Previous Section Index Home Page

23 May 2007 : Column 486WH—continued

That makes it surprising to me that Ofwat has accepted the undifferentiated average household charge for as long as it has.

First, I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to provide an assurance that he will personally look into these matters and use every power at his disposal to obtain a clearer, fairer and more consistent system of entitlement for those who cannot have water meters, so that pensioners do not pay over the odds. Secondly, I urge him to find a means, and to legislate for one if there is none to hand, for water customers to have the right to get accurate information on the charging options open to them, with redress where that does not happen. Thirdly, I should like him to discuss with his colleagues who have responsibility for housing what obligation there is on landlords to inform their tenants of their rights in respect of water charges. After all, this is quite a complicated issue and someone only has to say the words unmetered average household water charge and most people’s eyes will glaze over.

Lots of pensioners, tower block residents and one-bedroom flat tenants have been overcharged by hundreds of pounds for their water consumption over many years-money that many people on modest incomes can ill afford. Unlike other utilities, water is a local monopoly, so people cannot go somewhere else for their water, which places more of a duty on the Government and the House to ensure that unfair charging practices are ended and justice is done.

On an entirely different matter, I could not complete a speech today without wishing Liverpool every success in the football this evening.

4.25 pm

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): As always, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) makes a powerful and eloquent case, and I congratulate him on securing a debate on this issue. We all have to pay for our water and sewerage services, and I agree that it is important we have a fair system for doing so. Assessed or averaged charges are a small but significant part of the wider issue of water charging policy, and I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight what the Government are doing in that respect.

I will briefly set out the background to why the assessed charge exists—some of that background was outlined very well by my right hon. Friend. About two thirds of properties in England and Wales are unmetered and a third are metered. That figure is
23 May 2007 : Column 487WH
growing at around 2 per cent. a year, mainly through customer choice. The Government believe that metering is a fair way to charge for water, and it is the norm in most of Europe. Since 2000, all domestic customers have had the option of paying their water and sewerage bills according to the volume that they use. Thus the majority of households can have a meter fitted at no cost to themselves. Many customers would pay significantly lower bills if their property was metered, especially small and single-person households, which include many pensioners. It is important that customers know that the option is available to them, and companies should regularly publicise it.

During the parliamentary passage of the Water Industry Act 1999, we were at great pains to ensure that tenants and owner-occupiers could take advantage of the right to a meter. If a tenant is responsible for paying the charges, they are the consumer and have the right to a meter. Under the 1999 Act, tenancy agreements cannot block the right to a meter.

There is a separate issue of who the consumer is and who pays the bill, and my right hon. Friend raised that. Clearly, if someone is not paying the bill, they do not have the right to pay it in a particular way. Where the landlord is responsible for paying the bill and they recover their costs from the tenant, perhaps as part of a service charge, the landlord is the consumer. The landlord has the relationship with the water company and is the party who can apply to have a meter fitted. That can apply to various tenancies, including sheltered accommodation. I hope that has clarified who pays and who has the right to have a meter fitted.

However, as my right hon. Friend clearly said, in some homes, the cost of installing a meter would be unreasonable and it would be unpracticable to fit one. Ofwat is the economic regulator of the water industry and defines what it believes to be an unreasonable cost to be met by customers. Meters are generally installed at the boundary of a property. However, where companies need to split supply pipes between properties, excessive costs can arise—for example, in homes with shared water supply pipes or in flats. Therefore, in many cities, including Oxford, a number of households are currently unable to have meters fitted.

I hope that the number of households affected will come down as new technological solutions are developed; but in the meantime, we believe that customers who are affected and who have asked to change should not have to stay on their current unmeasured charge. The assessed charge was developed for those customers. Under current legislation, it is only those customers who are eligible, and the assessed charge is very much a fall-back option. None the less, as my right hon. Friend has clearly said, there are issues to be addressed and I recognise that.

Companies must state what their assessed charge is in their charges scheme, which is a public document available directly from companies or on websites. As my right hon. Friend said, those schemes are approved by Ofwat every year. Companies must charge their customers according to their charging schemes. The
23 May 2007 : Column 488WH
Secretary of State can give guidance on matters that Ofwat should take into account in approving charging schemes.

In 2000, we issued guidance stating that different companies may put forward different proposals for charges in specific circumstances, depending on local views, priorities and concerns. The guidance gave examples of charges that could work, that are in line with the average measured charge for a company or that bear as much relation as possible to the volume of water that a customer is likely to use. However, it is for individual customers and Ofwat to decide how they set those charges. I am aware that the types of assessed charges differ from water company to water company.

Mr. Andrew Smith: In my contribution, I questioned the variability to which the Minister is referring, because I think that there is a case for consistency, especially where pensioners are concerned. However, does not that variability make clear publicity all the more important? Residents have a right to redress and to know what they are entitled to. Often the experience of my constituents and others is that they do not get clear and accurate information when they use water company helplines, and they are therefore losing out.

Ian Pearson: I agree with my right hon. Friend that there is an issue about consumers having the information to be able to make choices. In this case, I concur that more ought to be done. Certainly, I expect Ofwat to ensure that charges are fair, and as has been outlined, its policy is that, in setting assessed charges, companies should use a reasonable estimate of the quantity of water that a type of customer is likely to use.

Ofwat used to believe that an assessed charge could be set according to the average metered charge. However, that is no longer deemed acceptable because Ofwat believes—rightly, in my view—that customers who want a meter but are unable to have one fitted will generally have a lower consumption than the average metered household.

In 2006-07, five companies set their assessed charges equal to the average metered bill. Ofwat asked those companies to review their charges, and I am pleased to say that all five companies are addressing the issue. In Thames Water’s case, the assessed water charge has been based on the average metered household bill. However, this year, it has been held at the same level as last year, while the average metered bill has increased to £254. I should add also that average unmetered bills remain highest, having increased by £14 to £281.

I understand that, from 1 April 2008, Thames Water will introduce a tiered system of average household charges, which was referred to by my right hon. Friend. We all hope that that will address the issues that he raised in his speech. It should give the company increased flexibility, and allow it to reflect more accurately in its charges the average consumption of different types of household. I accept that, of course, anomalies exist in this system—there will be winners and losers—and we need to look at ways to minimise the impact of that, particularly on vulnerable customers.

Once again, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this important subject; I agree that it is worthy of further discussion. I want to reflect on the questions
23 May 2007 : Column 489WH
that he raised in his contribution and, certainly, I would be happy to raise his points directly with the economic regulator when next I meet Ofwat in June. I agree that it would be beneficial to make the public—particularly, vulnerable pensioner households—more aware of the potential benefits of an assessed charge if they are unable to have a meter fitted.

Mr. Smith: I am grateful for the Minister’s commitment to raise those matters with the regulator. I stress that, as well as pensioners—of course, they are a key priority—a lot of people in tower blocks and single-bedroomed flats do not necessarily follow such matters as closely as he does. Will he raise specifically with the regulator the question of how we get information, across the board, to those who might benefit? Obviously, in many cases, if the tiering of the unmetered charge is done properly, the gain from getting on it as of next April will be even greater. It is important that people have access to that.

Ian Pearson: There is a case for more publicity in general about the benefits of metering, particularly for a lot of single-person households, including flats, and for households where individual meters cannot be fitted. There is a case also for publicising the assessed charges regime. I am very happy to look into that, to see what more can be done to ensure that better information is out there, so that pensioner and other lower-user households can benefit.

In general, I believe that metering is the fairest way of paying for water, because customers pay only for what they use. We are looking to accelerate the rate of metering in areas of serious water stress if there is a clear resource case for doing so. We consulted recently on a proposal to do just that. In the meantime, however, two thirds of households still have an unmeasured basis of charging. In 1997-98, we reviewed methods of water charging and tariffs, which resulted in the Water Industry Act 1999, which provided, for the first time, protection against disconnection and the free meter option, but I repeat that we can do more to publicise that option.

We remain open to new ideas on charging methods and tariffs, particularly to help vulnerable households and those who struggle to pay their bills, as well as to discourage profligate and excessive use. A project is under way looking at the scope for redistributing among customers a company’s burden through tariffs and charges. We are working with water companies to develop a model that will look at the distributional effect of tariffs—in particular, at the winners and losers who would be created among households. The model is looking at the effects of a wide range of measured and unmeasured tariffs.

We have set up a working group that will look at the results of that work and advise on how lower income
23 May 2007 : Column 490WH
groups might be affected by any change to the current charging system. The members include representatives from the Treasury, Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water and water companies themselves. The group is considering how tariffs might distribute the total burden of a company’s charges in ways that might address affordability and promote water saving. Both are important objectives for the Government, and we hope that that work will provide ways forward.

The Government appreciate the importance of a fair, cost-reflective and transparent charging system; that is one of the issues that will feature in the new Government water strategy, which we intend to publish later this year. It is now five years since our last review of water policy, “Directing the Flow”, was published. We are as committed to its action points today as we were then, and the new strategy will ensure that those commitments are met in a way that helps us to mitigate and adapt to dangerous climate change, and to protect and enhance our natural asset base.

Our previous assumptions about an old wet Britain need to change; “predict and provide” will no longer be enough. We are moving to a new dry Britain, where we need to be smarter and more flexible about our water use. Our preconceptions and policies need to change. The new national water strategy will offer the space for that change, setting a long-term vision for 2030 and onwards. It will provide the water industry, Ofwat and the other water regulators with a timely, high-level steer on the Government’s water priorities, as they embark on the next periodic review of water company price limits.

In developing the strategy, we are working closely with key stakeholders, including Ofwat. The strategy will set out a coherent and forward-looking policy framework to underpin our commitments on water availability and quality, thus ensuring that water policy can deliver the required outcomes in the short and long term.

I have no doubt that many lessons will be learned from the ongoing work on charges and charging policy. My right hon. Friend raised specific points about unmeasured charging; I accept fully that we need to get that right. It appears to me that there is room for improvement, certainly in the level of information that can be provided to households to give them the choice of whether to opt for the assessed charge. In addition, we can do more to publicise the advantages to certain customers of moving to a meter and the right to have a meter installed for free.

I assure my right hon. Friend that I am actively engaged in this issue. I shall continue to work closely with stakeholders, and I certainly intend to raise the issue with the economic regulator, Ofwat, when we next meet, which is next month.

23 May 2007 : Column 491WH


4.40 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject today. Cycling debates are becoming a bit of a habit in this Chamber. Only two weeks ago, the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) led an excellent debate on rail-bike integration. Although I do not plan to focus on that issue today, I lend my support to the campaign on it run by the Cyclists Touring Club, which is the UK cyclists organisation. It wants better standards for rail-cycle integration, including access to and within stations, parking, hire and storage facilities where appropriate, cycle carriage facilities on trains, better customer-focused reservation and ticketing systems, and better information and publicity. We need a commitment on those issues for the forthcoming rail franchise negotiations. I hope that the Minister will consider the CTC’s campaign, because it would mean a significant step forward in rail-bike integration.

I am an occasional cyclist. Before I entered the House, I regularly chose to cycle in and out of Edinburgh to work. I tried various methods, sometimes going on the cycle paths and sometimes trying the main road, and often I would beat my fellow travellers who were going by car. I do have a word of warning, however. Often, those trips were not for the faint-hearted—in fact, a ride on the Oblivion rollercoaster at Alton Towers would be less scary than some of the journeys that I made into Edinburgh.

I recognise that, over the years, there have been improvements in the provision of facilities throughout the country. The national network of paths is a good development. However, some developments have been no more than tokenistic. Let us take, for instance, the local towns roundabout where I live. Lines painted down the side of the road, with no parking restrictions for those lanes, are less than useless, unless someone is particularly good at weaving in and out of the cars. However, a statutory duty on local authorities to have a cycling strategy would not be tokenistic. Perhaps such a duty could be included in the draft Local Transport Bill, which was published yesterday. It could require local authorities to acknowledge the role of cycling in delivering not only transport benefits, but benefits for the environment, health and tourism. Councils should also incorporate cycling in highway planning and design.

Yesterday, I received a picture from a constituent from the local town of Inverkeithing. It shows the new traffic island that has been built on the main road. For a bus to get past that traffic island, it has to go well into the cycle lane, which is extremely dangerous for cycle users on that busy road.

I am also grateful to the Warrington cycle campaign, which has a particularly entertaining website. It has a crazy cycle facility of the month, and there is a variety of examples, which I encourage hon. Members to have a look at. They include the 5 m-long cycle path in Manchester. In Greenwich, pedestrians are advised to look left where cyclists are coming from the right. In Lincoln, those members of the cycling community who are of the tree-hugging variety are encouraged to sweep round the side of a tree that is plonk in the middle of a
23 May 2007 : Column 492WH
cycle lane. Another example is the lane in Gateshead that is even narrower than the smallest possible tricycle that my three-year-old son would ride. There are many more examples and again I urge hon. Members to have a look at that entertaining website.

Local cycling strategies should include road safety policies that support, rather than undermine, efforts to increase use of bikes. Too many authorities think that cycling is dangerous and should be kept out of the way. Cycling strategies should also set standards for cycle parking, access, showers and other facilities in new housing developments. The strategies should be all encompassing; they should be holistic. They should encourage schools, health services, businesses and others to encourage cycling. I hope that the Minister will consider that for the Local Transport Bill.

I will briefly mention representations that I have received from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which is concerned about the increasing integration of pavements and cycle lanes, which is often dangerous for people with sensory impairment. I hope that the Minister will enter a dialogue with that association and others to explore possible solutions to that problem.

When I visited Dunfermline cycling club last year, I heard a number of comments about measures that could be taken to support cycling. Maintenance cropped up several times. The members of that club were fed up with overgrown vegetation, rubbish and debris on cycle paths, as well as the recurrent issue of potholes at roadsides and on cycle paths, which can often cause a puncture and pose a danger to the cyclist.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): Is not another important consideration, particularly when we suffer very long dry spells, drains in cycle lanes? There is insufficient space and quite often drains have fallen because of the dry weather. That can pose a great danger to cyclists, particularly when some of the lanes are very tokenistic and are probably not much wider than the drains themselves.

Willie Rennie: Absolutely. Having travelled in and out of Edinburgh, I have come across many drains that have sunk. As well as having to watch the cars on the road, cyclists have to watch out for potholes, which is extremely dangerous on a busy route.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): This is a very important issue. I receive many representations on it from constituents and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. In the meetings that he has had with cyclists, has he taken up, and is he coming to in his speech, the question of the new version of “The Highway Code” and the concern that rules 61 and 63 in it could, if passed, enable a driver who hit a cyclist to claim contributory negligence if that cyclist had not been using a cycle lane or other designated pathway? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that further consultation of cyclists is essential before those and other parts of the code could be adopted?

Next Section Index Home Page