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Column 484essential that some kind of golden share arrangement is made to protect water authorities in handling the crucial five-year period between vesting and privatisation and arriving at the full potential for their powers. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will address that aspect too, because I doubt that the new authorities will be able to behave like the French unless they are given a measure of protection from predation by French investors during the period in question.
Under the Bill, the future will be safe for private water supply, which will improve in both quality and environmental access. But I am concerned to see that the plcs will have the flexibility to develop as I trust the House wishes to see them develop, and that initially at least they will have a measure of protection to ease them on their way.
Mr. A.E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe) : I wish to ask two questions. First, what impact is privatisation likely to have on the scale of water charges in Yorkshire? Secondly, how adequate will the National Rivers Authority be in its monitoring role in Yorkshire? There is already a strong upward thrust towards increased water charges there. As Yorkshire water authority investigates the condition of its underground assets, it finds that more work needs to be done, calling for as much as £400 million investment in the forecast period. Moreover, the authority is under increasing pressure from environmentalists and others to improve the quality of its rivers. That can be done only by spending enormous sums on improving sewage treatment works. Only half of Yorkshire water authority's current capital programme is committed to water quality improvements, with most of the remainder going on the maintenance and repair of underground assets.
To meet the Government's new requirements without prejudicing those programmes will mean increased charges to customers or increased borrowing from the Government. However, over the past four years the Government have reduced the amount that the authority may borrow to fund its capital investment programme, at precisely the time when its needs are increasing. The burden inevitably falls on customers in the form of increased charges. Twice this year I have appealed to the Minister for some relaxation of the borrowing rules, but he reminds me that Government policy is for water authorities to move away from investment based on borrowing. For 1988-89, the Government set an external financing limit on Yorkshire water authority of only £40 million, yet its accumulated deficit is more than £500 million. Last year, the servicing charges on that debt accounted for nearly half of its operating profits. It can only mean, as the chairman of Yorkshire water authority confirmed recently, that if all the money must be raised from charges,
"then we might have to face a 27 per cent. charges increase next year."
And that comes on the threshold of privatisation.
Over the past five years, Yorkshire water authority has given investment priority to improvements in drinking water quality. Even today, about 1.25 million customers receive discoloured water through their taps. Further capital expenditure may also be affected by two incipient problems that water authorities need to monitor closely, especially in Yorkshire. The first relates to aluminium in
Column 485purification processes ; the second to the presence of nitrates in drinking water, which hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned.
While a causal link has yet to be made between aluminium for purification and Alzheimer's disease, the contingency must be met in Yorkshire, one of the worst affected areas, where more than 800,000 consumers are supplied with water that may contain aluminium levels above the legal limit. The same contingency thinking--and this is where money is involved--must be applied to nitrates. Some fertilisers, such as those containing nitrites, find their way into streams and aquafers, and ultimately into domestic water supplies. Yet one quarter of south Yorkshire's drinking water comes from rivers, such as the Derwent, around York, which are fed by streams and rivulets running through agricultural land. Sheffield and Rotherham benefit from the mixing of Pennine water with Derwent supplies. Not so as one moves eastward, along the south Yorkshire valley, where high nitrate levels occur in, for example, the Doncaster area. Yorkshire water authority insists that nitrate levels are below the EEC's maximum permissible concentration--but for how long?
On 3 October 1988, The Guardian reported :
"Bottle-fed babies may run a greater risk from nitrates in water than the Government has publicly accepted, according to a confidential Department of Health report."
The potential problems of aluminium and nitrates in water need to be borne in mind and may call for more capital resources than is currently envisaged.
Even though Yorkshire water authority's accumulated debt will be written off, it faces such a huge outlay as the result of upgrading sewers and pipes to meet new standards, investing in new equipment, and the need to provide against future water supply problems--and therefore such enormous capital levels and service charges--that a dramatic increase in Yorkshire water prices following privatisation appears unavoidable.
I turn to the role of the National Rivers Authority. Nowhere was the passage of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 received more eagerly than in south Yorkshire, as it gave rise to the expectation that its rivers would become cleaner. However I understand that by 1988 river quality worsened throughout south Yorkshire, and plans to return fish to poisoned waters have been postponed--perhaps until the next century. Yorkshire water authority chairman, Gordon Jones, admitted to me in correspondence that hundreds of kilometres of south Yorkshire's rivers are still polluted.
Sheffield city council is committed to the regeneration of its east end, yet the designated area is flanked by the rivers Don and Rother, probably the dirtiest in Britian in their local stretches. Hard though it may be to imagine today, the Rother and Don valleys once provided some of the finest countryside in all England and inspired Sir Walter Scott to write "Ivanhoe". The Rother and Don catchments were also renowned for their excellent fishing and kingfishers. I recall from my boyhood the heronries and swimming clubs that existed there.
In a letter dated 28 December 1980, I asked the Department of the Environment what estimate has been made of the effect of its spending cuts on Yorkshire water authority's plans to clean up south Yorkshire's waterways. In his reply of 29 January 1981, the then Under-Secretary
Column 486of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), who has just spoken, described my inquiry as unnecessarily gloomy, and claimed
"the overall trend in river quality is improving."
Two years later, according to a survey produced jointly by the then South Yorkshire county council and Yorkshire water authority, more than half the county's rivers were still of "poor" or "bad" quality and would cost more than £100 million to clean up. That programme was never put in hand. Instead, a 19 per cent. cut in the capital programme for 1979-80 that we bequeathed to the Government meant that 32 of south Yorkshire's 46 major schemes were affected and three were scrapped.
In May 1982, South Yorkshire county council urged the Government to implement the Flowers commission recommendation that national funds be made available to tackle the problems of river pollution arising from abandoned mine workings. In April 1987, Gordon Jones made the same plea to the Department of the Environment--also in vain. Today, perhaps as a result, south Yorkshire's rivers remain among the filthiest in Britain. Every day, tonnes of toxic chemicals and materials pour into the waterways--often illegally and out of area. Pollution on this scale is no longer confined to south Yorkshire, nor to industry. Pollution from farms has also risen steadily in Yorkshire and Humberside in recent years. The Yorkshire water authority recently announced a crackdown on illegal pollution, but environmentalists and the trade unions involved in the water industry remain sceptical. They fear that the NRA will have insufficent resources and expertise to deal effectively with massive pollution problems.
The number of pollution control staff has been cut substantially since the water authorities were set up in 1974, but, over the same period, the amount of time-consuming monitoring work required has increased in line with ever-stricter regulations. In Yorkshire Water's southern division, for example, which is the area with the highest concentration of polluted rivers in the country, there are more than 1,800 registered dischargers over hunderds of miles of rivers, yet there are only 17 pollution control staff. Will the staffing levels for the NRA be significantly higher than the total pollution control complement that is presently available to the 10 existing water authorities? The privatisation of water is a depressing prospect for Yorkshire in respect of water charges and pollution. The Bill is entirely inappropriate to the needs of south Yorkshire.
Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North) : It is tempting to take up the points that were raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy). I am certain that if he discussed the matter with any company that has recently been privatised, he would discover that there is relief among management that it now only has to make out a good commercial case for borrowing money on the open market, whereas previously a commercial case was insufficient and a political case had to be made--among political cases that were irrelevant to it--to obtain the sanction for cash from the Government. In that sense, privatisation offers a great deal of hope to the public sector part of the water industry.
I should like to take up some of the points that were made by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) who, unusually for him, made a speech that did him some
Column 487disservice. He seemed to throw all his weight against the Bill, and he did not utter one good word for it. He gave the impression that there is no need to change the statutory framework for the water industry. I must tell him that if he talked to any of the 20,000 consumers in the Camelford area of my constituency, he would find that they have no confidence in the existing statutory framework, but they find a great deal of hope in the provisions that have been included in the Bill.
People in the Camelford area would tell the hon. Gentleman--and other hon. Members--that they realise, of course, that it is impossible to have a competitive water supply. In all logic, there can be only one institution supplying water, whether private or public. What has concerned them is the monopoly of power over that supply. Opposition Members have extolled the virtues of the public sector over the private sector. I beg them to obtain a copy of the inquiry report into the Lowermoor treatment works incident on 6 July. If they can still feel confident about the public sector water industry after reading that report, I should like to hear from them individually. It was an appalling chapter in the public water industry.
The events that followed the dumping of 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate into a tank of water that was prepared for going into the mains and the subsequent chapter of incidents surrounding the discovery of the events that led up to it were unbelievable. People in the Camelford area are considerably reassured by the fact that the inspectorate powers of the Department of the Environment will be increased by the Bill. After the incident, it was evident that, had it not been for the Department's officials keeping a close eye on what South-West Water was doing, consumers would have received less information and the matter would not have been brought under proper control. If my hon. and learned Friend the Minister can give an assurance that the inspectorate will be manned by experienced people and properly funded, that will reassure not only my constituents, but people in the rest of the country.
The Minister is also aware of the incredibly slap-happy way in which the water authority moved quickly to discharge the contaminated water into local rivers and streams. That led to the wholesale killing of fish and was a flagrant breach of all that one would expect from a water authority. If there was ever a case for the establishment of a separate authority, such as the National Rivers Authority, that was it. I am certain that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister is correct in ensuring that that authority is set up. Other hon. Members have spoken about the authority's funding and powers, and I hope that the Minister will consider those points carefully. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) said that we must be careful to ensure that private investors have the proper incentives to invest in the companies. I agree, but we must remember that people have to drink the water, so they must have confidence in it.
If the water authorities are to be policed properly, a strong National Rivers Authority is needed. In view of the flagrant breaches in my constituency, people will be reassured by the fact that criminal sanctions are included in the Bill. It is right and proper that if a water authority- -or individual within it--is party to water that is not of wholesome quality being put into the system, criminal sanctions should apply. There is a maximum sentence of
Column 488two years' imprisonment for that. Perhaps my hon. Friend will also consider adding to the Bill a provision for a maximum of two years' imprisonment for anyone who recklessly publishes information that leads people to consume water when it is unsafe for them to do so. That should be punishable by a prison sentence if the circumstances require it. We must ensure that all people working in the water industry have a clear understanding that they have a personal as well as corporate responsibility to supply wholesome water.
I want to reinforce a point that I have made separately to Ministers, which has come out of the incident in north Cornwall. There appears to be no statutory responsibility--and I stress the word "statutory"--for the water authorities to inform the local health authority and the local environmental health authority when it can no longer supply wholesome water. No certain information was given to those authorities in Cornwall, because there was no statutory obligation to do so. Therefore, they did not treat the incident as seriously as they should have done. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will re-examine that particular aspect and make it a statutory duty for the water authority, in any case in which it cannot supply wholesome water but has, nevertheless, allowed unwholesome water to get into the system, to tell the local health and environmental health authorities. I ask my hon. and learned Friend, in view of the Camelford incident, to give me an assurance in his winding-up speech that he will keep a close eye on the incident and ensure that the Bill covers health matters, which are the responsibility of the Department of Health. The Minister has greatly reassured me, on behalf of my constituents, and for that I thank him. I thank also my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. They have both been of great help.
My final point is not entirely related to the Bill, and I hope that the House will forgive me for making it. During this incident in north Cornwall, it became clear that a large number of people were using hot water to cook their vegetables or to make coffee and tea.
The contaminants in water affect the hot water system much more seriously than they affect the cold water system. It was news to me that no water authority is responsible for supplying wholesome water by means of the hot water system. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will consider a short advertising campaign to draw attention to such dangers. It would greatly benefit water consumers. I welcome the Bill. It will greatly improve consumers' water supply.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : The last four speakers on the Government Benches said that they approve of the Bill, but they all expressed reservations about it. They fall into two groups : those who stress the role of the National Rivers Authority and who believe that its role is important, and those who are worried about its role and stress the values of privatisation. When those two elements are added together they create the nonsense that is to be found in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) argued in favour of privatisation. In his ideological speech
Column 489he stressed the wide-ranging benefits of the Government's privatisation policy. He referred in particular to the shipyards. I suggest that he ought to look at what is happening elsewhere. The dry docks in Malta are among the best docks in Europe. They are under public control and a system of worker self-management. Workers are elected to the board of management and have an influence on management decisions. Such ownership provisions need to be examined, considered and developed by hon. Members.
We discussed Wales earlier this afternoon. Last night the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) joined in the discussion, as was his right, although the measure does not apply to Northern Ireland. The poll tax will not apply to Northern Ireland either. If the poll tax and what was described last night as the water poll tax were to be introduced in Northern Ireland, where there is vast unemployment, social disruption and division, they would add to the unhappiness of the people of that Province. If the Government understood that point, they would realise what is wrong with such highly divisive measures for the rest of the United Kingdom. What will happen to the revenues that are raised when the water industry is sold off? We have gone past the stage when we were selling off the silver. We are now selling off the commodes and other basic necessities. The money that has been raised so far has been used to carry unemployment, to help to maintain it and to cut the labour market. It has also been used to cut taxes, which has led to an import-led consumer boom and the current economic crisis. The Government have flogged off the people's assets and then thrown the money down the drain. That includes this measure, which will result in fewer drains and a less effective public sewerage and water supply.
The Prime Minister tells us regularly that the Government have no money-- that they have only the taxpayers' money. If that is a simple truism--it is perhaps too simple--it is also true that the Government have no water or any public utilities. The water industry belongs to the people, but its assets are being sold off to groups within society instead of society being given the opportunity to control them. Water belongs to everybody. It does not belong to a special few. A special few will benefit initially from it, but eventually there will be a decline in public health standards if water is privatised. That will create vast problems, and more taxpayers' money will be needed to overcome them.
Conservative Members ought to consider the history of the water industry. They should consider Edwin Chadwick's report of 1842. He stressed the unsanitary conditions in which the labouring population were living in 1842 and the importance of making public provision for sanitary conditions. If inadequate provision is made for sewage disposal, it will affect all classes of society. Edwin Chadwick believed that all classes, including the middle classes, needed a good public supply of water.
There is a statue of Joseph Chamberlain in the Members' Lobby. He instigated many forms of public provision in Birmingham during the 1870s. He upheld the old Victorian attitude of public and civic pride. In 1894 he said :
Column 490"It is difficult and indeed almost impossible to reconcile the rights and interests of the public with the claims of any individual company seeking as its natural and legitimate object the largest private gain."
These will be called old-fashioned, collectivist ideas. They could not be described as Socialist ideas, because Edwin Chadwick and Joseph Chamberlain were not Socialists. But what of the modern, with-it, dynamic, go-ahead Government who are introducing this measure? The ideas of Chadwick and Chamberlain are supposed to be yesterday's ideas. The Government say that they have new, fresh ideas to offer to us. However, they are old hat, ancient ideas. The concept of a National Rivers Authority to regulate private industries is taken from economic theorists such as Alfred Marshall in 1890. In "The Principles of Economics" he said that natural monopolies, such as the railways, had to be regulated and that certain conditions had to be laid down for them. All that the Bill means is that 1890 limited provisions are to be introduced. That is in keeping with this Government. Their political ideas go back to Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, who thought that everybody was selfish and grasping, to the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 in relation to the workers at GCHQ and to 14th century medieval provisions for a poll tax.
The Bill is just as bad as the poll tax measure. It means that those who were paying less for their water than others will have to pay more. A larger number of people, living in small houses, will need to use more water than a smaller number of people who live in large houses, and they will have to pay high water rates. This modern, with-it, dynamic Conservative Government are as old-fashioned and old hat as anything that has ever emerged from the Benches in this House.
Just what is this fantastic people's capitalism that we are being offered? Whatever the industry, if the shares are spread among people so that there are tiny bits all over the place, and if a cartel is allowed to have only 4 or 5 per cent. of the shares, who will control the industry? It will be controlled by the small groups who get together. The dissipated masses with their bits of shares will not run the company ; it will be run by small, elitist groups. As time goes on, the little people will sell to the big people. Year after year, the top companies listed in "The Times 1,000" book buy smaller groups and split areas among themselves to concentrate capital. Even if people's capitalism could work, it could do so only on market principles where profitability would be the only criterion, and it would not be one of the many criteria that are required for the proper use of resources.
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow) : Unlike the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), I shall not look back and attempt to give the House an inaccurate history lesson. Instead, I shall look forward to the establishment of the National Rivers Authority, which is an excellent idea. I hope that it will satisfactorily perform its role.
Exactly what powers will the NRA have? On 30 November in my constituency a train carrying oil and paraffin in tankers was derailed. Some of the oil and paraffin got in to the River Lee and it was polluted. Will the NRA have the power to tell British Rail that that section of track is dangerous and must be made safe so that similar pollution incidents do not occur through the
Column 491derailment of trains? That is not as far- fetched as it might sound. The particular section of track is on the Gospel Oak to Barking line, and I am sure that many hon. Members know that it is one of the worst equipped and managed lines in the country.
I have a strong constituency interest in the Bill because there are six reservoirs in the Lee valley, which take up about one quarter of the land area in my constituency. There is also the River Lee, a flood relief channel, a canal and the Coppermill works--a large water purification plant owned and run by the Thames water authority, which stores 50 tonnes of chlorine gas on site. Because it is a highly dangerous substance, the site is designated by the Health and Safety Executive. Will the NRA have the power to regulate the storage of such chemicals?
I wish to refer to two rivers that I know well--one in the north and one in the south--that I consider to be examples of mismanagement, and explain what I hope will be achieved through privatisation and the establishment of the NRA. The River Skerne lies in the north and may not be familiar to hon. Members. It rises in the north of County Durham, runs through the pit country and through Darlington, and empties into the River Tees a mile or two further south. I know that river well because I was born and brought up in that area. When my father was a boy it was a beautiful, clear stream supporting many types of fish. One day, about 50 years ago, my father went to the river and found a black, stinking ditch. Pit washings from pits in the north of the county had been put straight into the river, which ran black for decades and supported no life. Today, the river apparently runs clear, but it has a nasty smell, has scum and foam on the surface and appears to support no life. The river is a classic example of mismanagement and water authority indifference over many decades. It is a disgrace.
The River Kennet is in the south, and I am fortunate to fish there from time to time when I can scrounge an invitation. The water keeper is concerned about the amount of water that the river carries, because it has declined over the years as a result of abstraction. That problem can be solved only by the metering of water supplies. There is currently no link between cost and consumption. There can be dripping taps in homes, hoses can be turned on to wash the car or to water the garden and then left running, but the bill does not reflect that increased use of water. More and more people and more and more businesses are using water and there must be some form of metering so that people can see how much they are using and understand that they will be charged for the amount that they use. That already happens with other essential utilities such as gas and electricity, so there is no reason why it should not apply to water.
There appears to be great uncertainty about funding. On the national news at 6 o'clock there was an item about a sewer collapse in Bristol. The spokesman for Wessex Water said that it faced difficulties because limits had been placed on its spending and only limited funds were available. He said that he looked forward to the time when the industry was privatised so that it could be released from the constraints imposed by Government. We sit here and talk a great deal, but we are just politicians. What do we know about running the water industry? We should give it to those who know about it--to the experts and to those who can raise the money and put it to good use.
Column 492The Bill will forge a strong link between the shareholder, the consumer, the taxpayer and the Government. For that reason alone, it will be warmly welcomed.
Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) : In a recent poll 82 per cent. of those questioned expressed anxiety about water pollution and only 5 per cent. believed that a private industry could be trusted to regulate itself and control pollution. Nothing that we have heard during the debate leads us to believe that those people were wrong. The Bill is not an expression of the wishes of our people ; it certainly is not an expression of the wishes of my constituents. Although water quality is uppermost in people's minds, many other matters concern them. As has already been said during the debate, water authorities control and maintain not just tap water but sewage, lakes, rivers, beaches, reservoirs and discharges from factories. It is highly irresponsible to be tampering with the existing monitoring arrangements and to be dramatically changing the way in which water authorities are run, at a time when water quality is declining. Pollution incidents are up by 50 per cent. since 1980, not because of carelessness or a lack of awareness or vigilance on the part of most of those responsible for monitoring and control, but because of Government inaction and a lack of public resourcing. As a result, levels of nitrates, nitrites and aluminium compounds in particular are rising in our drinking water, with a consequent deleterious effect on health.
Within my water authority, Thames Water, there are a dozen areas that suffer from unacceptable levels of nitrites. In Lewisham, samples have shown that on 13 occasions between 1985 and 1987 there were unacceptable levels of pesticide residues. Clearly, the polluters who are responsible for this contamination must be investigated and controlled. However, it is impossible to believe, as Conservative Members have suggested, that putting things right will be achieved more effectively by private companies committed to making profits. On the contrary, everything in the Bill makes improvements in water standards less and less likely. Let us take as an example the agency arrangements which exist in local authorities. Clearly, the Government intend to replace them with private contractors who will take over the sewerage and drainage systems. Those arrangements will put us further at risk from polluted supplies, and the possibility of increasing water-borne diseases.
The rapid repair and sensitive maintenance of sewerage systems are imperative to the prevention of pollution and the maintenance of good standards of public health. The ending of existing agency arrangements would mean that faults would have to be reported to a remote, private water company. The body of knowledge and expertise that exists within local authorities is not duplicated anywhere in the private sector.
The involvement of environmental health officers is particularly important and there is widespread concern that changes in agency arrangements that would make environmental health officers more remote from the managers of sewerage systems could seriously jeopardise the vital work of rodent control in sewers. Perhaps the
Column 493Minister is not aware that the rodent-borne disease Leptopirosis has caused several deaths in London in recent years.
There are other fears relating to the land sales and asset stripping activities that we are all sure will follow this privatisation. Thames Water owns more than 4,000 properties and 17, 000 acres with a value, we are told, of £1 billion. Clearly, they were worth many more billions when planning permissions were obtained. For Londoners, many of those holdings have a significance far beyond their potential commercial value. They have an environmental worth for wildlife and for recreation. They are the green lungs of those of us who live in the congested and squalid inner city. Privatisation and the inevitable maximisation of profit could result in those facilities being lost for ever.
The Government's green veneer is already transparent. They fail to understand the need for open space to be maintained if we are not wholly to destroy wildlife in London, with all the appalling consequences that that holds for our urban environment. Some things cannot be bought and sold to the highest bidder without a disproportionate cost to society.
I am concerned about the people in my constituency who already face enormous difficulties paying their water bills. We do not live in the prosperous south-east. The average wage in my constituency is two thirds that in the south-east, and 12 per cent. of my constituents are unemployed. The social security changes have brought greater and greater hardship and an increase in the number of water supply cut-offs.
The supply of clean water is regarded by the world community as a basic human right and we want to retain that right. I want it particularly for the people in my constituency who cannot compete and cannot pay. It is a mark of the increasing cynicism and inhumanity of this Government that they put profit-making above that right. In doing so, they risk damage to human health and a further deterioration in our natural environment. We can be certain that the arguments put by the Opposition are the arguments best understood by the people of this country and of its capital city. They do not want water to be bought and sold by those who can best compete. They believe in basic human justice and rights. A clean water supply should be the right of every person and every nation.
Whatever happens in the vote tonight we shall have expressed the hopes and aspirations of the people, and their view that this vital commodity should not be subject to the market place as the Bill envisages.
Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham) : The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) made a calm and reasoned speech and I congratulate her on that--such is the tenor of most of her speeches--but in fairness I must point out that some of her reasoning was wrong. She was right to speak of her concern for her constituents, a concern we all have, but she must accept that her constituents have long memories. It is not enough to say that all that is to come is appalling and all that has gone before is good. Her constituents will recall, as mine do, the price increases under the Labour Government and
Column 494that during their tenure of office, capital investment fell by a third. Those are the words, not of a Tory Back Bencher, but of the Select Committee on the Environment. When the hon. Lady comments to her local newspapers, I hope that she will remind them of the historical background that has led the Government to introduce the Bill.
I welcome the Bill, although it will increase our mailbags and increase anxiety in all quarters. The general public read all sorts of stories in the press, including scare stories, and I hope that the tenor of the debate and the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State yesterday will allay the fears that many constituents have at a time of change. I doubt whether the concern is justified.
The general public appreciate that the job of the Opposition is to try to scaremonger about the denationalisation programme and to say how wonderful nationalisation was and how wicked the Tory party's privatisation scheme is. The public have not fallen for that line in many general elections, because they are not fools and they have memories. Our constituents know that all has not been heaven under the nationalised scheme, and that when they knock on the door of a nationalised industry they can never get a name or have any effect. What pressure can they bring to bear? Many of us have found that when constituents come to our surgeries about a private company it is easier to get redress, action or sympathy from it because private companies are more sensitive to the pressure of the media or to being brought into the public forum of this place than is often the case with nationalised industries. One merely has to travel on a British Rail train that is running late to know how effective one can be in controlling a nationalised industry.
We must be concerned about accountability. The provision for a Director General of Water Services gives more than adequate protection for consumers, as my right hon. Friend explained in detail yesterday. The director general will have to take account of the public view, and he will be able to protect consumers from unjustified price increases, monitor whether there has been a reduction in services and advise Parliament accordingly. I am sure that as a result of that monitoring of performance we shall have a much more effective service than has been possible to date. I used to live in an area serviced by one of the 29 private boards, and I do not recall that many people knew whether they were being served by a private water company or by a water authority. I do not think that the general public know for a moment. Opposition Members keep telling us about polls, but I wonder whether any have been conducted in those 29 areas to find out how many of the general public know who serves them and whether they believe that the service is different from the one that they will have. I doubt it. The same will be true when the 10 water authorities are privatised. There has been a great deal of discussion about the NRA, which I particularly welcome. It is a progressive step. While there is general howling in the press, which likes to depict the Tory party as being unconcerned about the environment, this is a major contribution to allay the concern that is felt across the House. Why is it always the wicked Tories who want to see a nuclear holocaust that will wipe out our nation's families? Why is it that we are said to want to see the destruction of the ozone layer, resulting in a hideous future for our children and do not want to see Britain's children brought up in a safer and
Column 495more pleasant land? [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] Some Opposition Members say, "Hear, hear". It is families with children who support the Tory party, not the strange hangers- on that keep the Opposition from getting anywhere near the trammels of government. We have as much concern as any other political party, for our children and grandchildren, and people know that.
The Opposition have engaged in scaremongering about the Bill and about the effectiveness of the National Rivers Authority. Our people do not believe the Opposition, and that has been clearly shown in one election after another. The control of water pollution requires positive measures, and those measures must include far more effective control of effluent discharge. Those matters are of concern to all hon. Members. Sadly, some of the 10 water authorities have been responsible for such discharges. I hope the House will accept that it is not a matter of all that is private is evil, and all that is nationalised is good, because the facts do not prove that. The Bill gives the National Rivers Authority the backing that it needs to get to grips with the problem.
I have a personal and constituency interest in the effectiveness of the National Rivers Authority in dealing with flood defences. All too regularly the part of the Severn that runs through Shrewsbury in my constituency bursts its banks. It is a matter of grave concern to my constituents that when severe weather hits that part of the country the flooding will go too far. From time to time Shrewsbury's main roads are flooded. I look forward to lobbying the NRA for the action that has not been taken by the state- owned corporation. We may have better success now that things are looking a little brighter. I understand that 90 to 95 per cent. of United Kingdom homes are now connected to the sewerage system, but many villages in my constituency are nowhere near that percentage. During the recess I met my local borough council to look over its plans for the villages. The council thinks that it will be 100 years before some of those villages are connected to the main sewerage system. They have not fared very well under the present regime, and I hope that they will fare better under the new one. Meanwhile, the people in those villages wait patiently.
Another of the great scare stories put about by the Opposition is that prices will double or treble. I understand that about £1.3 billion will be needed to update our sewerage systems and to improve the quality of water. I understand that a doubling or trebling of prices would produce £6 billion. Clearly, some of the stories put about by the Opposition have not been subjected to a great deal of research. At the end of the day, people will see that the Opposition have been crying wolf on this subject, just as they have cried wolf on so many others.
One hopes that the Bill will receive its Second Reading and then enter a protracted Committee stage. I hope that this two-part Bill will be considered in great detail. I am sure that our constituents will be relieved to know about all the consideration that the House will give the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will deal with the detail of the Bill and not engage in filibustering. This is an important matter. Sometimes people are right to criticise the method by which we consider Bills in Committee, where some hon. Members feel that they have to continue talking in order to clock up the hours. I am sure that will not be the case with this Bill and that the Opposition will put forward
Column 496genuine points of concern, in the certain knowledge that the Government will more than satisfy genuine public concern. According to public opinion research polls, a ratio of 5 : 1 does not welcome the proposal. However, that is not the response that I have had in Shrewsbury, and I suspect that it will not be the response to my hon. Friends. The measure will make a big difference to the quality of water. The National Rivers Authority is long overdue and will be welcomed by the House. The Minister has some difficult and long nights ahead of him. The Bill will bring about great improvements in the provision of water, and I hope that the House will support the measure.
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde) : Legislation on the water industry would be timely if it addressed the many gigantic problems that face that crucial industry after a decade of under-investment. This tardy Bill will do nothing to ensure that the millions of pounds needed to repair our decaying sewers and to improve the quality of water will be provided.
In my region of the north-west it is estimated that £5 billion is needed over the next 25 years to address the problems that have accumulated in water supply and sewage treatment. Nothing in the Bill convinces me that such investment will be made. The Bill will do nothing to ensure that the quality of water is improved. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) said, it took the Government an inordinate time to reply to the third report on pollution by the Select Committee on the Environment. That shows the low regard that the Government attach to trying to improve water quality.
The Select Committee sought assurances that were not given. It asked that under a privatised system water authorities would be treated in the same way by the new rivers authority as farmers and industrialists who were guilty of acts of pollution. As we know, the existing controls are far too weak. It is time that polluters paid the full cost of the damage that they cause to the environment. Privatisation seems to be an opportunity for backtracking on existing pollution controls, even though those are inadequate. In pollution cases courts award nominal costs and that makes prosecution financially unviable. In 1984 the report of the Select Committee on the Environment said :
"Safe, healthy water supplies are totally dependent on effective water pollution control."
Four years on and facing privatisation we are no nearer to imposing such controls. The Department of the Environment and the Water Authorities Association figures show that there has been a 50 per cent. increase in river pollution. Why do the Government not address themselves to problems such as that instead of inflicting on people this piece of political dogma? On 25 November The Times leader lined up with the Opposition on this question when it said : "Anxieties about the quality of drinking water have grown and river quality has diminished. It is clear that the Government has got it wrong."
For members of my union, the National Union of Public Employees, the problem is not academic, because as quality gives way to profit and cuts, their jobs will be at stake. I am sponsored by that union and I feel as outraged as its members about the consequences of the Bill.
Column 497The water industry requires investment but after privatisation it is the consumer who will pick up the tab. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that the burden will be passed to shareholders as well as consumers. The Minister should spell out how he thinks water charges will move, especially in my region in the north-west which faces the heaviest rebuilding burden of all the regions. I am glad to see that the miniature for sport, as he is effectively known, is in the Chamber. He is not wearing his Charlton Athletic tie. It is probably a rambling club tie or some sort of "sexy" tie. Millions of people will be offended by the restrictions on major sporting and recreation facilities that will result from the Bill. In Committee on the Bill about water metering I received no assurances from the Minister. He of all people should have been in the vanguard of those assuring sporting and leisure activity communities about the way in which they will be protected, but he did not do that. I do not know what the Prime Minister has got against the Minister with responsibility for sport. The poor lad has tried to defend the indefensible in measures such as identity cards for football supporters and now this Bill. All those measures come from on high, and he has to carry the can. We feel for him.
I have received representations from many individuals, constituents and organisations who are up in arms about the Bill's implications for sport and recreation. The fine print of the Bill--or the lack of it, if that is possible in such a weighty document--could decimate water recreational and sporting pursuits on water industry and neighbouring land. Clause 7 deals with recreation, but it is no more than a grotesque parody of section 20 of the 1973 Act which places on the water authorities a duty to open up their land for ramblers and other peaceful countryside use.
Mr. Pendry : I am glad that I have the support of the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins) who knows something about this matter. The water authorities responded well to that duty giving access to most of their extensive land holdings. Clause 7 lifts many phrases from the 1973 Act, but they are simply hollow gestures. Clause 7(3) places a duty on the water undertakers to make their land available for recreational purposes. That has already been interpreted as a way of exploiting available land in an uncontrollable way. Roderick Paul, chief executive of Severn-Trent, said :
"I accept that we have not had to develop the skills required for pleasure- type exploitation. Where there is a scope for that, we might franchise it."
Will the Minister responsible for sport comment on that as soon as possible?
Mr. Hawkins : I want merely to support the hon. Gentleman. The important thing about clause 7 is that, although legal rights of way will be protected, all the access agreements that have been signed voluntarily have no protection. I have one of the largest national parks in
Column 498Britain in my constituency and there is no protection in the Bill for those rights of access to the Peak district and the Pennine way. I hope that the Minister will ensure that that point is considered seriously in Committee.
Mr. Pendry : I am glad that I gave way, although I hope I shall not be penalised. I hope that the Minister is aware that the open and free nature of mountains and woodlands provide a strong attraction to many citizens. Walking in the countryside is still one of the most popular outdoor pursuits. Some 8 million regular ramblers use our open countryside each week. Perhaps the Secretary of State should follow that example and take a walk--many of us would suggest a very long walk and would like him to take the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary with him.
Charging for access to our countryside is anathema. It is odious and alien to the British way of life. It should be clearly and unambiguously ruled out, not sneaked in at the back of a clause which promises greater access, but in reality removes it.
The code of practice in clause 9 provides no more comfort. Like clause 7, it applies to water authorities but not to enterprise subsidiaries and subsequent landowners. It is weak and ineffective and should be replaced with adequate safeguards. The Bill does not even touch on the thorniest point, the extent to which the Government want the NRA to contract out work. How on earth can the NRA conserve the use of land and water if it gives its regulatory functions such as quality monitoring to others, perhaps even to the water companies which may be polluting the water. The Bill cuts across all recreational users of the countryside. Organised sporting pursuits will be threatened too. The Central Council of Physical Recreation rightly wants to enshrine in the Bill a strong code of practice for both water companies and the NRA. In particular, there needs to be maintenance of current recreational facilities and pricing must take into account the financially disadvantaged groups. That was never touched on by the Minister who opened this debate.
What is needed and is sadly lacking from the Government is consultation with interested parties before such legislation is drafted. Unless the Government talk and, more importantly, listen to groups ranging from the Council for the Protection of Rural England to the regional sports councils, all the developments in recreation during the past decade will be wiped away. In my constituency it would be a tragedy if the paths and riding trails with facilities for the disabled and the water sports in the Longdendale valley were lost in a tide of political dogma. For those reasons and many others, I shall vote against the Bill tonight.