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Mr. Meacher: The implication of the hon. Gentleman's proposal is that every building--including

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every private sector building and every commercial building--with a fire hydrant should be protected against disconnection for non-payment. That goes a great deal further even than the latitude that I have been prepared to allow. In respect of non-household premises, we believe that water companies should have the right to disconnect on the basis of non-payment. The only cases where I am prepared to consider protection is where members of the public who are vulnerable or in an emergency situation could be disadvantaged or endangered. I am not prepared to go beyond that principle.

9.15 pm

I wish to refer to premises providing personal care. In this area, very strong arguments have made for protecting children's homes. I have made clear the importance that we attach to protecting children, and propose to prohibit the disconnection of children's homes. As some hon. Members may be aware, there are processes for local authorities to remove children from homes that do not provide an acceptable level of care. A home which could not provide children with water would clearly be failing in this respect. That provides considerable assurance that these vulnerable members of our society will not have to suffer the consequences of disconnection.

I am erring on the side of caution, but there are no absolute guarantees that the relevant local authority would become aware immediately that a home had had its water supply disconnected. I therefore consider that it is right to extend protection in this way to provide full assurance on this point to children living in children's homes.

On due reflection, we propose also to extend protection to residential care homes. By prohibiting disconnection of nursing homes, we shall protect those receiving nursing care. However, there is a wider group of vulnerable people who need the board and personal care provided by residential care homes. These include residents of homes for older people and, for example, residential premises providing personal care for people with learning disabilities.

There is a process of registration for residential care homes provided by the private sector, similar to that for children's homes. That provides considerable assurance that residents will not experience deprivation where homes fail to secure a supply a water because they would be deregistered. However, for exactly the same reasons that I have outlined, we think that it is right to provide the added reassurance by prohibiting disconnection of such premises.

I refer now to prisons and immigration detention centres. This further category of accommodation was brought to my attention in Committee. Prisoners do not automatically spring to mind as those among the most vulnerable in society. However, they do not have a choice in where they reside. [Laughter.] We hope that that continues to be the case. A significant proportion of the prison population could be affected if one prison had its water disconnected, requiring the transfer of inmates to other establishments.

I can, therefore, see that there is a legitimate case for protecting such premises. The amendment therefore prohibits disconnection for the non-payment of bills for prisons, remand centres, young offender institutions and secure training centres. For the same reasons, protection will be extended to immigration detention centres.

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I wish to refer to education and children's day care. In education, we propose to protect premises used for children's day care and premises used for further and higher education--a point referred to by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake). Schools, where attendance is compulsory, are already protected under the Bill. However, the Government are not focusing our efforts only on children of compulsory school age. The national child care strategy recognises that pre-school provision can have a major influence on children's development through their school years and beyond. Day care centres do not involve compulsory attendance, but we think that the case is made for extending protection in such cases, to ensure that children have appropriate facilities.

At the other end of the spectrum, further and higher education premises also do not involve compulsory attendance, but it would cause substantial upheaval if they became victims of disconnection through no fault of their own so, on balance, we support the prohibition of disconnection for such establishments, including student halls of residence.

Mr. Burns: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: Compared with his continual interventions in Committee, the hon. Gentleman's abstinence has been remarkable, so I am glad to give way.

Mr. Burns: I cannot remember from our discussions in Committee whether the definition of schools includes boarding schools.

Mr. Meacher: It includes boarding schools and schools in both the public and the private sector. We have made no distinction.

I want to add, for the sake of completeness, that I made two important commitments on the clause in Committee. I assured the Committee that the Government would not allow sheltered housing for the elderly to be disconnected and I said that we wanted to protect tenants in bedsits. I want to confirm that the amendments that we have proposed would indeed cover those properties. In line with our general approach on dwellings, disconnection of such premises will not be permitted in the case of properties that are someone's only or principal home.

We have taken the considered view, following the line of argument so eloquently and determinedly put to me in Committee, that we should provide for increased protection against disconnection and against the use of limiting devices to enforce payment, but I am sure that the House will recognise that our proposals continue to be carefully targeted on homes and premises that provide a vital role in the community.

We do not seek to inhibit the operations of water companies more than is necessary to meet the key welfare concerns that have been raised. Water companies in England and Wales will still have the ability to disconnect the vast majority of non-household premises for failure to pay bills. We still think that that is right.

In providing protection against disconnection, we have looked at the purpose of specific premises. We have not discriminated between the private and public sector

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bodies, or charitable organisations, that provide those key services. The Government have emphasised the importance that we attach to the prompt payment of bills for Departments and public sector bodies.

I do not expect that there will be any adverse impact on water companies' income as a result of the measures, despite the long list of exemptions and protections, but the proposals in the Government amendments are designed to provide absolute assurance to members of the public who may be adversely affected as a result of disconnection and to ensure that, in cases in which we believe as a matter of principle that it is right to protect against disconnection, appropriate measures are put in place.

I hope that I have listened attentively to all that was pressed on me and that I have responded positively and met the will of the House.

Mr. Burns: It is an especial pleasure to follow the right hon. Gentleman. A significant number of amendments were tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends after our discussions in Committee. The Minister generously said in Committee that he would reflect on the points made by Opposition Members on a range of matters.

If I remember rightly, it was two days ago that the Government tabled the new schedule and the ancillary amendments which, because of the procedures of the House, effectively leapfrogged the amendments tabled by the Conservative party, which urged the Government to adopt this point of view.

I must confess that when the Bill was first published and when we were studying it in the run-up to Second Reading and the Committee stage, we were puzzled not only that the Government had specified in clause 1 that the Bill would apply to domestic dwellings that were the prime residence of individuals, but that it would apply to two other categories--schools and hospitals.

As the Minister rightly said in Committee, no school or hospital has had its water supply disconnected because of non-payment of bills. We would all be extremely surprised if that had been the case. Nevertheless, the Government felt that it was important that these two types of institutions should be specified in the Bill so that there could be no confusion about the Government's intention.

We were genuinely puzzled that the Government should restrict the specified bodies to the two types in question, important though they are. On reflection, we came to believe that there were several other equally important types of institution which, were the water to be disconnected because of non-payment, could cause serious public health risks and other problems. Given that the Government had conceded the point by specifying hospitals and schools, we felt that it was important that, for example, children's homes and registered homes for the elderly should also be mentioned.

Some of the most frail and vulnerable members of society live in registered homes. By definition, they are not responsible for payment of the water bills, but they could be adversely affected if the owners of residential homes, or those responsible for running those homes, omitted to pay the bills, because of irresponsibility, a genuine mishap or forgetfulness.

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