Water companies attacked for rise in disconnections

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The Independent Online
THE PRIVATISED water companies were yesterday blamed for an indiscriminate and 'frightening' increase in the number of households disconnected from the mains supply.

A campaign against disconnections launched at the House of Commons was told that in the West Midlands - parts of which have seen a tough line on non- payment of bills - disconnections have been accompanied by a 'very dramatic' rise in the incidence of infectious diseases such as dysentery and hepatitis A, which are associated with bad hygiene.

Health specialists drew parallels with the prevalence of cholera 150 years ago. John Middleton, director of public health for Sandwell health authority in the West Midlands, said the Victorians recognised 'the need to provide safe, wholesome water supplies for everybody, rich and poor. Water disconnection is something we should not tolerate in a civilised society.'

The campaign, launched by Helen Jackson, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, but also backed by Liberal and Conservative MPs, was a result of 200 signing a Commons motion drawing attention to the trebling of disconnections since 1990. In 1990-91, there were 7,273; for 1991-92 there were 21,586. Health specialists say the trend is still upward.

According to one estimate, at least 55,000 people each year seek help from Citizens' Advice Bureaux over water debts.

The call to outlaw disconnections in England and Wales - they are illegal in Scotland - was backed by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers and the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. It was also supported by the Fire Brigades Union.

The institution accused the water companies of using 'indiscriminate' disconnections, 'without . . . apparently any shred of concern', as a way of deterring potential non-payers and 'pleasing their shareholders'.

Howard Price, an assistant secretary, said it was 'ridiculous' that by cutting off water the companies were making a house unfit for human habitation and a statutory nuisance under housing and environmental laws.

'Health officers have been put in an impossible position. It is quite inappropriate that private companies should render tens of thousands of homes unfit for human habitation for their own commercial reasons.'

In the West Midlands, residents of a high-rise block in Smethwick left excreta in corridors and threw it out of windows after 1 in 20 flats was disconnected. Mr Middleton said in 1991 and 1992 there was a 'marked rise' in disconnections in Sandwell, with 1,400 households losing their supply. Over this period cases of hepatitis and dysentery rose tenfold.

Ofwat, the industry regulating body, said the rapid payment of many bills after disconnection showed customers were unwilling rather than unable to pay.

However, advice bureaux and customer service committees estimated that 'won't pay' customers amounted to between 1 and 5 per cent of the non-payers. Speedy payment often meant 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'.