§ 5.34 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)
I beg to move,That the draft Payments for Debt (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 11th May, be approved.To put this short order in its context, I must first remind the House of the size and nature of the overall problem of public debt in Northern Ireland. Since 1975 debts for rent, rates, gas and electricity have grown to £28.2 million from an original figure of £14 million. The rent debt has continued to increase, but debt for electricity and gas has grown even faster. At its current level of almost £16 million, it is now the largest part of the public debt total.
The debt problem has its origins in a variety of circumstances. There was the so-called rents and rates strike of the early 1970s which perhaps helped to produce a certain attitude of mind towards public debt which has persisted; and the security situation, while vastly improved, means that it is not always possible to take physical action, such as disconnection of electricity or gas supplies. It is also a fact that domestic electricity and gas prices are higher in Northern Ireland than they are in Great Britain. It is important to appreciate, however, that this is far from being the full explanation. We have only to recall that public housing rents in Northern Ireland are among the lowest in the United Kingdom and that this has not prevented the rent debt from rising.
Wherever the balance of explanation may lie, the plain fact is that it is not possible to accept a situation in which fuel bills are not being paid and fuel debts are still mounting. I must emphasise that many of the debts are very large indeed in relation to the size of the household and could not have reached this level here in Great Britain as the consumer would have been disconnected long ago. Some households are careless about their consumption, because they are hoping to avoid payment indefinitely. These are the kind of people we have to try to reach. I must emphasise that the security situation makes it difficult in 259 many cases to disconnect those in debt, as would be done here in Great Britain, because disconnection involves possible danger to staff.
Naturally, we must expect the fuel industries themselves to do all they can, within the limits imposed on them, to tackle the problem in the nationally accepted way; but we have had to think very hard about alternative ways of helping the industries. The Government's proposals for dealing with this difficult situation were announced by my right hon. Friend in a statement published on 14th December last.
Before I go on to explain these proposals in detail, I should like to underline the nature of the problem by some examples. One example deals with a street of 34 small houses in Belfast. This first came to my notice when the residents complained that their gas supply had been unduly interrupted while necessary repairs were being carried out to a fault in the mains. A letter with various signatures arrived on my desk. After four years in Northern Ireland, I was satisfied that the gas department was doing everything possible in the circumstances but, because I noticed where the street was, I asked my officials to investigate the debt position. At the last count, of those 34 houses, no fewer than 29 were in debt to the Belfast Corporation to a total of £7,516—an average of £259 each. No fewer than 33 out of the 34 had electricity debts totalling £10,438—an average of £316 per household. The total average fuel debt was £544.
§ Mr. Gerald Fitt (Belfast, West)
The order is of great importance in Northern Ireland, no matter from which side of the political spectrum one views it. Therefore, is my right hon. Friend prepared to name that street? As a parliamentary representative—I am sure this goes for my parliamentary colleagues—I am not certain or aware of the geographical location of that street. I believe that it would be in the interest of all in Northern Ireland, particularly in the city of Belfast, if my right hon. Friend would name that street.
§ Mr. Concannon
My hon. Friend has known me quite a long time. I hope that he is not suggesting there is any impropriety on my part in this matter.
§ Mr. Concannon
These people wrote complaining about not having gas supplies and so on. I do not intend to broadcast the name of that street within the House. It would not be fair, because those people wrote to my Department.
§ Mr. Concannon
Let us not have any chit-chat about it here. If my hon. Friend cares to ask me about it behind the Chair later, I shall fill him in on the general location of the street.
I am explaining the kind of problem that we have run up against in Northern Ireland. The electricity service has made tremendous efforts recently to encourage the defaulters to pay off their debts by installing coin collecting devices in 14 houses. Three householders have been making use of the budget payments scheme. The gas department has also succeeded in getting some householders into its regular giro payments scheme. These householders co-operating with the fuel undertakings have nothing to fear about further Government measures so long as they continue their voluntary efforts, but it is significant that the residents of this street felt no embarrassment about complaining at the interruption in their gas supply when they were in heavy debt to the gas department.
Further examples will show that it is not only the poor who are in debt and who have to pay. An employed debtor from a respectable South Belfast suburb owed £600 for electricity. Within the last few days he was cut off, and on that same day the bill was paid in full and in cash.
A sales manager in the home sales business owed £850 for gas. He was taken to the enforcement of judgments office and ordered to pay current bills as they arose and £24 a month off the arrears. But the agreement was honoured for only a few months, and the man was taken back to the enforcement of judgments office where it was ordered that a slot meter should be installed, that he should pay £50 a month, and where a charge was put on his property to prevent it from being sold or transferred.
A self-employed business man owed over £600. The Payment of Debts Act 261 was used to attach £320 of the superannuated rights from his former public employment, while the enforcement of judgments office ordered him to pay £35 a month. These examples demonstrate that debt is not confined to the poor and that effective action is being taken against those who will not pay.
§ Mr. Tom Litterick (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
The Gas and Electricity Council has advised me that for the last year in England and Wales the outstanding debts were for the Electricity Council £500 million and for the Gas Council £229 million. That is a total of £729 million for England and Wales. Can the Minister tell the House how these combined figures compare with the information he has given us about Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Concannon
They simply do not compare. I do not know from where my hon. Friend got his figures—
§ Mr. Concannon
The figures do not represent debts incurred by people not paying their way. They are not for gas or electricity consumed—
§ Mr. Concannon
I can assure my hon. Friend that they are not. The only debt that is attributed to people not paying their bills to the CEGB in England is £5 million, and that figure basically covers the entire last quarter's payments. In Northern Ireland the debt to the Electricity Board is £12.5 million, and that does not take account of the last two quarters' payments. If we use the multiplier of 40 in relation to Northern Ireland to provide a comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom, that provides us with a figure for Northern Ireland of £500 million compared with £5 million for the rest of the United Kingdom. There is no comparison just as there is no comparison between local authority rents in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of the United Kingdom. If there was any such comparison we could consider this matter with greater sympathy. I can assure my hon. Friend that the figure for non-payment of gas bills for Great Britain is virtually nil. I think that my 262 hon. Friend is referring to non-payment of hire purchase and other factors.
I can assure my hon. Friend that I have checked how much is owing to the electricity boards in Great Britain. I have been given the figure of £5 million. I am told that that figure includes the last quarter's payments which the boards will get anyway. They tell me that the figure of debt incurred by people not paying for electricity used is minimal.
§ Mr. Litterick
Let me simply quote from the letter signed by the chairman of the Electricity Council. It says:The value of aggregate outstanding debt…for electricity (i.e. consumption read in the year and work done)…was £499 millionI think that the Minister has an obligation either to explain clearly why the figures era not comparable or to make a comparison that makes sense.
§ Mr. Concannon
I do not come to a debate such as this without checking the comparisons. Debtors for rent in Northern Ireland number 41,000, and the proportion of debtors to tenants is one in five. For electricity the proportion is one in 10. For gas in the Belfast gas area it is one in four. This is the only explanation I can give by way of comparing Northern Ireland public debt with public debt in Great Britain.
I am talking about unpaid quarterly bills. The figure I gave of f12.5 million for electricity does not include the two last quarters not paid. I can assure my hon. Friend that this is the information I have from the CEGB, from the local councils, from the gas authorities and from other sources.
If I may now come back to the Government's proposals, the key element is that consumers should be given every assistance and encouragement to avoid getting into debt in the first place. The fuel undertakings already operate a variety of schemes to make it easier for consumers to meet their current bills. These include saving stamps, budget payment schemes and prepayment meters and coin operated collecting devices. The undertakings are being encouraged to continue to develop these schemes and to make their existence more widely known to the public.
These measures are also intended to help those who have fallen into arrears 263 with their payments. I am satisfied that the fuel undertakings are fully alive to the difficulties which face many poor families in this situation, but it is essential that arrears owed by consumers should be paid. The starting point in this process is an agreement by the consumer to enter into a voluntary arrangement with his electricity or gas supplier to pay off his debt over a period. Measures such as the coin collecting device and fuel stamps supplement voluntary arrangements by encouraging the saving habit and making it that much easier for the consumer to cope.
Both of these objectives—avoidance of debt and encouragement to catch up with arrears—will be greatly helped by intensified efforts by the fuel undertakings to ensure that individual accounts are not allowed to get out of hand in the first place. The undertakings are being encouraged to allocate more staff to this type of work so that the consumer in debt can expect individual and sympathetic treatment if he makes an attempt to clear his arrears.
Unfortunately, we still have to deal with those consumers who, for whatever reason, will not respond to this sympathetic approach. In this situation our first objective has been to improve the effectiveness of the judical channels through which particular debts may be pursued. The recent proposals for legislation to streamline the operations of the enforcement of judgments office should, if approved, enable judical enforcement of debt to play a fuller role in the recovery of fuel debts for those who are in employment.
For those who are not in employment and cannot be dealt with by the enforcement of judgments office we have the procedure which was first developed to assist in the recovery of rent and rate debts in Northern Ireland under which certain deductions can be made from social security benefits to which individual debtors are entitled—what has become known as the benefit allocation procedure.
As my right hon. Friend emphasised in his statement, the Government have decided, with the greatest reluctance, that the public gas and electricity undertakings should be able to explore this route to debt recovery when—and I stress this—all other procedures have failed. They 264 will be able to apply for the allocation of benefit from 1st October.
My right hon. Friend made it clear that this system will not be used to impose intolerable burdens on the poorer sections of the community. Before a fuel debtor is made subject to benefit allocation, the creditor body must make every effort to recover the debt by any of the conventional methods—including disconnection. There is a rigorous procedure to ensure that this has been done in every case. The amount deducted from benefit is sufficient to cover current consumption and the collection charge of 50p a week plus a contribution towards arrears is calculated according to a formula which sets a limit to the deduction so as to prevent excessive deductions from families in poor circumstances.
Once on benefit allocation any debtor can have his case reviewed by the creditor body with the aim of concluding a voluntary agreement. Failing this, an administrative review by the DHSS can reduce the amount of deductions if there is evidence of hardship, and there is a right of further appeal to a tribunal.
The benefits which may be made subject to allocation are supplementary benefits, unemployment benefit, retirement pension, sickness, invalidity and industrial injury benefits, widow's benefit and, in very exceptional cases, child benefit.
The appeals procedure is designed to minimise undue hardship and appears to have been working reasonably well. Debtors are informed about the procedures at the time they become subject to benefit allocation. We shall also be looking at the way in which the system as a whole—by which I mean such aspects as the formula used for determining deductions for arrears, the procedure for appeals and the scope for using other alternative methods of debt collection—is working when the benefit levels next come up for review in the autumn.
I emphasise these safeguards in view of the understandable anxiety amongst those with a special concern for the problems of the underprivileged that the system should not be used to create additional hardship. It is essential, none the less, that we use every reasonable means open to us to ensure that persons who have been deliberately withholding payments over a long period are pursued.
265 While I believe that this was a necessary background to the order before the House, the order itself is concerned only with the narrow point that debtors who make it necessary for the fuel undertakings to have recourse to the benefit allocation system should contribute to the costs of operating the system.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)
My hon. Friend has listed the benefits, or part of the benefits, that someone could lose if in debt with his electricity or gas bill. At the end of that list, he even mentioned child benefit. May I assume from that that the other benefit to which someone is entitled would be taken away and that if that was still not enough, then the child benefit could be taken away? It seems that we are creating a situation in which people will be in really desperate straits. Will my hon. Friend please explain why this is necessary in Northern Ireland, and only in terms of that Province?
§ Mr. Concannon
I said that it was only in very exceptional circumstances that the child benefit would be affected. I was explaining all the procedures that take place. There is an appeals procedure, and I assure my hon. Friend that it works.
§ Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)
Will my hon. Friend clarify one point? He has mentioned that deductions will be made from social security benefits with a view to recovering the debt. Is this practice carried out at present in the remainder of the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Concannon
The problem in the rest of the United Kingdom is not the same as that which we have in Northern Ireland, as I have illustrated by giving figures. We have a different problem. I assure my hon. Friends that I was dealing with a constituency case of mine at 12 o'clock the other night. My constituent had not only had his gas supply turned off but people had broken into his house and taken his meter out of it. That was because he was three weeks late in paying a bill of £27. That is the difference between what can happen in my constituency and what happens in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Concannon
It can be done. A few of us have only a handful of difficult cases in our constituencies. What happens is that we make arrangements for money to be paid directly to the body concerned.
§ Mr. Concannon
Yes, with permission. That is the other point. When talking about stopping these benefits, we must remember that of these benefits, quite a bit is built in for fuel, rent, electricity and so on. Many of these people have paid nothing for 10 years. They have made one excuse or another. There was the orgina1 rent and rates strike. Then the excuse was internment. But I was there when internment ended. The only effect that that had on rent and rates arrears was to send up the debt further instead of ending it. We have a very difficult problem in Northern Ireland. We must look at the problem not only from the debtor's angle.
§ Mr. Litterick
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that for the seventh or eighth time the Minister referred to rent and rates. So far as I can make out, the order has nothing to do with rent or rates. It refers to electricity charges. The Minister keeps bringing in aid, as it were, rent and rates, as if they have some great significance. I suggest that such remarks are not relevant and are not in order.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpem)
Order. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick) has pursued a point. It is not for the Chair to come to the defence of a Minister, but, as far as I am concerned, there is nothing that the Minister has so far contributed to the debate that is irrelevant.
§ Mr. Concannon
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should have thought that I was being particularly generous and going wide in what I was saying in order to help hon. Members. I have already explained that the order is before the House only to make possible a collection charge. The decision has already been taken to put gas and electricity on to the benefit allocation branch. 267 It was not specifically in the original orders that the collection charge should be possible. Therefore, this order is concerned with the very narrow point of whether we should have a collection charge for that, and not even what the collection charge should be. It is concerned only about the power to make a collection charge when the order comes into operation on 1st October.
Therefore, far from praying other things in aid—the highest debt in Northern Ireland now is for electricity and gas—I thought that I was doing the proper thing by the House by explaining the whole situation, instead of trying to keep to the narrow point whether we should have a collection charge.
I dislike the necessity to extend the benefit allocation system to fuel debtors. But there are many people in similar circumstances to the debtors who make sacrifices and order their priorities so as to be able to pay their bills. This is a very important point. Many times when people complain to me about this matter—and this is an attitude of mind that must have got around in Northern Ireland—they say "If they are not going to pay, we are not going to pay. Why should we pay?" That is what has has taken place. It involves not only the poor people, as I have tried to explain. It has gone right through the Province. It is not only on one side. It is not a problem of the minority in Northern Ireland. It is a problem of the majority there, as well.
We must consider the law-abiding people as well, people who make the sacrifices to pay their bills and make sure that the money goes where it should be going. People talk to me in the Tea Room about my being a Socialist Minister. Nowhere in my Socialist teaching was it said to make one a good Socialist if one did not pay one's rent, rates and gas and electricity bills.
§ Mr. Concannon
I am in charge in Northern Ireland. I have a specific problem there. I assure my hon. Friend—we shall make sure that we get it right this evening—that this is a problem that 268 does not exist in Liverpool, Birmingham or Manchester. I am told that the highest sum of money left outstanding to Liverpool is 9 per cent. That is on record. The figure for Northern Ireland is about 30 per cent. or 35 per cent. That is the difference in the problem. It is a difference of attitude of mind.
In Northern Ireland we do not have the powers that are available in the rest of Great Britain. My constituent was made to pay his bill because his gas supply was cut off. In Northern Ireland people cannot be made to pay because due to the security situation, we do not have the wherewithal to go and turn off gas and electricity supplies.
Where is the sense or reason in a man, once he has his electricity cut off, going down in a couple of hours and paying £500, £600 or £800 out of ready cash in his pocket? There is a different situation in Northern Ireland. We are considering also those who are orderly in their lives and who pay their debts as well as those who do not pay their way.
The community as a whole simply cannot be expected to tolerate a situation in which people can exempt themselves from their obligations. The best service which those who are critical of the benefit allocation system can render the debtor is to encourage him to use the voluntary methods of repayment which ensure that he never comes within the scope of benefit allocation at all. This is necessary legislation, and I commend the draft order to the House.
§ 6.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)
I welcome the order, and I congratulate the Minister on the way in which he presented it. It should be said at the outset that, even if it were possible to prove that there was irresponsibility and antisocial behaviour in Great Britain equivalent to that in Northern Ireland, that would not, in my view, justify his not taking the action which he is now proposing. This legislation is essential.
§ Mr. Litterick
Would the hon. Gentleman then think it justifiable for the State to take the same action in mainland Britain against everyone else?
§ Mr. McCusker
If circumstances pertained in Great Britain as pertain in Northern Ireland, I should welcome 269 action of this sort being taken. As the Minister said, this is a consequence of a developing attitude of mind. Many decent people, people who never had any debts, were sucked into the system. They saw it as a way of avoiding responsibility for a short time, but the debt got beyond them and, month after month and year after year, they have been faced with these debts, rising into thousands of pounds.
I deal with these people. They come to me, begging for a service to be provided. When one questions them, they admit that their rent debt is this and their electricity debt or their gas debt is that, and they say "We cannot get the treatment we deserve". One frequently tries to help such people by introducing a system which will enable them to reduce the debt and convince the various services that they are making an effort and should have the benefits to which they are entitled.
I am glad that the Minister described the other type of person who, in many instances, has incurred this debt. We are not, in the main, talking about the underprivileged section of the community in Northern Ireland. I know widows who put themselves in a very poor state in order to meet their obligations, who perhaps deprive themselves to keep their children fed and clothed while they meet their obligations in respect of gas, electricity and rent.
I know pensioners in similar circumstances. Frequently, they come to one moaning about the position they are in and asking for help, but they are paying their hills and meeting their responsibilities. On the other hand, one can come across a young family with a substantial household income, perhaps with both husband and wife working, and they are running their debt merrily along and making no contribution whatever.
It is important that we judge this matter on the basis that there are some people making an effort and making sacrifices while at the same time, unfortunately, there is a growing number not doing so. I do not want to hit the poor and underprivileged. I do not want to hit one-parent families, pensioners or others of that sort. But, equally, I do not want to discriminate against those people, setting categories for those who do their piece and the others who do not.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas
The hon. Gentleman portrays that imaginary family. Which is the particular benefit that he would stop for them?
§ Mr. McCusker
That would be a matter for the benefit allocation branch. In many instances, they will not be deprived of anything which they should have because the benefit taken from them may well be a benefit which has been given for these very purposes but they have refused to pay.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We cannot have these sedentary interruptions. I ask the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) not to reply to sedentary interjections.
§ Mr. Dempsey
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I am anxious to be clear on the matter being discussed. He says that benefits are deducted in this case and that, but I do not know of statutory benefits such as unemployment benefit, sickness benefit or injury benefit being deducted for any purpose whatever. It is done in relation to social security payments, and no one objects to that, but I am anxious to find out whether in Northern Ireland we are compulsorily deducting sums from statutory unemployment benefit, for example, to pay these bills, and whether, if we are, we should do the same in the rest of mainland Britain.
§ Mr. McCusker
If the hon. Gentleman wants an answer to that, he had better ask the responsible Minister. Perhaps it should be applied in the rest of the United Kingdom. But we are concerned to tackle a genuine and growing problem in Northern Ireland, a problem which is generating irresponsibility, with the result that we are penalising one section of the same community as against another.
We must take whatever action we can doing it as humanely as possible, as the Minister has said. Every effort is being 271 made to help people to meet this debt. Scheme after scheme has been introduced Advisory offices are being opened to encourage people along to talk about their debt and means to enable them voluntarily to meet that debt.
No one will go into the streets of Northern Ireland tomorrow to cut off electricity or gas supplies. There has been a long process of consultation, and that consultation is continuing. But in three years the electricity debt has risen from f4.1 million to £12.5 million, and the gas debt has risen from £1.7 million to £3.5 million. Is the House prepared to say that we should wait another three years, seeing that level of escalation continue, and do nothing about it?
We welcome these efforts. We know from what the Minister said and from our own experience that the system will be used properly, judiciously and humanely. The sooner we help off the hook the majority of responsible people who have unfortunately got themselves into difficulty, the better.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Miss Joan Maynard (Sheffield, Brightside)
I oppose the order.
The Payments for Debt (Emergency Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971 is a vicious Act, brought in to deal with the political rent and rate strike of that time. I say that it is vicious because of the level of family poverty in Northern Ireland, and this order is, in effect, an extension of that Act. The level of unemployment in Northern Ireland is always higher than it is in Great Britain, where it is already too high, and in Northern Ireland it is particularly high among the Catholic community.
The order is about the collection of debts for electricity and gas. The people in Northern Ireland in debt for gas and electricity are in debt because of their poverty. That is the real reason for it.
§ Miss Maynard
That is my information. Very few of them are now withholding payment for political reasons. I put this question to the Minister. Is the debt higher in Northern Ireland than it is in a similar deprived area in Great Britain?
§ Mr. Concannon
In Belfast 35 per cent. of collectable income is outstanding. In Londonderry 34 per cent. of collectable income is outstanding. In Liverpool 9 per cent. of collectable income is outstanding, and in Birmingham 7 per cent. of collectable income is outstanding. These are differences which one can take from every town and city in Great Britain and put alongside the situation in Northern Ireland. It is a Northern Ireland problem.
§ Miss Maynard
I thank the Minister for that answer, but I believe that this order will push families already on the poverty line way below it.
I understand that it is proposed to make deductions from benefits which people receive from the State in order to pay their gas and electricity bills. This is already being done for rent. So it is just transferring money from one public body to another. This is a farce, and it would be laughable if it were not so tragic. People in Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics—working-class people in both communities—oppose the order.
§ Miss Maynard
That is my information. Wages in Northern Ireland are lower than they are in the rest of the United Kingdom. Fuel costs are higher. Working people in Northern Ireland have great difficulty in paying their electricity bills.
§ Mr. McCusker
Is the hon. Lady prepared to advocate that those who do pay their way in Northern Ireland should now not pay their way?
§ Miss Maynard
Obviously I am not advocating that. The same argument is produced over here when we run into this problem. That is my next point— that many people in Great Britain have great difficulty particularly in paying their electricity bills. That has been acknowledged in the subsidy that we give people on supplementary benefit to help them to pay their accounts.
The order will mean that fewer people will be able to keep warm next winter. 273 Instead of bringing in a penal order, we should do something about unemployment, here and in Northern Ireland. In particular, we should deal with the political and economic problems instead of pressing more heavily on people m Northern Ireland who already face great difficulties. That is the way to tackle the matter—not with a penal order.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Mr. William Craig (Belfast, East)
One must try hard to avoid gloating when saying "I told you so". Unhappily, when the Government three years ago relaxed the regulations on benefit allocation, we firmly warned them that there would be an enormous escalation in the public debt. I get no satisfaction from finding that to be the case.
I do not like the order, but I do not see the alternative. It is the duty of Government and Parliament to deal with a difficult situation which can affect not just the economic but the social stability of the community. The Minister rightly said that part of this escalation has happened because ordinary law-abiding folk have said, "If so-and-so can get away with not paying his electricity and gas bills, why should I pay mine?" There has been a spread of anarchy and lawlessness, and I see no other way of coping with it.
This is very much a last resort procedure. I have constituents with this problem and I have been more than impressed by the sympathy and help extended by the electricity and gas boards. They could not be more understanding or generous. I am further gratified that the Minister should say that, before resorting to benefit allocation, they will follow the normal course of debt collection, and that the judicial procedures are being approved. Some of us have not been satisfied with the working of the enforcement of judgments office and we are happy to hear that it will be improved.
There is a principle here that I do not like and we must guard against its extension. This is not the normal way of collecting debts, but this is an exceptional situation which affects the health—moral, legal and in every other way—of the whole community. I know that the officials concerned will show the same consideration in the allocation of benefit 274 as the supplying public utilities have shown in the collection of debt. The problem has now reached a level about which none of us can feel complacent. I support the order.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)
We are now discussing yet another piece of emergency legislation. Throughout the existence of the Northern Ireland State, legislation has been passed which it was alleged would last only six months or a year or two. On the introduction of the Special Powers Act 1922 it was said that it would be on the statute book for a year. It was renewed in 1923, 1924 and 1925. Ultimately, it was on the statute book until 1972, when the Conservative Government took over the running of the Northern Ireland State. That Government then abolished the Act and introduced the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act. The Prevention of Terrorism (Emergency Provisions) Act is another example of emergency legislation.
After a considerable section of the Northern Ireland community withdrew their consent in 1970, and particularly on the introduction of internment, when most of the minority representatives refused to attend the then Northern Ireland House of Commons, a Unionist cabal met in Stormont. They put on the statute book of Northern Ireland the Payments for Debt (Emergency Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland). No one can tell me otherwise. I freely subscribe to the belief that that was the political act of a Unionist ascendancy Parliament directed against the minority and their political representatives.
The payments strike was in retaliation for the introduction of internment and related solely to rent and rates. I myself did not pay rates at that time and I made no apology for not doing so. When the last internee was released from internment, I began to pay my rates. That is what every member of the SDLP advised those in that strike to do. When the last internee was released, there was no longer any political reason to withhold those payments.
Perhaps it is not fair to do as the Minister did and discuss Northern Ireland cities—we do not have too many—by comparison with other cities in the 275 United Kingdom. Putting aside our political travail, differences and divisions, there is also a great social problem in Northern Ireland which does not exist anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
The Minister will agree that earnings in Northern Ireland are only 70 or 75 per cent. of the level in other parts of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Fitt
I notice that my right hon. Friend dissents from what I have said. I repeat—earnings in Northern Ireland are only 70 or 75 per cent. of the level in other regions of the United Kingdom. Unemployment in Northern Ireland is by far the heaviest not only in the United Kingdom but in Western Europe. As I said in a recent debate, in my constituency, 10,000 of my electorate of 61,000 are unemployed. That gives some idea of the problem.
I agree that some people did not pay their public debts because of political reasons, because they disagreed with internment. But there are people in Northern Ireland now, particularly in my constituency, who cannot afford to pay the high rates for electricity and gas that they need for their everyday lives. I know that my right hon. Friend will say that rebates of 5, 10 and recently 40 per cent. have been granted, and I accept that the Government have been generous. A Conservative Government might not perhaps have been so generous. I accept that the Labour Government have tried their best in the present financial climate to ease the problem.
The majority of the debt owed to the gas and electricity undertakings in Northern Ireland is owed not on account of political considerations, not because people say "Others are not paying and therefore we will not pay", but because the people are living below the poverty line. They do not have the financial capability to pay the debts.
I recognise that a minority of people, for political reasons, refuse to pay their legitimate debts, and they are in effect challenging the Government. They are asking how the security forces can cut off the supply of gas or electricity in the block of flats in which they live. They know that it would be impossible for the 276 security forces to do that. To those people I give no support. I do not believe that any political reason exists to justify the non-payment of just electricity and gas accounts. I am concerned about the many thousands of people in Northern Ireland who cannot afford to pay their gas, electricity and rent accounts.
Two years ago when a similar order was debated in the House I wrote to many Ministers asking what were the rent arrears in Hull, Coventry, Birmingham, Liverpool, Swansea and other major cities. I received letters from the Ministries and from the Table Office telling me that I was not allowed to ask these questions because this was a Northern Ireland problem. However, one Minister replied, and the figures he gave to me proved that many people in the cities I have mentioned were in considerable debt to the local authorities.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said yesterday that the electricity or gas in the home of one of his constituents was disconnected because his constituent owed £27. I certainly would not feel happy if such drastic action were taken against one of my constituents whose gas or electricity account for £27 had been outstanding for three weeks. I hope that the Minister will tell us that that is wrong. If he does not, many people in Northern Ireland will feel that they will get very little sympathy from him.
§ Mr. Concannon
I do not think I said that. I was pointing out the difference between what happens with our constituents and what happens in Northern Ireland. There is a way to get people to pay bills which is not afforded to the gas and electricity boards in Northern Ireland. The constituent concerned had his gas supply restored the following morning. I was pointing out that weapons were available to the gas and electricity boards in Great Britain which are not available to the rest of the United Kingdom. I am waiting for my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) to tell me what I am to say to his constituents who are paying their way. Am I to tell them that my hon. Friend is inciting them not to pay their way?
§ Mr. Fitt
I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend was successful in his representations to have the supply restored the next morning. Had it been 277 otherwise, I should have been overcome with emotion. I appreciate the public relations effort that has gone into this.
I am the first to admit that a minority of people in Northern Ireland who support one or other of the political solutions say that they will not pay their rent, rates and gas and electricity bills in the forlorn belief that by taking this action they will be able to bring about political change. I am concerned not with political or constitutional problems but with the poverty and the social deprivation that exists in Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend said that rents in Northern Ireland were lower than they are m the rest of the United Kingdom. They are, but he and his hon. Friends are quickly bringing them up to the level of other parts of the United Kingdom. In doing so, I hope he will take steps to reduce the number of unemployed in Northern Ireland to the level which exists in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I recognise that some means must be found to gather into the net the small number of people who for political or anarchistic reasons refuse to pay their public debts. But most of those people are in default because they just do not know how to make ends meet. They cannot afford to rear their families. We know that supplementary benefit is based on the poverty line. How many people in Northern Ireland receive family income supplement? Those who do are working for a wage which brings in less than they would receive if they were on supplementary benefit. The number of people in Northern Ireland who work for a wage which is less than the amount they would receive in supplement benefit is far higher than it is in any other part of the United Kingdom.
How many of those people are in debt to the electricity and gas undertakings? How many owe rent to the Housing Executive? There is a violent contradiction in terms. There are working people who do not want to become a liability to the social security services yet who are receiving less in wages than they would receive if they applied for social security help. They are being helped by family income supplement, yet they find that they cannot pay their gas or electricity bills or their rent. Now we are told that this order will take this assistance from them.
§ Mr. Concannon
I hope that the lion. Member is not suggesting that family income supplement in Northern Ireland is not paying gas and electricity bills or rents. What will the hon. Member say to those who are on family income supplement and are paying their way? What will he say when those who do not make any attempt to get rid of the debt eventually make it necessary for the others to pay more?
§ Mr. Fitt
It is easy to criticise, particularly for someone representing a constituency as large as mine, with 10,000 unemployed and a lot of poverty. Perhaps I should try to give some answers. I have not got them all and I am certain that the Minister does not have them all either. I do not know what the answer is. Rather than have a system in which a civil servant picks out a certain person, some system ought to be devised which takes into account individual circumstances more readily. I know that my right hon. Friend has said that this will be done. Yesterday afternoon, at my surgery, while my constituents were still present, I rang the electricity authority and talked to those involved. I was able to get the amounts reduced by £1.30 and £2. Had those people not been able to come to me they might have been saddled with extra debt.
§ Mr. McCusker
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what arguments he put forward in the power-sharing Executive in April 1974 when his colleague Mr. Austin Currie, a member of the SDLP, opposed a charge of 50p per week on people who were not paying their rents in Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Fitt
I would have gone home greatly disappointed if I had not been asked that question. I was sure that I would be asked that, if not by hon. Members on the Unionist Bench, then by my right hon. Friend. It has to be remembered that the power-sharing Executive lasted from 1st January 1974 until 25th May 1974. We said that with the ending of internment people should begin to pay their just and legitimate debts. However, the supporters of the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) and his colleagues took illegitimate and illegal action. Illegal strikes took place, with support from hon. Members of this House. There were illegal 279 actions involving the para-military associations and the Executive was brought to an end.
§ Mr. Fitt
What would I do now? If I were faced with the same set of circumstances, I cannot say. I do not give hypothetical answers to hypothetical questions. I am certain that if the Executive had not been brought tumbling to the ground as a result of the illegal activities of the para-military associations, ably supported by Unionist Members, we would have arrived at an equitable political solution. It may be that Northern Ireland Ministers in the power-sharing Executive would have taken a more humane and compassionate view. I do not know.
§ Mr. McCusker
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether, if the power-sharing Executive had continued, he believes that social security payments would have been increased to the extent that people could have afforded things now any more than they could then?
§ Mr. Fitt
I cannot say. I do not know what may or may not have happened. All I can say is that, if the Executive had been allowed to continue, it is my view that there would have been less political turmoil. Certainly, with the continuation of the Executive, we would have been part and parcel of the United Kingdom. There was no question of constitutional change. I believe that the atmosphere would have been changed in the years between 1974 and 1978. There would have been another election had the Executive been allowed to continue.
This order offends against Socialist principles. It calls out for working class opposition. If I claim in this House that those whom I represent are citizens of the United Kingdom, I must say that the order ought to be applicable in every constituency throughout the United Kingdom. I do not want this order to be applicable in every constituency in the United Kingdom. I do not want it to be applicable in the 12 constituencies in Northern Ireland. The order offends every principle I have been brought up to believe in. That is why it is my intention to vote against it tonight.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
I should like to say a word on behalf of the working-class people of Northern Ireland.
I do not believe that the working-class people of Northern Ireland wish to avoid shouldering their responsibilities. I have far more faith and confidence in the working-class people of Norhern Ireland, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. than to believe that they are not prepared to shoulder their bounden responsibilities. Many of my constituents have a hard fight to make ends meet. Many are dedicated people, prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to pay their legitimate debts. Because of some of the extraneous matters that have been referred to today, I fear that we are not getting to the heart of the situation.
What is the heart of the situation in Northern Ireland? Particular attitudes have been struck in Northern Ireland by various sections of the community. I remind the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) that he did not leave the Stormont Parliament because of internment. He left it because he demanded an inquiry into an incident in Londonderry which involved the responsibility of this House and not Stormont. It was a Minister answering at the Dispatch Box in this House who refused that inquiry to the representatives to the minority community. It had nothing to do with Stormont.
My attitude towards internment is well known. It differed from that of many other representatives of the majority population. The deputy leader of the SDLP, Mr. Hume, put out a leaflet in which he told his supporters that they would never have to pay. Those were his own words. The hon. Member for Belfast, West said publicly today that he did not pay his rates. He said that he commenced paying them at a later stage. I am sure that he paid the back rates because he would be obliged to do so. However, it is interesting that by what he has said we have discovered that he was a Minister of the Crown in the Executive of Northern Ireland, yet he refused to pay legitimate rates which he should have paid.
Such incidents have reflected on the Protestant population. I deplore that. There is a loosening of ethical values in 281 Northern Ireland. People feel that they can do what they like and get away with it. I deplore the fact that Protestant people in my constituency say to me "Oh well, the Roman Catholic cornmunity is not paying its rates; we shall not pay ours." I have told them that the evil day will come when they will have to pay. There is common agreement among us all that the Housing Executive is an obnoxious body to many of its tenants. When necessary repairs are not carried out, people in Northern Ireland say "I will withhold my rent". We all know that that is true. I have told such people "You may withhold your rent, but remember the day will come when you will have to pay every penny."
Therefore, it is no answer to make a protest in this manner. The system of saying "I will not pay my legitimate debts" has spread to a population which did not strike the same political attitude. What worries me about this order is that today that population is saying "One section is not paying; why should we pay?".
The Minister said that for security reasons certain things could not be done in certain areas. We all know that. We realise what is happening in certain areas, areas where the Army and the police are not in total control. They go in and out, but they are not in total control. Yet in the other areas, where they are in total control, the people who do not pay get the heavy end of the stick.
There have been people in Ballymena who have not paid their electricity bills. But there was no sympathy for them. They were cut off. In one week so many people came to see me that the mayor and myself had to see the head of the electricity board and make a plea on their behalf because they were being cut off continually. It would be terrible if, because of the security situation, a debtor in one area was more severely dealt with than a debtor in another. That is what the Minister needs to avoid. The Minister faces a very difficult problem.
Nearly every hon. Member for Northern Ireland attends local tribunals. We all appear and plead for people who cannot make ends meet. There are legitimate cases as well as cases about which one has doubts, but at least one goes and does one's bit for those people. I should 282 point out that in the allocation of social security so much is allocated for electricity and so much for gas. Some people are taking that money which is given to them for a specific purpose and using it for other purposes. No one in this House can justify that. That money was paid for electricity and gas.
In the interests of the whole community surely the Government are entitled to say "If you do not pay the money which we give you for gas and electricity, we shall deduct that money so that we can pay for your gas and electricity". These are the facts of the situation. This is an important point which needs to be emphasised. I personally do not think that the Minister wants to carry a crusade against poor people who cannot make ends meet.
I was interested in the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, West about family income supplement. That needs to be looked at. But I have discovered that people who work and get FIS do pay. If they were scroungers, they would not work for the rate of pay given in Northern Ireland. Those people who work for a rate which falls below the poverty line are to be commended because they are prepared to work and draw FIS rather than sit at home. But there are people in Norhern Ireland who will not work, who will draw the benefits, yet withhold payment of gas and electricity bills—the very things for which benefit is given. That is the main point which has to be dealt with.
We all know that Northern Ireland has a cancer of unemployment. Unemployment is a terrible scourge, especially for young school leavers to whom one cannot offer any hope. It is terrible for a young school leaver to discover that there is no prospect of employment. Unemployment is a cancer in the community. In addition, there the rate which is given for jobs in Northern Ireland is less than the rate in Great Britain. The Minister must know that. There are skilled craftsmen in Northern Ireland who are not receiving the same rate of pay which they would receive in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Those are facts. But even with those facts I believe that the whole community in Northern Ireland wants to shoulder its responsibility. Every one of us has a responsibility to say to the community in 283 Northern Ireland "You must shoulder your responsibility and you must pay". If they are not able to pay all to whom they are in debt, then arrangements can be made. I am not sure about the gas undertaking, but I believe that the Minister and the electricity authority have made arrangements whereby a small payment can be made.
I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, West about the question of representations. I have had to make representations about too much being taken off certain allocations. This needs to be looked at. Often people say that they could pay so much a week. I have told them "No, you could not, because if you take on that undertaking you are putting a millstone around your neck and you will have to shoulder it. It is better to pay a small amount and be able to pay it weekly than to take on a larger amount."
These are matters on which I am sure the Minister is prepared to meet us. Unfortunately, this order is necessary. I regret the circumstances, but let us do away with the circumstances and we can then get rid of the order. It does not need to be a long measure. If everyone shoulders his responsibility and starts paying, however little, then the Minister can say "We have no further need for this legislation". That would be the happy solution to this problem.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)
I want to make only one or two brief points, because a good deal of the ground has been covered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) dealt in considerable depth with the level of unemployment and poverty in Northern Ireland. This is one of the major reasons why so many people find it extremely difficult to meet the cost of fuel. Goodness knows, enough people in my own constituency—which is relatively prosperous compared with Northern Ireland—find it extremely difficult to meet their fuel bills.
I am opposed to this order because, in my view, it is discriminatory on two main bases. First, it discriminates in terms of Northern Ireland. Secondly, ipso facto it must discriminate against the under- 284 privileged since it is the under-privileged who receive the benefits listed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.
It was suggested that there were families receiving considerable wages who were refusing to pay their fuel bills. But they would not be receiving any of the benefits except child benefit, possibly, and I shall come to that in a moment. But it is clear that the benefits listed by my right hon. Friend go only to those who are unemployed or incapacitated in some way so that they receive invalidity benefit or to those who are receiving supplementary benefit because they have been unemployed for more than 12 months or for some other closely related reason.
Let us be clear about the position in the rest of the United Kingdom. A person who is receiving supplementary benefit, and only supplementary benefit, can ask—it must be with his agreement—to have so much per week deducted from his supplementary benefit to pay towards an overdue electricity account or for his current consumption. That cannot happen if the person is on unemployment benefit. Indeed, I had a very difficult problem in my own constituency where I had to wait two or three weeks until the person concerned went on supplementary benefit in order for this arrangement to be made. But it is done only as a voluntary arrangement. There is no way in the rest of the United Kingdom that part of a person's unemployment pay or invalidity benefit can be deducted.
If we were to accept this orde, we would be cutting across a basic principle of the benefit system. I hope that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) will comment on this. Unemployment pay is part of the social benefit system to which we all contribute and are guaranteed certain rights. I do not know of any provision in that legislation which says that anyone who does not pay his electricity bill will not get his full unemployment benefit entitlement or invalidity benefit entitlement. I know that it can apply to supplementary benefit. But supplementary benefit is in a quite specific category. I can imagine a situation where we change all the other social legislation since Beveridge or Lloyd George but say to a person "If you owe an electricity or gas bill, you will not get your full unemployment benefit".
285 The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) spoke of the importance of not having different debtors treated differently in different areas. But they are treated differently. My right hon. Friend suggested that in his area the representatives of an authority would come along at midnight and, because a consumer owed £27, cut off his supply of gas. I can assure my right hon. Friend that the South-West Gas Board would not do that. I hope that no other nationalised industry with any kind of social feeling or sensitivity would do that. It seems that my right hon. Friend has a pretty tough gas board in his area.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North also said that those in receipt of supplementary benefit were being paid this money. Let us be clear about it. Included in supplementary benefit is a needs allowance which presumably comprises contributions for all kinds of needs. In certain circumstances, there is also a special payment for heating. I am prepared to accept that there are those who get that special payment for heating. However, I do not follow the logic of the hon. Member's argument that those who get simply the needs allowance ipso facto get something for heating and therefore are reneging in not paying their fuel bills. On that basis, if someone had his electricity and gas cut off, he would have his needs allowance reduced, and I do not think that that has ever been suggested.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Usually at tribunal hearings we are supplied with notices giving the breakdown of the needs grant, with so much for food, and so on. That is what has happened in every case in which I have appeared.
§ Mr. Thomas
I have never seen the needs allowance broken down in that way. But the logic of what the hon. Member is suggesting is that, if anyone had his electricity cut off, he ought to have a lower needs allowance, and I have never heard that suggested.
The other aspect of this order which alarms me is that if it is not to deal with the under-privileged—those who are in receipt of invalidity, unemployment and supplementary benefit—we have this important change of bringing in child benefit. As I understood it, the philosophy behind child benefit was to give mothers 286 an income of their own. Now there is the threat that if the wage earner, the husband, refuses to pay for his gas and electricity, his wife will have deductions made from her child benefit, which is the only sort of income which she is likely to have to look after her children. I find that quite indefensible.
There might be a very good income coming into the household. There might be a couple of children. The husband might be earning £100 a week or even as much as a Member of Parliament but refusing to pay for the household's consumption of electricity or gas. In the benefits listed by my right hon. Friend, the only one through which it would be possible to get at such a family would be the child benefit. But that would be completely against the principle laid down by this House that child benefit is a distinct income for the mother. In such a case I would find it indefensible if the mother lost her child benefit.
In this part of the United Kingdom we have arrangements about deductions from supplementary benefit, and usually we link these with pre-payment meters. I have not heard any mention of pre-payment meters in the Northern Ireland context. It may be that because of the security situation it is impossible to put in prepayment meters. But if someone has a pre-payment meter he gets no fuel if he does not pay.
My right hon. Friend threw out some very rough figures. He referred to 35 per cent. of collectable income. I wish that he would tell us exactly what that means. Some hon. Members have suggested that the position is so difficult in certain areas that I do not know how my right hon. Friend arrives at this figure. In view of all the power which I am told operates among these groups, the way that they behave and how difficult it would be to take any action to deal with the situation, I cannot imagine how the meter readers ever get into premises to read the meters and deduce how much gas or electricity has been used.
I am opposed to this order because it discriminates against part of the United Kingdom and, above all else, because it it discriminates against the underprivileged community in a part of the United Kingdom where there is a much higher level of unemployment and poverty 287 than elsewhere. Given the opportunity, therefore, I shall vote against the order.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. John Carson (Belfast, North)
I wish to congratulate the Minister on bringing this order before the House. I was sad that debates on these matters at one time developed into arguments about whether problems were Roman Catholic or Protestant. Thank goodness we have got away from that idea in some respects. Furthermore, in debates on Northern Ireland there is usually much talk of "the minority" and "the majority". On this occasion the Minister of State has brought forward this order which deals not with minorities or majorities but with debts.
People in Northern Ireland are often accused of being partial, but I am sure that the Minister's Labour colleagues would not accuse the Minister of State of being partial to a certain section of the community in Northern Ireland. I wish to impress on Labour Members that the problem does not only affect the working class. It has been suggested by some Labour Members that members of the working class were suffering the most.
I represent an area that comprises mainly working-class people. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) often speaks of the high unemployment in his constituency. I represent North Belfast where the percentage of unemployment is as high as it is in the area of West Belfast.
§ Mr. Fitt
The hon. Gentleman said that the figure of unemployment in his constituency is as high as it is in West Belfast. The hon. Gentleman should be quite certain of his facts. I reached my conclusion after tabling a series of Questions to the appropriate Ministers. I asked for figures of those who sign on at the relevant social security offices in Falls Road, Shankill Road and Corporation Street. I was given the exact numbers. I am confident that the total number of people who are unemployed in North Belfast is nowhere near the figure of 10,000 which we are experiencing in West Belfast. The hon. Gentleman can use his own methods of obtaining these answers from the Minister.
§ Mr. Carson
The hon. Gentleman has spoken of tabling Questions, but he has 288 not given the figures. I made clear to the House that I was talking in percentage terms. I am prepared to discuss this matter with the hon. Gentleman either in the Chamber or outside. He should know the situation in North Belfast and should sympathise. He is a local councillor for North Belfast, and he knows that many of his constituents are unemployed.
We are in this debate dealing with rents and electricity, gas and rate charges. I was brought up in a large working class family. My father was a farm labourer, and on many occasions my mother and father had to budget and make great sacrifices to pay their bills. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland we have people who are not prepared to budget or to make sacrifices for their children and for the home and comforts of their family. As a man who was brought up in a working-class family and who works among working-class people in his constituency, I can give evidence of a great deal of misuse of family benefits. If time permitted, I could give proof of cases in which family benefits are abused rather than used by many parents in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the Minister of State on his four years of service in Northern Ireland. There is no Minister who is better qualified than the right hon. Gentleman to talk about the problems of Northern Ireland, because he has gone through the mill and he knows what he is talking about. It does not matter to me what side of the fence a street finds itself. The hon. Member for Belfast, West tried to discover whether the street was comprised of Catholics or Protestants. That should not concern this House, and I do not think it concerns the Minister.
§ Mr. Carson
I was appalled to hear the Minister say that there were debts amounting to £7,000 for gas in one street with 34 houses and large debts incurred in electricity charges. In the recovery of debts many schemes have been laid before this House and many opportunities have been given to people in Northern Ireland to pay their debts. Unfortunately, the people of Northern Ireland were given a bad lead by the hon. Member for Belfast, West. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has certain regrets for the 289 step that he and his party took in advising people not to pay their debts. They were told "You will never be asked to pay those debts". I am glad that the hon. Gentleman took the step of paying his own rates. I believe that many of his constituents would have been wise to follow the example set by the hon. Gentleman and to have paid their rent, rates, electricity and gas bills.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has given many opportunities to the people of Northern Ireland to talk to the district managers. Tenants have been given an opportunity to sign a form to pay off their rent arrears. Many people in Northern Ireland did not avail themselves of this opportunity. Scheme after scheme has been laid by Ministers to help those who are in debt and to come to terms with the Housing Executive, as well as with the electricity and gas authorities and the Belfast City Council. However, many people in Northern Ireland have ignored that chance and have involved themselves in a great deal of debt.
We were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) that Austin Currie made a very good start when he became a member of the power-sharing Executive by putting a 50p surcharge on the rents in an effort to collect the money that was held back as part of the rent and rate strike. That did not work. But the hon. Member for Belfast, West seeks to oppose this order brought in by the United Kingdom Government. The Government have already given assistance in the payment of electricity and gas hills and have introduced other schemes to try to help the people of Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman did not say how he voted on these matters. He knows full well that he supported Austin Currie in the imposition of the 50p surcharge in seeking to make poor, working-class people in Northern Ireland pay more in rent.
§ Mr. Fitt
When the hon. Gentleman talks about opposing the Government, he should look into his own back yard and recall the number of occasions when he and his colleagues have opposed this Government and tried to bring about their defeat. That applies particularly to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) who, in collusion with the Conservative Party, particularly its Right wing, has voted time and again to try to 290 bring to an end the tenure of this Government. Whatever the hon. Gentleman may say in this debate on Northern Ireland, it will not bring about the defeat of the Labour Government. Let not the hon. Gentleman—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
Order. The hon. Gentleman has already made one speech.
§ Mr. Carson
The hon. Member for Belfast, West is trying to escape from the agonising problem he has caused. A number of his former colleagues have said that they regret what was done when that surcharge was placed on the working-class people in Northern Ireland.
I wish to make clear that we support the Minister of State on this order in seeking to take every possible step to try to reduce the debt burden in Northern Ireland. We should all be seeking to encourage the people of Northern Ireland to pay their debts. I have in my constituency many hard-working people who make many sacrifices. I am glad to see that the Minister with responsibility for housing is here. He knows that many people in Northern Ireland have made sacrifices to pay their way. Shipyard workers, technical workers at the Belfast City Council, aircraft workers and many others in working-class districts have sacrified much to try to pay their debts.
However, many of the people in Northern Ireland who owe so much to the various Departments abuse their child benefits, have two cars standing outside their homes, have two colour televisions and find time to go to illegal clubs and to bingo halls where they use the child benefits.
§ Mr. Litterick
Can the hon. Gentleman suggest to the House how many recipients of supplementary benefit are doing all those things and have all those things to which he has referred?
§ Mr. Carson
I do not have figures with me, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) has said, many people on supplementary benefit are paying their rents, electricity bills and the debts they owe to various Departments in Northern Ireland. I support the Minister in bringing forward this order and I hope that it will be successful in reducing the vast 291 debts that are owing in Northern Ireland.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Litterick (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
The debate is not or should not be about whether people should pay their debts. It is about giving the Northern Ireland administration the authority to charge people who are in debt to the electricity and gas boards in respect of the enforced collection of arrears of gas and electricity charges. All this hokum about whether people should or should not pay their bills is irrelevant.
One of the remarkable aspects of the debate on this order, as distinct from the debate on the companies order, is that there have been no complaints from the Opposition Benches that there is an inconsistency between the spirit and principle involved in this order and the spirit and principle of the laws applied in the rest of the United Kingdom.
In the debate on the companies order, virtually every speaker on the Opposition Benches said that it was unfortunate that we could not have consistency in company law between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland and that the sooner we could have the same laws applying in Ulster and in mainland Britain, the better. But there has been not a whisper of that in this debate. One cannot help but wonder why, unless one has been listening carefully to what has been a rerun of a familiar Tory attitude to the poor, namely, that the poor are, as the right hon Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) has said more than once, in some way morally degenerate and in need of moral regeneration. Hon. Members opposite have been rehearsing that philosophy over and over again—unwittingly, I think, because they thought that they were talking about something else.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
The hon. Gentleman was not in the House at the time, but three speakers in the last debate pointed out that they did not think that the law in Northern Ireland should be exactly the same as that in the rest of the United Kingdom. They pointed out that in Scotland there are laws that are different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom and that this could hold good in other parts of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Litterick
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. I had to leave the Chamber for a while.
The Minister's argument hinges on a simple statement of belief about the people of Northern Ireland. He made one crystallising, characterising remark when he said of the people of Northern Ireland that their attitude of mind is different—presumably from that of the generality of people in mainland Britain. He was saying that special measures had to be taken by the State to collect debts from the people of Northern Ireland because their attitude of mind is different.
The Minister went on to cite many alleged figures to prove that the attitude of mind of people of Northern Ireland is different from that of the generality of people in mainland Britain. I have Information that relates to the same facts that the Minister was citing. The burden of his factual message to the House was that there is a lot more public debt in Northern Ireland than in mainland Britain and that this proves a different attitude of mind.
Other speakers from this side of the House have indicated that there are objective reasons for the levels of debt in Northern Ireland being higher than those in the rest of Great Britain, such as the lower level of real wages in Northern Ireland, together with the very much higher price of fuel and, of course, the very much higher level of unemployment—in short, the much more general and deeper prevalence of poverty in Northern Ireland.
Although it is valid for my hon. Friends to make these points, and factually they are well based, I should like to bring the Minister back to the point that I made in an intervention. The phrase "collectable debt" is not very clear, to say the least; it is ambiguous. I have done some arithmetic on my information which may help the House in considering the contention by the Minister and the Ulster Unionists that the attitude of mind of the people of Northern Ireland is different and worse.
The chairman of the Electricity Council, Sir Francis Tombs, advised me that last year:The value of aggregate outstanding debt…owed to the electricity supply industry in England and Wales…for electricity (i.e. consumption read in the year) and work done, was £499 million.293 The chairman of British Gas, Sir Dennis Rooke, said in relation to the same year:the aggregate value of debtors less provisions, in respect of gas, fittings and products…was "—for England, Scotland and Wales:£299,700.The grand total for the gas and electricity industries is about £729 million. I confess straightaway that these figures do not include the outstanding electricity debt in Scotland, but in my argument I shall assume that the £729 million relates to the total population of Scotland, England and Wales.
My simple arithmetic is that the combined populations of Scotland, England and Wales are about 35 times the population of Northern Ireland, but the aggregate of the debts owed to the gas and electricity boards in Scotland, England and Wales is 48 times that of the debt that the Minister informed the House was owed in Northern Ireland to the gas and electricity councils.
I grant freely and without hesitation that there is a crudeness about my statistics. However, the size of the outstanding debts owed to the gas and electricity industries by the two populations gives a fairly objective guide—I grant that it is rough but it is objective—to whether there is a significant difference in the per capita debt owed by the two populations. It seems that there is not such a difference in the terms that my right hon. Friend offered the House. The only substantial reason that he offered the House for asserting that there is a different attitude of mind in Northern Ireland does not seem to have any substance.
I suggest that my right hon. Friend asks his civil servants some searching questions. I suggest that he goes to the Department of Energy, as I did some time ago, to put those questions to that Department. In a Parliament that is legislating for the people of Northern Ireland and using a procedure that is essentially undemocratic, it is deplorable and adding insult to injury to tell the people of Northern Ireland that they must have this unfortunate law thrust upon them because they are morally inferior to the rest of the United Kingdom.
In essence, that is the argument that is being used. My right hon. Friend did 294 not emphasise that gas meter readers cannot go into some houses because it is not safe to do so. He emphasised that there is a different and worse attitude of mind in Northern Ireland. His proof was the level of debt and the increase in the level of debt.
I have another piece of news for my right hon. Friend. The aggregate debt on mainland Britain to the gas and electricity boards was £730 million, but that figure related to last year. Presumably the figure that he brought before the House today for Northern Ireland was the up-to-date figure. If my figures were to be updated for the United Kingdom, with another 12 months of continuing high levels of unemployment, continuing inflation and steep increases in fuel costs, it is £100 million to a penny that the £730 million of 1977 is now very much more. It is not that there is a higher per capita level of debt in Northern Ireland; there seems to be a higher per capita level of debt in mainland Britain. The basis on which the justification for the order is mounted is non-existent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) properly refuted my right hon. Friend's suggestion and that of several hon. Members on the Ulster Unionist Bench that this hideous piece of legislation does not affect only the poor. It is said that it affects the whole social spectrum. It seems that we are talking about garage proprietors and small business men, for example, who are welshing on their responsibilities to the gas and electricity boards. They are doing so foolishly, because, as my right hon. Friend said, the people who have the benefits reallocated by the benefits allocation board are the poor. They are by definition poor. It is the benefits allocation board, which is a cynical and hideous piece of bureaucratic newspeak if ever there was one, that will allocate a poor person's supplementary benefit to a landlord, a gas board or an electricity board. A person does not receive supplementary benefit unless he is poor. The definition is a subsistence level, as are most of our benefits.
§ Mr. McCusker
Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question that I asked earlier? Does he think that everyone on supplementary benefit or family income supplement should refuse to pay their way 295 and ask for a rebate for the years that they have been doing so?
§ Mr. Litterick
As I said in my opening sentence, the debate is not about whether people should pay their debts. It is about whether the people of Northern Ireland should be discriminated against specially by the State. That is what we are talking about. The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that.
The benefits allocation board takes away benefits that are given to people to maintain their lives at subsistence level, and only at subsistence level. The exception is unemployment benefit for those who are on the earnings-related scheme. They may be in receipt of incomes that are rather higher than subsistence level. However, that does not apply to the longterm unemployed.
If my right hon. Friend seriously wishes to convince the House that this legislation does not bear most heavily on the poor, he will have to tell the House how many people are having child benefit reduced. That figure would indicate clearly a proportion of the total number who are having benefits of all types reduced. If more than half of all those subject to the activities of the benefits allocation board turned out to be having child benefits reduced, or scrapped, that would indicate a significant number, if not a majority, actually at work, and perhaps of the type mentioned by one or two Ulster Unionists. However, my right hon. Friend offered no such figures, and surely they would be available.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about as ludicrous as having a higher rate of marginal income tax to deal with the situation of those who are on higher levels of income and who do not pay their fuel bills?
§ Mr. Litterick
I wish that I shared my hon. Friend's expertise on tax matters.
It would be helpful to the House if my right hon. Friend told us how many people are having child benefit reduced and how that relates to the total number who are having one benefit or another reduced under the terms of the Payments for Debt (Emergency Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971. It would also be helpful if he told us how many people are having benefits of any sort reduced and how that figure relates to this time last year and the year before that.
§ Mr. Fitt
Earlier this year I tabled a number of Questions to the Northern Ireland Minister who is concerned with the environment. I asked him how many persons in the various categories were receiving unemployment benefit, family income supplement, invalidity benefit and sickness benefit. Those Questions were given Written Answers, which may be found in Hansard of five weeks or six weeks ago.
§ Mr. Litterick
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. However, the House would I be grateful to my right hon. Friend it he offered information so that we might know the trend. It would be helpful to know whether the number who are in receipt of benefit allocation is increasing or decreasing. That would be especially helpful as it relates to my right hon. Friend's argument, which is based on the number of people in receipt of child benefit payments who are having their benefits reduced.
Enough has been said to indicate that there is no rational basis for the original Act, let alone the order that is now before us. I am aware that some Ministers—I do not want to embarrass anybody—are unhappy about this legislation. It is not merely a matter of Ministers wishing that they did not have to see it brought before the House; they are unhappy about the principles involved. That is partly because they know that it violates the basic principles of the welfare system. They know also that it bears heaviest on the poorest in the community, those for whom I know my right hon. Friend has the greatest and most instinctive sympathy.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)
As there is a more important debate to follow this, I shall be brief.
I find it strange that it is only now that we are extending this legislation to the payment of electricity and gas bills. I remind the House that many who are deeply in debt have the effrontery to apply for special needs grants, even though they have not paid and have no intention of paying their bills if they can get away with it.
§ Mr. Litterick
Does the hon. Gentleman not know that special needs grants are wiped out automatically when the benefits allocation board intervenes?
§ Mr. Ross
I am not sure that that is so in Northern Ireland, but I shall check on the position.
Does the Minister understand that most people in Northern Ireland who understand the situation regarding debts are greatly concerned that much of the debt arose because not enough was done to suppress the lawless and deal with those who did not meet their legal obligations in past years?
Is the Minister satisfied that the present system is satisfactory whereby people collect money in social benefits for rent and rates as part of their normal weekly payments? Indeed, is it wise that the money should get into their hands at all? Surely that situation could be avoided if the cash for rent went direct to the body which was entitled to it in the first place. Could that not be done, for instance, by over-printing the voucher or the giros so that, whenever they were passed over the post office counter, that sum was deducted and forwarded to the appropriate body without further ado?
Is it possible to restore the weekly collection of rent by collectors? In that way a closer relationship could be built up between the tenant and the Housing Executive, and it would help to reduce arrears more rapidly than any other action that could possibly be taken. The same would be true of pre-paid meters for gas and electricity in many parts of Northern Ireland.
What effect has non-payment for gas had on private gas undertakings in Northern Ireland? I understand that the order will apply only to council undertakings.
It should be understood that the withholding of payment for services started as a political act. Indeed, many people in Northern Ireland still look upon it as a political act. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) who is not in his place, said that he stopped paying his rates because of internment. When he joined the power-sharing Executive, did he then pay his rates or did he wait until the last of the internees was released several years later? That is a matter of interest to many of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who were interned at that time.
The order is not only an attack upon those who steal or attempt to steal these services dishonestly by not paying for 298 them but protection for honest citizens at all levels of society who pay these bills. I urge the Minister not to be misled by those who lament like banshees over the difficulties of those who refuse to pay their way.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)
You may be relieved to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I do not propose to speak at great length of this subject, particularly in view of the excellent contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick), who made many points which certainly merit answers.
It has been suggested that the order does not differentiate between Protestants and Catholics and, therefore, that it is not related to part of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Certainly the order does not discriminate in that sense. But the poorer section of the community in Northern Ireland is made up of a majority of the Catholic population. Historically, Catholics have been discriminated against to a large degree by Governments at Stormont and by others associated with decision-making in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Thorne
Statistics show that applications for employment 30, 20 or even 10 years ago were heavily weighted in favour of those who could show membership of the Orange Lodge, Freemasonry or other organisations in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Thorne
The right hon. Gentleman may say "Rubbish", but he has a vested interest. I have to go on the basis not of statements but of the experience of people in Northern Ireland. My experience of the Ulster Unionists makes me aware that they are Conservatives with a capital "C". The issues and policies that they preach in Northern Ireland in class terms are no different from those preached by those who call themselves members of the Conservative Party. Their practices in a variety of ways cannot be identified as being in any way different from those of the Conservative Party.
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who makes contributions to which many of us listen with 299 great interest, may have found his passage from the Conservative Party to the ranks of the Ulster Unionists easier because of the small divisions in terms of ideology and class interest which still exist. It was such class interest, pursued by the Ulster Unionists, which enabled them to support the Conservative Party recently in taking £500 million out of the Budget for the benefit of those earning over £10,000 a year.
It is in sharp contrast to that kind of act that we have to consider the approach of the Ulster Unionists to the order. I do not know how many Press Gallery writers will be able to get this over in the Northern Ireland Press tomorrow, but it is clear where Ulster Unionists stand in relation to the protection of the economic interests of working people in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Thorne
We should contrast their support for tax relief for the middle and upper classes in Northern Ireland with their attitude to what I accept is a squalid order now being introduced by the Government.
§ Mr. Thorne
The very fact that the Government are introducing the order does not make me a party to it. If I consider it appropriate, and should there be a Division, I shall make clear my attitude to the order by voting against it. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman cannot brand it as my order.
We are concerned with people on fixed low incomes, people who, as has been indicated, constitute the much poorer section of the Northern Ireland community. It is because they are poor and because of certain other factors which were described by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard), that the arrears arise. They stem from the poverty that exists. For the Government now to decide that it is appropriate to introduce an order giving powers to deduct from child benefit an amount sufficient to repay the debts is an extremely squalid measure, even for the Northern Ireland Office, which has been capable of several other such measures over recent years.
300 In most families in Northern Ireland the father tends to look after the finances, to determine how the income will be spent. Yet the child benefit is paid to the mother. All too often, as is the case on this side of the water, she will to some degree be the victim of the decisions taken by the father about how the funds will he used. We are supposed to be increasingly aware of the need to prevent discrimination based upon sex. In my view child benefit should under no pretext be subject to Government powers of deduction to meet debts, from whatever source.
For years we have been developing a Welfare State based upon many of the ideas of Beveridge and others during the latter part of the last war. At no time was it ever suggested—I should have thought on either side of the House—that it would be relevant at some future date to introduce a measure that permitted in certain circumstances the deduction from those benefits of moneys to be paid to public corporations.
I accept that deductions are already made in Britain from supplementary benefit to meet electricity bill arrears. We see tonight, however, a new dimension, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak has indicated. We propose now deliberately to discriminate against the Northern Ireland poor by instituting this order. On the basis of the comprehensive statements by my hon. Friend and others, I believe that we should not let the order pass without a number of us seeking to indicate that it is unacceptable.
§ 7.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
It was clear from the Minister of State's opening speech that the problem of debt to the gas and electricity undertakings in Northern Ireland is of enormous and growing proportions. If we have one criticism of the Government it is that this order was not introduced earlier. It nearly was introduced earlier. It is entitled "draft Payments for Debt (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978", but the explanatory document was issued in December 1977. With his customary lucidity the Minister of State has made out an overwhelming case for introducing the order.
The cost of electricity in Great Britain has risen rapidly, and the poorest of our 301 citizens find it extremely difficult to meet the charge for heating house and water by electricity. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that the problems facing people in Northern Ireland, where the cost of electricity and gas is even higher, are even more serious.
That, however, is not the point at issue. The point is that there is a very large and growing debt to the gas and electricity authorities. Some of that debt is incurred by the poorest families in Northern Ireland, but a significant proportion of it is not. Many of the poorest families in Northern Ireland have paid and are paying their gas and electricity bills promptly, as the Minister of State has confirmed. If the Government fail to take the only practical steps open to them in the humane way described by the Minister of State, they will be guilty of grave dereliction of duty. They will penalise the poorest people in Northern Ireland who have been paying faithfully and regularly.
§ Mr. Litterick
No one would take issue with the hon. Gentleman on the statement he made in its own terms. Does he not, however, agree that he is not providing justification for introducing the same provisions in mainland Britain, unless he or the Minister can prove that there is a qualitative difference about the debtors in Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Gow
I shall be coming to that matter in a moment.
Failure by the Government to take the sort of action envisaged in this order would be monstrously unfair to the majority of people in Northern Ireland who pay their gas and electricity bills promptly, and, above all, to the poorest citizens of Northern Ireland who are paying and have paid faithfully.
Once debt to public authorities escalates at the rate at which it is eclalating in Northern Ireland, other serious consequences flow for the social life of the community. It is a spreading disease. The Minister of State explained the extent to which those in Northern Ireland who previously paid their bills now say "If so many other people are not paying, why should I?" The disease is highly infectious, and unless steps are taken now there is no doubt that it will become much 302 worse and possibly eventually even incurable.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick) challenged me to say how it was justified to make the order for Northern Ireland while not making a similar order for Great Britain. We on the Opposition side were convinced by the Minister of State's arguments. They showed that the debt problem in Northern Ireland is immensely more serious, particularly in the case of gas and electricity, than anywhere in Great Britain.
However, there is another aspect to which the Minister of State drew attention. In Great Britain it is possible, as we all know—and it actually happens—for supplies of gas and electricity to be cut off for those who are in default over a period of time—quite a short period in the case we heard from the Minister of State. But, for reasons that we all understand, it is not possible in some parts of Northern Ireland, notably Belfast and Londonderry, for an inspector from the electricity or gas departments to go and cut off the supply of electricity or gas.
So there are two elements. It is physically not possible in Northern Ireland in many places to carry out the same sanction and remedy that is used in Great Britain, and the scale of the problem is very much greater in Northern Ireland.
Therefore, we believe that the order is justified. We believe that the assurances that the Minister of State has given about the humane way in which it is proposed to administer the order are entirely reasonable. I do not wish to end on a critical note. However, we believe that there would have been a very strong case indeed for introducing the order earlier than the Government have decided to introduce it.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Concannon
Hon. Members have shown a very great interest in this measure. The Government decided to introduce it with great regret. I hope that hon. Members will understand that I get very little joy out of putting to the House an order such as this, or the necessity for it. We had to do it with regret, but with determination that the problem of fuel debts should be tackled directly.
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friends. However, they must understand 303 that this debt is climbing rapidly. Whenever Northern Ireland Question Time comes around, there is a Question on this subject, and the debt is rising. It is all right to criticise, which is the thing to do, but I did not hear one hon. Member offer me any assistance on how I can stop this spiral of fuel debt or even on how to start collecting the fuel debt in Northern Ireland.
On the strategy of public debt, the order authorises the imposition of a collection charge on fuel debts subject to the Payments for Debt (Emergency Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland). That is all that the order does. It is only a very narrow order. However, before even talking about a very tight order such as this, I took it upon myself at least to bring out into the open what is involved, I hope that I have done that.
I know that much of this old debt problem goes back to the rent and rates strike and the ending of internment. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) said in Northern Ireland that people should then pick up their debts and pay them as internment had ended. I know that my hon. Friend paid his debts. I only wish that everyone else had done so. I should not be here today if they had. Unfortunately, however, even those who started to pay, as my hon. Friend did, certainly did not start to pay off their arrears. What they have done is just to start picking up the tab from when they recommenced paying their debts.
Again, this did not answer the problem for me. My hon. Friend knows that this problem exists from people who live on the same street. There are people who are still wilfully withholding these debts. There are people to whom benefit application will apply. The honest and well-disposed people will make voluntary arrangements. I was also in charge of the Department when we were having the same problem with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The very mentioning of the order brought many people forward to make voluntary arrangements. I hope that this is what will happen again.
I do not wish people to be put on benefit allocation any more than anyone else. But Ministers have a duty to collect 304 this debt if we possibly can and, of course, to see to the welfare of those who are paying their debts and making voluntary arrangements for so doing. The only problem that I see in Northern Ireland in this regard is that the vast majority of debtors are making no effort to pay any money whatsoever.
It is a fact that in the allocation of benefits a certain sum within the benefit is for fuel, rates and so on. None of that money has been paid over in certain circumstances. I must impress upon my hon. Frend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick) that I have a terrible job convincing people about this matter. I meet three or four deputations a day when I am in Northern Ireland. The feeling is "You are not going to do anything about it, and you sit there and let it happen." This is really what has happened. If we had been of the frame of mind suggested by some of my hon. Friends, the order would have been laid some considerable time ago.
We have looked at every other alternative. What we should be accused of tonight is of allowing the debt to grow to the size it has. It is only because we have tried every avenue, opening up offices and offering every means of helping people to pay their debts by voluntary arrangements, saying "All right, if you start paying now, if you offer a little, that will be enough," that this order has not been introduced previously. We have the rent rebate scheme. I was in Northern Ireland when we introduced that scheme. Many of these people need not have been paying rent at all if they had asked to be included in that scheme. All these matters must be considered.
In Northern Ireland we have a winter discount scheme, but it is not just for electricity. We were fortunate enough to get it for gas, as well, and not at 25 per cent. but at 40 per cent. There were also the sums of £5 paid over the counter, and many of those sums of £5 were paid over the counter to enable people to pay their electricity and gas bills, but the money has never got back to us.
This attitude of mind has grown up in Northern Ireland. I was chided by my hon. Friend the Member for Seliy Oak. I am faced with this attitude continuously. There is a considerable and growing debt. If it was going down, one could look at 305 it from an entirely different viewpoint, but it is going up and up every week. More and more people are saying or implying "If you are not going to do anything at all, why should we pay?"
One or two of my hon. Friends have said that the benefit allocation branch discriminates against Northern Ireland. My only point is that this is a problem of Northern Ireland. Whatever arguments take place between hon. Members representing various constituencies in Northern Ireland about common legislation, this is one of those occasions on which this is a Northern Ireland problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak and I will have terrible arguments about this, but I have assurances from the Department of Energy that my figures are correct. There is no possibility of debt in the rest of Great Britain—I am talking now about payment of bills—being anywhere near the examples that I have put forward this evening. I do not know whether my hon. Friend wants to write back to the chairman and get details of whether this is really money owed by people not paying their current accounts to the electricity board or gas board. I assure him that the Department of Energy has assured me that there is no comparison whatsoever between the debt problem in the rest of the United Kingdom and that in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Litterick
If the Minister of State does not mind, I shall send him copies of the letters that I received from the chairmen of the two British boards. Perhaps he will wish to follow them up for himself. However, I take another point. Within his own terms, the Minister of State has quite rightly said that this is a Northern Ireland problem. However, I should like to point out that within Northern Ireland there is a quite obvious discrimination involved in this kind of legislation. It discriminates against those who are not in work. I should like the Minister to devote some part of his speech to telling us what the Northern Ireland administration does to people who are in work and who do not pay their electricity bills or their rent, as clearly the only benefit that the Minister can possibly get at is child benefit or perhaps family income supplement.
§ Mr. Concannon
We can get at those in work a little more easily than we can 306 get at those not in work. We can use enforcement of judgment orders for people in work who have a wage or salary. We cannot use enforcement of judgment orders for those out of work, on supplementary benefit and so on. Again, for those in work we can use attachment of earnings or similar means. Therefore, those in work are more get-at-able.
I should add, however, that we have to go to some quite harsh extremes to get money even out of those in work, even some in the professions. I know that one or two of my hon. Friends have said that people are withholding money for political reasons, but we must chase them up and chase up this debt.
I can give my hon. Friends a figure which may ease their minds a little. In February 1977 there were over 5,500 benefit allocations, and by May this year the figure was down to 2,089. I said in my opening speech that child benefit was used only on very rare occasions Out of that figure of just over 2,000, in only 10 cases is child benefit deducted. If someone is in receipt of child benefit, she is normally in receipt of other benefits, and these are the benefits which are subject to allocation. If a woman is receiving child benefit and her husband is in employment, we do not have to touch the child benefit because there are other ways by which we can get the debt back.
§ Mr. Concannon
That is the figure of just over 2,000, but I must stress that this new allocation in respect of gas and electricity will not apply until 1st October. However, I should add that one can make only one allocation at a time, and if these people are in rent arrears, gas arrears and electricity arrears, one can make only one allocation. If they are in rent arrears now, one will have to wait until the rent arrears are collected before one can go on to gas or electricity.
Obviously, we do not allocate any benefits in Great Britain because in Great Britain there are no consumers owing 307 arrears for three or more consecutive quarters, and it is only the hard core of debtors who will be made subject to benefit allocation in Northern Ireland.
In the first instance, benefit allocation involves ensuring that fuel undertakings take all reasonable steps to assist consumers to avoid debt. I assure my hon. Friends that we have gone into this matter deeply and at length. The system involves the use of devices such as pre-payment meters, savings stamps, budget payment schemes and the coin-operated collection device to which I referred in my opening speech.
A consumer already in arrears will be encouraged and assisted to clear his debt by voluntary arrangement. Benefit allocation and other procedures under the Act will be available to the undertakings as a last resort. This is a last resort which we are using, and I assure my hon. Friends that if it had not been a last resort we should probably have come before the House months ago in an effort to do something about it. But we have literally gone into the last detail before doing so, and we have said to the undertakings that they must use every other means open to them before deciding to adopt this system.
Before a consumer becomes liable to benefit allocation, he will be given every opportunity to make a voluntary arrangement. This is what consumers in debt should do. It is to their own benefit to make a voluntary arrangement. Only the unwilling will become subject to benefit allocation and the collection charge.
Benefit allocation will be available to the fuel undertakings from 1st October, and I urge those in debt to make a voluntary arrangement with their supplier before that date and avoid a compulsory method of payment.
The size of the fuel debt is some £16 million, and it has been from the continued growth of this figure that justification for the extension of benefit allocation has arisen. This is a scale of fuel debt, as I have said, which is unknown in Great Britain. I have noted the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak. I shall put down on paper exactly the facts as we have them and put the matter to him in writing.
308 The Government recognise that it will be difficult for many poor families to make their repayment without experiencing some hardship. However, the Government have a duty to all fuel consumers in Northern Ireland who are responsibly paying their way, and these include many low-income households. This is one of the problems with which I have had to wrestle. Not only are there people who have not been paying their debts but there are others, perhaps next-door neighbours in the same circumstances, who have paid their debts. I have to answer these people as well and I have to look after their affairs. I must ensure that those who wish to avoid meeting their obligations do not succeed in doing so. If there are those in the same circumstances who are discharging their obligations, we must, as a Government, make sure that one section of the community does not take advantage of another.
We shall always be willing to consider possible ways of easing the burden of repayment, but only in the context of the need for arrears to be cleared within a reasonable time.
I have already referred to the appeals procedure, and I know that there are hon. Members on the Opposition Benches who put that appeals procedure to use. I believe that it works. One cannot win them all, but, from the figures I have, it is clear that a good number of them can be won.
§ Mr. Concannon
In Northern Ireland, for electricity, there are 43,000 debtors, which is one in 10 of electricity consumers.
§ Mr. Concannon
As my hon. Friend knows, gas is a Belfast problem, but there are 30,000 debtors to the Belfast Gas Corporation, and that is one in four. They will not necessarily all go into benefit allocation. I can only remind my hon. Friend of the experience which I had when the Northern Ireland Housing 309 Executive had the same problem. Once people heard that the legislation was on the statute book or was to become law, a lot came forward and made voluntary arrangements. Also, a lot of them came forward and paid cash. I am expecting much the same to happen now. But there will be those about who, I think, we are all very much bothered.
I think that my hon. Friend recognises that the system now is very much humanised and personalised. We do not want to subject people to undue hardship. As I say, there are means to appeal, and the appeals work. The figures are quite convincing, and people are coming forward on appeal. But once they get to the appeals stage and come forward, the
§ vast majority then make a voluntary arrangement as well.
§ I am sure that my hon. Friends will understand that we regret having to introduce such legislation as this. Possibly it is one of the sad consequences of the situation in Northern Ireland, but the continued growth of the fuel debts, and the statistics and individual case histories to which I have referred, convince me that the order is necessary. With regret, I may say, I commend it to the House.
§ Question put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 166, Noes 23.311
|Division No. 233]||AYES||[8.10 p.m.|
|Alison, Michael||Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.||Moonman, Eric|
|Anderson, Donald||Forrester, John||Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)||Morris, Rt Hon Charles R.|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Freud, Clement||Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King|
|Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)||George, Bruce||Neave, Airey|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)||Nelson, Anthony|
|Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)||Ginsburg, David||Newton, Tony|
|Bates, Alf||Golding, John||Oakes, Gordon|
|Beith, A. J.||Gourlay, Harry||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)||Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)||Paisley, Rev Ian|
|Berry, Hon Anthony||Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)||Palmer, Arthur|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Graham, Ted||Pardoe, John|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Grant, George (Morpeth)||Parker, John|
|Blenkinsop, Arthur||Gray, Hamish||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Boardman, H.||Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Grocott, Bruce||Price, William (Rugby)|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Radice, Giles|
|Bradford, Rev Robert||Harper, Joseph||Rathbone, Tim|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Haselhurst, Alan||Robertson,George (Hamilton)|
|Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)||Hooley, Frank||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Buchanan, Richard||Hooson, Emlyn||Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton)|
|Campbell, Ian||Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)||Rooker, J. W.|
|Cant, R. B.||Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)||Ross, William (Londonderry)|
|Carson, John||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Carter, Ray||Hunter, Adam||Sever, John|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Janner, Greville||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Cartwright, John||Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)||Sims, Roger|
|Clemitson, Ivor||Jones, Alec (Rhondda)||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Jones, Barry (East Flint)||Smith, Rt. Hon. John (N Lanarkshire)|
|Coleman, Donald||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Concannon, Rt Hon John||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Stanley, John|
|Conlan, Bernard||Kilfedder, James||Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)|
|Corbett, Robin||Lamborn, Harry||Stoddart, David|
|Cowans, Harry||Lester, Jim (Beeston)||Tinn, James|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)||Torney, Tom|
|Craig, Rt Hon W (Belfast E)||Luard, Evan||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.|
|Crawshaw, Richard||Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)|
|Crouch, David||McCartney, Hugh||Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)|
|Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)||McCusker, H.||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Cryer, Bob||McDonald, Dr Oonagh||Ward, Michael|
|Cunningham, Dr J.(Whiteh)||McElhone, Frank||Watkins, David|
|Davies, Ifor (Gower)||MacFarquhar, Roderick||Weitzman, David|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)||MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor||White, Frank R. (Bury)|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Mackintosh, John P.||White, James (Pollok)|
|Dewar, Donald||McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Dormand, J. D.||Magee, Bryan||Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Marks, Kenneth||Wilson, William (Coventry SE)|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Dunlop, John||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Woodall, Alec|
|Dunn, James A.||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Woof, Robert|
|Dunnett, Jack||Mather, Carol||Wrigglesworth, Alan|
|Eadle, Alex||Mellish, Rt Hon Robert|
|English, Michael||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)||Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)||Mr. Peter Snape and|
|Evans, John (Newton)||Molloy, William||Mr. James Hamilton.|
|Ewing, Harry (Stirling)||Molyneaux, James|
|Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)||Lamond, James||Richardson, Miss Jo|
|Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)||Rodgers, George (Chorley)|
|Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)||Loyden, Eddie||Skinner, Dennis|
|Canavan, Dennis||Madden, Max||Thorne, Stan (Preston South)|
|Fitt, Gerard (Belfast W)||Maynard, Miss Joan||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Flannery, Martin||Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)|
|Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Newens, Stanley||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Gould, Bryan||Noble, Mike||Mr. Tom Litterick and|
|Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)||Parry, Robert||Mr. Ron Thomas.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That the draft Payments for Debt (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 11th May, be approved.