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Water Company Performance

Volume 647: debated on Thursday 18 October 2018

3. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the water companies on their performance. (907137)

The water regulators—Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate—hold regular discussions with water companies about their performance. I recently had the opportunity to address water companies at the Water UK conference, and most recently I met representatives from the industry on 31 July to discuss their performance and, indeed, underperformance.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response and congratulate him on the work he has done to put pressure on water companies to close down their offshore arrangements. Will he continue to hold them to account?

Absolutely. Water companies have taken advantage of offshore arrangements, which may have been in the interests of some of those who receive dividends, but have not been in the interests of consumers. Those arrangements are now ending.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, perhaps at Holland Park comprehensive we could make it part of the design and technology projects that our respective children are engaged in, to ensure that there are drinking fountains in west London and beyond.

We are working with water companies and other commercial operators to ensure that drinking fountains are more widespread. It was a great Victorian innovation to bring clean drinking water to everyone and ensure that we did not have to rely on private provision for the very stuff of life. We will ensure that there are more drinking fountains, and further steps will be announced later this year.

Some 3 billion litres of water a day are leaking out of water companies’ infrastructure pipes, which is enough to fill 1,273 Olympic swimming pools. Private companies have invested a lot of money in infrastructure in the past, but are they now spending too much on shareholders and chief executives, and not enough on actually securing the infrastructure? We need to save water, especially at a time of drought.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the things I have said to the water companies is that in the past few years they have spent far too much on financial engineering and not enough on real engineering. As a result, new targets have been set to reduce leakage in order to both protect the environment and help consumers. One thing that would not help consumers, I am afraid, is Labour’s programme to renationalise the water companies, which would mean taxpayers’ money going into the hands of the same shareholders, rather than being spent on our environment.

The Environment Agency’s welcome and overdue plans for flood defences in Kendal suggest that they will be built to withstand a one-in-100-year storm event, yet the water companies, such as United Utilities, are required to meet only a one-in-30-year storm event. That means we could be at the mercy of drain waters while being protected from our rivers. Will the Secretary of State force the water companies to delve into their vast profits and keep communities such as Kendal, Burneside, Grange and Windermere safe from flooding?

That is a very fair point made in a characteristically acute way by the hon. Gentleman. I know that he has been in correspondence with the Minister responsible, and we will do everything we can to ensure that communities are protected and water companies such as United Utilities live up to their responsibilities.

On 27 May, 300 homes in my constituency were badly affected by a one-in-900-year flooding event. In response to my concerns, Severn Trent has fitted new depth monitors in their water pipes. Is that not precisely the sort of investment that we need the water industry to make in the face of the challenge of climate change?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. First, I should congratulate Liv Garfield of Severn Trent Water for the progressive measures that she has taken, which my right hon. Friend mentions. More broadly, the challenge of climate change—as graphically pointed out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by the chair of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan—requires us all to take further steps to make sure that our communities are safe.

Is the Secretary of State concerned about the quantity of raw sewage that is being discharged into our rivers by many water companies?

Will the Secretary of State ensure that lessons are learned from last winter’s disruption to water supplies for many communities? One of the great problems last year was the inability of the water companies to communicate to local residents what was actually happening. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those lessons are learned, and that that is not repeated should such a circumstance happen this year?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Earlier this year, the Minister responsible had two roundtables with water companies to make sure that appropriate lessons were learned. In particular, Members of this House from across the divide made it clear that Thames Water in particular needed to pull its socks up.