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Electricity Disconnection (Amendment)

Volume 888: debated on Wednesday 12 March 1975

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4.36 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Electric Lighting Act 1882.

I seek the leave of the House to introduce a short Bill to amend Section 21 of the Electric Lighting Act 1882. Section 21 of that Act is still the statutory authority for area electricity boards to disconnect for bad debt. The section gives area boards an absolute right, and they are not required to consult any agency or take account of any circumstances.

It is known that many area boards have arrangements for liaison with local offices of the Department of Health and Social Security or local authority social service departments where they think these departments may have an interest. However, in 1974 this liaison did not stop a total number of disconnections in England and Wales of around 160,000 and in Scotland 30,000 plus. This is a rate of 4,000 disconnections a week. It is interesting to note that these figures represent a total of about 1 per cent. of consumers in England and Wales but 2 per cent. of consumers in Scotland. The Electricity Council informs me, via Parliamentary Answers, that 90 per cent. of the disconnections are reconnected within a week, and many within a few days.

This raises the question : why the disconnections in the first place? There are examples of disconnections lasting for weeks, ranging to months, ranging to over two years. From evidence collected by a local group of the British Association of Settlements, by contact with the area boards, there is a fairly reliable estimate that at any one time— tonight, for instance—40,000 families are without electricity for lighting, heating or cooking, or all three.

In 1882 when the Act was put on the statute book the number of private homes with a supply of electricity, other than a private generating plant, was measured in scores, not hundreds. It was not until the turn of the century that large schemes of elecricity supply got under way. The Royal Commission's Report of 1884–85 on "Housing of the Working Class " made no mention whatsover of electricity supply. In short, the 1882 Act was placed on the statute book well before the supply of electricity and dependence on it was the norm.

I do not think it would be disputed today that a supply of electricity to the point of preventing danger and genuine hardship is essential. If the House is contemplating fresh legislation, such safeguards would certainly be included in the Bill. The insertion of such a safeguard or long-stop is the prime reason for the Bill. It will amend Section 21 so that the area boards will be required to seek the prior approval of one or other social agency dealing with family welfare before any action is taken.

There are devices on the market which can be inserted in the fuse-box of any normal home which will give a limited supply of electricity for essential purposes. It would be possible for one of the agencies to direct the insertion of one of these devices pending a longer-term solution to the family's problems. In some cases the Department of Health and Social Security pays the debt or, in many cases, arranges for the debt to be paid, and I do not seek to change that. My Bill will simply ensure that such arrangements are made in all cases before disconnection and not after.

Birmingham Corporation has a scheme for its 20,000 pensioner tenants under which they pay a fixed weekly sum with the rent for heating and lighting. This removes the worry of immense quarterly bills. The amount varies with the size of the home, the area, and the people living in the home. The system has been extended to all pensioners in the city. I am raising this matter today and I want a change in the legislation because this problem does not only affect pensioners where it can be argued that the normal agencies have an interest anyway. Certain examples show what I mean.

The first example is of a man aged 73 living in an all-electric tower block flat in Liverpool with a supplementary benefit of £10·.40 a month and his rent paid direct to the corporation. In July last year he received an electricity bill for £42 which he could not afford to pay. He was refused help by the Department of Health and Social Security, but at the request of the social services department the area board— the Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board— did not disconnect. In October he received a further bill for £90 and was disconnected four weeks after receipt of the bill. The social services department agreed to pay the bill and asked him to pay £2 a week voluntary savings, in which case it would pay all his future bills. He was happy, and he was reconnected after two weeks. However, the DHSS had not paid all the arrears, and in February he received a bill for £55. Having paid about 13 weeks of his £2 voluntary savings, he assumed that his electricity bills would be taken care of. He went to the social services department to sort the matter out, and while he was away from home the area board disconnected his supply from outside the property, putting a note through his letter box to say that he owned £91. His supply was disconnected for a week. After a series of telephone calls to those concerned the matter was eventually sorted out.

The second example concerns a Mr. and Mrs. D who have three small children. Mr. D works as a driver and has an income just above the family income supplement level. The man had a debt of £20·06 and his supply was disconnected for two months before the matter was sorted out.

The third example is of a Mrs. Y, who lives in Birmingham and was overcharged £4 by mistake and was told that the matter would be cleared up. While she was away from home her supply was cut off. The fourth example is of a Mr. and Mrs. M, who live in an all-electric flat. They were disconnected for failing to pay a security deposit of £46. These people would have agreed to a voluntary saving if the matter had been discussed before disconnection. The problems which arose here could easily have been avoided. therefore.

It is to help solve problems like this that I seek leave to introduce this small Bill which I hope will have a big impact on at least 40,000 families who might otherwise be without electricity. I hope, too, that it will do something to mitigate the very high social cost of disconnection which affects 4,000 families a week.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. J. W. Rooker, Mrs. Maureen Colquhoun, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Miss Jo Richardson, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mrs. Millie Miller, Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, Mr. Ivor Clemitson, Mr. Sydney Tierney, Mr. John Tomlinson and Mr. Geoff Edge.


Mr. J. W. Rooker accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Electric Lighting Act 1882 ; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid : and the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 16th May and to be printed. [Bill 109.]