Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Morley : I shall not give way because time is short and others wish to speak.

On numerous occasions the Government have claimed to believe in the principle that the polluter should pay, so they should support the new clauses.

The Yorkshire Post inquiry found that 140 companies in the Yorkshire Water area were breaking the legal limits on discharges, but only four were prosecuted, although one company was discharging more than 800 times the legal limit. Other companies were found to be breaking the limit every time the water was sampled but were never once prosecuted. That could be put right by a determined Government, committed to environmental and green policies, rather than one following doctrinaire policies with the aim of privatising everything in sight without thought of the consequences for Britain's long-term future or its essential services.

New clause 20 has not been dealt with in any great detail. It deals with the control of the freehold of land which will be ceded to the new companies. That issue is the crux of the Government's privatisation policy. Is it the Government's intention that private companies should control water distribution, quality and sewage, or is it their intention that there should be yet another

asset-stripping exercise involving all the land that goes with the water companies? There is no reason why the new water companies will need the freehold of such land to do their job properly. That includes operational land, catchment land, reservoir land, and land for sewerage works. The leasehold would be sufficient to enable them to do their job. If the freehold were held by the NRA, the future of that land would be safeguarded and there would be no attempt to asset-strip it or to develop it in ways that would be unsympathetic to the environment, destroying sites of scientific interest or denying people access to footpaths, whether for sporting activities such as fishing or walking or the many other activities which presently take place on water authority properties.

In supporting new clause 20, I am not speaking simply for myself, or even for the Labour party. The bodies that support new clause 20 range from the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Ramblers Association and various conservation groups. Even the National Farmers Union has expressed concern about the future of land held by water boards. It is concerned about the tenant farmers, many of whom rent or lease their land from the water companies, and who face a real threat.


Column 1006

The Secretary of State recently had to step in to resolve a row in north Yorkshire where the Yorkshire water authority was inviting bids for a valley occupied by tenant farmers. It was offered a bid by the chairman of Barratts over the heads of the tenant farmers. Under regulations and guidelines laid down by the Government, the Yorkshire water authority was under an obligation to accept the highest bid. Fortunately, the Secretary of State stepped in and allowed Yorkshire water authority to dispose of that land to the tenant farmers at the bids they put in, but the Secretary of State could do that only because he controlled the freehold of that land and had the final say over what happened to it. If that land was held by a plc, the company could dispose of it as it wished following privatisation. If the Government succeed, despite the problems that the Bill is in, the private companies could--quite logically from their point of view--simply take the highest bid, which would have been from the chairman of Barratts, and goodness knows what would have happened to the tenant farmers. Their livelihoods could have been wrecked and they could have been kicked out of farms where their families had lived for generations.

If the Government are serious about providing core services--that is what the Bill is all about--there is no reason why they cannot accept this group of amendments, including new clause 20, which will guarantee control over land use. Potential polluters will thus be eliminated and people will have some confidence in privatisation. 10 pm

That links in with new clause 15, which calls for a plan for water and the environment, which in turn fits nicely with new clause 20. There is a case for a National Rivers Authority, although it has been grossly undermined by the fact that it can, and in some cases must, contract out services such as the sampling and checking of water. That is the same argument as we have at the moment with integrated water management--the gamekeeper is also the poacher, which undermines the whole concept of the NRA. If the NRA is to be successful it must have resources. The comments of Lord Crickhowell, who is currently in charge, are a matter of concern because he talks about the need for a "slim" organisation. Two thirds of the NRA staff will be involved in flood defence, which leaves only one third to ensure pollution control and water quality as well as conservation management. The conservation and leisure guidelines are full of weasel words and get-out clauses such as "will take note", "will have regard to", "if possible" and "where convenient". It is not a tight code to ensure conservation management and leisure access and to defend permissive rights of way. It has no teeth and I suspect that the resources to be given to it will also be inadequate for it to do its job properly.

If the Government are serious about conservation and the management of areas of outstanding natural beauty, which many of the water companies will inherit, of sites of special scientific interest, and of the voluntary nature reserves, into which people have put many years of effort and concern, they ought to accept these clauses, which will ensure that those who despoil our environment have to pay to clean it up. In my constituency Bottesford Beck, an area south of Scunthorpe, was recently polluted-- probably by British Steel, although I make no accusation because the Severn -Trent water authority has not yet


Column 1007

replied to my letter to tell me who is the culprit--and whoever despoiled that stream in Bottesford ought to pay to clean it up. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has said, people caught poaching are given quite punitive fines, but those who ruin a river are given derisory fines and nothing in the Bill demonstrates the Government's will or commitment to tackle the problem and to ensure that those who despoil our environment pay to put it right. I have no confidence in the Bill as it stands or in the way the Government are handling it. I certainly have no confidence in the Secretary of State or in his guarantees about the quality of our rivers and the protection of our environment, and I believe that the public also have no confidence in the Government or their privatisation proposals.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop : I had been intending to keep the comments which I wanted to share with the House until we reached my new clause 11. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) said something which was inaccurate. Because some people know him to be a barrister, they might reasonably have supposed that he had read both new clause 1 and clause 110 when he said that they were--I think that I quote his words-- exactly the same. They are not exactly the same. New clause 1 is mandatory. Clause 110 of the Bill is merely permissive. If anyone cares to read the Bill for themselves they can see it. Clause 110 of the Bill is entitled "Anti-pollution works and operations" and says that if an individual or body corporate causes pollution, the authority shall be entitled to carry out the following works, and later on it shall be entitled to recover the expenses.

That is a discretionary power, which is not exactly the same--I repeat that it is not exactly the same--as what is in, I think, the excellent new clause 1, which makes it mandatory and not discretionary. It states that

"it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State and of the Authority to ensure that in all reasonable circumstances the person who causes any pollution of a river or other water source, whether that person is a body corporate, water or sewerage undertaking or an individual, shall bear the cost of remedying that pollution and of taking steps to prevent any recurrence."

It is necessary to point out to the House that there is an unfortunate distinction, which is a very real difference, between the new clause that we are debating tonight and what is already in the Bill. It is not a duplication of what is in the Bill. It is a transference of the discretionary into the compulsory. That is particularly important in the circumstances to which some hon. Members have alluded--for instance, where the NRA may actually sub-contract some of its functions to a body which has already proved itself hopelessly lacking in will to prosecute. If it is lacking in will to prosecute, will it be lacking in will to recover under discretionary powers?

On the basis of experience to date, certainly the subcontracted body will not, and we have yet to know whether the National Rivers Authority will. I, of course, hope that it will, but the track record of the alkali inspectorate to date is not such as to give one complete confidence that even an independent body will use its powers to prosecute or, in this case, to recover costs, if it is discretionary to it whether it does so or not.


Column 1008

For those reasons, I think that new clause 1 would effect an improvement in the Bill rather than merely duplicate that which is already in it.

I will not say any more, because it is my hope that we may reach later on-- indeed, immediately after this series--new clause 11 which would, if we ever reach it, have the result of transferring by way of interest-free loan the proceeds of privatisation to the works necessary to meet the EEC anti- pollution requirements for water and sewerage instead of those costs falling on the user by way of increased charges, either to pay for the works in the first place or to pay the interest and then repay the principal of loans. But of course I would be in danger of straying out of order if I pursued that further at this moment.

Mr. Mullin : These new clauses do not challenge the principle of privatisation, to which we are unshakably opposed. The clauses mitigate the disastrous effects that hon. Members on both sides of the House believe will result from the privatisation of water. They are, in a way, a test of Government rhetoric. The Government, at all levels, continually insist that they believe, in principle, in the aims of the clauses, yet when it comes to it they always advise Conservative Members to vote against them.

New clause 1 deals with the attempt to enshrine in legislation the principle to which everyone seems to pay lip service, that the polluter should pay. Until now, the underlying principle has been that the consumer pays. That is likely to remain the case unless the Bill is amended because, as the Secretary of State acknowledged earlier, the water authorities are among the biggest polluters. The outrageous behaviour of Yorkshire Water has been adequately exposed in the Yorkshire Post. In the area of Northumbrian Water, which is closer to the area that I represent, 36 of the 190 sewerage stations were in breach of the limits in 1986. That is not a very hopeful sign of what might happen after privatisation.

In the area covered by Anglian Water an exciting new concept in pollution has been developed, called the sewage lagoon. Anglian Water has been putting its untreated sewage into the sea. Now, it has done a deal with several Suffolk farmers to dig deep and large lagoons in their fields. It will sink untreated sewage into them. The authority tried to persuade Essex county council to do that, but the county council, God bless it, would have none of it. But in Suffolk they are made of weaker stuff. These large lagoons will cover 40 m by 30 m and be 2.5 m to3 m deep. A 6 ft high chain- link fence will surround them. It will take 125 lorries to fill them with 500,000 gallons of sewage. The objective is that the content of these lagoons will be sprayed over the fields, which will take 10,000 to 20,000 gallons per acre. I believe that the first of these sewage lagoons will be at the village of Troston. The sewage is being delivered in unmarked lorries, despite the trouble taken by Anglian Water to design a logo for them. It is not very proud of this particular enterprise. It seems to be in a rush, as no doubt the authority wants to get this out of the way before the National Rivers Authority is functioning. Other lagoons are proposed at Nactow and at Sizewell, to go with its nuclear power station, and at Alderton, which I believe is a heritage coastal village. Those areas are not represented by Opposition Members, but by Conservative Members, so in due course perhaps we can expect to hear something from them. No doubt their constituents who live in those areas will be mightily upset. It does not take a great deal


Column 1009

of imagination to understand the dangers to the water supply, not to mention the smell, that the new sewage lagoons will have if one happens to have one in one's backyard.

10.15 pm

As we know, there has been a long history of inactivity on the part of all the water authorities in prosecuting offenders. I shall refer again to the example of Northumbrian Water. Between 1980 and 1986 it prosecuted just seven out of 4,272 breaches of the sewage regulations. That inactivity over a long period is now combined with an arrogance and excessive and obsessive secrecy that does not inspire confidence in the plans for the future after privatisation. In addition, some of the biggest polluters will be buying shares in the new privatised water companies. Indeed, some are already represented on the boards. They have been put there courtesy of the Secretary of State, who has turfed off elected local councillors and put in, in Northumbria for example, Mr. Norman Pryn who, if one runs one's eye down the list of directors of Northumbrian Water, one discovers to be the deputy group secretary of ICI Billingham, which we all know in the north- east to be one of the major polluters. As one runs one's eye further down the list one runs across the name of Mr. Ralph Iley, who turns out to be the group development director of the Cookson Group plc, which has nothing to do with travel or romantic novels ; it is a chemical company.

I cast no aspersions on those two gentlemen--no doubt they do their jobs to the best of their ability--but there is a clear conflict of interest that will be obvious to every hon. Member and to every person of goodwill between the interests of privatised water company and those of the polluter. It is not good enough for the polluters to get a major stake in our industry, which is what now seems to be about to happen. The only way to inspire confidence is to create a strong and genuinely independent National Rivers Authority with the power and the resources to impose serious penalties.

New clause 2 addresses the question of the NRA, when it is set up, contracting back some of its key functions to the water authorities, the activities of which it is supposed impartially to be supervising. This matter came up in Committee on 10 January. I quoted then to the Minister the words of Mr. Bob Smith, who is the director of operations at Northumbrian Water, who told a staff meeting in December that Northumbrian Water would be bidding for many NRA contracts, including the control room, maintenance of telemetry on weirs ; the radio system ; vehicle maintenance ; buying fish ; the berth of the fisheries protection vessel ; administering the salaries of the NRA staff and, above all, that it proposed to bid for laboratory services. In other words, the samples that will be taken from the polluters that we have been talking about will be tested in the laboratories of the organisation that may well be doing much of the polluting.

When that was mentioned in Committee on 10 January, it brought a number of assurances from Ministers. They said that it was a legitimate point and that we must all think seriously about it. However, when one talks to the staff of the proposed NRA--that is difficult these days


Column 1010

because they are scared having received lots of warnings about threats to their jobs--they are not at all confident that the NRA will be independent.

The opportunities for the manipulation of samples are manifest and obvious. They include the time at which one takes the samples, the number of samples taken, whether one's results are published in gobbledegook that is incomprehensible to the average citizen, and what action it is proposed to take.

The Northumbria branch of the NRA will be housed in the same building as the Northumbrian water authority. There will be a close overlap between the managements, and there is already a question of a lack of resources. I am told that the tentative NRA set-up in the Northumbrian water authority area has already asked for greater frequency of sampling and has been told--in the words of one potential member of the NRA staff--to "Sod off." I am told that, even as we sit here, the Northumbrian water authority is looking for ways of reducing consents, and that there is now being drawn up a list of works where standards can be varied without spending any more money. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), in his introductory remarks, rightly recalled--as it pays us all to recall, at regular intervals--the immortal words of Mr. Keith Court, who comes from the home of what we now know as the Camelford poisoner. Mr. Court said that he wanted the best staff because he wanted them to outwit the regulators. If the National Rivers Authority is to enjoy public confidence, it must be seen to be independent of those whose activities it is supposed to be supervising.

New clause 15 raises the most central question of all : what kind of body is the National Rivers Authority supposed to be? Will it be just another toothless Tory quango in the great tradition of the Police Complaints Authority or the Press Council, to become, in due course, the object of public ridicule? Or will it be an independent organisation, free of vested interests, a body with the resources and the will to face up to what we all know to be a major national problem? I have to say that the signs are not auspicious. The Government offer us a lot of interesting rhetoric. Some of us can agree with that rhetoric from time to time, but will it be matched by action? These new clauses contain nothing that contradicts the Government's principle of privatisation, but they put to a severe test the rhetoric about the circumstances in which privatisation will take place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. The hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) should not be reading a newspaper in the Chamber.

Mr. Ridley : In my opinion, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) got it right : throughout the debates on this Bill the Opposition have failed to find any flaws in it. Instead, they have resorted to highly dubious, irrelevant and misleading stunts and scare stories to try to muddle the public and themselves. Indeed, the paucity of thought among Opposition Members that brings these four new clauses up for debate is an absolute tribute to the draftmanship of the Bill. Two of the new clauses are totally unnecessary, and the other two are totally undesirable. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) came in again with his stale, dog-eared file of old quotes, leaks and cooked figures, to which he has treated us ever


Column 1011

since the Bill appeared. He even got a leak, about which he boasted to The Guardian, by squinting at his neighbour --one of my civil servants--and reading the papers on his lap. That is the standard of the information that the hon. Gentleman stoops to, and it is typical of him.

Dr. Cunningham : For the sake of greater accuracy, in which the Secretary of State is not interested, perhaps he had better be clear and have it on the record that it was not I who observed on the lap of one of his civil servants the minute which said that all the substance had been removed from his speech. It was someone else who observed it and who conveyed the information to me.

Mr. Ridley : I accept that. It only confirms my view that The Guardian is not an accurate newspaper because what I quoted is what The Guardian said.

The hon. Member for Copeland has got us into a muddle. On Second Reading he said :

"I say, without any hesitation, that a Labour Government would not allow private monopolies in water to exist--and we shall take them into public ownership."--[ Official Report, 7 December 1988 ; Vol. 143, c. 345.]

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) foolishly relied upon that. The only way to discover the policy of the Opposition is if, by chance, it is leaked. It is extraordinary. Their policy is kept so secret that nobody knows what it is until it is leaked. It was leaked to The Sunday Times last weekend. I shall be happy to tell the hon. Member for Carlisle what his policy is. He does not know, but I am in the privileged position of being able to tell him. I quote again : "Instead of renationalising the companies, Labour would create new regulatory bodies with tough new powers and force the industries to improve their services."

That is why we have the demonstration of the new-found realism in the four new clauses ; it is to substantiate what the Labour party is trying to maintain--that it now believes in private ownership, together with--

Mr. Martlew rose --

Mr. Ridley : I shall give way, but I want to finish the point. Therefore, we come to the NRA. I have to tell the hon. Member for Copeland that I thought up the NRA and announced it before the last election when he did not even know how to pronounce the word "environment". He had never heard of it. For him now to suggest that the NRA should be stiffened in some way in order to show that his credentials are better than they are is absolute rubbish. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) suggested that the NRA was being foisted on the Government. I can tell him that I foisted the NRA on him. I am delighted that he is so pleased to see it. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) and Leicestershire, North-West, who were right to welcome the creation of the NRA and to believe that it was perhaps the most important environmental protection agency, if I may coin a phrase, that has ever been put before the House. That is how I see it.

Mr. Allan Roberts : If it is such a powerful environmental agency, why is the Secretary of State allowing it to subcontract its regulatory functions back to


Column 1012

the private water companies, thus recreating the gamekeeper and the poacher being one and the same again?

Mr. Ridley : I will come to that. I am trying to answer every point made in the debate. If hon. Members do not interrupt, I will have more chance of doing so.

The other muddle that the hon. Member for Copeland tried to put across was that higher standards are required. The Opposition accept that, but then they try to blame the resultant higher costs on privatisation. Privatisation in itself will tend to reduce costs, but I have never denied that higher environmental standards will increase them. In fact, I have gone out of my way from the beginning to make that clear.

I can perhaps help the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). He asked me to confirm what I said before. I will. As I said on Second Reading, an initial estimate of the additional cost to the water authorities of the compliance programmes now required under the European Community drinking water directive, the EC bathing waters directive and the sewage treatment works discharge consents under the Control of Pollution Act 1974 is approximately £2.4 billion. That is equivalent to an extra 7.5 per cent. to 12.5 per cent. in real terms in financial costs over the next 10 years. That is little more than 1 per cent. per year in real terms. As I have said, that is over and above the increases that would have been required without those additional programmes. That is just a ready reckoner so that the hon. Gentleman can assess its scale. He said that he thought that it would cost £1 billion for the country. My best estimate is £2.4 billion, and even that comes out only at the figure that I have quoted.

Mr. Wigley : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ridley : Quickly, as I have much more to say.

10.30 pm

Mr. Wigley : I should be grateful for a quick answer. When the right hon. Gentleman made his statement on Second Reading before Christmas, was he not suggesting that the overall increase in costs would be more than 12.5 per cent.? That was most certainly the interpretation of the papers referred to in the Financial Times.

Mr. Ridley : It is a quick reference point in the hon Gentleman's memory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) was a little unfair, because he said that the South West water authority's prices had gone up by 92 per cent. since the beginning of the decade. In fact, that relates to the cash figure. In real terms, the figure is about 23 per cent. That would have been a more accurate figure for him to quote.

I would like to say a word in reply to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), because I cannot allow him to cast aspersions upon the validity of the Bill to protect the interests of fishermen. Fishing is a sport that both he and I pursue. He expressed fears that reservoirs would be commercially exploited to the detriment of local angling bodies. With clause 7, we impose a duty on the companies to put their waters to best use for recreation, and we make clear in the code of practice that that means meeting a wide range of interests and protecting the proper interests of existing established users. Those duties are enforceable under clause 19, and the Secretary of State of the day must have regard to how


Column 1013

far the code has been followed in exercising his enforcement powers. If he neglects to do so, he is open to challenge in the courts.

I shall refer the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney to clause 151 of the Bill. That provides that where the Secretary of State approves an order authorising works in connection with the construction or operation of a reservoir, he may include in that order requirements for the provision of recreational facilities for local people. I hope that that gives him the reassurance that he sought.

Mr. Rowlands : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. However, will he simply tell us that there is no way that our reservoirs can become the subject of commercial bidding, as our river waters have become?

Mr. Ridley : I hoped that the protections that I have set out would have the exact effect--

Mr. Rowlands : Yes or no?

Mr. Ridley : Yes, that is right.

I confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) that the planning procedures that at the moment protect land in many parts of the country, especially near Rutland water, will remain inviolate and will continue in force in exactly the way that he has asked. I hope that that is the assurance that he seeks, but I shall be delighted to confirm it in writing if he wishes.

Mr. Allan Roberts : It is not in the Bill.

Mr. Ridley : Planning is not part of the Bill. My hon. Friend asked me a question and I have just as much right to answer it as any other question.

New clause 15 would require the NRA to prepare and publish at some unspecified time in the future a plan for the carrying out of its functions. Some 15 functions are mentioned and, although they are all worthy, one could make the list as many or as few as one liked. However, making plans betrays a lack of urgency. Opposition Members are under the naive fallacy that to produce a plan is to solve a problem. Above all, there is that detachment from the real world of events and actions.

The amendment is pure 1970s or even before. It reminds me of the late Lord George-Brown and his famous national plan. It resulted in inaction. I believe that action is important. In any event, it is not appropriate for a body such as the NRA. Many of its key functions are those of a regulatory authority, responding to applications from others and policing their activities. It must be reactive, able to respond to events, whether they are pollution incidents or flooding emergencies.

One speaker after another from the Opposition Benches wondered whether the NRA would be tough enough and quick enough to move in. If it spent the next five years producing a plan, it would not be tough and quick enough to do that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) rightly pointed out, the fear is that the NRA will have too much power--the mortmain of the industry, he called it--and I was happy to hear the balance between both sides of the House on whether we had the powers of the NRA right. I firmly believe that we have.


Column 1014

I was delighted by the quick mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), and the fact that I was able to assure him--as I shall assure my hon. Friend the Member of Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) shortly--that the precise points of new clause 1 are covered by provisions already in the Bill. With characteristic loyalty and enthusiasm, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said that he would not be prepared to break his word to the Patronage Secretary and vote against the clause. I was wondering whether, if I said that I supported the clause, he would then vote against it. That is the logic of his position, but as my hon. Friend is not in his place, I need not pursue that further.

The new clause has two subsections. Subsection (1) simply states that the provisions in clause 3, part I of the Bill, for controlling and reducing pollution shall have effect for the purpose of controlling and reducing pollution. I do not argue against that. The Labour party has rightly grasped what the Bill is about. Subsection (2) of the new clause is designed to ensure that, where possible, he who causes pollution pays to have it cleaned up and to prevent it from happening again.

The two subsections have one thing in common : they are both unnecessary, and I need not delay the House beyond the one point that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton raised. Subsection (1) is little more than a tautology, since the purpose of the control of pollution provisions in chapter I of part III of the Bill is, by definition, controlling pollution. What is more, our declared objective of controlling pollution and improving water quality is built in, clearly and inescapably, to the legislation itself. Thus, under clause 102, the Secretary of State and the NRA have the duty to exercise their powers under chapter I so as to achieve the statutory objectives set under clause 101. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton had seen clause 101 but had not realised its inter-reaction with clause 102. In the words of clause101(1), these objectives--which will be set after public consultation--will be "For the purpose of maintaining and improving the quality of controlled waters".

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop : My point was not about the objectives but about whether forcing the polluter to pay was discretionary or mandatory.

Mr. Ridley : That is the point I just answered. There is a duty under clause 102 to make the NRA achieve the statutory objectives set out in clause 101. So it is mandatory, not discretionary. New clause 2 is designed to deal with contractual agreements between the NRA and the undertakers. I see no reason why these two bodies should not contract between each other, or indeed why the river authorities--the river companies, as they will be--should not contract with the NRA, except in those cases where it would affect the NRA's ability to be clear about standards or to engage in prosecutions.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak) rose--

Mr. Ridley : May I finish my point, then I will give way to my hon. Friend?

The hon. Member for Carlisle was particularly concerned about laboratory work and taking samples. I see no reason why contractual arrangements with the plcs


Column 1015

should not include laboratory work provided that there are adequate safeguards to ensure the independence of the NRA.

The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, but the NRA advisory committee has already put forward a set of safeguards, which we have endorsed. First, all samples must be collected by NRA staff or under direct NRA control. Secondly, there must be guaranteed anonymity of samples so that there can be no question of a person doing the analysis knowing where the sample has come from. Thirdly, there must be proper arrangements for independent audit or cross-checking so that there are frequent checks that the work is being done to the NRA's specification. That is the requirement that he and the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) properly seek and that I am able to give as part of a published document for their benefit.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury) : On the specific point of the way in which samples are analysed, the Secretary of State has said that there will be anonymity of samples. Surely the laboratories of the water companies will already have their own samples from their own outflows and will know which samples come from those outflows. So there will not be anonymity as far as the technicians from those laboratories are concerned.

Mr. Ridley : That is not true. The NRA has made sufficient arrangements from its own laboratories to be able to safeguard precisely the point that the hon. Lady has raised.

I come finally to new clause 20--

Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ridley : I have only three minutes left.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark : I asked my right hon. Friend to give way earlier and he said that he would do so.

Mr. Ridley : I hope my hon. Friend will understand. He has not been present during the debate and I have to reply to other hon. Members who have spoken.

New clause 20 is an act of land nationalisation proposed as a new clause on Report by the Opposition. It is indeed an extraordinary proposition : that we are able to trust a company, subject to the full and proper regulation which we shall provide, to provide drinking water and dispose of sewage-- functions of great importance--but we cannot trust it to own an acre of land. Just as the provision of water and sewerage services will be regulated, so already--

Dr. Cunningham : The Secretary of State says we cannot trust private enterprise to own an acre of land. It is not quite that simple. We are talking about selling to private enterprise 500,000 acres of land in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sensitive environments. The Opposition certainly do not trust private enterprise to look after that well.

Mr. Ridley : I am absolutely delighted that this Bill achieves the privatisation of nearly 500,000 acres of land. I am sure that my hon. Friends are just as pleased as I am. I can well understand the hon. Gentleman's sourness and chagrin that his backdoor nationalisation plan to get hold of this land is frustrated by this Bill-- [Interruption.] This is what it is all about. It is about the Opposition wishing


Column 1016

to nationalise as much land as possible. They have not heard of planning permission. They have not understood that land cannot be developed without planning permission, whether it belongs to a water authority, a privatised water company, the Government or a private individual. To ignore the strict paraphernalia of planning controls, particularly in a national park, shows the ignorance of the hon. Member for Copeland and the Labour party. Does the hon. Member for Copeland really want to change the NRA into a vast property company which is able to develop or sell land?

The Labour party's motive is not to protect the land--if that were so it would opt for planning. Its motive is to keep in public ownership as much land as it can. Clause four rides again--new clause 1 will kill it.

10.45 pm

Mrs. Ann Taylor : As the Prime Minister might say, the case for the Bill has been badly presented--again. The Secretary of State chose not to serve on the Standing Committee on the Water Bill, so today was his first opportunity since Second Reading to make an impact on the Bill. Following his performance this evening, we well understand that he can have a negative impact on the Bill and I wish him and his Minister well for any future opportunities that they have to present it to the country. The more the Government talk in the terms used by the Secretary of State today, the more the Opposition will benefit from the Government's privatisation plans.

Perhaps we should not be too surprised at the Secretary of State's contribution. The Prime Minister recently praised him for being a brilliant artist and civil engineer. I cannot comment on his artistic talent--my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) assures me that he is a good artist--but I trust that in his retirement he will find plenty of time to practise that hobby. I was interested to read in the New Civil Engineer, the magazine of the Institution of Civil Engineers, that the Secretary of State-- [Interruption.] The Prime Minister has been talking about the Bill and about the Secretary of State's talents. As we missed him in Committee, we should spend a minute

Sir Anthony Grant : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is this relevant to the new clause?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am sure that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) will have regard to what has been said.

Mrs. Taylor : I have a great deal of regard to the relevance of civil engineering to the water industry. As one who is married to a civil engineer and knows the work of the profession in this industry, I was interested to read that the Secretary of State has not been a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers since the 1970s. Clearly, the Prime Minister is nearly as far behind the times as the Secretary of State.

I shall return to the specific amendment about which the Secretary of State eventually said a word or two. The Opposition support the new clauses because they wish to strengthen the National Rivers Authority and to make it work in practice. We should not forget how the NRA came about. When the Secretary of State spoke earlier, it seemed as though his mind was playing tricks on him. He seemed to think that the NRA had emerged from his own mind, with no suggestions from anyone else. Perhaps he has


Column 1017

forgotten that the original water privatisation proposals made no mention of the National Rivers Authority. It was only when the Labour party and other environmentalist and conservationist groups put pressure on the right hon. Gentleman--

Mr. Ridley : The hon. Lady must do better than that. She may not be aware that I did not make the original proposals.

Mrs. Taylor : The right hon. Gentleman is right about that, but he took them over and I did not notice him dissenting from the original Conservative proposals. Anyone who believes that the Government or their Ministers are green has a lot to learn. I am sure that, on reflection, the Secretary of State--and certainly the Minister--will wish that these privatisation proposals had suffered the same fate as the previous ones, and had been withdrawn late one Thursday evening to put Ministers out of their misery.

The National Rivers Authority was introduced into the proposals only to make them less unpalatable, and to appease all the interest groups which were so opposed to them. At present the authority is not strong enough. Opposition Members are not alone in saying that. Anglers, environmentalists, conservationists and the Council for the Protection of Rural England--all of whom have studied the Bill carefully--agree with us, as do one or two Conservative Members. They support the principle of the NRA but feel that it is too weak. There is no doubt about the need for a strong body to counter the pollution problem. Incidents of pollution have doubled in the past 10 years under the present Government, and river quality has declined for the first time since records began. We feel--this is why we have tabled new clause 1--that it is time to get tougher with the polluters and to stop turning a blind eye to the problem.

We have heard this evening of problems in many different parts of the country. I consider my part of Yorkshire to be typical. Last year, 140 companies broke their consents with regard to pollution. Many of them were big companies such as British Steel, British Coal, BP, Tarmac and many large chemical firms. Some exceeded their permitted limits by 100 times, but only a tiny fraction were prosecuted. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) pointed out, on a national basis only 1 per cent. are prosecuted.


Next Section

  Home Page