|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 425fairness across the board. The Minister must not load the committees with Tory mouthpieces, but that will happen if we are not careful. I hope that he takes on board what is being said and especially what I am saying. I shall probably have more to say later during the evening or the morning, but I want the Minister to understand quite clearly that I am speaking on behalf of the people that I represent. They want a fair crack of the whip for the consumer. I hope that the Minister will come across and give us what we are looking for because he did not do that upstairs.
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart) : It is necessary to say a word or two about the Scottish consultative committees and the consumer committees that will be established by the Bill. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has said, there is a marginally different situation in the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. That board and the new company will have a geographical area that is larger in terms of length but not in terms of population than from the north of England to Land's End. It will extend from Campbeltown in the south, which is almost, but not quite, the most southerly point in Scotland--some people might say that it is almost in Northern Ireland--right up to the most northerly house connected to the electricity supply in Unst, in Shetland.
That is an enormous geographical spread and places on the Government a responsibility, which so far they have not met, to ensure that that geographical distance is properly represented on the committee. The two amendments make some effort to achieve that. Any committee will have a difficult job to do better than the present North of Scotland Consultative Council, which I believe is the best of the councils at advising us about the needs of its area. The briefings from that council have been first- class.
The new consumers' committees must properly represent an area's consumers. The committee members should not be appointed as a result of their political interests or because of any connections with the electricity supply industry. In Scotland we have the advantage because the Government are rapidly running out of Tories to put on those committees in Scotland. The Government are trying desperately, but there are not many Tories left there and the few that are left are easily recognisable. We have no great problem in saying that such and such is a political appointment because that person is a Tory. In fact, there is a joke about the man in a paper hat who is the only Tory left in Scotland.
The consumers' committees in Scotland must represent the consumers. I would prefer it if there were legal constraints on the consumers' committees under the director to ensure that local committees are appointed in each of the areas covered by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board to ensure local representation.
Even if the committees have proper representation, the committee members will have problems meeting regularly. It will be extremely difficult for anyone appointed to the committees to travel from Campbeltown to Perth or Inverness or from Unst to Inverness. The Minister must assure us that there will be no political appointments to the committees and that people will not be appointed because they have connections with the electricity supply industry. The committee members should be genuine consumers
Column 426who know more about an area and its problems than about electricity supply. I hope that the Minister will respond to my points.
Mr. Michael Spicer : Clause 2 provides for consumers' committees to be attached to each public electricity supplier in the United Kingdom. That will ensure that the regional dimension, as set out in the amendments is achieved. In response to the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), I can state that that includes the north of Scotland dimension which will have its own consumers' committee.
We are not in favour of providing for special pre-defined interest groups, regional or otherwise. In future, we want to see the appointment of people who, if possible, know something about the electricity industry, and that is defined in clause 2(4). That answers points raised by the hon. Members for Cathcart, for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). The members of the committee will be appointed by the director.
I cannot promise that there will be no Conservatives on the committees. There are so many Conservatives these days and there will be more and more in Scotland. The director will have a very large catchment area to choose from and I am sure that there will be many Conservatives on those committees. However, I assure the House that the appointments will be made by the independent director and not by the Government. That is a major new feature of the Bill and I am happy to give that assurance. We have placed the whole process more at arm's length from the Government. [Interruption.] I can see that many Opposition Members would like to intervene. Let us have a little fun ; I will give way to the hon. Member for Ashfield.
I want to know whether the Minister or the Department will have any influence on the director, as to who serves on the committees. If one looks at other such bodies, one finds that the Government always have their grubby hands on appointments.
Mr. Spicer : I happily give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer to his fair question. Committee chairmen will be appointed with the consent of the Secretary of State, but committee members will be appointed by the directors. The general membership of the committees will be independently appointed. I am pleased to give the House that assurance. The hon. Members for Wentworth and for Cathcart made an important point that the Government completely concede, which is that appointments to the committees should be made more independent and further removed from the Government. We agree completely, and that is why we are changing the Bill.
Mr. Wallace : The Minister responded to the points made by myself and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) by saying that at least the North of Scotland board will have a committee attached to it. Will he confirm that as the Bill stands, the membership of the committee, comprising between 10 and 20 persons, could all come from Glasgow--outwith the area served by
Column 427the board? Far from different parts of a vast area being represented, it is theoretically possible that not one geographical area under the board's control will be represented.
Mr. Spicer : No doubt that is theoretically possible. We are saying not that we want specialist groups predetermined, but that the sort of people who will represent consumer interests should be a matter for the director within the terms of the Bill. If there is such a difference between the characteristics of areas as the hon. Gentleman suggests, it would make sense, in providing proper consumer representation, to take geographical interests into account. However, we do not want to make that a statutory obligation. Somebody must appoint the members of the committee.
Mr. Spicer : That is the way that the hon. Gentleman chooses to put it, but I suggest that he has a word with the hon. Members for Wentworth and for Cathcart. Although they represent different parties, they made a strong point. In response, I gave an assurance that there will not be political involvement in appointments, but that they will be the responsibility of the independent director. I believe that that meets the general view of the House that such an arrangement is a good thing.
The reason why, in future, consumers' committees will be an integral part of the regulatory process is clear, and it is one about which we feel strongly. I say in response to the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) that one of the radical reforms introduced in the Bill is that there will no longer be merely lobbying organisations shouting their views from outside the industry--on a previous occasion, I used the phrase "from the touchline"--which is largely how the existing consumer committees operate. Under the new arrangements, they will be part of the regulatory body.
In that way, we are enormously strengthening the effectiveness of consumer representatives' involvement in the industry's development. I remind the House that the Electricity Consumers Council thoroughly approves of that new arrangement. It is a radical and great improvement in the involvement of consumer representatives in the affairs of a large industry. I hope that the House welcomes the new structure and accepts the points that I have made. Therefore, I hope that the amendment is withdrawn.
Mr. Barron : The amendment cannot and will not be withdrawn. The Minister continues to fall into the trap that he fell into in Committee. He regards regulation and consumerism as the same thing. That is not the case. I have put not only my arguments but those of consumer organisations which, for many decades, have attempted to represent consumers' interests. They say that the proposed structure of the consumers' committees is not necessarily right. It was said in Committee--I will not say that the Minister said it--that anybody who receives electricity is an electricity consumer. I argued that the chairman of an electricity board receives electricity and is an electricity consumer. But his idea of electricity and the consumption of electricity is different from that of his neighbour up the
Column 428road who also receives electricity, uses it as a domestic consumer, and pays a quarterly bill. He has a different outlook on the electricity industry.
Mr. Barron : Independent consumer bodies are not in a position to be the turkeys who vote for Christmas. Opposition Members would sooner listen to the people who, week in and week out, month in and month out, and year in and year out, have represented people who wanted help and have found the electricity supply industry lacking. We will debate that matter when we talk about fuel poverty. Those people have encountered the problems of consumers within the electricity supply industry. Opposition Members are not happy with the situation.
Once again, as he did in Committee, the Minister has dismissed the issue and said that those who are involved in regulation are therefore involved in the interests of consumers. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) is present. After he made his 20-minute speech, I said that I would refer to him later. Because of his presence on this occasion, I will put the amendment to the vote to see whether hon. Members are in favour of consumers' rights.
Question put, That the amendment be made :
The House divided : Ayes 71, Noes 174.
Division No. 144] [9.52 pm
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Golding, Mrs Llin
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Home Robertson, John
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Johnston, Sir Russell
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Mo n)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Macdonald, Calum A.
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Pike, Peter L.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Robert N. Wareing and
Mr. Allen McKay.
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)