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Points of Order

3.33 pm

Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Was it in order for the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to imply in a recent question that there was corruption in the appointment of judges? Far from being funny, were his remarks not entirely out of order?

Mr. Speaker : I do not recollect that anything that the hon. Gentleman said in my presence was out of order.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I would like to place it on the record that I did not pay the hon. Gentleman to say that.

Mr. Speaker : I have protected the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). He does not need to do anything else.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to seek your guidance. On Wednesday we face another hugely disruptive strike on the railways, with both sides being as far apart as ever and no sign of any move towards a new arbitration system. Have you had any indication from the Government, Mr. Speaker, about when they might share their thinking with us as to how British Rail can be helped to get out of this terrible mess which is having a bad effect on industry, on my constituents and on the constituents of Croydon?

Mr. Speaker : I have had no such notification. The Leader of the House is on the Treasury Bench, and I am sure that he will have heard what the hon. Member has said.

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Water Bill (Allocation of Time)

3.34 pm

The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : I beg to move,

That the Order of the House [6th February] be supplemented as follows :

Lords Amendments 1.--(1) The proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments shall be completed in two allotted days and shall be brought to a conclusion at Seven p.m. on the second of those days. (2) The order in which those proceedings are to be taken shall be Lords Amendments 1 to 43, Lords Amendment 55, Lords Amendments 44 to 54, Lords Amendments 56 to 116, Lords Amendment 155, Lords Amendments 117 to 154, Lords Amendments 156 to 237, Lords Amendments 267 and 277, Lords Amendments 238 to 266, Lords Amendments 268 to 276 and remaining Lords Amendments.

(3) Subject to the provisions of the Order [6th February], each part of those proceedings shall, if not previously brought to a conclusion, be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the third column of the Table set out below.


Allotted day                     |Lords Amendments                |Time for conclusion of                                           



First day                        |Nos. 1 to 13                    |6.00 p.m.                                                        


                                 |Nos. 14 to 43 and No. 55        |7.30 p.m.                                                        


                                 |Nos. 44 to 54 and Nos. 56 to 116|10.00 p.m.                                                       


Second day                       |No. 155, Nos. 117 to 154,       |5.00 p.m.                                                        

                                 |Nos. 156 to 237 and Nos. 267                                                                      

                                 |and 277                                                                                           


                                 |Nos. 238 to 266, Nos. 268 to 276                                                                  


                                 |Nos. 278 to 311                 |5.30 p.m.                                                        


                                 |Remaining Lords Amendments      |7.00 p.m.                                                        

(4) Paragraph 7 of the Order [6th February] (extra time on allotted days) shall not apply to the allotted days for the proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments ; but where the conclusion of any of those proceedings is postponed until a time after Ten o'clock under paragraph 9(4) of that Order (Motions under Standing Order No. 20), paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business) shall apply to those proceedings until that time.

2.--(1) For the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 1 above--

(a) Mr. Speaker shall put forthwith any Question which has already been proposed from the Chair and not yet decided and, if that Question is for the amendment of a Lords Amendment, shall then put forthwith the Question on any further Amendment of the said Lords Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown and on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House doth agree or disagree with the Lords in the said Lords Amendment or, as the case may be, in the said Lords Amendment as amended ;

(b) Mr. Speaker shall then designate such of the remaining Lords Amendments as appear to him to involve questions of Privilege and shall--

(i) put forthwith the Question on any Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown to a Lords Amendment and then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House doth agree or disagree with the Lords in their Amendment or, as the case may be, in their Amendment as amended ;

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(ii) put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in a Lords Amendment ;

(iii) put forthwith with respect to each Amendment designated by Mr. Speaker which has not been disposed of the Question, That this House doth agree with the Lords in their Amendment ; and

(iv) put forthwith the Question, That this House doth agree with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Amendments ;

(c) as soon as the House has agreed or disagreed with the Lords in any of their Amendments Mr. Speaker shall put forthwith a separate Question on any other Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown relevant to that Lords Amendment.

(2) Proceedings under sub-paragraph (1) above shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

Stages subsequent to first Consideration of Lords Amendments 3.--(1) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords on the Bill shall be brought to a conclusion one hour after the commencement of the proceedings.

(2) For the purpose of bringing those proceedings to a conclusion--

(a) Mr. Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has already been proposed from the Chair and not yet decided, and shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown which is related to the Question already proposed from the Chair ;

(b) Mr. Speaker shall then designate such of the remaining items in the Lords Message as appear to him to involve questions of Privilege and shall- -

(i) put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown on any item ;

(ii) the case of each remaining item designated by Mr. Speaker, put forthwith the Question, That this House doth agree with the Lords in their Proposal ; and

(iii) put forthwith the Question, That this House doth agree with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Proposals.

Supplemental provisions with respect to certain proceedings 4.--(1) In this paragraph "the proceedings" means proceedings on any further Message from the Lords on the Bill, on the appointment and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons and the Report of such a Committee.

(2) Mr. Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the consideration forthwith of the Message or for the appointment and quorum of the Committee. (3) A Committee appointed to draw up reasons shall report the conclusion of the sitting at which they are appointed.

(4) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business) shall apply to the proceedings.

(5) No dilatory Motion with respect to, or in the course of, the proceedings shall be made except by a member of the Government, and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

(6) If the proceedings are interrupted by a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 20 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) a period equal to the duration of the proceedings on the Motion shall be added to the period at the end of which the proceedings are to be brought to a conclusion.

(7) If the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the expiry of the period at the end of which any proceedings are to be brought to a conclusion under this paragraph, no notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a member of the Government for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.

I move the motion as the House comes to the end of the

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long and exhaustive consideration of a Bill which fully honours our election manifesto commitment to return water authorities to the public and to establish a National Rivers Authority. We shall shortly see scenes of synthetic outrage from the Opposition about the time that is allowed for consideration of the Lords amendments. I want to start by getting some facts on the record.

The Bill has already been debated in this House for two days on Second Reading, for 153 hours in 35 Committee sittings, and for three full days on Report and Third Reading--a total of 198 hours before today.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Will the Minister explain why, despite the massive amount of money that has been spent to publicise the Bill, all the propaganda and so on, the latest poll shows that 79 per cent. of the population are totally opposed to water being privatised? Is it not clear that the Government have no mandate for it? If there were a free vote tonight, the Bill would not receive majority support, and the Minister knows that.

Mr. Howard : I welcome Opposition Members' new-found enthusiasm for opinion polls. However, opinion polls may come and opinion polls may go. By the time the only opinion poll that matters takes place the proposals will be working well in practice and their advantages will be apparent to all our people.

Although the Bill has been guillotined, we have used the timetable procedure not to impose unreasonable restraints on debate but to allow for a sensible allocation of time to the different elements of the Bill. That would not have occurred if Opposition Members had continued with the pace that they set in Committee, when they managed to go so slowly that, after 75 hours, only nine clauses had been debated. The Bill has also been examined in great detail for more than 100 hours of debate over 13 days in another place. It is simply not possible to argue that the Bill had not been fully considered. Throughout those many hours of debate, the Government have listened carefully and sympathetically to all reasonable arguments put before them. We said at the outset that if sensible improvements were suggested, we would respond positively to them. That is precisely what we have done, and that is why it now falls to this House to consider these amendments.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes) : Does my hon. and learned Friend consider that we have sufficiently discussed the protection of land that is currently owned by Thames Water? The assurances that he gave at the beginning of last month have recently been withdrawn, thus making a great deal of Thames Water's land available for redevelopment rather than protection by the local authority because of its conservation or environmental use.

Mr. Howard : It is not right to say that assurances that were given earlier in the month or about a month ago were withdrawn. We shall no doubt debate this matter more fully when we consider the amendments relating to land. When we put forward our original amendments relating in particular to specific protection for land in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, we were met with a chorus of opposition on the basis that sites of special scientific interest should be specifically designated and that the reserve power to which we pointed as being available to deal with that aspect of the problem was, in effect, a waste of time and not worth the paper that it was written

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on. We responded to those criticisms as we have responded to so many other criticisms. We have inserted specific protection in the Bill for sites of special scientific interest and removed the reserve power that met with disapproval when it was introduced.

I invite the House to consider the nature of the amendments which were inserted into the Bill in another place. There are 341 of them, but many of them are so technical that they do not even warrant grouping other than in one large group. Even some of those technical amendments are to meet points raised by the Opposition. Of those that are grouped, we have difficulty with only two. Of the rest, well over half the groups of amendments on the Notice Paper are Government responses to arguments that had the support of all sides in another place. Many of the rest represented minor tidying-up points. The nature of the amendments before the House today can be judged by the fact that only once in another place were the Government obliged to go through the Division Lobby in support of them. In this House the Opposition have not put down a single motion of disagreement with any of the amendments that were made in another place.

That is the background against which the protest that we shall doubtless shortly hear from Opposition Members needs to be assessed. We have, of course, known from the outset that the Opposition were committed to a policy of delay and frustration, but we wish to press on with the Bill which provides the key to cleaner rivers and beaches and purer drinking water. It is this Bill which gives the industry access to the private capital that it needs to complete the clean up ; it is this Bill which puts an end to the gamekeeper-poacher conflict that has so bedevilled the operations of the water authorities ; and it is this Bill which gives the workers in one of our most important industries a real stake in the future. The time has come to deal with the few remaining issues and to move on to the next stages--putting the regulatory framework in place, vesting the functions, assets and liabilities of the authorities with the new companies and, in November, selling the shares in those companies to the public so that they can take a direct stake in the industry that lies at the heart of so many of our environmental concerns. I commend the motion to the House.

3.41 pm

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : I am sorry to disappoint the Minister so early in my remarks, but I assure him that none of the synthetic anger that he was forced to mention so often in his brief remarks will emanate from the Opposition. There may be some synthetic support, however, from Conservative Members in the Division Lobby. It is eight months this week since the Second Reading of the Water Bill in the Chamber. The Secretary of State's parting words then were :

"This is a good Bill for consumers, for future shareholders, for taxpayers, for workers in the industry ; above all, it is a good Bill for the environment."--[ Official Report, 7 December 1988 ; Vol. 143, c. 344.]

The Opposition feel rather sorry for the Secretary of State and those who have had to do the Prime Minister's dirty work on this very dirty Bill. After the Football Spectators Bill, one might say that this is the flood. Over those months, the Minister and the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr.

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Moynihan), who is not present now, although I am sure that he will be around later in the proceedings, have had to prop up a case in support of privatising the nation's water assets which, frankly, is so ramshackle as to have no hope of surviving for very long. They have spent eight months on the pathetic task of trying to persuade the British people that water privatisation is a good or even a desirable thing for consumers, taxpayers and the environment. It seems, however, not only from the responses from the public during those eight months, but even from a survey this weekend, that they have failed to persuade anyone. The Observer Harris poll showed yesterday that 79 per cent. of people remain implacably opposed to privatisation ; 79 per cent. are worried or very worried about the quality of our bathing beaches ; one third of people are dissatisfied with the quality of their drinking water ; 69 per cent. think that water should meet new European standards before any sell-off is even contemplated ; 68 per cent. think that the Government's record on pollution control is not at all good or not very good ; and 85 per cent. think that water will cost them more after privatisation. Whatever else Ministers have been doing during the past eight months, they have singularly failed to persuade the British public that there is much good, if any, in the Bill.

Mr. Winnick : My hon. Friend will be the first to agree that the Opposition should always be fair. Does he blame, as the Prime Minister blames, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Water and Planning? Could they be responsible for the public's failure to accept water privatisation? Does not the real responsibility lie with the Prime Minister? Were it not for her, such dangerous nonsense would not have been pursued in the first place. Does my hon. Friend agree that the public will not buy this rubbish, whoever puts it forward, and that the responsibility does not lie with the Secretary of State or the Minister, however much one recognises that the Secretary of State is the last person to persuade anyone?

Dr. Cunningham : I agree with my hon. Friend. The Bill, like the Football Spectators Bill and the poll tax before it, is here because the Prime Minister has insisted on its being placed on the statute book against all the advice of independent people and, I am sure, much private advice from many of her right hon. and hon. Friends. The Secretary of State and the Minister are scapegoats for the Prime Minister's dogmatic attitudes. Too bad, one might say, for the Secretary of State and the Minister ; too bad that they are forced to push through the Prime Minister's views ; too bad that their campaign to persuade even the City that water is a worthwhile and desirable investment has collapsed with only a few months to go before the predicted sell-off date. Matters have become worse for the Secretary of State and the Minister following the Prime Minister's magisterial rebuke in February over their handling, or mishandling, of the issue.

This colossal and vital Bill has been guillotined at every stage. It was curtailed in Committee and on Report, and today, as we are presented with 341 amendments from the other place, debate is curtailed again, less than a week since the other place finished considering the Bill. We shall have a mere day and a half in which to debate 341 amendments and to try to amend some of them. I thank the Minister for having the courtesy and for taking the

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trouble to give us sight of the amendments as early as possible. I place on record our appreciation of that. His task was obviously incredibly difficult because he was able to provide information to us only as late as Wednesday evening of last week. Had it been provided to us any later, the opportunity for the Opposition to consider and table subsequent amendments would not have existed. That is not acceptable and I have no doubt that others outside the House will perceive that to be so.

The real reason for guillotining this stage of the Bill's consideration is that this is one of the most damaging pieces of legislation around, and the Government want it out of the way as quickly as possible. On every occasion on which the Bill is discussed in Parliament and outside, damage is done to the Government's credibility. I assure the Government that the fact that they may be curtailing debate today and tomorrow does not mean that the issue will go away or that the Labour party will stop opposing it and campaigning against it in the country over the weeks, months and years between now and the next general election.

We have a day and a half, and a number of important questions remain to be asked. I almost said "answered", but I suspect that there is little, if any, hope of getting answers to some of the questions. For example, when will the British people's drinking water meet minimum European standards? Almost 11 million British people are served with water that is below European minimum standards. The position for those people is unsatisfactory and it is likely to remain so.

The Minister went to Brussels last week. There was some publicity in advance of his visit, but almost a cloak of secrecy has been drawn over what happened while he was there. Almost uniquely for the Government and for the Minister's Department, there has been no press statement or announcement following his discussions with the Environment Commissioner Carlo Ripa Di Meana. That suggests that relations are not what they might be between the Government and the Commissioner about the provisions in the Bill.

No doubt the Government will later attempt to overturn an amendment carried in the House of Lords that provides for a date of 1993, already several years late, to meet the objectives for drinking water quality. We look forward to hearing from Ministers why they cannot accept even that modest attempt to put matters right. Indeed, I wonder whether the guillotine will allow time for a proper and adequate debate on that matter.

When will we hear more from the Government--they have not yet answered our questions--about the drinking water inspectorate? The House is entitled to some meaningful details about the operation of that body, hidden away somewhere in the Department of the Environment, whose job it will be to regulate the quality of our drinking water. As yet, there have been almost no details about that body. When will we hear the final decisions and the whole truth about the so-called cost pass-through--that provision in the appointment to allow companies to make extra charges outside the price control formula? We all remember the Secretary of State's claim at the outset that

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prices would rise in real terms by no more than 10 per cent. a year. That is obviously a hopelessly inadequate assessment of what the public will face.

At the end of Third Reading, in a speech when the Minister read out everything except the London telephone directory, he said that my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff did not mention the water industry in his memoirs. I wonder whether the Secretary of State will mention this Bill in his memoirs when he comes to write them. I doubt it. I do not think that he will regard the past eight months as a purple passage in his parliamentary and ministerial careers.

What about the flotation itself? Some kind, anonymous person today sent us a copy of a document produced by J. Henry Schroder Wagg and Company Limited, the Government's advisers on the flotation, entitled "Offer Structure". The document sets out the advice that is no doubt being given to Ministers about the structure of the offer and the flotation of the nation's water assets. Unlike previous flotations, the document recommends :

"There will be no maximum application value for the separate offers."

The Government are obviously so concerned to ensure that they receive at least some offers to purchase that they are not setting a limit. The document continues :

"the Stock Exchange has agreed that neither form of prospectus need be advertised in the national press ; only application forms". Presumably, the Government do not want to advertise the prospectus because they do not want people to know exactly what it is they are being invited to buy.

I do not have time to read all the document into the record, but on page 4 it states :

"The need to underwrite all ten offers is expected to give rise to some new variations on the now familiar structure.

Early investigation suggests that the UK underwriting unit may be worth between £10,000 and £25,000, representing between 8 and 20 package units each comprising 1,000 shares in the ten WSHCs." In other words, underwriters will be obliged to buy shares in all 10 water authorities whether or not they want to do so.

Underwriters, like the rest of us, know very well that some of the water organisations are not saleable. Who, left to his own devices, would buy North West Water, Yorkshire Water, or some of the other authorities that have huge backlogs of problems in respect of pollution, inadequate plant and collapsing infrastructure? The authorities will be sold off to the underwriters in little parcels, so there will be no escape.

I wonder what Mr. Roy Watt of Thames Water thinks about his organisation being underwritten along with all those less saleable assets? Even the fund managers themselves do not want that to be done, as a poll published yesterday confirms. Seventy-nine per cent. of them want to pick and choose which water authority stock they underwrite because they, too, know that otherwise they are likely to be left with unsold stock on their hands.

Perhaps the most amusing and revealing part of the document is the outline offer timetable on page 6, which is a far more important timetable than that which the Government are talking about today in connection with the Lords amendments. The outline timetable begins : "1st September. VESTING

6th September. Earliest date for launch of flotation marketing campaign.

2nd October. Institutional lunches and dinners begin."

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Some underwriters are about to find out that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The outline continues :

"31st October. All documentation in near final form.

1st November. Publication of pathfinder prospectus.

2nd November. Commencement of national and regional roadshows. 21st November. Pricing meeting.

Completion meeting.

22nd November. IMPACT DAY

29th November. Prospectuses generally available.

6th December. OFFER CLOSES.

12th December. Basis of allocation announced

20th December. Posting of documents of title

So for the man who has everything, at Christmas this year buy him a sewage works.

Given the taxpayers' interest, the national interest and the environmental interest in water privatisation, that timetable is far more important than the fatuous, shoddy little timetable that we are debating.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain to other right hon. and hon. Members who have not been so privileged as to see the document from which he quotes--it sounds as though the hon. Gentleman is indulging in mere variations on its theme--whether that document is confidential. Was the advice that it contains given confidentially? When the hon. Gentleman becomes a Minister in some future Labour Administration, what action will he take if private and confidential advice is leaked in the same way?

Dr. Cunningham : I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's last question first. The action that I shall take as a Minister will be to support in the Lobby at the earliest opportunity a freedom of information Bill.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley) : The hon. Gentleman will lose his job if he does.

Dr. Cunningham : The Secretary of State says that I would lose my shirt, and he is wrong about that, too. A freedom of information Bill is one of the Labour party's principal commitments. On matters concerning environmental pollution, the British public will never be satisfied until all the facts and information are honestly and accurately presented to them. Ministers would be far better advised to be more candid about the problems of this hopeless legislation than to sit there baying their opposition to a freedom of information Bill.

Let me return to the first question asked by the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker). He is welcome to a copy of this document if he would like one. As I said, it is headed

"J. Henry Schroder Wagg and Co. Limited Offer Structure". It says nothing about confidentiality or secrecy. I have no idea of the origins of the document ; I am not claiming that it is a leak from the Civil Service, or even that it is a Government document. It is an interesting document, however, and one about which people are entitled to know.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : As the water stock will be no-growth because there will be so little opportunity for development, will not high dividends have to be paid to the investing public? Will not water charges have to reflect an exorbitant level of dividends as, in effect, the value of the company will not increase?

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Dr. Cunningham : I agree with my hon. Friend's analysis. Moreover, because of the problems that need to be resolved, there will be additional increases in the cost to water consumers.

Whatever the time available for our deliberations today and tomorrow, the Government will never be able to guillotine public opinion. They cannot guillotine the views of the City, or its huge and adverse reaction to the proposals. However hard they may try, they cannot guillotine the European Commissioner and the views in Europe about the inadequacies of the Bill ; nor will they be able to guillotine the environmental damage and pollution problems inherent in the legislation, especially as it contains a provision to excuse private enterprise water monopolies from polluting the environment and to give them immunity from prosecution.

The Government cannot guillotine our emphatic opposition to the legislation or the political reaction against them when they come to explain all this at the polling station--and fail.

4.2 pm

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