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Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 8:

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 8 I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 10, 11, 13, 28, 29, 102, 103, 115, 282 to 284, 286, 317 to 322, 329, 331, 332 and 349. I shall not take the amendments in the exact order in which they appear on the Marshalled List, but I shall deal with all of them to the limited extent that the Committee is interested in the details of these rather technical matters.

Amendment No. 317 is a transitional provision making common-sense arrangements for the treatment of complaints and investigations which are in progress when the authority and the council come into being. Anything that would have engaged the council's duty to investigate complaints, had the duty already been in force when the complaint was made, will be treated as if the duty applied to it. For other investigations the authority will either agree with the council that the council will continue the investigation, or take such further steps as it thinks appropriate.

Amendments Nos. 102, 103 and 115 are minor amendments which make it clear that the consumer council's power to conduct investigations into matters relating to gas fittings and the use of gas applies in relation to consumers supplied by exempt as well as licensed suppliers.

Amendments Nos. 318, 319, 320, 321 and 322 repeal surviving references to the outgoing Gas Consumer Council and electricity consumers' committees that appear in various Acts which are not principally concerned with utilities regulation.

Amendment No. 329 corrects a reference to a provision in the Gas Act which is to be repealed because it concerns the power of the outgoing Gas Consumer Council to conduct investigations.

Amendments Nos. 331 and 332 repeal Sections 40 and 41 of the Gas Act which give the outgoing Gas Consumer Council duties in relation to advising the Director-General of Gas Supply and the production of annual reports.

Amendment No. 349 makes miscellaneous, very minor and consequential repeals to the Gas Act.

Amendment No. 10 brings the provisions aligning the council's obligation to have regard to the opinion of the authority as to the likely effects of disclosures, as it applies to the annual report, in line with other disclosure provisions elsewhere in the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 8, 11, 13, 28, 29, 282, 283, 284 and 286 are a miscellaneous group of minor amendments which improve and correct the current drafting. They all relate to the establishment and operation of the consumer council. I believe that they are not contentious and do not raise significant issues of policy which require debate. As noble Lords who

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took part in Second Reading will know, I wrote to them about those amendments when they were tabled last week. I beg to move.

Lord Kingsland: The Minister is quite correct to say that the majority of the amendments are consequential and transitional. I shall only comment on the two final amendments to which he referred. First, I note that Amendment No. 11 requires the consumer council to submit accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General. There does not appear to be a similar requirement for the authority to submit accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Have I missed something?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No.

Lord Kingsland: Perhaps, in responding to my observations, the Minister will enlighten the Committee on that matter.

Secondly, Amendment No. 10 concerns the circumstances in which the authority is consulted by the council as to whether or not it should make public certain information. The Bill, as originally drafted, assumed that such requests by the council to the authority would be made on a case-by-case basis. However, by adding the words,

    "or to information of a description",

the amendment appears to move away from a case-by-case basis and towards the submission of some more generalised comment. I accept that the comment would come within that particular class of information: nevertheless it would be a more generalised comment.

Perhaps the noble Lord would be kind enough to let the Committee know the motive behind the amendment.

4 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I should like first to deal with Amendment No. 11, the first of the two amendments that the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, referred to. That amendment ensures that the accounts of the consumer council will be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General rather than the choice of auditor being left to the Secretary of State.

We are committed to increasing transparency and openness to Parliament, and we believe that the auditor of these public bodies should be the Comptroller and Auditor General rather than an auditor appointed by the relevant Minister. An exception would be made if the auditor of a particular body needed a special type of knowledge or experience of a sort to be found in the private sector.

If the noble Lord cares to read in yesterday's Hansard the report of the Grand Committee proceedings on the Government Resources and Accounts Bill, he will see that I faced an amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, providing that all public bodies should be audited by the National Audit Office. I resisted that amendment. I think that it is better to come out into the open with this now, in case I am

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accused later of inconsistency. In the course of the debate in the Grand Committee I argued that it was not necessary to change from private audit to National Audit Office audit for all the existing non-departmental public bodies, but we have, as in this case, appointed the Comptroller and Auditor General as the auditor of all the public bodies established since the present Government came into office in May 1997.

Following that principle, the amendment is required because our original intention was to appoint the Comptroller and Auditor General by notice given by the Secretary of State under paragraph 7, but that would still leave the choice of auditor to the Secretary of State. Our amendment achieves greater certainty and clarity. It inserts into the Bill a requirement that the council's accounts are to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and that a copy of the accounts and his report on them are to be laid before Parliament. If the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, will consult the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I think he will find that that is acceptable to the Opposition Front Bench generally.

The second amendment that the noble Lord referred to was Amendment No. 10. That aligns the council's obligation as it applies in the annual report--the obligation to have regard to the opinion of the authority as to the likely effects of disclosures--with other disclosure provisions elsewhere in the Bill. Since there is a range of other disclosure provisions in the Bill, it would be wise if I wrote to the noble Lord about what those other disclosure provisions are so that he can get the full flavour of the wisdom of Amendment No. 10. We have not moved away from a requirement to seek an opinion from the authority on a case-by-case basis on matters of disclosure. That requirement was never in the Bill.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne): In calling Amendment No. 9, I should point out that if it were to be agreed to I should be unable to call Amendment No. 10, owing to pre-emption.

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 9:

    Page 113, line 7, leave out paragraph (b) and insert--

("(b) have regard to any opinion expressed by the information publication arbiter as to the application of sub-paragraph (4)(c) to the information; and
(c) consider whether publication of the information in question is in the interests of consumers;
and paragraph (b) applies whether the opinion is given in relation to the information itself or to information of a description which applies to that information.
(5A) In carrying out its functions the Council has a general duty to publish information when it is in the consumer interest to do so.
(5B) Before publishing such information the Council must consider whether the consumer interest is outweighed by any consideration of confidentiality attached to it.").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I should like also speak to the other amendments in the group, which deal with the same issue.

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The amendment concerns the role of the gas and electricity consumer council, particularly in regard to its publication of information. I believe that it is common ground that there is support for the creation of a single consumer council to deal with gas and electricity and that it should have a degree of independence to express its opinion in support of consumers.

The issue that the amendments address is the extent to which the council could publish information in the interests of consumers after taking account of the possible impact of publication on third parties. It is a delicate issue, to which I referred at Second Reading. The question is who could determine whether there was likely to be an adverse impact on others as a result of the intention to publish certain information.

The Bill proposes that the authority's views should be taken into account in determining the matter. However, there are some doubts about that. After all, the authority is involved in the whole operation of the new system propounded in the Bill. Its interests could well at times be divergent from those of the consumer council. I should be particularly interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, has to say on this.

The authority itself might prefer that this delicate issue be determined by some third party. The proposition in the amendments is that there should be such a third party when the Freedom of Information Bill goes through and an appropriate authority is created, and that that might well be the party to decide these issues.

I am associated in the amendments with my noble friend Lady Sharp, who will also have something to say. I do not need to go into the matter at any greater length. The amendment is to deal with the issue of publication of information and who should express an opinion as to whether it adversely affects others. The proposition is that it should be not the authority, but a third party. I beg to move.

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