Serious Fraud Office to probe Southern Water

LONDON (Reuters) – The Serious Fraud Office is to investigate Southern Water for misleading regulators over its customer service standards, the company said on Wednesday.

Privately held Southern Water, whose biggest shareholders include Royal Bank of Scotland, already faces a fine from water regulator Ofwat for supplying incorrect figures.

Southern Water told Ofwat and the SFO last year that it had uncovered discrepancies during the installation of a new customer billing system.

“We launched a joint inquiry with Ofwat,” Southern Water’s Chief Executive Les Dawson said in a statement. “As a result of information gathered during the course of this independent inquiry and subsequently passed to the SFO, they have now advised us they will carry out their own formal inquiry.”

Southern Water has said it was slow to respond to customers’ complaints and enquiries, failed to pay money owed to them and mis-reported customer service data to Ofwat.

The company supplies 2.3 million people, or 1 million households, in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire with water and provides sewerage services to 4.5 million.

A consumer watchdog said Southern Water customers may have missed out on compensation payments triggered when complaints are not answered promptly.

“These are very serious allegations,” said Richard Sturt, chairman of the Consumer Council for Water Southern, part of Britain’s statutory water consumer body.

“We have asked for assurance from Ofwat that any reporting irregularities are not a symptom of more widespread failures within the industry.”

No one at the SFO was available for comment.

Britain’s water companies have come under fire in parliament and the media over rising bills and their failure to meet leakage targets.

People across large parts of England are subject to strict emergency water restrictions in an attempt to save supplies after two unusually dry winters.

Earlier this year, Ofwat ordered Severn Trent to give back 42 million pounds to customers after it manipulated figures given to the regulator.

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