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Water Direct: Working together to support vulnerable clients

The CFU’s Water Direct – Striking the Balance event last Friday brought together over 70 practitioners from frontline debt and money advice agencies, representatives from Local Authorities, and policy makers to review the application of Water Direct to date.

Presentations provided an update on policy developments for debt recovery, client cases, partnership working to support clients in debt, and a new eLearning module on Water Direct for money and debt advisers. The event stimulated debate and information exchange around the application of the Water Direct scheme by local authorities, and how vulnerable consumers can be better protected during debt collection.

What is Water Direct?

Council Tax and water charges are billed together within the same notification. Many people in receipt of 100% Council Tax Reduction do not realise that they are still liable to pay at least 75% of their water charges and get into debt. Water Direct is a scheme adopted by many Scottish local authorities to recover not only historic debt from clients, but also current charges through deductions to client’s benefits. Local authorities are likely to apply for Water Direct without first checking the debtors’ ability to pay. This can cause financial detriment, often leaving clients without enough to live on or displacing other debt repayment arrangements.

The Water Direct event highlighted the need for:

  • Debt recovery to be based on a person’s ability to pay
    • Before applying Water Direct local authorities should assess a client’s financial situation to identify what they afford to pay
    • Local authorities should consider stopping Water Direct payments when made aware of client detriment caused by the application of direct deductions. This will be dependent on a establishing a good working relationship between the public bodies and frontline agencies.
  • Increased client awareness of their ongoing responsibility to pay
    • Liability for ongoing water and sewerage charges for clients on full Council Tax Reduction needs to be made clearer on Council Tax demand notices. Options could be explored between frontline agencies and local authorities.
    • Financial education and improving financial capability for clients can prevent further debt occurring.
  • Partnership working and information sharing between agencies
    • Local authorities should be working with their local Citizens Advice Bureau.
    • Local authorities should inform frontline agencies in their area, such as the CAB, that Water Direct is being introduced, so that advice organisations can prepare and provide necessary support.
    • Personal and regular contact between frontline organisations and local authorities is critical to build good working relationships, and to develop effective working practices with the DWP.

Information and support available

If you would like more information on Water Direct, please check out the following links:

  • The Money Advice Team at CAS has developed an eLearning module on Water Direct, which will be launched soon on the WiserAdviser website.
  •  The CFU’s report on water debt and Water Direct, “Sink or Swim”, gives an overview of the consequences Water Direct can have on vulnerable consumers and outlines recommendations to minimise further detriment.

The CFU Water Team will continue to conduct research and work with stakeholders to advocate for vulnerable consumers and inform policy on Water Direct.