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Water Companies: Licence Conditions

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what estimates have been made of the distributable reserves of each water company now that OFWAT has taken powers under the Environment Act 2021 to change their licence conditions, including whether they can pay dividends.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The best proxy for distributable reserves is retained profits. This is the profit and loss reserve on a company’s balance sheet. Company boards are responsible for determining how much of their profit and loss reserves is distributed. The Government have not carried out an exercise to calculate each company’s distributable reserves. Where a company in cash lock-up breaches its licence by paying a dividend, Ofwat will take enforcement action.

My Lords, as I have previously pointed out in this House, water company accounts are not only massaged but cooked and roasted with abusive accounting practices. Ofwat and the Government have said that under certain circumstances they will block the payment of dividends, which presupposes that they know what the legally defined distributable profits of each company are. The Minister has just said that the Government have not got a clue; therefore, there is no way of knowing whether any of those dividend payments is actually lawful. Can the Minister explain why the Government announce policies when they do not have the basic data to implement them?

The Government have a very clear idea about the information that they are reviewing because every single water company, like every other public company, has its accounts audited. That information is publicly available, and I refer the noble Lord to the public audited accounts of all those water companies.

My Lords, I support everything said by my friend the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. I wonder what regular representation, if any, the Government make about the quality of the water provided to us via various water authorities. I do not know if the Minister is aware that there is an exponential rise of allergies and eczema in east London. The water quality there is poor; I have raised these issues privately and on previous occasions. Can he assure me and this House that the water quality is as important as the profits that the water companies are making?

I absolutely assure the noble Baroness and the House that that is the case. I was not aware of the issue that she outlined around the outbreak of eczema. I am not sure if that is related to the water, but I can certainly look into that matter for her. The Environment Agency spends a great deal of time on this, and it is one of the issues that we can be really proud of. We get an unbelievably good service provided in terms of clean water that goes into every household across this country for a very modest price.

Why do the Government allow these water companies to retain profits when there is so much need for investment and given their poor performance and the way that they are polluting our rivers and seas?

The noble Lord perhaps needs to refresh his memory on exactly what a private company is and how that works. When you make an investment into a public company, like a water company, you expect to get some return on that investment, and it is only right and proper that everybody does. We are talking about pension funds as well as individuals.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the continuing secrecy and uncertainty surrounding the future of Thames Water is unhelpful and damaging to the water sector and the whole UK economy? When does the Minister expect to fully update the House and provide some certainty on Project Timber, the Government’s contingency plan for Thames Water?

The noble Earl knows that it would be improper of me to comment on the details about Thames Water. I assure him and the House that we are taking an extremely close and careful look at this. It is in all our interests that the financial resilience of our water sector, as well as the individual players within it, is maintained and enhanced to ensure the level of investment required to improve water and address the issues related to sewage.

My Lords, given the increasing regulatory and compliance burdens on water companies due to the Environment Act and such other essential recent legislation, is it not simply becoming unprofitable to invest in the water industry, which surely will make nationalisation at some point inevitable?

I do not think that I agree with that assessment at all; it certainly is not this Government’s policy to nationalise the water industry or indeed any other industry. Environmental issues around water companies are certainly highlighted more greatly than they ever were in the past. The Government have put a huge effort into monitoring the level of sewage and other pollutants going into the water systems. That, in part, is leading to much greater awareness of issues that have probably been going on for a very long time, and we are committed to fixing those issues.

My Lords, I want to come back to the Minister’s response on dividends, investments and payments. Earlier this month, the Financial Times revealed that the 16 water companies paid out a total of £78 billion in dividends in the three decades since privatisation to March 2023, building up £64 billion in borrowing over the same period. It is worth remembering that the utilities were debt free when they were privatised. Frankly, I find these figures incredible. Is the Minister justifying his response to my noble friend as to how much money is acceptable to be paid in dividends?

The noble Baroness raises a lot of very detailed numbers in her question, but the principle of dividends for public companies is well established and every other public company produces dividends for its investors. Perhaps I might take away those thoughts and come back to her.

My Lords, may I assist the Minister? It is one thing a company paying a dividend if it makes a reasonable profit, but does he not agree that it is completely different if a company is borrowing heavily to pay a dividend? I ask him also to comment on this, because he has not done so yet: we are all for the leaders of these industries being properly rewarded, but they should not be given bonuses when their environmental duties fall short.

I entirely agree with my noble friend on that issue. Ofwat will also take forward a consultation to consider a ban on water bosses receiving bonuses when their company has committed a serious criminal breach. As part of that consultation, Ofwat will consider the criteria for a ban on bonuses. This would likely include successful prosecution for a category 1 or 2 pollution incident, such as causing significant pollution at a bathing site or conservation area.

My Lords, given the uncertainty of Thames Water’s finances, what are the prospects of it being able to go ahead with its scheme for water transfer from the Severn to the Thames to meet the needs of south-east England? Does that not put the capital requirement for that scheme very much in doubt?

The capital requirement will be considered at the next spending review, which is due this year, so we will hear more about that in due course.

My Lords, once again, your Lordships’ House is indebted to the forensic skills of my noble friend Lord Sikka. He is the one person in this House who needs no instruction about where to look for what is going on in businesses and in companies, and how important accounts are. With some assistance from him, I had a look at Thames Water’s accounts. Its accounts, directors’ reports and cash-flow statements say that it paid dividends to its parent company as follows: £37 million in 2022, £45 million in 2023, and another £37.5 million in September 2023. However, its own PR spin says that these are not dividends and that this is the way it is paying interest on its debt. That is not what the accounts are for, and the accounts are not right if that is correct. In December, a spokesperson for Ofwat said:

“Following notification that Thames Water has paid a dividend to shareholders, Ofwat is investigating whether this payment meets its licence requirements”.

The Minister is a knowledgeable man in this area, as he tells us, so he should be able to explain what is to be investigated. More importantly, does he know why Ofwat has not reported since December?

I also pay tribute to the accountancy skills of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka; they are very thorough. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, has himself made an extremely good attempt at interpreting the accounts on that front. The issues around Thames Water and the dividend that it paid last year are subject to an investigation at the moment. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on them.