Clause 1 — Financial assistance to reduce charges

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:55 pm on 14th March 2012.

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Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:55 pm, 14th March 2012

I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 2, at end insert—

‘(5A)

(a) In exercising the power under subsection (3) the Secretary of State may make an order containing a scheme for the provision of financial assistance to customers whom the Secretary of State considers are disproportionately adversely affected by the water charges with a view to reducing the impact of those water charges.

(b) The scheme shall—

(i) specify the customers whose charges are covered by the scheme,

(ii) set out the basis of the adjustment of the charges, and

(iii) specify the duration of the adjustment.

(c) An order shall not be made under this section unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 1—Water company social tariffs

‘(1) The Secretary of State shall provide in regulations for the introduction of minimum standards for water company social tariffs, by 1 April 2013.

(2) Regulations made under subsection (1) above shall be made by statutory instrument and may not be made unless a draft has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(3) Ofwat shall publish 12 months after the passing of this Act and every year thereafter a league table of water companies reporting the performance of the provision of social tariffs and the number of households spending more than 3 per cent. and more than 5 per cent. of their disposable income on water bills.’.

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Both the amendment and the new clause deal with the issue of water affordability for customers, but they do so in two different ways. Although I feel certain that a man as reasonable as the Minister will want to accept both improvements to the Bill, I should add that I intend to press them to a vote if necessary.

We made clear on Second Reading that, as a responsible Opposition, we would not seek to frustrate the will of the Government in legislating for a reduction in customer bills throughout the south-west. We accept that Government action should be taken to ensure that water remains affordable for South West Water customers following the botched privatisation of the early 1990s. We all benefit from the “national treasure” status of Cornwall and Devon’s spectacular coastline, just as—this was pointed out by Andrew George on Second Reading—we benefit from London’s incredible museums, which are also supported by Government action.

I pay tribute to Members in all parts of the House who, over a period of years, have sought to correct this historic injustice. Our work in government in commissioning Anna Walker to look at the problem of water affordability in the south-west has been coupled with action by the present Government in legislating for payments to be made. Let me make it clear to all Members that we support Government action to reduce customer bills in the south-west.

Amendment 1 is not in any way a wrecking amendment. It seeks to improve the legislation by providing for proper parliamentary oversight of the wide-ranging powers in clause 1, which—let me be honest—I suspect are intended not to involve the Secretary of State in some kind of land grab, but to avoid the Bill’s classification as something other than a money Bill. I can reassure south-west Members that if the amendment were adopted, we would not use the additional scrutiny for which it provides to frustrate the will of the House. Its inclusion would, however, serve as an entirely proper safeguard to prevent the Secretary of State, or her successors, from abusing the powers given to her and extending financial inducements in any way for any reason.

Amendment 1 would ensure that the Secretary of State makes an order when she wishes to exercise the power in clause 1 to give financial assistance to a water and sewerage company in order to secure a reduction in household bills. The amendment requires the scheme contained in her order to

“specify the customers whose charges are covered by the scheme”,

so that there is clarity about the households who will benefit from a reduction. It requires the scheme to set out the basis for the reduction in charges, so that everyone understands why the reduction is being made in the first place and to ensure that the Government’s logic is tested and sound. Crucially, it requires the scheme to

“specify the duration of the adjustment”,

so that this Parliament does not write blank cheques, and so that the most cost-effective option can be considered over an appropriate length of time.

In short, the Government will be required to answer the questions that need to be answered if effective parliamentary oversight is to be exercised. We feel that that is especially important given that the Secretary of State can give the assistance in any form whatsoever, including grants, loans and guarantees, and given that, because this is a money Bill, it will receive just one day of scrutiny in the other place.

We believe that when the Secretary of State wishes to use the powers granted by the Bill in the future, the least she can do is lay out her argument before a representative Committee of the House. I say that for one simple reason. As new clause 1 makes clear, there are numerous, increasing and varied threats to affordable water, and as the Government’s own water White Paper makes clear, our climate is changing, which has profound implications for the scarcity of water. New infrastructure may be required to supply fresh water, while—as the Government have also made clear—complying with higher standards for waste water will require expensive construction projects such as the Thames tunnel. More regions will seek to make a similar case to that of the south-west, and now that the principle has been established by the Government’s actions, we require a mechanism to test the logic of successor Secretaries of State.

Let me give an example. According to yesterday’s Evening Standard,

“The boss of Thames Water today warned that bills will have to rise to pay for new pipes and reservoirs if customers are to avoid more hosepipe bans in future.

Chief executive Martin Baggs, who announced yesterday that the first hosepipe ban in six years will come into force on April 5, said Thames was ‘living on the past’ and needed to step up levels of investment.

He told the Standard: ‘The last two years have been exceptionally dry and there needs to be flexibility in the system to deal with that.

The flexibility needs to come from one of two directions: it means people must use less water during those extreme conditions or we have got to have extra resources so people don’t have to have those restrictions.’

Mr Baggs wants clearance from the regulator Ofwat to step up investment when the company negotiates its next five-year funding plan from 2015.

London water bills are already set to go up by an inflation-busting 6.7 per cent next month to an average of £339 per household.”

We therefore know that the south and east of our country in particular will require additional investment, putting strain on household budgets. What is a future Secretary of State to do now that the principle in respect of giving taxpayer assistance to regions that are struggling to pay their water bills has been breached and after the power in this Bill has been enacted? We are pondering what might happen under a benevolent dictator, but let us suppose for a few moments—I am sure it will be hard for you to conceive of this, Mr Hoyle—that a successor Secretary of State, or even the current one, decided to use the power to reduce bills in an election year. Indeed, this year’s mayoral election in London might serve as a good example in this regard. We believe that the least the Secretary of State can do is come to a Committee Room of this House and demonstrate that she has worked through the pertinent issues.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 1:00 pm, 14th March 2012

The amendment is defective in that there would be regulatory implications in respect of Ofwat, but they have not been considered. Indeed, I am struggling to understand why we need this amendment at all, given the current text of clause 1.

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that when the power under clause 1 is triggered, there is proper parliamentary accountability and oversight at the time of making any reductions. The hon. Lady mentions the regulatory regime. It would not be particularly affected under clause 1 as it currently stands. Ofwat’s role will be to see the money coming in and the money going out. This amendment would not change that situation at all, except that we in this House would have the opportunity to examine any scheme that is to be established and to have answers to any questions we might have: namely, how long, for which customers and for what duration.

As I have said, we agree with the proposals to give financial relief to the south-west from April 2013. Indeed, we examined this issue when in government and laid the groundwork for helping 700,000 households in the region. We therefore accept the argument that the south-west requires additional help to keep water affordable, but stopping there misses the point.

The south-west has the highest bills in the country and about 200,000 people are under water stress. In the Thames region, that number is 1.1 million, however. Our new clause 1 therefore starts with the simple proposition that by April 2013—the month when financial assistance will start flowing to Devon and Cornwall—the Secretary of State should bring forward minimum standards for a company social tariff. We think that is not too much to ask.

The numbers speak for themselves. As I established on Second Reading, 400,000 households in Wales, 460,000 households in Yorkshire, 780,000 households in the Severn Trent region and 1.1 million households in the Thames region pay more than 3% of their disposable income on water. The squeeze on living standards is real. This Government’s actions are contributing to high inflation and pressure on family budgets. The rise in VAT has pushed up the price of petrol, and the cost of child care is going up at twice the rate of wages, just as the Government cut that element of the working tax credit. Families with children who cannot raise their working hours from 16 to 24 could find themselves almost £3,000 worse off from next month. Energy prices have risen, while for many people pay has been frozen.

The crunch will be felt first and worst by low and middle-income families, particularly those with children. A single-earner couple household with kids that is earning £44,000 might sound well-off—and, indeed, in comparison to many, it is—but it will be hit hard by the £1,750 a year that it will lose overnight when child benefit is scrapped.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I am intrigued that the hon. Gentleman wants to have a debate about tax credits, as we recently had a vote on such issues. Is he going to mention the fact that this Government are delivering free nursery places for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, and that increasing numbers of children will be covered by that in the course of this Parliament?

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will not test your patience, Mr Hoyle, by continuing that debate. The hon. Gentleman puts his case on the record, but one of the key arguments in respect of new clause 1 is the squeeze on family living standards. We believe it would be wrong to park that argument in a different silo from the rising costs of water bills.

People are facing falling living standards, frozen wages and rising water bills. Our amendment would ensure that the power to introduce a company social tariff—a power that we legislated for when in government—is followed by Government action to ensure that these schemes are effective at making water affordable for those who are struggling to pay. Under the current Government’s plans, the design of any social tariff is entirely in the hands of each of our 20 or so water companies. Apart from WaterSure, there will be no national tariff, and there will be no national branding of water affordability schemes. Outside the south-west, there will be no new Government money to help those who cannot pay.

Under this Government’s plans, it is even down to the individual companies to decide whether to introduce a social tariff scheme at all. Although we believe the industry and Government should be working towards a national affordability solution, the first part of new clause 1 would require the Secretary of State to bring forward plans for minimum standards for water company social tariffs.

The second part is just as important. We know that if we cannot measure it, we cannot manage it. Therefore, water companies should be held to account by ensuring a league table is published each and every year reporting on the performance of company social tariffs. In the energy sector, Ofgem sets parameters for what can be included by suppliers as part of their spend on social initiatives, and it annually monitors suppliers’ progress against the voluntary commitment. A handful of water companies already have good social tariff schemes, but we want to raise the bar for all companies to the standards of the rest of the industry, both by requiring the Secretary of State to have minimum standards approved by Parliament, and by the monitoring and reporting of all companies, shaming those poor performers into action. By also requiring the number of households spending more than 3% and 5% of their disposable income on water to be published, we can monitor the scale of the affordability problem and make meaningful comparisons between companies.

Our amendment 1 and new clause 1 are attempts to improve the Bill. We welcome the money for the south-west, but stopping there misses the point. People’s ability to pay for something as basic as water should not be subject to a postcode lottery. This issue is at the heart of shaping a socially responsible water industry in the years to come. I hope the Minister will accept the amendments.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I followed the arguments of Gavin Shuker very closely, and I went along with a great deal of what he had to say, particularly his congratulations to the Minister and the Government on introducing what is a very timely Bill. I think I understand the spirit in which the Opposition amendments have been tabled. The Front-Bench colleague of Huw Irranca-Davies, is present, and he will recall that we spent many—happy—hours scrutinising the provisions that were to become the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. That Bill was fairly good, but it was improved as we went along—although we did not have sufficient time to address many of its measures, of course.

That Act gives enormous order-making powers to the Secretary of State, and I would be interested to learn from the Minister why the Government have chosen not to draft a parliamentary order in respect of interested parties on this occasion. For the record, a number of hon. Friends—I hope I may call them that—on both sides of the House would normally be discussing the business of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but we deem this debate so important that we thought it was our priority to be here to discuss the Bill and these amendments. Obviously, I am entirely at one with the Government, given that we have worked so hard under successive Governments to come up with a novel means of helping people with water bills in the south-west, but it would be helpful to know why clause 1 made no provision for parliamentary scrutiny. I, therefore, have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Luton South and his colleagues have proposed.

Amendment 1 and, even more so, new clause 1, on social tariffs, raise the question of why the hon. Member for Ogmore and the previous Labour Administration did not introduce social tariffs as part of the 2010 Act. In addition, why were they not minded to introduce amendments at this stage to deal with bad debt, an issue that is exercising water companies? The Select Committee took evidence just last week on the water bills that the average household is having to pay because of the position on bad debt.

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Lady is making her points clearly, and I welcome the spirit in which she makes them. We have accepted the timetabling for this short Bill, which will go through quickly. We have been promised a comprehensive water Bill and if we had more time, we would have much to say about bad debt and we would look favourably on any amendments seeking to deal with it. Unfortunately, such amendments have not been tabled for today.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the draft water Bill will contain provisions on social tariffs and tackling bad debt—I do not know whether there is any more recent news as to when it may be published.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Anna Walker report and water efficiency measures. Again, I wonder why he did not include any more detailed provisions on water efficiency measures in his amendment. I also wonder what the Minister and the Government are thinking on such measures, given that we are on the brink of the worst drought for at least 40 years. Anna Walker proposed some imaginative measures that households and businesses could take, and it is disappointing that they were not elaborated upon to a greater extent in the natural environment White Paper or the water White Paper. It would be helpful to know the Minister’s thinking on that. A lot of unfinished business on the 2010 Act could have found its way into this small Bill, but we await confirmation that such things will be dealt with in the wider and more comprehensive draft water Bill.

On new clause 1, I am not sure that I entirely followed the hon. Gentleman’s thinking on minimum standards for water company social tariffs. In what regard are these to be “minimum standards”? Are they to be minimum standards for comparative purposes or will they govern how the social tariffs would apply?

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I understand the hon. Lady’s confusion on this point. A number of options are available to us in terms of amending the Bill. We felt that the most appropriate route to go down was to allow companies discretion on whether or not to introduce a company social tariff, but to ensure that, at the very least, any such tariff met minimum standards set by the Secretary of State and approved by this House. At the moment, we are at the lowest rung of all the possible interventions and we simply seek to move things up one, in the hope of getting towards a national affordability solution.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 1:15 pm, 14th March 2012

I am most grateful for that clarification. It would be interesting to know the background to the amendment and, in particular, to new clause 1. It would be helpful to know what discussions took place and what level of support the hon. Gentleman has from water companies and from Ofwat.

I did not have the opportunity to discuss this matter on Second Reading. It is appropriate to examine new clause 1 and amendment 1, as I have a concern and I am trying to help the Minister. A helpful Library note spells out clearly:

“The Government intends that bills be reduced from April 2013. The funding will come from the HM Treasury Reserve until the end of the spending review period in 2014-15. After that time funding will come from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs…budget.”

I understand that that was confirmed in a House of Commons debate in January.

“The payment will continue until ‘at least the end of the next spending review period’.”

So my question is: from which part of the Department’s budget is this funding going to come from 2014-15 until, presumably, 2019-20?

I must make a general remark about departmental budgets, and I do not think that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is any different in this regard. We had the opportunity to question the Secretary of State on the annual report, in its new revised format, and the annual accounts. I think that there is a lack of transparency and clarity in all the departmental accounts—I do not single DEFRA out. I am deeply concerned about the position for those in the south-west whose water bills will or could benefit from this Bill, and for those in other areas who could benefit subsequently, as highlighted in amendment 1 and new clause 1. My real concern relates to how this will be funded in the next spending review period, given that we have not yet worked through all the savings in the budgets of the Department and other agencies, such as the Environment Agency. I am prepared to give any assistance I can in arguing with the Treasury that this money should be ring-fenced. Obviously, there is real concern that if it is not ring-fenced or if additional money cannot be found, other parts of the budget currently being spent on farming or flood defence will simply be hijacked for this purpose.

With those remarks, I welcome the opportunity to have this debate and to understand a little more about the thinking behind these proposals. However, I shall have to disappoint the hon. Member for Luton South by telling him that I will not be following him into the Lobby.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hoyle. I follow Miss McIntosh, whom I customarily refer to as “Madam Chairman” in the Select Committee. Obviously, it is a delight still to be considering this Bill. We are doing so rapidly, in order to make progress and get it on the statute book, so that it can start delivering fairness for my constituents and those of other Members across Devon and Cornwall, and so that we can start putting in place the framework for the necessary works here in our capital.

Although the amendment and the new clause proposed by Gavin Shuker present a number of opportunities for discussion, they will not necessarily take us that much further forward. The amendment makes a reasonable point: if in future the Secretary of State or any other Secretary of State wishes to use the enabling powers of the Bill to make a difference to another part of the country that seems to have been disadvantaged, that should be explained to the House. I would have thought that it would be extraordinary, however, for such a thing to happen without a great deal of public debate or decades of campaigning, such as that which we have experienced in Devon and Cornwall. Perhaps other parts of the country might have such a keen hold on the Secretary of State or any future Secretary of State that they could get it all pushed through within a matter of weeks, but I suspect that that would not be the case. The Treasury would want to know very plainly and in great detail why the money was required and why it was felt to be a priority.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

From a south-west perspective, the money we are getting is clearly welcome. As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, other parts of the country might have demands, and given drought measures and so on, there might be reservoirs or other very large schemes in small areas that might impinge on us as our water bill payers could be asked to pay towards the costs. That would not be unreasonable, as we are expecting the payment to go the other way. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, as Miss McIntosh mentioned, the money is not ring-fenced and how it is spent in future will be at the discretion of the Secretary of State?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

The hon. Lady is referring to the money identified for the south-west, and the worry that it might, to use a watery phrase, be diluted and spread out across the country. I suspect that that could potentially happen, but I know that the coalition Government are absolutely committed to seeing this provision through for the people of Devon and Cornwall. Who knows what might happen under a future Government? I hope that they would take the plight of our water bill payers equally seriously and continue that level of support. The hon. Lady makes an interesting point.

As I understand it, the amendment seeks to ensure that if a Government wished to offer such support to further areas, a statutory instrument would have to be tabled and debated. I find it hard to believe that any Government would consider doing such a thing without a debate not only in this place but out in the country at large and, I am sure, a debate in the Treasury too, which would have to be conducted publicly as well as privately. I know that that has been the case with the programme we now have for Devon and Cornwall. Although I accept the logic of what the hon. Member for Luton South said, I will wait to hear what the Minister has to say in reply before I decide what approach to take. Naturally, I want to support the Government—as I would on every occasion, but particularly as regards the provisions in this Bill.

The new clause concerns social tariffs and the next steps that we might want to take to help people who are under water stress, which, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, will still be a significant problem for people in the south-west after the support set out in the Bill is delivered. Of course, water stress is also a worsening problem in other parts of the country.

I am delighted to see that Mary Creagh is in her place. On Second Reading, when we debated this subject, I intervened on her and made the point that any social tariff within a water company area presents problems as well as opportunities. If there is to be a social tariff at a significant level for those experiencing the worst problems in an area such as the south-west, despite the fact that many people will benefit we must be aware that within an area with a small population, a huge amount of the funding for the tariff will be provided by people just above the qualification threshold. I am very worried that in-region social tariffs will be unable to deal with the problem. When the hon. Lady set out where she would like the Bill to be improved, she said that she would do something about national water tariffs. It is a shame that we do not have such a provision and Devon and Cornwall MPs have put the matter before the Government. I understand that there are issues with the Treasury’s response as that might be regarded as a tax, but we must consider how we can address that situation.

I do not see how a league table will help, however. Indeed, it might mean that water companies were under pressure to introduce the tables in such a way that it might disadvantage those people about whom I was talking—those just above the threshold who will not benefit from the tariff but whose water bills will increase to pay for their hard-pressed neighbours.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

My hon. Friend is making a very good point. At the risk of delaying the process of the Bill through the further elaboration on the amendments, does my hon. Friend agree that the best way of addressing the issue would be to seek the assurance of the Minister that the issue will be addressed in the forthcoming water Bill as quickly as possible after the Queen’s Speech?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The water Bill will be a further opportunity for us to revisit these issues and I welcome the fact that hon. Members across the House are still considering this matter as one that needs further exploration.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I want to reply to the hon. Gentleman’s point about league tables. The idea came from Ofwat and is meant to ensure that there is transparent information for customers, shareholders and the Government so that they understand who is levelling the tariffs, where they are going and where the money is going. That was Ofwat’s idea and I cannot claim any credit for it, much as I would like to.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

The hon. Lady is very generous in ascribing the idea to Ofwat. I suspect that Ofwat could probably do that anyway and would not need legislation; if it wanted to publish a league table, it could get the information. Ofwat would have information from companies about where the money was coming from and where it was going and could publish it without its needing to be on the face of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I remind my hon. Friend that, as those on the Opposition Front Bench might not be aware, the Select Committee had some very compelling evidence from the water companies about social tariffs paid for by charitable trusts from each water company.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I thank Madam Chairman—my hon. Friend—for putting that on the record. I am delighted that the Opposition Front Benchers support what the Bill seeks to do for bill payers in Devon and Cornwall and that they have chosen not to oppose it in any way. I do not think that the case is proven that either amendment 1 or new clause 1 will make a huge difference or improve the Bill significantly, but they do touch on two areas that I hope the Minister will address.

The Chairman:

Ah, I call Julie Hilling. You were a little late, but I am glad that you have joined us.

Photo of Julie Hilling Julie Hilling Labour, Bolton West

I apologise, Mr Hoyle, for being a little slow in standing to indicate my intention to speak. You can take it that I was confused about which clauses were being debated at which time.

I want to speak briefly about new clause 1 and, in particular, to press the point of a national social tariff. In the north-west, the affordability of water is affected by deprivation. Unlike the south-west, it is not affected by geographical issues or expenditure. We are a region with considerable difficulties and the bills of United Utilities, which is the north-west water company, are close to the national average, but income deprivation is worse than in any other region. More than half of the country’s most deprived communities are in the north-west, even though we have only 13% of England’s population. Ofwat’s analysis shows that once households in the South West Water region receive their proposed £50 bill reduction, affordability problems will be more severe in the north-west than in the south-west. Company social tariffs will not solve the problem, however, as too many customers in the north-west are in financial need to make the in-house cross-subsidy work properly. We therefore need a national social tariff scheme that all water companies would pay into. Taking the hands-off approach of leaving it to water companies to provide their own affordability schemes, and certainly giving them the choice of whether or not to provide it, will not help the people who are most in need in Bolton West.

There is no definition of water poverty, but if someone is paying 5% or even 3% of their income on their water bill, they are pretty poor. Some 840,000 households in the north-west spend 3% of their income on water, and 370,000 households spend more than 5% of their net income on water. It is United Utilities that is telling me that company social tariffs will not work in the north-west; we therefore need national action on social tariffs. Water debt is just part of the problem facing so many low-paid people. In my constituency, people are dependent on food handouts, are losing their homes and are unable to heat their homes or pay their water bills. Very poor people are paying the price for global economic failure. Let me finish by asking a few questions. Will a water Bill be announced in the Queen’s Speech and will we see action on this in the next Session of Parliament? If not, will the Government do something on a national social tariff?

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:30 pm, 14th March 2012

As Members know full well, the only purpose for which we currently plan to exercise the power in clause 1 is to reduce the charges on household customers in the South West Water area. We have recognised that the circumstances in the south-west are exceptional and we will be addressing that unfairness. I am grateful to Opposition Members for bringing forward the amendments because they allow us to explain a little more clearly what we are trying to achieve in this part of the Bill.

Our policy has been set out clearly both in the water White Paper and by the Chancellor in the autumn statement. We will fund South West Water to reduce its customers’ bills by £50 a year from April 2013 and we have committed to do that until the end of the next spending review period. To answer the question that my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh asked, yes, from then it will be for the next comprehensive spending review period to negotiate this out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ budget, but that certainly does not imply cuts across other vital parts of its budget. I assure her that this is an absolute priority. It has been hard-fought for by hon. Members from across the south-west, and there is an absolute commitment from the Government to continue the important work to address an unfairness that we recognise.

As hon. Members from the south-west will testify, this support for customers in the south-west is the result of their long campaign. They have fought hard for this and the problem of high water bills in the region has been raised many times in the House. I am proud that the Government are making progress on this issue but I am a little disappointed that the Opposition wish, through amendment 1, to force a further round of discussion on the merits of reducing bills in the south-west before we can move forward. Let me explain why. The Chancellor’s Budget or autumn statement is the appropriate place for setting out Government spending plans and for doing so within the broader economic context in which such decisions are made. It is inappropriate to micro-manage the economy through individual statutory instruments committing future Government spend. The Government make many decisions on spending and Parliament does not examine each one in detail through a process involving the laying of statutory instruments. However, the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny does exist. DEFRA spending is subject to scrutiny by the excellent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and, if so wished, by the Public Accounts Committee. Government spending is also subject to the usual supply and estimates procedures with which we are all familiar. If the Government decided to use this power to provide further support, I would fully expect Members to scrutinise the case and to ensure that assistance was given only where and for as long as it was right to do so.

I draw to the attention of Gavin Shuker the fact that new clause 154A(1) within clause 1 focuses on an “English undertaker” and a “licensed water supplier”. We have to accept that there is not a lot of money floating around in Government at the moment—I am sure he recognises that—and so the idea that the Government are going to start sloshing money around freely without any public debate is absolutely ridiculous. One must also accept that that would be the case in future. We do not know what the future holds, but we want future Secretaries of State to be able to use the power where genuinely necessary. We therefore do not think the amendment is necessary. The Government are not going to start doling out money to water companies on a whim. We are using this power this time after years of debate, but it is unimaginable that any future use of the power would not attract the same level of debate.

In a similar vein, new clause 1 would threaten the action we are taking to deal with wider affordability problems. I point out that we will have the opportunity to develop the House’s thinking on this with the water Bill. I know that the Bill is eagerly sought by Members on both sides to take forward many of the issues we set out in the White Paper, which have been the subject of past reports to the Government. The Government have given a clear commitment that the Bill will be available for proper and full pre-legislative scrutiny and I hope that we will be able to publish it soon. Whether or not it is in the Queen’s Speech is not a matter for me.

Photo of Julie Hilling Julie Hilling Labour, Bolton West

May I press the Minister a little more on this? When he says “soon” does he mean in the next Session or the Session after that?

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady will understand that I am not privy to what is in the Queen’s Speech. I very much want a water Bill as soon as possible, but we have given a commitment that the Bill will be available for pre-legislative scrutiny, and that is not something that happens overnight—it requires a process and it would be tight to get in the full level of pre-legislative scrutiny and a Bill in the next Session. However, I accept her point that it is needed by many people as quickly as possible.

We know that some households in the south-west and other regions—let me reiterate that other regions are also affected—struggle with their water and sewerage charges. We will soon be issuing guidance that will allow for the development of company social tariffs. Water companies will be able to reduce the charges of customers who would otherwise have difficulty paying in full. In consultation with their customers, companies will decide who needs help in their area and then design local solutions to address local circumstances. Water companies know their customers and local circumstances. Companies vary in size and customer base, and average bills also vary from company to company. On Second Reading, Members spoke about the different kinds of affordability problems faced by their constituents. They also recognised that in some parts of the country there might be less scope than in others for customers to cross-subsidise others in the region. I urge hon. Members to consider the Cholderton company, which serves only about 2,000 people. The difficulty of having a nationally mandated tariff that would apply to that company as well as to Thames Water, which has several million customers, accentuates the problem.

Imposing one-size-fits-all standards, as new clause 1 would require, on companies that decide to develop social tariffs would prevent them from reflecting the circumstances of their customer base and what their customers want. Some companies might be less likely to introduce social tariffs if the model did not suit their local circumstances. If hon. Members intend that all private water companies should be forced to introduce a centrally imposed social tariff scheme, I cannot support the introduction of that regulatory burden.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

The shadow Secretary of State said that she did not wish to take the credit for some of the amendments because they were the initiative of Ofwat. Having looked through Ofwat’s response to DEFRA’s consultation on company social tariffs, I think the amendments all came from Ofwat, apart from the question of what concessions to offer. Ofwat says that it supports the view in the draft guidance that it is preferable that the companies themselves should design concessions that best suit their customers’ needs. It says this so that companies, rather than the Government, will have greater scope to innovate, which I think the Minister is saying too.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It shows when one prays in aid an organisation, one has to do so in the context of all the evidence that has been given by it to many organisations, not least a Select Committee of the House.

We want companies to be imaginative in the way they tackle affordability in their areas, not to force them into a straitjacket. Our guidance will not dictate eligibility criteria, the level of concession or the amount of cross-subsidy. It will give companies the freedom to make judgments, with their customers, on what can work in their areas. This addresses the point made by my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh. Social tariffs are a new tool in the tool-kit for companies, but they are not the only tool. Companies have many other effective tools—for example, win-win tariffs, which are self-funding from savings on bad debt and do not rely on cross-subsidies. They have trust funds, as has been mentioned, which are set up by the company to pay off the debts of those most in need, as well as payment plans and referrals to holistic debt agencies such as Citizens Advice, arrangements made locally that really work.

We must not see a social tariff as the only show in town. There are no state secrets here. The information from water companies about the social tariffs that they develop will be produced in negotiation with DEFRA, working on the guidance that we will publish in a few weeks. The proposals from the water companies and the decisions that DEFRA makes will be available for scrutiny.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

This is slightly tangential. The companies are working to tackle unaffordable water charges, but there is one thing that they probably cannot deal with, which was mentioned on Second Reading by one of the Minister’s colleagues and by me. Once the £50 payment comes through the system, which will help most people on low incomes, the companies will not be able to guarantee that it goes to the person who pays the bill. Instead of going to the vulnerable party, the money may be going to a park home owner who is not reputable or a private landlord. What discussions has the Minister had, perhaps with the Ministry of Justice, about whether it would be a criminal offence—a fraud—if the park home owner did not pass the money on?

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady could lead me down a long path of personal on this subject, which I am happy to share with the Committee. I have a number of park homes in my constituency. Some are well run. It is a style of living that we across the House should encourage because it allows people at a certain age to release some capital and live in a smaller dwelling surrounded by people in similar circumstances, but there are too many park home owners who are appalling human beings. Various Governments, including this Government and the Government whom the hon. Lady supported, have sought to address this. I am working with my hon. Friends in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the alternative arrangements that the Government are making for park homes will be fit for purpose.

I thank the Committee for that bit of therapy. I can assure the hon. Lady that we intend the £50 to get to precisely the people whom she describes. I am happy to talk to anyone. In my Department we are keen to make sure that that money is not siphoned off by anybody and gets to the householder, even if that householder is a park home owner on a site owned by somebody else.

I shall outline some of the other measures available to water companies. We are working to make sure that the issue is looked at holistically. We do not believe that social tariffs are the only method of addressing affordability. All these methods are in addition to the existing statutory WaterSure scheme which provides a safety net for the most vulnerable customers. We fully expect different companies to use these tools in different ways, and make no apologies for that.

It remains the case that most water bills are not high in comparison with other household costs, such as energy bills. Customers struggling with water charges are likely to be struggling with other living costs. The Government have other measures in place to tackle the broader problem of low incomes. Universal credit will make work pay and combat worklessness and poverty. Our social tariff guidance will say that we expect companies to keep their social tariffs under review and work with Ofwat on how best to do this.

We do not propose to require the kind of annual reporting suggested in new clause 1, which would be just the sort of regulatory burden that David Gray’s recent review of Ofwat warned the regulator away from. Ofwat already has a primary duty to protect the interests of consumers and will act in their best interests. A league table would also fail to show the real picture on the ground. The measures of 3% and 5% of a household’s disposable income are useful indicators of risk, but they are not absolute measures of the number of households struggling to pay their bills. In short, therefore, we think that enabling companies to work with their customers to design schemes best suited for their area is a much better solution. I therefore ask hon. Members to withdraw their amendments.

Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:45 pm, 14th March 2012

The Minister was articulate and charming, but his argument was unconvincing. I am sorry to say that because I have a great deal of sympathy for him and his position. This is a short Bill and the Government want to get it through quickly and cleanly, but we believe our amendments serve a useful purpose.

The Minister clearly ruled out the possibility of a national water affordability scheme. I think I am right in saying that. The Minister is not willing to give that assurance at this stage, but I will go back through

Hansard.

I thought it was pretty clear from what he said that a national water affordability scheme was ruled out. We believe that that is the wrong approach and that work can be done. If provision is not made in this Bill, we would like to engage with the Minister and work collaboratively to try and find a way to respond to the concerns of Dan Rogerson, who raised the possibility of such a scheme, as we have done on previous occasions.

Miss McIntosh asked about the opinions of the water companies. In my experience, the water companies would like a level playing field. It is clear to me that in new clause 1 we do not ask for a one-size-fits-all solution, as the Minister described it. We simply ask that at the same time as the south-west receives the benefits of the Bill, the whole country should receive the benefits of a set of mandatory minimum standards for those tariffs. We do not even require water companies to introduce the social tariffs, but when those are introduced, we ask that they be effective—that they are not just based on guidance, but that the House has the right to weigh in on what they should be. My hon. Friend Julie Hilling dealt with issues of national water affordability. She is a strong advocate on behalf of her constituency.

In conclusion, despite my sympathy for the Minister, I intend to press amendment 1 to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 200, Noes 263.

Division number 491

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.