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Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) on choosing this subject and on winning the first opportunity to present a Bill. Many hon. Members do not have such an opportunity throughout their careers. He has used his opportunity wisely, and I hope that both Conservative and Opposition Members acknowledge it.
As sponsor of the Bill, the hon. Gentleman has had support from both Conservative and Opposition Members, including that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, and that of other members of my party. [ Hon. Members :-- "Where is he?"] I understand that my right hon. Friend has gone to see the storm damage in his village, where several roofs have been destroyed and properties have been wrecked. As we are discussing the difficulties that people have in their day-to-day lives, hon. Members should acknowledge the need for him to do that.
Column 1181Bristol, and I hope to go down there later this afternoon to see it. Why does the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party require special privileges?
Mr. Taylor : The hon. Gentleman treads a risky line, in view of the few Front-Bench members of his own party who are present. However, we should not waste time on politicking when discussing a subject such as this.
Some hon. Members--I understand that the Minister is among them--may seek to oppose the Bill and prevent it from continuing through the House. If so, it is much to be regretted. Both Conservative and Opposition Members should recognise the great popular support for a measure such as this. The representations that have been made and opinion polls that have been undertaken have already been mentioned. Perhaps more importantly, any hon. Member will have been approached by constituents who complain about the service that they received from manufacturers. People complain because they expect the standard of service that is written into this Bill to be provided automatically. They do not believe that they should have to fight for it. Yet all too often it is not provided.
The Bill is not about creating added bureaucracy but about responding to the natural and proper expectations of all consumers when they purchase goods for a considerable sum. They expect good service over a considerable period.
I do not claim that the Bill is correct in every detail. That is a matter to be taken up in Committee. If problems cannot be resolved, the House will have a chance on Third Reading to sum up the results of the Committee. If it does not like the Committee's results, it can reject the Bill then. However, at this stage we must acknowledge that if an individual walks into a shop or on to a garage forecourt and parts with a large sum of money for goods which are designed to perform a specific purpose for a long period and to a good standard, he should expect some rights if they do not do so.
The Bill is a modest interpretation of what people naturally expect from manufacturers. In some ways, it is too modest. It is modest because its sponsors intended it to complete its passage through the House, and acknowledge that not all hon. Members see the position in the same way.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) : The hon. Gentleman said that everyone who goes into a shop or on to a garage forecourt should have rights. Is he not aware that they already have rights? It is one thing to say that people's rights are not strong enough, but let us not pretend that they have no rights.
Mr. Taylor : I do not pretend that people have no rights, but people do not have the rights that they properly expect when they purchase high- cost goods. We should acknowledge that, because at some time we have all worked with constituents who come to us about defective goods. We find that we cannot help them because they do not have the rights that we, too, assume they have.
It has been suggested that the Bill will affect the competitiveness of British industry, increase costs and impose a burden on industry. I believe that the contrary is true. First, many manufacturers already sell precisely the goods affected by the Bill in countries which already
Column 1182demand consumer guarantees. In the United States, the demands made on manufacturers are stronger than those contained in the Bill. Secondly, if the Japanese lesson has taught us anything, surely it is that guaranteed and perceived quality sell products. Sometimes they may sell products that are otherwise less desirable than goods which do not have perceived quality. If we impose this burden--as the Minister may like to call it--on British industry, we shall find that it benefits directly, as firms tighten up their quality. That will be recognised in markets around the world and British competitiveness will be increased.
I see no reason why the Minister and the Department of Trade and Industry should oppose the Bill or seek to delay it. I hope that the Minister will give that his backing and allow it to go into Committee, perhaps to be amended, and eventually to reach the statute book. If he does not give his support, he does not deserve the title of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State responsible for consumer affairs.
From the outset, I have supported the principle of the Bill, but I have some reservations about its detail. The purpose of all law is to regulate relationships between individuals. The purpose of justice is to ensure that such relationships are regulated fairly and equitably. The law of contract is particularly important in this respect. It often has to take account of the unequal bargaining positions of parties to a contract. Over the years, contract law has developed through case law. While that has been a good indicator of the problems which come before the courts, it is not always the best way of ensuring that justice is given to individuals.
One recognises the creative judgments of judges such as Lord Denning in deciding how best to interpret contractual terms when they seek to exclude, exempt or limit the rights of a party to a contract. However, from time to time, elements of case law have to be codified into a form of legislation. The Sale of Goods Act 1893 and subsequently the Sale of Goods (Implied Terms) Act 1973, the Sale of Goods Act 1979, and the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 were all attempts to strike a fair balance between the consumer or purchaser and the manufacturer, or retailer.
Often manufacturers avoid their clear obligation to the ultimate purchaser by sheltering behind the protection of the law of contract and saying that there is no contract between the manufacturer and the ultimate user, the purchaser. They say that any redress should be through the retailer. In strict law, that is right. Fortunately, the law of tort came to the aid of the law of contract and expanded the idea that anyone who manufactures anything has a duty of care towards the ultimate user. Contract and tort, and statute law are coming closer together.
The Bill does a great deal to assist consumers in the problem that I have described and to give additional support to otherwise defenceless consumers in the face of a monolithic and all-powerful manufacturer or supplier. I am sure that we have all had personal experience of buying defective goods and corresponding with the manufacturer
Column 1183who tells us that our duty or claim lies against the retailer, but if we go to the retailer, he says that the liability lies with the manufacturer. In such circumstances, when even we who are perhaps more articulate and who have the ability to write such letters are often given the runaround, how much more is that the case for those who do not have the opportunity to make such representations? It is sad that the word "guarantee" has been misued over the years by many manufacturers. People have innocently felt that, if they signed their name at the bottom of the printed form and sent it off to the manufacturer, they would be protecting their rights, whereas in the past they have often been doing precisely the reverse, limiting or excluding the rights that they might otherwise have had. Therefore, the idea that there should be a "no consumer guarantee" statement on goods, a "consumer guarantee" or a "consumer guarantee plus" statement is a good thing.
I have long advocated that, if a manufacturer or supplier or attaches something in gothic letters that says "guarantee" at the top of the piece of paper, written underneath should be the clear words, "It is the large print which giveth, but the small print which taketh away." That would make it quite clear to anybody purchasing the goods that they do not have any clear rights and that they should make sure that they know what is in the small print.
I know that this morning many hon. Members themselves will be looking at the small print on their insurance policies and that this weekend they will be assisting their constituents to ascertain whether they are covered for any damage that they may have suffered as a result of yesterday's storms. It is therefore apposite that we should discuss this subject this morning.
In giving the Bill my broad support, I must strike a warning note about the difficulty of including words of absolute meaning or of being absolutely precise about how many days, in any one year--two, four or 21, for example, --are allowed for the rectification of a fault.
The law of contract, which regulates relationships between suppliers and consumers, is a subtle instrument and has relied in the past on the use of words such as "reasonable". Although the word "reasonable" does not admit of any precise definition, in isolation it is readily recognised by the majority of people who use the word in a given context, not only by lawyers but also by laymen. We all recognise reasonable and unreasonable behaviour. The difficulty lies in defining where the line should be drawn between the two in grey areas. That has been the problem faced by the courts in the past and, indeed, those are the cases that come to court for a decision. Laying down in absolute terms the precise number of days that should be allowed for the rectification of a fault has its own inherent problems, but I do not find that point entirely damaging to the concept of the Bill.
In the circumstances it is important that we give the Bill a fair hearing in Committee so that we can discuss these issues and decide what is meant by a "complaint" and whether an oral statement to a mechanic is sufficient to constitute a "complaint" to the manufacturer. These are matters of more precise definition than the Bill at present allows. Therefore, while commending the Bill to the House in principle, I sound that warning note about the precise details.
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Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : I rise to support the Bill, which is not particularly revolutionary. The duty of legislation to create conditions so that a trustworthy market can operate for the benefit of the consumer has a long and honourable tradition. In its statutory form, we think especially of the Sale of Goods Act 1893, but before that common law gave many rights to consumers which were then codified in that Act. The legislation on weights and measures is an example of the way in which the market was forced to operate fairly and where intervention was required.
I have absolutely no doubt that setting standards so that the market can operate in that way is good for business. I agree with the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) on that point. I have experience not only of practising at the Bar and having to advise clients and appear in court on matters of this kind many years ago, but also as the director of a family caravan business that was originally involved in residential caravan parks and in the sale of caravans and motor homes. Therefore, I know what it is like from both sides. We used to operate residential caravan park homes before 1975 when the private Member's Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) sought to protect the rights of those occupying mobile homes. Before that measure, there was little legislation to give the consumer rights in that market. As my late father founded the business in 1930, we had been in the business for a long time and welcomed the Act when it was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater.
That Act set standards in the market place and raised the reputation of those who operated proper parks. Its provisions tallied completely with the way in which we had operated our parks for many years, although the cowboys involved in the business had been getting away with giving us all a bad reputation. Such legislation can be good for business because, just as weights and measures are regulated, we can ensure that the marketplace operates correctly.
The Bill will also clear away some of the archaic language that has been attached to this sphere of consumer interest. I refer to terms such as "merchantable quality" which are well--or at least half well--understood by lawyers and which have been well interpreted over the years to keep pace with the changes in consumer law and consumer expectations. However, they have remained somewhat arcane to members of the public, who increasingly want to be aware of their rights but who are not necessarily aware of the definition of "merchantable quality". Its meaning is fit for sale, fit for its purpose or for its ordinary use. In ordinary English that means "of satisfactory quality", which is precisely what the Bill aims to establish. I have not been too depressed by thinking about how my hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs will react to this legislation. To give myself some encouragement, I did not consult The Times or The Daily Telegraph , to which the hon. Member for Clwyd South-West (Mr. Jones) referred but looked in Andrew Roth's "Parliamentary Profiles" to see whether there was anything there that could give me hope. I passed over the description of my hon. Friend as an
"anti-interventionist" and as "The Boris Karloff of the House" and the phrase
Column 1185that he "grins like a rattlesnake". I did not think that those features would be particularly helpful to the future of the Bill. However, I noticed that it is reported that, in October 1986, on his return from the United States of America, my hon. Friend acclaimed its "customer is always right" philosophy.
As has been said, guarantees in the United States of America last longer than one year, faults are put right quickly and salesmen are sometimes criticised for being too eager and too keen to get in touch with the customer after the sale to make sure that everything is all right. The United States recognises that the customer is always right, and having see what happens in the United States my hon. Friend the Minister was converted to that view. That country is right to do so, because it is good for business and the future. It ensures that the free market, free enterprise and capitalism have the best of the argument whenever they are under threat.
Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend has slightly misunderstood what was in my mind at the time. I indeed raise to the highest level the importance of the relationship between the customer or consumer and the supplier and the marketplace. However, I slightly object to and have reservations about interposing the lawyer between them. Our American friends have gone farther down that route, and I hope that we shall resist that.
Mr. Martin : I entirely accept what my hon. Friend has said. However, the law comes very much into this at the moment and has done for many years, especially since 1893 and the interpretations of the various Acts that followed the Sale of Goods Act. History is encrusted with the examples of lawyers. I made a very good living myself from interpreting the law in this area when I practised at the Bar. However, I believe that the Bill will simplify the existing law and make lawyers less able to make money out of the unfortunate experiences of consumers in the particular market to which it is directed.
According to a report in The Independent in May 1989, my hon. Friend the Minister is reported as saying that intervention is seldom needed to protect well-informed, intelligent, educated consumers. Of course I agree with that. I do not know whether it applies to all hon. Members, but I certainly put my hon. Friend the Minister in the category of well-informed, intelligent and educated consumer. However, the Bill is not needed to protect that category of people. I recently bought a compact disc player at my local Dixons' store. Unfortunately, it will not be covered by the Bill, but, in Committee, hon. Members can examine categories and see whether hi- fi equipment could be included. I took it home, and it did not work, so I rang Dixons' and said, "Your CD player does not work." I was the intelligent, well-informed, educated consumer whom the Minister accepts does not need protection. I was told that to investigate the matter, I would have to pay a £10 call-out fee. I said, "But it's new--I have just bought it. I do not have time to go back to your store today." Dixons' insisted that I would still have to pay the fee. I said, "I am not going to pay it."
I took the CD player back next week. All hon. Members have constituency duties, and I could not get back to the store for another week. When I could, I took
Column 1186the CD player back and saw the manager. I made a tremendous fuss. I said, "If you like, I will shout out in the store that this CD player is not working. I am going to go away with a new one in my hand." I gloss over the fact that the CD player had gone through their repair department, and the form was ticked to state that there was no fault in it. I got a new CD player, and it works very well, Madam Deputy Speaker. I had to go through all that. I have no doubt that few people will go to those lengths.
Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West) : My hon. Friend has been through an awful procedure. No doubt many hon. Members have also been through it. My hon. Friend was aware of his rights under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, pointed that out to the manager, and got his way. Of course, any other consumer could have done that, too. How will the Bill help that problem? I do not think that it will. My hon. Friend has addressed the fundamental problem, but I do not know how the Bill will help.
Mr. Martin : The Bill makes a manufacturer liable for the standard of goods that he produces, and it marks a much clearer line of responsibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) said, manufacturers will not be able to say that it is the retailer's responsibility, and a retailer will not be able to say that it is the manufacturer's responsibility, particularly if one is involved in correspondence, rather than doing what I did, which is self-help. One can say, "Regardless of my rights, I have something that does not work. I want it changed." If my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples) reads the detail of the Bill, he will see that it improves consumers' rights to redress in a more indirect way than the method I used.
Mr. Stern : My hon. Friend has described an incident that has happened to many people. He referred to a portable appliance. I accept that we could deal with this point in Committee, but, as presently drafted, the Bill appears to be silent about items that are not transportable. Some years ago, I bought a computer desk which collapsed after a few weeks, and I literally had to throw it away. Although the manufacturer was quite happy to accept responsibility, he did not have the ability to come to my house and pick up the pieces, nor did I have the ability to transport them. If I had had to pay for a van to take the pieces back to the shop, it would have amounted to more than the cost of the desk anyway.
Only 14 per cent. of our people stay at school beyond the age of 16. We do not always create laws for those who are as well-informed, intelligent and dedicated as ourselves. I do not wish to be patronising, but it is a fact also that people are shy and do not wish to press their rights. Very often, they are ignorant of their rights.
The best firms already carry out procedures of this kind. The Bill will codify the best practice. I speak with experience in the law and in business. Someone is just as much a cheat if he sells shoddy goods as new and then argues the toss about putting them right as he would be if he sold underweight goods or short measures of booze. In
Column 1187Committee hon. Members will be able to clear up many problems. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give the Bill a fair wind.
Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : I join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones). I am honoured to be a co-sponsor of the Bill. Consequently, my remarks will be in support of it.
No hon. Member likes to think that we are giving in to unreasonable pressure. Pressure is part of our job in the House, but, sometimes something comes along which is so obviously in need of reform that the pressure to which we are subject suggests that it would be foolish to ignore it. Our personal judgment would otherwise be eroded.
A report was produced by the National Consumer Council, which was chaired by Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes. She sent all her colleagues her findings and those of her council about people's experience with goods that do not come up to expectations. I was particularly impressed that the study had taken place over two years. A study which reaches a conclusion after such a time deserves respect. All of us are confused about our rights if something should go wrong. Of course, if an item does not fit, we are told in advance, "We will change it if it is not right." We may also be told that it will not be exchanged. We may be told that it is a sale item and that exchange is not permitted. That is fair enough. Every customer needs to know where he or she stands. Some customers, such as I and my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), the learned editor of "Bowden on Contracts", are well aware of their rights under the law. They are well aware of the Sale of Goods Act 1893 and that goods must be of merchantable quality. However, the problem with
Column 1188the 1983 Act is that the matter is subject to proof and that a person must be willing to go to court for a remedy if the trader proves to be difficult.
Sometimes, in the case of heavy goods, a consumer is offered a guarantee. "Pressed to take" is a more accurate description of the system of guarantees. It is sometimes impressed on one that a guarantee is part of the deal and that, if one is taking the item, one takes the guarantee. Guarantees are often worthless. They not only remove one's rights under the Sale of Goods Act but they are so hedged about with requirements for the purchaser that he or she just gives up.
Often, one must send the item not to where one bought it but to the manufacturer's head office. Often, one must pay a call-out charge or such sum as the manufacturer may require to post back an item after he has repaired his own faulty goods. That is not much of a guarantee. Under many guarantees, unless one actually does everything strictly by the rules of the guarantee certificate, one loses one's rights under the so-called guarantee. All rights can be rescinded if one accepts a guarantee such as is offered.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you wish me to conclude on that point and resume after the statement?
It will be much easier for the consumer if he knows that unless the trader tells him specifically that he has no guarantee, he will have one--
It being Eleven o'clock, Mr. Speaker-- interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).
The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. David Hunt) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to tell the House about the violent storm that hit much of the country yesterday. Sadly, we understand that as many as 40 people lost their lives, and many more were injured. I expect that many here today were, as I was, especially saddened to hear of the deaths of the two schoolgirls while at their schools in Swindon and Bristol and the many tragic deaths which occurred. I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering heartfelt condolences to the relatives and friends of all those who died, and also in wishing those who have been injured a swift recovery. [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."]
The storm cut across the south, the midlands and East Anglia, with areas further north also being affected. While I understand that the gusts themselves were not quite as strong as in the great storm of October 1987, they nevertheless hit a much wider area and, of course, this time the storm occurred in the middle of the working day. There has been widespread damage to property. Road and rail links have been blocked and electricity and telephone lines have been down in many areas. We have again lost trees, many apparently weakened by the storm of two years ago. Some casualties were again caused by falling trees.
I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing gratitude and admiration for the way in which the emergency and voluntary services, the local authorities, the electricity supply industry and the armed forces have coped with this emergency. They have done a truly magnificent job. The primary responsibility for dealing with emergencies lies with the emergency services and with local authorities. Local authorities have wide discretionary powers to spend money for such purposes under section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972, and they usually include an amount in their budgets to meet such contingencies. They also have the necessary local knowledge, resources and expertise to deal with such emergencies.
It is, of course, much too soon to obtain an accurate picture of the amount of damage that has been done, or the amount of work that has been necessary and will continue to be necessary. However, it is clear that the scale of yesterday's storm was such that some authorities are likely to have incurred costs in dealing with the emergency that are beyond what they reasonably could be expected to bear. For that reason, we announced last night the Government's decision that the special financial arrangements to help local authorities in emergencies--known as the Bellwin scheme--have now been activated and will be available for the areas affected by the storm. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be making a separate announcement about similar arrangements for Wales. The damage in Scotland has been considerably less than south of the border, but my right hon. and learned Friend, the Secretary of State for Scotland, is keeping a close eye on the position.
Column 1190Under the Bellwin scheme the Government provide financial assistance to local authorities to help with the additional cost of immediate work to safeguard life or property and to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience. Where the expenditure exceeds a threshold equivalent to a 1p rate for a county council and 0.15p for a shire district, the Government will pay 75 per cent. of the cost. My Department is issuing details about the scheme and the arrangements for claiming help. I should make it clear, however, that the scheme as originally conceived does not cover insurable costs. However, the arrangements are well known to all the local authorities concerned. The expenditure covered by insurance will not be constrained by the controls on local authority capital finance. Where authorities do need to incur capital expenditure that is not covered by insurance, they will be expected to find the money from within their own resources, but where they believe they are unable to do so, I shall consider granting supplementary capital allocations, or credit approvals, in order to allow repairs to go ahead as quickly as possible.
I hope that, given those assurances on financial matters, local authorities will not be hindered from doing all that is necessary to ensure a swift and effective response to the storm. We have made available the resources of the armed forces to help local authorities and the emergency services where needed. I am satisfied that all available resources are being applied where necessary.
Mr. Harris : The whole House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for that statement and will join him in expressing sympathy to the relations of those who died and all those who suffered damage to property. The House will also want to join him in paying tribute to all the members of the emergency services, especially the ambulance men-- [Hon Members :-- "Hear, hear."]--and to those who worked long and hard to try to deal with the aftermath of the storm.
Is my hon. Friend aware that large areas of the south-west, especially Cornwall, are still without electricity? Will he consider further help to correct that position? My hon. Friend will be aware that this is the second time within a month that Cornwall--and my constituency in particular--has suffered from ferocious storms and gales. In making available to local authorities the money that he has spoken about, will my hon. Friend sympathetically consider including in the calculation the costs involved in dealing with the pre-Christmas storms? That is very important.
Finally, will my hon. Friend consider meeting a delegation from Cornwall county council and district councils to discuss not just the cost of clearing up the storm damage, but the longer-term implications, and especially the cost of improving the sea defences, as this is the second time in a month that Cornwall has been hit? I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food sitting next to the Minister.
I will not just consider sympathetically his request that we should take into account the expenditure incurred under the Bellwin scheme in dealing with the emergency on 16 and 17 December : I will say positively now that that expenditure will be taken into account.
Column 1191On my hon. Friend's second question, I am willing to meet a delegation to discuss the issues that he has outlined. As he said, a considerable number of people are still without electricity, but every effort is being made to secure their position as quickly as possible. The Government's response in all Departments concerned is being co- ordinated by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South) : The Minister mentioned the timing of the storm, the emergency services, the police and the ambulance service, because they have to come into action. Were the Meteorological Office warnings sent to local authorities in good time? Was an ops room set up in his Department and the Department of Transport to deal quickly with a storm that should have been known about before it struck?
Mr. Hunt : There were warnings by the Meteorological Office, and that is not in question. All Army districts were warned at 19.28 hours on 24 January of impending storms and were instructed to respond to any requests from local authorities for assistance. I will investigate the right hon. Gentleman's points, but there was an immediate and swift response by the emergency services. I commend them for the way that they responded to the serious position.
Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing) : I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the emergency services and in expressing sympathy for those who have suffered from the storm. Does my hon. Friend recall that a similar statement on finance was made after the hurricane in 1987? It was discovered then that, because of the way in which the grant system worked, local authorities did not get the benefit expected. Initially, it was discovered that West Sussex council would have been refunding money to the Treasury. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that this will not happen again?
Mr. Hunt : As my right hon. Friend knows, with all his financial experience, a different local authority expenditure regime was in place then. I should like to make it clear that the authorities' expenditure in connection with this emergency will not affect the amount of grant that they receive.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I should like to extend our condolences to the families of the bereaved and those who have been injured, and our congratulations to the emergency services--not least the ambulance services --for the effort, hard work and bravery that they have shown once again during these problems.
Has the Minister yet set in place a review of the Bellwin scheme, given the changes that have taken place in local authority funding? Is it possible to bring such a review forward? I believe that the scheme is not sufficiently generous. I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's response to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) that the damage caused in the two storms which have already hit Cornwall will be included in the calculations, but more help is needed. This matter needs clarification.
Have the Minister and the military services considered the possibility of the armed forces helping to track down breaks in the electricity lines? As the hon. Member for St. Ives said, large parts of Cornwall still have no electricity service.
Mr. Hunt : The House joins the hon. Gentleman in paying those tributes to the emergency services. Obviously, a 1p rate will no longer be relevant in the new system of local government finance which commences on 1 April. We intend to continue the Bellwin scheme, and we shall announce proposals on which we shall consult local authorities. The hon. Gentleman need have no fears about that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is doing everything he can to restore electricity supplies, and is working in conjuction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that all the services are given the support that they need. I understand that all affected police forces issued warnings through the media about the dangers of travel. Devon and Cornwall issued an advance warning in the morning based on the Meteorological Office storm warning. Other forces would have received the Meteorological Office warning and would have been prepared to respond when the situation in their area became threatening.
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : Does my hon. Friend appreciate that two groups have worked very hard? Electricity workers have worked constantly since the start of the storm, including all night, to restore electricity supplies. They have been doing a remarkable job in the south-west, as have those who were called in to clear the roads. One of the great problems was the blockage caused by traffic, and considerable work has been done to relieve that problem. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be no cut-off date on which funds for damage clearance will be stopped? It will be a considerable time before all the clearance can be completed. Does my hon. Friend realise that, for most of us in the south-west, the cost will be way above a 1p rate? It has been estimated that it will add 2p to the community charge. That will not be easy to bear. Should not certain areas, especially those that have suffered damage before, be considered more favourably than they would be under the Bellwin scheme? Will my hon. Friend consider the special cases sympathetically?
Mr. Hunt : Having listened to the tributes paid by right hon. and hon. Members, I will ensure as soon as I leave the Chamber that their messages are passed immediately to the emergency services concerned. I was sad to hear that up to 1 million consumers are still cut off from electricity supplies. The worst damage has occured in the areas of the south-west, south and south-east boards ; the eastern area is fairly badly hit ; and there has been some disruption in south Wales and the midlands.
Help is being given by boards further north and by Northern Ireland and Eire when they can spare it. The less badly affected areas aim to restore all supplies today. Sadly, supplies in the south-west, south and south-east board areas may not be restored until Sunday or Monday. Every attempt is being made to help the individuals involved.
I have announced in response to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) that we shall include the damage caused on 16 and 17 December when calculating the threshold above which the Bellwin scheme will operate.
Column 1193emergency services, whose work has been magnificent, will he also take account of the fact that the ambulance services turned out overwhelmingly, although many were involved in an industrial dispute? Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that the police, ambulance and fire services and the armed forces are necessary and that the public find it extraordinary that the Government should continue a dispute with the ambulance services which could be resolved? Will the hon. Gentleman pass on to his colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Health, the message that another endeavour should be made to resolve that dispute?
Mr. Hunt : We are extremely grateful to, and commend, those ambulance men and women who suspended their industrial action and turned out to help, but we should not turn this occasion into an opportunity for making political points about the stoppages.
Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : Was not much of the property owned by district and county councils in October 1987 either uninsured or under- insured? Will my hon. Friend make it clear that taxpayers' money will not be used to assist those local authorities which either have decided not to insure against insurable risks or which are under-insured?
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : I believe that the Minister said that the Army was notified the day before the storm. Will he explain to the public why no public warnings were given? Does he realise that, when a hurricane is pending in the United States, there are constant warnings not just of the scale of the storm but of particular hazards that need to be avoided? Had such warnings been issued yesterday, some of the deaths might well have been avoided. On Bellwin, will the hon. Gentleman note that to most of us his comments were inadequate? Because of massive damage to council housing stock, my authority will have to meet the first £430,000 of the repair costs plus one quarter of all further costs. We are nearing the end of the financial year : the council has no funds in reserve ; and it is under pressure from the Secretary of State for the Environment to hold the poll tax down. We need money from the Government, and we need it now.
A Conservative Government introduced the Bellwin scheme, which was the first comprehensive attempt to meet this sort of problem. We have kept the threshold to exactly the level it was several years ago, when the scheme was originally announced. We have not uprated the 1p rate in accordance with inflation. It is a generous scheme. The important thing is that local authorities all know exactly where they stand. It is a long-proven scheme, and they all know its details. Therefore, our announcement last night made it clear how the bills would be paid, so that local authorities and everyone else could concentrate on protecting people and property.
Column 1194expressing sympathy with people who suffered injury, damage and loss last night. Kent county council has asked me to express to the Minister and to his colleagues their tremendous appreciation for the speed with which the Department has moved, and for the statement this morning. The chief executive told me this morning that Kent is likely to have suffered losses of £5 million, and that figure is still rising.
My hon. Friend will know that, following the storms of 1987, there was some delay in processing the claims that the Department were good enough to meet, due to the assessment of damage resulting from the storm and damage that might be construed as improvement. I hope that we shall not suffer the same delays again.
Finally, Mr. Speaker--
Mr. David Hunt : May I deal with the Bellwin points first, so that everyone is clear about the criteria? The damage must have arisen on 25 January and expenditure must be used for carrying out immediate works to safeguard life or property or to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience.
We are writing to local authorities to remind them of details of the scheme, and to outline how claims can be made. I shall certainly consider carefully the matter that my hon. Friend has raised--that claims must be dealt with as quickly as possible.
Several Hon. Members rose --