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1992: Huge rise in water disconnections

The number of people having their water supplies cut off for failing to pay their bills has almost trebled in a year, new figures show.

The dramatic rise saw more than 20,000 homes disconnected - an increase of 177% on the previous financial year, according to industry watchdog Ofwat.

Water companies have now been warned they must take into account their customers' ability to pay before cutting off supplies.

South Staffordshire Water had the highest proportion of disconnections in the country, with seven times the national average.

The company defended itself, saying it had detailed rules to deal with non-payers.

Tony Woodward, from South Staffordshire Water, said there was a five month time period from the initial billing to disconnection.

"During that period we attempt to contact the customer at least seven times, even including a personal visit," he said.

But the Labour Party said charges were too high and water companies too quick to penalise people who were struggling to pay their bills.

Four of the largest water companies have just announced annual profits ranging from 90m at South West Water to 236m at Thames Water.

The companies insist they are reinvesting a large part of their profits into improving supplies and preventing pollution, and say water bills have risen for the same reason.

But Ofwat said the companies' monopoly of water supplies carried a responsibility to do everything possible to help those who struggled to pay their bills.

Ofwat Director-General Ian Byatt also stressed that those customers who were paying their bills should not be penalised through price increases to cover those failing to pay.

And he called on water companies to "deal sympathetically and effectively with those who have difficulty in paying."

In Context
The water industry was privatised in 1989, creating a series of regional monopolies.

Following privatisation there was a significant rise in the number of households having their water supplies cut off.

The rate tripled in the first five years, with 18,636 households cut off in 1994. This practice was attacked on social and health grounds.

The increased use of pre-payment meters has also been criticised, and Ofwat has noted "a startling increase in the number of hidden disconnections associated with these meters."

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