HL Deb 23 May 1977 vol 383 cc1071-3

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that the Southern Water Authority, in reliance on the provisions of the Drought Act 1976, are imposing a surcharge on those consumers of water charged for on meter who responded to the appeals made by Her Majesty's Government to cut water consumption last year; and whether, in view both of the injustice of such a charge and the damaging effect which its imposition must have on any future appeal for economy in the use of water, they will take the necessary action to have such surcharges annulled.


My Lords, there is no surcharge. It is standard practice for all consumers to pay a minimum charge for water supply, irrespective of the quantity they use. Water authorities have a statutory obligation to cover their costs through charges, so suspending minimum charges to metered consumers means higher charges for everyone else. We did not think it right to penalise other consumers in this way, particularly as they also made substantial savings in their use of water with no question of any reduction in their water rates.


My Lords, as one who has the misfortune of living within the area served—if that be the word—by the Southern Water Authority, perhaps I should declare an interest. Whereas the consumers who are charged on rateable value have a fair deal in the sense that if they use more or less water they pay the same, does not the noble Baroness appreciate that the consumers on meter who are charged at the option of the water authority, pay for water that they do not have and who, in response to the appeals of Her Majesty's Government, have restricted consumption, are, none the less, charged for that water which they abstained from obtaining? Can the noble Baroness say what will be the effect of oppressive conduct of this kind the next time an appeal is made for economy in the use of water?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, people responded very well to the appeal for economy in the use of water. Even when there is no consumption of water, the water authorities still incur the cost of making the supply available. As the noble Lord is aware, if the amount of water he uses is below a certain amount, he will pay no more than those who pay the standard rate. I do not know whether he was asking me why he should be metered in this way, but I imagine that it is because he uses a rather large amount of water. I agree that there is a certain amount of rough justice, but if everyone were metered the cost would be completely prohibitive, and if they were not, the charge to domestic consumers, who are not metered, would have to be increased.


My Lords, can the noble Baroness point to any company in the private sector which charges for a commodity that it does not supply and which has also managed to avoid appearing at the Old Bailey?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I do not think that the use of water can be compared to the supply of any other commodity. It must not be judged in that way. Neither the House nor my voice will take it if I repeat all that I have said, but I do not think that there is any more that I can add. However, I was interested that when the noble Lord wrote his letter to The Times he did not seem to receive a torrent of support for his views.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of a precept—which my noble friend often invoked when he was First Secretary to the Treasury—that sometimes in the public interest it is necessary for virtue to be its own reward? Is the noble Baroness aware that my noble friend's virtue will not be diminished by this experience?

Baroness BIRK

Yes, my Lords.

Viscount ST. DAVIDS

My Lords, is there not a way in which this matter could be sorted out? Would it not be possible to assess the amount of water which these people have not used and to give them a kind of water credit on their next bills? That would sort the matter out entirely, and then everybody would have paid for the exact amount of water which they used.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, in one sense that is done because, if a person uses less water on the metered rate than would normally be used on the standard rate, then that person would pay only the equivalent of the standard rate. There is no way of operating any of these alternatives which would not be extraordinarily expensive both in terms of money and personnel.

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