HC Deb 16 January 1992 vol 201 cc1179-81
Mr. Redwood

I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 7, line 35, after 'sheriff', insert—

'( ) Except in such circumstances (if any) as may be prescribed by regulations under this section—

  1. (a) the Director or an arbitrator (or in Scotland an arbiter) appointed by him shall not determine any billing dispute which is the subject of proceedings before, or with respect to which judgment has been given by, any court; and
  2. (b)neither party to any billing dispute which has been referred to the Director for determination in accordance with regulations under this section shall commence proceedings before any court in respect of that dispute pending its determination in accordance with the regulations.

( ) No designated operator may commence proceedings before any court in respect of any charge in connection with the provision by him of any relevant service unless, not less than 28 days before doing so, the customer concerned was informed by him, in such form and manner as may be prescribed by regulations under this section, of—

  1. (a) his intention to commence proceedings;
  2. (b) the customer's rights by virtue of this section; and
  3. (c) such other matters (if any) as may be so prescribed.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 13, 14, 53 and 22.

Mr. Redwood

The amendments put it beyond doubt that resolution of a billing dispute by the director general should be available instead of, and not as well as, going to the county court. The amendments aim to prevent simultaneous actions going on in the two arenas, with the confusion that that would cause. In addition, the amendments would forestall the possibility that a utility might start debt proceedings in court against a customer who had disputed the bill and had referred that dispute to the director general. If the utility wants to take a customer to court it must give 28 days' notice and tell the customer of his right to go to the director general instead. Amendment No. 53 is clarificatory.

Mr. Morgan

May I ask for further clarification of exactly how the Minister envisages that the arrangement would work? I am concerned about how practical a measure it is in real life. I am worried that it would invite the public utilities in the first place to initiate debt proceedings, to issue the warning specified in the four clauses that we are offered as amendments affecting the regulatory set-up for the four utilities.

The utilities would say, along with the warning, "Instead of the debt proceedings continuing, you can have the matter referred to the director general—not as a complaint but for arbitration." Most people would then decide that they would have a better chance with the director general than with the county court because he sounds less threatening, and they would go to the director general, as provided under the new powers.

The Minister is trying to present this as a two-sided dispute, involving, as well as billing disputes in which the public utility is the injured party, or believes it is—because of late payment, non-payment, a bouncing cheque or whatever—billing disputes in which the aggrieved party is the customer. In common, I am sure, with other Members on both sides of the House, I get complaints about, for example, the withdrawal of the four meter readings per year. Such billing disputes always produce deep suspicions when bills are estimated only three times a year. Some electricity companies read meters even less often than that, and people tend to believe that whether the bills are overestimated or underestimated, the companies are cheating them. That may or may not be so, but it leads to suspicions.

In some billing disputes, the aggrieved party is the customer rather than the utility, and if this is to be an even-handed, 50:50, "citizens charter" style improvement in consumers' rights vis-a-vis monopoly utilities, the legislation should be drafted so that, if public utilities reduce the number of meter readings from four to three per year—or from eight to five over a two-year period, as some are now doing—the customer should be able to say. "I will initiate a form of protest or complaint against you."

The only way in which the measure before us can work is when companies say, "We wish to recover a debt from you, but, short of a county court procedure—threat, threat; nudge, nudge; wink, wink—if you like we shall not contest the bill but will refer it to the director general for arbitration." In the letter, that will seem an attractive proposition. They will say, "We could take you to the county court for debt, but one way out of this for you is to refer the matter to the director general, or an arbitrator appointed by him, not for a complaint but for final arbitration.

The threat of the county court frightens the life out of most people, especially elderly people, and it would still be there. There would simply be one alternative: "If you do not want to go to the county court, you can have a final arbitration by the director general." How much of a satisfactory additional right would that be for the average customer, if it becomes an excuse for the 20 odd utilities in the regulated monopoly sectors to litter the country with threats of county court action? There will be nothing to stop them, and they will be able to provide the little let-out that people may wish to obtain a final resolution through the director general or his arbitrator. I am not sure whether that is fair for consumers.

Mr. Redwood

The form of the amendments is clear and clarifies the position so that the issue will be resolved either by the court or by the director general. It is important that there should be an either-or choice. The customer gets the advantage, as the hon. Gentleman said in his disquisition, of being warned, with 28 days' notice of the intention to open court proceedings, and he will have the opportunity to enjoy his rights under the Bill. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have welcomed that. Surely the Labour party agrees that we do not want parallel actions going on, with the chance that each might come to a different decision, with the extra costs, delay and hazards that that would involve. There should be an either-or choice. The clauses must be balanced, and the amendments achieve just that. I commend them to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

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