The enhanced powers of the Director General of Water Services to monitor performance by water companies and to foster competition, will be brought into effect on 1 July. New powers for the director general to decide various types of dispute between customers and companies will be brought into effect on 1 September.
The Minister's response will be extremely welcome in my constituency of Woodspring and throughout Bristol. Is my hon. Friend aware that the proportion of the water industry's profits that now goes to shareholders is lower than the amount of interest that was returned to the Government when the industry was in public hands? The privatisation of water has been vindicated on the ground not only of environmental stewardship, but of pure economics.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Moreover, as we said in yesterday's debate, the water companies are investing twice as much in the infrastructure as they have made in profits. That is a pretty good record, which is not matched by many other companies in this country.
Does the Minister admit that it is a great pity that the Government did not take the opportunity presented by the recent legislation, which introduces the powers to which he referred, to prevent water companies from introducing compulsory metering? In virtually all cases where meters are installed, those customers, who have no choice about metering, have found that their bills have shot up well above those that are based on the rateable value of customers' houses. If he admits that mistake, we will give him every assistance in passing a quick Bill to prevent compulsory water metering.
The hon. Gentleman misses the point, as did his hon. Friends yesterday. The fact is that the water companies are providing a service to the public that has to be paid for somehow. We have three powerful watchdogs—the National Rivers Authority, the Director General of Water Services and the drinking water inspectorate—which act as regulators to the industry. As we have set up those regulators, it is best to let them get on with their job and not, as politicians, try to interfere with their decisions.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the grave anxiety in the south-west about the water bills that have been sent out by South West Water? Has he any proposals, following the controlled experiment on the Isle of Wight, to recommend or introduce widespread water metering, at least to make certain that high consumers of water pay for the service? The burden should not be transferred to single pensioners living alone who are receiving excessive bills based on water rates.
There has had to be tremendous investment in the infrastructure in the south-west to comply with EC directives and improve the quality of bathing waters around the coast. That has cost a considerable amount, which has had to be paid for by consumers in the area. However, we intend shortly to issue a consultation paper on all aspects of water conservation and how it may be used, distributed and stored. Obviously, water metering will be one of the options canvassed in that consultation paper.