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Mr. Gray: Does my hon. Friend agree that our bewilderment about schools and hospitals being specified in the Bill remains, as there is absolutely no purpose to

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the provision? Does he further agree that the categories set out in the new schedule and, indeed, in our amendments are perhaps much more worthwhile on the ground that there is a greater likelihood of, for example, a privately run care home omitting to pay the bill and being disconnected? There is a curious conundrum in the Government's proposals.

Mr. Burns: I understand what my hon. Friend says. This is not a criticism, but one can get into difficulty if one starts to differentiate between various organisations on the ground of their supposed importance. However, my hon. Friend's point, which is 100 per cent. valid, is that experience shows that no school or hospital has ever been disconnected because of non-payment of its water bills, or of its water rates under the old system. However, as my hon. Friend correctly identified, there is a greater possibility of someone running, for example, a residential home for the elderly not paying the bill, because of forgetfulness or, in an extreme case, negligence. Prior to the Bill, that failure could potentially have led to the disconnection of the water supply.

I am grateful that the Minister has been prepared to listen to the arguments deployed in Committee and is prepared to include in the new schedule institutions of further and higher education--universities, colleges and their halls of residence.

9.30 pm

Again, it is possible that there could be a problem with halls of residence, if not with the main buildings. However, responsibility under the Bill for halls of residence is restricted to established halls of residence on campus, run by the college or university concerned. It does not include any private, freelance arrangements that students might make to rent accommodation in the town or city. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that analysis is correct.

We welcome the inclusion of nursing homes in the provision, and we tabled amendments in Committee to that end. I give credit to the Minister for including sheltered accommodation for elderly people. He did so without a fight, and it is a wise decision.

In Committee, the Minister raised the question of prisons. As he said earlier, prisoners do not usually stay in prison by choice, although--sadly--a small minority probably do. It would be catastrophic if prisons were to have their water supply cut off, but I suspect that the chance of that happening is non-existent. However, it is sensible to adopt a belt-and-braces approach: it means that the Minister will not have to return for extra powers within days of the Bill reaching the statute book if--sod's law being what it is--a prison were to have its water supply cut off.

Conservative Members pointed out in Committee--as did the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake)--that doctors and dentists desperately rely on water to carry out their professional functions. Again, it is possible that, through forgetfulness or inefficiency, a water supply could be disconnected for non-payment, and the difficulties would be especially acute for dentists. Some patients may need urgent treatment, and any delay or postponement would cause inconvenience.

We tabled our amendments in Committee for those reasons, and we are grateful that the Minister was prepared to listen to our arguments. I do not mean to be

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critical, but it is clear that, when the Bill was drafted, the Minister felt that it would be better if only a minimum number of categories were to be added to that of domestic dwellings.

On reflection, on the basis of our arguments in Committee, the Minister has clearly been persuaded by the logic and compelling reasonableness of our suggestions. To be fair to the Minister, and to his credit, he has on certain issues--prisons and sheltered accommodation especially--been prepared to go further. He has not been constricted by the language of the civil service and has not taken a narrow and blinkered view. He has decided in one go to accept the arguments.

Obviously, it would be churlish in the light of my remarks to say that the Opposition do not welcome the fact that the Government have adopted our amendments--albeit more finely drafted. The provisions have been more neatly encompassed in new schedule 1, rather than in a clumsy list in clause 1. I assure the Minister that, given that we are in total agreement on this issue, we shall not be opposing any Government amendment. In addition, for the obvious reason that the Government's drafting of amendments is superior, we shall not be pressing our amendments to a vote.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): In view of the length of speeches, I shall be brief.

I welcome the Government's amendments and the way in which they are designed to protect individuals. I thank the Minister for receiving representations from people who are part of the Anglian Water experiment in Milton Keynes and Wellingborough, and who feel that they will lose out as a result of the Bill. As customers of Anglian Water with pre-payment meters, they feel that the sanction of the limiting device is the only way in which they are able to budget successfully. They fear that the Bill when enacted will put them back on the slippery slope to a life of debt. The Bill does not address that.

In Committee, the Minister said that if the Government could find alternative mechanisms that assisted budgeting and did not lead to disconnections, they would be prepared to consider them. However, he said that responsibility for that lay with the water companies. If we are serious about social exclusion, we must protect the people to whom I have referred and find ways of assisting them with budgeting.

If research is left to water companies, it will be conducted for their benefit. Their finance systems and interests will dictate such research. The Government have a role to play in the research in order to protect the people who are concerned about losing out under the legislation. Although I accept that the provisions apply to a very small minority, I urge the Government to take part in the research, put their weight behind it and find alternative mechanisms that will help to deal with this small but vital area of social exclusion.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I should like to start by claiming a Liberal Democrat campaign success: Government new schedule 1. I was also very flattered to note that, in the past few days, the Conservatives have quite unashamedly retabled many of the Liberal Democrat amendments that were tabled on 15 December, in order to extend the list of excluded premises.

Mr. Burns: Let me please clarify the situation. I know that the Liberal Democrats will be terribly upset about not

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tabling any amendments on Report. I should explain to the hon. Gentleman that both his party and mine tabled amendments that were debated in Committee, and once the Committee reported and the Minister had given a commitment, it was open to both parties to retable them. We tabled all the amendments as soon as the Committee finished its sittings. The hon. Gentleman still has not done so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am not going to allow a post mortem on who tabled what. We have amendments before us and we must discuss those amendments.

Mr. Brake: It is a pity that the intervention was made. I simply respond by saying that Liberal Democrat Members favour a less tribal form of politics, and would certainly welcome a free and unfettered exchange of ideas, but would like to get the credit for it when appropriate.

Although I welcome the new schedule, I am surprised that, when the Bill was being drafted--I understand that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has mentioned this--the Minister and his massed ranks of civil servants did not believe that it was appropriate to add to the list of exclusions other categories, such as sheltered accommodation, prisons, dentists, doctors, and so on. The Government have now done so, and I am pleased that they have done so; they have agreed to take our suggestions on board. I hope that, in future, attention will be paid to detail at the appropriate moment.

I must also question the role of some of the Labour Back Benchers on the Committee, who remained silent almost throughout its consideration of the Bill. However, I give them the benefit of the doubt. They may have been twisting the Minister's arm behind closed doors, and it may be for that reason that some of the amendments have emerged tonight.

Mr. Burns: I thought that the hon. Gentleman did not like confrontational politics.

Mr. Brake: But I am about to finish on a positive note.

In Committee, the Government would give no firm undertaking that they would support Liberal Democrat proposals to protect the groups that I have mentioned. I am very pleased that they have listened to our arguments, and to our concerns and those of Conservative Members. This is a refreshing and novel approach to government, and I would commend it to the House. We are very happy to support all the amendments in the group.

Mr. Gray: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), with whom I serve on the Select Committee on the Environment. He has an inexorable way of congratulating himself under all circumstances--he has that in common with the rest of his party. However, on this occasion, I am happy to congratulate him on the brevity of his remarks, if nothing else.

I am also pleased to congratulate the Government who, I am glad to say, listened so carefully to what Her Majesty's Opposition said in Committee that they have tabled new schedule 1, which seems to incorporate all the powerful and passionate arguments that we advanced in

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Committee. I only wish that, in some of the other Committees on which I serve, the Government were as ready to listen to the great sense and power of our advocacy as they appear to have been in this case.

I have severe reservations about whether domestic disconnections should be outlawed. However, if they were outlawed, it would be absurd if some of these very noble and distinguished public organisations were none the less allowed to suffer from disconnections. Equally, it would be absurd if, although schools could not be disconnected, institutions of further and higher education could be; and if, although hospitals could not be disconnected, organisations such as nursing homes could be. I therefore welcome the inherent logic in the Government's accepting our amendments Nos. 13 to 24--or, rather, replacing them with new schedule 1. There is a great deal of logic and sense in that, and Conservative Members welcome the Government's sense in listening to what we said and, to a limited degree, to be fair, to what Liberal Democrat Members said on the subject.

None the less, a huge absurdity underlies this debate. Several times in Committee, a certain phrase was used--the words escape my mind, but there was a definite absurdity in the way in which the debate took place, for the following reason. Of course those worthwhile organisations should not be disconnected, but there is no circumstance, and no one--in Committee, or in the Chamber tonight--has been able to outline any circumstance, under which any of those institutions would be disconnected. There is no likelihood that a hospital would be disconnected. There is no likelihood that a fire brigade--the headquarters or the fire hydrants--would be disconnected. None of the institutions listed in new schedule 1 has the remotest likelihood, under any circumstances, of being disconnected.

There is a curious feel about the debate. We are legislating against something that could not possibly occur. It is a waste of a debate and of a new schedule. The initial exemption of schools and hospitals that led to the new schedule and the debate was in itself an absurdity.


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