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4 Dec 2002 : Column 289WHcontinued
Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): There is a joke currently doing the rounds in one of the synagogues in my constituency: what is the difference between a Rottweiler and a Jewish mother? The answer is that the Rottweiler eventually lets go. I do not know whether I more closely resemble a Rottweiler or a Jewish mother[Interruption.]
For more than four years, I have refused to let go of the issue of regulation of the gas industry, in particular the risk posed to public safety by the actions and failures of Transco. I am confident that, in preparing a response to the debate, the officials of my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Construction will have taken the prudent step of checking whether any questions remain unanswered following my Adjournment debates in June 1998 and July 1999. They may even have checked my examination of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets regulator at the Public Accounts Committee hearing three years ago. Let me start, however, with those easy questions to which the Minister will no doubt have the answer.
Before the establishment of Transco in 1994, British Gas responded to more than 99.9 per cent. of uncontrolled gas escapes in one hour. The response rate varied during the following five years, but dropped to as low as 92 per cent at one time. Given that there were more than 1 million calls each year to attend uncontrolled escapes, that means that, in some years, 80,000 uncontrolled escapes were not responded to within the target response time. Can the Minister tell us the current target rate and the actual percentage for attendance at uncontrolled escapes within one hour? Furthermore, can he assure the House that nothing has been done to modify the smell of gas so that the incidence of emergency call-outs, rather than the incidence of leaks, is reduced?
In Feburary 1999, in response to repeated representations by, and on behalf of, my constituent, Mr. Andrew Duffield, Ofgem took the unprecedented step of making an order against Transco. The background to that order is as follows. The Gas Act 1986, as amended in 1995, introduced competition into the business of connecting premises to the mains gas network. Before that, the market had been a monopoly controlled by British Gas Transco. In January 1997, my constituent, who had been a senior engineering manager at Transco, left to set up a specialist gas connection company known as EGS, which competes directly against Transco for business under the Gas Act. However, Transco is charged with custodianship of the gas mains network and all competitors such as EGS must apply to Transco for a quotation for the final connection to the mains when laying the pipe system for any new scheme or development.
Those words are not mine; or, at least, not mine alone. I use them to refer to the current anti-competitive practices adopted by Transco against EGS. They are taken directly from a decision document issued by the Office of Gas Supply when it investigated Transco's behaviour four years ago. It concluded:
One thing has changed, howeverOfgem, the regulator. In 1999, it was never dynamic or proactive in its enforcement of the regulations, or in its interpretation of them. Now it is positively spineless, failing to act when there is a clear track history of anti-competitive behaviour, and seeking to hide behind any legalistic cover, rather than perform its duties to regulate the market properly and to stamp out anti-competitive behaviour. Worse than that, it has maintained a stunning silence since 24 April this year over fundamental issues of public safety. If Ofgem is the guardian of the gas industry, I ask the Minister, "Quis custodiet custodes?"who will regulate the regulator?
I have made some serious allegations, and I must now back them up. On 7 November 2001, Transco wrote to EGS with calculations purporting to show its performance in response to EGS's connection inquiries during September 2001. That was the result of the order made against Transco in 1999. That order required Transco to introduce a scheme of liability payments that were payable whenever Transco failed to meet its own published standard response times to requests for connection quotations, or where it supplied false information.
The effect of that provision is to provide a perverse incentive to Transco to continue overcharging, secure in the knowledge that if it is challenged, it has five days in which to amend the price to the proper level before any penalty or compensation becomes payable to its victim.
So much for the robustness of the order. On the basis of that order Transco wrote to EGS, explaining that of the 43 quotations that EGS had requested in September 2001, 34 had been provided within Transco's agreed time and price standards. As a result of its 79 per cent. compliance, and in accordance with the order, it offered EGS compensation of £790.
That was a pretty normal monthor so Transco thought. In fact, EGS had long suspected that Transco was substantially overestimating its own performance. Put more accurately, it was substantially underestimating its service failures; hence, it was substantially under-compensating EGS. Despite repeatedly challenging Transco on that point, EGS was not able to persuade it to deal with the problem. During September 2001, therefore, EGS took the highly unusual step of logging and analysing all its dealings with the company. I need hardly mention that it was an extremely costly exercise.
EGS's analysis showed that there had been 47 quotations, not 43, during that September, and that only 57 per cent. rather than the 79 per cent. claimed by Transco had been provided within Transco's agreed time and price standards. The analysis showed that Transco had failed to record four quotations for which compensation was due to be paid, and that Transco had stated that a further seven quotations had met the standards when they had not and should have generated substantial compensation.
Transco now accepts that EGS's analysis was substantially correct and that almost twice as much compensation as it first offered is in fact due. EGS has extensively documented similar failings and passed them to Ofgem. Ofgem accepts that Transco has over-quoted by 78 per cent. at a development called La Formair; by 900 per cent. at Ossington buildings; and by a staggering 1,683 per cent. at Pennyfan road.
Given the scale of overcharging, and given that it was precisely to stop such anti-competitive practice that Ofgem put the order in place against Transco three years ago, it seems reasonable to expect Ofgem to take positive enforcement action against Transco. In its response of 2 October to EGS's complaints, however, Ofgem concludes that Transco is not in breach of the 1999 order. Again, it tries to hide behind a legalistic loophole. It states:
The Transco connections investigations document from Ofgas, which accompanied the original order in February 1999, stated that the order was made because of Transco's appalling performance in relation to connections. The document states:
Even if that were the sum total of my complaint against Transco, I am sure that the Minister would take it seriously. However, it is not. On 24 April this year, EGS sat down with Miss Karen Briggen of Ofgem and explained not simply the problems of anti-competitive behaviour but fundamental problems affecting public safety. Transco is required to notify EGS of the pressure of the connection valves that it uses. As hon. Members will appreciate, it is absolutely vital that the correct pressure of those valves is notified to EGS. They can be high, medium or low-level pressure valves.
Problems have arisen when Transco notifies EGS that a pressure valve at the connection point to the system is at a different pressure to the true one. I know of three cases in the past two weeks involving incorrect notification, and I will refer them to the Minister so that they can be investigated. Problems were found at the IMEX Spaces business centre, unit 77, Station lane, Birtley, County Durham; at plot B, Twelvetrees crescent, Bromley-by-Bow; and at the Academy of Light at Whitburn moor in Sunderland.
On each occasion, EGS was notified that there was a low-pressure connection valve connecting to the mains network when in fact all three valves were of medium pressure. If an incorrect valve is fitted at that point, it may function for a while before eventually having a catastrophic failure. The consequences of such failure are clear.
On 24 April, EGS outlined to Ofgem other problems that it had experienced. All self-lay providers must give Transco a copy of the as-laid drawings showing the new mains network that Transco then adopts. However, Transco's system of recording digitised plans is a catastrophic list of errors. On one particular developmentthe Brook Street business park in
Mr. Gardiner : I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Benton. I am just bringing my remarks to a close. However, it is absolutely critical that the Minister should appreciate that this is not simply a commercial spat between two companies. This is a grave issue of public safety. If Transco does not properly record the as-laid drawings, cases will occur such as that at Larkhall in Lanarkshire, in which a family was tragically killed. It is suspected that the drawing that covered the part of the network responsible incorrectly showed a pipe of cast iron as being made of polyurethane.
I shall not go into the details of the case; the Minister will know that it is subject to a court case that is yet to be heard, so it would be improper for me to do so. However, I believe that a family of four was killed in that explosion as a direct result of the sort of incompetence that Transco is showing in the recording of the gas mains system. It is vital that Ofgem, as the regulator of the industry, takes firm and swift action to put Transco's house in order.
The Minister for Energy and Construction (Mr. Brian Wilson) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) on securing the debate. He has pursued the matter tenaciously and acquired a lot of information on it. On this occasion, it is quite useful that he took up more time than I will because, as he will appreciate, I cannot give a detailed response to many of the issues that he raised.
My hon. Friend made extremely serious charges, which is a legitimate use of such debates as long as the charges are backed up with hard and specific evidence. He has certainly set out to do that. I am sure that Ofgem, Transco and others will read what he has said with the greatest interest. For my part, I shall want an equally detailed rebuttalor acceptanceof the charges that he has made and the actions that flowed from them.
The public safety issues are of great importance. If there are concerns on safety grounds, it is completely proper that they should be raised in Parliament. On the other hand, no one wants to start scare stories about the general nature of the gas infrastructure, because the subject can cause some alarm. We must get that balance right. It is important in such a casemy hon. Friend has been specific in the charges that he has madethat evidence is pinned down for every example given, particularly those that affect safety. I give him an assurance that that will be done, and that I will pursue the matter.
Much of what my hon. Friend said related to a company in his constituency, Exoteric Gas Solutions, and that company's complaints against Transco. For the benefit of other hon. Members, EGS is an engineering company that, among other activities, designs and installs, or oversees and procures the design and installation of gas pipes and arranges for connection to a local distribution zone owned and operated by Transco. I understand that the company recently moved into the metering market, and that it installs meters that are supplied by Transco and oversees meter installation. My hon. Friend has vigorously championed the company's cause for several years and I commend him for that. I recently corresponded with him in response to his latest concerns expressed in his letter dated 14 November. I have offered to meet him to discuss those concerns, along with a representative of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets. I am sure that he will wish to take advantage of that meeting and to ensure that EGS's concerns are fully represented to Ofgem, preferably in advance of the meeting.
I understand that inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive's hazardous installations directorate have recently investigated a series of complaints made by Andrew Duffield of EGS to Ofgem on 8 July. The complaints concern six premisesI guess that they are the same ones to which my hon. Friend referredand include a list of alleged deficiencies at each. I am told that Transco has taken corrective action and that HSE has sent Ofgem a detailed response to the complaints. Mr. Duffield has raised further unrelated safety issues with Ofgem, which will also be followed up by HSE.
The director general of HSE, Timothy Walker, wrote to Mr. Duffield as recently as 18 November emphasising the seriousness that HSE attaches to Transco's safe operation. The letter explained that a further inspection visit to examine Transco's record keeping for newly
I shall address briefly the day-to-day handling of safety responsibilities for gas transportation. The responsibilities rest with the gas transporterin this case, Transcobut regulation is carried out by the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. Ofgem's health and safety function is dealt with under section 4A of the Gas Act 1986, as amended. In order to meet those requirements, a memorandum of understanding has been agreed with HSC and HSE, which are responsible for the regulation of most of the risks to health and safety that arise from work activities in Britain, including the regulation of the gas supply network. Structures are in place to deal with safety issues, and Ofgem handles complaints. It recently reviewed all the complaints that were raised and how they were dealt with. My hon. Friend raised serious points about how Ofgem's complaint-handling procedures have operated and the effectiveness of its responses.
I do not want to pretend that what I am saying responds to the detail of my hon. Friend's speech, which was unusual in the sense that it was very specific and included serious charges. I have no doubt that he believes that he has evidence to back up the charges and that it is in the public interest for them to be investigated transparently to reveal the justification for what he said.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Antisocial behaviour and crime are important issues for my constituents, and I welcome the opportunity to air their concerns and to bring the situation in Bromley to the Government's attention.
The exact figures on the funds for policing in the London borough of Bromley were given to me in a written answer. In 199798 funding was £27 million; in 199899 it was £26.4 million; in 19992000 it was £22.9 million; in 200001 it was £23.7 million; and this year it was £24.6 million. Tomorrow, we will know next year's figures, although we are just ahead of the point at which they are traditionally announced. The Minister will recognise that his figures show a decline over the past five years, although I agree that there has been a small upturn in the past two or three years.
The decline in funding has been reflected in the number of police in the London borough of Bromley. In December 1996, for example, there were 471 police officers in the borough. That figure declined steadily to 432 in December 1999 and fell further to 412 in December 2000. In January 2002, the figure rose to 424, and I believe the current figure to be about 427, a figure with which my local police officers would agree.
A comparison with nearby boroughs is interesting, and shows the unfairness to Bromley. Bromley's official crime rate is 29,196 crimes per year. The figure for Lewisham, 29,173 crimes per year, is almost exactly the same. Whereas Bromley has approximately 427 police officers, however, the London borough of Lewisham has 615 police officers. The number of officially recorded crimes in Greenwich, which has 588 police officers, is similar to the figures for Bromley and Lewisham. Given the number of crimes committed, Bromley is clearly disadvantaged by the present arrangements.
In terms of numbers of residents, Bromley is equally disadvantaged. There is one officer per 696 residents in Bromley; one officer per 366 residents in Greenwich, which is twice as many officers per resident as in Bromley; and one officer per 393 residents in Lewisham. Bromley records more burglary, criminal damage and theft than Greenwich or Lewisham, so it is not surprising that the people of Bromley feel hard done to by the existing arrangement.
It may interest the Minister to know that at a recent local residents association meeting, a gentleman who had moved from Catford in Lewisham to Biggin Hill said that he felt safer in Catford than he does in Biggin Hill, which is part of the alleged leafy suburbs of south London, because he observed more policing in Catford than in Biggin Hill. That is a consequence of the disparity in the number of police from which we suffer in Bromley by comparison with neighbouring London boroughs and the decline in police numbers over the past five yearsI accept that there has been a small increase in the past couple of years.
The Mayor of London pledged that there would be another 1,000 policemen on the streets of London, but Bromley has seen none of them. Bromley is a fairly affluent borough that gives a huge amount through its
Bromley put in for 10 community safety officers in the first tranche of requests and was turned down. Even a small request has been rejected by the Mayor's Office or the Metropolitan police authorityI am not sure which. To add insult to injury, the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Tope, undertook about a year ago to revise the formula used by the Metropolitan police to allocate funds among the boroughs. The result would, unbelievably, have further disadvantaged Bromley. I understand that it has now been tweaked and the disadvantage might not be as great as was originally foreseen. None the less, that indicates how much Bromley has been disadvantaged.
Conservative councillors in the borough are, therefore, organising a petition. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and I will join them in Bromley high street on Saturday morning when they will ask people to sign a petition to Lord Toby Harris, chairman of the Metropolitan police authority, which reads:
Unsurprisingly, as a result of the declining support for funding in Bromley, declining numbers of police officers and fewer police stations, crime has increased. I shall quote briefly from the report that I received in September from the Bromley police community consultative group, which I attend as often as I can and certainly when it is in my constituencyit rotates between the three constituencies in the borough. It is a worthwhile organisation because it enables ordinary people to ventilate their concerns. The figures show that last year saw a 10 per cent. increase in burglary in the borough; the target for this year is a 2 per cent. reduction. In street crimethe number one target of the Metropolitan police service at the momentBromley saw a 49 per cent. increase. Disordermeasured by calls from the public about such things as disturbances, drunkenness in the streets and youths hanging around on estates and intimidating peopleincreased by 14 per cent. last year. Three problems that are of great concern to my constituentsdisorder, street crime and burglaryhave increased, some by substantial amounts.
I understand from my local chief superintendent that the trend has got better in the past two or three months. I welcome that and am delighted to hear it. I am very impressed by my local officers. Chief Superintendent Dillnutt, who looks after the whole of Bromley, and Inspector Tullett, who looks after Orpington, are excellent officers. I am impressed by their performance and that of all the Metropolitan police officers I have met. I went out on night duty with a patrol earlier this year and I was fascinated to see how they operate. Chief Superintendent Dillnutt rightly says that his job is to do the best that he can with the available resources and I fully respect that.
Relations between the police and my local council are good, partly because the cabinet member responsible for community safety is a former policeman and understands the problems very well. In addition, an active local newspaper, the News Shopper, has run a good campaign called, "Shop a yob", whereby CCTV pictures of youths involved in crime or antisocial behaviour are splashed across the pages of the newspaper. The campaign has led to arrests and charges and I am delighted that it recently won the Newspaper Society's community award.
As well as the "Shop a yob" campaign, the newspaper has run an airgun control campaign. Like me, a number of hon. Members from south London and north KentI am thinking in particular of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw)have supported measures to bring airguns under stricter control, particularly when they are being used by young people and teenagers. All too often, the guns are used for target practice not only on property but on people and pets.
I do not want to go down what I call the Dunblane route of heavy-handed control on such guns because that would disadvantage legitimate shooters. None the less, controls on that sort of activity by young people must be tightened. The Minister may be interested to hear that Bromley police and Bexley police have run a surrender policy over the past two weeks and that has led to young people surrendering a substantial number of airguns.
Despite efforts by the council, the police and my local newspaper, the figures are as I quoted. They have become worse. There is a slight trend showing improvements over the past two months, but the figures are still unacceptable to local people. In case the Minister regales me with official statistics, I point out that, as he will know from recent reports, the official statistics underestimate the amount of crime. Recent estimates by Civitas show that crime is running four times higher than official figures show. Mr. Simmons, the head of the Home Office crime statistics unit, has seen the figures used by Civitas, confirmed that they are accurate and said that he is content with the report's findings.
Often people are afraid to report crimes or do not report them because they believe that nothing will be done. Sometimes they try to report crimes but give up because of the difficulty of getting through to anyone who will respond sensibly to their concerns. In view of that, I was surprised that when Lord Toby Harris came to Bromley he made the following remark in a report that he gave to the council:
He is looking at the official statistics, but the people of Bromley are looking at what is happening on their doorstep and in their streets and they know that the situation is bad. Saying that all is well because the official figures do not show it to be too bad means that he is not facing reality. My residents are the people who are facing reality. I also notice that Lord Tope said at one stage during his investigation of the allocation formula that there could be too many police. Again, who is living in the real world? I suggest neither the Liberal Democrat nor the Labour peer.
The situation is well encapsulated by a series of letters that I received from a public-spirited resident in Biggin Hillone part of the constituency, but it is representative of what is felt in other areas, which all report the same things. He was a victim of an assault in August when he tried to prevent some youths forcing a young mother with a child in a push-chair off a public path. He was beaten up and the youths said, "We do as we like. There is not enough of them"that is, the police"to do anything about it." Swear words accompanied that fusillade, which amounted to saying "I do not give tuppence for you." The Minister can well imagine the scene.
In September, there was another incident in the same area, which the resident gave me extensive notes about. On that occasion, nine homes were attacked by a gang of youths, who said the same things: "You can't touch us, the police will take ages to get here." They moved off. The police did come, after umpteen phone calls, but no one would give any evidence for fear of reprisals. That is the vicious circle in which people find themselves.
I cite the letter that I recently received from that resident about Hallowe'en and fireworks night, in which he reported an increase in police activity. The area was specially targeted by Bromley police, and as a result things were a lot better than they were on previous Hallowe'ens or fireworks nights. He is grateful for that, and asks me to record his gratitude for what Orpington police did. Of course, once fireworks night was over, the police presence was relaxed, and as a consequence the situation has become bad again, although it is not as bad as in previous years. He writes in the final paragraph of his letter:
The Government are determined that the police service will have the resources it needs to provide the first-rate service that our communities deserve. We have already put significant levels of investment into the police service to bring about record numbers of police officers, and to underpin the programme of police reform that was taken through the House of Commons last year. The first ever national policing plan was recently unveiled by the Home Secretary. That set out the strategic direction for the police service and our priorities for policing during the next three years. Those include tackling antisocial behaviour and disorder, and reducing volume crime and street, drug-related, violent and gun crime, which is a particular problem in parts of the capital. We also need to concentrate on serious and organised crime, which operates behind the scenes and feeds so much of the front-line crime from which our communities suffer.
The policing plan crosses boundaries while leaving infrastructure in place to tackle crime effectively. It provides a national framework for raising the performance of all forces, and will form the basis of local plans to be drawn up by chief officers and police authorities to improve standards in their localities.
We recognise the continuing blight of antisocial behaviour. We are working across Government to address it. We recently announced our intention to introduce an antisocial behaviour Bill in this Session. The hon. Gentleman referred to a specific area of antisocial behaviourthe misuse of airguns. I do not know whether he was in the House the other day when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear that we were looking in exactly the direction that the hon. Gentleman indicated he would support. We want to clamp down on the abuse of guns, particularly that by under-age users, in a way that does not impose a huge bureaucracy on the police, move resources from other things that they should be tackling, or impinge on the lawful use of air weapons in sport and elsewhere. We seek a satisfactory route whereby effective measures are taken and the police are given appropriate powers to deal with abuse without unnecessarily burdening lawful users. If we do that, I hope that we will receive the hon. Gentleman's support.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that I cannot announce any of the figures for this year's spending before tomorrow. However, I can tell him that we will continue to build on the already significant investment in the police service over the past few years. Spending on policing, supported by the Government, rose by 10.1 per cent. in 200102, and this year it has increased by a further 7.3 per cent. to £9.117 billion.
There is a problem between some of what the hon. Gentleman says here, with which his colleagues agree, and what is said, quite rightly, in other forums. It is the Government's job to provide the money necessary to
Much of the hon. Gentleman's anger was directed at the formulae that were being applied in the Metropolitan police force area. He has had the opportunity to have those arguments: the resource allocation formula governing the distribution of resources in the Metropolitan area was open for consultation. Everyone had an opportunity to have their say. The adjustments that were made to that formula following the review by Lord Tope made a positive difference for Bromley. There was not the fall in Bromley's allocation that there would have been with a pure allocation of figures.
Although the hon. Gentleman complains about the lack of an allocation of community safety officers in Bromley, I am sure that he accepts that the Metropolitan police have been at the forefront of using the powers and new staffing arrangements introduced by the Police Reform Act 2002. The use by that force of community safety officers to provide visibility in central London does not mean that there is no knock-on benefit for Bromley, as those people are doing jobs that would otherwise have to be done by constables employed by the Metropolitan police.
Mr. Horam : I accept that, but we too would like some community support officers, which have been provided in central London. The problem always seems to be that the suburbs get nothing, while central London gets it all. As regards Lord Tope, his initial views were disadvantageous to Bromley, and only the fact that some pressure was put on him created a situation that was at least no worse.
Mr. Ainsworth : I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts the thrust of what I saidthat an alteration in the formula led to a better allocation for Bromley than that which was originally intended at one point in the consultation.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Lord Toby Harris's comments about recorded crime. Like hon. Members of all parties, I accept that there is considerable under-recording of certain categories of crime. However, no one would dissent from the proposition that, broadly speaking, whether measured by recorded crime over the years or by the British crime survey, most categories of crime are falling. The hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench team does not argue with that, but he appears to be doing so. There is a discrepancy between what he says and what others generally accept. There are problems involved in getting people to report crime, in giving them the necessary confidence and in reducing the fear of crime in line with the falls that are taking place in recorded crime, but broadly speaking crime in most categories is falling.
Mr. Ainsworth : I understand that. Certainly, the fear of crime is not fallingthat is a problem throughout the country that we need to address by building on confidence in policing within communities.
The Metropolitan police service revenue budget is £2.038 billion for 200203. That is an increase of £95 million, or 4.9 per cent., over last year. In addition to the £1.676 billion provided by central Government support from the principal police grantincluding £197 million for the Metropolitan police service special payment to reflect the special position of the capital and the special responsibilities held by its police officerswe have provided many extra resources in the Metropolitan police area in the current financial year. Those include £62 million from the crime fighting fund to continue funding for crime fighting force officers recruited in 200001; £44.5 million in capital allocation for the Metropolitan police over the past year; £41 million in the capital for Airwave, the new radio communications system; and £1 million for two successful bids from the £20 million premises improvement fund. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the new police station that will open in Bromley in September 2003 as part of a private finance initiative that will also include new stations in Sutton and in Lewisham.
The hon. Gentleman said a great deal about comparisons with other boroughs. He mentioned Bromley's contribution to funding for the Metropolitan police service. This year, the borough will contribute £16.9 million, or 4.7 per cent. of police funding raised, through the police precept on the council tax. It comes as no surprise that Bromley, with a population of around 297,000, contributes more than the boroughs of Lewisham, whose population is 242,000. The population of Greenwich is 215,000. For a locally provided service, it is appropriate that police authorities should be allowed the flexibility to raise some funding locally. However, more than 80 per cent. of the funding comes from central Government. That will continue to be the case.