HC Deb 28 November 1983 vol 49 cc636-7
3. Mr. Fisher

asked the Secretary of State for Energy how many consumers are paying their accounts to regional gas boards by means of pan-payment arrangements.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am advised by the British Gas Corporation that the number of customers who have special arrangements for payment through the corporation's budget and other schemes is just over 2 million.

Mr. Fisher

Does the Minister not consider that a very large total? Does he accept that the reason is that people cannot afford gas at present prices? Therefore, will he reconsider the proposed January increase in price, which is bound to threaten those on low incomes, the sick and the elderly, and may in a hard winter put some people's lives at risk from hypothermia?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Apparently the hon. Gentleman did not listen to my reply. The budget and other schemes, which cover a whole series of arrangements for payment, are for the convenience of customers and are welcomed by them. As for any hardship, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the Government this year will pay out £350 million to help consumers with gas and electricity costs.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the reform which really helps the small consumer, was initiated in the last Parliament, under which the standing charge will never be more than half the total bill? Does he agree that it will help the elderly especially?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The decision of the British Gas Corporation and most of the area electricity boards was to make the standing charge no more than 50 per cent. of smaller bills. That was at the initiative of the Government, and it has generally been welcomed.

Mr. Hannam

How many gas disconnections were there in 1982–83 compared with the preceding year?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am afraid that I cannot supply that information without notice.

Mr. Rowlands

In view of the impending large increase in gas prices in January and the imposition of a £550 million gas levy every year, which is also passed on to the consumer, how many more people will need special assistance next year with their fuel bills?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

There is a later question about fuel prices. The amount of help that the Government are giving to the less well off—I mentioned the sum—means that more than 2.25 million consumers benefit, and it is greatly appreciated by them.