Water Bill [Lords]

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Sue Doughty (Guildford): Before we leave the new clause, I should like to make a few points. Much of the Bill is about reducing the amount of water that we abstract, using water wisely and putting in place measures to do that in increasingly difficult climatic times. The Minister rightly pointed out that several measures in the Bill are designed to do that, and we know that some water companies have been effective in reducing their leakages to the level of diminishing

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returns. Other companies such as Thames Water, which was mentioned this morning, still have a way to go, and we want to see improvement from them. However, water companies in many parts of the country have responded to the challenge.

The Minister says that people can opt for a meter, but many people will not do so if, for example, they are unsure about the state of the pipes in their garden, for which they are responsible. The problem is that if there is a break in the pipe before it gets to the meter, where it is that person's responsibility, they may get a high bill. Constituents who have not been able to reach a proper accommodation with the water company come to me worrying about what might happen in such circumstances.

3.45 pm

I appreciate that there is no great demand for metering in Wales. There is an awful lot of water there, so they would say that. I know of one other part of the country where metering would not be popular, for the same reason—there is no water shortage in that part of the country. The water companies in such areas would understandably not want to go for it.

One wonders whether the Welsh would be so keen for water not to be metered if there was a water shortage in another part of the country—perhaps in England—to which water was being shipped from a new reservoir in Wales.

Mr. Thomas: Perhaps I might suggest that we put one big meter on it.

Sue Doughty: Well, effectively, that happens in practice. We look at the amount of water that is going through.

It is understandable that the Minister dwelled at length on the problems on shared supply pipes and where it is practical to install a meter. The new clause deals with that by excluding such provisions under proposed new subsection (2A) of the relevant section of the 1991 Act and allowing for separate arrangements.

It is well known and understood that there are some groups of properties where it is impossible to divide fairly the amount of water going through each component part. However, one could aggregate all those properties and divide the amount of water going into them proportionately and fairly. That would be a matter for consultation. We do not dictate how that should happen. The proposal allows for consultation before the Bill is enacted. It does not have to go down to the level of detail, because we recognise that such a thing would not just be included as a finished measure before due consultation of the implications was carried out.

There are questions about whether if everybody were metered, there would be less investment. However, if there were less investment, that would presumably be because there had been a reduction in the amount of water used. I hope that we would, for example, avoid a new reservoir in south Oxfordshire in the Thames Water region. That is always on the cards, despite what was said about leakage. We are using more water; we wash and shower more often and we

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wash our clothes more often. There are all sorts of considerations to bear in mind, but eventually the water must be paid for. We are still keen on taking a closer look at metering.

Hon. Members have said that there are high hurdles to be overcome before we decide on compulsory metering. However, we need to consider the matter, not only in the interests of social justice, with the provisos that we have discussed, but because many of the measures that we are considering may not be enough to guarantee the supply of water in an increasing number of households, which we need to supply, and given the climatic stress that we are facing.

Mr. Wiggin: What an enjoyable afternoon I have had listening to the debate, thinking of the Minister reclining in his 18th-century manor house, particularly with the water authority burrowing under his kitchen sink.

I remember asking the hon. Member for Lewes earlier if it was official Liberal Democrat policy for there to be compulsory metering. If that is so—and I hope that it is—he has demonstrated in the new clause that he really believes in it. I do not mind if he distributes a ''Focus'' leaflet on such an issue around my constituency. I believe that the public deserve the choice of whether to have a free meter, should they want one, or to maintain the status quo by continuing with the rateable value. That is probably the right and reasonable way to proceed. Of course, we will end up with a higher proportion of metered houses in the long run.

I was grateful to the Minister for dealing with my rather technical amendment, the purpose of which is to define property and household premises, because in the next amendment we will come on to the difficulty with blocks of flats. However, I do not want to move on to that debate at this early stage. We shall later have a debate on fluoridation when we will talk about compulsory mass medication. I suspect that the more liberal-minded among us will be against that. And how could we possibly be in favour of compulsory water meters?

Norman Baker: I shall be quick, as there are many new clauses to debate.

First, I want to pick up three of four points that the Minister made. He mentioned the word ''choice''. There is choice in some respects, but not in others. There is choice if a person happens to be in a unmetered premises and wants to change to a meter, but there the choice ends. There is no choice if a person is in a metered property and wants to go back to being unmetered. There is no choice if a person buys a new house and it has a meter. The choice is therefore illusory, or at least there is a choice for some but not others. That contributes to the hotchpotch that I referred to during in my introduction.

Secondly, the Minister does not like the date 2018. As I said, I talked to the water companies; they said that a minimum of 10 years was required, and we have given them 15, so that is not an unreasonable period.

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Thirdly, as the Minister said, the new clause is not nirvana. It could be one measure among many. I fully accept that, and I am prepared to sign up to Ofwat's 5 per cent. figure that the Minister quoted. The figure of 5 per cent. is significant and should not be thrown away; it is worth having. I have offered part of, but not the whole solution.

I shall turn to the idea that it is bad to save water because bills will go up. As the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said from a sedentary position, the argument seems to be for subsidising inefficiency, which we should not be doing. We would obviate the need for further infrastructure improvements, thereby keeping the cost of the water industry down—my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford made that point.

We have had a useful discussion. The Liberal Democrats reserve the right to press new clauses to the vote later in the process. I do not pretend that metering is without problems—it is not. I hope that it appears in the introduction to the report accurately rather than mischievously. It is not honest of the Government to duck the issue and wait for sources outside the Government to sort it out over a long period. Labour Members generally want to protect vulnerable groups, but those people will suffer more unless the Government use a big bang approach.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the Minister's response. At this stage, it would be prudent to withdraw my amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 102, in

    schedule 7, page 194, line 19, at end insert—

    '(8) In Schedule 4A—

    (a) for paragraph 1(2)(a) there is substituted—

    ''(a) a private dwelling-house constituting the whole or any part of household premises,''

    (b) at the end of paragraph 1 there is added—

    ''(3) In this paragraph, ''household premises'' shall have the same meaning as in section 17C of this Act.''.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 4—Protection from disconnection for specified households in mixed use premises—

    No. NC4, to move the following Clause—

    'In Schedule 4A to WIA there is inserted—

    ''1A(1) Premises which include any dwelling which is occupied by a person as his only or principal home and whose household normally includes—

    (a) an individual who is disabled or chronically sick;

    (b) an individual of pensionable age; or

    (c) a child under the age of five.

    (2) In this paragraph, ''dwelling'' has the meaning given by paragraph 1(2)''.'.

Mr. Wiggin: The amendment deals with a very real problem that water companies face: people living in flats. At the moment, a large number of the debts that water companies are owed are due to people who live in a flat that is part of a larger building and is probably temporary accommodation for them, but the water company is not aware of that.

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Through the amendment, we want to ensure that the water companies can count dwellings within the whole or any part of a premises. I also draw the Minister's attention to the problem of people living above pubs or shops; they are living in homes that currently do not count as households because they are above commercial premises. Water companies have had difficulty with debt because of that.

The water companies can cut off a commercial property, but they cannot cut off a block of flats. In an ideal world, the water bills would be either metered or part of the rent that someone living in a block of flats might pay. That way, the bad debts accumulating would slow. That is what we want to achieve through amendment No. 102 and new clause 4, which states:

    ''any dwelling which is occupied by a person as his only or principal home and whose household normally includes—''

and groups of vulnerable people are then listed. I hope that the Minister takes the amendments on board, and I look forward to hearing his comments.

 
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