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Water Shortages

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 2nd April 2009.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire 10:30 am, 2nd April 2009

What recent representations he has received on measures to prevent water shortages; and if he will make a statement.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

DEFRA has received representations on draft water resource management plans for all the English water companies, following consultation last year. These plans set out how the water companies plan to meet demand for water from 2010 to 2035 and to avoid shortages.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Given the Environment Agency's call this week for water meters in every home to protect against future shortages and the evidence given to our Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inquiry into Ofwat's price review by Citizens Advice that it dealt with 28 per cent. more water debt cases last year than two years ago, does the Secretary of State agree that defining "water poverty" and standardising the charges made by companies on consumers' sewerage and water bills are essential reforms if we are to protect ourselves against future water shortages without penalising poorer households?

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is precisely why we set up the review that Anna Walker is undertaking to look at charging. On average, water metering applies in a third of cases, but from memory the percentage ranges from 68 per cent. in Tendring Hundred down to 10 per cent. in Portsmouth. The Government have made it clear that by 2030 we will need near universal metering in those areas of the country where water is in short supply. The direction in which we are travelling is pretty clear. The change has affected the relative position of those who pay through metered charges, as opposed to those who use the other system. That is precisely why Anna Walker is looking at ways in which we can ensure fairer charging, while at the same time ensuring that we conserve water.

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Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

In a week when the Environment Agency has warned that climate change and a rising population will increase pressure on water supplies and when households have once again seen above-inflation rises in water bills, has the time not come for a new regulatory approach, so that water companies, and not just their customers, are incentivised to conserve and value water? Will the Secretary of State confirm that although the draft floods and water Bill is expected shortly, the Government are planning to drop measures to reform the water industry from that Bill?

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I said a moment ago, the draft floods and water Bill will be published in the not too distant future. Clearly, future legislation depends on the legislative programme; the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the process by which those decisions are taken. It is important that we ensure that the water companies have the right incentives, and part of the purpose of the water resource management plans is to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of water. A range of things can be done in that regard, including encouraging the more efficient use of water in people's homes. In some cases, it might be necessary to improve the supply, particularly in the parts of the country where there is a problem with that.

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Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

We have one of the wettest countries in the world, we have just had some of the wettest few years on record and we have just been talking about flooding, so does it not beggar belief that there are still problems in some parts of the country that result in water rationing? Should not the regulatory authorities—particularly Ofwat—be doing a lot more, not least to ensure that leakage is reduced? That is still a major problem, and my constituents cannot understand why they have to watch water flowing away down the road and why it takes days, or even months, to sort out the problem and renew the pipes. What communications is my right hon. Friend having with Ofwat to ensure that it improves the reduction in leakages?

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Ofwat takes that responsibility extremely seriously, and my hon. Friend will be aware that a lot of progress has been made to reduce leakages. However, when water companies have to make a choice about where they make further investment, they need to weigh up the cost of yet further leakage reduction work against other measures that might help to secure and improve the supply. That is the balance that they have to strike, and which Ofwat must consider, but there is no doubt that, in the years ahead, we will have to do more to ensure that we protect and preserve the water that we have.

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Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

In the light of these and the previous exchanges, is the Secretary of State really satisfied that Ofwat is performing its prime duty, which is to protect the consumer?

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, I am satisfied that Ofwat takes that responsibility extremely seriously. Indeed, the water companies will attest to the vigour with which Ofwat performs its duties. In the end, a balance must be struck between the price that consumers pay for water and the investment necessary to address the problems that hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised in this important discussion this morning. I think that Ofwat is doing a good job.

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