HC Deb 15 February 1995 vol 254 cc982-3
3. Mrs. Helen Jackson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what are his latest estimates of water leakage.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins)

There is a level below which it is uneconomical to make efforts to reduce water leakage. That said, the latest estimate, based on information from the water companies, is around 29 per cent. We expect leakage to be reduced by around 20 per cent. over the next 20 years.

Mrs. Jackson

Is the Minister aware that 29 per cent. leakage is quite unacceptable? Is he aware of the view of the National Rivers Authority, which says that action by the water companies to halve that figure would make it quite unnecessary for them to go in for the unhealthy and dangerous practice of compulsory water metering, which puts the pressure on the customer rather than the company? Will he take steps to ban that practice, so that pressure for investment is put on the companies to deal with that leakage?

Mr. Atkins

I would like the House to know the facts. First, most of that water leakage comes from domestic pipes, not company pipes. Secondly, there is a level below which it is uneconomical to go—that figure is of the average of 15 per cent. Thirdly, water companies have already spent some £3.7 billion on infrastructure support over the past few years, designed to cope with some of the problems. Fourthly—ironically, in view of the hon. Lady's obsessive campaign against water metering—the increased incidence of water metering will help to solve the problems of leakage.

Mr. Rowe

Is not it self-evident that if individual households have a clear desire and interest in reducing the leakage from their own premises, that they will do? There is no substitute for individual responsibility. Does my hon. Friend agree that that principle of individual responsibility about leakage could equally well be applied to the Cabinet?

Mr. Atkins

My hon. Friend's point is apposite in relation to what Opposition Members are saying. They, supposedly, sign up to the principle of sustainable development, but when faced with a situation in which individuals, as well as others, are encouraged to take notice of leakage and the problems of maintaining water—a resource that we must watch carefully—they seem to avoid the practical realities of it. My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that problem.

Ms Glenda Jackson

What does the Minister think about the announcement by Thames Water only this week to renege on a commitment of £2.1 billion over five years in capital investment, which was reflected in an agreed price rise, and of its announcement that that capital investment programme will be reduced by £350 million, but that there will be no concomitant reduction in charges to householders? On average, domestic bills could be reduced by £10. Thames Water also announces with some pride that it will take a very tough line on non-payers in relation to disconnections. Surely that is not a state of affairs that the Government should allow to happen now or ever again in the future.

Mr. Atkins

I cannot comment on the detail of the case, which is a matter for the Director General of Water Services. In general terms, Thames Water provides the cheapest water anywhere in the nation, and does so extremely well. I am delighted to hear that it is putting pressure on bad payers. The number of disconnections has decreased year on year, and to have that power in reserve is popular with the users of water throughout the country. All the indications are that that power in reserve is necessary and is supported by those who normally pay—the vast majority of the users of the commodity.