Yorkshire Water has become the first utility in Britain to establish a charitable fund to help the poor pay their half-yearly rates, rather than have their service cut off.
The company, which recently gave its 1.4 million users a pounds 10 rate discount, has poured pounds 100,000 into the Yorkshire Water Community Trust, from which customers in genuine need can receive part or full payment of their bills.
The move is the latest in Yorkshire's efforts to reduce the number of customers it cuts off. Last year it disconnected 700 people for non-payment of bills, down from 1,149 in 1993 and 2,394 in 1992.
The new fund will be administered by a board of trustees from local community organisations, Barnardo's and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service. It will include a former member of Ofwat, the industry's regulatory body, and will be chaired by Pat Marsh, a main board director of the utility.
"We believe that what we are doing here in helping people who genuinely cannot afford to pay will be an example to other utilities," said Mrs Marsh. "People without money do not just need advice, they need money. There is no advantage to Yorkshire Water in having to cut them off if they do not pay their bills."
Although the utility is undertaking a wide-ranging customer relations programme to improve its image, Mrs Marsh insisted the scheme was not just a PR gimmick. "It is not a cosmetic exercise," she said. "We will only help people in real difficulty."
Ads publicising the scheme are to appear in post offices, social services departments and advice centres. The utility has also established a help line.