Metering Trials Schemes

Clause 4 – in the House of Commons at 10:47 pm on 4th May 1988.

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Lords amendment: No. 2 in page 5, line 34, at end insert "and with any bodies representing the interests of those persons".

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The Government gave an undertaking on Report that they would table a suitable amendment in another place in response to an amendment seeking to ensure that consumer bodies representing the interests of those affected by the trials were consulted. As a result of that undertaking, clause 4 was amended in the other place so that one of the matters to which the Secretary of State must have regard in considering whether to approve a metering trials scheme, in addition to consultation with those affected or likely to be affected by the scheme, which was the then position, should he consultation with any bodies representing their interests. Thus, consultation may be extended to include, for example, such bodies as the National Consumer Council, citizens advice bureaux and organisations such as local branches of the RNIB, Age Concern and Help the Aged. I stress that these are purely examples. It will be up to each undertaker to consider which bodies it would be appropriate to consult in each case, and for the Secretary of State to have regard to whether that consultation appears appropriate. This provides for a common-sense view, in all the circumstances, of which representative bodies it is reasonable to consult.

The amendment, by referring simply to bodies, rather than consumer bodies representing the interests of those persons affected by the scheme, goes wider than the amendment originally proposed by Opposition Members in the other place. That is because we felt that the term "consumer bodies" was imprecise, or, to put it another way, a bit woolly. Some important bodies, which the Government would expect water undertakers to consult, might not always fit such a description. An obvious example would be a local authority representing the interests of its tenants, or a social services client, resident in a trials area. Clearly, local authorities are not consumer bodies, but they represent—at least I hope they do—the interests of their tenants and social services clients.

The amendment is not complex, nor will it change the Bill in a radical way. However, it serves to emphasise the importance that the Government attach to full and proper consultation on the trials. I hope that it answers the concerns that were expressed by Members of both Opposition parties represented in the House tonight and that we shall not disagree with the thrust of the amendment, which I recommend to the House.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy)

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will welcome the amendment, which was pressed on many occasions in Committee. It represents a substantial part of the case that we put forward. As such, we welcome it, and I am sure that the Labour party will do the same.

We still have serious concerns about the impact that metering may have on individuals and about differentials. I am a little sad that there has not been a further amendment to cover the point made about protection for individuals who may be worse off under the metering trials than if they had not been imposed on them. The Minister said that he would consider that point. This measure is a second-best, but it is welcome. I hope that the Minister will take advantage of the opportunity presented by any schemes that are proposed.

I represent one of the few boards that will not have metering trial schemes. People in my area are not entirely disinterested since, if the Government press ahead with the schemes, many will be directly affected. I hope that amendments along these lines will be viewed in similar terms when other proposals come before the House. The guarantees written into the Bill will apply to only a minority of the population—those involved in the schemes—but, if the schemes are extended, many more people will be worried about the possible effects of compulsory metering. I give a cautious welcome to the amendment. I am sure that there will not be opposition to it.

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley , South West Surrey

There is no caution or hesitancy about my welcome for the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister has agreed to the amendment. He has shown a willingness to listen and an awareness of consumer interests.

As with Lords amendment No. 1, this amendment shows a willingness openly to review plans. I urge my hon. Friend to continue along this line and to listen to the advice of the statutory water companies, of one of which I am a director. Such companies offer a valuable service to the consumer and a valuable model. I ask my hon. Friend, before moving towards public limited companies, encircled by regulations in a monopoly supply situation, to consider the tried and tested model of the statutory water companies. Their dividend is limited by statute and all surpluses must be redirected towards the benefit of the consumer.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

We agree with the amendment, but in one way the Minister, in defining it, seemed to be giving with one hand and taking with the other. He paraphrased what the Earl of Caithness said, which was: It will he up to each undertaker to consider which bodies it would he appropriate to consult in each case, and for the Secretary of State to decide whether that consultation appeared appropriate."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 1988; Vol. 494, c. 1343.] Surely, if various bodies decide that there should be consultation, I cannot understand why the Secretary of State wants to be involved. I do not know what some of the nationally recognised consumer organisations would think of the Minister describing the definitions as "woolly" when they have a good record on a number of issues.

On Third Reading, I described the Bill as "shoddy" and "undesirable". Although I welcomed the amendments, neither changes my opinion about the Bill. Throughout its passage, Labour Members continually bombarded the Minister and his colleagues with calls for more representation of consumer interests.

On 2 Febuary the Minister promised that he would table an amendment, but it is clear from reading the Committee proceedings that it was never in his mind to do so. We almost had to break off his arm and beat him with it to get him to move the amendment to give consumer associations a say in what is happening.

11 pm

To a casual observer, the amendment would appear to be a minor one, but its inclusion is a major concession by the Government to the arguments that we made on behalf of the nation's consumers. Consumer representation is not an insignificant issue to be tacked on to the Bill: it is the crux of the Bill.

I read the Committee proceedings in Hansard this morning and found at least a dozen references that I had made to consumers and their interests. My hon. Friends made similar contributions over the many hours that we spent considering the Bill. I shall give an example of what I said: We are anxious about the shabby way in which consumer councils have been treated … We cannot understand the Government's reluctance to accept our amendments".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 12 November 1987; c. 90.] It has taken time and further deliberation for the Government to accept our point, but we are grateful that, even at this late stage, the amendment has been accepted.

Although the mechanism for consultation is welcome, there are vast injustices inherent in the terms of the Bill and its longer-term implications for the imminent privatisation of the whole water industry. For example, there is no balloting of consumers in trial areas, the trials are compulsory and the powers of right of entry have caused anxiety to many people.

I have visited different areas and talked to people about the water privatisation proposals. The one thing that is sticking in their gullets is that power is being given for water authorities to be able to kick somebody's front door down and fix a meter. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) might laugh, but he has not read the schedules to the Bill. Powers of entry are part and parcel of the Bill. People are aware of the nature of the Bill and of the Government who have introduced it.

We have consistently championed the cause of consumers during the passage of the Bill, and we made consumer interests the subject of our main new clause on Report. I am glad that the Government have taken to heart the need to consult consumers, but I fear that that is not because of a genuine concern for the well-being of those in the trial areas but a cynical desire to minimise the unpopularity of the trials and of water privatisation generally.

I remind the Minister of my final remarks in Committee. I said: I hope that we have persuaded some Conservative Members to reflect on our arguments. All constituents, whatever party they vote for, are consumers, and I hope that Conservative Members will consider supporting some of our amendments in the interests of the many consumers whom they represent."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 January 1988; c. 714.] I am disappointed that only two amendments have come back from the other place. We moved a host of amendments that could have been considered by the other place that would have given the consumer and the people affected by the trials more rights than they have under the Bill.

If the Government cared what consumers thought they would have consulted them about whether a trial was wanted. That was the main issue throughout the Bill. Nevertheless, we accept the amendment because it will help to some degree. We regret that the other place was unable to help more, but we shall not divide the House on the amendment.

Question put and agreed to.