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4 Feb 2003 : Column 243—continued

Mr. Forth: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Now that the House has put itself in an interesting position, and the Government in an even worse position, in that the commitments made in the Government's manifesto look as if they are now in shreds, and the option that got the closest vote was my party's policy, can we expect an immediate statement from the Leader of the House as to where he expects us now to go—

Hon. Members: Home.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Forth: —not least so that the Government honour their manifesto. Can the Leader of the House tell us that now, please?

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair, but if the Leader of the House wishes to make a comment, he may do so.

Mr. Cook: The view expressed by hon. Members was wise. We should go home and sleep on this interesting position. That is the most sensible thing that anyone can say in the circumstances. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the next stage in the process is for the Joint Committee to consider the votes in both Houses. Heaven help the members of the Committee, because they will need it.

Mr. Tyler rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: To be fair, I will take just one more point of order. [Interruption.]

Mr. Tyler: I am grateful for the enthusiasm for my contribution. Further to that point of order, I point out to the House that it seems that the majority of Labour Members have not voted for their policy and the majority of Conservative Members have not voted for their policy. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am pleased to be able to say that that is not a point of order for the Chair. We must move to the next business, which is petitions. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quickly?

4 Feb 2003 : Column 244

PETITIONS

Food Supplements

6.20 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I have the honour of presenting a petition signed by more than 1,000 of my constituents and other residents of Kent who, unlike this House, have the great merit of being able to make up their minds about what they actually want done.

The petition states:


To lie upon the Table.

T&S Stores

6.22 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): I wish to present a petition on behalf of constituents and others who were very concerned by the proposal made by Tesco to take over T & S Stores. The people who signed the petition were concerned that the takeover of the stores would mean that many people all over the country would no longer have corner or high street shops. Some 318 people have signed the petition.

The petition states:


The merger has gone ahead, but I still wish to present the petition.

To lie upon the Table.

4 Feb 2003 : Column 243

4 Feb 2003 : Column 245

Gas Disconnections

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

6.23 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the distress, anguish, pain and real suffering that has been caused to my constituents in Belgrave as a result of the disconnection of their gas supply in December 2002. I am delighted to see that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), will reply to the debate, because he is one of the most assiduous constituency MPs in the House.

I would like my hon. Friend to imagine for a moment how awful it must have been for the people of Belgrave and how they suffered as a result of what happened. They had no gas and, in some cases, no electricity, heating, hot water, or any effective means of communication to find out what had happened. Old and vulnerable people were left shivering in the dark, with babies crying because of their discomfort, schools closed and people off work because they could not find emergency child care. People with disabilities and indeed diabetes were unable to move and confined to their homes. Those were the horrifying consequences of the disconnection of gas supply faced by my constituents.

Although this matter affects residents in my constituency, it also affects those in that of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), who is of course Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. In some cases, our respective constituents come from the same family. We have been in constant contact about the issue in order to do what is best for local people, and we will continue in our joint efforts to ensure that justice is done. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) also represents constituents who have relatives in the area, and I am delighted to see him in the Chamber. I am especially pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), the deputy Chief Whip, who was born in one of the houses that had its gas supply disconnected. Of course, that was a few years, but not many years, ago.

All Leicester is extremely anxious to know what the Minister and the Government are proposing to do. On Wednesday 4 December, the headline in the Leicester Mercury screamed "Left in the Cold". The newspaper reported that 1,800 households in Belgrave faced five days without heating. For five days—and more than that for many people—people were left without heating or huddled around borrowed heaters.

The facts were these. A burst water main was reported at 1.45 am on Abbey Park road. Hundreds of pupils were sent home after Catherine junior school and Abbey primary school were forced to close. By 7 pm, 10,000 gallons of water had been pumped out of the system. Ten days later, the figure had risen to 100,000. By the end, a total of 200,000 gallons had been pumped out.

I am very pleased to see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, whom I mentioned earlier, has joined us in the Chamber. I am glad that she is here for this debate.

4 Feb 2003 : Column 246

I pay tribute to the people of Belgrave for the community spirit that they showed in those difficult weeks. They pulled together in a most spectacular way, giving each other support, help and encouragement. I am proud of them. They include people such as Rita Valland, Tara Patel, Sumita Valland, Meena Joshi, Urvashi Raithahta, Puri Patel and the local head teacher of Abbey school, Wendy Allan, and her magnificent staff. Local residents were united, but also furious. In total, there were three public meetings. The first attracted 600 residents. They were upset and angry. I have never seen constituents so upset about something in my 16 years as a local Member. That community spirit and unity was, I am afraid, in direct contrast with the lack of co-ordination among the private sector companies.

I also want to pay tribute to the local elected officials for their work: Councillors Veejay Patel and Ramink Kavia in Latimer ward; Councillors John Thomas and Sakarlal Gaggar in Belgrave ward; and Councillors Manjula Sood and Mo Chouhan in Abbey ward in the Leicester, West constituency. They acted as an important bridge between the community and the companies involved, articulating their views and pushing constantly for urgent action.

The supply of gas is a very complicated matter. It is transported from the beach through to the meter, after which its transportation passes to a shipper, who gives it to a supplier. There are about 60 gas suppliers in England and Wales. Transco was the company in the lead as far as these matters were concerned. My constituents had a number of genuine concerns about the speed with which Transco operated. However, I want to thank Brian Popplestone, the chief executive, and Stepehne Ross for acting swiftly in informing me about what was happening. I also commend them for agreeing to hold an inquiry of their own.

It was clear to me from the start, having inspected the photograph, that the fault lay primarily with the water that was supplied by Severn Trent, which had entered the gas main. I am informed that it took 48 hours to restore gas to the first properties, and that most services had been restored by 16 December. Transco had 60 personnel working around the clock and had brought in people from all over the country. In the end, 200,000-plus gallons of water—enough to fill two Olympic swimming pools—and 0.5 tonnes of soil, gravel and sand were removed from the gas system. Transco has paid £250,000 in statutory compensation. I shall return to compensation later.

Another cause for concern to residents was the need for Transco to deal with its call centre and emergency number. Several residents who rang the number felt that they were not properly dealt with; some felt that they were pushed from pillar to post. Moreover, many residents did not speak English and some were very old. It would be helpful if, when a big company such as Transco finds that there is an emergency, people with language skills—in this case people able to speak Gujerati—are able to take some of those calls.

Last year, East Midlands Electricity, which is part of Powergen, made profits of £298 million. It, too, has failed to live up to our expectations. We need to consider the failures of Powergen. When the heating supply was switched off, there were approximately 2,000 heaters that could have been used; but they were not, because,

4 Feb 2003 : Column 247

people were told, the local generator would be overloaded and would blow up if the heaters were all switched on at the same time. I ask hon. Members to consider the foolishness of having so many heaters that could not be used in such an emergency.

We know that the water came from Severn Trent. Last year, that company had profits of £357.4 million, yet it has offered not a penny in compensation. More than 250,000 gallons of Severn Trent water entered the gas mains over this period, yet it is unwilling to take responsibility for its failures. I have seen the hole myself, and it is clear that the water entered the gas mains through it. It remains a cause for concern that it took Severn Trent several hours to turn off the water.

It is worth reminding the House of the point at which Severn Trent got involved. At 1.45 am, a resident called Transco. At 2 am, Transco was on site. At 2.45 am, Transco made a request to Severn Trent to turn off the water supply. But it was seven hours later, at 9.55 am, that Severn Trent turned off the water main. That delay was scandalous, and we need a full explanation of why it happened. The company's communication has been poor. Many of the anxieties that residents raised about the call centre at Transco were repeated about the one at Severn Trent. I believe that Severn Trent is to blame for what has happened. Legislation does not cover the element of compensation that is over and above that for which the code provides. I believe that Severn Trent should pick up the Bill.

To add insult to injury, during the crisis, I received a letter from Brian Duckworth, managing director of Severn Trent. He did not manage to write to me to tell me what was happening during the crisis, but he wrote to inform me that Severn Trent would increase water charges from 1 April 2003. Poor Severn Trent was running out of money, but not of the water that remained in the gas mains of Belgrave.

I thank Leicester city council for its actions. The local council reacted well, and bore the brunt of the work and the explaining. I pay tribute to Charles Poole, service director of democratic services, and Pravin Ruparelia of Belgrave neighbourhood centre and his staff. The city council provided more than 150 staff and volunteers, who prepared, cooked and served meals. They delivered hot meals to the vulnerable and a team of 27 social workers made home visits to vulnerable people. Two thousand four hundred hot meals were delivered to vulnerable people in their homes. More than 11,000 hot meals were served at the Belgrave neighbourhood centre, of which 8,500 were prepared and cooked on site.

Although Powergen was unable to do anything about the electricity supply, the council converted the overnight boiler at St. Mark's to dual fuel, thereby enabling the district heating system to be reconditioned so that it was fuelled by oil instead of electricity. I hope that its sizeable bill will be passed to Severn Trent.

I shall outline what I should like the Minister and the Government to do. First, I would like my hon. Friend's assurance that he will reconsider statutory compensation. The amount of compensation offered is derisory. Each household has been given only £30. Some households have not received any money. I want my hon. Friend to compare the figure with the distress that people have suffered. He should also compare it with the figure under the electricity proposals.

4 Feb 2003 : Column 248

Such compensation is especially derisory when compared with the profits of the three companies last year. They were: £357 million, £298 million, and £1,298 million in the case of Transco. The figure of £30 derives from the network code. The agreement was made not with the Government but under the auspices of Ofgem. The maximum amount payable is £1,000. That is not enough, and the fixed rate does not cover the losses that the traders on Belgrave road suffered. The agreement lasts until 2007 and I appreciate that even someone as strong and assiduous as my hon. Friend cannot tear it up. However, I ask him to reconsider it to ascertain whether the figure can be increased when it is renegotiated in 2007. If he can, I want him to call for a new level.

Secondly, we want the Minister to refer the matter to the regulator Ofgem for a full inquiry. I asked each body involved to conduct an investigation. Transco and the city council have completed their inquiries, but we have received no news from Severn Trent.

Thirdly, we should like the Government to play a more active role. Private sector companies have been unable to co-ordinate their activities properly. They need leadership at such a time, and I believe that it falls to the Department of Trade and Industry to provide it. As the Department that deals with the energy companies and the regulator, it is best placed to provide that leadership. I do not know what the Minister can do under the confines of the statutory powers, but I hope that he will look at this.

Fourthly, we would like the Minister's support in our pursuit of Severn Trent. The company has not paid up. This very afternoon, it organised a party in a banqueting room for Members of this House. It must have cost a bit. The people of Belgrave do not want a party from Severn Trent; they want compensation for the loss and distress that the company has caused, be it through gas meter readings that were wrong, frozen food that went bad, days off school resulting in emergency child care having to be paid for or a day's holiday being lost, equipment going wrong, or the cost of phone calls or postage. All these cause distress and inconvenience. For the traders on the famous Belgrave road—from the Khadir Refreshment House in the west to the Sharmile Sweet Mart in the east, and many others besides—the loss of business runs into thousands of pounds.

I hope that the Minister will consider those four points. I should like to add two more. Will he remind the companies concerned that we are dealing with loss caused by damage? Some consumers are entitled to new appliances. Let us not dilly-dally and argue over this. Let us get on with it, and hand over those new appliances. Some people have still not received their statutory compensation. Louise Jones, who lives in Bruin street in Belgrave, e-mailed me this afternoon to say that she was still waiting for compensation from a company called Stay Warm—although, of course, she was not warm during this event. She has a different supplier from her next-door neighbour in Bruin street, who has received his compensation. Will the Minister please look at the plethora of suppliers, to see whether he or the regulator can find out what has been paid and what has not?

Lastly, we ask the Government to issue good practice guidance in these circumstances. An incident such as this is going to happen somewhere else. I do not believe

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that the people of Belgrave, and of Leicester, East and Leicester, West, were fated by some divine interference to be affected in December. This will happen again, and we need to learn lessons from it. Good practice guidance from the Department of Trade and Industry will help people who face these problems elsewhere.

My hon. Friend is a first-class Minister, and we do not want him to sit on the sidelines on this matter. In the interests of consumers—of whom he is a true champion—I ask him to champion these people, and to help us to ensure that justice is done and that those responsible face the consequences and pay the full amount of compensation that these people deserve.


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