This amendment would place a new duty on the Environment Agency to conserve water supplies. Many people, not just in the House but outside it, are amazed that the Government should seek to include an important new duty in the Bill at this stage, without any discussion in Committee of how it relates to the requirement to conserve water that is placed on customers, companies and sewerage undertakers. People are amazed that the Government are introducing this amendment at this late hour of three minutes to midnight.
Having read the amendment and received some briefing on it from the House of Commons Library, I believe that it is important to understand that it places a duty on the water authorities to ensure that conservation of water is undertaken by water customers. Why is the duty to conserve water being placed on domestic customers first and foremost, and not on companies? Both companies and customers should have a duty to conserve water supplies. Because the duty is placed only on customers in their homes, there could be a danger to public health if pressure is put on people to conserve water, especially if that pressure is exerted through prices being pushed up above the level that people can afford.
We want some assurance that the amendment would not involve an extension of compulsory metering. We are relieved that new section 93A(6) says that the clause should not be interpreted as a way for the director general to impose on water companies a requirement to make domestic customers conserve water in a particular way. Will the Minister assure me that that subsection ensures that water companies' customers will continue to have a choice in how they are charged for water services? Will he also reassure me that that is precisely what is meant by the answer that I was given two days ago by the Minister, who has now left the Chamber—
I beg the Minister's pardon. His answer said that it is for water companies to decide the most appropriate method of charging in their areas. That is particularly important in areas such as Yorkshire, where the water undertaker is keen to allow all customers of water and sewerage services to choose the charging method to be imposed on them.
As the Secretary of State and Ministers are aware, many people who live in new properties that were built after water privatisation in 1989 and have no rateable value are not given the choice of paying for their water by a notional property value or by metering, but must pay a metered charge. That has caused a great deal of aggravation in many parts of the country. The issue is still not resolved and we shall discuss it in the House under the auspices of the water group next Wednesday, when we have a water day to consider charging systems. It will then be clear that many of the major water and sewerage undertakers are not happy with the fact that we are moving towards compulsory metering.
If the Minister reassures us that amendment No. 95 does not lead us in that direction, members of the water group and many Opposition Members can return to their constituents and say that the pressure that they have put on the Government against compulsory metering has at last been recognised in amendment No. 95 and that responsibility for conservation will not be at the expense of extra costs on domestic households, who need adequate water supplies.
I reassure the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) that the amendment seeks to promote increased efficiency in the use of water by customers and we believe that the water companies are in the best position to do that. I assure her that the amendment does not allow compulsory metering, but it would allow the director general to require water companies to offer facilities and information to their customers, which will encourage them to take informed decisions about the efficient use of their water.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment proposed: No. 96, in page 303, line 26, at end insert—
'After section 101 of that Act (which provides for the determination of certain details in relation to requisitioned sewers) there shall be insertedx2014;