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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I hope that the Minister will allow me to say a few words. The mere fact that we have this Bill indicates that the Government recognise that problems exist which can best be tackled through legislation. I do not know the mind of the Government on this issue but I know their intentions. I believe that the Government do not wish to make regulations too onerous. However, I sympathise with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in this regard.
As I said at an earlier stage of the Bill, there are not just vulnerable individuals in this area but also vulnerable groups. I refer to park home residents. I declare an interest--if that is the right phrase--as the secretary of an all-party group. Many of the problems of the people in this group stem from the interpretation or the application by park home site owners of what they believe they are entitled to charge for the various utility services of water, electricity and gas. The Minister in the other place, Hilary Armstrong, established a ministerial working party to consider a range of problems which park home owners and park home site owners have raised. That working party is considering the punitive nature of some charges and the issue of fairness as between park home owners and park home site owners. It is fitting for Parliament in a busy legislative programme to be seen to spare time to try to act fairly with regard to all sides in this area although I accept that there are villains in every community.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Farrington, who has responded to my query about how we deal with the person who has had rules and regulations imposed upon him but does not comply with them. My noble friend said that until the legislation begins to bite one cannot possibly anticipate what is likely to go wrong. Having been involved in local government for 40 years and having been in this place for 25 years, I believe that one can visualise the problems that will arise. However, I am grateful for the full reply that my noble friend gave to me. I hope that if the Minister is unable to accept the amendments in this group, he will recognise that there are vulnerable groups of people in this regard. These people may not be feckless or clueless and they need someone to protect their interests. Local councillors or local MPs should protect those people, and in many instances that is the case. However, wrongdoers need to know that the Government are prepared not merely to bring forward legislation in this regard but also to enforce it.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling these amendments which raise interesting issues. I had hoped that I had dealt with the principles involved at the previous stage of the Bill, but the noble Baroness has redrafted the amendments in a rather more sophisticated manner. Therefore I believe that we need to discuss some of the central arguments again. We are discussing a provision to extend the Secretary of State's powers. Most of the comments on this Bill have been aimed at reducing the Secretary of State's powers.
The amendment follows on from the amendment that we debated at Committee stage. It would enable the Secretary of State to set out in regulations factors which should be taken into account in responding to customers' requests to move to a measured charge, although these factors are not specified. I believe the noble Baroness said that it was difficult to specify them fully. The Government do not believe that this extension of the Secretary of State's powers is necessary. I refer to what my noble friend Lady Farrington said in Committee. Requiring companies to respond almost immediately to each measured charges notice would not necessarily be in the wider interests of consumers, and such an onerous obligation may not be appropriate. We must recognise that companies will need to plan their programme for meter installation. In principle this planning may take account of factors such as addressing the needs of the less well off, for whom savings through moving to a meter may be particularly significant; or installing meters first in areas where they bring the greatest environmental benefit.
Under Clause 4 of the Bill as drafted, the Secretary of State would be able to give guidance to the Director General of Water Services and the director general would be able to consider companies' proposals for responding to measured charges notices as part of his new responsibility to approve charges schemes. Surely the director general would be better placed than the department, in pursuance of a direct power, to consider what level of performance companies can reasonably be expected to deliver, what local considerations apply and so forth, and then to agree proposals for meter installations which represent the interests of customers as a whole.
As we said in Committee, there is a balance to strike. It is best that the director general establishes that balance within the broad guidance. We have no intention of enforcing a blanket requirement on all companies to fit meters within a very short period or to exactly the same timescale. That would have a negative effect. On the other hand, customers should not be expected to have to wait for very long before the meters are fitted.
I can assure the noble Baroness that on the guidance and other matters the normal consultation requirements will apply. I hope that the noble Baroness recognises that the arrangements which are already set out provide an appropriate basis on which we can take forward the preparation and approval of charges schemes. In particular, these arrangements will facilitate some of the flexibility she seeks on the timing of meter installation. Therefore the first amendment is not necessary and could be counter-productive.
We debated a similar amendment to Amendment No. 2 in Committee. I am pleased to see that the noble Baroness has deleted the reference to all costs being borne by the Government. She has clearly taken that point. Even so, the amendment still shifts dramatically the burden of responsibility onto the Government. Obviously the Government are concerned that all vulnerable groups are protected--indeed, in many cases, that is the whole rationale of this part of the Bill--but
On the other hand, we are keen to keep to an absolute minimum the bureaucracy involved in the proposals--for example, by identifying pre-existing documentation which will make eligibility easy to establish. In many cases a bill is based on average measured use and the proposed protection would be relatively easy to administer. All these factors should ensure that companies do not face disproportionate costs in managing the scheme to protect vulnerable groups. At the same time, it would not shift the total burden onto the Government to identify which are those vulnerable groups.
My noble friend Lord Graham referred specifically to park home residents as a vulnerable group. Clearly there are particular problems involved there. The context of the discussions with my colleague Hilary Armstrong may lead to an outcome which could be reflected in the regulations and the guidance we will give in this regard.
There is a limit to what can be done by the Government. We do not have a central record of all those suffering from the medical conditions to be covered by our regulations. Contrary to the objective of the noble Baroness's amendment, the amendment would lead to unnecessary duplication of administration between the Government and the water industry. Clearly water companies can seek from the Government information that is readily available, but it should be their responsibility to make the identification and to make sure that vulnerable groups are not adversely affected. The Government will play their full role but the water companies have an important part to play. For them and the Government protection of vulnerable groups is not an optional extra in the water charging system. Indeed, the whole point of the Bill is to make the protection of vulnerable groups an objective.
The noble Baroness asked what research is planned on water property. The national water metering trials include some research into the effect of meters on demand for different groups, which we have taken into account. We have made clear our intention to ensure that those who could suffer severe handicap as a result of the changes are protected. We therefore need to monitor the effect of our new proposals to ensure that there is protection for vulnerable groups in practice and to keep under review the need for wider measures in the light of that experience.
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