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Lord Inglewood: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining her amendment. We recognise that pensioners and disabled people have special needs in relation to gas. As she pointed out, they may be more susceptible to cold if the supply fails. They may need prepayment meters moved to more accessible locations. They may need adaptors for appliances or help with safety checks.
However, the real interest of low income consumers is in cheaper gas. That is very similar to the interests of all other customers. Low income customers do not have special requirements as to the quality of gas supply services provided.
Nor is it accurate to equate low income customers with those likely to default on gas charges. Many poor people make a point of saving up in advance and paying their gas bills as soon as they arrive. Indeed, if one considers across society it is by no means always the case that those who are the least well off are the most reluctant to pay their bills.
It is right that it should be the director's duty to consider those who might be at risk of disconnection. That is covered by the duty to protect the interests of consumers as respects continuity of supply. Adequate provision already exists in the Bill. All suppliers, as a condition of their licences, will have to follow debt and disconnection procedures, which will protect any customer who has genuine difficulties in paying promptly due to misfortune or inability to deal with gas supplied on credit terms. I hope that that helps to explain the current position as set out in the Bill.
Lord Peston: Perhaps I may intervene for a moment. There is nothing between us. It has been the theme throughout that we all benefit from cheap gas in real terms. However, we are also interested in the quality of service.
The noble Lord has put the Government's position as clearly as he can. The logic of it is that while pensioners and disabled people have an interest in the real price of gas, as we all do, they have some additional interests. Does the Minister ask us to accept that very poor people do not have additional interests? One can single out the old or disabled; they have special interests. We do not disagree. But, as my noble friend argues, separate from the real price of gas, low income earners have other interests as regards service, the availability of supplies, and so on. That is for one good reason. Those people often have difficulty coping with life. I do not seek to denigrate that group. In emphasising the interests of old people, the noble Lord does not suggest that they all have problems. He simply states that some within the group have problems.
I believe that we on these Benches maintain a valid position in emphasising this factor. We refer to "means-tested benefits" as the criteria because one has to find simple language rather than use the general word "poor", or the phrase "unable to cope". Logically, the Government should think more about the matter, especially sinceI emphasise this, as it goes with points we made earlier on energy efficiencywe are not asking a great deal in the amendment. All that is asked is that the director "shall take into account." There is no duty. We do not use the word "promote"; we do not even have the word "secure". The amendment simply relates to the very limited idea, "take into account". A sensitive, caring GovernmentI know that we are in the presence of leading Ministerswould take this idea very seriously as an additional criterion. I am not clear whether we shall press this amendment to a Division. I shall leave that decision to my noble friend. However, the Government
seems to exclude quite a number of people who suffer physical disabilities or weaknesses of one sort or another. After all, you are not disabled or of pensionable age if you happen to have suffered very severe and prolonged illness which does not actually constitute disability, and you may still be below pensionable age. It appears that the very proper provision made in the Bill for these two categories should be examined to see whether it goes far enough. My view is that it should be extended. Whether the precise terms of the amendment, referring to those in receipt of means tested benefits generally, are right, I am not certain. But some expansion of the categories should be considered.
Lord Skelmersdale: Before my noble friend answers that question, in the debates on social security legislation I have often made the point that it is my standard belief that disabled people are people first, and disabled second. There is a certain logic in that. I see the noble Lord, Lord Peston, nodding.
To carry that thought through to this Bill and this amendment, I certainly go along with my noble friend Lord Inglewood. He suggests that just because people are on means tested benefit it does not mean that they need special protection vis-o-vis the Bill. What it does mean is that they need special protection from the point of view of the value of means tested benefits, and all the back-up and passported benefits to which that leads.
I conclude that domestic gas customers on means tested benefits have virtually the same needs, with the exception of paying for the gas, as do domestic gas customers who are not on means tested benefits.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: As to what "disabled" means, the Disability Discrimination Bill now before the House includes a very adequate description of what constitutes a disabled person. Surely it would be logical for the Government to use the same definition.
Lord Inglewood: I am extremely grateful to the Members of the Committee who have participated in this helpful debate on an important subject. Perhaps I may try to elaborate the position. Obviously, we shall consider carefully the points made; they are of importance to all kinds of people.
So far as any definition of "disability" is concerned, as my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes pointed out we discussed the matter at great length in relation to the Disability Discrimination Billas I know to my cost! To take the word "disabled" in this context, Condition 17 of the draft standard conditions of the gas suppliers'
The crux of the debate relates to whether or not the requirements of people who are less well off are in some way qualitatively different from those of people who are disabled or old. Our approach has been that those people's requirements are essentially subsumed into the wider definition of "consumer" which is found in new Section 4(3) which we are discussing.
It seems to us that the kind of problems in which consumers on low incomes are interested are exactly the same type as those problems in which all consumers are interested. Since they are part of the larger group, it follows that their interests are inherently at the heart of the concerns of the director in considering this matter in the general terms set out.
I accept entirely the point made by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. We shall seriously reflect upon it. We do not want to find that we have created a hole through which some people may fall. It is our view, however, that the position of the people described will be properly covered by the definition in this part of the Bill.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: I am obliged to my noble friend for saying that he will look into the question. It seems to me that you cannot run the two arguments together; namely, that the Bill generally takes care of all cases of hardship and need but that there should be special provisions for those who are disabled or of pensionable age. If disabled people or those of pensionable age are given a special status, it is very important that the line of demarcation separating them from others should be drawn at the right place. All I did was express a doubt as to whether that was so.
Baroness David: I am extremely grateful for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. It seems to me that there is not much logic in the remarks of the noble Lord on the Front Bench. If all consumers are to be considered, certainly the disabled and the elderly are part of that group. I do not see any reason why the very poor should not be considered in the same way as the disabled and the elderly. I understand that the noble Lord intends to take this amendment back and look at it again, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, asked. If he is prepared to do that, I am prepared to withdraw the amendment.