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Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, it could also be that after the process of consultation nothing would be done; then what do we do? If this is such a serious matter, we want to ensure that it is somewhere in the Bill.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, at the end of the consultation period we will take decisions in the light of the consultation. It is conceivable that one of the options would be to do nothing. I very much doubt it however; this is too serious a problem for no action to be taken.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, listening to the last sentence or so I feel happier. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 168 to 170 not moved.]

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 171:



"DISPUTES OVER DUTY TO PROVIDE SEWERS
(1) Section 101A of the WIA (further duty to provide sewers) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsections (7) to (10), wherever the words "Environment Agency" appear, there is substituted "Secretary of State"."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment changes the appellant body from the Environment Agency to the Secretary of State. That will remove the inequality of sewerage undertakers having to appeal to the body they were in dispute with. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, when the Environment Act was drafted in 1995 it was considered that the Environment Agency was the appropriate body to consider disputes arising from a sewerage undertaker's

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decision. It had, and still has, the expertise for dealing with such matters. I know that there are concerns about the pressure on the Environment Agency with the time taken to deal with such disputes; particularly those challenged by undertakers through a judicial review. But were they to revert to the department, as the noble Baroness's amendment suggests, the department would still have to depend for its expertise on the Environment Agency's advice.

So that would not avoid pressurising the Environment Agency; it would merely lead to a degree of duplication between the department's responsibilities and the expert advice and guidance from the Environment Agency. I am therefore not persuaded that such a change is necessary.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I heard what the Minister said, but I can imagine a situation where if the Secretary of State had responsibility, he or she would have more clout than the Environment Agency to get things done more quickly than at present. I will probably have to come back to the matter. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 172:


    After Clause 91, insert the following new clause—


"LIABILITY OF OWNERS ETC FOR CHARGES IN PRESCRIBED CASES
(1) In section 144 of the WIA (relating to the liability of occupiers for charges), in subsection (1), after "of this section" there is inserted "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 ownership of such premises.
(2) Regulations made for the purposes of subsection (1) above may also modify or extend the application of that subsection in one or more of the following respects by providing that—
(a) in relation to any specified types of premises within the class of premises prescribed for the purposes of subsection (1) above, for the references to the owners and ownership of such specified premises, there shall be substituted references to such other categories of persons and to such rights as may be prescribed by the regulations;
(b) specified classes of persons who are—
(i) owners of classes of premises prescribed for the purposes of subsection (1) above, or
(ii) within those categories of persons prescribed for the purposes of subsection (2)(a) above,
shall be excluded from the application of the regulations;
(c) the owner or occupier of any premises of a class prescribed for the purposes of subsection (1) above which are provided with any service by a relevant undertaker in the course of carrying out its functions shall, when requested in writing to do so by the

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undertaker, provide the undertaker with such information as may be prescribed concerning the ownership or occupation of those premises;
(d) such statutory undertakers or public bodies as may be prescribed shall, when requested in writing to do so by a relevant 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 for the purposes of subsection (1) above which are or have been provided with any service by the undertaker in the course of carrying out its functions.""

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to remedy a deficiency in the water industry legislation. It does not define who is the water industry customer in houses in multiple occupation; for instance, holiday lets, bedsits, lodgings or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It is important that all water industry customers should be properly defined so that relationships can be established and, in particular, so that customers who receive water and sewerage services can be charged for those services and any debt can be collected.

The Water Industry Act 1991 gives statutory water and sewerage undertakers—the water companies—the power to levy water and sewerage charges on the occupiers of properties supplied with water or drained directly or indirectly into a public sewer. That is consistent with the statutory duty on water companies to provide water and sewerage services to the occupiers of such premises under Section 144(1).

The Water Industry Act, with all its amendments, does not define the meaning of the word "occupier". In many cases, that is not a difficulty, but it is a serious problem for houses in multiple occupation. Without a clear definition of "occupier", water and sewage undertakers are having difficulties imposing charges on houses in multiple occupation. Property owners operate such properties as commercial businesses. The existence of a water supply is required to render the property lettable, and in many cases has been provided at the request of the owner.

Owners argue that they are not responsible for charges and that the water companies should bill the occupiers. However, there is no requirement on them to tell the industry who the occupiers are. Moreover, in many situations the tenants' occupation is far too transient and temporary to enable a water company to levy charges to each multiple occupant. Indeed, water companies would be in breach of privacy if they inquired on a monthly basis about the number of tenants or bedsitters in each lodging for the past month, whether they were single or a couple and therefore what fraction of the bill attributable to the property could be sent to each named individual. That simply does not make sense, but that is the ridiculous situation that directly results from a lack in a definition in law of the term "occupier".

The water industry has sought legal opinion and has been advised by Queen's Counsel that the definition of the term "occupier" in cases of multiple occupation can be secured only through further legislation. The water industry is in a unique situation in that companies have a statutory duty to supply, whether or

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not they are paid by their customers. In that respect, their legal situation is similar to that of local authorities, which provide services such as rubbish collection to individual properties and to people living in them, irrespective of whether council tax has been paid.

The amendment draws on the solution that enables local authorities to levy council tax in cases of multiple occupation. It provides for regulations to define the body of individuals liable to pay water or sewage charges for particular properties by establishing a clear definition of the term "occupier". There is, therefore, an in-built flexibility as to which properties will be affected. The liable individual could be the owner or someone else as determined by regulation. The amendment would also require the owner or occupier of a class of dwellings prescribed by regulations to provide the statutory undertaker with information concerning the ownership and occupation of those dwellings. That would be useful where water companies needed information to ascertain who was the occupier in the case of a particular property.

Importantly, the amendment would not impose a liability on housing associations and local authorities where the usual single landlord tenant relationship exists. Also, it would not change the direct relationship that exists between any person using tap water who needs to get in touch with his or her local water company on matters to do with the actual water supply.

There is a good case for changes in primary legislation. The failure of the water industry to recover costs from the people using multiple occupation premises places a significant additional and unfair burden on the customers who are charged and do pay their bills. Domestic customer debt, generally, has been estimated at between 5 and 10 per customer per year. Debts from multiple occupancy dwellings account for a disproportionate share of this burden. We must remember that multiple occupancy of the transient kind is very often practised by upwardly mobile professionals and similar groups who cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as vulnerable or in long-term poverty.

I have some figures which have been estimated from data provided by three large water companies, Northumbrian Water, Essex and Suffolk Water, and United Utilities. Together, those companies represent 11 million customers out of 52 million served by the industry in England and Wales—more than one in five customers. The figures represent both measured and unmeasured households, in both urban and rural areas, both in the north and the south of the country. We find that, within the industry, approximately 6 per cent of chargeable properties are houses in multiple occupation, but those properties accounted for 13 per cent of household debt written off in 2001–2. That means that those properties account for more than double the debt cost that the water industry incurs for other kinds of property. That is before we look at outstanding debt, not yet written off, which has been steadily growing in the last few years, when sanctions and terminated supply were stopped.

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Water industry debt is a complex problem which needs to be addressed from several perspectives. The figures I have just quoted show that there is a special problem with houses in multiple occupation, which stems from a lack of definition in law for the customer receiving water services and responsible for paying water charges. The deficiency can be remedied only through targeted specific primary legislation. I beg to move.

11.15 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing forward a very important amendment for us to consider. I shall not go into the detail that my noble friend covered. The amendment asks who is the water industry's customer in houses in multiple occupation. That is a problem that needs addressing.

My noble friend clearly stated that within the industry approximately 6 per cent of chargeable properties are houses in multiple occupation but that those properties accounted for 13 per cent of debt written off in 2001 and 2002. Those properties account for more than double the debt cost which the water industry incurs from other kinds of property. It is an important issue. I hope that if the Government are not able to accept my noble friend's amendment in its present form, they will recognise publicly the difficulty that afflicts water companies and come up with their own proposals for moving forward on the matter.


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