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Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I am greatly impressed by the Minister's modesty about his wife, who was a very distinguished chairman. I do not think that anyone has yet paid tribute to the outgoing gas and electricity consumer councils, which have been blessed with very special leadership. I am very grateful to both of them.
I am suspicious of professional consumers. Ordinary consumers know best and I am concerned that they should have access. Their views as consumers, rather than as professionals, should be taken into account. Their access should be given due consideration.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful for that intervention. The chairmen of the existing consumer councils are still in post. I am sure that it will be appropriate to pay tribute to their services when their term of office comes to an end.
I take the noble Baroness's point about the direct representation of consumers rather than professional representatives. I am sure that Ann Robinson will pay attention to that. Perhaps the noble Baroness would like to take part in the consultation. She is well qualified to express her views.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I should like to raise one issue that arises from the Minister's answer. I am grateful to him for including me in the circulation of the Parliamentary Answer that he mentioned, which said where the offices will be set up around the country. As I understand it, one of the offices is to be in Cardiff. The natural assumption is that it will cover only Wales. Concern has been expressed that it might serve a wider area. Is that the case?
Lord Ezra: My Lords, as the Minister said, the purpose of the amendment was to elicit information. I am most obliged to him for the information that he has provided, particularly on adequate lay membership of the councils. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Clause 20 requires the council to publish statistical information about customer complaints, including those made directly to licence holders or anyone carrying on activity on their behalf. It will be difficult for the council to achieve accurate, consistent and comparable counts of complaints received by companies, particularly telephone complaints, as there is ample scope for legitimate differences of interpretation on what constitutes an inquiry or a request for action or information and what might be regarded as a complaint.
For example, does the first call that a consumer makes to an electricity company advising that the power has failed constitute a complaint? If the consumer called back after four hours to say that nothing had been done, that would be a complaint, but what if they called back after 10 minutes? The amendment would restrict the obligation to the publication and analysis of complaints received by the authority and the council, as that will provide the only robust and equitable means of comparison of the customer service performance of different companies. I beg to move.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, I find the amendment unhelpful. It would deprive consumers of statistical information about a small number--or perhaps even a large number--of consumer complaints. The consumer council which will come into existence will no doubt receive many complaints and will have its own ways of devising what is a complaint and what are the differences between a complaint on the one hand and a request for information on the other. But electricity and gas suppliers and distributors will also have their own ways of doing that. If they need guidance, no doubt the new consumer council can give them guidance in order to achieve across the country some measure of accord on how to distinguish consumer complaints from requests for information.
However, if you cut out of the statistics complaints that have gone to the electricity distributor or supplier and not to the consumer council, then we in this House, the general public and consumers generally will have a deficient and defective piece of information as regards how many complaints, and the details and types of complaints and so on, are being made.
I recognise the difficulty which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has mentioned but it seems to me a difficulty of distinguishing between complaints and information which can be resolved by agreement between the companies and with guidance from the consumer council.
Lord Renton: My Lords, up to a point, one must acknowledge that the public, as the noble Lord said, should have the right to make complaints. But surely it is necessary for us to consider to whom the complaint
It may be that the answer is for the Bill to be amended on Third Reading to ensure that if complaints are not made directly to the council but must be registered by the council, the people to whom the complaints are made should have a duty to report them to the council. Therefore, I believe that my noble friend has done a valuable service in drawing attention to this problem. It may well be that between now and Third Reading, the Government should reconsider the whole question.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, Clause 20 places the new consumer council under a duty to publish statistical information about complaints made by consumers against certain consumer-facing utility companies. I say immediately that the Bill provides what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, seeks; namely, that in order to collect those statistics and to publish that statistical information, the council has a right to demand information from the consumer-facing utility companies. So no amendment will be necessary on Third Reading.
As with the other provisions of Clause 20, the intention is to give the council the role of providing information that consumers need to make informed decisions about their gas and electricity suppliers. It is also intended to provide a spur to companies to maintain and improve levels of performance.
For the purposes of the duty to publish complaints statistics, the term "complaints" is defined to include complaints made to the companies concerned. The amendment would specifically remove that part of "complaints". I accept that to demand that information from the companies would put pressure on them to improve their performance. That is why we have included such complaints within the scope of this duty. But just because a restricted disclosure of complaints statistics would go part way towards helping consumers to form judgments is no reason to deprive consumers of the full picture. I believe that excluding complaints made direct to companies would seriously reduce the effectiveness of the provisions of Clause 20.
I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, will agree that the whole pattern of consumer protection means that the complaints are made first to the company of which the complaint is made, whether it is a gas, electricity or bus company. You try to get the company to put it right first before you go to the consumer council.
As to how those complaints are registered, which appears to be the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, there are innumerable examples in both the private and public sectors of distinguishing between complaints which should be registered and which should go on to be recorded as evidence of poor performance and those which are simply routine. When a phone call comes in, you do not immediately say, "Is it an inquiry or a complaint?" You register who is making the call, the time of the call, whether a call has been made before and what the call is about. In other words, it is analysed. As a market research consultant, I have taken part in providing an analysis form which enables people who want to register customer complaints, whether in the private or public sector, to do so effectively.
It is not easy to do that, but it is certainly not impossible. To cut it out altogether would really be to take away a very important role of the consumer council, which is to provide a complete analysis of the interface between electricity and gas companies and their customers. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, will not press the amendment.
Lord Renton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he will elaborate on what he said. I accept that complaints made to the various companies which he has mentioned should be borne in mind. But is it really fair on the council to have to register complaints if the companies are under no obligation to report them to the council?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, companies are under an obligation to report them and they are under an obligation to report them in the form which the council requires.
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