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Water and Sewerage Charges (South West Water)

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2011

[Mr David Amess in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I have not had the experience before, but it is certainly a pleasure.

Today, I am raising a matter that is of great concern to the people of Devon and Cornwall and has been for as long as I have been a Member of Parliament, and I suspect for longer than any of us here today have represented our local communities. I had the pleasure of raising this issue in an Adjournment debate previously, but this is the first time that I have been able to do so as a Member of Parliament on the Government side of the House. The fact that the problem has remained almost exactly the same for so long is both a reflection of the intractable nature of the issues involved and a sad reflection on the record of previous Administrations. They had time to tackle this injustice, but sadly they were unable to come up with a solution. I sincerely hope that the Minister who is here today will not let our Government follow the same path.

Of course, the problem is the disproportionately high water bills in the south-west. Although the new Ofwat settlement has only just been released, the indication is that the average bill in the region will be £517 a year and the price rise will be about 8.1%. Rather mischievously, Ofwat had initially told the press and the public that the rise would be only about 5%, but that forecast assumed that customers would adapt their behaviour in the future. It is accepted that more people will move to using water meters. Around 70% of water customers in the south-west already have one and Anna Walker predicted that that figure would rise to 80% by 2015. Moving to water meters would save those south-west customers around £400 per year, but the money still has to be found from somewhere. Metered bills will rise in response to the dwindling supply of high-paying unmetered customers, adding more than £200 to the bills of metered customers.

Metering and in-region social tariffs have long been identified by Ofwat and the Government as an easy solution, but they do not have an impact on the underlying problem. Even if one takes the price rise as a 5% average, that is still far too high for most people to cope with in this age of austerity. It is also important to remember that I am talking about average bills. Many of my constituents now face water bills far in excess of £1,000. That reflects a range of circumstances, from medical conditions that require extra water to simply having a larger family. As always, unmetered customers suffer the worst. The average bill of £517 in the south-west compares starkly with the average bill in London, for example, which even for unmetered customers is only £332 per year.

The privatisation of utilities was meant to open up sectors to competition and to empower consumers, but the privatisation of water has done nothing of the sort. Can one imagine the outcry if electricity prices were 60% higher in Newcastle than they are in London? Any electricity company that tried to implement such price disparities would simply see its regional market share evaporate.

Hopefully, we are all aware of the background to this problem. The privatisation of water in the late 1980s left South West Water with a backlog of infrastructure improvements to invest in. Combined with a tiny customer base and a lengthy coastline, that backlog meant that under the system of regional monopolies South West Water customers would pay higher bills in perpetuity, with their only recourse being to move somewhere else in the UK.

For all its inaction, the previous Government at least recognised the problem. The result is Anna Walker’s report on water charging, chapter 14 of which focuses specifically on the south-west. The coalition is about to respond to her report, which again makes this debate timely.

I want to cover briefly three points that are relevant to what is happening now and hopefully the Minister can take them into account when he is developing the final policy on this issue. First, the role of Ofwat needs to be assessed very closely. Ofwat’s role as the regulator must be to protect customers and as Regina Finn, its chief executive, said herself:

“People can shop around for the best deal on many things, but not water. Our job is to do this for them.”

I am afraid that the overwhelming view of my constituents is that that “job” is not being done. Many of them see Ofwat as hindering rather than helping the situation in the south-west. Whereas bills fell slightly ahead of inflation in other areas, the south-west has seen the very large rise that I described.

Is not the real scandal of this year’s price increase that customers were assured at the time of the last price review under the Labour Government that there would be reductions in their water bills in this price period? South West Water is hiding behind the current Government’s failure to control inflation. That is a sign of gross insensitivity compared with the situation in, say, local authorities, where everybody else is having their pay frozen.

I only half-share the right hon. Gentleman’s view, because Ofwat is the body that should protect the consumer and it has allowed South West Water to raise charges by the amounts that I described.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment that Ofwat’s role in this regard is key, although I also accept the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). I have just received an e-mail from one of my constituents that makes exactly the same point as the hon. Gentleman. My constituent says that he lives in a three-bedroom house; there are two residents, and he has received a bill for more than £1,000 for the coming year. Ofwat has agreed these prices. My constituent’s question is, “Do they realise just how much individual customers are having to pay and the impact on those households?” I urge the Minister to look again—please—at the role of Ofwat in all this.

Indeed. I would rather like Regina Finn to spend perhaps a year in the south-west on average wages. If that were to happen, I think that we would see a change in Ofwat’s policy.

I also question the use of the retail prices index in setting price rises. Although Ofwat technically enforces price ceilings, it is de facto setting prices. We are moving to a system of uprating pensions and benefits by the consumer prices index. We should do that for water bills too, at least to make the price rise somewhat defensible.

On the wider issue, however, Ofwat has consistently failed to engage with the real problems highlighted in Anna Walker’s review. At the moment, Ofwat does not seem to be interested in finding a resolution to the south-west problem and so it cannot be seen to be standing up for south-west customers. When it comes to the protection of consumers’ interests in the south-west, Ofwat is as useful as a chocolate teapot.

In our discussions with Ofwat, its representatives have told us that solving this problem would be complicated and that we should focus on a social tariff instead, which is where Ofwat is investing its time and energy. Curiously enough, the official line is that Ofwat took that decision unilaterally. Parliamentary answers revealed that neither the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs nor the Treasury gave any instructions or guidance and that Ofwat has not even written down a plan of its work for reviewing Walker. All we have had is a vague indication from the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who was the Minister with responsibility for water in the previous Government, that Ofwat should look into reviewing Walker.

The plot thickens, however. When I submitted a freedom of information request on this issue, it emerged that the Treasury briefed Ofwat on what it wanted Ofwat to achieve in its work, but as yet, exactly what that entails has not been disclosed. Perhaps I have been unfair to Ofwat in that the Government are the reason why it is useless at protecting South West Water customers. Maybe the Minister will reveal the truth.

One of the reasons why Ofwat might not be particularly effective in protecting South West Water customers is that when water was privatised, a risk-free money-making system was effectively created. When somebody has a monopoly on services such as water and sewerage services, that is bound to happen. However, the problem in the south-west is that there is a national asset—the beaches—that has to be cleared up and cleaned up at great expense by a very small part of the population. The south-west has 30% of the national beaches, but only 3% of the national population. Of course, if we compare that with the National Gallery or the British Museum, which are funded from national taxation, we in the south-west have to protect a national asset on the basis of having only 3% of the population. That is simply unsustainable.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I made that same point in a Radio Cornwall interview not an hour ago. It is amazing that that station can be picked up so far away.

My main point is that the development of a solution is fundamentally undemocratic and beyond scrutiny. Deciding which combination of Walker’s recommendations to implement should be down to the political will of Ministers and the Government. It should be for them to take the courageous decision to put an end to this injustice or suffer the political consequences. The solution should not be watered down—excuse the pun—by quangos and officials who have no inherent interest in standing up for water customers, especially not those in the far south-west. Ofwat claims that a levy on other water company areas to bring down bills in the south-west, or to equalise bills across the country, would breach Treasury rules, and it is not keen to explore changing those rules, but the nationwide social tariff suffers from that very same problem, because it involves moving money around between water customers, outside the Government’s coffers.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for all his work on this issue over a great number of years, and I congratulate him on securing the debate.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that there is perhaps a misapprehension among some people that the south-west is a wealthy part of the country, and that that somehow informs the view that costs could not be shared across the country? There is an idea that many wealthy people are sitting down on huge estates in the south-west and being subsidised by poorer people in urban areas elsewhere when, in fact, areas such as Cornwall are some of the most deprived—there are very low incomes there. That is what ought to inform the decision about a more equitable way forward.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In my constituency of Torbay, the unitary authority area now has a gross value added level lower than Cornwall’s was when it qualified for objective 1 assistance, and there are other such pockets in the south-west.

I would like to reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point. Does he not agree that, with the current increase in water rates, we will see more pensioners, particularly in the area around Torbay and in my constituency of Plymouth Moor View, falling back down below the poverty line? The Government would not want to see that happen, but undoubtedly they will.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right on that point.

If Ofwat is not supportive, we at least have political unity around the idea that something more than a social tariff and something specific to the south-west needs to be done, and I need only consult the Hansard report from a previous debate on this very issue, in January 2010, to see that. In that debate, we had the support of the then Labour Members for Plymouth and some warm words from the then Minister with responsibility for water, the hon. Member for Ogmore. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who is now one of the Prime Minister’s chief aides, stated that

“there seems to be a strong case for some kind of spreading of cost”—[Official Report, 27 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 323WH.]

The Liberal Democrats have, of course, championed the cause for many years. I see that I am joined today by Members from all parties, who are united in wanting to get something done for their long-suffering constituents, and I hope that many of them will be able to contribute later in the debate.

The overarching problem, which Walker ably demonstrates, stems from privatisation. On privatisation, South West Water had the smallest asset base—what was called the regulatory capital value—per customer, and it now has the highest, at 210%. South West Water customers will therefore pay far more for longer. If that situation were to occur in any other utility it would be outrageous, but for some reason successive Governments have tolerated it in the water industry. The previous Government sadly never understood the damage caused by the failed privatisation. I describe it as failed not because the water companies have not provided a good service—on the whole they have—but because it has simply not delivered a market, not even a heavily regulated one. No domestic consumer can choose between water companies, and instead of being reinvested fully in the service, the surplus created is converted into profit for shareholders. The water customers in the south-west do not like that, and I suspect that if it happened to other regions they would not like it either.

That brings me to some potential hope in this doom and gloom. We have a new Government. We are in the era of new politics, and appear to have a listening Government, and so I invite the Minister to join in this spirit of new politics and listen to the people of the south-west. If he spoke to them, they would tell him that they do not want just a social tariff or some adjustments around the edges, but a fair and transparent system, whereby they pay the same as everyone else in the UK for the water and sewerage services they use.

The Minister’s party was in power at the time, so he might not join me in wishing that privatisation had never happened in this industry, but I hope that he will acknowledge that it was carried out in a wrong-headed way. The company in the south-west needed a much bigger customer base, and needed to be compensated for the poor state of its infrastructure. If the Minister does join me in this, I hope that he can take the next logical step and support something that addresses these historical problems and lifts the unfairness. I particularly mention unfairness because it is important not to conflate it with affordability, and it would be very foolish if the Government pretended that addressing the problem of water poverty also solved that of unfairness. I shall give an example to illustrate the problem. A family earning £35,000 would never come under the scope of WaterSure or any improved social tariff. They would, however, feel incredibly aggrieved if they had to pay anything up to £400 more for exactly the same service and product than if they lived anywhere else in the country, and that insult is made worse by the fact that the service is a basic necessity.

I understand, however, the Minister’s difficulty in being able to give concrete answers to many of the questions that will be raised today. There will necessarily be input from the Treasury as well as from No. 10, and in a way it is a shame that we cannot have Ministers from both Departments—the Treasury and DEFRA—here today, as some might argue that the solution is to be found at the Treasury. The Treasury can make or break another Department’s plans, but I hope that the Minister is pushing the case both for a social tariff and, more importantly, a solution to the south-west injustice.

Overall, we know the problem. Water bills for all customers in the south-west are far too high, as a result of the way in which the industry was privatised. We need a structural solution, through Government intervention, to remedy that unfairness. I am not sure how much detail the Minister can give in response, but I want him to recognise the difference between addressing water poverty and addressing unfairness. I hope that he can restore, or shall we say maintain, my faith, and that of others, in this Government, by promising to address both those issues.

On a point of order, Mr Amess. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I should draw Members’ attention to an entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), in whom I have an indirect interest: he is my partner.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on securing the debate and on raising this really important issue.

I shall start by reading from an e-mail that I have received from a hard-working 52-year-old constituent of mine, Mr Bamber. This is the first time that he has written to his MP:

“I’m having a pay rise of 0.0% this year, but being a good bloke it’s for the good of the country. Then my water bill arrives—it’s risen by 9.75635%. I’m mad, and I’d like something done about it.”

He is not alone; I have received several e-mails. Another disturbing fact was raised in an e-mail from a constituent who pointed out that his elderly mother, who is 80, has a water bill of £1,040, despite existing on a post office pension and being in substantial difficulties.

Although we all appreciate schemes such as WaterSure, many constituents have great difficultly in accessing them. I was particularly disturbed by a visit to my surgery this week by the husband of a constituent who suffers from severe multiple sclerosis. He brought with him evidence that he had sent to South West Water of her very much increased water usage as a result of her condition, and of the fact that she is on the higher rate of disability living allowance. They have, however, been declined access to WaterSure, which I am sure hon. Members agree is a complete disgrace. I hope that South West Water address that matter immediately.

The issue is one of unfairness. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay has pointed out, our constituents do not have any choice in the matter, other than to live somewhere else in the country, which is clearly ludicrous. The rises have been described as 8.1%, but for many constituents, they are nearer 10%.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a case for suggesting a cap, which would not allow the 8% rise to apply in the south-west?

I agree completely. If Ofwat were doing its job properly, it would see that that is inherently fair. It is completely unreasonable to expect anyone to deal with a rise of more than 5%. Near 10% is totally outrageous, particularly given that our constituents have no choice whatever in the matter.

As other hon. Members have said, we are not, as is often assumed, a wealthy area. Some 22% of people in the south-west are pensioners, which is well above the national average. No one would suggest that pensioners are a wealthy group, but they are none the less being subjected to outrageous rises in their water bills. Will my hon. Friend the Minister take all those points into consideration? It cannot be fair for 3% of the population to shoulder the burden of cleaning up 30% of the coast. Of course, none of us feels that we could have continued using 200 sea outfalls to dispose of sewage, and we all welcome the economic boost from the infrastructure programme instituted by South West Water, but it is clearly unfair that the burden of that necessary programme should fall on our constituents.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on securing this important debate and articulating so well the case for taking action, and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on reinforcing his points.

My contribution will be relatively brief. I want to emphasise some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. The privatisation of the water industry 20 years ago effectively created a risk-free money extortion system, as I said earlier. The company knows full well what the circumstances are in the south-west. It can almost print its dividend the year before, because it knows how the market works: it is not competing with anyone else, and the only variables are uncertainties about its input costs during the year and the risk that it might not be able to recover payments from all its customers, which is increasingly occurring in areas such as mine. Incomes in Cornwall have been at the bottom of the earnings league table since records began, and South West Water’s prices are and have always been significantly higher than in the rest of the country. In those circumstances, people have great difficulty paying the water charges with which they are presented. The legacy of basing water charges on the archaic and unjust rating system, which is not used for any other purpose, re-emphasises that significant reform is needed.

The one beneficial outcome of the circumstances in which the system operates is that it encourages people to recognise the advantages of water metering. South West Water has not engaged in an evangelical campaign to encourage people to install a water meter in their homes or premises; people have simply recognised that they can at least attempt to control their bills by various means, and in many cases the most effective way is to install a water meter. If there is a silver lining in the cloud, it is that people have pursued that. I think that it is accepted across all parties that the increasing move towards universal metering is broadly desirable in public policy terms, and certainly in environmental terms, if we are to address the proper management of natural resources.

In my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, I drew parallels with other, similar national assets. Our beaches are a national asset, which people come to from all over the country all year round. It is not just a summer thing, as it used to be; in my constituency, kite surfers come down from London and from other parts of the country throughout the winter months to enjoy the beaches and the sea around our coast, and they do so with some confidence that they will not go away with a bug, due to the efforts of South West Water to clean up those beaches and ensure a significant reduction in the public health risks associated in the past with bathing in some waters in the south-west.

Those beaches are a national asset, like the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Olympic stadiums, which are being funded by everyone in the country. We do not ask London taxpayers alone to fund them.

I support what the hon. Gentleman is saying, because the heart of his argument is about fairness. Everything that we have heard to date has been about affordability. As crucial as that is, I would be concerned if any future review or consultation did not address fairness. The points that he is making are absolutely right.

I know that Ministers are wrestling to produce a fair and equitable solution, and I know that this Minister has been engaging constructively and is well seized of the problem and the challenges that we in the south-west face—I have no doubt that he understands the issue fully. Discussions with other Departments, especially the Treasury, will inevitably be involved. I hope that the issues can be resolved to the satisfaction of the long-suffering water rate payers of the south-west. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that any solution must emphasise fairness.

It is worth while, when considering the issue, to compare water with electricity, telecoms and other utilities. In any other part of the country, it is at least possible to opt for another supplier of services. Therefore, whichever part of the country someone happens to live in, they will know that a regulator is regulating the market to ensure that there is fair competition and an even playing field, so that anyone in the country has the opportunity to at least obtain services—in this case, we are talking about water and sewerage services—that are no worse and no better than anywhere else in the country. We pay a significant amount more.

On the glamorous subject of sewage, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, apart from the current pressure on bill payers in the south-west, we will have additional pressure from the transfer across of the private sewer network? It seems to be a completely unknown quantity—South West Water does not really know what it is taking on and what the impact will be. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in urging the Minister to offer reassurance on that?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I do not know whether this is area in which she is declaring her interest.

I am sure that her interest is in something far more glamorous than the adoption of private sewers. I have raised the matter with the Minister and there has been consultation on it. Water companies are aware of the issue and some have undertaken their own calculations of the impact that it might have. I am confused and uncertain about how far down the water companies will have to go—it is possible to get stuck on these issues due to the number of metaphors that could be adopted in relation to them, but I shall not dwell on that for too long—before they take on those obligations. Other issues include the state in which those sewers would have to be in order for them to be fit to be adopted and, indeed, whether the companies will have the opportunity to assess the condition of those drains and sewers in the first place.

The information that appears to be coming from the marketplace and from those who are engaged in the industry is that both the previous and present Governments have not properly assessed the true impact that the proposal is likely to have. The knock-on effect will be on all customers—not only in the south-west, but countrywide—although it will be disproportionately worse for those in the south-west, because any increase in their bills will be on top of something that is already extortionately high. I know that the Minister is looking into the issue. The matter clearly needs to be resolved before we go down the track of finally forcing water companies to adopt private sewers and drains. I hope that the Minister will address the issue in his comments.

The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) has left the Chamber, but she raised the issue of fairness. When we have debated how we can address the legacy of unfairness that has been left to South West Water customers, we have talked about the potential adoption of a national levy, which is one of the options proposed by the Anna Walker review. A national levy would be a very small, gnat bite of a charge, which few people would notice and which would address some of the inherited legacy of additional unfairness in the south-west and other parts of the country. However, if we adopted such a levy, and if it were simply a flat rate charge for all water rate payers, poor water rate payers in one part of the country—the north-east, for example—might end up subsidising wealthy second home owners, who already pay, if they have water meters, significantly less than most people in their locality. Clearly, to address the issue of fairness, if we were to adopt a national solution, it would have to be significantly more sophisticated than a simple, flat-rate solution. I know that the Minister is well aware of the issues.

It is worth putting on the record the amount that would be asked of each customer. It is in the Walker review. It is £1.50 per customer per year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—he has the figure to hand, but I do not. As I have said, it is an imperceptible gnat bite of 3p per week throughout the year. It is not a significant charge for people, and the potential benefits to this country’s water rate payers, such as those in the south-west, who are significantly disadvantaged, would be considerable.

Finally, I have emphasised the benefits to water rate payers if they, in most cases, adopt a water meter. Many of those living in houses in multiple occupation, sheltered housing and so on are not able to install a meter in their own individual property. When they query that and ask South West Water how, given the unfairness of the system—particularly if they are elderly, do not use a lot of water and live n their own—they might reduce their bills and the exorbitant charges that they have to endure, they are told that they have a range of alternative options, one of which is to return to South West Water, which is obliged to offer them an assessed charge, which assesses their notional water usage and charges them on the basis of what they would have been levied had they had a water meter.

In all such cases with which I have dealt over the years, those charges have usually reduced bills by half or more. My point to the Minister is that, rather than expecting water rate payers—particularly those living in sheltered accommodation who do not have assessed charges—to believe that there might be an alternative solution and to then be articulate and confident enough to approach the company to ask for one to reduce their charges, it should be the company’s default position to make those customers aware of the availability of an assessed charge. Many vulnerable people live on their own in sheltered accommodation without the benefit of reduced charges on water meters, but they could at least be given the opportunity of an assessed charge. That is what the company should be doing in the first place.

I have run South West Water down something rotten this afternoon, and to be fair, the chief executive, Christopher Loughlin, is fully engaged with these issues. When I raised the issue of assessed charges, he accepted that the company can be much more on the front foot and assured me that it wants to tackle the issue. He is conscious of the impact on his customers of issues such as the fairness of billing and the charges levied by South West Water, and he is fully behind the campaign by Members from all parties. The company is aware of these issues and would welcome any solution that, while not giving it any particular benefit, would reassure its customers that arrangements can be put in place that are more equitable than those they have had to endure for the past 20 years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on securing this important debate on the problem of water charges in the south-west. As he said, it is good to see colleagues from all parties here, many of whom have campaigned long and hard on this issue over a number of years.

I want to focus much more on the difficulty that we have solving this problem than on the problem itself, which has been comprehensively articulated by previous speakers. As I see it, the problem comes down to three key issues, which are often highlighted by Ofwat. First, half a dozen MPs from the south-west face the brutal problem of persuading 600 MPs elsewhere in the country that it is worth their while voting through legislation to require water customers in their areas to pay a sum of money—albeit only £1.50 a year—without, as they would see it, getting anything in return.

The second difficulty is one that the Minister has previously raised: someone on benefits or a very low income—someone living on the minimum wage in somewhere such as Manchester—could end up subsidising the bills of a millionaire with a second home in Cornwall.

The third problem that is sometimes cited is that we might set some sort of precedent. Thames Water is, for example, doing a lot of infrastructure work with the Thames tunnel, and the argument is that if we make an exception for the south-west, recognising what has been done there, the injustice that has been suffered and the infrastructure that has had to be put in place, we would be setting a precedent for other water companies.

The answer is to design a scheme to address those concerns—something that should not be beyond the wit of man. I have raised the issue with the Minister before, so he will be aware of my suggestion for a fair discount scheme. There would be two key criteria at the heart of that formula. First, there would be affordability. We would use the definition of affordability cited in Anna Walker’s report, which says that anyone who spends more than 3% of their household income on water bills is water poor. We should ensure that all those who spend more than 3% are eligible for some form of discount. That would catch about 70% of South West Water customers, and millionaires with second homes in Cornwall would not be eligible because they would not spend more than 3% of their household incomes on water. That would deal with the second argument that I set out about people on low incomes subsidising millionaires.

The second key criteria at the heart of the scheme would be recognising fairness. The scheme would recognise in absolute terms the scale of the bills in the south-west. People often have bills of £700 or £800 a year, and I have even heard anecdotally of people getting bills of £1,000 a year. That is why water charges are a political issue in the south-west in a way that they are nowhere else. There is a real issue of fairness just in terms of the absolute size of the bills.

We would, therefore, have a discount, which would be tapered depending on how much people’s bills varied from the national average. We would say that people in the south-west, whose bills are double the national average in many cases, were entitled to the full discount, which might be £80 or £100 a year. They would still pay more than anyone else, but they would receive a significant discount, which they would recognise as making a real difference.

In areas such as that covered by Thames Water, people might be technically water poor, but the fairness criteria would recognise that water bills in London are already very low and, indeed, below the national average. The taper would ensure that the discount given to those who were water poor in the Thames Water area was far smaller, because we would be recognising that their bills were not such a difficult issue and started from a low level.

The provisions would ensure that we had a national scheme that was open and available to all. Such a scheme would target affordability and not subsidise millionaires. It would also recognise unfairness and the fact that water charges are a political issue in places such as Devon and Cornwall by having a taper and changing the discount depending on the variants.

I put those thoughts to the Minister a couple of months ago, and lots of work is going on. I commend the approach that he has taken; he has worked incredibly hard to find a solution. The coalition has given a commitment to address the problem, and we all have a reason for wanting a successful outcome. I very much hope that we can find a solution together.

It is an absolute pleasure finally to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on securing this debate. I have taken note of the attention that he has given these issues in parliamentary questions and, most recently, in early-day motions. I am well aware of the anger, frustration and even desperation that many of his constituents feel as a result of the long-standing problems with water and sewerage charges in his area.

As the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, MPs of all political persuasions across the south-west have focused a great deal on this issue. I have talked about it at length with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who are particularly exercised by the lack of progress on the Walker review—an issue to which I will return—and by the continued suffering of their constituents, particularly the poorest ones.

It would be wrong of me not to pay tribute to the outstanding work of Linda Gilroy, who did a huge amount of work in ensuring that the previous Parliament was aware of and understood these issues, and any future progress will necessarily be down in part to the remarkable effort that she expended.

It is worth ensuring that that commendation for the work done by the former hon. Member, Linda Gilroy, has cross-party support. As a fellow officer of the all-party group on water, I know that her commitment and involvement took the campaign a great deal further than it would have gone otherwise. Her work certainly should be commended, and the Minister will no doubt recognise that, too.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. With his typical generosity, he demonstrates that a solution can be found on a cross-party basis.

As somebody who is closely associated with my own region, the north-west, I understand how Members of Parliament can form a regional identity and share concerns across party lines about issues that are of outstanding regional importance, as water is in the south-west. I also understand how politicians from other regions who pontificate about regional issues, where those almost certainly require national solutions, can quickly arouse suspicions among MPs from the region in question. As a Member of Parliament from Cumbria, which is surrounded by the Irish sea and the Cumbrian fells, which is partly within the Lake district, which is sparsely populated, where tourism is incredibly important and where water and sewerage bills have risen exponentially since 1989 to become the highest outside the south-west, I understand.

The average annual bill for water and sewerage services in the south-west has risen by 72.2% between 1989 and 2010-11—the highest increase in the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View stated in her Adjournment debate last year:

“The problem we face is simple: water rates in the south-west are 25% higher than the UK average, placing an unfair burden on…my constituents and all residents across the south-west of England.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 710.]

The average bill for South West Water customers is significantly higher for 2010-11 than elsewhere in the country, at £486, as opposed to a national average of £339, as I think has been mentioned. In addition, unmetered customers also face much higher bills, with an average of £721 for South West Water consumers, as opposed to a national average of £394.

As has been roundly discussed, that does not happen by accident. The widely condemned Thatcher privatisation of the water industry in the 1980s led directly to many of the problems that we face today, but the south-west’s significant demographic and economic characteristics reinforce the problems associated with high bills. They must be understood in an integrated way. They cannot be considered in isolation. As has been touched on, 22% of South West Water customers are pensioners, although being a pensioner should not be used as a blanket term to denote people living in financial hardship; many hon. Members would share that view. In addition, I think that it has been proved that lone parents have more affordability problems than single pensioners. The percentage of lone parents in the south-west is at the national average.

An extremely high proportion of the population live in sparsely populated rural areas—something that I am familiar with. That makes service provision more expensive and diminishes economies of scale. The policy solutions should address the problems that are faced today. The fact that housing affordability issues are the most acute in the UK outside London should be considered. As has been alluded to, the region is the UK’s top tourist destination. The population rises more than by 25% in peak tourist weeks, with the result that the demand for water is a third higher than for the year as a whole.

I understand that South West Water understands those issues, and it should be commended, as it has been, in part, by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, for investing more that £1.5 billion in the clean sweep programme, which has done so much to transform sewage treatment and the natural environment. However, bills for consumers in the south-west are now 25% higher than those in the rest of the country, and for the most vulnerable in the south-west community—those struggling alone on a pension, lone parents trying to raise their families and single people living in rented accommodation—water bills present a struggle. It has been estimated that their bills can take 10% of their incomes. Surely, that cannot be acceptable. I pay tribute to the Consumer Council for Water for the work that it has done and continues to do in trying to influence prices for consumers not only in the south-west but throughout the country.

We can talk at some other stage—I have no doubt that we will—about the current economic situation, its causes and its potential remedies, but it is certain that the people in our society who will feel the effects of the recession the most, and who will without doubt feel the brunt of the Government’s cuts the most, will be those who already suffer the most from rising water charges, by comparison with other consumers. It cannot be right for up to 10% of their incomes to go on purchasing what is a basic entitlement—a right—while food and fuel costs are rising, the Government have raised VAT to 20%, unemployment is rising and job insecurity is everywhere. Action must be taken sooner rather than later.

The issues associated with water and sewerage charging in the south-west are difficult. The hon. Member for Torbay called them intractable. The Minister knows that they are difficult and has said as much in this place and to the Select Committee on a number of occasions. He understands the difficulties of the decisions and recognises the difficulty for many people who face such water charges. I believe that the Minister wants to do the right thing, but wanting to do the right thing and doing it are very far away from each other. Intentions count for little. The difference between intention and action is the same as the difference between night and day. It is difficult for DEFRA Ministers, as the Secretary of State hovers around the exit door to get things done, and the Department risks becoming inert, like many others in Whitehall, as sackings loom and the near 30% departmental cut begins to bite, but a lot of the heavy work on this issue has already been done, in the form of the Walker and Cave reviews.

The Government announced in August 2010 that they would review the regulation of the water industry to assess whether the current framework, including Ofwat’s statutory duties, remained fit for purpose. Does the Minister believe that Ofwat is fit for purpose, and if not, why not? The industry review is also meant to assess how well Ofwat translates guidance from the Government and its statutory duties into its decision making. With that in mind, did the Government give any advice to Ofwat with regard to water pricing in the south-west before Ofwat set the price for the region for this financial year? Did the Government give any guidance to Ofwat about the problems being faced by south-west customers before the latest price rise was announced? Inflation is currently 4.7%, yet Ofwat’s allowed increase for South West Water customers averages at 5.1%. Have the Government discussed that with Ofwat at any stage, before or after the announcement, and is the Minister happy with that level?

I understand that the water review will directly inform the Government’s White Paper, to be published in June. Will the Minister confirm that the White Paper will be published no later than June? He will understand that it needs the fullest parliamentary scrutiny if it is to command broad support. The fundamental question is whether, almost a year after taking office, the Minister can explain what is halting the implementation of the Walker review. It was a superb piece of work that commanded support from hon. Members on both sides of the House and that held within it, as has been mentioned, many potential remedies to the problems of the south-west and South West Water consumers.

Will the Minister today give hon. Members a categorical assurance of a commitment in principle by the Government to implementation of the Walker findings and to a timetable for implementation? That is not much to ask. Further, will he confirm that the reduced capacity of DEFRA has in no way affected the implementation of the Walker recommendations? Will he also address fears that the Government’s review and the production of its White Paper have prohibited the implementation of Walker thus far? There are fears, which so far are justifiable, that the Government are backtracking on Walker. In the words of the American gospel hymn, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Finally, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has defined water poverty as beginning when a household’s water bill equates to more that 3% of its income after tax. As we have heard, in the south-west, some households pay in the region of 10% of their income on water bills. Does the Minister know what percentage of people living in the south-west live in water poverty? Will he undertake to publish an assessment of how many people are living in water poverty by region and by constituency, and ensure that his White Paper will contain measures with which to eradicate water poverty? I believe that there is much common ground on which we can build.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your watchful eye today, Mr Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate him on his long association with this issue and on standing up for his constituents, like so many other hon. Members, of all parties, this afternoon.

My hon. Friend raised several issues, but a key point was about the role of Ofwat. Other hon. Members, not least the Opposition spokesman, mentioned its role, and it is important to understand how it operates. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) has not quite grasped the fact that it is an independent body. It would be entirely wrong of me, as the Minister, to try to influence its approach to its independent role, which is written in statute. That is not to say that we are sitting back and allowing the status quo to go on existing. We are testing, deeply and in great detail, whether Ofwat is fit for purpose and in a suitable condition to go to the next phase. Twenty years after privatisation, it is right for us to examine all aspects of the water industry.

David Gray, a highly respected individual who has great experience in the regulatory world, is carrying out a detailed review. I urge the hon. Member for Copeland and all those who are interested in this fascinating subject to understand the review that is taking place, and the role that Ofwat plays. I am determined that the constituents about whom so many hon. Members have spoken so movingly should be at the forefront of our minds while we consider the issues in question. Ofwat has an important duty to protect and stand up for them, independently of the Government. When the Government get things wrong Ofwat has a duty to tell them so. It also has a duty to ensure that the water companies, which have monopoly interests, are responsible to the people concerned. I take that duty very seriously.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who is no longer here, made a point about water poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay and others mentioned that there might be some people in the House—I am yet to meet them—who believe that the south-west is full of comfortable people who have moved there in retirement and are relatively wealthy. I know that, largely, the opposite of that is true and that many people and communities suffer high degrees of deprivation. Of course, there are wealthier communities. However, if people assume that any community in the south-west can take such a water bill increase because there is no poverty, they make a fundamental error. That is something I take very seriously.

Yes, I speak to people from the south-west, and, yes, I will listen. That point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). I have listened and will continue to listen to people in the area. I know what an important issue this is and that it is a political as well as a social issue. The matter is fundamental to the concerns that hon. Members have voiced for much too long. I recognise that we must come forward with solutions and, in a moment, I shall talk about how we will achieve that.

I hope that I can address some of the other issues during my remarks and, of course, I remain willing to deal with them. A point was made about the adoption of private sewers. I cannot say precisely when we will introduce proposals on that, but the coalition has a very clear commitment to dealing with that important issue and to ensuring that we do so as equitably as possible. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) also has a long background in talking about the subject, and I appreciate the support, the many conversations that we have had and the assistance that he has given me on the matter. I accept his point about a default position, and I will follow that up with South West Water and continue to have conversations with him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) has provided me with an interesting idea. I can tell him that officials are crunching his numbers as we speak and that he has contributed some thoughtful suggestions. At this stage, I cannot say how we will take that forward, but I will keep in touch with him. In passing, comments have been made about privatisation. All I shall say is that £90 billion has been invested in the water industry, which is a considerable achievement, and that other Governments have had endless opportunities to reverse what happened 20 years ago. I recognise the very real belief in the south-west that, in the case of that area, not enough thought was given. I will address some of those points, too.

First, I shall discuss the specific issue at hand. Ofwat has announced that average bills for household customers of South West Water in the coming year will increase from £486 to £517, which is an increase of 5.1%. Nearly all that increase is due to inflation, as water bill increases are linked to inflation.

May I raise the point that the accepted figure is 8.1% because the figure that the Minister quotes assumes that people will be switching to water meters?

My understanding is that that is the figure over the piece. However, I am happy to look into that and give my hon. Friend an absolutely clear and unequivocal answer, because it is important that we know that figure. In her earlier remarks, I think she raised the point about why we use the retail prices index rather than the consumer prices index. [Interruption.] Sorry it was not her; it was my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. Bills have been tied to inflation since privatisation because, when inflation is higher, water companies’ costs increase. As is the case with other regulators, Ofwat uses RPI. Although RPI was higher than CPI this year, it was actually lower than CPI when last year’s bills were calculated, so average bills that year were lower. We can argue about percentage points, but that is an important factor. Let us take that matter forward in our consultation, which I will come to in a moment.

I am acutely aware that nobody wants to see higher bills, particularly in these tough economic times. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the money raised will pay for £159 million of investment in the region during the next financial year, which will benefit customers. I know that that sounds trite, and I am not diminishing the effect of the increase, but we must recognise that there are also benefits, including £14 million to improve tap water quality, £10 million to repair crumbling sewers and £28 million to further reduce pollution incidents.

Given the severe squeeze on family incomes, would it not have been better for South West Water to have delayed some of that expensive investment and to have frozen the rise? The Minister seems to be giving the impression that the Government do not bear any responsibility for inflation, but it is, of course, his Government who have let inflation rip.

I chose to ignore the right hon. Gentleman’s earlier remarks about the Government being responsible for the rise in inflation at a time when commodity prices and oil prices are rising. He only has to read the newspapers to see what is happening to food prices and how that is being influenced by so many other different factors. I think I shall move on, because I simply do not accept his point.

We could debate that at great length and talk about our reliance on oil, how that might differ from other countries, where we were working from a year ago and the impact of the previous Government’s activities, of whom he was a part. I will be happy to have that debate at another time but, at the moment, I want to talk about the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents and the impact of the increase in water bills. I also want to talk about the actions that are in my power to take to improve that. I am happy to take any interventions that he may wish to make on that.

We have been carefully considering Ofwat’s final advice in relation to the south-west, which I only received in January. These are difficult issues, and, as has been said, there are no simple solutions. It is essential to ensure that our proposals are workable, fair and affordable, particularly in the current economic climate. We hope to issue our consultation on the Walker review soon, but it is essential that we get this right.

Hon. Members have discussed the differential between metered and unmetered bills. The average bill for a metered household in the south-west is around £400, while the average bill for an unmetered household is around £720. Hon. Members have given examples where both types of bill are considerably higher than those averages. That is because—as we have heard—70% of households in the south-west are metered. Average metered and unmetered bills reflect the estimated water consumption between those households. Unmetered households pay more, because, on average, they use more water than metered households. As hon. Members are aware from previous debates, bills vary between companies. That reflects the cost of providing water and sewerage services in an environmentally sustainable way in different regions with different circumstances.

In all cases, Ofwat—as the independent economic regulator of the water industry—ensures that bills are no higher than they need to be to finance the investment required to provide water and sewerage services. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and others have discussed how unfair it is that 3% of the population pay to clean up 30% of the coastline, and I know that that is the prevailing view in the south-west. The Walker review looked closely at whether environmental improvements are public or private goods and who should pay for them. Anna Walker concluded that spending on environmental improvements, such as cleaner beaches, is largely required to make sure that the disposal of sewage does not harm the local environment and that the benefits are mainly local. In particular, having a sewage system and beautiful clean beaches delivers huge benefits to the region through tourism. I know that there are many people—I am one of them—who enjoy the beaches and the coastline, but who do not pay those bills. The complication of trying to devise a scheme where we can hypothecate is something that not just I, but my predecessors and many others in this House, have sought to tackle.

Support is available now for low-income and vulnerable households. Currently, the national WaterSure tariff caps the bills of qualifying households at the average metered bill for their company. Households qualify for WaterSure if they are metered and in receipt of means-tested benefits, and either have three or more children living at home under the age of 19, or someone in the household who has a medical condition that necessitates a high use of water.

Individual cases were raised today. As they were described to me, those people should qualify, but are not receiving WaterSure. I want to take those cases up. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes raised a case about a multiple sclerosis sufferer. I would like to know whether multiple sclerosis has an increased water requirement, and why that case is not covered by WaterSure. That is something that we may have to look at through the consultation that we are about to undertake.

WaterSure ensures that such households do not cut back on their essential use of water due to fears about the size of their bill. This year, some 31,200 households are benefiting from WaterSure and approximately one in three of those households live in the south-west. We are looking at whether WaterSure should offer a more generous cap, which could cap bills at the lower of the national average metered bill, or the company average metered bill, as recommended by Anna Walker. That would deliver substantially lower bills for those households that live in high-cost areas. We are also looking at whether it would be more fair to share the cost of WaterSure across customers in England, rather than fund WaterSure at the company-specific level. We will be inviting views on that when we publish our Walker consultation.

Some have asked why the Government have not made those changes already. We have been considering them alongside Ofwat’s advice on tackling the problem of high water bills in the south-west. I received Ofwat’s final advice only in January. I am sure that hon. Members agree with me that we must ensure that our proposals are workable, fair and have the support of interested parties. I am determined, as I have said frequently—I make no apologies for saying it again, although I wish that we had got there by now—to get this right.

On the various alternatives, I know that each one is not easy, as the Minister has made clear. He is clearly very seized of the challenges of coming to an equitable solution. Does he not agree with me that in having a solution that is simply within the company itself—a social tariff within the company boundaries—there would be inevitable unfairness, wherever the line was drawn? People on moderate incomes, who would have difficulty paying the bill, would be subsidising other people in the same company area, when they are already suffering from very high water bills.

I entirely accept what my hon. Friend has said, which is why I am sure that in the south-west it would be more popular for us to use the national average, which is one of the suggestions that we will be taking forward.

We have started to prepare our guidance on company social tariffs under section 44 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which will enable companies to introduce social tariffs within their own areas to help households that would otherwise struggle to pay their bills in full. We hope to issue our guidance in the autumn, so that companies can consider it ahead of the 2012-13 financial year. Indeed, this afternoon the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is hosting a discussion with water companies and others to exchange views on what the guidance needs to cover. South West Water is participating in that discussion. I understand that it is very keen on the possibility of bringing forward a company social tariff. It has indicated to me that changes to how it levies sewerage charges could potentially raise about £7.5 million per annum to fund a company social tariff without adding a penny to household bills. That would potentially reduce the bills of 100,000 households in the south-west by about £75 per annum. I strongly encourage the company to look favourably at that possibility.

The hon. Member for Copeland asked when we are going to implement the Walker review. The Walker review identified a number of options. Implementing the review would involve implementing all those options, some of which were more-or-less dismissed by Anna Walker herself. She did, however, identify a number of options that would help to address the problems associated with high water bills in the south-west, in addition to proposed changes to WaterSure. Ofwat has been exploring those options, and we are currently considering the information that it has provided. Some options could potentially benefit all households in the south-west, and not just those on low incomes, which should address some of the comments that have been made today. Options include a one-off, or annual, adjustment funded by the Government, an annual adjustment funded by water customers nationally, a range of tariff options, rebalancing charges and the sale of surplus water. Decisions will be taken imminently, and we will set out our proposals for the south-west in our Walker consultation.

I recently received Ofwat’s final recommendations. I can address the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Copeland and others by saying that we will be taking those forward very soon. I should also mention some of the initiatives that South West Water is taking. Since 2007, its WaterCare scheme has helped households in debt by offering them a benefit and a water tariff check including, if appropriate, a meter. Metered customers also receive a free home water audit and simple low-tech water-saving devices. I have seen those schemes in operation, and they are successful in reducing the amount of water that households use, with minimal impact on their lives. In fact, in some cases there is an improvement, and I applaud any roll-out of such schemes.

South West Water recently announced that it is enhancing its current WaterCare scheme to WaterCare Plus. That will include home energy audits and advice on claiming grants. In addition, in the coming year, it is investing £1 million in its FreshStart programme to offer advice to customers with general debt problems. Both the WaterCare Plus and FreshStart schemes are fully funded by South West Water and do not impact on customer bills. The company will also be making free water-saving packs available to its customers, and it will be promoting them through the local media this month and next. I very much welcome and support those initiatives.

Metering offers an opportunity for some households to save money. Ofwat estimates that three in 10 single pensioners, working-age adults who live alone and, to a lesser degree, pensioner couples in the south-west are currently unmetered and could expect to see their bills go down, if they were metered. South West Water has already undertaken two advertising campaigns—in Plymouth, and in Exeter and Torbay—aimed at encouraging low-income unmetered households to look at whether a meter can reduce their bills. I believe that more can be done to build on that. For example, all unmetered households can investigate whether a meter can save them money by using the Consumer Council for Water’s water meter calculator, which is available at the Consumer Council for Water’s website.

May I reiterate to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, who secured the debate, and to other hon. Members for whom the issue is of great concern to them and their constituents, that the Government are very aware of the problem of high water charges in the south-west? Support is already available to help the vulnerable and low-income households with their bills. We will build on that, and our Walker consultation will point the way forward. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me for just a little while longer. I will, of course, be happy to meet any hon. Members with constituencies in the south-west to discuss this and to ensure that they have the understanding that they need to communicate our consultation, when we bring it out. I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay for bringing this matter to the Chamber today.

Order. If no other hon. Members want to contribute to this debate, the sitting is suspended until the Minister arrives for the next debate.

Sitting suspended.