WATER company bosses have been accused of failing to let customers know what discounts are available to them.

Just 385 out of about 4.1 million Southern Water customers are claiming the firm's vulnerable groups discount, the Daily Echo can reveal.

It comes a day after we reported how the company's £40 hike in bills had caused a backlash across Hampshire.

To apply for the discount, customers must be receiving benefits or tax credits and either have three or more children under the age of 16 or have a medical condition requiring high water use.

Water campaigner and Eastleigh borough councillor Chris Thomas said: "Only 385 out of 4.1million customers are claiming the benefit. That is a disgrace.

"If you aren't happy with your electricity bill you can change supplier, and if you aren't happy with your council tax bill you can vote out the council.

"But water supply is a monopoly and needs to be closely scrutinised."

Dr Richard Sturt, chairman of watchdog group WaterVoice Southern, said: "The only discount available to people is that for vulnerable groups.

"It has a limited uptake. This may be because of the rigmarole involved in applying for it or the fact that most people don't know about it.

"We want all customers to be helped, but we feel that it is the most vulnerable in society - the elderly - who are suffering because they do not know about this discount and cannot claim it."

Southern Water has been allowed to increase water bills by £65 over the next five years.

Instead of gradually increasing bills, though, the company has decided to increase this year's bill by £40.

The initial hike is to help fund environmental and infrastructure improvements costing £1.8 billion.

A spokesman for Southern Water said the government introduced new regulations in 2000 to help vulnerable customers to avoid hardships with their metered water bills.

She added that customers with water meters who meet certain criteria will have their bills capped.

Southern Water has defended its price increases, saying the cost of waste water services, in "real" terms, remains lower than it was in 1999, when the average household bill was £303, compared with the current £259, which increases to £299 from April 1.

South East England MEP Chris Huhne has also joined the argument.

He said: "The water rate increase by Southern Water is unfair, unjustified and out of order.

"It is shocking for many local residents to face such a large bill when their incomes are not going up anything like as much."