§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for rebates on water services charges in respect of pensioners and low income families.A large number of my constituents have written to me about water services charges. Probably most hon. Members know them better as water rates. However, they were renamed in the 1973 legislation. More recently, in addition to the letters that constituents have written, I have taken the trouble to consult many of my constituents on what is clearly to them a major problem. Many of them have taken much trouble clearly to express their views to me.
It is clear that all my constituents who have spoken to me are dissatisfied with the North-West Water Authority and the 837 way in which its charges have increased and increased since it was set up in 1973. It is clear that the Authority is extremely unpopular. Indeed, almost every other water authority in England and Wales is equally unpopular. That which concerns my constituents especially is that the North-West Water Authority is in no way publicly accountable. It is run by a board of appointed people who have no responsibility to the public in any way. My constituents find this a deplorable situation.
My constituents are particularly concerned at the way in which the North-West Water Authority appears to have carried out many public acts which appear deliberately to push up charges. They are particularly appalled—it may be a small matter—about the incident regarding the chairman's number plate. They are concerned about the glossy annual reports which the North-West Water Authority sends out. They are concerned about the way in which industrial metering has been changed and the problems that has produced for sprinkler companies and others. They are concerned about the way that bills are being sent out. At one time bills were sent out from the local town hall. But the North-West Water Authority set up its own empire to send out the bills. There are many areas in which the North-West Water Authority appears unnecessarily to have put up charges.
It is clear that those of my constituents whom I have consulted would like me to bring forward a Bill to abolish the North-West Water Authority. I suspect that in the country as a whole a Bill to abolish the water authorities would be extremely popular. But, as far as I can see, that is not practical in a Ten-Minute Rule Bill. I think that my constituents would like the water authorities to be abolished, the Government nationally to take responsibility for collection of water and disposal of sewage and the local authorities again to have the task of supplying water to individual premises and to remove sewage. But that is not practical in a Ten-Minute Bill. However, I hope that the Government will do something about the matter quickly.
I am seeking leave to introduce a Bill which will relieve the worst of the hardship. The use of rateable values to make charges is not fair when dealing with 838 general rates, but at least one can justify using rateable values for the general rates, because that system permits local democracy to have some say in the levels of expenditure on services. We managed to reduce some of the unfairness of the general rate as a result of legislation in the early 1960s which introduced the means test and produced the rates rebate. Therefore, we can say that rates allow for local democracy and some modification as a result of the means test and rate rebates.
However, rateable values, when used for water services charges, even if a standing charge is involved, are in no way controlled by locally elected people and take no account of how much water or sewage is involved in a particular household. Nor do they take account of the individual's ability to pay.
Rebates for general rates were first introduced in the 1960s. If we had included the water rate at that point, the charge would have been very small—in most instances under £5. To have included that in the rebate system would have involved a lot of unnecessary administration for very little benefit. But that is no longer true. The water rate and sewerage charges are becoming considerable burdens.
I should like to quote one example of one of my constituents, Mr. Williams, who came to my advice bureau on Saturday morning. I think that his problem is typical of that facing many pensioners. He had with him two bills. One was for his general rates. It set out clearly that the charge for his premises would be £121. He then had his rebate taken into account. As a result of the means test and his ability to pay, he had to pay £16.58. His bill amounted to £121, but it was reduced as a result of the rebate to £16.58.
The second bill was his water service charge which worked out at £35.66. There was no rebate on that at all. Therefore, the actual amount that he had to pay was £35.66. In other words, he was being asked to pay over twice as much for water and sewerage as for all the other local government services. In his case and in many other cases the water and sewerage charges are now causing a great deal of hardship. We are, in effect, asking for 50p or £1 a week for water and sewerage services.
839 I know that some of the boards have made great claims about having made it easier for people to pay by instalments or a stamp scheme. But most of these easy payment schemes are not easy payment schemes at all, because they involve people making payments much earlier than if they paid the lump sum.
I suggest that the problem is particularly acute for pensioners who have a grievance about the amount of water that they use. It is also true for many low-income families who have great difficulty in finding a lump sum of about £50 to pay these charges.
I have had many letters from pensioners pointing out how little water they use. Often they feel resentful that they cannot use more water. Many of them find it extremely difficult to get in and out of a bath, so they do not use as much water as they would like. Others, who cannot afford automatic washing machines and take their clothes to a launderette, find that they have to pay for the water that they might have been able to use at home in addition to the charge at the launderette to have their clothes washed.
Many pensioners live next door to families which have two or three children. Such families have frequent baths and often have an automatic washing machine. Water is also used for the garden or for cleaning the car. In such households the tanks and the pipes never seem to stop gurgling as the water goes through. Yet for pensioners living next door, who use very little water, the charges are identical.
Some of my constituents believe that metering water supplies would solve the problem, but the vast majority are opposed to metering on public health grounds and the cost of installing and reading water meters. They feel that the immediate need is to give a means-tested 840 rebate on the water services charge and then to get on and reorganise the water authorities. They feel bitter about the reorganisation not only of the water authorities but of the Health Service and local government generally by the Conservative Government in 1973. However, they are increasingly beginning to say "That lot may have made a mess of it in 1973. But why on earth have not this Government got on with putting things right since?"
I ask the House to allow this Bill to be introduced. My constituents know that at this point in this Session it does not have much chance of becoming law. However, they ask the Government to see the need to do something now and to note the justice of rebates on water services charges. They hope that it will not be necessary for an hon. Member to raise this matter again next Session, but that the Government will take a lead from the national executive committee of the Labour Party and ensure that it becomes Government policy that we have rebates on water charges and that they either bring forward legislation or support my Bill.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. George Rodgers, Mr. Max Madden, Mr. Brian Sedgemore, Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, Mr. Frank Allaun, Mr. Mike Noble, Mr. Terry Walker and Mr. James Lamond.