MPs to grill water firm boss on parasite outbreak

The boss of a water company at the centre of a parasite outbreak in Devon will be quizzed by MPs over the incident.

Sir Robert Goodwill MP, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, has sent a letter to Susan Davy, chief executive of Pennon Group, the parent company of South West Water (SWW), about the cryptosporidium outbreak in Brixham.

He said the committee had requested Ms Davy attend a meeting on 5 June to answer questions about how the incident had been handled.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said on Tuesday there were 57 confirmed cases of cryptosporidiosis, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea.

SWW said boil tap water notices for 2,500 properties in Brixham were still in place, with bottled water being given to affected customers.

'Vital lessons learned'

In his letter to Ms Davy, Sir Robert said the committee were "deeply troubled" by the outbreak.

He wrote: "In failing to supply safe water and in responding slowly and ineffectively to the outbreak, South West Water has fallen far short of its responsibilities to its customers."

Sir Robert added: "We feel it is essential that we consider the cause of the outbreak and your immediate and long-term response to this crisis.

"It is vital that lessons are learned quickly to prevent a similar, and potentially even more dangerous, outbreak occurring again."

The committee has asked Ms Davy to submit a written account of the outbreak's handling by 31 May.

'100% focused'

Ms Davy has responded to the committee to confirm she will attended the meeting on 5 June.

In her letter, she said: "Ahead of that, I want to assure you and the committee that myself and all of my colleagues at South West Water are 100% focused on returning a safe water supply to the people and businesses in and around Brixham.

"Our number on priority continues to be the health and safety of our customers and our operational teams who are working tirelessly around the clock."

She added: "I know this has caused significant disruption and distress to our customers and I am very sorry.

"Customers are right to be angry and will have questions for us."

The company initially said on 14 May the water was safe to drink before reversing this advice a day later.

Notices to boil tap water before use were issued to 17,000 homes and businesses in Brixham by SWW, although these have been lifted for 14,500 properties.

SWW said it had identified a damaged valve on private land as the possible cause of the contamination.

SWW is set to pay up to £3.5m in compensation to people affected by the outbreak.

On Tuesday, the Pennon Group also announced its financial results, including dividends payable to shareholders.

Calling the dividends announcement "tin-eared", Anthony Mangnall MP called for the group to suspend such payouts, or for boss Susan Davy to step down.

'Working around the clock'

In a video shared to the company website, Ms Davy mentioned the outbreak and said staff were working "tirelessly around the clock".

She went on to talk about the company's dividends.

"This incident post-year-end highlights how important a role we have. So today I want to take you through the results and highlights of the last year underlining the sustained investment in our services and infrastructure," she said.

Pennon has also asked regulators to be able to increase water bills by 33% over the next five years.

Brixham resident Sharon Thame
Brixham resident Sharon Thame said South West Water has put itself in a bad light [BBC]

Brixham residents who attended a drop-in session hosted by SWW on Wednesday said they were disappointed by how the situation had been handled.

Sharon Thame said the idea of SWW wanted to put bills up by 33% was hard to swallow.

"They seem to have put themselves in a bad light," Ms Thame said.

Another resident, Kerry Hutchinson, said the firm had a "reputational mountain" to climb and the communication from SWW had been "catastrophic".

He also said he had been left scratching his head over the call to raise bills.

Mr Hutchinson said: "I really don't know how they can justify that."

David Harris, South West Water's drought and resilience director
David Harris, South West Water's drought and resilience director, said compensation has already been paid to some customers in Brixham [BBC]

Responding to criticism around the possibility of increasing bills by 33%, David Harris, SWW's drought and resilience director, said the review was about "all the investment" SWW and other water firms were making.

He added customers wanted the firm to "invest and fix" problems and said the compensation being paid to Brixham customers will help with future bill rises.

Mr Harris said: "We have advised customers in Brixham that they will receive £215 compensation, which is roughly half an annual bill.

"Some of that compensation has already been paid, so for customers who are on direct debit, that compensation was paid into their account on Monday.

"For other customers, that compensation will be deducted from their next bill."

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