HC Deb 27 February 1964 vol 690 cc773-82

10.28 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel J. K. Cordeaux (Nottingham, Central)

The last speaker in the defence debate just concluded urged us all not to flinch from power or be afraid of power. This evening, I certainly do not intend to flinch from the Ministry of Power in the case which I wish to make. Indeed, I am quite sure that when my hon. Friend has heard the case which I wish to urge he will agree with the suggestions I shall make.

I am extremely glad to have this opportunity to discuss in rather more detail the case which I raised recently in Parliamentary Questions with my hon. Friend concerning the matter of money stolen from gas meters and electricity meters and the fact that householders concerned were required to repay the money. On that occasion, I asked my hon. Friend whether he would give a general directive to the Gas Council and the Central Electricity Authority that repayment should not be demanded from the householders unless it could be proved that the householders themselves were guilty of the theft or, perhaps, had been so culpably negligent that they were in some way responsible for it.

I am sorry to say that I received a rather dusty answer to my questions and my hon. Friend said that it was very much better to leave the matter to the discretion of the boards concerned. However, I think it is a very great injustice that the householder should be required to repay the money unless he has stolen it or is culpably negligible.

Never having possessed a cash electricity or gas meter, I was unaware of this regulation which requires householders to repay the money until a case was brought to my notice of a constituent who found herself in that position. She was a widow aged 72, and her house had been broken into forcibly twice during the last year. On the first occasion the house had been broken into and the thieves had stolen property valued at£19 10s. belonging to the lady and a lodger and also broken open the gas and electricity meters and stolen from them£5 16s. On the second occasion they had broken into the house forcibly again and stolen from the electricity meter £7 1s. and a very small sum in cash from the lady.

On both occasions the police were immediately informed by the lady herself. They made full investigations. They found that on the first occasion the house had been entered through a defective grating in the cellar and on the second occasion by forcing and breaking open the back door. They were, unfortunately, unable to identify the thieves.

Shortly afterwards the lady was called on by the representatives of the electricity board and required to repay the whole sum that had been stolen on these two occasions from the electricity meter, which amounted to about £11. She made some protest about it, but eventually she agreed to repay the money with £1 cash down and 10s. per week after that.

She then appealed to her Member of Parliament. The matter was first handled by a colleague of mine—I was away from duty at the time—my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. Tapsell), and later by myself. As a result, the electricity board then agreed to forgo the whole debt and repaid to the lady the money she had already repaid to it. But how many other hundreds or thousands 'of cases must have been going on at very much the same time where the person concerned did not appeal to his Member of Parliament but simply paid up the money?

Another case of this sort occurred recently in Nottingham also, and I know that my colleague the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Whitlock) will be very pleased to tell the House about it if he is fortunate enough to be called in this debate.

I know there are thousands of these cases going on all the time. I would ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to give, if he can, the actual figures of the number of cases of these meter thefts where the meter has actually been broken into that have occurred during the last year and the proportion of such cases in which the householder has been required to repay the money although it has not been proved that the householder committed the theft.

I have time to quote only one other of the many cases that have been brought to my notice. I quote it for a specific reason which I will explain when I have done so. I quote a report in the Daily Telegraph on 13th January this year: An inquiry is being sought into the case of a widow an old-age pensioner who had to pay her electricity bill twice. Mrs. Kate Young, 66 Malvern Road, Luton, had to repay£19 stolen from her meter and pay 5s. 6d. for a new lock. She said yesterday 'I explained I could not afford it. On my pension I can only just manage to put a few shillings in the meter each week. After I talked to a lot of officials they let me pay it back at 5s. a week.' An Electricity Consultative Council official said yesterday 'The Electricity Board told us they had no idea of Mrs. Young's age or circumstances when the bill was sent. We are asking the board to say exactly what the legal position is in regard to people whose meters are robbed.' That last point is the one that I wish to emphasise. The electricity board has said that it had no idea what this lady's age and circumstances were when it sent her the bill.

I understand the position to be that each case is considered on what the boards call its "merits". One merit, apparently, is the circumstances of the person concerned. I maintain that this is utterly wrong in principle. If the householder has himself robbed the meter then he should have to repay the money quite apart from any other penalty the law may inflict and whether he is rich or poor. But if he has not robbed the meter himself he should not be asked to repay the money.

It is also unfair that the onus should be placed on the boards—which really means their inspectors—to decide whether the householder is rich or poor, or maybe is under such suspicion, and should be required to repay the money.

I have very strong support for my view from the Birmingham Council of Social Service, and I shall quote a letter from the Council, a copy of which was sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame Edith Pitt), who was asked for her support. The letter, written by the general secretary, said: We were sorry to see that the suggestion, made by the M.P. for Nottingham Central, that the Ministry of Power should give directives to gas and electricity councils regarding the repayment by householders of money stolen from meters had been rejected by the Ministry. The Birmingham Council of Social Service has numerous applications each year for grants to help householders repay bills caused by theft, and make considerable payments to help where this is causing severe hardship, particularly to Old Age Pensioners. Because the gas and electricity councils have no policy directive it is necessary for our social workers to spend time negotiating afresh with them on behalf of every new applicant. As each case is treated separately by the councils, decisions are made which appear to the public to be unjust. A Ministry directive would be of great value to organisations such as ourselves who must deal with the problems created by these thefts. I maintain that when the money has been placed in the meter by the person concerned it is as much the responsibility of the gas or electricity boards as a letter is that of the Post Office once it has been placed in a pillar box. I maintain that the boards are responsible for the safe custody of that money.

After all, the householder has no say in the theft-resisting properties of the meters and none as to the frequency of collection. It might well be that when a fair amount of money has accumulated he would prefer to take it out and bank it or put it in some other safe place, but, of course, he must not do so. He would be committing an offence if he did.

In connection with these two points, I want to quote another letter, from a householder in Birmingham. He said: I was very interested in your speech in regard to pre-payment meters, and although I had not myself suffered any loss…I thought you may be interested in my recent experience. My meter was emptied by an official of the West Midlands Gas Board on January 20th last. I was amazed to learn it contained the sum of£29 1s. This was accounted for by the fact that the meter had not been emptied since January 9th last year, more than 12 months ago. This coin box is secured by a frail brass padlock which a child could open with ease. It would cause one great distress if I were called upon to replace this money…I am now retired and living on a small pension and it is only on rare occasions that my wife and I are absent from home at the same time so it is unlikely that we would be out when the collector called. I hope my hon. Friend will look at this again. He may say that when a householder signs an application for gas or electricity he signs under a clause which says that he will be responsible for the money when it is placed in the meter until it has been collected. If he does say that, then I hope that he will also tell us just what say the householder has in the negotiation of his agreement. As I see it, gas and electricity being monopolies in this country, he has absolutely no say at all.

I hope that my hon. Friend will undertake to consider this matter again. I am sure that if he does he will come to the conclusion that the present position is most unjust, and that this injustice should not be perpetuated merely to save the gas and electricity councils—and therefore the whole of the consuming public—a certain amount of money.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. William Whitlock (Nottingham, North)

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) for cutting short his remarks in order that I may support him. I can best do so by telling the House what happened to a constituent of mine, whose prepayment meter was broken open. When the gas board officials called and found that about £16 was missing from the meter and it was realised that my constituent could not meet the account, her gas supply was immediately cut off—at a point when she was in the midst of the preparation of a meal for her four children. Representations were made to the gas board by other residents in the area, but they were told that in no circumstances could the gas supply be restored until the payment of a deposit of £20 had been made. This poor, unfortunate woman spent more than two days endeavouring to raise this £20 deposit in order to have her gas supply restored.

This seems to be extremely harsh treatment. I am aware that this action was taken in accordance with the provisions of the Gas Act, 1948, and that even before nationalisation deposits were required by local gas undertakings in circumstances like this, but it seems quite wrong that a householder who is robbed in this way should be required to pay twice, in effect, for the gas she has had, and it is surely monstrously unjust that someone with such a small income as that of my constituent should be required to find a deposit as a kind of insurance for the gas board against future theft.

Like the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central, I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to examine this matter in order to see whether hardship in cases like this can be alleviated in the future.

10.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. John Peyton)

The last impression that I would wish to give is that either the Ministry of Power or the gas and electricity boards take a harsh and unsympathetic view of cases where undoubted hardship is involved. On the other hand, I very much hope that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Whitlock) will realise that there is a dilemma and a genuine difficulty here. I am sorry that my hon. and gallant Friend thought that I gave him a dusty answer the other day. I had not intended to be anything other than frank.

I have no doubt that the details of the cases mentioned both by my hon. and gallant Friend and the hon. Member will be noticed and remarked by the boards responsible. I observe, however, that in the case mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the board eventually agreed to forego the whole debt. Parliament, in its wisdom, in passing both the Gas and the Electricity Acts, set up fairly elaborate consultative council machinery to which consumers can and should go in cases where they feel that they have been unjustly and harshly treated. I should like to pay tribute to the value of the work done by these councils. I hope that people who feel that they have been hardly done by will make use of this machinery. I note the point my hon. and gallant Friend made about the great delay in a particular case in emptying the meter. I shall see that that point is passed on He suggested that it was wrong for boards to judge individual cases on their merits. On that I join issue with him and disagree. It seems very wrong indeed that boards should not be free to use discretion in waiving their rights particularly in cases of hardship. I cannot promise. although of course I have sympathy with individual cases he may have in mind, that I shall reconsider the whole position. I have no doubt, however, that gas and electricity boards all over the country will take note of the remarks which my hon. and gallant Friend made and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North echoed.

It might help if I give the House a few of the facts which are the background to this position. There are 2 million electricity pre-payment meters and 7 million gas pre-payment meters in the country. When a coin is put into such a meter it becomes the property of the board, but most of the boards require the customer to accept responsibility for the safe custody of the money until it is collected. These meters are expensive items of equipment. Despite what my hon. and gallant Friend said, they involve more meter reading and necessarily an additional charge. I stress the point that if the boards were given a choice they would prefer customers to accept a credit basis. To help customers, some boards have introduced a stamp payments scheme.

The pre-payment system is designed not as a convenience for the board, but as a convenience for the customer. Arrangements between the boards and their customers are commercial matters in which it would be wholly wrong for any Government Department to intervene. This is why I was obliged to give my hon. and gallant Friend what he thought was a dusty answer the other day and to refuse to give a direction to either of these industries that they should reverse their policies. My right hon. Friend is not in a position to adjudicate on individual cases. Nor do I think he should attempt to dictate commercial policy to any board which must have liberty and freedom to negotiate terms with its customers.

Neither the Gas Act nor the Electricity Act gives ground for Ministerial intervention except through the statutory procedures laid down and in particular through the consultative councils to which I have referred. The legal position is slightly obscure. In the view of the boards, they are legally entitled to require from their customers an undertaking of responsibility for the cash which may at any time reside in the meter. There have been two decisions in the Scottish courts and they are apparently in some conflict. It is not my business to comment on them. On the merits of the case I should remind the House and my hon. and gallant Friend—I do not wish to give him any sort of "brush off"—of the inescapable fact that any board is responsible to all its customers. If it is to give relief to one, or to many, it will have to be at the expense of the rest, and that fact has to be faced. If a board were to accept automatic responsibility were any meter to be broken into, it would be jeopardising the interests of the majority of its customers to an unjustifiable extent.

My hon. and gallant Friend has adduced evidence that all boards are willing, despite the legal position on which they feel they can rely, to look at all the circumstances of any case, particularly where hardship is involved, and I think that it is perfectly right that they should take account of hardship. My hon and gallant Friend has said that the same rule should be applied to all, but I feel, and I think that most boards feel, that that would, perhaps, be an unduly harsh rule to implement. Certainly, where someone outside the household has been convicted of the theft of the money, I think it inconceivable that any board would contemplate taking proceedings to recover the money due from the householder—

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

Would not my hon. Friend agree that if, as he says, when it is proved that some outside person has stolen the money the householder should not be required to repay it, the same thing should apply if the police had, at least, established the fact that the householder was not responsible?

Mr. Peyton

If the police established the fact that a third person, someone outside the household, was responsible, I have no doubt whatever that the board concerned would take very great cognisance of that. I cannot say now what it would do, but I am certain that it would take that fact into very careful consideration. If my hon. and gallant Friend ever has such a set of circumstances brought to his attention, I hope that he will either write directly to the board or bring it to my notice.

If Parliament were to take a second look at what it had previously decided and, in reviewing its previous decision, were to say that the boards were for the future to be unable to recover the money due to them unless they were themselves able to prove the guilt of the householder, or someone resident in the house, that would be to place the boards in a very invidious position, indeed, and to make the performance of their statutory duty rather more onerous and difficult than it should be. The right to recover payment should not depend on the ability of a board to secure a conviction for theft.

I would remind the House—and I stress the point—that the provision of pre-payment meters is not a matter for the convenience of the boards; they are provided for the convenience of the customers. There are, admittedly, certain advantages that go with that—the additional charge, perhaps—but there is also the risk of theft. To expose the board and the remainder of its customers to the consequences would be wrong.

It might be convenient if I give the House some figures, although I apologise for them being only estimates. The gas industry derives an income of about £90 million a year through pre-payment meters. There are, it is estimated, during every year about 100,000 thefts involving about £350,000. The figures are rather less for the electricity industry, but about 30,000 thefts take place involving about £150,000. These figures show that a considerable sum of money is involved and that it would be wrong to expose boards to the risk which would be involved if one made it perfectly clear that they were automatically responsible for what happens and that if money were stolen from a meter they would simply have to replace it at the expense of the remainder of their customers. That would be wrong and difficult to justify.

I acknowledge the dilemma which my hon. and gallant Friend and the hon. Member opposite have put to me with considerable restraint. I am certain that the chairmen and members of area boards will take note of what has been said, but clearly it would be wholly wrong for any Minister to tell boards how they should conduct their relationships with their customers and on what terms those relationships should be based. It would, I do not doubt, land my Department in a very false position of dictating to boards how they should carry on their business, and I would find that quite unacceptable.

I wish to stress that boards are very willing indeed to look at any element of hardship that may be involved in these case; and that the whole of the consultative council machinery—and I have had a certain amount of contact with it—is there to deal with these sort of things. Where customers feel that they have been wrongly or harshly treated, it is only right that—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.