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Nationalised Industries (Consumer Protection)

Volume 958: debated on Monday 20 November 1978

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12.

asked the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection when he will introduce legislation to strengthen the consumer voice in relation to nationalised industries.

I welcome my hon. Friend's answer and the commitment in the Queen's Speech. Will the strengthening of the consumer voice lead to a bringing together of the consultative committees? Does my hon. Friend agree that to have different consultative committees for the different energy industries does not meet the needs of consumers and that there could be one committee to cover the gas, electricity, coal and oil industries?

That point was considered, but, as my hon. Friend will know, the Government intend to implement the provisions of the White Paper on the nationalised industries, which was published last March. We intend to set up, on a statutory basis, the electricity consumer council. That at least will give electricity consumers a voice at national level.

Does the Minister's reply to the Question mean that whereas the general provision for consumer protection is adequate for the private sector his friends on the nationalised industries' boards are such rogues, vagabonds and con men that their customers need added individual and strengthened watchdogs.

I do not think that the Government would ever take the view that the protection afforded to consumers by private sector industries could not be improved. The protection for consumers afforded by nationalised industries is a somewhat different matter. Most of these industries are monopolistic. Therefore, they require the external scrutiny provided by these bodies.

Will the Minister strengthen the voice of the consumer in the nationalised industries in regard to independent television, because it appears that there is the danger of a monopoly in the coverage of football? Will he tell his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell)—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not entitled to ask Ministers to pass messages. He can ask him only about matters for which he is responsible.

Will my hon. Friend disavow the comment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Small Heath that it is acceptable that consumers should be cut down by 50 per cent. on their viewing of football?

I do not wish to go into a textual criticism of what my hon. Friend said. However, I understand that the Director General of Fair Trading is making inquiries about this reported agreement in the context of restrictive trade practices legislation.

Is the Minister aware that the Government's creature—the Price Commission—has come to the conclusion that the best way to improve prices as well as the protection of the consumer is to increase competition? What plans has he for increasing competition in the public sector of industry, because that, by far, would be the greatest help that he could ever give to consumers?

The Government's consideration of competition policy in general has been published in a Green Paper, which no doubt the hon. Gentleman has studied. on which we shall be glad to receive representations. But considerations affecting nationwide nationalised industries are somewhat different and it is appropriate to have external checks, which cannot be of the same kind as those provided by competition.