|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 670outside this place we know that it is common sense to plan. It is also common sense for the Government and the Opposition to plan the business of the House. It is a constitutional fiction, to which we sometimes pay lip service outside the House, that this place works with a great deal of confrontation, when we debate hotly and when we do not speak to each other. That is how the general public believe that Parliament conducts its business. We know, however, that that is not the case. We get on with each other reasonably well. Those who sit on the Government and Opposition Front Benches consult one another, often behind Mr. Speaker's Chair, to ensure that the business of the House gets done. It makes sense to plan. At the moment, that is a relatively informal procedure.
The proposal to ensure that Bills are timetabled from an early stage suggests to me that informal consultation would become formal. If we were to argue outside the House that better planning is a drawback, that argument would not be given house room. However, we have often used that argument as a way of keeping our method of dealing with Bills intact.
It must also be right to ensure examination of all parts of the Bill from the start. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), in a far better speech than that which was made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), referred clearly to the sort of matters that still have to be considered. There is a lot to get through ; it is a difficult Bill. It makes sense to spend an adequate amount of time on everything. It would be better, though, to think about that earlier and to make plans right from the start. The informal procedure works to a certain extent but I believe that something different might work better.
An important constitutional point is that this Chamber is seen more and more as being subordinate to the other place. The media now spend much time and energy on what the other place does after Bills leave this Chamber. They expect Bills to be considered in more depth and they expect to hear more exciting debates in the other place. Public attenion is turned all too often to the other place rather than to this Chamber. That cannot be good. This place remains the premier Chamber and it is right that the public should concentrate on what happens in this House. If our procedures hinder that process, that cannot be good. That may be one reason for considering a change in our procedures.
Against the argument for change in the way that Bills are considered, one weighty argument is advanced : that it is to the advantage of the Government of the day that they should be able to plan.
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : If there were more opposition on the hon. Gentleman's side of the House, where there is a large majority, and if Conservative Members argued the case, all hon. Members would pay more attention, but the fact is that the case is made on the Opposition side of the House. All that Conservative Members have to do is to use their big majority and vote down the Opposition's case.
Mr. Burt : It hardly lies in the mouth of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) to suggest that opposition to the Government would be better if more Conservative Members opposed the Government. The opposition to the Government's case must come from the Opposition Benches. It is precisely because opposition to
Column 671the Government's measures by the Labour party has been so inadequate that the Government have such a large majority. That is something which lies not in our hands but in the Opposition's hands to remedy.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : Does my hon. Friend agree, with his experience of the Committee, which I share with him, that most of the constructive suggestions and debates in Committee have emanated from the amendments that were moved by Conservative Back Benchers?
Mr. Burt : My hon. Friend makes a sound point. Many good points have been made by Conservative Members in Committee. That is not unnatural, bearing in mind their expertise. If the hon. Member for Walton were a member of the Committee, perhaps we should enjoy a similar degree of expertise on the other side.
Against the various advantages of changing the timetable procedure there is the argument that the Government have a major planning advantage. They can prevent the Opposition from enjoying the great power of delay. In many of our debates on procedure it has been said that if the Opposition were to lose their power of delay, their power to wring concessions from an unwilling Government would be lost. I am not convinced that in the last 20 years there has been much evidence that that is a particularly powerful argument.
Mr. Burt : The hon. Gentleman is quite correct ; I have not been here for 20 years. If the hon. Gentleman is quite content with the way this place has worked while he has been here--and he has been here for a long time--it suggests to me a degree of complacency and the self-satisfaction that I am rather surprised to see on his face. The timetabling of Bills is a difficult matter. That is why hon. Members, with their varying degrees of experience--from the great experience of the hon. Member for Walton to the lesser experience of hon. Members of my intake and Members of the intake after me--should return to it time and time again. For the avoidance of doubt on the Treasury Bench, I wish to suggest that I am a reformer rather than an iconoclast. I am not suggesting an immediate--
Mr. Boateng rose --
Mr. Boateng : Is not the hon. Gentleman a bit of a crawler as well? Is not that really the tone of what he has said during the past few minutes? Complacency and self-satisfaction describe the attitude of Ministers, not Opposition Members. They showed complacency and self- satisfaction in every response that they made in Committee.
Mr. Burt : The hon. Gentleman knows all about crawling. It was he who introduced to the Committee the Tatler magazine with its prominent spread of his Front Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr.
Column 672Cunningham). If that is not an example of crawling, I am not merely new here, I am wet behind the ears--and that I am not.
Timetabling is difficult. The time has come to take a hard look once again at the possibility of introducing a more formal timetable procedure as a limited experiment. It should not be a complete change ; the House must have time to consider the way in which it would work, but an experiment might be called for at some stage.
Certain informal practices which now exist mean that the Opposition and the Government are able to debate their various points. If a new procedure were put into operation, it would merely mean that this place would adapt and new conventions would arise around the more informal way of timetabling.
Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : There are a few hon. Members who would agree with the hon. Gentleman. We certainly need more than two months to consider a Bill of this size and complexity, and which is so important to everyone in this country. It would take about four months to consider adequately the Bill if his suggestion were adopted.
Mr. Burt : The hon. Gentleman draws attention to the difficulty that any Government would have in dealing with a major item of their manifesto. There can never be a Panglossian solution offering "the best of all possible worlds". There will always have to be compromise. The Opposition will never receive as much time as they feel is necessary and the Government can never give them as much time as they want. The Government have allowed a reasonable time for discussion of the Bill, and the procedure I suggest would also allow an adequate compromise.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : If a compromise is to be reached, it should be between the projected amount of time necessary to complete the examination of the Bill as it is being debated, and the amount of time being allowed in today's timetable motion. That would be a real compromise and a sign of the Government's goodwill and desire for a proper discussion of the issues.
Mr. Burt : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point but it is best not to become too deeply involved in the way that such new procedures would work. There will be plenty of opportunity to do so in the Select Committee on Procedure.
Today's timetable motion debate is a ritual which does not do the House a great deal of credit. The only response from the Opposition Front Bench was a fairly typical speech by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. A timetable motion used to be an opportunity for enormous outrage from Opposition Members--clearly it is not now. The only outrage came from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and, once again, he proved his capacity to let down himself and his colleagues by substituting unpleasantness for argument. That is to be deeply regretted, because the hon. Gentleman is well liked in the House, but, occasionally, he lets himself down.
It is time to get a move on with the Water Bill, whose contents formed part of the Conservative party's manifesto at the last election. It was endorsed then and should now proceed to the statute book. The Bill is similar to others that have come before the House, such as the Education Reform Bill, the legislation on the deregulation
Column 673of buses, and the measure limiting the powers of general practitioners to prescribe certain drugs. All those measures were represented by Opposition Members as more or less the end of civilisation as they had come to know it. They said that such measures would irrevocably change services and prove completely destructive. However, none of those measures has done so : most of them were warmly welcomed by the public and were successful for the Government.
For the first 18 months after bus deregulation, the number of bus miles increased by 16 per cent. nationally, and minibuses now operate in about 400 areas. Since June 1988, there has been a net increase of 465 new operators. The socially necessary services--the very services that Opposition Members said would disappear completely--are protected by Government grant. About £240 million has been spent by the Government to subsidise them, out of an available total of £295 million, which means that £55 million was not even required for socially necessary services.
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the record of private bus companies, in terms of the percentage of their buses that pass the annual PSV test, leaves much to be desired? Deregulation has not been a success in terms of proving that the safety of the travelling public has been enhanced.
Mr. Burt : The measure has proved that the safety controls contained in it--much criticised at the time--have proved useful and proved that it was quite right to introduce them. They have highlighted faults. The measure to deregulate buses, like the Water Bill, was presented by the Opposition as a measure that would lead to complete and utter disaster. That has turned out not to be the case : the measure widely and successfully improved transport services in this country. The Water Bill will do exactly the same for the water industry.
The Bill is wide-ranging and deals with the water industry and the countryside. I shall mention two specific matters which are sufficiently important to require the Bill to move to the statute book as quickly as possible, thereby greatly benefiting the British people.
First, the National Rivers Authority has been well debated in Committee and was mentioned again in the House by the hon. Member for Burnley.
Mr. Burt : I would always beseech the hon. Member for Burnley to remain in his place because he is a good House of Commons man and picks up on much of what is said, but I am sure he would wish to hear me conclude my speech.
The National Rivers Authority is long overdue and has been welcomed in many places. The distinction between the utility and regulatory functions of water authorities has long been recognised but only this Government, with their establishment of the National Rivers Authority under the Bill, provide a true opportunity to hoist our standard of environmental care. Concerns about pollution and other matters will grow in the Europe of the 1990s. This country needs to respond and the National Rivers Authority provides a real opportunity to do so.
Column 674I believe, as many others have mentioned, that splitting the gamekeeper and poacher roles and the authority's national characteristics will ensure consistency of practice and standards, while not losing regional sensitivity. That, together with the tougher new controls on pollution introduced in the Bill, will benefit the British people and be welcomed by them.
Secondly, quite unnecessarily, scare stories have been mentioned about conservation and the loss of large tracts of land in the countryside. That is linked to the way in which bus deregulation was treated by Opposition Members.
To be honest, existing pressures on open space are likely to continue and will not ease. Concerns about the use of our environment will continue and we shall be continually dependent on our planning system to hold the ring.
The choices offered under such pressures are by no means as clear cut as they are sometimes presented in Committee. It is hard to balance the wishes and interests of growing numbers of people who wish to use open water areas for legitimate purposes with those of people who want no changes. It is difficult to balance the rights and beliefs of all constituents. It is dishonest and unfair to say that overnight, or at a stroke--to coin a phrase--vast amounts of water-gathering areas and areas in the national parklands will suddenly be consigned to 10-storey skyscrapers and the like for immediate commercial benefit.
I believe that that will not be the case, and I am strengthened in that belief by the work of the North West water authority--the authority for the area that I represent--which is looking forward to the freedom that privatisation will give it, and which says quite straightforwardly that there is no foundation for any fears that conservation and leisure activity on or around its land will suffer. Its commitment and record of achievement in the matter is well known to many people, and it makes the straightforward point that most of the land it owns consists of water- gathering areas that need to be saved and protected, and on which access and conservation will continue to be of great importance.
In short, this timetable motion provides for the progress of a Bill that is important to the British people. It may be necessary for the House to consider at some stage in the future whether there are better methods of handling the ways in which Committees look at major public matters. But that is of secondary importance now ; what is important is that the Leader of the House has offered a generous period for further consideration of the Bill, and that major matters will be considered, and that the measure, when it is on the statute book, will prove to be a major item that will make more certain the re-election of the Conservative party.
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : In the light of the time allocated under the guillotine to the Bill's Committee stage, it is quite clear that the word "generosity" has a different meaning in 1989 from that which it had previously. It is certainly my belief that less time has been allowed than in the case of other privatisations.
Guillotine motions have become a standard feature of the Government's legislative programme. Indeed, they seem to be coming forward earlier and earlier during the consideration of Bills. It has been estimated that the
Column 675Committee had considered the Water Bill for 75 hours, covering nine clauses, before the Government brought forward the motion. That is a considerably shorter period than was allowed on the two previous public utility privatisations. In the case of gas, 13 clauses had taken up 85 hours before the guillotine was brought in. In the case of British Telecom, over 100 hours of debate had taken place. The Government seem to be getting increasingly intolerant of the Opposition when it comes to allowing sufficient debate on subjects of such importance.
Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn) : First, will the hon. Gentleman remind the House that it was the Liberal party that first introduced the guillotine into our procedures? Secondly, will he accept the consequence of what he is saying, which is that there will be even more microscopic scrutiny of the early clauses of a Bill and a mere passing glance at the remaining clauses unless the guillotine is introduced at a reasonably early stage?
Mr. Livsey : The point I was making is that this Bill has had even less time than other similar privatisation measures, and I do not think that that can be justified, given the size of the Bill. I gather that, with 180 clauses, it is one of the longest Bills in the history of this House.
One can, I believe, seek reasons for this guillotine. The date of 7 March seems to be crucial in the timetable ; it is precisely one week before the Budget on 14 March, so the Chancellor can say in his Budget speech that asset sales in the financial year 1989-90 will include those of the water authorities. I believe that this is a consequence of the Government's dogmatic target of getting public spending below 40 per cent. of GDP. This Bill is very much part of that strategy. The timetable is not just in the House ; it is elsewhere in the Government's programme also.
The consumer will pay for this privatisation and, indeed, is already doing so. The consumer will also pay by the sale of the assets. Indeed, most of the assets, as we have seen in Committee, are already vested in the plcs.
Another reason for the guillotine must surely be that the Secretary of State for the Environment nearly lost the Housing Bill last year ; indeed, it was saved by only one day. I think there has been over-reaction by the Government in the timetabling of this Bill. The irony of the guillotine motion is that it could be argued to be in the Government's interests to delay the flotation of the water industry. First, it is already known that they have backed down from selling all the water authority stock this year, for fear that the market may not be able to carry it. No wonder the water authorities are in need of such massive infrastructure investment that they do not offer good prospects for the investors.
Mr. Pawsey : Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider the point that he has just made? As I understand it, no decision has been made on the flotation of the water industry. I think that the hon. Gentleman is really commenting on press speculation, which may, as is all too often the case, be totally inaccurate.
The much larger electricity industry sale is just round the corner, with the danger that the two privatisations
Column 676together may be more than the City can handle. That, I think, is a genuine problem which the Government ought to consider. The Government are still in dispute with Brussels over drinking water standards, as reported in The Independent today. The uncertainty that the dispute causes can only damage the prospects for the sale. Assuming that the Commission wins through, the result could be an enormous clean-up bill for the industry--not exactly the best lure to potential investors. It is surprising that the Government want to go any further, any faster, with the confusion besetting the sale at present.
Secondly, there are still huge question marks over the Government's plans for the sale. The legality of the special share announced by the Secretary of State last month is in doubt in the light of European rulings on similar arrangements set up for Rolls-Royce. The special share arrangement is vital if the water authorities are to be given even the remotest chance of remaining in the hands of the communities they are supposed to serve. I strongly support the inclusion of a special share provision in this legislation--that is, if we have to suffer the legislation, though I am diametrically opposed to the privatisation of water on principle.
Although arrangements for a special share need not appear in the Bill, the Standing Committee should have a definitive answer on the legality of such a share. If it were to be ruled out, the Committee might consider other methods of control--for example, by giving extra compensatory powers to the Director General of Water Services or, indeed, the NRA itself.
Why, then, are the Government rushing the Bill through before the legal implications of their proposals in relation to article 2(3)(ii) of the treaty of Rome have been clarified? That gives us cause for concern.
Where will the money raised by the privatisation go? What benefit will the community receive that justifies rushing the Bill on to the statute book in such a manner? If the Government said that they actually needed the £7 billion from the sale of water to plough back into public investment--for example, to give a boost to infrastructure investment--perhaps we could have some sympathy for their position. In the Welsh Select Committee the other day--perhaps I should not mention where this information comes from-- we discussed infrastructure development in France to the tune of £1.7 billion of investment in the railway system. The British Government ought to be considering the use of public money in intelligent ways to improve communications to the regions of Great Britain.
Britain is being systematically asset-stripped to finance the Government's short-term policies. Not content with selling the family silver, they are now proposing to rip out the plumbing as well. What will happen when there are no more assets to sell? That is the big question.
Guillotine debates, including a summary of a Bill's main points and its virtues from the Leader of the House, have become something of a ritual in recent years. In this debate such a summary of the Bill's main proposals is likely to be far more significant for what it does not contain than for what it contains. Crucially, it does not contain any mention of competition. Increasing competition and the possible benefits it can bring to the consumer can be the only justifications for considering privatisations. This Bill achieves neither. The water industry will remain as much of a monopoly after the Bill is passed. There will be no choice for the consumer. As a result the consumer will be in a worse position after
Column 677privatisation. For the 12 million consumers now supplied from the private sector the Bill has already had just that effect. The implications of the tight timetable for privatisation have led statutory water companies to announce price increases of 30 per cent. I believe that that is a sign of things to come.
It is reported in the newspapers that the Minister intends to call in the water companies about price increases. What does he intend to tell them? Does he accept that the consumer should not have to bear such price increases? Will he take any measures to reduce them? Does he accept that the rise is a direct consequence of the Bill? It is ludicrous that this, the most controversial proposal before Parliament this Session, should be rushed through the House without adequate scrutiny by the elected representatives of the people. It only strengthens the case for wholesale reform of the workings of the House so that Bills are timetabled realistically, adequate time being provided to debate all their provisions. The House ought to revise its procedures so that its workings become more accessible to the electorate it serves, especially as television cameras are about to move in.
Most of all, the House should be elected under a fair electoral system. That is the only way in which to prevent a situation such as this. How is it that a Government elected on 42 per cent. of the vote can stifle debate on a measure which is opposed by 75 per cent. of the electorate--all in the name of democracy? In Wales, the Bill is opposed outright, as it is utterly unsuitable to my country. Welsh Water owns 66,000 acres of land in my constituency and my constituents do not want it to go into private hands.
In Committee last week, when we were debating clause 9, the Minister could give us no assurance about what would happen to water authority land if water plcs handed it to subsidiary companies. He could give no guarantee about its security or what would happen to it environmentally. I am, therefore, very happy to oppose the motion. 5.21 pm
Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn) : I apologise to the House for not being able to be present during the winding-up speeches because I shall be receiving treatment for an injured back, but I am glad to be able to contribute to the debate.
We have heard some interesting things from the Opposition. We have heard, for example, that there is no such thing as comparative competition. I think that we have it here in the Chamber at the moment. We have great competition among Conservative members of the Standing Committee for an opportunity to speak in the debate, whereas the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has had none. Such is the passionate, crusading, campaigning opposition of the Labour party to the Bill that it cannot be bothered to turn up. So much for the credibility of Labour Members of the Standing Committee.
I strongly support the timetable motion, not simply because a Government should be able to get their business through and implement their manifesto commitments, but because if we do not have such a motion, discussion of the Bill will become even more unbalanced than it already is. Without the motion, there will be an uneven distribution
Column 678of the Standing Committee's time. The early clauses will have been subjected to microscopic scrutiny while the vast bulk of the Bill will get merely a passing glance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) said--he is one of seven Conservative members of the Standing Committee who are in the Chamber, as opposed to just one Labour--we have had more than 74 hours of debate in Committee. We have reached clause 9--only the end of part 1, which is described as the preliminary part of a five-part, 180 clause Bill.
The timetable motion will enable the Bill to be discussed in a structured way. It will allow much more disciplined discussion of the remaining clauses--many general points and points of principle having been debated at considerable length. I am sure that the Opposition agree that much remains to be discussed in detail. We have still to discuss the duties of water undertakers with respect to water supply and water quality, the provision of sewerage services, charges, the protection and management of rivers and other waters, the control of pollution and powers and duties in relation to the land.
The best work of the House is often produced under the pressure of a deadline. The Committee needs the pressure and, indeed, the discipline of a deadline to achieve an even and balanced discussion of all parts of the Bill--in other words, to do its job thoroughly and well.
The Water Bill is emphatically not one of those which has been rushed before the House and inadequately drafted, thus giving rise to the need for a host of Government amendments. Governments of all parties have done that from time to time. The Department of the Environment has examined the water industry in great detail for a considerable time, and the Bill has been prepared most carefully. The Opposition knew a great deal of what was likely to be in it, so there can be no justifiable opposition on those grounds.
Much of the opposition to the Bill is bogus. In many respects, the Bill does precisely what the Opposition have called for. The hon. Member for Burnley must have been promoted for being the only member of the Standing Committee to turn up as he appears to have joined the Opposition Front Bench. As he said, the Bill does much of what the Opposition have asked for by setting up the National Rivers Authority. The Government have listened to the Opposition's criticisms of previous privatisation measures and produced a regulatory framework which is heavier than has been found in any previous privatisation Bill. It will protect customers against excessive charges, reduced level of service and neglect of assets. It greatly strengthens the legal framework for setting standards of drinking water quality. It creates a powerful Director General of Water Services, who is independent of Ministers and accountable to Parliament. He will monitor the performance of water companies and ensure that they carry out their functions efficiently and effectively. He will have a network of regional customer service committees reporting directly to him.
The Bill also represents one of the most significant advances in environmental legislation during the past few years. The Opposition have, in effect, conceded that. The creation of the NRA shows just how much importance the Conservative party and Government attach to measures which protect the consumer and the environment. Creating the NRA removes a glaring defect which has been highlighted as much by Opposition Members as by Members on this side of the House.
Column 679I am glad to see the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee present as he will endorse what I am saying. He will remember a report written some three years ago to which we put our names. It concerned the need to divide water authorities' responsibilities. They cannot be both gamekeeper and poacher--the monitor and discharger of sewage. We must separate those responsibilities if there is to be effective monitoring of pollution, and that is exactly what the NRA does.
One of the great fallacies of public ownership is that it protects the consumer. It gives no foolproof protection for the consumer, as the Camelford incident has so sadly shown. More blatant is the neglect of the last Labour Government. It was after that Government crawled humiliated to the International Monetary Fund for the biggest loan that it has ever given to the Government of any country--banana republics and Paraguay included-- that they forced water authorities to cut capital spending on infrastructure by one third and, within that, to cut capital spending on sewerage infrastructure by one half. Now, thanks to privatisation, water authorities will be freed from external financing limits. They will have access to the capital markets. They will therefore be able to accelerate their capital programmes to make up for the neglect of which the Opposition are so guilty. Should the nightmare occur--difficult though it is to conjure up, 10 years after the last time the Labour party was in power--and the Opposition were to form another Government, perform its usual economic miracle, run the economy into the ground and crawl again to the IMF, water authorities will not again be forced to cut spending on crucial infrastructure for water treatment and sewerage works. I spoke earlier about the beneficial effect of the discipline of the deadline. The timetable motion will put pressure on all members of the Standing Committee to confine our remarks to what is strictly relevant. I do not believe that any debate has ever suffered from brief and succinct speeches. Nor has any Opposition been weakened by making their case concisely and to the point.
It is clear from examination of the first 17 sittings of the Committee that the timetable motion is likely to hasten not only the improvement in the quality of our water but also the quality and relevance of the speeches in Committee, particularly those by Opposition Members. We learnt more about the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) than we learnt from him. We learnt about his dexterity at fishing in netting 24 salmon last autumn in Scotland, accompanied by an extremely attractive blond friend. I add that this was his English setter Sam--before the News of the World reports anything else. Similarly, the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) told us that his mother's maiden name was Owen and that his aunties and uncles were Evanses. We learnt about his admiration for Tommy Steele in "Half a Sixpence" and his crusade against undrinkable House of Commons tea, served in, "non-biodegradable bleached teacups". I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) is not here. His contributions to the circulation of Tatler have already been mentioned in the House. I shall not repeat the details, but certainly he should receive a free annual subscription to that magazine for all he has done to promote circulation by distributing it widely to his
Column 680colleagues. We did not expect that to be their normal reading, but it is certainly an improvement on "Das Kapital". We heard the hon. Member for Brent, South reminiscing about nature study at school. He also commented obscurely about an obscure American economist called Schlieffer and gave us a delightful cameo about gloves, ending with the question :
"How many of us have ever kept a pair of gloves for longer than five years?"--[ Official Report, Standing Committee D, 10 January 1989 ; c. 101.]
The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) who fleetingly passed through the Chamber a moment or two ago--one of the few Labour Back- Bench Members of the Standing Committee to attend this debate however briefly--informed us that when he was a teacher petrol was siphoned from his van in the staff car park.
The hon. Members for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) managed to introduce into our debates and at some length the White Paper on the National Health Service. But although it was close, and there was certainly strong comparative competition among Opposition Members, the prize for irrelevance must go to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) who intervened to keep us up to date on the Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea. All that was entertaining and illuminating, but it was hardly a debate on the Water Bill. The Standing Committee, and not least the Opposition Members on it, need the discipline of deadline that the timetable motion will provide so that we can now debate the Bill ; not the Opposition'a extra-curricular activities, their schooldays, their obsessions with gloves or the magazine Tatler but the remaining 171 clauses of the Bill. That is what Conservative Members intend to do because that is what the nation wants.
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower) : I do not know whether it is a pleasure to follow the speech made by the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan). As he mentioned the Select Committee report on pollution of coastal waters in Wales, it is vital to remind the Government that the key conclusion that we reached some three years ago was that the Department of the Environment had deliberately avoided the directive issued by the EEC in 1976 on coastal bathing waters by defining a beach occupied by a number of bathers so that not a single beach in Wales could be considered as coming under the terms of the directive. Such situations deeply worry the people of Wales and we scrutinise any Government measure with great trepidation.
The only possible reason that I can find for the timetable motion is the Government's deliberate and cynical desire to stifle debate and scrutiny of the Water Bill. To protect the principles of democracy, a guillotine motion must be used sparingly, and only when there is a clear national need for speedy decision making. There is no need for speed in the privatisation of water, only for expediency for the Government's convenience and avoidance of further discomfort.
The proposed privatisation of water has aroused the interest and concern of my constituents even more than the privatisation of gas and British Telecom. Like all hon. Members, I have received a great many representations about different aspects of the Water Bill. I have passed many of those representations to my hon. Friend the
Column 681Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) so that they can be raised and clarified in Committee. I have told my constituents that I have done that and promised to send them relevant copies of the Committee proceedings so that they will be fully informed of progress, of any successful amendments and of the outcome of their representations. The guillotine means that there will be inadequate time for scrutiny of all the major and contentious issues in the Bill. Guillotining the Standing Committee debate and the scrutiny of the Bill will therefore deprive my constituents of the right to that channel of representation.
There will be no time to discuss the inevitable higher price for water. Only last month, the Welsh water authority raised its charges by an average of 9.9 per cent. Because of the way it chose to impose those charges, occupiers of lower rateable value homes will pay substantially more than those in properties of higher rateable values.
On Saturday, a pensioner who is a widow brought to my surgery a pension book which she had just received which contained counterfoils for her pension increase in April. Each counterfoil was worth 15p. That is how much better off that lady would be in April, but the increase in her water rates will probably be more than 27p a week. So she need worry only about how she will find the money to meet price rises associated with 7 per cent. inflation, rate increases and electricity price increases in preparation for privatisation.
Last April, the Government said that anyone who was worse off by more than £2.50 a week would receive transitional payments. However, if those pensioners receive any increase in their pensions on 1 April it will be deducted from their transitional payments. That is happening to many constituents throughout the country.
I assume that the Department of Social Security issued my constituent with an additional book rather than amending the current one because it will be easier to withdraw the new book than to re-amend the existing book when housing benefit is cut again. After reading today's newspapers there can be no doubt in anyone's mind that the water sell-off will mean much higher water bills. Water metering--a process that Welsh Water seems to be against --needs to be discussed and made clear in every detail. In addition, it is important for the Government to spell out whether, if authorities such as Welsh Water intend to move to a system that relies increasingly on raising the standing charge element of the water bill, they are considering the introduction of some sort of sliding scale for rebates similar to that proposed for the community charge.
Column 682placed an external financing limit on water authorities which means that they have been unable to borrow on the open market to the extent to which they would have liked. As a consequence, they have been unable to finance their capital investment from borrowing on the open market and have had increasingly to resort to raising the money through current charges. The increase in water charges has come largely from the imposition by bodies such as the Welsh Office of external financing limits which have forced water authorities to cut back on their investment and to raise the money almost solely from current water charges.
Mr. Wardell : Not at all. I am saying that over the past few years, the Government have been deliberately preventing the water authority from borrowing money for financing its investment. Now that privatisation is about to be carried out, the Government have permitted that borrowing to take place.
Mr. Howard : If the hon. Gentleman's analysis is correct, does he not welcome the Government's privatisation proposals? It will free the Welsh water authority and others from public sector borrowing restraints.
Mr. Wardell : The Minister has missed the point. The Government imposed the external financing limit and are now saying how great it is that they are removing it. If they had not imposed it in the first place, the argument would be unnecessary, as would privatisation.
Mr. Ashby : I asked the hon. Gentleman to cast his mind back 10 years in respect of one matter. Would he do the same in respect of this matter? Will he say whether there were any constraints on public expenditure in 1978 under a Labour Government?
The Government are careless of public opinion and concern at any time other than during the nine months when they are giving birth to their pre- election programme. The Government's large majority is making them complacent and that complacency shows in the fact that they have made no concessions so far in Standing Committee. They have accepted none of the amendments that have been proposed.
A press statement for Wales was issued on 11 January, perhaps because the Secretary of State feels that he may be answerable to the press in a way that he is not answerable to the House. The statement said that because there is a need to keep Welsh water Welsh, individual shareholders will be allowed a maximum holding of 15 per cent. in the new plc, unless or until a 75 per cent. majority of the shareholders vote otherwise. What a meaningless sop. Even if that is legal under European law, it is clearly in the interests of shareholders to vote to end that restriction as soon as possible if they want to maximise the price of their shares. That is surely the purpose of their investment. If a