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Lord Monson: My Lords, although the amendment is obviously well intended, I suggest that the drafting is seriously flawed. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, hinted at that in his closing remarks.

Paragraph (a) is essentially fine, although in order to avoid ambiguity it would be better if a comma were to be inserted after the word "debt" in that paragraph's second line. However, in order to make sense, paragraph (b) needs to be prefaced by a phrase such as "the number of", "the frequency of" or "the pattern of". Even more importantly, paragraphs (c) and (d) need to be prefaced by, for example, "ways to", so that they refer to,

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This is not a question of being pedantic; the point is that if the clause is to be incorporated into the Bill, it will impose strict obligations upon the authority. The authority will not be able to fulfil those obligations unless they know precisely and unambiguously what they are.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I rise to echo the wise words of my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding. We all realise and accept that there are families that struggle to pay their bills. Let us agree that in the first place. When I read the amendment, I had picked up paragraph (d) as the one that was particularly worrying me. I will not add to what my noble friend has said, or go over it again. When the Minister responds, and the noble Lord moving this amendment responds, will they address the question of errors? Errors are made, and people are disconnected when they should not be. We perhaps need to have something in the Bill to address that. As it stands, I could not support the amendment fully. I highlight this issue, because it has not been addressed, and it should be.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I rise to support the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Ezra, to which my name is also attached. I accept that the drafting of our amendment is not perfect, for reasons that the noble Lord laid out when discussing paragraphs (b) and (c). However, the Conservative Benches found the last amendment too specific, but they find this amendment too general. They will obviously not be content with anything this afternoon.

The spirit of this amendment is extremely important. All that it is asking is that the authorities shall, with the passing of this Bill, and in consultation with the relevant agencies, review and publish their findings on disconnections. There are certainly some issues there. While this amendment may not be perfectly drafted, it is surely entirely reasonable. All it is asking is that the authority should review and publish its findings about what will be done to ensure that those who are classified as vulnerable groups are correctly classified, so that we are not leaving groups out of the classification who are vulnerable, and that the present rules and regulations with regard to those groups are reasonable. Surely, the publication of such a study would be in everyone's interests.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we do not legislate in spirit, but in words. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for identifying that fact, and for supporting the burden of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that there were conspicuous weaknesses in the amendment, which, if we sought to translate them into a law, would cause us real trouble.

This is an important debate, and I do not want it to look as though I am merely nitpicking about the text of the amendment when important issues are at stake. Lest noble Lords think that the Government come under pressure only when issues are debated in this House, with

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our combined wisdom, there is an Early-Day Motion in the other place signed by 100 Members of my party seeking far more dramatic action against disconnection—in fact, action against disconnection—whereas this amendment only expresses a general hope.

Let us not delude ourselves. What the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, did in introducing the amendment was highlight an issue that should, and does, concern us all. I assure the House that what the amendment seeks to achieve in the Bill is already being done. Ofgem already closely monitors disconnection activity. Where there are any unexpected trends in that activity, it seeks explanations. It has recently, with the encouragement of the DTI, been in extensive discussion with suppliers about all aspects of disconnection activity. These discussions are firmly in line with the expressions that have been made on all sides of the House today, and are also to be heard with some fervour in the other place. In particular, the discussions have focused on improved processes for identifying and dealing with vulnerable customers, and clarification of procedures for notifying relevant agencies where vulnerable customers were in payment difficulties. We expect this to lead to proposals for improved arrangements right across the industry, which will be the subject of consultation with key relevant bodies and the wider public.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, mentioned water. He accurately identified the reason why water has significant consequences, when the issue of water disconnection came to the fore. Water is different from electricity and gas, because it is not just the consumer and the company that are affected by the disconnection of the utility. We all potentially suffer, in public health terms, if there is a suspension of water supply. Therefore, it fits into a different category, although the noble Lord has provided some help to the House in identifying what the consequences may be of pursuing a straightforward ban on disconnection. I emphasise that this short debate has highlighted a matter that greatly concerns the Government. It is clearly an issue that must be tackled.

When it comes to the general issue of support on fuel, it may be that we can go further down that road with regard to energy prices. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, did not mention the winter fuel allowance, but that perhaps was a slip. He did not recognise that some help is given with regard to increased prices and increased usage of fuel during the winter. I heard what he said about potential strategies with regard to energy prices, although that is a little remote from this amendment. Nevertheless, I hope that it will be recognised that the Government take the issues raised in this debate seriously. I hope that the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw the amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, we have had an extremely useful debate on this important issue. Although a number of noble Lords have queried the wording of the amendment, I do not think that any have queried the motivation behind it. Reference has been made to

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the identification of vulnerable groups and to disconnections made in error. I am reassured by what the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said about the work already being done. I am also reassured that his colleagues in another place are being much more vigorous on this than we are, in our relatively tentative approach. I wish them every success in their endeavours.

It is satisfying to note that Ofgem, the Government, and other bodies are taking this extremely seriously. I have referred to the Energy Retail Association, which is also moving in this direction. I am satisfied that this matter is being taken seriously. I am glad that my amendment has led to this discussion, that there is a unanimous view that this issue must be taken with great concern, for the benefit of our compatriots who are not in a position to pay their bills for vital commodities, and that this is being looked at very carefully indeed. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 219:

    After Clause 167, insert the following new clause—

In this Act—
(a) all powers of exploration, exploitation, collection, transmission, distribution and connection to any other network shall be constrained by an overriding requirement to care for the natural environment;
(b) in this context the doing of anything that will cause, or causes, major lasting damage to the natural environment creates an offence; and
(c) an offence under this section will fall within section 77 of this Act."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I hesitate to rise and move the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper, having been accused of not being able to be persuaded by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. This amendment is hugely important. I accept that our wording might not be perfect, but I wanted to return to this issue.

In response to the amendments that I moved in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, said:

    "The amendments would not achieve their objective, as they propose introducing environmental considerations too early in the process, when the REZ is established".—[Official Report, 3/2/04; col. GC 320.]

I am trying again. As we know, environmental damage is of primary importance to our planet and the survival of its inhabitants. To say that it does not matter at a particular stage in a development rather misses the point. Exploration and the proving of reserve and geological structures can cause damage. It varies only in extent from operational damage.

Since we debated the issue in Committee, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee has published its sixth report on the marine environment. It is hot off the press, having been published on 21 March. That is why I wanted particularly to refer to it. In the introduction of its report, the committee says that its predecessor, the

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Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, in a report on UK biodiversity, concluded that,

    "the Government must address the range of problems and inadequacies in their approach to marine biodiversity. As an island nation, the conservation of marine biodiversity should be paramount and the Government should consider whether a new statutory agency is required to deal with marine biodiversity issues".

I raise that to provide background.

Item 10 on page seven, entitled "Lack of 'joined-up Government'", states:

    "Although Defra takes the lead on marine conservation, other departments (including the Ministry of Defence, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Department for Transport, Department of Trade and Industry) are responsible for many of the activities that can affect the marine environment".

Item 12 on page eight is entitled:

    "Lack of mechanisms to assess and manage cumulative impacts of different human activities at sea".

Under that heading, the report states:

    "The consenting procedures for developments and activities at sea are generally handled on a sector-by-sector basis by the relevant sponsoring Department. Environmental groups express concern that the cumulative and 'in-combination' effects of industries such as oil and gas extraction, wind farms, coastal developments and fishing are not assessed under the present system".

Page 13 deals with the review of development in marine and coastal waters, for which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is the Minister responsible. The report concludes:

    "The review has taken longer than expected to reach a conclusion, which has caused concern, but is due to report this year".

As I have said, we are considering the Bill now, not later in the year.

On page 20, paragraph 4 of the conclusions and recommendations states:

    "At present, the different Departments involved do not appear to have a common approach to sustainable development in the marine environment and there is no formal arrangement allowing them to come together. Given the complexity of this area of policy, the Government should put in place a clearly defined co-ordinating mechanism to bring together, on a regular basis, the key parties with a role in protecting the marine environment".

The last extract that I wish to quote is paragraph 8 on page 21, dealing with the strategic environment assessment directive. It states:

    "Wherever in Government the authority was based, it would need to ensure that the concerns of all users of the sea were taken into account".

During the passage of this Bill we have raised issues about fishing and protecting the seabed environment. This is my last chance to raise the issue again on Report. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, will not dismiss the issue, because we have talked about it at length. In some way, particularly as it has now been highlighted and supported by the recently published Select Committee report, there should be something in the Bill to deal with the issues raised.

We are concerned that the possible consequences of wind turbine construction at sea may be appreciated only after the damage becomes apparent, and that it

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may be some considerable time after it happens. Proposed paragraph (b) of my amendment refers clearly to,

    "in this context the doing of anything that will cause . . . major lasting damaging".

We are trying to address lasting damage.

If developers know that they have a legal duty to avoid major lasting environmental damage, and that there is a penalty if they fail, they should build environmental protection into their plans from the very beginning. That is what we are trying to do. If there is no such provision in the Act then no case could be brought against those who did not take care of the environment, even if the effects are mostly hidden from all but a very few eyes.

If the Government cannot accept my amendment as drafted at this stage, I hope that they will give it serious consideration before Third Reading. I beg to move.

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