Water firms told: 'target old for meters'

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Labour will raise the stakes in the row over water this week by launching an attack on the water regulator and the Government.

Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, will allege the regulator, Ofwat, has told water companies to use organisations representing the elderly as a "front" to persuade pensioners - who might distrust the companies - to install meters.

His attack on the regulator, when he could be Environment Secretary in two weeks time, will ring alarm bells at Ofwat.

With mounting evidence that there will be another summer of water restrictions, Labour will argue the Tories' want to control the use of water by metering. That means the Government, in collusion with Ofwat, has failed to save water in other ways, such as mending leaks, Labour argues. It claims 810 million gallons are leaking each day.

The Opposition wants immediate measures to tackle leaks in homes, including a free leakage repair scheme for customers, with a freephone to report leaks and free water-efficiency audits.

Yesterday Mr Dobson said: "Day by day we hear more reports that we are facing a water crisis. But the Tories are doing nothing about it. The only thing they are interested in is promoting their hidden agenda to force families all over the country to install a water meter."

Labour's report, "Ending the Meter Mania", will accuse Ofwat and the Government of forcing families without meters to subsidise the 8 per cent with them.

It quotes a Water Services Association document as saying that the privatised water companies have been under "pressure for universal compulsory metering" but oppose the principle. The document refers to a letter sent by the regulator last year to the water companies, advising them to promote meters.

Mr Dobson says the regulator suggests using organisations for the elderly to persuade pensioners to switch to metering. The regulator's letter he quotes adds: "Customers distrust the company's intentions if they are approached directly."