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Lord Smith of Clifton: We, too, support the order. It is particularly welcome and most satisfactory that gas will be extended beyond the greater Belfast area to Londonderry. There remains the problem which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned—the extraordinarily high cost of fuel in Northern Ireland, which seriously jeopardises its national and international competitiveness.

Although I note that the measure is cost neutral, I also notice that, in the Assembly, Mr Sean Neeson raised the question of whether there would be a buy-off of long-term energy contracts through either a bond mechanism or low-cost loans. That was agreed in the special Enterprise, Trade and Industry Committee meeting at the time of the Assembly's suspension. The then Minister, Sir Reg Empey, agreed with the committee that some buy-out mechanism should be included. In a meeting earlier this month, Mr Pearson, the Minister, gave Mr Neeson an assurance that that would happen. Last Wednesday, however, I understand that Mr Pearson issued a press statement that he would not do that. I wonder why there has been this volte face in the past few weeks. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can offer an explanation.

Lord Rogan: I welcome the order. Indeed, my party colleague, Sir Reg Empey, in his capacity as Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment prior to the suspension of devolution, introduced the Energy Bill in the Assembly. As I said yesterday, my only regret is that the Assembly has been denied the ability to bring the legislation into law.

The order is the result of extensive consultation on a DoE paper on renewable energy entitled "Realising the Potential", in October 2001, and a further paper on the direction of a new energy market strategy, published in March 2002. There was widespread support for the introduction of an obligation on electricity suppliers to encourage further growth of renewable energy in Northern Ireland. The department was also able to identify priorities, such as consumer representation, the regulatory framework and the postalisation of gas conveyance prices.

I welcome the creation of a new Northern Ireland authority for energy regulation. This will bring energy, electricity and gas regulation together for the first time. It will also allow the authority to take account of the interests of consumers of gas when considering electricity issues and vice versa. While the authority will be modelled on the structures already in existence in England and Wales, our consumer arrangements are totally different from those in Great Britain. I trust, therefore, that the Northern Ireland authority will be tailored specifically to the needs of Northern Ireland.

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I also welcome the provision to bring responsibility for energy consumer representation issues together under the remit of the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland. I am particularly pleased to see that in support of this, the council is to be given strengthened powers to deal with electricity and gas matters and that the council and the authority are required to have a close working relationship.

The provisions regarding postalisation of gas conveyance charges are vital elements of the order. Postalisation is absolutely necessary to enhance Northern Ireland's infrastructure and enable the gas project to go ahead in the north-west of the Province. Postalisation will mean that the charges for conveying a therm of gas through designated pipelines will be the same regardless of the distance that it is conveyed or the number of pipelines through which it is conveyed. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what impact that is likely to have on electricity prices.

Like the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, I am very disappointed that the order does not contain provisions for a low-cost borrowing mechanism. My colleagues in the Assembly assure me that there was much support for that—indeed, it was part of detailed discussions with the Treasury—and that an amendment would have been introduced to facilitate it. Devolution has, however, been suspended and no such amendment has been introduced to this order. Can the Minister give us an indication as to why that is being held up? Why is there such a delay? The longer the delay continues, the more it would appear that a vanguard of civil servants are determined to halt its introduction. Can the Minister assure us that that perception is false and give us an indication as to when a low cost borrowing mechanism will be introduced?

I welcome this order and trust that it will indeed allow consumers to get the best deal and ensure that our economy is as competitive as it can possibly be in relation to our neighbours.

11.15 a.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am grateful for the response, which is generally favourable. I am also grateful for the questions that have been put; some of them are plainly of great importance to our colleagues who live in Northern Ireland and are consumers, either corporate or individual.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, spoke about the effect of postalisation on electricity prices, although I think he welcomed the concept. The cost of transporting gas to power stations will increase by virtue of postalisation but we think it will be of the order of 0.6 per cent—a relatively small increase. But that increase does not take into account the greater efficiencies of the new combined cycle gas turbines at Ballylumford and Coolkeeragh power stations, so there would be a downward pressure there. One would hope that, in the end, the consumer would not notice any adverse effects. Of course, the Moyle interconnector was put into commission in January of last year, so prices to large industrial consumers should remain unaffected.

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The noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Glentoran, spoke of the general commercial consequences in Northern Ireland.

Low-cost borrowing was referred to by three Members of the Committee. We gave serious thought to the creation of a legislative mechanism to reduce the cost of borrowing in the energy sector in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred to representations from a number of companies and the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, referred to a number of Northern Ireland Assembly Members being confirmed.

It is a complex exercise; there are policy implications in using legislation with such purposes, but I can tell Members of the Committee that the Minister, Mr Pearson, has given a firm commitment to continue work on this matter and to examine all options to reduce prices. I cannot give the noble Lord a precise date, but that is a firm commitment from the responsible Minister.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about urgency. The postalisation provisions are urgent to enable a major gas project to proceed, as in articles 59 and 60.

All Members of the Committee who have spoken have a valid point—consumers in Northern Ireland are paying more for their energy. I understand that commitments have been given that work will continue to find a way of securing reductions.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about the non-fossil fuel obligation. The former obligations will be replaced by the renewables obligation, but the non-fossil fuel contracts will be honoured and output from those contracts will be recognised for renewables obligations certificates.

The noble Lord also spoke about the possibility of subsidising those who live in the Republic of Ireland. As he knows, there is close co-operation between the responsible departments. It is sensible, when considering a single European energy market, to view co-operation as being extended to include the interconnectors. The order puts on a statutory basis the provisions of article 8, relating to co-operation between regulators. However, I am assured that the gas postalisation provisions do not amount to cross-subsidisation.

The noble Lord asked some other questions. One was whether the implementation would have a detrimental effect on the gas companies. The provisions of articles 59 and 60 have, I think, widespread support. They will come into operation on the day following that on which the order is made. Postalisation will not affect contractual obligations.

The noble Lord also asked whether the gas companies would be notified for the period for which their pipelines would be included. The provisions of article 59(6) were added to deal with that concern. The provisions ensure that a period, once specified, cannot be altered. All arrangements relating to postalisation will be the subject of detailed discussions involving the regulator, the department and the gas companies.

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I think that I have dealt with all the questions from Members of the Committee. On behalf of our officials, I express my gratitude for the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about how helpful they have been. I repeat that if any of your Lordships would like a private briefing with officials on any occasion and in connection with any order, my office will be happy to facilitate that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, knows, that includes the opportunity for consultation using the excellent video facilities in the Northern Ireland Office in London.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

11.22 a.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

It has been 10 years since there has been any social housing primary legislation in Northern Ireland. It is not surprising, therefore, that the order is a substantial document. There is a package of measures to deal with anti-social behaviour in social housing, which largely mirror provisions already available in Great Britain. It is long overdue. It is easy to overlook the continuing daily distress that anti-social behaviour by some occupiers can cause for neighbours and the general vicinity.

Provision is made in article 6 for introductory tenancies. Articles 9 to 12 and 22 to 25 extend the grounds upon which houses can be repossessed to cover nuisance or annoyance caused by visitors to a dwelling. In article 26, provision is made to enable landlords to seek injunctions against perpetrators of anti-social behaviour.

The order largely replicates the existing scheme of grants to help with the renewal of private sector housing. However, it changes the nature of the scheme to make it largely discretionary and enable more efficient targeting of resources. The Committee will find that in articles 34 to 109.

Accommodation for travellers has been a contentious issue in Northern Ireland for some time. There has been a division of responsibility between district councils and the Housing Executive. It is plain that it would be more appropriate to have one authority with specific responsibilities. Article 125 and Schedule 2 place responsibilities and duties in that context on the Housing Executive.

Article 43 and Schedule 3 require the Housing Executive to prepare a registration scheme for houses in multiple occupation. They form part of the private rented stock and provide accommodation for up to 30,000 people in Northern Ireland, mainly students. The scheme will improve quality and safety standards in such houses.

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There are other miscellaneous matters. Under article 131, the Department for Social Development is enabled to make a house sales scheme for registered housing associations. Through article 132, legislative cover for existing extra-statutory Housing Executive schemes is provided to compensate tenants for improvements and repairs that they have carried out. That is a matter of common justice. Other provisions are made to bring Northern Ireland legislation up to date.

This is an important order. Many people in Northern Ireland have waited—rather impatiently—to see its enactment. I commend the order to the Committee.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

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