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Lord Swinfen: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment was to seek clarification, and after the noble Baroness's long exposition I probably have that. It is with pleasure that I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 [General functions of Board]:

[Amendment No. 9 not moved.]

Clause 14 [Persons qualifying for disabled person's tax credit]:

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 10:

Page 8, line 29, leave out from ("certifies") to end of line 31

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is probably the most simple amendment we have had in the course of our long debates on this Bill. It refers to Clause 14, which affects persons qualifying for disabled person's tax credit. The purpose of the clause, in some respects, is to be welcomed. I was simply puzzled as to why it is that in Clause 14(4)(2C)(b), when the disabled person's tax credit is going to run for a considerable number of days or, as I understand it, indefinitely, one of the conditions should be that a medical practitioner, within the meaning of the Administration Act, certifies certain conditions not more than 14 days before the date when the claim for the disabled person's tax credit is made. The amendment simply knocks out the expression

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the effect of this amendment will be to remove the requirement for people applying for the DPTC by the fast-track

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1366

gateway to provide a recent certificate from a medical practitioner. As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, will know, the fast-track gateway will bring far more generous help than hitherto to those people who have become ill or disabled while working, and the proposal is obviously an intervention while they are still on statutory sick pay. That has been warmly welcomed because it means that a person does not have to drop out of work in order to be able to re-enter it. I believe that it will make a big difference to disabled people as regards their being able to return to their previous employer with the help of DPTC, knowing that that will pick up some of the strain of possibly reduced earnings as a result of a disability.

However, we require the medical certificate to be no more than two weeks away. I believe that to be the concern behind Amendment No. 10. The certificate requires the medical practitioner to take a forward look at the applicant's condition and certify that it will last for six months--that is to say, for broadly the whole of the DPTC award period. So there needs to be a time limit; otherwise the certificate could be almost out of date by the time the applicants submit an application; for example, it could be submitted five months before, with the award running for only six months.

Clause 14 sets that time limit at 14 days. We believe that to be reasonable because it will ensure that at the time of the application for DPTC--say, week 20 or 26, or whatever, of statutory sick pay--a doctor has recently taken the view that the applicant's illness or disability is likely to last at least as long as the initial DPTC award. GPs will be able to complete the certificate for DPTC without reassessing the question of capacity for work. Therefore, we are minimising the extra work for GPs and, indeed, for the applicants because they will not have to make a separate appointment to see their medical practitioner in order to obtain this medical certificate.

Judging from what the noble Lord said, it seems to me that there may be some confusion about the timetable for a person applying for DPTC. The intention is that obtaining the certificate from the doctor stating that the disability will last for at least six months will be the last thing that a person does before returning to work. The doctor's certificate will come at the end of the process of negotiating a return to work with a former employer. The person will not obtain the medical certificate and then go and negotiate with his employer.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships an example of, say, a bus driver. He suffers an injury, perhaps a whiplash injury or something like that, which leaves him on statutory sick pay for many weeks. After around 13 weeks on SSP, we envisage that he could discuss with his employer the possibility of returning to work at a later date, albeit to a different job or even to the same job with shorter working hours. That would start negotiations between the employee and the employer to explore such possibilities. The employer will have a chance in this time to ascertain what obligations he has under the Disability Discrimination Act to make physical adjustments to the workplace in order to re-employ that person.

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Those negotiations between the employee and the employer could lead to a job offer or a change of job by, say, the sixteenth week of SSP. At that stage, agreement ought to be possible as to a date upon which the employee can return to work. The employee would then go to his doctor and get the six-month "forward look" certificate, by which stage he would virtually be ready to return to work. Certainly all the discussions with the employer would have been held and precise times of the new employment settled. After the 20th week of SSP and once the person is back at work, he would then apply for DPTC via the fast-track gateway. Given that all the return arrangements would have been made before the doctor signed the six-month forward look certificate, we think that 14 days is a reasonable time within which the DPTC arrangements must be finalised. In particular, the certificate must be a recent one.

There needs to be a close relationship between the doctor's statement and the forward look, which is what that doctor's statement would do. That will be taken just before the person returns to work. Otherwise, it could be a forward look taken three months before he goes back to work, whereupon it would be invalid. That is the reason for the 14-day period, which we believe to be reasonable.

I do not know whether the noble Lord has any further problems in that respect, but more time than that would simply eat into the six-month forward look period and may well be to the disadvantage of the person concerned. In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment. I appreciate that it is probably a probing amendment and that is why I have taken time to explain how the procedure should work.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. If the certificate is a long one well in advance of the date of claim, I realise that it will obviously extend the length of a period. It still seems to me that two weeks is very tight, although in that sense it will make the certificate recent. However, in the light of what the Minister spelt out in her response, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 [Transfer of functions]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendments Nos. 11 and 12:

Page 16, line 7, at end insert (", except Part XIII (advisory bodies and consultation)")
Page 16, line 10, at end insert (", except Part XII (advisory bodies and the duty to consult)")

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, that the Bill do now pass.--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

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Water Industry Bill

7.15 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 5 [Regulations concerning charges schemes]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 3, line 19, at end insert--
("( ) make provision as to the matters by reference to which effect is to be given to a measured charges notice; and")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 2, both of which stand in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Addington. This amendment relates to Clause 5, which deals with regulations concerning charges schemes.

In Committee, I moved an amendment which would have allowed the water undertakers to take into account certain matters when setting the period within which a measured charges notice would be put into effect. The amendment referred particularly to the environmental impact and to the cost to the water undertaker. With that amendment I was concerned to ensure that the legislation did not require an immediate response; indeed, I believe that I described it then as a "scatter-gun" response. I felt that the undertaker should not have to apply the new metering arrangements on the one-by-one basis in response to each request from a customer. My concern there, though it might appear to have been a particular concern for the water companies, was a rather wider concern for consumers, given the fact that sensibly undertaken adjustment programmes undertaken by the water companies are to the long-term benefit of consumers.

In Committee on 22nd April (at col. 1263 of Hansard), the Minister assured us that the Government did not wish to be unduly restrictive on the time-scales within which companies must install meters. She talked about cost-effectiveness and the fact that there may be environmental benefits to be gained from giving priority to metering customers in particular areas. The noble Baroness was concerned that the amendment would give the water companies too much scope to delay responding to a request for a meter. However, she also said that this did not mean that the Government did not take seriously concerns about cost-effectiveness and environmental benefits. She added that the Government had no intention of enforcing a "blanket requirement" on water companies to fit meters within exactly the same time-scale.

The Minister went on in Committee to say (at col. 1264 of Hansard) that there is scope for guidance on time-scales for meter fitting to be included in the Secretary of State's guidance to the director-general on his function of approving charges schemes. She added that the Government did not envisage such guidance to be overly prescriptive and that it would leave scope for local flexibility.

I should like to see regulations prescribed by the Secretary of State covering the issues which I have mentioned--environmental impact and cost. I should also like priority to be given to less well-off customers.

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1369

That was a point to which the Minister, quite rightly, referred as being important. Therefore, in this amendment I have not sought to list the issues involved; I have merely sought to give a nudge, if I may put it that way, for them to be included by the Secretary of State. Assuming that there will be consultation on the regulations, I seek to ensure that there will be an opportunity for all those concerned with these matters, including the water undertakers, to contribute to the draft regulations and make points at that stage.

Amendment No. 2 follows on from an amendment that we moved at the Committee stage. It deals with our concern that undertakers should consider the regulations to be practicable. If undertakers find such measures economical, consumers' bills will be reduced or at any rate not increased. Amendment No. 2 enables the Secretary of State to give undertakers particulars of people who are entitled to assistance under the regulations.

At the previous stage of the Bill the Minister was concerned about shifting the burden of administration of the scheme--he said that both the Government and the water companies have a role in this respect--and expressed concern about meeting the costs of protecting vulnerable customers (which is an essential part of the new system, as I, of course, accept) and said that the costs of the scheme should be met by the water undertakers. I have omitted reference to bearing the costs of providing information in the hope that that makes the amendment more acceptable to the Government. There is simply a reference to an obligation to provide information and no reference to who bears the cost of the exercise. I seek to ensure that where the Government, or government departments--particularly the DSS in this case--have relevant information, that is passed on. That seems common sense.

At the previous stage of the Bill the Minister was rightly concerned not to increase bureaucracy. I suggest that this amendment is directed at that concern. The DSS will have information about people who receive benefits. However, I accept that unless the regulations are drafted in a form which we may not have anticipated, information will not be made available about those who are vulnerable in other senses; for example, those receiving certain medical treatment. However, the DSS will have information about many of the people who are to be protected under the scheme. It is not sensible to require the water companies to duplicate that work.

I have a question which is closely connected to the concern I have just mentioned. What research, if any, do the Government have in mind to monitor water poverty? Monitoring the effectiveness of the assistance that is given through the regulations--in other words, a research programme on the extent of water poverty--is an important step. A research programme in this area would chime with the proposal to place social obligations on the utility providers and would complement the Government's present attack on fuel poverty. If that were done, all those involved in this area

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1370

could determine the effectiveness of the regulations. I hope that the Minister can assist the House on that more general query. I beg to move.

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