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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I beg the noble Baroness's pardon. I have spoken to the amendments, because two sets of them are very similar and one is really a technical amendment that follows from the others.
As a result of our three amendments, I ask the Minister what the rationale behind the provisions is. Does he consider them to be a reasonable reallocation of responsibilities or does he think, as we are suggesting, that it is not a very satisfactory position for the council to be put in? When we have debated the issues before, the Liberal Democrats may have gone in a slightly different direction from us, but some of the information that they think that the council should be able to have might well be confidentially and economically not that which is relevant to the council itself.
As I say, our three amendments are little ones. They are about clarity. The first is on the gathering of information, the second on publishing, and the third on whether all the responsibility is put on the council. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Lord Whitty: The bulk of the amendments deal with the relationship between the council and the authority in terms of publication. It is worth bearing in mind that the provisions in the Bill are the same as those in the Utilities Act that set up Energywatch, the equivalent to the consumer council for water. They ensure that the consumer council takes into account any opinion expressed by the authority. The amendments suggest that we remove that requirement to have regard to the opinion of the authority.
I recognise the need for the independence of the council, but simply distancing itself from the authority and removing the necessity to have that regard could have a detrimental effect. There are quite a lot of technical issues involved in assessing whether publishing information can have serious prejudicial effects on companies or others. Therefore the advice of the authority would be appropriate, and it makes sense for the council to be able to draw on that expertise.
Baroness Byford: The group is split. It would certainly help meI cannot speak for the whole Committeeif the noble Lord mentioned which amendments he is referring to as he goes through. That would be hugely helpful.
Lord Whitty: I am referring to the bulk of the amendments in the group. Amendments Nos. 121, 124, 132 and 155 deal with four different types of publicationadvice to public authorities, advice and information about consumer matters, reasons for refusing to supply information, and the power to investigate other matters. All four areas are dealt with by the bulk of the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. They repeat the elimination of the requirement that the council should have regard to the view of the authority, presumably on the grounds
The three amendments to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred are Amendments Nos. 139, 140 and 141. They would remove a direct duty on the council to publish statistical information on undertakers' performance against prescribed statistical standards. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, also questioned who was really publishing what under the provisions.
So far as those amendments are concerned, I am aware that both Ofwat and WaterVoice support the status quo of leaving the duty with the authority rather than the change in the Bill, which would give it to the council. I take that view and the arguments put by the noble Baroness seriously. I am therefore prepared to consider further the form of the amendments, and accept at least in broad terms the principles that lie behind them.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I am grateful to the Minister for that unexpected willingness to consider some of the amendments again, as I was preparing to return to my idea that the members of the consumer council for water, when appointed, would find it very difficult to operate under the regime as drafted. I am particularly grateful for his assurance and will be pleased to see what the Government come back with. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak to Amendment No. 122, and also Amendments Nos. 125 and 134. They are fairly short probing amendments that really seek clarification. What do the three lines referred to in the amendment mean? Is the reference to "paragraph (b)" meant to indicate proposed new Section 27E(4)(b) or, following the direction to proposed new Section 27E(3)(c), to proposed new Section 27E(3)(b)? The amendments are technical. I beg to move.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I am hoping that inspiration on the very technical nature of the points put by the noble Baroness will come to me. Before publishing information about an individual or a body, the consumer council must have regard to the opinion of the regulatory authority about whether the information might seriously or prejudicially affect the interests of the individual or body, and concerning the desirability of publishing such information.
The amendments would remove the authority's discretion to provide an opinion on a case-by-case basis, or by way of a general description of a type of information. We think that that would lose flexibility, which would bring several drawbacks. The practical effect would be that the council and the authority would have to treat each case individually. I am sure
The ability to provide an opinion on a general description of information would also help to ensure consistency of approach which will increase the value to the consumer of the council's publications and contribute to regulatory certainty for the water industry.
With regard to new Section 27E on page 49 or the page referred to by the noble BaronessI believe I have this right(b) refers to (4)(b). I hope with the explanation that I have given as to the unfortunate by-product of the amendment tabled that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Byford: If I am totally honest, I am confused, but at a greater level. I apologise to the Committee. This has been a trying afternoonI mean that genuinely. A problem that we face is that a Bill is being discussed in the Chamber and our second Front Bench speaker is unfortunately attached to that. That is why two of us are struggling as best as we can.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My noble friend Lord Whitty would understand. The noble Baroness may recall that last Thursday I was dealing with a Northern Ireland matter and he was here in Committee.
Baroness Byford: We have a practical problem. We are trying out this new concept. Sometimes some of us find it very trying. I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation. I shall need to look at this matter again. At this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: This group of amendmentsAmendments Nos. 128, 131 and 137is concerned with the provision of information to the consumer council for water. At the moment the Bill states that,
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: We agree with the aim of Amendment No. 128. It is important that the council acts responsibly and avoids imposing an unnecessary burden when it directs the authority or an undertaker to supply it with information. I believe that I can reassure the noble Baroness that, as a public body with clear duties and functions, the Council can only request information required for the performance of its duties and functions. As we are establishing the council to be an effective body, it would be reasonable for it to require information sufficient to perform its allotted role effectively.
It would not be appropriate for it to demand information irrelevant to its duties and functions. Therefore, there is an appropriate safeguard against excessive requests. However, even when it is necessary for the council to have information, there is a further question about the form in which the information should be supplied. That is why the Bill is explicit that the form must be reasonable to ensure that the demand is realistic and sensible in terms of time, cost and effort.
Amendments Nos. 131 and 137 would replace the dispute resolution procedures in the Bill and enable the consumer council to enforce its own directions when the authority or an undertaker refuses to supply it with information. We recognise the need for the CCW to be as independent as possible. But we believe that the dispute resolution procedure in the Bill is a fair balance. It makes sense for the authority to take that role because of expertise in the industry. It will know whether a refusal to supply information is reasonable. I do not believe that that makes the consumer council dependent on the authority; rather it is a procedural safeguard. Furthermore, there is a power to designate a third party if it transpires that for any reason that is appropriate.
These amendments would actually mean that there would be no need for the consumer council to resolve a dispute about whether it was reasonable to direct the supply of informationit would just be able to enforce its own directions. We believe that that would not be an appropriate arrangement. I have gone into some detail so I hope that I have been able to reassure the noble Baroness and I hope that she will not press the amendment.
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