Tuesday 25th March 2014

(10 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
2: Schedule 1, page 126, line 29, at end insert “for the purpose of, or in relation to, its participation in arrangements made by the undertaker for the introduction of water into its supply system”
Earl of Selborne Portrait The Earl of Selborne (Con)
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My Lords, in moving the amendment, I shall speak also to 33 amendments grouped with it. We return to the potential risk of de-averaging of charges, on which I moved a plethora of amendments in Committee. I think that there was some mystification around the Chamber as to the purport of the amendments. I hope that the amendments this time round will not come as such a mystery, because we rehearsed in Committee the potential risk of de-averaging of charges. There was general agreement that de-averaging was to be avoided, but I think that we still need to test whether the Bill gives the sort of protection that my noble friend the Minister assured us it did in Committee.

The reason why I think that the Bill currently presents a real possibility of non-household customers paying different prices for the same services within the same appointed area is because of the nature of the link between upstream and downstream. The customers who would be most adversely affected by de-averaging of charges would most probably be smaller businesses and non-household customers in more remote rural areas—at this moment, I should declare my interest as a farmer and therefore, by definition, living in a rural area. As I said, the problem arises from the direct link in the Bill between the retailer and the provider of resources. Such a link was allowed in the Water Act 2003 for water in a different form and reappears, modified, in the Bill. The link is introduced for the first time for sewerage services.

The danger is that, if a new entrant retailer can access a new source of water more cheaply than the incumbent and offer it to selected customers with the focus on price, and price alone, there will be no incentive to improve on or even match the incumbent in providing, for example, water efficiency services that might be beneficial to the customer but which might involve an upfront cost for either the retailer or the customer. In other words, if you can offer a simple “buy it cheap” service for specific customers, you have immediately blown a hole in the averaging regime.

The Bill creates perverse incentives which direct the focus of retailers away from helping customers to play their part in reducing levels of water abstraction and, more generally, in building water industry resilience. The Minister told me in Committee, and I am sure that he will repeat, that the amendments would allow incumbents to dictate the future direction of upstream markets. I disagree. As noble Lords will see, the amendments mention participation and allow—indeed, encourage—incumbents to look for innovative solutions, but not at the price of cherry-picking or allowing people to purchase water or sewerage services on price alone.

The Government agree and say in their guidance on draft charging principles that de-averaging must be prevented. I cite their advice:

“No category of customer should be unfairly disadvantaged by the way reform impacts on water charges. A fair and non discriminatory approach to sharing network costs”—

I repeat, sharing network costs—

“will be critical. For example, rural customers must … be protected”.

That we can all agree on. De-averaging is not desirable and must be prevented. The issue is whether the Bill as drafted will lead inexorably to two-tier charging, whatever guidance the Government might be giving on charging at the moment. The guidance goes on to say:

“Averaging of charges is common practice in sectors that have much greater scope for contestability than the water sector does. Ofwat has a number of tools to limit the effect of de-averaging on customer charges. They will use these to ensure that any marginal changes are introduced in a measured fashion and, above all, that they are in the overall interests of consumers”.

My problem is that I am simply not persuaded that Ofwat will indeed have the tools to limit the effect of de-averaging on customer charges. Given the proposed link between retailers and potential upstream service providers, I cannot understand how Ofwat will be able to manage the impact of de-averaging to prevent any unfairness between customers, especially rural customers. The problem is, of course, that once you have allowed that direct link between upstream and the retailers, you have to justify in law any interpretation of the rules in court.

I mentioned in Committee what is perhaps an obscure case, but nevertheless a legal precedent, the Shotton case in Wales, where the precedent was set that local costs were required to be used in a ruling in setting prices under bilateral deals. My noble friend the Minister assured me that this precedent could be ignored, but I remain convinced as I have the feeling that legal precedents are legal precedents. An even more serious threat would be if this were determined under a European law and the United Kingdom Government might not be able to prevent the de-averaging of charges if a link is allowed, as the Bill allows, between the wholesale and retail markets. There is a threat and it is incumbent on us to be absolutely certain that we are not widening the scope for de-averaging by the way in which the Bill is drawn up.

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The necessary safeguards are already in place. The Bill will put in place a robust, binding framework for the regulator as to how charges will be set, and when they may or may not be averaged. We are confident that these tools are fit for purpose. Customers will be protected, and that includes rural customers; our charging principles are explicit on that. I have said before that this view is supported by competition experts, to which my noble friend Lady Parminter referred. For these reasons, I hope that my noble friend will be reassured and feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Earl of Selborne Portrait The Earl of Selborne
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I am most grateful to my noble friend the Minister and, indeed, others who have participated in this short debate. I agree with my noble friend Lord Deben that “de-averaging” is about the ugliest word one could imagine. The fact that it was not in any of the amendments, of course, rather confused those who did not know what the thrust of the amendments might have been.

I hear what the Minister says about these amendments derailing the whole competitive base of the Bill. I do not agree with that. It is perfectly possible to keep the undertaker as part of the competitive agreement while introducing competition at both ends of the spectrum. The real issue is whether we are satisfied that Ofwat does indeed have the powers to prevent the insidious creep of the removal of the averaging of charges. Clearly, most of the advisers take the view that it does and Ofwat itself thinks it does. I only hope that they are right.

There will be an opportunity, on a later amendment, to look at some rather more specific proposals as to how averaging might be protected. For the moment, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.
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Moved by
30: Schedule 2, page 141, line 32, at end insert—
“(c) the costs which would be incurred by a water undertaker in performing any of the duties to which the section 66D agreement relates are also recorded”
Earl of Selborne Portrait The Earl of Selborne
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My Lords, here we come to two much more specific and modest proposals to address the potential threat of de-averaging.

In Schedule 2 on page 141, in proposed new Section 66EA of the Water Industry Act 1991, there are rules set out which make provision about the reduction of charges. These provide for the circumstances in which discounts can be allowed. Amendment 30 would additionally allow a discount only where overall costs to the network are reduced. This should prevent a discount in price which discriminates against other participants on the network. Highly desirable discounts—for example, for direct debit, for advance payments or paperless billing—which are available to everyone would in no way be precluded. If, however, a discount is offered to a customer which effectively loads costs on to other users, then this must be unacceptable. The thrust of the amendment is an attempt to ensure that the charges are not slanted in favour of one customer at the expense of another. Likewise, Amendment 37 makes the same provision for discounts on sewerage services. The sewerage undertaker must be able to offer discounts to all on the network who are sharing the facility, or to none.

Amendments 59 and 60 propose a change to the proposed rules about charges schemes. As drafted at present, subsection (6) of proposed Section 143B of the 1991 Act says:

“The rules may make different provision for different cases, including different provision in relation to different, or different descriptions of, persons, circumstances or localities”.

I accept the case for different rules for persons and circumstances. However, I am very concerned that localities should also be a reason for different rules. That seems to be a hostage to fortune. It will hamper the ability of Ofwat to prevent geographic difference in charges, which could lead once more to charges for rural customers being higher than for urban ones. Amendments 59 and 60 would therefore explicitly rule out different rules for different localities. I beg to move.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait The Lord Speaker (Baroness D'Souza)
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Page 141, line 32, at the end insert the words as printed on the Marshalled List, with the proviso that the last word in that amendment is “reduced” rather than “recorded”.

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Earl of Selborne Portrait The Earl of Selborne
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I am grateful to my noble friend for those observations. I am pleased that he at least agrees with the sentiments behind my amendments. However, I remain worried that where discounts are allowed by Ofwat for a section of the customer network, this could in certain circumstances impact unfavourably on others. If that occurs to non-householders or house- holders in rural areas, as so often could be the case, I fear that that is a slippery slope.

My noble friend said that the proposal to limit the reasons for having different rules might stifle innovation. Again, I simply do not understand why that should be the case. It is simply a proposal to try to ensure that we do not use the remoteness of a locality as an excuse to charge people more than their urban counterparts where, of course, service costs are, indeed, cheaper.

However, I suspect that I will not persuade my noble friend to change his mind. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 30 withdrawn.
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A national affordability scheme is a limited measure which would, however, drive all companies to take up their responsibility to look after their more vulnerable consumers rather more than they have done hitherto. I beg to move.
Earl of Selborne Portrait The Earl of Selborne
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My Lords, I am sure that we are all sympathetic to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to protect vulnerable consumers from the escalating costs of water. Clearly, it is difficult for some people to budget for something that accounts for 5% of their income.

However, before we look at setting up another national scheme, we need to understand why water can account for such a large proportion of people’s budgets. The first thing we have to do is recognise that as well as the “can’t pays” there are the “won’t pays”. The “won’t pays” are those who recognise that it is impossible for them to be deprived of water. People have a right to water whether or not they pay their bill. The expense incurred by water companies chasing those who will not pay but are perfectly capable of doing so in the small claims courts often leads to a long, inefficient drag on resources. It would be interesting to know the national figure for those who fail to pay when their income level is deemed perfectly reasonable. Perhaps the Minister has that figure available.

When the Science and Technology Select Committee looked at this issue some six years ago, it was not unusual to find that 10% of consumers from high-income streams did not pay their bills, which shocked me. We came up with a proposal which was accepted by all the members of the committee but not by the Government of the day, or subsequent Governments—namely, that we should follow the Australian practice of reducing to a trickle the water supply of those who could perfectly well pay their bills but did not do so and therefore unloaded costs on to those who were less able to pay their bills. The technology exists to do this but I am afraid that this practice is not considered acceptable. Rather rude remarks were made about their Lordships contributing to the great unwashed. I thought that that was a rather unfair observation. Nevertheless, we need to give the water companies every encouragement to chase those who will not pay. That would help those who cannot pay, who this amendment seeks to help.

Baroness Byford Portrait Baroness Byford (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend has beaten me to the point that I wish to raise. Over the years, during consideration of whichever water Bill, we have had this debate on how you cope with those who are well able to pay but who choose not to do so. My noble friend is quite right: for various reasons, water is never cut off while, unfortunately, electricity can be. It is an unusual situation in that the water industry is the only one in which that position still exists.

I have some questions for the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on his amendments. First, how would he balance that situation with what he is proposing? Secondly, does he have his own definition of what minimum standards might be, because he has clearly said that it would be for the Government of the day or officials to come up with them? It would be a good idea if the Official Opposition had some direct input themselves into that. Thirdly, the noble Lord said, “We can refer the matter to secondary legislation”. I have sat here on many occasions when we have all said, “Secondary legislation is all right but we do not have any control of it”. We have control of the Bill at this stage and it is essential to deal with this matter in the Bill rather than leave it to secondary legislation, if that were possible.

This is an important issue. When we were considering the Water Bill many years ago, it was difficult to decide who would qualify for being a special case and the circumstances that would be taken into account. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will put a little more meat on the bone, other than what he has done so far in these two amendments.

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Baroness Parminter Portrait Baroness Parminter
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for raising this issue, which I, along with other colleagues around the House, moved an amendment on in Committee. I am not going to repeat the argument that I and others made at that time, but there has been new information since then. In preparation for Report, Water UK contacted all water companies, asking for their views on this issue. They all saw the requirement to seek permission from the Secretary of State for metering as an unnecessary constraint. They think that the water stress status should not be a requirement for metering; rather, they should be able to decide what to put in their water resources planning framework on the merits of the case, including what customers want.

Wessex Water and Northumbrian Water have gone on the record separately on this issue, Wessex Water saying:

“In our WRMP we considered the pros and cons of compulsory metering, even though being in a non-water-stressed area we couldn’t introduce it. Our analysis showed that metering on change of occupancy was a better approach as it gave greater long-term water savings whilst retaining customer acceptability. Metering on this basis will be put in our WRMP and business plans, even though we can’t introduce it”.

This seems to me to be a reasonable amendment. All it does is give companies the right to speak to their customers and manage their businesses to their benefit and that of increasingly scarce water resources. I respond to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, by saying that it is not just Cross-Benchers who are prepared to swim against the tide; the Liberal Democrats are well used to being out of step with the other two main political parties, and on this occasion I am happy to join fellow Cross-Benchers to support them on this important issue.

Earl of Selborne Portrait The Earl of Selborne
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My Lords, I think those on the Conservative Benches should support the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, as well—as indeed I am sure many of us do. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who says that we simply have to value our natural resources. We in this country are totally out of step with the whole movement towards valuing natural capital and understanding the extent to which our natural resources underpin our economy and our quality of life. It makes obvious sense, therefore, that we should all be aware of our footprint, and if we think that we have the right to buy water at a rate that reflects some old rateable value as opposed to our actual consumption, we are simply denying our responsibility to understand our long-term impact.

As I understand it, this amendment is tabled more in order to demonstrate that the water companies can already do what the amendment seeks that they do, so I expect that the Minister will say that it is unnecessary, but it is certainly not unnecessary if it demonstrates what is obvious. I cannot understand why anyone should say that it is against the tide of the day; it is my understanding that every party supports the idea that we should value our natural resources properly, and who could say, therefore, that water should be exempt from that process?

Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for laying this amendment, and I think I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for his contribution, with all his liquid metaphors. I was pleased to speak at the WaterAid reception last night, which he attended, so I assure him—I think he knows it—that we recognise the importance of water, whether it is in developing countries or in the United Kingdom.

We have thought carefully about metering in bringing this Bill through Parliament. Our position on metering seeks to strike a balance between the benefits that metering brings and the consequences that it can have for customers and their bills. We agree that metering is a fair basis for charging, but we are also concerned about the potential impacts on struggling customers. As the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, has observed, any customer can request a meter. The company must then fit a meter for free. That customer has a year to decide whether to revert to paying according to the rateable value if it turns out that they are worse off.

We are already seeing increasing levels of metering across the country. Next year will see the number of metered households reach 50%, with a trajectory towards 80% by 2040. Where there is a credible economic case, any company may install meters across all or part of their area. The only restriction is on imposing metered charges on customers without their consent. Companies could, as the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, suggests, install a complete street or neighbourhood at the same time; and to answer my noble friend Lady Parminter, companies can put in meters throughout.

The evidence shows that the case for imposing metered charges on all customers in an area can be made in water-stressed areas where there is an insufficient supply of water to meet projected demand. The amount of available water varies around the country. When it makes social, environmental and economic sense to do so, charging all customers according to a meter is already a possibility, but in areas where water resources are not under pressure, imposing meter charges is restricted because of our concerns about affordability.

There are two sets of costs that must be considered here. First, the investment cost of installing meters across an area can put up bills for all the customers in that area. Secondly, imposing metered charges across an area can increase the bills of some of the worst off in society. This is not something that anyone wishes to do in areas that have sufficient water to meet demand.

The balance will doubtless change over time. With climate change and population growth, the case for universal metering in particular areas will no doubt shift. That is why we revised the water stress designation last year: to take better account of long-term climate projections and information about environmental pressures. We wanted to ensure that the designation of serious water stress is forward looking. It is also updated on a regular basis, and we will continue to keep the situation across the country under review. I hope that that does something to reassure noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, asked me to clarify the circumstances in which companies can install meters, and he made the point that a number of organisations were not clear about the situation. I hope I have answered his question, but for the avoidance of doubt let me do so again for the record. Water companies are able to install meters wherever there is a good case for doing so. There is a variety of reasons why they may choose to do this, including to improve leakage detection and enhance their understanding of consumer behaviour. A number of companies already do this. What the companies are not allowed to do is to impose charges by reference to that meter without the householder’s agreement. The exception to this rule is in areas of serious water stress, for the reasons that I have mentioned. It is not the installation of meters, therefore, that is restricted; it is making people pay a metered charge without their consent in other areas. I hope that answers the noble Lord’s question.

The noble Lord also mentioned the complexity of the legislation in this area. We agree that the prescribed conditions regulations, which govern the restrictions around metering, are complex and hard to follow. I am glad to be able to confirm that under the Government’s Red Tape Challenge, we have a commitment to consolidate these regulations by April 2015.

Water companies can install meters wherever it makes sense to do so, but it is the householder who decides whether they wish to be charged by reference to it in the areas where that is permitted. There is flexibility to allow universal metering in the wider interest of water efficiency in areas of serious water stress. This is a careful balance. I hope that the noble Lord will be willing to withdraw his amendment, although I am sure he will do so with great reluctance.