§ 9.9 p.m.
§ Lord MELCHETT rose to move, That the draft Payments for Debt (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, laid before the House on 11th May, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, fuel debts are now the largest and fastest growing element of the total public debt in Northern Ireland, and currently stand at £16 million. The Government's policy on this problem is to encourage those in debt to pay off their arrears on a voluntary basis. Voluntary arrangements will be the basis of debt recovery in the great majority of cases. 1292 Such measures are not, however, sufficient to bring the problem under control. There are areas in Northern Ireland where the threat of disconnection of supply is far less effective than in Great Britain, and to compensate for this the Government have had to consider other means of helping the fuel undertakings to deal with persistent debtors.
§ One approach, for those debtors who are in employment, is to make more effective use of the Enforcement of Judgments Office. This, however, does not help with debtors who are unemployed, and the Government have decided, with great reluctance, that the public fuel undertakings should, in appropriate cases, be able to make a direct claim on social security benefits. This procedure, known as benefit allocation, has been used for some years to deal with public rent and rates debts. The Government are well aware of the fact that poverty is often the cause of public debt. Deductions from social security benefits inevitably involve a degree of hardship, but to alleviate this as far as is possible there is an effective and increasingly used appeals procedure. This draft order simply provides that fuel debtors who become subject to deductions from benefit contribute towards the substantial administrative costs involved. The contribution will be the same as for deductions for rent or rates. This is regrettable but necessary legislation. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft Payments for Debt (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, laid before the House on 11th May, be approved.—(Lord Melchett.)
§ Lord BELSTEAD
My Lords, I do not think that it is entirely easy for the Government to decide to introduce this order. But I accept that it is necessary, and we on these Benches certainly support the order.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.