Is the Minister aware that in my constituency of Devonport and in the region covered by South West Water, water charges are rising more rapidly than anywhere else in the country? That will inevitably lead to more and more people falling behind with their bills and they will then face disconnection. Does he accept that access to clean water is a basic fundamental human right which is essential to health and life? Will he introduce measures to outlaw disconnections and ensure that water companies use more acceptable means to collect their charges?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are doing everything that they can to ensure that price rises are kept to a minimum. The fact is that rates of disconnection in the south-west are barely half the national average. Whatever else may be the cause, it is clear that rates of disconnection are nothing to do with the hon. Gentleman's concern about prices.
Disconnection must remain as a necessary last resort—a sanction on those who will not pay. It is not designed to dispossess those who cannot pay. In fact, over half of all households that are disconnected have their supply reconnected within 48 hours. No one who is seeking help from the Department of Social Security will be disconnected until his case has been investigated.
Prohibiting disconnections would burden those customers who pay their bills, in order to help those who refuse to pay theirs. That is a policy which characterises the Labour party and it explains why it remains out of office.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that water disconnections last year were substantially down on the year before—by between 10 and 12 per cent.—and that a great many hoops have to be gone through before anybody can possibly be disconnected?
My hon. Friend is right; disconnections are down and so are court actions. She is also right that there are considerable obstacles to water companies disconnecting customers. They have to go through an elaborate legal process, and disconnection takes place only when all other routes have been exhausted. The overwhelming evidence is that it catches only those who have refused to pay and not those who are unable to pay.
May I first welcome the Minister to his new post? Does he agree that it is an outrage that every week 360 families in Britain have their water supply disconnected, while we heard only this morning that the chairman of North West Water received a salary increase last year of 43 per cent., bringing his salary to £238,000 a year? When will we end the barbaric practice of cutting off people's water supply, which is essential to their life and health, simply to recover a debt? Why do we not follow the example of other countries, including Scotland, I am pleased to say, and outlaw that practice?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. In the case of North West Water, I have seen a letter from his hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to the Prime Minister today about the pay of the chairman of North West Water. Disconnections in the north-west are even lower than they are in the south-west; they are running at about a quarter of the level that prevails across the country. It is absolutely typical of the Labour party to make no mention of the huge increase in the investment programme of the water industry since privatisation—a £30 billion programme through the decade. The water companies invest £8,000 every minute of every day. The Labour party can think only about the politics of envy and their concern about salaries.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there ought to be a happy medium between the idiocy of free water advocated by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devenport (Mr. Jamieson) and the level of water charges in the south-west? Does he accept that while it is not the Government's fault that the European bathing water directive has brought about extremely high water charges in the south-west, ultimately only the Government can deliver a solution? While I do not suggest that we should have free water, as the hon. Member for Devonport did, will my hon. Friend at least take on board that there is a problem in the west country which has to be addressed?
Yes. I am grateful at last to have an intervention from my hon. Friend, who approaches the subject in a more rational light. Of course we cannot have free water; however, we entirely share his concern about the rate of price increases in the south-west and we are examining every possible option to find ways to restrain those price increases. I can assure him that, in complying with the European Community directives, we will make sure that we move no further or faster than we are absolutely required to do by law, and if there are any other ways of bringing those price increases under control and slowing them down, we are ready to discuss them with my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends from that region.