Water Bill [Lords]

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Sue Doughty: I should like to talk about new clause 15 because there are further points that need to be made. We have talked about the high amount of water debt in houses in multiple occupation. In this case we are talking about the ''won't pays'', rather than the ''can't pays''. We are talking about people who share houses transiently; they may be young, upwardly

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mobile professionals who are not in long-term poverty. That is a problem: multiple occupancy dwellings account for a disproportionate share of the burden of debt.

Water undertakers need a clearer definition of what an occupier is, because it is difficult to collect debt from people who move in and then move out. For satellite TV a bank account is required and an agreement signed, but it is difficult for water companies to identify who was in a house at any one time and who was responsible for the debt. Water UK has been considering this for some time because, as we would all agree, it is unreasonable that those who pay their water bills are in effect subsidising those who choose not to. It is far more desirable that those who incur the debt, pay it. Water UK sought legal opinion on the matter and was advised by Queen's Counsel that a definition of the term ''occupier'' in cases of multiple occupation could be secured only by further legislation. Water UK cannot just go to the landlord and ask who the occupier was.

The new clause would require the owner or the occupier of a class of dwelling to be prescribed by regulation and, typically with houses in multiple occupation, the owner would have to provide the statutory undertaker—the water company—with information concerning the ownership and the occupation of the dwellings. The measure does not necessarily say that the landlord should pay the debt—not at all—but it would allow the undertaker to discover who was living in a property when the debt was incurred.

The new clause would allow various statutory bodies, such as local authorities, to give information concerning the current or former owner of multiple occupation dwellings so that water companies could inquire about the occupancy. That would allow water companies to trace tenants who have moved, leaving an unpaid water bill. On the face of it, that would be entirely reasonable. It is not a prescriptive amendment; the rights of any water companies to obtain such information would need careful consideration, due to implications for privacy and liberty.

What might the Government do to consult on the issue so that they could introduce regulations, so helping to bring down the level of water debt among those who choose not to pay, in an area where debt is particularly high? The new clause has the support not only of Water UK—the suppliers—but Water Voice, which represents the consumers, who believe that honest consumers carry the burden of those who choose not to pay their debts.

Mr. Wiggin: What the hon. Lady just said is right. This is an important issue. The Government should address bad debts in the water industry and—although I accept that the Minister took that on board—we have not done enough to address the matter. It is the sort of issue to which we may have to return later, so I shall not press the motion to a vote. I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I think that we all have to keep our eye on the quantity of bad debt in the water sector. If it continues to rise as it is doing at present, we may have to do more to address it.

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Mr. Morley: I repeat that the issue of bad debt is important, particularly for those who could pay but will not. Water Voice and the other consumer organisations are right to raise concerns about that. I am still not altogether convinced by the new clause, which would require landlords to provide information on their tenants, not least because providing water companies with such information is one thing; the companies will still have to track down the customers involved and get the money from them, and that is a different thing.

Norman Baker: Does the Minister accept that the comparison that he drew between water and satellite television is not a fair one? It is possible for someone to move into an HMO and then to move out without the water company ever knowing that he had been there. That is not the case with satellite television, for which an agreement is signed. I understand and share to a degree the Minister's reluctance with regard to the relative powers of landlords and tenants but, if he is not happy with this new clause, what measures will he introduce to ensure that those who pay their bills are not subsidising those who do not?

Mr. Morley: I have mentioned in previous debates that there are measures that water companies can take. There is a disparity in the success of some companies in recovering debts compared with others. It is a matter of how they use the provisions that are available to them. I am happy to discuss with the water companies how we can jointly address the problem and whether there are further steps that need to be taken.

There are some comparisons to be drawn between water supply and satellite television, although a better comparison would be with gas and electricity supply. If there is to be such a provision in relation to tenants, logically it should apply to a range of services where people may want information for quite valid reasons.

The problem with the new clause is that it strays into areas of freedom of information and data protection which have been debated in Parliament, and may well be debated again, but go far wider than the provisions that we can have in the Bill. Although there may be issues that the hon. Member for Guildford wants to raise, and there may be merit in some of her arguments, we are entering the realms of data protection, individual freedoms, rights and checks and balances that go beyond the Bill.

4.30 pm

Sue Doughty: I have heard what the Minister said. We all have concerns about privacy and freedom of information, but I still feel very unhappy that we have no remedies to the problem of the level of debt. We will not pursue the matter at this stage, but we may return to it on Report.

Mr. Wiggin: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New clause 20

Rats in sewers

    'After section 95 of WIA there is inserted—

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    ''95A Power to approve Codes of Practice

    (1) The Secretary of State may by Order approve any code of practice (whether prepared by him or another person) which, in his opinion, gives suitable guidance to sewerage undertakers and local authorities on the performance of functions under this Part of the Act.

    (2) In particular the Secretary of State may by order approve such Code of Practice (whether prepared by him or another person) which in his opinion gives suitable guidance to sewerage undertakers and local authorities on the control of rats in sewers.''.'.—[Andy King.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I shall be extremely brief because the new clause is self-explanatory. It is important that sewerage undertakers and local authorities be given consistent guidance that they must follow to deal with what is becoming a national problem. I understand that there are about 60 million rats, which means that they outnumber the population of the country as a whole. The breeding ground for them will be sewers. I have to be careful because my name is King, and being chair of the all-party sewers and sewerage group, I am known as King Rat. I hope that the Minister will take the purpose of the new clause on board and put in place the necessary guidance to deal with a major problem.

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend raises a serious point about rats in sewers, the relevant controls and the guidance given to local government. The Local Government Association and Water UK published a joint protocol in 1999 that set out the arrangements for closer working relationships between the water companies and local authorities in controlling rodent infestations in sewers. That protocol was established and supported by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the then Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That was before DEFRA was in place, but we still think that the protocol has a great deal of merit.

The protocol's effectiveness is being monitored by the working group on rats in sewers, which is chaired by DEFRA. The protocol has been well publicised in the water industry, and I understand that seven out of 10 of its members responded to a recent survey on rats and said that they were aware of the protocol as it stood.

I have, however, been informed that local authorities may not have quite so good a knowledge of the protocol, and that might be the origin of some of the problems that have rightly been identified. The working group recently enlisted the help of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health better to publicise the protocol at working level. Also, DEFRA recently wrote to all local authorities to ensure that their attention was brought to the matter.

We have a protocol that is not very different from the statutory code of practice that my hon. Friend is arguing for. The protocol is clearly not fully known by all local authorities, but DEFRA is taking steps to ensure that it is. Let us have the publicity campaign and see whether it makes a difference to the effectiveness of the response of local authorities to rodent control. If it does not, we might return to the

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matter. I suggest that we keep in touch on the issue. I am happy to share information on our monitoring and how it is being applied nationally, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to keep in touch about the effectiveness of the measure.

Mr. Wiggin: The point of the new clause is to deal with rats in sewers. The Minister has been talking about rodent control by local authorities—

 
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