HC Deb 27 January 1993 vol 217 cc1035-6
12. Mr. William O'Brien

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce legislation to reduce the level of water charges for low income families; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Maclean

No, legislation is not necessary. The director general of the Office of Water Services is responsible for protection of customers' interests generally, including those of low-income families. My Department, together with Ofwat, will be considering ways to alleviate the hardship difficulties experienced by a small proportion of customers who are metered.

Mr. O'Brien

One can only describe the Minister's response and attitude as abysmal. Is he aware that water charges by the 10 water companies have increased by 9–4 per cent. on average in the past year and will increase by 10 per cent. on average in the coming year, which will mean an increase of 60 per cent. since the privatisation of water in 1989? In the five years since privatisation, standing charges have risen tremendously. Does not the Minister feel that the regulator has failed in his duty to those in lower income groups—particularly old ladies who live on their own? Given that Conservative Members have referred to poor people twice this afternoon, does the Minister agree that his answers were abysmal and that something should be done to protect such people?

Mr. Maclean

No, I do not think that my answers were abysmal. If the hon. Gentleman had done his homework, he would know that systems exist to protect such people. Lower-income families may be entitled to social security benefits, such as income support. Last year, the cost of water services was added to the index used for uprating social security benefits, so they are taken into account now.

Mr. Mans

Will my hon. Friend examine the circumstances in which water companies compulsorily fit meters to mixed usage premises that are used both for business and domestic purposes? Where that has occurred in the north-west, firms have often been put out of business as a result of extra charges. Small firms have no comeback on water companies. Will my hon. Friend inquire into that matter?

Mr. Maclean

Yes. I shall be happy to receive more details from my hon. Friend, which I shall naturally pass on to Ofwat and its director general to consider.

Mr. Clelland

Will the Minister investigate the practice of connecting meters in respect of domestic water consumption? Does he agree that although meters may help to conserve water, now that water companies are in private hands, they will increase the unit price because they need to maintain their profits? Totally in line with Conservative party policy over the past 14 years, the consumer will end up paying more for less.

Mr. Maclean

I am sorry to disagree with the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, but it was absolute nonsense. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the high standards and regulations that apply to all aspects of our water supply, which are the result both of British controls and EC directives. The quality of our water is improving all the time—it was never as good in the past as it is today—but there is a cost involved in that, which is why water companies are investing £30,000 million improving our water and sewerage systems. The Director General of Water Services has a general obligation to look after customers and consumer interests and I am very content with the way in which he is doing his job.