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Last Updated: Monday, 27 November 2006, 20:48 GMT
Plans to chase water bill debtors
Yvette Shapiro
Yvette Shapiro
Business correspondent

The new water legislation has not yet passed through Parliament, and the first water bills are not due to be issued until April.

But the government has already got its plans in place for chasing down those who fail to pay.

Water jug
The debt system will differ depending on credit rating

The Water Service - part of the Department of Regional Development - has appointed a private organisation, Crystal Alliance, to handle customer billing and debt recovery.

A call centre has been established at Upper Queen Street in Belfast.

Eventually, it will employ 250 people - including a team of debt specialists.

The BBC has learned they will be working to a strategy, agreed by the Water Service, that takes a very different approach to customers, depending on their credit history and where they live.

The strategy features a map of Northern Ireland that rates householders with a range of labels or terms.

There are the "affluent achievers" and, at the other end of the scale, those denoted as "rock bottom".

The latter would be customers who have had problems with debt in the past.

Many, although not all, would be from low income families who struggle to pay their bills.

The strategy also shows a timetable for collecting payments.

Householders deemed as "high risk" - those with a bad credit rating, for example - will receive reminder notices 14 days after getting their water bill.

These derogatory terms are not acceptable - people who live in areas labelled as 'rock bottom' must feel terribly bad, particularly since the bills they are being chased for relate to water, the most basic commodity of life
Eleanor Gill
Consumer council

Customers who are thought to be "low risk", on the other hand, will not get that reminder until 28 days have passed.

But it is when customers actually run out of time to pay that the differences are most stark.

"High risk" customers will find their case reviewed after 49 days of non-payment. At that stage, they may be referred to a debt collection agency or referred for legal action.

But "low risk" householders will be given 83 days before they land in hot water - a difference of almost five weeks.

The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland was briefed on the strategy at a meeting with Water Service and Crystal Alliance in August, but says it was never consulted while the strategy was being drawn up, and as the watchdog for the industry, it believes that consultation should have taken place.

The Council's chief executive, Eleanor Gill, said she is appalled at the use of terminology which labels householders as "rock bottom".

She told the BBC: "These derogatory terms are not acceptable. People who live in areas labelled as 'rock bottom' must feel terribly bad, particularly since the bills they are being chased for relate to water, the most basic commodity of life."

And Ms Gill said the payment timetable being applied to different types of customers was unfair because customers least able to pay their bills would be given far less time to settle debts than those on higher incomes.

The Water Service has defended its strategy, claiming that it is still a consultation document at this stage.

And the agency distanced itself from the terminology which has so offended the Consumer Council.

A spokeswoman told the BBC: "Water Service does not endorse the term "rock bottom" which, has not and will not be used by Water Service in its debt management strategy.

"As Consumer Council is very aware, this is a standard copyright term used in the credit management industry, taken from data provided by a major supplier of customer statistics to utilities, business and the public sector. This was used for reference purposes only and was included in that context.

Upper Queen Street call centre
The call centre is on Upper Queen Street

"Water Service can give total assurances to customers that this term is not a term coined by Water Service and will not be used."

The spokeswoman added that the Water Service regarded its debt management policy as "sensitive", and said it was designed to assist those with difficulty in paying.

It is unlikely, though, that householders will see it in the same light.

There has been significant opposition to the proposed introduction of water charges.

Some campaign groups have urged customers to join a "non-payment" movement, with spokesmen claiming that they are prepared to go to jail rather than pay for water.

Politicians from all parties have also voiced their concern about the new charges and their impact on the most vulnerable in society.

If the Northern Ireland Assembly meets its deadline for restoration next March, the issue of water charges will be close to the top of the agenda, particularly since the first bills are due to be issued as the politicians take their seats at Stormont.

Whatever happens at Stormont, the government is leaving nothing to chance.

Interviews for debt recovery specialists will be held over the next fortnight, with the successful applicants taking up their posts at the Crystal Alliance call centre early in the New Year.

The apparatus is being put in place which will ensure that the bills go out and the payments come in.

Water penalty 'after seven weeks'
27 Nov 06 |  Northern Ireland
Water laws consultation 'flawed'
21 Nov 06 |  Northern Ireland

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