Column 350The Minister of State bleats like a herdwick about the planning system, but areas such as the Lake District are already under tremendous pressure, and last year 45 per cent. of planning appeals there were successful--higher than the national average for appeals at 38 per cent.
The planning system, even in designated areas, will not on its own be adequate to guard against those threats. Agricultural improvements, afforestation and some recreational developments are already outside the planning system, as the Minister should know. Similarly, the curtailment of existing access provision and the removal of positive management by new owners fall outside the scope of development control.
The Water Bill sets out the environmental duties of the water industry after privatisation. Both the National Rivers Authority and water plcs will have a duty to further conservation and have regard to public access in carrying out their functions, as the Secretary of State says. But there are no safeguards covering the activities of subsidiaries--those companies outside the core activities of water supply and pollution control. The Bill provides an open invitation to developers to exploit those assets--our countryside and our green spaces.
Speaking on "London Plus" on 26 October Michael Carney, secretary of the Water Authorities Association, said it all when he said : "If there's something surplus it will be got rid of."
That sums it up. Private companies will go all-out to ensure the quickest possible return and the taxpayer, the water consumer and the environment will pay the price.
South-West Water has already sold Brent moor in Devon to a private developer. Planning applications followed. The site was resold and planning appeals are likely to persist. The National Trust offered to buy the land to save it for those who enjoy it at present, but it has simply been priced out of the market.
In Hertfordshire, Thames Water is cashing in on land at Hemel Hempstead near a reservoir where housing is planned. In the Peak District national park, North-West Water has been disposing of land without any discussion or consultation with the planning board. In his vision of the future for privately owned water supplies, Mr. Roy Watts of Thames Water gives the game away. No doubt with the track record of privatised industry bosses in mind--a 160 per cent. wage increase bonanza--he looked into his crystal ball and said : "I see a lot of fun--playing hard, working hard--I see a sports ground--I see a training centre--I even see an executive helicopter." In other words, he sees large rewards at the taxpayers' and consumers' expense for less responsibility than he has now. The most incredible of all the Secretary of State's claims for the Bill is his apparent discovery that the best possible reason to sell off the nation's water and land assets is to protect the environment. The claim is based primarily on the establishment of a National Rivers Authority. The creation of a powerful environmental protection agency, which has long been Labour party policy, would have our support, but like many other of the Government's proposals, something with more appropriate powers could and should be established. It is simply not necessary to sell off the water industry to achieve those objectives. To facilitate the privatisation of water the Secretary of State is proposing an act of nationalisation--the establishment of a National Rivers Authority--the equivalent of a water
Column 351Property Services Agency, the kind of organisation that all his Back Benchers have been pressing him to get rid of ever since he came to office.
The National Rivers Authority proposal is a means of taking away from the 10 water authorities their non-profit- making, environmentally necessary functions which, if they had remained with the water authorities, would have deterred investors and prevented a successful flotation.
Having removed non-profit-making environmental concerns from the sale-- destroying in the process the important environmental concept of river basin management--so as to make the sell-off more attractive, the Secretary of State now expects us to believe that he will re-impose those environmental concerns on private owners by regulation. The Blue Book that the Secretary of State has published on the new authority makes it clear that it will be heavily funded--yes, by the taxpayer. So much for freeing essential environmental expenditure from the confines of the PSBR.
First, the Secretary of State looked for an experienced independent chairman for his powerful new body. He found none other than Lord Crickhowell, an "indepedent" friend of the Prime Minister and former Tory Cabinet Minister. The latter quickly described the existing levels of staff and obligations as "a problem". He confirmed the Government's intention to slim down the authority and contract out much essential work. In other words, redundancies already loom in an area where oversight, scrutiny and control of pollution is woefully inadequate.
The claims for a powerful new agency are further undermined by the reality that the National Rivers Authority will contract services back to the privately owned water companies. As the very effective report "Liquid Assets" from the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds makes clear, private water companies would then be monitoring and analysing their own effluents--the very situation that the National Rivers Authority is said to be intended to avoid.
The report concludes that the safeguards written into the Bill are not adequate to counter potential threats to the environment. We agree with that. A Greenpeace report entitled "Poisoning the System" demonstrates convincingly that, far from improving the law on pollution control, the Bill is a step backwards. Once the water industry is in private control it will be able to use the same legal loopholes as industry currently uses to avoid detection let alone prosecution. The transfer of sections of the Control of Pollution Act in the Bill ensures that outcome.
The public register system provides information on all consents to discharge effluent from sewage works and on direct industrial discharges. Data from the public register may well show an industry to be consistently acting illegally, yet the public would be unable to prosecute on that evidence alone. Private water companies would be subject to the same legal loopholes that currently protect industry from prosecution. The Bill will make it almost impossible for an individual to bring a private prosecution against a private water company.
Throughout the 1980s we have been witnessing a rapid decline in the quality of the United Kingdom's rivers for the first time since national records began being kept in the 1950s. More of our rivers than ever before are simply dead. Yet the Government and the water authorities have a lamentable record on prosecuting in the event of any of those offences.
Column 352The number of reported pollution incidents on rivers in England and Wales rose from 12,500 in 1980 to 23,000 last year. Yet in 1986 only 254 prosecutions were taken out by water authorities out of a total of more than 20,000 pollution incidents--an enforcement rate of 1 per cent.
In 1985, too, water authorities acting in concert with the Department of the Environment and the Secretary of State, relaxed many of the existing consent conditions. The Secretary of State revealed that 1,800 sewage treatement works discharge consents were relaxed between 1984 and 1986. The water authorities were thus legally allowed to discharge higher levels of effluent. That, in turn, led to pressure from industrial dischargers to have their consents revised--as happened in the North-West Water area. And in the run-up to privatisation the Government are considering requests known as variation orders which would relax consents for about 300 sewage works in which water authorities are breaking the law.
The Select Committee on the Environment recommended in 1987 in its report on pollution of rivers and estuaries that subsections of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, dealing with the protection of rivers' flora and fauna from polluting discharge, be implemented. The Government refused to implement that section of the Act.
There are no integrated proposals in the Bill to deal with the problem of deteriorating water control in England and Wales, and the Secretary of State has no clear national objectives. The Bill contains no river and drinking water quality standards, nor any commitment, in the near term at least, to meet European Community standards.
Faced as they are with the priority of making profits, it is extremely unlikely that the vigorous policy of environmental improvement that is urgently required will appeal to privately owned water industries. It is also unlikely that a Secretary of State for the Environment who said in a recent "Panorama" programme that it was not worth prosecuting water companies will take the tough stance that is required.
Nor is it likely that a Secretary of State who has stood by in the face of all the evidence of more than 20,000 people being poisoned by their water supply at Camelford in the south-west--and who has done nothing when he should have set up a public inquiry--is a person who will safeguard, let alone enhance, the environment. That is an appalling omission--
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have the greatest respect for the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), but he has now exceeded the time for which the Secretary of State spoke. Mr. Speaker said that he was anxious to--
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Mr. Speaker said that he was invoking the power vested in him to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches from 7 pm to 9 pm, and expressed the hope that before that right hon. and hon. Members would make brief speeches, but there is no power to curtail speeches, and the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is under no time limit.
Dr. Cunningham : The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health has said a word--or perhaps more than a word--about all this. A little while ago, urging people to adopt better eating and drinking habits, she said :
"Instead of drinking Coca Colas, turn on the tap and drink what the good Lord gave us."
Column 353In the light of this Bill, the hon. Lady will have to revise her advice to the people of Britain.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, wrote in "The Merchant of Venice" :
"There be land-rats and water-rats, land-thieves and
This Bill is designed for them.
There is a wide gulf between us and the Government. Tories are legislating today to create private monopolies, and to introduce profit-making into domestic water supply. We reject that idea absolutely. Tomorrow, Tories will vote to put the interests of private monopolies before the interests of families and the environment. They will vote tomorrow to undermine the foundations of policy on our national parks and common heritage.
More than a century ago William Wordsworth-- [Hon. Members :-- "Oh, no."] Oh, yes. William Wordsworth foresaw the need to create a national park in the Lake District, when he wrote that the British people
"by their visits, often repeated, to the Lakes in the north of England, testify that they deem the district a sort of national property, in which everyone has a right and interest."
The people's feelings and the poet's vision were made reality by a Labour Government with their National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. This Bill erodes that right and denies that interest.
No resource is more fundamental to the health of the people than water. We stand by our view that a plentiful supply of wholesome water should be available to every household in Britain at the lowest possible cost to consumers and the nation. We believe that there are irreconcilable conflicts between that objective, the demands of good public health and the interests of shareholders and market forces in water provision. It was exactly these conflicts and crucial national issues of water purity--public health, coherent policies for sewage disposal, pollution control, environmental protection and the strategic investment necessary to secure these vital national interests--that led to water becoming a public utility and monopoly in the first place. for us they remain the most fundamentally important objectives, far outweighing the interests of Tory dogma, of private owners and of private gain. That is why we oppose the Bill. 5.57 pm
Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green) : I shall vote in favour of the Bill tomorrow because it contains some of the most advanced measures for the protection of water quality in this country since those of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, in which I was involved as a junior Minister.
I welcome the fact that the Government have now accepted the need to establish a single independent regulatory authority. It has been wholly unacceptable that the water authorities--owned by the public--have acted in such a way that, for example, in 1986, 22 per cent. of all water treatment plants were polluting water for 95 per cent. of the time. They could not prosecute themselves, and the Department of the Environment could not prosecute another public authority. So it is necessary to devise an arrangement under which the water authorities become subject to the law in exactly the same way as the private sector, and privatisation is one way of ensuring that.
Column 354The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) quoted in aid some dubious figures that his research assistants produced for him about capital expenditure. I refer him to a document that he did not want mentioned
Dr. Cunningham : I resent the hon. Gentleman's use of the phrase "dubious figures found by my research assistant" ; I hope that he will withdraw it-- [Interruption.] I understand that Conservative Members are not interested in the truth. My figures were produced by the statistical section of the House of Commons Library and are based on the expenditure figures of the English and Welsh water authorities. I said that when I quoted them. Now I have said it again, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his slur.
Sir Hugh Rossi : In that case, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has the figures checked. He was not at all interested when I intervened and tried to suggest that he should look at the report by the Select Committee on the Environment. The figures in that report were carefully examined by that all-party Committee; his hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), who is now sitting at his side, accepted them and was a signatory to the report in which they are contained.
Let us look at public sector investment in sewerage and sewage disposal in England and Wales between 1958-59 and 1989-90 in the context of 1985-86 prices. If the hon. Member for Copeland looks at that he will see that the peak shown on the chart in the Select Committee report was reached in 1973- 74, when the annual investment was approximately £850 million. From then on, under a Labour Administration, there was a precipitous decline to a trough in 1979-80. That was agreed by the Select Committee, which said : "As the chart shows, there was a steady drop from the mid-'70s until the early '80s in investment by the water authorities in sewage and sewage disposal.
Because of the lead time required for investment we are now suffering today".
That is why the water authorities are in such trouble, with 22 per cent. of them discharging polluted water for 95 per cent. of the time.
I should like to address some questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister on some aspects of the legislation that cause me a little concern. He has suggested that the National Rivers Authority should be responsible, not only for pollution control, but for flood defence, fisheries, recreation and navigation. We should like to see that authority as a powerful and effective body dealing with water pollution. Is it necessary to lump in these other activities, which would only muddy the water of its main work?
When the Select Committee considered these matters, it said that either an independent new body should be created to see to these matters or that the inspectorate of pollution should be increased in size, power and responsibility and should be given executive responsibilities for water monitoring and prosecution. Quite clearly, the water authorities were incapable of carrying out those functions because, as they could not control themselves, it was hard to expect them to prosecute the private sector.
We have heard in recent weeks that the inspectorate of pollution is in some kind of difficulty. In a short time we have seen the resignation of two chief inspectors, which does not bode well for the way in which we monitor water
Column 355pollution. Can the Minister tell the House about the relationship between the National Rivers Authority and the inspectorate? Will the inspectorate be absorbed into the National Rivers Authority, or will it be outside it? If it is outside the NRA, what will be its function?
I spoke earlier about my experience in the Department when I was responsible for these matters. At that time, in 1973-74, I was tremendously impressed by the calibre of work and the quality of what was then known as the alkali inspectorate. It had been established for about 125 years and was manned by scientists, people of the highest calibre, who achieved such a relationship with industry that Britain was able to boast of being in the forefront of nations dealing with environmental problems. That was the case under the Clean Air Acts, the Water Acts and many other Acts. We owe the inspectorate a great deal.
Shortly after I left the Department, in fact in 1975, for reasons that I do not know, under a Labour Government the chief inspector's post was downgraded from under-secretary to grade 4. If the Opposition attach such importance to such matters, why did the Labour Government starve the water authorities of the necessary investment and at the same time downgrade the post of the chief officer in the Department? That downgrading had a tremendous impact on the morale of the Department.
I understand that the Department is currently reappraising the status and grading of the inspectors and the chief inspector. My right hon. Friend should have regard to the tremendous reputation of the inspectorate. The work that it has done over more than 125 years has been recognised by one Royal Commission after another and it would be a great pity if the ethos of that small unit in the Department were destroyed.
I find it a little difficult to understand why the person in charge of that unit is an administrator and not a chief inspector. Perhaps some of the problems that we have heard about arose because of a difference of approach and attitude between the scientists, the people at the coal face looking after pollution problems, and administrators in the Department. These are internal matters, but they are within the remit of my right hon. Friend, and I am drawing them to his attention because it is within his power to put them right. I hope that he will do so.
At the time that my Select Committee reported, there were 11 water inspectors for 10 water authorities. That is 1.1 inspector for each authority. That is totally inadequate in a system where monitoring will be done from outside the water authorities themselves. Within each of the 10 water regions I should like to see a regional office of pollution inspectors who would be responsible for the constant monitoring of waters and rivers within their geographical area. They would need to have the necessary laboratory back-up to test water quality, trace discharges and determine the pollutants going into the rivers. They would also need a legal staff to ensure that prosecutions were followed through from the results of their monitoring.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend envisages such a scheme within the National Rivers Authority, or what use he intends to make of the inspectorate. If thoughts along those lines are not already in his mind, I hope that I have put them there.
The other matter with which I wish to deal was mentioned by the hon. Member for Copeland--the need to have national water quality objectives. The Committee suggested that they were a prerequisite for a planned and
Column 356costed programme. It suggested that we should have regard to the effects of effluents on flora and fauna when considering water quality.
I am a little disappointed that under clause 97 the first requirement for water quality--when the mechanism to monitor it is set up--will be to have regard to the purposes for which the water will be used. That is an old- fashioned, cheap approach. The only way in which we can ensure good, clean water in our rivers is to ensure that nothing is put in them that damages life. That must be the aim and final objective. When my right hon. Friend considers the water quality objective, as he will have to before the Bill is enacted, I hope that he will have more regard for life in rivers.
I shall curtail my remarks, in view of what Mr. Speaker has said, but I should like to mention the loopholes to which the hon. Member for Copeland referred. I draw the House's attention to evidence that the Select Committee received when preparing its third report. We received evidence from the Severn-Trent water authority, and paragraph 102 of the report says :
"It is possible for a discharger to introduce some new contaminant not envisaged when the consent was granted, and hence not limited, to cause serious pollution and then to claim this protection. Protection should apply only to those components of the effluent which are governed by specific conditions."
If an industrial plant is given permission to discharge a chemical into a river, but adds another chemical, it is able to say, "I cannot be prosecuted." As the law stands, it has a licence to discharge, and the fact that the chemical that it is discharging is not mentioned in its licence gives it a measure of protection.
I can give specific examples of where that is happening. My attention has been drawn to this problem by the Yorkshire Post , which has carried out an assiduous campaign. It gives specific incidents of a company discharging cadmium into the River Aire. Cadmium is one of the two most poisonous substances known to man, but a company is discharging 12 kg of it per annum under a licence that does not refer to it. The water authority is unable to prosecute. Clause 100 will make it an offence knowingly to permit any poisonous or polluting matter to enter controlled water. An exception is given in clause 101 for those who have consent.
I ask my right hon. Friend whether the combination of those two clauses will block the present loophole. I agree with the hon. Member for Copeland that this is a serious matter, which causes great concern. I hope that my right hon. Friend has addressed himself to this problem and will find a solution to it.
Dr. Cunningham : The hon. Gentleman and I had a disagreement before, but I join him in praising the Yorkshire Post and other newspapers which have drawn attention to the flouting of pollution control law. It is my understanding--I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman asked the Secretary of State this question--that nothing in the Bill will change those circumstances. I should be grateful if the Secretary of State would answer his hon. Friend's question.
Sir Hugh Rossi : That is the view put forward by Greenpeace. On occasion, the Committee had to question the evidence given by it. It is an effective pressure group, but it tends to get rather excited and, at times, to overstate
Column 357its case. It has sent me a copy of the document to which the hon. Member for Copeland referred, but I have not had an opportunity to read it in detail.
Part of the object of Second Reading is to ventilate matters so that when they are considered in Committee and on Report the Government can close any loopholes in the legislation. I should like to think that the Government have directed their attention to these problems and that they may already be covered. Nevertheless, there is no reason why a marker should not be put down, because it is a very serious defect in the law. The problem is that polluters are not acting illegally, If they were, certain consequences could follow. We must therefore ensure that such behaviour is made illegal. I hope that I have not kept the House too long. I only wished to ask two or three questions about pollution. I think that there can be a tightening and close examination of pollution controls, and I hope that my remarks will commend themselves to my right hon. Friend. Subject to that, he will receive my support in the Lobby. I shall wait with interest to see how the matter is dealt with.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : I commend to the House large parts of the speech of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), especially that part relating to pollution control and the pollution inspectorate. I am certain that he is right in saying that powers need to be improved and expert personnel need to be available on the ground.
The objective of the Bill is quite clear--to dismember the 10 water authorities, which are successors to local authority control, of water resources and supply. They were created to improve standards of public health. We must recognise that, before they were taken into local authority control, there were horrendous problems related to health. In short, the water industry has always been regarded as a service, not an industry suitable for privatisation. We will therefore vehemently oppose the Bill.
The size of the industry has increased enormously, especially since its reorganisation in 1973. It now has an annual turnover of £3 billion. Water authorities supply water to 75 per cent. of the population and sewerage facilities to 96 per cent. It is a large industry and employs 48,500 people. None the less, it is a service industry and should remain in the public sector.
The industry's present functions, especially those of river basin management, are important. The effectiveness of its river basin management is admired throughout the world. Its sewerage and sewage disposal responsibilities have been shown to be unsuccessful at present, and it is reckoned that 20 per cent. of sewage disposal units are ineffective. This is a serious problem and will require much more public money if the system is to be effective. It is therefore doubtful whether the private sector will be able to find sufficient resources to bring about more effective pollution control.
Column 358The water authorities have functions in respect of fisheries, flood protection and drainage--that is especially important for agriculture--navigation, recreation and conservation. Over the past 10 or so years there have been massive efforts to reduce costs in order to improve the efficiency of the water authorities. They are now leaner and fitter. There is no more scope for further cost cuts. This is part of the problem with privatisation of the industry. Profits will come only by increasing the price of water to the consumers and selling off the water authorities' assets.
The transfer from a public monopoly to a private one does not introduce competition, and that is surprising. The Bill does not apply to Scotland, and we see no reason why it should apply to Wales. The splitting of functions between the National Rivers Authority and water services companies could have been achieved while the water industry was still in the public sector, and we see no reason why that should not have happened.
We are in danger of having a toothless National Rivers Authority, unable to cope with the voracious demands of the water plcs for more profit at the expense of consumers and the environment.
We are worried about the financial arrangements for the National Rivers Authority. First, there seems no logical reason why the money which the Treasury will pocket from the sale of the water authorities should not be used to meet the set-up costs of the NRA. Secondly, we are worried that the NRA will not be properly financed to meet its day-to-day duties. The NRA's remit and powers are generally satisfactory, but the authority can only be as effective as its budget will allow. It is dependent on the Treasury to fund activities beyond those that its income allows it to undertake. The NRA's regulatory functions rest in the Chancellor's hands.
We know that the Department of the Environment does not envisage the NRA receiving substantial state support. That will result in a clear conflict of interest. The Chancellor wants to raise as much as possible from the industry's sale, but knows that the greater the regulation through the NRA the lower the industry's value will be. There is a direct incentive for the Treasury to under-fund the NRA. In its general information pack, the DOE said :
"The general policy of the NRA would be to maximise its cost recovery from charges so as to minimise its dependence on Exchequer grant."
In a speech on 12 November, Lord Crickhowell, chairman of the NRA advisory committee, said :
"It cannot be healthy for the NRA to be dependent on hand-outs from the Government."
Clearly, there is a conflict.
Thirdly, there is concern about the NRA's long-term financial position. The authority is classified as "non-departmental public body"--presumably, that is Treasury terminology. The authority will have no long-term borrowing powers. I should like the Minister to take serious note of that point. The present water authorities have borrowing powers and massive problems occur in drainage and flood control which require additional finance, often at short notice. In the past, the water authorities have borrowed a great deal.
Column 359We are worried about the NRA's structure, because we do not want it to become over-centralised. Lord Crickhowell touched on that point in his speech to the national water conference, saying :
"Within the framework of national policies laid down by the NRA, the regional units shall have the greatest practical degree of independence."
The NRA should be independent. That point was made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green.
The flotation of the water companies seems to be far removed from consumers and consumer interest. We are not sure why the Government will not consider the consumers' interests more in those areas covered by the plcs, why there should not be participation in share ownership by consumers and why should there not in certain cases be co-operative arrangements with consumers. Surely we need bodies that have consumer interests at heart.
Dr. D. E. Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : On the point about consumer control, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Minister for Water and Planning is a respected fellow countryman. I am certain that he will have carefully considered whether it would be appropriate for the functions of the Welsh water authority to be transferred into the hands of Welsh consumers, should such a co-operative be established. I am certain that my hon. Friend will agree.
Mr. Livsey : I certainly agree that Welsh consumers should participate in the ownership functions carried out by their water authority. It is questionable whether the functions of the Welsh water authority should be hived off at all, unless it happens in those circumstances.
Water consumers are worried. I hope that, at the very least, the Government will make provision in the Bill for the Government to hold a golden share, to ensure that the plcs remain in Britain's hands rather than sold to foreign investors. I am sure that the Government agree.
It is clear that under the Bill there is no competition. When, on the BBC programme "On the Record", it was put to the Minister for Water and Planning that the consumer would have no extra choice as a result of privatisation, he replied :
"Yes, that is probably right."
The Minister admitted that there would not be much competition. The consumer will not have in his house six taps providing water from six plcs. Water is four times more expensive in some parts of France than in others. I trust that the Government will not allow that to happen when the Director General of Water Services is appointed. We are worried about what will happen in the Principality of Wales, because water from Wales services the midlands and other parts of England. We hope that the future arrangements will bring us adequate compensation for the export of that water, and that we will be properly reimbursed and not under-sold. That is important. The infrastructure of the water industry is in a very bad state in some parts. Many Victorian sewers need to be
Column 360repaired and new water pipelines installed. That is a massive task. Most estimates of bringing water quality up to EEC standards show that the work could be done at a cost of about £6 billion. We are concerned that the Secretary of State today mentioned a figure of £2.4 billion to put matters right, which is less than half the current estimate. We hope that the Government will reconsider that matter.
We are also concerned about the current massive land assets of the water authorities. They own 450,000 acres of land and we are not certain what will happen to that land when the industry is privatised. They own 97,000 acres in Wales alone and, in my constituency of Brecon and Radnor, there are 21,000 acres of water authority land in the national park. That is an extremely valuable asset and we should like to know what will happen from the point of view of access and recreation.
Many farmers on that land are tenants of the water authority. What will be their security of tenure? What will happen to their rents when water is privatised? Will they be able to continue in their traditional farming activities, or will they be priced out? Those are important issues which should be discussed in detail in Committee. We regard the Bill as unsatisfactory. Water is not suitable for privatisation. Many hon. Members are involved in the recreation aspects--I am a keen angler--and are anxious to know whether the fishery aspects will be protected and developed at a cost that everyone can afford. We hope that angling, which is the most popular sport in the British Isles, will not be priced out for the ordinary person as a result of the privatisation of the industry.
We must remind the Minister of the consumer interests that are at stake, particularly in the disconnection of consumers from their water supplies. Last year, disconnections reached an all-time high of more than 9,000. As water is a basic, natural resource, vital for life, consumers should not be cut off in that way.
The poor and lower income groups are particularly exposed to that problem. Low-income families and individuals have to pay rates and water rates from benefit, and those rates are taking increasingly large proportions of their benefit. In the past six months, the standing charge for those consumers with water meters has risen by 33 per cent. I have been shown such cases, and they are very worrying. We hope that the consumer interest will be taken into account in the Bill. The director general must be effective. I do not believe that the estimate of 80 staff in his office is sufficient to protect the industry and the consumers' interests.
I hope that the Minister will take those points into account. The Bill needs amending substantially if it is to make a worthwhile impact. We oppose the principle of the privatisation of water and are glad to say so.