Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

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inserts a new paragraph to achieve that and Amendments Nos. 70, 80 and 83 delete other parts of the schedule which are superseded by this new paragraph.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,

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

28 Jun 1995 : Column 762

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 be 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 be 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 be 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 be in that paragraph. I entirely agree with the noble Earl

28 Jun 1995 : Column 763

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

28 Jun 1995 : Column 764

(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 be 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 be 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 are 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 be 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 be 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 be 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

28 Jun 1995 : Column 765

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 not 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.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page