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Column 422

Morrison, Sir Charles

Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester)

Moss, Malcolm

Mudd, David

Neale, Gerrard

Needham, Richard

Nelson, Anthony

Neubert, Michael

Nicholls, Patrick

Nicholson, David (Taunton)

Norris, Steve

Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley

Oppenheim, Phillip

Page, Richard

Paice, James

Patnick, Irvine

Patten, Chris (Bath)

Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey

Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth

Porter, David (Waveney)

Powell, William (Corby)

Rathbone, Tim

Redwood, John

Riddick, Graham

Ridsdale, Sir Julian

Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm

Roe, Mrs Marion

Rost, Peter

Rumbold, Mrs Angela

Ryder, Richard

Sackville, Hon Tom

Sainsbury, Hon Tim

Shaw, David (Dover)

Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)

Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')

Shelton, Sir William

Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)

Shersby, Michael

Sims, Roger

Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)

Soames, Hon Nicholas

Speller, Tony

Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)

Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)

Squire, Robin

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Stern, Michael

Stevens, Lewis

Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)

Stradling Thomas, Sir John

Sumberg, David

Summerson, Hugo

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, John M (Solihull)

Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Thurnham, Peter

Tracey, Richard

Tredinnick, David

Trippier, David

Trotter, Neville

Twinn, Dr Ian

Waddington, Rt Hon David

Waller, Gary

Ward, John

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Warren, Kenneth

Watts, John

Wheeler, John

Widdecombe, Ann

Wilkinson, John

Wilshire, David

Wood, Timothy

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Sydney Chapman and

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 2

Consumers' Committees

Mr. Barron : I beg to move amendment No. 121, in page 2, line 23, after "shall", insert

"seek to ensure that the committee is representative of local consumer interests and geographical areas and shall".

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 114, in page 2, line 25, at end insert

"The Scottish Committees shall include a representative of each island and regional authority.".

Mr. Barron : We had quite a lengthy debate in Committee on this matter, and this is a further attempt to ensure that the members of the consumer committees are really representative of the interests of local consumers. During the debate in Committee, the Minister showed a lack of understanding of exactly what concerns people who represent the interests of consumers. I quoted to him a brief that had been given, as I understand it, to all hon. Members by the Consumers Association, a respected body which has worked for many years promoting the interests and rights of consumers. It commented directly on the wording and on the likely operation of the clause : "We do not agree with the desirability of appointing a person who has experience of, and has shown capacity in, matters relevant to the provision of electrical services'"--

that is the wording that we, too, should like to change with this amendment --

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"Part 1 Clause 2 Subsection 4. This is a recipe for ensuring that the committees are captured' by the industries they are meant to be supervising."

Opposition Members, having been through the Bill in Committee, have little confidence that the vested interests of the electricity supply industry will be removed by clause 2 if it is left unamended. Indeed, in Committee the Minister said :

"we see the committees not like such bodies in the past, which have stood on the touchline of the regulatory process, but as an integrated part of that process with well-defined roles."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee E, 12 January 1989 ; c. 122.]

9.30 pm

We believe that, in a general sense, the committees may be far too integrated if their members do not directly represent consumer interests. Consumer interests are not necessarily the interests of the electricity supply industry. We are anxious, therefore, that the committees should not be dominated by the industry's needs or the regulator's demands. Regulations and consumer advocacy are not the same and we must ensure that the committees are vigorously independent. We tried throughout to get financial independence for these committees so that they would have their own offices in the different areas. On each occasion we failed and were not backed by the Minister. So we return to say to him that we are unhappy with the make-up of the consumer committees. What he asks for in the clause is not necessarily in the interest of the consumer.

We hope that the Minister has taken the opportunity in the few short weeks since we left clause 2 in Committee to look in greater detail at the issue. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. This looks a bit wider than the earlier debate and we hope that the Bill will be amended so that it, too, will be a bit wider than what we have in front of us.

Mr. Wallace : Amendment No. 114 is in my name and the names of my hon. Friends. In many respects, albeit in a Scottish context, it seeks to do much the same as the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron).

The composition of the proposed committees requires the director to have regard to people who have experience of the provision of electricity supply services. This seems to be a very odd requirement considering that the committees, one assumes, are to represent the interests of consumers. While some passing knowledge is obviously required, many consumers do not have the first idea how their electricity supply gets to them but have far more than a passing interest in having a regular, secure supply. These are the people whose interests the consumers' committees should be protecting. If one looks at the responsibility and functions of consumers' committees, one finds, in clause 47, that they have, among other responsibilities, a duty to keep under review matters affecting the interests of consumers of electricity supplied to premises in the committee's areas. My constituency is in the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board area. It is a vast area and my constituency is itself quite vast, with particular problems that apply to islands areas. For a start, Shetland is not connected to the national grid. Its main electricity supply comes from a diesel-generated power station in Lerwick. It has in places such as Fair Isle a unique form of supply which is dependent on wind power--and all credit to the

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hydro-electric board that it has set this up. But there are very particular problems relating to an area with particular needs. Our reasonable request is that people from each geographical area--we have defined that in terms of local authority areas, because that is a neat way of doing it--should be on the consumers' committees. It is only people from specific areas who have first-hand experience of circumstances and conditions in different parts of the country and who know what the needs of these areas are.

These are very modest proposals and if the Government accepted the amendments it would show that they are genuinely interested in the rights and interests of the consumers. I do not see that there is anything fundamental at stake with regard to the overall strategy of the Bill. By conceding the amendments they would prove that they have the interests of consumers at heart and I hope that the Minister will give us a positive response.

Mr. Hardy : I shall be brief. I want to say a word or two in criticism of the "one of us" syndrome which is far too prevalent today in British political life. I am not at all happy about many of the appointments made by the Government. I recall not very long ago pursuing a regional aid case in my constituency. It was referred to the Department of Trade and Industry's advisory committee which found against my constituency proposal. Then I discovered that a significant proportion of the people involved had no connection with my region. I had to advise some constituents in fair rent cases not to appeal because I discovered that a rent tribunal was excessively representative of families of estate agents and solicitors, most of whom may well have been politically sensitive and acceptable to Treasury Ministers.

We have seen the proliferation of Government sympathisers in the health authorities and a tremendous decline in the number of appointments of people who do not share the ideology that is currently fashionable in the Government. I am not restricting my criticism to matters that affect only Opposition Members because some matters would not be acceptable to those who control the destiny of this nation.

We need to have an assurance from Ministers that the principal qualifications of those required to serve on consumer committees is not just the knowledge of what one does with an electric light switch, possession of a Conservative party card and adherence to the currently popular fashion in the Conservative party. I hope that the interests of the consumer will be well served and that they will receive priority over the interests of the political party in power.

Mr. Haynes : I remember the debate in Committee on this matter and on that occasion we were not at all satisfied. That is why we have come back to the issue. We are looking for satisfaction in this debate. The Government brag that the Bill is in the interests of the consumer. If that is the case, why does not the Minister cough up? We are asking him straightforwardly for proper representation for the consumer on these bodies. [Interruption.] I wish that he would not speak to his Parliamentary Private Secretary while I am trying to make an important point. If the Minister's ears were a bit larger, he might hear what was being said.

We are looking for fairness for the consumer. We do not want the committees loaded with Tories. We want

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