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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I have some sympathy with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and echoed in various quarters of your Lordship's House. But I just do not understand the amendment. It provides:

I assume that is by the Bill, but we will let that pass for the moment. It continues:

    "to carry out repairs to gas appliances and fittings at the same time as the emergency visit".

That is laudable of course. The transporter is authorised to do it, but he does not have to do it, as I understand it, according to the amendment. Even if he did have to do it, there is a vast range, as we all know, of gas appliances. One wonders—I understand the concerns about demarcation expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel—whether it is practical to expect all emergency "shutters off" of gas—which after all is what we are talking about, in the first instance to make the gas supply within the premises safe—to carry all the vast range of fittings which might be required to mend gas appliances. Although I well understand what the noble Lord is getting at, and I sympathise with his objectives, there are practical difficulties.

Lord Milverton: My Lords, I hope my noble and learned friend the Minister will see whether there is some way in which he can take on board the amendment, because I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, has a point. With gas, it is important that the remedy is effected as efficiently and quickly as possible. There is something in the amendment. Anyone who has gas will be aware that it can be exasperating if one cannot obtain the necessary assistance immediately. I hope that my noble and learned friend will be able in some way to take on board or be sympathetic to the amendment.

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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I, too, share the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale about the terms of the amendment. I assume that, where the word "authorised" is used, what is intended to apply is authorisation as required by the Gas Installation and Use Regulations 1994, which require a person carrying out such work to be competent.

The more substantive approach I should like to take is to remind the House that we did debate a similar amendment in Committee. As a result of that debate we made some changes to the relevant provisions in the draft conditions for public gas transporters' licences. However, we remain of the view that we have the right balance of obligations on the public gas transporters relating to the provision of an emergency service.

Standard condition 18 now requires public gas transporters to undertake appropriate minor repairs to appliances in the course of fixing a leak so long as it can be done within half an hour and with parts costing less then £4. We have increased that figure from the current level of £2.50 applied by British Gas, in response to the comments we received on this matter.

Also in response to those comments we have extended the requirement on transporters to carry out such repairs as far as possible in such a way as to maintain the supply of gas so that it covers appliances used for cooking and heating. I should add also that the minor repairs referred to in standard condition 18 must be provided free of charge to all customers, not just those who are particularly vulnerable. In practice that will allow the majority of such leaks to be repaired effectively on the spot at no charge.

However, there is a great difference between effecting minor repairs, such as fixing leaks, and conducting more fundamental repairs to complex appliances. The skills and equipment needed are different. For public gas transporters to be obliged to provide a full appliance service capability would increase their costs and would mean that people would end up paying more. It is the consumer involved who should have to pay for the more complex work. Appliance repairs are available in a competitive installation market. There are about 47,000 firms around the country and safety is regulated by the regulations to which I referred, with a registration scheme for installers.

Given that large number of individuals, it would seem right that consumers should be able to choose who carries out the more complicated work as opposed to the simple repairs. In those cases where it is beyond the description of a small or minor repair, the transporter is required, by standard condition 18, to provide the customer with a list of persons in the locality who are appropriately qualified to carry out such repair work.

I hope that, in the light of the explanation and in the light of the changes that we have already made to the draft licence, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that detailed reply. The improvements in the conditions of the licence, which the Minister mentioned, are welcome but they do not go far enough. Obviously, it is easy for

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someone who lives in London or in a big city to get an installer to come and fix their appliance but what about people who live in the country and in isolated places? The Minister has ignored the convenience of the consumer, because the consumer wants one person to come to fix the leak and the appliance.

I am sure that if the business becomes competitive, gas transporters will try to supply such a service. They will fall over themselves to supply customers with what they want. I believe that the Bill should contain a clause that encourages them to do so. We should not have a clause in the Bill that encourages some kind of demarcation arrangement, about which I spoke previously.

Secondly, our anxiety about safety was raised because there are rumours that the Minister's department is to close down or virtually disband the consumer safety unit. If that is the attitude of his department, we should be most anxious about safety. However, it is not my intention to divide the House on this matter, but I hope that the Minister will consider what I have said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie moved Amendment No. 68:

Page 32, line 24, at beginning insert ("No officer shall be authorised by a public gas transporter, gas supplier or gas shipper to exercise any powers of entry conferred by this Schedule unless—
(a) the transporter, supplier or shipper has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that he is a fit and proper person to exercise those powers; or
(b) in cases of emergency, those powers are powers conferred by paragraph 20 above.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 68, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 109, 110, 111, 112, 122, 123, 138 and 145. I beg to move.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, Amendment No. 68 deals with meter reading and I wish to raise one or two points. We had a considerable debate about the matter in Committee. Anxiety was expressed by myself and others that under the new arrangements not only would there no longer be a unitary meter reading service with persons who would have a common identification card and an office telephone number that could be used if anyone had any doubt, not only would there be a diversity of suppliers, but there could also be independent meter reading firms. Therefore, it was suggested, but regrettably not accepted by the Government, that there should be a scheme for the registration of people entitled to act as meter service providers who are not directly employed by the suppliers.

Although Amendment No. 68 is to be welcomed because it emphasises that the transporter, supplier or shipper has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the meter reader is a fit and proper person to exercise those functions, it leaves open the question of the other operators. In view of the fact that a security issue is raised, apart from the issue of competence, will the Minister give further thought to that?

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5.45 p.m.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I am slightly puzzled. I thought that Amendment No. 68 was not technical but that it was a new contribution by the Government in response to some of our anxieties. I certainly read it that way and I hope that I am not now being told that that is not the case. I am hoping to be told that the amendment really says something.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, perhaps I was trying to go a little faster than was appropriate in the circumstances. I am happy to explain more fully why we have introduced this package of amendments which were intended to respond to the anxieties expressed not only by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, but by other noble Lords and organisations outwith Parliament. They relate to those people who, under the Bill, will be able to exercise statutory rights of entry into peoples' homes.

Obviously, we take most seriously the security of the public. Having listened to the anxieties that have been expressed, we have decided to introduce a statutory requirement for licensees to take all reasonable steps to ensure that officers exercising rights of entry are fit and proper persons. Amendments Nos. 68 and 109 do that. That should provide added certainty that the interests of the consumers will be protected.

Amendment No. 138 seeks to meet another anxiety that was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. It is the threat of bogus callers who seek to enter peoples' homes to commit crimes by pretending to be bona fide officers of a gas company. That can be a real problem and it is why we have been careful to make the provisions that we have in the licences so that the public can readily identify legitimate officers of a gas company and to avoid the misuse of badges and other authority.

However keen we are to regulate licensed companies in this regard, and no matter how much we regulate them, that cannot affect the behaviour of criminals. Amendment No. 138 would therefore make it an offence for:

    "Any person who with intent to deceive ... impersonates an officer ... for the purpose of obtaining entry to any premises; or ... makes any statement or does any act calculated falsely to suggest that he is an officer".

That offence is to be liable on summary conviction to a level 4 fine, which is £2,500 at present.

Amendment No. 145 provides that a public gas transporter, supplier or shipper is permitted to delegate to an agent the function of authorising officer or servant of that agent. This delegation is to be in accordance with the terms of any written authority setting out the procedures to be followed by the agent. It is necessary for practical reasons if an agent is working for several suppliers. The licence holder will be obliged by the duties set out in Amendments Nos. 68 and 109 to ensure that the procedures are followed by his agents. The licence holder will thus remain responsible for ensuring that these officers are fit.

We have put in place detailed safeguards to protect consumers in relation to licensed gas companies with statutory rights of entry of their sub-contractors. We have also made a number of refinements to the

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safeguards in response to the anxieties expressed. I hope that I have answered all the points that were raised but if not I am happy to attempt to do so.

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