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Report (3rd Day)

Part of Infrastructure Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 10th November 2014.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 9:15 pm, 10th November 2014

My Lords, this gives me the chance to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, on the assiduous way in which he has pursued this topic and the way in which he has clarified many of the issues. He did so to our great advantage in Committee and has been a great strength today, so the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, knows the nature of the opposition to which he needs to respond.

We regard the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, as entirely right to raise the key question of the costs to consumers; he is certainly right to repeat the call of the Public Accounts Committee, which argued that departments should consider very carefully the costs to consumers of the policies that they pursue on infrastructure. He is also right, of course, to raise the fundamental issue of ensuring that costs are not unfairly passed on to consumers. If we had more time, we would dwell on the number of occasions where we consider that to have been the case. It is clear that in many sectors costs to consumers have risen very significantly: one in eight households says that their water bills are unaffordable, while around one-quarter of households and 64% of the poorest households spend more than 3% of their disposable income on water bills. Those bills are 40% higher in real terms than they were in 1989. Obviously the licence agreements set a maximum price, but whether Ofwat has quite the powers that it needs to alter those agreements is still unclear. Likewise, the rise in energy bills has been very well documented. The House will of course recognise the extent to which we have been concerned about electricity bills, to the point of indicating that under the next Labour Government there will be a period of time when bills are frozen.

There is an apparent lack of connection between wholesale prices and the retail prices that hit the consumer. It seems pretty obvious to us that the consumer is often getting a bad deal. None of us underestimates the extent to which infrastructure needs to be improved. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, will dwell on that point. However, we need to ensure that increased infrastructure investment does not fall on the consumer, mainly because currently we are very badly in need of better infrastructure delivery. It is absolutely clear that, given that output has fallen by over 19% since May 2010, less than a third of the projects in the Government’s infrastructure pipeline are classed as in construction. Therefore there is a great deal to be done. The Government are rather better at indicating promise and intent than at acting in reality. The imperative is clear. We need to ensure that our infrastructure output increases; likewise, we need to ensure that the costs are not unfairly passed on to consumers, as they have been in some areas in the recent past. I hope that, just as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, indicated, the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, will guarantee that we are pointing in the right direction towards achieving the right balance and a better one than has obtained in recent years.