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Gas Bill

8.47 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 6 [Licensing of gas suppliers and gas shippers]:

[Amendments Nos. 28 and 29 not moved.]

Lord Haskel moved Amendment No. 30:

Page 8, line 1, at beginning insert:
("( ) A licence shall not be granted under this section to a person until they have in place a 24 hour staffed emergency public telephone number for reporting and logging emergency calls from members of the public or the emergency services, on gas escapes and other emergencies agreed with Health and Safety Executive.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 31. These amendments deal with the safety of the general public. Although I understand that the safety regulations appear on the licence, we wish to ensure, by debating these amendments, that the proper safety of the general public is maintained. Even if the transporter is responsible for all gas escapes and emergencies, regardless of where the customer buys the gas, the public may still be confused and possibly phone the wrong number. It is no good the customer being told to ring another number or, even worse, get an answerphone.

Suppliers and shippers must take responsibility for dealing with the call, logging the time and recording what action they took. They must also take responsibility for passing on the information to the transporter; otherwise a number of emergency calls may go missing or be lost in

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the system. I imagine that this can be properly handled in large companies, but what about small suppliers such as housing associations which may not have adequate safety resources? I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale: About a year ago I made inquiries on exactly this subject. It was just as pertinent then as it will become under this legislation. I discovered that now, by statutory instrument, there has to be a telephone number attached to each gas meter. Obviously, the gas meter is the place where, in an emergency, the average gas consumer will go to find such a telephone number. Clearly, under the new regime, the number on the gas meter will be that of TransCo which, as the noble Lord explained, is responsible for dealing with gas escapes and emergencies. I am told that that will cover the situation, but I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will be able to confirm what I have said.

Lord Ezra: The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, has raised an important issue, the question of safety. We cannot sufficiently emphasise how important that is. The fact that TransCo has that responsibility is satisfactory in the sense that it will inherit from British Gas the ultimate responsibility. Unfortunately, the market is now to be fragmented and people will become confused about whom they should get in touch with in an emergency. The obvious person is the supplier. It seems right that we should have both belt and braces in this situation and that the supplier should make arrangements to have the telephone manned permanently, immediately transmitting to TransCo or dealing with the matter in whatever way may be satisfactory in order to minimise any safety problems.

Lord Cochrane of Cults: I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who has very adequately set out the situation. I should like to establish that the smaller suppliers are not required themselves to have a man sitting at the end of the telephone but that they can contract that task to a reputable firm such as Air Call, or something similar, which operates a nationwide emergency call-out service for a variety of purposes, including doctors. That should be perfectly sufficient. Indeed, that situation appears acceptable—at least at present—in relation to exempt suppliers. A great deal of confusion was caused earlier by suggestions of Ofgas that telephone systems had to be operated individually by each supplier, no matter how small. If my noble friend can assure us that independent and fragmented suppliers may use a contractor to carry out the necessary reception and transmission of calls, I am sure that we shall be able to make progress.

Lord Inglewood: As my noble friend Lord Ferrers said earlier, safety is paramount in these matters. As Members of the Committee may know, we asked the Health and Safety Commission to look at the safety implications of the liberalisation of the gas supply market and we have accepted the recommendations of its report.

The Health and Safety Commission concluded that there should continue to be a single contact point for reporting suspected gas leaks and that it should be the responsibility of pipeline operators to provide the emergency response. We understand that British Gas is putting in place a single 0800 freephone telephone

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number. This is provided for in the draft of the standard conditions of the transporter's licence—Condition 13—which requires transporters jointly to arrange for the maintenance of a single continuously attended telephone service for the receipt of reports of escapes of gas. They are also required to secure adequate publicity for the service and its telephone number. I hope that that answers some of the concerns.

I believe that it is preferable for there to be one party responsible for receiving reports of gas leaks and arranging for them to be dealt with rather than requiring each and every supplier and shipper to have their own procedures in place. That would lead to a multiplicity of telephone numbers and services which would only serve to confuse the customer with potentially dangerous results.

If someone concerned about a possible gas leak rings the wrong telephone number, the person on the receiving end of that call will have absolutely no doubt about what number to give out. Therefore, not only is simple confusion avoided, but what might be described as "compound confusion" is also avoided.

We understand that the Health and Safety Commission will shortly be consulted on new safety regulations for gas. These will in due course supersede the provisions in the Bill. The duties in respect of emergencies will be further considered at that stage. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, will find those comments a helpful explanation of the position.

Lord Haskel: I thank the noble Lord for that reassuring response. Obviously, it is preferable for there to be only one number; otherwise there will be confusion. When the new regulations are prepared, can they be publicised in some way so that we all know about them? We have aired our concerns and have had some reassurance from the Minister and, in view of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 31 not moved.]

Lord Inglewood moved Amendment No. 32:

Page 8, leave out lines 6 to 12 and insert:
("(b) in the case of a licence under subsection (1) (b) above, as if it were also a licence under subsection (1) (a) above and any premises specified in the direction were specified in the licence,
and references in this Part to, or to the grant of, an extension under this section, or an extension of such a licence, shall be construed as references to, or to the giving of, such a direction.
( ) The Director may, with the consent of the licence holder, direct that any licence under this section shall have effect as if any premises specified in the direction were not specified in the licence; and references in this Part to, or to the grant of, a restriction under this section, or a restriction of such a licence, shall be construed as references to, or to the giving of, such a direction.").

The noble Lord said: This is a technical amendment enabling the director to respond to the wishes of those who are already licensed to supply the commercial and industrial market and subsequently wish to supply the domestic market as well. It enables her to extend a non-domestic licence so that it becomes a domestic one.

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There is no need for such licence holders to obtain a second separate licence in order to supply the domestic gas market as their supply licences will contain the standard conditions which include the provisions necessary for the domestic market.

The same statutory provisions govern applications for licence extensions as those which apply to the grant of new licences. The director will still need to be sure that the extension of the licence does not appear artificially to exclude an undue proportion of elderly or disabled customers. I beg to move.

Lord Peston: I should like to make just one blanket point. A number of government amendments have been tabled which all seem to be technical in nature. I received the Notes on Clauses for those amendments only a couple of hours ago and I have to confess that I have written a question mark by each, meaning that I do not understand. If the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, agrees, I should prefer not to have to speak to each technical government amendment. I say that with one proviso. If in due course I discover that they are not technical, I trust that the Government will not object if I find a means of at least exploring them. I do not expect that to be the case, but it would help the passage of business at this time if the noble Lord could comment on that suggestion.

Lord Inglewood: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston. That seems an entirely acceptable way of proceeding. I am sure that he will not find any problems.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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