HC Deb 03 August 1976 vol 916 cc1586-90

Lords Amendment: No. 31, after Clause 26, in page 32, line 20, at end insert new Clause E:

"E.—(1) If any premises in the area of a district council, a London borough council or the Common Council are occupied as a dwelling and the supply of water, gas, or electricity to the premises—

  1. (a) is cut off in consequence of the failure of the owner or former owner of the premises to pay a sum payable by him in connection with the supply; or
  2. (b) is in the opinion of the council likely to be cut off in consequence of a such a failure,
the council may, at the request in writing of the occupier of the premises, make such arrangements as it thinks fit with the undertakers who provided the supply for it to be restored to the premises or, as the case may be, for it to be continued to the premises.

(2) Where under arrangements made in pursuance of the preceding subsection in respect of any premises a council makes a payment in respect of a sum which, at the time when the relevant supply to the premises was, or became likely to be, cut off as mentioned in that subsection, a person was liable to pay in connection with the supply to the undertakers who provided it, the council shall be entitled to demand and recover from that person a sum equal to the payment; and where under such arrangements a council makes a payment in respect of the restoration of a supply to any premises or a payment for a supply to any premises, the council shall be entitled to demand and recover from the owner of the premises a sum equal to the payment reduced by any amount received by the council in pursuance of subsection (4) of this section in respect of the payment.

(3) A council by which a sum is recoverable from a person in pursuance of the preceding subsection shall also be entitled to recover from him interest on the sum, from the date of service of the demand for the sum, at the rate fixed by section 171(2) of the Local Government Act 1972; and such a demand must—

  1. (a) be served on the recipient in writing; and
  2. (b) give particulars of the payment to which the sum demanded relates; and
  3. (c) in the case of a demand for a sum on which interest is payable by virtue of this subsection, state the rate of the interest and that interest is payable from the date aforesaid.

(4) Where by virtue of the preceding provisions of this section a council is entitled to recover from the owner of any premises a sum on account of a payment in respect of the restoration or continuation of a supply to the premises or a payment for a supply to the premises or interest on such a sum and—

  1. (a) the owner of the premises is, under the terms on which a person occupies the premises, required to pay for a supply of the kind to which that sum relates; and
  2. (b) the council has served a notice on that person requiring him to pay to the council, instead of to the owner of the premises, the rent for the premises which apart from this subsection is or becomes payable by him to the owner of the premises,
it shall be the duty of that person to comply with the notice except so far as the council directs otherwise and the council may accordingly recover from him from time to time sums equal to the rent in question.

(5) In this section "the owner", in relation to any premises, means a person who apart from the preceding subsection is entitled on his own behalf or as a trustee or agent for another person to rent for the premises from the occupier of the premises and "former owner", in relation to any premises, means a person who was so entitled to rent for the premises from the occupier or former occupier of the premises."

Mr. Guy Barnett

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment was introduced in another place as a Government amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) introduced a clause of similar effect in Committee here and the Government undertook to bring in their own clause. The amendment discharges that undertaking. It is to allow a local authority to help an occupier whose gas, water or electricity supply has been cut off or is likely to be cut off because his landlord is responsible for paying the bill and has not done so. The clause allows an authority to make the necessary payment to the undertakers to have the supply restored or maintained and to recover its expenses from the landlord, with interest.

A typical case where a local authority could use this power is as follows. A tenant pays a rent which is inclusive of electricity. He is up to date with his rent payments but the landlord for some reason has not paid the electricity bill. After the usual warnings, the electricity board will cut off the supply and the tenant can suffer hardship through no fault of his own. Of course he could probably sue his landlord for breach of contract, but that would take time and meanwhile he is in darkness.

Mr. Graham Page

I agree with the spirit of the clause, but in many ways it is defective. I do not think that it is clear whether the amount owing by the owner must be in respect of premises for which the occupier has asked that the local authority should pay. Suppose that the owner is owing the electricity or gas bill on some other property. Can the local authority pay that amount in order to save the occupier's supply from being cut off? There should be a definition here.

Although "owner" is defined in the clause, there is no definition of "occupier". The process in the clause can be set in motion at the request in writing of the occupier of premises. Suppose that the occupier is a squatter—there is no requirement on the local authority to determine whether the request is from a lawful occupier. The account could be in dispute between the owner of the premises and the supplier. The owner might be justifiably withholding payment of the account but, without notice to him; the authority can pay the account and divert the rent.

The clause should include provision for notice to be given to the owner that the local authority intends to pay the account—so that he may protest that, for instance, the request came from someone who was not a lawful occupier—and for notice to be given that the tenant was being told to divert rent to the local authority. There might be a dispute about the rent between the owner and the tenant.

The clause has great merits in meeting hard cases, but hard cases can make bad law unless we are careful. Insufficient care has been taken in the drafting of the clause to ensure that it applies only to the hard cases to which it is intended to apply. I should like to have seen a definition of "occupier", so that a squatter could not put the process in motion, and a requirement for local authorities to notify owners of action which they propose to take.

Mr. Guy Barnett

I am glad that the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) at least accepts the spirit of the clause. Before he sees too many dangers in it, I should point out that it gives local authorities the power to assist occupiers—who could, I imagine, include squatters in certain circumstances—but that I do not read it as meaning that squatters could set the process in motion. A typical case in which a local authority might use its power could involve an elderly person suffering from hypothermia during the winter. It is wrong to imagine that authorities would use their powers in all the circumstances described by the right hon. Member.

Mr. Graham Page

A local authority does not even have to ask an owner whether the person who made the request is a lawful occupier of the premises. An authority could act immediately on the request of someone who claimed to be the occupier of premises.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Barnett

The key word used by the right hon. Member was "could". I am sure he shares my belief that the relevant department of a local authority would act with sense and discretion in these circumstances. One cannot legis- late concerning local authorities down to the last jot and tittle. All I am suggesting is that the local authority should be in a position to use the powers provided by the clause and that the matters to which the right hon. Gentleman is referring can only be left to the local authority's discretion to make suitable arrangements with the owner and the supplier concerning a distressed individual or family.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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