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Earl Ferrers: This debate is becoming enormously interesting. First we were told by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that he does not pay his bills very often. Then the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in a burst of self-righteousness, said that he pays his bills not only on time but in advance. He is a very remarkable man, particularly as he is an economist.
The question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is a perfectly reasonable one. If one feels concerned that one's meter is a duff meter, one feels that one wants to have it tested. The noble Lord asked whether the Government are really saying that if someone is right the gas company pays and if that person is wrong he pays. One could say that that is very often what happens in a court of law. If one wins the case one has one's costs paid; if one loses it one pays the costs of the other side.
I was trying to explain that meters are pretty accurate. They are likely to become more accurate as the leather diaphragm meters are replaced. The chances of meters being wrong are pretty small. It may be that one or two go wrong. One can get some very disgruntled folk who say, "This is quite intolerable. My meter must be wrong", when the meter is perfectly all right. If one goes to the trouble of getting the supplier concerned to test a meter which is perfectly all right, I do not think it is unreasonable to say that one ought to pay. If one complains that the meter is wrong and the company finds that it is wrong, then it is right that the company should pay. I do not think that that is unduly rigorous.
Lord Clinton-Davis: This has been an interesting short debate because what has been revealed beyond any reasonable doubt and at one fell swoop is the integrity and naivety of my noble friend Lord Peston in terms of the payment of the gas bill. I want to make it quite clear that I am never in arrears with the payment of my gas bill. I might be resentful, but that is another matter. However, I do not think that I should allow on the record the noble Earl's impugning of my integrity in that regard, which I feel terribly hurt by.
One comes into collision with this sort of problem more in relation to telephone bills where some people feel that there may have been an overcharge. It is very difficult to sort out the problem. It is more difficult when the amount by some standards may be quite small; by others it may be in relative terms quite high. We feel that the balance here is not quite right.
I have been reminded of another factor by some mysterious hand a moment ago. A meter can be recording quite accurately but a high reading could indicate that a leak has occurred elsewhere. A problem might exist in that respect.
I should like the Minister to comment on the points I have made. In relation to the private sector meter examiner, who bears the cost of that? What is the amount involved if there is a charge? Perhaps the noble Earl could also comment on the point I made a few moments ago.
Earl Ferrers: The noble Lord said that one very often can have difficulty in checking up on telephone bills and so forth. I agree that that is a difficulty. However, I do not think that that is a strictly accurate comparison. With telephone calls, one makes a number of calls but the meter is housed elsewhere. In that respect it could be said that it is quite difficult to check, although now one gets detailed accounts it is relatively easy to check. However, one has the gas meter in one's own house. The bill consists of one set of figures which depict the amount of gas that has gone through the meter. That is a very much easier matter to determine. Where the difficulty comesthe noble Lord is quite rightis when there is a leak. There are ways of discovering and dealing with leaks. But that is not the point that the noble Lord is concerned about. He was concerned about who should pay if one wants to have one's meter checked. One comes back to what I said originally. If someone is concerned and complains that his meter must be checkedhe may even be cantankerousand the meter is perfectly all right it is not unreasonable to say that he ought to pay the bill. It is unreasonableor could be said to be unreasonablethat he should transfer that obligation on to the company which has provided a perfectly good meter which is perfectly all right.
The noble Lord referred to private sector meters. There is no additional cost for private sector meters. The examiners act in the same way as existing meter readers. The examiners will not cost any more.
Baroness Seear: The noble Lord made an interesting point about leaks. Who pays for the leak? A leak may have occurred on your premises; it may have occurred just outside. I once had the unfortunate experience in France of having a ploughman ploughing into the water pipe and emptying my water supply completely. I had to pay for all the water, although it was not on my ground. At what point does one become liable for the leak? I had no control over what this ass was doing with his equipment which cut the pipe, but I nevertheless had to pay.
Earl Ferrers: We are getting into deep water now. We are changing from gas to water. I can quite understand what the noble Baroness says because I have done the same thing. At my agricultural operations we were operating with a mole-plough, which may not be a familiar instrument to the noble Baroness but it is one of those things that goes down about two feet below the ground. It does to electric cables what I have just done to a glass of waterit smashes them. But that is not what happens with gas. If there is a gas leak before the gas comes into the meter, that is the responsibility either of the supplier or of the transporter. The responsibility of the householder comes from the meter onwards.
Earl Ferrers: The responsibility for the gas pipe before it comes to the meter is with the gas transporter. If the transporter's method of transporting is inadequate, the transporter will pay. One then comes to the meter. At that point it becomes the supplier, and for a moment the transporter changes to the supplier. The supplier puts the gas into the house via the meter, and thereafter it becomes the responsibility of the owner.
Lord Peston: Perhaps I may join in because this is the most interesting event of the day. Surely, the logical point is very simple: one only pays for the gas which is metered. If a leak occurs before the meter there is no possible way that one will be charged for it. It is as simple as that. Therefore, I do not believe that the noble Earl should be in the least concerned. A leak before the meter may present problems, but one will not end up with a charge because one pays for the metered gas.
Earl Ferrers: I am grateful to the noble Lord. I did not have the slightest concern; it was the noble Baroness who was concerned. I was trying to reassure her, but the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has, of course, done it far better than I could have done.
Lord Sefton of Garston: The question was as to who was responsible when the gas leaves the main owned by the transporter and goes into the domestic dwelling. For many years the regulations used to be that a cut-off was made within 18 inches of the boundary of the dwelling to be supplied with gas. The owner of the property was responsible for anything that ensued between the cut-off pointthat is to say, the stopcock outside, and inside the dwellinghouse. So there are two ways. The occupier of the dwelling would be responsible, through the meter, for the gas, but if any repairs were necessary between the meter and the outside boundary of the estate, the occupier would also be responsible for them.
Earl Ferrers: The noble Lord, Lord Sefton of Garston, has a remarkable capacity for muddling up everything. I tried to explain perfectly clearly that up to the point where the gas pipe comes into the meter, it is the responsibility of the transporter and after that it is the responsibility of the individual. I do not believe I can put it more clearly than that.
Lord Sefton of Garston: I have had 45 years playing about with gas mains in the street. I can assure the Minister that he has completely misinterpreted the whole of the question as regards the law relating to the responsibility for pipes inside the dwelling.
Lord Clinton-Davis: I advanced the argument about leaks with some trepidation. My misgivings have been more than fulfilled. After all, this Government have paid very heavily for leaks and know very much more about them than we do. However, having regard to the Minister's reply, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.