Mark Steel: You can't bath with one jug of water?
A vital commodity will soon only be available to the privileged few
If this was a business column I'd suggest one industry to invest in would be bailiffs. A few years ago it was hard work to be so late in paying a bill that you'd get referred to bailiffs, but now if you're 15 minutes late paying your gas bill or council tax, you get a letter saying "IF YOU DO NOT PAY THE SUM OF £253.74 PLUS £8,000 COSTS WE WILL REMOVE YOUR FLOORBOARDS, HOUSEHOLD PETS, DIALYSIS MACHINES, AND SOUL... DO NOT IGNORE THIS NOTICE."
But for Thames Water, it seems even this practice isn't threatening enough. They're pressing the Government to change the law, to allow them to punish late-payers by cutting off their water. In case we consider this a tad harsh they explain they wouldn't cut it off altogether, just "reduce it to a trickle," of around a jugful a day. Because they're full of compassion. They'll probably add, "There's no reason why this would prevent children from washing. If you look at cats for example, they lick themselves spotless, and we don't charge them anything (though we are looking at demanding a nominal charge from April next year)."
They also emphasise removing the water supply would only be a "last resort". That's reassuring, although even that's probably because if cutting you off was the first thing they did they wouldn't be able to move on to waterboarding, as they'd be holding you down while trying to wet the rag and grumbling, "This trickle's taking ages – I think we're doing this the wrong way round."
Also, anyone who's had to contact a utility about a problem with their bill knows the frustration of trying to reach them at all. We'll soon be forced to listen to a silky voice between hours of Vivaldi, telling us, "We are currently receiving a high level of calls from dying customers. Why not try later, or log on to our cholera information website."
With superb timing, this tweak to the law was suggested on the same day that Thames Water announced record profits of £605m, along with a rise in charges of around 17 per cent, from a company that in 2007 was fined £12.5m by the regulator for providing a dreadful service, and then lying about their performance on their reports. But back then they had a more liberal attitude to the law, objecting that the fine was ridiculous because, "That money could be spent improving the service for customers." Which is like someone who's fined for mugging an old aged pensioner saying, "That's ridiculous, I was planning to spend that money on improving the life of that old aged pensioner."
Maybe there's a logic to their outlook. For them water isn't so much an essential substance, it's a commodity to be sold to satisfy shareholders. Walter Letwin, the investment banker, told a conference recently that "investors will embrace this opportunity to invest in companies involved in one of the world's most vital industries – water, with its positive price dynamic, limited global supply and increasing global demand". Or he could have just said, "It's drying up but the bastards die without it – WE CAN'T LOSE – YAHOOOO!"
So before long water will be a privilege for those who can afford it, with Thames Water offering gold accounts for customers who wish to enjoy skinny latte showers, or their toilet flushed with holy water so their waste is redeemed of sin. Then Thames will branch off into life-support machines, calmly suggesting they should be allowed to turn them off if the bill isn't paid, because, "those people not paying are causing prices to rise among the honest coma community."
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