I am glad to have the opportunity of raising the subject of the North Thames Gas Board and its natural gas conversion programme. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State here, and perhaps I may take this opportunity of congratulating him on his recent marriage and hoping that this debate will not spoil his enjoyment of the Christmas Recess.
The position of the North Thames Gas Board and its conversion programme has come very much to a head in the last few days by virtue of the Evening Standard campaign, but we should not overlook the fact that, without publicity, a large number of Members of Parliament have been carrying on this campaign for many months, that excellent local newspapers, like the Hampstead and Highgate Express in my constituency, have been doing valuable work and, indeed, that consumer organisations such as the redoubtable National Consumer Protection Council have all been adding their voice to the growing army of complaints about the way in which the board has been operating.
When the board was ready to start its conversion programme it called a meeting of London Members of Parliament in order to explain its problems and its programme, and I should have thought that it had enough examples of the snags that could occur from other parts of the country where the blessings, dubious or otherwise, of conversion to natural gas had taken place to be able to avoid them.
I want to confine what I have to say today to the experiences, comments and complaints that I have had from my constituents in Hampstead, although I must say that many people have written to me from other parts of London and I have swollen the mailbags of my colleagues in other constituencies as a result.
I want to cite a few cases which have come to me and which I have tried to deal with in one way or another. There is a common thread running through, the ignoring of letters by the board, the inability of consumers to get through to the board by telephone, the appointments that have been made being broken time and again and the wrong equipment being brought when eventually a fitter has arrived. The common link is sheer inefficiency.
The first of the cases I want to quote is that of the Misses Dennehy, aged 80 and 70, who were without hot water or a gas fire after conversion on 18th October. They came to me on 15th November, and as a result I put their case to the Chairman of the North Thames Gas Board. Perhaps one of the significant facts in this case is that it was brought to my notice by someone who works for the citizens advice bureau and who had herself, as she says, telephoned and written to the gas office "all to no avail". I hope the Minister will note that more than one of the cases I shall quote this morning come from people who know their way around, who do not need to go to their Member of Parliament, but who find it so absolutely frustrating that they have no alternative.
The next case is that of Miss Cowen, whose equipment was converted on 15th November. The work took three days. During that period there was no heating, the grid to the boiler was not replaced and the pilot light went out repeatedly. A leak was reported on three occasions but no action was taken for 10 days. During this period of conversion, Miss Cowen had visits from 12 different teams of men, each with a different story; the last one managed to put the boiler out and then said that he did not know how to relight it. I ask the Minister to note that Miss Cowen certainly knows her way around, because she is training officer of the Greater London Citizens Advice Bureaux. So no one can say that she did not use the right machinery. She certainly understands the ways of officialdom.
Then there is the case of Mr. Davson. This is partially conversion and partially a new installation, but it is worth spending a little time reading it in full. On 31st July Mr. Davson had a White Rose cooker installed by the Finchley Road showroom and it worked perfectly so far as the burners and the grill were concerned. On 6th August Mrs. Davson tried to use the oven. When it was heated, the smell of metallic paint was so intense that it pervaded the whole flat and food cooked in the oven had to be thrown away. On 8th August she telephoned the area number of the gas board and on 11th August a fitter called to confirm the complaint, and they heard nothing more.
On their return from holiday they found that no card had been left to say that someone had called. On 1st September, via the area office, they contacted the Finchley Road showroom, where someone said "We only sell cookers." On 2nd September Mrs. Davson wrote to the showroom a letter urgently addressed to the manager, asking for the attention of either the board or, through the board, of the manufacturers. There was no reply and no acknowledgment, and on a later visit Mrs. Davson was told "We do not answer letters."
Later she telephoned the London office of the manufacturers, who rightly said that the responsibility was that of the board. Mr. Davson then telephoned the Gas Consultative Council. He was given a number to telephone and from that number was given another number and was then told that no help could be given but that a representative would call. No representative called. Three days later two fitters called. They thought that a new restrictor might help. They promised to come back in two days with the new restrictor but they were never seen again. I hope that they did not die on the way.
On 5th October Mrs. Davson wrote to the Gas Consultative Council and on 10th October two more fitters called. They thought that the cooker possibly needed a new burner as well as a new restrictor. They collected these and put them in and promised to telephone the next day to see what the result was. They did so, and Mrs. Davson said that the oven was no different. The fitters said that they would report accordingly. Mrs. Davson says that this was followed by silence.
On 24th and 25th October there was a visit from the conversion team. Mrs. Davson took the opportunity to discover the reaction of the conversion engineer. His reaction was immediate and unqualified: "You must get rid of that at once." At five o'clock on 24th October the service department was telephoned and someone there said that they were still waiting for a new burner, etc. They were told that a new burner had already been in for a fortnight and was useless. On 26th October the Davsons wrote again to the consultative council. On 3rd November Mr. Thomson of the sales inquiry office of the board telephoned, three months after the cooker had been sold, to inquire what was wrong with it and what kind of smell was caused. It was difficult to describe the smell over the telephone in ladylike language.
On 6th November a Mr. Bernard called. He said that the cooker must be changed and that Mrs. Davson could expect a telephone call in two days for an appointment. If no call came, he said, they should telephone. There was no call. On 11th November Mrs. Davson telephoned and was told that there was no one in the office. On 11th November the Daysons telephoned the consultative council again. On 15th and 16th November they telephoned the Kilburn office. It was always engaged. On 17th November they telephoned the chief office at Kensington and said that they had been three and a half months without a usable oven.
On the afternoon of the 17th two fitters arrived with another cooker. One of the back burners was out of line with the pilot and would not light, so they replaced it with one from the first cooker. The oven thermostat would not work and the fitters said that a new one would come in a few days and that in the meantime the oven could be used. Mrs. Davson lit the oven and found that it would stay alight for one minute; then it went out completely.
On 18th November Mr. Thomson of the board telephoned again to inquire about the cooker and was told that it would not stay alight. At this point Mrs. Davson discovered that in taking away the first cooker the fitters had also taken away the side mouldings and clips of the Movolock. On 20th November Mr. Bernard called and was told that the second cooker was useless and that they must have a third.
On 26th November Mr. Dayson wrote to Mr. Bernard asking him to have the side mouldings and clips to the Movolcck returned when the next cooker came. On 28th November Mrs. Davson telephoned the chief office at Kensington and said again that they had been without a usuable oven since the end of July. On 30th November they sent a telegram to the consultative council, and on 1st December—success. Mr. Bernard telephoned to ask whether they had yet received the cooker. He said that he had not received any of the letters.
On receipt of this saga of correspondence I wrote to the chairman of the board. Action was taken. I had a letter only this morning from Mr. Dayson, which said:
I am writing to let you know that the Gas Board delivered us a new cooker which has proved very satisfactory. Thank you very much for the efforts that you are making on behalf of your constituents in this matter.
But why should Mr. Dayson be forced to go through three months of purgatory because of the inefficiency of the North Thames Gas Board and the so-called consultative council?
I come next to Alderman Mrs. Campbell, who is a member of Camden Borough Council, a political opponent of mine but a friend of many years standing. Her saga too needs to be given in some detail. She reported a leak on 12th July and again on 13th July. At 6.30 p.m. on the 13th the board sent someone to turn off the supply and promised that service would be restored at nine a.m. the next morning. Mrs. Campbell took time off from her work on the 14th. Nothing happened and at four o'clock in the afternoon she telephoned, to be told that it would actually be fixed.
It was not fixed. On 15th July, it still was not fixed, so Mrs. Campbell tele- phoned me. I tried to telephone. I hope that the Minister will note that this is another thread running through the correspondence. I telephoned on 19 separate occasions to the number of the North Thames Gas Board and got the engaged signal every time. I then spoke to the supervisor at the telephone exchange and when I told him the number he said "Oh, no, not that. That is the gas board and it is useless to try to get hold of them." After 19 unsuccessful calls, the twentieth was successful and a fitter arrived about an hour after I had got through to the office at Mrs. Campbell's home. End of saga?
But on 20th July there was another leak at Mrs. Campbell's home. The gas was turned off and the board promised that it would be restored at nine o'clock next morning. On 21st July, Mrs. Campbell took a day off again. At two o'clock the man came, looked at the problem, said that there might be some difficulty and went away again.
At 3.30 p.m. we spoke to the board and the board said that it did not think anyone could manage to come, but that if it was not able to fix this, the board would supply her with a Calor gas cooker. On Saturday the 22nd, still no one came. But after contacting the board she was told that probably no Calor gas could be supplied until at least Tuesday. Therefore, for the second weekend running, Mrs. Campbell was without means of cooking food or doing her washing or anything.
The major complaint here is the inability to get any satisfaction from anyone to whom one speaks at the North Thames Gas Board. So Mrs. Campbell had to go out, had to find meals and had to buy an electric grill and ring. I am glad that the board has compensated her for having to purchase those, but it is ironic that the board has paid Mrs. Campbell to install electricity at the expense of gas consumers.
Then there is the case of Mrs. Dunn. I apologise that this again is at length, but it is a significant case. Mrs. Dunn has been "converted" and her saga goes rather like this. It involved countless telephone calls to the Bittacy Hill conversion unit, which eventually informed her that it was not their job to connect the five new fires which she had been obliged to purchase as they could not convert the portable fires she had been using. Kilburn showroom, responsible for connecting the new fires, and the gas board's warehouse at Haggerston, responsible for delivering them, said that they were not quite sure what should happen. Mrs. Dunn had to wait at home day after day for fitters to call. During that time she had no heating or cooking facilities.
The last straw was reached when, after all the waiting, a gas fitter actually called, only to discover that the wrong fires had been delivered in error. He also said that all the fireplaces had to be blocked in with asbestos sheeting before the new fires could be fitted. Although a previous survey was made by a gas board representative, he had not made any arrangement for the asbestos to be delivered; only the wrong fires. However, when the mistake was discovered Mrs. Dunn went to the Kilburn showroom because, as she said,
It was impossible to contact them by telephone.
Mrs. Dunn asked whether she could collect five new natural gas fires and the asbestos sheets, which she was prepared to take back with her by taxi. She was told that the fires were not kept on the premises at Kilburn and would have to be ordered from the warehouse at Haggerston. At this stage she contacted me. She mentioned to the gas board that she would be talking to me. She states:
No sooner did I inform the gas board that the matter was being taken up by my MP. Mr. Finsberg, than the situation suddenly changed miraculously!
The Kilburn showroom telephoned her the same afternoon—telephoned her—and said that if she could arrange transport for the fires from the gas board's warehouse at Haggerston she could have them immediately.
Mrs. Dunn tried to find a transport firm which would go there, but she could not. She eventually contacted a taxi driver, however, and he agreed to collect the fires from Haggerston and bring them to Hampstead. One can imagine her exasperation when, rushing home, she found neither taxi driver nor the fires. She telephoned the warehouse at Haggerston to find whether the taxi driver had been there. She was told that the paper work was not complete, so he could not take away the fires. When she protested about this red tape, both to Haggerston and Kilburn, she was told by Kilburn that the fires would be delivered the next morning without fail and that a fitter would call the following afternoon to connect them. They did not arrive the following morning. When she telephoned she was told that there was some misunderstanding and that the board thought she would be sending a taxi to collect them.
At this stage Mrs. Dunn gave up. Eventually the taxi driver came and the fitter came. The fitter worked particularly hard until after 9 p.m. in order to connect the fires. But why did Mrs. Dunn need to use my name to get any action?
Then I come to the case of a youth club in my constituency, the Young Adventurers, a club which cares for deprived and under-privileged boys and which numbers among its honorary members Her Royal Highness the Princess Anne, so it is not a fly-by-night club.
It is necessary again, perhaps, to listen for a moment to the club's saga. This starts on 5th September when the organiser of the club, a Mrs. Ward, visited the Kilburn showroom and asked for certain work to be carried out—a quarterly meter, a broken meter repair, piped gas and the removal of gas board locks on a couple of floors. On 6th September an estimator arrived and said that if a quarterly meter needed fitting the road outside might have to be dug up, and they agreed a standing charge.
On 26th September the fitter called to remove the broken meter, but did not fit a new meter. He turned off the gas supply at the mains. On the 8th a fitter came to install a quarterly meter but said that it was not necessary to dig up the road. He could not reconnect the gas because the broken meter had not been replaced. So there were no cooking or heating facilities for the boys there.
On 4th October the conversion unit arrived—rather like the United States Fifth Cavalry—to convert existing appliances, but could not test them as there was no gas supply. On 12th October a fitter called and removed the lock from one meter. He said that he would arrange for gas to be laid on and the meter connected.
On 14th October a new meter was left, but no connection. On 19th October Mrs. Ward telephoned the Kensington office to complain and asked again that action be taken. On 20th October a fitter called to connect the new meter and to turn on the gas. He found that one meter was ineffective and that all the gas was coming through meter No. 1. He advised Mrs. Ward that to make both meters operative would cost about £5, and he agreed that arrangements would be made to remove the locks from other meters so that they could be used. When money was being put into the new meter that night it was noted that it was fitted with a lock and could not be opened.
On 23rd October an estimate arrived for £5, which was paid. That night one of the boys decided to celebrate and had a bath. He lit up the Ascot, which exploded, blowing the appliance away from the wall. Mrs. Ward telephoned the emergency number but no one came. She reported this again the next day but no visit was made.
On 29th October two gas fires were donated to the Young Adventurers. Mrs. Ward telephoned the gas board about putting them in but was told that fires could not be fitted until converted. She telephoned the conversion unit and was told that fires could not be converted until they were fitted. I ask the House to note that.
On 30th October the fitter called to remove the remaining locks from the meters, but he was not authorised to remove the one from the ground floor meter which had been newly installed. On 8th November Mrs. Ward telephoned Kensington. A sympathetic person said that she would arrange for an official to call to sort everything out. An appointment was made for 15th November. Between 9th November and 11th November daily telephone calls regarding the Ascot were made, but there was no visit. Eventually, the club had to buy a second-hand appliance which cost £27 and a £20 fitting charge. On 15th November a gas board official called. He turned out to be an estimator who could not advise on any point except work needing to be done. He agreed that the board would convert and fit the two donated fires at a charge of £4·20 each. He could only promise to chase up work that was paid for and he agreed to arrange for the appliances to he tested. The estimate was received and paid for.
On 16th November one of the boys in a single room was taken ill. A club helper examined the gas fire, which was ineffective, and discovered that a conversion part had been fitted upside down. This was replaced in the correct position and now works.
The last of this saga is on 22nd November. The fitter called to unlock the gas board meter on the ground floor. Of the 15 keys on his ring, none fitted the meter. To be able to remove cash from the meter, the fitter disconnected the meter and forced it open. This was the new meter. He was then unable to reconnect the meter and turn off the gas supply at the mains.
That is the saga of the Young Adventurers. Here is an organisation which is doing magnificent work in the community and has already been forced to spend £50 of its hard-earned cash to buy equipment. I shall certainly be pressing the board for compensation in that case.
Then there is the case of Mr. Andrew Alexander, the parliamentary correspondent of the Daily Mail, who was warned that his appliances were to be converted on 21st July, and he received a note saying that there might be certain ventilation problems. He replied punctiliously on 27th July putting forward some queries. Answer came there none. He sent a reminder on 9th October. There was no reply. I say that not because it is a surprise but because one needs to keep on saying it in order that the House may realise that the gas board does not answer letters. On 28th November Mr. Alexander had another letter from the gas board, as if none had already been sent by him to the board, saying that conversion would take place. Mr. Alexander wrote back the following day saying "What about my queries?" Nothing happened except that the gas men came. On 4th December they arrived to carry out the conversion, and quite rightly Mr. Alexander refused to admit them. There is no need for any of this time-wasting to have happened if the board had answered letters.
The last case is perhaps one of the more humorous ones. It concerns a Mr. Lipton who wrote to me. I will read one paragraph of his letter:
As a constituent of yours I cannot resist telling you that we believe we hold, if not a national record, at least high marks in having so far had nine visits from the gas board since last May in order to convert to natural gas our standard, modern stove of a popular make.
I must tell Mr. Lipton that I fear he does not hold anything like a record. Many people have had 20 or 30 calls.
Recent visits have been under the supervision of Mr. Duggin, the Deputy Conversion Manager, who has been charming and helpful, if not entirely effective, throughout. In fact my last communication from Mr. Duggin was just over a month ago when he promised a tenth visit from the engineers in order to put right a fault that had meanwhile developed in the grill. The visit in fact never took place, and the grill has miraculously recovered its force so that we now no longer need to wait 15 minutes for the toast, and all is well, and the gas board have managed to avoid the ignominy of reaching a double figure. Funnily enough, visit number two was also about the grill which had not been converted along with the rest because, the engineer explained to us, he had thought it was electric.
An electric grill on a gas cooker! So much for Mr. Lipton.
Some excuses are being made that conversions are being done not by the gas board officials but by converting teams who are private contractors. This is correct, but it should be made perfectly plain that these teams are acting as agents of the board; they are clearly trained to the standard which the board requires and has laid down, and if the board is not satisfied it should not have appointed them or, indeed, should sack them.
If the board continues to employ them, as obviously it must because it cannot have enough men to do this work, the board must continue to take full responsibility and not try to shuffle off responsibility just because the conversion teams are not officials of the board.
May I make one thing clear. When one writes to Mr. Cooper, the Chairman of the North Thames Gas Board, action is taken. I should like to pay tribute to Mr. Cooper for his unfailing courtesy, his unflappability and his full acceptance of responsibility for the shambles into which the North Thames Gas Board has stumbled and staggered.
I may be told by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, although I hope not, that 90 per cent. of the customers whose equipment has been converted are satisfied. This is no answer and, having known my hon. Friend for many years, I am certain he will not try that one on. The large number of dissatisfied customers are the ones who matter.
The North Thames Consultative Council is a virtually useless body. In fact I had to complain to my hon. Friend that I was not getting reports back from the consultative council and, to use a colloquial term, he sent a rocket in their direction. This was followed by an apology from the council and it has been sending me reports. I thought everything was perfect so far as the consultative council was concerned until I received a letter signed by the chairman on 19th December, as follows:
Dear Mr. Finsberg,
Owing to the recent pressures put upon us by a considerable increase in the volume of correspondence and telephone calls from gas consumers, there has inevitably been a backlog of work accumulated in this office. We have therefore had to give priority to consumers who were without either cooking, space heating or hot water supply.
That was sent by a man who claimed to be the Chairman of the North Thames Gas Consultative Council, who must have known for months what was happening. He had the effrontery to write to a Member of Parliament and say that his office, which is specifically set up to deal with consumer problems, cannot cope. I hope the Minister will note this, and in particular I hope that Lady McLeod, the new Chairman of the National Gas Consultative Council, will note it and will look at the eflectiveness of the North Thames Gas Consultative Council and its Chairman and consider whether major changes need to be made in that body.
A gas consumer, whether he has a conversion problem or a normal problem, ought to be able to make a telephone call and get service from the gas board. He has no alternative. It is, after all, a monopoly. If he fails to get service, he should be able to go to the properly authorised body, which is the gas consultative council with its district committees. But we know that these are not working. Therefore, people are going to the Evening Standard, their local papers, the national consumer protection body and their Members of Parliament, and this is not the right way of going about it. I hope the Minister will give particular attention to this aspect of the matter.
Where are we now? Conversion has been suspended, and I suggest as strongly as possible that it must not be permitted to resume until the board in London can guarantee to keep appointments which are made by card, letter, visit or telephone. It must also have a system of manning its telephones for 24 hours a day during the conversion period, not leaving people in the situation in which they are now left. Although the chairman of the board has extended the period when the offices are open until 7 p.m., he must go further and man them for 24 hours a day during the period of conversion and for six weeks thereafter, which is the period when the problems are most likely to arise.
More than that, we must have a means by which callers can identify the person to whom they have spoken so that the next time when they telephone they do not have to go through the same rigmarole. Every telephonist should have an NCR pad serially numbered so that she can tell the consumer his serial number and he is thereby able to quote the number when he next telephones. One copy of the NCR documentation should go into a separate file which should be looked at each day by a senior official of the board who should take immediate action if nothing is done within 24 hours. Nothing less will suffice to restore public confidence in the board—confidence which is absolutely shattered.
This is, after all, the capital city. The Minister should require the board and the consultative council to satisfy him that they can cope with the situation before subjecting any more Londoners to the misery, torment, frustration, expense, heartbreak and sheer hell which so many have experienced. I know my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I know his capabilities and his toughness. Although the House is not particularly full, I am sure that this plea will not fall on deaf ears. I speak for the tens of thousands of Londoners who have been converted to natural gas and the many more who still have to go through this torment. I hope that my hon. Friend can give us a satisfactory answer.
Conversion and the management of the gas boards and gas industry of this country is a major matter. It is a problem of concern to the consumers who are not able to obtain the degree of efficient service which they have a right to expect. I do not seek to attempt to whitewash the problems existing within the North Thames Gas Board. I would make it plain that this general conversion to North Sea gas is bound to disturb relations and cause difficulties between the gas industry and its customers. It is not possible to go into millions of homes and carry out work on appliances which are in daily use without in some instances causing major inconvenience and in other cases considerable disturbance.
I must make it clear that, because of the sheer size of the programme, human mistakes and failures in communication are, I am sorry to say, bound to occur, however efficient we may be. It is not possible to exclude human or mechanical error, however carefully planned the operation may have been. This is not peculiar to conversion. In any large-scale activity involving manufacture and fitting of equipment there will be a proportion of cases where there are faults. What my right hon. Friend and I and the Minister for Industry have to assess is whether these errors, these failures, the disturbance and the disorganisation of equipment are appreciably larger than could be expected of a well-run organisation with vital and proper management leadership and control.
The present conversion operation is on a completely different scale from anything previously carried out by the industry. It involves converting over 30 million appliances belonging to more than 13 million customers. So far the industry has converted more than half its customers—7,500,000—and about 19 million appliances. Experience has been gained. The rate of call-back has fallen appreciably. This concerns the proportion of appliances being converted and requiring further attention to make them work satisfactorily. In the early stages of conversion the average call-back rate was over 25 per cent. For every 4 appliances converted I was subject to callback. That figure has now fallen to about 13 per cent., 1 in 7. This is not a 100 per cent. improvement, but very nearly so. Thus the great majority of conversions are carried out without giving rise to complaint.
Because of the sheer size of the operation, even a very small percentage of cases where there is failure or where things go wrong represents a large number of individuals. This is the real problem. Professor Morton carried out an inquiry two years ago into the safety of natural gas. During that time he examined the planning and the carrying out of the industry's conversion programme. After taking a great deal of evidence, which included evidence from the North Thames area, he concluded as an independent expert observer that the conversion operation had been carefully planned, well organised and competently executed. He considered that the number of defects in conversion had not been excessive in relation to the size of the operation and that the quality and training of the men employed was adequate to the task involved. Since Professor Morton reported, the average rate of call-hack has fallen from 20 per cent. to 13 per cent.
Let us examine the specific case of North Thames. Of all the 12 area boards the North Thames has the largest number of consumers, nearly 2 million. In area it is at the opposite end of the league, having by far the smallest area of all the boards. It pioneered conversion for the industry by carrying out a small pilot scheme in 1966 at Canvey, where the appliances of 7,000 consumers were converted to natural gas. They were the first customers in the country to take direct supplies of the new fuel.
The board's programme for its area began in 1968, and since then nearly 1,500,000 consumers and about 3,500,000 appliances have been changed to natural gas. This is over 70 per cent. of the total and is more than any other board. The current call-back rate in the North Thames area is slightly above the national average, at about 16 per cent. The conversion problems of the North Thames Board have to be seen against the general background of the programme as a whole. It is not my intention in any way to minimise the difficulties or hardship caused to consumers when things go wrong but it is right to make clear the nature of the problem facing North Thames just as it faces the other boards.
As in other board areas the great majority of conversions—five out of six—are carried out without causing complaint. This board has been using six conversion units converting at the combined rate of about 9,000 consumers per week. While the cases which go wrong represent only a small proportion of the whole, they represent a substantial number of individuals who have rightly complained. It is only fair to the board and those working on conversion to say that a faulty conversion is the exception rather than the rule—as it should be.
It is no consolation to those who are inconvenienced and may suffer hardship to know that most of their fellow consumers do not suffer such hardship. Sometimes that may even be a source of annoyance. These people are right to complain and to expect defects to be rectified speedily. Unfortunately, this is not always the result. I discussed this general problem of consumer services with the board chairman after my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry took up this problem long before any campaigns began. I paid a special visit to the centre at Southend last month. We fully accept that the service is by no means as good as it should be. The problems of this board are long standing. I was pleased to see tribute paid to the present chairman. He was appointed in 1970 and has had the task of carrying out a major reorganisation of the management structure within the board. This has been a more intractable problem than was expected, and there is a lot still to be done before the customers in the area receive the service which I consider they are entitled to expect.
The main measures being taken in the reorganisation to improve consumer service are the separation of consumer service from sales and the concentration of services at five new divisional centres so that geographically the board's area can be properly looked after. Three of them are now becoming operational, but the buildings for the remaining two are not expected to be ready and equipped before the latter part of 1973. I am sorry to say that one of them is in the northwestern division, in which my hon. Friend's constituency is situated. Billing is now dealt with in two new offices. It will eventually be concentrated under one roof with one managerial control.
A major reorganisation on this scale—the chairman, when he took over, decided, I believe rightly, that it was necessary to start with a major reorganisation of the board's structure—essential as it is to improving the area's efficiency, has inevitably had teething troubles, and the improvements flowing it from it will take time to be reflected in the service given to all customers.
Superimposed on the task of implementing the reorganisation, the board has had the largest conversion programme to carry out, with the problems and difficulties outlined by my hon. Friend. It would be wrong or false to suggest—and I must not give this impression—that there is a short cut to producing dramatic improvement by ministerial intervention by some deus ex machine by waving a magic wand from this Dispatch Box. That will not obtain the results to which my hon. Friend has referred.
Because of my special interest, I am concerned particularly about my hon. Friend's statements on the Consumer Council. It is the Government's intention—and this was part of my work when I served on the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries—to do what they can to strengthen the Consumer Council so that it can be the watchdog of the consumer. I know that the pressure which the Government have exercised and the publicity which they have given in order to strengthen such bodies have meant that consumers are increasingly turning to them as a way of dealing with their complaints. That is right and proper. They are the correct channels, rather than people going to Members of Parliament or citizens advice bureaux.
I must say in defence of the Consumer Council—and this does not apply only in the North Thames Gas Board's area—that, because of that pressure in the past 12 to 15 months, and particularly since the passing of the Gas Act, a flood of complaints and correspondence has been channelled to the Consumer Council. When I met jointly the chairmen of the electricity and gas undertakings in the last six weeks I stressed that if they needed extra staff to cope with the problems they should be provided and properly budgeted for. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that that applies to the area north of the Thames as much as it applies to anywhere else.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an efficient chairman, knowing what had happened elsewhere, would have taken precautions and augmented his staff before the trouble arose rather than said, long after it had started, "We cannot cope", virtually giving up the ghost?
If the basis of my hon. Friend's assumption is correct, yes, but I am not sure that it is, because the problem in that North Thames area is probably greater than it is elsewhere. The degree and rate of conversion have been greater there than elsewhere. The pressure of publicity has been accentuated since I became a Minister because I have been purposely putting pressure on this area. I do not think that anyone could have forecast that difficulty would have arisen to the degree that it has not only in the North Thames area but in other areas.
On 27th November 1 arranged with the Chairman of the North Thames Gas Board—this was not in answer to any Press publicity campaign or a request from my hon. Friend, and I say this only so that the House may realise that my Department is concerned and is watching the situation—that immediate measures should be taken to reduce inconvenience and to improve the quality of work both in conversions and in the general service to consumers in the North Thames Gas Board's area. I should like to outline the measures to the House.
Since 8th December all conversion work has stopped, and it will not be resumed probably until, at the earliest, 10th January. The pause is being, and will be, used to allow the board to concentrate on clearing outstanding complaints. A major effort is being made to clear outstanding correspondence. In the two billing centres the number of letters outstanding has been reduced by nearly two-thirds compared with the level earlier this year. Last year the North Thames Gas Board received over 500,000 letters about complaints, customers' problems, queries, inquiries, and so on. That is a massive volume of correspondence, and it helps to explain some of the problems of reorganisation with which the management has had to cope.
The average time between meter readings and the despatch of accounts—my hon. Friend did not go into this matter, but it is a problem and a number of complaints have been made about it—has already been more than halved. Specific action is being taken to reduce it further, and such action will continue. The average delay in dealing with maintenance requests has been cut by two-thirds, and there has been an improvement in the time taken to install new appliances.
In the north-west area a system of delivery and collection of material by appointment has been introduced, and first indications are that it is helping to speed the service. But in converting a new area problems arise when appointments are not kept within two or three hours. That immediately makes the situation worse because nobody likes not having appointments kept. However, I have been assured by the chairman that this system was introduced in order to give customers a better service. The board is persevering with it in order to get it right, and I am sure that that is the correct action. To help with the communications problem, additional staff have been brought in and arrangements made to keep exchanges open later.
I note the suggestion made about the 24-hour telephone contact. The chairman of the board is conscious of what has been said; I am sure he must be. However, it is right and proper to make it clear that the problems are those which are normally dealt with in business hours or just after business hours, and the 24-hour complaints structure may not be as essential as my hon. Friend is suggesting. However, a new complaints procedure has been introduced whereby any customer who has failed to get a proper response to a letter or telephone call will be able by contacting the showroom staff to ensure that his problem is brought to the immediate attention of the head of the department concerned. This is a managerial improvement which I felt essential to ensure that things were not just slipping by and that management would be in charge and know what was happening.
Lastly, to reduce the work load on board fitters the board has announced—again, I think there may be some complaint about this, but it is a matter proper for managerial judgment—that for the time being all appliances bought in North Thames showrooms will have to be fitted by outside contractors, Gorgi contractors. This is in order to ensure that the North Thames Gas Board can concentrate on ensuring that services are up to its own requirements and that conversion is fully carried out.
To sum up, the board has reviewed the rate of conversion, which has been running at 9,000 consumers a week. It has already reduced the total rate to 7,500 a week and will be reducing it to 6,000 in the new year, when the work starts again. This will reduce pressure on the customer services and ease the load on management in carrying out the task of reorganisation, and when, in the spring, the conversion of central London begins, the weekly conversion rate will be reduced still further. This will mean that the conversion of the whole area will not be completed till 1976, a year or so later than originally planned. This will involve an additional cost, since town gas will have to continue to be manufactured to supply those areas where a supply of natural gas will be delayed, but the board has taken the view that in the interests of the customer this extra cost is justified.
A month ago I had from the chairman assurance of improvements in billing, in letter reply, and on the conversion structure. He said to me, as I have outlined, that he would be bringing in these major improvements to be working within three months. This, indeed, is what I expect, and, knowing the man, I believe he will deliver.