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I have given way often, and I want to make progress. I should like to give way to the hon. Gentleman later. I am sure that there will be many occasions on which he will want to intervene.
We inherited a fundamentally flawed system. Our first action was not to rush into legislating, but to consult widely on the structures that would fulfil the needs of consumers, be good for business and provide a stable framework for utility companies. Extensive and wide-ranging consultation has taken place.
In March 1998, we published the Green Paper, "A Fair Deal for Consumers—Modernising the Framework for Utility Regulation". In July 1998, we published a "Response to Consultation", which set out our conclusions about the way forward. Two further consultation documents were published in autumn 1998. One covered the detailed arrangements for establishing independent consumer councils; the other dealt with the future of gas and electricity regulation. The Government published responses for consultation on those further documents. At each stage, we have tried to explain our thinking fully and to engage the sector in a debate, a dialogue and a discussion about the way forward.
Consequently, we have built and maintained support for the Bill from a broad cross-section of interested parties. We have the support of consumer groups, the regulators and the utility companies. The Electricity Association welcomed our commitment to
ensure … stability, which is in the interests of companies and customers alike".
Callum McCarthy, the energy regulator, welcomed the Bill as laying down
a framework for future regulation that will reinforce competition, which has led to lower prices and better services for gas and electricity customers".
He welcomed provisions,
which will underpin changes in the electricity market needed to bring the full benefits of competition to electricity customers".
The National Consumer Council said that the Bill
has the makings of a significant landmark for consumers … Giving the regulators of these industries a primary duty to protect consumers is an enormous and welcome change.
I have a few words about the Bill's format. I appreciate that it is quite complex and rather technical in many areas, but it is set out sector by sector. For example, reforms to gas and electricity regulation are in part I and reforms to telecommunications regulation in part II. However, a significant number of the provisions are identical or very similar for each sector—that has been done on purpose to achieve consistency across regulation—and they include the establishment of consumer councils, the new powers for regulators to impose financial penalties on companies and the improvements to the transparency and consistency of regulatory procedures. Where it is appropriate to adopt similar measures for each of the utility sectors, that is exactly what we have done.
In addition to the measures that apply to all four sectors, part I contains significant sector-specific reforms to modernise and align gas and electricity regulation. Part III contains a more limited number of water-specific provisions and part IV deals with the Competition Commission as an effective appeals body.