HC Deb 14 July 1992 vol 211 cc990-2 4.35 pm
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable water companies to vary charges in order to assist retired, disabled and unemployed people, those on low incomes and those in full-time education, and to allow an abated charge for single-person households; to amend the Social Security Act 1986 to permit payments made to certain persons in respect of charges levied on them by water companies to be income-related benefits; and for connected purposes. The Bill seeks to redress a considerable and widespread wrong. I seek to assist the most needy in our society to meet payments for a utility which is a basic daily need. It is, in the words of the Roman poet Pinder, "the noblest of elements". I seek to assist retired, disabled and unemployed people, those on low incomes and those in full-time education with their water bills by amending the Social Security Act 1986 to permit payments made to certain persons in respect of charges levied on them by water companies to be made through the income-related benefit system. I also seek to enable companies to vary charges to allow an abated charge for single-person households.

Between 1980–81 and 1992–93, water charges in Wales have risen by 80.3 per cent. in real terms. That is a truly astonishing figure. Unfortunately, the trend is ever upward and water charges are evidently becoming more and more of a burden on families each year. The privatisation of the industry was strongly opposed by my party and others in the House. We now see the effects of a policy which created a damaging monopoly in the provision of water and environmental services so utterly important to all of us. We still believe that water should be a public service.

The water companies have made fantastic profits-for example, Welsh Water made a profit of £128 million two years ago and £138 million last year—yet the upward curve in charges continues relentlessly. The sum of £138 million is a fantastic return on a turnover of £293 million. The last increases in charges were twice the level of inflation.

I am mindful of the large burdens which have fallen on the water companies in the form of long-awaited environmental work which should properly have been undertaken and paid for by central Government, but the astonishing fact is that each household now pays £130 per annum directly to Welsh Water's profits. I am sure that the figure compares with those for all water companies. I find that position utterly intolerable and unacceptable. It amounts to taxation without representation.

We all know only too well of many thousands of good, honest people who simply cannot pay their water bills. The principle of fair play appears to be markedly absent. The Government acknowledge the important principle of ability to pay. That principle appears in the law courts daily in connection with the unit fines system.

Indeed, so important is the principle that it has been thrust from above upon magistrates courts as if it were a commandment, and no cogent contrary argument existed. The principle is even enshrined to some extent in the odious community charge and will apply to the council tax when it eventually sees the light of day. I venture to suggest that it is a vital principle and a most welcome one, particularly in the context of a utility and of all-important resources such as water and environmental services.

The report of the Office of Water Services last year referred to the fundamental aims of charging policies. It said that the policies must achieve fairness and equity to ensure that customers in similar circumstances pay similar charges; and that, where they face different bills, the differences in charges properly reflect relevant differences in circumstances. The current position is certainly not fair and equitable. During the past 12 months or so, I have had dozens of complaints from people in my constituency about the high level of water rates and, more importantly, their sheer inability to meet them. The point was forcibly driven home to me recently by a retired lady in Bala, who was in tears as she showed me her water rates bill.

That lady was in debt for the first time in her life. She was a shining example of a person who lived by the possibly outmoded work ethic. She lived in a modest flat, with one bedroom. To my alarm, I found that her water rates were £248 per annum—only a few pounds less than mine. We are a family of four with a larger house, and I have a teenage daughter, who spends a substantial portion of her waking hours in the shower. There can be no justification for that, since it is painfully obvious that the old lady is paying too much in comparison with my situation. I am not seeking a change that would result in remaining consumers having to pay more, but I strongly urge that that lady's plight is answered, and that of the tens of thousands like her.

During the election campaign, that was one of the most prominent issues that I heard on doorsteps. Time and time again, I found that people living alone were paying disproportionately for water and environmental services. I also found that those people most in need in our communities received no help, and were slipping into debt, frequently for the first time in their lives.

When I discussed this Bill with a Conservative Member, I was told that he accepted the position and that it needed redressing, but he went on to say, quite flippantly, "Why stop there? Why not television licence fees, and telephones next?" Some pensioners pay reduced television licence fees, and rightly so, but that misses the point completely. Water is a utility. We could not exist without it. The argument that if the Bill became law it would somehow set a precedent is too facile for words.

Welsh Water is a league leader for disconnections in the United Kingdom. That gives me no pleasure whatsoever. Possibly it does not give it pleasure either. The main issues involved are debts and disconnection. The crisis was highlighted last week when Ofwat met at Aberystwyth and urged upon Welsh Water the need for a reappraisal of the methods of payment, and a more sensitive approach to disconnection. I reiterate that there is a crisis in Wales, and I suggest that the situation is also serious elsewhere.

What is a person whose water has been disconnected to do? As Aristotle put it "When water chokes you, what are you to drink to wash it down?" [HON. MEMBERS: "Wine."] Thanks for the suggestion.

I seek two changes. First, I want a 25 per cent. reduction for single-person households. That would be practicable and straightforward to operate, as the data will be freely available under the new council tax structure, which provides a similar 25 per cent. reduction for such householders.

Secondly, people on low incomes, including the retired, disabled, unemployed and those in full-time education, need direct help. Assistance could be given to those people by introducing a water charges benefit, which would operate as an income-related benefit. Again, the database is readily available and the solution is simple and straightforward. It would require an amendment of the Social Security Act 1986, but I venture to suggest that such an amendment would be easily achieved and simple to introduce and to operate.

Theoretically, income support takes into account the cost of water, but there is evidence that the shortfall of years up to 1991 was not made good. That is the contention of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and I am sure that it is right. Historically, we in Plaid Cymru have always taken an active interest in the provision of water. Some say that it is one of our pet subjects. Pet subject or no, there has never been such an urgent need for reform. That is reflected by the fact that my Bill is sponsored by hon. Members from four parties in the House.

To quote from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux' June report: water is a vital service, and immediate action must be taken to ensure that it remains available and affordable to vulnerable members of the community". If we merely stand by and take no action, we are failing thousands of our constituents. I therefore commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Andrew Welsh, Mr. Alex Salmond, Mr. Allan Rogers, Mr. Paul Flynn, Ms. Liz Lynne and Mr. Alex Carlile.

  1. WATER CHARGES 99 words
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