Metering Trials Schemes

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

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Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington 10:47 pm, 4th May 1988

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.

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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.