Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness White: My Lords, before the House accedes to the request of the Chairman of Committees, will the noble Lord kindly explain why, when the Select Committee on Relations between Central and Local Government is officially recorded as being concerned with Great Britain as a whole, there is no member of the committee who has any adequate knowledge of the difficulties which continue to occur, admittedly less frequently than heretofore, between the Welsh Office

25 Oct 1995 : Column 1113

and Welsh local authorities? I refer not only to the direct local government reorganisation and all that that entails, but also to the Welsh Office's proposals for other public agencies such as the fire services.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady White, for giving me notice in advance that she proposed to raise this matter. For fear of transgressing the rules of order of your Lordships' House, I should perhaps indicate in a preliminary way that that more general point does not, strictly speaking, arise out of this particular Motion. However, I do not want to be unhelpful to the noble Baroness.

Before your Lordships remind me, I should perhaps remind the House that only last Thursday afternoon your Lordships passed a Motion, without any question being raised, approving the names of the members of this Select Committee. That was done after the customary consultations had taken place.

On the subject of the membership of the Select Committee, your Lordships will appreciate from their names that the members have wide experience and considerable qualifications. I have no doubt that they will be perfectly capable of hearing and assessing any evidence which is given to them by people, bodies and local authorities in the Principality. Perhaps I can give some comfort to the noble Baroness, Lady White, by pointing out that one of the members of the Select Committee, Lady Platt of Writtle, is an honorary Fellow of the Polytechnic of Wales. Therefore, I do not think that Wales will be overlooked.

However, perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness that I do not know whether there is scope for further consideration being given to the issue. I should like to look into that matter. I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not make any promise this afternoon. After all, I cannot commit your Lordships in advance.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for his reply to my noble friend. However, is he aware, and is the House aware, that there is a strong feeling in Wales that when Select Committees are appointed which affect the whole of England and Wales there should be a Welsh representative?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, with his extensive ministerial experience, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, will know that one does not come to one of the Dispatch Boxes of your Lordships' House without some prior briefing. I do not know whether I should reveal to your Lordships—but perhaps I shall take the opportunity to do so—that I was briefed that that question might be raised. My immediate response was to say that if the matter was raised it was likely to be raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, with his experience. I say to the noble Lord that the observations that I made in reply to his noble friend Lady White will, of course, be taken into account in that same context.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

25 Oct 1995 : Column 1114

Gas Bill

3.25 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [General duties under 1986 Act]:

The Earl of Cranbrook moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 21, at end insert—
("and a duty to take into account, in exercising those functions, the objectives of sustainable development.
(1A) In performing his duty under subsection (1) above to take into account the objectives of sustainable development, the Director shall have regard to such guidance as the Secretary of State may from time to time provide.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, my amendment, in its third, revised form, stands as a general qualifier to the three new general duties that will appear in the proposed new Section 4(1)(a) to (c) of the amended Gas Act 1986.

I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for his courteous response to the amendments in the form in which I tabled them at Report stage. I listened carefully to what he said at that time. I have since read the Official Report to be sure that I took in all the arguments that were put forward by my noble and learned friend and by other noble Lords who contributed to the debate on that occasion.

In the light of the wide scope of the international, European Union and national commitments that I summarised, I was reassured by my noble and learned friend's confirmation that the goal of sustainable development is indeed followed across government and is recognised as important policy guidance. My noble and learned friend went further. He said that weight had been given to the principles of sustainable development in framing the proposals of the Bill. That assurance from my noble and learned friend strengthens my conviction that an unambiguous reference to those principles can be accommodated in the Bill without any problems.

Sustainable development is about the management of social and economic aspirations in ways that respect the environment and use resources wisely, with respect for others, now and into the future. It is probably futile to attempt to find a form of words which comprehensively defines sustainable development in all its aspects and all its contexts. However, it is wholly relevant to a Bill which deals with the management of a nationally important energy source.

At Report stage my noble and learned friend commented that he believed that the regulatory regime had been structured in a way that,

    "will allow the forces of the market to be harnessed in the cause of energy efficiency".—[Official Report, 18/10/95; col. 756.]

Those noble Lords who followed my somewhat lonely trail will realise that, against that, my starting point, as I emphasised at Committee and reiterated at Report, was the totally contrary conclusion reached unanimously by the working group of the Round Table on Sustainable Development (based on the direct experience of energy suppliers, among others) that market forces and sustainability issues such as energy efficiency are not intentionally aligned, and therefore not mutually reinforcing. Therefore we have two opposing views of the situation. But whoever may be right I hope that what I have said has made clear why I conclude that it will

25 Oct 1995 : Column 1115

not be damaging to the position of my noble and learned friend to invoke sustainable development in the Bill. He has told us that the principles are contained in its framing. On the other hand, in order to safeguard against the more pessimistic prediction of those who were involved in the Round Table it is essential to introduce a form of words into the Bill which ensures that the exercise of the general duties of the Secretary of State and the director—they are detailed in the proposed new Section 4(1) referred to in the amendment—are conducted with proper regard to the objectives of sustainable development.

A duty to contribute to the objectives of sustainable development would also modulate the new obligations towards the environment which are introduced in the Bill and would thereby forestall the problem of excessive zeal on the part of the regulator about which my noble and learned friend expressed anxiety, again at col. 756.

In response to my noble and learned friend's accompanying arguments—that the regulator must not have too much freedom but that his independence must not be unacceptably restricted—noble Lords will note that in the revised form of my amendment I propose that the Secretary of State may provide guidance. However, that proposal is now in a revised form. The duty to provide guidance will be much less onerous than that proposed in my previous amendment. The provision still follows the model of the Environment Act, but it is optional: guidance may be given. Moreover, it is given at the discretion of the Secretary of State and is not obligatory. In the terms of my amendment, such guidance may be given from time to time.

The Government's programme for sustainable development has a high profile. It has drawn attention to the forward looking programme of the Government in the international arena. It involves a mix of institutional responses including the panel chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell, the Round Table co-chaired by Mr. John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and Professor Sir Richard Southwood, and also Professor Ashworth's programme, Going for Green.

I am convinced that a positive reference written into the Gas Bill to the role of sustainable development and its objectives will be interpreted nationally and internationally as confirmation of the weight that the Government attach to those processes. I believe that the proposal will be regarded very positively in many quarters, nationally and internationally. For that reason, I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I begin my remarks with an apology to my noble friend for misnaming him last Wednesday. It was an unintentional slip; I am sure that he will accept it as such.

I have no problem with the beginning of the amendment. As my noble friend made clear last Wednesday and today, in our various lives we all have a duty to take account of sustainable development, whether or not it is specifically defined. We have the word of no less a person than my right honourable friend the Prime Minister that sustainable development is almost indefinable. It is an issue of which we should all

25 Oct 1995 : Column 1116

take account. That applies just as well to the Secretary of State as to the regulator. However, I have difficulty with the proposed new subsection (1A) of my noble friend's amendment, which states:

    "The Director shall have regard to such guidance as the Secretary of State may from time to time provide".

I gently suggest to my noble friend that the relationship between the regulators and their sponsoring departments—usually the DTI—is rather different from that between the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Environment Agency. Uncomfortable though it is for both politicians and the regulated industries—and, indeed, the Government from time to time if they can be separated from politicians—the independence of the regulatory bodies has been well established over a number of years since the Government privatised the telecommunications industry. It would be a great mistake at this stage, even regarding an issue as important as sustainable development, to cut across the independence of the regulator. If the Secretary of State were to be involved in giving guidance to the director on a wide range of issues, it would cut across one of the key principles of utility regulation and, I suggest, make the position of the regulator considerably weaker. With the problems that we have had from time to time with the various regulators, I do not believe that that is desirable.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page