§ 4.3 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 for pensioners and low income families.I am delighted to have this opportunity to try to introduce once again a Water Services Charges (Rebates) Bill. I have tried to get such a Bill through in the last two parliamentary Sessions, but have not succeeded. I hope that this time I shall be more successful.
The Bill is designed to meet the problems of water service charges—better known as water rates—which are unfair and cause considerable hardship to those on low incomes. The charges now cover the supply of water and the removal of sewage. They are unfair because they take no account of the water used or the amount of sewage that must be disposed of from each house.
Take the example of two identical houses, one occupied by an elderly lady living on her own and one occupied by a family of five. The elderly lady will use very little water and create only a little sewage. Next door, in an identical house, a family of five consumes vast amounts of water in baths, automatic washing machines, washing up, and washing the car. Five people also produce a large amount of sewage. Both families pay the same water services charge, which is based on the rateable value of the property. This is very unfair.
The water services charge takes no account of a person's ability to pay. A constituent of mine has a general rate bill of £132, but because of the rebate system he pays only £16 a year. On the other hand, his water services charge bill is £32 a year and he has to pay the whole amount because no account is taken of his ability to pay. Therefore, he ends up paying twice as much for his water services charges as he does for the whole of his rates. That is ridiculous.
Another reason why the charges are unfair is that the water authorities, in spite of some improvements, are still not making it possible for people to pay in install- 276 ments. This causes considerable hardship. For instance, those people who are on supplementary benefits receive from the Supplementary Benefits Commission a small weekly amount to pay for their water services charges. However, they have to save that money up to pay out—usually in two instalments—to the water authority. Also, the water authorities demand payments early in the year, long before the person has received his money from the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Therefore, on those grounds alone, the present charging system is causing hardship and difficulty.
In the 1960s the case was strongly developed for general rate rebates. When these were introduced, they did a little to reduce the unfairness of the general rating system. From 1964 to 1974 this applied to sewerage charges, which were included in the general rates. Then, as a result of the reorganisation of the water undertakings carried out by the last Conservative Government, people lost the rebate on the sewerage system and this once again caused hardship. Now that the water rates have increased—and in the last 10 years they have grown much faster than the general rate of inflation—and have had added to them the sewerage charges, they have become a considerable burden. Many families are now paying £1 a week to cover water services charges. It is high time that these charges were subject to some form of rebate system that would take account of a family's ability to pay.
The water authorities have always claimed that they should be treated like the gas and electricity boards. However, the problem is that, unlike the gas and electricity boards, the water authorities have no way of measuring the amount of water supplied. Recently, there was a suggestion from a Conservative Member that water should be metered, but there have been no suggestions that sewage disposal should be metered. Therefore, we cannot really consider that the water undertakings are in any way like the gas and electricity boards.
Although it is beyond the scope of my Bill, I feel very strongly that the water authorities should be returned to local democratic control. In the meantime, I feel that we should now introduce a system by which the water services 277 charges are eligible for rebate, like the general rates.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Bob Cryer, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mr. Jack Straw, Mr. J. W. Rooker, Mr. Stan Thorne and Mr. Ken Eastham.