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Column 377about examination results but about discipline, truancy and all the other matters that are of interest in individual schools--allows parents to make reasoned choices.
Parents want to know more about which schools deliver which services, and what advantages their children will gain if they go to particular schools. Parents can now attend annual meetings and ask questions; they are no longer excluded. I congratulate the Government on what they have achieved so far. Moreover, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has launched a crusade to improve spoken English: our national language, which has now become the international language, is often spoken better by foreigners than by some of our children, and we want to make improvements.
Needless to say, the Opposition rejected all our reforms at one stage and have taken a long time to catch up. At the weekend, I was interested to learn that the Opposition's education spokesman--the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)--now thinks that the publication of results is not such a bad thing after all. Some of us have been saying that for some years.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) indicated assent .
Mr. Evennett: The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) nods in agreement: I am glad that the Liberal view supports ours for once. All the reforms in which we believe are intended to improve the education of our nation's children, not to change society as the Labour party wants to do. We want the best, and--as the past decade has shown--we are prepared to invest the necessary money. I do not know what the Liberal Democrats' views are; the hon. Member for Bath has sometimes favoured grant-maintained schools and sometimes opposed them. In any event, the Conservative party has been in the engine room when education reforms have been initiated--in the form of primary legislation, or decided within the Department for Education. Although the Queen's Speech does not mention an education Bill, we need improvements in our education service. We need time for the reforms of the recent past to work through the system. We are already seeing improvements, and I believe that, as those reforms come on stream, we shall see a further vast improvement in standards and enthusiasm in schools, along with results in further and higher education.
I welcome the proposed extension of the nursery school system. During the time--until May--that the Conservatives controlled my borough of Bexley, we experienced a steady improvement in the provision of nursery education. Although I welcome that, I must introduce a note of caution.
The Select Committee on Education, of which I was a member, examined provision for the under-fives and produced a good report. We supported nursery education and the gradual expansion of provision, but insisted that education must be appropriate for the age group, not merely an extension of primary schooling. Early education is a helpful foundation for a child's later development, but the educational content must be appropriate.
Conservative Members, including me, strongly support the Pre-School Playgroups Association, which has done so much excellent work over the years. The staff-pupil
Column 378ratio is far better in playgroups than in nursery schools. Playgroups encourage mothers to join in, allow pupils to attend for one or two sessions a week and enable children to socialise in a friendly and homely atmosphere.
I recently visited Christchurch playgroup in Erith, in my constituency. I was very impressed by the educational content of its activities, and by its super atmosphere. Similarly, when I recently visited the excellent St. Paulinus playgroup in Crayford, I was impressed by the commitment of staff, the interest and involvement of parents and the work of the children.
I should not like to see that work destroyed; the playgroups are still doing so much good work. Conservative Members want expanded nursery education provision--of course--to work alongside the playgroups: we believe in choice and diversity in education for those aged three and over. We know that education is a continuing process. For many years, Britain has lagged behind its competitors in terms of vocational education. I accept that our A-levels are first class, and I certainly do not want that standard to be diminished; but we must ensure that general national vocational qualifications, and higher GNVQs, are raised to a standard of excellence that is accepted throughout the country--by industry, parents, schools and colleges. The course must be perceived as worth while and challenging. I know that progress has been made. I understand that some 4,000 students took advanced GNVQs in the past year; that is excellent news. We must ensure, however, that rigorous standards are maintained and developed, especially in view of the amount of public money that has been spent.
This was a good Queen's Speech--moderate, effective, yet radical in parts. [Interruption.] Ah, I have woken the Opposition. They do not like radicalism; they are living in the past. We, as good Conservatives, believe that we should be radical where necessary, and conserve where necessary.
The speech will be welcomed in the country, both for what it includes and for what it omits. The omission of education legislation should allow our radical reforms of the past to work through the system--to improve standards, encourage excellence and ensure the best for all our children. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has tremendous good will from all quarters in the country for what she is doing. Under her stewardship, results will come through which will be a credit to everyone in the education sector, whether they are administrators, teachers, parents or pupils. The education reforms have been right. They have been good and essential, and they will work. After they have worked their way through, our education service and system will again be the best in the world. 5.59 pm
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): As a day has been set aside for a debate on industry and education, one might reasonably have expected the Government to present large Bills involving those sectors. This afternoon, however, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told hon. Members with great gusto why there was no Bill for Royal Mail privatisation. It was strange that, having spent the entire summer on the nation's airwaves telling people why it was so important that the Post Office and
Column 379Royal Mail should be allowed to compete, he said today that he had no intention of allowing them to do so, which in effect confirmed yesterday's newspaper stories.
Having lost his internal battle over the issue of ownership, and having not been able, evidently, to persuade Conservative Back Benchers, whom the Tory party deputy chairman is hoping to summon to his aid throughout the coming Session, not to behave as yobs and to get on side on the issue of ownership, the Secretary of State is now willing, out of nothing more than ideological principle, to prevent the Royal Mail from having the very freedom that he has spent the summer promoting.
That tells us where the right hon. Gentlemen's priorities lie. He is looking at the whole matter from a political view. He has no interest in allowing the Royal Mail to thrive in the public sector, despite the fact that that was one of the options in his own Green Paper earlier in the year. One must ask whether it was a bogus option all along.
The Green Paper contains the very solutions that could have been introduced in the Queen's Speech. Hon. Members must realise that maintaining the status quo in the Royal Mail is not an option. The Post Office needs commercial freedom in the public sector to modernise itself, to become more efficient and, yes, to be competitive. The rigidity of Treasury rules and controls over public bodies was one factor that contributed to the privatisation drive in the past few years. The Government's Green Paper recognised that that inhibited the Post Office's operations.
If the Post Office is to tap the benefits of private finance, it is essential that its practices should correspond more closely with those of the general corporate sector. That is most obvious when one considers the external financing limit, which, under existing rules, means that the Treasury is the sole gainer. It is unimaginable that private companies, even those with the most overly generous dividend payments, would pay 80 per cent. of their profits to shareholders in the form of dividends, but that is what the Post Office is required to do--£220 million, out of a profit total of £280 million, will go to the Treasury this year.
The Secretary of State referred to the proposed Bill to introduce competition into the gas market. The principle of competition in that market must be welcomed, as it has the potential to increase efficiency and quality of service and to reduce the cost to the consumer. There are, however, some worries in that regard, which revolve around three points.
It is self-evidently true that it is more expensive to supply gas consumers who live far from the supply source than it is to supply those who live closer to it. It is more efficient, or cheaper, to supply gas to big consumers than to small consumers. Furthermore, it is clear that any restructuring of the gas market will involve considerable transitional cost.
If competition is not organised properly, the consumer will pick up the tab. Competition might be attractive to large industrial gas consumers who are near to the point of supply, but it will not be good news if disproportionate costs find their way on to the domestic tariff of high consumers on low incomes in remote areas. Many hon. Members have that worry.
We want to know the detail of the Government's proposals. We want to be convinced that the regulator will have the power to attend to the three points that I
Column 380mentioned. On the evidence to date, it seems that the gas regulator does not have the necessary powers to deal with the real issues in the industry.
Independent suppliers have claimed that they will be able to cut the cost to the consumer by about 10 per cent., and the President of the Board of Trade referred to that figure again today. A number of observers and industry experts have cast considerable doubt on that figure. When one considers the cost of gas at source and the cost of transmission, it is difficult to understand how they imagine that they can make a reduction of 10 per cent. They will have removed virtually all the operating margin.
Furthermore, the estimates of benefit to the consumer have been based largely on the experience of industry. They should be treated with caution, because they may not translate accurately or appropriately to the domestic consumer.
A separation of British Gas's transportation and storage business from its other functions is essential if people in remote areas are not to suffer, but that, as I have said, will involve considerable cost. People have worries, and it is right to be cautious and to remember that VAT on domestic fuel is set shortly to increase as well.
As we have heard today, executives in senior positions in the gas industry are the ones who are seemingly benefiting from the performance of British Gas. Shareholders have already done so, their dividends having almost tripled. It is high time that consumers benefited. We shall put the Bill to that test when the Government introduce it. We shall decide whether to support it on that basis. Ratification of the chemical weapons convention is another issue that the Secretary of State did not raise today, and it is important. The Queen's Speech did not contain necessary legislation enabling ratification of the convention. The Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for introducing that. It has been reported that both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are frustrated that the Department has been dragging its heels. I would welcome it if the Minister could give some explanation of the Department's policy, and tell us when we can expect something to be done.
Education forms the other part of today's debate. It was notable that nothing in the Queen's Speech dealt with the issues. There was no sign that the Prime Minister's recent conversion to the idea of universal nursery education for three and four-year-olds would manifest itself in the form of practical action. That is a glaring omission. We would have wished such a Bill to be included in the Queen's Speech.
Listening to the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) running down the education system so comprehensively, even in the same breath as he was telling Opposition Members not to run down Britain, one was left wondering which party has been in control of the education system for the past 15 years. His touching idea that the answer to industry's problems is that people should be taught to speak standard English and to get their grammar correct is highly at variance with the facts.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, South is keen on reading and writing. He extolled their virtues in his speech. I shall send him a copy of the resolution of this
Column 381year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, which he felt so qualified to speak about. If, after reading that, he still seeks to perpetuate the myth that the conference passed a motion calling for the legalisation of cannabis, at least he will do so in the complete knowledge that he is making points that are wholly at variance with the facts.
British industry's problems, and the possibility of education helping to resolve them, are real. The skill shortages are the product of education systems that have not delivered what society and the economy have sought of them. I wondered when I listened to the Secretary of State today what his priorities and those of the Government are, as they look to the future and seek to improve our investment performance.
The great problem with our economy has been one of under-investment, yet all that one can read into the Government's economic policy is that there will be tax cuts before an election, as there were in 1974 and 1987, for example. Those cuts were followed, as ever, by huge tax rises to make up for what the Government had cut.
We need a Government who are prepared to look to the longer term and do something about under-investment. Investment per head per annum in Britain is currently £2,800. In France, it is £3,800. In Germany, it is £4,500. In the United States, it is £5,500 and in Japan, it is £6,500. We look to the Government, in their economic and industrial policies, to do something about that, and to introduce measures, perhaps in the Budget, to stimulate investment in the future.
We had hoped that the Government would look anew, as the privatisation programme has run out of steam, at the possibility of encouraging public- private partnership investment schemes. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) talked about skill shortages and the need for training measures to do something about them. We welcome recent Government initiatives on vocational training, but it is a point worth making that we still have a long way to go to catch up with our economic competitors.
Only 25 per cent. of Britain's work force have any vocational qualification. That compares with 40 per cent. in France and 63 per cent. in Germany. An example is the fact that we are 22nd out of the 22 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries when it comes to producing qualified engineers. It is little short of a national scandal that, with 2.5 million people unemployed, many British firms find that skill shortages are holding them back from exploiting economic recovery.
Rectifying the under-investment in people's skills must be a more pressing priority than funding pre-election tax cuts. If we are to succeed in the global economy, a well-educated, well-skilled, adaptable work force is critical. That requires action from the early years, through post-16 training, to continuing opportunities for retraining and reskilling throughout adult life. Learning should be a continuous process. It is vital to both personal development and fulfilment and to Britain's economic success.
Column 3826.12 pm
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I suggest to the House that this year's Queen's Speech, rather than being overshadowed by bad news, was illuminated by good news: the announcement on that day that unemployment was down by almost 50,000. That continued the trend in the past 12 months of a reduction in unemployment of 300,000. Coupled with the underlying rate of inflation, which is now 2 per cent. and the lowest for 20 years, that means that we have all the ingredients for a long and sustained recovery. The two factors of falling unemployment and low inflation demonstrate that the Government's economic strategy is working well.
Against the background that I have outlined, I welcome the Queen's Speech. Although it is less radical than most Queen's Speeches since 1979, it will consolidate past successes by building on the already successful privatisation of the gas industry, which is recognised now as a world leader, by improving the help available for the out of work through the new job seeker's allowance and by introducing new social reforms to tackle discrimination, improve the care of the mentally ill--which will be welcomed very much in Leicestershire--and improve the management of the national health service.
I represent a seat in the middle of England. It is not a traditional Conservative shire seat, but one that was Liberal and then Labour until 1970. Indeed, if Lord Wyatt of Weeford, the former Labour Member, had preached the philosophy that he preaches today, particularly when he writes in The News of the World , perhaps history would have taken a different course.
It is my belief that the Conservative party has developed a strong showing in my constituency since 1970--the majority when I took over the seat was 17,000; by good fortune, it has now risen to 19,000--not only because the Government's policies have been right at national level but because at district council level the
Conservative-controlled council has operated similar policies of tight monetary control and good management, which have kept the local taxes among the lowest in the country. The local services, including housing, refuse collection and job creation through an industrial strategy in the area, are among the best in the country. When our electors determine which way to vote in the next general election and in the local elections next year, I am sure that they will consider the economic progress that has taken place in the constituency and in the east midlands in general.
When we examine the economy in the east midlands, we find a dramatic improvement. There has been a vast increase in confidence in current and expected business conditions: 49 per cent. of businesses in the east midlands expect conditions to improve. Only a small proportion
Column 383expect them to worsen. That is the most positive outlook for five years. In a recent statement, Leicestershire chamber of commerce said:
"We are extremely positive about the way forward for the small to medium sized companies . . . We would say that the economy is buoyant and a large number of these companies actually have full order books."
If one drives around Dodwells Bridge industrial estate in Hinckley on a Friday afternoon, one can feel the increase in economic activity that has taken place in the past year. In the county, all sizes of businesses have performed well. That is reflected in the fact that 74 per cent. of businesses in Leicestershire have reported an increase in sales. In addition, in the past six months there have been 61 new business start-ups in my constituency alone.
Training is an area close to the heart of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. It has been an area of growth and excellence in Leicestershire and in my constituency. I can tell my right hon. Friend that this month we held an award ceremony for 12 firms in the Bosworth division. They received the "training for excellence" award in recognition of the contribution that local businesses had made to the improved training and skills development of the working population. That is not to be underestimated. In addition, 11 businesses in the Bosworth constituency are committed to the Department of Employment's "investors in people" initiative. They are currently being guided towards that goal by the South Leicestershire Training Group. On Friday, I saw for myself the way in which its efforts have succeeded. I shall refer to that a little later.
On Europe, I am disappointed by the die-hard attitude of what has become known as the Euro-sceptic minority in our Conservative party. It would be catastrophic for Britain's prospects not to ratify the European Communities (Finance) Bill. I favour speedy action to put the Bill on the statute book. I am sceptical about many things that go on in Europe, but I suggest that the Bill is the wrong ground on which to fight. The right ground is fraud in Europe. Nothing drives my constituents madder than the thought of Euro- fraud. It is a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he was able to have the issue of fraud addressed in the Maastricht treaty.
Another aspect of the European Union that alarms our constituents and hon. Members on both sides of the House is that Europe may spring an unpleasant surprise, such as the alleged demise of the British banger, the crisp that has to be black, or some other Euro-madness. A week ago all those involved in the herbal industry held their breath when a proposal that could have devastated that industry was put forward. It could have forced it to shut down, with the loss of 3,000 to 5,000 jobs. Herbalists would have been unable to practise, retail shops would have lost 20 per cent. of their business, and manufacturers and service providers would have been similarly affected.
That proposal comes at a time when the popularity of alternative and complementary medicine is on the up. Every chemist now stocks homeopathic preparations, the
Column 384Chiropractors Act 1994 and the Osteopaths Act 1993 are on the statute book, and more and more people are turning to Chinese medicine and acupuncture.
Rather than face such a threat from Europe, the Department of Health should try to integrate alternative and complementary medicine, in all its aspects, in the health service. We should then save a fortune in health costs.
Mr. Purchase: It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman's views about Europe. He takes a somewhat ambivalent stance on those matters. Is he telling the House that he would be favourably disposed towards an amendment to the European Communities (Finance) Bill? If fraud were tightened up, would he be prepared to see the legislation through?
Mr. Tredinnick: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to help me in my speech. I certainly want to combat fraud in all its elements, although the choice of ground for achieving that is perhaps not within the scope of my speech. Nevertheless, combating fraud is a key issue, as is the need for vigilance to prevent the sort of action that threatened the herbal medicines industry last week. Fortunately, that threat has been averted thanks to the good offices of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville), whose lawyers have found that those products will not fall within the scope of the legislation. I referred to the economic improvements in industrial infrastructure around Hinckley in the east midlands--improvements which I believe are largely due to the Hinckley and Bosworth borough council. Nowhere are they better demonstrated than in the creation of the Triumph motor cycle factory. My constituency will now be the capital of the motorcycle industry in Britain. Triumph motor cycles are being sold successfully abroad because of free access to European markets, and our favourable trading relationship with America has seen numbers in the order books increasing and additional workers employed at Triumph. Triumph motor cycles are outperforming and outselling Japanese models.
A very important part of the economic transformation in my constituency has been the use of computer-aided design. I recently visited a company in my constituency called Profilex.
Mr. Tredinnick: The hon. Gentleman should not joke about companies in my constituency that are doing so well. The company, which manufactures access-hatches for hotels, has recently employed some trainees through the training and enterprise council system. Without the "investors in people" standard award, the company would not have the computer-aided design department that it now has and I do not believe that it would have been so successful.
My message to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is that those schemes are working well. She will be relieved to know that the youth training commitment from the Government that no 16 or 17-year-old who wanted a place on a training scheme would have to wait longer than eight weeks is being met throughout Leicestershire. That is a considerable achievement.
Column 385The debate is also about education. I have spent a lot of time in the past year trying to educate the Child Support Agency on behalf of my aggrieved constituents. I welcome the proposals that were put forward in the report of the Select Committee on Social Security. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel), who spoke on Wednesday, I should welcome a measure to incorporate the Select Committee's recommendation that past property and capital settlements be taken into account by the agency, as well as travel costs.
There is a moral aspect in that debate involving the custody of children. I do not believe that when one partner breaks up a marriage through an affair or for some other reason, that action should not be considered in determining custody of children. I shall give the House an example from my constituency.
Constituent "X" came to see me. His wife had walked out and gone to live with another person. That lady had broken the marriage and expected her former husband to support her and her new partner, who was unemployed, through the CSA. She also wanted custody of the children. He asked me, "Where is the justice? I have tried to maintain a family unit. I have tried to bring up my children to a very high standard and teach them to act well in the world. Now their lives are shattered. Should not I have the opportunity to gain custody of these children whom I love very much?" There is certainly scope for considering that proposition. The hon. Member for Dagenham (Ms Church) looks askance, but it is a very real problem. People hold those points of view and I believe that the House should consider them.
I raise two other points: one about foreign affairs; and the other, which is a little closer to home, about industry. I have witnessed, as we all have, the recent troubles in the Gaza strip. I visited the area several years ago with hon. Members from both sides of the House--one of them is now an Opposition Whip--in an attempt to address the issue of Gaza. It was a quite frightening experience. It is completely unacceptable that the west has given pledges to Gaza that are not being kept. Half the reason why the area is such a tinder box is that it has not received the money that it was pledged. As we all know, when one tries to run any organisation without funds, the situation becomes very volatile and unstable.
Finally, I refer to Post Office privatisation.
Mr. Tredinnick: Thank you; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me. History will relate that privatisation, the child of the Conservative party in general and Lady Thatcher in particular, has been the key political philosophy of the late 20th century. The hon. Gentleman has not murmured, so he must agree with me. It is transforming economies across the world which have been ruined by socialism. The philosophy has been adopted worldwide; in Russia, eastern Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, privatisation is the key philosophy.
We have global communications. Computers are developing at the speed of light--what buys one system one year, the next year buys two systems that are twice as powerful. We have information technology systems.
Column 386This year saw the 10th anniversary of the privatisation of British Telecom. What a huge success that has been--not only a milestone in UK deregulation, but an example to Governments throughout the world of how to turn a bureaucratic Government monopoly into a world beater. The Post Office, the other half of British Telecom, which should have been privatised, has now been put on ice, thanks partly to scaremongering by the Opposition. They try to portray the sub-post offices as part of the state. They are not. The sub-post office that I helped to save in Barwell in my constituency is privately owned, as are most.
The real problem comes from competition from abroad--from the German Post Office, the Dutch Post Office and international carriers of all shapes and descriptions, from DHL to Business Post. The collapse of the letter, the bedrock of Post Office business, is absolutely crucial. I do not believe that it is in the national interest, in the interests of Labour Members' constituents or in the interests of my constituents, that we shall, unfortunately, be unable to take on the issue in this Session. It is not right that we should put more money into a state-owned organisation. It must get into the private sector, which is the key point. On that note, I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Ms Judith Church (Dagenham): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this important debate. I welcome the Gracious Speech, not for the visionless, mean-minded and spiritless measures that are in it, but for what is not in it. I made my first speech to the House on the Government's planned privatisation of the Post Office. I said then that the Government would not be able to carry it through. Although the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) seems to have had his head in the sand and not to have noticed this, the reason why the Government have not been able to carry it through is that there has been opposition from their own Back Benchers. Like the whole country, apart from the rabid right on the Government Benches, I am very pleased that the Government have been unable to carry it through.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said earlier, the welcome absence of Post Office privatisation is a hole in the heart--if they have a heart--of the Government's programme. That hole will not be plugged by the other measure about which I shall speak--the proposed Bill to extend competition in the gas industry. Labour is not against competition and Labour is not against efficiency-- [Hon. Members:-- "Oh."] Conservative Members do not listen and will not hear. We are not against efficient, productive and profitable industry--far from it. Unlike the Government, who have inflicted damage on British industry, Labour supports industry in Britain. We want British industry to survive and thrive, but, unlike the Government, we are prepared, as is the case in every other successful industrial economy around the world, to take steps to help it to do that. We are prepared to do that not only for the sake of industry, but for consumers and for the economy and Britain in general.
What will the gas competition Bill be? It will mainly be remedial action--a legislative move made necessary, even in the Government's own terms, by the failure of gas privatisation. British Gas is now a successful and efficient company, and we welcome that, but what has privatisation
Column 387achieved? It has certainly not achieved competition. Only the private sector, and especially the company's directors, are gaining at the expense of the public. As privatisation failed to bring about competition, this non-intervening Government now have to intervene in the gas market to bring it about. It is remedial action.
Privatisation has not brought about lower gas prices. The imposition of VAT on fuel has caused hardship and suffering for millions of people, although not for those rich enough to pay their gas bills years in advance. The repellent price manoeuvrings by British Gas last week have completely wiped out whatever price benefits privatisation brought. We are back to square one, with no competition and no lower prices. It is just a lot of rich directors getting richer.
We have only to look at today's announcement of the obscene pay rises for British Gas bosses. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said earlier, I cannot have been the only person in London to have fallen out of bed this morning on learning that British Gas has a new advertising slogan, which says:
"We put our customers before ourselves."
My constituents find that wholly incredible. The Bill will not change that.
The Bill will simply spread the pickings more widely and will give some other fat cats a chance to get in on the act. Let us consider the recent Select Committee on Trade and Industry hearings on the gas industry. People were refused entry to the hearings and some who did get in had to sit on the floor because so many potential gas suppliers wanted to get a sniff of the money that they would make. One could barely hear the evidence being given for the sound of lips smacking in anticipation. Most of the independent potential suppliers are, of course, saying that, with greater competition, everything will be fine.
Ms Church: I am about to tell the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) the answer, so I shall carry on. The potential suppliers say that with competition, everything will be fine, everyone will be happy, everyone will be well supplied and safe, and everyone will have lower prices, perhaps 10 per cent. or 20 per cent. lower. As the President of the Board of Trade said earlier and as the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) said, nobody believes that prices will be 10 per cent. or 20 per cent. lower. Given what has happened with electricity, water and gas prices, we are a tiny bit sceptical that this gas utopia will be achieved.
In this welter of good will, occasionally a little bit of truth manages to slip through. Let us take what the electricity company Norweb said to the Select Committee:
"Apart from the requirement to offer minimum safety standards, all other areas of increased standards of service should be a marketing decision for the supplier."
All other standards? So there will be no minimum standards to help the elderly, those unable to pay their bills, those living far away from the gasfields or low-income, low-use customers. Apparently, there will not. There will just be "marketing decisions". In other words, the companies believe that if they cannot make sufficient money, on marketing grounds all those people--our people--will be left to the market.
Column 388Let us consider Associated Gas Supplies-- Agas. It said:
"Some customers will have to pay for services that were otherwise cross subsidised."
Who might those customers be? Associated Gas Supplies helpfully tells us that they would, surprise, surprise, be the elderly, late payers, and geographically distanced and low-load customers. Many of my constituents are included in those categories.
The predatory independents will cherry-pick the industry. They will try to carve up the best customers between them. The Select Committee asked whether there was a risk of new entrants cherry-picking the most profitable customers, the ones from whom they could generate most money most consistently and most easily. Again, only Agas was honest enough to give the real answer:
"It is not a risk. It will happen under the present proposals." The company is right; it is already happening.
The price changes made by British Gas last week were
straightforward cherry-picking, trying to get ahead of the competition by signing up on direct debit all customers able to pay in that way. I suspect that not many of them were in my constituency. The price changes were just British Gas trying to protect its market share, at the expense of the poor, the old and the vulnerable. In terms of the "marketing decisions" that will be prompted by the Bill, it is an example of British Gas trying to get its retaliation in first.
Labour believes in markets--I am answering the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, as I have done so far--but not in markets free to ride roughshod over everybody. Labour wants to protect people who are less able to protect themselves.
What should the Bill contain? It is clear that there must be minimum standards to be met by all suppliers, shippers and network operators. Those standards should cover safety and there should be a single telephone number, like the 999 number for fire, police and ambulance services, connecting people straight away with emergency services for electricity, gas and water in case of failure. There should be an obligation to supply all potential customers, not just the most profitable ones. There should be common standards on debt and disconnection practices across all suppliers and on services to older customers.