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Lord Whitty: The noble Baroness makes a valid point, although it goes somewhat wider than many of the other activities of district and other councils. However, I take her point.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: I thank the Minister very much for his response. I am particularly pleased that in relation to proposed new subsection (8) in my amendment a protocol is being established for new developments. He has referred to a very important matter there.

The second part of my amendment concerning non-adopted sewage schemes relates to a very difficult problem. If the Minister's consultation is taking place, I can certainly give a couple of horrendous examples which may assist him. The worst example that I know of is that a builder deliberately went bust when the local authority was being reorganised. I am aware that that is not the only example of that. Therefore, I hope that a fairly tight solution can be found. It will help an enormous number of people in the country—very often innocent householders—and I look forward to the proposals following the consultation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 86 agreed to.

Clauses 87 to 90 agreed to.

Clause 91 [Communication with public sewers]:

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 185AZA:

"(2A) In subsection (2)(b), leave out "where separate public sewers are provided for foul water and for surface water,"."

The noble Baroness said: This group of amendments deals with the current situation whereby the owners and occupiers of premises and the owners of private sewers have a more or less unrestricted right to connect their drains and sewers to public sewers. While I never like to restrict the rights of individuals, I believe that such action needs to be undertaken in a more planned way because it creates unacceptable problems. The fact that sewerage undertakers have no control over the right to connect contributes to the overloading of sewers and the surcharging and resulting sewer flooding, the details of which we shall not go into.

Surface water can also enter the sewers, but I believe that that should happen as infrequently as possible, particularly where the sewers suffer such an overload. The flowing of relatively clean surface water into the sewers does not constitute good use of them.

Amendment No. 185AZA—the first in this group—ensures in particular that, where a foul public sewer has been provided and there is no surface water public sewer, surface water may not be drained into the foul public sewer. It seems to me that the two things are separate and should be treated separately. Indeed, we shall come to view water in different categories. I

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believe that surface water is known as "grey water" and it is inappropriate that it should enter the public sewer.

Where notice is given of an intention to drain surface water into a public sewer, Amendment No. 185AZB seeks to enable sewerage undertakers to refuse permission for that connection or to grant permission subject to the condition that if an alternative means of drainage is feasible, cost-effective and will alleviate sewer flooding, then that would be preferable.

Amendment No. 185AZC seeks to extend Ofwat's appellate jurisdiction to the reasonableness of sewerage undertakers' decisions. The final two amendments—Amendments Nos. 185AZD and 185AZE—are technical and are based on the first three. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: I recognise the problems to which the noble Baroness refers. She may not be aware that sustainable surface water drainage systems are currently being considered by a working group of all interested parties under the chairmanship of the Environment Agency. If we can develop such systems, they can significantly reduce pressure on the sewerage system by collecting, treating and disposing of surface water locally into the ground. That depends on suitable conditions and therefore it may not suit all areas. We also need to establish the responsibilities and the costs of building and maintaining such systems.

The working group will produce a consultation paper in the spring on the design standards for such systems. Until that work is completed and decisions have been taken on it later in the year, I believe that it would be premature to accept the amendment as it stands and to see whether, as the noble Baroness suggests, we should amend Section 106 of the 1991 Act.

Ofwat has said that it will consider additional investment by sewerage undertakers to deal with the most serious cases of susceptibility to sewerage flooding. It will do so before the next periodic review of water charges in 2005. There needs to be an increase in the rate at which companies rectify sewer flooding problems if they are to get on top of the problem. That has also been made clear to Ofwat by the department. Therefore, we need to proceed on the basis of the current consultation and of ensuring that in its approach to the next periodic review, and prior to that, Ofwat takes account of the need to take action in this respect.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I note that in his remarks the Minister has added yet another burden to the poor long-serving and all-serving Environment Agency. It would be useful if, following the Committee stage, we could have a tabulated list of the functions that have been spelt out. They are not always immediately apparent on the face of the Bill and it would be useful if we could have that so that we know exactly where we stand as a result of this Committee stage, which now goes back over rather a long period.

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Lord Whitty: I am not sure of the feasibility of doing that. I was referring here to an operational consultation conducted by the Environment Agency. The regulatory responsibility will probably be largely on Ofwat. However, I recognise what the noble Lord seeks and I shall see what we can do.

Baroness Byford: Before the noble Lord sits down, I thank him for his last response to my noble friend. Throughout our discussions during the Committee stage of the Bill, we have continually heard references to a consultation on this or something else on that. We are told that this consultation will not take place until the spring, but we are dealing with the problems now.

Therefore, it would be enormously helpful if, in addition to agreeing to the request just put to him, the Minister could provide before Report stage a full list of all the items that are in hand or on which consultation is being sought. The number of such items is becoming vast. I have read the report of the Committee stage as we have proceeded but I believe that such a list would be helpful for the guidance of the Committee and it may well save time at Report stage.

Lord Whitty: I believe that I can undertake to consider providing such a list where the Bill states that there are additional responsibilities on regulators or others. That is one thing, but it would be rather more difficult to consider the totality of what is going on and to produce anything comprehensive or helpful. My comments during the course of the Committee stage have related to particular amendments and particular consultations which may in part be relevant. However, I do not believe that I can undertake to do quite what the noble Baroness is suggesting.

Baroness Byford: I still want to encourage the Minister to do so, if he is able. The size of the task might be reduced if it related only to anything that has come within the confines of the amendments moved. Many issues within the water industry and the Water Framework Directive will come up very shortly. Therefore, at present much is in the air. We have the opportunity—probably the only one in 20 years—to get the matter correct on the face of the Bill. Therefore, if it were possible and did not cause too much expense, I should be most grateful.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the Minister for his helpful reply to the amendment. If the name of the working group is the acronym SUDS, then I was aware of it, but I was not aware that it would report quite so soon. I have sympathy for the request for at least a list of the major working groups and consultations that are taking place. A quick brain-storming session in the Minister's team would produce probably two sides of A4 of items that are directly related to the Water Bill. I, too, would find that helpful. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 185AZB to 185AZE not moved.]

Clause 91 agreed to.

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6.45 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 185ZA:

    After Clause 91, insert the following new clause—

(1) In section 144 of the WIA (liability of occupiers etc. for charges) in subsection (1), after "of this section" insert "and of section 144AA below".
(2) After section 144 of the WIA there is inserted— "144AA LIABILITY OF OWNERS ETC. FOR CHARGES IN PRESCRIBED CASES
(1) In respect of any premises of a class prescribed for the purposes of this section, section 144 above shall take effect as if for the references throughout that section to the occupier, or the occupation of premises there, were substituted references to the owner or the ownership of such premises.
(2) Regulations made for the purposes of subsection (1) above may provide—
(a) that in relation to any premises of such a prescribed class as may be specified, subsection (1) above shall have effect as if for the references to owners and ownership of such premises there were substituted a reference to such persons and such rights as may be prescribed;
(b) that persons of such a class as may be specified shall be excluded from the application of such regulations notwithstanding that they are in relation to premises of a prescribed class the owner or such other person specified under paragraph (a) above;
(c) that the owner or occupier of any premises of a class prescribed pursuant to subsection (1) above which are supplied with water or provided with sewerage services by a relevant undertaker in the course of carrying out its functions shall, when requested in writing to do so by the undertaker, provide the undertaker with such information as may be prescribed concerning the ownership or occupation of those premises;
(d) that such statutory undertakers or public bodies as may be specified shall, when requested in writing to do so by the undertaker, provide the undertaker with such information as may be prescribed concerning the current or former ownership or occupation of any premises of a class prescribed pursuant to subsection (1) above which are or have been supplied with water or provided with sewerage services by a relevant undertaker in the course of carrying out its functions.""

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 185ZA standing in my name refers back to my Second Reading speech on 6th March, recorded at cols. 988 and 989 in the Official Report, in which I made the point about the huge amount of debt which is outstanding in the water industry. The Water Industry Act 1999 makes it illegal for water companies to disconnect customers who have not paid their water bills. However, companies remain under a statutory duty to supply water to customers, even when customers decide not to pay. That surely makes water companies unique. For example, council tax and services may be the only other example. They are of course not private companies.

According to Ofwat, in the year 2001–02, 19 per cent of households—that is almost one in five—did not pay their water bills. That represents 4.4 million households with revenue outstanding. That in turn is an increase of 11 per cent since 1998–99, which was the last year that disconnection was possible. As I said on 6th March, outstanding debt is now running at £717

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million per annum, which is an increase of 10 per cent or 11 per cent. The increased collection costs for recovering debt adds between £1 to £3 to every water bill. Unrecovered debts add a further £6. That is nearly £10 per household to support debtors. In other words, this is a charge on all paying customers.

There is a growing concern that the burdens imposed by "won't" payers on those who do pay can only increase. As I said in my Second Reading speech, this has nothing to do with the inability, in terms of being on benefit, to pay for water. In that regard the most awful people are those who can well afford to pay for water, but, knowing that they will not be disconnected, do not bother to pay.

Anecdotal evidence—again as I said at Second Reading—shows that citizens advice bureaux, money advice centres and customers themselves have dropped the payment of water bills below catalogue and satellite TV payments. Currently, water payments have the lowest priority in deductions from benefit. There is no structure to cover these costs, for example by extending housing benefits to cover water charges. Is that not a contradiction?

The industry is working with the Government to address the issue, but small changes in legislation could help to bring debt under control. I believe that the Water Bill provides an ideal opportunity to address the considerable problem of rising debt in the water industry.

The amendment would help to define the occupier to whom a water service is provided and who is responsible for paying the water bill. At the moment, the Water Industry Act 1999 does not define "occupier" in cases of multiple occupancy—for example, flat sharing, holiday lets, bedsits, lodgings, bed and breakfast and so on—which causes confusion as to who should be charged by water companies. Residents of short lettings may move on before the annual water bill arrives. Finally, it is almost impossible in practical terms for a water company to levy charges on each of the multiple occupants.

The amendment adopts a similar approach to council tax legislation—the Local Government Finance Act 1992—that has successfully dealt with the same issue. That imposes liability to pay council tax in respect of a "chargeable dwelling" upon an ordered list of categories of persons.

The amendment would impose liability to pay water and sewerage charges upon an ordered list of categories or persons for dwellings of a class prescribed by regulations; that is, essentially those houses in multiple occupation. It would require the owner or occupier of a class of dwellings prescribed by regulations to provide the water company with information concerning the ownership and occupation of those dwellings. Finally, it would require public bodies to provide water companies with information concerning the current or former ownership of occupation of dwellings of a class prescribed by regulation. I beg to move.

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