HC Deb 08 April 1981 vol 2 cc1060-72

In the Gas Act 1972, Schedule 4, paragraph 7, line 19, there shall be inserted, at the end, the words— (2) Under this section the meter shall be a coin operated prepayment meter, if such a meter is required by the consumer, unless the Corporation gives a written statement to the consumer showing why such a meter cannot be installed. If any difference arises under this section between the consumer and the Corporation, that difference shall be determined by arbitration in the County Court on the application of either party and the decision shall be final and binding on all parties."—[Mr. Ashton. ]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

I beg to move, that the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 5—Coin operated electricity meter—— At the end of the Electric Lighting (Clause) Act 1899, section 52, there shall be inserted the following words— (2) Under this section the meter shall be a coin operated prepayment meter, if such a meter is required by the consumer, unless the Board gives a written statement to the consumer showing why such a meter cannot be installed on the ground of safety or practicality. If any difference arises under this section as to the safety or practicality of such a meter that difference shall be determined by arbitration on the application of either party and the decision shall be final and binding on all parties.".

Mr. Ashton

I shall try to be brief, because of the lateness of the hour, but this is an important part of the Bill.

Since they came to office the Government's policy on the conservation of energy has been primarily one of conservation by price. That is why there has been a massive increase in the prices of electricity, gas and fuel oil, with a corresponding cut in the amount of subsidies available for insulation. That has resulted in a great increase in the number of disconnections.

Disconnections of electricity in England and Wales in 1979 were carried out in respect of 88,790 families. In 1980, that figure shot up to 122,702, which is a 40 per cent. increase in disconnections of people who cannot pay their electricity bills because of the increase in charges, unemployment, depression and the poverty that is afflicting many people.

In London alone in 1970 there were 16,467 disconnections. In 1980 that figure shot up to 37,648—more than double inside a year. Every day, 770 homes, on average, are disconnected because people cannot pay their electricity bills. Nothing is done for them. A scheme was put forward under which the Government juggled with grants and heating allowances for people on social security or for the elderly. However, for those not on social security who are probably low-wage earners, there is no help.

One of the best forms of electricity conservation is the old coin-in-the-slot meter, in using which people automatically know how much electricity they are consuming. One of the tragedies of the method of purchasing electricity and gas today is that the meter is tucked away under the sink, at the top of the cellar steps, or in a similar place, so that people cannot see how fast the wheels are going round. Suddenly, after three months, a bill comes in for £150 and knocks them sideways. They cannot pay, and they have to cut back on food purchases or on hire-purchase payments. It causes distress when the big bill comes in at the end of a winter quarter and ordinary people cannot pay.

11.30 pm

It is the duty of the House to give some sort of help to these people. If we cannot give them financial help let us at least give them the right to demand a method of payment that enables them to budget from one week to the next. Many thousands of poor families would go to bed if it got to 10 o'clock on a Thursday night and the electricity supply went off because the meter needed more money. They would know how much they were consuming with that method of payment.

There is no better method of energy conservation than that by which the customer pays according to what he can afford. In the gas industry in 1970, 5½ million consumers were paying by way of coin-operated meters. Ten years later that figure had dropped to 2 million—and that drop occurred at a time when the number of consumers rose. Because of slum clearances and people moving into blocks of flats the method of payment has changed.

Every hon. Member knows of cases in which disconnection has caused great distress. I had one case in November, when a blind man, confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis, had his electricity cut off. He had not paid his bill. He could not read the reminders that had been sent. He lived alone except for a mentally handicapped son aged 16. His daughter lived down the street and she used to see to him, but that week she was in hospital, having a baby. The Yorkshire electricity board came down and disconnected his electricity, leaving this man alone in his house, with a guide dog and two or three lighted candles to show that the electricity had been cut off. The guide dog could have knocked over the lighted candles and set the house on fire.

I rang the Yorkshire electricity board and chased it from the top man to the bottom. I asked "Why didn't you put in a meter?" I was told "He never asked for one." This happens time after time. All too often the bureaucracy in the gas and electricity boards goes for what is most convenient for its red tape and not for what is most convenient for the consumer. Practice varies widely throughout the country. Electricity and gas boards will say "The consumer can have a meter. There is nothing to stop him having one." Just try and get one.

We all know of one-parent families that have come to us saying that they would like a slot meter to be put in. When the Member of Parliament or the social worker asks, the meter is installed. If such families are to be disconnected they get one. On the other hand, if the consumer is being caused a great deal of hardship in finding the £100 to meet his bill, as long as he can pay he will be fobbed off when he asks about a slot meter. Instructions to staff are to the effect that they must not encourage consumers to have meters. There is hardly a showroom in the country where there is a sign saying that meters are available on demand.

If hon. Members examine the handout given to people who have difficulty in paying their bills they will note that it says: You can have a slot meter if you have problems paying your bill and none of the other plans help. The "other plans" mean energy stamps, or paying so much a week, or other nice devices that satisfy the bureaucrats in the offices.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the important thing is that people should have slot meters before they get into difficulties? Is he aware that many of my constituents find, when they get into difficulties and have a meter installed, that the meter is set at such a level that they are having to pay off their debt and meet current costs?

Mr. Ashton

That is absolutely right. It is essential that people have the meter installed before they get into debt. Otherwise they have a debt of £150 and find that they are putting 50p into the meter every half hour.

There are problems with meters. They present a temptation to people who may break into them. The man who collects the money might be knocked on the head and his cash might be stolen. There are problems like this in certain areas. Everyone accepts that meters are not the ideal way to collect money, but they are a great help to pensioners. Old people who know that they have difficulty in paying their bills will not break into their meters. With some meters the same coin can be used over and over again, so that even if the tenant has to pay the bill at the end of the quarter he has some idea of how often he is using energy and so can use his appliances to the limit that he can afford.

The new clauses do not provide that any consumer, under any circumstances, has the right to demand a coin meter. There are obviously some circumstances in which the board or the corporation has a case for saying that on grounds of safety or practicability it is not wise to install a meter. There might, for instance, be a very old lady who has a gas fire with a pilot light. If the money in the meter runs out and she puts in more money but does not light the pilot light, she may be gassed in her own home, or she may strike a match and cause an explosion. Where there was an old appliance the board would be justified in saying that it would not install a meter until the appliance had been changed. In some areas the meters are grouped at the bottom of a block of flats. They are easily accessible to anybody, and in such a case the authority would be justified in saying that it would not be right to install a coin meter. A similar argument would apply if the meter were outside the house.

The clauses provide scope for negotiation. They may at first sight seem to be ambiguous, but they have been drawn up by the electricity and gas consumer councils, in consultation with the Child Poverty Action Group, the Right to Fuel Campaign, and many other people who are interested in helping people to pay their bills. There is an arbitration panel to deal with electricity disputes. This goes back over many years, to earlier Bills. Gas disputes have to be dealt with through the county courts because there is no such panel for the gas industry.

What is provided here is fair to all. The authorities have to give their reasons in writing, and that is important. There is no question of the consumer going to the local office and being fobbed off by a clerk saying "You are not having one and that is the end of it. It is not our policy to install such a meter." The reason for refusal has to be given in writing. I am sure that if the reason given were not satisfactory and the consumer told the local press, or went back to the Child Poverty Action Group or the consumer council, people there would be ready to help to take the matter to arbitration or to the county court.

We went to see the Minister, and I thank him for his courtesy in examining the case that we put from the electricity and gas consumer councils and the Child Poverty Action Group. I realise the difficulty in which the Minister finds himself. The Policy Studies Institute has issued a report on this matter. That report has been available for some months, and it is likely to be some months more before anything happens. We know from experience that some of the finest reports that are produced to show how bureaucracy and red tape can be cut and the consumer protected find their way on to shelves, where they gather dust for many years until a new Minister comes in, or a new Government come in, or some other idea is launched, and they never see the light of day.

I ask my hon. Friends to record a definite opinion to show the Minister the feeling of the House that because of the price of energy, the need for conservation and the massive increase in the number of disconnections, it is imperative to adopt this measure to help at least 1 million or 2 million poor people, who will very much welcome this provision.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I support the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). My noble Friend Lord Tanlaw made similar points in another place, and on Second Reading I pursued one or two of the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

Many consumers would like the opportunity to pay by slot meter but have been deliberately prevented from doing so by electricity and gas boards. My local board, Manweb—the Merseyside and North Wales electricity board—has for some years discouraged people from having slot meters. Some of the reasons have been explained to the House. It can be dangerous for the consumer or the collector, and there have been muggings and harassment. However, many elderly people would like the option. They have great difficulty in coping with large bills. In the winter months bills can be as much as £70 or £80 a quarter, and these people find them difficult to pay. Elderly people sometimes have a stroke or a heart attack when they receive such bills. Many would like to pay as they go along, as they did before.

Help is available through the DHSS and by rebates, but it is not the same as the basic self-respect and dignity of being able to pay as one goes along. Single parents also have problems, and they, too, do not want to live on handouts or to have someone pay the bill for them late in the day. They want to take action before the bill becomes too large, and a prepayment meter is the answer. When enormous gas and electricity bills build up and the rates and water rate bills come in people have nervous breakdowns and other mental disorders and families can break up. Great personal hardships can result.

It is not asking a great deal to give people the chance to pay as they use the electricity. I hope that the Minister will accept this reasonable and commonsense amendment.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on bringing forward the new clause. Although some hon. Members may see difficulties in its way, no one could be against it.

Apart from the old, the sick and the disabled, in my constituency and others we have a large number of Commonwealth citizens. We used to call them immigrants. Many come from Africa and Asia, and they feel the cold more than we do. For them, what we consider to be a nice, warm day can be cold. I visit my constituents in their homes, and they apologise, saying that the place is cold when it is unbearably hot. They do not realise that heating the house night and day eats money. If they had a slot meter, when they were watching television at 10 o'clock at night the electricity would go off. They would realise how much money they had put in during the day and they would go to bed.

When the electricity supply is cut off there is a danger not only to the blind, the sick and the disabled but to children. My African and Jamaican constituents think nothing of putting candles all over the place, including the children's bedrooms. The children then skylark about, and it is all too easy for a candle to be knocked over and set fire to the bedding. If people had a meter they would know that if they did not put enough money in the current would go off automatically. If they had no more money they would have to go to bed. They might have to try to get assistance the next day, but that would not matter because they would be able to get help.

I raised the question of help for the sick, the disabled and the old some time ago. I pay tribute to the Government for having stopped those people from being cut off until welfare workers had been called in to investigate. In that respect the Government have done a good job, as have the various boards. I am now concerned about those who may have the money to pay up to a point but who simply do not realise what happens when the charges accumulate. Constituents of mine have had bills of £400. That is a ludicrous amount. But they are cold and they simply do not understand. They are cold even on a summer day. I explain to them that they will have to turn off the heating. If they had meters, many of these difficulties would be obviated. I therefore pay tribute to my hon. Friend for introducing the new clause.

Mr. Haynes

I support the new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). Bearing in mind the statements of the Secretary of State for Energy about the cost of energy and the charges for consumers, it is clear that there is a massive problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has stirred up a hornets' nest because he happens to be a journalist. Comment in the national press has brought people to my surgery and to meetings held throughout my constituency. In the main, it is the elderly who come to talk about what they have read in my hon. Friend's columns. He covered the question of providing meters in the home. He has stirred up a hornets' nest but I congratulate him because it is a step in the right direction.

The main issue is energy conservation, which means reducing the cost to the economy and saving energy. We must consider the awful situation in which the price of energy increases month by month.

I wish to fire two shots across the bows and to utter two words of warning. Many constituents who come to me actually have a meter, but because of the cuts in public sector manpower the man does not come round often enough to empty it. Constituents have telephoned me at home at the weekend asking me to get in touch with the authority to get somebody to empty their meters. One is then told quite smartly that there will be a charge for providing that service for an elderly person who cannot get another coin into a clogged meter. I hope that the Minister will take note of that problem. At the same time, I agree with what is suggested in the new clause.

One point that burns up many elderly people is the standing or standard charge. With each bill, the standard charge is increased. It is a racket, and it should be stopped. Let us be fair to the consumer. We have some responsibility in this place for ensuring that the consumer gets a fair deal. If it is a fiddle, let us bring it out into the open so that people know what is happening about the standard charge.

If there is a certain amount of coinage in the meter, the consumer gets a rebate. Surely the meter could be adjusted so that rebates did not have to be paid. The consumer may have to wait four, five or six months for the meter to be emptied. It may be a pensioner, someone with a very low income or a single person with a family. It is a burden to such people to have to wait so long for a rebate.

I ask the Minister to consider this matter seriously. I say that with a great deal of feeling. I know the Minister to be a compassionate man. I have discovered that from talking to him. There is only one thing wrong. He is a member of the wrong party. He should be with the Opposition. [Hon. Members: "Which Minister?"] I am not talking about the Secretary of State. I am referring to the Under-Secretary of State.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

We thought that my hon. Friend was talking about the Secretary of State.

Mr. Haynes

No. The right hon. Gentleman has only just walked into the Chamber. [Interruption.] When hon. Members are quiet, I shall continue with my speech.

I hope that the Minister will look seriously at this problem, because it is happening in his constituency, too.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

I shall be brief. I support the new clause.

Disconnections seem to take place mainly at weekends. The Yorkshire electricity board seems to disconnect on either a Friday night or a Saturday morning, and it is difficult for people to get supplies reconnected at weekends. Whether we like it or not, the Government's policies have led to low pay and high energy costs. People are also confused because of the new water rate system.

Two points arise on the coin-operated system. The pay-as-you-go meter system will lead to what used to happen years ago. A person without money in his pocket would pop next door and borrow sufficient to keep going until Friday. People helped each other in that way.

The main problem is the standing charge or the charge for installing a meter. It is ironic that a person who has to ask for a meter to be installed because he cannot afford to pay in the normal way is landed with a bill for the installation. I should like that to be looked at along with other things, so that if a charge is to be made it is taken into consideration at a weekly or a monthly rate.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

I do not think that anyone could add to the points that have been put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who moved the new clause. Coincidentally, however, just this week I received a letter from one of my constituents, and I want to place it on the record because it sums up how people feel, not only old-age pensioners or the sick but the unemployed, who are also finding it hard. The letter states: I have just been reading the Joe Ashton column in today's edition of the Daily Star. Being one of the army of the unemployed I am finding it harder and harder to meet the ever rising quarterly bills, so I think it is a good idea to install coin-in-the-slot meters. Could you please use your vote to help the hard-pressed sick, unemployed and low-paid workers meet their bills. I do not think that anyone could sum up the matter better than that unemployed person, who is finding it hard to live on the pittance that he is getting from the State and who gets quarterly bills and wants only to go ahead and pay for what he has. I certainly support my hon. Friend's new clause.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I support the new clause that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) moved, because of my experience, as a Member of Parliament, of the fact that the question of discretion whether to install coin-in-the-slot meters is that of the board and not that of the consumer. These clauses shift the right to the consumer, with facilities for some form of arbitration. I should like to refer to two cases that have come to my notice within the past few weeks.

The first is the case of a man and wife and four children, with the electricity cut off, no heating, no lighting, and cooking on an open fire. In 1981 it seems an extraordinary set of circumstances. Installation of a coin meter was refused by the Yorkshire electricity board until the consumer had paid £50. He was a textile worker on a temporary short-time working scheme and therefore on a low wage, with his wife not working. Clearly he was in a very difficult if not impossible position in terms of obtaining relief and electric light and cooking facilities in the usual way.

The other was a North Eastern gas board case, which occurred within the last few days. A single-parent family was threatened with disconnection because the mother owed the board about £50. Ten pounds was borrowed from her neighbour and paid to defer disconnection. Disconnection was threatened within seven days unless the £40 was paid. As a single parent the mother is in receipt of £37 a week, and quite clearly cannot have a slot meter unless the £40 is paid off. On £37 a week that is virtually impossible.

I therefore strongly support the two clauses, which shift the right from the board to the consumer, but give the right to the board to levy the charge that will pay off the outstanding debt. It will be a help to people on low wages and will give the consumer greater discretion. I therefore expect the Government to accept the new clauses.

Mr. Eadie

The House must agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has raised a very important social issue this evening. The issue of prepayment meters is not a new one; it has been before the House on other occasions, and various solutions have been put forward. My hon. Friend, in the course of arguing his new clauses, said very fairly that in the past arguments had been advanced about the question of money being in an unsafe safe in the home. I know that in some areas the police have sometimes been called in aid to argue against the whole question of a prepayment meter.

However, I think that the hon. Gentleman who is about to reply must agree that many people like to pay as they go. It is an old tradition—this is quite apart from the social problem—and I do not think that it is a bad characteristic. Given the cost of energy, it is more likely that people will want to pay their way as they go.

12 midnight

It should be pointed out that those with prepayment meters pay more for their electricity. No great favour is being done to those in this unfortunate situation. We should be concerned about that anomaly. If hon. Members feel priggish about this subject, they should remember that they pay their bills after they have used their electricity. We all pay in the form of deferred payments. To put it crudely, hon. Members get their electricity on tick.

The Minister probably knows that area electricity boards do not have a uniform policy on prepayment meters. Some boards take a more sympathetic view than others. A board may take a more sympathetic view because of the social breakdown of the population. Some area boards may be more progressive and more understanding than others. Whatever the reason, they all apply different standards. The Minister should address himself to that fact. Why should there be different standards in different electricity boards?

What information has the Minister received about discs? The police have mentioned problems concerning security in the home. It was suggested that discs rather than money could be put into meters. There would not then be any security risk. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what progress has been made. The issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw deserves an adequate reply.

Mr. John Moore

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) for having raised this issue again, as he rightly did in Committee. It is an issue of great social importance to all hon. Members. I thank him for his courtesy in commenting on the visit that he made with members of the Child Poverty Action Group and with members of the gas and electricity consumer councils. I was happy to give time to listen to them.

The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) is always a worthy antagonist. I listened carefully to his remarks and I shall respond to any detailed points that he made. I assure him that there is no need to change parties in order to share compassion. No party has, or will have, a monopoly of compassion. I am delighted that the hon. Member recognised the compassion expressed by Conservative as well as Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) has an honourable record in pursuit of these problems. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont)—merits the congratulatory remarks that were made. Both sides of the House have made progress on an issue that concerns us all. However, that does not mean that I can necessarily accept the new clauses in toto.

It is always more complex than might be imagined to change things in our society. However, I also hold a weekly surgery in an urban constituency and I recognise that hon. Members cannot be unaware of this problem. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said, the great majority of gas and electricity consumers have credit meters. Out of 20 million domestic electricity consumers, only 1.2 million have prepayment meters, and 3½ million gas consumers have changed from prepayment to credit meters in the past 10 years. I am not arguing about the data; I am simply putting the facts on the record.

Prepayment meters cost consumers more. At present, the gas regions and electricity boards do not pass on the full additional cost to customers with prepayment meters. There are problems of theft from meters, and meter readers carrying cash collected from prepayment meters have been attacked. It is not practical to site a prepayment meter outside the premises. We have already discussed the advantages of externally sited meters.

We are dealing not with the preference of the generality of consumers but with the particular problems of people who find it difficult to pay their gas or electricity bills—problems about which the Government are very concerned. They were discussed fully with the two industries. There can be no disagreement that special provisions must be available for such consumers.

The gas and electricity industries have a joint code of practice that deals with the problems of people who find it hard to pay their fuel bills. The code sets out the range of pay-as-you-go arrangements offered by the industries to help consumers to avoid having to pay a big lump sum all at once. There are four main pay-as-you-go plans, with additional local variations in some regions.

First, the consumer can pay an agreed amount each week or each month towards fuel bills. Secondly, he can buy savings stamps at gas and electricity showrooms. Thirdly, he can pay sums in advance towards the next bill. Fourthly—the key to our debate tonight—he can have a slot meter, if he has problems in paying his bills and none of the other plans help, but it must be safe and practical for a slot meter to be installed.

I should like to explain what sort of considerations the words "safe" and "practical" cover. Gas will be cut off if the meter is not replenished, and the undertaking needs to be satisfied that a prepayment meter will not cause hazardous escapes when the gas is restored. The safety consideration also means that a prepayment meter cannot normally be situated outside a building where it might be broken into.

A prepayment meter may not be practical for large users of gas or electricity—for instance, where there is gas central heating or where some of the supply is on an off-peak tariff. Sometimes there are practical difficulties, particularly for disabled people, who have problems of access to the meters.

The Policy Studies Institute is carrying out a review, sponsored by the gas and electricity industries and their consumer councils, of the industries' code of practice and the practical application of prepayment methods. The institute produced its interim report last year, pointing out, among other things, the importance of prepayment meters as a means of helping people to avoid disconnection.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State held discussions with the industries and, as a result, announced on 8 December last year that it had been agreed to amend the code of practice to make it clear that prepayment meters were now more readily available, provided only that installation was safe and practical.

The previous condition that the consumer should be suffering real hardship has been dropped. In addition, the industries undertook to ensure that their staff at all levels were fully familiar with the code and observed it strictly.

The revised code has been published and is widely available at electricity and gas offices and showrooms, as well as the offices of many voluntary organisations, such as the citizens advice bureaux. But I have taken note of the comments that have been made, and I ask all hon. Members who have examples of particular areas of difficulty to draw them to the attention of the Department of Energy and to the attention of my hon. Friend and myself. We should like to hear of any instances where the code is not being published and promoted properly.

The Policy Studies Institute will complete its review later this year and its final report will be published. The hon. Member for Ashfield was worried about its gathering dust. I assure him that it will be published. The Government are taking a close interest in the progress of the work and will be consulting all the interested parties about any recommendations that may be contained in the report.

We shall pursue with the industries any further changes to the code that might be necessary. I accept that there may on occasion be difficulties of communication, particularly in ensuring that the code is operated uniformly by the industries at all levels. That was the point that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) made. As I pointed out, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has already taken up the matter with the industries, and he has their assurance that every effort is being made to ensure strict observance of the code by their staff.

I repeat that I have taken careful note of what hon. Members have said and of the individual cases that they have raised. If they will let me have any details of those cases I shall ensure that they are brought to the attention of the industries.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

With regard to the definition of practical difficulties the Minister will recognise that one of the problems arises with external meters. There is no technical reason whatever why a second meter cannot be installed in a home which has an external meter. It can be done in series with the existing one so that the people concerned can have the advantage of a slot meter. It can be a real problem in many areas, because the boards are always looking for excuses to stop installing them. The practical reason whatever why a second meter cannot be installed in the house. I can see one problem—that the consumer will begin to realise that electricity meters are not quite as accurate as the industry likes to pretend they are. Will the Minister look into the matter, as there is no practical reason why it cannot be done?

Mr. Moore

I shall be only too delighted to have attention drawn to that question and to have it reexamined. In Committee we did not manage to integrate the debates on the outside meter, the inside meter and prepayment meter, otherwise we might have tackled the problem then.

As I said, the Policy Studies Institute will complete its review later this year. I accept that there may be many occasions when there are difficulties of communication. I have requested hon. Members to draw attention to particular problems.

There is, however, one further point in the new clauses upon which the fuel industries have—rightly, in my view—expressed concern. I refer to the proposal that there should be binding arbitration procedure in the event of a difference between the consumer and the fuel industry concerned.

The installation of prepayment meters should, I think we are all agreed, be subject to a proviso that the installation is safe and practical. The fuel industries already have statutory responsibilities relating to the safety of supply, and it is not altogether easy to see how these responsibilities can be reconciled with binding arbitration in what may in some cases be an issue of safety. The Governments views on the issues raised by the new clauses are very clear and very much in accordance with the concerns which hon. Members have expressed.

We endorse the policy of making prepayment meters available to consumers who have problems in meeting their fuel bills, provided that this is safe and practical. We shall continue to maintain our close interest in this and all other aspects of the code of practice. In particular, we shall study with care the final PSI report when it is available.

I hope that in the light of what I have said the hon. Member will feel able to seek leave to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Ashton

I thank the Minister for his reply but I regret to say that in view of the fact that it does not extend the rights of consumers I must ask the House to express an opinion and divide.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:

The House divided: Ayes 51, Noes 105.

Division No. 151] [12.13 am
Alton, David Kinnock, Neil
Ashton, Joe Lamond, James
Beith, A. J. Leighton, Ronald
Bennett, Andrew(St'kp't N) Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW)
Booth, Rt Hon Albert McCartney, Hugh
Campbell-Savours, Dale McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S) McElhone, Frank
Cowans, Harry McWilliam, John
Craigen, J. M. Marks, Kenneth
Cryer, Bob Marshall, D(G'gow S'ton)
Dalyell, Tam Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd) Newens, Stanley
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Palmer, Arthur
Dixon, Donald Pendry, Tom
Dormand, Jack Penhaligon, David
Douglas, Dick Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Eadie, Alex Prescott, John
Eastham, Ken Rooker, J. W.
Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Evans, John (Newton) Rowlands, Ted
Field, Frank Skinner, Dennis
Foster, Derek Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Foulkes, George Welsh, Michael
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Haynes, Frank Tellers for the Ayes:
Home Robertson, John Mr. Allen McKay and Mr. James Tinn.
Howells, Geraint
Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Alexander, Richard Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Ancram, Michael Knox, David
Aspinwall, Jack Le Marchant, Spencer
Atkinson, David (B'm'th,E) Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Lester, Jim (Beeston)
Berry, Hon Anthony Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Best, Keith MacKay, John (Argyll)
Biggs-Davison, John McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Blackburn, John Major, John
Bowden, Andrew Marlow, Tony
Braine, Sir Bernard Mates, Michael
Bright, Graham Mather, Carol
Brinton, Tim Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Brooke, Hon Peter Mellor, David
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'n) Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Bryan, Sir Paul Moore, John
Buck, Antony Murphy, Christopher
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Myles, David
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Neale, Gerrard
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Needham, Richard
Cockeram, Eric Neubert, Michael
Colvin, Michael Onslow, Cranley
Cope, John Page, Rt Hon Sir G. (Crosby)
Cranborne, Viscount Page, Richard (SW Herts)
Crouch, David Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Dorrell, Stephen Patten, John (Oxford)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Proctor, K. Harvey
Dover, Denshore Rathbone, Tim
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Eggar, Tim Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)
Fairgrieve, Russell Rost, Peter
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Fisher, Sir Nigel Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Fletcher-Cooke, Sir Charles Shelton, William (Streatham)
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Gorst, John Shersby, Michael
Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N) Speed, Keith
Gummer, John Selwyn Speller, Tony
Hamilton, Hon A. Sproat, Iain
Hawkins, Paul Stanbrook, Ivor
Henderson, Barry Stevens, Martin
Hicks, Robert Stewart, A. (E Renfrewshire)
Hooson, Tom Stradling Thomas, J.
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd) Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Tebbit, Norman
Temple-Morris, Peter Watson, John
Thompson, Donald Wheeler, John
Thorne, Neil (Ilford South) Wickenden, Keith
Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath) Williams, D. (Montgomery)
van Straubenzee, W. R. Wolfson, Mark
Viggers, Peter
Waddington, David Tellers for the Noes:
Wakeham, John Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. Alastair Goodlad.
Waller, Gary
Warren, Kenneth

Question accordingly negatived.

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