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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may say that both she and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, have spoken about balance. Does the noble Baroness agree that if one sector of customers has one year in which to operate the scheme and another sector has six months, something is out of kilter?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the circumstances are different in those cases. During a period of tenancy the consumer is bound to be a different person. The example cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, was of a tenant moving in and moving out. The comparison during a 12-month period would not be for the same occupants using the same amounts of water.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for their support on what I consider an important matter.

I thank the Minister for her lengthy answer but I do not accept it for several reasons. Before giving the reasons, I wish to meet her point about the fat cats, Yorkshire and the arid desert. I did not mention those factors when I argued a similar amendment in Committee. In Committee, I tried to be factual about the position. That got me absolutely nowhere, so I thought that I would change my tactic. There is no harm in trying! I tried and the Minister rose a little to what I said. But that was the purpose of my comment.

I wish to make a couple of points. First, I do not believe that the Minister has addressed herself to one of the most important areas I was discussing. It was the tenant having the ability to extend rights over a property beyond the length of his lease. I mentioned a tenant being unable to give a right of way beyond the time he lived in the property.

The provisions are new to English property law and need examination. I have no intention of dividing the House tonight, but I hope that the officials in the Box in particular will listen carefully to my comments. I do not believe that the issue should be pushed under the carpet.

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The Minister said that when an owner returns to his property it is just like a new owner moving in. A new owner buys a property as it exists. Let us suppose that an owner, possibly a man with children at boarding school, is posted overseas. The tenant moving into his property may be a single person who decides to have a water meter. So be it. However, when the owner returns, the tenant having moved out, he might feel that that is not an economical move. The property was his, but it was altered against his will because he had no right. That is atrocious.

This is a particularly difficult issue. I have no interest one way or another--because I happen to have an interest in a property, it will make no odds to me one way or another--but I have declared an interest. For that reason, I would loath to have to push the amendment. If it were someone else's, I would have loved to support it. However, it was appropriate for me to draw it to the attention of the House. I shall withdraw it, but I hope that the Government will give it serious consideration.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, before the noble Baroness formally seeks to withdraw the amendment, perhaps I may draw her attention yet again to the fact that, if landlords feel strongly about the basis of water charging on their property, particularly in the circumstance of someone posted abroad for a short time, it is open to them to arrange to pay the charges themselves and charging the tenants for that. In such circumstances, the tenants would not be expected to have an interest in seeking to change the basis--

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I heard the noble Baroness say that previously. I also noted carefully what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about people throwing away Bills and bits of information. It may well be that someone posted abroad would not know about the change. I am saying to the Minister that I do not believe that that is an excuse for the Government to interfere with the property rights of a landlord beyond the extension of the lease he has granted. That might be a way out, but it is not right. The situation is embarrassing for me and I certainly shall not divide the House. I am looking around at my colleagues and at Members on the other Benches and I believe that it would be totally inappropriate to divide the House. I should not wish to, but I ask the Government urgently to reconsider the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]

8.45 p.m.

Clause 7 [Restriction on change in basis of charging]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No 9:


Page 5, line 45, at end insert (", and
(d) such conditions as may be prescribed are satisfied in relation to the water resources available to the area in which the premises are sited").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, following the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, perhaps I may make it clear that I was not saying that I throw

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away bills. I tend to pay bills, but it is the bits which come with them that I throw away--or rather put into a bag for recycling.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, to suggest that the noble Baroness throws her bills away would be quite appalling!

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, Amendment No. 9 is the environmental amendment. Its purpose is to allow water companies to require customers in areas of water stress to be metered. During earlier stages, particularly at Second Reading, we spoke about the variation in rainfall and water demand in different regions. The latter is closely related to density of population. In areas such as the south east of England, it is difficult to meet the rising demands for water while at the same time protecting the environment. Your Lordships will be aware of examples of environmental damage. Many have been reported in the press, particularly when rivers run very low. I understand that environmental damage has been caused to 50 nationally important rivers and wetlands.

The amendment seeks to allow demand management measures in order to ameliorate the environmental impact and to ensure that sufficient water is available for customers in future. Water metering can be regarded as an important component in demand management. In tabling the amendment, I suggest that water companies should be able to target water metering to areas of water stress.

Some companies already operate a policy of compulsory metering in such circumstances. I understand that in 1994 Folkestone and Dover water, as part of a scheme for demand management, included the compulsory metering of customers on a zone by zone basis. That reduced demands, or at any rate use, to levels experienced in the early 1980s. Your Lordships will immediately appreciate the environmental benefits of that. Incidentally, it helped the company to raise service standards. The concern is that the Bill prevents water companies from applying such an arrangement.

The Director General of Water Services, responding to the recent government consultation on charging, stated that where appropriate he is in favour of companies retaining a general right to meter customers where water resources are scarce. The Environment Agency, responding to the same consultation, has supported compulsory metering for sprinkler users and swimming pool owners and for areas of water resource stress.

The amendment proposes a further subsection to the clause to allow conditions to be set in regulations regarding the water resources situation in the area where the premises are located. If they are within an area of water stress, the consumer would not benefit from the right to refuse a meter. I have proposed that as an enabling power. Likewise, if water companies decided to make use of the option, they could introduce metering in a phased way.

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I appreciate that areas of water stress would be defined in regulations. In order to pre-empt the point that the Minister has made three or four times during the course of this and other legislation--picking me up whenever I suggest that the Secretary of State has an additional power--one must sometimes accept that powers will be given to the Secretary of State to achieve a greater good. If the Minister continues to make that point he will find extremely long amendments tabled from these Benches to constrain what the Secretary of State can do and to flesh out our amendments. That may be a considerable temptation in the next large piece of legislation that will face your Lordships. I accept that the Secretary of State will have additional powers that will be required to identify the areas.

I understand that there are recent government proposals for abstraction licensing that would be helpful. Those require the Environment Agency to develop abstraction management strategies for each river catchment, so that there are local strategies. The agency could define areas of water stress using the information from those strategies, which I understand have to be reviewed on a six-yearly basis.

This amendment is not designed to override the provisions in the Bill to protect vulnerable households from metering. They would still be available for the special protection measures that have been identified. However, I hope that the Government will recognise--returning to this elusive objective of balance--that that is an appropriate balancing provision. I beg to move.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, although I was happy for my amendments to be grouped with Amendment No. 9, Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 relate to a completely different point. I tabled these two amendments in Committee, but in view of the shortage of time that evening I did not move them. At that stage, they were intended to be probing amendments, but I believe that they require substantive consideration by the Minister, who has had more than a month to think about them.

As at present drafted, subsection (2) prohibits an undertaker from installing a meter unless the consumer has requested it, or has consented to it, or unless there has been a change in the occupation of the premises and the new occupier has not yet received a bill on a non-metered basis.

Another set of circumstances where the continuation of an unmetered charge would be inappropriate, because a continuation of the use of the rateable value would be inappropriate, is in cases where the premises have been so substantially altered that the rateable value should have been increased, and would have been increased, but for the repeal of Part V of the General Rate Act 1967.

Since rateable values were last set in the late 1970s, many properties, especially houses, have been substantially modified. Extensions and garages have been built, attics have been converted into extra rooms, and so on. In most cases the ever-vigilant district surveyor will have caught up with the owner of the property and the rateable value will have been increased,

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thereby triggering an increase in the water rates. However, in cases where the rateable value has not been increased, and in future cases where there are substantial alterations to a property, the owner could be paying an unduly low water bill because the rateable value has not been increased to reflect the enhancement of the property. The addition to sub-clause (2) removes that anomaly by allowing the supplier to switch to a metered supply.

It is logical that, if a newly built property is automatically to have its supply metered under the terms of this Bill, to all intents and purposes what is a newly converted or substantially altered property should be dealt with in the same way.

That is also consistent with the Government's acknowledgement that eventually all properties will be on a metered charge basis, as was made clear by the Minister for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in Committee in the other place when subsection (2)(b) was debated at some length.

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that persons whose properties have increased in value because of substantial alterations do not pay a disproportionately low amount of water charges because there is no longer any machinery to increase their rateable value. That casts an unfair burden on the other customers, as both Ministers have mentioned in other instances.

Amendment No. 11 provides for disputes under this clause to be referred to the director under the appeals procedure set up by new Section 30A. Of course, disputes can arise, especially when the water company claims to have discovered that a substantial alteration which would have resulted in an increase in the rateable value has been made to the property whereas the owner will doubtless want to argue that the alteration is so insignificant that there has been no increase.

How big is substantial? I do not believe that we have to trouble ourselves by trying to define how big substantial is. The director can puzzle that one out. After all, that is part of his job.

As I said, this amendment draws attention to an anomaly. If this group of amendments is not acceptable to the Government, perhaps the Minister will not only tell your Lordships why not, but also tell us what alternative solution the Government have to resolve the problem.


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