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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I believe that I can give that assurance to the noble Earl. Everyone concerned would wish to behave responsibly as regards this matter. It may interest noble Lords to know that we have not received any applications for possums either. I understand that there is a problem with possums in New Zealand. However, they do have one added benefit in New

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Zealand in that they are very attached to marijuana. They seek it out and eat it all. It may be that the drugs tsar would have an interest.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, in the unlikely situation of a proper licence being issued for the importation of the European beaver, would a person who had been issued with such a licence be financially liable for the damage that that animal would cause, if any damage were caused at a later date?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I would need to seek legal advice on that point because it would depend on the circumstances that applied at the time. That would be the wisest course to take.

Utilities: Regulation

3.23 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have with regard to the regulation of utilities.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the Utilities Bill was published in another place on 21st January this year. An announcement was made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on 2nd March in another place that the Government intended to remove the telecoms and water provisions from the Utilities Bill. What remains in the Utilities Bill is a very substantial programme of reform to the framework of gas and electricity regulation which the Government are wholly committed to getting on to the statute book.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the action by the Government of substantially reducing the scope of the Bill, which is passing through its Committee stage in another place, has created a degree of uncertainty about the Government's intentions concerning regulation of the utilities? In order to reduce that uncertainty to some degree, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord two questions. First, as regards gas and electricity, will he confirm explicitly--he may feel that he has already done this--that it is the intention of the Government to go ahead with the Bill with its present contents in spite of the very substantial number of amendments which I understand the Government have deposited in another place and which may also be set down when eventually the Bill comes to this House?

Secondly, as regards telecoms and water, can we assume that any subsequent proposals that the Government plan to make will be roughly in line with the provisions previously in the Bill that is now before another place, bearing in mind that they have stated that their objective is to ensure that the regulatory systems of the four utilities are consistent with one another?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, while there may be a little uncertainty on this matter, the decision

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taken by the Government--which was driven by arguments put to the Government by the industries involved--that they would reduce the amount of regulatory change if these measures are carried forward as a part of separate legislation relating to water and to a separate communications Bill was entirely the right one. As I said in my original reply, I can confirm that gas and electricity will be carried forward essentially in their present form. Amendments will be coming through and we shall take care of them when the Bill comes to this House. As regards telecommunications and water, we will carry forward the principles that apply to them, in particular in relation to securing for all the utilities a more transparent framework, an independent voice for consumers and a stronger focus on protecting the interests of consumers. I repeat, all those principles will be carried forward.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, would it not have been a better idea if the Minister had come to the Dispatch Box to tell us about the changes to this Bill on the same day that a Deferred Question was tabled and answered in another place? Furthermore, will the Minister remind the House when was the last time a government, halfway through the passage of a Bill, simply abandoned a great many of its provisions? Is not the truth of the matter that the same problems with telecoms and water--overregulation, burdens on business and so forth--also apply to electricity and gas? Those industries are not happy about the situation. Do the Minister and his right honourable friend agree that it would far better to withdraw the entire Bill and then to return solely with the provisions of Clause 56, which would reform the entire pool? We could all agree with that and expeditiously pass such a piece of legislation.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord. It is not right to show such an extraordinary thirst for regulatory change and have a series of Bills covering what could otherwise easily be compressed into a single Bill. In the circumstances, it seemed to us to be right to listen to what industry had to say, to take account of those views and to move forward appropriately.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, given that this is the fourth Question on a Thursday and that it is a balloted, topical Question, and given also the fact that the Bill is still immersed in Committee in another place, no matter what changes are being made to it and that we will only receive it in due course, will the Minister discuss with his noble friend the Leader of the House the reasons why this Question was allowed to be put on to the Order Paper today?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, it is a topical subject and reflects the nature of Question Time in this House.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, has the Minister taken note that one of the reasons given by British Telecom

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for its failure to reduce the price of access to the Internet is the regulatory framework? Can the Minister assure the House that, when the Bill comes before noble Lords, adequate provision will be made to enable British Telecom to compete and to make such facilities available to consumers at reasonable prices?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, those are precisely the kind of issues that will be covered when we reach the communications Bill which will bring forward the relevant legislation.

Lord Peston: My Lords, can my noble friend help me on one matter that has left me slightly bewildered? Are the regulatory regimes for all four of the former public utilities we are seeking to amend with these pieces of legislation those regimes that were introduced by the previous government while they were in power? Am I not right in thinking that the whole point of this new legislation is to improve on those regulatory regimes and to make them less burdensome? As I intend to say in my Second Reading speech in due course, I thought that that was what the Bill was meant to address.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the essential thrust of the Utilities Bill is to introduce some new principles, one of which, for example, will be the independent consumer council in each case. These are new principles that we have brought forward. In due course, we shall ensure that they apply to all the Bills that relate to the utilities.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the value of the Bill is already being experienced in view of the fact that the price of electricity in the pool is already coming down in anticipation of the Bill?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right. It is the prospect of the new system of electricity trading that is already having an impact on the forward market for electricity.

Local Government Bill [H.L.]

3.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.--(Lord Whitty.)

Lord Henley: My Lords, I do not intend to delay the House, nor, obviously, shall I oppose the Motion. However, I rise to express some concerns about this afternoon's business, of which I have given the Government Chief Whip some notice.

In response to requests from my noble friend Lord Roberts, the Government have brought forward a very large number of amendments dealing

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with the Welsh aspects of the Bill. I gather that there are some 115 new amendments being brought forward at this Third Reading. The amendments were tabled yesterday, the day before or even the day before that; but they were put down very recently. We all know that my noble friend will, with some difficulty, be able to assimilate and grasp the content of such a large number of amendments, but can that be true of all other noble Lords, bearing in mind the complexity of these issues and the timing with which they were tabled? As regards the future, I must say that I hope the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip can offer some guarantee that such a large number of amendments will not be tabled quite so late in the proceedings of a Bill.

That brings me to the second point that I wish to discuss. This afternoon we are debating two government Bills. I have no objection to that; indeed, I think that that is perfectly legitimate because, on certain occasions, the business managers should be able to complete two Bills in one day. Obviously, the first is the Third Reading of the Local Government Bill and the second is the Report stage of the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. The latter is a Bill that had its Committee stage in the Moses Room. I am sure that the House will agree that Bills which start their Committee stage in the Moses Room should have their Report and Third Reading stages at a convenient time of the day for the House and not be hidden away late in the evening, as is likely to happen on this occasion.

Therefore, can I have confirmation from the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms that if consideration on the Local Government Bill does not finish by 8.30 p.m., we will not proceed with the Children (Leaving Care) Bill and will leave it to be dealt with on another day?

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