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Water Charges

Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2006

1. What plans he has to assist those on low incomes following the introduction of water charges in Northern Ireland. (92585)

As part of our investment and reform programme for water services, we are introducing measures to guarantee that more than a quarter of homes, about 200,000 households, spend no more than 3 per cent. of their income on water and sewerage charges. To ease further the burden for all customers, all new charges will be phased in over three years and for pensioners we are making available the option of choosing a water meter.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. Can the House be assured that those eligible for assistance will receive it automatically and will not have to go through any cumbersome application procedure?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We want to be proactive in ensuring that those who are entitled to the additional support actually receive it. That is why we have already put in place data-sharing arrangements with the Housing Executive and the Rate Collection Agency, to ensure that people entitled to the relevant benefits actually receive the support. That is a mark of how serious we are about ensuring that those on lower incomes receive the help and support that we are making available.

Should not the details be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly? Will the Minister give an unequivocal guarantee that no irreversible decisions will be taken before 24 November?

I remind the hon. Gentleman, who has detailed knowledge of the history of these matters, that the process was begun under the Executive and the last Assembly, and that we have followed through the work they began. Of course, delaying the process beyond the start of April 2007, when it is due to come into force, would put a big hole in the budget for next year. An incoming Assembly would be free to reverse the process, but it would have to find the money to keep the investment going into water and sewerage services that they desperately need. If we are not to do that by asking people to pay a fair share domestically, the money will have to come from other parts of the budget—from health, education and training and skills—and I do not think the people of Northern Ireland would welcome that either.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I would like to reiterate my total opposition to the introduction of water rates, which are already collected under the regional rate. However, the Minister’s colleague wrote to me on 9 September citing Government policy in respect of rates and said:

“The Government’s view is that a rate relief scheme based on ability to pay best reflects the situation in Northern Ireland.”

How does the Minister square that statement of the Government’s policy and philosophy with the fact that he is not abiding by it in respect of the water rates, the little-mentioned sewerage rates or the general rate itself? Why the contradiction?

The hon. Gentleman has to face up to a simple fact: domestic households pay in council tax and water charges about £1,300 in England and Wales, £1,250 in Scotland and £668 in Northern Ireland. That is not sustainable if we want the investment in water and sewerage services that is needed to bring them up to the standards required. The process is a way of ensuring that people pay a fair share—not more than their fair share. At the same time, we have what we call an affordability tariff—help for those on lower incomes—that is far more generous than anything that applies elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We should be commended for a package of measures that gives the investment we absolutely need, is fair to everyone and gives support to those on low incomes.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Minister will be aware that the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland has launched legal action in an attempt to win more time for consultation, because people across the communities in Northern Ireland, especially vulnerable people, are very worried about what the Minister proposes to do. Will he give a guarantee that he will extend the consultation period, in line with what the General Consumer Council and all the parties and the people of Northern Ireland are seeking? Can he at least give that assurance?

This matter has been under consultation since 2001. The idea that the consultation period has been shortened is absolute nonsense. The matter comes before the court tomorrow, but on the general principle the consumer council supports the introduction of water charges. It has worked with us because it recognises that, if we are to have the investment we need to bring water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland up to an acceptable level, people—domestic consumers—have to pay their fair share. The consumer council supports that policy. I am absolutely convinced that we have consulted properly, thoroughly and rigorously on it, and we shall not delay it any longer.