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Nottingham City Council Bill [HL]

Reported from the Unopposed Bill Committee with amendments.

8 Apr 2003 : Column 213

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Official Report of the Grand Committee on the

Water Bill [HL]

Tuesday, 8th April 2003.

(Fourth Day)

The Committee met at half past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff) in the Chair.]

Clause 38 [Objectives and duties under WIA]:

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 92:

    Page 42, line 15, at end insert—

"( ) The Secretary of State shall define water poverty as those households spending over three per cent of their income on water charges."

The noble Baroness said: I am particularly pleased to open this sitting by moving this amendment because it lays the ground for much of our discussions on the rest of the Bill. It requires the Secretary of State to come up with a definition of water poverty, and it suggests what that definition should be. In framing that definition, I pay tribute to the work of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which produced a good study, Water Poverty in England. That thorough study came up with a couple of modest recommendations, the first of which is that the Government should give consideration to setting 3 per cent of net income as the level above which it is unreasonable to expect a household to meet water charges. The second recommendation is that the water regulator should investigate the extent to which water poverty contributes to water debt.

I tabled the amendment because I believe that without a definition of what constitutes water poverty, it is hard to decide who is in water poverty. I do not believe that the regulations in the Bill do anything to reduce the number of households affected by water poverty or to help the industry in relation to the ever-increasing problem of water debt. We now rightly have a regime that does not allow people to be disconnected from the water supply if they fall into debt. That should remain. Once that arrangement is in place, one needs to be aware of who cannot pay their water bills and who will not pay their water bills. We will discuss water debt later today.

The amendment frames the issue in such a way that it begins to address something that has not been addressed by the Government to date. When the Minister replies, he may say that the Government's arrangement involving vulnerable groupings of people who may apply for help with their water bill answers the problem. However, I believe that there are some 4 million people in that vulnerable group, which

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includes the elderly—who may also be incontinent—those with severe illness problems and those with large families who may find it harder to be in full-time work—that is certainly true in relation to both parents. They are often people with multiple problems. The vulnerable groups provisions fail on two counts: first, the provisions made under them are taken up by only 1 per cent of those who are eligible, which is a really pathetic rate for benefit take-up; and, secondly, the concept that lies behind the approach is somewhat Victorian, in the sense that it involves a charitable assumption, which is run—for good reasons—by the industry in a way that assumes that other water consumers will pay for those who cannot pay.

I hope that the amendment will start the Government's thinking about defining water poverty and help them to decide that the current position is not satisfactory. I hope that the Minister will agree to the amendment as the first stage of addressing the problems of those who cannot afford their water bill and of the industry, for which the debt problem is substantial. The industry needs to know, if it is to deliver all that we expect of it—including environmental goods and so on in the Bill—that the people who cannot pay will be properly helped. That help should be provided on the same basis as that for other benefit help, not as a throwback to Victorian charities. I beg to move.

Baroness Byford: Whether it is necessary to have the amendment in the Bill, I understand the reasons why the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, moved it.

I have some questions for the noble Baroness, or for the Minister. First, is the criterion requested in this regard carried through in relation to any other utility Bills? Secondly, the noble Baroness said that 1 per cent of benefits were taken up, but 1 per cent of how many? Thirdly, in recent times, the water companies themselves have tried to address the whole question of debt and debt repayments. To a certain extent, they have been very successful at it. I am not associated with any water company at all and therefore have no insight in this regard. If they have been successful and no one has genuinely been put at risk who would otherwise have been helped by their strides to address the debt situation, one would have to question whether writing something into the Bill would detract from their ability to try to bring debtors into line and encourage them to pay something. I believe that there has been a lengthening of the time in which one can pay or spread the load.

Those are indirect questions. I understand why the noble Baroness made her remarks in this context. All of us are concerned about poverty. Those three questions need addressing. I should be grateful if that were done by the Minister when he winds up or by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, when she responds to the Minister.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): I assume that the concept that the noble Baroness is proposing is the equivalent concept of fuel

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poverty, which is defined as 10 per cent of net income. However, that has various legislative strategy and scheme implications and the provision of various services are related to it. However, the approach in the amendment is entirely in isolation and is not followed through with amendments anywhere else in the Bill, so far as I can see, and would have no legal effect because it offers a definition that is not contained in any other legislation. I therefore believe that the effects are not clear.

There is obviously an issue in this regard but, as the noble Baroness said, we have already taken action to stop household water disconnection and in terms of protecting vulnerable groups, who would otherwise cut back on water that they could not afford, with meters. We also have the current consultation on extending the protection for vulnerable households. The Government are addressing the problems of water poverty but the definition does not appear to help or to be clearly based in fact on the people who may be affected by the costs or the difficulties of providing water. The fact that the amendment would not have any effect means that I am not sure that it is the best way, beyond pure symbolism, to deliver anything for those who are genuinely in poverty, partly because of their water costs.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I am slightly surprised by the Minister's lack of enthusiasm for the amendment. I had hoped that he would say that he agreed with the spirit of the amendment. There is not a great deal of carry-through to frame it so that it could take effect in relation to the rest of the Bill. At this stage I had hoped to discover the Government's attitude to the issue.

The fact that water is at the end of the debt list— which is of itself a reason for my amendment being worthy of more consideration than the Minister appears to give it—says nothing for the value of water. If the Government are concerned about creating a fair society—which I believe they are—then the people most in need of help with their water bills should be entitled to it. The failure to define "water poverty" does not help.

I have tables that answer the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in regard to the kinds of people who apply and the numbers who are successful. Rather than read them out at length, I shall pass her a copy.

It is difficult to deal with a problem until it is clearly defined. If we cannot define the substance of water poverty it will be very difficult to find a mechanism for dealing with water debt in a way that does not badly affect people. Having brought in legislation to stop disconnections there was then a failure to address the issue of the rising debt problem. Although I accept that expanding the amendment would require a new clause in the Bill, it is worthy of somewhat more enthusiasm.

The noble Baroness asked a third question which I have not answered. I cannot remember what it was. Perhaps she will help me.

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Baroness Byford: The noble Baroness said that 1 per cent of benefit take-up was referred to in the report. My question was, "1 per cent of how many people?" I want to establish how many households were affected. It could be 1 per cent of 10 or of 10,000. Obviously there could be quite a difference.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: According to the report, some 4 million may fall within the category of water poverty. So it would be 1 per cent of 4 million.

As regards the Minister's question about whether this is the equivalent of fuel poverty, I do not believe that it is. Provisions for not disconnecting people from their water supplies are already in place, whereas if they could not afford heating they would stay cold. It is not equivalent but it is no less important for a different reason. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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