Rebuff on water cuts

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The Independent Online
The Government yesterday rejected a call from doctors to make the disconnection of water supplies illegal because of the risk to public health.

Cutting off water to homes could lead to the spread of diseases such as dysentery and hepatitis A, the British Medical Association warned.

The Department of Health said there was no evidence of a danger to health. A spokesman said: "We have never been able to establish any direct relationship between water disconnection and the spread of communicable diseases in the UK."

The company with the largest number of disconnections last year, Thames Water, defended its right to cut off persistent non-payers. A spokeswoman for the company, which made 1,047 disconnections in 1995-96, said cutting off supplies remained a last resort, but added: "We have to distinguish between those people who can't pay and those who won't pay."

In Scotland and Northern Ireland disconnections are already illegal, forcing companies to recover debts without cutting water. The BMA argues there is no reason why the same policy should not be adopted in England, where disconnections have been allowed since 1945.

According to the latest report from the water watchdog, Ofwat, supplies to 5,862 homes in England and Wales were cut off last year because of unpaid bills. That was the lowest level since 1988-89.

Dr Sarah Taylor, a consultant in public health and a member of the BMA's board of science, said: "The fact that the water companies were so easily able to reduce the total numbers of disconnections proves that this approach to debt collection is completely unnecessary, apart from being a danger to public health."

Disconnections made it impossible to take basic hygiene measures, to prepare food safely or to flush the lavatory, she said.