I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend subsection (7) of section fifty-three of the Gas Act, 1948, in order to permit discrimination in treatment of certain classes of persons designated from time to time by the Minister of Fuel and Power.
The House may wonder why, at this late stage in the Session, I am seeking permission to introduce this small Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule. Quite apart from what I consider to be the merits of the Bill, this seemed to me the only possible way of drawing the attention of Parliament to a rather unprecedented action by the Northern Gas Board. The rules of the House make it impossible to question a Minister on the Board's action and I have, therefore, been forced to produce a Bill in order to question the position. In passing, I must say that unless there is a means of associating Parliament with the nationalised industries, it is only right to introduce a Bill of this kind to protect consumer interests ; and I can foresee a vista of Bills.
I want to give the House the background for my reasons for seeking to introduce the Bill. Earlier this year the Northern Gas Board, in a commendable search for economy, decided to impose a minimum charge, the minimum charge being related to the consumer having used five therms of gas per quarter. The Gas Consultative Council, which was made aware of this decision, decided to draw the attention of the Northern Gas Board to the fact that the Board's decision would impose hardship on old-age pensioners and people living on small fixed incomes who might not in the course of their ordinary household commitments use the appropriate number of therms.
Before any action could be taken and before the matter could be discussed by the Northern Gas Board with the Gas Consultative Council, the Minister of Fuel and Power informed the Board that under Section 53 (7) of the Gas Act, 1948, it would not be possible for the Board to take any steps to relieve old-age pensioners of the general charge. The Board decided, therefore, to proceed with the adoption of the minimum charge.
This has aroused tremendous opposition throughout the North of England from local authorities, etc. For instance, the chairman of the local welfare committee of the County Borough of Tynemouth, my local authority, expressed himself in very vehement terms against the Board's decision. The Press, Members of Parliament and the general public felt that it was an imposition on old-age pensioners and those living on small fixed incomes to ask them to pay for gas which they had not consumed.
We are always told that gas boards have complete autonomy in decisions about charges, but this difficulty arose from the intervention by the Ministry, that the Board could not take steps to cushion old-age pensioners from the imposition of the charge. When that position was made known, a large number of people who did not consume five therms of gas per quarter failed to pay their bills and a large number of other persons affected decided to ask the Board to remove their gas equipment.
That was done, although I must say that the Board took no arbitrary action when the bills were not paid. The matter was then taken to the area gas consumers' council, which also vehemently opposed the decision of the Board. After one or two meetings the Northern Gas Board decided to reduce the amount of the minimum charge from five to three therms and the matter is to be even further reconsidered.
That is the point which has now been reached. I have no means of knowing what is happening with gas boards in other areas, but if it is intended to seek economies—and everybody supports that—it is important that there should be power somewhere to ensure that the people on whom the economies are exercised are not those in the lowest income groups. After studying it, I came to the conclusion that there was a weakness in the Gas Act, 1948. The purpose of my Bill is to remedy that weakness.
That is the reason why the Northern Gas Board can take no action to protect the old-age pensioners and, as I say, the public in the North of England are seriously perturbed that we should ask old-age pensioners and people living on small fixed incomes to pay for gas which they have not consumed. I am sure that that must seem to the House a very peculiar way of helping those old people to economise.
I came to the conclusion that the only remedy was to seek to amend the Gas Act to give power to the Minister, if he approved of any scheme put up by a gas board, to allow that board to eliminate from the operation of its charges any body of people, if they so desired, and particularly of course on the recommendation of the area consumers' councils. In my opinion, if we are to have any protection given to the public, it is important that recommendations made by the consumers' council in the various areas should be accepted and acted on by the industry concerned. Otherwise, there is no sense in having that machinery in operation at all.
I have examined the Gas Act, 1948, very closely to find how the procedure which I have outlined may be carried out. I found that Section 53 (7) reads as follows:
An Area Board, in fixing tariffs and making agreements under this section, shall not show undue preference to any person or class of persons and shall not exercise any undue discrimination against any person or class of persons.
In my Bill I seek to add the words:
Except with the authority of the Minister.
That, of course, would make it very much easier for the area gas boards to deal with their tariff problems; because it is fair to point out that so far as the boards are concerned there are a large number of industrial establishments who do not use the minimum number of therms and which could quite well help to pay the administrative charges incurred in the collection of accounts and the examination of meters. That would be a help to the general economical running of the gas industry.
Because I realise that this is perhaps rather a revolutionary proposal I sought to find whether, since the nationalisation Acts were put into operation, this House had agreed to any differentiation in the treatment of certain classes of persons under any of the nationalisation Acts. I felt that that would be an important point in making my case to the House this afternoon for permission to introduce this Bill.
I found that in 1955 the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) was able to pass through this House, and, finally, to place on the Statute Book after the Royal Assent had been given, a Bill to enable local authorities—who are very much in the same position as area boards—to allow certain classes of persons to travel at reduced rates on municipal transport.
I found, therefore, that a precedent had been created in this House and so I do not find myself in any difficulty in suggesting that this Bill, which will protect old-age pensioners and, no doubt, the area gas boards, should be given permission to go through the normal machinery relevant to the introduction of a Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule.
In commending the Bill and asking permission to introduce it I wish to say, finally, that, of course, all Ministers of the Crown keep on saying how difficult it is to find ways and means to help those living on small fixed incomes. I feel that not only is this a practical Bill, in the sense that it will help the gas industry and old-age pensioners, but, also, that it is a way of helping those whom the Government themselves find it so very difficult to assist. It may well be that if this Bill is allowed to proceed and reaches the Statute Book, we shall be able, by putting our heads together and considering the matter wisely and without heat, to arrive at a further way of helping those whom the Government and hon. Members of this House would wish to help.
In passing, I would add that old-age pensioners already have to pay more for their coal delivered in bags than those who buy by the ton. I think that this is a very humane and sound Bill and I ask the permission of the House to introduce it today.
We must all have every sympathy for old-age pensioners and other poor people, but I cannot imagine a more untidy or administratively less advantageous way of dealing with their plight than to pass special "titbit" Acts of Parliament to regulate the behaviour of the nationalised industries. How we should work our nationalised industries is a very grave problem, but I am sure that this cannot be the way. The hon. Lady, for whom I have great regard, says, with her tongue in her cheek—
My hon. Friend always has the last word, Mr. Speaker, or very nearly always.
The hon. Lady says that if this Bill can take its normal course—but no one knows better than she does that it cannot possibly take its normal course. We are within two or three Parliamentary days of the end of the Session. So, because she is unable to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and make her point in some debate, or by way of Question and Answer, my hon. Friend makes use of this special machinery, which should be the cherished privilege of private Members and not a method of getting behind the Chair and the Clerks at the Table. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, I suggest that is exactly what the hon. Lady is doing, and that no one knows it better than she does. I suggest that she has had her say, no doubt she will have pleased her constituents, and that we should determine not to give her Bill a Second Reading.