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Baroness Hamwee: I support these amendments. If my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie were here, I know that he would speak to them. He is involved in other activities in Scotland. He has asked me to give his support and I give mine as well. Like the noble Lord, I was surprised when I read the Bill and saw the provisions for Scotland. I believe I said at Second Reading that it seemed somewhat impertinent and patronising for this Parliament to be seeking to legislate for the new Parliament so close to its formation. I understand that the Government's stance is that they are not imposing on the new Scottish Parliament, but merely making legislation available should it wish to use it. Nevertheless, I find it a rather odd situation.
My noble friend has asked me to say that he believes that the new committees must be beefed up to give them the role of an advocate for the consumer. As regards Amendment No. 30, he makes the interesting point not simply that there is a conflict of interest as regards the chairman if he or she is to chair meetings, but that the commissioner will be in a better position in not having to chair a meeting because he or she would be able to speak more extensively from the floor. That is not a point which would have immediately have occurred to me, but I believe that he is right. Generally, we support this group of amendments.
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked why we have not waited until there is a Scottish Parliament in existence to legislate. But the consensus in Scotland is that the existing regulatory regime is unsatisfactory. Therefore, the Government want to provide the Scottish executive with a chance to introduce a better regime as quickly as possible. Waiting until the Parliament and the executive are in place might, given other priorities, have meant a year's unnecessary delay. I believe that the proposals will not pre-empt the Scottish Parliament. I do not believe that they are in any way patronising. The legislation will provide the Scottish executive with the option to introduce the new system, but it will not be bound to do so.
The proposed changes to the arrangements for the consultative committees contained in Amendments Nos. 29 to 33 appear to be motivated by concern that customer representation in the new regulatory system needs to be strengthened. I shall try to demonstrate that this concern is misplaced and that consequently the amendments are unnecessary and run the risk of undermining what we believe is a coherent system.
I shall preface my remarks on individual amendments with a few general comments about the new system and how customers are already at its heart. Concern about the strength of customer representation appears to be based on the assumption that the commissioner will be required to strike a balance between the interests of water consumers on the one hand and those of the water authorities on the other. However, there is no question of the commissioner having to perform any such balancing act. Clause 12 places on the commissioner the general function of promoting the interests of the water authorities' customers. That function is not qualified by a requirement to balance the customers' interests against those of the authorities. That reflects the fact that the Scottish water authorities remain in public ownership and control. As such they do not, and should not, have any interests of their own that might be at odds with those of their customers, the public. Unlike privately owned companies, they have no shareholders' interests to be considered. So in such circumstances the commissioner's only concern is to ensure that the customer gets the best possible deal, quality of service and price.
I now turn to the individual amendments. Changing the name of the consultative committee, which is what will happen under Amendment No. 29, if that is accepted, could have the effect of undermining the integrity of the approach adopted in the Bill.
The Bill is quite clear that it is the commissioner who has the function of promoting the interests of customers. The role of the committees is to support the commissioner in that task. The committees are not intended to be separate consumer bodies posing as independent voices of the customer. Therefore, the title given to them in the Bill is an accurate description of their intended role.
The alternative title suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, would not be helpful in that it could lead to confusion about the role of the committees and could even result in the commissioner's role being undermined. We do not believe that would be in the interests of customers. Moreover, it would be misleading and unhelpful if the committees were to be given a title which suggested a role for them, which in fact does not exist.
As regards Amendment No. 30 and the proposal for independent chairmen, the Bill deliberately provides for the commissioner to chair each of the three consultative committees. There are several reasons for this. First, the committees need to have a good working relationship with the commissioner if their views are to carry proper weight with him or her. Making the commissioner chairman will help to achieve that. Secondly, it will ensure that the commissioner gets direct exposure to the issues that come before the committees. Finally, given the commissioner's central role in the system, the committees' standing and authority are likely to be greater under his or her chairmanship. Those benefits would be lost were the amendment to be carried. Perhaps more significantly, however, the amendment would pose a risk to the effectiveness of the new system. Let me repeat: the commissioner is the central figure in the system. We do not intend that the committees should act independently of the commissioner.
Separate chairmen would run the risk of the committees attempting to expand their role beyond that provided for in the Bill. Were they to do so, the clarity of the system would be lost and the commissioner's position within it undermined. That would not be in the customers' interest.
The Bill defines clear roles for the commissioner and the committees in the interests of the customers. It is important for these roles that the relationship of the committees to the commissioner is clear. We believe that having the commissioner as chairman will help to achieve that.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, argued for an increase in the membership of the consultative committees. Setting the size of bodies such as the consultative committees is a matter of striking the right balance. A body whose membership is too small is unlikely to contain the necessary experience or spread of interests
There is a further point. The committees are there to form a view on the interests of all the water authorities' customers--that is to say, non-domestic customers, large and small, as well as domestic customers. It would not be feasible for every category of customer to have its own representation on the committees. That would need a much larger membership than is being proposed in the amendment. Instead, the Government's intention is that the members should try to take a view of the interests of the whole range of customers. What we are keen to avoid is the position where, for example, a committee member from a rural area sees his or her duty as simply advising on the interests of other rural customers.
I do not believe that increasing the membership of the committees by two or three is likely to result in more effective expression of customers' views. It is, however, likely to make the committees more unwieldy.
Finally, I am grateful for the opportunity which this amendment gives me to explain the position of the consultative committees holding meetings in public. This is an issue on which Scottish Ministers may wish to give guidance to the commissioner. We fully expect that they will wish to be consistent with the present Government's position on meetings held by public bodies. Broadly speaking, this means that we would expect most, if not all, meetings to be held in public. Clearly, there are occasions when sensitive matters, for example, relating to named individuals or commercial confidences, need to be considered in private. But these should be relatively rare occurrences, particularly in bodies whose purpose is to determine and then advise on issues that concern the public.
In conclusion, I hope that I have demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Committee that the arrangements for the consultative committees contained in the Bill provide a coherent and consistent means of protecting the customers' interests. Further, I hope that I have persuaded the Committee that the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, might weaken these arrangements to the detriment of the customer. Accordingly, I hope that the Committee and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, will be content for this amendment to be withdrawn.
Baroness Hamwee: Before the noble Lord responds, perhaps I may press the Minister for a moment on his comments that a committee of 11 plus a chairman is unwieldy. I am sure that the Minister has far more experience than I of chairing committees. Twelve committee members does not strike one as an unmanageably large number, particularly when one must assume that occasionally one or two people will be absent. I agree that it is important to have the right size of committee so that there can be a wide-ranging debate but a conclusion can be reached, and ensuring that a large group does not spend all day expressing a great many individual views. While I entirely take that
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