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'any premises specified in Schedule 4A to this Act'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: Government amendment No. 32.

No. 13, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) a children's home within the meaning of the Children Act 1989.'.

No. 14, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) a nursing home within the meaning of the Registered Homes Act 1984.'.

No. 15, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) a premises dedicated to further education within the meaning of the Education Act 1996.'.

No. 16, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) a premises dedicated to higher education within the meaning of the Education Act 1996.'.

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No. 17, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) residential care homes as defined under the Registered Homes Act 1984.'.

No. 18, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) local authority residential care homes as defined under the National Assistance Act 1948'.'.

No. 19, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) dwelling-houses for persons of pensionable age (sheltered accommodation) as defined under the Housing Act 1985.'.

No. 20, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) halls and accommodation for students owned by a university as defined under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.'.

No. 21, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) prisons for the purposes of the Prison Act 1952.'.

No. 22, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) daycare centres as defined under the Children Act 1989.'.

No. 23, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) business premises occupied by doctors as defined under the Medical Act 1983.'.

No. 24, in page 1, line 17, at end insert

(d) business premises occupied by dentists as defined under the Dentists Act 1984.'.

Government amendments Nos. 33 and 34.

Government manuscript amendment.

Government amendment No. 35.

Government new schedule 1--Premises that are not to be disconnected for non-payment of charges.

Mr. Meacher: I shall speak to all the Government amendments--Nos. 31 to 35, the manuscript amendment and new schedule 1--as they are all essentially part of the same package. They also deal with the substance of the Opposition amendments Nos. 13 to 24, so my remarks will address each of the premises described in those amendments. The Government manuscript amendment, which deals with a minor and consequential matter, should be made at the same time as the other, substantive Government amendments, and, with the leave of the House, I should like to make that correction at the first opportunity, rather than leaving it to be dealt with in another place.

In Committee, we had a lengthy debate about the extent of protection against disconnection. Our main focus has been to protect household customers, so that vulnerable families and individuals do not face the possibility of being deprived of water, which is harmful to their well-being and damaging to public health. The Government are determined to improve the health of the nation, and this measure will play a part in that overall strategy.

10 Feb 1999 : Column 402

We recognise that premises other than households also fully deserve extra protection from disconnection and the use of limiting devices to enforce payment. Depriving such premises of their water supply could be harmful to particularly vulnerable groups that are of concern to society as a whole or to essential services. It is obvious that schools and hospitals fall into that category, so we have ensured that such premises could not be faced with the threat of disconnection.

In debate, the case was put for extending protection to a further range of premises that also provide important services to the community. I agreed that I would carefully and sympathetically consider such cases and would be prepared to table amendments to the Bill to ensure that, where it was necessary for good social reasons, protection would be offered against disconnection and the use of limiting devices, such as trickle valves, to enforce payment. We have done that in amendments Nos. 31 to 35, new schedule 1 and the manuscript amendment, which would offer extended protection, notably in medical care, personal care and education.

I shall briefly spell out the implications of that wide set of proposed changes. First, on medical premises, we propose to prevent disconnection for non-payment by nursing homes and mental nursing homes; premises used by registered medical practitioners and dentists; premises used as a pilot scheme for primary care under the National Health Service (Primary Care) Act 1997; ambulance services and other emergency services.

Much nursing care is provided in hospitals, as they are described in section 11 of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984. A relatively small number of premises fall outside that definition but offer vital nursing care to those who are mentally or physically ill. Those nursing homes provide care for vulnerable members of society and the Government consider that it is right to prevent such patients from being put at risk from the threat of disconnection of the water supply for non-payment of bills.

We have also considered carefully the case for extending protection to premises used by doctors and dentists. They do not, of course, provide the same degree of residential care as hospitals or nursing homes. However, they can and do provide an essential level of front-line care, and they do carry out a technically important role in the community. Primary care services play a vital role in protecting and improving the nation's health. On balance, therefore, we think that the case has been made for the protection of such premises against disconnection for non-payment of bills.

For similar reasons, we propose to extend protection also to surgeries--not necessarily headed by general practitioners--under the primary care pilot scheme.

The ambulance service represents a further crucial component of medical care, particularly in emergency cases. Disconnection of premises at which the ambulance service is based could lead to deterioration in service or in response times, which could put members of the public in danger. I should be the first to recognise that the ambulance service is not the only service which saves lives and protects the public in emergency situations, as

10 Feb 1999 : Column 403

the same is true of police and fire services. We therefore propose to extend protection against disconnection to ambulance services, police forces and fire brigades.

Mr. Gray rose--

Mr. Meacher: I should be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is always diligent.

Mr. Gray: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way and for his compliment--I am as diligent as I possibly can be in the circumstances. Perhaps he will enlighten the House by explaining the circumstances in which fire, police or ambulance services could be disconnected. Is the provision not a worthless act? Moreover, he has exempted only premises occupied by the fire brigade but not, so far as I am able to tell from reading the Bill, fire hydrants. Therefore, if the fire service fails to pay its bill, is it not possible that, when it turns up at a fire, it will discover that the fire hydrant has been turned off?

Mr. Meacher: The issue of fire hydrants--their availability and usability--is covered by other Acts of Parliament.

Mr. Gray: What about this Bill?

Mr. Meacher: In this Bill, we are dealing with whether there should be protection from disconnection because of non-payment of bills. We are simply proposing that, in the case of all front-line emergency services, there should not be any risk of disconnection for non-payment. As I said many times when we were discussing the issue in Committee, in my view, the likelihood of such disconnections occurring in the case of the public services that we are talking about--the police service or the fire brigade--is exceedingly unlikely. The history of the past 10 years shows that the number of times on which there have been disconnections in such cases is virtually zero.

Nevertheless, taking the spirit of what was pressed on me in Committee, I want there to be absolutely no risk that those who could be endangered because of disconnection will be so endangered. It is for that reason that I have now erred on the side of including all institutions that could in any way cause difficulties to members of the public in emergency situations or to those who are vulnerable, disabled or ill. They should be fully protected.

Mr. Gray: The Minister is, of course, right to say that there are almost no imaginable circumstances in which premises occupied by the fire brigade would be disconnected. Equally, there are almost no imaginable circumstances in which a fire hydrant would be disconnected. The nature of my earlier intervention was therefore to ask why he has decided to specify that the premises occupied by the fire brigade will not be disconnected but omitted to specify that fire hydrants will not be disconnected. My reading of the provision is that if the fire service fails to pay its water bill because of some clerical error, although the fire headquarters will not be disconnected, it is perfectly possible that hydrants in the street will be disconnected. Will he correct my misapprehension--if that is what it is?

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