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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, the House will judge whether or not my noble friend has caught me out.

On the question of whether or not we were alone, it is perfectly plain that there is always a body of opinion which longs to accuse Her Majesty's Government of being in a minority of one on European issues. I can confirm to my noble friend that on this issue, as with others during the course of discussions at Cannes, we were not alone.

I agree with my noble friend that Europol is important. The matter is extremely complex. However—and I agree with my noble friend—it is perfectly clear that it would not have been appropriate in the case of Europol for us to change the situation. Indeed, my noble friend is right. This touches on sensitive issues of national criminal law and police operations that are firmly under the third pillar, which is within the competence of individual members.

Lord Monson: My Lords, it is doubtless admirable that the United Kingdom Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland reached agreement in Cannes on the decommissioning of terrorist weapons in Northern Ireland. However, does the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal agree that inter-governmental agreements are all very well, but the only important thing is that the major terrorist organisations show themselves prepared and ready to decommission a substantial proportion of their weaponry? Of that there appears to be no sign whatever.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am sorry if there is any misunderstanding—clearly there is from the noble Lord—about what my right honourable friend and Mr. Bruton agreed. The British Government have made their position perfectly clear over decommissioning of weapons. That position has remained entirely consistent ever since the present démarches opened.

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What was agreed at Cannes between my right honourable friend and the Irish Prime Minister was that officials from the two governments would meet to examine proposals for decommissioning weapons in Northern Ireland. Those proposals may be acceptable to both governments—we do not know whether they will be—when officials have reported to the governments. However, as the noble Lord said, that is only the beginning. What matters is that the proposals should be made to work and be consistent with the position of Her Majesty's Government, which we have already made clear.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, the Lord Privy Seal referred to the difference between peacekeeping and peace enforcement in Bosnia and said that the United Nations would be in command of the rapid reaction force. In the event that those forces are used offensively, can the Minister assure the House that the actions of our soldiers, sailors and airmen will have the full support of the Government?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I hope that the noble and gallant Lord will in no way expect any answer other than "yes" to that question. We are a long way from the action suggested and circumstances would have to change. The nature of the orders, the rules of engagement, the colour that the vehicles are painted, the insignia, and many other matters with which the noble and gallant Lord is more familiar than I, would have to be addressed. The role is clear: deployment is taking place and I know that the noble and gallant Lord will be relieved to find that he and I are in no way apart on the issue.

Gas Bill

4.51 p.m.

House again in Committee on Schedule 2.

Lord Inglewood moved Amendment No. 72:

Page 21, line 30, after ("premises") insert (", or to any premises previously owned or occupied by him").

The noble Lord said: I hope that I shall not be considered to be introducing too much bathos into proceedings if I ask the Committee to focus its mind on gas meters again. In moving Amendment No. 72, I wish also to speak to Amendments Nos. 76, 77 and 78. Amendments Nos. 72 and 77 provide that a supplier has the right to cut off a consumer for default on payments for gas at premises previously occupied by the consumer. Where consumers move around leaving debts unpaid, they should not be able to expect the same gas supplier to take them on without the debt being paid and without the ultimate sanction of disconnection remaining available. Where the customer changes premises and gas supplier, the rules for allowing disconnection in respect of assigned debt will apply as if the customer had changed supplier at existing premises.

Amendments Nos. 76 and 78 are purely technical. A supplier has the right to cut off premises only where he is a relevant supplier. However, it is possible in a competitive market that a consumer may have more than one supplier in order to take advantage of the most competitive rates for supplying him at different times of the day or year.

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That may be unusual, but it is a possibility we need to provide for. In such cases, we do not consider a supplier's right to cut off should be restricted by the fact that there is another "relevant supplier" at the premises. Amendments Nos. 76 and 78 clarify the point. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness David moved Amendment No. 73:

Page 21, line 32, at end insert ("and fails to reach agreement with the supplier about arrangements to pay any arrears").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 73 I wish also to speak to Amendments Nos. 74 and 75. I should like to say at the beginning that British Gas has maintained high standards of customer service and a safe and reliable gas supply and has ensured that older and disabled members of the community receive specialist advice and help in using gas appliances. The company has also developed a fair and reasonable code for dealing with customers who fall into debt. That is what the amendments are about.

The rapid decline in the number of customers disconnected for reasons of debt clearly indicates that the range of payment arrangements and account management options available are sufficient to ensure that physical disconnection from the supply is no longer necessary. British Gas currently distinguishes between those who will not pay and those who cannot pay. This distinction also features in the draft standard licence condition 19 proposed by the DTI.

In those circumstances, it is strange that the gas code should fail altogether to reflect the alternatives to disconnection. So the three amendments attempt to provide alternatives or safeguards. The first, Amendment No. 73, inserts at the end of sub-paragraph (1) (b) in paragraph 7:

    "and fails to reach agreement with the supplier about arrangements to pay any arrears".

In the same place, Amendment No. 74 adds:

    "the consumer refuses to accept a prepayment meter".

The third amendment, Amendment No. 75, adds:

    "This paragraph does not apply to consumers who are disabled or aged 60 years or over".

All those I hope the Minister would be prepared to accept. The old are particularly vulnerable; they need protection from the cold. They are unable very often to move about quickly to get warm, and they are naturally anxious about having a continuing supply. No doubt the gas supplies the heating as well as the hot water. We need these precautions in the Bill to safeguard people and to keep up the good practice of British Gas. I hope very much that the Minister will look well on the amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: I am a little surprised by Amendment No. 75 which excludes application of the paragraph not only to disabled people—for which there is an argument—but to everyone over 60. I am perhaps biased in not regarding 60 as an age of great debility and weakness. A large proportion of people in their 60s do full-time work and are well remunerated for it. Therefore, if it is desired to make special provision for the disabled, where there is an argument, I suggest that selecting also to be bracketed with them all those—fit or not—of 60 and over is a mistake. The amendment therefore goes too far in any event.

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Lord Peston: The general ground has been admirably covered by my noble friend. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that there is an argument to be made about when we regard old age as beginning. The Bill recognised from the outset that 60 is the relevant age. I am over 60 and I do not feel all that much older than when I was considerably under 60, so I take the noble Lord's point. He is clearly older than me and shows no sign of going into decline.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: I am glad that the noble Lord does not feel that he is in need of particular care.

Lord Peston: The point I make is that the drafters clearly believe in all other parts of the Bill that 60 is the important age. Therefore, it is not for the likes of us to go against the Government on such a matter.

I suppose that the argument for the age of 60 which is worth bearing in mind is that we are discussing the conditions under which someone may be cut off. I could put up some kind of case for arguing that someone over 60 who is behind with payments may have good reasons for it. It could hardly be fecklessness or something similar. I take the noble Lord's point that there could be an argument about the matter.

On the question of the age, the Minister can perhaps comment. When it was discussed in another place, the Minister accepted the argument about the age of 60 possibly rising when the common retirement age becomes 65. On 16th May, in Standing Committee A in another place, the Minister said at col. 208 that in accepting the argument the Government would themselves introduce an appropriate amendment, so far as I understand it, at the Commons Report stage. My reading of the matter is that that simply has not happened; we have not had an amendment on the same topic in this House. I rise not to add anything to the arguments of my noble friend Lady David, but to ask what has happened to that ministerial commitment on the part of the Government to introduce an amendment. Is the noble Lord able to answer that question now? If he is unable to answer now, there are one or two caring amendments which will arise during the course of today when he may wish to take the opportunity to do so. The Minister in the other place used the words, "We shall introduce an amendment." So there can be no doubt about what was said.

5 p.m.

Lord Ezra: I support the broad thrust of these amendments, so ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady David. The amendment that has been moved raises one of the important issues in the Bill. At Second Reading a number of us expressed concern that as a result of the changes in the Bill those who are disadvantaged—I do not want to go into the argument about whether or not 60 year-olds can afford to pay—should be treated at least as well, and as considerately, as they are under the British Gas regime. That is what the argument is all about. If we can be assured by the Government that it is their intention that that will be so and that there is adequate provision—perhaps strengthened by accepting these amendments or in other ways—a number of us would be satisfied.

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