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Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 59A:


After Clause 9, insert the following new clause:

("Disclosure of information

.—(1) Section 42 of the Gas Act 1986 shall be amended as follows.
(2) For paragraph (b) of subsection (1) the following paragraphs shall be substituted.
"(b) if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of any individual; or
(c) relates to the commercial affairs of any particular business and whose disclosure would prejudice those affairs to an unreasonable degree."
(3) In subsection (2) at the end there shall be inserted the following paragraph—
"(g) by the Director and consists of information relating to the commercial affairs of a particular business where, in the opinion of the Director, any prejudice to those affairs arising from the disclosure is outweighed by the public interest in making the information available."").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 59A relates to Section 42 of the Gas Act 1986 and suggests various modifications in order to create greater transparency, but at the same time safeguard the interests of individuals and commercial concerns with regard to the disclosure of information. That relates to the amendment proposed for paragraph (b) of Section 42(1) of the 1986 Act. In the case of subsection (2) there is inserted a paragraph which will enable the director to reveal information if, having

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weighed up the harm that it might do to a specific business, nevertheless he decides that disclosure is beneficial to the public interest. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers: The wording in the 1986 Act is carefully drafted to ensure a proper balance between the public interest and the commercial and private interests of individuals and businesses.

I believe it is right to allow individuals and businesses to decide whether they are prepared for information relating to their affairs to be disclosed. If it becomes necessary, the Secretary of State has the power under a new subsection (3A), which was inserted by government amendment in another place, by order to modify the scope of the exemptions to the general restriction on the disclosure of information.

The restriction applies only to information obtained under or by virtue of Part I of the 1986 Act, as amended. Information obtained about consumers during the normal course of business by gas companies is covered by the Data Protection Act.

Lord Ezra: I thank the noble Earl for those comments. I should like to study them. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Amendments of Part III of 1986 Act]:

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 60:


Page 14, line 4, leave out ("the use by gas shippers of") and insert (", or to activities connected with—
(i) the introduction of gas into;
(ii) the taking out of gas from; or
(iii) the use by gas shippers of,").

The noble Earl said: The majority of amendments which are down in my name today and which will be down in the future are very technical amendments. What I propose to do, if I may, is to move them formally. If Members of the Committee wish to ask me about them, they are at liberty to do so. I assure Members of the Committee that I have no intention of bouncing them, but I just think that such a course would be expeditious for the proceedings. They are all technical amendments. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 11, as amended, agreed to.

Baroness Nicol moved Amendment No. 61:


After Clause 11, insert the following new clause:

("Compensation for damage or loss caused by public gas suppliers' construction work

. In Paragraph 1(3) of Schedule 4 to the 1986 Act (Power of Public Gas Supplies to break up streets, bridges, etc.), after the second "shall" there shall be inserted "as promptly as possible", and after "any" there shall be inserted "loss caused or".").

The noble Baroness said: I regret that I cannot be quite as speedy in moving this amendment because I feel that this is rather an important amendment and I want to give it full attention. Its purpose is to enable businesses to claim compensation for damage or loss caused by public gas suppliers' construction work.

Digging up streets or roads outside small businesses can have a devastating effect on those businesses if the disruption continues for any length of time. Small

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retailers are especially vulnerable to hazards or barriers which arrive outside their premises. Most of them have only one entrance and making it less accessible can deter potential customers and will certainly curtail window gazing. I need not remind the Committee of the valuable contribution made by small businesses to our economy and to the creation of jobs, but so many of them at the moment are on the edge of viability and the losses caused by the reduction of trading during the roadworks could mean the difference between survival and extinction.

There is an anomaly in that at present a water company has to compensate anyone to whom damage is caused while it is performing its functions as a water company. In fact, compensation amounting to roughly £130 million annually is paid by the water companies in this way. That proves the necessity for this amendment because the disruption is exactly the same as that caused by the water companies and it also illustrates that the calculation of such losses is feasible. It also establishes a precedent, if one is required.

The amendment is supported by the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, which represents some 200,000 businesses, and by the British Retail Consortium. Both organisations have evidence of difficulties caused to small businesses in the circumstances I have described and they have supplied details of many actual cases where businesses have been pushed over the edge. I had intended to quote those cases but in view of the lateness of the hour I shall leave them for the moment.

An amendment similar to this was proposed during the Report stage of the Bill in another place following discussion between the Association of British Chambers of Commerce and the Minister. But the amendment was withdrawn at the request of the Minister on the basis of a letter he had received from the chairman of British Gas saying that he would,


    "consider whether it might be possible in narrowly defined and extremely exceptional circumstances to make some form of ex-gratia payment".

Later, the Minister admitted that even the ex-gratia payment might not be possible. It is, after all, a discretionary payment which British Gas might or might not choose to pay. That does not seem a satisfactory solution.

I find it very difficult to understand the Government's resistance to this proposal. They have constantly reiterated their belief in the value of small businesses to the economy. They applaud the fact that those businesses are an important element in providing jobs. There is no doubt that businesses are suffering loss as a result of interruptions caused by roadworks. The payments involved would not come from the taxpayer and, indeed, need not come from the gas consumer, in view of the large profits enjoyed by British Gas at the moment.

As I said, the water companies must compensate for their damaging activities, so why not British Gas? The Minister's honourable friend in another place gave examples of businesses which, having been compensated by water companies, were dismayed to find that in similar circumstances British Gas was under no obligation to do

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the same. I hope that this Committee can now fulfil its function of giving the Government time to think again on the previous answer. I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Lord Peston: Despite the lateness of the hour, perhaps I may say that I regard this as an immensely important amendment. There are two aspects of it which I was hoping that my noble friend would clarify since I read the matter slightly differently. Although she mentioned small firms, the need for compensation does not apply just to them. I assume that it applies to any firm damaged by these activities.

Baroness Nicol: Perhaps I may interrupt my noble friend for a moment. I concentrated on small businesses because the effect on them is so much more immediate and so dire.

Lord Peston: Nevertheless, as my noble friend says, the provision would apply to all businesses. My reading of the matter is that the responsibility is not to British Gas but to any gas company that digs up the road and generally creates economic disruption. In other words, there is no specific reason why British Gas should be singled out here.

That takes me to what I regard as the most important point of all, which I have argued before. Once we privatise utilities we are dealing with private businesses. Therefore, rights that we would have given to public utilities do not necessarily carry over. I am trying to persuade Members of the Committee all the time that we are now talking of the private sector. Just as any other private firm would not be given the right to disrupt another firm's business in anyway whatsoever—it would have to compensate and there are laws to deal with that—that applies to utilities generally. Since we are discussing British Gas, it applies to that company. I made the point about pylons on another occasion.

One of the problems is that the Government have not faced up to the consequences of privatisation, particularly in the context of competition. It seems that all that is being stated here by my noble friend is a general proposition that if a business engages in activity which is damaging to another business in the sense of this case—namely, that it is made difficult to get into that business's premises or they are made less attractive to customers—they should be liable to compensate. I assume that arbitration would lead to decent outcomes.

My noble friend did not mention this point. If we are discussing work that has to be done because of danger, then clearly it must not be held back. Nonetheless, even in the case of danger, if someone smells gas and the gas supplier digs up the road, and the result causes me, a small retailer, to lose business for a few days, I do not see why I should bear the cost. I did not cause the gas leak; I am just trying to run another business.

I am convinced in my own mind that the line taken by my noble friends Lady Nicol and Lady Hilton of Eggardon and by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, is the correct one. To put it mildly, I shall be interested in any counter-argument. I am not going to delay for that tonight, but if there is a counter-argument, I

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am sure that I can produce further arguments. We are now discussing private firms delivering their products. They have to deliver them in a way which is not damaging to other private firms trying to do the same.


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