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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the publication of information that anyone has the right to collect is always a problem area. I sympathise with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, in putting down these amendments. She enunciated the correct principle towards the end of her remarks when she said that, in principle, everything that can be published should be published.

That still leaves one with a problem as to where the boundary line lies. If the boundary lies in one place, particularly where it might concern individuals, it might well lie in a different place, or be considered to lie in a different place, if one was dealing with a registered water supplier or a major water company. There is a difficulty of definition, but the principle of publishing as much as can be published is one that we support.

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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 71, 72, 79, 100, 101 and 102 are concerned with the consumer council's powers to publish information. The council is required to have regard to any opinion expressed by the authority about any serious and prejudicial effect of publishing or about the desirability of publishing. The amendments raise two issues: the level of protection of the individual or body and the extent to which the council can act on its own. We recognise the need for the council to be independent from the authority, but in this case it makes sense for the council to have regard for the authority's opinion. It is important to note that it will still be for the council to take the final decision.

Assessing whether publishing information may have serious or prejudicial effects on a company may mean examining quite technical issues involving the financial markets, for example. Therefore, it would be better for the council to have to draw on the greater expertise of the regulator in those matters and then to have regard to the opinion.

The legislation should also keep a balance between human rights of individuals and bodies and the public's right to information. We believe that the Bill as drafted strikes that right balance between those two concerns, whereas the effect of the amendments could be that an individual has no knowledge of the possibility of being named in a publication before it is printed.

We support the aim of Amendment No. 76 to require the council to act responsibly and to avoid imposing an unnecessary burden. However, we do not believe that the amendment would add anything. It can require only information that it needs for the purpose of exercising its functions. Any such request would be reasonable.

Amendments Nos. 78 and 80 would replace the dispute resolution procedures in the Bill and enable the consumer council to enforce its own directions when the authority or company refused to supply it with information. If an undertaker or the authority refuses to provide information to the council, it will need to provide reasons for its failure. The council will be able to assess those and publish them. Any refusal would therefore have to be backed up by very good reasons.

If there is a dispute, it will be for the authority, or such other person as the Secretary of State prescribes, to decide whether the information should be provided. Reasons for refusal to comply may be technical; for example, commercial confidentiality. The authority, with its detailed knowledge of the water industry, is better placed than the Secretary of State or a third party to judge whether those claims are justified.

We do not believe that it is appropriate to give the council enforcement powers, as it is a representative body for consumers, not a regulator. We should bear in mind the detailed procedures and safeguards that the regulator must observe if it takes enforcement action. That is not provided in these amendments. The consumer council should not be able to act without at least the same level of protection for the bodies that it proposes to act against.

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Incompetence is very likely to lead to complaints. There is no restriction on publishing information about complaints. I refer to Clause 45. I shall read carefully the point made by both noble Lords—about everything being published that can be—without any commitment. In the mean time, having given quite a full answer, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the detail of her reply, but I am not sure yet whether I should thank her for the spirit behind it. She says that she will consider carefully the need to enable the publication of more information; in other words, the premise is a support for publication rather than against it. Perhaps in discussions before Third Reading we can have a clearer idea as to whether the Bill could be improved in that regard.

The Minister tempted me earlier in her reply to test the opinion of the House on whether the consumer council should, in some ways, remain subservient to the water authority. The consumer council could draw on enough expert opinion to give it the authority and expertise that it needs. I shall study the Minister's reply in detail. In the meantime, I look forward to more discussions and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 72 not moved.]

Clause 43 [Provision of information to the Council]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendments Nos. 73 and 74:

    Page 51, line 40, leave out "or"

    Page 51, line 42, at end insert "; or

(c) a licensed water supplier,"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendments No. 75 to 80 not moved.]

Lord Whitty moved Amendments Nos. 81 and 82:

    Page 53, line 35, after "company" insert "holding an appointment or a licensed water supplier"

    Page 54, line 6, after "company" insert "holding an appointment and a licensed water supplier"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

6.45 p.m.

Clause 44 [Provision of statistical information to consumers etc]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 83:

    Page 54, leave out lines 19 to 21.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 83, I shall speak to the remaining amendments in the group. They follow up the commitment I made in Committee to reconsider the duty placed on the consumer council to publish statistical information about undertakers' levels of performance. I reconsidered the matter, and the outcome is as noble Lords wished and is supported by Ofwat and WaterVoice. Amendments Nos. 83, 86 and 87 remove the duty from the council and leave it with the regulatory authority, where it currently resides. The other two amendments are consequential.

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Amendments Nos. 84 and 85 place on the consumer council a duty to publish information about complaints against licensed water suppliers as well as undertakers. There is a general consensus that we should move in that direction. I beg to move.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for tabling this set of amendments. In Committee we had a long debate about treating water suppliers fairly. The Government were taxed by our suggestions then. We support the amendments.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Whitty moved Amendments Nos. 84 to 87:

    Page 54, line 23, after "undertakers" insert "or licensed water suppliers"

    Page 54, line 26, after "undertakers" insert "or licensed water suppliers"

    Page 54, leave out lines 34 to 36.

    Page 54, line 44, leave out subsection (3).

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 45 [Consumer complaints]:

[Amendment No. 88 not moved.]

Lord Whitty moved Amendments Nos. 89 and 90:

    Page 55, line 6, after "undertaker" insert "or a licensed water supplier"

    Page 55, line 7, at end insert "or the services provided by that licensed water supplier"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 91:

    Page 55, line 13, after "subsection" insert "(2A) or"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the consumer council for water has a duty to investigate consumer complaints but has no power to resolve complaints. The amendment proposes that that power lies rightfully with the council.

When we debated the matter in Grand Committee, the Minister said that, although the consumer council for water should have the duties of a representative, they should not be confused with those of an adjudicator or enforcer. He pointed to the "binding mediation agreements" between some WaterVoice regional committees and water companies whereby voluntary compensation can be made payable. He also noted that Energywatch—the equivalent of the consumer council, but for gas and electricity—did not have statutory powers to seek compensation for complainants, and did not seek them.

As I mentioned previously, the comparison with the energy sector is misleading and irrelevant. Dissatisfied customers in gas and electricity can always switch suppliers, but in the water sector all household customers and most business customers will continue to be served by monopoly water companies.

The amendment addresses the possibility that the consumer council for water, as the customers' representative, might be the right body to have a compensation power. Will the Minister explain in

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much clearer terms why the Government are giving the council a duty to deal with customers' complaints but no means of resolving them? Perhaps there should be another body, possibly the authority, which would have the power to fine companies and also the power to require compensation to be paid to customers following an investigation of their complaint. This is still one of the most unsatisfactory areas of the Bill in terms of consumers' rights; it will not make them feel very confident in the new consumer council. I beg to move.

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