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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, for there to be any question of a transhipment licence, the goods in question have to come into the United Kingdom. The problem that I indicated we wished to address, following on consultations, is what happens when a British company is engaged and the movement is from one country to another without coming to the United Kingdom.

Transco Price Control Review

2.48 p.m.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the Transco price control review is a matter for the independent regulator, the Director-General of Gas Supply, and for British Gas plc.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford: My Lords, first, let me declare an interest in being the unfortunate owner of a few British Gas shares, which have dropped sharply in value as a result of the activities of the Ofgas regulator. Does the Minister agree that it was an extraordinary action to take in view of the fact that she has overturned the 1993 recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on accounting matters and has thereby halved the value of Transco, which will result in a loss of many hundreds of millions of pounds in profits? Is he aware that, of the privatised utilities, poor Sid has had the worst deal in value for shares, having not even kept pace with the FT index? Does he agree that someone ought to speak to the Ofgas regulator and clear her mind of a few old cobwebs?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord appreciates that what is on the table at the moment is a set of proposals from the regulator of Ofgas. One of the aspects is the valuation of the assets, which is important in determining the appreciation in the price formula thereafter. That is a matter for discussion first of all between Ofgas and British Gas, as I indicated. If they cannot reach an agreement, there will be a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission--not, I should emphasise, by the President of the Board of Trade, but because that follows from what is contained within the legislation. Then it will be a matter for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, if that is necessary. Clearly, one hopes that the matter can be resolved before then.

Lord Peston: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that, whatever else one does about the

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Director-General of Ofgas--who is a first-rate person in this field--anxiety as to whether shares go up or down cannot possibly be a criterion one can apply in this case? As I understand it, it is the nature of the stock market that shares can go up or down and one has to take one's chances. In what sense is it reasonable to argue that it was an improper act on the part of the Director-General of Ofgas simply because some people lost money? In the free market people lose money all the time, and that is the whole point of regulation, is it not?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the regulator is under a statutory duty to ensure that decisions on the price formula strike a proper balance between the interests concerned. The director-general has a duty to exercise her function in the manner best calculated to protect the interests of the consumers. However, she also has a balancing duty to ensure that regulated companies are able to finance their licensed activities. There is probably a more legitimate interest in that than simply looking to whether the price on the Stock Exchange moves up or down. It is the matter of financing that is important.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, perhaps I too may declare an interest. Should not one be more optimistic than my noble friend Lord Wyatt in this matter? Looking on the bright side, this has provided a warning to those potential investors in Railtrack.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord's proposition, which I am sure does not come as any surprise to him. This is a matter which must be recognised as a set of proposals put forward by Ofgas. If British Gas does not agree to what is being proposed, the next stage will be for the matter to go before the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that, as competition is extending fast, not only in gas but in other privatised utilities, the regulator should be done away with? The whole thing should be left to the free market rather than being operated by a regulator who does not understand the business concerned.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord's last proposition. However, I agree that effective competition is the best possible protection for consumers and it should ultimately remove the need for price regulation. In respect of gas transportation, which is the subject of the current gas review, it is in effect a natural monopoly and is therefore likely to continue to require price regulation in the longer term.


2.53 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are considering any new initiatives for the carers of disabled people.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, support for carers is a key aim of our community care reforms. We

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recently reinforced that with the implementation of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act which came into force on 1st April this year. That important new initiative to support carers is backed by our continued funding of carers' organisations. The work of our community care development programme involves a number of innovative projects to assist carers. Further work is planned by the Social Services Inspectorate to identify examples of good practice and innovative respite services to encourage all authorities to improve provision.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that carers are among the most admired people in our society, but that, despite her answer, they are also among the most neglected? Will the Government try to help by reviewing the invalid care allowance level and also the criteria for receipt of that allowance? Will the Government also try to head the efforts being made to inform the estimated 50,000 carers who are entitled to that allowance but who do not receive it because they do not know about it and do not apply for it? Can the Government help in that regard?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the noble Lord is aware of the eligibility criteria; that is, that the carer must spend at least 35 hours a week caring for a severely disabled person who receives the middle or high rate of disability living allowance. With regard to raising the ICA, it is an income maintenance allowance and not a payment for care. As with all other benefits, it is uprated annually. In relation to informing the 50,000 people who do not know about it, the Benefits Agency publishes details of entitlements and levels of benefit as widely as possible, including the provision of a free telephone line.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, why do the Government not support a national register for carers and assessors?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the Government share the view that all concerned should do all that they can to ensure that the risks of abuse of vulnerable clients by care workers are minimised. They understand why Susan Brooks established the organisation that she did. However, the Government believe that we cannot endorse a national register for carers until the wider issues have been fully debated and explored. We have said that other options will need to be explored.

Lady Kinloss: My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether or not the Government are satisfied that all local authorities can afford and are funding the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1996 properly? If not, what do they propose to do to ensure that carers and the cared for receive the respite care which the Government agree is so necessary?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the noble Lady raises two points. The carers' assessment under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act is a matter of existing good practice. There should not be any significant cost, therefore, to an authority which has

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been following that good practice. With regard to respite care, the department has made more money available to authorities for respite and domiciliary care and monitoring shows that more respite care is available. An extra £20 million was allowed in 1994-95 and £30 million in 1995-96; 97 per cent. of all local authorities report that they are able to provide better support for carers in that way.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, may I on behalf of the Royal British Legion thank my noble friend Lord Ashley for tabling this Question and the Minister for her most encouraging reply?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, who is always generous to me when I stand at this Dispatch Box.

Baroness Macleod of Borve: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, despite the great number of people who are carers--everybody with patients in their care will be very grateful--flexibility in the ground rules is extremely important to carers and it should be encouraged by those who employ them?

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