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Baroness Buscombe: We have considerable sympathy with this amendment. However, the view on these Benches is that should the amendment be introduced, it should be introduced as a new substantive part of the Bill as,

in a sense, is a new concept. We feel that it does not make sense to tack it onto the Bill as drafted. Therefore, if at all, it should be brought forward as a substantive amendment.

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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has moved this amendment in straightforward terms for which I thank him. He has pointed out that our definition of the interests of consumers is broad, as it is. Will he be satisfied if I give him the assurance that it is broad enough to allow the consumer council to take an interest in energy efficiency issues?

Lord Ezra: That would satisfy me. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 agreed to.

Clause 18 [Acquisition and review of information]:

Baroness Gardner of Parkes moved Amendment No. 66:

    Page 13, line 15, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Baroness said: I am sure that Members of the Committee on seeing the words "may" and "shall" will think, "Not again". In the years that I have been here we have argued about those words so many times. The discussion can be quite irritating, so I do not intend to go into the detail of those two words. The important matter is the principle.

In 1986 I took an active part in what became the Gas Act. We sat all night during proceedings on the Bill and my noble friend Lord Belstead was very understanding and listened to everything that was said. As a result, he included in Schedule 3, the words,

    "For the purpose of ensuring that there are persons available in particular localities to assist the Council in the performance in those localities of its functions under this Act".

And so it goes on. Before the noble Lord looks it up, I admit that the word "may" is used there. At least the importance of local people to deal with local problems is quite clearly set out in the schedule. I consider that to be the real essential in this issue.

Many years ago, as a young councillor, I was on the local gas consumer council. People brought to us problems only after they had tried to deal with them in every other way. It was essential for them to know that there was someone nearby to consult. The suggestion of amalgamating gas and electricity is logical and shows how far our utilities have come--it is marvellous--and whatever I say about electricity consumer councils the same applies to the gas consumer councils. Nevertheless, it is important that people should have a place within reach to which they can turn. For there to be an obligation for such a facility in Scotland and Wales but for the provision of a similar facility in England to be only permissive is not good enough.

It is important for customers to have immediate personal contact and immediate response to local problems, whether it is storm damage or a dishonest salesman. People should be able to obtain answers to such problems quickly, although I appreciate that at the moment there are 24 such offices and there is room for some rationalisation. Why should Scotland and Wales enjoy the advantages of more regional committees and yet the English regions are not assured of the equivalent?

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I notice that in correspondence with the Minister there has been a bit of conflict. He apparently said that those appointed were all just good boys and in his letter to the Electricity Consumers' Committee he has gone on to say that he,

    "did not intend to denigrate in any way the most valuable efforts of volunteers up and down the country".

I notice that at the bottom he gives his constituency address, which is in Wales. I believe Mid Glamorgan is in Wales. Therefore, his own area will certainly have a more local service. I speak for English people who would like an equally local service. It does not seem fair that Cardiff should be the place for consumers in Devon and Cornwall. I do not believe that people will be happy with that, and I believe that the Government, if they stop to think carefully, will also realise that there is a need for a more local solution.

A simple council, for example based in London, cannot reasonably be expected to be aware of the sensitive needs of the regions of England. Many people say that no one in London appreciates anything north of--

Noble Lords: Watford!

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Watford, yes. How can anyone north of Watford be happy to be represented by someone in London? This is an important matter. To do justice to the English dimension there should definitely be a commitment on the part of the Government, not just to make it possible for the English authority to do this, but to ensure that there is local and regional representation. I beg to move.

Lord Ezra: I support Amendment No. 66 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes and my own amendment, Amendment No. 67, complements it. The noble Baroness makes a valid point that over the years the consumer councils have drawn on local representation so that local issues can be dealt with by people who are familiar with the locality. While the large number of local councils, both in gas and electricity, should properly be rationalised and brought together, none the less there is a need for a continued local representation and for lay members, quite apart from the officials on such local bodies.

I have discussed this matter with those involved in setting up the new consumer councils and they accept the principle that it is desirable that they should have local representation. Such representation must not be overdone, but in the interests of getting a proper consumer service going they would support this principle, as I hope the Government will.

Lord Elton: When I became drawn into the discussions on the way in which consumers should be represented in the new arrangements, I was surprised by the temperature at which they were conducted. I believe that my noble friend quoted Dr Howells, saying that he intended no aspersions. Can the Minister confirm that in the Standing Committee in another place, the Minister referred to the members of

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these consumer councils as failed Conservatives, failed Liberals or retired people? That is not the way in which to set out on a consultation exercise.

I wonder whether Mrs Ann Robinson has managed to reduce the temperature and whether she has handled this in such a way as to restore the confidence of the chairmen of the consumer councils, who have said in a letter that they oppose this megalithic arrangement covering the whole of the United Kingdom for an industry which, in spite of takeovers and mergers, remains, unlike the gas industry, broken up and local.

On the record of the consumer councils, I commend to the noble Lord a breakdown of the backgrounds of the members of the consumer councils who are not failed anything. Rarely are they political in their outlook and if they are retired, a House of our generation should not look on that as a disqualification of any sort.

I hope that the noble Lord will come forward with some emollient words and restore the idea of the importance of local concerns in national industries. Otherwise, we draw one step nearer to the corporate state, which we all dread.

9 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I rise to support Amendment No. 66, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, supported by my noble friend Lord Ezra, together with Amendment No. 67.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, is absolutely correct. Gas and electricity are national industries, both being delivered to our doors through wires or pipes. But they are fragmented at the local level. Therefore, we need a body that we can approach feeling that it has some understanding of the issues at the local level. I support very much what the noble Baroness said about needing some form of local body and local representation.

The noble Baroness asked "Why Wales and Scotland, and not England?" The answer is that unless the Government are sensitive to the need for local representation and a local voice on quite a number of these issues, we shall see further devolution.

Baroness Buscombe: As we heard from my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, the amendments would require a regional committee or committees of the council to be established in England and would oblige the council to take account of local diversity in setting up committees. It is a very positive approach. However, I fear that the first part in relation to regions reflects a response to a disquieting drive for regionalism, a move that the Opposition do not support.

We have considerable sympathy with the call of my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for accountability at the local level, for a local service. We

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need a central service to manage the process. However, local representation, responding to local issues, would be a welcome addition.

Lord Hardy of Wath: I cannot refrain from speaking, extremely briefly, since the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, referred to the position today, which was certainly not adopted in the 1980s. I recall taking a very active part in the gas privatisation deliberations. On this issue I referred to the experience of my wife, as a member of the East Midlands Gas Consumers' Council, which did some very good work at very little cost. It certainly did not embarrass British Gas, which was storming ahead as a most successful enterprise at that time.

The then government decided to have no truck with the idea that the noble Baroness has suggested. They wanted a national organisation. Indeed, without very much thought they proposed that it should be called the "gas users' council". I recall pointing out in Standing Committee that that would lead to its being known as "GUC", which did not sound terribly nice. I proposed that instead it should be called the "gas users national organisation". The Minister seemed about to accept that suggestion--the only suggestion that the government were prepared to accept--until I prematurely pointed out that it would become known as "guano".

However, I share the view that the noble Baroness puts forward now. I wish that the party opposite had taken the same approach a decade or more ago.

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