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Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 92A:

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 92A concerns special interest groups. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, spoke on the subject at length in our previous discussions. We would prefer to have all groups included or none included. Having listened to what the noble Lord said last week, we consider that none should be included. I hope that I have spoken to the right amendment. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): I should inform the Committee that, were the amendment to be accepted, I would not be able to call Amendment No. 93 because of pre-emption.

Baroness Byford: I notice that Amendment No. 92A is grouped with Amendments Nos. 98A and 116A. I apologise to the Committee; my head is not quite as it should be. I shall now speak to those amendments.

Amendment No. 98A deals with a small grammatical point. We believe that the word "consumers" includes both existing and future consumers—a point we debated last week—and that the term "future consumers" has no place on the face of the Bill. The argument that I advanced in connection with Amendment No. 92A applies equally to Amendment No. 116A.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Going back slightly, if we were to define clearly people in water poverty we could simplify this part of the Bill for those who have difficulty paying their water bills. To that extent, I support the amendment. It is certainly not true that all those of pensionable age, for example, would need any special provisions. They often fall into the better-off categories of society. I press the Minister again on whether the Government are clear about people who are unable to pay their water bills.

Lord Borrie: I feel somewhat ambivalent to this group of amendments. I did not speak to the previous

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amendment because I was a little puzzled as to what it was for. It is of interest because, obviously, the whole issue of people who cannot pay because of low income is important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, indicated, water companies have had to cope with this problem in recent years as they have been disallowed from disconnecting.

All of us, no doubt, are very much against the notion of disconnecting people who are poor—the "can't pays" rather than the "won't pays". None the less, I hope that Members of the Committee will recognise that the ultimate threat of disconnection was of some value—at any rate so far as concerned the "won't pays"—because eventually one got a payment. Water companies are now faced with the problem that there is no ultimate sanction because, for sheer humanitarian reasons, everyone has to be supplied with water. Very often the ones who cannot pay are in most need—the single-parent families, the substantial families—and for them it would be a disaster on a Baghdad scale if supplies were not maintained.

This is a very important matter. It is right that individuals with low incomes should be of special concern to the Secretary of State or the authority, as the case may be. The previous amendment might have defined people on low incomes and have been of some value to that extent, but otherwise it was—I suggest rather rudely to the noble Baroness—a little academic.

As to the list as a whole, it seems perfectly reasonable to pick out each of the other groups. However, as I suggested last time, I am not sure why individuals residing in rural areas should be picked rather than those living in urban areas, some of whom include the poorest in the country. Why should one pick one group rather than the other?

The trouble with picking such a group, as I suggested on a previous occasion, is that that encourages the Opposition to add to the list. Last time—I am glad that we have put this behind us now—students in full-time education were deemed to be a separate and proper group to pick out. That is the trouble with a list of this kind. At the end of the existing new subsection (2C) it says that this little list,

    Xis not to be taken as implying that regard may not be had to the interests of other descriptions of consumer".

One wonders what the point of it is. No doubt the Minister will explain. At the moment I am ambivalent as to its purpose and unsure whether it should be retained.

Baroness O'Cathain: I feel that this part of the clause clouds the issue. The issue of water debt is, as we have discussed many times, twofold: there are the "can't pay" and the "won't pay". Some of the "can't pay" people attempt to pay because they have pride and do not want to have bills hanging over them, whereas some people who "won't pay" are as wealthy as anyone here and they think, "There is no sanction so we can get away with it".

I do not think that this amendment tackles either of those categories; it certainly does not tackle the second category. But there must be ways. I speak as a director

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of water companies that have not been involved in the minutiae of this, but I know that there has been an attempt to get water companies, through an organisation of water companies, to come to a solution of this major problem of indebtedness. I would prefer to see such a list done away with, and a commitment put on the face of the Bill for the Government to do everything possible to try to reduce the level of indebtedness of the water companies that has increased by 10 per cent since the sanction of disconnection was introduced. We shall come to further amendments later.

The emphasis in this set of amendments is on those who "can't pay"—not those on this list but those who have a real problem. There should be some way of dealing with that through the benefit system, which deals with matters such as mortgage repayments. There are also supplementary benefits for various things and I cannot see why water cannot be included in that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has stated, there is a list provided by the citizens advice bureaux which advises those who are in straitened financial circumstances to pay off their debts in a descending order of importance. I think water comes about fifth, after such matters as payments for clothes, catalogue buying and satellite television subscriptions. It is a big issue but I am not necessarily sure that the amendments—particularly this one—deal with it.

Lord Whitty: Likewise I am not sure that these amendments address the problems referred to. It is possible to be completely purist, as my noble friend Lord Borrie was urging us on this amendment, and to delete all reference to any individuals. Were the Bill to be in that form before the Committee I am sure that amendments from the Opposition to pay particular attention, for example, to pensioners, the disabled or those in rural areas would undoubtedly have arisen. Where one draws the line is a matter of judgment. A complete deletion of those would imply that there has to be equality of treatment for all groups.

I think it is right that the attention of the authorities should be drawn to these categories: the disabled, the elderly, those on low incomes and those in rural areas. That is right in this context as it is in other contexts. Therefore, to some extent it is a matter of taste, but it must be the case that to operate effectively the authorities would have to pay attention to those groups.

I do not like Amendment No. 98A at all. As my noble friend Lord Borrie mentioned on the previous occasion, the reference to future consumers is a way of getting the authorities to focus on the long-term interests of consumers as well as on the short-term interests of consumers. Therefore, to delete the list would not be helpful. Amendment No. 116A is effectively covered by those comments in relation to Amendment No. 92A.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: If 4.4 million households in England and Wales were in debt at the end of the financial year 2001—that is the last year for which I have figures—that is 19 per cent of households.

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I understand that the Minister does not like this amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, or my previous amendment, but if the amount of household water debt is that high, what do the Government intend to do to remedy the situation? If they will not accept any of our amendments, do they intend to bring forward something of their own?

Lord Whitty: We have discussed these issues with the companies, and we shall continue to do so. Dealing with household debt and dealing with the distribution of household debt is not really something that can be dealt with in the legislative arena. It certainly is not something that can be dealt with by these amendments.

Baroness Byford: I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I have three questions for the Minister. First, on the amendment that seeks to delete all those in the list, are specific groups named on the face of other utility Bills? Secondly, I understand that the thrust behind the Minister's response to Amendment No. 98A is that he wants to give encouragement to future consumers. There is no difference between us on that; we just do not think that it is necessary on the face of the Bill, hence the amendment.

Thirdly, surely all those groups of people laid down in the Bill, except perhaps those living in rural areas—it would not necessarily be true of them—would fall directly within the benefit system. If they fall within the benefit system, because they are low income families or are recognised as having problems, surely the benefit system would make it unnecessary to specify them separately in the Bill. With regard to the pensioner category who live in rural areas—I say to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, that I am not making an appeal on our own behalf—

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