Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 392-399)



Mrs Dunwoody

  392. Good morning. Would you like to start by making a brief comment?

  (Mr Scorer) We would like to take a minute just to outline where Consumers' Association is coming from and why. We always start from the position that water is a unique resource; essential for life and public health; it is an essential consumer service; it has no substitute and we know that consumers have a particular regard for it.

  393. It also whets the whistle so if you would speak a little louder, it would help!
  (Mr Scorer) The other issue, in particular with regard to the Bill, is that we are aware that competition and restructure present a fundamental challenge to the industry, and the pace of that change is as fundamental as the nature of the change. We think the Bill, as it stands, is inadequate to that challenge and we would particularly like to see the government convene a water summit as soon after it publishes its paper on competition as possible to establish the parameters for competition and restructure and to set out, in particular, the social safeguards that will be required for groups who may be vulnerable from the introduction of competition to water supply.

  394. That is all very worthy but what sort of information, for example, do you think the Bill as it is currently drafted would prevent the Consumer Council from disclosing?
  (Mr Scorer) We have two sets of concerns about the powers of the Consumer Council to publish; one is general and one is specific. The general one is that we feel the restrictions on the Consumer Council's ability to publish are far too tightly drawn. The balance between the rights of companies and Consumer Council is unbalanced. In particular the idea that there is this test on substantial and prejudicial effect that the Consumer Council would have to decide upon will inhibit the Council from publishing anything. The idea that we have a Consumer Council that feels constrained from having a substantial effect on the actions of customers where it sees those actions as being detrimental is not one that sits very happily. We do have a list of 27 areas where we feel the Consumer Council may find it difficult to publish and we are happy to submit that, but I will mention two particular areas in general. One concerns the consequences of competitive markets: will the Consumer Council be able to publish information about the transfer of consumers, switching data of the policy issues on marketing, of doorstep selling—

  395. Because you think those would be regarded as commercially sensitive, is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Scorer) If the Consumer Council has to start from the position of either needing the consent of the company or seeing whether the information will do substantial harm in a competitive market place or whether the information is available elsewhere, I would have to think as a body that that is a significant constraint on your ability to put it out. As a general result, therefore, what we would like to see the Bill have on the face is a general duty on the Consumer Council to publish information it believes to be in the consumer interest and that should be the starting point. Any issue of dispute could probably be appealed to the Information Commissioner or a similar body, but we think that is where the Bill should start from as its premise.

  396. That would require a little delicate dancing over the line of what was commercially sensitive, would it not?
  (Mr Scorer) It is a fraught area.

  397. Whereas you and I might agree what is useful information to protect the consumer, a company that is in competition with a similar sized company might regard that as damaging to its general interest?
  (Ms Darcy) We are concerned that the Bill as currently drafted would give companies who wish to seek it a blanket excuse not to publish information. What we are hoping for in the Bill is more of a situation such as you have in the United States, which I know for some people may seem as if it is leading to over-disclosure but where the burden of proof is reversed so the company, rather than individual consumers and consumer organisations, has to prove that publication would lead to problems and where the company has had to provide specific examples of competitive harm. If they are under that duty, they will find it far more difficult to block information.

  398. And you will let us have the 27 points?
  (Mr Scorer) Yes.

Mr Benn

  399. Exploring this a little bit more, as I understand it, Clause 31 of the Bill says that it is for the Council itself to determine whether release would seriously or prejudicially affect the individuals or the body. In other words, it is not an external decision imposed on the Council—the Council can take its own decision, so why do you think it is going to feel so constrained when it has the power to make its own decision? Presumably, if it says, "We do not think this is going to prejudice substantially", therefore we will not release it.
  (Mr Scorer) The first issue is should the Council feel constrained from publishing information just because it has a serious impact on the interests of other companies. If it has information that the consumer should have access to, maybe that is information that should have an effect on the standing of the company. More generally, we think the Bill would be better framed if you start from this general presumption that the duty of the Council is there to provide information which will assist the consumer, in particular in a competitive environment but in the present environment as well. We think, therefore, that it is wrongly framed from the start but also that the test is far too stringent for substantial and serious projects.

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