No 10 hints at water bills action
Hard-pressed households could be given help to cope with water bills, Downing Street has indicated in the latest political row about the rising cost of living.
Labour leader Ed Miliband turned his attention from the energy giants to the water companies, saying the market needed to be scrutinised to ensure it was working for consumers.
Following the Leader of the Opposition's intervention, David Cameron's spokesman indicated that an announcement on water bills would be made next week.
The spokesman said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) would be making the announcement.
He said: " There will be some action next week from Defra with the intention of looking at water bills.
"The Prime Minister takes household bills across the piece seriously and wants energy prices to be rolled back and wants various things done, whether it's council tax being frozen, the flex on rail fares being brought down, MoT costs being frozen, these sorts of measures to protect household bills."
He added: "The Prime Minister wants to see household costs across the piece being reduced as low as possible. The intention is to try to reduce the burdens on hard-pressed families."
Mr Cameron "wants regulators to look at the industry they regulate and make sure that they are robust and delivering what they need to deliver for consumers", the spokesman said.
At an event for regional newspaper journalists, Mr Miliband said: "I think we should be looking at all markets to make sure they are working properly and that includes the water industry."
The Western Morning News reported that the Labour leader said: "Some people will say this is an anti-business agenda. I think it is a pro-business agenda that you have got to reform markets that are not working properly.
"I think the water industry is something that should be scrutinised to make sure it is working properly and make sure it is working properly for the benefit of consumers, because I know concerns have been raised. I'm proud Labour is championing this agenda and I think it is consistent with believing what a market economy can do, and water is part of that."
MPs are set to consider the reform and infrastructure of the water industry on Tuesday next week after Tory Robert Buckland secured a backbench debate.
A Defra spokesman said: " The Government is working across the board to reduce the cost of living and help hard-working households who are feeling the pinch.
"We want to ensure customers get a good deal from the water sector and will be setting out our approach next week."
It is understood the measures to be announced next week will be about making sure customers get a fair deal - although they might not actually result in lower bills.
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "David Cameron has never shown any interest in rising water bills and has wasted three years doing absolutely nothing to address the impact on already over-burdened family budgets.
"More than two million households, over one in 10, now spend more than 5% of their income on water according to the regulator and customers in Britain face some of the highest bills in Europe.
"Yet David Cameron still refuses to require water companies to introduce a social tariff to help those who are struggling, even though only three companies have introduced such a scheme under the current voluntary arrangement.
"That's why Labour will seek to use the forthcoming Water Bill legislation to require all water companies to participate in a national affordability scheme and review whether there is a need for a tougher regulatory regime."
Severn Trent Water chief executive Tony Wray said: " We know that many of our customers' incomes have been squeezed and it's right we should do what we can to keep water bills low.
"We're proud to have the lowest average bills in the country and will be keeping any rises to below the rate of inflation next year.
"But we think more can be done. The reforms the Government has set out in the Water Bill are a good start, but water companies also have a responsibility to do more as we develop our business plans for the next five years. We need to see more innovation, more efficiency savings and a greater focus on areas of importance to customers.
"Another area that needs to be looked at is environmental legislation. We need to think through how we can deliver further environmental improvements at the same time as keeping bills down. We will be publishing a report on this next week."