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I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prevent disconnections of domestic fuel supply in cases of hardship; to introduce a comprehensive system of fuel allowances taking into account climatic variations between different parts of the United Kingdom; and for related purposes.
This is my fourth attempt to introduce such a Bill, and the need for it is now greater than ever. Last year throughout Britain 146,000 households had their electricity or gas supply disconnected, compared with the previous year's total of 134,000. That represents an increase of 9 per cent. Those figures are a national scandal and represent an aggregate of human misery for thousands of families.
Recently, the Policy Studies Institute conducted a survey of disconnection cases, and discovered that 90 per cent. fell within the special categories of people specifically mentioned in the existing voluntary code of practice. They include people receiving supplementary benefit, family income supplement, and unemployment benefit, retirement pensioners, the blind, the sick, the disabled and families with young children. Therefore, it is clear that the existing voluntary code of practice is not working. People need statutory protection. My Bill aims to replace the existing voluntary code of practice with a statutory code.
The fuel boards would require a court order before they could disconnect domestic fuel supplies, and any disconnections without a court order would be illegal. It is illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant without a court order, so surely it should be illegal for a fuel hoard to disconnect fuel supplies without a court order.
My Bill would also provide for early statutory liaison between the board and the consumer to identify debt problems at an early stage. If necessary, that early liaison would also extend to the Department of Health and Social Security and the social work department, if the consumer came within their responsibility. An arrangement could then be worked out at an earlier stage for easier payments by instalments. The Bill would extend the present fuel-direct scheme which applies to people on supplementary benefit. Anyone receiving any DHSS benefit would have the opportunity to pay their fuel bill directly from their benefits, if they wished. Similarly, people would have the right to have a pre-payment meter, if they wished, unless there were compelling reasons of safety or security.
My Bill also intends to tackle the root cause of disconnections —the widespread incidence of fuel poverty. That has been caused, or at least exacerbated, by the Government's fuel pricing policy. Since 1979, when the Government came to power, gas prices have increased by 131·6 per cent. and electricity prices by 93·7 per cent. Both figures are well above the rate of inflation, as measured by the retail prices index. If British Gas is privatised, the position will become worse, not better, because a publicly owned enterprise will be replaced by a private monopoly run by people whose motivation is to maximise profits, rather than to give the best service to consumers.
The Bill would introduce a comprehensive system of fuel allowances. At present some assistance is available to some people on supplementary benefit. In most cases the additional heating allowance works out at £2·20 a week, which would not buy even half a bag of coal, and would not go far towards meeting electricity or gas bills. Recently, particularly in Scotland, we witnessed a justified public outrage about the severe weather extra heating allownce, when people in colder climes —in Scotland and the north of England—were deprived of that allowance while those in the warmer climes in the south received the allowance. I understand that under the new DHSS proposals that allowance is likely to be scrapped completely.
The aim of the Bill is to introduce a fairer, more comprehensive scheme of fuel allowances tied to housing benefit, so that anyone receiving housing benefit would also receive a fuel allowance. Surely if people are entitled to a subsidy for a roof over their heads, we must accept that a house is not a home without heating and lighting. A further advantage of tying the allowance to housing benefit is that it would avoid the need for another means test. The exact amount of fuel allowance would depend on the financial and domestic circumstances of the consumer, and the climate of the area in which the consumer resides.
It has been estimated that it costs 28 per cent. more to heat a house in Scotland than in the south of England. That may explain in part why the number of disconnections is proportionately higher in Scotland than in the south. Fuel poverty causes hardship and leads to serious health risks, especially for old people and young children. Low temperatures and dampness cause or exacerbate conditions such as bronchitis, pneumonia and hypothermia. Every year about 50,000 more old people die in the winter months than in the summer months, and the quarter between January and March accounts for nearly half of the annual total of post-neonatal deaths. Many of the deaths could be prevented, if we could eradicate fuel poverty. My Bill is a charter to do that. Therefore, I ask the House to support me, and I ask the Government to grant time for further progress.