Peter Mills – 1972 Speech on North Sea Gas

The speech made by Peter Mills, the then Conservative MP for Torrington, in the House of Commons on 17 January 1972.

I wish to bring to the attention of the House some of the problems that have been faced by some of my constituents in North Devon and Crediton in connection with the conversion to North Sea gas.

I welcome the change to natural gas and I acknowledge that benefit will accrue from the change. However, many unnecessary problems have arisen, and I air this issue because, while it may be too late to help some of my constituents, others may benefit from the mistakes that have been made. It is to be hoped that the gas board will profit from the mistakes it has made, even though it is a nationalised industry.

I could quote many examples. I have received scores of telephone calls, letters and visits from constituents. Their representations have been passed to the gas board.

The Chairman of the Northam Urban District Council says this:

“I feel that it should be brought to your notice that a large number of people in my District are enraged at the incompetent preparations for our conversion to Natural Gas. Wrong parts were delivered and in many cases no parts arrived at all, and as a result many dwellings are without proper cooking and heating facilities for a week.”

Even now some dwellings are unconverted in spite of continual requests for help. Many empty flats, chalets and caravans were completed first, leaving those who needed it, the priority ones, last.

“In consequence considerable hardship has been caused. This is in marked contrast to the confident assurances given to my Council when one of your publicity officers addressed us some weeks ago.”

I come to some individual cases. There is a Mr. Bawden, of Penqueen Place, Crediton. His gas fire had been condemned. He was told that up to 18 months ago it could have been converted, but not now. Unfortunately for him, he is 71 years old and a pensioner, and he cannot afford a new gas fire.

There are some old people living in an old people’s home at 21 Aysha Gardens, Westward Ho. These are bungalows built six years ago, but the inhabitants are told that structural alterations are necessary before even a start can be made on the conversions. The estimated cost is £35 for each bungalow. These people cannot afford that.

Another series of cases is from the Northam Residents’ Association. The association criticises the gas board and the operation very severely. It talks about the initial survey and says that some people were visited six times and others were left out altogether. It seems to be the root of the problem that in this very large area in North Devon the board failed to carry out the survey adequately and properly. My complaint is; why did the board start on this conversion before it had done the initial survey properly? It is no excuse to say that it could not get into various houses and, therefore, had problems later. Why start?

Another rather pathetic case is an elderly man I have known for some time, a Mr. Lewis of Bideford. He thanks me that through my representations the board has at least called on him. But he has been informed that unless he is prepared to pay £52·50 nothing can be done. This is in contradiction, he says, to the brochures and to what I have told him—that in these cases the board will provide something. But it will not; it is £52 or he does not get his water heater. He has been without hot water for 12 weeks. It is an appalling situation.

I could go on and on, but the worst case of all, with a lack of any sympathy or feeling by the gas board, astounds me. I received a letter from a home help concerning two elderly ladies. One of the ladies is 91; the other is 76.

“Since November 15th, when the conversion to natural gas was commenced in this area, they have been without heating of any sort in their bedroom, and in this cold, wet weather it is a real hardship.”

The home help says that this is especially so for the older lady.

“Several different men have called, but nothing at all gets done, and I think it is disgusting to leave these two elderly people in this state for so long.”

Can there be a worse case? It is appalling. So there are frustrated and angry people in my constituency.

What annoys me even more is that on many occasions the gas board employees do not even bother to reply to the free phone which one is invited to ring to get some action. These things must not be allowed to happen again. It is true that the board, so it says, will convert where it can and will help by supplying a reconditioned appliance, as my hon. Friend says in his letter. However, the cases I have quoted prove that this is not always so, for some reason. It costs some people money. I suppose that the trade-in value of an old appliance is not very high and another appliance must be found, and for elderly people this is expensive. I understand, too, that portable gas fires cause a problem, and new ones must be bought.

Then there is the problem with flues which are not up to standard. I mentioned the cost of renovating the flues in the old people’s home. Those running the home were quite happy to go on as they were before conversion. Conversion has been a very expensive business for them.
I am sure that salesmen have brought pressure to bear on some people. After all, one way of exerting pressure is to create worry by saying, “We could do it, but there are problems, and it would be better to buy a new gas stove.” In this way they sell a new appliance. Old people, through reading about some of the problems arising from North Sea gas, are concerned and give in.

Whatever the board says, I believe that some people have to pay. It is expensive, and pensioners can ill afford it. This is why I have written to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, because further help must be given in some cases. Today I have received a reply from the Supplementary Benefits Commission which repeats the same story, that the board will always convert or will provide another appliance. That just is not true, as some elderly people know to their cost.

Something must be done to ensure that this nonsense does not continue in the South-West or elsewhere.

First, the South-Western Gas Consultative Council must not whitewash matters, as I believe it does at present. The council stands between the consumer and the board, and it must point out firmly and critically the faults the board makes. The Secretary of the council has been particularly helpful to me since I have been in contact with him and problems have been dealt with quickly.

Second, I believe that the council must advertise so as to make it quite clear, through the medium of the local Press, what people are entitled to.

Third, the survey must be done well and the conversion operation should not begin until the survey is completed. It is ludicrous to have a survey if it is not carried to completion and if the board does not find out what are the needs in each house.

Fourth, letters from the board, particularly letters to the aged, must be more helpful. Some of the letters I have seen show a complete lack of any feeling of sympathy towards the elderly. I hope that the board will heed this and will be more helpful, rather than worry people.

Fifth, the free phone must operate, or the entry should be taken from the telephone directory. What is the use of having a free phone if it does not work?

Sixth, there must be a better performance by the private contractors, who have been doing most of this work. Perhaps showing the fault lies in lack of supervision by the board, but there is fault.

Seventh, next, there should be more generous help for the retired and the elderly. After all, they did not ask for this conversion, and it creates problems.

Lastly, because of the problems in North Devon and Crediton I believe that there should be an inquiry by the gas board into the reasons for these problems and why they have been so acute. All sorts of excuses have been made, such as the survey and the unusually high number of old appliances. Fair enough; but why start before one has the proper spares and all the facilities necessary to do the job?

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. David James) wishes to say a few words, so I shall say no more. The gas board has made a mess in North Devon and in Crediton, and the lesson should be learned so that this can never happen again.