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Baroness Fisher of Rednal: I should like to comment briefly in supporting the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. When the gasman calls to read the meter, housewives and householders can feel a certain confidence by being able to look out of the window and see the British Gas van outside. That clearly identifies the fact that the meter reader really is from the gas company. Many consumer groups are worried that as the industry becomes more privatised meter readers may use normal cars. That will mean that householders do not feel the same confidence about opening their doors. We should consider seriously any ways in which we can make this easier for consumers. It is particularly important now that more and more people will receive their gas from private suppliers as well as from what we used to call the National Gas Board.

Lord Skelmersdale: The Committee may remember that last week in the unavoidable absence of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, I assayed a small joke at my own expense about my employment prospects. It could well be that I become the gas meter reader for my block of flats. Who will monitor me? In defence of my noble friend Lord Ferrers, I would add that the Government have moved a long way on this matter in conditions 8 and 22 of the re-formulated draft supply licence which most of us did not have available last week, and which I hope most of us have available now and have read and considered. One of the things that the re-formulated draft licence envisages is that the consumer can select his or her own meter reader. It says also that there is a two-yearly must-read obligation. That is a new requirement, which is sensible and reasonable.

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It occurs to me to ask my noble friend whether he could take the situation a little further and put the guts of the monitoring, which I see as the essential part of the amendment, into the licence rather than clutter the Bill with it.

Lord Clinton-Davis: Before the noble Lord sits down, I was interested in his proclamation that he might well become a gas meter reader for his block of flats. Will he give me an assurance that he will not propose himself in any such capacity for mine?

Lord Skelmersdale: The more blocks of flats the merrier.

Lord Haskel: If the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is to become a gas meter reader, he is likely to become redundant fairly soon because the technology exists, and has existed for some time, to read the meters down the telephone line. I am sure that many consumers will opt for that procedure. Perhaps the Minister will bear that in mind when responding to the amendment.

Lord Skelmersdale: I must respond to that. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, is well aware that, although the technology has existed for a long time, the cost of changing 18 million meters means that I am likely to be employed as a gas meter inspector for many years to come.

Lord Cochrane of Cults: I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, despite his great experience in the gas industry, in that his amendment and the speeches of Members of the Committee look back to the day of the smartly uniformed municipal employee who came round regularly, and one of whose abilities when he read the meter card was to be able to subtract upside down.

I do not believe that the amendment is necessary. I first came across the suggestion in a consultation document regarding competition in gas supply. I wrote what I thought was some splendidly pithy remarks, and I was glad to see that that suggestion vanished from the Bill, or projected Bill as it was at that time.

Gas meter reading, with or without the assistance of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, will become a localised operation. It may operate on a very local basis, around a housing estate, for instance. A married woman at home may want to do it. There is nothing to prevent gas suppliers from issuing their meter readers with an identity card, a jacket, or what have you. I do not believe that personation is a great risk, nor do I think that unlawful entry is a great risk, because meters will now be outside houses.

On those grounds, I feel that the amendment is redundant. I am horrified, unless I have misunderstood it—perhaps the noble Lord will tell me in a moment—that it would appear to be an offence to read one's neighbours' meters for them.

Earl Ferrers: I think that I can say in all seriousness that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for putting down the amendment, because it raises an important point. I understand his concern in trying to ensure that people are not conned by those who purport to be meter readers, which is really the point of the amendment. I am bound to say that my imagination was jolted into

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overdrive at the thought of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale becoming one such meter reader, but, one never knows, anything can happen!

I recognise that protection of the consumer in respect of rights of entry is an important matter. Clause 1 widens the director's duties specifically to take that subject into account. The fight against crime means that we should take all steps to stop bogus callers. What the Government are not convinced of is the claim that the additional regulation, proposed by the noble Lord in the amendment, will help.

Perhaps I may outline the protections which are already in the Bill and the licences. Schedule 2 gives statutory rights of entry to licensed suppliers, shippers and public gas transporters so that they can read the meter, and for other purposes. Those rights of entry are subject to certain restrictions in matters such as reasonable times and the production of evidence of authority, which are set out in the schedule. They are subject also to the provisions of the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954. That provides that such rights may be used, except in an emergency, only with the consent of the occupier or under the authority of a magistrate's warrant.

We have also put in place new provisions in standard conditions 24 and 25 of the draft suppliers' licence, which will extend the regulation of rights of entry to protect consumers. All licensees will have to make arrangements, which must be approved by the director, to ensure that officers are authorised to enter people's premises and are fit and proper, and that the public can readily identify them. That could mean that Ofgas, for instance, could require them to carry a badge or to be in the right uniform.

All those protections apply also if any meter reading function is subcontracted out by the licensee. The licensee will be responsible for ensuring that any subcontractor he uses complies with the rules. The supplier will be accountable to the customer for the quality of the service provided. The identity to be shown is required by Schedule 2. Any confirmation by telephone is required by standard condition 25. Both requirements apply to the licensees' subcontractors as well as to the licensees themselves.

It would dilute the accountability of the supplier to the customer, if the supplier could say that Ofgas had approved the subcontractor and that therefore he, the supplier, had no further responsibility. It is essential that the buck stops with the licensee; in other words, with the supplier. That was the view of my right honourable friend the Minister for Industry and Energy in another place, and it remains my view. We are in a time and an age where we have seen a number of duties which we have commonly believed to be carried out by others, subcontracted to different people. From my old incarnation in the Home Office, one knows that security firms now carry out functions previously carried out by the police. That of course is not the case with meter readers—they are subcontractors.

We come now to the problem of meter readers appointed by the customer. Those people have no rights of entry. They are the invitees of the customer in the same way as plumbers, carpet layers, cleaning ladies, and so forth. The state does not regulate whom a person should

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be allowed to invite into his home in those fields, and we remain of the view that such regulation is not needed for gas. A meter reader appointed by a customer could be dismissed by the customer if the customer was not satisfied as to the quality of the service given by the meter reader. That is the customer's protection.

The threat of bogus callers should not be addressed by additional bureaucracy for legitimate callers. It should be addressed by people being careful about whom they let into their homes, and insisting on seeing identification. There is an important issue here—almost one of public education—to which I hope the industry will contribute.

It is true that a concern has been expressed about the quality of service that may be provided by meter readers. My right honourable friend in another place considered that point and gave a commitment in Committee. We have discussed it further with Ofgas. As a result we have added in the new draft licence a requirement to ensure that meter-reading officers possess the appropriate expertise for the specific tasks that they will perform, which I think immediately clears my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale out of the firing line. It could include such matters as ensuring their competence and training. We have also added detailed provisions in the licence which will require a supplier to ensure that the meter is properly read at least every two years, that it is appropriately checked for safety and fraud and that that information is reported promptly.

By giving the director the power to approve the arrangements for these areas, we will, in effect, require suppliers either to conform with the so-called codes of practice which Ofgas has been developing with the industry or to demonstrate that they have met the requirements in another way. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, will consider that the arrangements which we have put in place, and which we have expanded since the Committee stage in another place, meet his concerns, which are properly held, and that the consumers are adequately protected.

4 p.m.

Lord Ezra: I am indebted to the Minister for the seriousness with which he took the amendment. Members of the public hold real anxieties about people entering their homes under false pretences. They have built up a feeling of trust for the meter readers employed by British Gas. If they were to transfer that to anyone who in future sought to enter their homes to read meters, some of whom might not be proper persons, a serious problem could be created.

I wish to read most carefully what the Minister said and to study more deeply the conditions that have just been issued in order to see whether any gaps exist. The gap which worries me, and to which I may return later, relates to meter reading firms. We are talking not only about meter reading, which is where the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, will require more training, but about ensuring that the meters work, that they are safe and that they have not been fraudulently tampered with. That requires training and expertise. I am anxious about the setting up of meter reading firms which purport to have those skills, but which do not, in order to take advantage

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of the new situation. I shall look at that matter with particular care and if necessary I shall return to it. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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