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Water Companies: Failure

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they have a plan for Thames Water and other water companies if they fail.

My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. As set out in statute, if a water company became insolvent or were in serious breach of its principal statutory duties or an enforcement order, it would enter special administration. The statutory purpose of special administration is to ensure that the company continues to operate and that customers continue to receive their water and wastewater services.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but it does not sound like much of a plan—there is not much detail there. I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of River Action. I will put a plan forward; I am happy to share it with the Government because it is better than that one. The plan is that, as soon as any water company fails—and several are looking as if they are on that path now—we take it back into public ownership. We do not make taxpayers and bill payers pay extortionate amounts—we would keep it very cheap; I can explain how—and we stop the pollution as soon as possible, because we have all had enough.

I thank the noble Baroness for her very comprehensive plan and look forward to talking to her in detail. In the meantime, I assure her that the Government and Ofwat, the financial regulator of the water sector, carefully monitor the situation. Ofwat continues to engage with Thames Water to support it in improving its resilience within the context of its licence and broader statutory obligations. Fundamentally, it is the companies’ responsibility to continue to raise capital, and they should continue to explore this while fulfilling their statutory obligations of providing water and wastewater services to their customers.

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the statutory instrument that sets out the action to be taken when water companies are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, which was debated on 19 February and subsequently passed in the Chamber. The mechanisms are there, so why are the Government havering over implementation and allowing inadequate management of this vital asset to degenerate on a daily basis?

My Lords, there is a high bar for the imposition of a special administration regime. A variety of options remain available to Thames Water in securing additional finance and it is vital that all of them are fully explored. The Government are prepared for a range of scenarios across our regulated sectors. If it becomes clear that any company will become insolvent or can no longer fulfil its statutory duties, we will not hesitate to use our powers to request the court to place it into special administration.

My Lords, the wording of the Question is “if they fail”. Does the Minister agree that on seeing on our television sets the excrement coming into our streams and rivers so frequently, most people in the country would say that the water companies had already failed?

I do not actually agree with the noble Lord fully. I accept that a number of the water companies are not performing to the right standard. The Government have been very clear that what is going on is unacceptable, but there is a huge legacy issue here. Simply renationalising water companies or stopping their chief executives from getting their pay, bonuses and all the other things—as is now in place—is not going to solve that problem straightaway. It is a long-term legacy issue which the Government have a fully funded plan to address.

My Lords, in 1990, Thames Water had net assets of £1,329 million. By 2023, they had increased to £1,435 million, which is a paltry increase of 8%, or a total of £106 million, mostly due to accounting abuses. This means that, over 33 years, Thames Water shareholders have provided little or no new equity at all, which is a major reason for its financial instability. Everyone knows that Ofwat is negligent and incompetent; what is the Government’s excuse?

The noble Lord cited a number of very detailed figures, which I know he is prone to doing, so forgive me if I do not know the detail on that. Since privatisation, the private water sector model has unlocked about £215 billion of investment. This is the equivalent of around £6 billion annually in investment—almost double the pre-privatisation level. This has delivered a range of benefits. Our bathing waters continue to improve—in 2023, almost 90% were classified as good or excellent. Water companies have invested £25 billion to reduce pollution from sewage and water company investment in environmental improvements has been scaled up to over £7 billion since 2020.

My Lords, could the Minister reassure the House that should any of the water companies fail, the ongoing monitoring of, for example, run-off from agricultural land—which is devastating many of our rivers, including the important chalk streams in Hertfordshire in my diocese—will continue, that we will continue to seek to find improvements, and that no momentum will be lost?

I absolutely assure the right reverend Prelate that this would be the case. If a water company were to go into administration, the special administrator would take control of the company and it would be regulated in exactly the same way as any other water company and subject to all the same environmental rules and regulations.

My Lords, we have reached the end of a long period of very low interest rates, during which the regulated utilities have taken on a great deal of debt. That was not a problem when interest rates were so low but, now that interest rates have risen, does the Minister think it time that the regulators of those industries took a keener interest in the balance sheets of the regulated utilities?

The noble Lord raises a very good point. Undoubtedly, mistakes were made in how water companies reacted over the past 10 or so years, when interest rates were very low. Now that interest rates have risen, so have the costs of the borrowings, which have created a number of difficult financial implications for them. However, we all hope that interest rates are falling.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dubs mentioned contaminated water, and there is now evidence that faeces-contaminated water has been detected in 10 areas of England and Wales. Is the Minister absolutely certain that nobody here today has drunk contaminated water?

I will just drink this glass of water—bottled water. I assure the noble Baroness that it is very good.

The noble Baroness raises a very serious point, despite all the laughter. One recent example of contaminated water has been extremely challenging, but the water company has responded pretty well. The Defra team went down there, and we have been in constant contact with South West Water. As noble Lords might expect, we have launched an investigation into the cause, and I hope that we will have the answers soon.

My Lords, the Minister cited a number of figures, but one he did not cite is that, since privatisation, the shareholders of 10 water companies have withdrawn £85 billion that could and should have been invested in the water industry. Whatever happens, can he undertake that those shareholders will not benefit further from the catastrophe happening to our waterways across the country?

The noble Lord makes a very good point, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Grade, on the behaviour of some of the previous shareholders and owners of water companies. I apologise for their behaviour—as do the Government—because I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fox, that it was not well done. I very much hope that the controls put in place since then, and the lessons learned, will satisfy him going forward.