HC Deb 02 February 1988 vol 126 cc927-31
Mr. Matthew Taylor

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 7, line 7, at end insert— '(dd) require water undertakers to inspect, examine and test meters, free of charge, every twelve months if the customer so desires.'. The amendment derives from a number of votes in Committee and, I am sad to say, from the fact that no changes have resulted from several promises that the Minister made to consider the matter.

Let us consider the essential points for and against the free testing of meters for those involved in the trial schemes, although I should like all those who are metered to have the same opportunities.

One argument against the free testing of meters is that those at present with meters can call for a test to be performed which must be paid for if it shows that there is nothing wrong with the meter. That may be reasonable where people who presently have meters have opted for them, because they see a financial gain in doing so. Therefore, it is argued, if they have a complaint about the meters they can bear the cost of having them checked. However, even that is a fairly mean attitude for a public service.

If one looks at compulsory metering, particularly in the trial schemes where different meters are being tested and where there are doubts about the effect of the system on different people, about the accuracy of the meters being used and about how well they will work in practice, it is astonishing that the Government should try to limit people's ability to ask for meter tests by forcing a charge where no fault is found.

That will clearly penalise the poorest in society. Those who are most likely to be affected by a false meter, possibly leading to higher charges than they should be paying, will be most directly hurt, because, when they consider whether to have the meter inspected, they will have to bear in mind that if the meter is accurate they will be penalised for having asked for it to be checked.

It is a basic element of fairness that people should have the opportunity to have their meters checked. I had hoped that the Minister would follow through his earlier agreement that that is a strong point, and come up with the goods in practice.

We are discussing a state industry, and there is greater protection under a public corporation than a private industry. I hope that that will be particularly borne in mind as the industry is privatised. The right of the consumer to opt for an independent meter test should be protected. It should be possible to have meters checked, in the safe knowledge that there will be no financial penalty.

The Minister made it clear that he does not want somebody phoning up every day asking for yet another test, and I accept that. He correctly said that that could result in a few maverick individuals causing high costs for the great majority of consumers. The amendment takes that into account by limiting the right to free testing to once every 12 months. It has been suggested that that should be limited to one, full stop, but that would be lunatic because things can change over time. The fact that a meter has been tested and proved to be accurate one year does not mean that it will not go wrong the following, year. However, I have taken on board the point that the Minister made in Committee, that there needs to be some limit, and that is contained in the amendment.

If the Minister feels that the amendment is still too open, I refer him to the suggestion made in Committee that testing could be through reference by Members of Parliament, as, for example, when matters are referred to the ombudsman. If he is prepared to make that commitment, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment and await a subsequent Government amendment.

It is clear that the Minister saw the strength of this point. In written answers, he made a commitment to contact water authorities to see whether something could be done about it. In the Committee's proceedings on 15 December, the Minister said: We shall discuss regulations, but I place on record that I will consider making provision in regulations by discussing with water undertakers the possibility of establishing a system that will go part way to satisfying the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor). My greatest worry about going the whole way is that, as the hon. Member for Truro said, some people who did not want meters installed in particular properties will go too far and abuse the system by telephoning each day to demand that meters should be tested." —[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 15 December 1987; c. 532.] Later, in reply to another Opposition hon. Member, the Minister said: Following an intervention by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) in Committee on 15 December, I have already given an undertaking to consider the possibility of customers taking part in the trials being offered, free of charge, at least one test of the accuracy of their meters … I hope that Opposition Members will accept that we are not closed in our thinking about a free test, particularly for elderly folk who find new equipment being brought into their houses and are uncertain about reading a water-metering device. In such cases, we must be careful not to charge—certainly on the first occasion—anyone who shows that anxiety. We are to hold discussions with the water undertakers to satisfy the points made by Opposition Members."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 14 January 1988; c. 652.] We are now on Report, and nothing material has been forthcoming. I regret having had to table the amendment. I have made sure that it is couched in terms similar to those that the Minister said he would bring forward. He has not done so, and I ask him now to accept the amendment on the ground that it is in line with what he wanted. It does not go as far as many Opposition Members might want, but it is a step in the right direction, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's support for it.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that my contribution will be brief. As an engineer, I should have thought that the measurement of the flow of a liquid —water, oil or whatever—is probably the simplest and most accurate of techniques.

Why is the legislation being brought forward? It is here because of public opinion. We have heard about fair play from Opposition Members; we heard the story about the old lady living on her own and about people up the road living three or four to a house and using much more water than her—and how unfair that was. That is, perhaps, a sensible argument, but it is strange to hear it coming from the Opposition who have opposed that sort of argument in the context of the community charge when we have spoken of the old lady living on her own who wants a fair system. However, I must not digress.

Pilot schemes will include everything. If a domestic user's bill after the pilot scheme happened to be abnormal, I am certain that officials would visit his home and go through the sort of quantities of water that he was using for the bath, watering and sprinkling the garden, the toilet systems and so on, and decide whether there had been some malfunction of the meter. That would happen in the unlikely event of a failure, and it is what a pilot scheme is all about. The Government are responding to public opinion by bringing forward this sensible measure, and it would be a shame to complicate it with this sort of amendment when the pilot scheme takes care of the point raised by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) about a malfunction of the meter. Any malfunctioning will show up from house to house during a pilot scheme; however, it is unlikely.

As I said at the beginning, measuring fluid through pipes is one of the easiest and most straightforward of techniques. It is far less sophisticated than the measurement of gas, electricity or anything else. The flow of liquid is straightforward and I see no great cause for concern. The pilot scheme will sort the problem out. We are starting off gently with pilot schemes to see how the system goes and to meet public opinion and demand. We are targeting the poor in this, as in all the other things we are doing, such as the review of the welfare state and the community charge, where we are helping the old lady who is living on her own. In exactly the same way, with water metering we are helping the old lady living on her own. If a person wants to economise, he need not have a big bath and he can top up the water in the kettle. People can save themselves money if they have a metered system, whereas with rateable values they have no choice but to meet on demand the bill that is sent. I hope the hon. Gentleman is big enough to withdraw the amendment, which is unnecessary.

9.15 pm
Mr. Boyes

We will not support the amendment. I do not intend to develop the arguments but wish to make just one point. These are trials and during the trials we expect special conditions to apply. People will be concerned and worried, particularly if they suspect that their bills are higher under metering than when assessed on rateable values. As all hon. Members know, when new techniques are used, the elderly are often worried. I do not see why they should be limited to one inspection per year, particularly if the first inspection shows that the meter is faulty. I accept the view of the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) that measuring water is simple, but simple things in the hands of this Government can become complicated.

We want trial meters to be tested on request. If that means that someone wants a meter tested less than 12 months after the first test, it should be done. We do not want to limit people to one test in 12 months. The water undertaker might argue that because there had been a test within the last 12 months, even though the bill might be higher than the equivalent bill under rateable valuation, the meter could not be tested again.

To suggest that people will ring in each day is insulting to the vast majority of those taking part in the trials. While many people will not like meters and will have to be cajoled or even forced to have them, they will act responsibly. If they think that the meter needs to be tested, they will request a test. During the trials I hope that if someone feels great anxiety that the meter is not working correctly, proper tests will be done.

Mr. Moynihan

I am surprised at the contribution by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor). I gave him a clear undertaking that I would consider the possibility of customers taking part in the trial being offered free of charge at least one test of the accuracy of their meters. I noted his assent. He was pleased that I gave that undertaking because he recognised, as hon. Members on both sides of the House do, that we must ensure, if possible, that someone who is elderly, say, who is not used to having a meter and who is anxious about its accuracy should have the opportunity to have that anxiety removed.

One way of removing the anxiety is to have the meter tested or to have proper authorisation of the meter which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) said, is highly unlikely to be inaccurate. Because we wanted to remove anxiety we moved from our original position of saying that there would be no free test for meters to the commitment that I gave to the hon. Member in Committee. I also gave that commitment in writing to the hon. Member in a letter dated 21 December. I said that I would look at the matter with all the water undertakers and try to reconcile the concerns and worries expressed by him and by other Opposition Members.

I am currently taking up that concern. I am sorry that in the three working weeks since Christmas it has not been possible to come to a firm conclusion and to discuss a specific provision with the Water Authorities Association, but I gave a clear undertaking that the anxieties expressed would not be swept under the carpet and would be taken account of, and that I would ensure that they were given further consideration in detailed discussions. I would regret it if the hon. Member pressed the point to a vote, because that commitment was made with integrity, and was so recognised by Labour Members.

I hope that our discussions will soon reach a final outcome and I will be in a position to give a commitment. The position will become clearer by the time the Bill goes to the House of Lords. If we have not come to a satisfactory solution by then, the hon. Member will have the opportunity to table an amendment in another place. We shall be pushed to try to get a complete answer by then, but I give the commitment that I will do everything I can. If I have not succeeded, the hon. Member and his hon. Friends may wish to pursue the matter in the House of Lords, if they are unsatisfied with the speed of progress.

I will not go into the detail of the substantive provisions, not least because the Department of Trade and Industry has put forward proposals for accurate regulations to ensure and certify that all meters on the market meet approved European standards as well as national standards. Hon. Members in Committee may have read the detailed brief on that point, so I will not keep the House by repeating that. The commitment I gave in the debate is important. I hope that it will persuade the hon. Member for Truro to allow at least a breather between now and the time that the Bill goes to the House of Lords so that he is in a position to reconsider the thrust of the arguments he has put before the House this evening.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

I thank the Minister for his reply and his commitment, if possible, to come forward with a firm proposal before the Bill goes to the House of Lords. In view of that commitment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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