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19 May 2009 : Column 1482

The Walker review is considering whether the WaterSure scheme should be widened. It is also looking into whether more specific, closely targeted assistance is needed for low-income households in areas where bills are relatively high, such as the south-west. I am sure that the hon. Member for East Devon will be aware of the South West Water pilot study. It looked at ways to target and assess the effectiveness of water affordability assistance in the form of benefit entitlement checks, meter installation, water efficiency devices and advice to low-income households in the south-west region. I am pleased that South West Water has taken the initiative and is looking to provide that service to 7,500 of its customers, concentrating on those who are already in debt, and those who have difficulty paying their bills. Those measures can reduce such customers’ bills by about £41 a year, and I welcome South West Water’s efforts in that regard.

The House is aware that Ofwat’s 2009 review of water price limits—periodic review 2009, or PR09—is under way. It will determine water price limits for the period 2010 to 2015. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is undertaking an inquiry into PR09 alongside its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Government’s draft Flood and Water Management Bill, which we published last month. Water companies submitted their final business plans to Ofwat in April. South West Water proposes an average increase in bills of 1.2 per cent. per annum, plus inflation, for the period 2010 to 2015.

South West Water’s final business plan includes proposals for a trial of rising block tariffs, which reward bill payers for saving water, and an extension of the company’s WaterCare programme to help the customers who are most in need. Ofwat will now scrutinise those plans, and those of other water companies, before issuing draft determinations of water price limits for comment in July. Ofwat will issue the final determinations in November.

Mr. Letwin: If the Walker review proposes an equalisation scheme similar to that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), would the Minister, in principle, be willing to adjust the price formulae arrived at through the current price review?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am pleased to say that I rule nothing in and nothing out until we see the result of Anna Walker’s deliberations, whereas the right hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that he has one course of action in mind, regardless of any repercussions or implications for other bill payers. We will consider the Anna Walker review carefully. We will comment on its interim findings to see on what issues we are in agreement. Hopefully, we will agree with all of it. We certainly want to take forward her recommendations seriously, and in a timely fashion, but unlike the right hon. Gentleman, we do not want to pre-empt her review. It would not be fair to Anna Walker for the Government to predetermine the outcome of her review.

Mr. Swire: I would like a simple yes or no: does the Minister not agree that it is manifestly unfair for 3 per cent. of the country’s population to go on paying for 30 per cent. of the nation’s beaches and clean water?

Huw Irranca-Davies: We would not have set up the review if we thought that there were no water affordability problems to solve. It took this Government to set up the
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review, and we did so in a serious and focused way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will avoid making pre-emptive policy decisions, such as those that he put forward tonight. They would pre-empt an independent, careful and thoughtful review, which has been taken out on the road and which has gathered evidence from around the country. To the best of my knowledge, it has not received input from the hon. Gentleman or the Conservative Front-Bench team as yet, but I am sure that it will do when Anna Walker presents her interim review. Knee-jerk reactions may or may not have merit—I rule nothing in, and nothing out—but I am content to wait for Anna Walker’s interim report, and will then comment on it. It is in expert hands; I know of the evidence that she has gathered, and know of the response that she has had from people around the country, including in the south-west.

I may have arrived a little late for the debate tonight, for which I have apologised to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Member for East Devon and his Front-Bench team, but neither I nor my hon. Friends have come late to the overall debate about affordability in
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the south-west and other issues that resonate around the country, which the Government take extremely seriously.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the debate. I strongly urge him to submit his views to Anna Walker’s review, but not to pre-empt it. Surely the purpose of an independent review is to produce good, solid recommendations unimpaired by the slight bias of policy on the hoof, or politics on the hoof. Let us see what Anna Walker produces. I have every confidence in her. The Government will respond in due course to her and take forward the recommendations as we see fit.

As has been pointed out to me not only in the hon. Gentleman’s debate tonight, but regularly in meetings with cross-party colleagues who been advocates on the subject, there are issues in the south-west and elsewhere in the UK to be dealt with. That is why the Government commissioned an independent review.

Question put and agreed to.

10.26 pm

House adjourned.

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