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9.45 pm

The second absurdity is that if we accept that there is no likelihood that the listed premises will be disconnected, but none the less the Government are to legislate against the possibility that that will happen--this may have more to do with Labour's determination to live with regulation and legislation bearing on every minute detail of our lives; it loves control from the centre and loves saying, "This is what you, the water companies, will do"--and if we assume that it is reasonable that they should do so, and that they should say that schools, hospitals and the other worthy bodies listed in new schedule 1 should not be disconnected, what is the position of all the premises that are not listed in the new schedule?

For example, what is the position of Government offices? Under the Bill, it is possible that the Treasury or the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, at its splendid new building opposite Victoria station, will be disconnected if an obscure civil servant somewhere on some occasion fails to pay the bill. Is that not ludicrous?

Another example is barrack blocks. It is possible that soldiers in those blocks will be disconnected from a water supply because the Ministry of Defence has failed to pay

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the bill. The Palace of Westminster is not exempt from disconnection. It is perfectly possible under the Bill that the Palace will be cut off and that the water that Ministers enjoy as they sit on the Treasury Bench will therefore not be available.

Mr. Brake: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to explain to the House in what way hon. Members in the Palace of Westminster are a vulnerable group.

Mr. Gray: On reflection, one or two Members on the Liberal Benches might fall into that category. Those with minute majorities may well be looking vulnerable in two or three years' time. However, the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we are not vulnerable groups in proper terms. Nor, indeed, are many of the categories listed in the new schedule.

My point--perhaps I have chosen a vaguely absurd way in which to make it--is that Her Majesty's Government pay hospitals' water bills, as they do for schools and for most of the categories listed in the new schedule. The only circumstances in which the bill would not be paid would be either if the Government chose not to do so--if, for example, the school or hospital had become roofless or disused--or if, through some minor inefficiency in the lower regions of whatever Department, a civil servant on some occasion forgot to pay the bill. Surely it is reasonable that in those circumstances, the water company would have the ultimate sanction of saying to the Government, "Look here, guys, you have not paid your bill; if you don't pay it we shall cut you off."

It is absurd that under the new schedule, many Government organisations may not be cut off even if they do not pay their bills, while other perfectly worthwhile Government organisations, such as the Palace and Government Departments, could be disconnected.

Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West): I think that the hon. Gentleman is in error in saying that civil servants pay the water bills of hospitals and other such premises. It is the employees of the health boards who do that. There are certainly health boards that I am acquainted with which make a mess of their financial affairs and might well come unstuck in this context.

Mr. Gray: I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman's correction. He is right in saying that, technically, it is not civil servants who pay the bills, although they are public servants. Perhaps that would be the more accurate expression. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is listening to me with such care as to spot the slight slip. I am happy to acknowledge his correcting it.

These exceptions constitute an absurdity, as do the premises that are missing. The new schedule as a whole is not anything to do with real and important legislation; it is more to do with two other things. First, there is Labour's determination to limit, control and regulate every aspect of our lives. It is determined to write down in law the minutest detail of everyday life. When the Conservative Government introduced a voluntary code of conduct, we found that for many years, the water companies did not disconnect very many domestic customers. Far less have they disconnected any of the worthwhile bodies that are listed in the new schedule. A voluntary code of practice for the water companies has

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worked perfectly adequately for many years, but the Government have now chosen to regulate through the new schedule.

The second aspect of new Labour highlighted by the new schedule is its love of the politically correct. It is marvellous for Ministers to say, "We care greatly for vulnerable people. That is why we will exempt them from disconnections. It is the fat cats in the water industry--those disgraceful people who are earning large sums of money--who have been cutting off schools and hospitals. We, the caring new Labour Government, are determined to stop that scandalous activity."

The truth is that no school and no hospital has ever been disconnected. No school and no hospital ever would be disconnected. A school or hospital would be disconnected only if it had failed to pay the bill.

There are two aspects of new Labour that the new schedule and the amendments highlight. One is its determination to regulate, down to the minute detail of our everyday lives. The second is its determination to be seen to be kind and fair to the most vulnerable in our society. Who would not be? It is a waste of Government time, legislative time and the House's time to legislate against something that by no stretch of the imagination would ever happen.

Mr. Meacher: I shall reply briefly, as there were two or three points on which I can give a factual response.

I was asked about the application of protection from disconnection in respect of student lodgings. Halls of residence attached to places of further and higher education will be protected, as will bedsits which qualify as houses in multiple occupation, and private dwellings where students rent rooms. That goes pretty wide.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) raised the important point about limiting devices--trickle valves--to enforce payment. I am aware that a small minority of people regard those as useful for budgeting purposes. I do not think that the retention of limiting devices is the best way to help them, but I take my hon. Friend's point that there is a role for Government to consider whether we should issue guidelines to water companies about ways in which they can assist individuals and families who want help with budgeting.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) had enormous fun and made a fairly knockabout speech. He argued that the new schedule was entirely fatuous because none of the institutions listed is likely to suffer disconnection. He is not quite right about that. The figures that we have, which are not complete because the water companies do not always keep such information, show that, over the past five years, for houses in multiple occupation where the landlord is not resident, there have been 16 cases of disconnection, and, for tenanted properties where the landlord is responsible for paying the bill, there have been 17 cases of disconnection. Both types of property involve groups who are vulnerable, and both will be covered by the provisions.

The hon. Gentleman is being a little unconcerned in failing to recognise that there is a genuine purpose behind the provisions. I hope that we will not have a further

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lengthy discussion of the matter, and that he will accept that such protection is desirable and that he should support it, not mock it.

Mr. Gray: The right hon. Gentleman is right about houses in multiple occupation and the other worthy cause that he mentioned. My remarks were not directed at them. My point was about schools and hospitals in particular, which are the only two categories that he mentioned in Committee and that were originally mentioned in the Bill. Government agencies could reasonably be expected to pay the bills of both those categories.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 32, in page 1, line 11, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 2 and insert--

'(2) After Schedule 4 to the Water Industry Act 1991 there is inserted, as Schedule 4A, the Schedule set out in Schedule (Schedule to be inserted in the Water Industry Act 1991) to this Act.'.--[Mr. Allen.]

Clause 2

Prohibition of use of limiting devices

Amendments made: No. 33, in page 2, line 7, leave out 'excluded premises' and insert
'premises specified in Schedule 4A to this Act.'.
No. 34, in page 2, leave out lines 26 and 27.--[Mr. Allen.]

Clause 3

Undertakers to charge in accordance with charges schemes

Manuscript amendment made: in page 2, line 40, leave out 'section 61(7) above' and insert
'paragraph 1(2) of Schedule 4A to this Act'.--[Mr. Allen.]

Clause 5

Regulations concerning charges schemes

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 3, leave out from end of line 19 to end of line 10 on page 4 and insert--

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