HC Deb 09 July 1975 vol 895 cc508-10
4. Mr. Dempsey

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what studies his Department has made of the consequences for needy consumers of the practice of the electricity authority in demanding advance payments, because of belated payment of accounts, before reconnecting the electricity supply; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Millan

Following a study in 1972–73 by my Department together with the gas and electricity boards, the Association of Directors of Social Work and the Department of Health and Social Security, a memorandum of guidance on dealing with fuel debts was circulated to their respective local officials with the object of increasing co-operation between them in dealing with bad debt cases. The electricity boards have a statutory right to demand security deposits.

Mr. Dempsey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have nothing but appreciation for the electricity board officials in my constituency in their effort to recover arrears from defaulting consumers? However, is it necessary to ask, for example, for the payment of a debt and a quarter's advance payment, in the region of £40, from persons who are sick or are unemployed? That is not a very suitable solution. Has my right hon. Friend considered the installation of burglar-proof meters, so that we know that consumers will pay before they have electricity supplies?

Mr. Millan

In appropriate cases prepayment meters can be installed. There is a distinction to be drawn here between the had payer, who is a bad payer simply as that, and people who have fallen into arrears for perfectly legitimate reasons of illness and so on. In the latter cases, of course, an approach to the social work department can normally provide some kind of solution to this problem. That is what the earlier consultations I have mentioned were meant to provide. However, I am very willing, with new local authorities having come into operation, to remind local authorities now, in view of my hon. Friend's Question, of the necessity to get the kind of local co-operation which will deal with legitimate cases of people falling into arrear through no real fault of their own.

Mr. David Steel

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the last part of his reply will be warmly welcomed? Many of us feel that in the light of local government reorganisation there is a need to update the advice. The new social work authority in the Border area has already expressed concern to me about the practice of the electricity board in regard to demanding large deposits and in declining part payment of debts, which seems a sensible thing to accept and something that it ought to be doing.

Mr. Millan

I shall certainly look into the latter point. However, the real answer is to have proper local consultation and co-operation. It will not solve all the problems but it will help considerably. Bad debts are a serious problem for the electricity boards. In so far as they arise through people just not being willing to face responsibilities even when they can, they fall on other consumers.

Mr. Henderson

Does the Minister accept that there are many people on low incomes, particularly old people, who find it extremely difficult to run their electricity supplies with account meters? Why are the electricity boards set so strongly against some form of prepayment meters, perhaps with the use of tokens instead of coins?

Mr. Millan

As I say, in appropriate cases prepayment meters can be installed, but they have security problems. The South of Scotland Electricity Board is hoping soon to introduce two-monthly rather than quarterly bills, and perhaps monthly billing. There are various schemes, such as buying stamps and so on, which help consumers to save up, as it were, and not be faced with a bill all at once. A lot of work has been done on this problem, but it is a serious one for people on low incomes at a time of inflation.

Mr. Rifkind

While agreeing with the Minister's distinction between bad debtors and those who fall into arrear through no fault of their own and cannot pay their bills, may I ask whether he accepts that there is no justification for the boards demanding advance payments from the latter category, irrespective of whether the person concerned has thought of approaching or been able to approach his social work department?

Mr. Millan

If there are cases in which an electricity board has been unreasonable in demanding this deposit—which the boards are entitled to demand—I would hope to hear about them. I think that in most cases the social work department can help to clear up the matter.