HC Deb 06 May 2004 vol 420 cc1485-6
8. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

How many (a) gas and (b) electricity customers were disconnected from supply in error in the last year for which figures are available. [170685]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)

Those are not among the data collected by the industry regulator, Ofgem. Such errors are unacceptable. If there is a pattern of them, I encourage Energywatch to put evidence before Ofgem so that it can take appropriate or necessary regulatory action.

Bob Russell

The Minister will be aware that there are 20,000 disconnections every year among gas and electricity customers, some of whom will have been disconnected in error. Will he bring pressure to bear on the industry to put into immediate effect Ofgem's recommendation that customers should have direct face-to-face contact with the supplier before the energy is disconnected, as then no error would be made?

Mr. Sutcliffe

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Procedures are in place to make sure that vulnerable customers are looked after. Ogem recommendations following the Bates case have been applied, and I believe that that is the appropriate position.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

But will my hon. Friend consider whether there is any other industry in which disconnection of service with such consequences would be allowed? In this day and age, are there not more appropriate means of debt collection than disconnection? Should we not move beyond this antiquated system of allowing the power utilities to cut off supply?

Mr. Sutcliffe

As I said, the issue is vulnerable people and how they are protected. A code of practice is in place that protects people, and there are many steps to take before disconnection, which I believe are appropriate. If Energywatch can come up with evidence of errors, it is appropriate that Ofgem should then take action.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con)

One way in which customers are disconnected is through power cuts. Does the Minister recognise that that is a real problem in rural areas such as mine? I will not ask him to comment on the fact that a number of those seem to be caused by swans flying into electricity pylons, but will he consider the compensation regime, which seems capricious? Is he aware that someone who undergoes four power cuts of three hours each gets compensated, but someone who undergoes six power cuts of two hours each does not?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That question is far too wide.