Page last updated at 11:49 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 12:49 UK

Watchdog reconsiders trickle plan

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Currently cutting off water supplies is not allowed

Water regulator Ofwat has backed plans to review whether water supplies should be limited in households in England and Wales that do not pay their bills.

Homes could be fitted with valves restricting water to a trickle to help recover more than £1bn in unpaid bills.

Water firms are currently not allowed to cut anyone off because water is considered an essential service.

But Ofwat said that the idea of overturning a 1999 ban on trickle flow devices should be examined.

'Safeguards'

Any change would require government legislation.

Trickle devices would leave households with enough to drink, but not enough water for a shower.

However the body representing water customers said the move would be ineffective and "uncivilised".

Bad debt adds about £11 a year to each customer's bill.

The Walker Interim review into the sector proposed looking at removing the ban on trickle-flow devices.

Ofwat said it supported this action, "as long as appropriate safeguards are in place to protect consumers".

"We believe we need to obtain satisfactory information on the costs, benefits and practical implications of trickle-flow devices," the regulator added.

"The companies' implementation plans would need to protect the most vulnerable customers and those who cannot pay."

'Sanitation implication'

The Consumer Council For Water, which represents water users, said the devices would not help raise substantial revenue.

"The problem of debt in the water industry is one that has to be tackled, but we don't think this is the way forward," said policy director Andy White.

"Turning back the clock and going to things such as trickle flow in the current society is inappropriate."

While people would have enough to drink, there were implications for sanitation and bathing, Mr White said.

"Even if the water companies were able to identify with 100% clarity which customers were 'can't pay' and which were 'won't pay', that's not to say the kids of those 'won't pay' customers deserve to be in a household where water is reduced to a trickle.

"It's not a particularly effective way of addressing the problem, nor is it civilised in our society."

Mr White called on water companies to improve the way they dealt with customers instead, and to identify and help those who struggled with budgeting.

This could include making it easy for people to pay water directly through benefit payments, he said.

Many unpaid water bills came when people moved on from rented properties, leaving a debt behind them, Mr White added.

"In those cases introducing trickle flow would be totally ineffective."



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