HC Deb 29 November 1983 vol 49 cc769-71 3.53 pm
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to stop disconnections of domestic fuel supply in cases of hardship and to help eliminate fuel poverty; and for connected purposes. Last year I introduced a similar Bill, but, unfortunately, it went no further than First Reading because the Government would grant no time for further progress. I feel justified in trying to introduce a Bill this year because the number of domestic fuel disconnections seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. In the 12 months to 30 September 1983, the number of domestic electricity disconnections in Britain was about 100,000. The corresponding figure for gas supply disconnections was nearly 30,000. Those figures are higher than the corresponding figures for last year. They are a national scandal and show an aggregate of human misery for many families. It shows that the existing code for disconnections is not working.

The Policy Studies Institute recently produced evidence to show that over 90 per cent. of the cases of fuel disconnections come within the special categories specifically mentioned in the code of practice—people on supplementary benefit, family income supplement, and unemployment benefit, and old-age pensioners, the blind, the sick, the disabled and families with children under the age of 11 years. When such people are being deprived of a day-to-day necessity, there is something wrong with the system.

I recently had a constituency case of a single parent with a young baby whose electricity was cut off when she was out of the house. She returned to discover that an electricity board official had entered the house without her permission, and perhaps even without a warrant, because I do not know and she does not know. She was left without the electricity supply that she needed for heating, cooking and lighting.

Only yesterday the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux produced a report entitled "Poverty in Paying for Fuel" based on 200 cases which had been submitted to it by citizens advice bureaux throughout the country. Some of them are similar to cases that I have come across. There is an old age pensioner, for example, with a gas debt of £160. A gas board official broke into the house while the pensioner was out, possibly without a warrant, and disconnected the supply. Another case cited is of a family with two children aged two and five years. One of the children suffered from acute arthritis. That family's electricity supply was disconnected. In March this year two cases of threatened disconnections were reported to the association when it was not the consumer's debt; the landlord had incurred the debt. There were young children in both those families.

The purely voluntary code of practice is inadequate. People need statutory protection. One of the aims of my Bill is to make the code of practice statutory rather than voluntary. The boards would require a court order before any disconnection could be implemented. After all, no landlord can evict a tenant without a court order, and surely the same should apply to disconnections by the publicly owned fuel boards.

My Bill would also provide for early statutory liaison before a problem reaches the stage of threatened disconnection so that the appropriate advice may be given not just by the board but possibly by the DHSS and social work authorities and arrangements made to pay the debt by instalments instead of allowing it to build up to some unpayable amount.

I also propose an extension of the fuel direct scheme so that it will no longer be open solely to certain families in receipt of supplementary benefit but to anyone in receipt of DHSS benefits who wishes to participate in the scheme. There should be an extension of the opportunity to have a prepayment meter installed. If a person wants to have a prepayment meter, he should have a statutory right to it, unless it can be shown that for reasons of safety or security it would be against his interests or those of the public to install a meter.

Above all, I wish to tackle fuel poverty, which is the root of the problem, the main causes of which are low incomes and the massive price increases that have been levied by the nationalised fuel boards over recent years. I believe that recently there has been a Cabinet decision to increase the price of fuel still further. Since the Tory Government came to power in May 1979, electricity prices have increased by 82 per cent. and gas prices by 112 per cent. The Government claim that they believe in free market forces and that they do not want to intervene to reduce prices, but they are intervening to increase the prices of the nationalised fuel boards, even when the fuel boards do not want to levy those increases because they are making massive profits—like the British Gas Corporation's £660 million last year.

My Bill proposes a price freeze for at least 12 months on gas and electricity prices, and a comprehensive system of fuel allowances. At present, someone who is receiving supplementary benefit may qualify for an additional fuel allowance, but in most cases that amounts to the miserable sum of £2.05 a week. One cannot buy even half a bag of coal with that amount of money. Such a sum will not go far towards heating a house with either gas or electricity. I propose a comprehensive system of fuel allowances to help those in need; and, to obviate any requirement for yet another means test, I propose that it be linked to the existing housing benefit. We could also use it to eradicate the anomalies that have occurred since the introduction of housing benefit, whereby some people, particularly the old in sheltered housing, are getting even less assistance under the housing benefit scheme than they had under the previous scheme.

The exact amount of fuel allowance in each case will depend on the financial and domestic circumstances of the applicant and upon the climate of the area in which that person lives. Recently, Age Concern reported that the cost of heating a house in central Scotland is 28 per cent. more than in the south of England. Yet, the risk of being disconnected is more than three times greater in Scotland than in the south of England. The reason for that is the higher fuel bills because of the higher heating costs in central Scotland and also the draconian attitude of the South of Scotland Electricity Board, which may be amending its policy slightly but not nearly enough. There has been a slight improvement in the number of disconnections that it makes since I raised this matter last year. But we should continue parliamentary pressure on the SSEB, and on all the electricity boards, to try to reduce the number of disconnections to a minimum, if not to stop them altogether.

So far, this winter has been mild, even in Scotland, but we do not know for how long that will continue. It is possible, indeed probable, that in the weeks that lie ahead many people, particularly families with young children and the elderly, will face the risk of hypothermia. Many may even face the risk of literally freezing to death. We know from official statisitics that the number of elderly persons who die in the winter months is 48,000 more than the number who die in the summer months. Those disturbing statistics speak for themselves, and demonstrate the need for my Bill.

My Bill aims to be a charter to eliminate fuel poverty and to stop the unnecessary disconnections which cause misery, hardship and health risk to countless thousands of families. Therefore, I ask the House to support my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. William McKelvey, Mr. Ernie Ross, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mr. Gavin Strang, Mr. Robert Parry, Mr. David Winnick, Mr. Dave Nellist, Mr. Bob Clay, Mr. Tam Dalyell, Mr. Allen McKay and Mr. Dennis Skinner.

  1. PEOPLE'S RIGHT TO FUEL 54 words