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Water Charges (Amendment) Bill

Volume 932: debated on Friday 20 May 1977

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Order for Second Reading read.

3.36 p.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As I indicated when I sought the leave of the House on 19th April to introduce the Bill, the general principle it embodies is that all householders in England and Wales should pay for the removal of sewage from their homes on the same basis irrespective of whether the house is connected to the main sewers or whether the property has a cesspool or septic tank.

The present situation is somewhat confused, varying from one local authority area to another. Households connected to the main sewers are liable to pay the general sewerage charges levied by the water authorities. Houses not connected to main sewers and with cesspools or septic tanks do not have to pay these charges. That was the result of the judgment of another place in the Daymond case. The water authorities have no statutory responsibility for the emptying, treatment and disposal of sewage from cesspools and septic tanks.

In practice, those local authorities which are still continuing the service of emptying cesspools and septic tanks are having to make their own charges schemes for that service. This varies greatly from one part of the country to another, but in some instances it means that such householders are faced with very large bills, particularly householders who have cesspools that need emptying frequently.

The purpose of the Bill is to impose a duty on water authorities to carry out the service of emptying cesspools and septic tanks and to require that the charges made by the water authority for this service should be on the same basis as the charges made to householders whose premises are connected to the main sewers. In other words, the general sewerage charges, which are worked out on the basis of a rate poundage, should also apply to those ratepayers whose premises have cesspools or septic tanks and who have required that the water authority should empty them when necessary.

However, in conversations and in communications that I have received since being given leave to introduce the Bill two difficulties have come to light. In the drafting of the Bill I hope to have been able to get round them. The first difficulty put to me was "Why should people have to pay the general sewerage charges if they are getting no services from the water authority?"

As I have pointed out, the situation in law at the moment is that no duty is imposed on water authorities to empty cesspools and septic tanks, so Clause 1(4) specifically states that a water authority shall perform these services, subject to a proviso which I shall mention later. This would mean that no one would be required to pay the general sewerage charges who was not receiving services for the emptying of cesspools and septic tanks.

The second difficulty brought to light was that many ratepayers whose premises are not connected to the main sewers have septic tanks which need emptying only very rarely. The principle of a septic tank is that there is a chemical reaction within it that enables most of the liquid content to be purified and to drain away into the soil and the sub-strata, leaving only a chemical residue inside which is minimised. Such appliances may need to be emptied only once every so many years, and if such ratepayers were having to pay the general sewerage charge on a regular annual basis, they would have to pay a lot more for the service than they are now paying.

Consequently, it seems to me that such householders should have the option of contracting out of the water authority's scheme to empty cesspols and septic tanks. That is why I have added wording to Clause 1(4) to the effect that the duty imposed upon the water authority shall not apply if the ratepayer indicates in writing that he does not want that service to be performed.

I think that that proviso will have the added advantage that, where such ratepayers are using commercial contractors for the emptying of their septic tanks, the charges of the contractors will act as a kind of brake on the charges levied by the water authorities for similar services. In other words, there will not be a monopoly in the work of emptying septic tanks and the treatment and disposal of the contents.

The principle of the Bill is straightforward. Instead of the present situation, in which many ratepayers without main drainage are having to pay excessive charges for the emptying of their cesspools and septic tanks, they should be paying on the same basis as those ratepayers whose homes are connected to the main sewerage. It is with that main principle in mind that I commend the Bill to the House.

3.45 p.m.

When the Minister replies to the Second Reading of this Bill, so ably moved by the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall), I should be grateful if he would deal with a problem that has arisen in the villages of Peatling Magna, Peatling Parva, Bruntingthorpe and Shawell, in my constituency, which are not on a main sewer. These villages have a certain facility for discharging some of their sewage into a local brook, but they must have septic tanks because they are not on a main sewer and do not have proper sewerage.

Following the Daymond judgment, the householders concerned were refunded the sewerage charge that they had paid. They still have to pay for the cleaning of septic tanks. That is fine. But, under the 1976 Act, they have been told that they will have to pay back all the money that was refunded to them after the Daymond decision. This is a decision of the Severn-Trent Water Authority acting through the Harborough District Council. Therefore, they have to pay full charges even though they do not receive a full sewerage service, and they have to pay for the emptying of their septic tanks.

Of all the cases that I have encountered, this is the hardest of all. Surely it cannot be right. I ask the Minister to confirm whether this is the position. If so, is it the intention to change that position by the Bill or in any other way?

3.47 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) on his initiative in seeking to do something about a prob- lem and an expense borne by many of his constituents. It is not the only sphere in which he takes the initiative and puts pressure on Government Departments. If he puts the same pressure on other Departments as he puts on the Department of the Environment, he is doing a good job.

The aim of the Bill is to allow the owners of domestic properties without mains drainage to elect to pay a sewerage charge to a water authority in return for the emptying and treatment of their cesspools or septic tanks. At the moment the emptying is carried out by the local authority or a contractor and treatment is carried out by the water authority.

Under the Bill, the water authority would be required to make no distinction between sorts of sewerage, whether mains sewerage or cesspools and septic tanks, in setting charges. The owners of properties unconnected to mains sewerage would therefore be given the option of paying the standard sewerage charge in return for immunity from any supplementary charges for the emptying and treatment of their cesspools. This would be an option under the Bill. It would not be compulsory.

Following the 1975 Daymond judgment and the Water Charges Act 1976, owners of unconnected properties have not been liable to pay any sewerage charges to water authorities. Many owners rejoiced in that decision. But they have had to pay separate emptying and treatment charges. The emptying charges are paid to the local authority or contractor and treatment charges are paid to the water authority.

Properties with cesspools that require frequent emptying have in some instances faced very high charges. There is tremendous variation between the charges levied by different local authorities. For example, if a property owner had a 1,000 gallon tank and had to pay so much each time it was emptied, the total charges could run into hundreds of pounds.

The responsibility is split between the local authorities, which do the emptying, and water authorities, which carry out the treatment. Both are entitled to charge. Although many local authorities used to provide a free or subsidised emptying service, they have tended to raise their charges to something near an economic level to end the burden on the general rate. At the same time, water authorities, which, under the Water Act 1973, have a statutory obligation to break even, have introduced treatment charges.

I assure my hon. Friend that we are well aware of the problems that have arisen. There are between 900,000 and 1 million examples of properties that are exempted from sewerage charges following the Daymond decision, although most of them are not for cesspits. It was for this reason that a consultative document on the review of the water industry raised the question whether the same body might be made responsible for both emptying and treatment.

Perhaps if I read what we put into the consultation document it will paint the picture. The Water Act 1973 left unchanged the power of local authorities to make provision for and to charge for the collection of sewage from cesspits serving houses not connected to main sewerage. These powers were left unchanged after consultation with the local authority associations.

The Control of Pollution Act 1974 provides for local authorities to be collection authorities with the duty to arrange for a free collection service of the contents of privies and a service on request and at reasonable charge for removing the contents of cesspits. Both water authorities and local authorities are considering their policy in this area in the light of the Daymond judgment.

Some of the combined charges are now very high. The review provides an opportunity to consider whether the present division of responsibilities in this area between local authorities and water authorities should continue or whether the water authorities should be made responsible for the collection and disposal of sewage from all properties.

We said in our consultation document that we would welcome the views of those concerned on this question. We have received a great many views, not all of them agreeing with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Goole, particularly from people who own septic tanks.

Therefore, the main question is whether we should hand over to one authority the whole job of emptying pits and deal- ing with the treatment of sewage. We might then manage some rationalisation of the charges. The Government will be announcing their conclusion on this and the other issues raised in the consultation document in a forthcoming White Paper. In view of the printing situation and the fact that decisions have not finally been made, I cannot give a date for the publication of the White Paper, but I hope that it will be before the recess.

To give some temporary easement, we removed value added tax. Originally VAT was levied on the emptying charges and on the treatment charges. We have done a great deal of work on the White Paper, which includes a passage on this subject. Unfortunately, I cannot say today what it is. Therefore, it is not possible to anticipate the White Paper, but let me make some points.

First, cesspool emptying is an expensive business and somebody must pay for it. As the water authorities have a statutory obligation to break even, a subsidy to cesspool owners could be provided only at the expense of higher charges to everyone else.

The hon. Gentleman talks about a subsidy to cesspool owners, but will he address himself to the problem faced by some of my constituents, who are having to pay a full sewerage charge and a full cesspit charge? They are being asked to repay the refunds which they received going back three years to 1973–74. Surely that cannot be right.

That matter will be dealt with in the White Paper, but the local authority can do something about it now if it feels particularly concerned. It can decide the charges for emptying. That can be done while awaiting the White Paper and a major Bill, which I hope hon. Members opposite will support. There has been no precise definition by the Government or in legislation of the charges which local authorities shall make for emptying. The local authority may, if it wishes, make an arrangement on the basis to which I referred—[Interruption.] The Severn-Trent authority is not emptying the cesspits.

The water authority is levying a full sewerage charge but is not providing a full sewerage service for the villages.

The water authority will be charging for the treatment of the sewage when it receives it. The local authority is the body which will be dealing with the emptying of the tanks and charging for that.

Since the water authoritities have a statutory obligation under the 1973 Act to break even, a subsidy to cesspool owners could only be provided at the expense of higher charges to everyone else. Since that is done at the moment by the local authority, there might be a local authority with a great many of these people within its boundaries, and that would involve a heavy charge.

I take the point that one of the possibilities under my hon. Friend's proposal is that the water authority should take on both jobs and that that would spread the load of the subsidy over the ratepayers in a much wider area. The average domestic sewerage bill at the moment is just under £18. The average cost of emptying a cesspool is about £12. Many cesspools require emptying a great many times in each year. Mostly it is about once a month.

In certain districts there would be a need for a very large subsidy indeed. The Bill appears at the moment to be pointing in the direction of a large subsidy, although there is no indication of the sort of figures that my hon. Friend has in mind. Perhaps he has not the facilities available for working this out

In my area we are in exactly the same position as that indicated by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson). Most of the villages do not have main sewerage and are being charged by the authority. It is always the least well off who have to face these charges and they are unable to do so. I agree that subsidies must be high, but surely there is some way of getting round this problem.

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about this. In the main it is not the septic tank owners who have any grumbles about the present situation. They are quite happy about it. It is the cesspit owners who are in difficulty. Cesspits need frequent emptying during the year and if cesspit owners were to pay the economic cost of emptying the cesspits it would be a very high charge indeed.

The Bill is giving an option, and the people who would take the option would be those who would benefit by it and who would be subsidised. There would be no subsidy to the others from the septic tank owners, who would contract out, and therefore the subsidy would come from the general ratepayers.

There are some drafting difficulties in the Bill. I am sure that my hon. Friend's intention would be to transfer the whole of the duties of emptying and treatment to the water authorities, but the Bill does not actually say so.

One of the matters raised—I know that my hon. Friend has raised it in the past, and Conservative Members have mentioned it today—relates to the question of local authorities when they have come to a decision to make a reasonable charge, such as the charge that people were paying before the Daymond case. They have gone to people and sought to get back payment from them. They have said "You have not paid for three years. We shall now provide a service for you, but we want the charges that we should have been getting before."

That sort of permissive power is one of the defects of the Bill. I assure my hon. Friend that we are very conscious indeed of this problem. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised it on a number of occasions, and we have had a great many representations from hon. Members on behalf of their constituents, as well as from local authorities, pointing out their difficulties in charging the general ratepayers for a service which other people are getting.

We accept the need for change. We have carried out a very extensive consultation. We shall be publishing a White Paper which should lead to legislation—I hope at an early date, but that can never be guaranteed nowadays. The whole subject of water and sewerage and all the problems connected with paying for services needs to be solved by a major Bill rather than being dealt with in this way at this time.

With the leave of the House, may I thank my hon. Friend for his attention to this problem and for the way in which he has indicated that future policy—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.