Clause 43 - Guidance to authority on

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 16 October 2003.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:15, 16 October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 78, in

clause 43, page 47, line 36, leave out 'or mainly'.

This is another probing amendment. The clause refers to guidance on social and environmental matters

''by the Assembly, with respect to appointment areas which are wholly or mainly in Wales''.

My constituency is on the Welsh border, but it is not in Wales. We are lucky to have Welsh water and we are governed by the Environment Agency, which reports to the Welsh Assembly, so there are difficult devolutionary problems for people living in Herefordshire. That is why I seek guidance from the Minister on why

''wholly or mainly in Wales''

is written into the Bill. Unless the area is wholly in Wales, it should not necessarily come under the guidance issued by the Assembly.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can explain. Amendment No. 78 would restrict some of the National Assembly's functions with regard to water undertakers operating entirely within Wales. The problem is that I do not think that there is an undertaker operating entirely within Wales, because the boundaries of the current English and Welsh undertakers are based on the old water board areas prior to privatisation. They were based on the natural river basin catchment areas, which of course is logical. As a result, some of the catchments cross the border, as the hon. Gentleman rightly states. It would create confusion and cause a number of practical problems if the Secretary of State and the Assembly had jurisdiction over their national areas, because there would be splits on the boundaries.

For that reason, the devolution settlement for water regulation provides for jurisdiction to follow company boundaries. That is the logic and the Bill follows that entirely practical precedent. Because no undertaker

serves an area that is wholly within Wales, the technical consequence of the amendment is that the Assembly would be excluded, and the Secretary of State would have to exercise those powers throughout England and Wales. It is practical management to base the boundaries on catchment areas and not to use political boundaries.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Will the Minister confirm that if an English person were unable to obtain satisfaction from the Assembly because they lived in England, they would be able to appeal to the Secretary of State? If so, I shall have no problem in withdrawing my amendment.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Generally speaking, the line of complaint about water is to Ofwat, which covers both England and Wales. There is no distinction. If someone was unhappy, they could go to their Member of Parliament or local councillor.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister should have had his Shredded Wheat or Weetabix this morning because he will know that I am probably the only Conservative Member of Parliament with a pass to the Welsh Assembly and I am probably one of the only ones whose constituency also has a Welsh name; Llanllieni.

The Minister's explanation is all right for me, but may not be for others who may wish to seek the guidance of the Assembly. However, the amendment would raise a problem and in the interests of being constructive and allowing the Assembly its full range of powers and abilities in the Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I beg to move amendment No. 142, in

clause 43, page 47, line 41, at end insert—

'(1A) In particular, before any alteration to the water pricing or consumer charging regimes, the Authority shall receive guidance to—

(a) define a household income to water charge ratio below which consumers will be regarded as likely to have difficulty paying such charges; and

(b) report on such new measures to be considered by the Secretary of State or the Assembly as will address such difficulties.'.

This amendment is about water poverty and charging mechanisms. The Minister is aware of amendments covering water metering so I shall not stray into that territory today. I want to raise the general issue of water poverty and to try to establish what the Government are doing about that. Guidance to an authority on social and environmental matters should take account of alterations to the water pricing and consumer charging regimes by means of the proposals in the amendment.

I am sure that the Minister knows that between 2 million and 4 million people in this country spend more than 3 per cent. of their income on water and that, in 2002, 4.7 million households in England and Wales were in debt to water companies. That is an increase of 11 per cent. since 1998–99. He will also be aware that debts have increased since the water companies' right to disconnect was ended. I am not

suggesting that that right should be restored because it caused great hardship and many problems.

We must recognise that water debt is rising not because people are wilfully not paying their water bills because they know that they will not be disconnected, although there may be some people in that category and we should deal with them in a different way. Some people simply cannot manage and have problems with their accounts and general management of their finances. When they finally seek advice from the citizens advice bureau or elsewhere—often late in the day when debts of £15,000 or £20,000 have built up—they are advised that the debts should be paid in a particular order. Water bills are low in that order because disconnection is not an option, which is partly why water bills are not being paid and debt is rising. People are genuinely having difficulty with water poverty as a consequence.

The Minister may tell me otherwise, but I am not aware of any Government strategy to tackle water debt and they certainly have not used the Bill to do anything about that, which is a pity. I referred earlier to people who spend more than 3 per cent. of their income on water. That figure is important because it comes from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Minister's own Department has set 3 per cent. of household expenditure as a measure of affordability in its sustainable development indicators and failing to do anything about the fact that that is being exceeded by between 2 million and 4 million people is a failure to follow through their own indicators.

Our amendment would go some way to addressing that, but I confess that it is not the be all and end all or the final solution to the problem. However, it will help in the discussion this morning and, were the amendment to be adopted, it would improve matters. I believe that water poverty is the sort of issue in which Government Members should be interested; some of them are interested in it, judging by what they have said in this and previous Sessions. I hope that there will be some sympathy towards the aims of the amendment.

The Minister needs to deal with the broader poverty issue not simply as part of the water regime but in conjunction with his colleagues at the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions. It should not be left to water companies to cross-subsidise to ensure that water is affordable by the poorest in society. The Minister and the rest of the Committee will know that water companies glide over such matters and subsidise people who do not pay their bills; they try to find creative ways of ensuring that people are not disconnected and that water is continually supplied. However, it is not the water companies' job to do that; the problem should be dealt with by the benefits system, but currently that is not the case. That matter could have been included in the Bill, but has not been.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:30, 16 October 2003

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and valid argument. He will be aware also that the amount of debt owed to water companies is in the region of £700 million and rising fast. That means

that honest consumers who pay their bills are subsidising both those who cannot pay their bills and those who could, but will not do so. If the hon. Gentleman's amendment were accepted, what would he do about the problem of people who live above properties that are not residential, such as pubs or shops, because they can still have their water supply cut off?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Mixed hereditaments present a problem. If there is a residential element in a building, the prohibition on disconnection should also apply. That is the socially desirable outcome, although it could make the debt problem worse.

We must adopt a two-strand philosophy: first, to ensure that people have water, can afford it, and are not disconnected; secondly, to introduce provisions to ensure that the benefit system and other appropriate Government measures can alleviate the problems. That second element is missing from the Government's strategy.

After we had tabled our amendment, I received a letter from the National Consumer Council, warmly endorsing it. It said that the

''NCC believes that affordability of water bills is a serious problem for many households with 18 percent of households spending more than Defra's own sustainable development indicator.''

That is another way of expressing the £2 million to £4 million. The letter continues:

''Severn Trent and Anglia Water Trust Funds report customers approaching their charities have the water bill as just one bill in many, and are struggling to meet their basic needs.''

That reinforces the point that some people dealing with their own accounts have problems with multiple bills. The National Consumer Council also says that there is

''a problem with water affordability that affects more consumers than are assisted by the Vulnerable Groups Regulations.''

The Minister may say that those regulations provide a safety net. If the Minister has talked to Water UK, Water Voice and other representatives of the water industry, he will know that the general consensus is that the vulnerable groups regulations do not work. That is partly because no one knows they exist, partly because the criteria are so tightly drawn that no one qualifies under them and partly because people cannot face the amount of paperwork and other paraphernalia that must be gone through to qualify. The vulnerable groups regulations may be a good idea, but they are not working. What does the Minister intend to do about those regulations? That issue should be addressed in any discussion of water poverty and its alleviation, but I have heard no mention of it in discussion of this amendment, although vulnerable groups were mentioned earlier in the debate.

The Government say that customers struggling with affordability should be helped by means of the tax and benefits system. Potentially, that is the proper way of dealing with it, rather than expecting the water companies to find creative ways of solving the problem of water poverty. However, at present that is not the case. That is key to the amendment but goes

beyond the Minister's brief, which is why I suggested to him that he must discuss the issue with his colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions.

First, the notional element of income support that is intended to cover water bills has not kept pace with increases in those bills. Between 1988 and 1997, the benefit provided fell from 80 per cent. of the average water bill to just 55 per cent.

Secondly, some groups of vulnerable consumers on means-tested benefits, notably households without children, spend a greater proportion of their income on their water bill than others. The average unmeasured household bill in 2001–02 amounted to 8 per cent. of the income of a single person on jobseeker's allowance, which is a significant amount for someone who has not got very much to start with. The average water bill consumed 5 per cent. of the income of a couple on jobseeker's allowance and 4 per cent. of the income of a pensioner on the minimum income guarantee. The figures for measured bills are not dissimilar; 7 per cent., 4 per cent. and 4 per cent. respectively. Again, I return to the Department's 3 per cent. yardstick. In all those cases, people on low incomes, whom one can describe as vulnerable if one wants to, are paying way in excess of the Government's own 3 per cent. yardstick, or metrestick if they have gone metric.

There are variations between regions. This morning, the Minister pooh-poohed the idea of excluding rural areas from an earlier provision. One of his justifications was that water companies might develop differential charges between rural and urban areas in their own regions. I agree with him that we do not want such a situation to arise. However, he does not accept that there is already a massive variation between rural and urban areas. It is possible for a person living on one side of the street to live in an area serviced by one water company and for a person on the other side of the street to receive a much larger bill from another water company.

The existing huge variation in water company bills exacerbates water poverty. From memory—I apologise if this is wrong—Tendring Hundred has the highest average water bill in the entire country, and it represents some rural consumers.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider that remark. I understand that the highest water charges in the country are in the south-west.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

That is not true. I do not have the figures, but I will happily supply them. I received a written answer from the Minister giving the average unmeasured and measured charges for each water company in the country, and I am certain that Tendring Hundred was top of the list. The south-west featured highly, but it was not top. I know that is definitely true because I discussed the matter with one of my south-west colleagues, who made a similar point until I produced the figures. However, it is a side issue. The point is that there are wide variations between Tendring Hundred and the south-west at one end of the scale and Portsmouth Water, which provides water at a cheap rate, at the other.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the map of Great Britain.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Opposition Whip (Commons)

The point is difficult to illustrate in Committee. Most Members in the Room will be interested to learn which part of the United Kingdom Tendring Hundred is in.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I can make a reasonable guess. I think that I am right in saying that it is in Essex, but I stand to be corrected on that point.

If vulnerable groups are paying in excess of DEFRA's 3 per cent. yardstick, the situation will be exacerbated by wide variations in water prices across the country. It is roughly twice as expensive to get water in Tendring Hundred than it is in Portsmouth.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Wherever it is. That makes the situation worse for consumers. A water poverty strategy should be on the Government's agenda.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to draw his remarks more closely to the amendment. This is developing into a general debate on water prices, which would have been more suitable on Second Reading.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I shall try to do that. I was distracted, as you will appreciate, Mr. Amess.

The reason why I mentioned water charges—this is relevant to the clause and the amendment—is that if people paying way more than DEFRA's yardstick of 3 per cent., the problem is exacerbated by the difference between water company charges across the country. If the Government have a water poverty strategy, which they ought to, and want the 3 per cent. figure to be adhered to, they could try to eliminate the differences in water prices between water companies. That is why I raised that particular point.

The National Consumer Council has another point. I agree that

''a perverse cross-subsidy exists through optional metering''.

I do not want to go into metering in any great detail, but some of the country has been metered by stealth while other areas have not been metered. The Government intend to introduce metering but they do not want to say so, so they let the water companies and individuals introduce metering over a long period. I ask them to recognise that a strategy that fails to introduce one thing or the other leads to perversity in the system, which makes the situation even worse.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Liberal Democrats' policy is to introduce compulsory metering?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Our policy is to have universal metering. I shall be happy to discuss our policy in the context and terms of the new clause, which is probably due for discussion at the next sitting.

The present mix-and-match arrangement is making matters worse and leading to water poverty. I hope that the Minister will accept that we have a real

problem because some people are unable to meet their water bills, and that the problem is exacerbated by the current charging arrangements, which have allowed wide variations between water companies, the failure of income support measures notionally to take account of water bills and the failure of the Bill to address any of those issues.

The amendment goes some way to dealing with that. If the Minister does not like that—I suspect that he does not as he does not like any amendments from Opposition Members, or Government Members judging by last week—I hope that he will state the Government strategy on water poverty because so far he has not done so.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Water poverty is a very serious issue, and the Government and DEFRA take it seriously. There is the wider issue of debt, which we need to understand. It is probably too wide and complex an issue for the Bill.

The amendment is technically deficient. I do not want to go into too much detail because I suspect that the hon. Gentleman wishes, perfectly legitimately, to use the amendment to raise the issue of water poverty. Briefly, the amendment does not, for example, say from whom the authority is required to receive guidance and it does not appear that anyone has a duty to provide it. There are technical problems but that is not the issue. I will concentrate on water poverty because it is important, and Opposition Members and the Government are very interested in it.

First, I urge caution on DEFRA's figure of 3 per cent. of household income. As mentioned, we use it as a sustainability indicator, so that we can judge whether the trend is up or down. There has not been a huge amount of detailed work on whether the 3 per cent. figure is valid. It is more of a guideline and is not very sophisticated, although it is useful. I urge caution, however.

On water poverty, we recognise that water is of particular importance. We have already debated vulnerable groups, and, as mentioned, water is the only utility that cannot be disconnected. That recognises the fact that, where there are low-income groups and poverty, it is important to maintain that basic, essential service.

I concede that, as always in life, some people take advantage of facilities designed to help the vulnerable, and there are people who can pay but will not. More can be done to force them to pay, and we are having an ongoing discussion with the water companies about collecting that money.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:45, 16 October 2003

It is reassuring that the Minister is having discussions with the water companies about the extremely high level of water debt; the figure mentioned is around £700 million or £800 million. However, is it not the case that the high level of debt penalises water payers in my part of the country who have to spend an enormous amount of their disposable income on water? What are the Government doing to ensure that those who can pay do pay, so that those who pay but find it difficult are not penalised?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is unacceptable that those who struggle, but nevertheless pay their bills, are paying for those who can but will not. We must disentangle from that figure those who deliberately abuse the system and those with genuine problems. That work can be difficult and forms part of the ongoing discussions with the water companies. There is a range of options that water companies can take, but that goes beyond this discussion. I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that we take the matter seriously. We want progress to be made in reducing that figure, and are talking to Ofwat and the water companies about that.

I want to return to the issue of debt. We should approach debt in relation to our benefit systems and benefit support, taking into account both direct support—for example, housing benefit—and average family income and demands. That is part of the calculation done, for example, when pension levels are set, and it is related to the retail prices index and average inflation. A range of indicators on household and family income is taken into account. That should be dealt with by the DWP, and some complex, difficult issues must be addressed. However, the Government have done a lot of work on poverty alleviation through changes to the benefit system—for example, family tax credits—and have had considerable success in taking 1.5 million children out of poverty.

That does not mean that I am complacent; more needs to be done. There are sensitivities on the subject of water prices, and we are at the beginning of the next five-yearly periodic price review. There are implications for consumers and areas with a legacy from privatisation of disparity of costs. We are sensitive to those issues and must take them into account.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Opposition Whip (Commons)

If the Government are looking at the ratio of affordability of water prices, will the Minister, when examining the figures, take into account working families tax credit and not unemployment in a region? By using one but not the other, we in the south-west have been penalised through our council tax by the new grant resource allocation. There is not a tradition of unemployment in the south-west, but there are a lot of low-paid people in seasonal jobs, and the working families tax credit is a better indicator of poverty in my part of the country than anything else.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is a possibility. The point again goes beyond the discussion of the Bill, but the hon. Gentleman must understand that the use of unemployment figures as the criteria is well established. That is not to say that, as with all matters, there should not be periodic assessments of the calculations and figures used, and I have an open mind on that. There may be better indicators that could be used in a range of calculations. I do not close the door on that, but it is probably not for me to say because those are wider issues.

I return to the point that debt itself is a wider issue. We might be able to take some steps on water, but I think that it is probably best tackled by trying to understand the whole basis of debt. The Government are currently sponsoring several studies to examine the whole issue of debt, including what groups are

particularly vulnerable, how debt arises and what steps can be taken to combat it.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am grateful to the Minister, who is giving a measured and helpful response. He is right that the general issue of debt goes way beyond this Bill, but he will also accept that there are particular circumstances that relate purely to water, including the charging regimes, the distribution of water and the notional element in income support. As part of the Government's overall debt programme, what steps is DEFRA taking to ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury are aware of the specific issues relating to water debt?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I shall come to that in a moment. We are taking a very specific step, and I shall outline exactly what it is. I should also point out that there are considerable differences in debt between companies. We need to look at why there are such differences. Some companies are better at collecting debt than others. That deals with the point that there are some people who are not paying who should be. The courts often have to be used. We need to understand why there are disparities and why some companies have less of a problem than others. We are looking at that. Water Voice feels that many companies could be doing much better at debt collection.

Specifically, at the beginning of this year, DEFRA held a public consultation on extending protection for vulnerable households. That consultation ended in May and the responses are currently with the Department. We are examining them to see what steps we could apply. It is a little difficult at this stage to pre-empt in the Bill some of the work that is being done because it is not straightforward. There is a wide range of issues, forces and pressures here, some of which go way beyond utility bills, including the nature of the support mechanisms in this country and the nature of the debt pressures that there are on people.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

United Utilities told me on Monday that the scale of the debt in the north-west adds £10 on average to everyone's Bill, including those with a debt. It also told me that in areas that have been left in a bad condition by the industrial revolution, water companies have to spend significantly more clearing up the aftermath. It is those areas that have high unemployment because the development of new industries has left those people behind. Will my hon. Friend the Minister bear that in mind when looking at water bills?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, that is a fair point. It is true that many industrial areas have legacies of heavy industry and old, Victorian infrastructure that needs to be replaced. That is not unique to the north-west and north-east. I can assure my hon. Friend that we take that seriously. It is one consideration in the periodic price review. To keep costs down, we recognise that the water industry is a long-term business. We have had some discussion on that. It is about long-term asset management and long-term borrowing. The longer the term over which planning can take place, the lower the costs and impacts on consumers. That is an issue for the regulator; in the end, it is the regulator who will determine prices. The regulator is

independent. We as the Government will make our submission to it, including the issues that concern us, and many of the points that have been raised, including my hon. Friend's, will be in our submission. Water quality is a very serious issue.

The amendment is flawed, but the debate has been useful, because it has allowed the Committee to explore the pressures and problems, and the fact that there is a wider issue, what steps we can take and that there are disparities in debt. If there are high levels of debt in a region, it falls on consumers. We do not like that very much and we are considering what we can do about it and why there are disparities in particular regions. There is a consultation, which we are considering now, about what steps we may be able to take to assist vulnerable groups that come into the category of water poverty. That is not a pressing measure in relation to the Bill. Those are issues that we will apply later on, when we have had a chance to consider them in some detail.

I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Lewes that I agree with him. Water poverty is a serious issue and the Government take it seriously.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am grateful for the reassurance that the Minister takes the issue seriously. I take it that by ''consultation'', he is referring to potential amendments to the vulnerable groups regulations.

Mr. Morley indicated assent.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

That is useful. However, we have not heard anything from the Government about any measures to eliminate not only disparities in collection, to which he has referred, but disparities in water charging and the basic rate, which is still based on the privatisation arrangements, the K factor and all the problems that were inherent at that time. I should like to see a commitment from the Government to try to even out water prices across the country, rather than continuing in perpetuity the flawed privatisation arrangements. I know that the problem is difficult and the solution will not be easy to find, but there are inadequacies and unfairness in the present arrangements that should be addressed.

The Minister is right to refer, as I did, to the upward pressure on water prices, not least today. I urge him to find a way to deal with water poverty quickly. There are conflicting pressures. People such as me and probably most of the Committee will agree that it is proper to invest, for environmental reasons, in the longer term, which may require water bills to rise above inflation. No one likes that, but we accept that it may be necessary. Equally, if water bills rise above inflation, that potentially makes debt and water poverty worse. As a result, understandably, there is a pressure to keep bills down, so that people are not adversely affected when they are most vulnerable.

The way to deal with the matter is to recognise that investment is needed from those who receive the water—the consumers—but that that has to go hand in hand with a proper mechanism to ensure that those who are most vulnerable at the bottom end are not adversely and unfairly affected by the increases. That is why the matter is urgent—water prices are rising—and why it is important that a mechanism is found in

the short term to deal with the problem. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 79, in

clause 43, page 48, line 12, at end insert—

'(g) the public.'.

I am pleased with the amendment, because it is extremely inclusive and very short. It would ensure that, on subjects of environmental importance, the public were included in the consultation. It would be wrong of the Minister to misinterpret that and think that the public, in the form of every voter, had to be consulted widely. The clause states that the Secretary of State shall consult the authority, the council, relevant undertakers, licensed water suppliers and such other persons as the Secretary of State or the Assembly considers it appropriate to consult in relation to the guidance. My amendment would clarify that and just say ''the public''. There is no point in speaking for hours about the benefits of including the public, except to say that, on this sort of issue, they are generally very sensitive, rather sensible and well worth consulting.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:00, 16 October 2003

It is of course important to ensure that there is public consultation. However, the Secretary of State and the Assembly already have an obligation to consider persons whom they think appropriate, and I think that the public are pretty appropriate in this respect. I make that absolutely clear. Furthermore, it is the Department's practice to put consultation papers about whatever it is doing on its website, so that they can be accessed by the public.

The problem is that we cannot be sure of the implications of including the amendment. The hon. Gentleman accepts that it would be excessive to send someone around to every house, knocking on doors and asking for opinions. The Consumer Council for Water is already a statutory consultee in the process and is responsible for representing the interests of water consumers in such consultations.

We are back to the question of balance. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's points. The provisions do not rule out a full public consultation, if Ofwat felt it appropriate. It is important that the public have access to information through the websites and the consultation process, and we believe that the Bill caters for that.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful for that answer, which was pretty much what I expected from the Minister. There is always a danger when we include a provision referring to

''such other persons as the Secretary of State''

considers appropriate. We are going around in a circle, to some extent. It is the Secretary of State who decides everything in that respect. Therefore, by including the public in the clause, we would have circumvented his or her ability to avoid consulting people who might have turned up and been difficult. However, it will be like pushing water up a hill to get the Government to concede on that point. As I have other important

amendments that I wish to get to, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.