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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Amendments Nos. 27 and 35 appear to be intended to extend the powers that water companies already have to carry out work on customers' supply pipes, although the amendments as drafted actually add very little. At present, companies have the power to separate out supply pipes where they have given notice that they intend to install a meter in the relevant property. Under Clause 10, we are extending those powers to enable companies to carry out the necessary works to fit a meter.

The amendments, if the intention behind them is as I have outlined, would mean that water companies could go into anyone's home, whether or not the householder had requested that a meter be installed, and carry out works to separate supply pipes. They could even charge the householder for the work involved. That extension of powers is neither desirable nor necessary. We can see no reason why companies should be able to enter people's homes in order to carry out work that the customer neither wants nor needs doing.

Neither do we agree that the companies need such powers. They will already have sufficient powers to separate out supply pipes in order to fit meters, either where they are imposing a meter on someone who is using water--for instance, for filling a swimming- pool--where they may be entitled to charge according to volume in the future, or where the customer requests a meter.

We cannot accept that it is right to allow companies freedom to impose on their customers in that way, and then to charge for doing so; nor do we accept that companies need that power for the legitimate carrying out of their business. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Turning to Amendment No. 36 tabled by the noble Baroness, I spoke at Second Reading about the importance of the protection included in the Bill against disconnection for non-payment of bills. Our approach to protecting premises against disconnection has been to target it as far as possible, while ensuring that those whom we wish to protect are covered. I believe that the end result is a balanced approach, which protects potentially vulnerable people, and premises which play a vital role in the community, while not unnecessarily impeding water companies in the day-to-day carrying out of their business.

We therefore cannot agree with this amendment, which would seem to reduce the extent of protection currently included in the Bill. Perhaps I may explain why. The term, "private dwelling house" is not currently defined in the Bill because we believe that the use of the term alone suffices in describing those premises that are to be protected. It is our view that a private dwelling house cannot be one that is used predominantly for the carrying on of a business. However, we believe that it does cover people's homes where they may carry out

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some activity that is not purely private. For instance, it would cover homes where people work occasionally, as an alternative to their offices.

This amendment would remove the protection against disconnection for such premises. It would mean, for example, that a Minister taking home the Ministerial Box would not be covered, simply because the home was not being used solely for private purposes. Simply because someone is working at home in that way does not mean that that person is using water for purposes, or in amounts, that are any different from a home where the occupants do not take their work home with them or where they go out to work. I do not believe that that is within the spirit of the provisions to protect against disconnection to reduce protection in this way. I hope that I have convinced the noble Baroness sufficiently for her to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I am by no means sure that the Minister has convinced me. I shall not divide the Committee now, but I shall certainly take the matter away for consideration.

The Minister will know that I have withdrawn Amendment No. 28 to Clause 11 because I was advised that Clause 11 covers the situation to which my amendment related. However, the legal officer of the water company concerned does not consider that it is covered. In exactly the same way, the Minister feels that Clause 10 of the Bill already covers the situation, for example, of a public house; the legal officer does not consider that to be the case. I shall need to examine this matter carefully and take further advice as to whether the matter is or is not covered.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: If it would help the noble Baroness to write to the department on that point and to receive an answer in writing for consideration, that can be arranged.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I thank the noble Baroness. I shall accept her offer of a letter. There has been great concern about the position of public houses and so on. I shall make sure that a letter is drafted and sent to the noble Baroness. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Rights of tenants in relation to metering]:

[Amendment No. 28 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Clause 12 [Water Industry Commissioner for Scotland]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 29:

Page 8, line 21, leave out ("Consultative") and insert ("Consumer")

The noble Lord said: I am surprised to be standing at this Dispatch Box discussing a clause relating to water in Scotland. I say that because, in exactly a fortnight's time, the people of Scotland will elect a Parliament, which, from 1st July, will be entirely and totally

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responsible for these matters. I therefore find it as surprising in relation to this issue as I did in relation to health that the Government are choosing to put legislation through this Parliament which may not even come into force until after the Scottish Parliament has been elected or takes over these powers on 1st July. I should have thought that this matter could comfortably have been left to the Scottish Parliament for consideration. The water industry will be one of the important issues over which it will preside. I suspect that most people in Scotland have now made the assumption that all these matters will be dealt with in Edinburgh and that they are not paying much attention to legislation that is being tacked on to English Bills that are presently passing through both Houses of this Parliament.

I am grateful to the Scottish Consumers' Council for drawing to my attention some defects which it considers are in the Bill and to which it has asked me to speak. I am happy to do so because the council makes some good points. I know that the Minister has had notice of all of them, I make no complaint about that because even though I do not think we should be dealing with this, it is still incumbent on us to try to get it right. Then, when the Scottish Parliament takes over on 1st July it will take over issues which are in as good order as we can make them.

I shall therefore speak to Amendment No. 29 as well as Amendments Nos. 30 to 33 which are grouped with it. They are all to do with the consultative committees which the Government propose to set up to replace the current system in order to deal with consumer-related problems and issues, and to allow the consumer to have a voice. That is the first amendment.

The new structures are here supposedly to strengthen consumer representation. It is a little odd, therefore, that the title of each local committee is to be the "Water Industry Consultative Committee". I do not believe "consultative committee" sounds nearly as good as "consumer committee". "Consumer committee" sounds positive and proactive, whereas "consultative committee" gives a more negative message; that it only deals with any issues on which it is consulted by, I presume, the water authority or water industry commissioner. It will not be a body which represents the interests of the consumers and makes their points known to the water industry commissioner.

Amendment No. 30 refers to Schedule 2 and Part II of the Bill. It is an important amendment, probably the most important one. The current proposal is that for each of the consultative committees (which in my view should be called "consumer committees") the water industry commissioner for Scotland--I must get my tongue round that so that it trips off the tongue; at the moment I find it a rather heavy title--is to be the chairman of the body. Yet it is to the commissioner that the body will wish to make comments. Occasionally, the body may not agree with what the commissioner is doing, yet the commissioner is to be the chairman. Amendment No. 30 suggests that an independent chairman should be appointed by the Secretary of State.

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I believe that consumer representation needs to be strengthened in the proposed structure. Frankly, I believe it should be no different from the independent consumer representations proposed for the privatised utilities. Economic regulation and consumer representation should be kept distinct. Experience in the privatised utilities has shown that there is a need for a strong independent consumer voice, and that would be difficult for a regulator to provide.

The Government seem to agree because in their response to A Fair Deal for Consumers, published in July 1998, the Government confirm that they intend,

    "to establish consumer representative bodies on an independent statutory basis, responsible for pro-actively promoting and advocating the interests of all consumers ... and will have an important role in representing the interests of disadvantaged consumers".

In the absence of a national consumer body on the subject of water, the local committees--the Government call them consultative, I should like to call them consumer--will have a central role in the articulation of consumer concerns. Appointing the commissioner as the chairman of all three committees in Scotland is likely to send out the wrong message as to the function of the committees. They will be perceived not to be genuinely independent, whereas an independent chairman with no connection to the regulatory body will be less likely to inhibit the development of a genuinely independent consumer voice.

The functions of the commissioner as the economic regulator will involve him or her in striking a balance between the interests of the consumers, on the one hand, and those of the service providers in setting charges. There would be greater transparency in the process if it could be clearly seen what the interests are. The commissioner will find it easier to reach a balanced decision if each party is able to articulate its own interests strongly and clearly.

The role of the committees is to advise the commissioner on the promotion of the interests of the customers of that authority. To do that effectively, they need to be able to explore those interests independently and in the light of the circumstances in that area of Scotland. There is a danger that if they are chaired by the commissioner they would feel constrained as to what they could do and say, especially when it came to the position of the commissioner. I suspect, as these things happen, he would feel obliged in the committee to defend his position. Therefore, I believe the committee would not be able to send to the commissioner, as the regulator, its independent views on behalf of consumers.

Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 are much less significant than Amendment No. 30, but they basically come from the same position. Currently, the Bill as it stands suggests not fewer than six and not more than nine members of the committee. Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 make modest increases so that that subsection would read "not fewer than 7"and "not more than 11" members.

By reducing the size of local committees--which is what the Government propose to do--when we compare them with the existing size of the three area committees of the Scottish Water and Sewerage Customers'

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Council, it will be increasingly difficult for the committees to represent the wide range of interests of consumers; for example, those from rural areas and those with disabilities. The three water authorities cover large areas--the whole of Scotland. Dividing Scotland into three makes pretty wide areas and I suspect that with as few as six members it would not be possible for the Government to ensure that they represented the wide interests of consumers in a widely dispersed geographical area. They would probably need much nearer 11 members. It may not need to be 11 in all three areas; but, for example, in the north of Scotland, which delivers water services to consumers over a wide area, they would need about 11 members to bring in proper representation from the islands as well as the mainland areas. I quote the Government's document, A Fair Deal for Consumers, which said, in March 1998:

    "The government believe that consumers should have an effective and powerful voice within the regulatory system, charged exclusively with representing the consumer interest".

I believe that a reduction in the number of people on the committees is not a good sign as regards representing the consumer interest.

My last amendment echoes something currently in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. That Act requires the local area committees of the Scottish Water and Sewerage Customers' Council to hold at least one of its meetings in a year in public. It is not clear to me why the provision has not been carried forward into the new Bill. Mine is largely a probing amendment to establish why the Government have not brought forward that provision from the 1994 Act into the new Bill. It seems to me to be important that public meetings of the bodies should be encouraged so that consumers can see that their interests are being properly and openly represented.

I am sorry if I have gone on a little, but the amendments were bundled together and that suited me because they all relate to the same point. I hope that the Minister, who is with me at the Dispatch Box for the second time today, will be able to give me the kind of assurances and answer that might satisfy those of us who are interested in such issues in Scotland. If not, he might consider bringing forward his own amendments to deal with at least some, if not all the points I made. I beg to move.

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