Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you had any request from Ministers about a statement on the entirely new doctrine that it has apparently now become all right for a principal private secretary to the Prime Minister to authorise the leaking of a Law Officer's letter to Mr. Chris Moncrieff? Have you had any request for an explanation of whether Lord Armstrong of Ilminster knew that there had been explicit approval of a disclosure of a Law Officer's letter when he put forward a report that concentrated on differences of understanding between civil servants? Might he not have been just a little economical with the truth?
My point of order is this : in the style of Mr. Justice McCowan, is it now the case that a principal private secretary to the Prime Minister should carry out the instructions of politicians, even though he knows that those instructions are against the highest traditions of the British Civil Service?
Finally, when did Mr. Ingham and Mr. Powell tell their Prime Minister what they had done and what they had approved?
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : I have a point of order which is directly for you, Mr. Speaker, and it is one which I consider to be of such importance. I do not think that an hon. Member who has been here for a quarter of a century or more is suspended simply for the joy of it. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was suspended ; it is true that there was a vote on it. I want to ask you a question, Mr. Speaker, because there is no one else I can ask. If later events prove that an hon. Member who has been suspended was telling the truth--and everything indicates that my hon. Friend has been telling the truth about Westland-- what can be done about the suspension?
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not giving you notice of my point of order, but I expect that the article by Adam Raphael in yesterday's edition of The Observer has been brought to your attention because it makes serious allegations about the workings of the House. In the article, a Mr. Charles Miller, of Public Policy Consultants, is quoted as saying that some Select Committee Chairmen had been bought. He says :
"I have found a large number of venal members of Parliament." The article makes a number of serious allegations, including allegations that some research assistants employed by Members are full-time members of companies that are professional lobbyists of the House. The article is headlined :
"A £10m trade in influence".
It makes serious allegations that I ask you to consider. As there is a range of matters affecting a number of Committees, I should be most grateful if you would consider this matter with a view to requesting the appropriate Committees to interview Mr. Miller and to
Column 576consider other steps that could be taken to clean up what is being rapidly seen as a corrupt, or potentially corrupt, House of Commons?
Mr. Speaker : Of course I saw that article. I understand that the Select Committee is already investigating this matter and has taken evidence. If the hon. Gentleman has a further point to put about Mr. Miller's allegation, he should direct it to the Select Committee.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Tuesday you gave a ruling which no one in the House challenged. It was about the application of the sub judice rule in connection with published sections of the report on Harrods, Al Fayed and Lonrho. We did not challenge your ruling because the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry-- [Interruption.] We are trying to be serious about an important national matter. We did not challenge your ruling, Mr. Speaker, because we had the assurance from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that any such quotations could have prejudiced the fairness of any subsequent trial and because the serious fraud office had said that further disclosure could prejudice its further inquiries.
On the front page of today's Financial Times there is a fascinating article by a Mr. Clive Wolman. The article is based on extensive information, including quotations about activities by members of the serious fraud office and officials. We have had the much publicised comment by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about wrongdoing. That comment may have been a political gaffe and a blunder, but we are not making much of that because such things occasionally happen. However, when it is taken in conjunction with what is clearly leaked information that could have come only from the Department of Trade and Industry or from the serious fraud office, it reveals information that would prejudice any future trial.
May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to look at the contents of the article and let us know, perhaps tomorrow, whether, in view of what is clearly official leaking from one or other of those two bodies, the ruling that you gave last week should be reconsidered?
Mr. Speaker : I will have a look at the article. It would be difficult for me to read all the newspapers every day. I do my best at the weekend. The sub judice rule is well known. I have nothing to add to what I said about it last week.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you consider the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), will you consider this point as well? I do not expect you to respond immediately to it. It flows directly from your ruling last Tuesday, which I do not challenge--and I genuinely mean that.
For questions to the Attorney-General on 12 December and 23 January the Table Office allowed me to table specific questions--which were answered-- about the report of the Department of Trade and Industry on the House of Fraser and Lonrho. For questions to the Attorney-General on 13 February, by which time the issue had gone to the other place, I was prevented from asking such questions, and so resorted to questions about the serious fraud office.
Column 577The issue before the other place is whether the Secretary of State misdirected himself. Win or lose in the other place, it is up to the Secretary of State to decide whether to refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. He cannot be ordered to do so. Therefore, the sub judice rule is being extended. When the other place has made its decision, it does not matter what the Secretary of State decides to do ; he cannot be wrong. The law gives him total discretion as to the reference.
When the other place has so decided, will I and other hon. Members be free, as I was in both December and January, to table specific questions about this matter, to be answered at the Dispatch Box? There are no other changed grounds--no proceedings, no prosecutions, no charges. It is simply an internal working document of government for which no legal actions will be pending. I hope that you will consider this point, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker : Of course I will look into the matter. When the hon. Gentleman tabled his questions before, the matter was not before a court, and in such circumstances hon. Members could table questions. My sub judice ruling last week was well understood by hon. Members. I said that it was not in order to quote from the document. The House will know that, with that proviso, I granted a private notice question on the matter.
Mr. Dennis Skinner : (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been listening carefully to the points of order that have been raised this afternoon. I do not know whether you videoed the programme last Friday. It was a bit boring in parts, I have to agree, but it made an essential statement that needs to be looked at. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked when you would be able to assist him in getting a statement or a debate about the renewed arguments about Westland, and you had to say, "It's nowt to do with me." You were than asked about the takeover of Harrods, which is also in the public eye, and you had to say, "Sorry, I can't help." My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) asked about an article in The Observer, which claimed that Members of Parliament who table questions on behalf of somebody can get £200 a time, and you had to say, "Sorry, it's none of my business."
This afternoon, we shall be debating the Electricity Bill, and not one Opposition Member wants that Bill. I doubt whether more than 20 per cent. of our people want the electricity industry to be privatised. If we had a proper system in this cock-eyed place, we would be debating those three important issues and not the Electricity Bill.
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman draws attention to an interesting point. Too frequently, points of order are matters of political controversy across the Chamber, as they have been today. I fully understand that, over many years, it has become a practice for the Opposition to put questions such as these through the Chair, but the House knows that they are not really matters for me. I do not think that it would be wise for the Speaker of the House to be given the responsibility of deciding also what business we should debate every day.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Campbell-Savours : I ask you to be most diligent, Mr. Speaker, when dealing with the article, and especially the statement which clearly emanates from the serious fraud office. Will you examine the article on the basis that I intend to table a long series of motions that will bring into the public domain hitherto unpublished material that sets out what happened in Lonrho and what appeared in the Lonrho broadsheet over the past few months during which Mr. Tiny Rowland has been pursuing the Al Fayeds.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Flannery : May I rephrase it by saying thank you, Mr. Speaker? Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). I note that the Leader of the House is in his place. The article which appeared in yesterday's edition of The Observer which was written by Mr. Adam Raphael reveals a state of affairs that should concern every hon. Member.
You know as well as I do, Mr. Speaker, that the majority of the lucrative consultancies within the House are held by Conservative Members. Most of the consultancies that are held by Labour Members relate to trade unions. Any other consultants on the Labour Benches should be ashamed of themselves. The article to which I have referred reveals that extremely important individuals on the Government Benches have masses of directorships and consultancies, and that some of them are in charge of Committees. The hon. Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) said that he was taking up these activities for the later part of his life, suggesting that the rest of us do not need to do it. In any event, we do not do it in that way.
Is it in order for me, Mr. Speaker, to ask the Leader of the House to say something about the serious issue which has been drawn to our attention, whether now or in the future? People throughout the country know now that there is something sick and wrong in this place. They know that vast sums are being made by some hon. Members, largely Conservative Members. The rest of us are being blamed for the things that they do. They are making millions of pounds out of their activities.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : I wish to take up, Mr. Speaker, your reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr Winnick), which concerned something said by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who was recently thrown out of the House. My hon. Friend was thrown out because he said that someone was a liar. If I know that an hon. Member is lying and I wish to say that he is lying, does your action in having my hon. Friend thrown out mean that for all time none of us can ever say that an hon. Member is lying when we know that he is? How can we deal with such an issue?
I understand that it is custom and practice that we do not say certain things in this place. At times I have retreated, as it were, because I have been instructed to retreat. I did not think it right to retreat, but you, Mr. Speaker, told me to retreat, and so I retreated. I do not believe in getting thrown out of the House, and never have done. However, if I know that someone is a liar and he says something that I know is a lie, how can I relate that to the House? Apparently, I cannot table a motion that states that a Member of this place is a liar. How can I deal with it?
Mr. Speaker : Hon. Members know that self-discipline in the House requires that hon. Members do not impute dishonour to each other. Every occupant of the Chair is reluctant to use the weapon of naming a Member. Most hon. Members, when instructed by the Chair to withdraw an unparliamentary word, such as that which the hon. Member mentioned, do so, and I hope that that will always happen. If an hon. Member wishes to persist in making an allegation about another hon. Member, he must do so by an appropriately worded substantive motion.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. It appears that the Government are trying to secure the receipt of all copies of The Observer special edition which was published last week. Incidentally, the print comes off the special edition just as it comes off the regular edition, but the factual content is interesting.
Will we be advised by you, Sir, to hand our copies to the Government? A number of us have received the special copies--indeed, I am doing a fairly good trade in lending mine to Conservative Members, including Front-Bench Members. Are we entitled to keep our special copies, or do we have to return them to the Government?
That the National Health Service (Functions of Health Boards) (Scotland) Order 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 446) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. --[Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 90(6) (Second Reading Committees), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
As amended (in the Standing Committee), further considered.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) above, reasonable and sufficient security shall be deemed given
(a) (i) where the person giving security is prepared to take supply of electricity through a pre-payment meter ; and
(ii) it is reasonably practical in all the circumstances (including in particular the risk of loss or damage) for the supplier to provide such a meter ; or
(b) where a direct payment is made to the supplier under regulation 35 of the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1987 (deductions from income support and other benefits and direct payments to thrid parties) ; or
(c) the person requiring the supply is repared to enter an agreement to pay the estimated costs by means of a weekly or monthly instalment plan, the payment to be adjusted on an annual basis to reflect actual consumption.
(5) In sub-section 1(a) above, "security" means any arrangement in consequence of which a public electricity supplier may be assured of payment of money due to him and shall include a deposit given to such supplier or guarantee or charge (whether legal or equitable) in favour of such supplier.
(6) Any dispute arising under sub-paragraphs (4) and (5) above between a public electricity supplier and a person giving or wishing to give security shall be determined by the Director as though it were a dispute falling to be determined under section 21 below.'.
Mr. Speaker : With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments : No. 115, in schedule 6, page 89, line 38, at end, insert-- (2A) For the purposes of paragraph 2, (2) (a) above, a person shall be regarded as having made good the default
(a) where the person giving security is prepared to take supply of electricity through a pre-payment meter
(i) which is calibrated to recover over a reasonable period any money in respect of which he is in default ; and
(ii) it is reasonably practical in all the circumstances (including in particular the risk of loss or damage) for the supplier to provide such a meter ; or
(b) Where a direct payment is made to the supplier under regulation 35 of the Social security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1987 (deductions from income support and other benefits and direct payments to third parties).
No. 152, in schedule 6, page 91, line 6, at end add--
5A. If a tariff customer has not, after the expiry of 28 working days from the making of a demand in writing by a public electricity supplier for payment thereof, paid all money due from him in respect of the supply of electricity by the supplier to any premises at the provision by the supplier of any electric line or electric plant, the supplier may--
(a) apply to a court for an order granting permission to cut off the supply to the premises, or to any other premises occupied by the customer, by such means as he thinks fit ;
(b) recover any expenses incurred in so doing from the customer and
(c) an application to court under this schedule shall be by way of summary procedure.'.
Mr. Bruce : Amendment No. 116 is designed to reduce the incidence of disconnection of electricity customers, and amendment No. 115 is designed to speed up and facilitate reconnection for those who have had the misfortune to be disconnected. Hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee will recollect our considerable debate on disconnections and the wider linked issue of fuel poverty. Somewhat to our surprise, and to the surprise of Conservative Back Benchers, we got an assurance from the Secretary of State that the Government intended to support a revised code of practice similar to that nearing completion of negotiation for the gas industry. The right hon. Gentleman accepted that it was absurd that the code of practice for disconnection in the electricity industry should be less advantageous to the consumer than that which applied in the gas industry.
When pressed, the Secretary of State amplified the position somewhat. I hope that the Minister can give us a little more detail. The Secretary of State finally said :
"Because of the consultations that must take place, the final form may not be settled before the Bill leaves its Committee stage, but it will be settled well before the Bill leaves the Commons. There is a three-month cycle of consultations which may not end before the Committee stage. We expect the licence to be modified by Report stage."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee E, 31 January 1989 ; c. 614.]
I raised this matter during Question Time and the Minister gave the impression that a final agreement was not yet to hand. I hope that he will accept that it is appropriate and legitimate at this point to press him for some clarification about the terms of the code of practice--to the extent that he is able to reveal them--about the timetable for when the code of practice will be agreed and about how and when it will be incorporated into the licence. It is not wholly satisfactory to be told that the code of practice may be available to us before the Bill finally leaves this House.
If the Bill is unamended in the other place, it will not come back to this House. However, when it goes to the other place, we shall seek to press this amendment. Whatever happens, it will be helpful if the Minister can give us some clarification.
I am sure that the Minister will accept that many people are interested in this matter and want to know what will happen. For the record, it may be worth pointing out that, as the Bill is drafted, there is a significant distinction between the gas code of practice and the electricity code of practice proposed under the draft licence. It is proposed that the electricity consumer should be given only 15 days' notice of disconnection, whereas the gas consumer receives 28 days' notice.
The issue of disconnection ebbs and flows and arguments about the figures in themselves are not especially constructive. The annual rate of disconnections is still about 80,000 which I hope all hon. Members will regard as far too many. There has been some dispute about whether the figure is coming down throughout the country. Some of the figures suggest that the disconnection rate is going up in at least one or two areas, which is a matter for concern. We cannot be absolutely sure that, even to the extent that figures suggest that disconnections are decreasing, it is entirely to do with modified practices as opposed to the good fortune of having had a mild winter, which inevitably reduces the likelihood of disconnection. It is all very well for the Government to say that the trend is downward and that there is no need to worry
Column 583because they will ensure that that trend will continue after privatisation. The experience with the privatisation of British Gas was the reverse : as soon as privatisation came into effect, the number of disconnections increased. That is why a new code of practice for disconnections is being introduced for gas consumers. I am sure that the Minister does not want a repeat of that in the privatisation of electricity because it would be politically embarrassing for him and, of course, far worse for those who suffer disconnection.
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Will the hon. Gentleman take note of the fact that there are just two hon. Members on the Government Benches? We are discussing disconnections and people who will suffer considerably as a result. Yet Conservative Members are so interested in the matter that they will simply come in to vote against the amendment. The general public should take note of that.
Mr. Bruce : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. Whey I saw the number of Members on the Conservative Benches I thought that I had come lucky in an unexpected raffle for an extra Adjournment debate.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer) : Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that only three Back- BenchLabour Members are present? The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr Heffer) should not cast stones when he is sitting in a glasshouse himself.
Mr. Bruce : I think that I had better let that pass. I shall say simply that it would be helpful for the debate if more hon. Members were present. We are debating a serious and important issue which affects many people and causes them considerable concern. We must avoid a situation in which new companies come into effect under the licensing procedures proposed in the Bill, but are not required to adopt a process of disconnection that automatically gives a better deal to the consumer than exists or has existed hitherto. The amendments seek to include specific measures in the Bill to ensure that whoever receives a licence is required to operate a code of practice that will minimise the incidence of disconnection. 4 pm
In that context the obvious factor to be considered is the extent to which lower income groups and poorer people are disadvantaged because they spend proportionately more of their income on electricity. Low-income pensioner households spend, on average, 30 per cent. more on electricity than average -income pensioner households. That makes electricity like an old-fashioned Giffen good. The 19th century example is the potato. As the price of potatoes went up, people bought more, because the potato was their staple diet. They had to ensure that they had an adequate supply, and it was other things such as bread and the luxury of meat that went by the board. The same applies to electricity. People on low incomes facing increased electricity costs are forced to cut back on other commodities. They sometimes economise on heating, causing great danger to their health and safety, and, regrettably, many of them die of hypothermia as a direct result. Some economise on food, which also
Column 584undermines their health, or on other near- essential commodities which are nevertheless not quite as necessary as heat and light.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his arguments are particularly relevant to the north-east of Scotland- -the area that he and I represent--where charges for heating are about 30 per cent. higher than they are in the south-east of England?
Mr. Bruce : The hon. Gentleman has anticipated a point that I proposed to raise. He is absolutely right that, in areas such as the north of Scotland where winter temperatures are generally lower, although we have been luckier than usual this winter, people have to spend even more on heating than people in the milder south. The problem is further aggravated by a number of measures introduced by the Government that squeeze people on low incomes. A direct consequence of the switch from the community programme to employment training has been a significant reduction in the number of home insulation schemes carried out by organisations under the neighbourhood energy action umbrella. SCARF--Save Cost and Reduce Fuel--an organisation in Aberdeen, which covers part of my constituency, is concerned about its ability to maintain a programme that is of benefit to people on low incomes and helps them to be warmer at lower cost. The reduction in such provision increases the burden.
The second factor that has to be taken into account is the introduction of the poll tax or community charge in Scotland this year. The poll tax falls proportionately more heavily on low-income families and will reduce their ability to pay for other essential services such as electricity. People on low incomes tend to depend more on electricity for their heating. Their houses tend to be less well insulated and they tend to be unable to take appropriate action to deal with the problem.
It is interesting, too, that the Government are about to launch a promotion campaign because of the relatively low take-up of family credit, which was designed to help low-income families. Many people have not taken up their entitlement, perhaps because of a lack of information and perhaps because of a reasonable feeling that if a household has wages coming in-- particularly if there are two wage earners--it ought to be able to meet the essential bills. People do not like the idea of having to seek additional support and feel that wages ought to be paid at an economic level rather than being subsidised by the taxpayer. The very title "family credit" gives the impression that repayment is required, and that may deter people from taking up the benefit. Perhaps they are unable to service their existing debts and wisely do not wish to go further into debt. All those measures have increased the squeeze on low-income families at a time when they face rising costs.
An additional factor, touched on by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), is that in certain parts of the country heating costs are higher. Yet the heating allowances scheme has been abolished in favour of the much less generous incorporation into the normal benefit process and a severe weather payment which has not been invoked since its introduction because we have had a mild winter. No one has benefited from those arrangements.
Column 585The situation is serious. We must introduce measures that give people a fairer deal in relation to disconnection. The Government say, "We resent the implication that we are responsible for inflicting disconnections." Yet in a variety of ways the Government's policies are hitting low-income groups and making it harder for them to pay electricity bills. That makes it more likely that they will get into difficulty and, under the existing code of practice, increases the likelihood that they will be disconnected. We must make a stand and prevent that happening.
The final factor to be taken into account is that privatisation will result in higher electricity prices for the whole population, and especially for those on low incomes. Even the Government acknowledge that that will happen in the short run, and many of us believe that it will happen in the long run as well. Electricity prices have already been increased unnecessarily and unjustifiably. Again, the situation is worse in Scotland than in England and Wales. In Scotland, the increase in electricity prices has been higher than the average rate of inflation, with no justification, other than that the companies--now the boards--are preparing for the privatisation requirement. That will force up electricity prices in Scotland--from the lowest in the United Kingdom to the highest in the United Kingdom. Such burdens on lower income families will mean an increase in the risk of disconnection and the hardship associated with it. The amendments represent essential improvements to the Bill to ensure a specific agreed workable means of preventing disconnection wherever possible. I have not suggested a more radical measure, such as that in operation in Wisconsin, where all electricity supplies are reconnected on 1 October regardless of the customer's outstanding debt because of the importance of giving people heat and light throughout the winter. There should be no disconnections during the winter. I have refrained from making such a suggestion because I felt that the Government might be inclined to resist it. Instead, I have tabled practical and reasonable amendments which propose a code of practice within the law to prevent disconnections.
Obviously, the best solution is the use of prepayment meters. They enable people to pay as they go and remove the uncertainty of credit. People can see how fast they are using electricity. Meters can be adjusted by agreement to take account of any previous debt. For many, meters represent the best way to pay, particularly now that new meters have been introduced to reduce the risk of people breaking in, forcing the mechanism and running away with the money--or, in the case referred to last week, the washers-- that they may find in the meter. If a person is prepared to take a prepayment meter, and if it is reasonable to provide such a meter, if direct payment has been agreed--from the social security office or by standing order--or if a person has agreed to pay a deposit, there should be no question of disconnection. If someone disconnected under the existing arrangements agrees to the proposals, he should automatically be reconnected immediately.
Our objective is to prevent disconnections, and that is why amendment No. 116 is so important. The argument is overwhelming. The increase in fuel poverty that the Government are imposing on people on low incomes is