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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie moved Amendment No. 31:


Page 15, line 25, leave out ("'public gas transporter' and 'public gas supplier'") and insert ("and 'public gas transporter'").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 31 perhaps I may speak also to Amendments Nos. 32, 43 to 45, 179 and 181. These are technical amendments to ensure that the network code, which will set out the rates for the use by other gas companies of British Gas's pipeline system, is not caught by the Restrictive Trade Practices Act if it comes into force before the appointed day. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie moved Amendment No. 32:


Page 15, line 27, leave out subsection (5) and insert—
("(5) Subsection (7) of that section shall cease to have effect.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

5 p.m.

Baroness Nicol moved Amendment No. 33:


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 inserted "as promptly as possible", and after "any" there shall be inserted "loss caused or".").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot emulate the speed with which the previous few amendments have been moved. I hope that the spirit of harmony will continue throughout. The purpose of the amendment is to enable businesses to claim compensation for damage or loss caused to them by gas transporters' construction work. I first raised this amendment at Committee stage. The Minister then at the Dispatch Box said that he would consider what had been said because there was a considerable amount of support for the amendment. I tabled it again on 19th July as a reminder in case it should be overlooked. Nevertheless, it has taken nearly three months for the Government to bring forth their own amendment on this subject, despite many letters from interested organisations, which means that there has been little time to discuss the government amendment. I shall return to that in a moment.

My amendment has been supported by the British Retail Consortium, the Country Landowners' Association, the National Farmers Union, the Forum of Private Business, the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, the Association of Convenience Stores and many individual businesses as well as many Members of your Lordships' House.

At Committee stage I did not give illustrations of need because we were dealing with the business very late at night. I do not propose to keep your Lordships very long on the matter. However, there are two illustrations which I must give because they bear a little on the possible regulations which the Government may produce. These have been given to me by the Association of Convenience Stores. They are real cases which have happened this year. A Mr. Beacall, with a store of 1,900 square feet, had his trade affected by gas works outside his shop from 23rd January to 17th March this year. Over the period his loss of income can clearly be demonstrated to be of the order of £14,500. His annual turnover was just over £500,000, so he would not be able to claim under the British Gas proposal, which the Government have favoured in the past.

A Mr. Holborn, running a newsagents and general store family business in Redhill, relies heavily on passing trade. British Gas closed the road in which his shop is situated for six weeks in June this year. During that time his weekly takings fell from £48,000 to £43,250, pushing his business into the red. Since he

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could not claim compensation, that left him struggling to pay off an overdraft on a very small profit margin. He is still trying to do that.

Government Amendment No. 151 appears to accept the principle of compensation, for which I am grateful. But it leaves many questions to be answered. Subparagraph (4) states "if" the regulation is made. Why cannot we have a firm commitment to regulate? Is it that the Government have still not made up their mind despite the promising beginning to this amendment? Why cannot we have a timetable if there are to be regulations? Can we be given some idea of when those regulations are likely to be brought forward? Will there be a ceiling on the size or the turnover of the businesses which can claim? The British Gas proposal of £500,000, which I have already mentioned, would be much too low. Many vulnerable businesses would fall outside that threshold, and that would include many farms. We need to have a little more information from the Government on that proposal. Is that what they intend to put in regulations?

There can be no justification for private gas companies making extra profit at the expense of other private companies. I find it very difficult to understand why the Government fail to see that point, as they have done on other occasions. What is the purpose of subparagraph (5) in the second part of the amendment? It would seem to remove all possibility of future adjustments if the regulations were found to be ineffective. It appears to require the unanimous consent of all gas transporters before changes can be made. Is that how the Government see it and is that their intention? I await the Minister's answers with interest before deciding what action to take on my amendment. We shall need to look very carefully at what the Minister says. I beg to move.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment of the noble Baroness, having read the Committee stage report of her amendment and having found the Government's reply inadequate. It would be wasting your Lordships' time to restate all those reasons. However, her amendment mirrors many of the problems that your Lordships discussed and voted on affirmatively during the passage of the Coal Bill in relation to CROs. Eventually the Government accepted that in principle. This particular point was referred to obliquely by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, at Committee stage.

However, I am pleased that the Government have now come forward with their amendment, even at a very late stage, as the noble Baroness has said, to solve the problem by means of regulation. I thank and congratulate the noble Baroness on persisting so strongly through the summer months to get the Government to do so. I believe that I and many of your Lordships dislike government by regulation. I would much prefer to see the amendment on the face of the Bill.

As the noble Baroness said, the Government have given no time or date as to when this regulation might come about; for that matter, it might never appear. An assurance from my noble and learned friend would be

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very welcome, if not vital. Furthermore, the Government have given little indication as to what the regulation might state. Not least, I ask for an assurance from my noble and learned friend that there will be no ceiling on the turnover of the business. That again is a point made by the noble Baroness. In the past it has been mooted at £500,000.

I believe that the noble Baroness was too charitable about subparagraph (5), which I dislike intensely. I do not know what she intends to do. I believe that she is still thinking about it this evening. If these assurances cannot be given by my noble and learned friend—and I fully understand that he may not be able to do so tonight—I wish to preserve my position, as I believe the noble Baroness does, to press him to do so at Third Reading.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I support this amendment. I have known people whose businesses have gone bankrupt simply because potential customers could not gain access. I am thinking of a woman who for years ran a small Australian gift shop off the Strand. I believe that it was the water board which closed the road and there was no access for customers for a considerable time. The poor woman is now desperately ill and her future has gone. Indeed, customers were convinced that she had closed the business and gone. People gave up trying to reach her and that situation continued for something like two years.

There is a very genuine case for compensation. Clearly, one would have to prove that there had been losses. There would be no question of people getting money for nothing. A claim would have to be clearly quantified and assessable, so there would be no doubt on that point.

As regards government Amendments Nos. 150 and 151, I find the use of the word "if" quite extraordinary. I cannot see the real merit in the use of that word. If we simply had "to the extent" that would be iffy enough. To use the word "if" makes for a very strange piece of legislation. All these points have been made and I do not wish to take up time. I strongly support this amendment.

The Earl of Harrowby: My Lords, I supported my noble friend on the Coal Bill. I am delighted to say that I support him again on this issue. Enough has been said about the detail of the subject. I hope that my noble and learned friend the Minister will take note of the feeling on both sides of the House.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I caused some surprise when I supported the noble Baroness in Committee. I still have some sympathy. As regards what I said at the Committee stage, on balance, this matter has much wider application than just to the gas industry. I believe that the Government's amendment is probably right. What is disguised in the Government's amendment—and to this we should have an answer—is the use of the word "if". I understand the comments which have been made on this perhaps rogue word. I include also the words,


    "and to the extent that regulations made by the Secretary of State so provide"

and so on. Regulations under what? Will they be regulations under the new Section 4 of the Gas Act, or will they be under the street works legislation or something else? That is very germane to the argument.

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