HC Deb 11 May 1993 vol 224 cc662-4 4.11 pm
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Water Industry Act 1991 so as to remove the powers of water undertakers to disconnect residential premises in cases of non-payment of charges; to constrain the installation of pre-payment devices for the supply of water; and for connected purposes. This is a simple Bill but one which affects the lives of every one of us. Human life on this planet is made possible by the abundance of oxygen in the air and water in the atmosphere. We share that water with all other plant and animal life. It is part of a natural cycle. From our first cup of tea in the morning it passes through us and washes over us out of the tap and down the plug hole. It rains on the fields and evaporates back into the atmosphere and the clouds.

All major legal systems of ancient and modern times have adopted the principle that there can be no ownership of running water; it has to be shared as a genuinely common asset It therefore cannot be right that a water company, contracted only to clean and deliver this asset, can say, "This bit of water is ours. You have not paid for it, so we shall not let you have any."

Thankfully, in Britain many key services are still available to all, withdrawal of which is not used as a threat for non-payment. We do not say that people cannot call an ambulance or the police, send their children to school or even have their dustbins emptied if they are late paying their income tax or rates. Water should take its place alongside those core services, which are basic to our quality of life. This Bill does just that.

Action needs to be taken urgently, because the scale of water disconnections is startling. From a figure of 7,600 in 1990–91, it has leapt to 21,300 last year. Unexpectedly, Ofwat has chosen today to release this year's figures. They show a welcome reduction of 12 per cent., to 18,600. But that still means that, for every working day last year, 70 homes in this country were, in effect, rendered unfit for human habitation, according to the Housing Act 1985.

The Act is absolutely clear: section 604 says that a dwelling house is fit for habitation unless it fails to meet one or more requirements, one of which is that it has an adequate piped supply of wholesome water. Each disconnection leaves a premises unsafe as a place to work according to the Factories Act 1961 and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. For 2.5 million people, however, their main place of paid work is the home, not to mention the millions more who toil away every day at the kitchen sink.

Every disconnection also renders a house an unfit place in which to care for children or for old people, according to the care regulations set out in the Children Act 1989 and the Registered Homes Act 1984. We should also remember that the most common location of accidents that require hospital treatment is the home.

I am not suggesting that the process of delivery of adequate supplies of clean, pure water should not be paid for. It should be regarded as a valuable resource to be carefully used.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) asked a question about disconnections on 8 March, and the Government made a distinction between "can't payers" and "won't payers". They said that they offer safeguards against disconnection for those who cannot pay, and presented the vision of victims of water disconnection being obstinate, middle-class citizens with a couple of cars in the drive and sprinklers on the lawn, who wilfully refused to pay the water companies their reasonable dues. It is not like that.

Evidence around the country reveals that the victims of disconnection are people with other debts as well, who are often on income support. Yes, they pay up when faced with the nightmare of being without water, but they do so simply by getting further into debt with someone else.

There is no evidence that the threat of disconnection is what persuades people to pay their water rates. The number of unpaid bills was lower when disconnection was not the practice and bills were paid, along with the rates, on a property value basis. In Scotland, where it is illegal to disconnect water supplies, the courts are used as the final solution. That system works well.

The Government, through the regulator Ofwat, should give fresh consideration to introducing a simplified charging system that makes use of council tax banding. They should work with the Benefits Agency and the local authorities to produce easier payment schemes. That would be a more effective means of reducing non-payment.

It is for that reason that the Bill has received widespread help and backing from national consumer associations, the citizens advice bureaux, local authorities, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, housing organisations including Shelter, the Institute of Housing, the House-Builders Federation and the National Federation of Housing Associations, architects, public health officers and the Institute of Environmental Health Officers.

Those health officers have offered their backing out of a real concern for public health. I welcome the fact that, today, the chief medical officer has recognised that concern and has set up a small working group to consider the potential problems that water disconnections might cause.

I should like to quote from the environmental health officer of Canterbury city council—it is not a Labour authority, but we did very well, thank you, in the county elections on Thursday—who has written a report recommending a statutory ban on the disconnection of domestic dwellings. He states: The public health movement began in the last century and its major thrust at that time was to control epidemics of infectious disease … Our homes are all designed to make hygiene a matter of normal routine; we all expect an inside WC, a bath, wash hand basin … As soon as the water supply is cut off, hygiene becomes virtually impossible and the resulting 'insanitary' conditions can easily and quickly facilitate the growth of bacteria which cause disease". We cannot take our public health for granted. At a time when the increase in notifications of water-borne diseases, such as dysentery, is causing great concern, Parliament could do one small thing to help by approving the Bill.

It is part of the Government's role to set and oversee standards relating to the quality of our lives. They must take the responsibility, along with Ofwat, to act urgently to reduce the number of water disconnections to domestic dwellings. But I say that even one disconnection is one too many and cannot be condoned. The practice must cease altogether.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Helen Jackson, Mr. Richard Burden, Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock, Ms Jean Corston, Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. John McFall, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Mr. Paul Tyler, Mr. Bill Michie, Mr. Brian Wilson, Mr. Rhodri Morgan and Mr. Malcolm Chisholm.