HC Deb 20 October 1993 vol 230 cc273-5
13. Mr. David Nicholson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent consultations he has had on proposals to moderate the burden of water bills for domestic consumers.

Mr. Gummer

In recent months, I have met the Director General of Water Services, the European Environment Commissioner, the chairman of the National Rivers Authority and representatives of the water industry. Those discussions have formed part of my consideration of the issues as addressed in a letter to Mr. Ian Byatt entitled "Water Charges, the Quality Framework", which I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales have just published.

Mr. Nicholson

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the vigour that he is showing in those matters, but he will be aware that the figures that are being talked of for increases year after year, especially in the south-west, are quite intolerable. Will he therefore concentrate his efforts on minimising those costs in the coming years, not only in the area covered by South-West Water, where they are at their greatest, but in other areas such as that covered by Wessex Water, which includes most of my constituency? Will he not lose sight of the benefits to single-person households, especially, which might be obtained from sensible metering?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to say that we want the lowest possible charges consistent with providing the standard of water quality and the cleanliness of beaches that we are all seeking. That means that we must strongly draw to the attention of companies the ways in which they can keep their costs under control and to talk in the European Community to ensure that we are seeking sensible standards in sensible time scales. I agree with my hon. Friend that metering has many attractions, but that is a matter for the water companies.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Will the Minister join me in condemning Anglia Water, which has the highest water charges in the country at £248 per head? Will he also condemn it for compulsorily metering households and recognise the hardship that that will cause to families with young children?

Mr. Gummer

I believe that the hon. Lady's constituency is covered by the private Cambridge Water company. My constituency is largely covered by Anglia Water, which I would not condemn at all. I think that it is an extremely good company which provides a good service and it has been much improved since privatisation, as I am sure my hon. Friends would agree. Metering has a number of advantages and it is necessary to look at them.

Mrs. Peacock

Many people in Yorkshire find it difficult to pay their water charges. What action can the Government take to moderate the huge increases in those charges which many people cannot afford to pay?

Mr. Gummer

I am happy to look at any particular incidents that my hon. Friend would like to bring my attention. Obviously, that is the case. However, the fact is that water charges reflect the cost of providing water. It is very much better to direct our help to those who need it than to say that there should be some way in which to subsidise water itself. We should recognise that water is one of the necessary parts of life and, in an attitude of promoting sustainable development, we must ensure that water is properly cared for. That means a pricing system that reflects its cost.

Ms Short

Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that he will not pressurise the European Commission to repeal the drinking water directive which would mean that standards of cleaning up our water in Britain were reduced? People in Britain want clean, decent water at reasonable prices. They know that prices have escalated since privatisation largely because directors of water companies have given themselves intolerable pay increases and because investment plans have been funded over far too short a period. The south-west needs help with the burden of cleaning up its beautiful coastline in which we all have an interest. Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that he will not reduce bills by reducing standards?

Mr. Gummer

The people of Britain have very good-quality water at very reasonable prices. That is the position today. We want to raise standards progressively and sensibly. There is no doubt that within the European Community there are many other countries, like ourselves, which from time to time may say that they have some details in the arrangements for reaching those standards which are out of kilter. It is perfectly reasonable to discuss those matters and I will certainly do so.

I agree with the hon. Lady. What we want is what we already have, on which we can improve—high-quality water at reasonable prices. The reason for the increase in water charges is overwhelmingly the need for massive new investment to raise standards. The hon. Lady does her party no good by suggesting to the public that there is any reason for it other than that, which is manifest from the figures.