HC Deb 04 July 1972 vol 840 cc491-501

5.0 a.m.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

I beg to move Amendment No. 31, in page 54, line 40, after 'meter', insert: '(whether a prepayment meter or otherwise)'. I move the Amendment for a number of reasons but, in view of the lateness of the hour, I shall not develop the powerful case in support of it that I could. Clearly, it is the type of Amendment that any reasonable Minister will see fit to accept. It may be, of course, that the hon. Gentle man will indicate his willingness to accept it, in which event I shall not need to detain the House——

Mr. Ronald Brown

I notice that my hon. Friend's Amendment refers to "a prepayment meter or otherwise". Do the words "or otherwise" refer to the type of meter that a landlord installs and by means of which he makes a surcharge on the gas supplied?

Mr. Robert C. Brown

No. The type of meter to which my hon. Friend refers is a check meter. It is a medium for reselling gas. It is dealt with in a later Amendment.

The need for my Amendment was brought to my attention in the first place by a letter from a constituent of mine. I know that hon. Members frequently announce in this House that they have received 150 letters on a subject. I did not have anything like that number. However, my post reached double figures on the subject of the freedom of the individual to choose whether to have a pre-payment meter or an ordinary one——

Mr. Emery

It might assist the hon. Gentleman if I indicated that I should be most favourable towards his Amendment.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

I am grateful to the Minister. In view of that, I shall keep to my promise about not detaining the House.

However, perhaps I might read the most telling letter on the subject that I have received: I am a widowed constituent of yours living in a council flat heated by gas fires. I am appalled to hear that in the Gas Bill it is proposed that the Gas Board will have the power to make me have a quarterly meter. If this happens I do not know how I will manage, since at present when the money I allow myself each day runs out in my slot meter I can and do go to bed, but if I have to have a quarterly meter I will never manage, because there is no means of telling just how much I will have spent in the day, and at the end of the quarter there will no doubt that I will probably have my gas cut off because I will not be able to pay the bill. It might be argued that that widow is not receiving the type of benefits that she obviously needs if she has to write that type of letter. But, broadly speaking, I am concerned about, first, the freedom of the individual to have the sort of meter he chooses and, secondly, the fact that there is a considerable amount of freedom at stake if the Gas Corporation determines that at one fell swoop prepayment meters are to be abolished and replaced by quarterly ones.

Mr. Emery

I shall be brief. I shall be delighted to accept the Amendment, but, having said that, I must reiterate two important things said in Committee.

There is a considerable problem of theft from this sort of meter, and I would not want it to be thought that there should be encouragement of people to move away from the credit meter, because it encourages a problem of theft which is of considerable concern not only to the Gas Council, gas boards and Consumer Council but to individual customers. The hon. Gentleman would not want anything to stimulate that. It is essential to put the point.

I do not interpret the Amendment as implying any presumption that prepayment meters will be the norm and anything else the exception. If that was the implication, I would not accept the Amendment, and, equally, the hon. Member would not be moving it.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

I am glad that the Minister accepts my Amendment and I am sure, he has no fear of an increase in the use of prepayment meters, which has dropped from 66 per cent. to 40 per cent. in 20 years.

Mr. Emery

I understand that it is the hon. Gentleman's intention to underline the fact that it may, according to circumstances, be one kind of meter or another. In that spirit I am prepared to accept the Amendment, because I fully understand the problems of pensioners and those with financial problems who are unable to budget properly and who want prepayment meters so that when the gas runs out they go to bed. This is the sort of sympathetic consideration the House should give, even at this hour. I have pleasure, on behalf of the Government, in accepting the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Palmer

I beg to move Amendment No. 32, in page 56, line 35, leave out sub-paragraph (3) and insert— '( ) It shall be the duty of the Corporation to take proceedings in a court of competent jurisdiction against any person reselling gas at a price exceeding the maximum price fixed under this paragraph, and in the event of such person being found guilty of an offence the court shall impose a fine of fifty pounds for the first offence and one hundred pounds for any subsequent offence and an order made by the court for the amount of the excess shall be refunded to the person to whom the gas was resold'. The morning is advancing and this is an important Amendment, capable of much expansion because it deals with a human problem, but I intend to be mercifully brief. It attempts to deal with a situation which is nothing short of a scandal, which is continuing: exploitation by landlord of tenants or sub-tenants, who are usually poor people, by resale of gas. The landlord pays one price to the gas board and the tenant a much higher price to the landlord for the gas.

Examples have been brought to the attention of hon. Members in all parts of the House of gross exploitation in these circumstances. The fact that the problem exists was recognised a number of years ago. The first time I remember the meter being discussed in a tactical fashion was in 1957 when I was on a Standing Committee which was considering the Electricity Bill which became the Electricity Act, 1958. The Conservative Government of that day accepted that there was a problem here and certain words were drawn up. In my opinion, that was the first time these words were inserted into a nationalised industry Statute. The words that appear in the Bill are the standard words now used.

The part of the Schedule dealing with the matter under discussion appears on page 56 under the heading "Resale of gas supplied". Paragraph 12(1) and (2) is all right from our point of view. Sub-paragraph (1) provides: The Corporation shall from time to time fix maximum prices at which gas supplied by them may be resold, and shall publish the prices so fixed in such manner as in their opinion will secure adequate publicity therefore. Sub-paragraph (2) provides: Different prices may be fixed under this paragraph in different classes of cases which may be defined by reference to areas, tariffs applicable to gas supplied by the Corporation, or any other relevant circumstances. That is perfectly reasonable and flexible.

However, sub-paragraph (3) is woefully inadequate to deal with this social problem. Experience has proved that to be so. The general sense of it is that if a tenant or sub-tenant is exploited and suffers by being overcharged through the resale of gas, it is left for the tenant or sub-tenant to proceed against the landlord. We all know that that is an impossible state of affairs. It is very difficult for any normal human relationship to be maintained after a tenant or subtenant has taken a landlord to court and accused him of doing something illegal. The result is that few cases have been brought under the legislation.

I know the difficulties. The standard wording is feeble and has resulted in no improvement. As I said earlier, many of those who are affected in this way are poor people. They are sometimes famililies, but more often they are single, elderly people living alone.

We have tried to get over that difficulty in the Amendment. I do not suggest that the wording is perfect from the legal point of view. However, we feel that we go much closer to finding a solution to the problem than the standard words which appear in the Bill. We suggest that if an offence has been committed responsibility for enforcement should be placed on the Gas Corporation. If the Gas Corporation has evidence that a landlord is abusing the arrangements by which a proper and fair price is decided for resale and is exploiting a tenant or sub-tenant, we suggest that the Corporation should proceed against the apparently guilty party.

The Amendment would provide that in the event of such person being found guilty of an offence the court shall impose a fine of fifty pounds"— when it comes to what the fines should be we are fairly open, but we thought £50 was not unreasonable in terms of money values today— for the first offence and one hundred pounds for any subsequent offence and an order made by the court for the amount of the excess shall be refunded"— there is a printer's error there; it should read, to be refunded to the person to whom the gas was resold. 5.15 a.m.

I cannot see very much objection to this kind of procedure. I am sure that it would work and would be effective. No doubt the Gas Corporation or its new regional officers will not want the responsibility. They may feel that it is not something for them and that the present arrangement is more satisfactory because they do not want to be bothered with it, but my answer to that would be that the present arrangements, as the experience of the nationalised service industries has proved, are a dead letter. They are not effective at all.

In a spirit of great reasonableness we are anxious to overcome a real social problem. We suggest that the Amendment would solve the difficulty. It would have some teeth, and we suggest that this is a responsibility which a public authority should properly take on its shoulders.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

It is not my intention to detain the House for long. I feel keenly enough about the Amendment to say that if the Minister is not prepared to accept it we should divide the House on it.

My recollection of the fleecing of the public by landlords—and that is the only way in which I can describe it—goes back 30 years. I recall, as a youngster in the industry, installing check meters and having to ask landlords what they wanted the check meters set at. This was in the days when the old Newcastle and Gates-head Gas Company was selling 20 cu. ft. of gas for 1d. through a pre-payment meter, and through the credit meter, which was the medium of purchase of the landlord, 25 cu. ft. of gas for 1d., and the common reply was "Set it at 6 cu. ft. for 1d."

That was not fleecing; it was extortion. The same kind of thing is going on today. That is why I am glad that the Government have seen fit to put in the Schedule the kind of languauge that one sees there, and I sincerely hope that they will accept the Amendment.

Mr. Emery

I have never heard the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) move an Amendment which he would not describe as sweet reasonableness, but I accept that he could have made a very much longer case on this one.

I accept immediately that this is a difficult problem, and I do not want to minimise it, but I think I should remind the House of what was said by my right hon. Friend when he was Minister for Industry: Suggestions have been made that charging more than the statutory maximum price should be made a criminal offence, but I have decided that legislation to this effect would not be justified as it would be unlikely to be significantly more effective than the present law. But I am in touch with the consultative councils and the electricity boards about mounting a publicity campaign designed to ensure that those concerned are made better aware of the maximum prices laid down and the present means of enforcement."—[Official Report, 28th February, 1972; Vol. 832, cc. 31–2.] My hon. Friend and I have lent our support to try to ensure that there will be mounted a full and proper campaign of advertising to make the present regulations know nto all. I am hopeful that this will have the sort of effects and results which the hon. Gentleman would like to see.

The problems in the Amendment are very much more serious than the hon. Gentleman might have thought. First, it would have a very major technical defect which, even if I accepted the overall principle, would not allow me to accept the Amendment. In particular, it omits to make over-charging an offence. It provides for the order made by the court to be "refunded" to the buyer, though what is obviously intended is that the over-charge should be refunded.

There are a number of other problems. If over-charging were to be made a criminal offence it would be necessary to collect sufficient evidence to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Reliable evidence about the setting of the meter over relevant past periods, the amount of gas used—or, for that matter, electricity, because we should be tempted to apply this in both cases—and the amount of money refunded by the landlord would be difficult to prove and, at times, hard to come by.

Reports of over-charging would, in the first place, have to come from users, and evidence from them would almost certainly be necessary to secure a conviction. It would be virtually impossible to obscure the identity of complainants, and they might well be reluctant to come forward for fear of some form of reprisal in certain instances. The unwillingness of consumers to use the existing procedures for fear of reprisal is one of the main arguments advanced in favour of making over-charging a criminal offence. That is not necessarily the argument which the hon. Gentleman has propounded, but information has come to my Department from a number of other sources making suggestions for action to regularise this matter.

Mr. Palmer

The Under-Secretary says that it would be difficult to get people to come forward. Surely it is even more difficult to get people to come forward under the present arrangements, by which they have to take the entire responsibility on their shoulders.

Mr. Emery

I understand that. But we are trying to publicise the situation to correct it at source. I cannot be convinced that any sort of criminal or moral enforcement procedure would be very much more effective than that which we have at present. I am trying to set out with an advertising campaign with the Consumers' Councils being brought in over this matter.

Although the hour is late, I could continue. There are a number of other problems about over-charging. The phrase a court of competent jurisdiction is apt for civil actions but not for crimes, where the Bill should state whether the offence is triable summarily or on indictment, or both. I only wanted to outline to the House the problems which exist and the technical defects of the Amendment.

I find myself in some considerable difficulty—I do not mind admitting this—about the best way of dealing with this matter. But we are projected on a campaign and a considerable amount of preparatory work has been done for this. After a period of nine months, or perhaps a year, I shall want to see what effect this campaign has had. If after this it still appears to be a major problem, I shall be as interested as the Opposition in trying to find ways of overcoming it.

Therefore, because of what we are starting out on and because of the technical faults in the Amendment, I hope that what I have said will go a considerable way to deal with the fears outlined by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Robert C. Brown).

Mr. Ronald Brown

I appreciate the feelings of sympathy expressed by the Minister, but I am bound to say to him that we have had this problem for years. We had publicity about it when I was in local government. I tried for 20 years to solve it, but it was impossible. It has always fallen on one issue—the fact that there was no power in the Act to deal with it. The local government associations have petitioned Governments of both parties to do something about it. I have been on deputations to what is now the Department of the Environment in an endeavour to get powers given to local authorities to take action.

There are many cases not only of over-charging and harassment but of tenants paying for their gas through the meter, the landlord does not pay it to the board and decamps leaving the tenant without any gas. The local authority is not able to get the gas supply reconnected until the money is paid. The tenant has already paid the money, but the local authority has no power to pay it. The result is that the tenant has no gas. I have a constituent who has had no gas for three months because the gas board will not connect the supply. She cannot pay, social security will not pay and the person involved will not pay.

It is no good the Minister saying "I am a good Minister, I will watch the situation closely. We shall give the matter publicity." It has been given publicity for years. If the hon. Gentleman says that the Government's publicity will be different from former publicity, I say that I do not think it can be. I appreciate what he is trying to do, but I do not think it is sufficient.

The Amendment is about right. If it is not drafted properly, I hope that the Minister will have it drafted correctly. The people in the social service departments are harassing their own associations to get something like it put into the Acts which they are having to operate. I feel strongly about this matter. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the Amendment, I hope that my hon. Friends will divide on it, otherwise local authorities will think that we have taken no notice of their complaints and urging to get the problem of harassment put to rest. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will reconsider his decision on the Amendment.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

The Minister has done his best. He has made sweet-sounding noises to try to get us to with draw the Amendment. But if he expects us to accept that if landlords will not play the game in the next 12 months as they have not done for generations——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has spoken already. He must not make a second speech.

Mr. Brown

If the drafting of the Amendment is imperfect, and if the hon. Gentleman is prepared to use his Department's expertise to produce an Amendment——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a second speech. The Minister has sat down.

5.30 a.m.

Mr. Palmer

The Under-Secretary, with perfect sincerity, has given us an assurance that he recognises that there is a problem and that he will do something about it. I accept his sincerity but he has not always been the Minister and he will not be the Minister for ever. I have heard that kind of speech before in the House which says that the Minister recognises that the problem exists and that something will be done. I agree that there is a great deal of public feeling on this not only among consumers of gas and electricity but among local authorities also.

Surely there is sufficient evidence available to the Ministry to enable an Amendment to be drawn up and brought forward in a competent form. I make no apology for not having the exact lawyer's wording in our Amendment. But if the Minister accepts the principle, as it would appear that he has, what is to prevent a suitable Amendment from being brought forward in time for consideration in the House of Lords? That could be done.

If the Under-Secretary will give us the assurance that he will look at the matter again with a view to an Amendment being made in another place we will not press the matter to a Division. Without that assurance we must divide the House because in doing so we are reflecting popular opinion.

Mr. Emery

I have made it clear that, while I understand the problem, it would be wrong to suggest that I understand the need for legislation. That is not what I have said. I cannot accept the Amendment because it is defective, and I cannot accept the principle of this type of Amendment while we are undertaking a publicity campaign In view of the way that it is being co-ordinated and the amount of trouble that is being taken with it, it would be wrong of me to give the sort of assurance the hon. Member is seeking. I realise what he wants but I cannot comply with it.

Questions put, That the Amendment be made: —

Question accordingly negatived.

Forward to