§ 6.18 p.m.
§ LORD ROYLE
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In view of the lateness of the hour and the labours, which your Lordships have still to undertake this evening, I will endeavour to be as brief as I can, commensurate with trying to state my case. The Bill is aimed at the abolition of what, to me, and not only to me but to very many other people, appears to be quite an evil racket which goes on, in spite of legislation, about the supply of electricity through pre-paid meters, particularly where there are several occupants of one building or in caravans. There are many parts of the country where large houses have been converted into flats and flatlets. In my home town of Brighton, for example, there are hundreds of such places, and the honourable member for Paddington. South, who is a Conservative, Mr. Nicholas Scott, has told me of very many cases which have occurred in his constituency. He has expressed a desire to take over this Bill in another place, if your Lordships pass it in this House.
London must have very many places that are like Paddington. What happens in these towns and areas may be multiplied many times. My attention was first drawn to the matter by an article published in the Brighton and Hove Gazette on March 11, 1966. It told the story of an old lady living in a one-room flatlet whose relatives thought that she was spending far too much on electricity. They called for help from the electricity consultative council and discovered that she was paying 10d. a unit through the landlord's pre-paid hired meter. At the time the official maximum price was less than 2d. a unit, with 4d. a day extra 591 allowed for various expenses. The Brighton and Hove Gazette said in the article that they knew that there were hundreds of such cases in Brighton. Subsequently I discussed the matter with the Consumer Council, and this Bill comes before the House as a result of the discussions which took place, of their wide investigations and of their help.
In spite of the introduction in April, 1965, of the Resale of Electricity Order laying down a fixed maximum price, the Secretary of the South-Eastern Electricity Consumer Council has said that there is nothing that a tenant can do about it except go to law. Can your Lordships imagine old or poor, and in some cases ignorant, people, ignorant in a matter of this kind, taking the step which is involved in legal action, apart altogether from the threat of notices to quit which hang over their heads? The prepayment meter belongs to the landlord and he can recalibrate it to his own liking. Even the Electricity Board have no power to read the prepayment meter. They can only read the main meter, the account for which is paid quarterly to the Board. These prepayment meters are often purchased from second-hand dealers and are mostly reconditioned.
I have with me an advertisement from a journal—I never knew of it before—called the Exchange and Mart dated November 2, and one of its advertisements is headed, "There is money in slot meters." The advertisement certainly implies that the installation of a slot meter is a profitable investment. It even says, "All prices per unit settings available". By the courtesy of the Consumer Council, I have put one of these meters by the brass gates. If any noble Lord would like to see it after our debate, please look at it. On one part of it, in a very small circle, it says, "Rate A". And the landlord can change it to rate "B" or "C" or "D", whichever he likes. He has complete control over it.
I want to be brief, and I will state the problem in its simplest terms. The owner of property who wishes to have a main electricity supply introduced through a meter obtains from the Electricity Board a main meter, for which he is responsible and in respect of which he pays the standard price. From this meter the wiring system passes on through a number of 592 sub-meters, the number depending on how many separate residential areas the landlord intends to rent. It is mainly with the status of these sub-meters that my Bill intends to deal. The tenants who put in shillings, sixpences and pennies through the slot probably believe that this money is spent in paying the charge imposed by the local Electricity Board. They do not realise that the landlord pays his Bill at the end of each quarter and then collects what may be a substantially additional disguised rent. The Bill would also regulate other methods of charging where electricity is supplied to the main consumer and retailed by him to other consumers. The problem is not a new one, and the Electricity Boards recognise that the landlord's activities may serve to give an inflated idea of what the price of electricity actually is.
Others affected by the high electricity resale price are the many people who live on caravan sites and some of the visitors in boarding houses and hotels. The position of the caravan dweller is not clearly defined in law, and it is not certain how his tenure is secured. But my evidence indicates that overcharging in this sector is very common. When it comes to hotels and boarding houses, I remember an experience of my own a year or two ago when I went to stay in an hotel on the South Coast at Christmas time. The temperature of the bedr000m was not high enough and there was a meter there. I put a shilling in the meter and it ran out in less than a quarter of an hour with a one-bar electric fire. I was ignorant about the matter, as so many people are. I complained to the manager. He said that he would have to get the electricity people along to put it right. Now I know that he had it in his power to put it right, and was in fact "twisting" me on the amount of electricity I was using.
It has been suggested that it will be difficult for those who install prepayment meters in hotels and boarding-houses to take advantage of the clause in the Bill which allows the owner of a main meter to avoid criminal proceedings for overcharging if he repays the balance owing within a stipulated time. The purpose of this proposal is to enable the main purchaser to discover that he is making a profit in excess of that allowed by the Electricity Board and I should expect 593 that the result of this discovery would be a recalibration of the meter to see that the legitimate charge was made. A couple of weeks ago the Consumer Council bought one of these meters and found it capable of being calibrated to charge tenants far in excess of what is permitted by law. In passing, may I say that the only alternative to my Bill would be to empower meter inspectors to examine sub-meters and to enforce criminal sanctions where overcharging is discovered. At present they have no such power.
For the Record, may I quickly paraphrase the clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 says that any person who requires the payment of charges exceeding the maximum charges applicable shall within 28 days of receipt of the payment repay to the tenant the amount of the excess. In these circumstances the landlord must give the tenant a statement of the maximum which is applicable, of the amount received and of the amount which is in excess of the maximum charge. Then follow the penalties. Clause 2 deals with bodies corporate rather than individual landlords.
May I conclude by saying that I have submitted my Bill, with ample time, to the Minister of Power? It took him four months to reply to my letter, and then only after I had "pushed" him once or twice. In his reply the Minister says that the tenant has recourse to the law. I have dealt with the impossibility of this action by the kind of people who are mainly concerned. Secondly, he tells me that the general impression is that the 1965 Orders have proved useful as a safeguard for tenants with controlled rents and security of tenure. But what about the mass of people who have no security of tenure? I wonder how many cases where there is security of tenure have actually come before the courts.
Thirdly, the Minister says that 28 days might be unfair to the landlord who has overset the meter. I have not much sympathy for that kind of landlord, but I should be quite prepared, if necessary, to consider an Amendment to extend that period. The Minister says that the fine may be out of proportion. Well, it is a maximum fine, and the courts do not often go up to the maximum fine. Nevertheless, if necessary, I should agree to a reduction of the fine.
594 I know that the Minister is having a meeting with electricity consultative councils in March next to discuss the 1965 controls. Frankly, I am not very optimistic about that. Any outcome from that meeting without further legislation, and this racket can go on and on. Meanwhile, probably thousands of people are being "rooked". This is another form of Rachmanism—a hidden form of Rachmanism. The last annual report of the Southern Electricity Consultative Council expressed deep concern at the ineffectiveness of the current legislation. That report bears out my contentions. I shall listen carefully to what my noble friend has to say for the Government with regard to this Bill. I hope the House will not think that I have occupied too long in describing what I have in mind, and I sincerely hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Royle.)
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ LORD DENHAM
My Lords, there is no doubt that the rackets which the noble Lord has described do exist, and in certain places to a considerable extent. We on this side of the House would welcome a Bill that deals with such rackets, with the slight reservation, of course, that we should like to examine it closely to make sure that it attacks the various evils in the right way. Where there is a separate meter for the tenancy, as, for instance, in the case of a cottage that might be let, and the landlord reads the meter and passes on the charge to the tenant, I believe the formula produced by this Bill is a satisfactory one. I am a little unhappy, however, about the effect where coin boxes are used for payment. I believe every word that the noble Lord has said about coin boxes and the way they can be adjusted exactly as the landlord likes, but, to a certain extent, this particular Bill might be a bit unfair to the landlord.
Parliament has decreed numerous safeguards to prevent landlords from charging tenants excessive rents. As is always right on these occasions, the law leans over backwards to come down on the side of the tenant rather than on the side of the landlord. Occasionally one finds cafes where there is definite hardship to the landlord, perhaps where a landlady 595 lets a few rooms and can get only a very small rent indeed compared with the expenses that she has to pay. Places of that sort would probably have a coin box meter in each room. It is most important that where the rent is small the landlord should not be forced to lose money over the electricity. Many of the single rooms, especially in London, are let for one day or for short tenancies. Unless the landlady opens the coin box fairly often, she may well find when she does that she has a number of foreign coins inside, or those little discs that are made to put in "one-armed bandits", and when she comes at the end of the quarter to pay her electricity bill she finds that she has not enough money from the coin boxes to meet the charge that she has to pay. In those cases I think it could be said that a landlady could properly put up the price to the tenant, to a certain extent, in order to cover the amount that she might lose over a period from tenants who cheat her.
Even if the landlady complies with Clause 1(2)(a), and in order to fill in the little charge sheet that she has to do she empties the coin box and works out the sum, she may well find that a tenant who has been there for one night has already left. Although she can ask for rent in advance, she may well find that she loses a night's electricity because some foreign coin has been put in the coin box. This over a period could cause a certain amount of hardship to an owner of lodgings where there are a considerable number of rooms. That is my first slight worry.
My second worry is that Clause 1(2) puts a little too much of the burden in certain cases on the landlord or the landlady in terms of time and trouble. I am again thinking of the short-term tenancy. It could well prove a difficult mathematical problem for a landlady to be faced, perhaps several times in one morning, with having to work out the amount of electricity that has been used, multiply it by the maximum cost per unit, then add up the number of coins in the box and subtract one sum from the other in order to fill in the written information to give to the tenant. Many hotel rooms, as the noble Lord has said, have electric fires with coin boxes attached. There will be great difficulty for a hotel guest leaving early in the morning who might 596 have to wait not only for his bill but also while the night porter works out what proportion of the 2s. 6d. he put in the electric meter the night before must be returned to him.
These are small points, but I am a little worried as to whether it would not be better, as the noble Lord suggested, to make it possible for the Electricity Boards themselves to install coin meters which could be really efficient and sealed, so that the amount of electricity per coin could not be tampered with; meters that worked efficiently enough so that neither the landlord nor the tenant could cheat. If this were done, both the landlord and the tenant would benefit by the fact that with boxes of this sort the notice needed under Clause 1(2) would not be necessary in respect of short tenancies. I do not think that this would cause a great deal of extra work for the Electricity Boards, because once they had installed these coin boxes they could be inspected whenever the inspector came to read the main meter. If these small points can be cleared up, then I shall welcome this Bill.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, I rise to support most wholeheartedly the Bill so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Royle, and to thank him very much indeed for the charming and moving way in which he has put his case. It is a case that I know very well. It is a case which the noble Lord has taken up on behalf of the Consumer Council and of consumers. He has taken immense trouble to get his facts, and he has recounted to us this evening a number of experiences which I am sure noble Lords will agree are very damaging indeed, and told us about matters which we should all like to see put right.
I am a little concerned about the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, because it seemed to me that he took a point of view about the landlord being cheated. Naturally, one does not want a landlord to be cheated, and the noble Lord seemed to take the view that this was a matter with which the Bill does not deal. But, after all, the landlord is the kind of person who can well go to the courts and bring a case against someone who has cheated him. On the whole, he is probably a person of some substance, whereas the people we are concerned about are those, on the whole, rather 597 humble people who perhaps take a room or two rooms in a house, or who live in much more humble circumstances. Many of them are old-age pensioners who are not at all likely to go to the courts—indeed, they probably would not know how to do it.
I am not in the least worried about the landlord. I think he has every possibility of suing someone whom he knows, or has discovered, to have been cheating him, whereas the case put by the noble Lord, Lord Royle, of the tenant who is being "fleeced" by a landlord who is buying one of these meters, is a very different matter. As the noble Lord has said, we have brought one of these meters here to-day and noble Lords can look at it in the Lobby afterwards. These meters are being widely advertised and can be bought by any unscrupulous person.
This is a very serious matter indeed. We have a tremendous amount of evidence pouring into our offices. I can assure your Lordships that we have not taken this question up lightly in any way. We have been deeply concerned about it. It arose in the first place in regard to people living in caravans, and then we discovered a great many other cases of one kind or another, which amount to a kind of "Rachmanism" which I think we ought to see is stopped.
§ LORD DENHAM
My Lords, I hope my noble friend will give way for a moment. I tried to make it clear that my objections to this Bill were small ones on matters of detail. I was not thinking of the rich landlord "fleecing" his tenants, and trying to protect him: I was thinking of the poor—possibly even very poor—landlady who lets out rooms in her house, and who might be cheated by unscrupulous tenants.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
I understand the noble Lord's point, and of course there are two sides to this question. But on the whole, in the case of the people who let out rooms for a night, as the noble Lord previously suggested, the heating for those rooms would be done, as the noble Lord, Lord Royle, has said, by a shilling-in-the-slot meter which is put in and which will burn for either a longer or a shorter period, according to the honesty or dishonesty of the landlord. It is a meter, which allows 598 the tenant to buy a shilling's worth of electricity.
This Bill is designed to take account of people who are sub-letting accommodation of a variety of kinds and installing meters throughout their premises over which they have control and which the electricity meter readers cannot get at. They cannot go round to every room—they have not the authority. Therefore the position of the subtenants is extremely difficult and gives rise to a great deal of unfairness, and cheating. I am very keen that this Bill should stop this kind of exploitation.
I realise that it will probably mean a considerable amount of work for the readers of meters, but it cannot be beyond the bounds of possibility to arrange this through the electricity authorities. The noble Lord has said that there is going to be a meeting of the consultative committees of the electricity authorities. I am a little doubtful as to how much good that will do. I know that some consultative committees of the electricity authorities are concerned about this and would be anxious to put it right; but there are others who look upon it as a hopeless proposition and are not prepared to tackle it. I think it is time we did something about it, and in my opinion this Bill is an excellent effort in that direction. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Royle, that we may have to see some changes in the Bill. Indeed, there always are changes when Bills go through their Committee stage in this House, but the principle we support, and it is one which we hope your Lordships will support, too.
On the whole, noble Lords in this House are anxious to put right any wrongs which are discovered by organisations such as mine, and this is an occasion when your Lordships can be in advance of other people. Having produced this Bill to-day in your Lordships' House and, as I hope, given it its Second Reading, we are doing something ahead of time, and I am anxious that we should give the noble Lord, Lord Royle, every possible support. I congratulate him heartily on the Bill, which I support.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ LORD BUCKTON
My Lords, I feel the t I must intervene for a few minutes to welcome this Bill, for if it had not been for action which I took in another 599 place there would have been no Section 29 of the Electricity Act for the noble Lord to seek to amend. My only surprise is that his interest in this matter is so recent, for when I first took an interest in this matter, in 1955, the noble Lord's constituency was separated from mine only by the Manchester Ship Canal.
My interest in this matter was first aroused in 1955 when I discovered that certain unscrupulous landlords were making profits ranging from 100 to 500 per cent. in the re-sale of electricity to the tenants of their flats. I raised the matter in another place and I was promised that it would be considered for legislation when a further Bill was introduced. When the Electricity Bill of 1957 was introduced no such clause appeared in it. I therefore arranged for a clause to be introduced in the Standing Committee, and it was because of the introduction of this clause that, on Report stage, Section 29 was added to what was then the Bill, and I think it has proved of use in dealing with this form of profiteering. However, it is clear from what the noble Lord has told us that developments since have shown the need for much greater powers. For that reason, I welcome the action which the noble Lord, Lord Royle, has taken. I wish him well, and I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ LORD CITRINE
My Lords, anyone who is at all familiar with this problem would echo the sentiments which have been uttered by the noble Lord, Lord Royle, in introducing this Bill. I think it is known to most of your Lordships that I was for ten years the Chairman of the British Electricity Authority, from the date of its formation in 1947, and this matter of overcharging and of exploitation by unscrupulous landlords was raised on several occasions in the course of our deliberations and those of the Area Boards. Complaints of overcharging were fairly numerous but not always easy, on the data available, to track to their source. The allegations of inaccuracy of meters, the effect of which was to show that more electricity had been consumed than had in fact been the case—that kind of thing—furnished a source of complaint almost as grave as that of the deliberate overcharging by fixing prices.
600 The noble Lord, Lord Royle, has suggested, and indeed it was suggested later in the debate, that the meter inspectors of the Electricity Boards could inspect, and perhaps should be empowered to inspect, the meters or the sub-meters which reveal these excessive charges. Dealing with that narrow point, I would say that that would add a great amount of work to the work of the inspectors. While that cannot be disregarded, at the same time I realise that it is not an absolute objection to the desirability of its being done. But it must be remembered that there would be no contractual relationship whatever between the landlord who owned those meters and the Electricity Board, and therefore there would be no means of requiring the landlord to make a payment for these inspections. So, in effect, the Electricity Board would be asked, and required, if this was passed into law, to inspect the meters privately owned at their own expense. That is one of the difficulties which stand in the way.
Time and time again when this question was considered by the Electricity Boards during my chairmanship there was a distinct reluctance on the part of the Boards to intervene, for two reasons. The first was that they did not think it a healthy thing for statutory boards to intervene between landlord and tenant. How far that would have carried the Boards and set precedents I do not know, but there undoubtedly was a feeling that these were matters which should be dealt with directly between the tenant and the landlord.
I mentioned in a sentence that complaints were received. But they were by no means numerous complaints, and even to this day I do not think anybody knows the volume of the complaints and just how big this problem is. That exploitation is going on I firmly believe; I do not think it could be challenged. But to bring that exploitation down to the state of a court of law and legal proceedings might require a great deal more careful attention than, with all respect to those who support the Bill, they realise would be involved. We all know the reason why people are reluctant to complain. The noble Lord, Lord Royle, has indicated that the insecurity of tenure that many of them necessarily have might easily mean that they would lose their homes. That could happen. In fact, if 601 I were to become by some misfortune an unscrupulous landlord I could find ways of avoiding the consequences of this Bill. It could be done. I am not going to give anybody the tip, because I do not think it is a good thing, but it can be done. We all know that dexterous lawyers, who always appear to be ready to give their services—always assuming they are properly paid for them—could find loopholes in what would appear otherwise a very clear and definite Act of Parliament.
The main difficulty is enforcement. How do you enforce it? I will come to that in a second. I am pleased to hear that one noble Lord was instrumental in securing the clause, now a section, of the 1956 Act. I think it is a good thing in itself. But let us never forget that it does not require the Electricity Boards to fix maximum prices. It is entirely permissive. It says the Boards may publish a list of maximum prices, and may do this and may do the other. So everything depends upon the will of the Boards and the depth of their conviction that they can give a practical turn to the attempt to prevent these abuses, before anything really valuable can be done.
I have spoken about the volume of complaints. This is specifically referred to in the Report of the Electricity Council, which represents all the Boards, for 1965–66. In paragraphs 113 and 114 the following appears:All the area boards published a maximum price operative from the 1st July, 1965, at which electricity may be resold for domestic purposes in all types of accommodation."—I do not need to bother about the actual price; that is extraneous to the discussion.Although the boards have no power to enforce a maximum resale price and cannot adjudicate in disputes, they are of course willing to give advice on request to tenants or landlords.The first question that arises there is how much the services of the Boards have been sought in giving that advice. I have no statistics on the matter. But the paragraph which appears next, paragraph 114, may contain part of the answer.The operation of maximum retail prices will be reviewed when enough experience has been gained of their impact. Experience so far suggests that most of the difficulties or inquiries brought to the notices of the boards have been satisfactorily resolved.So what we have still to discover are those many cases which I am sure exist 602 where the complaint is justified but has never been reported to the Board or has never come its way in any shape or form. The Report goes on to say that a review of this matter is to take place and they hope that some clearer experience will have been obtained.
If I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Royle, with very great respect and I am almost entitled to say, charity, I do not think his Bill will stand up to the Committee stage. I think the sections of it which deal with enforcement will prove to be full of holes. I have no legal authority for saying that; I am simply putting it forward upon my own construction of what could take place in this respect. There is no provision for imprisonment as an alternative to fines and we are still left with the difficulty about who is to be the prosecutor. Is it the tenant, who is afraid now to go to a Board and get advice about the misbehaviour of his landlord, or is it the Electricity Board? If it is the latter, it means that a great deal of additional expense, time and energy will be spent upon that.
May I make a suggestion, which I hope will help to achieve the purpose which the noble Lord, Lord Royle, and those who support the Bill have in mind? Would it not be a good thing for the Minister to expedite a review of this matter? He has a meeting every year with the consultative councils of the Electricity Boards. These are completely independent bodies, not under the jurisdiction of the Boards. It is perfectly true that at least one Board—I recall the Southern Electricity Board, in particular—has reported severely on the malpractices which it believes to exist. If the Minister were given the opportunity, before this Bill is given a Second Reading at all, to consult with the Electricity Council and with the consultative councils, something really practical would result. I do not think that anybody denies the existence of the abuses, certainly I do not. Many times I fumed at the lack of executive power possessed by the Electricity Boards in this sphere. But I suggest that if the course I have suggested is taken it will help to bring this issue more speedily and I believe more constructively to an end, and will satisfy the mover and supporters of this Bill.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ LORD GRIDLEY
My Lords, I apologise for rising, but I should like to support warmly Lord Royle on this Bill that he has brought before the House. May I inform your Lordships of an experience which I suffered last summer? I went away with my family on holiday. We stayed at a certain place which had an electricity slot machine. I was continually putting shillings in the meter. When the inspector came to read the meter I informed him of my experience, and he confirmed that the meter had been set to extort a far higher tariff than was justified by the electricity tariff. In circumstances of that kind, and if that goes on to a great extent in this country, I, for one, for those reasons alone, shall welcome the noble Lord, Lord Royle's Bill.
I have one observation on the speech of my noble friend Lord Denham, in regard to the unscrupulous tenant who may put some sort of "dud" coin into the electricity meter and thereby the landlord suffers. From my own reasoning I do not think that this would justify the alteration of the machine in any way to enable the landlord to cover that loss by extorting a greater tariff from some tenant who was "playing the game" and putting proper coins into the box. I would recommend that there be some research into these slot machines, and that a foolproof electricity slot machine should be put on the market. That is all I want to say. I most warmly welcome this Bill which has been introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Royle.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ LORD AIREDALE
My Lords, I think perhaps a brief word is called for from these Benches. I suppose the noble Lord, Lord Royle, might have adopted the fashion of the day and have called this Bill the Electricity Consumers' Protection Bill. It seems to me that, if it is passed, this Bill will do far more to protect consumers than some of the lesser clauses of the Government's Consumer Protection Bill, that most tortuous Bill with which we have again to wrestle this evening before our proceedings are concluded. Therefore, I hope very much indeed that this Bill will succeed, because if the Government's Consumer Protection Bill were to succeed in being passed and this Bill were to fail, I feel 604 that that would not be ultimate justice to consumers. Therefore I greatly hope that this Bill will reach the Statute Book in some form or another. Finally, may I say to the Minister that it will be difficult for me to remain to hear his winding-up speech. I hope he will acquit me of discourtesy if I leave. I assure him that I shall read his speech in Hansard with great interest.
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, I too should like to say a word in welcoming this Bill. I see the difficulties in enforcing it and, although I am not knowledgeable on the subject, I wonder whether it would be possible for anybody who is installing a subsidiary meter in his house to be forced to rent it from the local Electricity Board, to have it inspected by them, and to have it made in such a form that it cannot be altered? In that way, the consumer would be protected. It would be interesting to know, when the noble Lord opposite replies, whether he has any knowledge of anything in the nature of this sort of racket also going on in the world of gas.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ LORD HILTON OF UPTON
My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Royle for introducing this Bill on the resale of electricity. I know that my noble friend regards this as an important matter, and the whole House will, I am sure, wish to congratulate him on the way he presented his Bill to us. I have known Lord Royle a long time, and when a section of the community are being wrongly treated I expect him to come to their rescue, especially, as in this case, when the problem concerns old people and the poorer section of the community. He has certainly done this again to-day in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, which he described as "the abolition of this evil racket".
My noble friend told us of overcharging with "phoney" meters, and so on, by unscrupulous landlords and others; in fact, he described it as "Rachmanism in a hidden form". He was, I think, most fortunate, in that all the several speakers who have spoken on this Bill gave him support, except perhaps my noble friend Lord Citrine, who gave it qualified support but, in my opinion, made a good suggestion to which I shall refer a little later. Most noble Lords who have spoken 605 to-night have given instances of cases where unscrupulous landlords have been perpetrating this evil racket.
Time is getting away and I shall not be unduly long in replying; but I will deal briefly with some of the comments which have been made, especially on the question of "phoney" meters, to which a number of your Lordships referred, and on which there was a suggestion by Lord Denham, I think, that it might be a good idea if they could be replaced with decent modern makes. The situation here is that the Electricity Acts do not require certified meters to be used, except for supplies by Boards themselves. To require all non-certified meters to be replaced would be a massive and probably an expensive undertaking, and would require legislation. So there is a difficulty there.
In June, 1965, using their powers under Section 29 of the 1957 Electricity Act, the Electricity Boards fixed maximum prices at which electricity may be resold for domestic purposes. The maximum price per unit in England and Wales was fixed at one farthing above the charge in the Board's standard domestic tariffs. In addition, landlords may make a fixed charge of up to 4d. per day to cover their own fixed costs, such as the quarterly fixed charge to the Electricity Boards. These maximum prices apply to the electricity used for domestic purposes in all types of accommodation—hotels, boarding houses and caravans, as well as in houses and flats in which electricity is resold by the Electricity Boards direct to the consumer, the occupier, through private meters. The Electricity Act provides that persons who are charged more than the maximum can recover the excess through civil action in the courts. My noble friend Lord Royle referred to this, and mentioned some of the difficulties which old and poor people might have in that regard.
We have now had two and a half years' experience of the control. It is difficult to get reliable information on how it is working in practice, but the Ministry's general impression is that it has been a very useful measure of protection for tenants, especially those with security of tenure and controlled rents. Where over-charging has taken place it is often due to ignorance of the control, and experience suggests that in most 606 cases landlords comply when it is drawn to their notice. Nevertheless, there may remain a small minority of unscrupulous landlords who deliberately overcharge, and even if tenants know about the maximum price they may not take action for fear of eviction. It is difficult to get a measure of the extent of this problem, although there is no evidence that evasion anything like as widespread as is sometimes suggested.
After the control was introduced the electricity consultative councils were asked to keep a watch to see how it worked in practice. In the event, the majority of councils have encountered only a very few examples of evasion. It is also significant that many of the people who write to the Ministry on this subject do not, on their own figures, appear to be overcharged, but they very often fail to take account of the fixed charge of up to 4d. a day which the landlord is entitled to make to cover his own fixed costs.
The Bill before the House is intended to strengthen the enforcement of the maximum price control. It would do this, in effect, by adding to Section 29(4) of the 1957 Electricity Act a requirement that the landlord must repay any excess charges within 28 days and, in certain circumstances, give the tenant a receipt specifying the total amount paid, the Electricity Board's maximum price and the amount, if any, by which the tenant has been overcharged. A landlord who fails to make repayment or to give the necessary receipt would be liable to a fine not exceeding £100 and £5 for each day for which the overcharging continues.
Although the Bill is intended to secure enforcement of the maximum price, its weakness is clearly that it would fail to do so for precisely the reason that the present control is alleged to be inadequate. In the last resort, its enforcement would depend on the tenant's taking up any overcharging with the landlord and, if he could not get satisfaction, going to the police. The position of tenants with security of tenure and rent control might be strengthened, but there is no evidence that this group are much affected by evasion. But the tenants who may need the extra protection—those without security and without rent control—will probably still be reluctant to take action for fear of eviction. In any case, without rent control there would be nothing 607 to prevent the landlord from increasing rents to cover any reduction in electricity charges, and the tenant would be no better off. The only way that the maximum price could be made effective for all such tenants would be to introduce a system of random inspection for private meters and bills, but this would be a very large undertaking. There would have to be evidence of widespread evasion before such a detailed and expensive control could be seriously considered.
There are a number of other serious practical and legal objections to the scheme of enforcement in the Bill. For example, the provision requiring the overcharger to seek out and repay within 28 days or to present a receipt to the person who had been overcharged would clearly be unworkable in the case of hotels or boarding houses whose occupants are continually changing. It might be that the Bill could be amended to remove some of these objections, but its primary weakness which has already been mentioned—that it would be an inadequate and unsatisfactory way of helping those who might need further protection—could not be remedied in this way.
The Government's attitude on this occasion does not mean that they are unsympathetic to the needs of the tenants. The simple fact is that the case for further legislation to deal with an awkward but relatively small problem has not been demonstrated. The Minister has made clear that if there is evidence of widespread evasion he will seek to ensure that more effective means of enforcement are introduced. I believe that my noble friend knows my right honourable friend well enough to realise that he is a man of his word. But we have not yet reached that stage.
The Minister has asked the electricity consultative councils to watch the position, and he intends to discuss the matter with their chairmen at the annual meeting arranged for next March. I know that my noble friend does not seem to have a very high opinion of electricity consultative councils.
§ LORD HILTON OF UPTON
Well, he did not think much would come from this. But I may tell my noble friend that at one time I myself was a member 608 of such a council, and I can assure him that they do splendid work.
§ LORD ROYLE
My Lords, I must make it quite clear that I do not think that at all. I, too, think they are doing a splendid job of work.
§ LORD HILTON OF UPTON
My Lords, I am sorry if I misunderstood my noble friend. This is a point where the experience of my noble friend Lord Citrine comes in, with the suggestion he made that the Minister should expedite his review through the consultative councils.
§ LORD CITRINE
My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point, may I say that it is vital to have the experience of the Electricity Council which, of course, is composed of the chairmen of all the various Boards.
§ LORD HILTON OF UPTON
On the point about the Electricity Council, I will certainly convey to my right honourable friend the suggestion made by the noble Lord, because I believe this can help to produce the sort of fruit which my noble friend would like to see.
My noble friend Lord Royle will see from what I have already said that the door is not shut and still remains open, but at the moment I do not consider this to be the appropriate time for the action which my noble friend seeks in his Bill, despite the fact that he has had all-round support from speakers in this House. After what I have said, I am sure my noble friend will not be surprised to hear me say that, in the circumstances, the Government are unable to support his Bill.
§ 7.19 p.m.
§ LORD ROYLE
My Lords, I hope I shall not be accused of any discourtesy if I do not deal with all the individual points which have been made by noble Lords. I can see the side of my Chief Whip's face, and I am very concerned, since I know what he has to face for the rest of the evening. I hope noble Lords will accept my gratitude for the part which they have played in this debate so far; I am very encouraged at the support which I have received from all parts of the House. I am a little concerned that most of the cold water has been poured by my noble friend Lord Citrine and my noble friend the Minister. 609 I seemed to get a warmer approach from noble Lords on the other side of the House, and I am very grateful to them.
There is one thing which I want to say to my noble friend Lord Hilton of Upton. He seemed to indicate that this was not as big a problem as I was making out; that in point of fact the consultative councils did not think it was as big a point as I made out. I should like to read what the Southern Electricity Consultative Council said in their report:Council members are convinced that there are still a great number of cases where elderly or poor tenants in tenements, block of flats, et cetera, are overcharged, but are afraid to go to the courts or even to allow the Consultative Council to handle their case anonymously for fear of reprisals from the landlord or even of getting notice to quit. There is some evidence that more such cases are brought to the notice of the Citizens Advice Bureaux than to the Consultative Councils.This may well be so. I should not like the House to think for one moment that I have exaggerated or tried to make too much of my case. I have done nothing of the kind.
My noble friend Lord Citrine has very rightly—and I appreciate it—pointed out the difficulties which might apply. He has also pointed out alternative methods of approach; and, in effect, my noble friend Lord Hilton of Upton has said the same things and has suggested other alternatives. As I said earlier, I am aware that the Minister is meeting representatives of the consultative councils at the annual meeting in March next, and it may well be that they will get down to this problem. In fact, I know that it will be on the agenda. That being so, what we have said and done to-night may have an influence on that body, and I hope that when the meeting takes place they will consider what has been said in your Lordships' House this evening, which will show the strength of support for what my Bill is trying to do. It is a Bill which is trying to improve the present position so far as the tenants 610 are concerned, and which will help to blot out the evil which is going on.
I remember that in June, 1966, my late noble friend Lord Cohen of Brighton introduced the Sale of Goods Bill. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will remember it very well, because he had to wind up for the Government. Having obtained a Second Reading, my noble friend said that he would not press for a Committee stage at that moment because of certain assurances which had been given by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. But the matters which my noble friend covered at that time are not even included in the Consumer Protection Bill. This is an important problem. I do not want to be difficult with the Government, and I am a very practical man. I was a Member of another place for 19 years, and was a Government and an Opposition Whip, so I know the powers of the Government in another place for stopping things. I would much prefer that we made some progress on this Bill to-night, rather than that it should be damped down at this stage of the Second Reading.
Therefore, I ask your Lordships to be good enough to give the Bill a Second Reading to-night, and I shall not proceed with the Committee stage until I have had some report of the meeting of the consultative councils with the Minister in March. If that is done, I shall still have my rights. The Bill will have had a Second Reading and, without starting again, I shall be able to come back in the, Spring, probably after Easter, if I am not happy with what has been done, and we can then have a Committee stage of the, Bill. Therefore, my appeal to your Lordships is that you give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading, with the assurance that I shall have another go at it if I am not satisfied after March, 1968.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.