Water Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Morley: The amendment proposes that the definition of ''private dwelling house'', for the purpose of defining premises that are not to be disconnected for non-payment of water charges, be replaced with the planned definition for ''household premises'' in schedule 4.

That is a bit of a re-run of something that we have addressed. As I mentioned, the definition of ''household premises'' under schedule 4, which will be elaborated on in secondary legislation, is created for use in the proposed competition regime. We would not wish to apply it to disconnection any more than we would to metering, because there are many differences between disconnection and competition. If we wished to improve or adjust the definitions of premises for the purposes of disconnection we would draft afresh.

New clause 4 proposes to add to the list of premises exempt from disconnection for non-payment of bills, but it is unclear what the effect of that addition would be. The existing provision, which was introduced in 1999, offers protection against disconnection to a detailed list of types of premises that extends over more than two pages of the schedule—I think that the hon. Gentleman made that point..

The existing list starts by protecting from disconnection any dwelling that is occupied by a person as their only or principal home. It is made clear that a private dwelling house may be a building or part of a building. This list was the most extensively debated part of the Bill that became the 1999 Act, and the Government accepted many changes to the schedule in response to debates in the House at the time. I mention that to emphasise that the premises to be protected were deliberate policy choices.

One reading of this new clause is that it simply seeks to protect those dwellings that are occupied by the disabled, the sick, pensioners or children under the age of five. That is entirely laudable; they are vulnerable groups. However, an amendment is not necessary to achieve that. If all dwellings occupied as a principal home are protected from disconnection, any such dwelling occupied by the vulnerable individuals listed in the amendment is automatically protected.

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On another reading, it might be thought that the amendment has a slightly different target. Some individuals do not live in dwellings occupied as a home, but in premises that are primarily commercial—I think that the hon. Gentleman was referring to that. If people live in a self-contained flat with its own water supply, they are protected from disconnection, like any other person is.

There can, however, be mixed-use premises in which the commercial supply is not separated from the supply for the individual. Examples of that include some public houses and caretakers' accommodation at a factory or on top of a large office block. Such a situation might occur where the accommodation is tied in that way, and the policy decision taken in 1999, which is still our policy today, is that it is appropriate to allow the disconnection of commercial premises. The problem is that it becomes difficult to distinguish private from commercial premises in those limited circumstances.

Where commercial premises include some elements that are residential, if those elements amount to a part of a building that is a private dwelling house, that, too, is protected, but the view was taken in 1999 that if those commercial premises are not a private dwelling house, disconnection should still be possible. However, commercial or industrial premises, which might be of any size, should not be sheltered against disconnection simply because they include a caretaker somewhere on site. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I call upon hon. Members to let the Minister make his contribution.

Mr. Morley: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien.

The problem is that there is a potential loophole. There could be a very large building, even a factory, which contained a flat, and the company could refuse to pay the bill, and if the amendment was agreed to, the water could not be turned off, although I do not think that that is its intention.

Although I appreciate that there are some difficult cases, I suspect that they are a minority and that they are generally dealt with if they involve a principal home that has a separate water supply.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to the Minister because he has understood the argument beautifully. What is worrying me is that he is not proposing to do anything about the problem. I accept that the loophole is a difficulty, but he will also accept that a loophole already exists and that people who live above a pub, or are caretakers, can be cut off. Obviously, if their home contains someone in a vulnerable group, they too will be cut off. The new clause seeks to close that loophole. I accept that it might not be perfect, but I would have hoped that the Minister would want to take the point on board and act constructively on it. What does he propose to do?

4 pm

Mr. Morley: The problem is that the amendment does not close a loophole; it opens one. It would give commercial premises the opportunity not to pay their water bills and take away the power of the water companies to do anything about it. I am not altogether

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sure that there is a major problem with vulnerable groups, bearing in mind the definitions relating to principal homes, which I have made clear. I am happy to have discussions with my officials to see whether they have identified a particular problem. If that is the case, perhaps we should turn our minds to it, but I do not think that we have received many representations to say that this is a big problem.

Mr. Wiggin: Perhaps the Minister would keep a watching brief on that situation, but I do not expect that there are great numbers involved. I suspect that he is right, but there is a loophole at the moment. I accept that a change would open another one, so we are in a difficult situation. A watching brief is probably the best way to deal with that. If he is prepared to do that, I shall not press the amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: We now come to a group of Government amendments attached to schedule 7.

Mr. Wiggin: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. The selection list that we were given grouped them differently. I am curious about why we keep returning to the Government amendments in this manner. It is difficult to follow, and therefore difficult for us to scrutinise effectively.

The Chairman: I am taking them in this order because of the procedure that we are going through. We are on schedule 7 and dealing with that part of the schedule that the amendments affect. The amendments that I am referring to are Nos. 308–313, 271, 314, 315 and 272. They are the group arising out of the block that we discussed earlier.

Amendments made:— No. 308, in

    schedule 7, page 194, line 37, leave out from 'Director' to 'there' in line 38 and insert

    'General of Water Services under section 29(6)''.'.

No. 309, in

    schedule 7, page 194, line 39, leave out 'above or'.

No. 310, in

    schedule 7, page 195, line 8, after '1991)', insert '; or'.

No. 311, in

    schedule 7, page 195, line 16, at end insert—

    '( ) The Water Consolidation (Consequential Provisions) Act 1991 is amended as follows.

    ( ) In Schedule 1 (amendment of enactments), paragraphs 10, 28(a) and 29(a) are omitted.'.

No. 312, in

    schedule 7, page 195, line 17, leave out from 'Schedule 2' to '(transitional' in line 18.

No. 313, in

    schedule 7, page 195, line 28, leave out from 'paragraph' to 'the' in line 29 and insert '(o) there is inserted—

    ''(p)'.

No. 271, in

    schedule 7, page 195, line 36, at end insert—

    '( ) In Schedule 10 (regulators), the following are omitted—

    (a) paragraph 5(3),

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    (b) paragraph 13(2) and (3).'.

No. 314, in

    schedule 7, page 196, line 7, leave out '''(gga)' and insert '''(gi)'.

No. 315, in

    schedule 7, page 196, line 20, leave out from 'paragraph' to 'the' in line 21 and insert '(ra) there is inserted—

    ''(rb)'.

No. 272, in

    schedule 7, page 197, line 5, at end insert—

    'Reservoirs Act 1975 (c.23)

    In Schedule 1 to the Reservoirs Act 1975 (index of general definitions), the entry for ''Local authority'' is omitted.'.—[Mr. Morley.]

Mr. Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 132, in

    schedule 7, page 197, line 8, leave out 'for' and insert 'after'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 133, in

    schedule 7, page 197, line 9, leave out 'substituted' and insert 'inserted'.

Amendment No. 134, in

    schedule 7, page 197, line 10, leave out 'for' and insert 'after'.

Amendment No. 135, in

    schedule 7, page 197, line 11, leave out 'substituted' and insert 'inserted'.

Mr. Wiggin: This is a tremendous series of amendments, which will appeal to the Minister's sense of fair play, his passion for transparency and everything else that is good about him. The amendment is monumental, because it seeks to change the words so that ''centigrade'' and ''Fahrenheit'' appear in the Bill. That is hardly an unpleasant experience to have to go through. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that although metric is very acceptable, there is no need to delete the old Fahrenheit readings.

To leave out ''for'' and insert ''after'' is hardly the most testing of amendments.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Has my hon. Friend made any estimates of the temperature in centigrade or Fahrenheit of this Room?

Mr. Wiggin: As I said earlier, this is home from home for me. When I get home this evening, I expect my house to be as cold as it is in here because my boiler is broken. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the fact that although some of us would be very comfortable with the temperature in this Room being measured in centigrade, some older Members might be happier if it were in Fahrenheit. We have an opportunity here to include both in the Bill. That is inclusive, transparent and in every way appealing.

 
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