Water supply guaranteed to non-payers

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PEOPLE WHO fail to pay their water bills will no longer have their supplies cut off, the Government announced yesterday.

Disconnection has been used as an ultimate sanction for people who do not pay their bills, but the Government judged that the ill-effects on health caused by lack of running water outweigh the benefits, and it is to be outlawed.

But the move was criticised by the water companies, who said that although no one from a vulnerable group should be cut off, the Government's plan could be seen as an encouragement to bad debtors.

"What this move will do is give a green light to people who simply don't want to pay," said Pamela Taylor, chief executive of Water UK, the companies' trade association. "That means people who do pay could end up with increased bills."

Michael Meacher, the Environment minister who announced that the Government would bring in a new law to ban disconnection, denied that it was acting as "a soft touch".

"We will encourage the water companies to use every means at their disposal to recover unpaid debts, including bailiffs and attachment of earnings orders," he said.

"However, it is our firm belief that no one should be deprived of water because they cannot afford to pay. It is a very substantial deprivation, affecting not only families, but public health as well. It does constitute a public health risk."

Water disconnections rose from a level of 16,000 annually at the time of water privatisation in 1989 to a peak of more than 21,000 in 1991-92, but they have been falling steadily ever since as companies have developed more flexible payment options for consumers, such as monthly direct debits. In 1997-98, there were only 1,907 disconnections, and from April to September this year the figure was 640.

Two of the 27 water companies in England and Wales, South West and Wessex, already operate non-cut off policies and in the most recent period nine of them carried out no disconnections.

The Government also announced yesterday that it was abandoning the idea of compulsory water metering, which had been implied by the scheduled ending in April 2000 of the old rateable values for use as a charging basis. The Government would legislate to keep rateable values in use so that consumers still had a choice of how their bills were calculated, Mr Meacher said.

"Water meters have a real role and we want to see increased use of them, for example when there is a real risk of drought, but we are opposed to universal compulsory metering," he said.

To encourage people on low incomes to use a meter, when it was in their advantage to do so, the Government would in future require all companies to fit one free, he said. At the moment the installation costs can be up to pounds 200. Although the companies will recover these costs through water bills, government officials said they would hardly be noticeable.

About 13 per cent of the 20 million water customers in England and Wales currently have a meter.

The Government also intends to offer protection to groups of water customers with special needs, such as large families on low incomes, or those whose medical conditions require abnormally large use of water.

It will require that very flexible payment arrangements be made available or, in some cases, for charges to be brought in line with the water company's average bill.