is part of an exercise to bring together all the obligations on a consumer to make redress before reconnection.

That could, of course, be sorted out at a later stage. More fundamentally, however, there seems little point in the proposed provision in the noble Lord's amendment. Its effect would be that a supplier would he obliged to reconnect if he agreed a repayment plan with the customer. But he would not have agreed the repayment plan unless he was willing to reconnect on that basis. The present provisions, both as printed in the Bill and as proposed to be replaced by Government Amendment No. 89, already allow for this as they deal with what the supplier is obliged to do and not what he may choose to do.

I understand that that is what actually happens now. In the great majority of cases premises which have been disconnected are reconnected within about 24 hours, once the customer has reached an arrangement with British Gas. There is no reason why that should change in the future. Suppliers will continue to prefer being paid rather than keeping customers cut off. Therefore, it is in the nature of things that the arrangements will he made fairly quickly and the supply restored.

Lord Peston

I am grateful to the noble Earl. What he says makes perfectly good sense. The puzzle is—and this is true of subparagraph (6) and the new wording in Amendment No. 89—that what happens does not seem to he in that paragraph. I entirely agree with the noble Earl that one would not make all these arrangements, as outlined in my amendment, if it was not proposed to reconnect. The point is that in some senses the Bill reads as if that will no longer be the case. The Bill refers to "made good the report", "remedied the matter", and "paid the reasonable expenses of disconnecting and reconnecting". It is almost as if the central point, which is to behave sensibly about payment so that you will be reconnected (which is what actually happens at the moment) is somehow ruled out. But I take it that it would be a mistake to interpret the noble Earl's amendment as in any way ruling that out.

If I understood him correctly, the noble Earl was arguing that such provisions do not have to be in the legislation because that is what happens. Is that what the noble Earl was saying? The noble Earl agrees that the provisions of my amendment correspond to what actually happens in the world, and that that will continue to happen. There is nothing in the Bill to impede that in the future. I am trying to make clear why I was concerned because it is possible that the Bill has a meaning which is different from what the noble Earl says—and I agree—is what happens in the real world.

Earl Ferrers

I am grateful to the noble Lord for trying to make that clear. However, in his endeavours to do so he has made things a little more obfuscatory for me. In fact, I believe that the noble Lord is right and that what has happened in the past will continue to happen. What I am saying is that if the noble Lord's amendment were accepted, it would cut across my amendment. There is no question that there will not be a fairly quick remedy of the situation. Therefore, the noble Lord is worried unduly.

Ultimately, of course, suppliers will need to be paid. Deadlock in negotiations with customers is of no use to suppliers who are trying to get back their money. Consumers will want a supply of gas again and will want that as quickly as possible. However, if a consumer is not prepared to part with the money or otherwise satisfy a supplier that he will be paid, it is right and reasonable that the supplier can keep the gas switched off; but I do not think that that is likely to happen. That will he the last resort.

Lord Peston

I thank the noble Earl. I imagine that it will all work out happily in the end. In any case, I have got my views down on paper, as has the noble Earl—or at least they will he down on paper by tomorrow. If those in the noble Earl's office who scrutinise these things think that the provisions are not right, I am sure that they will be able to put them right. However, as the noble Earl has satisfied me on this point at the moment, I shall seek leave to withdraw my amendment when we get to it.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 71:

Page 21, line 25, at end insert: (" — (1) No person shall undertake the reading of gas meters or the provision of other services relating to gas meters unless he is—

  1. (a) an authorised officer of a public gas transporter, gas supplier or gas shipper: or
  2. (b) a meter service provider registered in accordance with the scheme provided for in sub-paragraph (2) below.

(2) The Secretary of State shall by order provide for the establishment and operation by the Director of a scheme for the registration of persons entitled to act as meter service providers.

(3) Where a meter service provider is acting in accordance with the instructions of a public gas transporter, gas supplier or gas shipper, for the purposes of this Schedule he shall be treated as an authorised officer of that transporter, supplier or shipper as the case may be and references in this Schedule to an authorised officer shall he construed accordingly.

(4) Nothing in this paragraph shall be taken to prohibit a consumer from reading a gas meter installed in premises he occupies or any transporter, shipper or supplier from arranging for a consumer to read such a meter.

(5) In this Schedule "meter service provider" means a person registered as such in accordance with sub-paragraph (2) above.

(6) If any person acts in contravention of this paragraph, he shall he guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment deals with the setting up of a registration scheme for meter readers other than individuals directly employed by licence holders. Perhaps I may remind the Committee that at present gas meters are read by persons who arc directly employed by British Gas and they have an identification which they reveal. If anybody has any doubts about that person, they can immediately check up by telephoning the number shown on that identification card.

The trouble is that one of the effects of opening up the domestic gas supply market will he the creation of a competitive market for the provision of meter services, such as meter reading, meter servicing and meter sales. From 1st April 1999, individual gas consumers will be able to determine who provides those services—in other words, they need not go to the licensees. A consumer would he able to obtain his or her gas supply from a particular supplier but have his meter services provided by someone else. Furthermore, the licence holders could provide those services either with their own employees or by subcontracting the work to another firm. The whole point of the amendment is to provide some safeguards for consumers where meter services are provided by persons other than those directly employed by licensees.

Concern has been expressed recently about security services not being properly registered. It is perfectly possible to envisage difficulties caused by people who pretend to be skilful and knowledgeable in matters such as meter reading and meter servicing but who do not have any such qualifications. Therefore, I believe that it is important that suitable safeguards should he provided to consumers where those providing such services are not directly employed by licensees. That would put them in a position comparable to that of employees of British Gas. The amendment addresses the position of the rest of the market. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I rise to support the amendment ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. Questions of security and safety for consumers unfortunately loom large in this day and age when there are too many instances of people of doubtful reputation entering people's homes by all sorts of bogus means. There is therefore a great deal of concern, and that concern has been registered with us by the Gas Consumers Council, and others, who say that there is a need to remedy what appears to be an omission from the Bill.

The Government should take on board the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that the regime is changing and could operate even more to the disadvantage of consumers. The noble Lord was right to mention the private security industry, which was considered by the Select Committee on Home Affairs in another place, which expressed the unanimous view that statutory regulation was needed to govern that particular industry. If there is a need for statutory regulation in that case, why riot in relation to this industry also? I hope that the Minister will regard that as a fair point.

More than that—it is not only consumers, but also British Gas and AGAS, which support the idea. It is not something that the noble Lord has simply dreamt up with our support. This is a matter of real concern. Going back to my days as a Member of another place, I do not say that this was at the top of the list of complaints made by constituents, but there was a certain regularity to the correspondence about people being able to gain entry to other people's homes. I am sure that all those who have had to deal with constituents can confirm that point. I hope that the Minister will be positive in his reply. Indeed, in another place on 30th March the Minister indicated that the Government would reflect on this concern as the Bill went through its various stages. Therefore, I hope that the Government will be positive in those reflections.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

I should like to comment briefly in supporting the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. When the gasman calls to read the meter, housewives and householders can feel a certain confidence by being able to look out of the window and see the British Gas van outside. That clearly identifies the fact that the meter reader really is from the gas company. Many consumer groups are worried that as the industry becomes more privatised meter readers may use normal cars. That will mean that householders do not feel the same confidence about opening their doors. We should consider seriously any ways in which we can make this easier for consumers. It is particularly important now that more and more people will receive their gas from private suppliers as well as from what we used to call the National Gas Board.

Lord Skelmersdale

The Committee may remember that last week in the unavoidable absence of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, I assayed a small joke at my own expense about my employment prospects. It could well he that I become the gas meter reader for my block of flats. Who will monitor me? In defence of my noble friend Lord Ferrers, I would add that the Government have moved a long way on this matter in conditions 8 and 22 of the re-formulated draft supply licence which most of us did not have available last week, and which I hope most of us have available now and have read and considered. One of the things that the re-formulated draft licence envisages is that the consumer can select his or her own meter reader. It says also that there is a two-yearly must-read obligation. That is a new requirement, which is sensible and reasonable.

It occurs to me to ask my noble friend whether he could take the situation a little further and put the guts of the monitoring, which I see as the essential part of the amendment, into the licence rather than clutter the Bill with it.

Lord Clinton-Davis

Before the noble Lord sits down, I was interested in his proclamation that he might well become a gas meter reader for his block of flats. Will he give me an assurance that he will not propose himself in any such capacity for mine?

Lord Skelmersdale

The more blocks of flats the merrier.

Lord Haskel

If the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is to become a gas meter reader, he is likely to become redundant fairly soon because the technology exists, and has existed for some time, to read the meters down the telephone line. I am sure that many consumers will opt for that procedure. Perhaps the Minister will bear that in mind when responding to the amendment.

Lord Skelmersdale

I must respond to that. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, is well aware that, although the technology has existed for a long time, the cost of changing 18 million meters means that I am likely to he employed as a gas meter inspector for many years to come.

Lord Cochrane of Cults

I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, despite his great experience in the gas industry, in that his amendment and the speeches of Members of the Committee look back to the day of the smartly uniformed municipal employee who came round regularly, and one of whose abilities when he read the meter card was to he able to subtract upside down.

I do not believe that the amendment is necessary. I first came across the suggestion in a consultation document regarding competition in gas supply. I wrote what I thought was some splendidly pithy remarks, and I was glad to see that that suggestion vanished from the Bill, or projected Bill as it was at that time.

Gas meter reading, with or without the assistance of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, will become a localised operation. It may operate on a very local basis, around a housing estate, for instance. A married woman at home may want to do it. There is nothing to prevent gas suppliers from issuing their meter readers with an identity card, a jacket, or what have you. I do not believe that personation is a great risk, nor do I think that unlawful entry is a great risk, because meters will now he outside houses.

On those grounds, I feel that the amendment is redundant. I am horrified, unless I have misunderstood it—perhaps the noble Lord will tell me in a moment—that it would appear to be an offence to read one's neighbours' meters for them.

Earl Ferrers

I think that I can say in all seriousness that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for putting down the amendment, because it raises an important point. I understand his concern in trying to ensure that people are not conned by those who purport to he meter readers, which is really the point of the amendment. I am hound to say that my imagination was jolted into overdrive at the thought of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale becoming one such meter reader, but, one never knows, anything can happen!

I recognise that protection of the consumer in respect of rights of entry is an important matter. Clause 1 widens the director's duties specifically to take that subject into account. The fight against crime means that we should take all steps to stop bogus callers. What the Government are not convinced of is the claim that the additional regulation, proposed by the noble Lord in the amendment, will help.

Perhaps I may outline the protections which are already in the Bill and the licences. Schedule 2 gives statutory rights of entry to licensed suppliers, shippers and public gas transporters so that they can read the meter, and for other purposes. Those rights of entry are subject to certain restrictions in matters such as reasonable times and the production of evidence of authority, which are set out in the schedule. They are subject also to the provisions of the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954. That provides that such rights may be used, except in an emergency, only with the consent of the occupier or under the authority of a magistrate's warrant.

We have also put in place new provisions in standard conditions 24 and 25 of the draft suppliers' licence, which will extend the regulation of rights of entry to protect consumers. All licensees will have to make arrangements, which must be approved by the director, to ensure that officers are authorised to enter people's premises and are fit and proper, and that the public can readily identify them. That could mean that Ofgas, for instance, could require them to carry a badge or to be in the right uniform.

All those protections apply also if any meter reading function is subcontracted out by the licensee. The licensee will he responsible for ensuring that any subcontractor he uses complies with the rules. The supplier will be accountable to the customer for the quality of the service provided. The identity to be shown is required by Schedule 2. Any confirmation by telephone is required by standard condition 25. Both requirements apply to the licensees' subcontractors as well as to the licensees themselves.

It would dilute the accountability of the supplier to the customer, if the supplier could say that Ofgas had approved the subcontractor and that therefore he, the supplier, had no further responsibility. It is essential that the buck stops with the licensee; in other words, with the supplier. That was the view of my right honourable friend the Minister for Industry and Energy in another place, and it remains my view. We are in a time and an age where we have seen a number of duties which we have commonly believed to he carried out by others, subcontracted to different people. From my old incarnation in the Home Office, one knows that security firms now carry out functions previously carried out by the police. That of course is not the case with meter readers—they are subcontractors.

We come now to the problem of meter readers appointed by the customer. Those people have no rights of entry. They arc the invitees of the customer in the same way as plumbers, carpet layers, cleaning ladies, and so forth. The state does not regulate whom a person should be allowed to invite into his home in those fields, and we remain of the view that such regulation is not needed for gas. A meter reader appointed by a customer could be dismissed by the customer if the customer was not satisfied as to the quality of the service given by the meter reader. That is the customer's protection.

The threat of bogus callers should not be addressed by additional bureaucracy for legitimate callers. It should he addressed by people being careful about whom they let into their homes, and insisting on seeing identification. There is an important issue here—almost one of public education—to which I hope the industry will contribute.

It is true that a concern has been expressed about the quality of service that may be provided by meter readers. My right honourable friend in another place considered that point and gave a commitment in Committee. We have discussed it further with Ofgas. As a result we have added in the new draft licence a requirement to ensure that meter-reading officers possess the appropriate expertise for the specific tasks that they will perform, which I think immediately clears my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale out of the firing line. It could include such matters as ensuring their competence and training. We have also added detailed provisions in the licence which will require a supplier to ensure that the meter is properly read at least every two years, that it is appropriately checked for safety and fraud and that that information is reported promptly.

By giving the director the power to approve the arrangements for these areas, we will, in effect, require suppliers either to conform with the so-called codes of practice which Ofgas has been developing with the industry or to demonstrate that they have met the requirements in another way. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, will consider that the arrangements which we have put in place, and which we have expanded since the Committee stage in another place, meet his concerns, which are properly held, and that the consumers arc adequately protected.

4 p.m.

Lord Ezra

I am indebted to the Minister for the seriousness with which he took the amendment. Members of the public hold real anxieties about people entering their homes under false pretences. They have built up a feeling of trust for the meter readers employed by British Gas. If they were to transfer that to anyone who in future sought to enter their homes to read meters, some of whom might not be proper persons, a serious problem could he created.

I wish to read most carefully what the Minister said and to study more deeply the conditions that have just been issued in order to see whether any gaps exist. The gap which worries me, and to which I may return later, relates to meter reading firms. We are talking not only about meter reading, which is where the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, will require more training, but about ensuring that the meters work, that they are safe and that they have not been fraudulently tampered with. That requires training and expertise. I am anxious about the setting up of meter reading firms which purport to have those skills, but which do not, in order to take advantage of the new situation. I shall look at that matter with particular care and if necessary I shall return to it. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Inglewood

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.

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