I have got better at using electronic devices and perhaps I will get better still. However, my main concern is with those elderly people who find it difficult to use electronic devices and are paying more as a consequence. Some of those elderly people are on very low incomes, as my mother was. I am sure that the Government will not accept this amendment but I hope that we can get the message across that we need to look seriously at how this affects the older generation, particularly as I think Dementia Awareness Week is this week. If you or the person you care for has dementia, these matters are difficult to cope with but you can see something that is on a piece of paper and track it. I hope that the Minister will take those points into account in her response.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I rise briefly to support my noble friend’s amendment. We had a preliminary canter over this ground when the Committee sat last week. I said then that I thought Amendment 53 was far more felicitously phrased than my amendment, and, indeed, it has so proved. The case is powerfully made. However, I take slight issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock: this is not about age discrimination but about a consumer’s right to choose the way they receive bills and the way they wish to pay them. They should not face additional charges or discrimination in that sense. It does not matter whether they are 21, 81 or 101, that is the way it should be because that is the right the consumer should have. I support my noble friend’s amendment. I would like her to have thought of a way of ensuring that the banks do not charge for providing statements, which they are doing now increasingly, as statements are often important as a means of identification. Her amendment is much better than mine and I hope that the Government will be more sympathetic towards it than they were towards mine last week.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I, too, support this amendment. As the noble Lord just said, it does not apply just to old people like me but to many people who do not have access to the internet, or they or their carers are unable to use it, as other noble Lords have said.

I should point out one thing one has to watch if one is doing things electronically—that is, how do you file things? It is fine getting a bill on your mobile phone, but what do you do with it subsequently? How do you keep a record of it? There are many ways of doing it but it is not just a question of paying it directly through bank transfer, you have to keep a record and feel comfortable that it is secure. Security is becoming more and more difficult so these regulated monopolies, as many of them are, need to be aware of the importance of people getting paper bills if that is what they want.

When you read a meter you can put the reading on a postcard, if you want, or you can fill it in online. One of these days, I think that meters will be read down the

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phone line or the electricity line with no human input. They might get it right. If they do not, heaven help us. A friend bought a house from me and six months later he got a bill for £10,000 for water because there had been a leak. That had probably been happening since the war, about 50 years before, and it had soaked away into London gravel. You can imagine how you end up with a bill like that electronically but it was all quite difficult.

The other issue is paying by cheque. I tried to pay my EDF bill by direct debit this weekend and failed completely. My bill did not say how you could do direct debit, although there was lots of detailed stuff on the back of the paper bill. So I thought I would phone them up. I hung on for half an hour for a nice, friendly voice but got nothing at all, so in the end I went on the website. I found that EDF has a new website and you could do it on the web. But how many other people will think, “What do you do?”. You get a second reminder every two months. You put a cheque in the post or whatever you do but you cannot even talk to them down the phone. A friend of mine in the Isles of Scilly has four BT lines because they have four houses that they let out in the summer. This weekend, she told me she spent a total of six hours on the phone to BT. They have not had two of the lines working for a month. They tried dealing with this electronically and down the phone. Today they spoke to five different people at BT and still do not know if it is working. Before the utilities start charging people, they should get the service right. This is a very important amendment for both the paper/electronic debate and paying things by cheque. I strongly support it.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, the one thing we must not do is sound naïve. For all we would agree with this, and all the reasons we have heard, we should not penalise the energy companies for doing something that cuts the price for a lot of people by using a mechanism that makes things work better. If we need to be able to help a group of people who cannot yet benefit from that mechanism, then we are asking the utilities to subsidise them. I just want to be sure that we realise we are saying that. We should not be saying that we need to penalise utilities for doing what they are doing. Really, we are looking for there to be access or some other way to do this. Many hard-pressed households welcome the opportunity to save money this way, et cetera. I just put that point in.

Lord Berkeley: Is the noble Baroness straying into the territory of Animal Farm: four legs good, two legs better—or whichever way it is? Is not everybody equal?

Baroness Wilcox: Does the noble Lord mean equal opportunity? No, we are not born equal, that is for sure. Some people are tall, some fat and some short. We are not born equal but we should have equality of opportunity. That is what the noble Lord is arguing for.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I think we are straying into unnecessary territory here—very philosophical points which are no doubt extremely

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interesting. I will not rehearse at length the argument I made when this Committee last discussed this matter. However, there is an obligation on government as far as this is concerned because government do not enable us to have some simple system of verifying who we are. When we need to verify our identity, we are required to turn up with a paper copy, sent to us via the post, of a utility bill. All my utilities are trying to move over to sending everything electronically but an electronic copy does not suffice for those purposes. Until such time as we have a system of identify verification, people will rely on receiving paper utility bills.

I have one other point why paper utility bills are important. We are encouraged by government to switch suppliers. This is part of the philosophy of improving competition. You switch suppliers. You move to another supplier. You have a new website to go into and a new password. All these passwords, I am sure, we do our best to remember and not write down somewhere. Of course, you can no longer access the website of your previous supplier because you are no longer their customer. If you need to check back on whether the prices are indeed comparable, that data are no longer available unless you, the customer, spend money on printing them out and keep a paper copy. Surely that is the wrong way round.

Lord Stoneham of Droxford (LD): My Lords, I am slightly reluctant to speak against the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, and indeed that of my noble friend Lady Maddock, but, going against the grain of the debate, I think that I ought to do so. We have to say that the digital economy has provided huge savings and efficiencies in payment, booking and ticket systems, and the consumer should be allowed to benefit from that. We have to encourage these changes and simply to say that we are not going to do so is basically saying that the future is the past. I do not think we can ignore them.

I take the example of easyJet, an independent company away from the utilities. Are we saying that the equivalent of easyJet, which started competing against British Airways, would not have been allowed to discount its prices and reward customers who book online? I just do not think that that is the way forward. By all means say that we do not want extra charges put on people who are paying by cheque during the transition, but do not say, as it does in this amendment, that we should not offer a discount to those who are actually giving up their money more quickly by paying with a card or by direct debit. They are allowing the banks to release the money four days ahead, so why should they not get the benefit of that? It is a cheaper way of paying. It is wrong to say that this form of progress should be held up.

The other thing I would say is that I find it slightly patronising of older people. I chair a housing association for retired people. I was staggered when we did a survey for our annual conference, where the average age was the late 70s. We asked people whether they used IT to do a certain number of things. Some 80% said that they used the internet as a phone because they were using Skype, which is cheaper. Some 80% said that they bought tickets and booked their holidays on the internet because it is cheaper. What really

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shocked me as someone who worked in the newspaper industry and who thought that newspapers would always have a future because retired people would always want to read a newspaper was that 80% of them get their news from the internet. We cannot ignore these changes. What we should be concentrating on here is what the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, was talking about in the debate last week. We want regular paper records to be sent to customers who are using the internet process as well as to people who pay by cheque. But please do not let us say that we are going to go back to the past by letting the banks hold on to our money for four days when we can pay directly and get a cheaper price by doing so. Retired people can get that benefit as well. We must not end that progress.

Lord Blencathra: My Lords, I strongly support almost all of this amendment except that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham of Droxford, that we should not penalise those who pay by direct debit. I also agree that there should be incentives for people to pay by direct debit if they wish to do so. But the danger is that we are heading towards it becoming compulsory for all. Whether it is old people, young people or old gits like me, we have the right to get things on paper and not be cajoled, threatened and blackmailed by the utility companies and others into making all our transactions by direct debit.

Lord Stoneham of Droxford: Can I interrupt the noble Lord? Fifty years ago my father used to go to the retailers and pay every single bill in cash. Are we saying that progress should not have allowed him to pay by cheque?

Lord Blencathra: Of course not. The point I am making is that we should have the freedom to choose. I am one of those who for contrary and bloody-minded reasons goes to the Post Office in the Central Lobby to collect £145-worth of postal orders to pay my TV licence. I do that because I resent the fact that the Post Office is losing that business. It costs me an extra £10 or £12, but over the years I have despaired as all Governments have accidentally or deliberately driven business away from the Post Office and have moved more and more things on to direct debit. What would we have said 30 years ago if a Government had said, “We’re going to drive all those old age pensioners into getting their money in their bank accounts and they won’t be able to get it in cash”? We would have been appalled, but we are rapidly heading that way. All Governments are enthusiastically persuading pensioners to do that.

7.30 pm

When it comes to direct debit, if we were looking at legislation 20 years ago which said that by 2014 nearly everyone will be on standing orders and direct debits for paying their gas bill therefore we must encourage everyone to do it and must have disincentives for those who pay by cheque, we would have been appalled, but our attitude has changed so much over the years that we take it for granted that most things will now be direct debits, standing orders or the people I meet in

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Starbucks every morning paying with a mobile phone in one hand with another mobile phone to their ear in the other, which I consider to be dashed rude.

It is not just old or middle-aged people. My noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes said that there are about 7 million people unable to use direct debits or standing orders, whatever age they may be. There is a fundamental point of principle in this, whatever age one is. We are entitled to see our bills on paper before they take the money from our bank account. To give a personal example, when I came back to London on 7 January, I found a BT bill on the mat dated 22 December demanding payment by 5 January, I think. It arrived only on 6 January in any case. I paid attention to it for the first time. I always sent BT a cheque, but I had never bothered to check the bill. I found there was a late penalty charge on it and a processing charge. I assumed that after 10 days BT would charge me a late penalty. I went back and looked at my other bills. They all had a late penalty charge. Even if I had paid the bill within seven days, five days, three days or 24 hours, I got a late penalty because I was not paying by direct debit. There was an arrogant assumption that if you do not pay by direct debit you should be penalised with a late penalty charge. Then there was a processing charge of about £7.50.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: If my noble friend looks at his BT bill more closely, he will see on the right-hand side of the page in small print, “If you wish to avoid this charge you can do so by getting a direct debit or by calling this number”. It is a direct push to try to stop people getting paper bills and paying by cheque.

Lord Blencathra: I entirely agree with my noble friend. To be fair to my noble friend Lord Stoneham of Droxford, that is going further than providing an incentive. There is a threat involved there, and that is not right and not fair.

I am not careless with money, but I then checked other bills, which I had not bothered to do properly before to find other mistakes. When I get a paper bill, I see the level of my gas bill and I go around switching off the heating for a while. If it is being taken directly from your bank account and you have no bill, just some annual statement, you do not see what gas, electricity and utilities are costing. There is a saving to consumers if they can see their bill in paper format.

A further point: I believed when I was a boy and growing up that the decent thing to do was to pay one’s bills within 30 days. Now it seems to be down to about 21 days. However, the demands that one should pay everything by direct debit or only get 10 days to pay a telephone bill are obscene. It is wrong and we should have legislation that forces the utility companies not to charge extra for cheques and not to give an unfair disadvantage to cheque-payers. Finally, not that it concerns this House, there are votes for whichever party defends consumer interests on this issue. There are votes to be lost unless we let the dying minority of consumers pay by cheque.

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Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I think we will just call the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, a brave man. I would not take that lot on.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is right. We had a brief canter around this area last week on his amendments. I just want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, for focusing the Government’s attention on this. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said, this is a Consumer Rights Bill and this is a very basic right: to be able to have a choice about whether to have your bills on paper and to pay by cheque—without paying for the privilege.

We need to keep at the centre of our debates those customers who struggle to get paper bills, and easily accessible and understandable information. The figure of 7 million has been mentioned of people who do not have internet access. We have a lot of people who find that even reading is quite difficult, let alone trying to do it on a small handheld telephone. But as we mentioned last week, there are other people as well, not just those who do not have access to printers, but who, for example, need a domestic bill to prove their identity, as my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey has said. But there are also carers and cared-for people, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has highlighted. There are also divorcing couples, which is the time when you have to start splitting bills; the self-employed who need to make claims; people who work away or are in hospital for a long time, who may not have access to their normal internet and can quickly lose track of what is happening.

I will take two minutes to tell you the very sad story of a friend of mine who was virtually battered to death. She was in hospital for a very long period after this. But the only way she was able to help the police find the culprit was when she woke up in hospital. The usual thing happened, her post came in. Her bills came in and she was able to see that a credit card had been used. The police could then go and see where that money had come from, and find a photograph of the culprit. I am glad to say that the attempted murderer is now well locked away. But there are all sorts of reasons why people feel secure when they are able to see that sort of data on paper.

That may be an extreme example, but people want to check on what bills have come; they want to check on who paid them; flat sharers want to be able to divvy them up; and people who have got any problems, particularly with paying bills, as we mentioned last time, where they have to work out which bill to pay when in order to make sure that nothing is cut off. They literally do this with paper. I sometimes think that those who run the utilities just do not understand how people live. Maybe they should spend a day with my noble friend Lord Clarke of Hampstead sitting in a post office and hearing about how people do things; they would learn a little more.

Finally, some companies take particular advantage of their poorer customers. On the wider issue of price, we know that energy suppliers target their lowest price at the big users and actually penalise their smaller customers for not using very much, and then go on to make it even worse by charging those very customers if they want their bills on paper.

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It is great that some people can do all of this electronically, but they are likely to be younger, and more savvy. I wonder whether the utilities really have to make life difficult for the rest of us—who want paper bills and the use of cheques—to encourage others to take up the electronic option. People who choose to do it electronically do not do it to save £6; they do it because that fits in with their way of life. I doubt very much they need a £6 bribe, if you like, to go electronically. That may have been the case earlier on, but now it is not the reason. Rather it is an excuse for the utilities to get a bit of money out of people who want to pay by cheque rather than, any longer, acting as an incentive. I hope that the Minister hears the strength of feeling. She may recall when we had the debate in the Chamber that this was the feeling across the House, and there will be a lot of support. It would be advisable for the Government to take the initiative and do this rather than have the sort of defeats that we have seen tonight in the Chamber.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I would like to make a point in the limited time remaining, which is that the companies that continue to give paper bills and continue to give the sort of services we have asked for are not losing anything, because of all the extra money they have earned from the vast majority of people who are paying online. So there is no financial loss to any of these companies, and particularly to BT.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes for her amendment, for her previous two amendments and for providing us with a useful and constructive discussion. She was not here for what I was going to describe as a gallop, but my noble friend Lord Hodgson rightly described as a canter, around this issue in our previous session. I shall not, in the interests of time, repeat everything I said on that occasion. For example, we had a good discussion about the point that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, made about ID. While I have the floor, I also pay tribute to everything that my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes has done for the consumer over many years. Things have improved as a result of things done recently, from domestic and EU sources. This Bill, if we can get it through, will make further improvements.

I was also glad to hear of my noble friend Lady Maddock’s experience, which I shall come back to in a minute. I am well aware of the Keep Me Posted campaign, which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned, and have indeed talked to some of the campaigners about their plans. It is good for the postal angle to have been articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, whom I thank. I also understand that this amendment is talking about the regulated areas, not everything in general; that point is well made.

We are returning to an issue that has been debated in the House on a number of occasions. It is very much a House of Lords issue and I therefore thank everyone for their thoughtful contributions. The amendment is addressed to utility suppliers but my noble friend Lord Hodgson mentioned banking, which is not in the amendment but, no doubt, similar

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considerations apply. All these sectors have regulators to ensure that consumers are treated fairly, in accordance with licensing rules and wider consumer protection law, including those intended to protect the more vulnerable in our society—a point that I am going to come back to.

Customers may take queries or complaints to the relevant regulator and receive some form of assurance on their position—for example, should a business seem to be charging excessively for supplying a paper statement or for processing a cheque payment. I believe that we have already established a consensus that some individuals value retaining the option of paper transactions. We are all clear that the terms of the contract must be set out at the outset, at the time of agreeing the contract, and that they must be clear and transparent. In particular, consumers need to be clear and agree if there is to be a change in the way in which they receive and pay their bills. In this way, the customer knows how bills and statements are to be provided and on what terms. As I mentioned in our previous debate, paper bills and cheque payments have never been free. The fee for processing them was always borne by the consumer but was tied up in the administrative costs of the utility, and the charge was spread across the customer base. Thankfully, today these charges are more transparent and linked to costs.

This amendment would be of particular disadvantage to online customers, for whom statements are readily available and can be printed if necessary, especially by the young but increasingly by our digitally aware “silver surfers”, because many people are embracing the internet at every age in a very surprising way. I welcome the opportunity to save money that paperless bills offer, and so do many people. Paying by direct debit, which was condemned by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, can also enable people—some of them vulnerable and elderly—to budget more effectively than being faced with quarterly or lump-sum bills. There can be some value there. For them, the proposed statutory requirement set out in these amendments adds little but the possibility of extra costs.

It is undoubtedly more expensive for a regulated business to print out and post bills to its customers than it is to deliver them electronically online. It is not for the Government to dictate that certain costs cannot be accounted for with the consequent burden instead being potentially passed on to all customers. It is surely reasonable to incentivise customers to use the cheapest processing mechanism by sharing savings with them. This amendment would outlaw that and almost certainly drive up the charges to online customers.

7.45 pm

I take an example. Following concerns raised earlier in the year, Ofcom reviewed the payment differentials charged by suppliers and published new analysis in May. Its analysis found no evidence to suggest that costs were being unjustifiably added to the bills of typical prepayment and standard customers—although I appreciate that that is only one area. That links to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes about why the charges for processing do not generally reflect the cost to suppliers. She mentioned quite a small charge. But obviously not only printing

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and postage are involved in costs. Regulators already require charging differences to reflect costs only. That is a point that has not come out sufficiently in this important debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, rightly talked about the problems of getting to grips with filing utility bills online. That is something that I saw personally when I retired and came here and was on the Back Benches for a while; in learning to file utility bills online, one became a digital citizen. That experience is increasing for people, and there are advantages to it, so we should try to encourage people in that direction, obviously with the safeguard of the paper bill in certain circumstances. My noble friend Lady Wilcox rightly said that there would be an element of cross-subsidy if you required, as this amendment does, paper to be provided free of charge. I shall come back to that later.

Vulnerable customers have been mentioned in passing but without anything very specific. The regulators in each sector have a duty to protect consumers and consider the issue of affordability in their market when setting out their licence rules. This has meant that special provisions have developed in each sector. I can give a couple of examples. There are home phone provisions for those on certain benefits through BT Basic, and the Government’s warm home discounts scheme provides 1.7 million pensioners with a discount—and there are others that I shall not go into.

My noble friend Lady Maddock said that this issue was more serious for some old people. I agree with her that there is a transitional issue in this important debate. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, that you need to take account of the changes taking place—and he rightly spoke about how some quite old people are using Skype and getting their news online, rather than reading newspapers as they used to. I am trying to make the point that there is a changing world out there that we need to have in the background when we look at this.

Citizens Advice, for which I have a huge amount of time, advises on special arrangements for disabled people or people who struggle to choose between tariffs. I suspect that it will also help in the circumstances described so graphically by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, talked about the importance of paper bills as proof of identity. I repeat what I said last time—that that is not the primary function of utility bills. You have other reliable forms, such as passports or driving licences. The Government Digital Service is leading work on the development of the ID assurance programme, which will enable people to prove their identity and access government services in a digital world. However, I accept that this will take time and that there is a transitional point there, too.

I should mention payment by cheque as it is a subject of the important amendment of my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. The amendment would introduce a new statutory requirement on utilities: one that, for example, does not even apply to retailers. The Government consider that the form of payment a regulated business agrees to accept is a commercial one that has considerable bearing on administrative

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processes and costs. In practice, I think that utilities do take cheques. The principle of cost-reflective charging is widely accepted in EU and UK consumer law, and therefore included in sector-licensing conditions.

That is not to say that cheque payment has had its day. Somebody mentioned that if you are on a charitable trust, often two different people sign. The Government are taking action to make payments by cheque faster, more convenient and efficient, using technology as appropriate. I think that tells us something about cheques. However, we want to encourage competition. Often new entrants will build their models around online provision to save on the costs of setting up a new business and that can be an important stimulus to the market.

I am grateful to my noble friends for refocusing attention on the needs of charities and those sharing apartments, particularly those who are housebound or ill and need a friend, family member or other helper to transact their bills. Some simply do not want to pay online or over the telephone by ongoing direct debit. That is their prerogative but it is an arguable point as to whether the costs of their exercising this choice should be clear to them or obscured in general costs to the business concerned.

My noble friend Lady Maddock raised the question of dealing with the affairs of a deceased person—a sad circumstance. It is true that, if they can be found, paper bills can help in those circumstances, although they are not necessarily always reliable. They may not always reflect recent changes and the digital world is responding. Businesses are developing digital vaults such as Barclays “Cloud it”, where details of service suppliers and key documents can be stored and accessed in the sort of emergencies that the noble Baroness mentioned. That is an interesting development.

Baroness Maddock: When my mother died, the utilities were all very good. They have special sections to deal with this. I had thought that things would be terrible as I do not usually find them terribly helpful but actually most of them deal with these situations quite well. However, for me, having the paper copies was important as I could see what was going on. However, I cannot fault the utilities as they were very good.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: It is always good to have that sort of good experience on the public record. I thank the noble Baroness for that intervention.

The noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, asked whether there were any talks going on with the regulator to ensure that payments to Royal Mail are fairer. I will need to write a letter to the noble Lord on what is largely a Royal Mail competition issue, if I may. I was also pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, shared his experiences, knowing that he comes from the north of England, even though I do not think that I agreed with him on every aspect. The noble Lords, Lord Hodgson and Lord Blencathra, talked about meters. The Government are working with industry on smart meters which will enable readings without a visit to a house and therefore make the cost of energy use more visible. That will be better for consumers.

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In conclusion, this is a difficult area, as we do not want society to incur the costs of printing and sending off bills to everyone if that is not needed. The trouble is that if there is no cost to paper bills, people will just opt for paper anyway even if, like me, they can manage online. I think that that is a risk. I know that is not a popular thing to say but I hope that noble Lords will reflect on that aspect of things. There is already a range of billing, payment and statement options available on the market. We agree that it is important that the appropriate protections on access to paper bills are kept in place, and are doing that through our licensing regimes and specific regulatory and sector interventions and by driving quality, choice, fair prices and value for money for consumers through good competition and good consumer law.

We will of course reflect on what has been said in this lengthy and important debate, and see if anything can be done. However, in the light of what I have said, I ask my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: I thank my noble friend for that very careful and detailed response, which was extremely interesting. She paid a lot of attention to

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what has been said. I am afraid that she will not change my mind but on this occasion I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 53 withdrawn.

Clause 59: Interpretation

Amendment 54

Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

54: Clause 59, page 35, line 38, at end insert—

“(2) References in this Part to treating a contract as at an end are to be read in accordance with section 19(13).”

Amendment 54 agreed.

Clause 59, as amended, agreed.

Clause 60 agreed.

Committee adjourned at 7.56 pm.