asked the Secretary of State for Energy what advice he has received from the management and trade unions employed in the gas and electricity supply industries concerning the importance of the ultimate sanction of disconnection in order to secure the payment of energy bills; and if he will make a statement.
The electricity and gas industries have expressed their concern over recommendations that their statutory powers of disconnection should no longer be exercised. As my right hon. Friend announced on 2nd August, it has been agreed with the industries that they should apply a code of practice designed to protect genuine hardship cases from disconnection.
Has the code of practice yet been published? If not, when will it be published? Has the Minister read the courageous speech of the Secretary of State at the Labour Party conference on 1st October, when he resisted attempts to remove the ultimate sanction of disconnection in cases where there is an unreasonable withholding of payment of charges for gas and electricity?
The code of practice has not yet been published. Discussions to finalise it are still going on between the Department of Energy, other Departments and the industries concerned. The opinion of trade unionists in the industries will be taken into account. I think that my right hon. Friend was saying in Blackpool that the Government had decided that, for the moment, the statutory power of disconnection should not be removed. This matter will be kept under review, particularly in the light of the working of the code of practice.
Will my hon. Friend ensure that there is the closest possible consultation between local electricity and gas board officials and social workers, since early notification of a failure to pay gas and electricity bills is often a symptom of hardship and ought, therefore, to be drawn to the notice of those authorities?
We absolutely agree with my hon. Friend's first point. Whatever the code of practice may say, its usefulness will depend on the spirit in which it is applied at a local level.
We are aware of the problem and wish to encourage people not to wait till they are in difficulties but to consult the utilities if they think that a problem will arise.