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I understand that the water industry is currently studying a number of options for charging for water services once domestic rateable values are abolished, and I expect to receive its conclusions shortly.
Bearing in mind what the Secretary of State said on 21 October this year in the House, is he still considering the possibility of introducing a tap tax? Is he aware that when a window tax was introduced in 1697 it resulted in many people having to brick up their windows and that eventually the tax was abolished in 1851? Is he as concerned as I am at the social implications, expecially for the elderly, of introducing such a tax?
There is no intention whatsoever of introducing a tap tax. However, it is important that water authorities look in detail at all the options on tariffs and charging for the future. Obviously, that covers a wide range of issues from flat-rate charges to metering. It is highly unlikely, if not improbable in the extreme, that there could be an accurate form of charging in the future that is based on the number of taps in premises, not least because there could be two taps for hot and cold water in one bath, but one tap for both in another.
Instead of a tap tax, surely the most sensible method of charging for water would be to charge for the water that has been consumed? What estimates has my hon. Friend had made of the likely fall in total consumption if we were to have universal metering? In other words, how much water is wasted at the moment?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the present rating system is an unsound basis for charging and that it would be far better to move to the obvious method of charging by meter. Water loss differs across the country, as my hon. Friend is aware. However, it is estimated to be anything up to 30 per cent. of the water in the system. Obviously, that is an important issue, which is being tackled with great effectiveness by the water authorities.
Will the Minister confirm that a large amount of money has already been spent by each of the water authorities to pave the way for privatisation and that the cost of that, with which we have not been involved, will be included in the water charges that customers will have to pay in the future?
Any expenditure by the water authorities, including any that involves consultation, as in the exercises that are currently taking place with consumers about the possibility of metering trials, must be costed and brought before the House, and is always open to challenge by audit. The hon. Lady knows that, because it was discussed in Committee. Information on the specific amounts that have been spent on preparation for privatisation is not held centrally, but I understand that some of my hon. Friends have already written to water authorities on that subject.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the alternative is likely to be metered water supplies, it will be of critical importance that cheap meters are available to elderly and poor people? Will he look into that problem, because at the moment the cost of metering is way beyond the reach of the average person?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the need to test different types of meters during the current trials to ensure that a cheap, efficient and effective meter is eventually in place. Therefore, it is important to test a range of meters, including the present mechanical rotary piston meter, which will be used in the trials and in general metering in the foreseeable future.
Is it not a fact that the only alternative to universal metering —the Minister says that as yet the Government have not made any provisions for universal metering—is an additional poll tax? On water loss, is it not a fact that between 25 and 30 per cent. of the water in the system is going to waste and that that should be arrested? As for alternative charges, will the Minister have regard to the installation and location costs of the meters, the life of the meter and its renewal, the reading and billing of the meters, their maintenance costs, the standing charges for water and sewerage, and a possible standing charge for environmental services? Is the Minister aware that substantial costs are involved in the alternatives to the present system?
I regret that the hon. Gentleman did not hear some of my earlier answers. Had he been listening, he would have heard me confirm that the leakage in the system was too high and that it was being tackled by the water authorities, and that the community charge was certainly not the only alternative to metering. I mentioned that a flat-rate charge was one of many ways being considered by the Water Authorities Association. The hon. Gentleman spoke about a range of important issues to be taken into account on further metering trials. He will be aware that every one is being considered carefully and discussed in great detail during the Committee stage of the Bill.