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Orders of the Day — Utilities Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:34 pm on 31st January 2000.

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Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Labour, Hove 5:34 pm, 31st January 2000

I was trying to ask whether the Conservative party had moved on, but I realise that that was far too difficult a question.

As multi-utility companies are clearly emerging, we need a new, modern regulatory framework. I believe that the Bill achieves that.

Fourthly, the Bill recognises the importance of environmental objectives and brings them into the heart of the utilities and their regulation. It gives Ministers powers to make regulations to promote energy efficiency and the generation of electricity from renewable sources. I was certainly encouraged by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's answer to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on that point. The Bill places a duty on the regulator to have regard to statutory guidance issued by Ministers on environmental objectives in the relevant sector. Even Greenpeace feels that the Bill has some positive impact on environmental considerations.

Fifthly, the Bill brings about a more stable, consistent and transparent regulatory framework. In any Bill dealing with regulation, there are technical parts. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton took us through many of those, so I shall not go over that ground again. The Bill is about building confidence by making regulation open, accountable and consistent and ensuring that the regulators' decisions are widely accepted.

I am glad that concerns in those five areas have been responded to over the past few months.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and I both have electricity and gas provision from Seeboard in our areas. I gladly declare an interest in that Seeboard has 1,000 staff based in Hove. I asked the company what it thought about the Bill. In April 1998, it was the first electricity company in the country to abolish the standing charge, partly because of local pressure on behalf of people in fuel poverty. We are pleased that it responded, and that shows the effect that local campaigns can have. The Government also reduced fuel prices in their first Budget in 1997, by reducing VAT on fuel: a point to which we shall no doubt return in the general election.

Seeboard said that it supports the legislation because it recognises the existence of weaknesses in the current regulatory framework. It said that the legislation allows the current public electricity supply licence to be replaced by separate distribution and supply licences, which it supports, establishes a single regulatory body and sets up the consumer council, which it supports especially because of the regional element, which is important from its point of view. Seeboard also believes that the Bill will reduce the regulatory uncertainty that has existed in the marketplace for some time, but still allow companies to run their operations in the best long-term interests of their customers and, of course, their shareholders. Seeboard supports the changes in the Bill that are intended to give effect to those measures, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is pleased that the provider of power in our area gives the Bill a thumbs up.

The question of the social action plan and low income groups is at the heart of the Bill. That is the difference between the current, Conservative-sponsored legislation, which is about the supply of a utility, and this Bill, which is about putting the consumer first in utility regulation and the provision of services by utilities. The Bill will be regarded in years to come as an important, modernising Bill. It will reduce prices for the consumer, but it will do so in a way that allows the companies to continue to invest in their local areas.