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Northern Ireland hospitals may be owed millions by NI Water

BY CLAIRE McNEILLY

Hospitals across Northern Ireland could be in line for payouts amounting to millions of pounds, a leading watchdog has claimed.

The Consumer Council was speaking after it secured a £285,000 refund from NI Water for Altnagelvin in Londonderry.

The settlement followed an extensive 18-month investigation by the organisation into a billing dispute.

Consumer Council interim chief executive Aodhan O’Donnell said the other 19 hospitals in Northern Ireland could be owed “millions of pounds”.

“But we don’t know the final figure at this stage because the amounts will vary according to how much trade effluent each hospital discharges,” Mr O’Donnell added.

“Typically the bigger the hospital the larger proportion of trade effluent.

“We want to see all hospitals get the refund they’re entitled to so we are encouraging trusts to get in contact with NI Water by February 28.”

Essentially, Altnagelvin was overcharged as a result of a change in law regarding what constitutes ‘standard sewage’ and ‘trade effluent’.

When NI Water revised its billing policy according to the new legislation it decided that 5% of a hospital’s total water consumption would be charged as trade effluent (which is often charged at a lesser rate than sewage because it is easier to treat).

It then applied the new charges from 2010, but the Consumer Council successfully argued that they should be reflected in bills dating from 2008.

The disparity arising from that two-year time difference, plus an increase in the actual percentage of trade effluent applicable to Altnagelvin, subsequently meant the hospital was due a total refund of over £285,000. Altnagelvin’s volume of trade effluent discharge is greater than the standard 5% for various reasons, including the fact that it has a laundry.

A spokeswoman for NI Water said it welcomed the successful outcome of negotiations with Altnagelvin Hospital. “NI Water worked with a number of interested parties, including the Consumer Council, to resolve this complex billing issue,” she said.

”Following a detailed review of current legislation and upon verification of the evidence submitted by the customer, NI Water were able to reach a satisfactory resolution for all parties.”

Factfile

The billing issue arose after a change in what is classified as ‘standard sewage’ and ‘trade effluent’. The latter is cheaper because it’s easier to treat. In 2008, hospitals were billed entirely for ‘sewage-only’. NI Water subsequently revised its charging policy from 2010 so that 5% of the hospital’s water is charged as ‘trade effluent.’ However, the Consumer Council argued that the changes should be applied from 2008.

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