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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I suppose that in the light of these avowals I had better declare a past interest as well, indirectly, in that my wife was chairman of the National Gas Consumers' Council for a number of years from 1977 onwards. At that time, as my noble friend Lord Hardy rightly says, that council had regional gas consumers' councils, consisting of lay members as well as officials.
It is certainly true that, as a number of noble Lords have said, there is what my brief describes as "a lively argument" going on in the field--I think that the truth of the matter is that a hell of a row is going on--between those who believe that the interests of consumers are best championed by a council made up primarily of full-time professional staff and those who see a valuable role for committees of lay members.
Let me set out the general approach that we have taken to the organisational and regional issues concerning the council. Our approach has been to give the council a clear set of statutory functions but then to ensure that it has the flexibility and powers to organise itself in a way suited to delivering those outputs, outputs for which it will, after all, be accountable. It is more important for the Bill to get the council's functions right than to prescribe in detail how they are to be delivered. Organisational structures may well need to change over time, and the Bill must be capable of coping with change. We have pared down the statutory organisational requirements to the minimum.
I recognise that the treatment of England as regards regional committees is different from that of Scotland and Wales. The difference reflects the fact of devolution and reflects representations from Scottish and Welsh interests. That is the explanation for subsection (2)(a). However, the difference is more apparent than real. Although the council is required to establish at least one committee in respect of Scotland and Wales, it is not obliged to establish committees in respect of areas within those countries, although it may do so. In the same way, the council may establish committees in respect of areas within England, although it is not obliged to do so.
It would be misleading to argue that the Bill ignores the English or any other regional dimension. The clause gives the council an explicit regional function. The council must serve consumers in the "different areas of Great Britain". As I have mentioned, it has powers to set up committees for England to assist it in this task. The clause also requires the council to maintain at least one office in England.
In fact, there will be more than one office for the regions of England. A final announcement about the council's structure is expected shortly. These offices will need to develop an expertise in consumers' issues and concerns in the geographical areas for which they are responsible.
Certainly, the council will want to reassure itself that it is receiving the advice it needs to supplement the work of its full-time staff in its regional offices. There are, of course, different ways of obtaining this advice. Committees are one route, and a potentially very valuable one. The regional offices would be capable of supporting regional committees. Indeed, I understand that Ann Robinson will now be developing proposals for regional committees or panels. But I do not think that the Bill needs to be prescriptive about how it obtains the advice it needs.
Before part-time committees are established, decisions have to be taken about how many there should be and how they can best be deployed in a way which complements rather than overlaps the work of the full-time consumer specialists in the council's regional office. The links between the committees and the work of other organisations, such as the trading standards offices and citizens advice bureaux also needs to be considered.
We believe that these are not matters for legislation. They are managerial decisions for the council. The council will be best placed to decide what arrangements would best serve the consumer and deliver the outputs in the most cost-effective manner. That sort of detail, frankly, does not belong in a Bill. It is enough that the council can do what is necessary.
I assure the Committee that the existing Gas Act, which established the Gas Consumers' Council, does not prescribe a requirement for regional committees. The Gas Consumers' Council itself established regional panels. I do not think we need be afraid that if regional committees will serve a useful purpose in helping the council, the council will not establish them.
The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, refers to the issue of local diversity and probes the extent to which regional committees will be deployed. We must recognise the role of the council's regional offices. They are quite distinct from committees. The regional offices will be made up of full-time professional staff. They will always be the main mechanism for delivering the council's services to consumers in the region. They will be charged with developing an expertise and familiarity with the problems and needs of consumers in their areas.
Whether or not there are committees, these people will need to have contact with local communities directly through the local media, face to face at citizen's advice bureaux or through surgeries. They will have to do outreach work in places like shopping centres and they will have to share events with other local bodies. They will develop links and networks with professional bodies working and delivering services at the local level, bodies such as the trading standards offices, trade and commerce organisations, charities and other caring agencies.
This is an innovative and credible programme for the regional offices and it can make a real impact with consumers. Perhaps that is more important than the issue, which has still to be resolved, of whether there should be separate committees of lay people. I am not against committees of lay people. I have made it clear that we have experience of them and other Members of the Committee will have experience of them also. But I urge the Committee not to be too prescriptive as to the way that the consumer council will operate, but to leave it to the council to work out its own destiny.
Lord Ezra: The noble Lord has given us a very reasoned reply. Of course these are matters on which the council must come forward with its proposals. The noble Lord says that these are purely managerial problems, but they have excited a good deal of interest, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton pointed out. Can the noble Lord tell us whether the organisational proposals of the council are likely to be made public before we conclude our consideration of the Bill?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I do not know. I know that Ann Robinson is working hard on them at the moment. I shall write to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate if I have any news to give.
Lord Elton: The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has asked a material question and one that needs to be answered before Report stage if my noble friend Lady Gardner is to be in a position to decide what to do at later stages of the Bill. It would be helpful to hear that.
I was a little worried by the noble Lord's approach to this problem. He said that it was a managerial question. To my mind, management is on the side of the producer. I think that he was probably thinking of management as being the management of the council, whose members are the appointees of the Secretary of State. But they are still not very close to the consumer. What is being expressed--I noticed startled surprise on the Benches behind the noble Lord--is that
The noble Lord described the furious argument which he said was going as between the voluntary and the professional methods of representation. Of course my noble friend's amendment is addressed purely to scale and to locality. I have not expressed a view on whether professionals or volunteers do the job better, but I think that for the representation of consumers one needs a mixture of both. That is for another debate. I think I have said enough to show where my sympathies lie if my noble friend wishes to return to this matter at a later stage.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I hope that I can now be a little more helpful to the Committee. I expect that a conclusion will be reached to the council's deliberations before we reach the second day of Committee. Perhaps I may also say that, if that happens, there will be some noble Lords who agree with the conclusion that is reached and some who do not. My view is that the matter should not be decided by this House; it should be decided by the people who are actually working on the ground. Therefore, I do not think that people should attach too much importance to the way in which the decision comes out.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I appreciate the support of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy. He made the point that in the past too much attention has been paid to the industry side. I am certainly not doing that but looking only at the consumer side. If people are asked whether they want a matter dealt with locally or at a great distance--perhaps the bright young ones could use e-mail--they will say the former. Only after lengthy debate on the Gas Act 1986 did the then Minister, Lord Belstead, agree to such a provision:
The last thing we want is some great bureaucracy, but members of the public have difficulty travelling from one area to another to work or for health treatment. People like facilities to be available within easy reach of their own homes. Distances grow ever greater. We had the same debate about people having difficulty getting to their nearest courts. It is a question of having persons available locally enough so that the public do not have to deal with a remote bureaucracy. No matter how good the big scene and how well it is managed from the centre, nothing is as useful as a local
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