Water disconnection increases 'alarming': Ofwat says companies are resisting privatisation guidelines

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The Independent Online
THE WATER industry is resisting moves that are designed to reduce customers' debts and avoid disconnections, according to a report published yesterday.

Although water disconnections dropped by 12 per cent last year, the national figures disguise sharp increases in some areas. The consumer lobby described these as 'alarming'. The report, from Ofwat, the industry regulatory body, also charts a steady increase in the volume of water debt.

By the end of 1991-92, there were 300,000 households paying off a water bill debt, an increase of 200 per cent on the previous year. The industry is issuing fewer summonses - 650,000 in 1991-92, down by 19 per cent. However, in the 1990-92 period at least 800,000 county court judgments were obtained for water debt.

Ofwat's report suggests that 22 per cent of households disconnected lose their supply for more than a week, confirming the health fears raised by consumer groups. Another 22 per cent lose water for between 48 hours and a week; in 56 per cent of cases water is restored within 48 hours.

Mounting criticism of the rise in disconnections since privatisation, from 7,673 in 1990-91 to 21,282 in 1991- 92, led to an inquiry by Ofwat into how well the industry's voluntary guidelines on debt and disconnection were being observed.

The report says that some companies still have a 'persistently high rate of disconections'. It goes on: 'Most companies show resistance to adopting important aspects of the guidelines.'

There is a 'widespread reluctance' to publicise frequent-payment methods, for example, which could work out more expensive for the industry in the long run, than allowing individual customers to fall into debt.

The fall in disconnections, to 18,636 in 1992-93, masks increases of up to 3,718 per cent. Ian Byatt, the director-general of water services, welcomed the overall reduction but described the response by some companies as disappointing. Ofwat's customer service committees are contacting five companies whose policies are of 'particular concern' - Northumbria, Southern, Cambridge, Folkestone and Dover, and Mid-Southern.

The National Consumer Council yesterday singled out Thames Water, whose 1,297 per cent increase in disconnections is the third highest, and Southern. The NCC chairman, Lady Wilcox, said that the dramatic difference in rates of disconnection - they vary, for example, from nil to 40.77 per 10,000 households - could not be explained away by different conditions and indicated an urgent need for stronger regulation.

A Bill to outlaw water disconnections in England and Wales was introduced in the Commons yesterday by Helen Jackson, Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, under the 10- minute rule procedure, after a campaign supported by 200 MPs from all parties and 70 voluntary groups and local authorities.

Christopher Smith, Labour's environment spokesman, gave the Bill official party backing and said Labour would ban disconnections immediately on taking office. He described them as barbaric and 'part of a clear attempt to turn water from a public service to a private money-spinner'.

The Institution of Environmental Health Officers yesterday urged Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, to make disconnections illegal. Private companies should not have the right 'to render tens of thousands of homes unfit for human habitation for solely commercial reasons', the institute said in a letter to Mr Howard.

----------------------------------------------------------------- DOMESTIC WATER DISCONNECTIONS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Company 1992-93 1991-92 %Rise/Fall Highest increases North Surrey 420 11 3,718 Portsmouth 674 23 2,830 Thames 852 61 1,297 Chester 106 13 715 Folkestone & Dover 132 32 313 Highest decreases North-East 8 210 -96 Anglian 214 1306 -84 Bournemouth & West Hants 72 342 -79 North-West 495 2,074 -76 East Worcs 7 19 -63 -----------------------------------------------------------------