Clause 47 - Provision of information to the Council

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 16 October 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:15, 16 October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 64, in

clause 47, page 55, leave out lines 31 to 34 and insert—

'(3) Before giving a direction under this section and in specifying the form in which any information is to be supplied the Council shall have regard to—

(a) whether in respect of a direction to a body (other than the Authority) the same or similar information in the form required may be held already by the Authority,

(b) whether the cost or other burden to the body in supplying the information may be excessive in relation to the benefit to and purpose for which the information is required by the Council,

(c) whether the information falls within the scope of section 27K(1).'.

The amendments that we have tabled to this clause relate to the provision of information to the council. Like the National Consumer Council, we welcome the changes to the Bill to ensure that the new council will have access to information about licensed water supplies, but we are concerned that the current proposals for information to be made available to it may be too restrictive.

Under the Bill, the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations prescribing information or circumstances in which a water company or licensed supplier may refuse to supply information to the council. We are concerned that that could entail narrower duties to provide information than in the Freedom of Information Act 1997, which would act against the interests of consumers and create confusing anomalies. We want to view the criteria for the refusal to supply information, and that should be in the Bill.

In any test of reasonableness relating to the refusal to give information or non-disclosure against the public interest, accurate and up-to-date information will be essential if the council is to be an effective voice for water consumers. When something goes wrong, information helps consumers to find out what happened and why. Due to the natural monopolies in the water industry, domestic consumers are in need of robust protection, as they have no choice of supplier. Moreover, considerably less commercial sensitivity and risk is associated with information relating to water companies' business than in other industries. I hope that the Minister will agree that that is fair.

The National Consumer Council is also concerned that refusals to supply by a company are referred to the new water services regulation authority for a decision, but that authority is one of the bodies from which the new council can request information.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I apologise for interrupting, but I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman is speaking to amendment No. 65

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My comments are general—[Laughter.] They reflect the views of the Consumer Council for Water and the National Consumer Council and apply to the whole series of amendments. If the Minister is lost, I shall be more precise, because my intention has always been to be constructive in my comments. It fits in well to omit lines 31 to 34 and insert:

''Before giving a direction under this section and in specifying the form in which any information is to be supplied the Council shall have regard to''.

I have no interest in losing the Minister on this important series of amendments, but I want to make some basic comments that have come from the Consumer Council for Water because they are relevant and important. Essentially, the creation of an independent consumer council is welcome, but independence is not necessarily enough. It must have the right powers and resources to improve on the current system of consumer representation. Amendment No. 64 seeks to do that by requiring the council to have regard to

''whether in respect of a direction to a body (other than the Authority) . . . similar information in the form required may be held already by the Authority''.

In addition, it specifies that

''the cost or other burden to the body in supplying the information''

may not be excessive.

I hope that that comment sets the tone for the Minister's response. All the amendments to clause 47 fit in with what we are trying to achieve: an improvement in the current situation.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:30, 16 October 2003

I do not disagree with the principle behind amendment No. 64. It would ensure that information is readily available, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Bill already contains a suitable vehicle in clause 38. Under new section 27B of the WIA both bodies must make arrangements to exchange information between them. That will be agreed in a memorandum of understanding and the points raised by the hon. Gentleman can be dealt with under that. I hope that that reassures him.

On the other points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I shall be happy to reply when we come to amendment No. 65.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. We should come to amendment No. 65 as quickly as possible and, to be helpful, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 65, in

clause 47, page 55, line 37, at end add—

'(5) On receipt of a notice given to it under subsection (4), the Council may refer the failure to a person appointed under section 27K(3).'.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 67, in

clause 47, page 57, leave out lines 13 to 16.

Amendment No. 68, in

clause 47, page 57, line 22, leave out

'whether under subsection (2) above or'

and insert 'under'.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Now I can look forward to the Minister's reply to my earlier comments. We have tried in these amendments to provide freedom to act on available information, which is not in the Bill as drafted. It will be helpful to hear from the Minister exactly how the provision will work.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am happy to explain how the provision will work and the reasoning behind it.

The amendments would stop the authority hearing cases when companies refuse to supply information to the council. I understand the reasoning behind that, but they would also require the Secretary of State to appoint an independent adjudicator regardless of whether there was a need for one. We do not want to do that unless there is a case for it, because it would create expensive bureaucracy.

I absolutely accept that it is necessary for the council to be independent of the authority and for it to be able to decide what its own information needs are. However, I do not accept that giving the authority a role in adjudicating disputed cases of access to information in any way impairs the independence of the council.

It is right that the authority should be available as a body to hear such cases. It is the expert on the water industry and is in the best possible position to judge the merits of individual cases. That is one of the reasons for setting it up. It is also best placed to enforce information requests on companies in the same way that it enforces licence conditions. It is worth stressing the power to enforce information requirements if there is a request for information and a company is reluctant to provide. That is a safeguard. I hope that my comments reassure the hon. Gentleman and that he will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister is getting to the reassurance that I need. In some of the amendments we have tried to specify what opt-outs may be available when we are dealing with sensitive information. I am glad that we agree that an improvement is desirable because the information that is being withheld can then be demanded. That is the sort of protection that the Bill should give to consumers, and I am reassured to hear that that is happening. The amendments resulted from the desire better to protect the consumer. I am glad that that is how the Minister, too, sees the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 66, in

clause 47, page 57, leave out lines 8 to 12 and insert—

'(1) The body to whom a direction is given may refuse to supply information which relates to—

(a) national security,

(b) court proceedings,

(c) internal discussions or deliberations.'.

Again, this is about protecting the consumer and ensuring that quality information is provided when it is needed and that it can be acted on. This time we have looked at occasions when it would be unacceptable to supply information and national security is obviously paramount.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that there may be occasions when information should not be in the public domain. The amendment would remove the Secretary of State's powers to add or remove classes of information that may or may not be obtained by the council from the companies or the authority. The problem is that it is difficult to list all those classes of information. The amendment tries to do that, but there is no provision for the removal or addition of future classes, so it is very prescriptive. There might be categories of information which, for whatever reason, it is in the public interest to withhold. Security and commercial confidentiality are classic reasons.

The hon. Gentleman might be reassured to know that the Bill does not restrict the council's ability to collect information from companies that is relevant to its duty to collect and to publish data about complaints under clause 48. We will also ensure that there are no restrictions on its obtaining information that is relevant to the investigation of a complaint to which clause 49 applies. That will be done by secondary legislation.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

We support this useful amendment. Although I hear what the Minister says, it would prevent someone from saying, ''Oh, we could not give you the information because of this or that reason.'' It takes away all those grounds. I appreciate that there will be powers to get the information, but we are trying to get much more openness and clarity about the grounds on which people can refuse to provide it. Let us get those out of the way. Let us get all the rest of the information so that we avoid hiding behind such excuses, except where there are genuine reasons for not providing the information.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not disagree with that. I do not want any wording that would supply a loophole for companies to exploit when there is a legitimate reason for providing the information. Under the Bill the authority can obtain information from companies if it is relevant to the complaint. The problem with the amendment is that it would remove the power to add information as well as the power to remove it. The Bill already provides for regulations that will mean that everyone is clear about what can be withheld. That will be spelled out so that people can see that there is a valid reason for it. Companies will not be allowed to withhold information unreasonably.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I listened carefully to the Minister. Earlier he used the phrase ''commercial confidentiality''. Can he explain to me—I may have misunderstood what he said—what would happen if a company believed that a matter was commercially confidential but the council did not?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The council would appeal to the authority, which would make a judgment. If the authority agreed with the council, the information

would be obtained. There might be commercial information to which it would be important to have access to resolve a complaint. The council could make other appeals if it was dissatisfied. Nevertheless, I believe that the authority would respond to the consumer council, unless there was a good reason for the information not to be provided. Commercial confidentiality would not, in all cases, be an adequate reason.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister, and to the hon. Members for Guildford and for Lewes for their comments. If the consumer council cannot get the information, it will be difficult for it to do its job. The Minister said that the council will be able to get that information, so perhaps our amendment is less necessary than I first thought. If the new consumer council is to be able to do more than is possible in the current situation, it may wish to have further powers to fight on behalf of consumers, and to do that successfully it will need such information to be available. We must therefore get the balance right. However, I feel that we have discussed the matter adequately, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 258, in

clause 47, page 57, line 36, leave out 'such'.—[Mr. Morley.]

Clause 47, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 48 ordered to stand part of the Bill.