Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Addington: My Lords, at Report stage that is about as much of an answer as one can expect. When the Government say that they are looking at the situation and will act if necessary, we know that we are starting a process which can take a considerable amount of time. But on the principle that the first step in any journey is always the most difficult, we have started well. On those grounds I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1398

Clause 10 [Extension of power to carry out works in connection with metering]:

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 13:

Page 7, line 28, at end insert--
("( ) After subsection (9) there is inserted--
"(10) In this section, references to "premises", "building" or "house" shall be taken as also being references to--
(a) any private dwellinghouse forming the whole or any part of any premises, building or house, and
(b) any premises, building or house excluding any private dwellinghouse forming part of such premises, building or house."").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 13, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 15 and 16. All three amendments revolve around the same point, which has not been clarified in the Bill, even though it is essential that it should be.

The amendments relate to mixed premises; that is, premises which are used both for commercial purposes and as a residence. At Committee stage I gave as a possible example public houses where the manager lived in; the common situation of a shop or restaurant with a flat above; even possibly the caretaker's flat in commercial premises.

Amendment No. 13 to Clause 10 has the effect of ensuring that a metered supply can be installed in the business premises even if the residential part is not metered. It also means that once the business premises are separately metered, the residential part of the premises are protected from disconnection. That protection is something that I would not have thought the Government would want obstructed in any way or for any reason. It will ensure that if for some reason the supply of water to the commercial premises has to be disconnected, the residential premises could not be used as a shield protecting the defaulting business premises from disconnection.

Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 deal with different aspects of the same situation where mixed-use premises are involved. Amendment No. 15 ensures that where there are mixed premises, the supply company can insist on separate supply pipes to the commercial and the residential parts of the building. Amendment No. 16 follows from that and reinforces what I said about Amendment No. 13 to Clause 10. It makes it clear that the ban on disconnections of residential premises, which we all support, does not extend to mixed-use premises where the water supply is used by the business; for example, a public house where the water supply is almost totally used by the business. But, on the contrary, where premises are treated as one unit--a shop with a flat over it--then the flat itself cannot be cut off when the shop uses no water at all.

In responding to the amendments at Committee stage, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, argued against extending the powers of the water companies to enter peoples' houses in order to separate supply pipes. The noble Baroness also suggested that suppliers might even charge the householder for doing

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1399

so. That latter is something that can be covered by the intended regulations. Lastly, she said that the work might be something,

    "that the customer neither wants, nor needs doing".--[Official Report, 22/5/99; col. 1283.]

These amendments aim to strengthen the rights of the householder and to protect him against getting mixed up in the financial problems of the business. True, they also strengthen the hand of the water supply company by removing an obstruction to its ability to recover their debts. We have the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act, so I am sure that the Government agree with this.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was concerned that the water company should not be put to expense by people switching backwards and forwards between being metered and not being metered, as I reminded your Lordships when we discussed the amendments to Clause 6. Surely then the Government should be no less concerned that they should not be inhibited from recovering their debts by the presence of residential premises. The gas suppliers, the electricity suppliers and the telephone companies have no problem in distinguishing between the commercial and residential occupiers of the same building and in supplying them separately. The water companies feel that they too would have no difficulty in dealing with both parts of the same building separately if they were given the appropriate powers to do so by this Bill.

The noble Baroness, at the conclusion of the debate, very kindly offered to consider the matter further if I wrote to her. As I have already mentioned, I did; and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, also sent me a detailed reply, for which I have already thanked him and for which I thank him again now. He made two main points. He said in effect that the problem dealt with by Amendment No. 13 will be covered by the regulations to be published in due course. I just feel that, this matter having been raised twice before today, it should have been possible to include the requisite clause as part of the primary legislation, because it is such a matter of concern to the water companies and it is something that the Government themselves say they recognise as a problem.

Turning to Amendments Nos. 15 and 16, connected to Amendment No. 13, there is a reason why a clear and express definition of what constitutes a dwellinghouse is vital. The reason is that, when a private dwellinghouse forms part of a mixed use property, it must be possible clearly to differentiate between the parts that are used exclusively as a dwellinghouse and the parts that are used for other purposes. Furthermore, the reason why the water companies, who have briefed me on this point, are concerned to see the definition inserted as I have proposed, into Section 219(1) of the Water Industry Act 1991, is that, in addition to the point about disconnections, (a) will also apply to Section 162 of that Act, which relates to metering, and (b) will apply to Section 64, which relates to service pipes.

Although it is felt, with the greatest of respect, that the noble Lord's criticism of the form and effect of the amendment as previously proposed are not entirely

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1400

justified, I have modified the amendment slightly so it now appears in its present form. I hope this makes it more acceptable.

The amendments simply make it clear that, when premises are occupied for mixed purposes, those parts can be separately charged for the water that they consume. The water companies do not believe that this objective can be achieved without an exact qualification of the Water Industry Act 1991, which is why this amendment puts the matter beyond doubt. I am sorry to engage in such technicalities at such a late stage of the Bill, but the point has been before the Minister right from the outset. Doubtless his officials and advisers are clearer about the issues than I was on the day that this Bill landed on my cluttered desk. I repeat that all I am asking for is that the Minister should put on the face of the Bill the clarification that is needed. I beg to move.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, we discussed similar amendments at the Committee stage. Although slight changes have since been made, I regret that I cannot regard these amendments as necessary, and in some respects they are actually undesirable. For example, the effect of Amendment No. 16 would be to disqualify from protection any dwelling in which business activity was carried out, regardless of what sort, or how much. In practice that would disqualify, or could be said to disqualify, many homes from protection: for instance, if you take work home or if you operate from your home any degree of business activity, it would mean that all of it would then have to be counted as a business premise.

There has been widespread support across the community for protection against disconnection and we would not want to have a loophole whereby a minor amount of private business activity in a home would remove the protection against disconnection.

Amendments Nos. 13 and 15 would extend the power the water companies already have to carry out work on customers' supply pipes. It is still not entirely clear to me that the amendments would actually add more than a very little in practice. At the moment, companies do have the power to separate supply lines where they have given notice that they intend to install a meter in the relevant properties. In Clause 10 of the Bill we are extending those powers to enable companies to carry out the necessary work in order to fit a meter.

Clause 7 of the Bill constrains the water companies' ability to impose charging on household customers. Under the proposed Section 144B of the Water Industry Act 1991, water companies will be able to meter properties where conditions are met. We have indicated that we are permitting companies to impose charges where customers are using water for commercial purposes or, as I said earlier, for such devices as garden sprinklers, swimming pools and so forth. We therefore expect that this provision will enable water companies to install meters where water, as such, is used in connection with a business, without the need for such a complex amendment as Amendment No. 13.

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1401

If Amendments Nos. 13 and 16 are not accepted--and I would urge the House not to accept them--Amendment No. 15, as it stands, would serve no useful purpose and we would not support such an amendment, for the reasons that my noble friend spelt out at an earlier stage. It would allow water companies to go into anyone's home whether or not a meter had been requested, and to carry out work to separate supply pipes. Under the amendment, companies could even charge the householder for the work involved in this, although the only purpose would be to make it easier for the water companies to disconnect the supply at a later date.

I do not believe that such a degree of intrusion is desirable or that it is the probable objective that the noble Baroness has in mind, but that would be the effect of the amendment. I cannot really accept that it is right to allow companies freedom to impose on their customers in this way and then to charge them for doing so. Similarly, I do not accept that companies need the powers proposed in the amendments for any effective carrying on of their business.

I must state, once again, that one of the principles of this Bill is to provide a protection against disconnection. There are limited exceptions, but this would not only greatly widen the number of exceptions; it would also give powers of intrusion to water companies going well beyond what the companies themselves would, if they thought about it, really want. In the circumstances, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press her amendments.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page