To ask the Secretary of State for Energy if he will introduce legislation to require the fuel industries to satisfy themselves about the state of health of consumers who are in arrears with payments, before proceeding to disconnection; and if he will make a statement.
The gas and electricity industries operate a voluntary code of practice on paying electricity and gas bills. Under this code, if the sick or disabled inform the industries of their circumstances, the industries undertake to try to reach an agreement on payment arrangements which would avoid the need for disconnnection.
Does the Minister accept that the position is still far from satisfactory? The number of disconnections in the gas industry in the first six months of this year, compared with last year, increased by 40 per cent. There are currently about 1,200 deaths each year from hypothermia, so, with the winter coming, we must establish a system whereby all vulnerable customers are recorded at the local billing and registration points. If they are behind with their payments, they can be visited and, in every possible case, disconnection avoided. Thus, the numbers of disconnections would be substantially reduced.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I am concerned that the number of gas disconnections has been increasing. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the National Gas Consumers' Council is looking into this matter, and I discussed with it the manner in which it should do so. With regard to the code of practice, it is important that the points that the hon. Gentleman made in his supplementary question are covered. I believe that, by and large, that is precisely the case.
I commend to my hon. Friend the East Midlands electricity authority, which covers my constituency, which bends over backwards in its efforts to avoid having to cut anybody off. It is very humane in its approach. Perhaps other authorities might copy its example.
Perhaps my hon. Friend is not aware that only two weeks ago I was in part of the East Midlands electricity authority's area and observed what it was doing. The number of disconnections in the electricity industry is on a downward trend. There is an undertaking that no pensioner household will be cut off before the end of March.
Is it not clear that the Government's criterion is that those organisations have to make a commercial profit? Is it not clear, therefore, that the Government are concerned more with profit than with the interests of the people? That is an absolute disgrace. It is about time that the people of this country recognised that the Government are concerned only with private interests and not with the people as a whole.
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with what he has said. Somebody has to pay for the fuel consumed, whether it is gas or electricity. The Government have a number of projects, incuding the homes insulation scheme, which help those least able to help themselves. However, as I said, somebody has to pay for the fuel consumed.