HL Deb 10 June 1992 vol 537 cc1265-7

3 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take in view of the number of disconnections of domestic water supply to customers in the last year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, the Director General of Water Services is responsible for protecting consumers' interests. He has expressed his concern over the level of disconnections, and has recently issued new guidance to water companies on the subject of debt and disconnection to ensure they take a consistent approach towards consumers with unpaid charges. The Government welcome the action that he is taking.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, indicating that Mr. Byatt the Director General of OFWAT is taking action. Is the Minister aware that statistics have been published from various reliable sources which, if taken together or separately, show a very substantial increase in the number of disconnections in this sector? Can he give some indication of the number of disconnections in the last year when the water supply was under the control of the water board? To what extent have those disconnections increased since privatisation?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the most recently available figures show that in the last year 21,286 domestic customers had their water supply disconnected. That figure compares with 7,673 customers for the year before and represents an increase of 177 per cent. Comparisons with the period before privatisation are not helpful because the figures are difficult to get. However, I make the point that customers have no less protection than they did before privatisation. There has always been a minority who refuses to pay until faced with disconnection.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware of more recent reports in the press showing an astronomical increase in the number of people in various areas of the private water sector who complain about the substantial increases in water charges? Does he agree that that is an indication that, if the Director General of OFWAT does not take strong action, we shall be speaking next year of a further substantial increase in the number of domestic users who have had their water supply cut off? As most of those people are at the bottom end of the social scale, will the Government do their best, through Mr. Byatt, to ensure that such adverse action does not take place?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the Director General of OFWAT is very worried. He has also proposed to carry out research to find out how many of the customers disconnected were in real financial difficulty rather than simply trying to avoid payment. Perhaps I could remind the House that the average daily household charge for all water services—drinking, cooking, washing and watering the garden; and all water delivered to the house and taken away—is 46 pence, which is less than the cost of a bottle of fizzy water.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the matters that has exacerbated the problem is that in central London and elsewhere the water rates are based on the old rateable values? In central London they can be over £800 a year. Does he agree that if that is widespread across the country, it may be one of the reasons that people are unable to pay?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, between now and the end of the century the water companies have to come up with alternative ways of charging their customers. At the moment all customers can demand to be put on a meter.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, can the Minister say whether there is any similarity between reconnection to the water supply and reconnection to the telephone if one has not paid? Is there a charge for the customer to have the water reconnected?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I do not know the answer to that question but I shall find out.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how successful is disconnection as a means of collecting the money? Is the money paid within a week? Can he say what is the average time?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord will be pleased to know that the industry's figures suggest that about 75 per cent. of disconnections are reconnected almost immediately.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, can the Minister say whether any regard is taken of the health of the community when water authorities turn off the water? Is he aware that in a block of flats in Staffordshire people were recently found throwing faeces out of the windows, which is very dangerous to children and adults?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am well aware of the problem to which the noble Countess referred. That was an unusual case involving 16 out of 114 tenants. But the local authority was alerted and all those who were contactable had supplies restored virtually immediately.

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