MPs call for action on water bill dodgers
MPs are demanding a Government crackdown on households that refuse to pay their bills – payment dodges that costs South West Water millions of pounds a year.
The Environment Select Committee said it was "unacceptable" that so-called bad debt adds £15 annually to each household's water charge, which is already the highest in the country in the Westcountry.
The influential committee of MPs says legislation already exists that would make it easier for water companies to recover non-payment and put "money in the pocket" of those who do pay their bills.
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The committee's chairman, Anne McIntosh MP, said: "It is simply unacceptable that hard-pressed yet honest householders are subsidising those who are able but unwilling to pay their water bills. Defra must implement existing legal provisions rapidly to tackle this problem."
This year, South West Water's average bill rose by £26 to £543. That is £167 more than the national average.
Unlike electricity and gas providers, no water company can disconnect supply to people's homes, on public health grounds. The Government has ruled out giving water companies this power.
The MPs, who yesterday published their report on the long-awaited Water White Paper, conceded there are households that genuinely struggle to pay their bill – the so-called "can't pays".
But there is a "significant proportion" of bad debt accrued by those who simply "won't pay", principally in the rental sector, where 80% of water debt can be found.
Introduced in 2010, the Flood and Water Management Act would allow companies to bill landlords whose tenants refuse to pay, the MPs said.
"We urge the department to implement the relevant provisions of the Flood and Water Management Act without further delay," the report said.
But the coalition Government favours an "alternative" approach to persuade landlords to pay voluntarily.
In response to the report, Water Minister Richard Benyon said: "It is just not right that responsible people have to pick up the bills of those who are not paying.
"However, mindful of the burden that regulation may impose, I want to explore whether we can take action through a voluntary approach.
"We are now considering the consultation responses before making a final decision, but we must find a way to fill the information gap which is at the heart of this problem."
The Government has promised a £50-a-year discount to all South West Water customers from next year as compensation for botched privatisation in the 1980s.
The water industry wrote off £328 million of household debt in 2010-11. The cost amounts to nearly 4 per cent of the average water bill.
South West Water's bad debt figure was £7.3 million in 2009-10. It did not supply a more up-to-date figure.
A spokesman for the company said: "We have nearly 780,000 bill-paying customers and the vast majority pay their bills on time. However we are very clear that non-payers do place a burden on the law-abiding people who pay their bills, and our approach is to identify early those who need help and advice, and get them on to a plan to help them pay, to avoid people getting too far into debt in the first place."
She added: "Prosecution is a last resort for us, but in fairness to all our customers we can and do prosecute those who try to avoid paying their bills, and recover much of what is owed.
"Water companies across the UK would like more support in finding tenants who leave without paying final bills – they account for almost half of water debt – by making it obligatory for landlords to pass on information."
The select committee also insisted the Government must set clear targets for increasing the number of homes with water meters as part of efforts to better manage England's water supplies.