My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made on the consultations held with the nationalised industry consumer councils and others concerned in the finalisation of the guidelines mentioned by the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 1st December (col. 795); and whether they will make a Statement.
My Lords, we are in touch with the councils concerned and with the National Consumer Council about the current position in work on the guidelines, which is being carried forward as quickly as possible.
My Lords, being in touch is perhaps a step forward, but does the Minister recall that, on 1st December last year, he repeated the assurance that he gave me on 27th October that these proposals were being considered? Does he recall that on that same day, 1st December, he said at col. 798 of the Official Report:
Following up those words, I should like to ask the Minister whether those discussions have taken place apart from merely being in touch, and also whether he could be a little more precise about "a bit more time" being necessary."it is precisely because discussions need to take place with the national consumer councils that it is necessary for a bit more time to elapse before the guidelines can be published"?
My Lords, the exchange on 1st December is indelibly etched upon my mind. The noble Baroness says that she is encouraged that my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate and Consumer Affairs is in touch with the nationalised industry consumer councils. I assure the noble Baroness that this is, indeed, the case, for only within the last few days my honourable friend has written to those directly concerned proposing that we focus now upon what the guidelines ought to say in three priority areas: standards of service, costs and prices, and individual customer complaints. The aim is to produce concise drafts for each industry which will share a recognised common framework. For convenience, my honourable friend is dealing first with the proposals from the two largest NICC groups, the electricity and gas industries.So far as the timing from now onwards is concerned, I cannot give the noble Baroness an absolute time. I am sorry about that, but I would ask the noble Baroness to accept that my honourable friend's letter is in earnest and that he is in earnest about getting on with this important matter.
My Lords, without for one moment doubting the Minister's good faith—because I am sure that he wishes to help—may I ask him whether he realises that it has become rather difficult? I think that many of us in this House and in the consumer organisations really wish that the Government would say either that they intend to do something about having real discussions in Parliament or that they do not intend to do anything about it at all. Would it be possible for the Minister to publish the letter of which he spoke, or to put a copy in the Library? Or is it a private letter from the Minister to the councils concerned?
My Lords, the letter was from my honourable friend to the deputy chairman of the National Consumer Council. It would be a matter for him to decide whether he could make it public. I will most certainly ask him if this is possible.