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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, in the time-honoured phrase, I should like time to study what the Minister has said before we come to the next stage of the Bill. In the meantime, with the permission of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 27:

("(c) to provide embedded generators with fair access at fair prices to the network"").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I note what the noble Lord said about embedded generation. He is quite right. It is obscure; one has to find one's way through a labyrinth in the Bill and supporting documents. I still find it difficult to understand why the words used by one of the noble Lord's ministerial colleagues should not be accepted. The noble Lord, Lord Currie, said that he did not know what "fair" meant. Apparently Mr Chris Mullin knew what it meant because he used the word in another place. Indeed the noble Lord referred to "fair access". I should like to withdraw the amendment with the proviso that I shall study carefully what has been said and may well come back to the matter at the next stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 4 [Schedule to be substituted for Schedule 6 to the 1989 Act]:

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 28:

    Page 126, line 45, after ("person") insert ("at any place other than premises at which electricity is being supplied under a contract with an authorised supplier or a deemed contract with an electricity supplier").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 28, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 32. Paragraph 4(1) of Schedule 4 provides for a distributor to recover the value of electricity taken improperly while being conveyed by a distributor. That provision does not, however, take account of the arrangements which have been put in place by electricity companies for recovering sums for

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the improper abstraction of electricity. The provision could imply that distribution companies have wider responsibilities than they actually have.

Primarily, responsibility for dealing with unlawful abstraction will be a matter for suppliers and not distributors. Under these arrangements, where electricity is stolen and the customer is taking supply from an identifiable supplier, the supplier makes good any additional costs incurred by other suppliers and any loss suffered by the distributor. The supplier is then able to pursue any remedies for recovering those amounts from the customer.

In a small number of cases where there is no identifiable supplier--for example, abstraction by an improper connection in the road--it would be appropriate for a distributor to have the power of recovery. The amendment would restrict the scope of the provision to those limited circumstances.

I turn to Amendment No. 32. The amendment would provide electricity distributors with rights of access to meters in the case of an emergency. While distributors will retain ownership of the thousands of meters currently in place, they will not have any right of access to those meters. Electricity suppliers will be responsible for providing and reading meters and the powers to enter premises for access to meters will be given to those suppliers, who will be able to exercise those powers themselves or through persons appointed by them.

A distributor could be appointed for this purpose but a supplier will equally be able to select another party to provide metering services. Where the supplier has not appointed the distributor as its agent for metering services, the distributor will not be able to deal with a faulty meter on the customer's premises. In that event, a distributor will be able to disconnect the supply only in order to leave a safe situation and ask the supplier to arrange for its meter operator to deal with the meter. Until that is done the consumer will be without electricity. That cannot be in the consumer's best interests.

Without the right of access to meters, distributors will be blamed for the poor and confused service consumers will receive, a problem not of the distributors' making. Consumers will rightly not be willing to listen to explanations about the subtle differences between the statutory powers of electricity suppliers and distributors when they are told that their power will have to be left off after they have called out what they still regard in many, many circumstances as the Electricity Board at midnight.

These amendments would enable distributors to enter premises in an emergency to inspect, repair and reinstall meters and, if I may say so, in that case serve the customer. The Government claim that their intention is to put customers first by offering a one-stop shop. Where the distributor is not appointed as the supplier's meter service provider, that simply will not happen. Without these powers distributors, through no fault of their own, will end up providing a poorer service to the customer. I beg to move.

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5.15 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall reply to opposition Amendments Nos. 28 and 32 and I shall then speak to my Amendments Nos. 30, 77, 78 and 103. I should like first to say a few words about an amendment which we propose to make at Third Reading on rights of entry to premises.

We have recently received--within the past few days--representations from electricity distribution companies which are concerned to ensure that they have sufficient rights of entry to premises in cases of emergency. We have listened to their arguments and are persuaded that we should act. Therefore, we will be tabling at Third Reading a small amendment to Schedule 4. As is my usual practice, I shall write to noble Lords to explain the amendment when it has been tabled. The reason I mention this now is both to inform the House and to underline that we are always ready to accept the industry's proposals to amend the drafting of the Bill where its proposals are well founded. That is not the case for Amendments Nos. 28 and 32.

Amendment No. 28 was originally proposed to us by the Electricity Association. It expressed concern that paragraph 4 of new Schedule 6 to the Electricity Act, as inserted by Schedule 4 to the Bill, appeared to place responsibility on distributors to recover the value of electricity illegally abstracted from their distribution networks, whereas in their view all responsibility for energy used by consumers should be the responsibility of suppliers. I am happy to give to the House the response we gave to the association explaining why its concerns were unfounded and why, therefore, this amendment is not appropriate.

First, paragraph 4 of new Schedule 6 gives distributors statutory rights to recover the value of illegally abstracted electricity. It does not place obligations on them to do so. In practice, I understand that there are agreements within the industry itself which may assign such a role to distributors. That would normally only be in cases where there was no supplier to whom the role could appropriately be assigned; for instance, if someone were illegally to connect into a distribution line in the street. The sole purpose of paragraph 4 is to make the distributors' lives easier in these cases by allowing them to use civil legal procedures to recover the value of the electricity so taken.

Secondly, new Schedule 6 has been drafted so that paragraph 4 applies only in cases where paragraph 3 does not. Paragraph 3 provides that a contract shall be deemed to be in place with a supplier where someone takes a supply of electricity without there being an express contract in place. That could cover a number of circumstances, but what is relevant here is that it would cover electricity taken illegally, always provided that a supplier can be identified as being responsible for the supply taken. If not, and only if not, the statutory rights--not obligations--under paragraph 4 would be available to distributors.

I turn to Amendment No. 32. Again, this proposal was first made by the Electricity Association. We considered it carefully but were unable to accept it.

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This is not a safety issue, despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, says. It is a competition issue. The amendment does not improve safety but it does undermine competition. Certainly, it is usually the distributor who needs statutory rights of entry in an emergency. We have made proper statutory provision for that. But a distributor does not need rights of entry, except in case of emergency, to inspect, repair or replace my deluxe all-singing, all-dancing electric rice-steamer with an egg poacher side attachment. By the same token he does not need them for a meter. It is irrelevant that the distributor might happen to own the meter.

At present it happens that the public electricity suppliers own most of the meters in this country. It may be that these will pass to and remain with their distribution arm after the separation of supply and distribution. That is a matter for the public electricity suppliers and in the longer term also for the authority, which continues to consider the implications for competition of meter ownership. However, the Bill assigns statutory rights and responsibilities for meters and metering to suppliers, not distributors. Suppliers will not have to own meters or provide services for themselves, but may procure them from third parties, who may, of course, include distributors. That is because metering of electricity supplied to premises is a supply not a distribution matter. It also ensures that customers may deal with their supplier for metering as for all other aspects of their electricity supply--the one-stop shop principle. Distributors will continue to be responsible for line and plant. So it is right that they should have various rights of entry related to those, including emergency access. But there is no reason for them to have privileged access to meters for which they are not responsible.

The way we have structured the legislation allows for full competition in metering services. By giving all matters relating to metering to suppliers, we have quite rightly removed the distribution companies, which may well continue to have associated supply companies under the same ownership, from statutory access to meters operated by their supply competitors. Equally, we place distributors on the same statutory footing as independent providers of meter services who have no statutory rights. Both could nevertheless exercise the supplier's rights of entry on his behalf and with his agreement.

I turn to the government amendments, Amendments Nos. 30, 77, 78 and 103. Amendments Nos. 30 and 78 are technical amendments to do with meters, in particular pre-payment meters, and the rights that licensed companies have to enter premises related to meters and pre-payment meters. Amendment No. 77 reflects government policy that pre-payment meters should not be used to recover charges other than those owed for the supply of gas or electricity. For example, hire purchase payments for cookers or fridges should not be charged through a pre-payment meter.

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Amendment No. 77 aligns the provisions implementing this policy for gas with the provisions relating to electricity set out in paragraph 8 of Schedule 5 to the Bill. First, the amendment ensures that the restriction on non-supply related charges applies to suppliers authorised by exemption as well by licence. This is achieved by the reference to an authorised supplier, which is defined in Section 48, as amended, as meaning a licensed or exempt supplier. Secondly, as metering is part of the process of supply, the costs of providing the pre-payment meter itself should be recoverable.

Amendment No. 30 corrects an omission by giving a power of entry to a licensed supplier to install a pre-payment meter. In order to reduce the number of disconnections, the Bill gives companies a right to fit a pre-payment meter instead of disconnecting, but the associated right of entry was omitted. Amendment No. 78 corrects a similar omission in gas by creating a right of entry corresponding to the right to fit a pre-payment meter in the first place. This is achieved by the reference to paragraph 7(3)(a). Amendment No. 78 also deals with an issue which arises in gas but not electricity. There is a risk of an explosion if gas mixes with air in a service pipe or in an appliance such as a cooker. This can occur when a meter is fitted. So if a company fits a pre-payment meter it needs to purge gas from the system and then test it.

In the absence of the right of entry to premises covering this purging and testing, the licence holder would be forced to leave the pre-payment meter in the "off" position if the consumer was not present, and the consumer would then have specifically to request another visit from the company before he could use his cooker or boiler, doubling the "waiting for the gasman" excuse which employees are known to give from time to time. The amendment would make such a visit unnecessary. We propose extending the right of entry with the words at the end of new paragraph 23(2)(c). As paragraph 3(5) also deals with installing or replacing a meter it is preferable that the power to test and purge the system also applies in relation to paragraph 3(5). I must emphasise that only licensed companies, and not exempt ones, have rights of entry. Licence conditions apply, including the requirement to have a regulator-approved code of practice on access to consumers' premises.

Amendment No. 103 changes the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954 in respect of rights for electricity suppliers and distributors to reflect the abolition of the concept of public electricity supplier and to provide for electricity what the Gas Act 1995 provides for gas: namely, that a person who is authorised by an agent of a licensee, to whom the rights of entry in the Electricity Act apply, may apply for a warrant to exercise the right of entry. For the reasons given, I cannot support Amendments Nos. 28 and 32.

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