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Madam Speaker: That is a matter for argument, not a point of order.

9 Jul 1996 : Column 184

Opposition Day

[18th Allotted Day]

Water Metering

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.59 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): I beg to move,

The Tory Government want to force every family in the land to install water meters. They will not put that proposal in their manifesto for the general election, but it is on their secret agenda. The water regulator the Government appointed is even worse. He is obsessed with promoting water metering for domestic customers. He seldom misses an opportunity to push water metering.

Yet the drive to force everyone in the country to have a meter flies in the face of common sense.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer): The hon. Gentleman has made an allegation which is entirely untrue. The Government do not wish to force people to have water meters. We are opposed to compulsory water metering. The Government have no intention of introducing it. Will he please withdraw the terms of his motion and the proposition that he has put forward, as it is entirely untrue?

Mr. Dobson: The answer to that is no, I will not.

Compulsory water metering cannot be justified, on economic, social or environmental grounds. That is why it is opposed by the Labour party.

Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No. I think I am entitled to reach at least the second page of my speech, let alone the second paragraph.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. If someone unwittingly tells an untruth, is told that it is a lie and then refuses to withdraw it, is that not an outrage--

Madam Speaker: Order. It is part of the debate in a democratic society--the cut and thrust of debate. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would understand that by now.

Mr. Dobson: Compulsory metering is opposed not only by the Labour party but by such diverse organisations as the Consumers Association, the British Medical Association and the Save the Children Fund. More important still, it is opposed by the vast majority of people in Britain, and how right they are.

9 Jul 1996 : Column 185

Sir Anthony Grant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I shall not give way.

Everyone accepts the need to save water, to restrain the growth in demand and to make sure that our use of water is environmentally sustainable, but that does not mean that everyone should be forced to have a water meter. There are other ways of saving water and reducing demand. We believe that the alternatives to water metering would give better value for money, would have a quicker impact, would be more equitable, and would be less of a threat to public health.

Forcing everyone to have a water meter is a course that is being promoted by people who are so hooked on metering that they will not listen to reason. They do not seem to care about the expense and bother. They ignore the social consequences. They exaggerate the impact of metering on overall water consumption. They dismiss and cheaper ways of protecting the environment.

Let us start with the costs. Estimates of the costs of installing water meters vary. Actual costs of installing them also vary. They can be relatively cheap to install as part of a new house on a new estate. Installing them in existing houses can be very expensive. It is as well to remember that new houses form only a small addition to the housing stock each year, so most water meters would have to be installed in existing houses. Thus the process of installation would be more complex and expensive, and would take many years.

The latest official cost figures range from £165 to more than £200 per meter bought and installed. The total number of households which have a water meter at present is about 21.8 million, so the total initial cost to the nation could be as much as £4 billion or more to install water meters. It is hard to believe that the installation of meters is the best environmental use of that sort of money.

Mr. Gummer: But as I have said that I am opposed to the compulsory use of water metering, because it would be expensive and as we would not do it, why is the hon. Gentleman pretending that anyone would do it? Is it not the fact that he could think of nothing else to debate, so he decided to debate an entirely fictitious motion against a Government who have no intention whatever of doing what he says they want to do?

Mr. Dobson: The Secretary of State needs to bear it in mind that, for people living in new houses in some areas, water metering is compulsory. He has not stopped it. He has appointed as water regulator someone who says that he is in favour of compulsory water metering.

Sir Anthony Grant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way.

If he is saying that no one wants the metering, will he explain why an independent market research exercise involving Anglian Water showed that no less than 80 per cent. of the people thought it was a good idea?

Mr. Dobson: We need to look in detail at some of the surveys carried out by those companies that favour water metering, as they have tended to adjust the outcome to suit their argument--not that that is unknown in the House of Commons.

9 Jul 1996 : Column 186

Metering produces further costs. A metered system of water charging clearly costs much more to run than the present system. Estimates vary from £21 to £24 per meter per year, giving an extra running cost of about £500 million per year. Many people could think of better ways of spending £500 million of their money than having a more expensive system.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I will not.

There are other extra costs. A water meter lasts only about 10 years on average, after which it needs to be replaced--once again, at enormous cost and disturbance to householders. All those costs could be avoided by using other methods of charging for water; the existing methods incur none of those expenses.

The promoters of metering claim that water meters give customers an incentive to save water. But they seldom give honest answers to common-sense questions such as whether meters provide an incentive to save water, whether poor families would be hardest hit by water metering, whether saving water might hurt some families and the elderly, and, above all, whether there is a cheaper, quicker and more just way of saving water.

I shall take each of those questions in turn. If meters are to provide customers with an incentive to save water, they must first be read by those customers; secondly, they must be readable; thirdly, they must affect people's use of water. But according to a recent survey by the Consumers Association, 60 per cent. of people with water meters never read them. National meter trials showed that meter failures, including inadequate measuring, range from 18 per cent. to 29 per cent. of all meters installed--equivalent to about 7 million families a year having an inaccurate meter, if every family is to be forced to have a meter.

The installation of metering in some parts of the country has led to less water being used, at least at the outset. But even the official report of the national metering trials makes it clear that that reduction may be partly caused by the publicity surrounding the trials, and partly by the recession. The Water Companies Association said yesterday that the current evidence to the Environment Select Committee had established that metering has only a short-term impact on conservation.

It appears from the figures that, in some parts of the country, the introduction of water meters has led to an increase in demand for water. According to Ofwat, 40 per cent. of households with a meter said that it had not caused them to reduce their consumption. The recent Consumers Association survey found that only one third of those surveyed had cut their consumption, and the others had increased theirs.

It is fair to say that a large permanent drop in consumption could not be guaranteed, even by spending £4 billion on water meters. That does not mean that no families would cut their use of water. The only objective of installing water meters is to get people to use less water. Like everything else, the families with the least money will be hit first and hit hardest--that is typical of the Government's policies.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I will not.

9 Jul 1996 : Column 187

According to the water regulator, people in houses with high rateable values, benefit--save money--through the introduction of water metering, but badly off families may be hit, and forced either to pay high bills or to reduce the water they use. The supporters of water metering want to put the squeeze on people--but not on comfortably off, professional people like themselves. Their favoured system puts the squeeze on poor people, particularly poor, large families--it does not contain a shred of justice.

The Save the Children Fund survey found that, on an estate in Essex, four out of five families on low incomes found it hard to pay their metered water bill, and were reducing the water that they used. One person affected said:

Another said:

    "When I work my money out, I just can't do it. Is it the bill or is it feeding my kids?"

Another said:

    "Living with two kids you worry. I pay £7 per week for his nappies. It is either the water or him go without a nappy."

Presumably Ofwat and Ministers regard those remarks as part of the success story of water metering. Most human beings would be more likely to agree with the Save the Children Fund's conclusion:

    "As a society, for the past 150 years in the UK, we have made a priority of access to clean water for all our citizens. Historically, it has been seen as unacceptable for families not to be able to afford water. Why has this suddenly changed . . . ?"

The Save the Children Fund is entitled to ask that question.

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