HC Deb 10 May 1978 vol 949 cc1168-70
9. Mr. Silvester

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received, if any, concerning the introduction of separate water charges.

Mr. Denis Howell

A large number of representations have been received relating to the extension of direct billing of consumers by some water authorities this year. However, many of these representations have arisen because it has not been understood that such bills now include charges for sewerage and environmental services, which were in previous years collected by local authorities with their rate demands.

Other representations arose because it had not been realised that the sewerage and environmental service charges have never qualified for rate rebates and that therefore the new arrangements for payment do not represent any change in this situation.

Mr. Silvester

Is it not the case that these combined water and sewerage charges represent a substantial part of the household budget? Will the Minister give urgent attention to the question of finding the most economical way of relating water charges to actual household consumption?

Mr. Howell

If that is a proposal to introduce metering charges for domestic water, I am totally opposed to it. It would be a great burden on the poorer sections of society, and the cost of installing the meters and of providing meter readers would add considerably to water bills.

Mr. Stoddart

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he would have had considerable representations from me except that I decided to send those representations to the Thames Water Authority instead, which is the proper and responsible authority for introducing direct billing? Is he aware that this has caused bewilderment and anger among ratepayers who have not understood the water reorganisation? Is there nothing that he can do to help my constituents?

Mr. Howell

I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's constituents. When this legislation was going through the House we persistently stated that many problems would arise as a result of the 1973 reorganisation. Those problems have now arisen in practice. I have sympathy with my hon. Friend's constituents who do not understand direct billing, but I must point out that my postbag from this House shows that most hon. Members who voted for it do not understand it either.

Mr. Jessel

How much of the increase in water rates has been due to the high rates of interest prevailing in the middle 1970s? Many past loans taken out to aid the construction of reservoirs have now fallen due for repayment and have had to be replaced by new loans at current interest rates.

Mr. Howell

That is an element, but it is not as important as the hon. Member thinks. If he will table a specific Question I shall try to give him an answer.

Mr. David Young

Will my right hon. Friend indicate what steps his Department is prepared to take on behalf of householders who cannot afford to pay their water rates in a lump sum? Will he ensure that the water rates can be paid on an instalment plan in all parts of the country?

Mr. Howell

Yesterday afternoon I met the chairmen of all the water authorities and I raised this matter with them. I am glad to tell the House that I was assured by all of them that they will make arrangements to accept instalments whenever they are required.

I am interested in the experimental scheme in the North-West for the sale of stamps at post offices so that people can use that method of payment if they cannot afford to pay the once-a-year lump sum. I shall continue to discuss these matters with the chairmen and I shall see that instalment plans are accepted in the industry.

Mr. Alison

Is the Minister aware that the domestic water rate in Scotland is not only included in the general rate but is eligible for rate rebate? Since the Government have been legislating for Scotland, will he now legislate for the advantage of England and include the same benefit for the English, if necessary using some of the money from the Scottish Assembly to improve matters in England?

Mr. Howell

It is a great pity that when the hon. Member spoke for and supported the Conservative Government in 1973 he did not arrange to introduce the Scottish situation into England. We are prevented from doing so by the nature of the Act itself.