§ Mr. Freeson
asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will publish in the Official Report the text of his letter of 12 March to the right hon. Member for Brent, East, following his answer on 24 February, Official Report, column 639, about gas and electricity charges.
§ Mr. Giles Shaw
Following is the text of the letter referred toIn my written answer of 24 February, I undertook to write to you about disconnection procedures in EEC countries and the United States of America.This is generally found to be more of a problem with electricity than gas and the further detailed information that follows relates to electricity.A questionnaire was sent to EEC countries about their disconnection practices. The following paragraphs set out the questions asked and a summary of the replies received—
- (a) do you have the legal right to disconnect consumers for non-payment of bills?
- All utilities have this right. In Eire it can be operated without a warrant. Both France and Germany mention that they must give the debtor notice of disconnection.
(b) is this right restricted in 'hardship' cases?
- Holland did not reply to this quesion. In Eire and Belgium there are no legal restrictions to this right. In Germany the right is restricted if disconnection would result in disproportionate hardship and the consumer offers to pay by instalments. France say the right must be exercised with moderation and discretion and 'even if the right is not disputed, the way we apply it often is'
(c) do you have a voluntary 'code of practice'?
- All countries say they have. In France all cases are checked with the local Social Services Department to make sure that there is no social hardship. Germany takes into consideration the age, health and family circumstances of the consumer. In Eire, they do not disconnect in the case of pensioners; or if there is anyone ill, or if there has been a recent bereavement in the household. Additionally disconnection is not carried out if there is no adult person over 16 in the house at the time.
(d) does any other organisation pay the bills of these consumers?
- All countries mention payment by social service organisations and some by voluntary associations. Eire mentions the free electricity scheme for all old age pensioners paid for by the Department of Social Welfare.
- All countries say that an offer to pay-off the debt by instalments would avoid disconnection.
(e) is any action taken to limit future electricity consumption?
- In Germany they will install a slot meter or insist on payment in advance. Holland say that they apply a strict disconnection policy when the consumer is in arrears by more than 3–4 months. Eire say they have a 'lights only' policy up to 1 kW so that no-one need be without some electricity for reasons of poverty.With regard to the situation in the USA, the following points may be of interest: 170W
- (i) it is customary for the State Public Utility Commission who regulate supplies of electricity, gas and water and are also responsible for public transport and telephone services to make rules about disconnection procedures;
- (ii) procedures vary widely from State to State but in some colder Northern and Central States the utilities are not allowed to disconnect during the winter months unless a representative of the utility has called in person on a defaulting customer;
- (iii) if the utility representative has any doubts about a customer's ability to pay, the case is normally referred to the local social services agency before proceeding to disconnection;
- (iv) some utilities will install load limiting devices to provide a very limited supply as an alternative to disconnection. When the pre-set limit is exceeded the supply is automatically cut off until the device is re-set.The general picture which emerges for the USA closely parallels practice in the United Kingdom with an electricity supply industry which is careful to avoid disconnections in cases of genuine hardship. However US disconnections are unofficially estimated to be between 3 to 4 million a year out of over 84 million domestic consumers (ie 3.5 to 4.5 per cent.). This demonstrates a vigorous policy of disconnecting those who fail to pay their bills. In the United Kingdom electricity disconnections in recent years have rarely been much above 0.5 per cent. of domestic consumers.Overall these comparisons suggest that the electricity supply industry in the United Kingdom uses its powers to disconnect supply at the very least with the same degree of care and responsibility as electrical utilities in Europe and the USA.