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Lord Clinton-Davis: Perhaps I may intervene very briefly. An offence is envisaged which is liable on summary conviction to a level 2 fine. Will the noble Lord offer a rationale for that particular point? Why does it come in that particular category?

Lord Inglewood: It was argued that that was the appropriate level at which to set it.

Lord Clinton-Davis: That does not offer a rationale. Perhaps the Minister, with a bit of help while I go on talking, could explain further. It is important that he does not simply make an assertion. These things must be justified. There must be some point in a level 2 fine. The Minister says that it is the most appropriate level, but how

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are we to know? Consequently, the Minister should explain that position, though I do not know how long I can go on expatiating on this point. Help appears to be at hand. Perhaps the Minister can now respond to the point which I made deliberately slowly.

Lord Inglewood: I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for comprehensively explaining his concerns, enabling me to provide a thorough response. This is the same level of offence as found elsewhere in the schedule covering obligations which do not imply possible dishonesty.

Lord Clinton-Davis: I thank the Minister for that full reply, which was better than the first one he gave.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Inglewood moved Amendment No. 87:

Page 24, line 27, at end insert:
("(1A) This paragraph does not apply where the meter—
(a) is disconnected for the purposes of an examination under section 17 of this Act or an inspection under paragraph 3(5) above; or
(b) is disconnected for a particular purpose (whether repair or repositioning of the meter, detection of a gas leak or otherwise) and is intended to be reconnected.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Inglewood moved Amendment No. 87A:

Page 24, line 40, at end insert:
("(2) The cost of any work carried out in accordance with sub-paragraph (1) above shall be defrayed as follows—
(a) if the work was made necessary by any intentional act or culpable negligence of the consumer and the transporter so requires, by the consumer;
(b) in any other case, by the transporter.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 87A sets out how the costs of maintaining and repairing service pipes—something which the public gas transporter has a duty to do—are to be met. It will mean that the transporter will have to meet those costs and not the individual customer. The only exception will be where the work was made necessary by the intentional act or culpable negligence of the customer, in which case the amendment rightly requires the customer to pay if the transporter so requires. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Inglewood moved Amendments Nos. 88 and 89:

Page 25, leave out lines 31 and 32.
Page 25, line 42, at end insert:

("No obligation to restore supply where consumer in default

.—(1) This paragraph applies where—
(a) a consumer's premises have been disconnected by a public gas transporter in pursuance of paragraph 2(2) (a), 3(2) (a), 5(4), 9(2), 15(5) or 16 above; or
(b) a supply of gas to a consumer's premises has been cut off by a gas supplier in pursuance of paragraph 2(2) (b), 3(2) (b), 5(4), 7(3) or 9(2) above.
(2) The transporter or supplier shall not be under any obligation to reconnect the consumer's premises or, as the case may be, resume the supply of gas to the consumer's premises until the consumer—
(a) has made good the default, or remedied the matter, in consequence of which the premises were disconnected or the supply was cut off; and
(b) has paid the reasonable expenses of disconnecting and reconnecting the premises or, as the case may be, of cutting off the supply and restoring the supply.").

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The noble Lord said: These amendments were spoken to with Amendment No. 70. With the leave of the Committee I shall move them en bloc. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Haskel moved Amendment No. 90:

Page 26, line 39, after ("him") insert ("or another transporter").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 90, with the permission of the Committee I shall speak also to Amendment No. 91. Both amendments deal with notification of escapes of gas.

Under the present proposals, if there is an escape of gas the transporter will only carry out simple repairs or make appliances safe by turning them off or disconnecting them. It is then the job of the gas supplier to come along and put the equipment into working order. The amendment seeks to allow the transporter to carry out repairs in cases of hardship, where there are elderly people, sick people, or people with children.

If other transporters are in the market and the wrong transporter turns up to an emergency, as the Bill is presently drafted the wrong transporter cannot fix the leak and must wait until the correct transporter turns up and takes over. As most of these jobs require a lot of travelling time, it seems sensible to allow more complicated repairs to be carried out by the engineers on the spot, particularly in the case of people who are elderly, sick or who have children. It smacks of the old days of demarcation and, more importantly, it saves a second visit. People waste a great deal of time waiting at home for the gas engineer to come, and that too would be avoided. I beg to move.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: The amendment faces difficulties on the age question. In this case it refers to people of "pensionable age". Though the noble Lord did not mention it, that differs for men and women. For men it is 65 and for women it is still 60, though over the years it will slowly move to 65. If we are to legislate and give serious protection and privilege to people on the basis of age, I suggest that we do so at the same age for both men and women.

Lord Skelmersdale: We have had an interesting afternoon so far, or at least I have. We have established a clear split on the official Opposition Front Bench, at least as far as the payment of gas bills is concerned. My noble friend Lord Ferrers and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, formed an interesting comity of view in deciding that I am untrainable, while so far being unable to agree on anything else. But the night is young and we shall see.

In relation to Amendment No. 91, it is clear that the first person on the scene to halt a gas escape is the most important, for safety reasons. But let us assume that the gas escape is due to some malfunctioning of a gas cooker or boiler. In that case the transporter may not be properly trained to cope with the situation. He would certainly be trained to cut off the gas but in that situation it would be up to another person—probably the supplier or someone contracted-out out by the supplier of gas—to mend the fault. Though I see the need in those circumstances for that operation to be carried out as quickly as possible, the transporter is not necessarily the right person to do it.

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Lord Ezra: I support the amendment because it ties in with a point I raised at Second Reading; namely, my understanding is that in the case of British Gas, when there is an escape of gas and the fault can relatively easily be put right, the person who deals with the escape also puts the matter right. If there is a possible long delay between cutting off the gas and getting hold of a supplier or a maintenance firm—perhaps over a weekend—hardship may be caused to the consumer.

I should like to see the provision as an omnibus clause rather than just applying to disabled and elderly people. But if it is to be limited to disabled and elderly people, so be it. There is a strong case and once again we should have regard to what happens now. Is it a fact, as I believe it is, that British Gas can carry out these operations on the spot? If so, let us continue that service.

Lord Peston: Perhaps I may intervene for a moment to say, first, to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that there is a real split because I think he would make an excellent gas meter reader.

The main point which troubles me—perhaps the Minister can address himself to this question—follows on from what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. We do not want there to be any disincentive for a consumer to report a possible leak or anything else which may give rise to an emergency. If the customer believes that if he rings the gas company someone will come and cut off the supply and say, "It is up to you" or "It will take time to sort this out", the customer may err on the side of risk.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said, it may be a Friday evening and the consumer does not want to spend the weekend without a cooker or central heating. Therefore he may well take the kind of risk that one does not want him to take. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is quite right and echoes what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. It is nothing much to do with people who are elderly and disabled; it is a general question to which we must address ourselves.

Speaking as someone who strongly supported the competition elements of this Bill, as the Minister is well aware, I believe it would be absurd to move into a state of affairs where, British Gas having set a high standard, the market led consumers to take risks simply because they could not afford to be without gas. Undoubtedly the Minister's advisers must have addressed themselves to this matter and perhaps he can share his thoughts on it with us.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: I am most grateful for the various remarks that noble Lords have made in this important area. I should like to deal with the two amendments together. I hope that by the time I reach the end of my remarks I will have covered all the points that have been raised.

As we have explained on a whole variety of occasions, the Government give the highest priority to matters of safety. Therefore I welcome this debate as to the obligations on a public gas transporter to take steps to avert danger where he suspects an escape. Perhaps I may ask Members of the Committee, in response to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, to think back to

28 Jun 1995 : Column 793

the debate we had on the previous Committee day about the emergency number, which was important in terms of clarifying what people do when they suspect there is a problem of this kind.

In the context of Amendment No. 90, it is important, I think, to distinguish the obligation to make safe from the power to do so. Our position is that it is appropriate for the power to make safe, and the associated rights of entry, to be granted on a non-exclusive basis. That means that a public gas transporter is empowered to respond to any emergency involving his gas, or in his area, even if another transporter could also deal with the matter. It would be wrong if staff who were already on the site for some reason were unable to intervene. That touches on a point that was raised in our debate.

Where we draw the line is in having overlapping obligations. It seems to us that this could lead to confusion as to who is responsible, or to several public gas transporters feeling obliged to dispatch teams to the same incident. It could well be the case that the valves on one transporter's system might be different from those on another transporter's system. It could be that the transporter whose system it was not and whose personnel were unfamiliar with it might feel in the circumstances that they had better keep off. I am advised that at the outset it is likely that most transporters will subcontract this function to British Gas and so it may well be that in reality it is not a problem.

I shall now turn to the points made in respect of Amendment No. 91. Before going into the main body of my comments, perhaps I may allude to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. We are providing a definition of "pensionable age" for the purposes of the Bill which is the same for men and women. The age will initially be 60. When the pension age for women is raised to 65 the Bill provides that "pensionable age" as defined will also rise to 65.

We have a good deal of sympathy for the concerns behind Amendment No. 91. That is why, in standard condition 13 of the draft conditions for public gas transporters' licences, public gas transporters are required to undertake appropriate minor appliance repairs in the course of fixing a leak, so long as they can be done within half an hour and with inexpensive parts. This service must be provided free of charge to all customers, and will allow the majority of leaks to be effectively repaired on the spot at no charge. I hope that meets the point addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra.

To go further would increase costs significantly for public gas transporters, for very little benefit. There is a large difference between providing a service focused on fixing leaks and one focused on complex appliance repairs. My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale made the point that the skills are different and the equipment needed is different. He indicated the degree of expertise and skill he has in this regard, which must encourage him in his thoughts on these matters. The electronic controls on a gas boiler are something very different from what one might describe as the ordinary plumbing type gas activities involving turning off the supply if there is a serious leak. For public gas transporters to be obliged to

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provide a full appliance service capability would increase their costs and mean that people would end up paying more for gas.

Beyond the quick fixes which can be readily done as part of an emergency service, the responsibility for arranging for appliance repairs must rest with the consumer. In such circumstances, it is right that the consumer, who is going to pay for the work, should have a choice as to who carries it out. The repair and installation of gas central heating and appliances is a competitive market and will not be the monopoly preserve of British Gas, or in the future, of any other public gas transporter. I hope that I have helped to explain the position and give reassurance.

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