Clause 113

Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 22nd March 2007.

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Stopping supplies of gas or electricity

Question proposed,That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The clause concerns an issue that we come across fairly often: people who have their gas or electricity supply turned off. The water service is a linked utility. Those used to be public utilities, but they are now private. The clause is about the process that would in certain circumstances control when supplies could be turned off, and it applies to non-business debtors during periods of protection.

My question is simple. It is partly a DCA-type question and partly a DTI-type one. Just as we now say that people cannot be evicted from their homes without the sanction of a court, we could equally reasonably argue that the electricity, gas or water supply to a domestic property should not be turned off without such sanction. Can the Minister assist me by saying whether she and her colleagues have thought about that argument in the context of this measure? Would they consider introducing such an approach by tabling an amendment on Report, and would such a move beled by another Department or in consultation with other Departments? It seems to me that we have an opportunity to try to do something that would prevent a lot of desperate, and sometimes unsatisfactory, scrambling around.

Let me make two last points. First, I am aware that codes of practice apply in such circumstances, but sometimes they do not work, and I am also aware that there is good practice, which does work. In addition, of course we know that people abuse the system. Secondly, I have often found that such issues can be dealt with by agreeing with the provider a register of people in a community who are vulnerable. For example, when people become of pensionable age,they could register so that special procedures were undertaken. After many years, however, I have not so far found a foolproof system of protecting the vulnerable from having their water, electricity or gas cut off in certain circumstances. The situation is even harder now with the multiplicity of providers in this privatised world of utilities.

I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether that broader issue has been considered and whether favourable consideration would be given on Report to an amendment that sought to give the same entitlement to utilities as applies in a tenancy or occupancy.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

There is a huge amount of difficulty in defining people who are vulnerable in order to set up any type of register at all. In this context, we are countenancing a person who is in a period of protection or is in the currency of a debt repayment plan, which restricts the ability of a qualifying creditor—a creditor with a qualifying debt—to take any action at all to recover their debt. A series of restrictions bite on those qualifying creditors, and they are, as I have said already to the hon. Member for Braintree, two sides of the coin. The debtor will pay and the creditors will forbear. Quite separate from that structure, there are rules that stop domestic utility suppliers disconnecting services. They must not do that here when they are a qualifying creditor, as is laid down clearly in the provision. More generally, people cannot cut water off without the courts’ consent and I am reasonably sure that the same applies to any utilities, but I am not certain. However, that is a broader point. In this case, utilities that are qualifying suppliers must not take that action to deal a debtor.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I was going to make a speech, but I shall make my point in an intervention. I am intrigued about why we are talking about gas and electricity, not water. My hon. and learned Friend may have an easy explanation, but it is   my understanding that it is now virtually impossible to disconnect someone for not paying their water bill. Therefore, I would be interested to know what the differences are. It is still possible to disconnect someone for not paying for gas and electricity, so there is a disparity. It would be interesting to know why no reference is made to water in the clause.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

That is undoubtedly a very good point to reflect on. It is nearly impossible to disconnect someone’s water. My noble Friend Baroness Ashton talked in the other place—it was in a different connection, but linked to the Bill—about the need to negotiate and to engage water suppliers, because they do not have much recourse to recover their debts, as they never can disconnect. In some circumstances—I am not sure when or whether it is with or without a court order—the other utilities can do that. In general, that is an interesting question, and one that we should consider. Within the confines of the Bill, however, we can prevent the gas or electricity supplier from cutting off supplies while the person is protected because they are paying under the arrangement they have come to with their creditors. From the point of view of the Bill, the situation is rock solid, but more widely, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is quite right and we should look at the issue.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

That was helpful. Perhaps the Minister could deal with these points in writing after today’s sitting. First, is there a need to put water in that context? Secondly, on a wider question, is a court order and a court appearance necessary for each of the utilities? If so, can we have reassurance about that? If not, perhaps we can come back to it on Report.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

I do not want to be dragged into offering more than I realistically can offer within the confines of the Bill, just because I am a good-natured, soft liberal person. I have given very strong reassurance about clause 133, which manifestly protects people in such a situation. I rather doubt whether, within the confines of the Bill, we have any possibility of thoroughly getting to grips with all the reasoning behind the disparity that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud set out for us. However, I will look at the matter and have a conversation with the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 113 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 114 to 123 ordered to stand part of the Bill.