Water sale blamed for increase in dysentery

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CASES of dysentery, an illness associated with bad hygiene, have more than tripled since the privatisation of water, according to figures published yesterday. The rise was linked with the growing difficulties many households face in paying for their water supplies.

The number of dysentery cases in England and Wales was 2,756 in 1990, the year after the water industry was privatised. In 1991 this rose to 9,935.

Over the same period the number of households disconnected from their water also tripled, from 7,273 in 1990-91 to 21,586 in 1991- 92. Health campaigners argue that disconnections, rare before privatisation, reflect the hard commercial line taken by the water companies and pose a growing threat to public health.

The figures were obtained by Helen Jackson, Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, who has launched a campaign against disconnections with support from MPs of all parties. Two hundred signed a Commons motion in protest and Labour's front bench has given its official backing.

At a meeting at Westminster yesterday attended by 40 charities, pressure groups and public authorities, Chris Smith, Labour's spokesman on environmental protection, said the Government treated water 'as if it were any other commodity. It is not any other commodity. It is essential for human life.'

Mrs Jackson said the figures on dysentery could not be taken in isolation from factors such as rising poverty, but they demonstrated the importance of access to water. 'We want to get away from the philosophy that says: 'This is my bit of water. You will buy it or I will take it away.'

However, water disconnections have been linked with a tenfold rise in infectious diseases such as hepatitis and dysentery in parts of the Midlands. Dr John Middleton, director of public health for Sandwell health authority, said there was a 'strong geographical relationship'.

The meeting also heard claims that many water companies were trying to 'cover their embarrassment' over disconnections by promoting water metering. However, with water bills likely to rise faster than the rate of inflation for the next 10 years to finance a pounds 28bn clean-up programme, pressure groups argue that metering will lead to more 'self disconnections' by householders unable to pay. Maureen Dunwoody, of the Merseyside Campaign against Water Meters, accused the companies of 'passing the buck to consumers'.

Compulsory metering on one estate in Bradford has meant that while a family living in a council house is paying pounds 100 a year for its water, a family of similar size next door living in a housing association home with a meter is paying pounds 350.

In Birmingham, a row is brewing over plans by Severn Trent Water to introduce a metering system using 'smart card' technology. The city council is opposed to this and has threatened to use public health powers to stop people being disconnected. Campaign groups argue that metering costs more than it saves and hits large, low-income families and the elderly and ill.

Research into gas disconnections shows that they have fallen from 61,000 to 20,000 a year. However, Elaine Kempson, of the Policy Studies Institute, said they were not being reduced further because of the existence of 'absolutely desperate poverty'.

Ofwat, the water industry regulating body, is divided on the issue, with five of its 10 customer service committees opposed to compulsory meters but Ian Byatt, the director-general, favouring the wider introduction of metering. Margaret Chapman, of the National Campaign for Water Justice, said Ofwat was 'strongly allied to serving the needs' of the water companies and Mr Byatt should resign.