Time to end the water bill drain

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IT is ironic that Labour is setting the agenda on the vexed issue of cost of living when it had 13 years to reform the privatised utilities.

After Ed Miliband promised to freeze heating bills, a move that may have sparked the latest round of 10 per cent bill increases, Labour now has its sights on the water industry’s failings.

Despite the party’s inertia while in power, the issue is a legitimate one – the diligent Maria Eagle is the newly-appointed Opposition spokeswoman on the environment and her intervention comes days after North Yorkshire MP Julian Smith exposed Yorkshire Water’s financial arrangements, and its ability to avoid paying corporation tax, in a withering speech in the House of Commons which brought out the best in Parliament.

Ms Eagle still wants time to clarify her policy position – and how firms like Yorkshire Water can be held to account without jeopardising costly programmes to replace sewers and improve the quality of the region’s water.

Yet the challenges facing the water industry are, in some respects, different to the public’s anger towards the ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers.

Unlike the energy regulator Ofgem which is barely fit for purpose, Ofwat is proving to be slightly more effective – it threw out plans yesterday by Thames Water to increase bills by £29 a year.

And in contrast to the energy sector where householders do have an element of choice, if they can contend with the rigmarole involved with switching suppliers, the water firms enjoy near-monopoly status.

It is why Ms Eagle would be advised to note the enlightened intervention by John Redwood, the former Cabinet ministers, in Tuesday’s debate. After accusing Margaret Thatcher’s government of failing to disband the ‘regional structure’ when the industry was privatised, he noted how the introduction of competition in Scotland had actually seen water bills fall.

His was a compelling argument. If such a system can work in Scotland, why is it proving so problematical to introduce in England. And, given that Yorkshire Water is likely to be a reluctant reformer, it is up to both sides of the political divide – Labour and Tory – to look at the steps that need to be taken to protect consumers. In doing so, they might actually discover a surprising amount of common ground.

NHS trust’s premium-rate phones

THE financial woes of the debt-ridden Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust are already well-documented as patients fight to save key services.

Yet there is no justification for the decision to use premium-rate 0844 telephone numbers in order to generate revenue to prop up its finances.

People calling a hospital in Yorkshire’s major cities do not face this unexpected charge so why should patients in Wakefield, Dewsbury and Pontefract be penalised if they have the misfortune to fall ill and require treatment?

A decision that smacks of a ‘postcode lottery’, the onus is now on the Trust’s management to explain its intransigence on this issue and why its policy is at odds with other hospitals in this region.

This is not a new issue – GP practices are already under orders not to enter into new contracts with telephone operators who then charge callers at premium rates. There is also pressure on family surgeries to terminate existing deals as quickly as possible – the argument being that users should not be left significantly out of pocket if they require medical attention.

The Department of Health now needs to bring the

same sense of urgency to bear on those hospitals that use money-making phone lines, even though Mid Yorkshire points out that there is an alternative number for people to use which is charged at a local rate.

As the Fair Telecoms campaign implores in today’s newspaper, the DoH needs to enforce existing guidelines – this is precisely the type of disparity that should not exist in the National Health Service.

Poignancy to remembrance services

BY vowing to honour the memories of fallen comrades when the Normandy Veterans Association is disbanded next year after the 70th anniversary of the storming of the D-Day beaches, Hull’s remarkable band of brothers – youngest, 88, oldest 95 – are showing the type of indefatigability which defined Britain’s war generation.

They vowed never to forget those who never returned home from the battlefields of World War Two. Nor should they.

For it is this diminishing number of Normandy veterans – the Hull contingent is now down to eight – who are responsible, in part, for Britain winning her liberty against the

threat of German tyranny and the country enjoying the democratic freedoms that many take for

granted.

And their stoic presence at Poppy Day services tomorrow, when the nation will fall silent for two minutes, is just part of the wider narrative about the simple, but solemn act of remembrance – whether it be the upcoming commemorations to mark World War One’s centenary; the D-Day landmark or those fine young men who have paid with their lives in Afghanistan more recently.