I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish standing charges for gas, electricity, water and telephone services for pensioners and persons in receipt of certain state benefits.
Many attempts have been made to bring to the attention of the House the need to help the poorest in Britain who are wrongly charged by the utilities by the imposition of standing charges on their accounts. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has brought forward a number of Bills on this issue and many right hon. and hon. Members have tried to bring relief to the poorer sections of our community by abolishing standing charges. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that standing charges which are imposed by the utilities should not be imposed on the accounts of pensioners or other unfortunate persons in receipt of certain state benefits.
Standing charges are imposed on people like a straightforward tax. The poor pay the same as the rich, but this cannot be right. Why should a pensioner in my constituency, living in a house similar to my own, pay the same standing charge? It is wrong, and immoral. I am sure that all hon. Members can see the wrong in this. If we study the percentages of income paid out in standing charges, it is only a small percentage in my case but an unacceptable percentage for a pensioner. In a country that is proud of the fact that the rich look after their more unfortunate brothers and sisters and carry a heavier burden of tax, it is right that those in a position to shoulder the heavier burden should do so. Standing charges and other fixed charges should not be imposed on those people who suffer hardship.
There are many examples of this unjust method of charging. Let me give an example. A pensioner aged 80, who received a low-user rebate which has now been discontinued, had two meters. One meter was for the outside lights so that he could see the ground in the dark. In September 1985 he used one unit on the outside meter at a cost of 5·32p. His fixed charge was £6·65, but for the total of one unit this old-age pensioner had to pay £6·70. He also had to pay another fixed charge for the meter inside the house. Thus we have a pensioner, living at one address, having to pay two fixed charges. This is intolerable and wrong. The average bill for a house is about £60, yet the standing charge is the same as that of the pensioner. No one can justify this imposition of charges on the poor.
Standing charges have not always been with us. There was no standing charge for water in general before:1976. State utilities can manage without standing charges. All the Bill seeks to do is to relieve the poorer sections of our community of this burden. There are two area water authorities that do not have standing charges—Severn -Trent and Wessex water authorities.
There has been a large increase in some standing charges. In 1979 standing charges for gas in the Severn region were levelled at £2·16p. They are now £9·90p. That is a 300 per cent. increase since 1979. An old-age pensioner whose account is £30 has a standing charge of 30 per cent. but an ordinary householder who uses more gas, has plenty of money and whose account is £100 has a standing charge of only 10 per cent. It cannot be right to ask old people to pay a higher percentage than the rich person who lives down the road.
A great deal of revenue is received from standing charges. The amount of revenue from the standing charges paid by pensioners is as follows: gas in Great Britain as a whole, £150 million; electricity in England and Wales, £135 million; water in England and Wales, £65 million. I do not say that the utilities do not need this money— although some do not. However, they are taking it from the poorest in the nation. That is the crime. If this House means to look after its citizens, it should do a Robin Hood and give to the poor, not take away.
The purpose of the Bill is to help those in need and to relieve them of a financial burden so as to enable those who form the poorer sections of our nation to lead better and fuller lives. If life is in pursuit of felicity, let us accept the Bill and bring some happiness into the lives of others. I hope that the Bill will receive the unanimous support of the House.