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Lord Airedale: In relation to Amendment No. 74, I believe a mistake arises. If the amendment is accepted it will produce a new sub-paragraph (c) following (a) and (b). Sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) are linked together by the word "and". A demand is made and, if the consumer does not pay, he can be cut off. The words of the proposed new sub-paragraph stand alone at present:
As matters stand a consumer can be cut off by refusing to accept a prepayment meter irrespective of whether he has refused to pay his bill. I do not think that that is the intention. I think that the word "and" is needed to link the proposed new sub-paragraph with the two that precede it.
Lord Inglewood: I am most grateful for noble Lords' interventions on these amendments. I must say at the outset that I am sympathetic to the intention behind Amendments Nos. 73 and 74. As to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, about Amendment No. 74, I hasten to say that it is an amendment for which I am not responsible. I am sure that we, and those who are responsible for it, will look most closely at the point raised to see whether the wording poses the kind of difficulties that the noble Lord anticipates. I am reliably assured that he is very often right in these matters.
The amendments are intended to ensure that before a customer is cut off for defaulting on payments, consideration should have been given by the supplier to reaching an agreement with the customer either to install a prepayment meter or to pay by instalments. These matters are already dealt with in draft standard condition 19 of suppliers' licences. This provides that a supplier indeed has to offer arrangements to a customer who is in genuine difficulty, including offering a prepayment meter or a payment plan which must in each case take into account the customer's circumstances. Condition 19 also reiterates that the supplier cannot cut off supplies unless he has complied with those arrangements. The concerns behind the amendments seem to us already to have been met.
I turn to Amendment No. 75. We understand the concerns. We recognise the importance of protecting pensioners against being cut off in winter. The point was debated previously in Committee at some length. That is why standard condition 20 of the draft supply licence prohibits such disconnections in genuine cases. I hope that this will help to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. It is an advance on the present position whereby British Gas offers protection only on a voluntary basis.
However, we believe that it would be wrong to extend this provision to year-round protection. Ultimately, gas has to be paid for. If we were to abolish the right to disconnect pensioners, we should find that we had abolished the ability of such people to receive gas on credit. Suppliers would insist on a prepayment meter unless the pensioners concerned had sufficient assets to make a court action worthwhile.
I heard the remarks of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter and the noble Lord, Lord Peston. Not being 60 yet, it makes me feel much more relaxed about that prospect as it comes daily closer. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, raised a point about pensionable age. I am sure the noble Lord is familiar with the definition of
We believe that it would not be appropriate to extend the winter disconnection protection to disabled people. Its purpose is to protect those who are at risk from cold. Many disabled people are young or middle-aged and are in good physical condition apart from their disability. I hope that this will provide reassurance for the Benches opposite and will explain some of our thinking on the matter.
Lord Peston: I shall look at that definition. However, the fact remains that the Minister made a remark in the other place, "We shall introduce an amendment", that can only be read as a definite commitment. I am merely asking a rather simple question: where is it? It cannot be an amendment if it is already in the Bill. I am referring to Standing Committee A.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My noble friend referred to pensionable age. But of course for men, 60 is not pensionable age; it is 65. Parliament has already passed legislation under which, over the years, the pensionable age for women is to move from 60 to 65. So, for men already, and for women in respect of what is already in legislation for the future, 60 would in any event be wrong.
Lord Peston: Perhaps I may mention one other point that I did not intend to raise under these amendments, but later. The noble Lord used again the argument that he used last Thursday; namely, that there are protections in the draft standard conditions of gas suppliers' licences. He is right. At least, there is wording that corresponds. I meant to ask the noble Lord then, as I intended to ask him later today: is he able to make a statement about the statutory basis of the licence conditions? In what sense are they the same as if the material appeared in the Bill? Is it the same; or is there a difference? In other words, do the conditions in the licences have the strengths of statute in exactly the same way as if they were in the Bill? I meant to ask the Minister that in relation to other amendments. We can probably clear up many matters of this kind if he is able to make a definitive statement.
Baroness David: Perhaps I may follow up that question. I gathered, certainly from the briefing that I received, that the licence conditions are not reflected in the gas code. I wonder if the Minister can comment.
Lord Inglewood: Perhaps I may begin by replying to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The point about the conditions is that from the point of view of the person affected by them, they have the same standing as anything that is on the face of the Bill. They provide the consumer with exactly the same protection as though they were written on the face of the Bill. I should like to return to and confirm the point made by the noble Baroness.
Lord Inglewood: The noble Lord is right about that. We shall be debating the point later this afternoon. The way in which the licences may be altered is such that they provide a considerable degree of parliamentary scrutiny of what is involved.
Baroness David: I thank all those who have spoken about these amendments. Clearly the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is right. Something needs to be done to Amendment No. 74 to get it to fit in with the Bill as it stands. There seems to be little doubt about some matters. I should like to reflect on them and on what the Minister and other Members of the Committee have said. There is still the question about age and the disabled. Although some disabled people can move around quite fast, many of them cannot do so. They can feel the cold very much indeed. I should like to think about the matter. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Page 21, line 41, leave out ("no other gas supplier has become a relevant supplier, the supplier") and insert ("the supplier is a relevant supplier, he").
Page 21, line 43, after second ("the") insert ("consumer's").
Page 21, leave out lines 47 and 48 and insert:
("(a) the supplier is not a relevant supplier but another supplier ("the new supplier") is such a supplier; and").
Page 22, leave out lines 5 to 7 and insert ("The powers conferred by sub-paragraphs (3) and (4) above").
Page 22, line 10, leave out sub-paragraph (6).