HC Deb 08 March 1983 vol 38 cc720-46

`1. In this section—

  1. (a) "the Disconnection Rules" means the regulations specified in subsection (3) of this section;
  2. (b) "supplier of electricity" means the Electricity Board, local authority or any other person who supplies electricity however generated;
  3. (c) "domestic premises" means premises used for human habitation;
  4. 721
  5. (d) "disconnect" means cut off, discontinue or withhold a supply of electricity and "disconnecting" and "disconnection" shall be construed accordingly.
(2) Notwithstanding any provision to the contrary, a supplier of electricity shall not disconnect any domestic premises whether under section 21 of the Electric Lighting Act 1882 or section 18 of the Electric Lighting Act 1909 or otherwise on the grounds that the owner or occupier has not paid any sum of money due to him for electricity except in accordance with the Disconnection Rules. (3) Within six months of the passing of this Act the Secretary of State shall, after consulting the Electricity Council, the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, the South of Scotland Electricity Board, the Electricity Consumers' Council, each area electricity consultative committee, the Scottish Electricity Consultative Council and such other representatives of customers as he shall deem expedient make regulations specifying inter alia—
  1. (a) the circumstances in which a supplier of electricity
    1. (i) shall not
    2. (ii) may
disconnect any domestic premises;
  1. (b) the procedures to be followed by a supplier of electricity
    1. (i) prior to disconnecting a domestic premises
    2. (ii) after having disconnected a domestic premises to try to recover sums of money owed to him for electricity by a customer whether by instalments or otherwise and to assist that customer to be able to meet the cost of his electricity supply;
  2. (c) the provision to be made for appeals and arbitration;
  3. (d) the information to be collected and made public by a supplier of electricity relating to the operation of the Disconnection Rules,
the purpose of such regulations being the very considerable reduction of the incidence of disconnection of domestic premises and nothing in this section shall limit the content of the Disconnection Rules to achieve that purpose.
(4) The Disconnection Rules shall come into force nine months after the passing of this Act.'.—[Mr. Eadiej

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 5—Extending the code of practice to private suppliers— '1. (1) In this section "a private supplier" means a person other than an electricity board who supplies electricity generated other than by an electricity board or a local authority. (2) Where a private supplier supplies electricity to premises used for human habitation and a debt to the supplier for a supply of electricity to those premises exists he shall not disconnect the supply of electricity or refuse to connect or reconnect such supply without first conforming to the rules laid down in the relevant Code of Practice currently accepted by the Electricity Council as a Code of Practice for Electricity Boards. (3) Where a private supplier supplies electricity for any premises used for human habitation, he shall be obliged to provide the Electricity Council with such information as it shall from time to time reasonably request. (4) Where the owner or occupier of premises used for human habitation has a debt to a private supplier, then section 18 of the Electric Lighting Act 1909 shall not apply to the area board for the area in which the premises are located insofar as the debt to the private supplier is concerned.'.

Mr. Eadie

Members who served on the Standing Committee will recall that we debated this matter at that time but did not press it to a Division as we wished to reflect on what the Minister had said. The Government's reply was not entirely unhelpful, but we felt that our arguments required further examination and debate and that the House should have the opportunity to discuss the matter further on Report.

I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) is present, as he presented a bill on the right to fuel, and I shall not trespass on the comments that he may wish to make. We had a very good debate on this in Committee. It is clear that the subject of disconnections and the code of practice relating to them is now occupying the minds of many people.

In dealing with new clauses 4 and 5, it would be churlish of me not to refer to the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) in Committee. As usual, he was able to identify the problem. He said: For the year prior to 30 September 1982, disconnections in England and Wales totalled 97,827. In Scotland there were. 16,525, making a total of 114,352."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 15 February !983; c. 489.] He identified a problem that the Government and the House cannot ignore. We know that there is a problem, that is why the House must contribute to the discussion of that problem today.

It has been argued that the problem of disconnections and the code of practice may be exaggerated and that the relationship between the Department of Health and Social Security and the electricity board is good. From my experience as a Minister, I do not deny that the relationship is good, but it is also my experience, and no doubt that of many other hon. Members, that however good the relationship may be it has been known to break down. That being so, we have a responsibility to consider the problem afresh.

The need to look at the problem afresh may result from the enormous social pressures caused by high unemployment. Indeed, the pressures caused by an official total of 3.5 million unemployed may well be more than the boards and the DHSS can handle. If that is true, it is the Government's duty to study how matters are operating at present and to put forward solutions because they are responsible for the high levels of unemployment.

4.30 pm

I know that the argument is advanced that one could alleviate the problem by installing more pre-payment meters. I have never been against pre-payment meters, but the Government would be foolhardy if they thought that their introduction would solve the problem. Some people say that if consumers had a greater freedom to choose prepayment meters the problem would disappear. I am sure that if the Minister looked at his brief he could tell the House of all the problems that might arise from the introduction of pre-payment meters. Criticisms of prepayment meters may have been harsh. When considering such a solution, we must be honest and say that people who have such meters pay more for their electricity. It is often those people who can ill afford to pay more who have to fall back on using them.

A social problem is presented by pre-payment meters. One used to put sixpence or a shilling in the meter, but now it is about 50p. Some households therefore have a considerable amount of money which in some cases is not well protected. It may cause the family a great deal of worry if there are young children, depending upon the area in which they live. I am not arguing against pre-payment meters. I am arguing against those people who believe that the problem of disconnections can be solved by the panacea of introducing pre-payment meters.

Mr. Spellar

There is considerable danger to meter collectors in a number of areas, which explains the boards' reluctance to install meters. My hon. Friend is talking about vast sums of money. After he has made a few visits, a meter reader may be carrying several hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds.

Mr. Eadie

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He confirms the point that people should not believe that the introduction of pre-payment meters is a panacea for solving the problem of disconnections. My hon. Friend makes a good point. We can all be critical about disconnections. We can feel great emotion and compassion about them. We have all had people whose supply has been disconnected corning to our surgeries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) mentioned in Committee that we must consider the distasteful job we give our employees when we ask them to carry out disconnections. We are asking an employee who may be a trade unionist, as we are, to disconnect a supply. He may feel that he should not disconnect the supply, but he is under instructions from his employer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Spellar) makes the powerful point that we are talking about the collection of perhaps £50 or L£100 per household. The meter reader has to collect that money. It is not just the household that is at risk by having these comparatively unprotected sums of money in the house; the people who collect the money also run a risk. I must stress that I am not arguing against pre-payment meters; I am saying that they are not the solution to the problem of disconnections, although in some areas they may help more than in others.

Many pressure groups were quoted in Committee. As the Minister knows, they are sometimes called one-party pressure groups. They are a legitimate part of our democratic procedure. Some of us have been grateful to pressure groups because they have sometimes identified problems that we have been unable to identify or, if we have identified them, by research and diligence the pressure groups have given us information, facts and figures and brought urgent matters to the attention of the House.

There are many pressure groups. There are those involved with single-parent families, the unemployed or people who have problems. I chose the example of Age Concern because I had been invited to speak at a rally in Westminster hall. I quoted its slogan, which I felt was good, "To be old and cold". It then follows with the question, "for how much longer?" I know that people argue that the supply of few elderly people and pensioners is disconnected. Age Concern concedes that. However, one must accept that some are disconnected. When talking about the elderly, one disconnection is one too many.

Pensioners and the elderly have a fear of disconnection. The result is that they economise more than they should in providing creature comforts and warmth. Few people understand that the elderly go through the winter with a fear of disconnection. I described it in Committee as "purgatorial misery". The elderly spend the winter in purgatorial misery because of the fear of disconnection.

The House, the Government and the Opposition have a responsibility to study the problem of disconnections and the statutory code. One can be pretty emotional about this subject. I do not want to be. I want to give the facts. I do not allege that the Minister will be without compassion or understanding. I impress upon the Minister that there is a problem which the Government should examine to see whether it is possible to find a solution. I hope that when the Minister replies he will not say that the elderly are protected by the code of practice. If the Government deploy that argument, they must concede that, although the elderly, under the code of practice, may be protected, they are not protected when staying with relatives.

I wrote an article a fortnight ago on our efficiency in looking after the elderly. It seems to be the conventional wisdom that children or grandchildren do not give a damn for the elderly. That is not true. When one considers the percentage of the elderly in sheltered housing or old people's homes, it becomes clear that the vast majority are looked after by their children, their grandchildren or other relatives. It is not true to say that people are passing the buck to the Government and the state. That is a gross slander on the children, the grandchildren and other relatives of the elderly. The percentage of elderly people in state care is only 2.5. The Government must concede that the majority of old folk are looked after by relatives. That is not an assertion; it is a fact. Why are we not giving attention to the fact that elderly people living with relatives are not protected under the code of practice? The matter requires urgent examination.

I have given an example to show how the system does not work entirely as we think it should work. I believe that the Minister gave in Committee—his remarks can be found in col. 497—a very understanding reply. However, anomalies arise from disconnections that show that something is wrong. Too much authority is given to the boards. I have recounted the story of a young girl, not a constituent of mine, who took a private rented flat. On the day she took the flat, she asked the electricity authorities to read the meter. Three days later, without checking, the electricity board broke into her home. When the girl came home, she found that the flat had been broken into. As she did not know who was responsible, she sent for the police. The police were able to inform her that the electricity authority had broken in, on the basis that the previous tenant owed money to the board. It was three days before the electricity supply was restored and four weeks before the damage to the door of the flat was repaired.

That incident raises interesting possibilities. It is relevant to the new clause. I believe that the police, when they were aware of what had happened, should have charged the electricity board with illegal entry and with breaking into the flat. In his reply, the Minister agreed. I recognise that the Minister has asked me to give him details of the case. I am not able, on grounds of confidentiality, to do so. I can assure him, however, that the case is authentic.

The chief constable was contacted several weeks ago on the basis that the electricity board should have been prosecuted. Nothing has been heard from the chief constable since then. If, as the Minister explained, it is laid down clearly that the electricity board can be prosecuted, I am puzzled why it has taken the chief constable so long to reply and to say what action is being taken. It is important for hon. Members to examine the powers of electricity boards.

4.45 pm

It is possible to produce many statistics when examining the consequences of disconnections. All hon. Members could give facts and figures to show the magnitude of the problem. The seriousness of the problem has been illustrated by the Electricity Consumers' Council. The same evidence emerges from figures produced by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. In mild winters, there are on average 60,000 more deaths than in summer. In very cold winters, there are on average 300 more deaths daily, increasing the figure to 90,000. There is also a 50 per cent. or more increase in infant deaths in winter compared to summer. Such increases are not found in Sweden or other European countries that have efficient heating of houses and better nutrition. On a percentage basis, there is less central heating in houses occupied by the elderly. The fact that the elderly are more likely not to have centrally heated homes needs to he examined.

I do not know the figures of deaths from hypothermia. I recall, however, the moving television interview with Dr. Geoffrey Taylor, who knew that he was dying when he gave the interview and who has since died. He had worked with the problem of heating and warmth for the elderly all his life. He gave figures of the numbers of elderly people who were likely to die in the winter due to the cold. I have never seen the figures that he gave in any publication. He argued that in a severe winter 15,000 elderly people would probably die due to inadequate heating in their homes. He stated that 10,000 elderly people would probably die in a mild winter. I do not know whether those figures are authentic, but elderly people certainly die in the winter because of inadequate heating.

The Government have a responsibility to examine the statements that have been made and the figures that have been presented by reputable pressure groups, which are able by their own research—much of it is voluntary and is no worse for being so—to identify the tremendous problems that are created not only because of lack of adequate heating in the home but because of disconnection. The code of practice needs to be examined.

New clause 5 is relevant to what I have said about new clause 4. I hope the Government are not going to go mad with privatisation. The private generator of electricity will not have to undertake all the statutory functions and practices that a public owned industry must statutorily undertake. Parliament has a responsibility to ensure that the private generator does not escape his responsibilities. The ideology of private generation must not be treated any differently whether one is considering disconnection, the statutory code or whatever. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that private generators are governed in the same way as the publicly owned industry.

My hon. Friends and I feel strongly about this matter. The Government as well as the Opposition have had time for reflection. The Government have a responsibility to tell the House, on reflection, how they feel about the code of practice and disconnections.

The hon. Member for Bedford advocated the introduction of mandatory codes and rules. He had a good point. He drew an analogy with what happened in other countries, especially the United States of America. His contribution masked the fact that the existing practice of disconnection and the code of practice are outdated. The Government have spent a great deal of time on this 36-clause Bill, and are entitled to write into it the modernisation of practices that would mean so much to many people. They may even be able to stop the purgatorial misery that the elderly go through year after year and some of the misery that the unemployed are suffering.

The Government have a responsibility to introduce a change and the Opposition will listen carefully to what the Minister has to say in reply.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

I moved new clause 4 in Committee. I had the support of the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie). New clause 4 is being moved by him on Report and I support him. The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith), speaking on new clause 2, mentioned what a great privilege it was to be within 50 yards of a distribution main. If one is within 50 yards of such a main, an electricity board is obliged to connect one's premises to the main system of supply. Many people may overlook the fact that a monopoly has power to charge what it likes. The charges of the local electricity board for connection to the electricity supply system may well be exorbitant. A public body with monopolistic powers will not necessarily give justice to the people. The boards have power to cut people off at will for non-payment. There may be cases where a reasonable man when examining the circumstances would say that the suppliers should not have acted as they did.

New clause 4 is simple in structure. The electricity boards should not have power to disconnect where a sum may be due except in accordance with the disconnection rules that have been laid down in regulations. There is a code of practice that should be implemented throughout the United Kingdom but, unhappily, many electricity boards have diverse ways of examining this matter. Some boards may be humane but others may be comparitively ruthless. Some may say that their responsibility is to ensure that the money comes in and that they are not particularly concerned with some of the welfare principles that should be observed.

In 1976, the Commons Select Committee on Nationalised Industries reported: the hardships of disconnection are such that if the incidence cannot be very considerably reduced we believe that the powers of the electricity and gas authorities may need to be circumscribed. That was fairly realistic. The Select Committee had received evidence and adjudged the issue. Hon. Members may have contacted the managers of their local electricity board asking, for instance, that a pensioner, someone who is ill, or someone who may be in personal difficulties should have an extended period of time in which to pay. I have recommended that, when a considerable sum of money was outstanding, there should be no disconnection and the outstanding sum should be written off. I am grateful for some of the facts that have been given to me: by the Right to Fuel campaign. It states that there are examples of the working of the voluntary code that are unsatisfactory. The code says that any repayment arrangement will take into account the consumer's circumstances and income.

I want the House to consider the case of a married couple aged 71 with a total income of £51 a week. The electricity arrears were £18 and the current bill was £36, making a total outstanding of £54. The couple were putting aside £3 a week for electricity. The Eastern electricity board—which is my board—wanted £10 a week to ensure that the debt would be rapidly cleared. The couple spend, additionally £10 a week on coal. In total £23 a week was spent on fuel. Is it in accordance with the code that the couple should be spending almost 50 per cent. of their income on fuel? The voluntary code of practice is not enforceable in the courts and the Minister would doubtless say that the code has been breached. I agree that in the private enterprise system there should be many voluntary codes of practice.

However, I wonder whether statutory boards with monopolistic powers should exert such authority and power when dealing with two old age pensioners aged 71 who spend 50 per cent. of their income on fuel. Is it easy to say that I have cited only one case out of many, and that I should be fair to the various boards in the United Kingdom? However, the code states that the board shall install a prepayment meter when it is safe and practical to do so. I supported the Minister in incorporating the day schedule into the Bill. I must tell him that a lady ordered a slot meter, which was installed on 30 June 1982. It was calibrated at 12p per unit, because it was alleged that the previous bill had not been paid. However, the bill was received on 28 June 1982 and was paid immediately by Giro. The electricity board was informed and it said that the meter would be changed. However, 11 days later the lady was still paying 12p per unit, instead of 6p, because of the board's error. Of course, that is just another case out of many, but misery was endured by someone who could not fight the almighty body of a state corporation with its monopolistic powers.

5 pm

One family was disconnected six days after the fuel bill had been paid. The Yorkshire electricity board disconnected a single-parent family with one child on 3 December 1981, although the mother had paid the bill on 27 November 1981. The board refused to waive the £7.50 re-connection charge, stating that because of computerised accounting it was impossible to check whether payment was still outstanding before disconnection. We may have electronics and all the modern office equipment at our disposal, but what a tyranny they exercise over the homes and hamlets of our country if an electricity board is prepared to say that, unfortunately, the system has let it down and that that poor woman must pay, although she cannot afford to do so.

If implemented, the code of practice would mean that someone should contact the DHSS in a case of genuine hardship. I make a plea on behalf of the blind, the sick, the disabled, those with young children, single-parent families, the unemployed, pensioners and all those facing genuine hardship. As a statutory body is involved, there should be some check on it. Is it not time that my right hon. Friend laid down a mandatory code of practice? I am sure that he would be prepared to accept, or think about, something along those lines. Those people want and require protection. If the electricity boards will not provide it, this House must do so. If the Minister prepared a statutory code, we would pass it. It would be standardised for all boards and there would be no discrepancies. If the boards administered it badly, the High Court could straighten things out on proceedings laid before it.

There is a mandatory code in the United States of America, and that country is much bigger that the United Kingdom and has many private operators. However, it was thought to be a good idea to have a mandatory code to standardise procedures. I moved this new clause in Committee and had thought that there would be some response from the Government, but, they were adamant that nothing could be done. The Opposition have now put the case forward and the Minister has had time to consider whether something could be done. I hope that he will listen carefully to the observations that are made and that he will take some of the advice of his Department. He should consider the humanitarian factors. It is people who count, not systems. Some people cannot afford to pay their bills. It is they who should be helped and not those who have millions of pounds and can afford to pay.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

I pay a sincere tribute to the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) for his work and effort. Does the hon. Gentleman recall that for many years Governments of either party said that it was impossible to do away with the standing charge or to make reductions in it? However, due to pressure from those such as the hon. Member for Bedford, some improvement was eventually made. Therefore, if the will is there and if the Minister tells his higher paid civil servants—who are, by the way, all right—that they must get something done or else, something can be done.

Mr. Skeet

I pay tribute to the Government, who are doing something about the standing charge for those who cannot afford to pay. The Secretary of State has done some extremely good work. However, we are discussing disconnections. If I provide services, I will charge a fee. If I am not paid, I will take the person involved to court. I shall hope to receive eventual payment, but I cannot put him in prison. However, those who supply electricity do not bother to take people to court—they just cut them off. Although a man may have four or five children, the board will see that they all use candles. The local office of the DHSS may then have to act to collect money on behalf of the electricity board.

I say with some feeling that state bodies with monopolistic powers are accountable to the House and we should have some say, through the Minister, to ensure that the mandatory regulations that are laid down are appropriate.

Mr. Gray

I have listened carefully to the debate, for which we had a rehearsal in Committee. I immediately acknowledge the points made by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and particularly the case that he instanced. I fully accept his reasons for being unable to give me the details but unfortunately I can do nothing about it, because I do not know the person involved. The hon. Gentleman said that the person is not his constituent, so I cannot take the matter any further. However, if the hon. Gentleman can persuade the Member of Parliament who represents that individual to write to me, I shall certainly take up the matter with the area board concerned. The details that the hon. Gentleman gave the House cause all of us great concern. If the hon. Gentleman makes the necessary moves, I shall certainly pursue the matter further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) also gave a number of examples of cases where area boards appear to have been at fault. Again, if my hon. Friend will give me particulars of the cases, I assure him that the area boards concerned will be called to account.

It is well understood by the House, and accepted generally, that electricity boards need the ultimate sanction of disconnection. They have a statutory obligation to provide a supply of electricity. They cannot refuse a customer, no matter what doubts they may have about his creditworthiness. The majority of people pay on time. Less than half of 1 per cent. of nearly 20 million domestic consumers are disconnected annually. That relatively small number is a measure of the supply industry's concern to use disconnection only as a last resort to avoid as far as possible the hardship that it causes. It is a measure also of the effectiveness of the industry's code of practice, which governs the way in which it uses its disconnection powers.

Much has been said today about the code of practice, and its operation in some circumstances has been criticised by hon. Members. Whatever the number of disconnections, I accept that it would be best if they could be avoided, and the considerable reduction sought by those who have moved the new clauses is a worthy objective. However, I very much doubt their ability to achieve that objective by the method proposed in the new clause.

The purpose of the industry's code of practice was not to eliminate disconnections entirely. That is an unattainable objective. There will always be a hard core of bad payers among any group of consumers. The code is intended to help those who might suffer real hardship to avoid disconnection. It specifies those categories considered to be most at risk, such as the elderly, families with young children, the blind, sick and disabled, and people receiving supplementary or unemployment benefit. People in those categories are either protected directly—for example, pensioner households are not disconnected during the winter months—or referred to welfare agencies, which may be able to help them. Electricity boards liaise closely with the Department of Health and Social Security and the social services departments of local authorities to ensure that cases where hardship may arise receive all the help to which they may be entitled. They also hold back from disconnection while the welfare agencies pursue their inquiries.

However, the boards and their staffs cannot reasonably be expected to act on their own judgments about the hardship that is likely to arise from particular consumers from disconnection. Of course they do their best, but as the code of practice points out, they do not seek to pry into their consumers' affairs. It would be rightly resented if they attempted to do so.

When the code was independently reviewed by the Policy Studies Institute in 1981 one of its main findings was that a high proportion of those disconnected were among the potential hardship categories that it was designed to help. That was a valid criticism, and it was taken to heart by the industry. Essentially, it represented a communication failure. The code's message was not reaching the consumers that it was particularly aimed at. The industry is now contacting directly all consumers who are threatened with disconnection, offering them a specific repayment arrangement to help them to clear their debts. Where it is safe and practical, the industry will provide a slot meter.

5.15 pm

The hon. Member for Midlothian said quite a lot about pre-payment meters. He was sceptical about their advantages. Moreover, he illustrated some of the hardships that can arise from their use. I remind him that the Electricity Consumer Council has pressed for some considerable time for boards to make greater use of prepayment meters. That was also recommended by the Policy Studies Institute in its independent review of the industry's code of practice.

I believe that these measures are having beneficial effects, although it is too early to make a firm judgment. The downward trend in disconnections—they have fallen by nearly 25 per cent. over the past two years—appears to have increased. Moreover, the number of pre-payment meters installed has risen dramatically, by more than 40,000 in 1982. These changes to the code of practice are the latest in a series of improvements made over the years since the code was introduced in 1976. They reflect a growing awareness, not only of the potential hardship arising from disconnection, but of the difficulty for the industry in reconciling its genuine wish to avoid such hardship with its duty in the interests of all its consumers to ensure that bills are paid on time.

That is the crux of the industry's problem, and the proposals in the new clauses to convert the code into statutory rules provide no real answer. Indeed, in many ways, they would add to the industry's difficulties without further helping those consumers whom the code is designed to protect.

Mr. Skeet

Could my hon. Friend give me the figures for bad debts in the industry? What percentage are they of the total takings?

Mr. Gray

I cannot give my hon. Friend those figures now, but I shall do my utmost to let him have them in due course.

In some ways, the proposals in the new clauses would be a backward step. The original 1976 code was much criticised as being too formal and inflexible a document, written in language that was difficult for those it was designed to help to understand. The successive revisions have improved and greatly simplified the code's language and clarified and extended the groups that it is intended to help. As the report demonstrated, effective communication is essential if the code is to operate successfully, and to that extent statutory rules which would have to be written in formal unambiguous language would be a retrograde step.

Beyond that, the code gives the boards' staffs considerable discretion in considering the circumstances of each case. No doubt it would be simple enough to prescribe in statutory rules which categories of consumers were to be assisted by the code. However, it would be exceedingly difficult to set out precisely how they were to be treated so as to cover all conceivable circumstances that might arise. In other words, such rules would make for a less flexible approach by the industry's staffs. They would find it difficult to apply the maximum individual sympathetic consideration to each case, according to the circumstances, particularly if the rules did not fit the circumstances.

I told the Committee that I would reiterate most strongly in the House Ministers' concern about the problem of disconnections. The revised code of practice is being monitored by the Electricity Consumer Council, which will report later this year.

We shall wish to consider carefully with the industry the results of the report. The whole question of disconnections and the effectiveness of the code will thus continue to be under scrutiny. If further action is warranted it will certainly be taken. I believe that the recently revised code should be given an opportunity to prove itself before further steps such as legislation are contemplated. The practical effects of the new clauses would be unhelpful to those in whose interests they are tabled and I ask the House to reject them.

Before I finish, I want to say a final word about the cases that have been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford and the hon. Member for Midlothian. It is most distressing that such cases should be quoted and I am anxious to see that, where such practices have occurred, they should be rectified. I am sure that they are rare and that the general work of the boards is efficient. Those who work for them carry out a difficult job with a high degree of sensitivity. It would be wrong that the impression that we are dissatisfied with the way in which they handle their duties should go out from the House because that is simply not so. They have a difficult job to do and they do it well. However, where cases of unsympathetic and insensitive action by the boards do arise, I hope that I shall be made aware of them so that we can take them up with the boards and try to ensure that they are as infrequent as possible.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

We have just listened to a mixture of ministerial compassion and an excellent Civil Service brief. No one can deny that over the years there has been progress as both sides have struggled to try to deal with the problem of disconnection. The Minister did not really refer to new clause 5 on private suppliers, who, after all, are the essence of parts of the Bill inasmuch as they are being introduced into the system. I have no doubt that, with the permission of the House, he could supplement his speech and say how he would deal with private suppliers but that he would refuse to introduce new clause 5 or any statutory mechanism to deal with private suppliers, just as he has refused to do in relation to public suppliers.

That curious mixture does not answer the basic complaint that many innocent, poor people are suddenly faced with disconnection. They may be not sinful or wicked, but so alone in life that they are helpless. The Minister contradicts himself when he says that, on the one hand, we must not pry into an individual's affairs and, on the other, that the boards will contact each individual, although I understand that that is post hoc—after the event. That is not good enough because it is the event to which we are objecting.

It is true that many people would exploit their fellow consumers by not paying their debts if there were no provision for disconnection. The intervention of the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) was pertinent. How much do such people represent in bad debts? I imagine that the figure is infinitesimal compared with the bills that are regularly paid by well-meaning, honest customers. Therefore, there is no economic argument that somehow or other the boards will be embarrassed by not disconnecting such people and seeing the exploitation of their supplies by a small number of individuals. The Minister has given the number and he boasts, rightly, that under the new system it has been reduced by 25 per cent.

The hon. Member for Bedford was the first to table new clause 4 in Committee, and all honour to him for having done so, although he has not attached his name to new clause 5. However, they both stand together. The Minister has not answered the hon. Gentleman's plea today. We know the origin of new clause 4. It was put forward by a perfectly respectable organisation and those hon. Members who supported it in Committee and here today have rehearsed its objectives. With respect to the Minister, who is a very able man, I have not heard, either in Committee or today, any real rebuttal of the essentially good part of new clause 4. Subsection (3)(a) says that regulations shall specify the circumstances in which a supplier of electricity

  1. (i) shall not
  2. (ii) may
disconnect any domestic premises. Why should not there be such a provision? Subsections (3)(b)and (3)(c) are impeccable. In reciting what he had to say, the Minister was repeating the essence of subsection (3)(b)(i) and (ii)—that the boards will take steps to try to recover sums of money owed to him … by instalments or otherwise and to assist that customer to be able to meet the cost of his electricity supply". In other words, the Minister is accepting subsection (3)(b) (i) and (ii), and I assume that he would not object to subsection (3)(c). Why then does he resent putting subsection (3)(a) into the statute? Subsection (3)(a) is not saying that in no circumstances will there be disconnection, although, frankly, I would go along with that. I accept that there are those who would abuse the system, but they would be few compared with the harm done to so many relatively innocent people. That is a price worth paying. However, new clause 4 does not say that. All that the new clause is saying is that the reasons for disconnection should be spelt out.

The Minister works hard but his officials cannot see how to make regulations which, inter alia, specify the provisions of subsection (3)(a)(i) and (ii). That is the essence of the Government's refusal to accept the new clause. I am sure that were the Minister to be advised that that was possible, he could be convinced that was desirable and adopt it. However, the Government have been convinced by the civil servants that it is not possible, although I cannot understand why. It is not an affront to the electricity boards or to the private suppliers that such regulations should exist. I cannot think of any other public utility the withdrawal of whose service has more disastrous consequences than the electricity supply. Water is not shut off if people do not pay their water rates, nor are they denied access to the sewerage system. That would be nonsense. Why should there be this somewhat primitive power—reminiscent of older days and different circumstances—to shut off somebody's electricity supply because he has not paid for it? As I say, we are talking of a tiny minority.

The Government have failed, as previous Governments have, to grasp the nettle and to have such regulations. As I said, I would go further and bar the boards from disconnecting the electricity supply in any circumstances. I willingly concede that one would have to take other measures to recover the money owed by those abusing the system, but that is the other side of the coin. I would go along with the unpleasantness of that, but not with the unpleasantness of disconnection. The Minister has conceded that—any compassionate Minister would—by asking to be told of any cases of persons being unfairly treated or shamelessly disregarded by society. Of course, the Minister and the boards will intervene, but many such people are not known to Members of Parliament or to the boards. The essence of new clauses 4 and 5 is to deprive electricity boards in any circumstances of the power to disconnect unless the circumstances under which they can do so are prescribed by regulation.

Unless the Minister accepts the new clauses, we shall have to vote on them and hope that we can carry them. Let us hope that we carry the new clauses. If not, we have the Minister at his word. He will ask us to let the new code of practice be monitored. At some stage later today he will tell us what has happened. In the last analysis, some Minister at some time will have to put this reasonable request into statute.

5.30 pm
Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) referred to the private Member's Bill that I was given leave to introduce on 26 January. The People's Right to Fuel Bill is now published and available to hon. Members in the Vote Office, and is due for a Second Reading on 22 April. If my Bill were on the statute book there would be no need for new clauses 4 and 5 because it would prohibit disconnections unless there were a court order, and would ensure that there was a statutory code of practice and help to eliminate one of the root causes of disconnections—fuel poverty.

I detected some complacency in what the Minister said. I do not know whether he deliberately under-estimated the magnitude of the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian gave the statistic showing that in the 12 months ending September 1982, the latest period for which we have up-to-date statistics, nearly 100,000 households were disconnected. That is a disgrace. For any hon. Member to come to the Dispatch Box and say, "Everything in the garden is rosy. We have a code of practice as it is, it must be working fairly well but we shall monitor it", and so on, is not good enough, and neither is the total of nearly 100,000 homes disconnected in 12 months.

We must not forget that 100,000 households affects several hundred thousand people because within these homes sometimes there are several people, and some of these people are the most deserving cases, people who should never be cut off in any circumstances, and categories of people specifically mentioned in the existing code of practice.

The Policy Studies Institute recently estimated that 90 per cent. of the people who suffer disconnections fall into the categories specifically mentioned in the existing code of practice. These include, people receiving supplementary benefit or unemployment benefit, old age pensioners, people who are blind, severely sick or disabled, families with children under the age of 11 and families receiving family income supplement. If 90 per cent. of the disconnections involve such people, that shows that the code is not working and there should be no complacency in the Minister's speech. What is required is the implementation of a statutory code rather than a merely voluntary code which may be of some use, but which is inadequate.

The Minister asked us to give him some cases. I do not want to name names on the Floor of the House because it is embarrassing for constituents and others whose cases have been referred to me, and whose supplies have been disconnected. Not all that long ago I had a constituent, a single parent with a baby—a category specifically mentioned in the code of practice—who was out of the house when the electricity board employees called to disconnect the supply. She got back to the house and found herself with no electricity supply, and therefore no electric lighting, heating or cooking facilities.

I managed to get the supply reconnected that afternoon through my intervention, because my constituent came to me, but people should not have to come to their Members of Parliament to get their supplies reconnected. The supply should not have been disconnected in the first place. Had there been a statutory code of practice in that case, the young woman would not have had her electricity supply disconnected.

Another case concerned a landlord with four subtenants operating pre-payment meters for their electricity supply. This case was documented by Strathclyde regional council. In this instance, a bill of £770 had accrued., but it was the landlord's bill, not a bill for the tenants. The supply was disconnected, in clear breach of the code, leaving three pensioners and a student without lighting or electricity. This case had a very tragic ending because one pensioner died before the supply could be reconnected on the Tuesday following the disconnection on the preceding Friday, when the attention of the South of Scotland electricity board was drawn to the fact that the house should not have been disconnected under the terms of the code of practice because the debt had been incurred not by those suffering the disconnection, but by the landlord.

The present voluntary code of practice is grossly inadequate and therefore these deserving cases require statutory protection. Under the terms of my Bill, there will be no disconnection without a court order. These new clauses do not go as far as that but they suggest rules for disconnection. I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to this.

As the right hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Mabon) pointed out, one does not hear of anybody having their water supply cut off because of debt. Whoever heard of somebody being evicted from their house without a court order? If somebody is behind with their rent payments it is not open to a landlord, whether in the public or private sector, to say, "Out you go; you are in debt to me and you and your family must go out on the street." Landlords have to get a court order for an eviction.

Particularly in dead of winter, an adequate fuel supply can be just as important as a roof over one's head and that is why a statutory form of protection is required.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I want to help my hon. Friend by telling him of a case about which I read over the weekend. It concerned a self-confessed millionaire tax dodger who had exiled himself but who came back when he owed £500,000 in tax. He should not have been here under the rules of the Inland Revenue. The Inland Revenue knew that he was here but did not take any action against him. It could and should have taken immediate action against him, but he was not an old-age pensioner or sick or disabled, but a deliberate tax evader. There are dozens of such people but we do not hear of actions against them.

Mr. Canavan

My hon. Friend is right. Some of the biggest debtors and crooks, people cheating the Inland Revenue and other Government Departments out of money, seem to get off scot-free. However, Conservative Members seem to be obsessed with hounding and harassing the small debtors, many of whom fall into debt through no fault of their own but because of unemployment in the family, or sickness or poverty of one kind or another.

The Minister rightly referred to the liaison that is proposed in the existing code, and it is fair that we reply to that point. However, liaison seems to be inadequate because sometimes it does not take place, and sometimes even though it takes place, the people are still disconnected.

Under my Bill I propose a scheme. If the House passes these new clauses, as I hope it will, when the Minister comes to publish the regulations proposed in the amendment I hope that he will include within them statutory liaison so that it will be mandatory on the part of the electricity boards to inform the DHSS and the appropriate social work authority, or the social services authority as it is called south of the border, to ascertain whether the people threatened with disconnection fall into any of the categories mentioned in the code: in other words, as my Bill says, to ascertain (1) whether the consumer is receiving—

  1. (a) Supplementary Benefit or
  2. (b) Family Income Supplement or
  3. (c) Unemployment Benefit; and
(2) whether the consumer is—
  1. (a) blind or
  2. (b) severely sick or
  3. (c) disabled; and
(3) whether all the people residing in the house to which the supply refers are old pensioners; and (4) whether there are any children under the age of 11 years residing in the house to which the supply refers. The Minister seemed to imply in his earlier remarks that such action might mean undue interference, or even prying, into the private affairs of consumers. However, what is even worse and what is an intrusion into the private affairs of the consumer is that when cutting off the supply, some of the electricity boards seem to adopt a particularly draconian attitude. The South of Scotland electricity board seems to be worse that the average electricity board in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is an intrusion into people's privacy when the electricity board cuts off their electricity supply, sometimes even entering the house to cut off the supply without the express permission of the tenant or consumer. That is an unwanted intrusion into the privacy and liberty of the individual. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board.

Mr. James Hamilton (Bothwell)

This is an important point. Motherwell district council has written to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Dr. Bray) and myself about the South of Scotland electricity board breaking into people's houses. The local authority has to pay for the repairs to doors and so on, which is disgraceful.

Mr. Canavan

I am glad that my hon. Friend intervened with that point. That should not be allowed to continue. I know that my hon. Friend looks after his constituents very well. However, it should not be left to individual Members of Parliament to make representations on behalf of individual constituents to the appropriate authorities.

Ministers should lean on nationalised, publicly owned industries, which should listen to what the Ministers are saying. They are supposed to be accountable to Ministers and Parliament. I hope, therefore, that the Minister of State and the Secretary of State, who, unfortunately, is not here, will lean on the electricity boards and tell them that enough is enough and that until we get a statutory code of practice, they should lay off some of the bully-boy tactics to which they are resorting.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Does my hon. friend accept that the Government lean on the public sector industries only by forcing them to increase their charges? It was announced in January 1980 that the fuel supply industries would have to increase their charges. The Government are probably not averse to bully-boy tactics by the publicly owned industries as it brings such industries into disrepute. What we need is more of a service mentality from both the Government and the publicly owned industries.

Mr. Canavan

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It seems that the only way in which the Government are willing to intervene in the running of the nationalised industries is to cut public investment in nationalised industries and also to tell them to put up their prices, which hurts the consumer and is one of the principal reasons why we are debating the tragic issue of disconnections. Many disconnections would not take place if the price of domestic fuel were a bit more reasonable.

One of the root causes of disconnections is fuel poverty. The new clauses that we are discussing do not deal directly with that, but it is worth saying in passing that the additional heating allowance that is given to some, but not all, recipients of supplementary benefit amounts to the handsome sum of £1.90 per week. What can one do with £1.90 per week? One could not even buy half a bag of coal. It would not go far towards meeting the average electricity or gas bill for the average household. I hope that in the longer term the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Social Security will get together and take up my suggestion of a more realistic fuel allowance, especially for the families and other consumers who are most in need.

5.45 pm

I shall make a brief reference to new clause 5. The ethos behind the Bill seems to be further privatisation or to give to people in the private sector the opportunity to generate and supply electricity. If that comes about to any degree—I hope that it does not, and I support those in the House and outside who will try to stop the mad, obsessive privatisation policy of the Government—and the domestic consumer is dependent upon the private supply, I hope that the Minister will extend the existing code of practice to the private supplier. It would be even better to implement a statutory code of practice here and now by accepting new clause 4, and to accept new clause 5, which extends that statutory code of practice to people who, unfortunately, may be completely dependent on a private supplier.

Despite what I said about some people in the public sector, notably the draconian attitude of the South of Scotland electricity board, I have no doubt that if electricity generation and supply were completely privatised and the average domestic consumer were completely at the mercy of a private racketeer who wanted to make a fast buck without thinking of the social consequences, the number of disconnections would be several hundred thousand a year and not just 100,000 a year.

The Minister has a nice smile on his face. I should like to give him a complimentary copy of my People's Right to Fuel Bill. I remind him that it is due to have a Second Reading on 22 April. I hope that the Government will make a helpful response and say either that they will provide time for the Second Reading debate on my Bill by giving it Government support or that the Bill is so well drafted and good in principle that it does not even need a Second Reading debate. I hope that on 22 April, instead of the Government Whip shouting, "Object," it will receive an unopposed Second Reading and go straight to Committee.

In the meantime, I urge the House to support my hon. Friends who have tabled new clauses 4 and 5, because they will go some way towards solving the problem, which will be more comprehensively dealt with in my private Member's Bill.

Mr. Palmer

As I spoke at great length on other clauses, I do not propose to add much more than has been said already from both sides of the House in support of the new clause. When the Bill was in Committee, I claimed to be the only member of the Committee who had disconnected the supply of a consumer. It was a long time ago. The circumstances were somewhat bizarre, to say the least.

We have all had the experience in our constituencies of some terribly hard cases, such as when the supply to elderly people or single-parent families is cut off, which is the last straw. Therefore, I endorse what has been said from both sides of the House, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith), in support of the new clause. My reason for mentioning in Committee that there was an employee point of view on this matter was that it is an extraordinarily unpleasant task for electricity employees to enforce disconnections.

My argument for new clause 4 is somewhat different from other arguments which have already been deployed, although I endorse them. I do not know whether there is some special harshness about the Scottish character that means that the electricity boards there act in a draconian way. I take cases to the South-West electricity board in Bristol, and I applaud the humanity with which it deals with them. Things may be different in Scotland.

Electricity boards are business undertakings and it is difficult for them, with the best will in the world and the assistance of a statutory code, to act as welfare organisations. The boards and their employees would be assisted by a definite statutory code. They would then know where they stood. It is not the chairmen, but the employees of electricity boards who must carry out the unpleasant task of disconnection and they would be able to quote the authority of the House in support of their action. There is, therefore, a strong case for a statutory code from the boards' point of view. That point has not been made.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I had not intended to speak until I heard the speeches of the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) and the right hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Mabon). Although I support the statutory approach, I wonder whether it is all worth while. The right hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow was right when he said that we must consider the cost of all the paper, printing, advisory pamphlets and the rest. There must be an infinitesimal number of people who are disconnected because they are dodging payment, either deliberately or accidentally. The costs involved cannot be worth the candle.

I do not know what happens generally, but disconnection can be frightening for an old age pensioner who is not dodging. A pensioner may spend a few months during the winter with a son or daughter in the country and not be at home to receive the first bill or the reminder, only to arrive home and find that he is threatened with disconnection. If such a person has been away during the winter, he will not think of such a bill. It may be that that person is not up to date with his payments, but he may have previously paid bills regularly. However, on his return he may find a letter saying that the electricity board is obliged to cut him off unless he pays forthwith. Such a letter would frighten the life out of an old age pensioner.

I do not know why that should be the case with energy bills—it does not happen with water rates. People are not threatened with the disconnection of their water supply because they have not paid the water rate. Why should anyone have the right to enter someone's house and cut off essential services?

We give public bodies, such as electricity boards, opportunities that do not exist anywhere else. An ordinary person may have a mortgage and be in arrears with payments of that mortgage. Is a building society allowed to tell such a person that, because he is in arrears with mortgage payments, he will be evicted tomorrow —indeed, that it intends forcibly to enter his house and kick him out? It is ridiculous to believe that a building society could tell a person, "You have paid your mortgage religiously for the past 30 years but, because you are one month in arrears, by law, we are allowed to enter your home forcibly and kick you out." If that happened, the House would be up in arms and create hell. We should tell electricity boards, "Stop it. There will be no cut-offs for any reason." By all means let an electricity board take a genuine dodger to court and explain the case there and let the court decide.

What happens to the man who is in arrears with income tax? Does the Inland Revenue go along to his firm and say, "He is a month in arrears with his income tax, so stop his wages next week."? Would the Inland Revenue do that, and would we stand for it? Of course not, so let us stop it. Let us say that no board or body is allowed to cut off an essential service unless it goes through the normal and proper channels of court action like everyone else. I am not referring specifically to either public or private electricity undertakings. We should treat them all in the same way. We should insist that the customer has the right to be treated decently. That is not happening at the moment.

Mr. Cryer

I apologise for not being in the Chamber earlier, but, as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, one has other duties to perform.

This issue is important. All Opposition Members deal with disconnections that cause much pain and suffering. Only recently, I arranged for the reconnection of a supply to a house where a family with three small children, one aged two, live. The two-year-old child had never seen that house lit by electricity. It had been cut off for so long because the family were unable to obtain the reconnection fee and a sufficient payment for the outstanding debt to satisfy the electricity board.

I recommend that a code of practice be instituted. Although boards have codes of practice which, by and large, they follow, the fact remains that such a code of practice is less satisfactory than one which has the backing of the House.

New clause 4 suggests regulations and statutory instruments and, therefore, statutory enforcement. It is worth pointing out that the Government have applied their mind to a code of practice for closed shops. Not only have they produced a code of practice, which is at present before the House as a statutory instrument which must be approved by both Houses, but they have altered it. The Government have sought consultation on that code, received representations and, as a result, introduced an amended code of practice.

An enormous quantity of administrative effort has been spent on something that is much less vital than the cutting off of electricity supplies. Some of that human and administrative energy should have been diverted towards allowing people to keep their electricity supply more often and stopping the disconnections.

There is a problem about recipients of invalidity benefit which the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) covers well. They are not allowed to have deductions made at source. Therefore, they get into financial difficulties and face disconnection.

The Social Security and Housing Benefits Act, which will come into effect soon, will create more problems as it changes the administration of social security payments. I should have thought that a statutory code of practice for disconnections would make officials who operate on behalf of electricity boards think twice before continuing with disconnections because it has the stamp of Parliament. Ordinary people would therefore be afforded greater protection. That is not an unreasonable request.

The Government can be accused of adopting the attitude that it does not matter if publicly owned industries are criticised. It is, after all, in the Government's interests to bring the publicly owned sector into disrepute. Therefore, if the Government do little about them and if some people who work in publicly owned industries behave high-handedly, the Government will have more propaganda for their case. If the Government are more worried about a public service and providing people with a decent service than about enjoining the public fuel supply sector, such as the electricity and gas boards, to increase their charges—as they have done in the past—they should accept new clauses 4 and 5.

Parliamentary backing for a code of practice for those with the lowest incomes should be accepted by the Government. If they do not accept it, they are extremely hard-hearted.

6 pm

Mr. John Smith

The speeches that we have heard today show how important Parliament considers this matter to be. The Labour party was justified in moving the new clauses to focus the attention of the House on a serious and important social problem. The clauses also show a sensible and effective means of progress.

Fuel poverty is a serious problem. Many people, especially poor families, have serious problems paying for their fuel. A recent important social change is that the cost of energy in the average home is higher than the cost of either rent or a mortgage. Therefore, energy costs are perhaps the most important part of the family budget, apart from food.

If Parliament is to be truly representative of the needs of many British people, as the Opposition wish, it must concentrate its attention on such serious social problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) said, the problem cannot be regarded as insignificant, because more than 100,000 households in Britain are disconnected during a year. The problem is not made easier by the recent large increases in energy prices. The Government are responsible for increasing the price of electricity by more than 84 per cent. in three years. That adds strain to the problems of families in financial difficulties.

The present code of practice has been improved during the years. Sensible amendments have been made to it and experience has been gained, and no doubt the voluntary code of practice works better now than it did several years ago. It has been expanded to take account of circumstances and has been subject to criticism by the Policy Studies Institute and other bodies that have tried to improve it. With the new clauses we are trying to take the matter a step further. The time is right to put the voluntary code into statute form. It has been tested in the real and harsh circumstances of life, and has been amended, improved and refined. It is time to take it that important step further and to make it part of the legal rules by incorporating it in a statutory instrument.

In Committee, the Minister gave the usual reply of Ministers in such circumstances—he has given it again today—that to move towards a statutory form would be inflexible. The new clauses seek to put the voluntary code into statute, but there is nothing rigid about that because flexibility is built into the scheme. The important difference has nothing to do with flexibility or rigidity; it has to do with giving people a legal right if they are disconnected. They would not then depend upon a voluntary code of practice that is not backed by law, but would be defended and have legal protection.

That would be a more important step forward than the Minister recognised. It would mean that the community and Parliament recognised that disconnection was such a serious problem that those affected by it must have some legal protection. It would also be easier for the public authorities to administer the distasteful task, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) so sagely pointed out. If local authorities work within rules approved by Parliament, and revised occasionally in the light of changing social circumstaces and attitudes, they are in a much stronger position. They can say that they are carrying out a code approved by Parliament.

If the code becomes enshrined in statute, I hope the House will not think that it has completed its job, but will take the opportunity, as circumstances change, to update it and to ensure that it is working. Much could be said for having a debate once a year or every two or three years to consider changes and whether disconnections should continue to be carried out in some circumstances. I have much sympathy for the proposition that no old age pensioner should be disconnected either in winter or in summer, which has much support in the country and the House.

It is most important to give the code a statutory framework. My hon. Friend the Member for Bothwell (Mr. Hamilton) mentioned an incident that shows the difficulties that occur. Motherwell district council, which covers both our constituencies, is currently in dispute with the South of Scotland electricity board about who should pay for doors broken down when the board arrives to disconnect tenants. If the board cannot gain entry to a council house, it knocks down the door and the tenant refuses to pay for the repair because he was not responsible for breaking it down. The local authority sees the force of the tenant's remarks, and asks the board to pay for the repairs. So far, the board has declined to take up that responsibility and has suggested, ingeniously, that the problem could be avoided if the district council provided a joiner when the board must knock down the door so that it can be done with the minimum of damage.

An impasse has developed between Motherwell district council and the SSEB, and they have enrolled the assistance of myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Bothwell and other hon. Members. The next idea might well be that a Member of Parliament should be in attendance when the door is knocked down. My hon. Friend and I are not sure what to do next. The story may sound like low farce, but I have the letter that details the steps in this developing drama.

As such silly incidents occur, we cannot claim, as the Minister did, to have refined the code of practice to the point where it works smoothly and effectively. The voluntary code is not perfect, but it is a good start and it has been improved. It is now time to take it an important step forward. We should not lose sight of new clause 5, because if we must suffer the private generation of electricity—I doubt whether it will ever make a major contribution to domestic consumption—it would be wrong if the private sector escaped the obligations that we heap upon public authorities. Private companies should be treated in the same way as public authorities.

The Opposition are strongly against the main principles of the Bill, and although we secured some improvements at various stages we shall remain hostile to it. There is probably an irreconcilable difference of philosophy and opinion between both sides of the House, but the support of the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) in Committee and in the House today shows that there is wide support for the new clauses in the country and the House. Therefore, I hope that this will be one of the opportunities that Parliament takes from time to time to make a genuine, humane, modern and sensible improvement to the statute, and that we shall recognise the problems of disconnection, and the need to give those who suffer from it legal rights. They are the poor and dispossessed, and no Member of Parliament who does his job well is unfamiliar with the agonising problems of poor families, has not visited their houses and seen children huddled round a table by candle light, or visited a house that is heated by dangerous paraffin appliances because the family cannot pay for electric under-floor heating or other more expensive forms of heating. Many children are growing up in a twilight world because the family cannot afford the fuel, heating and lighting that are an essential background to proper family life. The lonely and many other groups are also suffering.

The Government do not have to change their policy. The voluntary code does not have to change. The House must take the important step of giving these people the legal right, which they have not had before, and I hope the House will have the courage to do so this evening.

Mr. Gray

I have already made a substantial contribution to the debate, so I do not intend to weary the House by reiterating what I have already said. However, a number of hon. Members have spoken since I sat down, so I will try to say something which may interest the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), even though he has not been present for very long.

The hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) and for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) who were not members of the Standing Committee, were concerned about the methods used by some boards to gain entry to houses for the purpose of disconnection. I refer them to what I said in Committee: I would further say that, under the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954, the board concerned would have had to obtain a warrant from a magistrate and to have given the householder 24 hours' notice."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 15 February 1983; c.497.] So it is not just a case of giving 24 hours' notice. The board is supposed to have obtained a warrant. If that was not done, an investigation would be required.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Mr. X may go away perhaps a week or a month before Christmas without paying a heavy bill. He is away and the house is empty. The board could deliver anything it liked, including the 24 hours' notice, but Mr. X would be away. When he comes back he finds that the board has entered his house because he is in arrears. The board may have sent him one or two bills. He may have received the rates bill. This is unfair because he may not have paid his mortgage, but he does not return to find that he has been evicted because he has not paid his mortgage.

Mr. Cryer

He may be in hospital.

Mr. Lewis


Mr. Gray

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West makes a fair point, but he does not highlight the fact that this is the last stage. A lengthy procedure for the rendering of accounts must be gone through before this last stage is initiated. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I cannot agree with him that hardship is involved. The case is answered.

The right hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Mabon) has become extremely concerned about the code of practice and, indeed, about the whole situation. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he was Minister of State, Department of Energy for more than three years during which his Government did nothing to improve the code of practice. It is worth recalling that.

The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith), who, with the exception of his reference to electricity prices, was fair in his comments, pointed out that between 1979 and 1982 domestic electricity prices had risen by 84 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman was Minister of State, Department of Energy before the right hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow. May I remind him that between 1974 and 1979 domestic electricity prices rose, not by 84 per cent. but by 147 per cent. while, at the same time, industrial electricity prices, which between 1979 and 1982 have risen by 49 per cent., rose by 115 per cent. It is easy to quote figures in the House, but first it is worth conducting some research.

Dr. Mabon: Is it not the case that in different Administrations we try gradually to improve the codes? Have we not reached the stage when we must accept a statutory right in this regard and have no disconnections?

Mr. Gray

I do not think that we have reached that stage. I said earlier that the recently revised code should be given an opportunity to prove itself before further steps, such as legislation, are contemplated. I believe that the practical effects of these clauses would be unhelpful to those in whose interests they are tabled.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

For how long should the revised code prove itself?

Mr. Gray

We must give it a reasonable chance. I shall not commit myself to a specific period at this time, but I think that a few years would be a reasonable time.

The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) was kind enough to give me a copy of his private Member's Bill, which I shall study with interest. I shall not take up many of his remarks because I dealt with them earlier when the hon. Gentleman had to leave the Chamber. He will no doubt read them. He referred to 100,000 disconnections. The problem is serious but should not be exaggerated. I remind the hon. Gentleman that about 50 per cent. are reconnected within two or three days. It is a short period of disconnection. The problem is serious, but we should not get it out of proportion. To say that 100,000 people are disconnected and to give the impression that the disconnections last for a long time is not right. But I take the hon. Gentleman's point and he will no doubt pursue it further in his Bill.

I do not wish to waste the time of the House. We have dealt thoroughly with the two new clauses. In Committee I was asked to consider the matter again. I gave no assurance whatever because I genuinely believed that it would be much better to allow the new code of practice to have a trial period. I am still of that opinion, and I must ask the House to reject the new clause.

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

The House divided: Ayes 180, Noes 209.

Division No. 85] [6.16 pm
Abse, Leo Cowans, Harry
Adams, Allen Craigen, J. M. (G'gow, M'hill)
Allaun, Frank Crawshaw, Richard
Alton, David Crowther, Stan
Anderson, Donald Cryer, Bob
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Cunliffe, Lawrence
Ashton, Joe Dalyell, Tam
Atkinson, David (B'm'th,E) Davidson, Arthur
Atkinson, N. (H'gey,) Davis, Terry (B'ham, Stechf'd)
Bagier, Gordon A.T. Deakins, Eric
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (H'wd) Dewar, Donald
Beith, A. J. Dixon, Donald
Bennett, Andrew (St'kp't N) Dormand, Jack
Bidwell, Sydney Dubs, Alfred
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Duffy, A. E. P.
Bradley, Tom Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.
Bray, Dr Jeremy Eadie, Alex
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Eastham, Ken
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're)
Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n & P) Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)
Campbell, Ian English, Michael
Campbell-Savours, Dale Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)
Canavan, Dennis Faulds, Andrew
Carmichael, Neil Flannery, Martin
Carter-Jones, Lewis Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Cartwright, John Ford, Ben
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Forrester, John
Clarke, Thomas (C'b'dge, A'rie) Foster, Derek
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S) Foulkes, George
Cohen, Stanley Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Coleman, Donald Freud, Clement
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Garrett, John (Norwich S)
George, Bruce Palmer, Arthur
Golding, John Park, George
Gourlay, Harry Pavitt, Laurie
Graham, Ted Penhaligon, David
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife) Prescott, John
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Race, Reg
Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith Radice, Giles
Haynes, Frank Richardson, Jo
Heffer, Eric S. Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Home Robertson, John Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Homewood, William Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Hooley, Frank Rooker, J. W.
Howell, Rt Hon D. Roper, John
Hoyle, Douglas Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
Hughes, Mark (Durham) Rowlands, Ted
Hughes, Roy (Newport) Sever, John
Hughes, Simon (Bermondsey) Short, Mrs Renée
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd) Silverman, Julius
Johnson, James (Hull West) Skinner, Dennis
Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Smith, Rt Hon J. (N Lanark)
Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda) Snape, Peter
Jones, Barry (East Flint) Soley, Clive
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Spearing, Nigel
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Spellar, John Francis (B'ham)
Kerr, Russell Spriggs, Leslie
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Steel, Rt Hon David
Lambie, David Stoddart, David
Leighton, Ronald Stott, Roger
Lestor, Miss Joan Strang, Gavin
Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW) Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Litherland, Robert Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Lyon, Alexander (York) Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson Torney, Tom
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Wainwright, E.(Dearne V)
McElhone, Mrs Helen Walker, Rt Hon H.(D'caster)
McGuire, Michael (Ince) Watkins, David
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Weetch, Ken
Maclennan, Robert Welsh, Michael
McNamara, Kevin White, Frank R.
McTaggart, Robert White, J. (G'gow Pollok)
Marshall, D(G'gow S'ton) Whitlock, William
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Wigley, Dafydd
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Martin, M (G'gow S'burn) Williams, Rt Hon A.(S'sea W)
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Williams, Rt Hon Mrs (Crosby)
Maxton, John Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Maynard, Miss Joan Wilson, Rt Hon Sir H.(H'ton)
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Wilson, William (C'try SE)
Mitchell, R. C. (Soton Itchen) Winnick, David
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Woolmer, Kenneth
Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw) Wright, Sheila
Morton, George Young, David (Bolton E)
Newens, Stanley
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Tellers for the Ayes:
O'Halloran, Michael Mr. James Hamilton and
O'Neill, Martin Mr. Allen McKay.
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Alexander, Richard Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Braine, Sir Bernard
Ancram, Michael Brinton, Tim
Arnold, Tom Brittan, Rt. Hon. Leon
Atkins, Rt Hon H.(S'thorne) Brooke, Hon Peter
Atkins, Robert (Preston N) Brotherton, Michael
Atkinson, David (B'm'th,E) Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'n)
Baker, Kenneth (St.M'bone) Bruce-Gardyne, John
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Buck, Antony
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Budgen, Nick
Bendall, Vivian Burden, Sir Frederick
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Butcher, John
Berry, Hon Anthony Butler, Hon Adam
Bevan, David Gilroy Carlisle, John (Luton West)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)
Blackburn, John Chalker, Mrs. Lynda
Boscawen, Hon Robert Chapman, Sydney
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) McCrindle, Robert
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Macfarlane, Neil
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) MacKay, John (Argyll)
Clegg, Sir Walter McQuarrie, Albert
Cockeram, Eric Major, John
Colvin, Michael Marland, Paul
Cope, John Marlow, Antony
Costain, Sir Albert Marten, Rt Hon Neil
Cranborne, Viscount Mates, Michael
Critchley, Julian Mather, Carol
Crouch, David Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus
Dickens, Geoffrey Mawby, Ray
Dorrell, Stephen Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Dover, Denshore Mellor, David
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Meyer, Sir Anthony
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Durant, Tony Miscampbell, Norman
Dykes, Hugh Moate, Roger
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Monro, Sir Hector
Eggar, Tim Montgomery, Fergus
Elliott, Sir William Moore, John
Fairgrieve, Sir Russell Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Fell, Sir Anthony Murphy, Christopher
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Myles, David
Fisher, Sir Nigel Neale, Gerrard
Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N) Needham, Richard
Fletcher-Cooke, Sir Charles Nelson, Anthony
Fookes, Miss Janet Neubert, Michael
Forman, Nigel Newton, Tony
Fraser, Rt Hon Sir Hugh Onslow, Cranley
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Osborn, John
Fry, Peter Page, John (Harrow, West)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Page, Richard (SW Herts)
Gardner, Sir Edward Parris, Matthew
Goodhart, Sir Philip Patten, John (Oxford)
Goodhew, Sir Victor Pawsey, James
Goodlad, Alastair Percival, Sir Ian
Gorst, John Pink, R. Bonner
Gow, Ian Pollock, Alexander
Gray, Rt Hon Hamish Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Greenway, Harry Price, Sir David (Eastleigh)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Proctor, K. Harvey
Grist, Ian Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Gummer, John Selwyn Rees-Davies, W. R.
Hamilton, Hon A. Renton, Tim
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Rhodes James, Robert
Hampson, Dr Keith Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Hannam, John Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Haselhurst, Alan Rossi, Hugh
Hawksley, Warren Rost, Peter
Hayhoe, Barney Royle, Sir Anthony
Heddle, John Rumbold, Mrs A. C. R.
Hicks, Robert Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Hill, James Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Holland, Philip (Carlton) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Hordern, Peter Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Hunt, David (Wirral) Shepherd, Richard
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Sims, Roger
Irvine, RtHon Bryant Godman Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Speed, Keith
Jessel, Toby Speller, Tony
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Spence, John
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Kaberry, Sir Donald Sproat, Iain
Knight, Mrs Jill Stanbrook, Ivor
Knox, David Stanley, John
Lamont, Norman Steen, Anthony
Lang, Ian Stokes, John
Latham, Michael Stradling Thomas, J.
Lawrence, Ivan Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Thompson, Donald
Lester, Jim (Beeston) Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Rutland) Thornton, Malcolm
Lloyd, Ian (Havant & W'Ioo) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
Loveridge, John Trippier, David
Luce, Richard van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Lyell, Nicholas Waddington, David
Wakeham, John Williams, D,(Montgomery)
Walker, B. (Perth) Wolfson, Mark
Waller, Gary Young, Sir George (Acton)
Warren, Kenneth Younger, Rt Hon George
Watson, John
Wells, Bowen Tellers for the Noes:
Wheeler, John Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and
Wiggin, Jerry Mr. Douglas Hogg.
Wilkinson, John

Question accordingly negatived.

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