Mr. R. C. Mitchell:
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether, in view of the special burden of the large increase in water rates on low-income families, he will now consider alternative methods of charging for water.
With permission, I will answer this - question and questions 8 and 10 together.
The National Water Council has concluded that the best way to alleviate the present sense of unfairness about the charging system is to extend optional metering to domestic households. Where this option does not exist at present the council recommends that water authorities should draw up a timetable for its introduction in the next few years.
The council also concluded that, despite the representation which both it and the Government had received, the present legislation does not allow means-related rebates for water services and it reaffirms its belief that assistance to consumers should remain with the social security system.
Many people will look upon that answer as disappointing, because it costs £60 to instal a meter and a large amount of money to service it. Does my hon. Friend agree that water rates are the unfairest burden of an unfair rating system, that the water authorities are not sufficiently accountable democratically and that the Government are committed to doing away with the present abhorrent rating system? Will he, as a start, consider the possibility of transferring the water rates to general taxation where the cost will amount to less than 1 per cent. of VAT? That would prove far more reflective of people's use of water, because those who bought most would use most. At the same time the water authorities would be put under a better system of democratic control.
The Government share my hon. Friend's concern to see water rates reduced. As a result of our action in the spring, water charges estimated for the following year were reduced by £87 million in consumer terms. We are also seeking to implement a fairer system of charging based on voluntary metering. A transfer to general taxation would be inconsistent with the Government's policy of seeking to make regional water authorities more accountable. It would indicate less efficiency, and there would be a significant increase in value added tax.
I thought that it was customary to notify hon. Members if their questions were being linked with others.
As the increased water rate imposes a heavy burden on widows, pensioners and those on low incomes just above the supplementary benefit level, will the Minister reconsider his decision and include water rates within the rate rebate scheme, which would at least help poorer people?
It has been the Government's policy to see that water, like other energies, is charged for according to consumption. The difficulties of those who are unable to meet the charges should be alleviated through the supplementary benefit scheme. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety.
I apologise for failing to notify the hon. Gentleman of the bracketing of the questions.
As many people, rightly or wrongly, believe that a metering system would be fairer than the present system, does my hon. Friend agree that the real cost is not that of the water itself, but that of getting the water from its source to the home? It therefore matters little, if charges are levied through a metering system, whether a household uses 10 gallons or 1,000 gallons of water a day.
My hon. Friend is right. That is why we favour optional metering, which provides a choice. In many cases that might not be a desirable solution. My hon. Friend is also right in saying that the cost of what comes out of the tap is less than the cost of the capital works involved.
Although metering might be the long-term answer, surely the Government can do something about people who, like myself, have to pay a water rate for a building that has no water or sewerage system, but only water coming off the roof into the drains. It is nonsense that one has to pay the full rate for that service. Cannot some legislation be arranged to prevent that?
I accept that the hon. Gentleman has a point about the disposal of surface water only, but he will appreciate that the water authority that operates in his area, as in others, has to pay for the disposal of foul water, from whatever source.
Does my hon. Friend accept the argument of the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) that elderly people, particularly those living on their own, find the present method of charging for water grossly unfair? Since the best that my hon. Friend seems able to do is to offer voluntary metering, will he consider making a grant to elderly people who wish to install meters?
The best and fairest solution seems to be to change from the basic rateable value system to payment by other means. Gas, electricity and water should be paid for on the basis of consumption, and the benefits available under the social security system should be used for redress.
As there is a combined charge for water and the disposal of sewage, does the Minister suggest that sewage disposal should be metered? Is it not crazy that many of my constituents pay twice as much for their water and sewage disposal as for their general rate because the rebate applies to one and not the other?
The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that some water authorities propose, by some means, to measure sewage and effluent discharges from houses. There are ways in which that can be done, although not in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. We must ensure that the consumption of water and the disposal of foul water is charged for realistically, but I appreciate the difficulty.
Will my hon. Friend consider using new technology for metering? Is he aware of new systems that would make metering much cheaper? Will he also consider establishing a water consumers' council? If we are to be chained to the present system, should not the consumer have a voice in what happens?
My hon. Friend will recall that the majority of the members of water authorities are from elected bodies. The Government believe that the needs of the consumer are met in that way. However, I note my hon. Friend's suggestion. I accept that there are many aspects of the problem. The Water Research Centre is examining the new technoloy.
When the Minister considers how water authorities should bill consumers, will he reflect on the outcome of the recent diktat by the Secretary of State? Will he also reflect on the words of the chairman of the Thames water authority when he complained that the Secretary of State had insisted that more risks should be taken and that standards of service were no longer sacrosanct? Will he condemn the policy that forces authorities to jeopardise the health of consumers as the price for fiddling the books?
I repudiate the suggestion that to reduce consumer charges from a 19 per cent. increase to a 13 per cent. increase is fiddling the books. It is a genuine attempt by the Government to ensure that consumers get a fair deal and value for money. We shall continue to pursue that policy.