A month after the Fair Trading Commission (FTC) decided not to hold the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) liable for compensating customers experiencing prolonged water outages, Opposition Leader Bishop Joseph Atherley is questioning the justice in this verdict.
This morning Atherley told Barbados TODAY that the decision goes against the very principles of natural justice, stressing that it “could never be fair” for customers to be made to pay in full for a service that they were not receiving.
“It seems to me that natural justice has not prevailed in this situation. It stands to reason that if I am required to pay you for a service and you cannot or do not provide the service, then I should be relieved of my obligation to pay because no debt has been constituted. To suggest anything else would be unfair in my view,” he said.
Last month Director of Utility Regulation Dr Marsha Atherley-Ikechi explained that after several rounds of discussions between the utility company and the FTC, the regulatory body determined that based on the state-owned entity’s financial circumstances, the BWA was in no position to pay, although there is a standard of service in place.
“The regulation is such that it is dependent on and conditional on circumstances. I want to make that abundantly clear,” she said.
She further explained: “One when developing any type of policy has to be cognizant of the environment in which they are acting, and as such it was determined that the Barbados Water Authority, given the predicament that it was in, was not in a position to be able to provide reimbursements to customers for failure to provide a certain level of service.”
However, this morning the Opposition Leader was highly critical of the FTC’s logic, contending that the BWA’s ability to deliver does not factor into the equation, but rather their undertaking to deliver the service to the customer.
“This does not matter. If I am required to pay for a service, then it should not matter that you are unable to deliver because of your financial issues. This does not relinquish the BWA’s responsibility in terms of natural justice. It certainly does not absolve you of your responsibility if I have already paid for that service which you cannot deliver, then you need to refund me,” he said.
Atherley did concede that customers should pay the minimum cost associated with the provision of the infrastructure for the delivery of potable water.
“I suppose the argument can be justifiably made that in order to provide the service, there is an outlay of infrastructure and I think there is a minimum charge associated with this regardless of usage. So I can understand that argument, but at the end of the day the payment is dependent on the supply of the service. There may be other considerations such as drought and salinity levels but it comes back to that basic principle of paying for what you can deliver,” he stressed.
Last month, BWA General Manager Keithroy Halliday made a similar case in defence of the FTC’s ruling. He argued that even though the BWA was unable to provide water through the customers’ taps, it still did so through other means and this too came at a cost.
“What the Barbados Water Authority has been constrained to do is to make sure, in terms of delivering on its mandate, that even if we cannot deliver the water from the pipes, we try to supply in one way or another and we can only continue to ask consumers to continue to work with us as we do our best to try to make up for any deficit,” he said at the time.
In 2017 the FTC outlined nine guaranteed and 12 overall standards by which the BWA were to be guided. Under guaranteed standards customer complaints had to be acknowledged within five working days and investigation and findings provided within 15 working days of receipt of the complaint. Breach of this standard would result in a $15 credit to the bill of a residential customer and $30 to a commercial customer.
For the reconnection of service after payment of an overdue amount and reconnection fee, service had to be restored within 24 hours of the customer’s payment at BWA’s office. If service was not restored within the established timeframe, the BWA had to provide a $20 credit to a residential customer and $40 to a commercial customer.
The FTC stipulated then that the BWA had to publicise a compensation policy for failure to attain a guaranteed standard of service on its website, through its customer service representatives and on its water bills.