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Page 7, line 36, leave out from ("repeals)") to end of line 37 and insert ("have the same extent as the enactments respectively amended or repealed.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is a minor technical amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Repeals]:

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 15, line 6, at end insert:
("1995 c. 4. Finance Act 1995. In Schedule 4, paragraph 38.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this amendment also is a minor technical amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

28 Jun 1995 : Column 755

Gas Bill

3.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry ( Earl Ferrers): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

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

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 17 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 67:

Page 17, line 17, after ("12") insert (", (Duty of Director to advise etc.)").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment, I shall at the same time speak to Amendment No. 147.

Amendment No. 67 extends the director's duty to advise and assist the Secretary of State to include a duty to advise on matters relating to the Secretary of State's functions on the Bill. Amendment No. 147 makes the same extension in respect of the Secretary of State's functions under the 1986 Act as amended. That will, for example, give the director a duty to advise the Secretary of State on matters such as exemption orders. Amendment No. 67 provides that the new clause comes into effect on Royal Assent so that the director is in power to assist the Secretary of State before the appointed day. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 68:

Page 17, line 30, leave out from ("except") to ("does") in line 31 and insert:
("(a) this section;
(b) subsections (1) to (6) of section 11;
(c) paragraphs 1 to 3, 6, 7 and 18 of Schedule 5 and section 16(1) so far as relating to those paragraphs; and
(d) Schedule 6 and section 16(2) so far as relating to the repeals of paragraph 1 of Schedule 5 to the Fair Trading Act 1973 and section 63 of and paragraph 15(4) of Schedule 7 to the 1986 Act,").

The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 68 extends the provisions of the Bill which are to be applicable to Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 17, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 2 [The gas code]:

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 69:

Page 19, line 33, at end insert:
("(2) In so far as the provisions of this Schedule, other than paragraphs 17 to 19 below, apply in relation to a public gas transporter, gas supplier or gas shipper, they shall have effect subject to any conditions of his licence.").

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 69, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 79. Amendment No. 69 would make all the provisions of Schedule 2B, except for the safety provisions in paragraphs 17 to 19, subject to any conditions that are put in licences. That will provide consumers with an important additional protection in that in a number of places the draft standard licence conditions

28 Jun 1995 : Column 756

place restrictions or pre-conditions on the powers and rights of entry which Schedule 2 otherwise gives to licensees.

For example, the draft standard conditions of suppliers' licences set out the special arrangements which a supplier must offer to customers in genuine difficulties—a payment plan or prepayment meter and so forth—before he can use his statutory powers to disconnect. The draft conditions also affect the exercise of rights of entry under Schedule 2B, for example, by obliging licensees to co-ordinate their requests so as to avoid undue disturbance to the customer. Amendment No. 79 makes a deletion which is consequential upon Amendment No. 69. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis moved Amendment No. 69A:

Page 20, line 25, leave out from ("order") to end and insert:
("half the cost by that person and the balance by the person required to keep the meter in proper order by sub-paragraph (1) or (3) above;").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 69A is tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Peston. It is directed towards a situation where a supplier finds himself in dispute with the customer. We are seeking to make the supplier pay half the cost of having a meter tested if there is a dispute in relation to the accuracy of the meter.

This was an issue which the Gas Consumers Council raised, because the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act of 1994 caused serious anxiety in relation to the doubling of the fee for testing domestic meters. We are talking of a cost of around £40. Clearly that sort of cost, particularly for consumers who are not financially very well endowed, is likely to deter some consumers from having their meters tested. We feel that making the supplier bear at least a proportion of the cost may act as a deterrent if the supplier insists on undertaking a meter test which is not necessary, unless the accuracy is genuinely in dispute.

This is an issue which also affects those who pay promptly. I do not know whether any Members of the Committee ever find themselves in the position of paying their gas bills promptly, but I suppose it must happen. It may be found, to one's great embarrassment, that one is being asked to pay an exorbitant fee in respect of one's gas bill. There are a number of occasions where a serious dispute between the supplier and the consumer can arise in that respect.

In dealing with perfectly genuine cases we are anxious to enable an individual involved in any such dispute to go to the utility and ask the company to look at the meter. We are talking of people who are essentially hard up and will find £40 a real deterrent and threat. This issue was raised in the standing committee in another place and the Minister indicated that he was not impressed with what we and the Gas Consumers Council were suggesting. He said that there was a risk that the supplier may not have to pay the full cost where circumstances which justified that position had arisen. He said that the balance struck by the Government was about right.

We feel that we are not satisfied in that regard and nor is the Gas Consumers Council. We are seeking to weigh the scales rather more in favour of the consumer than

28 Jun 1995 : Column 757

appears in the Bill as drafted. I hope the Minister will not say that we have the wording slightly wrong—this applies to all the amendments. We are not in the position of having skilled parliamentary draftsmen and we do our best in these situations. The principle is very clear and I hope that the Government will acknowledge that. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers: I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, back into the deliberations on this Bill. It is a delight to see him, even if his first intimation resulted in the extraordinary information that he does not normally pay his gas bill promptly—at least that is what I thought he was suggesting; that noble Lords did not pay their gas bills promptly, which insinuated that it takes one to know one.

I assure the noble Lord that I shall not accuse him of not having the wording right on the amendment. But it goes a little further than that. I recognise the concern that he expresses—that people should be entitled to have the meters checked at a reasonable cost. However, I see no logic in providing for a permanent subsidy under which suppliers or public gas transporters have to pay towards the testing of meters which turn out to be perfectly accurate—especially as the supplier and transporter have to pay if the meter is found to be faulty.

The best way to approach this problem is at its source. The deregulation Act allows for the consumer to have his disputed meter tested by private sector meter examiners appointed by the director to undertake that work in competition with government meter examiners. It is intended that that flexibility will allow the actual costs of meter tests to be driven down.

To a large extent it is a temporary problem. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is familiar with the technicalities, but the old-type meters are leather diaphragm meters. Once they have been replaced—that is scheduled to happen by the end of 1996—the proportion of meters found on examination to record inaccurately should reduce.

I hesitate to tell the noble Lord that his amendment is worded inaccurately, but it does have a perverse effect in that suppliers could challenge a customer-owned meter and require the customer to pay half the cost if the meter turned out to be all right. Therefore, while I understand the noble Lord's anxieties, they are exaggerated and the situation should in time settle down.

Lord Peston: For the record, some of us actually pay more than promptly because some of us pay a regular monthly sum and in my case I am always in credit with the gas company, though I do not receive any credit for that at all. I might add that I certainly have no desire to subsidise those who pay in arrears.

Is not this a matter of balance? Essentially, someone is sitting there convinced that there is something wrong with his meter because his gas bill is disproportionately high and he is not willing to believe that he is using more gas or something like that. Then he has what is essentially a gamble. He can say, "Is it worth £40, or whatever it is, to have my meter tested?". I take it that the Government's view is that that is how it ought to be; that we have to have some deterrent from excessive neurosis about the meter and that the Bill as drafted provides that deterrent in the

28 Jun 1995 : Column 758

sense that if one wins the bet one has one's bill put back to the right level and one is not charged for testing but if one loses the bet—the meter is perfectly all right—one has to pay the cost and the bill is not adjusted. The point of an amendment like this is to ask whether that is the right balance or whether there could not be an intermediate stage where one is less at risk. What is the Government's view on that?

I do not know how many individual privately owned meters there are. It is not a matter I have looked into. Can the noble Earl tell us whether that is a very big problem. Quite clearly, there would be an anomaly. A gas supplier who was looking for trouble—I cannot believe that there would be such a supplier—could go around demanding that privately owned meters be checked. I had not thought of such a thing. It had not occurred to me that most people own their own meters. Perhaps we could be given some information on that.

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