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Local Authorities Etc

Volume 201: debated on Wednesday 15 January 1992

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4.47 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to oblige local authorities and the providers of public utilities to communicate to one another the notice received by any one of them of the decease of a chargepayer or customer.

The Bill is a small measure, but it has a strong humanitarian purpose in today's complex and bureaucratic society. The background to it is that a constituent of mine whose mother died found that his mother was taken to court by a public utility for the non-payment of outstanding bills. What causes concern is how that came about.

About 600,000 people die every year, about half of whom die intestate. No problem arises if there is a will, because executors are appointed and the business of death progresses. If there is no will, there is generally a total lack of experience among the relatives and friends of the deceased person. The bereaved people at a time of stress do not know how to progress.

In the instance that was brought to my attention the district council was informed, because it was a council house tenancy, and took the necessary action, but the water and electricity authorities were told by telephone, and somehow or other the message failed to get through. As the bereaved people thought that the matter had been seen to, the business of getting the bills paid just did not happen. As a consequence, the courts were approached by the water authority, which in due course achieved a judgment in the county court, to the extreme distress of my constituent, the survivor of the deceased person.

On the face of it, this is not a big issue—in fact, it is a very small one—but in talking to other hon. Members, I find that it strikes a very strong chord in all parts of the House and at all levels. People who die intestate are generally those who have relatives who are not prone to writing letters and giving formal advice to those authorities, but rather resort to the telephone to tell them. We all know how unreliable the telephone message is.

If the bereaved person has transmitted, as he believes, to the authority the facts which are necessary for the closing of the account on the death of a relative, he then believes the matter to have been dealt with; accordingly, he takes not much notice of other pieces of paper that come through and, as a result, this distressing situation arises with far greater regularity than I had realised until I started digging into the matter.

The purpose of the Bill, therefore, is to oblige the local authority, the water authority, the electricity company or the gas company to advise the other utilities of the notices that they receive of the death of one of their customers or charge payers. They have the kit to do this. They are doing it already. They are taking administrative action when they receive notice.

If one of those undertakings is contacted by telephone and another by letter, therefore, all will eventually be put in the picture about the death of a particular housholder or customer, and the cause of the distress will be removed. The purpose of this very small measure today is to prevent distress among people who do not understand and are not adequately geared to this complex society—the sort of distress that my constituents, and, I gather, those of many other hon. Members, have undergone.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Colin Shepherd, Mr. Kenneth Hind, Mr. Michael J. Martin, Mr. James Kilfedder, Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Geraint Howells and Mr. Charles Wardle.

Local Authorities Etc (Notices Of Decease)

Mr. Colin Shepherd accordingly presented a Bill to oblige local authorities and the providers of public utilities to communicate to one another the notice received by any one of them of the decease of a chargepayer or customer: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 24 January and to be printed. [Bill 51.]