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Utilities Bill

8.38 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 11 [Health and safety in relation to gas]:

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 64:

("(4) It shall also be the duty of the Authority--
(a) in conjunction with the Health and Safety Executive, to prepare, and from time to time revise, a document setting out such means as may, with the approval of the Health and Safety Commission, be agreed between the Authority and that Executive for securing co-operation and the exchange of information between them; and
(b) without prejudice to the effect or operation of any relevant statutory provisions (within the meaning of Part I of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974) to exercise the functions assigned to him by or under this Part in accordance with any agreement contained in that document.
(5) As soon as practicable after agreement is reached for the purposes of--
(a) the preparation of a document in accordance with subsection (4) above, or
(b) any revision of a document prepared in accordance with that subsection,
the Director shall send a copy of the document or, as the case may be, of the revised version of it to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State shall lay the copy before each House of Parliament.").

The noble Baroness said: We believe that to some extent the Bill creates confusion in respect of gas safety and quality. Therefore, we have brought forward a probing amendment to consider that point.

As we read it, the Health and Safety Executive retains regulatory authority in respect of the operational safety aspects of gas transportation. Therefore, we believe that, in addition, adequate mechanisms should be in place between the Health and Safety Executive and the gas and electricity markets authority where issues of gas safety are concerned.

At present, the Health and Safety Executive and the authority are required to have a memorandum of understanding. However, under Clause 11 that would be removed and replaced by a duty on the authority to

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consult the Health and Safety Commission rather than the Health and Safety Executive. The effect will be to weaken the link between the authority and the Health and Safety Executive. No explanation appears to have been given for this change.

We believe that we need adequate mechanisms in place to ensure clarity as to which organisation is responsible for an issue involving both safety and non-safety issues. Gas quality is a good example. At the moment, the gas safety management regulations enforced by the Health and Safety Executive already contain gas purity requirements for the delivery of gas into the Transco system. They also refer to gas pressure. Clause 100 proposes that GEMA should have responsibility for gas quality where safety is not an issue.

We believe that we must avoid a situation in which one regulator approves an arrangement which another would not. For example, on the emergency co-operation procedures between gas transporters, Ofgem is proposing in the gas transporters' licence that it should approve the emergency co-operation procedures between gas transporters. This is in addition to the role of the Health and Safety Executive in accepting the safety cases of gas transporters and the network emergency co-ordinator, Transco, without which gas transporters cannot operate.

During the Bill's passage through the Commons, in Standing Committee the Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, Dr Kim Howells, suggested that,

    "various provisions--existing and future--",

would deal with,

    "co-ordination and consistency between GEMA and the Health and Safety Commission over the regulation of, respectively, the non-safety and safety aspects of gas quality".

For safety and operational reasons, the section from the Gas Act 1995 requiring the regulator to have a memorandum of understanding with the Health and Safety Executive should, we believe, be retained. This is preferable to simply requiring consultation with GEMA, and requiring GEMA to consult the Health and Safety Commission. I beg to move.

Lord Ezra: I support the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. On an earlier amendment I referred to my concern that safety had been relegated to an inferior position in the Bill. I believe that at least we should clarify the relations between the Health and Safety Executive and the authority. The amendment would bring that about. I am also concerned that such an obligation existed under previous gas legislation, but has been removed. I should have thought that it ought to be included in the Bill. I agree with the other proposals made by the noble Baroness.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I thought that I understood the amendment, but I am now slightly puzzled. I do not understand the thrust of the noble Baroness's point about the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The

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Health and Safety Commission is a separate body from the executive, but it can issue directions to the executive. Therefore, an agreement between the authority, GEMA, and the Health and Safety Commission has to all intents and purposes the same effect as an agreement between GEMA and the Health and Safety Executive.

Our objective in the Bill has been to align and update the often differing provisions of the Gas and Electricity Acts. That is why I am slightly puzzled by an amendment which refers only to gas. We are trying to ensure that the provisions are the same for gas and electricity. I appreciate that health and safety issues are different as regards gas. I realise that gas mains can blow up and that gas can be wrongly connected. Personally, as the most incompetent DIY-er in the business, I have more frequently been almost electrocuted by my own incompetence than I have been close to being blown up by gas.

Clauses 11 and 15 are supposed to bring the regime on safety into line as regards electricity and gas. The existing duties of the gas and electricity regulators in respect of safety are different and in many ways cumbersome. In the case of electricity, it has been said that the existing duty is very hard to interpret. In the case of gas, the duty imposes some bureaucratic procedures which are hard to justify. Yet the amendment reimposes those duties for gas but not for electricity.

We decided that the best way to tackle the issue is to impose a simple duty on the authority to consult the Health and Safety Commission, which is the policy-making body on health and safety, whenever a health and safety issue arises--and not only to consult, but to take proper notice of what the commission says. That reflects the reality of the position. The authority is an economic regulator without any direct responsibility for health and safety issues. However, the decisions it makes can have consequences for health and safety, and it is only right that in those circumstances it should take the advice of those who are expert in that field and who are charged with giving advice to all of government on those issues; that is, the Health and Safety Commission.

The amendment would reinstate in the Bill subsections (3) and (4) of Section 4A of the Gas Act which lay down a particular mechanism for ensuring that the authority and the executive should draw up a document setting out how they would exercise their separate functions. As it happens, there is no corresponding provision in the Electricity Act and the amendment would not introduce one. Therefore, if the amendment were accepted, there would once again be a difference which would be hard to justify between gas and electricity regulation.

Let me be clear about the position. I have no difficulty with the proposition that the authority and the commission should draw up a document of the kind that is envisaged in the amendment and I expect that as responsible public bodies they will do so; nor do I expect it to be a private document. I would expect, for example, copies to be placed in the Libraries of both

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Houses. But given an explicit duty in the Bill to consult the commission wherever a safety issue arises, it seems to us that the detailed procedure set out in the amendment is unnecessary and over-bureaucratic. I am sure that the Opposition would not want to be tarred with the brush of being over-bureaucratic.

Perhaps I may respond to the detailed points that the noble Baroness made. The gas transporter licence condition, which we shall discuss next week, will ensure a smooth transition, moving from the geographic exclusivity of licensed areas to competitive overlapping areas. At present, each area has only one transporter. Clause 75 changes that, and we shall deal with it when we reach those amendments.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for that explanation. As I said at the outset, there is confusion, or lack of clarity, on the part of those in the gas industries. They were looking for support as regards the meaning of Clause 11 in practice. We shall read with interest what the Minister said and I hope that those in the gas industries who have been concerned about the provision feel that the point has been clarified. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clause 12 agreed to.

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 [Preliminary]:

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 65:

    Page 12, line 36, after ("systems") insert ("including the efficient use of gas and electricity by consumers").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is a simple one. It is intended to demonstrate that the interest of consumers, as referred to in Clause 17, includes the efficient use of gas and electricity by consumers, not only in relation to the gas conveyed through pipes or electricity conveyed by distribution systems, but in the actual use made of those two fuels. It is important in that, once again, it underlines the need to achieve the greatest efficiency in use. I hope that this simple amendment will be accepted by the Government. I beg to move.

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