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Lords amendment : No. 44, in page 20, line 39, leave out "subsection (5)" and insert "subsections (2) and (5)".
No. 49, in page 21, leave out lines 45 to 47.
Amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, at end add
and insert "except that the Secretary of State or Director as the case may be shall have regard in any case to which paragraph (b) of this subsection applies to any report submitted to the Director by a technical assessor appointed under section 60 below in respect of the contraventions concerned, and the Director shall within two weeks of receiving any such report submit a copy of it to the European Commission" '.
Lords amendments Nos. 50 to 53 and No. 58.
Mr. Ridley : The amendments arise out of discussions that we have had with the European Commission which, I am happy to report, is now satisfied that the clause, with these amendments, is fully consistent with Community law. Essentially, the amendments place the holder of my office and the director general under a duty to make a final or provisional order if they believe that a water undertaker is breaching certain statutory duties except in the circumstances specified in subsection (5). In addition, companies will now have to give and comply with undertakings under subsection (5)(b) concerning compliance programmes instead of entering into agreements. If the Secretary of State is not satisfied with an undertaking he is obliged to take enforcement action under the clause.
There have been some rather confusing reports on this issue, and I believe that it would be helpful if I put that right. Clause 20, after all, is only one element of a wider process that also needs to be appreciated. Clause 20(5) provides a powerful and effective mechanism--which I think has no parallel in other European countries--whereby, for example, water undertakers set out in detail their programmes for meeting the standards of the drinking water directive and the Secretary of State ensures that the programmes are carried out. We are at this moment discussing with each water undertaker its long-term investment programmes for drinking water quality, including measures to comply with the EC directive. It is the Government's firm policy that those supplies that do not meet the directive's strict standards will be improved as quickly as possible. However, they involve designing and building new treatment works in some places and replacing or re-lining water mains in others. While that work is taking place, it is essential to maintain water supplies, to protect people's health and to minimise the disruption to the general public.
Provided that the water company is carrying out a compliance programme acceptable to the Secretary of
Column 89State, there would be no point in his taking enforcement action against it. Nor would there be any point in the European Commission taking action against the United Kingdom Government, because the programme would be being implemented as fast as possible. The undertaker could proceed faster only if we were prepared to accept adverse consequences for water consumers and for the public generally.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) : Although I agree that there is no point in persistently attacking a water authority that is trying to put right something that has been demonstrated to be wrong in a court of law, does my right hon. Friend agree that it could send the wrong signals if the consent limits were moved downwards at exactly the point where a works was undertaking investment to meet the old consent levels which were those that the public wanted it to achieve?
Mr. Ridley : Yes, but that is not what is being proposed. We are proposing to raise consent levels to the standard of the directive--and, in some cases, to higher standards. When we see a programme to implement the necessary works in the shortest possible time, it is only then that the so- called protection would arise. Only last week, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water and Planning had a constructive and fruitful discussion with Commissioner Ripa di Meana, during which he reaffirmed the Government's determination to comply with the drinking water directive as soon as is reasonably practicable. For his part, Commissioner Ripa di Meana said that he accepted the Government's resolve in the matter. Moreover, he accepted that these major programmes could not be carried out overnight, a view that he had previously expressed in a letter that was placed in the Library on 23 May.
The water undertakers must convince the Secretary of State that they are doing all that they can to comply speedily with the drinking water directive, and the European Commission will want to see the programmes because it has a role in ensuring that European legislation is properly implemented. The undertakers' programmes are now being drawn up and will be made public later this year, as soon as we have them. The programmes will contain the dates by which compliance with the remaining standards in the directive will be achieved. The details of those programmes will be set out in formal undertakings. The Commission will be interested to see those programmes, and I am sure that it will recognise that the United Kingdom is proceeding conscientiously and swiftly with them. No other member state complies with the drinking water directive, and no member state, as far as I am aware, has examined its investment needs in the rigorous way that forthcoming privatisation has required. Nor does it have such a powerful and effective mechanism for ensuring that the compliance programmes are carried out according to plan and date. If a water company defaults on its undertaking for no good reason, the Secretary of State will be obliged to take enforcement action, which could ultimately lead to the loss of a company's licence. That is, of course, a last resort, but the threat is there. I hope that the House will agree to the amendment.
I shall invite the House to disagree with Lords amendments Nos. 62 to 64 at the appropriate time because they are seriously flawed in a number of respects. They are
Column 90the result of the famous ambush one night in another place, when Opposition peers turned up late and in large numbers, although I make no complaint about that-- [Interruption.] I have organised such events in previous incarnations. However, it does not give any respectability to the argument in favour of the amendments.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : It is interesting that the Secretary of State thinks that the amendments were carried in another place only because of an ambush. If he is so confident that the other place would have agreed with his position had it known that the vote would take place, why did he not try to reverse the decision in the Lords?
Amendments Nos. 62 to 64 specify 1 September 1993 for compliance with the drinking water directive. However, specifying such a date in legislation is contrary to the directive, which set a much earlier date in 1985. The only possible legal duty must be to comply now, and the Bill provides for that through the regulations made under clause 65, setting quality standards, and under the duty placed on undertakers in clause 52 to provide wholesome water.
We propose a much tighter legal requirement than that in the amendments, as wholesomeness extends beyond the standards specified in the directive. To leave the Lords amendments in the Bill would create doubt about the undertakers' responsibility in that very important respect. We already have a perfectly adequate mechanism in the Bill to ensure that supplies that do not yet meet the requirements are brought up to standard as quickly as practicable--the enforcement duty placed on the Secretary of State in clause 20. That clause was amended in another place to put it beyond doubt that it is fully consistent with European law, and that it has the agreement of the House as well as the European Commission. Water undertakers must agree to take steps acceptable to the Secretary of State to secure or facilitate compliance with Community directive requirements. If they do not, I am bound to take enforcement action.
We are all in agreement that the necessary steps should be taken as quickly as possible, and the Government have given a public commitment to do so. On 15 May, my noble Friend Lord Hesketh made an explicit commitment in another place that I am happy to repeat. The Government are fully committed to complying with the drinking water directive and will accept undertakings under clause 20(5)(b) only if satisfied that they contain proposals for achieving compliance as quickly as possible, taking the practicalities into account. The amendments ignore the question of practicality. Large investment programmes cannot be carried out overnight for very practical reasons that have nothing to do with the money involved. We all agree that we must avoid, for example, severe disruption of water supplies while work is carried out. We must avoid putting people's health at risk during that time, and ensure that necessary planning approvals have been obtained. We must allow time for projects to be planned and designed properly. In the case of nitrate and pesticides, we must ensure that new technology has been tested and proven. So far, it has not. Those essential factors must be taken into account, which means that timetables must be set for every individual case. A single date for compliance across the country
Column 91would completely ignore that requirement. In some cases it would mean slowing down improvements, and in others jeopardising the health of customers. I am sure that that is not something that the House would want to happen.
The amendments are flawed for other reasons. Regulations made under them would automatically entitle customers to a payment if any of the quality standards was exceeded after 1993, which ignores certain scientific facts. It is not technically possible to guarantee 100 per cent. compliance with standards that have nothing to do with health but affect the taste and appearance of the water. Standards for colour, turbidity and iron can be exceeded simply because of a change in water pressure or because of an unexpectedly large demand for water, perhaps due to a fire in the area. In such instances there is no justification for making payments to customers, as the undertaker is not technically able to do anything about them--and the change in quality may barely be noticeable. Nor would there be any justification for making payments if the customer caused the breach by using, for example, excessive nitrate or pesticides on his land in the catchment area of the water source and then claimed compensation for the effect that it had on his water supply.
Amendments Nos. 62 to 64 are impracticable because they give enormous scope for dispute over whether payment is due. If the lead standard is breached there could be a dispute as to whether it was due to the customer's or the undertaker's lead pipe, or even over how the sample was taken. If the microbiological standard is breached in one sample, there could be a dispute as to whether it was due to contamination in the house or at the treatment works. If the sample was taken by the customer, for how much would it count? What if analysis showed that the water was just over the standard? Even the best analytical technique is not very precise. There are many other common instances of how disputes and injustices could arise. The basis of our guaranteed standard scheme is that it will be simple to operate and easy for the customer to understand, and will provide a no- nonsense form of redress. The Lords amendments would produce the opposite.
I apologise for taking so much time, but it was necessary to explain the Government's position in respect of both groups of amendments. To sum up, amendments Nos. 62 to 64 are flawed, impracticable and impossible to implement. The House would be wise not to agree with them.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to take the group headed by amendment No. 62 with that headed by amendment No. 44, because it is right to debate the effect of the directive's implementation at the same time as we discuss its transposition into our own legislation.
The Secretary of State's concluding remarks do not convince me that he is taking the problem of drinking water quality seriously enough. The problems that concern the European Community and consumers in this country are not related simply to appearance and taste but range from lead in Scotland, nitrate in Norwich and aluminium in Bradford, Calderdale and other parts of Yorkshire, to nitrate in Redbridge, and to problems in Birmingham in the west midlands as well. None of them is a minor
Column 92problem, and they all usually arise when there is a breakdown in the system, because the backlog in investment has not been cleared since the directive was introduced in 1980.
Opposition amendment (a) aims at exploring and suggesting ways in which defects in water supplies can be reported. The Government amendments attempt to effect the transposition of the drinking water quality directive into our own legislation. As that is something that we suggested in Committee, we welcome it--although at that time such a provision was rejected by the Minister for Water and Planning. We all accept that the directive should be incorporated in British law, but that takes us no further forward in implementing Community standards. My noble Friends in another place were able to persuade their Lordships to accept amendments to implement the directive by 1993. The Government's amendments take us no further towards achieving that goal. That is why we learned with dismay of the Government's intention to overturn the Lords amendments.
Drinking water quality is a matter of major public concern, and one that has an added dimension in terms of Britain's relationship with the EEC. It is a matter of regret that so many individuals in this country have found it necessary to voice their concern about drinking water standards to the Community because they do not believe that they can look to the Government to protect them. That aspect has prompted some of the most remarkable statements ever uttered by the Minister in Committee. Right hon. and hon. Members who did not serve on the Committee missed a number of gems. I suggest that they read Hansard to follow the Minister's strangely convoluted logic. In 1980 the British Government were willing parties to an EC directive--No. 80/778/EEC--on the quality of drinking water for human consumption. That directive laid down the parameters for the maximum levels of certain substances to be permitted in drinking water, and was due to be implemented some four years ago in 1985.
In Committee we pressed the Minister of State about his plans and expectations for meeting EC standards. Throughout our proceedings his response was somewhat mixed and contradictory, and I do not think that the Secretary of State has done much better this evening. We are told that the standards will be observed, although the Government have repeatedly used delaying tactics in Brussels to put off the evil day--as they see it--when the commitment has to be met. I suspect that they have simply been playing for time to delay the day when the EC takes further legal action against this country for non-compliance, which I fear is what it will come to in the end.
The Minister of State has promoted the idea--only in this country, not in Brussels--that the parameters of the drinking water directive of 1980 are to be relaxed. In Committee he told us that relaxation was likely, and, perhaps to match his ignorance about sewage--he said that if people could not see so much sewage that they did not want to swim in the sea, there was no danger--set himself up as a medical expert on drinking water and told us not to worry about aluminium. He told Labour Members that they were "scaremongering" when they expressed concern about aluminium levels in water and about the possible link with Alzheimer's disease. The Minister's PPS--who, unlike the Minister, is here this
Column 93evening--took comfort from the fact that the Minister was able to tell us that people were not dying. That was one of the rare contributions that he was allowed to make to the Committee proceedings.
EC officials in the relevant department in Brussels, directly responsible for the implementation and review of the parameters of the drinking water directive, have said that in no circumstances will a general relaxation of standards be allowed. There may be some clearer specifications of the individual parameters for certain pesticides, which are currently the subject of a general pesticide parameter, but the only change that the Commission seeks for aluminium is a tightening rather than a relaxation of standards. I had hoped that the Minister of State would pursue that in Brussels last week, but I do not believe that he did.
I cannot believe that the message from EC officials as to their attitude on relaxations has not been transmitted to Ministers by their officials. We can only conclude that the Minister has chosen to ignore the facts. I think that I accept the Commission's view that the Government are using the regulatory committee as an excuse for delaying tactics. We do not have even the standards aimed at in the 1980 directive, and we should ask what is the purpose of the Government's amendments if the Government will not agree a reasonable timetable to meet the directive. If, later this evening, the Government move to reject the Lords amendment on the 1993 deadline--as we understand that they will--we shall have made very little progress. The Government seem to think that it is easier to whip Members in this House than in the other place, which is no doubt why they have chosen to overturn the amendment here rather than there.
I believe that the reason why the Government will not allow the amendment to stand is that a privatised water industry will not wish to be saddled with such commitments and liabilities. That tells us that the Government's priorities are clearly decided. Their main priority is not to safeguard the drinking water supplies of the estimated 10.8 million people whose water does not meet EC standards, but to ensure that nothing stops the sale from proceeding. As interest, even in the City, is luke warm to say the least-- as we heard earlier, and have read in The Observer and other serious newspapers--the Government want to make the British people put up with any standards to avoid damaging the prospects for the sale. If Conservative Members feel comfortable about voting for such priorities, their constituents will know where they stand. They will know that their interests are second to Conservative Members' anxiety to sell the industry and to obey the Government Whips.
Mr. Nicholas Baker : May I ask the hon. Lady two questions? First, is the Bill in its totality putting standards up or down? Secondly, what advantage would be secured by the imposition of the 1993 deadline?
Mrs. Taylor : I intend to tell the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends shortly why we need the deadline, but the totality of the Bill is certainly not intended to protect consumers or to raise standards. At an early stage we offered to support part I to establish and, indeed, strengthen the National Rivers Authority, but all our attempts were rejected by the Government. That gives a clear indication of their priorities as well as explaining their decision to vote down our proposals.
Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn) : The hon. Lady says that the Bill will not take any steps to protect the consumer, but it makes it a criminal offence to supply drinking water that is unfit for human consumption. That has never happened before. Why does the hon. Lady not talk about the Bill instead of delivering the fiction that we have been hearing for the past 15 minutes?
Mrs. Taylor : The hon. Gentleman served on the Committee, although he probably did not make as many interventions in that time as he has made here. I do not think that he was taking the Bill very seriously then. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) says that the hon. Gentleman has only just come back into the Chamber. Nevertheless, he is allowed to intervene, and I gave way to him willingly. If he would care to listen, I will tell him exactly why it is important to write the 1993 deadline into the Bill.
The Government signed and agreed to the 1980 directive without dissent, and that directive should have been met in 1985. We shall vote later for the retention of the 1993 deadline not because we think it perfect, but because we wish that the Government had done more since 1980. Earlier, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) talked about what he saw as the faults of a Labour Government, but even he will have to admit that the Conservatives have been in power since 1980 and that all the failures to abide by the 1980 directive lie at their door.
Mr. Ridley : The directive was first published in 1975, and the Labour party negotiated for four years, supporting it all the way through. Can the hon. Lady say what the Labour Government did to begin to implement it, apart from cutting investment in the water industry by 30 per cent.?
Mrs. Taylor : I freely admit that the Labour Government who left office in 1979 did nothing to implement the 1980 EC directive, but it would have been quite remarkable if we had been able to implement a directive that had not even been written.
I do not know what plans the Government have made to meet future directives. The last Labour Government claimed many things, but they never claimed clairvoyance or that they could meet directives which had not at that time been written.
We shall vote for the retention of the 1993 deadline. Without the deadline, progress towards implementation will slip even further. The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who has just left the Chamber, said that he thought that the Secretary of State was sending out the wrong signals after some of his decisions relating to consents. I think that the Secretary of State is sending all the wrong signals to the privatised water companies. They will lack any incentive--incentive and profit are what privatisation is all about--to improve the quality of their drinking water, because they will not be selling more water after privatisation. Unless we write a deadline into the Bill, the timetable will slip even further.
Column 95Labour Government could not take responsibility for the 1980 directive. Will she explain whether the Labour Government, who were in power between 1974 and 1979, were responsible for the capital investment cuts of 30 per cent. which took place during those years?
The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) asked me to refer to capital expenditure, and I am happy to do so. I carry in my pocket the investment figures throughout the 1970s and 1980s. If the hon. Gentleman wants a copy so that he can pin it on the wall of his office to stop him asking such silly questions, I will gladly send him one. He is my own Member of Parliament and I think that he should be informed about the matter. I have the misfortune to live in his constituency--a nice place, though it is a pity about its Member of Parliament. Average investment under the last Labour Government was £1,254 million per year. Average investment under this Government is £922 million per year. I trust that the hon. Gentleman, who takes an interest in these matters and who has tried to defend the Government, will take that point on board.
The Secretary of State said that he would advise hon. Members to turn down the 1993 amendment. As he put it, and as the Minister of State put it to the Commissioner last week, the Government believe that they must turn down the 1993 deadline because it breaches EC law, since that standard should have been met in 1985. That is typical of the Minister of State's frequently observed convoluted logic. If that is the best that Ministers can do, the standard will not be met in the near future. It shows that they are not serious about the problem.
The Minister of State had his first meeting with the Commissioner in Brussels last week. I understand that it was a polite meeting--not surprisingly, since the Commissioner is a very charming man--but the Minister seems to have been unable to convince anyone in Brussels of his case that the Government are doing everything possible to reach the required standards. Similarly, he has been unable to convince Members of Parliament or the British people generally.
We shall be watching for further developments in the Commission. I am sure that potential investors in a privatised water industry will be reluctant to part with any money--assuming that the Government sell the industry and do not just give it away--if they believe that further action will be taken by the European Community because of the water industry's failure to reach the required standard.
That brings me to the question of reporting standards. The European Community is receiving more and more complaints from ordinary consumers about the state of their drinking water. I understand that it has difficulty in processing all the complaints as quickly as it would like, at a time when most of those who are drinking sub-standard water do not even know that it is sub-standard--hence our amendment to the Government's amendment, which is designed to introduce a reporting system so that each year
Column 96we shall quickly be able to find out where there are problems with supplies which are below EC standards and why they fail to meet those standards. Everyone has a right to be told about the state of their drinking water--and a right to expect action to be taken at the earliest possible moment to put it right.
The Minister of State and the Secretary of State have adopted a policy of keeping people in the dark, so far as possible, with regard to problems over drinking water. The Minister of State refused to give details of his discussions in Brussels. Ministers have even refused to put reasoned opinions in the House of Commons Library. They have also refused to publish responses to reasoned opinions. This is not a private matter for discussion between Ministers and Brussels. It concerns everyone in this country-- certainly the 10.8 million people whose water supplies are sub-standard.
If the Secretary of State overturns the 1993 deadline, he will reduce the impact of his own amendments, starting with amendment No. 44. The Government's amendments will not convince anyone. I am certain that they will not convince the Commission that the Government are taking the problem seriously enough. If the Secretary of State rejects the 1993 deadline, he will be sending a very clear signal to the British people about what they can expect from the privatised water industry. We believe that water purity and drinking water standards should come first. That is why we shall try to insist that the 1993 deadline stays in the Bill.
Mr. Riddick : The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) told the House that I am her Member of Parliament and suggested that that might be a little unfortunate from her point of view. It is even more unfortunate from my point of view, because she is my Member of Parliament. She once turned down my offer, put in jest, that at the next general election I would vote for her to boost her majority if she would vote for me to boost mine. She turned my offer down, and I am very glad that she did. We had a good joke about it.
However, it worries me that the hon. Member for Dewsbury keeps coming out with a great deal of black propaganda and misleading information about water privatisation. As we are near-neighbours, we share the same local newspaper, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, and many of those misleading facts find their way into that newspaper.
Mr. Riddick : I am most grateful to my hon. Friends for improving my English. The word "faction" will suffice. The hon. Member for Dewsbury seems to spend a great deal of time running down Britain's water industry by portraying Britain as the dirty man of Europe and by suggesting that there has been no investment in the water industry in recent years. Yet the previous Labour Government cut capital investment in the water industry by some 30 per cent.
The hon. Lady was talking about the average investment between 1974 and 1979. When the Labour party came to power in 1974 it inherited the high investment levels set by the Conservative Government of 1970 to 1974. When the Labour Government left office in
Column 971979 the level of investment had reduced considerably. The present Conservative Government have had to make up the lost ground as a direct result of the cuts imposed by the Labour Government in the late 1970s. As we know, the Conservative Government have been responsible for increasing capital expenditure by about 50 per cent. since 1980.
I am happy to support the Government in disagreeing with Lords amendments Nos. 62, 63 and 64. It amazes me that the Opposition are happy to get into bed with the European Commission, for reasons of political expediency, when it suits them. If ever the Opposition get into Government, they will regret that. There are already perfectly adequate safeguards in the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the water plcs will have to give undertakings that they will do whatever is necessary to comply with the requirements of the EC directives. If they do not, the Secretary of State will be forced to take action.
The debate about our water industry complying with the EC directives needs to be put into perspective. The British water industry has nothing to be ashamed of, although privatisation will lead to even greater improvements and more investment because the privatised industries will be able to raise, from the private money markets, more money to invest in the industry.
When comparisons are made with the rest of Europe, the British water industry comes out pretty well. Most supplies of drinking water in Britain comply with the 66 parameters of the European Commission drinking water directive covering taste and appearance as well as safety. All European countries have difficulty reaching 100 per cent. compliance with the directive. I understand that infringement proceedings are at various stages in respect of several European countries, including Germany, Italy, France and Belgium.
If one listened to the hon. Member for Dewsbury and read all her statements in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, one would imagine that rivers in the United Kingdom must be the dirtiest in Europe, but the opposite is true. In England and Wales, 66 per cent. of rivers were in class 1, the highest classification. That compares with 39 per cent. for Europe as a whole. France scored only 35 per cent. Taking classes 1, good, and 2, reasonable, together, the figures become even more interesting. The United Kingdom scored 94 per cent., bettered only by the Netherlands with 95 per cent. That is certainly a lot better than Germany at 84.5 per cent., Greece at 80 per cent. and France which is estimated to score less than 80 per cent. The proportion of domestic sewage treated in the United Kingdom was one of the highest in Europe at 83 per cent.--bettered only by Sweden, Denmark and Germany. The water industry in Britain has nothing whatever to be ashamed of and the Government have provided a great deal of investment in the industry in the past 10 years.
Mr. Raffan : Does my hon. Friend agree that our record would be even better had the Labour Government implemented part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and if they had kept a central record of sewage discharges? They never did that, so they did not know which sewage treatment works were discharging illegally. That was the extent of their concern.
Mr. Riddick : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention which is absolutely true. I suspect that the Labour Government failed to do that because of incompetence, because they could not afford to invest the appropriate money in the industry and, as my hon. Friend said, because they did not care.
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : I must point out, for the elucidation of the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan), that last week when the legal notices of the relaxation for consents under the Control of Pollution Act were published in our local newspaper, I rang up the new prototype NRA office of the Welsh water authority and asked why a sewage works in my constituency--the Drope sewage works--had been mentioned. I was advised that it had been included by mistake. The following week it appeared in the legal notice in the newspaper again by mistake. They do not know what they are doing.
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) : May I inform the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) that I asked similar questions of the Welsh Office and the Minister seemed equally ignorant about what is happening on these derogations?
Mr. Riddick : I am chuffed that Opposition Members should imagine that I know all about events taking place in Wales. I do not, as I represent a Yorkshire constituency. The Labour Government's record was lamentable and nothing can hide that. Despite all their interventions, Opposition Members cannot hide the fact that when they were in government their record was absolutely appalling. I conclude by pointing out that hon. Members and consumers in Yorkshire have a great deal to be proud of. The Yorkshire water authority is certainly concerned to improve the quality of the area's drinking water. New plants are being developed and are under construction. A new water treatment plant is currently commissioned somewhere in Yorkshire every six to nine months. That trend is expected to continue for another five years. One of the new treatment plants is in my constituency--at Blackmoorfoot.
If the Labour Government of 1974 to 1979 had not cut investment in the industry, we should be even further ahead. That is why 1993 is unrealistic. I am happy to support my right hon. Friend in the Lobby tonight and I hope that he will continue to point out that many of our problems today are a direct result of the lack of investment all those years ago. Although my right hon. Friend and his colleagues have done their best to improve matters over the past 10 years, we cannot do everything overnight. I certainly hope that by 1995 drinking water in Britain will be of a far higher quality than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : Having listened to the speech of the Secretary of State, we are under no delusions about the nature of the debate. Labour Members recognised the complacency that has been a feature of the past decade of Conservative control of the water industry. Listening to the Secretary of State, I almost thought that a problem had appeared in the past year and that suddenly, to everyone's surprise, the Commission had introduced a directive on water quality standards, without consultation, to be implemented within a short time.
Column 99The Secretary of State told us that the Government took the directive seriously, that they had a long-term programme, and that they would make improvements as quickly as possible. He then said that improvements would be made as soon as reasonably practicable. The truth is that the Secretary of State runs a mile when a deadline for work to be completed appears. His complacency is underlined by the fact that currently about 11 million people in the United Kingdom are drinking water that does not comply with European Community standards, which for some poses risks to health. The Secretary of State might not want to face that possibility, but it is true that over the past decade the Government could have complied with the directive.
The Government are still insisting that 1993 is too soon to expect compliance with the directive. The Secretary of State said that the Commissioner--my former colleague in the European Parliament, Carlo Ripa di Meana--had stated that he did not expect the Government to comply with the directive overnight. The directive has been bandied about for a decade or more, and it is said that a week is a long time in politics, but I never thought that "overnight" meant four or five years, which is the Government's interpretation of the Commissioner's timescale. The Commissioner does not expect compliance overnight, or within a year or two. The date of 1 September 1993 would be acceptable to the Commission. The idea that that date cannot be included in the legislation because it is a breach of the directive is almost Jesuitical. It has not stopped the Secretary of State's colleagues giving dates in parliamentary answers, such as one that I received recently from the Welsh Office. When I asked about derogations covering the water supply in Wales, I was told : "The need for most of the derogations should be removed by 1990 and all by 1995 at the latest."
The Welsh Office was not shy about mentioning dates.
It is interesting to note the theme of complacency in a further answer that I received. I asked the Secretary of State for Wales to give the main population centres affected by derogation in Wales and how many people were drinking water which did not meet European Community standards. The answer was that most of the supply areas were rural parts of Wales--Gwynedd, north Dyfed and south Powys--and showed that the Welsh Office did not have a clue about the number of people who were drinking water which did not meet European Community standards. Such was and is the Government's concern. The same level of concern was reflected in the speech of the Secretary of State this evening. He said that the Government would comply with the directive one day, "but for goodness sake do not give us a deadline, even if it is four years away."
Complacency is apparent throughout the water industry in Wales. When I asked about the discharging of effluent from sewage treatment works, I simply asked the Secretary of State to list the relaxations and amendments that the Welsh water authority had requested. I was told that the applications made by the Welsh water authority "will reflect the current performance of individual works".--[ Official Report, 12 June 1989 ; Vol. 154, c. 306. ]
When I further asked the Secretary of State which applications would result in discharge standards being
Column 100relaxed or tightened, I was told on 15 June that the Welsh Office was unaware whether applications would improve the position or worsen it and that eventually a copy of the Secretary of State's reply would be placed in the Library. To date, that reply has not surfaced. I should have thought that it would be simple for a Government who boast so many achievements to comply with the EC directive in four years' time. I hope that even at this late stage the Secretary of State for the Environment will realise that all consumers would welcome such a commitment. Why is the Secretary of State not prepared to make such a commitment? The only argument that I could pick out from his speech was that if the directive was complied with by 1993 it would cause disruption of the water supply. He did not offer a date by which the work could be completed without disruption, but I wonder whether he knows when the directive will be complied with. If he does, he should share that secret with us, with the consumers and with the prospective purchasers of the water authorities. The Secretary of State may have given the game away in an aside some time ago when answering my question on compliance with the directives on drinking and bathing water quality. I suggested that it might cost about £2 billion or £3 billion to comply with both directives in full. The Secretary of State said that it would probably cost much more than that. A recent estimate suggests that it could be as much as £15 billion. If the Secretary of State has a figure, I should be interested to know how much it will cost to comply with the drinking and bathing water directives, particularly the drinking water directive as it is the subject of this debate. The only reason why the Secretary of State is being a shrinking violet about accepting 1993 as a reasonable date to meet the directive is that the cost would be so exorbitant that no right- minded person would dare to invest in shares in the water authorities. If the amendment is accepted, I hope that the full costs of compliance with the directive will be published in the prospectus to be issued for the sale of the water authorities.
I do not believe that the Commission will accept a deadline beyond September 1993. That assertion is backed up by considering the experience of the Italians. The Commission maintained that, for one major scheme in the Po valley, the problems should be solved within two years. The Italian authorities decided that it would be in the interests of public health for that two-year programme to be met even though it meant a huge investment in the Po valley to deal with the nitrate problem. What is sauce for Italy will be sauce for the United Kingdom.
Mr. Griffiths : That is not true. The Po valley project was undertaken because it was the top priority for the Italian Government. In the coming year the Italian Government, after discussions with the Commission, will be introducing further programmes to meet the directive before 1993.
If the Secretary of State were truly concerned about the health of some 11 million people in the United Kingdom,
Column 101he would gladly grasp the date of September 1993 as a reasonable one by which privatised water companies should aim to achieve compliance.
Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey) : I support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in disagreeing with Lords amendment No. 63. I have not always had the pleasure of supporting my right hon. Friend in such matters. He will recall that, from time to time, we have differed on certain issues in connection with the Bill. In this instance, however, he is absolutely right to bring this matter to a halt with a vote in this House.
Much has been made of the fact that the directive in question was published in 1980 after about five years of draft status. As I recall it, much time was spent after 1980 seeking derogation from and changes to the directive. I even remember playing a modest part in that. At the time, the water industry would have found it virtually impossible to meet all the conditions laid down in the directive, and the United Kingdom water industry was not alone in that predicament. Water industries throughout the Community are still in major default of the directive as it currently stands. Litigation is under way in most Community countries, with the possible exception of Portugal.
Sir Giles Shaw : That intervention scarcely deserves any reply. Every country is having difficulty in meeting the directive and I commend the bravery of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who suddenly determined that the directive should be accepted in full despite the fact that the United Kingdom water industry would have extreme difficulty in achieving compliance with all its aspects. Within the directive, 66 different elements have to be met. The vast majority, as members of the Standing Committee know, have to do with matters of appearance and colour rather than matters affecting health or toxicity. The elements which affect those two aspects, however, must be met. The vast majority of water undertakings currently meet the vast majority of the elements in the directive. We are dealing with not wholesale misapplication of the directive, but the misapplication of certain portions of the directive which cannot yet be met, in most cases because the water undertakings have been starved of capital investment for many years. I do not lay the blame for that on the Labour Administration alone. Water undertakings, whether under municipal ownership or other guises, have never had the renewal of assets so essential for a modern distribution and treatment system.
The particular issue before the House now is whether the 1993 recommendation of their Lordships should proceed without further ado. That recommendation would bring forward the application of the entire directive by two years. The difference between 1993 and 1995 would be superficial at most. It would not make a great deal of difference to the investing public who, in this instance, have to look at a long-term investment in an industry which will have greater control over price, profitability and various other activities than any other industry brought