HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc759-62

4 pm

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to exempt pensioners from payment of standing or other fixed charges in connection with the provision of gas, electricity and water. A number of attempts have been made to bring to the attention of the House the need for further assistance with fuel and water bills for elderly people. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) tried to amend the water charges provisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) tried earlier this year to inititiate a debate on these matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) introduced an Opposition debate on fuel bills in January this year, and many other points were raised in a further Opposition debate on fuel charges and pensioners on 4 February last. In addition, on 25 January, the then Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), promised to look again at standing charges. The House awaits with interest the outcome of the joint review by the DHSS and the Department of Energy.

This Bill is another attempt to deal with the problem, but for a clearly defined group of people who are suffering more hardship, particularly in winter, from the heavy burden of standing and other fixed charges. It is well known that many pensioners over-economise on fuel. A report by the Electricity Consumers Council about elderly consumers towards the end of last year found that it seems likely that they are not heating their homes to an adequate standard. We know that more than 600 pensioners die annually from hypothermia-related complaints, but the number who die from other cold-induced illnesses may well run into thousands. The report also stated that pensioners often spend less on fuel in winter than other consumers spend on it in summer, although we know that pensioners need more fuel than most. They are less likely to have insulated homes or central heating. Lone pensioners have less money than couples, but their heating requirements may be just as great as they still need to heat one living room and one bedroom. Moreover, there are more lone pensioners who are very elderly, and they probably need even more heat than the others. They are also more vulnerable to the lack of liaison between the various fuel boards and the DHSS and the various other authorities involved in fuel schemes.

It may help if I mention a few examples. Citizens advice bureaux throughout the country and certainly in London monitor such cases very carefully. They cite the following instance: Client, aged 69, accrued large electricity bill which he could not pay. Supply disconnected. Board would accept nothing other than full payment. There should have been liaison before disconnection took place. There should also have been information about alternative methods of payment, but there was none. Another case is described as follows: Client is 66 years old pensioner with an income of £40 a week, including Supplementary Benefit. Electricity bills normally paid by weekly voucher payments. Recent payments not sufficient to meet consumption and so left owing £16.25. At the end of March she was issued with a threat of disconnection, but no attempt was made to inform her of alternative payment arrangements. The London CAB mentioned a pensioner recently disconnected for arrears of £52, although she had successfully applied to the DHSS for fuel-direct assistance. The London Electricity board was unaware of that arrangement. Again, there was a lack of liaison. Although £5.20 per week was being paid from her pension, the supply was disconnected. As the House knows it takes a month to obtain reconnection, often resulting in the DHSS, the electricity board, the CAB and even the Member of Parliament becoming involved in the argument. Those instances show how vulnerable pensioners are. None of us has any doubt that the position will be worse next winter, in view of the price increases that we know are about to be imposed.

The position on water charges is even worse. It is not even understood in the House, let alone outside. because there is a confusing variety of systems of charging. Different rates are charged in different parts of the country and varying methods of payment are available in different areas. As yet, there- is no agreed code of practice for the water industry. There is also no rebate in the existing repayment scheme. Low-income consumers are particularly badly hit by the direct billing of water charges because of the lack of rebate under the scheme.

I am told that some water authorities offer the option of metered water, but the cost of installing the meter must be borne by the consumer and may be between £30 and £80. The consumer must also find the plumber, which may be an onerous task. Then there is still a standing charge—as yet unspecified—and the unit charge, which is also not clear. The National Consumer Council has said that pensioners and others in need may find their bills rising as a result of switching to meters, so there is not much joy to be had from pursuing that.

We know, too, of the many thousands of citizens who are in trouble with the water board and have been cut off due to misunderstandings" big bills or confusion about charges. One such example was reported in a Wessex newspaper when there was a furore about the issuing of 13,000 summonses at the end of one quarter for nonpayment of water rates. One in 23 of all ratepayers received a summons, after which they had to pay not only the water rates but £14 in costs due to the summons. This occurred because the water authority had changed the format of its final notice. Previously, the final notice had been printed in red, as elsewhere, but the authority had changed the notice so that there was no real intimation except in the small print that this was the last notice and thereafter the consumer would be liable to further action. When this was pointed out, after the hon. Member for Dorset, West (M. Spicer) had raised the matter, a spokesman for the water authority was quoted as saying: We do recognise that it might have been better if the notices had been printed in red. We now recognise that it was probably wrong to print them in blue, but we were trying to be as gentle as possible. Next year we will print them in red. I imagine that it was examples of that kind that the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) had in mind when at a recent Tory Party conference in Brighton he expressed his anger and concern, saying: One of my big conceals is that those entrusted with representing the interests of the community are faceless and anonymous". The right hon. Gentleman went on to develop that there, and I hope that he will support this Bill and other attempts to do something about the problem.

The purpose of the Bill is therefore to amend the Gas Act 1972, the Electricity Act 1947 and the Water Act 1973, so as to exempt pensioners from paying standing charges and other fixed charges. It provides that boards and authorities should give special treatment to a particular section of society—elderly people, who really need it. I do not ask the boards and authorities to find the money, as clause 4 empowers the Secretary of State to refund to the gas corporation, the area electricity boards and the water authorities the cost of exempting pensioner households from standing charges out of moneys provided by Parliament.

There are those who say that we simply cannot afford this. I and many of my hon. Friends would dispute that. We believe that we must get our priorities right, and many other countries make themselves afford it. We need look no further that our near neighbour the Republic of Ireland which makes exemptions similar to those sought in the Bill.

The Irish Government provide a free electricity allowance of 300 units for every two weeks of the six winter months and 200 units for every two weeks of the six spring and summer months, as well as exemption from standing charges and free television licences. No one could say that that is a far richer economy than ours. Therefore, we should examine that scheme and perhaps copy it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

It is about time that we did.

Mr. Stallard

If time permitted, I could give scores of examples of hardship that have been brought to my notice over a long period. A consumer in Bolton had a bill of £1.76 and a standing charge of £6.40. Another consumer, in a case raised by the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson), had a bill of £8.79 and a standing charge of £7. Every hon. Member could raise examples from his or her constituency.

I pay tribute to those voluntary organisations such as Age Concern, Help the Aged, the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, Child Poverty Action Group and others who are pressing for a comprehensive fuel scheme. The purpose of my Bill is to bring action now before consumers have to climb the next rung in the ladder of fuel and water charges threatened for next winter. The Bill seeks to relieve pensioners of three great fears. They are the fear of the big bill, the fear of the summons and the fear of being cut off from a necessary and vital service. I hope that the Bill will receive the unanimous support of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. A. W. Stallard, Mr. George Foulkes, Mr. Ken Eastham, Mr. Andrew Bowden, Mr. Frank R. White, Mr. Bob Cryer, Mr. Thomas Cox, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. David Winnick and Mr. Frank Dobson.