Review targets stronger support for customers struggling to afford water bills

Stronger support for household customers who are struggling to afford their water bills has moved closer with the launch of a major review into existing assistance schemes.

The Consumer Council for Water (CCW) has today issued a call for evidence after being asked by the UK and Welsh Governments to undertake an independent review of the support currently on offer to water customers in financial hardship.

The consumer watchdog will work with organisations from across the industry and beyond to identify new opportunities to make sure households in financially vulnerable circumstances get the help they need.

The water industry has already taken significant strides towards tackling water poverty over the past decade with more than 900,000 households now receiving ongoing help through reduced water bills. Many others are also being assisted through a variety of schemes such as payment breaks.

But the funding of this support falls short of addressing the scale of the problem and will be stretched even further beyond its limits as more people suffer financially at the hands of Covid-19.

One of the main sources of support has come through the emergence of water companies’ social tariff schemes. These can substantially reduce the bills of households on a low income but rely heavily on other customers’ willingness to fund them.

It has led to companies developing schemes across England and Wales that can vary considerably in terms of eligibility, the value of the assistance provided and the number of households that can be potentially helped each year before funding is exhausted.

Robert Light, Chair of CCW, said:

Financial help for struggling water customers was in danger of running dry even before Covid-19 so the time is ripe for us to explore how we can put in place fair and sustainable long-term support.

We will work with other organisations during the review to look at how we can build on the progress that has been made and make much deeper inroads into reducing water poverty.

Rebecca Pow, the UK Government’s Environment Minister, said:

We are proud of the legislation we introduced for water companies to assist households with their water bills. However, we recognise that some consumers may still struggle to get the help they need.

In these challenging times we must support the water sector and ensure that customers, particularly those who are most vulnerable, receive reliable water services.

I therefore welcome this review and look forward to CCW’s recommendations on how we can work with water companies to effectively deliver support to those who need it.

Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, said:

As the ongoing pandemic continues to pose economic uncertainties for many across Wales, we want to do all we can to push forward with our commitment to tackling poverty, through prioritising the needs of the poorest, and protecting those most likely to experience poverty or exclusion.

Ensuring water affordability for vulnerable households plays a strong role in that approach, and I welcome CCW’s review as we look at how we can support households who may be struggling with paying their water bills.

Christine McGourty, Chief Executive of Water UK, said:

The range and level of support for customers has never been greater, with more than 900,000 households currently getting help to pay their bills, and that’s set to rise to 1.5 million.

Water companies made a joint voluntary commitment last year to tackle the issue of water poverty for the long term. This review is a welcome opportunity to review what’s in place and ensure customers get the help they need, particularly in these difficult economic times.

Rachel Fletcher, Chief Executive of Ofwat, said:

We’re looking forward to working with CCW on this important review. Companies have responded well to the pandemic, with payment holidays and other measures for those who are struggling to pay. They are on track to provide social tariff support to more customers than ever before over the next five years.

But the scale of difficulties customers are facing calls for a fresh approach. We need to make sure that every customer is properly supported, wherever they live. And that the arrangements put in place are sustainable and robust even during economic downturns.

CCW wants to hear the views of individuals and organisations on what needs to change to improve the support for households as part of its call for evidence, which will close on 15 December 2020. The watchdog will then present its findings and recommendations in Spring 2021.

CCW will be hosting a live online launch event on its website from 11am on Thursday (22 October). It will feature guest speakers including CCW Chief Executive Emma Clancy, Water UK CEO Christine McGourty and Matt Vaughan-Wilson from the Money Advice Trust.

To get involved visit our affordability review page

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