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Column 683French company or a large institution came along with a juicy offer for 25 per cent. of the shares, the shareholders would fall over themselves to register their vote in favour.
The Secretary of State for Wales has felt no need to justify to the press or the House the erosion of Welsh Office powers and responsibilities brought about by the Bill. It is clear that at present the Welsh water authority is responsible to the Welsh Office. After privatisation the National Rivers Authority committees and agencies in Wales will be directly responsible to the central NRA committee, which is responsible to the Department of the Environment. The Secretary of State for Wales may have an input in the deliberations, but he will no longer be responsible for a range of functions associated with the NRA such as river and beach pollution control, drinking water quality control and environmental amenities and access, all of which are regarded as extremely important by the people of Wales.
Mr. Wyn Roberts : Having listened to the hon. Gentleman, it is clear that he is not fully aware of the powers and responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales. I have produced a digest of those powers and responsibilities which has been sent to all Committee members. I would be happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy.
Mr. Wardell : I thank the Minister for that and I am glad that he intends to send me that information. Of course, it would have been helpful if he had sent a copy of the digest to all Opposition Members so that we could fully understand the point that he is trying to make.
It took the scrutiny of the Committee to reveal the major defect in the Bill. The Government have squirmed and wriggled and wasted valuable scrutiny time. They have not taken on board any of the proposed amendments, which were reasonably and rationally put to them. Now they propose to limit that scrutiny time. It is clear from the Committee proceedings that the Government do not intend to accept any amendments. They will not concede that there is a need for the NRA to be up and running with its complex structures and its obvious teething troubles ironed out before the plcs are given free rein. Committee members wanted to give the NRA a year's head start. Clearly, there is a need for that. Mr. Keith Court, chairman of South West Water, has been talking about finding ways of outwitting the NRA and Mr. Gordon Jones, chairman of Yorkshire Water and of the Water Authorities Association, said in the magazine Agenda --vol. 2, No. 7--that the duty of experienced water industry executives is to be responsible to their shareholders, not consumers.
The Government will not concede that there is a need clearly to state the relationship and responsibilities of Her Majesty's inspectors of pollution and the National Rivers Authority beyond saying that they are clearly complementary. Of course, we know that. We know, too, that the inspectorate is being starved of cash and staff so that the Government can claim that it is ineffective and can cast it off completely. The Government are now not even prepared to concede the most eminently sensible step of ensuring that those proposals in the Bill, which would clearly be governed by European law, are scrutinised by specialists to ensure that they are legal before being
Column 684enacted by the House. That is petty minded, arrogant nonsense. The Government have said that they will listen to further representations about access to open spaces--some of the most beautiful areas of Britain are at present owned by water authorities--but they have not accepted amendments which would largely meet those problems. The Government have made no concessions regarding the adoption of unadopted and unadoptable sewers, which is a problem not just for my constituents, but for thousands of householders, and it is a matter which I have raised in this House on many occasions. The Minister, as a Llanelli boy, will know that problem well, but all that he promised in the Standing Committee was that he would write to the Law Society. That is the limit of what the Government are prepared to do. I do not know whether the Minister's Department has received a reply from the Law Society, but I believe that it is ridiculous that, in privatising water, the Government are prepared to let the practice continue whereby developers are required to build to building regulation standards which are different from those standards laid down by water authorities. Here was an opportunity for the Government to do something about it, and at least to protect future householders by ensuring that when they bought their properties they knew what they were buying. The Government have chosen not to take that opportunity. All that they have done is to write to the Law Society. A lot of writing must have gone on, but few results appear to have emerged. No concessions have been made regarding the role and powers of the new Director General of Water Services. I am fascinated to find out, if this measure is passed, whether-- in the same way that British Telecom and Sir Bryan Carsberg have effectively devised a formula for pricing British Telecom charges--the formula applied will be K plus RPI or K minus RPI.
Obviously, in proposing this guillotine, the Government are merely saying that--because they are not prepared to amend the Bill, to make any concession to legitimate representations of concern from the public, to listen to any argument, or to brook any opposition from any quarter--there is no point in the Standing Committee spending time scrutinising the Bill. Perhaps the Government are worried about what other foul-ups the Standing Committee might find. It is certainly apparent that so complacent, arbitrary and dictatorial have the Government become that they cannot even be bothered to go through the motions of complying with EEC laws, of listening, of making accommodations or of achieving consensus. Such words are like a foreign language to the Cabinet.
I remind Conservative Members that the people of this country regard water as free and as a natural, national asset. They do not yet believe that the Prime Minister controls our rainfall. They very much resent her belief that she can make them pay through the nose for something that they already own and to which they have rights. For the man or woman in the street, this Bill is about paying lots more to a few shareholders for something that they already have and own. Conservative Members believe that they and their leader know what is best for us all and that, if we do not like it, we can lump it. I would urge right hon. and hon. Members to think twice before acting in such a high-handed roughshod manner as guillotining legitimate procedure, scrutiny and representation about such an important Bill.
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Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth) : We have listened to the usual ritual argument against the timetable motion. Indeed, the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) went on at some length about it. It is fair to remind the House that all Governments have had recourse to that measure. There is little virtue in Opposition Members adopting holier-than-thou attitudes, as they have this afternoon, especially when one recalls that it was the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) who in one day--20 July 1976--actually guillotined five separate and major bills. [Hon. Members :-- "Disgraceful."] I hear the expressions of dismay and almost complete disbelief from my hon. Friends. Who could really believe that an Opposition Member could act in such an undemocratic fashion?
Mr. Pawsey : Clearly, 20 July 1976 must be a black day in the annals of the Labour party since, if it seeks to condemn this Administration--as the hon. Member for Gower did--for what they are doing today, what must have been its thoughts on 20 July 1976? Clearly, whatever thoughts it had were kept well to itself, because those measures were driven through this House by a three-line Whip and supported by Opposition Members.
I shall deliberately not use the word "hypocrisy" to describe the comments made by Opposition Members.
The Water Bill is a large and important measure. It has 180 clauses and 24 schedules and so far we have completed only nine clauses and four schedules in 74 hours. It might be thought by my right hon. and hon. Friends that the reason for the slow progress was the overwhelming dedication shown by Opposition Members. Sadly, that is not entirely the case. I shall provide hon. Members with just two samples from one day's proceedings in Standing Committee D. The quotations that I shall use will provide a mere flavour--a gentle taste--of our discussions on one day only. I shall refer to the 14th sitting held on the morning of Tuesday 31 January. The Committee, or at least Conservative Members, listened with rapt attention to the comments made by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). They were briefly mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan). It is worthwhile quoting some of the hon. Gentleman's comments on that morning. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not in his place. He said :
"This is the Mother of Parliaments but tea is sold here in non- biodegradable, bleached plastic cups. Is that appropriate for the Mother of Parliaments? The plastic cup damages the environment, and the tea in it is also damaging. My tea was cold and it was poured from a flask. It was also undrinkable. The Mother of Parliaments should not treat in this way those at the hub of its legislative programme, when a cup of tea is served at one's desk in the meanest town hall."
I responded to the hon. Gentleman's comments as I have an interest in this matter as a non-executive director of the group that manufactures the cups that he described. The
Column 686hon. Member for Bootle proceeded truly to amaze the Committee with the depth and breadth of his wisdom on medieval affairs when he said :
"We should like to see the British landscape of William Tell"-- [Laughter] The House will not be surprised to learn that the reaction of the Committee was precisely the same. The hon. Gentleman said :
"We should like to see the British landscape of William Tell, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. William Tell was a regular visitor to British forests, and used to hunt as a guest of the King of England." Hon. Members may share my belief that William Tell was a Swiss hero and a republican to boot. The thought of him hunting as a guest of the King of England beggars imagination.
"The television series was certainly made in this country."?--[ Official Report, Standing Committee D, 31 January 1989 ; c. 626, 629.]
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) is not in his place, but it is worth while bringing out the flavour of his contribution that day, which was also touched upon by my hon. Friends the Members for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) and for Bury, North (Mr. Burt). The hon. Member for Brent, South said :
"When we look at these matters it is helpful to look at the Conservative party's hidden agenda revealed in a magazine It is the Tatler a magazine such as one would find at the the dentist's or the doctor's. It tells of the fads, foibles, fancies and doings of the upper classes The Tatler has changed in recent years. It is no longer a harmless and innocent publication. It has become the house journal of the Conservative party."
The hon. Gentleman developed his case by saying :
"there are the fashions of Imogen Inglis-Jones and Nathalie Mountain, who are pictured in various fishing positions the Tatler is the real house journal of the Conservative party. It is the Conservatives' equivalent of Marxism Today, shorn of some of the ideological pretensions of that magazine."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee D, 31 January 1989 ;
If the hon. Gentleman believes that, he will believe anything.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) is a member of the upper middle classes. He is the son of a barrister and a lawyer himself. Does my hon. Friend agree that he revealed his class origins when he assumed that Tatler was the common preserve of dentists' waiting rooms in Bootle, Burnley or Sunderland?
Mr. Pawsey : My hon. Friend makes a typically telling point. I have made a genuinely important discovery. The hon. Member for Brent, South is an amusing and entertaining raconteur, but his comments do not always appear to be totally relevant to the clauses under discussion. Yet another of his more diverting digressions was when he said that Fred Jarvis was a ghillie employed by some anonymous laird. The idea of Fred Jarvis being a ghillie is most unlikely. In my capacity as chairman of the Conservative party's parliamentary education committee I
Column 687have met Fred Jarvis on a number of occasions and I would have thought that he would make an unlikely, unwilling, unhelpful and unco-operative ghillie.
I have greatly enjoyed the contributions from the hon. Member for Brent, South. They burst like a ray of sunshine into the dullness of our winter days. If that does not damage his chances of reselection, nothing will.
The House may ask what is the relevance of my observations about the hon. Members for Bootle and Brent, South to the Water Bill.
Mr. Pawsey : I beg your pardon, Sir. Although Opposition Members may seek somewhat obtuse connections with the quotes, you may think, Mr Speaker, that they represent a prime example of time-wasting or tautology on a massive and original scale. I am not seeking to suggest that Opposition Members have been involved in any deliberate time-wasting. In their case it would probably be unnecessary since they have an ability, indeed a talent, to meander round a subject rather as an old, silted-up river meanders round a landscape. I must make it clear that I have enjoyed the contributions from the hon. Members for Brent, South and Bootle in much the same way as I enjoy those of Jasper Carrott or Lenny Henry. I hesitate to say that I enjoy Victoria Wood lest I be misunderstood. I believe that both hon. Gentlemen, however, could earn even better livings were they to join the ranks of Equity.
I have given the House an all too brief flavour of some of the contributions made to Standing Committee D--a sort of hors d'oeuvres to the main course. To be able to enjoy, and in good time, the main part of the feast, it is necessary to introduce a timetable measure. It will be recalled that the Water Bill was a central plank of the Conservative party manifesto of 1987. I need scarcely remind the House that, on the strength of that manifesto, the Government were returned for an unprecedented third term and with a substantial majority. Therefore, it seems that the British people are anxious to see this Bill enacted with the establishment of a National Rivers Authority and a new statutory framework for the control of drinking water and of river quality.
The Bill provides the terms of appointment and financial arrangements for the new limited companies to provide water and sewerage services in England and Wales. One of the things that I particularly welcome--it was touched upon by one of my hon. Friends earlier--is the appointment of a Director General of Water Services. He will be the consumers' white knight.
The Bill will ensure better value for money and more efficient service. The quicker it is enacted the better and that is why I support this motion.
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Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : Having listened to the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), I wish that I had been invited to join the Committee on the Water Bill, because it seems that it is the place where learning is combined with a great deal of pleasure. The Leader of the House gave the game away when he said that, so far, the debate in Committee had not resulted in any excessive filibustering, but there was a need to curtail the examination of the Bill because the Government needed to get the legislation through to offload the shares in the new water companies during the forthcoming financial year. It seems that profit is being placed before the public interest and that the rights and needs of consumers have been sacrificed on the altar of expediency.
There seems to be no good reason for rushing the examination of the Bill. Even if we were to continue at the same rate it could still be on the statute book well before the next election. Despite the time being given to the Bill by the guillotine motion, inevitably some parts of the measure will not be discussed in the detail that is necessary. As some hon. Members have been at pains to point out, huge sections of the Bill have not been scrutinised. I could reel off at least a dozen such areas, but I shall not do so because the time allowed for this debate precludes that possibility.
I should like to look at one or two areas of great concern. The first is European Community legislation. That raises two issues and the first relates to any regulation that might be introduced about the nature of the shareholdings. Perhaps the Minister who is to reply will tell us whether the proposal for a golden share in the case of the English companies and a 15 per cent. maximum holding in the Welsh company is completely acceptable to the Commission in Brussels. The next issue is water quality. Over the last 18 months I have asked several questions about the quality of tap water and bathing water, and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) have recently put down some written questions on these subjects. So far, the answers have been fudged, to say the least. I have been told that bathing water quality on the majority of our beaches does not come up to the EEC water quality standards and that the Commission, the Government and the water authorities are discussing a programme to enable all beaches to be brought up to standard in an appropriate time.
In answer to one of my questions to a Minister in the Welsh Office, I was told that there was a 15-year programme for Wales. From my knowledge of the Commission I know that would be far too long. Before the Bill is completed we ought to know the exact programme for bringing all the beaches up to the European Community standard and we should know how much that will cost. That will be a great deal of expenditure for the new shareholders. The same can be said about tap water quality, although not so much in Wales because I have been assured by the Welsh Office that all water supplies will be up to standard by 1992. There still has not been an answer to that question about the position in England.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) alluded to the National Rivers Authority. There will be no separate National Rivers Authority for Wales, even though the Welsh people want to see such an authority. I
Column 689remind Conservative Members that, given that there is a separate Welsh water authority, the will of the Welsh people at the last election was clearly not to see that part of the Conservative manifesto carried out. I hope that Conservative Members and the Government will take account of that.
The one good thing about the Bill up to the weekend was that the Government has introduced no amendments. On today's Order Paper there are 10. I do not know whether the trickle will become a flood, but I hope not, because it would make the guillotine even more of an injustice.
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : To date the course of this ill -attended debate has been that those who oppose the Bill oppose the guillotine, and those who support the Bill support the guillotine. I have to break that pattern, because I am not a supporter of the Bill. However, I think that a timetable motion is the best way to ensure that what is undeniably an immensely important Bill is properly considered before being presented to the House for Third Reading.
I notice that under the timetable motion three and a half days--that is two days plus two periods of two hours--are allocated to Report and Third Reading. I hope that the Business Committee will allocate sufficient time for Third Reading, because hon. Members who abstained on Second Reading may wish to participate significantly on Third Reading in order to share with the House their reasons for deciding to vote for, or against, Third Reading.
In parenthesis, I hope that the reason for the Secretary of State's absence from the Front Bench is that he has left the House to reply to a letter that I wrote to him not weeks, but months ago inquiring about whether in the privatised water industry it would or would not be a criminal offence to supply water that is not potable. Many hon. Members will know that if water gets into milk during its production, even with no guilty intention, the farmer is automatically guilty of a criminal offence even if the milk is not thereby rendered unwholesome. It would be quite scandalous for us to pass into law a Bill privatising water that gave water companies exemption from such a criminal provision. I hope that that will be one of the matters discussed either in Committee or on Report.
In the last Parliament the Procedure Committee paid considerable attention to the public Bill procedure. We decided--I say "we" because I was then and am now a member of that Committee--to recommend to the House that if it seemed probable that a Bill would spend more than 40 hours in Committee, it should be timetabled right from the beginning instead of having to go through a ritual dance, hilarious examples of which have been given by some of my hon. Friends, so as to waste enough time in conventional wisdom to "justify" the adoption of a timetable. The Select Committee on Procedure said that it would be much better to timetable the Bill from the beginning, so that all its important provisions could be properly examined. That is not just for the benefit of the Opposition. Often the drafting of clauses has consequences unforeseen by the draftsman and unintended by the Minister. That is avoided only by going carefully through a Bill. The motion will have my support, even though the Bill does not, because I acknowledge the
Column 690importance of the Bill, and wish to see it examined as it ought to be, and believe that a timetable motion is the proper instrument for that.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) opposed the timetable motion in totality, thereby rejecting completely the proposition of the Select Committee on Procedure. Speaking for the official Opposition, he did not say that the timetable ought to have one more allotted day for Report or Third Reading, or 10 more hours in Committee, which might have been a sustainable argument--I do not know, because he did not deploy it. Had he deployed it, seeing that I am uncommitted on the Bill, I might have found myself of that opinion. He has not put to the House any judgment that the time for the Committee stage should be longer, or that more time should be allocated for Report or Third Reading. Therefore, he has placed all of us in the position where we have to vote for this motion as it stands, on the basis--because it is this that he has asked us to accept or reject--of whether a better Bill will emerge as a result of this timetable motion.
It has been my fate, Mr. Speaker, in the last few debates in which I have had the good fortune to catch your eye, to speak for three minutes on the last occasion and four and a half on the one before. I have not found myself greatly constrained by that. It is the experience of many hon. Members that the discipline of time enables them to say what they need to say. There is a story--I forget which pope it is about--that shows quite a lot of wisdom. The pope received in audience three visitors. Of each he asked the same question, "How long are you staying in the eternal city?" The first said, "Three months, Your Holiness." "You will see a little bit in that time," said the pope. The next replied, "Three weeks." The pope said, "You will see a lot of it in three weeks." The last replied, "Three days, Your Holiness." "You will see everything worth seeing in three days," replied the pope.
I have been in the House for 28 years, and I have never been to the Royal Mint--it has now left London--I have never seen many things in London. I am convinced that the Procedure Committee's experiment, which it recommended to the House, of having a 10-minute limit on speeches has been justified by events, and the vast majority of Members would like to see that extended to most, if not all, debates on the Floor of the House. The same logic is compellingly appropriate of the Committee stage of Bills. The discipline of a timetable structured by the Business Committee, not imposed willy-nilly by the Government, is the only proven method of securing proper detailed examination of the Bill so that, whether its general principles do or do not commend themselves to the whole House, better legislation will result than would otherwise have been the case.
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : I agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) that short speeches can be effective, and I intend to make mine extremely short. The Government have to guillotine the Bill because it sets out their policy and they want to get it through its stages. However, it raises many important issues. The timetable set out in the motion would not allow enough time to deal with some of the major problems such as the complications of the EEC factor and of the codes of practice, how that is applied to successor companies and to
Column 691land disposed to third parties, and what is the definition of operational and non-operational land. The Committee is only just getting to grips with some of these issues.
We must explore all these issues in greater depth. For example, we must examine consumer rights, charges, how capital is raised for improvement-- through revenue charges or borrowing--water metering, the kind of meters to be used, who will pay for them, how much they will cost, what access will be allowed and what protection there will be for the low paid, the unemployed and retired people, particularly if their water is cut off in times of financial stress. These are all major issues in a major Bill.
Some Conservative Members are as concerned about some of these issues as we are. However, those who are driving through this Bill and its guillotine do not care one jot about the implications to the environment, water quality, consumer rights and consumer protection. All they care about is dogma and ideology. In their minds, anything privatised is good and anything public is bad. The water companies were set up by public institutions and public bodies, often as a result of falure of private companies, and their record is not bad. What about compensation for the ratepayers who set up the water companies and the waterworks that are now being sold off to the private sector without any compensation?
We must examine all these issues in great depth, and the guillotine will not allow that.
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury) : I found the remarks made by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) extremely interesting. I hope that, when and if he receives a reply to his letter from the Secretary of State, he will publish it so that we can see the interesting comments that the Secretary of State might have to make. Guillotines can often be justified--for example, when major legislation needs to be rushed through the House because it is urgent, although usually there is co-operation from both sides of the House in such circumstances. Guillotines can also be justified, and have been found necessary, when delays have been caused. Many of the debates about guillotine motions have concentrated on whether a Committee has been making progress and whether there is undue delay. It is clear that there has been no undue delay in the Committee considering the Water Bill. For example, the Committee did not debate the sittings motion. The Opposition did not object to the doubling of our sittings, even though that was done from the second day of the Committee stage. We have not swamped the Amendment Paper with minor or trivial amendments or wasted time with unnecessary votes and points of order. The Government have not been forced to move closures on any of our debates on clauses or amendments. As the Leader of the House accepted, there have been no unduly long speeches from Labour Members.
This is an important and serious Bill. The Leader of the House also acknowledged that our discussions in Committee have been serious and concerned important matters such as the National Rivers Authority, which has taken up most of our discussions so far. Every attempt that we have made to strengthen the NRA has been rejected
Column 692quite blatantly by the Government, who do not seem interested in ensuring that that body has the strength, resources and staffing that it requires.
Many other important issues have to be discussed. My hon Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) mentioned some of them. The Leader of the House gave us a list of those items that he thought ought to be discusssed, such as a customer services committee, drinking water quality, control of pollution, sewerage, flood defence, all of which we agree are important. On which of those does the Leader of the House think that we should skimp our debates? There will not be enough time to discuss all those issues as fully as they should be discussed. By giving us that list, the Leader of the House proved the point that the timetable will not give us sufficient time to do so.
Even the Leader of the House has admitted that there has been no undue delay in Committee. On the other hand, there is much evidence and a great deal of proof of undue haste on the Government's part. Second Reading took place on about the first possible day. Consideration in Committee started on the first day possible. We have a guillotine motion after fewer than 75 hours of debate in Committee. The Government are pushing ahead with this pretty desperate timetable when they still appear not to know the final outcome of their legislation.
The Government were forced to withdraw their plans for the privatisation of the water industry in 1986 because of the outcry that then took place, and did so in a typical hole-in-the-corner way. A statement was wrung out of them by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) on a Thursday evening at 10 o'clock--it was obvious that the Government wanted the minimum notice taken of their withdrawal. Despite the rejection in 1986, and despite having two years to consider the matter--the Government have had two years to get their proposals right and to acquire answers to all
questions--confusion still reigns in Government circles when it comes to their plans and the consequences of them. Ministers are still unable to come up with the answers.
Mr. Nicholas Baker : The hon. Lady may say that undue delay has not taken place in Committee, but 75 hours have been spent in Committee and only nine clauses have been covered. Does she accept that if she and her team had proceeded at a more reasonable pace and achieved much greater progress, as they could have done, the Government would then not have had a good case for introducing a guillotine motion? Alternatively, is the hon. Lady happy that the Government have introduced the motion?
Mrs. Taylor : I think that the Leader of the House dealt with that question in his remarks. He acknowledged that there had not been undue delay. Indeed, he said that we have been discussing important issues in Committee, as we have.
The issue that is concerning many is prices. The Leader of the House said earlier today that the Bill would greatly benefit consumers, but that was a completely inept remark to make today, of all days. The Secretary of State told us on 28 November 1988 at column 450 that we could expect water prices to rise in real terms between 7.5 per cent. and 12.5 per cent. by the end of the century. Last week, the water authorities announced increases of up to 13 per cent. This weekend, the statutory water companies told us that their price increases would be about 30 per cent., and even
Column 693as much as 50 per cent. When we warned of these increases in December we were told that we were scaremongering, but now we have the reality. We are faced with the greatest price increases ever. It is no use the Minister saying that he will call in the water companies. I am sure that we are all impressed by that! I am sure also that we know exactly what the Minister will say. If he takes the advice of the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) he will say, "I say, chaps, can't you turn this down a bit?" The fact is that the Minister cannot control the water companies. They are not accountable directly to him, any more than the new privatised water companies that replace the water authorities will be directly accountable to him or, more important, to the House.
The position is worse than that. The Department of the Environment is implicated in the price increases that we have heard about from the water companies during the weekend. In December, Ernst and Whinney was appointed by the water companies to advise them on the run-up to privatisation. It wrote to the companies, giving the advice that they faced their last opportunity to increase tariffs before privatisation. It also advised each company to raise its tariffs to the maximum level permitted, which is what the companies have done. The letter stated :
"Following a meeting arranged by the Water Companies Association today with the Department of the Environment it was agreed that I should write to you on an immediate basis to let you know of points which were agreed at that meeting."
It is clear that the Department and the accountants were working together before advising the water companies to take the action which they announced during the weekend.
Of course, this is only round 1. There are plenty of other additional costs for the consumer that are still to come. We shall soon be seeing flashy adverts on television, for which we shall all have to pay. There will be the costs of flotation, which the City will not have to meet. It has already received £700 million from taxpayers. There will be the extra costs of higher management salaries, to which some in the industry are looking forward. There may be other costs, including, perhaps, VAT. None of us minds paying a bit more for a better service and better pollution control, but we mind paying a privatisation surcharge which is entirely avoidable and wholly unnecessary. We face enormous additional costs because of the Government's obsession with pushing every industry, however vital, into the private sector, where profit will be the first priority. As the director of the Water Companies Association said, the Government's proposals will put them under an obligation to put the shareholders first. There is no doubt about the consequences for prices.
There is no great doubt about the proportion of the industry that will be owned by the private sector after flotation in November. Will all the industry be owned by the private sector? Will 51 per cent. of it be so owned, or will the percentage be something between that and 100 per cent? How will the industry be sold? Will it be sold directly, through a holding company, or one region at a time? Will water supply be sold before sewerage? The Under-Secretary of State told us in Committee that no decisions have yet been taken, but it is now February. The motion is before us because of the urgency of the Government's privatisation plans, but they still cannot answer some basic questions.
Column 694Perhaps the Minister for Water and Planning will be able to tell us what will happen to the industry's debts. Are they to be redistributed? Will they be written off in part or in full? How much will it cost the taxpayer if and when debts are written off? What will happen with the Government's merger policy? On 11 January, the Secretary of State announced his policy. He promised that the necessary amendments would be with us as soon as possible, and I understand that the Government are tabling them today. Perhaps our debate in Committee on Thursday 2 February brought some good. We have still not been told, however, whether the amendments have been cleared with Brussels. There has been no confirmation of clearance. That is not surprising, as clearance has not yet been obtained. We adhere to the legal advice that we have received that the Government proposals may infringe European competition law.
The Secretary of State assured us that he would not ask the Committee to proceed with a matter that was in doubt. Clearance and many other matters are still much in doubt or unanswered, yet the Government are pushing ahead with the guillotine motion. Rather than guillotining the Bill tonight, the Government should suspend consideration of it in Committee until they answer vital questions. We shall oppose their motion.
The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : In a previous privatisation guillotine motion debate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales said that his view on guillotines was consistent ; when he was in government he was for them, when he was in opposition he was against them. From what we have seen of the way in which the Opposition have organised themselves in Committee, it will be a long time before my right hon. and hon. Friends need to be against a guillotine motion.
We have heard some excellent speeches today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) made an exceptionally thoughtful speech. We also heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Mr. Knapman), for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) and for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey). We shall certainly take note of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) about Third Reading and do what we can to accommodate him. I am very sorry that he has not received a reply to his letter. I will look into that. He may find clause 51 of the Bill helpful in answering his point.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred to the time that has already been spent examining the Bill. He referred to the two full days--11 hours--devoted to Second Reading. So far we have spent nearly 75 hours in Committee discussing nine clauses. Under the terms of the proposed timetable motion, there would be a further 78 hours in Committee making a total of 153 hours in Committee. That would be followed by three days on Report and Third Reading making a further 23 hours and by then the House will have spent nearly 200 hours considering the Bill. By any standards, that is a generous amount of time.
The hon. Members for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) suggested that that was not sufficient time to consider the various provisions in the Bill. Anyone present during the
Column 695proceedings in Committee would greet that assertion with astonishment. Even under the stern chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) and the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Lamond), time has been found, as many of my hon. Friends have explained, for many diversions, some more entertaining than others.
During the debate on clause 1, we were treated to a biology lesson by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). He told us how to test for chlorophyl--the stuff, as he put it, that makes leaves green. We also heard about the greatest ghillie in the world, called Fred Jarvis, although we did not quite discover his connection with anyone with a similar name.
The hon. Member for Brent, South seemed to gain particular pleasure from using Tatler as one of his great source documents for his contributions in Committee. However, he did not acknowledge that the editor of that magazine is the sister of my hon. and distinguished Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames).
Mr. Boateng : Is the hon. and learned Gentleman suggesting that it was Tatler which set the tumbrels rolling in relation to this guillotine motion? He knows full well that no matter whether that magazine is edited by the sister of the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames)--and I understand that that editorship has caused a certain amount of embarrassment in the hon. Gentleman's household--its production during our Committee proceedings was highly relevant because it is geared to the parvenus and parasites who populate the modern Conservative party. It represents the greed and avarice which are the very motors of this Bill. We were right to reveal the true motives.
For the most part, the Committee deliberations were highly entertaining stuff. However, they are highly inconsistent with the picture that Opposition Members have sought to paint today of a Standing Committee desperate to stuff every available minute with scrupulous scrutiny of every sub-clause, but which was starved of the time to do that.
When we debated the Bill on the Floor of the House, I described the Labour party as the "say no" party. I suggested that it said no to change, new ideas and to any constructive proposals designed to improve the conditions of our people. Having listened attentively to the arguments, or what passed for arguments, advanced during almost 75 hours in Committee and in today's debate, I have been reflecting on that. The Labour party is not simply the "say no" party ; it is also the "go slow" party.
Let us examine the Labour party's record in Committee. Almost the first act of Labour Members was to table amendments Nos. 1 and 2 in the names of the entire Opposition first team for the Bill. Amendment No. 1 was to pave the way for amendment No. 2 which was intended to delay the appointment of the new water and sewerage undertakers for at least five years. Unfortunately for them, their futile attempt to wreck the Bill was completely transparent. The amendments were not selected for debate. Then they put their names to
Column 696amendment No. 33 which would have delayed our plans for only one year. The amendment told us to go slowly and they proceeded to do just that in Committee. We spent one and a half sittings debating that amendment. That was just the first of the delays. It took us the best part of seven sittings--nearly 27 hours--before we even moved away from clause 1 and its accompanying schedule. That was the pace that the Opposition set for consideration of the Bill in Committee and that pace has not significantly improved.
Mr. Howard : It was extremely important. Its importance could have been better dealt with by more relevant and pointed debate rather than the debate which took place. I hope that the House will not be taken in by the points made by the hon. Member for Dewsbury. She tried to suggest that the Opposition's points were made in a genuine attempt to strengthen the powers of the NRA.
The hon. Lady's motives were made clear in an interview she gave to the Financial Times on 7 December 1988, which states :
"Her response is to try to ensure that the final shape of the legislation will incorporate so many new consumer and environmental safeguards and restraints that it will be unattractive to the private sector."
That was not because she was really interested in the safeguards, but because she wanted to use the Committee stage to sabotage the whole principle of the Bill which had been granted a Second Reading by the House.