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Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I am pleased to present a petition regarding the proposed closure of the hyper-acute stroke unit at Mayday hospital. I should like in doing so to give thanks to those who made efforts to secure 2,794 signatures to the petition: Jenny Chorlton; Mirza Raza and the Muslim Shiah community of Croydon; the Groves family; St. Marys Catholic church, in Croydon; St. Marys church in Addington village; Mr. and Mrs. Goddard; Conrad De Souza; Indranee Bhayro; Ella Lutchmayer of the Croydon Guyana link; Monks Orchard Residents Association; Spring Park Residents Association; Pat Perryman; John Wagstaff; and Mr. and Mrs. John and Shirley Trimmer.
To the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled,
The Humble Petition of the people of Croydon,
Sheweth that there is just cause and need to maintain Mayday university hospitals hyper-acute stroke unit as not only is it critical to receive treatment after a stroke within 30 minutes, but also because Mayday is ranked in the top 10 per cent. of HASUs in the country.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House will urge the Government to preserve Mayday university hospitals funding at a level that will allow it to maintain and expand its HASU provision following Healthcare for Londons review of stroke services; and will further urge the Government to prevail upon Healthcare for London to recognise the need for Maydays HASU to remain open and to operate 24 hours a day.
And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have this fifth Adjournment debate on the subject of water. I make no apology for that, or for the fact that I intend to focus specifically on aspects of the forthcoming Walker review of water metering and charging and their effects in the hard-pressed south-west. I welcome the engagement of the Minister and his predecessors with these debates and other opportunities too numerous to mention.
The Prime Minister has also taken a personal interest in this issue. When he was Chancellor, he met my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck)whom I am pleased to see in her place and me to discuss the water affordability pilot, and in Prime Ministers questions on Wednesday he again agreed to meet us, this time to discuss the findings and implementation of the Walker review.
Absent over the years from these occasions has been much in the way of any contribution from the Conservatives. To the detriment of my constituents as well as their own, that party has had minimum engagement with these important issues, as any search of the internet will reveal. Scarcely a single mention of them can be found, let alone evidence of a substantial and consistent campaign. It was therefore welcome to see one of their number initiate a debate in this House last month. There was no apology for the botched privatisation in 1989 but there was at least realisation that something must be done. Of course as, in many other areas, they are jumping on the bandwagon of an idea on which others have campaigned relentlessly, including many Liberal Democrats and colleagues of mine.
The Walker review is very welcome and comes at an opportune time. Plymouth and the south-west have certainly experienced their fair share of difficulties in the current economic climate. I hope and anticipate that the Walker review interim report, which is due to be published shortly, will offer us light at the end of the tunnel and ultimately, if we get it right, the chance to make a real difference to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of hard-working families and individuals who face bills that are after all for one of the basic essentials of daily living.
Anyone who doubts the effect of these high bills should take a look at the Consumer Council for Waters recent report on living with water poverty. Its research shows that out of 14 items of household expenditure, the one for which respondents are most likely to be sometimes or always in debt is water. It is easy for arrears to build up so that people are no longer just struggling to meet bills, but are unable to do so, resulting in feelings of powerless, hopelessness, anger, guilt and of being worn down. It is vulnerable groups and individuals, such as lone parents, who are most likely to end up in debt. Some of the most telling evidence presented in the report is the responses from those on low incomes. They tell of how they are reluctant to flush the toilet every
time, can afford to have a shower only every other day or cannot wash their clothes as frequently as they would wish.
In getting to grips with this issue, we are not only addressing water poverty, but meeting the Labour partys historic mission to tackle poverty in general and this Governments particular commitment to tackle child poverty. Earlier this year, I was pleased to host a workshop in my constituency with Anna Walker, the person charged with this important review. It was a chance for her to establish a dialogue with some of the key stakeholders in our region, including South West Water, which in recent years has become much more willing to engage on the issue. After the workshop we visited the home of a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport to see first hand some of the innovative water-saving measures that have be introduced to save water and save bills under South West Waters water care schemea video of which the Minister can see, should he wish, on YouTube, with a link on my website www.lindagilroy.org.uk. We saw how this could be combined with advice about benefits to make a difference to that particular household, which if I remember correctly actually exceeded in value the cost of the bills that had been so troubling. That was an example of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairss pilot scheme on water affordability, carried out by eaga plc. Those contacted during the pilot reported significant results arising from the combination of benefit checks and water efficiency devices. Such measures can help to reduce the impact of high bills, but they do not make them any fairer. Like-for-like bills for use are still much higher in our region than in others.
There are a number of things I hope that the Walker review will propose in its interim report. First, sewerage works, such as those that cleaned up the south-wests beaches and cost the South West Water charge payers millions, should be seen as a public good and the costs should be shared by all regions. That should include the costs of the debts incurred to do past work. As the costs arise from servicing the huge debt that has been taken out to pay for that work, those costs should be shared in a way that recognised that.
The Minister knows that as pressures arise in other regions there is a real concern that some fix might be found for future such investments that could compound the unfairness we already experience, so I hope there will be an equalisation proposal in the Walker report. However, it ought to address the legacy costs, such as the accumulated debts. Since that is the root cause of our high bills, there is real hope that if the review makes such a recommendationand if it is accepted by the Governmentwe could see some relief in our bills. I know this is a big ask, because someoneeither the taxpayer or water charge payerswill need to pay the difference.
It is worth reflecting on the scale of what that could mean. The South West Water clean sweep programme cost a total of £1.5 billion in extra capital expenditure. That is £5 million each year of additional operating costs, which adds about £90 to the South West Water average bill of £454. The draft business plan published in April for the current periodic review proposes to raise the average water price by 6 per cent. above inflation by 2015. That would take the average annual south-west water and sewerage bill up to £481 by 2015.
Other companies have of course also invested in coastal works, but proportionately at a much lower level. South West Water has had to spend about 16 per cent. of the national total in coastal improvements, but the cost is borne by 3 per cent. of the population. The extra burden for South West Water customers is about £75. If the clean sweep burden were shared equally with all English customers, the South West Water average bill could be reduced by around £75 to £379 at present prices.
Although such a move might have been out of the question a few years ago, I think that similar investments that might be construed as being a national public good are being considered in other areas of service provision. It has not gone unnoticed, for instance, that the Digital Britain announcement last week envisages a 50p per quarter addition to our phone bills to ensure that everyone can be part of the new digital superhighways. I support that on the grounds of social inclusion, but as one of my constituents said to me earlier this week:
Water charges in the South West are high because of the cost of sorting out the coastline sewage. This problem, which we had because of our geographic position, received no assistance from the rest of the country who rejoiced in having little or no coastline
Now we have a parallel situation in which people in rural areas, because of their geographic position, face high costs for broadband. But it seems that for them the problem is to be sorted out by a tax/levy on phone lines throughout the country. If we are to have this broadband levy to help the rural people should there not be a levy on all drainage users to help us pay off our exorbitant sewage charges? Alternatively, this shows that the precedent is against the broadband levy which therefore should be opposed.
I do not think that any of us want to oppose the broadband levy, because it is of such importance to future social cohesion. Digital access is vital, just as water is. Some would even say it is a human right to have such a basic commodity as water supplied for the same price in Plymouth, Cornwall and Devon as in Peterborough, Cumbria and Dulwich. There are various ways of bringing about equalisation, and I hope that the Walker report will have considered the costs of that so that we can understand them and base our arguments for social inclusion on facts.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, and I went to see the Prime Minster in 2006, he said that he would work with the south-west Labour MPs to develop proposals that would help to reduce water bills for low-income households. I know that he asked his officials to consult with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is, of course, responsible for implementing the water affordability pilot that was then in prospect, to ensure that it gathered information in a way that could help us to develop practical solutions. The affordability pilot gathered some evidence, and I hope that the Walker review will use it to develop some idea of what it would cost to bring real help to our constituents. That way, when we go back to see the Prime Minister, we will know exactly what we are talking about.
The Minister will know that when the all-party water group, of which I have the honour to be secretary, called for the introduction of universal water metering, Members suggested that a rising block tariff could be
the basis for some socially beneficial tariffs, which could also serve environmental purposes. Of course, we recognised that there would be households that would not benefit from such a move, and that they would need to be protected. Since we wrote that report, Wessex Water has been experimenting with a social tariff. Now United Utilities Water is doing something similar. South West Water is also looking at whether a variation of the tariff could be employed in our area. I shall look with interest at what the Walker review has to say about such tariffs and the role that they might play.
I should like to see changes to WaterSure, formerly the vulnerable household scheme. It gives assistance with high water bills from a meter where the household, because of its size or because of health needs, cannot now benefit to any great extent from a water meter and would not do so in future, even with a rising block tariff. At the moment, our capped charges are £100 more than the average capped charge in other regions, which is simply not fair to the poorest households.
I would also like the regulator, Ofwat, to be required by law to be more geared up and ready to tackle the issue of affordability. It should step in more quickly and more often to help individuals, and groups such as pensioners, who find the bills too high. Along with others, I argued strongly for that when the all-party water group drew up a report on the future of the UK water sectora report with which the Minister will no doubt be familiar. At the moment, such action depends on the Secretary of State requiring it in his guidance to the regulator at the beginning of a price setting review. That is simply not good enough; there should be a year-round duty on the regulator, year in and year out.
The all-party group suggested that the definition of customer service should be extended to include the most vulnerable customers, and that it should become part of the price review as a performance target, as well as a means of proactive assessment of the WaterSure tariff. That is very important, and integral to ensuring that measures designed to help the majority do not disadvantage people who are vulnerable but who use larger quantities of water out of necessity.
WaterCare, which provides benefit entitlement checks and efficiency advice, developed from the affordability pilot. It should be extended, and its services should be accompanied by help in the benefit system. The numbers of people reached by both systems, WaterSure and WaterCare, are far too small for the systems to be effective. If there was a link to a benefit, such as housing benefitthat is relevant, as water is supplied to households, of coursethey could, in a targeted way, reach far more people who need help. Who should pay for that is, of course, an important question. To some extent, the costs must depend on other measures that I mentioned, such as changes to the tariff system. In the end, I am sure that the taxpayer or the water charge payer would have to pick up some of the bill. Perhaps it could, or should, be a mixture of both.
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