Energy Bill

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Clause 81

Power to amend licence conditions: gas
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Malcolm Wicks: I thought that we were still into smart meters and I was awaiting the excitement of the vote, but that comes later, does it not? That is what threw me.
Clause 81 needs to be regarded partly in the context of the group of clauses. We have just voted on clause 80 so unanimously because we know that it makes a number of minor and consequential amendments to the Gas Act 1986, to supplement the substantive transfer of functions in relation to gas meters made by clause 79.
Before the transfer, functions under section 17 of the Act and related regulations are the responsibility of Ofgem. Where the legislation mentions those Ofgem employees who carry out such functions, it refers to them as members of the director’s staff. To reflect the transfer of responsibilities and to future-proof the provisions against possible machinery of government changes, it is proposed to replace the references to members of the director’s—Ofgem’s—staff with more general references to persons employed in the civil service of the state.
Most of the functions covered in the transfer are carried out by appointed meter examiners, but not all meter examiners are civil servants, and they still need to be paid. Clause 80(4) therefore makes provision to allow payment of those examiners who are not employed in the civil service of the state, including in respect of any pensions payable. I am therefore grateful that colleagues supported that clause.
Clause 81 is necessary to ensure that the National Weights and Measures Laboratory can recover the costs associated with functions relating to the standards and accuracy of meters under section 17 of the Gas Act 1986. Responsibility for those functions currently rests with Ofgem, which is funded for that purpose by a licence fee paid by pipes and wires companies. Those are the companies that transfer gas and electricity through the networks—the gas transporters and the electricity transmission and distribution operators.
The cost of such fees is then passed on to other groups operating in the competitive gas market, such as the suppliers themselves, as part of the normal charging arrangements for use of network services. Given that the licence fee is currently collected by Ofgem, however, we need to find a way of ensuring that the laboratory, which is concerned with metrology, can recover any costs associated with its new responsibilities under section 17 of the Act.
The solution proposed in the clause reflects the model already used for energywatch. Put simply, Ofgem will continue to collect the money attributable to such functions from the pipes and wires companies through the licence fee. However, the money will pass directly into the consolidated fund, from which the laboratory can then recover it. That is the least burdensome approach, because licensees are not required to change arrangements for the payment of fees, and the laboratory does not need to set up any new complex financial system.
A requirement for the Secretary of State to consult on and publish any modifications provides protection for licence payers. The power itself is available only for a period of six months following commencement because it is envisaged that only one licence modification will be required.
As I have explained, this important clause represents no additional burden to the pipes and wires companies that receive and pay for the service, but it ensures that the National Weights and Measures Laboratory can recover its costs for the transferred work that it will undertake.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 81 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 82

electricity meters
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Malcolm Wicks: I can move the clause very briefly because it transfers existing statutory responsibility for the technical aspects of electricity meters from the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority to the Secretary of State. It follows the same form as the transfer of functions in relation to gas meters in clause 79.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 82 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 83

Section 82: consequential amendments
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Malcolm Wicks: Clause 80 made several minor and consequential amendments to the Gas Act 1986 with regard to the transfer of functions in relation to gas meters, which was set out in clause 79. Similarly, clause 83 makes several minor and consequential amendments to the Electricity Act 1989 in relation to electricity meters, following the transfer of functions set out in clause 82.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 83 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 84

Power to amend licence conditions: electricity
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Malcolm Wicks: The clause sets out provisions on cost recovery for functions in relation to electricity meters in the same way as clause 81 did for functions in relation to gas meters. That is necessary to ensure that the National Weights and Measures Laboratory can recover the costs associated with functions relating to the standards and accuracy of meters under schedule 7 of the Electricity Act 1989.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 84 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 85

Electricity safety
Charles Hendry: I beg to move amendment No. 47, in clause 85, page 75, line 8, at end add—
‘(3) This section does not apply to electricity display devices.
(4) In this section, “electricity display device” means a device that can be attached to a meter board in order to provide information on the amount of electricity being used.’.
The clause relates to electricity safety standards. Essentially, it will transfer inspection and enforcement issues relating to those standards from the Secretary of State to the Health and Safety Executive and give the HSE the power to amend the standards as it sees fit. In particular, it deals with the issue of electricity display devices, which the Minister mentioned earlier. I predicted on Thursday that they would be popped into a cupboard:
“They will put them away in a cupboard and never use them again”.——[Official Report, Energy Public Bill Committee, 6 March 2008; c. 539.]
It is only because I shamed the Minister into taking his out of the cupboard that it might be fitted, but I suspect that if he looks at it, he will see writing on it saying, “This should only be attached to a meter by somebody who understands what they are doing.” He knows an awful lot about an awful lot of things, but whether he knows how to attach things to his meter remains to be seen. If he is not back here on Monday, we will understand that he did not, but I shall not go there.
The issue with EDDs, although I do not want to start a protracted debate about them, is that the Government appear to be advocating not smart metering but giving consumers more information, which has a danger. I should like to know how that relates to the clause in terms of safety measures and how they will be monitored. We will be expecting consumers who do not know much about the issues to attach EDDs to their own meters. That could be dangerous; they could get shocks, or worse. How will that be dealt with? Will the companies providing the devices have an obligation to be responsible somehow for their safety? What will happen in those circumstances? It is a probing amendment to see how the Minister plans to take forward the measures.
EDDs are not a satisfactory replacement for smart meters, although I am sure that you do not wish us to get into a debate on that, Mr. Amess. They are not as safe as they might be, and people might be tempted to install them themselves. Who will have legal liability if something goes wrong? The amendment would ensure that the companies would be exempted from any responsibility if someone fits an EDD incorrectly.
Dr. Iddon: The Department of Health funded the Draper report, published in 2005, which found that children living from birth within 200 m of high-voltage power lines had a 70 per cent. higher chance of developing leukaemia in childhood. It was the largest ever study of childhood cancers and power lines, involving every childhood cancer case in the UK during a 30-year period. The causes of childhood leukaemia are not well understood, but there is increasing evidence that environmental factors play a part. Ionising radiation is the only established cause of the disease. In 2004, the Health Protection Agency recommended that the Government
“consider the need for further precautionary measures”
to reduce public exposure to electromagnetic fields.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is being ingenious, but I have been listening carefully, and I cannot see the relevance to the amendment. It seems to me that he is speaking about new clause 26. Could he make his remarks entirely relevant to amendment No. 47?
Dr. Iddon: I seek your guidance, Mr. Amess. I am trying to discuss electrical safety with respect to health. Is that not in order under the clause?
The Chairman: The amendment refers specifically to electricity display devices. If the hon. Gentleman can make his remarks relevant to that, I am happy to hear him.
Dr. Iddon: My ingenuity does not stretch that far.
Charles Hendry: On a point of order, Mr. Amess. Could you clarify whether this important and interesting issue might be relevant to the clause stand part debate on clause 85, which relates to electricity safety?
The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It would be entirely relevant to a clause stand part debate.
12.45 pm
Malcolm Wicks: I should clarify for the record that my display device is in a cupboard because I was so busy drafting a response to the hon. Member for Wealden that I did not look at the instructions closely enough.
We will discuss the big issues about display under our proposals on smart meters. Display devices may not be as smart as smart meters, but they should not be ashamed. They should be proud and come out of the closet. That will include my own closet at the weekend. I will my report progress to the hon. Gentleman, albeit privately.
The amendment applies to display devices and looks at the health issues. The safety of electricity display devices is completely separate from the safety of electricity distribution equipment, which is the subject of the clause. My understanding is that display devices can be attached to a meter board to provide information on the amount of electricity being used. The objective of such devices is to raise awareness of energy consumption and thereby promote energy efficiency. Such battery operated devices are readily available at appropriate retail outlets. One energy supplier currently provides them free to customers who sign up to a particular tariff. As I mentioned in a previous debate, the Government will publish their policy on such devices later this month as part of the response on metering and billing.
The clause deals exclusively with section 29 of the Electricity Act 1989 and regulations made under it. Those regulations relate to the safety of electrical equipment operated by generators, electricity transmission and distribution companies, and meter operators. They might apply to overhead power lines, buried cables and meters, but not to devices installed by the consumer such as electricity display devices. The amendment would therefore not have its intended impact and is unnecessary. I believe that it is a probing amendment.
In his discussion last Thursday, the hon. Member for Wealden raised concerns about the installation of electricity display devices. Perfectly properly, he has returned to that theme today. He might find it helpful to know that my officials have been in discussion with the Health and Safety Executive about the safety risks associated with such devices and their installation. Neither my Department, nor the HSE consider there to be any notable safety issues.
The instructions on how to install electricity display devices that are currently on the market are clear. They provide step-by-step instructions on how to attach the device to the meter board. I look forward to reading them again. Consumers are advised to contact qualified electrical installers if they are unsure about how to install the devices. Any fault with a device would be a consumer product reliability issue, as with any other electrical device or appliance. As the clause does not apply to such devices, the amendment is unnecessary. I request that the hon. Gentleman considers withdrawing it.
Charles Hendry: I am happy to withdraw the amendment. As I made clear, it was a probing amendment. I thank the Minister and his officials for the work that they have done with the HSE to clarify the situation. He has provided the clarity that we were seeking. However, we will return to these issues under the wider debate on smart metering. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman: Before we come to the clause stand part debate, I remind the Committee that anyone wishing to participate must make their remarks relevant to the clause, which is entirely about electricity safety. The debate must not be drawn towards any new clauses that hon. Members have tabled.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Dr. Iddon: I appreciate your patience and I will endeavour to follow your ruling, Mr. Amess.
I have already referred to the fairly hefty Draper report. In 2004 the Health Protection Agency recommended that the Government
“consider the need for further precautionary measures”
“the attention of local authority planning departments and electricity companies be drawn to the evidence of a possible increase in childhood leukaemia, which may result from siting new buildings very close to power lines.”
Last month, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo) updated the House by reporting that discussions were under way with agencies, the industry and trade associations to seek initial views on the practicalities of implementing those recommendations. The matter was discussed during the passage of the Planning Bill and the Housing and Regeneration Bill. As a result, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) asked his officials to draft proposals by Easter. I felt that that matter should be raised during the passage of this Bill.
The World Health Organisation also acknowledges the association—I cannot put it more strongly than that—between a child living in proximity to high-voltage power lines and childhood leukaemia. In its latest report, the WHO states that
“low cost precautionary measures are warranted.”
The Bill will result in an expansion of the grid to accommodate greater generating capacity especially from renewable sources of energy. In my view, it is important that the views of such organisations are taken into account by the Minister when that extended grid is established. I look forward to any comments that my hon. Friend the Minister can make at this stage on this matter.
Malcolm Wicks: Let me just introduce the clause and then I will comment on the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East. The clause concerns a transfer of responsibility for electricity safety from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to the HSE. The engineering inspectorate of the then Department of Trade and Industry was identified as carrying out functions in the area of electricity safety in a 2005 report about reducing administrative burdens by Philip Hampton. It highlighted that those functions were important for protecting the public. The Committee will be aware of the potential for serious personal injury and even fatality as a result of non-compliance with standards for electrical safety. It is important, for example, to ensure that electricity infrastructure complies with the required clear signage to protect against persons coming into contact with high-voltage installations.
The HSE’s remit extends to the safety of workers and the public in workplaces. The Hampton report noted that there was a link between that and the enforcement of electricity safety regulation. As such, we considered it to be appropriate to move those functions relating to safety of persons under the umbrella of one single safety regulator. That transfer ensures that health and safety inspectors, who have day-to-day experience of dealing with matters of safety, will now inspect and enforce issues relating to electricity safety standards. The transfer means that those inspectors will also be able to use their own governing legislation, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 in cases in which there has been a breach of electricity safety standards. That allows for the use of criminal sanctions and even a maximum two-year imprisonment for breach of an enforcement notice. That means that sanctions available in cases in which there has been a breach of electricity safety standards mirror those available for a breach of all other safety standards, which are governed by the 1974 Act. I am sure that the Committee will agree that this is a proportionate measure since the most serious breaches of electricity safety standards could result in death.
In response to the question from the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East, the Government take their advice from the Health Protection Agency on limiting exposure to extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields, which I will refer to as ELF EMF for brevity.
In 2004, following a comprehensive review of scientific evidence, the then National Radiological Protection Board, which is now part of the Health Protection Agency, recommended the adoption of guidelines set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. Those guidelines—known as ICNIRP guidelines—are based on the established health effects of exposure to ELF EMF. They set values for workers, building in a significant level of protection. The guidelines for public exposure to power frequency magnetic fields incorporate a further fivefold safety margin, in recognition of the fact that the general population includes individuals who may be more sensitive to adverse effects than the working population.
In addition to the established health effects of exposure, there is some scientific evidence to suggest a link between childhood leukaemia and EMF exposure below the guideline levels, although there is no consensus on a plausible biological mechanism to explain the association. However, in view of the uncertainties associated with the health effects of exposure below the guidelines, the Health Protection Agency also recommended that the Government consider the need for further precautionary measures in respect of exposure of people to ELF EMF.
In response to that recommendation, a stakeholder advisory group on such exposure was established, which brought together a range of stakeholders, including academics, electricity industry representatives and pressure groups, with a remit to identify and explore the implications for a precautionary approach, and make practical recommendations for precautionary measures.
That stakeholder advisory group, SAGE, reported in April 2007 and made recommendations in relation to power lines, property, wiring in homes and electrical equipment in homes. On receipt of the report, the Government sought the advice of the Health Protection Agency on the recommendations it contained. In November 2007, the Health Protection Agency responded to the SAGE report.
We are currently considering the Health Protection Agency report, and I expect to receive advice from officials on that issue in the near future. We expect to respond to the SAGE report, including setting out any practical precautionary measures that we think are justified, later in the year.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 85 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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