|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Wakeham : My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and his plans, to which I am not party, did not form any part of the discussions that I had about whether this was the right time to introduce a timetable motion. We did so to ensure that the Committee and remaining stages are adequate to discuss the many remaining subjects in a balanced and sensible way.
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : My right hon. Friend is being his usual polite and moderate self, and one welcomes the grounds that he is putting forward for the timetable motion. Will he bear in mind that we have had to listen to most of the contents of the Tatler magazine being read out by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) and to the clubs and attainments of Lord Crickhowell? Those are just two illustrations of what we have had to endure over the long proceedings of the Committee.
Column 658excessive filibustering" after I had read over the weekend the fascinating reports about the Tatler and one or two other incidents.
If the Committee continues to sit each week for 18 hours, which is about the number of hours that it has done so far, there is the prospect of another 78 hours or so of debate. As is customary, it would be for the Business Sub-Committee, which has the important task of allocating the amount of time for discussion of each part of the Bill within the total days available, to decide whether the present pattern of sittings should be maintained or might sensibly be increased. As a number of the remaining clauses are consequential or supplementary, I believe that the Business Sub -Committee will have considerable scope to ensure that time is allocated in such a way as to enable an adequate scrutiny of all the remaining parts of the Bill. In addition, there will be three full days of debate on the Floor of the House for Report and Third Reading. The motion provides that the first two of these days will run until midnight. These generous provisions show that it is not our intention to cut short debate on this Bill. I commend the motion to the House, in the belief that it represents the best and most realistic way to debate the Water Bill, a Bill of fundamental importance which will benefit the consumer and the industry and, at the same time, safeguard and improve the environment.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) : I compliment the Leader of the House, or perhaps his Private Office, on the sweet reasons that he came up with for the second guillotine motion of 1989. The first one was that on the proceedings of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill, and the Leader of the House argued that we had to rush it through before the current Act ran out. I half expected him to argue that we had to pass the Water Bill before the water ran out. Knowing the ineptitude of the Secretary of State for the Environment, that might have proved a more prudent argument than the one the Leader of the House used.
Last year, the Leader of the House introduced no fewer than six guillotine motions--a record for any parliamentary Session. Now, with this Session scarcely two months old, he is introducing his second guillotine motion in a fortnight. Some think that he is going for his own record, hyped up by the wonder drug that drives on all his cringing Cabinet colleagues--fear for his job and fear of the Prime Minister. Others attribute this guillotine-happy phase to the bicentenary of the French revolution. As the modern Tory party has little sense of history, I shall remind the right hon. Gentleman that Dr. Guillotine, the eponymous proposer of the then high tech instrument of decapitation, did not get it into operation until 1792, so any bicentenary celebration of the guillotine is premature. The guillotine on the Water Bill is equally premature.
Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North) : While the right hon. Gentleman is going through history, could he tell the House whether it was a Conservative or Labour Government who tabled five guillotine motions in a day during the 1974-75 Session?
Column 659along later, because he does not miss many sittings. He introduced a Bill that enacted five guillotine motions in one day, but they were the only five in that Session. The Leader of the House is the record holder, having introduced six guillotine motions. Those motions were introduced by a Government with a majority of 100 and a guaranteed majority in the other place, and came in the first long Session of a Parliament--something that has never before been done. That either says something about the incompetence of the Leader of the House or shows that we are rather better in opposition than some in the Press Gallery give us credit for.
We are faced with the second guillotine motion in two months at the beginning of a parliamentary Session. The Government have failed to answer practically every question put to them by the Opposition about the Water Bill. They have also failed to answer questions put to them by people outside who are concerned about the future of the water supply. The Government propose to curtail debate in Committee to reduce their embarrassment at not being able to cope both with what is happening in the real world and the questioning to which they are being subjected by my hon. Friends. Today, I shall try to put some of the most important points again, not with much hope of getting a reply but in the hope that at least people will know that here in Parliament we are asking questions even if the Government will not come up with answers.
The main basis of the Government's credo on the Bill is that they want to hand over our water industry to profit-seeking private water companies because that will ensure that market forces work to the benefit of the consumer. Even the most fanatical supporter of Adam Smith, and certainly anyone who has read his works, should know that market forces can work only when the consumer has a choice, but the Bill will not give the consumer a choice. How can it? There will still be only one water pipe to each home. The Government are proposing a simple transfer of the ownership of water from the publicly owned water authorities and the strictly regulated statutory water companies to a collection of semi-regulated, money-grabbing monopolists. A dissatisfied customer will get no choice. The Government are saying to the customers, "If you do not like your water supply, get a bucket and get water from somewhere else." Another major question is who will own the new water companies. Will one company own the lot, so that there will not only be no choice, but no chance to compare the performance of one company with that of another? The Government said originally that they would prevent that happening by having a golden share. We understand, however, that one of their former colleagues, Sir Leon Brittan, may rule that the Government cannot play the golden share to stop such takeovers and the formation of one monopoly company. We could do with an answer from the Minister on that, but it is one that to date he has refused to give.
The next questions are who would be likely to buy the water industry, and why. The recent history of takeovers, combined with the recent history of the sale of some public assets, can fill the water consumer only with foreboding. The most recent takeovers have had more to do with asset stripping and property speculation than with a better deal for customers. The same can be said of some of the
Column 660privatisations. For example, the royal ordnance factories were sold to British Aerospace. The theory was that the sale would produce an all-purpose armaments company. In practice, it was merely a rip-off. When the factories were sold by the Government to British Aerospace, the land at the Enfield and Waltham Abbey sites was valued at only £3.5 million. The new owners immediately revalued the sites at over £400 million. The arms factories are to be closed so that the land can be sold.
Mr. Dobson : If I have to choose between the words of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee and that of the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), I shall go along with the Comptroller and Auditor General and the PAC.
The potential purchaser of the water industry will not be attracted by its pumping stations, its filtration plants, its thousands of miles of water connections and its customers. Not likely! All those facilities, including, perhaps, the customers, need money spent on them, as well as skilled staff and management skills. The real attraction of the industry--both the publicly owned water authorities and the regulated statutory water companies--is its land. We understand--I say "understand", because the Government will not produce the figures--that the industry owns over half a million acres. Some of that land comprises prime city centre sites while other land is in the suburbs, where it might be used for house building. Much more land is in the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is on the land that potential purchasers' eyes are focused. They have their eyes on property for property speculation. We all know who gains and who loses from property speculation.
Mr. Dobson : I am dealing with what might be described as the Department of the Environment's twin-track approach to land sales and property speculation in the national parks. The Secretary of State intends to put the companies in a position in which they can sell off assets, and at the same time he is trying to relax planning restrictions on developments in the national parks. In other words, he will get the national parks both ways.
If Conservative Members believe that nothing is wrong with property speculation, let me remind them of the words that were used in 1909 in Lancashire by the grandfather of the hon. Member for Crawley. I refer to the occasion when Winston Churchill spelt out that the profits of the property speculator were reaped in direct proportion to the disservice done to the rest of society. That is how we can measure what the property speculators will be doing.
We are told that the Government appointed Schroder-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Nicholas Baker : May I advise the hon. Gentleman to cease scraping the barrel? If he took the trouble to read the reports of the proceedings in Committee, he would discover that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water and Planning has anwered the questions that have been put to him.
We know that the Government appointed Schroder to value the water industry's public assets. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State--glasnost in reverse--refuses to disclose the valuation to the British people. I have no doubt, however, that he will show the figures to would-be buyers. I have no doubt also that the Prime Minister hopes that some of the profits will eventually be siphoned back into Tory party funds. That might happen as a consequence of a novel use of the water companies, as revealed by Rosie Waterhouse in The Independent.
The people generally, not only potential purchasers, are entitled to know the value of the land assets if only so that they can calculate in the fullness of time how much the water rip-off has cost every family in the land. Perhaps the Secretary of State, in looking to his future and being fearful for his place in the Cabinet, is thinking of following the example of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) and British Telecom. Perhaps ere long he, too, will be able to complement the sell-off that he organised with a pay-off by becoming a director of the privatised company. Ministers have refused to disclose the value of the assets, but they have been suggesting that sell-offs would benefit customers as the proceeds would be devoted to investment in the industry and environmental improvements. As we read the Bill, especially if it remains unamended, that is not true. How do Ministers propose to stop land assets being hived off to subsidiary companies or incorporated in a part of a conglomerate that takes over a water company? It that happens, profits will not accrue to the benefit of the customers. Equally, they will not be ploughed back into the industry to improve the quality of water or to reduce pollution. Instead, the profits will go where they always go, to the shareholders.
Ministers have told us that there will be regulations, and so there will. However, as Keith Court, the boss of South West Water, said when he thought that he was not being reported, the job of the industry will be to outwit the regulators. As the Secretary of State is to be the principal regulator, the smart money will be on those who are intent on outwitting him. His record so far-- [Interruption.] I shall produce evidence to support my assertion. As Secretary of State for Transport and as Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) has an unenviable record in the courts. He has lost rather a lot of cases at the expense of the taxpayer. His record is so bad that he was once rightly described by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape)--one of my witty hon. Friends--as having more form than the Kray twins. That is all the more reason why there should be plenty of time to consider these matters carefully and at length in Committee, if only so that the Secretary of State can learn in advance what his own legislation means before he is up before the courts again.
The Bill has been put over the Government as a green measure. That is true, but it is not the green of the environment. Instead, it is the green of envy. Their Tory friends have their envious eyes on the disposable assets of the industry and on the monopoly supply of water, which no one, not even the hon. Member for Crawley, can do without. That is about as green as the Bill gets. Even the sensible proposal to set up the National Rivers Authority,
Column 662which we have welcomed, is undermined by both doubts and certainties. There are doubts about its powers and funding and certainties about its designated boss, Lord Crickhowell. In 1987, he appeared to be held as to either too old or too stupid to remain Secretary of State for Wales, or even as the right hon. Member for Pembroke. Yet now, along with all the other perks that he has had at the hands of the Government, he has been appointed to head the NRA.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the most offensive remarks that he has made about the former right hon. Member for Pembroke. He may know that Lord Crickhowell, as he now is, was seriously ill for a number of years as a result of a disease that he caught in the far east while on a Government visit to promote Wales. Thankfully, he has recovered from that illness and is now restored to his former health.
Mr. Dobson : If Lord Crickhowell was too ill to be a Member of Parliament, he is still too ill to be the boss of the National Rivers Authority. I stick to that position--[ Hon. Members :-- "Withdraw."] I will certainly not withdraw. There is nothing to withdraw.
Mr. Dobson : My case is that if the National Rivers Authority is to command the respect of everyone, it should not be headed by a partisan appointee who receives £40,000 a year for working a three-day week. That is my case.
Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth) : That is not the point. The point that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has made which we found particularly offensive was his reference to Lord Crickhowell being stupid or old. The hon. Gentleman has qualified that. However, the hon. Gentleman, who is well regarded in this House, should withdraw what he has said.
The Government claim that the Bill means that the new private owners of the water industry will invest in environmental improvements and in improving water standards. However, as we read the Bill, those provisions are subject to the new companies making enough profits from their water supply functions to make that investment. If, as I have explained, they are likely to siphon off the profits from land sales to non-water supply subsidiaries and holding companies, where will the money for that investment come from?
We do not really need an answer from the Minister to that question today because we know the answer already. The money will come from increases in water charges. Increases in those charges have been pushed above the rate of inflation for some years and there is more to come. Last week the Minister announced that water charges by the publicly-owned water authorities would increase by up to 13 per cent. this year. This weekend we heard that the private statutory water companies are planning to increase their charges by anything between 30 and 50 per cent. At
Column 663least for a moment, reality impinged again on the fantasy water world of the Minister for Water and Planning and he rushed to the news media to denounce those companies. He said that he was going to summon them to meet him.
The latest question for the Minister to answer is what increase will the statutory water companies levy this year. Can he confirm that they would not have considered increases of this size if they had not been threatened with this privatisation legislation? All those increases are making an impact now, even before the legislation is introduced. One of the reasons for the increases is that they are a preparation for what will happen after the Bill becomes an Act. That is usually called fattening the beast for market.
Who wants the Bill? The answer is a few of the self-same secretive, Right- wing weirdos who came up with the ideas behind the recent National Health Service White Paper--the loons who dare not speak their names. Most people do not want the Bill. They know that it is a rip-off and that it is designed to hand over a natural monopoly into private hands. If you will excuse the expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, they are even more fearful of the knowledge that those private hands have the ear of the Prime Minister.
The Government claim that the Bill is the only way to raise standards in the water industry. Those standards certainly need raising. Britain has been taken to court by the EEC for having poor quality water and foul beaches more often than any other country in Europe. The Government must take the blame for that. They have been in power for 10 years. The prosecutions have taken place under this Government and the responsibility is theirs. I am sure that people in this country will remember that responsibility when they listen to the Government giving answers to problems with the water supply about which people are not aware because the Government got us into this mess in the first place.
The Bill is long and complicated. It must be examined carefully. Questions must be asked and are being asked, but they are not being answered. The House and the public are entitled to answers. If Ministers do not know the answers, they should say so. If they do know the answers, they should make them public.
The timetable motion is intended to prevent that process of question and answer. We have been asking the questions, but the Government have not produced the answers. We reject the motion and in due course we believe that the country will reject the irrelevant and expensive Bill.
Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : We have spent 74 hours in Committee debating eight clauses out of a total of 180. I am sure that hon. Members can calculate the potential number of hours that would remain in Committee to complete consideration. It has taken 74 hours to reach part II. Heaven knows how long it would take to reach part IV which is headed "Charges by undertakers." At the present rate of progress, that heading might have more relevance than hon. Members realise at the moment.
How has the time been used so far? Hardly had the ink dried on the extraordinary statement from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) that the Government are stealing the water from the people and putting it into
Column 664private hands, a statement which neatly sidestepped the fact that 25 per cent. of the industry is already in private hands, than we entered the world of economics.
Early sessions of the Committee were enlivened by the economic views and political dogma of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). They deserve the most extensive circulation. On 10 January the hon. Member for Bootle managed to say :
"If the water authorities are in the public sector after the next election, which the Labour party will win, we shall lift public sector borrowing requirement restrictions on borrowing for capital purposes."
My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water and Planning intervened and said :
"If the hon. Gentleman's argument is correct, will he tell the Committee why the water industry was subject to public sector borrowing restrictions between 1974 and 1979?"
To which the hon. Member for Bootle, unabashed, continued : "Yes, because the Labour party got it wrong. I was not a Member of this place during that period. If it had got it right, it might have won the election I was first elected in 1979 and regrettably one of the things that contributed to the Labour party's general election defeat that year was the imposition of public sector borrowing requirement restrictions on bodies such as water authorities. We have learnt our lesson and rethought our policy. What I am advocating is now Labour party policy."
I asked him :
"Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Labour Government lost the 1979 election because they did not spend enough?"--[ Official Report, Standing Committee D, 10 January 1988, c. 88-89.] The hon. Member for Bootle answered "Yes." The hon. Member for Bootle does not appear to be particularly concerned with the detail--or should I say the trivia--of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund back in the 1970s.
Of course the hon. Member for Bootle did not claim the experience of his hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) who said :
"I am 41 years old and cannot remember a period of Socialist Government."
Perhaps the hon. Member for Sunderland, South was a mature student in the 1970s and therefore can take a detached view on these matters. It is possible that he is a late developer. If that is the case, it would cause a few shudders on the Conservative Benches.
We heard at great length the economic views of the hon. Member for Bootle-- straightforward 1930s, mark one, clause 4 primitive Socialism. We did not hear on all those matters from certain other members of the Committee. We do not know whether the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), for example, agrees with his hon. Friend the Member for Bootle, when he says, "This is Labour party policy". It will be nice if the hon. Member for Copeland confirms that that is so. Does he agree that there should be no controls on public spending, and that the 1979 general election was lost because the then Labour Government did not spend enough?
Perhaps the silence of the hon. Member for Copeland demonstrates that he does agree with his hon. Friend, so there is no need for him to say anything. But his silence may mean that he disagrees, and that he does not wish to say anything because he wants to avoid a row in public. Again, the silence of the hon. Member for Copeland may be because he is shy--but that is not a general characteristic of right hon. and hon. Members, so I must consider instead the first two possibilities. We hope to hear from the hon. Member for Copeland soon--and I trust
Column 665that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will be able to detach from him the information I seek as soon as possible.
Later, there were equally lengthy contributions by Opposition Members on conservation and the environment--all elevated to a science these days. I suppose that, seen from Sunderland, Brent, Bootle or Burnley, sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks must seem like the ideal picnic spots to those who desire to visit them. There is an element of truth in that, but it is not the whole truth. Not once in Committee was there any shred of acknowledgement that people live in such areas and have to make their living there. There was no comprehension that national parks are not nationalised parks. Above all, there was no understanding that habitat is all important, and that nothing is more destructive of habitat than people.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : Does the hon. Gentleman recall the point that I made in Committee concerning the destruction done to the valley in the Lake District by the water authority there? Does he not acknowledge that the Committee debated at great length the problems of people living in the Lake District and the fears they have regarding development after privatisation?
Mr. Knapman : As I mentioned previously, about 25 per cent. of water authorities are in private hands. Perhaps people already congregate on the streets and say, "It is a pity that we live in a private water company area, because it is much worse than being under a public water authority." I am making the point that it is the balance between conservation and public access that is vital. It is that balance which we seek to achieve-- as my hon. and learned Friend explained to the Committee, time and again.
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South) : Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the record of the Essex water company in private hands? It has consistently denied to ramblers the right to cross its land, when they have a legal right to do so--and when it is clearly in the interests of the environment and of the public that such access should be allowed. Is that the kind of record he wants to see other private companies emulate?
Mr. Knapman : The hon. Gentleman forgets that the Bill's purpose is strictly to separate the poacher and gamekeeper parts of the water industry. I thought that the hon. Member for Copeland explained on many occasions that that was so. He also mentioned that it was the function, and not the ownership, of the land that is of prime importance--and in that he is absolutely right.
The Committee proceeded--as I fear that I am proceeding--at a snail's pace, listening to the comical view of Opposition Members that legitimate country sports include fishing, because 3 million people, including the hon. Member for Copeland, fish--but that for some reason shooting and hunting are not legitimate country sports. What sort of hypocrisy is that?
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley) : To do the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) justice, while agreeing with the Labour party's last general election manifesto that fox hunting should be banned, he made a special exception for his own constituency, which is in a national park, saying that it was all right for fox hunting to be allowed in national parks.
Mr. Knapman : I thank my right hon. Friend and neighbour for making that clear. The hon. Member for Copeland makes a habit of such exceptions. I believe that he has nuclear energy interests in his constituency, and that he sought to opt out of the Labour party manifesto's proposals in respect of nuclear power. It seems that the hon. Gentleman's exceptions are a more common occurrence than I previously understood.
The Committee heard also Opposition objections based on political dogma, yet there was no explanation of why there are private water companies in France, under a Socialist Government, but that it is deemed to be right that in this country, under a Conservative Government, the state should provide water and sewerage services. There were also objections to the sale in national parks of land that is surplus to requirements. Those objections were voiced despite my hon. and learned Friend's correct view, which he repeatedly expressed, that land function and land usage should be the determining factor, not land ownership.
Mr. Nicholas Baker : Will my hon. Friend inform the House of the amendment that I and my hon. Friends tabled at the end of the Committee's proceedings, the substance of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agreed to consider sympathetically, to see whether he can bring forward on Report a measure to provide extra protection for national parks, in the way of consultation? That may answer the only point of any substance raised by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). Had he read the Committee's proceedings, he would have found the answer to his question there, too.
Mr. Knapman : I wish to spare the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) the duty of reading the Committee's proceedings over 74 hours. Opposition Members generally failed to specify why surplus land in national parks belonging to water companies is so different from all other land in national parks that it requires a vast amount of red tape and a huge bureaucracy to look after it.
Mr. Dobson : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in terms of access to the countryside, all manner of informal access agreements have been reached with water authorities that are not necessarily binding on their successors? Therefore, there are enormous tracts of land to which the public currently have access, but to which access will not be guaranteed when private owners have control of it--particularly if they wish to dispose of that land to other parties that intend doing something with it.
Mr. Knapman : No, I do not accept that. In Committee, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister spent a considerable time trying to explain to Opposition Members that a huge number of footpaths, bridle paths, and so on, will be respected. There are also concessionary paths. However, if one makes concessionary paths mandatory by subsequent legislation, who in future will grant such a concession? The whole matter is summed up by an excellent leader in the Evening Standard :
Column 667"The Government has bent and bowed to so many empire-defending water officials that its scheme to sell off the water industry to its customers is in danger of over-regulation."
The Opposition objected today, as they have before, to price increases--yet they insist on higher standards. How can one have one without the other? Finally, in Committee we listened for hour after hour to amendments for amending sake. Typical of the Opposition's amendments was the one requiring the National Rivers Authority to publish an annual report setting out details of borrowing. There was a lengthy debate before my hon. and learned Friend was able to intervene, saying :
"I can hardly believe my ears. The Bill requires the NRA to produce an audited annual report."
But did that abash Opposition Members?
Mr. Knapman : No, I have given way enough. I know that the hon. Gentleman is always brief, but I shall not give way any more. Opposition Members merely continued with the debate on who the report should be sent to and then, in great detail, discussed the North West water authority accounts, which were supposed to be brilliant. It is to be hoped that they had studied all the accounts of all the companies. Eventually my hon. and learned Friend the Minister commented :
"I am just wondering why the hon. Gentleman is so anxious to talk about every conceivable thing except the amendment."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee D, 17 January 1989 ; c. 284.] But it was too late : the afternoon had gone.
Most people want a clear and constant water supply. They want effluent to be disposed of quickly and efficiently. Their objectives will be best achieved through privatisation, and particularly by separating the provider of the service from those enforcing standards.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) mentioned an occasion on which the Minister intervened after we had debated an amendment at some length to say that the amendment was not necessary because the annual reports were already required. If that is true, why did the Minister not intervene earlier? Was he deliberately allowing the Committee to discuss at length an amendment that need not have been debated?
The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : That was because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I lived in hope--as I have done throughout the Committee stage--that Opposition Members might have genuine points to raise. Does the hon. Gentleman not recall that my expectations were sadly disappointed?
Mr. Pike : That is no answer, and the Minister knows it. Despite his qualifications as a learned legal man, he merely does the job that he is instructed to do under the heavy hand of the Secretary of State--to get the legislation through. As he knows, if he has a contribution to make on any amendment he can make it, because in Committee any hon. Member, including a Minister, can contribute more than once.
Column 668By no means all the amendments have come from Opposition Members : a number have been tabled by Conservative Members. Nevertheless, although the Minister has said that he is prepared to consider one or two points, and on one occasion told us that he was prepared to discuss certain aspects of the Bill with organisations that had expressed concern, on most issues the Government have been prepared to make no concessions.
Although we have debated only nine clauses and four schedules so far, they have dealt with issues to which we shall return at a later stage, and they will not all require the same depth of consideration. Today's motion, however, giving the Bill just a month from tomorrow to complete its Committee stage, seems unnecessary. If the Government thought that it was necessary, they could have provided more time. We must remember that we are legislating for people outside the House, and many of those people are still anxious about many aspects of the Bill. Leaving the question of privatisation aside for the moment, let me point out that those people want to ensure that our heritage--areas such as the Lake District, the districts of Wales, national parks, the Peak District and the Trough of Bowland--are preserved for their children. They believe that the Bill needs tightening up. So do the Ramblers' Association, the British Mountaineering Council and many other bodies that make good use of the recreational facilities provided by the open spaces now owned by water authorities.
We must also consider consumer interests. It is clear that the capital installation and reading of meters will involve additional costs, and that the water authorities will eventually need more than they need at present. Unless we include adequate safeguards, the Bill will penalise unduly large families, the families of the incontinent, and those whose jobs involve extra washing of work clothes, and additional baths.
We believe that the industry should remain in public ownership. It is an issue too basic and crucial to the needs of the people to be privatised, when comparative competition--a phrase that has been used several times-- economy and profit are allowed to become criteria that can be unfairly measured against such matters as water quality, pollution, conservation and access. There must be an appropriate balance.
As I have often said, a clear difference between the two sides of the House is that, while Conservative Members judge everything in cash terms and invariably take money as the criterion that matters, we see many other important issues. The report of the Select Committee on the Environment about river and estuary pollution made it clear that the public sector borrowing requirement and the external financial limit need not be applied to the water industry, even if it remained in the public sector. It was clearly possible to remove the industry from the limits on its capital investment through means other than privatisation.
We have spent considerable time discussing the National Rivers Authority. Let me make it clear that as yet no member of the Committee has expressed opposition to the principle of such an authority. We consider it right to separate the regulatory powers--to separate poacher from gamekeeper. But the National Rivers Authority must be able to do the job for which it is being established.
Column 669The Secretary of State described this as a green Bill and a great step forward environmentally. Setting up the authority can be a step forward, but only if it can be given the financial powers to do its job properly. We believe in the environment, but we have doubts about the commitment of the Conservative party to environmental issues. A separate Bill could have been introduced to establish a National Rivers Authority. The Government would not then have been faced with a timetable motion. A National Rivers Authority could have been set up this year and the Government could have introduced a Bill to privatise water next year. However, they are impatient to privatise water because they want the money from its privatisation, and from the privatisation of the electricity industry, so that they can con the electors at the next general election.
The debates in Committee have been constructive. I was pleased that the Leader of the House used milder language in his opening speech than he has used on previous occasions. He said that there had been no excessive filibustering. I believe that there has been no filibustering. If there has been any, it is Conservative Members who have filibustered. They have taken up time unnecessarily by moving amendments that they had no intention of putting to the vote. The Committee could make progress and it should be given more time in which to do so. The timetable motion should be defeated so that these important issues can be fully considered in Committee.
The Leader of the House referred to the Committee needing, at the present rate of progress, a further 80 weeks to complete its consideration of the Bill. That was misleading. The Committee will make faster progress as certain points are dealt with and eliminated from the debate. Conservative Members who are doubtful about the implications of these important and wide -ranging issues should be prepared to vote against the motion and thereby ensure that more time can be devoted to discussing them. Only in that way can we protect the public interest.
Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North) : Once again the Mother of Parliaments meets in absolute tumult and turmoil as it discusses another guillotine motion. Once again hon. Members can hardly get into the Chamber. They have to fight their way through so that they can discuss an important matter concerning free speech--whether it is right that the Government should curtail debate on an important Bill. We walk through the corridors discussing this vital matter of the day. The reality, however, is that we are not debating it in those circumstances.
I wish to spend a few minutes speaking about the procedure and practice of guillotine motions. There is a natural tendency in debates such as these to speak in general terms about the substance of the Bill that is the subject of the timetable motion rather than about procedural matters. However, the debates provide a useful opportunity to discuss procedure. A number of senior Members on both sides of the House have said on previous occasions that timetable motions should not pass without a reasonable discussion of points of procedure. With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall therefore spend a few minutes discussing them.
I sympathise with the efforts to reform the way in which parliamentary Bills are considered. In our daily lives