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Clause 5


National Policy Statements

Amendments made: No. 72, in page 3, line 16, after ‘7’, insert

No. 73, in page 3, line 34, after ‘statement’, insert ‘, and

(b) lay a national policy statement before Parliament.’.— [Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Clause 6


Review

Amendments made: No. 74, in page 4, line 7, after ‘7’, insert

No. 75, in page 4, line 14, after ‘published’, insert ‘, and

(b) lay the amendment, or the statement as amended, before Parliament.’.— [Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Clause 11


Pre-commencement statements of policy, consultation etc.

Amendment made: No. 76, in page 6, line 3 [Clause 11], at end insert—

‘(3A) The Secretary of State may take account of things done before the commencement day for the purpose of complying with the requirements of section [Parliamentary requirements].’.— [Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Bill, as amended in the Committee, to be further considered tomorrow.

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees ),


Representation of the People

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees ),


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Health Care and Associated Professions

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees ),


Pensions

Question agreed to.

European Union Documents


Carbon Capture and Storage

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Committees),

Question agreed to.

Delegated Legislation

Ordered,

Welsh Grand Committee

Ordered,

Petition

Post Office Closures (Shropshire)

10.20 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and I have been campaigning hard to try to retain as many post offices in Shropshire as possible, but this evening I wish to present a petition on Ditherington—an appropriate name for the Prime Minister—post office in Shrewsbury. I have worked with the leader of the Labour party in Shrewsbury, Councillor Mosley, and
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the local Conservative councillor, Malcolm Price, to try to retain Ditherington post office, which is vital, providing the services that it does.

The petition states:

[P000199]


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UK Water Sector

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

10.21 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate. The future of the water industry affects many areas of the public and private sectors, including the private citizen mindful of the water bills he or she pays; the farmer concerned about the possibility of drought; the community worried about the risk of flooding; the architects and planners building to meet the demand for housing; and the Government in co-operating with other nations to ensure worldwide access to clean and sustainable supplies of water.

Earlier this year, the all-party parliamentary water group concluded its investigation into the future of the UK’s water industry. I want to put on record the help we received from eaga plc, the Society of British Water and Wastewater Industries, Unison, Water UK, Wessex Water, the Consumer Council for Water and WWF-UK.

I am pleased to see that, in addition to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), some members of the all-party group are in their places, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), who both took part in the inquiry.

The fact that representatives from more than 70 different organisations—ranging from business and industry to trade unions and consumer groups, scientists and environmentalists—attended the report’s launch is testament to the importance of this issue. We produced a range of conclusions and recommendations touching on many areas. However, today I wish to focus on affordability and the future of metering and charging. I hope to allow a little time for my right hon. Friend, the chairman of the all-party group, to add more about water services and management and issues relating to drought and flooding.

I make no apology for the fact that for me the imperative remains affordability, which is at the top of our agenda in the south-west. People face rising fuel prices, and other cost-of-living pressures, set against the backdrop of the credit crunch—difficult economic circumstances which our Government are well placed to guide us through. Water is not a luxury but a necessity, and for that reason we must do all we can to ensure that the regulatory framework bears down on what it costs our constituents. The Minister will know that I have long campaigned on the issue of unfair water charges in the south-west, caused by the botched privatisation by the Conservative Government, which means that our average household water bill is £100 more than elsewhere in the country. Where are the Conservatives tonight?

For elderly individuals living alone on a basic pension or for lone parents with young children, water bills can be a struggle regardless of where they live. The fact is that high water charges often affect most those individuals and groups least able to cope. There are close links between water affordability and water
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efficiency, so in addressing affordability there are opportunities to dovetail well with the Government’s environmental agenda.

From 1997 onwards, the Government have shown sustained commitment to tackling fuel poverty. Under the Warm Front scheme, representatives visit customers to advise them of ways they can reduce their energy bills, install energy-saving features, such as cavity insulation, and undertake benefit entitlement checks. In my constituency, the scheme has visited 2,832 households, saving them each an average of £200 on their fuel bills.

As the Minister knows, the Warm Front model was used for a similar scheme in the water affordability pilot that was carried out in the south-west. That small study of 520 households managed to find savings of more than 10 times the cost of providing the service. We can imagine the savings that could be made if such a scheme were rolled out nationally. South West Water has since built on that work through its water care scheme, which will help 7,500 customers over three years and is the first of its type in the water industry. I think that Wessex Water has a similar scheme.

I know that South West Water—Water UK has also raised the subject on behalf of the industry in general—would appreciate the same access to data sharing about people on low incomes as the Government proposed this past Friday to explore for energy companies. I hope that the Minister will raise that with his colleagues. In addition to helping to target the schemes that the water industry is introducing, such as the water care scheme that I just mentioned, such a measure could help to turn around the vicious circle of high debt that costs us all £11 per customer nationally.

I think I am right to say that up to 40 per cent. of household energy is used to heat water. An ideal solution would therefore seem to be to combine the Warm Front and water care schemes, with representatives trained to advise on both water and energy efficiency in the same visit. The better we target such help, the more likely it is to create a virtuous circle that will enable water bills to be kept down.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The hon. Lady is making a strong case. Of course, she is absolutely right to say that when the water industry was first privatised it created a relatively risk-free environment for what I would argue was a money-extortion exercise, particularly in areas such as the south-west. For elderly customers, that is a particular problem. Does the hon. Lady agree that in households where occupants are unable to install a water meter, and particularly in houses in multiple occupation, companies should always adopt a default position of going for the assessed charge in order to reduce the water bills for those very low income households?

Linda Gilroy: The hon. Gentleman makes a relevant point. There are many examples of sheltered housing in my constituency, as well as elsewhere in the south-west and all over the country, where such a move could significantly benefit many older people.

Schemes and innovations such as water care can help individuals to save money. The all-party group also recommended fundamental changes to the manner
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in which water is provided and paid for. The most significant was our call for the phased introduction of universal metering. Indeed, in response to water charges many consumers are already switching to metering by choice. Unsurprisingly, we have seen that in particular in the south-west, where I think some 65 per cent. of consumers—about 13 out of 20—have switched to metering by choice. That has resulted in the development of a two-tier water payment system, leaving those who do not switch at a further disadvantage.

Smart meters, or intelligent meters, present an exciting opportunity to tackle these long-neglected issues. Again, co-operation with the energy industry, which I believe to be likely to introduce smart metering, ought to provide some savings in that regard if it is tackled soon. Many believe that tariffs tailored to the circumstances of the customer could not just deal with some of the supply and demand issues, but could address issues of affordability for many customers.

I am, of course, aware that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is conducting a review of the future of metering and charging. I hope that the Minister will update us on the progress of the review and I would be grateful if he would give the House an indication of when it is expected to report.

I would also appreciate hearing the Minister’s assessment of how far the review will go towards finding a solution to the affordability issue. Does he share my view that it could indeed provide light at the end of the tunnel for some of those constituents burdened with high bills? Of course, if that is a solution, it is a medium to long-term one, and while making water charges fairer and possibly lower for more people, we need to be realistic about the fact that there will be losers as well as winners. Some of those losers could be among the least well off if they are not protected. I am thinking especially of large families and those who need to use larger quantities of water for health reasons.

In addition to ensuring that we make the most of the vulnerable persons regulations, I hope that the Minister will consider the all-party group’s call, which has also been made by the Consumer Council for Water, for changes to the tax and benefits system to support those who are struggling most to pay for water. That should be much more affordable to the Exchequer if, through the combination of measures that I have mentioned, we can reduce the extent to which they are needed.

I also support CC Water’s call to limit price rises. It has recently written to all water and sewerage companies in England and Wales to ask them

I hope that the Minister will also look at our report’s recommendations on the vulnerable group regulations. Our report found that the regulations were not working as well as they could. The principal problem is that the WaterSure scheme is not reaching very many people—only 16,200 households nationally, according to the last figures in 2006-07. Not surprisingly, a substantial proportion of that number—3,800, or almost a quarter—
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are in the South West Water area, which covers Devon and Cornwall’s population of just 1.5 million of England’s total population of 50 million.

Our all-party report recommended that the definition of customer service be extended to include vulnerable customers and be included in the PR09 price-setting review as a specified performance target. The regulator could then set goals for the companies to be proactive in reaching out to vulnerable customers on that and other aspects. I hope that the Minister is giving serious consideration to encouraging the regulator.

Action on water charges for vulnerable customers is long overdue. Water bills have risen a lot in the past two decades. Although there have been very significant benefits to our environment, infrastructure and tourism industry through increased investment, too many people are struggling to pay bills that are unacceptably high. As things stand, the problem looks set to get worse, as shown by DEFRA’s 2004 study of affordability. If that is allowed to continue, more people will fall into more debt, and as a result large bills will become larger still as companies seek to reclaim the money owed.

The Minister must not only find a long-term and comprehensive solution to break this vicious cycle, but consider improving short-term safeguards to protect the most vulnerable. I look forward to his response and to hearing from my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe.


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