New clause 25 - Joint charging for water and sewerage services

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 21 October 2003.

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'After section 144B of the WIA, there is inserted—

''144BB Joint charging for water and sewerage services

With effect from April 1st 2004, notices of payment due from occupants of household premises in respect of—

(a) charges for sewerage services provided by a sewerage undertaker; and

(b) supplies of water provided by a water undertaker

shall be made jointly in single notice.''.'.—[Norman Baker.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

With 10 minutes to go, we are on to the last group, comprising one new clause. The sitting demonstrates the generosity and flexibility of the Government in changing the programming of the Bill to allow two and a half hours of useful discussion this afternoon, but it also indicates the ability of MPs to fill the time available, which we have collectively done this afternoon.

This issue relates particularly to my part of the world in Sussex. I am not sure that it applies anywhere else. As hon. Members know, there are areas of the country in which the water supplier and the sewerage undertaker are different. Those companies either act in concert to provide one bill or send separate bills. Of course, in areas where the water and sewerage undertaker is the same, people are used to getting one bill.

It is good practice throughout the industry that if two companies are involved they work together to send out one bill. I understand from Water UK that that is now standard practice. However, there are pockets of the country, such as in my part of the world, where two bills are still sent out. My constituents receive one bill from South East Water for water and another from Southern Water for sewage disposal.

That can create problems, particularly if people have been used to receiving one bill. For example, a constituent moved from Brighton, where Southern Water supplied water and dealt with sewage disposal. She was used to receiving one bill. When she moved to Lewes, she received a bill from South East Water for her water and, not unreasonably, assumed that it covered the same services that Southern Water had supplied in Brighton. It turned out that that was not the case. For various reasons, Southern Water did not pick up on her moving into the property and no bill was received for the sewerage element for some considerable time.

It was with some amazement and unhappiness that—some 18 months later when the sewerage undertaker finally caught up with her—she received a bill going back some months for her occupancy of the property. Her view was that if there had been one bill that would not have happened.

It is all very well saying that she could have read the bill very carefully and distinguished between the arrangements in Lewes and those in Brighton.

Nevertheless, having been used to one bill, it was not unreasonable that she expected one bill. She was left with a backlog and a payment that was difficult to meet. She found the situation archaic and bizarre.

The new clause seeks to extend the good practice that is standard in most of the country where two companies are involved. It seeks to extend an almost universal practice to those small pockets of the country where two bills are still sent out and to give a deadline of 1 April 2004 for the new system to be put in place.

This is not the biggest issue in the Bill, but it is an inconvenience and a leftover. Good practice suggests that, if it can be done in most of the country, it can be done by South East Water and Southern Water and in those other pockets where the practice still has not been changed. If the Government are not prepared to accept the new clause, I hope that they will at least agree with my proposal and put some pressure on the water companies that are involved to bring about good practice and to eliminate a situation that still exists in some parts of the country.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Briefly, there are two parts of my constituency in which this practice occurs, and never in 20 years have I had any complaint from a constituent about the way the billing system works. There are pros and cons; for example, in encouraging efficiency and in the cost of sending out one bill rather than two, given the computerised nature of billing operations. I shall be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

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

I agree with the hon. Member for Salisbury that there are pros and cons. There are two separate undertakers in my area. Customers receive separate bills because they are receiving two separate services and they want to be clear about what they are paying for as part of the billing they receive.

There may be a case for having joint arrangements in some parts of the country, and I understand that in some areas where there are separate water and sewerage services, voluntary arrangements exist to collect the bills. That should be encouraged when it suits the companies involved and it is cost effective to do so. One problem with the new clause is that it does not specify who is responsible for the cost of the collection charges, the sewerage or water undertaker. If we made joint billing compulsory, we would get into arguments about who should pay. The most efficient and cost-effective method should be used, whether that is through agreements and joint billing or separate billing. It is difficult to encapsulate that in such a new clause.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I hear what the Minister says. I cannot believe that the administrative arrangements in the areas where joint billing has been voluntary agreed are different from those areas where separate billing still persists. The problem from that may not be common, but it exists.

I understand why the Minister does not want the new clause, and I will not push the point. He may be right about the argument for local arrangements, but if he does not want to insist on one bill, he should tell the various companies in the areas where separate bills persist that it would be good practice for their bills to

say in large letters ''Water services only: this does not include sewerage'' or ''Sewerage services only: this does not include water''. That would mean that people would be in no doubt about what the bill is for. At the moment, some people are in doubt.

With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.