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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): The Minister said that Britain does not need a strategic gas reserve, as we have for oil, because of the reserves in the North sea. Will he describe the circumstances and the legal powers under which, in an emergency, he could require private companies to sell into the market?

Malcolm Wicks: As I have explained, the contracts that some intensive users freely sign mean that in certain circumstances they will take less gas than in normal times. Some companies make money by selling it back to the grid. That is the reality of the market in that situation. It would be in only the most extreme and    unlikely circumstances, in serious emergency conditions, that the state, via the national grid, might have to intervene. I answer the question because the hon. Gentleman asked it, but no rational commentator anticipates such a situation.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Minister has openly acknowledged that we now import gas through the interconnector. That has profound political implications, particularly with regard to the energy mix. Does he have a long-term policy on whether there should a limit on an acceptable level of gas imports?

Malcolm Wicks: My own Member of Parliament has asked me an important question. [Interruption.] I always think that how one votes is a secret. The hon. Gentleman raises an important question about national security and the geopolitics of energy policy, and that is a matter of growing concern. In 2004 we became a net importer of gas, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and in a year or so we will become a net importer of oil. Therefore, we are moving from energy island to a heavy dependence on imports of energy, notwithstanding the issues around coal and the contribution of renewables, and so on, which I could go into if we had more time. Therefore, as the Prime Minister said at the Labour party conference in Brighton—I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was there on that occasion—we now need rigorously to consider issues relating to our depending on some unstable parts of the world, and that will be an important dimension of the new energy review.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Minister has accused Opposition Members of scaremongering about the prospect of cuts in the gas supply. May I direct him to the comments made by the hon. and learned Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), a former Minister with responsibility for energy, in January 2005 in Westminster Hall, when he said that gas supplies could indeed run short if there were a cold snap this winter, or next winter? Will he take
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time to familiarise himself with those remarks, and perhaps look into what the hon. and learned Gentleman meant by that?

Malcolm Wicks: We all recognise that the balance between energy supply and demand for two or three years is difficult. That is to some extent why we are having this discussion. Why is that? I am advised that it is partly because the rundown of oil and gas from the North sea and the rest of the UK continental shelf has happened at a faster rate than was being predicted only a few years ago. It is also because—it is regrettable but it is where we are—the heavy investment by the market in infrastructure, such as pipelines, liquefied natural gas terminals and the rest, is only now coming on stream, or will be in a year or so. I rather wish that it had been there a year or so ago. Of course I do. But there is this time lag. There is a tightness in the market, but domestic consumers will not be affected and most of business will not be affected, although high prices are now a global phenomenon. However, there is the issue, and I am repeating myself now, of the heavy users, which is where the difficulty is, if people have chosen, rightly or wrongly—it is their commercial judgment—to buy on the spot market.


Climate Change (Contraction and Convergence)

Mr. Colin Challen presented a Bill to make provision for the adoption of a policy of combating climate change in accordance with the principles of contraction and convergence; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 July, and to be printed. [Bill 92].

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Registration Service

1 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I beg to move,

I declare an interest as the honorary patron of the Society of Registration Officers in England and Wales. I was appointed to that position shortly after my election to Parliament in May 1997 and succeeded the former Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, Joyce Quin, when she was appointed Minister of State, Home Office, in the new Government.

Registration officers are appointed, accommodated and paid by local authorities, which also provide their pensions. However, because they are statutory officers, they have no legal employer, and only the Registrar General at the Office for National Statistics in Pimlico has the power to dismiss them. A registration officer has duties and responsibilities imposed by the Marriage Act 1949, the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and the Registration Service Act 1953.

Registration officers are held responsible for their own acts or omissions. As statutory officers, when they are dismissed they have no right of appeal against unfair or constructive dismissal to an employment tribunal. The Registrar General will hear an appeal, but only if new material evidence is available. My Bill will result in the post holders becoming employees of the local authority. Notwithstanding that, they would retain their statutory duties under the Registration Acts. My Bill will also result in consequential amendments to the Registration Service Act 1953.

The Bill has the full support of the Government, the Registrar General and the Front-Bench spokesmen for the two major Opposition parties, whom I thank for their support. It also has the full support of the representative organisations of the employees whom it will affect, namely their professional organisation, SORO, Unison, the employer's organisation and the Local Authority Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services.

My Bill is non-controversial. It would bring the employment of registration officers into line with all those currently employed by local authorities, and would impose no additional financial burden on local authorities. When registration officers change their status and become local authority employees, there will be no redundancies and their existing pay and conditions will be unaffected. Moreover, there will be consultation in accordance with a national joint council agreement that is being negotiated between the employer's organisation and Unison.

There are currently 1,700 registration officers, who are known as principal officers, working in accommodation provided by local authorities, and they will be affected by my Bill. In the past 10 years, 18 of them have been dismissed from their posts. Since 1997, I have tabled several written and oral questions and suggested a debate on the issue more than once at business questions, and I held an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall in June 2003. I have lost count of
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the number of Ministers whom I have dealt with, in both the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, in an attempt to correct the anomaly that this Bill would right.

Following my early lobbying, I learned that the White Paper "Fairness at Work" contains a proposal to allow existing employment rights to be extended to all statutory officers and that section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 provides a way forward. The DTI embarked on a consultation exercise on section 23 of the 1999 Act in 2003, which is known as the employment status review, and a statement about the use of section 23 is expected towards the end of this year or the beginning of the next.

Section 23 allows the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make an order, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, to extend to persons who do not currently enjoy them certain employment rights, but an employment order under section 23 has not yet been made. In parallel with those DTI procedures, the Treasury planned a major reform of the civil registration service, the first since the service was established in 1837.

In September 1999, the Registrar General published a consultation paper, "Registration: Modernising a Vital Service", which resulted in the publication in January 2002 of the White Paper "Civil Registration: Vital Change". The Government announced that civil registration reform would be delivered by means of the order-making powers in the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, and another consultation document, "Civil Registration: Delivering Vital Change" was published in 2003. The document proposed that the titles of superintendent registrar, registrar of births, marriages and deaths or additional registrar of marriages should disappear, and that local authorities should become the legal employers of all those involved in the civil registration service, in which case the demarcation between registration officers at marriage ceremonies and registering births, deaths and marriage events would cease.

The first of two planned draft orders, the Regulatory Reform (Registration of Births and Deaths) (England and Wales) Order 2004, was laid before Parliament on 22 July 2004. It is the largest regulatory reform proposal ever presented to Parliament, with 68 articles and 15 schedules amending 20 Acts. The House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee report on the first draft order was published in December 2004. It rejected using delegated legislation to reform the civil registration service or the part of it that deals with births and deaths. A second regulatory reform order was planned to reform the civil registration service relating to marriage, but it has not been laid. The House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee also rejected the first draft order. Both Committees regarded the overall package of proposals as an inappropriate use of the powers in the 2001 Act.

On 16 November this year, the Financial Secretary launched a further consultation paper, "Registration Modernisation", which sets out how local authorities are to be given greater responsibility for the delivery of the local registration service. It also contains details of other important changes to modernise civil registration. Some of these changes will require primary legislation, and further delays are inevitable. Because of that, I beg leave of the House to introduce this Bill, which in the
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meantime will remove the uncertainty that has hung over the employment of registration officers for so long and which will deliver them the right of appeal to an employment tribunal should they be unfairly or constructively dismissed. Surely that is what this House wants in the 21st century? I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

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