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Orders of the Day — Utilities Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 31st January 2000.

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Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry 3:31 pm, 31st January 2000

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As hon. Members will know, the Government are committed to modernisation and reform in a whole range of important areas of public life. The Utilities Bill is part of that agenda of modernisation and reform. It will modernise and reform the utilities markets and it will deliver efficiency and fairness, bringing together social justice and fairness—two sides of the same coin. It puts consumers first and provides a basis for effective competition and a stable framework of regulation for the future. It will deliver essential reform of the structure and framework that was introduced by Conservative Members at the time of privatisation.

The Conservatives' approach to the utilities owed more to dogma than to a real desire to raise standards for the consumers or to extend choice. The current ramshackle legislation does not effectively serve consumers, the business community or the utility companies themselves. It is simply not acceptable that consumers and business users should suffer from a rigged electricity market, but that is exactly what we have at present.

It is not acceptable that consumers have no way of telling whether directors' pay in companies enjoying a monopoly position is linked in any way to service standards. Indeed, the Conservatives' approach on privatisation to the directors of the former public utilities was a Conservative version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" However, the directors of the privatised utilities certainly did not need to ring a friend—or, perhaps, they had rung a friend before.

It is not acceptable that consumer bodies are so closely linked to the regulators offices that they even have to issue their press notices on headed notepaper from the regulators themselves. It is also not acceptable that decisions that shape the vital telecommunications and energy markets can be taken purely on the say so of an individual regulator.

Fair and open utility markets are essential for business and domestic users alike. If we are to be at the forefront of the digital economy, businesses and consumers need access to cheap, fast and reliable telecommunications. They do not have that at present. If we are to have a fair society, we must ensure that everyone has heat and light in their homes and access to new technology. At the start of the 21st century, it is simply not acceptable that too many people struggle to keep warm in their own homes.

The Conservative Government's approach to the utilities was to privatise them quickly, and that was driven by dogma to such an extent that precious national assets were sold at a knock-down price without real concern for the industry and the structures that were put in place.