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Lord Haskel: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if the small businessman finds bank references misleading, he can always obtain references from credit agencies or from other traders? He can deliver an initial first small order at normal commercial risk and then take a view. Does the Minister agree that that is probably of more value than a bank reference for which the bank accepts no liability?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am bound to say that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, principally because that was the answer that I just gave to my noble friend.

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that since 1979 the many hundreds of thousands of small businesses that have been set up with the help of this Government have made a very good impression on our unemployment figures? Does he also agree that lower corporation tax on small businesses is a definite help, not only for small businesses but also for the economy, particularly in view of the easing of PAYE and VAT for small businesses? Does he agree further that, apart from bank references, it is high time that we looked at the rate of mandatory interest on late payers, particularly in relation to small businesses?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I agree with the general thrust of my noble friend's question which went considerably further than bank references. I believe he is trying to say that what has happened to and for small businesses since 1979 has been of great value to the country. It is perfectly true that small businesses have encouraged employers at a time when employment was decreasing in many other spheres.

Perhaps I may return to the original Question. It is a fact that it has not been brought to the Government's attention that the system of obtaining and providing bank

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references is a major source of contention between banks and small businesses; but they are alert to the problems which exist in that regard.

Lord Monk Bretton: My Lords, is it not the case that one may well receive a perfectly satisfactory bank reference on somebody who is an undischarged bankrupt? I have always thought that that is a fairly illogical situation. Can a bank take into account information from a third party when it gives a reference?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, as far as I know, banks can take into account what information they like in order to come to the facts which are included in the reference. I am not aware of the position with regard to undischarged bankrupts. But when a bank gives a reference, it gives a view of that person to the best of its ability without disclosing those matters which are best not disclosed. As the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, it is for the individual to make inquiries also from other sources.

Millennium Commission

3.25 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether Cabinet Ministers have been consulted about projects chosen by the independent Millennium Commission.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage will be writing to other Cabinet Ministers for their views on the Millennium Commission's short-list of major projects to help inform his and the President of the Board of Trade's input into the decision-making process. Decisions on which projects to support will be taken by the nine members of the Millennium Commission entirely independently of government.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for answering so candidly and confirming a report in the Independent newspaper that the Secretary of State has written to members of the Cabinet asking for their views on the priority to be assigned to various short-listed projects. Will she tell the House how such action squares with the several assurances of total independence of the Millennium Commission from the Government, which were given by the Minister to noble Lords during Committee and Report stages of the National Lottery Bill? The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said:

    "The Bill affords the opportunity for the commission to be independent of government".—[Official Report, 8/7/93; col. 1543.]

It seems that that is an opportunity denied.

Would not the Government be well advised to remember that the money provided for the Millennium Commission comes from many millions of people throughout the country having a small flutter in the hope of helping good causes and that it should not be used as a potential political slush fund to extend the patronage of the Conservative Party?

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, quite heard what I said.

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I did not say that he had written. I said that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage will be writing to Cabinet Ministers for their views on the short-list. Therefore, he was not quite accurate about that.

The knowledge and opinions of other Ministers will help my two right honourable friends on the commission when they consider each project on the short-list. All commissioners are welcome to consult other parties. But at the end of the day, it is for the nine members of the commission to decide which projects to support.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, do I understand from what the noble Baroness said that no letter has yet been written by the Secretary of State for National Heritage to Cabinet Ministers on this topic? Will she also assure the House that, if and when Cabinet Ministers are offered an opportunity to comment on the short-listed projects, a similar opportunity will be offered formally to the Opposition and to the relevant constituency Members of Parliament?

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, a letter was sent to Cabinet colleagues with regard to consultation on applications to the Millennium Fund and not in relation to the short-list. There will be another letter concerning the short-list, which has not yet been sent.

The Opposition heritage spokesman has confirmed that Mr. Montague has discussed millennium matters with him, which is all that my right honourable friend has said. Mr. Montague is free to consult anybody he likes, as is any other member of the commission. My right honourable friend has not sent any information to Cabinet colleagues which is not already in the public domain.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, perhaps I may follow up that briefly. Is the noble Baroness aware that Mr. Montague has certainly not written formally to the entire Shadow Cabinet seeking its views on individual applications and that he has never discussed an individual bid with the Shadow Secretary of State for Heritage?

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, first, Mr. Montague is not a member of the Shadow Cabinet. Secondly, he is at liberty to send any letter he likes. Let us not forget that this is only the second millennium. The first one occurred in the reign of Ethelred the Unready. The commission is doing its best to do better this time.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, if there is an independent commission, why on earth cannot it make up its own mind without political guidance on priorities?

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, that is exactly what I have just said, and what it will do.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the House will be greatly reassured that the Members of the Cabinet correspond with one another in writing? That is most reassuring. Can we have

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an undertaking that the recipients of the communications have the time and the inclination to read the documents that are sent to them?

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, the situation is almost as pleasant as being on the good terms that I am on with the noble Lord who has just spoken.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the best projects for the Millennium Fund will be the major new stadium that is planned to be built in Manchester? It will be suitable to host the Commonwealth Games in the year 2002.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I do not believe that that is a matter for the Millennium Commission.

Statute Law (Repeals) Bill [H.L.]

3.31 p.m.

Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

Merchant Shipping Bill [H.L.]

Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

Shipping and Trading Interests (Protection) Bill [H.L.]

Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill [H.L.]

Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

Prisoners (Return to Custody) Bill

Read a third time, and passed.

Gas Bill

3.33 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the chair.]

Clause 1[General duties under 1986 Act]:

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 11, at end insert:
("( ) to protect the interests of consumers of gas conveyed through pipes in respect of the prices charged and the other terms of supply, the continuity of supply, the quality of the gas supply services provided and the exercise of rights under this Part to enter their premises;").

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The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 1 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 8. This amendment is of considerable importance because it relates to the duties under the Bill of the Secretary of State and the director.

The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that the protection of the interests of consumers of gas should be given priority. As the Bill is drafted, the protection of the consumers' interests is given second priority. That does not seem to be in keeping with what ought to be the objectives of the measure. When one reflects that in this country gas is the preferred user fuel for the vast majority of people who use it for domestic purposes, it is of considerable importance that any legislation aimed at changing the arrangements for the supply of that fuel should be seen to be conducted in the interests of the consumer. There can be no other justification for those changes.

When the point was raised in another place, the Minister, Mr. Eggar, contended that the prior duties as stated in the Act were themselves supportive of the interests of the consumer and that therefore there was no need to put the interests of the consumer as a primary obligation. In fact he said that the secondary obligation was to look after the consumers; just because it is secondary does not mean that it is less important.

I find that argument difficult to follow. If the Minister was saying that primary and secondary obligations rank equally, what is the point of making the distinction? I seriously commend to the Committee the contention that the protection of the consumer should rank as the overriding obligation and should figure at the top of the list indicated in Clause 1 of the Bill. I beg to move.

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