HC Deb 25 July 1979 vol 971 cc587-9
10. Mr. Temple-Morris

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he considers the present system of a water charge based on rating valuation to be fair; and whether he is having any consultations with a view to changing that system.

The Under Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

This is a difficult issue. The present system of basing domestic water charges on rateable value has the advantage of being comparatively cheap and easy to administer but the disadvantage of being unable to reflect variations in individual demands for water.

The water industry is currently considering the question of future charging systems, and in particular how far charges can be better related to demand. We hope to discuss this with the industry soon.

Mr. Temple-Morris

Does that mean that my hon. Friend has taken sufficiently on board the widespread discontent on each side of the House, already voiced this afternoon, about the water rating system in operation in most parts of the country? In view of the fact that it is his right hon. Friend's intention to abolish in time the domestic rating system, does it not follow in logic that at the same time the water rating system should be similarly dealt with?

Mr. Fox

I should have thought that the abolition of the present rating system would have a considerable effect on the way in which water charges are worked out. I am aware of the unpopularity of water charges. If anything, they are even more unpopular than rates. But in those areas where the authorities have introduced a two-part tariff, taking into account standing charges, I have not noticed that bills are any more popular.

Mr. Wigley

Will the Minister accept that the present system of water charges is particularly unfair on those on low incomes, widows and single persons, living in fairly highly rated properties? Is he aware that these people may be eligible for rate rebates on their ordinary rates but not on their water rates? Will he seek to amend section 36 of the Act to allow the authorities, where they deem it appropriate, to pay rebates to people in these categories?

Mr. Fox

No, Sir. There can be no question of allowing rebates in this way. Water authorities have the power, in cases of hardship, to make certain arrangements. The unfairness that the hon. Gentleman mentions is one reason why we intend to look at the present rating system.

Mr. Woolmer

Does the Minister not agree that there are ways in which the problems could be eased in present circumstances? Will he have discussions with his right hon. Friends to consider ways of arranging for the Department of Health and Social Security to make direct payments of pensions to people in receipt of supplementary benefit? Will he also have discussions with his right hon. Friend to encourage local authorities to agree to include the water rate within the council rent payment? Will he take all steps possible to try to ensure that all water authorities introduce a realistic, regular and, if possible, monthly payment system for people on low incomes to assist them to meet what this year has been a very real shock in many areas?

Mr. Fox

I am sure that the water authorities will take note of what the hon. Gentleman says about water charges. I remind him that water charges have never been taken into account in relation to rebates on rates, and nor, since 1974, have sewerage charges.

Mr. Gummer

Is my hon. Friend aware of the size of the problem, and that, because of the rating system, in the Suffolk coastal area people pay more for their water than they do towards the cost of the district council? Unless we move fast on the change in the rating system, it will be extremely difficult to control democratically the decisions of the water authorities. Does he agree that if we want to cut back on Government expenditure, we ought to press very hard in this area?

Mr. Fox

My hon. Friend confirms the fears in all parts of the House on this matter. I remind him that we meet the National Water Council on a regular basis, and that the majority of the members of the regional authorities are, as my right hon. Friend has said, elected from the local authorities.