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Clause 14

Volume 21: debated on Wednesday 31 March 1982

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Safety Regulations

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 19, line 3 at end insert—

'(4A) Where in pursuance of any powers conferred by regulations made under this section, entry is made on any premises by an officer authorised by the relevant authority, the officer shall ensure that the premises are left not less secure by reason of the entry; and the relevant authority shall make good, or pay compensation for, any damage caused by the officer, or by any person accompanying him in entering the premises, in taking any action therein authorised by the regulations, or in making the premises secure.
(4B) If any person wilfully obstructs any officer exercising powers conferred by regulations made under this section, he shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £200.
(4C) The Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954 (entry under a justice's warrant) shall apply in relation to any powers of entry conferred by regulations made under this section as if—
  • (a) any reference to the Corporation were a reference to the relevant authority, and
  • (b) any reference to an employee of the Corporation were a reference to an officer authorised by the relevant authority.'.
  • With this it will be convenient to take Governmet amendment No. 16.

    These amendments arise out of the most useful and constructive discussion we had in Standing Committee about safety matters and, particularly, about rights of entry. That was a somewhat maligned Committee and, perhaps rightly, observations were made that some of its discussions passed wider of the mark than some observers thought right.

    Therefore, it is perhaps proper to make it clear, in relation to this discussion, that the discussion in Committee on rights of entry was most useful and managed to pinpoint a matter which the Government have been reconsidering in the intervening period. In the light of that discussion and the impetus that it gave, the Government decided to seek to commend to the House certain changes in the rights of entry. The effect of that will be to put the rights of entry conferred on officers authorised by the Secretary of State on the same basis as those already given to officers of the BGC.

    Considering the matter in slightly more detail, clause14—

    The hon. Gentleman said "officers authorised by the Secretary of State." Will they be civil servants from his Department or might they be a private firm contracting to a supplier?

    It is the Secretary of State's officials. We dealt with that point in Committee. It would be improper to give certain rights of entry to private individuals, but it is plainly necessary in certain circumstances to supplement the contractual rights that will be incorporated in supply contracts about access between a private supplier and his customer with powers that the Secretary of State possesses under circumstances that I shall outline to the House in justification of the amendment.

    Clause 14 re-enacts section 31 of the Gas Act 1972. That empowers the Secretary of State to make safety regulations for gas, whether it is supplied by the corporation or by others. In the case of dangers arising from a private supply, officers authorised by the Secretary of State may be empowered to enter premises, inspect gas fittings and so on and to disconnect supplies in cases of danger, in a similar manner as officers authorised by the British Gas Corporation in respect of dangers arising from the supply by BGC.

    The amendments are drafted so as to put the rights of entry that may be conferred on officers authorised by the Secretary of State in respect of private gas supplies on the same footing as those that may be conferred on the BGC in respect of its supplies. In deference to the discussion that we had in Committee and to the point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). I shall look more closely at what is proposed.

    Under schedule 4(26) of the 1972 Act, officers of the corporation who enter premises under the regulations made under section 31 of the 1972 Act must ensure that the premises are not left less secure as a result of the entry. In addition, BGC is obliged to make good or pay compensation for any damage caused by the officer, or person accompanying him in entering the premises, in taking any action authorised by the regulations, or in making the premises secure.

    As part of the policy that I have set out, subsection (4A) of amendment No. 9 extends those provisions to the rights of entry of officers appointed by the Secretary of State in relation to the safety of private supplies.

    Under schedule 4(27) of the 1972 Act any person obstructing an officer of BGC in exercising the rights of entry is guilty of an offence punishable upon conviction by a fine. Subsection (4B) of amendment No. 9 ensures that in future obstructing either an officer of BGC or of the Secretary of State in exercising his rights of entry will be an offence punishable on conviction by a maximum fine of up to £200. That puts the two offences on an equal footing.

    At present schedule 4(28) ensures that the regulations made under section 31 conferring powers of entry on officers of the corporation shall have effect subject to the provisions of the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954. Subsection (4C) of amendment No. 9 extends that provision so that regulations conferring powers of entry on either officers of the corporation or of the Secretary of State shall be subject to the 1954 Act—the locus classicus, as it were—for each category of persons. That means that rights of entry are to be exercised only with the consent of the occupier of the premises or under the authority of a magistrate's warrant or in an emergency.

    As we discussed emergency in Committee, it may be appropriate to dilate on that subject for a moment In an emergency no warrant would be required and the appropriate officer would be able to enter the premises immediately and take the action necessary to ensure safety under the new section 31 of the 1972 Act—that is to say, clause 14 of the Bill. Where there was not an immediate emergency and the occupier did not give his consent for the officer to enter, the officer could apply for a warrant to a justice of the peace or, in Scotland, to the sheriff. Provided that the justice of the peace was satisfied that entry was reasonably required for a specified purpose and that the officer was entitled under the safety legislation to right of entry, such a warrant could be issued. We believe that that procedure provides a sensible balance between the need to ensure safety in an emergency and the need to protect the rights of the individual.

    8.30 pm

    The second amendment follows from the first. It simply contains drafting changes that are consequential upon the first amendment. Subsections (4a), (4b) and (4c) of the first amendment extend provisions relating to rights of entry of officers of the corporation in respect of the safety of the British Gas Corporation's supplies to rights of entry of the Secretary of State in respect of private supplies. They are drafted in such a way as to consolidate the two sets of rights of entry, and the original parallel provisions in the Gas Act 1972 become superfluous. Therefore, amendment No. 16 deletes those parallel provisions.

    The Government's intention was to put the rights of entry of those two categories of person on to the same footing. In my respectful submission, that gets over some of the problems. The interesting and worthwhile discussions in Committee made it clear that this was an appropriate way of doing it and I hope that these amendments—which, as I say, have been tabled in the light of those discussions—commend themselves to hon. Members.

    I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for what he has said. He is absolutely right. Most of the comments about the Committee were written by journalists who never attended it and who listened to one or two stories. That is the way of the world if it is after 10 pm. When one is there late, why stay any later? It is much easier to write a story without bothering. That is certainly the approach on Committees. However, it was a very sensible Committee in many ways, and particularly on this matter.

    The Under-Secretary of State referred to two categories—the Gas Corporation's officers and the Secretary of State's officers. I must confess that I am not clear about this. It is always a problem when one is in Opposition and reading a Government clause. When we discussed the matter in Committee, I thought there was a third category. First, we postulated private gas spurring off the Gas Corporation's pipelines and sending gas to villages. We were told of villages in Leicestershire that would get gas. A few days later the poor old villages in Leicestershire had lost their gas. It had been a flight of fancy. I think that it was the Under-Secretary of State who told us that what he had been talking about was the provision of gas to industrial users.

    However, when we were discussing that subject we came to the question of how safety would be dealth with. Do I not recall that as well as the two categories that we have been talking about there was a third category—that it would be possible for the firm supplying the gas to put out to contract the safety functions that would otherwise have been operated by the Gas Corporation? That is how I recall it. We now have only two categories.

    I am genuinely seeking information. The Secretary of State's staff, centred in London, but regionalised as well, were, as I understood it, there for the purposes of inspection and regulation. I had not realised that there was a generalised safety function. This is where the third category that I have raised arises. However, the Under-Secretary has studied this and he says that there are two categories. Therefore, I must be wrong, but where do the private contractors come into the picture? I assume that the Secretary of State is right.

    We discussed a similar amendment in Committee in a slightly different context. The Secretary of State told us that this puts the staff on all fours with those of the Gas Corporation under previous legislation. The clause says that
    "the officer shall ensure that the premises are left not less secure by reason of the entry; and…shall make good, or pay compensation"
    and so on.

    With regard to compensation, I know of only two cases of forced entry, although they may have been by consent. They were in difficult conditions and involved the Gas Corporation. If compensation had to be paid under those circumstances, one went to the Gas Corporation. The Gas Corporation has a procedure for dealing with it. I imagine that it happens on a wider scale.

    Leicester has been mentioned. Let us suppose that somebody in Leeds, in my constituency, finds a man from the Ministry breaking down the door. With whom does he get into touch? People already know how to get in touch with the British Gas Corporation, as they do in Merthyr. As we all know, in Merthyr they go to the gas showroom. Everybody gathers there every night. It is the centre of the universe. But what will people have to do in Leeds to get compensation? What is the point of contact?

    The clause states:
    "If any person wilfully obstructs any officer exercising powers conferred by regulations made under this section, he shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £200."
    I presume that is the same sum of money as in the gas legislation.

    If people are, for very good reasons, to break down doors in Leeds, I hope that they will display a medallion or something to enable them to be recognised by the public. When people come from the British Gas Corporation in coloured vans with flashing lights, in general the public know who they are.

    I recognise that when there is a serious gas problem one cannot be very tardy. Usually the local police are contacted, and the local community constable or someone from the police station will be present. Members of the public will know who is breaking down the door or trying to get a key from the neighbours. Again, the questiom comes back to the nature of the men from the Ministry to whom the Under-Secretary refers. The people from the Gas Corporation know their way around the city. They have a particular section of the city to deal with and they know the local police station and are in touch with it.

    Will the staff visualised in the clause operate on a regional basis? I gather that there will not be too many of them all together. Perhaps I misunderstood what the Under-Secretary said in Committee about emergency services. I should have made much more fuss if I had thought that private firms would be involved, but I gather that it is not the case, although I seem to remember private firms being discussed in Committee in this context.

    These are powers about which the ordinary householder may get very upset. When his door has been broken down, he is bound to say that everyone in the area knew that the key was kept at his aunt's house next door. However, I see the virtue of what is proposed. I am glad to hear that there are two categories and not three, but I should still like to know where the third category arises and where it fits in.

    I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State, by tabling the two amendments, has at least given an indication that he listened to some of the speeches in Committee. The Secretary of State will recall that we had a fairly extensive debate on the question of powers of entry, especially in relation to private contractors.

    I do not want to go over the ground covered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), but it cannot be disputed that the British Gas Corporation employees and vehicles are fairly easily identifiable. I remember that the Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company had its vehicles painted in my favourite colour—green. It was a shade between leaf green and pea green. The vehicles were easily identifiable. Unfortunately, with the advent of nationalisation the colour changed. That had nothing to do with the nationalistion; the management of Northern Gas decreed that the leaf green vehicles should be changed to, of all colours, blue and white. It was rather unfortunate that we had blue and white. I would not have minded so much if it had been red, white and blue.

    Nevertheless, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South said, the vehicles of the gas corporation are easily identifiable. However, I must correct my right hon. Friend because the vehicles do not have flashing lights.

    I am still concerned about entry by private individuals. Nice people though they might be, none of the civil servants behind the Chair could be identifiable as people with the right of entry to disconnect a gas supply because of an emergency.

    There are three categories of entry—entry by consent; entry by magistrate's warrant; and entry in a dire emergency which does not need a magistrate's warrant. I am concerned about emergencies where a private spur crosses private land. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) asking the Under-Secretary what will happen if the spur crosses the private land of somewone other than the consumer using gas from that spur. What will happen if, for safety or other reasons, someone needs to get at that pipe?

    That brings me to the question of how an individual representing a private contractor is to act in an emergency. That individual will have to get an officer authorised by the Secretary of State. The private contractor might be operating miles from a centre of population. Is the Under-Secretary seriously suggesting that the private contractor with a dire emergency on his hands will have to find a telephone and ring the nearest office of the Department of Energy to ask one of the suitably authorised officers to make the necessary break-in for the contractor to disconnect the supply? The Under-Secretary is shaking his head and I hope that that is an indication that my fears are unfounded. It is a serious point, but I hope that he can convince me that I need not be concerned.

    The increased number of burglaries and house breakings result in many old people being trapped in their homes. It is sad that Englishmen should be trapped in their castles, but that is the situation in many areas of the country under the Government's law and order policies.

    8.45 pm

    An old person may not be aware of the emergency which those outside his house know about. For example, my mother had no sense of smell, which was a great worry to us. Time and again I would smell gas even before I put my key in her front door. She may have put the kettle on and then thought of something else and walked away, leaving the gas turned on. Old people tend to do such things.

    Many old people are trapped in their own homes and are frightened to open the front door. It will be terrifying for them to have the door broken down in front of them.

    I shall not detain the House for long, because the matters of concern have been adequately stated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown).

    However, I should like clarification of the reasons for the Government's approach in the clause and the amendments. It seems that we are to have two of everything. Why has it not been possible to weld the roles of the BGC officials and the private sector officials? Could they not form one body and have jointly negotiated wages and salaries?

    It is important to get clarification, because I can envisage protest groups that are concerned about freedom of the individual making merry out of what may appear to be another bureaucratic nonsense. We must prevent that and get on with deciding what is best for the consumer.

    It is also important to define the role of the officials. The Government are rightly attempting to define clearly their powers of entry, but there is still room for clarification.

    At a time when 3 million people are unemployed I should be applauding the Government on their initiative in creating more jobs, but in this case we need to create not more jobs but a new method of dealing with this problem of duplication of powers. I think that it can be done, and that, if the Minister and his advisers wanted, they could get round this problem.

    This again has been a most helpful and useful debate and I fully accept the good sense behind the questions that have been posed. I shall do my best to answer them fully.

    The present position is that there are two levels of safety coverage where an incident involving gas occurs. First is the coverage provided by the supplier of gas and second is the overall monitoring and investigation by the gas standards branch. The aim of this amendment is to try to extend the procedure to cover supplies of gas by private suppliers as well as gas supplied by th BGC. At the moment, BGC is involved in day-to-day matters concerning supply to premises, whether business or domestic. Normally, of course, that is with the consent of the customer; indeed, he is often the person who rings up and asks for help. So the kind of situation involved in the 1954 Act—entry by application to the courts or, in an emergency, by force—would not normally arise.

    At the moment BGC does that from its own resources. The private suppliers will have to make arrangements so that the Secretary of State is satisfied that adequate safety arrangements exist. That relates to the discussion we had earlier of the reason for requiring the Secretary of State' s consent for all but the top two-thirds of the industrial and commercial gas market, which is exempted by reason of the 2 million therms limit.

    One of the points the Secretary of State will check is whether the arrangements include a contractual right of entry for emergency personnel provided by the private supplier, so that potential dangers arising from private supplies are covered in a similar fashion to those arising from BGC supplies.

    That led to the point the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) made in Committee which we clarified in Committee; and it ties in with the very sensible point which the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) was making about co-operation. I look forward, in all aspects of this, to the same kind of co-operation that exists between BGC and the private sector off-shore. Once we have all the debate out of the way, whatever the form in which this passes into law, and once people know what the law is, there is no reason why this co-operation between professional people of good sense should not continue.

    One possibility is that the private supplier would be able to enter into a contractual relationship with BGC, where BGC might supply some of the emergency cover for a particular contract. The alternative would be that other, properly qualified people would do so.

    That is the normal situation with day-to-day problems. Then we come to the particular point that can arise when there is need, because we are dealing with a dangerous substance, to have a right to enforce entry.

    I am very grateful to the Under-Secretary of State. Again he has said that they may contract it to the BGC or to a private contractor. What about the rights of the private contractor when it comes to breaking down the door?

    I am sorry if I did not make that clear earlier. He has no such rights and it would be quite wrong for him to have them. We have never contemplated that. The question at issue in Committee was whether the rights that we were giving to the officers of the Secretary of State, the gas standards branch, were properly on a par with the rights given to officers of the BGC. The decision was taken—rightly I think—that they were.

    Private maintenance personnel will have rights under the contract and, when the situation is not an emergency, rights of entry can be enforced under the contract in the normal way. The Secretary of State will have to be satisfied that the same kind of maintenance and emergency services regime exists for a private sector supplier as for the BGC before he will give consent. That is why we had the second of the tripartite category of supply arrangements that we were talking about earlier.

    When we come to the situation where someone has to be compelled to do something, we are on difficult and contentious ground. Some people believe that those who have the power should not have it. Although the 1954 Act has been around for about 30 years, it is not free from criticism. When there is consent there is no problem. The legislation permits entry with a warrant where there is no consent and, in an emergency, by such means as are appropriate. The right is presently exercised by BGC officers authorised by the Secretary of State, who have to carry appropriate documentation. Where necessary, they must show the warrant from the magistrates court.

    It would not be right to give the extra authority that BGC officers have to people carrying out private sector emergency cover, even though they may be professionally competent. It would be wrong to give another citizen the right to force an entry to someone else's premises other than through the civil law. That is where the gas standards branch comes in.

    The private contractor cannot bust down the door. Does he ring the Department of Energy?

    I hope that I am not being legalistic and pedantic. We are dealing with contractual arrangements which two freely consenting parties can enter into and which are enforceable through the civil law, with rights that the criminal court—the magistrates court—can enforce and with a separate power to enter in an emergency, which one would have to justify afterwards. One cannot await the decision of a court in a sudden emergency.

    If there is a breach of contract that cannot be dealt with in the normal way, it would be open to members of the gas standards branch, as officers of the Secretary of State, to apply to the magistrates for a warrant to enter the premises. In a true emergency, probably even the appropriate BGC officer would not be available. That is where the police come in.

    I hope that the former Home Secretary will forgive me for dilating on police powers. He must have forgotten more than I know. The police have a duty to preserve life and property. They can enter premises irrespective of anything that the officers of the Secretary of State—whether BGC officers authorised under the Act or members of the gas standards branch—have the power to do. In a dire emergency there is the police. Normally, the police deal with the type of situations postulated.

    The gas standards branch will not merely perform for the private sector a role to some extent performed by BGC officers who are empowered under the 1954 Act. The gas standards branch will retain an overview of regulations imposed on BGC and the private sector. It will continue its monitoring and investigation role for all gas supplies.

    The day-to-day maintenance will be done by BGC for its own contracts and by a person acceptable to the Secretary of State for private sector contracts. That may be an officer of the BGC under contract or a member of some other organisation. Under the 1954 Act, BGC officers have the right of entry in relation to BGC supplies. Officers of the Secretary of State—that is, the gas standards branch in this case—will have those rights in relation to private sector supplies. The police will have rights in emergencies to supplement any other necessary rights, whether it be in relation to the BGC or to the private sector.

    9 pm

    On the third matter, overall, the gas standards branch has an overseeing view of anything that BGC does to monitor the gas supply and investigate. We have always known this. This is pursuant to the regulatory power the Secretary of State has always had.

    In the case of gas supplied by other persons, the gas standards branch will have two roles—the monitoring and investigation role and acting in respect of fulfilling the right of entry that I have already mentioned.

    I appreciate that in explaining matters which deal with the civil and criminal law and police powers, one is inevitably led into somewhat tortuous prose. I hope that I have set out to the satisfaction of the House a system that integrates into the existing framework of law the same system in respect of the private sector.

    I have been listening intently to the Under-Secretary of State in relation to the emergency situation that I referred to. With the best will in the world, I can still envisage a situation where the Minister's reply would not do anything to allay my fears. Assuming that the place is away in the wilds, even the police will take some considerable time to arrive there to break into the premises. Someone in a semi-detached house in a village in Leicestershire might see outside a representative of the contractor who was looking extremely worried. If he said that there was a national emergency and there might be an explosion at any time but he had to wait for the police or somebody from the gas standards branch to arrive, how would the Under-Secretary of State, or indeed the Secretary of State, feel in such a situation?

    The hon. Gentleman is adding unnecessary complexity to this. He is postulating a situation involving a remote location. Whether it is BGC or non-BGC, any human agency will be in difficulty. We are not in the business of legislating against that.

    If the informant was an employee of BGC he could immediately take the necessary action and would not need to wait for the police.

    What the hon. Gentleman says is not necessarily the case. I have outlined the situation with as much clarity as I can muster and, I hope, in objective terms, reasonable clarity. It will be on the record. If the hon. Gentleman remains troubled, I will happily dilate on any matters in reply. I am conscious that there is to be another debate. My right hon. Friend has come back to participate in that. I know the House will want to hear him. I commend the amendment to the House.

    Amendment agreed to.